Reading – Et cetera: 2009 - 2010
A love affair with books
"At first, when you're young, each place you come to is poorer than the place ahead, which you do not yet know. This other is extraordinary, beautiful. So you go on, perhaps for many years. You go on until you realise that the trading was also good, with certain shortcomings, in the city you left behind. Soon younger men say you have lost ambition; older, that you have grown wise. Then, as you settle, there is comfort, and a kind of sadness."
– Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road⩘
Nicolette Hahn Niman, Righteous Porkchop
Finding a Life and Good Food beyond Factory Farms
Every now and then, the tranquility of the beautiful place we live, nestled as it is in the foothills of the Northern Colorado Rocky Mountains, is shattered by an unpleasant reminder of an unthinkable horror that is ongoing just 40 or 50 miles away. This typically happens when a storm is coming and the prevailing winds shift from their usual easterly direction to a southwesterly direction, which blows the awful stench of the feed lots up around Greeley, Colorado our way.
Just once, we drove up there to see what it's like when hundreds of thousands of cattle are crowded together being artificially fattened for slaughter, standing in a stinking cesspool of mucky shit that goes on for miles. The cattle, with their manure-caked bodies, look miserable. It is truly horrifying that we treat the animals that are our sustenance this way. It shows a deep disrespect for ourselves, our humanity. Or, perhaps more accurately, it shows the depth of our inhumanity.
By stark contrast, we often take walks on a country road that winds along a nearby river. The road is flanked by vibrant pasture land where grass-fed cattle graze. They look healthy, with clean coats that have a sheen to them, and relaxed, especially so when they lie down to chew their cud. The area smells of wild grasses, fragrant in the spring, and like dry sunshine in the autumn.
Nicolette Hahn Niman does an excellent job of revealing the difference between factory farming and traditional farming for pigs, chicken, beef, dairy cows, and even fish. She's an interesting, intelligent person, and a very passionate and perceptive researcher and writer. And she's a real character: a vegetarian who married a cattle rancher—a traditional cattle rancher, to be sure—and now works herself on the ranch. In this book, she shows how factory farming is having a devastating effect on our animals, our environment, our farmers and farm workers, and our own health, while, oddly enough, not even being financially efficient.
If you care about your health, the health of our shared environment, and living in a moral way, then I highly recommend this book. It's an authentic eye opener.
I enjoy envisioning our world revising its attitude toward animal farming…. What if we just decided, as a people, as a nation, to ask a little less of the animals whose lives we take for food? What if we decided we wanted each of them to have worthwhile lives in which they are not only free from suffering but can experience daily joy? What if we decided that every animal deserves to feel soil under its feet, fresh breezes on its face, and sunshine on its back? What if we decided that we don't need a hen to give us quite so many eggs or a cow to give us quite so much milk? What if we decided that every animal should be bred to have sound limbs and body without oversized parts? And what if we decided to embrace the inherent diversity of animals and the foods they, as living creatures, provide us rather than trying to turn them into mono-genetic, identically formed mass produced widgets? I, for one, believe we'd end up living in a far better world.
Collins Living, New York, 2009
Matt Taibbi, Griftopia
Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America
One of the saddest and most engrossing books I've ever read.
Sad because it exposes the depth and breadth of criminal malfeasance that infects the people running the financial institutions that rule this country as well as the politicians they own, which seems to be pretty much all of them in both national parties, running all the way to the top. This unprecedented level of criminality infects the very lifeblood of our nation, and is attacking our way of life in much the same way as HIV destroys the immune system of its host.
Engrossing because Matt Taibbi tells the story with a raw ferocity that is missing from most of our journalism today.
A must read for anyone who cares about this country.
This is how America works. Our real government is mostly kept hidden from view, and the truly weighty decisions about where our society is going and what rules it is going to live by are made mostly in private, by groups of anonymous lawyers and bureaucrats and lobbyists, government officials and industry reps alike.
Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2010
Thaddeus Russell, A Renegade History of the United States
Narrated by Paul Boehmer
An eye opening examination of those parts of our history that don't often get told, though they appear to have contributed greatly to shaping who we are today. Perhaps if we more openly acknowledged and owned these aspects of our history, uncomfortable though they may be, we'd be more honest and less pompous as citizens of our country. How likely is this to happen? Well, it seems Russell was fired from his job as a history professor at Barnard College⩘ because he was teaching the ideas in this book. It appears many of us prefer to keep the blinders on and sugarcoat our history.
But not me.
Free Press, New York, 2010; Tantor Media
Victor LaValle, Big Machine
Belief, doubt, survival, addiction, fresh beginnings … LaValle tackles some big themes in this very strange, yet fantastically compelling and original story. As I turned each page, I had no idea where I was being taken, what I would find. The more bizarre the story became, the more believable its vivid characters seemed. And from within the whorls of revolting violence and filth, such tender promise emerges. I'm still surprised.
There are generous people in this world. Less than some might hope, but many more than you can imagine.
Look at all this business I've been through. There are times when I feel like I survived because I've been blessed or chosen or preordained. That kind of messianic hoo-hah. Other times, when the days are terrible, I think that no one's ever had it worse than me. I'm doomed. I'm cursed. I'm wretched. It's easy to become vain. And, for me, this is why my faith has always been valuable. Strip away all the magic and what does religion teach? There's something greater than you in this world. I don't know about other people, but I need to be reminded of this. And when I get too puffed up, when I invest too much in my own powers, I rely on what the Washerwomen taught me. Doubt grinds up my delusions. It makes me humble. And that's a gift.
Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2009
Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, The Cobweb
Well narrated by Marc Vietor; originally released under the pseudonym Stephen Bury
I downloaded this story because I've enjoyed many of Stephenson's books, but I didn't expect much from this story because I'm skeptical of duo-author writing. I was pleasantly surprised, and surprise became a theme that ran throughout my listening to the story. In particular, I was continually surprised by the slowly revealed depth of the main character, Deputy Sheriff Clyde Banks, and I really appreciated the insights revealed into just how painful it must be for a young father to watch his wife go off to war in the Gulf.
Another thing I totally enjoyed was the skewering of government bureaucracy, the emperor with no clothes; I was continuously teetering between chuckling and sobbing.
Bantam, New York, 1997; Audible, Inc.
Peter Temple, The Broken Shore
Narrated pitch perfectly by Peter Hosking
A wonderfully written Australian cop story, but way beyond what you might expect from the genre. It is at times painfully gritty, but it's worth it.
As with all Australian novels I've read, it stretches beyond my American-trained ear for slang and cultural references. The written book actually includes a glossary of Australian terms, but I prefer to let go and let the flow of the story teach me the meaning of the slang and cultural references through context.
Because I experienced this as a story of discovery, I'm not going to reveal any more about it, except for one observation: Temple has a keenly tuned sense of observation, and one way he expresses this is through insightful descriptions of what the dogs are up to in glimpses throughout the book, beginning with the opening paragraphs. He uses this as one window into how perceptive his lead character, Cashin, is.
Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves, clinging to the liquid-ambars and maples his great-grandfather's brother had planted, their surrender close. He loved this time, the morning stillness, loved it more than spring.
The dogs were tiring now but still hunting the ground, noses down, taking more time to sniff, less hopeful. Then one picked up a scent and, new life in their legs, they loped in file for the trees, vanished.
When he was near the house, the dogs, black as liquorice, came out of the trees, stopped, heads up, looked around as if seeing the land for the first time. Explorers. They turned their gaze on him for a while, started down the slope.
He walked the last stretch as briskly as he could, and, as he put his hand out to the gate, they reached him. Their curly black heads tried to nudge him aside, insisting on entering first, strong back legs pushing, He unlatched the gate, they pushed it open enough to slip in, nose to tail, trotted down the path to the shed door. Both wanted to be first again, stood with tails up, furry scimitars, noses touching at the door jamb.
Inside, the big poodles led him to the kitchen. They had water bowls there and they stuck their noses into them and drank in a noisy way. Cashin prepared their meal: two slices each from the cannon-barrell dog sausage made by the butcher in Kenmate, three handfuls each of dry dog food. He got the dogs' attention, took the bowls outside, placed them a metre apart.
The dogs came out. He told them to sit. Stomachs full of water, they did so slowly and with disdain, appeared to be arthritic. Given permission to eat, they looked at the food without interest, looked at each other, at him. Why have we been brought here to see this inedible stuff?
Winner of the Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction, the Colin Roderick Award for best Australian book, the Australian Book Publishers' Award for best general fiction, and the Crime Writers' Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger.
I also listened to and enjoyed the somewhat related Truth, but this one is the gem.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2007; Blackstone Audio, Inc.
E. L. Doctorow, Homer & Langley
A strange and wonderfully written story based loosely on the lives of the Collyer brothers, in real life, hermits and compulsive collectors who filled their Manhattan brownstone across the street from Central Park with 130 tons of assorted stuff, mostly junk.
They were found dead in early 1947. Langley had been crushed to death when a booby trapped tunnel he had made from newspaper bundles fell on him. The blind Homer, by then paralyzed, starved to death ten feet away from his brother's corpse.
Out of the macabre detritus of these strange circumstances, Doctorow has created a surprisingly sympathetic novel of how the brothers might've experienced the accumulation of their shared hermitical existence, told through Homer's voice, each story more bizarre than the previous, yet coming across as somehow reasonable.
There is music in words, and it can be heard you know, by thinking.
The first reporter who rang our bell—a really stupid young man who expected to be invited in, and when we wouldn't permit that, stood there asking offensive questions, even shouting them out after we had slammed the door—made me realize it was a class of disgustingly fallible human beings who turned themselves into infallible print every day….
Grandmamma had been the last connection to our past. I had understood her as some referent moral authority to whom we paid no heed, but by whose judgments we measured our waywardness.
Random House, New York, 2009
Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided
How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America
Archly narrated by Kate Reader
A fiendishly delightful book! Ehrenreich wields a razor-sharp ability to perceive what's really going on behind society's nice veneers, and delivers what she uncovers with scathing wit. Rooted in her personal experience with breast cancer and branching out into all of our shared experiences of work, religion, and country, her observations have me experiencing blasts of desperation one minute, followed by bursts of laughter the next, as she uncovers the "boondoggle" of the epidemic of positive thinking in the U.S. How refreshing!
Her final chapter, Postscript on Post-Positive Thinking, is a brilliant summation. I'm so grateful for her crystal clear reality check.
The alternative to positive thinking is not, however, despair. In fact, negative thinking can be just as delusional as the positive kind.… In both cases, there is an inability to separate emotion from perception, a willingness to accept illusion for reality, either because it "feels good" or, in the depressive's case, because it reinforces familiar downwardly spiraling neural pathways. The alternative to both is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things "as they are," or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity—the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death.
I realize that after decades of positive thinking the notion of realism, of things as they are, may seem a little quaint. But even in America, the heartland of positive thinking, some stubborn strain of realism has persisted throughout these years of delusion.
Metropolitan Books, New York, 2009; Audible.com
Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
Usually I write a review about a book only after I've finished it, but this book is so compelling that although I'm only halfway through the book, I feel shook up enough to start a review.
Over the years I've read some books and watched some movies that have left me stunned by how careless we've become with our food. Most recently, Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and King Corn by Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis have disturbed my personal slumber. Safran Foer's book isn't surprising me; rather, the passion of his writing is throwing ice water on my comfortably napping self.
While I've been a progressively more conscious eater since I started growing my own vegetables in a backyard garden in my early 20s, the appalling truth is that the food industry has changed faster than my own progression. Whereas I once trusted terms like "organic" and "natural," I now realize that even these terms are being perverted by some food producers in the race to win consumer dollars, especially when it comes to how the animals we eat are raised. Unfortunately, labels alone don't guarantee goodness.
The fact that deadly salmonella is being shipped out of even our vegetable farms and that handling our raw meat is frighteningly dangerous is stunning enough. The thought that we may well be incubating on our animal farms the next pandemic that will kill millions of us is appalling beyond belief. Oh, but wait, it keeps the cost of food low, so it must be okay, right? We are being so incredibly shortsighted!
The only thing I know to do is to keep searching for better quality food and vote with my food dollars. That means not just farmers markets, but finding farmers whose farms I've looked at. That means not just blindly accepting terms like "free range," but doing the research to understand that these terms might be bullshit unless I know the source of my food and am willing to pay for the quality of that source. The three adjectives for our food that we should be able to take for granted are: safe, tasty, and healthy. Instead, a slogan for our typical factory farm animal-derived food today easily could be more along the lines of: Factory fresh from our diseased cesspool direct to your dinner plate!
I don't think I'll ever be a vegetarian, but I realize that most of my food must come from plants, and when I do eat animals, I must do my best to ensure it comes from animals raised in a way that doesn't destroy the earth nor the humanity the farmer and I share.
This is a book that everyone … every last one of us … should read. We can't ignore this away.
- Can Meat Eaters Also Be Environmentalists?⩘ - "We all agree on the need to rid the world of factory farms."
- Eat Less Meat, Eat Better Meat⩘ - "What makes Meatless Monday so successful is its simple and inclusive message which promotes moderation with the goal of improving public health and the health of the planet."
Related video: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer⩘
Little, Brown, New York, 2009
Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Performed by Ron McLarty
What a blast! One sure sign that I've really enjoyed a book is how I feel the moment I finish it, and for this one it was, like, "Wait, it's over? Bummer, man!"
I have very little time to read or listen to books these days and many unread books piled up, so the time I spend with any one book is precious, but the moment I finished this one, I started listening to it again! I really want the laughter it provokes in my life right now.
Pynchon is an amazing observer, a delightful storyteller, and a shrewd commentator. His riffs on the nuances of Southern California culture in the late 60s are a pure pleasure to listen to. He captures the passing phenomenon of the decade and lays bare its absurdity. I only hope he does the same for the U.S. Aughts someday; we could do with a healthy dose of having someone strip away the sanctimonious façade of this past decade to give us a humorously adulterated glimpse of our underlying madness.
Usually when I review a book I've listened to, I add a note at the beginning, "Read by so and so," but how could I possibly say something so mundane about Ron McLarty's virtuoso performance? It's such a thrill to listen to a story full of characters romping with exuberant abandon, forgetting that just one person is giving them voice.
Special thanks to my friend SP for turning me on to this book.
Related video: Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon - 9781594202247⩘
Penguin, New York, 2009, Libro.fm⩘
John Dunning, Booked to die
A long enough time has passed since I first read this book that I forgot most of the story. I just remembered enjoying it, especially for its combined flavor of book collecting and murder mystery, set in my neck of the woods.
I wasn't disappointed rereading it. Though I'm not a book collector, I am a book appreciator. Dunning once was an investigative reporter and also owned a bookstore in Denver, so he gets the flavor right.
Scribner, New York, 1992
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
I'm glad I watched Blade Runner before I read this book, because I was able to appreciate it for what it offered, rather than being disappointed for how short it fell. The film does a powerful job of using visuals to set the mood of a grimly insane future, but it comes nowhere near the heights of mad desperation this story reaches.
These are actually two very different stories, related, but only distantly. Deckard is much more fleshed out in Dick's story, Rachel is much truer to her android selflessness (I use this term in an unaccepted sense—one who is lacking self—because it fits so well), J. R. is more complete in his pathetic hopelessness, San Francisco is much bleaker in its wasted despondency, and society itself is much more crazed. Next to this story, the film appears quite one dimensional.
Here there existed no one to record his or anyone else's degradation, and any courage or pride which might manifest itself here at the end would go unmarked: the dead stones, the dust-stricken weeds dry and dying, perceived nothing, recollected nothing, about him or themselves.
Del Rey, New York, 1968
Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game
Provoked me to think about power, the gene's purposeful control over destiny, the danger of anonymous communication, the costs of manipulation, the dangerous allure of an ends-justifies-the-means mentality, and the fragility of life.
A volcanic eruption in Iceland has just crippled air travel throughout Europe. Scientists speculate that there could be a much larger eruption, and the toxicity of the ash of a past eruption in the 1700s killed tens of thousands of people in Europe. An event like that could have a profound impact on the entire globe. It really is amazing how fragile life is, and how fortunate we are for each new dawn we receive.
A special thanks to Cat, who recommended this book to me. Another precious gift: friends.
Tor, New York, 1991 (1977)
Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
This is an exception on my Currently reading list. Recently I've only been listing the best of the best of the books I read. While I don't consider this book quite in that class, it comes with a pedigree that make it worthy of mentioning.
When Vonnegut died in 2007, I decided to slowly reread all of his books in chronological order. He gave us a great gift, pushing the boundaries of fiction. In this story, he bares his 50-year-old soul, and melds his reality and imagination, eventually putting himself in his story, talking to one of his characters, who is much bewildered by the experience.
He also once again strips away all the bullshit of refinement and holds up a polished mirror for us to gaze into and see ourselves and our society. This reminds me of a story from another book I'm reading, Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun: typically the vast majority of people in an audience will raise their hands when asked if they think they are more intelligent than average.
After I recently had decided it was time to read another Vonnegut book, and this one was next in line, one of my favorite Twitterers tweeted this:
This led to a post by Merlin Mann⩘ , the "kinda-famous" Inbox Zero hero, on his Kung Fu Grippe blog, "… that kind of machine …"⩘ , which shared a 92Y podcast in honor of Vonnegut's passing: Kurt Vonnegut Reads Breakfast of Champions⩘ .
The reading, his first of material for Breakfast of Champions, is from 1970, three years before the book's publication. What struck me most strongly is how much he was enjoying himself, laughing throughout at various passages and phrases. It's really wonderful to hear an author enjoying himself that much.
Goodbye, Blue Monday!
Dial Press, New York, 2006 (1973)
Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Switch
How to Change Things When Change Is Hard
An excellent exploration of the challenges of change, including some quite inspiring stories of people who overcame the challenges to effect important change. Chip Heath is a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.
[T]he … tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider's control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.
[A] glimpse of the basic three-part framework we will unpack in this book, one that can guide you in any situation where you need to change behavior:
- Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
- Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. The Rider can't get his way by force for very long. So it's critical that you engage people's emotional side—get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.
- Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. We call the situation (including the surrounding environment) the "Path." When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what's happening with the Rider and Elephant.
Solutions-focused therapy was invented in the late 1970s by a husband-and-wife therapist team, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, and their colleagues at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee. Solutions-focused therapy is radically different from the traditional therapy. In classic psychotherapy…, you and your therapist explore your problem.…
Solutions-focused therapists, in contrast, couldn't care less about archeology. They don't dig around for clues about why you act the way you do. They don't care about your childhood. All they care about is the solution to the problem at hand.…
Solutions-focused therapists use a common set of techniques for discovering potential solutions. Early in the first session, after hearing the patient explain his or her problem, the therapist poses the Miracle Question: "Can I ask you a sort of strange question? Suppose that you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometime, in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what's the first small sign you'd see that would make you think, 'Well, something must have happened—the problem is gone!'?"
Once they've helped patients identify specific and vivid signs of progress, they pivot to a second question, which is perhaps even more important. It's the Exception Question: "When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even just for a short time?"
These "exceptions" are … bright spots.
What does this mean for you?… [I]f you're trying to change things, there are going to be bright spots in the field of view, and if you learn to recognize them and understand them, you will solve one of the fundamental mysteries of change: What, exactly, needs to be done differently?
Broadway, New York, 2010
Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall
And Why Some Companies Never Give In
A sobering book—long essay, actually—especially given what we've been through financially these past two years and the huge companies that have rapidly crumpled. Ultimately, though, Collins unearths the opportunity within the turbulence.
Five Stages of Decline
Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success
Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More
Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril
Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation
Stage 5: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death
Of course, there always remains the chance of a random catastrophe, and life offers no 100-percent guarantees; after all, you can be the healthiest, most relentless athlete of all time and still be stricken with a crippling disease or career-ending accident. But setting that aside, the main message of our work remains: we are not imprisoned by our circumstances, our setbacks, our history, our mistakes, or even staggering defeats along the way. We are freed by our choices.
HarperCollins, New York, 2009
Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide
Read by David Colacci
Trust your guts. Listen to your feelings. Apply the reins of your cognition. Those three sayings pretty neatly summarizes this book. So why bother reading it? Because the Lehrer artfully explains why that summary is valid.
I've heard the first two of those sayings throughout my life, and my own experiences have validated them, but I never understood the science behind them, or even contemplated the science that might be behind them. I hadn't heard the third saying before, though I've certainly applied its guidance to my life, as well, again without thinking about the science behind it.
This book is a vivid introduction to that science, to recent discoveries about how our brains work, and to the delicate balance between the different parts of our brains and their varying contributions to act of decision making. Lehrer uses lively stories to illustrate each topic, so the book maintains an interesting pace and fosters engagement.
I think I'll be able to make better decisions going forward, at least in some instances, because of what I've learned here about how I decide.
Related video: The Human Brain: How We Decide⩘
The reading by David Colacci is delightful. He's has an alive storytelling voice and spices up the quotes of various people who contribute thoughts to the book with entertaining accents. Well done!
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2009; Brilliance Audio, Grand Haven
Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth
The Evidence for Evolution
Read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward
Had I only listened to the first part of this book, I may not have included it here; the tone of the reading of the early part, especially by Lalla Ward, came across in places as condescending and sarcastic, which turned me off.
Fortunately, the tone shifted as the book progressed to focus more on the sheer wonder of the journey of life, and nobody I'm familiar with expresses this better than Dawkins. The wondrous awe shared in the remainder of the book easily overcame my aversion to the early tone and left me with a deep sense of appreciation for the gift of life.
Interestingly, this book about the science of evolution ended up providing me with some deep insights into the nature of business as well, more so than many of the business-themed books I've read recently. The sheer force and emotional neutrality of the process of evolution helps me add perspective to my thinking about—and distaste of—what I perceive as the cold-hearted brutality of business competition and the suffering it can leave in its wake. (For more on this topic, see my recent post, Reflections on the craft of woodworking and our society⩘ .)
Free Press, New York, 2009
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan
Read by David Chandler
Taleb's follow-on book to Fooled by Randomness is an insightful, eye-opening, exhilarating, and sometimes frightening read. I now understand why I haven't heard more about Taleb in the mainstream media: he's challenging the status quo and the establishment he's challenging doesn't like it. I'm thrilled to have stumbled across his books, though I'm sure I'll need to read them both several more times to penetrate some of his observations adequately.
We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.
Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff.
Related video: Nassim Nicholas Taleb - What is a "Black Swan?"⩘
Random House, New York, 2007
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness
Very well read by Sean Pratt
All my life I've been confused by what I've seen people doing and saying. It has almost seemed as if I weren't a member of some secret club that existed or that I didn't quite speak the same language as many others were speaking.
I watched as people spoke with great certainty about things that seemed to me to involve significant uncertainty. I saw them stride forward sure of their brilliance when it appeared to me they were merely riding a wave of good luck. Time and again I found myself puzzled by the risks I saw people taking with the most fundamental things: buying (relatively) enormously expensive houses and cars that I wouldn't dream of touching when I knew their financial situation was little different from mine. Finally I observed the great pride with which they showed off these things as if using something the bank owned were some great accomplishment.
On the contrary, as long as I still owned one dollar of the mortgage on my modest home I felt enormously vulnerable. And while I certainly do more than my fair share of foolish things including impulse buys of nonessential items when there are obviously better ways to use (perhaps save?) my money, these incidents always leave me feeling a little chagrined rather than proud and boastful.
It is with delight and relief that I finally stumble across this wisdom of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his explanations of the nature of randomness, which helps explain the enduring unease I've felt all my life. While I wasn't smart enough to figure this out myself, in understanding it a bit better, some of the unease actually melts away. Certainly I still feel uncertainty, but that's logical rather than a product of some mysteriousness.
I'm totally amazed that I didn't come across this book and these ideas sooner. When I read his entry in Wikipedia, I see that his thinking has become quite celebrated over the past four or five years, but I hadn't heard of his ideas, or him. Why aren't these ideas daily headlines? Instead … Sarah Palin's vindictive theories of life are considered more newsworthy? [Her new book is all over the headlines right now. My reaction: How could anyone possibly care?]
Taleb is, at times, biting in his criticism and sweepingly dismissive of broad swaths of people. This makes the Midwestern politeness-trained part of me a bit squeamish, but undoubtedly someone needs to be pricking a few hot air balloons with just such a sharp needle.
It's going to take some time—the rest of my life?—for me to digest these ideas and insights, but I feel invigorated by the opportunity. I'm grateful to Malcolm Gladwell for his having introduced me to Taleb through his new book What the Dog Saw (see following review).
The exquisite cadavers shall drink the new wine.
Random House, New York, 2004
Malcolm Gladwell, What the Dog Saw
I read these stories, a collection of Gladwell's articles for the New Yorker magazine, on my flights to and back from Dublin. As could be expected, a few of the stories fascinated me, a couple had me feeling impatient, and the rest nicely entertained me through the long hours that I was both awake and could keep my eyes open.
Gladwell is an artist of seeing. He spots things that others rush past in their frenzied hurry to … get anywhere else but where they are, then tells his stories with a deftness that often causes me to pause and reflect on what he is telling with wonder and appreciation. Don't miss the opportunity to let him paint a slightly more vivid reality for you.
This book may prove to be one of the more significant books I read in my life because one of the stories introduced me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of Fooled by Randomness and, more recently, Black Swan. I'm listening to Fooled by Randomness right now and though I'm just halfway through, I already know I'll be reviewing it next. It is amazing me with an "Aha!" experience.
Related video: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell⩘
From the story Blowing Up:
That was the problem with a world in which there was so much uncertainty about why things ended up the way they did: you never knew whether one day your luck would turn and it would all be washed away.
This kind of caution does not seem heroic, of course. It seems like the joyless prudence of the accountant and the Sunday school teacher. The truth is that we are drawn to the Niederhoffers of the world because we are all, at heart, like Niederhoffer: we associate the willingness to risk great failure—and the ability to climb back fro catastrophe—with courage. But in this we are wrong. That is the lesson of Taleb and Niederhoffer, and also the lesson of our volatile times. There is more courage and heroism in defying the human impulse, in taking the purposeful and painful steps to prepare for the unimaginable.
From the story Million-Dollar Murray:
"I am an abolitionist," [Philip Mangano] says. "My office in Boston was opposite the monument to the 54th Regiment on the Boston Common, up the street from the Park Street Church, where William Lloyd Garrison called for immediate abolition, and around the corner from where Frederick Douglass gave that famous speech at the Tremont Temple. It is very much ingrained in me that you do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it."
There isn't enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn't as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don't solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are of little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.
From the story Something Borrowed:
As the Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig argues in his book Free Culture:
In ordinary language, to call a copyright a "property" right is a bit misleading, for the property of copyright is an odd kind of property…. I understand what I am taking when I take the picnic table you put in your backyard. I am taking a thing, the picnic table, and after I take it, you don't have it. But what am I taking when I take the good idea you had to put a picnic table in the backyard—by, for example, going to Sears, buying a table, and putting it in my backyard? What is the thing that I am taking then?
The point is not just about the thingness of picnic tables versus ideas, thought that is an important difference. The point instead is that in the ordinary case—indeed, in practically every case except for a narrow range of exceptions—ideas released into the world are free. I don't take anything from you when I copy the way you dress—though I might seem weird if I do it every day…. Instead, as Thomas Jefferson said (and this is especially true when I copy the way someone dresses), "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."
From the story Connecting the Dots:
[Psychologist Baruch] Fischhoff calls this phenomenon "creeping determinism"—the sense that grows on us, in retrospect, that what has happened was actually inevitable—and the chief effect of creeping determinism, he points out, is that it turns unexpected events into expected events. As he writes, "The occurrence of an event increases its reconstructed probability and makes it less surprising than it would have been had the original probability been remembered."
From the story The Art of Failure:
Stress wipes out short-term memory. People with lots of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short-term memory they still have some residue of experience to draw on.
Panic also causes what psychologists call perceptual narrowing.… Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.
Little, Brown, New York, 2009
Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, Groundswell
Winning in a world transformed by social technologies
Read by Josh Bernoff
Excellent overview of the changing playing field. They explain how each aspect of social technology is changing the business environment and how people can harness these changes to bring their companies more in touch with their customers, to great effect. As this is what fuels my passion in my work, I appreciate reading a book like this.
People, objectives, strategy, and technology
We've created an acronym for the four-step planning process … that you should use to build your groundswell strategy. We call it the POST method, for people, objectives, strategy, and technology. POST is the foundation of groundswell thinking—a systematic framework for assembling your plan. Let's walk through the four steps in a little more detail:
- People. What are your customers ready for?
- Objectives. What are your goals?
- Strategy. How do you want your relationships with your customers to change?
- Technology. What applications should you build?
My only hesitation is that Bernoff's reading pace is a bit slow (like my own). I found myself wishing I had the option to speed up the CD in my car.
Harvard Business Press, Boston, 2008
Gary Hustwit, Objectified (the film)
A glimpse into the world of industrial design exploring its possibilities and constraints through the words—performances, really—of leading designers from around the world.
The strength of the film for me is that it provokes me, as a consumer, to think much more deeply about the design and origins of the objects I consume. In a sense, we consumers are co-creators with the designers of the objects we consume because we give them meaning through use … or abandonment.
Our daily objects disappear in their commonplaceness, yet each trails a virtual umbilical cord connecting it through the machines of its making and the hands that cradled it—fondly or not—throughout production, all the way back to the imagination of the designer who birthed it, shaping it, refining it, imprinting it with something of him or herself.
Since I purchased and used it the first few times, I haven't again really looked at this spoon that sits on my desk next to a now empty bowl. It is somewhat like every other spoon I've seen, yet also subtly unique. I bought it for how it looks and how well it balances and feels in my hand, yet I now use it day after day with little subsequent thought of what first attracted me to it. Some designer created this unique representation of an everyday object. It has a name, which I've forgotten. Some of our planet's resources are invested in it, and others were invested it its making. Some machine fabricated it, and others designed and built that machine. Many people, each with a unique life's story, participated in the journey that brought this spoon to my desk, just here, just now. When I consider it this way, it is a most exceptional object.
It's good to be reminded to stop and think this way once in awhile.
Yesterday a fire broke out in the attic of our garage, the result of something going wrong with another of those mundanely miraculous objects that occupy our everyday lives: a wire and the mysterious current the runs along it. For a couple hours our normally tranquil evening life was shattered with panic, overwhelmed with smoke, sirens, and flashing lights, and overrun by an amazing team of people who, with a calm, yet determined speed, efficiently overcame the objects that were obstacles in their way to tear their way into our attic and extinguish the fire before it could spread to the roof and into our home.
I was immersed in watching this film when the fire disrupted. For a short time, every object in our lives was endangered. Afterward, we cuddled together and shivered our way through the draining of adrenaline, then tried to sleep, but couldn't really. Today, we cleaned obsessively, some driven desire to create at least a bit of order out of the aftermath chaos, until a semblance of normalcy began to be restored. Only then I finished watching this film, started writing this, and noticed this spoon become a presence.
This exceptional film, magnified by a senses-heightening experience, has given me this gift, however short lived, of being able to see in a fresh way. Life is such an incredible journey.
Related video: Objectified trailer⩘
By writing simply and only what is there, the audience is drawn into the poet's world. Their imagination is stimulated, and a silent connection is established.
– Naoto Fukasawa, Designer, Tokyo
A Swiss Dots Production, 2009
John P. Kotter, Leading Change
Read by Oliver Wyman
A couple of years ago, people started talking about the social web and social media, but these been bursting into the mainstream only in the past year or so. More recently, people started talking about the real-time web. Given the general acceleration of technology and technological awareness and adoption, this idea will go mainstream even quicker. This rapid pace of change presents a major challenge to companies: they must take risks and adapt to remain competitive.
Leading Change was published in 1996, long before the ideas now shaping technology began to be described as social media and the real-time web. It was written even before Web 2.0 kicked into gear. Yet it anticipates the disruption these technological shifts have caused, as well as the seismic acceleration that ensures we haven't yet begun talking about the changes that will impact us in the next few years.
To understand this kind of change as an individual, in my opinion, the best thing to do is just participate. Think of it like a river: you can stand on the bank and watch it flow by, but if you really want to know the river, you're going to have to jump in a raft, head downstream, and get wet. Nobody is going to be able to explain the river to you better than a paddle in your hands.
Leading change is a different story. You've got to convince others to get in the raft, that there's no other choice but to get wet, that there's something better downstream, and that if you don't get to it first, others will. That's where the wisdom of this book comes in. Kotter explains what is needed to talk people on board, launch the raft, and guide it downstream without sinking. And he doesn't forget that even in business, people have hearts.
This book has taught me nothing about the specifics of the social media, the real-time web, and the unnamed influences that will shape tomorrow … but there are other books for that.
It has helped me evolve how I think about my projects and the current challenges I face. It has influenced my attitude toward my work: I feel more attuned to potential and less worried about roadblocks. And it has underscored how much I love reading, as well as how much I continue to learn and gain from books like this.
By any objective measure, the amount of significant, often traumatic, change in organizations has grown tremendously….
Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1996
Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Translated from Swedish by Reg Keeland
An excellent conclusion to the Millenium trilogy (see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire below) by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, which explores the abuse of power in the financial, business, police, psychiatric, and governmental sectors, the constitutional dangers inherent in state secrecy and syping, and the importance of the media as a watchdog, as well as the consequences when the media fails in that role, all of which is wrapped up in stories of nail-biting suspense and tension.
All three stories are peopled with the same main characters, including the intriguing main character, Lisbeth Salander, and should be read in order as a trilogy to fully understand and appreciate the development of several intricately drawn characters. The first book can be viewed as one main story within the overall story of the triology, while the second and third books form a second main story with the third book picking up the storyline exactly where the second book ends.
I was prepared to be let down a bit by the third book, figuring that the story might grow a bit stale, but the pace sets off at a run and fairly early on an entirely startling event kicks it into even higher gear. Thank goodness a bitterly cold weekend gave me the excuse to stay inside and read it straight through!
While these stories are ever so slightly marred by a few, brief moments of somewhat clueless dialog and characterization, those can be overlooked easily when weighed against the brilliance of a compelling and complex storyline that spans nearly 1,700 difficult-to-stop-turning pages.
I was surprised to learn that Knopf has postponed the U.S. publication of this third installment until next summer, and suspect that many readers will order a copy from the U.K., as I did. It's good to read the third with the second freshly in mind.
A movie based on the first story has been released in Sweden. I certainly hope it gets re-released with English subtitles.
MacLehose Press, London, 2009
Richard Powers, Generosity
This is a great example of why I read. I pick up a book like this, read a few sentences, and something inside expands and I hear myself breathing an "Ah!" Powers writes with an intelligent perception that ranks at the top of my experience as a reader.
The story is about Thassadit, a woman who is blessed by or is afflicted with hyperthymia, the trait of enduring happiness. Imagine the consequences! And it's about genetic engineering and the drive to patent traits like happiness. Imagine the consequences!
They talk about work histories, life at Mesquakie, near north neighborhoods, the industrial fear state. Over date pudding, she tells him about negativity bias. I'm not really sure if she tells him this over date pudding, of course, or even if she tells him at this lunch at all. But she tells him, at some point, early on. That much is nonfiction: no creation necessary.
She tells him to imagine he's in a deserted parking lot and a twenty-dollar bill blows right in front of him. There's no one in sight he can return it to.
"How do you feel?"
"Good," he admits.
"Right. A nice meal or a CD just dropped out of the sky."
A book, he thinks. Nedjma, by Kateb Yacine. The book Thassa described in her latest journal entry. A dream of escape from the colonized mind.
"Now imagine you're in a store. You approach the cash register with a purchase, reach inside your pocket for the twenty, and find it's missing. You accidentally threw it away when disposing of a crumpled tissue."
He feels the difference, before she has to explain. The freebie was fun; the loss panics him, like he has just let terrorists into his apartment. The bad is crazily out of proportion to the good, and it's the same twenty bucks.
"I see. I'm a nut job."
She smiles with disturbing gusto, reaches across the table, and shakes his fingers. "So's everyone! I'm right there with you, and I've studied this stuff. We remember a compliment for about three and a half days, but we hold on to criticism for months. We think unpleasant events last about sixty percent longer than same-length pleasant ones. Threatening images get our attention faster, and we have to fight harder to look away. We need about five positive events to compensate for one comparable negative one. If you hurt a friend, you have to do five nice things to offset the damage."
"We're broken," he intones.
"Not at all."
"Five to one! We're completely incapable of balanced judgement."
She pulls her hair into a ponytail. She's warm and clinical, at once. "Actually, if anything, the bias is accurate. There's a solid reason for it. Think back to the Serengeti."
"Ah, yes, I remember it well."
She sticks her tongue out at him, then pretends she didn't. "If you're scouting and find food, that's dandy. But if a pride of lions discovers your hidey-hole while you're sleeping: Game Over. The bad can hurt you much more than the good can help. So nature selects for pessimists."
Results 1 through 10 of about 9,300,000. He feels that vertigo he gets from going out to the end of Navy Pier and glancing back at the hundred-story, steel-and-glass towers spinning out their million innovations per cubic meter per minute. He scrolls through the matches, this network of seething bits at last made visible to anyone with a browser. The vision is almost bracing, the feeling Russell had as a boy of ten, when he and his brother, Robert, stood in the mist at Table Rock, Niagra Falls, shouting in the murderous cascade. The sheer scale absolves him. The world falls at too many buckets per second for him to rescue anyone.
He clicks on link after link, diving down into the maelstrom of discovery, not sure what he is looking for, but finding no end of things he isn't.
"High up or deep down." Stone talks to the glass, remembering. "Or far away, in some parallel universe. A thousand years before or after, anywhere but now."
He does not tell her the real problem: fiction is obsolete. Engineering has lapped it.
… the biology of contentment.
FSG, New York, 2009
Jack McDevitt, Seeker
I thoroughly enjoyed this story by McDevitt, who Stephen King calls "The logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke." I'm indebted to a friend in Quebec who recommended this book to me!
Part gumshoe, part sci-fi, part imaginative musing on the evolving nature of the human spirit over many millennia, this story hooked me to the core. As I often do, I ordered a copy of the audio book along with the book itself, intending to listen to it on my morning walks. But with some time off available to me, I made the fortunate mistake of reading the first few pages, and couldn't put the book down.
Now that I've traveled with McDevitt's characters Chase and Alex to meet the telepathic Ashiyyur, the only other technologically advanced species ever discovered, and to learn the fate of early planetary colonists, I look forward reading more from this creative author. His kind of imagination inspires me. Oh, I do wish I could travel the universe!
Seeker won the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novel from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Ace, New York, 2005
Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire
Translated from Swedish by Reg Keeland and read by Simon Vance
It might be easy to dismiss a book with a simplistic-sounding title like this … until you consider that it was written by a passionate Swedish journalist who was the editor in chief of a magazine and "a leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations," and that the fire the girl played with was a milk carton full of petrol that she threw into her father's lap and lit while he sat in his car. She was 13 and lashed out in an attempt to protect her mother from horrendous abuse.
The story deals with the consequences of that act over the next dozen years or so, including the abuse the girl suffered as a ward of the state. It also explores sex-trafficking in Sweden, and the highly placed members of society—politicians, police, lawyers, members of the press—who help enable it by turning a blind eye to it or, worse, participating in it and acting ruthlessly to protect themselves from subsequent exposure.
My outline makes it sound like it could be a bit of a dry read, but the revelation of this social travesty is wrapped in the story of a triple murder and the nail-biting investigation by police and journalists that follows. After a startling and unsettling introduction, the pace of the book starts slowly, then steadily accelerates. I was listening to the excellent reading by Vance during my daily commutes until one evening when I found I had to pick up the book and read late into the night to finish it!
An excellent read, but only if you have the stomach to explore an unflinching exposé of a dark and unfortunately real side of life.
Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 50, shortly after delivering the manuscripts for three novels comprising the Millennium Trilogy to his publisher, and unfortunately before they were published to resounding international acclaim and success. This is the second to be translated into English, following the earlier The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The English translation of the trilogy's third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, is due to be published in London this fall and in the U.S. next spring, though you can be sure I'll be ordering a copy from London as soon as it's out.
MacLehose Press, London, 2009 (2006)
Arnaldur Indriðason, The Draining Lake
Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb
I quite enjoy Indriðason's writing. In fact, I seem to be quite attracted to authors from Northern countries: Iceland, as in this case, Norway, Sweden, Denmark. I sense a brooding, contemplative element to their thinking that I can identify with, perhaps because I grew up in Minnesota, a place with roots in those places, and which shares their long, dark, drawn-out winters.
The underlying theme of this story is how socialism was perverted in East Germany in the 50s and 60s, and how the tentacles of that madness reached out and touched the lives of some Icelanders.
As with all of Indriðason's stories that I've read, the theme is revealed through a dark, twisting police investigation led by Inspector Erlendur of Reykjavik. Erlendur is haunted by the disappearance of his brother, from whom he was separated in a blizzard when they were kids, and who was never found again. This drives his dogged determination to solve missing person cases, and gives Indriðason plenty of opportunity to reveal glimpses into the mood of Iceland and the souls of Icelanders.
I just learned that a previous book of his, one I read a couple years ago, Jar City⩘ , has been released as a DVD. The book won the Glass Key Award, and the movie was Iceland's entry for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. I look forward to watching it. I've also learned that another book in this series, Arctic Chill is set to be released in the U.S. in about a month, something else I look forward to!
Thomas Dunne, New York, 2007 (2004)
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Read by Jennifer Wiltsie
After listening to the wonderful reading of Anathem, I decided to download the audio version of The Diamond Age in order to listen to it on my morning walks. I'm enjoying the story enough that half way through I ordered the original book so I could better capture a few of my favorite phrases, and perhaps read it some day. Stephenson is a brilliant writer.
He sets his story in the near future, describing our world in a way that shows how time and technology have shifted the human experience, while retaining a thread to our familiar world of today.
He shares a story of learning, of what shapes people as they are growing up, and how character is nurtured. The story could be set in any age, though the way he weaves in his visionary technical insights adds an element of pure delight for anyone who loves, as I do, to be transported into the future for a few hours.
As he made his way through the corridors toward the upper deck where his airship awaited him, he reviewed for the thousandth time the Great Learning, the kernel of the Master's thoughts: The ancients who wished to demonstrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.… From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.
"Nell," the Constable continued, indicating through his tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, "the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
"In your primer you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life. Your life up to this point has given you all of the experiences you need to be intelligent, but you have to think about those experiences. If you don't think about them, you'll be psychologically unwell. If you do think about them, you will become not merely educated but intelligent…."
Despite an inferior recording quality, Jennifer Wiltsie's narration manages to shine through. She imparts a unique nuance to each of the characters' voices so they are easy to see in my mind's eye as I listen to the story unfold. (I usually avoid older Audible.com recordings because I've so often been disappointed by their quality. As with others I've listened to, this one sounds shallow and tinny, and there are multiple, short, corrupted segments, but the story has made it worthwhile to accept those defects.)
Spectra, New York, 1995
Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons
Read by Will Patton
This book wasn't as well received as Cold Mountain, but I found it to be an even richer, if sadder, story. Perhaps it's that sadness, as well as the lack of a culminating romantic tragedy of the type found in Cold Mountain that kept it from reaching a wider audience. It is, nonetheless, a story worth listening to, worth traveling along with, as it passes beneath the influence of the various moons that mark its many seasons.
I am glad that Claire and Bear succeeded in avoiding the camera. I see their achievement as an enviable resistance against the modern age. When everything is immediately available and infinitely reproducible, nothing is valuable. How can it be? How many times might beauty or heartbreak or love be replicated and still have meaning? It is like running the soul under a die press. Reproduction breeds worthlessness. Claire and Bear remain singularities.
I'd probably enjoy listening to Will Patton read a phone book. When he steps into a story like this, he's simply brilliant.
Random House, New York, 2006
John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Bored with his job in Berlin, despairing about his future, shaken by the events unfolding around him (the Wall was going up), Le Carré wrote the book that would bring him international acclaim.
For me, reading this book again is a bit of a nostalgia trip—I first read it as a teenager and then read all of his books over the years—but also a hard slap in the face. In 1990, Le Carré added a foreword, included in this edition, in which he shares his feelings about the Wall going up. At that time, he knew the terror of it, but didn't know that it would one day be torn down.
I was reminded of the foreword of my edition of War and Peace, published in the early 1940s at the time Hitler's army was following Napoleon's footsteps into Russia. The sense of not knowing whether Hitler would prevail came through chillingly.
Today, we are in a similar position. If we are honest with ourselves, we don't know how this economic turmoil will affect us over the long run, we don't know how the wars will turn out in the long run.
There is nothing to do but to live this life vigorously, to root our actions in the only thing we can know: this moment, this place.
Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1963
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Read by Kevin Free
I think my shift to preferring listening to a story to reading it began, ironically, when I read The Springboard by Stephen Denning⩘ . His observations made me more aware of the power and long history of oral storytelling. Prior to reading his book I felt it was almost cheating to listen to a book rather than read it. Now I look for excuses to listen: my commute, a plane ride, a few hours spent in my shop.
Of course, listening to someone read a written story complicates things; a poor reading can ruin a good story while a good reading can elevate an otherwise mediocre story. Once in awhile, like now, I stumble across the greatest gift: a brilliant performance of a wonderful story.
Jones has written a story that is horrifying and at the same time rich with the power of dignity, the possibility of better days, the promise of what can be achieved when each person is encouraged to explore their full potential and is free to contribute from the deep well of their personal talent.
There is an backdrop of blandness that frames much of the story, the recitation of government statistics that transforms a brutally enslaved person into a dollar figure in a column of assets, a man or woman who has beat the odds and survived an unimaginably courageous and terrifying escape into freedom as a loss in another column. This serves to enhance the bleeding flesh vividness of the real story.
Kevin Free's performance is pitch perfect. I have a friend with whom I exchange a few books now and then. As I listened to Free's last words and the silence that followed them, I found myself impatient to get this story to her as soon as I could. It is a story that can't wait to be told and told again, and a telling that will carry it along like a shout riding on the wind.
There are many soaringly beautiful and searingly astonishing passages in this book, too many to capture here, which makes listening again someday all the more compelling.
A runaway slave was, in fact, a thief since he had stolen his master's property—himself. They arrived about nine-thirty. Moses and one other man took Elias from the field and Oden sliced off about a third of his ear as everyone, including Henry, stood in the lane. Elias had his head down all the while except when Oden pulled it up to get the razor to do a better job. All of the lobe and then some. Oden always carried a pouch with a pepper poultice, which he blended with vinegar and mustard and a little salt—a proven remedy to halt the bleeding of even those who seemed to have more blood than other men. "The bleeders," Oden called them. Elias lowered his head again and stood with his hands at his side, refusing to hold the poultice in place. In the end, Oden had to tie the poultice on Elias's head with a rag Moses brought from his cabin.
Henry told Moses to take everybody back to the field. And there in the lane he paid Oden $1 for doing the job on Elias's ear. "You think it'll hold," Henry said after he and Oden and Skiffington had left the lane and were nearing Oden's saddleless horse and Skiffington's red mare. "I don't know," Oden said. "It depends of what kinda heart he got in him. But," and he took the reins, "I'll come back and do the rest of the ear and won't charge you."
… Oden said of Elias, "If he runs again, the rest of the ear I'll do for nothing, but I will have to charge you for any work done on that other ear." He mounted. He took part of the horse's main and ran his fingers through it, laid it to the rest on the left side of the horse's neck. Skiffington mounted and said, "I ain't never seen a servant with both his ears gone." "I have," Oden said, "but it whatn't me that done it." Henry said, "That would be a shame. To have em both gone." Oden, being a Cherokee, wouldn't have merited a "Mr." if Henry had called him by name. "Yes, it would be," Oden said. "Just remember I gotta charge you for the other ear. Thas only fair. But I'll do the rest of that one for nothin. Won't cost you a cent."
A week later he was at her door again and she was in the doorway and he opened a little piece of rag and presented a comb he had carved out of a piece of wood. The comb was rough, certainly one of the crudest and ugliest instruments in the history of the world. Not one tooth looked like another; some of teeth were far too thick, but most of them were very thin, the result of whittling away with the hope he was approaching some kind of perfection. "Oh," Celeste said. "Oh, my." She took it and smiled. "My goodness gracious."
"It ain't much."
"It be the whole world. You givin it to me?"
"Well, my goodness gracious." She tried to run the comb through her hair but the comb failed in its duty. "Oh, my," Celeste said as she struggled with it. Several teeth broke off. "Oh, my."
He reached up and taking her hand with the comb, they extricated it from her hair. "I done broke it," she said when they had pulled it away. "Dear Lord, I done broke it."
"Pay it no mind," Elias said.
"But you gave it to me, Elias." Aside from the food in her stomach and clothes on her back and a little of nothing in a corner of her cabin, the comb was all she had. A child of three could have toted around all she owned all day long and not gotten tired.
"We can do another one." He reached up and picked out the comb's teeth that had broken off in her hair.
"I'll make you a comb for every hair on your head."
She began to cry. "Thas easy to say today cause the sun be shinin. Tomorrow, maybe next week, there won't be no sun and you won't be studyin no comb."
He said again, " I'll make you a comb for every hair on your head." He dropped the broken teeth onto the ground and she closed her hand tight over what was left of the comb.
She put her face into her other hand and cried. There had been a slave on the plantation she had come from who had come upon her in a field of corn and told her that a woman like her should be shot, like a horse with a broken leg. And she had cried then as well.
Elias put his arms around her, tentative, for this was the first time. He trembled and the trembling increased the closer she got to his body. He kissed the side of her head, near the hairline, and his lips met not only her skin and hair but a tooth from the comb that he had somehow missed.
When Augustus Townsend died in Georgia near the Florida line, he rose up above the barn where he had died, up above the trees and the crumbling smokehouse and the little family house nearby, and he walked away quick-like, toward Virginia. He discovered that when people were above it all they walked faster, as much as a hundred times faster than when they were confined to the earth. And so he reached Virginia in little or no time. He came to the house he had built for his family, for Mildred his wife and Henry his son, and he opened and went through the door. He thought she might be at the kitchen table, unable to sleep and drinking something to ease her mind. But he did not find his wife there. Augustus went upstairs and found Mildred sleeping in their bed. He looked at her for a long time, certainly as long as it would have taken him, walking up above it all, to walk to Canada and beyond. Then he went to the bed, leaned over and kissed her left breast.
The kiss went through the breast, through the skin and bone and came to the cage that protected the heart. Now the kiss, like so many kisses, had all manner of keys, but it, like so many kisses was forgetful, and it could not find the right key to the cage. So in the end, frustrated, desperate, the kiss squeezed through the bars and kissed Mildred's heart. She woke immediately and she knew her husband was gone forever. All breath went and she was seized with such a pain that she had to come to her feet. But the room and the house were not big enough to contain her pain and she stumbled out of the room, out and down the stairs, out through the door that Augustus, as usual, had left open. The dog watched her from the hearth. Only in the yard could she begin to breathe again. And breath brought tears. She fell to her knees, out in the open yard, in her nightclothes, something Augustus would not have approved of.
Augustus died on Wednesday.
Amistad, New York, 2003; HarperAudio, 2004
Neal Stephenson, Anathem
Read by William Dufris, with short passages read by Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, and Neal Stephenson, and including original music written by composer David Stutz and sung by Jeremy Bornstein, Rebekah Gilmore, David Kreuger, Melissa Plagemann, Mark Powell, Adam Steele, Linda Strandberg, David Stutz, Thomas Thompson, and James Whetzel.
This is a story that rewards patience. It is set on another world similar but not quite the same as our own, a world with a much longer recorded history than our own. The deepest thinkers—scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians—of this world live a monastic, though non-religious, life apart from the Sæculars in walled enclaves called concents. Some orders interact with the Sæcular world (the Sæculum) only once per decade, others only once per century, and still others only once per millennium. The separation is designed to allow pure thinking uncontaminated by the hysteria of daily events unfolding in the Sæculum.
Stephenson reveals this 7,000-year-old world slowly, at the pace the inhabitants of these monasteries of thinkers live, and with a precision that produces a 20-page glossary. Some readers used to the breathlessly rushing momentum of today's standard thrillers (which I would argue are boring in their repetitive similarity) may find this pace frustrating, but relaxing into it brings rich rewards, as it allows us to become imbued with the atmosphere and to deeply understand its raison d'être.
When Stephenson finally injects the tension of a life and planet-threatening challenge to the story, we're ready to participate in solving it along with the young thinkers who have the flexibility of mind that enables them to make startling leaps in analysis and understanding, and the ancient thinkers who can contribute the perspective of centuries of deep, contemplative thinking.
It is interesting to contrast the approach of these thinkers to solving a crisis with how we do it in our own world. Where we rush about breathlessly sharing hastily constructed, incomprehensibly dense presentations followed by rapid-fire brainstorming sessions leading to sound bite saturated strategies that change before everyone they impact has understood or even heard about them (witness the way our current economic crisis has unfolded and is being solved), the deep thinkers of Anathem solve their crisis, one of immense magnitude and immediacy, by discussing it over long, small team dinners, mixing the next day with other teams who have tackled other aspects of the challenge, pondering the implications and intersections their discussions are revealing, exploring theories and posing new questions, before coming back to together for another evening of discussion over dinner.
By this time in the story, Sæculars have joined the thinkers and find themselves totally frustrated by the lack of measurable progress, action items, bulleted lists, and roadmaps at the end of each day. What can they report back to their leaders? Surely not the intricacies of a slowly unfolding thoughtful discussion that as yet hasn't produced any hard conclusions.
When Stephenson introduces the concept of polycosmic thought and physical space travel, the thinkers deconstruct it with an intellectual rigor unfettered by social or political blinders, and their understanding unfolds as elegant and plausible.
A magnificent tour de force.
Of the orb's inner surface, about half was under water. The remainder constituted the "sky." This was blue, and had a sun in it. The blue was painted on, but it was possible to forget this unless you looked at the portals to Orbs Eleven and Nine. These hung in the firmament like very strange astronomical bodies, and were linked by cable-chair systems to houseboats below. The sun was a bundle of optical fibers bringing processed and filtered light that had been harvested by parabolic horns on the exterior of the icosahedron. The fibers were fixed in place on the ceiling of the orb, but by routing the light to different fibers at different times of the day, they created the illusion that the sun was moving across the sky. At night it got dark, but as Jules had explained, fiber-pipes were hard-routed to the indoor growing facilities in the cellars of many houseboats so that plants could grow around the clock. The system was so productive that these Geometers were capable of sustaining a population density like that of a moderately crowded city solely on what was produced in the city itself.
Hylaean Theoric World: The name used by most adherants of Protism to denote the higher plane of existence populated by perfect geometric forms, theorems, and other pure ideas (cnoöns).
Hypotrochian Transquaestiation: Only one of a very large number of rhetorical tactics drilled into fids, particularly those under the tutelage of Procians. It means to change the subject in such a way as to assert, implicitly, that a controversial point has already been settled one way or the other.
Iconography: An oversimplified and, in most cases, wildly inaccurate schema used by Sæculars to make sense of what little they know of the mathic world, often taking the form of conspiracy theory or an allusion to characters and situations from popular entertainments.
Icosahedron: A roughly spherical geometric figure with twenty faces, each of which is an equilateral triangle.
Inbrase: A rarely celebrated aut in which Peregrins are welcomed back into the mathic world following a journey through the Sæculum.
The storytelling by William Dufris is awe inspiring. He matches the atmosphere of the story with a pitch perfect cadence, providing unique, believable voices for a wide variety of characters, which makes it easy to follow them as they reappear over the course of 34 hours. The gorgeous, other worldly monastic chanting is performed with a passion that can be felt deep inside, bringing vibrantly alive the environment of the concents with their ancient stone walls steeped in millennia of contemplative thoughtfulness.
Morrow, New York, 2008; Macmillan Audio, New York, 2008
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
The Story of Success
Malcolm Gladwell has the knack of helping us to see what lies in plain sight before us but is obscured by our preconceptions. He does this so well that it's easy to walk away from his books saying, "Of course," forgetting that just before we started reading, we had no conscious idea of the insights he points out.
Though I had read and appreciated both of his previous books—The Tipping Point⩘ and Blink⩘ —I didn't reach my own personal tipping point to decide to read this, his third, until someone who has browsed my reviews wrote to suggest several books to me, including Outliers. Thanks, David, for providing the necessary nudge!
In Outliers, Gladwell reveals the factors that provided opportunities to successful people in many different fields from sports to technology, music to law, piloting to rice farming. In each case, he discusses the enabling circumstances hidden right before our eyes that opened the opportunity.
That's not to suggest that it's all about being at the right place at the right time. Gladwell also discusses the importance of hard work, very hard work, in enabling success. Sometimes the enabling circumstances provided the opportunity to put in the thousands of hours of practice required to become truly outstanding in a field, other times they provided the opening to capitalize on the already completed training.
The magic number is apparently 10,000 hours of practice. (No wonder I still fumble a bit when tackling projects related to my weekend woodworking hobby; it takes many years of weekends to add up to that many hours!)
Gladwell's own story—the story of how his family benefited from these moments of opportunity and, coupled with their willingness to work the long hours, achieved significant sgenerational advances—is a touching finale to the book.
An excellent read.
The perfect age to be in 1975, in other words, is old enough to be part of the coming revolution but not so old that you missed it. Ideally, you want to be twenty or twenty-one, which is to say, born in 1954 or 1955.
Bill Gates: October 28, 1955
Paul Allen: January 21, 1953
Steve Balmer: March 24, 1956
Steve Jobs: February 24, 1955
Eric Schmidt: April 27, 1955
Bill Joy: November 8, 1954
Scott McNealy: November 13, 1954
Vinod Khosla: January 28, 1955
Andy Bechtolsheim: September 30, 1955
[E]xtraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity.
The particular skill that allows you to talk your way out of a murder rap, or convince your professor to move you from the morning to the afternoon section, is what psychologist Robert Sternberg calls "practical intelligence." To Sternberg, practical intelligence includes things like "knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect." It is procedural: it is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it. It's practical in nature: that is, it's not knowledge for its own sake. it's knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want. And, critically, it is a kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. To use the technical term, general intelligence and practical intelligence are "orthogonal": the presence of one doesn't imply the presence of the other. You can have lots of analytical intelligence and very little practical intelligence, or lots of practical intelligence and not much analytical intelligence, or—as in the lucky case of someone like Robert Oppenheimer [who talked himself out of a murder rap and went on to become scientific director of the Manhattan Project]—you can have lots of both.
[N]o one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.
[T]hree things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.
That's what Schoenfeld attempts to teach his students. Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.
I recently came across something Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics⩘ , said during his wonderful talk at the 2005 TED conference that sums it up really well: "Learn from everyone. Follow no one. Watch for patterns. Work like hell." It's interesting that the talented McCloud has benefited from working on his craft at a time when the appreciation for the art of comics has gone through a resurgence.
Little, Brown, New York, 2008
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward
With a disarmingly gentle voice and the razor-sharp intelligence of one of our world's most preeminent scientists, Dawkins shines a bright light on the God hypothesis and religion.
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2006
Guy Kawasaki, Reality Check
The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition
Just a quarter way into this book and I've already learned much.
This is what I've learned from this interview [with Michael Raynor, author of The Strategy Paradox: Why Committing to Success Leads to Failure (and What to Do About It)]. First, I'm not so smart if a company that I invest in succeeds. Second, I'm not so dumb if a company that I invest in fails. Third, you take your best shot at analysis, place your bet on the table, work your ass off, and don't look back. That's how you build a great company.
Portfolio, New York, 2008
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
Brilliant! A funny, sobering, sweeping epic.
It is trite to observe that hackers don't like fancy clothes. Avi has learned that good clothes can actually be comfortable—the slacks that go with a business suit, for example, are really much more comfortable than blue jeans. And he has spent enough time with hackers to obtain the insight that it is not wearing suits that they object to, so much as getting them on. Which includes not the donning process per se but also picking them out, maintaining them, and worrying whether they are still in style—this last being especially difficult for men who wear suits once every five years.
He has always had a weird, sick fascination with women who smoked and drank a lot. Amy does neither, but her complete disregard of modern skin-cancer precautions puts her in the same category: people too busy leading their lives to worry about extending their life expectancy.
Avon, New York, 1999
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Unabridged audio read by Will Patton
Funny that I've never read this book before. I spent a significant chunk of my younger years on the road, got down to my last few dollars with no backup a couple times, and experienced that exhilarating feeling of moving forward on trust alone, eyes wide open, drinking in unfiltered life.
Yet for as much that I recognized in this story, it made me feel continuously uncomfortable for the careless way the characters treat the precious gift of life and each other. There is a lack of consciousness, a degree of irresponsibility, and a level of selfishness that is simply untenable, and it made me sad. When Sal goes into a ramshackle roadside grocery story, hears the family in the back eating their dinner together, and steals a loaf of bread and some other groceries, he and his cohorts are jubilant that they have the fuel to continue their journey, but my heart went out to the unseen family, a bit poorer for the violation of trust that has been visited upon them.
That said, the writing itself is wonderful, with passion-infused riffs of pure poetry that go on for pages. And Will Patton is brilliant. He doesn't so much narrate the story as sing it, dance it, breathe joy into it. At times it sounds like he can barely contain his enthusiasm at his performance, as though he wants to rush to the end in one long crescendo of ecstasy and at the same time linger over each phrase and thought. This is storytelling at its very finest.
We had longer ways to go, but no matter, the road is life.
Penguin Audio, New York, 2007
Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Translated from Swedish by Reg Keeland
An unflinchingly brutal and startling examination of sexual and corporate malfeasance, with foreshadowings of today's economic collapse.
Blomkvist's extraordinary absence was part of the media strategy that he and Berger had put together. Every newspaper in the country was looking for him. Not until the book was launched did he give an exclusive interview to She on T.V.4, once again scooping thee state-run stations. But the questions were anything but sycophantic.
Blomkvist was especially pleased with one exchange when he watched a video of his appearance. The interview was broadcast live at the very moment when the Stockholm Stock Exchange found itself in freefall and a handful of financial yuppies were threatening to throw themselves out of windows. He was asked what was Millennium's responsibility with regard to the fact that Sweden's economy was now headed for a crash.
"The idea that Sweden's economy is headed for a crash is nonsense," Blomkvist said.
The host of She on T.V.4 looked perplexed. His reply did not follow the pattern she had expected, and she was forced to improvise. Blomkvist got the follow-up question he was hoping for. "We're experiencing the largest single drop in the history of the Swedish Stock Exchange—and you think that's nonsense?"
"You have to distinguish between two things—the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. There are telephones from Ericsson, cars from Volvo, chickens from Scan, and shipments from Kiruna to Skövde. That's the Swedish economy, and it's just as strong or weak today as it was a week ago."
He paused for effect and took a sip of water.
"The Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn't have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy."
"So you're saying that it doesn't matter if the Stock Exchange drops like a rock?"
"No, it doesn't matter at all," Blomkvist said in a voice so weary and resigned that he sounded like some sort of oracle. His words would be quoted many times over the following year. Then he went on.
"It only means that a bunch of heavy speculators are now moving their shareholdings from Swedish companies to German ones. So it's the financial gnomes that some tough reporter should identify and expose as traitors. They're the ones who are systematically and perhaps deliberately damaging the Swedish economy in order to satisfy the profit interests of their clients."
Then She on T.V.4 made the mistake of asking exactly the question that Blomkvist had hoped for.
"And so you think that the media doesn't have any responsibility?"
"Oh yes, the media do have an enormous responsibility. For at least twenty years very many financial reporters have refrained from scrutinising Hans-Erik Wennerström. On the contrary, they have actually helped to build up his prestige by publishing brainless, idolatrous portraits. If they had been doing their work properly, we would not find ourselves in this situation today."
1½ years later (summer 2010): After reading the first two books in the Millennium trilogy, I pre-ordered the third from England, as it was published there sooner than here in the U.S., and immensely enjoyed reading it as soon as it arrived. Then I waited impatiently for Simon Vance's unabridged reading of the third book. As soon as it was released, I listed to the entire trilogy as I took my morning walks and drove my commute this spring and early summer. Simon Vance delivers! Just as I finished listening, the Swedish movie of the first book—directed by Niels Arden Oplev, and starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace—was released in the U.S., with English subtitles.
Related video: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Trailer⩘
I am so happy to have been able to watch this movie after having read (and listened to) the books. Certainly the movie could stand on its own—it's fantastic!—but it necessarily is not as rich in detail as the book, and it would be a pity if someone watched the movie, but didn't take the opportunity to read and/or listen to the book as well.
I've read that the second book has been made into a film in Sweden, also starring Nyqvist and Rapace, but it's not yet available in the U.S.
I'm disappointed to hear that this film will be re-made in Hollywood. There is no way that Hollywood is going to be able to come anywhere near the gritty realism portrayed in the Swedish film. I can't imagine any American actor who can deliver this story the way Nyqvist has, nor any American actress who can deliver it the way Rapace has.
MacLehose, London, 2008 (2005)
Richard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety 2
A wonderful book, full of generously shared wisdom, by the guy who has been bringing us the amazing TED conferences⩘ .
My expertise has always been my ignorance, my admission and acceptance of not knowing. My work comes from questions, not from answers.
The notion of learning to walk has lingered in my mind, and I've contemplated the process of teaching someone to walk again. I realized that this process has a lot to do with thrusting a leg out into the terror of losing your balance, then regaining your equilibrium, moving you forward, then repeating with your other leg. Failure as loss of balance, the success of equilibrium, and you move forward. Terror of failing, confidence, regaining your balance—it's a fascinating metaphor for life. Risk is half the process of moving forward. The risk of falling is inherent in achieving a goal.
I also really love his stunningly beautiful book, Information Architects⩘ .
Que, Indianapolis, 2001