The Uptown bookstore Magers & Quinn asked me to make a list of books that I'd recommend. The list didn't have to be guided by any topic or style, so I just decided to assemble the ten titles that are the loudest in my head--each of the books below has a scene or passage that regularly rises up into my brain while I'm busy driving, talking on the phone, or burning something on the stove.
1. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
“The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness... The mind's sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear, stupid body is easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious mind will hush if you give it an egg.”
2. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers
Includes a residential floorplan, rendered in autoCAD or something similar, that mapped the ideal vector of a running approach for a slide in stocking feet, a la Risky Business.
3. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
“You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life!...No one will bring the years back; no one will restore you to yourself.”
4. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The section on corn and carbon explains how isotopes in human body tissue can be tested to reveal how much corn we’ve eaten in our lifetime.
5. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
“In this country, SWE [Standard Written English] is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE… You can be glad about it or sad about it or deeply pissed off. You can believe it's racist and unjust and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I'll tell you something: If you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you're going to have to communicate them SWE, because SWE is the dialect our country uses to talk to itself.”
6. Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender
“He gets bored with his expensive (but worth it) pet and puts a few drops of cleaning agent into his water bottle, so he can watch the little man hallucinate.”
7. New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
“Nevermind that he is only a memo from the offices of fear,” from the “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”
8. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Includes a scene in which a circumcised girl boasts that the space between her legs is as flat and featureless as her palm.
9. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Describes the confines of a rocking boat in which two people who should definitely not be having sex, are having loads of sex.
10. All Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith
“Aphorisms.” I learned that word from this book. To my surprise, I also learned that a professional author was allowed to make a whole book of them: plot and character are—like everything in art—electives only.
Much of what I studied as a philosophy student is now murky. I’ve retained a lot of men’s names, many of them come uncoupled from the contributions which made worth knowing. I’ve got a tacklebox of academic terminology and a little tangled Latin. I’ve also got some half-remembered logical proofs, which cannot quite be persuaded into the full light of my awareness, and instead plod around the low plains of my brain as quadrupedal skeletons, perpetually in the semi-darkness after sunset, on a slow migration to nowhere.
I am home from South Africa today, just returned from a safari. The safari was the very generous gift a friend, for whom I served as a bridesmaid in a Johannesburg wedding ceremony. Sixteen of us, hailing from a half a dozen countries, traveled in two vans to arrive at the gate of the Nkomazi Game Reserve. We were loaded onto a pair of powerful all-terrain vehicle and taken to the lodge for an evening meal by firelight. I stayed up late with the Welsh couple and the South African groom, all of whom held their liquor more gracefully than I could.
In the morning, we woke at 5:30 and administered whatever hangover curatives were prescribed by our respective cultural traditions. Marmite for some. Juice for others. Eggs for most.
Many safari tourists are eager to check off the Big 5: to see the large, fierce African animals most difficult to hunt. Lions, black rhinos, leopards, Cape buffalos and elephant.
I’m not a naturalist at heart. My heart is more sensitive to dry humor and iced whiskey and a certain brand of angst that has had all the adolescent topnotes boiled off. But many times, I found my hand shooting out of its own accord—often rudely close to the face of my neighbor—to point at whatever wonder trampled past. Paul, our guide, pulled our vehicle alongside a pair of lionesses and their cubs as they feasted on a warthog, whose bones we heard cracking. We saw white rhinos (who walk and eat while sleeping), distant baboons, elephants, impala, and the secretarybird—so named because she appears as if she is carrying pens speared through her hair (and in that way, resembles this blogger). The enthusiasms evoked on safari are of a gradeschool, uncomplicated variety. I think I shouted Look! a dozen times after I promised myself that I would stop shouting Look! to people who were present for the express purpose of looking.
I peppered Paul with questions in a forced whisper. Is it high iron content that makes the earth so red? Manganese. If two different kinds of zebras mate, are their offspring infertile? Yes. And stripeless. Do people always go this nuts on the first day then chill out on the second ride? You have no idea.
On a walk Paul explained that termites build mounds of the red earth, some of which are feet high, emerging above the dry grasses. The mounds can be 160 years old and the termites that live in them don’t eat wood. Instead, they subsist on fungi gardens that they cultivate underground. The termites are meticulous in tending their estates; they regulate the temperature of the fungi by constantly opening and closing countless little ducts that vent at the surface of the mound. This method (copied by human builders for passive cooling and heating systems) maintains a steady temperature of 28-32 degrees Celsius.
Dominant lions walk the perimeter of their territory every 14 days, marking ground and reaffirming their pride’s claim to the land and the prey living on it.
Some fruit, such as that from the marula tree, can ferment in animals’ stomachs. Even elephants stagger, completely drunk, after eating it.
A female dung beetle passed us, rolling her little ball of dung down a long path a few inches wide. The male followed. Paul said sometimes the males simply ride on the dung ball while the female laboriously rolls it to the patch soft earth she has in mind. There he will fertilize the egg she has buried within the dung and the whole package will be deposited underground. One year later a new dung beetle will emerge—unless it has been first discovered by a honey badger. [Three full minutes of digression were necessary here to impersonate the flamboyantly gay voice-over of the viral Youtube sensation. Paul had not seen it but solemnly swore to look it up back at the lodge.]
It’s tempting to anthropomorphize the players in the natural world, to make villains of the predators and heroes of the grazing beasts. But to do so reduces the safari to a cartoon. Nature is beautiful. Nature is brutal. Nature is not at all compelled to reconcile beauty and brutality.
The lions at Nkomazi game reserve kill for pleasure, which violated some aphorism I’d heard years ago from a hippie about humans being the only creature to kill without need. I was enthralled to learn that, when you get close enough, the lions look you in the eyes. I asked Paul, How do they know that we’re not just one big beast? Seemed to me we might as well be perceived as an elephant with wheels, rather than 9 individuals in a canopied vehicle. Motion can single you out, Paul explained, but the position of a man’s eyes on his head identify him as a predator. At first glance, every creature could tell that much about us.
What is it for a lion to know something? What does it feel like for termites to know that the mound has become too warm? How does the beetle know to push her ball of dung when the casual observer might think, “Christ, you’re killing yourself for that thing--just bury it here.”
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. What’s knowable? When can we say we’re doing it—in what circumstances can we be certain we really know something? The classical answer comes from Plato. He said that knowledge is a justified, true, belief. To know something, all three conditions must be satisfied: the statement must be true, the knower must have good reason to accept it, and the knower must be persuaded by those good reasons to believe it.
We usually account for animal behavior with just one word: “Instinct.” Whereas knowledge involves a consciousness and a state of mind, the way we talk about instinct implies that it drives behavior without necessarily involving consciousness or decision-making.
But can a lion be aware that I am a predator without being conscious that he is aware of it? Hasn't he arrived at a sort of knowing via an alternate route—bypassing the whole Platonic triple threat? If we insist that he is only acting toward me as a predator (and that he does not know it), we have reduced him to an automaton. Easy enough to do theoretically. Unless you happen to be looking at a lion who is looking you in the eyes.
On safari, I kept thinking, I’m an animal. I have instincts. Am I always aware of their influence on my behavior? On my thoughts?
When I see women flirt at bars and at concerts, they often turn a bit sideways, seldom facing their partner squarely. I do that too. Maybe we’re presenting ourselves at the angle that best showcases our reproductive parts, I can’t say. But I know to do that in some sense, don’t I? Could be socialized, could be instinctual, but either way, I certainly didn’t come about this behavioral knowledge by way of a “justified, true, belief.”
The Platonic test seems well suited to abstracted and theoretical knowledge, The Earth is ever spinning on its axis. Great, I’ve got a bunch of numbers to justify it. It’s true, so believe it. But the same test doesn’t seem to account for our behavioral knowledge quite as gracefully. And if our definition of knowledge encompasses only Knowing That and not Knowing How, then it seems as if perhaps we have an insufficient definition of knowledge—one that favors the Knowers That. (Like, say, Plato.)
Worms. Cans and cans. All of them open. Determinism, elitism, teleological quandaries, etc. Do the worms know the can is open? Can they know of the can? I have no idea. But on returning to the opulence of the safari dining tent—white linen, the whole shebang—I suspected that our account of knowledge predictably favored the way that humans experience knowledge. And that perhaps a continuum might exist between pure instinct and pure knowledge. But soon, like the elephants, I had drunk enough marula liquer to extinguish my interest in such things. Of necessity, my focus narrowed to include only the long stumble to a safe place to rest until morning.
Peddling a product that consumers can duplicate for free is a tricky business. With affordable consumer technology, you can now copy a song a hundred times, with no degradation in the sound quality—and most people seem to immediately recognize why that’s gonna make it harder to get paid for songs. But my first experiences with lossless, duplicable technology didn’t have anything to do with my career as a rapper. My first encounter wasn’t with a torrent site. Or a bootlegged disc. It was a tomato.
Seeds, quite obviously, are the mechanism of plant duplication. You drop a sunflower seed in wet dirt and, bang, you get a brand new one. Essentially, you just 'burned’ a sunflower. The seeds of this new plant can then be harvested and planted to create an infinite, almost lossless supply of flowers and seeds. 'Seed saving’ is the term for collecting seeds to be replanted.
So if farmers can just save seeds from previous crops, why would they still buy them from seed companies?
Monsanto is probably a familiar name to most readers. I know it’s often invoked by my generation as the archetypical hulking conglomerate, which regards 'ethical concerns’ only as pesky hindrances to the bottom line. But I don’t have much interest in condemning agribusiness: people who know more about the industry than I do can speak to Monsanto’s record more credibly than I can. Suffice it to say that Monsanto is a really big company. It sells seeds that are genetically modified to increase farmers’ yields. The genes in those seeds are patented. Without Monsanto’s express permission, it’s illegal to save seeds for replanting. You gotta buy new ones every year.
A lot of people are concerned about Monsanto. One of those people is my mom. When I was a kid she would take me to a summer conference called the Seed Savers Exchange. Although the nature of the event wasn’t completely clear to me, I knew it had something to do with her gardening. And I knew we were to stay in a tent. And I knew she would try to make me wear a bonnet. (I later learned that this penchant for homesteaders’ costuming was idiosyncratic to my mother, and is not integral to any organic movement.)
At these summer events, gardeners and naturalists traded heirloom seeds, which is perfectly legal because there’s no patent to infringe upon—it’s just a tomato. Some of the conference participants were motivated by the concern that the planet’s genetic and biological diversity was threatened by big agriculture, which tends to plant only a few varietals. So it was through Seed Savers that I had my first encounter with lossless duplication. These campers were essentially taking it upon themselves to copy and disseminate DNA. They planted heirloom varietals in isolated, uncontaminated gardens; saved their seeds; and met once a year to distribute the genetic codes around the country. You can’t quite download a tomato, but in sharing seed, you can sort of upload it.
Monsanto seeds, as I mentioned, you’re not allowed to save. While farmers buy the seed, they only license the the technologies inside it. And this is why Apple and Monsanto find themselves in such similar positions.
Rap fans and crop farmers are perfectly capable of duplicating the products that they purchase. To protect and maximize their earnings, Apple and Monsanto must find ways to prevent Rick Ross MP3s and Roundup Ready® sugarbeets from being copied at home in a way that would detract from future sales.
Both companies limit the way you can use what you buy.
Apple maintains a list of limits collectively called "Usage Rules." Monsanto maintains a list of limits collectively called the "TUG," or Technology Usage Guide.
Apple says, "You agree not to modify, rent, lease, loan, sell, distribute, or create derivative works based on the iTunes Service in any manner." Monsanto growers agree "Not to transfer any Seed containing patented Monsanto Technologies to any other person or entity for planting."
It’s worth noting that both companies prevent you from transferring ownership of what you’ve purchased. Usually we’re able to sell the things we own: bikes, clothes, even used CDs can be traded, bought, or loaned to friends.
To buy their products, consumers must agree to be monitored.
When you use iTunes, you agree only to do so in the United States. As stated in their terms and conditions: "Apple may use technologies to verify your compliance."
When growers sign up with Monsanto, they agree "To provide Monsanto copies of any records, receipts, or other documents that could be relevant to Grower's performance of this Agreement," and to ensure compliance, Monsanto may request "aerial photographs."
Both companies aggressively limit consumers’ understanding of the purchased product.
Monsanto’s license states that a "Grower may not conduct research on grower’s crop...other than to make agronomic comparisons and conduct yield testing for Grower's own use."
Apple is known for making products whose parts are very difficult to access. Most of the iPhone 4 units, for example, are held together with pentalobular screws instead of standard screws. (Looking down at them, you’d see a little flower shape with five petals, instead of the classic plus sign of a Phillips head.) So for a while, you couldn’t open the thing without first finding someone to sell you a strange little screwdriver with a flower tip. Nancy Sims, an attorney and the Copyright Program Librarian at the University of MN, hepped me to the fact that there’s even a If-You-Can’t-Open-It,-You-Don’t-Own-It techie manifesto. (You can buy t-shirts and all sorts of stuff emblazoned with the phrase.)
By preventing crop research and by using "tamper-proof" screws, both companies make their products black boxes. You can’t look inside to see how the thing works.
These rules and regulations can undermine our fundamental ideas of what it means to actually own something. In most of our purchasing lives, we pay for product and then we can do with it as we like. As long as I’m not endangering others, I can throw the thing into the air, I can write in the margins of it, I can mail it, or strip it for parts. So If I’m only allowed to interact with my purchase in meticulously prescribed ways...it starts to feel less like mine. Like a pet I'm not allowed to touch or see.
But if you don’t abide by license agreements, bad things can happen. According to its own site, Monsanto has sued 145 farmers for saving seed. Hundreds of thousands of people have been sued for illegally downloading digital content (though not by Apple—movie makers are the busiest filers of lawsuits, mostly for films downloaded from the site BitTorrent).
Losslessly reproducible technologies are just complicated things to own. And when you really think about what you’re buying (not the jewel case, not the disc, but a particular and incorporeal sequence of binary code) it’s easy to start sounding like a burnt-out stoner, pondering the impossibility of the whole transaction through a haze of weed smoke. "You can’t, like, own a song dude."
Even as recording musician, I’m not sure you can actually own a song in the same way you own other stuff.
When I was an elementary kid, our American history lessons still had a good deal of the Noble Savage narrative in the curriculum. I remember learning that some tribes didn’t have a tradition of real property rights—land just wasn’t something you could own. So, according to our textbooks’ (rather hasty) explanation, everybody shared everything and generally got along. My little mind was blown by this alternate utopian paradigm.
I wondered then, and still wonder, what sort of things are okay to call 'mine.’ Can you privatize water? Chile and South Africa think so, and the issue is debated here too. Can you own air? A gesture? An idea? What’s really ownable? isn’t as high-ass a question as it sounds; it warrants some rigorous consideration. Keep in mind that, historically, we’re not very good at recognizing what’s ownable. We tried to own people.
In many ways, the whole ownership model just seems poorly suited to duplicable technology. Square peg, pentalobe hole. When we try to force new technology into the old model, our contracts end up sounding really, well, creepy. In fact, some licensing contracts stipulate that the people who sign them are not allowed to talk about what's written in them. That just doesn't sound like our best work. Instead of asking, Whose is this, who gets paid for it, and how much?, the conversation might be better reset by asking What is this, who made it, who uses it, and what’s fair?
When my dad was a school kid, he caught a salamander. Over the course of an afternoon, he became intensely enamored with the slick, black little creature. And he took his role as caretaker very seriously. (I prefer to imagine the following scene in black and white, which lends a halo of 1950’s innocence to the whole vignette.) As his family sat down to dinner, my dad sensed his own duty to the salamander, who must also be hungry. So, he removed a carton of milk from the fridge, trotted to the make-shift terrarium, and very carefully lifted the salamander by the jaw, a technique which conveniently held his little mouth open. With the intense, furrowed focus of a little kid, my dad filled his salamander with whole milk, and then gently set him down, satisfied that he was well attended.
Comedy, tragedy, love, loss, murder. I like this story because my dad, who is a very smart grown-up, is so pitiably wrong-headed in his tenderness. Sometimes the way you’d like to be treated has absolutely nothing to do with the way you ought to treat others. Do unto others, well, as they’d like to be done unto.
In a few weeks, I’ll be flying to South Africa to attend my best friend’s wedding. The front sections of travel books (Exports, State Seal, Square Mileage) generally don’t hold my attention too long—I’m more of a Budget Accommodation kind of girl. But a section called Melting pot—Or divided society, stopped me. It first warned against conceptualizing South Africa as divided into “two basic groups of black and white.” Okay, no problem, I’m a Montessori kid, I get it. But to expound on the racial diversity of the country, a sidebar explained:
“The term ‘coloureds’ refers to those of mixed descent, most of whom speak Afrikaans as a first language.”
A quick flip to the copyright page confirmed that the book in hand was printed in 2011. But, like most people under the age of 80 who live in Minneapolis, “coloured” strikes me as grossly dated, vaguely imperial, and fraught with racist connotations. No matter what the intentions of the speaker, it is a word that would dive bomb a conversation. Anyone with any common sense shuns it. (And that extra ‘u’ of the British spelling, so obviously a colonial vestige, makes the whole thing that much worse.)
To learn that ‘coloureds’ is preferred in South Africa (at least according to the travel books), prompted a bit of reflection on how far afield intuition can steer us in cross-cultural exchanges. I’m going to have to be ready to say that word comfortably--unless I’m willing to avoid any discussion of race for the entirety of my visit (during which I will be celebrating the marriage of my Lebanese friend to her South African groom). But man, it just feels wrong.
I’ve done enough traveling to have offended or confused a lot of people. I’ve eaten with the wrong hand; walked on the wrong side of my companion [implying that he was prostituting me]; asked to use the women’s restroom in a gay bar; and, in attempt to adhere to India’s modest standards of dress, inadvertently costumed myself in an outfit traditionally worn by prepubescent boys.
But my point here isn't really about race or culture. To me, the issue of interest is the inadequacy of common sense. Common sense and intuition can be really lousy guides for complicated problems, particularly those that involve people who are significantly different from us. Intuition, which we’ve honed and practiced in our native society, often doesn’t prove so steadfast when carted into new territory. And given that our experiences can be wildly different, we don’t always have all that much ‘sense’ in common.
Still, all sorts of big, important public debates hinge on simple appeals to common sense. Obama did so a few days ago on gun control. Romney did it on immigration reform. No matter what side you take, both of those issues involve some complex contentions. They both ask a decision-maker to strike a careful balance between competing interests. And when we’re asked to look to our intuition for answers to these complex questions, we look away from facts that might better inform our beliefs. Essentially, common sense appeals can often suppress empirical, evidence-based arguments (like, say, the correlation between gun access and gun violence or the economic consequences of immigration regulation). That’s a drag. Sometimes new evidence can prove our intuition wrong, and can reeducate our common sense. To pull an example from the hat: there is nothing common-sense about using rotting fruit to cure disease. That seems like a bad, not-at-all-intuitive idea. Except that penicillin works. And despite our common perception of sunrise and sunset, it’s us who’s revolving. And "coloured" is okay to say in some places. And in New Dehli only male schoolchildren wear brown pants with long white tunics. And no matter how much you love the little thing, salamanders eat bugs. Or leaves. (I guess I’m not totally sure what salamanders eat, but I love you, Dad.)