The person who sets the tone is the one who wins.

Typically I don’t get excited about new book releases, especially if they aren’t fiction and very particularly if they are published by the MIT Press.  Not saying that the MITP hasn’t published some sell-out rousers in their day, but that my personal interests generally lead me elsewhere.  Coupled with a very basic knowledge of the hard sciences, most of the material they publish is out of my league as well as out of my general purview.  Thankfully, a recent title that caught my interest is in the soft science of psychology, which even I can get my head around.

The name of the book is Honest Signals.  Basically it’s about the way people talk to each other and the amount of gesturing they do as an indication of the outcomes of the conversations and the relationships between the people participating.  I could bore you with the details of how research on this topic was conducted and what the specific statistical results were, but I won’t.  I do have some loyalty to the MITP – you’ll have to buy the book.  But i will tell you some of the more obvious generalizations coming out of this research.

First, there is supposed to be a correlation between the correspondence of speech patterns and the way people relate.  Basically, if you talk with the same sort of rhythm in the same sort of patterns as me, I’m predisposed to like you and favor your ideas.  We’re all aware of this to a certain extent – that person who talks much slower or faster than you is hard to understand, and therefore you don’t communicate as effectively.  You lose something in the relationship.  But the degree to which correspondence of such patterns determines genuine likability is something worth considering.  The thought that a potential boss or love interest could be spoken to at a pace that would seriously positively enhance your chances at what you want is striking.

Second, there is the ‘level of physical activity as people talk’.  This isn’t quite body language, and using the term ‘gestures’ is a little too narrow.  Most of us gesture to a certain extend without looking like a ship with loose and flapping sails.  It’s unclear from the article just what impact moving around while you talk can have, but there’s obviously something there.  After all, actors, singers, and public speakers have been aware of such movement as a tool for quite some time.  In less public places, I’d be eager to see what the study concludes.

Finally, the issue of tone.  The one who dominates the tone, the one who sets and maintains it, is the one who ‘wins’.  This also seems somewhat self-evident, but the mechanism for establishing such a dominant tone remains unclear, whether or not the establishment is intentional.  It can easily be seen in ‘popular’ talk shows or court shows like Jerry Springer or the People’s Court.  The one who carries the tone, carries the crowd.  A tone could be calming as well as enraging however, and either one would work to establish dominance.

The final question, of course, is that of who comes out the victor in a case where both sides of an argument are aware of these three points and are able to use them effectively.  For myself, I think I might just read the book, or at least give further thought and observation to the ideas.  After all, I have  quite a bit of life left where all three might come in handy.

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The Graveyard Book

It’s rare that I get excited about a new book coming out.  It’s even more rare that I get excited about a book from an author I’ve never read.  And yet, here I am, excited.

Perhaps it’s the season.  Anything called The Graveyard Book seems somehow seasonally appropriate.  Perhaps it has something to do with the synopsis of the book, which reads like a children’s book.  I love children’s books, and I can see countless libraries shelving this one in the YA section.  Perhaps it has to do with the promotion tour for the book, which involves reading a chapter of the book in cemeteries and graveyards around the country, which I find moving.  Perhaps it’s the fact that each reading is accessible for free on the author’s website, meaning you can hear the whole thing before you buy it.  All pretty awesome stuff.

But wait, there’s more.  The author, Neil Gaiman, is also the writer of one Stardust upon which a movie was based.  A movie with a wonderful cast that I happened to enjoy immensely.  Although I haven’t read the book, the movie was delightful.  The plot was fanciful enough that I know I will enjoy other books by the same author.  I may not know his writing style (yet), but from what I do know, I’m sure it will be a delight.

Nobel Anger.

I do sometimes get depressed about how my own particular culture is ignorant of and insular from the rest of the world.  Of course, Just looking at the relative sizes of countries, it’s just as easy for most Europeans to visit another country as it is for us to visit another state.  And it is hard to outgrow a prejudice without personal experience to counteract it.  If you never meet a for-real French person, how do you know they aren’t all snobby and rude?   However, much as I can understand US pride and US ignorance and US inward-focused narrowmindeness, that doesn’t mean i like it.  I deal with it, I try to educate and eliminate it where possible, and I hope for future understanding.

For myself, I would not consider this cultural background a disadvantage.  I know it’s there, but I would not say it handicaps me in my own life.  perhaps it’s arrogance, but I’d like to think I’ve grown beyond the prejudices of my upbringing.  in particular as a writer, I’d like to think I have a little perspective and a little objectivity and a little observational prowess.  I’d like to think my upbringing does not keep me from being a good writer.

According to Horace Engdahl, permenant secretary of Nobel’s Swedish Academy, that’s virtually impossible for most of us US citizens.  Evidently (and unbeknownst to me) US writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.  “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.  That ignorance is restraining.”

I can accept that the majority of Nobel Prizewinners are European.  I can accept that some, even many, people feel that Europe is still the center of the literary world.  They have an intense and continuous history of it – of course they have extensive skills to draw on.  But I don’t think our own history puts us at that much of a handicap.  I don’t think we are too insular, or too ignorant.  I think we do participate, fairly actively, in the literary world (note, world, not immediate insular community).  Yes, we do have some shoddy writers, but so do all countries, even those in Europe.  That doesn’t mean we can’t, or aren’t, producing grade-A literature.

Let’s take the three books I’m reading right now (yes it’s three, yes I read a lot).  The first one, the fluffy one, is a sci-fi novel by C. J. Cherryh.  This one happens to be about humans interacting with two different groups of aliens, one of which has a very Oriental flavor.  It’s not the most profound literature, but the topic seems…oddly appropriate. Someone from the US can imagine the way humans might interact with not only a different culture but a different biology in a realistic way?  I would not call that insular or ignorant.  Another book I’m reading is The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya.  She’s Russian.  It’s translated.  I guess it’s one of those random outliers of a book that made it into the US literary scene, even though it’s translated and deals with post-apocalyptic Russia.  Because obviously, we don’t translate enough.  The third book I’m currently reading (dare I say involved with?) is The Breif Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.  It’s awesome.  If you haven’t read it, go out and buy it, because you will want to read it again.  Diaz is a Dominican-American writer who often writes about the immigrant experience.  He’s very insular – he only writes about the DR or the US.  I wouldn’t call him ignorant though, especially considering the footnotes, which are almost as playful as those in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but are also far more informative and factually based.

I’m sure Mr. Engdahl is getting his fill of criticism over this interview, and I wouldn’t mind the US losing the Nobel Prize for Literature to someone worthy.  But if no US writer makes it on to the short list this year, after this particular interview?  That smacks of insularity and ignorance.

Which is more cool?

Place your votes now!

I was totally skimming CNN today for something awesome to blog about, and I came across not one, but TWO (Count ’em) TWO awesome news events.

The first involves the government and the past, both things that could be potentially interesting but most often are not.  OSS records are being released to the public, including specific instances of when and how people became involved and what their missions might have been.  That’s how we know Julia Child was a spy.  That’s right, she was cookin’ up some information retrieval on the sly at the same time she was telling you how to make fancy-pants dishes.  How cool is that?  I want to be a household name AND totally lead a second covert lifestyle.  It’s superhero stuff, or at least the stuff of legend.

The second is the winner of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  Mr. Bulwer-Lytton wa the one who started his wonder-work ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’  The contest is all about the ridiculousness of bad fiction, and is judged on the badness of the first line of an imaginary novel.  Of course, bad beginnings are a dime a dozen, but to create something really deliberately horrible takes both skill and guts.  You could be marked for badness the rest of your life after something like that.  You can view a few of the really good ones here.  I, for one, am amused and potentially slightly disturbed.

So yeah, I request votes for which is cooler.  Post your vote.

My first Kindle experience.

Today while on the bus, i had my first in-person experience with a Kindle.  An old guy with glasses was holding one about two inches from his face, and I leaned forward in my seat eagerly to see how he interacted with it.  Was it truly easy to navigate?  How did the weird screen impact his already damaged eyes?  As an old man, was all this newfangled goodness too much for him?

I have to get the obvious and disturbing portion of my observations out of the way first.  Within the first five seconds, he picked his nose.  And I’m not talking about a subtle scratching that starts on the outside and moves inwards, or even the quick pick.  I’m talking about the possibly brain-damaging deep in there picking that I could barely look away from.  i had to do a double, then a triple take.  Was he still picking?  Yep.  What about now?  Still digging around in there.  It was intense.

The man himself was obviously a little disturbed, even in his  reading habits.  Watching him turn pages, it was difficult to ascertain if he was a really fast reader or a really slow skimmer.  Perhaps the tech WAS too much for him.  Maybe he couldn’t navigate properly and was unable to find what he was looking for, buttoning through pages and pages of files on a never-ceasing quest.  Or maybe he just gets bored with text easily.

My only real observation of the Kindle itself had to do with the page changes.  There is an odd inversion of color before the page change, reversing the image of the old page.  Is this necessary, some sort of imaging reset for the paper?  Or is it a user choice, selected by this old man for some unknown reason?  I should probably read reviews or something to find out, but I guess I’ll wait until I’m desperate enough to get me one.  After all, it’s heavy carrying ten hardbacks around on vacation.

Where’s my Prince Caspian?

I was startled while online today to discover that the ‘Books iRead’ program on Facebook also allows access to online copies of some books.  Currently, in fact, there are 16,306 titles available.  At the top of the list: C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.  No doubt it’s all as a result of the upcoming movie, but still, the idea itself is intriguing.  Not only are places like Google Books and Project Gutenberg getting all the text they can get their hands on for all of us readers, but even social networking sites are promoting book browsing.  I love it!

Unfortunately, the Facebook copy from Harper Collins is incomplete – small sections of pages throughout the text are missing.  The Google Books copy is the same.  Perhaps they aren’t the same pages, and I could get a complete read by combining the two of them – I didn’t check.  Still, it makes me wonder.  Do they really think they’re going to sell another copy of the book by cutting pages 36-39?  Why not just make it all available?  Lewis is long since mouldering in his grave – no doubt that’s why they’re making the movies now, without need for his consent.

To close, Project Gutenberg contains only one work by Lewis: Spirits in Bondage, a collection of poems.  This is due to the fact that all of his other works have not yet fallen into the public domain.  I doubt these poems are of great significance to modern times, as I’ve never heard of them.  However, it does make me wonder what we’re waiting for in regards to the rest of the his works.  I mean, I’m all for giving children their inheritance, but there comes a time at which the past can no longer claim rights over the future.

Next time, Jared Diamond, NEXT TIME!!!

Some of you may be familiar with the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. It has been recommended to me by several people who I trust and who have decent judgment. It is a monster of a work, in a style that the specialists of modern day can’t really match. It’s meant to be a broad analysis of general historical trends, chronicling some ideas of why modern society developed in the place and manner that it did. And I’m sure it accomplishes this well and was interesting and informative for many highly intelligent people. But I couldn’t read it.

I am not typically a non-fiction reader.  I like the flexibility of fiction.  I feel like it allows language to be used more fully.  I feel like it’s more of an art.  But of course, that’s not always the case.  And some fiction pays no attention to language or craft.  Ultimately however, I tend to like it better for its hint of truth.  Fiction can be truer than fact.  It can also be a starting point for factual exploration.  How many times have I been reading some historical novel and wondered if an event or situation actually took place?  The interaction between creative expression and factual dates, times, and places intrigues me.  In addition, fiction avoids the perils of being proven wrong.

So, was it just the non-fiction structure of this particular book, in addition to its length, that put me off reading the whole thing?  Not exactly.  I mean, the small part of it that I did read was well-written.  However, amidst the sweeping generalizations of the early introductory materials, I found the bane of a non-fiction books – a fallacy.  While I can understand discrepancies regarding the movement of people into North America considering new information that is constantly being revealed and tested, other small details I could not ignore.  Where was steel first invented?  And if the author is wrong about one such detail, how can I trust the other assertions that are outside his specialty?

I eventually gave up on reading the book – it would take too long to check every point he made. however, the book again caught my eye on the train today when I saw a picture of the Phaistos disc inside it.  I saw the picture first – recognizing one of the most interesting and rare undeciphered scripts in existence, I was intrigued enough to lean over the poor girl reading it and look at the book title.  For those of you who are not familiar with this disc, it is the only example of what we think is a writing system (or at least some record-keeping system using characters for a discrete meaning).  We don’t know what language it may record, or what culture it is associated with, though there have been multiple guesses.  Since the disc was found in a Minoan palace, many think it originated there, but we have no evidence that it was not made elsewhere.  What could such an enigmatic relic of past civilization have to tell us about the advancement of current people through guns, germs, and steel?  Not much.  And the sensational nature of such a mysterious object included in what’s supposed to be a highly logical argument of a book does little to placate my questions about the authorial intent or accuracy of the book.  However, since I did not actually read the text associated with the disc, I cannot say that it does not add another layer of meaning to teh author’s argument.  I will have to be resigned to my unanswered questions and doubts.

Digibook to the rescue!

There has been a scattered distribution of public opinion on Google’s attempts to categorize, scan, and otherwise track book titles on their new ‘book search’.  Basically, Google is partnering with a number of libraries (in particular, the libraries of higher education institutions) to create a searchable database of books.  How would this be different than Amazon, J Stor, or any other number of libraries or book sellers?  The idea is a universal approach.  Unless you happen to be a college student yourself, many universities do not allow access to their online resources.  Materials are also not available for check out.  Public libraries similarly offer limited access, depending on your residence stature. Google also plans to maintain a full, downloadable record for those works whose copyright has expired.  Which could mean access to rare (and quite possibly, bad) fiction that most local libraries don’t carry.

While I can understand some people’s fear of losing a right (how are publishers to make any money if books are available for free online?), the core comes down to benefit for the masses. Want to see one of the first Bibles in Arabic type?  Here it is.  Looking for yet another Eva Ibbotsen title which your local bookstore or library doesn’t carry?  Let Google do the search work for you.  Researching Cai Yan and unable to find good research in English?  Get it online, rather than waiting four to six weeks for the University of Michigan to send you the copy of a thesis.

When the ebook was a new thing, everyone got all excited about the end of print books and who had the rights to epublishing.  But that amounted to very little, probably because no one has capitalized on the industry. New trends like Kindle and printing on demand might change that, but my guess is that things will pretty much keep on as they have.  People will still read books.  The bookstore giants, as well as service places like libraries, will keep on keeping on.  They may have to adapt and offer new services (more computers at libraries, print on demand at bookstores), but the purposes for which they were created are still there.  Yes, we are all in support of the expansion of knowledge, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to lose the need for a personal touch.  It could be that bookstores go more online, that libraries become meeting spaces and public outreach centers rather than only information houses.  But that doesn’t mean we’ll be robots.  If I can’t find something where I want it when I want it, even in our changing culture of instant gratification, you can bet I’m going to find some person to help me or to complain to.

White Lady

Another incident that occurred as a result of my recent high-hair fashion involved a group of young girls waiting for the T at Park Street station.  They were intrigued by our costumes and asked each of what we were, and pointed and laughed with us.

When one girl asked me “What are you?”, I confidently replied, “White Lightning”.

“What?”

“White Light-en-ing,” I said again, emphasizing each syllable with a a zigzag in front of my lighting bolt shirt.

“White lady?!?”

Her friends burst out laughing at this, and so did we.  The poor girl was so embarrassed that she had to run away and apologize from afar.  I tried to tell her it was fine, but it was hard to say between my huge guffaws.

I didn’t really feel embarrassed about the situation.  I am, in fact, white.  And as the sun has only recently decided to warm up the planet again, I’m really, really pale.  My legs glow.  So someone calling me ‘white lady’ is just being honest.  Since I look younger than I am, even the ‘lady’ part isn’t bad.  I’d rather be called ‘lady’ or ‘ma’am’ than 14 years old.  Still, the girl felt like it was a mortal insult.

There are cases, however, when people might feel ashamed of their skin tones, or the very visible actions of their countrymen.  I recently read The Map of Love, in which a widower from England, Anna Winterbourne, discovers for herself the ‘true Egypt’ of the early 1900s.  Through love and friendship, Anna eventually becomes a strong advocate for Egyptian nationalism.  She feels responsible for the actions of the British towards Egypt, no matter how little she is able to influence events as an individual.  She feels guilty, not for who she is, but for the unseeing eyes of her countrymen in the face of loud international cries for equality and basic rights.

The chorus today is the same – people want peace, justice, and freedom.  Can we, as a nation, give it to them?  Can we help them to find it for themselves?  Do we, as individuals, have th right or responsibility to help, or is all of our interference negative?  Take a student’s, James Karl Buck’s, documentation of protests and other events recently in Egypt.  He was only documenting the situation, and was arrested for it.  Though he was able to send information to others on his status and conditions via Twitter, and eventually secure his release, the same was not true for his Egyptian translator, Mohammed Maree.  The U.S. citizen gets out fine, and as a result is possibly endangering the life of an Egyptian one.  I am sure that if Mohammed were here, however, he would make the choice to help, even though risking his personal freedom.  I doubt, however, that James feels any less guilty about his freedom because of it.

The ICEBERG had nothing to do with it.

After extensive study of metallurgy, shipbuilding methods of the time, and the records of Harland and Wolff, the company that built the Titanic, Timothy Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty have published a new book, What Really Sunk the Titanic.  In this book (I have not yet read it), they claim inferior iron rivets are to blame for the sinking of the ship.  The article review I read leads me to believe the shipbuilding company used some iron rivets of inferior quality due to the necessary speed of construction and the high demand for rivets at that time.  Since I have not read the book or done any similar research myself however, I remain unconvinced.  My favorite quote: “The company knowingly purchased weaker rivets, but I think they did it not knowing they would be purchasing something substandard enough that when they hit an iceberg their ship would sink.”  I know there has been debate about the design of the ship, and if it would’ve remained floating if it had hit the ‘berg straight on, but either way, it’s like running aground on a reef or wrapping your car around a telephone pole.  Even if you don’t die outright, you’re not going to just walk away from that.  And while I can understand that the authors are not trying to prove that the weak rivets alone didn’t sink the Titanic, the idea that it would have sunk more slowly if the rivets had been stronger seems obvious and unnecessary.  If the whole ship had been made of alien super-metal, it probably would’ve just crushed the iceberg to bits and gone on its merry way.

What tickled me most about the whole situation really has nothing to do with the Titanic or the Atlantic at all.  It’s about the retired naval engineer from Harland and Wolff.  he’s the one who handles technical questions about the Titanic, I guess as a personal hobby.  His name?  David Livingstone.  So far though, he hasn’t found the church or explored a largely unknown continent, as far as I can tell.  Still, it makes me wish I were named Stanley…

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