Beyond line of sight

I picked up Surviving Justice at Verso’s $1 ebook sale in late July. The book documents the experiences of many wrongly convicted Americans, capturing their experiences in prison and how they often remain traumatized long after years/decades in prison; eventual exoneration doesn’t make up for anything.

(I could only read a few accounts at a time. One of my friends spent more than a year in prison for crimes she did not commit, having exhausted all her savings fighting charges, and yet seemed to have managed pretty okay upon release. With each account I read in Surviving Justice, my heart sank deeper and deeper as I realized/remembered that showing strong doesn’t mean you’re not dying inside.)

One of the appendices gives a brief description of some of the most common ways innocent Americans end up in prison, from prosecutorial and police misconduct to snitches to bad science. I wish that appendix were mandatory reading for every American, because doing so would help destroy any doubt that a system elevating some above others–beyond responsibility, accountability, reproach–is a system that kills some and harms many others.

Dave Eggers was one of the book’s editors. I looked him up and found a novel, The Circle, that seemed like it might pretty well capture my myriad concerns about technology, and how relatively affluent Americans perceive it. The wait list was so long that I ended up buying my own copy. Continue reading “Beyond line of sight”

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Knowledge to do good enough

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb distinguishes “nerdified” classroom learning from the kind done in the real world. So-called nerdified learning leans the learner toward perceiving the world as more stable than it really is, and seeking academic perfection versus success in the more complex real world.

In one or two paragraphs, he talks about how this relates to learning languages. Does he learn from a program or textbook, by learning the rules and then attempting to apply them? No, he learns by trial and error.

Thus it was that when I walked into a store this morning, I was thrilled to (mostly) understand what the clerks were saying in Spanish. I was disappointed in myself for not trying to interject, but reassured myself there’s only so much that can be learned from 32 half-hour Pimsleur lessons on disc.

Outside, an old lady sat in a wheelchair. She didn’t have a sign, so I walked right past her. A few feet past her, I paused and backtracked.

“Do you need money?” I asked.

“Habla espanol?” she asked in turn.

“Solo un poco,” I replied.

“Poquito!” she said with a smile.

“Si, un poquito.”

She said something really fast. I replayed it in my brain to see if I could make sense of it.

I couldn’t. “No entiendo.” I paused, trying to remember the right verb form, before continuing, “necessita dinero?”

“Poquito,” she replied.

I handed her a couple of dollars. She thanked me, to which I replied, “De nada! Buenos dias!”

As I got back in my car, I was fairly well beaming. I hadn’t said much, and I’d probably made mistakes anyway, but I’d had a conversation that couldn’t have happened in English. Did I need to use the right verb forms this conversation to get the point across? Not so much.

I’ll aim for getting it right, to be sure. I just won’t let fear of not getting it right stop me when I have enough knowledge to do good enough.

🙂

Love spread wide

I no longer follow the news. My decision to stop following it came after I read several Neil Postman books. “News” paper and programs provide lots of useless info that create distorted views of the world, seldom with any discernible benefit for anyone save the programmers and their sponsors.

I did not see or understand less because I dropped the news. Indeed, I found quite the opposite. Absent the for-profit commentary, things got a lot clearer.

I felt even better about my choice after reading Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. See here for more on that. Continue reading “Love spread wide”

Read I Will!

I haven’t had much focus for reading and writing analytically the last couple of weeks. I wasn’t sure what was going on until I went readwalking for a few minutes on Friday evening.

Much as I’ve loved reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb the last few weeks, I’m rationing his Antifragile. Instead of reading Taleb, then, I read a few pages in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I found via Taleb.

Between Taleb and Kahneman, I’m finding something like peace.

I began my flurry of book-reading about this time last year. At the time, I–then a lifelong U.S. Democrat–was motivated to deeper reading by my absolute horror with Democratic officials. I was certain that the badness I was witnessing in articles and soundbites was just the tip of a badness iceberg.

I confirmed my suspicions fairly quickly, and loathed myself for having unquestioningly, for decades, embraced Democrats as the good guys. But something else grew beyond that: a concern that truth didn’t seem to be what most folks online were after. In fact, over and over again, I witnessed people I love and admire actively rejecting the mere possibility something they didn’t want to be true could be true. That tendency troubled me much more deeply than wrongdoing by a relatively small number of elites.

Why? Because of the potential consequences to humankind’s future by large groups of people believing things that aren’t true. I’d seen self-protective denial exercised over and over in my childhood, thanks to growing up in poverty and predation. I just hadn’t realized that the strategy I saw wives of predators (and jurors) adopt was only one expression of something destructive that runs to the core of American life. Last year was when I began to understand that the denial of reality I saw in childhood was a fraction of damaging denial worldwide. Continue reading “Read I Will!”

Reading my way back to giggles

As my kids wrapped up their screen time yesterday evening, I read further in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. While I already listened to the book a few weeks back, I was so delighted by it that I bought the four-book Incerto series that it concludes.

With minutes left to read it last night, I burst out laughing. My husband, Anthony, called from the kitchen, “Laughing? You don’t usually laugh reading such [non-fiction] books!”

I replied, “I laugh a lot when I’m reading Taleb! I’ll have to read this passage to you in a few minutes.”

After I finished reading the chapter, I found  Anthony and read him the excerpt that inspired my laughter. Before you read it, you should know that (1) a “fragilista” is one who “defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist” and (2) Taleb loathes this quality in so-called experts, who harm the world by confidently fragilizing it.

I was in Milan trying to explain antifragility to Luca Formenton, my Italian publisher (with great aid from body language and hand gestures). I was there partly for the Moscato dessert wines, partly for a convention in which the other main speaker was a famous fragilista economist. So, suddenly remembering that I was an author, I presented Luca with the following thought experiment: if I beat up the economist publicly, what could happen to me (other than a publicized trial causing great interest in the new notions of fragilita and antifragilita)? You know, this economist has what is called a tête à baffe, a face that invites you to slap it, just like a cannoli invites you to bite into it. Luca thought for a second … well, it’s not like he would like me to do it, but, you know, it wouldn’t hurt book sales. Nothing I can do as an author that makes it to the front page of Corriere Della Sera would be detrimental for my book. Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer.

By way of contrast, I read the beginning of the next paragraph to Anthony, too:

Now let’s say I were a midlevel executive employee of some corporation listed on the London Stock Exchange, the sort who never take chances by dressing down, always wearing a suit and tie (even on the beach). What would happen to me if I attack the fragilista? My firing and arrest record would plague me forever. I would be the total victim of informational antifragility.

So, yes, I laughed. The pages of my Taleb books are filled with scrawled “LOL”s, so that I can find them and read my way back to giggles whenever grumpiness is upon me.

Silver Star strikes again

In my July 2011 post “Dead Moms Can’t Care,” I wrote:

The costs of providing health care to those who can’t afford it themselves may not be miniscule. But the costs of not providing it? Those are even worse. Those costs include children left to literally live out their childhood in boxes. I tutored those children my final year of law school. They include the children left to foster care, which is sadly often more full of villains than heroes. They include two grown daughters holding their mom tight as she breathes her pained last breaths at 52–in part because she rightfully feared the consequences of the cost of health care–and the grandchildren who will never feel her love firsthand as a result.

My just-younger sister Rachael was one of the two grown daughters in the last sentence. She handled getting our mom onto low-income government insurance, taking Mom to appointments, and battling errant bills such as the one that inspired my 9/14/09 tweet here.

Two years ago, I wrote this about how Rache lifted Mom into the light: Continue reading “Silver Star strikes again”

The kindness of book-loving strangers

Seven library books came due yesterday, but I could only find six. I engaged my (almost) eight-year-old to help find the book, which led us to take the mess of his books strewn around the house and put them into a barely-used bookshelf in his bedroom.

After we’d filled three long rows of books, Li’l D was pretty proud of our work … and his book collection, which he could finally see in full! Still, somehow, this didn’t stop him from being annoyed when I later found my missing library book exactly where it belonged. Continue reading “The kindness of book-loving strangers”