Don’t Shoot

ferguson

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.

A General Theory of Love

A General Theory of Love

One of my all-time favorite books is “A General Theory of Love” by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. It’s one of those paradigm-shifting arguments, the kind that forever alters your perception of the world. That’s not hyperbole for me. I really love this book. I found it in grad school while studying for a seminar on evolutionary political cognition (an unrelated yet fascinating topic I might write about later). My wife read it, too, and had the same reaction. In fact, we liked the book so much we incorporated passages of it into our wedding ceremony.

Believe it or not, it’s not an overly romantic book, as the title might suggest. The authors are three MDs, so their findings are research-based and representative of cutting-edge findings in the field of cognitive sciences. The “general theory” builds from the cognitive phenomena that allow us to feel and emote, demonstrating that we’re not as far removed from the other mammals on earth as we like to believe, and we have not conquered our passions and need for socialization as much as our cultural narrative assumes.

Central to our being is the hypothalamus, the area of the brain responsible for our emotions, connection and socialization. It is above – both literally and figuratively – the reptilian brain, which regulates our basic survival mechanisms like heartbeat, breathing and fight or flight responses. It also sits below our neocortex, the area associated with pattern recognition, speech, language, and most of our higher cognitive processing abilities that make us human. All mammals have some version of a hypothalamus – without it, female elephants wouldn’t protect their children or the children of their relatives, bats wouldn’t punish other bats who don’t share the food they’ve gathered, wolves wouldn’t hunt in packs, and male gorillas wouldn’t assert their dominance. Humans do all of this, too, but the main thing that differentiates us from other mammals is we can identify and describe these behaviors (like I’m doing right now) as well as regulate and mandate different behaviors.The thalamus lets us connect with other beings, and lets us act in a way that benefits the collective, sometimes even at the expense of the individual.

So knowing this, then, what is love?

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I just finished “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

There’s been a lot of debate and political controversy around French economist Thomas Piketty’s new work “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” so naturally I had to read it as soon as I possibly could. The book discusses economic inequality throughout the world (though primarily France, Britain and the United States), which has been a contentious issue for the last few years on both sides of the Atlantic. I finished it this last week, and my thoughts are as follows:

My political leanings aren’t much of a secret, but in reading “Capital” I wanted to put aside any preconceptions and just see what I could learn. That turned out to be pretty easy. “Capital” is much less prescriptive than one might assume. On top of that, there’s hell of a lot of data and history crammed into this 600-page thesis.

“Capital” isn’t for newcomers to macroeconomics. I’m not an econ PhD by any stretch of the imagination, but I have read a number of other texts on the subject, and without that base knowledge the book would have been borderline unreadable. If you’re looking for a more palatable entry point, I recommend Charles Wheelan’s “Naked Economics.”

For those familiar with the topics, “Capital” is not an ideological screed nor an exercise in scare tactics. Malthus was wrong, Piketty says – uncontrolled growth will not be humanity’s downfall. Marx, too, was wrong, as he underestimated the power of productivity growth, education and innovation as rising tides that lift all boats. However, Piketty argues, the prominent 20th century economists, who hailed capitalism as an ultimate solution to inequality and universal prosperity, were also wrong. To paraphrase Churchill, capitalism, like democracy, is the least worst option. As it turns out, capitalism itself inherently produces and perpetuates the types of wealth inequality we saw in the 19th century.  It needs adjustment and correction, and does not inherently self regulate. The “invisible hand” is dealing much more to a select few.

Even if you don’t subscribe to these views, the breadth of data accumulated in the first two sections is staggering. Not being an economics expert, the history of capital, productivity and growth since the year 0 A.D. fascinated me in a way that academic texts rarely do.

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