at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: cross-reading

Cross-Reading: China Rich Girlfriend and Primates of Park Avenue

A novel on the upper-crust and more-than-Crazy-Rich Asians and an “ethnography” of the high-net-worth women of New York’s Upper East Side…?

I had already drawn lessons from the former, and the two books are almost too similar to qualify as cross-reading. In fact, Amazon shows those books as “frequently bought together”…

Cross-Reading 3: Kwan and Martin

The parallels, however, are too great to resist them (much as cross-reading is all the more interesting when the lessons are more hidden).

China Rich Girlfriend

On the one hand, there is the story that does not purport to be anything more than a novel, if one that is inspired by real shenanigans of a certain social class.

China Rich Girlfriend follows up on Crazy Rich Asians and presents something of an insight into the lives of a social upper crust that has come under an extremely odd kind of pressure:

They used to be the new nobility, people who had a high social standing thanks to their family history as well as due to riches inherited and expanded. Thus, certain behaviors were passed on from generation to generation – and outsiders, especially from a different ethnic, cultural, and social background, not from a similarly “good” family, would be seen askance.

That was the main driver of Crazy Rich Asians.

Now, however, as one started to see there, but becomes something of a focus in China Rich Girlfriend, not only have more liberal lifestyles hit their traditions, but also is there yet another group of rich: “China Rich” who have made it big in (mainland) China’s turn towards capitalism and whose fortunes surpass those of many a traditionally ‘top’ family – but whose social background is far, if not as far as possible, as one could be from the top social strata (at least, as traditions of overseas Chinese rich would define them).

Primates of Park Avenue

On the other hand, there is the work that plays at being life writing in the spirit of the “literary turn” in cultural anthropology.

That is, what is ostensibly an ethnography became less about the “objects” of the ethnographer’s study than about the ethnographer and his or her life.

And so, Wednesday Martin is in a similar position, socially, to the new China Rich. Not that she were super-rich, as she is keen to remind the reader (she only has a closet for her handbags, not a dedicated room…), but she and especially her husband aren’t doing badly, either.

In fact, they were doing well enough to have moved into the Upper East Side of New York – and like the China Rich who suddenly enter the stage of the world, and especially the Asian, rich and upper-crust, so she enters the difficult circumstances of a new troop (troupe, one may think) of primates.

For the new, and especially female, wannabe of such a grouping, things are difficult.

Social ostracism of the established females is likely; different rules apply but have to be discovered before one can ever fit in – and does one even, really, want to fit in?

Martin gleefully and thoughtfully, if with a dose of a sometimes aggravating ‘aware ignorance’ about her standing and privilege, aims to dissect these social patterns.

There is something to her writing where the comparisons with ethnographic and anthropological research she draws feel as much justified in their parallels between hunter-gatherer tribes, non-human primate troops, and the women she came to be with, as it feels like posturing by which she tries to show off her high education.

Her observations in the whole book work considerably better, and the whole tenor of the book seems more thoughtful, than the article for the New York Times that was published about it had made it seem.

Human, After All

This works all the better as the book has an arc, not just towards the adaptation to and acceptance of the new social group, but also to a climax in her life history and the insight into social life gained from the, well, normal tragedy, that makes it ultimately easier to connect with her.

Still, whether one learns from or just gets annoyed by themes like the chapter-long discussion of the symbolic (and thereby, quite practical) value of a Birkin bag will very much depend on the reader* – but then, that is just another parallel between the novel China Rich Girlfriend with its high-net-worth but not always highly functional people, who can similarly amuse or aggravate, as you read them.

(*Having been writing about the “enclothed life,” i.e. what clothing means, between the social statement of fashion and the performance value that – also – makes something good gear for a man, I found it fascinating to learn more about the social and marketing mechanisms surrounding the Birkin bags. Having someone “need” such a bag while struggling just to make ends meet oneself is still aggravating…)

Amuse Bouche, uh, Brain

I highly recommend reading both books (and starting with Crazy Rich Asians, if you haven’t done that already, before getting to China Rich Girlfriend and Primates of Park Avenue).

They are amusing, and where Kevin Kwan’s novels may make you wonder if the old or new rich could really possibly be like that, Martin’s “ethnography” lets you see, and understand, quite a bit more of where such behaviors come from, be that among Asian rich or those of Park Avenue.

By the time you get to the shunning of the newly rich woman in Manhattan who had the gall to interrupt the award ceremony for a noted philanthropist with her own, higher, donation, you will know exactly why the two (or three) books make for such an interesting read-along: The same scene happens in China Rich Girlfriend.

There, it’s something for the laugh about the craziness of it all; in Park Avenue, strange as the combination of observation and anthropological-study background can read (though it should fit), the reader not only enjoys the craziness but also learns a bit more of the social/psychological background at work.

Un-modern as armchair anthropology has become, you probably won’t get a more entertaining chance for people-watching among the rich… and in the end, if you look at these works closely enough, you may be shocked to find that Kevin Kwan’s works, obviously novels though they may be, actually say rather more about the newest of new rich. And old rich, as well.

Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking

Cross-Readings 2: Alexandra Horowitz “On Looking”

Technically, this was not quite as cross a reading as #1, but after “Mastermind” calling on its readers to learn to really observe, á Sherlock Holmes, Alexandra Horowitz’ “On Looking. Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” / “On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation” provides the perfect counterpoint and follow-up.

Alexandra Horowitz, On LookingWhere “Mastermind” is a call to arms for better looking – or rather, as the focus there goes, better thinking that sees more of what it sees by jumping to conclusions less – “On Looking” is more focused on how often we do not actually see.

On-Looking-2We run on one or the other version of a personal autopilot when we are in familiar circumstances. And even when we open our eyes and minds to one new thing, we may be ignorant of others.
“On the phone, worrying over dinner, listening to others or to the to-do lists replaying in our own heads, we miss the world making itself available to be observed. And we miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight right in front of us.”

But, we do this because we, at times, need to: “[W]e summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars and start taking in scenes at a glance–all in an effort to not be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day.”

[Funnily, and illustrating perfectly why I love to cross-read books, one of the basic conceits in Douglas Preston’s novel “The Kraken Project” is that an AI may need to be able to similarly apprise a scene at a glance, so to speak, in order to function in a novel environment…]

Even when we are in a new environment and excited about all that is to be discovered, we will overlook those things we haven’t learned to see.

That is exactly the second point we learn, and see illustrated through Horowitz’ learning to see with and as others who are experts in certain knowledge – and with that, in seeing certain things.

They may suffer “déformation professionnelle: the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of one’s profession” all the same, but that also means that they see certain things, because they attend to them, which a non-expert wouldn’t see. And Horowitz picked some fascinating experts, from her little boy to a geologist, from an expert in fonts and typefaces to her dog…

On her walk with the geologist, I found her going straight to a discussion that perfectly links up with the ideas discussed before, on learning and seeing, and whether IT makes us smarter or dumber. The verdict on the latter has to remain unpronounced, especially in such a uselessly general phrasing.
For each and every one of us as an individual and learner, though, it is clear that “[e]xpertise leads to the ability to acquire more expertise.”

Once we have learned a little about something, it is easier for us to learn more about it. The more we learn about more things, the easier it becomes to learn still more. The more specialized our knowledge, the deeper we can plunge into it with greater ease.
IT can make it easier to jump into learning, repeat things we want to remember, and even ask others for some help. It can help get details right rather than have to remember them all, too.


After the mineralogy course, even on the Via Natura ultramarathon, I found myself observing what made the path up one mountain glitter so much…

The idea that we can just quickly look up whatever we want whenever we need it, and therefore don’t really need to remember anything, let alone go through the struggle of developing an expertise in any field of knowledge, however, is a major obstacle we’d better get over quickly, not a deep advantage.
Before you learn at least a little about something, you will not even notice that you don’t know anything about it; you will not even see it.
(A mineralogy course had just given me that insight a little while ago. It is considered one of the most useless and boring of courses, but if you delve into it, you can notice that its subject matter is always all around you, and you come up with ever more questions about it.)

“Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation.” If you do not expect to see something – or, not having learned anything about it, don’t even know that there would be anything to expect to see – you will most likely not see it. Your eyes may already filter it out as irrelevant or non-existent, even before the brain may get a chance to register that maybe there was something there.
(The opposite of that may well be the feeling of truth talked about recently…)

A very pretty example of how learning and expertise go – and grow – together came in the context of a medical-diagnostic look, which is just the sort of thing we have heard from Sherlock Holmes: seeing a person and telling something about their condition.
(In fact, as Horowitz describes, it was an actual doctor and professor of Arthur Conan Doyle’s who inspired the author, thanks to his ability to make diagnoses and other deductions based on the way a patient moved.)

Movement expertise, even if of somewhat different kinds, is shared by ballerinas and capoeiristas. And according to neuroimaging, they have the greatest activity of mirror neurons (which provide empathy) when they watch their own kind of movement. However, their neurons still exhibit greater activity when they watch each other’s kind of movement than those of non-dancers or non-capoeiristas show.

Ballet and Capoeira - as per a Saatchi&Saatchi ad campaign for Voltaren for the Netherlands

Ballet and Capoeira – as per a Saatchi&Saatchi ad campaign for Voltaren for the Netherlands. Not that I love to share advertising, but then again, it’s strangely fitting considering how easily we can observe and deduce what ails someone…

So, you are better at recognizing and empathetically ‘thinking’ something you have an expertise in, “but it builds on something we all share: a propensity to feel others’ movements in our own bodies.”

Thanks to this, we can feel and (with some knowledge behind it) recognize what may be ailing others, and we can deduce quite a bit thanks to it. Or go wrong if we are too quick to jump to conclusions… if we even really see, without “the way that knowledge orients … looking–an ability to ‘see what [you] see.'”


“Snowy Owl.” Enough said?

Another observation that is only too interesting for our ability, and failure, to make ourselves at home in this world is all about the way we deal with what we see by labeling it.
Actually, even though this is “On Looking,” this example comes in the context of what we hear rather than see, with the influence the name we give to something – here, something that makes a sound, such as a bird calling – has on our thinking about it.

“The first thing we tend to ask is, what is that? To identify it–to name it–gets us no closer to understanding the creatures we have spotted, but it is often taken as a stand-in for that understanding. So named, the animals move on, and we move on…”

We are right back to the point made in Mastermind, too: We often don’t really see something, we see our idea of it, slap a label on it that tells us what it is, and thus having assured ourselves that we know it because we gave it its name, we go right on… and don’t even notice that what we saw was our idea of what something was (or, as so often happens, of what someone was like), but not the reality.
All we did was slap a label on it – and promptly mistake that label of our own devising for the truth of it.

Ultimately, though, the take-away is a positive one.

Just as we all can feel something of someone else’s movements because we can move ourselves, we can start seeing – and learning – because we can all see and learn, expertise or not, Horowitz concludes:
“What allowed me to see the bits that I would have otherwise missed was not the expertise of my walkers, per se; it was their simple interest in attending.”

If you just want to see, you can see. Indeed. An excellent recommendation. You’ll only get there when you quit with the autopilot that says “I know enough, I’ve seen it all” and remember to open your eyes wide, though.
So, come with, quit being the tourist of your life, make yourself at home.

Cross-read book (also see Cross-Reading 1):

Honorary Mention:

Cross-Reading 1: Taking the Empty Hearse to Better Thinking

The resumption of the BBC series Sherlock was the perfect reason to discuss thinking. Or thinking about thinking, as it were.

BBC Sherlock Season 3 The Empty HearseIn my parallel reading, I’ve recently, fittingly, perused Nicholas Carr‘s “The Shallows“, Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think“, and – most fitting of all – Maria Konnikova‘s “Mastermind. How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

The cross-reading of books, related and unrelated, complementary or contradictory as they can be – just like the reality of this world and our lives in it – opens ideas, and I want to start presenting such. This is, therefore, not going to be so much of a review of books as it is thoughts they gave rise to, in reading them concurrently.

The Shallows and, to a lesser extent, Mastermind, are both fundamentally based on the somewhat recent scientific realization that we don’t just develop the connections in our brains, and thus our thinking and knowledge, when we are children. There are some things which can only be learned during critical periods in child development (native accent language speaking being the primary example), but in general, our minds are plastic. We can always develop new neural pathways and thus create new memories and even learn new ways of thinking. In fact, we always and constantly do.

There is a great difference in focus between these two books, though:

Carr is looking at the influence that our use of technological tools has.

We like to think that we are who we are, and we are in control. Even if there should be stereotypes and the like, they are still within us, part of who we are, and we can realize their existence and learn, if so inclined. But it’s us in control.

Except that, as Carr argues, we think with our tools and thus find them changing us, inadvertently. Different language systems use and therefore strengthen different neural pathways, and so do such tools as maps and clocks shape different perceptions of the world and time, and change the very ways we think. The development of writing and reading, and the switch from oral to literal cultures, changed not just the ways we store and transmit information ‘outside,’ it changed the ways we think.

Now, we are seeing the internet having become our dominant tool for information, and its properties are again changing the very neural pathways that constitute how we think.

Where an oral culture requires rhyme in order to remember and sees a direct interaction between the teller and the listener, the literary culture requires readers who ignore their outside environments and follow the line of the story or argument.

Where the book – rather like a video game?!? – provides and needs an immersive experience in which only the stimuli pertinent to the story matter, what we see online tends to be a jumble of stimuli. There are not only different media to tell one story or make one argument (or even several), but there are also all the links to further stories, advertisements, and all manner of other items of potential interest but extraneous to the actual text we are ostensibly looking at. Thus, the technology rewards quick skimming and a hunter-gatherer-like awareness of the ‘prey’ (minus the patience to await it, plus a certain franticness in its pursuit). Thus, we train ourselves to jump from item to item and see that lack of attention as normal, if not come to consider it necessary.

Training is the very theme of Maria Konnikova’s “Mastermind. How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” as well. However, it’s the opposite, active and (self-) conscious training of our unruly monkey minds to become scientifically thinking minds.

Where internet browsing trains our minds, unwittingly, to be fast and unfocused, and we have a tendency to think simply and efficiently by jumping to conclusions (in more professional terms: using mental heuristics), anyways, Konnikova’s argument is that we can also learn to observe more, both in our surroundings and of our mental machinations. Thereby, we can train ourselves to think better, more scientifically, less driven by our desire to just be consistent and not be wrong and to therefore jump to conclusions immediately after seeing a selection of inputs.

Konnikova very much strengthens Carr’s argument about thinking requiring a foundation in knowledge, and not knowledge of where to find information, but “the essential groundwork,” “the elemental knowledge at [one’s] disposal,… built up over the years.” Without an understanding of how something is and works, there is no foundation with which to work, and thus none of the proverbial “shoulders of giants” on which to stand and look farther.

Clive Thompson has  a point, which he makes all through “Smarter Than You Think” (the perfect complement to cross-read with Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”), when he argues that new ways of knowing and thinking (can) also arise out of the combination of new technological tools and our own minds, and not for the worse.

A chimera-like combination of software, good at ‘seeing’ trends in big data and useful in its visualization as it is, communications technology (not least, for several human minds to collaborate in thinking through a problem, but also for retrieving quick exact points of data), and human minds, good at creatively cross-thinking, opens new possibilities and doesn’t just change (let alone close) old ones.

However, all three authors seem to be in agreement that learning (and) better thinking doesn’t just magically arise out of the questionable knowledge (what’s questionable being to what extent that should even be considered knowledge) of how to google for an answer, but through an active engagement with the technology of thought. Not just the one that is the book or the online (hyper)text, but also our own techniques of thinking.

Just jumping heedlessly and passively into the world we’re getting created for us, and for the purposes of driving a consumerist-industrial system, drives not knowledge and creativity, let alone skill and wisdom, but passive and distracted consumption and thinking. We are seeing problems with that (and I found myself thinking of those and the ease with which they can be fallen into all through the examples of good combinations “Smarter Than You Think” presents. Sorry, Clive.).

It is all the worse a problem as we have a tendency to only see selectively and think quickly, jumping to conclusions based on initial impressions and near-instantaneous judgments, anyways – the “System Watson” discussed all through “Mastermind” (and, as it were, Daniel Kahneman’s “Fast system or System 1” of our “Thinking, Fast and Slow“).

We have also, however, hardly begun to scratch the surface of skillful learning and learning skills that a more actively decisive use of technologies and techniques of thinking (and doing) could give us.

Even in just practicing thinking, where Konnikova suggests that practice and/as habit could turn the thinking of “System 2” into the effortless thinking we just do when we look and think, we haven’t got far yet. Especially with the continuing rise of big data and automation, often said to threaten taking away most jobs, there is actually an ever-rising need for more human and better thinking, though…

We’ll return to this potential for learning (to learn and think – or actually, to see and know? – better), with other cross-readings, at least one of them involving “Mastermind” again…

Books mentioned:

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