Sunday, July 31, 2011


Every so often I meet someone who claims that he is too busy to read for leisure or that-- because his job consists of scrutinizing documents all day (invariably dull stuff like contracts)--  opening up a book and sweeping his gaze across lines of written words is the last thing he wants to do in his off hours; he’d much rather unwind watching the type of television show that isn’t too taxing on the mind (reality tv, silly sitcoms).

Whenever I meet one of these characters, I nod while silently thinking to myself that if I was in his position, if I had his job, you could bet that it wouldn’t keep me from reading in my spare time.  Such is my bibliomania.

Granted, in the last five years there have been a number of books that I have probably read almost exclusively on the metro during my commute back and forth from work.  And now, with the advent of e-readers, if I have something saved on my iphone’s Kindle app, I’m never at a loss when I have time to kill-- waiting for trains or in doctors’ offices or even (if you’ll pardon my bringing it up) sitting on the john.  As long as I have my phone on me, there’s no need to stare at the walls and twiddle my thumbs (I will criticize this modern need for distraction in a future post).

Back when I was in college, the heavy load of texts I was expected to complete for all my courses (some of which were actually enjoyable), usually meant that I had to wait until the term was over before I picked up a book of my choosing and read for pleasure.  That said, I do remember occasionally squeezing in some non-assigned reading in the middle of a semester, usually something light that I felt reasonably confident I could finish quickly,  like a comic novel by P G Wodehouse (but also Kafka’s Trial-- which was short at least-- and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister).  I remember history classes as being particularly demanding: often the professor would list ten or more books which students were expected to wade through.  At some point I would make the executive decision to throw one or two of these aside and not even attempt them because there seemed to be no way I could get through all the required reading for all the semester’s courses.

I may enjoy books, but I am probably not the world’s fastest reader.  The idea of speed-reading is abhorrent, and it always takes a great struggle, ending in an admission of defeat and a ridiculous, residual feeling of guilt, to get me to skim something rather than reading it properly.  Incidentally, once or twice I’ve picked up one of those books assigned in college that didn’t make the cut, years later, and-- completing it at my leisure-- found it to be delightful.  This happened with The Ice Age, a novel by (Byatt’s sister) Margaret Drabble, which I was supposed to have read for a course on the history of Britain since 1945.  

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Having read the above, one shouldn’t walk away with the impression that I am bragging.  I’ll confess to a lingering feeling of superiority over the fool who says he doesn’t have time to read, but-- leaving that aside-- I have come to accept that the act of reading is not in and of itself something to be proud of.  Reading fiction often serves primarily (if not exclusively) as entertainment, or even as a form of escapism.  Today, we tend to hold books in general in high esteem and to think of the act of reading as being among the most worthwhile and respectable of pastimes.  Yet, in the 19th century, when novels were among the most popular media of entertainment, consumed by men and especially women, many moralists condemned them as a waste of time that dulled their readers’ wits-- much the same way that television has been denounced in the post-WWII era.

Reading can also be a means of procrastination-- putting off all sorts of things we ought to be doing with our time but are avoiding.  Even with nonfiction, which is meant to be educational, one has to ask oneself to what degree the knowledge gained is likely to prove useful or applicable to one’s future experience and to what degree one is just accumulating information for its own sake.  I am not ready to abandon the notion that learning qua learning can play a role in self-improvement, but one should at least factor in how important it is to be educating one’s self on this particular topic at this particular moment when deciding whether reading a particular book is the best use of one’s time.  Perhaps another way of thinking about this is that one needs balance, and a person who always has his nose in a book is keeping himself away from nature, society, and pressing chores that need to be done as well as from more active creative pursuits (the extent to which reading is a passive occupation may vary depending on the book, but it always essentially passive).     

I think that our notion that reading is always a praiseworthy activity is a holdover from childhood when parents and teachers were happy to see us honing this important skill regardless of what crappy reading material we may have chosen.  And we ourselves feel the same way about all the young people consuming Harry Potter and the Twilight series-- “At least they’re reading something.”  As adults, however, we’ve advanced past that stage: we can read to educate ourselves or we can turn to books for inspiration, solace or entertainment.  

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A related topic is the tendency to hoard books and to fetishize them as physical objects.  I used to treasure the library I amassed and imagine that these books would eventually all sit together in a room of the house I’d one day own.  This aspiration was dealt a fatal blow when all the books I’d kept in my apartment in New Orleans were lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  I now look at this as a lesson in the folly of attachment to material possessions (of which bibliophilia is a subtle and rarefied but no less insidious form).  My  whole experience with evacuation and displacement taught me the truth that the ebb and flow of items in and out of our life is inconsequential when compared with people-- the presence, absence and loss of friends and family which is another fact we need to come to terms with.    

Since I’ve come to the DC area, I’ve collected a more modest but still sizable mass of books-- much as a chest of drawers collects dust--, but my heart isn’t  really in the game anymore.  Today, I’m satisfied so long as I manage to hang on to a book long enough to finish reading it (although it is nice to have some books around for future reference).  After that I don’t even mind giving the book away to a friend who I hope will read and enjoy it but whom I don’t expect to return it-- not that I necessarily want to advertise that fact.  

Photo taken by Meeg on April 5, 2010

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Tyranny of Talent

For some time now I have been mulling over in my head a series of diatribes about what I think is wrong with our contemporary society.  I figured I’d start with this one given that it should be the easiest issue to tackle…

Our society is hung up on the idea of innate talent; this is the belief that in order to excel in certain endeavors one must be numbered among the lucky few who were born with a god given gift and that anyone else who takes them up is wasting his time-- destined for failure or, at best, mediocrity. This attitude is perhaps most prevalent in regard to the arts (visual arts, music, writing, dancing…) and sports, but some people also feel that talent predominates in other challenging fields such as mathematics, chess, learning foreign languages…

Taken to an extreme, this leads to the feeling that if one isn’t already Keith Moon one should forget about picking up the drums and maybe just stick to playing Rock Band.  You may doubt anyone carries things as far as that, and-- sure-- it’s possible that this is just my own crippling self-doubt talking, but I do not think I am entirely making this up.  To give you a real life example, November is National Novel Writing Month, and last November some asshole wrote an article entitled “Better yet, DON’T write that novel” in which she argues that “there are already more than enough novels out there” and that “’writing a lot of crap’ doesn't sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month.”  She ends by suggesting you stick to reading.  The article basically encapsulates the “don’t bother; better men than you have tried and failed,” anti-inspirational message that I think pervades our society and which I am calling the tyranny of talent.

I’m not sure when we all unconsciously adopted this worldview.  As little school children we all drew; we all had to write essays about “What I did on my summer vacation.”  When did we learn that we should leave the creative acts to those that are better at them than us?  And-- to ask a larger question-- where does this philosophy come from?

I suspect that part of the problem lies with our society’s focus on results above action-- on the fruits rather than on the labor itself.  Even if you won’t be another Rembrandt, or if you won’t ever sell something you painted, this does not mean that you cannot get anything out of the act of painting. Maybe you find it a relaxing hobby; maybe there is something to be gained (spiritually? psychologically? existentially?) from simply honing a craft over time; maybe you can derive some fulfillment and satisfaction from completing a work even if it never makes its way into the marketplace.  On this note, in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is told to act and to embrace action without worrying whether he will ultimately succeed or fail.  I also want to load a good portion of the blame on Capitalism (get ready for that diatribe!) which teaches us that things are only worthwhile to the extent that they are assigned monetary value and which needs the masses to consume works produced by others rather than trying to create things themselves.

Skills as an alternative to Talent

I propose that a healthier alternative is to think of the abilities behind achievement as learnable skills rather than innate talent.  I want to say that this was more the paradigm during the Renaissance. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael started out as orphans, bastards, country boys who were apprenticed to some old master.  They learned how to portray the human face and form according to the rich, Italian tradition dating back to antiquity as well learning the recently developed techniques for creating the illusion of depth in two dimensions using linear perspective, foreshortening and shading.  After a while they were probably allowed to paint some marginal figure in the periphery of a larger work.  And then, by the time they reached adulthood, they were ready to start creating their own masterpieces.  Interestingly enough, from what I’ve heard, animators and comic book illustrators rise through the ranks the same way today.

Personally, there are a couple of things I can do that not everyone can: I can sing and I speak a foreign language.  Over the years, people sometimes  marveled at my “gift of song,” adamantly declaring that they couldn’t sing at all.  But I know there’s no mystery behind the fact that I can sing well: I joined the chorus in fourth grade and I stuck with it through college where I sang in the choir, took voice lessons, gave recitals.  Once a friend even accused me of having a special gift for languages which I absolutely do not possess.  There are some people out there maybe who grew up in bilingual households or who hail from countries like Slovenia and Flanders where the study of foreign languages is taken seriously given that such a small portion of the world’s 7 billion human beings speak their national tongue.  People like that, who had an early start, might have a certain facility for picking up new languages that most people lack-- but not me.  If I can speak fluent Italian it’s only because I’ve studied it forever: first half-assing it throughout middle school and high school, then continuing through college where I was even lucky enough to live in Florence for a year and take classes at Italian university.  The skills model removes the mystique that surrounds abilities when we call them talents and reveals that they are in reality the product of prolonged drudge work.
From what I’ve heard this is basically the argument Malcolm Gladwell makes in his book Outliers where he writes that no one reaches the pinnacle of their chosen field without first logging 10,000 hours of practice.  The “Tiger Mom” would also agree with this perspective.  In her book,  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (here’s a link to the excerpt that appeared in the WSJ if you are not familiar), Amy Chua talks about how-- like many immigrant mothers-- she pushed her daughters to succeed. She’d hover over them and insist they stick it out through difficult math assignments and keep practicing challenging piano pieces until they got them right.  The reasoning behind this parenting choice (which she admits sometimes looked a little crazy from the outside) was that activities like this are hard work and no fun at first; only after toughing it out through the initial misery might one get a taste of accomplishment and start enjoying it and wanting to do more.


This all leads us to the question of  “predilection,” which I suppose is the intersection between talent and skill.  The skills in which we invest the time necessary to achieve a degree of mastery tend to be those skills which we find interesting and enjoyable and where we’re encouraged by early signs that point towards the fact that “we can do this.”  I actually agree with a lot of what the Tiger Mom has to say, but one point I’d object to was that (at the beginning) she believed she could and should steer her daughters towards those pursuits which she found worthwhile (e.g.  emphasizing the importance of grades in math and science, telling them the only instruments they could pick up were the violin or the piano).  One of her daughters might have had a hidden affinity for acting or athletics which would then go unnoticed and unnurtured.  

Speaking from personal experience, I am glad that my mother didn’t let me quit things hastily, but those activities I continued for a time out of a sense of obligation were always destined to be abandoned sooner or later.  Hence I put down the viola (the violin’s homely, older sister, normally given the least discernible harmony part in any orchestral work) after my second year of high school.  And, as I never had much of an affinity for sports, I stopped playing soccer when I entered junior high (the highlight of my career being one assist, which is when you kick the ball to someone else and then he kicks it into the goal).  Likewise, I am glad (and proud and amazed) that I studied calculus in high school, but I don’t think anyone ever expected me to go on to a career in pure mathematics or anything like that.       

It’s never too late

The defeatist voices telling you “don’t bother” seem to get louder as you age.  Isn’t it too late to put in the time necessary to master a new skill or to start off on a new path in life?  The good news is that these thoughts are mostly nonsense.  Sure, those who started out younger have a head start, but our capacity to learn new things does not disappear as we grow older-- assuming we are all still of sound mind.  You might have more responsibilities and obligations now that take up more of your waking hours, but chances are you can find some spare time and energy to dedicate to your new endeavor.

Take my brother, for example, who joined an intramural gymnastics club in college.  People laughed when they heard about this (or at least I did) because aren’t you supposed to start training to be a gymnast in utero?  Well my brother may have missed his chance to be the next Nadia Comăneci, but he really took to gymnastics/acrobatics and it became an important part of his life.  Today he even teaches children’s gymnastics part-time and coaches a little girls’ team.  Meanwhile my mom started sewing (she was the daughter of a tailor and a seamstress who would always step in and sew things for her so she never learned herself) and practicing the piano (she can already play such beginners’ classics as “Greensleeves” and “Für Elise”) both over the age of 50.  So, basically, if you don’t plan on dying anytime soon there’s no reason you can't challenge yourself to learn new things and achieve new goals.

Photo taken by Meeg on Jan 11, 2011 at the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Swamp Blobs

Along our state’s coastline lay some four thousand square miles of wetlands-- a landscape of gnarled trees rising out of sluggish, dark waters and open fields of tall grasses, mostly submerged.  The majority of the region was preserved as virgin wilderness until the 1980s when it was opened up for limited oil and gas exploration.  Today, at any given time, the wetlands play host to around 600 petrochemical workers who man the rigs, maintain the miles of pipeline, and conduct sounding and drilling activities in search of new deposits.

In addition to fossil fuels, the men who ventured into the wetlands stumbled upon a hitherto unknown species of giant amoeboid.  As with other amoeboids, these creatures’ bodies lack a definite shape and their flesh is gelatinous and semi-translucent.  But, unlike other amoeboids, their size is on average slightly larger than that of an adult human (with the largest recorded specimen measuring nearly 8.5’ in diameter).

The new species’ existence was first brought to the attention of the scientific community around 25 years ago, and another decade would pass before it became the subject of in-depth research.  Thus, much about these elusive organisms remains a mystery.  Moreover, the findings of those studies that have been published thus far have tended to raise as many questions as they have answered.

For one, classification of the new species proved to be controversial: on first sight, the resemblance to oversized amoebae is undeniable, however, early on, several biologists proposed that the “giant amoeboid” might be more closely related to slime molds (mycetozoa-- another group of simple organisms) or even jellyfish (cnidaria-- invertebrate, marine animals).  Consensus now places the species among the Amoebozoa, albeit with some hesitation given several attributes which are otherwise alien to the primitive organisms of that kingdom.  The creatures’ enormous size is the most striking of these, but not the most anomalous.

No one is certain exactly how many giant amoeboids are lurking out there in the swamp waters.  One field biologist hazarded a rough estimate, based on how rarely they are spotted, and suggested a total population of 100-120 individuals.  This alone would justify placing the giant amoeboid on the list of critically endangered species.  Furthermore, some conservationists are currently looking into the effect of ecological factors such as shrinking habitat and environmental pollution on the species: on average, 30 square miles of wetlands are lost each year to erosion and degradation, and the amoeboids’ permeable outer layer leads many scientists to fear they may be especially susceptible to waterborne contaminants.

Like its smaller cousins, the giant amoeboid propels itself through its watery environment by stretching out pseudopods.  It probably reproduces asexually-- either through fission or budding (the latter resulting in a larger “mother” and smaller “daughter” organism). The creature’s diet consists primarily of algae, microbes and plankton which it absorbs through osmosis, although some biologists believe that it may occasionally engulf and ingest larger fauna such as small fish, marine arthropods and even small mammals (e.g. rodents) through the process of phagocytosis.  On the other hand, recently, a lab analysis was carried out on a sample of the “gel” which comprises the majority of the amoeboid’s mass.  The results uncovered evidence of a latent capacity to perform anaerobic chemosynthesis, thus implying that these organisms may produce their own energy from non-living matter in the acidic, oxygen-poor corners of the wetlands.

But by far the most surprising revelation regarding these odd creatures is that, despite all their apparent similarities to the very simplest of life forms, they are in reality extremely intelligent.  The first evidence of this came in 1996, when a giant amoeboid amazed scientists by figuring out how to twist the cap off of a glass jar using its pseudopods.  The experiment was no doubt inspired by previous studies where cephalopods (believed to be the most intelligent invertebrates) learned how to open a jar containing food after watching as its lid was screwed on.  Yet, the amoeboid’s accomplishment of this feat was even more impressive given its physical limitations: for a creature with a soft, jelly body, equipped only with smooth appendages not adapted to grip, such a complicated manipulation of objects would require additional dexterity and ingenuity.  And, unlike the octopus, the amoeboid had to open the jar blind: without eyes it could not watch and learn clues as to how the container opened and closed, and it therefore unlocked the jar’s mysteries aided only by the sense of touch.  Furthermore, biologists believe that there would be no way for the amoeboid to know what was concealed inside the container; this would suggest that it solved the puzzle motivated by pure curiosity.

The discovery that giant amoeboids might be intelligent rekindled questions regarding the degree to which they were conscious of their environment and by what facilities they received their information about the external world.  Given that they do not possess the sensory organs that evolved in higher life forms, such as eyes and ears, they obviously cannot see or hear the way animals do.  On the other hand, prior field research had shown that these amoeboids were sensitive to vibrations travelling through the liquid surrounding them as well as to changes in water pressure, temperature and ambient lighting (at the time, scientists dismissed these reactions as involuntary reflexes).  Moreover, the jar experiment confirmed that they can perceive the size, shape (and possibly the texture and/or composition) of an object by embracing it with their pseudopodia.  Some biologists also theorize that the amoeboid can “feel” any particles of sediment, detritus or other debris that make contact with its outer surface and that it can “taste” the salt content and pH level of the water that crosses through its permeable membrane, in addition to detecting the presence of different chemicals.

The publication of these groundbreaking findings also spurred sociobiologists to search for signs of interaction or organization among individuals within the species’ population.  Their mission was complicated by the fact that two or more giant amoeboids were almost never observed together in the wild-- leading some to conclude that they were solitary creatures.  Thus, when it was revealed how they occasionally released an assortment of chemicals into the waters, scientists theorized that this might serve as a means of marking out their territory.  To gain a better picture, one biochemist set out to collect samples from 25 of these emissions, which he gathered over the course of several months.  Laboratory evaluations showed that, far from containing only simple waste products such as ammonia, the total sampling of specimens contained an array of over a hundred different chemical compounds.  Moreover, one saw a wide variety in composition (i.e. in which of the chemicals were present and in what proportions) both when one compared the discharges gathered from different amoeboids and when one compared emissions produced by the same individual on separate occasions.  

This data implied that the information conveyed by giant amoeboids through the release of chemicals was more complex than originally assumed.  Many scientists now believe that each discharge contains a distinct chemical “signature” identifying its author and that, besides this, it can relay a number of messages (e.g. calling out for assistance, alerting other amoeboids to the presence of a child in the area or to a source of abundant food, warning of danger nearby…).  The biochemist behind the study went even further, calling the individual components of these chemical cocktails the "building blocks" of the species’ language and drawing parallels between the giant amoeboid and cetaceans.

Another interesting fact is that a number of the chemicals released by giant amoeboids have proven to have psychoactive effects on humans.  Industry guidelines require workers to wear protective suits, for a number of reasons, whenever their job entails entering the swamp waters; nevertheless, there are several accounts of roughnecks who found themselves in the vicinity of a giant amoeboid with their skin partially exposed to the water and who later reported experiencing vivid, multisensory hallucinations.  Apropos of this, anthropologists searching for evidence of human knowledge of the amoeboids prior to the 1980s have identified a manuscript written by a late 18th-century naturalist/druggist: this document makes reference to the “swamp medusa” and mentions how its liquid excreta are known to be used in local Choctaw religious ceremonies as well as in voodoo spells.

All this has fed the imagination of some New Age spiritualists who claim that the hallucinogenic chemicals released by the amoeboids are an attempt to communicate with us.  Believers have poured over the firsthand testimony of those who lived through these biochemical encounters, trying to decode their hidden meaning, and some have even ventured into the wetlands themselves in search of their own interspecies message.  Most biologists, however, are skeptical of this theory, and they point out that it is unlikely that the combination of chemicals affect the human psyche-soma in the same way they would affect other amoeboids.

Photo taken by Meeg on May 24, 2008