Vital But Flawed Read

Earlier this year, I discovered The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work by Donald F Kettl. I saw it advertised on the page of The Atlantic magazine. To my understanding, federalism is part of what made and continues to make such a vast and diverse country as the United States of America work. The blurb in the ad intrigued me, and I decided to buy the book and read it.

While the content here is of vital importance to anyone living today in the United States of America, the presentation is in sore need of further editing. The ideas are complex and deserve a fair amount of repetition in the text. However, it is overly repetitive to the point where I repeatedly found myself skimming passages that I was sure I had read ten or twenty or fifty pages earlier.

That said, it is important that the evaluation of the problem covered in this book be distributed far and wide. The solution proposed does not come till the final chapter, and it is embarrassingly meager and inadequate. Nonetheless, it is the description of the role of federalism and its role in our current political dysfunction that I find most compelling. It uses a blend of history and data to show how what was meant to (and has) preserved our republic for over two hundred years, is now on the verge of tearing us apart.

So I hesitatingly recommend reading this book. But if you can find a detailed summary of its ideas, this might serve you better. I can only hope that a second edition more ably edited will be forthcoming. I expect it might then become a bestseller.

Infinite Detail Indeed

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan is speculative fiction at its best. It feels only a few years (if that) removed from today and has a perspective that really makes the book unique. While some may call it a dystopia, I see it more as an exploration of revolutionary idealists and their perspectives after the revolution.

There has been an event that knocks out the internet all over the world. It’s gone, along with all the trappings that go with it. The world struggles to manage without all that it has come to depend on. And it appears to have been done on purpose. Why? There are lots of reasons that are best experienced in the book itself. But in the end, the revolutionaries debate whether they got it right or not. And will things just go back to normal? And like any good artist, the author poses the question and leaves the answer to the reader.

On top of this fascinating exploration of political ideals in the realm of digital privacy, the author is a fantastic storyteller. The chapters alternate between before and after the internet is taken away. We slowly learn the stories of individuals who were affected by the events or made them happen. The connections slowly come to light as the prose paints vivid and realistic views of a world that could someday be our own.

If you are looking for an entertaining, well-written novel that will make you think, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Seeing the “Other”

As soon as I finished Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, I went to my library’s web site to borrow and start reading the sequel Starsight immediately. It does not disappoint. And where the first book was kind of like Top Gun in space, this followup is more of a spy thriller in space. Warning: casual spoilers ahead. I will end up revealing things you won’t know if you haven’t read both books, but nothing that I think will completely ruin your experience should you decide to read them.

For me, the beauty of this book can be summed up in the pseudo word “sonder”. It is defined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

The main character, Spensa, goes on a mission as an undercover spy to discover a way to save her people. In the process, she interacts with a number of different races of aliens who are part of the intergalactic society known as the Superiority. As humans have been kept captive on her world for centuries, she sees all these races as her enemies to be overcome and defeated. But in the process of her spy work, she engages closely with a number of them, even becoming friendly with some. She starts to experience a form of sonder realizing that not all of these people are her enemies, not even all in the Superiority government.

Oh, Saints and stars. I couldn’t keep up the warrior act any longer. These weren’t my enemies. Some parts of the Superiority were, of course, but these people…they were just people. Mrs. Chamwit probably wasn’t a spy, but was instead really just a kindly housekeeper who wanted to see me fed. And Morriumur…they just wanted to be a pilot.

Chapter 28, Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

This is what I love about science fiction. In the midst of a page-turning story, I found an exploration of the very same challenges we find in our daily lives. And these experiences sometimes help me to see and have experiences wholly different from mine. A whole different perspective opens up.

This feels particularly important to me in our current polarized times. It is easy to see others who don’t think like me, as enemies or “others”. But they are all the main characters in their own lives with their own struggles and triumphs. And I believe that remembering this on a regular basis will help bring the world closer together. We won’t all agree, but I hope that by seeing the “other” as someone just like us trying to figure it all out, we can have some compassion and patience. And with that, we may even find ourselves not so far apart as we initially thought.

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.