Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Stolen Focus book cover

I am fascinated by technology and how it changes us and our societies. One of the biggest concerns these days is how fragmented out attention has become due to smartphones and social media. These days it seems like no one can pay attention long enough for the person talking to them to finish their sentence. Sometimes I am talking to someone and they pull out their phone while I am still talking. Even worse, sometimes I am the one pulling out my phone while someone else is talking to me! What in the world in going on here?

This book presents research and discusses the reasons why we have such a hard time focusing, and not all of them are technological. There are two ways to address these challenges–individually and society. The first says that it is your fault. You need to get better control over your attention and what is distracting you. The author largely does not focus in this direction though encouraging the reader to do what she can. He encourages personal change to address the issues but feels they are not enough. He focuses instead on how our world has changed that makes it hard for us to pay attention. He compares it to trying to lose weight when everything around you is shouting at you to eat bad food and sit on the couch. Sure you can do something about it, but it is harder that it needs to be or should be.

My favorite aspect of this book is that the author has included all the interview audio on his website for the book. He is also very clear about where the research he shares is relatively settled or still highly in dispute. He makes a strong case for his perspective and solutions, but he doesn’t pretend that there aren’t others with differing opinions. Refreshing. A good place to start is the interview with Nir Eyal from chapter eight. Eyal favors focusing on what we can do for ourselves because collective action takes a long time. Both Eyal and Hari see the need for individual and collective change, but they differ on which we should start with.

My rating: 5/5

Tyranny by Entertainment

Amusing Ourselves to Death book cover

For most of my adult life I have heard references made to the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It is in large part due to this book that I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman makes the argument in his book that we have more to fear from and are closer to Huxley’s dystopia than that of Orwell (1984). The difference is that in Orwell’s dystopia, the tyranny comes from a dictatorial state while in Huxley’s it comes from a complacent public only concerned with being entertained continually. Sound familiar?

Well, I finally got around to reading Neil Postman’s book. Despite the fact that it was published in 1985, it is as relevant today as ever. The book focuses on TV, but simply change that word to social media or the internet and the same arguments could be made today. Postman doesn’t trash TV, though. He says that we definitely need entertainment. TV is best when it is trash TV. After all, that’s what it is for. The problem comes when it tries to get involved with more serious matters like politics and education. Rather than simply bringing these important aspects of society to a broader audience, it instead turns them into simple, and often mindless, entertainment.

The core of his argument is that due to TV, we are moving from a culture of reason and typography to one of entertainment and show business. It is an argument that is hard to refute. It seems even more true today than nearly forty years ago. My biggest disappointment with the book is that it doesn’t offer more in the way of ideas to overcome it. The one main suggestion he gives is a high hurdle – reforming education. I think the trouble is that there aren’t a whole lot of answers to this dilemma and none of them are simple. But becoming aware of the problem is a crucial first step.

Our Digital Present and Biological Future

The Code Breaker book cover

Today we live in world that is largely dominated by computers and the internet. The history of how we got here is well told by Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators. If we’ve learned anything in the last two years, our future seems likely to be influenced by biology and epidemiology. Walter Isaacson’s latest book explores this recent history and potential future in his latest book The Code Breaker.

In The Code Breaker he tells the history of CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing, centering it around the Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. The first part of the book is partly a biography of her and her race with other scientists to unlock the key to editing human genes. The story is one of both scientific competition and collaboration.

The book raises ethical questions about editing human DNA. Will it create a privileged group of super humans, leaving the poor behind? At the same time, don’t we have an obligation to help those with genetic diseases like sickle cell and Huntington’s disease?

Finally, the author covers the role these same scientists played in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to testing. The discoveries made there may lead to better and faster detection of many diseases beyond COVID-19.

If you are interested in how we got to the digital age we find ourselves in, read The Innovators. And when you finish that one, read The Code Breaker to get up to speed on our present and future in the biological sciences.

Facts and Compassion

The End of Gender book cover

There is a lot of heat and emotion around the subjects of sex and gender. This is most visible in the national debates around the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, but particularly around those concerning transgender individuals. While my own thoughts about such issues have centered on compassion for others, I have been confused about what is really going on for these individuals. Not being a member of this community, I must admit that I do not understand all of the issues. But I long ago concluded that I don’t need to. It isn’t about what I think or understand but about accommodating and caring for people wherever they are and however they see themselves.

Hoping to better educate myself, I recently read the book The End of Gender by Debra Soh, a former sexology researcher who left academia to pursue a career in journalism. The book is a straightforward look at what the science of sexology says about sex and gender and many of the public issues surrounding them. It is an eye-opening book that is likely to both challenge and confirm your views on these subjects, no matter how you feel about identity politics.

This is not a political book, or at least it is not meant to be. It is grounded in published sexology research and takes the position that we ought to be open and clear about the science even if it goes against what we believe or is popular. Some may think this is a license to abuse minorities. The author disagrees. It isn’t the science we should take issue with but how some people use it as a weapon of hate.

The book is organized around nine myths about sex and gender. Two of these myths are “There are more than two genders” and “Sexual orientation and gender identity are unrelated”. Due to the sensitive nature of these topics, you likely reacted strongly to one or both of those statements. I highly encourage you to read this book from a well-educated scientist who uses research to inform her compassion. One of the major concerns she raises is the number of transgender individuals who transition and later change their mind and detransition. Perhaps a better understanding of the science behind sex and gender can lead to better outcomes for those struggling with identity issues.

A Complicated Man

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

History is full of turning points. One such turning point in US history is the presidency of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. Before him, the office was seen largely as administrative and inferior in role to the Congress. The government was largely elected and run by elites elected by a very small electorate largely made up of white male land owners. This left much of the population unrepresented. The slow change to larger enfranchisement started during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The presidential biography American Lion by John Meacham covers these years and Jackson’s role in them.

The book leans largely toward hagiography in the vain of much Lincoln biography. Jackson saw himself as a father figure to the nation, a champion and savior of the people, and the author shares this view with little exposition on the darker moments in his presidency. Regardless, this is a largely well-written overview of Jackson’s life as a US president.

Jackson saw the role of president differently than his predecessors. He saw a strong role for the president as the only federal office directly elected by all citizens. While this was not strictly true (and still isn’t) due to the electoral college, it is not entirely inaccurate either. At that time Senators were still elected by state legislatures. The election for president was the closest thing the country had to a national mandate. Our modern view of the role of president started with Andrew Jackson, and this book is an excellent introduction to this history.

The book is heavy on the Eaton affair and its affects on the first years of the Jackson administration. It also covers the main events of Jackson’s presidency in fair detail including the Bank War and the nullification crisis. It is regrettably short on coverage of the treatment of native Americans in general and the Seminoles and Cherokees in particular as well as the growing controversy over slavery. This last is an especially grievous oversight as Jackson himself was a slaveholder. I was left with the feeling that the author so admires the strengths of Jackson that he couldn’t bring himself to equally cover the flaws in his character and behavior.

Despite this shortcoming, the book is a good overview of the presidency of Andrew Jackson and illustrates how it was a turning point in US history. It does show Jackson as a complicated man with both strengths and flaws, though I feel it overemphasizes his strengths and too easily forgives his flaws. It rightly treats the subject as a man like anyone else but doesn’t go into enough depth on the darker more controversial aspects of the man and his presidency.

History Rhyming

Painting of the Webster-Hayne Debate

Many have reported on the fears of approaching civil war in the United States due to the conflict between the left and the right in politics. Talk of liberty and rights abounds with extremists vowing to take to arms to defend their freedom. As I continue to read about Andrew Jackson’s presidency, this sounds more like 1830 than 1860.

In 1830 there was a great debate in the Senate that started over a bill proposed to limit sale of lands in the West. This stirred up old sectional rivalries in the country and led to the Webster-Hayne debate. The West was opposed to the limit proposed as it would slow their increasing power which came from the population moving westward. The bill was proposed by a New England Senator whose interests were in industry and manufacturing, hoping to slow the migration of its population westward. A Senator from the South (Hayne) saw an opportunity to bring up his views on states’ right and nullification. The debates lasted from January to May 1830 and were very heated. Ultimately, the debate came down to liberty and the value of preserving the Union and whether they were compatible. Webster gave one of the most famous speeches in American history that ended with the line “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

The main division between North and South at the time was that the North was industrial while the South was agricultural. The North favored a high tariff to protect their manufacturing. The South opposed this as it made their goods more expensive to sell overseas. Of course, the evil of slavery made this division even harder to unravel. But what seems to have been overlooked in all the debate was the fact that these interests were made stronger by one another. The North needed the South and vice versa. The South grew the food and textiles that the industrial North needed to feed and clothe their workers. The North provided the goods and the transportation that the South needed to grow and sell their food and goods. Both sides let their rancor and partisanship drive a wedge between them.

We see the same happening today, though the divide is different. Today the division is largely between urban liberal politics and the more conservative politics of rural areas. Once again, both sides need each other and for similar reasons. Urban areas get their food from the rural areas. Rural areas rely on the urban centers to distribute their food and goods and to get them to market. Politically, we need to value both individual liberty (conservatives’ big issue) and community responsibility (the hear of the liberal view). But as in the 1830s, we are letting our party politics and partisanship blind us to our mutual dependency. This was perhaps summed up best by Edward Livingston, a Senator from Louisiana during the debates when he said, “The spirit of which I speak… creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue—denies every merit to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs … mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing.”

Unfortunately, Livingstson’s plea for cooler heads ultimately went ignored. The flames of discord continued to grow and led to the conflagration of the American Civil War thirty years later. I only hope that in this century, common sense and cooler heads will prevail.


Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shaking hands

In an article in the latest issue of The Atlantic the author laments the lost of American conservatism that has accompanied Trump’s rise and takeover of the Republican party. He writes that liberalism is the celebration of reason over emotion while conservatism is the celebration of emotion over reason. My question is, why do we have to choose? What can’t we have both reason and emotion?

This made me think of what to me is behind our great divide politically. On one side we have the cause of individual liberty which says that as long as I don’t hurt others I should be able to do whatever I want. Whatever is mine is mine and no one has any claim on it. On the other side we have the cause of what I would call community. This argument stresses the responsibility we have to each other. It says that we are indeed our brother’s keeper. The extremes in our US politics have taken this up as an “either/or” choice. You are either for individual liberty or community responsibility. As before, why is it a choice? We need both individual liberty and community responsibility. In fact, I would argue that they are two sides of the same coin and are thus inseparable.

I used to consider myself a libertarian. In fact, I am registered to vote in my state as a libertarian. However, I no longer am one in the strictest sense. Libertarians come down strongly on the side of individual liberty. I have come to see the need not only for individual liberty but also for individual responsibility, to oneself and others. In what has become a binary world, we feel we have to choose ourselves or the other. Well, I choose both. Yes, I need to take care of myself, but I also have to help my neighbor. I don’t live in isolation. What I do affects others and vice versa. I am looking for a balance between individuality and community. In our two-party political system, it is the job of those two parties to work together, to argue and debate together, to find the proper balance between these two positions. It is not to advocate absolutely for one side or the other. That is dysfunctional. And that dysfunction is the partisanship and extremism we are experiencing now.

Biographical Mixed Bag

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

At the beginning of the year I started reading American Lion by John Meacham. I never really learned much in detail about Andrew Jackson or his presidency. I chose this biography after hearing the author interviewed by Brené Brown and listening to season one of his podcast Hope, Through History. I liked his approach to history, the way he made history approachable and relevant.

I have read the first five chapters and for me it is a mixed bag. I love what I am learning and how he uncovers the humanity in all the people involved. What I struggle with his the presentation. Rather than taking a strictly chronological approach in writing, the author goes back and forth using aspects and stories from the past to illustrate what is happening in the narrative. This is an excellent approach that I have appreciated in my other books. It creates a sense history as a living thing through story. But the writing is not very precise. I find myself confused at times between what is past in the story and what is the story being told. It leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and mixed up.

As a result, I considered giving up on it and finding another biography. I did some research and didn’t find much. This particular book actually won the Pulitzer Prize for history. And it is routinely praised as the best one-volume history of Jackson. So I think I will stick with it. Despite my struggles with the writing, I am finding myself enlightened both about Jackson and this time in my country’s history.

Politics and Pragmatism

Sign with an arrow on a brick wall pointing the way to vote

During lunch today I was reading an article about ballot access and voter fraud in the US. Reading it made me remember a time I actually changed my mind about a political issue. And my change wasn’t based on a change in my politics or being convinced by one party or another. It was a simple matter of understanding and practicality.

You see, I used to be in favor of voter ID laws. In principle, I still am. It has always seemed odd to me. When I go to my polling place to vote, they ask for my name. After looking it up in their registered voter book, they ask me to sign, allow me to vote, then ask me to sign out when I leave. At no point does anyone ever make an attempt to verify that I am who I say I am. Literally anyone could walk in, give my name, and vote in my place. It only makes sense to me that they would ask me to prove who I am to vote. I could simply show my state-issued driver’s license.

But as I discussed this with friends who didn’t share my views, I got a different perspective. Not everyone who is eligible to vote has a driver’s license. Also, people who are poor and have to work a lot may not have time or money to get some other form of ID for voting. My thought was that one could be issued at no charge. That solves the cost issue but not the time it takes to get it. While all of that did start to make me questions my firm stance in favor of voter ID laws, it isn’t what changed my mind.

It was a simple matter of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You see, voter fraud is very rare. Lot’s of people claim that the relatively small number of prosecutions and convictions of voter fraud is just the tip of the iceberg. But there is little to no evidence to support this. Most cases of voter fraud are simple mistakes or misunderstandings. One law professor at Loyola Law School reported finding only 45 cases of voter impersonation since 2000 out of more than a billion and a half votes cast. Hardly something worth spending millions of tax payer money on or disenfranchising voters over.

So I no longer actively advocate for voter ID laws. If there should come to light evidence of actual cases of voter fraud in a volume approaching enough to alter elections results, then I would probably change my mind. But while the existing system is actually working, I see no just cause for making it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote.

Governing in a Democratic Republic

I’ve been reading the latest issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2022). The cover story is January 6 Was Practice. The author, Barton Gellman, argues that the most important issue in politics today is the steps that Trumpist Republicans are taking to make it possible to override the next presidential election if it doesn’t go their way. He writes about how Republicans are dismantling the checks that prevented this from happening in 2020/2021. It is a frightening piece.

Yesterday President Biden held a press conference where he tried to claim that his first year was largely a success despite his nearly worst ever polling numbers (only Trump was worse after his first year in office). One reporter asked him if he had overpromised. He said no. He definitely did. It seems absurd to me that the Democrats would attempt to make so many large changes when they hold the slimmest of majorities in Congress. Given what I read in The Atlantic it seems that it may be more urgent to address the state of our democracy so that we may continue to have one.

I also listened to the latest episode of The Argument podcast on Supreme Court reform. As usual, the host had two guests, one on each side. One of the guests was former Senator Russ Feingold who argued repeatedly that the court has already been packed and that two of our current justices were seated illegitimately. The other guest argued that nothing illegal was done but that norms and traditions were abandoned, as indeed they were. Feingold continued to essentially argue “They did it first!” with the idea that we now need to add justices in order to right the wrong. This is completely wrongheaded and continues to worsen the problem that caused this issue in the first place.

A good example of this is the call to end the filibuster in the Senate. The Democrats cannot get their rather aggressive agenda through because they only have a one vote majority. With the filibuster, they can’t even get to a vote. What is referred to as the filibuster is the requirement to have 60 votes in the Senate in order to end debate. The Senate has long been considered the more deliberative house of Congress. In order to filibuster, someone used to need to stand on the Senate floor and speak. There didn’t need to be any actual debate, but someone needed to speak. The speaker could change but someone had to do it. This process was changed that while Obama was president. Now you just have to say you are “filibustering”. No one needs to speak. That makes filibusters too easy. It needs to be harder.

This is a symptom of our divided politics. It used to be that neither side wanted to make these kinds of enormous changes to how they govern. For a long time, no president resorted to executive orders to govern when he couldn’t get his legislation through Congress. The concern was that the other side could then easily undo those orders. Obama struggled with Congress and resorted to executive orders. When Trump got into office, he undid Obama’s orders and added many of his own. The same thing happened with Biden. This has gotten us further and further from democratic government.

The Constitution makes it hard to get things done through government. This is on purpose. It is a feature not a bug. It was intended to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. All citizens have rights. Those in the majority do not get to do whatever they want because they won. And those who have lost do not get to manipulate things because they feel their ideas are better. We need all sides to weigh in on legislation and governing. And we need compromise. That is how our government was designed to work. Too bad our politicians, both Democrat and Republican, don’t seem to be up to the job.