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Reading Blog - June 2023
Amnesia and biotech and Muppets
Doing an early post because I finished one book in May, and wanted to cram some reading and writing in before my bike trip.
I'm not making much progress on Epidemic Orientalism, with the introduction comparing definitions of Orientalism and scholarship on Foucault. This is embarrassing because I already recommended the book.
I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia (Su Meck with Daniel de Visé, 2014)
Years ago I read about amnesia and put this book on my Amazon wish list. After de Visé wrote an article about Meck in the Washington Post, they worked together on this book.
In 1988, Meck suffered a head injury at home. Hospital records and family memories piece together the start of a long recovery. She regained balance and motor control, and could still ride a bike, but lost her vocabulary, old memories, and took years to remember people and places. Neurologists couldn't find significant damage, and suggested a psychological issue (this too can begin with a head injury and have symptoms matching the patient's belief of how amnesia 'should' work). Soon she was home, caring for her two sons as if everything was normal.
Meck's present memories begin 2–3 years later, after a move to the DC area. Because her previous community was shunning or pitying her, she and her husband silently agree to hide her issues. She filled in a routine of taking kids to school, going along to work parties and church, and teaching aerobics classes despite difficulties with conversation, reading, awareness, and overstimulation. She learned basic life skills alongside her young children, ultimately getting a college degree.
Early on there is some sympathy for her husband trying to process and normalize with limited resources, but overall it seems like he checked out and did little to make up for his infidelity, spending, and anger issues. At times when Su was at risk, that a partner could send her on a flight alone, or move the family to Egypt, boggles the mind.
It's two stories, one of a resilient mom who did everything for her family when shit needed to get done, and one of hiding in plain sight. She does compare parts to The Stepford Wives and The Twilight Zone. Some parts it's unclear if she was this good at masking, or there was some Fight Club polite unspeakability, or assumed functional alcoholism (for example: parents would not carpool because she was missing pickup and dropoff times). Also her family described pre-amnesia Su as rebellious and accident-prone, with a concussion from a car accident so serious that an ex-boyfriend heard that she had died? If Dr. House takes her case, start there!
Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development (Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, 2014)
I heard about this on Hacker News. Ouagrham-Gormley has spent years collecting accounts from American and Soviet weapons programs and studying proliferation of materials and knowledge from an economist's perspective. The book packs information into 170 pages (+ notes).
In short, the Cold War bio programs weren't so shiny, more recent programs (especially under bans or sanctions) failed to produce, and the prereq for a significant program is teams with deep scientific knowledge, rather than specific organisms. Anthrax kills livestock around the world, but a weaponized version was produced in only a few places, and the Soviets could not transfer that knowledge between labs until actually moving scientists. Even in the 2001 attack where a trained scientist had access to a weaponized strain, the execution was (compared to quantity) a low impact.
Delivery seems to be an ongoing overlooked case in government's plans, with the USSR never developing specialized missiles, and Iraq creating weapons which would disintegrate their payload.
The writing is inspired by management studies at DoD. So there are several sections explaining what types of work are 'tacit knowledge'. Nuclear programs are larger and still ongoing, so the book contains plenty of info learned at Los Alamos. Here are more documented problems with knowledge transfer, institutional memory (e.g. Fogbank), and work culture / management.
In the 9 years since the book was written, the author continues her general don't-panic thesis with papers such as "Is CRISPR a Security Threat?". In 2021–2022 she was part of BioGovernance Commons, which held online meetings between scientists inside and outside of China. This focused on maintaining open information and removing assumptions and barriers; it appears more interested in CRISPR and diplomacy than any 'lab leak' type discussions.
This book is weirdly relevant in the AI Safety space. Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence and Eliezer Yudkowsky describe a scenario where AI can order DNA synthesis of a stealth virus which infects everyone before we know it's happening. There's a SecureDNA project researching how to scan sequences before synthesizing (but then is it opt-in?). I think this threat appeals to AI Safety influencers because the average coder didn't know these DNA synthesis services existed. Once that is introduced, the rest of the scenario sounds plausible. From this book, it sounds more like how access to Kinko's allows you to print political posters, but not overthrow the government.
Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia (Natasha Lance Rogoff, 2022)
The author, lead producer on the mid-90s Russian Sesame Street, recounts the story of how they made it happen.
After presenting her Russia documentary on PBS, Lance Rogoff is called into Children's Television Workshop. They needed an American who could find and direct a crew in Russia. That seems inexplicable, but there was a gold rush into post-Soviet Russia, and the author's connections are valuable. Senator Biden helped assure funding from State / USAID. After quick visits to Mexico's Plaza Sesamo and the New York studio, she's off making the show.
The production faces power struggles over Russian TV, local funding without getting embroiled in corruption, and cultural backlash. The traditional puppeteers who are disgusted by Muppets, and a music director only listens to classical. For some reason they must be hired, and a US trip and dollars smooth things over.
Later in the story the local staff pushes for some melancholy tunes, exotic animals, and less silliness. The author sees this as a conservative Russian stereotype which she must battle, and never something to negotiate or seriously examine (what are expected elements of Russian humor and children's stories?).
GoodReads is mostly positive, with a few complaints about the book being a memoir and more about herding cats than making the show. I'm going to disagree. Considering the unique challenges of bridging the gap into chaotic Russia, and the author's role managing and hiring, the book can't simply be a reel of funny stories from set, or an academic study.
Looking back on my work with grant-funded international programs - sometimes I saw myself in the writer's shoes, and sometimes as a difficult side character if a tireless fixer / admin person wrote this. Imagine the experience getting book-ified 20 years after, without old emails or Tweets to go on.
This got me invested, so if I were editing the 2nd Edition, here are my notes:
- The dissatisfied reader likely expected an oral history, where everyone gets a moment and a narrative 'win'. Maybe the book idea was evolving over the years and escalation in Ukraine made it impossible. But I like the idea of the author and a puppeteer and a musician chiming in on tradecraft.
- Based on the author's Politics and Prose talk, younger readers at the publisher needed context on Russia. These insertions don't quite do the work. There's an aside that common people couldn't get a passport in Soviet times, but Sesame-relevant topics which the author values dearly (representing ethnicities and nationalities) never get the full explainer / spotlight. This would guarantee Muppets in Moscow a place in communications and international relations classes.
A talk attendee mentions her own book about Nigerian Sesame Street: Can Big Bird Fight Terrorism? Children's Television and Globalized Multicultural Education (2019) - that's the other end of the spectrum, but I think in between is a 'this sounds crazy but lemme explain' memoir format.
- Between urgent meetings in Moscow and New York, we get snapshots of the author meeting her husband, getting married, and having a kid. The GoodReads critics saw this as interrupting the narrative. Cynically it may speak to a book club audience.
Yet these scenes are needed - we see chaos at the office reflected in the author's home life, wedding decorations, time passing. If anything, these scenes should help tear down the author's walls. She says child auditions are "the part I have been looking forward to the most", but it was not mentioned before or after. Only fleeting references tell us her experience reporting on underground music and the LGBT community in the USSR.
- We need strong 90s immersion. I found some things which could've easily been cut? The author commiserates with a colleague on the South African Sesame Street, which first airs in 2000. A TV producer has met celebrities including will.i.am - likely referring to his 2010 appearance on Sesame Street, not 19-year-old Los Angeles rapper Will 1X.
Updates to Previous Reads - and Podcasts
This month Allen v. Milligan successfully challenged Alabama's new districts. The first paragraph of Justice Thomas's dissent cites Plessy v. Ferguson as foundational to "our 'color-blind' Constitution".
Argentina, 1985 is a historical drama on Amazon Prime. After democracy is restored, the responsibility for prosecuting the former junta in civilian court falls on Julio Strassera. Two notable points are the movie's focus on Strassera's family, and the role of television (frequently showing the trial through a TV camera or screen).
The Ample Hills founders (of ice cream podcast fame, and The Social in Brooklyn) bought back the stores after the new owners went into receivership.
A research group in Finland has been publishing a series of papers about a bacteria being part of why some people develop Parkinson's disease. A multi-party research group associated with Stanford attribute a 20% reduction in Parkinson's to distribution of the shingles vaccine. Neither fully explains, and Dr. Prusiner (discoverer of the prion) attributes it to prions. Note that Wiki pages for Parkinson's and Cause of Parkinson's do not include the word 'prion'.
I recently remembered the first civic hack video that I saw on the internet, Richard Ankrom improving a highway sign. The project is almost 22 years old now.