Monday, November 30, 2009

Loneliness (book review)

book cover: Loneliness

Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick
Paperback 317 pages, $ $ 17.95
August 2009
ISBN: 978-0-393-33528-6

Ashley Montagu, who died in November ten years ago, explained to his students and lecture audiences an insight that has proven to be not only very true, but very wise. Montagu said that the inspirations of creative individuals — poets, authors, artists, philosophers — are eventually confirmed by science. For example, when a poet such as Edmond Rostand makes his hero, Cyrano de Bergerac, shout:

I need to fight whole armies all alone;
I have ten hearts; I have a hundred arms;
I feel too strong to war with mortals —

This extraordinary courage that love inspires is glimpsed by the poet; years later the scientist can tell us that strong emotions, such as love, produce powerful physiological changes in the human body and brain.

That is the first theme of the book Loneliness: loneliness, like sleep shortages, impacts not only our emotions, but our physical health and well-being. More than 60 million Americans suffer seriously from this epidemic condition. In addition to a thorough and well-documented diagnosis, the book provides solutions that are within the reach of almost everyone.

I never imagined that a book about loneliness could be so entertaining: almost like the good cheer of the famous foot-stomping folk song, "The Ship Titanic". These pages contain many bursts of humor, and many memorable passages. It will be a long time before I forget the astounding saga of Phineas Gage; even longer before I forget the book's description about how a female chimp (page 211) ingeniously made peace between two belligerent males.

The book proposes that there are three keys to happiness: Social connections; Household income; and Age. Surprisingly — and this may be the most controversial of the book's claims, — "people get happier as they grow older."

Maximizing genuine relationships, while minimizing conflicts, is a strategy for personal and professional success. What is the cure for loneliness? ... Develop strong social connections.

From the book (page 223):

As I've suggested through dozens of examples, when we feel isolated we also feel embattled, which leads to less robust health, less enjoyment in life, and less of an ability to collaborate to find winning solutions. When we feel satisfied with our social connections, we feel safe. When we feel safe, we can think more creatively. We also anticipate and more often experience positive emotions, which, aside from their long-term physiological benefits, provide immediate and persistent psychological uplift. That boost in mood affects our subsequent behavior toward others, which, in turn, affects how others behave toward us — which, once again, encourages creative collaboration. Cause and effect cycle back and forth, and the positives continue to ripple outward in a widening circle.

This roadmap to a long and healthy life is corroborated in a book about longevity, The Blue Zones; and also in a number of my own books about child maintenance, where I have called this process, the Positive Affirmation Cycle.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Society is poison but solitude is fatal." Loneliness does not address Emerson's concerns, echoed in works by Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom), and Philip Slater (The Pursuit of Loneliness). What shall we do when the society around us is destructive or "inauthentic", and we are confronted with two unpleasant choices: join the masses in their folly, or remain alone?

Nevertheless, the book Loneliness by Cacioppo and Patrick, is filled with such a superabundance of subtle humor, excellent scholarship, and practical advice, it stands alone as one of the most valuable books in print about its all-important theme.

For more information, visit the book's companion website: Science of Loneliness.

— Michael Pastore

Story Links

On December 1, 2009, many major publications released in-depth articles about the theme of loneliness. Here are more resources about this theme.

Time Magazine,8599,1943748,00.html

U.S. News

NY Times

Washington Post

Read more! ... (or go to this post's PermaLink)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

State of the World 2009

State of the World 2009
Into a Warming World
a project of the WorldWatch Institute
Published by W. W. Norton, 2009
Paperback, 262 pages, $ 19.95
Book web page.

Copenhagen Climate Conference is coming soon to Denmark from December 7 to December 18. Mindful of the immanent threats of global warming and climate change, the world will be watching this United Nations meeting with the greatest hopes. This is not an issue that can be avoided or postponed.

And this is not an issue that can be solved in the meeting rooms alone. Every thinking person must educate herself/himself; learn the basics about the problems and the viable solutions.

Here are three good ways to learn more about climate change.

The Book and Film by Albert Gore

Gore's book and film, An Inconvenient Truth, summarizes the essence of Gore's research, using vivid and unforgettable images and concisely written ideas.

Gore's websites are also worth visiting:

Repower America
The Climate Project

At the website of you can join or organize local events to fight climate change.

State of the World 2009

State of the World — produced by the environmental research organization the WorldWatch Institute — is published every year.

This year's edition is unique: it is written by 47 different authors, and it focuses on one burning theme: climate change. The book's chapters — each one is an article worth reading — explain where we are now, what catastrophes will happen if we fail to act wisely and promptly, and what solutions we can apply to heal our aching planet. All the articles are scholarly — there are more than 50 pages of endnotes — without a trace of pedantry: every article is thoughtful and clear.

Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, Earth's temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. We are quickly heading for a tipping point of 2.0 degrees warmer. Although that may sound like a small amount, the effects would be devastating:

  • Increased loss of species and their natural habitats
  • Loss of coastal properties and coastal flooding as the sea-level rises and glaciers melt.
  • Massive shortages of drinkable water.
  • Decline in food production in developing nations.

The book does not leave planet Earth tied to the railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train. It explains the many solutions that have been already taken, and many more that might be applied in the very near future.

State of the World is one of the few books that I call "indispensable", thanks to its reliable information, its depth of insights, and its underlying focus about how we can transform our troubled world into a thriving sustainable culture. This 2009 edition, focusing on solutions to climate change, should be on the bookshelf of every thinking person who cares about future generations.

Read this book carefully, and then take action: join the growing movement to cool the Earth.

— Michael Pastore

How to Buy the Book

Buy the book (ISBN: 9780393334180) from the publisher's website, or by phoning toll free: 1-877-539-9946 (in USA), or outside the USA, call 1-301-747-2340.

Read more! ... (or go to this post's PermaLink)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Rabbi's Cat 2 and the Renewal of Reading

The Rabbi's Cat 2
Story and drawings by Joann Sfar
Translated by Alexis Siegel
Pantheon Books
Hardcover, 130 pages
ISBN: 978-0-375-42507-3

In the first volume of The Rabbi's Cat, Joann Sfar introduced us to the rabbi, his delightful daughter Zlabya, and a talking cat who loves her. In this second book in the series, we re-encounter the original players (although we see less of Zlabya) and meet exotic new ones. The rabbi's storytelling cousin yearns for everlasting fame. A Russian painter searches for a prejudice-free utopia. The painter falls in love with a voluptuous waitress who accompanies him on the dangerous quest.

The stories, tales within tales, are always interesting; the colorful and expertly-drawn art is enchanting. Yet that could be said of many of the fine graphic novels published in this blossoming genre. What distinguishes this book, and the first volume of The Rabbi's Cat, is the characters — who are many-dimensional — and the dialogue, which is rich with insights and memorable lines.

I was surprised to see this extraordinary book for sale on the bargain websites; and astounded that (unlike the first volume) a paperback edition never came to print.

Because here we have "literature", a modern classic, written for everyone and for all ages, earthy and entertaining and instructive, like the classic novels we so admire, by Dickens and Burnett and Twain. This book, and works like it, could help to renew the art of reading.

What good is all our fancy ebook reading devices, and our advanced technologies, and Frankln's ingenious gift — the public libraries — what good is all this opportunity if we ignore it? ... All the world's radiant wisdom instantaneously at our fingertips, is available to us, free or almost free, as long as we renew our love of reading, and cultivate the ability to discern the genuine novels from the ordinary ones.

— Michael Pastore

Read more! ... (or go to this post's PermaLink)

Monday, November 09, 2009

Can We Save the Dying Art of Conversation ?

Catherine Blyth, author, The Art of Conversation

Essay by Michael Pastore

My first lesson in the embarrassing art of conversation came from my grandfather, when I was ten years old. Noticing that I had less energy than usual — I was not running up and down his living room walls — he guessed the reason and then called me to his armchair.

"Have you talked with her?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I don't know what to say."

Smiling, the kind old man rubbed his white-whiskered chin.
"The secret of schmoozing is very simple. If you want to break the ice and make a great first impression, ask her about three things: family, food, and philosophy."

The next day, in the lunchroom, confident with this foolproof strategy, I amazed my friends as I sat down on the vacant bench beside Helen Goldstein, the prettiest girl in P.S. 123.

"Do you have a brother?" I asked.
"No!" she said.
"Do you like mashed bean sprouts?"
"No!" said Helen, with a disdainful pout.

Things were going well so far; I felt undiscouraged; after a moment's reflection I asked:
"If you had a brother, would you like mashed bean sprouts?"

As a mustardy cheese sandwich ricochetted off my sweatshirt, I sighed with the realization that I had failed, and failed completely. My guy friends greeted my humiliating retreat with a melange of wild laughter, high-fives, and admiration undying.

"Human understanding," wrote Michel de Montaigne, "is marvelously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses. "

Montaigne, who loved reading, understood the incomparable value of a good talk face to face. But do we men and women of this technologically advanced age understand this as well? ... It seems as if we are spending more and more time in front of screens, sometimes passively watching, other times typing or tapping superficial first impressions clothed in fragmented sentences (or acronyms: ROFLMAO) which express less than the guttural grunts of a Neanderthal.

Why is it so rare to meet persons who are skilled conversationalists? ... A conversation is "a spoken interchange of thoughts and feelings," — and to converse we need not one gift but two: knowing how to speak, which is difficult enough, and the far more subtle skill: knowing how to listen.

How can we master the intricate art of conversation?

If conversation is an art that can be learned, then like any art, the learning of it requires courage, concentration, practice, patience, and making it an ultimate concern. This insight comes from Erich Fromm, who was writing about the art of loving. And it seems to me that one of the first principles of great conversation is not necessarily to love the other person (although that would be the best), but to approach the encounter gemutlichly, with a warm feeling — or at the minimum, with a sincere respectfulness.

The best way to learn is to learn by example, at the side of a brilliant-talking friend. Without that kind of living laboratory, you can turn to some of the better books about this popular theme. In the chattery galaxy of books on this subject — many (unfortunately) classified in the self-help section — two works stand out as guiding stars.
cover of Conversation by Zeldin

I would start with Theodore Zeldin and his book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives. The book is less of a how-to guide, and more of a brilliant appreciation of the art. As in his other works, Zeldin grapples with the most complex questions and themes. This book's chapters include:

1) How every new era changes the subject of conversation
2) Why the conversation of love is moving in a new direction
3) What saves family conversation from being boring
4) Conversation in the workplace: why specialists are having to find a new way of talking
5) What technology can do to conversation
6) How conversation encourages the meeting of the minds
and a coda of stimulating questions, titled: Thirty-six topics of conversation.

Zeldin writes:

"Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don't just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn't just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards."

Anyone who finishes this book, and is not inspired to renew their conversations with new energy, originality, and genuineness, should take a vow of silence.

Zeldin's commitment to saving conversation from extinction goes well beyond the book, and beyond even Zeldin's Facebook fan club. Zeldin's foundation, The Oxford Muse, describes itself as "a foundation to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life."

Erich Fromm, at the end of one his important books, asked readers to write letters to him and tell him their ideas about how to save and to renew our culture. The Oxford Muse Foundation has similar goals about renewal; thanks to the Internet, this kind of project has a far greater chance of success.

cover of The Art of Conversation

Like Montaigne and Zeldin, Catherine Blyth (pictured at the top of this essay) believes in the timeless value of good conversation. At the end of The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of A Neglected Pleasure, Blyth writes:

"Conversation's finer points may be lost without our world tottering. Still, as communication, it is unimprovable. Of all arts the oldest and most captivating, it is also the easiest, free to all. As prices soar and time shrinks, and space compacts, it is one luxury that costs nothing. Protect it, prioritize it, and reap the wealth of a companionable, convivial life.
Let conversation bring you the world."

Blyth's book is filled with humorous anecdotes, historical snippets, wise musings, and practical advice. Advice about many topics including how to begin a conversation, what to talk about, humor, how to tell (detect) a lie; the language of love; flattery; ending the chat. In explaining how not to be bore, Blyth offers the "Shut-up Test":
Imagine you're a soft-boiling a modest egg,
Have you talked more than three minutes?
This better be a great dinosaur egg of a fascinating topic.
Stick to the point. If they want more, they'll ask.

Written with charming style, and always entertaining, Blyth's book artfully blends the theory and the practice about how to effectively and enjoyably converse.

After reading these excellent books, you will be well on your way to enlivening your conversations. But one question looms like the eavesdropping monster of Frankenstein: At that next party, how can we escape from boreus interminus — the mind-bending, mood-murdering, time-wasting total bore — the lonely and/or egomaniacal one who grips you like a swamp leech and won't let go?

Being European, both Zeldin and Blyth are too polite to employ a technique invented, practiced and perfected by us barbarians across the sea. It has been called by many names, one of which is "the Human Sacrifice." (It is mentioned in a book titled "The Art of Mingling", although I cannot recall if it originated there.) Something remotely similar to this method was used by Herakles, to pass the weighty sky back to the shoulders of the punished Titan, Atlas.

Here's how it works. When a bore hooks you and won't let go, you smile patiently, all the while waiting for the next person who will to come to pass. When this unsuspecting victim (the person to be sacrificed) passes near you, you touch his coat sleeve and then say: "Charlie, there is a fascinating person I want you to meet: this is [ fill in the name of the bore ]."

Grinning angelically, in one swift ballet-like motion, you take Charlie by the arm, move him in front of El Boro, and then walk slowly and steadily toward the cheese table, leaving the flabbergasted Charlie to manage the unflappable bore.

This technique, the human sacrifice, is heartless, machiavellian, uncivilized — and it works every time.

— Michael Pastore

Books Mentioned

How Talk Can Change Our Lives
by Theodore Zeldin
Hidden Spring, May 2000
Hardcover, 112 pages, $ 12

The Art of Conversation
A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure
by Catherine Blyth
Gotham Books
Paperback, 304 pages, $ 15
Available December 29, 2009
(hardcover and ebook editions available now)

Story Links

The Oxford Muse Foundation

Read more! ... (or go to this post's PermaLink)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Health Bill Passes in U.S. House of Representatives

Affordable health care for everyone may be on its way. This evening, around 11:10 p.m., the U.S. House voted in favor of new health care plan. The decision was won by almost the narrowest of margins: 218 "Yea" votes were needed, and 220 "Yea" votes were recorded in favor of bill HR 3962.

This bill was endorsed by 300 groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Nursing Association, the Consumer's Union, and the AARP: the American Association of Retired Persons.

The next and final step for this legislation: it will move to the U.S. Senate to be debated, tweaked, and voted on.

A slideshow of the event, from the New York Times, reported:

President Obama left a closed-door meeting with House Democrats in which he urged passage of the health care legislation, making a personal appeal to "answer the call of history." Lawmakers credited Mr. Obama with converting a final few holdouts just hours before the vote.
For more information, see the article in the New York Times: Sweeping Health Care Plan Passes House.

Read more! ... (or go to this post's PermaLink)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Michael Tobias Presents His Film: Ahimsa-Nonviolence

Michael Tobias, the renowned ecologist, author and film-maker, will moderate a discussion about non-violence, after a viewing of his memorable film, Ahimsa-Nonviolence, at the RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART in New York City, on Saturday afternoon, November 7. The presentation begins at 4:00 p.m.; the cost is $12 for non-members, and $10.80 for members of the Rubin Museum.

Another viewing of the film can be seen on Sunday, November 8, at 10:45 a.m., at Siddachalam, the Jain 120-acre animal sanctuary in New Jersey, two hours from New York City. There is no admission fee, but noone will be admitted after the film begins.

Michael Tobias' PBS film Ahimsa-Nonviolence premiered nationwide in the United States on Christmas Day in 1987 and was described by Southeast Asian Religions Professor Chris Chapple as a film “which elegantly portrays several Jain leaders and extols the religion as the great champion of animal rights and nonviolent living.”

Ahimsa in Jainism is a fundamental principle forming the cornerstone of its ethics and doctrine. The term means "nonviolence," "non-injury," or absence of desire to harm any life forms. Vegetarianism and other nonviolent practices and rituals of Jains flow from the principle of Ahimsa. According to Adian Rankin the concept of Ahimsa is so much intertwined with Jainism that it conjures up images of ascetics who cover their mouths and sweep the ground before them with small brushes to avoid injuring the most minuscule forms of life and Jain-owned animal sanctuaries where even the sickest, most deformed birds and beasts are protected and cherished. These overt manifestations of an ancient faith challenge the comfortable and near-universal assumption of human precedence over other creatures.

The Jain concept of Ahimsa is quite different from the concept of nonviolence found in other philosophies. In other religious traditions, violence is usually associated with causing harm to others. In Jainism violence refers primarily to injuring one's own self — behavior which inhibits the soul's own ability to attain liberation.

The film, which took three years of preparations and was filmed in nearly 100 locations across India, was one of the first to explore in depth the Jain religion, as well as portraying the life of Digambara, Shvetambara, and Sthanakavasi mendicants. In an essay on Jain conscience in 1997, Tobias described "the goal of absolute nonviolence" as an ideal that activists worldwide must take seriously at "every waking moment." Elsewhere he has argued that evolution does not condemn us; only our choices can do that, adding, "We have the capacity throughout our lives to give unstinting, unconditional love."

For more information, contact:

phone: 212.620.5000 x344
Web site:

Read more! ... (or go to this post's PermaLink)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Book Price Wars and Sustainable Ebook Publishing

What is happening to the price of new hardcover books? ... While just about everything else these days is going up, book prices from the major book retailers are plummeting downward.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Michael Pastore.

And why not? ... These booksellers are offering the same product. Why buy from store A, when store B can give it to you cheaper?

It all points to chaos in the publishing industry, and the fact that publishers have given control of the prices to the online booksellers. I say that these prices should be set by the publishers; and that the profit of online booksellers should be smaller; and that authors should receive much more for each book sold.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Michael Pastore.
And what about ebooks? ... Ebooks, if managed smartly, could renew the entire publishing industry. Yet most publishers are treating ebooks as an enfant terrible. Some publishers are delaying the release of the ebooks; others are pricing them the same as the paper books.

How could epublishing be done smarter, with more benefits to book buyers and more profit for publishers? ... P.R.E.S.S.:

1. Provide ebooks with no-DRM restrictions.
2. Release the ebooks first.
3. Enhance ebooks with features not included in the paper versions of the book.
4. Sell ebooks at a lower price than their paper brothers and sisters.
5. Save the art of reading, by teaching the personal benefits and cultural value of good books.

I have called this approach "Sustainable Ebook Publishing."

The biggest publishers, by focusing on profit only and by ignoring the potential of ebooks, have discovered a proven formula for losing readers and losing money.

Dorothy Parker became famous for her motto: "What fresh hell is this?" ... Shakespeare's Puck (pictured right), in A Midsummer Night's Dream sang a lighter-hearted view of human folly:

"Shall we their fond pageant see?
  Lord,what fools these mortals be!"

— Michael Pastore, author:

  • At A Picnic in Italy, I Found Rome-Ants

  • The Ithaca Manual of Style

  • 50 Benefits of Ebooks

Read more! ... (or go to this post's PermaLink)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Learning Python 4th Edition (book review)

book cover of Learning Python

Learning Python, Fourth Edition
by Mark Lutz
O'Reilly Media, 2009
Paperback, 1,160 pages: $ 54.99
Ebook (PDF, MOBI, EPUB): $ 39.99
Visit the book's web page.

NaNoWriMoNational Novel Writing Month — begins today, November 1, and runs for 30 days until November 30. The goal of this project is daunting: everyone who participates must write a novel in a month. The novel is defined, ala E.M. Forster, as a prose work comprising a minimum of 50,000 words.

I do not participate — like Nelson Algren, I believe that a genuine novel takes a skilled author one year or two years to write. Nevertheless, I am a strong supporter of this project. The NaNoWriMo project promotes writing and reading, and improves one's skills in both.

Months ago, I had a spectacular idea related to novel writing and computer programming. Suppose there was an open-source software program that would help the writer in three phases of the work.

1. Planning the novel.

Abraham Lincoln said: "If I had six hours to chop wood, I would spend the first five hours sharpening my axe." If I were NanoWriting I would spend the first five days planning the book, and the remaining 25 days writing 2,000 words per day. My software program would provide simple yet flexible frameworks for planning many types of novels.

2. Copy Editing the novel.

Why isnt' there a push-button editing solution, that would work similar to a spell checker, and cover all the essential aspects of copy editing?
photo of Maxwell Perkins

3. Content Editing the novel.

After November's 30 days expire, you might have a reasonably acceptable first draft. The fledgling novel would now be processed by my software program, for what is known as "content editing" or "substantive editing", revising the work — its structure, characters, plot, dialogue, and themes — to raise its quality.

I named my program MacPerkins, after the extraordinary American editor, Maxwell Perkins, who nurtured many young writers to greatness.

What I needed now was some solid advice from professional programmers, about which programming languages might be used to make MacPerkins work. There is no shortage of programmers in this little town, and soon I had myself invited to a gathering, where "a hackle of programmers" — to coin a collective noun like a gaggle of geese, a flutter of butterflies, a crash of rhinoceroses, and a murder of crows — a hackle of programmers had gathered to discuss their favorite things.

After describing my project in great detail, I asked which language might be used.
Charlie replied: "Python."
Greg declared: "Python."
Kathy hummed: "Python."
Ann said: "Python."

"And how," I asked, "can I learn the Python programming language quickly and efficiently?"

Again, the answers were unanimous. All four of my programming-expert friends suggested the same book: Learning Python by Mark Lutz.

And now about the book itself. On the back cover you'll see a line that displays the level of the book rated as "Introductory". And the author writes that no previous experience (with Python, or with programming) is needed to use this book. Furthermore, "... compared to other programming languages, the core Python language is remarkably easy to learn. In fact, you can expect to be coding significant Python programs in a matter of days (or perhaps just in hours, if you're already an experienced programmer)."

The book claims to be "Introductory", but by the time you complete its almost 1,200 pages, you will not be a beginner anymore.

The book is written for all the major platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac. The focus is on Python version 3.0 (which the author recommends), but there is ample material about version 2.6, for those Python users who need to work with that earlier version.

Quizzes are provided at the end of each chapter, and the quiz answers are smartly situated immediately after the questions. Exercises are given at the end of each section, with answers in the back of the book.

I found the book interesting reading, as well. There are comments about the great debate that compares the features of Python and the features of Perl. There's a lucid explanation about the difference between compiled languages (such as C and C++) and interpreted languages, such as Python. There is a list of common Python mistakes, and common beginner traps. And all the geeky jargon is well explained: I might have been intimidated by the term "modules", but not after the author tells us that "Modules are simply text files containing Python statements" — and I'm not afraid of modules anymore.

I was in the middle of page 100 when I realized that I was reading a book about computer programming: everything to that point seemed so straightforward and easy to grasp. I said to myself: "This is not a typical programming book: it is better."

When the author provides sample lines of code, in the next paragraph he explains the meaning and the purpose of each line. There are no sudden and perplexing pits of literary quicksand: new material that leaves you scratching your head, and re-reading again and again, to grasp a scintilla of clarity from the murky text.

Lutz developed this book in conjunction with a very popular course he teaches about Python. That real-world connection explains how he skillfully anticipates all the questions and problems that beginners might encounter.

Flashing back to the party with my programming friends — before I opened my copy of this book — I asked what I could do if I had questions about the new language. Once again, my friends agreed: they laughed together and said: "Good luck." (They were joking of course: they are all happy to help in any and every way.)

But no luck is necessary when you have an excellent teacher between two covers, such as Learning Python.

Thanks to this book, I am already writing simple Python programs. MacPerkins, and next year's NaNoWriMo — here I come.

— Michael Pastore

Story Links

Learning Python web page:

Python (programming language) in WikiPedia:

Python Official Website


Read more! ... (or go to this post's PermaLink)