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I’ll Take My Big Ideas Bite Sized, Please

I live in Brookline, MA, and before that I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Both are high-density urban environments filled with highly educated families keen on providing their children a good education. These kinds of environments feature specialized coffee stores, independent bookstores, organic food and many places to eat and drink. They are gay-friendly, supportive of the “creative class,” and better able to handle serious financial problems; they are cities central to Richard Florida’s conception of where the economy and society is headed. I like Park Slope and Brookline – as do many of my friends who share my demographic – but I’m not nearly as certain as Professor Florida.

The Great Reset is another opus in the ever-productive, market savvy Florida. His themes are well-known and juicy: the creative economy has overtaken the traditional manufacturing economy and that this urban, cosmopolitan, well-educated “class” represents the future. In Reset Florida takes the longer view, emphasizing how the Great Depression reshaped internal and external landscapes of work, home and values. He sees such a transformation resulting from the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

What happened? Housing values plummeted, many were thrown out of work, and different areas were affected differently. The larger, more “creative class” metropolises, he writes, weathered the storm more effectively. As for the consequences, people are starting to value conspicuous consumption less and instead seeks status through other means. It accelerated the decline in popularity of cars and cities dependent upon sprawl and housing prices. In contrast, the mega-regional cities, marked by large cities, government centers and the presence of large universities, fared relatively well.

The appeal of these big, broad statements is that they seem – at least to those of us who have graduate degrees and live near universities – is that they validate our choices. Florida’s future is in many ways our future. The difficulty with Florida’s arguments is that they are supported at times by the weakest of reeds. In this book, in particular, he jumps about without developing a sustained argument or marshaling facts in a systematic way.

For example, Florida posits the decline of importance of the car. Really? Just because some suburbs are emptying and a subset of younger Americans who live in certain cities are eschewing automobile ownership does not spell the demise of the automobile. I’d suggest that automobiles, in one form or another, will remain an extraordinarily important part of our economy and society for decades. They may be powered by alternative fuels, look different and ownership structures may change (more Zipcar options, for example) – but it would be foolish to think that the car-free future is around the corner.

Amid all the conjecture, however, are very worthwhile observations – about gender and jobs, and work and meaning, and about the broad shifts in our society. Further, his underlying assumption that something really important is forcing deep change in America is probably correct, too, though I believe we’re still way too early in the process to know what it means or where we are going. Florida writes well, too, and that cannot be discounted; you would want him on your panel, around your table, or at the bar. He would give you something to mull over, to chew on – just as he has done in this book.

Toxoplasmosis – Nearer and Dearer Than You May Think

Your brain. Your brain on toxoplasms. Eeeeek!

This month’s The Atlantic features a fascinating article – How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy. It highlights the work of a biologist at Charles University in Prague, Jaroslav Flegr, who has been studying parasites.  What has sparked Flegr’s interest is a particular one-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii.  It’s nickname is T.gondii and it’s an effective little bugger. People who host the parasite have toxoplasmosis. Other warm-blooded animals have it, too. It can be very damaging to fetuses, but its impact on adults is only starting to be understood.

T. Gondii has a fascinating life-cycle. It can only reproduce while in cats. It exists in cat feces, and is then picked up through a variety of means, by other animals. When in the host it moves to the brain, creates tiny cysts, and affects the host’s behavior in a variety of ways – many of which are being discovered by Flegr. The underlying assumption that the changes in the host’s behavior, from an evolutionary point of view, are all geared towards the T. gondii getting back into the cat where the parasite can reproduce. Infected rats move more slowly, for example, possibly so that they are easier to be eaten by a feline.

When a person is infected the usual signs are a slight flu and then, supposedly, the parasite sits dormant. Flegr has found, however, that infected people display statistically significant differences, especially when sex is taken into account. Men are more likely to be introverted, fearful and disinclined to follow rules while women present as more outgoing, trusting, and concerned about their appearance. Infected people have slower reaction times, are over-represented in schizophrenia, and are more likely to be in car accidents. Unbelievable weird, isn’t it?

Hard analysis of the science is beyond the article’s scope – we don’t really know if Flegr is correct or not. The early indicators are that he is on to something and it will be thrashed out in laboratories and journals for years to come. What resonates with me is that it highlights the extraordinarily complex interplay that make up evolution, evolutionary biology, and brain development.

Humans are, much more than we realize, open systems. Even more to the point, the interplay between what we conceptualize as the “self” and the “exterior” is extraordinarily fluid. Our internal systems do not simply react to external factors; they can change because of those factors. The systems themselves can transform as studies on neural plasticity reveal.

2500 years ago Heraclitus wrote that you cannot step into the same river twice. The observation holds true today – and it is not the river that is different. You, too, may also be different.

Declining Industries on Declining Industries

Call me idiosyncratic, or nostalgic, or foolish. It’s true – I am. I subscribe to The Atlantic. It read it, too, and increasingly I ask myself “why?” 

Magazines like The Atlantic used to popularize complicated intellectual or political issues, framing them in ways that nearly anyone could grasp. More than time-fillers while waiting for the dentist, these middlebrow publications piqued curiosities and gave the reader a sense of broader understanding about the world. The daily paper might keep on up-to-date, but middlebrow magazines kept one informed.

It’s been a while since an issue of The Atlantic gave me any real sense of being informed. Ten issues at the newsstand sets you back $59 and a subscription runs to $24. Even with the discount, it is worth the time?

The January/February issue is an odd mishmash, a well laid-out assembly of pieces that lack a recognizable shared point of view. The short pieces are not memorable and beg the question: does one read a magazine for snippets?  Too much theme and it’s tiresome; too random and it does not make sense. Strength in such a publication has to come from the longer articles, where perspective, depth and sheer journalistic wisdom drawn in the reader.  No heft in the features and a magazine fails. The irony for this issue is that question at the core of the issue is working in America.

The cover article is on jobs – who makes what – using Standard Motor Products, a manufacturing company in Queens, NY, with a factory in Greenville, South Carolina, as the lens with which to look at a larger question. Maddie Parlier, an employee in the factory, is the lens that makes the challenges real. Maddie’s job is low-skill, though still requiring attention and thought. The factory makes injectors and it is more efficient for them to be made by hand for the near future. However, as technology continues to improve, the price of the machine that can make the pieces will drop, making Maddie uneconomical. The long-term trend for many other low-skilled workers, the author notes, is equally grim. It is not viable. The article is solid, but not particularly perceptive. It does not give a broad picture or tug at our hearts.

The other lengthy piece in this issue is a feature on John J. Mearsheimer.  Who? The article’s teaser is “The political scientist’s start has fallen in recent years, as critics have branded him an anti-Semite. But his doctrine of “offensive realism” provides what could be the wisest strategy for managing China’s rise. OK, but who is engaged by this? I’m up on political scientists and the idea that Mearshimer’s start, rising or falling, would be the cornerstone of an article in the popular press is odd at best. The article recounts Mearshimer’s waning and waxing influence as one might look at a musician’s career, breaking into pop stardom for a while and then touring for an audience that wants more of the same.  But who is invested? Only three people come to mind: Mearshimer, Robert D. Kaplan, who wrote the piece, and the editor. And of the three, the only one I can see it really mattering to is Kaplan. The article does a poor job making itself seem relevant.

Weird articles and odd magazine. If it was a low-skilled worker, I wouldn’t bet on its future.

 

Natural in Tooth and Tax Code

The process by which one becomes a citizen is called naturalization. It’s an intriguing term; implicit is the assumption that someone who does not hold citizenship is unnatural. Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine a time not so long ago when citizenship was not quite so formal. And it is also easy to think of place where the inhabitants wear the identity of citizenship very lightly.

A recent The Economist editorial praises the value of a second or third passport, which is very much in line with the values and wants today’s global, multi-cultural populace. Drawing on its nineteenth century liberal heritage, the publication argues for more free migration of peoples, just as does for goods. Restriction of dual or multi-citizenship, a trend in some countries, is likened to protectionism by the magazine.  “A better approach,” goes the argument, “would be to use residence (especially tax residence) as the main criterion for an individual’s rights and responsibilities.”

If only citizenship – and naturalization – was governed by rational actors and economic issues. For many, the very potential of lightening the burdens and obligations of citizenship pull at the very fabric of national identity. Tax codes may drive decisions for some; for many people, the idea of changing citizenship is extraordinarily traumatic.

I anticipate increasingly freighted debates about citizenship in the future, particularly as the culture of educated people moves farther and farther away from those that are less educated. Education in a developed country today is synonymous with access via the internet to information, people and ideas of almost incomprehensible complexity. The boundaries of space and time are much different for the educated and connected than from those that are not – and here will see ever greater tensions. And those that feel threatened with the loosening bonds will demand ever greater national compliance.

Engaging Scoundrels

Come with me, dear reader, on an exciting journey through smells, sights, opportunities, lies and crimes. I will entertain, engage, challenge and confide in you. I will be a most trusted guide and nothing that I say can be believed.

A good first-person narrator can take a reader by the wrist, or wallet, or throat and lead us through all manner of adventure. A tried and true technique, it is extraordinarily effective in the right hands. Aravind Agida employs it fully in his debut novel The White Tiger.  Dark and comical, the book references, borrows and steals from all the right sources: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, but also Defoe, Rushdie and Barth. It is the story of a charming and untrustworthy man living in multiple worlds – modern India.

The overall structure is the personal history of Balram (or Munna), an Indian entrepreneur, as written in a series of letters to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabo, who is scheduled to visit Bangalore. Balram tells his own story as way of explaining India; it is a story within a story. Born in “Darkness” or abject poverty in a rural village, Balram experiences privation and disappointment despite being identified as intelligent, a “White Tiger.” He is only partially aware of his misery in his lot until he becomes a driver for a rich man with family connections to his village. He journeys to the city, “Light,” comes to understand more clearly his situation and the way that India “works.” It is a voyage of knowledge, cynicism, and advancement. Balram eventually murders his employer in order to break free and to establish a new identity, business, and future. The novel’s coda is a recount of how Balram the businessman handles the death of a child run over by one of his employees: with bribery, influence peddling and power.

Agida gives Balram great intelligence but little knowledge, and as his perspective becomes more informed, an ever greater sense of agency. Balram’s morality is thin at best. He murders in cold blood and is ruthless. One the other hand, the very sense of right and wrong is problematized throughout, as “justice” seems to be irrelevant to the world in which the characters live. inhabit. Agida’s satire is of India and Balram is the vehicle. Balram the quintessential traveler, an alien in his own land, a visible invisible man. He parodies the myth of the self-made man. Balram has access to many voices: the subaltern, the Quisling, the entrepreneur, the internal immigrant, and the business man.

And though a cold character, above all, Balram is very funny.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008, The White Tiger is the kind of literature that entertains and provokes – a good and thoughtful read.

A Little More Than a Snowman’s Chance . . . .

Some books we read to learn. Some to laugh. Some because we’re told to some because they catch our eye. Elizabeth Letts The Eighty-Dollar Champion is a book to read for pleasure,for the simple joy of a good story. Letts is an accomplished author with two novels and a children’s book under her belt. She also rode horses competitively, a background that drew her to the triumphs of an unknown horse and the Dutch immigrant who trained him into a jumping champion.

Harry de Leyer purchased a grey gelding from a knacker for $80 in 1956, with the fee including delivery of the beat up horse to the small Long Island stable. De Leyer was a poor but very talented horseman who made a living teaching riding at a girls school and providing lessons. The horse, christened Snowman by one of de Leyer’s children, was placid, easy-going and a surprising jumper. In fact, de Leyer only learned of the horse’s ability after he sold him and the gelding refused to stay in the neighbor’s paddock.

Once back under de Leyer’s tutelage, Snowman became an accomplished jumper winning national prizes. The story was picked up by the local and then national press and played for all it was worth: poor horse and horseman succeeding in the high society world of equestrian jumpers. When at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, Snowman and de Leyer even took a trip to Rockefeller Center to appear on the Tonight Show. Johnny Carson subbed that night for Jack Parr.

Letts strikes the same chords, emphasizing heart and the bond between horse and man. It is cliched, to be sure, but it is an effective tactic. She does not lay it on too thick, either, a shortcoming of  Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, a book which linked the underdog horse, his dysfunctional trainer and rider, with the Great Depression and the very health of the nation.

It was a good story in 1958 and it is a good story today.

 

 

Popular and Unpopular History

Professional historians tend to be snobs about popular history. While a well-reviewed and discussed book is a boon, historians who consistently sell books that might make it to the non-academic press carry a taint of suspicion. Only a few can manage the jump to the for-profit presses, and when they do they are rarely read in graduate seminars or referenced in conferences. And the very unusual historian who can crank out best sellers is usually cast off the island to swim in different waters.

Take Steven Ambrose, for example, whose ethical lapses validated the exclusiveness of the mandarins. With some early strong biographies on Eisenhower and Nixon, he parlayed an extraordinarily effective writing style into an industry. The scuttlebutt was that he was too prolific and cut corners. Undeterred, Ambrose cranked out a wide range of books on World War II, aviation, Lewis and Clark, and much more. He was executive producer of HBO’s A Band of Brothers. And with the success came scrutiny and the realization that Ambrose serially lifted prose from others and inserted it into his own. The man was, in fact, a fibber – something handy in storytelling but a liability in the historian’s pursuit of the truth.

But being popular does not mean that one has to lie, cheat or steal. A select number of historians are able to serve Cleo faithfully and expand the knowledge of multiple readers. Middlebrow is what the genre used to be called and it’s essential for an educated society. And when historians do not reach out and make their topics appetizing, journalists and writers do it for them.

From that larger context, a few thoughts about Evan Thomas‘s The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898. It is a well-written a timely book telling the “story” of America’s entry into the Spanish-American War in 1898 through the respective biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst. All three men’s trajectories are brought together in an almost tragic-comedic recounting of the battles in Cuba. Weighing heavily on the narrative and the structure are Iraq and contemporary international politics; the connections are almost inescapable.

For readers who know little of the Spanish-American War, who have forgotten the Maine, the book is a helpful but narrow introduction. For those that know of the conflict and have dipped into the popular history of Roosevelt, the book provides a slightly cynical take and a useful corrective. Above all, it is an entertaining read. But when it comes to historical understanding, the book falls short.

Popular history often gains readership through reducing the complex to the simple, providing clear reasons for causality. Thomas does it in the War Lovers, capturing the connections between personal ambition and national expansion, or nationalism, in the key protagonists. It is a good argument and an important factor. Missing, though, is an awareness of the larger world and the forces of imperialism shaping the globe. Economic concerns are absent and the push and pull of partisan politics is downplayed. The foolishness of the Spanish receives little attention. In fact, reducing complicated international conflicts to comparative biography can lead one down a path of simply getting history wrong. One of the fascinating things about the broad sweep of history is that it is always – always – greater than the reach of any one individual.

Thomas does not get it wrong. His reading of Lodge is good and his characterizations of Hearst and Roosevelt, two extremely interesting figures, is not far off. Thomas provides a solid account. A good historian, though, if so inclined could provided a richer, more interesting account.

Indians and Insulators

Sam Grunewald, my great-grandfather, spent much of his life as a farmer in Van Wert, Ohio. I spent some time with him when I was a child and my memories are very much of his age and his direct connection with a different time. Indians, to Sam, were not from Westerns, but from life. He deplored their drinking and talked of their poverty: “poor folk.” He told me, one night looking at the moon, that an Indian in Oklahoma had explained to him that the shape of the moon was a good indicator of whether or not it was worth hunting. “If you can hang your bag on the moon,” he said, then one shouldn’t go out. He was a child of the 1800s.

When he kissed me good bye, his whiskers, even when shaved, bristled.

I asked him once if he was a good kid or whether or not he got into trouble. This was shortly after I was punished for a small infraction and Sam told me about a bad competition between him his brother: breaking glass insulators. I had no idea what he was talking about until he showed me on, a glass dome about three inches tall. These were the insulators on electricity and telegraph lines and a boy with a rock and a good arm could shatter one with a pitch. Sam told me he got pretty good at it but that he stopped after he was caught. He felt pretty bad about it, he said.

The insulators are now collected. I see them, every now and then at an antiques fair, and I think of grizzled Sam as a young boy, whipping rocks at them. He hoped that they hit and he hoped that they missed.

And thus, another space is cleared

in the proverbial digital forest. Or perhaps, more appropriately, a claim is staked.

My great grandfather, Sam, was part of an Oklahoma land grab as a young man. I remember him talking about it: leaving Ohio with his father, taking the train to Oklahoma and then riding on a flat car until suitable land was found. There are still many Grunewalds – his family name – in Oklahoma. Sam liked it, but preferred Ohio.

I wonder what he would have made of all this. Probably not much unless he could see the use of it.

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