Philip K Dick – The Man in the High Castle

I swore that I’d read more fiction and as this blog shows, I’ve failed miserably.   I was at a used book store when I came across this book, an alternate reality to WWII where the Allies lose and the United States is occupied by the Japanese and Germans. Seemed like a good way to dip my toe in the water after a lifetime of reading about actual wars.

The first hundred pages were all I’d hoped for. Himmler, Goebels and Gorring competing for power, Africa destroyed by Nazi genocide, the Japanese colonizing the West Coast. Just as Americans picked over the cultural corpse of Native Americans by collecting trinkets like dreamcatchers or feather headdresses, the Japanese create a market around kitschy relics of a lost American civilization in the form of Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War muskets.

What would it be like to be on the other side of history? The vanquished instead of the victor, learning some other language, worshiping a foreign God and having to carefully show reverence to your new superiors and their customs. Something as simple as handshakes replaced with bowing would constantly irritate me I’m sure. What if the West were obliterated? I felt a bit queasy just reading about it, which naturally gives way to empathy for any conquered or oppressed people.  I’m as self-absorbed and unimaginative as anyone so it’s easier to empathize when the hypothetical scenario involves me or people like me.  So far so good.

This book was like eating a five star restaurant, beautifully decorated, impeccable service, top flight chef, but then the food comes out and it’s a Big Mac. That’s what the story felt like to me, a long winding intricate road to nowhere in particular. Or in this case to the High Castle.  An A+ concept and setting, with a D- narrative thrown on top.

The literary equivalent of the Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie with near perfect actors, scenery, casting, music and costume, but a story that doesn’t ask the viewer to give a damn about Tom Ripley or any of the other characters, much less the outcome (if there even is one)?

Back to real wars for a little while.

Malcom X – The Autobiography of Malcom X

Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D’s? He said something like, ‘I believe that I happen not to be aware of that’ – you know, one of these ultra-proper talking Negroes. and I laid the word down on him loud: Nigger!”

Malcom Little grew up in rural Michigan. His grandmother was likely raped by a White man, resulting in fair skin and Malcom’s red hair. His father was murdered by racists and his mother was shortchanged on his life insurance, reduced to extreme poverty and ultimately institutionalized when she went insane, with Malcom and his many siblings dispersed to foster care. When young Malcom said that he wanted to be a lawyer his teacher told him to pursue something realistic for a black person, like a trade. It wasn’t unusual for a teacher, in the 1930’s, to openly call him a ni**er or a coon.

As Malcom now X states: “why, when all of my ancestors are snake-bitten, and I’m snake bitten, and I warn my children to avoid snakes, what does that snake sound like accusing me of hate teaching? No sane black man really believes that the white man will ever give the black man anything more than token integration.”

Fifty years later a black man has been elected President, but was Malcom X wrong? Was integration a hopeless idea? Does the USA remain a place where “a thousand ways every day the white man is telling you ‘you can’t live here, you can’t enter here, you can’t eat here, drink here, walk here, work here, you can’t ride here, you can’t play here, you can’t study here.”

The current President started his foray into politics with a campaign to prove that the first black President was not an actual American, as if a black man could only achieve the Presidency through lies or trickery. This wasn’t a hindrance, a black mark on his candidacy, it was his candidacy. Blacks and whites today don’t usually live together, study together and remain, in many ways, segregated.  One group is five times more likely to be in prison.   They don’t appear to be separate, as the Nation of Islam wanted, but segregated, the difference explained as “when your life and liberty are controlled, regulated, by some-one else.”

Was integration hopelessly stupid?  What would life look like for black Americans if, as Muhammad demanded, they were given a separate territory, true reparations and allowed to lift themselves out of poverty by sticking with their own kind? What if black America had its own country, factories, fields and businesses, left “free to find out what we can really do“?

Ultimately the question is whether 270 million people will ever be truly willing to unite with the other 30 million.  Undeniably there’s been progress, but that question remains as unanswered as in 1962. That means going to school together, living next door, dating and marrying one another.  Is there some defect whereby your average white person has “deep in his pysche, absolute conviction that he is superior”?

Malcom X was a born extremist. When he was a hustler in Harlem, he was the loudest, wildest, most outrageous criminal in New York. In prison he took to educating himself through books, reading for 18 hours a day for years on end. As a Black Muslim he was the most pious, dedicated and outspoken member. It isn’t surprising then that his life ended prematurely, not that this was in any way deserved.

All told this book transplants the reader into the mind of someone that suffered immense pain as a result of racism and it’s impossible not to come away with sympathy and understanding for his anger. As he states it’s a miracle that more people aren’t as angry as he is. The saddest thing in the entire book is that young Malcom wanted to be a lawyer, but was discouraged from it due to his race and never even finished high school. If anyone on this planet, past or present, was a perfect fit for being a lawyer it was probably Malcom X, but he never became one. Nothing speaks more to the tragedy of racism than the incompatibility of those two simple facts.

 

 

 

Steven Callahan: Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea

This book is Steven Callahan’s account of his time adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after the small sail boat he was racing from Europe to Antigua sank in the night in the middle of the Ocean, struck by an unknown force, perhaps a rogue wave or a whale.

I’ve read my fair share of books on survival/adventure, most recently the Little Prince author’s plane crash in the Sahara and the days he spent wandering and baking in the sun thereafter. These stories follow a pattern: risky activity, bad fortune, perseverance, good fortune, survival. There are always unknown questions gnawing at the minds of those in distress. Where am I? Where am I headed? What are potential rescuers doing? How much more can the human body take before it fails? How much pain, fear, regret and uncertainty can the mind take?

The most unique aspect of Callahan’s experience is the extent to which he had to use his brain while attempting survival. Adrift on a rubber dinghy he had to constantly patch up holes, repair the solar still that made sea water drinkable and devise new tools to hunt for fish, all with only meager scraps he happened to have on hand. At one point he was barely able to move and near delirious, but was forced to conceptualize an intricate blueprint to attach a fork to rubber and twine to patch a hole in his sinking rubber raft. His imagined blueprint must work; he hadn’t the energy for trial and error.

Usually survival seems to be more a test of raw will, whether staggering back from a desert or crawling down a mountain. Take another step. Don’t fall asleep. Keep moving. Rarely is one also developing blueprints while physically spent. I’d like to think I could will myself onward, it seems like an extreme extension of demanding exercise, which I always seem to persist through. I’m far less certain I could think my way out simultaneously.

Thrust into this battle Callahan observes that his mind, emotions and body, which used to act as one in harmony disengage and “the distinction between the parts of myself continues to grow sharper as the two-edged sword of existence cuts one or another of them more deeply each day.” Later he notes that “my mind applauds my performance while my body boos.” Every action, decision or thought pits one part of him against the other.  The dorado fish that follows his raft become objects of intense jealousy, as they live a “simple, unmysterious, unapprehensive life.” Unlike humans there is “no plague of politics, ambition, or animosity.” His mind is saving him, but he recognizes it is also the source of his own torture.

On the TV show Alone, where people must survive by themselves for as long as they can, one of the contestants notes that you better be OK with yourself before you go out there. Your time will be spent in pain, not doing, just existing. When we stop progressing forward it seems all our mind can do is look backwards to our past. Some crack up, some have regrets and change and some are fine, exiting as they entered. Callahan fits in the second category. Reflecting on his life and his ex-wife he realizes his inflexible, unloving and cold nature were barriers to happiness, not strengths. He resolves to “embrace humanity despite its weaknesses and to forge new and meaningful relationships.” Humbled, he realizes that he is but a tiny part of the world and humanity and comes a bit closer to reaching the peaceful state of mind of the dorado, the simple-minded fish he looked at with such longing.

There is little regret expressed over the idea to sail solo across the Atlanic Ocean in a tiny boat. Life is defined by quality, not quantity. Callahan mentions that he does sail, but there’s no mention of traversing oceans or racing.  This past week Rich Piana, a roided up bodybuilder who was addicted to being absolutely massive, died from what he put his body through at the age of 46. He went into a coma, but unlike Callahan he never came back. He knew the risks, but he genuinely loved that life and the money, fame, hot young girlfriends etc. Was the risk worth the reward?

 

 

Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

The quote on the cover is apt: “a staggeringly good book.” This is a cutting political dissection of Rwanda from before it was even conceived of to modern times, with the horrific genocide of 1994 the unfortunate climax in this story.  The salient point is that Rwanda and by extension Africa isn’t a hapless mess, but a complex web of competing interests. In the case of Rwanda the country didn’t succumb to barbarism, there is a clear party at fault which is the Hutu supremacists, the perpetrators of the genocide.

There’s a tendency to write off the continent altogether since it seems blighted by war, poverty, dictators and dysfunction. There’s truth in that, but the reality is that the people aren’t amoral savages destined to Hobbesian brutality; they just happen to live in places with a web of competing and conflicting groups and interests, not unlike a Europe of  500 years ago (or even 25 years ago in Yugoslavia). Even an insane situation like genocide can’t be attributed strictly to homicidal barbarism. There is a logic to it and a brutal pursuit of self-interest at play.  Rwanda is decipherable if you pay close attention and anything decipherable is also workable, which is the good news.

The unfortunate truth is that no country and even no individual person can rely on others to save them when in need. To quote The Streets:

“No-one’s really there fighting for you in the last garrison. No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.  You are the one who’s got your back ’til the last deed’s done.”

When staggering evil is unleashed and you assume that surely someone will realize this and do something, that something might not happen. In the case of Rwanda there was an assumption, or at least a hope, that individual Hutu’s might restrain themselves from killing, that other African nations, the United Nations or the USA would intervene.

Unfortunately it was not in the interest of anyone to risk anything to prevent the Tutsi from being slaughtered, aside from themselves. Individual Hutu found it safer to follow orders, even when it meant hacking your in-laws to death with a machete. The United Nations did not have members willing to fight for the Tutsi, nor did the USA, which was still reeling from the killing of 18 marines in Somalia. The French even sent in troops to aid the butchers as it was somehow calculated that it was in their self-interest. The only salvation for Tutsi’s were other Tutsi’s, as those exiled in Uganda were able to mount a successful invasion of Rwanda and come to their rescue.

The conundrum for Rwandans today is that they must cooperate and identify first as Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi, if the country is to function and anyone is to prosper.  This requires an enormous level of trust, especially when you know the other side has the potential to obliterate you and has tried to recently. If you can’t trust anyone else, how do you then build trust? The good news for Rwandans in all of this is that they at least know they can’t count on the USA, the United Nations or anyone else for guidance or salvation. If they want the country to work and to prosper, only they can truly figure it out.

Currently the country is a dictatorship run mostly by Tutsi’s, who form only about 15% of the population. The human rights record is poor, as opposition and free speech are not tolerated. However, the life expectancy rate has doubled, the economy is doing well and child deaths are much lower. It isn’t an ideal situation as people should be able to speak freely or run for office.

At the same time it’s a logical arrangement as it’d be asking a lot of Tutsi’s to cede power to Hutu’s, akin to Jews handing the reins to Germans in 1955, as would be the case if a free election were held. The objective is to create and instill a Rwandan national identity that supersedes an ethnic identity. When this project is complete and a level of trust is established, there’d be minimized risk that more freedom would lead to violence. In the meantime a Tutsi government ensures the Hutu, if tempted, can’t repeat their mistakes of the recent past.  As with Europe post-WWII the solution to unbearable violence is to expand the concept of who “us” is and hopefully there will be a realization that violence is in nobody’s interest. It isn’t perfect, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it seems like a Rwandan solution from those who know best the realities of their own country.

I can’t rate this book highly enough if this is a subject that remotely interests you.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

The two previous books were intentionally easy reads as I was prepping to tackle this big boy and stick to my 1/week average. It is after all a summation of all important scientific knowledge known to mankind. Tectonic plates, astronomy, evolution, bacteria, the atom. All that and more.

I admit that when it comes to science I am an ignoramus. I consume a ton of politics, history and even psychology, but scientifically I’m the equivalent of the 11% of Americans that can’t even place their own country on the map.

Why don’t I care about science? I find people interesting, for one. I also don’t much care how scientists came to know something to be true, which is to say all of the computations required to arrive at a conclusion. I don’t know enough to value this work or have an opinion, so it is basically gibberish. Whether it is carbon dating or the theory of relativity, the end result is fascinating, the process less so. The other reason is pure vanity – thinking about the natural world makes me feel small.  I am but one organism among trillions that have existed on Earth over 4 billion years and our planet is potentially just one of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in the universe. My body is an assemblage of atoms that will disperse and take other forms. The light I view from a star is actually 800 years old and my most important star, the sun, will eventually burn out entirely.  It’s enough to make anyone feel insignificant, which is probably why most religions imagine a world centered around the Earth and humans.

Still, when learning more it appears we are extraordinarily lucky. It is totally possible the big bang might not have produced matter or that gravity could have collapsed the universe. The Earth could be a few degrees further from the Sun, rendering it a frozen wasteland. The atmosphere might not have arisen and cosmic rays would enter Earth, burning my flesh (or whatever little bit of algae or mollusk that might become me). Bacteria, asteroids, cooling or heating of the Earth, massive volcanic eruptions, neanderthals bashing homo sapiens to death with clubs. All would mean no me.  If a piece of Earth hadn’t chunked off and reassembled as the moon the sun would be setting on me as I type this as a day would only be about 8 hours long.  It isn’t fate that I’m here, just luck. I’m extremely fortunate for that and I’m grateful. That extreme fortuity makes me feel less small in the scheme of things.

This book is fantastic if you mostly want a history of scientific thought, with just a bare bones explanation as to how scientists arrived at their conclusions. Bryson sprinkles in the stories of the scientists themselves, which are often hilarious, bizarre, sad (those who pursued theories for their entire life that were wrong or those who were never recognized in their time) and often inspiring. Nearly every new discovery was viciously opposed as status quo scientists dug their heels into existing paradigms for reasons of inertia, power, money or lack of imagination. This book is great as it is as much a story of the humans who have uncovered some of the universe’s secrets as it is a list of what they found. We owe them all, even those who failed, a tremendous debt.

 

 

 

Robert Sutton: The No Asshole Rule

I’ve been buying used books lately and because they are cheap I often buy books I wouldn’t shell out $20 for. If they stink, no big loss. Also helps when they are short. Enter The No Asshole Rule.

This book is focused on the business world, but the same rules apply in any area of life. This management guru takes a Buddhist approach, arguing that not only does treating people well produce better results (for a business), but is also just the right thing to do since it makes people happier and improves the lives of them and those around them.

I think the biggest misconception that this book dispels is that being an asshole is necessary to produce results. It will often benefit someone short-term in moving up the corporate ladder, but it produces negative results for the organization. Employees quit, spend more time protecting themselves then doing a good job (they don’t report mistakes that can help improve efficiency), become disengaged (steal more, do poor work), it becomes harder to hire people or a “premium” is required (i.e. you have to pay people more) and managers and human resources spend time resolving conflict or even lawsuits.

The supposed superstar, who is a raging jerk, when you tally up the costs of them being an asshole is actually incompetent. A single salesperson, who was good at sales, was shown to have cost his company $160,000/year through being an asshole. His success was also inflated since he stole easy sales from other employees.

The other example is a surgical team. The surgical team led by a tyrant has no reported errors. Was everything done perfectly? No, the errors just weren’t reported by underlings out of fear. The mistakes persisted. The surgical team lead by a non-asshole reported ten times as many surgical errors because no one feared the boss, allowing the team to fix the problems and becoming more efficient. The bottom line is that ruling through fear, on the whole, doesn’t work, especially in larger organizations.

The New Zealand All Blacks were the most talented rugby team in the early 2000s, but the results didn’t show it. They failed to win the rugby world cup repeatedly, despite having the best players. An assessment of the culture found that the players were talented, but were arrogant, self-absorbed and partied too much. A major culture change was instituted, culminating in the No Dickheads rule. The team requires an attitudinal change and they back this up with action. No matter how good you are they won’t select you if you have a poor attitude. I’m sure a few NFL coaches would have been happier with a no T.O. rule.

The result for the All Blacks has been unparalleled success, winning world cups and setting records for most wins. On the field they never bicker, argue with the ref and rarely have off field drama.  A star player recently got caught having sex in an airport, landing him on the bench for an extended period despite his talents.

The disturbing part of this book were studies showing that power causes most people to treat others beneath them poorly, the “kiss up, kick down” effect. This isn’t surprising to anyone that has worked in an office. I had a boss that was a disgusting sycophant with higher ups to the point where he literally would never disagree with them, even on a minor insignificant point. He’d agree to incorrect facts knowingly, which might have helped him, but caused great harm to the organization. Sadly he was promoted, but I recently heard he is now engaged in constant conflict. Not surprising.

The other point made in the book is that the jerks themselves inevitably suffer for their own arrogance. Michael Eisner of Disney was fired for being an asshole. Others accrue enemies who pounce when a moment of weakness is detected. Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, governed like a dickhead. When he was weakened people didn’t hesitate to turn on him and he was trounced in the last election. In the extreme case of Steve Jobs he was so arrogant that he believed an all juice diet would defeat cancer. Many assholes think this trait gives them success, but that is usually just confirmation bias. They typically have the skills needed to succeed without acting that way. In the end they suffer for their behaviour.

My old rugby team had a few players that were self-declared assholes. They were rude to new players, insulted or ignored others and blamed everyone else. They managed to be key leaders, deciding things like who gets playing time. As a result of being dicks they had to spend a miserable season losing badly and playing a full 80 minutes every game. Other players had quit, new players didn’t join and nobody played hard.  Two don’t play anymore though they’d like to and one guy plays for another team where he has no status whatsoever. They tried to put together a team to play in a tournament, but found they didn’t have enough friends to field a decent side. Being an asshole may have been fun, but they didn’t benefit from it in the end.

Highly recommend for a short read, especially if you work in an office setting. Also, take the asshole test yourself to make sure you aren’t part of the problem: https://www.electricpulp.com/guykawasaki/arse/.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed

In this book the author descends from the upper class to play class tourist for a few months. She waits tables, cleans hotel room and arranges clothing at a Wal-Mart. Kind of like The Simple Life for the Sex and the City gals.  Couldn’t help but hum the peppy Pulp song Common People while reading this, as it’s about a woman wants to live like a commoner because it seems “cool”….and of course to have sex with Jarvis Cocker.

Unsurprisingly the working poor in the United States have it terribly. They don’t earn enough to cover the basic necessities of life, even if they work like animals. They are treated with disdain in the culture (“trailer trash”) and face daily humiliations in the form of drug testing and supervisors bent on degrading them.

The author herself was depressing as she does care about the poor, but is so obliviously classist that she demeans and classifies the poor as the “other” constantly. She points out a million times that she has a PHD, as though this implies some kind of superpower. When she shares a laugh with a co-worker, she is quick to point out that she laughs from a “feminist” perspective while the co-worker laughs from a “Christian” perspective. She mentions that an African American friend is an “educated feminist,” as though she wouldn’t befriend your average African American, only special ones.

The sad part is that even on the supposed left these are all euphemisms meant to denote a higher standing of class, when the emphasis should be that we are all humans. When working at Wal-Mart she mocks the distinction between brands on offer (Jordache – eww) and wonders why her co-workers show respect to their equally dim-witted bosses. She’s totally oblivious to the fact that, for the actual poor, their jobs matter and they have to submit to their superiors, the same as Ehrenreich would probably submit to her editor at the NY Times. I’m sure Jordache and Wrangler are every bit as different and make as much sense as Prada and Gucci.

It gets worse and Ehrenreich begins to imagine during her time at Wal-Mart that she is far too intelligent to simply do her job, so she starts directing her energy towards whipping up pro-union sentiments. She acts as though any average Wal-Mart employee is too stupid to think of this as opposed to the reality, which is that they are too exhausted and probably worry rightfully about being fired or punished. It perpetuates the myth that the poor are stupid and lazy, which the book is supposedly trying to eliminate.

I suppose if you are entirely oblivious to the poor or can only understand their plight if Samatha Bradshaw goes to live with them then this book accomplishes something.

I’ll let Jarvis provide the last word:

” ‘Cause everybody hates a tourist,
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh,
Yeah and the chip stain’s grease,
Will come out in the bath.

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright,
Whilst you can only wonder why.”