An Open Letter to a Young Greek

October 11, 2015 1 comment

Theo & Orestes visitMy husband’s cousin Thodoris, his son Orestes, and their friend Vasilis drove down from New York to visit us for a couple of days.  Orestes and Vasilis are young men in search of career and meaning.  It was delightful to talk to them and show them around town, and since they left, I’ve been reflecting on their potential.  I thought I’d share some thoughts with them and experiment with the “open letter” form here.


Dear Oreste,
In our conversation yesterday, I was intrigued when you said you could be a motivational speaker.  There are two reasons to be intrigued: 1) I think it’s true, and 2) I think it’s exactly what Greece needs.  I understand your sense of hollowness–that you have the skill to connect with people but little substance to offer them.  In sales, you had a product to offer, and you could measure the extent to which it was taken up by your customers. Now that’s gone, and I know you worry about your lack of educational background. It’s as if you have skills but no field to plant them in. And charisma without grounding can be scary; it makes me think of demagogues. Fortunately, you have no inclination toward Golden Dawn or other nefarious causes. If your upbringing had given you a weaker character, you would be a leader in one of them by now.  So let’s all thank your mother, father, grandmother, and extended family for raising you well!

When I say Greece needs a motivational speaker, I don’t mean to suggest you’re the only one.  I do mean, though, that Greeks need motivation; they need an alternative to cynicism, corruption, and powerlessness.  I think you have an ability to change the conversation for people within your reach; you can uncover embers of hopefulness and creativity that are buried inside people.  If you blow on them, beautiful things could happen.

Your friend Vasili offers a wonderful complement to your skill set.  He has a well trained and inquisitive mind; he looks for underlying causes and patterns.  I think the idea of teaming up is a great one, and Detroit Soup might offer some inspiration.    I think it was founded just to try to get some attention on possibilities and new ideas.  It gives entrepreneurs and volunteers an audience and a little money, but most of all, it gets them together to listen to each other and focus on the positive.  You and Vasili would be great at that!  I can imagine you helping presenters speak with confidence, and you could rev up the audience to support them.  Vasili could help them think through the substance of their pitch (potential risks, rewards, etc.).  It’s not a career, necessarily, but perhaps it could lead to something.

I hadn’t thought of it before, but there’s a certain parallelism between the situation in Detroit and that in Greece.   Would you be interested in exploring Detroit and seeing if you could meet with the Soup leaders?  When you get to Niagara Falls, you’ll be just 4 hours away.

My Twitter feed this morning included a link to this article by Steven Johnson: The Hummingbird Effect: How New Ideas Surprise Us.  I recommend the whole article, but this part especially made me think of you and Vasili:

As the great James Burke wrote, in his book Connections:

“Change almost always comes as a surprise because things don’t happen in straight lines. Connections are made by accident. Second-guessing the result of an occurrence is difficult, because when people or things or ideas come together in new ways, the rules of arithmetic are changed so that one plus one suddenly makes three. This is the fundamental mechanism of innovation, and when it happens the result is always more than the sum of the parts.”

The political system in Greece doesn’t seem to be generating much hope (to put it mildly).  So maybe hope – and large scale change – will need to come from the bottom up.  Whether or not the Detroit Soup model is interesting, I encourage you to value your own skills, Oreste.   When you figure out where to apply them, they will serve you and the people around you well.

Categories: Uncategorized

Update on Greece

Our relatives in Greece seem to be breathing slightly easier.  Pakis’ brother George, the iconographer, went to Trikala to take measurements in a church that had commissioned him to do some work about 15 years ago.  They want him to give them a quote for some additional iconography.  It didn’t seem there was any point in making the drive (8 hours round trip) a few weeks ago, but now George is ready to submit his ideas and costs.  And Nikos, Pakis’ surgeon brother, seems to be getting on with work and life, too.  It’s a relief to be able to talk with them about ordinary life again.

On the other hand, the outlook is pretty terrible.  Joseph Stieglitz’s column “Greece, the Sacrificial Lamb” convincingly presents  the bleakest view I’ve read yet.  Or maybe it just gives more detail.  As one commenter on the article pointed out, detail has been sorely lacking in the news coverage of the Greece-EU deal.  Stieglitz discusses milk as an example commodity, and it happens to strike a chord with me.  When I lived in Athens in 1983, milk was generally purchased in pint-sized plastic bottles.  It wasn’t generally consumed by adults, but it tasted very good to an American who was used to having it on cereal and in coffee*.  Unrefrigerated boxed milk from The Netherlands, etc. became available in subsequent years as EU commerce took off.  My experience matches Stieglitz’s assertion that it had far less appeal than locally produced, fresh milk.  It would be a pity if Greek producers were put out of business without even a price reduction to consumers (which is what Stieglitz forecasts).

Prospective taxation is another topic he addresses.  I had heard about it from Pakis, who reads the Greek press, but I could hardly believe it.  Stieglitz says, “The troika is demanding that Greek firms, including mom and pop stores, pay all of their taxes ahead of time, at the beginning of the year, before they have earned it, before they even know what their income is going to be.”  It’s hard to imagine a provision that could be better designed to ruin small businesses.

Joanna Kakissis’s story from this morning resonates with me: “Covering Greece: When It’s Not Just a Story, It’s Personal.”

*I often tell students, in the context of teaching a particular set of vocabulary words, about an encounter with a shopkeeper around the corner from the apartment where I lived in Athens.  There was no fresh milk in the cooler, and I asked when he might get some.  “Ειvαι αγνοστο,” he shrugged, meaning it is agnostic, or unknown.   I had never heard that word in such a mundane context, so it stuck with me.  This is one of many examples of words that are routine in Greek but, brought into English, become scholarly and intimidating.

Categories: Uncategorized

Online Chinese

July 14, 2015 2 comments

Just a week into it, I’ve decided to drop the online Chinese course that I wrote about in this recent blog post.  The teacher speaks clearly and is reasonably engaging in the videos, but the course doesn’t meet my needs for instructional design.  It features lots of 4-8 minute videos that go over lists of words, but it’s not clear where and how to practice them.  Each part of the course is separate: videos, workbook pages, quizzes, etc. and the links between them aren’t clear. There’s also a pattern I find frustrating in the videos: the teacher says a word or phrase, then explains the parts and the tone.. and then she goes right on to the next.  I need to hear it again after the explanation, preferably a couple of times, to have a chance of retaining it.

With substantial effort, I could take the notes, rewind the videos, and create the links between instruction, practice, and evaluation.  That just seems a bit more effort than I want to put in.  Instead, I’m going to work on creating infographics in Canva and using Sketchnotes to enhance the visual element of my teaching and coaching.     A more limited, more immediately applicable topic.  If the outcome is adequate, I’ll share some of it here.

Categories: Education

The Roller Coaster Continues

roller coaster

Composite image by Alex Brogan. CC License 3.0

Our friends Marilyn Carter and Mark Emamian are watching the news of the Iran nuclear talks as closely as we’re watching news of the Greek economy.  There has been a weird kind of parallelism in the two sets of negotiations.  Marilyn’s latest Facebook post quotes a Washington Post article: “According to some reports from Tehran, virtually all business has halted as people wait anxiously to learn whether they will get sanctions relief in exchange for accepting restrictions and monitoring of the country’s nuclear program…”  Greece is in a similar state; everyone is holding their breath as they wait and watch the news.  Relatives sound subdued when we talk on the phone.

Late Friday, the Greek Parliament overwhelmingly approved the Syriza austerity plan (vote was 251-32).  That’s really surprising, given that the plan so closely resembles the one rejected in the referendum 5 days before.  This gave me the sense that Greece really didn’t want to exit the euro, and that the representatives could pull together and make a difficult, unpopular decision.   So, a strong turn by Greece back towards the euro; ball in EU court. And today the EU ministers met.  I had wondered if they’d be willing to give enough debt relief to make it possible for Greece to begin an emergence from the crisis.  But they didn’t even get to that question.  The leadership (German, Dutch, and Finnish) found Greece’s proposal inadequate and called for more details.  They focused on “problems of trust,” meaning they don’t believe the government will actually implement its own plan.  They will supposedly meet again tomorrow (Sunday), and in the evening the heads of government will meet. This feels like the end of the story to me.  Syriza more or less capitulated, and the finance ministers refused to take yes for an answer.  It’s not totally unreasonable to wonder if Greece will really implement its promises, but anyone who wanted an agreement, who wanted to defuse the crisis, would see that as an issue for another day.

It’s hard to see how the proposal could be amended and approved by the Greek parliament before the Sunday evening/Monday morning deadline.  And it’s hard to imagine Syriza being able to cede any more territory.  The EU may demand the transfer of properties for privatization to a fund based in Luxemburg; it may demand “monitors” inside the Greek treasury.  Pakis points out that they’ve had the latter for several years; has it helped?  One gets the feeling the Germans will demand the dismantling of the country as the price of inclusion.  None of this is definite for now, but here’s an account of Saturday’s unfolding events. Interestingly, today’s news includes a new possibility that Greece could sue Goldman Sachs for the estimated $500 million it made on shady transactions that enabled Greece to enter the euro in 2001:

“Under Ms Loudiadis’s guidance, Goldman swapped debt issued by Greece in dollars and yen for euros which were priced at a historical exchange rate that made the debt look smaller than it actually was. The swaps reportedly made about 2 per cent of Greece’s debt disappear from its national accounts.

“The size and structure of the deal enabled the bank to charge a far bigger fee than is usual in swap transactions…”

It has been widely reported that, for a good part of the last decade, Goldman was lending money to Greece and then betting that the loans would fail.  It kept selling drinks to the alcoholic, in other words, and laughed all the way to the bank.  I don’t know that Greece could net enough money from a lawsuit to make a difference.  Perhaps it would regain a few shreds of dignity; perhaps it would just call attention to its own failings.  There are ample reminders, though, that Greece didn’t get into this crisis on its own.

Categories: Greece

Ah, Greece…

Greek flagWe’re following the news intently, of course.  Pakis follows it in Greek and English, and every few days he talks to his brothers or cousins in Greece.  Everyone has been on tenterhooks for so long they can hardly remember when they used to be able to look ahead and do something like plan a summer vacation.

Members of the family had intense feelings on both sides of the referendum.  Like most in the country, those with something to lose voted “yes”; they want to stay in Europe above all.  Those with nothing much to lose voted “no.”  So if you think about the 60-40 split in the national results, you get a sense of how far so many people’s fortunes have fallen.

As I write this, Greece has submitted its “final” proposal for economic reform and debt restructuring.  According to the Wall Street Journal, it includes tax increases and pension cuts that are closer to the EU demands.  The package will go before the Greek parliament tomorrow; who knows if it can pass?  We know people who have done hard, agricultural work their whole lives and are being hit by austerity measures that seem like punishment for wrongs they never committed.  And we know people who have been milking the system and cheating wherever they could.  It’s hard to think that anyone “deserves” harsher austerity measures, though.

Greece is in a crisis equal to the deepest, darkest moments of the Great Depression, and it’s going to get worse.  Europe, led by Germany, seems intent on continuing to strangle its economy by continuing a grossly unsuccessful austerity policy.   Even the IMF now acknowledges that the debt cannot be repaid.  Greece can accept continued strangulation, perhaps–if a deal is reached on Sunday–or it can try to launch a new currency in the midst of a crisis.  Both options look dismal, but on different trajectories.  The EU offers a continued downward spiral; the drachma will result in a precipitous decline followed by who-knows-what.

Seth Godin’s blog post this morning was about a new book called Debt by David Graeber.  It puts this whole situation in a much broader perspective–and reinforces the sense that this crisis was totally avoidable.  The Europeans (and many Greeks) like to blame Tsipras for refusing to work with them, but there were no solutions generated by the two previous governments, either.  They just capitulated to sham “bailouts” that sent money from German and French governments through the Greek treasury and back to their own banks.  So now they’re “insulated” from a Greek meltdown.

As Paul Krugman points out, bad loans reflect irresponsibility on the part of both lenders and borrowers.  Germany, though, sees fault only on the Greek side.  It has seemingly forgotten the large scale, postwar debt forgiveness of which it was the beneficiary.  Ironically, Europe is making plans for humanitarian aid to Greece.  When starvation sets in, I suppose, they’ll rush in with aid and congratulate themselves.

Our friend Apostolos Dollas has read the Syriza proposal and sees some valuable reforms in it.  If the EU responds dramatically with debt forgiveness and a repayment plan calibrated to Greece’s ability to pay (making the debt sustainable), there could be some hope.  It’s hard to think that outcome is likely right now, but there’s always hope, right?

Categories: Greece

Signing up for an online course in Chinese

June 10, 2015 1 comment
Detail of Nine Dragon Screen, Datong, Shanxi, China. Photo by Doron. Creative Commons license 3.0.

Detail of Nine Dragon Screen, Datong, Shanxi, China. Photo by Doron. Creative Commons license 3.0.

Does anyone out there want to join me in taking a beginning Mandarin Chinese course this summer?  It’s a free EdX offering, it starts July 6, and it runs for 6 weeks.

Here’s my thinking about it:

Pictograms–I’m not artistic, nor am I a strong visual learner, so I approach pictograms with trepidation.  On the other hand, I think they’re fascinating and beautiful.

Tones–all those different meanings depending on how a word is said!  It sounds hard, but maybe an acquaintance with music and an auditory orientation will help.

Image by Creative Commons license.

Image by Creative Commons license.

Starting another language?  Yes, there’s a case to be made for going deeper into a language I’ve studied before.  But at Durham Academy right now, the main focus in exchanges and foreign partnerships is on China.  There will be a student trip to China next year, and it’s possible I’ll be a chaperone.

How can a 6 week course in a topic as vast as Chinese be meaningful?  Well, studying a language is one of the most profound learning experiences I know, so I think there’s general brain-training value.  And a little familiarity with the sound and structure of a language makes it easier to understand native speakers whose accent in English is heavy.  Plus any window onto Chinese culture and values is a good thing for an aspiring “global citizen.”

Methodology–as an online teacher in a very different environment (Global Online Academy), I’d like to learn more about how interaction is generated in MOOCs.  I’d also like to strengthen my foundation for advising clients enrolled in MOOCs as part of a Cloud to Ground Learning program.

And now a confession: I’ve signed up for many a MOOC but never completed one.  The closest I got was when my husband and I took one together for several weeks.  He finished it, but I got swamped with school work and dropped it. Time shouldn’t be as much of an issue this summer, but as a social learner, I’d love to have some company on this journey.  In writing about it, I’m also increasing the pressure on myself to follow through!

So what do you think?  Do you have reasons to take a beginner course in Mandarin Chinese?

Categories: Education

Portal to…

June 8, 2015 1 comment

Portal created by Shared Space. Photo courtesy of Amar Bakshi.

If you have 20 minutes to spare, how about talking with someone in Herat, Afghanistan?  Or Tehran? Or Havana?  Don’t use your phone or Skype; use a Portal–it puts you (virtually) in the same room with your conversation partner.  You can try it out in Washington, DC between now and June 21. This concept has really fired my imagination.  It’s the brainchild of “an arts, design, and technology collective” called Shared Studios, and it gives random people a chance to experience the humanity of “the other”–someone who lives on the other side of one of the world’s political-cultural divides. The vehicle is a gold-painted, video-and-internet-equipped shipping container that’s connected to an identical installation in another part of the world.  Entering it is a bit like going into a movie theater, but you have to do it alone.  In the dark, all you can see is your conversation partner–life size and seemingly present in the room with you.  There’s a question to start with: what would make today a great day for you?  You follow whatever track the the conversation takes, and 20 minutes later you emerge into your own world again.  Nothing is recorded unless you request it, though you’re invited to share a reflection about the experience. The Shared Studios website includes opportunities to host a portal (cost not specified) or build one for $5000-$10,000.  I’m picturing this as a way for Durham Academy students to kick off 9th grade World Literature and World Cultures courses; lower and middle school students would love it, too.  And it could be shared with other schools, museums, scout troops, etc.  Could we find a partner school/city on the other side? I’m really interested in pursuing this.  What do you think, dear readers?

Categories: Education