Monday, November 19, 2007

Amazon's Kindle: Great, but Does Anyone Still Read Books?

(((Amazon; Kindle; The new NEA study on reading; If it reads like a book and I can write in it like it's a book, it's a book; People are reading less and less, and that's probably a problem)))

So, the word seems to be that the new Kindle is the best digital book hardware ever—readable, reasonably fast, etc.

Okay. That's great. But I really want to be able to write in my books. Give me a stylus and an input touch screen and then we'll be getting somewhere. Also, since the thing has limited size, I sure do need to be able to sync with an external storage device that will also be able to interact with the file in a meaningful way, i.e., let me make more annotations, and move it back to the Kindle if I want to. Alas, the product description plays the lack of sync functionality as a feature, not a bug.

All that said, the free chapter previews and the $10 book prices are great, but I don't know who's going to plop down $400 for a hi-tech book that doesn't even include any books.

Worse, will anyone plop down any cash for a fake book in a culture where we don't even read any more? My friends know I'm not alarmist about stuff like this, but I've been seeing precisely the consequences of the following in my teaching:

Particularly striking, Gioia and Iyengar both said, are the declines that occur between age 9 and age 17 in reading proficiency scores and time spent reading. The percentage of 9-year-olds who say they "read almost every day for fun," the NEA report notes, rose slightly, from 53 percent to 54 percent, between 1984 and 2004. During roughly the same time period, average reading scores for 9-year-olds rose sharply. But the percentage of 17-year-olds reading almost every day for fun dropped from 31 percent in 1984 to 22 percent in 2004, with average reading scores showing steady declines.

Does this matter? Well, yes, it does. I agree that there are lots of other ways to think and to be creative, and that linear thinking is not the be-all end-all. But it is an important skill. And I am worrying that we have younger generations that simply cannot hold a thread, and who cannot read fiction or poetry in a way that suggests they really understand what is being said by the speaker or writer, or (and this is a critical aspect of understanding what is being said) how it is being said by the speaker or writer.

One really bad part of this is that now second- and third-rate colleges are having to try to pick up the slack and teach students skills they should already know. And so college is becoming "High School: The Sequel." But that's probably for another post.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Astonishingly Energy-Inefficient, War

(((Oil, Iraq, Energy security, How we're spending so incredibly much more on the Iraq War than on developing renewable energy.)))

Okay, either we're out to make the world safe for democracy, or we were really concerned about oil.* Let's leave aside the problems with the first view, for a moment, and focus on the second. Even if both of these are factors, the truth is that there are much, much better ways to think about long-term energy needs than to worry about, what, being cut off or blackmailed by Saddam Hussein?

This graph makes it, well, graphic. We should throw in some figures on health expenditures and on income support.

*Or it was because Saddam was such an evil tyrant (unlike Kim Jong Il, who remains comfortably in power), or it was because there were terrorists there (well, there weren't, but there are now), or it was because, well, Saddam was the guy who tried to kill his dad).

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Orkut and Facebook: Social Networking Sites Allergic to Socialism and Communism

(((Attention Conservation: Google, Orkut, Facebook, Censoring political self-identification, Why can't users self-identify as socialist, communist, or anarchist?)))

Looking at the available options for "political view" on Orkut, I find it quite striking that someone is allowed to call themselves "authoritarian" or "very authoritarian" (who would seriously claim such a label, I wonder--surely it could only be neo-Nazis?), but that I can't identify myself as socialist or as communist (or anarchist, for that matter).

Your options at Orkut are these:

no answer
very right-conservative
very left-liberal
very libertarian
very authoritarian
not political
I had already noticed this about Facebook: there is no option for self-identifying as socialist or communist, but it at least lets me pick "other." MySpace, incidentally, has no profile field dedicated to political views or opinions. At least, not that I could find.

Is the issue that Google, like so much of the Western capitalist world, equates socialism, communism, and authoritarianism? It sure looks like the idea is that "authoritarian" and "very authoritarian" are meant to indicate both socialism/communism, on the one hand, and Nazism/fascism, on the other, because according to what most of us learned in high school, fascism and communism are the extremes of right and left that actually come together in a circle (rather than a line) as totalitarian systems opposed to freedom. But this is a facile pseudo-theory barely suitable for pre-teens, and the Google people seem smarter than that, and certainly not inclined to tell me I'm an authoritarian despite my own understanding of my politics, so let's say that's not it.

So, then, am I supposed to identify as "very left-liberal"? Well, my left-liberal comrades would balk at being called socialists or communists, since many Americans think socialists are ipso facto "dirty rotten scoundrels," so why force us onto them? And why make me lump myself in with people who actually probably believe more in the state than I do, despite the fact that they are less "radical" than I am? It strikes me that this would really be a political maneuver to conflate the left wing of the Democratic party with communists and socialists (e.g., Hillary Clinton, who, like Howard Dean before her, is far from communist, but is nevertheless painted with that brush as a means of discrediting her). Whereas neo-Nazis can comfortably call themselves authoritarians and not be confused with conservative right-wing evangelical protestants who vote Republican, for example.

In the end, I suppose I think the most disturbing answer is the correct one: that it is somehow more acceptable in a Western liberal (in the technical sense) democracy to self-identify as "very authoritarian" than to identify as socialist or communist (or as anarchist, by the way). This is deeply distressing, if true, although perhaps Jeanne Kirkpatrick is smiling in her grave.

So I suppose I am stuck with "very left-liberal" as the closest to my position. Likewise, my in-many-respects-mistaken anarchist brothers and sisters are left with "libertarian" if they choose to participate at all.

I suppose I should also acknowledge progress in the apparent fact that, some twenty years after Bush père turned "liberal" into an epithet by calling Michael Dukakis a "card-carrying liberal" (whatever that was actually supposed to mean) in a presidential debate, it's now at least ok to be a "liberal."

Friday, November 02, 2007

Lenin Just Like Hitler and bin Laden

(((Historical Analysis by George W Bush, Heritage Foundation, Bloggers, Freedom, War on Terror, Ignoring Warnings (= Warning Signs?), Communist Revolution, Racist Nazi Rigged Elections, Terrible Cost in Lives and Treasure [sic])))

The world's foremost expert in the history of Communism and Nazism (I know that's redundant), President Bush gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, yesterday, warning us not to forget the warning signs Lenin and Hitler gave of the evil they were determined to perpetrate.

History teaches that underestimating [sic] the words of evil, ambitious men is a terrible mistake. In the early 1900s, the world ignored the words of Lenin, as he laid out his plans to launch a Communist revolution in Russia -- and the world paid a terrible price. The Soviet Empire he established killed tens of millions, and brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war.

In the 1920s, the world ignored the words of Hitler, as he explained his intention to build an Aryan super-state in Germany, take revenge on Europe, and eradicate the Jews -- and the world paid a terrible price. His Nazi regime killed millions in the gas chambers, and set the world aflame in war, before it was finally defeated at a terrible cost in lives and treasure.

Um. Treasure? WTF?

But more to the point, look at those two paragraphs. Never mind that Lenin (for all his flaws) was a strident anti-anti-semite. Lenin is accused of having "laid out his plans to launch a Communist revolution in Russia," while Hitler "explained his intention to build an Aryan super-state in Germany, take revenge on Europe, and eradicate the Jews" (nice use of the serial comma there, by the way). In which treatises, which Leninist version of Mein Kampf, did Lenin warn us that he wanted to rule a Jew-free world from the Pan-Slavic Fatherland Russia?

Or that he wanted the world to be subject to sharia?

And yet we have to let people get away with this kind of intellectual sloppiness because what really matters is that they all killed lots of people. Therefore, since all evil beings, all bad things, are essentially the same, Hitler and Lenin (and Osama bin Laden) must be essentially the same, which is to say, the opposite of us. The differences between them are subtleties. Nuances of no import.

How do we learn anything from this kind of propagandist pseudo-history?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Religion is Back! Of Course, It was Never Gone

Surprisingly good piece in the Economist, bringing together several of my own concerns: recognition that religion, as quintessentially human as anything else we do, is not going to go away ever; recognition that religion is a matter of conscience, and that the very idea that religion is a matter of conscience is a hard-won modern idea; that the best way to achieve peace in religionized conflicts is to involve religious leaders rather than to try to make them stop being religious. And so on. And of course a recognition that many "religious" conflicts are not at bottom, or certainly not entirely, "religious."

Many of those struggles, notably the Middle East, began as secular tribal disputes. Now that they have a religious component they are much harder to solve: if God granted you the West Bank, you are less likely to trade it. “Inter-faith dialogue” may sound a wishy-washy concept; but it is a more realistic idea than presenting a secular peace to competing faiths without the backing of religious leaders. Priests and pastors condemned violence from both sides in Northern Ireland; that has not really happened in the Holy Land.