Archive for February, 2008

Newt Gingrich: The guy gets it

Newt GingrichNewt Gingrich. Once upon a time, he was the politician who sabotaged a congressional budget and brought the Federal government to its knees for about a month in 1995. He was the cheating husband who asked his wife for a divorce while she was convalescing from cancer surgery. He was the guy who had the voice of a Pomeranian. Newt Gingrich was everything I considered cheeseball and uncool.

So, don’t ask me why I gave Gingrich the time of day when I saw a video on the CNN website called Gingrich: I’m deeply worried. Maybe because I myself worry that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — the two candidates that the media seem to have anointed as the Saviours of the Nation — don’t care about anything more than the cause du jour. As they jet about the U.S., the two Democratic candidates pull the usual arrows out of their campaign quiver and numb us with their talk about healthcare, jobs and change — or with whatever their pollsters counsel them to say. Throughout this campaign, Clinton and Obama have struck me as two smart kids running for president of student council: Even though the top seat isn’t much more than a sinecure, both of them will scrimmage like crazy to occupy the seat.

To some degree, I don’t blame Clinton and Obama for being short-sighted. They grew up in relative economic security and, as far as I can tell, neither one has lived through any dire situation. Their idea of fighting the status quo is to get out there and do some grass roots organizing or rally support for children’s rights. And by now both of them believe that war is a bad thing, like a football game on Thanksgiving Day that doesn’t end until dinner-time. If we were living in a world of ever-accruing peace dividends, I’d be happy enough with either one of them. Hillary or Barack would put a likeable smile on a country that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, has been wearing a smirk just a little too long.

How embarrassing for me to concede that uncool Gingrich is making sense these days.

He sees the radical elements in the Moslem world chop off people’s heads. He sees them recruit ten-year-olds to be suicide bombers and support a national leader who threatens to turn Tel Aviv into a nuclear concentration camp. Even worse, he hears no outcry from the Moslem world. Gingrich asks what it will take for Americans to see that 9/11 was only the opening salvo of a campaign to bring at least one U.S. city to its knees.

I don’t know what to think anymore about our having invaded Iraq. Should we have left Saddam in place to gas the Kurds? To bankroll Palestinian suicide bombers? To let his sons use the country as their harem? If we were going to invade, wouldn’t it have made sense to act on real intelligence and not the funny-money stuff that Dick Cheney shoved down our throats?

I do know that what Gingrich is saying these days sounds awfully plausible: If we “set a timetable” to get out of Iraq, we’ll be leaving behind a failed state that will serve as a staging ground for more Islamic terror. Clinton and Obama may be desperate to get us out of there so that they can get back to planning the next homecoming game, but shouldn’t the rest of the student body, i.e., us, tell them that a real grown-up, a real president, has to keep his/her charges safe?

The only candidate willing to act like a grown-up is John McCain. Am I in love with the guy? No. I’m a pro-choice type myself. But I know that if I make abortion or equal rights or jobs my sole reason for voting, I will have to pretend that this more existential issue is a secondary problem. I can’t help but think that we are not going to have any kind of future at all as long as someone like Ahmadinijad can bandy atomic weapons about like a cheerleader baton.

As for the Republican right, it ought to swallow its pride and get behind McCain. If it doesn’t and Obama or Clinton wins the White House, this much reviled Bush administration is going to end up looking like the Roman Empire as it strove, however clumsily, to fend off the Vandals. And what kind of a touchdown is going to matter to anybody then?

See also: Newt Gingrich answers your questions [Stephen J. Dubner interview, The New York Times, March 14, 2008]

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I needed this?

math_symbols What would possess an adult woman to study computer science?

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

My manager asked me if I thought that studying basic computer science might help me take a “deeper dive” into my various interview podcasts. I thought it would, but that was before I realized that there is no such thing as basic computer science. Starting at chapter one, you are writing algorithms that, true, for somebody like Stu Feldman is pre-K work, but that for somebody like me, whose heart pounds at the sight of variables and integers, is a spur for cognitive lockdown.

Suddenly my life at +40 is on hold until I can figure out how to write an algorithm to indicate what numbers are prime; to read a series of numbers and then print them in reverse order; to create a Caesar cipher — you get the point. I can no longer use my non-work time to read whatever I like, write fiction, do a crossword puzzle, watch a movie, go to the theater or hang out with friends, at least not until I get through a couple pages of computer science.

Actually, I could even write an algorithm of what my life is today:

1. Let X = my life.

2. Let B = computer science studies.

3. Let C = everything else.

If X, then do:

B. Stop. Else do C.

Of course I am the oldest person in the computer science lab at Fordham, and the only female student. I will answer a question if I’m sure I’m right. Occasionally, I have to ask a question. I only hope I don’t look like a drooling escapee from the Hebrew Home for the Aged when I ask the very same question in another five minutes. If I didn’t have a tutor who prepped me through every single practice and homework problem, I would go to class knowing as much about algorithms as I know about the growing season in Punjab province.

I had an epiphany today: I do not actually apply anything I learn from one problem to the next one. I am only capable of understanding, but incapable of learning.

A computer scientist friend of mine at IBM encourages me not to lose heart. “Designing an algorithm is the same as working on a puzzle,” he says. “You just sit with paper and pencil until you figure it out.”

I could sit with paper and pencil in solitary confinement for a thousand years and I still would not be able to figure out by myself how to determine what number is a prime and what is a composite. Here’s the algorithm for my computer science innumeracy:

Let A = My life in solitary confinement.

Let B = Computer science problem.

Let x = years.

If Ax is less than or equal to 1,000, then do:

B. Stop.

Else, cry.

You know what’s really awful about this experience? Not that I will most certainly flunk the course. I don’t even care much if I do. I would care if I flunked a course in Restoration Drama because literature is my strong suit and it’s something I care about.

I don’t even care that much that my incomprehension reduces me to tears every time I stare at the instructions in my Invitation to Computer Science textbook. Maybe everybody needs a good cry on the order of once or twice a week.

What’s really awful is that my manager will have to report to our VP that the funds earmarked for my basic computer science class was good money thrown after bad. Maybe I’ll be fired after I prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I am an imbecile. I will have only myself to thank for thinking I am actually capable of learning something outside my comfort zone. My comfort zone is hard enough. I knew that. I wish I had left well enough alone.

I have to conclude that I am capable of doing exactly one thing in my life: Using the English language. My use of it may not qualify me to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it has kept me employed for my entire adult life. Heaven forbid if I ever have to grow my own wheat, sew my own clothing, build my own house or balance my own checkbook. I would be useless. I only hope nobody ever finds out.

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