A Nation of Hives

Saturday, May 20th, 2017 08:57 pm
flwyd: (1895 USA map)
When a single hive is scaled up to the size of a nation and is led by a dictator with an army at his disposal, the results are invariably disastrous. But that is no argument for removing or suppressing hives at lower levels. In fact, a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people. It’s not a very promising target for takeover by a demagogue offering people meaning in exchange for their souls. Creating a nation of multiple competing groups and parties was, in fact, seen by America’s founding fathers as a way of preventing tyranny. More recently, research on social capital has demonstrated that bowling leagues, churches, and other kinds of groups, teams, and clubs are crucial for the health of individuals and of a nation. As political scientist Robert Putnam put it, the social capital that is generated by such local groups “makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”
— Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, “The Hive Switch”

The driving metaphor for the final section of the book is “We are 90 percent and 10 percent bee.” He spends quite a while arguing for a limited form of group selection (specifically multilevel selection theory which I previously resonated with in David Sloan Wilson's Darwin’s Cathedral). Haidt says that humans usually act with the familial interest that any evolutionary biologist or economist could explain. But we’re also capable of switching into a eusocial hive mode akin to ants, bees, some shrimp, and naked mole-rats. This hive capability (which other primates do not possess) has allowed humans to build progressively larger groups from tribes to city-states to nations to empires to multi-national corporations. It's at work with sports teams, religions, politics, and any scenario where groups compete with each other and can form a strong internal bond.

Cheap travel, mass media, and the Internet have allowed the last few generations to develop and scale hives which are much more geographically diffuse than we could at America’s founding. I wonder if this, plus our winner-take-all political system, puts us more at danger of one hive being able to impose that hive’s will on all the others.
flwyd: (1895 USA map)
In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).
— Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

I think that's an excellent case against one-party rule. It also suggests that majority rule, when a single homogenous party is in the majority, is less effective than majority rule with votes requiring cross-party collaboration or at least heterogenous thought within the party.

The focus of the first part of this book is "Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second," using the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. Haidt offers a lot of evidence that our intuitions and emotions (the elephant) typically make decisions and our consciousness and reason (the rider) is mostly focused on justifying those intuitions. This contrasts, of course, with the Rationalist world view (exemplified by Plato) in which consciousness and reason are in charge and can act independently of intuition. Haidt aligns more closely with Hume and his claim that reason is "ruled by the passions," though Haidt softens the "rules" claim.
flwyd: (escher drawing hands)
At lunch, a coworker said she used to be a bookkeeper. Another coworker asked if that meant accounting. This suggested alternate ways in which one could be a bookkeeper:
The Guard
This library is a fortress of knowledge. Anyone seeking to assail these volumes must first contend with The Sword of Dewey!
The Dragon's Hoard
I shall keep these books for I have not yet read them all. If you borrow a book and do not return it, I shall raid your village!
flwyd: (McCain Palin Abe Maude Simpsons)
In chapter 1 we described how a common psychological effect of rising insecurity is for people to become more conservative, less generous, and more zero-sum: think pre-Hitler Germany or pre-genocide Rwanda. Many decades of social science literature strongly correlates rising insecurity, fear, and pessimism with authoritarian politics. In difficult situations, the insecure and the pessimistic seek out authoritarian leadership. What's more, social psychological research conducted in laboratory settings has found that manufacturing insecurity and fear, particularly of one's own death, can have the same impact as real social circumstances of fear, such as during a terrorist attack or rising economic insecurity.

Collapse [by Jared Diamond] was intended to help Americans change their social values and create a more ecological society in order to avoid the fate of groups like the Grenland Norse. But in terrifying himself and his readers about the growing risk of social collapse, Diamond's eco-apocalypse narrative risks having the opposite effect. What extensive research finds is that the more scared people become about social instability and death, the less likely they are to change the way they think. Fear of death, wrote a group of social scientists in 2003, engenders a defense of one's cultural worldview.
— Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility

Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that people will be more motivated to take action on environmental issues if they're presented as positive opportunities, not dire warnings.
flwyd: (1895 USA map)
The Conscience of a Conservative, Senator Barry Goldwater's 1960 slim volume (ghostwritten by L. Brett Bozell, Jr.) advocating for conservative values, had more impact on right-wing and Republican politics in postwar America than any book besides The Bible and, perhaps, Atlas Shrugged. I sought the book out because I wanted to understand where conservatives are coming from and be able to have more productive political conversations. Since my political thinking operates with a different set of frames I was expecting to disagree with a lot of what Goldwater wrote, and I did. My focus in this review is therefore not to critique the book but to characterize it and highlight its arguments.

The book is an easy read. It's short and readable in an afternoon. My 50th anniversary copy, with foreword (George F. Will) and afterword (Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) is 137 pages of roughly mass-market paperback size. It is not a work of technical political theory and is thus accessible to almost any American adult. It takes a personal and casual tone, clearly the broad appeal words of a politician and not the jargon of an academic. I think this accessibility is at least as important to the book's success in the conservative movement as any specific policy idea expressed in its pages.
The book starts with a few chapters on general principles followed by several chapters applying those principles to specific domestic issues that were prominent in the late 1950s.

Goldwater argues for Conservatism in opposition to Socialism and also in opposition to Liberalism and the (then-ascendant) moderate wing of the Republican Party. He starts by quoting Vice President Nixon, Republican candidates should be economic conservatives, but conservatives with a heart, and President Eisenhower, I am conservative when it comes to economic problems but liberal when it comes to human problems. Goldwater is conservative on both fronts and emphasizes that Conservatism isn't just about economics: The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man's nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Growing up in an Arizona which had recently gained statehood and in which the wild west didn't seem so long ago, it's not surprising that the focus of Goldwater's philosophy is individual freedom. Man's most sacred possession is his individual soul—which has an immortal side, but also a mortal one. The mortal side establishes his absolute differentness from every other human being. Only a philosophy that takes into account the essential differences between men, and, accordingly, makes provision for developing the different potentialities of each man can claim to be in accord with Nature. We have heard much in the time about “the common man.” It is a concept that pays little attention to the history of a nation that grew great through the initiative and ambition of uncommon men. The Conservative knows that to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery. (Despite this emphasis on spirit and soul, Goldwater did not want the church to be actively involved in politics and he did not like the rise of the Religious Right.)

Goldwater's political framework is focused on the Constitution and a limited federal government. While some people's political approach is to devise a solution to a problem first and then shape it to match the law, one gets the sense that Goldwater would prefer to start with what's constitutional and then work out a solution which is permitted. In the way that some folks on the right treat the Second Amendment as the most important while some on the left elevate the First, the Tenth Amendment is, I think, most fundamental for Goldwater. (The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.) Goldwater objects to several federal programs not because they're bad policies but because he thinks the states should implement them, with structure and prioritization driven by local voters and legislators, not a nationwide legislature and bureaucracy. He argues against federal involvement in education because the Constitution doesn't grant any federal powers over education, thus leaving the subject up to states. Yet if there were a constitutional amendment in place regarding education, Goldwater would seem to have no objection to the execution of it.

Many on the left, citing rhetoric of the Confederate and Jim Crow South, characterize the phrase “states’ rights” as an innocuous phrase meant to mask an underlying policy of racial discrimination. Goldwater acknowledges this perception, writing It is quite true that the integration issue is affected by the State's Rights principle, and that the South's position on the issue is, today, the most conspicuous expression of the principle. So much so that the country is now in the grips of a spirited and sometimes ugly controversy over an imagined conflict between State's Rights, on the one hand, and what are called “civil rights” on the other. He goes on to argue that civil rights are not universal rights granted by virtue of our humanity but rather a right defined in law: Unless a right is incorporated in the law, it is not a civil right and is not enforceable by the instruments of the civil law. There may be some rights—“natural,” “human,” or otherwise—that should also be civil rights. But if we desire to give such rights the protection of the law, our recourse is to a legislature or to the amendment procedures of the Constitution. We must not look to politicians, or sociologists—or the courts—to correct the deficiency. Goldwater was not a racist, and although he spends much of the chapter on civil rights arguing against federal efforts to desegregate schools and questioning the legitimacy of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, he speaks in favor of the principle of desegregation.

In a political world following Goldwater's philosophy, one might expect a great many constitutional amendments be proposed. (He argues against high tax brackets, for instance, but not against income tax itself, since that power is granted by the Sixteenth Amendment.) Addressing an issue like education, air pollution, or Internet crime would start by passage of an amendment granting federal jurisdiction on the matter. Yet amending the Constitution is hard, and in the half century since The Conscience of a Conservative was published, the Constitution was only amended five times—thrice regarding voting rights, once regarding presidential succession, and once regarding congressional compensation. Only the latter came after Ronald Reagan and Goldwater's intellectual heirs took power in Washington (and that one was proposed with the initial Bill of Rights). Many more amendments have, of course, been proposed but not passed in Congress—depending on one's perspective, this might speak in favor of or against an amend-first model.

Reading the book after it influenced half a century of politics provides an interesting sense of retrospective. For instance, a book written today wouldn't focus so much on the power of unions, yet it is precisely this book's arguments about unions which provided the framework for the legislation that weakened union power. Goldwater's arguments reverberate through contemporary conservatives: reading Goldwater's complaints about depression-era laws paying farmers to not grow crops (and thus avoid a market crash) reminded me of several folks I've heard rail against the same practice, even though it was ended by the 1996 Farm Bill.

Unfortunately, some of Goldwater's advice was not heeded by conservatives. He ends the “Freedom for Labor” chapter by saying Let us henceforth make war on all monopolies—whether corporate or union. The enemy of freedom is unrestrained power, and the champions of freedom will fight against the concentration of power wherever they find it. The Republicans who came to power with the help of Goldwater's rhetoric duly set about disarming the power of labor unions, yet they simultaneously enacted policies to boost the power of capital and corporations. Conservative-championed deregulation has led to a handful of companies controlling most broadcast and publishing media outlets, granting significant power and control of information to corporations. And despite the breakup of Ma Bell in the mid-80s, many consumers have no choice over telecommunications providers and the companies wield near-monopolistic power (Comcast revenues exceed every state government but California).

Goldwater's recommendations in “Taxes and Spending” were likewise only followed half-way. Goldwater wanted to reduce taxes by cutting back on federal programs: The government must begin to withdraw from a whole series of programs that are outside its constitutional mandate—from social welfare programs, education, public power, agriculture, public housing, urban renewal and all the other activities that can be better performed by lower levels of government or by private institutions or by individuals. I do not suggest that the federal government drop all of these programs overnight. But I do suggest that we establish, by law, a rigid timetable for a staged withdrawal. Yet the oft repeated mantra of today's Republican party is Reagan taught us that deficits don't matter, and Republicans have tended to propose tax cuts without spending cuts, program elimination without reducing taxes, and spending increases (particularly for military expenditure) without corresponding tax increases. While academic fiscal conservatives decry these policies, the party doesn't seem to care: tax cuts are a good way to get elected and eliminating popular programs are a good way to get voted out of office.

Goldwater's last chapter, “The Soviet Menace,” consumes the final third of the book and feels the most incongruous with the modern world. Goldwater begins in no uncertain terms: And still the awful truth remains: We can establish the domestic conditions for maximizing freedom, along the lines I have indicated, and yet become slaves. We can do this by losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union. He rails against the policies then in place to combat the USSR, from NATO and the UN to negotiation and diplomacy to foreign aid. He proposed instead an offensive (and quite so) strategy, The key guidepost is the Objective, and we must never lose sight of it. It is not to wage a struggle against Communism, but to win it. He proposed development and use of “small, clean nuclear weapons.” Recalling his fiscal conservatism, he writes As a Conservative, I deplore the huge tax levy that is needed to finance the world's number-one military establishment. But even more do I deplore the prospect of a foreign conquest, which the absence of that establishment would quickly accomplish. One wonders if he would similarly quiet his objections to spending on social programs if it were presented as a choice between liberal welfare or the election of an American communist or socialist party to congress. Goldwater's commitment to conservative constitutional law was also conspicuously absent from this chapter: socialist regimes generally installed a new constitution and American support for anti-socialist rebels would presumably violate the laws under which they found themselves.

While the flashpoints, proxy wars, and immense military buildups that characterized the Cold War definitely bore Goldwater's influence, the mechanism of victory fortunately took a significantly different tack than Goldwater's plan. He writes We may not make foreign peoples love us—no nation has ever succeeded in that—but we can make them respect us. And respect is the stuff of which enduring friendships and firm alliances are made. Yet despite the trillions of dollars spent on military hardware, the Socialist states collapsed not because of a respect-as-fear of U.S. power and might but thanks to a love-as-admiration we were able to foster in the people. While leaders threatened each other with weapons, support for the state was whittled away rock 'n' roll, hip young people, material comforts, and the gradual awareness that there was a world where grocery stores were always full of food.

The Conscience of a Conservative deserves a place in collections of key American documents, alongside The Federalist Papers and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Like the others it took relatively few words to influence generations of political action and government policy. Many on the left believe its ideas were taken too far; many on the right that they weren't taken far enough. But taken they certainly were, and they continue to frame contemporary discourse.
flwyd: (Trevor glowing grad macky auditorium)
We have forgotten that the proper function of the school is to transmit the cultural heritage of one generation to the next generation, and so to make them capable of absorbing ancient learning and applying it to the problem of its own day.
– Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative, “Some Notes on Education”

Senator Goldwater expressed many points of view in The Conscience of a Conservative which I approach from a very different perspective, yet perhaps none as concisely as this one. He wrote this passage in the context of arguing that the federal government should divest itself entirely of involvement in education, leaving the matter instead to states and local school districts.

The transmission of cultural heritage from generation to generation happens naturally and effectively in the home, at religious and social gatherings, and as young folks interact with their communities. The unique value offered by a school is the opportunity for children and young adults to learn ideas and techniques which were unavailable to their parents. A child sent to boarding school in the 1820s might return as the first person in the history of the family who could read. A young man in 1870 who went off to a land grant college could return home two to four years later and teach his father and their neighbors newly developed techniques in farming. In 1900, a student could leave a town without electricity and pursue a degree as an electrical engineer, learning things in his senior year which were not known to the world when he arrived as a freshman.[1] And in the 1980s and 1990s, my generation played with computers in our public school classrooms and went on to teach our parents, with varying levels of success, how to use the most crucial tool of the modern age.

Goldwater makes clear that he is arguing against John Dewey and progressive education:
Subscribing to the egalitarian notion that every child must have the same education, we have neglected to provide an educational system which will tax the talents and stir the ambitions of our best students and which will thus insure us the kind of leaders we will need in the future.
In our desire to make sure that our children learn to “adjust” to their environment, we have given them insufficient opportunity to acquire the knowledge that will enable them to master their environment.
Earlier in the book, Goldwater said that he was in favor of school integration (I believe that it is both wise and just for negro children to attend the same schools as whites, and that to deny them this opportunity carries with it strong implications of inferiority) but he didn't think the federal government should bring it about (I believe that the problem of race relations… is best handled by the people directly concerned.). The belief that integration is desirable, yet it's fine if entrenched state political interests deny it, can be easily understood when Goldwater explains that his interest in schools is for the development of future leaders–and the unspoken conclusion that black children in the South would not be the future leaders of those states.

In the intervening half century the Dewey educational position, particularly the emphasis on adaptation to a changing world rather than mastering a static one, has been held widely in colleges and universities. Deans and chancellors are likely to craft mottoes like “preparing students for the challenges of tomorrow” and liberal arts departments emphasize that they teach critical thinking, not just classic knowledge. Yet in many locales primary school (which answers much more directly to local and state political pressure) is shifting away from a path where each generation knows more than their parents, requiring instead that children be taught the same misconceptions that their parents believe. The designated future leaders, of course, are still afforded access to accurate facts through private schools, thanks to their parents’ ability to succeed, whether through a privileged position or personal skill. One of the biggest failings of public education in the last two generations is that it’s funded and run at the local level while the rich and middle class have fled integrated areas, taking their tax revenue and school board engagement away from areas with poverty and students of color and into suburbs with higher school ratings. (There's a great two part piece from This American Life on this topic.)

[1] I’m using male pronouns in this discussion because secondary education was at that time overwhelmingly meant for men, another major failing of the traditional approach of schools whose goals were to educate a pre-screened set of future leaders.
flwyd: (xkcd don quixote)
The turn will come… when Americans, in hundreds of communities throughout the nation, decide to put the man in power who is pledged to enforce the Constitution and restore the Republic. Who will proclaim in a campaign speech: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promotte welfare, for I propose to extend freedom… And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that case I am doing the very best I can.”
– Barry Goldwater, The Conscieence of a Conservative, "The Perils of Power"

Folks on the left are often surprised when Republicans support economic policies which negatively impact a majority of their constituents. Some folks use this observation as a rhetorical barb (e.g. these tweets). But for politicians inspired by Senator Goldwater and the last half century of conservatism, policies which favor liberty (freedom from) at the cost of opportunity (freedom to) are the goal, not an accident.
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
Any progressive activist and anyone involved in the Democratic Party who has not read Don't Think of an Elephant! should put it very near the top of their to-do list, above any political action that's longer-term than "this week." It's short and practical, so it can be read in a day or you can read an essay-chapter each day and be done in two weeks. Many of the key insights also appear in articles on the author's blog, so you can start there.

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley. I first encountered his work in Metaphors We Live By, a fairly academic book which argued that metaphors aren't just manners of speech, they actually provide structure to how we think and form a framework through which we perceive the world. This led him to research on frames, "mental structures that shape the way we see the world" and investigations on how liberals and conservatives think and the frames they use. He published Don't Think of an Elephant in 2004 as an accessible and practical guide for progressives to understand how people make political choices, why conservatives are much better at framing than progressives are, and what the left needs to do in order to activate progressive frames in the minds of voters. The All New Don't Think of an Elephant! is a 2014 edition which adds chapters and updates many of the essays to cover political developments during the second Bush term and the Obama presidency.

Frames help us make sense of the information we receive. For instance, the frame "Countries are rational actors" provides us tools for interpreting international relations and actions of governments. Given that frame, a speech by a particular politician or an attack by an army is evaluated as though it's a single person (the country) following a considered strategy. An alternate frame, say "Countries are herds of animals," would lead to a different conceptualization of the same presented facts, like an assumption of acting on instinct and a focus on the power dynamics within a government.

Frames are wired into our brains: the more often the language associated with a frame gets activated, the stronger the neural linkages become. When information is presented which doesn't jive with the frames in our brain, cognitive dissonance results. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable, so we tend to resolve the situation by rejecting the information or selectively reinterpreting it so that it can form a narrative supported by the frame.

The most important insight in the book is that people don't vote based on a list of policies and they don't necessarily even vote for their rational self-interest. They vote for candidates whose message activates the frames that drive their values. People aren't swayed by facts, they're swayed by narratives that resonate.

Lakoff identifies the major frames for political values as the "strict father model" and the "nurturant parent model." The former leads to values like law-and-order policing, military power, and "tough love" economic policies. The latter leads to values like restorative justice, soft power diplomacy, and opportunity-focused economics. Everyone has both frames in their brain to some degree, and political ideology reflects the frame which is stronger, or is present in more aspects of their life. He also talks about "biconceptuals," folks that have a balance of both models, the cognitive version of "swing voters."

The family models do a great deal to explain why positions which seem to be logically unrelated are so correlated in the political sphere. Why do so many folks both oppose gay marriage and support use of military force to achieve foreign policy objectives? Corporal punishment (or the threat thereof) is how order is established in a strict-father family, and gay marriage violates the whole premise of a strict-father family, because there's either no father (two women) or no single father figure (two men). Why do so many folks oppose firearm ownership and support public education? In a nurturative-parent family, providing opportunity to kids has a very high value (free public school provides opportunity even to kids whose parents don't have any resources) and guns represent violence, which is anathema to the protection and nurture values.

Conservative elites, starting with Barry Goldwater and the Powell Memo, have spent several decades carefully experimenting with ways to frame their policy goals so that they will resonate with the values frames of American voters. Progressives and liberals, on the other hand, have not had an organized approach to framing and tend to run on a set of specific policies, not on a set of values. Since the left haven't developed language to activate frames, they tend to use the frames provided by conservatives. This is self-defeating, because repeating the conservative framing of an issue activates the same neural pathways, even if the idea is negated (hence the title of the book). For instance, conservatives developed the phrase "tax relief," which activates a metaphor of taxes as a burden. If a liberal says "I'm against tax relief," it reinforces the idea that taxes are burdensome and the voter is left wondering why the politician is in favor of burdens. If the liberal instead recast the issue in their own frame–"I think the wealthy should contribute their fair share"–it would activate the frame that tax is a shared investment in society.

Lakoff advocates for progressives to rethink how they present their ideas. He urges the left to shift from talking about facts and policies to talking about values, principles, and policy directions. He instructs people to affirm the progressive world view rather than use the negated language of the conservative world view. He tells politicians to stop focusing on policy polls and start presenting a coherent narrative. And he recommends the left invest–intellectually and financially–in creating organizations (think tanks and so on) devoted to finding ways to frame progressive values in ways that resonate with American voters. This is a long-term investment: the right has spent over four decades building their current ideological power position and the left can't suddenly adjust the neural circuitry of the public next month or even this year. But the longer progressives wait, the more they'll lose ground and the harder it will be to make progress.

The book's final chapter, "How to Respond to Conservatives," has some solid tactical advice, including showing respect, remaining calm, and positively reframing the issue. It ends with the crystalized guidelines: "Show respect; Respond by reframing; Think and talk at the level of values; Say what you believe." His approach is good for spreading the progressive world view, but I think there is occasion to use the frames of the "other side." When you're working on a specific policy measure like climate change or health care, it's important to have allies on both sides of the spectrum–this eases passage of an initiative and makes it less likely it will be repealed when the legislative balance of power shifts. Shifting a Republican member of congress from a strict-father model to a nurturative-parent model is a long game indeed, but convincing the same representative that climate change is a threat to national security or that it will create an undue burden on business might get an important piece of legislation passed. This is also communication that can be more focused: a letter to a legislator can be tailored to resonate with the specific framing a person has demonstrated whereas a letter to the editor tries to activate the framing of thousands of different people.

My goal in reading this book was to improve my ability to communicate with people who don't share my worldview, and it definitely helped. I'm someone who's immersed in facts and tend to overcommunicate details. This is important when figuring out how to create software or working with scientists to learn how the world works. But it's a hopeless technique for reaching non-experts, and by necessity most politicians, and certainly most voters, are not experts on a vast majority of subjects. I intend to do work to verbalize my own values and organize them into a coherent story, one which I hope can inspire folks who are already on my side, resonate with folks who aren't there yet, and help folks with a strict-father model empathize with the nurturative values.
flwyd: (darwin change over time)
Programs are a major problem for attempts at unity. As soon as a policy is made specific, the differences must be addressed. Progressives tend to talk about policies and programs. But policy details are not what most Americans want to know about. Most Americans want to know what you stand for, whether your values are their values, what your principles are, what direction you want to take the country in. In public discourse, values trump policies, principles trump policies, policy directions trump specific programs. I believe that values, principles, and policy directions are exactly the things that can unite progressives, if they are crafted properly. The reason that they can unite us is that they stand conceptually above all the things that divide us.

Having those shared values, largely unconscious and unspoken, is not good enough. They have to be out in the open, named, said, discussed, publicized, and made part of everyday public discourse. If they go unspoken, while conservative values dominate public discourse, then those values can be lost–swept out of our brains by the conservative communication juggernaut.
Don't just read about these values here and nod. Get out and say them out loud. Discuss them wherever you can. Volunteer for campaigns that give you a chance to discuss these values loud and clear and out in public.
– George Lakoff, The All New Don't Think of an Elephant!, “What Unites Progressives”

Put another way, values, principles, and policy directions are how you build a movement. Policies are how you implement the vision once the movement has critical mass. When building a movement you don't worry too much about folks with a drastically different world view; you're just trying to find all of your friends. But when it comes to policy, it's important to work with folks from “the other side.” A policy which is supported by many members of some movements has a better chance of surviving than a policy which is supported by all and only one team.
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
Unfortunately, all too many progressives have been taught a false and outdated theory of reason itself, one in which framing, metaphorical thought, and emotion play no role in rationality. This has led many progressives to the view that facts–alone–will set you free. Progressives are constantly giving lists of facts.

Facts matter enormously, but to be meaningful they must be framed in terms of their moral importance. Remember, you can only understand what the frames in your brain allow you to understand. If the facts don't fit the frames in your brain, the frames in your brain stay and the facts are ignored or challenged and belittled.

When George W. Bush arrived, we got "compassionate conservatism." The Clear Skies Initiative. Healthy Forests. No Child Left Behind. … This is the use of Orwellian language–language that means the opposite of what it says–to appease people in the middle as you pump up the base. … Imagine if they came out supporting a "Dirty Skies Bill" or a "Forest Destruction Bill" or a "Kill Public Education" bill. They would lose. They are aware people do not support what they are really trying to do.

Orwellian language points to weakness–Orwellian weakness. When you hear Orwellian language, note where it is, because it is a guide to where they are vulnerable. They do not use it everywhere. It is very important to notice this and use their weakness to your advantage.

– George Lakoff, The All New Don't Think of an Elephant!
flwyd: (pensive goat)
I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up by James Hoggan with Grania Litwin, 2016

I went book shopping last weekend so that I would be better prepared to have conversations with conservatives about issues like climate change. This book sounded like exactly what I was looking for. James Hoggan is a professional in the public relations field. He runs DeSmogBlog, a site devoted to "Clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science" and has published a book on the topic. He set out to write another book devoted to climate advocacy and highlighting climate facts, but he realized that there was a bigger problem: the public space in which our society discusses issues and comes to agree on policy is polluted, sickening democracy and making progress on any tough issue almost impossible. So he decided instead to explore what was clogging the public square and how we can engender more productive communication and enable action on important problems.

Hoggan structured the book's chapters around people he interviewed, most experts in some mode of communication. The result is a book where each part is clear and interesting, but it can be difficult to find an overall narrative. I came away with several important insights but without a full practical framework for making things better. The epilogue does help tie things together, and I'd recommend reading that first, then deciding if you want to read the rest of the book.

Hoggan's background concern of climate change and environmental concerns shows up throughout the book; most chapters share the interviewee's thoughts on how people relate to environmental facts or arguments. And while I bought the book hoping to improve my ability to have conversations around climate change, I think the book would have been stronger if he'd dug into specifics on several distinct issues. He mentions migration, gun violence, and other "big challenge" problems in passing but never talks about how someone might approach those particular problems using the ideas in the book.

Some of my key takeaways:
Experts on a topic (e.g. scientists) make decisions based on facts, rational debate, and deep investigation. Most non-experts make decisions based on emotion and narrative.
In a modern democracy, the support of non-experts is needed for any major policy. Facts are important in deciding what to do, a story (particularly one with values or a moral) is crucial in getting people to do it.
People have a self-conception in which they generally do the right thing and believe in the truth. When something challenges this view, people experience cognitive dissonance, which is uncomfortable.
If new information is presented in a way that's too shocking to that belief, people are more likely to assume that the information is wrong than that they've been wrong. It's therefore very important not to structure an argument as "You're wrong" or, especially, "You're a bad person." Instead, find shared values and express a policy proposal as a way of expressing those values.
Tell your own story; otherwise people who oppose your idea will tell your story in a way that undercuts you.
Once you've told your story, avoid responding to attacks. It's easier for folks to see an attacker as offensive if you aren't playing defense.
Anger is important in motivation, and appealing to anger "on your side" can be a good way to get folks involved in an issue.
But it's super important to drop the anger as you start talking to folks who don't get angry by the same things you do. If someone feels that you're speaking to them out of anger or that you perceive them as an enemy, they aren't likely to take your words to heart.
Self-righteousness and purity can hurt your position.
If the public sees two sides loudly asserting their own position, they aren't in a good position to evaluate the arguments and they may conclude that the issue is just a matter of personal preference or align with the side that has better hair or a slicker marketing delivery.
Change is scary.
People resist imposed change more than when they feel they have agency.
Inevitability is a terrible motivator.
To take action, people need to feel that there's hope and that what they do will have an effect.
Compassion is key to communication.
You can't make progress working with an enemy. But you can make great progress working with a fellow human being that you understand, respect, and disagree with.

One of the best paragraphs in the book comes in the epilogue:
People don't start out mired in hostility. The situation evolves. When someone publicly disagrees with something we feel strongly about, we perceive them as aggressors and we begin to question their motives and intentions. When people criticize or condemn our cause or our reasoning, our defense mechanisms kick in. Anger simmers and escalates. When people on both sides of an argument draw their positions from the perceived bad behavior of the other, they eventually start treating each other as enemies, and this provokes a perpetual shoving match and eventual gridlock.
flwyd: (darwin change over time)
The scientific community assumes the same rules of communication are always applicable and rational, that people are attentive, open minded, persuaded by facts and believe that those who are presenting information are people of goodwill, and not deliberately trying to manipulate them. But none of those things are true.

Yankelovich and Rosell have identified a process that they call the public learning curve that describes maturing public opinions, where people's views evolve from poorly informed reactions to more thoughtful conclusions. The three-stage process begins with building awareness and consciousness (where advocates and the media typically do a good job). The seecond stage involves working through wishful thinking and denial, resistance to change and mistrust, grasping at straws, deliberate obfuscation and lack of urgency (which is where dialogue comes in). The third part of the learning curve is when people come to resolution (which is handled by decision-makers and government institutions). "Much of our work focuses on improving the 'working through' stage, which our society does not handle well and where critical issues like climate change can get stuck for years or decades," said Rosel.
– James Hoggan, I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up, chapter 1 with Daniel Yankelovich and Steve Rosel

It is not a wise strategy to define a situation as inevitable or out of control. "This is a negation of politics–because you don't do politics with inevitability," explained Latour. If you send a message to people that there's no other possibility, that it's too late–the result is inaction. Latour suggested that the message must give them the will to find a way out of the dilemma.
– ibid., chapter 7 with Bruno Latour

Liquid Clarity

Sunday, February 19th, 2017 10:28 pm
flwyd: (spencer hot springs feet)
I've been surprisingly calm about my achalasia surgery tomorrow.
After scheduling it, I haven't had any second thoughts, bouts of dread, or even niggling worries.
Most of our office is playing musical chairs at the end of this coming week, when I'm out. So my last act of heavy object lifting for a while was packing my desk on Friday. This should help me unplug from work while I'm at home recovering: there is no longer an ethernet cable connected to my computer, so I couldn't SSH in and hack on something if I wanted to. (Email, of course, is a much more sinister temptation.)

I spent most of this week fighting a cold, which helped put me in "Hang around the house not expending much energy" mode but didn't help in the "fatten up before surgery" department. The cold reduced my appetite and severely depressed my appetite for sugar. Not wanting sugar sounds like it would be a good thing, but I had to spend this weekend on a clear liquid diet, so I'd been planning to get most of my calories from sweets.

My mom got me a jar of unflavored gelatin for Christmas (before she knew I was having surgery). Gatorade powder, gelatin, and water turns out to be a pretty tasty way to get some calories, protein, and electrolytes. And if you halve the recommended gelatin to water ratio it's pretty easy to drink. I should try this combo at Burning Man.

I had my last meal, of sorts, at Sushi Zanmai on Friday night. I wasn't especially hungry (because of the cold), but ate a bunch because it was so tasty. Rice and fish are some of the first items in the solid portion of the recommended recovery diet progression, so maybe I'll be able to return before too long. I had a hamburger at lunch and probably won't be able to do so again until the end of March. Maybe it'll be my half-birthday treat.

Part of my plan for recovery time was to read The Conscience of a Conservative so I'll be better prepared to have conversations with Republican lawmakers and potential issue allies on the conservative side of the spectrum. My plan for Saturday was to visit used bookstores until I found a copy. After five bookstores and $120 I didn't have any Barry Goldwater, but I did end up with a copy of A People's History of the United States. I also overheard a Bookworm employee tell a customer that they were sold out of 1984. I didn't end up without materials to strengthen my transpartisan dialog skills, though: Don't Think of an Elephant!, I'm Right and You're an Idiot, and The Righteous Mind are now in my possession. I still intend to read TCoaC, but now my plan is to borrow a copy from the public library, which seems like an especially apt approach to that book.
flwyd: (escher drawing hands)
Come, let us hasten to a higher plane,
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n,
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!
Come, every frustum longs to be a cone,
And every vector dreams of matrices.
Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:
It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space
Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways.
Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,
We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I'll grant thee random access to my heart,
Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love;
And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove,
And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not—for what then shall remain?
Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converse, O lips divine!
The product of our scalars is defined!
Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a² cos 2φ!
Early in my experience with Unix-like systems I discovered fortune. This program would occasionally provide me with a clever passage attributed -- Stanislaw Lem, "Cyberiad" "Who is this Stanislaw Lem fellow and what is a Cyberiad," I wondered. And then, because it was the mid-90s and search engines didn't exist yet, I did nothing.

A few years later, I started collecting quotes to add to my random signature program. A great many of them came from fortune, since it gave me a quip every time I logged in or out. The first Cyberiad quote that made it on the list was [The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical.] They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way. Different modes of nonexistence, a fantastic puzzle for a philosophy minor like me. I wanted to find and read this book.

There are a few books and authors I keep in the back of my mind for eventual purchase. It gives me direction when I find myself in a bookstore: check the D section of Classics for The Vicomte de Bragelonne, check the A section of Sci-Fi for the HHGTTG radio series scripts, check the L section of Sci-Fi for Stanisław Lem… You would think it wouldn't be too hard to find a book by "the most widely read science fiction writer in the world," yet ten years went by without finding one of his books between Le Guin and Lewis. I was even a beta tester for Google Books on Android tablets, but couldn't buy an electronic Cyberiad. (It's available now, though.) Tantalizingly, Google ran a fantastic narrative doodle based on The Cyberiad. I finally found a copy when I chanced to stop in to Red Letter Books in Boulder, enticed by a book about mangoes on the shelf out front. "Before I buy this, I need to see if they happen to have any Lem." Sure enough, my Quixotic quest found its goal, wedged in a dense shelf of mass market paperbacks.

The Cyberiad is a book of short stories about machines who build machines. The central character is Trurl, a constructor. He and his good friend Klapaucius the constructor build all manner of robots and devices, often on commission from rulers of distant worlds. Unlike the science fiction school led by Asimov, the engineering details of the machines and their scientific mechanism of action are of little importance. The stories are not about the machines but about the philosophical considerations and allegorical implications of such a device in a world not entirely dissimilar from ours. The first story, How The World Was Saved concerns a machine that can create anything starting with N. After creating concrete and abstract nouns, they ask the machine to do Nothing, whereby it starts to eliminate the universe.

Originally written in Polish, the book has a lot of rhymes and wordplay with sciency terms which works surprisingly well in translation (to English, at least.) The sidebar to the right has a poem produced by Trurl's Electronic Bard. Lem has a great facility for technical naming in a way that's fun rather than dry: The second, newer trail was opened up by the Imperium Myrapoclean, whose turboservoslaves carved a tunnel six billion miles in length through the heart of the Great Glossaurontus itself.

What I like best about The Cyberiad is how it resonates with my experience as a constructor of sorts. The book was written in 1967, when hardware was still the king of technology, before we realized that software eats the world. Yet the story Trurl's Machine and other passages describe the foibles of building, debugging, and otherwise producing a computer program better than any software-focused essay I've read. Throughout the book, Trurl displays the three cardinal virtues of the programmer: laziness, impatience, and hubris. If more tales were added to the Cyberiad today, perhaps the constructors would be programs which write other programs.

All makers and builders and coders and creators would do well to read The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age. This hypermedia book report claims the book inspired Will Wright to create SimCity; what might it do for you? Acquire it in cybernetic digital form or via a musty-bookstore-quest for a well-loved copy not so overpriced as these.

tsundoku

Thursday, January 10th, 2013 12:38 am
flwyd: (escher drawing hands)
Originally posted by [livejournal.com profile] prettygoodword at tsundoku
tsundoku (tsun-DOH-ku) - n., the piling up of unread books.


Borrowed late last year from Japanese, from tsumu, to pile up + doku, to read/reading (using an alternate character reading), with a pun on tsundeoku, to leave piled up. Usage in English is rapidly evolving, but it seems to get used as a verb of the action as well as the noun of the act.

---L.


Tsundoku is problem endemic in the Stone households.
flwyd: (rose silhouette)
I'm not sure how much coverage U.S. commercial media is giving to the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but the BBC and NPR both devoted significant time to retrospectives on his impact on Russian society and Western awareness of Soviet atrocities. The phrase "Russian author" carries a certain expectation of greatness like "French chef" and "Italian fashion designer." Solzhenitsyn may be the golden exemplar of that category for the Soviet era.

The only Solzhenitsyn work I've read is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. As a 16-year-old, my literary preferences tended to the grand and fantastic, authors like Tolkien and Poe. Ivan Denisovich was a very different sort of story, one intensely personal and practical. Solzhenitsyn wrote so well that I was thoroughly engrossed in the matter of a prisoner's spoon for page upon page. I remember sitting in the back of the dark multi-purpose room during Midsummer Night's Dream rehearsal, reading the challenges of a gulag prisoner by the light of the sound booth. Along with Bartleby, the Scrivener, Ivan Denisovich opened my sensibilities to the personal existential story. Thanks, Pfoots.

Gotcha Capitalism

Monday, January 7th, 2008 08:55 pm
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
Today's Fresh Air program featured an interview with Bob Sullivan, author of Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day -- And What You Can Do About It. He talked about arbitrary fees charged by banks, cell phone companies, cable companies, and others that can make up a major percentage of their profits. It sounds like a very informative book, especially for people who don't like to read the fine print. I do read fine print (though I don't usually enjoy it), and I will probably add this book to my "get around to reading it" list.

I think there's significant value in a lot of libertarian ideas, but their "get rid of government and the market will take care of it" philosophy doesn't win me over. I dislike dealing with government bureaucracy and oppose government control over private activities as much as the next hippie pagan techie. But I dislike corporate bureaucracy even more and oppose corporate disregard for privacy and personal freedom as well. "A free market would resolve this by selecting for companies with transparent processes and strong privacy policies" is the stock libertarian response, but Sullivan doesn't think it's true. He said that one hotel chain tried to be up front about their prices and it was a disaster because customers selected their competitors whose prices looked lower but packed a lot of hidden fees.

One reason I don't own a cell phone is that I choose not to participate in the rigged market of cancellation fees, incoming text message fees, convenience charges, and "you spent too long talking to your friend with a crisis" overage charges. My monthly local phone service + DSL bill is the same regular $44 every month; the only time I've had to call Qwest because of billing confusion was when I didn't understand the wording of "we've just started charging monthly for allowing long distance calls." But I'm sure that if I had mobile service through the same company, I'd be caught off-guard on a regular basis. One difference is that there are more government regulations of what and how companies can charge for local phone service.

At least with the government I know that all prices and fees are clearly published, the requirements are stated up front, and that caprice is against the rules. I'd rather be at work tomorrow morning than at the passport office, but at least I don't expect any surprises. Driving there in the snow, on the other hand...)

Point and Cliche

Saturday, September 29th, 2007 12:45 am
flwyd: (fun characters)
"My life is not so much an open book as a coffee table book you glance at that happens to be open to a particularly bizarre page."

Book Title

Friday, April 20th, 2007 12:13 am
flwyd: (inner maiden animated no words)
Clearly I need to write a book titled Chalice in Wonderland. I'm just not sure if it should be fiction or free-form religious theory.

Google's got 170 hits for the phrase, including an episode of a live action series based on a Disney movie and an album "In Wonderland" by the band Châlice. But I think it's still got possibility.
flwyd: (transparent ribbon for government accoun)
Listening to the BBC via Colorado Public Radio tonight, I heard an interview with the author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.

I've known for a long time that the BBC is a dependable source of proper English, polite but persistent interviewers, quality investigative reporting, and cricket scores like "one hundred and eighty-seven not out." But I never expected to hear the word "asshole" several times in five minutes on the Beeb.

It's not one of the Carlin seven, but anybody who used the word on national TV in the U.S. would be in hot water. I credit Sutton with the cleverness of using "asshole" in the title of the book, thereby creating a context in which it can be used non-obscenely. They can't very well censor the title of the book; nobody would know what they were talking about.

I suppose it's similar to encoding illegal programs as prime numbers which can be legally discussed on the Internet.
flwyd: (Trevor shadow self portrait)
At work we use iText, a free library for manipulating PDFs. The library's author makes his money by giving away cool software that's complicated enough that developers are motivated to buy the book so they can use it well. We just bought said book, and I want royalties:

Trevor armed and ready to do battle with code
flwyd: (mail.app)
When making a purchase at Borders bookstore, customers typically receive a coupon good for a limited period of time roughly a week ahead. This is an interesting practice, encouraging repeat purchases while discouraging multiple-item purchases. It plays on the American belief that it's not how much you spend, but how much you save. Sales and discounts can induce people to spend money in the belief that they're being frugal by saving 25%, not realizing they would save 100% if they didn't go to the store.

I'm quite aware that it would be fiscally irresponsible to buy a book every week just because I've got a four day window in which it would be 20% off. (Ignore for the fact that I have a few dozen books that I want to read which are already in my possession and don't really need to keep buying more.) However, I've been pretty pleased by resent results. To wit:

I bought O'Reilly's Ruby Cookbook last weekend, which had a 30% off sticker on the cover. I liked this for several reasons. First, Ruby seems like an interesting and useful language, full of things like regular expressions, closures, easy filesystem access, and runtime modification of framework classes. Second, O'Reilly's animal covers and solid writing style makes their purchase release collector endorphins in geeks. Third, computer books are expensive, and 30% equates to $15; not a bad bargain. I then received a "20% off one item when you spend $10 or more" coupon, good for this weekend.

Since my birthday was in the middle of the week, this weekend counts too. Since I had a 20% off coupon, I figured I'd go find another birthday present. I didn't really need anything, but I figured a percentage discount on a big item would be suitable as a present. I'd seen Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming series at Barnes and Noble, but Borders' computer focus is on "get stuff done" technology than theory, so no imposing intellectual texts for me. I figured the best place to look for big ticket items would be the boxed set cabinet, where I found a number of intriguing items. There was a complete Red Dwarf boxed set for $250, but I think I saw most of the episodes on TV and couldn't really justify $200 for the privelage of watching them again. But then I espied a complete Monty Python's Flying Circus 16-DVD boxed set. The set is also available 2 DVDs at a time for $40 a pop, so the base sticker price of $199 is the efficient way to acquire such absurdity. 20% off puts it at $160, just $10 per DVD. I think a DVD of Flying Circus provides $10 worth of entertainment, and it seems unlikely that I'd be able to find the whole series used for much less, so I had an employee unlock the cabinet and took my selection to the counter.

I set the boxed set on the counter, produced my coupon, and handed over my Borders Rewards keychain. The item rang up at $79.99. The cashier looked at the screen, looked at the box (price tag face up), looked up and said "I can't beleive it's priced like that. Oh, coupon I guess." I declined to point out the numbers on the price tag, proferred my debit card, signed the thermal receipt, and wished her a good day.

I'm ordinarily a big fan of independent locally-owned bookstores, but I haven't patronized them much lately. Boulder Bookstore's computing selection is frankly pretty lame. The Tattered Cover has lots of good stuff, but I don't think I've been downtown or to Cherry Creek since... I bought a Mac Mini in March. Borders and Barnes and Noble, on the other hand, both have branches within walking distance of my office and my apartment. And really, how can you beat paying $80 for an item which would cost $320 if acquired piecemeal?

So... anybody want to have a Monty Python Party? Or a discussion about the relative merits of (Monty) Python, (Jack) Ruby, and Perl (S. Buck)?

The Way of the City

Friday, May 19th, 2006 09:37 pm
flwyd: (tell tale heart)
On the bus ride from the airport today, I thought of a great book I should write. It will be about finding serenity and spirit in urban and suburban settings. It will be called Taontown.

I wonder if publishers will balk at a book whose title screams "The author may be thoughtful, but he sure is punsive."
flwyd: (fun characters)
Smegging grrfurgenama. I just typed a long post and then, instead of hitting the Done button, remembered a note I was going to add to my previous post and selected it to edit, which replaced my text without asking me if I wanted to save. That is so not a feature. Let's see how much I can reproduce.

A few days ago I finished reading The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, by Leonard Shlain. The book's thesis is that literacy, and especially alphabetic literacy, hypertrophies the left brain's masculine hunter-killer traits and values of abstract serial linear thought at the expense of the right brain's gatherer-nurturer traits and values of concrete holistic gestalt thought. As alphabetic literacy enters a culture, the society is rocked with violence, religious intolerance, destruction of images, suppression of women, and the overthrow of concrete polytheist goddesses with abstract monotheistic gods. This is seen in the Hebrews, Greeks at the time of Aristotle, Orthodox vs. Gnostic Christianity, the Reformation, the Marxist revolutions of Russia, China, and Southeast Asia, Sunni vs. Shi'ite Islam, and modern Islamic fundamentalism like the Taliban. On the flip side, in the agrarian period before the appearance of writing, most cultures' central deity was a powerful Earth mother, represented by copious images, whose lesser consort/child died and was reborn every year. Men and women both worshiped goddesses, and society was fairly egalitarian (this remains the case in many hunter/gatherer cultures today). Major thinkers who spoke rather than wrote (Laozi, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohamed) tended to have fairly tolerant and pro-female attitudes. And these values as well as images tended to appear in cultures where alphabetic literacy was not widespread (including those cultures who passed from literacy to illiteracy, those near to violent literate cultures, and those who have yet to attain literacy). Furthermore, as photography and electromagnetism (with all its feminine metaphors) appeared in the forms of photography, movies, television, and computers, the West's laws, attitudes, and culture has shifted from excessive yang to a fairly balanced state. In a nutshell, a culture's communication media, perhaps more so than its content, determines the values, actions, and trends of society. For some more data, see my CWA post (about two thirds of the way down).

The book is written for the general public, so it lacks the flurry of citations found in scholarly works. It is far from New Age pseudo science, though; Shlain's bibliography spans 9 pages and ranges from Augustine and Virgil to Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. His data is the "generally accepted" story; exploration of various views of, say, ancient archaeological data is not in his scope. The events Shlain describes are large-scale and very complex, and doubtless arise from many factors and can be explained in many ways (which he acknowledges); his goal is to provide a unifying theory linking the counterpunctual rise and fall of the written word, masculine values, images, and feminine values. As a brain surgeon, Shlain's division of traits, values, and modes of thought rests on sound neurological data (and he acknowledges that the hemispheric split is more metaphorically accurate than physically accurate).

The book is excellently written, using both left hemispheric literalism and right hemispheric metaphor. Shlain doesn't claim to have proved anything, but rather to have demonstrated a correlation, from which the reader is to draw conclusions. His argument is cogent and well-documented, unlike many writers on male/female cultural interplay. He only once "falls" into "rhetorical" "damning" "quotation" marks. His language flows well and is graced by many words he has selected in the hopes that they don't fall out of the lexicon. The paradigmatic and specific ideas expressed in the book lead me to recommend it to almost everyone, from literalistic Protestants to open-minded Pagans to feminists who rail against cultural images. I can't think of many of my friends who wouldn't enjoy the book, and even fewer who would not benefit from reading it. I have found its modern perspective on yin/yang quite helpful in examining my own tendencies, beliefs, and development. (In the past, I've been big on literal interpretation, against photography and GUIs, and down on lots of right-hemispheric modes of perception. In recent years, I haven't read as much, I've watched more movies, and have adopted a more benign view of many Christians.)

I think I'll be able to use a bunch of what I've learned from this book in my review of Origins of the Modern Mind. I'm impressed by my memory abilities in rewriting this entry after writing it once and not reading it.

Edit 2/15/2009: In the intervening years, I've become less enamored with Leonard Shlain's work. He tries a little too hard to cram the entirety of human history into some simple ideas of the brain. His books and presentations are very enjoyable and informative, but they need a heavy dose of salt. He points out a lot of connections between elements of the zeitgeist that are worth chewing on, but I think the story he tells about their unification is a little simplistic. I still think The Albphabet vs. the Goddess is a book worth reading, but readers interested in the subject should read widely; there are a lot of cognitive scientists with interesting theories who also write well "at the Scientific American level" as Prof. Paulson would say.
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