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Saturday, November 30, 2013

You can't take it with you, pet edition

by Jamie Lutton

I wanted to write a end-of-the-year column for Capitol Hill. For urban Seattle residents in general.  I have noticed that most of us have pets instead of children. Our streets are filled with dogs and their owners out for walks, and I note that many, many people have pet cats, if they can. So I wanted to warn people, at the turn of the year, of a grave hazard to your beloved pets.. 

Do you trust your nearest of kin? Your friends? Do you trust, say, your roommates or even your spouse? Trust them to do right? Maybe you shouldn't.

A grim story came to my ears a few days ago. A man came in to my business with a flyer with pictures of a eleven year old cat on it that needed a home. He told  she was the cat of a friend of his, who had died unexpectedly at age 57, of a heart attack. 

Her brother and children came up from California and cleaned out her apartment, and were  going to drop this indoor  cat off onto the street, on a cold November day. But  he grabbed the cat, and is now trying to find a home for it.

The cat was very lucky the neighbor was so compassionate. It might not have made it though the night; and would have died under the wheels of a car, or of the cold, terrified, bewildered, in shock.

I have seen this sort of thing happen over and over. Elderly or middle aged cats -which are very hard to place ending up on the street or dropped off at a shelter.  I see this as I am making a bid on the deceased library, and the cat is sitting off in a corner, often with an overflowing cat-box in the apartment. Or I see this when I foster cats. Last year a fostered a pair of middle aged cats, siblings, whose owner died unexpectedly.

(I wish I could take in all these cats, but I do not make enough money to feed them all, and cats do not always get along with each other)

People don't think  they will ever die, especially in their fifties as in this case. Or they just don't think ahead. Or they think their immediate family will do the right thing.
Well, they don't. They often do the easy thing.

The family doesn't look at the pet and think 'this is the last living thing that is part of my sister/mother.  To honor her, I should take very good care of this pet'.  Sadly, this is not common.  The pet is  thrown out in the trash along with the rest of the possession that doe not have any monetary value. Often the relatives feel aggrieved about all the trouble they are being put to, having to 'deal with this mess' when they have to settle a relatives  estate on short notice.
They just don't care.

So, from one who knows. Beware!

I propose for their to be a form of insurance developed where the cat, casts or dogs would be the recipient. A form of life insurance.  And have veterinarians suggest it or even provide it for all their clients.

Also..even more likely...what if you end up in the hospital with no one to care for your pet? Your caretakers might just decide, for your own good, to quietly dispose of your pet or pets.

Even if you are hale and hearty, you could die from an illness and accident.  Or you could be out of work, and not be able to keep your apartment.  For example, the streets of Los Angles were suddenly flooded with chihuahuas  and other small dogs shortly after the Crash of 2008..The owners, suddenly out of work, were turning them loose in the streets by the hundreds and hundreds in '09, '10 and after. This kind of dog was very fashionable in the LA area: An acquaintance of mine was involved with a charity that was scooping them up off of the street, and bringing them to the Seattle area to find homes; having tiny dog adoption festivals
.
But many times, it was too late. LA  was littered with the corpses of tiny dogs that starved to death or were mauled by other dogs.

We read in the news about abused and abandoned pets, and think it will never happen to your darling pet.

So, if you know someone who lives alone and hs a pet, show this column to them, and urge them to make arrangements for their pet to be cared for, adopted, when you get sick or die suddenly.
Also, be the person who would take a kitty or dog in, for your friends in case of accident or death, and give the pet a good home.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Agustine against the literalists

by Jamie Lutton

Today, I read that the Texas board of Education are fighting  (again) about putting the theory of evolution into public school textbooks. They argued until midnight one night,  as a few creationists on the board were not happy with natural selection being taught, without teaching creationism and intelligent design along with it it as 'competing' theories.

They also objected to seeing any discussion of  climate change being included in the science textbooks, since they believed that climate change had not been proved (or was a liberal hoax).
None of the board members who protested had any sort of science background..

I found this quote from the ancient world that addresses this, from  St Augustine writings, in his massive commentary on The Bible, called The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, written in 408 AD.

Check this out.

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

 Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.
For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position,' although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion'. [1 Timothy 1.7]”

What we see here is that St. Augustine was dealing with Christian fools and fanatics who refused to accept rational observation that contradicted the Bible. He  argues that reason does trump 'mischievous false opinions'.

You note that St. Augustine accepted the miracles or acts of God in the Bible, because the science that could contradict these absolutely had not yet been developed.

But he  stated repeatedly that as new knowledge was (attained), opinions on miracles, sin and the nature of man, etc,  would and could change. .He clearly favors reason and science over slavish devotion to any  belief in the Bible being literally true.

St. Augustine was a convert to Christianity late in life. He made his living teaching and writing. He lived in what is now Algeria, in part of the extended Roman Empire of the early Fifth century, just before it's fall.
What he is known for, outside his philosophical and theological writings, is the systematic training of teachers.
He introduced the idea that there were three kinds of students, and instructed teachers  to distinguish between them, and tailor their instruction accordingly.

The student who was  (already) well educated by good teachers, The student who has had a poor education, and the student who has had a poor education, but believes himself to be well educated.

Briefly: the first two are much easier to teach and that last. Students who have already been educated, the goal is to challenge them to expand their knowledge.. The poorly educated  student the teacher must be patient with, and encourage. But the last must be impressed with the difference between "Having words and having understanding.", and is the most difficult to teach.

This is close to the Buddhist saying that a full cup cannot take any more water, or cannot learn.
I had the luck to be raised by a Christian father who was also a working scientist (chemist), so I was raised to think science did not conflict with belief in God.

He challenged me.by reading Shakespeare to me, encouraging me to be interested in politics, and giving me books to read. Often I was stubborn, , thinking I knew more than I did. He taught by example, though, best of all, by showing he was still learning. I found his copy of T. S. Eliot's poetry, all marked up in pencil with academic notes. I asked him if it was his 'college copy' and he said no, he had studied it on his own much later.  This impressed me mightily. So, I read and try to write about what I have read, and Try to keep learning.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Burr, Hamilton, and Reid: How we got the filibuster and why we should kill it

by John MacBeath Watkins

(Update: The senate has now modified the rule: http://www.seattlepi.com/news/politics/article/Democrats-vote-to-curb-filibusters-on-appointees-4997967.php#page-1)

This blog started in March of 2010. The first post was Chaining the Word (blue monkey edition) and the second was Bust the Filibuster.

And here we are again, with Harry Reid, whose name makes me think of cattails (hairy reeds,) sending signals that he's planning to scrap the filibuster when it comes to executive branch and judicial appointments. This can be done by a simple majority vote to change Senate rules.

His logic is that Republicans have boxed themselves in to the point where compromise is impossible.  They have taken the position that President Obama should not be allowed to appoint a third judge to the powerful  D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, not because there is any defect in the appointee, but because they don't want him to appoint anyone at all, because they don't want him to be able to tilt the balance of the court.

If a Republican president wished to appoint someone to the same court that would tilt the balance in a direction they liked, Republican senators would be fine with that. They simply want to prevent elections from having consequences when Democrats win.

Reid has in the past been pretty lukewarm on changing the filibuster rule. Faced about a year ago with a filibuster of several appointees to executive branch posts, Reid reached an agreement that the Republicans would allow the president to staff the government in exchange for senate Democrats not changing the rules. Now here we are again, with Republicans refusing to let the president staff the government.

Reid has quite reasonably come to the conclusion that the senate cannot remain a functioning institution when the filibuster is so flagrantly abused. But how did we end up with a filibuster in the first place?


You may thank Aaron Burr, who, fresh from shooting Alexander Hamilton to death, gave the senate a farewell address in which he said the senate was a great body, but its rules were a mess. He then went through the rules and pointed out points where they lacked clarity and had duplications. He had a great many recommendations, one of which was to eliminate the motion to move the previous question.

No one realized the importance of this at the time, but it meant that leaders had no way to cut off debate. In an 1841 debate over renewing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States (modeled on the first Bank of the United States, started by Hamilton,) Henry Clay tried to cut off debate by majority vote and was forced to back down because no rule allowed this. The filibuster had come of age.

It would be nice to believe that this rule was invented to preserve the rights of the minority, and
was sanctioned by the founding fathers, but it was a mistake, as Sarah Binder and Steven Smith pointed out in their book, Politics or Principle? Filibustering in the United States Senate.

Hamilton was perhaps the most brilliant and far-seeing of the founders, and as a mercantilist, an advocate of the power of government to develop the country. Burr, at the time of the duel, was U.S. vice president, having been denied the presidency in large part because of Hamilton's opposition. At that time, whoever got the most electoral college votes was president, whoever got the second most was vice president. Burr and Jefferson tied in the electoral college, throwing the election to the House of Representatives, where Hamilton lobbied hard against Burr.

Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel based on a third party claiming that Hamilton had declared that Burr was "a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government."

In the duel, Hamilton either deloped or fired into the air by accident when he was mortally wounded. Burr, true to the way he had been portrayed in the letter he objected to, shot to kill.

The two men were using the rules of the duel in much the same way Democrats and Republicans are now using the senate rules Burr designed, one side attempting to satisfy honor without causing harm, the other to express rage and destroy an enemy. Such an unequal contest cannot end well unless either the rules change, or the side intent on destroying an enemy decides to make peace.

The latter seems unlikely to happen, given the dynamics of Republican primary contests.

So, I expect the power of the filibuster to be greatly reduced. Perhaps it will one day be eliminated. And then, perhaps we will begin to judge government based on what parties do, instead of what the find they cannot do.

Hairy reeds.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The replicator economy of digital publishing (publishing in the twilight of the printed word)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting post on the economic system portrayed in Star Trek: The Star Trek Economy: (Mostly) Post-Scarcity (Mostly) Socialism. His argument is that in a world where replicators can provide as much as we want of anything we want, people freed from want are working from motivations other than money.

What he fails to notice is that we are increasingly experiencing this economy in the publishing world, except that we haven't worked out the economics. Computers can replicate information for very close to zero marginal cost for each copy, and can copy so easily that it is difficult to prevent people from replicating any information you may have spent great time and effort assembling. I've seen my own work reproduced on another blog without attribution, for example.

One result is that in constant dollar terms, the information sector of the economy has barely grown since the late 1980s, which pretty much coincides with the popularization of the internet. The New Yorker has an article up about this (linked to in the last sentence) that points out the problem with this -- while producing something at lower cost and selling it cheaper represents a gain in productivity, as soon as it becomes free it drops out of the economic statistics completely.  I'm sure Wikipedia has value, but how do you assess that value in national income accounting?

We know that people are consuming vastly more information with greater ease than ever, and yet, according to our government statistics, the information sector is stagnant, and the publishing industry is now not much larger than the video game industry. The U.S. book publishing is a $28 billion industry, the biggest sector of which is textbooks, while the much younger video gaming industry is turning over $20 billion a year in North America and growing at about 9% a year. This reflects, to some extent, the greater success of the video gaming industry in monetizing its activities while much of the publishing industry has seen its backlog of non-copyright books become free on the internet.

When I was in graduate school, one of the professors in my department had a specialty in the question of what we would do with our leisure in a future where productivity made it possible for us to labor less. I thought the answer was obvious; we'd enjoy our leisure as unemployment.

But there are alternatives. That icon among conservative economists, Friedrich Hayek, said in his 1994 book, Hayek on Hayek: An Autobiographical Dialogue, "I have always said that I am in favor of a minimum income for every person in the country."

Well, if the country was Switzerland, there's a possibility he could get his wish. The Swiss have a system of citizen initiatives, and they've gathered enough signatures to get a vote on whether to provide a basic income of $2,800 a month to their citizens. I believe that amounts to something like a third of Swiss GDP being redistributed. Switzerland already spends about a third of GDP on government spending, so that means to make this sustainable, they would need to tax about two-thirds of GDP.

I'm not convinced that the Swiss will vote for this or that it would be good policy. For one thing, only the information part of the economy is in Star Trek territory. We can't replicate food or transportation in the same way. We may be in a post-scarcity world as far as information goes, but we will always be faced with a limited amount of land.

The problem, in fact, is how we get people to keep producing information if they aren't paid. Wikipedia follows the public television system of requesting donations when they are short of money, pays almost no one, and is supported by a charitable foundation.

Something similar is happening to the software part of the information sector. Firefox is supported by the Mozilla Foundation, OpenOffice is supported by the Apache Software Foundation.

And I, of course, am writing this without being paid because I can't help myself. I'm the sort of person who likes to think and write in the way some people like to drink and dance, or watch television, or play video games. You are reading the output of a restless mind.

But once information is taken out of the market economy, motivations for providing information change. In its entry on the guaranteed minimum income, Wikipedia quotes Hayek saying clearly that he advocated a guaranteed minimum income, while in its section on the "basic income," the same source claims he did not advocate what he said he did, and quotes him on the difficulties of instituting such a policy.

It's the same policy under different names, and the differences in information provided by the different Wikipedia sections reflect the different motivations of its contributors. Wikipedia is famously crowd-sourced, and does not pay the people who provide the information. Therefore, the people who contribute may just like writing up information for people or they may have an agenda.

One of the cries of the founders of the internet was that information wants to be free. But those who gather information want to be paid. When information is free, providing information becomes a hobby.

Yglesias mentions a couple of the instances of what appear to be businesses in the Star Trek economy, such as Sisko's Creole Kitchen and Chateau Picard,which produce artesanal versions of widely available products. He clearly thinks these things are being done pretty much as a hobby:
"The point of running your restaurant or your vineyard is essentially to show off your mastery, not accumulate wealth. There may be some more-or-less formal exchanges, but the key point is to get the output into people's hands and not work so hard as to make yourself miserable."

The problem is, markets provide a system of value which allows us to allocate resources. How does this post-scarcity system work? How does the system learn what to produce, thereby avoiding scarcity? I'm afraid the Star Trek economy as envisioned by Yglesias is pure science fiction, and not the sort of hard SF that tries to justify its suppositions as possible.

The ethic that information wants to be free has devastated the news industry, with the result that in the state of Washington, the number of reporters covering the state legislature fell from 34 in 1993 to 10 in 2008. The ranks have recovered slightly since then, but the effects of taking information out of the market economy are certainly showing.

As a former journalist, I can tell you that no one goes into the profession to get rich. You have to believe finding things out and telling people is a public service, and see yourself as part of a higher cause in order to work as hard as most journalists do, for as little money and prestige as they receive. But such motivations are not enough. You must also keep body and soul together while you do it, and get the feedback that your work is valued. A paycheck helps with that.

Mr. Yglesias is no doubt like me, in that he would think and write as long as he had the resources to do so, but in the grand scheme of things, can we rely on selflessness for our information? Yglesias and I might be willing to do the writing we do to "show off your mastery," but the raw material we think with, the information reporters, statisticians, and others gather, is less likely to come to us that way.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Capitalism & Arithmetic: The New Math of the 15th century

by Jamie Lutton

I came across a book about the early history of Arabic numbers in the West, a subject I had not thought that much about before.
The evolution of Arabic numerals

The book is Capitalism & Arithmetic: The New Math of the 15th century, annotations and notes by Frank J. Weitz, translation by David Eugen Smith.

 It is the annotated text of Treviso Arithmetic, a Northern Italian math textbook published in 1478, written by an anonymous math institutor. a very basic math book designed for young students who were not familiar with Arabic numerals.

In the West, educated people knew about Arabic numbers for 500 years before this book was written, but it took that long before a  climate developed for their general adaption. That environment was the world of the Venetian and other Northern European merchants, and the need for very accurate record keeping in business transactions, such as currency conversion and figuring interest. This added to the explosion of printed books after 1460, and the interest in and desire to be able to compute with Arabic numbers..

This book is an Incunabula, or "cradle book," one of the first printed books from the early days of printing, just a generation after Fust and Gutenberg.    Frank J. Weitz published it, with annotations and a brief background  in the introduction and the afterword of this text. He illustrated the book profusely with with amazing woodblocks from the era.


The push to adopt Arabic numerals came from commerce. This part of Italy was where merchants made fortunes in trade of cloth, dyes, spices, and other goods.

Only with Arabic numbers was double-entry book accounting possible.   Also how to derive interest on a loan, and how to convert different currencies into each other, so that money from one country could be converted to another, which is vital for commerce across  borders.  Loaning money was also how banking houses made great fortunes, as money was loaned to buy goods overseas.

This ancient textbook uses story problems, very similar to ones in modern 21st century math books in public schools. For example, on page 138:

Three merchants have invested their money in a partnership, which to make the problem clearer I shall mention them by name. The first was named Piero, the second Polo, and the third Zuanne. Piero put in 112 ducats,Polo put in 200 ducats, Zuanne 142 ducats. At the end of a certain time they found that they had gained 360 ducats. Required is to find how much falls to each man so that no man shall be is cheated. 

 Sound familiar? This anonymous teacher's book from 1478 resembles current textbooks closely. this method of teaching math has been handed down unchanged for hundreds of years to teach arithmetic, subtraction, multiplication and division, plus fractions as in the example word problem.

There were adequate competing computation systems in place, using Roman numerals, before this, but  quick computations were difficult. roman numerals do not have a place holder for zero, a new concept in Arabic numerals.

This was the most revolutionary concept of all.

We can see the use of Roman numerals still, in dating books and public buildings and documents.

Also,  the use of the abacus, which persisted in the Far East up to my lifetime. This text  illustrated very well how those competing systems worked, such as 'counting tables' using the abacus, and even what they looked like, using illustrations from the time. There is even an illustration showing a completion between the two system, with the Goddess Arithmetic presiding over it.


What I found fascinating was the beginning of the text, in teaching students what a number is, from scratch.  Children in the modern era are taught numbers from when they are infants, the concept of what a number is is absorbed early. This book demonstrates how to teach what numbers are philosophically,
.
I can see why Frank Sweitz and Eugene Smith were both fascinated by this ancient textbook. 
For fans of medieval history, who have run out of exciting books to read, put this book on your list. Or those who wish to read about the history of math. This book would make an invaluable text to those who want to make math more exciting when teaching adults, or children in an advanced class of math.

If you don't understand math, you can be cheated very easily by the unscrupulous you employ, either to invest your money, or to do your books, or even the bank you deal with for a mortgage.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Butchering MacBeth

by Jamie Lutton

I went to see a production of MacBeth  on the 6th of November. It was a SIFF project. It  was broadcast live from Manchester, England.
For the $17 I paid, I was not at all impressed.

It was obvious they spent a lot of money on the production.  The production was a  broadcast of a live performance, staged in a 'deconsecrated' church instead of a theater.
They jazzed it up - there was real mud underfoot, as they 'rained' on the actors in the first  scene, a  battle with broadswords,  which was clever. However, the six inches of mud onstage got on the bottom of the trailing skirts of the witches and the women like Lady Macbeth, which made me flinch due to the unreality of it 
No woman would tromp through the mud like this, ignoring how filthy her clothes were getting. I gave that effect a 'fail' on my  Obviously dreamed up by a person who has never worn long skirts.

Another problem. They cut this short play by about 20%.
They shortened important characters' speeches and a quarter of the speeches of the witches were cut, giving  them little more than a walk-on presence in this play. Instead the viewer was focused on the star power of the actor playing MacBeth, and the actor playing his wife.  Since Kenneth Branagh was directing himself, I guess this was inevitable.
People come to watch Macbeth to see the witches, not just murderous Macbeth.
Some of their best lines like:
First Witch    Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Second WitchThrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
Third Witch  Harpier cries 'Tis time, 'tis time.
First Witch/ Round about the cauldron go;
    In the poison'd entrails throw.
    Toad, that under cold stone
    Days and nights has thirty-one
    Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
    Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

ALL/ Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch/   Fillet of a fenny snake,
    In the cauldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
    Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
    Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL/   Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

 .................................
There were many more lines cut, but that gives you an idea.  The phrase 'Eye of newt and toe of frog etc' alone have entered the English language as a spooky witch's chant. Even little kids know this chant. Cutting this and other speeches in this play ripped some of the guts out of it. ..
It is like cutting Richard III saying 'Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York;/And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house/In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
You recite that to anyone, anyone and they know it is the beginning of Richard III.  So, the audience sitting down to see this play I feel were ripped off. They wanted to be hear the shuddering, rantings of the forces of the dammed, these eerie witches, not just MacBeth's famous speeches. .

Men with swords plotting against each other can be gotten from watching Game of Thrones

I think it is the effect of a generation of cop shows on TV. and the movies.  Cut the mystery of witches and their talk, and focus on the slash, cut and stab (and the madness)  of the humans.. I think this shows that the director did not love the play, and was just looking for a star vehicle for the Kenneth Branagh.

.This Macbeth could have been memorable, for the ages.. God knows enough money was thrown at this, and it was broadcast all over the world.  But this was horrible. Other people leaving afterwards were silent, puzzled, running the play in their minds as I was.
Macbeth is the play of Shakespeare's I give my customers who have never read Shakespeare, or are have been put off of him by a bad teacher.  I sell it on its easy to understand plot,  the swiftness of the action, and it's occult nature.
I also remind them that when this play was written, all the people in the audience believed in witches, and that hapless women and men were being put to death for practicing witchcraft weekly.  In the colonies, the Salem Witch trials in New England were a generation in the future.  This is a snapshot of a time when magic and the supernatural was still real.

If you have seen this broadcast, go and read the play, and enjoy what was gutted out.  And see a live production of Macbeth by a more professional and less ego bound director.This was 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'

Friday, November 8, 2013

From blind poets to e-books, the experience of stories and information (publishing in the twilight of the printed word)

"Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul.”
― Joyce Carol Oates

by John MacBeath Watkins

Scientists speculate that there is a link between brain size in mammals and the size of a social group. Humans, who tend to have social circles comprising about 150 people, need to keep track of a lot of who's doing what for and to whom, so they need large brains.

And part of that outsized brain is the ability to empathize with the experiences of others. Our brains contain mirror neurons, which allow us to feel for others -- we sometimes flinch when we see someone stub their toe, for example. There's a funny story about how mirror neurons were discovered:
In the early 1990s, Italian researchers made an astonishing and quite unexpected discovery. They had implanted electrodes in the brains of several macaque monkeys to study the animals’ brain activity during different motor actions, including the clutching of food. One day, as a researcher reached for his own food, he noticed neurons begin to fire in the monkeys’ premotor cortex—the same area that showed activity when the animals made a similar hand movement. How could this be happening when the monkeys were sitting still and merely watching him?
 Researchers found that certain cells in the brain are devoted to this. Further research shows that when someone tells a story, our brains can react in the same way the story teller's brain does, as we explored in this post. The written word makes it possible for us to lose ourselves in the experiences of people we've never met, who may have been dead for millennia or may never have existed at all.

And we value this immersion in worlds we'll never walk, which is why there are stories that are the length of a novel going back to the oral traditions of many cultures all over the world, from the Greek Iliad and Welsh Mabinogion to the African Sundiata (Wikipedia provides a convenient list here.)

These stories exist regardless of the way they are transmitted, whether by a blind poet (Greek tribes used to blind their poets so they wouldn't wander off,) or an iPad.  What is required is an immersion into the story.

But what media are suitable for such immersion? Those old poets had to sing out the entire epic, and did so on special occasions when the whole tribe gathered. Scrolls allowed for time-shifting the experience, and freed us from reliance on human memory (the reason the Iliad is written in dactylic hexameter and heroic couplets is generally thought to be that these aided memory -- if you got the line wrong, it wouldn't scan.)

But scrolls are awkward things to handle, and books were more compact and easier to handle. Books, more so than scrolls, provide one essential element: They have a geography, that is, we can find our place in them. The reason this is essential is that we evolved our brains to navigate the savanna, and locating ourselves in books acts in much the same way as a memory palace.

Reading on a computer or pad connected to the internet raises the difficulty that anything connected in such a way is a distraction machine, making it harder to lose ourselves in the story. It's like the difference between watching a movie in a darkened theater where people are asked to keep quiet, and watching the same movie on a television with other people around. In theory, you might ignore the distractions, but in fact, you cannot. They also fail to provide us with a geography; an e-book is a book without places. It is an ethereal thing, which makes it hard to develop an interface that allows us to find our way in them.

But non-connected e-books, such as the Kindle or Kobo, provide the immersive reading experience without the geography of the book. For reading fiction, this is probably not a problem. But one of the great hopes for e-books is that they can reduce the cost and the weight of books that students need to carry.

And indeed, many school districts are buying e-books in preference to paper books. Unfortunately, students have found it harder to learn using e-books. The lack of geography makes it harder to locate information, which a student must do in order to refer back to something as the concepts they are studying become clearer. Immersion is only part of the experience we expect of books, if we want to learn information, we want to find it in a way similar to the way our ancestors found a water hole.

A few years ago, the forecast was that e-books would take over as much as 80% of the book market. For the last four years, according to the Book Industry Study Group, e-books have plateaued at about 30% of the market by units and about 15% by value. That's nothing to sniff at, but it seems people are finding that e-books are suitable for certain kinds of reading but not all kinds of reading.

From the standpoint of a seller of books rather than bytes, that's great news. As a reader and a person interested in how our minds work, it's interesting news. I had thought that the major bar to the popularity of e-books was the screens, and that the Kindle showed this problem could  be solved, but it now appears that the real problem is with other aspects of the experience they offer.

They seem to allow us to do what Joyce Carol Oates was talking about -- to slip into the skin of another person. But that isn't enough with some kinds of books. And the books I spend the most time with are not fiction, although I love so many fiction books and re-read my favorite authors. Non-fiction books like American Small Sailing Craft invite me to compare things on one page to those on another, to voyage from one place in the book to another, and the experience of such books requires the geography a real paper book provides.