Archive | January, 2012

Run: a book recommendation

30 Jan

Thanks to my friend HN for recommending and loaning Run by Ann Patchett to me.

It’s an easy, compelling read, carrying you along on a current of solid storytelling, with ample moments for lazy eddying:

Patchett describes one of the protagonists in his childhood as “the kind of kid who could hang from your neck and still maintain a critical distance.” Wow, right?

But I’ll make my case with this passage…

For context, a young, working class girl is waking up after spending the night in the house of a wealthy white family and notices the light:

“She could do nothing but take in the light. It had never occurred to her before that all the places she had slept in her life had been dark, that her own apartment had never seen a minute of this kind of sun. Even in the middle of the day, every corner hung tight to its shadows and spread a dimness over the ceiling and walls. Draw the curtains back as far as they could possibly go and still the light seemed to skim just in front of the window without ever falling inside… [Yet e]very bit of her was straight and strong and beautiful in this light [in this house]. She glowed. She felt it pouring into her and yet she could tell by her skin, which looked so ashy most mornings where she lived, that it was pouring out of her as well. It was just like the leaves they had studied in science class. She was caught in an act of photosynthesis… She wondered if there wasn’t some way that light was divided and somehow, even though it didn’t seem logical, more of it wound up in better neighborhoods.”

I repeat: Wow, right?

Patchett manages to say so much through this adolescent child’s visceral experience (as opposed to a socio-philosophical musings or political perspective) about the difference socioeconomic status makes.

It strikes me that it is logical that more light winds up in the homes of pricier neighborhoods: an acquaintance who is a building contractor described to me a typical call from one of his clients (for whom he built a $50 million home). She was upset about the custom-designed, automatic window opener in her shower not working quite the way she had envisioned.

While this is (I can only assume) an outlier example, it illustrates the design privileges that money can buy: lighter, airier homes in which children can feel both the external, and their internal, glow.

So let me simply say: I am inspired by Patchett’s ability to write artfully, movingly and realistically about social identities and how they really matter to our daily experiences, relationships and potential to thrive. And I recommend the book to you. Let me know what you think.

Saturday quote

28 Jan

“Tolerance and understanding won’t ‘trickle down’ in our society any more than wealth does.”

—Muhammad Ali

Why do you ask?

25 Jan

Philip Galanes, New York Times advice columnist, was on NPR’s Fresh Air way back 🙂 in 2011 (http://www.npr.org/2011/12/05/142718547/times-advice-guru-answers-your-social-qs) and caught my attention when he addressed the topic of how to respond to questions, like: “How did [your father kill himself]? or “You’re 45 and you haven’t had children yet, why?”

Galanes, whose father committed suicide (and who, as a 45-year-old gay man in a committed relationship, doesn’t have children), is a veteran of this sort of question, which he suggests gets posed because the person asking is “just thoughtless.”

I thought that was a pretty unapologetic and apt way to put it. Upon hearing the news that Galanes’ father killed himself, you might experience a quiet internal panic, from which your usually reliable banter has fled. You might feel empty of words or any other way to connect.

But that’s after hearing the news. 

I think people ask all sorts of intrusive questions because they are full of thought, rather than devoid of it: we ask “why” and “why not” questions (Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you buy a house while interest rates are down?) in particular because we are full of thoughts about the ways things should be.

We’re full of bias: stories about what’s “normal” that give us license to question anything different. But as someone who has been on both sides of the “why” and knows that sometimes it’s even easier to be thoughtless when I choose the norm, I like to try to mix it up and ask myself and others why we do the things we (of course) do:

  • Why did I get married?
  • Why do you want children?
  • How might my parents die? Because, eventually they will, even if I don’t like to think about it.

So if you have the time, listen to Galanes’ “Fresh Air” interview or peruse his column “Social Q’s” in the Times (http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/features/style/fashionandstyle/columns/social_qs/index.html).

And ask yourself or someone else an unexpected question about something totally “normal” today.

“Are We Born Racist?” a blog recommendation

23 Jan

Today, I’d like to recommend another blog, written by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, whom I met at the Facebook/TedX conference on compassion last month.

Rudy is an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, and co-director of the university’s Relationships and Social Cognition Laboratory. His research on prejudice, stigma, intergroup relations and cross-race friendships really resonates with me: we both start from a premise of diversity in applying social theory to human behavior.

Please do check out Rudy’s blog:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/are-we-born-racist

And if you’re really interested, he has co-authored a book by the same name.

Saturday quote

21 Jan

“Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass-you don’t see it, but somehow it does something.”

—Hans Magnus Enzensberger, poet

That algorithm is so heterosexist!

19 Jan

It’s no longer about trendy. It’s about trending.

As far as I can tell, “trending” means becoming popular at supersonic speeds among a mass of people. It’s a measure of what’s hot right now. Or at least, it’s supposed to be.

In “How Twitter’s Trending Algorithm Picks Its Topics” (http://m.npr.org/news/front/143013503), Laura Sydell of NPR reveals that math is not always as objective as we trust it to be. An algorithm (again, as far as I can tell) is a set of rules by which you crunch data to purportedly get a reliable answer. Cool.

So how was it that Twitter’s algorithm missed #OccupyWallStreet in late November-early December of 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests?

“There had been thousands of tweets for Occupy Wall Street regularly over many weeks, so Twitter’s algorithms stopped putting it on the trending topics list. In some ways, Twitter’s algorithms act like a lot of human news editors who are more interested in the latest news than an ongoing story, says Tarleton Gillespie, a communications professor at Cornell University.”

So not only are these rules made by human beings and thus susceptible to error like human beings… they make human being-type calls, like: I’m so over Occupy Wall Street.

And algorithms don’t just get bored–they get biased. Check out what happened over at Amazon when it set up an algorithm to calculate its best-seller list:

“Naively, you would say, ‘Well, the most-selling book is No. 1 and the second-selling book is No. 2,'” Gillespie says.

But a couple of years ago, there was a dust-up because all the gay-themed books disappeared from the list. It turns out that Amazon doesn’t let any adult books in its best-sellers, and someone accidentally put the gay-themed books in that category.

“It’s a curated list,” Gillespie says. “It’s a list that will never show us if something that they or their publishers had classified as adult would ever show up there.”

While on one level, we’re just talking about books and tweets, on another, we’re talking about public opinion and what people understand to be not just “hot,” but more fundamentally: relevant, worthwhile and acceptable to engage. LGBTTQQ lit’s absence from Amazon’s best-seller list inadvertently contributes to a consciousness that suggests non-heterosexual people, experiences, identities and cultures are not acceptable for mainstream consumption or conversation; whereas seeing LGBTTQQ books on that list provides the general public with more exposure to diverse sexualities as just a regular part of our everyday lives, on and off-line. More people end up talking about and purchasing the books, and perhaps heterosexism as a social norm takes one step back.

Of course, maybe the presence of LGBTTQQ lit on the best-seller list stirs up controversy, but that, too, helps us engage and reckon with our personal and social biases. 

If you’re not dependent on Amazon for your book choices or hungry to follow what’s trending on Twitter, you may still be experiencing the effects of biased algorithms. As Sydell concludes, “Everything from restaurant reviews to your friend’s baby pictures to your local news is getting served up to you by an algorithm. As much as programmers may think their algorithms will deliver objective results, those calculations may be just as biased as a real human being.”

Good thing we still have human beings around to notice the biases we, and our math, have.

A movie recommendation on MLK, Jr. Day

16 Jan

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen this movie, but here’s what I know…

Red Tails is about the Tuskegee Airmen, aka the Red Tails, who were the first African-American aviators in US military history. In a military that believed, in the words of WWII Army Air Forces General Henry Arnold, that “Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation,” the segregated fighter group trained and flew with distinction.  According to producer George Lucas, “The Tuskegee Airmen were such superb pilots… They were only in their early 20[‘]s when they performed these amazing feats. They became the best of the best—the top guns.”

This film interests me for its story and for the backstory of how it got made. According to The Root, in an interview with two of the film’s stars:

After being rejected by all seven major Hollywood studios, Lucas decided to pump his own money into producing and promoting Red Tails. “He put his entire career on the line and stood behind these black — these American — pilots,” [actor Terrence] Howard said. “[He] put $58 million into making this movie. And when they said, ‘We don’t know how to market [this film],’ he put [up] another $38 million to distribute it.”

Gooding, who also starred in the 1995 HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen, believes that Lucas’ conceptual approach to depicting the legacy of the Airmen is what differentiates Red Tails from previous films about the black World War II pilots.

“This movie is about the spectacle, about the ability of these pilots,” he said. “During a meeting with businessmen, George Lucas said, ‘I didn’t make this movie for black people; I made this movie for teenage boys'” (http://www.theroot.com/views/cuba-gooding-jr-terrence-howard-laud-airmen?page=0,1).

… Maybe that last thought put you off a little (I’m not exactly the teenage boy demographic myself 🙂 but here’s a clip if you’re still interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpA6TC0T_Lw

With that, and on recommendation of two friends who have seen the film, I encourage you to check out Red Tails when it opens this Friday.

And peace to you on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

* Thanks to BB and JW for the movie rec.