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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Focus; Andrew’s Brain; The Shanghai Factor; The Great Journey, Americans in Paris; and Scarcity

Daniel Coleman.  Focus.  © 2013  This is a book about how the brain works.  I enjoyed it, but most of the information about the brain was already familiar and most of my notes seem to be anecdotal like the author’s example of social dyslexia:  When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip are met at the airport by the president of Nigeria in his flowing robes, Phillip says “You look like you’re ready for bed.”  I don’t think I learned a lot.  Several times previously I have read about the experiment where kids are left alone with a marsh mellow and promised a second marsh mellow if they can wait ten minutes before they eat the first one.  I guess I learned that a reader’s mind wanders 20% to 40% of the time and that the 10,000 hours it takes to become a professional athlete means 10,000 hours of continual adjustment under the supervision of a seasoned coach.  We evolved to be wary of the immediate threat of tigers, and we still instinctively avoid them, but we are less and less aware of the natural environment around us and unfocused on the long term dangers of the degradation of that environment.  His most interesting topic is SEL training for little kids.  SEL stands for social and emotional  learning.  He recounts an experiment at PS 112 in NYC in which a class of at risk kids were given a break each day during which they lay down with a stuffed animal and listened to a tape that guided them through some breathing exercises.  This class was perfectly behaved and better equipped for learning except on the rare days when they had to skip the break.  Then many of them acted out.  The book is a good companion piece for Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir, which is discussed below.  April 2015

E.L. Doctorow.  Andrew’s Brain© 2014  I didn’t like this and quit after the first of 4 disks.  Doctorow chose to read this himself and that may be part of the problem.

Charles McCarry.  The Shanghai Factor.  © 2013  The narrator, an unnamed American officer who was wounded in Afghanistan, joins the CIA as an undercover agent and is sent to Shanghai to perfect his Mandarin.  A girl named Mei crashes her bike into his.  He assumes she is an agent of Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence agency, but figures it doesn’t matter and lives with her for 2 years while she teaches him Mandarin.  Then she disappears.  He’s offered a job in a Chinese company with international operations.  He works there for about a year and has an affair with a coworker and then is suddenly fired.  When he returns to Langley, he is assigned to counter intelligence.  McCarry spent 10 years as a CIA undercover agent, and he uses his knowledge of tradecraft to spin out an incredible plot which has elements of the Dreyfus conspiracy.  One reviewer calls his earlier book, Tears of Autumn, the best spy novel ever.  I haven’t read it but I will.  It’s hard to see how it could be better than this one.  As the narrator goes along, he has some amusing asides:  “I wonder if Mr. (Woody) Allen knows how much better his movies are since he stopped casting himself,” and “the only northerner who ever crossed the Potomac into Virginia without getting lost was Ulysses S. Grant.”  The reader of this recorded book is fine except he has the narrator at the Met looking at a Tichen instead of a Titian.  March 2015

David McCullough.  The Great Journey, Americans in Paris© 2011  Somehow I never got around to writing up my notes on this book, one of the best things I’ve read recently.  Here’s a quote from the NYT review and the link to the whole review:   “David McCullough has stressed France’s pre-eminent role in American history for years. We would not, he has argued, have a country without the French, who have permanently and profoundly shaped us. ……With ‘The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,’” he explores the intellectual legacy that France settled on its 19th-century visitors. The result is an epic of ideas, as well as an exhilarating book of spells.”
I had not realized that so many 19th C Americans had lived and studied in Paris and used the experience not only to develop their own talents but also to validate them.  The main subjects were medicine and the arts.  They found it a most hospitable place and culturally and intellectually stimulating.  “Even the children speak French.”  James Fenimore Cooper spent many years there writing novels about North America.  Balzac wrote that in Cooper’s  hands the art of the pen has never come closer to the art of the brush, a painter in prose.   Cooper developed a close friendship with Samuel F. B. Morse and went to the Louvre every afternoon to talk with him as he painted “The Gallery of the Louvre,” (1831-1833).  Soon afterwards Morse returned to America with the idea of the telegraph in his head after observing the French visual system.   Later in Paris Morse met Daguerre and brought his method of photography back to the US.  The American painter, James Healy, who had studied with Antoine-Jean Gros, established such a reputation as a portraitist that he was asked to paint the King of France.  Among the many Americans who came to study or just to visit were George Catlin, Richard Rush, Elizabeth Blackwell --- the first American woman doctor,  William Welles Brown --- the first black American novelist,  Mary Cassatt, Harriet Beecher Stowe --- who spend a full hour in front of Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,”  Nathaniel Hawthorne --- who visited in 1857 after his tour as Consul in Liverpool and found the paintings rather tiresome, John Singer Sargent, and Charles Sumner --- recovering from the attack by Preston Brooks after delivering a 102 page speech attacking slavery.  Acording to McCullough, about the only well known New Englander who didn’t visit was Henry Thoreau.  McCullough spends a lot of time with Augustus Saint Gaudens , the sculptor who used the skills of the artisans of Paris to complete may of his American commissions.  He made his name with his “Farragut” for Madison Square and later did a notable equestrian statue of Sherman, the Shaw Memorial in Boston and the National Gallery and the enigmatic Adams memorial in the Rock Creek cemetery.  December 2014
 Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir.  Scarcity.  © 2013  “If ants are such hard workers, how come they  go to all the picnics?”  How does scarcity affect us?  How does it Change how we feel? Change how we think? Change what we notice? Change how we decide?  Yesterday I read a short article in the Washington Post, “To Live Well 40 Winks Isn’t Enough.”  It seems studies show that poor people get less sleep than people who are better off financially, perhaps because they are working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  I was just finishing Scarcity, which speaks to exactly this point.  I wish the book could be reduced to a half page of talking points and then read by every politician in America, because it has insights into poverty that I had never seen before, not in Michael Harrington’s The Other America, not in the works of Ammon Hennacy published by the Catholic Worker, and not in anything Daniel Patrick Moynihan was writing when I was a lowly intern watching him in action at the Labor Department.  The jacket blurb on the recorded version says “In the blockbuster tradition of Freakanomics, a Harvard economist and a Princeton psychology professor team up to offer a surprising and empowering new way to look at everyday life, presenting a paradigm-challenging examination of how scarcity, and our flawed responses to it shapes our lives, our society and our culture.”  In his review in the Guardian, Tim Parks notes that many of the ideas in the book have been around for a long time, and mentions the work of Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky.  The problem has long been that economists expect rational behavior, but psychologists find we all have an almost comical inability to understand risk and reward and do what is best for us.  This time an economist and a psychologist working together have been able to pull these ideas together.  While it’s true that this book has something for everyone, what is really important here is its explanation of why the poor stay poor and why they make what seems to us like bad decisions over and over again.  The answer is scarcity.  There is no slack or latitude in their lives.  Every day is a struggle to make ends meet and put food on the table, to get the kids to daycare, to get to work on time, to get the car fixed, to pay the doctor and the electric bill.  If anything goes awry, it’s a disaster.  It’s stress like most of us never experience.  Tim Adams review in the Guardian summarizes it better than I can:

“The cost is an undue focus on the necessity at hand, which leads to a lack of curiosity about wider issues, and an inability to imagine longer-term consequences. The effect of this scarcity-generated "loss of bandwidth" has catastrophic results in particular in relation to money. While the poor have a much sharper idea of value and cost, an obsessive concentration on where the next dollar is coming from leads not only to poor judgment, a lessened ability to make rational choices or see a bigger picture, but also to a diminishing of intelligence (even "feeling poor" lowers IQ by the same amount as a night without sleep), as well as a lowering of resistance to self-destructive temptation.

“This "scarcity trap" provides an explanation for unpalatable truths, the authors argue. It shows why the "poor are more likely to be obese… Less likely to send their children to school… [why] the poorest in a village are the ones least likely to wash their hands or treat their water before drinking it." And the explanation is this: "the poor are not just short of cash. They are short on bandwidth." When an individual – any individual – is primed to think about his money troubles, his ability to perform tests and tasks is measurably reduced. Reminded that they are poor, individuals "showed less flexible intelligence, less executive control. With scarcity on his mind, he simply had less mind for everything else."

What any reasonable person would take away from this book is that we need to rethink our whole approach to poverty.  The first thing would be to stop blaming the people who are poor.  Read this book.  April 2015

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