Sunday, October 8, 2017

Smartphones Are Making Us Stupid

I recently posted on Facebook that, to me, the two worst inventions of the 21st Century are Twitter and and so-called smartphones. The post got almost no reaction, so this post may likewise represent a tilt at a windmill.

Whether you agree or disagree (or are not sure), I strongly recommend reading Nicholas Carr's essay How Smartphones Hijack our Minds in this weekend's Wall Street Journal. Here is a link, but reading the full article will probably require a subscription. Copies of the Journal are, however, widely available in libraries and offices.

Carr's essay summarizes a large amount of recent scientific research that, in essence, proves that smartphones are more than a simple distraction, and actually decrease our ability to think and reason. Here are a few of the more compelling points:
  • One study shows that students performing a test who had their phones in view performed worse than those with their phones in a pocket or bag, and worse still than those whose phones were stored in a different room.
  • Merely the presence of a phone decreased the quality of personal social interaction.
  • The ability to consult Google and search engines diminishes the ability to remember.
And here's a really important part: Participants in the studies do not perceive that phones hamper their abilities to perform or remember. In fact, people conflate the ability to look things up with their own intelligence. So, if you are disagreeing with the research,  you have reason to question your conclusions.

Carr's ultimate conclusion is not surprising, but still somewhat stunning: The insight [from the studies] "sheds light on our society's current gullibility crisis, in which people are all too quick to credit lies and half-truths spread through social media by Russian agents and other bad actors. If your phone has sapped your powers of discernment, you'll believe anything it tells you." Carr's article is well worth the ten to fifteen minutes it takes to read, and offers many more insights.

What Carr's article does not cover are the other very significant costs smartphones impose on our lives:
  • Distracted driving. I have given up counting how many times I've seen drivers ripping through a parking deck, phone held to their ear and paying no attention to pedestrians.
  • A complete lack of awareness of surroundings. This includes people (particularly college students) who cross busy streets while staring at (or talking on) their smartphone, assuming that the "walk" sign will somehow protect them from a distracted driver blowing through a light.
  • The complete loss of privacy. George Orwell's 1984 laid out a future with an absolute lack of privacy, when every citizen's movements were monitored through a telescreen. Today, we gladly carry telescreens in our pockets! For people who, quite literally, live on their phones, a complete loss of privacy is only a hack away.
OK, so what can we do about it? Smartphones are not going away, and I freely admit they perform many useful and even vital functions (such as a quick link to emergency services). My suggestion is to start managing your smartphone use. Here are some thoughts:
  • When I'm at home, my smartphone is stowed. I don't need to be available 24/7.
  • Have "phone free" dinners and other social encounters. Engage in conversation with real people.
  • Get out in nature or out in the city without your phone (or with it turned off).  Use your powers of observation. Watch a sunset, gaze at the stars, or listen to the rain falling or the wind whispering through the trees.
  • Don't talk on a phone while you are driving unless your car has hands free capability, and, even then, stay off it when you are in parking garages or traffic. 
  • Apple's IOS 11 has a very useful feature that prevents notifications when you are driving. It works. Let's hope it becomes a standard feature on all phones.
  • Limit the information stored on your phone. Do you really want your whole life available to someone who hacks it or finds it if it is lost?
  • Make sure to lock the phone with a password or fingerprint technology (or the face recognition technology that is coming).
  • Schools should strongly think about limiting any access to phones during the school day.
Finally, use your brain. Engage in critical thinking. Engage in learning instead of mindless entertainment (at least for part of each day). Don't believe everything you see on a phone. Don't believe anything unless you personally know it to be true or have verified it from multiple reliable sources.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Why Did They Steal Summer?

On the calendar, summer begins near June 20 and ends around September 20. For many years, the unofficial summer season in the U.S. was between Memorial Day (around May 31) and Labor Day (in early September). The academic calendar typically corresponded with the unofficial summer season.

When I grew up (now many years ago), summer was a time for playing games with my brothers and friends (often using our imaginations to create new challenges). It was a time for family vacations, often driving across country in the family station wagon. It was a time for cookouts with neighbors and catching fireflies after dark. For older kids, it was a time to take a summer job and earn a little money, and, more importantly, learn a little responsibility.

In the last 25 years ago, the powers that be have gradually and inexorably stolen summer as we knew it. Summer has been compressed and the school year expanded. One county in metropolitan Atlanta began school this year on July 31. Most other public schools in Atlanta are opening next week (August 7). Classes at the University of Georgia begin on August 14. Although there are surely pockets of resistance (Wisconsin), this trend seems to be prevalent across the U.S.

A lot of this seems to be driven by well meaning efforts to improve educational quality. However, as is so often the case with policies driven by politicians and academics, the results do not seem to be there. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have not noticed a massive increase in U.S. educational performance. In a more limited sense, many my students at the University of Georgia Law School (all academically gifted) seem to arrive with little appreciation of how the world works.

While the benefits of stealing summer are difficult to discern, the costs are clear. As one article recently reported, the percentage of teens with summer employment has dropped significantly (from 57 percent in 1986 to 36 percent). This is true even in the face of a shrinking unemployment numbers. It has likewise been reported that many students are unable to take advantage of summer fellowships and other programs that extend into August. Finally, summer vacation season has effectively been crammed into roughly six weeks (from June 15-July 31). This results in overcrowding at National Parks and other vacation destinations (who have difficulty maintaining staffing after roughly the middle of August).

Although there are concrete costs of the compressed summer season, there are intangible costs that I would argue are at least as important. Summer used to provide a time to get away from our scheduled existence, and to do something different. It provided a time to use the imagination--to contemplate the beauty of a sunrise or sunset--and to explore something outside of one's everyday existence. For kids, it was a time to dream of the future and what might be. Sure, summer can still be such a time, but in its current compressed form, its value is likewise compressed.

If someone asked me (and no one has), I would offer this simple formula: No school after Memorial day and before Labor Day. This would restore summer to its traditional place. Do I think this will happen? No, but it does appear that some are beginning to understand the costs of the shrinking summer season. Maybe there will at least be no further encroachment.

The photo is of a a meadow in front of Mt. Hood in Oregon on a magnificent summer day in late July.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Tribute to a True Role Model: Albert G. Norman, Jr.

Albert G. Norman, Jr., known to just about everyone as simply Al, has passed away. Although we can and should celebrate his long and accomplished life, it is also true that the world is just a little less intelligent and interesting without Al in it. 

I practiced for 25 years at two law firms where Al was a formidable presence, first at Hansell & Post (now Jones, Day) and then Long, Aldridge & Norman (later McKenna Long & Aldridge and now Dentons). When I started at Hansell & Post in 1982, Al was a senior partner and member of the Management Committee. In 1986, I followed Al and others to Long, Aldridge & Norman, where Al was, obviously, a name partner. 

Al was a truly phenomenal lawyer. His primary client was Atlanta Gas Light Company. He did complicated regulatory work for AGL. However, Al was also an expert in the field of libel law, handling notable cases in that area. It seemed that Al could pretty much do anything involving the law at a very high level.

Al's memory was extraordinary. About 20 years ago, Al asked me to help him with a section of a brief. I do not remember the precise issue, but recall it was one of those maddening issues where the answer seemed obvious, but on which it was difficult to find any case law. After a few hours of digging in the books, I found a lot of law that sort of circled the issue, but nothing really on point. I went into Al's office, which was then next to mine and about the size of an aircraft hanger, and told him the results were just not coming. 

Al then said that he recalled one of his law professors at Emory discussing a case involving a similar issue in 1957 (about 40 years earlier at the time). He said, "Let's take a look," which I momentarily found puzzling. He then proceeded to his bookcase and extracted an ancient 3-ring binder. He paged through it for about 30 seconds, and then said, "Yes, there it is," pointing to a case citation. Al had not only remembered a class from decades earlier, but had kept his class notes and was able to find the citation like he had taken the notes a week ago. The case was much closer to the point than anything I had found. Astonishing.

Al was a true gentleman. Courtly might be an apt description. He said hello to everyone and treated everyone, staff and attorneys, with respect. If I ran into Al, a typical encounter was like this: "Morning, Al. How is it going?" "I'm doing fine, John. I hope you are." I always liked that last part--"I hope you are"--and have borrowed it. 

In addition to his truly extraordinary breadth of knowledge regarding the law, Al was a man of many interests. He golfed, hunted and fished. When he became interested in a subject, he became immersed in it. He built a model railroad that took up a large part of his basement, literally hand-crafting almost all of it. 

His interest in golf seemed to wax and wane, but as his interest would grow, he often consulted me for advice. Al knew that--at that time at least--I kept up with every technical development on golf clubs, hoping technology would mask a lack of talent. I think Al was also looking for a magic wand. Although he would quiz me at length on various options, I think he always bought Callaway, a good choice. He once gave me a couple of classic MacGregor woods (real "wood woods") which look magnificent but are just too beautiful (and difficult) to hit. I think the last time he called me about golf clubs was five or six years ago.

Al was not a mentor because we did not work together closely enough and he never took me under his wing. I considered Al a friend, but not a close personal one. For me, Al was a role model: Someone to look up to and emulate, even though you could never quite get to that level.

We sure could use more people like Al, especially in a crazy year like 2016. Our national discourse has become shrill, coarse and disgusting on all sides. It seems that intelligence, careful analysis and courtliness have gone out of style. 

I'm going to think fondly and a little sadly about my friend and role model, and hope that his traits make a massive comeback.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Neil Armstrong, Project Apollo and Missed Opportunities

July 20, 2014 marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing and Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to set foot on the moon. Partly because of the anniversary, I just finished reading Jay Barbree's biography of Mr. Armstrong, simply titled "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight." Mr. Barbree is a veteran NBC News reporter who has covered every manned space launch. He was a personal friend of Mr. Armstrong.

I highly recommend Mr. Barbree's book. It fully chronicles the life of an American hero. From his days as a fighter pilot in Korea, a test pilot for the X-15 rocket plane (a real beast), an astronaut, and his post-astronaut career as a professor and as Vice-Chair of the Commission investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Mr. Armstrong can be characterized as highly intelligent, cool under the highest pressure situations, and able to think through highly complex situations. He was regularly described by his fellow astronauts as the best pilot they ever saw. Through it all, he never sought publicity, shunned the public spotlight, and remained true to his Midwestern roots. He was a man of genuine modesty.

Although Mr. Barbree's biography of Mr. Armstrong is inspirational, the book also provides an inside view of the space race, a period of less than twelve years that began with the Soviet Union's launch of  the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 (to the dismay of the American populace) and ended with the Apollo 11 landing. The race really began in earnest with the Soviet Union's launch of Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space on April 12, 1961, which was followed shortly by the U.S. launch of Alan Shepard on suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. Despite having a substantial initial lead, the Soviet Union never made it to the moon.

I was born in August 1957. The space race dominated my childhood. As a boy interested in airplanes and rockets, the astronauts were my heroes. I read everything I could get my hands on about space. I recall watching the Mercury launches on our family's old Magnavox black and white television. I watched the shadowy images of Neil Armstrong stepping on the lunar surface in July 1969, shortly before my twelfth birthday. 

A substantial portion of the U.S. population never experienced the space race or the moon landing. The median age of the U.S. population is about 38 years. I have not been able to find a statistic on the percentage of the population born after the moon landing in 1969, but it it clear that a majority of the population was born after that date. 

Because so many people did not experience what I experienced as a youth regarding the space race and Project Apollo, it is perhaps worth an attempt, however inadequate it may be, to try to put into words the excitement of those days. Despite the social upheaval of the decade, there was very little public dissent about the space race: The astronauts were heroes, catching the Soviet Union was necessary, and failure was simply not an option. 

Because of the space race, science, math and engineering were cool. Higher education was in vogue. The future appeared limitless. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, the country celebrated; actually, the world celebrated.

It is really impossible to put into perspective the achievements of NASA during the space race.  In slightly over eight years, NASA went from putting a single man in a suborbital flight to taking three men to the moon, landing two of them on the moon, and returning all three safely home. Think about it: All of this was accomplished in eight years. 

I have tried to think of something to put this into perspective for younger readers. Although nothing is really satisfactory, consider the iPhone. The iPhone was introduced in January 2007 and was rightly considered a great technological innovation. Now, over seven years later, Apple has introduced a series of incremental improvements, but the basic functionality of the original iPhone has not changed greatly. And to compare the iPhone to Project Apollo only demonstrates that what passes for innovation today cannot hold a candle to what happened during the space race.

Since Project Apollo, we have lost our way in space. The space shuttle, although impressive in some respects, was flawed and never achieved its original goals. Further, it was not able to do anything other than put astronauts and cargo in low earth orbit. Since the last space shuttle flight in July 2011, we have been unable to put astronauts in space, and have been reduced to hitching rides on Russian Soyuz rockets, a system that uses decades-old technology. (At least the Russians were smart enough to keep the old technology available in the absence of a more modern replacement).

The current state of our space program should be a national embarrassment. Before his death, Mr. Armstrong testified before Congress. He tried to explain the need to return to the moon as a precursor to a mission to Mars. Unfortunately, the counsel of Mr. Armstrong and his colleagues has been ignored.

There is a great deal of discussion today about the need to increase funding for "STEM" initiatives, referring to science, technology, engineering and math, and to increase student interest in these important disciplines. Many others have pointed out the importance of national preeminence in these disciplines to technological innovation, the economy, and even national security.

The question is how to motivate students to pursue these important disciplines. We have an obvious example: On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy made his famous speech calling for a journey to the moon and back by the end of the decade: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The goal being stated, NASA accomplished it, supported by a legion of scientists and engineers. The entire venture provided high-skilled, high-paying jobs to tens of thousands, with spin-off benefits to the economy that continue to this day, although the effect is waning. 

The main objection to the manned space program has been cost. Consider this: The cost of Project Apollo in 2008 dollars was $98 billion according to one analysis. In 2009, the U.S. spent $800 billion on an ill-considered economic stimulus that has yielded few concrete benefits. What would have happened if instead--or simply as part of the stimulus--President Obama had called for a national effort to return to the moon by 2016 (which would have allowed same time that it took NASA to accomplish the same goal decades ago) and to land man on Mars by 2025, and had asked Congress to fund it? Instead of talking about "STEM," there would be a national initiative establishing a clear goal that, to use President Kennedy's words, would "organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."  Even more importantly, it would have made STEM cool again. And it sure would have helped the economy.

Unfortunately, we do not have leaders with President Kennedy's vision. Equally unfortunately, heroes such as Mr. Armstrong had to live their final days witnessing our country basically throwing away their accomplishments and legacy. It had to be an extreme disappointment to Mr. Armstrong, just as it must continue to disappoint the remaining aging heroes who formed the team that put a man on the moon.

We need to find our way back to space.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Gilbert N. Caudle, Jr.: An Epilogue, a Small Family Reunion, and a Mystery Solved

On Memorial Day 2013, I wrote a post regarding my uncle, Gilbert N. Caudle, Jr.  My uncle, a Master Sergeant in the Marines, died in a helicopter crash in Korea in 1953 before I was born. My mother always referred to her brother as "Don," which, as the original post noted, was a family mystery. We could not figure out how you get "Don" from "Gilbert, Jr." 

As the original post explained, I had been able to piece together more about my uncle's life from the Internet--including the fact he had been married shortly before his death--than we had learned from family history. The blog post concluded by asking anyone with information about Gilbert, Jr. (or Don) to contact me. However, that request felt much like putting a note in a bottle and casting it into the Pacific Ocean.

Much to my surprise, several months after writing the post, I received an email from a young Marine, Greg Holt. Greg had seen my post and it had prompted him to write. Greg is the great grandson of my mother's much older sister, Mildred. Greg had grown up hearing his grandfather Jerry (and to some extent Mildred) tell stories about my uncles Gilbert, Jr. (or Don) and Bill, especially involving their service in the Marines.

Greg is currently posted in Germany. I'm not exactly sure what the job title is, but Greg and his unit essentially serve as a concierge for injured U.S. service men and women being treated at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Kaiserslautern. Greg helps our injured soldiers get the care and benefits to which they are entitled, and also helps make travel arrangements for the families of those who are so seriously injured they cannot travel. Interestingly, many more injuries occur in regular day-to-day activities than in combat.

Greg and his wife Amanda just had their first child, a daughter named Harper. Amanda and Harper are not able to live permanently with Greg in Germany, but are able to make frequent visits. 

I happen to do a lot of work for clients from Germany, and try to make a business trip to Germany at least once a year. This May, I traveled to Germany, flying into Dusseldorf. Greg, Amanda and Harper made the trip to Dusseldorf from Kaiserslautern and we spent a very enjoyable afternoon in the "Altstadt" (old part of the city), which happened to be be during a quirky event called "Japan Day."

Greg told me some stories about my uncle and even had some memorabilia from my uncles. It felt like the proverbial "message in a bottle" had been answered in full. Well, almost in full. Greg had no idea why my mother referred to her brother as "Don."

This is a photo of Greg, Amanda and Harper in Dusseldorf.

I had been meaning to post an update regarding my uncle since returning from Germany in late May. The fact that it waited until the Fourth of July seems appropriate, as was the fact that our family reunion of sorts in Dusseldorf was just before Memorial Day. 

Not only is it appropriate to remember my uncles' service, it turns out that just about everyone in Greg's family (including his sister) serves or has served in the military or has been a military spouse. Thank you to all of them, and thanks to all our service men and women on our Nation's birthday. 

Having just about given up on the "Don" mystery, I received an email from Greg this week. Greg had spoken to his grandfather Jerry (my first cousin) and Jerry knew the answer. When Gilbert, Jr. was stationed at the Marine Air Station in El Toro south of Los Angeles, Gilbert, Jr. apparently had quite a social life, including going out with some Hollywood actresses. Thus, the family began calling him "the Don Juan of the West Coast." My mother would have only been thirteen at the time, so maybe she didn't get the joke. Or maybe Gilbert, Jr. took to the nickname. In any event, mystery solved.

This story helped bring the uncle I never knew to life. It was good to hear there were good times before his untimely death. Greg's family has other photos of my uncles, including some photos of Don clowning around with his Marine buddies in the Pacific. When Greg gets back to the States, he can hopefully get those scanned and emailed. 

At the time of the original post, no one in my immediate family knew where Don was buried. We had assumed he was probably interred in Korea. Greg told me Don was in fact buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A photo of Don's grave marker is available on the Arlington National Cemetery website.

I'm glad that my uncle was brought home. It is sad that my mother apparently did not know where her brother was buried, but I think she would be happy that her brother's remains were interred on American soil at the Nation's best-known military cemetery. I think she would also have been delighted about the small family reunion in Germany with such a nice young man and his family.

As I reflect on this somewhat remarkable--at least to me--series of events, the one thing that stands out is how little my part of the family knew about my uncle. It is so easy to keep in touch now with cheap long distance, email, and social media. It was not easy to do so in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and for much of the rest of the 20th Century. As my parents raised three boys in the Leave It to Beaver and Brady Bunch era, moving us around the country as Dad chased his dream job, it was difficult to keep in touch, and ties to the past faded. 

Still, family history is important, and I'm so glad that Greg saw my post and reached out. It has been great learning more about my lost uncle, as well as about Greg and his side of the family. Although one mystery has been solved, another has come to light. I'm not sure why "Tennessee" is on Don's grave marker. Maybe Greg can help unravel that one, too.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"How We Lost Atlanta": A Little Perspective, Please

For the past 48 hours, Metropolitan Atlanta has been shut down due to what some have asserted is "two inches of snow."  Thousands of residents have spent the night in their cars, worried about loved ones not able to get home, and generally have had their lives disrupted. And now the blame game has begun. As someone who has made the area home for over 30 years, here are a few observations.

1. It's ice, not snow. Northerners love to say that Atlantans cannot drive in snow, which is ironic given that about half the folks who live here came from northern climes. The problem isn't snow. The problem is ice. During a winter weather event here, the temperatures tend to hover around freezing or just above during the day. We often get freezing rain. When we get snow, and even if the temperatures are below freezing, it tends to melt when it hits the ground. When the water freezes as the sun goes down, you end up with a sheet of ice, or, just as bad, black ice. I do not know anyone who can drive on a hockey rink.

2. Critiques over urban sprawl are interesting, but they are not going to change anything. Rebecca Burns, an Atlantan, wrote an interesting piece in Politico about the storm. Ms. Burns' history of Atlanta -- including her observations about the fact that metro Atlanta is actually a quilt of many towns and counties, its rejection of expanded mass transit, and its love of the automobile -- is quite accurate. That said, those observations and a critique of urban sprawl are not going to change anything, at least in the near to intermediate future.

Metro Atlanta is not going to become a European-style city where everyone lives downtown and mass transit is available everywhere. That said, the area has a lot going for it, including great universities, fantastic restaurants, world-class businesses and a great lifestyle. It has a low cost of living and young people can actually afford to buy houses.  Most of the time, the weather is good and is a reason why many of us live here. This weekend, temperatures are forecast to be in the 60s. If our mass transit is not up to what some would like and our traffic is bad (which it is), that is a relatively small price for living in a great area. No place is perfect. 

By the way, it is possible to live without a car in Atlanta. Several of my friends have recently moved to Midtown where they also work, and tell me they rarely use their car and are even thinking about going "car-less." However, you have to plan for such a lifestyle, and it does limit your choices.

3. This one was unexpected. If you have lived through more than a couple of winters in Atlanta, you know that things shut down quickly with the prediction of bad weather. Schools and businesses will close early. Somewhat comical runs on grocery stores are the norm. If anything, the tendency is to be too cautious. We know bad weather shuts down the city, we know the danger of ice, and we know to stay off the roads. 

The weather prediction Tuesday morning was that the storm would hit the Southern suburbs and areas south toward Macon, but would miss the vast majority of of the metro area. Flurries were predicted in the northern suburbs. Why did the fiasco happen? Because most everyone was at work and school assuming that there was no problem. When it became apparent around noon (give or take an hour) that the predictions were wrong, everyone headed out at once, as Ms. Burns correctly notes in her article. That and the rapidly worsening weather created the problem.

Was this metro Atlanta's shining hour? Of course not. Do Governor Deal and Mayor Reed wish they had a "do over"? Of course they do. Do the meteorologists? No doubt. Hindsight is always 20/20. We live our lives based on making reasonable assumptions. It was reasonable for people to go to work on Tuesday morning and it was reasonable to assume the storm would largely miss the metro area. 

Can we do better? Yes, but no one should be vilified over this.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Decline of Reasoned Persuasion and the Rise of Intolerance

Civil discourse is dying. Reasoned persuasion is largely absent from politics and from almost any part of the media. "Debate" has degenerated into sound bites and name calling, with the "winner" determined based on the best zinger rather than a clearly reasoned argument. Those making controversial statements are often quickly denounced, vilified, and labeled with epithets that would formerly have been reserved for true criminals.

Why does it matter? It matters because it signals a decline in the quality of thought and reasoning. We live in complicated times with problems that often require complicated solutions. It is difficult to get to a solution by shouting over or at each other. 

It also matters because it leads to polarization. It is hard to remember a time in which our political parties and elected leaders have been so divided for so long. I trace the current division back to the Bush/Gore election of 2000, and, if this is correct, it means that the current period of polarization has lasted for a full 13 years, punctuated only by a brief period of respite after the 9/11 tragedy. Polarization means that nothing gets accomplished, or, if one party is completely in power, legislation gets passed without bipartisan support, which inevitably leads to more polarization.

What are the causes? The causes are complex, and are necessarily rooted in philosophical differences between the left and the right. But there have always been differences, and those differences do not in themselves explain why the quality of discourse has substantially declined while the shrillness has monumentally increased. Although there are undoubtedly many reasons, here are a few somewhat random thoughts on why this is the case.

  • Cable news and the sound bite. Time constraints, commercial interruptions, and perhaps simply a change in journalistic approach mean that in-depth reporting is simply not in vogue. Instead, the quick quip, sound bite or talking point has reigned for many years with pundits aggressively trying to top each other. Both Fox and CNN claim to present "debates," but they almost always devolve into disrespectful shouting matches where nothing intelligent is said.  This approach makes the cable network news almost unwatchable.
  •  Social media. In a very short period of time, a large portion of the population has begun receiving most of their information through Twitter or social media. It is pretty difficult to say anything really intelligent in 140 characters, much less engage in a meaningful discussion.
  • Anonymity. Anonymity is often an aspect of social media and talk radio. It is much easier to ridicule, threaten or demonize another person or another point of view when you do not have to stand up and take responsibility for it.
  • The decline of the newspaper industry. The newspaper industry is in a substantial state of decline. Many communities used to have two papers with differing editorial points of view. Now even larger cities tend to have only one paper, and many are a shadow of what they used to be. Declining advertising revenue means less reporting and less depth, and often the editorial quality suffers as well. Some papers have made the fundamental mistake of embracing a one-sided editorial policy which, in today's environment, is a surefire way of alienating about half of the potential readership.
  • Smart phones can make us dumb. The Blackberry, and then the iPhone and Android may each represent a technological advance, but they haven't done much to advance social interaction. On any campus, city street, or at any restaurant or pub, you can see people staring at their phone, utterly self-absorbed in playing a game or responding to a text. It is the height of irony that a device that was originally designed to let people talk to each other seems to have caused us to converse less. There is also no indication that "smart" phones help us think great thoughts.
  •  It's usually not better in writing. Much of our everyday communication is now reduced to writing in emails or texts. The result is that people, especially young people, do not talk to each other nearly as much as in the past. Learning conversational skills and how to read people is fundamental to having a robust and meaningful exchange of ideas. 
Are there any solutions? Quite frankly, I have no idea, and, on a macro level, there is little room for optimism. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and the extent of ignorance of basic political issues by the American populace is pretty astonishing. This ignorance tends to lead politicians -- always focused on retaining office -- to rely on even more sound bites and zingers. The only thing that is certain is that, if there is going to be any change, and that is a big "if," it will not happen overnight. Perhaps the best place to start is small. Here are a few modest ideas.
  • Tune out. The one thing television networks understand is ratings. The ratings of many cable networks are down substantially. Maybe at some point a network will actually try for balanced and meaningful programing on issues of national import (rather than the latest sensational murder trial) in which participants are allowed a reasonable amount of time to state their views, and are expected to respond in a civil and meaningful way. 
  • Read. Even with the decline of the newspaper industry, there are still lots of excellent sources for news. For example, for strongly differing editorial positions in business publications, the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are a good start. RSS feeds also allow the aggregation of news in "readers" such as Feedly. Unfortunately, Google pulled the plug on Google Reader earlier this year.
  • Converse. Make an effort actually to converse with your spouse, your co-workers, or your fellow students. It's not that hard; people have been doing it for thousands of years! A few suggestions to get you started: "What do you think about [name a subject]"? "Why?" "Do you think there is another side to that?"  
  • Think before you send that text or email. Would it be better to pick up the phone or even to talk face to face? You will almost certainly communicate more efficiently and you might even make a new friend.
  • Try not to react immediately. We live in a world where an immediate response or reaction is viewed as a norm, even though it rarely leads to anything positive. If someone says something you disagree with, instead of disagreeing, denouncing, or labeling, consider not responding at all. If some response seems necessary, consider asking "why do you think that?" If you disagree after the explanation, perhaps asking a question is a better approach instead of trying to win an argument. For example, instead of making a statement, asking whether "have you thought about [the other side]" may lead to a more meaningful discussion.
  • Be judicious with social media. Social media is here to stay. It can be fun and even useful. However, it is difficult to have a meaningful dialogue with 140 characters. And take responsibility for what you put out there. 
And this is the big one: Tolerance should not be reserved only for those who agree with you.  It would be a pretty boring world if there were no differences of opinion.