Place Matters


Two schools of thought have dominated recent thinking about the future of our society. The first idea, that “the world is flat,” suggests our physical locations no longer matter, thanks to communication technology, free-trade, fast travel and globalization. Another perspective bemoans the collapse of social cohesion, driving us to a world where dissent is up, compassion is down, and ability to find common ground and solve society’s problems disappears because we are “bowling alone.”

Enter sociologist Robert J. Sampson.

Sampson served as one of the primary investigators on the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a study conducted over more than eight years in dozens of Chicago’s neighborhoods. The study tracked cohorts of Chicago children of different ages over time, measuring basic demographics, economic conditions, education, crime, health and more. He has published some of the major findings of this study – nearly 20 years in the making – in “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.”

The sheer scope of the study is impressive enough. However, the findings have major implications for national and local policy in regard to institutionalized and structurally reinforced opportunity, inequality and economics and well-being. The PHDCN also appears to refute the ideas that place no longer matters and that social networks have degraded. Quite the opposite, Sampson argues.

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The Smoke-Filled Chatroom


Journalism is dead. Why? Because old media were stubborn and did not adjust to a new world of smart phones and social media. Or so the prevailing thought goes.

Robert McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy” offers another theory, though, one I believe should be discussed and dissected in every journalism school in the United States.

Those who aspire to be journalists need to know and understand the information and arguments in “Digital Disconnect,” because it gives a brutally honest description of today’s “political economy of communication,” and how the demise of good investigative reporting is contributing to a rise in economic inequality.

The book is primarily about how the promise of the Internet – open, untethered, democratic, free of advertising – has been co-opted by two groups of massive conglomerates – telecoms (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc.) tussling over the right to control access, and massive new media companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, etc.) fighting over your data – all to maximize profit. As Jaron Lanier writes, those who owns the most distribution channels and data own the future.

At its heart, however, McChesney’s book tackles the death and future of American journalism. National news organizations are now almost entirely owned by one of six media corporations (who also often own telecom networks), and they design their product to get maximum pageviews or ad clicks through one of the massive social media networks. In other words, the news has fundamentally changed thanks to a squeeze for profits from both ends. The wall between ownership and newsrooms were long destroyed, and terms like “sponsored content” try to disguise the fact that most “news” is now no more than regurgitated press releases.

All of this means journalism is spending less time putting pressure on those who control resources and power in society. This includes their own ownership, actively rewriting laws and regulations to further monopoly control over public means of communication. As a result, these companies, along with the American government, now know nearly anything they want about you, while you are allowed to know as little as possible about them. Primarily, “Digital Disconnect” is an account of corporate and state collusion to increase profits and power at the expense of privacy, choice, dissent and the democratic process. And professional journalism has rolled over and played along.

The Internet has been detrimental to news media, because it has destroyed ad revenues. Journalism struggles to remain afloat. But this was always the case – real journalism has always been a thorn in the side of power, and thus always under attack. Intimidation via digital communication is just the latest tool to render reporting and investigation harmless.

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The Eureka Moment


Whenever I’m looking for a new book to read, I find that Bill Gates’ blog isn’t a bad place to start. It was there I found his review of “The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention.”

The book is a thorough exploration of the invention of the steam engine beyond the technical details. More so, author William Rosen focuses on the environment of science and philosophy in 17th- and 18th-century England that made the steam engine all but inevitable. The greatest innovation of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, Rosen argues, is not the steam engine, but the process of invention itself.

Gates provides a more intriguing summary book’s scope than I could, so I encourage you to read his write-up if you want to learn more (or just read the book!). However, my interest in cognition and the human brain led me to greatly appreciate one particular chapter of Rosen’s work – an exploration of the “eureka moment.”

As the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, James Watt was walking through a green space, thinking about how to build a better steam engine, when suddenly, “the whole thing was arranged in my mind” – meaning the idea hit him to create a separate condenser on his steam engine that exponentially increased the power produced and cut the fuel cost by more than half. Noticing this seemed to happen more often in the Industrial Revolution than any time in history, Rosen examines why we tend to have these eureka moments, or how he puts it, “solving problems without conscious effort, after effort has failed.”

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Confiscating Yellowstone


If you’re looking for a summer travel destination, I know it’s cliche, but see Yellowstone at least once in your life.

My wife and I traveled through on our road trip up to Glacier National Park in Montana. We were only in Yellowstone for a day, but it was possibly the most spectacular day of the trip. We entered the park after driving the Bear Tooth Highway, and coming down the mountains into the park we were almost immediately greeted by hundreds of bison and calves grazing in freshly green fields. We looped around the entire park in about 10 hours, seeing Tower Falls, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and Mammoth Springs, not to mention all kinds of birds, elk, coyotes, Canadians, and the backside of at least one black bear.

On the way out of the park, we stopped at a gift shop, and being a sucker for nonfiction, I picked up “Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone.” I wanted to learn more about the history of America’s first national park, and at 600-plus pages, “Empire of Shadows” taught me more than I could ever hope to remember.

What stuck with me most vividly was the history our high school teachers tend to gloss over – the unabashed and egregious taking of Native American land, liberty and lives. Not that this was a surprise to me – obviously the entirety of the United States was taken at one point or another in this fashion. The unsettling fact, as author George Black recounts, is that Yellowstone would not be a national park today without decades of undue violent conflict between Native Americans and white settlers.

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The Recursive Mind


Only the human mind could achieve something so majestic.

What makes us human? 98.8% percent of our DNA is identical to that of the chimpanzee. Heck, we share  75% of it with mice, and 50% with the banana. And yet, humans are the only species to able speak complex sentences, make tools with other tools, and leave the planet to explore other worlds. We homo sapiens beat out about 20 other species of apes and/or hominids, even, and we probably drove another – Neandertals – to extinction with superior communication, tool-making and social abilities.

In my last quarter of grad school, I took a seminar called “The Biological Origins of Political Cognition.” It was one of the most fascinating courses I ever took. The professor, Eric Oliver, was seeking a testable theory for the evolutionary origins of human political instincts – everything from cognitive science to evolutionary theory to social and clinical psychology were fair game. Along with a group of about a dozen grad students, he was hoping to gain some traction in developing a working model. I don’t know that he found what he was looking for – I think the concept was just too big and foreign for us – but nevertheless the class generated a ton of discussion at the event horizons of our brains. I always felt simultaneously smarter and dumber at the end of the week, and I always thought that if I ever had to do grad school over, I would have spent much more time on Eric’s questions.

Anyway, I’m sidetracked. One of the un-required readings for the course was Michael Corballis’ The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization. I had kept it on my list for three years before finally getting around to it this fall. I’m glad I did – it took me back to that class, and that’s a good thing, because evolution of the human mind is fascinating and so poorly understood.

Currently, researchers seem to agree that complex language abilities separate us from the rest of the animal world. The author of this thesis, Corballis, doesn’t disagree. However, many other animals – from birds to apes to whales to bees – have complex systems of communication. Corballis believes it is more than merely the complexity of our language that makes us human – it is the neural capacity for this complexity.

Of all living species, Corballis says in The Recursive Mind, humans are the only animals capable of recursive thought – that is, the ability to nest ideas within ideas. For example, you can think about what you had planned to do today yesterday, or I can say that my brother thinks what my uncle said last year about his plans for next May are probably not going to happen. If you understood that sentence, congratulations! You are a human.

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Iran and Pakistan


I talked with the president at one of those fundraisers some months back, and I asked him, “What keeps you up at night?”

And he said, “Everything. Everything that gets to my desk is a critical mass. If it gets to my desk, then no one else could have handled it.” So I said, “So what’s the one that keeps you up at night?”

He goes, “There are quite a few.”

So I go, “What’s the one? Period.”

And he says, “Pakistan.”

-George Clooney, 2011

I recently finished a couple of books – A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind and Pakistan: A Hard Country. Noticing a lot of striking differences between the two neighboring countries Iran and Pakistan, particularly when factoring in the misinformed common wisdom about each nation, I decided to put together a comparative study on these two Islamic powers, because apparently that’s the kind of thing I do for fun.

Both nations are fascinating remnants of massive empires, and my quick survey begs the question – which of these countries has the best outlook, which can be a positive force in the world, and which should the international community be most concerned about? As opinions stand at the moment, seems we might have it backwards.

If we’re worried about an Islamic extremism and nuclear threat in the Middle East, why is so much focus on Iran and so little on Pakistan, a nation that’s already nuclear and a haven to religious extremists? Perhaps cultural heritage and tradition drives Western attitudes? Perhaps recent history? Perhaps an outdated, post-Cold-War, ideological foreign policy vision of global hegemony?

First, let’s look at some of the demographics and history of Iran and Pakistan:

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American Nations


This Thanksgiving, we celebrate that one time when the Pilgrims got together with the Native Americans to have turkey, fill cornucopias, exchange handshakes and celebrate the American values of gratitude, cooperation and generosity upon which this country was founded.

Uh, yeah. Sure.

We often look at other countries and break them down by their demographic, societal and cultural elements – India, China, the UK, Iraq, etc. But we rarely do so for the US, even though it spans across an entire continent and has over 320 million people. I think that’s because of the “melting pot” mythology. It’s true this is a nation of immigrants and most of the European settlers from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were able to fully assimilate. But they all became “American” in different ways and different places. The cultures, traditions and belief systems they brought with them never fully went away.

Enter American Nations, an argument by author and historian Colin Woodard. There have been other re-examinations of American history, and they differ on how to organize the cultures that came here from Europe and now make up the United States. But they all agree that it’s not one culture, one purpose, one big happy family. And they don’t teach you that in elementary school.

Woodard drives home the idea that the United States is just that – united states with a loose agreement to band together. American history is meaningless without understanding English history of the 1600s and 1700s that brought it about. The United State is one geopolitical entity, but it’s comprised of many nations, as Woodard argues, and they don’t always agree. Quite often, in fact, they inhabit very different worlds. Here’s how America really came to be, through the very shaky pact of 11 nations founded on competing values and identities:

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Mind over machine

You know that part at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back” where a robot is giving Luke Skywalker a robotic hand and it looks and works just like his old hand? Well, that’s not science fiction anymore.

What’s interesting about the arm in that video is that it’s controlled by implants in the remaining arm tissue. Which apparently works well – better than sensors on the surface of the skin. But what if it could be controlled by the brain itself? I read Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines-and How It Will Change Our Lives last year. Author Miguel Nicolelis, one of the world’s leading brain-machine interface scientists, has allowed mice and monkeys to control robotic arms using nothing but their thoughts, sometimes from halfway around the world. Sounds like science fiction, but it’s real.

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Don’t Shoot


I suppose I’m a little late to comment on the Ferguson mess. I am so far removed from the issues and parties involved that I probably shouldn’t comment on it, so I won’t… too much. However, the way those few weeks played out might have damaged that community and its relationship with law enforcement permanently. What were those cops thinking? What kind of message do armored vehicles and military-grade assault rifles send?

I bring this up because as Ferguson was igniting, I had just finished reading David M. Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America. Again, I know very little about this area, which is probably why Kennedy’s words seemed so profound. The killing of an unarmed teen by a police office in Ferguson and the violent crime spikes among inner-city youth in Boston are totally different issues, but the roots of the tension are the same.

Kennedy, is a passionate, pragmatic consultant, and it comes out in his writing style. Academics or political correctness aren’t his concerns in this book – his concern is what works. And he’s very sure he knows, because he’s been there and he’s done it.

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Ten books

Ten books

I received this challenge on Facebook earlier in the week:

In your status, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard. They do not have to be the “right” books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Tag at least 10 friends, including me, so I can see your list.

Not fair, really. My initial list had about 20 books. But, per the rules, I shortened it down (with one minor cheat). So here are my ten books, in no particular order:

  1. A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
  2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  3. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky / The Sickness unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard
    (Ok, yes I cheated. But these always go together in my mind – both short, both bleak, both amazing. The only real differences are the solutions to life’s absurdity.)
  4. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  6. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  7. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
  8. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold
  9. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  10. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

I  artificially limited myself to ten works of fiction and ten works of nonfiction (even though I am reading almost exclusively nonfiction these days). Also, it’s been a few years since I’ve read most of these, so they may not strike me the same way if I reread them today. But I do remember being “affected” on first read.

Have I read better books? Some. Have I read denser books? Sure. Have I read more informative books? Definitely. But these are the ones that have stuck with me.

So, there you go.