Sunday, September 25, 2011

eReadings (1)


Ever since I've had my Kindle, I've been doing more reading that I may have done all my life, perhaps excepting when I was going to college or medical school, but required reading is quite different. 

The Kindle or some other e-reader lends itself, of course, to frequent reading, since you can switch it on and pick up where you last left off. It also allows you to easily skip from one book to another. At first I started out just reading a book, finishing that, then starting another. This is okay for some riveting novel like Moby Dick or Tale of Two Cities, but there's is only so much I can take of some others, with their thick prose, heavy ideas, or maybe they're just not so interesting.

Project Gutenberg
This is my main source of books. I've bought a couple from Amazon, but my personal view is that there needs to be a pricing shake-up with eBooks. They're way too expensive. These days they're hardly less expensive than a physical book, and all I really have is a license to read them. I can't give them to someone else or sell them, at least legally.

The good thing about Project Gutenberg is that there is a very large number of books to be had, and another good thing is that Kindle versions exist. On the other hand, unless you're looking at list arranged by author, you are staring at a veritable sea of titles. There seemed to be a fledgling effort by PG to make an area for book reviews, but it looks dead, with no updates since 2006. You are of course not getting recent books with PG, since they are by definition out of copyright.

The Magic Catalog
Until I found this, I was looking at books in HTML, then downloading the Kindle version, then uploading to my Kindle. With the Magic Catalog, I can turn on the wireless on my Kindle, then go through the catalog like any other book, click on a title, and have it directly downloaded to my Kindle (only take a few seconds at most). Usually I download them in bunches. This way I worry less about whether I might like them. If something is uninteresting, I delete it and move on to something else. The Magic Catalog is searchable, but in its raw state is a quite jumbled up list of books. At first I found this bothersome, but for someone who doesn't have such a command of information about authors and books, it's not actually bad on a practical level, but you do have to cultivate a sense of adventure and just try things out.

A Couple of Reviews

What I want to begin is to give some of my own impressions of things I have read, partly for my own interest, but also in case someone else might find these reviews helpful in some way.

The Communist Manifesto - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
I knew roughly what this was about, but since I never had it as a requirement in college I never read it. Back in the 60s there were a lot of references to it on campus, probably largely by those who hadn't read it either.

It's a book full of jargon, and I have to confess it took me a while to understand the bourgeoisie (bad guys) as what we might call the upper middle class, the shop owners, and in general those who were making the capitalist system work for them. The book is of course addressed to the proletariat, the peasants, the manual laborers who were paid and treated poorly, who generally had no property, living in some place owned by their masters/employers, with no hope of ever being able to climb out of this.

I suppose it's possible to read this book word for word, but I certainly found the repetitiveness led to tedium, and I could get the message scanning and skipping along. It's easy to see the appeal of the idea for its intended audience, the proletariat, even allowing for the fact that many of the proletariat were illiterate. The message was, "You have nothing, therefore you have nothing to lose. We will take the property and riches from the bourgeoisie and give it to you."  Also quite specifically spelled out is that replacing capitalist institutions will be The State, and now that we have a century of Communism to look at, we understand all too well what The State became. Left out is any mention of what you might be allowed to do with your land once it's "yours".

Ten Days that Shook the World - John Reed
This was a serendipitous selection, picked out some weeks after The Communist Manifesto. I thought the title sounded interesting, so I downloaded it.

This is a first-hand account by an American Socialist journalist, who happened to be in Russia in late 1917 when dramatic upheaval there culminated in the Bolshevik revolution. Something which becomes readily apparent is the shallowness of the history of the Communist revolution as taught in this country. The number of different people, the number of factions involved, the number of plots and subplots, attempts at subverting someone else's plan are quite astounding. One can also see that a big part of what fuelled the revolution is that 80% of the Russian population were peasants. This is of course an outsider's point of view, but the access that he had to factions and leaders on various sides of the evolving quest for power is rather amazing. There is also a great battle of propaganda going on, which I suppose now we see as puny in comparison to what goes on with the media and the internet, but clearly one sees how absolute control of the press came about in communist Russia. We also can see the transition from the ideas the Bolsheviks had to have a peaceful transition of power led to armed conflict and bloodshed.

One of the things I've taken to doing, and that I would recommend, is online research about authors, usually after I've read their work. John Reed was born in Oregon, eventually sent East for his education, and became involved with the various unions' struggles of that time, in the process becoming a Socialist. Like a number of people in the Socialist movement, and the Russians themselves, there was this abiding idea that sooner or later workers of the world would rise up and follow the Russian communists' example. Even though ostensibly one needed governmental approval to travel abroad, especially during WWI, it apparently wasn't so hard to simply find a way to travel to Europe and go wherever you wanted. Finland was a way to get to Russia, and even though he was periodically held in custody on the way back, eventually someone would get him released and he'd be back in the US until the next time. All this travel through impoverished areas led to his death at 32 of spotted typhus. He died in Moscow and is buried in the Kremlin.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Exercising will delay cognitive decline, or maybe not

We're seeing this sort of statement all around. Consumer Reports has said it. When I just updated my Epocrates, there was a little news item about this.

Here's the problem. This is not accurate. It's not necessarily wrong, but has yet to be proven, and this is a kind of research that many people don't understand, at least in terms of how to understand it.

What we actually have are a number of population studies, in which someone looks at a variably large number of people, and then analyses them by collecting data. One kind of data will be who has cognitive impairment and who doesn't. But also various lifestyle things might be looked at, like amount of exercise, how regular it is, etc.

So it has become clear that there is something of a match up between those who exercise and those who retain cognitive function better than their peers. So obviously, exercise causes a retention of cognitive abilities, right? Not necessarily.

All this really says is that there is some commonality, and it might work in the other direction, in other words, maybe people who exercise do so because they are more cognitively with it. How can that be? Well, why do people exercise? Have they been exercising because they knew it would keep them more cognitively fit too? Seems unlikely.

We actually already know that an early sign or marker of dementia can be social withdrawal.While I suppose that there are those who exercise in social isolation, exercising is very much a social sort of thing for the most part. At any rate the reasons why people exercise are not simple, and while there may be many who would like to exercise, there is something different about those who actually end up doing it.

The real answer to this question of the cognitive benefit of exercise would have to come from some controlled experiment, where you take one random group and force them to exercise, and another group where you prevent them from exercising. And I might as well add that we're not likely to see that happen, since you also have to do this for a number of years, since this isn't something that happens in 6 months.

So I'm not making an argument against exercise, I'm just trying to clarify some misimpressions that are floating around about it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Now that we're bathed in frequent if not continuous commentary regarding 9/11, it continues to be noted that we see little indication of any effort to reduce anxiety about terrorism. I guess it's because it doesn't sell advertising space.

What is terror about?
Terrorism is about inducing terror. Let's face it, this isn't so hard, and it's  made easier in a world of instant, 24 hour news access, where one of the leading concerns is that if you're going to have news broadcast 24 hours a day, you have to have something to say, even if you have to manufacture it to some extent. Any time you don't have to manufacture news, you have a gold mine to use for content.

Terrorism is cost efficient. 

This is true. You don't even have to actually do anything. All you need to do is create anxiety about what you might do, based to some extent on things you have done, but you can also benefit from some cockamamie thing that someone thinks you were trying but didn't happen. Look at that poor schmoe who sets his pants on fire on an airplane -- terrorism for Dummies -- but it works!

Really, this is a matter of dealing with the fears that we all have, that some have more than others, that some have so severely that there are psychiatric DSM-IV codes for. But what value is there in engendering fear? Very little. Even though there are logical, scientific explanations (not opinions) that the energy that a cellphone can generate, in the radio frequency energy level, are quite impossible of causing changes to DNA, we will probably never quash the idea that cellphones cause brain tumors. The main risk of cellphone usage comes from using it while you're driving down the road.

So the same people that have some abiding concern about some Islam-inspired terrorist continue to yack on their cellphone as they drive down the street.