Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John Haines "Jack" Spencer Jr., 1936-2017

By Derek Gentile, The Berkshire Eagle

STOCKBRIDGE — John H. Spencer Jr. was a longtime public servant in his adopted town of Stockbridge, but his greatest impact came as an educator and mentor to hundreds of students over the years, friends and colleagues said on Tuesday.

"He literally hired the first history department at Monument Mountain Regional High school," said his fellow teacher and longtime friend John A. Beacco Jr. "He led in developing a unique ninth-grade course. As a department head, he mentored me, Roselle Chartock, Terry Flynn and Bill Fields, as well as many others."

Spencer died early Sunday at age 80.

He was the longtime chairman of the Stockbridge Planning Board, as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals. He was also the longtime president and member of the board of trustees for the Stockbridge Library Association.

The Most Interesting American: What turned a Theodore Roosevelt skeptic into a fan

Presented to the Club by Roger Linscott in 1959.

“The most interesting American” is a phrase which Julian Street employed shortly after the turn of this [20th] century to describe President Theodore Roosevelt. It was a description that echoed the sentiments of the vast majority of Americans of the day — but perhaps it is not the most apt title I could have selected for tonight’s paper. Perhaps I should have entitled it “The Conversion of a Skeptic.” The skeptic in this case is — or rather was — myself.

The year 1958 was, as most of you know, the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. Early in the year I was commissioned to do the bulk of the research for a new and as yet unpublished life and times of Roosevelt* — an assignment I undertook, quite frankly, for the money rather than out of any great enthusiasm for the subject. I had, when I started, what might be termed the intellectually fashionable viewpoint toward TR — in sum, a highly critical viewpoint, conditioned by a cynical age in which many of the values that he represented have lost their luster. My picture of him was an unflattering caricature — the caricature of a self-righteous and opinionated political adolescent — a somewhat bogus reformer who made loud noises but produced few tangible results — a bumptious swaggerer who conducted diplomacy with a big stick and disobeyed his own injunctions to walk softly while doing so — a jingo who had an almost psychopathic preoccupation with physical courage and with the glories of the battlefield. It was the comic opera caricature of the rather stout and bespectacled Teddy, sword in hand and medals in mind, rushing recklessly up San Juan Hill at the head of his unmounted Rough Riders.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Artificial Intelligence: Should we worry?

Kismet the AI Robot at the MIT Museum, photo by Chris Devers, used under Creative Commons License
Presented to the Club by Martin Langeveld on Monday evening, February 6, 2017

Artificial Intelligence (or AI) is defined as intelligence exhibited by a machine, specifically a computer-driven device.

In popular culture, artificial intelligence is often depicted negatively. Recall the computer HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. While HAL appears benevolent at first, taking care of the spaceship’s functions and playing chess with its human travellers, eventually the computer turns evil and seeks to kill the astronauts after discovering they are having doubts about HAL’s reliability and are planning to disable him.

Many other intelligent machines and robots, some nasty, some nice, figure in movies such as The Terminator, The Matrix, Aliens, and back in the 50s The Day the Earth Stood Still. And science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and many others have explored the implications of intelligent machines as well.

Still, such machines, with true cognitive ability and rational decision making ability, and what might be understood as consciousness or self-awareness, have not yet been invented. In fact, a debate has raged for decades as to how to actually determine whether a computer is intelligent. Most of the methods proposed are variations on the well-known Turing Test, proposed in 1950 by the Enigma code-breaking mathematician, Alan Turing. Turing proposed a test in which an evaluator interviews two entities, a human and a computer in such a way that he can not see them, and receives answers only as text. In Turing’s original formulation, if, after a five minute conversation with each entity, the evaluator can not tell the human from the computer 70 percent of the time, the computer is judged to be intelligent.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Neapolitan Children Bathing: The stories of John Singer Sargent and Robert Sterling Clark

Neapolitan Children Bathing, by John Singer Sargent

Presented to the Club by David T. Noyes on Monday evening, December 5, 2016

Can you remember when the only building housing the Clark Art Institute was the stark, austere, imposing, lonely, marble fortress set back from the street on a knoll in Williamstown? After moving to Pittsfield in 1981, Sue and I made many trips to take in Sterling Clark’s collection. There was no food service at the Museum in those days, so we might grab lunch at the (now defunct) Howard Johnson’s, or have a sandwich at Papa Charlie’s Deli on Spring Street. No visit was complete without admiring this small painting—also titled Innocence Abroad; or Boys on a Beach, Naples, painted in 1879 by John Singer Sargent.

This 11” x 16” canvas shows children enjoying a beautiful sunny day at the beach. Two boys—one with a towel over his face, the other on his stomach with his head propped up on his hand—lie near two other, much younger boys standing. The boy at the center, wearing water wings, looks as though he is trying to get up the courage to wade into the rolling surf. Out in the water, a head bobbing above the rolling waves shows us a swimmer. The only interruption of the blue sky is the sailboat on the horizon. The smallest child, still showing the chubbiness of babyhood, looks outward engaging the viewer, thereby inviting us into their realm. The use of a completely frontal stance became a hallmark of Sargent’s painting as he felt this gave a more powerful image and made a more direct connection with the viewer. The children are all relaxed, and self absorbed—the very epitome of childhood innocence.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Back Stairs: The world of servants in America

Presented to the Club on Monday Evening, March 7, 2016 by Albert Easton

I am sure that most of us here have watched, or are at least familiar with the television program Downton Abbey, or its predecessor, Upstairs Downstairs. Each of these programs derives part of its drama from the contrast between the aristocracy and the servant class. Although each is based in England at a time and place when this contrast was most clearly delineated, there certainly was a somewhat similar contrast in America up to about 1930, and my purpose tonight is to explore the world of servants. Who were they, what were they like, and what has become of them?

Servants have probably existed for most of human history. It was natural for one person who was able for whatever reason to dominate another, to request that that other person take on some of the tasks he had been doing. Very often, the dominance was a result of warfare, and the people of the defeated nation were made the slaves of the victor. Often, too, the younger children did not inherit enough to support themselves, and had to offer services to others in order to survive.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Richard Whitlock Nunley, 1931-2016

Our longtime Monday Evening Club member, Richard Whitlock Nunley, born July 31, 1931, in Scituate, Massachusetts, died from a brain hemorrhage on March 3 in Portland, Oregon.

Dick was a teacher, poet, cook, gardener, and lover of the natural world. Childhood mentors fostered a love of books and learning, which led him to Dartmouth College and Kings College, Cambridge in England.

There he met Susan Stroud, whom he married on December 19, 1965. They spent the majority of their lives together in New Lebanon, New York, where Dick was a teacher at Darrow School. They raised two daughters, Diana and Felicity, at their "Garden Hill" home, surrounded by flower and vegetable gardens with a spectacular view across Lebanon Valley.

In 1970 Dick became a professor of English at Berkshire Community College in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts. An exacting teacher with high expectations for all, many former students credit him with changing the course of their lives.

For 25 years beginning in 1980 Dick wrote a weekly "Our Berkshires" column for The Berkshire Eagle. His columns challenged readers to connect the dots between vignettes of Berkshire life and his favorite poets and thinkers, and revealed the thoughtful, caring and generous man that he was.

For the last 12 years of his life, Dick and Sue lived near Felicity in Portland, Oregon, where he turned his eye on the lush environment of the Pacific Northwest and enjoyed the city's art and musical offerings. He delighted in his grandchildren, Helen and Norris Meigs of Portland and Hanna and Elena Johnson of Minneapolis.

"How simple happiness is, really," concludes one of Dick's poems. That lesson may be Dick's greatest legacy to all who remember him whether it's to be found in a delicate spring bloom, a morning walk, or a fresh-baked loaf of bread. A brief memorial service will be held at Willamette View in Portland on Monday, March 7, with a fuller celebration of his life planned for this summer in New Lebanon.


We also enjoyed this remembrance of Dick by Judy Waters in The Berkshire Eagle of Friday, March 11, 2016.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Allotment: How the 1887 Dawes Act disrupted Native American cultures

Henry Laurens Dawes
Presented to the Club by Martin C. Langeveld on Tuesday evening, May 26, 2015 (that Monday being a holiday)

One of the founding members of this club in 1869 was Henry Laurens Dawes, born in Cummington in 1816. He graduated from Yale University in 1839 and became a teacher in Greenfield, where he also edited the Greenfield Recorder.

In 1842 he was admitted to the bar and opened a law practice in North Adams, maintaining his interest in journalism by editing the North Adams Transcript.

From journalism he moved into politics, being elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1848, 1849 and 1852, to the state Senate in 1850, and to the Massachusetts Constitutional convention in 1853.

He then served as U.S. district attorney for Western Massachusetts from 1853 to 1857, when he was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives and served there for 23 years until 1875.

That year, Dawes was elected by the Massachusetts General Court as United States Senator from Massachusetts, to succeed Charles Sumner, who died in office. He served in the Senate until 1893, and died in Pittsfield in 1903 at the age of 86.

A friend of Abraham Lincoln, he served as a pall bearer at Lincoln’s funeral.

In the House, Dawes figured prominently in the passage of anti-slavery and Reconstruction measures during and after the Civil War, as well as in tariff legislation, the establishment of a fish commission, and the establishment of a system of daily weather reports, which was a forerunner to the United States Weather Service.