Friday, March 25, 2016


Seeking community here.  The fog of language.  The separations.  “Les associations sont très figés,” I offer the group of Baha’i organizers who try to enthuse me about their vision of service and community growth at Achene's house in Fontaine.
            This is offered in response to a statement about how it is difficult to interface with the French associations.
            I try to develop my own sense of what positive work is in the development of community.  I log onto networked social software platforms like Twitter and Facebook, creating casual connections with people spread geographically.  Many I knew from before and I feel closeness and kinship.  But what is the common ground of life now?  An illusion of community is created.  It is illusory because we don’t actually have shared responsibility; or not by default, at least.
            The Baha’i group impresses me with its effectiveness, but as always, I wonder about that which is not said.  Only successes are shown.  They seem to have such a confidence in their rightness of approach.  But that approach is not up for discussion.  The answers lie in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, their interpretations by Abdul Baha and translations by Shogi Effendi.  Why choose this body of writings to found a new society?  And why the reluctance to attempt to convince via the ideas and coherence and rightness of the vision?  Instead I see the flexibility of a group that wants to govern, and its principles will adjust to the circumstance.
            Wendall Berry writes about the value of community, and its role in protection of some human values.  He always insisted community be tied to a geographical particularity, a piece of land.  Only the ties and care for a particular piece of land is adeauate to create the shared identity and responsibility that fulfills the full sense of the word community.
            The Transcendental Meditation organization also seeks a new government, a new organization of world society, here based on the writings and person of the ellusive guru who called himself the Maharishi.  Here, the outreach is achieved by meditation and a highly unlikely link made to quantum field theory.
            But with TM, the inward turn is encouraged.  Indeed, through this turning inward, the benefits to society are assumed to flow.
            How do we form a local community when so many have origins elsewhere?  I look to my own family history, Jews dispersing from a misty Eastern Europe of my imagination.  Shtetls in Ukraine and Moldova, complex political background in the Lithuanian city of Vladislovov on the German-Russian border.  My step-mother’s Armenian relatives fleeing a hostile Turkey, marching through desserts to Lebanon and Syria.
            And now I’ve gone back across the Atlantic, following abstraction, mathematics and science, trying to settle in a mountain surrounded cuvette of Grenoble.  Does it do my own life justice to imagine there will be a complete stopping of this generational motion?  Will I integrate into an old community, adding my spice and flavor to the mix?
            The loose ties on the digital, social networks can drain meaning from attempts at coherent social organization.  But they also create new possibilities, hinting at new stabilities.

Monday, February 02, 2015

On moving beyond messes and swamps

I've often conceived of various topics that I pour huge energies into as 'messes'.  Perhaps a 'swamp' is another way of conceiving it.  It is slow moving, and one may sink and be lost if not careful.

I suppose everyone must have their messes and swamps in life.

If I have approached mine in a slightly more intelligent way than others might, perhaps it is in that I try to recognize what I am doing as early as possible.  When one knows that one is working on a mess, one doesn't have overly grand expectations to come out of the work with something clean and easilly presentable.

Lately I've felt a bit lost again, like I took on one too many messes and truly lost my way this time.

What are some of these messes?  Family history has been one for me, although I feel like this is less of a mess now than it used to be.

Non-linear dynamics in accelerator physics has been another one of these messes.  I also feel like this is less of a mess.

But in both the case of family history, and non-linear dynamics for accelerator physics, I feel a kind of disappointment.  I feel like now that I can see things a bit more clearly, what I see is not beautiful enough to have justified the amount of torment these topics caused me.

I suppose the issue is that in both cases there has been a kind of trauma hiding there that obscured the topic.  It made it look like the topic was about one thing, when that was really just a very small part of the topic.  In the case of non-linear dynamics, that topic was normal form theory.  In the case of my family history, it was the story of the Armenian genocicde.  Not that both these topics aren't important in their own right, but due to a story of trauma, they have magnified themselves out of proportion until they sat in conceptual and emotional territory that did not belong to them.

In some way, the life of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is still doing that for me.  He was someone who should not have been such a big man, but through self-aggrandizement, took up more space than he deserved.  Reading his writings and debating his legacy thus becomes a kind of mess that I continue to fall in.

It can be hard to give up on something when one realizes that it isn't as great as one initially thought.  One is left with a lot of disappointment and with the job of seeing that one has a lot less than one thought.

Monday, September 29, 2014

History through family history

I continue with the story of my granparents, Dorothy and Acatius, following through my grandfather's finishing his medical thesis at the University of Geneva in 1933 and then moving to New York.  My father was born in 1938 in Astoria.  Several years later, they moved to Los Angeles, living in Los Feliz, near Hollywood.  We then get into more familiar territory, where I have heard a few stories from my dad about his childhood.  This puts him pre-baby boomer.  I know from some of his poems some of the stories as well.  And I know some of his friends that shared this time with him.

I write out of a need to fill in gaps.  I uncover a fact with a date and I polish it and use it to illuminate its surroundings and act as a tack on which to pin a quilt that creates a fabric that holds.
Today I add a tack for Los Angeles, 1950.  Now I just to fill in the time between then and 2014.
Or perhaps it will be 2020 before this happens.

LA, 1950 is a satisfying tack to place.  It includes my mother who was also living in LA at that time, born in 1943.

The gap includes the civil rights movement (1954-68).  It includes the 60's and the Vietnam War and the hippie movement that developed to some extent in opposition to the war.  There was also the Diggers of 1968 in San Francisco. And I suppose this is the time I was really born out of.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The story of my paternal grandparents

I continue trying to put together pieces of family history.  On my father's side, I try to understand his parents, how they met, and something of the history.  I have three years of letters written between my grandparents, written mostly in French.  I have been trying to learn what I can from these letters.

My father's mother Dorothy was born in 1907 in New York.  Her father was the journalist, diplomat, and Jewish activist Herman Bernstein who imigrated to America around 1895, originally from current day Lithuania.  In 1929, Dorothy and her sister Violette took a trip abroad to France to study French  at the Institut de Touraine in Tours.  There, Dorothy met a Hungarian medical student, Akos Nasch.  They started a relationship, but several months later, Dorothy and Violette moved to Grenoble to continue studying French, and Akos remained in Tours.

Dorothy and Akos continued to write letters to each other even after Dorothy returned to the US- to New York and to Sheffield, Massechussetts.  Later, in 1930, Dorothy returned to Europe again, and met Akos in Oradea and they were married in September.  A second wedding was performed a month later in Tirana, Albania, where Herman was the US embassador under King Zog.

Akos had some trouble with medical school in France, and continued on in Geneva.  Dorothy lived with him sometimes in Geneva, and sometimes with her parents in Tirana.  In 1933, Akos finished his medical school (his thesis title was "Ostéomyélite des Adolescents: Considérations à propos de deux cas d'ostéomyélite du radius", and a Google book reference is here.)  After completing the thesis, Akos moved to New York to meet Dorothy who was already living there.  He worked at the Beth Israel hospital, Dorothy's father having helped get him the post.

My father was born in Astoria in 1938.  There are certainly many more details to tell, but some of it is still murky to me.  I would like to understand more about Akos' Hungarian family.  It is complicated by the fact that where they lived switched between Hungarian to Romanian territory following the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. I understand that Akos' father was a prisoner of war by the Russians during WWI.  Surviving this experience, he vowed to become a devout Jew.  I still have relatives today in Oradea.  Akos and Dorothy were able to help many of Akos' relatives imigrate to the US before WWII, but still many were sent to die in the concentration camps.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

trip to midwest US

In the Spring, 2014, I will go to visit my mom and step-dad in Iowa. They live in Fairfield at the Maharishi University of Management. I've gotten used to the idea that they will live there the rest of their lives, so yearly visits will be a part of my life.  Its a distance of 6,500 miles from Grenoble to Iowa and is a 7 hours time difference.

What do I do around there? Fairfield has around 10,000 people, many, but not all are part of the Transcendental meditation organization. Some nearby towns include Mt. Pleasant and Ottumwa. Lake Darling State park is nearby. Its not far from the Mississippi river. I can visit Hannibal Missouri, and the house of Mark Twain, or Bentonsport. Near Hannibal is the Meredosia Wildlife refuge.  I could visit the Meskwaki Settlement of native Americans not so far away. They lived along the Saint Lawrence river. They were allowed to purchase land in 1851. They are similar to the Sac and Fox nation centered in Shawnee Oklahoma.

Some larger cities in Iowa are Iowa City and Dubuque.  Dubuque is along the Mississippi.  The University of Iowa is in Iowa City.

I can fly to Chicago OHare airport, and spend some time in Chicago. I can visit the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. There's good deep dish pizza in Chicago.   Fairfield is 231 miles from Chicago.

Regarding TM itself, I try to appreciate it as a religion. I've been reading the book by Lola Williamson about TM as a Hindu inspired Meditation Movement. I appreciate seeing it as a part of a larger whole, within religious development. She emphasizes how Hindu elements have been combined with American elements, such as the American idea of freedom of religion, and combining some of Emerson's transcendentalism. She also suggests that Maharishi may have engaged secretly in Tantric practices which he may have partially learned from Shankaracharya Saraswati.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

What is data? A few reflections

I recently finished reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.  It tells the stories of the woman behind the HeLa cell line.  The cells coming from Lacks’ cervical cancer take on a life of their own after her death.  Henrietta, the woman, dies, and HeLa, the cell-line is born.

As Skloot tracks down Henrietta’s family and tries to uncover the personal stories of the past and present, one feels that the human side of Henrietta is given some life again.  A poignant scene occurs when Skloot accompanies Henrietta’s daughter Deborah and son Zakariyya to a cell biology laboratory at Johns Hopkins, and is given a glimpse of her mother’s still living cells:  (p. 265-266)

Deborah and Zakariyya stared at the screen like they’d gone into a trance, mouths open, cheeks sagging.  It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.

After a long silence, Zakariyya spoke.

"If those our mother’s cells," he said, "how come they ain’t black even though she was black?" "Under a microscope, cells don’t have a color," Christoph told him. "They all look the same—they’re just clear until we put color on them with a dye.  You can’t tell what color a person is from their cells."  He motioned for Zakariyya to come closer.  "Would you like to look at them through the microscope?  They look better there."

Christoph taught Deborah and Zakariyya how to use the microscope, saying, “Look through like this…take your glasses off…now turn this knob to focus.”  Finally the cells popped into view for Deborah.  And through that microscope, for that moment, all she could see was an ocean of her mother’s cells, stained an ethereal fluorescent green.

"They’re beautiful,” she whispered, then went back to staring at the slide in silence.  Eventually, without looking away from the cells, she said, “God, I never though I’d see my mother under a microscope— I never dreamed this day would ever come.”
This book got me thinking about the question of the relationship between science and people.   What does it mean to look at something in a scientific way?  Is it necessarily dehumanizing?  I think an important element in looking at this question surrounds the topic of “data”.  What is data?

I’m used to thinking of data in the context of my life as a scientist.  Data is the result of a measurement.  Data are attached to well defined scientific constructs such as temperature, pressure, lengths, times, densities, etc.  In the narrow context of my own field of electron beam dynamics, a measurement typically involves the beam current, its time dependence, the size and shape of this electron bunch distribution, the spectrum of x-rays emitted, etc.  Using measuring devices, we determine the values of these different quantities.  The results are considered data, sometimes good, sometimes not so good.

I find the question of what is data to be relatively straight forward and uncontroversial in this context.  But when I consider data in a broader context it seems as though its meaning is both less clear, and more important to clarify.  Consider experiments done on the HeLa cells, on Henrietta’s cells.  One may think in a concrete scientific context about these cells.  How big are they? What is the genomic structure?  How frequently do they replicate? etc.  These questions may be thought to produce data.  But what sets the facts about the answers to these questions apart from the many other facts about the living or dead body of this woman, Henrietta Lacks?  Is it being couched in scientific terms that turns a fact into data?

I had a realization about this question yesterday as I was reading through some letters I have which date from 1929 and are written between my grandparents on my father’s side.  My grandfather, Acatius, or Akos, was born in Poklostelek, Hungary in 1908, and in 1929 was attending medical school in Tours, France.  My grandmother, Dorothy was born in New York in 1907, and in 1929 was also in Tours, France with her sister Violet studying French.  These letters give a window into the beginning of their relationship at this time.

I realized that because I know so little about the facts of my grandparents lives, that I was thinking about these letters in terms of data.  Each letter could provide some clue that would allow me to test hypotheses about who my grandparents were.  I was building an inner model, and I could check it for consistency as I read more letters.  Was my grandfather a thoughtful person?  Was he kind?  How did he see the world?  I realized that it is in the framework of asking these questions that I can view the letters my grandparents wrote to each other as data.   Without the associated imaginative task, the letters are not data.  I turned them into data by my asking specific questions about them.

This reminds me of this fascinating post on The Frailest Thing entitled “From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance” in which Sacasas reflects on the meaning of increased use of recording technologies and on Barthes’ veneration of a single photograph of his mother.  From a perspective of data, we can mainly look on the lack of more photographs as a tragedy.  There’s just not enough data for Barthes to build a proper model of his mother.  But once stated, we realize the potential absurdity of this.  Barthes knew his mother.  He was not trying to uncover something unknown in the process of viewing this photograph.  The relationship was not one of a scientist to data, but one of a son towards his mother.  

Reading Skloot’s narrative of Henrietta Lacks, and about how so much was learned about cell biology, we see that Lacks herself, and her surviving family gained very little directly from this work.  We might say that Lacks’ cells became data.  And they became data precisely because someone was asking certain kinds of questions about them.  In particular, people were trying to understand cell biology, and the HeLa cells provided much data for associated questions and modeling.  We might compare this to today’s so-called “big-data explosion”.   There is a sense in which there is newly created data due to people’s increased use of digital communications which may be perhaps quantified more easily than analog communications.  But I don’t think its the quantification that makes it data.  Yes, we talk in general about data on a hard drive.  But we might also talk about files on a hard drive, or images on a hard drive, or to go in the other direction, we could talk about magnetic domains and regions of varying polarity.  It is only if someone asks questions and tries to build a model that we might consider the scattered computer files, and records of typed comments on social media, and voice recordings through skype and cell phones to be data.

This perspective then allows some push-back in the privacy debate when we are told that we create “data traces” whatever we do.  We can respond by asking about the sense in which the traces are really data.  What are questions being asked?  What are the interpretive models being built?  And from the history of scientific experimentation, we can understand that there ought to be some limitations and framework in place regarding the transformation of elements of our lives into data.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


I'm looking through my photos, and trying to figure out what to do with them; how I might organize them, and how I might create and find meaning in them.

One set of pictures I'm interested in are the pictures related to my Jewish heritage which was mainly transmitted via my grandparents on my mom's side, and the traditions we celebrated at my dad's house, such as Christmas.  Here is a photo of two photos- the lower one of myself and my older brother during Christmas time at my Dad's house, the upper one of the celebration of my older brother's Bar Mitzvah, with my Grandfather placing the tallis around his shoulders.
In neither case did the tradition itself seem particularly important.  Although we had other Jewish friends, and went to Hebrew school, I don't think any of my brothers ever identified all that strongly with the religion of Judaism.  We were cultural Jews.  The traditions were important to my Mom's parents, and we loved our grandparents.  Being a Jew was mainly associated with our visits to Los Angeles to see our Grandparents on Passover and Hanukkah, and our Bar Mitzvahs in which our Grandparents came to Santa Cruz to visit us.  There were many family members related to my Grandparents, and also my aunt and uncle and cousins on my Mom's side.

For holidays at my Dad's house, we were with our step-brother and sister, and sometimes my step-mother's family as well.  We didn't often see many of my dad's family members such as his brother or cousins.  But Christmas was a fun time with a tree, presents, and good food.

As I start to think about what kinds of traditions I want to develop and continue in my life, I look back to my experience and try to draw together the elements that I appreciated regarding family, culture and religion.  I suppose this will be a long path, and indeed, I've been on it for awhile.  But I continue to walk along it, and putting these pictures together and forming a kind of larger picture that feels healthy and whole is part of this process.

In addition to a tradition being something fun and somewhat consistent from year to year, I think traditions ought to have some kind of meaning.  They should be thought of in a larger context than just the present.  In considering carrying on Jewish traditions, I can draw from my history on my mom's and my dad's side.  Regarding my Dad's side, this is a description of the history and background of my great-great grandfather David Bernstein, written by Hillel Bernstein, my great-grandfather's brother.
My father David was an Eshkenazi, a descendant of the mass of Jews emigrating eastward from Germany, in the 13th century after persecutions there.  These settled in places like Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Rumania (that is, what later became Rumania), Russia.  The majority went to Poland and Russia.  Eshkenazi, as I remember, was the Hebrew word for Germany.  The other great migration was from Spain two centuries later, and these were the Sephardic Jews, most of whom headed south towards the Mediterranean countries, the Levant, etc., and the first Jewish settlers in New York, in 1654, were Sephardic Jews who came from one of their great stopping places after Spain -- Holland.  In the 17th Century my father's forebearers were in East Prussia, in the capital city of Koenigsbert.  That was, of course, before the Prussians took it over in the Partitions of Poland, and it previously had a Polish name which I don't remember.  Anyway, his people had moved from there and my father was born in a town which was on the German-Russian border, both sides of which had originally been Polish, but had been annexed, one side by Germany or Prussia, the other side by Russia.
Within this complex history together with the stories of immigration from my Mom's family, also Jews from Eastern Europe, I can seek some commonality.  We weave a thread ourselves, certainly.  It is not always obviously sitting there to be found.  But one must at least have the material and the context before a solid thread can indeed be woven.