Item’s from Sunday’s New York Times: Pace of Change; Criticism; Religion in Politics; Creative Children

Most interesting, a review, by Paul Krugman, of a book by Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, whose thesis is that the extraordinary growth and change brought about by technology over the past century has pretty much come to an end, especially when you contrast change from 1870 to 1970 (five great inventions: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine, modern communication) to change from 1970 to now.

Krugman writes,

Is he right? My answer is a definite maybe. But whether or not you end up agreeing with Gordon’s thesis, this is a book well worth reading — a magisterial combination of deep technological history, vivid portraits of daily life over the past six generations and careful economic analysis. Non-economists may find some of the charts and tables heavy going, but Gordon never loses sight of the real people and real lives behind those charts. This book will challenge your views about the future; it will definitely transform how you see the past.

But it’s a 762 page book! Sometimes a review will do. (I’ll think about it.)

What happened between 1870 and 1940, he argues, and I would agree, is what real transformation looks like. Any claims about current progress need to be compared with that baseline to see how they measure up.

And it’s hard not to agree with him that nothing that has happened since is remotely comparable. Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.

By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were indeed horrified and disgusted. Life fundamentally improved between 1870 and 1940 in a way it hasn’t since.

One might reflect that…. most of the basic ideas in science fiction were well-formed by the mid-20th century, and changes in the field since then have been mostly cultural — stylistic, more diverse participation, and so on. Could there be a connection?


A.O. Scott, Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be

We are far too inclined to regard art as a frivolous, ornamental undertaking and to perceive taste as a fixed, narrow track along which we stumble, alone or in like-minded company. At the same time, we too often seek to subordinate the creative, pleasure-giving aspects of our lives to supposedly more consequential areas of experience, stuffing the aesthetic dimensions of existence into the boxes that hold our religious beliefs, our political dogmas or our moral certainties. We belittle art. We aggrandize nonsense. We can’t see beyond the horizon of our own conventional wisdom.

The real culture war (the one that never ends) is between the human intellect and its equally human enemies: sloth, cliché, pretension, cant. Between creativity and conformity, between the comforts of the familiar and the shock of the new. To be a critic is to be a soldier in this fight, a defender of the life of art and a champion of the art of living.

It matters less what you follow — science fiction, opera, TV — as how you approach and react to it, perhaps.


Frank Bruni, The G.O.P.’s Holy War

On how the Republicans seem to be running for preacher rather than president, with doubts about Trump.

It’s impossible to know the genuineness of someone’s faith. That’s among the reasons we shouldn’t grant it center stage.


Adam Grant, How to Raise a Creative Child.

Back off.

One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

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