Books in General

Read a book — it could save your sanity

5 June 2018

From Melville House:

In 2017, there were reportedly more than 50 million people struggle with dementia worldwide. A shocking number, and one said to double every twenty years. Any doctor will recommend that you keep on top of your physical health — eat right, exercise, get enough sleep. But how often do we take stock of our mental health?

A new study, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the latest in a number of studies exploring how “intellectual activities”—such as, ahem, reading books, newspapers, and magazines—can decrease a person’s chances of developing dementia. Using a sample size of 15,582 Hong Kongers sixty-five and older, the researchers tracked daily activities for five years to investigate whether regular activation of the intellect can reduce risk independent of other lifestyle practices.

. . . .

The conclusion is straightforward: “Active participation in intellectual activities, even in late life, might help delay or prevent dementia in older adults.”

Link to the rest at Melville House

PG reads a great deal, so he hopes the study is valid.

However, he wonders about correlation/causation issues. In his non-expert view, the  early stages of dementia could reduce the active participation in intellectual activities by sufferers of the condition.

Erratic Posts

31 May 2018

PG’s daily schedule will be a bit unpredictable for the next couple of days.

Nothing bad has happened, but posts on TPV will appear at different times than usual.

Lost in Robo-Translation

30 May 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

A few days before I left for a trip to Japan with my husband, I signed up to rent a translation device called Pocketalk. According to a press release from January, when the device debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Pocketalk “learns as you go, fits in your pocket, and allows for customers to speak in full conversations, not just statements.” (It begins shipping to the United States this month.)

I was looking forward to friendly, meaningful interactions like the one in the Pocketalk promotional video, in which an American man and a girl who is, one assumes, his daughter are window-shopping at a bakery, or maybe a candy store, and are mystified by the goods in the window. The shopkeeper—an older Japanese woman in an apron—appears. “Why is that green?” the girl says, speaking into the small handheld device that is the size and shape of a well-used bar of soap and pointing at something that looks like a small bunch of grapes or verdant donut holes on a stick. Almost immediately, the machine broadcasts a string of Japanese words.

On hearing this, the shopkeeper smiles broadly. She understands! The girl and her father smile back. They understand that she understands! The shopkeeper takes the Pocketalk from the girl and speaks into it in Japanese. “Because they are made with herbs,” we hear the machine say after a bit, and everyone nods as if this makes perfect sense.

. . . .

[T]he Japanese government . . . has been pouring billions of yen into the development of artificial intelligence-based translation apps and gadgets in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics, hoping they will encourage tourism. “The [internal affairs] ministry wants to provide real-time machine translation services… to help visitors who may feel hesitant about coming to Japan because of the language barrier,” I read in the Japan Times.

. . . .

I picked up my Pocketalk at the same kiosk in the Narita airport where I was renting a wifi hotspot. I needed the hotspot to use the machine, which relies on an Internet connection to access the databases where artificial intelligence sorts through millions of common words and phrases, looking for ones that best match the ones I spoke into it. It uses those matches to translate what I, or my Japanese counterpart, are saying. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, as anyone who has used Google Translate knows…

“All bets are off,” I said to my phone using the VoiceTra app when I was still in the US, and asked it to translate my words into Japanese, which it did. But when I checked what the app said I’d said—VoiceTra has a useful reverse translation feature—it wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was a single word: “Sure.” So, all bets were off, though I was still hopeful that a dedicated translation device would do better than an app on my phone.

. . . .

Finally, as I was walking through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo one morning, I saw a woman and an Akita standing beside a poster that seemed to indicate that the dog did some kind of therapy work. I was too curious not to stop. I turned on the Pocketalk and said, “Beautiful dog.” I wanted to ask if I could pet the dog, but the device hadn’t yet translated “beautiful dog,” and I didn’t want to confuse it. “We have to speak to the machine concisely and targeting the microphone precisely,” Eiichiro Sumita had cautioned me in his email. “If you don’t do that, the speech recognizer takes a long time and returns erroneous results and translator generates crazy sentences.” Eventually, “beautiful dog”—or possibly something else—came out of the device in Japanese, so I tried to pass the Pocketalk to the woman just as in the promo video. She looked at it, and me, skeptically, and did not take it. She did say something, though it was probably not, as the Pocketalk announced, “special king dog.” 

One reason Japanese is a difficult language to translate, Sumita told me, is that “people often omit subjects because Japanese people understand each other without mentioning subjects.” In this case, I think we were both clear that the subject was the dog, which sat there patiently and unconcerned. No doubt, it was well-acquainted with the problems of translation. As I turned to leave, a woman standing nearby spoke up. “This is a specially-trained hearing-aid dog,” she said in perfect, British-inflected English. “They are here to raise public awareness.” I thanked her and put the Pocketalk away. It was days before I took it out again.

“Why are you wearing a rubber Donald Trump mask?” I asked a Japanese man two rows behind me at an amphitheater in Kyoto.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

More information about the Pocketalk is here, where one sub-head says, “Expericence true communication” .

Bill’s in Trouble

29 May 2018

I’ve got a letter, parson, from my son away out West,
An’ my ol’ heart is heavy as an anvil in my breast,
To think the boy whose future I had once so proudly planned
Should wander from the path of right an’ come to such an end!
I told him when he left his home, not three short years ago,
He’d find himself a plowin’ in a mighty crooked row—
He’d miss his father’s counsel, an’ his mother’s prayers, too;
But he said the farm was hateful, an’ he guessed he’d have to go.

I know thar’s big temptation for a youngster in the West,
But I believed our Billy had the courage to resist,
An’ when he left I warned him o’ the ever waitin’ snares
That lie like hidden sarpints in life’s pathway everywheres.
But Bill he promised faithful to be keerful, an’ allowed
He’d build a reputation that’d make us mighty proud;
But it seems as how my counsel sort o’ faded from his mind,
An’ now the boy’s in trouble o’ the very wustest kind!

His letters came so seldom that I somehow sort o’ knowed
That Billy was a trampling on a mighty rocky road,
But never once imagined he would bow my head in shame,
An’ in the dust’d waller his ol’ daddy’s honored name.
He writes from out in Denver, an’ the story’s mighty short;
I just can’t tell his mother, it’ll crush her poor ol’ heart!
An’ so I reckoned, parson, you might break the news to her—
Bill’s in the legislatur’, but he doesn’t say what fur.

by James Barton Adams (1843-1918)

The Last Cowboys

29 May 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

 In 1983, country singer George Strait scored a major hit with a cover of the modern ballad “Amarillo by Morning.” The lyrics describe life on the rodeo circuit: overnight drives to the next stop, bones broken by falls from the saddle and relationships fractured by distance. But the song ends on an upbeat note, with the singer crooning, “I ain’t got a dime but what I got is mine; / I ain’t rich, but Lord I’m free.” A tidy encapsulation of 150 years of cowboy mythology, “Amarillo by Morning” celebrates the lone man on horseback: rugged, noble and self-reliant. John Branch’s new book, “The Last Cowboys,” chronicles this world of the modern rodeo cowboy, with all the travails imparted by Mr. Strait and others. But Mr. Branch shows, too, that the ranching life glorified by the sport is full of hard work, and—in the early 21st century—even harder choices.

. . . .

“The Last Cowboys” focuses on the Wrights of southwestern Utah, who run some 200 head of cattle on land that has been in the family of patriarch Bill Wright for over 150 years. Bill’s great-great grandparents came from England as part of the Mormon migration, and in 1862 moved south from Salt Lake City to the rugged country that abuts what is now the west side of Zion National Park. Bill and his wife, Evelyn, have 13 children, and their oldest son, Cody—whose story forms the loose spine of the book—is a two-time world champion saddle bronc rider. For the uninitiated, Mr. Branch describes Cody’s event as “an eight-second partnership of choreography in which the bronc was an angry participant. The rider’s lower legs were supposed to cock back as the horse bucked into the air and snap forward just as the bronc landed on its front hooves.”

Cody, who is nearing 40, has made millions in endorsements and winnings (success at a single rodeo can net a professional rider tens of thousands of dollars). And yet, as Mr. Branch explains, just as important to Cody is the family tradition he has established. Several of his brothers, a brother-in-law and two of his teenage sons (described by Mr. Branch as “miniature versions of Cody, like unnested cowboy dolls”) are leading riders on the circuit, all aiming for the same goal: to win enough money during the season to qualify for the National Rodeo Finals, held every December in Las Vegas. The younger men ape Cody’s mannerisms and ask for the notes he has compiled on all the broncs he has ridden in competition, with particular interest in how much rein to give. “Too little,” Mr. Branch writes, “and a drop of the horse’s head might pull the rider over. Too much, and the rider exited off the back or got jerked to the side.” The Wrights boast a dynasty unlike any other in individual pro sports.

. . . .

Seemingly every small town in the West hosts a rodeo, and pro riders spend as many as 200 nights a year away from home, crisscrossing desolate highways in the wee hours, sleeping in parking lots or rest stops, and subsisting on fast food. In just one week during “Cowboy Christmas,” a string of July rodeo events, the Wrights log 4,300 miles spread across 70 hours of driving. All of that puts strain on personal relationships, but the toll on the riders’ bodies is medieval, featuring a litany of shattered bones—mostly arms, legs, wrists and clavicles. One family member even keeps a piece of his fractured tailbone in a jar, as a memento.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

.

 

The Missing Music of the Left

29 May 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

In 1962, my Harvard social science teacher, Michael Walzer, mentioned in passing, in the run-up to a classroom discussion about the preconditions of the Nazi ascendancy, that one reason the 1918–1919 German revolution—a short-lived sequel to the collapse of the Kaiser’s regime—was doomed was that it did not have a song. Though he recently told me that he doesn’t remember uttering these words, they have stayed with me. I take him to have been referring not to a specifically musical deficiency, but to a more sweeping cultural one—the absence of an animating spirit that crosses boundaries with panache. Such a spirit may be the Holy Grail that idealists seek.

To speak of literal music for a moment more, it has been a very long time since insurgents worldwide shared a moral equivalent of “The Internationale,” the anthem adopted by the (second) Socialist International in the late nineteenth century and subject to the contesting claims of socialists and communists ever since. International solidarity and the putative brotherhood of workers crashed and burned in 1914, when the German Social Democrats voted war credits to the Kaiser so that Germany could slaughter its ostensible class allies, and left-wing parties across Europe split over whether to support their respective nation-state or oppose an “imperialist war.”

In 1917, Lenin’s Bolshevik heresy was able to capitalize on antiwar sentiment in Russia to seize power. A few years later, the Soviet Union was promoting a version of “internationalism” that conveniently withered into a defense of the Kremlin’s foreign policy interests of the moment. As Vaclav Havel wrote in his great 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” universalist slogans like “Workers of the world, unite!” shriveled into loyalty cheers lacking any concrete meaning.

All these years later, the left is still tuneless. Missing from social democracy is a galvanizing cross-border spirit, a sense of historical destiny, and yes, a literal song. In the twenty-first century, attachment to the identity tribe is fiercer, more binding, than any attachment to a common purpose. Today’s most prominent left-wing chant, “The people united will never be defeated,” is a tautology. When it originated, in Allende-era Chile, it meant something topical. Today, it is strictly sentimental. Trump supporters could cheerfully sign on to their version of what it means to be “the people united”—designating immigrants and Muslims, not the bourgeoisie, as the excludables.

. . . .

Michnik mentions two themes: globalization (“which dealt a blow to national identities and other forms of identity”) and cacophony (“a flood of information and an ordinary person cannot differentiate between truth and lies”). For me, that word cacophony is of the essence: it took his insight beyond what others, too, have noted about disinformation and today’s post-truth regime, and back to Walzer’s remark in 1962. If there were to be a global spirit to override nationalisms and tribal allegiances, what would constitute a consensus on the musical program?

As for globalization, it not only chews up national identities, it also sets national passions against national passions. Where there is no all-embracing song book, what chance does reason have to enfold people into a common project that takes rationality and solidarity seriously? The mass distribution of disinformation strikes blow after blow against the elemental reason that must undergird the formation of common purposes.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Peace in Our Time

28 May 2018

Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color

26 May 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment,” Monet once lamented, while Georgia O’Keeffe noted, “I found I could say things with colors that I couldn’t say in any other way—things that I had no words for.” Decades later, Steve Jobs sounded a different note, saying, regarding Apple’s candy-colored iMacs, “For most consumers, color is more important than megahertz, gigabytes, and other gibberish associated with buying a typical PC.”

Such is the poetry and the power of color. Color pervades our lives, and yet we probably think little about its many facets, which also include theory, history, utility and mystery.

. . . .

All of those aspects are on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in “Saturated: The Allure and Science of Color,” which explores how we perceive and use color. As visitors climb a staircase to the exhibit—which is drawn from printed materials that belong to the Smithsonian Libraries and design objects that belong to the Cooper Hewitt—they should grasp with a glance the first principle, that color is simply light in different wave lengths, via “Peony” (2014), designed by Karel Martens. As light cast by the chandelier above changes shades, so too does the appearance of this wall hanging, with colors shifting in intensity. Digitally printed, “Peony” consists of thousands of multicolored pixels, imprinted with differing designs and arranged by an algorithm to form the flower.

“Saturated” then takes visitors through “seven phases of color”—a reference to the seven hues Aristotle cited in his color spectrum in the fourth century B.C.

. . . .

Color’s mysterious properties, like iridescence, fluorescence and optical illusions, are still being explored and exploited. As Josef Albers wrote in his seminal book, “Interaction of Color” (1963)—a copy of which is on view—“In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.” The exhibition offers such examples as a Tiffany Peacock Vase (c. 1901) and a 19th-century Indian fabric woven with beetle wing casings for iridescence, as well as 21st-century Nike running shoes in fluorescent green.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Indie authors are confronted by color decisions when they choose covers for their books. Most of those covers will, of course, be viewed through a computer monitor against the white background of Amazon.

Here’s a photo PG took a few weeks ago that he enjoyed for its quiet colors.

Condemn the Writer, Not the Writing

25 May 2018

From The National Review:

Recent allegations of sexist misconduct against author Junot Díaz have reignited an old debate: Should we engage the work of artists whose personal conduct or belief systems are reprehensible? At the Washington Post, Sandra Beasly has weighed in on this question; she wonders whether she should “continue to teach the work of people we now suspect of behaving unethically or abusively.” Her answer to the question is nuanced, so I won’t attempt a brief and therefore unsatisfactory summary.

My response, though, is an unequivocal yes: We should read the books of flawed writers who produce great art.

. . . .

Between artists and the art they produce should be erected a large and nearly impenetrable wall. An author’s personal misconduct should not distract us from questions of literary merit — and neither should the sorts of obscenities that appear within the books themselves. When a novelist writes, he creates a voice, the voice of a narrator who does not exist in the real world. Such a voice must be judged on its own; it must be separated from its authorial creator and be given the freedom to explore even the more monstrous aspects of the human experience.

This insight about separating author from narrator seems to have been forgotten in much of the conversation surrounding Díaz. One writer called his books “sexist and regressive,” suggesting that we should refrain from reading that which our culture has deemed verboten. Having read most of Díaz’s fiction, I can confirm that there is certainly a great amount of misogyny depicted. That does not mean that his oeuvre as such encourages sexism, any more than Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serves as an apologia for slavery, any more than James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room endorses homophobia, or any more than Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon promotes segregation. Twain, Baldwin, and Morrison are masters of their craft, able to depict bigotry and intolerance in all their vile and irrational glory; the same is true of Díaz. We shouldn’t condemn authors for portraying the truth of life’s brutalities.

Feminist literary critic Roxanne Gay reviewed Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her back in 2012. She got it exactly right: “The influence of [sexism] is plainly apparent throughout This Is How You Lose Her. Women are their bodies and what they can offer men. They are pulled apart for Yunior’s [the protagonist’s] sexual amusement. There’s nothing wrong with that, the fact that Yunior is a misogynist of the highest order . . . that none of the men in this book are very good to women. This is fiction and if people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human (emphasis mine).

. . . .

Dickens was a writer who cared deeply about the poor of England but was simultaneously contemptuous of the Indian victims of British imperialism. What are we to do with him? Should we read him because of his sympathy for the poor or dismiss him because of his racism? Neither, I argue; instead we should read him because he is a monumental figure in the history of British writing. And, of course, we can read him even as we keep in mind that he was a complex human, capable at the same time of making abominable moral judgments and of producing lasting works of fiction.

Link to the rest at The National Review

PG will note that he does not always agree with the content of everything he posts about on TPV.

The OP is not the first to raise the question of whether we must expose ourselves to evil in order to gain an understanding of evil. As with many questions of this type, PG believes the answer is yes and no.

In some cases, exposure can be beneficial to our understanding. Reading Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto and the writings of Mao Zedong underpinning Land Reform, The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution may be examples of such beneficial exposure and increases our understanding without negative side-effects.

On the other hand, direct exposure to hard-core and child pornography and snuff films may be examples of exposure that doesn’t really help to increase our understanding of these evils and may have continuing detrimental effects.

 

GDPR Privacy Notification

24 May 2018

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