Author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on why we need to forget

PUP author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger gave an interesting interview in the Guardian last week.  In it he proposes an idea that most of us would find counter-intuitive: that it is a blessing, rather than a human weakness, to forget.

It is at first tricky to understand–after all, human beings tend to value memory.  Knowledge is made up of memories linked together to form our personal bank of experience, without which we would never be able to learn and innovate.  Throughout history human progress has been based in remembering, the ability to learn from what our forefathers have discovered and built  in order to create something new.  Cave paintings and hieroglyphs were the first images and diagrams preserving human memory for future generations.

Yet Mayer-Schönberger believes that there is such a thing as too much memory.  In our time, the development of digital technology has made the storage and recall of memory an entirely different process.  In his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, he outlines what the digital age is doing to human experience.  Rather than being forced to weigh the value of a memory, a piece of knowledge, humans are able to retain it all–but at what cost?  Can one ever forgive a slight if it is stored in an email bank for eternity, never to be forgotten?  Should our memories be shared with the world on sites like Facebook? Is it really best for human beings to have no secrets?  And, nowadays, do we have any other choice?

Mayer-Schönberger notes, “Quite literally, Google knows more about us than we can remember ourselves.” The article provides a fascinating look at the power technology holds over us. Check it out, and pick up Delete to learn more about what solutions Mayer-Schönberger has to offer.

Author Sheldon Garon on the lesson of “thrift”

Author Sheldon Garon was recently a guest writer on the public radio Marketplace blog, “Makin’ Money,” with a piece entitled How America shortchanges its kids about thrift.

In it Garon explains the curious difference between “thrift” education in America versus Europe. With the exception of a handful of exemplary states, America had historically shown little interest in encouraging students to save.  In recent times student saving programs have become fewer and farther between.  Garon notes that “this is a pity because decades later one encounters New Yorkers or Minnesotans who insist that school programs started them on a lifetime of saving.”

Today, “the U.S. is…behind other nations in permitting pre-college teenagers the freedom to make withdrawals from bank accounts and thereby learn financial responsibility.” Garon suggests that we have a lot to learn from other nations, and the time to start is now.  Read his eye-opening article here, and pick up a copy of Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves to learn more about the practice of saving in America and around the world.

Author David Marquand speaks on “The End of the West”

Author David Marquand spoke in London earlier this month for a Policy Network event on the future of Europe. His talk plays on the subject of his new book, The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe.

Marquand addresses the question of the economic state of Europe, politics during the post-war recovery period, and whether the “Democratic Deficit” exists.

Is the Western world really on the decline?  Check out his interviews, beginning here and carrying over here, then pick up a copy of his book to find out more about what it takes for a country to thrive in the world today.

The fascinating history of the “Beer Archaeologist”

Patrick McGovern is a professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the man responsible for Dogfish Head Brewery‘s acclaimed Ancient Ales, a series of beers created using methods and ingredients that stick as faithfully as possible to brewing recipes used by ancient peoples.

In its article on the “Beer Archaeologist,” the Smithsonian.com explains the unlikely connection between the worlds of Professor McGovern, pictured left, and Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione, pictured right.  As it turns out, the two men have much in common when it comes to a real passion for the art of brewing.

McGovern’s interest in the alcohol production industry in fact springs directly from his archaeological background.  He accidentally created an entirely new field of study when he analyzed the remnants of an unknown substance found in an ancient Iranian pottery jar and discovered that it was a type of alcohol.  He published an article on his findings, and a new culture was born.  Now in addition to serving as an adjunct professor at Penn, McGovern holds the title of “Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia,” a position that could never have existed not long ago.

In the article McGovern presents some interesting hypotheses about the importance of alcohol in culture and in the history of mankind, similar to those explored in his book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture.  If you are a beer or wine enthusiast you might already know how ancient people distilled fruit and grain to create alcoholic beverages, but McGovern presents the idea of “wine cultures” in a whole new light.  The article even mentions the “beer before bread” theory that hypothesizes “the desire for drink may have prompted the domestication of key crops, which led to permanent human settlements.”

The article is well worth a read, both for the surprising insights McGovern shares and for the interesting history of the man himself.  Grab yourself a bottle of one of Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales (Chateau Jiahu is my favorite, if you can find it) and get to reading.  You’ll be absorbing ancient culture into your body and your mind all at once!

Author Mark Kleiman on America’s incompetent criminal justice system

Author Mark Kleiman is angry.

In his interview with reason.tv, he explains that “We have 5 percent of the world’s population; we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. If the criminal justice system were a parent, we’d call it abusive and neglectful.”  And the overwhelming number of prisoners is not the only problem: “The worst thing about our criminal justice system is its randomized draconianism. We’re very severe in the way we punish people, but we do so very irregularly and very erratically.”  Add to this the boundless state and government spending on U.S. prisons, the overcrowding and violence in the prisons themselves, and the demonstrated ineffectiveness of our system of punishment, and it’s no wonder why the criminal justice system makes his blood boil.  You might want to get angry, too.

But Kleiman also gives us some hope: he explains why we need to fix these problems, and proposes how we can start to make changes today.  Watch his interview, “Filling Up Prisons without Fighting Crime”, or click here to read the transcript.  And be sure to pick up a copy of When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment to learn even more about this pressing issue.

PUP Author (and U. Penn. President) Amy Gutmann interviewed in the New York Times

Last week the New York Times “Business Day” section interviewed Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Why Deliberative Democracy? (2004) and the forthcoming Spring 2012 book Why Compromise Matters.

In the interview Gutmann shares her personal thoughts on leadership and the factors that contributed to the success she enjoys today.  She speaks of the “combination of courage and farsightedness” she admired in her father, who escaped Nazi Germany, and the ways in which she has applied those principles to her leadership style.  That style nowadays is characterized by an embrace of “wild ideas” and group deliberation combined with a sharp decisiveness when tough decisions need to be made.  Gutmann characterizes herself as “somebody who, since I was little, loved juggling multiple balls, keeping multiple balls in the air,” and the portrait this insightful interview presents certainly seems to confirm her analysis.  Read it to find out more about the remarkable woman running the University of Pennsylvania, and stay on the lookout for her new book, Why Compromise Matters, coming out next Spring!

Avian Architecture praised in the New York Times

Last week the New York Times ran an article on Peter Goodfellow’s Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build, and the public response has been positively overwhelming!  Yesterday the article was at number 11 on the NYT online list of most emailed articles.  Here is what some fans have had to say:

Star Tribune author Jim Williams, the “WingNut” columnist, writes: “I read “Avian Architecture” cover to cover without putting it down. I’m fascinated by nests, being built, in use, or abandoned at season’s end. Goodfellow now has me actively looking for nest constructions I haven’t seen…”

From the blog No Charge Bookbunch: “…a book review about Avian Architecture caught my interest in the New York Times today…the author’s scientific explanation of Australian bowerbirds’ nests gave a good model to emulate…”

The design-oriented blog zee. writes “I love books that make you look at the world a little differently…I never thought of birds as builders and engineers (no offense, birds), but they clearly are, in their own right,” while notcot, a blog of “ideas+aesthetics+amusement” was taken with this photo of a hanging nest:

The blog Co.Design also praises both the imagery and content of Goodfellow’s book.  “This isn’t a lavish coffee-table book — information is privileged over visuals — but there’s plenty to marvel at… Our favorites are the examples of biomimicry — instances of us mirroring nature in our own architecture. But most of the nests are remarkable feats – especially when you consider that they’re built with the assistance of a single tool — a beak — which, as Goodfellow writes, is a little like “trying to make a ham and cheese sandwich with one hand behind your back.”” (That would be very tricky!)

Whether you are a bird nest enthusiast, architecture fan, or just enjoy beautiful and inspiring images, Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build is well worth picking up!

Author Codrescu considers the “whitewashing” of the Arabian Nights stories

The Arabian Nights stories may be far more controversial than you ever imagined.

In an interview on WPR, author Andrei Codrescu and Professor Reza Aslan talk about the interesting origins of the Arabian Nights stories.  According to Aslan, the story of 1001 Nights were originally translated into the English language in the Victorian era to serve as sex manuals for repressed British men, much in the way that the Kama Sutra is considered by some today.  His article of the Arabian Nights stories as “Islamic Erotica” appeared in Playboy Magazine.  (Excerpts from that article can be found here.)

Codrescu notes that the Arabian Nights stories are interesting because their original author is unknown.  As such they have been revised and rewritten by generations of authors and editors, changing the message (and degree of eroticism) of the tales.  Codrescu also insists that the oral nature of the stories play an important role in their seductive effect.  They are by definition never ending–Sheherezade depends on her skill as a story teller to stay alive–and thus are written (or spoken) to continually arouse curiosity and interest in the reader (or listener).

Both experts agree that the fantastic and exotic nature of the stories are what have drawn centuries of readers to the Arabian Nights stories. Even the Disney classic Aladdin was derived from one of Sheherezade’s many tales. The interview explores the stories’ connections to everything from historical figures who may have inspired the characters in 1001 Nights to the current “erotic” events that fascinate the public today (Congressman Weiner, for example). Take a listen to this educational and entertaining interview here, and check out Codrescu’s take on the famous story in Whatever Gets You through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments.

Op-Ed by the authors of Clear and Simple as the Truth

Francis-Noël Thomas & Mark Turner, authors of Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Second Edition) have written A Natural Way To Write, an op-ed which explores the concept of “teaching writing” and examines the process of writing itself.

A Natural Way To Write

Traditional writing instruction tacitly assumes that writing is a normal human activity requiring no fundamental cognitive work.  “Teaching writing,” following this assumption, is almost entirely concerned with teaching surface conventions.   Almost everyone acknowledges that attempting to teach writing this way is not very successful—it works best with students who have already achieved a high degree of writing competence on their own and rarely if ever does much of anything for students who have not.

We begin by acknowledging the fundamental fact that writing is utterly alien to the human evolutionary endowment.  On the evolutionary scale, writing is a recent invention, at most eight-thousand years old. For most of its history, it was a special purpose activity, the province of a tiny group of professionals who used it, for example, to record inventories.  Literature is considerably older than writing.  And even after writing was invented, poets such as Homer remained illiterate.  Writing as we know it today in literate societies is only a few hundred years old and has a limited reach.  Much of the world’s population is even now illiterate.  It is a mistake to treat writing as a common, species-wide behavior like talking or walking—a mistake that is possible to make only because the human species is exceptionally skillful at acquiring and then obliviously inhabiting “second natures.”  All writing is exotic, but in literate societies it is now taken as “natural.”

There is, however, a species-wide, ancient behavior underlying writing.  Cognitive scientists call it joint attention, and we think it is the most sensible and practical place to begin learning to write.  In joint attention, two or more people are attending to something, they know they are all attending to it, they know that they are all engaging with each other by attending to it, and they know that they all know all of that.  This is home turf for the cognitively modern human mind, which all human beings have had for approximately the past fifty thousand years.  More specifically, the cognitive core of writing is “classic joint attention,” in which there are just two people, paying attention to something that is directly perceptible. We never feel any difficulty when we are pointing out something directly perceptible to somebody next to us.  We are built for this.  We feel at home doing it because the scene of classic joint attention is intelligible by itself.  We expect our companion to be able to perceive what we are presenting once it is pointed out.

In order to talk, we blend a complicated mental network, one that often ranges far from home, with a familiar scene—like classic joint attention—so that the foreign network has a domestic anchor.  If we make such a blend, and speak from it, our speech becomes intelligible, consistent, coherent, and familiar, even though the speaker is dealing with a diffuse, complex, foreign network of ideas and relationships.  The complex network is assimilated to a simple scene through blending.

Consider, as an example of classic style, the following passage from La Rochefoucauld:

Madame de Chevreuse had sparkling intelligence, ambition, and beauty in plenty; she was flirtatious, lively, bold, enterprising; she used all her charms to push her projects to success, and she almost always brought disaster to those she encountered on her way.

One does not learn to write this way by taking some prose one has already written and revising it.  Instead, one learns to write this way by first mastering the scene of classic joint attention, and then using it as an anchor for diffuse networks that range far beyond the classic scene.  Think of how much is involved in the mental network of La Rochefoucauld’s presentation: Madame Chevreuse’s invisible qualities, the writer’s knowledge of her projects, his distance from them, his relationship to the reader (confiding but controlled).   All of it is compressed to a scene of classic joint attention as if the writer is pointing out directly perceptible things to someone standing next to him in full confidence that, of course, they would be recognized at once.  No one could write this way through a process of revising surface features of language.

In the scene of classic joint attention, there is something directly perceptible.  In contrast, the network of ideas we want to present may not be directly perceptible.  The human mind—uniquely among species—is routinely skillful at blending things that don’t naturally go together.  In the complex network, the subject may be completely imperceptible. But in the blend, we treat the subject as if it is something directly perceptible. The result is that we can talk about anything at all as if it is directly perceptible: someone’s disappointment or sense of the absurd, a city’s magnificence or a country’s intransigence, a neighborhood’s poverty or a wine’s elegance—all these invisible things and an endless list of others are treated as if they were directly perceptible.

In the mental network of ideas and thought supporting your presentation, the audience may be large and psychologically disposed in a variety of ways. But in classic joint attention, we are speaking to just one other person collusively. So in the blend, we treat the audience like a competent individual who colludes with us to recognize what we are pointing out. In the actual network, the purpose can be anything, or multiple, and conflicting. But in classic joint attention, the purpose is always simply disinterested presentation. So, in the blend, purposes in the network are compressed to presentation.

Whatever difficulties are involved in presenting ideas, judgments, or invisible qualities, writing based in classic joint attention presents no conspicuous evidence that any of this is work or that there is any difficulty in getting the language to serve the presentation. On the contrary, writing based in classic joint attention treats language as a perfect, undistorting window on the subject of the presentation, and the speaker takes the stand that this is a natural way to talk, because in real classic joint attention, it is. In the actual diffuse network of communication, the speaker and audience may not be in a symmetric relationship; the speaker may be speaking for a group; the audience may be hostile; the purpose may be far from disinterested presentation.  By blending the actual network of concepts, motives, speaker, and audience with the scene of classic joint attention, we can give the network a manageable anchor, and speak from the blend. There are only two steps to learning to talk this way: (1) think of a scene of classic joint attention; (2) blend it with whatever mental network of thoughts and relationships you confront, and speak from the blend.

After one has mastered the scene of classic joint attention in speech, the next step is to extend the network to writing.  Writing is not a scene of classic joint attention, but in classic style the writer uses the classic scene as an anchor so that, in the blend, writing becomes speaking, the indefinite audience that is not present becomes a single person who is right there, and the subject becomes something that can be perceived.

 

Once the process of learning how to write is anchored in its cognitive core, the scene of classic joint attention—rather than a list of surface features—the process becomes straightforward and intelligible.  In a series of steps, one can master the actual scene of classic joint attention, then extend it and practice until the new behavior becomes second nature—and then extend it again, until one has become an accomplished prose stylist.  This process takes a scene that human beings everywhere are built for, an activity that is powerful across the entire species.  It applies the cognitive process of blending, the hallmark of cognitively modern human beings.  Applying blending to the scene of classic joint attention provides a natural, intelligible path to learning how to write.  It is the path we have traced in Clear and Simple as the Truth.

Author Codrescu interviewed on Hawaii public radio

“The best stories are those told with the threat of death in the morning” –or so claims author Andrew Codrescu in his interview on Hawaii public radio last week.

The conversation was about his new interpretation of the Arabian Nights stories, Whatever Gets You through the Night. In it Codrescu reveals some of the personal and creative reasons why he was drawn to retelling these stories in particular.  He also considers the importance of oral story telling and how it has changed yet remained the same in modern life. (For example, have you ever considered twitter or facebook as a medium for telling never ending stories?)

The interview is both an interesting look at what inspires an author to write on a subject, and a glimpse into Codrescu’s life.  Check it out here and pick up a copy of Whatever Gets You through the Night for yourself!

Author Shamus Khan’s take on “Privilege” praised in Saint Paul’s Alumni Magazine

Shamus Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School was recently reviewed in the school’s alumi magazine.   In the book he provides an inside look at the Concord, New Hampshire institution that has been the private realm of the elite for the past 150 years.  One might expect that the alumni, as members of said elite, would not take kindly to his critical analysis of their alma mater.

However it seems the opposite has been the case. It has certainly won the acclaim of Nelson Aldrich–Saint Paul’s alumnus, scion of the Rockefeller family, former editor of the Paris Review and Harpers, and author of Old Money.  (He is also the author of the 1979 essay “Preppies: The Last Upper Class?,” which predates the famous “The Official Preppy Handbook.” The essay has been described as “a seminal work of exposition on the manners and mores of the WASP establishment.”) His review begins:

“It has been said that it’s better to have a writer in the family than an assassin, but not much better. Shamus Khan, the author of this brilliant book, is a twice-anointed member of the SPS family… and some among his many relatives — after reading his book (or about it) — are surely calling him an assassin. This will not affect the value of his book at all.”

Aldrich’s glowing review continues on to highlight the thesis of Khan’s work: that the meaning of “privileged” has changed from simply indicating an “elite” background to some different quality dependent on personal achievement and accountability, and that the school is working to teach this trait to new generations of students.  He concludes his review with a suggestion that St. Paul’s begin teaching this book to its students in lecture.

In 1979 Aldrich expressed the difficulty of determining “what ideals, if any, are inculcated at prep schools. Among the students, there is a certain reaction against the relentless competitiveness of Preppie life, in the name of cooperation. And out of this reaction, some prep schools have tried to create an odd set of ideals compounded of Christian, Maoist and Rogerian elements that many of the students seem to find affecting, if not yet soothing.” Khan’s study of the St. Paul’s School examines the development of the change Aldrich identified years ago.  Read Aldrich’s essay here, then pick up a copy of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School for yourself!

Interviews of Edwidge Danticat at LIVE from the NYPL

Check out these great interviews of Edwidge Danticat, author of Create Dangerously, at the New York Public Library’s LIVE event.

(And pick up a copy of the book, too!)