Just how did I manage before the Internet Age?

I’m still disoriented from my technologically-enforced 48 hours without internet access.

Hard to believe how much I depend, day to day, on those clicks. Practical things, sure: my calendar reminds me of appointments and things-to-do I’d otherwise forget (not to mention the weather; you’d think I’d just look out the window, but the temperature in my apartment is not necessarily indicative of the temperature on the other side of the glass). My browser’s bookmarks bar is a kind of work schedule, a listing of projects and current MOOCs; I’m grateful this interrupt happened at a time between MOOCs, because if it’d happened when I was taking 8 at the same time, I would’ve been hysterical; a lost hour back then was a problem, two lost days would’ve been catastrophic.

But I could still prepare Pushcart posts for the coming week, and I could still work on my Euclid project, certainly, out of the Heath book. Right?

Um, it’s not that easy.

The Euclid project, I could understand; that’s 90% research, and while I do have a great paper source, the second of my primary sources is a website written for a more contemporary audience.

But I do a fair amount of research for my literary posts as well. Interviews with the authors; other reviews of the work in question; finding the work online or a reading on YouTube; collections containing the work, and publication dates. And then there’s the related material. I want to support facts with references – what was that article questioning the efficacy of Fair Trade practices? – and I want to get details right (nobody makes a turquoise cello, right? Oh wait, they do? Hmmm….). And of course, art. Images often play an important role as I formulate my thoughts. Sometimes I find an image that gives me a new insight entirely. That’s why these aren’t “reviews” – I don’t know how to do reviews – but explorations of where the work takes me.

And without the internet, the work doesn’t take me as far.

That’s an important realization. I start with the work, of course. But am I relying too much on other things? Right now I have an impulse to look up (because I can’t remember and I’m afraid I won’t get it exactly right; but I’m not going to check, so caveat emptor) just what school of literary criticism it is that insists, it’s not about the historical context or the author’s intent or the genre, it’s strictly about what’s on the page. How many times have I heard, “The story has to stand on its own,” that the origin or knowledge about the author or an event that inspired the story can’t enter into the evaluation of the work? Do I believe that?

Not for a second.

Reading is a cooperative act between author and reader. Non-fiction writers are of course advised to consider their audience: a technical crowd, progressives, Australians, teenagers? Fiction writers do the same thing: it’s called genre. You don’t send a science fiction story to a literary mag, or a minimalist piece riffing on Ginsberg (god I hope I spelled that right… e, u? … I’m not checking) to Highlights for Children (does that still exist? Do they even publish fiction? I’m not checking…). So if I want to incorporate the world into my reading, via the internet – if I want to find out what the author intended, or make the story more meaningful to me by better understanding the events it references – no one can tell me it’s cheating. It’s enhancement, sure (maybe, for example, I would’ve found a better example than Ginsberg or HfC). But I find out more about the work, about the world, and about myself, with everything I read. And if that isn’t the purpose of reading – what is?

All this started because of computer trouble. In two days, I learned about my dependence on modern technology; about a really nice cable guy who went above and beyond his assigned task of replacing my modem to help me discover my antiviral software was protecting me from the entire internet, putting into very concrete, practical terms the whole safety/freedom debate we’ve lived daily since 9/11. (and replaced my ethernet cable so it doesn’t jiggle loose every time I shift my computer); about one Symantec rep who crashed my machine by remote control (one of the scariest things I’ve ever done was giving control of my computer to a stranger… wow, I really do have trust issues: I’m insanely, absurdly trusting; but unless you’re a systems engineer, you’ve got to trust someone, sometime, and they’re already in my computer); about another Symantec rep who picked up the pieces (you have no idea what a mess I was…); and that I still, after all these years, have a very slow return to baseline (the sense of chaos remains long after the source of chaos has ended).

I process things – get them out of my head – by writing about them. So I’ve written about this, and now I’ve got to get back to work. Now that the world is, once again, just a click away.

I told you I’d be…

I know, I wasn’t all that gone. But I didn’t expect to be as gone as I was, for as long as I was.

I’m down to one MOOC, and that’s turned out to be the easiest math course ever devised; and when I say a math course is easy, you know it’s easy. Truth be told, I’ve been taking it easy for the last week-plus. It’s nice to be able to spend a day on something that may turn out to be a blind alley, without feeling like I need to be getting-something-done. It’s nice to read a book I know I’m not going to blog about. It’s nice to spend a couple of hours formatting images for posts. It’s especially nice to stretch out on the couch at night and watch something mindless on TV for an hour, without knowing I really should be working on a paper or finishing an assignment or reading or watching or or or. I’ve enjoyed goofing off.

I’ve been working on some Pushcart posts in the past couple of days; I’d forgotten the Word macros I use to format text for posting (let’s see, I don’t need ctl-p for pi, ctl-2 for exponents, or ctl-r for radical any more, but what was the code for the blocktext formatting again…); I’ll start posting later this week, and I hope to move through it pretty quickly for a couple of weeks, until my next calculus course starts in 18 days, a bible-history course in 21 days, an ancient mythology course in a month, music theory in two months, and in between there’s my Euclid project, my Whitman/Dickinson project, the books I stacked up “for later,” a half-dozen Vidpo ideas…

Like the man said, break’s over. Better get crackin’.

Catless

This morning, as every morning, I roll out of bed, slap on my slippers, hit the bathroom, start the coffee, wake up the computer. But this isn’t every morning.

This morning, for the first morning since 1976, I am catless.

This morning, I do not check, before rolling out of bed, for a cat between me and the edge of said bed. No: in all honesty, I do. I suspect I will continue to check for many mornings to come. Perhaps I should say, there is no longer any need to check, as there is no cat not to crush.

This morning, as I shuffle down the hall towards the bathroom, I do not check for black cat on dark wood floor in my path. And yes, again, I do. The next few weeks are going to be full of learning new behaviors and habits.

This morning, I do not (and this time, I truly do not) check the bathroom floor for tracked bits of cat litter as I sat on the toilet. I do not check the litter box for nocturnal deposits. Instead, I stare at the empty space where the litter box used to be.

This morning, I do not clean the food and water bowls on the kitchen floor while the coffee pot runs. Those bowls, I cleaned up for the final time yesterday. I did not discard them, however; they are lovely Mary Alice Hadley earthenware bowls from a complete dinnerware set my then-in-laws gave my then-husband and me when we married. I kept the cat-related parts (different cat, at the time) when we divorced. I let my ex keep the rest, out of some sense of fairness (his parents, his stuff). He is dead now, too, as are his parents. The bowls live in my china cabinet.

This morning, I do not split tiny thyroid pills into halves and then one half into quarters, nor crush one-half plus one-quarter pills into a tiny amount of Friskies Liver & Chicken Dinner Classic Paté (the Friskies label includes the accent aigu but not the circumflex, for some reason) and wait to be sure every fraction of a milligram was ingested; nor do I rinse and refill the bowl with Purina Fancy Feast with ocean fish & salmon and accents of garden greens. All feline medications, as well as Friskies and Purina products, were removed from my kitchen yesterday, for disposal or donation.

This morning – and this afternoon, and this evening – I will no doubt still listen for any rhythmic hacking sounds that might indicate reverse peristalsis occurring down the hall. I still marvel that, despite the legendary untrainability of cats, there exists a cat who learned to head for such easy-to-clean hard surfaces at such times. No: there existed.

This morning, afternoon, and evening, I will no doubt look around periodically to make sure everything is ok with the feline member of this household, only to remember there is no longer a feline member of this household. I will not need to push the laptop back or close it when I leave it unattended to forestall unpredictable cat-on-keyboard effects. I will not need to sweep up, pick off, or wipe down cat hair from any surface or fabric. I may even retire the giant green blanket that has covered the sofa that was so new six years ago I did not want it shed upon, the sofa whose beautiful warm grey-blue is only seen on special occasions. The sofa that, remarkably, bears not a single scratch mark. Because there exists – existed – a cat who was willing to live with that restriction, as long as other options were available.

This morning, afternoon, and evening, when I stretch out on that sofa to read, watch TV, do a crossword puzzle, or listen to a course lecture, I will no doubt anticipate a cat jumping up to lie on my hip/stomach/ribs, to purr in my ear. No such jump will occur. My coffee table no longer bears a slicker brush for such moments. I will not need to find a way to slither out from underneath to get coffee or tea or answer the phone, then attempt to recreate the cooperative positioning when I return.

This evening when I get into bed, I will not need to slip under the covers around a cat sleeping squarely in the middle of the bed, only to have said cat move to the space immediately to the left of my pillow as soon as I’ve negotiated that task. I will not have a warm purr machine at the ready, waiting only for a few strokes of the fur to engage. I will not scratch the underside of a chin, nor will I tangle my forearm amongst feline legs and tail. I may whisper, “Good girl,” but no one will hear me.

Or maybe someone will.

Literary Death Match: PtldME3

Thank you, Adrian Todd Zuniga, for bringing LDM to PtldME for the third time. And for doing it now. I really needed that – it’s been a bad October.

[irrelevant rant] Everything broke this month: my phone/internet connection (leading to a missed package delivery); my cat (leading to $189 in tests that showed that even at age 19 she’s not quite done yet, even if she can’t walk straight, as long as she can jump up on the bed and the couch and me and if we can just get more methimazole into her we might plump up that hyperthyroid post-apocalyptic starvation look); the government (don’t get me started; I’m not even able to do my evening soak in the Chris Hayes/Rachel Maddow Liberal Hot Tub of Consensus every night [except for Click-3 and the ten minutes around the toss] because I get too angry at what’s going on); and me (I am just not going to get mathematical induction this time around, and this breaks my heart). And then there’s the real stuff, but I can’t talk about that publicly.[/irrelevant rant]

Of all the participants last night, I only knew of Bill Roorbach, having just read (and very much enjoyed) his most recent novel, Life Among Giants. However: After one change of seats (I just sensed that the first seat I picked wasn’t the right one), I ended up next to the parents of Jessica Anthony, another contestant, and author of The Convalescent, which McSweeney’s calls “the story of a small, bearded man selling meat out of a bus parked next to a stream in suburban Virginia . . . and also, somehow, the story of ten thousand years of Hungarian history.” Hot damn, add that puppy to my read list, especially since Jessica’s read was a hilarious bawdy space romp. And educational: I never knew butternut squash was anything but a gourd.

Also contenting: Crash Barry carried a suitcase lettered “Sex, Drugs & Blueberries” (the title of his first book) and passed a sprig of marijuana around the room show-and-tell style (it somehow disappeared, hmmmm…) in honor of his upcoming book Marijuana Valley, Maine: a true story (Crash is a “card-carrying medical marijuana patient” so it’s legal). Let me just say this: marijuana’s a lot stinkier than it was in the 70s. And that’s before it’s lit. Rounding out the foursome: Mira Ptacin, who read her entry from Goodbye to all That, a collection of essays about writers who got the hell out of New York and moved to places like Peaks Island, Maine, as any sensible person would.

The judges: Joshua Bodwell of MWPA focused on literary merit; director Sean Mewshaw critiqued performance, and artist Chelsea H. B. DeLorme handled intangibles. If you’ve ever been to an LDM, you know those category names are illusory. Judges’ critiques included notes about bandaids, American Girl dolls, and what it means when a woman wears a dress with hearts on it, or a velvet blazer that matches the one worn by the host.

It seems the nerf darts have been discontinued, so time limits were announced by bell-ringing and threats of hugs. I was seriously disappointed that no hugging commenced, as every reader went over her allotted seven minutes. Not that time limits mattered; everyone would’ve been happy if they’d each read twice that long. I just wanted to see what it’d be like to have a bunch of people hug a reader-in-progress. I guess we’re too shy around here; it is New England, after all, though most of us come from somewhere else these days.

As it happened, Bill and Jessica ended up in the final round. I’d started out rooting for Bill, but you can’t sit next to a contestant’s parents and not feel some degree of kinship, so I would’ve been happy whoever won. In a highly intense game of Lone Star Lit, they and a couple of volunteer team members had to figure out to which top-ranked book a one-star Amazon review referred. I love those reviews; Least Helpful is on my Cool Sites page, in fact, though lately they’ve been featuring more product than book reviews. It’s always hilarious to discover people who think Dr. Seuss is liberal propaganda (though I suppose it is) and Jane Eyre is boring (I’ll admit, I’d always assumed it was, until I actually read it). I think ATZ was disappointed that the crowd wasn’t making more noise, but we were concentrating – it was hard!

In the end, Bill won, but that wasn’t really the point, was it. Everyone had a blast, and I found out about a whole new bunch of local writers. The only down side was trying to explain what was going on to curious passers-by while the entrance line stretched out the entrance down the sidewalk (yes, it’s that popular). There’s just no quick way to accurately convey just what goes on at these things. Or how much fun it is.

Maybe that’s the appeal. LDM: label-resistant. Coming soon to somewhere near you. The perfect way to recharge the batteries when you’ve been ashened and sobered by your lonesome October.

The truth about MOOCs

Photo-collaboration by Kristin Nador and Lux05

Photo-collaboration by Kristin Nador and Lux05

With no short story prize anthologies due until Fall, I filled up my summer with MOOCs.

I’ve finished six courses so far through Coursera (I’ll be branching out to EdX in October, so it’s not a brand thing), am currently enrolled in one, and I am, as anyone who’s been following can tell, a huge fan of these free online college classroom platforms. It’s a terrific opportunity to study a wide range of subjects at any level of involvement, from watching a few lecture videos to spending hours figuring out the details. And did I mention they’re free?

That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, however. There are a few things you should know.

First: Peer Assessment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, you will spend hours writing a detailed 800-word essay on a complex topic, incorporating references in appropriate MLA format, carefully constructed to introduce, explain, and summarize a few key points then synthesize them and prove your opening thesis statement, and you will spend a considerable amount of time reading the assigned (anonymous) essays you must evaluate in return, and you will carefully consider the assessment rubric and provide the required number score (erring on the positive side if there’s leeway) and you will write a paragraph of detailed comments beginning with a positive, transitioning into areas that need strengthening, and closing with encouragement. Yes, this will take up to an hour for each of the three essays you (anonymously) assess.

And yes, you will (maybe) get three peer assessments in return, one of which be one sentence on how brilliant you are, one of which will be one sentence about how stupid you are, and one of which will tell you nothing but give you a lousy score anyway. You will score somewhere in the middle (unless you’re creative with the assignment, in which case no one will get what you’re doing). Fortunately, the bar for “passing” these courses is pretty low, probably because the instructors are aware that peer assessment can be capricious. You will probably get one, possibly two, superb and helpful assessments for every three or four assignments. You will feel immense gratitude.

They are making efforts to improve this system, but in the meantime, they’re passing it off as “personalized feedback even in classes with thousands of students… which education research suggests is highly effective.” Realistically, look at it this way: you’re learning to assess course information presented in what might be an unusual way, to analyze good and bad points, to provide constructive criticism, and to handle disappointment.

If you want real feedback for an assignment, find a study group (every course has them, both online and in person if enough students from the same area sign up), or post your paper in the forums (see “About those forums…”), but it’s still peer assessment, though it tends to be more detailed. Not every course uses peer assessment; science and math, obviously, use other methods, but even some humanities courses use multiple choice tests. Course descriptions usually specify the evaluation criteria. Don’t be afraid of peer assessment – I find the assignments useful, since writing helps me think – but don’t get overly invested in “grades.”

Second: About those forums… Some courses have great message boards, like the Calculus class I took; it was a great place for a quick “I don’t get why Step 4 works,” and a lot of people used it for far more advanced purposes, like programming, discussion of mathematical theory, etc etc (sorry, I had my hands full just getting the coursework done). Considering there are tens of thousands of students enrolled in these courses, very few post on the boards; maybe 50 people make up the bulk of forum posts, with another 50 making up virtually all of the rest. Staff involvement in discussions varies but is usually limited at best (there are exceptions). Most of the course message boards are civil; there’s an occasional squabble, but nothing serious. Then you’ve got those classes where it’s off to the twilight zone. The most common issues:

- Where there are message boards, there will be trolls. As with in-person classes, it can be tricky distinguishing between who’s making a controversial but valid point (which is useful), who’s testing the limits of the argument (also useful), who’s trying to be in one of those categories but isn’t quite making it there (useful but requiring more work to access the usefulness), who’s making a valid point in a highly aggressive or offensive way (not usually worth the effort but potentially useful) and who’s just looking for attention (not useful not anything at all). Because of the class size and makeup (students with none to extensive experience in the topic, from all over the world, with varying levels of written English proficiency and computer expertise), it can be hard to tell the difference. There are methods for reporting outright abuse, but when the guy wrote a response to “Who are you as a writer” explaining how his background as a practicing sadomasochist was central to his writing, say, in the same way a business owner might see writing client letters as central to his writing, was he making a good point or enjoying class a little too much?

- The same questions will be asked, over and over again, in every class. This can provide an element of humor. My personal favorite: “Do I really have to read this whole chapter/book/story/article?” Questions and complaints about grades abound; I’m not sure if there’s some mechanism by which these courses are taken seriously by employers or the universities from which they emanate, but a lot of people seem to think it’s life or death. There will be frequent requests to extend assignment deadlines (“my internet went out” may seem like the new “the dog ate my homework” but, considering there are students in areas of the world with uncertain internet connectivity, it’s far more legit than it sounds), and insanely detailed questions about assignments (“Do we have to use a particular font?”). Most of this stuff can be ignored.

- Don’t let the above discourage you from trying a MOOC; if you don’t like the message boards, you can more or less ignore them; I’ve done that in two classes, with no problems, since announcements are conveyed via email from the instructor and contain all the practical information you’ll really need. But they’re often very worth checking out, and they greatly raise the engagement level. And if you’ve got a dumb question about the material (I had many in math) chances are someone else is wondering, too, but is too timid to ask.

Third: Some classes are “better” than others (hey, just like real college!), and the only way to really find out is to enroll (or ask someone who’s taken it for detailed information). The “about this course” screen is good, particularly in outlining topics and instruction methods (but the estimated time required per week is always very low; double it), but not definitive: one professor seemed very boring in his intro video, and yes, he was quite monotone throughout the class, but it was still a great class because the information was well-organized and clearly presented, with plenty of supplemental material. I’ve had two classes that seemed to be great from the energy of the instructors in the introductory video: one, for a subject in which I had great interest, turned out to be the “worst” course I’ve taken so far, and one, in a subject that scared but intrigued me, turned out to be perfectly fine but way over my head, to the point where I dropped it in week 2 (I’m planning on getting more experience in the topic, then trying again; that’s what’s great about Coursera).

Take home message: don’t judge all of the courses by one bad (or good) experience, and don’t judge any course by someone else’s reaction. Some students loved my “worst” course, and there were plenty of complaints about my favorites. I was disappointed by the content in two courses; I completed them, and I did learn some things, but nowhere near as much as I’d hoped; they weren’t really worth the time investment. I haven’t figured out a pattern yet, though my initial impression is that more “prestigious” universities produce better classes. However – I’ve taken two courses from the same university using the same technical team; one had a few technical issues but was excellent nonetheless, while the other was an organizational mess (and yet I did learn something, like the true meaning of “Less is More”).

Fourth: Technical issues will happen. After all, your computer crashes every once in a while, doesn’t it? New courses rolling out for the first time are particularly vulnerable, and some instructors and staffs are more comfortable with the technology than others. Some students are more comfortable with technology than others, too. You can’t submit an assignment? A video won’t play? Keep calm and check the forums; there’s a technical issues thread for each class. Chances are someone else has had the same problem, and it’s probably a simple one: you’ve overlooked a tiny box you need to check to submit (I overlook the “honor code” box about half the time) or you just need to switch video players from flash to html5 or vice versa, or close and replay (I have to do that about half the time, too). If it’s more complicated than that, post the problem and you’ll get help, but remember: the internet may be open 24/7, but schools and tech support departments aren’t.

I’ve completed (or am in the last throes of) six courses – math, science, history, writing, literature, art; each one has had value, and some have been inspiring. I’m in a philosophy course that just started, and I have courses in poetry, math, philosophy, and science coming up; a couple of others are extremely tempting, but as it is I’ll probably have to drop at least one when the story anthologies drop in the Fall (possibly all on the same weekend in November, at which point I’ll have a nervous breakdown). I’m having a blast. Because MOOCs, whatever else they may be, are addictive.

I’m not getting into any debate about whether MOOCs are the answer (what was the question again?) or the future of education (the way things are going, I just hope education has a future at all) or any theoretical underpinnings. I’m not an educator, nor am I depending on these courses for any practical purpose. I suppose that makes me a dilettante; so be it. I’ve long railed against confusing education with job training; anything that expands my view of the universe is a good thing. For my purposes, MOOCs are terrific. But there are a few things you should know going in.

Strange Fruit

'Strange Fruit' by Anthony Armstrong

‘Strange Fruit’ by Anthony Armstrong

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

~~ Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit” as sung by Billie Holiday

I keep telling myself: history is a pendulum. The Civil Rights act followed The House Committee on Un-American Activities. A gradually increasing degree of Marriage Equality followed embarrassed governmental indifference on AIDS. The Peace Corps outlasted the Vietnam War (at least for those who survived the latter). Israel rose out of the Holocaust, Nelson Mandela from apartheid.

Is it over yet? Can I open my eyes? Is this as hard as it gets? Is this what it feels like to really cry?
~~ Kelly Clarkson, Cry

It gets better. It will get better. Right? There will be a day when the stalking against police instruction and subsequent killing of an unarmed teenager will not be excused by the hoodie he was wearing, by the presence of a sidewalk. We can do better. We must do better. May God forgive us for taking so long.

The Tie was Just the Last Straw

This was a scary week – and it had nothing to do with the NSA.

Sorry, I have trouble getting worked up about the government spying on me – not because I take privacy lightly (I don’t) or I think it’s a good idea to trade freedom for safety (not that either). No, it’s just that I’ve assumed all along that everything is being recorded somewhere by someone, so I’m not surprised or alarmed to find out that’s the case. When I first started using the internet, someone told me, “Assume everything you type on your keyboard might end up on 60 Minutes (yes, I am that lame, and that old, to consider Mike Wallace the scariest interviewer around).

But because of the insanity, lots of people have been sending around stuff that is scary. I thought I’d share, so we can all be scared together. Countdown, please:

#4. Spambot Conversations

From Dr. Ricardo Battista (who is a real person – I think) of SocialDeadZone tumblr posted this:

“the delightful spectacle of two spambots being polite to each other”

“the delightful spectacle of two spambots being polite to each other”

A couple of weeks ago I wondered out loud (if Twitter can be considered “out loud”) why miscellaneous people were favoriting miscellaneous tweets of mine – I find it hard to believe some European SEO guru was that impressed with my tweet linking to comments on Benito Cereno – but it’s really scary when bots start talking to each other, however politely. I promise I am a real person. I’ll be less polite if that will prove it.

#3. You Don’t Know What You’re Missing from Joe Holmes of Vidthoughts

It’s not news that search results turn up different things for different people, and that searching for, say, a cheap table might result in ads for tables cropping up everywhere you go for the next six months. The Filter Bubble is not new; Eli Pariser invented the term in a TED Talk (followed a year later by a book) more than two years ago. But Joe put it a different way – or maybe he just reminded me, at a time when it seemed to matter more, of something I’d forgotten about – and yeah, he managed to scare me with stuff like this:

“…how much your computer costs influences what results you see…”

“…the result of promoting these algorithms to the office of internet curator is an effective censorship that heavily favors the status quo…”

Joe’s perspective is that of a Youtube newbie trying to find an audience. That’s not something I care about much; I’m perfectly happy being obscure, and if I ever thought anyone was reading this stuff I’d be paralyzed with fear and never write another post. But I am a consumer of electronic information, and censorship bothers me.

And it is censorship – showing us only what we probably already like – and sounds like calcification to me. I think I have eclectic tastes – but is that just what Google thinks? Am I just playing around in the same sandbox over and over again, unaware there’s more out there?

#2. We’ll Dream of Being Blind

From CTHEORY: Cyberwar, God And Television: Interview with Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio: There is a great science-fiction short story, it’s too bad I can’t remember the name of its author, in which a camera has been invented which can be carried by flakes of snow. Cameras are inseminated into artificial snow which is dropped by planes, and when the snow falls, there are eyes everywhere. There is no blind spot left.

Louise Wilson, CTHEORY: But what shall we dream of when everything becomes visible?

Virilio: We’ll dream of being blind.

I have no idea who Paul Virilio is, but it’s obvious why this made the rounds this week. If that isn’t scary enough- this was written in 1994.

#1. And the scariest thing I saw this week:

Chris Hayes has started wearing a tie on air. Forget the government in my internet: get the network out of Chris Hayes’ closet.

I suspect, see, that MSNBC has decided he needs to look more authoritative. The effect, however, is the opposite: he looks like he’s on his way to his Bar Mitzvah. Yes, it’d have to be a Catholic bar mitzvah, but you get the idea: he’s trying to convince the world “Today I Am A Man” and we’re all giggling at how cute it is, in that completely off way when a kid tries to put on grownup clothes. Now, I don’t pay much attention to clothes unless they leap out and demand attention. This change is glaring to those of us who’ve been following him on TV for the past several years. You can’t buy cool – but you sure can sell it for ratings. And yes – I am far more upset about this than I logically should be.

I’m glad I’m not twenty-two. I don’t like the way this ride is going, so I’m glad I’ll be getting off sooner rather than later. Maybe that’s the truly scary thing: my own apathy. Kids in the 60s were saying, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” By golly, they were right.

Literary Death Match: PortlandME, Ep. 2

Take one part literary reading, two parts cheesefest, generous splashes of quiz show and wrestling match, suffuse with humor, spread on local writers/performers, then blend that concoction into the population of a tiny city always overshadowed by its more popular west-coast twin in the mixing bowl that is the Space Gallery, and you’ve got Literary Death Match, Portland (ME), Ep. 2 from May 10.

The specifics are available on the LDM Journal so I won’t bore with links and biographies. LDM is anything but boring. Even if you have no interest in “Literature” it’s fun. After all, out of an hour and a half, only 28 minutes is actual reading; the rest is hilarious commentary that manages to combine roast and feedback (Ron Currie, Jr.’s bicep vein was a major factor, as were diaphragms).

Zin commented on Ep. 1 back in October, but why should Zin have all the fun (not to mention, Zin has declared Sunday with Zin is on hiatus for the duration of Food Network Star, but that’s another issue). Ep. 2 was just as good, even if my comments are not as, um, colorful. Lewis Robinson came away with the Title of LDM Champion.

LDM is a lot of fun, but they respect literature (come on, Pulitzer Prize Pictionary?). I’m all for whatever makes reading more accessible. And they’re everywhere, including Iceland, so they’ve probably been in your neck of the woods. They made a TV pilot last December, which, hey, I’d subscribe to HBO just for that, and I didn’t subscribe for Aaron Sorkin (though it was close), so that tells you something.

A little detour

Chris Hayes – political commentator, formerly UP, now ALL IN (I shudder to think what his next show will be called) – usually tweets about, obviously, political stories, the economy, climate change, that sort of thing. Occasionally, basketball. But Monday night, as the Memorial Day weekend came to a close, he sent out something unusual for him:

I thought maybe I was misunderstanding the term “cover,” but what the hey, I clicked on the Youtube link. And found my obsession for the week: LP.

It was very confusing at first. What’s LP? I’m old enough to read it as long-playing; is it the name of the group? And gee, forgive me if I’m being politically incorrect, but… is that a girl or a boy? The song, unfamiliar to me (like most contemp music) is “Halo.” The singing is not always “pretty.” But the longer it went on, the more mesmerized I was. I listened to it again. And again. It’s seven minutes long, but I couldn’t stop watching.

Here it is: When I watch the original, by Beyonce, I see a pretty woman singing a pretty song about a pretty man. It’s nice. But when I watch LP perform it, I believe in salvation. And I really, really want a cigarette afterwards.

I finally tore myself away to look at what else LP had posted, and randomly clicked on “Into the Wild,” and, about a minute in, went slightly insane.

Chances are, even if you’re as out of touch with contemporary music as i am, you’ve heard LP’s voice, though you may not recognize the name the singer goes by. Think: commercial. Rock climbing… got it? “Somebody left the gate open…” Yeah. That’s LP. That’s “Into the Wild.”

In a CNN interview, LP talked about performing that song, like at SXSW, how she (finally got that figured out; now all I have to do is figure out why it mattered in the first place) struggles to not smile just before she sings that line. Because she knows what’s going to happen:

Always after that line, she knows, the murmurs start.
“I see a few of them, every time, look at their friend and go, ‘Ohhhh.’ It’s kind of funny and embarrassing at the same time,” LP said during an interview at SXSW. “And awesome.”

I spent some time, quite a while ago, hunting down the song that went with the ad, and wasn’t able to find anything back then – not surprising since all I had to go on was a single phrase. The mystery is finally solved. But I’ve been spending way too much time on YouTube this week. LP, you’re amazing, but this old lady needs her life back.

I do this sometimes, get stuck on a song, listen to it obsessively. My previous record was 36 iTunes plays over 3 days for Ballboy’s “I Gave Up My Eyes To A Man Who Was Blind.” I think, if I combine views of both “Halo” and “Into the Wild,” I surpassed that by a wide margin this week.

Thanks, Chris.

Sunday with Zin: The Books Artists Make

Sissy Buck: "Inextricably Woven"

Sissy Buck: “Inextricably Woven”

Hello I am Zin and what could be better than books and art? Bookart!

These were not illustrations for books or books about art or books containing art but books as artists conceive them so they are not traditional books they are art pieces! This was an exhibition of the students from the Kate Cheney Chappell ’83 Center for Book Arts at USM!

This was part of the Portland First Friday celebration for April and happened the same day as the Edible Book Art Festival! I could not find many pictures online so I had to rely mostly on my own pictures which are not great but they may give you an idea of what happens when artists create books and reading them becomes part of an artistic statement!

Some of my favorites were by Sissy Buck who did the piece in the header photo. She also made a piece from her series “Fitting Words:”

In this series, “Fitting Words”, I have used the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles that I have done over the years (in varying degrees of completion) for my imagery. By enlarging the crosswords and printing them in layers of different colors using Xerox lithography, the abstracted images take on a different meaning and quality…another riddle or puzzle.

I love the NYT Sunday puzzles and no other puzzles will do! I photocopy them every week at the library so this was a convergence of all sorts of great things for me!

Artist Rush Brown also did a piece called “Susie Dancing” which I liked a lot it was like a cutout mural hung across the wall! He said he was the only man in the workshop at the time! I wonder why women are more interested in making books as art objects than men?

Many of the books took unusual form! Cynthia Ahlstrin made “Without Consent” which was an actual book turned into a shoe and because of the title hints at a very interesting story! In an “introduce yourself” video she talks about “getting away from rendering what you actually see and it becomes more of a conversation between the layers” and yes this piece did that! She also made a piece about a shoe and books that won an art show titled “Every Shoe Tells A Story” which is very clever!

Bonnie Faulkner is a glass artist but she played with book art and made “The Journey’s Angst” which was more of an accordion shape out of paper.

Libby Barrett (who has a fantastic website of wonderful book art where each piece is amazing) made “Summer Day” which is also like an accordion shape with haiku. Libby also made a wall hanging “30 Days” a wall book of postcards for a month!

I wish there was an album of professional pictures for all the pieces because many of them were wonderful! Elizabeth Berkana made a book out of playing cards and Tessa Jeffers made “Little Gold Dress Book” which was a dress made out of the folded pages of a book! Catie Hannigan made a weaving on one page with “I don’t think about you” on the other page! That was brilliant! Susan Colburn-Motta made a wonderful piece titled “Leaf Floating on Water” and she makes a lot of book art but I do not have a picture so you will have to take my word for it or keep an eye on the Center for Book Arts for their next exhibit or workshop!

My Secret Life as a Fourth Grader

Quite by accident, I found myself taking a Freshman Comp course.

How does one do that by accident? I noticed a tweet by one of the behind-the-scenes guys from my Calculus course, promoting his latest project: WexMOOC, the system attached to Coursera’s Writing II: Rhetorical Composing class. I didn’t realize it was the second half of Freshman Comp (I thought it was the actual study of rhetorical devices), but since I spent 15 weeks in Calculus whining “I’m a words person, not a numbers person,” I figured it was only fair I put up or shut up. I was also very curious about just how a computer would evaluate the writing of 25,000 students, and the only way to really find out was to take the course – to let it evaluate mine.

This generated a great deal of anxiety: what if I flunk? It’s one thing to risk a fail at calculus. Flunking writing is a whole different matter, ego-wise.

I do lots of things that aren’t acceptable in Freshman Comp. For instance, I digress, which is capital-b Bad unless you’re David Foster Wallace. But it’s how I think; it’s what makes writing feel like flying, and clipping my wings for writing class becomes like the last time I tried to sing, which is also like flying, in a choir, which is also like clipping my wings: most of the music was terrific, but after a while the director got on my case about my vibrato, and suddenly I couldn’t wait to get home from choir practice so I could sing and fly in my living room, which defeats the purpose of singing in a choir. But choir directors – and Freshman Comp teachers – don’t care about flying. Digressions = Bad.

I also nest parentheticals (one of the reasons I love Vi Hart is, she nests all over the place [sometimes dual nests, one on the audio, one on the video] and not only does she not apologize for it, it’s become – along with digression – one of her trademarks). However, in Freshman Comp, parentheticals, especially nested parentheticals, are Evil.

Punctuation is another mode of flight Freshman Comp teachers don’t like, unless they’ve changed since I last took a Freshman Comp course, which was, admittedly, some time ago. Back when the USSR was still the Evil Empire, in fact. Semicolons seem to be a bad thing, though I don’t understand why; they’re perfect when you want a little break in rhythm somewhere between a period and a comma. Em-dashes make teachers – and editors and online workshoppers – sad. In fact, most punctuation aside from periods, commas, and quotation marks, are quite stigmatized. You can use one exclamation point per 10,000 words (or 5,000 or page, the point is, they’re rationed, and that’s why I love Zin). Colons precede lists and lists alone, and only if you have a very good reason for a list. And speaking of lists, the Oxford comma makes Freshman Comp people downright surly, even though it’s functional, occasionally necessary, and historically proper.

Screw that. I want to fly. But I also wanted to see how WexMOOC works. One must sacrifice sometimes for Knowledge.

After poking around WexMOOC a while, I realized the computer is more of an organizer than an evaluator in this course. It would store our assignments, and manage the horrendous logistics of peer-evaluation, a mainstay of MOOC humanities courses. It would make sure each essay was read and evaluated anonymously by a set of other students from a range of experience and ability levels, and thus be a lot better than a message board rating system where, just like in high school, some people end up more popular than others and it has nothing to do with quality.

At least, that’s what I thought – until WexMOOC told me I write like a fourth-grader.*

The first assignment, which would not be peer-evaluated unless we re-posted it elsewhere, was a wide-open invitation to discuss how we felt about some aspect of writing or literacy. Since I’d just had a crisis of confidence following the Initial Course Survey (yes, basic demographic stuff is terrifying when it includes rating yourself as a writer from weak to strong), I used that experience as the core of my 800-to-1000 word essay (which follows).

Then I discovered the part of WexMOOC called “Analytics.”

It’s based on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scale which I keep calling the Jamaica Kincaid scale, much to my embarrassment. And not-Jamaica-Kincaid thinks I write like a fourth grader.

Now, I know I took this too seriously (it has nothing to do with the “grade” for this non-credit class which really has no grades) and far too personally. But when someone, even a software someone like WexMOOC, tells me I write like a nine-year-old, I take it seriously. And personally.

I vaguely recalled from my linguistics days that pretty much every American news magazine, such as Time, has about an eighth-grade readability level, and there’s a fourth-grade poet in this year’s Pushcart volume, so I wasn’t too upset. Just upset enough.

The internet contains numerous Flesch-Kincaid utilities, so I used two of them on some of the Pushcart essays available online. Maybe Time sticks to eighth-graders, but Pushcart writers go for high school sophomores, juniors even.

I was very depressed.

When I’m depressed, I listen to music, in this case, my YouTube Likes to cheer me up (I have a Wallow playlist for wallowing, but in this case, I wanted to snap out of it). One of the videos was Vi Hart’s Ted Carpenter commentary about audiences. I hadn’t listened to this in quite some time, and it was just what I needed to hear: all this talk about writing to your audience is fine but there’s value in talking out loud, too, which is what Vi Hart does. And pretty much what I do. That video also ended up as the backbone of my Project Runway recap, since one of the season-long conflicts there was about artistry vs. commerce. They could’ve had a bang-up season with that kind of theme if they hadn’t cheapened it with male strippers and fake drama. But that’s more digression.

Feeling cheered by Vi, I did more research. I put my own essay into one of the online Flesch-Kincaid. It should, of course, have returned more or less the same results as WexMOOC (minor variations always occur). But it didn’t. I’d been promoted to 9th grade. Seems my sentence count went from 129 in WexMOOC to 47 in both online Flesch-Kincaid utilities. That is not a minor variation.

I felt a lot better. The fault, dear writer, lies not in my prose, but in the computer that I am nine years old. I’m still worried I might flunk Freshman Comp, but at least I’ll do so as a teenager.

On Encountering the Participation Survey Question: “How would you characterize yourself as a writer (very weak/weak/average/strong/very strong)?”

Am I a writer?

I suppose it depends on your definition. If “a writer” is one who writes, then of course I am; most people are. Most of us write something, at some point. Maybe it’s a business letter to a client reporting on the progress of an evolving deal. Or maybe it’s just a line to personalize the Hallmark birthday card for Aunt Helen so she won’t feel like her family has relegated her milestone to perfunctory duty, or, more prosaically, a shopping list (produce first, since that’s where the entrance to the grocery is, then deli, then canned goods, pastas, pet foods, paper products and cleaning supplies, finally ending up with dairy and frozen foods before heading to the register).

But that isn’t what’s really meant by “a writer,” is it? No matter what the emotion, real or contrived, is conveyed to Aunt Helen, regardless of the organization and planning – the narrative, really, predicting the little tale of a journey through the supermarket – that goes into a shopping list, “a writer” is typically someone who writes for someone other than his family, or for herself, and for purposes other than necessities of daily living.

So am I a writer, or not?

About once a decade, I jump again into fiction writing, just to see if I’m still really bad at it: I recently learned, oh yes, I am. Maybe I’m just not good at storytelling. Maybe I’d rather explain or inform or enthuse than narrate. Maybe I’d rather say what I want to say than figure out how to configure characters and plots and symbolism to do it for me. My publications have been so few, and in such unmemorable venues (you mean you haven’t heard of Diddle Dog, Forge, or that 80’s classic, Camera Shopper?) they don’t even count as publications. I don’t even have an e-book on Amazon. I know sixth graders who have e-books on Amazon.

I do have a blog, subtitled “I’m Writing and I Can’t Shut Up,” but it’s in a dusty corner of the internet where few bother to tread. I like it that way. If I thought anyone were actually paying attention to me, I’d be paralyzed.

But here’s the thing: I think – I process the world – by writing. I’m processing this class, this assignment, these very thoughts right now, by writing.

When I read a story I love, I write about it. I explain to some imaginary blog reader who may live only in my head what I thought of when I read the story, where it took me, what I remembered that I hadn’t thought of in a long, long time. When I read a story I hate, I write about that, too, and say exactly why I hate it, often using those same tools of memory and association, perhaps to claim it didn’t take me where it should have (in my own opinion) or that it took me somewhere that offered me nothing. Or maybe that it refused to take me anywhere. I’ve even come to the point where I’m willing to post these observations on a blog, to publicly say, “I loved this” or “I thought this was stupid” and let others judge me, or not, for literary comprehension.

If someone breaks my heart, or if I’m yearning after something I can’t have, when I fail, I write about it. These writings usually remain private, but they’re a necessary part of recovery from the emotional spills of life. Sometimes I’ll be unable to sleep – all this stuff bouncing around in my head – until I’ve pounded out a page or two, at which point it organizes itself and becomes manageable: Oh, I see, I’m feeling rejected (or ignored or unappreciated or frustrated or or or…). Oh, I remember, I’ve felt this way before. Oh, it’s ok, I got over that then, and I’ll get over this now.

When I get terrific news, or fall in love, or conquer some mountain that once towered above me, somehow it isn’t real until I write about it. Often this writing remains private as well. It’s hard to brag in public, not only because it’s obnoxious, but because there may be those out there waiting to tell me that my joys are trivial, or, even worse, are interfering with their misery.

And that’s where the Participation Survey for this course comes in.

I spent a long time looking at two of those questions – “How would you characterize yourself as a writer/reader?” I know it’s not a trap. They’re meant to be guidelines for data analysis, to allow collation of statistics showing how people feel about their writing before and after the course, with the goal being to increase self-perceived ability. With tens of thousands of students signing up for these courses, they have nothing to do with someone looking askance at my evaluation of myself: “Really? That’s what you think of yourself, is it? We’ll just see about that.” They have nothing to do with the universe punishing hubris.

I hope.

Because, after spending most of the last 58 years writing, reading, reading about writing, writing about reading, thinking by writing, I finally found the courage to say: I’m a strong reader. I’m a strong writer.

I am a writer.

*The Flesch-Kincaid scale measures readability, not writing level; so while it indicates one must have fourth-grade reading ability to read, it does not actually place an evaluation on the level of writing. It just feels that way.

Sunday with Zin: Edible Book Festival

Hello I am Zin and I am back from my vacation! I hope everyone missed me!

While I was on vacation (and I did not really go on an actual vacation I just took a few weeks off from Sunday with Zin) I went to the Edible Book Festival at the Library!

I had a lot of fun with this last year and I did try for a while to come up with an entry but last year the guy who did the Banana Kareninut Bread with the little smashed banana Anna on the train tracks intimidated me especially since the year before he did Beer and Loathing in Las Haggis the year before and set a very high bar! But he was not there this year which was sad. There were other wonderful things though!

Pi(e) was very popular this year! The winners for both the Children and Adult divisions were about pi(e). But they were very different kinds of pi(e)!

A nine-year-old girl won for “Lord of the Pies” complete with broken eyeglasses and a pie-dough pig head bloodied with strawberry-rhubarb juice! I voted for it because I could not help but vote for it, but I was surprised other people voted for it! And I was most surprised that nine-year-olds are reading Lord of the Flies! She must be very special and I think her parents are probably very special too!

The adult winner was for Life of Pi which of course featured the life cycle of a pie arranged in a circle from the apples and flour to the completed pie! She had to put warnings on one pie to say it was not baked and should not be eaten (we were allowed to eat everything after the judging so taste was not a factor at all). But I had a soft spot for the book and she was clever so I voted for her too! I am so surprised I voted for the winners in both divisions!

Stinky Cheese Man came in third maybe not because it was such a cool rendition but because it is such a cool book! It is a Post Modern Book of Fairy Tales and right there I wonder if I have become so very old, that children are reading post-modern literature! But it is very funny and I enjoy watching the video because I like all that meta stuff! I wish we had meta fiction when I was little!

One of the prettiest entries was Gingerbread Man and it won a prize too. It was a very well-done gingerbread house book!

I voted for an entry that was not very pretty and did not involve any baking or really any food work at all but I appreciated the sign that accompanied it: it was an ordinary fruit salad in a plastic tub from the grocery store with a little note:

Literary Fruit Salad
One Pound of Cantaloupe, Ezra Large
one Sun Dried Raisin
A Half Cup California Grapes, Imported from Oklahoma
Five Small Peppers
One Diced Mango from South America (I think maybe it should be Mexico but I could be wrong)
Peach Jam from Giant Peaches

Now I have to come up with ideas again for next year! I still have this idea to actually make a book out of fruit leather and licorice laces and maybe big bars of chocolate. Except I probably will not but it does not hurt to think about it. It is always fun to see what people come up with.

Last Rites for CNN

Image by The Young Turks

Image by The Young Turks

CNN died this week.

Boy, did they blow it when on Wednesday they reported the fictitious arrest of a suspect who at that point hadn’t even been identified. But that isn’t even my biggest complaint about the television news media’s performance this week.

I follow very few Twitter accounts: 39 at the moment. My elected representatives. My local paper. A few political commentators I like. A couple of fun things. And a bunch of writers and literary magazines. So on Monday, when I suddenly had 30 new tweets in a few minutes, I figured something was up. And it was: an explosion at the Boston Marathon. A serious explosion.

The first question in this situation is always: Is everyone I know and love safe? I had no friends or family at the event, so I was spared that particular anguish.

I turned on the TV. Here’s what I wanted to know:

What happened?
Who did this?
Why?
Are people still in danger?

Instead, on MSNBC I heard a terrorism expert talking about… I don’t even know what he was talking about, but it had nothing to do with what I wanted to know at that moment. On CNN, I heard an on-site reporter, audibly nervous now that she was in the middle of a crisis instead of covering a recreational event, call in to say she was in a locked-down business and couldn’t see anything and had no access to any official. Then Wolf Blitzer used the T-word.

I turned the TV off and went back to Twitter, where the real information was.

I knew that – I lived in Boston for nearly twenty years – but if you’re not from New England, you might not, and it seemed an important detail. Don’t call your sister’s office; she’s not there.

That gave me a good summary of the situation; it was accurate, factual, and included what wasn’t known, inviting me to wait for an update when accurate information was available. And it wasn’t necessary to repeat it over and over and over to fill up hours of live coverage.

But the real difference was in the amount of information that was actually helpful:

This was all useful information, especially for people more closely involved than I, who had totally different needs for information. If CNN had been airing this kind of information, instead of useless reporters saying nothing just to avoid dead air – for that matter, if they’d just shut up for a few minutes and aired video with similar helpful chyrons from local officials – I wouldn’t have turned off my TV in favor of Twitter.

Maybe it’s different on Twitter if you follow hundreds or thousands of people. I’ve never understood how it’s possible to do that; it’s all I can do to keep up with thirty-nine. Or are you not supposed to actually pay attention to individual tweets? I’m a Twitter newbie, maybe I’m doing it wrong. And Twitter isn’t without it’s difficulties: in the middle of a crisis, previously scheduled items – whether an innocuous joke or even a perfectly fine book promotion – are annoying at best. And any idiot can set up a fake account and pretend to be anyone. But on Monday I became convinced of one thing: in a crisis, for breaking news, Twitter is better than CNN or MSNBC. The news people have become irrelevant now that we have direct access to the people with actual information.

For some reason I didn’t watch the networks on Monday; maybe that was different. I found the NBC coverage of the last phase of the Friday Night Standoff to be uninformative (since there was nothing to report until they took the guy into custody), but also unoffensive, whereas on MSNBC, Chris Matthew lost any credibility he may have still had when he asked the former FBI and AFT agents who were his interviewees if the FBI could determine the ethnicity of the suspect from the photograph, to see if he was “from Yemen or something.” Even the MSNBC segments hosted by Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, two of my favorite people in the world, annoyed me with irrelevance and the need to parade a constant stream of speculating experts.

But Twitter worked for me just fine. From now on, my breaking-crisis-news source is Twitter. It’s the death of CNN. And that’s kind of sad.

Remember how CNN started? Not the date they went on the air, which was way back in the 80s, but when they really came into their own, in January 1991 when Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett watched the start of the war live, up close, and personal from their hotel room. Today, that doesn’t seem like much. In fact, war correspondents have been covering combat since before WWI, and some of us grew up watching the Vietnam war on the evening news. But this was the first time we’d watched the start of a war, live, on tv.

But they’ve turned into something else, and they’re not really useful for breaking news any more. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, of course. It’s my go-to channel when I have 15 minutes to kill and have idle curiosity about what’s going on in the world. Fareed Zakaria has his moments on GPS. And I never miss Howard Kurtz and Media Matters, though it’s frequently just a way to poke competitors in the eye and call it “media analysis.”

The problem with 24-hour-news is, you have to have 24 hours’ worth of news. Or repeat the same news over and over, every hour. Or turn not-news into news. And when over time you end up with a bunch of competitors, you have to do that flashier, sexier, and above all – first. You end up with Wolf Blitzer holding a pressure cooker because props are good TV. You end up reporting the fictitious arrest of a suspect not yet even identified. Compared to that, the misreporting they did on the Supreme Court decision last June was a trifle.

Maybe it’s all about cutting costs, or about ratings, about replacing actual journalists with on-air talent who test well with focus groups. But it’s how you become something I watch when I have nothing else to do, instead of the place I go when something happens. It’s how you become airport news.

I tend to lag behind the curve. I didn’t get cable TV until 1992 (I saw the Gulf War reporting at a friend’s house). I only got high-speed internet a year and a half ago, for pete’s sake. And I just started using Twitter this year. So maybe I’m the only one who wasn’t aware that cable news, as news (as opposed to issues discussion and political commentary) was dead.

But I know it now.

What I learned from MOOCulus

This is an example of the way in which mathematics is a democratizing force: problems that at one time would have only been accessible to the geniuses on earth are now accessible to everyone. At one time in history, you would have had to have been the smartest person on earth to have calculated the area of some curved object. But now, armed with the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, we can all take part in these area calculations.

Jim Fowler, MOOCulus, Calculus 1, Winter/Spring 2013

I’ve commented before on my lifelong adversarial relationship with mathematics. But I can’t seem to leave it alone. And even The New Yorker knows writers should learn math. So yeah, I took another math course. Calculus, via Coursera. Fifteen weeks of (free) online math class. Sheesh. What am I, crazy? Yeah.

But this course was special.

How can you not have fun in a class where the teacher considers calculus to be a democratizing force? Where the windowsill features a bowl of coffee beans with a fork stuck in it, and there’s a shelf held up by a dozen Pellegrino bottles? Where lectures are sprinkled with references to LOTR and Douglas Adams (“Suddenly, A Whale…”) and video games (I’d never heard of Portal before, or the closing song “Still Alive,” and now I’m obsessed with it; it was the perfect theme song for the class)? Where videos feature little paper cutouts of a guy moving in front of a light to show his shadow lengthening at a rate related to his speed, drawings of gobbling and belching of functions (complete with music and sound effects), ninja sheep leaping over ladders, the integral monster conquered by donning a wizard hat?

“One does not simply walk into calculus”

Jim Fowler, MOOCulus, Calculus 1, Winter/Spring 2013

It’s hard not to become engaged in the process thanks to lead instructor Jim Fowler, who might be able to make a go of a supplementary career talking math with Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert the way Neil deGrasse Tyson talks astrophysics; who oozes enthusiasm for the subject and hangs out on the forums (as do the other team members) to answer questions and offer encouragement. Sure, I spent every Monday and Tuesday, when the new materials went up (sometimes Wednesday and even Thursday) tearing my hair out, cursing, and crying. But I couldn’t quit; I’d miss all the fun, and anyway, I couldn’t let these guys down.

I couldn’t let down Steve Gubkin, designer of the MOOCulus online exercises, who, when a student posted a comment on the forums about having the memory span of a goldfish, pointed him to a goldfish video with a Pete Seeger soundtrack. We really were never alone.

I couldn’t let down Bart Snapp who only got a little screen time early on but showed up regularly on the forums to address questions about the textbook he put together from existing open-source materials (and if you’ve priced calculus textbooks lately, you’ll know how much that’ll save you).

I couldn’t let down Tom Evans, who wrote the music that started each video lesson and who introduced me to the astonishingly beautiful mathematical music of Michael Blake during Pi Day festivities on the Forums.

And I sure couldn’t walk away from Jim, who somehow found time to drop by a Mathfic topic (new project: fiction related to math, similar to Updike’s “Problems“) I’d started on the Forums (of course I did, what else would you expect?) and recommend some particularly appropriate Jorge Luis Borges pieces. Who, even though he has a frightening array of academic degrees, never made us feel like Calculus – the Freshman Composition of the math department – was trivial. To the contrary: he radiated a thoroughly genuine excitement about topics he’s probably taught dozens, maybe hundreds of times before.

Lecture Topics:

“Morally, why is the product rule true?” 4.02
“Why Shouldn’t I Fall in Love with L’Hopital?” 7.03
“How Long Until the Grey Goo Destroys the Earth? 7.04

Jim Fowler, MOOCulus, Calculus 1, Winter/Spring 2013

I’ll admit, though: the first few weeks weren’t easy. I was a little worried for a while there.

See, this is what I was used to: I’d study a chapter (or, in this case, watch a video), take a test that measured how well I paid attention to the chapter/video, and the grade would scold or praise me. This is what I was expecting. This is what I’d trained for all my life. This is what education is all about: doing well on tests. Isn’t it?

But that’s not what this course was about. It wasn’t about being rewarded for diligence or punished for sloth. It was more of a system to get us to move from theory to application. To use what was in the video to reason out a way to solve the problem. The exercises were part of an overall learning experience, with a Hint button for when we got stuck so the MOOCulus system (written by Steve, based on the open-source code used by Khan Academy) could tell when we were struggling, when we’re ready for more difficulty, and when we’d mastered an application (though it’s not quite that sophisticated, at least not yet, but that’s the goal).

The weekly quizzes – which again, seemed unfamiliar at first – allowed virtually unlimited attempts, that pushed the concepts and applications to their limits, twisted things around so we’d recognize them from all angles. The idea of the exercises and tests wasn’t to judge me, to make sure I was paying attention in class, to see how smart or hard-working I was: the idea was to actually teach me something. Or, more accurately perhaps, to get me to learn.

“Mathematics isn’t just about isolated facts, it’s really about analogies between ideas… it’s like in literature where metaphor plays such an important role.”

Jim Fowler, MOOCulus, Calculus 1, Winter/Spring 2013

I discovered the underpinnings of this kind of thing about halfway through the course in an article by another Coursera teacher, who talks about what I now think of as “the bonobo method” in a HuffPo article. I wish I’d seen before the class started. I think I would’ve been a lot calmer had I realized I wasn’t supposed to look at the questions and know them all, the way I’d been doing it for a very long time.

And part of the idea wasn’t just to teach me calculus; it was to teach the team members how to teach calculus. Jim Fowler laid it out pretty clearly in a presentation (in an OSU session aptly titled, “Steal My Idea,” an attitude that needs more legs) that makes it clear how cool math education can be, and how MOOCs can be extremely beneficial to students and teachers.

But does it work? Did I actually learn any calculus?

Damn right I did. When it came time for the final – which, by the way, was announced as more of an evaluation than a learning experience – I zipped through nearly all of it without a hitch, only needing some time for the material covered in the final week or two. Ok, I’ll admit, I wagged the last question; it was multiple choice, with three attempts, so I think it would’ve been pretty stupid not to wag it. And I still have trouble with minus signs and remembering the derivatives and antiderivatives of trig functions. But I can’t believe how much I actually, really, truly learned. A long time ago, when my brain was a lot younger, I took an in-person calculus course. I got an outrageously high score (103, I think, thanks to bonus questions). But the main thing I learned there was how to write really small to fit every possible equation I might need on the single 3×5 index card we were allowed to bring into the test with us. This way worked much, much better.

MOOCs have seen some bad press recently (not helped by the ironically tragic, or tragically ironic, total meltdown of Coursera’s own “Fundamentals of Online Learning” course in February). Some of it is just the usual fear of anything new, the fear of impersonal technology taking over and losing the human connection. Yet in this online math course with thousands of students (35,000 to start) I felt more engaged with the course, more connected to the staff and the students, than I have in pretty much any in-person course, including some in pretty touch-feely humanities subjects. I had a blast. In Calculus. And this week, at the end of the course, many of us have left notes on the forum about how sad we are that it’s come to a close.

This was a triumph
I’m making a note here:
HUGE SUCCESS.
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.

- “Still Alive” from Portal (yet another cool thing I learned in Calculus)

Changing the Way I Read

It started last August, when I read Roxane Gay’s essay/call to action, “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere” about writers of color:

The world of letters is far more diverse than the publishing climate would lead us to believe. You only need to open your eyes and open your mind. I challenge everyone to pick five (or more) writers from this list with whom you are not familiar, look up their work, see what these writers are about.

Though the phrase “binders full of women” would become a laugh line a few months later, that’s exactly what she created: an online binder of the names of writers of color, with links to web pages and blogs, for anyone thinking they’d like to read (or publish) more diversely, but with no idea where to find diverse voices. Turns out, it’s not really that hard; you just have to look.

Like one of the good well-meaning people I am, I nodded my head in approval and did pretty much nothing to change my own behavior. Oh, I looked through the list, I noted who I’d read and who I hadn’t, and I bookmarked it. Did I change my reading habits? Not really.

I’m pretty much an impulsive reader. I click on links and end up buying a book on a whim (or, more recently, put them on hold at the library in my own version of austerity). This haphazard approach has mixed results. I have books from five years ago on my to-be-read shelf, and I have a book waiting for me at the library (library books have to get priority, since they, unlike me, have deadlines). But a lot of it depends on my mood at a given instant. If I were to pick a dozen must-reads from last year (besides the short story prize anthologies and literary magazines), would I pick those same dozen books I actually read? Probably not. Do I want to change that? Yeah, sure. Am I going to? Um, maybe later, I’m kinda busy right now.

Then, just last month, two near-consecutive media events convinced me to change the way I read.

First was Andrew Ervin’s response, also published in The Rumpus, to the VIDA report showing the wide gender gap in book reviews printed in the most widely-distributed and prestigious journals and magazines. Andrew discovered he, another well-meaning sort, was not immune: only 23.5% of his reviews were of books written by women.

The big question I face now is: What can I do to change this? I don’t want to be part of the problem any longer.

And that’s where I started some serious cogitation. I don’t want to be part of the problem, either. But I was still not sure what to do about it.

Then Media Matters published their report on the diversity of Sunday morning talk show guests, divided by White Men and Everyone Else (and that pretty much illustrates the issue right there, doesn’t it). Across the board, on all networks, a little more than 60% of the guests who got to explain their views to the American public were white men. Except for UP with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, where 57% of the guests were Everyone Else (for some reason, Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, also on weekend mornings directly following Chris on MSNBC, was not included in the statistics, which again, pretty much illustrates the issue).

Hayes explained the diversity of his guests to the Columbia Journalism Review:

“We just would look at the board and say, ‘We already have too many white men. We can’t have more.’ Really, that was it,” Hayes says. “Always, constantly just counting….

“You have to say, ‘We give ourselves this rule,’ and that’s going to force us to just be more resourceful,” Hayes says. “Because I genuinely don’t think there’s another way to do it. If you don’t do that then the inertia and the tide are so strong, unless you are committed as a priority to actively fight against it, you’re going to end up reproducing what everyone else does.”

You have to change, or you’ll end up doing the same old thing. That’s what Andrew Ervin said. That’s what Roxane Gay said.

That’s what I say.

So I’m changing the way I’m reading. Not entirely, of course. I’m still committed to the BASS, Pushcart, and PEN/O.Henry prize anthologies, to TNY and One Story. They come with some measure of diversity built in, particularly of gender. But the other reading – the impulse reading – that’s where I can make a small change.

The first step towards changing the future is seeing the present, and coming up with a measurable goal.

I created a spreadsheet of the books, using my Goodreads account, to get a statistical picture of my reading habits for the past couple of years. Leaving aside the anthologies, I discovered the following:

In 2011, 75% of the books I read were by White Men.
In 2012, 64% of the books I read were by White Men.
In 2013, 50% of the books I’ve read so far were by White Men.

At least I seem to be heading in the right direction. I could stop reading for the year right now… no, I have a better idea.

For every book I read by White Men, I’ll read a book by Everyone Else. I’ll stay at 50/50 for 2013.

[I had a whole riff about the strangeness of determining who's white and who isn't, but I got scared that it could be misinterpreted, so I deleted it. Then I realized I deleted something because I got scared, and that's not who I want to be, so I'm putting it back in again, and if someone wants to complain about it, go ahead.]

Some of this got a little tangled, of course. Nothing’s ever as simple as statistics makes it seem. The most fun exploration was, what is “white”? How do I count someone who’s biracial? And how do I find out race, when I don’t know anything about the author and the bio doesn’t say? Do I just find a picture and guess? And just what am I suppposed to do with Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, whose American father and mother from the Northern Mariana Islands “raised her on a yacht in the South Pacific”??!? At least she’s clearly female (and, by the way, her novella The Man Who Danced With Dolls is spectacular), so I can put her in “Everyone Else” and not worry about it. Hisham Matar, whose Anatomy of a Disappearance has been on my to-read list since I read the excerpt “Naima” in TNY, is on Roxane’s list, but not Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (or Etgar Keret, and I also want to read Suddenly, A Knock On The Door) – how do I count these?

Yes, I’m having a little fun with this. But I’m also glancing alongside a serious question: since “race” is so nebulous and meaningless, why have we as a society given it so much power? And can changing the way I read help to fix that? No, probably not. But at least I won’t be part of the problem any more. And the more people decide to not be part of the problem, the smaller the problem becomes.

My goal opened up more interesting cans of fascinating worms. Would I have been so quick to grab Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, on the strength of his wonderful Financial Lives of the Poets and guided by a bunch of awe-struck reviews, had I instituted this rule at the time? Maybe. As is, I’m sorry I “wasted” one of my White Men slots on it. I’m glad I didn’t spring for the Saunders collection – not because I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but because I’ve already read four of its stories – and adored three of them (but I wouldn’t have wanted to have wasted another WM slot on what would amount to six stories, see?). This is why (some) White Men worry about reverse discrimination: they know exactly what it means when you have to be better than everyone else just to seem as good as. They invented the game.

On the other side, I wasn’t really tempted by the new Diaz, though I love the final story; I just don’t really want to read more “Miss Lora“-style stories, and I’m more interested in the science-fiction novel the excerpt “Monstro” was taken from. I bypassed Alice Munro, for the same reason I didn’t check out Saunders; I’d read four of the included stories (at least I think they’re included), and while they’re outstanding, I wasn’t going to pop for the rest of them. So I’m not going to be reading books I wouldn’t otherwise read, just because they’re written by Everyone Else.

So am I changing the way I read, or not? Yes, but it’s not a matter of not reading books I want to read or reading something I’m less interested in – not at all. That’s usually the complaint about quotas – and let’s be honest, that’s what we’re talking about – that less qualified minorities will replace more qualified majorities. I disagree with that premise. I think it’s a matter of expanding the base of choices, and being sure you’ve got a full view of the field. And looking at what’s meant by “qualified,” which in the case of reading often boils down to: “Just how much of my desire to read this book is based on being able to casually mention to my friends that I read it?”

What this means in practical terms is that I keep expanding my field of vision. I see fifty, a hundred book commentaries every week (depending on how much attention I’m paying to Twitter and my feeds). It’s easy to remember the book everyone’s talking about. Just by the numbers in the VIDA report, the book people are talking about most is probably going to be a book by a White Man.

What if instead I kept a running list of books, paying special attention to those that don’t get that much attention, the books I only see mentioned once or twice, by someone who makes it a point to read diversely? A binder full of books by Everyone Else. What if I start thinking of a book as a little more interesting because it was written by someone who’s going to give me a different perspective, because it’s about a person, theme, event that isn’t familiar? What if I value Other Voices as much as I value Big Names? I can’t read every book that appeals to me, but I strongly suspect I can still read most, if not all, of my “must haves” and still keep my Diversity Quotient at 50/50 if I’m a little more mindful with my impulse choices.

I’m not trying to change the world here. I’m just picking a book to read. And I won’t be part of the problem from now on.

Zin is on Vacation!

Hello I am Zin and I am taking a vacation from blogging! Everyone should take a vacation once a year right?

I have too many ideas and no time to actually do any of them so I will not be posting for the next few weeks or maybe a month but then I will be back with more Literaria and next weekend is the Edible Book Festival and I will tell you about that too when I get back and other things as well.

Sunday with Zin: Naked Shakespeare

Hello I am Zin and on February 1 Shakespeare went Naked! And I watched!

Naked Shakespeare is a performing arts group in southern Maine that performs Shakespearean sonnets and brief scenes from his plays in everyday places like taverns and summer fairs without costumes or lights or scenery or even a stage! They just show up and speak! It is pretty remarkable! On February 1 as part of the First Friday festivities here in Portland they took over the Atrium of the library for a performance. It was quite strange because the Atrium is very small, it is maybe 30 feet wide, and people were sitting on the floor and wee littles were crying and people were coming and going and the actors never got distracted! It was amazing to watch them keep focused on what they were doing!

They had a special challenge because they were in the middle of the floor with nothing but a bench and people were lined up against both walls and the ends, so it was like they were in the middle of a rectangle of audience! They had to keep moving around so everyone had a chance to hear and see them up close and all of this was improvised which I think is pretty impressive when they are also performing Shakespeare!

Because of the time of year the theme was “Will You Be Mine” and the works were about love of all kinds from the love sonnets and the comedies to of all things King Lear and Cordelia! That was my favorite because the actors were really good! When Lear entered I think the whole audience was worried the actor was having some kind of medical problem he was so convincing!

I took a video recording of the Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…. Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising…”), a short scene from Measure for Measure, and a longer passage from Troilus and Cressida which I have never read or seen before. Because the actors were sometimes two feet away and sometimes fifty feet away the sound is a bit odd but it gives an idea of the very un-Shakespearean setting! At least un-Shakespearean as we are used to seeing Shakespeare performed now.

Good words and good performers work anywhere!

FLOODED: The Benefit for Longfellow Books

Imagine this:

You’ve got cancer. You’ve just completed a round of chemo with a new drug, a nasty one that not only knocked you on your ass, but knocked your white blood cells right out of existence, so you’re three days in the hospital on IV antibiotics trying to get the infection under control. You’re feeling like crap, so you haven’t had time to worry about the historic snowstorm – Nemo, some nitwit at The Weather Channel decided to call it – that started last night. It’s all white from your hospital bed, anyway.

Oh, and you’re the co-owner of a Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore, which you coaxed into existence when the bookstore you managed went under after the new Borders opened at the mall thirteen years ago. Of course, Borders is Books-a-Million now, but your little place is still there, though you get a little nervous every time a showroomer aims a cell phone at a best-seller, or you see someone sitting at Starbucks with a Kindle. Still, you love what you do, and that counts for a lot.

Your phone rings. Who’s calling on a night like this, a night white with snow? Ah, it’s your buddy, neighbor to the store, probably going to give you a pep talk. Ok, you’ve got the energy to deal with that. Though for someone who’s just been lying in bed for three days, you’re awfully tired. You hope it’s because your body is working hard along with the antibiotic, and maybe making new white blood cells to boot.

“Stu, I’m standing outside your store, water’s pouring down from the ceiling, alarms are ringing, fire engines are pulling up, they want to break down the back door… ” You wonder briefly if this is some kind of strange semi-hallucinatory reaction to the antibiotic, but the phone is very real in your hand, your friend’s voice is very real in your ear, and apparently the water and alarms and firemen are very real at your store. But you’re tethered to this IV bag with a length of tubing and to this bed by chains of fatigue, so you call your co-owner (who might also wonder if you’re hallucinating; hell, you still sorta wonder/hope maybe you are, yourself) and he says he’ll check it out.

He calls a little while later. There was indeed water pouring into the store from the ceiling. Water + books = not good. “Stu, the firemen were carrying books out of the way of the water! Double armloads of books! A Bucket Brigade of books! Firemen saving books! Like they’re children!” You wonder again if there’s something in the IV antibiotics that causes hallucinations.

But no. The storm blew in a window on the second floor above the store. Snow blew in and melted, which would’ve been bad enough, but the real trouble started when the pipes froze because that set off the sprinkler system that’s doused – ruined (sprinkler water isn’t clean and pretty) – half your stock. Only half your stock, thanks to the Portland Fire Department. But you’re going to be closed a while.

Maybe this is it. You’ve been selling books in one way or another since the 70s, but maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.

Turns out, the universe may be trying to tell you something, but Portland is telling you, Not So Fast.

Within two hours of the story being Twittered out by the Portland Press Herald, your Facebook page will have 200 offers of help.

Within two days, you’ll have to ask people to stop calling and dropping by the store as you clean up and try to figure out a recovery.

Within four days, the Maine Publisher’s and Writer’s Alliance will schedule FLOODED: An Outpouring of Literary Conversation in Support of Longfellow Books – and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo and a host of other Maine writers like Ron Currie, Jr., Bill Roorbach, Monica Wood, Moira Driscoll and Brock Clarke will all volunteer immediately for the panel – at the SPACE Gallery, which will donate the facility for the evening, since you’ve schlepped books the four blocks so many times for so many literary events over the years (Zadie Smith being the first, back in 2002), and Rogue’s Gallery will provide T-shirts at cost with “We Survived the Flood of 2013″ on the front and “Longfellow Books, Fiercely Independent” on the back for sale. The Benefit will sell out in less than a day, probably the quickest sellout in SPACE Gallery history. That night will be full of love, full of humor, full of books, full of talk about books and writing those books, full of t-shirts, full of readers, writers, and business people in a tiny city that won’t let its bookstore go gentle into that good night.

And this is the story you will tell.


Footnotes: Because this story was too important to me to be cluttered up by links, I’ve listed them all here:

Longfellow Books now scheduling readings just like old times
Zin posted about the flood; I wanted to get my two cents in, too, so I got to do this post about the recovery
FLOODED: An Outpouring of Literary Conversation in Support of Longfellow Books, organized by Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance – thanks for a great evening
WCSH-6 News Coverage of the recovery
Portland Playback Theater, a unique troupe dedicated to “the art of improvisation with real-life stories spontaneously shared by members of the audience” who donated the $900 in proceeds from their March First Friday performance
Richard Russo, who discussed how painful it was to write his new memoir, Elsewhere
Monica Wood, whose memoir When We Were The Kennedys Zin discussed last year after attending a reading at PPL.
Ron Currie, Jr., whose new novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles features a character named Ron Currie, Jr., who’s a writer…
Bill Roorbach whose new novel Life Among Giants about a football player’s tragedy started with the notion of fame
Brock Clarke who skillfully moderated the Fiction discussion in a hilarious direction (“There’s a lot of sex in these books”) so we didn’t get a chance to hear much about his latest novel, Exley
Moira Driscoll, actress, audio book reader, and gracious Memoir panel moderator
Rogues Gallery provided t-shirts which became an instant hit