Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

RIP William Safire, Informal Learner Supreme

September 28, 2009

William SafireWilliam Safire, proud college dropout, PR flack, Nixon speech writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and fastidious language maven, died Sunday of pancreatic cancer. He was 79.

His obituary from the New York Times, where he worked for decades, follows.

Why post on Safire in a blog on informal learning?

Because Safire was an exemplar for all informal learners. Read on to see why.

William Safire, Political Columnist and Oracle of Language, Dies at 79

By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
William Safire, a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon and a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times who also wrote novels, books on politics and a Malaprop’s treasury of articles on language, died at a hospice in Rockville, Md., on Sunday. He was 79.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Martin Tolchin, a friend of the family.

There may be many sides in a genteel debate, but in the Safire world of politics and journalism it was simpler: There was his own unambiguous wit and wisdom on one hand and, on the other, the blubber of fools he called “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

He was a college dropout and proud of it, a public relations go-getter who set up the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” in Moscow, and a White House wordsmith in the tumultuous era of war in Vietnam, Nixon’s visit to China and the gathering storm of the Watergate scandal, which drove the president from office.

Then, from 1973 to 2005, Mr. Safire wrote his twice-weekly “Essay” for the Op-Ed page of The Times, a forceful conservative voice in the liberal chorus. Unlike most Washington columnists who offer judgments with Olympian detachment, Mr. Safire was a pugnacious contrarian who did much of his own reporting, called people liars in print and laced his opinions with outrageous wordplay.

Critics initially dismissed him as an apologist for the disgraced Nixon coterie. But he won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and for 32 years tenaciously attacked and defended foreign and domestic policies, and the foibles, of seven administrations. Along the way, he incurred enmity and admiration, and made a lot of powerful people squirm.

Mr. Safire also wrote four novels, including “Full Disclosure” (Doubleday, 1977), a best-seller about succession issues after a president is blinded in an assassination attempt, and nonfiction that included “The New Language of Politics” (Random House, 1968), and “Before the Fall” (Doubleday, 1975), a memoir of his White House years.

And from 1979 until earlier this month, he wrote “On Language,” a New York Times Magazine column that explored written and oral trends, plumbed the origins and meanings of words and phrases, and drew a devoted following, including a stable of correspondents he called his Lexicographic Irregulars.

The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like “the president’s populism” and “the first lady’s momulism,” written during the Carter presidency.

There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

Behind the fun, readers said, was a talented linguist with an addiction to alliterative allusions. There was a consensus, too, that his Op-Ed essays, mostly written in Washington and syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, were the work of a sophisticated analyst with voluminous contacts and insights into the way things worked in Washington.

Mr. Safire called himself a pundit — the word, with its implication of self-appointed expertise, might have been coined for him — and his politics “libertarian conservative,” which he defined as individual freedom and minimal government. He denounced the Bush administration’s U.S.A. Patriot Act as an intrusion on civil liberties, for example, but supported the war in Iraq.

He was hardly the image of a button-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.

His last Op-Ed column was “Never Retire.” He then became chairman of the Dana Foundation, which supports research in neuroscience, immunology and brain disorders. In 2005, he testified at a Senate hearing in favor of a law to shield reporters from prosecutors’ demands to disclose sources and other information. In 2006, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. From 1995 to 2004, he was a member of the board that awards the Pulitzer Prizes.

William Safir was born on Dec. 17, 1929, in New York City, the youngest of three sons of Oliver C. and Ida Panish Safir. (The “e” was added to clarify pronunciation.) He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and attended Syracuse University, but quit after his second year in 1949 to take a job with Tex McCrary, a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune who hosted radio and television shows; the young legman interviewed Mae West and other celebrities.

In 1951, Mr. Safire was a correspondent for WNBC-TV in Europe and the Middle East, and jumped into politics in 1952 by organizing an Eisenhower-for-President rally at Madison Square Garden. He was in the Army from 1952 to 1954, and for a time was a reporter for the Armed Forces Network in Europe. In Naples he interviewed both Ingrid Bergman and Lucky Luciano within a few hours of each other.

In 1959, working in public relations, he was in Moscow to promote an American products exhibition and managed to steer Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev into the “kitchen debate” on capitalism versus communism. He took a well-known photograph of the encounter. Nixon was delighted, and hired Mr. Safire for his 1960 campaign for the presidency against John F. Kennedy.

Starting his own public relations firm in 1961, Mr. Safire worked in Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller’s 1964 presidential race and on John V. Lindsay’s 1965 campaign for mayor of New York. Mr. Safire also wrote his first book, “The Relations Explosion” (Macmillan, 1963).

In 1962, he married the former Helene Belmar Julius, a model, pianist and jewelry designer. The couple had two children, Mark and Annabel. His wife and children survive him, as does a granddaughter, Lily Safire.

In 1968, he sold his agency, became a special assistant to President Nixon and joined a White House speechwriting team that included Patrick J. Buchanan and Raymond K. Price Jr. Mr. Safire wrote many of Nixon’s speeches on the economy and Vietnam, and in 1970 coined the “nattering nabobs” and “hysterical hypochondriacs” phrases for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

After Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, hired Mr. Safire, one critic said it was like setting a hawk loose among doves. As Watergate broke, Mr. Safire supported Nixon, but retreated somewhat after learning that he, like others in the White House, had been secretly taped.

Mr. Safire won his Pulitzer Prize for columns that accused President Jimmy Carter’s budget director, Bert Lance, of shady financial dealings. Mr. Lance resigned, but was acquitted in a trial. He then befriended his accuser.

Years later, Mr. Safire called Hillary Clinton a “congenital liar” in print. Mrs. Clinton said she was offended only for her mother’s sake. But a White House aide said that Bill Clinton, “if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response on the bridge of Mr. Safire’s nose.”

Mr. Safire was delighted, especially with the proper use of the conditional.

Informal Learning on the Street Where You Live

July 2, 2008

\Imagine if thought balloons appeared above people’s heads that told you exactly what they were willing to teach someone like you. 

  • Maybe the gentle-looking white haired fellow you pass in the aisle at the grocery store could teach you about the miracle of forgiveness.
  • Maybe the tattooed and be-pierced kid at the library texting her boyfriend could help you work through a thorny CSS challenge.
  • Maybe the well-dressed woman in the Lexus in front of you could help you understand the Upanishads. Or, belly dancing. 

Now it appears that a Seattle outfit called TeachStreet is doing just that. (Though not exactly with thought balloons).

 

Presently in beta, TeachStreet links together teachers who are willing and presumably able to teach students in Seattle. They claim to have in their database 25,000 classes, teachers, coaches, instructors and schools just in the Emerald City.

 

Here’s how it works. Suppose you’re a student who wants to learn, say, conversational Italian. You plug in the term ‘Italian language’ into the site’s search engine. When I did 86 results popped-up. Currently you can narrow the search by geography, class size, ability, schedule, and price.

 

I selected personalized lessons, evening classes, and beginner status, which left me with a more manageable six results. I clicked on the one taught by a Valentina Preziuso… whose name sounds wonderfully Italian… and it took me to her biographical area. So far Valentina has yet to post anything about her background. There’s a review section as well, but for Valentina that too is blank.

 

At the page for the class, I found a link to Amazon products and a Google Ads column, as well as information about the class and cost, times, days, etc.  

 

The class and teacher profiles are free to registered users.

 

TeachStreet is the brainstorm of Dave Schappell, the founder and CEO, and a director at Amazon from 1998- 2004, who was, as his bio says, a driving force behind Amazon’s marketplace platform.

 

So far TeachStreet is only in Seattle, but plans are in the works to expand the concept to “San Philayorkizona,” the website reports.

 

The Buddha is supposed to have said; “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”

 

Time will tell if there are enough students ready for 25,000 teachers in Seattle.

Learner’s Journals

June 25, 2008

Vitruvian Man was just another entry in da Vinci\'s JournalSo you’re an Informal Learner. You listen to books on tape and instructional recordings, go to lectures, play brain games, read magazines and books, watch documentaries, use certain software, crack open reference works when you need to, and observe the world and its inhabitants. But how do you seal the deal? That is, how do you keep what you’ve learned in your noggin, or at least within reach?

 

If you’re like Informal Learners since time immemorial you record what you learn from life in a Learner’s Journal or notebook. I’m not talking about a diary necessarily. A diary is typically more internally directed, although Michelangelo’s journals were famously both about what he thought and felt in addition to what he was learning.

 

Instead I’m talking about a journal that serves as a kind of repository for what you’ve discovered in your learning as well as a sounding board for your ideas.

 

This post is about two celebrated Informal Learners who rigorously kept Learner’s Journals; the Renaissance men Leonardo da Vinci and Buckminster Fuller.

 

Leonardo was called da Vinci because as the illegitimate son of a Florentine Notary he wasn’t allowed to take his father’s name. da Vinci is the name of the town in northern Tuscany where he was born in 1452. He was an inquisitive child and showed great promise as an artist. At age 14 he was apprenticed to Verrocchio, a Florentine master and polymath who gave Leonardo a broad and first-rate training in all the arts and endowed the younger man with many good habits and a few bad ones. 

 

At age 20 or so Leonardo painted one of the children Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ, now in the Uffizi Gallery. Leonardo’s work was so stunning that according to legend after seeing the completed form Verrocchio swore he would never paint again. Apparently he never did.

 

da Vinci then went on to spend his rest of his life and career in service to a series of wealthy patrons. But if you thought you were hiring an artist what you got with Leonardo was something more like a free-ranging thinker. Oh, he’d do paintings… although less than 20 survive… and sculptures and such. But he’d also produce plays for the court. In fact he apparently built the first spotlight for just such endeavors. It was a time of war and Leonardo designed siege engines, portable bridges that were built, along with war machines that weren’t like scythe-equipped war wagons, a tank, a parachute, a bike, and a helicopter. 

 

How do we know all this about a man who died almost 500 years ago? We have a number, but not all, of da Vinci’s Journals or notebooks. For instance, the famous Vitruvian Man wasn’t a commissioned work; it’s something he undertook as a personal challenge and drew in one of his notebooks. Same with all the stuff listed above.

 

He was an acute observer of birds and bats and fascinated with the idea of human flight. His drawings on flight seemed to go through two phases; where he tried to imitate birds, and upon realizing that humans didn’t have the necessary strength to weight ratio when he turned to more glider-like apparatuses that may have actually been built.

 

All that’s in da Vinci’s journals, too. da Vinci’s nine surviving journals called codices (the plural of codex) are spread all over the world. Bill Gates owns one. The biggest chunk of them are in Britain.

 

The surprise perhaps is that the da Vinci’s Journals are in all different sizes; they’re not regular. Vitruvian Man, which was separated from a journal and is now housed in Venice, is about 13.5 by 9.6 inches. Others were closer to 8×6.

 

He certainly could have constructed the journals himself. But considering their irregularity, da Vinci may have just wandered into local binderies and bought them off the shelf when he needed a new one!

 

 

R. Buckminster Fuller was born in 1895 in Massachusetts and left it nearly 89 years later with 28 patents, the best known of which was the Geodesic Dome. Fuller, like Bill Gates, was a Harvard dropout. 

 

He married, but led a knockabout life mainly as a laborer. In 1927 at the age of 32 bankrupt and suicidal after the death of his daughter due to meningitis and polio, he decided to embark upon “an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”

 

Taking a page from da Vinci, Fuller had began documented his life in 15 minute segments from 1917 ‘til his death in 1983, more than 65 years. The result was 270 feet of journals he called the ‘Dymaxion Chronofile.’ (In addition to his many other gifts, Fuller had a wonderful knack for creating neologisms.)

 

What’s to be learned from these two great learners? If you’re serious as a learner you need to capture what you’ve learned or rather what you’re learning. What do you put in it? Fuller put everything in his, including household bills and the like! da Vinci used both drawings and words, all in his tight and fluid mirror-script, written such that you need a mirror to read it.

 

Do you really need to write it down in this electronic age? Well only if you want to preserve it in an accessible way.

 

A week or so ago I was talking to a book binder who is well-enough versed in the Internet Age to own an Internet company. But he’s also has enough gray hair to remember when the Library of Congress told libraries to preserve their collections on microfiche, much of which is now just goo in a can.

 

Then the preferred storage was old reel-to-reel tape drives, then audio cassette tapes, and 5 inch floppy drives, and Zip drives, and on and on. If you had an early TRS-80 from Radio Shack, and stored all your journal entries on its cassette drive you’d be hard pressed to access any of it now just 25 years later.

 

A good acid-free and lignin-free paper journal with the right ink, will be around until well after your great-great-grandchildren are born.  

Knowledge as a Goal of Informal Learning

June 18, 2008

I\'m a Serious Shakespearean Actor Dammit, Why Do I Have to Wear this Ridiculous Getup?“Far too many people—especially people with great expertise in one area—are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.” Peter Drucker

 

One of the great fictions of modern American educulture is that it’s enough to know how to learn. That the purpose of education isn’t to ‘memorize meaningless facts’… that’s what the Internet’s for, after all… but to learn how to learn.

 

In such a paradigm who cares what Metternich said about power or what the account in the Gilgamesh Epic says about the civilizing of Enkidu? Who wants to go to a party where people are talking about that kind of nonsense anyway?

 

But to everyone silently nodding their heads right now it pains me to say that Drucker is exactly right. Here’s why:

 

With wider knowledge comes the ability to express yourself more clearly. Remember what Twain said; the difference between a good word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. You get that power from informal learning,

 

Sometimes skills alone aren’t enough. E.D. Hirsch in his book The Knowledge Deficit recounts research among children who were good readers but with little subject knowledge versus kids were subject matter experts but with poor reading skills. The subject matter was baseball. The unsurprising result was that in tests of comprehension, kids with knowledge of baseball but poor reading skills outscored kids with good reading skills but no knowledge of baseball.

 

Knowledge helps you bridge cultural and socioeconomic gaps. Better than 53 percent of the world’s people are Christians, Muslims and Jews, or ‘Children of Abraham.’ That is, all three groups share a common affinity for the biblical patriarchs from Abraham on back. So if you’re a Christian and were in a room with a Muslim and shared nothing else in common, you could at least talk about Adam and Noah and Abraham. But only if both of you had knowledge of those subjects. And only if at least one of you knew about that common heritage.

 

It’s like that silly episode of Star Trek called Darmok (see the picture above), where Captain Piccard gets beamed down to a planet with Paul Winfield, who plays Dathon, an alien captain whose race speaks only in mythological metaphor. An actual line from the show is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” [Imagine ordering a burger using only metaphor. How would the pimply teen behind the counter ask you if you wanted fries and a Coke with that?]

 

Ridiculous as the premise of show was, the point is potent; metaphor is a powerful bridge. But only to the degree that all parties have knowledge of the metaphor.

 

And Captain Piccard began bridging the gap with Dathon when he told the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.

 

Knowledge also helps you cut through the crap. If you understand the first law of thermodynamics, you’ll never be persuaded to invest in a “perpetual motion” machine. If you understand the hallmarks of Ponzi schemes, you’ll never be bamboozled by one.

 

How do you obtain knowledge beyond your current ken? Well that’s simple, you keep learning. Informal learning is the answer. And you stretch yourself by adding knowledge that might not have appealed to you at an earlier age. Remember when you were younger and you didn’t like guacamole? Nowadays what’s a Super Bowl party without it?

And when you’re at that party and the commercials grow dull, add a little spice by dropping some Gilgamesh on them. Hey, it worked for Captain Jean Luc Piccard.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Informal Learners

June 4, 2008

Tiger Woods Started Golfing at Age 3If estimates are to be believed something like 70 to 75 percent of all learning is informal. So who are the famous informal learners promised in the headline? Well there’s a 7 in 10 chance it’s almost anyone who’s famous.

 

But there’s a more interesting list of famous people who were informal learners. George Washington, for instance. Ben Franklin and the Wright Brothers are on that list. So too are Edith Wharton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and August Wilson.

 

The common thread? All of them left school well before the 12th grade.

 

Wait a minute, you say, the other common thread is that all those people are dead and moldering. And Franklin was fortunate to live in a time when it was possible to make a few simple observations about electricity and be accounted a genius for it. That kind of stuff just can’t happen anymore.

 

OK, fair enough, my skeptical friend. Here is a list of informal learners… born since 1950… who were all college dropouts but who have advanced the frontiers of technology: Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Dean Kamen. Add to that list people like Richard Branson, James Cameron, Kevin Kelly, and Quentin Tarantino who have advanced art, business and increasingly philanthropy. Branson never attended college, Kelly and Cameron dropped out of college to work, and Tarantino left high school at age 15.

 

Let me be clear, I’m not issuing a school pass to drop out of high school or college. In almost every case it’s a bad idea. But a worse idea is if when you do leave school (at whatever level) that you also leave the discipline of informal learning.  

 

And discipline is the right word. August Wilson left school in the ninth grade and more or less walked straight to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. Dean Kamen learned some science and physics at Worcester Polytechnic before dropping out. But not 400 patents’ worth!

 

Enfant terrible James Cameron went to Cal State Fullerton before dropping out. He was a truck driver when he got a job making miniatures for Roger Corman Studios. Meanwhile he was spending every spare moment taking cameras apart to learn how they worked or photocopying or taking notes of any graduate theses he could find at UCLA and USC on optical effects and film technology.

 

The graduate students whose papers Cameron was reading had expertise in spades, but I think it’s fair to say that none of them made any $1.8 billion movies like Cameron did with Titanic.

 

Quentin Tarantino honed his distinct non-linear storytelling style not in some fancy film school but while talking films at the Manhattan Beach Video Archives, the video rental store where he worked in the day while writing scripts at night.

 

Even in 2008 it’s possible to acquire great learning and expertise through informal methods.

 

In fact, it’s not only possible, it’s essential that you continue to learn informally if you expect to achieve a level of expertise.

 

Researchers who study expertise have found that it takes 10 years of intensive study and practice to achieve expertise as a golfer like Tiger Woods (a college dropout himself!), an investor like Warren Buffet, and chess grandmaster like Bobby Fischer. The pattern is so well established that researchers call it “the 10-year rule.” 

 

But those guys were all born with the innate talent for golf or investing or chess, right? Well, in a word, no. Such a thing doesn’t exist. So the flip side of the 10-year rule is that if there’s something you’re not good at most likely it’s because you haven’t been at it long enough.

 

So if what separates me from Tiger Woods isn’t talent, per se, but time, what separates Tiger from his colleagues who have been golfing just as long as he has?

 

It’s discipline, desire and drive.

 

Informal learners with discipline, desire and drive are the ones who stay at their learning. And they’re the ones that keep learning, gaining expertise and becoming famous!