Monday, March 21, 2016

Song of the Week: Alternative Girlfriend

I don't know why, but this song popped into my head the other day. I haven't listened to Barenaked Ladies in a while, but they always have catchy tunes.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Shallows by, Nicholas Carr

Are you finding it harder and harder to concentrate? Are you having trouble remembering what you've read? Have you already skipped to the end of this review to see whether or not I recommend this book? Then you're not alone. Nicholas Carr noticed these symptoms in himself and decided to research what the Internet is doing to our brains. The result of that research is The Shallows.

Carr's research led him to a number of studies that have shown the nature of the Internet is rewiring how our brains work; not only that, but it does so quickly. A study in Boston compared brain scans between veteran Internet users and relative novices. A certain area of the brain of the veteran users lit up while reading web sites, while the novices' did not. Both groups were then sent away for five days with the assignment to use the Internet for one hour a day. After the five days were over, the test subjects' brains were scanned again and the novices' brains lit up in the same areas as the veteran users. Even as little as five hours of Internet use rewires your brain.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer isn't black and white. Another study shows video gamers can identify more things in their field of vision than non-gamers. Internet usage appears to optimize the multi-tasking parts of our brains, allowing us to move more quickly from item to item. It may even boost our working memory. But, as any good software engineer knows, optimization in one area can slow down another. The process of moving things from our working memory to long-term memory is hindered by Internet use. So while we may be getting what we need quicker, we don't retain it, and our ability to think deeply and create unique insights is becoming weaker.

The book is fascinating, but I have a few quibbles with it. For most of the first third of the book, Carr goes into the history of different media:  from when we first developed written language, to the telephone and radio, to motion pictures, and, finally, to the Internet.  The long digression provides good background to put the Internet into context with what came before it, but my Internet-addled brain had a hard time staying engaged. There is also a long digression toward the end about the history and culture of Google that I failed to find relevant.

The takeway for this book is the Internet is changing how our brains work and we should be aware of that. Taking time to occasionally unplug is good both for our emotional and mental health and will help us retain the ability to think deeply about problems and find creative solutions.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Song of the Week: Ain't Messing Around

"I don't believe in competition / Ain't nobody else like me around."

This is another one I heard during the Blues Hour on WBGO.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

An Empty Hell by, Dave White

Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in. -Michael Corleone

I open my review of An Empty Hell with a quote from The Godfather, Part III instead of the first line of the book because it must have been what Donne was thinking.  A year after the events of Not Even Past, Jackson Donne has settled into a nice routine in Vermont; he does odd jobs for a local motel, he avoids attention, and he drinks lots of beer. Back in New Jersey, members of the narcotics task force Donne belonged to when he was still a cop start showing up dead. One of the few remaining former cops thinks Donne is behind the murders and, thinking he is next on the hit list, hires PI Matt Herrick to track down Donne. Herrick finds Donne and a whole lot more than he bargained for.

No matter what he does, Donne can't stop being haunted by his past  No matter what he does, whether it's the right thing or running away, he always ends up in pain or causing pain to those he holds dear. It's even evident in the action that wrecked his police career, which is told in flashback in the middle of the book.

Matt Herrick his haunted in his own way, too. In some ways he is a mirror image of Donne. He is a high school basketball coach who is a retired soldier. Like Donne, he is haunted by his past actions, but those actions ended up saving lives, instead of costing them. He also does the right thing, even when the right thing is quite often is the path of most resistance.

In many ways, An Empty Hell is Herrick's book, not Donne's. He gets more screen time (page time?) than Donne and is a very active character, while Donne is more reactive. The two are a good pair and, at times, I had visions of them becoming a Derek Strange/Terry Quinn private eye duo. But, since White likes to put his characters through the emotional wringer, that was not meant to be.

As always, Dave White knows his New Jersey. There are times you can almost smell the Taylor ham (or pork roll, if you prefer that term). And the novel's pace threatens to give you blisters as you turn the pages.

In terms of the series, I wouldn't recommend this book as the starting point because the events are tied very closely to what happened in Not Even Past. But every Donne book is worth your time.