Sunday, November 30, 2008

Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the 20th Century is a fascinating overview from MIT Press.
Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the Twentieth Century
by Robert H. Kargon and Arthur P. Molella
The MIT Press

This is a neat little history of attempts to devise and build visions of the "techno-city," which the authors define as a combination of high technology and a version of nature embodied in the "garden city" of Ebenezer Howard at the turn of the 20th century.

After laying the theoretical foundation, from Howard to Patrick Geddes to Lewis Mumford and beyond, the authors examine examples from Fascist Italy, Communist Russia and the U.S., from the New Deal to the Cold War to Disney, in an interesting and useful overview that whets the appetite for more.

While I don't always agree with the authors' point of view and conclusions, the history is fascinating. While the book isn't profusely illustrated, the photos and drawings are well presented. This is a handsome, well-designed book that covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, with an eye to keeping the reader absorbed as well as to its scholarly contributions.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A dialogue between a distinguished Bay Area scientist and the Dalai Lama looks at how ordinary people can influence their emotions and how they are expressed. Reviewed below.
Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles To Psychological Balance and Compassion
By the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman
Times Books

Paul Ekman is one of the most respected scientists in the Bay Area, internationally famous for his painstaking work in identifying emotions from facial expressions, even “microexpressions” that indicate when someone is lying. He developed training based on these findings that the Secret Service uses. He also proved one of Darwin’s more obscure theories, that emotional expressions are the same across human cultures.

In early 2000, he agreed to participate in a dialogue of scientists with the Dalai Lama, mostly because he could bring his daughter along—she was a dedicated Buddhist who’d been to Tibet. It changed his life.

That discussion on “destructive emotions” was the eighth in the “Mind and Life” series with the Dalai Lama that will convene its 18th session this spring. There are books derived from 8 of them; I’ve read 7, and Destructive Emotions (Bantam) is among the best. While western sciences like neurobiology and psychology work from the outside with objective tests, Buddhism—particularly Tibetan Buddhism—has developed complex and subtle concepts from interior observation.

That 2000 conference shaped Ekman’s subsequent researches, and sent him back for some 39 hours of one-on-one dialogues with the Dalai Lama, resulting in this book. The subject is the title: Emotional Awareness. The topics include how emotions arise, how they are experienced and lead to behavior, as well as specific sets of emotions, from anger to compassion.

Apart from the concepts, there’s drama in the Mind and Life books (will science and “religion” clash?) and comedy (chiefly in the scientists’ reaction when the Dalai Lama asks an incisive question or spots a logical flaw. Few know that Tibetan monks are trained in debate—in the monastery it’s the principal spectator sport.)

Ekman is desperately interested in developing ways for people to learn how to behave better, beginning with the emotion or even the period just before the emotion engages. This book is formally a dialogue, with mini-essays on relevant topics by Ekman and others: both scientists and Buddhist scholars, as well as the growing number of Buddhist scientists.

The human drama in this book emerges in pieces, as Ekman reveals aspects of his own life—such as his abusive childhood, and his resulting problems controlling his temper—which suggest why he has been studying emotion for a half century.

Towards the end Ekman reveals something else. It was not just the discussion in 2000 but a wordless moment with the Dalai Lama that changed him: as he introduced his daughter, the Dalai Lama took his hand and held it. Ekman felt transformed. Like a proper scientist, he asked others if they noticed the change. His wife did. And he asked others if they’d had this experience: they had. Yet the science he knew could not account for it. But Ekman realized it was important because he knew it was real. Such an experience as well as others related to him by meditators and others perhaps led him to write: “We have seen it in our lifetimes again and again, that when we do not have the tools or methods to scientifically study something, we ignore it—or even worse, claim it does not exist.”

Though he doesn't mention it here, the scientific interest in meditation is itself a case in point. Not so long ago it was the consensus orthodoxy that people could not consciously control physical functions like heart rate. But some scientists studied Buddhist meditators, which led to "biofeedback" machines, the theory of "relaxation response," etc., and that made the idea more acceptable. Now meditators are being studied again, using brain imaging.

It is Ekman’s openness to evidence, no matter where it comes from or leads, that is science at its best. He investigates what matters to him as a human being, a husband, father, member of the community, and in view of the legacy he leaves to the future. That the steps along the way are still a bit awkward is less important than the illuminating attempt.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Machines R Us

Sherry Turkle, one of the most respected analysts and most interesting writers on new technologies, has edited an anthology of essays which brings together three traditions--"memoir, clinical practice, and fieldwork or ethnography"--as applied to human relationships with their intimate machines, from cell phones to dialysis machines. With Turkles introduction, the essays in The Inner History of Devices (MIT Press) explores how people and their machines in specific personal and professional redraw (or dissolve) boundaries between their devices and their own minds and bodies.

But what of society's relationship to the fast-expanding capabilities of these technologies? In Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World (MIT Press), Alex Pentland writes of a digital sensor--a "sociometer" that monitors and analyzes non-verbal 'signals' among groups of people. Much of the book is an argument for the importance of such signals, particularly in relation to the hot topic of social networks. But it is the existence and use of the sociometer that raises plenty of Nineteen Eighty-Four questions, unfortunately not well addressed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

John Leonard: who championed the best writing of our time, and wrote about it better than anyone: R.I.P.
John Leonard, R.I.P.

Studs Terkel, you'd expect, but John Leonard? I was surprised to hear he'd died, and even more surprised to see his age, only 7 years older than me. But when I was starting out reviewing books and editing reviews for the Boston Phoenix and sending him plaintive letters about assigning me reviews for the New York Times Book Review, those 7 years were probably important. Anyway, he never replied.

When he ran the Book Review in the early 70s, it was one of the hottest publications around, of any kind. He was a reviewer--both of books and television--who I read and learned from. He brought an energy to his prose that lit up reviewing as much as Tom Wolfe lit up magazine journalism in those years. His energy and verbal playfulness extended to the headlines. In some issues, they were more brilliant than the reviews.

Throughout his career, as The Guardian notes, he was a "force for good." His reviews were worth reading for themselves, but he made the books he reviewed exciting as well. I'll bet that having him review your book was about all the reward you'd need for writing it. He loved writing, he loved books--and they loved him back.

He wrote: "The library is where I've always gone – for transcendence, of course, a zap to the synaptic cleft, the radioactive glow of genius in the dark; but also to get more complicated, for advice on how to be decent and brave; for narrative instead of scenarios, discrepancies instead of euphemism. In the library, that secretariat of dissidents, they don't lie to me."

I remember stealing as much of his style as I could manage in those days, as others have ever since--Mark Lotto in the New York Observer, who admits he learned to write reviews by reading Leonard, adds: "but as much as I write and however long I live, I'll never in print equal his warmth, his decency, his willingness to draw ethical lines and then not cross them, his talent for rubbing this book against that one to see what electricity popped out."

Here's another memory of Leonard's stint at the Times Book Review, the Washington Post obit, and Laura Miller's remembrance in Salon, where he returned to reviewing books. Laura assigned exactly one review from me as well. So I finally appeared under the same banner, though I never met him. But I read him, and something from his approach and attitude got through to me. I'm grateful for that, even if this form is "limping toward an undeserved obsolescence," as Laura says.

And from Laura's article, I learned as well that I've inadvertently quoted him in this very piece. He actually said, "the books we love, love us back." And of course, he said it first.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Curiosity did not kill this cat. Studs Terkel, R.I.P.
Studs Terkel, R.I.P.

He was a Pulitizer-Prize winning author, and so much more.

He was one of our last living connections to parts of our past it is increasingly important we know about in depth: the Great Depression and FDR, the McCarthyite 50s. Studs Terkel got his start on radio with the Federal Writers Project, and his budding TV career was ended by the Blacklist. But he survived, and is most famous now for his books, which essentially invented what's now known as oral history. He died on Friday at the age of 96.

I remember his agile mind and mellow voice, and his shirts with the small checked pattern. He was a paragon of curiosity, a volcano of compassion; he knew a good story, and he could tell a million of them. He was a persistent force in getting black and white Americans to understand and glory in their common culture as well as common humanity.

He was a Chicago Everyman, and an American intellectual. He was an enthusiast. And therefore, unique and unforgettable. He cared most about the future.

Asked in Mother Jones interview to name one issue that's been neglected the most through the years, he didn't hesitate: "The big one is the gap between the haves and the have-nots--always...The biggest shame is that there is so much abundance around but that so many have so little and so few have so much."

Asked in this interview if he was going to retire, he replied: "I suppose if I have an epitaph it would be: "Curiosity Did Not Kill This Cat." I don't see retiring in the sense that we view it--I don't see how I could. Dying at the microphone or at the typewriter would not be bad."