The Risks of Not Reading

I needn’t labor on the inroads of our high tech age on our daily living habits, numerous studies elaborating on the atrophying of socialization and, dynamically, its impact on family life, parents and children exponentially independent of each other.

My purpose here is to focus on its intrusion upon our reading habits in this now predominately video age.

Consider the following:

According to The American Time Use Survey employing a representative sample of 26,000 Americans, reading for pleasure is now at its lowest point. Between 2004 and 2017, reading among men declined by 40%; among women, 29%.

Gallup tells us that the number of Americans who haven’t read a book in any given year tripled between 1978
and 2014.

For comparison, in 2017, Americans spent 17 minutes reading; 5.4 hours on their cell phones.

The menace of TV exceeds that of even social media. Some 60% of Americans eat their meals while watching TV. 47% of 9-year olds watch TV 2-5 hours daily (aft.org). On average, Americans TV binge 3-4 hours each day.

Collectively, a 2020 Nielson study reveals that the average American “spends a staggering 11 hours, 54 minutes each day connected to some form of media — TV, smartphones, radio, games” (abcnews.go.com). In short, many of us are media addicts.

You can reasonably assume this affects timeout for reading. It may also factor in our children’s continuing drop off in reading proficiency (henchingerreport.org), a vast subject in itself.

The reading of literary fare—poetry, short stories, novels, drama—has taken a special hit, even among those with college exposure, and across the board, regardless of race or ethnicity, exhibiting a ten year average decline of 14% between 1992 and 2002, according to the National Endowment for the Arts comprehensive study, Reading at Risk.

It comes at a cost. Literary reading in particular grows discernment, teaches values, fuels discussion as well as entertains. It liaisons us with the global community and cultivates cultural continuity. And, yes, it can keep us safe, crystallizing excess that imperils our well-being. All really good reads are fundamentally moral, underscoring the human contract to do the right thing by each other.

As for non-fiction, I haven’t gathered any stats, but it probably fares better. We’re not all literary aficionados and the choice of good non-fiction tomes crosses many genres, whether science, health, environment, psychology, philosophy, ad infinitum.

But judging from the The Times Best Seller Lists, most non-fiction reads will be of the self-help or business variety. You’re unlikely to find mind-bending items like Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or Hoffler’s enduring classic, The True Believer.

As such, we impoverish ourselves if, when we do read, we do so indiscriminately. Our reasoning weakens. We see in fragments and not the whole. We become prey to parochialism and its hyperbolic distortions. Like our muscles, our brain prospers with exercise.

The bottomline is that so much of what we take for granted was once imagined. What better place to tap into its limitless underground caverns than a challenging read?

Through reading we meet ourselves, learn we’re not alone, find comfort, inspiration, and discernment. Not least, we encounter the coalescence of human experience, discover that each of us is its own rivulet flowing into a vast ocean of a greater Self.

Long term, the consequences of not reading become potentially devastating for both community life and democracy. Electronic resources foster instant gratification, replacing more concentrated effort. On the other hand, research shows discerning readers are more engaged in their communities. In sum, they help foster those values that promote the public’s interest and those amenities enhancing a functional democracy.

To not read is simply one more ingredient eroding family cohesion and breeding social isolation, not only pervasive, but advancing. It exchanges commitment for passivity.

As humans, we discover our individual identity through assertion. “To be or not to be? remains the existential question. Good literature inculcates not only its resolution, but its how.

Reading requires concentration, an intellectual skill that improves with exposure. To forfeit its dividends for Esau’s porridge of instant gratification with its fallout for the family and community is nearly too nightmarish for me to contemplate.

–rj

The Vanishing World of Touch

Not long ago I celebrated in my brimmings blog the realm of touch, so wonderfully depicted by my favorite nature writer, Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses. What she doesn’t touch upon is the increasing loss of that tactile dimension in a virtual age powered by Artificial Intelligence now pushed to the forefront by the corona pandemic. Nearly a third of us now work from our homes. Fewer of us are needed. Sadly, we are probably witnessing the loss of a way of life to which we won’t fully return: fewer teachers, doctors, etc. , increased surveillance, a cadre of workers, many of color, working as grocery clerks, industrial farm laborers, or from remote warehouses.

The loss of a tactile world undermines the human enterprise for which social media becomes a poor substitute. And then the outcome for families, the stress of uncertainty and limited horizons of opportunity in a touchless society where we no longer shake hands, give hugs, or bestow a kiss upon the cheek, airport embraces of coming and going reduced to impalpable memory.

As never before in a world such as ours, we are children in the night needing to be held and to be loved. We cannot live happily in a world of reduced signifiers of human belonging. Touch is the lingua franca fundamental to our destiny.

—rj

Oliver Sacks’ Ambivalence on Living in the Digital Age

Image result for Oliver Sacks

There isn’t anything I enjoy more in a stress-laden world than a time-out for a good read. Books lend me a purview of how others experience life, lending sagacity and connection with my fellows. Books teach me that I’m not alone.

Courtesy of The New Yorker (February 11, 2019), this morning I came upon Oliver Sacks’ restive short piece, ¨The Machine Stops.” Written in the last weeks of his impending death, the famed neurologist reflects on the fallout of living in the digital age.

Brilliant, cogent, unceasingly eloquent and abidingly compassionate, Sacks specialized in the eccentricities imposed by the brain, most famously in his Awakenings, later turned into one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen.

Sacks laments here the social distancing wrought by a technology that should be bringing us together, reminding me of Tolstoy’s initial response on seeing a film clip for the first time in his advanced years and countering that though this new technology was latent with promise, too often technology had been harnessed for ignoble ends.

Beginning with the ubiquitous cellphone, Sacks complains that he “cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.”

In short, our digital milieu has decimated a once fecund public and private life, replacing social interchange with inferior virtual substitutes. I remember in my boyhood sitting with neighbors on stoops in Philadelphia on humid summer nights, conversing until the arrival of night’s cool breezes sweeping across the Delaware; houses teeming with porches where we played games, conversed, and shared neighborhood babble. Mornings, I’d grab my ball glove and saunter off to a crowded diamond. Those ball fields, in Philly and afar, lie increasingly vacant in these days of video games:

In similar vein, Sacks continues that he’s “confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.”

0ur personal lives have been turned inside out, our privacy invaded. Think of what Facebook has done with posts you thought were personal to your friends, or that daily invasion of your cell phone space by a stream of telemarketing calls, or the tracking of your computer viewing via cookies.

And then there’s that immense loss for our culture and, consequently, for ourselves in our spendthrift use of our time for trivialities, foreclosing on better priorities such as art, music, literature and science that have buttressed our civilization and refine our humanity, promoting sensitivity, tolerance, knowledge and wisdom. Inundated by media, we traffic in noise. Bored, we may not like ourselves. We no longer know how to sit still.

“Everything is public now, potentially, Sacks writes: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

The punchline of all this arrives for Sacks in his now retreating days of life when he conjectures the worth of a life lived for better values in a context of seemingly burgeoning social indifference:

“. . . it may not be enough to create, to contribute, to have influenced others if one feels, as I do now, that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened. Though I am supported and stimulated by my friends, by readers around the world, by memories of my life, and by the joy that writing gives me, I have, as many of us must have, deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world.”

And yet Sacks stubbornly defies those hovering specters of demise:

“Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before, though it moves cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continual self-testing and experimentation. I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.”

I fervently hope along with you that Sacks’ midnight wager turns out right. But to paraphrase Keats, the thought paradoxically lingers in me: does Sacks “wake or sleep”?

—rj

Artificial Intelligence: Will It Take Your Job?

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita following the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima)

Recently, my daughter shared details of her trip as an Amazon employee to Las Vegas to attend a tech conference. 8700 people from all over the world gathered there for the conference—its major theme, Artificial Intelligence.

And why not! Artificial Intelligence continues to multiply and accelerate its presence, foreshadowing a brave new world.

Robots today weld auto parts tirelessly.

Tomorrow’s world of driverless cars is imminent.

No more truck drivers.

Or taxi drivers either.

You get on your plane. It hasn’t a pilot.

You’re in the emergency room. Within minutes, a medical database yields every minuscule of medical counsel ever assembled relevant to your illness.

Your subsequent surgery is performed by a tireless robot with steady hand.

Legal counsel is dispensed through a database that’s uncovers every precedent and resolution.

No need to gamble recklessly on Wall Street. A handy software app latent with market prognostication is at your disposal.

Several months ago I read Martin Ford’s mesmerizing Rise of the Robots: Technology And the Threat of a Jobless Future. Selected as Business Book of the Year (2015), this is a book you shouldn’t miss, since it’s not a question of if, but when and how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will arbitrate our everyday world, sweeping into oblivion a ride range of jobs, not merely those of the unskilled or workers engaged in manufacturing (already a dying breed), but even those of highly skilled professionals, whose jobs have long been dubbed impervious to the economics of the marketplace or Wall Street tremors.

Ford is a guy mustering credibility, having twenty-five years of experience designing computers and creating software with prodigious expertise on the economic impacting of innovative technology on the marketplace (see his The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future).

But just what is Artifical Intelligence?

At the bottomlime, we’re talking about the ability of computers to perform tasks traditionally relegated to human beings. Remember world champion chess player Garry Kasparov, defeated by a supercomputer in 1997 in a six game match? Prior to the match, Kasparov had boasted, “l never lost in my life.”

We’ve seen technical innovation before and its fallout. Think agriculture and the impacting of mechanization and bio-technology. At the birth of our nation, with a 3 million population, 90% of us farmed. Today, with some 325 million, just 2% of us do. We got through that revolution because new jobs were created to which we could transition.

In our modern era, we’ve likewise welcomed technological innovation as a harbinger of jobs, frequently at high wages, just for the asking as in our auto and steel plants of the early 1950s.

But then came automation, insidiously gnawing at the fabric of middle class prosperity. You got greater production, yes, but with fewer workers across the board, a trend that’s accelerating.

Net result—the job market hasn’t been able to keep up with a growing work force as population increases, exacerbated still further by rising numbers of former employees joining the queue.

As Ford points out, our present economy needs to create a million new jobs annually just to keep up. Dismally, however, we’re currently running a ten million job deficit as of the first decade of our new century.

Up to now, college educated workers, a good number with advanced degrees and professional portfolios, haven’t felt threatened. As had been vouched many times, the fallout overwhelmingly impacted unskilled, poorly educated workers. Up to now, the axiom’s been, “Go to college and make your future!”, a truism no longer valid, given the volatility of today’s workplace.

As Ford astutely observes, “While lower-skill occupations will no doubt continue to be affected, a great many college-educated white-collar workers are going to discover that their jobs, too, are targeted for elimination as software automation and predictive algorithms advance rapidly in capability.”

Jobs even in medicine may go the way of the pick and shovel as radiologists, for example, find themselves outsmarted by robots scanning images in mega seconds. While today’s radiologists are highly skilled technicians requiring up to 13-years post-high school, they’ll fall by the wayside just like Kasparov in a relative few years.

Meanwhile, many lawyers and paralegals, in an already crowded profession, are discovering that software has replaced them. Corporations, formerly engaged in litigation, traditionally dedicated untold hours to turning-up internal documents establishing precedent, which then had to be shared with the opposing side as part of the discovery process. E-discovery software, however, can sift documents including emails, for relevancy in an eye blink.

In the business world, accountants have been moved to the margins. Today, for example, you and I can resort to software to do our own bookkeeping quickly and accurately.

As for taxes, I just insert my TurboTax CD into my computer drive and, bingo, I can get my return out in an hour max, file it electronically, Fed or State, and
pay taxes due or request a refund. Frosting on the cake, just $45 versus the $300 I shelled out last time I visited the local H & R Block.

Planning a career in journalism? Not so fast! Machines can now generate news stories using raw data with tools such as Quill platform. Research and correlation can be performed quickly, helping to eliminate fake news. (https://www.techemergence.com/automated-journalism-applications/)

How do you prepare your kids for such a world? The traditional resort has been getting a college degree, desirably in a STEM area, enhancing employment opportunity and long-term security.

If you think getting a degree in engineering or computer science can save you, think again. The number of graduates in those fields exceeds by 50% the number of jobs currently available, one big reason being the off-shoring of corporate computer needs. Call up Express Scripts as I’ve had to on several occasions recently and you get India.

Shockingly, some 50% of today’s college grads end up in jobs that really don’t call for a college degree. Many can’t find work at all and live at home with Mom and Dad.

Unemployment or under-employment is rampant among today’s college graduates, with up to 50% of students affected. Since fewer job opportunities exist, college graduates are increasingly showing-up in unskilled areas like sales or even fast-food restaurants, replacing non-graduates. All of us know such young people, perhaps even our own.

The one exception to all of this may be in health care, where a substantial need for physicians will exist to serve a growing population, among them the elderly. The problem is that many doctors shun the rural areas or family medicine. Today’s graduates prefer big bucks specialization, given the considerable expense incurred to get their M.D.

At the same time, problems remain in today’s health care industry. Many health job opportunities are in home care, comprising the largest portion of service jobs, replacing manufacturing as today’s leading employment sector. The sad truth is that home care workers currently average a paltry $20,000 a year, though this could change if the several entities comprising the service sector unionized.

Education, which has been largely immune to the newer trends imposed by AI, is undergoing transition, with online courses proliferating, reducing the need for professors and campus costs, etc.

As I write, I’m enrolled in an edX course, a consortium of elite institutions. I can tell you they’re first rate. Mine is from Harvard and for a small fee I can earn a certificate to up my resume. All of this is part of a burgeoning educational movement called MOOCs.

Their pragmatic success ultimately lies in whether employers will ultimately give them regard. They don’t replace degrees.

All of which may be moot. Short on revenue, an increasing number of universities are offering actual online degree programs as a way of increasing revenue, reducing overhead, and just plain keeping their heads above water, something that Ford doesn’t touch upon. If this catches on, America´s campuses will be severely impacted. With fewer students, you´ll have fewer faculty and administrators.

Case in point, I used to supplement my income by teaching courses on Saturdays, morning and afternoons, for twenty-one years at the local community college. When I started, I’d average nearly 30 per class. Then came the web and online courses, making it more convenient for students to study at home and on their own time. By the end of my tenure, I could barely get the ten student minimum. Ultimately, we cancelled afternoon sessions.

For the community college faculty at large, they shortly were opting to teach online classes to replace their own depleted campus courses. This led to replacing a good number of adjunct faculty, some with Ph. Ds like myself and needing these jobs far more than I did. I believe that digitalization of higher education will not only continue, but increase, conceivably becoming the norm.

“Virtually every industry in existence is likely to become less labor-intensive as new technology is assimilated into business models,” Ford writes.

Nationally, it will polarize us into fractious entities of haves and have nots, privileged and resentful. Our last election results mark only the opening round of this polarization and civic strife.

The pot boils over even more when you add the triple threat of global warming, diminished resources, and aging population to downward consumer spending.

How do you compete with robots anyway? They always show up for work, don’t take breaks, vacations or sick leaves, haven’t any need for a paycheck or retirement benefits, don’t unionize, and will work for you twenty-four hours a day without complaint.

Tesla has a new plant in Fremont, CA. 160 robots produce 400 cars a week. Hard to beat!

But there’s a good side to some of this. While low cost, off shore entities have drained our manufacturing sector into virtual extinction, a good many of these jobs are returning to us, simply because AI has sharply curtailed production costs.

For example, textile and apparel exports rose 37% just between 2009 and 2012, amounting to 23 billon (New York Times, 9/20/2013).

Yet what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Increasingly, even these returning jobs don’t need you and me!

Despite our recovery from the 2008 economy bust, most new jobs are low-paying service jobs, replacing millions of middle-class jobs wiped out in the fallout. Many of these jobs are in retail or fast food entities, subject to increasing automation in the future through robotics and self-servicing. Going to a $15 an hour minimum wage only speeds up the process.

Or let’s put it another way. In 1998, the U.S. business sector produced 194 billion hours of total labor. By 2013, the value of the business sector economy, adjusted for inflation, came to $3.5 trillion, or a 42% increase in output. By the same token, just 194 billion hours (the same as in 1998) were required to yield that increase.

In short, no job growth took place in the fifteen subsequent years, despite a 40 million increase in population!

Along these lines, Oxford researchers have projected that approximately 47% of current total employment, i. e., 64 million jobs, will potentially disappear through automation over the next decade or two.

Fewer job opportunities at meaningful wages can only exaggerate class alienation with a plutocracy of the wealthy, lessen consumer spending, and downgrade the quality of family life. Further, it poses a gargantuan challenge to a growing elderly population in a world of accelerating health costs, including for Medicare, along with declines in social security revenues and retirement provisions increasingly subject to corporate and state ransacking to reduce costs.

Ford thinks that in light of these sobering facts, we may need to resort to a basic, or guaranteed income, for everyone. Finland has already begun the experiment.

The money, of course, would have to come via an uprooting of our traditional way of taxation, perhaps much higher taxation of high income. Of course, the recently passed new Republican tax bill moves in the opposite direction in regard to corporate income and the 1% at the top owning most of the wealth. Out of necessity, we may resort to something like a value added tax.

As another way out, several states like California are considering tax measures affecting deep pocketed corporations implementing technology that replaces workers. If they accelerate profits by replacing workers with automation, then that profit residual will be taxed and redistributed to the needy.

Meanwhile, AI continues to advance prodigiously, with Silicon America committed to its imposition—ironically in a race among themselves (i.e., Google, Apple, and Amazon) as to who will get there first and best.

Ford says that AI is likewise proving indispensable to military intelligence and, ominously, to authoritarian regimes bent on controlling dissent through surveillance.

It’s even conceivable that our future, or at least that of the next generation, will feature a leap to AGI, or artificial general intelligence, i. e., computer intelligence dwarfing human intellect, with still further inner directed incremental advances enabling these machines to improve their capabilities, perhaps writing their own software, or implementing evolutional programming to enhance their design in what we might call recursive improvement. Ultimately, these machines would not only be smart, but get ever smarter.

Chillingly, we may be headed for “singularity,” a term borrowed from astrophysics to depict in its new context an artificial intelligence largess replacing humans. In fact, machines and man may even merge, fulfilling many a science fiction scenario.

In 2014, Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking wrote that the advent of AGI in which machines could think on their own “would be the biggest event in human history, machines capable of outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-maneuvering human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand.”

All of this in a world facing the exponential threat of global warming, increasing population, diminished earth resources, declining employment opportunity. Putting off dealing with climate change to meet our immediate needs will eventually serve only to exasperate the human crisis. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are breaking now.

So where do we go from here?

While Ford may give us the sobering details contributing to our demise, he’s wanting on long term solutions, save for looking seriously at a guaranteed base income, which of itself, only adumbrates our dystopian future.

Even here, he doesn’t assess how government at all levels can exact revenue, not only for a guaranteed income, but for other pervasive needs such as refurbishing infrastructure, combatting global warming, maintaining already costly entitlement outlays, etc., from an obviously declining tax base. Imposing high taxation on corporations and individuals can only go so far without potentially harmful reverberations.

We might have options. Take offshoring, for example. Ultimately, even these bastions of virtual immigration, India and China, are likely to face automation. Nevertheless, an estimated 130 million of the smartest of the smartest will remain with the help of AI tools to perform informational tasks for Western firms at reduced cost. That is, unless we take restrictive measures.

The social-political implications of artificial intelligence are staggering. As Arend Hintz, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University comments, “In our current system, automation pushes people out of jobs, making the people who own the machines richer and everyone else poorer.” (Scientific American, July !4, 2017).

Again, it doesn’t suffice to exfoliate on the emerging social displacement via a barrage of stats without exploring preventative measures to offset the monopoly of artificial intelligence by a relative few controlling production to the demise of the many.

In short, can democracy survive in tomorrow’s world?

Then too, experts have shared their plausible anxieties as to potential malevolent applications of this technology, given human history and the misuse of power.

If artificial intelligence is itself a by-product of human induced evolution, can we impute a capacity for the ethical in this machinery destined to replace human cognition? We might then get a level playing field.

Even then, this implies cooperation among all earth’s people, something that would surely be an anomaly when the United Nations hasn’t succeeded in accomplishing this. What could happen is simply, and dreadfully, machines in the image of man warring on one another.

When you come down to it, the problem isn’t really artificial intelligence, but what humans might do with it.

But whatever. If you can bring yourself to read this book without being pummeled into depression, then this book is for you, enlightening as it is sobering.

I suggest you read it twice.
—rj

Does American Sign Language (ASL) Have a Future?

We all have hobbies or special interests. Mine has been studying languages. As a child, it literally became an obsession. I’d buy paperbacks with my meager allowance, seemingly offering a pathway to fluency in German, a language I desperately wanted to learn given my brother’s return from post-war Europe with a German bride.

On one occasion, I made the long trudge, several miles, to the voluminous Philadelphia Library on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, checking out several books in Russian. When I got home, I must have somehow fantasized that this new tongue in Cyrillic would instantly dissolve into comprehension. No such luck!

In subsequent years, I pursued some thirteen languages more or less, but several very seriously. I took Latin, French, and German in high school; had to read Beowulf in Old English as part of my Ph. D., took language courses in France and Mexico, and traveled much of the world.

For all this, I still don’t speak any of these languages with any fluency, not because they’re difficult, or I lack discipline, or due to inadequate exposure, but simply because I don’t hear well, never really have, and it’s gotten worse, forcing me to resort to hearing aids a decade ago.

Only recently did I figure things out why I wasn’t mastering these languages orally. Years ago, a colleague, who was a professional speech therapist, gave me a hearing test. It showed significant hearing loss.

Sometimes this happens to a great many of us as part of the aging process, but it happened to me a lot earlier. I know genetics can play a role and that my mother became totally deaf later in life.

If I underwent an illness of some sort when I was little, I don’t have any family members around to tell me.

It’s not fun being hearing impaired, which makes me aware, compassionately so, of the lot of those born that way.

As is, my tendency to not hear, mishear, and sometimes invent can border on the edge of absurdity, softened on occasion by the confused, tolerant silence of my listeners, mostly my long-suffering spouse who, like other females, save maybe for a low voiced Lauren Bacall, I cannot comprehend in their high pitch lanes.

Writing in The New York Review of Books (December 7, 2017), Jerome Groopman spells out my dilemma, as well as for many others with diminished hearing:

Several years ago, I noticed difficulty hearing: testing showed diminished perception of high frequencies, a common consequence of aging. Hearing aids were prescribed, which helped to amplify sounds but weren’t a complete remedy. Background noise in restaurants made it difficult to discern the conversation of dinner partners, and I often missed muttered dialog in movies. Most vexing was what Oliver Sacks termed  “mishearing”—I thought I heard certain words, but they were distortions of what was actually said, and my response corresponded to the distortions. For example, recently a scientific colleague told me he was going to a conference in Milan. I heard “Iran” and replied that he was sure to be harassed at US Customs given Trump’s travel ban. He looked confused.  “Since when is Italy on the list?” 

My hearing has gotten so bad that I recently explored getting a cochlear implant, but then surprised the university staff, including my otolaryngologist, when tested with a hearing aid in separate ears, I scored 93 in the left ear; 89 in the really bad ear. I thought maybe I’d somehow outwitted the test, but they told me they’d recently toughed it up. My accompanying MRI brain scan showed no evidence of any tumor.

In a Mexican restaurant a short time later with my wife, the same damn problem, a tsunami of background noise drowning out any semblance of meaningful conversation.

Recently, I’ve been combing the Web to find available ASL classes, either on site, or online, feeling that a deadline is nearing when I’ll not hear anything at all. Sign language works for the deaf. Maybe it can work for me.

But American Sign Language, what’s taught in North American, can be a formidable challenge in itself, requiring lots of practice and finger dexterity. You also need a partner, so my wife would also need to learn it.

I didn’t know until Gerald Shea’s recent insightful book, The Sounds of Silence, that Sign Language, that nearly universal fixture of communication among the deaf, or so I thought, faces its own imminent demise, given the rise of cochlear implants and the increasing dominance of the oral approach, which seeks to encourage the deaf to acquire spoken language. I think this is wrong and a revival of a sort of the historical cruelties imposed upon the deaf in past eras, sometimes torture.

Until Shea’s book, I hadn’t any knowledge of these cruelties. The Byzantine Justinian Code, for example, disallowed the deaf from inheriting property.

Thirteenth-century bishop Guilaume Durand de Mende believed the deaf were unwilling to hear the word of God.

At times, the deaf were tortured, with hot coals pushed into their throats to force them to speak, or catheters twisted into the nasal cavity and shoved down into the Eustachian tubes, or burning liquids poured into drilled holes in the skull.

Sign language began in earnest in mid-18th century France with a priest, Michel de l’Épée who believed that seeing could replace hearing in learning concepts.

In the early 19th century, Roche-Ambroise Auguste Bébian, who had normal hearing, mastered French Sign Language and did much to emancipate the deaf.

Bébian’s methodology spread to America, and the American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford in 1817, arousing disdain from oralists from the very beginning, who associated sign language with primitive people.  Oralists believe that the deaf can learn to hear and speak.

Unfortunately, I only recently learned that oralists have won the debate, as only a minority of the deaf learn sign language today. With the exception of Gallaudet University, the vast majority are mainstreamed, with classroom interpreters employing coded systems.

Additionally, cochlear implants have abetted the oralist approach, with 80% of those born deaf now fitted in the West with these devices. Implants, unlike the hearing aids I use, which merely amplify sounds, transmit sounds directly to the auditory nerve. In the U. S., cochlear implants is a $5 billion annual industry.

Research indicates cochlear implants, while beneficial to those with impaired hearing, are substantially less so for those born deaf.   Those favoring the implants, however, have predicted that within a few decades, signing will be gone.

Shea argues that cochlear implants are measured in labs, which don’t mirror life in the outside world. A British test found that children fitted with the devices were no more educationally advanced than those with hearing aids. Likewise, a University of Toronto study found that children fitted with cochlear implants didn’t fare any better than children with hearing aids. And with both, background noise made things worse.

The sad truth, as a French study shows, few children fitted with the cochlear develop “intelligible” speech. As those children grow older, they frequently resort to sign language, avoiding the strain to hear with the devices.  Sign language, on the other hand, affords them both fluency and dignity.

As Shea concludes, depriving an individual of his or her language denigrates their identity.

—rj

Live Longer Now

Bodybuilder Ernestine Shepard, 78
Bodybuilder Ernestine Shepard, 78

It’s funny how your mind takes vast jumps, transcending time and space, hurling you into the past or thrusting you into the future. It’s happening to me now.

I remember sitting in my sixth grade class in Florida, fascinated with my teacher’s story of Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth, motivating him to travel to a new place, which he called Florida.

I think we’re all Ponce de Leons in quest of perpetual youth. We fear ending, the withering of our youth with its exuberance and beauty; the diminishing of resolve motivated by idealism, born of innocence; the advent of entropy and the descent into morbidities presaging that eternal sleep.

We evade our mortality in many guises, obsessing about film icons who seem to have the best of good looks and agelessness.

Advertisers grow rich, pedaling snake oils to mummify us from time’s erosion.

Religion offers consolation; materialism, avoidance; power, the illusion of mastery.

Mortality is the underlying cadence of the arts, arresting time’s flow in capturing the moment’s essence. Think Keats’ Endymion: “A Thing of beauty is a joy forever/Its loveliness increases;/it will never pass into nothingness….”

Medical science isn’t any less pervaded by its own Ponce de Leon quests into unlocking the mysteries of aging, harnessing our genetic codes, refining the regimens of diet and exercise.

A good number of scientists are busy at work, confident that they’ll ultimately win the day. There is Silicon Valley’s California life Company (Calico) for example, determined and well-funded, zealously hiring the foremost scientists on what it deems a moral mission to vastly beat back aging and pre-empt physical demise.

And there are other start-ups, too, like Venter with its ambitious plan to augment Calico’s efforts by creating a gargantuan database of one million human genomes by 2020.

Unfortunately, the landscape of new technologies is littered with bad case scenarios of Frankenstein prototypes unleashing their new horrors on humanity.

I’ve been reading this wonderful book, The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young, an immensely learned Buddhist monk who has made it his mission to reconcile the best of Asian mindfulness practice with contemporary neuroscience.

I happened to come across this passage that set this present blog in motion on how we needn’t concern ourselves with whether science succeeds in its endeavors of extending longevity. We can have it now:

Now imagine that you will live just a normal number of years, but that your experience of each moment will be twice as full as it currently is; that is, the scale at which you live each moment will be doubled. If you only lived each moment twice as fully as the ordinary person lives it, that would be the equivalent of one hundred twenty years of richesse. Not a bad deal.

Hey, I’ll buy into that. I’m 76 and well aware of the math underpinning insurance actuaries. I’m lucky to have gotten this far, and with reasonable health, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me overly if my demise had been at 60.

I’ve lived my life up to the brim with world travel, including third world countries, conversing and making friends; gone from a Philly street urchin, raised by an alcoholic father,  to a professor of English, privileged to share the beauty and wisdom of literature with several thousand students who’ve enriched my life and, I trust, theirs.

I’ve filled my life with passions that have anchored my happiness–a love for reading, nature, languages and writing.

I wake each day, plotting new ventures. As the remarkable Hellen Keller wonderfully put it, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”

Not least, there’s been Karen, who entered my life some twenty-five years ago, balancing my introversion with her openness and steady optimism, igniting new vistas with her refusal to foreclose on possibility and stunning ability to rebound from life’s vicissitudes.

Hopefully, the best part of all of this transcends Self in its yield of an encompassing empathy that’s taught me how connected we are to each other and the absolute that we love one another.

For Shinzen Young, longevity is best measured experientially, not chronologically, when we live mindfully in the present. “Meditation is the key to this kind of non-mythical life extension,” he writes. “By developing an extraordinary degree of focus and presence, it allows you to live your life two or three hundred percent ‘bigger.'”

I couldn’t agree more.
–rj

Apple vs. the FBI: How Money May Decide the Issue

thThings are really heating up these days in the ongoing dispute between Apple and the FBI.

In December, fourteen people were killed by ISIL sympathizers Farook Malik and his wife Taskeen, in San Bernardino, CA.   In the aftermath, the FBI has been investigating the possibility they may have had accomplices. Backed by a court order, the FBI has requested Apple remove the security blocks on Farook’s iPhone.

CEO Tim Cook, speaking for Apple, refuses to comply, contending it would compromise the privacy of its smartphone users.

I’m not taking sides on the controversy here.  The issue is as heated as it is complicated, with the country divided in its opinion and perhaps SCOTUS inevitably having to make the call.

What does concern me is Apple’s new strategy to move the matter to the Congress for adjudication. (Hearings begin next Tuesday.)

Fact is, the Congress is hardly the right party to decide the issue, given the systemic corruption fostered by business conglomerates soliciting favors through huge sums of money donated to its members.

We see this, for example, with regard to the National Rifle Association (NRA), successfully preempting responsible gun legislation, despite myriad mass shootings like those in San Bernardino,.

In 2014, NRA contributions to members of Congress amounted to $984,152 with an additional $3,360,000 for lobbying.

What really fries my brain is that it spent a whopping $28, 212,718 in outside spending!

Apple, as such, is being disingenuous in attempting to shift the scenario to the Congress, having demonstrated a lengthy penchant, like its fellow high tech icons, in substantially contributing to the Congressional feedbag, their mission to deter any regulatory legislation that would rein them in. In other words, a good many Congressional members owe them favors and now’s an opportune time to collect and circumvent the courts.

Since 1990, Apple has contributed $1,902,870 and spent $27,083,008 on lobbying.

Bernie Sanders was right when he denounced PAC money contributions as undermining our democratic franchise: “People aren’t dumb.” These donors don’t give willy-nilly, but expect something in return.

On the other hand, even Bernie has had his hand in the till, ranking second among senators in receiving money from Apple and its employees.

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Now let’s see how the system filters out elsewhere. The most prominent Democrat opposing Apple on the issue is Diane Feinstein.   Guess what? You’ll find her absent from the list of top recipients of money from Apple and its allies that include Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.  These conglomerates are not about to waste their money on those opposing their interests.

In third world countries, we’d call it bribery.

In the U. S.  Congress, many are willing to take the bribe.

–rj

Bibliography:

OpenSecrets.org

IVN

 

 

 

 

Expanding the energy portfolio: Utilities awaken

coalEvery month our local power cooperstive, Blue Grass Energy, sends us its superbly put together magazine, Kentucky Living, filled with helpful tips on home maintenance, gardening, recipes, recommended books, regional activities, events, etc.

With all its feel good staples, it’s easy to lose sight of its primary purpose as a public relations gimmick to elicit the public’s support. Your power company is on your side, helping you enjoy the good life, offering some of the lowest energy costs in the nation, largely through the state’s substantial coal reserves.

Its editorials, however, consistently make clear that this good life is under a black cloud via the EPA’s increasingly heavy hand, encouraged by Obama’s executive decisions restricting power plant emissions at heavy local cost and marginalization of its coal resources. In its use of coal as their primary energy source, states like Kentucky, not wealthy by any yardstick, will bear a larger cost burden than other states, which they simply can’t afford, the utilities say.

Tuesday is election day and according to the latest polls, Mitch McConnell. is poised to be reelected to yet another term and possibly become senate majority leader, meaning still more congressional gridlock.

Mitch says, “I strongly oppose the EPA’s efforts to shut down Kentucky’s coal industry. I will fight to ensure the future of existing coal-fired power plants.”

He has announced that one his priorities will be to defund the EPA.

His main opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, touted as the Democrats’ best shot at ending McConnell’s perennial reign, has simply been a mirror to McConnell on coal issues and climate change. She has even resorted to ludicrously painting McConnell as unfriendly to the state’s coal industry, including miners, even though they’ve repeatedly come to his defense.

As for Libertarian candidate, David Patterson, he tells us that “CO2 is not a pollutant in the quantities seen today.”

Fortunately, aside from the usual debacle of politics, Kentucky utilities are starting to get the message, with movement underway to harvest clean, alternative technologies. The East Kentucky Power Cooperative, for example (which affects our household) has invested $1.7 billion to help clean-up carbon emissions at its coal-fired power plants.

With the hand-writing on the wall, Kentucky’s utilities are pursuing a diverse energy grid, including not only natural gas, but solar, wind, hydro and landfill gas.

All of this will impose increased costs, but the alternative in the context of the exponential menace of climate change makes these efforts of acquiring a diverse energy portfolio least costly in the long term.

–rj

 

 

 

 

Internet Ghouls Among Us: The Robin Williams Aftermath

williamsI haven’t any doubt that the vast majority of us mourn the tragic death of Robin Williams, who brought laughter into our hearts and with it, wisdom too. And yet there are always a few, the ghouls  I call them, who surface in such tragedies to verbally vandalize our grief with mindless, and often, acerbic commentary.

Recently a bicyclist was killed here in Lexington KY by a speeding motorist, only to have one Facebook reader comment that bicyclists shouldn’t be on the streets. Pray then, where should they ride? On sidewalks?

But it gets worse than such obvious, and silly, over-generalization. We’ve all come across those who practice a calculated meanness in exploiting social media for personal whim. These ghouls cannot tolerate an opinion different from their own, particularly when it comes to religion or politics, subjects notorious for generating heat.

But ghouls also show up in Amazon book reviews, for instance, or even in discussion forums that, more often than not, are dominated by one perspective. Cross the line, and you get personal attack rather than reasoned argument. I saw this recently in a forum perusing the effectiveness of a low carb vs low fat diet. When one reader contended graciously for the low fat approach the forum became a piling on of verbal abuse. I dub this the cascading effect, or the tendency of one negative comment to generate others.

But returning to Robin Williams, his daughter Zelda has just closed her Twitter account. She had been receiving photo shop images of her father’s body along with obscene commentary.

What transforms otherwise ordinary folks we rub elbows with everyday into Internet ghouls?

It goes back to anonymity, or the disconnect effect. When we lose face-to-face contact replete with body language and verbal cues of tone, we drift perilously close to abandoning the etiquette of meaningful communication in losing connection with our readers. Mental short cuts take over and we say dumb things.  We forfeit empathy.

But in all fairness, the disconnect effect isn’t confined to the Internet. I have known this first hand as a English teacher at the college level. It’s the writing act itself that submits us to this danger, whether an email, a letter, or an opinion piece in a newspaper. Accordingly, the fundamental axiom of all effective communication, written or oral, is maintaining awareness of one’s audience, which should spill over into our selecting our words carefully, monitoring our tone, shaping our transitions, being open to a reader’s perspective. Mindfulness is the seasoning of all effective communication.

And yet my counsel hardly proves sufficient to hold off the myriad ghouls who troll the Internet, unleashing their venom abetted by anonymity, or what Stephen King once aptly called “the alligators resident within human nature.” Frustrated with their own lives, envious of others, low in self-esteem, they seek to empower themselves by verbally dismembering others

While the social media can be invaluable in consolidating humanity for good ends, by its very nature, it is not without risk, so best be careful where you tread and cautious in what you reveal about yourself.

The vast majority of Internet users are motivated with good intent; but it takes just a few to spoil things for the many.

–rj

Reminiscence: And I could wish it were 1949 again

The other day, I had a solicitation in the mail from a magazine called Reminiscence. Apparently, a lot of folks like to engage in nostalgia. I confess I occasionally do the same, though I’m aware of how time can soften the contours of the past.

Lit Brothers
Lit Brothers

Still, I like to muse on past events that were really quite wonderful and that I wish I could relive again. After all, why are we given memory if we’re simply meant to forget? If I had to pick a year in which to indulge, it would be 1949. It was a good year for me and for America, too.

 

Collectively, it was a simpler time, relatively free from the frenetic pace, complexity and stress of today.

To be sure, segregation was still a factor in denying Blacks their portion of the American dream and women were still largely subservient to men. China had just fallen to the Communists. At the Kremlin, Stalin ruled with an iron fist and Russia had just tested the A-bomb. The Cold War was on in earnest and so we resorted to an ongoing airlift to save Berlin.

Nonetheless, we had a decisive president in Harry S. Truman, who never skirted making the hard choices like dropping the A-bomb to shorten a savage war or later dismissing a popular, but unruly general. In short, we felt safe.

Four years after World War II, we were at peace, with no protracted conflicts like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We weren’t saddled with mind-boggling national debt, Congressional deadlock, inflationary pressures, the loss of our manufacturing base, or economic recession.

There weren’t any urban riots, decaying cities, or the threat of climate change that imperils our existence. We could never have imagined a 9/11 or the pervasiveness of terrorism.

Here are a few economic facts that put things into perspective about 1949:

Unemployment stood at just 3.8%.

Inflation, a mind-boggling 0.95%.

You could buy a house for an average $7500.

A car for $1400.

Gas, 17 cents for regular.

Let’s put it another way: $100 in 1949 now comes to $967.01 in 2014, with an average 3.5 inflation rate annually since that remarkable year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Most items were still made here in America, including TVs and cars. Cars had turned into long finned gargantuans replete with white wall tires and, with pent up demand, we couldn’t make them fast enough.

We were kings in forging steel and cities like Akron, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem and Lehigh lit up the night sky.

In New England, the textile mills of Lawrence, Lowell and North Adams hummed on.

We were good at making shoes and my father toiled in a neighborhood leather factory.

I was then a street urchin, much like Tom Sawyer, exploring the thoroughfares of Philadelphia, curious and, sometimes, mischievous. Occasionally, I played hooky, skipping school to walk downtown and visually rummage the big, many floor stores like Gimbels, Lit Brothers and Wanamaker’s, bustling with goods and replete with escalator stairs.

Yes, American cities once possessed vibrant downtowns that provided cohesion before the onset of suburban box stores and strip malls. Downtown was the place to be–shopping, movies, eateries.

Baseball was truly our national game, with many of the contests played in the afternoons. It was the era of greats like Williams, DiMaggio, and Musial. They hadn’t lowered the mound to boost hitters. No free agency meant modest salaries. Stadiums were named for people, not corporations or banks. Franchises didn’t move. Players didn’t cheat with drugs. Sundays and holidays meant doubleheaders. What a deal!

We didn’t have playgrounds in Kensington, the ethnic blue collar stronghold, dubbed Fishtown, where I lived near the Delaware River, but that didn’t stop us from playing stick ball, smashing cut-in-half tennis balls against factory facades. You determined singles, doubles, triples and home runs by window level.

I liked venturing down to the wharves, where I could see the cargo ships unloading, waive to their crews, and study their flags to learn their origin. It was here I developed my addiction to visit far off lands.

TVs initially with 4 inch screens, were now selling madly, or at the rate of 100,000 weekly, sadly hinting at foreclosure of neighborhood enclaves where we’d gather nightly on the white marble steps of our row housing, chatting our humanity until late evening breezes whispered their coolness and launched our escape from the steamy heat of asphalt streets and we could at last renew ourselves with sleep. We never dreamed of air conditioning, though a good many of us lived in upstair flats.

Despite TV’s inroads, radio still loomed large with shows like The Shadow, Jack Benny, Suspense and the Lone Ranger. Daytime–Arthur Godfrey was all the rage.

As for TV, showslike Mama, Texaco Theater, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Life of Riley were our staples. At most, you’d be lucky to have three channels, and after the 11 pm news, stations would shut down, sometimes to the National Anthem. They gave you a test pattern to help you get your “rabbit-ear” antennas right.

The music revolution hadn’t begun. No Elvis Presley. No Beatles. No Rock n’ Roll. No heavy metal or hip hop. We had Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Not knowing anything else, we were content.

Lyrics still rhymed, making them easy to remember. No CDs. Just vinyl records that could scratch easily, but the risk worth the sound!

Sinatra and Crosby reigned along with new stars like Rosemary Clooney, Frankie Laine, the Ames Brothers, and Dinah Shore. And then there was the handsome Mario Lanza, whose baritone thunder captured women’s hearts.

In 1949, you could escape Philly’s summer heat with a day movie for only a dime or a quarter at night, and even get in on a double header that included the world news and Disney cartoons. Bogart, Gable, Wayne, Cooper, Grant–and, yes,–Bob Hope (number one) were the big draws. On Saturday afternoons, a special treat with serial showings of Superman!

Despite technicolor and Gone with the Wind, color was rare.

Comedy was big and I laughed till my sides hurt at the likes of the three stooges, and Abbott and Costello. And then there were those shoot ’em up Westerns with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, adept in singing prowess as well as gun savvy. Why we even got to know their horses, Trigger and Champion, unlike the plods of other Westerns apart from the Lone Ranger’s Silver.

Telephones weren’t in abundance, so sometimes we resorted to a neighbor’s phone or a telephone booth to make a call. To call long distance could be expensive, even intimidating, and thus rare. Nice, however to be out of reach. Or on the streets, free of distracted drivers.

Magazines, often pictorial, like Look, Life, and Saturday Evening Post, caught your eye and provided quick reads. And they cost cents, not dollars.

Yes, many doctors still made house calls and health costs were reasonable.

We didn’t have Interstates then. That would come with Eisenhower’s mandate. Main highways were mostly two lanes giving way occasionally to a third lane for passing. Crossing the Ben Franklin for the Jersey shore and fresh fruit took you through spacious countryside with luxuriant tomato farms. Mom and Pop cabins–no motel chains–offered accommodation for $3 a night.

There were only 150 million of us then and even California had ample elbow room. Worldwide, just under 2 billion people, meaning more manageable resources, less poverty, and a cleaner environment.

More of us began to fly–on noisy propeller contraptions that is. Passenger ships still plied the ocean like their ancient predecessors.

What I really liked were the trains and, especially, the sleek new diesel locomotives. Train stations were busy, exciting places, filled with shops, much the way it still is in Europe.

On a sadder note, I miss my once teeming family–my mother and father, brother, oodles of cousins, dear aunts and uncles, and childhood friends, in 1949, luxuriating in life’s bloom. As life stretches out, we mourn our losses as well as count our gains. We learn to appreciate what we cannot keep. I am glad for memory.

I could go on, but you get the picture, or at least my view of 1949–like a fine wine, a year of superbly good vintage. A time of innocence and simplicity, where less proved more, and thus possessed its own indulgent beauty.

But we can’t be Rip Van Winkles either. Time moves on, and we with it.

–rj

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