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Thu, Nov. 12th, 2015, 06:43 pm

Steven Johnson, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life: Breezy book about the various chemicals and processes involved in memory, recognizing others’ facial expressions, feeling fear, etc. Insists that there are profound differences between men and women not because we’re from different planets but because we’re on different drugs (testosterone and estrogen/oxytocin). Meh.

Alfie Kohn, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and Other Phony Crises: Free LibraryThing early review copy. Kohn starts from the premise that people have been saying that kids today are much worse than kids when they were growing up for centuries, so that the default response to narratives of deterioration should be skepticism. If kids are in trouble, Kohn suggests, it’s because of the larger collapse of social cohesion that leads parents to fail to model social responsibility and caring for others as values rather than just individually getting ahead. Rather than being too nice to our kids—trophies for everyone!—Americans are actually astonishingly punitive, which is a moral and not an empirical stance, given that there’s no evidence that “permissiveness” harms kids and a lot of evidence that spanking does. (A majority of Americans approve of at least occasional spanking.) “Parents love their own kids but often have little patience with anyone else’s…. Surveys of American adults consistently find what one newspaper report called ‘a stunning level of antagonism not just toward teen-agers but toward young children as well.’” Parents think that being dictatorial is the same as being authoritative: “It’s not unlike the way a dictator sees the world: Without martial law we have lawlessness; what you foreigners insist on calling ‘democracy’ isn’t the former, so it must be just a fancy term for the latter.”

Some of Kohn’s criticisms are not well taken, it seems to me—he thinks there’s a contradiction between saying that parents are too permissive because they let their kids do whatever they want and saying that parents are overinvolved and overhelpful, doing too much for their kids, but I see some of both—parents acceding to demands and then doing too much to carry out those demands, even when the kid could be left alone to play with the whatever. Likewise, Kohn criticizes those who describe kids as coddled because their parents “err on the side of keeping their children safe,” since helmets, car seats, etc. are indeed very good ideas. But barring kids from walking to school or riding bikes in the street, which also happens, are not good ideas—the question is what is lost from any particular “safety” measure.

However, I’m persuaded by some of the larger points. Kohn says we have three interrelated misperceptions about childrearing, based on flawed morality: (1) conditionality (love must be earned or it’s not worth having); (2) scarcity (it’s important to compete for good things); and (3) deprivation (being in need is good for the soul). For example, though we criticize “helicopter parents,” having a close relationship with your parents isn’t itself bad and can even provide protection from some traps, such as binge drinking in college. He argues that maturity isn’t the same as self-sufficiency—it’s ok to need other people and it doesn’t make you inferior at adulting. American individualism ill serves us here. He’s also not a fan of awards for everyone, but because of their dampening effects on intrinsic motivation to achieve, not because life should produce lots of losers and very few winners (as other critics believe). What he describes as the “better get used to it” theory of childrearing is misguided: “People don’t get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young.” We can and should model and roleplay and prepare children for challenges in other ways, but, as one person he quotes says, “to teach children how to handle a fire emergency, we talk to them about the dangers of smoke inhalation and advise them where to go when the alarm sounds. We don’t actually set them on fire.” Failure is often demotivating; success, at something that the kid thought was worth doing, is motivating and helps the kid see herself as a competent person. I really empathized with the point that, “[a]s a rule, it’s hard to stop happy, satisfied people from trying to learn or from trying to do a job of which they can be proud.”

The broader social critique: by trying to raise kids with lots of grit and tolerance for hard, unpleasant work, we are trying to wring out the characteristics that lead people to challenge existing structures and work for positive change. He cites disturbing research indicating that high-performing students are often experts at playing the “game” of grades but not interested in learning for its own sake. (I know this isn’t a blanket rule, but if you’re rewarded for that, I can see it happening.) Kids who react badly to school are seen as defective, when the defects may well be in the schools that are asking them to do pointless work—kids aren’t given much reason to “do their best,” just ordered to do so. With the recent attention to the role of cops in schools, Kohn’s argument is particularly poignant/troubling.

Probably the biggest omission in the book, despite its rhetoric about social justice and political quiescence, is a discussion of class. “Helicopter parents” are a particular class phenomenon, and their kids usually don’t go to the same schools that mandate lots of rote teaching. (Yet; give privatization time.) I don’t think American children are all being raised the same way, even if the hostility directed towards them is often generalized—it’s even more often racialized, as when African-American children are seen by adults as several years older than their true ages, and thus more threatening.

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton: Read it for the obvious reason; enjoyed it as a companion to the musical and as a corrective to the necessary compression of events in the musical. The main thing I noticed: American politics has a long history of totally asinine disputes; sometimes I thought very little had changed. Also, as I’ve noted before, American political pundits are terrible. I particularly loved the one who declared, before Washington’s second term ended, that John Adams was finished in politics.

Diversity in Intellectual Property: Identities, Interests, and Intersections, ed. Irene Calboli & Srividhya Ragavan: Multiple essays about various aspects of IP diversity. Notable: Peter Yu’s arch comment that it makes just as much sense to blame Judeo-Christian values for massive file-sharing in Western countries as to blame Confucian values for massive copying in China: counterfeiting is not a simple matter of “culture.” Carys Craig’s observation that genuis has “consistently been defined in contradistinction to the feminine”—whether what women were thought to lack was “passion, reason, madness, or even, most recently, the willingness to discard the claim to subjective authority.” David Tan’s citation of R Sumantri MS’s paintings of Chinese folk heroes defeating Marvel & DC superheroes. Tomer Broude’s reminder that conceptions of culture as a “living” thing should also mean, by definition, that culture can die. Peter Jaszi’s discussion of tensions in Indonesian traditional arts: he recounts meeting with a young keyboard player who loved the old music, but also loved tweaking it to reflect the influences with which he was familiar, which included Western music; anyway, he needed a keyboard because hiring a larger group of musicians with traditional instruments would have been cost-prohibitive, preventing him from performing at a funeral. Jaszi reports that artists very much wanted to connect with audiences, both local and possibly larger, but were worried about the increasing relative price of traditional arts compared to the mass produced, as well as about the countervailing risk of vulgarizing traditional art to get tourist dollars. By contrast, he says, stylistic imitation was a non-issue for them; they didn’t want pure counterfeits/outright misappropriation, but hybridization wasn’t itself offensive. Jaszi uses this example to argue that solutions for local artists ought to be attentive to their actual interests, rather than assuming that one size fits all, extensive IP protection is the desirable result.

 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: History of the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, in which many Native Americans were slaughtered by Union forces during the Civil War. The history is interspersed with contemporary disputes about how to memorialize the massacre—for decades it was a “battle”—and a lot of detail about the complex politics involving two tribes, local whites, and the federal government trying to figure out both where the massacre site was and how to create a memorial that would respect the dead, promote tourism, and reward the owners of the property on which the memorial would be built. The massacre was “misplaced” both because people lost track of where it had actually occurred and because it was hard for whites to acknowledge it as part of the Civil War, which in the West was more about expansion. Tribal members experienced some of the things that the National Park Service people thought would honor the dead as renewed insults; they repeatedly noted that native skeletons had been removed and studied to determine (and thus ultimately improve) the effects of weapons on human bodies. At some points, they almost scrapped the whole project, preferring “no memorial at all to one built upon the ruins of their cultural and political sovereignty.” Bonus points for the white apologists who even today argue that we should all forgive and forget, because not all the soldiers were indiscriminate killers. Also for the tentacles of corruption that reached even this project—Senator Ted Stevens threatened its viability because of economic interests linked to Indian gaming, with which his donors/friends were heavily involved.

Daniel Girardin & Christian Pirker, Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography: A collection of photographs that have been involved in public disputes about their legality, propriety, provenance, etc., with short essays about each one. The authors are not lawyers and have only a tenuous grasp on the right legal terms, especially when it comes to intellectual property. Looking through, it’s hard not to notice that controversial photos of men are usually about violence being inflicted on them, whereas controversial photos of women (and girls) are usually about sexuality/the exposure of their bodies, whether voluntary or not, as if consent didn’t matter.

Intellectual Property Law & Policy, Vol. 12, ed. Hugh Hansen: Proceedings from a 2009 conference by a high-protectionist, with occasional interventions from people who don’t believe that more IP is always better. Confirms my belief that it’s a bad idea to make predictions; five years later they may be very embarrassing. The AP predicted that it would be out of the news business soon if new protections for it weren’t enacted. A Paramount VP told us that “no one is going to be making a special-effects film or a film with famous talent for a YouTube market where there is little or no revenue.” Time Warner’s representative told us that, as the internet matured, people were going to stop making their own mashups or “blogs” and instead just “Twitter” and comment on favorite scenes from a movie; users were more interested in consuming works and interacting with each other than in “expending the effort and the energy needed to interact with a work creatively in a very deep way.” (Your condescension is returned with interest, Time Warner!) Best of all, I learned that ACTA (related to SOPA/PIPA) was a done deal and that, once enforcement was taken care of, IP was going to fade away from business and political discussions. “And who can be against enforcement? It is a question of logic.”

I also learned that the reason that the term “three strikes” was abandoned for copyright infringement notices from ISPs, in favor of “graduated response,” was that people outside the US “do not understand that ‘three strikes and you’re out’ refers to baseball and not violence.” Other things I had not thought of: copying levies on equipment, imposed in many countries outside the US, have trouble dealing with the fact that now one consumer may have multiple copies—on her phone, her laptop, her car, etc.—but the economic effect/value of those copies is not really different than the single copy she would’ve had many years ago. Also, other intermediaries in the value chain oppose making the levies transparent to consumers, because they believe, not without reason, that a consumer who understands that she’s already paid a fee for copying music when she buys an empty hard drive will not want to pay again for a music service.

Separately, when IP’s proponents argue that developing countries should strengthen IP laws so that there’ll be improved tech transfer, that’s actually a pretty colonialist treatment, in that they don’t suggest that increased IP rights would lead to increased innovation from within the country. Peter Yu also made some excellent points about China—piracy rates in the US and other high-income countries are 20-40% for software; they’ve had strong IP rights for decades, so is it really more distressing that China has an 80% piracy rate? Meanwhile, the high-protectionists claimed that there’s so much piracy in developing nations that there was no need for exceptions and limitations to copyright, only for more robust rights. Jamie Love responded quite well, pointing out that if there’s a lot of outright copying there’s not much need for exceptions and limitations; only if there’s enforcement do the needs for exceptions and limitations become clear. Jessica Litman has eloquently made a related point: it’s kind of strange to think that you can expand copyright law to vast new fields while not expanding the limitations that were always part of copyright law, as if a child were growing up while its eyes and nose remained the same size. 

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