Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Heros-- Cory Booker, Dalai Lama, Sal Khan

As the Hair song goes, it's "Easy to be Hard" to rant about problems, evil, baddies, greedies. But heros? All too rare. I guess I would define heros as people wildly loaded with virtue, at least in the categories that the perceiver deems to be key. This of course reflects personal moral values--meaning your heros may not be my heros and vice-versa.

Perhaps going out on a limb here, I think calling out heros is more productive than calling out villains. But then again, holding people up for commendation may also expose their faults and subject them to condemnation. And sadly, where there are no real faults to be found, jealousy will assure people invent some. If you want a quick roll in the sludge, just look at the comments following articles or facebook pages, etc for your heros. There is sure to be some awful dreck hurled by people with nothing better to do than make others look bad. The popular catch phrase among my son's generation is, "Haters gonna hate." And here I am already condemning others as haters... Maybe we're all at least to some degree skeptical of purported heros. Maybe we've just been burned too many times by pseudo-heros, -- folks who appear amazing until their maggoty underbelly comes to light. Shoot, just gone negative again...

I admit that I looked reasonably hard for faults in Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Since he's a public figure, there's lots online about him. I think the worst I could find (other than random, jealous, possibly racist hating) was that at some point a few years back he was going to close libraries or at least shorten their hours. But in the mean time he's managed to turn the once-disrespected city into a something of a magnet for donations by fashionable rich people (e.g. $100 million from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to help the schools).

 Booker identifies his faults as being an excessive fondness for books and difficulty forming a close personal relationship. Forget the sex, he says he would just like to wake in the morning, spooned up close with someone he loves. But he recognizes his intense schedule doesn't leave much time for a significant other. How fair is THAT? Talk about making virtues of your vices. I couldn't resist adding a few personal details to Booker's wikipedia entry.

A reporter following him around for a magazine article said Booker actually has no vices -- he's a vegetarian, an exercise nut, non-smoker, non-drinker... Trained as a lawyer, and no doubt taking down a fairly good salary, he continues to choose to live in a run-down part of town, in an apartment uncluttered by "stuff." His previous slum residence was torn down. And before that he lived in a camper parked on the worst drug-dealing corner of the city.

When Booker came home to find a neighbor's apartment on fire a month or so ago, he rushed in to carry her out of the flames (after pulling rank on his security guard who didn't want to let him do this), sustaining smoke inhalation and a burned hand in the process. In 2010 he personally shovelled the snow from the drive of a constituent with heart problems after his daughter texted a complaint to Booker. The mayor's personal action inspired a small gang of people to join him clearing sidewalks. (Quite a contrast with one former mayor of Washington, D.C. who famously remained out in sunny California when his city was buried by one of the worst snowstorms in history.)

The Rhodes scholar even has a sense of humor, bantering with late-night talk-show hosts who trash his city, for example. This week he stars in a video with New Jersey governor Christie, lampooning his own heroic image.

Update, November 2012: With people left homeless and without electricity days after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, Booker continues to tweet and facebook with the best advice and tips for recovering from the storm. A neighbor tweets that her block is still without electricity. Mayor Booker invites her to stop by his place and join other neighbors who are chillin' at his place, recharging devices, listening to music and relaxing. Later he sends a take-out dinner for 12 to the house for neighbors who are relaxing at his house. Facebook description of the Huffpost article on Booker's very personal, hospitable approach to storm recovery calls him the "Best Mayor ever."

Then there's the Dalai Lama. Upon accepting the £1.1 million Templeton prize this week, he announced he was handing £900,000 of the prize over to "Save the Children " (click the appropriate flag at the bottom of this linked page to go to your country's STC page to make a donation), with the rest going to two other good causes. There are too many wonderful things in the Dalai Lama's life to repeat here, but I think one of the best things is his sense of fun and his laugh. Following an interviewed by the BBC's Sarah Montagu this week, tweeters and emailers wrote in to the Morning Show requesting a replay of the giggle that erupted from the Buddhist monk (I'm guessing that this was for the throaty laugh 11:20 into the interview).  I remember hearing that the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu greet sometimes by tickling each other.

Speaking on the BBC interview about his reaction to his "rockstar status" the Dalai Lama avers that he actually doesn't think he's any different than other 7 billion people on earth, who, like him, just want to be happy and see an end to suffering. Near the end of the interview he gives a mild chiding to Brits for their formality, saying he hopes to carry to his death his childish approach -- just jumping in wherever people are playing.

My third hero is one Salman Khan, founder of the "Khan Academy."  Formerly a hedge fund analyst, Khan started tutoring a cousin over the internet in 2004, using Yahoo's doodle notepad as his online blackboard. Other people wanted his tutoring help, too, so he started putting his voice-and-notepad lessons on YouTube. And things snowballed from there -- 3,000 videos are now available free online, with subjects ranging from art history to zoology -- especially economics, math, and science.

Khan's Wikipedia page says that as of this month, the Khan Academy channel on YouTube has more than 330,000 subscribers and Khan Academy's website claims "150,076,102 lessons delivered." A 60-Minutes segment on Khan and his Academy reported that some schools were finding innovative ways to use the lessons to enhance teaching and self-paced learning. Rather than replacing teachers, the show said, the online lessons and tracking of students' progress allow teachers to be intimately familiar with the finest details of students' understanding of a subject, freeing them to be coaches rather than lecturers. It's all free and there's even a (free) app for your iPad.

Fortunately, other folks think a lot of the Khan academy, too, with Bill Gates saying his friends and family use the learning site, and Google giving the Academy $2 million to rev up supporting hardware, software, and course offerings. MIT- and Harvard-educated Khan is just one person, but I bet he's made a huge difference in the world. In the time it's taken me to write these last two paragraphs, his academy has delivered another 5,325 lessons!

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