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Stranger than Fiction November 23, 2009

Posted by pupfiction in Book Reviews.
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Having written Monday’s Book review on memoirs on Saturday, imagine my surprise when I opened the New York Times Sunday Book Review to find a review of Memoir: a History by Ben Yagoda by Judith Shulevitz. While I had set out to explain why I personally found memoirs so enthralling, Shulevitz suggests that Yagoda believes they “justify a life appealingly.” In his book, Yagoda traces the history of memoirs, the ebb and flow of memoir “crazes” and the ever-present attacks on their veracity.

What stood out most to me was Shulevitz’s exploration of our love of memoirs. She asks, “Does our passion for everyone else’s most intimate experiences prove that we’re voyeurs? If so, maybe there’s something to be said for voyeurism. We are social creatures, after all, and memoirizing is a social act”–an argument that one could easily have about social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Does this perhaps mean that our rampant love of social networking is a form of memoirizing, that we in fact are the generation most intrigued by the life stories of others?

Perhaps this explains my recent discovery of the wonders of memoirs, as I am a notorious Facebook-er. Never having been a fan of non-fiction, biographies, autobiographies, etc., I was astounded to find myself tearing through The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, after my mother forced it upon me, comparing it to her own wacky and chaotic childhood. The very next week my friend pressed me into reading Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham, a woman she had met through writing workshops. A few weeks later I found myself browsing the very limited section of audiobooks at my public library and picking up a title that sounded familiar — Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.  All three works were some of the most entertaining, interesting, unbelievable page-turners that I had read in a very long time.

Quick summaries of each:

The Glass Castle: the story of an eccentric family headed by an alcoholic father and a mother who generally refuses to do anything more than work on her art. This memoir chronicles the family’s “adventures” across the nation landing them in poor, rural West Virginia where they live in a dilapidated house barely scraping by.

Sleeping Arrangements: chronicles the city life of Laura, from her wacky, sexually obsessed girlhood friends, to her life after her mother passes away, as she is raised by her two unique and very loving bachelor uncles as well as her slightly senile grandmother who shares her bedroom.

Running with Scissors: tells the story of Augusten’s childhood and teen years as he shuffles between the house of his mentally unstable mother and her girlfriends and the squalid, chaotic manor of her shrink and his sizable family. In this unstable environment, Augusten struggles to find love, attention, and stability.

What is it that makes these memoirs so entertaining?

While Yagoda argues (as stated above) that memoirs “justify a life appealingly,” and Shulevitz believes they are voyeuristic, I believe that readers find comfort in comparing their own upbringing to that of the memoirist; often finding that their family members weren’t, in fact, “weird” (or at least not comparatively). But in my experience, it’s just the opposite. My family was so normal, and my upbringing was so standard that I find these memoirs nearly incredible (and sometimes even envy-inducing). My parents never gave us celestial bodies for Christmas. My parents never let me paint the house in pink and orange stripes. My parents never let me skip school for weeks on end. BUT, my parents also never let me go without food for days, choosing “scientific” pursuits over a paying job.  I also never had to know the pain of losing my mother at a young age, or never knowing my father. And I, thank God, never had to examine my mother’s psychiatrist’s feces for answers to the future.

Whether you find your life similar to the lives of Walls, Cunningham and Burroughs or categorically different, all autobiographical works have the same undercurrent: the struggle to understand ourselves and our lives, and to find our place in the world. We face the same struggles regardless of circumstance. It doesn’t matter if your upbringing was crazy-chaotic-psychotic, or boring, blessed, and privileged. In the end, we are all human.

Do My Eyes Deceive Me? November 21, 2009

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.
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You know that old rule that things happen in threes? Fact or fiction (or hindsight bias)? It seems to me that once the press notices interest in a certain topic or a certain occurrence they learn to focus on that particular issue, making us, the unsuspecting public, draw some weird inferences. David McCandless, the creator of InformationisBeautiful.net and author of Visual Miscellaneum, proves just that by this interesting chart comparing 2008’s drug poisoning deaths in the United Kingdom to popular press coverage. Take some time with this one.

What’s most interesting to me is the three drugs that gained over 100% of popular press coverage: ecstasy, cannabis, and aspirin. The reporting of aspirin deaths can probably be explained by the media’s well-known love of sensationalism, aspirin being as common and trusted as sliced bread in most households. But if ecstasy and cannabis, why not heroin and morphine? Why did the press inflate cannabis deaths by 484% when only 9% of  heroin and morphine deaths were reported (and only 2% of alcohol deaths??) ? This issue is compounded by the fact there were only 19 (“highly questionable”) deaths from cannabis and an astounding 897 deaths from heroin and morphine. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Make sure to read the article on the graph here.

Lists to Be Thankful For November 20, 2009

Posted by dataduchess in Uncategorized.
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Recently we posted about why people make lists. Since then, lists seem to be popping up everywhere. And now, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner, people are making lists of things for which they are thankful.

I, personally, am thankful for the lists. Here are a couple I came across this morning, that I thought were worth sharing.

Television Without Pity’s 10 TV things We’re Thankful For This Year

Wired’s GeekDad Blog’s 10 Geeky Things to Be Thankful For

I expect there will be more as we get closer to Thanksgiving, and Year-End Reviews, so check back for more in the weeks to come. If you have a list you’d like to see us highlight, let us know in the comments!

Photo by Steve Voght; used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Niche Blog Friday: Robot Apocalypse November 20, 2009

Posted by infomavensdesktop in Niche Blogs.
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Forget the spelling errors; forget the colloquial tone; forget the sporadic posting; but most of all forget (or embrace) the paranoid-touching-on-schizophrenic rantings and you will enjoy this blog. Not surprisingly, many of the posts link to the ever sensationalist (and thus engaging) New Scientist. The authors also tend to gloss over the details of the articles they find (i.e. suggesting invisibility is possible when the article clearly states it is only possible in “infrared light”). The blog is run by three people of which little is known except that one of them loves bacon and will not date you.

Whatever; it’s Friday; enjoy! Robot Apocalypse

Palin’s a Gossip Girl November 19, 2009

Posted by pupfiction in Amazing.
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This hilarious and uncanny article by Vanity Fair takes Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl books and compares them to ex-vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s new autobiography, Going Rogue. One particularly striking (and nauseating) similarity:

That day in sunny Texas when the divorce rumors were rampant in the tabloids, I watched Todd, tanned and shirtless, take the baby from my arms and walk him back to the ranch house so Trig could nap while I made calls. Seeing Todd’s blue eyes smiling, I chuckled.

Dang, I thought. Divorce Todd? Have you seen Todd?

(Going Rogue: An American Life)

Blair yanked open the sliding door into the suite just as someone else was stepping out onto the terrace. She caught her breath. Broad shoulders. Tanned skin. Light brown hair streaked blond from the sun. Hollowed-out cheekbones and a scruffy beard. Glittering green eyes that were staring right at her. Adorable smile.

(Gossip Girl: I Will Always Love You)
Be sure to check out the rest of the article!!

What the National Book Awards tell us about the publishing industry November 19, 2009

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I can’t say the winners of the National Book Awards even made it to my TBR. Perhaps this is because, as the Times states,

This year’s nominees had some in the publishing industry wondering about the relevance of the National Book Awards, in part because most of the titles had sold so little and few people had heard of them. The biggest selling finalist was Mr. McCann, with “Let the Great World Spin” selling 19,000 copies in hardcover, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales.

19,000 copies sure pales in comparison to Twilight’s 85 million copies sold worldwide (even quartered for the sake of considering only hardcover this still far surpasses Let the Great World Spin), or Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which sold over one million copies (presumably hardcover) in the first day. What does this mean? Has the National Book Award become arcane and meaningless; is it an award solely for erudite academicians?

This train of thought led me to research the criteria for the National Book Award and here is what I found on their website: “Juries develop their own criteria for awarding the National Book Award and discussions are held independent of the Foundation.” Granted, the panel is composed of authors of that genre but the selection of the judges itself sounds political and elitist as well: “Judges are nominated by past National Book Award Winners, Finalists, and Judges and then selected and recruited by the Foundation’s Executive Director in consultation with the Board of Directors.” Should the finalists really be choosing the judges?

Obscure choices aside, talk at the National Book Awards was reported by a few sources to revolve around the kindle and the growing popularity of ebooks, in defamatory tones. Looks like the writers finally understand what the musicians have gone through for a while. And like the musicians, the writers need to understand, like Cory Doctorow does (and like all librarians do), the need to evolve in order to stay relevant.

On a side note and to follow-up on our previous post about the public voting on the “Best of National Book Awards Fiction”: (another lackluster choice, in my opinion), the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog reports,

Flannery O’Connor won the “Best of the National Book Awards” prize. Ten thousand people voted on the National Book Foundation’s Web site to nominate the best award-winning work of fiction in the last 60 years. The six finalists were Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” “Collected Stories of William Faulkner,” “The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty” and “Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories.


For the love of libraries November 18, 2009

Posted by pupfiction in Amazing, Beauty.
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I think most young bibliophiles would agree with me in saying that seeing the library in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was a major influence in their life (or at least their daydreams). And when I stumbled on this compendium of the worlds most beautiful libraries  by the “Curious Expeditions” blog I could not help but be entranced. It is truly astounding and breathtaking. (NB: I can tell you from personal experience that the picture of Vassar Library in Poughkeepsie, New York does not do it justice. I felt like I was in Hogwarts when I visited.) Enjoy!


Speaking of AI, Meet Cleverbot November 18, 2009

Posted by dataduchess in Uncategorized.
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Cleverbot is a chatbot program, that simulates a conversation between a user and the computer. Remember the unsophisticated ELIZA, who roboticly parroted back your own thoughts? Well, Cleverbot has been designed using an algorithm based on the thoughts of thousands of users, to respond in a more “human” way.

This article begins a fascinating philosophical discussion about the artificially intelligent being, by explaining the thought experiment known as the “Chinese Room“and the difference between understanding and simulated understanding.

I played with the program for a little while earlier today, and was somewhat impressed at its ability to respond, however it could only handle one thought at a time. There was no cohesion from one thought to the next. For example, I had the following conversation:
Me: have we talked yet?
Bot: We have, have we?
Me: I think we have
Bot: You think we have what?

Check it out – it’s kind of fun. But watch out, don’t let this happen to you:

(source: xkcd.com)

(via Nerdabout)

AI was just the beginning November 18, 2009

Posted by pupfiction in Amazing.
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To prepare you for Friday’s niche blog post I’ve found this video on TED.com that shows David Hanson’s newest robot prototype–one that can read and mimic facial expressions, or as he states it, a robot that can “empathize with you.” Videos of some of David’s other robots (he has made 20 in the last eight years) are astounding and quite spooky. It would also seem, from this presentation, that you can find much more of his work on YouTube. He ends the video with the prototype of a toy-robot designed as a “childhood companion for kids” and priced at $299. Whatever happened to the kid next door?

100 Best Books of the Decade November 18, 2009

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.

Times Online, the internet component of Britain’s The Times has published a list of the 100 Best Books of the Decade, and call me Umberto Eco, but I cannot resist these lists! Despite the fact that I heartily disagree with most of the picks (or the number they were given) I still had to compare my own stats, and got fifteen. How did you do?