Namskaket Creek

On the day after Christmas Stephen and I decided to venture out. Seeing no snow, we did the best we could by a short canoe trip on Namskaket Creek in Brewster.

To get to the creek, we made a short portage on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Another option would have been to launch in the bay at Skaket or Crosby Lane beach.

The whole journey, including a PB&J lunch, took only four hours, with about half of that paddling. It was still a bit of an adventure, since it wasn’t easy to find our way through the salt marsh and occasionally we had to fight the wind. But the weather was perfect and the birds were joyous. The mix of forest, marsh, beach, briny water and ocean was unbeatable.

Can anything be done?

Earthquake response in Nepal

Earthquake response in Nepal

When we think about problems such as intolerance, economic justice, or climate change, should we focus on the local or the global? the short-term or the long-term? the social or the technical? Questions such as these recur in ways that often lead to discouragement, including the feeling that nothing can be done on any problem at any level.

Naomi Klein discussed this in last June’s College of the Atlantic commencement address, Climate Change Is a Crisis We Can Only Solve Together. She writes, “the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts.” There must be “a large, organized, and focused movement.” And yet, she goes on to say, local activism is critical: It’s winning big fights, showing us what the future looks and feels like, and inspiring bigger examples. In short, we need both.

What Klein says makes a lot of sense. But it’s often hard to find examples that bridge between the local and the global, the immediate need and the needed long-term change, or between social and organizational work and technological fixes.

Open air mapping, when buildings were unsafe

Open air mapping, when buildings were unsafe

Yesterday at MIT, Nama Budhathoki gave an inspiring talk on the work of Kathmandu Living Labs. It was titled: Nepal’s Digital Innovation for Social Good: Looking Back to the April Earthquake. His project offers such an example.

KLL uses online mapping to address a wide variety of social challenges. This can be seen most dramatically in the timeline of KLL’s response to the April 25 earthquake in Nepal. For an excellent summary of their work, see Naomi Bloch’s article GIS & the Global Community: Humanitarian Mapping.

Through KLL, a farmer in a remote Nepalese village can integrate his local knowledge of a field or stream with that of an engineer at MIT. People in Nepal, despite their own challenges, can become among the largest contributors to relief efforts following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Detailed information about a school can be used to influence government policies and actions. This connecting across levels or communities is something many people talk about but few have shown how to achieve.

There are many reasons for KLL’s success, including the dedication of Nama and his team. But what also seems clear is that KLL offers remarkable models for how people can work together to achieve common good.

Elogio de la Sombra

The Friends of wellfleet Library presented another in its Favorite Poems series yesterday, with Mort Inger ably hosting.

My own contribution was from one of my favorite writers, Jorge Luis Borges. Suzanne Jill Levine calls him “the most important writer of the 20th Century,” an assertion supported by Jane Ciabattari in a BBC article last year.

I became fascinated with Borges when I was in high school, the time that his first book-length publications began to appear in English (Ficciones and Labyrinths). His works wandered across a labyrinth of genres, including romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, metafiction, philosophy, literature, and language. His interest in time challenged my own dissertation work on time and formal logic.

I like other musings of Borges on philosophical issues, including this:

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Borges was also a translator of English, French, German, Old English, and Old Norse into Spanish. He translated Oscar Wilde’s story “The Happy Prince” at the age of nine. And his ideas about translation are even more relevant today. He saw language as a creative force that shaped us as much as we it. I think that he’d want me to learn better Spanish, but would also support the fact that nearly all my reading of his work is in translation. I know at least one Borges.

His work on time and language come together in his ideas about literary precursors:

the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other….if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist….The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors.

Despite being acknowledged by many as an outstanding, even the (or one of the) most important writers of the last century, Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize. He writes:

Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me.

In 1955, after Peron was deposed, he became Director of the National Library of Argentina. Soon thereafter he became blind. He focused on poetry, since he could memorize an entire work and keep it in memory until he had perfected it.

No one should read self-pity or reproach
Into this statement of the majesty
Of God; who with such splendid irony,
Granted me books and night at one touch
Seven Nights, 1984

A decade or so later, when he was exactly my age now, Borges published a collection of poems, Elogio de la Sombra (In Praise of Darkness). Of the same name, the last poem in the book, is the one I read yesterday:

In Praise of Darkness (1969/1974)

Old age (the name that others give it) can be the time of our greatest bliss. The animal has died or almost died. The man and his spirit remain.
I live among vague, luminous shapes that are not darkness yet.
Buenos Aires,
whose edges disintegrated
into the endless plain,
has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro,
the nondescript streets of the Once,
and the rickety old houses
we still call the South.
In my life there were always too many things.
Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think; Time has been my Democritus.
This penumbra is slow and does not pain me;
it flows down a gentle slope,
resembling eternity.
My friends have no faces,
women are what they were so many years ago,
these corners could be other corners,
there are no letters on the pages of books.
All this should frighten me,
but it is a sweetness, a return.
Of the generations of texts on earth
I will have read only a few-
the ones that I keep reading in my memory, reading and transforming.
From South, East, West, and North
the paths converge that have led me
to my secret center.
Those paths were echoes and footsteps,
women, men, death-throes, resurrections,
days and nights,
dreams and half-wakeful dreams,
every inmost moment of yesterday
and all the yesterdays of the world,
the Dane’s staunch sword and the Persian’s moon, the acts of the dead,
shared love, and words,
Emerson and snow, so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I will know who I am.

–Tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni

A conference in Taipei

The conference in Taipei a little over a week ago was really two-in-one. It combined “Museums in Everyday Life” with “Educational and Communication Technology Transforms the Future.” The museum part meant that we had tours of several local museums as part of the conference activities, rather than requiring one to skip sessions.

At the end, there was a wonderful dinner with Taiwanese specialities at Qingtian 76 (also see), a Japanese-styled building that had once been the residence for National Taiwan University professors and is now an excellent and charming restaurant.

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Reconnecting with students

There were many special aspects for me of a recent trip to Taiwan, including the countryside, Taipei, interesting conferences on museums in everyday life and technology in education, university visits, wonderful food, and museums.

Alex at Wistaria Tea House (紫藤廬; Zǐténg Lú)

Alex at Wistaria Tea House (紫藤廬; Zǐténg Lú)

Several of my students from Taiwan now live in the US, Canada, and other places, but many have returned to Taiwan to work and live. Reconnecting with them was a special treat, especially since some had to travel a long distance to meet.

Alex and Shihkuan introduced Susan and me to Taipei, including the Wistaria (or Wisteria) Tea House. This is a Japanese-style wooden house built in the 1920s, which is named for three wisteria vines planted in the front courtyard. The house served as a residence for the Governor-General of Taiwan under Japanese rule prior to 1945. It became a teahouse and was known as a venue for political dissidents during the 1980s. It continues as a meeting place for literati, artists, and academics and was used for the filming of Eat Drink Man Woman.

Shihkuan, Alex

Shihkuan, Alex

We had a wonderful lunch there and enjoyed a Gongfu cha (“making tea with effort”) ceremony. I proved to be the clumsiest at pouring tea properly.

In the evenings, I was fortunate to have dinners in excellent Taiwanese restaurants with many former doctoral students.

Shihkuan, Ruey-chuan, Yuangshan, Hsiu-Hsiang

Shihkuan, Ruey-chuan, Yuangshan, Hsiu-Hsiang

Yu-Hua, Min-Ling, Shihkuan, Yulan

Yu-Hua, Min-Ling, Shihkuan, Yulan

Yuangshan & family

Yuangshan & family

East Coast adventure

After the bustle of Taipei, Taiwan, it’s refreshing to explore the East Coast of Taiwan.

Coastal rock formations, gorges, waterfalls, mountains, and other natural wonders are interlaced with signs of still vibrant indigenous cultures. I saw Formosan rock macaques, boars, and countless birds and butterflies in the wild.

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My Dad

Bertram Camp Bruce

Bertram Camp Bruce

Today is the centennial of my father’s birth. He lived not much over half of that century, a period that has grown shorter in my eyes with each passing year.

Dad loved music in many forms–opera, chamber, symphonic, piano, vocal, jazz, Big Band, and more. Around 1950, he opened Bruce Piano Company. The store sold Steinways and provided pianos for performers visiting the Fort Worth Symphony and Opera.

We often argued during the years that were to be his last and my first as a nominal adult. There were the perennial favorites of politics and religion, but special features such as how I didn’t understand what it meant to grow up in the Great Depression, what was wrong with contemporary pop music, and how I would benefit from more direction in my life.

I’m stubborn like Dad was, so my views probably haven’t changed much since then. Still, I’d give a lot to have the briefest time with him again, even if it were an argument. I might even be able to listen better.

My Dad was a good husband, father, friend, and community member. At his funeral, our minister quoted Jesus, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth that which is good.”

On the whole, I have fond memories and few regrets. However, one big regret is that he knew his children only as teenagers, and never met any of his six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. I know that he would have been very proud of all of them, and that they would have richer lives knowing him.