Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (DVD)

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is a documentary DVD that explores the influence of the internet on human life.

It begins by following internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock into a room on the UCLA campus where the first internet communication took place at 10:30pm on Oct 29, 1969, between UCLA and Stanford Research Institute. Kleinrock describes the moment he began typing the very first internet message, “Login.” Before he could complete it, the computer system crashed, and the first message transmitted by the internet turned out to be “Lo” – thus the movie’s name.

Danny Hillis, an American inventor and computer scientist, describes the phone book he owned back in the early days of the internet. It contained the names of everyone on the internet. Can you imagine a directory of everyone on the internet today? It is estimated it would be 72 miles thick.

Director Werner Herzog takes us to Stanford Dept of Robotics, where we learn how the discovery of biomolecule patterns was enhanced by the creation of a crowdsourced video game called EteRNA. Crowdsourcing, as defined by Wikipedia (itself a famous example of crowdsourcing) is “to divide work between participants to achieve a cumulative result.” In this case, a videogame played by a multitude of interested laypeople -“lawyers, grandmas, students, bedridden people” contributed in useful ways to the collective knowledge base about RNA (Ribonucleic Acid), which is present in all living cells. Crowdsourcing has been used in a variety of other ways for the common good. In addition to Wikipedia, another well-known example of crowdsourcing is crowdfunding, the collection of funds from a crowd (for example, Kickstarter). If you would like to learn more about how you can be similarly involved in contributing to the universe of knowledge (sometimes even by playing video games!) see this list of crowdsourcing projects.

While at Stanford, Herzog takes us to Professor of Computer Science and director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, Sebastian Thrun, who is designing self-driving cars. He addressed the concern for safety of self-driving cars by saying, “When a computer makes a mistake, it learns from it, along with all the other computers (in use and unborn.) When a human makes a mistake, just that one person learns from it.” He shares a fascinating anecdote about a certain class he taught to 200 students enrolled at Stanford. He was able to offer the same course online to interested members of the general public. Over 1000 people signed up for the online class. When he tested them, he found that the best Stanford student ranked 412th among all the students combined. From this he said he learned that for every one great Stanford student, there are 412 better out there in the world who couldn’t or didn’t go to Stanford.

Then, we are presented with some particularly dark sides of the internet. The family of Nikki Catsouras shares their story, explaining why they no longer use email or the internet. Nikki died in a car accident in 2006 when she was 18 years old. Gruesome photos of her decapitated body were posted online shortly after the accident. Then, the family began receiving anonymous emails containing the photos, one with the caption “Woohoo Daddy! Hey daddy, I’m still alive.” The Catsouras family deeply lamented the lack of accountability on the internet.

What would today’s landscape be like without the internet? We find out more about that by visiting Green Bank, West Virginia, home of a telescope 100 meters in diameter that picks up radio waves from outer space. To eliminate interference with the radioastronomy project, all wireless transmissions are disabled within a 10 mile radius. The area has become a haven for people who experience severe physical reactions to being in the presence of radio waves. Diane Schou and Jennifer Wood describe their lives before they moved to Green Bank. They spent all their time inside Faraday cages –  boxes named for the 19th century scientist Michael Faraday, designed to shield their contents from electromagnetic fields. Some regard their condition as a supersense. They regard it as a nightmare.

We visit an internet addiction treatment center near Seattle, Washington where we hear the personal stories of some clients. We learn about a South Korean couple who were imprisoned for allowing their newborn daughter to starve to death while they were consumed with playing a video game. Ironically, it was a game in which they were nurturing an electronic baby.

Adler Planetarium astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz tells us about large solar flares called Carrington Events, which have the power to disable communications and create widespread power outages, and how we could see the next powerful solar event soon. We are given a glimpse of what that might look like from footage of a recent, relatively small-scale blackout in New York City. Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss warns “if the internet shuts down, people will not remember how they lived before that.”

Famous hacker Kevin Mitnick is interviewed about the methods he employed to gain access to secured information. He goes into detail about how he manipulated weaknesses in cybersecurity systems, noting that he always found them in the people, not the systems.

In the final third of the documentary, the possible future of Artificial Intelligence is explored. Entrepreneur Elon Musk, who made a fortune through PayPal, talks about the rockets he is launching into space, and his goals of creating a colony on Mars in case Earth becomes unlivable.

Marcel Just and Tom Mitchell, brain scientists at Carnegie Mellon postulate on whether or not it is possible for computers to dream.

The Wikipedia Emergency Project is described. It is a plan that people should print out hard copies of the information found on its website and store them somewhere our heirs can find them should a catastrophic planetary event occur.

The documentary prompted much thought, and left me with so many questions the first time around, I eagerly watched it a second time a couple of weeks later, after I gave myself some time to let the ideas rattle around in my mind for a while. If you like to explore multiple sides of issues relating to the past, present, and future of technology I would recommend you watch Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.

 

 

 

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

Do you like reading screenplays? Poetry? What about novels that aren’t written in the traditional sense? I’ve read many novels-in-verse, but the author has to really bring their A-game if I’m to be impressed with a novel-in-verse. Books written in a different way than I am used to take me a little while to get invested in and as a result, I usually avoid them. My latest listen, however, was not done in a traditional format and I loved it.

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger was a whim of a book to listen to. I was searching through OverDrive having just finished my previous book. With none of my holds available for check-out, I honestly picked The Divorce Papers because the title sounded interesting, the cover was intriguing, and I knew it would be ripe with family drama. Had I clicked through and read the blurb provided by the publisher, I probably would have skipped reading it. I’m glad I impulse checked this audiobook out.

The Divorce Papers is not told like your traditional novel. Instead it’s told through a series of office memos, news articles, emails, legal papers, and personal correspondence. While you may think that this storytelling style leaves readers with the task of filling in much of the plot, you would be sadly mistaken. Each section is so detailed that while there may be gaps in dates, there are no gaps in plot and detail. You also benefit from a very precise timeline since everything in the book is dated. I greatly enjoyed that.

This book is the story of a messy divorce of two very high-profile members of a close-knit community. Sophie Diehl, a twenty-nine-year-old criminal law associate at a New England law firm has been dragged into doing her very first civil lawsuit. She was asked to do the intake interview for Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim, the daughter of her firm’s most important client. The only reason Sophie was asked to do the intake interview was because the partner who would have handled it was out of town. Having been promised by her boss that she would only have to do the intake interview and nothing more, Sophie went on with her regular criminal law work.

Nothing is ever quite that simple. Mia requests Sophie to be her lawyer, a request that the partners can’t turn down because she is the daughter of such an important client. Mia is a Mayflower descendant whose father runs a company and whose mother was an heiress. She was served with divorce papers at a popular local restaurant by her husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim, Chief of the Department of Pediatric Oncology. This will be Daniel’s second divorce, Mia’s first, and Sophie’s first one to handle as well. Despite that fact, Mia is insistent that Sophie be the one to handle her divorce. What follows is a tense battle between Mia and Daniel for custody of their 10-year-old daughter Jane, for control of their assets, for alimony/child support, and a myriad of other issues that pop up in a divorce. While Sophie is handling Mia’s divorce, other letters, emails, and office memos show how this divorce is affecting her specifically. Readers get a look into her relationships with her work colleagues, her family, her friends, and her lovers.

To be honest, my mind faded out through some sections when the narrator read the legal papers. If I want to read this book again, I will definitely pick up a physical copy. Because this book deals with a divorce, there are many sections talking about alimony and the division of assets, aka lots of numbers. Luckily each section of legal documents was usually followed by a personal letter or email that broke down the dense talking into something I actually understood. Don’t let the lawyer talk throw you off reading or listening to this book though. The storyline and interpersonal relationships more than make up for the lawyer speak. I greatly enjoyed this book, more than I expected.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center is a book about starting over. Helen Carpenter is thirty-two years old and has been divorced for a year. She is just fine with how her life is going, thank you very much, but if she actually thinks about it, she really needs to take a break to try and put herself together again. Her much younger brother, younger by ten years, mentions off-hand about a wilderness survival course. Thinking that this is exactly what she needs, Helen decides to sign up and give it a try. Right when she’s getting ready to leave, her brother’s best friend, Jake, tells her that he is also coming on the trip and just so happens to need a ride. Great. This life-changing journey has turned into a cross-country trip with her younger brother’s annoying best friend. Not what she wanted at all.

The wilderness survival course that Helen has signed up for is three weeks long and puts her and a group of people smack dab in the remotest part of a mountain range in Wyoming. Her fellow survivalists are nothing like what she was expecting. Instead of the hippie folks and rugged back-packers she was envisioning, Helen finds herself at orientation with a group of college students all significantly younger than her and who are basically doing this course as a way to get college credit. The person in charge doesn’t even look like he’s out of high school, for goodness sake! Helen is clearly out of her element. This point is further emphasized when the instructor lays out a series of very strict rules. Helen is in way over her head.

In order to begin this course with a clean slate, she tells Jake to pretend like he doesn’t even know her. She wants to begin anew. This sort of backfires on her when Helen realizes that Jake has become the popular guy and also that no one else in her group really likes her that much. Such begins Helen’s road to rediscovery, a wilderness survival course that is nothing like she thought it would be with people she wasn’t expecting. With sore, blistery feet, a medical emergency, a summer blizzard, and love blooming on rocky trails, Happiness for Beginners is a breath of fresh air as Helen works to remake herself into the new person she wants to become.


This book is also available as an Overdrive eAudiobook, which is how I listened to this book.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

I am obsessed with female comedians. I recently stumbled upon Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I listened to on OverDrive as an audiobook one summer day when I was hiking and I. FELL. HARD. I then branched out to Amy Poehler and a whole slew of other famous women comedians. I personally love listening to these book as audiobooks because it feels like I’m getting my own private comedy show, plus the authors 1)usually narrate their own books and 2) bring in famous friends and family to read sections. Plus there is usually awesome bonus content. If that’s not enough of a reason for you to run out to the library and pick up some audiobooks, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, back to the topic: my recent, yet hard-hitting love of female comedians. When I discovered Amy Schumer and Anna Kendrick were each coming out with new books, I immediately put the respective release dates on my calendar and started scouting for information about their audiobooks. When I saw copies of both books in print on the new shelves, I knew I should just pick them up, read them, and then listen to the audio later. I started with Amy Schumer. (I have Kendrick’s book at home in my TBR pile).

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer is way more than your standard autobiography. Schumer makes it clear in the beginning of the book that this is not a memoir or an autobiography; she says she’s way too young to be writing either of those types of books. Instead, she has collected a series of essays that detail the many different experiences that have made her the woman she is today. Throughout this book, Schumer says over and over that she didn’t luck into her career. She worked insanely hard and even though now some people think she has made it, she still has to hustle to get what she wants. Developing new material and testing it out hasn’t changed. She still tries out material on friends, performs in comedy clubs, and is constantly mining her daily life and interactions for humorous material for her work.

Schumer pulls stories from her past and nothing is off limits. She talks about relationships, her father’s battle with multiple sclerosis, her family, her awkward teenage years, her work, and sex. Schumer is not afraid to strip down and bare her soul in order to make sure readers understand what she is talking about. I was thoroughly impressed with this book. I was expecting something hilarious all the way through. Don’t get me wrong; this book had me laughing out loud, but Schumer gets down and talks about very serious topics that I wasn’t expecting, but those sections were so well-worded, I found myself unable to put it down. I recommend you give it a try and let me know what you think below.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger

From the start, Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger is suspenseful, engaging and full of twists and turns. The main appeal, though, is Ridley Jones, whose tidy, enjoyable life is turned upside down one morning when she rescues a small child from getting hit by a car. This act of heroism and the attendant publicity brings out people from her past, causing her to doubt her parents, long-time family friends, and everything she’s believed about her life up until that point.

A freelance journalist living in a cozy East Village apartment, she goes on the run, investigating a man claiming to be her father, and  a shadowy group dedicated to finding homes for abandoned children. She’s not sure who she can trust. She’s not even sure of her new neighbor and love interest, who helps her with her investigation but seems too professional in his skills for someone who claims to be an artist.

While you’re reading this, you’re quite aware that this is very firmly rooted in the thriller genre, and is pure escapism. But it’s artfully done, and Ridley’s re-examination of lifelong assumptions and philosophical musings make it a cut above those churned out by authors turned corporations.

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer was a pleasant diversion from what I was expecting. I’ve read everything else Meyer has written (the Twilight series and The Host). I actually really enjoyed all her previous works and occasionally would re-read them when I needed a brain cleanse/a break from the heavy nonfiction I was reading. They fit my niche. I picked up The Chemist without really reading the blurb on the back and expected to have a supernatural and science fiction thriller on my hands. I was wrong. It was way more realistic fiction than I was expecting, but I was okay with it.

The Chemist is about an ex-agent who used to work for the U.S. government. She must do one last job in order to clear her name, but this job isn’t nearly as clear cut as she is led to believe. The agency she used to work with is so undercover and clandestine that it doesn’t have a name. People don’t know that the agency exists, but they have heard the rumors of the woman who works there. Being unable to discuss the nature of her work outside her lab, she formed a close relationship with her mentor Barnaby, another scientist. Her employers decided that changes must be made, that her area was a liability, and they killed Barnaby, the only person she ever trusted.

She finds herself on the run from her former employers who are still hunting her. People have been sent to kill her, but she’s managed to escape. After the last attempt on her life, she realizes that while she was working for the agency, she must have either overheard something she shouldn’t have or something she worked on has made her a liability. They have decided she must be eliminated.

After one of her former employers approaches her and offers her a way to get the agency off her back, she must weigh the consequences of taking the job vs. staying on the run. If she takes it, she will be uprooting her entire existence, the only way she has been able to keep herself alive. If she takes it, she will be putting herself both back on her former employers’ radar and, more importantly, physically back within their reach. If she doesn’t take it, she’ll have to stay on the run, continually changing her name and not forming bonds with anyone. She’s safer on the run and alive, but she’s not really living a life when she has to continuously look over her shoulder. This job is her only chance to get her life back and to get her former employer to stop trying to kill her. She decides to take it.

The information she learns while she is performing this job makes her question things she thought she knew as truths. Her life is now in even more danger once she figures out this job’s reality. She is forced to once again fight for her life and now the lives of the other people involved in this job. Even though this job was supposed to be her ticket to freedom, it has instead made her life infinitely more complicated. She quickly finds herself having to rely on others, something she would never even consider if her options weren’t rapidly shrinking.

Meyer has crafted a story that is true to her writing style. Her heroine is strong and fierce, willing to fight for what she believes to be her due. This novel is a highly suspenseful thriller, one that leads readers through a wild goose chase of sorts as the main character works to figure out exactly who is after her, what she is willing to do, and what she is willing to sacrifice in order to save herself. I greatly enjoyed this novel and I think that listening to it added to my suspense level and enjoyment. Meyer also adds a layer of separation between readers and the main character by hardly ever referring to her by name, something that is necessary given the fact that since she worked for such a clandestine agency, her whole working life was a secret and now she must keep things even more under-wraps in order to stay alive. I highly recommend this book.


This book is also available in the following formats:

The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee

Books that deal with heartbreak seem to be my go-to listen lately. Maybe that’s just because I know the plot will be interesting and engaging, but nevertheless, I find myself gravitating towards heart-squeezing family dramas. The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee is full of devastating consequences, yet heartwarming relationships that make you yearn for each character’s eventual happiness.

The Expatriates is the inter-woven tale of three American women living in Hong Kong. Each woman is a part of the same very small expat community. Their reasons for coming to Hong Kong as well as their personal and professional lives may be different, but the situations that they find themselves in all become intertwined rather quickly, sometimes without them even realizing it. (I was constantly reminded of the idea that we are only separated from someone else by six degrees of separation throughout this book. And also by the fact that the smallest action can change our lives so drastically.)

Mercy is a young Korean American who finds herself in Hong King after her graduation from Columbia. She has moved to Hong Kong looking for a change from the normal and the promise of a more lucrative job. Marcy is haunted by a terrible accident that happened to her recently. Hilary is a housewife whose marriage is on the rocks. She gave up the bulk of her career to follow her husband, David, to Hong Kong, so he could further his career. Hilary finds herself thinking over and over about her inability to have a child and how if she was only able to conceive, her marriage problems would evaporate. Margaret is a married mother of three who is forced to deal with a shattering loss that has destroyed her life and her family. She is having to find a new normal, something she must survive even if she isn’t quiet sure how to do so.

Mercy, Hilary, and Margaret soon find their lives to be thoroughly enmeshed together in was neither of them expected. Each woman must deal with their own separate issues and struggles, but soon they fins that there are many common threads linking them together. Consequences run rampant through their lives, dictating their decisions, their lifestyles, and their relationships. This book was very moving and I found myself listening to it obsessively to try to figure out how their lives were going to unfold.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Bibliophilia

Bibliophilia, by N. John Hall, is an epistolary novel and, even though the correspondence is via email, it could just as well be letters that arrive by mail . Larry Dickerson develops relationships with Christie’s auction house staff, academics and other book experts as he educates himself about the art of book collecting. His enthusiasm is contagious; he isn’t afraid of appearing naïve or uneducated. He asks the questions that the reader would ask, and the answers he receives are a mixture of the personal and the professional.

Some of their respect and interest may be due to the fact that Larry is newly rich, having sold his great-great grandfather’s correspondence with some noted Victorian authors for  $400,000 – a portion of which he  plans to invest in collecting rare books. Larry always tries to tie his collecting to something he has an interest in, so he begins with Victorians such as Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. Along the way, he learns about  printing and publishing history – in both the U.S. and England, condition, inscriptions and book jackets – all of which affect the value of  books, whether they are first editions or not.

Soon, his correspondence leads him to New Yorker writers and cartoonists; he begins to collect J.D. Salinger, Roth, Updike, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and others. It’s fun to get a quick overview of these authors, as well as famed New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn.

There is a subplot about fraud in the world of rare books – an entertaining way to learn about the underbelly of unscrupulous book dealers. Bibliophilia is an interesting mix of a sort of superficial, middlebrow learning and literary enthusiasm.

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler

For me, this was an ideal book-on-cd. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  by Karen Fowler was an optimum balance between fascinating exposition – about animal behavior, the ethics of scientific theory and experiments – in and out of the lab, and novelistic appeal. Rosemary, the narrator, is an interesting mix of reliable (she addresses the reader and seems to be candid) but also unreliable (memories are faulty especially when critical parts of the story take place in early childhood).

I love to be lectured to, not in the you’ve-done-something-wrong sense, but in the academic sense, where you are given information in a logical and well-thought-out way. I learned a lot about psychology, and  primate and human behavior, as well as memory.

Sometimes this was difficult to listen to – Fowler does an amazing job of showing us our ability to minimize the pain of confusion of animals. The human and animal characters in this story are not abstractions; they are unique and complicated beings, and their pain is our pain. The humans behave in ways that are understandable but not always very likeable.

It’s also a mystery. Early in the book, Rosemary says that she’s lost two siblings. Little by little, she reveals who went missing and why. Even the title is a bit of a mystery, and there’s an a-ha! moment when you realize it’s significance. There’s so much to think about, and to talk about; I’m dying to discuss!

Octavia Butler’s Kindred


I’m blown away by the sheer density and complexity of this novel for a number of reasons, but I’d have to say Butler’s technique of “layering” is so expertly done as to require multiple readings in order to unpack the story.  In other words, reading Kindred is like cutting into an onion and peeling back layer upon layer to reveal the deep meaning within. One of the more surface-level layers is simply that Butler–the first black, female author to write a science-fiction novel–has written a book about a black, female writer who is, in essence, writing, or rather, –re-writing–history and her future.

By definition, “kindred” means to be “connected” or “related to” and maybe most obviously would connote family relationships and ties. Yet, the first mentioning of the word is a departure from that obvious definition and appears early in the book on page 57 when the main protagonist, Dana, describes her white husband, Kevin: “He was like me–a kindred spirit crazy enough to keep on trying.” The statement is both double-entendre and a foreshadowing of things to come: you must be tenacious enough to pursue the life of a writer, bold enough to disrupt the status quo, and crazy enough to keep on trying.

Dana likens the job market in 1976 Los Angeles to a “slave market”, a clear juxtaposition to the literal slave market where Dana and Kevin are mysteriously transported via time-travel. Here, in the 19th century antebellum south, Dana confronts her familial past where American slavery and the promise of freedom are as inextricably linked as black & white identities.  Will Dana’s time-travels allow her to change the course of history and influence Rufus, son of a slave owner & blood-relative of her great great grandmother, whom she is called upon to save time and again? How will Rufus and Dana embody or challenge the systems of institutionalized racism they were born into? It is absolutely remarkable how Butler masterfully stacks layer upon layer to build characters as complex and enmeshed as our troubled and not-so-distant history of slavery and racism in the United States.

Thematically, Kindred is incredibly dense and complex, but I’ll focus on the theme of “performance” or “acting one’s part” that permeates the entire novel.  In several scenes, characters must “perform” their respective “roles” unless they want to suffer the consequences of falling out of line. Time-travel itself is a brilliant way to point out how racism is a construct and not the natural order.  Should we really require the passing of time in order to recognize and challenge systems of power & oppression?

When Dana brings Kevin to the plantation with her on her second journey back through time and space (she merely has to be physically holding onto him in order to transport him with her), she assumes the role of his slave as a matter of survival.  Kevin, of course reluctant to perform his assigned role as her “owner” accepts the painful challenge in order to protect his beloved wife. That Dana even needs protecting in this way brilliantly exposes and lays bare additional gender and sexuality constructs, another way Butler will craft a specific narrative in order to question it with a critical eye. But maybe one of the not-so-obvious questions is: Who, exactly, is assigning these roles, and why, and to whose benefit?  If we ourselves do not choose the role we are expected to play or act out, what are the implications when we are complicit in carrying out the performance? If refusal to play your role could get you killed (although Dana points out that “some fates are worse than death”),what is the best method for positively effecting change? Some characters in Kindred play their parts–worn down over time and physically beaten down–while others refuse to act: one standout character, Alice, asks “Am I a slave?” and ultimately attempts to break free.

Kindred is the kind of book that will stay with you, I am of sure. The complexity and depth of characters will challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone and do something that great books make you do: contemplate, sympathize, connect. I had some powerful emotional responses while reading this book which is exactly why I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in what it means to be human.