Archive for September, 2008

Can I have a Wordle with you?

Who knew that Wordle was the invention of an IBM Research software engineer named Jonathan Feinberg?

I had the good fortune of interviewing Jonathan in September 2008.

Here’s Can I have a Wordle with you, the mp3 presentation I created based on my conversation with him. It’s in the IBM Computer Science Spotlight series and on the Wordle website.

And talk about being self-referential: Here’s the Wordle of this very text.


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I’m not reassured

I sent this letter to the editor of Jewish World Review:

In re: Biden, Palin take lead in clash on Mideast issues

Dear Editor:

I loved Governor Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, but, after all, she didn’t write it herself. She delivered a speech said to be written by Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully. Governor Palin has good instincts about national security and the need for greater energy independence, but the question still nags at me: Is she qualified to be vice president — and possibly president — of the United States?

Barack Obama has not reassured me that he understands the role Israel plays as the only reliably pro-Western country in the Middle East, nor does he seem to understand what Israel means for Jewish survival. (In all fairness, I don’t have the same apprehensions about Senator Biden.) Given Senator Obama’s lukewarm support for Israel and his own relative inexperience, I can’t see pulling the lever for the Democratic ticket.

Yet at this point, I don’t feel comfortable supporting the McCain-Palin ticket either. Despite her wonderful delivery at the RNC, Sarah Palin is a rookie. Moreover, a Time magazine article alleges that she sought to have books banned from the Wasilla, Alaska, public library. You may think that support for Israel should outweigh freedom of speech, but it’s just such unintelligent intervention in cultural affairs that makes me think that Governor Palin would do exactly what the Republican party sees as a cardinal Democratic sin: Meddle in our personal lives. Worse: Meddle in affairs she doesn’t understand.

It’s the morning after the RNC and I plan on doing something I’ve never done before: Sit this election out. 

Barbara Finkelstein

See part of this letter in Wordle

Video of Sarah Palin at the RNC

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Who am I really?


You know you better make up your mind!

You know you better make up your mind!

A couple of years ago, a thirtysomething female student in my grad school course in Nineteenth-Century American Lit expressed her revulsion over the rape of black slaves by their white masters.

“Love and respect are so important to me,” she said. “The very idea of a strange man getting on top of me and — I can’t imagine anybody not feeling disgusted!”

The context for this outburst was a discussion about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I remember it because the student’s inability to imagine herself a supporter of slavery disturbed me almost as much as the subject of the peculiar institution itself. What she didn’t fathom was that she could easily have been part of a group that simply assumed certain notions to be inarguable and true. She could have been part of such a group because, in fact, she already was. We all are.

Can you avoid groupthink?

The fifteen or so students had the same opinion on every issue that ever came up in the class. Nobody had voted for George Bush in the 2000 election (I didn’t either). Everyone thought the Supreme Court had over-ruled the popular election of Al Gore with its selection of Bush (I thought so too). Everyone thought the whites in Stowe’s novel were evil, sinful or corrupt and the blacks were victims (the novel is more complex than that). To my knowledge, nobody in the class held a contrary opinion on any of these or any other topics.

That’s because we were all students of literature; all educated to understand that the buying and selling of black people was wrong; all taught to believe that America was oppressive, Europe was hip and the rest of the world was a pretty remote place. In short, we held the usual high and low values of most cohorts.

Unfortunately, we don’t live our lives with the benefit of hindsight.

If you were a citizen of the United States in the nineteenth century, what are the chances that you would have had the foresight or humanity to see slavery as a corrupt expression of the human spirit? Most of your friends would not have questioned the status quo. If you were a southerner, your family would have owned slaves and slaveholding would have been as natural as breakfast.

If you were European and intellectual in the middle of the twentieth century, you might easily have justified the disposal by any means of the Jews whom you saw as too communist, capitalist, rich, pious, anti-religious, fill in the blank. Most of your friends would have too.

If you were American, European and intellectual in the seventeenth century, you might have supported burning unconventional women at the stake. Most of your friends would have too.

Which brings us to the presidential election of 2008.

Which team do you root for?

Judging by his first executive decision — choosing Joe Biden as his running mate — Obama has shown himself to be strategic, and wisely so. I for one am simply baffled by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain may be every bit as strategic as Obama, especially as Palin is more conservative on pro-life and oil drilling issues, and she positions McCain to look like an authentic Republican alternative to Obama. But his choice strikes me as desperate and erratic. Desperate because McCain needs to siphon Hillary Clinton’s supporters away from the Democrats; erratic because Ms. Palin doesn’t have any real expertise in foreign affairs. Isn’t that the criticism McCain lobbed at Obama?

Despite my misgivings about Obama — his association with Jeremiah Wright sticks in my craw — I nonetheless feel tempted to vote with my liberal, smart IBM Research bloc. We Americans allegedly don’t care one way or another about what the rest of the world thinks about us, but Barack Obama will rehabilitate our standing in the so-called global community. He at least talks like somebody with a brain and he looks fabulous.

Despite my misgivings about McCain — his snapdragon temper and witless sense of humor remind me of my ex-husband — I also feel tempted to vote with my conservative, smart Jewish bloc where the thinking goes that if Iran attacks Israel — or Ireland or India or whatever country it deems a devil — McCain likely will strike back. I would support his doing that. In this regard I fear that Obama would ask all parties to be “reasonable.” And whoosh. Down the drain go Israel and the survival of the Jewish people.

I confess. When I vote in November, I will vote with one clique or the other. I’m not sure I know how to think through my decision in any other way.

The company we keep

What’s scary is that, from what I saw of the Democratic National Convention last week, the Democrats rely on this clique mentality too. How else to explain the offending presence of Jimmy Carter, a man who has distinguished himself as a foreign affairs clubfoot (Iran, 1980 Olympics, Israel-Palestinian conflict) and whose very presence conjures up the memory of a hypocrite who chided the Soviet Union for human rights abuses in Afghanistan and defended the Shah of Iran as a pillar of stability.

Now I know that adults have to make nice with all sorts of people they might not really like. For example, I can respect Republican McCain for his reputed maverick nature but now cringe at Republican Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction. Yet in making a decision about which candidate and party to choose, I am looking at which birds of a feather flock together. We are the company we keep.

The conflict for me remains. Do I vote as an individual with liberal political values (defense of the Constitution, belief in free speech, pro-choice) and go with Obama, or do I vote for McCain because I am an American and a Jew who understands that without national security, we could experience another 9/11 or U.S.S. Cole or Kenya-Tanzania U.S. Embassy? Do I “punish” the Republicans for taking us to war on sexed-up intelligence or reward McCain for his “straight talk:” that staying in Iraq until 2013 isn’t a partisan position — it’s simply facing reality?

Who am I really? An ally of a particular group? An individual? Somebody too confused to figure out what she really thinks?

Over the weekend, my Russian emigre friend Tanya pretty much summed up how I feel about this election: Whoever wins, we’re in big trouble. Yup. Count me in.

See a graf of this entry in Wordle.

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If only we knew he was sincere

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