Category Archives: Culture

You Should Figure Out a Way to Get Off Facebook

alex atkins bookshelf culture“There are many different kinds of people, and [for] some, the benefits of Facebook are worth the loss of privacy. But to many, like myself, my recommendation is… you should figure out a way to get off Facebook. People think they have a level of privacy they don’t. Why don’t they give me a choice? Let me pay a certain amount, and you’ll keep my data more secure and private than everybody else [who is] handing it to advertisers…”

“Users provide every detail of their life to Facebook and Facebook makes a lot of advertising money off this. The profits are all based on the user’s info, but the users get none of the profits back… Apple [on the other hand] makes its money off of good products, not off of you. As they say, with Facebook, you are the product… I am in the process of leaving Facebook. It’s brought me more negatives than positives. Apple has more secure ways to share things about yourself. I can still deal with old school email and text messages.”

From two interviews that Steve Wozniak, American engineer and Apple co-founder, gave to TMZ (June 2019) and USA Today (April 2018). While Wozniak is criticism of Facebook is focused on privacy issues, there are many other experts warning about other more significant impacts of using Facebook: addiction to social apps (physical and psychological addiction), increased levels of anxiety and depression (that lead to declining mental and physical health, disruption of relationships, loss of sleep, and in severe cases even suicide), and the systemic corrosion of democratic elections (allowing foreign countries to launch hate and misinformation campaigns). Recall the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the focus of the alarming documentary The Great Hack (2019), where data from more than 70 million users was used to manipulate voter behavior. (If you haven’t watch this, it should be required viewing for every FB user: at its conclusions, you will be shocked and really pissed off.) Despite the chorus of criticism and warnings, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is utterly indifferent; in an interview with Vox (April 2018) he responded to the criticism of making money off of users’ personal data: “At Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use. I don’t think at all that that means that we don’t care about people.” [emphasis added] WTF? It would be curious to note how he regulates his children’s use of social media apps.

Are you ready to leave Facebook?

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Can You Legally Record the Police?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureThe recent deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of police officers shook the world from its complacency, sparking massive protests around the globe. Were it not for the videos that clearly recorded the murders, these crimes could have easily been covered up by the police. In fact, in an early police report, the arresting officers of the Minneapolis Police Department claimed that Floyd “physically resisted officers” — a claim that was not supported by the surveillance and bystander videos.

Crimes committed by police against citizens raises the critical question: can you legally record the police? The question is even more urgent at a time when journalists and the freedom of the press are under attack. In an article for The Intercept, journalist Trevor Timm writes: “We are witnessing a truly unprecedented attack on press freedom in the United States, with journalists are being systematically targeted while covering the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The scale of the attacks is so large, it can be hard to fathom. At the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker… we catalogued 150 press freedom violations in the United States in all of 2019. We are currently investigating 280 from just the last week… Police are responsible for the vast majority of assaults on journalists: over 80 percent.” In 2018, Reporters Without Borders, released the top five deadliest countries for journalists: Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, India, and now — the United States. It certainly doesn’t help that we have a president that has repeatedly called the press “the enemy of the people.”

Technology has empowered every individual to be a journalist; that is to say, every person who carries a smart phone has the ability to record what he or she sees in real time and upload that video almost instantly to a social media platform for the entire world to witness. This is an incredible and powerful capability, and as we have seen, it has pushed important issues that often lingered in obscurity into the light: racism, segregation, oppression, injustice, police brutality and crimes — to name a few. Therefore, every person, who one day may become a bystander, a witness to a crime, should become familiar with their first amendment rights and understand how he or she can legally record the police. To that end, the First Amendment Watch at New York University — an online news and educational resource for journalists, educators, and students — released a helpful guide that informs Americans of how they can record police legally. It can be downloaded here. It is worth noting that knowing and citing just a few court cases can persuade an overzealous police officer, who in the heat of the moment and not thinking clearly, to back down from stopping you from recording, taking away your smart phone, or trying to confiscate it illegally.

The Citizen’s Guide to Recording the Police begins with this statement:

Sixty-one percent of the U.S. population lives in states where federal appeals courts have recognized a First Amendment right to record police officers performing their official duties in public. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue. As a result, legal protections are fully secure only in those jurisdictions where federal circuits have issued a ruling. However, given the resounding support so far for this First Amendment protection, it seems highly likely that the remaining federal appeal courts would reach the same conclusion if the issue appears on their docket.

Here are some key court decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that protect first amendment rights:

Branzburg v. Hayes (1972) and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978)
“[The First Amendment] goes beyond [the] protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw…. [The] liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photo composition methods

Riley v. California (2014)
The court ruled that the Fourth Amendment prohibits police from seizing an individual’s recording device or later searching through its contents. The only legal way for police to seize a smart phone is through an arrest; the only way to access its contents is to acquire a warrant.

Here are some key court decisions by the United Circuit Court of Appeals that protect first amendment rights:

Askins v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security (9th Cir. 2018): First Amendment protects the photographing of patrol officers at ports of entry.

Fields v. Philadelphia (8th Cir. 2017): “First Amendment protects the act of photographing, filming, or recording police conducting official duties in public.”

Akins v. Knight (8th Cir. 2017): Has been mistakenly identified in the press as ruling against citizens’ First Amendment rights to film police in public. Akins was primarily ruled on procedural grounds, seeking the judge’s recusal. It did not analyze the merits of the constitutional claims, therefore cannot be categorized as either a pro- or anti-recording police case.

Turner v. Driver  (5th Cir. 2017): “A First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.”

Gericke v. Begin (1st Cir. 2014): Under the First Amendment, “private individuals possess a constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties.”

ACLU of Illinois v. Alvarez  (7th Cir. 2012): The Illinois’ eavesdropping statute did not apply to the recording of police activities in public.

Glik v. Cunniffe (1st Cir. 2011): There is “a constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public” and that right was “fundamental.”

King v. Ambs  (6th Cir. 2008): Free speech rights are not protected when a bystander is interfering with an arrest by instructing a suspect not to cooperate with police.

Smith v. City of Cumming (11th Cir. 2000): Affirmed “a First Amendment right, subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, to photograph or videotape police conduct.”

Fordyce v. City of Seattle (9th Cir. 1995): “First Amendment right to film matters of public interest,” as when Jerry Fordyce filmed police activity during a public protest.

And of course, the document contains the obligatory legal disclaimer: “The case studies produced by First Amendment Watch are intended for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Please consult an attorney in your state if you need legal representation.”

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World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times

alex atkins bookshelf quotations

It’s a bit eerie to read the warnings about evil, complicity, and falsehoods supported by violence — written by a famous author more than 50 years ago. But here we are, living in the same troubled times that Russian novelist, philosopher, and political prisoner Alexandr Solzhenitsyn witnessed during his lifetime. His works, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and The Gulag Archipelago exposed the horrors of the labor camps run by the Soviet state. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. In his speech to the Swedish Academy, Solzhenitsyn argues passionately about the value of the lessons that world literature can pass on from generation to generation so that “one nation learn correctly and concisely the true history of another.” And he argues that artists and writers can conquer oppressive falsehoods. Those, of course, are lofty and laudable goals; unfortunately, they are tempered by Aldous Huxley’s famous observation “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

“One world, one mankind cannot exist in the face of six, four or even two scales of values: we shall be torn apart by this disparity of rhythm, this disparity of vibrations. A man with two hearts is not for this world, neither shall we be able to live side by side on one Earth.

But who will co-ordinate these value scales, and how? Who will create for mankind one system of interpretation, valid for good and evil deeds, for the unbearable and the bearable, as they are differentiated today? Who will make clear to mankind what is really heavy and intolerable and what only grazes the skin locally? Who will direct the anger to that which is most terrible and not to that which is nearer? Who might succeed in transferring such an understanding beyond the limits of his own human experience? Who might succeed in impressing upon a bigoted, stubborn human creature the distant joy and grief of others, an understanding of dimensions and deceptions which he himself has never experienced? Propaganda, constraint, scientific proof — all are useless. But fortunately there does exist such a means in our world! That means is art. That means is literature.

[Art and literature] can perform a miracle: they can overcome man’s detrimental peculiarity of learning only from personal experience so that the experience of other people passes him by in vain. From man to man, as he completes his brief spell on Earth, art transfers the whole weight of an unfamiliar, lifelong experience with all its burdens, its colours, its sap of life; it recreates in the flesh an unknown experience and allows us to possess it as our own…

I believe that world literature has it in its power to help mankind, in these its troubled hours, to see itself as it really is, notwithstanding the indoctrinations of prejudiced people and parties. World literature has it in its power to convey condensed experience from one land to another so that we might cease to be split and dazzled, that the different scales of values might be made to agree, and one nation learn correctly and concisely the true history of another with such strength of recognition and painful awareness as it had itself experienced the same, and thus might it be spared from repeating the same cruel mistakes. And perhaps under such conditions we artists will be able to cultivate within ourselves a field of vision to embrace the WHOLE WORLD: in the centre observing like any other human being that which lies nearby, at the edges we shall begin to draw in that which is happening in the rest of the world. And we shall correlate, and we shall observe world proportions…

We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.

And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world – but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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Cornel West: We’re Witnessing the Collapse of the Legitimacy of Leadership

alex atkins bookshelf cultureCornel West, professor, public intellectual, philosopher, social critic, and civil rights activist was recently interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday (May 31, 2020). He remarked on the recent riots sparked by the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The riots began as local protests but quickly spread nationwide, stoked by America’s long history of deep-rooted, systemic racism, oppression, and entitlement as evidenced by stark inequalities in the criminal justice, health care, economic, and educational systems.

What’s going on [with racism and riots]?

“I think what we’re seeing here is the ways in which the vicious legacy of white supremacy manifests in organized hatred, greed and corruption. We’re witnessing the collapse of the legitimacy of leadership, the political class, the economic class, the professional class. That’s the deeper crisis. The beautiful thing is we’re seeing citizens who are caring and concerned, they’re hitting the streets. We’re seeing black, white, red, yellow, especially young people, coming together. [But] the problem is we have a system that’s not responding and seems to be unable to respond.”

Has the U.S. made any progress on racial issues?

“I’m not saying there hasn’t been progress; [however, to borrow from Malcolm X] if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. I don’t measure black progress in terms of black elites… I’m concerned about the least of these. That’s the tradition of Martin Luther King.”

Do you think that what we’re seeing in the streets — street violence, looting in African-American neighborhoods — do you think that’s doing any good for African Americans?

“No, most of my fellow citizens, God bless them, that are in the streets are there, the peaceful over there marching and when it does spill over into violence looting is wrong — but legalized looting is wrong too. Murder is wrong. Legalized murder is wrong. I look at the wickedness in high places first and then keep track of the least of these. We all have individual responsibility, but we’re living in a system that seems to be unable to reform itself and when you have such moment you get violent spillover. That’s the concern. If we’re more concerned about the property and spillover than the poverty, decrepit school systems, dilapidated housing, massive unemployment and underemployment, we’re going to be doing this every five, every ten, every twenty years… We got to make sure we don’t pass it on to our younger generation.”

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Riot is the Language of the Unheard

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating… But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”

More than 50 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. was addressing the issues of the time — racism, poverty, and economic justice. This excerpt is from the speech titled “The Other America” that he delivered at Stanford University on April 14, 1967. Just ten days prior to that presentation, King criticized the government’s misguided efforts to address the poverty that crippled the nation: “If we spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an ill-conceived war in Vietnam and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, we can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet, right now.”

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There Should Be a Word for That: Bingegrief

alex atkins bookshelf wordsYou know the feeling well. You find a fascinating series and you binge-watch it through however many seasons exist (six to eight if you’re lucky) on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Once you’re deep in the narrative you feel emotionally connected with the characters, and you are transported to another world, cherishing every moment, and anticipating every new episode to see where the story will take your cherished characters. You can’t wait to finish each season — but a funny thing happens as you reach that last season. You slow down, and want to cherish each episode, knowing full well that the show will come to its inevitable conclusion. After the show’s finale plays, and the credits begin to scroll, you feel the bliss draining from your body, replaced by a profound sadness. You can’t believe that the show is over and you have to say to those wonderful characters.

Interestingly, there is no word for this; however, clearly, there should be! Atkins Bookshelf offers a word for modern times: bingegrief. Bingegrief is defined as the sadness that you experience after binge-watching a show that you thoroughly enjoyed. The word, pronounced “binj GREEF,” is a compound word (combining the words “binge” and “grief”). The common evolution of compound words in the English language is that they begin hyphenated and then over time, the hyphen is dropped (do you remember “pigeon-hole”, “e-mail” and “chat-room”?). Consider that back in 2007, the Oxford English Dictionary dropped the hyphen from about 16,000 compound words for their two-volume print edition. So mate, let’s just dispense with the lexicological courtship and get right to the marriage of two words. And now, let’s use this new word in a sentence: “I was overwhelmed by bingegrief on Monday morning after binge-watching Money Heist over the weekend.” O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao!

Depending on the quality and length of a series, bingegrief can be very pronounced — like losing a friend or breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend. And just like real grief, bingegrief can paralyze you with sadness and ennui for days. If you are a fan of Netflix or Amazon Prime, especially during the extended quarantine imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, you know that bingegrief is a “thing;” but for the skeptics out there — there is actually science that explains this common feeling.

In an interview with NBC News, clinical psychologist Renee Carr explains, “When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge-watching, your brain produces dopamine. This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’ When bing-watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine. The neural pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as the addiction to binge-watching. Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.” This intense addiction to dopamine explains why 61% of viewers regularly watch between two to six episodes of a show in one sitting, according to a survey conducted by Netflix. People are sitting on the couch and shooting up with six hours of compelling series, like Money Heist. That same survey indicated that 73% of viewers reported positive feelings associated with binge-watching. So you can imagine what happens in the brain when the delivery of dopamine comes to a screeching stop: sadness, ennui, resulting in a mad scramble to go online and seek out the next series to binge — typing “Shows to watch like Money Heist…” into Google, like a junkie, trembling with withdrawals, waiting for the next hit. I can hear that haunting melody…. O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao!

Since humans are such social creatures, we also tend to bond with characters that we like or that we identify with; psychologists call this “identification” or “parasocial interaction.” This identification is stronger when both the character and their particular situation is similar to our own. In “wishful identification” the viewer is able to imagine being in the situation of the character and identifying with the protagonist’s success or power, and caring about what happens to the character. Thus, watching a show is both pleasurable and affirming, increasing the viewer’s self-esteem. Psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva explains that all of this experience becomes part of our life experience: “Our brains code all experiences, be it watched on TV, experienced live, read in a book or imagined, as ‘real’ memories. So when watching a TV program, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same as when experiencing a live event. We get drawn into story lines, become attached to characters and truly care about outcomes of conflicts.”

Naturally, after binging a show, viewers have to say goodbye to these characters, and that is when they begin feeling sad. Clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer explains the science behind bingegrief, which is an example of situational depression — similar to the mourning we experience when we lose someone close to us: “We often go into a state of depression because of the loss we are experiencing. We call this situational depression because it is stimulated by an identifiable, tangible event. Our brain stimulation is lowered (depressed) such as in other forms of depression.” Interestingly, a study conducted by the University of Toledo found that binge-watchers reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than those who were not binge-watchers. Part of the reason is that viewers are substituting virtual relationships for real human relationships as well as the isolation that comes from binge-watching alone.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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We Live in an Age Where Social Media Lures Us Into Selfishness

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“[We] live in an age of social media where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents. But that free agency is essentially unconnected to real community, divorced from civic engagement, duped into believing in our own lonely primacy by a sophisticated media culture that requires you – no, desperately needs you – to live in an all-consuming disposable present, wearing the right blue jeans, driving the right car, carrying the right handbag, eating at all the right places, blissfully unaware of the historical tides that have brought us to this moment, blissfully uninterested in where those tides might take us.

Our spurious sovereignty is reinforced and perpetually underscored to our obvious and great comfort, but this kind of existence actually ingrains in us a stultifying sameness that rewards conformity (not courage), ignorance and anti-intellectualism (not critical thinking). This wouldn’t be so bad if we were just wasting our own lives, but this year our political future depends on it. And there comes a time when I – and you – can no longer remain neutral, silent. We must speak up – and speak out.”

From the commencement address delivered at Stanford University on June 12, 2016 by Ken Burns, a historical documentary filmmaker. His observations are as relevant today as they were four years ago.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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Why You Should Start a Coronavirus Diary

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAs you read this, you are making history. That’s right — you are making history along with millions of other people around the globe who are sheltering in place to ensure that health professionals and essential workers are not endangered or overwhelmed. In short we are staying home to save someone’s life. In the absence of any vaccine or cure, we have to work together to get through this existential nightmare. Each day we must brace ourselves to endure the seemingly endless waves of fear, anxiety, frustration, depression, or uncertainty that wash over us. On good days, those waves are relatively low; but on bad days, the waves get so high that they drown you. And each day we must get up and renew our collective pledge: “Together we will get though this.” But it isn’t very easy. So how do we make sense of all the ceaseless “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?” How do we soldier on?

For a way out of this maw of misery, let us step back in time — specifically to June 12, 1942. We climb up the stairs to find a hidden attic apartment where a young girl, who just turned 13, has just received a special birthday gift: a red and white checkered diary. On that day, she opens it and writes her first entry: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” The girl’s name? Annelies Marie Frank, better known as Anne Frank.

78 years later, Anne Frank’s personal writings, published as The Diary of a Young Girl (commonly referred to as The Diary of Anne Frank; it has sold more than 35 million copies), transcend time and place to speak to us today, amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Her diary is both a testament to the endurance of the human spirit as well as a brilliant beacon that pierces the darkness to guide us to hope, encouragement, comfort, and courage. Indeed, one of the most significant contributions of Anne Frank’s diary is the enduring power of voice. Recall William Faulkner’s powerful and eloquent observation about the duty of the writer in his Nobel acceptance speech: “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking… I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Amen, brother.

Another significant contribution of Anne Frank’s diary is the therapeutic value of writing a diary. Keeping a diary serves as a lens to reflect on and help understand what is happening all around us. Writing provides the welcomed opportunity to contemporaneously process all of one’s thoughts and feelings. Today, many mental health experts are suggesting that we all take a page from Anne Frank’s diary and start keeping a coronavirus diary or journal. Over the last few weeks, several articles with titles like “Why You Should Start a Coronavirus Diary” are being published as a way to help people deal with the negative impact of the coronavirus (eg, anxiety, depression, loneliness, severe illness, and death). Many people who are infected report that reading how other patients are coping with the coronavirus has a very positive healing effect.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, explained, “It’s incredibly useful both for us personally and on a historical level to keep a daily record of what goes on around us during difficult times.” Herbert Braun, a professor of history at the University of Virginia adds, “We have to convince ourselves that we’re writing something that perhaps other people want or need to read… When we write these words, they don’t have to be great. They don’t have to be perfect.” The critical thing is that years from now, future generations will want to know what people went through. One archivist said it best: “Some of the best stories we get are from ordinary people who are experiencing something extraordinary.”

Another article by the Los Angeles Times titled “Coronavirus Diaries are Helping People Cope — They’re Also a Research Gold Mine” highlights how infected individuals who post COVID-19 diaries are helping many others who cannot see a doctor or obtain tests. The diaries help readers self-diagnose or confirm symptoms. The coronavirus diaries also help guide others through the illness so they know what to expect and learn what remedies to explore. Sean Young, an associate professor at UCLA who studies digital behavior noted that people turn to social media doing a health crisis: “When the government is inconsistent in their messaging, then that creates confusion, fear and chaos. People want to share their symptoms because they’re looking for a community. They’re looking to find out how other people have recovered with similar symptoms. It’s a good resource to hear from others if it makes us feel better, if it doesn’t make us feel more anxious.” The information gleaned from diaries is also a big help to researchers who are studying the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, while turning to coronavirus diaries can help reduce anxiety, the flip side is that diaries can also spread misinformation that can be dangerous — or even lethal. So readers need to do some research on what they read.

So how do you get started on writing a coronavirus diary? Simple — start writing about today. You can take the old school approach and write in a specially bound journal or a spiral-bound notebook. Or you can take the digital route and create a Google document, a Word document, or start a daily blog. Begin with questions like: what did I do today? What did you read about or learn in the news that caught your attention? How did that news make you feel? What reflections did that news evoke? What did you learn about a colleague, friend, or relative today? What were your thoughts or feelings about that news? What is the saddest thing that happened today? What made you happy today? What did you read, hear, or watch that inspired you to get through the day?

If you need inspiration, read some of the current coronavirus diaries online, or curl up with The Diary of Anne Frank. Who knows — one day students will be reading from your diary and understanding what it was really like to live through America’s deadliest pandemic and most crippling financial recession. And like Anne Frank’s diary it will inspire them to endure whatever hardships they might be facing.

Are you writing a coronavirus journal? How is it helping you to cope?

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For further reading: Anne Frank: Her Life and Legacy by the editor of Life Magazine

The Coronavirus Rhapsody as Music Therapy

alex atkins bookshelf musicThis is a challenging time for most Americans, especially if you have been watching many hours of news each day while sheltering in place. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of adults say that the pandemic has affected their mental health; 19% of respondents indicated that the pandemic has a “major impact.” Mixing social isolation with unemployment with the fear of getting ill and possibly dying makes a toxic mental health cocktail. Consequently, millions of people in America — and all around the globe — are experiencing the same conditions: anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Interviewed for The Washington Post, Joshua Morganstein, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster notes the importance of staying connected: “It’s also important to remember that the vast majority of people, including all of us who are experiencing difficulties along the way, will ultimately do well. Finding and sharing creative solutions to the problems people are facing, taking care of ourselves and our families in the best way we are able, and staying connected to one another will remind us we are in this together and help us get through this difficult time.”

And many people are doing just that — with the luxury of time afforded by being self-quarantined, people are finding very creative ways to deal with current climate of stress and anxiety. And what is one of the most therapeutic tools? That’s right — music. Extensive research has been done with music as a therapeutic tool to increase relaxation, reduce stress, reduce blood pressure, promote optimism, induce meditative states, reduce loneliness, relieve boredom, and so forth. There is another powerful tool… ever heard the adage “laughter is the best medicine”? Many of the most successful comedians use their personal difficulties as fodder for their humor; and by baring them and making fun of them, they disarm feelings of despair and anxiety. It is a cathartic experience for the comedian and a therapeutic experience for the audience.

So what happens when you mix these two tools, music and comedy? You get the incredibly delightful and therapeutic tool of the music parody. To that end, singer Adrian Grimes and comedian Dana Jay Bein recorded the delightful Coronavirus Rhapsody, a parody of Queen’s hit song, Bohemian Rhapsody, from the album A Night at the Opera (1975). Here are the clever lyrics.

Coronavirus Rhapsody

Is this a fever?
Is this just allergies?
Caught in a lockdown
No escape from the family
Don’t touch your eyes
Just hand sanitize quickly
I’m just a poor boy
No job security
Because of easy spread
Even though
I washed my hands
Laying low
I look out the window
The curve doesn’t look flatter
To me… to me

Mama, I just killed a man
I didn’t stay inside in bed
I walked past him, now he’s dead
Mama, life was so much fun
But now I’ve got this unforgiving plague
Mama, oooooh
I didn’t mean to make them die
If I’m not back to work this time tomorrow
Carry on, carry on
As if people didn’t matter

Too late, my time has come
Send shivers down my spine
Social isolation time
Goodbye everybody
I hope its just the flu
I’ve got to leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama (Chorus: just look out your window)
I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I never went out at all

I see a little silhouette of a man
(What a douche, what a douche
Did he even wash his hands though
No toilet paper frightening
Very very frightening me
Gotta lay low, gotta lay low, gotta lay low, gotta lay low
wait… what did he say?)

I’m just a poor boy, facing mortality
(He’s just a poor boy facing mortality
Spare him his life from this monstrosity

(Touch your face, wash your hands;
Will you wash your hands?
Bismillah! No! We will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Bismillah! We will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Bismillah! We will not wash our hands
Will not wash our hands
Wash your hands
Never, never wash our hands
Never no — no! no! no! no! no! no! no!
Oh Mama mia, Mama mia,
Mama mia, wash your hands)
COVID-19 has a sickness put aside for me, for me, for me

So you think you can stop me and just shake my hand?
So you think we can hang out and not break our plans?
Oh baby! Can’t do this with me baby
Just gotta stay home
I hope I don’t run out of beer

(Oooooooh…. ooh yeah! ooh yeah!)
The curve could get much flatter
Anyone can see
The curve could get much flatter
You know it’s your responsibility
Just look out your window

Like COVID-19, the song has gone um… viral. As of this writing the music video has been viewed more than 4.1 million times. But not everyone is a fan of the parody. In an interview, Grimes elaborates, “I’ve had a few comments suggesting that this is ‘insensitive.’ I want to emphasize that I know where these people are coming from. My wife works in healthcare and I have two young kids. I know very well how this virus could impact my family. Every day that my wife goes to work, I hope it is another ‘bonus’ day we get together before the wave hits and I don’t have to quarantine her and stop our children from hugging her. However, I hope that even in those circumstances, should they occur, I will still be able to maintain a sense of humor, and a lot of comments from people already affected by coronavirus have told me how much they appreciate this. I thank you for your understanding in these unprecedented times.”

Listen to the song here:

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Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?
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For further reading:

What is the Trolley Problem?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureNo, the trolley problem has nothing to do with bewildered tourists in San Francisco who don’t know which trolley to take: the Powell/Hyde line or the California/Van Ness line? Rather, the trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics or moral psychology. The trolley problem is set up like this: Imagine there is a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks and you are standing some distance off, right next to a lever that controls the direction of the tracks. In the lever’s current position the trolley will travel straight, leading to five people standing on the main track; if you pull the lever, it will divert the trolley to a side track where one person is standing. What is the ethical thing to do? Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill five people? Or pull the lever, diverting the trolley to a side track where it will kill one person? Not an easy decision to make is it?

In ethics, the trolley problem sets up a clash between two schools of moral thought: deontology and utilitarianism. A deontologist would argue that the morality of an action is based on whether an action itself is right or wrong under a set of rules, rather than the consequences of the action. In short, the action is more critical than the consequences. The utilitarian would argue the opposite: that an action is right as long as it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If you are a fan of the original sci-fi series, Star Trek, from the late 1960s, you will recognize the theme of utilitarianism that is woven into many episodes: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  We can paraphrase the Star Trek aphorism to align more closely to true utilitarianism: “The happiness of the many outweigh the happiness of the few.” And in contrast with the deontologist, the consequences are more critical than the act.

On another level, the trolley problem represents a Cornelian dilemma: a dilemma where a person must choose between two courses of action that either of which will have a harmful effect on themselves or others. The phrase is named after Pierre Corneille, a French dramatist. In his play, Le Cid (1636), Rodrigue, the protagonist, must choose between seeking revenge and losing his beloved or forego revenge and losing his honor.

So what are you — a deontologist or a utilitarian? What would you do in this difficult situation? Philosophers and psychologist are fascinated with this moral dilemma, and many studies and surveys have been done to study how people respond to the trolley problem. In many surveys, 90% of the respondents choose to pull the lever and sacrifice one live to save the five people. A survey of professional philosophers conducted in 2009 revealed that 70% of them would pull the lever, 8% would not, and 22% could not answer or offered another view.

Why is the trolley problem relevant now? As the COVID-10 pandemic overwhelms medical facilities and supplies, doctors find themselves at the very levers of disease’s tracks. Doctors have reported that they face agonizing decisions about which patients to treat and save, and those not to treat which will result in death. In most, if not all cases, doctors are making utilitarian decisions: the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
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The Deadliest Pandemics in History

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAs of this writing, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has claimed 7,100 lives around the globe (80 of those have been in the U.S.). There is an estimated 181,000 people who have contracted the virus (4,300 of those are Americans). Unfortunately, COVID-19 is just getting started. As many experts have stated, it is going to get worse before it gets better. So that invites the question, how does COVID-19 stack up against some of the deadliest pandemics in human history?

Before we get to that, let’s clarify the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. An epidemic is the rapid spread of a disease across a specific region or regions. Once that disease spreads from country to country around the globe, it is classified as a pandemic. Thus, all pandemics begin as epidemics; however — and fortunately — not all epidemics become pandemics. In general, pandemics result in more fatalities than epidemics. One notable exception is the Cocoliztli epidemic (also known as “The Great Pestilence”) that occurred in 1545 resulting in 12-15 million deaths in Mexico. The native Aztecs succumbed to the lethal disease brought by the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes. The Aztecs were particularly vulnerable due to a variety of factors: weakened immunity, exacerbated by years of disease after a long drought, on top of a deadly outbreak of smallpox in 1520, also introduced by the Spanish, that resulted in more than 8 million deaths. 

When you review the list of the deadliest pandemics in human history, you realize that the mortality rate of the COVID-19 is relatively low so far — but that can change as quickly as a virus can mutate. Here are the deadliest pandemics in human history, in descending order:

The Black Death (Bubonic Plague; in the Middle Ages it was referred to as “The Great Mortality”) pandemic: 1346-1353
Origin: Central or East Asia
Death toll: 75-200 million

Plague of Justinian: 541-542
Origin: Byzantine Empire (the capital was Constantinople, what is now Istanbul, Turkey) and port cities around the Mediterranean Sea
Death toll: 25-50 million

HIV/AIDS pandemic: 2005-2012
Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo
Death toll: 36 million

Antonine Plague (also known as the Plague of Galen): 165-180
Origin: Aisa Minor
Death Toll: 5 million

Asian flu pandemic: 1956-58
Origin: Guizhou, China
Death toll: 2 million

Russian or Asiatic flu pandemic: 1889-1890
Origin: Bukhara, Turkestan (what is now Uzbekistan)
Death toll: 1 million

Hong Kong flu pandemic: 1968
Origin: Hong Kong
Death toll: 1 million

Third cholera pandemic: 1852-1860
Origin: India
Death toll: 1 million

Sixth cholera pandemic: 1910-11
Origin: India
Death toll: 800,000

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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For further reading: The Black Death, The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 by John Aberth
Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon-Portilla


How Many Hours Does It Take to Make a Friend?

alex atkins bookshelf culture“Friendship is not about whom you know the longest,” observed the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, “It is about who came and never left.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement — and now there is research that confirms it. Psychologist Jeffrey Hall and his colleagues from the University of Kansas recently placed friendship under the microscope, as it were. In his study, titled “How Many Hours Does It Take to Make A Friend” published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (March 15, 2018), Hall reviews some of the fascinating findings from previous studies on friendship:

• Having friends is a key predictor of life satisfaction and happiness.

• The quality and number and of social interactions that occur early in life can predict loneliness, well-being, and depression thirty years later.

• Despite well-documented benefits, people do not always prioritize spending time with friends. Americans only spend about 41 minutes a day socializing — which accounts for one-third of the amount of time spent commuting or watching television. Given significant constraints on free time, especially among working adults and parents, individuals must budget their time wisely in order to make time for friends.

• Factors that promote the development of friendship are proximity, spending time together, and shared activities.

• Due to cognitive and temporal constraints there is a limit to the number of friends that a person can have: research suggests that limit is approximately 150. Sorry, so-called friends on Facebook don’t really count.

• Research has identified five distinct types of friends. In order of decreasing closeness they are (number in parenthesis indicate range of individuals within that category): support clique (1-5 individuals), sympathy group (10-15), friendship group (40-50), clansmen (120-150), and acquaintances. Perhaps we can add to that list a sixth type, Facebook friends, which can be described as “fluctuating, unreliable members of a digital community with a tenuous connection to an individual.”

• Potential friends make fairly rapid assessments of the likability and desirability of a potential friend and subsequently decide to spend time together. This rapid selection process creates a group of similar and liked individuals from which deeper friendships can grow

• Longitudinal studies of friendship development indicate that friendship development happens rather swiftly, usually within three to nine weeks after the initial meeting. It then takes three to four months for close friendships to develop. Thus, while it is possible to know someone for many years, but not become friends, it is possible to become best friends with someone you have known for just six weeks.

• An early study in 1965 found that people become friends after spending about 60 of hours together. A later study in 1988 found that people become friends after three interactions of half an hour plus an initial interaction of less than six hours of close personal interaction.

Hall’s recent study was based on the Communicate Bond Belong (CBB) theory. Hall explains, “[CBB] offers an evolutionary perspective on interpersonal communication that focus on the underlying need to belong in relation to the amount and content of social interactions. CBB theory affirms… that there are limits on human sociability and time. The theory asserts that both the amount of time and the type of activity shared with a partner can be thought of as strategic investments toward satiating long-term belongingness needs. As the need to belong is thought to be ultimately satiated only through the possession of enduring, close relationships, CBB theory asserts that humans must carefully invest their available time and social energy in ways most likely to create promising new relationships or to cement existing ones. Yet, each relationship requires ongoing investments of hours of time and energy, particularly among non-kin. Therefore, time spent together, especially leisure time, can be thought of as an investment toward future returns on belongingness need satiation…. The theory proposes that some types of social interaction are more capable of satiating individuals’ need to belong than others. Certain communication episodes, such as meaningful conversation, catching up, joking around, and affectionate communication, are associated with a higher degree of in-the-moment closeness and well-being than do all other types of everyday talk.”

Hall conducted two studies with two groups of individuals over several months. In the study, a close friendship was measured by three factors: emotional closeness, commitment to relationship, and the perceived uniqueness of the individual. The studies confirmed that time is an important constraint of friendship and that measuring time spent together is predictive of friendship. The following are the specific findings from Hall’s studies:

• Relationships with less than 10 hours of shared time result in acquaintances or “friends of friends.”

• It takes about 30 hours to form a casual friendship.

• It takes about 50 hours to form a friendship.

• It takes about 140 hours to form a good friendship.

• It takes about 300 hours to form a best friend.

• Casual friends become friends between 57 hours over 3 weeks and 164 hours over 3 months.

• Friends become good or best friends after 119 hours over 3 weeks and 219 hours over 3 months.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Doublets: The Importance of Friendships
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Can You Fall in Love in 36 Questions?

For further reading:

Blogging by the Numbers

alex atkins bookshelf cultureTo paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To blog or not to blog: that is the question / Whether tis nobler in the mind to to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or take arms against a sea of troubles / And by writing about them, feeling liberated or validated.” Just ponder this for a moment: what would the Internet be like without blogging? The proliferation of blogs over the last two decades confirms that people truly long for sharing what they think, what they feel. Moreover, they long for connection via meaningful dialog as well as a sense of belonging (the global community of internet. Note how well this aligns with the mid-point of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: need to belong: love, affection friendship, tribes. That is why the comments section is such a vital part of the blogging platform. In a typical social situation, you sit across a friend or two and connect with them by sharing your thoughts; a blog is that scenario multiplied exponentially — now you are sitting across 31.7 million people (those on blogging platforms) and as many as 4.5 billion people (those who use the internet). But, hey, no pressure.

As of this writing, there are 1.75 billion websites on the internet and blogs make up slightly over one quarter of all those. So why do people blog? The five top reasons why people write a blog are: become self-employed, express myself creatively, build an audience, teach what I know, and earn more money. So what are you waiting for? Don’t end up like Hamlet with chronic analysis paralysis — start your blog today and connect with millions of potential readers!

At last, for your enlightenment and inspiration, here’s a look at blogging by the numbers:

Number of blogs on the internet: 500 million

Number of blogs posts published each year: 2 billion

Number of blog posts published each day: 5.7 million

Number of blog posts published each minute: 4,000

Number of active bloggers: 31 million

Percentage of internet users that read blogs: 77%

Percentage of readers who skim posts: 43%

Most popular time to read blogs: 7:00 am to 10:00 am

Number of blogs hosted on Tumbler: 440 million

Number of blogs hosted on WordPress: 60 million

Number of new WordPress posts produced each month: 70 million

Number of WordPress blogs read each month: 21.1 billion

Number of comments made by WordPress users each month: 77 million

Percentage of users who profit from blogging: 10%

Percentage of blog posts written in English: 71%

Number of words in a title that produce highest traffic: 6-13

Percentage of readers who share posts with others: 94%

Percentage of reader who share a post without reading it: 59%

Percentage of traffic created by older blog content: 38%

Percentage of bloggers who update older posts: 38%

Average word count of top-ranking blog posts: 1200 (taking about 6 minutes to read)

Average time it takes to write a blog post: 3.5 hours

Percentage of bloggers who edit their own work: 46%

Percentage of bloggers who write a few times per month: 66%

Height of stack of paper if you printed all those blog posts: 3,277 miles tall

Percentage of websites that have a blog: 25%

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SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

For further reading:

What Makes Facebook So Popular?

alex atkins bookshelf culture“What makes Facebook so popular? What makes Facebook so unique is that it is able to marry two of the most powerful human emotions: narcissism and insecurity. First, Facebook allows you to create a world that centers on you. Then it lets you protect that world by surrounding it with only people you accept as friends. It’s like controlling the guest list to an exclusive party where you are the star. Facebook allows you to feel important and safe — at the same time.”

Brant Pinvidic, from his documentary Why I’m Not on Facebook (2015). The documentary was inspired by Pinvidic’s question: should I or shouldn’t I join Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site with more than 1.6 billion users? To answer that question, Pinvidic interviews dozens of people, including Facebook members, those who hate Facebook, the original founders of Facebook, celebrities, wannabe celebrities, Facebook friends, real friends, and family members. He learns how Facebook can bring out the best in people (families staying in touch, classmates who organize reunions, and sharing hobbies) as well as the worst in people (unfaithful spouses who cheat and destroy their marriages, criminals who learn about their targets and when to rob a home, pick-up artists who set up one-night stands, serial stalkers, and people who are so highly addicted to Facebook that they cannot have a face-to-face conversation — ironic huh?). Even though Facebook is about bringing people together, it also breaks them apart: about 30% of divorces are due to Facebook. Pinvidic also meets with Dr. Drew Pinsky who introduces him to the Dr. Drew Narcissism Test, from his book The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America, that helps assess an individual’s level of narcissism. Incidentally, the score for a typical person is 15; a highly narcissistic person will score 40. Pinvidic took the test and his score was both revelatory and disturbing. He couldn’t leave Dr. Drew’s office fast enough. Ultimately, at the end of his quest for enlightenment of all things Facebook, Pinvidic discovers that the happiest people are the ones who are not on Facebook — so he decides not to join Facebook.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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For further reading:

Isaac Asimov: There is a Cult of Ignorance in the United States

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you have watched any of the recent impeachment hearings or the President’s recent State of the Union Address, not to mention general coverage of politics over the past few years, one must sadly arrive at the inescapable conclusion that we are living in a post-truth world, where Truth does not matter, where a belief or opinion — no matter how ill-informed or irrational — has trumped (pun intended) objective facts. In short, we are living in an Orwellian world. Indeed, George Orwell’s dystopian novel (written more than seven decades ago) is a magnifying glass that exposes how language and disinformation is used as a powerful political tool to conceal the truth in order to manipulate the masses. Listen to these notable lines from 1984: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command… In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it… Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness… And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.” It’s eerie isn’t it?

But few know that another influential writer and intellectual would mine this same territory thirty years later — as the actual year 1984 approached. For many years, Newsweek magazine contained a feature titled “My Turn” where a notable individual wrote about any issue that they felt was important. For the January 21, 1980 issue, world-renown science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote a very thought-provoking essay titled “A Cult of Ignorance” that is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. Interestingly, the essay was never reprinted in any collection of essays — a disservice to what Asimov saw then and is happening now: the rise of anti-intellectualism. So what does anti-intellectualism mean? Anti-intellectualism, according to Richard Hofstadter, professor of American history at Columbia University, public intellectual, and author of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), is defined as “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” In his essay, Asimov argues that there is a cult of anti-intellectualism in America that perpetuates a very flawed concept of democracy: that every person’s opinion, whether ill-informed or well-informed, is considered equal. Stated another way, in a democracy, equality of rights does not necessarily mean equality of knowledge — an opinion formed on the basis of lies does not have the same significance of an opinion based on objective facts. And this is something that politics parties misuse to their advantage: it is in their best interest to disseminate lies, to perpetuate ignorance — indeed, to create a cult of ignorance — to manipulate the masses. And here are some of critical questions: can we ever get back to a world that values Truth? How do we do it? How long will it take?

Here is Asimov’s essay, “A Cult of Ignorance,” for your consideration and discussion:

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, “America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?”

None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school. Thus, Adlai Stevenson, who incautiously allowed intelligence and learning and wit to peep out of his speeches, found the American people flocking to a Presidential candidate who invented a version of the English language that wall all his own and that has been the despair of satirists ever since.

George Wallace, in his speeches, had, as one of his prime targets, the “pointy-headed-professor,” and with what a roar of approval that phrase was always greeted by his pointy-head-audience.

Now we have a new slogan on the part of the obscurantists: “Don’t trust the experts!” Ten years ago, it was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” But the shouters of that slogan found that the inevitable alchemy of the calendar converted them to the untrustworthiness of the over-30, and, apparently, they determined never to make that mistake again. “Don’t trust the experts!” is absolutely safe. Nothing, neither the passing of time nor exposure to information will convert these shouters to experts in any subject that might conceivably be useful.

We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called “elitists.” That’s the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don’t know what an “elitist” is, or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts “Elitist” it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

All right, then, forget my ingenuous question. America’s right to know does not include knowledge of elitist subjects. America’s right to know involves something we might express vaguely as “what’s going on” in the courts, in Congress, in the White House, in industrial councils, in the regulatory agencies, in labor unions — in the seats of the mighty, generally.

Very good. I’m for that, too. But how are you going to let people know all that?

Grant us a free press, and a corps of independent and fearless investigative reporters, comes the cry, and we can be sure that the people will know.

Yes, provided they can read!

To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headlines — but how many non-elitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic?

Moreover, the situation is growing worse. Reading scores in the schools decline steadily. The highway signs, which used to represent elementary misreading lessons (“Go Slo,” “Xroad”) are steadily being replaced by little pictures to make them internationally legible and incidentally to help those who know how to drive a car but, not being pointy-headed professors, can’t read.

Again, in television commercials, there are frequent printed messages. Well, keep your eyes on them and you’ll find out that no advertiser ever believes that anyone but an occasional elitist can read that print. To ensure that more than this mandarin minority gets the message, every word of it is spoken out loud by the announcer.

If that is so, then how have Americans got the right to know? Grant that there are certain publications that make an honest effort to tell the public what they should know, but ask yourselves how many actually read them.

There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent — or less — of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.

What shall we do about it?

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism.”

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like “America’s right to know” and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Again?
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will Be Governed by Idiots
Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic?

For further reading: 1984 by George Orwell
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The Roving Mind by Isaac Asimov
The Tyrannosaurus Prescription and 100 Other Essays by Isaac Asimov

What Were the Most Popular Wikipedia Articles of 2019?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureThe measure of a culture is what its people read or watch, which provides some insight into what they actually think about. As the year 2019 comes to a close it invites the question: what did people think about in 2019? What were they curious about? We can, of course, ask that another way that is perhaps more practical: what topics did people look up the most in Wikipedia in 2019? In mid-December, a researcher analyzed the Wikipedia metrics to ascertain the most popular articles of 2019. If you expect to see a number of profound, philosophical topics, you will be greatly disappointed — the list reveals an intellectual shallowness, characterized by an obsession with fictional heroes, movies, and celebrities. Given all the critical issues that nations — and the entire planet — are struggling with, is this really what people are pondering? There is no way to sugarcoat this — we are in deep trouble. Perhaps a superhero can materialize and help us! Here are the 25 most searched topics in Wikipedia for 2019 (number of pageviews in parenthesis):

Avengers: Endgame – 43,847,319
Deaths in 2019 – 36,916,847
Ted Bundy – 29,062,988
Freddie Mercury – 26,858,123
Chernobyl disaster – 25,195,814
List of highest-grossing films – 24,547,640
Joker (2019 film) – 22,062,357
List of Marvel Cinematic Universe films – 21,467,603
Billie Eilish – 19,638,478
Keanu Reeves – 16,622,576
Jeffrey Epstein – 15,905,486
Game of Thrones (season 8) – 15,643,215
Captain Marvel (film) – 15,631,936
Game of Thrones – 15,252,675
Elizabeth II – 14,808,717
List of Bollywood films of 2019 – 14,213,919
United States – 13,981,783
Donald Trump – 13,961,113
Spider-Man: Far From Home – 13,468,700
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – 12,958,871
YouTube – 12,537,494
2019 in film – 11,338,657
Nipsey Hussle – 11,308,502
Jason Momoa – 11,304,629
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – 11,000,322

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Read related posts: Word of the Year 2019
How Many Pages Would it Take to Print Wikipedia?
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For further reading:

What Does Elizabeth Holmes’ Real Voice Sound Like?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureYou’ve probably seen Elizabeth Holmes’ face dozens of times by now — the inventor and CEO of Theranos who was going to revolutionize the blood-testing industry with the Edison machine that could analyze dozens of medical tests from a single drop of blood. Her career mirrored a Shakespearean tragedy: a meteoric rise (at its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion dollars), followed by the revelation of a tragic flaw (Holmes had to spin a web of lies to fool investors and regulators about Edison’s deep flaws), followed by a tumultuous fall from grace. There are so many layers to this modern tragedy that make it such a compelling story, but for now let’s focus on one of the most fascinating aspects of our tragic hero.

There are many videos that show Holmes appearing in interviews or technology conferences. Out walks this tall, attractive woman, dressed entirely in black (black shoes, black slacks, and black turtleneck — her feeble attempt to say: “Hey look at me! — I am the female Steve Jobs!”), creating a sharp contrast from her very fair skin and baby face, framed by a mane of shimmering blond, wispy hair. One is immediately mesmerized by those huge, piercing blue eyes. She stands there for a moment, a female Svengali, sizing up her audience that sits quietly with bated breath. What will she say? And then she speaks. That voice! WTF? Is there something wrong with the microphone? Out of those bright blood-red lips comes this deep, baritone voice that is so amazingly discordant from her appearance. It’s like looking at some clueless old chap who is wearing a terrible toupee that you can spot a mile away (you know the type: light fine hair on the sides, dark thick hair on top). After a few sentences one reaches an inescapable conclusion:  “This voice is totally fake!” Naturally, Holmes’ low, deep voice has been fodder for endless ridicule and criticism: “Her voice sounds like when children try to pretend they are adults.” “Her voice sounds like a woman pretending to be a man.” “Her voice sounds like a woman who has a potato stuck in her throat.” “Her voice sounds like Kevin McCallister in the Home Alone movie when he calls the police near the end of the movie.” “She sounds like a zombie.” “She sounds like Kermit the Frog getting an enema.” “Wasn’t she that whacked-out chick in the movie The Exorcist?” I could go on… 

So this begs the question: what does Elizabeth Holmes’ real voice sound like? The best person to answer that questions is John Carreyrou, the investigative reporter from the Wall Street Journal and author of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, whose carefully-researched stories brought down the Theranos house of cards. At a talk during his book tour in 2018, Carreyrou explained the truth behind Holmes’ deep, low voice: “It’s an affect. There’s an anecdote in the book where an employee joins in early 2011 and at the end of a long day she concludes a meeting with him in her office. [She] gets up, grabs her jacket to leave and on her way out expresses excitement that he’s joined the company, that he’s on board, and says that they’re gonna do great things. [She] forgets to turn on the baritone and lapses into a more natural sounding young woman’s voice… And I just don’t base it on that anecdote. Her best friend at Stanford was a source for the book… and she says that Elizabeth’s voice sounded nothing like that when she was at Stanford. … A family member was [also] a source for the book and that person says that the voice was affected as well… The best proof of it is that I have a recording of an interview she gave in May 2005 to NPR’s Biotech Nation program and at that point she’s 20 or 21 years old… and she sounds nothing like the Elizabeth Holmes of 2014 or 2015. [In the interview] the pitch of her voice is higher, she speaks fast — almost so fast that she sort of stumbles over her own words. She is like this bubbly young hyper-enthusiastic woman. And when you contrast that to the very poised, contrived persona that she fashioned over the ensuing decade, it’s quite a contrast.” The NPR interview, where you can hear Elizabeth Holmes’ real voice, can be found here.

Several reporters have suspected that Holmes’ must have expended quite a bit of effort to maintain this particular charade. Too bad she didn’t redirect this effort to develop positive and moral leadership skills, to seek better guidance from individuals with integrity and experience, to help guide her company toward triumph rather than an abysmal failure. Through her deceit, on so many levels, Holmes became the poster child for one of the biggest con jobs that Silicon Valley has ever witnessed.

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Read related posts: What is the Least Trusted Profession in America?
What is the Barnum Effect?
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For further reading: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Presentation at Politics and Prose

Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“I don’t have to tell you that there is this dark undertow which is connecting us all globally and it is flowing via the [social media] technology platforms. And that is why I am here — to address you directly, the gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey. Because you set out to connect people and you are refusing to acknowledge that this same technology is now driving us apart. And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you, and it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right, or leave or remain, or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. And so my question to you is: is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you? — as the handmaidens to authoritarianism? And my question to everyone else is: is this what we want? To sit back and play with our phones as this darkness falls?”

From the TED talk on April 2019 by Carole Cadwaller, the investigative journalist who exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cadwaller accused Facebook and other social media companies of damaging democracy by spreading hateful, divisive lies in darkness paid for by illegal cash for millions of dollars worth of ads. Working with a whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica, Cadwaller learned that the data mining company gathered information on millions of people and manipulated their behavior (i.e., their voting) in the U.S. to impact the 2016 presidential election and in the UK to influence the Brexit vote. The quotation that appears above is featured in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack that focuses on how users of social media apps do not have the right to their own data that is being collected every second that they are online. In this context, consumers themselves (or, more precisely, their data) are the commodity; social media companies sell that data to any company that wants to use it — and, as in the case of two important national elections — the data was used to manipulate the voter’s behavior. How Orwellian.

The entire lecture can be seen by searching for “Facebook’s Role In Brexit — and the Threat to Democracy” on YouTube.

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Read related posts: Notable Words of the 2016 Election
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will Be Governed by Idiots
Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic?

The Most Poignant Quotes from Mothers Who Lost Their Children to Gun Violence

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIt’s a shocking statistic that cannot be sugar-coated in any way: each day in the United States, an average of seven children (under the age of 19), are killed by gun violence. Seven. (The Washington Post recently reported that since 1966, 1,196 Americans have been killed in public mass shootings.) Award-winning portrait photographer Ali Smith, based in New York City, responded to this tragic reality by launching a photography project titled “7 Kids a Day” to capture the grief and agony of mothers who have lost their children to gun violence. “[They] are members of a club no one wants to be a part of,” explains Smith. The goal of the project is for these grieving mothers’ photos and voices — particularly their united call for policy change — to reach a wider audience. Smith adds, ““There’s actually a sanctioned machine that allows criminals to get guns right now and that’s a very fixable problem. What I would like to do with this project is put faces to the statistics and take the conversation out of the theoretical realm.” Here are some of the most poignant quotes from mothers who have lost their children to gun violence and if you are a parent, you have some understanding of the depth of this unfathomable, heartbreaking loss:

Shianne Norman – lost her son, Lloyd (4 years old): “I turned back towards the bullets and ran against the crowd screaming his name, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I lost a part of my soul. There is also a feeling of guilt planted inside me that will never go away. This was not supposed to happen. You don’t bury your children. Your children bury you.”

Sandra Frank – lost her son Teshawn (18 years old): “I went into hibernation. For eight months, I didn’t have a period from the stress. I didn’t talk about how I felt for 17 years. I don’t ask the question why, because what could my son have possibly done to deserve that death? Nothing… None of those bullets have a name on them. Violence can fall anywhere.”

Nicole Hockley – lost her son Dylan (6 years old, student at Sandy Hook): “I thought I knew what pain looked like. The first image that comes to my mind when I think about pain now is [his brother] Jake’s face when my husband told him that Dylan had been killed. He just howled. I’d never heard a child make that kind of noise before… I never thought gun violence could touch me or my community, but my eyes are wide open now.”

Natasha Christopher – lost her son Akeal (15 years old): “I miss my son’s smile. I miss his scent. I miss everything about him. Inside, I am broken. A part of me will always be broken.”

Maxine Lewis – lost her son Locksley (16 years old): “When you kill someone, it’s not just him you rob the world of. You rob what he was going to do. The changes he was going to make. You wipe out a part of history.”

Diana Rodriguez – lost her daughter Samantha (18 years old): “Ten years after Samantha’s death, I keep meeting mothers in this loneliest club that nobody wants to be a member of. We mothers are out here crying… Are your guns more important than my child’s life? With rights comes responsibility and accountability. I don’t see a lot of being accountable for what’s happening in our communities to our children.”

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Read related posts: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats its Weakest Members
The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
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For further reading:

Nixon’s Eloquent Apollo 11 Speech that America Never Heard

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIt is one of the most memorable days in American history — when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 on the Sea of Tranquility. The Apollo 11 mission, of course, was a complete success. Nixon became the first President to speak to two Americans on the moon. He spoke briefly to the astronauts, more than 240,000 miles away, via telephone patched to Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Nixon expressed tremendous national pride: “Hello, Neil and Buzz. I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you’ve done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”

But what if a disaster occurred and two or all three astronauts were left to perish in the cold, dark expanse of space? Although it was possible for Collins to have returned to the earth, NASA had a concern that Armstrong and Aldrin would not be able to lift off from the moon and rejoin Collins in the command module. That would mean that the two astronauts would be left stranded on the moon, eventually exhausting their oxygen. Therefore, William Safire, President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, had been asked to prepare a speech in the event of such a tragedy. Fortunately, it was a speech that Nixon never had to deliver. The speech, titled “In Event of Moon Disaster” was written by Safire on July 18, 1969. It was discovered in the late 1990s by journalist and author James Mann among the archives of the Nixon administration (then located in College Park, Maryland) while he was researching a book on America’s relationship with China. What the speech lacks in length (it is only 233 words on two typewritten pages), it makes up in stirring images and heartwarming eloquence. Mann writes: “The short text still brings tears to the eyes… What Safire wrote would have qualified as the most eloquent speech Nixon every gave — and one of the most poignant by any American president. Thankfully, it never had to be delivered.” The letter is now displayed at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

In Event of Moon Disaster

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts:
Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
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Best Books on Eulogies
High Flight: Touching the Face of God
In Mourning the Heart Does Not Forget

Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

For further reading:

Imagine if Your Parents Named You Marijuana Pepsi

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn late June 2019, a 46-year-old African-American woman graduated from Cardinal Stritch University Wisconsin, earning a doctorate in higher education leadership. Her doctoral dissertation, titled “Black Names in White Classrooms: Teacher Behaviors and Student Perceptions,” analyzed the impact of nontraditional names on academic achievement. However, neither of these things was what caught the attention of the media — rather it was her incredibly unusual and memorable name: Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck (née Jackson).

I know what you are thinking — why in the world would parents name their daughter after a mind-altering plant and a carbonated sugary soda? In her hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin several rumors arose to explain the incredible moniker. One rumor was that her parents were smoking pot and drinking Pepsi when she was conceived. Given the time period, the post-Woodstock/Summer of Love era, that scenario was very plausible. Nevertheless, it was her mother, Maggie Jackson, who came up with the name, even though her father, Aaron Jackson, objected. Vandyck explains: “She said that she knew when I was born that you could take this name and go around the world with it. At the time as a child, I’m thinking ‘yeah, right — you named my older sister Kimberly. You named my younger sister Robin.'” Vandyck’s aunt, Mayetta Jackson, remembers when Maggie picked the unusual name back in 1972 during the hippie era, when smoking a joint was as common as… well, drinking a Pepsi. Mayetta added, “[After smoking weed, Aaron and Maggie] would cool off with a Pepsi. I thought it was crazy, but they were fun-loving people that it suited them.” Interestingly, it was in late 1971, that Coke introduced one of the most memorable commercials featuring one of the most famous jingles of all time: young people gathering on the top of a hill singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Perhaps it was a good thing that the Jacksons were not influenced by this, otherwise their daughter would have been named Marijuana Coke, which sounds more like two psychotropic drugs rather than a drug and a soft drink.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy for a little girl growing up with an unusual name like that. She recall relentless teasing during her school-age years. During her junior high school days, Vandyck dreaded roll call: “Every single class, the teacher is taking attendance out loud, and as they slowly get down through the J’s, I’m just like here it comes. ‘Marianna? Marijuana?’ And all the students turn to see who it is.” By the time she reached high school, her peers’ attitude about her name shifted — they thought it was cool. Vandyck explains: “They were like, ‘Oh yeah. Man, I wish I had your name. I love that. I’m going to name my kid after you.’ I hear that so much and I go, Lord, please don’t do that to that child.”

But despite the obstacles that her name presented, insisted on being called by her birth name: Marijuana, eschewing more common variations like Mary or Mary Jane. One of her high school teachers told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel: “They could make a movie about her. I could almost write a book on Marijuana myself in terms of a young student who’s been so resilient and taken even her name and made it into a positive… She’s exactly what any kid in America needs to know about someone who can truly make it if they put their mind to it.” And that’s exactly what she did with her career: she wanted to share her own life struggles and eventual success in order to inspire students. Her doctoral dissertation, in fact, analyzes how black students with unique names are treated by educators in predominantly white settings and how this treatment impacts their academic performance. Specifically, Vandyck found that students “with distinctly black names” were subject to stereotypes, disrespect, and low academic expectations. This in turn led lower self-esteem, career choices, and ultimately fewer educational and career opportunities for students of color.

In an interview with NPR, Vandyck shares her optimistic perspective on life: “”It’s what you do after you recognize that you have this feeling about [having a nontraditional name]. And it’s what you act on from that point on. That’s the most important part…. We can’t always go through life-changing things to make other people happy … and I had to learn that early on.”

Ironically, Marijuana Pepsi has never smoked marijuana and her choice of beverage is orange soda.

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What is the Reid Technique?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you watched Netflix’s gripping true-crime series When They See Us (2019), you have seen the Reid Technique in action — and to borrow a line from Holden Caulfied, it makes you want to puke. In the film, we witness detectives, who are feeling pressure from the public to find the rapist(s) of the Central Park jogger as well as pressure from an overzealous prosecutor, implement the Reid technique of interrogation to coerce false confessions from five very scared and innocent teenagers. Recall, that during our school-age years, we learned about Blackstone’s ratio, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” that first appeared in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1760) written by the brilliant British jurist William Blackstone. Almost a century later, that idea was echoed by Benjamin Franklin who expressed it more dramatically: “It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.” And as young students we were naive enough to believe that this fundamental belief in criminal law was sacrosanct. Sadly — it is not; for justice in the hands of imperfect human beings is just that — imperfect. In the case of the Central Park Five, the prosecutor and the detectives wiped their derrières with the Miranda Rights and Blackstone’s ratio and flushed it down the toilet, and then washed their hands of the whole stinking mess. 

“So what exactly is the Reid Technique?” you ask. The Reid Technique was developed by consultant and polygraph expert John E. Reid and is used by many law-enforcement agencies in the United States. According to their website “The Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation,® [is] widely recognized as the most effective means available to exonerate the innocent and identify the guilty. Our specialized interrogation training seminars are designed for law enforcement and government investigators, corporate security and loss prevention professionals.” Journalist Douglass Starr, in an article about the Reid technique for The New Yorker described its ubiquity and tremendous impact on law enforcement: “Today, John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., trains more interrogators than any other company in the world. Reid’s clients include police forces, private security companies, the military, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and the Secret Service—almost anyone whose job involves extracting the truth from those who are often unwilling to provide it. The company’s interview method, called the Reid Technique, has influenced nearly every aspect of modern police interrogations, from the setup of the interview room to the behavior of detectives. The company says that the people it trains get suspects to confess eighty per cent of the time.”

Specifically, the Reid Technique consists of a three phases: (1) Fact analysis (learning the facts of the case), (2) Behavior analysis interview (determining if the suspect is lying), and (3) the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation (the specific steps are delineated here.) Frequently interrogators begin by isolating the subject (eg, placing him or her in a small, windowless room) and immediately coercing the subject to waive his or her Miranda rights (the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney) through false promises, lies, or threats. The interrogator begins with the presumption of guilt (stating that the subject committed the crime) and proceeds with an interrogation, which is more of an accusatory process than a Q&A, and adopting the familiar personas of the “good cop/bad cop routine”, designed to elicit a confession. The interrogator presents various narratives (whether true or not) about means, motive, and opportunity. Depending on how the subject responds, the narratives are altered to drill down on the relevant facts of the crime. Over many hours or days, the interrogator eventually wears down the isolated subject who will ultimately fabricate a story to appease his relentless interrogators; in short, the subject confesses to the crime. Game over.

Although the Reid Technique is a valuable tool for law enforcement that leads to many justifiable confessions and convictions, it is not without controversy. The blatant false confessions of the Central Park Five is an obvious case in point. In several criminology publications, critics point out that the Reid technique can result in false confessions, especially when used with children, non-native individuals who speak English as a second-language, and individuals with mental disabilities. In fact, several European countries prohibit lying to suspects (especially young suspects) about evidence since it can lead to false confessions and wrongful convictions.

In a thorough and fascinating article on how police interrogation works, Julia Layton explores in detail the controversy of the Reid technique. Layton believes the interrogation is not at all fair. First, it is a guilt-presumptive process. A detective, in a headlong pursuit to obtain a confession, can consciously or unconsciously, ignore any evidence of innocence. Second, implementing the Reid technique can be very similar to brainwashing. Layton writes: “[A] lot of the human rights concerns surrounding police interrogation have to do with the fact that psychological interrogation techniques bear an uncanny resemblance to “brainwashing” techniques. The interrogator is attempting to influence the suspect without the suspect’s consent, which is considered an unethical use of psychological tactics. A lot of the techniques used to cause discomfort, confusion and insecurity in the brainwashing process are similar to those used in interrogation: (1) Invading a suspect’s personal space; (2) Not allowing the suspect to speak; (3) Using contrasting alternatives; (4) Positioning confession as a means of escape.”

In the film, we witness how the detectives do everything they can to increase each suspects’ level of stress: isolation from one another and their parents, depriving them of food and water, depriving them of sleep, physical and verbal abuse, threats, etc. All of this causes the subjects to break down emotionally, cognitively, and physically. Layton continues:” The more stress a suspect experiences, the less likely he is to think critically and independently, making him far more susceptible to suggestion. This is even more true when the suspect is a minor or is mentally ill, because he may be poorly equipped to recognize or fight off manipulative tactics. A process designed to cause someone so much stress that he’ll confess just to escape the situation is a process that leaves itself open to false confessions. Researchers estimate between 65 and 300 false confessions per year in the United States.” [emphasis added.]

In his article “Do Police Interrogation Techniques Produce False Confessions?”, Starr explains how psychologist Saul Kassin, a leading expert on false confessions, noted that in most cases, when a confession was introduced in a trial, juries tended to deliver guilty sentences — regardless of any other evidence presented. Starr also describes experiments by Kassin and other psychologists who have devised experiments that test tactics associated with the Reid technique. Time after time, the experiments showed similar results: accusatory questions and direct accusations consistently produced false confessions. Even more problematic is the fact that the Reid technique is extremely dependent of the interrogator’s ability to identify a lie using the suspect’s nonverbal behavior. Starr writes: “Three decades of research have shown that nonverbal signals, so prized by the Reid trainers, bear no relation to deception. In fact, people have little more than coin-flipping odds of guessing if someone is telling the truth, and numerous surveys have shown that police do no better. [Psychologist] Aldert Vrij… found that law-enforcement experience does not necessarily improve the ability to detect lies. Among police officers, those who said they paid close attention to nonverbal cues did the worst. Similarly, an experiment by Kassin showed that both students and police officers were better at telling true confessions from false ones when they listened to an audio recording of an interview rather than watch it on video. In the experiment, the police officers performed less well than the students but expressed greater confidence in their ability to tell who was lying.”

Ultimately, When They See Us is a cautionary tale about what happens when an individual does not know and understand the protections of the Miranda Rights and the Constitution. What is absolutely tragic about this heart-breaking story is that had the teenagers, or more importantly, their parents (or their family friends), known their rights — this travesty of justice could have been easily prevented. First, let’s begin with the fundamental fact that these minors should have never been questioned without a legal guardian in the room. Second, the parents should immediately have invoked their child’s Miranda Rights — the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. The interrogations would have come to a screeching halt. Game over. And third, every American has the protection of the Constitution, specifically three amendments: (1) the Fifth Amendment: the right not incriminate oneself; (2) the Sixth Amendment: the right to a speedy trial; and (3) the Fourteenth Amendment: the right to due process. All of these legal safeguards, however, did nothing to prevent the miscarriage of justice delivered to the Central Park Five. Fortunately, decades later, in 2014, they were all exonerated and won a settlement of $40 million.

You have to wonder: if the Central Park Five could, would they trade that $40 million to go back in time, to April 19, 1989, and regain their innocence, their youth, and live the lives that they were meant to live?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The O. J. Simpson Trial and the Chewbacca Defense
Why are People Fascinated by Making a Murderer?
How Much Did O. J. Simpson Pay His Lawyers?

For further reading: Essentials of the Reid Technique (2nd Edition) by Fred Ibai, John Reid, Joseph Buckley, and Brian Jayne
An Expendable Man: the Near Execution of Earl Washington, Jr. by Margaret Edds

The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity

alex atkins bookshelf cultureOn April 10, 2019, the world was mesmerized by the spectacular first-ever photo of a black hole, providing the first visual evidence that black holes actually exist. The black hole is located at the center of the galaxy named Messier 87 (M87), about 55 million light-years from Earth. The black hole has a mass equal to 6.5 billion times that of the sun. The photo was the result of a ten-year collaboration of more than 200 researchers using a global network of eight radio telescopes, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT), to combine all their observations and data (5,000 trillion bytes over two weeks) in a supercomputer to create the virtual image. Shepard Doeleman, director of the EHT, proudly proclaimed: “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.” This is truly a remarkable, monumental photo. But there is another stunning photo that we should not forget…

Five years ago, Avery Broderick, a theoretical astrophysicist and a fellow member of the EHT, remarked that the first picture of a black hole could be just as important as a photo known as the “Pale Blue Dot.” That photo, taken almost 30 years ago has slipped from the public’s collective memory. But it shouldn’t — because that photo is a truly remarkable technical and astronomical achievement. Let’s take a trip back into time, going back 42 years ago…

Way back on September 5, 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched by NASA aboard a Titan IIIE rocket. The space probe was designed to study the outer solar system, flying by Jupiter, Saturn, and then flying through the heliosphere, and eventually into interstellar space. At a speed of about 38,027 mph, the intrepid Voyager 1 covered a distance of about 325 million miles per year. And remarkably — 37 years later — the spacecraft is still sending data to NASA (messages from more than 12 trillion miles away take about 17 hours to reach Earth). Back in 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager’s imaging team, persuaded NASA to send commands to turn the spacecraft’s camera around to take one last photo of the Earth from the edge of the solar system (at a distance of about 3.7 billion miles away). The final image shows the Earth as a mere speck (less than 1 pixel) suspended in a brownish band of light, surrounded by the blackness of space.

The spectacular photo inspired Sagan to reflect eloquently on the significance of life on this tiny planet, a pale blue dot, dwarfed by the mind-boggling vastness of the cosmos: “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

These two photos — the first-ever black hole of M87 and the Pale Blue Dot — could not be more different, occurring at such amazingly different chapters in the history of the world, but they are a singular and profound reminder of just how insignificant our existence is in the context of an infinite, ever-expanding cosmos. And as we ponder these photos, signifying our place in the universe, one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of humility that they elicit.

Read related posts: How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?

For further reading: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books (1997)
Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ballantine Books (2013)
Universe by Robert Dinwiddle, Philip Eales, David Hughes, and Iain Nicolson, DK (2012)


What is the Least Trusted Profession in America?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureSince 1976, Gallup has surveyed Americans to rate the honesty and ethical standards of the most common professions in America. et’s begin at the top of the list. For the past four decades, Americans have rated the following professions as the most honest and most ethical, and thus the most trusted: nurses, medical doctors, pharmacists, and high school teachers. In the most recent poll, conducted in early December 2018, respondents were asked: how would you rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields? The top five are:

Nurses: 84%
Medical Doctors: 67%
Pharmacists: 66%
High School Teachers: 60%
Police Officers: 54%

Now let’s direct our attention to the bottom of the list. Any guesses? Here’s a clue: recall the recent hearing of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s long-time personal attorney, before the Congressional House Oversight committee on February 27, 2019. Over several unbearable hours, the media presented viewers with a group of perfidious, sycophantic liars that interrogated a convicted liar about a pathological, narcissistic liar — a classic example of the kettle calling the pot calling um… another pot… black. The circus-like hearing (including obligatory animals, like elephants, donkeys, rats, as well as plenty of props and exhibits) was conducted against a backdrop of some rather silly posters (one read “liar, liar pants on fire”) punctuated by cringe-worthy behavior befitting unruly school-aged children: Pecksniffian fingerpointing, churlish name-calling, sanctimonious speeches, melodramatic tirades, mock indignation, shameless sniveling, and surly playground taunts. If you haven’t guessed it already, the least trusted profession in America are members of Congress. Americans consider members of Congress less ethical, and thus less trusted, than car salespeople and telemarketers. Ouch! Come to think of it, Holden Caulfield would have a field day with this gaggle of phonies.

Remember that age-old adage, “it takes one to know one”? That might explain why so many members of Congress aren’t troubled with the 8,158 verifiable false and misleading claims that President Trump has made since his inauguration (according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s Database). Or why so many of them acquiesce so willingly to a capricious, vain President with despotic tendencies rather than do the job they were elected to do — namely, uphold and protect the Constitution, serve as a check on abuses of power, and passing legislation that serves the common good. But of course, these important tasks require intelligence –not to mention, an actual spine… Getting back to the last Gallup survey, the bottom five of the least trusted professions are:

Stockbrokers: 14%
Advertising Practitioners: 13%
Telemarketers: 9%
Car Salespeople: 8%
Members of Congress: 8%

The Gallup report makes two interesting notes about the shift of journalists (ranked at 33%) and priests (37%) in the context of recent world news: “Although journalists’ 33% very high/high rating is not outstanding relative to many of the other professions, it marks a 10-percentage-point increase from two years ago and now matches their record high, last recorded in 1977… While journalists have experienced a surge in positive ratings, the opposite is true for the clergy. Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985.”

Lets turn back the clock to 1952, when Ed and Patsy Bruce released their hit single, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies to Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Almost two decades later, the song was covered by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and once again the song climbed up the charts. Perhaps it is time to update that song to reflect the sentiments of the country; the revised title should be “Moms Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up to be Congressmen.” Music to our ears…

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
What is the Barnum Effect?
What is the Pinocchio Effect?
There’s A Word for That: Trumpery
Words Related to Trump
What are the Most Common Lies on Social Media?
What is the Big Lie?

For further reading:

Valentine’s Day by the Numbers: 2019

alex atkins bookshelf cultureDid you hear the story about the wife who sent her husband a text that read: “I’ve just got you the best Valentine’s Day present ever! xox” When he read it, he turned to his colleague at work and said: “I really hope she misspelled ‘Xbox.'” So what is Valentine’s Day without rampant, over-the-top consumerism?

Consider that this year Americans will spend $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day — and that accounts for only 51% of Americans who actually celebrate it. (Apparently love is on the decline, since last year 55% of Americans celebrated Valentine’s Day.) And sadly, many gifts that will be purchased with the very best of intentions, will end up in the recycling bin: $9.5 million will be spent on unwanted gifts. What a shame — but perhaps an unwanted gift is better than no gift at all, since according to a recent survey, 53% of women expressed that they would end their relationship if they didn’t receive a gift on Valentine’s Day. Can you say “tough love”?

Ironically, about 41% of women in a relationship dread Valentine’s Day (perhaps they are afraid of getting those unwanted gifts or being disappointed by their partner). However, over on the opposite side of the love spectrum, singles really look forward to Valentine’s Day — with good reason — since about 9 million marriage proposals are made on that special day.

So how do Americans say “I love thee?” Let us count the ways:

Total amount spent by consumers in U.S.: $20.7 billion
Average amount spent by consumer: $161.96
Amount average male will spend: $229.54
Amount average woman will spend: $97.7

Amount spent on unwanted gifts: $9.5 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase candy: 52%
Amount spent on candy: $1.8 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase greeting cards: 44%
Percentage of cards bought by women: 85%
Amount spent on greeting cards: $933 million

Percentage of consumers that will purchase flowers: 35%
Amount spent on flowers: $1.9 billion
Percentage of consumers that will take their partner out to dinner: 34%
Amount spent at restaurants: $3.5 billion
Percentage of consumers that will give jewelry: 18%
Amount spent on jewelry: $3.9 billion

Percentage of consumers that will purchase gift certificates: 15%
Amount spent on gift certificates: $1.3 billion

Percentage of Americans NOT celebrating Valentine’s Day: 49%
Of those, 49% of women and 40% of men will treat themselves to jewelry, apparel, or a spa service
Of those 32% of women and 41% of men will plan a get-together with friends or family
Of those about 10% will purchase an anti-valentine’s gift

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Most Beautiful Valentine Ever Written: Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda on Love
The Best Love Stories
Best Academy Award Quotes
Best Books for Movie Lovers
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The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke
The Fluidity of Love

Doublets: Love

For further reading:

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