Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Mermaid Chair - Sue Monk Kidd

I'd been on a two week vacation with hardly anything to read (ack!!) and my sister gave me this for the ride home.  I've read a couple of other of the author's books (The Secret Life of Bees in 2002, The Invention of Wings last year) and recognized her style early on in this book.  Her writing has a languid, lush language that's a little bit too descriptive for my taste.  I'd prefer more narrative and dialogue.

The Mermaid Chair is the story of a middle aged woman, a recent empty-nester who goes back to her family home on an island and has an affair with a local monk-in-training.  The opening line is great:

"In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh's wife and Dee's mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk."

It's told in first person as a remembrance of her time on the island and the relationship and why it came about.  I like the twists and turns and as she struggled with finding out what she wanted from life now that she was not defined as only a mother and wife.

At one point she ponders the meaning of soul: "...a squashy substance, like a piece of clay or dental mold, which collected the sum of a person's experience--a million indentations of happiness, desperation, fear, all the small piercings of beauty we've even known."

At another point she contemplates life without her husband: "What if there were no more Hugh in my life?  No more of these small antics, the moments we'd pieced together to form a history?  But were these habits of love--or love itself?"

Another nice line "The mind is so good at revising reality to suit our needs."

And then there's the monk, thinking about the purpose of the monastery" "they'd been picked for a hidden but noble experiment--to see if people might actually be able to live in genuine relatedness, to see if perhaps God had made a mistake by creating the human species."

A good read for the end of my trip.  Thanks, sis.

Published:  2005  Read: July 2015  Genre: Fiction

The Invisible History of the Human Race - Christine Kenneally

sub-title: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures

This is a hard book to describe.  It uses current DNA research to explain how the human race has evolved and how our understanding of this evolution affects our thinking and living.

I noted the following passages while reading the book over several weeks:

[Explaining why people pursue genealogy] "It's a feeling of breaking though a wall.  Of the frustration of wanting to know more about your family and your past and what people's lives were like, and where they came from, and who they were, and what their personal stories were, and feeling like you're never going to be able to uncover that.  Once you have that feeling of that great mystery, any piece of information feels like a treasure trove.'s a form of connection that you though you were never going to have."

I can relate to that quote.  There's just something about connecting with my past and the people who's genes I share that is fascinating and satisfying and deepens my understanding of who I am.

[About a study that asked people to estimate how much they would change in the future]  "People have a tendency to think of the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives...dubbed the phenomenon the 'end of history illusion'.  History is always ending today."

I don't know that I agree with that statement.  If anything, I think I can always change (for the better) in the future.

[In a discussion about a study on Western values] "Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic nations (WEIRD)"

"It also made me wonder how silence is passed down".  I liked this statement.  Secrets and not-saying can also be passed down in families.

[On a Emory University study exploring the value of family history in the lives of children] "...knowledge of family history appeared to indicate how resilient the children usually means that they have strong connections with mothers and grandmothers...the stories of a family add up to ... an intergenerational self."

To me, that statement makes the case for sharing family stories early and often.

"It is said that autosomal DNA [the kind Ancestry analysis uses] can take you back at least five generations.  The probability of identifying a third cousin using autosomal DNA is roughly 90 percent, a fourth cousin 50 percent, and a fifth cousin 10 percent."

The author talks about the analysis done in 2011 and 2012 by Eran Elhaik who collected historical data from DNA samples.  He now works at the University of Sheffiled and the company Prosapia Genetics has been created based on his analyses.  Prosapia claims to pinpoint the village where your ancestors came from 1,000 of years ago.  There is much controversy about its results and testing.

Another observation of the author's I liked is that DNA is a palimpsest, i.e., a layering of information on top of one another, as in medieval vellum.  " stories are layered over old ones, and we can learn more by understanding when and how they were written over one another.  DNA and our life experiences make our bodies palimpsests.  As we learn how to interpret the body in the context of its genetic code, we begin to understand how the hand of fate, the choices of families, and the enormous journey of DNA through deep time affect our lives right now."

Her closing thought is "Your genome is just the first hand that life deals you.  How you play it is up to you."

It was an eclectic mix of different disciplines and the application of DNA information.

Published:  2014  Read: July 2015  Genre: Science History

ISBN: 9 780670025558

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Same Time Next Week - Leo Gutkind

Sub-title: True stories of working through mental illness

Leo Gutkind is the editor of this group of essays from therapists and patients dealing with mental illness that I picked up from the library.  I want to see if I can take a class from Gutkind since he teaches at ASU, one motivation for reading this book.

I found the contrast of the therapist's viewpoint and the patients worthwhile insight and would recommend the book for anyone touched by mental disease.  One theme is clear; regardless of the therapy, therapist, patient or diagnosis, dealing with mental illness is most successful when compassion and human connection is the priority.

One therapist early in the book sums it up, saying:

"...some people benefit greatly from a good therapist; some from finding the right medication; some, from a seemingly spontaneous improvements; some, from a combination of the above.  Having a loving and responsive mother or significant parental figures seems to be preventive, having a loving and caring adult partner is restorative.  Progress seldom comes in a straight line: courage determination, and patience are required in large measure."

I learned from another writer that a mother having the flu during pregnancy is a risk for schizophrenia:

"...up to 14% of schizophrenia cases would not have occurred had influenza in early to mid-pregnancy been avoided, and the viruses and other infections in the first trimester of pregnancy could increase schizophrenia risk as much as 700%."

Some authors provided suggestions for connecting to someone suffering with mental illness that I thought was good advice for any interaction when trying to empathize:

"When John introduced himself by saying, 'I am not a schizophrenic,' I didn't confront the odd statement by saying, 'Are you concerned about being called a schizophrenic?'  Instead, I attempted to join him by saying, 'I am not a noun either.'  I wanted to relate rather than confront." [my emphasis added].

There was a story about the effects of exposure to violence, even on TV or video games is harming because the "images seem to remain long active in the brain:

"...watching horror films lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in many young persons.  Many of these symptoms can linger for decades."

One of the last stories makes a meaningful point:

"every time we fall in love or make a friend, hold someone tight or choose a muffin, get pregnant or buy new underwear, paint a room or eat a sandwich; every choice we make to stay, to treat ourselves as valuable people, to connect more and more with this thing that can end only in loss, in death, loneliness, holey underwear or shit; every time we choose connection, we are risking loss.  But every time we do not chose connection, we are ensuring it."

Published:     Read: June-July 2015  Genre: Non-fiction

ISBN:9 781937 163198

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Capital in the 21st Century - Thomas Piketty

When was the last time you read something to understand a viewpoint?  Remember reading a textbook for class that presented historical data analysis to identify trends and then predicted the impact of those trends on the future, ending with recommendations for addressing those future outcomes?  That is, when did you last read something that made you think hard?  This book was a real exercise for my thinking.

I remember taking a class my junior year of college called “Money and Banking”.  It was heavy on economic theory (M1 and M2, as I recall) and pushed the limits of my understanding.  It must have planted a seed though because when I heard of this book I reserved it at the library to see what all the fuss was about.  It has stirred a lot of discussion about the best ways to address the inequalities of wealth in the world.

To start with, you have to accept that there are inequalities (there will always be the poor among us) and that it is something that should be addressed because it leads to conflict.  

I’m all for some having more than others.  It just doesn’t make sense to me that everyone with their individual uniqueness should have exactly equal levels of wealth, as measured by income and capital, so I’m not advocating the dreaded “redistribution of wealth” theory.  

It’s the extremes that I believe should be eliminated, and not just at the bottom of the pile.  “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is not inevitable in my way of thinking.  For Piketty, his research indicates it may be and he proposes ways to prevent it.

Specifically, he recommends a global, progressive annual capital tax that would impact the highest income levels. This would be a tax on wealth, i.e., what you own in terms of land (the traditional asset), goods (buildings, houses, companies) and financial investments (stocks, bonds and the like).  The proposal has created a firestorm of controversy that no doubt has others struggling to read this tome, which is a good exercise in my opinion.  His recommendation rests a lot on the assumption of continuing low growth for the foreseeable future, something his critics have pounced on. 

Piketty comes to his recommendation by analyzing income and capital and labor wages and growth rates over the last three centuries, since the beginning of modern industrial civilization or the late 1700’s to the present.  This is no small feat.  There’s lots of scholarly explanation that requires re-reading and breaks from reading to process, sort of like interval running.

There are many more tidbits drawn from his research; I made note of those that struck me and list them for my own reference.  I’m glad I struggled through this book and would recommend it for those looking for a 10K level of reading.

Published: 2014  Read:  June-July 2015  Genre: Non-fiction, Economics

Quotes and notes:

P22 over a long period of time the main force in favor of greater equality has been the diffusion of knowledge and skills.

Capital income ratio – concept that income is a flow of good produced and distributed in a timeframe (usually a year) and capital is a stock, the total wealth owned at a particular time that came from wealth either appropriated or accumulated over time.  The ratio of a nation’s capital to income (he represents with the Greek letter “B”) has historically been that capital is 5 to 6 times greater than income.

Definition of the word “autarky” - the quality of being self-sufficient. Usually the term is applied to political states or their economic systems.

Diffusion of knowledge has been main contributor to global growth and equality.
[This book contributes to that growth]

P 88 according to UN, India will be most populous county in the world by 2020.

P 121 the advantage of owning things is that one can continue to consume and accumulate without having to work

P 224 some people think we’ve gone from a civilization based on capital, inheritance and kinship to one based on human capital and talent…capital has not disappeared.

P 244 Inequality in respect to capital is always greater than inequality in respect to labor (wages).  Income from capital distribution is always greater than income from labor.

P 246 Intergenerational warfare has not replaced class warfare.

P 278 [wealth was concentrated (held by a small % of population) before WWI – WWI and II readjusted playing field due to highly progressive tax on income and inheritance that did not exist before 1920 but it has been re-established almost to the same levels by 2010]    Bottom line is there are more with ridiculous income from labor in 21st century.

P 279 Income from capital rises sharply and income from labor decreases rapidly at top of income levels.

P 290  In U.S. the top 10% share of wealth went from 30-35% of national income to 45-50% from 1970 to 2010.

P 297 In his mind, no doubt that the increase in inequality contributed to the financial crisis of 2008-09.  From 1977-2007, richest 10% in US got 75% of growth.  Top 1% got 60% of the increase in income.  Bottom 90% ratio of income growth was less than 0.5 % per year.  Low growth was a major factor.

P 302 The top 0.1% (centile) of the population by income or wealth consists of top managers (of organizations)

P 307 Over long run, education and technology are decisive determinants of wage levels.

P 333 Change in senior management compensation has played key role in evolution of wage inequality

P 335 phenomenon of “pay for luck” – when sales and profits increase for external [to the organization] reasons, exec pay rises most rapidly.

P 375 Inequality of wealth would not return to 19th century levels because of taxes, decrease in capital’s share of income, the rate of return on capital and income rate of growth compared to 19th century.

P 377 Inheritance will predominate over savings (r > g) because the rate of return on capital is greater than the growth rate

P 406 For cohorts born 1970-1980 inheritance is 22 to 24% of total resources.  Baby boomers had to make it on their own.

P 416 Thinking in the 19th century was that if there had not been a sufficient wealthy minority, no one would have been able to worry about anything but survival.

P 417 Thinking in the 20th century was that without high pay to execs only heirs of large fortunes would be able to achieve true wealth, which is unfair and therefore high pay is a form of social justice.  This is meritocratic extremism, the idea that pay levels are awarded based on merit and contributing to social justice is part of the merit.

P 421 In 1970-80 cohort, 12-14% will receive inheritance equivalent to a lifetime of labor income received by the bottom 50%.

P 444 [recommends] a progressive annual tax on the largest fortunes worldwide [to close inequality gap]

P 453 Inflation is a tax on wealth that is not invested.

P 463 [argues that ownership of a country by other countries is less a threat than ownership by its own and the world’s super rich.]

P 477 Historic increase in government tax revenues during the 20th century were used to pay for the creation of the social state.

P 478 Fiscal revolution of 20th century made possible the social revolutions of access to education, health and security in retirement (public pensions).

P 479 total social spending of 25-35% of national income – reflects constitution [creation] of the social state.

P 480 fundamental social rights – access to education, health and retirement.

P 486 No easy way to achieve real equality of education.

P 489  PAYGO systems [like social security where past generation supports/pays for the present] will continue because converting to other method leaves a generation out.

P 490 One of the most important reforms for 21st century to make is to establish a unified retirement scheme with equal rights for everyone regardless of complexity of career path.

P 512 Skyrocketing exec pay is explained by bargaining model [lower marginal tax rates encourage negotiation for higher pay].

P 514 – the New World may be on verge of becoming the Old Europe of 21st century’s globalized economy [because of trend toward lower progressive income tax].

P 521 Proposes a global progressive annual capital tax fed by automated reporting of all assets, not just income.