Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jonathan Foer: Moonwalking with Einstein

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The mind is a terrible thing to waste. Like anybody who cares half a bit about their writing, I try not to use that kind of cliched cliche, but in the case of the people that Joshua Foer meets and studies and describes and follows in "Moonwalking with Einstein," it's kind of an appropriate opening line. Ever heard of the "Memory Championship?" I hadn't until I read "Moonwalking." Or maybe I had, and I had forgotten it. Both things are almost equally possible.  Memory Championships are the Olympics of people with good memories, which everyone wants to have. The thing is, they're not the Olympics of people with good memories, they're the people  who have trained themselves how to remember (often useless) stuff and prove it in a variety of ways like memorizing decks of cards really fast or memorizing unpublished (and terrible) poems. Foer sees one of these contests and accepts an offer of a participant to train under him and enter the next contest. He wants to find out if, like the participants say, they really aren't any different from anyone else. And it turns out that they're not: they've learned how to use something called the "memory palace," and so they can remember things better than normal, when they want to. But when it comes to their memories, well, they're probably not any different than anyone else's.

Foer has written a must-read book that covers a lot of things, most of which I've already forgotten. This, I've learned, is normal as the average person can only keep seven things in their minds at once and I'm already half through my next book which is full of facts and figures. So why do we read if we're just going to forget it? That's a great question, which I never really thought about before, and just one of the ones Foer addresses. Before books were everywhere, memory was much more important and served a different purpose: you read a book in order to memorize it, and to "build an organizational scheme for accessing them." Books were written LIKETHISWITHALLOFTHE words strung together for pages and pages. It was very hard to read, let alone keep track of individual facts. You had to be very familiar with a text in order to understand it, since there was no table of contents, no index, no punctuation, no binding. Basically, you had to memorize the pre-book in order to read it. Foer gives the example of the Torah- you have to know what you're looking at. He gives the example of his Bar Mitzvah: "On the day I became a man, I was really just a parrot in a yarmulke." When the writing and the printed word advanced, Foer explains that you still might only see a book one time, since they were so rare. At this point, the point of reading was to memorize information. He calls this "intensive" reading as opposed to "extensive" reading, and it required memory. Now we read with breadth, but little depth. I used the index of "Moonwalking" to find that passage, and by the time I return the book to the library, I will have forgotten the majority of the book. In fact, I started writing book reviews on this blog to help me remember what I've written. Sixteenth century scholar Michel de Montaigne wrote that he started writing notes in the back of every book he read "to compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory." It seems to me that his memory was substantially better than mine, because he must have remembered which books he read in order to find those notes.

So this book was great.  And this is the first time that this is happened, but I'm considering buying this book even though I read the library version. Maybe it's because I wanted something to remind my external memory (read it and find out) or maybe it's because I now know I won't remember it unless I buy it and write something in the back of it.  But I've made a change to the blog. If you note under the Book cover, you can see that I've added a link to purchase this book. It's my little stand against Amazon, which is pretty much the evil empire. If you click that link, it will take you to Indiebound, which let's you shop at your local bookstore for any book you want. In this case, the link will take you straight to "Moonwalking," but if you click the icon on the upper right corner of the blog, you can just go to Indiebound.  You can then buy books at your bookstore. Or any bookstore, they'll ship to to you. You can support local businesses, you'll pay sales tax (which you won't at Amazon in most states) which will support your city and state, and you'll support authors and publishers who make more money when you pony up a few more dollars for a book.  You'll also make me feel less guilty if you a) do it or b) never mention this again- I feel a little slimy discussing money.  We'll all forget this in a few days, anyhow!

Year of the Bugs/12 Months of Bugs: Go Ask Alice

Week 4/Month 1: Go ask Alice So last year, during 52 Weeks of Dogs, I kept ending up with Mac and the sofafree. This year, I decided to do 52 weeks of sofafree. But I didn't want to disappoint Mac fans, so I've decided to do Mac AND sofafree shots once a month. Somehow this month was virtually sofafree-less, except for the week that it rained (always a strong time for sofafree) so it came down to today to find a sofafree.  And boy, was it worth it.

Of course this sofafree was directly next to the only car on the block, which happened to contain a man and a woman participating in illegal activity. Of course.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tyche Hendricks: The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport

The United States has an obsession with the border that seems to get bigger and badder every year.  Americans trot along, doing their thing, invoking the "American Dream" and the "melting pot" until any excuse comes along to point the finger at someone else: immigrants, like invasive germs, must be the cause of the problem. Borders, strong immune systems, must be built up to keep Them out.  In 1994, California passed Prop 187, which would have denied medical care and education to undocumented immigrants.  The economy sucked, Pete Wilson was doing a pretty poor job at governing, and the boom hadn't taken off.  Immigrants were an easy target.  After 9/11,  not only did the government shove aside civil liberties and start wars around the world, beefing up the border now had a plausible sounding excuse: the people who want to hurt "us" might get in! And worse, with another economic downturn, the political timing was right to play off of fears of "them" stealing "our" jobs.  At the beginning of the Bush administration, according to Tyche Hendricks, there were 78 miles of pedestrian fence and 57 miles of vehicle fence along the border. In 2006, George Bush signed the "Secure Fence Act," which led to the construction of almost six hundred miles of fencing. (Note: President Obama did not stop the construction of the fence, and I believe all 670 miles of it have been completed. He has frozen funds for the "virtual fence," which is only a small blessing.)

The problem with this way of thinking is that it's all about a line, sometimes literally in the sand. Tyche Hendricks has written a beautiful book with a terrible title that convincingly argues for thinking about much wider view of the border: a region that includes not just the tiny patch underneath the fence, but also the huge area that comprise the border states, and in fact, both countries that have created and continue to shape the issues Americans are so obsessed with. Hendricks works from the Eastern-most part of the border in Texas to the Western-most part in California, and in each chapter she focuses on a border-straddling community, and deals with a border-straddling issue: environmental issues, education, jobs, health care, etc. The people who live on the border, or more accurately, in the border region, understand this concept, but for the rest of us, Hendricks brings the point home.

Pictured below is one of the places she describes, Friendship Park in Tijuana, a park that straddles Mexico and California. The photographer, Steev Hise, has captured people celebrating communion through a metal fence.  Previously the park had a shorter, more permeable fence where food could be passed and hands could be held.  Simple, everyday rituals like this are bifurcated and rendered tragic by the US/Mexico border policy. As Hendricks writes, "In a United States fraught by national security concerns, the fence became a physical display that the government was protecting its citizens from foreign dangers and unauthorized interlopers.  That's one way of conceptualizing the border: strengthening its capacity to divide."

the body and the blood at the border

(photo used under creative commons license)

It's an unfortunate way to conceptualize the border, and one likely to continue to lead to the militarization of Mexico and of the border itself, of vast sums of money and lives wasted on the "war on drugs." Hendricks sums it up: "An attempt to partition the borderlands, to wall ourselves off, is unlikely to succeed." It hasn't succeeded in other countries, and it runs contrary to what America prides itself on: the mythology of Ellis Island and of immigrants coming to this country and Making It.  "The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport" breaks this down into much more detail, and presents solutions that are meaningful, should the government ever decide to look at alternatives to militarization, racism, and exploitative labor.  This is a must read.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Anne Lammott: Imperfect Birds

Oh, Anne, oh Rosie- how I loved you. In fact, fiction, how I loved you! It seems my fiction days are numbered. (I think I've dwelled on this before, but I've also dwelled on the numbering of my memory days, so I'll skip that one for now.) I'm going to blame my total dislike of this book on my falling out with fiction as the previous two "Rosie" books were some of my historical favorites. This book was so hard to read, so hard to engage with that I seriously considered putting it down, even as I kept reading it in the hopes of redemption. Both mom, Elizabeth, and daughter, Rosie, had gotten so lost in themselves that they were unlikeable: sure, Rosie is supposed to be unlikeable as a teenager, that's the plot, and Elizabeth is supposed to be a troubled, angsty, self-absorbed mother, but this is over the top. How many times can we hear that people love to look at Rosie, as if her beauty is enough to make us like her? How many times can we watch Rosie drowning in drugs and hear about Elizabeth's struggles to stay sober without Anne Lamott coming in and make the obvious, even necessary, plot adjustment: drug issues clearly have family- nurture and nature- components. Is Elizabeth really that much of a straw character- the dysfunctional stay at home, unable-to-use-the internet mom- that she can't even get out of her denial long enough to even stage a cliche intervention?

Rosie and Elizabeth are underdeveloped as characters: maybe if the books (this is the third in a trilogy) were read back to back the book would work, but it doesn't stand alone, and the last book was 13 years ago. Anyone else got a better memory than me? (Oh, everyone does, but not that good!) The book stumbles along with mini-crisis after mini-crisis: Rosie is a spoiled brat with a burgeoning drug problem, and Elizabeth and husband James deal with it over and over and over and over and over until the last ten pages of the book when they Deal With It in the most anti-climactic and overdue climax of, well, any fiction book I've read in awhile. I'm not sure why I feel so let down, but I feel so let down.

The Year of the Bugs: How Red is Your Sofafree?


Friday, January 13, 2012

Hal Niedzviecki: The Peep Diaries

It is very possible that Hal Niedzviecki has ruined blogging for me. I'm certain that this wasn't his attention, but "The Peep Diaries" makes online sharing out to be a sordid, if necessary and inevitable modern pastime. Niedzviecki's "Peep" is "a rapidly emerging phenomenon, a cultural movement steeped in and made possible by technological change" that stems from our contradictory need for more privacy- bigger houses, bigger fences, more space- and the need to share everything about ourselves and have people care about what we share- facebook, twitter, reality TV about "regular" people. Blogging is just one example of this: we put ourselves out there because we need to be heard and recognized as unique individuals. Successful bloggers have readers who depend on their bloggers for a sense of community: they turn to the blog for a reflection of their own quirks, for entertainment, for "peep." So until I read "The Peep Diaries," I thought of blogging as a creative outlet: I've always liked writing and writing helped me straighten out my thoughts. I have a "voice" for personal thoughts and a "voice" for public thoughts. I've always kind of written in my head- figured out what I would write, as opposed to what I would say, and blogging is the modern version of that. I don't read the visitor metrics of my blog very often to see who's actually reading the blog, though it is nice when those in my online circle leave comments, especially provocative ones, and my dad is very good about replying to each post. 

But Hiedzviecki called me out: in peep, we blog for a sense of personal community, to create a virtual identity, a brand, a "person-product," as he calls it. To you, I am "themacinator." Am I disguising my identity, as I believe I am, or subconsciously am I creating a persona, an identity, "an entertainment product [that gives me the] power to invent a new person- the person you think you should be, as opposed to the person you actually are"? Readers of this blog know what I chose to put out there (duh)- they've compiled some kind of image of someone who reads a bunch of eclectic nonfiction titles, has a pit bull, is obsessed with the pit bull, takes photographs in a fairly mediocre but semi-serious way, is quirky, is involved with animal welfare and loves Oakland. But is that it? Perhaps I'm a psychokiller or something entirely more reasonable, maybe I actually have another dog that I don't talk about. Maybe I have a kid. I let out bits and pieces of my private life- Hiedzviecki would have you know that I do this both in a need for community and at my own risk: we don't know who is reading our online information for one thing, and for another it is most certain that google and other search engines and third party applications are, and that they're making money from them. I know this, and yet I continue to throw out information, including the benign stuff (photography, pit bull, Oakland), and tag my posts, making them even more accessible.

This is part of "peep": we know we're being surveilled (?), we seek it out in the name of safety, but we only want it on our terms. We want to watch people, and to some extent we want to be watched. But we don't want those same search engines to sell our stuff. Like Eli Pariser argues in "The Filter Bubble," we like the ease that comes with online surveillance: we get the results we want, more quickly. We also like the alleged safety we get from the millions of surveillance cameras we have installed everywhere, in public and private space, including in our own homes. As an incredible and heartbreaking example of the pervasive and uselessness of cameras, the Columbine incident was recorded on CCTV. The video cameras did not save fifteen deaths. I'm reminded of the recent murder of a young boy in Oakland at the scene of a rap video: the suspects were caught on multiple cell phone videos but remain unidentified. We document everything, but unless we're watching a show about crime on TV, we do it just for the "peep" of it all.

Niedzviecki doesn't offer any answers, though he offers plenty to be concerned about. His book is a good argument for de-facing yourself (I patted myself on the back for not being on Facebook, and for using twitter for a discussion board, rather than as a diary), but he doesn't do much besides say "this is the way of the future, but be careful!" He decides at the end that he won't put anything online about his daughter, and let her decide what her online persona will be. To me, this seems like a given, but I see that it is not: flickr is full of fabulous photographers who have shared their children with me, and I love watching them grow up. But will they love looking back at themselves age in a "virtual community?" He offers no alternative to inevitable online breaches of privacy: it's clear that we don't care enough about our privacy, and in fact welcome it when it's convenient, but Niedziecki falls far short of providing any sort of prescriptions for what we can do to avoid this. For example, my bank has recently required me to receive e-statements, or pay per statement. Of course I understand the rationale for this- cost, environment, etc- but I am also aware of what I am giving up. I have lost the option to control my information online. According to one study, "if every American actually stopped to read the privacy policy of every Web site they visited for a year, it would take them an annual average of 200 hours, or almost eight and a half entire days of fine-print peering." So, Hal? What do we do? If, as he argues (and I would argue against), "peep" friendships don't translate into "real" friendships, should we just call the whole thing off?  

I'm going to keep blogging.