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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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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Researching Diabetes and Its Early Detection

The Journal of Clinical Investigation recently published an article to which my wife contributed as second author.  The research, led by Kevan Herold, explores beta cell “death and dysfunction during type 1 diabetes development in at-risk individuals.”

10:31 am edt 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Genes and “The Invisible History of the Human Race”

Geneticists and an archaeologist have collaborated on a new study, published in Nature and described in the New York Times, of the genetic origins of the modern British population.

Among the study’s authors are Peter Donnelly and Walter Bodmer of Oxford University, who also figure prominently in a book I’ve been reading: Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race.

9:17 am edt 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Edward Ball: “Slaves in the Family”

Last week’s New York Times included an opinion piece by Edward Ball on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the liberation of the enslaved men, women, and children on a plantation that his family owned in South Carolina.

Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family among other works (and a New Haven resident), was the subject of a July 2013 post to this blog, after I had read his most recent book, The Inventor and the Tycoon.  Though the latter book understandably doesn’t have the gravity and power of Slaves in the Family, it’s also worth reading.

12:19 pm edt 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Frank Bruni on College Admissions; “The Shape of the River”

Frank Bruni’s column this weekend is adapted from his new book that aims to be “An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.”  It’s a sensible piece that concludes with a thoughtful letter parents wrote to a high-school senior to reassure him of their love and pride, regardless of which colleges might or might not accept him.  Such reason and a sense of proportion are too often lacking.

Still, who does and who doesn’t get prepared for, accepted to, and persist through selective institutions of higher education is an issue worthy of public concern.  As scholars from Sean Reardon, Martha Bailey, and Susan Dynarski to Sarah Turner and Christopher Avery have demonstrated in recent years, there are major consequences for (in)equality of opportunity and socioeconomic mobility.

A still valuable book is The Shape of the River, which former Ivy League presidents Derek Bok and William Bowen wrote to counter The Bell Curve a generation ago.

10:05 pm edt 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

“The Innovators”

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  From Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing and Grace Hopper to the creators of transistors, microchips, software, the Internet, and the Web, the book covers a range of individuals and technological developments in the history of computing.

Isaacson emphasizes the balance between individual brilliance and a collaborative ethos, as well as the integration of the arts and humanities with the sciences and mathematics.  He attends also to the importance of investments by government, private industry, and “open source” participants alike.  He writes:

“…Creativity is a collaborative process.  Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses.  This was true of every era of creative ferment…. But to an even greater extent, this has been true of the digital age…. The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.  The collaboration was not merely among contemporaries, but also between generations.  The best innovators were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them…. The most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties…. Throughout history the best leadership has come from teams that combined people with complementary styles…. Another key to fielding a great team is pairing visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them…. The Internet facilitated collaboration not only within teams but also among crowds of people who didn’t know each other.  This is the advance that is closest to being revolutionary.”  (p. 479-82)

Having invoked figures from Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci to Vannevar Bush, Walter Isaacson concludes:

“Human creativity involves values, intentions, aesthetic judgments, emotions, personal consciousness, and a moral sense.  These are what the arts and humanities teach us – and why those realms are as valuable a part of education as science, technology, engineering, and math.  If we mortals are to uphold our end of the human-computer symbiosis … we must continue to nurture the wellsprings of our imagination and originality and humanity…. Interplay between technology and the arts will eventually result in completely new forms of expression and formats of media. This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors.  In other words, it will come from the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.”  (p. 486-88)

Similar themes characterize the “STEAM” (versus “STEM”) movement, mentioned in a November 2013 op-ed.

8:02 am est 

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