Monday, September 24, 2012

American Architecture

My favorite American buildings.

1. Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright. Quintessentially, uniquely American.

2. Space Needle by Edward Carlson and John Graham Jr. Likewise - only in America.

3. Chrystler Building by William van Allen. New York's best, and the best Art Deco.

4. Monticello by Thomas Jefferson. The finest building of the pre-industrial period.

5. Hearst Caslte by Julia Morgan. Only in America would someone build it. Love it.

6. Trinity Church by Henry H. Richardson. The finest sacred space, reflecting Boston's Irish heritage.

7. United Nations Headquarters by Oscar Niemeyer. Took the international style and perfected it.

 8. The Gamble House by Greene and Greene. Arts and crafts, a British movement, mastered in Pasadena.

9. Weisman Art Musem by Frank Gehry. I think in time this will be seen as his most fully realized structure.

10. Mesa Laboratory by I.M. Pei. Very innovative for the time, an excellent modernist piece.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Two Years Gone

I write more than I publish here. We're not talking volumes - just some stuff. Here's a nice example I just ran across browsing: a letter I wanted to send Obama back in 2010. While never intended for the blog, I think it's not a bad addition, and an interesting reflection of where I am now as compared to two and a half years ago.


Dear President Obama,

            I'm concerned. I am a teacher.

I'm twenty-three with a Masters from Bennington college in Teaching. Yesterday I learned that 23,000 teachers were laid off in California. Tens of thousands more have been laid off nationwide.

My best teacher in college was excellent because she was fearless. She was never afraid of being fired for teaching what she believed and teaching to a higher standard. This cost her many jobs, and a permanent off-on relationship with coffee vendors and bookstores to pay the bills.

My job situation is far from ideal, yet I have a job. I am one of the lucky ones. Our charter's administration is disrespectful and rude to faculty, salary cuts are promised for the next year. I have every desire to leave – but what jobs are there for me? Simultaneously I am over- and under-qualified. A degree that requires a higher salary, coupled with a lack of years' experience.

Your salary is $400,000 a year. Mine is $30,000. We're both poor compared to Barry Bonds who made  $20,000,000 this year.

Can you address this? We need as a country to prioritize education. Local control over education leads to the horrors of the recent Texas Board of Education's decisions. A lack of understanding from Washington can lead to No Child Left Behind. My proposal:

  1. A national standard in teacher salaries that reflects the challenges of being a teacher.
  2. More rigor in teacher training and qualification. You should see the tests they give us. If you can't pass them, and frighteningly many don't, you should probably not be allowed near a blender, much less students.

We can't have a nation of low standards and low achievement. If teachers were paid more and had more rigorous examinations and qualifications as they do elsewhere then our schools will improve.

And perhaps we should put a cap on athlete salaries.

Thank you. I voted for you, and hope to do so again.
I sincerely hope this reaches you.

~ Ross Dillon, High School History Teacher

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Plato Revisited

For my philosophy electives I’ve started the year, as any good teacher should, by dragging out and dusting off Plato. I’ve not bothered to read him since I was in college, five years ago this September. At that time I was taking Ancient Greek Philosophy, which was rather silly since I’d already taken some rather advanced courses, and read most of Plato and much of Aristotle on my own.

In previous years I’ve had my students read two selections of Plato, it’s true. They’ve tackled part of the Meno, which is tricky, and the Apology, which details Socrates' trial, and is not.

So I started the semester with the Euthyphro, which asks what is pious and what is just. The Apology I’ve now done in full, and the concept of being a martyr for truth has been established in the classroom.

My ethics were carefully manipulated in my high school experience. Here’s a list of books we read for Western Civ, taught not coincidentally by the fellow who also taught Philosophy:

Apology (Plato) – About dying for the sake of the truth
Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare) – About killing for what you believe is right
Barabbas (Par Lagerkvist) – About Barabbas’ struggle to do right after being freed in place of Jesus
Becket (Jean Anouilh) – About the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket standing up for his beliefs
St. Joan (George Bernard Shaw) – About Joan of Arc’s quest to do what is right for country
Galileo (Berthold Brecht) – About Galileo’s choice not to die for what he believed in
A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt) – About Sir Thomas More’s execution for what is right


And now I’m passing it on to a new generation. It’s a very dangerous, and scary, belief. As the Apostle Rufus said: “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…People die for it. People kill for it.” The willingness to die for something must be a belief. As Socrates himself affirms, we have no idea what to expect for the life hereafter, if anything. Brutus understood it. Henry II understood it. But Meletus, the young man whom history would despise for his precedent, did not understand. He only believed that his indictment of Socrates was right.

This makes Meletus, now on my third pass of the Apology, a very interesting character. We only see him in glimpses, and he is clearly an ignorant and brash young man. He tries Socrates for things he didn’t do. But he thought it worthwhile to take the time to condemn a seventy year-old man. Did he think he was doing right, or did he believe it? Either way there must have been a powerful conviction to choose such a course of action.

As Paul Tillich begins his powerful book on the subject, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.” He goes on to distinguish between faith and belief, the latter of which is simply holding an unsubstantiated claim as true. Fifty-five years later I’ve not seen anyone write a better set of definitions. Experience after death is the realm of belief for most. We can't substantiate it. For some it is their ultimate concern, the ancient Egyptians are a nice example, but this is not the typical case. Meletus' desire to see Socrates put to death - what drives this, then?

Meletus could not know the repercussions of his suit, or even its outcome. That his actions were right must have been a belief. This reframes the Apology’s trial in a new light: It is not the grandstanding of Socrates to show how he is right, and will sacrifice himself for truth. It is a clash of beliefs; one that truth knows no boundaries, the other that the well-being of the many outweighs the invective of a societal gadfly.

Plato’s dialogues are often laughed off as simplistic intro stuff. A hook to get people interested in philosophy, and then, once the secrets of the upper castes are learned, rejected and despised. Yet the struggles between Meletus’ and Socrates’ views is no different, in essence, than whether or not you think Bradley Manning should be tried for leaking uncomfortable state secrets.

When in high school I began saving my written works. An essay I wrote for Western Civ, eleven years ago as a young Sophomore, compares Jesus and Socrates, asking which is more courageous. I reached the following conclusion at the time:

“If Jesus was actually just the historical Jesus and not a divine entity, then Jesus may indeed be the more courageous, to be killed by his followers. But wasn’t Socrates killed by the people he was trying to teach as well? What is the difference between the two? Socrates, however, had a message that was never heard before and attempted to let the people he taught figure out the deeper meaning for themselves. Jesus’ message was radical and told them what to do. If both are mortal and both achieved the same tasks and suffered equally and had similar personalities; it is my belief that both were equally courageous.”

It’s a cop-out. I don’t think I got a great grade. Suggesting crucifixion is the same as the convulsions and vomiting from drinking hemlock…not an apt comparison. But it shows where my mind was at the time, that I thought Socrates to be essentially an equal of Jesus.

That’s a heavy worldview to pass on to kids. For years I’ve wanted to teach philosophy. I thought starting with Plato would warm me up, and be easy – a prejudice of my initiation into the philosophic upper echelons. I knew the students would go through a weighty experience. I never realized how much of the weight is placed on the teacher for introducing such ideas and beliefs to young minds, even if it's just Plato.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Distinguished Lists

If I Ran the National Endowment of the Arts

The highest award bestowed by the nation on an artist. Rather inconsistent, compared to when achievements took place: Aretha Franklin got hers before Bob Dylan, Wynton Marsalis before Sonny Rollins, Ray Bradbury before Harper Lee. Here’s who I would give it to for 2012:

Sid Caesar, Television pioneer and comedian (88 years old)
Gary Snyder, Poet (82 years old)
Toni Morrison, Novelist (81 years old)
Gordon Willis, Cinematographer (81 years old)
Oscar de la Renta, Fashion designer (80 years old)
Wayne Shorter, Jazz saxophonist (79 years old)
Philip Glass, Composer (75 years old)
Carollee Schneemann, Performance artist (72 years old)
Liza Minnelli, Actress and singer (66 years old)
Annie Leibovitz, Photographer (62 years old)

2012 Nobel Prize Predictions

They're a month away!

Physics – 2:1 odds on Peter Higgs
Literature – 3:1 odds on Haruki Murakami, BONUS: 6:1 odds on Bob Dylan
Peace – 3:1 odds on Mursi, El-Keib, and Jebali, individually or any combination thereof
Chemistry – 7:1 odds on Richard Zare or W.E. Moerner, or combination
Physiology – 5:1 odds on Joseph Vacanti and Robert Langer

American Scientists Who Should Have Statues Made of Them

Sometimes a statue is needed. Only those without statues were considered (unlike Goddard, Millikan, Tesla, the Wrights, etc.) Maybe we could have these guys in the Capitol? Or a science park?

Jonas Salk – Cured Polio
Linus Pauling – Chemist and Peace Advocate
Thomas Hunt Morgan – Geneticist
Edwin Hubble – Cosmologist
Gregory Pincus and Margaret Sanger – Contraceptive Pill and Revolutionary
Rachel Carson – Environmentalist
Willis Carrier – Air Conditioning
Richard Feynman – Physicist
John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, William Shockley – Pioneers of the Information Age
Glenn Seaborg – Chemist
Willard Libby – Radiocarbon Dating