From the Viking Choir to the Masters of Harmony–Returning to the Choral Sea

A chance encounter at one of my recent networking groups leads to my rediscovery of choral music, and a sea of musical memories from my earlier life. This post is dedicated to the memory of Walter Rodby–who started it all.

I remember going to the audition with a sense of resignation.   I was determined to do my best, but I really didn’t have any expectation of making it.  It was the end of freshman year at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, and Walter Rodby was holding tryouts for members for the introductory Male Chorus to join the premier high school chorus, the Viking Choir.  Normally, you needed to be in the intermediate chorus called the Mixed Chorus first.   Only about a dozen slots would be open for those in the Male Chorus who were good enough to pass the audition and go straight to the top choir.

For the audition, we had to sing a passage from some recognizable tune to make sure we at least had the minimum vocal quality that he was looking for. But Mr. Rodby required more than just a pleasing voice. He was a stern taskmaster, and he required that those trying out for chorus to learn how to sight-read music so that the choir rehearsals were more about harmonizing with the other parts than pounding out your own.

It was my turn to enter the room.  Mr. Rodby sat with military bearing at the piano.   He asked me to sing the passage and I was a bit wobbly at first, like one of those fawns trying out its legs for the first time, but then ended literally on a more confident note.    Then he handed me a sheet of music.   Ah, the moment of truth!   I tried to sing my part off the sheet of music, and hoped my practicing had paid off.   I did okay on the first half, but then flubbed the end of the short passage, at the end of which Mr. Rodby politely said, “thank you very much” meaning “the audition is over.”

I don’t know what came over me, but rather than leaving I said, “Mr. Rodby, I know the audition is over, but I think I did the last part of that passage wrong and would like to do it over so that I can get it right,” with my voice showing a determination that came from somewhere deep inside of me.   I redid the passage, and this time, what do you know? I did it perfectly!   I thanked him for allowing me the opportunity to get it right.    “Oh well,” I thought as I left the room, “too bad I got it right AFTER the audition was already over.”  I put it out of mind, and prepared to join the middling Mixed Chorus the next year.

One week later, the lists of those who passed the audition were put on the wall…  All the boys crowded around, and there were many disappointed looks as they returned from scanning for their name.   To avoid the embarrassment, I milled around until most of them had cleared away.  There were a couple of boys who were high-fiving each other for having made it.   I finally decided to get it over with and looked at the list of baritones and at the very bottom was the name … Jerome Rowley.   I made it!   I honestly was more stunned than happy.

Later on, I think that Mr. Rodby passed me on the audition, not because of my non-existent technical brilliance, but because I was determined to get it right.  That extra quality of tenacity was what put me over the edge, I think, and is something that I have never, ever forgotten.

The Viking Choir made history in 1970 by being the first American high school choir to tour behind the Iron Curtain. A few years later when I joined the choir as a sophomore, we went on a tour of the Netherlands and Germany, with a short stopover in France. It was the first time that many in the choir had been to Europe, and I remembered it as a time of music … and magic, as we explored castles, sailed down the Rhine River and sang in cathedrals, and went to restaurants with our choir guides and were served that ambrosia called wine. It was that experience that made me determined that when I returned from Spring Break, I would start learning French and German in addition to the Spanish I was already studying.

The person who was responsible for my success was Walter Rodby, who instilled in me a sensitivity to musical phrasing, which I can only describe as having a musical passage grow and then die down like the blooming and dying of a flower rather than being strictly played according to the rhythm and dynamics as noted in the music. This musicality combined with the dedication and discipline that I had already had in embryo as a member of the Male Chorus caused me to have the wonderful sensation of having fun while working hard together with others as a member of the chorus.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago: I was in a circle of people in a networking group I regularly attend, when we were asked to name something memorable about ourselves.  A guy named Brad said he loved to sing, and was a member of a men’s chorus called the Masters of Harmony, and wanted to know if anybody else in the group sang. “I did,” I volunteered. Or I used to—it had been two decades since my last choral singing in college and graduate school.

He invited me to go to a rehearsal that the Masters of Harmony were putting on in preparation for the International Choral Championships to be held over the 4th of July. Something in me just decided to be adventurous and to try it. I went there on a Wednesday evening and everybody was very friendly and welcoming.   And then they went to the risers and I stood among them as they started to sing …

They were amazing!  I didn’t know until I went home and checked them out on the internet, but they are Southern California’s Premier Men’s Chorus, and were the 2011 International Chorus Champions.  This makes them ineligible according to contest rules to join the international contest again until 2014, but they are going to the international contest to literally give their swan song tribute to whichever chorus wins this year’s competition.    Here’s the link for those who want to take a look at what the chorus is all about:

I sang for three hours and all of the musical director Mark Hale’s comments about singing musically reminded me exactly of what Walter Rodby used to drum into my head for the three years I was a member of the high school chorus.   And the excitement of being part of a group of guys all trying to do their best was just … exhilarating.

When I was done with that one rehearsal, I knew I was hooked:   I knew that whatever it takes, I have to be part of this organization. That yammering little voice I’ve learned to hate over the years started saying, “hey, it’s been over two decades since you’ve sang.” But within me, something deeper, that determination I pulled from the depths of being that one audition day back in high school said, “I will at least try out for it. I will give it my all and do my best—then I can rest.” After that wonderful experience at that rehearsal, and all the memories that it unleashed in me, I cannot NOT go through with it.

We’ll see where this musical road takes me. But even the road in front of me is new, the territory seems very familiar, and I am looking forward to exploring it. For two decades, my musical voice was hidden, but now I MUST sing.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 3: Geography and Inequality (part 5)

The following are my notes from the lecture that was given by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on January 17, 2009.

13. From inequality to equality with limitations

Prof. Bulliet wants to turn to a topic that has been on the list of the top five topics of human thought for the last several centuries, and that is the subject of inequality. Inequality is a puzzling subject; it is evident that everyone is not the same. Prof. Bulliet says, “I’m on this platform, and you’re not. Hehehe!” (laughter) Inequality is evident, but in the present today you have an empirically correct as well as politically correct ideological orientation that there is an intrinsic equality within the human species that expresses itself regardless of external characteristics. All men are created equal, and perhaps a small handful of women (laughter). It is hard to get a clear expression of equality but nevertheless we take equality as a fundamental concept in a university like Columbia, although not all of our fellow citizens would necessarily agree, according to some e-mails I got from Mr. Obama on the campaign.

Equality has always been qualified in certain ways, so just thinking of your class readings, Aristotle would say there are natural slave populations. The Old Testament would say that the descendants of Ham should serve the descendants of Shem and Japheth. So you have notions of inequality in the ancient world. There’s no point in going into detail all the way through this, but then gradually you get down to the 17th century, and you have someone like John Locke who writes an essay On Toleration. He says that everyone should tolerate religious difference, which is a wonderful idea–except for the Catholics (laughter), because they follow the Pope, except for the Muslims because I bet they follow the Sheikh of Islam in Istanbul (which they don’t, and he should have known better), and of course the atheists, because we can’t abide those.

Toleration depended therefore upon the size of the group. He was interested in whether the Protestants and the Catholics in England would continue to butcher one another over issues of who is destined to go to Heaven and things like that. So toleration grows but somehow toleration is still conditioned by the unit of analysis. You can Rousseau writing his book on the Origin of Inequality. He says that when man arrogates certain property to himself, property is the source of inequality. Then he proceeds to talk later on in his argument about natives from this or that part of the New World. Why didn’t any of those natives ever grab a piece of land and say, “this is mine?” He isn’t interested in inequality among peoples; he’s only interested in the problem of inequality within the European population that he is addressing. That is because it was assumed for the longest time that inequality among the races or among geographical regions was natural, and therefore inequality only applied to people within your fundamental unit of analysis.

14. Geographical determinism—Jared Diamond as example

So you get the American Constitution which says “all men are created equal” and yet has provisions for slavery, which is an inherited condition. Obviously, “all men” does not include all men living in bondage. There are further steps in this and clearly the Darwinian movement of saying that all humans are a single species that has a certain evolution plays an important role here. Eventually you get to an author like Jared Diamond who wrote a great prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel which Prof. Bulliet hates. He starts out by saying, “I know this chieftain in New Guinea who is as clever, as witty, as talented, as able to run the 40-meter dash in a good time, as anyone in the world, and he doesn’t have a cent to his name, whereas in America, everybody is filthy rich.” Why do you have this inequality, when Diamond’s friend in New Guinea is equal of anyone in Europe and America? The fundamental question he starts out with in his book is, “why do you have inequality at a world scale?” He starts out with the all assumption that all humans are equal, that this is axiomatic; therefore, inequality has to come from some extra-human source, which he finds in geographical determinism.

Some people were lucky enough to live where horses were, and other people lived where the anteaters were. They couldn’t domesticate the anteaters, so they fell behind, so the people who domesticated horses conquered the world. He has a whole bunch of other not-very-convincing arguments for geographical determinism. So he starts out with this idea that he has this friend in New Guinea and he doesn’t have any domesticated animals—except pigs and chickens, of course. Well, they don’t have any real good domesticated animals like cows and horses. And it’s very hot, and it’s a difficult climate, and they don’t have broad acres of grain crops. They have a lot of yams, potatoes and bananas, but they don’t have barley and wheat, and so on and so forth. So how, despite their native equality, how could they have accomplished as much as the Europeans did?

He never speaks about the Mayans in the Yucatan peninsula, who had no domesticated animals, who had little in the way of grain crops, who lived in a miserably hot climate, and who created one of the world’s great civilizations. He simply leaves that out because it is inconvenient to his argument.

15. The Long Life of The Idea of the Birth and Death of Civilizations

Other people, more of the last generation than now, took that issue more seriously, and asked whether there is something about civilizations that you can look at analytically to explain why some civilizations rise and some civilizations decline in certain parts of the world.

You can find this done in different ways by different people. Arnold Spengler one of the classiest writers although one of the more infamous (?) thinkers simply saw that civilizations born, mature, die, and then they live a sort of living death for thousands of years like the Chinese civilization.—it’s not a very helpful approach.

Arnold Toynbee classified a score of civilizations and talked about their birth, their adolescence, their senescence, and their eventual death using this biological metaphor and he wrote many, many volumes that nobody reads anymore because it just wasn’t a convincing argument—there were oo many variables, too many particularities, too little knowledge, so forth and so on.

Among non-European writers, the 14th century Tunisian writer ibn-Khalduun used a biological metaphor of the birth and death of states or dynasties in his vocabulary, but he used it very differently. He saw the state as having a lifetime spelled out in a fixed number of generations, each of them 40 years long. So ibn-Khalduun could really count the years from the beginning to the end of a particular state formation. It is a theory that works fairly well because it is anchored to the human lifespan, but although it explains why it dies, it certainly does not explain very much where something comes from. He attributes that to the spontaneous and unpredictable emergence of a feeling of group solidarity somewhere out in the desert. He doesn’t really explain, however, why that occurs with the periodicity and the geographical locale that it does. So in other words, the study of civilizations has recognized the notion of rise and fall but has failed to come up with a very conclusive explanation for it, although there is a recurrent tendency to look for biological metaphors.

15. European exceptionalism and the imperialist imagination

In modern Western thought there has been deeply embedded the idea of a Western Euroamerican exceptionalism, which no matter why states rose and fell in the past, the states that arise in modern Europe and north America rise to a greatness which they will retain unchanged until the end of time.

So you can all report that to your parents, and it will be comforting to know that despite everything, America will never fall. Now this clearly is nonsense. Nobody argues that great moments are permanent, but it was very puzzling for Europeans. In the context of the war fought by the Greeks against Ottoman domination in the 1820s, it was asked “why is it that the Greeks we are hoping will achieve independence and whom we support so strongly don’t seem to be a damned thing like Plato or Aristotle?” The Greeks are supposed to be blond, and the last time the Europeans looked they didn’t see any blonds in Greece. I wonder if something happened to the Greeks; perhaps all the great Greeks all died from a terminal case of overripe greatness. Gee, I’m so great I think I’ll just … die (laughter). Well, the Europeans didn’t understand what happened to the Greeks.

When the scientists went to Egypt with Napoleon at the very end of the 18th century, they saw that Egypt is filed with all this really cool stuff like the pyramids, sort of dilapidated but really, really impressive. But the Egyptians can’t be the same as these ancient Egyptians. Racist archeologists and historians came up with theories to explain all this. They came up with theories devoted to the idea that civilization was something that was brought to different parts of the world as a gift by certain tall, white, probably blond, European guys, who went to a benighted area and taught them how to be civilized, and then quietly withdrew from the scene. Egyptologists said there was a civilizing race in early Egypt that came from somewhere else who told the semi-barbaric and unfortunately dark-skinned Egyptians how to build pyramids.

Stonehenge? They could explain Stonehenge: some Greeks or other great people sailed over from Greece, got to a place where a bunch of local Brits were living in caves and said, “okay, let’s all get together and start schlepping big stones now and put them on top of each other.” And once they had done that, they left (laughter). These theories about great conquering races were built into early archeological thought and early imperialist thought when Europeans encountered people in other parts of the world. And of course there was a subtext: if great people in the past had brought civilization and if we in the present are really great, then we can bring civilization and we can do what those civilizing tall, white people did to Egypt or what the Greeks to Stonehenge. We can bring civilization. In other words, you can’t separate this notion of the rise and fall of civilizations and the hypothesis that it is rooted in the incredible achievement of an intrusive population from the imperial imagination of Europeans in the 18th and particularly the 19th century.

16. Modernization and inequality

Nobody believes in this stuff anymore—well, some people do. But academically every each one of these theories has been thoroughly demolished and sometimes politicized in the process. Then we are left with the question that Jared Diamond addresses of accounting for this inequality. One way to do this is to say that modernity as it comes into being in the Northwestern Europe area and in North America is a unique, one-time, totally different phenomenon. It is the template for the future of the world through the process of globalization and modernization, and therefore no other examples need be given because we are dealing with a unique situation, in which it happens–not in some ancient time but happens empirically now–that the Europeans and Americas just really are better and they are the model for the future. That was the dominant view certainly in the 1960s, the heyday of modernization theory, and it is widespread to a certain degree in the present day.

But it also rests on this idea that you take this Northwest quadrant and you pick only one part of it to characterize the whole. If you decide that you’re going to deal with the quadrant altogether, then you look at the movement over time of power and importance from one part of the quadrant to another. If you’re an avowed believer in European exceptionalism, you have no discomfort in saying that the Renaissance took place in Italy,  the voyages of discovery took place in Spain, the Industrial Revolution took place in England, and it’s all the same thing because it’s all Western Europe–the fact that Italy and Spain end up in a less prosperous condition by 1900 isn’t as important because you are dealing with the same area.

If you take the entire quadrant, we have to think not just of Northwestern Europe, but we have to think of Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and North Africa. We have to look at this holistically and think about why certain areas within a cultural zone move from greater or lesser prominence at any particular point in time. This comes to a head in a debate that has been very important in the field of Middle Eastern studies, which Prof. Bulliet will start his next lecture with, and that is the debate on the so-called decline of the Ottoman Empire. There are some people who say that, if you say a people declined then that is a moral failing, unless you say there is a decline of the British Empire, which of course is a good thing (laughter). And there are other people who say that “decline” is the proper word to use.

This concludes the third lecture of Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on the Modern Middle East.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 3: Geography and Inequality (part 4)

The following are my notes from the lecture that was given by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on January 17, 2009.   This is prefaced by my recap of Prof. Bulliet’s views on cultural dissemination around the Mediterranean basin, which he discussed in the last part of his lecture.

Fig. 1 Cultural diffusion around the Mediterranean Basin

Prof. Bulliet puts forward the four stages of conceptualizing cultural diffusion around the Mediterranean Basin.

Stage One. N-S, E-W cultural unity in the ancient world

Prof. Bulliet says that in the ancient world, the entire Mediterranean Basin was seen as one cultural zone which is referred to as the Greco-Roman or Classical Civilization.

Stage Two.  E-W cultural disunity in the Dark Ages

Christian civilization became split between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire in the 300s in the North (Europe), and 500 years later Islamic civilization became split between the West (maghrib) and the East (mashriq) in the 800s in the South (Middle East and North Africa or MENA).

Stage Three.  E-W cultural unification in the Middle Ages

There was the beginning of cultural interplay between East and West in Europe in the Middle Ages, as well as between the West (maghrib) and the East (mashriq) in the Middle Ages in the South, albeit with a similar time lag of about 500 years.

Stage Four.  N-S cultural unification in the Modern period

There is cultural interplay between North and South which is heading towards the recognition of an Islamo-Christian civilization that starts in the Modern period. It is not that there will not continue to be differences between EuroAmerica and MENA cultural zones, but the similarities will be seen to outweigh the differences in the same way that the Greek and Roman civilizations, although quite different from each other, could be seen as the two faces of one Classical civilization.

Now I continue with the notes from Prof. Bulliet’s lecture, this time on the subject of religious assimilation in Europe and MENA.

10. Religious assimilation in Europe and the Islamic World

But the historical fact is that of the current 30 or so European countries, at least 14 of them have been under Muslim rule for at least 100 years, and sometimes several hundred years. Islam is by no means a phenomenon of the South side of the Mediterranean Sea, in the same way that Christianity is by no means a phenomenon of the North side of the Mediterranean Sea. You had Christians in the areas conquered by the Arabs who remained for about two centuries as the majority, and persisted as minorities to the present day, although they are becoming less numerous. Islam in the Middle East and North Africa is a more homogeneous faith today than it ever has been in the past. The disappearance of non-Muslim groups has been a phenomenon of the last 150 years or so, pretty much from 1860 onward.

So you had Christians on the South side of the Mediterranean Sea who gradually become absorbed into Islam, you had Muslims on the North side of the Mediterranean Sea who gradually become relegated to a footnote in the national histories. The way these things are treated in the different areas is strikingly different, and informatively so. Non-Muslim groups in the Islamic group are incorporated conceptually within the worldview embodied in Islamic law by being classified as a “People of the Book” or ′Ahl al-Kitāb. This means a people who have a scriptural revelation analogous to or related to the Quran, and as such they are entitled to protection by the Muslim state that is called a dhimma’; the adjective that refers to them as people who are protected is a dhimmi. There are times when people who belong to these dhimmi communities, whether they are Zoroastrian, Jewish, or Christians of various stripes, or in some areas Buddhists as well, are compelled by the state to wear types of costumes, or observe certain restrictions in their ritual behaviors. But by and large the communities survived and you have comparatively infrequent periods of hostility against the non-Muslim minorities. That diminishes after 1860. In other words, before 1860 you have a greater harmony of Muslims and non-Muslims than you have after 1860.

1860 is usually comprised as a mark of a significant civil disorder in Damascus and other parts of Syria which broke out along religious lines with Christians and Muslims lining up against one another. It is hard to find early episodes as extensive, important, or symbolically striking as that one in 1860. You have these tolerated minorities in the Muslim world.

When it comes to the North, that is to say, the Christian world, you did have some places where Muslims lived in Christian societies. Venice, for example, had a certain number of Muslim residents. Poland had a significant Muslim population. You had Muslims serving in Polish armies under the King of Poland. But by and large there weren’t many Muslims in the North. In those countries that had a period where they were under Muslim rule, as you get into the 19th century, and the rise of nationalism, it becomes a standard political polemic that being ruled by Muslims was a Dark Age for however long it lasted. It should be forgotten, it should be condemned historically and looked upon as an evil period in the history of the State, whether you looking at the history Serbia, Greece, or the Ukraine. You can find similar demonization of Muslims and the Muslims are demonized in the interest of promoting the notion of a pure nationality which is Christian.

11. Europe coming to grip with Muslim past

Only one European state has come to grips with the reality of its Muslim past, and that is Spain. Spain did not have what could be called an enlightened approach to its Muslim past for a very long time, that is to say, through the rule of Generalissimo Franco. But after Franco’s death, you have an extraordinary rebirth of scholarship and interest among Spanish scholars and political figures in what had happened during those centuries when you had Muslim rule in Spain.

It increasingly became recognized that during those centuries you had a living together, a convivencia, that made it possible for Muslims, Christians and Jews to have culturally productive relations in Spain. This came to an end with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, with the destruction of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain in Grenada in 1492, and then a century and a half later, the expulsion of the remaining Muslims in Spain. The harmony that had once existed was rather brutally destroyed, and then it was rediscovered in quite recent decades. Nowadays people will hold conferences on the subject “what was so special about Spain? Why is it that Spain alone had people of different faiths who could live in harmony?” Well, of course, it wasn’t just Spain alone, but it is only Spain we know about in terms of its Muslim past because Spaniards have done research on it. It is an extraordinary and heartening intellectual intervention in the destruction of history to reimagine Muslim Spain.

12. S. D. Goitein’s study of medieval Jewish communities in Egypt

Almost everything that you can say about living together in Muslim Spain in the period of Muslim rule from the early 700s down to the end of the 1400s, you could say about Medieval Egypt. Christians, Muslims and Jews really got along extraordinarily well in Egypt. The finest study of a medieval society in the Muslim world is a five-volume work by the scholar S. D. Goitein entitled A Mediterranean Society. Goitein describes in exhaustive and exhausting detail the nature of every aspect of life and thought of the Jewish community of Cairo in the medieval period.

The reason he is able to do this is because the Jews of that time in that community (perhaps it was true of other Jewish communities in other times as well), had a norm in which they said it was wrong to destroy paper, parchment or papyrus that had writing on it because the writing might contain the name of God and it should therefore not be destroyed. This was paralleled by the practice by Muslims and other subcommunities of Cairo. Every time they had paper they wanted to discard they took it to a synagogue in the old Arab and Muslim community in southern Cairo called al-Fasad, which was the name of Cairo before it became Cairo. They deposited it in a room and that was room was called a geniza or treasure storeroom. A huge library built up in the geniza and then the synagogue was abandoned for hundreds of years. Then the geniza was rediscovered in the 19th century. Thousands of manuscripts and tens of thousands of fragments of everything from laundry lists to business letters, and so forth and so on, were discovered. So Goitein and quite a number of other geniza specialists since that time read through vast amounts of this material. They studied how the Jews lived in medieval Cairo which was a Muslim society.

One thing is apparent when you read through the five volumes. (Prof. Bulliet admitted he didn’t read volume five, but only through the first four.) There is no volume on hatred and warfare between the Jews and the Muslims. Instead you find that the Jews and the Muslims took one another for granted. They had business relations, a certain amount of social relations, and their community practices and day-to-day lifestyles were indistinguishable, except in ritual matters, from those of their Muslim neighbors. If we had a comparable work for the Christians of Egypt at that time, it would probably show pretty much the same thing. In other words, the notion of a living together, which was a wonderful notion when applied to medieval Spain, is not uniquely Spanish. You don’t require a special understanding to see why living together occurred there and not elsewhere, because it DID occur elsewhere. Now, it didn’t occur everywhere, but it is a more general phenomenon in the Muslim world than not, at least in the early Arab centuries.

By comparison, you don’t have a parallel degree of interaction in most of the parts of Europe that were under either a briefer period of Muslim rule or where modern ideology has favored a Christianity-oriented nationalism in modern times.

In the last part of his lecture which I present in my last and final post in this series, Prof. Richard Bulliet discusses

–the evolution from acceptance of inequality to the ideal of equality,

–the theory of geographical determinism as an explanation of global inequality,

–the long life of the idea of the birth and death of civilizations,

–inequality and how the European imagination explained it through the idea of exceptionalism, and finally

–the relationship between the idea of inequality and modernization theory so prevalent in the 1960s.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 3: Geography and Inequality (part 3)

The following are my notes from the lecture that was given by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on January 17, 2009. In the next part of the lecture, Prof. Bulliet dismisses a theory comparing the difference in the evolution of nomadic societies centered on the horse vs. those centered on the camel.

4. Horse vs. camel nomads—a theory by Xavier de Planhol

This grassland was a pastoral nomadic zone using the native species of the horse. All of the world’s domesticated horses come from here, the two-humped camels come from Central Asia, one-humped camels come from Arabia, and donkeys come from Africa. The type of climate and topography and the type of animals have an impact on the ways that people organize a society.

There is one geographical theory, which Prof. Bulliet doesn’t think works, that says that nomads using horses can become great military powers because they have a greater density of population which is in turn caused by the fact that there is more vegetation in the horse zone. Camel nomads, on the other hand, can’t become great military powers because they’re more sparsely distributed. It’s a wonderful theory by the famous French geographer Xavier de Planhol except that it doesn’t actually coincidence with history, and therefore we won’t go into it.

5. Pastoral zones—a cultural buffer zone

The reason why Prof. Bulliet is singling out these pastoral zones is because they provide a more important barrier than the physical boundaries to certain types of cultural movement. Pastoral nomads are, by the very nature of their dependence upon and reverence for their herds of animals, on the move on a very regular basis. This limits the material culture that they can develop. They don’t have cities; they often don’t have permanent settlements of any kind. They don’t have monumental artwork or things of that sort. They are more likely to develop cultural expression through song, poetry, and dance, through things that are inherently portable. They also live lives that are very abstemious. They do not have much in the way of luxury consumption. If you look at this Northwest Eurasian quadrant (see fig. 1), you will find that it is bordered by pastoral nomads in the south, and in the southwest including Iran, in the deserts to the east and the steppes directly to the north of them, which are also pastoral although not as dry as the deserts.

Figure 1. NW Eurasian quadrant aka the Mediterranean Basin

So you have a zone of settled agricultural lands and peoples that is blocked off to the east, the south, and the southeast by zones of pastoral nomads and arid lands. That Northwest Eurasian quadrant or zone is often described as the Mediterranean Basin, which Prof. Bulliet thinks puts more emphasis on the Mediterranean than it warranted. The name is somewhat realistic, however, because it does center on the Mediterranean, but it is a zone that looks inward (towards the sea). The culture in this zone tends to have a great deal of interpenetration and common features.

By contrast, when you get to the other side of the pastoral areas, whether it is sub-Saharan Africa or India or East Asia, you find dramatically different cultural patterns and internal patterns of cultural exchange and dissemination that don’t have much connection with what you have in the Northwest Eurasian zone. Prof. Bulliet thinks it is useful to think of this northwestern zone, hemmed in by pastoral nomadic life patterns, as being a single more or less unified or interconnected cultural zone throughout history.

6. Unity of Eastern and Western Mediterranean culture

This was apparent in ancient times and continues to be apparent to those who study ancient times. In other words, when you read Herodotus who lived in Greece, he speaks with Greek relations with Egypt or with Phoenicia; the connections of the north and south side of the Mediterranean are well understood. When Odysseus travels back from Troy (located in modern Turkey) he touches places in North Africa. When Aeneas goes from Troy, he goes to Carthage located in North Africa, and across the Mediterranean to Italy. The Romans fought the Carthaginians in three Punic Wars. The contacts in and around the seas of the Mediterranean were continuous not only in reality but in the imagination. In Greece, for example, you could imagine that Jason in the tale Jason and the Argonauts goes to the Eastern end of the Black Sea to collect the Golden Fleece and his charming wife Medea (laughter). Even though it was barbarian territory, it was considered within the realm.

As you looked northward, things were a little less clear. The north for the Ancient Greeks was the land beyond Mt. Borea, and the people were referred to therefore as the Hyperboreans, “above Mt. Borea”. The North was a little-known area whether it was whatever was north of Greece, or whatever was north of Italy and Spain. That was where you had people moving across the steppe land into Hungary along the Danube River and across northern Europe.

When you study these things and think about ancient history, you are in the field of classical philology, and it is assumed you study Greek and Latin. This is because it is recognized that almost all the sources that you’re going to have to read for the Eastern area (east of Italy) are going to be in Greek and those in the Western area (from Italy westward) are going to be in Latin. So we took about Greco-Roman antiquity, and we’re perfectly comfortable with that. Even though they are of the same language family and certainly closely related in the sense that you can take declensions and conjugations in Greek and see how they relate to those in Latin, they are written in different alphabets and create quite a different impression. Nevertheless they are all welded together in the studies we have of the ancient world, so we talk about Greco-Roman or Classical Antiquity. You have two different languages, two different writing systems, and in the course of time because of the division between the Eastern Christian church and the Western Christian church, you have a religious division. Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to fit it all together.

From both in the indigenous literary and cultural remains from this Northwest Quadrant, and in studies from ancient times onwards to modern times, it is considered perfectly reasonable to include the East and the West in the same cultural perspective.

7. Apparent Cultural Disunity of Northern and Southern Mediterranean culture

What happens is that, at a certain point, a line gets drawn horizontally through the Mediterranean Sea, and that line separates Christians from Muslims. That separation between Christians and Muslims is overwhelmingly an artifact of scholarship. After the death of Mohammed in 632, you have a series of Arab armies coming out of Arabia in the 600s and conquering lands in North Africa, the Middle East, and Iran, and reaching Pakistan at one extreme and Spain at the other extreme in 711. You have a political entity that is created that is called the Caliphate ruled by a Muslim ruler called a caliph. The people are almost all non-Muslims. Most of the Christians alive in the world at the time of the Conquest had great-grandchildren who were Muslims, because the most heavily Christian areas were conquered by the Muslims.

The remnant Christian areas in the South, such as Ethiopia, and Armenia and Georgia in the East, become more or less isolated. The other remnant Christian community is in Europe, in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain and southern France. That is the area that grows into the dominant force within Christendom over a period of centuries. Over that same period of centuries most of the people living under Muslim rule were still Christians. Conversion takes something of the order of 400 to 500 years. It is neither fast, nor organized. It is not an automatic product of the change in rule.

When you have scholars in modern times who have argued that, as soon as the Arab invasions occurred, you have a division between Europe and Islam that is complete, indissoluble, permanent, and hostile, that is an ideological construction. It does not coincide with what people thought at the time; it is not demonstrable in the documentation that survives. It is rather a reflection of later centuries in which you have periods of warfare and enmity between Muslims and Christians. You could say that periods of warfare and enmity automatically lead to permanent divisions, because how in the world can you go out and try to kill your neighbors because they have the wrong religion for a long period of time without permanently creating an unbridgeable gap between those two religions? The problem with that argument is that it simply doesn’t work; no two groups of people have ever hated each other as much as the Protestants and the Catholics (laughter), or have spent as much time trying to butcher one another and declare one another to be agents of the Devil. And yet, over time, things cool down and they say, “never mind–we don’t have to hate each other because we’re all Christians.”

The fact that Christians and Muslims went through periods of warfare only becomes central to the construction of a tremendous division IF the person who is making that construction is servicing other ideological needs, regardless of whether it is on the Muslim side or the Christian side.

8. Islamo-Christian Civilization

Prof. Bulliet is dedicated to the idea that we should think of this Northwest Quadrant of Eurasia as being an “Islamo-Christian Civilization” rather than a Christian civilization facing an enemy Muslim civilization. Prof. Bulliet says you can buy that idea or not, although you have to buy his book The Islamo-Christian Civilization because it’s one of the required texts for the course (laughter). You have to read the book, and then you can throw away the book if you don’t like the idea (laughter).

There is another division that gets included in this, and that is rarely talked about. In Euro-American thinking about “the West”, we commonly talk about Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Western Europe is the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, John Locke, toleration and everything good. Eastern Europe is serfs, and thick-headed Slavs (laughter), and people who have funny alphabets like Cyrillic and Greek. It’s not like the West, but it’s still Christian, so we talk about Eastern Europe and Western Europe.

The odd thing is that, if you are living in the southern area of the Mediterranean, that area that we identify as being associated with Muslim populations, you also have the concepts of “the East” and the “West”. The East in Arabic is called the mashriq, from a verb sharaqa meaning “the sun rises” because the sun rises in the East. From it you have feel-good concepts like ishraq meaning “illumination” which gets into a spiritual sort of concept. By contrast, you have the maghrib, the Arabic term for “the West”; you could say it comes from a verb for the sun setting. But it is also a verb which means to be strange, weird, queer, or eccentric. Ghariib means “strange” or “wonderful.”

It is interesting that within the Islamic cultural context the West is the land of wonder and in the European cultural context the East is the land of wonder. So you have Orientalism in Europe, where you construct the East as a land of strangeness and wonder. However, there is no such term meaning “Occidentalism” such as istighrab or something similar in Arabic meaning “the construction of the maghrib as a place of strangeness”. When you read the histories that were written in early centuries of Islam about the West, there are full of fantasies and fairy tales and things that are not really believable as history, so the West becomes a kind of fantasy to some degree.

Here we have a situation where you have a West and an East in Europe and a West and an East in the Islamic world. They divide pretty much at the same place, that is to say, anything East of Italy is Eastern Europe–unless you’re directly above Italy and you have Central Europe, which is just an awkward concept altogether (laughter). Therefore Albania and Serbia on the Eastern side of the Adriatic Sea are part of Eastern Europe and Italy on the Western side of the Adriatic Sea is part of Western Europe.

When you divide the maghrib from the mashriq or the West from the East in the Islamic context, you really start due South of Italy with Tunisia. So Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, are the maghrib. Is Libya part of the maghrib? Yes, it is part of the maghrib, but there are only 15 people living there throughout most of history (laughter), so it doesn’t really count a whole lot. Substantively, the maghrib was Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco and including the ancient province of Tripolitania, which was the Northwest province of modern-day Tunisia. The East was Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and so forth.

In other words, this division between the West and the East in Europe is pretty much identical to the division between the Greek zone and the Latin zone in the ancient world. Even though you’ve changed religion over a slow process, and even though you’ve changed the political structure so you have at least nominally and briefly a single empire, you still have that old division between the East and the West, or the maghrib and the mashriq.

9. Political Division between East and West in Islamic World and in Europe

This actually plays out in politics as well. Even though you have this caliphate that is established in the 600s, by the early 800s the maghrib is no longer functioning as part of the caliphate. You have a family of governors in Tunisia known by the unattractive name of the Aghlabids (laughter), who asked the caliphate in Baghdad whether they could be the permanent governors in return for a yearly payment and he said “yes”. And from that time onwards from the early 800s Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Spain are separate from the Caliphate. Going in the other direction, at the same time southern Pakistan, which had been conquered by the Muslims, also becomes an independent area by agreement with the Caliph. The wings are cut off, and the center of Islam becomes the mashriq.

You have a parallel to this, of course, in what happened to the Roman Empire. Around the year 300, during the reign of Diocletian, you have the division of the Roman Empire into the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire, and you have a new city Constantinople (today Istanbul) which becomes the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, with Rome remaining the capital of the Western Roman Empire. The dominant language of Constantinople, even though it is part of the Roman Empire, is Greek. The dominant language of Rome is Latin.

What happens in the Caliphate, with the division between East and West, is what had happened 500 years earlier in the Roman Empire with their formal recognition of the division between East and West. The division between East and West is a more enduring geographical division when it comes to the Mediterranean Sea than the division between North and South. The division between North and South nowadays is often not only politicized, but is summarized as meaning “north of the Mediterranean” vs. “south of the Mediterranean.”

Note:  I was intrigued by Prof. Bulliet’s theory of the cultural significance of the terms East and West, namely that the East is the land of the strange and unknown in Europe, whereas the West is the land of the strange and unknown in the Islamic World.   As an example, notice how in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, the Shire, the familiar home of the Hobbits which opens the story told in the trilogy, is in the Western portion of Middle Earth, whereas the land of terrible danger called Mordor lies to the East.    The cultural metaphors of East and West as conceived in Europe were still present, although J.R.R. Tolkien was creating a geography of a totally mythical country.   If the Lord of the Rings had been written in the Islamic World, Mordor would have been described as being in the West and not in the East.  

Map of Middle Earth from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

(image from

In the next portion of the lecture, Prof. Bulliet talks about how the assimilation of religious minorities during the Middle Ages proceeded differently in Europe as opposed to the Middle East.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 3: Geography and Inequality (part 2)

The following are my notes from the lecture that was given by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on January 17, 2009.    In this section of the lecture, he talks about the domesticated animals of the Middle East–camels, donkeys, and horses.   I have noted those sections of the lecture, which is available on iTunes, where the class laughed at some remark of Prof. Bulliet.

3. Domesticated animals of the Middle East—camels, donkeys, horses

I’m sure this physical description of the deserts may not be of much help in visualizing it.   What may be of more significance to you than the geography is the demography of the desert, who lives there and why.

The deserts are areas with low population density and the populations that do exist there are for the most part pastoral nomads. The type of pastoralism that they follow varies according to where the desert is, particularly in terms of latitude. People who are living in northern deserts live differently and herd different animals than people who are living in southern deserts.

In southern deserts–the Sahara and Arabian deserts, and up into Syria and Iraq–you have hot-weather animals because we are dealing with an area between 15 and 30 degrees North latitude. This is a very hot region. Hot-weather animals are primarily camels and donkeys. One-hump camels are native to the Arabian Desert. In prehistoric times there were camels also in the Sahara but they seem to have become extinct long before the modern camel population arrived. Donkeys are native to the Sahara with a related species of donkey that is native to the Arabian desert called an onager which has largely died out. It is known technically as a half-ass (laughter), as opposed to the Nubian wild ass which is a full-fledged ass (laughter), which is the one from the Sahara. As you go north, and you get up to where it is much colder, you again have a couple of species of half-ass that are larger and more durable to the cold than the asses of the Sahara or the half-asses from the Arabian desert.

These are animals that are adapted to life in extremely torrid conditions and Prof. Bulliet says that at the drop of a hat he can a three-hour lecture on the physical adaptations of camels to torrid conditions. He has also written about that for a book called The Camel and the Wheel summarizing the fascinating research that has been done on the subject.

He says he will exercise restraint and not give that three-hour lecture at this time (laughter).

Principally, you have two-humped camels that are the native species of the Gobi desert in Mongolia. What is the difference between the one-humped camel and the two-humped camel? Yes, it’s the number of humps (laughter), but more than that, the one-humped camel is adapted to torrid, extraordinarily dry conditions. The two-humped camel is adapted to extremely sparse vegetation and to extremely cold temperatures, so it has very, very long and thick hair.

In the old caravan days across central Asia, the caravans moved primarily during the winter months when you had snow cover everywhere. The two-humped camel was an ideal animal because you had no problem with water, because you had snow that it could eat. And you had no problem with food, because the camel simply starved for three or four months, and utilized the fat that was stored in their two humps. By the end of the winter, their two humps were like empty bags and they had a floppy hump which was an extremely physically unappealing condition. It’s less noticeable in the winter because the hump is covered with long hair. In the spring, all the hair fell off, and they looked like scalded pigs (laughter).

The caravans, as they came to the end of their season in the spring, would have one man following them with a huge sack, and he would be picking up great clumps of camel hair as they fell off or got snagged on bushes and putting them in the sack. At the end of the caravan, then, that camel hair would be sold in the international market. So camel hair came primarily from two-humped camels, because one-humped camels don’t really have all that much hair. Camel hair in the twentieth century became extremely important because it had elastic properties that made it the ideal hair for making industrial belting or transmission belts.

Not in the deserts, but north of them, you have a zone that runs from Mongolia north of the Aral Sea, north of the Caspian Sea, north of the Black Sea, as far as Hungary. That is the known as the steppeland of Central Asia. The steppe is grassland that is pretty much continuous in this northern belt, say 50 degrees North latitude. It’s a little bit like prairie, although the American prairie is long-grass prairie, where the grass would be five feet high. Steppe land is short-grass prairie, where the native grass species were somewhat shorter, and easier to move about among. Short-grass prairie would be closer to what you have in eastern Colorado, whereas long-grass prairie would be closer to what you have in Iowa and Illinois.

The access to vegetation in deserts is obviously a great problem because there isn’t much vegetation. Therefore you either graze where the vegetation is or you use animals that can cover a lot of distance on very sparse vegetation. That makes the camel an ideal desert animal. It can live for months without eating; it can live for weeks without drinking or in the spring season indefinitely without drinking. It can cover large areas. It’s very distinctive: if you look at a one-hump camel compared with a two-hump camel, the one-hump camel has much longer legs and thus covers more territory. The longer the leg, the more territory you cover in a given stride. You have denser vegetation in the two-hump camel area than you have in the one-hump camel area. To make this possible, you have to make sure that when you move your hind foot forward you don’t kick yourself in the ankle. The camel becomes like the giraffe the only species that moves both feet on the side at the same time. When you ride a horse, you tend to go forward and back, but when you ride a camel you tend to go from left side to right side.

When it picks up the two feet on the one side, if it doesn’t put them down again, it tips over (laughter). Prof. Bulliet pointed this out to the class once, and someone asked, “if they picked them up, why don’t they fall over?” He felt constrained to point out to the student that humans have this same problem.  If we pick one up one of our feet and we don’t put it down again, we may fall over as well (laughter).

In the next part of the lecture, Prof. Bulliet talks about theories relating the impact that these domesticated animals have on the organization of society in the Middle East.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 3: Geography and Inequality (part 1)

The following are my notes from the lecture that was given by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on January 17, 2009. Since this was an audio and not a video lecture on iTunes, I downloaded some maps from to illustrate his narrative.

1. Books on the Ottoman empire

He makes a preliminary remark regarding books assigned in the class regarding the Ottoman Empire. He recommends Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire by Caroline Finkel, a general history from its origins to its end, which he considers to be a better-written book than the one by Donald Quataert called The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922.

2. Geography of the Middle East—general orientation

The lecture is about the geography of the Middle East. 40 degrees North latitude is where New York City is; it is the same latitude as Madrid, Rome, and Istanbul. Each degree of latitude is about 70 miles. If you go to 30 degrees North latitude, 10 degrees farther South, you are at the latitude of Cairo and Jacksonville, FL, that is to say, Northern Florida, and Houston, Texas. If you go to 20 degrees North latitude, you are at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, which is pretty much the same level as Mecca, since it is simply uphill from Jeddah, and the level of Mexico City. This gives you some sense of what we are talking about in a North and South perspective.

Figure 1. Mediterranean Sea and bordering countries

In terms of East and West, here is the Mediterranean Sea. It is connected to the Black Sea by the straits that are located where Istanbul is. Then you have the Caspian Sea, which is the northern border of Iran. And then you have a little sea bordering Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan called the Aral Sea.

Figure 2. The Caspian and bordering countries

The Mediterranean Sea was known by the Ottomans as the Akdeniz, or the White Sea, the White Sea as opposed to the Black sea. Then you have the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Figure 3. Red Sea and surrounding countries

Figure 4. Persian Gulf and surrounding countries

These are the principal bodies of water that we deal with in the history of the Middle East. If you take the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea (figure 2), and you go north, you get to a range of mountains that runs due north and south for a very long distance up into Arctic areas, and those mountains are called the Ural mountains. They are traditionally the division between Europe and Asia in the areas north of where you have a division of water between the two continents.

Figure 5. Mountain ranges of Europe (Ural mountains at Eastern edge)

This course deals with the area from 30 North latitude to 50 North latitude, from the Ural Mountains westward to the Atlantic Ocean. This essentially is the Northwest corner of the Eurasian landmass that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the Northern part of Africa, or the Afro-Eurasian landmass. This description probably doesn’t really help you at all (laughter).

What helps more is to note that this area (Figure 6) is the Sahara desert. It runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It is crossed only by the Nile River.

Figure 6. Sahara Desert

Once you get across the Red Sea, you continue to have a desert (Figure 7) called the Arabian Desert, but it stretches up somewhat farther. As you go up, the desert regions trend to the northeast. In Iran, it is the central part of Iran that is mostly desert, and it is north of the Arabian Desert. There is a desert just south of the Aral Sea, and a desert on the other side of the river that feeds into the Aral Sea, called the Kara Kum desert. Deserts continue on east from here over to Northern China.

Figure 7. Arabian Desert and Deserts of Iran

After the orientation to the class of where the areas are on the map that he will be speaking of during the rest of the course, Prof. Bulliet turns from geography to demography of the various regions that make up the Modern Middle East.  That is what I will cover in the next post.

21 Days to A Positive Mindset—A #TED Talk by Shawn Achor

“If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.” Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor is a psychologist who is the CEO of Good Think, Inc. He gave a talk about positive psychology at a TED talk  in May 2011.  I outline his talk below which he concludes with a methodology on how to press the “reset” button for your mindset so that you are more optimistic.   At the end of the talk, I relate the results I had in using his method for 21 days.

1. Escaping the law of the average

Social scientists make pronouncements about trends based on averages within populations, but people have to realize that when you are dealing with the potential for individual happiness or creativity, you need to escape the “law of the average”. When psychologists strive to make people “normal”, then if they succeed, people will continue to remain merely average.

I can illustrate Shawn Achor’s point with a story.  A friend of mine who was taking economics in graduate school, and I saw him one day in a coffee shop looking a little glum. “What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Oh, it sounds silly, but I’m a little bummed. My statistics professor said that up to 50% of us in the class would end up doing below average on the test.”

Intellectually, he knew that this was of course true because it hinges on the technical definition of the word “average”. However, it was the implication that he had only a 1 out of 2 chance of escaping mediocrity that was a challenge to his self-esteem.

2. Studying outliers

Shawn Achor has studied those individuals who have higher than average potential to find out what their secret is in order to be see if some of those secrets can be passed on to the rest.  Instead of a psychology model that tries to drag everybody down towards being average by making them “normal”, he wants to have a positive psychology model that moves everyone’s average up.

3. Changing the lens

We view the world through the lens of the media, which selectively captures negative events and brings them to our attention, with the news hour occasionally ending in a positive story. This has an effect on us where we start to assume a false picture of the world where that same ratio of negative events to positive events is replicated throughout the world.

4. External circumstance does not determine inner attitude

Shawn Achor related how the students he counseled at Harvard University should have been happy to be at such an elite school, but they sought counseling because they concentrated on the negatives of the workload, peer pressure, etc. He realized that no matter how good the outer circumstances, there were some people who have a negative attitude internally. He found that the external circumstances only account for 10% of a person’s happiness over the long term; the other 90% are determined by the way in which that person views the world.

In the work environment, he found that only 25% of job successes are predicted by a person’s intelligence level. The other 75% are accounted for by your optimism levels, your social support levels, and your ability to see stress as a challenge rather than as a threat.

5. How can you change your mindset?
Here’s the kernel of what Shawn Achor came to talk about. Most schools and workplaces have the mindset “if you work hard, you will be successful. If you are successful, then you will be happier.”  This theory of motivation is backwards.  If you have a success, then the workplace or school simply changes the goalposts and you have to achieve even better success the next time. If happiness is thought to be on the other side of success, your brain never gets there, it pushes happiness over the cognitive horizon.   Just remember that one of the definitions of a horizon is “an imaginary line that gets farther away from you the closer you get to it.”

The problem with this method of motivation is that our brains work in the opposite order:  if you raise a person’s happiness in the present, then their brain experiences a happiness advantage, meaning that performs better than if it is negative, neutral, or stressed.  Every business outcome improves for an employee who has this happiness advantage: people are 31% more productive, they produce 37% more sales, doctors are 19% more accurate at diagnosis, etc.  So if our brain is more positive in the present, than it becomes more successful.

If people do the following 21 days in a row, it can rewire their brains to be more optimistic and therefore more successful.




3 Gratitudes Write 3 new things you are grateful for each day


Journaling positive experience … in a journal, along with one positive experience you have had in the last 24 hours.


Exercise 15-20 minutes of vigorous exercise, 3-6 days a week.


Meditation 15 minutes of meditation, 1-2 times per day.


Random Acts of Kindness Write down one random act of kindness you have done in the past 24 hours to someone you did not know.


Lessons Learned Write down how you will take a negative experience you have had in the past 24 hours and turn it into a learning opportunity for the future.

Here Shawn gives an explanation of these 5 factors; I have added a sixth factor which I explain below.

1. Writing down the 3 gratitudes changes you mind so that it starts scanning the world for the positives rather than the negatives. It doesn’t change the ratio of positives to negatives in the outside world, but it does change which factors you focus on as being the most significant.

2. Writing about a positive experience you’ve had in the past 24 hours allows you relive it.

3. Exercise teaches your brain that behavior matters.

4. Meditation allows you to detach from the cultural pattern of ADHD which we are creating through the constant attempts at multitasking, and increases the ability of the brain to focus on the task at hand.

5. You can write in your journal about a random act of kindness which you performed in the last 24 hours for someone, meaning that you did it without consideration of being paid back by the person whom you helped.  Alternately, perform a conscious act of kindness by sending a note of support to someone in your social support network.

6. To these activities, I have added a sixth of my own to Shawn’s list, which is to take a negative experience which you had in the past 24 hours, and created some lessons learned from it so that you will experience it in the future not as a threat, but as an opportunity to overcome a challenge.

I have to tell you that Shawn Achor’s method WORKS! I did try it for 21 days and found that I do see live in a more positive way than I did a month ago. The interesting thing for me was that, at first I thought I was just changing the way things were appearing for me, that is, the same ratio of negatives to positives happened out there in the external world, but I was gradually starting to focus on the positives.  The negatives were seen as less and less threatening and more and more as opportunities.

However, by the end of the 21-day period, I was starting to experience more and more positives on the outside. I think that the positive attitude I took with me while networking, for example, automatically drew people towards me and made them more helpful to me than they would have previously precisely BECAUSE I had a positive attitude.  So it does change your interior “weather” first, but that sunnier internal weather will gradually become reflected in your exterior circumstances.  I don’t know if it will work for everybody, but I recommend that you at least try it, because you have literally nothing to lose, and we could all stand to win a little more, right?

Orange County Digital Arts—Adobe #CS6 Preview

On Friday, June 1st, I attended a preview of Adobe’s Creative Suite (CS) software (version 6) which was recently released. It was hosted by Scott Trodick, the facilitator of Orange County Digital Arts (OCDA).

Below is a summary of the preview that was given by Scott and other members of OCDA. Besides food and prizes, which made the evening fun, there was a great chance to see practitioners of the Adobe Creative Suite demonstrate the new features of version 6.   I have had two classes with Scott Trodick that he taught at Santiago Canyon College:  one on Adobe Acrobat Pro and the other on  Adobe Photoshop, and I love his infectious enthusiasm for the visual arts.    The only criticism I have about the evening is that OC Digital Arts needs to get together with an Audio Arts group to improve the constant feedback that the microphones were giving off through the evening.   It wasn’t enough to loosen my dental fillings, but it was unfortunately a distraction.   Otherwise, it was a wonderful, informative evening and I hope to start joining some of OC Digital Arts’ user groups now that my classes are done!

A. Tablet Apps—Scott Trodick

One of the new directions that Adobe is going in version 6 is to enable people to create content not just for the Web, but for various mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets.

In particular, Adobe is releasing the following tablet apps to be used with the various applications of its CS6 software.

Tablet App


1 Collage Design
2 Debut Showing presentations
3 Ideas Digital sketchbook, creative companion
4 Kuler Picks color themes
5 PS Touch Social tool
6 Proto Wireframe markup for web designers

B. Adobe Illustrator (Ai)—Jaqui Miles

Jaqui said the following were improvements in Adobe Illustrator in CS6.

  • Menus are more intuitive—now it is not just the tool you choose, but the type of selection you make which adjusts the menu
  • Line trace à Image Trace—this makes it easier to move shapes whose components intersect each other
  • Gradients can now be put on a stroke (thick borderline) or even text

C. In Design (ID)—Frank Martinez

Frank said that, in addition to web mock-ups of traditional magazine content, you can now choose to view that same content in several digital formats, including those for smartphones and tablets, such as Nook, Kindle, Android 10, iPad, etc.

This is important because of the explosion in publishing of e-Books, which you now need to be able to produce in several different (and not always compatible) formats.

D. Adobe Special Project—Bill Vallely

Scott Trodick introduced Bill Vallely, a freelance illustrator who in recovering from a terminal illness had suffered from a condition called “dry eye” that was a side effect of one of the medicines he had been taking. He produced a web cartoon on the subject of dry eye using the Adobe Creative Suite which can be seen at the site The web cartoon was important for him for two reasons: one was that it showed that web cartoons are a great medium for discussing medical or otherwise “heavy” information in an entertaining, engaging way.

And speaking of engaging, his web cartoon is interactive in that, if you choose to get more information by clicking on one of the panels, the cartoon changes after you’ve returned from the digression. This multiple storyline format is something that is yet to be exploited, according to Bill.

E. Photoshop—John Haverstick

Here are the new features which John mentioned:

  • The new menu is darker and less intrusive for those who don’t want to be distracted from the image they are working on—this is consistent with the interface in the Lightroom software made specifically for photography
  • Content aware technology—if you move a subset of the image to another area, you can use “content aware technology” to fill in the image that you left behind in a manner consistent with the surrounding space
  • Chromatic aberration, an effect which sometimes occurs in the boundary between areas with high contrast (i.e., black and white), is now something you can adjust by filling in one checkmark rather than having to adjust sliders as before
  • 3D functions have all improved

F. Dreamweaver—Scott Trodick

As people go from shared hosting to cloud hosting, Dreamweaver now makes it easier to create websites by blending the HTML language, which handles content, and CSS language, which handles design elements.

The idea is that when you create the content, you then can use Dreamweaver to not just view the site on the web, but now on several formats for mobile devices.

Using Dreamweaver allows you to have the 4 Cs,

a) clean code,

b) consistency (both logically and semantically),

c) complete keyword searchability, and

d) compatibility for cloud servers,

which optimize your website for search engines such as Google.

#Toastmasters —The Road Towards Competent Leadership (part 2—Advanced Training and FAQs)

In the last post, I described how to earn the basic level of leadership training in Toastmasters International, culminating in the Competent Leader award. In this post, I described the advanced leadership training program and answer some FAQs regarding the leadership program in general.

3. Advanced Leader Bronze

Once you have completed all the possible roles in the club, and fulfill the requirements for becoming a Competent Leader, the next level of leadership is that of Advanced Leader Bronze, and it requires you to train and then to serve as a club officer. Here are the listings of the various club officers.

Figure 5. Club Officer Roles and Rankings

Club Officer


President First
Vice President Education Second
Vice President Membership Third
Vice President Public Relations Fourth
Secretary Fifth
Treasurer Sixth
Sergeant at Arms Seventh

To become a club officer, you have to be nominated at a meeting and then win an election of all nominated candidates at an election. After being voted in to office, you must attend a LACE or Leadership And Communication Education workshop to be trained in that new role. The final requirement is that you give two special presentations to the club on the subject of leadership.

4. Advanced Leader Gold

Once you have completed some of the roles in the club and have progressed to the level of being the Club President or Vice President Education, you can then go beyond the club level of organization and take a role in the wider world of Toastmasters. Clubs are organized in the following hierarchy: areas, then divisions, then districts, then regions, all of which are part of the worldwide organization of Toastmasters International. Below is a schematic diagram of the organization hierarchy starting from the club and going on up to the top level of the organization, using my own club as a reference.

Figure 6. Toastmasters International Organization Hierarchy

To qualify for the Advanced Leader Silver, you need to take one of the following roles outside of the organization:

Figure 7. District Officers




Governor Governor Governor
Lieutenant Governor
Public Relations Officer

The area governor and division governor are considered to be district officers, because they meet regularly with the five district-wide officers.

Then the other two requirements are to complete a leadership program called High Performance Leadership program, and to take an entire club and be its sponsor, mentor, or coach.

5. Distinguished Toastmaster—putting communication and leadership together!

What do you get if you get the highest awards level for BOTH the educational and leadership tracks? If you get the Advanced Communicator Gold AND the Advanced Leader Silver award, that qualifies you for the highest award Toastmasters International can bestow to an individual at the club level, and that is Distinguished Toastmaster.

Figure 8. Distinguished Toastmaster achievement

6. Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to go about fulfilling the various roles for the 10 leadership projects?

Forget about doing them in order, like you normally would do for the speeches. Just take the agenda for the next meeting, and figure out whether the role you’ve been assigned potentially fulfills any of the 10 projects. As you progress and fulfill various roles, you’ll have a better idea of which ones you need to complete each project, and you can inform the Vice President Education that you would like to be assigned that particular role.

In our club, the Vice President Education sends out a master schedule for 3 meetings at a time, to give people time to do exactly what I’ve outlined in the last paragraph. In that way, if there are any “special requests” for particular roles, that can be done well in advance of the meeting.

How long does it take to obtain the Competent Leader award?

There are 21 or 22 roles needed to fulfill the 10 projects (see table earlier in this post). Given that there are on average 20 members to a club, which meets twice a month and has 10 roles that qualify towards a leadership project, that will mean it takes one month for each person to obtain a role. Therefore it could take close to 21 or 22 months or a little less than two years.

Can I shorten the amount of time it takes to obtain the award?

In a similar way to being prepared in advance for speeches, it is best to a develop a generic script for each of the major roles as you do them. Then if the Vice President Education says “so-and-so can’t be a Toastmaster; can anyone fill in for her/him?” If you have that script ready, you can easily update it and volunteer to do that role. That’s how I will be able to finish my Competent Leader award in two weeks after having started in the club a little less than a year-and-a-half ago.

What is the fastest way to get the Advanced Leader awards?

If you are a member of a club for one year, you will certainly have enough experience to be able to be a club officer WHILE you are finishing up work on the Competent Communicator and Competent Leader awards. Then if you are club officer, even if just for a six-month period, and you have completed the training, then the only remaining thing you have to do is give two leadership presentations, and you’re at Advanced Leader Bronze!

Then after going for one of the lower-ranking offices in your club, I would try next to be either the Vice President Education or President. This will qualify you in the following term to run for the office of area governor. This is the lowest-ranking district officer, but it still qualifies you for the Advanced Leader Silver award after you complete a High Performance Leadership Program and the club mentorship program.

As a rule of thumb, it takes about one-and-a-half or two years’ worth of work to complete each level, so to become a Distinguished Toastmaster, you are looking at a five-year commitment.

But, take it one speech and one role at a time, and be consistent—you’ll get there some day!

#Toastmasters —The Road Towards Competent Leadership (part 1—Basic Training)

In the previous two posts, I discussed the educational path that most people associate with Toastmasters, that of becoming a competent communicator. There’s another educational path that is just as important, that of becoming a competent leader. This educational program is one of the reasons why enlightened corporations encourage their members to participate in Toastmasters; indeed, some of them even have their own onsite Toastmasters clubs.

1. Competent Leadership educational program

The leadership track is at a first glance similar to that of the educational track, except there is no GOLD level.

Figure 1. Leadership Educational Program Track Progression

Figure 2. Leadership Educational Program Track Requirements

2. Competent Leader

The first level of leadership is done by completing 10 leadership projects as follows:

Figure 3.  Competent Leader Projects 1 through 10

Project Number Project Name




Critical Thinking


Giving Feedback


Time Management


Planning and Implementation


Organization and Delegation








Team Building

Each of these leadership projects concentrates on a specific skill needed for effective leadership, and these skills are practiced by performing for each project a number of roles in the club. I have composted a list of the roles that one can perform in the club and indicated which projects they can be utilized for. The solid circles represent a role which is obligatory for the project; a hollow circle is the symbol for a role which can be used for the project. Most projects can be completed by only doing a certain number of the potential roles for the project, such as 3 out of 4 possible roles. The total number of roles required for each project is given in the bottom column.

Figure 4.  Competent Leader Projects 1 through 10–Requirements

Project Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Befriend a Guest
General Evaluator
Speech Evaluator
Table Topics Speaker
Chair Club Special Event
Chair a Membership Campaign
Mentor a Club Member
Organize Club Special Event
Total Number of Roles to be Done 3 2 3 2 3 1 2 3 1 1 or 2*

* The 10th project can be completed by being the chair of a membership campaign or other club event OR by doing both roles of being a Toastmaster and General Evaluator

So if you add up all the roles you must do, there are 21 or 22 roles required for one to complete all 10 projects.

Tomorrow I will post about Advanced Leadership training that is available from Toastmasters International, and will include some Frequently Asked Questions regarding the leadership program.