August 5th, 2008

Book Cover

Conservation -

Here is the first half of Bob Herbert's column today.

Op-Ed Columnist

The Winning Hand

 Bob Herbert


While the presidential campaign was mired in the egregious and the trivial last week, there was a hearing in Washington that addressed what should be a critical component of the nation’s energy strategy. It got very little attention.

Put aside for a moment all the talk about alternative fuels. They are no doubt important and the wave of the future. But the fastest, cheapest, easiest and cleanest step toward a sane energy environment — a step available to all of us immediately — is the powerful combination of efficiency and conservation.

That was the message delivered again and again at a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee that carried the title, “Efficiency: The Hidden Secret to Solving Our Energy Crisis.”

Two political leaders who are no longer very fashionable were on to this long ago — former Gov. Jerry Brown of California (derided as “Governor Moonbeam”) and former President Jimmy Carter, who presciently said of the energy crisis in 1977: “With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetime.”

It may be hard to believe, but largely because of far-reaching efficiency and conservation measures imposed by Mr. Brown’s administration, California is now among the lowest of all the states in the per capita consumption of energy. If you could take automobiles out of the picture, it would have the lowest per capita consumption of any state.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, notedthat California’s extraordinary progress in this area over the past three decades was set in motion during Mr. Brown’s tenure when the state established building standards that required greater efficiency with regard to heating and cooling. Utilities were also required to operate more efficiently. And the state, to the extent that it legally could, required appliances sold in California to be more efficient.

“One of the good things that came out of the oil shock of the ’70s was the dramatic push for energy conservation,” said Senator Schumer. “Why don’t we do more of that now?”

Yes, why aren't we doing more of that now?

ashes and snow - wings

Emirates -

Now, you can fly Emirates and have a shower as you fly, even though it is incredibly expensive to lift water into the air for your shower.

Let's see.  Some people on the planet may never have the experience of a shower.  Others can't stand the stench on a long flight, and so need a five minute shower before their arrival.   It is peculiar.

I was reading last night about Capuchin monkeys trained to help those who are severely handicapped.    Minnie, a five pound primate, fetches drinks from the frig, fixes food with the microwave and picks up the phone for her paraplegic friend.   She aids his independence.

Elephants are painting pictures in Thailand and animals are being trained as companions and helpmates.

Where is happiness, do you think?

egg stone

more on the book debate -



For those of you who have not been following the action on the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, here is the latest: Clay Shirky dissed Tolstoy and Nicholas Carr zinged back with a smackdown about Clay's "highbrow form of philistinism". Ouch.


Clay Shirky is not just questioning Tolstoy, he is questioning the culture of literature. He asks, What's so great about War and Peace? Maybe it does have themes of power, fate, and personal responsibility, but it is really any more enriching than, say, a season of The Wire? And Shirky is not alone in his blasphemy. Back on the Edge, George Dyson is speculates, "Perhaps books will end up back where they started, locked away in monasteries (or the depths of Google) and read by a select few". For a readership of bibliophiles, this is treason.


I will confess that I too am a booklover, and I write these words surrounded by the comfort of well-filled shelves. I love the smell of musty bindings, the texture of soft paper, and the crispness of a well-turned page. I like what books have to say and how they say it. My thoughts follow naturally in the patterns of literature, my mental stride falling in easily with its pace. Unlike Clay Shirky, I actually liked War and Peace.


Yet, as much as I love books, I understand that my bibliophilia is not a virtue, but an indulgence. I associate books with insight and knowledge, but my respect is for ideas, not format. Shirky is right to call out the cargo-cult of literature. For many years books were the primary means by which important ideas were conveyed to us, we came to associate them with thoughtful insight. This association is out of date. As much as I liked War and Peace, I probably got more out of the The Wire. And why should that be surprising? More human effort can be put into a television series than a novel and more time is spent consuming it. If both are executed to their highest standards, with equal care, skill and insight, we might well expect less from the book.


Even if literature is losing its primacy in storytelling, we might still hold out hope that the book as the best way to covey a complex idea. What if the format of a book is specially matched to the way we think? I doubt it. It may be sometimes true that the length and pace of book is perfectly fit to certain arguments, but when that happens, it is a happy coincidence. There is nothing about the amount of content that fits into a hand-held paper presentation that has any special importance to the human mind. Nor is it easy to argue that printed squiggles have some privileged channel to thought. Reading is an unnatural act, a trick that we have learned to move ideas across space and time.


A better argument might be that we have easier control over the pace and order of book than a video. That is true, but it points about the advantages of other media, such as linked interactive text, over books. Straight lines of thought and presentation can be a useful tool, but they are a constraint, not a unique advantage. Carr complains that his mind "now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles." This sounds pretty good to me. Seekers of knowledge will naturally gravitate toward the richest and most useful sources. They are gravitating away from books.


I put my love for books in the same category as my fondness for mechanical clocks. There is an art to them, and I am enriched for knowing what they hold inside. I am awed at what can be accomplished within such constraints. Yet, I would not argue that they have any special entitlement to greatness. Books, like mechanical clocks, were created to serve a purpose. Whether it is to inform, to entertain or to enlighten, the same purpose can often be served by better means.


Romance novels may have a future, but we are witnessing the sunset of the tome. I believe in George Dyson's vision of a tomorrow where books of knowledge are oddities, relegated to the obscure depths of monasteries and search engines. It makes me a little sad and nostalgic. But my sadness is tempered by the sure understanding that is neither the last nor the first change in format for our accumulation of wisdom. The book is a fine and admirable device, but I do not doubt that clay tables and scrolls of papyrus had charms of their own.

alan - purple flowers

Life -

.... Life which is so fantastic cannot be altogether tragic.

          -  Virginia Woolf

That is to counteract my feelings about a discussion on books that suggests that Tolstoy and literature might be obsolete.