Kindle courtship 

I’m the type of ultra-practical traveler who packs one jacket and no umbrella if there’s less than a 98 percent chance of rain (even if it’s pouring when I’m headed out the door, I might still decide not to bring the umbrella.) If I think I can get away with it, I’ll bring one pair of pants (two if you count the jeans I’m wearing). I hate excess luggage, and since I usually use a duffel bag, and don’t check anything, I know that whatever I pack, I’m going to be hauling around for at least a few hours.

But if I’m going to have more than 12 minutes of downtime somewhere, I always pack a book. For a week-long trip, I bring multiple. When I went to Taiwan to see my parents last summer (for two and a half weeks), I brought nine books. And made my mom take me to the library. Three times.

It was only a matter of time before someone bought me a Kindle. Opening my Christmas present from my brother was a strange mix of excitement, gratitude, and overwhelming guilt. I love books! They are tactile and comforting (and heavy, yes) and smell like paper. They are physical symbols of the enduring power of literature, language, and the struggle to express the human experience with the imperfect tools that words and syntax are.

The Kindle is sleek and convenient and light (these are selling points, I suppose). As soon as I opened the box, I started sifting through the free books on Amazon, and I relatively instantly had five different short story anthologies and Jane Eyre packed into a less-than-6-ounce device. On which the Oxford English Dictionary comes standard. Drool.

I took my new toy on the bus to work the next day. It’s much easier to hold the Kindle in my lap, and my wingspan is smaller, since I don’t have to hold open a page and worry about my elbows being in other people’s business. I couldn’t really get into the free short story anthologies, though, because they were somewhat haphazardly arranged, and the chapter navigation wasn’t set up well. I switched to Jane Eyre. I didn’t like reading Brontë sans book smell. I reverted back to the O. Henry Prize Stories, 2003, (also free, thanks LA Public Library system).

Fast-forward a few weeks. I took the train to my aunt’s to celebrate Chinese New Year’s and brought a full load of laundry with me. Trade-off: no books! My computer was on, so I decided to throw a book onto my Kindle. I’ve been meaning to read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, but it was $11.99. I’m fairly certain I can get it used for $5, max. I bought The Patron Saint of Liars instead, since it was $3.99. The whole process took all of two minutes, since Amazon has steadily reduced the friction of digital consumerism by storing credit card information on user accounts.

I read at Union Station for a few h0urs. When I stood up, I slipped my Kindle into the front pocket of my hoodie. It was all seamless and wonderful. After a few chapters, I finally got into the narrative, finally became less aware of pushing buttons as I read.

So: I’m definitely sold on the Kindle for convenience while traveling, but I still don’t feel like I’m reading a book. Which is maybe a good thing … I guess? (Clive Thompson rails against skeumorphs in the February edition of Wired — no link! I read the article in print, OK?) Something essential about the immersive experience is missing. [Just spent a good 5-10 minutes trying to find a batch of photos from a summer program, to pull one of me sitting under a lovely Bryn Mawr tree reading, but I think I archived it on my external hard drive and deleted it off my laptop.]

Anyway, books. I like pages. I like being able to flip back and forth between the page I’m reading on and the sneaky forshadowy passage from three pages back. I like the feeling of pages. I love that the most common type of hardcover binding is called “perfect binding.” I like being able to jot sarcastic notes in the margins. With a pen. And I like being able to correct typos.* (I am not kidding.) I also love browsing through used bookstores, picking up books at random, and judging them by their covers, their wear, and an arbitrarily selected excerpt that I determine.

I feel a healthy dose of Luddite coming on,** and I am also looking for a book recommendation for my Kindle. (Something that is fiction, typo-free, and less than $5, the general going rate for used novels in excellent condition at my favorite used bookshop.) Le sigh.

* OK, also, speaking of typos: WTF, mate? There were so many errors in Patron Saint of Liars, including more than 15 instances of “I” being replaced with “1,” a randomly inserted colon, and missing end quotation marks. Is that a Kindle thing? There is one mistake in Bel Canto (also by Ann Patchett — read it!); “vial” is written as “vile.” I edited it in my friend’s copy which I may have decided to keep, sorry, Linh! I will buy you another!

** For serious, my cell phone died just before my brother bought me the Kindle, and dude at the Verizon store said that they couldn’t fix the battery port, since Samsung stopped making both my phone and the newer version that replaced it. At this point, I might as well get a damn iPhone, but I refuse to let the Internet rewire my brain! For now.

Brain mush: Unintentional puns in translation

Kate and I drove past this poster on our way back from a late-night snack. The ad was at a bus stop, and it was pretty dimly lit, so my brain scanned the poster and went “intime” in French. (Click the word for pronunciation; I did not do well in the phonetics part of linguistics.*) I just got carried away with that footnote. Where was I?

Ah yes, I loved that my brain gave me a split-second reminder that I used to speak and see French on the regular. I hadn’t seen this poster before, and as it flashed by, my brain made a logical assumption that it’s an ad for a debonair cologne.

Another unintentional pun came up on Friday when I was having lunch with my aunt. We went to Cafe Surfas and she insisted that we order pretty much everything we thought was interesting from the menu (beet salad, lentil salad, a Lobster Sensations** panino and a lamb burger — and both entrées came with mixed greens). I was surprised that my aunt held her own, and she pleasantly reminded me that she’s not my mother (who has the stomach capacity of an average-sized toddler). I was all, “Oh yeah, you told me that she was never excited to eat when you had a 夜 餐 ( cān).”

I think my aunt responded first to my comment, then stopped and asked what phrase I’d just tried to use. I repeated it.

“You mean 宵夜 (xiāo , late-night snack)? There’s no such thing as 夜 餐 ( cān, which theoretically would translate as late-night meal, which, if we can say ‘second breakfast,’ should damn straight be a real phrase).”

My aunt, apparently, used to have my mom sit at the table to keep her company when she made midnight snacks.*** As she was telling me that, I asked her how to say “picnic.”

It’s “野餐 ( cān, ‘wild meal’ or ‘open-space meal’).” We both figured out where my mistake came from. Laughter ensued.****

I had a conversation a few years ago with a 外國人 (wài guó rén) about studying Chinese, and we started talking about visual and aural puns. He loved seeing and making visual puns — Chinese is built out of a series of pictographs, so radicals are placed together to create a type of accretive meaning (again, not good at this part of linguistics, ask an expert) — as he learned how to write. Since I’m functionally illiterate in Chinese, I tend to hear puns, and a lot of phrases in my mind have secondary layers of meaning created through associative relationships that someone who reads Chinese wouldn’t necessarily make, since Chinese is practically all homonyms. (Words are each one syllable, with one of four tones,***** so there are literally dozens of characters that represent the same sound, but have different meanings. Try typing in “you” in this dictionary.)

As another long-winded example, I’ve been trying to write a short story for years about how you’re not supposed to give Chinese people clocks as presents, because the phrase that means give the gift of a clock sounds like the name of a ceremony you go through when someone dies. Also for years, I thought that it was a symbolic thing, that giving someone a clock was a representation of how much time they have left to live. (This is, by the way, not an illogical conclusion — you’re not supposed to give Chinese people knives, either, since it might symbolically represent cutting off the relationship.) Spoiler alert! On the off chance I ever get around to writing that story, the twist is going to be that the main character got rid of everything that reminded him of the passage of time and completely disconnected from the conveniences of the modern world because of a misunderstanding.

These are the things that go through my brain. Multi-lingual friends, tell me I’m not alone!

* In case you couldn’t tell, I’m much more of a semiotics-type gal. I do, however, love the word “infixation” and what it means, although Wikipedia is now telling me that inserting a word instead of an affix into another word is technically “tmesis.” It’s, like, a whole ‘nother thing. Fan-bloody-tastic.

** I guess “Lobster Sensations” should have tipped us off that we weren’t getting real lobster. Oops. It was still a decent panino, but there was some mild chagrin on my aunt’s part.

*** She wasn’t interested in the food. I don’t know, maybe she’s not my real mother. Just kidding, Mom, I love you! I am also 97 percent certain that you will never read this footnote unless someone tells you about it.

**** This whole conversation was in Chinese, I just do not have the patience to look up each word on a Chinese-English dictionary. (That’s the nerdiest alt-text joke I’ve made yet, btw.) Also, I encode the bulk of my foreign-language conversations in English in my memory, so there’s this weird re-translation process that goes on, unless the phrasing of a sentence was particularly unique. Or I make a mistake and someone points out what I said.

**** There might be a fifth tone: I think it’s a kind of “and sometimes ‘y’ type thing.” This is why I’ve written poetry about feeling guilty for studying French.

Brain mush: Mind odysseys

"Paper Clips!" by Tyler Howarth

Got 10 minutes (in addition to the ones you were going to spend reading this post)? Make a list of everything you can do with a paper clip. No, seriously. We’ll wait for you here. Then read the first footnote.* (You should also know, in the interest of metablogging, that I threw this in here after completing the rest of the post, to justify the image.)

Udeitha: “I don’t think blogging is going to make you any more coherent.”

Yes, well, I don’t think another four hours of reading case studies and industry analyses will, either.

Work was a bit of a struggle for the first half-hour today; I was working with a student one-on-one on a draft of a short story that’s due Thursday — a story she’s been actively not writing for the last two weeks. We’ve made a ton of progress lately on varying sentence structure and incorporating more details, but for 30 minutes as I was working with her on fleshing out her main character, she become borderline nonverbal.

“Why is she going to miss her friends?”

“Because she likes them.”

“Why did she like them?”

“They were fun.”

“What makes them fun?”

“They’re not boring.”

“OK, think about your best friend. What’s your favorite thing about her?”

“I’ve known her for a long time.”

“How does that make you like her?”

“She’s fun.”

(I’ll let you guess what makes her fun. We finally broke out of tautology fun time after we discovered that the main character’s hobby was photography. She takes pictures of “everything.” Because it’s there. She takes pictures of leaves because it’s pretty.)

This is a 13-year-old who can correctly define words like “sardonic” and “impecunious,” but says “That’s weird” about everything. I have taken to saying “new adjective” every time she says “weird,” and we’ve probably cut usage by about 80 percent (down to 2-3 times/hr).

As a word junkie, I found today’s session excruciating, for myriad reasons,** and beyond doubting my abilities to engage youngsters, I was more than a little concerned with whether we (the education system, society, a not-quite-bibliophilic culture) are hampering our collective and individual abilities to articulate ourselves. As I worked in journalism and attended conventions of varying levels of nerdiness (ACES wins, on so many levels), I had the pleasure of hearing multiple experts remind us that readers have short attention spans. No one has the time or inclination to read complex analyses of issues. Lies. All lies! Everyone within a culture actively contributes to it, and pandering to shorter attention spans also creates them.

During my walk home — which was lovely, since I was heading west as the sun was tinging the clouds and contrails pink — I also started worrying about whether public education (or culture, or visual media, or whatever else) squashes creativity.  My friend Jessica, who works at the same academy, mentioned that her second graders freak out when presented with free-writing time. I loved free writing, and one of my favorite memories of elementary school is being part of an Odyssey of the Mind team in the fourth grade. I can’t remember what the activity was called, but we did a warm-up at some of our sessions where an adult would hand us an ordinary object, and we would pass it around the circle making up different explanations of what the object was. (Think “Props,” one of my favorite improv games.)

Now I’m wondering if I love improv, logic problems and lateral thinking puzzles*** because I’m just that type of nerd, or whether I was just inculcated with a love for challenges as an impressionable child. (And if that’s the case, if that’s possible, I am a complete advocate for breeding it in all children.) When I was about 7, my mother went back to Taiwan for a few weeks, leaving my older brother and me under the care of our engineer father, and I distinctly remember him tucking me in at night and asking me logic and math problems in place of bedtime stories.****

I suppose I’m a little anxious about the future and kids these days, as the prematurely old coot that I sometimes am. More than that, though, I’m disappointed, because I’ve seen the tremendous capacity for creativity that young people have, especially when they are given the opportunity to express themselves and placed in an environment of high expectations. We aren’t doing enough to foster divergent thinking, and it’s weird.

Update (completed about 20 minutes later): Speaking of creativity and the need for innovative solutions, I just read about this program: “Wash and Learn” stations student-teachers in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods to encourage young children to read or get homework help while their parents do laundry. (The student-teachers also gain one-on-one teaching experience, the parents get a little bit of quiet time, and the laundromat owner gains added value.) Also, this quote is just awesome:

For example, when Rodney Pearson, 6, walked in with a shy demeanor and a pair of drumsticks, Mrs. Smith asked him if he wanted to come over and read and he shook his head no. Then, as the boy was walking away slowly, she asked if he wanted to read about dinosaurs. He pivoted around and was soon sitting on a lap, lost in a tale of meat- and plant-eaters.

* I first heard of this exercise at a corps member-led CY session about rethinking public education, also how I learned of RSA Animate. (Watch this video of Sir Ken Robinson discussing new educational paradigms; it’s awesome.) Nick wanted to kick of the session by having all of us consider divergent thinking. Researchers did a longitudinal study, asking different groups to come up with all of the possible uses of a paper clip. Kindergarteners are able to come up with hundreds of uses, and as you move upward in age brackets, people come up with fewer and fewer responses. As Nick put it, highly divergent thinkers are less likely to restrict themselves by limiting the size of the paper clip — it can be a giant paper clip statue! I had my copy editing students (about 25 19- to 21-year-olds) start with this exercise last week, and the majority had fewer than 15, with only two who had more than 20. (It was earlyish on a Sunday, and they stopped trying after about 7 minutes.)

** Such as, for example, my student nonchalantly drawing on a textbook cover with a pen. (It’s hers, she had to buy it, so that makes it OK! I suggested that she resell it, but her dad donated last year’s books back to the tutoring academy … because he’s weird.) She was also manhandling a paperback against the edge of a table, until she realized I was cringing at her. (I just spent a few minutes trying to find that FoxTrot strip where Paige uses a paperback as a spitshield because her mother is raving about literature, and Andy stops, wipes her mouth and asks “Did you break the spine of that book?” That will be me, future children.

*** The childhood Christmas present I remember most clearly was a set of three books of lateral thinking puzzles.

**** He did also tell bedtime stories, for the record. There was an amazing one about an animal sneezing into an over-peppered bowl of noodles, which ends up as a wig on a hippopotamus — I guess you had to be there.

Three things: copy editing, food and community 

I started this post last Sunday (by which I mean I selected the three topics and typed fragments of words), and then I got distracted by packing and moving two years’ worth of accumulated books. All of the parts in italics below are the original notes I typed (open source, blah blah blah).

1) Copy editing

I got to teach in Haines A82 today, which was kind of awesome. [being a professor]
article, getting distracted forest for the trees, trees, forest — whatever, look at both of them!

That sentence, the fragments, two hyperlinks and the block quote below. That’s as far as I got.

I’m teaching copy editing training for ASUCLA Student Media for the second time this month (the first time having been in January). The January classes felt slightly less professional, since I had about 20 people crammed into the tiny conference room in the Bruin and then scattered around the advertising side of the newsroom. Last week, I got to teach out of Haines — a building in which I took a bunch of English and French literature classes — so I felt all kinds of grown-up.* (I was part of this!)

As an editing exercise, I pulled an actual DB article and introduced errors into it, so we could discuss content, style and story structure. Here were two paragraphs:

Brown stressed the state’s responsibility to make public higher education available to California students of any background and said private wealth should contribute more to this goal.

“(We need to) get every kid in this school that can qualify,” Newom said. “Everyone. Whether they’re documented or not.”

We went through graf by graf, and when we got to this part, almost everyone chimed in “‘Newsom’ is spelled wrong,” except one observant young copy editor who asked, “Isn’t that introduction to the quote wrong?” Yes, gold star. That was when I demonstrated how articulate copy editors are by saying something along the lines of “Don’t get so distracted looking at the forest that you miss the trees, wait, trees, forest. Look at both of them!”

I’ve written (and talked and rapped) fairly often about how copy editors are essential, serving as internal ombudsmen for newspapers and doing their little part to save the world, so I won’t go into more detail here. But copy editing. It is important. It helps you think critically. It, like being an English major, gets you all the jobs. And this is what it looks like.

2) Building community, social impact networks
City Year, Thought-luck, StartingBloc

Last Friday, I spoke (very briefly) at City Year Los Angeles’ Opening Day, representing CYLA’s third corps. Four alumni described their service and one current corps member described the foundation laid by the 525 corps members** who came before him.

City Year ceremonies are unabashedly wholesome and cheesy.  Case in point: When our then-very pregnant ED took the stage at our graduation in June, one of our program directors played Justin Bieber’s “Baby” as her entrance music. Also this is what I said:

My name is Audrey Kuo and I proudly served in CYLA’s third corps. At John Liechty Middle School, 79% of our students passed math, up from just 30% at the beginning of the year.  I was one of 150. I gave a year and changed the world.

Cheesy, yes. And yet, right before the alumni+one spoke, CY played a clip from MLK’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon,*** and Dr. King intones:

You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

The copy editor in me thinks about how nice it would be if making your subject and verb agree would be a great way to serve, but the hopeless idealist shushes her, and then we speak, and this year’s corps bursts forth (i.e. runs screaming and cheering from hiding spots behind and around the sides of City Hall), and it’s all a little bit wonderful. Working with youth in under-served communities is hard, and it burns people out. It is amazing to see 210 fresh faces (well, 190ish fresh faces, 20 or so faces having completed a year of service already) rushing in to serve the same students my co-workers and I have worked with over the past four years.

Continuity, circles, service, youth, yay.

3) Food: security, etc.
Originally meant to be the second section. Notes: “chloe chicken nuggets”

Sesame Street ran an hour-long prime-time special on food insecurity last Sunday, and it was one of the best-edited pieces of television I’ve ever seen. (I immediately went online to check for job openings, because I wanted to be part of the awesome.)

Eventually, I'll post images that aren't just screen caps of other social media.

I heard about the special through a Reuters link posted on Google+, which seems to bring me much cooler information than Facebook. (More speculation on how I set up social media networks later.) The program did a great job addressing food insecurity and different ways to increase access not just to food, but to produce: supporting food pantries and community gardens, taking back food deserts by sponsoring farmers markets and CSAs. I seem to have met a ton of people recently who are working with community gardens, urban gardening or nutrition classes tied to school gardens, and it’s great to see the message being spread at such a young age. (More links and fuller recap tk.)

Leave me comments. Talk about copy editing or food or community or all of them all at once.

* At one point (after discussing that block quote), I reiterated how important it is not to miss content issues in error-laden paragraphs, and a bunch of people stopped and took notes on what I was saying. One girl was clearly underlining for emphasis. What?!

** Speaking of copy editing: This number is technically inaccurate, since it double-counts corps members who returned as senior corps members the following year. From the third to the fourth year, that was just over 20 CMs. Not the point, but still. Also, while we’re nit-picking, I gave two years. I changed the world twice.

*** (The title of which, incidentally, was an answer to a question at AAJA LA’s Trivia Bowl on Friday — more on that here.)

T+N: Books and circles

T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation.

I’m in the process of packing up my apartment, or perhaps more accurately, I’m rediscovering my blog as a way to procrastinate, instead of packing up my apartment. I’ve only been able to bring myself to pack up one of my bookshelves — the one in the living room* — and haven’t touched the three in my room. I’m pretty sure that once I do that, my room will no longer feel like a living space.

This (23 months) is the longest I’ve lived in any place since leaving home for college, and I think it’s become pretty apparent that my nesting instinct involves surrounding myself in the comforts of poetry and prose. I prefer buying books used, but if I read a book and have any kind of emotional reaction to it, it becomes really important for me to hold on to that specific copy, which probably explains why there are now more than four bookcases worth of books for me to pack up and transport to my new home.**

I originally posted this note, “Books and circles” on Facebook, on July 7, 2010, after visiting my mom’s cousin. I was in Taiwan for just under three weeks, in between my two AmeriCorps terms:

When I was eight, I read the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. I have this vivid memory of being sprawled on a living room floor in Taiwan in what I thought was a family friend’s house, completely caught up in the story, then trying to finish the entire series before I left the country. I remember getting to the part about Aslan and the stone table in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and figuring out it was an allegory, and that was the moment where I realized authors are badass because they can, like, do things with books and words and metaphors, and readers are all, “Hey, I was just reading this story about animals, but it’s actually not even about animals.

Today, I went with my mom to see her cousin, whom she thought I hadn’t met and whom I didn’t recognize. The first thing she said was that she remembers the first time we met, when I was lying on the floor reading while all the other kids were playing. (Me: “Yeah, that sounds like me.”)

I asked if I had been reading the Chronicles of Narnia, but she didn’t recognize the titles or author until my mom repronounced “C.S. Lewis” in a Chinese accent, and then my mom’s cousin walked into a bedroom and came back and presented me with the boxed set that I’d read 16 years ago. Later in the conversation, my mom mentioned that people call her cousin Zhang 老師 (teacher), and that name fit into the memory and explains why I thought I was with non-family.

Now everything makes sense, and the universe feels oddly tidy.

Also, my aunt (Chinese people don’t bother with numbering and removing cousins, thank you very much) is an amazing woman who’s dedicated her life to helping other people, and it was lovely to meet her for the first time again.

P.S. Anne Fadiman’s essay “Marrying Libraries” in Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader, about how she and her husband joined their collections, is a great piece about many book-related things, including how individual books become imbued with the memories of the times you read them.

[Actually, I think I’m attributing something Mark Z. Danielewski said at the Festival of Books to Fadiman, but when he said what he said, it reminded me of her essay, and I don’t have that book or a transcript with me to check exactly what words either used. (Embarrassing admission: I checked Amazon to read part of the essay and googled my #latfob livetweeting, but the essay cuts off on the preview, and I didn’t tweet what MZD said.)]

This note was supposed to be shorter than it’s becoming. I could easily tack on something about meeting my mom’s other cousin’s husband in England, who owns a used bookshop, and knowing he was family even though he was technically an elderly English gentleman I’d never seen before and hadn’t heard of until a few weeks earlier. Or about talking to him about C.S. Lewis, too. Or about how I came down to breakfast a few days later and a first-edition Great Expectations was just sitting there, next to a plate of scrambled eggs. Or about Ex Libris or about reading as a kid and having to be “woken up” from books, which Fadiman talks about in the preface. But I have a boxed set to go browse.

Summary: Books are important.

-30- Facebook note

Update: I just reread this note and was amused that I mentioned using the Internet to figure out whether I was referring to the right texts. I think that impulse is heavily influenced from years of copy editing and fact-checking, which in turn was both influenced by and magnified by an unhealthy need to be right. I’m working on it, I swear.

My mom’s cousin passed away a few months later. She was battling cancer when we went to visit and was a little low energy, but she was still making sure that they people she helped were taken care of. Along with all of the people she helped through her church, she had a huge influence on my closest two cousins when they lived in Taiwan for a year as kids. After we talked about The Chronicles of Narnia, she asked about what I do, and it was the first time I had a conversation about my job with a member of my family and felt like they got it. My mom was there, of course, and I think she finally got a clearer picture of why I had decided to enlist in a second City Year. My parents have always been supportive and always tell me they just want me to be happy, but from my aunt, it felt like she was actually giving me her blessing to continue working with students.***

I now have my own copy of Ex Libris, a serendipitous stick-everything-in-a-box book sale acquisition. I was thinking about the essay “Marrying Libraries” the other day when one of my new roommates talked about filling our new living room with bookshelves so that we can read each other’s favorites and merge our book collections. I had a really awkward moment of intense discomfort, followed by a “we’re not there yet” conversation. This is one of my best friends, one of the first people I came out to, one of the only people I’ve ever let touch me with bare feet (this is really just illuminating more of my neuroses than helping me to make my point). As I said above, I prefer buying used books, and I’m a huge advocate for borrowing and lending books  — but I’m not ready to intercalate anyone’s books with mine yet. And, in a hugely nerdy way, I realized that “Marrying Libraries” has become my benchmark for choosing someone I want to spend my life with. When I’m ready to call my books ours, that’s when I’ll know.

* Living room bookcase consisted of theory books, memoirs, anthologies and assorted books I bought and haven’t gotten to sorting yet. It was also supplemented by two file boxes with more books, courtesy of a few dangerous stick-everything-in-a-box-and-pay book sales at The Last Bookstore’s warehouse and the UCLA English department’s reading room. These were also, one might say, books that haven’t entered into the circle of trust and are therefore allowed to be out in the open.

** There’s a huge backyard and space for people to come over and sit and there are citrus trees in the backyard and there’s lavender in the front yard and a kitchen nook with adorable carved benches! Dinner parties! Sangria in mason jars in the backyard! Urban gardening! Herb-infused everything! I am very excited! Can you tell!?

*** My mom called and retroactively gave me her blessing a few months ago and told me she was proud of the work I’ve done. I think the turning point was watching the Heroes graduation video I cut together; you can’t see the Heroes and not understand how important youth development work is. They are one of the most inspiring groups of people I have ever had the privilege to spend time with.

Three things I’m thinking about: math, bikes and cynicism

1) Standardized tests, blaaaaaaaaargh

Over the past two months, I’ve been teaching an ISEE math prep course at a tutoring academy, helping students about to enter the sixth grade take a test to place into competitive private schools. Obviously, this brings up certain amounts of angst related to class, race, my notions of the importance of enjoying the summers of your childhood and my absolute disdain for standardized tests.*

I recently found this communitychannel video about how math problems aren’t relevant in real life, which is hilarious but did not make me feel better: “So you remember those crazy math problems they made you solve in school? Yeah, what was that for?”

(I love Natalie, but she’s not kidding about having forgotten how to solve these problems. Check out the problem at 0:26 — her friend would be 0 years old, and her friend’s sister Anna would be -5.)

One of the challenges I had while working with students from high-poverty neighborhoods over the last two years was in drawing the connection between schoolwork and real-life application. But thinking about it now, I realize this isn’t an issue that’s relegated to low-performing schools. I struggled in middle school, not because the material was difficult, but because I felt that all of seventh grade, except for algebra, was a waste of time — the curriculum wasn’t interesting, and the coursework was less challenging than what we’d done in elementary school. I was disconnected from my classes because I wasn’t being asked to think.

Back to standardized tests: I think they’re terrible. The students I worked with over the past two months are pretty advanced in math (they can easily manipulate positive and negative numbers, fractions, decimals, etc.), but they’re becoming intellectually lazy. I commonly asked them to explain how they solve problems, and a lot of the time, they were using guess and check. As a test-taking strategy, this is excellent. As a learning strategy, it’s terrible. My solution, or as close to a solution as I came up with, was to create my own problems for them to solve, mixing concepts and adding unnecessary language so that they had to decipher what information they were looking for and how to solve for it.

The middle school I worked at from 2009 t0 2010, uses connected math, a conceptually interesting approach that pushes students to conceptually understand curriculum by identifying patterns and making discoveries. Why “conceptually interesting”? Because it wasn’t effective. My students didn’t have a strong enough foundation in basic arithmetic to identify patterns, and they were expected to fulfill learning standards that were dependent on previous understanding.

David Bornstein provides great analysis of some of the problems with math education in “A Better Way to Teach Math“:**

Despite the widespread support for “problem-based” or “discovery-based” learning, studies indicate that current teaching approaches underestimate the amount of explicit guidance, “scaffolding” and practice children need to consolidate new concepts. Asking children to make their own discoveries before they solidify the basics is like asking them to compose songs on guitar before they can form a C chord.

The rest of the op-ed is interesting, too, and since you’re following a link, it won’t count against your NYT quota.

Natalie’s video sticks out for me for two reasons: One, I feel complicit in the class-based test disparities. Two, I don’t think it’s true that we don’t encounter crazy math problems or that we don’t need math. As Natalie says, “In real life, people just tell you the answers.” In general, people are comfortable saying they’re bad at math, in a way that most wouldn’t be OK with admitting they were illiterate. It’s a bit frightening, if you ever poll a group of journalists, to see how many struggle with math;*** since accurate holding-truth-to-power bad-assery is contingent on thorough, comprehensive data analysis. Compound poor math reporting with the general public’s shaky math skills and misinterpretation of statistical significance, and think about how easy it becomes for those who do get math to mislead and manipulate.

Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” provides a bunch of interesting examples of how people misinterpret numbers and statistics. (Ironically, it’s as much about the theory of randomness as Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” is about irony. It’s mostly just random in the meta sense, and it also kind of provides more biographical information about mathematicians than seemed absolutely necessary … or interesting. Wait, here, just read my GoodReads review if you’re still on this parenthetical.)

So my point, I guess, was that standardized tests, are like, the opposite of learning, but that math education in general is flawed, anyway. I find myself using math all the time — mostly for basic computation, which I will concede that calculators do faster — and I also find myself wishing all the time that strong number sense and conceptual understanding of probability was seen as more critically important. But hey, I also think that about literacy, poetry, sustainability and ethics education.

2) Biking is awesome

I always plan to go on bike rides, but the activation energy involved in getting my bike down the stairs and out the front door and two gates often stops me. I went to a Meetup on Wednesday at The Last Bookstore about using the city as a creative canvas, and hearing everyone else talk about biking was a great catalyst. I biked to my friend’s new apartment on Wednesday, and it took about half as long as it would have by bus. I also biked from her place to work the next morning and beat the bus that GoogleMaps suggested. (I had looked it up because I was worried about tutoring students drenched in sweat, but I got there early enough to cool down, anyway.)

I only went about six miles in all, but it was wonderful. I felt completely in control and free from the clutches of LA traffic. LA public transportation is not what I would call reliable, and walking places limits my exploratory radius. I’m also a fan of mixing Metro and biking, at least until I get in better shape. I always forget how freeing biking feels, but getting somewhere using myself as an engine completely changes the way I view the city and my own sense of agency.

3) Cynicism, and our struggles against it

OK, let’s be real. When I started this post as “Three things I’m thinking about,” I was planning on writing about 300 words on each topic, but I got a little carried away with the math part.****

This conversation continued for five more comments. I may digest/analyze them more later, but if you're reading this blog, we're probably Facebook friends, and you can just find it yourself.

In any case, I was also going to write something about the struggle between cynicism and idealism, the search for meaning and everything else that I write about on this blog and elsewhere, always.

The LA Times ran an article last week about the use of facial recognition software in advertising, and I was most disturbed by the kicker (I’m literally rehashing the image, sorry), a quote from a 27-year-old who describes himself as “hyper social”: “It’s not that scary. … I always get upset at new Facebook privacy settings, and then I get over it.” Umm, just read the image.

I also just finished reading “Up, Simba,” David Foster Wallace’s article about John McCain’s 2000 primary campaign, in which, inter alia, he discusses how deep political cynicism among young people helps incumbents:

“[T]he lower the overall turnout, the more the Establishment voters’ ballots actually count. Which fact then in turn … helps explain why even though our elected representatives are always wringing their hands and making concerned noises about low voter turnouts, nothing substantive ever gets done to make politics less ugly or depressing or to actually induce more people to vote: our elected representatives are incumbents, and low turnouts favor incumbents for the same reason soft money does.”

Speaking of DFW, NYT Magazine blames poorly done “post-ironic sincerity” on him, sort of; the problem is that his writing style, part of his appeal, is also infectious (see this blog, for one):

And if, even from Wallace, the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach grates, it is vastly more exasperating in the hands of lesser thinkers. In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.

The problem is that people adapt DFW’s approach of not explicitly making arguments without simultaneously undermining them as a way to say outrageous things and pretend that the hedging makes them somehow less culpable. (See also Jon Stewart criticizing the ways in which TV networks abuse the question mark.)

DFW was not unaware of what he was doing; Maud Newton, in the NYT Magazine article, quotes Keith Gessen, who “applauds Wallace for ‘trying, at last, to destroy’ the oppositions between ‘irony and sincerity, self-consciousness and artifice.'” Read “Up, Simba,” and it’s painfully clear that Wallace is aware of how deep cynicism, posturing, awareness of cynicism and further posturing, paranoia about posturing and insincerity are all ruining everyone’s belief in everything, or something.

But Wallace also urges voters to get beyond their cynicism, or at least to acknowledge their complicity and the inescapability of the system:

“Let’s pause here one second for a quick Rolling Stone PSA. Assuming you are demographically a Young Voter, it is again worth a moment of your valuable time to consider the implications. … If you are bored and disgusted and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”

OK, fine, so I guess I wasn’t done with the post and, also, that the three things are somewhat related. It upsets me when my students shut down instead of trying to figure out a problem, because it reflects years of being conditioned not to expect to think. I really like Michael Gerson’s phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (if not the reasons behind the coining of the phrase) — it makes a lot of sense in the context of education and learning outcomes. On a broader scale, too, our cynical acceptance of low expectations allows the perpetuation of systems of oppression and eroding personal rights. Inaction always supports the existing power structures.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”  — Bishop Desmond Tutu

You should leave me comments. Do I need to end posts with questions so people will reply?

* I should note that I hate standardized tests in a conceptual sense, for their purported ability to measure anything more than how well an individual can prepare for that test. As a nerd, I kind of enjoyed taking standardized tests in school,^ the same way I enjoyed math competitions, Odyssey of the Mind, and the WordMasters challenge. Once I hit middle school, though, the tests became much less interesting, and I became conceptually aware that they were taking away from instruction time.

^ Cf. this morning, when I woke up at my friends’ apartment and everyone else was asleep or at work. The only books they’ve unpacked were pop lit, a GRE prep book and a GMAT math review book. I went for the GMAT first, but got bored after taking a few chapter tests. I tried reading the GRE prep book, but it seemed kind of silly, since I’ve already taken the GRE. (This is also why I try not to go anywhere without my own books.)

** Article search deconstruction: I had the sense this article was somewhere in my gmail archive, but I realized that there were probably a ton of similarly tagged e-mails. I then tried to search for the opening quote about people being OK with announcing they’re bad at math, but realized that wasn’t specific enough either. Then I remembered the sentence “Is that a good day or a bad day?” (in his example about adding and subtracting integers). Third search result.

*** Of course, an informal poll of just a roomful of journalists wouldn’t give you a very reliable statistic. But since you’d be working with a roomful of journalists, you could probably get away with it by throwing out a bunch of percentages and interjecting “standard deviation” a few times.

**** (Pun intended, always).

The best books I never read, cont.*

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I feel like I should apologize for blogging relatively infrequently of late, but I don’t have a strong sense of whether people are checking for updates or are just following links from Facebook and Google+. I’ve been working on a short story and just did a book review of Tim O’Briens The Things They Carried for … Continue reading

The best books I never read

“… strong texts tend to become so familiar, even to people who have never read them, that they become part of what exists, at least a distort of them does. It is very strange to read something supposedly familiar, The Gospels, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and to find that it is quite unlike our mental version of it. Without exception, the original will be as unsettling, as edgy as it ever was, we have learned a little and sentimentalized the rest.”

— Jeanette Winterson, “Writer, Reader, Words” in Art Objects

On Saturday night, my friend Lorena and I started discussing books we haven’t read, and I was reminded of this quote (which I had recently rediscovered while flipping through old journals — I copied the entire passage I linked to above by hand). Specifically, Lorena was worried about reading Brave New World, because she was worried it wouldn’t live up to her expectations. Still, she had a sense of what the book was about, which was what reminded me of Winterson’s argument that familiar books become part of what exists — and as I was describing it, I mentioned the idea of works seeming less edgy once they become part of societal context instead of challenging or upending it, which, actually, is not what Winterson said, so when I reread the quote while typing, it was all meta and performative and mind-blowing.

As I mentioned before, and will blog about more in-depth … sometime, I just finished reading “The Most Human Human,” which I’d been meaning to check out since Brian Christian did an interview about it on “The Daily Show,” which aired on March 8. Before I read the book, the idea of the Turing test was rolling around in my brain for months, especially in relation to research/philosophizing I was doing about social media in relation to job applications.

I think the concept of not being able to unknow things is incredibly fascinating (in the same way that I think the concept of wanting to go back and change the past is bizarre, since every random moment in the past influences the present moment, and it’s impossible to know what else would be different).** Think about all of the books you haven’t read that you still consider familiar,*** or the pleasant shock of discovering that a text you thought was familiar was unsettling. As I was applying for master’s programs in comparative literature about two years ago, I had a long conversation with an assistant vice provost from UCLA about my romanticization of literate culture in England; I love the idea of culture being steeped in texts (and served with crumpets), as when I went to breakfast at my mom’s cousins place in Felixtowe, and a first edition of Great Expectations was just chilling next to the toast rack and very cheddary scrambled eggs.

That may also be why I love books about books and writers who write for readers, like Jasper Fforde and his Thursday Next series, which I think are enjoyable whether or not the reader is extremely well-read, but truly understanding and catching all the references requires a fairly deep knowledge of literature.****

I think another way to interpret my headline, “The best books I never read,” though, is to think about some of the classics I read in elementary and middle school when I was largely reading for plot. I think if I went back and reread them, I would experience that same unsettling feeling to find that old-school writers really just were that edgy with their quill pen and inkwell badassery.

* Coincidentally, I was disappointed by the second half of that book, because I’d read the beginning when my older cousin brought it with her on vacation, but I didn’t finish it before she left. I never got around to checking it out of a library, so I didn’t read the second half of the book until my sophomore year of high school. During the intervening three years, the ideas of human engineering to maintain societal castes rolled around in my mind (and “The Matrix” came out, etc.), and I was really excited to finish the book, but didn’t really enjoy it as much as I had expected to.^

^ I now have no way of knowing whether I would have enjoyed the ending more had I not had such high expectations, or whether I would still have been disappointed and that would have tinged my view of the opening.

** Tangential thought: I love re-reading books, and am firmly in the “you can’t reread a book” camp, since you bring your context and environment and mood with you with each “re-reading.” I read Maniac Magee about once a year after first reading it in elementary school, and at some point in late high school or college, I teared up at Grayson’s death, the first time I cried while reading that book.

*** For example, earlier in the evening during which I had that conversation with Lorena, someone asked us to name the book and author from whence the quote “The only people for me are the mad ones.” I guessed “a beat poet,” then Kerouac, then On the Road. (I’ll get around to reading it soon, I’m sure.)

**** Incidentally, I love that Lemony Snicket makes similar references in A Series of Unfortunate Events (cf. Sunny Baudelaire’s “gibberish,” e.g. throwing around Latin roots or calling Count Olaf’s ambiguously gendered henchperson “Orlando”).

Do we make history, or does history make us?

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Two of my math students mentioned today that their essay tutor had assigned them the topic “Do we make history, or does history make us?” They said they didn’t really understand the “history makes us” part of the prompt, so we discussed it a little during our break; I asked them if they keep journals, … Continue reading

T+N: Meaning of life and stuff

T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation. The excerpted paragraph was from a freakishly long (1,833 words, if you’re curious) … Continue reading