In 2016, Teri Kanefield wrote a captivating biography of one of the giants of the U.S. justice system – Free to Be Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Story of Women and Law. In it, she starts with Ginsburg’s humble beginnings as the younger daughter of two Jewish Eastern European immigrants. She then follows her through her education, personal experiences, and her impressive judicial career first as an attorney and law school professor, then as a judge, and finally as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. In every capacity she held, she broke new ground and furthered the quest for equality and fairness in the country’s jurisprudence. Kanefield doesn’t just list facts and figures, she shows the reader a portrait of an incredible person of integrity and perseverance striving for fairness and equality across the board. Continue reading
Woodwind Instruments: a practical guide for technicians and repairers by Daniel Bangham is a new release that will be a useful reference for woodwind technicians and players alike. Expected in late October 2022 through The Crowood Press, Bangham’s book provides instructions for setting up a complete workshop to repair and maintain clarinets, flutes, saxophones, oboes, and bassoons. The detailed repair instructions for technicians include most routine and complex repairs they might encounter. For players, the book can serve as a guide on caring for their instruments along with what to look for when they are encountering problems going so far as instructing them on some stop gap measures until they can get their instruments to a repair shop. The book is aimed at technicians, particularly given the specialized equipment needed to affect repairs, but understanding more about how their instruments work helps players get the most out of them even if they don’t want to try to make the repairs themselves. Continue reading
Sunnyvale Community Players (SCP) is bringing a diverse and timely show to their stage on 10 September 2022 with its production of Working a Musical. The show runs for four weeks through 2 October 2022. Working has been rejiggered for our current times. It celebrates the lives of the essential workers we all rely on every day and has added some new songs mixed in with the old in this broad collaboration. The show was adapted from Studs Terkel’s book by Nina Faso, Stephen Schwartz, and Gordon Greenberg with songs by Craig Carnelia, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers, Micki Grant, Stephen Schwartz, Susan Birkenhead, and Lin-Manual Miranda expanding it from the original show. Terkel’s book grew out of interviews of real people talking about their jobs and the struggles they faced while so often being forgotten by the world around them. Continue reading
In a recent live session, Heather Cox Richardson talked about the evolution of the “Dark Brandon” meme that’s been taking over various social media sites in the last few weeks. It’s got a curious history that will very likely be dropped by future historians because it is tied to a potentially transitory cultural moment that originated through a vulgar verbal attack, shifted to a positive superhero context by co-opting the original intent, and may shift again before it disappears into the ether forever. The details of this meme/cultural reference while curious aren’t unique. She illustrated the point further by recalling various sayings or items such as the meaning of red telephone on a desk that anybody over about age 55 or 60 would know immediately, but somebody under 40 probably wouldn’t. What was once known as “common knowledge” has become increasingly less widespread as our diversity increases, but thinking about the whole concept of common knowledge as it applies to cultural familiarity, I am reminded of an entertaining incident and subsequent informal study I conducted many years ago. Continue reading
In 2009, David Baldacci’s fourth book in the King and Maxwell series dropped. As so many of his stories seem to be, First Family has some references that could directly apply over a decade later. Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are former Secret Service agents who had to leave the service under murky circumstances in the first book in their series, Split Second. At the end of that one, they established a partnership as private investigators. They’ve maintained some of their contacts within the service and other law enforcement agencies and have since taken on some complex cases as PIs.
In First Family, they were on their way to talk with a potential client when they stumble upon a crime in progress. In a flurry of activity, a young girl is kidnapped, and her mother is murdered in their home. King and Maxwell are unable to stop the crime and get shot at when they try to intervene. Because they are on the scene at the time of the crime, they are interrogated by law enforcement as some old rivalries between the FBI and the Secret Service appear. It turns out that the girl is the First Lady’s niece – her father being the First Lady’s brother. In what seems like an odd turn of events, King is then contacted by none other than the First Lady despite the FBI already heading up the investigation. As it happens, King and the First Lady have known one another for a very long time because of a chance meeting one night when King helped her husband, then a U.S. Senator, avoid an unseemly scandal that would have prevented his ascension to president later in life, at least in a society that cared about character and fitness for the job.
The President and First Lady aren’t the only ones with secrets in their pasts in this action-filled adventure. The mystery doesn’t surround the perpetrator’s identity. The reader learns that early on even though it takes a while for the various investigators to figure it out. The mystery surrounds the motive behind the crimes – one intentional, the other a disastrous accident – along with navigating the additional complications that result. Love, hate, and every emotion in between are on display as are the wonders of science.
There’s a lot that isn’t fair as the story unfolds, and yet the villain is more sympathetic and understandable than the First Family by the time all is exposed. Through the girl’s captivity, her captor seems conflicted. He clearly doesn’t want to hurt her, but he’s also cagey about how and when she’ll be released. He understands how bright she is and brings her a wide variety of books to read. He also has her meet another captive, a woman who seems protective somehow. One time, she and the woman try to escape and discover that they are in an abandoned mine built into a remote mountain. They realize that there is no way for them to leave on their own, and they reluctantly return to their rooms.
Given the events that have transpired since the book was published, the First Family is even less sympathetic than it would have been in 2009. Baldacci deftly weaves a tale of intrigue combined with the lust for power by those who should never have it. He also provides more insight into King and Maxwell as they deal with a personal tragedy in the midst of their case that brings them closer together.
As with all Baldacci stories, some of the action is more than a little implausible, but then it’s not intended to be a true crime story. It is entertainment, and the characters are drawn bigger than life. The reader can relate to them in some ways and in others admire their fortitude. The book reads quickly with a satisfying final resolution, and it sets up future King and Maxwell stories.
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With the advent of the internet, and more recently the widespread availability and influence of social media, what constitutes an expert has been challenged in the media and in the public sphere. The online dictionary, dictionary.com, defines expert as follows:
- a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority: a language expert.
- the highest rating in rifle marksmanship, above that of marksman and sharpshooter.
- a person who has achieved such a rating.
- possessing special skill or knowledge; trained by practice; skillful or skilled (often followed by in or at): an expert driver; to be expert at driving a car.
- pertaining to, coming from, or characteristic of an expert: expert work; expert advice.
verb (used with object)
- to act as an expert for.
That definition is in keeping with other more traditional dictionaries, but in practice why does it matter?
In this information age, anybody with a connection to the internet can search for answers to any question imaginable or pontificate their own claims on myriad publicly visible platforms.
Just because somebody writes or speaks with assurance doesn’t automatically mean they are an expert or even that they necessarily know what they are talking about. Possessing academic credentials alone doesn’t guarantee that the speaker or writer is an expert either. Further, having purely academic credentials isn’t always necessary for somebody to gain proficiency or even expert level knowledge in a discipline. Mentoring and apprenticeships can be effective ways to learn and hone expert level skills in areas as varied as the performing arts to vocational trades or even some more academically oriented pursuits such various types of engineering. It depends on the quality of the mentor, the aptitude and dedication of the mentee or apprentice, and the educational requirements of the discipline.
Licensing can provide an additional level of oversight to help ensure that practitioners follow approved ethical standards and demonstrate competency in disciplines where public health or safety are concerned, but those standards are only valuable if they are enforced. Numerous fields require extensive formal training and licensing such as those in medicine, law, the financial industry, and various engineering disciplines, but there are also abuses which have become far more publicly visible in the current data jungle.
Reputation matters as long as it is built on actual accomplishments and facts. On this I’m reminded of one of my mentors from early in my career as a software/systems engineer. I had more than entry level academic credentials having received baccalaureate and master’s degrees from the University of California at Davis and San Jose State University respectively. What I lacked was program-specific domain knowledge which wasn’t taught in school. My mentor was 16 years my senior, and while his academic background stopped at the baccalaureate level, he had extensive domain knowledge. He was also looked upon as one of the system gurus in our corner of the world having designed numerous complex systems and having solved some of the most challenging problems along the way. He was the guy everyone sought out when they needed help, and I was fortunate to have been assigned to work with him.
He was going to leave big shoes to fill. In our work together, I had an intimidating amount of material to internalize and master before he left leaving our area of responsibility to me alone. I was acutely aware of how much I didn’t know as I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as possible while often feeling like Sisyphus. Unlike many others in our field, my mentor didn’t hide information to elevate his position. He shared freely helping others to understand the technical details to whatever level they were comfortable. After working together for a few years, he left our program and moved back home on the opposite side of the country, but we stayed in contact.
One night when I was on an extended trip to his location on his old program, we met for dinner. I commented that while I had very much enjoyed working with him, I never felt like I really understood enough about our system. I knew that I still had so much to learn which of course was much more challenging now that he was on another program. He looked at me dumbfounded. While he was more than willing to share and help anybody however he could, he wasn’t one who handed out compliments very often. This made his response all the more stunning. He told me that when we were working together, I learned so fast that it was scary. I could see so much that I didn’t know, I hadn’t understood how much I truly had mastered until that conversation.
Part of the reason I was on this particular trip was to staff a tiger team to tackle a massive multidisciplinary technical issue. I had carte blanche to tap whoever we needed, and my mentor introduced me to all the heavy hitters in our division no matter their program at that time. It took us a few months, but we ultimately solved the problem. As an added benefit, the connections I made from that team were invaluable on many other endeavors down the line.
My mentor was an expert in his field as were the other experienced engineers we pulled onto our tiger team. Their expertise stemmed from their training, their work experience, and their proven unique abilities to adapt and extend the system in ever new and ambitious ways. I learned a lot from them. While I was good, they were great, yet they treated me as one of their own.
In my engineering work, experts were recognized as such over a period of time based on empirical data. In today’s ever more intrusive information ecosystem including traditional media, social media, and personal platforms, expert claims across all manner of disciplines abound. The problem of course is deciphering the factual claims from the fantasies. To make matters worse, bad actors often attack those on public forums whose claims counter their fictitious ones with facts.
Even if we accept everyone’s credentials as valid, that still doesn’t automatically mean their “expert claims” are deserving of any note. We have to look beyond the surface of the claim at their motivation for making it and at factual data supporting it. As always, the facts matter. There is no such thing as “alternative facts.” If a self-proclaimed expert makes a claim that is not supported by reputable, fact-based sources, then that claim should become suspect as should the person making such a claim.
My personal experience in dealing with experts runs across multiple fields including engineering, music, and even writing. I’ve written about some of my other mentoring experiences from the mentee side in Part 5 of My Magical Musical Journey and from the mentor’s side in this profile piece.
Through my personal experiences, I’ve noticed a couple of interesting things about the experts I’ve encountered. They all seem to be willing to share their expertise to help others, and they don’t belittle people. While I’m sure that’s not any kind of absolute characteristic required to be an expert, it seems like it might be a good prerequisite.
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With so much predation going on these days, I often think about a different place where humankind has evolved beyond its constant quests for power and control. The U.S. is in the throes of a struggle for its future. It’s possible that in 2023, the country could be completely unrecognizable, although many of us already find it so, but not in a direction that we want to be going.
So what would I like to see? I would like to live in a world where humans have stopped being a predatory species preying upon one another whether through physical violence, economic exploitation, or supremacist goals. In this world, humans will have realized that while we may have some superficial differences in customs, preferences, or even physical attributes, we really are all the same, and nobody is any better than anyone else. Humans will have come to realize that it helps us all if nobody has to suffer. Continue reading
This month has shown us the full range of hypocrisy in our nation’s highest court. The court’s majority claims to be “originalists” beholden to the Constitution, yet their rulings belie this claim instead showing them to be radically reactionary basing decisions on ideological or religious goals.
- Carson v. Makin (6-3): The SCOTUS majority completely disregarded the separation of church and state in their decision allocating public funding to religious schools in Maine. This goes counter to the First Amendment and allows the government to directly fund religious teaching with taxpayer dollars.
- New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn., Inc v. Bruen (6-3): The SCOTUS majority took away state’s rights to enact restrictions based on common sense gun control measures such as limiting who can carry a concealed weapon. Restrictions on gun ownership are well within the framework of the Constitution’s Second Amendment which is mute on private gun ownership or where one can carry a gun. As a result, this court majority imposed a federal mandate which will undoubtedly increase gun violence not based on any Constitutional rights.
- Vega v. Tekoh (6-3): The SCOTUS majority determined that people arrested by police have no recourse if they are not read their Miranda Rights upon arrest. This pushes us further toward turning the U.S. into a police state.
- Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (6-3): The SCOTUS majority took away federal protections on a woman’s right to choose when or if to carry a pregnancy to term throwing that legal authority to the states. That means that a woman’s most personal decisions related to their own reproductive freedom will depend upon their state of residence.
These recent decisions show these wildly unpopular majority opinions are not based on precedent or the Constitution but instead are based on an ideological agenda that goes counter to our legal foundation. These decisions will target women, racial minorities, and people of limited financial means most dramatically, unfairly putting their lives at unnecessary and often preventable risk. Continue reading
I am of an age that I watched Watergate evolve and got to study it in school as the investigation was first being made public. That certainly made civics interesting and timely. At the time it seemed to be the most significant threat to our nation’s democratic principles since the Civil War. Shortly before articles of impeachment were to be voted on in the House, President Nixon resigned, though it took quite an effort from his party to get him to do so. One month hence, President Ford pardoned his predecessor setting in motion an emboldened, extremist faction within the Republican Party that enabled an even bigger threat to our democracy to emerge. Just under a half century later, an attempted coup occurred. The coup was intended to prevent the peaceful transition of power after the lawful election of a new president. If only Ford hadn’t pardoned Nixon on September 8, 1974, perhaps we wouldn’t have elected the former president in 2016. If only the country hadn’t elected the former president in 2016, we wouldn’t have had an attempted coup on January 6, 2021. Continue reading
What happens when a former U.S. Secretary of State and a best-selling crime novelist decide to collaborate on a book? In October 2021, a gripping political thriller resulted from such a partnership. The book is State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny. The two became friends through a series of unlikely events. Clinton and her very close childhood friend, Betsy Johnson Ebeling shared a love of books. By chance in the summer of 2016, the two of them were reading one of Louise Penny’s books, something that Ebeling mentioned in an interview. Penny’s publicist happened to see the interview, and she arranged for Penny and Ebeling to meet at a publicity tour for Penny’s latest book that year. The two hit it off and became fast friends. In the fall of 2016 not long after her book tour, Penny’s beloved husband died of dementia. As Penny was reading some condolence cards, she opened one that changed her life again. The writer was Hillary Rodham Clinton, and it was toward the end of her brutal 2016 presidential campaign. Despite the intense pressure, she took the time to write an eloquent and heartfelt condolence note to Louise Penny, a woman she’d never met. Clinton knew Penny through her books and through Ebeling’s recent friendship with her and had to reach out. That was the first direct contact between Penny and Clinton. That, along with some other timely in-person meetings, started a close friendship. Sometimes that rapport thing just happens, and the three of them, Betsy, Hillary, and Louise, had that spark. And then in 2019, ending her long battle with breast cancer, Betsy died. Continue reading