David Kirkpatrick

June 12, 2008

The internet is changing our brains

Filed under: Arts, et.al., Media, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 12:24 am

Just read Nicholas Carr’s piece in the July/August 2008 print Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article raises some very interesting points, most importantly bringing into sharper focus the relatively new neuroscience idea that our brain continually changes, improves and otherwise re-wires itself. This is counter the long-held belief that once you reach adulthood, your brain is permanentlyset. Sort of like concrete poured into a mold. Instead the medium a malleable, and the mold is constantly refiguring itself.

The larger concept is the internet, and its unique structure, is affecting the way we access and process information. Certainly true. I’ve included an excerpt from the article about how acquiring a typewriter affected Nietzsche’s writing.

I completely understand this idea. When writing for business or media I use the computer keyboard, but when writing fiction I often will write in longhand. It’s a different experience and it slows my thinking down forcing me to contemplate each word a bit more. Sure I do some fiction at the keyboard, but much of that writing is done with pen set to paper. And my journal of many years is one hundred percent longhand. Something about the pen, or pencil, scratching across the page still appeals to me. Plus I like looking at the large stack of spiral-bound notebooks holding my thoughts dating back twenty-plus years.

From the article:

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

April 17, 2008

James Fallows on air taxis

Filed under: Business, Media, Technology — Tags: , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 1:05 am

Just got around to reading a good chunk of the print May Atlantic magazine. James Fallows has a great article on “air taxis” covering what is happening right now in the US Southeast and the overall feasibility of the concept.

Very cool stuff and an interesting article. Overall it looks like a promising way to get around at a reasonable price for consumers.

From the link:

How could a brand-new company in the chronically troubled aviation business have come so quickly to the point where its main challenge is growing too fast? And this through a period when security concerns of all sorts have risen, fuel prices have soared, environmental doubts about aviation have intensified, and airports and airways have become more congested by the day—and the economy of the company’s home area, in southern Florida, has been through a real-estate crash?

The answer involves an odd assemblage of talents and disciplines that includes American computer scientists who call their specialty “ant farming”; Russian mathe­matical prodigies who made their way from Minsk and Moscow to Florida, via Jerusalem; Internet-business pioneers; and, yes, pilots and maintenance experts and dispatchers, including many refugees or retirees from the troubled airlines. Plus Bruce Holmes himself, who joined the company a year ago, after NASA radically cut back its airplane-related activities to shift its resources to space exploration.

DayJet’s success to date has also depended on the confluence of several technologies that all matured at once. Indeed, the most startling aspect of its story is the insistence from top to bottom that at heart, it is not an aviation company at all. “You could think of us as really a software company,” Jim Herriott, one of the ant farmers, told me. What he meant was that the Internet has become an unimaginably refined and powerful tool for routing packets of data from place to place. “We are about developing an Internet for stuff”—the stuff in this case being passengers in seats.

January 18, 2008

James Fallows on Chinese US investment

Filed under: Business, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 5:12 pm

James Fallows has an excellent article titled “The $1.4 Trillion Question” in the January/February 2008 Atlantic. He covers the controversial subject of China’s investment in the United States, particularly in T-bills.

He also blogs at the Atlantic’s website and posted a follow-up to the story here. This post is titled “The $1.53 Trillion Question” to reflect the increase in China’s foreign holdings between the time he authored the magazine article and when the issue hit the stands.

China is now investing about $1 billion each day and if that trend continues one fact in the article would substantially change. He wrote China’s US investment is the equivalent of each American borrowing $4000 from the Asian nation. The revised figure, according to Fallows, means, ” … on average, each American would not have borrowed about $4,000 from China; the figure would be closing in on $6,000.”

On the whole this shouldn’t be a great concern because as many economic analysts have opined, clearly China has a very vested (or should it be invested) interest in the stability of the US dollar and economy.

On the other hand, Chinese politics are extremely opaque throwing a great deal of uncertainty over any future. And the article notes the Chinese do pay attention to our government and media. Fallows goes on to cite an example of Lou Dobbs on CNN criticizing “Communist China” and Chinese officials being “shellshocked” their investment in the US might be resented.

I recommend reading both Fallows’ blog post and the entire article for a thorough rundown of this issue and its implications.