16 Dec

North Korea Is Not for the Faint of Heart

book cover: Without You, There Is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us

I saw Suki Kim on The Daily Show a few nights ago. Although I barely registered the content of her interview, I heard enough to decide her book would probably be interesting. Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite is a memoir detailing the six months Kim spent teaching English in a covertly Christian university in Pyongyang. Luckily for me, the library had a digital copy of the book available, so I was able to pick it up immediately.

Without You, There Is No Us has a nice narrative flow (Kim notes at the end that she did rearrange the order of some events for the sake of storytelling). Despite the fact that there is no real climax, I was captivated by Kim’s description of life in North Korea and finished the book in about two days. The short version: North Korea sounds like it really sucks.

The first time Kim visits North Korea is as a journalist. She goes on a press trip when an orchestra from the United States visits North Korea. Although the trip was hailed as a victory for diplomacy and culture by most of the press, Kim disagreed. She became more interested in North Korea and eventually applied to work at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

PUST is a school with a strange mission: brining Christianity to North Korea. As you might expect, Christianity is outlawed in North Korea. The only religion is the state-sponsored Juche ideology, which is not so much a religion as the North Korean regime’s all-consuming cult of personality. Kim accepts a summer position at this Christian school that cannot teach any form of Christianity (as daring as they get is trying to show students the Chronicles of Narnia movie—such a strong Christian message!). To do so, she has to pretend not only to be Christian, but also to be a teacher. After the summer term, she ends up staying on for the fall, despite her reservations.

Suki Kim on The Daily Show

Suki Kim on The Daily Show

Kim contextualizes the narrative by discussing her Korean heritage, discussing her own experience and that of her parents during the Korean War. Kim is from South Korea; her family immigrated to the United States when she was 13. She explains to readers that all South Korean families, or clans, if you will, have a home turf in Korea and a history—usually a history that explains how their family practically saved Korea. This is called bon-gwan. While the Korean War drove many South Korean families from their bon-gwan, many were still able to maintain a sense of kinship and managed to rebuild afterwards. But for North Koreans, Kim eventually realizes, the regime has completely obliterated the kinship system. North Koreans move where they are told to move, work where they are told to work. They no longer have ancestral ties to the land or strong family networks. She realizes that this is not only a division between two Koreas, but another method of control.

Just as Kim contrasts Koreas North and South, she contrasts her isolation with the relentless communal spirit surrounding her. Kim is essentially isolated and the reader can see how hard it wears on her, especially by the end of her stay. She has to work to represent herself as someone else to her colleagues and she has to appear to go along with North Korean rules. Her conversations and correspondence are monitored, so she draws deeper into herself. By the end of her second teaching term, Kim seems extremely depressed.

On the other hand, Kim’s students are a study in cohesion. In North Korea, it seems that no one goes anywhere alone. Her classes stick together, and are buddied up within the class groups. No one is ever alone. But, to Kim, their camaraderie reads as at least a little false. After the students class groups are reshuffled for the fall semester, everyone is suddenly best friends with their new classmates, the old apparently forgotten. As Kim puts it, “It was odd that I should have felt so in need of a human connection in this communal space.”

Perhaps “camaraderie” really is the right word for her students’ friendliness. Her class groups have a class monitor—and the Korean word they use for the monitor translates to “platoon leader.” The students march in formation, sing militaristic songs, and take shifts standing guard over their local shrine to their Glorious Leader. Everything the students do has a militaristic cast.

Of course the weirdest aspect of the book (and best, by voyeuristic standards) was reading about the weird gaps and limitations in North Korean education. Kim’s students were those of Pyongyang’s elite and attended what was, ostensibly, a school for studying science and technology. Yet, none had heard of the internet. The students ask Kim remarkably naïve questions like whether everyone in the world spoke Korean. Kim recounts, “[The student] had heard the Korean language was so superior that they spoke it in England, China, and America.” The students were also strangely fixated on North Korea being the best at everything. As Kim says, “They were always comparing themselves to the outside world, which none of them had ever seen, declaring themselves the best. This insistence on ‘best’ was strangely childlike, and the words best and greatest were used to frequently that they gradually lost their meaning.”

One of the things that occurred to me as I read this book was that here in the United States we do tend to use North Korea as the butt of a lot of jokes (look no further than The Colbert Report, or anywhere on the internet), but in reality, the people there are suffering. North Korea is a dictatorship that is a non-stop human rights catastrophe. It sounds insane, but to be candid, this is real shit.


There is a lot more I could say about Without You There Is No Us because there are a lot of issues that Kim struggles with, especially in regards to her students. She constantly tries to push the boundaries of getting them to think without breaking the rules. I also appreciated her take on some of her Christian colleagues and their opinions on their “mission” in North Korea, but I think I will leave those ideas for someone else to review.

Without You There Is No Us is definitely worth reading for a glimpse into the lives of people in North Korea.

What to read next:

  • The Interpreter is Suki Kim’s novel. I can’t say I know a lot about it, but I liked Kim’s memoir and am interested in reading more of her work.
  • After this, of course, I wanted to read some more about Korean history and why there is such a divide between North and South Korea. One that looks good is The Korean War: An International History by Wada Haruki.
  • Unrelated to anything Korea, my last recommendation is God’s War by Kameron Hurley. I just finished it and I really liked it. It’s a future space planet with two cultures inhabiting Islam-inspired spaces. It has great characters and an interesting world.
05 Jul

Come at Me, NSA

Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

book cover

Book cover: No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide is the culmination of a year’s worth of work with Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents. The author, Glenn Greenwald, is perhaps best known for his articles in The Guardian documenting national security abuses and the NSA’s surveillance programs. No Place to Hide gives context to the whole event and speaks in detail to the NSA’s actions, the problems with mass surveillance, and the complicity of the media in the whole affair.

What the NSA is doing …

The first section of the book reads a bit like a thriller novel. Greenwald receives an anonymous message from someone promising a major scoop, but the source won’t share the information unless Greenwald sets up some complicated email encryption. Although Greenwald was interested, he did not follow up with the source. Later, Laura Poitras, friend to Greenwald and the other journalist involved in the Snowden leaks (by the way, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their work on this subject) encourages Greenwald to follow a lead that she has. The lead, of course, turns out to be from Snowden who was also the person trying to convince Greenwald to set up encryption Greenwald almost missed the most important story of the decade.

Both Greenwald and Poitras, along with another reporter from The Guardian (with which Greenwald was affiliated) to Hong Kong to meet Snowden. The set up for the meeting is elaborate—the reporters identify Snowden by looking for a man with a Rubik’s cube and exchange pass phrases. Eventually, they begin interviewing Snowden, barely beat The Washington Post to the story and have to leave Hong Kong in a hurry to avoid discovery.

I did want to hear more about the personal story of Snowden, Greenwald, and everyone else involved just because it seems like the kind of story that does not really happen in the modern world. Yet, it did happen. But No Place to Hide, while garnering the reader’s attention with this exciting tale, then turns to the real issue after this exciting introduction: NSA surveillance.

Greenwald reviews some of the major revelations from Snowden’s meticulously organized material. Snowden explained that one of the reasons he wanted to provide this information to a reporter, rather than dump it onto the internet, was that he wanted someone who could put the information in context and make it meaningful. I know that if I were to scan all the documents Snowden provided, I would not get a lot out of it. Fortunately, Greenwald helps readers understand the ecosystem of NSA surveillance, guiding the reader through some rather complex issues.

As usual, I do not want to summarize in any great detail because the book is available to those who want to read it. The overall theme that I took from Greenwald’s descriptions of the NSA’s programs was that the scope of these programs is much, much larger than the average person realizes. The goal of the NSA is literally to collect everything. That is not hyperbole. Greenwald includes slides from various training presentations in the book and the “gotta catch ’em all” attitude is prevalent. The NSA has multiple programs, plus collaborates with the other “Five Eyes” countries (the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) to gather everything about everyone.

Metadata is one of the critical pieces of the NSA’s program. As someone with a degree in library science, I know what metadata is without asking. When we talk about phone records, metadata is information about when you make calls or send texts, who you call, and how long you stay on the phone. Most people dismiss metadata collection as a minor issue. Greenwald points out that, using metadata, an expert can get a strong sense of how you spend your time. An analyst could determine when you normally sleep, what religion you are (do you make a lot of phone calls on Christmas?), your social network, and a lot more. In fact, metadata can be more informative than the content of a call.

the exterior of the NSA headquarters in Maryland

NSA Headquarters

Another startling issue was what tools the NSA uses for surveillance. A lot of people heard about PRISM, the program that uses technology companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook to collect people’s information. What I found more alarming was what the NSA does with hardware. Greenwald writes, “For years, the US government loudly warned the world that Chinese routers and other Internet devices post a ‘threat’ because they are built with backdoor surveillance functionality that gives the Chinese government the ability to spy on anyone using them. Yet what the NSA’s documents show is that Americans have been engaged in precisely the activity that the United States accused the Chinese of doing.” So, so much for quitting specific websites to avoid being spied on.

The reason all this is a problem, Greenwald explains, is that mass surveillance limits our freedoms. People behave differently when they know they are being watched. They self-censor, limiting possible choices because they know they need to behave within a certain range of social norms. This is problematic in fields such as the arts. If authors or film-makers are censored (like during the McCarthy Era Hollywood Blacklist), they don’t make things that they know will not be published or produced. They create works that are within the realm of social acceptability. People become afraid to speak out even if no one is being punished (yet). The fact that they are being observed and that there may be repercussions for deviant behavior is enough to stop people from creating dissident works or otherwise speaking out against the government.

Finally, Greenwald calls out the media, the “fourth estate,” for failing us. The main criticism is that the media has become a comfortable part of the political establishment. Reporters are no longer the outsiders they were in the mid-twentieth century. Greenwald describes the media as courtiers to the throne of American political power, “eager to defend the system that vests them with their privileges and contemptuous of anyone who challenges that system.” He also rails against so-called objectivity, which, for the media, is “nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington. Opinions are problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of Washington orthodoxy.”

and what you can do about it

After reading No Place to Hide, I realized what is really insane about all of this: the scope of it. The fact that the NSA intercepts shipments of hardware like routers, outfits them with their spyware, then sends the shipments on their way. That is insane. Even if you delete your Facebook and stop using Skype, there is no way to get around someone snooping in your internet pipes unless you quit the internet entirely. And who would do that?

I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but I think that educating people on the issues of privacy, civil liberties, and surveillance is an important starting point. The fact that my boss thinks it is a good idea to say things to me along the lines of “I would rather be safe because of my children!” or the classic “It doesn’t bother me because I’m not doing anything wrong.”

a man dressed as Elvis talking to another man

A man impersonating a dangerous terrorist icon

Well, this bothers me because I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not breaking the law. I’m not selling drugs or supporting terrorism (domestic or otherwise). The problem with mass surveillance is that whoever is doing the surveilling has the power to decide what is wrong. What if you read about anonymous? Elvis? Are tracking a package? Curious about satellite phones? You need to look at your life and look at your choices, you potential threat to national security! Those are all topics on the NSA’s list of words that flag you as a potential threat.

If you think it’s insane that your email discussions about encryption or the dictionary might be of interest to the NSA, you are not the only one. The site Hello, NSA generates keyword-rich phrases based on the NSA’s wordlist. In 2013, RedditGifts had an anonymous gift exchange called Now Sharing Absurdity – the NSA Gift Exchange, which encouraged participants to theme their gifts around subjects in the NSA word list.

I am glad that there are other people who find the NSA’s behavior ridiculous, but unfortunately, a lot of people with decision-making power are not among them. The secret FISA court has made this type of warrantless spying permissible. Greenwald writes that Snowden hoped that the Obama administration would “change the excessive abuses of national security that had been justified by the War on Terror … ‘but then it became clear that Obama was not just continuing, but in many cases expanding these abuses.’”

Right now the only method that seems like it will be effective in curbing these “abuses of national security” is putting pressure on legislators to make changes and voting for people who are not committed to the status quo. One positive outcome is that the House of Representatives voted in support of an amendment that would “prevent intelligence agencies from using the funds to force software companies to build back doors into their products,” according to an article in The Daily Beast.

I wish I had more ideas for how to do something, but I do not. My biggest advice is to vote. Don’t just vote for anyone, but cast an educated vote. Follow organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to defend civil liberties in digital space. Educate yourself and don’t be afraid of having an unpopular opinion if your opinion is based on the facts. Edward Snowden said that his biggest concern with leaking his trove of NSA documents would be that no one would react and nothing would change. The least we can do is read up on the issue and move forward with our eyes open.

What to read next:

  • I started working my way through the original articles that Greenwald wrote for The Guardian about the Snowden leaks. I did not read many of them as they were coming out; most of my news on the subject came from Democracy Now. I am interested in seeing the progression of the leaks. Also, Greenwald is not done yet, there is at least one more major article set to release soon, as of this writing. Greenwald is now writing on a site called The Intercept.

  • When Greenwald and Laura Poitras met Snowden, they asked why he did what he did. Snowden cited the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell as one of his influences. I found this interesting because I had already checked it out from the library. Campbell wrote prolifically on comparative mythology and the role of myth in our culture. I enjoyed his book The Power of Myth, so this is definitely on my to-read list.

31 Dec

2013: The Year in Books

It’s new year’s eve and it is time for my annual list of the books I read for the year. I read the entire Wheel of Time series this year, which was really quite time consuming. I read 46 books overall–not quite the 50+ I was shooting for, but I think it is still respectable, all things considered. Nineteen of the books were non-fiction.

  1. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan 1/20
  2. The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan 2/14
  3. CompTIA A+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, 8th Edition by Michael Meyers 2/18
  4. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain 2/25
  5. Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane by John Amato and David Neiwert 3/1
  6. The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan 3/7
  7. The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall 3/10
  8. The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi 3/19
  9. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr 4/2
  10. Every Day by David Levithan 4/3
  11. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright 4/9
  12. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander 4/27
  13. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou 4/29
  14. Adventures of the Artificial Woman: A Novel by Thomas Berger 5/1
  15. The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan 6/10
  16. Dreams and Shadows: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill 6/16
  17. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson 6/28
  18. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo 7/2
  19. I Fired God: My Life Inside—and Escape from—the Secret World of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman 7/4
  20. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan 7/10
  21. The Unlikely Disciplie: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose 7/24
  22. Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond edited by John Joseph Adams & Douglas Cohen 7/30
  23. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes 8/11
  24. Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kernan 8/28
  25. Red Shirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi 9/3
  26. The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan 9/4
  27. Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti 9/10
  28. Asperger’s on the Job: Must-Have Advice for People with Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism, and their Employers, Educators, and Advocates by Rudy Simone 9/11
  29. Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan 9/17
  30. Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan 10/2
  31. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler 10/11
  32. The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan 10/18
  33. The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan 10/23
  34. The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan 10/24
  35. The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan 10/25
  36. The House of Hades by Rick Riordan 10/29
  37. Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan 11/7
  38. Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan 11/24
  39. The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess by Lou Schuler, Cassandra Forsthe, Alwyn Cosgrove 11/27
  40. Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown 12/2
  41. Just a Geek: Unflinchingly Honest Tales of the Search for Life, Love, and Fulfillment Beyond the Starship Enterprise by Wil Wheaton 12/4
  42. Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan 12/6
  43. Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh 12/8
  44. The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson 12/13
  45. Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson 12/22
  46. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson 12/31
04 Dec

All Hail the All-Father

Book review Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown

Song of the Vikings book cover

Song of the Vikings book cover

So, a few weeks ago we saw the new Loki movie—excuse me—Thor movie and I was like, by Odin’s beard! It has been too long since I read up on Norse mythology (which according to my records was in 2011)! I came home, hopped on to the website for my local library and found this book.

Song of the Vikings is an interesting read because it links a few different vectors of Norse mythology. There is a little bit of the myths themselves (we learn about the time Loki got down with a horse, for example, and why gold is otter’s ransom), but more than the myths, Brown lays down the saga of Snorri Sturluson and how the myths came down from the Vikings to the present. In many ways, this is more instructive than the actual content of the myths.

Snorri Sturluson is one of the most influential dudes you have (probably) never heard of. He is the author of several works: The Prose Edda, Heimskringla, and Egil’s Saga. The Edda is perhaps the most well-known of his works, even though no one knows what an “edda” actually is. Some think it might be “the book of Oddi,” (Oddi being the name of a place Snorri lived), or maybe something like “the art of poetry.” It could possibly even be given the cheeky translation of “the art of great-grandmother’s old-fashioned songs.” The Prose Edda (yes, this is in contrast to another author’s Poetic Edda) is the primary compendium of the stories we recognize as Norse mythology. Not only is this mythology awesome, but it has been called “the deep an ancient wellspring of Western culture.” So, if you are not an uncultured lout, you should listen up and learn yourself some Norse business.

Snorri lived in Iceland during the late 12th and early 13th century. Iceland at this time was kind of the way you might imagine it to be. People then and there had plots of land where they might graze cows or goats. There was, of course, a lot of fishing, and exceptionally well-situated landowners might have access to a hot spring. Families were brought together under chieftains, who were not exactly elected, but who could not govern if they did not have the confidence and might of the people behind them. Positions of power were typically cemented through family ties, but people were also respected for being well-versed in the law or for being great poets. Another cultural force at this time was Christianity, which was a surprise to me. There were churches in Iceland during this period and the church was gradually becoming more influential among the people.

In this climate we have Snorri. He was born to a fairly influential family and was a foster son to Jon Loftsson of Oddi, the “uncrowned king of Iceland.” Snorri became educated and grew up to be influential in his own right. He was the chief over some choice chieftaincies and he even became the lawspeaker at the allthing—essentially the most law-knowing and well-versed guy at the annual Icelandic assembly. He was also a great poet and he loved writing about the gods, especially Odin, who was, in Snorri’s opinion, the best god. While most people at the time favored Thor, Snorri seems to have considered him a dumb meat-head, eschewing Thor for Odin and his cleverness and skill in poetry. It should be noted that poetry was not then, as it is today, seen as a sign of femininity. Manly men went on raids and also traded verses to exhibit their keen wit. Vikings love poetry; it is manly business.

an image of Snorri Stuluson

Snorri himself, fat and sassy

Although Iceland was, at this time, an independent commonwealth, the Norwegian king had designs on the land. Snorri, in his quest for more power and influence, spent several seasons at the Norwegian court getting to know the young king and apparently glad-handing with everyone there. Snorri was also semi-obsessed with the concept of kingliness and what it meant to be a king. His first visit to Norway inspired his work Heimskringla, which is a saga about Norwegian kings. Snorri was concerned the Norway’s young king (then 16) was missing out on vital information. He worried that kids these days were losing the ability to understand poetry—that most influential of arts. Heimskringla goes a long way to explain the old stories of the gods; understanding these stories is the key to understanding poetry, and as such, all the important literature of the time. Nordic poetry was fond of kennings, which is basically referring to something by calling it something else. Brown includes this example to illustrate the importance of knowing one’s stories:

“The noble hater of the fire of the sea defends the woman-friend of the enemy of the wolf; prows are set before the step brow of the confidante of the friend of Mimir. The noble, all-powerful one knows how to protect the mother of the attacker of the work; enjoy, enemy of neck-rings, the mother of the troll-wife’s enemy until old age.”

Brown comments “As the translator of this stanza notes, the audience needs to know five myths and the family trees of two gods or it’s nonsense.” The majority of verses were similarly oblique (if the poet had any level of skill).

The main concept I got from Song of the Vikings is that almost everything we know of Norse myth came from one guy: Snorri Sturluson. It seems obvious that Snorri’s personal biases would have been woven into the myth, but I wonder how much? One thing that comes to mind is the duality of fire and ice, which runs through a lot of the myths (the creation myth, for one). Iceland would have been a place where snow and lava clash, but that would not be true of Norway and Sweden, where the myths originated. Did Snorri come up with this imagery himself because he was a storyteller or was this idea already part of the world of myth? I wonder how the myths would be different if not told by Snorri? We know that he was a big fan of Odin. Would we know that Odin traded an eye for wisdom?

The last chapter of the book deals with how Norse mythology became a part of our present culture. For a long time, the stories were essentially lost. After Snorri’s death, Iceland was annexed into Norway, Christianity became more prominent and, you know, paganism was not really on the rise. The church even tried to change the names of the weekdays to silly things like Third Day and Midweek Day (instead of Tyr’s Day and Odin’s Day, also known as Tuesday and Wednesday). I thought it was interesting that the Germans later (by later I mean 1700-1800s) reclaimed Norse mythology as their heritage. They took it up so fiercely that it essentially inspired modern German nationalism. During the early 20th century, any non-Germans who were interested in Norse myth were suspected to by Nazi sympathizers. Yes, this includes J. R. R. Tolkien, who was hugely influenced by Norse mythology.

Tolkien has probably done more to propel Norse myth into modern Western (American and English, at least) consciousness than anyone. As a professor of English, he started a club to focus on Nordic literature and he fought to get Norse myth into the syllabus. He felt that the Norse mythology was of great import to the English canon than Shakespeare, which is quite the claim.

Now, of course, the Norse gods are very much in pop culture, especially with movies like The Avengers and comics and the rest of it. Although, I think mythology is general is having quite the renaissance. Greek and Roman myth is getting treatment in things like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Camp Halfblood series, as well. I would be interested in see an analysis regarding what draws us to mythology. Is it just that it makes for great storytelling? Is it something more?

I’ll conclude with a quotation from Snorri. He states in the Edda, “But these things [lore] have now to be told to young poets … but these stories are not to be consigned to oblivion.” Thankfully, they were not and it seems like they will not be consigned to oblivion any time too soon.

If you are interested in Norse mythology, here are some suggestions for further reading:

13 Jul

A Cult I Had Never Read about Before: the Independent Fundamental Baptists

Book cover of I Fired God

I Fired God

Book Review: I Fired God: My Life Inside—and Escape from—the Secret World of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman

This book has quite the audacious title. How do you fire God? Or, as my boyfriend quipped, “Does she have the authority to do that?” Given the author’s experience with religion, I can definitely appreciate her position. This book is part autobiography and part memoir and part political call to action. Jocelyn Zichterman (neé Janz) recounts her abusive childhood, her attempt to find her place in the world as an adult in the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church/cult, her subsequent liberation from the IFB, and career as an activist. As someone who just can’t get enough of reading about cults, the people in cults, and people managing their post-cult existence, when I saw this book on the new shelf at the library, I had to check it out.

The opening part of the book deals with Zichterman’s abuse at the hands of her father and, later on, brothers. It is inherently hard to read about abuse for me, especially when it goes into detail about the unpredictable nature of their father, Bart, an IFB pastor and expert misogynist, and the times he tortured animals and beat his children bloody with a dowel. However, I appreciate the impact of these events and how they establish a context for the author’s actions later on. They also make it clear that Zichterman has a real, tangible reason to fear her father, and other people in the IFB who enable his behavior.

I had a hard time getting into the narrative at first because it started out feeling really clunky. The chapters were organized into vignettes and each one had a subheading. It felt more like reading blog posts or journal entries than a cohesive story. But as the narrative progressed, I found my irritation waning. I think that it seemed so difficult to read at the outset because the author was describing events from a time when she didn’t have a full understanding of herself, but the narrative became more confident and mature as the author did. I think it can be difficult to recount events from a time when the mind isn’t fully mature, fully settled. Trying to get into a prior mindset (from childhood, or before a major life change—like leaving your religion-based worldview) makes for awkward tellings, no matter how skilled you are. For comparison, I find that when I try to discuss how I used to feel when I was growing up Mormon, I can’t really articulate myself fully, likely because I have my brain engaged on more levels than I did then.

Zichterman recounts an absurd amount of incidences that indicate that women in the IFB have zero standing. The men who run this cult view women on the same level as children. They also describe the need to keep women under men’s “umbrella of protection,” which means that fathers are responsible for girl-children until they marry, at which point husbands are responsible. The whole cult (I will take Zichterman at her word that it is a cult) seems to be based on giving misogynistic, sociopathic men an outlet for dominating and totally gaslighting women.

The descriptions of how women in the IFB are treated highlight some awful behavior, but the true purpose of this book, and one of the main themes running through it, is that groups like the IFB cultivate an isolationist stance, distancing themselves from government and regulation. This this is a huge detriment to its members and is prohibitive for anyone who wants to leave. Like many religious groups, the IFB does a deplorable job of educating kids. The IFB preaches isolation—public schools will convert your children to Satanists, the government is just waiting to round up fine, Christian folk for execution, and calling the police is a sure way to make God mad—and as such, almost everyone is homeschooled or goes to a private, religious school. Homeschooled kids in this group use study booklets that blatantly ignore basically everything we know about history and science, and instead focus on the fact that the Bible should be our main source of information. Kids are left to work on these booklets independently, with minimal supervision. Sometimes, they aren’t supervised at all, as was the case for Zichterman and her siblings one year.

Another of Zichterman’s main issues with the education system is that these home or private schools feed into IFB “colleges” like Bob Jones University or Northland Baptist Bible College, which Zichterman herself attended. These schools do not have accreditation, so their degrees are literally meaningless. When the author and her husband who had graduate-level degrees from these schools were trying to escape the IFB, they found that her husband couldn’t get a job anywhere because his degrees were unaccredited and completely useless. This means that anyone who wants to educate themselves and get out has essentially no recourse. The cult leaders are actively keeping people ignorant (and making money) by feeding members into this system.

This steady stream of misinformation is, in fact, state-approved. In Wisconsin, where the author grew up, all parents who wanted to homeschool their children had to do was submit a form. These schools and “colleges” also receive federal funding either through voucher programs, or more directly.

Zichterman makes the case that none of this should be legal. I Fired God highlights the profound unfairness of abuse and how it continues to affect the lives of its victims long after the abuse has supposedly ended. Not educating children properly is abusive. It limits their options. Zichterman argues that freedom of religion should also be freedom from religion and it is impossible to free yourself from such a religion when everything you see or do is controlled by it. Everyone should receive an education that enables them to make it on their own if they so choose. Of course, that is what the leaders of cults like this fear. They know that if people were not kept entirely ignorant, they wouldn’t choose to stay in such conditions and live these lives. This book is part of Zichterman’s campaign to fight back.

Ultimately, I did enjoy reading this book. I like getting perspective on how other people live and it is insane to hear about such systemic abuse even within my own country. I really support Zichterman’s cause; I think that having more regulation and robust education for everyone would solve a lot of problems. I sympathize with people in this situation and I hope that change will soon be enacted. If you like reading about fringe religious movements, people breaking out of oppressive systems, or women overcoming hardship and becoming activists, then you will probably enjoy this book.

One other thing that I want to add: if you don’t want to commit to a whole book, this 20/20 episode features Zichterman, her cause, and an expose on the IFB.

What should you read after you’ve finished I Fired God? Here are some things that I’ve read or have been meaning to read that play well with this subject:

  • Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It deals with the Quiverfull ideology, which stipulates that parents should have a “Quiverfull” of children. That means people shouldn’t use birth control and just accept however many children God wants to give them. The IFB subscribe to this mindset and it is another way in which women are subjugated.
  • Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling by Robert Kunzman. I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, but have yet to read it. Now I want to read it a lot more. This book deals with exactly what Zichterman is concerned about: people homeschooling children with little or no oversight.
  • Escape by Carolyn Jessop. Zichterman recounts seeing an interview on television featuring Carolyn Jessop and realizing, for the first time, that the IFB was a cult. Jessop is a former member of the FLDS (fundamentalist, polygamist Mormons) and her story has a lot of parallels with Zichterman’s. I haven’t read this particular FLDS memoir, but I have read Lost Boy, Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy, and Shattered Dreams, which are all written by survivors/escapees from the FLDS sect.
30 Apr

Logic by Any Other Name

Book Review: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I heard about this book via friend who thought I might be interested in learning more about logic and I finally decided to get it from the library a couple of weeks ago. Logicomix is a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell who was one of the first mathematicians/philosophers to devote himself to the study of logic as the underpinnings of math and philosophy.

Logicomix has several narrative threads: it is a frame story with a meta component, which sounds ridiculous, but is actually quite easy to understand thanks to the artistic conventions used. The book opens with one of the authors, Apostolos, discussing the somewhat crazy decision to discuss logic, of all topics, in graphic novel format. Apolostos introduces his creative team and his friend Christos who is responsible for injecting a little more logic into the narrative. The authors discuss some general ideas for the narrative while walking through Athens (where they work). Then, the frame of the main story is introduced. The reader first meets Russell when he is in the United States (Russell was English–the grandson of a Prime Minister, in fact) to speak to a group of isolationists who are protesting to keep the US out of World War II. Russell agrees to advise the protestors by discussing logic, providing the frame for him to narrate his life and achievements to date. This is occasionally interrupted by the meta layer of the narrative, in which the authors discuss a controversial choice or attempt to clarify certain things for the readers. Russell sketches an outline of his early life, his work and frustrations in university, his quest to understand and build upon the “giants” of the field, his personal life, and his publication of Principia Mathematica with Alfred Whitehead. The narrative also includes some very basic introductions to logical concepts, like set theory.

Graphic novel is an interesting narrative choice for discussion the foundations of logic. I expect that this medium was chosen because it is a way to connect readers with a topic they might not have otherwise investigated and because it is an effective way to introduce readers to Russell as a person in addition to some of his ideas. A book on logic and Russell’s life would probably be too dry for most readers, but Logicomix manages to straddle entertaining and informative quite well. Personally, although I enjoyed Logicomix, I think I am one of those odd people who would probably prefer the dry, no-pictures text version of learning about logic. It was hard for me to remember who the major logicians were by sight (they would pop up at conferences and such) and I don’t feel like I really got that much logic out of it. However, I will admit that my dissatisfaction with the amount of actual logic may be because I am already casually familiar with concepts like set theory, which Russell explains is based on Boole’s work. And any good librarian knows about Boolean operators, so this was not one hundred percent new.

Despite all that, I did learn some logical concepts from reading Logicomix. Russell was obsessed with the concept of mathematical concepts requiring concrete definitions and rules. He felt that there was no way to move forward with mathematics until its foundations were strong and definite. This lead directly to his work on Principia Mathematica, which occupies a significant section of the narrative. Set theory was what Russell saw as the key to mathematics. Sets are groups of objects and the way sets are organized and understood is what Russell focused on. Russell is later criticized by his student, Wittgenstein, who claimed that all Russell accomplished was to establish a series of tautologies. Wittgenstein later went to work on logic as it relates to semantics (at least, that is how the text made it sound); he also expresses in the novel, “The meaning of the world does not reside in the world,” and seemed to develop a somewhat mystical bent in his work. Russell and Wittgenstein’s works also lead to major philosophical players like Gödel. There is also an interesting (but somewhat too briefly covered for my taste) treatment of these philosophers working in Europe leading up to World War II. Logicians were divided along pro and anti-Nazi lines and some of them used their work to justify the Third Reich and the extermination of the Jews, which I found alarming.

Finally, an overt theme of the work is the intersection of logic and madness. The authors discuss the concept throughout the work and they seem to conclude that a certain degree of madness seems to be inherent for people interested in logic. I can’t recall if the text specifically alludes to this, but this link seems to suggest that people who have turbulent minds are more likely to want to impose order on the world around them, which seems to be the case for Russell. Ultimately, both Russell and Wittgenstein come to the conclusion that while logic is important, it isn’t everything. Wittgenstein states that “The things that cannot be talked about logically are the only ones which are truly important” and Russell explains that human life isn’t logical, so people should not use logic to justify things like the Nazi regime, for example. Leaving the story here, as the authors point out in their meta section, makes it sound like logic was a failure: Russell and Wittgenstein admit that it isn’t everything, and Continental logicians are using it to kindle a genocide. However, one of the authors, Christos points out that logic actually won the war. People like Alan Turning leveraged it to create early computers and crack the Nazi codes, which of course lead to modern computing, et. al.

I enjoyed reading this and I will admit it was quite interesting. It was cool to read about a specific slice of history in comic book format because it gives you a better sense of the period (showing the aesthetics, etc.) and it was probably easier to follow than starting out cold with a textbook on logic. Overall, it made me want to read a lot more about logic, set theory, and Bertrand Russell, which is probably the main aim of the book. In which case, it can definitely be considered a success.


21 Apr

Scientology, Comparative Religion, and Fun with Cults

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear cover

There is so much to say about this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. I love reading about cults/people who survived cults/wacky religious beliefs and the rest, but this is my first read on Scientology. Up until this point, my main exposure to the subject was via South Park (I’m not proud). Going Clear spans nearly 100 years of history, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard’s birth in 1911 and ending with Paul Haggis’ (the work’s protagonist, such that it can be said to have one) departure from Scientology and the subsequent uproar in 2010-2011. This book is packed with information and there are a lot of people who were interviewed and who played parts in the narrative (it has more characters than a George R. R. Martin novel). Some of the people involved are introduced early in the book as young people involved in Scientology and show up again later as adults, which I found hard to keep track of–I didn’t know I’d have to manage all the people!–but I don’t think you need to remember exactly who everyone is (other than a few power players) to appreciate the absolute insanity of a lot of the things that happen.

Going Clear is meticulously researched. It draws on interviews with lots of current and former Scientologists, court documents, medical records, and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and other parties. The book is also peppered with footnotes to the tune of “[person’s name]’s attorney denies that X happened” and “The church denies that [person] ever did Y,” which makes one wonder what kinds of behavior that anyone’s attorney would admit to, but that is another matter. The title of the book, Going Clear, refers to the first step in being a Scientologist. When one becomes “clear,” one is free of malicious engrams and is able to work towards being an Operating Thetan (OT). Various people throughout the book are described by their Scientology levels; OT VIII is the highest level that anyone other than Hubbard has ever had access to (Hubbard supposedly penned several more levels, but no one has seen them). Operating Thetans are supposed to have amazing mental powers that can prevent sickness, bend others to one’s will, and basically a certain level of telekinesis. At least, OT levels are described this way. There is as yet no one on the record demonstrating these amazing powers, which of course makes one question why people keep on believing in it, but of course, we could ask such questions about any number of movements.

The book opens with Paul Haggis, that archetypal, directionless young person of the 1970’s who finds Scientology. People like Haggis were attracted to Scientology because of its idealism, they state that they’re working toward “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise of greater heights,” as stated by Hubbard himself. This narrative that Scientology is actively working to improve the world seems at odds with basically everything that happens to individual Scientologists in the book, and yet, they all kept stating that they were in it for this ideal; they thought they were really helping. Haggis is the bread in this Scientology sandwich. After his introduction, the reader doesn’t hear about him again until much later in the book when he begins questioning Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s (the L is for Lafayette) early years, when examined from the perspective of Scientology as it is today, are quite revealing. Wright traces the development of some of the themes of Scientology back to Hubbard’s youth, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Analyzing modern “religions” and charismatic leaders is so different from tracing the history of someone like the Prophet Muhammad because there is actually a record of what people did and one can draw conclusions about how that influenced their later work. One of the formative experiences of Hubbard’s life was traveling by boat from Seattle to Washington D.C. via the Panama Canal. Hubbard was taken in by Commander Joseph C. “Snake” Thompson on the trip, who was “of the US Navy Medical Corps. A neurosurgeon, a naturalist, and a former spy, Thompson made a vivid impression on [Hubbard].” Thompson also schooled Hubbard on Freudian theory, which doubtless had an impact on Hubbard’s later preoccupation with pyschiatrists and psychologists. There are so many anecdotes (and fabrications, which Wright compares to evidence and accounts from other people) about Hubbard’s early life  that it is difficult to choose what to discuss in a short review, but I will mention that Hubbard briefly served in the US Navy during World War II. He insisted he was a hero and I’m sure this also was a part of his choice to later make Scientology a maritime venture. He was also connected with several people on Hollywood, and it seemed that he was fascinated with society there, but he never made it big, which I think was also a factor in the later choice for Scientology to court celebrities so seriously.

Dianetics was Hubbard’s first effort and producing a work that would define a movement. It quickly became popular because it capitalized on the public’s interest in psychology and psychotherapy, but it supposedly offered people the tools to treat themselves without any actual academic or scientific grounding. Although its popularity burned brightly, it burned out quickly when people realized that Dianetics didn’t actually enable them to do fantastical feats with mental powers. Hubbard, an autocrat at heart, decided that Dianetics had gotten out of hand, and choose to rebrand it as Scientology. He is quoted as saying “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.” Shortly after Scientology began, Hubbard moved to England with his family (well, his new family, Hubbard had three wives and seven children throughout his life). Soon, Hubbard became paranoid that “British, American, and Soviet governments were interested in gaining control of Scientology’s secrets in order to use them for evil intentions.” To combat this, he bought three boats, gathered up his staunchest believers (who all signed billion year contracts, yes, billion since Scientology subscribes to reincarnation) and founded the Sea Org, which came to be what is essentially Scientology’s clergy. The Sea Org is when, it seems to me, that the real abuses of power began. Parents were separated from their children, abandoned at various ports, and in one case, representatives were caught up in a popular uprising in Morocco. At this time, many of Scientology’s procedures were codified, like the RPF rundown, which involved locking up a dissenter in a room with no contact for several weeks. The practice later evolved to include making such people stay in confinement for years, in some cases, and do labor while there.

There are a lot of tragic events described in Going Clear, but I want to spend some time looking at Scientology from a comparative religion perspective, with a focus on similarities between Scientology and Mormonism (full disclosure: I was raised Mormon). Later in the history of Scientology, when they were back on land, Hubbard was working to get a film made. The script was shopped around and an offer for $10 million came in (at the time, a record sum for a script purchase). Upon investigation of the buyers, they learned that the  buyers were mormons and “Hubbard figured that the only reason Mormons would buy it was to put it on the shelf,” which is probably true. I find it interesting that Mormons would want to suppress a Scientologist message, considering that the movements really have a lot in common as modern religious movements. There are a lot of parallels to be found between Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was a known huckster and treasure hunter before starting Mormonism, as Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer before Scientology–both had a flair for the fictitious. Hubbard also took multiple wives (to say nothing of mistresses) without divorcing, although a few wives isn’t much compared to Smith, they are both outside cultural norms. I would also make the argument that Scientology’s doctrine of spirits being sent to Earth as punishment by a more powerful force has some parallel to Mormonism’s concept of there being a “war in heaven,” which Satan lost and God won. Except in the case of Mormonism, the losers weren’t sent to Earth for punishment, they went straight to hell. Both movements also have a period of being on a journey early in their  history. The Mormons, of course, were hounded out of New York and across the Midwest, finally taking a long trek to what is now Utah to escape persecution. Hubbard sailed the Mediterranean and Carribean for several years with his Sea Org to escape what he perceived as persecution. Although the early periods have a lot in common, I will admit that the later histories diverge. Mormonism doesn’t have the forced labor of the RPF (although young people are required to serve missions under extremely spartan conditions) and it also seems to have found a broader appeal than Scientology. However, as comparative cases they are interesting to consider in the context of the development of modern, American religions.

Although there are many differences between contemporary Mormonism and Scientology, some of the tactics they use have similar roots. One line from Going Clear regarding a Sea Org member who wanted to leave explained, “Most of those who fled were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they were often frightened, humiliated, and angry. They desperately wanted a life outside the organization.” Many people who leave Scientology quickly realize that they don’t know much of the real world, and many of the people who joined as young people or who were born into the religion lack a formal education and haven’t graduated high school (which reminds me of fundamentalist Mormons–the ones that practice polygamy and live in compounds). Scientology is described as being completely consuming. While Mormonism allows people to have lives outside of church, they pack the week so full of church functions that people often find it difficult to do much else, it truly can be difficult to figure out what one’s life is after the organization. Another tactic used by Scientology is “disconnection,” which is the practice of encouraging Scientologists to cut themselves off from anyone or anything that isn’t related to Scientology. This ensures that Scientologists are so emotionally and socially invested that leaving involves a total social suicide. Mormons operate in similar ways. As the good people of Reddit’s exmormon community will tell you, families do disown members who leave Mormonism with alarming frequency.

Comparing Mormonism and Scientology is both part of my fascination with cults and also a way of validating my own experiences. Something about seeing similar tactics documented in other cults (I will go ahead and call it a cult) makes me feel a little less foolish. Obviously these strategies work. We have seen all sorts of movements rise and fall and maintain zealous members using these strategies. Some parts of Going Clear hit close to home, but there were just as many things totally outside of my experience that were absolutely tragic. It’s hard to know what to write about this book because there is just so much to tell; so many stories, so many lives ruined or people’s emotions and sense of self destroyed. This is probably not my best review because I did react very emotionally to this book. I appreciate non-fiction work on religious movements like some people are into horror. It produces that “can’t look away” fascination. I marked a lot of sections in this book that I wanted to talk about, but instead I’ll leave you with this. Be rational for your own self. Be compassionate to other people and then maybe they won’t feel such strong needs to find meaning and acceptance in cults. Read this book because you will be horrified and sad and feel like you want to punch someone.

14 Apr

In the Kiddie Pool

Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows book cover

The Shallows cover

I wanted to read The Shallows because, like the majority of people in my generation (or at least, among those in my generation I talk to), I spend a huge amount of time online or otherwise connected. I was skeptical that being so involved in digital life was making me stupider (as the title implies). Now having read the book, I think that the premise is less about how we’re becoming stupid, although I think Carr does convey that sentiment at points, and more about how technology shapes the way we think. Humans mold themselves to the available tools, rather than the tools to the humans, it seems.

The central thesis of The Shallows seems to be that computers have changed our behavior in a fundamental way. The way that we learn, remember, and retrieve information has been altered thanks to widespread computer use. Or, to quote Nietzche–as Carr does after relaying an anecdote involving Nietzche and a typewriter–, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” To support this claim, Carr spends the initial portion of the work discussing neuroplasticity and working through a history of other technologies that have changed the way humanity uses their minds. Carr raises the point that studies show that the brain is both able and willing to reallocate neurons to new tasks, if those neurons aren’t being made use of elsewhere. He cites work showing that when someone becomes blind, that person’s brain reconfigures such that the area of the brain formerly given over to visual processing is put to use in auditory processing or other pertinent tasks. In fact, neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s (a researcher at Harvard Medical School) opinions are shared. He explains that neuroplasticity is one of the most important traits that humans have evolved. Carr states, “The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring, but that it doesn’t,” i.e. that we’ve made it this far as a species because we can adapt well. My response to the fan fare over neuroplasticity was to wonder why the author seems to be decrying another step in the brain’s inevitable adaptation to our modern computing landscape.

There are a few fascinating examples of technological developments and how they changed humanity. One that I particularly enjoyed was a discussion on clocks and timekeeping. For much of the history of civilization, time was primarily kept only by the rise and fall of the sun, but in the Middle Ages, Christian monks decided that they needed more precision in their schedules, and as such, pushed for superior time keeping technology (superior to sun dials and water clocks). Eventually, every town had a clock and kept time by the bells ringing during the day, but it came to a point when that wasn’t enough either; people wanted absolute time precision. Of course, clocks were developed, soon pocket watches, and all the rest. Now, we think about the whole day in the abstract medium of hours, minutes, and seconds. Having the technology available made people change their habits. Some people saw that keeping accurate time was an improvement, and eventually everyone else standardized too. By presenting these historical anecdotes on technology, Carr draws an analogy between these instances of technology and our current matter: computers. He even states, “In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use.”

After discussing technology in general, Carr goes on to discuss writing and reading. When the Greeks first started to use writing, Socrates complained about it, stating that it had some practical benefits, but it would not affect us for the better (sidenote: he then told those damn kids to get off his lawn and turn down that music). Something interesting that I didn’t know (but once I read it, seemed obvious) was that reading was originally only an out loud activity. Silent and solo reading were not things that people thought to do. Even though people started writing things down as an aid to memory or to communicate stories, people still only read in the same way that they had communicated for ages: with spoken word. It wasn’t until the middle ages that people started reading silently and methods of writing text (like using spaces between words) were developed to support silent reading. Carr argues that we are now at a point where reading is a feat of sustained attention and quiet effort. This is where Carr’s complaint about reading on computers comes in. Computers as a medium are inherently distracting due to the way that we navigate the text. Furthermore, “Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual.” I would be interested to see if there is any research on how the tactile sensation of reading is interpreted for readers of different generations. I feel like, when I close out other distractions, I can read just as well on the computer as I do with a book. I wonder if there is a generational divide in this issue. If the brain has as much plasticity as the reader is lead to believe in earlier chapters, would it not be possible that the brain can learn to get as much out of digital reading as analog reading?

There are a couple chapters in the middle of the book that strike me as rather self-indulgent. Take this statement, for example, “Despite years of hype about electronic books, most people haven’t shown much interest in them. Investing a few hundred dollars in a specialized ‘digital reader’ has seemed silly, given the ease and pleasure of buying and reading old-fashioned books.” Ah, yes, the simple allure of analog books, that ultimate argument against digital reading! You know, based on the ridiculous amount of statistics on this issue, I think I am going to have to disagree that e-books aren’t catching on. Carr also discusses the fact that some people predict social media conversations happening within e-books. One the one hand, I can see that being annoying, but as long as there is the option to disable it, I fail to see the problem. In some texts, I can even see it being beneficial. Readers could start discussions and connect with each other this way. In textbooks or technical books, readers might as each other questions. The future isn’t necessarily horrible, Mr. Carr!

Finally, we get to how the Internet is changing our brains. Inquiring minds want to know: what is the word on this? Carr characterizes the modern Web as a “high speed system for delivering responses and rewards … which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions.” He argues that we keep interneting because it stimulates our brains and bite-sized information chunks make us feel happy; it boils down to basic operant conditioning. Carr also states that the Internet keeps our brains distracted. The brain needs downtime away from highly stimulating environments to do deep thinking and refresh itself, but it’s hard to pull away from the computer because we feel rewarded when we use it. I do agree with this, but I also think there isn’t anyone who really disagrees with this. Even the most internet addicted among us (Redditors?) will agree that spending the entire day online results in feeling kind of bad at the end of it all. Everyone has to learn to moderate their own time online in order to get things done. That’s the nature of modern life. Carr also cites some work on attention and multitasking, making the case–again–that the desultory nature of reading online is making us dumb because we can’t remember anything. There is a case in which people were assigned a reading comprehension task, one with hyperlinks throughout and one without. The people with no hyperlinks understood the story they read on a deeper level because they didn’t get lost on tangents with the hyperlinks. Furthermore, the people who had the hyperlinks remembered less about everything they had read than the no-links group. In a similar study, a researcher found that readers understood less for every additional link in a text. I can see that this is a problem, just from my own experience. I find that if I click on links through a text and read all the links immediately, it is harder to understand what is going on. However, I think this problem can be solved quite simply by opening new links in a tab and reading things all the way through before going onto the next one. So, again, the tone seems somewhat alarmist to me, especially when there are so many easy ways to get around these problems.

Next, Carr considers the effects of “outsourcing” one’s memory to the Web. On this subject, I do agree with the author that this is a dumb idea. Some people take the approach that they don’t really need to remember things because everything is online. Carr brings up some interesting research on this subject, noting that “the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation,” which is to say that when you remember something, your brain strengthens the neural pathways to the memory and you probably deepen your understanding of the issue by thinking about it again, but with new knowledge in your brain. I must agree with this based on my own experience. I find that the more I know, the more I can know. Remembering a lot of things allows more links between information to be formed, thus making me smarter. Treating the mind as an index to things online works in some ways (perhaps for things you want to learn later, or for incidental information), but the best course of action for actually being a more intelligent person is to use your damn memory! I also appreciated the William James quotation in this section, “The art of remembering is the art of thinking.” I like it.

Overall, The Shallows has discussions about some interesting research and I felt that it did make some valid points about the metacognition, but I thought the tone was needlessly alarmist. I don’t think people are becoming more shallow in their thinking as a whole, but I do believe we are in a transitional period in terms of how we view technology and its role in cognition and learning. The technology will change and we will adapt to it. In some ways it will be better, and in some ways it will be worse. Such is humanity. Should you read the book? If you like reading about technology and the brain, yes, you will likely be interested. I particularly enjoyed the beginning of the book because of these topics. The end of the book has some interesting modern research on attention, which I also appreciated. On the whole, I am ambivalent about The Shallows, but I would not say that I regret reading it (in between opening all the hyper links, checking email, and generally going to hell in a hand basket).

31 Mar

It’s a Trap!

Book Review: The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers & Fathers are Going Broke

The Two-Income Trap cover

The Two-Income Trap cover

I picked up this book not because I am a mother (as if I would have time to read if I had a child), but because I came across this quotation on Reddit about a month ago, “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.” And my thoughts were That’s all the reason I need not to procreate and also I should read that book. This is a big claim though; the main thing that will bring a woman down is children. I was interested to see how Warren and Warren-Tyagi (the mother-daughter duo that wrote the book) substantiated that claim and treated the issue.

The basic premise of The Two-Income Trap is that by sending mothers (the book does focus on mothers, rather than second-earner more generally) into the workforce, we have doomed ourselves. At first, this sounds very anti-feminist. I found myself wondering whether the authors thought women should go back to staying at home, but they later make it clear that this is absolutely not what they are proposing. Rather, the “trap” is twofold: having two income earners means that families structure their budgets around having two full time workers. Using this increase in cash (compared to families with only one income), these two-income families buy homes in better school districts, driving up the home values of everything in the area, making it impossible (for most people) to afford a home in a decent district on only on income. The second piece of the trap is that because families are focusing all their resources on affording homes in a nice school district, if one parent becomes unable to work or loses his or her job, the family is immediately sunk. We have created a system in which the only way to compete is to have two full time incomes and no one gets injured or laid off.

I was surprised to learn that school districts were such a major factor in where people decided to live (although, as a former teacher, I should not have been). In fact, “A study conducted in Fresno found that, for similar homes, school quality was the single most important determinant of neighborhood prices [emphasis theirs].” And furthermore, I found this statistic quite telling, “Schools that scored just 5 percent higher on fourth-grade math and reading tests added a premium of nearly $4,000 to nearby homes.” What! That’s basically adding a whole year’s salary onto a mortgage just for 5% more in test scores. The tone of this book definitely communicated the importance of getting into better school districts to middle class families. People are willing to bring themselves to the brink of financial ruin just to make it happen. I expect this is a function of the middle class drive for children to do better than their parents and the parents make this part of the American Dream come true by positioning themselves as strategically as possible, even if it means spending almost all your money on a house. Warren and Warren-Tyagi’s solution to this housing madness is “a well-designed voucher program.” I know that for anyone in education, vouchers make you tense up, but the goal of their proposed voucher is to make it so each child is entitled to go to school somewhere, but that school doesn’t have to be tied to the family’s domicile. The “voucher” travels with the student to whatever school the family chooses. I like the idea of de-coupling residence and school; however, I find it hard to believe that this can work in a pragmatic sense. Won’t everyone just try to get into the best school in the area? Wouldn’t this just result in lotteries like many charter schools already do? How are kids going to get to school? I will admit that I don’t have a better idea (of course I’m not a professor at Harvard Law School like warren is), but I am not confident that this would work without seeing a lot more data and plans.

Even though the book is primarily about two-income families, it also gives some attention to single mothers who have it even worse than everyone else. Unfortunately, “Single mothers are more likely than any other group to file for bankruptcy.” Essentially, anything that is financially negative, will happen to single mothers more than anyone else. They are more likely to lose their homes and to be past due on bills. Even though the “trap” described in this book is for two-income families, single mothers (and presumably fathers) are caught up in it in their own way. According to Warren and Warren-Tyagi, “For every increase in the paycheck of a single mother, there is now a corresponding increase in a married couple’s income as well … the income gap between single and married parents is growing.” So, if you think that being a single parent will let you opt-out of this two-income trap, you’re wrong about that.

Another issue that is discussed in detail is the issue of debt, consumption and inflation. They explain that one of the major things that can drive a family into debt—and potentially bankruptcy—is medical bills. They state that “Over the past twenty years, the number of families declaring bankruptcy in the wake of a serious illness has multiplied more than twentyfold, or 2,000 percent.” They also discuss the rise of subprime mortgage lending (and for anyone who has lived in the 21st century, subprime is not a term I need to define for you). Subprime mortgages offer interest rates of more than twice as much as a standard loan. The authors give the example of a 6.5% and a 15.6% interest rate: on the life of a $175,000 mortgage, the higher rate would result in $420,000 more in payments over a 30 year loan. That is insane, you could buy two more houses (in someplace that isn’t California, I suppose) for that amount, yet people are racking that up as mere interest. Apparently, the mortgage industry was being somewhat less than honest at this point in time, and the authors cite a figure that 40% of people who were sold subprime mortgages could have qualified for a standard loan. It seems that many people are not well enough educated to know when they are being scammed by the bank, and thus were taken advantage of by lenders who were pretending to be friendly. Again, this is madness and it is absolutely irresponsible and predatory on the part of banks.

From my standpoint in 2013, I’m thinking, Well, obviously, but this book was published in 2003. It pre-empted the financial crisis by five years. Some of the issues they discuss make them seem almost prescient, but of course, they weren’t making magical predictions, it was clear even then that our economic model was not a sustainable one. To get on my soapbox for a moment: the fact that people knew and were writing about the problems of medical debt and people getting into mortgages that they could barely sustain in 2003 (which means the data would have been primarily from the 1990’s), but nothing happened and the economy was allowed to completely fall apart in 2008 is infuriating. The authors mention that in 2002, Citibank’s subprime lending arm was “prosecuted for deceptive marketing practices.” And yet, nothing happened. They paid $240 million to settle and, presumably, went on stoking the fires of financial ruin for the country. My generation is going to be trying to cope with the after effects of all this thanks to the legislature deregulating so many industries and bankers profiting off of all this foolishness.

At the end of the book, Warren and Warren-Tyagi offer some suggestions for how to avoid the two-income trap. The first is the somewhat obvious “Stay home?” I get that having a parent stay home can be a way to opt-out of this trap, but for that to work, one partner has to be making a significant amount of money and the other must be okay with staying at home and leaving the workforce. I don’t see that being a great solution (and even the authors present it in a tentative kind of way). However, I think the lesson from this suggestion is to not rely so heavily on two incomes. If a family has two incomes, then they shouldn’t be putting a full income of one member into a mortgage. An entire lifestyle cannot be predicated on having just enough to pay for necessities without any savings. The second solution (and my personal favorite) is “No children?” (all the suggestions have nice, tentative question marks). Notably, “By forgoing childbearing, a woman decreases her chances of going bankrupt by 66 percent” and “By remaining childless, a woman greatly improves her odds of having a comfortable retirement.” If you read this book looking for reasons you shouldn’t have children, then here it is, you win this round!

I had a hard time figuring out what I thought about this book on the whole. A part of me wants to say Well, just never have children! Problem solved, but of course that is not an actionable solution for everyone, and frankly, there are lots of people who want children and feel good about having them, and I wouldn’t want to deny people that choice just because the financial game is not a fun one for families with children. Another part of me was enraged because injustice is upsetting for me. Every school should be a good school that parents want their kids to go to! People shouldn’t be pushing themselves to the brink of bankruptcy just so their kid can get a free and appropriate education. That is the most anti-democratic concept that I can think of. It guarantees that only rich (or relatively wealthy people) will get a good education, thus perpetuating a cycle of socio-economic inequality. I’m not sure what a good answer would be, but I feel that, as a society, if education, equality, and democracy are things that we actually value (rather than things we just say we value) then this is a problem that needs to b e fixed.

Finally, if you hate reading, or just like watching things, here’s a lecture by Elizabeth Warren about things from this book and “the coming collapse of the middle class.”

The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class – Elizabeth Warren [57:37]

17 Mar

The Ordinary Review

Book Review: The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall

Cover image for

The Ordinary Acrobat

The Ordinary Acrobat occupies the literary territory between memoir, history, and anthropological report. Wall opens with his nod to the “circus memoir” genre, in which the author describes his or her first interaction with the circus, before jumping into the circus experience that captivated him, compelling him to learn more about the exotic culture and history of the circus. Not surprisingly, Wall was became fascinated with the circus while in France, a cultural stronghold for the contemporary circus. France classifies circus as a fine art, and it is governed by France’s Ministry of Culture, which puts millions into supporting the art and its state supported circus school annually.

Wall researched this book from the enviable position (from my perspective as a scholar and a former circus performer) of a Fullbright fellowship and the ability to sit in on classes at France’s National School. In compiling the work, it’s clear that Wall also spent an immense amount of time speaking with circus professionals and historians, reading works of circus history and lore, and “chasing ghosts”—the name the author gives to visiting sites of circus history, even if there’s nothing left connecting the site to the circus anymore. When I picked up the book, I was worried that it would be heavy on memoir (What do I care about reading some circus neophyte’s memoir? I asked myself), but in fact, the memoir aspects permeated the narrative without overpowering it. Wall’s personal experiences tied the history and cultural observations together, propelling the story forward and providing a great sense of how the circus developed to where it stands today.

Even though I’ve been involved in circus arts for about half my life, I learned a lot about the roots of the circus and how some of its traditions developed; some of which I had never even thought about. For example, the traditional red and gold circus colors and ring master look are based on military fashion. One of the first and most influential circuses (as we think of them today) was put together by Philip Astley, a retired cavalry officer. When he started his circuses, he based his shows on equestrian skills (a tradition that persisted until very recently, although still seen in “traditional” circuses today), and lifted most of his style choices from his military experience. Wall makes the point that such choices became codified into traditions that were handed down through the years between performers, resulting in the rather uniform look of circuses in the 20th century.

The first skill that the author describes learning is juggling and he devotes three whole chapters (three!) to juggling and speaking to professionals. As a juggler, I was impressed; jugglers are typically the misfits of the circus (speaking as a juggler), and as one performer that Wall spoke with put it, jugglers are “heady.” Wall also described the problem with juggling performance: it tends to only really be appreciated by other jugglers. “Be hinging their craft of virtuosic execution, jugglers painted themselves into a corner. Although it is thrilling, this kind of technical juggling is tough for audiences to appreciate … Many tricks are harder than they look, and vice versa.” He also noted that since there is no inherent danger in juggling as there is in other circus disciplines, audiences sometimes have a difficult time connecting with it. Some jugglers have moved past this by turning it their acts into full blown art pieces. Wall spoke with juggler Jerome Thomas, who confided the secret to engaging the audience with an act as art: “You make him work his imagination … You make him dream!” The audience has to do some mental work in order to connect with the act, not just be wowed by a deluge of props cascading to the floor.

Wall also relates his foray into trapeze and investigations into clowning, all the while including fun facts. One of the most ridiculous (and terrifying) was that in 1829, a town in Pennsylvania prosecuted a group of acrobats for witchcraft for “‘having private conferences with the spirit of darkness,’ as well as exposing their populace to such ‘performances of magic’ as ‘leaping over a horse through hoops.’” Jumping through hoops: the devil’s handiwork! I also found the section on clowning quite informative. Wall met Andre Riot-Sarcey, director of Les Nouveaux Nez, a modern clowning quartet. Andre explained that clowning is “the reduction of ourselves into our purest desires, to our desperate hunger for approval,” and he also offered the most important information about clowning: “CLOWN = FUNNY !!!”

At the end of the book, Wall discusses the cultural significance of circuses and compares the artistic landscape in Europe and the U.S. One of the best comments on this came from Bernard Turin, director of France’s National School in discussing why circus arts declined so sharply in the middle of the 20th century: “A popular art should bring people together. It should unify them and pull them upward. Unfortunately, television doesn’t do this, it pulls them downward. Instead of bringing people together, it isolates them.” This segues into something of a call to action from Wall. Circus arts can bring people of all social classes together, but in the U.S., we leave the funding of circus arts entirely to the private sector, so the artists we get really only end up working in corporations. No one starts troupes or shows because there is too much financial risk involved, thus leaving the American circus landscape devoid of new contributions and innovation. Circus can pull people upward, as Turin put it, and as someone who spent most of my youth in a circus environment, I tend to agree.

I recommend this book for both people who have an existing interest in circuses (you will learn something!) and for people who don’t (it will endear you!). Like I said, I found that this book was a great way to get in touch with my circus “roots,” and I think that it’s a highly accessible work on the past, present, and future of the circus as an art form.