Readings: The Runaway General, Jane Goodall, A Case for Space, and Mockingbird

Here’s what I read over the last week or so.

(1) “The Runaway General” [Rolling Stone] – an already infamous piece of reporting that sent Obama to depose Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan. This is a very long read, quite compelling and, dare I say, entertaining (it was written for Rolling Stone, so do expect a fair share of curse words in the article). A few nuggets I found worthwhile:

A good explanation of counterinsurgency, or COIN (the term makes a recurring appearance throughout the piece):

From the start, McChrystal was determined to place his personal stamp on Afghanistan, to use it as a laboratory for a controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency. COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military’s preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps.

What kind of a man is Stanley McChrystal?

McChrystal is a snake-eating rebel, a “Jedi” commander, as Newsweek called him. He didn’t care when his teenage son came home with blue hair and a mohawk. He speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official. He asks for opinions, and seems genuinely interested in the response. He gets briefings on his iPod and listens to books on tape. He carries a custom-made set of nunchucks in his convoy engraved with his name and four stars, and his itinerary often bears a fresh quote from Bruce Lee. (“There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”)

Perhaps the smartest paragraph in the piece:

When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny. The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose. “Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan,” he says. But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland, the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan. Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock. “It’s all very cynical, politically,” says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region. “Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there’s nothing for us there.”

(2) “Jane Goodall’s 50 Years in the Jungle” [The Guardian] – an excellent profile and interview of the British anthropologist who spent the majority of her life working with chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania.

Why is Jane Goodall’s work important?

Jane Goodall made one of the most important scientific observations of modern times in that remote African rainforest. She witnessed a creature, other than a human, in the act not just of using a tool but of making one. “It was hard for me to believe,” she recalls. “At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker – yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action. I remember that day as vividly as if it was yesterday.”

On animals having personalities:

In any case, Goodall (who got her PhD in 1965) believes it is simple nonsense to say that animals, particularly chimpanzees which are so closely related to humans, do not have personalities. “You cannot share your life with a dog, as I had done in Bournemouth, or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings. You know it and I think every single one of those scientists knew it too but because they couldn’t prove it, they wouldn’t talk about it. But I did talk about it. In a way, my dog Rusty gave me the courage of my convictions.”

(3) “A Case for Space” [DigitalMash] – a blog post which explains why you should say less, more often. An excellent read.

(4) “Don’t Mention the Mockingbird” [The Daily Mail] – Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird (one of my favorite novels), talks to the British newspaper. It’s a very rare interview/profile worth reading, not least because the last time Harper Lee spoke to the press was in 2006, when she granted a brief interview to a New York Times reporter at an awards ceremony for a high-school essay contest on the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird. The most unusual part to me was that she chose to speak to a British newspaper, rather than her local paper or the New York Times again.

Trivia: Harper Lee supposedly handwrites every interview request she refuses. The author told the New York Times in 2006 that if she were to send out a form response, it would say “Hell, no”.

The Future of News: Google

One of the most interesting pieces I’ve read recently is James Fallows’ “How To Save the News” in The Atlantic. It’s a fantastic piece of long-form journalism, and if you’re into journalism and the way news is delivered online, it’s definitely a must-read. The article explores Google’s delivery of news, whether customers would (or in what circumstances) pay for news, the customization of news tailored to specific users, how Google and traditional media companies rely on advertising, and quite a bit more. If you think the nearly 10,000 word piece isn’t worth your time, I want to point out the most interesting passages below:

The premise of the article is that there is “a larger vision for news coming out of Google” — that the world’s largest search engine company is more than that; according to Fallows, Google is the world’s most important media organization.

Who’s behind Google News? Interesting to learn that it was someone from Georgia Tech, my alma mater:

It was Krishna Bharat who identified a more profound form of inefficiency [in news delivery]. As a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, Bharat had written for the campus newspaper while taking his computer-science degree. “In a second life, I would be a journalist,” he once told an Indian newspaper. (When the Indian newspaper asks me, I will say: In a second life, I would be a successful Google executive.) He got his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech and was an early Google hire, in 1999. After the 9/11 attacks two years later, he grew worried about the narrowness of news he was receiving through the U.S. media. “I felt that we really had to catch up with the world’s news,” he told me. “To get a broad understanding, you had to visit sites in Europe and Asia and the Middle East. I was wondering if Google could do something to make the world’s news information available.”

There are some people who claim that Google aggregating the news is bad for the news industry (because viewers wouldn’t click through the articles, occasionally). However, a rebuttal with which I strongly agree:

Google’s rebuttal to the claim of stealing is that it doesn’t sell ads on the Google News site, and moreover provides hardly any of the newspapers’ original content. Indeed, in this practice it is the opposite of “aggregators” like the Huffington Post, which often “excerpt” enough of someone else’s story that readers don’t bother to click through to the source. Google News gives only a set of headlines and two-line links meant to steer traffic (and therefore ad potential) to the news organization that first ran the story.

What grabbed my attention is how a piece of news could get thousands of “hits” on Google’s page. Is it a case of news organizations choosing to write on the same topic because it’s important, or is it a copycat effect at work?

The Google News front page is a kind of air-traffic-control center for the movement of stories across the world’s media, in real time. “Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” he told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.”

On the three pillars of the new online business mode (distribution, engagement, and monetization):

[G]etting news to more people, and more people to news-oriented sites; making the presentation of news more interesting, varied, and involving; and converting these larger and more strongly committed audiences into revenue, through both subscription fees and ads. Conveniently, each calls on areas of Google’s expertise.

But the most insightful part of the article was my new understanding on how news can be incremental. What does that mean? For example, if you’ve never read The Wall Street Journal before, and you started reading it today, it might be a significant challenge to get into it. Why? Because some stories are built on what was reported yesterday, and the day before, and so on for quite some time. Here’s Fallows describing this incrementation:

News reporting is usually incremental. Something happens in Kabul today. It’s related to what happened there yesterday, plus 20 years ago, and further back. It has a bearing on what will happen a year from now. High-end news organizations reflect this continuous reality in hiring reporters and editors who (ideally) know the background of today’s news and in the way they present it, usually with modest additions to the sum of established knowledge day by day.

And so, prior to reading the article, this important facet of journalism didn’t really cross my mind (in the scope of Google aggregating news). So why is this incremental news important? Because a well-done journalistic piece, which took days and days of research, collaboration, interviewing, writing, and editing, might not be deemed “worthy” in the eyes of Google search (i.e., careful, insightful journalism is punished, while “tabloid-style” reporting rises to the top of Google search). To me, this is the most important take-away from the piece:

The modest daily updating of the news—another vote in Congress, another debate among political candidates—matches the cycle of papers and broadcasts very well, but matches the Internet very poorly, in terms of both speed and popularity rankings. The Financial Times might have given readers better sustained coverage of European economic troubles than any other paper. But precisely because it has done so many incremental stories, no one of them might rise to the top of a Google Web search, compared with an occasional overview story somewhere else. By the standards that currently generate online revenue, better journalism gets a worse result.

There is so much more in the article which I didn’t cover in this short post. If you have some time (more like an hour or two), this is an article definitely worth bookmarking for a later read.

Vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup

If you’ve tuned in to the 2010 World Cup on television, you’ve no doubt heard the buzz of the vuvuzelas (also known as lepatatas). The vuvuzelas are these (arguably) annoying blow horns used by spectators during the football matches (or soccer, for all of you U.S. and Australian folk).

No doubt the vuvuzela is a distinctly South African cultural icon and even a tradition at football games:

The vuvuzela has become part of the official South African football fans arsenal. It is a plastic trumpet which makes a distinctive noise, comparable to an elephant blowing their trunk. A stadium can often erupt with noise from fans blowing on their vuvuzelas. The South African Football Association, in a community-building project, has helped manufacture the coloured plastic trumpet.

However, after less than a full weekend of play, the players, coaches, and commentators have expressed vociferous concern that the vuvuzelas are a major distraction. After watching the games throughout the weekend, I have to say that it was hard to make out what the commentators were saying during certain parts of the game; I can’t imagine what it’s actually like on the pitch. There are nearly 200,000 people in this Facebook group who are in favor of banning the vuvuzelas. But I think a closer scrutiny is required. Why is the vuvuzela an object of such pervasive complaint?

A Closer Look

The most elucidating article I read (which relates to this whole vuvuzela saga) is this one from The Science of Sport blog. The most interesting passage is this one, explaining how loud the vuvuzelas are:

Studies have found that the noise levels from a vuvuzela exceed what are considered safe limits for employees.  A Swiss-based company’s testing showed that at its loudest, the sound registered 127 dB, compared to a chainsaw at 100 dB.

Studies show that prolonged exposure to loud noises (!) leads to hearing loss; that hearing loss occurs at a loudness level of around 120 dB. So given the information above, you cannot doubt the frustration everyone is expressing about these “instruments of distraction.” Also of note: The OSHA Daily Permissible Noise Level Exposure is 110dB for a half-hour and 115dB for a quarter hour; given this information, the length of the football matches, and the confirmed loudness of the vuvuzelas, it is almost certain that the vuvuzelas are dangerous to the spectators’ health (i.e., great potential for hearing loss).

But perhaps even more alarming is that the vuvuzelas may be a vessel for disease (spreading of germs):

And then on a perhaps even more serious note, there are concerns over the spread of infection and illness as a result of 30,000 people blowing into the horn in an enclosed space.  South Africa has one of the highest tuberculosis (TB) infection rates in the world, and it is spread through droplets, usually when coughing, spitting or sneezing.

So, with all these considerations in mind, the calls to ban the vuvuzelas have become even more poignant over the last few days; nevertheless, the vuvuzelas making headlines isn’t new… About a year ago, FIFA gave the vuvuzelas the green light for the 2010 World Cup.

The South Africans, apparently, love these things:

Let us not make this a South Africa instrument alone…A vuvuzela is now an international instrument. People buy them and stuff them in their suitcase to go home. Only a minority are against vuvuzelas. You either love them or hate. We in South Africa love them.

The comments in this 2009 BBC piece are divisive; it seems that some people are vehemently opposed to the vuvuzelas:

It is irritating, annoying and juvenile. It is noise for noise sake alone. The vuvuzela should be banned. Music, drums, rhythmic percussion, singing, chanting and applause are all very welcome; but the onerous, droning cacophony of the vuvuzela adds nothing to the atmosphere of the stadium.

This instrument has great nuisance value, and should be banned outright. Failing that, its use should be restricted to the confines of the stadium

While others are quite supporting of the vuvuzelas:

There is no way you can just come and rob people of their own pride and customs. If you don’t know it, learn more about it. Surely they have more irritating things like name calling our African players back in Europe. Viva Vuvuzela!

The Vuvuzela is a matter of pride (and religion) for some of us on the African continent and we will not allow our enjoyment of a once-in-lifetime event be overshadowed by someone watching the games from their living room in Europe.

A Recommendation and Final Thoughts

So where do I stand on this issue? I say: don’t ban the vuvuzelas, but FIFA must absolutely do something about controlling the noise level. Here’s one idea: don’t allow the fans to bring in the vuvuzelas into the stadium. Rather, give away the vuvuzelas to the first 1,000 (or whatever limited number, perhaps up to 10,000) fans who enter the stadium. Such a move will work because it will at once restrain the overall noise in the stadium and make the fans more excited to come to the matches early. It’s a win-win situation for all: vuvuzelas are still permitted at the matches, but the noise level is under control…

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think the vuvuzelas should be banned? What do you think of limiting the number of vuvuzelas permitted inside the stadiums?


Does the Internet Makes Us Smarter or Dumber?

There are two excellent pieces in last weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. One is how the internet is making us smarter, while the other one is how the internet is making us dumber (or more accurately, I think, more distracted).

In “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” the author of the piece, Clay Shirky, talks about the Gutenberg press, the Reformation, self-publishing, Wikipedia, and other interesting ideas in making his point.

I really like this paragraph:

The present is, as noted, characterized by lots of throwaway cultural artifacts, but the nice thing about throwaway material is that it gets thrown away. This issue isn’t whether there’s lots of dumb stuff online—there is, just as there is lots of dumb stuff in bookstores. The issue is whether there are any ideas so good today that they will survive into the future. Several early uses of our cognitive surplus, like open source software, look like they will pass that test.

But I am not sure I agree with this thought (have you read anything written by Noam Chomsky?):

Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.

With interesting articles, I always like to check out what people are thinking. The comments in this piece are excellent; I like this one:

The internet is a tool…like anything else.

If you waste your time using the Internet to entertain yourself 24/7 to watch useless videos of cats playing the keyboard, sneezing pandas, to forward emails to coworkers that have absolutely no value then it probably won’t help you intellectually…But if you’re using it to take online classes, learn something new from Wikipedia, study and work hard using free course materials from MIT’s OpenCourseWare, watch an educational video on youtube (there are THOUSANDS of them), connect and network with people who have similar interests and aims as you, and overall harness the power of the internet for your edification, then there is no greater tool (than paying 50,000 and attending University, of course).

I couldn’t agree more: the internet is what you make of it, and perhaps a better question would be how we’re leveraging our resources to become smarter with the internet.

The author of the other piece, “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” is Nicholas Carr, no doubt writing in The Wall Street Journal to promote his latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (the book is on my reading list). I think Carr’s piece does a better job of getting to the point:

When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking.

I think the internet is making us hunt for the quick fix: something that we can glance over and move on to the next great thing. Gone are the days when we sit down and actually read a book in its entirety (or say, a hundred pages), in one sitting. There is a purpose to signing off from the internet and participating in focused reading:

Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food.

My two main takeaways from the articles are:

  1. The internet isn’t necessarily making us dumber or smarter. It’s how we use our resources online to help us learn that ultimately matters.
  2. The articles, especially that from Mr. Carr, are misleading in their titles. I think a better question is: “Does the Internet Make us Distracted?” The answer, overwhelmingly so for most of us, is yes (don’t ask me how long it took me to type and publish this post)… Which I think leads to this question: now that we realize that the Internet does make us distracted, what are we going to do about it? If you’ll excuse me, I’m stepping away from the computer and grabbing that book on my bookshelf…

What are your thoughts on the two pieces? How has the Internet changed your life? I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

On Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

No one has ever really read Ulysses. And if they try to convince you otherwise, they’re either lying or pulling your chain.

That’s what our high school English teacher used to tell us about James Joyce’s epic novel, Ulysses. The natural skeptic that I am, the day after I first heard this proclamation, I went to my local library and decided to check out the book. However, it didn’t happen. I found the book on the shelf, opened it up, and started reading:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: INTROIBO AD ALTARE DEI

It was at this point that I said, “Whaaa?” Nevertheless, I decided to keep reading. I finished the first page. The damage was done. I put the book back on the shelf, defeated. I realized that perhaps those who say that they have read Ulysses, they maybe read the first page, or even the first chapter. But I have a hard time believing that they’ve read the entire book and understood what they’ve read.

Here is Joseph Collins writing in the New York Times in 1922 (I echo his sentiment and appreciate the critique):

A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend Ulysses, James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without going through a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from iteven from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of itsave bewilderment and a sense of disgust.

I recently met someone—let’s call her Emma—who mentioned that Ulysses is one of her favorite books. Curious, I inquired further. The conversation went like this:

Eugene: Wow, so you’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses? [Editor's note: I am always careful to preface works of literature with an author's name; for all I know, Emma might have thought I was talking about Tennyson's poem of the same name]

Emma: Yes, it is one of my favorite books. I’ve put blood, toil, tears, and sweat into that book, and I am proud of having read it.

Eugene: Okay, I understand the tears, sweat, and the toil. But did you really bleed while reading Ulysses?

Emma: Yes. Paper cut!

So there you go. Apparently that’s what it takes to read Ulysses.

Question for the reader: have you read Ulysses? Have you, really?

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[Resource: Analyzing Ulysses, in which Avinash Vora estimates that the book contains a (unique) vocabulary of 30,030 words. That's incredible!]