Reading and Writing

guide-books-slide-GJD8-jumbo

While there is a massive amount of good writing advice from multiple sources, if there is one that is routinely at the top of every “advice” list, it’s: “Every good writer is a reader.”

Great advice, but it’s often packaged in ways that don’t always resonate. That’s why I was drawn in by a recent piece, “How to Tap Your Inner Reader.” Here’s how it began:

Studies suggest all kinds of benefits to reading, including increased empathy, stress reduction and memory retention. It can even curb your criminal instincts, according to some researchers, although my family might have their doubts about me. 

But if you’re a reader, you probably love books not because they lower your cholesterol but because they bring you joy. Reading is, ideally, a leisure activity: the kind of thing you can devote an afternoon to while dinner is bubbling in the slow cooker and the cat is curled at your feet and you slouch in an armchair like a teenager (hey, maybe you are a teenager) losing yourself in a world somebody else has imagined into being. Reading a book is a form of communication because you’re communing: The writer speaks, the reader listens, and somewhere along the way you achieve a real intimacy, of a sort. That’s magical. 

But leisure activities require leisure time, and who’s got that? Let’s face it; the afternoon in the armchair probably isn’t happening, even if somebody else takes care of dinner. Finding time to read generally means making time to read, and that means making it a priority. If you can incorporate the gym into your regular routine, you can incorporate quality time with a book too.  Want more? You can read it here

China!

merlin_149673690_b8c995f9-3eaa-4041-be95-7f4025c81651-jumbo

An enormous amount of ink has been spilled regarding China and especially China’s rise. I have blogged about China frequently on this site, most recently, earlier this month, here:

When I saw David Brook’s recent Op-Ed, “How China Brings Us Together,” I wasn’t prepared for his subtitle: “An existential threat for the 21st century.”

It got my attention – and it should get yours. Here’s how he begins:

I’ve always thought Americans would come together when we realized that we faced a dangerous foreign foe. And lo and behold, now we have one: China. It’s become increasingly clear that China is a grave economic, technological and intellectual threat to the United States and the world order.

And sure enough, beneath the TV bluster of daily politics, Americans are beginning to join together. Mike Pence and Elizabeth Warren can sound shockingly similar when talking about China’s economic policy. Nancy Pelosi and Republicans sound shockingly similar when they talk about Chinese human rights abuses. Conservative and liberal policy thinkers can sound shockingly similar when they start talking about how to respond to the challenge from China.

For the past few decades, China has appeared to be a net positive force in world affairs. Sure, Beijing violated trade agreements and escalated regional tensions. But the Chinese economic explosion lowered our cost of living and expanded prosperity worldwide.

But a few things have now changed. First, instead of liberalizing, the Chinese regime has become more aggressive and repressive. This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Climate Panic

merlin_150753201_d05bc8c2-7b95-43df-9be0-66d80d40eef3-superJumbo

Climate change! Some have called it an existential threat to humanity. Others have denied its existence.

If one thing is true it’s that the arguments about climate change have become increasingly shrill and that it is increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

That’s why I found Davis Wallace-Wells recent, short article on the subject so refreshing. He explains the “why” behind our inability to take on this challenge in especially compelling terms. Here is how he begins:

The age of climate panic is here. Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.

We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s, when records began on a global scale. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization.

In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what has become known as its “Doomsday” report — “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official described it — detailing climate effects at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At the opening of a major United Nations conference two months later, David Attenborough, the mellifluous voice of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and now an environmental conscience for the English-speaking world, put it even more bleakly: “If we don’t take action,” he said, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Scientists have felt this way for a while. But they have not often talked like it. For decades, there were few things with a worse reputation than “alarmism” among those studying climate change. This is a bit strange. You don’t typically hear from public health experts about the need for circumspection in describing the risks of carcinogens, for instance. The climatologist James Hansen, who testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, has called the phenomenon “scientific reticence” and chastised his colleagues for it — for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat actually was. Want more? You can read the full article here

Missile Defense

31missile-master768

There are few existential threats to the United States. At the top of most lists are ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

The United States has been pursuing an effective defense against this threat since President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative decades ago.

Recently, the Pentagon unveiled its new Missile Defense Strategy, the first in many years. Here’s how a recent New York Times article explained it. It begins:

President Trump vowed on Thursday to reinvigorate and reinvent American missile defenses in a speech that recalled Cold War-era visions of nuclear adversaries — though he never once mentioned Russia or China, the two great-power threats to the United States.

While the president infused the new missile efforts with his ambitions for a Space Force, the actual plans released by the Pentagon were far more incremental. As a political matter, Mr. Trump’s speech seemed designed to play well with his base, a tough-sounding call to a new generation of arms that evoked Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Star Wars” missile defense program.

“Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place,” Mr. Trump said.

“Our strategy is grounded in one overriding objective: to detect and destroy every type of missile attack against any American target, whether before or after launch,” he said. “When it comes to defending America, we will not take any chances. We will only take action. There is no substitute for American military might.” Want more? You can read the full article here

Go Greek!

27Kaig-jumbo

Can you stand one more “self-help” book? Most of us can’t, so I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical when I read a review of, “Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life.

The review was great. The book was better. This blog would be pages long if I told you all about the book, so please enjoy a few paragraphs from the review. Here’s how it begins:

Three years ago, New Year’s came and I promised to eat only organic. I lasted two weeks. A year ago, I resolved to run before dawn and take a cold shower every morning. That lasted two days. This year, I don’t have a resolution. Instead I read Edith Hall’s “Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life,” and concluded I probably didn’t have to undergo some painful — and therefore temporary — transformation to remake my life. I just had to put some sustained effort into being properly happy.

There is a pernicious, but widely held, belief that turning over a new leaf always involves turning our worlds upside down, that living a happy, well-adjusted life entails acts of monkish discipline or heroic strength. The genre of self-help lives and dies on this fanaticism: We should eat like cave men, scale distant mountains, ingest live charcoal, walk across scalding stones, lift oversize tires, do yoga in a hothouse, run a marathon, run another. In our culture, virtuous moderation and prudence rarely sell but, taking her cues from Aristotle, Hall offers a set of reasons to explain why they should.

Hall’s new book clears a rare middle way for her reader to pursue happiness, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, usually translated as well-being or prosperity. This prosperity has nothing to do with the modern obsession with material success but rather “finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself.” It sounds platitudinous enough, but it isn’t, thanks to Hall’s tight yet modest prose.

“Aristotle’s Way” carefully charts the arc of a virtuous life that springs from youthful talent, grows by way of responsible decisions and self-reflection, finds expression in mature relationships, and comes to rest in joyful retirement and a quietly reverent death. Easier said than done, but Aristotle, Hall explains, is there to help. This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

2018 – Good. Really?

06Kristof-jumbo

We’re now over a month into 2019, we’ve kept some and likely broken most New Year’s resolutions, and 2018 has faded from our view. Not so fast.

Tired of hearing how the world is going to hell in a hand basket? According to Nicholas Kristof it isn’t. In fact, he uses compelling stats to suggest 2018 was the best year ever. Here’s how he began a recent op-ed:

The world is, as everyone knows, going to hell, but there’s still the nervous thrill of waiting to see precisely which dark force will take us down. Will the economy collapse first, the ice sheets melt first, or chaos and war envelop us first?

So here’s my antidote to that gloom: Let me try to make the case that 2018 was actually the best year in human history.

Each day on average, about another 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time, according to Max Roser of Oxford University and his Our World in Data website. Every day, another 305,000 were able to access clean drinking water for the first time. And each day an additional 620,000 people were able to get online for the first time.

Never before has such a large portion of humanity been literate, enjoyed a middle-class cushion, lived such long lives, had access to family planning or been confident that their children would survive. Let’s hit pause on our fears and frustrations and share a nanosecond of celebration at this backdrop of progress. Want more? You can read the full article here

Arms Race

merlin_149755908_ae9a6f84-554a-48ee-b836-a615b70d23e6-superJumbo

If you had any doubt that the United States is in an arms race with China, a recent Sunday New York Times article (front page, above the fold) should dash any doubts.

Here’s how the piece, “In 5G Race With China, U.S. Pushes Allies to Fight Huawei,” begins:

Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign minister, arrived in Washington last week for a whirlwind of meetings facing a critical question: Should Britain risk its relationship with Beijing and agree to the Trump administration’s request to ban Huawei, China’s leading telecommunications producer, from building its next-generation computer and phone networks?

Britain is not the only American ally feeling the heat. In Poland, officials are also under pressure from the United States to bar Huawei from building its fifth generation, or 5G, network. Trump officials suggested that future deployments of American troops — including the prospect of a permanent base labeled “Fort Trump” — could hinge on Poland’s decision.

And a delegation of American officials showed up last spring in Germany, where most of Europe’s giant fiber-optic lines connect and Huawei wants to build the switches that make the system hum. Their message: Any economic benefit of using cheaper Chinese telecom equipment is outweighed by the security threat to the NATO alliance.

Over the past year, the United States has embarked on a stealthy, occasionally threatening, global campaign to prevent Huawei and other Chinese firms from participating in the most dramatic remaking of the plumbing that controls the internet since it sputtered into being, in pieces, 35 years ago. This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Better Prose

im-49686

Whether you write at work, at home, as a hobby, whatever, you likely welcome tips on how to improve what you write. It’s human nature.

That’s why I was struck by a recent review of a book, “Dreyer’s English.” The review had the intriguing title, “Flossing Your Prose.” Here’s how it began:

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris—a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker—published the splendid “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding “Dreyer’s English.”

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

And accordingly, Mr. Dreyer has a lot of useful information to impart. In the first sentence of this review, he guided me to lower-case the “c” in the word following the colon; write “editors’ ” rather than “editors” or “editors’s” (or, heaven forbid, “editor’s”); and use “cum” (Latin for “with”) to indicate a thing with two identities, without italics or fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying—being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.) Want more? You can read it here

Be Kind

merlin_149912802_c9f2b86f-042d-4866-9368-3cc1ff6e42b2-superJumbo

I recently took a great course on mindfulness meditation. In the last one of the 24-lesson video, the instructor suggested that the best way to sum up his 12 hours of instruction was to suggest that the world would be a better place if we all were just a bit kinder to each other.

That’s why I was stuck by David Brooks’ recent op-ed, “Kindness is a Skill.” While we all might have the intention of being kinder, we all could use some help in doing so. Here’s how he began:

I went into journalism to cover politics, but now I find myself in national marriage therapy.

Covering American life is like covering one of those traumatizing Eugene O’Neill plays about a family where everyone screams at each other all night and then when dawn breaks you get to leave the theater.

But don’t despair, I’m here to help. I’ve been searching for practical tips on how we can be less beastly to one another, especially when we’re negotiating disagreements. I’ve found some excellent guides — like “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable” by Daniel Shapiro, “The Rough Patch” by Daphne de Marneffe and “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker — and I’ve compiled some, I hope, not entirely useless tips.

He offers 14 tips. Here is my favorite: The best icebreaker to start such a gathering, have all participants go around the room and describe how they got their names. That gets them talking about their family, puts them in a long-term frame of mind and illustrates that most people share the same essential values.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Our World – Our Minds?

08Herrman-jumbo

It’s not much of a stretch to say that stories about big tech have dominated the headlines in recent years. We’ve all read them – and many of them are less-than-flattering.

That’s why I gravitated to a new book: “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.” While I have my own – strong – opinions about what the big says, I found John Herrman’s review of the book clarifying in explaining the import of this book. Here is how he begins:

The technology critic is typically a captive figure, beholden either to a sorrowful past, a panicked present or an arrogant future. In his proudest moments, he resembles something like a theorist of transformation, decline and creation. In his lowest, he is more like a speaking canary, prone to prophecy, a game with losing odds. His attempts at optimism are framed as counterintuitive, faring little better, in predictive terms, than his lapses into pessimism. He teeters hazardously between implicating his audience and merely giving their anxieties a name. He — and it is almost always a he — is the critical equivalent of an unreliable narrator, unable to write about technology without also writing about himself. Occasionally, he is right: about what is happening, about what should happen, and about what it means. And so he carries on, and his audience with him.

Franklin Foer, thankfully, recognizes these pitfalls even if he can’t always avoid them. Who can? The melodramatically titled “World Without Mind,” Foer’s compact attempt at a broad technological polemic — which identifies the stupendous successes of Amazon, Google and Facebook, among others, as an “existential threat” to the individual and to society — begins with a disclaimer. Foer’s tumultuous stint editing The New Republic under the ownership of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes ended with mass resignations and public acrimony. “There’s no doubt that this experience informs the argument of this book,” he writes. He is likewise entangled through his proximity to publishing: The author’s friends, colleagues and immediate family members — including his brother, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer — depend to different degrees on the industry Amazon consumed first. The book is dedicated to his father, Bert, a crusading antitrust lawyer.

In this slightly crouched posture, and with a hint of healthy self-doubt, Foer proceeds quickly. We, the consuming public, have failed to properly understand the new tech superpowers, he suggests, leaving little hope for stodgy and reluctant American regulators. The scope of their influence is obscured by the sheer number of things they do and sell, or problems they purport to be solving, and by our outdated sense of what constitutes a monopoly. To that end, Foer promotes the concept of the “knowledge monopoly,” which he qualifies with a mischievous grin. “My hope is that we revive ‘monopoly’ as a core piece of political rhetoric that broadly denotes dominant firms with pernicious powers,” he says, rather than as a “technical” term referring to one company cornerning a market. (His new monopolists, after all, aren’t raising prices. They’re giving things away free). Want more? You can read the full article here