Archive for February, 2018

Review: Janesville

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Amy Goldstein has crafted quite a kaleidoscope in Janesville.

In 2008 GM closed the manufacturing plant that was the anchor of the city’s economy which had huge effects on everyone in the town.  Goldstein brings a journalist’s eye and compelling research to follow those waves and then ripples into 2016. The reporting is powerful and enlightening.

I have never lived through such a focused economic upheaval as an adult.  Elmira has certainly seen a steady economic contraction over my lifetime, but never the kind of hammer blow that Janesville did. I fancied that the result was the sort of economic crater from which the population just scattered, though I know that never happens.  Lives don’t move that suddenly.  Janesville gives a fantastic view of this from the ground to the Speaker of the House.

I thought about this a little more and I want to be a little more concrete about Goldstein’s multi-faceted portrayals.

Because Goldstein presents the lives of many folks who play different roles in how Janesville takes the blow, she presents the effects on both the people playing those roles and the institutions in action.  The federal government is far away and somewhat aloof; vague promises never become concrete and many efforts are misguided.  Worker retraining at the local community college is difficult to get funded and over the years its effects are a mixed blessing.  (Goldstein includes a compelling study on the efficacy of their retraining as an appendix, so data nerds (guilty) can compare her conclusions with theirs).

To be fair, neither the college facilities nor its funding structure was built to absorb demands like the ones this crisis presented. That is part of the larger point that Janesville is a small city that takes an enormous blow.  This plant was the majority employer for the city and it vanished over months.  Most of the civic structure was adapting to cope with the slow sort of decline my home town had, if they were planning for decline at all.  While the blast of trouble more clearly reveals the cracks in the people and the institutions, its magnitude almost certainly overwhelmed institutions and humans who could have adapted to smaller shocks.

In addition to showing one view of civic institutions in crisis, Janesville also illuminates larger societal trends in concrete terms.  After 8 years the reader can trace see the decline of union influence, increased income disparity, and shifts in social strata through the individual stories of those living it.

Goldstein’s tapestry is well crafted from strong threads that resolve into an enlightening picture.


I Only Listen To the Tides

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

This post is an update to my 2017 post talking about the podcasts I like.  I have a couple more to recommend.

  • I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats: This has been a delight in so many ways.  Joe and John talk informally about how they create cool stuff.  One could say that these are recordings of Joseph Fink and John Darnielle in conversation about their creative process as artists. One of the reasons I’m digging this so much is that both viewpoints are true.  These are two guys and two erudite artists.  They bop between those two modes of discourse with remarkable ease and have lots of deep things to say in mundane ways and mundane things to say in deep ways.  And it’s all two guys talking in the basement.
    As a bonus,it turns out that I really like the album they’re using to frame their talks: All Hail West Texas. I expect I’ll like more Mountain Goats music as well.  I know I’ll be buying some.  They also get people to cover the songs and I’ve bought a couple of those, too.  So be warned that this podcast may make you spend money.
  • Tides Of History: As Ben Edlund said: from the other side of the Corpus Callosum, I’ve been enjoying this incredible deep dive into late antiquity and early modern history. I’ve tried to listen to Patrick Wyman’s earlier podcasts and found his presentation well intentioned, but too dull for me.  He’s a history professor, after all.  What kept me keeping tabs on him is that he had (IMHO) the right idea: make this stuff accessible to people by describing it better.  He’s made his presentation into something that’s beyond accessible and into enticing.  He hooks me by grounding his – extensive – scholarship in compelling framings of the time and important concepts of the present.  He’s also become much more savvy about using the medium, too – his sound design has markedly improved, for example and he lets his enthusiasm warm his episodes without overheating them.  There’s no need for you to care about that process.  If you like history at all, try couple episodes and join me as a fan.

Review: The Shallows

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

The Shallows is the best kind of polemic: it’s one that gets the facts right and lets the reader get on to disputing the ideas.  And I do dispute the ideas even as I admire the presentation and research that Nicholas Carr has done.

The focus of Carr’s concerns is that today’s information economy is changing the way people approach and process information.  On its face that assertion is true, but Carr’s concern isn’t that people search Google instead of the card catalog; he’s concerned that these tools are changing the layout and function of people’s brains.  This sounds much more dire.  He implies that people are losing their ability to read and interpret long-form arguments and similar hallmarks of the humanist scholar. That has a certain alarmist feel about it, but the facts he marshals in its support are genuine.

His argument that tools change how we think at a biological level hinges on recent research into brain plasticity.  This is the observation that neurological connections rearrange themselves throughout human lifetimes, not just during early brain development. The most dramatic examples of this are people whose brains rearrange themselves after traumatic brain injury to restore or enhance existing brain function.  These are remarkable examples, and worth a look no matter what else you think of Carr’s arguments.  His exposition of these ideas implies that he expects arguments about the efficacy of the phenomenon.  He won’t get them from me.

We do disagree, though. The first point is a bit subtle.  He seems to hold a vaguely dualistic view of the brain and mind.  That is, he seems to believe that the mind is distinct from the brain and uses the brain to think with.  Under this view the various tools are damaging the house his self lives in.

I don’t believe that at all.  I think that the brain the entire manifestation of self and consciousness, modulo the fact that we don’t know how it works and there may be elements of consciousness that reside other places. But it’s all physical.  As a consequence, brain plasticity is unsurprising; every though or memory or impression modifies the organ in some way.  I am surprised by just how widespread the changes can be, but it doesn’t feel to me like modern tools are undermining my thinking equipment.  My interpretation is that the tools and I are adapting to one another.

Philosophical fine points aside, the second point on which we largely disagree is that he believes that the traditional scholarly modes of thought are under siege.  And that this is a loss to society.  Perhaps because I believe that my brain is meeting the tools halfway, this seems non-coercive to me.  I think people who use the information revolution’s tools can change how they use their brains.  I also think that this is neither a one-way street or an binary choice.  I’m comfortable finding a sweet spot here.

All of which is a lot of extra text that underscores the idea that this is a book worth reading, even though I disagree with its conclusions.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Enemies and Neighbors

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

I was hoping that Ian Black’s Enemies and Neighbors would enlighten me about the Israeli/Palestine conflict and give me some hope about the future. Well, I understand it better.

That’s not an indictment of Black’s work.  He’s done a fine job digging through more than 150 years of historical records to hear the voices of the people in the middle of this ongoing storm.  I believe everyone has biases when they look at the world and when they tell others what they think. Situations like this conflict bring out strong opinions and biases. As far as I can tell, injustices abound here and that angries up the blood.  Outsiders like me do want to find out what those injustices are, and less biased writing helps.

Fortunately Black does great service. He’s not without bias – of course – but he does cast a wide net for facts and presents them fairly even-handedly.  His biases are detectable if your antenna is up, but mostly he presents facts and evidence. He does come out and say that he believes that both major parties have completely incompatible stories of the conflict. Sad and sobering.

As with most quality education, it made me smarter bur not happier.

The work covers the situation well and as fairly as possible.  It’s important to understand. Strongly recommended.