American history, Digital reading, economics, nonfiction, politics

Discrimination and Disparities

discrimination and disparities

Discrimination and Disparities, by Dr. Thomas Sowell, Kindle edition. Originally published March, 2018. 143 print pages.

Thomas Sowell, among the most brilliant economist and political commentators of our time, was the first voice that resonated with me as I began to formulate my own thoughts about how the world works. His work helped me to intelligently process which policy ideas were worthwhile  and which are actually destructive to society. For the first few years of my adult life, I had accepted a lot of things at face value which turned out, under closer scrutiny in the light of facts, to be fallacious at best, but mostly just ridiculous and dangerous.

This book is particularly exciting for me to share because it is exactly the book I would recommend to anyone who is unfamiliar with Dr. Sowell’s work. Having read many of his books, I can attest that his work is not light reading. You must approach it attentively and prepared to be confronted with boatloads of facts. Dr. Sowell bombards his readers with so much documented research that thinking is required to read his books.

The beauty of this book is that it is perfect for the stunted attention spans of 2019. In fact, if I had to describe it in a concise manner, I would characterize it as a comprehensive Cliff Notes version of Dr. Sowell’s accumulated research on the whys and wherefores of group and individual outcomes. If I had to pick one quote from this book that encapsulates its spirit, it would be this one from page 17:

What can we conclude from all these examples of highly skewed distributions of outcomes around the world? Neither in nature nor among human beings are either equal or randomly distributed outcomes automatic. On the contrary, grossly unequal distributions of outcomes are common, both in nature and among people, in circumstances where neither genes nor discrimination are involved.

What seems a tenable conclusion is that, as economic historian David S. Landes put it, “The world has never been a level playing field.” The idea that it would be a level playing field, if it were not for either genes or discrimination, is a preconception in defiance of both logic and facts.

You really need to read the entire book to fully appreciate the wealth of insight in that  quote. This is especially true in our world where people are so highly invested in their personal narratives of why the world is the way it is. Whether it is those who insist we can legislate our way to equal distribution of outcomes which are mostly a result of overt, hostile discrimination, or those whose haughty belief in their own superiority cause them to genuinely believe that entire races of people are inferior to other entire races of people, Sowell puts both assertions on the chopping block. Using solid facts and evidence as the ax, both erroneous assumptions lose their heads.

The cool thing about this book, besides its detached and factual approach to a sensitive subject, is that the notes section is extensive. In fact, a full 1/4 of the book is encompassed with notes and research references. In other words, Dr. Sowell doesn’t simply offer up  his clear belief that most inequality of outcomes can be easily directed to causes other than racial, sexual, or class discrimination. He backs it up with facts, then backs up those facts with even more facts.

If you’ve never read Sowell, or tried and gave up under the weight of his intellectual style and overwhelming factual record, this short book is an excellent read to get the gist of why this man is so well respected as a giant in the intersection of economics and political policy. Or why he is so hated by those who prefer that we just make decisions based on whatever makes us feel as if we’re good people.

5 out of 5 stars

 

Culture, philosophy, politics, videos

Thomas Sowell Invites Us to Think.

I am currently reading Thomas Sowell’s latest release, Discrimination and Disparities. I feel completely comfortable saying that Dr. Sowell is one of the greatest economic and political commentators of the 21st century. He has an unrelenting commitment to the truth and his insistence on looking at the logical conclusion of ideas makes him a rare breed among commentators of the day.

The fact that a thing sounds good, compassionate, or helpful must -according to Sowell, and I agree- be held up against empirical, factual information to determine if it is indeed going to produce the results promised. Usually, utopian intentions turn out to be little more than a Super Highway to Hell (I ripped that from Sowell).

He recently sat down with Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report to do an interview discussing his life, life’s work, and this new book.  Below is the 46 minute interview in its entirety. He mentions the propensity of so many people to spout off with very little idea of what they are talking about. Good stuff, worth the 3/4 of an hour:

Have a great weekend!

Culture, educational, Els' Rabbit Trails

Edifying and Educational Meditations

As is my custom, I am currently reading two books of vastly different genres and topics. Despite knowing that it makes for a much longer reading time on both, I continue to to do it anyway.Thankfully, that is not all I am currently reading.

It is commonly known by regular readers here that I am great admirer of both Joshua Gibbs of Circe Institute and Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks. Both have offered mentally stimulating food for thought in recent posts, so I thought I would share portions of them here in the optimistic belief that you will be intrigued enough to click over and read the articles in their entirety.

Joshua Gibbs discusses the question of whether Rousseau and St. Augustine should be taught in the classroom alongside, or perhaps replaced by, the works of contemporary theologians such as John Piper. In this partial dialogue, he explains why such a move is not appropriate in a classical educational setting:

Parent: I wanted to tell you that I read this really amazing book by John Piper recently and it blessed me so much that I thought I should tell you about it. I think it would be a great fit in the school’s theology curriculum.

Dean: I am sure the book is quite good, but given that John Piper is still alive, the book does not meet the basic criteria which this school uses for admitting new titles into the curriculum.

Parent: What criteria would that be?

Dean: For starters, curriculum books ought to be old.

Parent: How old?

Dean: It is best if the author has been dead for a hundred years.

Parent: Why a hundred years?

Dean: After a hundred years, it is safe to assume no living person ever met the author. If the author is still considered worth reading after he has been dead for a hundred years, it means he speaks from the grave. It means there is something immortal about his wisdom, something divine.

Parent: I know the book I am recommending was written recently, but it is good and true. Don’t classicists care about truth, beauty, and goodness? If so, does it really matter how old a good thing is?

Dean: Yes. Classicists do not simply care about the truth, beauty, and goodness of a book, they also care about who is claiming the book is true, beautiful, and good. Classicists are not content to trust their own judgments, but act in harmony with the judgments of their ancestors. We might judge a recently published work of theology to be good, but that judgment could not be made in harmony with our ancestors, because our ancestors never read the book.

You can see how the conversation unfolds by reading the entire post here.

In Must We Treat Every Bad Idea With Respect and Patience?, a discussion of whether a general consensus on modern art is enough to consider said art worthy of being taught in a classical setting:

McLaren: Some students told me that you were not covering Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline, or any of the great 20th century abstract expressionists in your art history class. Why is this?

Gibbs: This is a classical school, and I don’t take that kind of art seriously.

McLaren: The larger art world takes them seriously, though.

Gibbs: I don’t really take the “larger art world” seriously, either.

McLaren: You style yourself a conservative, though. Is it not strange for a self-professed conservative to reject the majority opinion on significant, well-respected artists?

Gibbs: Respect for Pollock and Kline is not really a majority opinion, though it is certainly a fashionable opinion over the last several decades. I can’t imagine someone like Caravaggio or Rembrandt having any respect for Pollock, and I try to align my tastes in art with the tastes of artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

McLaren: Have you ever read an essay which unpacked Pollock’s art?

Gibbs: Yes, and I thought it far more brilliant than Pollock’s art.

McLaren: But you did not ultimately trust the essay?

Gibbs: No. One does not need a PhD to recognize that Pollock’s art is no good. I have showed Pollock’s art to my little daughters, who are 7 and 9 years old respectively, and they simply laughed at it.

McLaren: You’re not suggesting that little children are competent to judge art?

Gibbs: Children have common sense and knowing that Jackson Pollock’s art is no good is simply a matter of common sense. It’s just a lot of painted scribbles. The same kind of common sense informs little children that two women cannot marry each other and that eating an entire birthday cake will lead to a stomach ache. On the other hand, children have terrible taste, which means they think Thomas Kinkade and Bratz dolls are interesting. You have got to train them out of that kind of delusion by showing them things of real beauty, and a thing of real beauty can be appreciated by bishop and child alike. If I want to tell my children that Bratz dolls are ugly, I cannot, in good faith, tell them that Jackson Pollock is good.

Lastly, in Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate, Cal Newport discusses the supposed benefits of meditation, and why our unnatural way of life makes it a necessity for so many people:

What sparked the diversion in the first place is when, early in the conversation, Fry expressed skepticism about meditation. Roughly speaking, his argument was the following:

  • Typically when we find ourselves in a chronic state of ill health it’s because we’ve moved away from something natural that our bodies have evolved to expect.
  • Paleolithic man didn’t need gyms and diets because he naturally exercised and didn’t have access to an overabundance of bad food.
  • Mindfulness mediation, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be replicating something natural that we’ve lost, but is instead itself a relatively contrived and complicated activity.

Harris’s response was to compare meditation to reading. They’re both complicated (read: unnatural) activities, to be sure, but they’re both really important in helping our species thrive.

Fry, who is currently using and enjoying Harris’s meditation app, conceded, and the discussion shifted toward a new direction.

I wonder, however, whether Fry should have persisted. Rousseauian romanticism aside, there’s an important application of evolutionary psychology undergirding his instinctual concern.

He rounds out this article with some interesting insights:

Fry was instead correctly noting that meditation is an unnatural solution to a modern problem. Meditation helps, but it doesn’t solve the underlying issues .

What, Fry seems to be asking, is the cognitive equivalent of the natural behaviors like exercising and healthy eating that our species used to enjoy but are now missing in modern life?

I’m not the first to ask this question, and many people have proposed compelling answers (see, for example, Mark Sisson and John J. Ratey).

But something that became increasingly clear to me as I was researching Digital Minimalismand the reason why I’m bringing up this topic in the first place, is that in recent years, our relationship with our screens has almost certainly exasperated this modern separation from a more natural way of living .

I hope you all find these as intellectually provoking as I did.

More book reviews are coming soon!

 


Culture, educational, nonfiction, philosophy

Digital Minimalism

digital minmalism

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. Published February 5, 2019. Hardcover, 304 pages.

This highly anticipated new release from Cal Newport arrived at my doorstep promptly on February 5, and I read through it at a speed which is highly uncharacteristic for me. That might mean that my anticipation propelled the momentum of my study, but I suspect it is best attributed to Newport’s engaging tone. It also helps that the topic he is covering is a hot topic of the day.

It seems every where you look, you can find discussions of the perils of social media, online distraction, and the lurching menace of the world’s largest technology companies as they encroach into every area of our lives. The result is making privacy rare and more zealously guarded by many, such as this woman who disconnected from all services connected to the “big 5” tech giants. It is into this atmosphere that Cal Newport actually manages to offer a fresh perspective.

I hesitate to say that he offers a new perspective, because he doesn’t. He actually draws on the wisdom of those who have gone before, beginning with Aristotle and moving forward to more modern minds such as Wendell Berry. I am a great admirer of Wendell Berry, so the invoking of his unique and uncommon wisdom made this book all the more alluring to me.

Newport doesn’t use an abundance of pages offering tips on how to better manage your online life (although he does present a few). Neither does he use his megaphone to condemn any and all social media. Instead,  he calmly and methodically makes his case for a more intentional way of living, using an engaging and conversational tone. When he finishes, the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about the value or disadvantages of technology and online distractions in her life.

The best and most compelling arguments in the book are in the chapter dedicated to the importance of high quality leisure.  In this chapter, we find a most concise and piercing synopsis of why the subject of leisure, along with the role of the Internet in our daily lives, are such vital issues to confront. While discussing an example of a man whose time without access to the constant connection of the Internet, Newport notes that the man wasn’t missing any one specific digital activity. Rather, he was most uncomfortable with the general lack of access he was used to. Here is the linchpin of his presentation:

The more I study this topic, the more it becomes clear to me that low-quality digital distractions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise. It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping. p.168

Newport doesn’t assert that this instinct is a a new thing, of course. If it were he wouldn’t be able to draw on Aristotle in his quest for solutions. Whether through drinking, television, or any other number of alternatives, man has always been tempted to revert to low-level distractions to divert ourselves from the pain of physical, emotional, and spiritual realities we’d rather not face. The difference today of course, is that it is so much easier to avoid these realities than in times past. Our comfortable, easy physical existence makes us ripe to be mined by the masters of the new attention economy.

The best parts of this book are the chapters which chart the economics and psychology behind this new way of living, and later the importance of being careful of how we use our leisure. Most importantly, the reader is admonished of the importance of leisure activities that stretch us and grow us as human beings rather than viewing leisure as a time to indulge a mindless, vegetative state via screens.

As I read the examples given, I was reminded of the scene at our house on Super Bowl Sunday. Our kids -as they always do whether we have company or not- made great food, and turned on the set mainly for the purpose of ranking the commercials. There are two people in our house who know enough about football to sit through a game and maintain interest. I am one, and one of my daughters is another. My husband, having played high school football, knows the game, but is not at all interested in watching. My interest has steadily tanked in recent years as well.

While the girls watched commercials, and chattered in between, my husband was working on a project he started for me a couple of weeks ago but which has taken a lot longer than it might have if he hadn’t begun a new job this year. As he cut, sanded, measured and worked with his hands (I offered some help as well with staining), it was a prime example of what Digital Minimalism described. Rather than sit and watch the game, which would have drained the energy from someone like him, the time was spent doing something infinitely more satisfying. In the book, Newport referenced the difference between being able to point to something -anything- produced as a result of proficiency and effort being infinitely more satisfying than a nebulous number of likes in response to a saucy tweet or a photo of your plate at a trendy new restaurant.

In addition to stressing the importance of high-quality leisure, the book also emphasizes the importance of meaningful, in-person socialization. I especially appreciated those parts of the book.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport turns on a light rather than simply railing against the darkness. As more and more people awaken to the reality that their overly connected lives are out of control, they will be looking for constructive counsel and directions out of the digital wilderness. Digital Minimalism provides both of those and does it well.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

children's books, Classics, educational, novels

Anne of Green Gables: Reviews of two versions

anne of green gables

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Originally published in 1908.

As I re-read this book along with the kids in my writing and literature class, I was almost instantly reminded, as I often am , of this saying from the late C. S. Lewis:

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

Because Anne of Green Gables is such a widely read and well-known story, I’ll offer the Goodreads synopsis for the sake of time. There are several angles concerning the story and its recent modern adaptation that I wish to explore in this post. From Goodreads:

As soon as Anne Shirley arrives at the snug white farmhouse called Green Gables, she is sure she wants to stay forever . . . but will the Cuthberts send her back to to the orphanage? Anne knows she’s not what they expected—a skinny girl with fiery red hair and a temper to match. If only she can convince them to let her stay, she’ll try very hard not to keep rushing headlong into scrapes and blurting out the first thing that comes to her mind. Anne is not like anyone else, the Cuthberts agree; she is special—a girl with an enormous imagination. This orphan girl dreams of the day when she can call herself Anne of Green Gables.

The Cuthberts do keep Anne, of course, else this delightful story full of adventure and learning wouldn’t be the beloved story it has become for over 100 years.

One of the most wonderful, and for me equally taxing aspects of Anne’s character, is her persistent insistence that everything must be expressed or executed in the most romantic and poetical way possible. There are times when I find her expressions utterly delightful. I laughed out loud this:

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”

And conversely rolled my eyes at this, despite my sympathy with Anne’s drab dress as insisted on by Marilla:

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

It was such fun to revisit the characters of Green Gables and Avonlea. As before, Matthew Cuthbert and Gilbert Blythe were my favorites (besides Anne of course). A good story, including those written for children, never goes out of style.

Book: 5 out of 5 stars

As it happens, I learned that there is a new adaptation of this beloved story recently released on Netflix. I made a point of refusing to watch or allowing my kids to watch it until we had finished reading the book in class. We are not quite finished as an entire class (this week we’ll wrap it up), but I and my daughter have finished reading it, so I decided we could safely take a peek at how these producers adapted the story.

The first season, despite artistic licenses and addition of melodrama for viewers, wasn’t horrible. Because I love the original story, I was a little perturbed at the ways they changed the story to create a more dramatic effect. I didn’t feel such changes were warranted.

I appreciated most of the castings, including the casting of Anne. The actress beautifully captures the spirit of the character as Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her over 100 years ago. I felt a similar satisfaction with the casting of Marilla Cuthbert, Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Gilbert Blythe.

They did a less than stellar job with Josie Pye. Further, I detested the fact that made Miss Josephine Barry a spinster due to the fact that she was a lesbian who lived for many years with her “partner” Gertrude, recently deceased.

They licenses they took with some story lines were understandable in some ways, and in other ways unnecessary.

Overall, I was so turned off by the development of Miss Barry’s character that I was thankful for having done the research ahead of time -actually my daughter did it- which clued me in on what to expect in the episodes. It spared me from being blindsided by the “inclusive” propaganda.

As it turns out, not having seen those episodes left a better impression of the show on me than would have remained otherwise. As it stands, I definitely won’t finish it, and the kids and I are looking forward to enjoying the PBS adaptation sometimes later in the spring, after the hustle and bustle of the second semester is over.

Netflix adaptation: 3 out of 5 stars

 

creative miscellany, Culture, Els' Rabbit Trails, joys of reading, the business of books

Discussion post: The Great KonMari Book Debate

bookslave
Picture credit

We’ve discussed before the advantages, limitations and broader implications of Marie Kondo’s best-selling book on de-cluttering and home organization. Quite recently, I even posted pictures of my kids’ attempts to organize their dresser drawers KonMari style for the purposes of fitting everything in such a way that each item is easily visible and easy to access.

While I was impressed with the patience and skill my kids demonstrated by turning their t-shirts and underwear into an origami project, I couldn’t quite bring myself to go that far. There’s no possible way I could ever, washing two loads of laundry per day, find the motivation let alone the time, to sit and fold everything into neat little triangular shapes then line them up in the drawers.

Guess what? My kids haven’t stuck to it either. They made a valiant effort worth commending, especially knowing them as I do. The method simply isn’t realistic long term, but I digress. The merits folding one’s clothing origami style isn’t what prompted this post.

This is a blog about books, and despite the overwhelmingly positive response to Kondo’s admonition that we get rid of most of our junk, one thing which has drawn consistent howls of protest is her suggestion that those following her method scale their libraries down to no more than 30 books. Being a homeschool parent as well as a voracious reader, I dismissed that nonsense out of hand. Others however, have taken the time to dissect and contemplate the underlying implications of suggesting that we purge ourselves right out having any substantial home library at all. The delightfully poetic Rachel at Bay Boxwood put it thus:

It strikes me as odd that one of the first edicts handed down by the pop-minimalist scolds is The Culling of the Books.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re hanging on to a houseful of junky or unread books and paper ephemera, then cull away, you’ll probably be glad you did – but – considering the amount of unworn clothing, abandoned craft projects, ancient canned goods, and broken everything in peoples living spaces, it just seems like there are better places to start de-cluttering and un-owning, and that perhaps once the rest of the mess is resolved the books are a collection worth keeping.

Given that beautifying living spaces is what she does, I’ll defer to her authority on that issue, and agree with it wholeheartedly.  Being given to conspiratorial imaginations complete with visions of elitist machinations in smoke-filled rooms, I am immediately wary of attempts to encourage the masses to do away with hard copies of books.

Y’all can cancel the paddy wagon. Tongue is planted firmly in cheek, but I do consider it unwise to trap our most beloved books in digital formats which are much easier to delete or manipulate. More than that however, is that there are few things at all which spark joy, inspire thought, and disseminate wisdom than great books. I loved the wistfully exciting way Bethany Fiction said it:

Do you know what brings me joy? BOOKS! Adventures to times and places I’ll never visit in the “real” world, deep journeys into hope and heartbreak, thrilling escapades where someone won’t get out alive but I probably will, somewhat-confusing classics I had to read for school that made me a better person even if I didn’t appreciate them at the time…I love them all.

I mean, it’s great to have a few travel mementos that bring a smile every time you look at them, don’t get me wrong, but books contain whole worlds—the lives and journeys of beloved friends we’ve admired and empathized and learned from. The joy quotient is just through the roof. Libraries and bookstores spark so much joy that they might as well be actual infernos of happiness. (Is that a little Fahrenheit 451? Maybe. But you get the idea.) And if your house just happens to resemble a library or bookstore…all the better!

I especially appreciated that she invoked Fahrenheit 451.

Writing for The Guardian,  Anakana Scholfield reminds us that not every book we read is going to spark joy, and sometimes this is a very good thing:

The metric of objects only “sparking joy” is deeply problematic when applied to books. The definition of joy (for the many people yelling at me on Twitter, who appear to have Konmari’d their dictionaries) is: “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness, a thing that causes joy, success or satisfaction.” This is a ludicrous suggestion for books. Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.

We live in a frantic, goal-obsessed, myopic time. Everything undertaken has to have a purpose, outcome or a destination, or it’s invalid. But art doesn’t care a noodle about your Apple watch, your fitness goals, active lifestyle, right swipes, career and surrender on black pudding. Art will be around far longer than Kondo’s books remain in print. Art exists on its own terms and untidy timeline.

As for culling one’s unread books – while that may be essential for reducing fire and tripping hazards, it is certainly not a satisfying engagement with the possibilities of literature. (Unless it’s self-help or golf, in which case, toss it.) Success is, eventually, actually reading your unread books, or at least holding on to them long enough that they have the chance to satisfy, dissatisfy or dement you. Unread books are imagined reading futures, not an indication of failure.

Some of the most rewarding books I own, beginning with my Bible, have grieved, challenged, and stretched me in the most painful yet rewarding ways. Several are worth re-reading again and again, sharing with friends, and passing along to my children and their children.

Despite my predilection for book collection, I am a fervent supporter of local libraries and encourage their patronage for books that we enjoy exploring which are, for whatever reasons, not worth retaining in our personal libraries.

The bigger takeaway from all of this is that each of us, rather than being carried away by the cultural wave of the moment, needs to use wisdom and discretion when it comes to what we own, how we spend our money, and how we decide which experts of the moment are worth listening to.The way I feel about my books is the way my husband feels about his tools. Some of the more obscure specialty tools might only be used  yearly, but when needed, they are worth every penny and whatever bit of space they occupy.

Materialism and collection of worthless clutter is expensive and causes unnecessary stress. That’s something most all agree on. How we approach Marie Kondo’s needed invitation to examine our relationship with our stuff will be as varied as each of our homes and families.

How many books in your library are you willing to part with?

 

 

joys of reading, nonfiction, the business of books

The book I’ve been waiting for is here!

 

digital minimalism
Ignore the Latin declensions in the background…

 

Today, Amazon* delivered my pre-ordered copy of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism to our front door. I was so excited I started reading it right away. Life being what it is, I only got as far as the introduction before I had to put it aside, but I’m enjoying what I’m reading so far.

Stay tuned for a review in the near future!

*Yeah, I ordered it from Amazon. I’m making a concerted effort to reduce the number of dollars I send the way of Mr. Bezos, but sometimes my American addiction to convenience gets the best of me.