Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book argues that online technologies are an enabling force for good

Smarter Than You Think, How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For the Better, by Clive Thompson
Published in Canada by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group USA (2013)

(Disclosure: I'm a big Clive Thompson fan. His monthly column in Wired magazine is a must-read, as are his articles in Fast Company and the New York Times Magazine.)

The emergence of the Internet has given rise to a claque of naysayers who believe that digital technologies (especially social media) are making us dumber and less human. Fortunately, Clive Thompson is not among them. When it comes to digital technologies, he is an optimist at heart, and that optimism is amply borne out in his first book, Smarter Than You Think.

In this carefully researched work of non-fiction, Thompson explores many facets of the online technologies and their impact on our lives, from education, gaming and politics to collaboration, memory and literacy. He delves into these topics with an unflagging appetite for discovery and he arrives at some surprising conclusions.

Rather than making us dumber and less human, Thompson believes the Internet is actually improving our lives in remarkable ways. He points to examples like Wikipedia (the collaborative encyclopedia), online gaming (collective thinking) and educational resources (Khan Academy) to show how easy access to information has become an enabling, not a disabling, force in the world. He shows numerous examples of how educators, scientists, businesses, governments and activists are using the Internet to build communities and affect positive change.

Smarter Than You Think is broken into nine chapters, each of which delves into an aspect of online computing and its broader impact. In the chapter entitled Public Thinking, Thompson tells of a Kenyan-born law student living in the U.S. who decides to start a blog about the corruption taking place in her native Kenya. Without any training as a journalist, the woman's writing soon attracts a worldwide following of loyal readers.

Stories like this are commonplace and illustrate how easy it is for anyone with an Internet connection to communicate messages to (and share information with) a potentially unlimited audience. Thompson believes that blogs, comment threats, discussion boards, text messages and tweets have contributed to a new kind of literacy over the past two decades. As Thompson observes: 
"Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college. This is something that's particularly hard to grasp for professionals whose jobs require incessant writing, like academics, journalists, lawyers, or marketers...personal expression outside the workplace - in the curious genres and epic volume we now see routinely online - was exceedingly rare. For the average person, there were few vehicles for publication."
As much as Thompson stresses the personal and societal benefits of online technologies, he also recognizes that overdosing on the Internet isn't a good thing either. In the chapter called The Art of Finding, he spoke with memory experts to find out what affect digital tools are having on our memory and cognitive skills. Experts are divided. There seems no clear evidence as to what impact mobile phones, social networking and digital tools are having on long- and short-term memory. Still, Thompson concludes that distraction ("pellets of novelty" as he calls them) can be an impediment to learning. He writes:
"If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you've got to linger over it. You can't flit back and forth; you have to focus for a reasonable amount of time, with mental peace. But today's digital environment rarely leaves you any such peace." 

Smarter Than You Think is enlightening book that will evoke thought and discussion about where all this connectivity is taking us. Thompson doesn't profess to know all the answers, but his reasoned arguments and thorough research provides a richer understanding of the technologies that are impacting and shaping our lives.


Monday, January 13, 2014

My Top 25 Books Of All Time

The end of each calendar year always brings with it a number of "best of" lists that are published and circulated in the media and on the Internet. From "top news stories" and "most famous celebrities" to "top travel destinations" and "healthiest foods," there is no end to the desire to categorize all of the important social, political, cultural and scientific and sporting events from the past year.

Best Of lists are not without merit: they can serve as welcome brain candy, a respite from the pressures of the daily grind. While perusing several Best Of lists over the holidays, I got to thinking about creating a list of my own: my favourite books of all time. As a lifelong reader, how hard could it be to come up with at least 10 from nearly half a century of reading?

It was more difficult than I imagined. At first, I had planned to confine the list to 10, but selecting so few out of a backlog of hundreds seemed like an impossible task. So, I bumped the list to 25, although it could have been twice that number. The selection process itself was a sweetly nostalgic exercise that often recalled where, when and how I encountered a specific book. In preparing and parsing my list, I was reminded of a quote by the British author, Graham Greene: "The influence of early books is profound. So much of the future lies on the shelves: early reading has more influence on conduct than any religious teaching." (A Sort of Life, 1971).

Some of the books were chosen because they offered fictional worlds and characters that elicited a particularly strong emotion; some for the authors' skill and mastery with language; and a few were chosen for the incredible story or message that they contained, which resonated with me for long afterward.

I'm certain that some of these books might not qualify on professional critics' lists of best books ever written, but for me, each managed to say something meaningful at a time when I was ready to hear those messages, and so they got included.

So here they are, in no particular order.

 1.     War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
 2.     The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe
 3.     A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf
 4.     The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
 5.     A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
 6.     The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
 7.     Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo
 8.     A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
 9.     Invitation To A Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov
 10.  The Trial, by Franz Kafka
 11.  Night, Elie Wiesel 
 12.  An Answer from Limbo, by Brian Moore
 13.  Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
 14.  Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler
 15.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, By Mark Twain
 16.  The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens
 17.  The Second World War, by Winston S. Churchill
 18.  The Naked and the Dead, by Normal Mailer
 19.  Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
 20.  The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, by Ernest Hemingway
 21.  In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
 22.  Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
 23.  Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham
 24.  The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
 25.  Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer

***

Monday, January 6, 2014

The HeLa story: a dazzling journey of scientific enquiry and discovery

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot, published by Broadway Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. (2010)

Normally, I avoid reading reviews about books I'm about to read. With the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it was impossible not to be aware of the outpouring of positive press and accolades that this book has received since it was published in 2010. Critics have hailed it as a literary tour de force, both for its storytelling brilliance and its investigative research. Many publications, including Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and the Globe and Mail, named it Best Book of the Year.

The praise is well earned. This is a powerful work of non-fiction that tells the story of a poor African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951. She was 31. Before Henrietta died, a doctor removed two tissue samples from her cervix without her (or her family's) knowledge. Such a procedure wasn't uncommon during that era; the idea of informed consent didn't become a legal issue in the U.S. until 1957.

Miraculously, Henrietta's cells (which became known as HeLa cells) began to grow and multiply at an extraordinary rate. Scientists had tried in vain to grow cells like this for years. The fast-growing HeLa cells soon caught the attention of doctors and scientists, who wanted to use them to further their research into infectious diseases and for other medical studies. Suddenly, a mini industry in HeLa cells was born. According to Skloot,
"The Timing was perfect. In the early fifties, scientists were just beginning to understand viruses, so as Henrietta's cells arrived in labs around the country, researchers began exposing them to viruses of all kinds - herpes, measles, mumps, fowl pox, equine encephalitis - to study how each one entered cells, reproduced, and spread."
Henrietta's cells would eventually play a vital role in developing a cure for polio, cloning and gene mapping. While the cells paved the way for medical breakthroughs, saved countless lives and enriched many companies, Henrietta's family received no financial gain or compensation and remained poor. Sadly, the family only discovered the truth about Henrietta's cells years later.

To uncover the truth about the HeLa cell line, Skloot spent years researching the subject and ingratiating herself into Henrietta's family. At first, the family was suspicious of Skloot, whom they viewed as just another outsider looking to profit from Henrietta's story. Gradually, she earned the trust of Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who serves as a gatekeeper to the family history and a liaison with her family.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot demonstrates a remarkable talent for narrative pacing and scientific explication. She takes readers on a journey of scientific enquiry and discovery that touches on issues of race, ethics, religion, politics and medicine, a journey that swings effortlessly between the past and the present. Along the way, she introduces us to the main players in this decades-old medical drama, including doctors, researchers, scientists, journalists, hospital officials and members of Henrietta's family. Skloot presents information in a factual, non-biased fashion and recreates conversations between the central figures, so that readers can decide for themselves who the real winners and losers were in the HeLa saga.

It's almost unimaginable that a story of this magnitude hadn't been told before the publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (there have been occasional magazine and newspaper stories about HeLa, but no single work told the complete story). Readers can be grateful that Skloot had the patience, perseverance and skill to do justice to a story that needed to be told, and to present it in such a compelling manner.