This Hyperliterate Era

Are we worse writers today than folks from previous generations? Does our two-thumbed “txtng” make us literary cretins (and bad spellers)? Is “the death of the handwritten letter” a fait accompli?

My mother, bless her heart, bought me The Art of the Handwritten Note for Christmas twelve years ago. I still have it:

Art Handwritten Note

This is what she inscribed on the title page:

Dear Henry,

Your extraordinary grandmother would like you to have this little book! She was a beautiful person and writer, too.

Much love,


I’m really not raggin’ on Mom right now. Love you, Mom! I share this because it expresses a sentiment of many millions of people: We can’t write anymore. The idea is that our parents and grandparents (all of whom wrote in flowing cursive no doubt) wrote deeper, more personal, more heartfelt handwritten letters. All this newfangled “txtspk” with two thumbs has ruined our spelling at the very least and made us terrible writers at worst.

I’m currently reading Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The author makes a compelling case that while our online writing may look less civilized than our paper and pen missives of the past, online writing in its many forms is making us more, not less, literate.

First, he makes the case that the “good old days” of letter writing were not as good as we think. At the height of the golden age of English letter writing–the end of the 19th century–most upper crust Britons received only one or two letters a week. And this was in an era of junk mail (albeit much less than today), business correspondence, and mail scams. Like today, many letters back then were not from friends and loved ones.

Second, in American education, reading has been emphasized more than writing. Children were told to read everyday, but much less often were they told to write every day. Reading was to be done at school and at home and at the public library. Writing? At school and maybe a little for homework. Nowadays, most of us are writing throughout the day, via email or text. Clearly we are writing much more than we used to. But does all this writing count when it’s “txtspk?”

Thompson points out that much of our writing today happens in real time. You send an email or text and you might get an immediate response, which of course was not the case in the “golden age” of letter writing. Yes, writers might have been more thoughtful as missives were less frequent, but the “real time” effect makes emailing and texting, at its best, more like “real time” dialogue and discourse. People actually exchange, debate and refine ideas in emails, blogs, and on social media. Online, people have real-time conversations about things that matter. Yes, there’s plenty of dross in online writing–we see it on our screens every day–but there’s also a lot of outstanding content out there written by everyday people.

And the internet has made everyone a publisher. If you write on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, there’s an audience, and an audience has a big effect. Many of us have hundreds of friends. Did such an audience exist for nearly everyone “back in the day?” The audience means “we know someone’s looking,” and we better write well. If you want to be taken seriously online, you need to write clearly and logically, and concede points when faced with strong evidence against your arguments. We have all tuned out the people who send cat video links and spam. The people whom we pay attention to are clever, fun, smart…they’re good writers!

I’ll blog more about the book as I make my way through it. (I’ve read about a quarter of it.)

And Mom, I promise I’ll write more handwritten letters…

The Future of US Looks Thinner

Over the past decade, the rate of obesity among small children in the US dropped a whopping 43 percent drop. As the New York Times reported today, “About 8 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds were obese in 2012, down from 14 percent in 2004. ‘This is the first time we’ve seen any indication of any significant decrease in any group,’ said Cynthia L. Ogden, a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the lead author of the report.”

I knew it was coming. Like smoking, obesity is becoming less and less socially acceptable. And the social milieu is important. If people in your life are obese, you are more likely to be obese. This finding was published in a study about 7 years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine, as reported in the Times.

Saying that “obesity is becoming less and less socially acceptable” may sound cruel or insensitive, but obesity kills. It is one of the leading risk factors in early death. It must be treated as a public health issue, not soft pedaled because being overweight is a touchy subject. (Full disclosure: My BMI is currently on the cusp of the “Obese” range. I personally appreciate the peer pressure to slim down. It might save my life.)

As today’s Times article notes, “the lower obesity rates in the very young bode well for the future.”

Just as smoking has decreased, so too (I predict) that obesity will be seen more and more for what it is: a deadly, preventable and reversible medical condition.

Is Innate Talent Destiny?

If there’s one scientific finding that gives me the most hope it is neuroplasticity. The mind is a muscle. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” We once thought that you’re stuck with the brain you’re born with. Now we know that mental exercise, especially vigorous and challenging exercise, makes the mind stronger and smarter. You can improve your brain and your performance.

I found this article from New York Magazine as I searched for cogent, well-written articles that explain Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” theory.  From the findings of her research, Dweck believes that there are two different ways a person can look at her abilities: a “Fixed Mindset” or a “Growth Mindset.” Someone with a Fixed Mindset might believe a statement like “I am smart” or “I’m a terrible tennis player.” A person with a fixed mindset doesn’t believe in much progress: you’re either good at something or you’re bad.

People who have a Growth Mindset believe that if they give a task enough focused, quality effort, they’ll be able to achieve a goal. Someone with a Growth Mindset might say, “I didn’t do well because I didn’t study enough,” or “My free throws have improved because I practiced long and hard.” Success or failure depends on effort, not innate talent.

Dweck and others in her field have studied these mindsets and the findings are clear: People with a Growth Mindset are more successful than people with a Fixed Mindset. The Fixed Mindset can be especially pernicious to the very intelligent, who often balk at potential failure because they want to protect their self-image: I’m smart. Smart people don’t fail.

The upshot is that talent is developed, not created. Yes, some people seem to find some things easier, but behind every great performer is hours and hours and hours of high quality practice. The hurdles in front of us may be daunting, but we can leap over most of them if we are committed to success and the effort required to get there.

CVS & the Future of Tobacco

Some 18 percent of American adults smoke, down from 42 percent in 1965. In places like New York City, which has used a combination of steep taxes on cigarettes and bans on smoking in most places to discourage smokers, the decline is even greater, down to 14 percent.  New York Times, February 5, 2014

Today CVS announced it will stop selling tobacco products in its stores. While this change will take some time to implement, CVS’s decision is another milestone in the slide of tobacco. Fifty years ago–when Surgeon General Luther Terry released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health--tobacco seemed to command an unassailable perch in American culture.



After all, what would American history and culture be without tobacco? Just think of the images: the peace pipe passed from Massasoit to Pilgrim leader John Carver, the cigar lodged in US Grant’s defiant maw, the cigarette precariously dangling from James Dean’s lower lip, the wrinkled rough handsomeness of the Marlboro Man.

Nonetheless, common sense has prevailed, and smoking has declined precipitously since 1964.

Here’s an vignette that helps me remember tobacco’s bygone era: I’m in Dad’s car (c. 1975), sitting in the front (whiplash) seat. The interior is an aquarium of blue tobacco smoke. Dad might mercifully crack the window a bit to give us whippersnappers a little fresh air, but this blue-smoke scene seemed normal for those days, like riding bikes without helmets and playing Chicken with the cars zooming down my street.

And here’s recent data that speaks of a changed world: The 2011 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stats say that 18% of high school students smoke, while 19% of adults do. These are the lowest percentages recorded in the CDC’s regular studies of tobacco use.

Now I’m not so naive as to think that the tobacco companies are going to
raise the white flag. I’m sure they’ll doggedly fight this as long as it’s possible (and profitable). But I do see tobacco going the way of slavery, male-only suffrage, and segregation–history.

Foreign Aid & Saving Millions of Children

“Can we use $30 of the taxes you’re already paying to protect 120 children from measles?”  Would you say yes or no?

Bill and Melinda Gates posed this question to readers of their 2014 Gates Annual letter. They’re trying to dispel the myth that US foreign health aid–primarily vaccines, family planning, drugs for people with HIV–is wasted. Of course, if you nose around any multi-billion-dollar budget, whether it’s Apple Computer or a government program, you will find waste. However, the impact of US foreign health aid–about $11 billion annually–has saved millions.

The Gateses “calculated the drop in child mortality since 1980, the start of the ‘Child Survival Revolution’ that made vaccines and oral rehydration therapy much more widespread. It comes to 100 million deaths averted.”

Sounds like a good investment to me.