Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Computers and History

 One of my favorite bloggers is Maria Popova, who often guides me to overlooked books published in the past.  A recent blog post at "Brain Pickings" featured Alan Turing (6-23-1912 to 6-7-1954), who played such an important role in theoretical computer science.  Popova shared how, as a young boy, Turing was given The Children's Library, Natural Wonders, by Edwin Tenney Brewster.  In the book, Brewster had described how much of our body is constantly changing, using in his description an analogy of cells as living bricks.  The young Alan Turing was fascinated.

Turing grew up to become a leader in the development of artificial intelligence and is particularly known for his role during the Second World War working in Britain's codebreaking centre.  Charged with breaking the German naval cryptannalisis coded messages, he devised a number of techniques for breaking German cipers.  The work of his group, and particularly of Turing, may have shortened the war in Europe by more than 2 years and saved over 14 million lives.  His role in theoretical science represented a formalization of the concepts of algorithm and computation.

The coronavirus has forced many of us to expand how we use our computers, but movies have long ago been intrigued by the idea of artificial intelligence resulting in plots about a takeover of the world from we less intellectually equipped humans.  Turing must have given this subject some thought, for he raised questions of whether a computer would ever be able to "enjoy strawberries and cream, make someone fall in love with it, learn from experience, use words properly...?"

At the time Turing raised those questions, such possibilities may have seemed insurmountable, but today we know that computers can use words to ask and answer questions.  We know they can learn from experience and self correct.  Advances in self driving vehicles reflect the growing applications of data and algorithms.  We know, at least based on the amount of time most of us spend on our computers and smart phones, that we are certainly infatuated, if not in love, with the seemingly indispensable computers in our lives!  As for enjoying strawberries and cream, taste and smell have proved to be challenging for computers.  Sensors have been created to detect such things as salt, sugar, and bitterness, but the human use of both tongue and nose to achieve the sense of taste has yet to be replicated.  Scientists are working on an electronic tongue, but appreciating strawberries and cream is beyond today's computer.

Thinking about Turing and what he achieved, and then considering how much has changed since his death in 1954, led me to think about how surprisingly rapid change is. 

Isaac Werner and his neighbors came to the prairie and built dugout homes or structures cut from blocks of sod.  The only horsepower they possessed had four legs, and the books they read were viewed with candle or lamp light.  Yet, in only a few years they had homes of wood, powered farming equipment, and towns with street lights, multilevel brick businesses and street cars.

Each generation sees changes the generation before could not have imagined.  To better understand ourselves, it is important that we know the history that came before and shaped who we are.  Lacking that awareness, we will continue to change, but we may leave behind wisdom our ancestors could have shared.


Maria Popova concluded her "Brain Pickings" essay with these words: "The triumph of history is tracing the roots--ancient and alive--of our present condition in the world. The Triumph of self-understanding is tracing the roots of the formative influences that make us who we are, that shape the people who shape the world."

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Thrifty Dilema

I was raised to be thrifty. In past blogs I shared my father's habit of carefully using a letter opener, going around the entire envelope of letters he received, stacking the envelopes blank sides up, and stapling the stack. Those were our note pads for shopping lists and game score pads, and we had business envelope size and letter size options. My mother was also thrifty, never wasting leftover food or even the juice from the vegetables, and finding ways to recycle clothing into something new. My father and brother's slacks were just enough to make a straight skirt for me. I have inherited versions of their thriftiness. Because I quilt, it is very difficult for me to throw away fabric scraps. I do use those scraps in quilts, but I have enough fabric to make quilts into the next century!
When our mothers past away--now over a decade ago--they had boxes of unused greeting cards. Unlike today, when most of us go to the card rack to select a particular card for a particular recipient, a generation ago people bought boxes of cards--often an assortment for various occasions. Typically, they used all the birthday cards, with cards such as anniversary or congratulations unused. They would buy a new box of cards to get what they needed, and the unused cards would continue to accumulate. At our mothers' deaths, I inherited those accumulated cards. There is nothing wrong with them, except they do not look like todays' greeting cards. They are in like-new condition--except they look like they were new in the late 1900s. The messages are still appropriate. However, it is obvious that I did not go to town and select that particular card especially for the recipient. Here is my dilema: Is it an insult to send a card from decades ago that will be obvious to the person who receives it that it was not selected especially for them? What is a vintage classic vs. just something old? When does thrifty slip into cheap?!!!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Backgrounds in Virtual Interviews

My husband and I were watching CBS Sunday Morning, as we often do, and one of the guests was Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize Winner, biographer, historian, and political commentator.  As is typical in the coronavirus era, she was being interviewed from her home.  "Look at all of her books," I said, as usual trying to make out some of the titles on the book binders.  "Do you see 'Prairie Bachelor' on her library shelves?" my husband teased.  "Not yet!" I replied.

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Later in the show, 98 year old Norman Lear, television writer and producer, was being interviewed.  "You know, you could write a blog about the backgrounds people choose for their virtual interviews," my husband said.  Sure enough, Lear was seated in front of a book case, which also held an  Emmy award, as well as books.

Norman Lear

 I liked my husband's idea.  After all, when I was interviewed for the Fort Hays State University Alumni award last fall, I had carefully chosen the book cases in our dining room as my background.  

Lynda Beck Fenwick

I decided to conduct an experiment, so I went into the kitchen where I could still hear the tv to listen to Sunday Morning, and turned on our small tv to begin switching from channel to channel to take screen shots of whomever was being interviewed at that time.  The first thing I learned from my experiment was how much of our tv viewing time is consumed by commercials, for I was often detained, channel after channel, by commercials!

Peggy Noonan
On NBC's Meet the Press, Peggy Noonan, author, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and perhaps best known for having been the speech writer for President Ronald Reagan, was being interviewed.  A book case appears in the right side of the picture.  
Chris Christi

On ABC This Week I encountered my first fire place background when Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey from 2010 to 2018  and today political commentator and lobbyist, was being interviewed.

Laurie Barrett

Science and the coronavirus were the topics at MSNBC, where science journalist Laurie Garrett was being interviewed.  The crowded book case behind her contained books on many topics, but she is known for her science background and for having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her series on Ebola published in News Day.

Andy Puzder

On Fox Business the guest was Andy Puzder, former CEO of CKE Restaurants, and unsuccessful nominee for Secretary of Labor.  He appeared in a traditional executive's room, in which the edge of what appeared to be a fire place could be seen, and on the opposite wall, a painting.  

Jeff Van Drew


New Jersey Republican Congressman and dentist, Jeff Van Drew, was the guest on Fox News.  His setting included a fire place.

Erie Foner

At CNN the guest was Erie Foner, a History Professor at Columbia since 1982 and the author of many text books.  Behind him was a crowded book case.

My informal survey began about halfway through CBS Sunday Morning and ended before that program concluded.  Much of my time was taken waiting for commercials to end, even though I moved from channel to channel trying to avoid the delay of the commercials.  I was not selective about choosing the guests in this survey.  Whoever happened to be on the screen on each particular channel became the subject of my screen shots, with whatever background each of them had chosen.

Perhaps not everyone has found it as interesting as I have to observe the background choices of those being interviewed virtually from their homes.  I also enjoy seeing the art people have on their walls, only one example of which appeared in this impromptu survey.  It is also fun to see those who select kitchens for their backgrounds.

The occasional dog bark or the cat who springs into the camera frame add interest, and enthusiastic plant lovers sometimes display potted plants or cut flower displays in vases.  Flowers can be seen in both Noonan's and Christi's screen shots. Some of the settings in the background seem carefully staged, while others look as though not a single thought was given before inviting thousands of viewers into the person's home.

To be honest, when the coronavirus threats are banished and everyone returns to their studios, I am going to miss being invited into their homes.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Election Tragedies

 I have found it difficult to compose this week's blog post and I apologize for the late posting.  It has been a tragic time for our nation, but as many of the blog posts over the past decade have shown, there is often much to be learned by looking to the past.

Stairs inside the refurbished Kansas Capital, Photo:  Lyn Fenwick

In 1893 the populist candidate for governor, Lorenzo D. Lewelling, was sworn into office in the state capital of Topeka.  The People's Party gained the majority in the Kansas Senate as well.  It was in the Kansas House, however, where the outcome of the elections was in turmoil.

In my book, "Prairie Bachelor, The Story of a Kansas Homesteader and the Populist Movement," the description of events is told in Chapter 10, including the important role played by Representative William Campbell, Isaac Werner's friend and neighbor.

As other blogs have expressed, many Kansas homesteaders were Union veterans of the Civil War, and politically they voted Republican in respect for their old leader, Abraham Lincoln.  Consequently, Kansas politics was and remains primarily Republican.  The Democrats were occasionally successful in elections, but Republicans were accustomed to winning.  There was no dispute that the People's Party controlled the Governor's office and the Senate; however, in the House the results were challenged..

Undisputed, the Democrats held 2 seats, and the People's Party held 58 seats.  Disputed, however, were 18 certifications of the 65 seats the Republicans claimed.  Evidence of fraud had been collected to challenge those 18 certifications, and if fraud were found, the majority would shift to the Populists.  A Committee of Fifteen, with five Republicans, five Democrats, and five People's Party members, was assembled to consider the evidence.  Although five of their own members were included on the committee, the Republican leadership refused to acknowledge the authority of the Committee.

Both parties sent messages to the Governor and the Senate that they were ready to do the State's business, and the People's Party members were recognized.  The Republicans refused to accept that recognition.  Both parties elected Speakers and conducted business as if they were authorized.

After 31 days of this legislative standoff, matters erupted.  The governor's appeals to the Republicans were ignored, the militia commander sent to clear the hall refused the command of his superior, the Republicans used a sledgehammer to crash through the locked door of the chambers, unauthorized people were issued weapons by the Republicans, a new militia commander established a position outside the short, it was a dangerous situation.  The People's Party members finally agreed to allow the State Supreme Court to hear the matter, knowing the Court had a Republican majority which would probably result in a judgement for the Republicans.  It did.

The militia commander was court marshaled, according to military justice, and he was found guilty of refusing to carryout a direct order from his superior.  Two years later, when the Republicans were back in power, the verdict was set aside on political grounds, since it was undisputed that the order he refused had been lawful.  

United States Capital, west side

The greatness of our nation rests upon our magnificent constitution and our laws, state and national.  Not only must those we elect act in good faith under those laws, so must we as citizens.  Loyalty to party is part of the mechanism of government, but it must never be greater than respect for the laws that have knitted together our nation of diverse citizens.  In these times, we must hope that those to whom we have entrusted the protection of our nation act with wisdom and respect for the office they hold.