SCHOLAR'S NOTEBOOK - September 2012


The SDIS website will soon start to change in ways intended to serve us better. Today, the website is a handy place to learn about the next general meeting, to see some basic information about SDIS, and to find the Scholar’s Notebook. These basic functions are useful but newer website technology enables much more.

Our website has just been upgraded. New and more powerful back-of–the-screen software has been installed.  What changes would you see were you to visit the website today? Almost none. The new software stands ready to be used in many different ways. We can choose how best to proceed.

The new software will permit gradual and incremental change at a pace in keeping with our understanding and comfort. It offers possibilities of turning our website into a group of individually configured modules, each of which meets the needs of some portion of or our entire membership. Each module, if desired, can be made interactive, open to input by some or all members.

A prominent need is to reconfigure the website in ways which will improve outreach to prospective new members. Consider for a moment your reaction if you did not know SDIS and you somehow stumbled onto the SDIS website as you browsed the web.  You would see the SDIS face page. Consider whether anything on this page grabs your attention and gives you the immediate sense that you "understand" the essence of SDIS.

Web browsing is a fast process. Immediate impressions count when a mouse click is all it takes for a website to disappear. That you might be just the sort of person for whom SDIS has much to offer is of no consequence if you click away from the site not realizing what you have missed. Were this to occur, it would be a communications failure.

A well conceived SDIS face page should immediately and clearly invite your further attention. At a glance, does the current SDIS face page do this? I think not. We need to correct this deficiency in a way which, ideally, is so meaningful, understandable, and attractive that many of the people who would benefit from SDIS will actually stop their web browsing long enough for a second glance. Then, if this is favorable, the rest of the website must satisfactorily provide further interesting information.

This goal can initially be examined within a general rubric which views the website as an increasingly powerful outreach communication tool. The relevant question becomes, “Outreach specifically to whom?” — A good question, or so it would seem. There is, however, another rubric which starts with the premise that e-communications have transformative power; from this perspective, so-called “search engine optimization” of our website to the linkages seen by powerful internet search engines changes the entire nature of the problem. Might it make other ways of identifying target internet audiences less important or, I wonder, even irrelevant?  We have much to learn.

Our traditional mode of outreach has been and will continue to be through personal contact by each of us with friends and associates. The website opens additional possibilities. Absent factual information, my guess is that the leading edge of the baby boom generation, now already retired, is the demographic which will find SDIS most appealing. Do send me an email if you have factual information which confirms or denies this assumption.

All of this leads back to a subject which has been the center of a lot of introspection within SDIS during recent years. Restated briefly, learning with and from each other, respectful discourse, support for individual independent scholarship, and a sense of community evoke the way we deal with each other within SDIS. We are, of course, not alone in this. We, in effect, have adapted to our context the idea of a special kind of learning community long known elsewhere in different contexts.

An example of well established practice is seen in the following excerpt from the website of St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM and Annapolis, MD):

…. education to and for freedom, freedom from the tyranny that thoughtless acceptance or rejection of received opinions exercises over us …. learn to listen carefully and respectfully to others so that as much as possible the difficult, profound questions under discussion come to sight in their fullest richness …. The role of the faculty (called ‘tutors’) …. is to lead, moderate, and facilitate the discussion, not to convey their own expertise.  Students and tutors together engage in an attempt to make sense of the material they are studying.

This style has deep historical roots. To cite one additional example, the following is excerpted from the website of Oxford University in England:

The Oxford College system makes graduate study at Oxford a truly unique experience: in a small, intimate and multi-disciplinary setting, your college will provide you with the chance to establish a new circle of friends quickly …. and to participate in a lively intellectual community of which the Fellows form an important part.

Our practice at SDIS is a variation on these old themes. Paraphrasing the Oxford statement, SDIS too is an intellectual learning community and, for many members, a circle of friends. Our face page needs to capture the spirit, not the details, of all this in immediately understandable words and images.

Looking at the likely website changes of the months and year ahead, we obviously do need to proceed with careful attention to effective implementation. In practice this will surely mean thoughtful incremental change and major focus on providing instructional information.

The goal will be to proceed in ways congenial to us as we gradually build an enhanced website which facilitates outreach, adds e-communication variations to themes which already interest us, and encourages exploration of new ideas. Several small task forces are already at work with the goal of defining specifics. Stay tuned for more information.

Sam Gusman 


Colloquy Cafe   

For several years, members of the SDIS Colloquy Cafe have gathered once a month to discuss a topic chosen by the attendees.  While we do don't always agree with each other, we are always polite and open to diverse opinions.  Topics covered in 2012 include "courage," "aging," "prostitution," "entitlement," "compassion," "public image vs. self-image," and "audicity."  The topic for September 2012 is "power."   

Our discussion of "public vs. self-image" noted how people have images of themselves that seem to be built in or hard-wired which may or may not coalesce with the image(s) they present to the public.  Additionally, the public view of any one person can vary drastically from observer to observer, e.g., voters' images of presidential candidates.  We decided that at least four images of each us us can exist at the same time.   

Our recent discussion of "audacity" focused on the possible positive and negative ways the word can be used.  Following our discussion, Judy Ramirez suggested alternative titles to Obama's The Audacity of Hope, coming up with, among others, the "assertiveness" and "resoluteness," of hope, which set off an exchange of emails adding "enormity," and "fluidity of hope" and other suggestions such as a reversal of the title, "hope of audacity."     The Colloquy Cafe routinely meets from 1:30 to 3:30 on the third Wednesday of each month.  The group is limited to 12 members, but anyone interested in joining the group should contact M. E. Stratthaus at  

Culture One Study Group 
On Thursday, September 20, 2012 at 2:00 p.m. the Culture One Study Group will begin to focus on the issues described in Public Discourse in America, a collection of essays published as follow-up to a commission on this subject convened by Judith Rodin, President of the University of Pennsylvania. 
This Study Group usually meets on the third Thursday of the month, hence the tentative dates for remainder of 2012 are September 20, October 18, November 15, and December 20. The group is limited to a maximum of 12 participants. At present there is one "empty seat." Send an email to Sam Gusman at if you are interested in attending.
The August meeting of this study group was devoted to a general introductory discussion of the nature of discourse, its widely varying quality, and how the process of discourse may be affected by various kinds of underlying change, e.g., increasing use of new modes of electronic communication. 
Culture Two Study Group  
On Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 1:30 p.m. the Culture Two Study Group will focus on the entire Chapter 5 of Michael Sandel's JusticeThis chapter describes the views of Immanuel Kant. His focus, stated in oversimplified terms, is not just about doing the right thing. It is about doing the right thing for the right reason. 
In August, this study group began discussion of Kant's views on the question, Are there universal human rights? What might they be? On what basis does Kant assert them?  In September this discussion will continue to address such questions and also focus on what Kant means by "freedom," especially on his assertion that freedom is an important determinant of human rights.
This Study Group usually meets on the second Friday of the month. It sometimes chooses a different meeting date. For the remainder of 2012, the schedule — always subject to later revision —  is as follows: Thursday, September 13; Friday, October 12; Friday, November 9; Thursday, December 13. The group is limited to a maximum of 12 participants. At present there are two "empty seats." Send an email to Sam Gusman at if you are interested in attending.
The Film Group 
The Film Group will meet Wednesday, September 5, at 12:30 p.m. at the home of Barbara Heckler to view the critically acclaimed film, Central Station.  This 1998 Brazilian-French drama tells the story of a poor 9 year old boy who becomes homeless, and his relationship with a bitter woman who writes letters for illiterate customers in Rio de Janeiro’s Central Station.    Guests are welcomed.  Please contact Barbara at if you are interested.
Our summer viewing included two 2010 comedies about dying.  Nora’s Will, winner of Mexico’s Best Picture of the Year, is an irreverent story of a controlling a Jewish divorcee who commits suicide just before Passover. Her family learns she has meticulously planned for the days after her death, including filling her refrigerator with food and directions for preparing the Passover Seder.  But Nora failed to consider that Jewish tradition restricts burial of suicides to an undesirable location, so her atheist ex-husband tried to find a solution. This movie kept us laughing throughout! 
In Get Low, Robert Duvall stars in a film loosely based on the 1938 story of a disliked hermit (Felix Bush) living in Tennessee. Rumors abound about Felix’s past, so he devises a plan  to entice the townspeople to attend a “funeral party”.  After revealing his reasons for becoming a hermit, he is prepared to “get low” (die in peace).




Discussions are underway about starting an SDIS open table, open discussion, roundtable occasional luncheon at a local restaurant. The model is the University of Chicago's roundtable mentioned in the President's column of the May, 2011 Scholar's Notebook. See Scholars Notebook Archive.  

What might the luncheon conversation be like? — Certainly the intent is a stimulating exchange, hopefully with some learning, and laughs too, mutually respectful in the manner of all SDIS events, and an opportunity to explore questions and points of view with SDIS friends in a most informal way. 
Might this be of interest to you? Do respond with a yes, no, maybe, or, even better, a comment on the best way to set this up so that you would enjoy participating. 
Send an email to Sam Gusman at
Bill Houghton braved COPD and eventually passed peacefully at home on July 29, 2012 surrounded by his family.  At the family's Celebration of Life, attendees met his wife, Carolyn, plus daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren.

We learned that Bill's Caltech education in Physics was followed by a career in the then-new field of atomic energy. He had a scientific training but he was interested in much more than science. He was a gentleman and we knew him as a friend.

We knew, and his family confirmed for us, just how important SDIS was in Bill's life. He was a regular participant in study groups and had served in SDIS management positions. He had an inquiring mind, entirely in tune with the SDIS sense of wanting to "understand."

The words of the Benediction were written by Bill himself, in part:  "May your interest in the manifold works of God open to wonderful worlds.  May you hear the nuances of the earth – the footstep of the ant, the anthem of the aurora borealis."

Judy Ramirez and Sam Gusman
Sam Gusman, President: presides at Board and other meetings and "shall exercise the general powers and duties of management usually associated with the office of president of a corporation," as per the Bylaws of the Organization.  Communicates with the Study Groups, the Scholars' Notebook (monthly newsletter), Outreach, new SDIS initiatives, and non-administrative leadership needed to steer the organization.  
Dutch Schantz, Executive VP: acts to assist and represent the President, and is a substitute for the President when he is unable to act. In practice, the Exec. VP also takes on some special assignments. In addition, the Executive VP, the Administrative VP and the President consult from time to time on general management issues.
Sue Rosner, Administrative VP: divides administrative (operational) executive responsibilities with the President.  The Admin. VP relates mostly to Membership, Program, and Secretarial chairs.
Sally Pollack, Secretary:  keeps the minutes of the organization.  
Edwina Shell Johnson, Treasurer:  keeps the books and accounting for the organization.  
Jean Mayer, Membership: includes the administrative tasks which follow after a visitor attends any of our public meetings.
Mike Seidel, Program: selects speakers for the general meetings. The Program Chair may ask for help from the General Membership.  
Barbara Zimonja, Scholars Notebook (Newsletter): Gathers and edits commentary and submissions for the monthly publication of the Scholars' Notebook, and newsletter format for members.  
Gerry Horwitz, Director-At-Large: Picks up a variety of special assignments, including help with the monthly meeting speakers or special assignments by the President.  
If you wish to submit to the Scholar's Notebook, please send an email to Barbara at  
If you have comments or suggestions regarding the new website, please submit to Sam at