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Practically Idealistic blog
The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist” in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson, in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism.  We learn first to play with it academically. . . .  Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.  Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true.  It now shows itself ethical and practical.”  John Dewey and Mahatma Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant.  Al Gore invoked it in a 1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.
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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Summer Science and Health

As summer began this week, the Tuesday Science Times included news of babesiosis, a tick-borne parasitic illness with parallels to Lyme disease.  The Times article quoted and discussed the work of Peter J. Krause, M.D., whose Yale University lab my wife joined last year.

Paul E. Turner, an evolutionary biologist at Yale, led seminars in 2009 and 2010 on “Evolutionary Medicine.”  Public school teachers participating as Fellows in those seminars, through the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and its National Initiative to strengthen teaching in public schools, developed curriculum units to teach related material to their students.  Among those units was one on West Nile virus and Lyme disease that New Haven math teacher Kathleen Rooney prepared.

A February 12, 2011 post addressed science fairs and science education, in advance of New Haven’s city-wide science fair in May.

A list of the May science fair award-winners, their projects, and their teachers – including many current or former Institute Fellows – appears here.  Congratulations to the students, their families, and their teachers.

A local TV weather man, Geoff Fox, was among the science fair judges and recorded this report.

9:16 am edt 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Contradiction, Continuity, and Change in India

A recent New York Times article, by Jim Yardley, portrays Gurgaon as a vivid example of how India combines "dynamism" with "dysfunction" some 15 miles from New Delhi.  An accompanying slide show illustrates Gurgaon as a "model city and cautionary tale" – with rapid private sector growth and inequalities overwhelming public capacity for services such as clean water, transportation, and electricity.

Nicholas Kristof’s recent column, "Slums Into Malls," uses Kolkata to highlight similar paradoxes.

As Yardley’s article notes, Gurgaon and Faridabad are the two main cities in the state of Haryana, just outside of Delhi.

In December 2009, my family stayed in Faridabad; that’s where my parents-in-law now live.  They had rented apartments in Delhi for years, but when it came to purchasing an apartment, the real estate prices in Delhi had escalated, making Faridabad a reasonable alternative.  While the traffic was terrible, there was hope that construction of the Delhi Metro subway would soon connect Faridabad to Delhi neighborhoods more efficiently.  In fact, as of January 2011 the Metro has been extended to the edge of Faridabad, and it’s expected that the project's third phase will cover Faridabad and Noida, as well as Jamia Millia Islamia, the national Islamic university my wife attended.

A January 1, 2010 post and December 2009 posts (especially that of December 21, 2009) to this blog discussed our visit to India – touching on Faridabad and on Noida.  Though technically in the vast state of Uttar Pradesh, Noida is close to Gurgaon (Gurgaon is just west of Delhi, Noida just east of Delhi, and Faridabad in between, just south of Delhi) and shares some of its characteristics as a booming city.

A May 23, 2010 post and June 19, 2010 post treated related issues and observations.

The great Yamuna River, which runs through Delhi, is the subject of a spring 2011 Yale Environment magazine article that quotes Rajendra Pachauri, a sustainable development expert and longtime chair of the UN’s IPCC who holds a Yale faculty position while also serving as chancellor of TERI University.  The Yamuna faces many threats and strains; the article calls it a “dying goddess.”

The Yamuna connects Delhi and Agra and runs right by the Taj Mahal.  In my one trip to Agra in the scorching heat of April 2005, I recall standing near the Taj, watching a few people cooling themselves in the river.  On the other side of the river, some hundred yards from the Taj Mahal, was a field; this Wikipedia photo suggests the scene from the opposite perspective.   Though parts of Agra were by 2005 heavily commercialized with electronic gadgets and brand names (as one would expect in the vicinity of a major tourist attraction), there was a timeless aspect to this quasi-agricultural scene, along with the garden and grandeur of the Taj Mahal across the river.  In contrast with the steady noise of motors and the population density of a global city like New Delhi, one could here imagine the 21st-century sights and sounds as similar to what was experienced one or two hundred years before.  Having arrived in Agra by car from Delhi (with a short horse-drawn carriage ride at the end), I envisoned traveling by boat – now or in the 17th century when the Taj was constructed – and marveled at how the Yamuna joins the still remarkably rustic surroundings of one of the world’s extraordinary architectural works of beauty with the urban complexity of modern Delhi.

In 2006, subsequent reflections – "From New Haven to New Delhi: Globalization and Its Human Scale" – included a reference to Nehru’s description of India as “a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads.”

7:55 am edt 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Preparing for the SAT

Yesterday, thousands of high-school students around the country took the SAT.  Among those scheduled to do so was a junior whom I’ve known for several years.  It was to be his first time sitting for the SAT, after just a few weeks of reviewing a book of practice tests.  Like me almost a quarter of a century ago, he’s not had the benefit of an SAT prep course.  He’s treating this as an introduction and plans to take the test again in the fall.  He receives two fee waivers from the College Board, plus – as I understand it – potentially a third opportunity to take the SAT free, at the New Haven Public Schools’ expense.

Regardless of how yesterday may have gone, I’m encouraging him to sign up for a free SAT prep course New Haven Reads is offering, as detailed by the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven on its Literacy, Every Day site.

As a May 2011 “App Smart” column in the New York Times described, inexpensive or even free digital SAT prep applications are emerging, though to use many of them one needs a much more expensive electronic device.

Also worth exploring, in addition to the old-fashioned printed, practice-test-filled SAT prep books (copies of which New Haven Reads can supply gratis to students), are the subscription electronic resources of the New Haven Free Public Library, among them “Learn a Test” and “ePrep.”

The history, value, and limitations of exams such as the SAT have been treated in entire volumes, by Nicholas Lemann among others.  A future blog entry might relate the SAT to broader questions of college access and preparation, such as those raised in David Leonhardt's column on departing Amherst president Anthony Marx and efforts to increase socio-economic diversity at top colleges.

6:03 pm edt 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Inside Job

Last month my wife and I watched Charles Ferguson’s provocative 2010 documentary Inside Job, about the causes of the financial collapse and limited lessons learned.  Though there were few revelations in the film, the irresponsibility of the ratings agencies figured prominently, along with their and other conflicts of interest, moral hazards, and perverse incentives.  Also highlighted was the failure to heed prescient warnings from skeptical experts such as IMF chief economist Raghuram Rajan (now of the University of Chicago). 

Separately, a Frontline examination of derivatives trading – “The Warning” – painted a sympathetic portrait of former CFTC chair Brooksley Born, who also was mentioned briefly in Inside Job.

In a March 2011 editorial, the New York Times argued about the law enacted when Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank chaired the Congressional financial services committees: “Dodd-Frank is no cure-all, but properly implemented and enforced, it would close dangerous regulatory gaps.”

7:32 am edt 

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