30 December 2006

A Strict Journalistic Standard

A Representation of an Experience Part 3.

I have been a foreigner for nine years. I am an American living in the Netherlands.

A few weeks ago I spoke with my friend, Constanza, about this experience. She is from Chile and has been a foreigner for one year.

A foreigner is out of place.

Our experience with our surroundings often does not match the expectations we carry in our heads.

These mis-matched issues often become matters of identity because what we identify with is in question.

In the very beginning, we related our experiences back to friends and family in our native countries.

And then we both stopped, in part because we realized we were limited in what we could communicate.

If you don't know the experience, words won't transport it from my head to yours.

Constanza said that at a certain point she was disappointed because what she said sounded fake. She said it just became a story.

I agreed and also added that I think we are always doing this. We make choices regarding how we represent our primary experiences.

We do this because we are trying to make sense of our context, for our own sanity, but also because we want to communicate in a sensible way with the other people in our lives.

Our representation is an expression of one version, our chosen version, of an experience or an event.

This idea is touched upon by the 25 December 2006 issue of the European Time Magazine by James Poniewozik (with reporting by Karen Tumulty).

The article contrasts journalists with the citizen journalists of the web saying, "Journalists are trained to make sense, to frame stories and order facts, smoothing over random happenings and odd twists." p. 47

But a portal of citizen journalists collects many many versions of an event in an unorganized and somewhat chaotic manner. Their many perspectives also represent the random happenings and odd twists.

Although I will not be able to, nor would I choose to, be present at every life happening, I want to build a life full of experiential knowledge.

But if I don't have a primary experience with an event, then I want the cognitive knowledge I build up to come from as many different sources as possible.

One version is not enough, no matter how strict the "journalistic standard" might be.

How many versions is enough? Are there ever enough sides of the story told? How do we process multiple sides of the story? How do we come to make sense of this? To allow this?

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28 December 2006

History Is Written by the Winners

A Representation of an Experience Part 2

Another book I ate on the train was A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

Maybe the foreward has something to do with De Zengotita's ideas of what is representational?
"A Million Little Pieces is about my memories of my time in a drug and alcohol treatment center.

As has been accurately revealed by two journalists at an Internet Web site, and subsequently acknowledged by me, during the process of writing the book, I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book.

I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed by my actions....

I didn't initially think of what I was writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography.

I wanted to use my experiences to tell my story about addiction and alcoholism, about recovery, about family and friends and faith and love, about redemption and hope.

I wanted to write, in the best-case scenario, a book that would change lives, would help people who were struggling, would inspire them in some way....

As I wrote, I worked primarily from memory.

I also used supporting documents, such as medical records, therapists' notes, and personal journals, when I had them, and when they were relevant.

I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.

I altered events and details all the way through the book....

My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.

There is much debate now about the respective natures of works of memoir, nonfiction, and fiction.

That debate will likely continue for some time.

I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard.

It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection.

This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments.

It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic.

Ultimately, it's a story, and one that I could not have written without having lived the life I've lived." pp. v-vi
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26 December 2006

Nomadic with the Truth

A Representation of an Experience Part 1.

I have a daily commute of three or four hours. So, I am eating books on the train.

I recently read Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2002.

Half of the book is meant to be written by the author who goes to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his Grandfather from the Nazis.

The other half of the book is meant to be written by Alex, the young Ukrainian translator who guides Jonathan on the trip.

Their stories are inter-twined and they share their perspectives on each other's writings.

Jonathan is writing a fictional account of the story of his relatives and Alex is writing a story about his and Jonathan's trip through the Ukraine.

I love a passage written by Alex to Jonathan.

It might relate to De Zengotita's idea of representations?

Alex asks Jonathan in a letter, "We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? The both of us? Do you think it is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred?"

Alex says that if the answer is "no" then he wants to know why Jonathan is writing in such in a fictional, almost fantasy-like manner about his Grandfather and the town they visited.

And he wants to know why they have to leave out parts. It seems, to him, untruthful to make these choices.

Alex says that if the answer to the question is "yes" then this creates another question.

If they feel it's OK to be "such nomads with the truth," then Alex wants to know why don't they just go ahead and make the story even better than real life?

Alex gives examples of ways to improve the story and says they could make it "perfect and beautiful, and funny, and usefully sad, as you say."

He concludes with, "I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem." p. 179 - 180

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24 December 2006

Designed for Me to Experience

I've been considering de Zengotita's ideas and wondering.
  • What exactly does he mean by representational? That which represents the primary experience I might potentially have with an environment or context?

  • Is a representational experience always designed to carry a message? Designed to create an effect?

  • Is the mediated experience referring to a mediator as in a go-between, a middle man, as in some person or group that stands between us and what might be our primary experience with an environment or context?

  • Or is the mediated experience talking about media, where some person or group arranges random elements from an environment or context with the intention to create a communicative experience?

  • How many of our options are representational and how many are real?

  • He says that if we remove the representational options from our choices, our real options are limited. What, then, are our limited options?
A bit heavy, no?

I need to finish the book, but on a lighter note, my friend, Missy, emailed me to say,
"I've been thinking a lot about your current open-sourcing project with music. Music moves my life in so many ways, so I wanted to share a couple of things with you.

First is www.pandora.com - created by the Music Genome Project to help people find music that they love.

And some suggestions to try once you get into Pandora (especially based on the list you have just created of new music you like):
  • Sam Phillips

  • Vienna Teng

  • I would have said Damien Rice, but I see you have discovered him on your own.

  • Counting Crows
These are people who speak to me with their melodies and their words."
The Music Genome Project started on 6 January 2000 with musicians and music-loving technologists analyzing the individual components of over 10,000 songs by popular and obscure artists.

Each song comprises unique 'genes' in areas of melody, harmony and rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, vocal harmony, etc.

So, if you enter your favorite song into their gorgeous interface, these people give you a list of songs with similar gene patterns.

They say, "... now that we've created this extraordinary collection of music analysis, we think we can help be your guide as you explore your favorite parts of the music universe."

This is a mediated experience in both senses of the word.

In the mediator sense, The Music Genome people are my middle men designing a customized experience just for me.

In the media sense, music is an expression formed when some person or group arranges random sounds.

I don't know of what these might be representations.

In terms of my 'real' options, I guess a non-mediated experience might be to listen to the raw noise of the universe on my own, maybe hum along, make my own instruments, make my own arrangement of whatever sounds I could gather.

And not share that with anyone, lest I mediate them, stand between them and their own 'real' experience with their context or environment.

In open source terms, Missy, is one of the "thousand tour guides" I am seeking in refreshing and developing my perspective on life, in this case music.

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22 December 2006

Revisiting Options - As Good As It Gets

When I went to visit my family this summer, I bought a book at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.

It's called, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It by Thomas de Zengotita.

It caught my eye because of my desire for seeing the real world instead of cocooning at home and watching the world through TV.

He says, "We are most free of mediation, we are most real, when we are at the disposal of accident and necessity." p. 14

Sounding very much like Dan Ho, De Zengotita says, "But mediated people everywhere know that identity and lifestyle are constructs, something to have." p. 14

It also caught my eye because he talks, in a way that contrasts Thoreau's time-period and concept, about the post-modern idea that we have all these 'options'.

De Zengotita claims that the opposite of reality is not "phony" or "illusional" or "fiction."

He says that the concept of "options" is the opposite of reality.

Uh oh. How can that be?


He says that if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and you have no connections or gadgetry, nothing to listen to or to read while you wait, then eventually you will start to notice your surroundings and notice that none of it was designed to affect you.

Everything around you is just there and you are just there. No one arranged it for you to experience.

There is no brochure, or entrance or tour guide. There are no paths or viewing platforms with historical information under plexiglass.

He says that an experience like this will lead you to understand how very small your place in life really is and that your options are limited.

(This explanation of) this experience is meant to be the baseline for comparison to the experience we have in a mediated world.

He says that most people will recognize that culture has always filtered reality, that the things in our lives have always carried messages, represented categories of rank and affiliation.

De Zengotita says, "But being aware of that is new. This crucial point must be grasped and retained."


He explains that because many of the "objects" and "places" and "mannerisms" in our life-world are all each designed to "represent" something, we browse among these options, picking out components to build up an identity and lifestyle that means something larger to us than our "real" place in the scheme of things.

He goes on to say, "What cultures traditionally provided was taken-for-granted custom, a form of necessity -- hence reality."

We no longer grow up with a taken-for-granted reality imposed on us.

We learn that we can create our own reality by living among and through options that never before existed.

He says the slang expression "whatever" sums up our necessary and dialectical attitude in the field of options.

On the one hand, we can have whatever we want or imagine.

We can see whatever, eat whatever, hear whatever, or be whatever.

On the other hand, because all of these objects, places and mannerisms are "representational," we have built our identities and lifestyles out of a world of effects.

Because they are representations, these components have a surface quality.

Again sounding like Dan Ho, who said that unstudied style is primarily visual, De Zengotita gives examples,
"Everything has the edgeless flowing feel of computer graphics, like the lobby of a high-end Marriott/Ramada/Sheraton -- the sculptured flower arrangements, that glowy, woody, marbly, purply, cushioned-air quality.

Every gadget aspires to that iPod look -- even automobiles.

The feel of the virtual is over-flowing the screens, as if the plasma were leaking into the physical world." pp.15-16

De Zengotita says we need mobility among the options because they are only representations, "And that means they are no more than they appear to be. And so they are never enough. And that's why more is on the way. Always." p. 17

These representations are appealing because they are designed to address us. In that design, we are the center of attention.

But as reality and representation come together, there are always two opposing sides to the experience.

De Zengotita claims that while half of our being is acknowledging, I can experience whatever I want, the other half is feeling, What difference does it make?

He says, "This moment, the moment of the shrug, is essential to our mobility among the options."

While we are free to keep browsing the options, we need to keep moving among them because they are only representations.

We are always left with wanting something more and we are always getting more of the same.

He says the irony is, "You are completely free to choose because it doesn't matter what you choose."

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13 December 2006

The Long Tail

When my friend, Hikmet, told me that Nelly Furtado's brother had been in his college band, I said, "Who's Nelly Furtado?"

He is patient with my deficiency.

The reason I cringe every time I hear the question, "What kind of music do you like?" is because I have very good rhythm but know very little about what kind of music I like.

I just finished Chris Anderson's book, The Long Tail.

Talking about movies, books and music, he promises that, "Increasingly, the mass market is turning into a mass of niches."

He says that people are using a number of filtering devices, such as recommendation lists at Rhapsody, to find their musical niche.

I am excited to hear this although I fear I may have no musical niche to discover. I fear I may have been deaf in a past life.

Now I am grateful for everything I can hear, but any level of sophistication will not come until the next lifetime.

And then something nice happened.

Because my education is in the visual arts, sometimes people ask me what they should be looking for in art.

I tell them to look for something that speaks to them.

If challenged on this approach, that it does not sound 'educated,' I ask them what kind of experience they want to have with art.

You can be moved by something about which you 'know' very little.

So, last month a group of friends was celebrating Hikmet's birthday at a nice bar, when I clearly noticed a song.

This is unusual for me
. I could not understand the words, but the voice and the melody caught my attention.

So I asked who it was. It was John Mayer. I did not know him.

Back at home, I YouTubed every song of his I could find.

Then the Yahoo Music site confirmed that I might have a musical niche afterall.

When I clicked the link to find "similar artists," I saw that I already like five of the 16 musicians:
  • Dave Matthews
  • David Gray
  • Ben Harper
  • Jack Johnson
  • Norah Jones
Unfortunately they do not tell me the name of this niche or I would use it to answer the question, "What kind of music do you like?"

But I am happy to have 11 more musicians to YouTube:
  • Keane
  • Train
  • Five For Fighting
  • Ben Folds Five
  • Ben Folds
  • Guster
  • Gavin DeGraw
  • Jason Mraz
  • Damien Rice
  • Josh Kelley
  • Vertical Horizon
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08 December 2006

Walden and Prada

Apparently, another CouchSurfer lives right down the street from me. My second CouchSurfer, Lana, had been camping there before she arrived.

Originally from New Zealand, she finds jobs in England to make money to travel around Europe.

When the money runs out, she goes back to England to wait tables until she's ready to embark on another trip.

She camped with me for about a week while waiting to catch the ferry back to England.

We were both pinching pennies so we used an old movie card of mine that had two free tickets to see The Devil Wears Prada.

Now I'm reading the book, which is a very different version of the same story, different events, different characters, and more celebrities.

It opens with a Walden quote:
"Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden 1854
I wonder what Thoreau would think of people going off to the woods to read his book (and the 79 others that would fit) on their Sony Reader.

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06 December 2006

The New Sony Reader

So, if you download Nietzsche from Gutenberg.com, you could read it on-the-go with the new Sony Reader, which was reviewed in The New York Times on 24 November 2006 by Charles McGrath.

McGrath points out its strong points, but is not overly excited about the device.

I think the $350 device should be tested and reviewed by a booklover with nomadic tendencies.

Otherwise, why bother really? How hard is it to lug a book to the beach? Or on the daily train commute to work?

You take a book with you to read on your way and then you bring it back home at the end of the day, perhaps pick out a different one to take with you the next day.

BUT, what if you put all of your books into the Sony Reader before taking a 55-week nomadic trip? Perfect application. Your whole library at your traveling fingertips.

So, according to McGrath, here are the good qualities:
  • battery charge can last for a week or more

  • it can hold about 80 books or even more if you use a memory card

  • you can skip from book to book while you're out and about

  • light weight and compact

  • Courier typeface is very readable

  • has a bookmark feature

  • at the beach, you don't have to worry about dampness, sand or wind blown pages

  • you can put any of Project Gutenberg's (www.gutenberg.org) 19,000 books on the Reader

  • you can get books cheap from Sony Connect eBooks store (ebooks.connect.com, which has 10,000 titles)

And, here are his complaints:
  • lacks iPod elegance

  • clunky controls are hard to operate for people with big fingers

  • screen is not backlit so can't read in the dark

  • when blown up to 3 times its size, Courier typeface sometimes has awkward spaces and line breaks

  • every book looks exactly the same on the Reader

  • the icon may tell you that you're on page 312 of 716, but you can't feel with your fingers how many pages you have left

  • you can't skim or flip through easily

  • you can't search

  • you can't make notes

  • so light weight and compact that you can easily lose it

  • Project Gutenberg books can have bizarre line breaks when downloaded into the Sony Reader

  • the inventory of the Sony Connect eBooks store is spotty and not as browser friendly as Amazon and you cannot use a Mac to access the store's program

  • 'look-it-up' reference books don't work well on the reader

Well, I definitely want to be able to search and make notes in an ebook. Those features should be added to future versions.

But, I'm so excited about the idea of nomads with traveling libraries, that I plan to try the Sony Reader just the way it is.

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03 December 2006

Opposites Come Together

My curiosity was piqued when, in September 2006, I heard the BBC radio program called A Brief History of Infinity: Space and the Universe.

Although there may be no actual relationship between the material they covered and the questions I have from previous posts, (we at least both pointed to Groundhog Day and) I couldn't help but consider:From the program:
They say that at the level of infinity, opposites come together or contradictions cease to occur.

They gave the following example: If a straight line is the opposite of a curved line or a circle, then it is said that a circle with an infinite radius actually becomes a straight line.

The philosopher Nietzsche said there is a very interesting implication if we believe that time is infinite which is if time really is infinite and if all possible events, though very large, are probably finite, that it logically follows that everything repeats.

Every event in the universe returns again and again and again over infinite time.

The BBC also mentions that this was an idea that was captured in Hollywood's Groundhog Day.
I Googled this and Nietzsche explores 'eternal recurrence' in his work Thus Spake Zarathustra (download it free from gutenberg.org).

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy has the following entry under 'eternal recurrence':
An ancient cosmological idea, seized upon by Nietzsche, to the effect that everything that happens is part of an endlessly repeating cycle or sequence of events.

While Nietzsche entertained this idea as an actual cosmological hypothesis, he first introduced it and chiefly employed it hypothetically as a kind of test.

One who is able to affirm life even on this supposition will have what it takes to endure and flourish in the aftermath of all disillusionment.
Talk about 'perspective'...

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01 December 2006

Difference of Opinion

Steve had to leave because, the next day, I was teaching 50 university freshman how to argue.

He couldn't stay at my house because I had planned to stay over at the house of my friend, Marion.

She lived in Utrecht, which meant I would only have to make a short trip across town to teach my morning class at 8.45.

Before he left, I practiced my material on Canadian Steve, the third CouchSurfer. My opening line was, "Why do we have differences of opinion?"

"Because no two people on the face of the earth ever experience life in the same way."

So far so good. "So, what do we do with difference of opinion?"

Steve replied, "Well, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I tend to let people do their thing and I do my thing."

I said, "But I love difference of opinion. For me it's not about arguing, it's about exploring. When I meet someone with a different point of view, I think I might have a chance to discover something new."

A few weeks later, another Canadian CouchSurfer was on the verge of leaving. She asked for my contact details.

As I spelled out my email address, I stalled on the last letter of my name, "m-e-t.....zed, zee. Wait a second. You say, 'zed', right?"

For a moment, I couldn't remember which one of us used which pronunciation.

Because I think it's less distracting, my practice is to adapt to the conversation by using audience-specific words.

It's less distracting for non-Americans to hear, "football" instead of "soccer."

It's less distracting for Americans to hear "cell phone" instead of "mobile phone."

When talking to Canadians, I say "zed" instead of "zee."

Ashley, my sixth CouchSurfer smiled and said, "Have you seen the rant?"

I told her that I had no idea what she was talking about. So she showed it to me on YouTube:

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