A Bumper May Harvest of Good Reading

I am headed out on a trip after a hectic week, so I didn’t have time to pipeline a new post for the week. Fortunately for me, I’ve reaped a bumper harvest of unusually good reading on the Web in the last week, so I thought I’d share a selection. If you follow @ribbonfarm, you may have already seen these. I put the selections on a convenient trail if you want to jump right in, otherwise read on for my quick commentary. Warning: I read the kind of stuff I write, so all these are long-to-epic size reads.

Do ‘Family Values’ Weaken Families?

An excellent counter-intuitive analysis of why Blue America actually does better than Red on the family front, despite the rhetoric of the latter.

The paradox is this: Cultural conservatives revel in condemning the loose moral values and louche lifestyles of “San Francisco liberals.” But if you want to find two-parent families with stable marriages and coddled kids, your best bet is to bypass Sarah Palin country and go to Nancy Pelosi territory: the liberal, bicoastal, predominantly Democratic places that cultural conservatives love to hate.

Debt: The First 5000 Years

I am familiar with the idea that money is best understood as debt, but this takes the argument to a whole new level, tracing the origins of money-as-debt to slavery, bondage, and curiously, the idea that kings and emperors have historically had an incentive to limit the power of slave-owners.

Throughout its 5000 year history, debt has always involved institutions – whether Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law – that place controls on debt’s potentially catastrophic social consequences. It is only in the current era, writes anthropologist David Graeber, that we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors.

Give it a Rest, Genius

A critique of a recent crop of books, including Gladwell’s Outliers, that argues that the argument has been somewhat disingenuously made. Okay, anyone who takes Gladwell to task deserves to be read in my book. But this isn’t a simple reactionary argument. Quite nuanced actually, attempting to salvage the argument and put it on more solid ground.

Success begets success. Sociologists call this phenomenon the Matthew Effect, after the parable in the Gospel of Matthew that concludes, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance” (and the corollary, “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”). Nothing succeeds like a theory of success, too, it seems. Call it the Malcolm Effect: When Malcolm Gladwell challenges what he sees as the popular myth of inborn genius and champions the cultural contributions to extraordinary achievement instead, you can be sure that versions of the idea will soon be everywhere.

The Birth of the Scheduled Web

Sick of the real-time Web and the always-on pressures and tensions it creates? If tech-zeitgeist-spotter Nova Spivack has it right, relief may be around the corner in the form of the “Scheduled Web.” I hope and wish this is true, and there seems to be good reason to believe it can and will happen. There is definitely market pull. The question is, whether there is solid technological push.

This obsession with the present is a sign of the times, but it is also a form of collective myopia — the Real-Time Web really doesn’t include the past or the future – it exists in a kind of perpetual now. To put the “time” into Real-Time, we need to  provide a way to see the past, present and the future Real-Time Web at once.  For example, we need a way to search and browse the past, present, and the future of a stream – what happened, what is happening, and what is scheduled to happen in the future. And this is where what I am calling The Scheduled Web comes in. It’s the next step for the Real-Time Web.

The 7.5 Steps to Successful Infographics

I am beginning to hate TEDesque mind-candy and other viral-ambitious visual nuggets, but at the same time, I can’t help being drawn to them. This is one of the first pieces I have seen that elevates that conversation to a higher level. It’s a how-to post with enough of a philosophical subtext to be actually interesting.

So here I am, pulling over. I’m going to deconstruct some of what I know and share my 7 ½ Secrets to Successful Infographics. Get comfortable. Get a cup of coffee. (Get me one while you’re at it?) Feel free to read this in any order you like. Or if you’re lazy, I mean busy, just read some of it. But keep this link around, because you never know…

Beating Obesity

And finally for a true marathon read, but worth every word.  Marc Ambinder’s thorough and solid review of the obesity epidemic in the Atlantic. This is how balanced and tasteful, big-picture writing should be done.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that the rate of increase in obesity in the United States seems to be slowing. The bad news is that no one knows exactly why. And the debate on how to deal with obesity remains frozen. On one side are the proponents of individual responsibility, who believe that fat people suffer from a surplus of self-indulgence and a shortage of willpower. On the other are people who believe that Americans are getting fatter because of powerful environmental factors like cheap corn, fast food, and unscrupulous advertising. Each side is held in political check by the other, and both have advocated unrealistic solutions: diets and exercise programs and miracle drugs that don’t work versus massive, and in many cases punitive, government interventions that are politically impossible.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Evil Rocks says

    That 12-year-old’s tweaked genes would make him or her just the focused parent/mentor Shenk says children need to cultivate such concentration themselves. Doesn’t that mean his or her progeny would thus get a double chance at super-focus?

    And people wonder why high-focus families whelp autists. Someone needs to read their L’Engle.