Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Today, A Ban On Headphones While Crossing The Street; Tomorrow, A Ban On Chewing Gum While Walking

Today, A Ban On Headphones While Crossing The Street; Tomorrow, A Ban On Chewing Gum While Walking: "In the wake of the sensible legislation banning on texting while driving and requiring of hands-free in cars, it seems that lawmakers are setting their sights a little too high — or low, depending on your perspective. Some nascent proposals in New York aim to make it a crime to cross the street while using an electronic device. I don’t often cry “nanny state,” but this situation really is verging on requiring that term.

And yet there clearly is some need to address the fact that pedestrians in urban areas are more distracted than ever, and increasingly tend to throw themselves in front of cars, if the most recent accident statistics are any indication. But surely such a unilateral ban is not the answer. Is it even a starting place for a discussion?

The idea of personal responsibility has undergone a rather complete redefinition over the last few decades, and although that’s a whole other kettle of fish, it seems reasonable and relevant to me to observe that liability now seems to be on the side of the accused until proven otherwise. This is the reason for the huge amount of warning labels and signs on obviously dangerous items: “Rat poison. Not for human consumption. Keep away from children.

The trend of preemptively establishing liability through conspicuous warnings would naturally extend itself to legislation. Doubtless there are hundreds or thousands of allowances and precedents modifying existing law to the effect of delineating liability and responsibility in public areas, and the proposed New York law would just be an extension of that. It would make situations where a pedestrian isn’t paying attention into situations where the pedestrian is liable for the consequences, and that sounds all right to me.

Yet it still isn’t convincing. That’s because, in the case of cars (and to a lesser extent, bikes), you are not simply putting yourself at risk. You are piloting a two-ton vehicle through crowded streets, and could kill dozens of people at any time with a minor mistake. It is the government’s business to regulate your behavior when you are in such a position of power. But when the only thing you’re piloting is your body, and the only person you’re directly putting at risk is yourself, we’re far less likely to accept legislative intervention. Hence the lack of bans on smoking, back country skiing, rugby, F1 racing, and all the other ways we tend to murder ourselves.

The words the ban’s chief proponent, State Senator Carl Kruger, solidify my opposition:

We’re taught from knee-high to look in both directions, wait, listen and then cross. You can perform none of those functions if you are engaged in some kind of wired activity.

It is likely that what Mr. Kruger isn’t capable of, and what he therefore thinks should be banned, would fill many books of ordinance. But I’ll thank him not to tell me what I am and am not able to do. I’m reminded of Twain’s epigram: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t eat steak because a baby can’t chew it.” Similarly, it seems a good basic ground rule that we should not legislate behavior based on the the lowermost percentile of cognitive ability. And this is before we get around to the part where it’s shown that any such law would be unenforceable and unpopular.

The reality of modern life, electronic devices, portable connectivity, and personal devices is that we need to strike a balance between the new and the safe, and that needs to happen on an individual level. I’ll always take the side of New Yorker Marie Wickham, who, when interviewed about the potential ban, expressed concern that people are putting themselves at risk, but in the end noted that “at some point, we need to take responsibility for our own stupidity.”

Monday, January 3, 2011

7 Tiny Books That Packed a Big Punch

7 Tiny Books That Packed a Big Punch: "
by Michael Ridgeway

At 1,456 pages, War and Peace makes a big impression … and a great doorstop. But books don’t have to weigh a lot to be heavy hitters. Here are seven tiny tomes—all fewer than 100 pages—that sparked revolutions.

1. Common Sense by Thomas Paine (52 pages) 


In the 1770s, American colonists were riding thefence. Should they cut ties with the tax-happy King George or just sit around drinking English tea? As they waffled, a penniless Brit named Thomas Paine sailed to Philadelphia and published the incendiary tract Common Sense.

Released in 1776, Paine’s text lambasted King George as a “crowned ruffian” and the progeny of a “French bastard.” The language struck a nerve, turning loyalists into patriots and nudging the likes of George Washington and John Adams into action. Less than six months later, the colonies declared independence, and the Revolutionary War was on. As for Paine, he went on to write another powerful little book, The Age of Reason, a deist work that criticized organized religion and questioned the authenticity of the Bible. This time, however, Paine’s words missed the mark. He was condemned as an atheist, shunned by friends, and denied citizenship in the United States—the young nation he helped create.


2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (72 pages)

Written in 1957 for children learning to read, The Cat in the Hat has saved generations of first-graders from the mind-numbing adventures of Dick and Jane. Instead of seeing Dick run and Jane pet Spot, kids got to watch as a free-spirited, umbrella-toting cat stood on a ball, juggled goldfish, and generally encouraged chaos. Dr. Seuss spent a year and a half working on The Cat in the Hat; apparently, it’s not so easy to write a rollicking good tale with a vocabulary of only 236 words. Incredibly, just 15 words in the book are more than one syllable long.


3. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (82 pages)

A how-to manual for aspiring dictators, The Prince is one of the most reviled, and most studied, political treatises in history. First published in 1532, the book gave rise to the idea that a ruler’s first duty is to build a strong and stable state, no matter what the cost. The Prince inspired numerous tyrants, including Oliver Cromwell, Hitler, and Mussolini. Stalin was particularly moved by the book, scribbling copious notes in the margins of his copy.


4. Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (26 pages)

If Machiavelli helped unleash tyranny on the world, then Thoreau taught the world how to fight back. His ideas were simple but revolutionary: Don’t obey evil laws, and don’t pay taxes to the governments that create them. Thoreau penned the essay collection in 1849, inspired by his disgust over issues such as slavery and the Mexican-American War. But few paid attention to Civil Disobedience during Thoreau’s lifetime. That wouldn’t happen until six decades later, when Gandhi came across the work while studying at Oxford and took a copy with him to South Africa. There, he and his followers used Thoreau’s ideas to launch a campaign of passive resistance against the government, later repeating those tactics in India. Civil Disobedience has been on the march ever since, toppling colonialism, segregation, apartheid, and all manner of injustice.


5. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (52 pages)

For nearly a century, this pithy little grammar book has taught Americans how to write. Along the way, it’s won over the hearts and minds of countless English teachers, copyeditors, and authors, from Dorothy Parker to Stephen King. First published by Strunk in 1918, the manual took on a new life in 1959 when author E.B. White was brought on board to revise and expand it. (The co-authored version exceeded 100 pages.) But the book’s key lessons have always remained the same: encouraging writers to be clear, use concrete language, and omit needless words. Surprisingly, the little rulebook has also inspired other forms of expression, including a ballet of the same name by choreographer Matthew Nash. Not everyone agreed with Nash’s interpretation, though. One reviewer panned the choreography as too indecisive, claiming it failed to distinguish between the active and passive voice.


6. The Art of War by Sun Tzu (68 pages)

Despite the title’s promise, most of this ancient Chinese handbook is about how to win a conflict without needing to fight. Sun Tzu was a military general 2,500 years ago, but he was also a Taoist philosopher who believed in getting to know your enemy and cultivating a peaceful state of mind. For this reason, The Art of War is studied not only by military strategists, but also by business executives, diplomats, and lawyers. The list of people influenced by the book is impressive: Napoleon, Chairman Mao, Donald Trump, and of course, Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas’ character in 1987’s Wall Street, who quotes Sun Tzu continuously throughout the movie.


7. Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (54 pages)

Europe’s emerging communist movement was getting no respect in the mid-1800s, so it asked two good friends, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to do what communists do best—write propaganda. The resulting manifesto recast history as one giant class struggle and outlined a 10-point program for building a communist state. The booklet climaxed with the rousing motto, “Workers of the world, unite!” About 40 years later, those words stirred the heart of young Vladimir Lenin, who led the Bolshevik Revolution and helped create the Soviet Union. What followed was a series of unfortunate events, including the nuclear arms race, the Vietnam War, and, of course, Rocky IV."