Digest: 4 June 2014




(view all)

In What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades, Maria Konnikova (for The New York Times) discusses how as handwriting disappears from school curricula researchers are finding that there may be a hidden cost – handwriting appears in studies to increase in children the capacity for the retention of information as well as the generation of ideas. Konnikova describes the findings of several different psychological and neurological research efforts that show how handwriting triggers brain activity in ways that typing on a keyboard does not, indeed a difference is even shown between printing and cursive writing. Schools are transferring efforts from teaching handwriting and requiring manual note-taking to the implementation of computers in classrooms, but this may overlook what may be lost in the process – the maximization of the ability to effectively process new information.

Editor’s consideration: As the amount of available information increases it is tempting to focus on developing the skills needed to use computers to process that information – we don’t need to retain information if we know how to find it quickly. But questions remain regarding how we use that information, what can be done with it? More pointedly, what new information do we choose to develop? By decreasing retained perspective and our potential for idea generation we risk our capacity for informed determination of evolution.  At times of heightened uncertainty and increased competition, considered idea generation becomes fundamentally important. It is worth asking in what ways creative thought is hindered through various developments – 24hr news and social media, reduced skills and opportunity for idea germination, exploration, and contemplation, etc. – and in what ways such developments may interact to instigate a fundamental shift in what we can expect for humanity’s future.



(view all)

In The Political and Legal Future of Obama’s Proposed Clean Power Plan, Philip A. Wallach (for The Brookings Institution) discusses how the Clean Power Plan is merely the end of the beginning of the path to handling climate change issues in the US. The plan puts the impetus on states to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by thirty percent relative to their 2005 baselines. But the history of legislative and legal action on air pollution provides an idea of the continued difficulties that can be expected. The Clean Power Plan will not be finalized for another year at the earliest and then court challenges can be expected at both federal and state levels. Wallach points out that while the Plan calls on states to hit reduction targets by 2020, it may very well be that the Plan itself will be beset by legal hurdles well into the 2020s. Action can take place in the meantime, but this might be more regional while what is necessary is something that is coordinated to deal with the larger overall picture of climate change. It is that concerted action that has continued to prove to be evasive. 

In Democrats in Coal Country Run From E.P.A., Trip Gabriel (for The New York Times) discusses how democrats in coal states are choosing for political reasons to vehemently distance themselves from new EPA regulations that are expected to undermine coal jobs.  The political reality in such states means that to get votes politicians must, it seems, side with the coal industry interests on environmental matters. The situation highlights how narrowly focused the economic systems of these states can be, with little room for consideration of how the states can shift economies to suit developing understanding of larger climate issues, instead politicians are faced with a wall – protecting jobs is most important thing even if those jobs are in an unsustainable industry. It is not necessarily the case though, ideally stronger action on climate change at the federal level may help bolster the arguments of politicians who wish to stand on climate concerns. Climate change is an important issue that should not be dismissed simply as a political loser.


(view all)

In The Obama Admin Is the ‘Greatest Enemy of Press Freedom’ in at Least a Generation: 5 Prime Examples, Alex Kane (for AlterNet) discusses the recent decision by the Supreme Court to hear New York Times reporter James Risen’s appeal to avoid having to divulge his sources on a story regarding efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear energy program. It remains to be seen whether Attorney General Eric Holder will look to send Risen to jail, but the justice department’s pursuit of the matter is in keeping with a general trend under the Obama Administration to harass journalists where national security reporting is concerned. Kane discusses four other cases in which journalists have been targeted by the Obama administration, which together set a chilling tone for press freedom on topics of national public interest.

In Supreme Court Rejects Appeal From Times Reporter Over Refusal to Identify Source, Adam Liptak (for The New York Times) discusses the James Risen case and points out that the Obama administration has sent mixed signals regarding press freedom. On one front the administration has pursued leakers aggressively bringing criminal charges in eight cases compared with three under all previous administrations combined. On another front it has supported efforts in Congress to create a federal shield law to protect journalists from subpoena in certain cases. The resulting uncertainty puts journalists and their sources in a difficult and tenuous position, undermining the First Amendment, the press, and the free flow of information. A well-functioning democracy relies on an informed populous; the prevention of the flow of information with major public implications undermines informed decision making.

In A Surveillance State Beyond Imagination Is Being Created in One of the World’s Freest Countries, Noam Chomsky (via AlterNet) discusses how the NSA developments we have heard about in the last few months are a major violation of the US Bill of Rights and not dissimilar to the violations of privacy that helped to trigger the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain.  Chomsky points out the disturbing fact that the development of the largest surveillance apparatus ever to have existed is taking place under a president who was formerly a constitutional lawyer. He considers what the trend implies about the nature of our government apparatus – that state power must not be exposed to the sunlight, and that the best way to remove the power of any threat is to expose it to the sunlight. The track we are on means that the existing power structure has the ability to see anything and everything of the population, while the population has no power over the state.  Not a picture that conforms to the ideals of democracy and freedom that the country more publicly upholds.


(view all)

In The Robots Running This Way, Will Knight (for MIT Technology Review) discusses the efforts of the company Boston Dynamics to develop working robots. Boston Dynamics has been working with DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to develop robots that could be useful in a context such as that at Fukushima, but also as combat support.  The success of the company in this cutting edge field has brought it to the attention of Google, which acquired Boston Dynamics just prior to the DARPA Challenge competition. The article discusses the background of Boston Dynamics and its founder Marc Raibert, and looks in detail at several different robots currently under development and the technological challenges they face. The article fails to discuss the more important question – the implications of Google, a company whose motto is “do no evil”, acquiring a robotics company whose interests are so closely aligned with those of the US’s top level military research agency.

In The Social Death Penalty: Why Being Ostracized Hurts Even More Than Bullying, Lynn Stuart Parramore (for AlterNet) discusses how for all the attention focused on bullying we have failed to appreciate and thus research the serious effects of social ostracism. Parramore discusses the roots of ostracism and its various faces (in school, the workplace, by means of religion, etc.) as well as its psychological, neurological, and sociological effects. Recent research shows that ostracism has the potential to undermine the healthy development of children’s brains, negatively effecting for example cognitive ability. One study showed that chronic social exclusion was present as a factor in 87% of US school shootings from 1993-2001. Ostracism can be very subtle and yet it rubs against our most profound need for social contact – a need that is inherently joined to our ability to survive over the course of human history. Social contact is fundamental to our survival, its absence can be more damaging than bullying or physical violence because it suggests the simple irrelevance of the person to others.  And yet we know little about it – despite its implications for psychologists, educators, parents, and legal and law enforcement professionals, it has not been adequately studied or understood.