Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Born on a Blue Day (Review)

I was going to use The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the color part of Annie’s What’s In a Name Challenge, but I found it a struggle to read best described by my image of the author as the slightly drunk academic monopolizing the cocktail party conversation with his obviously superior intellect and opinions. When I saw Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Asperger’s and an Extraordinary Mind by Daniel Tammet on the bargain table at Barnes and Noble, I knew I could put The Black Swan out of my misery at least for now. I had absolutely no problem making my way through this book.

Daniel Tammet has an autism spectrum condition as well as synaesthesia, the visual and emotional experience of numbers. The two combine into what Daniel calls savant syndrome, made well known by the 1988 Dustin Hoffman movie, Rain Man. Because of his synaesthetic experiences, Daniel can retain and calculate huge numbers in his head without conscious effort. He holds the British and European records for reciting Pi from memory, reciting 22, 514 digits correctly in five hours and nine minutes. He can do extremely complicated arithmetic calculations such as squaring six-digit numbers in his head. The synaesthesia also gives him an incredible facility with languages; he learned enough Icelandic in one week to conduct a live interview on Icelandic television. To put this accomplishment in context, Icelandic is considered one of the most complex and most difficult to learn languages. For example, there are at least 12 different words for each of the numbers from one to four, depending on the sentence’s context.

Daniel demonstrated some of the classic signs of an autism spectrum condition such as an obsessive need for order very early in life. At the same time, there was no significant delay in his language development, one of the criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. At the age of four, he suffered several seizures and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, though he has been seizure-free for over 20 years. Even as a child, Daniel was well aware of how different he was from other children, as described in the following passage:

I remember standing alone under the shade of the trees that dotted the perimeter of the school playground, watching the other children running and shouting and playing from the sidelines. I am ten and know that I am different to them in a way that I cannot express or comprehend. The children are noisy and move quickly, bumping and pushing into one another. I’m constantly afraid of being hit by one of the balls that are frequently thrown or kicked through the air, which is one of the reasons why I prefer to stand on the edges of the playground far away from my schoolmates. I do this every playtime without fail, so that it soon becomes a running joke and it is perceived as common knowledge that Daniel talks to the trees and that he is weird.

At the same time, though, Daniel ended up having several close friendships, typically with other kids who were also “different” in some way. At the age of eleven, he realized that he was attracted to other boys, although it was several years before he considered himself “gay.”

After graduation from high school, Daniel applied to work with Voluntary Services Overseas, an international development charity and spent a year teaching English in Lithuania. When he returned to England, he got a computer as part of an “end of service” grant to write about his experiences. I loved Daniel’s description of what a computer can mean to someone with an autism spectrum condition:

There is something exciting and reassuring for individuals on the autistic spectrum about communicating with other people over the Internet. For one thing, talking in chat rooms or by email does not require you to know how to initiate a conversation or when to smile or the numerous intricacies of body language, as in other social situations. There is no ey contact and it is possible to understand the other person’s every word because everything is writted down. The use of ‘emoticons’, such as (smiley face) and (frowny face), in chat room conversations also makes it easier to know how the other person is feeling, because he or she tells you in a simple, visual method.

In fact, Daniel met his partner, Neil, online, moving in with him six months after they met. After applying for and not getting numerous library jobs (Daniel describes how difficult the nuances of a job interview can be for someone with an autism spectrum condition), Daniel eventually set up Optimnem, an educational website with online courses for language learners. Neil handles the technical details, while Daniel develops the content.

Daniel memorized the digits of pi as a fundraiser for the National Society for Epiloepsy, a charity in the United Kingdom. The publicity surrounding the event led to Daniel’s appearance in the documentary Brainman, shown in the U.S. on the Science Channel. Part of Brainman showed Daniel working with researchers interested in his savant syndrome; he has continued this work in the time since Brainman was finished. Daniel hopes that such research will advance understanding of the many facets of autism spectrum condition and, more broadly, “encouraging a wider appreciation of different ways of learning.”

Quality Rating: 10 out of 10. Very easy to read but with lots of food for thought. I applaud Daniel for offering such an intimate look at his life.

Audience Rating: Not everyone would be interested in this book. Obviously, someone with personal experience with an autism spectrum condition would want to read it, as would someone with a background or interest in cognitive psychology or gifted education. And anyone who has ever even half seriously wondered how the brain works would find lots here to think about.

Transformers—The 2007 Movie (Review)

There was debate at my house as to whether this counted as “science fiction.” The two resident young males argued that it didn't, but since the Internet Movie Database lists Sci-Fi in the list of genre, I’m counting Transformers for the 42 Challenge. The 42 Challenge is to read, watch, or listen to, and then review 42 science-fiction-related items in the 42 weeks and 42 days between the official start date of January 1, 2009, and the official end date of December 3, 2009. However, since Becky, the challenge’s host, has graciously invited unofficial starts at any time after joining the challenge, I’m starting now.

We got Transformers via Netflix, and the familial reaction to it was perhaps best summed up by my husband’s comment early the next morning as he left the house to get the newspapers from the road. “I’ll put this in the mailbox myself to make darn sure it leaves the house.” Yeah, it was that bad, but then the standards for science and science fiction are pretty high when dad is a nuclear physicist, elder son is finishing his master’s in atomic physics, and younger son is whizzing through an undergraduate math major. I’m not exactly ignorant myself when it comes to science, and can only say that my memories of the animated Transformers movie are more positive than what I thought of this live-action take on the same world.

Just as in the animated Transformers world, the live-action world hinged on the good-guy Autobots versus the bad-guy Decepticons. Key to the story is an astral cube that had been frozen in the Arctic along with, as it turns out, head Decepticon Megatron. An explorer stumbled on them, and ended up with important information imprinted on the eyeglasses he was wearing. Fast forward decades later, and one of the explorer’s descendants (played by Shia LaBeouf) is trying to sell the glasses on eBay to raise money for a car. As a result, he is being sought by both the Autobots, which find him first, and the Decepticons. The rest of the movie is best summarized with one of the lines my kids often use in telling a story: “And hilarity ensues.”

So as not to trash the movie totally, I will say that it includes a spurt of dialog that we all thought was pretty priceless. Agents of the super-secret government unit Sector 7 knock on the door of the Shia LeBeouf character’s house. Flashing a badge, the head agent identifies himself as being with Sector 7. “Never heard of it,” comments Shia LeBeouf’s father. “Never will,” responds the agent, totally deadpan.

In short, if you’re looking for serious science or science fiction, look elsewhere. If, however, you’re willing to be entertained by how low a movie can stoop or want to compare this to other D (for dreadful) movies, then this might be the way to go.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Time Bandit (Review)

This book’s full title is Time Bandit: Two Brothers, the Bering Sea, and One of the World’s Deadliest Jobs. If you’ve seen “The Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel, you’ll appreciate this book a bit—no, a lot—more. I know I appreciated it more having just watched several hours of Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch Mother’s Day Marathon.” (I kid you not; it reminded me of 1990, when the BBC showed “The Bridge on the River Kwai” on Mothering Sunday and received a very large number of complaints.)

In other words, someone not familiar with “Deadliest Catch” will lack the background needed for much of this book. And even having that background, I found the structure of the book cumbersome. Some chapters are written from the perspective of brother Johnathan Hillstrand, from the point of view of his drifting in a disabled fishing boat. Others are written from the perspective of brother Andy Hillstrand as he awaits word of Johnathan’s fate. As one brother or the other moved away from the story of Johnathan’s being adrift to reflect on his own past or on the broader picture of the fishing life, I sometimes lost track of which brother was telling his story. More than once I had to backtrack to the beginning of a chapter to remind myself which brother was telling his story.

And Time Bandit offers much more a memoir of the brothers’ lives than an in-depth look at the fishing industry and its perils and thrills. Such works as Linda Greenlaw’s The Hungy Ocean and the Sebastian Junger’s classic, The Perfect Storm, better describe fishing as a profession rather than a recreation. I can honestly say that the parts of Time Bandit I found most entertaining were the stories of two brothers growing up and trying to out-do each other in more and more creative ways—stories only the mother of two sons could love and truly appreciate. I now know how much harder I could have had it ... or still might have it since at least one of my sons has read this book as well.

Derailing one Train of Thought for Another

I saw this meme on Songmom's blog and decided that it offered a nice break from some work I've been doing to get ready for a noon phone call. I'm not going to tag anyone else to follow me, but if it sounds interesting, feel free to play along.

What were you doing 10 years ago?
In the spring of 2008, elder son was in 5th grade and younger son was in 2nd. I was in my first year of the same hourly work I do now as well as volunteering at the elementary school (I'd have a link to their website, but it doesn't appear to be up right now).

Name five things on today's "to do" list.
Removing the list from the front right pocket of today's jeans, I see such tasks as phone call with Ralph at noon, review Time Bandit for Library Thing and this blog, continue assembling Lauren's amigurumi corgi, pick up Aillinn at 6:00 for kendo at 7:00, and e-mail Andrea about helping her pack this weekend.

If I were a billionaire ...
I would love to be more philanthropic than I can afford to be now.

Name three bad habits you have.
How about picking my toenails, finishing my husband's sentences (he calls it interrupting), and saying "yes" to volunteer work when I should say "no."

List five places you've lived.
Great Falls, Montana (born there)
Morehead, Kentucky
Nashville, Tennessee
Soest, The Netherlands
Charlottesville, Virginia

Name five jobs you've held.
Intramural sports official (as an undergrad)
Statistical consultant (as a grad student)
Computer programmer (first job after grad school)
University planning associate
Freelance writer and editor

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Birthday Presence

The father of a friend and fellow member of an online circle of friends died earlier this year after a protracted illness. In the discussion that followed, several women noted, “you never stop being Daddy’s little girl.” As in the case of it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than it is for a boy to be a sissy, a woman can remain Daddy’s little girl much longer and more easily than a man can be or stay a Mama’s boy. I’ve sometimes thought it would have been nice to have had a daughter and seen what kind of relationship she might have had with her father, the man I married and still love. Instead, I can only say, most assuredly, that the two male offspring in my household are not Mama’s boys.

My dad has self-published several memoir-type volumes in retirement, a fact for which I am exceedingly grateful. They have given me a glimpse into how he became the man I grew up knowing and who has influenced me in so many ways. When, in graduate school, I politely asked the policeman who pulled me over but would not give me a ticket but only a verbal warning (he claimed I had been drinking while driving—I had been, but it was a diet 7-up, not the beer he said it was), what the procedure was for filing a complaint against him, I was only channeling the nerve of a man who bluffed his way onto a tarmac as members of the British royal family were boarding their plane. To those among my friends who have said I’m not a safe person to hang out with after hearing what I said to that policeman, I can only say that if you heard some of the other things my dad has done you’d know what an amateur I am compared to him.

Because my parents separated and then divorced when I was in elementary school, in the mid-1960s before divorce became something of a way of life, most of my childhood memories of my father are from when I was very young. I remember the time I didn’t want to go get the much-touted polio vaccine on a Saturday morning because I was watching some television show. Dad spanked me royally as I recall (this was the early 1960s, when spanking wasn’t the big deal it is now) and then, in what hurt more than the spanking, made me sit down and watch the rest of the show before we went, while he, my mother, and my brother waited for me. I remember that my watching and their waiting hurt more than the spanking, which was probably the point.

At that stage in his life, Dad was a biologist and biology teacher, which probably accounted for my correcting one of my own teachers—Mrs. Sorenson in first grade, I think—who said that butterflies came out of cocoons spun by caterpillars. Not so, said the smart aleck girl totally bored with first grade, a moth comes out of a cocoon, while a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis. Dad’s science background also probably accounted for the fact that when our Great Falls, Montana neighborhood flooded in June, 1964—with the waters of the Sun River coming down the street from one direction, while the waters of the Missouri River came down the street from the other direction—my brother and I got to sit on our dry front step and watch all the other kids (and some adults) in the neighborhood swim and play, even walk on stilts, in the water. We hated it, but we somehow didn’t mind, later, when we were the only neighborhood kids not to have to get typhoid fever shots because of what they might have caught by playing in the water.

The September before that, Dad’s being a teacher at Great Falls High School allowed us access to the school’s roof as President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in the football stadium below. Dad set up a telescope, and we took turns looking through it to see President Kennedy more up close and personal. I vaguely recall a policeman or perhaps a secret service agent coming out onto the roof to check on what might have looked from the ground like a rifle peeking out over the rooftop. Remember that this was less than two months before Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I doubt we would have been allowed such “higher” proximity to a presidential talk after that. I think I heard once that Kennedy’s visit to Great Falls was his last trip outside of Washington, D.C. before his fateful visit to Dallas, but given the travel schedule of presidents today, I find that somewhat hard to believe. Maybe times really were different then.

As would any former child, I remember childhood Christmases, or at least the annual hunts for the perfect Christmas tree. We would drive, usually in the family station wagon (in which my brother and I never wore seat belts and often passed the time seeing who could keep their balance the longest, crouching in the back compartment as Dad intentionally swerved down the road), out into the mountains in search of a tree. We would walk what seemed like miles (my legs were shorter then) through the woods, considering this tree and that one. When we finally found just the right one, Dad would get out his camera and use the timer to get a family picture of the four of us with that year’s tree. I have a couple of these photos in an album Dad made for me; they help the memory stay alive.

And the Christmas I was in kindergarten, all I wanted was a big teddy bear. I must have asked for that bear all fall long, because I remember Dad’s coming home from work many times with stories of how he saw a bear downtown that day, but it got into a taxicab and got away before he could catch it for me. Joe, the bear who was waiting for me under the tree on Christmas morning, lives with me to this day. When he no longer needed to comfort me regularly, he moved on to being the stuffed animal of choice when one of my sons was sick, staying on their bed for as long as they needed him. I have every intention of passing from this world before Joe does, or at least taking him with me when I go. In a punch line to the story of how Joe joined the family, I should note that I proudly took Joe to school with me, for show-and-tell, the first day back after vacation. Darned if another girl in the class hadn’t gotten a bigger teddy bear! It didn’t matter, though; I loved Joe none the less for it.

The “view my complete profile” tab at the right includes a random question generated by Blogger. I change it—question and answer—every now and then for no good reason other than to entertain the couple of people who might look there. For a while the question was something along the lines of “You’re on the ferris wheel. Will your father take a bite of your cotton candy while you’re gone?” My very truthful answer was that my father wouldn’t be standing on the ground holding my cotton candy—he would be on the ferris wheel with me. That’s because the childhood memory I cherish most strongly is that of riding the ferris wheel beside my father. To this day, I am a bit more than moderately afraid of heights and am terrified of ferris wheels or any other amusement park ride that involves heights (not to mention speed—roller coasters are most definitely not my friend). While I did ride a very, very small ferris wheel with my sons during a summer spent in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I find the thought of riding a “real” ferris wheel or, even worse, a double ferris wheel, paralyzingly frightening. But I rode them as a child, because with her father beside her, Daddy’s little girl wasn’t all that afraid. I distinctly remember sitting in a ferris wheel car, descending along the front of the wheel, legs dangling, feeling happy … and safe.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I figured you didn’t need any more “stuff” but might like a gift you could keep with you always.

Your Little Girl
(still and always)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Food for Thought from a Campaign Trail

I went to a political rally this week, something I honestly can’t remember doing since, maybe, high school, embarrassing though that statement may be. Probably because I have made several financial donations to the Democratic Party or to Democratic candidates (John Edwards and Hillary Clinton this time around), I last week got a recorded phone invitation to Mark Warner’s appearance in Charlottesville on his tour to kick off his campaign for the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs due to the retirement of Senator John Warner. (In an interesting note, Mark Warner ran against John Warner in the 1996 Senate race, giving rise to the classic “Mark Not John” and “John Not Mark” bumper stickers.) For no good reason other than it seemed like the right thing to do, I decided to go.

It was an interesting, racially diverse crowd. The media put the size at around 300 people (they didn't mention the cute dog). I tried to get a photo of the African-American man wearing a large sign on his chest proclaiming the number of dead in Iraq (4,017 and counting), but couldn't get a good one that really showed the sign. Probably because it was 2:15 on a Tuesday afternoon, during finals week at the University of Virginia and the first week of AP exams at the local high schools, there were very few young people. Other than my older son, the only other student-appearing people I saw were the volunteers handing out literature, bumber stickers, etc. The crowd all looked to be my age or older—lots of retired people, again probably as a function of when the rally was held.

There was a parade of speakers before Warner took the stage; actually, the parade of speakers started before Warner even arrived at the rally. Perhaps the powers that be sensed the crowd was getting restless. It was interesting but otherwise unimportant that three of the five speakers were Davids. David Brown, former mayor of Charlottesville, acted as emcee introducing the other speakers, which included Dave Norris, the current mayor of Charlottesville, and David Toscano, another former mayor and the current Delegate representing Charlottesville in the Virginia General Assembly.

Warner was actually introduced by a Republican, local businessman Bill Crutchfield. In his remarks, Crutchfield noted that he had only supported two Democrats in his life: Don Beyer in 1997 and Mark Warner this year. My immediate (and continuing) thought was to wonder whether Crutchfield was supporting Beyer and Warner entirely on their own merits, since the Republican opponent in each case was/is Jim Gilmore who, in my humble opinion, was one of the worst governors Virginia has had since I moved here in 1969. Gilmore's following through on a campaign pledge to end or reduce the personal property tax on automobiles plunged the state into a revenue abyss from which Warner had to extricate us when he became the next governor. (Virginia has a built-in term limit on the governorship, not allowing two successive terms.)

Warner spoke quite comfortably without notes, though I imagine he had been using much the same script at each stop on his tour. As might be expected, he concentrated on his accomplishments as governor with an emphasis on the usual areas: the economy, energy, education, health care, etc. He got a large round of applause when he promised to place a priority on repairing or replacing the country's crumbling infrastructure. He repeatedly pledged to continue to try to work across party lines as he had as governor. He suggested that if elected he would try to find another four or five moderate Democratic Senators and an equal number of like-minded Republican Senators to form a group of "radical centrists" to work together to get needed legislation passed. Subvert from within? I like that!

It was most interesting seeing a candidate and hearing him speak on such intimate terms, just a few feet away rather than on TV or in a larger, impersonal setting. Candidates have always seemed more like celebrities than real people I might work with or go for coffee with. Perhaps because of the distance imparted by media coverage, they never really seem real. They seem surreal, someone (something?) created by the coverage they’re getting. Being able to shake hands with and wish good luck to Warner as he came down to mingle with the crowd after the rally had more significance than I expected it to. Just as working as an election official has helped me see the electoral process differently, going to a rally, especially a small, more personal one, is prompting me to think about political campaigns and candidates in a new light. I may not be the only one either, since my older son came home from the rally and registered on the Warner campaign's website offering to assist with issues research.

And if it wasn't already obvious, I shall eagerly cast my vote for Mark Warner for U.S. Senate in November, though once I hit the "Cast Vote" button and step back outside the voting booth, I will work to ensure that even those citizens who want to vote for his opponent have the opportunity to do so. Democracy ... it's a good thing! And, as I'm discovering, a personal one as well.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Stepping Back and Looking Forward

My post before last was the movie meme in which I provided Internet Movie Database keywords to ten movies and asked folks to try to guess them. I know of five people who played, and two of them managed to guess half the movies. Of course, one of the people who played was my sweet younger son who knows the contents of our movie collection as well as which ones I watch for a second or higher time. For the five people who did take the time to try the quiz, here are the correct answers:

(1) love, flatulence, slacker, beheading: Shaun of the Dead, a zombie movie that I had to be persuaded to watch and which was the zombie movie to hook me on zombie movies. Yeah, that's sad, isn't it?

(2) barefoot, resort, gossip, sister: Dirty Dancing, a movie I pull out when all the men are away (which is very rare). As a teenager, I was something of the "Baby" character, needing (wanting?) someone to pull me out of the corner and help me shine.

(3) stabbing, guerilla, disturbing, shower: V for Vendetta, a movie I wasn't sure I would like but that I loved. Hugo Weaving was astounding, playing the entire movie behind a mask.

(4) general, betrayal, motorcycle, strangulation: The Rock, one of my favorite Sean Connery movies and also one of my favorite Nicolas Cage movies. "Uh, sir, he's got both the guns now" cracks me up every time.

(6) licking, dancing, bestiality, bondage: Return of the Jedi, probably my favorite of the Star Wars movies. I made this one a bit difficult in that all the keywords relate to one scene. I wonder how many out there thought this was a porn reference!

Finally, I've been going back and forth about whether to post about the crafty activity that's kept me quite busy over the last few weeks. I had a friend commission some more of an item I gave her as a birthday gift several years ago. She said she'd gotten so many compliments on it over the years that she wanted ten more to give as gifts. Overachiever that I am, I made her ten and an extra twenty to give to people myself. Only problem is that some of those people do check in here from time to time, so if I post the details, I'll ruin their surprise. I'm still pondering, so you'll have to check back to see what I decide.