Monthly Archives: April 2017

“Where are the Gatekeepers?” a lecture by Dr. Dannagal G. Young

Dr. Young teaches at the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication. She writes for Huffington Post and The Atlantic magazine. I heard her lecture at Stockton University on April 13, 2017. The “Gatekeepers” of which she speaks are those who oversee the internet and, more specifically, social media.

Good question. What “gatekeepers”? What do we need/want in terms of internet and social media regulation? I think we agree that violent crimes should not be live streamed or posted. What else?

I am assuming “Communications” is one of the social sciences. By way of background, I admit to vague prejudice against the social sciences. I’m a chemist by training. I like the physical and biological sciences.

  • Experiments
  • Observations
  • Reproducibility

How do the social sciences meet those standards? (I’m speaking very generally here, lest I get bogged down.) I am skeptical about some social science research conclusions. I’m also skeptical about some “new “ fields of academic study – which is seriously unfair of me since I taught in one (Environmental Studies) for years, a very short time after it emerged.

Dr. Young provided important historical perspective. The “mass media” of my childhood (see blog post dated December 26, 2016) underwent a paradigm change, with 1982 as a pivotal year. “Mass media” was a form of “top down” communication, divorced from feedback, directed at isolated target individuals. “Digital mass media” enables feedback and networking. A person can be both a consumer and a producer of content. This is what Al Gore was thinking of when he theorized about “networked democracy”.

Dr. Young labels the internet a “sewer” of

  • Noise
  • Self indulgence
  • Flattery
  • Conspiracy theory

In other words, a dangerous disappointment. Moderation, education, contextualization and crowd sourcing are tools Facebook and other social platforms can use to improve their level of social responsibility.

During the Q/A period, I asked Dr. Young what kind of research on social media she would like to do, and what methods she would use. I can’t remember how she characterized her research interests, but the technique she said she used was the TELEPHONE SURVEY. I may have scowled – I’ve dodged telephone surveys for years. I hate them. Someone asked how you get people to participate. She said by “robo” dialing – on and on and on until you get the number of replies you need. She claimed that after 1000 replies, your outcome didn’t change much, so that was your “answer”. Really?? Someone pointed out that different sectors of the population must surely respond at different rates, and Dr. Young said that, for example, older people were more likely to participate in phone surveys, but cell-phone-only people emphatically do not. She mentioned “weighting” results to allow for this. By this time, she was looking sheepish. I was probably looking very skeptical indeed. Possibly I was glaring.

The discussion moved on the other topics, like WikiLeaks and political empowerment. Normally a seminar would lead to interesting discussion afterwards, but my internal alarm went off (dinner can only be postponed about so long – 7:15 pm is my absolute limit), so I departed.

Dr. Young investigates interesting subjects, and I’ll be watching for her name among the authors who turn up in my news feeds.


“The Agincourt Bride” and “The Tudor Bride” by Joanna Hickson

Nothing matches historical fiction for escape value! I particularly enjoyed these books because they were set in France. Maybe I’ve maxed out on English historical fiction.

I’ve decided historical fiction is part of the “fan fiction” genre (which I don’t actually read). People write “fan fiction” because they don’t want to let go of the character, settings and situations in their favorite fiction. I certainly sympathize with the inclination! Who isn’t frustrated about the delay in publication of more volumes of Game of Thrones?

A close friend of mine wrote a version of Homer’s Illiad. It’s a way of merging with the work and the author, a profoundly respectful assertion of co-ownership.

Will I ever take a stab at “fan fiction”? I doubt it. Historical fiction? Also unlikely… I like to write, but have stayed with non-fiction. Check out the works of Joanna Hickson if you need an agreeable dose of historical fiction.

Ride of Silence – April 9, 2017 – In honor of Michael Dare Gentile

“Ride of Silence” is simultaneously an event and a movement. It falls into the thought provoking category of


You don’t want a friend or relative to die while bicycling. You want to be safe on the road. “Ride of Silence” is an organization that commemorates the victims of cycling accidents AND advocates for bike safety and driver awareness.

Where to begin? Last October I was shocked to learn that an acquaintance had died bicycling on a highway a few miles from my house. I had not seen him in 15 years, but his name jumped off the newspaper page at me. He died on his way to work. It’s hard to imagine the shock and pain of his family, coworkers and friends. Michael Dare Gentile was a busy, respected school teacher.

Last week, he was honored in a “Ride of Silence”. I am so glad I was able to join that ride! Thirty or so cyclists and a dozen supporters gathered at the local middle school. There were brief remarks. The municipal police was present to provide escort.

We rode in pairs, and maintained silence. After 15 minutes, we reached the site of the fatal accident. A white painted bike has been placed there, far enough off the road to be safe from cars and mowing equipment. We placed flowers (and messages) on the bike. Then we rode on, silently enjoying the sunny spring morning. It fell to me to bring up the rear. I’m so accustomed to biking alone that I have no sense of how fast I “should” ride. Neither the ride organizers nor the police escort expressed impatience, so I contentedly finished the five mile course in just under an hour.

This was not ONLY a commemoration. It was a DEMONSTRATION, a statement that bicyclists are on the roads every day, and their safety is important. Drivers of motor vehicles need to obey the law and adjust their behavior to keep bicyclists safe. And bicyclists, too, need to be reminded – wear a helmet, keep your head up and your speed down, signal your intentions, follow the rules of the road.

If you see a WHITE PAINTED BICYCLE mounted near a highway, it marks the place where a bicyclist died. Do your part to keep everyone safe on the road. For information, Google “ride of silence”. National “Ride of Silence” day this year is May 17. It looks like there will be six events in New Jersey. Some are dedicated to the memory of a particular individual. Others are simply assertions that we all need to share the road in safety.

“Father Goriot” by Honore de Balzac

Piketty (see blog post dated April 14) cites the novelist Balzac as providing insight into the impact of income inequality in France around 1820. Balzac had that and a great deal more on his mind! The plot of Father Goriot is wildly melodramatic. There’s a touch of Shakespeare – Father Goriot reminds one of King Lear, but with no good, loving Cordelia to offset the wiles of the two conniving daughters. And Father Goriot never really acknowledges his daughters moral failings.

Wikipedia describes Balzac as “one of the founders of realism in European literature”. He is sometimes compared to Dickens. His descriptions of people and the urban streetscape are so vivid, I felt like I was watching a movie the whole time I was reading. The dismal, poverty stricken boardinghouse he described made my skin crawl. Father Goriot is part of Balzac’s panoramic Human Comedy.

Balzac explores in detail the relationship between wealth and social status, especially as it related to women. The daughters of old Goriot always want MORE, and are willing to lie and take great risks to maintain appearances. Goriot was a working class entrepreneur, a pasta maker and a speculator in grain. He thought, when he married his daughters to men with aristocratic titles, that his troubles were over. He died penniless.

Not only is this book translated (from French) but it includes occasionally obscure and archaic concepts. I shared a confusing paragraph with a friend, who said my problem was lack of familiarity with the “theory of humours”. You know, what happens if you have too much “black bile”. “Humours” were used to explain both health and disposition. Best to just keep reading…

This is a book which showcases the problems of a society that encompasses great extremes of wealth and poverty. Would I want to live in the world he describes? No way!

Balzac deserves far more careful attention than I am giving him here. If your currently book choice category is “filling in the blanks in my literary education”, I highly recommend Balzac’s Father Goriot.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty

I mentioned Piketty in my review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, blog post dated April 5.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century falls into several interesting categories:

  • I didn’t read it. I made substantial use of an informant (to use journalistic jargon) who happens to be a member of my household. I have never taken an economics course. I’ve probably read half a dozen popular books about economics.
  • The edition in hand was translated from French. I always assume that something could be lost (or gained) in translation. This book was published in French in 2013 and in English translation by Arthur Goldhammer in 2014, by Harvard University Press.
  • It’s been reviewed positively in venues I respect, like The New Yorker and The Guardian.

What have we got here?

  • Genre – nonfiction (academic research)
  • Text 578 pages
  • Notes 79 pages
  • 18 tables
  • 7 illustrations
  • About 100 figures

This heavy academic tome is a best seller! lists it as #1 in Comparative Economics. It has 1,761 customer reviews! Reviewers praise it as the most important economics book of the decade.

Piketty’s area of specialization is (the history of) wealth and income inequality. I’ll bet he saw OCCUPY WALL STREET coming, and many of our current political controversies.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a (surprisingly?) readable book. Piketty and Goldhammer have avoided most economics jargon. The exception? You must understand the term “rentier”. Perhaps it could also be translated as “owner”. A “rentier” makes money from money or land or assets, not from work. Got it? If you have any investments, you are a rentier (fem. “rentiere”, I think). If you read Robinson’s New York 2140, you remember that the RENT STRIKE was a tool of political activism.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century deals with questions that feel very real and immediate – how should capitalism be regulated? How should wealth be distributed? Who is helped/harmed by globalization?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is based on data, and written so that trends can be compared between countries. Piketty points out that some of our economic assumptions are based on “deviant” circumstances that no longer apply. This is important, since economists often seem to argue from opinion, rather than data.

In addition to analyzing reams of data, Piketty occasionally refers to the literature of the times he studies, offering examples of how the distribution of wealth impacts human lives. Two authors he cites are Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac. Jane Austen is familiar territory for me, but Balzac? I borrowed two of his short novels from the library. We started listening to Pere Goriot on a recent car trip.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is not Piketty’s last word. He published another book in 2015 and two more in 2016. He makes use of other forums, like

My goal is to read the introduction (39 pages) and the eight page conclusion. Then I’ll decide about making a serious assault on the whole volume…

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.