In a Word, “Curious”

CuriousWhat’s the secret of life? Of course, the answer is in a book with a single word title, Curious? The back cover has nine words, 58 characters: “Embrace uncertainty. Attract love and abundance. Master your life.”

All of this makes me want to write an answer book called “Seriously?” but the author, a clinical psychologist and professor at George Mason University deserves more than the Twtr-obessed publisher allows. His name is Todd Kashdan, and although I suspect curiosity may not be, as the subtitle promises, a way to “Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life” (shouldn’t that “to” be “in” or “for”?), there’s too much good stuff in this book for me to pass it by.

Mostly, like every creative person, I’m curious about curiosity. I seem to have it in larger doses than most people, and I think I like that about myself. My friends tend to be curious, too, and they tend to value this in themselves. In fact, I enjoyed a long telephone conversation with a friend not six months ago on this very subject—he was analyzing generational differences in the workplace, and thought our generation pursued curiosity with greater energy than the current one.

Of course, Dr. Kashdan touches  school as curiosity-killer (“Do it now, ask questions later. Stay away from strangers. Avoid controversial topics and hot-button issues”), but I think he’s better when he’s positive, and consistent with the thinking of the positive psychology movement in academia, where he plays a part. When describing how and why “Curiosity is about recognizing and reaping the rewards of the uncertain, the unknown and the new…,” he explains that there is a “simple story line for how curiosity is the engine of growth.”

By being curious, we explore.

By exploring, we discover.

When this is satisfying, we are more likely to repeat it.

By repeating it, we develop competence and mastery.

By developing competence and mastery, our knowledge and skills grow.

As our knowledge and skills grow, we stretch who we are and what our life is about.

So “curiosity begets more curiosity.” Fair enough. But that’s just the starting place. When he offers curiosity as the opposite of certainty, and broadens the argument to society’s need for closure, specific answers, one way of looking at the world, his arguments become insights:

Curiosity creates possibilities; the need for certainty narrows them.

Curiosity creates energy; the need for certainty depletes.

Curiosity results in exploration; the need for certainty creates closure.

Curiosity creates movement; the need for certainty is about replaying events.

Curiosity creates relationships; the need for certainty creates defensiveness.

Creativity is about discovery; the need for certainty is about being right.

At first, I didn’t think much of this list, but the more I worked on a new project about knowledge and understanding, the more I realized the value of Dr. Kashdan’s insights.

Photo of the author, Todd Kashdan, by Adam Auel

It’s easy to see how this material can be brought into a wider domain: curiosity results in personal fulfillment, happiness, a healthy mental outlook, a purpose to life, and so on. He encourages openness in the style of so many self-help books, and here’s where my fascination begins to wane, mostly because I’ve read it all before: “When walking outside the house, I will gently guide my attention so I can be intrigued by every bodily movement and whatever sights, sounds and smells are within my range.” I don’t understand why anybody who is taking a walk would fill their ears with music, but that’s because I enjoy listening to the natural world. Does experience open my mind to every possibility? Not sure. I think I’m listening to birdsong, looking at autumn leaves and winter branches, and taking whiffs of honeysuckle when it’s in season. That’s enough for me.

If you find self-help books useful, you might add this one to your library. There are chapters about “The Rewards of Relationships” and “The Anxious Mind and the Curious Spirit,” and, almost inevitably, “Discovering Meaning and Purpose in Life.”

I think curiosity is powerful on its own terms: as an antidote to the routine, a door that opens to creative and divergent thought, as a pathway to learning lots of things. Secret of life? Maybe. I’ll leave that one up to you.

The New Jim Crow

From Ohio State's website: Professor Alexander joined the OSU faculty in 2005. She holds a joint appointment with the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Prior to joining the OSU faculty, she was a member of the Stanford Law School faculty, where she served as Director of the Civil Rights Clinic. Professor Alexander has significant experience in the field of civil rights advocacy and litigation. She has litigated civil rights cases in private practice as well as engaged in innovative litigation and advocacy efforts in the non-profit sector. For several years, Professor Alexander served as the Director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, which spearheaded a national campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement. While an associate at Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, she specialized in plaintiff-side class action suits alleging race and gender discrimination. Professor Alexander is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University. Following law school, she clerked for Justice Harry A. Blackmun on the United States Supreme Court, and for Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

From Ohio State’s website: Professor Alexander joined the OSU faculty in 2005. She holds a joint appointment with the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Prior to joining the OSU faculty, she was a member of the Stanford Law School faculty, where she served as Director of the Civil Rights Clinic.
Professor Alexander has significant experience in the field of civil rights advocacy and litigation. She has litigated civil rights cases in private practice as well as engaged in innovative litigation and advocacy efforts in the non-profit sector. For several years, Professor Alexander served as the Director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, which spearheaded a national campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement. While an associate at Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, she specialized in plaintiff-side class action suits alleging race and gender discrimination.
Professor Alexander is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University. Following law school, she clerked for Justice Harry A. Blackmun on the United States Supreme Court, and for Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Sometimes, a book is just the thing: a clear explanation running several hundred pages, written by an expert, vetted by other experts, building a powerful case to its logical conclusion. Several years ago, an associate professor at The Ohio State University wrote a book, a history, a manifesto based upon a dangerous idea. Her name is Michelle Alexander and her book, republished a year or so ago with a new forward by Cornel West, is entitled The New Jim Crow. The subtitle just begins to suggest the storyline: “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Often, when I read a nonfiction book, I dog-ear the parts I want to remember. I’ve dog-eared a third of this book. Here’s part of a dog-eared page, written by an American Bar Association task force and quoted by the author:

[The] offender may be sentences to a term of probation, community service and court costs. Unbeknownst to this offender, and perhaps, any other actor in the sentencing process, as a result of his conviction, he may be ineligible for many federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal educational assistance. His driver’s license may be automatically suspended, and he may no longer qualify for certain employment and professional licenses. If he is convicted of another crime, he may be subject to imprisonment as a repeat offender. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, or possess a firearm, or obtain a federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote; if not [a citizen], he may become immediately deportable.”

On the surface, this may sound like get-tough-on-crime, perhaps stronger than some would like it to be, maybe not so surprising.

New Jim CrowProfessor Alexander’s point becomes clear when this idea is added:

…the system of incarceration operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.”

For the most part, she explains, incarceration is not due to violent crimes. Instead, mostly, incarceration is due to relatively small amounts of drugs, often found as a result of policies, rules, laws, and Supreme Court judgments that encourage law enforcement to focus their attention on minority (most often, Black) people, even though drug sales and drug use tend to be about equal among all racial and ethnic groups.

It’s one thing to understand the problem as a social issue. It’s another when you “Imagine you are Erma Faye Stewart, a thirty-one year old, single African American mother of two who was arrested as part of a drug sweep in Hearne, Texas. All but one of the people arrested were African American. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty so you can return home to your children. Unwilling to risk a trial and years of imprisonment, you are sentenced to ten years probation order ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs. You are now also branded a drug felon. You are no eligible for food stamps; you may be discriminated against in employment; you cannot vote for at least twelve years; and you are about to be evicted from public housing. Once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.”

Turns out, the  entire sweep was based upon a lie. Eventually, a judge dismissed all cases against the defendants–except those who pled guilty. “You, however, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.”

Sure, we see stories like these all the time, mostly on TV, sometimes in the movies, but their truth, and the reasons behind their truth, are disturbing because we (all of us, that is) must face one of two nasty realities:

(1) We are comfortable with the system that we our society has in place, even though it is often severe and places a very high percentage of Black citizens into the system; or

(2) We are comfortable with the system because American continues to support a racial divide with unequal rights, and severe lifetime punishment for a large number of people who live in the United States.

I suppose most people are only vaguely aware of the issue–that was my excuse–but this book removes that defense. The legal system is ferociously complicated. We must be fair but we must also be safe. You know the arguments, but that’s not much of a starting place to make things right.

One positive step is to bring this important topic to a study group. There is a free study guide available for groups willing to engage. Details below:

Drawing from and expanding on the themes of Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed best-seller, The New Jim Crow, this in-depth guide provides a launching pad for groups wishing to engage in deep, meaningful dialogue about race, racism, and structural inequality in the age of mass incarceration.  The Study Guide and Call to Action spans the entirety of The New Jim Crow, engaging the critical questions of how we managed to create, nearly overnight, a penal system unprecedented in world history, and how that system actually functions — as opposed to the way it is advertised.  This important new resource also challenges us to search for and admit the truth about ourselves, our own biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions, and the many ways in which we might actually be part of the problem.


This is one of several video recordings of Dr. Alexander’s speeches. This one was delivered at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. You can find others on this page.

Never Thought About It That Way Before…

brochure1-mBirthday: August 4, 1961

Statehood: August 21, 1959

The first is the birthdate of the current President of the United States. The second is the date that Hawaii was transformed, by law, from a U.S. Territory to a U.S. State. The two dates are separated by two years, and just about two weeks. If Mr. Obama had been born on, say, August 20, 1959, he could not become  President.

On October 5, 2004, a Yale Law Professor named Akhil Reed Amar testified before the United States Senate. At the time, the Senate was exploring the reasons why, in today’s world, an immigrant was not allowed to become President. Professor Amar knows a great deal about the U.S. Constitution. He points out, “the Founders did exclude…immigrants from the Presidency. But they did so because some at the time feared that a scheming foreign earl or duke might cross the Atlantic with a huge retinue of loyalists and a boatload of European gold, and then try to bully or bribe his way into the Presidency…In a young America, when a fledgling New World democracy was struggling to establish itself alongside an Old World dominated by monarchy and aristocracy, this ban on foreign-born presidents made a lot more sense than it does in the twenty-first century.”

He goes on to explain that seven of the Constitution’s thirty-nine signers were immigrants; that three of the first ten Supreme Court justices were foreign-born; and that similar statistics applied to other key government figures. What’s more, the Constitution was approved by an enormous number of people who were not born here; the same is true of nearly all of the Constitution’s amendments. People who serve on juries, people who vote, people who want to run for Governor of any state…all of these people may be foreign-born. But not the U.S. President.

It took me a bit to get past my emotional responses to Amar’s arguments, but after reading nearly 1,000 pages of his analysis and provocative investigations, my mind is now becoming accustomed to the kind of workout that a law professor can provide.

amar_akhilI started reading Amar’s book, American’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By last spring, but quickly realized that the book would make a lot more sense if I first read America’s Constitution: A Biography. The first book explains how the Constitution came together, and how its ideas have been interpreted, applied, shifted, calcified, de-calcified, respected, and transformed. The second book is more provocative; it requires the reader to consider his or her place, the decisions that we make within and beside the Constitution, the responsibilities that we accept as, for examples, voters and jurors.

The word juror, for example, is derived from the French and Latin words for “swear.” Not what I would have thought, but then, Amar shines the light on the concept of swearing an oath. What does the oath promise. In essence, we take an oath to use our conscience effectively. That is, we are swearing that we will, to the best of our ability, exercise a reasonable, moral, ethical judgment based upon the information provided to the jury. Which is to say, “when a juror is not told what punishments she is actually voting to inflict, and not told that she has a legal right to just say no and a legal duty to consult her conscience, then the moral foundations of the entire system begin to crumble.”

He goes on–these are long books, best appreciated over an entire summer of quiet nights–“Current practice…all too often instrumentalizes and infantalizes jurors by disrespecting or derailing their moral judgment. When a juror finds a man guilty of having shoplifted a baseball glove and only later finds out from a local newspaper or lawyerly acquaintance that what she really voted for was in the jury room was to send this poor soul to prison for life (and at taxpayer expense), she is apt to feel ill-used–as is the defendant, of course.

I think I’ve dog-eared the bottom corners of perhaps fifty pages–each containing a notable idea that I want to think about, learn more about.

Professor Amar, loose and having a good time as a guest on The Colbert Report last January.

Professor Amar, loose and having a good time as a guest on The Colbert Report last January.

In the second book, much is made about the Northwest Ordinance, a subject I vaguely remember from seventh grade, and perhaps, tenth grade in slightly greater detail. The key idea–and you’ll see why this phrase was so important in a moment–the key phrase in that document was “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” No slavery in what would become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Amar points out, “(these states) formed the backbone of the Republican Party. Men from these places filled the Union Army at every level, from Grant and Sherman on down. Without these northwesterners, there would have been no President Lincoln, no Civil War victory, and no Abolition Amendment… Residents of this region arrived there from many different places (especially from the free states, of course), and inclined toward a distinctly nationalist worldview. Whereas nineteenth-century Virginians like Robert E. Lee gave pride of place to their home state (which had pre-existed the Union by more than a century…), northwesterners tended to see themselves as Americans first and state residents second. America had chronologically preceded the states they now called home.”

I kept finding myself thinking, “gee, I never thought about it that way.” I suppose that’s why, through all of the details of Supreme Court cases, nuances of amendment wording, minute details about the judicial process, I stuck with it. I have fifteen pages remaining. I will finish my summer’s reading before I fall asleep tonight. This summer, Professor Amar taught me a lot. And based upon the dog-ears, I’m not going to finish with these ideas for a long while.

As it should be.

Amar-Americas_UnwrittenHORIZ

The Multiplier Effect

Quickly now… If you multiply 633 by 11, what’s the answer?

No doubt, you recognize the pattern, and you may recall the mental math process:

633 x 10, plus 633 x 1, or 6,330 plus 633, or 6,963, which is the answer (or, in terms used by math teachers, the “product”).

There is another way to solve the problem, a faster way that assures fewer computational errors, and does not involve any sort of digital or mechanical device. It does, however, involve a simple rule and a different way to write the problem down.

The rule is: “write down the number, add the neighbor.” The asterisk just above each number is there only to help you to focus. If you prefer, think of it as a small arrow.

Here’s how it works:

Mult by 11

Try multiplying 942 x 11  and you’ll quickly get the hang of it.

Do it once more, this time with a much larger number: 8,562,320 x 11. It goes quickly, as you’ll see.

Multiplying by 12 is just as easy, but the rule changes to: “double the number, add the neighbor.” Here, my explanation includes specific numbers.

Mult by 12

In fact, there is a similar rule for multiplication by any number (1-12). And there are rules for quickly adding long, complicated columns of numbers, as there are for division, square roots and more.

These rules were developed by a man facing his own demise in the Nazi camps during the Second World War. Danger was nothing new to him…this is the story and the enduring legacy of Jakow Trachtenberg, who first escaped the wrath of the Communists as he escaped his native Russia, then became a leading academic voice for world peace. His book, Das Friedensministerium (The Ministry of Peace), was read by FDR and other world leaders. His profile was high; capture was inevitable. He made it out of Austria, got caught in Yugoslavia, and was sentenced to death at a concentration camp. To maintain his sanity, Trachtenberg developed a new system for mathematical calculation. Paper was scarce, so he used it mostly for proofs. The rest, he kept in his head.

Madame Trachtenberg stayed nearby, in safety. She bribed officials, pulled strings, and managed to get Jakow moved to Dresden, which was a mess, allowing him to escape. Then, he was caught again, and was moved to Trieste. More bribes and coercion from Madame. He escaped. The couple maneuvered into a more normal existence beginning at refugee camp in Switzerland. By 1950, they were running the Mathematical Institute in Zurich, teaching young students a new way to think about numbers. A system without multiplication tables. A system based upon logic. A system that somehow survived.

A system that, against all odds, made it into my elementary classroom. One classroom in the New York City school district. For one year. The parents were certain that the teacher was making a terrible mistake, that the people in my class, myself included, would never be able to do math in the conventional way again. Of course, we learned a lot more than an alternative from of arithmetic.

And now, after decades out of print, in an era when arithmetic hardly matters because of calculators and computers, the original book is back in print. The brilliance of system remains awesome, and the book is worth reading just to understand how Trachtenberg conceived an entirely fresh approach under the most extraordinary circumstances.

20130113-222930.jpg

A Book about Books

“I am an invisible man.”

“We were around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

“On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.”

So begins three contemporary books: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003). One is about African Americans, another is about the counter culture, and the third opens with a view of new Americans, attempting to recreate a dish she recalled from her native India. Our tastes change with the times–only sixty years separate Ellison from Obama.

With so many words propelled at us each day, so many stories on so many media, there’s not much opportunity to consider the big picture, to develop a sense of the stories we are telling one another. I suspect that’s what caused English Professor Kevin Hayes to write A Journey Through American Literature (Oxford University Press).

In Hayes’s world, the word “literature” embraces poetry, travel writing, autobiography, and fiction. Whether Benjamin Franklin or Stephen Crane, Eugene O’Neill or T. Coraghessan Boyle, his examples consider the broad sweep of 250 years. His definition of literature includes bits of Seinfeld and The Simpsons, and acknowledges films as literature, too.

Skateboarding through media theory and aesthetics, Smithsonian American Art Museum is acknowledging videogames as art this summer. And I’m certain that every word in write in this blog, and every word you write in your email rants, will stand the test of time as great literature, too.

Yes, there is interesting, substantial work being done in all corners of art and media. Often, the work goes unnoticed, or receives a flash of publicity for fifteen seconds. It’s just too easy to forget about the good stuff until somebody says, or writes, “hey, this is worth a look!”

This summer, for me, Hayes is that somebody. Here’s a starter checklist:

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill
  • The Invisible Man by J.D. Salinger
  • Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
  • Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus
  • China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Yes, Hayes is an English professor. No, I will not write a term paper, nor will I abide by any deadline. This time, I’m not reading for the professor or the course or the grade. I’m reading for myself. And I plan to read these books not on a screen, but through the ancient technology of ink on paper. Some, I will buy in a used bookstore, some I will buy from the NEW bookstore that just opened not a mile from my home, some I will borrow, at no charge, from a good local public library.

Welcome to summer!

Digital Travel Guides and the Future of Publishing

As the Kent & Sussex chapter of a traveler’s eBook begins, the page shows the current temperature. Just a hint of what’s to come in digital travel guides…

Not enough room in the suitcase? Maybe it’s time to ditch the travel guidebook and try the eBook version instead. I did, and learned a lot about what a traveler’s eBook ought to be.

Travel guides are very different from other types of fiction and nonfiction books. They are only partially read. They are intensely used, but only for a few weeks. They are out of date shortly after they are published. And if you’re doing a lot of traveling, they can become quite heavy.

An eBook on an iPad? Less weight. Full color. An opportunity to integrate with digital maps and Trip Advisor, build an itinerary, make reservations, maybe connect with chapters in history or nature books.

Well, we’re not there yet, but we are seeing the beginning of a new era in travel guides.

Lonely Planet has yet to make its big move into iPad publishing, but they offer one excellent idea: the purchase of individual chapters as PDF files for just under $5 a piece. For example, Lonely Planet’s digital England book can be purchased for $17.49, or you can buy the Devon & Cornwall chapter for $4.95. Either way, it’s mostly well-written text with very helpful guidance, plenty of links, and, take note, designed for iPhone with only with 2x magnification feature on.

Fodor’s London Travel Guide is a full-featured app with plenty of maps, color images, lists with links, and easy access to places to visit, lodgings, restaurants, and nightlife. In fact, the app is organized so that it’s easy to read the text blurb about the London Zoo, then quickly refer to a restaurant map to find Lemonia, a highly-regarded Greek restaurant nearby. Read the description of Portobello Market, click, then there it is on a full-screen map. It’s easy to use and effective.

Working with an eBook design firm called Inkling, Frommer’s offers a more ambitious take on the digital travel guide. The eBook is organized in chapters, but each chapter begins with several points of entry: favorite moments in the region, a three-day trip, a five-day journey, favorite sites to visit, popular destinations in detail, and more. Choose the Cotswolds village of Moreton-on-the-Marsh and there’s a well-written description of the village, tips about what’s nearby, quick access to area maps, and an overall design that’s clearly designed for digital devices. This series is called “Day by Day”, so I expected an itinerary planner to coordinate with my iPad’s Calendar app. That’s not yet a feature, but I suspect it was discussed during this superior product’s design phases.

I used all three guides, often and successfully, and never once missed the books that I did not carry with me. My favorite: Frommer’s. But I suspect that next week’s BookExpo will find publishers to introducing the next generation of interactive travel guides.

What’s next? Certainly, full integration with Google Maps, Trip Advisor, Kayak and other reservations systems, Calendar, email. Those seem to be within reach, but they only scratch the surface of what could be done. There’s a gigantic social network opportunity here, whether it’s couch surfing or house swapping, or simply asking whether anybody in the Pembrokeshire area feels like taking a hike today. Right now, publishers are cautiously experimenting with books that become books on screens, but this caution may result in the demise of yet another industry. Travel publishers possess a unique opportunity to bring places to life, to involve community members (think Zagat’s but on a massive scale), to truly invent the future of publishing on a large, interactive scale. It’s interesting to contemplate whether this work can be done, or will be done, by travel publishers owned by much larger publishing conglomerates, or whether smaller, more flexible and potentially more innovative publishers will map this particular journey into the future.

(Digital) Money, Honey

We pay for just about everything with a credit card, a debit card, PayPal. Even parking meters accept card payments. Cash is dirty, difficult to store, easy to lose, and (for better or for worse) leaves no trace. The end of money has been predicted for a long time. Maybe now’s the time that money, like photographic film, drive-in theaters, and typewriters, fades away.

That’s the theory behind WIRED contributing editor David Wolman’s book, The End of Money published by Da Capo. The book is an easy read, filled with anecdotes, interesting histories, and a great many examples of alternatives to our current cash-and-coins conception of valuable exchange. Wolman points out the present system is, in fact, quite new, and that most of human history did not involve pennies, pfennigs, or pesos. He estimates that one of every twenty British coins is counterfeit. He points to cash on ice both in Alaska Senator Ted Stevens’ freezer and also in a visit to the fallen Icelandic economy. (There are so many wonderful slang terms: cold hard cash among them). He explores alternative currencies. The one about Liberty Dollars–“a private voluntary free-market currency backed entirely by silver and gold.”–is a long trip through the complexities of alternative currencies and contemporary Federal conceptions of money.

There’s discussion–not enough for my taste–about smart cards and the use of mobile devices as digital wallets. Here, the focus is on the many small daily transactions that remain cash-intensive, and the potential for a simpler, less costly, more manageable system based upon digital transactions. The upside: you’re never short a quarter for the parking meter; the downside: every time you park your car, you’re making an entry into your permanent record.

Be sure to read the crazy story. It’s just one paragraph on Wikipedia.

It’s interesting to muse on the current use of simulated currencies, if only to understand our possible future behaviors: accumulating gold coins in games, such as World of Warcraft; the possible connections between gamefied badges and currency that can be exchanged for real or virtual goods and services; the use of Quids on the (now gone?) website Superfluid, where “they’re placeholders for favors” (perhaps not unlike the favor/exchange economy that drives power and accomplishment in the nation’s capital). Where might frequent flier miles fit into the money equation? Or Disney Dollars that pay for fun in Orlando (now largely replaced by Disney Gift Cards because they yield far more digital data, and because the residue is easily converted to profit.) How about the barter economy that has been so well-nourished on the internet: you build my website, I do your taxes.

How does taxation fit into any of this? None of us love taxes, but we’ve certainly become attached to, say, our interstate highway system. I suppose most transactions will be digital, and so, there is a trackable moment of exchange, and at that moment, the tax authorities can step-in (digitally) and collect. How about pay checks? Direct deposit eliminates the old-fashioned notion of “cashing the paycheck”–and, perhaps, acknowledging the weirdness of Big Brother, preparing one’s own personal tax return may seem equally old school (armed with your entire digital financial life, the government could certainly outsource your tax return, mine to, to an outfit in Malaysia or Peru).

Are coins and cash going away? Not this year, but maybe in ten years. It’s fascinating to contemplate the possibilities. And, along the way, it’s fun to browse or read The End of Money.

It’s also fun to watch the CBS Sunday Morning report that was inspired by the book. If you can find the link, let me know and I’ll post it (couldn’t find it on the CBS Sunday Morning site).

What about Black-and-White?

Back in the analog stone age, shooting in monochrome was a creative choice made in advance. You’d buy a few ISO 400 rolls of Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X, and head out for a day of serious photography, hoping for just one image worthy of framing.

In fact, black-and-white analog photography offers several advantages. There is at least four times as much picture information, so contrasts can be stronger, textures can be more refined, and enlargements can be, well, larger. About half of this work is done in the field, mostly by selecting and composing with intelligence, and by selecting an appropriate optical filter to place on the lens. For example, sky contrast can be dramatically increased by using a red filter, but sometimes, detail in shadows is lost with a red filter, so an orange filter may be more suitable. Corrections are then made in the analog or digital darkroom, a trial-and-error process that becomes easier after a lot of hours of experimentation and instruction.

Working with a digital camera, the best black-and-white images are derived from color images, but maybe not in the way you’d think. The adventure begins with a digital camera that can shoot RAW images–so plan to spend at least $500 on the camera. Lesser cameras, and less-than-serious photographers with better cameras, shoot in JPG to jam more images onto an SD card. If you start with a JPG created in the camera, your black-and-white images will lack detail, clarity and snap. Your expensive digital camera offers an instant monochrome option. No, you shouldn’t use it, not if you are serious about your photography.

Instead, you can achieve miracles by post processing your RAW image in Aperture, Photoshop, or other software capable of handling RAW images. With desktop software, you can add the equivalent of colored filters and gradient filters, with a level of precision unavailable in the field, and unavailable in old school darkrooms.

In his book, Hoffmann goes into considerable detail about how this picture was made, and why it is so effective. He’s a very good teacher.

Is it worth the time? It’s worth the time if you train yourself to create the best possible images by learning a lot about composition, mood, street photography, landscape work, architectural photography, and abstract work from a master teacher. I’ve spent the past month or two studying the second edition of a fine book entitled The Art of Black and White Photography by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann, published by Rocky Nook Press. He provides the necessary technical information, but spends most of his instructional time on important photographic ideas: how to avoid the cliché, achieving balance, dealing with visual irritations that cannot be moved, capturing people in their natural surroundings, visual rhythm, form and composition. Hoffmann is especially effective when he writes about, and photographs in, a strongly graphic style: strong contrasts, superior use of line and form, repetition to suggest speed or solidity. (Study the three Hoffmann images in this article, and notice, for example, the repeated pattern of small verticals–the fence posts in the top image, the decorative balusters in the second, and the train doors in the third supported in the distance by the verticals of the Manhattan skyline). These are not snapshots–they are photographs–and if there was any doubt about a blurry line between those two ideas, it disappears here. These are advanced ideas, most suitable for the experienced photographer or for the ambitious newcomer. The reward is in the learning, of course, and also in the tour of Hoffmann’s portfolio, which is sampled in this article and offered in expansive form on the photographer’s website.

The photographer is based in NYC. This image is one my favorites, but it comes from his website, and does not appear in the book.

Save the Country!

In our hearts, we know what’s wrong, and we know that it’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the money that flows into political campaigns, the revolving door between industry and agencies that should be regulating without industry influence, the political bashing that obscures the real issues, the real reasons why our food is unsafe, our cellphones were never properly tested to assure that they do not produce cancer, why our financial system collapsed, why the jobs went away and people lost their houses while the big banks and the big car companies somehow made out okay.

Sometimes, it takes a smart professor to parse the issues, and present them in a way that makes logical sense. Here, the professor is Lawrence Lessig, well-known for his work in the synchronization of copyright issues with the realities of new technologies. Lessig has shifted focus. In his new book, Republic, Lost, Lessig explains how and why we have accomplished the decimation of our democracy, and what we ought to do about it. This is not a book about politics. Instead, it’s a book about economics, foolish decisions, and fundamental thinking about what a country ought to do, ought to be.

The fundamental problem is relatively simple. Special interest groups, including big companies, big industries, unions, and others with vast money to spend, now control the agenda, and the decisions, made by our legislators. This is accomplished by funding political campaigns that now cost so much money, candidates are unable to raise the funds in any other way. Money is distributed not as bribes, but within a “gift economy,” in which lobbyists control the flow of funds, favors, and even the words in legislation that few legislators ever manage to read before voting. The size of this gift economy is spectacular in its size and influence, resulting in a sustained distraction for even the best-intentioned legislators whose time and decision-making processes are, according to Lessig, dominated by this system.

Where Lessig is clear about what the problem is, why and how it has gobbled up our representative form of government, and how much money is involved, he is less wonderful when it comes to solutions (which is to say, Lessig is clear thinking and often quite brilliant in his assessment of the current situation, but even his big brain struggles with what the heck we should do now). Still, he does present several seemingly sensible ideas.

Of course, the first solution is the simplest: let’s eliminate large contributions, and instead, share the burden with many small contributions. (In this regard, Obama had the right idea.) The Grant and Franklin project would allow each person in the U.S. to contribute $50 (Grant) of their Federal taxes plus $100 (Franklin) more to one or more individual candidates, or to their favorite political party. No more PAC or political party funding–candidates can receive a maximum of $150 per person. Here’s the kicker: for candidates, this would be voluntary. That is, each individual candidate would decide to follow the Grant and Franklin path–and those who do not, well, the American people would know who they are. Lessig: “If a substantial number of candidates opted into this system, then no one could believe that money was buying results.”

Then, the “clever lawyer” part of Lessig kicks in with an idea that’s intriguing, if not altogether practical (why should we rely upon practical ideas?–this is nation built by dreamers!). Lessig again: “Here’s a quiz. What’s required to be elected to the House of Representatives? You’d think that one requirement is that you be a resident of the district from which you’re to be elected. All the Constitution requires is that at the time fo the election, you be ‘an inhabitant of that State in which you shall be chosen'” And with that, Lessig is off and running…

Why not, he asks, run one candidate in several districts with a flash of anarchy in his or her midst. The only reason he or she is running is to force the other candidate to “publicly commit” to the Grant and Franklin approach. And for those candidates who do manage to get elected (inevitably, some will), he or she commits to: holding the government hostage until Congress enacts a program to remove the fundamental corruption that is now the rule in our government, and once that program is enacted, he or she will resign from office.

Lessig goes further: he wants a constitutional amendment.  Here, he enters a deeply analytical, harshly critical approach to his own idea, using his legal powers to define a path that could make an amendment possible. And, he reckons, some rich and powerful people are likely to come along for the ride.

He’s better on describing the cause and current situation than he is on prescribing the proper solution, but it’s unreasonable to expect one person, however smart, well-educated and clever, to define a plan to rebuild the republic. But he has taken the first step: he has clearly detailed the current situation and analyzed it in ways that break through any specific political dogma or belief system or party affiliation. And I know that his thinking has affected my thinking, and, presumably, some tens of thousands of other people’s thinking, and that’s a start.

So here’s the question from my side: I buy the analysis, and I want to be part of the solution. My starting place follows Lessig’s suggestion: I need to spend some time visiting a few websites, and figure out how I might insert myself into the process. His suggested websites:

Call a Convention

Public Citizen

Voters First Pledge

Fund for the Republic

Rootstrikers

BTW: The publisher is Twelve Publishers. It’s an imprint of Hachette, a larger publisher, but Twelve is delivering on a small, powerful idea: publish a dozen important books each year.  And make them count. I like their approach enough to include it here:

  1. Each book will enliven the national conversation.
  2. Each book will be singular in voice, authority, or subject matter.
  3. Each book will be carefully edited, designed, and produced.
  4. Each book will have a month-long launch in which it is the imprint’s sole focus.
  5. Each book will be nationally advertised.
  6. Each book will have a national publicity campaign.
  7. Each book will have a digital strategy.
  8. Each book will be worthy of the attention of discerning book reviewers.
  9. Each book will have the potential to sell at least 50,000 copies in its lifetime.
  10. Each book will be marketed and distributed by the Hachette Book Group, the company with the best hit ratio in the American publishing business.
  11. Each book will be promoted well into its paperback life.
  12. Each book will matter.
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