Monday, November 30, 2015

The Brothers Grimm Visit Deepest America

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 62
Diane Wolkstein, The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales

Modern Euro-American scholars like Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan unabashedly regard written and visual communications as normal in modern society, and oral communications as “vestigial,” in Ong’s terminology. Storytelling, once the chief means of conveying history and public morals (see Maria Tatar), is regarded as a lingering remnant, like your tailbone or your appendix. But what about societies where literacy remains rare? Do such societies not count?

Acclaimed folklorist, storyteller, and one-woman Broadway performer Diane Wolkstein took her tape recorder to rural Haiti in the late 1970s, hoping to catch the sounds of the countryside’s legendary storytellers. Even back then these modern bards were endangered, squeezed by American television and radio. But while electricity remained (and remains) a scarce resource in upland Haiti, these oral storytellers remain an integral part of Haitian community life.

Wolkstein recounts, not just the stories themselves, but how she came to collect them. Being usually the only white face among the ebon-hued Haitian crowd, she witnessed not only the energetic, theatrical raconteurs themselves, but the ecstatic audience that surrounded them. Brought together by markets, pot-luck dinners, and street dances, the crowds shared a true communal experience. Here the old pre-Gutenberg community ethic doesn’t just survive, it thrives.

Some stories she collected, Wolkstein writes, have clear precedents in printed literature. She notes how some stories are clearly retold from the Brothers Grimm, African folktales, and elsewhere. However, other stories are clearly original to Haiti’s impoverished, war-torn, pre-literate social structure. Our society has grown accustomed to fairy tales as either ancient artifacts, or products of single authors; Wolkstein presents new-to-us stories written by an entire culture.

Diane Wolkstein
The twenty-seven stories Wolkstein collects here reflect a uniquely Haitian perspective. “Papa God and General Death” describes a peasant meeting the two most important forces in Haitian life, religion and mortality. (Wolkstein visited during Baby-Doc Duvalier’s reign.) “I’m Tipingee” features a young heroine proving her resilience in a culture where children, until they’re old enough to work, are mere baggage. An American wouldn’t write such harsh but insightful stories.

And Americans probably couldn’t write stories as transcendent as “Bye-Bye.” An allegory of emigration, it reflects a society whose highest aspiration is to leave everything behind and start over. Yet in many ways, this story feels remarkably familiar to modern Americans. Like apocalyptic End Times superstitions, it contrasts the virtuous few able to leave Earth and fly to Heaven (depicted here as New York), with the struggling many Left Behind.

These stories have definite religious components. “Papa God” is a recurrent, and humanly fallible, character. Spirits, ancestors, and magic permeate these tales. But beyond personal faith, the religion arises from the stories themselves. By bringing people together in mass gatherings, speaking aloud their moral values, and bonding them together against oppressive regimes, these stories embody the bond-building goals Émile Durkheim identified as rudimentary to the human religious experience.

By the author's own admission, these stories weren't necessarily the best-told she encountered while researching folk tales in Haiti. Haitian storytelling relies on voice, gesture, stage presence. The flat page lacks the beauty of the oral tale, and some of these stories may have been a little weak in the telling; but on the page they reveal a great deal about Haiti, and are a fascinating read besides.

Folk tales reveal a great deal about a culture-what it values, how members of the society relate, what their beliefs are. These tales do exactly that. While they aren't as clear-cut, with a defined beginning, middle, and end, as American readers have become accustomed to, they do give away a great detail about Haiti. Life is unfinished; hardship is to be embraced and studied; the spirit world is right here at hand, not a million miles away above the clouds.

I had the privilege of corresponding briefly with Diane Wolkstein briefly, before her sudden passing in 2013. Though an inveterate world traveler and seasoned folklorist, Wolkstein admitted Haiti and its stories had remarkable staying power with her. Stories like “The Magic Orange Tree” and “Mother of the Waters” remained staples of her live performance for thirty years. This book remains her best-selling work, for reasons eminently clear in her text.

Even on their own, these stories stand as a monument to the creative act and the power of the human intellect. These stories will infect your head like a virus, spreading and replicating, until you have to pass them on. Read them casually, and you will be enlightened. Study them seriously, and you may be transformed.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Who Is This Wendy Corsi Staub Person Anyway?

Wendy Corsi Staub, The Perfect Stranger and Nine Lives: A Lily Dale Mystery

Months ago, I reviewed Wendy Corsi Staub’s thriller Blood Red, an interesting premise that descended into wordy, over-written excess. I considered Staub an interesting writer who desperately needed an editor, and forgot her. Recently, however, I’ve discovered she’s actually a bestseller who writes with James Patterson-like bounty. So I agreed to reconsider Staub, and accepted two review novels. Now I’m even more confused. Let’s start with The Perfect Stranger.

I knew I was probably facing a difficult slog with this novel in Chapter One, one character took three pages to descend a staircase. Not because she was slow-moving, or descending from the highest tower, but because author Staub kept intruding long expository recollections between steps. That set the tone for this entire novel: it’s difficult to make even incremental progress, because even minor actions trigger rambling recollections.

In today’s networked age, local actions have potentially global circumstances. Meredith Heywood is the unofficial mother hen of a blogger’s circle, comprised entirely of breast cancer patients and survivors. These women have built a transnational friendship, without bothering to meet, or in some cases to learn one another’s real names. So Meredith’s death prompts their first-ever meeting, at her funeral. Too bad Meredith was actually murdered.

Wendy Corsi Staub
Staub crafts a massive ensemble for a modernized, tech-friendly rendition of a classic Agatha Christie locked-room mystery. At its heart, the women bloggers have deep connections which they’ve shared only online. They believe they know one another intensely, but with passing scenes, it transpires that each keeps deep secrets they don’t divulge digitally. One of these friends has mysterious motives. And now they’re all in danger.

But upon this intriguing premise, Staub has layered countless, disjointed internal monologues. Every character has a backstory, expounded interminably, whether they advance the story or not. The cast of thousands each get their own moments, to the detriment of pacing. Single conversations challenge readers’ patience, because between successive exchanges, Staub inserts Proustian recollections, sometimes pages long. The promised mystery never quite begins, because these recollections never quite cease.

I wanted to enjoy this book, but Staub wouldn’t let me. In today’s media-saturated age, authors realistically get about thirty pages to engage readers’ attention in books this long; but well past page 100, Staub still indulges in chugging expository scene-setting. The narrow thematic focus prevents this being a Jane Austen-ish character novel, but Staub’s interminable narration doesn’t let it be a mystery. I tried, but I just got bored.

Though different in premise and character, Perfect Stranger suffered the basic limitations that burdened Blood Red: too much writer, not enough story. Somebody once said, exceptionally prolific writers basically tell the same story time and again. Consider Stephen King. I basically wrote Staub off as a niche author, and prepared to forget her. But she surprised me, and made me reëxamine my prejudices, with her most recent character mystery, Nine Lives.

Newly widowed, unemployed, and evicted, Bella Jordan packs her son Max and whatever she can carry. She intends to crash with her mother-in-law; but car trouble and a needy stray cat divert her to Lily Dale, New York, home of America’s (very real-world) largest table-tapping community and séance resort. A town whose local innkeeper was recently murdered, giving Bella and Max a job, a house, and a mystery to solve.

Staub, who has already written a series of young-adult mysteries set in Lily Dale, now revisits the milieu for adults. Though pitched as a mystery novel, Staub actually offers a charming, low-key character drama with components, which become driving only relatively late. She provides readers with her familiar viewpoint character, the youngish wife with burdens, and basically permits Bella to interact with her interesting, tormented setting.

Bella adjusts, first grudgingly, then warmly, to her new surroundings. Max bonds with his cat, makes friends, and demonstrates budding psychic tendencies. Bella becomes an ardent innkeeper, befriending Lily Dale’s eccentric supernatural community and its resulting tourists. But she also glimpses increasing evidence that the prior innkeeper, whose death everyone calls accidental, actually met foul play. (Can psychics get ambushed?) She dons her Miss Marple had and investigates.

This hardcover original from a usually straight-to-paperback author is undoubtedly the best Staub I’ve read. It suffers her usual weakness, very long expository scenes, but never feels sluggish or overstuffed. She reveals backstory whenever it’s needed, keeps herself (relatively) concise, and simply tells an interesting story. Though this book works better as character drama than noir thriller, it’s nevertheless engaging reading. Now I understand why readers love Staub.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Moral Failure of Basic Political Rectitude

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this week, demanding that incoming Syrian war refugees be admitted to America only upon the personal signature of the heads of three—three—security agencies, American politics crossed a line for me. A country that has historically prided itself on its “melting pot” ideology and Ellis Island heritage, has declared itself closed for the global relief business. Unless that business involves dropping bombs.

But the entire country isn’t refusing refugees. The House, which enjoys (if that’s the word) a near-supermajority of Republican control, doesn’t want refugees; President Obama, a Democrat, does. Of the thirty state governors who have refused or restricted refugee access, only one, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, is a Democrat. On a county-by-county basis, popular willingness to accept refugees tracks positively with party affiliation.

One party in American politics, and only one, wants to isolate America from the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust. History will not look kindly upon us for this.

Not that Democrats have proven themselves real forward thinkers here, either. President Obama wants to accept ten thousand refugees from a crisis that has displaced four million people. That’s a drop in the bucket. By contrast, Germany, a country GK Chesterton once called “the advance guard of the Servile State,” has already accepted over 200,000 refugees. While Republicans dither, and Democrats make nodding efforts, Syrians are dying to escape fates worse than death.

A former Republican myself, I quit the party, among other reasons, because I couldn’t reconcile its stated “pro-life” platform with its actual policies. Though aggressively opposed to abortion, the party has staunchly avoided even the most trivial public contributions to prenatal medical care, and has actively tried to kill AFDC, WIC, and Food Stamps for struggling parents. Current Republican presidential candidates want to kill public education. Within the last decade, we fought an unnecessary war estimated to have killed over 600,000 non-combatant civilians.

What the hell kind of “life” are they advocating?

I ask that, already knowing the answer. By torpedoing worker protections, demonizing women’s health access, opposing an increasingly popular healthcare law, and demanding military action against civilian centers without opening doors to the displaced, they don’t advocate life at all. Their anti-abortion stance is essentially a strategic bribe to purchase loyalty from religious conservatives, who would otherwise oppose their agnostic libertarian agenda.

The Republican Party has gotten good at talking the religious game. They’ve shepherded former pastors, like John Danforth and Mike Huckabee, into elected office. They’ve embraced the “War on Christmas” metaphor. They hold hands with tubthumpers who use their authority to selectively deny civil and legal rights. Their rhetoric is perforated with religious terminology. But it’s completely lacking in ethical foundation.

Many Christians today feel uncomfortable with the idea of a benevolent God who will nevertheless judge us for our actions. But it’s right there in the Bible. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus explicitly separates sinners from the redeemed based on their treatment of “the least of these”: the poor, hungry, naked, widowed, and sick. We’ll be judged by what we do for humanity’s most maltreated, not for avoiding saying “fuck” on television. When religious poseurs use state power to exclude dying refugees, they fail the most basic religious test.

Admittedly, Democrats perform hardly better. Bill Clinton pledged “the end of welfare as we know it” not, as Hillary now claims, as a sop to Republicans during his presidency, but as a campaign pledge during his underdog primary run. Consequently, journalist Matt Taibbi writes, America’s most desperate citizens face more rigorous scrutiny than the banks who detonated America’s economy in 2007 and 2008. President Obama, with his airstrikes on an MSF hospital, recently became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to bomb another Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Country singer Hank Williams, Jr., is frequently noted for his unreconstructed reactionary values. This has included naked race-baiting, advocating secession, and comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler. But back in the 1980s, he recorded a song entitled “USA Today,” the refrain of which should remind conservatives, like himself, why we cannot shutter our borders during this massive humanitarian crisis:
It's true we've got our problems, Lord knows we make mistakes
And every time we solve one, ten others take its place
But you won't see those refugees headin' the other way
Welcome to the U.S.A. today
Here’s hoping America’s leaders remember this sentiment when it comes time to open or close our borders to Earth’s neediest peoples.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love Math

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 61
Paul Lockhart, A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form

I find myself in the awkward position of arguing against a book I admire, because Paul Lockhart sells himself short in this remarkable book. First, Lockhart thinks he's identified a problem unique to current mathematics education, when he's actually identified schooling's primary flaw. Second, he thinks we shouldn't teach math as "merely useful," when it's profoundly useful, just not in the way math textbook authors commonly think.

Lockhart believes (and I agree) that the current focus on rote memorization, "skillz drillz," and repetitive exercises causes students to falsely believe math is a heap of formulae in a vacuum. He expertly dismantles how math is taught while demonstrating the discipline's true, dynamic nature. To Lockhart, mathematics should foster inquiry and a curious, question-driven mindset that then pursues answers. Math teaches how to face challenges without road maps.

But on page 40, Lockhart asks: "What other subject shuns its primary sources—beautiful works of art by some of the most creative minds in history—in favor of third-rate textbook bastardizations?" Would Lockhart like me to start a list? I could do it alphabetically. Historian James Loewen and literature professor Gerald Graff have voiced the same complaints in their fields. Discouragement of inquiry is endemic throughout education today.

Reading Lockhart's demonstrations of popular mathematical concepts, I was struck by how seemingly complex concepts suddenly appeared both clear and welcoming. I remembered the difference between my undergraduate education, which favored memorization and regurgitation, and graduate school, which encouraged individual discovery and growth. But why must I or anyone wait for grad school before unlocking the truth for ourselves?

A Renaissance woodcut depicting Euclid,
the father of plane geometry
Some of Lockhart's critics say that math should focus on memorized formulae, because knowledge is cumulative, and few students can savvy higher math without a comprehensive foundation. But how many want or need higher math? As a student of mine said, she'll never need to factor polynomials in real life. No, we don't study math for its perceived utility. But that's not to say that math isn't useful.

Lockhart's eloquent, graceful proofs demonstrate a mind which faces questions that lack explicit answers, and then pursues those answers. This process of investigation is necessary in a world where clear-cut options are few on the ground. Too many graduates, facing adult life, stumble when they find that work and family aren't closed cases. These habits of investigation and inquiry are useful inasmuch as life offers more questions than answers.

In the six years since I first read this book, American education reformers have addressed some of this book’s concern by widening the selection of learning heuristics children learn. Though old fogies like me have mocked Common Core’s alternate learning patterns for being different than what we learned, I’ve come to appreciate the mindset behind the differing patterns. Teaching children diverse ways to approach common problems with systematic rigor.

Sadly, Common Core functionally repeats math education’s underlying flaw, because no matter how many heuristics children learn, they still reduce learning to rote memorization. Lockhart, in this book, concedes that sometimes we must give struggling children correct answers on a silver platter. And arithmetic, often, is best learned by mimicry. But higher math, as Lockhart asserts, is more than a repetitive skill. It’s a true, and underappreciated, art form.

More than that, math is a simple joy. Edward de Bono writes that many people, confronted with new ideas that upset their preconceived notions, respond with laughter. Laughing is our human response to having our eyes opened, our minds widened. I never understood what that meant until I read this book. Lockhart incorporates several exercises from Euclidean geometry to open our thinking to math’s higher influences, and while reading, I repeatedly laughed like a madman.

Math is useful and desirable because it opens doors of thought. Too much of school appears closed to debate, but real life forces us to ask questions that don't have answers. People who aren't equipped to face such questions take on adult roles without their most valuable tools. Whether it's math or science or art or business, we must learn to face questions, weigh possibilities, and seek that "Eureka" moment.

Often, people who would dominate us seek to create the false impression that sophisticated questions can be solved as simply as textbook exercises. Appropriate education, including an introduction to math, should teach us not to plug memorized answers into dynamic, changing questions. Math teaches us that each question opens new answers, and, like all disciplines should, invites us to learn how to ask and investigate for ourselves.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Francis Bacon in the Empire of Indulgence

Janice Law, Moon over Tangier

Francis Bacon has grown bored and lovelorn in London. No, not that Francis Bacon, the other one: the Anglo-Irish figurative painter whose tortured, distorted human forms revolutionized postwar British art. So he follows his paramour and sometime torturer David to colonial Morocco, a paradise of anonymous sex and late imperial exoticism. Once in Tangier, however, he finds a warren of crime, including a mysterious murder tied to local art forgery.

Though this is American novelist Janice Law’s third, and reputedly final, “Francis Bacon Mystery,” the book itself is functionally freestanding. It doesn’t require any particular familiarity with prior novels, or Francis Bacon, or art generally, to grasp Law’s narrative of cruel romance, venal empire, and postwar chicanery. Though marketed as a mystery, Law essentially crafts a tale of character and circumstance, which just coincidentally involves fraud and murder.

Bacon simply wants to drink copiously and romance as many Moroccan “beach boys” as limited time and money allow. When one prominently flamboyant party host’s newly purchased Picasso proves forged, however, the local constable blackmails Francis into joining the investigation. Seems they have a blank warrant for David’s arrest, which they’ll sign if he doesn’t comply. Thus Francis becomes an unwilling, but entirely too proficient, art counterfeiter.

Janice Law
When it appears everybody lies about this deeply conflicted case, nobody appears particularly surprised, except perhaps Francis himself. The police have political motivations that don’t involve aestheticism or intellectual property. The party host proves remarkably duplicitous when the spotlight shines elsewhere. When Francis finds himself stalked by a suspiciously James Bond-like agent of the British Legation, he realizes he’s stumbled into a case with truly international implications.

Tangier, in Law’s telling, has a familiar yet discordant ring. As a colonial capital, it catches every expatriate the European homeland doesn’t want to see. But unlike Bogart’s Casablanca, this African melting pot doesn’t catch diverse wartime refugees fleeing Naziism and generalized homeland oppression; Tangier caters specifically to sexual outcasts, the bon vivants and sybarites forced into exile from Continental homes where homosexuality remains wholly illegal.

David, the man who induced Bacon’s newfound expat status, is the consummate charming abuser. A masterful musician and storyteller when sober, a raconteur of wartime extravagance, his fondness for gin transforms him into a knife-wielding psychopath. Francis admits his fondness for “rough trade,” but also opens his narrative by fleeing into a hog barn overnight to avoid David’s homicidal wrath. The romance apparently flees rough trade pretty quickly.

One of Francis Bacon's iconic, and deeply
disturbing, Screaming Popes paintings
Yet Francis remains steadfastly willing to defend David, whose distant but amorous attentions combine mentor, lover, and big brother in equal, and equally terrifying, measures. The fact that neither Francis nor David remains particularly faithful reflects, not homosexuals’ innate moral corruption, but how pliable ethics become under circumstances of official oppression. As first-person narrator Francis explains, police often serve traumatic beat-downs to “beach boys” for sport.

Readers selecting this book for gripping mystery may find this book awkwardly slow-moving compared to contemporary thrillers. Law doesn’t expend energy on creating complex mental puzzles, and though she does well in concealing her culprit, she doesn’t particularly care about red herrings and other familiar tropes. For Law’s money, historic Tangier and its milieu of Crumbled Empire decadence holds more interest. This is mainly a historical novel and costume drama.

And what a historical novel. More literate critics than I have extolled Law’s scrupulous attention to detail. Where less meticulous authors have recently frustrated me for their willingness to compromise accuracy to create a better-selling paperback, Law creates a narrative for audiences who desire the more difficult journey. Like visiting a foreign land, one gets the feeling nothing here is sanitized for modern Anglo-American sentiments. Bacon’s Tangier is very dangerous.

This painstaking accuracy sometimes results in moments that make modern readers distinctly uncomfortable. Watching the revolutionary independence movement evolve from their rooftop divans, Bacon and David are sometimes prone to observations we’d call racist. And although I balk at modern complaints about “cultural appropriation,” Bacon’s tendency to regard Moroccan culture as a profligate shopping trip uncomfortably reduces African culture to a shopping mall. As imperial conquerors often do.

But these very uncomfortable moments contribute to the immediacy of Law’s narrative. As Bacon navigates Tangier’s difficult political byroads, we sympathize with him, while still realizing he’s a colonial asshole. We want him to win, but not too much. Where suit-clad Bogart represented a pre-war antihero model, Bacon epitomizes postwar moral collapse. His narrative is immersive, and perilous. And we emerge wondering: how much am I like these colonial taskmasters?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Marking a Trail Across the Digital Wilderness

Shlomo Benartzi with Jonah Lehrer, The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior

If you’ve ever felt adrift in today’s technological world, helpless amid infinite options, unable to make meaningful decisions in buying or reading or even just watching five hundred TV channels, you’re not alone. UCLA behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi has reliable scientific evidence demonstrating what perceptive people already know, that today’s online environment creates a panicked, lost-in-the-woods feeling in most people. Fortunately, wise engineering can reverse this paralyzing trend.

From its earliest origins, pro-Web enthusiasm has gushed over the Internet’s capacity to provide users more information, more choices, and more autonomy. It’s been the classic capitalist assertion, that simply having more options available flushes bad choices away and consolidates good choices. But anyone who’s shopped for consumer electronics online recently knows that simply having more choices isn’t good enough. Without guidance, increased options generate snap judgments, haste, and paralysis.

Benartzi himself has participated in new research demonstrating how screen users handle information overload. His conclusion, based on his own research and the published discoveries of his peers: human attention isn’t adapted for broad, undifferentiated knowledge dumps. (Anyone who’s read government reports recently knows this.) Wise information merchants going forward will need to make the digital screen conform to what Benartzi calls “the mental screen”—our attention capacity.

“It's not that screens are making us more superficial,” Benartzi writes. “Rather, the world of screens merely makes it easier for us to act on those superficial first impressions.” We gravitate toward first options, self-indulgence, and whatever’s placed in the center of the screen. When people order food digitally, Benartzi says (with generous scholarly evidence), we’re more likely to pick unhealthy options. When we get doused with a firehose of buying options, we pick familiar images, not good choices.

Shlomo Benartzi
Too often, Benartzi and his sources claim, humans rely upon facile heuristics to comprehend digital resources. (Anyone who’s read Daniel Kahneman already knows this, but Benartzi proves how this applies specifically to screens.) We think better when we enjoy instant feedback… until we become overwhelmed. We think in purely present-tense terms, unless prompted. Simple design tweaks can transform not only our experiences, but our thinking about those experiences.

Similar tweaks have the potential for abuse. Benartzi describes circumstances where unscrupulous operators have manipulated screen options to maximize unfair trades, and places where even worse abuse is possible. Some online vendors, for instance, have gotten caught spotlighting more expensive options on mobile devices than on computers, because apparently the smaller the screen, the smaller our attention to detail. Crooked vendors manipulate our impatience and forgetfulness for venal ends.

This tendency has remarkable ramifications. As America enters an election season, unprecedented numbers of voters will garner political opinions from articles read online. This seems innocent, except we don’t read well off screens. Benartzi writes: “screens allow us to read more than ever before, but they also encourage us to read poorly, and to remember less of what we read.” Screens encourage casual, unengaged, incomplete reading… and thinking.

Every fault Benartzi describes, though, has easy fixes. Some involve top-end design improvements. Counterintuitive as it seems, evidence demonstrates that we read better when confronted with clunky, inelegant typefaces. When confronted by endless buying choices (Amazon sells over 100,000 breakfast cereal varieties), categories help us prevent getting overwhelmed and numb. The disastrous rollout could’ve been salvaged with March Madness-style brackets.

Benartzi also suggests end-user improvements, though these are less numerous. In giving feedback, for instance, actually sign your name; this prevents the Disinhibition Effect. Seek carefully for resources which encourage without criticizing and which have meaningful action plans. Allocate attention carefully: it’s impossible to actually read those bottomless “terms and conditions” we all click on, but when somebody asks you a real question, read the whole thing before answering.

The answers aren’t always easy, and seldom one-size-fits-all. The problem with digital reading, for instance, has different solutions for different audiences. Younger readers will probably finish reading this review better on Amazon’s brightly colored, graphics-heavy layout, while my blog’s muted colors and text-driven format will attract older readers. Other problems have similarly nuanced solutions. My final takeaway from Benartzi’s explanation: effective design is more art than science.

Late in this book, Benartzi states what could arguably be his thesis: “We don't want endless possibility. What we really crave is effective curation.” The Internet has become a vast repository of information, much of it exciting, some terrifying; and new information gets created or repackaged daily. Top-level providers who follow Benartzi’s guidelines will more likely earn users’ attention, today’s real economic prize.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Little Black Phone That Conquered China

Clay Shirky, Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream

Unless you’ve lived or worked in China since 2010, you’ve probably never encountered Earth’s third-largest mobile phone company, Xiaomi. The company, whose name translates as “Little Rice” in Chinese, currently dominates China’s mid-range smartphone market. Despite having no market presence in North America or Europe, Xiaomi’s global aspirations have flourished, and in five years, it has progressed from geek-oriented software startup to punching above its weight class.

Clay Shirky, NYU professor and new media cheerleader, sees Xiaomi as emblematic, not of the mobile phone industry, but of China’s changing place in global technology leadership. China has a lengthy reputation as America’s favorite offshore dumping ground; Apple famously labels its products “Designed In California; Assembled In China.” But as Chinese manufacturers become increasingly comfortable with American designs, many have assumed the design role and created native products domestically.

If you’ve experienced the existential dread of realizing you’ve forgotten your phone, you understand how important networked mobile technology has become. This goes double for poor countries. As rising technology puts mobile phones within mass customer reach, villagers in Africa and Asia who cannot afford laptops, cars, or books, nevertheless have global access with affordable phones. Networked mobile access puts poor, distant villagers on (theoretically) equal footing with everyone else.

Shirky quotes technology maven Jan Chipchase that mobile phones have joined money and keys as the three things without which we cannot leave the house. This presents China unprecedented opportunity and unique obstacles. Mainland China remains among Earth’s last nominally Communist nations, though “Communist” now means more party control than economic principle. Mobile phones offer instant global access to information, but also permit instantaneous coordination, anathema to one-party states.

Clay Shirky
Xiaomi straddles this complicated line. The corporation got its start pitching an open-source Android variant operating system, crowdsourcing critical design elements. This democratic hybrid business model remains central to Xiaomi’s success, even as they’ve transitioned into hardware development. But the corporation must tapdance between the Party’s twin mandates of unprecedented personal liberty, and absolute political autocracy. Xiaomi’s technology must permit everyone to do everything… except challenge the state.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently pushed something he calls the Chinese Dream. Unlike Maoist slogans of expunging both ancient and Western influences, Xi’s vision has a distinctive monetary value. Like the American Dream, the Chinese Dream involves home ownership, wealth management, and upward mobility. However, it infuses distinct collectivist tenets into its language. Xi wants Chinese to become wealthy in ways that redound positively upon the state.

China actively restricts domestic access to global Internet sources. Chinese citizens can access Amazon, Gmail, and other international sites through demi-legal network loopholes, and enforcement runs two-tiered for elites versus plebeians. Whatever advances business and globalization, the Party deems good, or anyway tacitly permits; whatever permits citizens to organize, coordinate, or pitch any alternative to the state, the Party squashes. (State speech codes forbid puns, to excise double meanings.)

This creates market narrowing for Chinese firms outside China. Shirky describes how, when Xiaomi first marketed phones in South Asia, Indian media generated panic that Xiaomi was shipping user data into China. Well, all mobile service providers store metadata on native server farms; Apple and Samsung do it. Their servers merely dwell in non-totalitarian states. Xiaomi, by contrast, must simultaneously appease state officials and free-market buyers, a difficult global sell.

For Shirky, Xiaomi isn’t another corporation, despite its massive size (its market is huge enough to dwarf international firms while remaining primarily locked inside China’s borders). Rather, Xiaomi represents China’s strange relationship with modernity. China has become economically free but politically restricted; socially diverse but ethnically homogenous; global yet totalitarian. If it survives ten more years, the People’s Republic will become history’s longest-lived one-party state.

Thus China is already making history, even if that history feels muddled to technocratic Western observers. It’s yoked competing influences together, with apparent success, and seems to be winning the global three-legged race. But China’s aggregate wealth hasn’t translated into individual well-being; the typical Chinese citizen remains poor by world standards. How information firms like Xiaomi fare in coming years will define how China faces today’s global situation.

Shirky’s writing combines journalism with technical expertise to describe powerful conflicting influences which will define global market considerations within our lifetimes. Xiaomi’s rapid advance, from zygote to market dominance inside five years, and its odd, counterintuitive business model, are symbolic, for Shirky, of China’s changing role in global economics. To understand China through analogy, Shirty says, let’s understand Xiaomi. That isn’t easy, but it’s decidedly unnerving.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The New Queen of the Smoke-Eyed Dreamscape

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 60
Cat Rambo, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight: Stories

Spirits attack a fort full of despair on the frontier of a mythic kingdom. A girl is cursed to carry flame sprites throughout the land, creating a magical massacre. Tourists on the dingy side of Bangkok meet a woman who may or may not be Andersen's Little Mermaid. An elemental sorceress gambles everything to save her nation and discovers that victory may be the key to her greatest loss.

Cat Rambo, hailed as a leading voice in fantastic fiction, collects twenty stories of the speculative, the bone-chilling, and the uncanny. The tales in this volume are so strange, so evocative, and so different from one another that it's hard to believe they were all written by the same person. Rambo has a remarkable talent for plunging readers into alien realities in only a few pages, a talent that's become lamentably rare in recent short fiction.

The title story features many themes common in Rambo’s writing. (No, she doesn’t use a pseudonym.) Describing a young woman’s encounters with the general of an all-woman army, Rambo delves into meanings of gender and role in worlds where post-industrial Western traditions don’t apply. The story arose from Rambo’s involvement with a multi-player online RPG, underlining the reciprocal relationship Rambo’s writing has with media technologies.

Sometimes Rambo wears her influences undisguised upon her sleeves. “I’ll Gnaw Your Bones, the Manticore Said” has a very Harlan Ellison-esque title, though the story feels more Poe-like in its themes, and Lovecraftian in its imagery. Other times, Rambo’s influences vanish subtly beneath her sophisticated storytelling. “The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race,” told from an animal’s POV, seamlessly combines a slumgullion of fictional and non-fictional, mainstream and fringe sources.

Cat Rambo
Literary critics and writing teachers frequently pooh-pooh genre fiction as mere escapism—as though there’s anything “mere” about stepping outside our lives and circumstances to perceive the world through new eyes. Okay, sometimes mass-market paperback fiction lowballs its audience’s intelligence. And sometimes audiences willingly live down to whatever expectations well-crafted marketing lays upon them. Perhaps ours is an age of tragically lowered standards.

But Cat Rambo, and her shoestring publisher, Paper Golem, represent the other extreme of genre writing. Like gazing into a funhouse mirror, Rambo’s fiction presents us with ourselves from another viewpoint, making us consider our situations from outside our limited, self-important perspective. Though never overtly political, Rambo’s best stories challenge her readers’ status quo. Every story places, or traps, its readers in the spotlight. Ultimately, every story is about us.

Consider “Narrative of a Beast’s Life.” In both form and content, it mirrors 19th Century American slave narratives, like Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, while reminding us that the slaveholding mentality persists in post-industrial society. “Eagle-Haunted Lake Sammamish” questions what it means to “purchase” land forcibly seized from its original indigenous inhabitants. Can we ever truly own something stolen by our ancestors?

Also, Rambo continues a tradition in American fiction. From Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, to Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts, American writers love creating fictional cities which come into existence, not whole and ready to visit, but distant, complex, glimpsed only through characters’ partial viewpoints. Rambo’s distant city of Tabat, a manifestation of the human id, isn’t a place we visit. It’s a place that ambushes, engulfs, and strands mere tourists.

These stories refuse to be limited to one or a few genres. Rambo freely mixes heroic fantasy with psychological horror, or steampunk with westerns. Hers is an innovative mind that will stop at nothing to tell the best possible story, and she writes for eager, curious readers. Every character she creates has a distinctive voice, and every story she tells expands her world, and the reader's as well.

I applaud Rambo for choosing a small press. However, the wing-and-a-prayer budget of Paper Golem apparently leaves Rambo without an editor, and her stories could intermittently use a little clean-up. Several sentences drop important words, and sometimes her punctuation could be called quirky. Though these are distracting, they never diminish my enjoyment. Some of Rambo's story notes, on the other hand, contain spoilers; read her notes only after the stories.

Rambo comes to the reading public with glowing recommendations from luminaries like Jeff VanderMeer and John Barth, and it's easy to see why. Her unconventional fantasy refuses to follow familiar paths, and her writing eclipses most genre fiction coming pell-mell from the major publishing houses. This debut short story collection, signalled the arrival of a bold voice in fantasy literature, promise Rambo, now SFWA president, has fulfilled with aplomb.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Day Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet

Thomas Levenson, The Hunt for Vulcan: ... And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

Isaac Netwon, at the height of his fame, in his rooms at Cambridge
Imagine a renowned physicist predicted we’d find an entirely new planet, in our own solar system. The math holds, according to Newtonian physics. This particular scientist accurately anticipated a new planet once before, telling astronomers exactly where it’d be on a certain date. The prediction appears perfect, except… the planet isn’t there. That’s the situation faced by Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrer, whose foretold intra-Mercury planet, Vulcan, never materialized.

November 2015 marks the centennial of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Marking the occasion, MIT science writer Thomas Levenson spotlights one of science history’s weirder, less-remembered occasions, the struggle to find planet Vulcan. Le Verrer, who used Newton’s mathematics to precisely locate the previously undiscovered planet Neptune, found an eccentric wobble in Mercury’s perihelion of orbit. The only conceivable explanation: an undiscovered planet or asteroid inside Mercury’s orbit.

Levenson’s narrative sweeps from 17th Century Britain, to Paris in the 19th, to Berlin in the 20th. He focuses on three major personalities in the development of physics: Isaac Newton, whose theories of gravity and motion described an orderly, predictable universe; Le Verrer, who turned Newton’s descriptions into tools to anticipate new discoveries; and Einstein, whose theories did the unthinkable, challenging Newton’s supremacy. This book reads like an epic novel.

Newton, who had fallen into reclusive midlife eccentricity, came very close to becoming a historical footnote. However, his friend Edmond Halley’s observations about comets rekindled Newton’s thinking about planetary orbits. Calculating equations from known observations, he realized seemingly unpredictable events actually had concrete explanations, attributable to a mysterious force he called “gravity.” Published in an era when alchemy still ruled, Newton’s principles threatened how Christian Europeans perceived the world.

A young, dapper Albert Einstein starting his career
French astronomer Pierre Simon Laplace proved Newton’s mathematics applied throughout the solar system. But, writing during the Napoleonic Wars, Laplace’s reasoning would go frustratingly untested during his lifetime. It fell to Le Verrer, a surprising unknown from a tobacco-making background, to test and perfect Newton’s theories. When he did the previously unthinkable, forecasting the location of an unknown planet without ever peeking into a telescope, Le Verrer became science’s most powerful personality.

Le Verrer’s theories came to dominate 19th Century astronomy. So when he confronted one of science’s most inscrutable puzzles, the slippage in Mercury’s apparent orbit, his explanation became dominant worldwide. Astronomers searched diligently for planet Vulcan, which absolutely had to be there. After all, the math resolved perfectly. Le Verrer predicted its location, mass, orbit… but, even decades after Le Verrer’s death, Vulcan resolutely refused to make itself visible.

Meanwhile, a Zurich patent clerk, Albert Einstein, began incrementally unpacking mysteries of physics, a process apparently propelled by daydreams and intuition. Theories like Special Relativity and the photoelectric effect transformed modern science. But only once he’d transitioned to the full-time professoriate did Einstein enjoy time enough to pursue his ultimate accomplishment, General Relativity. And, almost accidentally, Einstein happened upon an ironclad explanation why planet Vulcan couldn’t possibly exist.

Readers familiar with Thomas Kuhn’s theories about scientific advancement will recognize important themes in Levenson’s narrative. The importance of personalities, for instance: planet Vulcan’s staying power, despite complete absence of evidence, relied substantially on the fact that Le Verrer himself predicted it. Einstein, an unknown upon his first publications in 1905, faced pushback because he contradicted Newtonian physics. And dammit, no upstart ever challenges luminaries like Newton. Ever!

Or the importance of reasoning by analogy: Newtonian physics initially faced significant hurdles because it separated cause from effect. Planets move because motion persists, not because God propels creation. Einstein’s theories don’t behave like anything we’ll encounter in daily life, so straight-up descriptions fumble in most people’s understanding. Levenson makes Einstein somewhat comprehensible with analogies to moving trains, flying rockets, and workmen falling off roofs.

Through these themes, Levenson demonstrates not only how cool science is, but also how contingent. Our comprehension of reality may appear more complete than prior generations, but all explanations remain subject to tests. Einstein made errors and followed blind paths; just because we agree his theories are correct today doesn’t mean that outcome was inevitable. Science, Levenson demonstrates, is the product of people and culture as much as of reality.

For readers who, like me, love physics without truly understanding it, Levenson’s narrative serves two themes. It helps unpack the forces that shape modern scientific reasoning, often without our recognizing them; and it translates difficult scientific precepts into common language. Through his artful analogies and nuanced approach, Levenson’s science reaches the level of poetry. With gripping conflicts, fractious characters, and world-shattering discoveries, Levenson’s story outpunches even the best world-class novels.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Umberto Eco's Dark Roman Holiday

Umberto Eco, Numero Zero

Many moons ago, I encountered the writerly advice: “This story ends where it should begin.” I resolved never to give such advice, because it sounded like crap. Then I took first-semester undergraduate creative writing, and learned its meaning. Writers sometimes invest noble efforts into scene-setting, exposition, and character notes, but forget the actual story. So it’s legitimate criticism. I just never thought I’d say it to Umberto Eco.

Back in 1992, when newspapers still mattered, a shyster editor hires a washed-up old hack to ghost-write his memoir of a new start-up tabloid. The trick: it’s a dummy paper. Every issue will be numbered Zero, because this newspaper isn’t intended for public elucidation. The paper’s primary backer wants to threaten society’s upper echelons by promising to reveal their darkest, sloppiest secrets. Basically, he invents doxxing a full decade early.

This reads less like a novel, more like the preparatory background notes an author makes for something they expect to write later. I don’t mean that metaphorically. Eco includes lengthy discursive monologues, many sprawling over multiple chapters, describing ideas that should occur through action or dialogue. Characters exist, not to do anything or develop across scenes, but to voice respective viewpoints about our media-saturated society.

Our first-person hack narrator, Colonna, gives the fake journalists lectures on how to prevaricate and evade with words. The writers’ pen includes the slimy editor, the cynical veteran, the the spy for the opposition, and the misplaced, vaguely antiquated voice of journalistic ethics. Oh, and the one obligatory “chick writer” who aspires to journalistic legitimacy, but gets fobbed off with celebrity news and horoscopes. (Spoiler: she puts out.)

Umberto Eco
And it includes the drunk who spouts conspiracy theories. One-third of the way through, this guy finally divulges the subplot that eventually drives the novel’s back half: he knows Benito Mussolini’s real ultimate fate. We thought he died in a hail of partisan gunfire after the Allies took Rome. But Braggadocio (seriously, that’s his name) has proof—proof, I tell you—that Il Duce got the Eichmann treatment in Argentina.

Umberto Eco loves conspiracies. His best novels, including The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, feature characters unlocking the gulf between symbolic reality, and the underlying truth concealed behind language and metaphor. His best characters take stands against mere comforting illusion. A trailblazer in semiotics, Eco’s novels generally represent ways humans make meaning through communication, sometimes despite reality’s nihilistic tendency to deny humans any valid significance.

Admittedly, Braggadocio’s theory has remarkable potential. It involves not only Mussolini’s (purported) death, but the hush-hush Vatican machinations, the death of Aldo Moro, CIA back-channels covertly funding the Red Brigades, and multiple failed coups in postwar Italian history. Braggadocio makes 9/11 Truthers look unambitious and shy. Eco could’ve built this into an intriguing premise for a more complicated novel, if he’d gone beyond mere idea.

But story-wise, this novel marches in place. The characters don’t do anything, and interact only sporadically; they just discourse at one another, sometimes in paragraphs that run over two pages. In particular, the characters don’t change. They exist to represent viewpoints in public debates. Though Colonna himself briefly engages in liquor-fueled existential despair toward the final pages, he ultimately, like everyone else, finishes mostly where he started.

Eco dips briefly into important events. The paper’s venal financial backer, Commendatore Vimercate, uncannily resembles media magnate turned politician Silvio Berlusconi. Editor Simei’s flip dismissal of cell phones and computers as meaningful lifestyle trends (remember, this is 1992) grimly hints why many Italian, and international, newspapers looked simply out-of-touch after the Millennium. Eco cuttingly satirizes the devolution of journalism into celebrity exposés, reprinting official press releases, and ad hominem mudslinging.

Then in the final pages, Spoiler Alert, he does nothing with it. Braggadocio dies violently, Colonna assumes it was to prevent publication of his theories, but offers no particular proof. Colonna flees town, waiting the assassin’s bullet. Then he turns on the TV and sees Allan Francovich’s BBC documentary detailing virtually everything Eco spent an entire book spelling out. Wait, did Eco actually write anything new, or just paraphrase Francovich?

Basically, Eco creates an idea, but rather than put anything in motion, he just stops. Boom, done. I expect better from a writer of Eco’s caliber. His past novels are talky, admittedly, but something actually happens; characters change; situations develop. This, well, he creates an opportunity for something to happen, then he does nothing with it. It’s a squandered chance, the epitome of “This story ends where it should begin.”