Friday, August 31, 2012

Live Online Class from India

This is a new post I'm working on with my live online class from India. I'm working with Indrajeet and Anuranjan. We are having a great time finishing up the class!

Monday, August 27, 2012

UPDATE August 26, 2012

Not much going on here, these days. I’m happy to report that my friend James has finished his masters at Oxford. We hung out on Thursday and Friday as he came into London to visit before leaving on Monday, the 27th of August. I also got to see my friend Belinda visiting from Bosnia. That was a real treat. We’d only met at a wedding and lunch later about 3 years and some months ago and have been e-buddies since. So it was good to see each other in person again. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit Bosnia at some time in the future. I actually won vouchers for free housing in Bosnia at a Bosnian night that she hosted when I lived in Cape Town.

I am happy to report that a week ago I had my first ukulele lesson. And it was a blast. It was a group lesson, and the woman was really sweet. My company pays for discounts for these lessons, so I think I may continue and do a few more. Ukuleles are only £20-30 and it’s a great way to keep making music. Of course, my company has a music recording studio; the only issue is being able to book it since it’s free and the instruments in there are pretty amazing.

The other surprising thing that happened this week is that I was awarded a peer bonus at work. It’s ridiculously surprising because normally I feel (I don’t believe but I feel) like I do a horrible job. Anyway, a peer bonus is when a peer recommends you for a bonus for going above and beyond your duties; you can’t do it for your boss, but your boss or manager must approve of it. You get a certificate and some money. I’m not sure I went above and beyond normal duty, but I was quite appreciative of the bonus. Here are the words:

"I'd like to thank Victor for his support in reviewing the training materials and certification exam questions for the Academy. I know it can be a bit of a tedious job especially with the amount of documents we have, but Victor goes above and beyond by providing excellent comments, clear and concise when necessary, and other times with longer clarifying notes. Much appreciated!"


Three questions arose from the last updates—one about Shakespeare, one about the beliefs and actions embedded in the human condition, and one about acculturation. First, some people want to know what my personal opinion is as to the identity of Shakespeare, the playwright. I still have more to read in the authorship debate, and, so far, I see enough problems that I have reasonable doubt. Even if the majority of Shakespeare academicians are correct that William of Stratford is William Shakespeare, there are still some peculiarities to the story and questions that I would love to see answered. However, I try to look at it from a legal perspective in which case the job is not to necessarily prove authorship one way or the other (which may not be possible) but to come to the best determination of authorship. Legally, the difficulty lies in the use of “reasonable doubt” as a litmus test to decide if you can comfortably come to a determination of “guilty,” if you can agree with the plaintiff. This is a problem because a legal case involving the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays would put the onus of proof on the various conspiracy theories or anyone claiming William of Stratford was not the author. In this case, to prove William of Stratford guilty of falsely claiming credit, you would have to prove someone else wrote beyond any reasonable doubt. This is quite hard to do. I might say there is reasonable doubt about the authorship of William of Stratford, but that is different from the difficult task of removing any reasonable doubt that William of Stratford took credit from someone else who wrote it. And a legal case would require that proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And as it stands now, even though there is a plausible fit between the Earl of Oxford’s motivations, education, and opportunity with Shakespeare’s plays, it is hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt regardless if you have doubt about the authorship of William of Stratford.

Now check this out. Last year, there was a Slate article on a U.S. Supreme Court Shakespeare case about a mock trial held in Washington, DC on November 25th, 1987. This court was presided over by three U.S. Supreme Court Justices at the time—John Paul Stevens, Harry Blackmun, and William Brennan. This case, originally described in a New Yorker article the following year in 1988, featured a representative arguing for the generally assumed authorship of William of Stratford and another representative arguing for the authorship of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. The court decided in favour of William of Stratford, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove the authorship of de Vere (you see where the burden of proof lies). But this is where it gets interesting. According to the Slate article, both Blackmun and Stevens “expressed reservations about the decision,” and in April 2009 Stevens told the Wall Street Journal that he changed his mind, now believing Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays. In fact of the justices asked this question in April 2009, there were only two justices—William Kennedy and Stephen Breyer—unreservedly thought William of Stratford is the author. Three other justices refused to comment (Alito, Thomas, and Roberts). Again, the burden of proof is on a challenger, not just to point out questions about the authorship of William of Stratford but to prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone else wrote it. And that hasn’t been done. Regardless, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. We can still enjoy the plays for what they are worth.

The second point came from one of my best of friends, Praj (housemate extraordinaire). Praj challenged me on the section “The Town,” saying that isn’t it possible for someone like Hitler to have both good and bad parts instead of being all bad? What he says is right, of course; people have good parts and bad parts. I was talking about contradictory messages. Does Hitler care about human lives or children? In one context, you might say yes; in another you might say no. Hitler himself would say yes and tried to construct an image of what he wanted the world to see or know (he did the exact same thing at the concentration camp at Theresien in which he invited the world to see what was going on, showing himself as a really great guy). So I was (poorly) pointing to the fact that the truth of us is not in the constructed image of ourselves (which does involve actions in order to construct the image) but in actions outside of the construct.

I was focusing on the tensions between differing words and deeds. Are you the deeds or the words? Instead of being able to believe one thing (I’m a loving human being; look at how I treat children in this magazine article about me or when visitors came to one of the concentration camps) and do another (killing people), I was simply talking about what you do not being separate from what you believe but being the very thing you believe (the truth lying in your actions).

The last response to the last update was related to the section “Learn from Immigrants.” My good friend Sophia, one of the Peace Corps Volunteers that I have learned the most from, is pursuing a PhD in sociology/social anthropology/political ecology/human geography or something like that (very interdisciplinary work she’s doing). She passed on an article to me about the crowning of a new Ashanti chief of New York. It’s a great example of immigrant customs persisting in new environments and countries. What struck me about the story is that I didn’t know any sub-Saharan African chief-based tribes installed chiefs over areas in other countries, like New York. It fascinated me. Like the Ashanti mentioned in the article, my Nigerian state and my Nigerian “county” (collection of villages) also have cultural and fund-raising non-profit organisations in the U.S. But we don’t install chiefs, so it was very interesting to see the extent that some traditions continue and survive and actually aid the survival of a people. And like the Ashanti cultural group, my cultural groups also struggle to pass the baton to the next generation who generally tend to be less interested in such organisations than their parents. Due to a recent trip to Italy, I wondered if Italian immigrants experienced the same things in other parts of the world.


So I went on a trip to Italy and met with Bianca there. Some missionaries she knew in Rome hosted us. It was a pretty nice trip, and I could write for days on it. Instead I’ll give you a link to a blog on Italy that sums up our trip. I left for the trip on my birthday. So it was a nice present of sorts. I never imagined or thought of going to Italy, honestly. Most of my trips or travels are service-style trips to developing countries. The funny thing about Italy is that it’s considered a developed country but it has a kind of developing country feel or even a very small-country feel.

Traffic lanes are a suggestion and you can drive however you want.
Three cars can meet an cobblestone intersection with no lights or stop signs and the people will stick their heads out of the window and argue about who show move or back down. The entire walking population in the area stops and watches. This actually happened while I was in Rome.
People in Italy will yell, scream, argue, beg, and plead with customer service representatives when the service is poor or when they have been wronged in someway (complete opposite of the UK). People speak with their hands a lot. A lot. It’s interesting.
There graffiti everywhere. Everywhere. It was hard to find a subway car or an aboveground train car that did not have graffiti on it.
There are lots of people hustling to give you a guided tour or hustling to give you a taxi ride.
And pickpockets are everywhere.

(If you watch Burn Notice, I’m about to do one of those Burn Notice-teaching moments) When you are being trained in certain industries, one thing you learn or know is that pickpockets use the art of distraction. For that reason, whenever I am bumped or there is pressure against me, I know I should be checking my pockets. The other technique I use a lot is to consciously “listen” for the feeling of my wallet against my leg. The brain receives millions of stimuli every second. The brain also uses a certain filtering mechanism, so you aren’t overwhelmed by an overload of information.

Even in the area of memory, sensory memory is the first level of memory, and nothing will be encoded into short-term memory unless something or someone calls your attention to something that you are sensing. If you stop and concentrate right now, you probably realise you can hear tons of things you didn’t realise you were hearing—the hum of the air conditioning unit, the rustle of leaves, the chirping of bids, the typing of the keyboard, some weird knocking sound in your pipes. So one technique I use is to tell my brain that the feeling of the wallet against my leg is important and I want to keep feeling it, focusing on it. This allows me to notice more quickly when it is gone or being moved.

Well, I’ve never been pick-pocketed so I’ve never had to worry about it if works, but in Rome, pick-pockets are everywhere, and on this particular day I was wearing cargo-shorts (khaki, short trousers/pants with the extra side pockets).a guy with a tight-fitting t-shirt, almost-bald head, large sunglasses, and dark blue new looking-jeans above white sneakers/trainers/tennis shoes was staring at me intently as I stood near the exit door of the bus. I believe this gave him a nice opportunity since he would have a reason to stand near the exit bus. So he came over and stood as if waiting to exit and he pushed against me. Now his push wasn’t unnatural. It felt like it was just a crowded spot; though you could always ask “Why didn’t he stand further away and wait until the bus came to a stop and then go towards the door?” That’s true, too. Anyway, when he was pushing against me, something told me “that’s pressure” so I just lightly put my hands over the opening of the right side pocket with my wallet and passport. I did not turn around and acknowledge anything as I was facing the left side of the bus talking to Bianca who was seated. He did also did not turn around and acknowledge anything as he was facing the right side of the bus with the exit door and carrying a jacket which he was using for covering. As soon as I put my hand to my side pocket, I felt his fingers trying to slowly and smoothly reach into my pocket. I remained calm and closed the pocket saying nothing. The bus stopped and he got off. It shook me, though; it really shook me. I was supposed to move closer to the front to the driver could tell me when my stop was but I missed the opportunity because I was still processing what happened. Bianca thought I was crazy just standing there. Then the next stop came and the driver was calling out and I was still in a daze, and then we realized this was our stop and we got off to go visit one of the ancient Roman catacombs that harboured Christians running from Roman persecution.

Usually, when in another country, the first thing I subconsciously try to do when talking to someone for information is find out which language to use. Which of us speaks the other person’s language better. However this was hard to do in Italy because no one admitted to speaking English well or even a fare amount of English. The answer to “Do you speak English” was always “no” or “a little bit.” So then you speak Italian to the person and she answers back in English. If you speak English, he answers back with better English than you. I’ve realized that they must have a high standard for speaking a language since no one speaks English. And then there were tourist places where people actually didn’t speak any English. So you had to speak Italian. I couldn’t believe it when one day, two women asked me to be an interpreter or intermediary between them and the bus driver because he didn’t speak English. It’s funny because I don’t really speak Italian but I know more Italian than the driver who didn’t speak any English. And it actually worked, I could get the point across. At one point the woman wanted me to ask what time we would arrive at her stop. I asked him but his answer didn’t make sense to me. The only thing I could think was to tell my brain to think. So that’s what I did. Slowly but surely, my brain began to register that he said something like 10:30 PM in a long drawn-out way. Thank goodness for similarities between Latin-based languages. The sad part about that day was that we were trying to catch a train into Tuscany to a town called Sienna (where the colour Burnt Sienna comes from). The train station announced that the train was canceled (all in Italian). Later we found out that a bus would come and take us to our stops. Then it turns out that a train did come, but because we were outside waiting for the bus, we had to run back in and try to catch it, but it left before we got to it in time. No apology from the train staff. We wait longer for the bus, and two of our group (two Italian women) get a ride from someone driving to Florence (Sienna is on the way to Florence). So the rest of the group is left. The train station staff do not seem to know when a bus is coming, or at times, if a bus is coming. We’re all a bit distressed because there are no more trains to our destination. Finally a bus arrives, and it takes probably 45 minutes to an hour to leave because the bus driver refuses to take 3 women and one child to Florence where the train was ultimately going. Whoever had called the bus didn’t give the bus orders to take all the people who were waiting for the train to all the stops the train was going to go. So the women were visibly and aurally upset, crying, yelling, screaming. The train station staff had all left by this time and there was no service even though there were still trains coming in and out of the station. Finally the bus driver called a bus company colleague to come down and explain to the women that the bus would not go to Florence; this was completely unfair. They finally got off the bus (they had refused before) crying and standing at the station as we left. I don’t know what happened to them, but I should have done something better to explain we would have paid for the bus to go to Florence if that was the issue especially since the train station promised we would all be taken to our destinations by bus.

My favourite part of the trip was spent in a group of five towns in the northwest Mediterranean coast of Italy. The towns are called Cinque Terre and each of the towns sits on a cliff overlooking the water. The towns range in size from 200 like the town we stayed in and 500 residents for the bigger more touristy towns and they are located in the Italian Riviera area, not as glitzy as the French Riviera but still quite beautiful. I loved these towns. It felt good to feel like a local and see the people and greet them each morning and night. The hiking was brilliant in these parts and the swimming, though quite cold, was a good way to cool down. Instead of sand beaches, though, they are mostly rock beaches. But I still enjoyed myself as I had not yet experienced summer in London. So this was a welcome vacation and warm respite from the cool, cool London. The weather made me wonder how the art would compare between the UK and Italy.
Locks hung by lovers, an Italian tradition


The Coloseum at Night

The Coloseum during the day

View looking down from the top of St. Peter's Basilica

View from my Sienna window

View at night from walk near my Sienna window

The art in Italy is another level. Even in one city like Florence, the heart of the Renaissance, it is like taking multiple world-class art galleries like the British Museum or the New York Metropolitan Museum and putting them in one city. Granted, some of these museums are smaller than the giant London museums, but it’s staggering to see the level of curating and the worth of the pieces, and in so many museums! In Italy, the museums themselves are art pieces. Ornate art pieces hang in ornately designed buildings that are architecturally beautiful and fading with artistically pleasing interiors. It is common to find artwork on the ceilings or upper rims of the wall of museums so that some museums (like the Uffizi in Florence) give you plagues to describe all that you might miss above you.

Even the Vatican was a big museum. I thought they allow you to go to the Vatican and see the offices and library. They didn’t. Or maybe they do, and I didn’t understand how to access it. Instead I saw the Vatican museum that did include former offices and housing of the popes. And yes, it includes the Sistine Chapel with Michaelangelo’s famous ceiling painting including the “Finger of God.” I thought it might be over-hyped, but it was very impressive. I wish we could have gotten closer to the ceiling but it was still impressive just looking up. Michaelangelo was commissioned to paint this ceiling by Pope Julius II who had promised a commission of 40 statues for his tomb and Michaelangelo thought that Pope Julius II might finally stop stalling if he did this. What is amazing about it that Michaelangelo considered himself a sculptor and preferred working with stone rather than paint. Michaelangelo had to learn the difficult and masterful technique of buon fresco in order to do the ceiling. On top of that, he had to learn perspective techniques that would allow him to paint on curved surfaces and still have the figures look correct from 60 feet below. All in all, I was quite amazed. With over 5,000 feet of frescos, it took over 4 years. Though it should have taken less (there were some initial mistakes learning the new techniques but the bulk of lost time was due to Pope Julius II being ill near death or out waging war) it is a marvel to look at visually and historically.

The art pieces in Italy are a bit like that. There is the piece, but then there is the history behind the piece, the work and sweat that comes through the piece, and the beauty embedded deep within the piece. Sometimes you can visit a piece, like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and you say to yourself “Is that it? Is this what all the hype is about?” It’s small and not particularly conspicuous. I think it may be more famous because of the question over the identity of the model. However, there are critics who say it has to do with the ambiguity of the expression, the forms, its monumentality, and the atmospheric illusionism. However when you are in Florence and go to see Michaelangelo’s David, it’s staggering, I mean really. Yes, anatomically, it’s pretty good (though Michaelangelo is criticized for being over-muscly at times, it’s common for artists to sacrifice anatomy and nature for art), but the sheer size of it is overwhelming. You can see intricacies like veins. I can talk about the fusion of Greek art with Renaissance sensibilities but I won’t; it’s just nice to admire. As an engineer, what touched me the most was that the University of Bologna’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department had a machine set up and connected to the base of the statue from the back. They were studying and monitoring crack propagation through the statue. I thought that that was an amazing project for the engineers to involve themselves. I always remember people who studied crack propagation in my department. I never thought that some people would have the chance to apply it to the statue of David.

Most stunningly is that the city of Rome is a piece of art. Both Rome and Florence are set in the basin of seven hills. And as you walk the streets of Rome, all the buildings have the style of structure you associate with Spain like the Spanish tile roofs. You leisurely stroll on cobblestone paths through narrow passageways lit by a single lamp between burnt-Sienna brick walls with the smell of pesto and tomato sauce wafting in the air. You see a small restaurant with 3 tables in the street

and people taking in the lovely night air as they smile at you and stare. An accordion is playing in the street, and as you pass by you hear the accordionist say “Buona Sera” to which you say “Buona Sera.” As you walk past, the accordion music fades into the background as the rush of water grows in intensity and the narrow passageway opens into a beautiful piazza (think plaza or square) with a fountain in the middle in which water is gushing out of a beautiful statue of Triton and his mermaids. People mill about it making wishes, taking pictures, eating food. All around the square and fountain are open-air restaurants, music playing, and people watching

people. To one side you find an old, dark grey,
austere building with amazingly tall dark stone columns, still preserved, but with pieces missing and chunks of stone gone. The building is capped by dome with a hole in the center that takes in the last vestiges of dying light from a sunset that refuses to die quietly. You go inside and the light of the sunset shines through the whole in the top at a diagonal angle and rests on you as you survey the embellished, Renaissance-style architecture of the walls in near obscurity. You try to take photos but you can never quite capture what your eyes see, what your ears hear, what your skin feels . . . what your nose smells, what your taste buds crave, and what your tummy wants. Food.


The food here is an art form, I’m sure of it. I didn’t realise this but many people come here for culinary tourism like in the Eat, Pray, Love book. Some people come to just eat and eat and eat. Others come to learn how to cook. You can travel to Italy and take cooking classes learning a specific cuisine or style. And people make homemade pasta here like it’s nothing. I’ve never made pasta from scratch but it seems like it’s not an easy thing to do.

I spent some time in the province of Liguria in the Northwest coast of Italy. Liguria is known for being the birthplace of pesto. For that reason, the moment you arrive in Liguria the restaurants start serving pesto options like it is its own flavor. I am not used to that. I’m used to pizza with pesto, not pesto pizza. I’m used to a tomato based pasta with pesto not pesto pasta. But that is exactly what they had. You could have anything you want in a pesto flavour or sauce. It was very interesting.

I think what was most interesting about the food is that each city and town makes their food slightly differently. So I was on a mission to try pizza in each town we were in and compare it. It took me awhile but I finally became accustomed to the Italian-style pizza. I grew up liking pizza with more calories, the thicker American-style or even the thickest Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. So it took awhile to get used to it, but then it felt good. You would eat pizza and still feel hungry (is that good?) or light. But the main thing I saw everywhere was gelato.

Gelato seems like a national pastime in Italy. It’s what you do when there’s nothing to do, especially when it’s hot. And it is quite amazing. I’m not sure what it is exactly or how you make it, but it’s not like ice cream. I didn’t even have milk-based gelato, I only had sorbetto (or sorbet). Now, when you have sorbet outside of Italy, it takes like . . . like ice. In Italy, the sorbetto is like ice cream. I’m not sure how to describe, but I had to ask more than once “Are you sure there is no milk in this?” It was so creamy. I’ve never had creamy-tasting sorbet before but that’s how Italian sorbetto is. I loved it. Again, every town claims to have the best gelato. We found the best gelato in a small suburban shop in Rome.

So now, I understand why people actually go and study Italian cooking. I originally thought it was a bit narrow. How many ways can you cook or make pasta? But it’s quite rich and diverse and has the potential to be ridiculously tasty if done well. And, yes, we ate well.

SPARKS – Week 4

I’ve been mulling over the idea of running a citywide Sparks group in London. For those of you who don’t remember, Sparks is a fun project/program in which a group of people meet for 5 weeks and each person must decide take one positive risk in the next 7 days to make herself a better person or the world a better place. Each week, we meet and share how our Sparks went, and we share our plans for next week’s Sparks. Over the years, I have had a number of people who click very well with me allowing us to produce excellent events and projects. Andy is one of them. His job is Visual Storyteller (I think other work places would call him a videographer or video designer). I asked Andy if he would like to do a DC-London Sparks group using videoconferencing screens and rooms and pairing each person with a trans-Atlantic Sparks buddy during the week. Sadly, Andy was too busy but I may still start a Sparks group in London. I’m toying with the idea and trying to gather enough support to help run the event.

That’s when I remember that it’s not an event; it’s a group of people learning to take risks together. And it doesn’t have to be a big production, it can be something as simple as people coming together and learning what it means to be human in a community that encourages growth. So, as I’m writing, I’m rethinking my worries and may just do it. In the meantime, I realize I never finished sharing my risks from the last time I did Sparks.

In week one, we had an introduction to Sparks. In week two, I took a homeless man out to dinner and we talked and laughed and found moments where we escaped the identities of rich, housed man and poor, homeless men; we were just two guys talking about women. In week three, Mike (the guy I met in week two) encouraged me to contact and talk to my former wife since I wanted to be like Mike who harboured no ill-will at all for his wife cheating on him with his best friend and for leaving him afterward. So nothing like that was done to me, I contacted my former wife, though it was hard, and let her know I begrudge nothing and resent not. Since I wanted my Sparks to tell a story, I decided that in week 4, I would fulfill a request of my former wife.

She had a student of whom I am fond. I’ll call her Sarai. Sarai was one of the students who did an international summer service trip with me, and she is exactly the type of student you want: she over-fund-raised so she gave extra funds that she continued to raise to the accounts of other students; she came up with ideas for fund-raisers on her own; she worked hard overseas and never complained even when bitten or sick; she learned a basic amount of the language needed and tried to use it; she gave her all to ever task we asked. Sarai was the valedictorian of her school. And as with many innovative movements that become institutionalized, our school, YES, wanted her to be another shining example of success. So Sarai graduated and went off to study at a university on the east coast. However, when she arrived, that click, that moment when you begin to feel at home at university never happened. It never came for Sarai. Sarai pushed through; she knew YES was counting on her as well as her parents and teachers and friends. She joined social groups, she pushed herself into her studies, she met with a counselor there. All of her efforts didn’t change how she felt: she was unhappy. She was homesick. She missed her family, friends, and church, and she was not happy in this school. She didn’t really click with other students though she did have a few friends. I’m not sure if it was too much for her at once, the feeling of too much pressure, or because Sarai is a special girl and the university had few people that fit with her personality. I don’t know. I just knew she was unhappy. She finally made the very tough decision to withdraw and go back home.

Before she could call and tell her high school, her university had already called her high school. This was hard for her because she wanted to be the one to tell her high school. She had a scholarship from a joint program between her high school, YES, and her university. Now she would lose that money. And when she finally did talk to YES, the YES administration was . . . let’s say they were livid. At this really hard time for her, I think what she needed was care and acceptance. Instead what she felt was disdain, shock, slight contempt, and disappointment. I was confused when I heard about it. I thought, “Nooo, how could trained teachers and counselors and school administrators act that way and place the institution above the person. That’s silly.” But she even described going to a YES sports game and being ignored by a few teachers because of her decision to withdraw. It really was hard for her. I know. When I spoke to her on the phone, she cried and cried as she told me about it.

So I decided my Spark this week was to go and visit with her and take her out to breakfast and to show her nothing but love from a (former) YES teacher—me. I told her I promised to fly in to Texas whenever she wanted; we would pick a date and do that. That made her very happy. I did fly in but we were unable to meet due to schedules and missed phone calls, but we did talk on the phone. And it was really good for her, at least I think so. I just spent the entire phone call listening to her story, hearing her cry, and telling her who she is. She is an amazingly gifted and persistently good young woman, and I needed to remind her of that. I was so happy to hear that her family completely and unconditionally accepted her decision and took her back. And now she is enrolled at the University of Houston and doing well and happy. Even though we have talked a number of times since then, she still has the promise of being taken out to breakfast. I’m looking forward to it.