Saturday, September 4, 2010

In Praise of "Short" Attention Spans

Yet another piece about Nicholas Carr's The Shallows appears today, although this one is markedly less pretentious than most:

I've long suspected our brains were undergoing rapid evolutionary changes because of the Internet. I bought "The Shallows" and was quite surprised to find it wasn't the predictable diatribe against technology I expected, but a fairly nuanced, logical and deeply insightful exploration of brain plasticity, the cultural assumptions and practices embedded in reading a book, and how various means of acquiring information have shaped human intelligence. (P-G, Tony Norman)

The column doubles as an innovative, narrative-based way to write ye olde "List of Books I Recommend" piece, so good job there, Tony.

But here's the bit that doesn't sit well with most of the hand-wringing out there: fine, the brain is plastic. That means it easily changes how it works depending on what it tends to work with, and the omnipresence of an infinite, easy-manipulated Internet seems to be shortening (and otherwise playing with) our attention spans. Yet "plasticity" is only another way of saying "highly adaptive" -- which means that if our habits of attention are changing, then that must be a good thing, either A) in itself or B) in that the sacrifice must be somehow worthwhile given something else our biology has determined is more valuable.

"Evolutionary changes", right? Maybe we're just losing our flippers and tails.

My dad crystallized many of these thoughts for me after the last Shallows-inspired piece (or the last one?) -- even though he was actually referencing other stuff which appeared on the editorial page.

"90% of what you read anymore, you know exactly what they're going to say after the first paragraph!" Dad complained. "No matter what they're talking about, this guy's gonna say Obama's awful, everything's his fault, we should lower taxes, screw the poor -- and then this lady's gonna blame everything everything on the Republicans, and say the exact opposite."

"Not that I disagree with her," he was quick to add, "but it's the same thing over and over!" He has similar complaints, more frequently, concerning television news shows.

If something is "the same thing over and over" -- so highly identifiable and predictable -- why would our brains tolerate a long, forced march, which so rarely surprises us pleasantly at its end, thereby confirming our accurate initial determination? It's not like we have only so many words to read anymore, and we'd better eat what's on our plate.

We're all becoming Simon Cowells of content, and for good reason. I'm grateful to my creator that I'm developing a well-attuned Boring, Unoriginal or Previously Digested Alarm, as well as an itchy mouse-finger.

This goes way beyond partisan screeds. If you find something broken in a lead paragraph and don't see it addressed soon, or if you don't buy the first couple premises of any author's argument yet your objections are not engaged, what use is there to finishing these inapplicable pieces, again and again and again? Does that not take precious time away from the day's needle-in-a-haystack search for genuinely original, relevant, informative content?

Some commentators insist that the Internet makes us too likely to engage solely with perspectives with which we agree, while rejecting content with which we disagree -- that we're all a bunch of choir girls and boys in search of preachers within our own denominations. I don't know about that. I've been known to listen to or watch Glenn Beck with rabid fascination, and I can listen to Rush Limbaugh soliloquize for hours. Contrariwise, those liberal talking heads I feel guilty about not supporting bore the sense of duty right out of me. Maybe it's because I've read or at least thought already what they're saying, whereas the very best of the best conservatives come up with wholly original, captivating content. (When's the last time a liberal came up with something as powerfully clever as the Ground Zero Mosque?)


At any rate, before this blog post gets too long and repetitive, I want to get to Tony's original subject: books. Non-fiction books in particular. Long, repetitive non-fiction books. He seems to feel bad that his brain won't let him finish them anymore.

Let me take a quick look around my house:

The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman: Globalization, baby! Information technology is leveling the playing field. America can hardly be expected to maintain its huge lead, especially not over India and China. People on canoes in Africa have cell phones now, wow!

The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel P. Huntington: Yeah, and given globalization, religious and cultural or tribal differences, those barriers to understanding and fellowship, are going to be what cause problems rather than political and national schisms. Western, Latin American, African, Islamic teams et cetera. Pretty prescient for 1996.

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell: The brain is excellent at processing complex and limited information quickly and efficiently. It's true what they say about first impressions. You are usually correct to trust them.

Right. All very strong thesis and valuable information. I feel smarter for knowing all of it.

Now tell me, did the authors really need over 300 pages apiece to get their points across? These non-fiction books all had something very simple to say, and then were padded out with copious examples, anecdotes, studies, straw-counterarguments, and, more than anything else, good old-fashioned repetition and fluff.

Maybe it's the publishing industry that insists that nothing can be communicated in less than 300 pages? Maybe it's impossible to charge $34.95 for a 25 page pamphlet that can be just as mind-blowing as a 300 page tome? Sure, arguments require evidence, but do most people need forty or fifty exhibits, arranged in the form of a memoir of how exactly our author came since college to arrive at this opinion?

Most of us, well, we Blink: "What are you telling us? Oh hey, that makes sense, only I wonder ... well gosh, you seem to have done your homework. Yeah, I pretty much believe this now.


Back to Tony. He proves my point at the end.

I've read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pages this summer, but I've only completed one book cover to cover, an excellent thriller by John Verdon called "Think of a Number." I read it in two or three sittings because I desperately needed closure. At the rate I'm going, I think my brain is officially broken. (ibid)

See that? A thriller, a mystery. Intellectual and enjoyable, the very point is taking the journey.

There's nothing wrong with your brain. It's better than ever.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Corbett: Shale Formation May Vote with Feet

Or something. 2 Political Junkies posts a pretty funny Onorato press release (LINK). Money selection:

As part of their defense of Tom Corbett’s refusal to back a commonsense levy on the extraction of natural gas, his campaign argued that he opposed it because, the Associated Press reported, “a new tax might drive the industry out of Pennsylvania.”

That would be pretty impressive given that the natural gas deposits are located in Pennsylvania.


And wouldn’t they have problems drilling from another state – since every other major gas-producing state has an allegedly industry-chasing extraction tax in place already?

It's all very amusing. I'm also curious already how Corbett is going to balance the budget without raising this tax or any taxes. He's bragging in his commercials like this is already an accomplished work, despite some extremely ominous math -- and it seems we're content to trust him on these future heroics. Personally I don't think it's enough to say, "I'll work it out with the Legislature." As part of this coming "work", where will he begin recommending to reduce the budget by like a fifth? State troopers? Education?

Speaking of bragging in commercials, Casablanca PA is challenging Corbett on his actual performance in muddling through the "Bonusgate" prosecutions now that his campaign has opened Bonusgate to scrutiny. My issue is: didn't the Post-Gazette actually start all this? Didn't Corbett state frankly at one point (little help?) that he was reacting to what could not be ignored in the Post-Gazette? And having taken the first steps, rather than come down methodically and simultaneously against both parties and the leadership of all four legislative caucuses -- which would have really mopped up or even ended this kind of corruption -- didn't he sort of blunder through the jungle one thin stringy vine to the next, ruffling as few important feathers as possible and only as criticism for not being fair and balanced reached a fever pitch? Check the timeline.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Your Guide to the Coming Pensions / Parking Showdown

In case anyone is interested.

Thurs, Sept. 9: Rosh Hashanah.

Wed, Sept. 15: City receives bids from seven companies competing to win Pittsburgh's parking lease concession. City and Parking Authority officials review these in a secure, sound-proof sensory deprivation chamber to make their determination of a prospective winner.

Approximately Thurs, Sept. 16: Media reports on the bids, the goings-on in the room, and which company was / will be selected.

Sun, Sept. 18: Yom Kippur.

Thurs, Sept 23: Under a full moon, Mayor submits the city's 2011 budget proposal to the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) for its approval. This budget will reflect certain proceeds and synergies from the parking lease, as inextricably and as frequently as possible. The paper itself may be billed to an account pegged to future parking lease revenues. (UPDATED: The budget, more likely to be submitted a day earlier, will reflect a sharp LACK of parking lease revenues.)

Approximately Mon, Sept 27: Finance Scholars Group will present its $250,000 findings to its client, City Council, and to the media. Pittsburgh's parking assets will be determined to be worth approximately seven hundred trillion dollars. Also, a half dozen potent yet scholarly synonyms for the term "rip-off" will be used, along with many similarly potent and scholarly synonyms for "egregious". EG: a "remarkable soaking". Try your own.

Approximately Fri, Oct 1: Controller Michael Lamb and Councilman Patrick Dowd will hold a press conference in front of the statue of Washington and Guyasuta, to reveal their new plan to leverage our parking assets while keeping them public to generate at least $200 million and thereby avert a state takeover. This will probably be almost identical to their old plan to leverage our parking assets while keeping them public to generate at least $200 million and avert a state takeover, i.e., give teh parking assets directly to the pension fund, only with some financial instrument inserted this time as an emulsifier and phlebotinum. Somebody from the Mayor's office later that day will tell us this idea is both illegal and hilarious. They may or may not be correct on both counts.

Approximately Tue, Oct 5: Council members Ricky Burgess, Daniel Lavelle and Theresa Smith will draw straws. Short straw will introduce the lease transaction as a bill to City Council.

Wed, Oct 6 UPDATE: Mayor, Zober depart for Shanghai.

Approximately Thurs, Oct 7: The ICA will approve the Mayor's 2011 budget with particular gushing reference to the bold, ingenious, responsible, encouraging and handsome maneuver of leasing the city's parking assets, and for such an excellent price at that. The Mayor's people will in turn market this approval of the city's financial watchdogs as independent verification from neutral experts, who this year are in no way feckless marionettes of university trustees. (UPDATE: This may now happen after Columbus Day.)

Mon, October 11: Columbus Day. Everybody gets out of bed at 6:00 AM and dons Sestak and Onorato pins and acts real friendly. Everything is quiet. Too quiet.

Approximately Tues, Oct 12: Around this time, you've got to figure some jack-in-the-box will pop up out of nowhere holding signs which read, "POLITICALLY CONNECTED", "WIELDS CLOUT", and maybe even, "BECAME AN ISSUE IN LAST YEAR'S MAYOR'S RACE" (UPDATE: more likely, just "IN THE NETWORK"). Doug Shields and Bill Peduto will fax urgent letters to the International Criminal Court at the Hague and Superman, respectively.

Fri, Oct 15 UPDATE: Mayor, Zober return.

Up to and including approximately Wed, Oct 20 27: Hard to see the future is, but it might go a little something like this: the Mayor will have impressed upon everybody, as is his annual tradition, that if we don't heed the ICA and Act 47 and approve the structurally necessary facets of a duly approved and legal budget on time (if we want to do the lease deal, it requires a couple months' lead-time before year's end to ramp up), then by rule a giant Monte Python foot will come out of the sky and smash Pittsburgh to smithereens. This will be more than enough for the Post-Gazette editorial board to do the requisite gymnastics. The Lamb / Dowd proposal will fail either for want of legality, a clear likelihood of being made illegal by a state legislature which dearly desires us to lease our parking assets, or personal politics. Dowd will say "Well, I tried," and then finally either Council members Harris or Rudiak will need to be prevailed upon with cake and candy to shun the prospect of going into hundreds of millions of dollars worth of standard-issue debt. If the administration is successful in this, Burgess will give the The Reason You Suck Speech and call for a vote. If unsuccessful, he and Peduto will jointly broker a face-saving arrangement that picks up the pieces of the 2011 budget along with the ICA and the Mayor, after the lease deal is scrapped in favor of $220 million in bonded debt plus interest over 20 years (or the unlikely phlebotinum-sandwich, which might conceivably escalate the drama through even March).

A week from Shavuot: Not even by this time will anybody speak in favor of ever allowing the state to take over our pension fund management, save for a some anonymous Internet commentators. Not as such.