Enjoyable Light Reading

Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One was a runaway bestseller when it was published in 2011. It combined video game and pop culture references with a wonderful story and vibrant characters. The author’s second novel Armada is in the same vein. Unfortunately, neither the story nor the characters are of the same quality as his first book.

Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed Armada. I couldn’t put it down, finishing it in only two days. However, the plot was The Last Starfighter meets Ender’s Game. I found it predictable. The author attempted to overcome this by actually referring to those two stories, but that was a bit too meta and didn’t really work for me.

The characters weren’t nearly as engaging as his debut. I didn’t spend enough time with most of them to build any kind of relationship or feeling for them. But, again, I still really enjoyed the book.

Like his first book, the author loads the story with 80s pop culture, video game, and science fiction references. Somehow many to most of them feel a bit tacked on and occasionally remote. I had to look up more than I did in his first book. But maybe that’s just me.

My bottom line for this novel is that it’s good enough. It is a light, fun, quick read. It didn’t challenge me or make me think. It was bubble gum for my reading life. And sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.

The Experience of Women

Last evening, I finished reading Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. It won the 2019 Oregon Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the Neukom Award for Speculative Fiction. And for good reason, I think.

The story is a dystopian future in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In many ways, I prefer Red Clocks. This is mainly because it is much more accessible and hits much closer to the world we live in today. Atwood’s story takes place in a future where a conservative Christian coup has taken place and overthrown the government of the United States. The result is a society that subjugates women in the name of protecting them. It is certainly a scary prospect but feels a bit remote.

Zumas’ tale could take place any time in the next decade, should things go in that direction. No date is given but it feels like today with a few twists.

Two years ago the United States Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned, because the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.)

Chapter 10, Red Clock by Leni Zumas

The story is about four women that are each dealing with challenges in their lives that are made more challenging by these laws. The magic is in the storytelling; the author never goes into a lengthy exposition about why these laws are wrong. The strength of the novel is in simply showing how these laws affect the women, individually and personally.

The girl slumps down against a green filing cabinet. Holds her head in both hands, knees up to her chest, rocking a little. “I just want it out of my body. I want to stop being infiltrated. God, please get this out of my body. Make this stop.” Rocking, rocking.

She is terrified, realizes the biographer….

Mattie is a kid, light boned and soft cheeked. She can’t even legally drive.

Four and a half months.

Of swelling and aching and burning and straining and worrying and waiting and feeling her body burst its banks. Of hiding from the stares in town, the questions at school. Of seeing the faces, each day, of her parents as they watch the grandchild who won’t be their grandchild be grown. Having to wonder, later on, where is the someone she grew.

Chapter 100, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

This story helps to break the illusion that difficult questions like these are black and white. They affect real people whose welfare and future need to be taken into account.

The characters are compelling and fully human. This is exactly the kind of speculative fiction that I like most, taking a current possibility and extending it into a near future to explore what the consequences might be. The result is both entertaining and thought provoking. Thank you, Professor Zumas.

Digital Reading and Writing

reMarkable Tablet

I love to read. And my preferred method of reading is on my ereader. Currently I have a Kobo Aura ONE that I use. That’s the hardware. I don’t use the default Kobo software, though. It is good enough, but I found an open source project that I like even better. I was able to load it on my Kobo alongside the existing software. It’s called KOReader. Using this ereader software, I can read on my phone or my ereader, anywhere, any time. And I can queue up any number of books that I want to read. That way I have many choices for my next book when I finish the one I am reading. I also always have my books with me, on my phone or ereader. I try to use my down time to read rather than play games or surf social media.

Today, while I was surfing social media, I saw an ad on Facebook for an eInk tablet called reMarkable. Normally, I don’t click on Facebook ads, mostly because they usually aren’t anything I care about. But this was for a product that I am familiar with. I passed on the first version of the reMarkable tablet. It seemed to have all the flaws of a version one. But this ad was for the second iteration. I decided to click through and learn more.

It bills itself as the tool for reading and marking up PDF files. It also allows users to take notes digitally with an included pen. They even say they have given it the feel of writing on paper. In fact, they call this “digital paper”. You can take notes in your own handwriting and convert them to typed text with OCR. And all this syncs with your phone and computer. What it does not do is distract you with email, games, or social media. It sounded amazing and like something I would use. It is a little on the expensive side, but I decided to pre-order it.

It also serves as an ereader, reading epub files, so I was thinking that it could become my everyday ereader. I have a couple of magazine subscriptions that come with a PDF version of the print edition. I plan on reading those on the reMarkable tablet, so I was thinking maybe I could move all of my reading to it. I did some research and others are saying that it is a subpar ereader. When I searched to see if KOReader was available for it, I found that it is!

Now I am very excited to receive this device and see how it measures up to my plans for it. It won’t ship until September, so I have a bit of a wait. In the meantime, I’ll continue to read on my Kobo and take notes in my notebooks. Happy reading!

Women Focused Reading

Without intending to consciously, I find myself reading what I think of as feminist literature. Years ago I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’ve started to get back into science fiction and decided to read it’s sequel, The Testaments. I started reading it on Saturday and just finished it.

On Saturday, I read about another feminist speculative fiction novel entitled Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. It’s about a future where “abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo.” This dystopia seems a little closer and a little scarier. I’m looking forward to reading it.

I don’t remember where I learned about it, but yesterday I started reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s already eye opening. The ideas aren’t all that new to me, but it is giving me a perspective I didn’t have before. Here is an example from the introduction.

The presumption that what is male is universal is a direct consequence of the gender data gap. Whiteness and maleness can only go without saying because most other identities never get said at all. But male universality is also a cause of the gender data gap: because women aren’t seen and aren’t remembered, because male data makes up the majority of what we know, what is male comes to be seen as universal. It leads to the positioning of women, half the global population, as a minority.

Obvious, but somehow I had never realized how ridiculous it is to refer to women as a minority as they are half of the population. I’m looking forward to learning even more as I read.

Learning From Others

Nelson Mandela

Today I finished reading Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage by Richard Stengel. It’s sort of a biography formatted into lessons. I really appreciated this format. It allowed the author to focus on ideas throughout Mandela’s life rather than focusing on a time-based approach.

I bought this book many years ago and only just read it. I expected it to be a sort of leadership or business book applying the lessons of a great leader to those worlds. I was surprised to find that it was much more approachable than that. It is really a series of life lessons that apply to all aspects of life.

I sometimes read a book and struggle to make myself come back to it and finish. At first that happened to me with this book. I think that was because I was looking at it through a business lens. Once I shifted my perspective and saw it as a biography of life lessons to learn, I found myself eager to continue reading.

While I did not find any of the lessons earth shattering or new, there is great value in seeing how common life principles were lived by someone so much a part of history as Mandela was. And the author does not shy from Mandela’s flaws; this is no hagiography. In my opinion, that only make is more valuable. Life is messy. Learning how others applied life principles, successfully or not, is a great way to spend my time reading.

Escaping My Echo Chamber

echo canyon

We all live in an echo chamber constructed by the algorithms that build our newsfeeds. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media do their best to feed us more of what we like in order to keep us on their site or in their app. I recently decided that I wanted to get out of this box.

I think it is important to seek out ideas different than my own. I want to understand how the world works not only from my own perspective but from that of others who may think differently than I do. But I recently started to notice that all of the news I was seeing seemed to have the same slant. It felt repetitive and one-sided and made me uncomfortable. It reinforced what I already think and believe, but what about people on the other side? Surely they must have a valid perspective that led them to think the way they do. So I decided to take action.

The first thing I did was to seek out more news sources. I don’t read, listen to, or watch much news. I mostly listen to NPR in the car and occasionally look at Facebook online. I started by seeking out two separate news sources, one from the left (CNN) and one from the right (Fox News). I looked daily at each home page and read one or two of the articles there. After a few days of this, I’d had enough. I still felt like I was in an echo chamber, or rather two completely separate echo chambers with little depth to the reporting.

What I wanted was a more nuanced and complete picture of what is going on. Both of these sites operate on the “headline news” model. What’s happening now is what’s important to them. Getting there first is the driver as well as keeping people on their sites to view their ads. I wanted something deeper. I knew there were real people behind these stories, but I wasn’t seeing that in the reporting.

My next step was to subscribe to The Flip Side, a service that sends a daily email about a particular topic in the news with excerpts from the left, right, and in-between. It is a quick five-minute read each day that helps give me perspective on the headlines without drowning me in the partisanship. Very valuable and free. This was an improvement, but I was still missing a more complete picture.

So I sought out long form journalism with different perspectives, one left, one right. I settled on The Atlantic and Reason, respectively. I noticed that I had been reading and appreciating a lot of articles in The Atlantic. And Reason was a magazine I was familiar with and respected. I started to read what was on each website when I wanted to find out more about what was in the news. I found more substance and reporters genuinely seeking to understand things rather than spout a party line. Granted, they each are coming from their own world view, but they do so with thought and care that goes much deeper than throwing up a flashy headline as clickbait.

My final, and to me most important step, was that I now subscribe to both of these publications. I value what they do and having both of their perspectives. And if I value what they do and want them to continue doing it, I need to support them financially.

Today I get my news from both the left and the right and feel like I have a better perspective on the world and better insight into why each side feels the way they do. And I think that helps me be a better citizen than being stuck in an echo chamber that just tells me what I already know and like.

Both Republican AND Democrat

I try not to be dogmatic about my political positions, and they don’t collectively fit neatly within either of the two major US political parties. Recently, I’ve found myself looking more at the humanity of our issues and the people struggling with them in an effort to find practical solutions. Unfortunately, our politics don’t seem to be moving in that direction. I see a growing need to balance communal well-being and individual rights. It’s a “both/and” situation rather than an “either/or”. We need both collective action and individual responsibility. And the only open path in that direction is kindness and a willingness to see the humanity in the “other”.

Members of both political parties rally around their principles even as they demonize the opposition. It might be more accurate to say that they have weaponized their principles. They behave like ruthless players in the game of Monopoly attempting to destroy their opponents. It has become us vs. them rather than simply us working together to find mutually agreed upon ways to address our collective issues.

We need to recognize that we are all members of one family, US citizens. And like all families, we won’t always agree. But how we choose to disagree is critical to us continuing to behave like a family and move forward together. Politicians set up issues in false pairs, implying that we cannot address the challenges presented by refugees at our southern border while at the same time improving the lot of our underemployed and working poor in our own country. We can do both, but that requires us to be willing to listen to and learn from our political rivals. This is the lesson we need to learn from our modern divided politics.

The election of Donald Trump as president was the result of our unwillingness to listen rather than its cause. Because ideological purity had become so much a part of modern politics, rural America felt isolated and unheard, even unrepresented. Trump tapped into that and made them feel seen and heard. But the way he did it has divided the country even further. Trump encouraged supporters who chanted “Lock her up!” while Clinton referred to half of his supporters as a “basket of deplorables”.

The answer to this dilemma is neither the blustering hyperbole of the president nor the self-righteous indignation of his opposition. Instead all of us on both sides need to see that our opposition has a perspective that we are lacking. We need to learn from each other what we are missing from our political evaluations. We need to “seek first to understand, then to be understood“. And the first step in this direction is to see the humanity in our rivals and to treat them with kindness. Like all good things in life, this will be difficult, requiring action with no guarantee of reciprocity. But if no one is willing to go first, the only direction we are heading is more divided politics.

Overcoming Obstacles

man jumping across a small chasm

It has been a very rainy fall where I live. In fact, a few weeks back as I passed through the woods on my morning walk, I discovered my way blocked where the path was flooded. No problem, I thought. I know another path through. I backtracked and followed the other path. I soon came upon a similar situation. I tried going around the flooded path but found no success. I struggled to decide what to do.

I could simply walk back the way I had came instead of completing my regular loop. But that felt like giving up without trying, which I didn’t want to do. So, I headed back to the first path to look for a way through or around.

Once I arrived, I could see there was no way around. The flooding was too extensive. I looked for the shortest span I thought I could jump across without getting wet. I did my best to make it, but got my feet went anyway. I sloshed a short distance and came upon more flooding on my path. This time there were logs that I could walk across to stay dry. It was cold and the logs were slippery, but I managed to not get wet again. The rest of my walk home was soggy but obstacle-free.

As I walked home, I thought about what had happened. I was happy to not have been thwarted by the flooded paths. But I wanted to find a better way to get over them, one that would leave my feet dry. I didn’t know what I would do, but I was determined to find a way.

The next time I walked through those woods, the flooding had not receded at all. This time I found a fallen branch that I laid across the place I had jumped across previously. Then I found a long, thick branch to use as a walking stick. I used that to steady myself as I crossed the branch over the water. Success!

As I walked away, I realized I would need a walking stick the next day when I came back through. So I tossed the stick I had used back across the flooded area so I could use it the next morning. As I approached the next flooded area, I found another walking stick to cross over the logs and tossed it back for the next day’s walk.

Over the next week or so, the water slowly receded as I continued to use resources I had found in the woods to make my way down the path. Now the water has completely abated, but I am so grateful for the challenge that I overcame in the weeks previous. I feel stronger and more prepared to face difficulties on my walk should I encounter them.

During the those days when I had to get over or around that water in my path, something changed about my relationship to the woods and that path. I had been walking that woods since the summer and as fall progressed, it changed from dense green to being wide open and leafless. But it was more than that. My attention had been directed toward the pooling of water in the woods. I was noticing subtle low-lying areas that I had simply walked past before without noticing. By changing where my focus was, the obstacles had deepened and broadened my experience of the woods.

This lesson reminds of a book that I read last summer, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs by Ryan Holiday. Every day has its obstacles and difficulties. When I encounter them, I can choose to give up and turn back. Or, I can look around me for the resources to find a way around, through, or over the difficulty. In doing so, I will gain a perspective and vision that I had not had prior to the trial. Even though I don’t actively seek out challenges in my life, I no longer try so hard to avoid them. They are helping me grow into the person I strive to become.

Go for a Walk

person walking on a path amongst fallen leaves

For some time I have taken a twenty to thirty minute walk each morning. Before I started doing this, I often took similar length walks during my lunch break at work, walking around the building by myself or with a co-worker. While I don’t remember when I started doing this, I do know why I do this. The reason is simple – it boosts my productivity.

On these walks, I don’t look at my phone. And I don’t try to work through a challenge I may be having. In fact, quite the opposite. I try to clear my mind, to simply be present in the moment and enjoy my immediate surroundings. It’s kind of a mini vacation from my work and troubles. So, how does this boost my productivity? The time away refreshes me in much the same way a vacation does, despite the small amount of time “away”. I learned about the remarkable power of down time years ago while programming in my own database consulting company.

In addition to talking with clients and potential customers, each day I worked at a computer, writing database programs. It wasn’t that unusual during a session of programming to run into a problem that did not yield immediately. As I continued to try to troubleshoot and unravel the issue, I would get more and more frustrated and more and more stubborn. I was dedicated to finding a solution! Sometimes I would spend all day on a problem, not even taking a break to eat lunch. Eventually, I would have to come out of my office for dinner, grumpy and unsuccessful. It took a while, but slowly I would let go of the problem as I ate and spent time with my family. The next morning as I was getting ready for work, showering or shaving, I almost always got a flash of inspiration for how to proceed. It wasn’t always the ultimate solution, but I was no longer stuck. I had a direction to go in that moved me closer to resolution.

Eventually, I began to see this pattern repeated. So, I stopped beating on problems when I got stuck, angry, and frustrated. I learned that the most productive thing was to step away from the problem and do something unrelated, often some sort of rest or play. As a result, I used the feeling of being stuck as a trigger to let go and move on to something else. Over time, instead of waiting for a problem to take advantage of this phenomenon, I began to build in quiet time and adequate rest in order to work as optimally as possible.

Modern research on sleep, rest, and play has shown that the current fascination with “working hard” and bragging about how little time we have or how little sleep we get is actually counterproductive. Our brains require rest and open-ended play in order to process the inputs we receive every hour of every day (Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang).

So don’t wait until you are so frustrated with a problem that you are swearing up a storm or throwing things across the room. Be proactive and take time out to rest and play. And if you have already crossed the line into anger and frustration, go for a walk. It’s likely the most productive thing you can do.

It’s All Personal

Don Corleone from The Godfather saying, "It's not personal. It's just business."

“It’s not personal. It’s just business.” In my experience this is a common phrase used when a business person needs to do something that might be perceived as harsh or unkind. Personally, I have never subscribed to the message behind this statement. It suggests that our work and personal lives are separate and that we can make decisions in one area of our lives separate from the other. In short, it implies that we are two people – one at work and another at home. I don’t buy it. To me, it’s all personal.

As an employee, when someone makes a decision that adversely affects me, that’s personal. It affects my life in a profound way. Brushing it off by saying, “It’s just business” is disingenuous at best and self-delusional at worst. Every decision a boss or manager makes affects others personally. To pretend otherwise is simply bad business.

Nonetheless, business people have to make difficult decisions every day. And many, if not most, of these will make a direct and substantial difference in the lives of their employees and clients. How can those involved do this while maintaining their own humanity and respecting that of their employees and clients? I think the answer is simple, yet challenging. Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were on the receiving end of the bad news you are delivering. Here is an example.

Times are tough. Your company just lost its biggest client. You have reduced all other expenses as much as you can. Now you have to start letting some of your employees go. This is hard for you. You have built a cohesive team that feels closer to family than employees. How can you let some of them go? “It’s not personal. It’s just business.” is simply not an option. Be frank with the employees you need to let go. Explain as much of the situation as you can. Offer to provide excellent references. Provide or pay for assistance to them in finding another job, if you are able. This not only makes it easier for them to come back should things turn around, it also means that they leave with a more positive feeling about you and your company. This is leaves doors open rather than dismissively (and perhaps unintentionally) shutting them in their face. In short, it is good business.

Admittedly, this is a simple example. There can be, and often are, many other factors that make such decisions hard to carry out. No matter the situation, the best business decision is to always acknowledge and respect the humanity in others. Business is nothing more than people dealing with each other in a market of some kind. There really is no separation between business and the personal. Bringing your humanity to work is good business, because it’s all personal.