Saturday, January 23, 2010

This will probably ruffle some feathers

Disclaimer: This entry is perhaps more... inflammatory than strictly necessary, or indeed than I necessarily feel (if you know me, you know I tend to take things to extremes to provoke honest thought), but I hope it gives the reader pause to think.

Let me start by saying that I feel very deeply for the people of Haiti in the wake of this most recent disaster. I am heartbroken to think of the lives altered utterly and irrevocably by the loss of parents, children, siblings, spouses, homes, limbs and livelihoods.

I think it's wonderful that the world in general, and Canadians in particular have responded so generously.

But I can't help but wonder... what about the needy in our own back yards? What about the people who have found themselves homeless and hungry in the past year? What about the people who were homeless and hungry even before the recent economic downturn? What about the people here who can't afford medications? Who can't afford the associated costs of significant medical treatments (after-care, for example... or physio... or crutches or prosthetics or... the list is not insignificant).

Charitable donations are down. Have been down for 2 years running, now. Demand on Food Banks is up and climbing at a startling rate.

I don't begrudge the Haitians the donations pouring in for them... they so obviously need any help they can get. I honestly wish there was more I could do (but, with me being unemployed for the past 20+ months, we're not in great shape here, either). Maybe it's our own precarious position that makes me a little irked at the outpouring of funds and star-studded appeals for the latest 'fashionable' cause... but I doubt it. I wondered the same thing after the Tsunami of 2004.

The government of Canada is generously matching civilian donations to Haiti. Let's not forget about the needy at home in our race to be charitable... donations at home aren't being matched. A dollar here is a dollar. A dollar for the latest cause would go further on it's own already, and the government are doubling it.

While Mohammed Ali appealed last night on George Clooney's telethon saying that "Charity begins at home... but it shouldn't end there", let's also not forget that it SHOULD begin at home. We have poor, disadvantaged, and starving people here, too... we have a climate with its own harsh realities of temperature and people living without shelter... we have children who have been bereft of family support here, too. Let's not forget them. The increase in need here isn't quite as sudden and dramatic... but the increase is possibly all the more devastating in it's creeping advance because nobody seems to notice it. Like a band of guerrillas creeping up on a village so quietly that they do not notice until they are surrounded and in mortal danger with no hope of escape.

So give... give generously... give as much as you can... but don't take from another worthy cause to which you usually contribute (but were thinking you might not get around to this year) to do so. There will be people in the world who will need the support of 'stronger' communities in the years to come (Haiti will be in recovery for a long time, just as there are still places in South Asia striving to recover from the Tsunami... just as the deep south is still recovering from Katrina)... don't ignore the need at home in the rush to help them now... or we might not be in a position to still help them later.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tragic Losses... and the insensitivity of Trolls

I wasn't sure how to write this. I wanted to remember an old acquaintance (I wouldn't presume to call him 'friend'... I wasn't privileged to know him that well, but we attended the same school for 2 years... a small and close-knit school). But, not being a close friend, I wasn't sure how best to accomplish it.

Last week, this old acquaintance made the news. Was it for his brilliant mind? No. For his tremendous accomplishments? Sadly, no. He made the news for plunging 16 floors to his death in New York. He became merely another event to support "the NYU Curse". Nobody's really sure what happened... I won't speculate. He deserves better than speculation and gossip. As do his widow and now father-less infant daughters.

Sam Roweis was, like many of his fellow UTS Alumni, a brilliant mind. He was the sort of person (when I knew him, and by all accounts right up 'til last Tuesday) who had a smile for everyone... and a contagious one, at that. a PhD from Cal-Tech under his belt, he became employed by U of T in 2001, and with the exception of a year as visiting faculty at MIT in the middle of the last decade, he was at U of T until accepting a position at NYU in 2009. He was 37 when he died. Think about that for a minute. 37 and he had already been a researcher/lecturer/professor for nearly a decade. 37 and considered "an expert" in the field of machine learning... "artificial intelligence"... a leader in cutting-edge research.

More than his academic accomplishments, though, he was a good person. A person who will be sorely missed by the people in whose lives he featured prominantly, who will be missed by past students and research colleagues, who will be missed by anyone who shared conversation with him, by his family, and most dearly by his wife and through her memories, by the daughters who never had a chance to know him.

And yet, complete strangers feel justified in bashing him in the comments section of various media & blog sites on the 'net. They feel no qualms about posting such comments as "nice jump Einstein" on articles which would be read by his friends and family. To them, obviously, he wasn't the man we knew. To them, he wasn't a man at all... he was just a new item... a statistic. To them I say... this was a man... a man with family and friends who loved him... an man with tremendous accomplishments to his name... and sadly, a man who apparently had problems to which he saw no solution. Apparently. Because, nobody really knows what happened or what lead to his death, except Sam.

Regardless of their personal views on suicide in general as an action, could they not take 2 minutes to consider that there might be people seeking articles about his death in a quest for answers in their grief? :(

This article, though, was linked in the comments to a story at Huffington Post about Sam's death, and in a strange way, inspired me to write a tribute of sorts to this man with whom I shared friends and a school for 2 years in my youth.

So I have a request for anyone who might read this... before you post a comment on a public site, consider your possible audience. Whether that means the family and friends of the dead, the family of people whose actions you may find abhorrent, or people whose personal tragedies you simply don't understand... regardless of how you may see the 'news items', for someone, the situation may be tragic... and they might be hurting quite enough without reading your inane and frankly insulting comments.