Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: Everything That Remains

Recently I had a chance to watch a film called Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.  The movie follows two friends, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, as they travel around the U.S. to promote their memoir Everything That Remains (see trailer below).


Who are these dudes, and why should we care about their story?

Joshua Field Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus
(Image from their site The Minimalists)

Joshua and Ryan are a couple of Midwestern guys who grew up poor, so they devoted their early adult years to climbing the Corporate Ladder, becoming well paid executives, and buying expensive stuff (lots of stuff) to reward themselves for their onerous toil at the office.

Sometimes they spent so much money that, despite their large paychecks, they went into debt (thousands of dollars into debt).  But hey, as long as the money was rolling in, life appeared hunky dory on the surface, so they continued to live the American Dream with panache.

Tragic events, however, force us to reevaluate, which is what happened to Joshua.  In a single month, his mother died, and his marriage fell apart.  He found himself alone, surrounded by mountains of material things that didn't make him any happier.  Realizing he needed to change his life, he ended up stumbling across a movement known as minimalism.

So what is minimalism?

Minimalism doesn't mean getting rid of all your belongings and living like an acetic.  Minimalism means asking a simple question about what we own and how we spend our time: does this truly bring value to my life?

Asking that question made Joshua realize a contradiction in the American way of life.  In the relentless pursuit of happiness, we've made ourselves unhappy, buying stuff we don't need with money we don't have by working long hours at jobs we don't necessarily enjoy.  As a result, we feel empty inside.  To fill the spiritual void, we buy more things, pile on extra debt, and work even longer hours to pay for that debt.  All the while, we lose track of our passions and relationships that make life worth living.  In the end, we don't really own our things.  Our things own us.

I'm reminded of what Henry David Thoreau says in Walden: "Men have become the tools of their tools."


Henry David Thoreau
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)


 

(Image from The Minimalists site)

To turn his life around, Joshua got rid of his excessive belongings, gradually paid off his debt, and quit his corporate job to become a writer.  His buddy Ryan soon noticed how much happier he was, so he followed suit.  Their book, Everything That Remains, is a product of this minimalist adventure.  It's a beautifully written memoir, composed by Joshua, with quirky commentary added by Ryan.

Two quick thoughts I had about the book:

  1. Beware: it's not for everybody.  After all, it's a critique of the American Dream, at least as we conventionally understand it: work hard, climb the Corporate Ladder, and then buy your dream car, large house, and all the gadgets you want.  Joshua and Ryan present minimalism as a meaningful alternative to mindless consumerism.  Their goal is to live more deliberately, more consciously.
  2. Minimalism isn't some new fad.  It's about searching for what's important.  Similar messages come from Buddha, Classical philosophers like Seneca, and American writers such as Thoreau.  Owning less minimizes the distractions in our lives, giving us more time for love and friendship.  What's new is how Joshua and Ryan present this message in an updated, accessible way.

In a sense, the word 'minimalism' may be misleading.  Something indeed is being minimizedmindless materialismand yet something else is being maximizedmeaningful living.  So while minimalism minimizes material distractions, it maximizes existential meaning.  If that resonates with your own outlook on life, Everything That Remains is likely a book for you.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Value of Simplicity: Revisiting Thoreau's Walden

Every so often, I love to pick up books I haven't looked at in a while and lose myself in the words of a sagacious writer.  Lately, I've been revisiting the writings of Henry David Thoreau, whose books I never cease to recommend.

Most of us have heard of Henry David Thoreau, but we don't quite know what to think about him in the 21st-century Digital Age, which is dominated by complex technologies that invade nearly every aspect of our lives.   Smartphones inundate us with text messages, social media notifications, and calls throughout the day.  And with more consumers buying new devices such as commercial drones and fitness trackers, personal privacy may soon become a vestige of the past.  Were he alive today, Thoreau would have nothing to do with any of these.


(Image from Wikimeda Commons)

Here was a writer who professed simplicity almost two centuries ago (he lived from 1817 to 1862).  He was a contrarian for his time, a period of history known as the Industrial Age, which was distinguished by the rise of giant factories, growing urban areas, and powerful machines such as steam engines.  In fact, Thoreau went so far as to withdraw from city life and live by himself in the woods.  He brought with him only the bare necessities of life, and he wrote about this adventure in his book Walden.  Why the name "Walden"?  I'll let Thoreau explain.

My own copy of Walden

"Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber" (37).

Why make such a drastic move?  Again, I'll let the man himself explain.

"I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear" (82).

Why on earth would Thoreauor any of us for that matternot be living deliberate, authentic lives?  One reason may have something to do with the rise of complex technology.  We created modern machines to make our lives better, but they have done the opposite, according to Thoreau, who professes,

"men have become the tools of their tools" (34).

In other words, we are not the ones controlling technology.  Technology is controlling us.

Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but let me try to update Thoreau's message.

By using modern technologies to make our social lives easier or more efficient, we often make our personal lives more complicated.  Every few minutes, our digital devices distract us with messages (at least half of Americans check their smartphones several times an hour or more, according to Gallup), and information overload from the Internet is confusing lots of people (many now have trouble distinguishing journalism from fake news).

When technology hits us with that much complexity all at once, it may be healthy to simplify our lives and curtail mental distractions.  I'll give a personal example.  One way I choose to simplify my life is not to pay for a data plan on my cellphone.  I only use it to make calls or send texts.  As a result, my phone distracts me very little, and I'm able to focus on the people in front of me.  Plus, the low phone bill is nice.

Okay, cutting the data plan from my phone isn't as drastic as Thoreau retreating to the woods, but it's my approach to a more deliberate life of experiencing the people and places around me without distractions.  Try this simple test next time you're out with a friend at a cafe, restaurant, bar, beach, park, or wherever: see if you can enjoy your friend's company without disrupting the conversation by checking your smartphone.  After all, would you rather squander your free time by compulsively checking your smartphone every other minute?  Or would you rather enjoy the moment with others you care about?  To wit, does technology control you, or are you in control of your own life ("to live deliberately," as Thoreau said)?

Walden's message of simplicity and deliberate living isn't about condemning technology.  It is, however, a rejection of technological consumerism.  On a practical level, simplicity means minimizing material distractions so that we can maximize the enjoyment of life around us.


Walden Pond (Image from Wikimedia Commons)



References: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden.  New York: Doric Books, 1950.



Sunday, May 21, 2017

Retro Reviews: Midnight in Paris

I love movies.  They’re my second favorite art form, right after books.  Like older art forms (novels, theater, etc.) cinema is an artistic medium that conveys heroic tales and modern myths, especially when it comes to fantasy, superhero, and science fiction genres.  There’s a common theme in these cinematic myths, whether we’re watching Harry Potter, The Avengers, or Star Wars: the relationship between human beings and their technologies, whether those technologies are antique tools (e.g., magic wands), advanced machines (e.g., robots), or super weapons (e.g., the Death Star).

I’ve written about some of my favorite films (see my list of greatest sci-fi flicks), and on occasion I review new films (including The Force Awakens and Rogue One).  However, other movie genres outside of science fiction and fantasy do not always get the full attention they deserve, so I decided to write "retro reviews" about great films that say something important about the relationship between humanity and technology.  Today, let's give tribute to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.


“The past is not dead.  It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner (quoted in Midnight in Paris)


(Image from IMDb)

This romanic comedy stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, an aspiring novelist with a nostalgic love for art and technology from the 1920s.  Gil not only feels out of place in his 21st-century culture; he also feels out of time.  In today’s digital age of computers and cellphones, he longs for an analog age of records, clocks, jazz instruments, and (most tellingly) books.  His idols include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

Without spoiling the whole plot, here’s a basic synopsis.  While wandering the streets of Paris on vacation, Gil is magically transported to the 1920s when the clock strikes midnight each night.  Suddenly, he's riding around with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  At first, he enjoys these midnight trips back in time, which let him escape his own culture’s apathy for aesthetics and satiate his own yearning for the forgotten history of the 1920s.


(Image from IMDb)

These midnight trips are a much needed escape from his present situation, which is bogged down by a loveless relationship with his profligate fiancé, who only seems to care about spending money.


(Image from IMDb)

The spiritual void beyond her consumerism is filled by her phony friends, including a pretentious pseudo-intellectual who loves to lecture everyone about topics he ostensibly has no clue about.


(Image from IMDb)

To make matters worse, her parents are philistines with no respect for arts and literature, in stark contrast to Gil’s bibliophilic and aesthetic passions.


(Image from IMDb)

It's no wonder Gil so desires to lose himself in a glorious past, where he can talk to modernist writers and dance to the swinging rhythms of jazz.


(Image from IMDb)

During his midnight adventures, however, Gil slowly realizes that his own romantic nostalgia for the past is no better than his modern culture’s apathy toward art and history.  One is just the opposite extreme of the other.

In the end, he learns an important lesson: there’s a middle ground between nostalgia and apathy.  The moral is almost Buddhist (or maybe Stoic in the Roman sense): Remember the past, admire and learn from history, but don’t cease to live in the present.

In short, the past versus present isn't an either-or choice.  We should learn from history to live fulfilling lives here and now.  Remembering the past to inspire the present is, in fact, the life of the artist, symbolized by Gil strolling through the midnight rain (a symbol of new life), enjoying conversation with an artistic lady (not his profligate fiancé with whom he eventually breaks up).


(Image from IMDb)

Midnight in Paris is a beautiful, beautiful film, and it's much more than a romantic comedy.  It’s a healthy reminder that in our digital age of accelerated innovation, spendthrift consumerism, and forgetfulness of antiquated art and history, sometimes playing with antiquarian technologies and old media—from classic novels to jazz records—can be a healthy way to make sense of the present.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Addendum to Literacy as art: What is "functional literacy”?

In the last post, we discussed functional literacy, the practical skill set you need to read, write, and do math for real-life purposes.  By this definitionliteracy is less about facts and more about skills: reading, writing, and working with numbers, especially to perform skills essential for living and working in your community.

Without further adieu, let's look at some specific examples of functional literacy.

Types of Functional Literacy
  • Media Literacy is the ability to access, evaluate, and create messages using different kinds of media, from print to digital. The purpose of media literacy is to transform people from mass consumers to critical citizens who aren’t susceptible to propaganda, advertising, etc.

Dilbert by Scott Adams, 10-28-1998

  • Religious Literacy is the ability to interpret religious scriptures and communicate with different faiths.  Religious literacy is important for combatting fundamentalism (e.g., religious fanaticism) and unwarranted prejudice (e.g., Islamophobia).  Some of my favorite interpreters include Joseph Campbell, Reza Aslan, and Karen Armstrong.
  • Financial Literacy is the ability to manage finances and make decisions about money.  Whether you're a consumer, a business owner, or a voter, understanding financial budgets is an essential life skill.
  • Computer Literacy is the ability to use computers, and it can range from basic competency (i.e., using applications like email and Microsoft Office) to advanced knowledge (e.g., programming, debugging, and computer science).
  • Legal Literacy is the ability to comprehend laws (e.g., being able to follow laws, policies, and legal processes).
  • Scientific Literacy doesn't mean memorizing raw data and facts.  Scientific literacy is understanding how to conduct an experiment and identify evidence that supports or contradicts a hypothesis.  With global warming, artificial intelligence, and nuclear proliferation at stake, scientific literacy is indispensable for 21st century citizens.
  • Health Literacy is the ability to understand healthcare information, particularly for making medical decisions or lifestyle choices about food, nutrition, exercise, sleep, and other factors that affect your physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Civic Literacy (a.k.a. Civics) is awareness of how government works as well as your rights and responsibilities as a citizen and voter.  Personally, I like to think of civic literacy as the linchpin that holds all these other kinds of literacies together.

Constitution of the U.S. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Now to avoid any misunderstandings about functional literacy, keep in mind two key points.

First, functional literacy is primarily about skills, not subject-matter knowledge.

For example, when we talk about religious literacy, we don't mean memorizing encyclopedic facts about particular religions.  We mean the ability to read and interpret religious texts (from which you learn facts).  This means reading the Bible, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Dhammapada to understand the spiritual, moral, or historical meaning of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhismbeyond the literal words on the page.

Likewise, when we talk about scientific literacy, we don't mean having explicit knowledge about quantum physics.  We mean understanding what a scientific method is and how it helps us verify or falsify beliefs.  The emphasis with functional literacy is on using skills, not remembering facts.

Second, functional literacy entails skills that are essential for a functional society.

This point is historically contingent (i.e., relative to our time and place), but that doesn't make it less true.  For instance, the ancient Greeks got by fine without these examples of functional literacy, but that's because they didn't have to worry about running a banking system (for which we need financial literacy), information systems (for which we need computer literacy), traffic laws (for which we need legal literacy), or a bill of rights (for which we need civic literacy).

If these examples of functional literacy are unique to our time and place in human history, then our civilization may need them more now than ever.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Literacy as art: What is "functional literacy”?

What does it mean to be literate?  It seems like a simple question, but answering it is more complicated than meets the eye.

Literacy is usually defined as the ability to readwrite, and do math.  But what do we mean by reading?  Someone may be able to read the words in a document, but can they comprehend its arguments and analogies?  How about writing?  People may be able to write individual words, but can they express complete thoughts in grammatical sentences?  Then there’s math.  Some individuals may be able to count numbers, but do they know how to analyze graphs, write checks, or calculates tips?

Dilbert by Scott Adams, 9-9-2011

In short, reading or writing words and numbers is not enough to assess literacy.  People need to be able to understand and use those words and numbers—e.g., to express meaning and to solve problems.  This broader definition of literacy is called functional literacy.

Functional literacy refers to the practical skill set you need to read, write, and do math for real-life purposes, including personal or community development.  This definition comes from the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, an international agency that researches education, science, and communication.  In the U.S., functional literacy is assessed by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).

The NAAL is put together every few years by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a research division of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in the Department of Education.  This research classifies literacy according to four levels:

1) Below Basic Literacy: reading and writing words and numbers in a very simple document.
  • Examples: locating easily identifiable information on a chart; signing a form; adding a dollar amount to a deposit slip.
2) Basic Literacy: performing simple skills to understand information in short texts.
  • Examples: reading a pamphlet; using a TV guide; comparing ticket prices.
3) Intermediate Literacy: performing challenging skills to understand long texts.
  • Examples: looking up information in a reference book; summarizing a long article; placing an order and calculating the cost.
4) Proficient Literacy: performing creative and critical thinking skills to understand dense, complex texts.
  • Examples: comparing viewpoints in editorials; interpreting statistical graphs; calculating the costs of food items per ounce.

You may have noticed that as we advance from Below Basic to Basic and beyond, we go from simple tasks to complex skills.  That's because literacy is a skill.  The ancient word for skillas I’ve pointed out in a previous post, is art.  Art, according to its Greek and Latin roots (techne/ars), means skill.  In this sense, literacy—or functional literacy—is the art of reading, writing, and working with numbers, especially to perform skills that are essential for functioning in the world.

So how functionally literate is the U.S.?  Here are the results from the last NAAL.  Warning: these numbers have alarmed many educators.  (In fact, one of my colleagues in education has worried that our nation has passed a point of "peak literacy.")

(Image from NAAL) 

14% of the U.S. population, or 1 out of every 7 people, are functionally illiterate, performing at a Below Basic level.  87% of people performed below Proficient levels.  Why are these numbers alarming?

Well, there's the obvious point that businesspeople such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs made.  The 21st-century economy needs highly skilled workers with knowledge in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), or, better yet, STEAM (same subjects plus Arts).

Functional literacy, however, is about much more than getting a job.  It's also about preserving knowledge and skills needed for our society to function.  If we don't have individuals with mathematical knowledge, creative reading and writing skills, critical thinking habits, etc., then we won't have functioning businesses, governments, or communities.  In other words, we need functional literacy to have a functional society.  Functional illiteracy means living in a dysfunctional society, like in the movie Idiocracy.



With these definitions and stats in mind, I'll explain what kinds of functional literacies are needed to avoid this problem in the next post.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Attention Economy: Has digital technology democratized information?

While I was in grad school studying technical communication, I heard a lot of professors rehashing ideas from writers like Thomas Friedman.  In his books The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World Is Flat, Friedman argues that globalized, digital technologyi.e., the Internet and social media such as Facebookwill 'democratize' informationi.e., more people have more access to more information, and, as a result, everyone will be able to make better economic and political choices.  Has digital technology really promoted democracy, or rule by the people (as opposed to oligarchs)?

The Economist ran a special report last week about digital technology's democratic potentialor lack thereof.  Thus far, the vast majority of Internet usage is for entertainment, not education or civics.  Most people aren't listening to online science lectures or browsing art museum sites.  The mainstream isn't looking up political representatives or reading about their voting records.  For the most part, people use the Internet for entertainment, whether streaming shows and movies or sharing videos, photos, and blog posts.  When it comes civics versus mass entertainment, the latter dominates the digital world by a long shot.

Well then, maybe we could at least say that digital technology has democratized entertainment.  But as the special report in the Economist shows, digital technology has created a kind of economic paradox.

On one hand, more consumers have more choices than ever before.  There are literally hundreds of cable TV stations, thousands of Youtube channels, millions of Facebook pages, billions of websites, and God knows what else.  On the other hand, there remains a limit to how much digital content people can consume.  Consumers only have so much time in the day to give attention to something.  We call this limit the attention economy.

Furthermore, although The Economist doesn't go into it, I might also add that we are human beings who are prone to certain biases.  For example, the familiarity bias (we tend to pay attention to things we are already familiar with), the availability bias (we tend to pay attention to things that are more recent in our memory), and many other cognitive biases tend to restrict our attention.

As a result, more consumers have access to entertainment, but they pay attention to a limited number of things, which are usually blockbuster hits from media conglomerates.  This attention economy is certainly digital, but it's not democratic.  To quote the Economist:
And yet as a business, entertainment has in some ways become less democratic, not more.  Technology is making the rich richer, skewing people's consumption of entertainment towards the biggest hits and the most powerful platforms.  This world is dominated by an oligarchy of giants, including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix and Disney (as well as Alibaba and Tencent within China's walled ecosystem).  Those lacking sufficient scale barely get noticed.
In effect, digital technology has not democratized information, as the special report concludes:
But whatever the arena, the biggest crowds will increasingly gravitate towards just a small number of the most popular hits.  Until recently that was seen as a natural consequence of the physical limits on production and distribution.  It now turns out that, even in the potentially unlimited digital marketplace, social networks, rankings, recommendation algorithms and the like focus people attentions on just a few items in the same way.  The story of mass entertainment in the internet age is a paradox.  Technology has given people too many choices, and then instantly relieved them of the need to make them.
Will digital technology democratize information in the future?  That is, will everyone with more access to more information be able to improve their economic and political prospects beyond the world of entertainment?  Will society follow a more democratic philosophy of technology beyond the oligopolies of mass media?

So far, the outcome has been entertainment and oligopoly for the world of mass media.  That's not all bad, by the way.  I like many of the shows that Netflix is releasing (my wife and I have been particularly impressed by The Crown), and media conglomerates like Google make this blog possible.  But let's not kid ourselves by trying to claim this is all democratic.  The attention economy says otherwise.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

More Routine than Rogue: movie review of Rogue One

Now that most of the initial hype has passed, let's talk about Rogue One.

Rogue One (Image from IMDb)
Keep in mind that I gave the last Star Wars movieThe Force Awakensa positive review overall.  Yes, it lacked in originality (the plot was essentially the same as A New Hope, and J. J. Abrams' directing was almost a carbon copy of George Lucas' style), but the films characters, dialogue, and mythic themes were strong enough to make up for that quibble.

Rogue One, to its credit, has a great strength: a clever plot.  It bridges two previous filmsRevenge of the Sith and A New Hope—by smoothly weaving in a story about how the Rebels stole the Death Star plans.  Another strength of the movie, of course, is the appearance of Darth Vader, whom we don't see enough of, but when we do, it's like watching the terrifying return of a titan.
Darth Vader returns in Rogue One (Image from IMDb)

Other than nostalgic nods to Vader, however, not much happens in Rogue One.  Among its flaws, let me point out a couple that really matter.

First, there's no character development—none, zilch, nada.  Jyn has enormous potential as a character, but she's more of a plot device.  We have no idea as to her feelings about the Empire or extremist Rebels like Saw Gerrera.  We don't know how her tragic childhood affected her personality.  We're not even sure what her personality is.
Jyn (Image from IMDb)
The same could be said for Cassian Andor.  In one scene, he argues with Jyn by grumbling about how the Rebels have forced him to do many terrible things.  What were those terrible things?  How did they affect his views of galactic justice?  We never know, because the scanty dialog immediately dissolves into gratuitous explosions.
Cassian Andor (Image from IMDb)
By the time we watch Jyn and Cassian hold each other as the Death Star blasts them to pieces, it's like watching chess pieces fall.  There's no emotional impact, no reason to care.  It's not promissing when droids like K-2SO have more personality than people in the film.
Cassian and Jyn with K-2SO (Image from IMDb)
Which brings us to another problem with Rogue One: the characters have nothing humane to offer to the Star Wars saga.  In The Force Awakens, for instance, we see Finn start off as Stormtrooper FN-2187 . . . until he suffers a moral crisis.  Unable to bring himself to kill innocent people under the command of The First Order, he escapes from his evil overlords and undergoes a hero's journey.  His journey is more than a morality play; it's a question of what it means to be a human being with humane feelings, as opposed to a cog in a machine.
Stormtrooper FN-2187 becomes Finn (Image from IMDb)
Jyn and Cassian, in contrast, offer no humane thoughts about anyone or anything.  Recall, for example, the split in the Rebel Alliance, with Cassian representing mainstream Rebels, Saw Gerrera representing extremists, and Jyn stuck in between.  Rogue One missed its opportunity to say anything creative about what it means to be a Rebel fighting for humanity.  Should Rebels follow a moral code, draw clear lines in the sand, and try to negotiate when possible?  Or do the ends—no matter how ugly or immoraljustify the means, as torture does for Saw Gerrera?
Saw Gerrera (Image from IMDb)
In the end, Rogue One isn't a terrible movie—it's just not a good one.  It's average at best.  While it has a clever plot, the flat characters and lack of substance make for a pretty shallow film.  The result is nothing more than a pure action flick, which is entertaining but superficial.

One of the reasons I love science fiction is that it gives us modern myths about human beings and their technological creations.  My new hope is that Star Wars doesn't continue in the direction of Rogue One by forgetting the human and humane elements behind technology, thereby losing itself in the corporate machine of mass media.  That would truly be a disturbance to the Force.