Friday, March 2, 2018

the handmaid's tale

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about the Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. My response to her work has been very middle of the road, which is difficult for me.

When I read a story, I usually like it or dislike it. So my ratings are usually based on how much I either liked or disliked the writing. This book somehow did not fall into this kind of rating system.

I gave the book three stars out of five. The book was never going to be a five star rating because for some reason I loathe dystopian novels of any kind. This means that even if this book was the first dystopian novel to blow my mind, it would STILL have received four stars.

The thing about this book is that it felt like it WAS a story that needed to be told. I’ve read a lot of these kinds of books where, although the story wasn’t for me, I feel like the story IS for a particular group. The Handmaid's Tale is a definitely a cautionary tale on the evils of toxic fundamentalist Christian misogyny. To be clear, this kind of speculative fiction is needed to understand the worst possible outcomes that bloom from ignorance.

That being said, the book is a double narrative which is difficult to follow. Not because it’s confusing perse, but a lot of attention is focused on the details that don’t matter.

I really don’t see how the bizarre attention to the preparation of eggs helped the story. A detail like this didn’t give me the ‘feels’ that I assume Atwood wanted me to feel. It honestly felt like a how-to from an old pioneering book. It felt like some sort of misguided attempt to subconsciously refer to female fertility. It felt like a way to try to show monotony in a failed poetic narrative. I wouldn’t have an issue with this, IF Atwood would have explained other things in the same attention to detail.

So let me list what I would have liked explained to me. These things would have taken this book from a rating of three (very dry) stars to four (very intrigued) stars.
  1. How did this Puritanist society evolve so quickly?
  2. What circumstances allowed the extremely improbable gunning down of the ruling government officials at the Presidents Day Massacre?
  3. The book suggests there was very little rioting? Why? Is this to infer that society had become so apathetic?
  4. What was the state of all nations? What was happening in let’s say in Japan? Was it just the United States that had become so twisted? We know that Japanese tourists came to take pictures, why would a staunch society let them visit in the first place?
  5. Why were birth rates suddenly so low? Was it radiation? Was it syphilis? Was the reason even scientifically identified in this backwards world?
  6. In a world where the birth of healthy babies are so important as to create a breeding class, why would men risk the lives of these babies with nearly archaic birthing practices?
  7. Why did the narrator seem to lack believable anguish for the loss of her daughter? Or the rest of her family? Where was the love, the affection, or the memories? Why was the longing for the men around her more important than this?
  8. Was the fragmented writing Atwood’s attempt at forcing you to see this world through a dissociative state? If so, where were the moments of clarity. The periods of feeling everything at once? Or was it just bad writing?
  9. Why did the timeline of three to five years not only change society but seemed to make everyone talk as if they forgot modern language?
  10. Why in the sam hell would you end the book with a situation that is never truly explained? We can assume what happened, but In a world without hope why would Atwood leave rescue up to inference? Also, in a book with such feminist themes wouldn’t it have been more productive if the woman rose up and it was not men who came to the rescue?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

what is laughter?

Everyone knows the old adage that laughter is the best medicine. In most cases, I actually believe that this is true. I can't tell you how many times I've been bummed out, sick, or generally uninspired and simply putting on a comedy special has turned it all around for me. Dare I say, even inspired me.

But what is laughter and why do we do it? I think about this daily.

I am embarrassed to say that I have (what I consider) to be a less than feminine laugh. Even the best sounding laughs out there are fundamentally a weird series of sounds. People are basically doing a mixture of grunting and hyperventilating when they laugh.

This is totally bizarre.

It's also bizarre that laughter is often reactionary and involuntary. Some people (like myself) even have a different kind of laugh for nervous responses. Laughter is often used to mock or show sarcasm. Even animals laugh. Did you know there are scientists that tickle rats to record their laughs? That's ridiculous and hilarious.

I've read a lot that laughter is a form of communication but I don't know exactly what we're trying to communicate. I don't think it's any one thing we are trying to say. However, I feel like it IS a universal language. There are no barriers to laughter. We know this because even babies do it.

In all my research about the topic it seems that the answers are nebulous. We know about brain chemistry and how genuine laughter releases all these good brain chemicals. And yet we have a hard time describing why one thing might be funny and the another is not.

My personal conclusion is that laughter is the language of joy. It is acceptance of self and others. It is both pure and flawed. It's how we brighten up all the little moments in life. And I know it's good for me. I need it. So, this is a public reminder (to myself ) to remember to laugh.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

having manners is pretty cool (11 ways to be a better human)

I wasn't always aware of how cool it was to have proper manners and etiquette. Some of this, is my fault. I was (and perhaps still am) a bit of a hellion. Some of this, was because my parents failed to teach me these invisible social rules, as they don't have very good manners. Sorry, guys....ya don't. 

So, for a long time I was just wandering around being rude both unintentionally and intentionally. Until my closest friends started pointing these things out.

Since ignorance is the fault of the community allowing members to fall through the cracks, I thought I would post a compiled list of what I have learned over the years. Often the hard way unfortunately.

1.) It's more than, "minding your please and thank yous".

Saying please and thank you was the ONLY manners my parents taught me. They did not explain to me there was more to this (like saying excuse me or pardon when you need to grab attention or pass by). Nor did they explain the proper ways to apologize. These things are a matter of respecting others and anticipating what they might be feeling. It is important to remember that one should place value on these micro moments. It feels natural when others do it for you so please reciprocate. 
2.) Try to smile.
This does not have to be huge toothy grin that makes you appear like a maniac. It is simply a universal tool to allow others to feel comfortable. I know there is a lot of talk about "being told to smile" is a "misogynistic slight". Maybe in certain situations, but in this case it is simply gender-less advice.
Psychological research has classified six facial expressions which correspond to emotions recognized around the world: disgust, sadness, happiness, fear, anger, and surprise. Smiling being the signifier of happiness. Psychologists also have determined that there is something called facial feedback in which smiling can actually trick the brain into being happier. Similarly, there is something called social feedback where seeing someone smile can make you feel happier. 
What does this all mean? Smile for yourself and others. It could make everyone happier. 
3. ) Be considerate with your communication. 
This is more about how and when you choose to share information with others.
Similar to the way smiling goes a long way, your communication should always be 50% about you and 50% about the person or people you are talking to. Like when you use a turn signal or how you knock before entering a room. They are done as common courtesy and to protect both parties involved.
Other communications are about being courteous. Apologies and thank you should be sincere. This means you shouldn't wait for someone to force them out of you. And it is always a good idea to send hand written thank you messages to people, especially for when they have hosted events or weddings.
Another part of being considerate is knowing what NOT to say. Sometimes silence or minimal words can be best for a situation. Even a simple nod or a wave can send another party the signal that they are being heard.
4.) Make eye contact.
I hate this one. Eye contact makes me feel like I am touching someone else's soul.  However, for most people eye contact is very important. It makes them feel heard and understood. 
If you are like me and struggle with eye contact. Try to look at the bridge of the nose or forehead of the person. Then flick your eyes to theirs from time to time (if and when possible), returning safely to your "nose zone". 
When this is too difficult, tell the person you are bad with eye contact and watch their mouths as they speak. Let the person know THIS is how you pay close attention to what they have to say.
5.) Kill them with kindness.
I find this a general rule of thumb to live by. When someone is passive aggressive with me, I tend to just let it role off of me and be nice return. However, this technique is important in manners as well.
Manners of kindness can be something like; always offering to hold a door (no matter what gender you and they happen to be) and gracefully allowing others to decline. It can also be always offering your seat to an elderly person or an expecting mother. It can be offering impatient people to take your place in line or easing off the gas peddle when someone is trying to merge. It is offering your help when someone can't reach or are carrying too much. It is waiting your turn or letting others exit before you enter. 
These small acts of kindness can make someone's day, whether it be consciously or subconsciously. 
6.) Practice good social skills. 
Often socializing at a party or just being part of a group, can be hard for those of us that are socially awkward. However, there are some tricks of the trade that really work and most of them are simply practicing good manners.
First, when meeting someone (or a group of people) be sure to greet everyone involved. Give a firm handshake or for familiar interactions give your friend a quick hug. This is your opportunity to engage with people, ask questions and be sure to remember everyone's name. When you depart be sure to say farewell in some way even it is a casual meeting of a gaze across the room or a gentle wave.
It is also a good idea to be respectful of other people's time. Valuing other people's time is a social skill that people tend to forget. This means be sure to RSVP for any events you might be invited to, even it is decline. Be punctual or even ten minutes early. Even a text to your friends about your estimated time of arrival can be a good idea.
Please remember that your social skills do not necessarily equate to social media. Not everyone wants their pictures posted for all to see, nor do they want you to check them in everywhere. Many people keep their lives private, so it is always polite to ask before you post.
 7.) Be the most invited guest.
This works hand and hand with many of the aforementioned behaviors. Being a fantastic guest means that people will be more inclined to invite you places. This also means that you shouldn't be so arrogant as to invite yourself or show up with a surprise guest (this includes your pets). If you ARE invited, make sure that your prompt RSVP includes a conversation about who you want to bring (also includes bringing pets). Also, don't show up to people's houses uninvited. That is rude and stressful for more many. 
When you are invited be sure to bring a gift to parties or important functions, otherwise you look like a jerk.
8.) Cleanliness is a virtue.
Marie Kondo is super popular right now. I think it's because everyone feels better when things are clean. However, social hygiene is just as important. 
A fundamental part of this idea is to keep yourself clean. Sounds super basic right? And yet there is a lot of people who don't practice self care.
 For those that need a reminder, that means bathing, brushing teeth, wearing the right deodorant for you, reapplying when needed, keeping your clothes and shoes clean, and trying to remain presentable when you leave the house. It also means that you are committed to cleanliness maintenance all day. As in, always washing your hands after you use the bathroom and doing the after you eat. 
If you have to cough or sneeze, do this into the inner elbow area. If you have to blow your nose, take care of it in a private area. YOUR GERMS ARE GROSS!
There are also cleanliness rules like always using coasters, foot mats, and coat racks. Use them even when it seems redundant. It is also always polite to take off your shoes when you enter someones home.
And the last one is my personal pet peeve...
Wipe down gym equipment you have used when you are at the gym. Please and thank you.
9.)  Be conscious around food.
This one can be split into two parts; at the grocery store and at a restaurant. I will address being at the grocery store first.
At the grocery store: As a person that worked at a number of grocery stores, I can tell you that this is a sensitive issue. I have never seen a place where people are more unaware of what is polite than here. 
First, if you wipe down your shopping cart do not leave the dirty wipe in the cart for someone else to deal with. Second, be aware of how much space your cart takes up. When pushing your cart leave it in open areas like at the end of an aisle and retrieve the item needed. Also, follow the same rules of the road. Do not leave unwanted items around the store, either put it back where you got it or tell the cashier you changed your mind. At the register, push your cart ahead of you when checking out and always put a divider behind your order, even when there isn't a line. 
At a restaurant: There are many places online where you can find information about good table manners, table manners by Etiquette Scholar being the best one I've seen. There is actually a lot remember when you dine. However, I think the most important things are as follows. Chew with your mouth closed and cover your mouth if that is not possible. Elbows and personal items are never to be placed on the table. Always put your napkin in your lap. Wait until everyone is served and follow cultural etiquette. 
In addition to these, always be sure to inform those serving you food of special dietary restrictions or allergens before they prepare the food. You don't want Aunt Martha making you peanut butter gluten balls if you have Celiac Disease and a severe peanut allergy. 
Unless it is absolutely necessary, DO NOT send food back. Dietary reasons and allergies are good reasons to send food back. Not liking something is NOT a reason and probably the rudest thing a person can do. Put your adult pants on and eat it.
Lastly, always push your chair in when you leave. Neither Aunt Martha nor your waiter need to take a dive over an unexpected chair that you couldn't be bothered to move a foot towards the table.
10.) Be even better online 
Everyone knows that digital media gives us the ability to say whatever we want. It gives us a platform and sometimes we don't think about the consequences of our actions. Point blank, digital etiquette is vital. 

The first part of this is about cellphone etiquette. I can't tell you how many times that I have been sitting in a public bathroom listening to someone having a very intimate conversation while flushing the toilet. Needless to say; you shouldn't do that.

Cell phones should be answered at appropriate times and places. If you're in a social situation and you have to answer your phone, take the call to a private place or outside. 

In general cell phones should be invisible in social situations. This means that if you're talking to a person, your should be away in your pocket and if you're having dinner, do not put your phone on the table; keep it out of the way.

The messages you send whether it be: social posts, emails, or texts; should be within the context of the situation. There are many websites that will give you an outline on appropriate professional digital etiquette, like this post by the Huffington Post. I suggest  that you should adhere to these guidelines carefully. 
Social posts, texts, and emails can be approached more casually. However, even then there is some rules to live by. First, you should never respond to a message when you are angry, frustrated, or drunk. If you DO have to answer, just tell the person that you need time to think about what they have said and return later with a crafted response. Finally, and this goes without saying, but TURN OFF your cell phones when you are getting on an airplane or about to watch a movie.
11.) Pets need to be considered. 
Pet etiquette is often ignored completely, whether it be how you have your pet trained or how you approach other people's pets. 
Do not assume the other people's pets are as pet-able as you would like without asking first. A pet have just had surgery or is going through some sort of behavioral training so please keep that in mind. 
If you have a pet that you are taking on a walk ALWAYS keep them on a leash and ALWAYS pick up their poop if applicable. Also, if you're walking a pet try to avoid other pets that are in the environment. Often, other people's pets aren't as well trained as yours and aren't ready for a social engagement. 
Lastly, be aware that some pets love to go outside even when they are not supposed to. When visiting a friend or family member be prepared to stop an escaping animal as you're entering their place.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

the subtle art of actually giving a f*ck

I recently read the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and I think the biggest problem with this book is that I give a fuck. I give many fucks and yet, with all these fucks I give, I still live "the good life".

Now to be devil's advocate, this book does talk about caring about the things that matter. This displays the basic understanding that the difficulty to define what matters is often a massive roadblock to happiness. We think all these things matter, when in fact they don't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

But, let's go back.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck written by Mark Manson isn't a self-help book. It reads more like a personal manifesto of someone lost in their own misguided choices. There are also some suggestions that sway far from fact, heading straight into opinion. This wouldn't be an issue if these ideas weren't presented as facts.

As a person who has always asked myself, "Will this thing bother me in twenty years?" A lot of Manson's ideas aren't terribly ground breaking. Sometimes they are actually conflicting.

Newsflash Mr. Manson: It is through caring that you are able to force yourself to "not care". "Not caring" is actually a form of repression and not a "good thing" to encourage unless it happens naturally through something called acceptance.

What is truly troubling is the braggadocious way he talks about himself and treats others. He acts as if his terrible decisions of his youth are behind him and yet they are not. I am not sure why he feels the need to share half his anecdotes or make the suggestion that entitlement can be healthy. It can't. Sorry Mr. Manson. Nor do I accept his uninformed conclusions about things like false memories. Which show his lack of understanding of psychology all together. There is also the issue of him confusing "sharing truth in an empathetic way" with his own brand of "being honest in a hurtful way". Lastly,  a lot of his writing could make a person feel like their own problems are trivial. It is almost like he is subconsciously gas-lighting the reader from the pages of his book.

Weirdly, I think this will work for people who share his particular brand of anger. I also, think it will help some people that, "don't know how to let go". As I have neither of these problems, I am generally unimpressed with the whole thing. But, I understand that it feeds an audience, so he earns a certain amount of credit for that. 

I'll just continue my art of actually giving a f*ck and remain a person that doesn't share in his angry-struggle-brand.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

the tale of four princesses

Recently, the ideology of a Disney princess has been in popular media. There are all these quizzes and memes displaying some sort of favored princesses. I have been asked many times, "Who's your favorite Disney princess?" Which I reply, "Tiger Lily", by default even though I am not a Disney princess person.

There are four princesses that greatly influenced me. Two are fictional, another non-fictional, the fourth falls somewhere in between.

1.) The Little Princess
I first became aware of the story of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, through watching the movie The Little Princess staring Shirley Temple. I must have watched (and cried) through this movie hundreds of times as a child.

Photo Courtesy: Turner Classic Movies

Later, I had the privilege of reading the story. Sara Crewe is moved from India to a posh boarding school after he mother passes away so that her father can serve in WWI. The boarding school receives the news that Sara's father is missing in action and they strip everything away from her. She spends her time giving from nothing as a scullery maid and her kindness eventually leads her back to her father.
This was my Cinderella story. There wasn't a prince. There was friendship and honor. There was blind faith and suffering. I hung on to the line, "every little girl is a princess". Although, others might have some feminists arguments against this phrase. It meant to me that I had power and value no matter where I found myself  or what the world said. 
2.) Princess Dala
I watched a lot of classic movies as a young person and my parents were especially interested in me watching old comedies. One of these movies was the 1963 version of The Pink Panther. The movie follows the theft of a pink diamond stolen from Princess Dala and the bumbling French inspector Jacques Clouseau trying to solve the crime.
I can't tell you if I wanted to be Princess Dala or wanted to date Princess Dala, but her character and the actress herself had this growling sensuality that I was aware of even as a pre-teen. She somehow juggled being pure and dark the same time. She set boundaries in her aloof handling of others. It felt like a beautiful dance, even if there was too much fantasy in it.
What I took from her was my own sensuality. I molded it after her character. (Although, I never took interest in kissing grizzled old men.) I grew a sort of confidence in taking risks, but being in control of those risks. I owned my sexuality. And for that, I forever grateful to the actress and writers involved.
3.) Inge Sargent or Sao Nang Thu Sandi a Burmese Princess
I met Inge Sargent in the mid 90's when she was doing a book tour. It was purely by coincidence that this happened. For some reason, my school was hosting her and a few of us were randomly shuffled into a small sitting room where we met her.
She then talked about her life and Burma. There was something about her that was deeply humble and conversely touched by an earned regality. That is when she began telling us about her book Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess.
Photo Courtesy: A Show of Hearts
This story is about love. Love for her Prince. Love of Burma and it's people. Ultimately, love for humanity. 
She was born in Austria and during that time faced the Nazi regime. Life wasn't easy but through hard work she secured a scholarship that led her to the same school where she met her future husband Sao Kya Seng. He was studying engineering and they fell in love. But, he had a secret.
This secret wasn't revealed until the then married couple arrived at a Burmese port to hundreds of people waiting for them. As it turns out, her charming Burmese engineer was a Prince. 
Burma eventually was dragged through a military coup. Her husband was thrown in jail and killed. Her and their daughters were held in house arrest for years. I saw the pain as she spoke about these things, but also the passion she still had for the Burmese people. 
She wanted everyone to know her story and to understand why human rights were so important. Twice in her life, she had personally witnessed a regime rip rights from the people and she worked tirelessly as an activist. 
I hope others continue her work as Burma still suffers under the Republic of Myanmar. And I can't stop thinking that her story, would be on the tongues of many if she had been let's say a movie star like Grace Kelly, who eventually became the Princess of Monaco. 
So often, for hers is a story of realism. Of the lucky and unlucky truths of this world. She fell in love with the man of her dreams, became a princess, and lived in luxury in an exotic place. Then it was all taken away. She could have been bitter, instead she took it all with grace and used her struggles to help others. This taught me about sacrifice and honor.
4.) Princess Caraboo 
I watched a lot of movies in the summer of 2000. Mostly because I was living in my own place, had just bought my own VHS player, and lived close to Blockbuster (RIP). Going out was too much money so, I rented a lot of movies. That is when I rented Princess Caraboo on whim. The movie was so-so, but I was really fascinated by the idea of character. Then, I realized it was based on a true story.
In the 1800s, Mary Baker tricked all sorts of people into believing that she was an exotic island princess named Princess Caraboo of Javasu. Eventually the truth came out but she had a whirlwind of attention for those few months. 
Photo Courtsey: Wikipedia

For a time, I became obsessed with this story and I mark it as the first recognition that I love weird history. The stranger the story, the more delighted I am. This woman had to have the biggest balls to try to pull this con and enough knowledge to make it passable for a time. That amazes me.
She was one of the things that made me start thinking about critical thinking. What is real. What isn't real. The motivations of people. Why and how people lie. What the differences between story teller and grifter really are. 
For these things and more, I thank the princesses of my past. They had more influence over my life than any Disney princess ever did and that is freaking awesome. Sorry, Tiger Lily.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

i love artificial intellegence

Anyone that knows anything about me, knows that I am fascinated by artificial intelligence. I think about AI a lot. Almost everyday. Not in the alarmist sense, not entirely at least. What I think about is simpler than that. Randomly it pops up into my mind. How could this become machine learning? How could that be programmed? 

This fascination started in the mid nineties when I downloaded a program for my good old trusty Hewlett Packard desktop. It was complete with Windows 3.0. It had BOTH 5 1/4 inch and 3 1/2 floppy disk drive. It even had a 14.4 k modem which was awesome to the 4800 baud my father had. I was a freaking monster on that thing, getting into all sorts of things I shouldn't be. But, that is getting off track. 

The program I downloaded was a very basic chat bot program still using the DOS input interfacing. What interested me most about this program is that you could edit the database file system in notepad and the program file was still executable. So for at least three years I reprogrammed the database to talk to me. Adjusting for misunderstandings. Realizing that there needed to be some storytelling and randomness. 

Eventually, I didn't have time for Hal (not-so-creatively named). I saved Hal to a formatted AOL disk and ignored him. Eventually, I didn't have a computer that had a working floppy disk drive and Hal went into the garbage. Somewhere, he is buried to be forgotten by all except by me. 

Miss you, Hal.

This was not a 2001 Space Odyssey experience. More importantly, this was not a Her experience. I was not Joaquin Phoenix falling further and further into love with the digital mind. This was the relationship between creator and the loss of it's creation. I think the fears that surround artificial intelligence are much like the basic issues surrounding the story of Frankenstein. Should man see himself as a God? What happens when a creation find its autonomy? 

Now, I am not saying those working on AI are trying to make themselves Godlike. But, I do think there is a lot being considered and it is too big for one mind to think through. So, God metaphorically would be the collective working to make such things happen. 

Structurally, the future of AI should be a balance of programming machine learning with core principles, artificial instincts, emotional data streams, and digital neuro structuring. From there, it will be the responsibility of people strongly familiar with human development, to teach and pre-program milestones of learning, which will include a well thought out design of ethical and moral ideas. All the while protecting ourselves while reinforcing the integrity of how a machine can and will surpass us. 

For now, I casually dabble in AI as a hobby. I create chat-bots on personality forge. I try to talk and teach my replika. But, I think I want to make a new HAL from scratch. So, among all the other things I am taking on in my life, I need to study deep learning and all those new fun programming things. 

I have a lot of catching up to do.