Your Brain on God?

May 22, 2009

Heard a fascinating story on NPR today. I missed the beginning, but it is about near-death experiences and as part of the story, they interviewed a woman who had an experience while undergoing surgery that is flat-out weird and uncanny – even eerie. She had an out of body experience where she saw herself on the operating table, counted 20 doctors in the room, identified and described medical instruments in use, and even commented upon hearing the song “Hotel California” playing while they were operating. All of what she described was confirmed and true, even though she was completely unconscious, her eyes were taped shut (part of the surgery procedure) and she was even wearing headphones to help the surgeons monitor her brain activity while she was undergoing surgery.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to such things, but the details on her story, and the impossibility of her being able to know these things through “conventional” methods, really made me wonder about this one.

Listen to the full story at NPR, and draw your own conclusions.

© writingreading, 2009

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Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #3 – Ruth Brown

May 13, 2009

Librarians are demure, quiet, old ladies with buns, right? Well, not exactly.

Although Ruth Brown fits much of the stereotype – a little bit frumpy, a single woman, plain in appearance – she took a stand for Civil Rights in her library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1950 that cost her her job. What she did took courage and conviction. Her story is told in the book, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise Robbins.

Don’t let the “library” aspect of this one throw you. It is full of intrigue, community infighting, passionate defenders of the status quo, persons willing to take great risks in an attempt to awaken a new social consciousness and justice among their fellow townspeople, class warfare, Red Scares, fabrication of evidence, issues over power and gender, and more. It is, in fact, a bit of a thriller.

Brown had been a librarian for many years in Bartlesville, leading a somewhat true-to-stereotype existence. But as the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII were revealed, she and other like-minded individuals formed the “Committee on the Practice of Democracy” to fight discrimination.

Bartlesville was very much a segregated city in the late 1940s. African-Americans were allowed to use the library and did not have to use a separate facility, but their use and access of materials was under different rules and conditions than white customers, at least prior to World War II.

But when Brown walked into a diner on night in 1950 with two African-American friends who were teachers, she crossed the racial line. The campaign to label her a subversive communist – and thus, oust her from her position, was underway. The American Legion, the D.A.R., and corporate magnates from Phillips Petroleum mounted an overwhelming effort to have her dismissed. She was accused of distributing “subversive” literature, although the books in question were actually recommended by the national professional library association as proper to have in a library, in order to represent a diversity of viewpoints on various subjects. One was even written during WWII when the Russians were our allies, but now it was labeled “subversive.”

Ruth Brown knew when she walked into that diner that day that her act would be provocative, and that her membership in the Committee on the Practice of Democracy could get her fired. She did it anyway.

As a single woman, she did not have much to fall back on after a job loss, personally or financially. She ended up leaving town of her own volition. But her cause was taken to the courts, the national library association made important innovations in their practices and policies, and even Hollywood got into the act. A few years after the actual events, her story was thinly fictionalized and turned into a movie called Storm Center. Hollywood had been through the mill with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the producers saw in her story a reflection of their own.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book, besides Ruth Brown’s story, is that it unveils so many aspects of American society that we are still struggling with today, particularly in recent years. “Terrorism” is the “new Communism” – and actions are taken today by our government and individuals in the name of “fighting terrorists” that 50 years ago, were used to defend America against the threat of communism. Although the events described in the book happened 50 years ago, much of it is very relevant to today. The book deals with issues of racial equality and justice, women’s power (or lack thereof), censorship, class and economic issues, and more.

Learn more about this brave woman, and be inspired! You’ll never think of librarians as “boring” again.

© writingreading, 2009


Web 2.0’s role in economic crisis

May 11, 2009

I think the pundits have it all wrong. It wasn’t just the bad mortgages that brought about the seizure and near-collapse in the US. economic system. It was – and is – Web 2.0.

Yup. That’s the conclusion I’m drawing, after reading The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen (link to newer edition). As you can tell by the title of this earlier edition, Keen’s premise is not really an economic one, though it is about what he sees as the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our nation and culture brought about by Web 2.0.

What he points out – in a book that was published in 2007 – a year before the big economic meltdown – is that the free and freewheeling nature of Web 2.0 means that  anyone can create content. That means the death of the “expert” – which in turn, is really the death of many many experts. And entire industries.

Let’s look at the media. The massive layoffs and closures of large city newspapers, to a great extent, can be attributed to the growth of online media. To cite one example from Keen: Craigslist, which at the time of Keen’s writing, employed just 22 people, is essentially a free online classified ad service. But Keen points out – it is not free. It has cost us all. Each “free” ad takes money away from a local newspaper, and eventually, it takes away jobs. A San Francisco Chronicle VP believes Craigslist single-handedly depletes the Chronicle and other Bay newspapers of $50 million a year. Multiply that across the country for all the other large and small cities, consider that advertising revenue is a major part of the income needed for newspaper operations, and it is easy to see the domino effect of just one website – and a mere 22 people – upon the economy. In 2006, nearly 18,000 people lost jobs in print journalism.

And that is only one example. Granted, I’m not “blaming” Craigslist, nor do I dare to propose or suggest that it is single-handedly responsible for all of those job losses. That would be ridiculous. The point that Keen makes, is that job losses in the “real world” are not being replaced with job creation in Web 2.0. The 22 people of Craigslist stand in for thousands of people who worked in advertising at newspapers all throughout the country. Because ad revenues are down, that creates layoffs in the news department. And on it goes.

The example can be multiplied across any of the media formats – TV, radio, bookstores. Increasingly, these industries are losing jobs at a frantic pace. And “replaced” by virtual megastores, like Amazon.com, or user content like You Tube. User content sites like You Tube, obviously, won’t hire as many people as the movie industry in Hollywood or the news and cable stations throughout the country.

It’s easy to say “so what” if newspapers fail, or the millionaire Hollywood big shots and movie stars feel a little economic pinch. But all of these industries are made up of many many ordinary people. From the “go-fer” on the sound stage to the subscription order taker at the newspaper and many many others. Their jobs – if they still have them – remain at risk.

Keen worries that the proliferation of content by amateurs (I include myself in that group) not only “dumbs down” our culture, but may in fact threaten our democracy itself. Who, Keen asks, will do the hard-hitting and important investigative journalism that brought about Watergate, or any of the other major important news stories that help maintain and uphold the Constitution? Does any single blogger have the clout, skills, knowledge or power to do this? It is only businesses and industries that have this capacity.

I don’t entirely hold to all of Keen’s premises, but I do believe that much of what he writes about the economic consequences of Web 2.0 is very real – with frightening consequences.

Keen’s book now is available in a new edition, which I haven’t read, but it looks like it could provide some additional insights, judging from the subtitle, which explicitly includes the economy as one consequence of Web 2.0.

© writingreading, 2009