Que?

I was listening to Kate Bush today and thumbing through my approximately 30 gig of music (and for the record, I wish I had more).  I remember when ITunes first came out with the data analyzer that attempts to make recommendations based on your library.  It was doomed to fail in so many ways (one because I have enough items that ITunes does not carry that it would be hard to adequately analyze if the case- my collection- has so much data that has to be ignored as unknown), but the errors are an interesting problem.   I have felt like much of my life I have been dismissed as an outlier.  In statistics, it is a convenient way to discard data by saying, in essence, “it does not fit anything we can use and is so far out of our margins of experience we can just throw it out”.

In data mining, eclectic cases could be interesting- but because they do not neatly provide predictive lines of analysis, they are more often than not dismissed as noise in the data.  Think of smoke coming out of your toaster (which is how I thought of ITunes when it tried to send me recommendations.  It was frying itself a little trying to make matches.  And yes, this is a vague reference to flying toasters.  And no, not from BSG).   “Noise” or errors in the data can also be used to refine pre-existing category systems (think when Photoshop tries to delete an object then insert surrounding inferential data to fill in where the object was removed), so that the greater the possibilities of realization of a concept is explored in real experience, it adds to the complexity of how that idea is understood and manifested, or reflected back.

On Facebook, I tried to limit the amount of information that could be freely collected by the site and its “partners”.  One of the things I did was put in a wildly inaccurate birth date.  I like messing with data mining.  I purposely have a small friends group too, so anyone who knows me well already knows my birthday and knows my penchant for messing with freeloading data systems.

When one knows oneself, we know the parts that are ridiculously stereotypical and the parts that are eclectic.  The mash up and resulting paradoxes are, I think, just part of being human.  Go figure that one out cognitive science- ok, I know people are trying but really- so many current models are so inadequate or just rehashing problems philosophers and early psychologists have better articulated.

There is something to the notions of innovation, eclecticism, and creativity that is compelling.  I formally studied these ideas long and hard for many years, for altruistic reasons as well as knowing I was a thorny case for the subject.   I found satisfying models and metaphors in work from people like R. Sternberg (the concept of Practical Intelligence), from the bulk of expertise research, the personal musings of many artists, musicians, and writers, aesthetics, and many other sources.   At the same time, there is an element of the wisp of smoke coming from a toaster about the idea of creativity; to try to understand open ended, eclectic thinking is to sometimes burn out the very tools of analysis you are bringing to the subject.

On a practical level, I have enjoyed the research that quite definitely shows if we do not use our brain in challenging and novel ways it will atrophy, and contribute to dementia.  As often as I feel like a complete alien in every culture and subculture I have been in, it is comforting to know my “sideways” way of viewing things may be helping me age better.  But does that also mean we are doomed to always be incomplete, constant learning beings if we are to survive, and survive well- thereby possibly both limiting our usefulness (incomplete, exploratory) as well as making us adaptable?  Ah, to be or not to be (apologies to WS).

We romanticize creativity, but in practice most folks are terrified of things that are different, and skeptical of the new.  I am not an early adopter of technology (one because I can’t afford to be), but I am deeply interested in what objects and processes new technology is applied to. I have been called blissfully naive in my life, and I took it as a put down.  But looking back, it was a habit of not making rash judgments, extending the time to understand someone or something (and yes, therefore putting myself in harms way from time to time) that garnered me that label, combined with a seemingly insatiable thirst for new experiences and stimuli.  I also know that withholding indexing or categorizing, being flexible in how one views an experience, is a core component of creativity.  It is the open-ended question without any one absolutely right answer that fascinates.  Wisdom for folks like me is learning what situations require immediate categorization and what situations can be allowed the extra time and thoughtfulness necessary for satisfactory input.

I don’t think data mining systems have reached the wisdom stage yet, and therefore will continue to emit wisps of smoke when confronted with the eclectic cases; or take so much of what I am and toss it out as outlier that what is left is a pale imitation, a grossly inadequate summary.  I think data mining (and life in general) does this to an extent to all of us, regardless of how predictable we may seem.  Some assumptions that result may be useful and help improve the tools that operate in our lives, both foregrounded and backgrounded.  Others lead to horrible policy and situations like those at airports when checking in for a flight.  In essence, everyone and no one are terrorists.  A complete paradox of institutionalized applications resulting from awful data analysis systems.

Simply using “that” word in this blog selects me out for further analysis in the gross internet search and filter systems of some intelligence programs.  Try and mash up all the topics I have crossed here and see if I am a no-fly—wisps of smoke, then throwing out most of what is written and determine I am not a threat due to inconsequential outliers.  See?  It is useful, right?

If only rejection were always so useful.

Husband recently said with a laugh, “I know WHO you are (and he trusts what he knows), but I don’t know WHAT you are.”   He struggled to explain- and remember, this man is an accomplished artist- that he meant he does not know where I fit in.  Funny, I don’t either most of the time.  But I’ll keep taking those wisps of smoke and the subsequent collapse into absurdity and laughter as the only way other than despair and insanity to synthesize the issue.  In laymans terms, come to a temporary peace.  But as many of us know, it is a peace that will soon be disturbed by the enjoyment of the knotty problem, the hurtful surprise, or the macro-level existential paradox that never ceases to exist in the back of every conscious mind.

So good night all you toasters, running your programs.  Maybe someday that AI will learn how to integrate the errors that lead to melt down or burnt toast; or maybe there will just not seem to be a good reason to mirror us and you’ll leave us alone.

Mental space

“Gimme some space damn it!”

This is a thought I have often around my kids and my husband.  I have been thinking about what this means.  On the surface, it means “pick up the toys, clothes, dirty dishes and detritus of daily living that clutter our shared physical space and make for constant random picking up in the effort to make space” (or at least orderly space).   This constant demand to clean is a distraction and irritant, making anything else productive difficult.  Just walking, as anyone who has stepped bare footed upon a lego can tell you, can be interrupted.  If I had several hours alone to crank the tunes and clean, that would be different.  I could organize my time, react to unexpected issues (needing to pretreat a shirt here, address the bill that was found in the Dr. Seuss book), and Get Things Done (capitals intended).  Usually though, it’s a constant barrage in which one small gain here or there gets accomplished, and the macro level of the problem remains a mystery. 

So too with mental space.  In order to be creative, I have learned I not only need to be self-disciplined (that’s where procrastination guilt occurs- when I know I could have been self-disciplined but have not), but also need “head time” to let ideas “cook”.  Head time can even come when I am Getting Things Done- because the mental is uninterrupted.   Then there is the creative need for “doing” time.   This is most pointedly putting down thoughts and ideas into the computer without interruption (writing).  It can also be creating objects, or seeking out and taking in stimuli without interruption (“feeding the head”).  All of which I rarely get, and the consequential outcome is depression and irritation. When I have time in a span of a week to create, I am a much happier and a nicer person to be around.  Husband has noticed this about himself as well.  I also believe there is a long-term additive effect.  We are also more productive people if we can create on a regular basis. These observations are also borne out in creativity research.  

I recently stumbled across Jonah Lehrer’s book “Proust was a Neuroscientist” (2007) and the accompanying book reviews.  I agree that he over-reaches a bit; with many underlying assumptions about the shared positions his readers must have to imagine where he is going with his ideas.  He also blogged about the use of Modafinil, wondering if it’s use and established ability to help concentration and focus was a deterrent to creativity.  I wrote him a response to that blog.  What I found most useful about him is he is a good example of a new breed of thinkers.  Young, smart people who are continually learning, from every experience be it academic or something as plebian as a line cook.  They are taking in what they experience and try to create a framework for understanding that works better than the overly specialized units we currently know.  They want to bridge the macro and the micro, and synthesize areas of philosophy that have been said for hundreds of years to be completely incompatible.  They do not postulate any dogma, and seem to have extremely open, mature minds- and are willing to acknowledge when they are wrong, or need to reframe something they have conjured.  I like the things I read from this new wave of thinkers, even if I don’t always agree (Steven Pinker is not one of them, his framework of reference and definition being clearly and unapologetically hierarchically organized according to scientific principles and the culture of high science). 

To do the things Lehrer and similar writers are doing requires a high degree of creativity. I hear myself shouting “ARRGGHH”, knowing I will never be free of the research subject area I started investigating a long, long time ago. The areas I was synthesizing formally as a graduate student were seen as arcane; when people were being kind, they would say rather esoteric.  But I know them as red-blooded, living ideas.  It is good to know people smarter and younger than me think so too.  When I mentioned all of this to Husband, an accomplished artist in a complex culture, he replied ” A lot of what I do requires creativity.  Not just my art.”  I nodded.  Sometimes the partnering in a marriage is to remind us of what we already know, and even have already discussed in a different time or place.

Note to Lehrer:  mental crowding can also come from too much immersion into a culture and topic.  Me? I gasped for air and got out for a while.  Now I get back in from time to time, and make much better use of the knowledge and information I find.  Virginia Woolf had it right– in order to do that, I have to shout “gimme some space damn it!”; and pick up those sharp little legos.  

Another one bites the dust

My heroes are passing.  Studs Terkel died this past weekend, before the election but after the world series that wasn’t (no Cubs this year even though they had the best record in the league).  I can’t even begin to do him the justice other writers have.  I only cry, and read what they have to say.  Here is a good one:http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2008/05/how_studs_helps_me_lead_my_lif_1.html (TrackBack URL for this entry: http://blogs.suntimes.com/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/9373)If you have never picked up one of Stud’s books, do it.  Consider it a light in the darkness.  

A new project

It seems fitting to post this on super tuesday.  Do you know your doctor?  Do you know your post-person?  Do you know your plumber?  Are there six degrees of separation between you and anyone interesting who is not a celebrity?  Do you want to begin to do something small, to participate without baggage, to begin to learn and care about the things that may only be superficial right now?  Pass it on. Expect to be rejected most of the time.  And keep doing it. Breakfast.Lunch.Dinner.

Equals across the table

Your family is invited to a meal at  (your name)  home

on the date and time of your choosing.

Please RSVP to:  (email, phone and mailing address)

at your earliest convenience.

____________________________________________________

 

When was the last time you made an honest effort to talk with someone very different from yourself?  How might a casual meal and conversation shared between disparate people bridge distances of position, diversity, opinion, and inform both?  Can a simple meal connect strangers, neighbors in a global community?

Our current world is both a small and complex place, often isolating and intimidating.  With a simple, sincere, transparent, and curiosity-based exchange such as a meal we believe we can begin to cross boundaries and learn about others.  There is no publicity, no material gain to be had, no hidden agenda.  What is intrinsically exchanged during the meal is the reward, harkening back to the most basic social meaning of breaking bread together.

We are opening our home, our lives, and ourselves as part of the experience and expect nothing in return but respect and sincere engagement.  The basis we work from when meeting strangers is to treat them as we would neighbors; people we are tied to as community members, but do not really know.  It is the effort to know and understand someone, and explore our combined worldviews that is the point, the root purpose of the meal.

Food restrictions regarding health are respected, but otherwise guests are offered “home food”; that which can’t be had in restaurants and is by its nature special.  We serve what we usually eat, using mostly local, organic materials.  For example, pot roast and mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, pies and cakes made from scratch, or omelets, toast and coffee might be offered depending on the meal.  Our core family members (4) are your hosts, and no other people but your family will attend. 

It is too easy to assume we know how other people live.  Small snippets of information disconnected from lives cannot capture enough to understand each other.  The biases that result from our assumptions have far-reaching implications.  We know the effects of ignorance in our lives, and want to dispel it.  We know the joys of curiosity, and we want to engage it (and yours) as part of this life-long project.  Please come be a part of this effort.  Sit a while, relax, talk, and have a meal with us.

Why you?

(short description of why we find the persons interesting, and why we think they ought to know us in some cases, such as state senators)

Who we are (your info here):

Both of us come from modest, midwestern backgrounds.  We have been discussing who we would like to have dinner with for years, developing a loose list of people we think are interesting.  Further discussion of this led to the formation of B.L.D., which is a blend of the personal, social action, and art in a life-long pursuit.

We hope that this project might encourage others to go beyond their constraints, their contacts, and reach out into the world in a simple, deeply human way.  We are equals across the table, our preconceptions put aside, and connections to be made.  As part of our efforts, we take a digital photo of all of us together, give you a copy, and keep ours in the B.L.D. book.  These artifacts are not intended to be shared, or profit made from them, and we use the photos as neighbors would: to recall friends and events, and as documentation to track our lives.

What do you do with a desiccated orange?

In my hand I hold a wizened orange.  It got lost behind a bag of cereal and the sugar jar, just under the kitchen window.  Said window, missing trim now for a year from a rehab project for which Husband has not found time to finish.  I could do it, but it was not my project.  Thus a few nights of cold dry air seeping under the window turned this lovely fruit into- what?

If I was Martha Stewart (and I am not) I would probably advise myself to “Go ahead!  dry out a couple more, hot glue them with bay leaves onto a grape vine wreath for a decorative piece on the front door”.  No offense to Martha, I admire her: the divorced mom- spurned even though she did it all like she was supposed to, jailed for fuzzy reasons, no-nonsense boss, funny, getting old with wit and style woman.  But I do not confuse the woman with the hype, the product, and the M.S. magazine reading, Oprah attending types for whom the new mothering magazine Cookie has been designed. These women I generally avoid comparison to.  You know who I am talking about- a largely affluent, white, appearance obsessed base, aged 22-55.  Living in those June Cleaveresque, strained superficialities of homes, no desiccated orange will be found. 

After 55 I think these women just get drunk, break a few dishes and emancipate themselves, shoving the magazines into the trash and going out for a walk.  At least, I hope they do.  Because we have no magazines or films or TV to tell us what they do, only our personal experiences, our own mothers.  Entertainment executives don’t think they merit attention, are off the collective cultural radar except for rare parody or soppy Lifetime snoozers.

This orange?  This once ripe fruit, bursting with sensuous scent, firm flesh and bright appeal?  No, decoration is not for this objet d’art.  I am compelled to take a knife to the hard skin, see if it still retains any smell, and sate my curiosity about what is inside.  Is it black?  Is it soft and rotted?  Or is it stringy and hard, all the moisture drawn away?  My bet is on the latter, given how much it weighs.  I could toss it into the compost heap, that big box of organic matter we started in the back yard.  Where that compost will go next year is in question.  Our lovely black walnut tree, offering such cool shade in the summer, so good at keeping down weeds, is I just found out a poisonous, selfish thing.  Easily one third of our yard is hostile to anything but grass and the off-spring of the Big Walnut.  The only stretch of yard that nurtured my crazy striped tomatoes has become another in-progress home improvement site.  So what of this orange, this possible compost?  I am not sure where it will go now.

I have been told by a young friend whose family runs a large cherry farm in Washington State that we really don’t know fruit in the U.S.  Most of the “good” fruit gets sold to Japan, and most of our fruit is so engineered, so greenly picked, that it has no flavor, no textures, no taste.  Having read Epitaph for a Peach-
four seasons on my family farm (Mas Masumoto, Harper San Francisco / Harper Collins, June 1995), I knew fruit, like many things in the U.S., had become something other than the celebrated production of the fertile, ripened ovary of a flowering plant.  When I was pregnant, the only smell that could curb my nausea was that of a fresh orange.  Oranges revive the spirit, as well as the body.  Oranges glow, and color even the most drab scene- meriting its own crayon, a very own color concept.

My mother used to put an orange every year in our Christmas “socks” (those felt creations no more useful on a foot than the plastic fruit in her table bowl to our stomachs) and we would take the oranges out on Christmas morning, thinking to ourselves “What the heck is this about?” tossing them aside.  Later when she was clearing the torn paper, broken bows, and empty boxes she would sigh as she picked the fruit up and put it back in the kitchen.  Only once did she ever tell me that as a child, she had gotten an orange every Christmas, as had her mother before her.  Oranges used to be rare, a treat every bit as wonderful to a child as candy.  In the Little House on the Prairie books, I recall the iconic scene when Laura gets an orange and is thrilled.  Now days, if I can find an organic, reasonably fresh California orange (I have given up on Florida. The state ag powers are not interested in demanding decent worker conditions, restraining pesticide use, or ever offering anything edible) I am thrilled.  Hence my guilt at discovering this sad shriveled specimen.  My sons like oranges, and I had saved this one for them, putting aside my greed.  It silently slipped away, and was forgotten.

Excess at Christmas is more than just the toys, the noise, the lights and general public pandemonium.  It is as simple as having access to fruit everyday, even if it is not the best fruit, and forgetting it is there.  Once forgotten and now found, what does one do with a desiccated orange?  Alas, poor orange! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath been eaten but a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those pips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? 

This orange, like my mother, is gone.  All that is left is the memory of the orange, the knowledge of what a good orange is.  I place the desiccated wonder on the sill to ponder further, to remind me of what is passing.  Merry Christmas, mom.  The boys will have fresh oranges in their “socks” this and every year, as often as the fruit is available to us, and I will not wait to tell them all the reasons why.  I hope I never live to see the horrors of Soylent Green or Silent Spring, and I hope one of the last scents I smell when I go to meet you is that of a fragrant, fully realized orange.

Is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city?

Is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city? 

Today I suffocated under 4 consecutive hours of a crying 20 month old, and the usual domestic duties.  I told my husband, who came home at 6 p.m. intellectually on fire after participating as a mentor in numerous trying and yet exhilarating grad critiques, that I was jealous.  It had been so long since I had discussed David Byrne’s Big Suit, or the tricky route from symbol to meaning in creative endeavors.  So I cracked open yet another bottle of cheap red wine (now 0 for 6, the other 6 in the past two months having been relegated to cooking use after a first sip), surprised at the irony of finally getting a drinkable glass on this of all days.  Perhaps not irony then, but grace.

Ever seen the movie Network?

Of course you have.  If I have not completely alienated all readers of every stereotypical stripe, what’s left will understand.

It is a true life partner, it is true love, when one melts down and says “I just want to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow, throw the kids in the car and go to the city for the weekend and feed my head”, and partner says simply “Ok, let’s do it.”  After a moment adding with wry humor, “heck- is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city?”

I grew up working class- yes the word class.  The taboo word of not only the academy, but also public life.  Sniff at the socialist whiff, turn to the GOP fantasy and tell me I am obsolete.  My colleagues in academia have already beaten you to it, Race being the “good”, and strangely exclusive, concept of the moment (if 40 years is a moment).  I worked in pizza restaurants at 15, and a string of cheese factories (where I was not asked to sit with women my age at break, on the midnight to 7 shift because I was going to college- I was informed by the matrons on shift- and was perceived as having a way out), temp jobs, restaurant jobs, and other good working class girl wage endeavors while trying to rise beyond, explicitly so, the factory and receptionist life my parents were relegated to and hated.  It was not the honest work; it was the gradual decay of respect and evidence of respect (lost health benefits, wage stagnation, retirement raiding, lay offs and eliminations, dismissals of concerns, rudeness, invisibility) that wore them down.

What is this hybridized identity- so post modern, yet so not cool- that finds me university PhD educated, middle aged and female, discarded and invisible to most.  Bitter?  Angry?  Hell yes.  To a mutual friend of ours who writes “graphic novels” (not to over simplify, but a fancy name for comic books), I said my hero is the middle-aged woman who becomes a vigilante.  Say, have you seen the new series on TV about that?  Yea sure, those glamour pusses are my ideal.  As my niece would say, NOT.

Perhaps you could call upon women writers of 40 years ago, who had rage and understanding in spades.  Say I am “uninformed”, derivative.  I say, No.  I know them.  I have read them.  And that they are still relevant does not negate this space, this life.  After the first blog, I was told I was angry.  I laughed.  Oh yeah, you got it.  Acerbic?  Sarcastic?  Yet still sincere?  Oh my.  Fold another napkin on the fire, and let me apologize for my lack of tact.  NOT.

Think of this as the anti-Ann Coulter.  That scion of current journalism who has never worked an honest day in her life.  And yet, I say you go girl, savor it while you can, because when it all goes away all you’ll be left with is your nasty coke habit and wrinkly neck skin.  Those GOP puppet masters who romanced your rise to fame will run and hide, bounce your emails and treat you as the pariah you are.  You may want to have a feminist moment when this point comes, you may even think you earned it, but you’ll probably find yourself alienated.   Whisper to yourself that you are still good, you are still important, while the world shuns you.  Welcome to the real world baby- if you have not saved, you have not earned- as that female money guru Suze Orman would say.

You want placebo? You want sexy, palatable, mildly amusing mother? Read the syndicated folks.  Those who get paid to entertain.  Enter here, and enter another realm.  My hero Molly Ivins died this past year, and a little bit of my hope went with her.  When Studs (Terkel) goes, I don’t know what I’ll do.  .  . Scream, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it any more”.  Not that many will notice me without an AK-47, or other armaments- the standard attention getting (and economy riding) devices for all from Dub to the local sad teenager.  I guess middle-aged women are just not threatening or sexy.  Pass the Provigil and the written ammunition. 

Halleluiah. . .get your hands off the scissors!  Get in bed! Where is that damned cooler? 

See you tomorrow at the Smithsonian.