Scarcity, the invisible

A few years ago, a blogger I didn’t know offered to snail-mail me their copy of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. I tried reading the book at the time, but it didn’t really capture my attention.

A couple months ago, I happened to hear Scarcity mentioned on a podcast. I found the book on my shelves and moved it to my active to-be-read shelf.

I finished Scarcity this week. Upon finishing, I spent a moment feeling thanks for the blogger who’d sent me this book. It wasn’t what I needed when I first received it, but it was absolutely what I needed now; to have it on hand, then, was a blessing.

I grew up in scarcity. My mom, a single mother of four, experienced–to name but a few examples–scarcity of money, time, sleep, and support. She was constantly forced to juggle potential catastrophes, hoping she could juggle just right so that none of the potential catastrophes converted into actual ones. The act of juggling itself was profoundly exhausting; even as a child, it seemed a kind of miracle that she could keep going at all. On the days where she couldn’t keep going, where she had no energy to even get off the couch, it was hard–to impossible–for me to fault her. Continue reading “Scarcity, the invisible”


Where the Kids Books Are

I’ve been studying Spanish for a few months. I’d focused exclusively on speaking until about a month ago, when I noticed myself struggling to remember certain words because I couldn’t visualize them. At times, I wasn’t even sure I was hearing words right.

I picked up an easy Spanish reader. I worked through the first twenty or so short reads there before getting bored with its content. To mix things up, I picked up some kids books in Spanish.

The first chapter book I picked up was then too difficult for me; I had to look up its every third word. Every fifth or sixth word is fine, but every third, maddening! This led me to seek out easier reads.

I found the enchanting Isadora Moon in Spanish: “Su mamá es un hada, su papá es un vampiro y ella tiene un poquito de los dos.” I’ve read the first three books of the series and have preordered the fifth and sixth (out end of month, woo-hoo!).

I’ve read a National Geographic book on what different animal parents teach their babies. I also read Stink, el increíble Niño Menguante, another perfect read for my current reading level. I got the gist without having to look up words, but looked up some to expand my Spanish vocabulary.

When I look up a word while reading these books, I write the translation under the word in the book. I then go through and transfer those words to a notebook before making flash cards of them. Thus grows my Spanish vocabulary, and my prospect for eventually reading more complicated books!

Yesterday, I stopped by a new-to-me bookstore to check out its selection of kids books in Spanish. I found The Tales of Beedle Bard, which I set back on the shelf. There was no way I’d be able to read it! Still, with nothing else jumping out at me, I grabbed it for later reading. Continue reading “Where the Kids Books Are”

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.



Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash is an engaging audiobook, but not what I wanted to hear this morning. In the wee, dark hours, then, I perused other audiobooks available through my library.

Nothing caught my eye, at first. It was only when I peeked at the Business section that I found anything I wanted to check out. One book, Antifragile, really jumped out at me.

I started the book as I began my 70-minute drive to work. Within a couple of minutes, my sense of openness to hearing the author was replaced by one of ebullience. By the time I reached the freeway maybe ten minutes later, I had to restrain myself from pulling over and doing a dance on the side of the freeway.

Many times over the last many months, I’ve come up against invisible walls when trying to explain certain things. Some of those walls are my own; I try to explain something, but so narrowly understand that I can’t find the words.

There’s something still invisible to me that bars me from tying together threads of understanding, or hoping to express myself successfully. And so, I search, hoping to circumnavigate invisible walls, pressing up against things I can hear but not quite touch.

Other times, other folks’ walls are the critical barrier. Since it’s much easier to see someone else’s blind spots than my own, I can see huge portions of the world they’re choosing to avoid, because they’re distressing or uncomfortable or inconsistent with prior understandings. I struggle with how to converse around these walls, but I’m not giving up.

While the author has already said a few things I contest–for now, anyway–he’s already given me words to express ideas I thought might be years to decades beyond my reach. He is describing these walls, and, beyond that, pointing to them on a map.

I love my job, but I’m annoyed I have to do it right now. I’d much rather sit and continue soaking up Antifragile.

The journey as joy

I began blogging in June 1995. I wrote about anything and everything, wanting my website to be more than a collection of links. Several times, I got in trouble for things I’d written, but didn’t bother changing what or how I wrote until I got a threatening letter in 2001.

My voice has changed some since I began blogging, but one common thread has run through: me, me, me. This seemed both natural and inevitable until I began learning to speak Politics. I began feeling unsettled by this emphasis on me, me, me. I wondered if I wasn’t losing sight of a bigger picture by always focusing on my infinitesimal piece of the universe.

How else would I write, though? With more than three decades spent focusing on my personal experience without much regard for its context(s), how was I supposed to change not only my vocabulary but the whole orientation of my words? How could I write about collectives of which my experiences are the merest fragment, when I’d spent so long just focused on me?

I rejoiced when I read Angela Davis, who wrote as I’d only abstractly envisioned as possible. She’s been working at doing so for decades, so that her experience shines through. Maybe someday, I’ll be half as skillful as she is now.

Already concerned with technology and (my own) narcissism, I then began reading Neil Postman. In his writings were all kinds of contexts, and histories about things I’d never imagined could have their own history. I found answers to other questions, and more than that, pure delight to have discovered someone who taught not what to think, but how to ask questions to reach my own conclusions.

Postman’s TECHNOPOLY was–laugh if you must!–a revelation. Years before I began worrying about technology’s impact on humanity, he’d already written on these matters with humor, wisdom, and compassion. His entreaty to readers to consider how we’re being used by technology, instead of simply using it, opened up new venues of inquiry and possibility for me.

Last week, I ended up reading another Postman piece that helped me change the question I was asking myself. I stopped asking, “How do I begin reflecting this seismic shift in internal meaning on my blog?” Instead I asked, “Do I even need to keep blogging as I always have, just because I always have?!”

The answer was an exultant no!, straight from the heart.

This blog isn’t about me, me, me, the same way my old one was. This is about my journey to understand something bigger than me, and situate myself within it instead of smack-dab in the center of my own personal universe; to keep pushing myself to seek that something bigger, and grasp how it cradles all things, even if I never do learn how to articulate its connections with any nuance.

What will the end result be? Will there be an end result? I don’t know, and that’s okay.

The journey itself is a joy.

This 4/7/17 post transferred from L2SP 8/21/17

The Attention Merchants

While I’ve written many posts about my no-love relationship with Facebook, I only ever wrote one post specifically challenging Facebook’s claim to be “free.”

My background is in software contracts. When I wrote the post described above, I was principally troubled by Facebook’s ever-shifting privacy policies. I said that it wasn’t free, because users were paying in personal data. That we didn’t have to directly fork over portions of our paychecks didn’t mean we weren’t paying somehow.

Naturally, most comments were along the lines of how (1) it is free and (2) “if you don’t like it, don’t use it.” I was so annoyed by the comments that I didn’t return this accidentally deleted post when I returned most the others.

A few weeks ago, my sister Rache recommended that I read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. I’d been talking about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and she thought this would be an excellent follow-on. She was not wrong!

Within a few pages, Wu pinpointed what I hadn’t been able to when I wrote my Facebook-ain’t-free post years ago. I’d been pointing at personal data as what users pay to access the service.

Why does Facebook–along with other providers of internet services–want lots of user data? The better to commodify users’ attention for others’ profit: “We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. But a consequence of this model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.”

Data was a means to an end, not itself the end. Wu elucidates this further the deeper he dives into presenting his case, engagingly answering so many of my lingering questions.

Wu’s chapter on propaganda is an excellent overview of how susceptible human beings are to manipulation through attention capture. There’s a lot to this, but two quotes bear sharing here.

Edward Bernard, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was instrumental in successfully propagandizing the American public. He saw “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses as an important element in a democratic society.” There might be too much too-messy democracy without it: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.”

(I hope you’re already asking yourself, whose peace?!)

Some days I read bunches. Some days I read little. Overall, though, I will not stop reading. Reading history and politics is my shield against propaganda; the more I read, the more robust my protection.

Nowhere is the need for this strengthening clearer than in the words of master propagandist Adolf Hitler himself:

I do not wish to be the subject.

The Fifth Shelf

Last night, I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. This completed my fifth shelf of “politics-plus” reading since middle of last August. Back then, I’d picked up Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some in hopes it’d answer some new-to-me questions about the troubling state of so-called U.S. democracy.

In my hometown for the fiftieth anniversary of some of my adopted parents, I’d get my kids in their hotel beds nightly. Then I’d pace the length of our hotel room, back and forth, back and forth, unable to read such horrifying things sitting in place.

I really thought one book would do it for me, but … you can see how that turned out.

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As I discovered after finishing my first Greenwald book, even an excellent book can only answer so many questions, doing so while opening many more: Continue reading “The Fifth Shelf”