Thursday, September 30, 2010


What do I unsee? What do I unhear? Those were the questions I had in my mind when I woke up this morning. I finished reading the 2010 Hugo Winning (tie) novel The City & The City by China Mieville last night. As I slept, the world Mievelle created was playing with my subconscious. The theme Mievelle centered his book around was now taking on a life beyond the pages. Good Science Fiction can do that.

In The City and The City two different cities in two different countries exist side by side. A street may have one side in one city and the other side in the other city. A building may have one area that belongs in one city and another area in the other city. Intersections may be “cross hatched,” and belong in both cities, creating a challenge to drivers. This isn’t the result of multiple dimensions or space time fluctuations. This is the result of cultural training. People are taught to “unsee” people from the other city. There are cues in dress, posture, etc. People are also taught to “unheard” any sounds that come from the other city.

The first hundred or so pages, I confess, were slow reading for me. Even though I had read reviews, I still couldn’t get into the book. But once I did, the setting came alive for me. I was as involved in the story as I would be reading any other mystery. (In our library, the book is categorized as a mystery novel.)

This phenomenon of unseeing is actually quite common. Our senses take in a great deal of information, and we can only pay attention to a fraction of it. Inattentional blindness is the term given to this phenomenon of ignoring what is in front of us. In a famous study, participants were asked to count how many times actors wearing a specific color passed a ball. While the other actors were bouncing the ball, a woman in a gorilla costume walked through them. Half the participants never “saw” the gorilla. Historically, legend has it that the Indians did not see the European ships at first because their consciousness did not yet accept the ships' existence. Similarly, a fun article that appeared earlier this month discussed luck. Many people do not “see” opportunities.  But people can be taught to see; they can learn to be lucky. 

Unseeing and unhearing can be applied to so many areas of our lives. So as I go about my day I begin forming the questions. What do I unsee? Who do I unsee? What do I unhear? Who do I unhear?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Seeing People

More times than not, I think of change as a positive force. But, one of the not so good trends is a lack of basic acknowledgment by people of those around them on the sidewalk, at the store, at the library, etc. A few months ago I had an encounter with a group leader on a temporary job. I was standing three feet away from her, waiting to give her my time sheet, and she absolutely did not acknowledge my presence, not with a word, not with body language, not with a grunt or a hurumph, nothing. I was invisible to her. I wish this had been an isolated instance, but it appears to be the trend. Now I am not saying we have to greet everyone we meet with Namasate or a small town America “How ya doin?” but it would do most of us a lot of good just to be acknowledged with a slight nod or a tiny smile. Some days even a “Get the hell out of my way” would be a boost to people’s self worth; at least they would feel they existed. Alexander McCall Smith touched on that yesterday in his weekend companion to Corduroy Mansions in the Telegraph:

And seeing somebody is immensely important, I think. How many people do we see each day but not see? We walk along the street and are aware of people passing by, but do we see them in the sense of acknowledging their presence? I don’t think we do. Or we carry out the small transactions of life with others, but do we see them in the sense of recognizing their unique existence, their feelings, what it is to be them? Sorry, I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but it’s an important idea.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Windup Girl--Part 2

To a certain extent I believe in the Gaia hypothesis, that the earth is a living system. At the very least, I believe that everything affects everything else. I believe that we all need to live our lives with an awareness of how our actions or inactions affect the world around us. Lately, I have been looking at that paradigm in terms of air pollution regulations. Paolo Bacigalupi in The Windup Girl looks at the interconnectedness with regard to genetic engineering:

The symbol for the Environment Ministry is the eye of a tortoise, for the long view—the understanding that nothing comes cheap or quickly without hidden cost.
Lately our weather has been unusual. A local meteorologist said that in all the decades he has been forecasting weather, he has never seen anything like we experienced this summer. Similarly, I have been working on a project with an individual who is expert in an aspect of air pollution monitoring, and I also have been trying to get a pulse on the environment through Facebook and newsfeeds. Studies indicate that air pollution may contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, respiratory problems, and even diabetes. Have we gone beyond the tipping point? Besides rethinking our housing, transportation, diets, and occupations; do we need to rethink our physical bodies?

The “Windup Girl” refers to a genetically engineered person created as a servant. In the story a scientist argues that she represents the future of humankind:

Our environment has changed. If we wish to remain at the top of our food chain, we must evolve. Or we will refuse, and go the way of the dinosaurs and Felis domesticus. Evolve or die. It has always been nature’s guiding principle…

This is all very creepy and yet very interesting to me.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Windup Girl--Part 1

I began reading the Hugo and Nebula winning novel The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi the same day as an article appeared on Yahoo! about genetically modified salmon. Creepy. Very, very creepy. The Windup Girl is an incredible novel, well deserving of every award it has received. But I didn’t enjoy reading it. It made me feel too vulnerable. The novel is just too plausible. Many people are mistrustful or at least a bit skeptical of the motivation of large food companies. Our recent tainted egg scare is just one in a series of examples. Many people don’t trust government agencies to always hold people’s best interests in mind. Bacigalupi extrapolates a dark future based on those ideas. I usually am not paranoid, and I actually think genetic engineering has the potential to do a great deal of good for some serious conditions: diabetes, inherited cancers, spinal injuries. Like many things, it also has the potential to do devastating harm.

I need to lighten up a bit before I am ready to look at some of my bookmarks.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Autumnal Equinox

From Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak:

It was a good day…fair and soft and warm. These were the kind of days that one must treasure, close against the heart, for the painted days were few. Soon would come the dreary days, with the cold mist slanting ghostily through the naked trees and after that the frigid sweep of northern winds and snow.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Not Stupids and Loonies

The 1967 Hugo Winner, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, tells the tale of a revolution instigated by the residents--Loonies--of the moon, a sort of penal colony. The uprising is partially led by Mike, a computer, and a group of "not stupids", people who Mike is fond of because they have no problems accepting him as a friend.

The book was not necessarily my mug of Chai, but I did receive a certain amount of enjoyment from it. While a lot of people over the years have quoted from the book the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” my favorite was “not stupids.” To me “not stupids” is a fun phrase for describing people who are willing to think outside the box. It also makes me chuckle about how people on both sides of a controversial issue will point at people on the other side and refer to them as stupid. You would think that they would be able to find some common ground in the fact that both are all stupid.

I am neither a history nor world politics buff, so I am grateful that the book helped me to stretch my boundaries and look at the way revolutions come about. The description of how covert organizations are formed and preserved helped me to understand terrorism better. While I think of myself primarily as an individual, I am also a citizen of the world, which seems to demand at least a token attempt to understand it. I could imagine how people felt in the 1960’s when they read this while the Vietnam War raged on. How empowering.

I did manage to find one quote my analytical brain found attractive. This is on problem solving:
From somewhere, back in my youth, heard Prof say,” Manuel, when faced with a problem you do not understand, do any part of it you do understand, then look at it again.” He had been teaching me something he himself did not understand well—something in math—but had taught me something far more important, a basic principle.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


How might the human race evolve? We assume that it will evolve technologically and perhaps physically, but could it also advance in other ways? Socially? Psychically? In its ability to co-exist with nature? Once again I made our local librarians trudge down into storage to pull out a book for me. A Choice of Gods, written by Clifford D. Simak and published in 1972, looks at some of the other possible forms of evolution. The book’s message is still relevant. Perhaps the majority of mankind is drawn to power and conquest, but there will always be pockets of individuals drawn to a different way, and their potential is endless.

What comes next, I ask myself, and I do not know. There seems to be no logical progression to this sort of thing and the reason that there is no logic is that we are too new at it to have an understanding of what may be involved.…As it stands at the moment, I can only speculate….Standing on my mountain top, I strain my eyes to look into the future.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Corduroy Mansions Is Back

I like the world better after I have read an Alexander McCall Smith novel. I smile more. I think happier thoughts about people. Corduroy Mansions, a serialized novel on the Telegraph, is back for its third season starting this week. (Reading the earlier novels is not a prerequisite for enjoying the third season.) The series is humorous, poignant, and touching, filled with AMS’s British sensibility. Despite being a voracious reader, I like listening to Andrew Sachs read the daily installment as I begin my morning routine. Some habits are wonderful

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Graveyard Book

Last night I finished reading the 2009 Hugo Winning Novel, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. The story is about a boy whose family is murdered when he is a baby and who is brought up by the dead and not so dead inhabitants of a graveyard. It isn’t something I would normally have chosen to read, but it did leave me thinking, as most books do. And, I found two quotes that fit in with the theme of this blog.

On Mastery:

There were some lessons that Bod had mastered. He had eaten a bellyful of unripe apples, sour and white-pipped, from the tree some years before, and had regretted it for days, his guts cramping and painful while Mrs. Owens lectured him on what not to eat. Now he always waited until the apples were ripe before eating them, and never ate more than two or three a night.

If only the rest of us could be so bright, particularly those of us who sit in odd positions and end up in a lot of pain, only to sit that way the next day.


You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Always in Motion

Though this world feels to me as if it is still and concrete, the truth is that it is always in motion. The world is in a constant state of birth and death, manifestation and destruction.
The Soul’s Companion by Tian Dayton, PhD

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


When I was working on my bachelor’s degree, my advisor in the English department wrote articles for fishing magazines. He often didn’t receive the respect he deserved from the other instructors and professors in the department who were more erudite or, in some cases, blatantly pretentious. He instilled in me the importance of telling a simple story.

I was thinking about him this morning as I was trying to edit and add activities to a course about a piece of technology. So much content! So many technical points! My mind wanted to go into overdrive. But I realized that it didn’t have to be that way. Our learners want and need to hear a simple story. It might have technical aspects. It might involve math and physics. But it is still a story. All I need to do is write it, step by step.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

2010 Hugo Winning Novel

Three months ago, I vaguely cared about Hugo winners. I would pick up a Hugo winning novel and think “Hmm, this is interesting.” Last night I went to sleep thinking, “Tomorrow morning when I wake up, I’ll know what the Hugo winning novel is for 2010.” It was like waiting for Santa. The winner turns out to be winners: The City & The City, by China MiĆ©ville and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I have already been on the internet to reserve a copy from one of the neighboring libraries of the novel my library doesn’t carry.