11.14.2010

Hiatus


Marks in the Margin will be taking a break for an indefinite period while I hole up in a grass shack on a remote island in the middle of the ocean to work on some long-delayed projects. Postings during this pause will be intermittent, if that. I'll still be reading, catching up on a long list of books that go back several decades, and training for the next season. Meanwhile, I wish each of you Happy Holidays and many thanks for reading and responding.

11.11.2010

What's Next?

Last Tuesday, November 9th, The New York Times published a special anniversary issue of its regular Tuesday edition of Science Times. They asked “top researchers” in ten sciences to predict the future direction of their field and what the most important discoveries are likely to be during the next ten years.

The researcher’s disciplines ranged from genomics to mathematics to earth science. Here is a very brief list of ten disciplines and the predictions of the researchers:

Space Science: Learning more about asteroids

Game Science: Developing games for the study of women’s rights, climate change and medical innovation

Climate Change: Testing the accuracy of current climate change models

Engineering: Growing integration of biological processes in engineering real systems

Biotechnology: Refining methods for producing stem cells that will be “cheap, fast, and relatively easy.”

Conservation Biology: Increasing knowledge of marine biodiversity

Ocean Science: Exploration of the oceans (70% of the planet) with particular emphasis of the “mysterious” yet major worldwide effects of the Indian Ocean

Genomics: Reading new types of genomes and completing DNA sequencing (ordering) of an individual’s (or any organism’s) genome at a single time

Neuroscience: Determination of the physical organization of a memory within the brain

Mathematics: Discovery of scientific results that are correct and predictive but are without explanation. “We may be able to do science without insight, and we may have to learn to live without it.” [Personal note: My favorite prediction and one with particular relevance to psychology.]

There are several features of this list that concern me. I am struck by the overlap of disciplines. There are two pointing to improved understanding of climate change, two focusing on developments in the biological sciences, and two related to the marine sciences. Indeed, the majority of disciplines are drawn from the natural sciences.

Secondly, the social sciences are completely ignored. Not a single researcher in economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. is interviewed. Are these not sciences? Do they not seek general laws about the subject matter of their inquires? Are there no more discoveries to be made in these fields? Or is it simply that anyone with a head on their shoulders already knows the results of their studies?

Perhaps the editors at the Times do not consider these fields as sciences. Or perhaps they believe we now have a complete understanding of human behavior and are easily able to predict and control it. No, I am sure they do not hold these views. What then can account for their failure to interview a few representative investigators from these areas?

I am aware that they are not unified sciences and that there are frequent disagreements among investigators in these disciplines. For example, Rom Harre, researcher, teacher, and writer in the philosophy of science, and later in social psychology has written about his field, one that was mine for many years:

“It has been about 30 years since the first rumblings of discontent with the state of academic psychology began to be heard…Methods that have long been shown to be ineffective or worse are still used on a routine basis by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Conceptual muddles long exposed to view are evidence in almost every issue of standard psychology journals.”

Geoffrey Loftus, a leading cognitive psychologist has also spoken of his concerns about the field. “But I have developed a certain angst over the intervening 30 something years, a constant nagging sensation that our field spends a lot of time spinning its wheels without really making much progress.”

I suspect the same can also be said of the other social sciences. Still that doesn’t make them any less scientific in objectives and methods. Rather it reflects their developing state and the extraordinarily complex subject matter they have carved out to investigate. As others have said, the social sciences are the most difficult of all the sciences.

Finally, I might note that there are also wide areas of uncertainty and theoretical disagreements within the natural sciences. So in this respect they are no different than the social sciences, indeed probably any field of inquiry especially one that in comparison with the natural sciences is in an early stage of development.

11.09.2010

Radio: Then and Now

In an essay in the November 11th New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben reminds us how extraordinary radio is today and the way it has been transformed by the digital age. Yet it is rarely discussed and not much is written about it. I grew up with the radio and I have grown old with the radio so I appreciate how right he is.

Television was still several years away when I was a child and so my early experience with the media was exclusively an auditory one. As a result it was also an imaginative one. There was nothing to look at, no images before me, and so what traveled through my ears took me to my own places, my own mental maps. I had an RCA flip top radio that turned on and off by lifting a horizontal lid covering the dial, at that time exclusively AM. Somewhere on the box Nipper, the legendary RCA dog, was peering into a large speaker searching for his master’s voice.

I listened, if you can believe it, to Stuart Hamblin who sang country music and ran for president on the Prohibition Party ticket, Arthur Godfrey who had a morning variety show, the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, Hopalong Cassidy, etc. And on Sunday nights, instead of peering at 60 Minutes on the tube, we sat around a huge radio cabinet listening to the comedians of the day--Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen, Abbott and Costello, Fred Allen, etc. These are people you may never have heard of but they were wildly popular during what some have called golden age of radio.

I still listen to the radio and I do so far more often than I watch television. McKibben cites some intriguing statistics on radio listening today. He notes that in terms of frequency of listeners, Rush Limbaugh is number one with 14.25 million listeners, that’s 14.25 million listeners, during an average week. But surprisingly Public Radio is not far behind.

“National Public Radio’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, featuring news and commentary alongside in-depth reports and stories that can stretch over twenty minutes—are the second- and third-most-popular radio programs in the country, each drawing about 13 million unique listeners in the course of the week.”

In my view Terry Gross’s Fresh Air is far and away the number one program on NPR. I listen to her relentlessly perceptive and intelligent interviews when I workout and the moments pass by in a flash. I’ve never heard or seen an interviewer draw out a person better or get to the central issue faster than Gross and she’s been conducting the show for nearly thirty-five years. McKibben reports Fresh Air is syndicated to more that 450 stations and can claim of average of nearly 4.5 million listeners each week.

Every time I listen to National Public Radio I am struck by the range and originality of its programming. I often wonder why that kind of programming can no longer be brought to television? There was a time when it was on Omnibus during a nine-year period beginning in 1952. I must have seen almost all the hour-long shows that aired on network television each Sunday afternoon. They featured theater and opera performances, literary readings, interviews with celebrities, scientists and artists and some legendary concerts accompanied by lectures from Leonard Bernstein.

Once in a while, programs like these can be found on the Web. Why not TV? Yes occasionally there are comparable programs on cable TV but unlike those early television programs or those on Public Radio they are not given away for free.

Perhaps the most remarkable event that has come to radio during our time is the development of podcasting and radio Apps. Countless programs can now be listened to on iPods or other comparable devices. And the equally numerous programs that can be streamed to a radio station App have rewritten the rules of radio listening. I can listen to Fresh Air on WXYY, classical music on one of several stations, as well as programs that range from Ira Glass’ unusual This American Life to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! news hour on the Pacifica Network.

As McKibben says, “…this is the perfect moment to be a young radiohead.” I might add, there’s nothing wrong with being an old one too. Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio said it well, “It’s a transformative and exciting moment, a huge revolution.”

11.07.2010

The Weekend

In The Weekend by Berhard Schlink, the author of the highly praised The Reader, a group of former compatriots gather together at a run-down countryside mansion to welcome the release from prison of their former leader, Jorg, a pardoned German political terrorist. Little happens during the weekend other than talk, many questions, recollections, and a good deal of food and drink. But the tension among these people is powerful and the arguments among them raise issues that cannot be easily dismissed today.

The group consists of Jorg and his sister and those she invited for the weekend--a lawyer, a journalist a cleric, an aspiring novelist, a dental technician and various spouses and children. Other than one younger guest, who urges a return to “the struggle” and bemoans the betrayal of the revolution by the others, most have made their compromises, rejoined society, and found their way to being good citizens.

It rains a lot, some pair off, others go for walks around the extensive grounds. But mostly they gather round the table to argue about the legitimacy of their violent revolutionary past and its many victims.

The book recalls the 1970s militant campaigns of the left-wing Baader-Meinhof gang and in its later stages the Red Army faction. One is also reminded of similar groups in Italy and Japan that formed after World War II. An argument can be made that the individuals who joined these groups felt they had to make up for the conformity and lack of resistance of their parents to the fascist states in which they lived. As Jorg explains it,

“Our parents conformed and shirked resistance—we couldn’t repeat that. We couldn’t simply watch children being burned by napalm in Vietnam, starving in Africa, being broken in institutions in Germany.”

Otherwise he says very little. In a way, he seems a broken man, trying to adjust to life outside the prison and the demands it now places upon him. He needs a job and in the end accepts an offer to work in the dental technician’s office. Whatever happened to the fight against oppression? Perhaps it simply became tedious, as implied by the remark of one of the guests.

“When I started my studies, all that counted was existentialism, at the end of my studies everyone was keen on analytic philosophy, and twenty years ago Kant and Hegel came back. The problems of existentialism hadn’t been solved, nor had those of analytic philosophy. People were simply fed up with them.”

Still the fact that it may no longer be fashionable to speak of existentialism or analytic philosophy or oppression, for that matter, doesn’t mean the questions they posed have been answered.

Jorg’s estranged son also appears mid-way in the novel, disguised as an architectural historian who challenges his father to account for breaking up his family and the brutality of his terrorists actions. Jorg replies, “I know I have been wrong and made mistakes. I just want the respect due to someone who has given everything for a larger cause and a good one.”

His son then asks him, “What mistakes?” Jorg responds, “The victims. A struggle that doesn’t lead to success doesn’t justify victims.” The conversation continues—pass the rolls, is there any more coffee? And yet throughout there is the lingering, more general question: If you cannot win the struggle, should you not take it up?

Some critics have said The Weekend is a “bad novel,” that it is boring and ponderous or that “the characters are dead on the page.” I found it otherwise. The novel is not meant as a character study or mystery, or one with a good deal of action. Rather, it is one of moral reflection, especially for Germans who cannot easily forget their heritage or walk away from it.

The Weekend ends as if nothing momentous had gone on. “As easily as the friends had formed themselves into a whole, they would also fall apart again.” And one by one each of them drives away down the muddy road to their home.

11.04.2010

Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

How are innovations developed? Do they spring forth in the mind of a single individual? Or are they crafted over time in a dialogue with others? Is there some recurring pattern that can account for their formation? These are the types of questions Steven Johnson considers in his densely packed, heavily researched book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Innovation.

In this book Johnson undertakes an analysis of 300 of the most influential innovations in areas ranging from the discovery of air conditioning, evolution, vacuum tubes, vacuum cleaners, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

It is an intellectual tour-de-force that is continually fascinating. Johnson argues that certain environments breed innovations effortlessly. Listing the major themes of this factually rich volume is, I think, the clearest way to illustrate his findings.

• Good ideas rarely spring de novo in the mind of a single person. It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world.

• Innovations are built out of a collection of existing ideas and they are limited to those ideas that happen to be around at any given time. Ideas are works of bricolage; they are built out of that detritus [of old ideas]…in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

• Innovations are often generated in open networks of ideas, individuals or settings that meld together seamlessly. …[a creative] space…sees information spillover as a feature, not a flaw. It is designed to leak. In this sense it shares some core values with the liquid networks of dense cities.

• Good ideas often come from hunches that develop over a longer period of time. …the idea (Darwin’s theory of natural selection) didn’t arrive in a flash; it drifted into his consciousness over time, in waves… The Web came into being as an archetypal slow hunch: from a child’s exploration of a hundred year old encyclopedia, to a freelancer’s idle side project designed to help him keep track of his colleagues, to a deliberate attempt to build a new information platform that could connect computers across the planet.

• Good ideas often occur by chance, say during a dream or while on a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub…)

• Innovations are often crafted from a tool or idea originally developed for a specific application but is then transformed or “gets hijacked” for a completely new one. Gutenberg’s printing press was a classic combinatorial innovation…Each of the key elements that made it such a transformative machine—the moveable type, the ink, the paper, and the press itself—had been developed separately well before Gutenberg printed his first bible.

• Good ideas often develop after a long series of false starts and errors. Being wrong forces you to explore…When we’re wrong, we have to challenge our assumptions, adopt new strategies.

• Finally good ideas are often formed in environments that encourage and promote exchanges between fields and methods of analysis.….[hotbeds of innovation] where different kinds of thoughts could productively collide and recombine.

In reviewing the 300 innovations (Each one is briefly described in the Appendix) that he studied, Johnson concludes that by far the majority developed in open environments, where there were no barriers (copyright protections), no economic incentives (market forces), and where ideas flowed freely in unregulated channels of communication.

For those eager to create the next big thing, Johnson concludes with this bit of advice: Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.

(He also penned some not-so-subtle advice that is clearly aimed my way: New ideas do not thrive on archipelagoes.)

11.02.2010

Charter Schools: A Reconsideration

In reviewing the film Waiting for Superman, I gave the impression that charter schools are uniformly superior to pubic schools on standard measures of educational achievement. That is the claim propagated in the film, one that is flatly contradicted by Diane Ravitch in a ringing critique in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.

Ravitch argues that the writer and director Davis Guggenheim failed to acknowledge evidence that “only one in five” charter schools are able to outperform comparable public schools. “Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes…when there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones?”

She claims that Guggenheim simply ignored the wide variation in the effectiveness of charter schools, the fact that some are run by “incompetent leaders” or [for profit] corporations, that others have been accused of “unsavory real estate deals,” or whose directors are paid fees that range from $300,000-$400,00 a year.

In support of her claims she cites a major study of half the country’s 5,000 charter schools that revealed only 17% achieved superior outcomes on math tests compared to a matched sample of public schools, while 37 percent were worse, and the remaining 46% were no different.

Ravitch says the film gives the impression that charter schools work so well because they hire truly excellent teachers. She counters with a study indicating “teacher quality accounts for about 7.5-10 percent of student test score gains.” While teachers may be essential to the success of any school, other factors like curriculum, student background, as well as family income and support of student schoolwork are more important. According to research cited by Ravitch, “…about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors.”

I view Ravitch’s critique as a corrective to the depiction of charter schools in Waiting for Superman. The film is clearly designed to persuade viewers of their superiority. However, it does so by ignoring evidence that raises doubts about their effectiveness.

This is a common strategy in most persuasive campaigns. Yet there is much evidence that demonstrates presenting both sides of an argument is more effective. This approach not only enhances the credibility of the source, but also the strength of the message.

What is common to the effective charter and public schools that can account for their successes? To answer this question Ravitch points to the very excellent public education systems in Finland, Japan, and Singapore, widely recognized to be “high-performing” systems. She asserts they have “….succeeded not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do.”

These school systems often have a national curriculum that not only includes the basic skills of reading and math but also incorporates programs in the humanities, sciences, foreign languages, history, etc. They also have strong teacher training programs. Perhaps they can do all this so successfully because they are small countries with a fairly homogeneous population. Nevertheless, they represent an instructive model for those dedicated to designing more effective public education programs in this country.

I admit I have not read the reports cited by Ravitch. Rather my intent has been to report her views and thereby suggest a reconsideration of Waiting for Superman. In addition, I have not read the extensive literature comparing the effectiveness of charter and public educational programs. My account is based on secondary sources and the view of my informant who has read those studies and tells me that Ravitch’s claims are essentially correct.

10.31.2010

Balancing Upon a Pinpoint

What do we know about the Holocaust experience? The question is constantly before me. It is one of those momentary “It could have been me” thoughts and it is a painful one. In Julie Orringer’s novel, The Invisible Bridge, I began once again to grasp its horror and enormity and tragedy.

The novel is largely set in Hungary although it begins with a few years of education and romance in Paris. Andras, a young Hungarian Jew, is forbidden to enter architecture school but is able to obtain a permit to study in France. His brother, Tibor, similarly obtains a permit to study medicine in Italy. Andras is the center of the tale; he falls madly in love with Klara, an older woman, also a Hungarian Jew who fled Hungary to avoid prosecution for killing a man in self-defense.

As the Nazis take control of much of Europe and the war approaches, both Andras and Tibor are forced to return to Budapest where they are conscripted into the state labor service (Munkaszolgalat) that by 1938 consisted solely of Jewish Hungarians. They labored under horrific conditions in support of the Hungarian Army during bitterly cold winters, with little to eat, little to keep warm, constantly beaten and threatened as one by one the weaker men die or are shot.

No sooner are they released than they are called back once again to another Munkaszolgalat under even harsher conditions. Released to their homes, taken away, released, taken away—countless times, too many times. I thought a little editorial pruning might have been a good idea.

Little is known about the plight of the Hungarian Jews or the forced labor camps during World War II, as they have received less notice than the Nazi death camps. The Invisible Bridge made me realize that in Hungary death in these camps was usually prolonged by starvation, illness, and painful injuries. It is known that Hungarian Jews avoided deportation until 1944 when more than half the Hungarian-Jewish population was transported to death camps elsewhere.

“One and a half million Jewish men and women and children: How was anyone to understand a number like that?”

As I read more and more of this novel, I became greatly interested in its origins. We get a hint of that in the last chapter, The Epilogue, where Orringer gives us a short fictional account and in Szymborska’s poem, Any Case, that concludes her novel. We learn more directly from Orringer that the idea for The Invisible Bridge came in a surprising revelation from her grandfather as they were discussing a trip she was going to take to Paris.

Her grandfather mentioned that he had lived in Paris when he was a young man, that he had a scholarship to study architecture and, as a Hungarian Jew, had lost his student visa when he was conscripted into a forced labor company and had to return to Hungary. “I knew he had been in labor camps during the war, but I knew nothing about what had happened to him there or how he’d managed to survive.” And then she started to ask him questions whereupon an incredible, heartbreaking series of stories emerged that gave her the foundation for her novel.

I was also overwhelmed by the amount of research Orringer undertook in writing this novel. In a detailed Acknowledgement section she describes the support of the US Holocaust Museum, a Holocaust museum in Paris and two in Budapest, numerous newspaper archives, and guidance from many individuals about architectural and geographical questions, matters of translation and details of twentieth century politics and history.

The list of these acknowledgements and sources of support is a very long, densely packed one. The novel did not simply spring forth from the accounts of her grandfather upon which she built her fictional narrative. A reader often fails to appreciate the amount of research that is required to craft a work of literature like this.

The Invisible Bridge ends with a brief, rather subdued sense of hope when those who survived come together in this country. And yet as Orringer writes, “…one of the central truths of his [Andras] life: that in any moment of happiness there was a reminder of bitterness or tragedy.” And later, “…no period of mourning would ever be long enough.”

10.29.2010

Any Case


October is National Poetry Month (in England--Patrick Kurp calls it the true Poetry Month) and as it draws to a close, I will post my annual poem by the Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska called Any Case, also sometimes titled Could Have.

I discovered the poem at the end of Julie Orringer’s remarkable novel The Invisible Bridge, an epic tale of three brothers trying to survive during the Holocaust in Hungary. It is a long novel that drew me in from the first sentence and would not let me out for a full 600 pages. The following passage occurs in the novel:

…the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint upon which every life is balanced. The scale might be tipped by the tiniest of things: the lice that carried typhus, the few thimblefuls of water that remained in a canteen, the dust of breadcrumbs in a pocket.

Any Case
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Farther away.
It happened, but not to you.
You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.
Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw was floating on the water.
Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
One step, a hair away?
So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
The net's mesh was tight, but you? through the mesh?
I can't stop wondering at it, can't be silent enough.
Listen,
How quickly your heart is beating in me.

Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Grazyna Drabik and Sharon Olds.

10.26.2010

Preserving E-Mails

Do you save your e-mails? If so, how do you organize them? Do you keep them permanently? On what basis do you decide which messages to save?

I don’t save my e-mails other than those I need for short-term purposes and then they go to the trash. From out of the thousands I’ve received by now, those that I want to save I copy as a Word document or enter in a previous document that deals with its subject. On the other hand, a friend of mine saves almost all of her e-mails. She says she is a bit of a neurotic about this matter.

“I delete almost nothing except for junk mail and group emails that don't really apply to me …I have a lot of folders/subfolders…I have a "library school" folder with folders in it for individual classes I took. I have a general work folder for my department, and one for the whole company. If there is something involving a lot of correspondence, I set it up its own folder. I have a "friends" folder but I separated out my Pratt [her library school] friends and jewelry-making friends …an "orders" folder since I buy a lot of stuff online and at some point, I decided to make a subfolder for book orders …”

The preservation of electronic mail extends well beyond personal practices. It is a matter of considerable concern to historians and biographers of all disciplines who hitherto have had a rich source of written materials to draw upon in their research. Are we loosing too much information of this sort by communicating on the Internet rather than in written letters?

It is generally assumed that written letters have a degree of permanence that is quite different than messages sent over the Internet. In a review of M. F. K. Fischer’s A Life in Letters, Betty Fussell comments: “Had she lived in another decade, many of her letters might have been lost forever, flashed on screen to be read and discarded in a matter of minutes. A Life in Letters reminds one of what is lost in the magic of electronic mail: permanence.”

Robert Crease, a physicist, makes a similar point in discussing the future work of science historians faced with the fact that e-mail, rather than written letters, has become the normal method scientists use to communicate with each other. He cites the famous 1941 meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Nils Bohr in Nazi occupied Denmark to discuss the development of the atomic bomb. There are several accounts of this meeting, not all of them in agreement, but according to Crease, recently discovered draft letters that Bohr had written about their meeting serve as a “corrective to Heisenberg’s version, showing it to be deceitful and self-serving.”

The same is true for literary correspondents. In Literary Letters, Lost in Cyberspace (New York Times 9/4/05) Rachel Donadio says publishers who routinely correspond with writers have not developed a systematic way to preserve their e-mails. She notes the New Yorker routinely purges their e-mails and reports that Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor at the magazine, admits that she doesn’t always save the messages from the many writers she corresponds with.

“Unfortunately, since I haven’t discovered any convenient way to electronically archive e-mail correspondence, I don’t usually save it, and it gets erased from our server after a few months.” Donadio also reports that Blake Bailey, who has written biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, worries, “It often occurs to me that e-mail may render a certain kind of literary biography all but obsolete.”

While methods of electronic communication may be useful for rapid communication among scientists and cultural historians, it remains uncertain whether they will be preserved at all and how this might affect historians in the future. I am aware there are various proposals to promote the preservation of electronic documents, but I have no knowledge of their present state.

I do know, however, that e-mail messages can also be every bit as tangible and as permanent as a written letter. They can be saved in computer folders, zip drives, an external hard drive or printed so that they are physically indistinguishable from a traditional letter. It is a simple matter to print and then file hard copies of e-mail messages so that you can, in fact, have a paper trail of your correspondence while at the same time benefiting from the advantages of rapid electronic communication.

In short, e-mail messages do not simply disappear after they have been sent. And there is nothing about e-mail messages per se that prevents them from being every bit as useful to future historians and interested readers as traditional letters. Had Virginia Woolf been able to send her voluminous correspondence over the Internet, there is no inherent reason she could not have filed away her hand-written drafts or printed copies of her messages so that they could drawn upon for the multiple volumes that have been published to date.

The example of Zadie Smith, a writer of considerable contemporary renown, is instructive. She says she has preserved 12,000 e-mail messages that she has exchanged with her literary friends. “The great majority of it is correspondence with other writers, my editor, my copy editor, etc. Some of them are amazing e-mails from writers whose hem I fear to kiss, etc.” Donadio reports Salman Rushdie is one of several other writers who save their e-mails. “Yes, I have saved my e-mails, written and received since the mid-90’s when I started using computers regularly…”

So it is not only possible, it is easy, and it is being done. The matter of preserving electronic communications may not be quite as serious as some envisage.

Thanks to Stefanie Hollmichel of So Many Books for stimulating me to consider this issue.

10.24.2010

"Failure Factories"

Early in the documentary film Waiting for Superman, knowing that it is going to be yet another ringing indictment of public school education in this country, we see David Guggenheim, the director and co-writer, driving past three run-down public schools in Los Angeles on his way to drop off his three children at an expensive private school.

We think, why isn’t he sending his kids to public schools and where he can get personally involved in improving them? Is he simply going to tell the all too familiar tale of the failures of public education in this country, as if there’s nothing any of us, nothing he can do about their deplorable state?

In his defense, he is making this film, one in a series he has made about education in America, in the hope that it will galvanize other individuals to band together to move the public school system out of its deep rut. He does this by illustrating successes that are possible within that system at publically funded charter schools in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C. and Redwood City, California.

To set the stage, Guggenheim lays out the well-known statistics of the performance of children who are educated in the public schools of urban centers of this country. Charts are shown of decades of extremely low reading and math scores. More charts are shown of how American children compare with those in other countries. On some measures, they rank lowest, on others, near the bottom. The only one where the students in this country rank highest in on their personal confidence that they rank number one!

We are also shown the powerful role the teacher’s union plays in working to maintain their current contracts with school systems in this country. Teacher tenure is virtually guaranteed after two years of teaching. In contrast to other professions, it is virtually impossible to dismiss a teacher. We are shown a roomful of New York City teachers who have been charged with incompetence or misconduct but are still on the payroll. Some are sleeping, others working crossword puzzles, some reading, all the while they are being paid their regular salary.

Interweaved with all this is the story of five children and their parents who are struggling to educate their children and enroll them in a charter school. Because these schools can only accept a limited number of students, they must enter a lottery to see if they are selected. The film concludes with suspenseful, nerve-wracking lottery drawings to see who among these dedicated kids will be chosen.

More importantly though we are shown the very considerable successes achieved by some charter schools, in particular The Harlem Success Academy and the KIPP programs, now in several cities throughout the country,

The schools are characterized by highly qualified, highly motivated teachers who assume that every one of their students is capable of performing well. The data support this assumption. The teachers are generally well paid, concentrate from day one on preparing students for college, and give considerable personal tutoring when a student would benefit from it. The students in several of the schools located in poor urban neighborhoods often do better academically than those in the well-off suburban school districts.

While not all charter schools can report such positive outcomes, we are led to think education in this country would be significantly improved by increasing support for them.

When you enter the theater showing Waiting for Superman, you can take a short handout from a box affixed to a poster about the film. The handout tells you what you can do to “make a difference in education today.” What a good idea!

• See the film and get everyone you know to see it. OK, go see it.

• You can pledge to see it at www.WaitingForSuperman.com and receive a $5 credit from www.DonorsChoose.org towards a classroom project.

• By visiting www.DonorsChoose.org, you can donate to a public school class of your choice—pencils for poetry writing, microscope slides, etc.

• Volunteer to mentor a student --- www.mentoring.org

• Go to www.WaitingForSuperman.com to find other activities and resources that will help improve education in this country.

10.21.2010

Coffee House Culture

The other day Starbucks announced it will now offer its customers a digital network providing free e-books, movies, and access to some sites you normally pay for such as The Wall Street Journal, as well as other gratis sites including The New York Times, USA Today, Apple's iTunes, etc. Of course, they are only accessible as long as you remain at Starbucks--presumably paying for drinks, pastries, sandwiches, etc. Starbucks also gets a share of anything sold on its in-store network.

So at Starbucks coffee houses you’ll be peering at your iPhone, listening to your iPod or reading on your computer. This is not Paris after all where you can buy a cup of coffee and stay at your favorite table all day working away on your masterpiece or coming up with the next big thing with your friends.

Whatever happened to those days of the coffee house culture? Do you remember them? Sitting around for hours dreaming up new ideas, talking about the latest new book, or new discovery in the lab? According to Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From, a great many came during those coffee house conversations.

Johnson believes good ideas don't come from a lone genius working alone in a laboratory or at his desk. Instead, they frequently come from interactions between your colleagues and intellectual friends. He points to the coffee houses of Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. "People would hang out in this intellectual hub and have these free-floating conversations about all these different interests and passions.”

He claims Benjamin Franklin’s Club of Honest Whigs that used to meet at the London Coffeehouse when he was in England would hash over ideas that were instrumental in Franklin’s thinking. Johnson writes, "There should be a plaque to commemorate that coffeehouse. It was really a tremendously generative space.”

In Where Good Ideas Come From he describe these coffee houses as 'liquid networks” where people from entirely different perspectives gather together to thrash out whatever was on their minds. He cites several examples:

• Eighteenth century English coffeehouse where everything from the science of electricity, to the insurance industry, to democracy itself was discussed

• Freud’s salon “where physicians, philosophers, and scientists gathered to help shape the emerging field of psychoanalysis”

• Those legendary Paris cafes where writers, poets, artists and architects laid the foundations of contemporary culture

• The Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970s where Johnson claims “a ragtag assemblage of amateur hobbyists, teenagers, digital entrepreneurs, and academic scientists managed to spark the personal computer revolution…”

The coffee house model of innovation has a certain romantic appeal to it. And yet I can’t help but be skeptical of the claims Johnson attaches to it. On the surface, of course, one imagines these were and continue to be settings for lively intellectual exchange. However, we have no independent record of what in fact was said during these exchanges. Nor does Johnson cite any evidence made by participants of the role they played in formulating their ideas.

I am not suggesting they aren’t sources of innovation. But what came first—the idea or the conversation? And if the idea came first, how was it further developed at the coffee house? Or if the conversation came first, what is the evidence for this claim?

A network can support a person’s ideas, can be a setting where they can be expressed, and where perhaps they are refined in the process. And they can motivate someone to continue their line of thinking or their research program. But do we have a record of any of this?

Perhaps I’m being pedantic. But those are the kinds of questions I always ask, especially given the importance Johnson attributes to the coffee house model of creativity. While it has enormous appeal and while the experience of being with your friends in those settings is often stimulating, I wonder if any of the innovations Johnson discusses in his book, were, in fact, “born” there. To be sure, they may have been discussed and perhaps clarified, but that is a different matter than origination.

10.19.2010

To Think or Not to Think

Like Malcolm Gladwell in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Jonah Lehrer on his blog The Frontal Cortex recently made a strong case for the value of unconscious thought. His argument was based on evidence derived from one experiment, in a European laboratory, under conditions of unknown generality. This kind of “cherry picking,” which Gladwell also employs, doesn’t do much for the fine art of science writing

Lehrer draws on a recent experiment by the Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis who asked three groups of subjects, a mix of experts and novices, to predict the outcome of soccer matches. The first group was asked to predict the outcome after thinking about it for two minutes. The second group was asked to make a decision immediately without thinking about it at all. The third group was asked to decide after being distracted by an unrelated memory task for two minutes.

The results indicated that experts, regardless of the group they were in, were very poor at predicting the outcome of the matches. So were the groups that thought about the matter for two minutes and those asked to make the decision immediately. In contrast, subjects who were distracted by the memory task for two minutes were “significantly” better than the other two groups. Lehrer concludes from this study that the practical implications are to “trust your gut.”

He then says the question is “what is the unconscious up to. What information is it processing during those two minutes of distraction?” I disagree. The question that seems most important to me is how representative of the decision-making process is this study, one that asked individuals to predict the outcome of soccer matches? How widely does it apply? Under what conditions doesn’t it hold? And let's not forget that the study was conducted under highly-reactive laboratory conditions with unknown relevance to natural situations.

We know that at times we benefit by trusting our gut reactions but at other times we don’t. Is there any way we can know when to trust them and when not to? A recent study by McMackin and Slovic sought to identify these conditions by comparing two decision-making tasks--one designed to favor an intuitive approach, the other a reasoned one.

On the intuitively biased task college students were asked to predict how a group of “experts” would rate the effectiveness of a set of consumer advertisements. The so-called expert ratings were obtained from group of psychology and marketing undergraduate students.

On the reasoned biased task, the students were asked to answer five questions requiring numerical estimates of matters of fact. For example, they were asked to estimate the area of the United States or the length of the Amazon River.

Two conditions of decision-making were compared with one another on each of these tasks—a group that was asked to decide immediately and a delayed responding group that was asked to respond after thinking about their reasons for a few minutes and then writing them down on a form provided by the experimenter.

The results indicated the immediately responding group was more accurate on the advertisement task than the group asked to think about their decision for a bit. In contrast, the immediately responding group (gut reactors) performed less accurately than the thinking group (also asked to provide reasons for their answers) on the more difficult task requiring numerical judgments.

Here then is one situation in which the characteristics of the task can critically affect the accuracy of a decision. Under some conditions, it may be more effective to respond without doing much thinking. In other conditions, a more deliberative, reasoned approach may be more effective.

I think it is essential not to ignore such limiting conditions when discussing the results of any scientific finding. All too often, we emphasize the outcome of a single study, without recognizing other studies that contradict, call it into question or suggest an alternative interpretation.

I fear this is one of the reasons we find ourselves so confused about the research we read or hear about in the popular media. No sooner do we learn that drinking wine is bad for our health, then the very next day we learn that it has no effect on our health and may, in fact, be essential for a long life, the very fountain of youth.

10.17.2010

The Experience of Beauty

From time to time during the day and mainly after dinner each night, I go for a walk along the canal near my home. You can do that every night of the year on the island where I live now. How great is that!

The canal brings water down from the mountains that bisect this island and where it rains a good part of each day. This makes it possible for people to survive here and nourish an abundant tropical life.

Saunter would be a better way to describe how I proceed on these evening strolls. Perhaps meander would even be more accurate. And I simply let my mind wander, never sure what thought will arrive next. Sometimes I get my best ideas, such as they are, during these times.

But there is something else about these promenades that brings me back to the canal time and time again. It is the outrigger canoes, each one with six paddlers that glide up and down the waterway first on their way out to sea and then on their return to the point where they embarked.

There is a beauty in these canoes that I find irresistible. When I see them approaching, I stop to gaze at them until they pass by. Sometimes there is one canoe, sometimes a group of them racing down and back along the canal.

I am struck by how quiet they are. In fact, they glide through the water in total silence. Occasionally you’ll hear the “rudder man” in the back give a command, but otherwise they move smoothly, swiftly and quietly by. No noisy engines, broken mufflers, loud horns or motorcycle roars.

After the sun sets, night falls fast here in these islands as close as they are to the equator. As I walk along the canal then, the outriggers sometimes come upon me rather suddenly, as it is too dark to see or hear them approaching from a far.

They have always reflected in the very truest way the spirit of this place and the native people who live here. They are a perfect fit, an adaptation to the conditions that prevail on this remote island, a form of transport that doesn’t muck up the environment or deplete its precious resources.

It has been said, “The experience of "beauty" often involves the interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well being.” Yes, there is a harmony about the outrigger canoes—a harmony between man, motion, and water, a perfect blending of form and function.

Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “Beauty must include three qualities: integrity, or completeness--since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness—we call things bright in colour beautiful.”

I find it interesting that a prayer is occasionally spoken before the canoe is launched no matter how long or short the voyage. The prayer needn't be long or distinctively Hawaiian, nor does it have to be religious in nature. A prayer helps focus the crew mentally and spiritually and expresses a note of gratitude to nature for the gift of the tree from which the canoe used to be made (modern hulls are commonly made now from reinforced plastic) and the water through which it travels.

I think of the poems of W.S. Merwin, the current U.S Poet Laureate, who lives in relative seclusion on a former pineapple plantation built on the distant slopes of Haleakala on the nearby island of Maui. When asked how someone living on the edge of the United States in a far corner of Maui could reach such literary heights, Merwin replied, "You live your life."

In his poem, The Shadow of Sirius, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, Merwin wrote,

Where the roaring torrent
raced at one time
to carve farther down
those high walls in the stone
for the silence that I hear now
day and night on its way to the sea.

10.15.2010

"Lyrical Connections"

I am reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. In his chapter on The Slow Hunch he mentions the important role the commonplace book tradition played in the gradual “evolution” of Darwin’s ideas. This surprised and pleased me and while it didn’t exactly render me speechless, it reminded me once again of the unrecognized potential of a person’s commonplace book.

For example, Johnson speaks of the important memory-enhancing powers of maintaining a commonplace book. That is surely one of the principal ways I use it. In 1988 I started keeping an electronic record of notable quotes from the books and articles I had read. Any time I want to recall one of them, all I need to do is “open” my commonplace book document and run a Find search on the book or author in question. This yields a set of passages that I can draw upon in the same way one would use an encyclopedia, article or book review.

Johnson writes, “There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: maintaining the books enabled one to ‘lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in several pursuits of life.’” This is the way commonplace books were used from Antiquity until the era of the Enlightenment when they reached their peak of popularity as a source of knowledge.

Johnson clearly believes a person’s commonplace book can be an important source of innovations. It stimulates “surprising new links of association” and is a central repository of a “vast miscellany of hunches.” For me the problem has always been how to capture these relationships, what method can be employed. You have to do more than simply review your entries from time to time. A tool for organizing, categorizing, or indexing them is required to locate those new associations.

Johnson reviews John Locke’s scheme. “The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings.”

In practice, Locke’s method entails an ever more complex set of categories (“heads”) to use in assigning each saved passage. With more and more entries the scheme becomes entirely too complex and cumbersome to make much use of. You need a much more sophisticated, speedier system for generating relationships in a commonplace book that becomes increasingly larger as the reader’s collection grows.

Enter the electronic revolution. Johnson describes the way he uses a software program called DEVONthink where he stores all his work—essays, blogs, notes, book chapters, etc.

“DEVONthink features a clever algorithm that detects subtle semantic connections between distinct passages of text. These tools are smart enough to get around the classic search-engine failing of excessive specificity…Modern indexing software like DEVONthink’s learns associations between individual words by tracking the frequency with which words appear near each other. This can create almost lyrical connections between ideas.”

I’ve been searching for this type of software package for years. When I analyzed the 300 pages of Volume 1 of my Commonplace Book, it took me months of going through one page after another to identify its major themes. I lacked the skills to do much more than that.

Volume 2 is currently an equivalent number of pages and waiting to be analyzed. My hope is to somehow capture those “lyrical connections” that Johnson claims DEVONthink can generate. More importantly, can it generate new combinations of passages that are some sense novel or that might be considered original and as Johnson suggests may turn out to be genuinely innovative?

This is the way he does it. He plugs a passage or paragraph into the software and asks it to find other passages in his collection that are similar. Instantly, a set of quotes appears that, in turn, give rise to new ideas whereupon he plugs those into the software for a further search. “Before long a new idea takes shape in my head, built upon the trail of associations the machine has assembled for me.”

Can DEVONthink accomplish something like this with my Commonplace Book? Dream on, Richard.

10.12.2010

The Social Network


Fictional accounts of a living person(s) are risky. The risk lies in getting it wrong to the detriment and distress of a fair number of individuals even though the work is justified as fictional. This is why I am registering a dissenting voice amidst the widespread praise of The Social Network, the film made of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires.

Zuckerberg concurs: "The reason why we didn't participate is because it was very clear that it was fiction from the beginning. We talked to [Mezrich] about that and he basically told us, ‘what I'm most interested in is telling the most interesting story.’ We want to make sure that we never participate in something like that, so then someone can take something that's really fictional and say, 'We talked to Mark Zuckerberg for this.' So, I think it's clear that it's fiction. All the book reviews of that book from people who know it say that it's fiction. The movie is based on the book.”

To begin, the film made Zuckerberg into a creep, a totally inept human being, a rude and insensitive person. I thought that was unfair and unnecessary. It is also untrue. Zuckerberg in person, as I’ve viewed him in several videos, is nothing like the Zuckerberg depicted in the film. To be sure, like everyone else, he has his excesses. And he may be a bit nerdy, but these days that isn’t rare and he surely doesn’t lack all the civilities ascribed to him in the film.

And then The Social Network concentrated almost exclusively on disputes among the Facebook founders and the three Harvard students who also were thinking along similar lines rather than on Zuckerberg, his background, skills at computer programming, and the several other individuals who supported him in creating Facebook.

It also completely ignored the issue that continues to puzzle me as to why social networking has such appeal. At least the film failed to explain the Facebook phenomenon in a way that makes sense to me, although it seems to have done so for others.

No doubt this is a topic best explored with other methods and in other forums. Yes, I am a member but entirely out of curiosity. Surely that is not the reason 500,000,000 other individuals have signed up or why a goodly number of them spend a fair amount of time each day on the site.

No idea is totally original. As Steven Johnson often remarks in his new book Where Good Ideas Come From, most innovations are cobbled together from other elements. Bricolage (“construction or creation from a diverse range of available things”) is a word Johnson often uses to describe this process.

It was his smarts, some luck, the people who worked with him and the social networking Websites that preceded his that gave Zuckerberg what he need to “cobble together” Facebook. A movie could be crafted or at least include some of this background. It would be one with less distortion and exaggeration and no doubt wouldn’t make much money for Columbia Pictures

I was also bothered by the Winklevoss brothers dispute, the way they went about grousing about Zuckerberg, and then their eventual lawsuit. They simply lost the race, like they lost the Henley Regatta. They didn't have what it takes to develop the software or pull together the resources, and above all the gumption to put Facebook on the map. According to Dustin Moscovistz, one of the co-founders of Facebook, “the Winlevosses had no part in the work we did to create the site…”

And contrary to their claim they were not the first to think about a facebook-like concept. There were similar Websites that preceded Facebook (founded 2004), including My Space (founded 2003) and Friendster (founded 2002), as well as Zuckerberg’s previous work in creating Facemash and Course Match at Harvard.

Zuckerberg's apparent betrayal of his once-close friend and roommate, Eduardo Saverin did bother and then confuse me, although I certainly don’t know the truth of this matter. I do know that Saverin is listed as a co-founder and that while the percentage of shares he owns has been reduced, the same is true of Zuckerberg’s with the investments of venture capitalists or “angel investors” as they were described in the film. Saverin also has settled his lawsuit against Facebook for an undisclosed amount.

While the film may be well made, with a zesty dialogue and colorful cast, it makes the founding of Facebook more of an undergraduate caper than a fascinating yet baffling innovation with, in this viewer’s opinion, an unknown future and a puzzling appeal.

10.11.2010

Letters to Fictional Friends

Have you ever wanted to write a letter to one of your fictional friends? For example, one to Emma Bovary to give here some badly needed advice? Or to Nathan Zuckerman telling him to cool it? Or how about one to Michael Beard to tell him what a bastard he is? How often I’ve thought about writing to one of the characters in a book I’m reading.

Letters with Character is a blog where readers can post letters directed to their favorite or not-so-favorite characters. Readers are invited to submit letters (LettersWithCharacter@gmail.com) that are “funny, sad, digressive, trenchant, or trivial.” The site apparently receives far too many submissions to publish them all. The only requirement is that a real person write the letter to an unreal person in work of fiction.

Here are a few that have been recently accepted.

To Jay Gatsby in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Hey Gatsby,
How's it going? What're you up to Saturday night? Wait, let me guess: A party. Again. With the same goddamn bores. Can I make a suggestion? Cancel the band. Turn off your lights. Lock your doors, for once. (Jesus, seriously. It's just not safe having people waltz in and out willy-nilly.) Instead, come over to my place. We'll watch a movie and kick back with a few beers. Have you seen (500) Days of Summer? What about Forgetting Sarah Marshall? Maybe we'll stay away from High Fidelity, but you've already seen that a thousand times, I know. Anyway, email me back or just drop on by. You're always welcome.
Your other neighbor,
Brian Kim


To David Kepesh in Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal

Dear David Kepesh,
Spare me.
Thanks,
Lawrence Levi


Of course you can still write to one of your literary friends without submitting it to Letters with Character.

Here’s one I recently drafted to Raimund Gregorious the central character in Pascal Mercier’s still memorable, still re-readable Night Train to Lisbon.

Dear Mundus:
I understand they are going to make a movie of your life? Should I be impressed? Are you pleased? Do you know who will play your role? Perhaps it will be someone like Robert Redford? He’s about your age now.

Imagine a life of a language professor and linguistic scholar thoroughly fixed in his ways and pillar of his school in Switzerland who takes off on the spur of the moment one day for Lisbon after discovering a remarkable book by the Portuguese writer Amadeu de Prado. I have no idea how a movie can be made of this sojourn let alone the tale of the philosophical treatise that led you to abandon your settled days in Basel.

You wondered if the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else? Did you find that to be the case as you learned more and more about Prado? Did his life and his relationships as they were unfolded to you in A Goldsmith of Words and the encounters they led you to give you a better understanding of yourself?

In reading your recent letters I’ve noticed you mostly ask questions. I don’t recall you ever answered them. I confess I found that “conversational style” rather fascinating. Where did you learn to write that way? Do you also converse in the same fashion?

In my experience, most people never ask questions. The person who does becomes an instant friend. I think we have in this linguistic style something very revealing about human behavior. But for the life of me I don’t quite know what it is yet. Do you?

Thanks for staying in touch. I look forward to your next set of questions.
Yours,
Marks in the Margin

10.08.2010

Lost in Translation

In the Times earlier this month Michael Cunningham makes the bold claim that “all literature is a product of translation.” It is far more than simply translating a work from one language to another with all the imperfections and variations that involves. His argument goes like this.

First, the writer makes an effort to translate his ideas or images to the page. There is always a discrepancy between the two. Cunningham claims most writers never write the book they had hoped to write. “It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.”

Next is the language translator who makes an effort to capture the writers meaning in another language that may yield only a vague approximation of his intent, subtle ironies, nuances, and sometimes humor that may be the most difficult of all to accurately convey in another language.

Finally, on Cunningham’s account, there is the reader’s translation of the writer’s words. What does the writer mean by saying this? What does the story mean, after all? Do I have even the vaguest idea?

No two readers are going to answer these questions in the same way. Cunningham suggests in a rather elaborate fashion that each reader translates the text into his or her “private imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension.

Emerson said it better: “You have seen a skillful man reading Plutarch. Well, that author is a thousand things to a thousand persons. Take that book into your own two hands and read your eyes out. You will never find there what the other finds.”

However, I think there is another step in translating a work of literature and that may the longest and the most subject to change. It is the way the story gets recalled and retold again and again as time goes by. You look for a review of the book, you tell your friend about it, you try to write a blog about it and at each step along the way the story is given another translation.

Cunningham concludes: “Here, then, is the full process of translation. At one point we have a writer in a room, struggling to approximate the impossible vision that hovers over his head. He finishes it, with misgivings. Some time later we have a translator struggling to approximate the vision, not to mention the particulars of language and voice, of the text that lies before him. He does the best he can, but is never satisfied. And then, finally we have the reader. The reader is the least tortured of the trio, but the reader too may very well feel that he is missing something in the book, that through sheer ineptitude he is failing to be a proper vessel for the book’s overarching vision.”

I found Cunningham’s notion refreshing and provocative. It has elicited some comment in letters to the Times. One person made reference to a remark Robert Frost made about poetry: “When you translate poetry, poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

Try translating that into Italian. I did and here’s how one translator did it: "Quando si traduce la poesia, la poesia è ciò che si perde nella traduzione." Is that what Frost meant?

10.06.2010

A Brainy Feast

Recently I’ve developed ambivalent feelings about the New Yorker Magazine. However, last weekend it staged a literary and cultural tour-de-force that was difficult not to appreciate. It was the eleventh year of the New Yorker Festival that this year brought together a really brilliant group of writers, artists, performers, critics, etc. for a three-day intellectual extravaganza.

The Festival customarily begins on Friday night with paired discussions among writers, including this year such luminaries as Orhan Pamuk, Lorrie Moore, Mary Karr, Zadie Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, E. L. Doctorow, Annie Proulx, etc. Taken together it was an impressive group of contemporary writers.

Earlier that evening there was also a special opening night screening of The Social Network that you surely must know is about the inception and development of Facebook.

Saturday consisted of individual lectures (Atul Gawande, How to Live When You Have to Die; Paul Goldberger, Why Architecture Matters), panel discussions (Natural Disasters, The Case for Gay Marriage), conversations (Paul Krugman talking with Larissa MacFarquhar; Yo-Yo Ma talking with Alex Ross) etc.

Sunday was more of the same with a mix of talks (Malcolm Gladwell who was all over the place), panels (Your Brain on the Internet), an afternoon of poetry readings, walking tours about New York, including the legendary Festival tradition and all time favorite with Calvin Trillin leading a small group on a culinary saunter through lower Manhattan that always concludes with a dim-sum feast!

One year I tried to get a couple of tickets to Trillin’s feast. I duly waited until moment the tickets officially went on sale and then I called at the strike of the gong. It could not have been more than five to ten seconds later when I placed my order and was duly informed the event was already sold out.

These are only a sampling of this year’s events. However, you can read about all of them on the Festival Blog that provides a brief summary of each session along with short video introductions to some of the presentations. If you scroll through the list of offerings you’ll see what a goldmine it is. You could easily spend an entire weekend mining its riches.

Even better, if you happen to have a little extra cash and some spare time, you can watch a complete video of a fair number of the presentations. The individual videos are priced at $4.95 and access to all of them is $59.95. I’ve bought a few of them (Gawande, Gladwell, the Krugman discussion, and Lorrie Moore’s.

I’ve started watching Gawande’s lecture and it is meticulous and moving to be sure. It is also an hour and a half (including about 20 minutes of really fine questions from a very literate audience) and I wanted to stop about mid-way through so I could spend time mulling it over before watching any further.

Perhaps this introduction will tempt you to take advantage of the video presentations of this year’s three-day “celebration of ideas and the arts.” They will only be available until the end of the month.

Since the first New Yorker Festival in 2000 to celebrate the magazines’ 75th Anniversary, they have been holding these gatherings on an annual basis about this time of year. In comparison with recent years, I thought this year’s program was especially cerebral, more focused on the literary arts and social issues and less on celebrities and the media.

10.04.2010

Very Much Tomorrow

This is not a post about book, film or notable essay. Rather it is a story that appeals to me. The story, as it was told in a Times article last month, is about an ancient Italian hill town that has developed a project that is strikingly different than anything in its past or that you might expect it to do.

The town is Tocco Da Casuria, a “quintessential Italian town of 2,700 people” in the central part of Italy. I’ve been to such towns, lingered there for hours, returned time and time again. There isn’t much going on in these hill towns. The streets are quiet. It is hot when I am there. I go to a small café or “bar” to get a cold drink and there are two or three elderly men there watching a soccer game on the TV. I sit down and watch the game. It is hard to leave.

Tocco has undertaken a project that has started to take hold in other comparable Italian villages. And it is a major achievement for a little town like Tocco, one, however, that is not being emulated in large urban centers where Italian planning and regulation requirements pose too many barriers at the present time.

What Tocco has done has become totally energy self-sufficient. Not only that, but the little village is making money from its electricity production by selling it to other communities in Italy. Last year the excess production of renewable energy earned the town 170,000 Euros ($200,000). The surplus funds permitted it to renovate its schools, “tripled the budget for street cleaners” and ended local taxes and fees for community services like garbage removal.

Tocco has achieved this degree of energy sufficiency has been by building four wind turbines and roof-top solar panels in private residences, the sports center complex, and some of its ancient buildings. According to the Times article “Tocco was motivated to become an early adapter because Italy already had among the highest electricity rates in Europe, and nearly three times the average in the United States, and it could not cope with the wild fluctuations in fossil fuel prices and supply that prevailed in the last decade.”

These are representative of the conditions that exist in every town and city in industrial countries. When combined with the falling price of renewable energy and government incentives to Italian communities that are able to produce surplus energy, the development of such projects has become a no brainer.

The Tocco Da Casuria story captured my imagination. Here is the typical Italian hill town that has preserved its old ways and at the same time is on the forefront of energy technology. Old men at the café sitting outside in the sun, their wives on their way to the market, and all the while wind turbines are blowing in the wind high among the hillside olive trees and new roof-top solar panels are soaking up the energy to light its walkways and power its few offices and shops.

As the Times article points out “Tocco is very much tomorrow.” It is also a small town where change seems to come more readily than in larger urban centers, one that apparently has been implemented with comparable savings in more than 800 Italian communities not unlike Tocco.

There is also another story to tell about Tocco Da Casuria, one not discussed in the Times article. It is the story of how these changes came to pass, the people who were responsible for initiating and implementing the projects. The situation that led the town to consider adopting sustainable energy projects is well known but not the process whereby they became a reality. It is worth the trip there to find out. Arrivedici.

10.01.2010

The New Yorker App

Dedicated readers of the New Yorker who are both pragmatic and digitally proficient have been waiting for the New Yorker’s iPad App ever since the hefty gadget flew into the Apple Store. Earlier this week they learned that the App had gone public and could now be downloaded to the iPad. But once they took a look how to obtain the first issue, a loud groan could be heard throughout the land.

While the entire magazine, ads, cartoons, What’s Going On, articles, essays, the works are there, something is still missing. And what is missing is free access.

To read each weekly issue the moment it hits the newsstands in New York will cost you $5.00. So if you are a subscriber, you not only will be paying the weekly cost of the print edition, but an additional $5.00 per issue for the electronic version.

Imagine the furor. The following comments were made in response to the magazine’s online announcement of the App.

I am astonished that Conde Nast believes I should pay for my subscription twice. That's dumb.

Is Condé Nast seriously expecting that I and other subscribers will rather pay $4.99 than simply bringing along the actual magazine? I'd be happy to pay for the app or an additional subscription fee, but not at this price.

I love The New Yorker and I love my Ipad but sadly at five bucks a pop, never the two shall meet! A very long time subscriber

Like others, I'd like to see free access for subscribers. I live overseas. It takes 2-3 weeks beyond the normal delivery time for me to receive each issue. And now I'm moving to Afghanistan. I'd love to see an iPad subscription option that would allow me to get the issues on-time. You can even charge the same amount and pocket the international postage fees!

What is one to do? For non-subscribers, it’s not a bad deal, as the newsstand price of each issue is $5.99. It’s not a great deal either even with the modest discount for readers who belong to the Borders or Barnes & Noble membership program.

For current subscribers it does present a dilemma. They will have to decide how important it is to pay the additional $5 per issue. Is the magazine worth it today? I don’t think so, although I might have responded differently in the days before the electronic age.

As the subscriber who is moving to Afghanistan indicated, it is simply a matter of how long can you wait. Waiting two or three weeks for an overseas resident might make it worthwhile to pay for the instantly arrive iPad issue and almost as worthwhile for subscribers on the West Coast where it doesn’t arrive until Friday or Saturday. And for those who live on an island in the middle of the ocean, as I do now, where the magazine eventually drifts in with the prevailing trade winds, it might be a good deal. But first I have to buy an iPad and I’ve been mulling that over for months now and will probably continue to do so for many more.

Ideally the New Yorker could offer readers an option to subscribe to the App instead of the print copy and Conde Nast says, they hope to be able to have this option “before too long.” But knowing Conde Nast and the nature of their business, I wouldn’t bet my penny collection on that happening.

While the App may be aesthetically pleasing and a complete version of the print edition that can be read almost immediately after it is published, consider what cannot be done with it. You cannot easily underline (highlight) passages. You cannot make notes in the margins. You cannot cut out funny cartoons or articles worth saving. For a reader who likes to do all these things, the App is a bare approximation of the original and scarcely worth an additional $5 per issue.

And in the final analysis it’s all a matter of how patient you are. As Saint Augustine said when faced with this dilemma, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”

9.29.2010

Go and Study

A mocker asked the great and gentle rabbi Hillel to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, to which Hillel replied: “That’s easy. What you wouldn’t have done to you, don’t do to others. As for the rest, go and study.”
Rebecca Goldstein The Mind Body Problem

A friend recently wrote to me about the ambivalence he feels toward being in graduate school now. In reply I had all too casually said that he was there “…to lay the foundation for a life of learning.” Given his current dilemma, I realize now that was rather thoughtless, although he said it had “deeply moved” him.

Graduate student uncertainty about the path they have started down is much more common than it was in my day. When I entered graduate school, there were very considerable demands for university and college professors in all disciplines. This is clearly no longer the case. And for various other reasons the university as I came to know it is no longer quite so attractive to young students or, for that matter, to their professors either.

My friend confesses he is more “moved by pressing goals.” These are far removed from the academic fray. “……there are aspects of the business that intrigue me: the fast pace, the money making, sharp dressing… Mostly the pace. Scholarly research is too slow-paced. And then, after it’s published, who’ll read it? It takes too long to become an established researcher, widely quoted and respected. And teaching and university bureaucracy are so problematic. Knowing all of these shortcomings, present in every industry, will not help me to excel within this “industry.”


I understand his predicament and deeply sympathetic with it. What can I say? We approached this kind of choice point at different times and at different angles. I know my counsel is unrealistic and yet I can’t imagine suggesting he give up on the academic world so soon after beginning his graduate studies.

Our exchange reminded me of a recent remembrance by Roger Scruton of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s memorable lecture The Idea of a University that he refers to as "…surely the most serene and beautiful vindication that we have of the old ideal of the scholarly life."

Later Scruton continues, … It was not simply a repository of knowledge. It was a place where work and leisure occurred side by side, shaping each other, and each playing its part in producing the well-formed and graceful personality.

Yes, that’s the way I always thought of life in the academy. I still do even though I am no longer formally a part of it.

Is there a place today for a life of learning? I know it is an increasingly narrow one. But still its appeal remains as strong for me today as it was the first day I became a freshman in college. I quote Keith Thomas in his Fifth British Academy Lecture, November 20, 2001.

Finally, the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things and the same refusal to contemplate any dumbing down? And where else is hard-won knowledge freely imparted, without hope of financial recompense? So long as these qualities remain in evidence, those who follow the life of learning have no reason to be ashamed of their calling.

9.27.2010

500 Million Members

Facebook: You can’t avoid it. Zuckerberg here, Zuckerberg there, the IPO (Will he or won’t he?), the movie, the profile in the New Yorker, the book (The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich) and no doubt another book or two in the works.

What is it all about? I am on Facebook. I don’t know why. No one ever seeks my friendship. I rarely seek the friendship of anyone or say very little about myself. Most of it is fabricated anyway. I even have my face there. That is a mistake. No wonder no one wants to be my friend

Once I tried to befriend a person, if that is what you call it I found on the site. I did so only because she had written to me about a book I wrote: “Your book was an inspiration.”

I never received a reply. That seemed odd. She is no longer a public presence there. Already we have had our first argument.

Why would anyone want to talk, if that is what you call it, on this site? How can you make these exchanges so public? The discourse is moronic anyway. Why not sent an e-mail, write a letter, or make a telephone call? If you’re not good for more than a word or two, text the person.

Zuckerberg is reported to be a strange one in the New Yorker (9/20/10) profile by Jose Vargas. “…a wary and private person…. mixture of shy and cocky… he can come off as flip and condescending … backstabbing, conniving, and insensitive.” Yes, perhaps a bit disdainful, autocratic, secretive, but extraordinarily successful. Is that what it takes?

Zuckerberg’s story is a familiar one, especially if you have read Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s account of the reasons some individuals become enormously successful in their field. According to Vargas, like so many digital wizards, Zuckerberg was a computer prodigy as a kid, played computer games, and early on began to tinker with coding. When he was about eleven, his parents hired a computer tutor and not long after Zuckerberg began taking evening computer courses at a nearby college.

Soon after he became a freshman at Harvard, he built a CourseMatch, a program that enabled students to decide which classes to take and another, Facemash, that Vargas characterizes as a kind of “sexual-playoff system” that was promptly shutdown by the administration.

And then as Vargas describes it, “Afterward , three upperclassmen …approached Zuckerberg for assistance with a site that they had been working on, called Harvard Connection.” Apparently Zuckerberg worked with them a while “but he soon abandoned their project in order to build his own site, which he eventually labeled Facebook.” The site, originally a social network for Harvard students, soon thereafter expanded to other colleges, became an instant hit, whereupon Zukerberg dropped out of Harvard (as Gates did and as Jobs did from Reed) to run it. The rest is well known.

I am less interested in Zuckerberg the person or the current controversies over Facebook’s privacy policies than I am in the conditions that led him to formulate the Facebook concept, create its software, and then apply it with such success to the Web. In Outliers Gladwell formulates a five-factor theory of success: talent, hard work, opportunity, timing and luck.

Obviously Zukerberg had a great deal of natural savvy about computers and knack for coding. Equally clear, he spent hours and hours, perhaps Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hours, developing his computer software skills. He parents gave him every opportunity, hired a tutor and provided a first-rate education.

As for timing, one really never can be sure when an idea will take hold but by the time Facebook was launched, the Web had become a very fertile ground for match making and, as a friend put it to me recently, "mischief-making." And then luck is such a vague term. Of course, Zuckerberg was lucky. No one becomes an extraordinarily successful person without a good deal of luck. So that factor, along with timing, is of little value in predicting success and even less useful in fostering it.

Still there is the lingering unknown of whether or not the idea and execution of Facebook was based (“stolen”) upon the work of the upperclassmen who had approached Zuckerberg for assistance with their own highly similar site. Two of the three are appealing for more than the previous sixty-five million dollar settlement with Facebook and the case is currently under review.

However, the settlement was a financial one that leaves unanswered the question of who was really responsible for the Facebook concept. I suppose one can never really know these things anyway and in the words of a young German writer I cited in an earlier post on where ideas come from, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,”