Category Archives: Books

Arbitrary Value Assignment

Today I would like to write about arbitrary value assignment and how it relates to adoption or rejection of technology and culture.

When I say technology I am not merely talking about iPads, apps and laptops; but all objects which have been developed in conjunction with application of knowledge of scientific principles. In other words, a broader definition.

First, lets talk about physical books. Printed, bound and inky books. These were developed through application of science and technology. Compared to an eReader they look downright shabby – possessing no batteries, LCD screen or even speakers. They are technology, however, and thus can be compared directly to an eReader in the same paradigm.

It is important to note that the word “book” simultaneously (and I would argue equally) describes both a physical bound and printed written work and the contents thereof. A good example is the books of the Bible. We are well aware that they are separate, individual works despite being bound together, and so we retain the designation, rather than lumping them all together. The medium is not the message. If the text of Moby Dick were written on a giant cave wall in charcoal, would people still call it a book? I think so. Regardless what people call it, would it be any less profound, thrilling or educational? Of course not.

“Stop!” a critic might exclaim, “the tedium of reading off a cave wall would distract the reader, and thus might make the story less effective!” That would be an astute observation, and it leads me to my first point. A medium or any “thing” for that matter, should be judged according to its merits, and not upon arbitrary value assignments.

How this applies to books is that many individuals feel it is important to champion paper books over eReaders beyond a pro/con analysis. They take the argument into a realm of ethereal ideas of quality based upon something, something that makes paper books more… well just better. That something is an arbitrary value assignment.

What is a value assignment, and what makes one arbitrary? A value assignment is labeling something as “good” or “bad.” This can be meant in a moralistic sense or a simply practical one, with “bad” being informally substituted in the place of “unsatisfactory.” People do this by collecting evidence and then making a decision. If evidence is not taken into account, then that judgement is arbitrary, or baseless. Assuming one wants to live a life guided by rational decisions (many don’t mind omitting logic from the source of their beliefs, hence the designation) then arbitrary value assignments are… well, bad.

How does this relate to technology and culture adoption? People commonly assign arbitrary value when evaluating new things. In my observation, the most common way this is accomplished is to view old or previously established things, ways of behaving, doing, etc, as better than the new way, thing, or idea. To put it differently, people are used to the way things have been, and thus push against the new. This is not a unique idea I am presenting here, but I do feel it is an original spin on what has previously been said. What I want to point out, however, is that this behavior, of automatically judging things in one lump established=good/unproven=bad is not rational, as it could prevent people from obtaining potential benefit.

People often scoff at new ideas only because they are new. Not because they have evaluated and judged them, but because they are unfamiliar. Sometimes people believe they are making a rational judgement, when in fact they are merely filtering ideas through their previous understanding of the thing. A good example is the argument of whether children should be given cell phones. Younger and younger children are being given cell phones because of decrease in prices for basic calling plans and the phones themselves. The parents do this for added child safety. Many people deride the parents of these children, like they are somehow soiling their youth because… well… um… it just seems like kids shouldn’t have cell phones. Kids didn’t use to have cell phones (actually no-one did, but that is beside the point), so why do they suddenly need them now? Despite the obvious flaw in this argument (we didn’t previously have antibiotics either) people defer to it in a vain attempt to express what they are feeling. It is my argument that the disdain they feel for this possibility of kids having cell phones is not based upon logic or reasoning, but simply because previously kids just didn’t have them, so that just seems right. 

It seems like kids should be reared having to call from a landline, memorizing phone numbers while being careful to plan departure and arrival times so as not to worry parents. But that is only because it is the way that adults today had to do it when they were young. Sure, certain skills may have been learned by doing it that way, but those specific skills, if not taught through the new way of owning a cell phone, probably aren’t needed anymore.

For instance, I can only imagine what kind of skills are developed through computer programming on punchcards. Make sure you don’t make a mistake because once those holes are in the paper, they will remain! However, that isn’t how computers are programmed anymore. So while there were probably a few graduating computer scientists who learned the punchcard method while their college updated the curriculum, the industry quickly moved on, forgetting the outdated method. There were, no doubt, old curmudgeonly programmers who scoffed at the new young programmers who hadn’t even seen a punchcard. They must have judged them as lacking an integral skill or important experience that, although unquantifiable, must be important because it was experienced by someone. 

It is this appeal to feeling that I believe is absolutely useless. If one is unable to articulate why something should or shouldn’t be used/adopted/completed/etc and are relying on a sort of instinctual gut feeling, it is likely that the underlying reasoning is based upon an irrational line of reasoning. This is not to be confused with split decision making and fight or flight response, wherein a person makes a “gut” decision and acts quickly.

It is important to identify our own internal reference material. In academic studies one is required to verify sources of information to ensure validity. So too should individuals when making decisions, since it is absolutely possible that the seed of any one particular bit of information began as a half-formed thought, based in bias or misinformation. To use a historical example, designers of the RMS Titanic believed the design to be unsinkable. They based other decisions, such as how many lifeboats to place on the ship, upon this flawed premise. How many other decisions were poisoned by the faulty reasoning on this principal portion of the design?

Again, I feel that one of the most common elemental erroneous judgements is that things that have been around for a while are better than those that are new. It is common to look back at past decades as simpler, happier times. Who hasn’t gazed at a 1950s marketing image for Coca-Cola and thought “It sure would have been nice to live back then”? What many fail to remember is that at this time blacks were marginalized in the United States to a significantly greater degree than today, as were women discriminated against in the workplace, while various diseases remained yet uncured. You won’t see that intentionally in an ad for dyed and carbonated sugar water.

In summation, it is important that we don’t confuse feelings of comfort with perceived merit. It is irrational to make value assignments based purely upon how established something already is. People should study their preconceived notions, and judge all incoming data upon valid information, and not merely an inclination or feeling.


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Opinion, Random, Rant, Tech

The Future of Reading

polaroid-balance2I was thinking about E-Book readers today and how I don’t really want one. I hate carrying books, but I also love using them. I like holding them in my hands and ruffling the paper. I love the feel of the page on my thumbs. When it comes to putting them in my bag to take along though, I hate it. It is a giant lump asking to get bent out of shape. So what is the answer? Obviously electronic books are the future. We have done it with mail, music and photos, why not our knowledge?

Yes we already have much of our books digitized. The problem is that I have a bookshelf full of my favorite books already. Many of them are books that I doubt will see digitization any time soon. I don’t want to buy those books again! The advantage to print journalism is that at this time for something to be published, it has to be true, and (usually) has to be good. There is a wealth of information on the web, and some areas I feel that web-based content is better than it’s print counterpart (technology). But lets be honest, when someone references the Internet you still think “yeah… the Internet said that?”

So what would be the ideal? This is how I see it. We are already close. I think that a little light reading on the iPhone is just fine. The key is to read in bright light so that your eyes are already adjusted. If not, you need to lower the brightness. I read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” primarily on the iPhone when I read it recently. We need to be able to have all of our previously purchased  books available electronically. I know that this is a long shot seeing as how the publishing companies would like more money. If I could carry all of these with me as well as have them at home, that would be ideal. They would also need to be search-able for quick reference. If every book bought came with a digital copy via download from the publisher’s website, I believe people would buy more books.

The other issue is portability. I don’t want to carry another device. We invented smartphones to prevent this. If we could have a unified standard for e-books, various cell phone makers could integrate this into their devices. Once again, the factor preventing this is money. Proprietary formats help companies keep their customers. Amazon currently offers all of their kindle e-books on the iPhone, but if I ever want to switch to another kind of phone, I either have to get a Kindle or lose access to my e-books.

There are many problems that stand in our way of a usable e-book situation. One thing is for sure, we will figure out a way. It may be quite a while from now, but I am confident we will do it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Opinion

East of Eden

steinbeck-eastofedenI’m not one to claim that every book I read changes my life. I can see what they are saying, and then I choose to either accept or deny the viewpoints of the author. With the case of East of Eden by John Steinbeck, I believe that it presents some valid reasoning. It isn’t a short book. In fact the overview of the book would be described as a tri-generational family history, that follows the Trask family, and their moral conflicts dealing with money, life purpose, and jealousy.

As the name implies, there are many biblical references, most of which must be drawn by the reader. The book explores the all great question of why we do the things we do, yet does not come off as being didactic. Some motivations are more worthy than others is an idea that is explored. The book has been on many banned book lists through the years, which pretty much guarantees a good read, because it usually means that things are said which needed to be, but haven’t due to our society’s (or the one in which the book was first presented) tendency to sweep anything under the rug which may not reflect a positive light upon it.

The characters contrast each other enough that no-matter who you are, you are sure to find a favorite, and cheer them on as they trudge through their entire life, or a large portion due to the length of the book.

A favorite of many people, is the character of Cathy Ames, who has been the subject of much acclaim and criticism due to the strength of her character. You may have heard of Matt Costa, an Indie-Folk artist whose song “Ballad of Miss Kate” is about the character. Don’t listen to the song if you don’t want to hear a couple of spoilers, however.

One interesting thing about the book, is that many of the characters are actually real people. John Steinbeck began under the premise of it being a family history, though many of the family legends that happened to and around his relatives are included. It is left to the reader to decipher which is true, and which is embellishment.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Review

Climbing to the Top

Four years have passed, and here we are. Time for the Summer Olympics once again. I noticed something as I was watching Michael Phelps win his 7th Olympic Gold Medal: I don’t care that much. 

I can sense the pressure, the honor that it brings to the motherland, and the amazing amount of time and effort that the athletes have put into the games. However, once I begin to drift into these kinds of thoughts, my mind suddenly snaps out of it and says they are just sports. And it is true! When all is said and done, the crying and humiliation, glory and …more crying, are all in the name of athletics. 

This is nothing new. People have been placing great importance upon sporting events for a very long time. I have never been able to “catch the fever” myself. The closest that I have ever come is during the final moments of an NBA playoff game, as they tend to be pretty intense. Though any time that I have felt these feelings, I have felt it for the athletes alone. I can picture the losers going home that night and explaining to their friends and loved ones what they felt was the reason for their failure, and the other teams success. So it confuses me as to why much of the world takes part in the rejoicing in victory, along with their country’s athletes. They didn’t do anything. They weren’t the ones waking early in the morning to train, having no time for personal fun among schooling and their chosen sport.

Of course they enjoy it because in all likelihood, they have never done anything very noteworthy in the public eye, and like to feel like they are part of the excitement. 

Why do the athletes themselves do it? By the time they are taking part of the event, are they truly doing it “for the love of the game”? I heard one announcer say, that one of the Chinese gymnasts, is quitting after the Olympics are over, as he is just in it for the medal, and will not have a chance to compete at the next Olympics in 4 years.  If something is your job, even if you love it, it begins to take on a certain amount of drudgery to complete it. 

I have been thinking a lot about why people do things lately. I have been reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. It is about a expedition to the top of Mt. Everest in 1996 that went very badly. He recounts how he and 29 others made a summit attempt and got caught in a fierce storm with hurricane speed winds, in 100 degree below zero temperatures. There were many fatalities, and even more lives changed. Now, anyone you ask could tell you that there is an inherent risk to climbing the highest mountain on earth. So why did these people climb, knowing that they may never leave the mountain? 

I suppose the answer to many of these questions is the feeling you get from accomplishing something. These moments can come at differing degrees of intensity. In fact, I got it today as I finished putting together the new desk for my office (It was hard, alright!). I can only imagine the feeling you would get knowing that you are the best in the world at something. After thinking this for a moment though, I realize once again that it is just a stupid sport.

In conclusion, I believe that in order to truly enjoy the Olympics in 2012, I will need to be competing in them. Otherwise, I believe I will get a more genuine feeling of accomplishment by putting together more desks

…unless that is an Olympic event by then.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Rant