Tag Archives: serendipity

Salaam, mom

Jean S. Calhoun - Caileigh Raine Calhoun

Jean S. Calhoun, March 20-1927 – January 25, 2012 (with her granddaughter, Caileigh Raine Calhoun, daughter of my brother Crede and sister-in-law Carol)

With me holding her hand, streaming into the last seconds of a four month long, unwinding process, my mother passed away last Wednesday, at 1:00pm, and, did so in her home, as she had both wished and planned for.

There is a great deal I could say about my relationship with Jean, who I usually just called mom. I spent a great deal of quality time with her over the twenty years here in Cleveland, after I returned. We were both Fabian Social Democrats–although she would tell you she remained an “Adlai Stevenson Democrat,” whereas I would harken farther back to the 17th century and tell you I am a Digger. We managed to eat up great gobs of our time together in our lamentations on the state of current events; oh, and decrying also–whatever–year’s dashed Cleveland sports hope was then unfolding.

Even a neutral observer could pick out the extraordinary nature of our mother-son relations–for the simple reason that such an opportunity is likely to be realized when two fiercely intelligent, and curious, and sophisticated, sensibilities are set upon each other as friends in adulthood. (Then, you put in the time.) I had occasion many times to remind her I was like her, and was, like her father, self-taught and a lifelong student.

(Because the process of interpersonal knowing is one of a handful of subjects I am most focused on, and its procedures are enacted as a matter of course, almost everything else about my mom is in the context of the vigorous inquiry I waged over two decades.)

At the same time, it’s complicated too: we worked through a lot of our ‘stuff’ at the beginning (in the early nineties,) moved as a family through the suicide of my twin brother Tim, got through her first cancer year, went through other intense stuff. And: then there was the time I dropped by to visit on a whim and ended up saving her life. Our relationship was, for her, at exacting moments, bittersweet. I suppose it had to be so for one of us.

So, yup, it’s complicated, yet our relationship was complicated in the way poetry and music come to be deeply summed. This was very cool and the consequence is that I can access my mother’s sensibility by accessing her resonant facts, facts which remain easily found in myself.

This is the true joy in life being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. George Bernard Shaw

Speaking of Shaw, my mom sorted her own version of the hundred versions of the one religion, describing it to me one day as being, in the main, sensual and oceanic.

Jean Calhoun

My mom in 1952. Activist in the 'Constitutional Party' Project

Jean S. Calhoun, a trailblazing college administrator and educator, passed away at home after a short illness on Jan 25, 2012. Mrs. Calhoun was the first female Vice President of Case Western Reserve University, serving as Assistant Vice President of the University between 1974-1982. She finished her career as Associate Vice President For Academic Affairs, retiring in 1988 after being named the university’s first female Vice President Emerita.

She began her career as a teaching fellow at Western Reserve University, earning her masters in English there in 1959. Later she was a lecturer on the faculty of the English Department until 1966. At that point she served as a senior associate on The Heald Commission, and co-wrote and edited the final report that recommended the merger of Western Reserve University with Case Institute of Technology. From there, she became a special assistant at the new university, and later Assistant Dean, and then Vice Provost.

She graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College in 1948, after graduating as Valedictorian of Batavia High School in Batavia, New York.

She and her former husband moved to northeast Ohio in 1951. She was active in the humanities and libraries, and served on the Ohio Humanities Council from 1972-1979, including a term as its Chairperson between 1976-1979. She served on the board of the State Library of Ohio between 1985-1992, and served as Chairperson between 1986-1990. She was invited on several occasions to participate on the Grant Review Panel of the National Endowment of the Arts. She was an Advisory Trustee of the Cleveland Music School Settlement between 1979-1992.

After co-authoring the Final Report of the Heald Commission in 1967, Mrs. Calhoun contributed to various studies in the humanities, and she gave the Jennings Lecture in 1975 for Martha Holdings Jennings Foundation. In her retirement she wrote for Shaker Magazine, where she resided after 1977. She also published on a wide range of topics in CWRU, the alumni quarterly. She co-authored and edited The Library and Its Future on behalf of CWRU in 1989.

She traveled widely, and remained in special affinity with the country and people of Greece. A sportswoman, she loved golf and tennis. She was an optimistic enthusiast of the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers. Retirement freed her to become a very fine chef and flower gardener. Above all she was a lifelong devotee of the arts and classical music. She was a decades-long patron and supporter of The Cleveland Orchestra and Musical Arts Association. (Stephen Calhoun)

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Transformative Anthropology. The Picture Inside


[…] Feynman visualized the world with pictures rather than with equations. Other physicists in the past and present describe the laws of nature with equations and then solve the equations to find out what happens. Feynman skipped the equations and wrote down the solutions directly, using his pictures as a guide. Skipping the equations was his greatest contribution to science. By skipping the equations, he created the language that a majority of modern physicists speak. Incidentally, he created a language that ordinary people without mathematical training can understand. To use the language to do quantitative calculations requires training, but untrained people can use it to describe qualitatively how nature behaves.

Feynman’s picture of the world starts from the idea that the world has two layers, a classical layer and a quantum layer. Classical means that things are ordinary. Quantum means that things are weird. We live in the classical layer. All the things that we can see and touch and measure, such as bricks and people and energies, are classical. We see them with classical devices such as eyes and cameras, and we measure them with classical instruments such as thermometers and clocks. The pictures that Feynman invented to describe the world are classical pictures of objects moving in the classical layer. Each picture represents a possible history of the classical layer. But the real world of atoms and particles is not classical. Atoms and particles appear in Feynman’s pictures as classical objects, but they actually obey quite different laws. They obey the quantum laws that Feynman showed us how to describe by using his pictures. The world of atoms belongs to the quantum layer, which we cannot touch directly.

The primary difference between the classical layer and the quantum layer is that the classical layer deals with facts and the quantum layer deals with probabilities. In situations where classical laws are valid, we can predict the future by observing the past. In situations where quantum laws are valid, we can observe the past but we cannot predict the future. In the quantum layer, events are unpredictable. The Feynman pictures only allow us to calculate the probabilities that various alternative futures may happen.

The quantum layer is related to the classical layer in two ways. First, the state of the quantum layer is what is called “a sum-over-histories,” that is, a combination of every possible history of the classical layer leading up to that state. Each possible classical history is given a quantum amplitude. The quantum amplitude, otherwise known as a wave function, is a number defining the contribution of that classical history to that quantum state. Second, the quantum amplitude is obtained from the picture of that classical history by following a simple set of rules. The rules are pictorial, translating the picture directly into a number. The difficult part of the calculation is to add up the sum-over-histories correctly. The great achievement of Feynman was to show that this sum-over-histories view of the quantum world reproduces all the known results of quantum theory, and allows an exact description of quantum processes in situations where earlier versions of quantum theory had broken down. The ‘Dramatic Picture’ of Richard Feynman New York Review of Books July 14, 2011 Freeman Dyson (reviewing Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science by Lawrence M. Krauss; Feynmana graphical biography by Jim Ottaviani

You see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens?

For example, Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? Because she went out on the ice and slipped and broke her hip. That satisfies people. But it wouldn’t satisfy someone who came from another planet and knew nothing about things… When you explain a why, you have to be in some framework that you’ve allowed something to be true. Otherwise you’re perpetually asking why… You go deeper and deeper in various directions.

Why did she slip on the ice? Well, ice is slippery. Everybody knows that-no problem. But you ask why the ice is slippery… And then you’re involved with something, because there aren’t many things slippery as ice… A solid that’s so slippery?

Because it is in the case of ice that when you stand on it, they say, momentarily the pressure melts the ice a little bit so that you’ve got an instantaneous water surface on which you’re slipping. Why on ice and not on other things? Because water expands when it freezes. So the pressure tries to undo the expansion and melts it…

I’m not answering your question, but I’m telling you how difficult a why question is. You have to know what it is permitted to understand… and what it is you’re not.

You’ll notice in this example that the more I ask why, it gets interesting after a while. That’s my idea, that the deeper a thing is, the more interesting…(Richard Feynman. src: Kallos)

Why was she on the ice in the first place?

Eventually, in my consideration of the analytical frame for constitutive fortuity–eg. transformative anthropology–I’ll be fitting taxonomy to the richer, higher order conceptualization for eventuation. Eventuation means for this purpose the conjunction of events necessary to prime a fortuity. One of the intriguing and hard difficulties in wandering around the current mixture of term and operation is that the informal language used to denote folk conceptions about serendipity, fortuity, inter alia, are weighed down by all sorts of divergent connotations.

For example, Paul Lester describes in his book The Spiral Web a restaurant’s assembly of strangers being there all by coincidence.

OED travels from definition of coincidence, 1 to 4, like this:

1. a.1.a The fact or condition of being coincident; the occupation of the same place or part of space.

4.4 A notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connexion.

The strong connotation in every day use does attach notability, or, the exceptional, or another similar sense, and attaches also an underlying sense of there being no causal connection between two isolate and discretely caused events. This leads the meaning enough so that normal use in English-speaking cultures–for example: what a coincidence!–distinguished between the happenstance circumstance of being in a room full of strangers, and, encountering in this room a stranger, only to find enough of a commonality for the happenstance, to morph into notable coincidence.

However, as much as this leads to semantic, conceptual, and terminological conundrums, it is becoming increasingly clear that the causality that differently situates strangers so him or her come to occupy the same part of space may come to collapse together, as-it-were, in the conjunction given by a fortuitous event.

In which case, the folk phrase what a coincidence stands in for: these disparate events come to eventuate together in a single conjunctive event

Feynman Diagram

Feynman Diagram

This got me to thinking of both the metaphoric semblance, or, analogous collapse of histories. And of Dr. Feynman! With a kind of rubric, or top level category, constitutive fortuity, in hand, the sketching of a structural framework nears.

Something about the Feynman diagram compels me to play around with how elements of such a framework could be depicted.

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Transformative Anthropology – More Grey Swans

C. Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think. Remember that positive Black Swans have a necessary first step: you need to be exposed to them. Many people do not realize that they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may never see such a window open up again. I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees. Collect as many free nonlottery tickets (those with open-ended payoffs) as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters—you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity. The idea of settling in a rural area on grounds that one has good communications “in the age of the Internet” tunnels out of such sources of positive uncertainty. Diplomats understand that very well: casual chance discussions at cocktail parties usually lead to big breakthroughs—not dry correspondence or telephone conver­ sations. Go to parties! If you’re a scientist, you will chance upon a remark that might spark new research. And if you are autistic, send your associates to these events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb – p208-209 – The Black Swan. The Impact of the Highly Improbable

“They are rare, much rarer than you think.”

Hypothesis central to Transformative Anthropology (my term): people’s development with respect to their crucial relationships, work life, interests, and, location, much more often than not present necessary developmental events that are happenstance, serendipitous, random.

Such events, I term strategic serendipity.

They’re rare in the sense that a person may identify several key events in their life story. but, they’re common were it overwhelmingly true that almost all persons are advantaged by strategic serendipity.

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A Good Example of Transformative Anthropology

A Man Walks Into a Pub

Well, hops- he only had one leg.

A man who had his leg amputated when he was 29 after a benign tumour was removed was in the process of saving up forty grand to buy a “bionic” one he had read about in America. Now 42 and not having saved anywhere near the amount he needed, he popped into his local for a pint, where he met another chap, also enjoying a beer.

Luckily though, the second man was a surgeon who specialised in fitting the computer-controlled limbs, and he mentioned he had a spare leg and could fit it for free. Which he did. 


Posted by Karter, September 30, 2008 @ k’telontour blog

Comment–good example of a phenomena of what I term transformative anthropology. (This is ill-named, but I’m sticking with it for the time being.)

A phenomena of this kind is described as exemplifying the initiation of a dramatic and lasting change in a person’s life for which happenstance is a necessary feature.


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…added “Vacuum – Edward Vielmetti in Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104” to the blogroll. Evidently Ed is a librarian and so his attention surplus disorder is expressed through his blog’s rich captures of diverse resources. This earns his blog the ‘all over the place category’ here.

The curious thing is that I learned of Vacuum when Ed picked up two posts, one recent and one olden, with quotes from Karl Weick.  This is neat and Ed is obviously a galumpher.

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