Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Books on paper are here to stay (I hope)

February 11, 2013

Double click to enlarge.

The other advantage of books on paper is that they can’t be deleted at the push of a button by Big Brother (in the form of Amazon, Google or Homeland Security).

Source: Daily Infographic.

Six notable people to invite for dinner

January 10, 2012

An on-line poll asked viewers to name six notable historical figures whom they’d invite dinner.  One of the responders was Newt Gingrich.  He listed Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Winston Churchill and John Ford.

The composite consensus of top invitees, as I posted this,  consisted of Jesus of Nazareth, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Jackson.

As for myself, I in a way already have notable people as guests.  They are guests in my head.  That is to say, I have imaginary conservations with people whom I’ve read or heard about, but never met.  I do not of course mistake them for real people, but I can’t always predict their responses, and I sometimes change my opinion as a result of these conversations.

I have imaginary conversations with George Orwell, Henry Thoreau and Ayn Rand, but I probably wouldn’t invite them.  I don’t think they’d be the life of the party.  But I think I’d have a good time talking to Bertrand Russell, Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and maybe Richard Feynman or William James.

Or maybe I should invite Socrates, Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammad, the Buddha, and Confucius and, if I am not too awestruck to open my mouth, ask them what they think of their professed followers.

What notable people would you like to have dinner with?

Click on Who are the six notable people you’d like to have dinner with? for the current version of the on-line poll.

Click on Dinner With Newt? A TIC Colloquium for thoughts about Newt Gingrich’s choices.  Stephen Masty, writing for the Imaginative Conservative, said it would be enlightening to ask all the Presidential candidates for their favorite imaginary dinner guests, more enlightening than the current debates, anyhow.  But the candidates would have to submit to lie detector tests to guarantee honest answers.

Of course the great thing about living in an age like this, when books are easily obtainable from stores, public libraries and the Internet is that you don’t have to meet great people in the flesh in order to interact with them.

Tough times for the American worker

September 7, 2010

Over Labor Day weekend I read Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. It was published in 2008, so it doesn’t deal with the results of the current Great Recession.  Rather it covers the condition of the working class of the United States in supposedly good times – the alleged prosperity we’re trying to get back to.

I knew the story in broad outline – the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base, wage stagnation, the loss of job security, rising debt – but Greenhouse’s reporting, with many poignant individual stories and backed up by statistics, brought home to me just how bad things are.

Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, famously said that what American workers want is “more.” What they are getting is more stress, more hours of work, more unpaid overtime, more insecurity, more debt, more years to work until retirement, but not more pay or benefits.

I was surprised, which may show my naivete, at the amount of lawbreaking by employers.  Greenhouse tells story after story of workers being forced to work overtime and through their lunch hours without pay, of workers being dismissed on trumped-up charges because they were injured on the job and became financial liabilities, of workers being locked in to their workplaces like the women who died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

There are two aspects to the story.  There is what I call the Adam Smith story, which is about the need to adapt to a highly competitive global economy, and the Karl Marx story, which is about class warfare and redistribution of income upward.

You can’t ignore either aspect.  American industry did grow complacent after World War Two.  The United States had the world’s only intact industrial base, and, for about 30 years, our industries had no serious competitors. There used to be an urban legend about the city of “Usa, Japan” which existed for the purpose of being able to stamp products “Made in USA.”  Corporate management grew complacent, as did government and organized labor.  The U.S. government, instead of trying to strengthen international competitors such as Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and IBM Corp., broke up their market power through anti-trust suits.  Organized labor, all too often, resisted new technology and clung to outmoded job classifications and work rules.

But in fact the U.S. economy is not doing all that badly.  It is just the human beings in the economy who are struggling.   Corporate profits, national output and productivity continued to grow in the 2000s, as do the incomes of Americans in the highest brackets.  But wages were flat, benefits were eroding and the majority of workers were under increased pressure to work harder and longer, even in a time of economic expansion.


What the Internet is doing to our brains

August 6, 2010

When I first started using the Internet to find information, I noticed that I had a harder time concentrating on what I read on a computer screen than what I read on the page of a book.  I wondered whether the reason was in the Internet or in me.  I wondered whether it was a generational thing, because I did not grow up with the Internet, or a function of old age and the decline of mental power.

Nicholas Carr

After reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, I think I know the answer.  It’s not me.  It’s the Internet.

Scientists have discovered that the human brain literally rewires itself, depending on what mental faculties are used and not used. eurologists have discovered that the brain changes its structure depending on which mental functions are used most extensively.  For example, London taxi drivers, who are required to know the geography of London by heart, have a larger and more fully developed posterior hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes and remembers spatial relations, than most people do; they also have a less developed anterior hippocampus, which might affect their ability to do other kinds of memorization.

Users of the Internet have extensive brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with decision-making and problem-solving. Book readers have activity in regions of the brain associated with language, memory and visual processing. That’s because of the distracting nature of hypertext, even in the absence of pop-ups, advertisements and other junk. Multitasking is the enemy of concentration.

Tests have shown that reading comprehension is less with hypertext (texts with links to other sources of information) than with plain text.  Even if you ignore the links, the increased demand of decision-making and visual processing, as tiny as it may seem, uses up bandwidth in the brain that would otherwise go to memorizing and thinking about the text.

Likewise, reading comprehension of text plus audiovisual material is less than with text only.  Comprehension of a lecture is less with students allowed to access the Web than those forced to listen to the lecture; maybe this is obvious, but the theory was that students could use Web access to enrich their understanding of the lecture.  Comprehension of a standard CNN broadcast with info-graphics and a news crawl at the bottom of a screen is less than with the same broadcast with those elements removed.

Nicholas Carr writes that the writing of books brought into being a new way of thinking – the focus on a single thing to the exclusion of all else.  This is something that had to be learned.  The human brain evolved when humans were hunters and gatherers, and had to be alert to everything going on around them. The blooming, buzzing confusion of the Internet is more adapted to the nature of the brain than the linear experience of reading.

Nevertheless, according to Carr, the ability to focus on a single thing is the source of human creativity.  It is the source of scientific discovery and artistic creation. The nobler emotions – compassion, love of truth – require more thought than the baser ones – fear, anger. That is why Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and other religious believers all taught techniques of meditation that make it possible for people to get control of their minds.

The ability to think deeply on any subject requires holding it in short-term memory long enough for the brain to generate proteins and synaptic connections needed to hold it in long-term memory.  The distracting nature of the Internet makes this harder to do.


The new American oligarchy

May 30, 2010

About two months after President Obama was inaugurated, he met with the CEOs of the 13 largest financial institutions to ask for their cooperation in averting financial collapse. The U.S. government was engaged in a major financial rescue effort to save the U.S. banking industry from collapse. In return, he asked that the bank CEOs hold off on big pay raises and bonuses that enrage the public. “We’re all in this together,” he reportedly said. “Help me to help you.”

He was pleading with them as if they were a sovereign power in their own right. “This administration is the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks,” he reportedly said.  The bank CEOs balked at Obama’s requests and since then have mobilized against even modest financial reforms.

This story is told in 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, by Simon Johnson and James Kwak. Simon Johnson is a former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund. His brother-in-law, James Kwak, has had a successful career as a software entrepreneur and business consultant. In many ways, they argue, the United States fits the profile of faltering Third World oligarchies the IMF has had to bail out. And Obama, so far, has not challenged this.

Their definition of an oligarchy is a nation in which economic power generates political power, and vice versa. They show how, for the past 30 years, a financial oligarchy has emerged and, under Democrats and Republicans alike, has steadily freed itself of governmental control while continuing to demand and get government bailouts. The recent bailout is only the latest and biggest of a long series, and is unlikely to be the last unless big changes are made.

The savings of Americans, instead of being invested in American industry and contributing to the nation’s economic growth, have been diverted to a kind of high-stakes poker game that benefits nobody but the winners, and in which the big losers are bailed out.  This will not end, they say, until the big banks are broken up, as President Theodore Roosevelt broke up the Standard Oil trust.


Sundown towns and white flight

May 30, 2010

Residential segregation by race is such a key fact of American life that it seems as if it has existed from time immemorial. And it also seems like the result of a natural process – if not members of different races voluntarily sorting themselves out, then as a result of impersonal economic factors that have to do with race only by coincidence.

Two books I read a couple of years ago show this isn’t so.  The recent discussion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act reminded me of them.  One is Sundown Towns: a Hidden Dimension in American Racism by James Loewen. He describes how American small towns between 1890 and 1940 used violence and governmental authority to drive out their black residents, a historical event which has been forgotten and covered up in the years after.

The other is White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin M. Kruse. It gives a blow-by-blow account of the civil rights struggle in Atlanta in the 1960s, and tells each victory for racial integration led to white people withdrawing to the suburbs and allowing the city to become a black ghetto.