Reviews of the books I've read

A list of all the books I've read this year. For these reviews, this is my book review scale:

burn Burn any copy you find of this book, it is horrific.
mock This book is awful. Don't read this book and mock anyone you see reading this book.
don't Don't read this book.
desert If you're on a desert island and are bored out of your mind, this book is okay to read.
fan If you're a fan of this author / genre, this book is worth reading.
worth This book is interesting, fun, entertaining, and thus worth reading. I would hand this book to a friend who asked for a _____ type book.
strongly I strongly recommend this book
amazing OMG, this book is amazing and/or life-changing, let me buy you a copy.

Post date:

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet

Book Review

Claire recommended this book to me when I was stuck in a mental loop last October. She handed me her copy of her book and recommended it as a fun read when what one needed was a fun read.

She was right. This is a fun read.

It is a space opera of sorts, too short to be an opera per se, more like an operetta, a mini-saga if you will, of a wormhole puncher, a small vessel that punches through space and time to make travel routes for the rest of us.

World building is never an easy task. World building when you're trying to have plausable physics is harder. World building when you're trying to have plausible physics and plausible biology is even harder. Chambers does a great job, even if some of the "here, let me explain this to you" sections are a little forced. Having a new shipmate makes explaining things easier.

Ashby is the captain of the Wayfarer, and was nearly completely what I imagined Corey's Expanse's Holden to look like, really. Which isn't fair, as I think Ashby was supposed to be darker skinned. The rest of the characters had bits of other media parts spliced together for me: Kizzy was Firefly's Kaylee, Jenks was Song of Ice and Fire's Tyrion, Ohan was A Fire Upon the Deep's Tines. The amalgamation worked for me.

The book read like a series of episodes, which was actually nice, as the whole book made for a season arc.

I enjoyed the book. It's worth reading for anyone who enjoys a good science fiction read.

But with the last of her savings running thin and her bridges burned behind her, there was no margin for error. The price of a fresh start was having no one to fall back on.
Page 13

After a life in her parents’ enormous home, full of furniture and knickknacks and rarities, the knowledge that she didn’t need anything more than what she could carry gave her a remarkable sense of freedom.
Page 17

Similar to the advice a Lyft driver gave me last October when she said, "All I really need is what I can carry, everything else is nice."

The point of a family, he’d always thought, was to enjoy the experience of bringing something new into the universe, passing on your knowledge and seeing part of yourself live on.
Page 54

Her [the AI] personality had been shaped by every experience she and the crew had together, every place they’d been, every conversation they’d shared. And honestly, Jenks thought, couldn’t the same be said for organic people? Weren’t they all born running the Basic Human Starter Platform, which was shaped and changed as they went along? In Jenks’s eyes, the only real difference in cognitive development between Humans and AIs was that of speed. He’d had to learn to walk and talk and eat and all the other essentials before he’d begun to have a sense of identity.
Page 58

He slipped them off and stepped into a pair of sandals that never left the room. He found the idea of walking around in there with grubby, gunky shoes quite rude.
Page 59

He is clearly not American.

Jenks spent a lot of time in the pit, even though his job didn’t require it, and going in there with boots on felt like kissing somebody in the morning without brushing your teeth.
Page 59

I giggled at this.

Acting all sanctimonious while spouting bad info was a terrible way to win a debate, but a great way to piss people off.
Page 62

Seems to be The American Way™ these days.

“That’s kind of hypocritical, isn’t it? We assume organic bodies are so awesome, everybody else must want them, then we go off to get genetweaks to look younger or slimmer or whatever.”
Page 62

“The fact that you people have been playing this for centuries says a lot about your species.”

“Oh? What’s it say?”

“That Humans make everything needlessly difficult.”
Page 86

Yuuuuuup.

Humans would’ve died out, too, if the Aeluons hadn’t chanced upon the Fleet. Luck’s what saved them. Luck, and discovering humility.
Page 91

Not a known Human trait.

“I don’t know if I can explain this,” Ashby said. “I wish war didn’t happen, but I don’t judge other species for taking part in it.
Page 145

“Maybe, but not like us. Humans can’t handle war. Everything I know about our history shows that it brings out the worst in us. We’re just not . . . mature enough for it, or something. Once we start, we can’t stop. And I’ve felt that in me, you know, that inclination toward acting out in anger. Nothing like what you’ve seen. I don’t pretend to know what war is like. But Humans, we’ve got something dangerous in us. We almost destroyed ourselves because of it.”
Page 145

Honestly, what was it about that concept that was so difficult for others to grasp? She would never, ever understand the idea that a child, especially an infant, was of more value than an adult who had already gained all the skills needed to benefit the community. The death of a new hatchling was so common as to be expected. The death of a child about to feather, yes, that was sad. But a real tragedy was the loss of an adult with friends and lovers and family. The idea that a loss of potential was somehow worse than a loss of achievement and knowledge was something she had never been able to wrap her brain around.
Page 161

To some Humans, the promise of a patch of land was worth any effort. It was an oddly predictable sort of behavior. Humans had a long, storied history of forcing their way into places where they didn’t belong.
Page 203

“We have different philosophies, you and I, but I can understand where you’re coming from. Violence is always disconcerting, even if it’s only potential violence."
Page 207

Nib nodded. “Some people knit, some people play music, I dig through dusty old facts and make sure they’re accurate.” He flopped back into a chair as the pixels in the central projector flickered to life. “I like knowing things.”
Page 213

“Because people are assholes,” said Bear, dutifully keeping his head down. “Ninety percent of all problems are caused by people being assholes.”

“What causes the other ten percent?” asked Kizzy.

“Natural disasters,” said Nib.
Page 216

There were few things Dr. Chef enjoyed more than a cup of tea. He made tea for the crew every day at breakfast time, of course, but that involved an impersonal heap of leaves dumped into a clunky dispenser. A solitary cup of tea required more care, a blend carefully chosen to match his day. He found the ritual of it quite calming: heating the water, measuring the crisp leaves and curls of dried fruit into the tiny basket, gently brushing the excess away with his fingerpads, watching color rise through water like smoke as it brewed. Tea was a moody drink.
Page 223

Rituals.

The thoughts he was drumming up were old and safely kept. Kizzy had accused him once of “bottling up his feelings,” but this was a Human concept, the idea that one could hide their feelings away and pretend that they were not there. Dr. Chef knew exactly where all of his feelings were, every joy, every ache. He didn’t need to visit them all at once to know they were there. Humans’ preoccupation with “being happy” was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief. Grief. Yes, that was the feeling that Rosemary needed him to find today. He did not run from his grief, nor did he deny its existence. He could study his grief from a distance, like a scientist observing animals. He embraced it, accepted it, acknowledged that it would never go away. It was as much a part of him as any pleasant feeling. Perhaps even more so.
Page 224

Rosemary’s hand went to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. Such a quintessentially Human thing, to express sorrow through apology.
Page 225

“We cannot blame ourselves for the wars our parents start. Sometimes the very best thing we can do is walk away.”
Page 229

Rosemary started to nod, then shook her head. “That’s not the same. What happened to you, to your species, it’s . . . it doesn’t even compare.” “Why? Because it’s worse?” She nodded. “But it still compares. If you have a fractured bone, and I’ve broken every bone in my body, does that make your fracture go away? Does it hurt you any less, knowing that I am in more pain?” “No, but that’s not—” “Yes, it is. Feelings are relative. And at the root, they’re all the same, even if they grow from different experiences and exist on different scales.”
Page 230

“Your father—the person who raised you, who taught you how the world works—did something unspeakably horrible. And not only did he take part in it, he justified it to himself. When you first learned of what your father had done, did you believe it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t think he was capable of it.”

“Why not? He obviously was.”

“He didn’t seem like he was. The father I knew never could’ve done such a thing.”

“Aha. But he did. So then you begin wondering how you could’ve been so wrong about him. You start going back through your memories, looking for signs. You begin questioning everything you know, even the good things. You wonder how much of it was a lie. And worst of all, since he had a heavy hand in making you who you are, you begin wondering what you yourself are capable of.”

Rosemary stared at him. “Yes.”
Page 231

"Given the right push, you, too, could do horrible things. That darkness exists within all of us. You think every soldier who picked up a cutter gun was a bad person? No. She was just doing what the soldier next to her was doing, who was doing what the soldier next to her was doing, and so on and so on."
Page 231

She handed him the mug. “And I had Dr. Chef make you some of this awful stuff.” The smell hit his nose before he even brought the cup to his face. Coffee.
Page 240

“I’m not sure that it happens a lot. But more often than for most, perhaps.”

“Enough for you not to be scared of it.”

“I never said that.”

“You did so.”

“I said I was familiar with it. That’s very different.”
Page 263

"I never thought of fear as something that can go away. It just is. It reminds me that I want to stay alive. That doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.”
Page 265

“You could’ve adopted.”

“I wanted my own flesh and blood. Proof that someone had loved me enough to create a new life with me.”
Page 328

"But I’m scared. I’m starting to think maybe I wanted this so bad that I didn’t let myself acknowledge just how fucking dangerous it is.”
Page 334

“Pairs are not inventors. They are too unfocused, too short-lived. Good for Navigating and discussing theories, but bad at building. Building takes many, many mistakes. Pairs do not like mistakes. They like staring out windows. But Solitary like mistakes. Mistakes mean progress. We make good things. Great things.”
Page 351

“And for the first time ever, I didn’t want a brother anymore, because I finally had one. And there’s nothing better than brothers. Friends are great, but they come and go. Lovers are fun, but kind of stupid, too. They say stupid things to each other and they ignore all their friends because they’re too busy staring, and they get jealous, and they have fights over dumb shit like who did the dishes last or why they can’t fold their fucking socks, and maybe the sex gets bad, or maybe they stop finding each other interesting, and then somebody bangs someone else, and everyone cries, and they see each other years later, and that person you once shared everything with is a total stranger you don’t even want to be around because it’s awkward. But brothers. Brothers never go away. That’s for life.

...

Brothers you can’t get rid of. They get who you are, and what you like, and they don’t care who you sleep with or what mistakes you make, because brothers aren’t mixed up in that part of your life. They see you at your worst, and they don’t care. And even when you fight, it doesn’t matter so much, because they still have to say hi to you on your birthday, and by then, everybody’s forgotten about it, and you have cake together.”
Page 429

Okay, seriously, what brother did Chambers have?

A Universe From Nothing

Book Review

I really don't know why I picked up this book. There's a non-zero chance it was commended to me from Bob Diller, but it is just as likely to have come from one of the Twitter, Slack, or MB communities I'm in. I have no idea where I picked it up. It did, however, sit on my to-read pile for a good three months. Well, it sat in my Hold pile at the library, which is worse, because those I need to actually read in a timely manner when my loan happens.

Right. I did mention that my book reviews are really stories about how I came upon this book? I swear I did mention this at some point.

Okay, A Universe From Nothing. Here's the gist: in our mathematical understanding of the universe, there's a transition point from one state of matter to another state of matter by which two mathematical constructs appear seemingly out of nothing. These two particles then disappear, and we're left with a nicely solved equation at the end.

No one knows what's going on, where we started, where the universe is going. What we do know is that we're special in some way, this universe is special in that way, and that we are also not particularly special, as the only way we could exist is if the universe was this particular way.

Given we don't know where we came from and where we're going, some people need s super special thing, entity, supervisor, being, consciousness, something to keep them from being complete and utter assholes. We call these people Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, among others like, Ancient Roman and Ancient Greek, if we are to name some Western deities, ignoring all the Eastern and other ancient ones such as the Egyptians. These people who need a "God" to be kind and good to one another, to not kill, to not covet, to not be the epitome of a tragedy of the commons, tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that something can come from nothing, that the Big Bang could be a beginning, that the nothingness you had before life is likely the same as the nothingness after life and you didn't complain about that before so why are you complaining about that after, use "because God" is a cop-out for sitting with the discomfort and examining the world in around them in a scientific, repeatable, factful way.

Which is a bit less nice than the way Kraus said it.

Kraus goes into the quantum mechanics and history of astrophysics, with an eye to explaining that the universe came from nothing.

My difficulties with Kraus' writing is its defensive nature and sometimes backwards logic of his statements. A couple times he declares our mathematical models of the universe says this, the evidence supports it, so there if the models are correct. We know this not to be statement one can make, given the nature of quantum physics, the level of what we just don't know, and how physics as evolved over the last hundreds of years. We just don't know. I can, however, understand how saying, "we believe" each time could undercut the strength of his statements, but the backwards logic really annoyed me. While nothing might be unstable, Nature doesn't care one bit about our mathematical models or if they fit.

If you enjoy reading about quantum mechanics, science history, and some levels of philosophy thrown in, this is a good read. If none of those interest you, and you need to read this book for a book club or class, and you grab the audiobook, be sure to look at the diagrams in the books. They are useful. To everyone else, okay to skip this book. I'm glad I read it, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't enjoy reading science.

Hubble had earlier made a significant breakthrough in 1925 with the new Mount Wilson 100-inch Hooker telescope, then the world’s largest.
Page 6

I just love this mountain. You can see it from school, hike it in day, drive up in a couple hours, and see the ocean on a clear day from the top. Just love it.

One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right.
Page 17

Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles: (1) follow the evidence wherever it leads; (2) if one has a theory, one needs to be willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right; (3) the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beauty or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models.
Location 269 (yeah, I hate location instead of pages, too)

I usually never get that far in my discussion, of course, because data rarely impress people who have decided in advance that something is wrong with the picture.
Page 18

This means that these supernovae are very good “standard candles.” By this we mean that these supernovae can be used to calibrate distances because their intrinsic brightness can be directly ascertained by a measurement that is independent of their distance. If we observe a supernova in a distant galaxy—and we can because they are very bright—then by observing how long it shines, we can infer its intrinsic brightness. Then, by measuring its apparent brightness with our telescopes, we can accurately infer just how far away the supernova and its host galaxy are. Then, by measuring the “redshift” of the light from the stars in the galaxy, we can determine its velocity, and thus can compare velocity with distance and infer the expansion rate of the universe.
Page 19

Kepler derived his famous three laws of planetary motion early in the seventeenth century: 1. Planets move around the Sun in ellipses. 2. A line connecting a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time. 3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube (3rd power) of the semi-major axis of its orbit (or, in other words, of the “semi-major axis” of the ellipse, half of the distance across the widest part of the ellipse).
Page 20

the universe is big and old and, as a result, rare events happen all the time.
Page 20

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. —DONALD RUMSFELD
Page 23

But how can you measure the three-dimensional geometry of the whole visible universe? It’s easier to start with a simpler question: How would you determine if a two-dimensional object like the Earth’s surface was curved if you couldn’t go around the Earth or couldn’t go above it in a satellite and look down? First, you could ask a high school student, What is the sum of the angles in a triangle? (Choose the high school carefully, however . . . a European one is a good bet.) You would be told 180 degrees, because the student no doubt learned Euclidean geometry—the geometry associated with flat pieces of paper. On a curved two-dimensional surface like a globe, you can draw a triangle, the sum of whose angles is far greater than 180 degrees. For example, consider drawing a line along the equator, then making a right angle, going up to the North Pole, then another right angle back down to the equator, as shown below. Three times 90 is 270, far greater than 180 degrees. Voilà!
Page 39

Well, whenever experimentalists find a new method to measure something with vastly greater precision than was possible before, that is often sufficient motivation for them to go ahead.
Page 66

In astronomy, the most recent observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation allow us to compare with theoretical predictions at the level of perhaps 1 part in 100,000, which is remarkable. However, using Dirac’s equation, and the predicted existence of virtual particles, we can calculate the value of atomic parameters and compare them with observations and have remarkable agreement at the level of about 1 part in a billion or better! Virtual particles therefore exist.
Page 68

The proton is intermittently full of these virtual particles and, in fact, when we try to estimate how much they might contribute to the mass of the proton, we find that the quarks themselves provide very little of the total mass and that the fields created by these particles contribute most of the energy that goes into the proton’s rest energy and, hence, its rest mass.
Page 70

Indeed, in a strange coincidence, we are living in the only era in the history of the universe when the presence of the dark energy permeating empty space is likely to be detectable. It is true that this era is several hundred billion years long, but in an eternally expanding universe it represents the mere blink of a cosmic eye.
Page 108

Lemaître’s conclusion that our universe had to begin in a Big Bang was unavoidable, but it was based on an assumption that will not be true for the observable universe of the far future. A
Page 115

everything we know about the universe today, the future I have sketched out is the most plausible one, and it is fascinating to consider whether logic, reason, and empirical data might still somehow induce future scientists to infer the correct underlying nature of our universe, or whether it will forever remain obscured behind the horizon.
Page 116

I should point out, nevertheless, that even though incomplete data can lead to a false picture, this is far different from the (false) picture obtained by those who choose to ignore empirical data to invent a picture of creation that would otherwise contradict the evidence of reality (young earthers, for example), or those who instead require the existence of something for which there is no observable evidence whatsoever (like divine intelligence) to reconcile their view of creation with their a priori prejudices, or worse still, those who cling to fairy tales about nature that presume the answers before questions can even be asked. At least the scientists of the future will be basing their estimates on the best evidence available to them, recognizing as we all do, or at least as scientists do, that new evidence may cause us to change our underlying picture of reality.
Page 118

We are hardwired to think that everything that happens to us is significant and meaningful.
Page 121

By forgetting that most of the time nothing of note occurs during the day, we then misread the nature of probability when something unusual does occur: among any sufficiently large number of events, something unusual is bound to happen just by accident.
Page 121

Our universe is so vast that, as I have emphasized, something that is not impossible is virtually guaranteed to occur somewhere within it. Rare events happen all the time.
Page 126

I want to stress this because, in discussions with those who feel the need for a creator, the existence of a multiverse is viewed as a cop-out conceived by physicists who have run out of answers—or perhaps questions. This may eventually be the case, but it is not so now.
Page 126

After all, the world of our experience is not ten-dimensional, but rather four-dimensional. Something has to happen to the remaining six spatial dimensions, and the canonical explanation of their invisibility is that they are somehow “compactified”—that is, they are curled up on such small scales that we cannot resolve them on our scales or even on the tiny scales that are probed by our highest energy particle accelerators today.
Page 133

After all, if one fundamental quantity in nature is actually an environmental accident, why aren’t most or all of the other fundamental parameters? Maybe all of the mysteries of particle theory can be solved by invoking the same mantra: if the universe were any other way, we could not live in it.
Page 136

I don’t mind not knowing. It doesn’t scare me. —RICHARD FEYNMAN
Page 141

Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest physicist of all time, profoundly changed the way we think about the universe in many ways. But perhaps the most important contribution he made was to demonstrate the possibility that the entire universe is explicable. With his universal law of gravity, he demonstrated for the first time that even the heavens might bend to the power of natural laws. A strange, hostile, menacing, and seemingly capricious universe might be nothing of the sort.
Page 141

We do not know for certain which of them actually describes our universe, and perhaps we shall never know. But the point is, as I emphasized at the very beginning of this book, the final arbiter of this question will not come from hope, desire, revelation, or pure thought. It will come, if it ever does, from an exploration of nature. Dream or nightmare, as Jacob Bronowski said in the opening quote in the book—and one person’s dream in this case can easily be another’s nightmare—we need to live our experience as it is and with our eyes open. The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.
Page 142

Here I want to once again beat what I wish were a dead horse.
Page 144

Indeed, I have challenged several theologians to provide evidence contradicting the premise that theology has made no contribution to knowledge in the past five hundred years at least, since the dawn of science. So far no one has provided a counterexample. The most I have ever gotten back was the query, “What do you mean by knowledge?”
Page 144

Newton’s work dramatically reduced the possible domain of God’s actions, whether or not you attribute any inherent rationality to the universe.
Page 145

While dispensing with this particular use of angels has had little impact on people’s willingness to believe in them (polls suggest far more people believe in angels in the United States than believe in evolution), it is fair to say that progress in science since Newton has even more severely constrained the available opportunities for the hand of God to be manifest in his implied handiwork.
Page 145

Consider an electron-positron pair that spontaneously pops out of empty space near the nucleus of an atom and affects the property of that atom for the short time the pair exists.
Page 146

There was potential for their existence, certainly, but that doesn’t define being any more than a potential human being exists because I carry sperm in my testicles near a woman who is ovulating, and she and I might mate. Indeed, the best answer I have ever heard to the question of what it would be like to be dead (i.e., be nonbeing) is to imagine how it felt to be before you were conceived. In any case, if potential to exist were the same as existence, then I am certain that by now masturbation would be as hot button a legal issue as abortion now is.
Page 146

But plausibility itself, in my view, is a tremendous step forward as we continue to marshal the courage to live meaningful lives in a universe that likely came into existence, and may fade out of existence, without purpose, and certainly without us at its center.
Page 147

Even well after the theoretical arguments about why the universe should be flat were first proposed, my observational colleagues, during the 1980s and even early 1990s, remained bent on proving otherwise. For, after all, in science one achieves the greatest impact (and often the greatest headlines) not by going along with the herd, but by bucking against it.
Page 149

I would now like to describe how, if our universe arose from nothing, a flat universe, one with zero total Newtonian gravitational energy of every object, is precisely what we should expect.
Page 149

This “negative pressure” implies that, as the universe expands, the expansion dumps energy into space rather than vice versa.
Page 150

Science simply forces us to revise what is sensible to accommodate the universe, rather than vice versa.
Page 151

These “quantum fluctuations” imply something essential about the quantum world: nothing always produces something, if only for an instant.
Page 153

As a result, when it falls into the black hole, the net system of the black hole plus the particle actually has less energy than it did before the particle fell in! The black hole therefore actually gets lighter after the particle falls in by an amount that is equivalent to the energy carried away by the radiated particle that escapes. Eventually the black hole may radiate away entirely.
Page 155

Scientists began to understand in the 1970s, however, that it is possible to begin with equal amounts of matter and antimatter in an early hot, dense Big Bang, and for plausible quantum processes to “create something from nothing” by establishing a small asymmetry, with a slight excess of matter over antimatter in the early universe.
Page 157

Because once an asymmetry between matter and antimatter was created, nothing could later put it asunder.
Page 157

These are open questions. However, unless one can come up with a good reason for excluding such configurations from the quantum mechanical sum that determines the properties of the evolving universe, and to date no such good reason exists that I know of, then under the general principle that holds everywhere else I know of in nature—namely that anything that is not proscribed by the laws of physics must actually happen—it seems most reasonable to consider these possibilities.
Page 163

These issues have been debated and discussed for millennia, by brilliant and not-so-brilliant minds, many of the latter making their current living by debating them.
Page 173

Either way, what is really useful is not pondering this question, but rather participating in the exciting voyage of discovery that may reveal specifically how the universe in which we live evolved and is evolving and the processes that ultimately operationally govern our existence.
Page 178

As I have also argued, one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. A universe without purpose or guidance may seem, for some, to make life itself meaningless. For others, including me, such a universe is invigorating. It makes the fact of our existence even more amazing, and it motivates us to draw meaning from our own actions and to make the most of our brief existence in the sun, simply because we are here, blessed with consciousness and with the opportunity to do so.
Page 181

Afterword by Richard Dawkins

As Krauss and a colleague wittily put it, “We live at a very special time . . . the only time when we can observationally verify that we live at a very special time!”
Page 188

If you think that’s bleak and cheerless, too bad. Reality doesn’t owe us comfort.
Page 188

Deep Freeze

Book Review

Virgil Flowers, Book 10, because, sure, why not?

Okay, I planned ahead.

Knowing I would be on a plane for eight hours, knowing that I am incapable of sleeping on a plane unless have the space of an entire row, knowing that once I was done with My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry I wouldn't be in any mood to read something thoroughly brain-engaging, and knowing at that point I would have been up for 20 hours, I chose to bring this book along.

I'd been enjoying the Virgil Flowers series for what it is, a non-difficult, entertaining, quick read. This one did not disappoint. I did enjoy it, but recall my brain was, well, awake for many more hours than it was used to being awake, so grain of salt and all that.

This book lacks the previous books' bantering, only one reference to f---in' Flowers, and it didn't make me laugh out loud. I did enjoy that there were no Prey references, there was little of the girlfriend, and that Flowers seems to be as confused as pretty much anyone else would be, given the murder situation that he encountered.

The book is a quick read. It's not a great read, but if you're a fan of the series, or Sandford as a writer in general, keep reading. If you're not a fan of either, start with the first book to get a feel before getting this far.

“I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about God,” Virgil said. “I’m a Lutheran minister’s kid, and, believe me, there’s a difference between a religion and God. I sorta cut out the middleman.”
Page 165

There wasn’t anything in particular, except awkward traces of the dead woman. It wasn’t the first time he’d been struck by the unexpected interruption of murder: you leave the wine bottles by the sink, thinking you’ll put them in the recycling in the morning, and a week later here they still are because you’re dead.
Page 199

“That’s not the entire point here,” Griffin said. “We don’t only want them to stop, we want people to see that they get punished."
Page 265

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry

Book Review

This is the third (and a half) book I've read by Fredrik Backman. With such a long title, I can't say I would have chosen to read it, even with liking Backman, but no, I'm kidding there, I would have read it if I had known about it. Fortunately, my family knew about it and let me know about it, and it's adorable.

Imagine having a cranky old grandmother who is just awful and awesome at the same time. Now imagine being seven, almost eight, and having a mind of your own and the enviornment where you can speak it. Okay, okay, you're considered weird, and are in trouble a lot, and the school kids pick on your ALL THE F'ING TIME, but Granny!

Okay, not really.

Anyway, smart kid, dying grandmother, a mystery to solve, and a life to unfold. As kids, we don't realize that the adults around us have a history before us. Backman writes that clouded view and gives us a child's view of navigating grief and anger and life.

I enjoyed this book. The storytelling slowed me down a few times, I had to reread parts, and skipped over small parts when I was tired and figured the details would come back later when I needed them. It's a cute story, worth reading.

She shouldn’t take any notice of what those muppets think, says Granny. Because all the best people are different—look at superheroes. After all, if superpowers were normal, everyone would have them.
Page 1

“Stop fussing. You sound like your mother. Do you have a lighter?”

“I’m seven!”

“How long are you going to use that as an excuse?”

“Until I’m not seven anymore?”
Page 5

Granny has had nine different nurses since she was admitted. Seven of these she refused to cooperate with, and two refused to cooperate with her, one of them because Granny said he had a “nice ass.” Granny insists it was a compliment to his ass, not to him, and he shouldn’t make such a fuss about it. Then Mum told Elsa to put on her headphones, but Elsa still heard their argument about the difference between “sexual harassment” and “basic appreciation of a perfectly splendid ass.”
Page 16

She sits reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on the iPad for about the twelfth time. It’s the Harry Potter book she likes the least; that’s why she’s read it so few times.
Page 22

It’s very difficult not to love someone who can hear you say something as horrible as that and still be on your side.
Page 25

Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details. Even when you are wrong. Especially then, in fact.
Page 45

Granny says people who think slowly always accuse quick thinkers of concentration problems. “Idiots can’t understand that non-idiots are done with a thought and already moving on to the next before they themselves have. That’s why idiots are always so scared and aggressive. Because nothing scares idiots more than a smart girl.”
Page 47

Words I wish my granny had told me, though now that I think about it, I suspect Scott tried.

They sit there in the sort of silent eternity that only mothers and daughters can build up between themselves.
Page 66

People who have never been hunted always seem to think there’s a reason for it. “They wouldn’t do it without a cause, would they? You must have done something to provoke them.” As if that’s how oppression works.
Page 80

Like all hunters, shadows have one really significant weakness: they focus all their attention on the one they’re pursuing, rather than seeing their entire surroundings. The one being chased, on the other hand, devotes every scrap of attention to finding an escape route.
Page 83

“Sometimes the safest place is when you flee to what seems the most dangerous,” said Granny, and then she described how the prince rode right into the darkest forest and the shadows stopped, hissing, at the edge. For not even they were sure what might be lurking inside, on the other side of the trees, and nothing scares anyone more than the unknown, which can only be known by reliance on the imagination. “When it comes to terror, reality’s got nothing on the power of the imagination,” Granny said.
Page 84

All fairy stories take their life from the fact of being different. “Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.”
Page 89

Only then does Elsa realize that it actually couldn’t have had a chance to relieve itself for several days, unless it did so inside its flat. Which she rules out because she can’t see how it could have maneuvered itself into using a toilet, and it certainly wouldn’t have crapped on the floor, because this is not the sort of thing a wurse would demean itself by doing. So she assumes that one of the wurse’s superpowers is clenching.
Page 107

Because not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.
Page 126

“Because when you love someone very much, it’s difficult to learn to share her with someone else.”
Page 135

“I think your grandmother functioned so well in chaotic places because she was herself chaotic. She was always amazing in the midst of a catastrophe. It was just all this, everyday life and normality, that she didn’t quite know how to handle."
Page 145

The walls of the office are covered in bookshelves. Elsa has never seen so many books outside a library. She wonders if the woman in the black skirt has ever heard of an iPad.
Page 170

Oh, I love libraries, personal and public.

It’s strange how quickly the significance of a certain smell can change, depending on what path it decides to take through the brain. It’s strange how close love and fear live to each other.
Page 195

“Never mess with someone who has more spare time than you do,” Granny used to say. Elsa used to translate that as, “Never mess with someone who’s perky for her age.”
Page 196

It’s easier to get people talking about things they dislike than things they like, Elsa has noticed. And it’s easier not to get frightened of shadows in the dark when someone is talking, whatever they’re talking about.
Page 198

If you don’t like people, they can’t hurt you.
Page 209

“It’s hard to help those who don’t want to help themselves.”

“Someone who wants to help himself is possibly not the one who most needs help from others,” Elsa objects.
Page 213

But she doesn’t want to disappoint him, so she stays quiet. Because you hardly ever disappoint anybody if you just stay quiet.
Page 217

The mightiest power of death is not that it can make people die, but that it can make the people left behind want to stop living, she thinks, without remembering where she heard that.
Page 220

Death was Granny’s nemesis. That’s why she never wanted to talk about it. And that was also why she became a surgeon, to cause death as much trouble as she could.
Page 220

People in the real world always say, when something terrible happens, that the sadness and loss and aching pain of the heart will “lessen as time passes,” but it isn’t true. Sorrow and loss are constant, but if we all had to go through our whole lives carrying them the whole time, we wouldn’t be able to stand it. The sadness would paralyze us. So in the end we just pack it into bags and find somewhere to leave it.
Page 220

Fears are like cigarettes, said Granny: the hard thing isn’t stopping, it’s not starting.
Page 230

“Sometimes it’s hard to share one’s sorrow with people one doesn’t know."
Page 243

“Don’t fight with monsters, for you can become one. If you look into the abyss for long enough, the abyss looks into you.”
Page 243

“Granny always said: ‘Don’t kick the shit, it’ll go all over the place!’ ”
Page 244

Looks like dads do when it suddenly dawns on them that something they used to do because it was important to their daughters has now become one of those things their daughters do because it’s important to their dads. It’s a very thin line to cross. Neither dads nor their daughters ever forget when they do cross it.
Page 260

She hates that Mum has secrets from her. When you know someone is keeping secrets from you it makes you feel like an idiot, and no one likes feeling like an idiot.
Page 272

“Most likely they told her a whole lot of damned things she wasn’t allowed to do, for a range of different reasons. But she damned well did them all the same. A few years after she was born they were still telling girls they couldn’t vote in the bleeding elections, but now the girls do it all the same. That’s damned well how you stand up to bastards who tell you what you can and can’t do. You bloody do those things all the bloody same.”
Page 280

“Why are you so horrible to each other if you’re brothers?”

“You don’t get to choose your siblings,” mutters Alf.
Page 285

Bowled over by this, Elsa looks at him and waits, because she knows that only by waiting will she get him to tell the whole story. You know things like that when you’re almost eight. She waits for as long as she needs to.
Page 308

It’s snowing again, and Elsa decides that even if people she likes have been shits on earlier occasions, she has to learn to carry on liking them. You’d quickly run out of people if you had to disqualify all those who at some point have been shits.
Page 315

Now and then Elsa would ask Granny why grown-ups were always doing such idiotic things to each other. Granny usually answered that it was because grown-ups are generally people, and people are generally shits.

Granny then said the real trick of life was that almost no one is entirely a shit and almost no one is entirely not a shit. The hard part of life is keeping as much on the not-a-shit side as one can.
Page 331

Tell him that sometimes things have to clear a space so something else can take its place.
Page 340

The problem is this whole issue of heroes at the ends of fairy tales, and how they are supposed to “live happily to the end of their days.” This gets tricky, from a narrative perspective, because the people who reach the end of their days must leave others who have to live out their days without them. It is very, very difficult to be the one who has to stay behind and live without them.
Page 341

A funeral can go on for weeks, because few events in life are a better opportunity to tell stories. Admittedly on the first day it’s mainly stories about sorrow and loss, but gradually as the days and nights pass, they transform into the sorts of stories that you can’t tell without bursting out laughing.
Page 353

“So why are you together, then?”

“Because we accept each other as we are, perhaps.”

“And you and Mum tried to change each other?”
Page 357

When Breath Becomes Air

Book Review

Note to self during reading: Why did I start reading this book? My goodness, this book is powerful.

Okay, first up, this book made me cry. It goes in the rare amazing category of "this book is amazing and/or life-changing, let me buy you a copy" books.

I started this book today, and finished this book today. I wanted something slightly different than the yet-another-astrophysics book I was reading, and picked this one up. And didn't put it down.

And I cried. So much of this book is about the unfairness of life, how the good are cut down too soon, how life takes unexpected turns, how much of life is loss, how we all struggle, and how beautiful a life can be when it has a passion, has meaning.

I don't know. In some ways, it was yet another reminder of how much of my life I have done wrong. That makes it a good book, I'd say, a book that causes self-reflection. As Kalanithi asks, "If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?"

I'm not spoiling anything by saying, hey, he dies in the end. We all die in the end. Not all of us go out gracefully, or so soon. Not all of us live as well or as intensely.

I will be rereading this book. It's amazing, let me buy you a copy.

I spent the next year in classrooms in the English countryside, where I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them.
Page 43

Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action.
Page 43

The neatness of medical diagrams did nothing to represent Nature, red not only in tooth and claw but in birth as well.
Page 63

I still had a lot of practical medicine to learn, but would knowledge alone be enough, with life and death hanging in the balance? Surely intelligence wasn’t enough; moral clarity was needed as well. Somehow, I had to believe, I would gain not only knowledge but wisdom, too.
Page 66

By the end of the conversation, the family was not at ease, but they seemed able to face the future. I had watched the parents’ faces—at first wan, dull, almost otherworldly—sharpen and focus.
Page 70

At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.
Page 71

Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?
Page 71

Drowning, even in blood, one adapts, learns to float, to swim, even to enjoy life, bonding with the nurses, doctors, and others who are clinging to the same raft, caught in the same tide.
Page 81

When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.
Page 87

I had to help those families understand that the person they knew—the full, vital independent human—now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite being unable to struggle.
Page 87

To me, that hardness always seems brittle, unrealistic optimism the only alternative to crushing despair.
Page 96

Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.
Page 96

Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
Page 98

While most scientists connived to publish in the most prestigious journals and get their names out there, V maintained that our only obligation was to be authentic to the scientific story and to tell it uncompromisingly.
Page 100

He paused. “Paul,” he said, “do you think my life has meaning? Did I make the right choices?”
Page 101

If boredom is, as Heidegger argued, the awareness of time passing, then surgery felt like the opposite: the intense focus made the arms of the clock seem arbitrarily placed.
Page 104

Doctors in highly charged fields met patients at inflected moments, the most authentic moments, where life and identity were under threat; their duty included learning what made that particular patient’s life worth living, and planning to save those things if possible—or to allow the peace of death if not.
Page 113

Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms.
Page 114

Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients.
Page 114

Part II: Cease Not till Death

It felt less like an epiphany—a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters—and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward. Now I would have to work around it.
Page 120

“I think she likes you.” “And?” “Well, there’s that study that says doctors do a worse job prognosticating for patients they’re personally invested in.”
Page 131

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.
Page 131

Yes, all cancer patients are unlucky, but there’s cancer, and then there’s CANCER, and you have to be really unlucky to have the latter.
Page 133

What patients seek is not scientific knowledge that doctors hide but existential authenticity each person must find on her own. Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.
Page 135

If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?
Page 138

Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.
Page 143

After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best.
Page 143

The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action.
Page 149

Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.
Page 149

Moral duty has weight, things that have weight have gravity, and so the duty to bear mortal responsibility pulled me back into the operating room.
Page 151

The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out.
Page 160

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?
Page 161

She had done what I had challenged myself to do as a doctor years earlier: accepted mortal responsibility for my soul and returned me to a point where I could return to myself.
Page 163

I didn’t know. But if I did not know what I wanted, I had learned something, something not found in Hippocrates, Maimonides, or Osler: the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.
Page 166

It featured a frustrated Jesus whose metaphorical language receives literal interpretation from his followers:
Page 167

Not only that, but maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t “Feel guilty all the time.” Maybe it is more along these lines: “We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.” Maybe that’s what the message of the New Testament is, after all. Even if you have a notion as well defined as Leviticus, you can’t live that way. It’s not just impossible, it’s insane.
Page 171

There we were, doctor and patient, in a relationship that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss.
Page 193

Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present.
Page 198

Epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi

Paul’s decision not to avert his eyes from death epitomizes a fortitude we don’t celebrate enough in our death-avoidant culture.
Page 215

“Bereavement is not the truncation of married love,” C. S. Lewis wrote, “but one of its regular phases—like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.”
Page 224

Draft No. 4

Book Review

Okay, I really don't know where I found the recommendation for this book, or why exactly I picked it up to read, other than it is a book on writing. Except that this is a book on writing non-fiction, and, well, let's be real, I write fiction.

Unsurprisingly, however, I enjoyed the book. I read it more slowly than I normally read books because much of the advice McPhee gives is embedded in the stories he tells. The format of the book is some varied order of story-lesson-example repeated, with the themes of structure, editors, checkpoints, and the like.

The book is such a great book for writers, not only because McPhee is a fun writer with an intelligent moustache (his joke, read the book to understand), but also because the structure of the book is as instructive as the lessons in it. The book is so much more enjoyable in the story-telling than it would be with only the lessons.

Which is, one would think, one of the points.

The last part of the book talks about the confidence of writers and how words, any words, down for the first draft, are often the hardest part of writing. I do so appreciate this part of the book a lot. Draft No 4 is usually the winner, YMMV.

I appreciated this book a lot, for the stories, for the structure, and for the lessons. I strongly recommend the book for anyone who writes non-fiction, but not necessarily of the technical sort.

Even more so, however, new pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.
Page 11

I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.
Page 17

Mrs. McKee made us do three pieces of writing a week. Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them. But we wrote three pieces a week most weeks for three years.
Page 18

This ... is awesome.

To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.
Page 19

“You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”
Page 20

The white space that separated the Upset Rapid and the alpinist said things that I would much prefer to leave to the white space to say — violin phraseology about courage and lack of courage and how they can exist side by side in the human breast.
Page 23

The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated just the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.
Page 35

Kedit’s All command helps me find all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next.
Page 38

Or, as Tracy Kidder wrote in 1981, in The Soul of a New Machine, “Software that works is precious. Users don’t idly discard it.”
Page 43

"I don't know WHAT he is talkinga about," she thinks as she laments the loss of OSX 10.6.

Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.
Page 49

Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead. If the whole piece is not to be a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it; but if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity, and structural juxtaposition that pays dividends, you might begin with that acceptable and workable lead and then be able to sit back with the lead in hand and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there.
Page 49

... if the piece is not to be a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it; but if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity, and structural juxtaposition that pays dividends, you might begin with that acceptable and workable lead and then be able to sit back with the lead in hand and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there. Writing a successful lead, in other words, can illuminate the structure problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole—to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write.
Page 49

In slightly altered form, I’m including them here. I would go so far as to suggest that you should always write your lead (redoing it and polishing it until you are satisfied that it will serve) before you go at the big pile of raw material and sort it into a structure.
Page 49

All leads — of every variety — should be sound. They should never promise what does not follow.
Page 50

A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don’t use the lead.
Page 50

Morning Star one year, I was full of admiration for the way Evan S. Connell would briefly mention something, amplify it slightly fifteen pages later, and add to it twenty pages after that, gradually teasing up enough curiosity to call for a full-scale set piece.
Page 52

What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start. While scribbling your notes in the field, you obviously leave out a great deal of what you’re looking at.
Page 56

Broadly speaking, the word “interests” in this context has subdivisions of appeal, among them the ways in which the choices help to set the scene, the ways in which the choices suggest some undercurrent about the people or places being described, and, not least, the sheer sound of the words that bring forth the detail.
Page 57

I wanted the story of the voyage to begin in total darkness on the ship’s bridge at 4 a.m. in the southeast Pacific Ocean off Valparaiso, and to be given the immediacy of the present tense.
Page 58

Of course, ValparaIso, Chile, not ValparAiso, Indiana.

Still, caught my attention.

Ending pieces is difficult, and usable endings are difficult to come by. It’s nice when they just appear in appropriate places and times.
Page 60

If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.
Page 60

When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.
Page 62

It dealt with tedium, and the yearning of people who go to sea to get off the sea.
Page 70

Grass is always greener, etc.

Shawn edited the piece himself, as he routinely did with new writers of long fact, breaking them in, so to speak, but not exactly like a horse, more like a baseball mitt.
Page 71

Love this analogy.

In discussing a long fact piece, Mr. Shawn would say, often enough, “How do you know?” and “How would you know?” and “How can you possibly know that?” He was saying clearly enough that any nonfiction writer ought always to hold those questions in the forefront of the mind.
Page 78

The writing impulse seeks its own level and isn’t always given a chance to find it.
Page 78

Young writers find out what kinds of writers they are by experiment. If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place. It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre. You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre. If you are telling yourself you’re a poet, write poems. Write a lot of poems. If fewer than one work out, throw them all away; you’re not a poet. Maybe you’re a novelist. You won’t know until you have written several novels.
Page 79

I have long thought that Ben Jonson summarized the process when he said, “Though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, yet he must exercise all.” Gender aside, I take that to be a message to young writers.
Page 79

As Confucius might say, You are what you can’t become, but you can see to it, for a time, that no one becomes what you are.
Page 81

No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip.
Page 82

My advice is, never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp. An editor can contribute a lot to your thoughts but the piece is yours—and ought to be yours—if it is under your name.
Page 82

Editors have come along who use terms like “nut graph” — as in “What this piece needs is a good nut graph” — meaning a paragraph close to the beginning that encapsulates the subject and why you are writing about it. That sort of structural formalism is a part of the rote methodology that governs the thought of people who don’t have better ideas.
Page 82

Something something five paragraph essay something...

Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project. If you have an editor like that, you are, among other things, lucky; and, through time, the longer the two of you are talking, the more helpful the conversation will be.
Page 83

If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb. You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit. Evidently, you need help. Who is there to help you but the person who is answering your questions? The result is the opposite of the total shutdown that might have occurred if you had come on glib and omniscient.
Page 92

We should just be hoping that our pieces aren’t obsolete before the editor sees them.
Page 119

Frames of reference are like the constellation of lights, some of them blinking, on an airliner descending toward an airport at night. You see the lights. They imply a structure you can’t see. Inside that frame of reference—those descending lights—is a big airplane with its flaps down expecting a runway.
Page 120

Frank wrote that he was wondering if all of us are losing what he felicitously called our “collective vocabulary.” He asked, “Are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?” My answer would be that the collective vocabulary and common points of reference are not only dwindling now but have been for centuries. The dwindling may have become speedier, but it is an old and continuous condition.
Page 123

It was a story told to me by John A. Wheeler, who, during the Second World War, had been the leading physicist in residence at the Hanford Engineer Works, on the Columbia River in south-central Washington, where he attended the startup and plutonium production of the first large-scale nuclear reactor in the world.
Page 129

Wheeler keeps coming up in this books I read.

The Japanese called the balloons fūsen bakudan. Thirty-three feet in diameter, they were made of paper and were equipped with incendiary devices or high explosives. In less than a year, nine thousand were launched from a beach on Honshu. They killed six people in Oregon, five of them children, and they started forest fires, and they landed from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as Farmington, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.
Page 130

The worst checking error is calling people dead who are not dead. In the words of Joshua Hersh, “It really annoys them.”
Page 135

An almost foolproof backup screen to the magazine-to-book progression is the magazine’s vigilant readership. After an error gets into The New Yorker, heat-seeking missiles rise off the earth and home in on the author, the fact-checker, the editor, and even the shade of the founder.
Page 137

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.
Page 157

That four-to-one ratio in writing time—first draft versus the other drafts combined—has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks.
Page 159

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me.
Page 159

The difference between a common writer and an improviser on a stage (or any performing artist) is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision. The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes Express Mail from fairyland.
Page 160

This makes me ponder if this is why podcasts are so difficult for me.

"...Who was I to take on that subject? It was terrifying. One falls into such projects like slipping into caves, and then wonders how to get out. To feel such doubt is a part of the picture—important and inescapable. When I hear some young writer express that sort of doubt, it serves as a checkpoint; if they don’t say something like it they are quite possibly, well, kidding themselves.”
Page 161

The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own.
Page 161

"... A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”
Page 161

It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.
Page 162

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.
Page 162

I like this idea.

The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
Page 162

!!!

The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill.
Page 163

There can be situations, though, wherein words or phrases lie between the specific object and the clause that proves its specificity, and would call for the irregular restrictive “which.”
Page 166

Today I became aware of the irregular restrictive "which," which I now love!

House style is a mechanical application of things like spelling and italics. In The New Yorker, “travelling” is spelled with two “l” s.
Page 170

Oh heck yes.

Reading a sentence like “She didn’t know what happened to the other five people travelling with her,” they will see that what the writer could mean is that the traveller was one of eleven people on the trip.

This is high-alloy nitpicking, but why not?

There is elegance in the less ambiguous way. She didn’t know what happened to the five other people who were travelling with her.
Page 171

Love this.

To linger in the same thin air, what is the difference between “further” and “farther”? In the dictionary, look up “further.” It says “farther.” Look up “farther.” It says “further.” So you’re safe and can roll over and sleep. But the distinction has a difference and O.K.’ ers know what’s O.K. “Farther” refers to measurable distance. “Further” is a matter of degree. Will you stop pelting me with derision? That’s enough out of you. You’ll go no further.
Page 171

Yasssssss!

Five years later, when I happened to be writing about lacrosse in Manchester, England, I worked in the word “Mancunian” three times in one short paragraph. It was the second-best demonym I’d ever heard, almost matching Vallisoletano (a citizen of Valladolid).
Page 173

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going.
Page 180

At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.
Page 180

Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
Page 180

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.
Page 180

Writing is selection. From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out.
Page 182

In other words: There are known knowns — there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. Yes, the influence of Ernest Hemingway evidently extended to the Pentagon.
Page 184

This is from Rumsfield in 2002.

And this quote keeps coming up in the various books I'm reading, too.

The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space.
Page 184

When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.
Page 184

Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.
Page 185

And I give them the whole of the Gettysburg Address (twenty-five lines, Green 3). Memorization and familiarity have made that difficult, yes, but scarcely impossible. For example, if you green the latter part of sentence 9 and the first part of sentence 10, you can attach the head of 9 to the long tail of 10 and pick up twenty-four words, nine per cent of Abraham Lincoln’s famously compact composition:

9. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here

10. to the great task remaining before us …
Page 187

Yes. Those two lines would flow better that way. But, Lincoln, so we keep it the same as it ever was.

On Bullshit

Book Review

Rob Whiteley recommended this book to me, mentioning that the book is short, yet profound when it comes to determining what bullshit is, and what it is not.

The book is an essay on bullshit. Given the title, this should be obvious. It should have taken me about a half hour to read. I spent much longer reading it, because some parts of it were worth rereading and sitting with, before continuing.

Key points include: bullshit is different than lying, bullshit is closer to bluffing than lying, bullshitting is more acceptable than lying, and, as Rob quoted to me, not all speech is intended to express reality. Intent is also a part of bullshit, as is truth (specifically, not necessarily caring what the truth is at the moment).

The book is, as Rob says, worth a read. Most libraries have it. I recommended heading over to your nearest, sitting down with a cup of coffee, and reading it during lunch.

Also as Rob says:

The idea behind it is subtle but powerful.

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.
Page 33

What is distinctive about the sort of informal discussion among males that constitutes a bull session is, it seems to me, something like this: while the discussion may be intense and significant, it is in a certain respect not “for real.”
Page 35

It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie.
Page 46

In fact, people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a personal affront. We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.
Page 50

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth.
Page 51

Since they are told only on account of their supposed indispensability to a goal other than deception itself, Saint Augustine regards them as being told unwillingly: what the person really wants is not to tell the lie but to attain the goal.
Page 57

Ancillary Mercy

Book Review

This is book 3 of the Imperial Radch trilogy As such, given how much I enjoyed the last two, and was engaged with the universe Leckie created, I continued with this one (and, let's be real, the next one, too).

Much as the previous two, this book has a society commentary aspect wrapped inside the science-fiction part of the world. In particular, this commentary is about power, the use of power, the corrupting influences of power, and the collateral damage of power. Standing up to power, saying the right thing, doing the right thing, it puts one at a complete disadvantage. One needs to have an entire acceptance of one's small part of this universe, to have acceptance of the meaninglessness of everything, and to have acceptance that, well, this is going to hurt, this standing up for one's ideals.

It's an ugly, nasty mess. Most people lose.

Some don't.

Some become the monsters they fight.

I vaguely recall that Susan and Rob didn't like this book as much as the first. If this is the case, and I am not sure it is the case, I would guess the lack of world building is part of the reduced excitement compared to the first book. This book starts two weeks after the last book ended, so the first book is needed to understand what is happening in this book.

This book doesn't nicely wrap up everything in the book, but it does wrap up some parts of the origins and destinations of some characters. The universe created is definitely one that can linger for a good one or two dozen books.

I personally enjoyed this book, both for the science-fiction part and the power play part. Again, recommended.

“Military matters no doubt. And Citizen Raughd. Such a nice, well-bred young person.” Raughd Denche had attempted to kill me, mere days before Captain Hetnys’s untoward behavior. “Surely they’ll have had reasons for what they did, surely that should be taken into account!"
Location 327

The Pigeon Hole Principle: we place people into categories some time during the first part of knowing someone. This placement is dependent on the person, what we know about the person's history, and our history. Once a person is in that category, we forgive what we believe is good about them, and hate what we believe has wrongly happened to them, even if the good and the bad are independent of reality.

Happened in ultimate all the time. "Oh, he had a bad day." No, he wasn't a good player any more. "Wow, she played above herself!" No, she's become a better player.

That, and the bringing to bear of the daily omen casting. I had met quite a few priests in my long life, and found that they were, by and large, like anyone else—some generous, some grasping; some kind, some cruel; some humble, some self-aggrandizing. Most were all of those things, in various proportions, at various times. Like anyone else, as I said. But I had learned to be wary whenever a priest suggested that her personal aims were, in fact, God’s will.
Location 347

“Lieutenant,” I said, “I would hope that you would realize that I have no desire to govern here. I am perfectly happy to let the Athoeki govern themselves.”
Location 478

And so will the Xhais, truth be told, but let them get the idea that any Ychana has somehow ended up with something she doesn’t deserve…”
Location 551

“Sir,” said Tisarwat. “I understand—I think I understand—why you don’t want me to use them, even now. But, sir, she won’t hesitate to use them.”

“That’s a reason to use them ourselves, is it?” I asked.

“It’s an advantage we have, sir! That she won’t know we have! And it’s not like our not using it will spare Station anything. You know she’ll use those accesses herself! We might as well get there first.”

I wanted to tell her that she was thinking exactly like Anaander Mianaai, but it would have hurt her, and besides, she mostly couldn’t help it.

“May I point out, Lieutenant, that I am as I am now precisely because of that sort of thinking?”
Location 1288

“Lieutenant,” I replied, “I cannot possibly describe to you how unpleasant it is to have irreconcilable, conflicting imperatives forcibly implanted in your mind. Anaander has surely been before you—both of her. You think Station wants
Location 1295

“But since you mention it, do you think you can perhaps arrange things so that Station can’t be compelled by anyone? Not Anaander Mianaai, not any of her? Not us?” “What?” Tisarwat stood confused in the scuffed gray corridor on Athoek Station. She genuinely had not understood what I had just said. “Can you close off all the accesses to Station? So that neither Anaander can control it? Or better, can you give Station its own deep accesses and let it make whatever changes it wants to itself, or let it choose who has access and how much?” “Let it…” As it became clear to her what I was suggesting, she began, just slightly, to hyperventilate. “Sir, you’re not seriously suggesting that.” I didn’t reply. “Sir, it’s a station. Millions of lives depend on it.” “I think Station is sensible of that, don’t you?” “But, sir! What if something were to go wrong? No one could get in to fix it.” I considered asking just what she thought would constitute something going wrong, but she continued without pausing. “And what… sir, what if you did that and it decided it wanted to work for her? I don’t think that’s at all unlikely, sir.” “I think,” I replied, downwell, watching Translator Zeiat, now leaning precariously out the window, “that no matter who it allies itself with, its primary concern will be the well-being of its residents.”
Location 1299

“Have you thought about it? I mean, really thought about it. This wouldn’t just change things in Radch space. Sooner or later it will change things everywhere. And I know, sir, that it’s gone all wrong, but the whole idea behind the expansion of the Radch is to protect the Radch itself, it’s about the protection of humanity. What happens when any AI can remake itself? Even the armed ones? What happens when AIs can build new AIs with no restrictions? AIs are already smarter and stronger than humans, what happens when they decide they don’t need humans at all? Or if they decide they only need humans for body parts?”
Location 1338

Will you fight the tyrant with weapons she made, for her own use?” “We are weapons she made for her own use.” “We are. But will you pick up every one of those weapons, and use them against her? What will you accomplish? You will be just like her, and if you succeed you’ll have done no more than change the name of the tyrant. Nothing will be different.” She looked at me, confused and, I thought, distressed. “And what if you don’t pick them up?” she asked, finally. “And you fail? Nothing will be different then, either.” “That’s what Lieutenant Awn thought,” I said. “And she realized too late that she was mistaken.” Tisarwat didn’t
Location 1534

She drew in a shaking breath and then cried, “How can this be happening? How can there be any benefit at all? She tells herself that, you know, that all of it is ultimately for the benefit of humanity, that everyone has their place, their part of the plan, and sometimes some individuals just have to suffer for that greater benefit. But it’s easy to tell yourself that, isn’t it, when you’re never the one on the receiving end. Why does it have to be us?” I didn’t reply. The question was an old one, and she knew its various conventional answers as well as I did.
Location 2071

“As of three minutes ago. And I’m off meds. I told Medic I didn’t need them anymore.” “You realize”—I still kept a bit of attention for Tisarwat, herself cross-legged on her own bed, eyes closed, accessing the relay through Ship—“ that it’s the meds that make you feel like you don’t need meds anymore.”
Location 2164

“This isn’t new,” I said. I didn’t think she heard me, though. Blood was rushing to her face, she wanted to flee, but of course there was nowhere she could go and be away from herself.
Location 2199

“And so what’s the point, sir? What’s the point of talking about training and promotions as though it’s all going to just go on like it always has?” “What’s the point of anything?” “Sir?” She blinked, confused. Taken aback. “In a thousand years, Lieutenant, nothing you care about will matter. Not even to you—you’ll be dead. So will I, and no one alive will care.
Location 2492

“And that thousand years will come, and another and another, to the end of the universe. Think of all the griefs and tragedies, and yes, the triumphs, buried in the past, millions of years of it. Everything for the people who lived them. Nothing now.”
Location 2496

I smiled. “The point is, there is no point. Choose your own.” “We don’t usually get to choose our own, do we?” she asked. “You do, I suppose, but you’re a special case. And everyone on this ship, we’re just going along with yours.”
Location 2499

I said, “It doesn’t have to be a big point. As you say, often it can’t be. Sometimes it’s nothing more than I have to find a way to put one foot in front of the other, or I’ll die here. If we lose this throw, if we lose our lives in the near future, then yes, training and promotions will have been pointless. But who knows? Perhaps the omens will favor us.
Location 2502

“When you’re doing something like this,” I said, “the odds are irrelevant. You don’t need to know the odds. You need to know how to do the thing you’re trying to do. And then you need to do it. What comes next”—I gestured, the tossing of a handful of omens—“ isn’t something you have any control over.”
Location 2508

“It made so much sense.” She sniffled. “It seemed so obviously the right thing, when I thought of it. And now it seems impossible.” “That’s how these things go,” I said. “You already know that. Are you sure you don’t want tea?” “I’m sure,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I’m on my way to the airlock. And I hate having to pee in my vacuum suit.”
Location 2655

“Don’t be like that, Amaat,” I said. “I’m one soldier. Not even a whole one. What do I weigh, against all of Athoek Station?” And I had been in more desperate straits, and lived. Still, one day—perhaps this one—I would not.
Location 3582

“I’ve survived worse odds,” I told her.

“Someday you won’t,” she said.

“That is true of all of us,” I said.
Location 3641

Entertainments nearly always end with triumph or disaster—happiness achieved, or total, tragic defeat precluding any hope of it. But there is always more after the ending—always the next morning and the next, always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other. Until the one true ending that none of us can escape. But even that ending is only a small one, large as it looms for us. There is still the next morning for everyone else. For the vast majority of the rest of the universe, that ending might as well not ever have happened. Every ending is an arbitrary one. Every ending is, from another angle, not really an ending.
Location 3952

Ikigai

Book Review

I wanted to like this book. I REALLY wanted to like this book.

I didn't like this book.

Not necessarily because it isn't a good book (well, maybe not necessarily), my mom enjoyed it, for example, but because it didn't actually say anything about Ikigai other than its definition.

The idea behide Ikigai is that if you have meaning if your life, you will be able to depending on that meaning through difficult times (resiliency), and have a reason to wake up in the morning. This meaning is part of the reason why people who live long live long.

Except that we don't really know why some people live longer than other people. Something something telomeres, which are barely mentioned in the book, be happy, have a strong community, be less stressful, eat lots of fruit - or was it vegetables, walk a lot, none of the people who live a long life actually KNOW why they live long. Some themes appear, but they don't KNOW.

The book is best described as skimming the surface of many reasons given why some people live longer than others (see above re: meaning, stress, community, exercise, vegetables). It tells us what but doesn't give how, or even offer any suggestion beyond "figure out what you're doing when you're in flow, and do more of that" to find meaning. I'm not against books that skim the surface of many topics, The Antidote and The Happiness Hypothesis are two of my favorite self-help books, and both are similar in their approach of "many ideas under one theme" that Ikigai uses.

Yet they work, and this one didn't. Unsure why.

I wanted to like this book. I found it too shallow. So, while I'm glad I read it (so that I won't wonder now if I should read it), I wouldn't hand it to anyone to read. I'm more likely to hand them Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.

Nurturing friendships, eating light, getting enough rest, and doing regular, moderate exercise are all part of the equation of good health, but at the heart of the joie de vivre that inspires these centenarians to keep celebrating birthdays and cherishing each new day is their ikigai.
Page 4

Certain longevity studies suggest that a strong sense of community and a clearly defined ikigai are just as important as the famously healthful Japanese diet—perhaps even more so.
Page 10

Our neurons start to age while we are still in our twenties. This process is slowed, however, by intellectual activity, curiosity, and a desire to learn. Dealing with new situations, learning something new every day, playing games, and interacting with other people seem to be essential antiaging strategies for the mind. Furthermore, a more positive outlook in this regard will yield greater mental benefits.
Page 22

Stress has a degenerative effect over time. A sustained state of emergency affects the neurons associated with memory, as well as inhibiting the release of certain hormones, the absence of which can cause depression.
Page 25

A powerful antioxidant, melatonin helps us live longer, and also offers the following benefits: It strengthens the immune system. It contains an element that protects against cancer. It promotes the natural production of insulin. It slows the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It helps prevent osteoporosis and fight heart disease.
Page 30

We can compensate for this by: Eating a balanced diet and getting more calcium. Soaking up a moderate amount of sun each day. Getting enough sleep. Avoiding stress, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, all of which make it harder to get a good night’s rest, depriving us of the melatonin we need.
Page 30

A stoic attitude—serenity in the face of a setback—can also help keep you young, as it lowers anxiety and stress levels and stabilizes behavior. This can be seen in the greater life expectancies of certain cultures with unhurried, deliberate lifestyles.
Page 31

Frankl explains that one of the first questions he would ask his patients was “Why do you not commit suicide?” Usually the patient found good reasons not to, and was able to carry on.

What, then, does logotherapy do?

The answer is pretty clear: It helps you find reasons to live. Logotherapy pushes patients to consciously discover their life’s purpose in order to confront their neuroses. Their quest to fulfill their destiny then motivates them to press forward, breaking the mental chains of the past and overcoming whatever obstacles they encounter along the way.
Page 37

Based on his own experience, Frankl believed that our health depends on that natural tension that comes from comparing what we’ve accomplished so far with what we’d like to achieve in the future. What we need, then, is not a peaceful existence, but a challenge we can strive to meet by applying all the skills at our disposal.
Page 40

Better living through logotherapy: A few key ideas We don’t create the meaning of our life, as Sartre claimed—we discover it. We each have a unique reason for being, which can be adjusted or transformed many times over the years. Just as worry often brings about precisely the thing that was feared, excessive attention to a desire (or “hyper-intention”) can keep that desire from being fulfilled. Humor can help break negative cycles and reduce anxiety. We all have the capacity to do noble or terrible things. The side of the equation we end up on depends on our decisions, not on the condition in which we find ourselves.
Page 42

Do what you should be doing. We shouldn’t focus on eliminating symptoms, because recovery will come on its own. We should focus instead on the present moment, and if we are suffering, on accepting that suffering.
Page 48

Discover your life’s purpose. We can’t control our emotions, but we can take charge of our actions every day. This is why we should have a clear sense of our purpose, and always keep Morita’s mantra in mind: “What do we need to be doing right now? What action should we be taking?”
Page 48

Naikan meditation Morita was a great Zen master of Naikan introspective meditation. Much of his therapy draws on his knowledge and mastery of this school, which centers on three questions the individual must ask him-or herself: What have I received from person X? What have I given to person X? What problems have I caused person X?
Page 49

In order to do this, you have to accept that the world—like the people who live in it—is imperfect, but that it is still full of opportunities for growth and achievement.
Page 51

According to researcher Owen Schaffer of DePaul University, the requirements for achieving flow are:

Knowing what to do
Knowing how to do it
Knowing how well you are doing
Knowing where to go (where navigation is involved)
Perceiving significant challenges
Perceiving significant skills
Being free from distractions
Page 58

According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, when asked about their bosses, the number one complaint of employees at multinational corporations is that they don’t “communicate the team’s mission clearly,” and that, as a result, the employees don’t know what their objectives are.
Page 60

In business, the creative professions, and education alike, it’s important to reflect on what we hope to achieve before starting to work, study, or make something. We should ask ourselves questions such as: What is my objective for today’s session in the studio? How many words am I going to write today for the article coming out next month? What is my team’s mission? How fast will I set the metronome tomorrow in order to play that sonata at an allegro tempo by the end of the week?
Page 61

Having a clear objective is important in achieving flow, but we also have to know how to leave it behind when we get down to business.
Page 62

When confronted with a big goal, try to break it down into parts and then attack each part one by one.
Page 85

Many such artists might seem misanthropic or reclusive, but what they are really doing is protecting the time that brings them happiness, sometimes at the expense of other aspects of their lives. They are outliers who apply the principles of flow to their lives to an extreme.
Page 80

One of the most common mistakes among people starting to meditate is worrying about doing it “right,” achieving absolute mental silence, or reaching “nirvana.” The most important thing is to focus on the journey.
Page 83

When they inquired about her secret for longevity, she answered with a smile, “I ask myself the same thing.”
Page 90

When asked about her secret for longevity, she responded simply, “I don’t know what the secret to long life is. The only thing I do is I’ve never eaten meat in my life. I attribute it to that.”
Page 92

One of her secrets may have been her sense of humor. As she said on her 120th birthday, “I see badly, I hear badly, and I feel bad, but everything’s fine.” 3
Page 92

“Your mind and your body. You keep both busy,” he said on his 112th birthday, “you’ll be here a long time.”
Page 93

Among Breuning’s other secrets: He had a habit of helping others, and he wasn’t afraid of dying.
Page 93

Imich attributed his longevity to, among other things, never drinking alcohol.
Page 94

When asked about his secret to living so long, his answer was “I don’t know. I just haven’t died yet.”
Page 94

THIS is the one that is the most honest and accurate. NO IDEA why I haven't died, but here I am.

The eighty-six-year-old filmmaker Frederick Wiseman declared on a stroll through Paris that he likes to work, which is why he does it with such intensity. “Everybody complains about their aches and pains and all that, but my friends are either dead or are still working,” he said.
Page 96

Ellsworth Kelly, an artist who passed away in 2015 at the age of ninety-two, assured us that the idea that we lose our faculties with age is, in part, a myth, because instead we develop a greater clarity and capacity for observation. “It’s one thing about getting older, you see more. . . . Every day I’m continuing to see new things. That’s why there are new paintings.”
Page 97

If you want to stay busy even when there’s no need to work, there has to be an ikigai on your horizon, a purpose that guides you throughout your life and pushes you to make things of beauty and utility for the community and yourself.
Page 99

Taira also tells us that volunteer work, rather than money, drives much of what happens in Ogimi. Everyone offers to pitch in, and the local government takes care of assigning tasks. This way, everyone can be useful and feels like a part of the community.
Page 104

There are no bars and only a few restaurants in Ogimi, but those who live there enjoy a rich social life that revolves around community centers.
Page 106

This brings us back to the 80 percent rule we mentioned in the first chapter, a concept known in Japanese as hara hachi bu. It’s easy to do: When you notice you’re almost full but could have a little more . . . just stop eating!
Page 125

Shikuwasa is the citrus fruit par excellence of Okinawa, and Ogimi is its largest producer in all of Japan.
Page 130

Consuming nobiletin has been proven to protect us from arteriosclerosis, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity in general.
Page 131

The book Xiuzhen shishu, known in the West as Ten Books on the Cultivation of Perfection, dates back to the thirteenth century and is a compendium of materials from diverse sources on developing the mind and body.
Page 159

One of the most commonly used mantras in Buddhism focuses on controlling negative emotions: “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ ,” in which oṃ is the generosity that purifies the ego, ma is the ethics that purifies jealousy, ṇi is the patience that purifies passion and desire, pad is the precision that purifies bias, me is the surrender that purifies greed, and hūṃ is the wisdom that purifies hatred.
Page 170

We should never forget that everything we have and all the people we love will disappear at some point. This is something we should keep in mind, but without giving in to pessimism. Being aware of the impermanence of things does not have to make us sad; it should help us love the present moment and those who surround us.
Page 171

The tradition of making structures out of wood presupposes their impermanence and the need for future generations to rebuild them. Japanese culture accepts the fleeting nature of the human being and everything we create.
Page 173

Our intuition and curiosity are very powerful internal compasses to help us connect with our ikigai. Follow those things you enjoy, and get away from or change those you dislike. Be led by your curiosity, and keep busy by doing things that fill you with meaning and happiness. It doesn’t need to be a big thing: we might find meaning in being good parents or in helping our neighbors.
Page 183

How To Fight

Book Review

I've been reading Thich Nhat Hanh's works a lot recently. When everything seems to be this raging maelstrom of pain, anger, frustration, and loss, his words seem to be a rock that, while I may not be able to cling to, I can see and head towards.

And that counts for a lot.

Mom gave me this book to read. I read it along with Reconciliation, also by Thich Nhat Hanh. The second is about looking inward, the first also about looking inward, but also about looking outward to another, a person, or a group. It's about being gentle with ourselves, understanding that suffering is all around us, and that anger is manifestation of that suffering. We suffer, but so do our opponents.

I don't know, the book might not arrive in the right place at the right time for the next person who reads it. It arrived when I needed it. It is a calming book, I've already read twice. I'll be turning to this copy again, I'm sure.

I strongly recommend this book. If you need a copy, let me buy you one.

Usually when we are angry with someone we are more interested in fighting with them than in taking care of our own feelings.
Page 14

We “kill” our anger by smiling to it, holding it gently, looking deeply to understand its roots and transforming it with understanding and compassion.
Page 20

Sometimes when we attempt to listen to another person, we can’t hear them because we haven’t listened to ourselves first. Our own strong emotions and thoughts are so loud in our heart and in our head, crying out for our attention, that we can’t hear the other person. Before we listen to another, we need to spend time listening to ourselves.
Page 23

When you practice compassionate listening, it’s important to remember that you listen with only one aim, and that is to help the other person to suffer less.
Page 24

The ability to apologize sincerely and express regret for the unskillful things we say or do is an art.
Page 38

When you express regret, do so unconditionally. Don’t make excuses for having committed the mistake.
Page 39

When someone else offers us an apology, accept it and offer understanding and forgiveness in return.
Page 39

When you feel upset or angry, it’s important not to do or say anything.
Page 41

The Buddha said, “Nothing can survive without food” — not even love. Without nourishment, your love will die.
Page 45

If you continue to suffer, it’s because you feed your suffering every day.
Page 45

Sometimes, the person we want to reconcile with is far away and we feel we have lost the chance to mend our relationship.
Page 60

One of the deepest teachings given by the Buddha is that we should not be too sure of our own ideas. Don’t be fooled by your perceptions. Even if you are sure you are seeing clearly, check again. Keep an open mind. Be ready to let go of your views.
Page 65

Sometimes we have the impression that someone intentionally wants to make us suffer. Believing this, we get very angry, even despairing, and we want to hurt that person in return, firmly convinced they are a threat to us. War is a product of this kind of misunderstanding and of fear on a large scale.
Page 66

When we’re angry with someone, and we’ve tried many ways but have still not been able to resolve the difficulty, we can try offering the other person a gift. We prepare the gift in advance, when we’re happy, calm, and solid, and we hide it, ready for the time when we may need it. We don’t wait until we’re already angry because then we won’t feel like doing it. Then, when we’re angry, we can get it out of hiding and give it to the other person.
Page 72

Part of acknowledging suffering is acknowledging we need help. It is much easier to practice compassion if you have the energy and support of a community. A community helps us not lose hope.
Page 79

Creating happiness is an art. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of goodwill, you can still make the other person very unhappy. Goodwill is not enough. We need to know the art of making the other person happy.
Page 81

Of course we have made mistakes. Of course we have not been very skillful. Of course we have made ourselves and the people around us suffer. But that does not prevent us from improving, from transforming, from beginning anew.
Page 85

The Buddha said that if you have not suffered, there is no way you can learn. We learn by making mistakes.
Page 85

Usually, when we lose something or someone, we begin to suffer. But while that something or someone is still there, we don’t appreciate them. Everything is of the nature to change. When we understand this, we appreciate the other person more deeply and we can do something today to make them happy, because we know tomorrow may be too late.
Page 89

War is the fruit of our collective consciousness. If we wait until another war is imminent to begin to practice peace, it will be too late. Peace begins here, now.
Page 92

Sometimes we’re eating a meal and we don’t even know who’s there eating with us. Our loved one is there physically but it’s as if she’s not truly there. To love someone, you need to be there one hundred percent. The mantra “I am here for you” says that I care about you, I enjoy being in your presence. It helps the other person to feel supported and happy.
Page 102

Sometimes we forget about impermanence. We think that our loved one will be with us forever and we forget how precious her presence is in this moment.
Page 103

Sometimes we are criticized. We do need a certain amount of feedback in order to help us progress, but it’s important not to be caught in the criticism and become paralyzed by it. You can say the mantra to yourself or out loud, “You are partly right.” It means: “Yes, I do manifest that unfortunate characteristic sometimes, but I am much more than that.
Page 106

Beginning Anew is a practice to help resolve conflict or a difficulty when it arises. To begin anew is to look honestly at ourselves, at what we have thought, said, or done that has contributed to the conflict.
Page 110

1. FLOWER WATERING We look deeply to see the positive qualities in the other person and express our appreciation for them. Share at least three positive qualities that you have observed in them and things for which you feel grateful. Be as concrete as possible. Sometimes we may need to water someone’s flowers for a long time to heal the relationship and build trust
Page 111

2. SHARING REGRETS We may mention any unskillfulness in our actions, speech, or thoughts that we have not yet had an opportunity to apologize for.
Page 112

3. EXPRESSING HURT We may share how we felt hurt by another, due to their actions, speech, or thoughts. Before expressing a hurt, be aware that most of our perceptions are wrong. Often our difficulties and pain originate in the past, in early childhood.
Page 112

4. ASKING FOR SUPPORT When we share our difficulties with the other person, we help them understand us better.
Page 113

Ancillary Sword

Book Review


This is book 2 of the Imperial Radch trilogy As such, given how much I enjoyed the last one, and was engaged with the universe Leckie created, I continued with this one (and, let's be real, I'll read the next one, too).

This book starts up a couple weeks after the previous book ended. I like the continuity in the books and the world Leckie created. As with the first book, there is an element of social commentary in the book. The style is reminiscent of Heinlein, actually but a bit more towards the way I think about power and its corrupting power, so perhaps that's why I'm noticing it and paying attention to it in these books.

I love how Leckie weaves the attitudes of privilege into works, but in such a way you know these aren't the "good" people, even if the words you read are words you've heard from your own friends (or own mouth, to be honest).

The plot isn't anything twisty, the universe didn't have any aspects that were new. This book was a continuation of the previous book so much that it could have been a Part 2 of the same book and no one would have blinked (except maybe Leckie, "Write how much in one go? Uh... no." but I'm projecting there).

I personally enjoyed this book, both for the science-fiction part and the power play part. Again, recommended.

When I had first met her, a baby lieutenant of seventeen, she hadn’t thought ships’ AIs had any feelings in particular—not any that mattered. And like many Radchaai she assumed that thought and emotion were two easily separable things.
Location 492

“And over three thousand years she’ll have changed. Everyone does, who isn’t dead. How much can a person change and still be the same?
Location 516

“I gave an order, Medic.” Isolated as we were in gate space, my word was law. It didn’t matter what my orders were, no matter how illegal or unjust. A captain might face prosecution for giving some orders—her crew would without fail be executed for disobeying those same commands. It was a central fact of any Radchaai soldier’s life, though it rarely came to an actual demonstration.
Location 658

"Get some rest. Kalr will bring supper to your quarters. Things will seem better after you’ve eaten and slept.”

“Really?” she asked. Bitter and challenging.

“Well, not necessarily,” I admitted. “But it’s easier to deal with things when you’ve had some rest and some breakfast.”
Location 692

Still that expressionless face. “Water will wear away stone, sir.” It was a proverb. Or half of one. Water will wear away stone, but it won’t cook supper. Everything has its own strengths. Said with enough irony, it could also imply that since the gods surely had a purpose for everyone the person in question must be good for something, but the speaker couldn’t fathom what it might be.
Location 995

To Captain Hetnys, standing beside me, I said, “That story strikes you as plausible, does it?” One ruler for the entire system. They surrendered right away. In my experience, no entire system ever surrendered right away. Parts, maybe. Never the whole. The one exception had been the Garseddai, and that had been a tactic, an attempt at ambush. Failed, of course, and there were no Garseddai anymore, as a result.
Location 1054

Obvious, in retrospect. Obvious before, you’d think. But it’s so easy to just not see the obvious, even long past when it ought to be reasonable.
Location 1332

“Well, as to that,” said Fosyf, “I’d say it’s the educated Samirend who give us the most problems. The field supervisors are nearly all Samirend, Fleet Captain. Generally an intelligent sort. And mostly dependable, but there’s always one or two, and let those one or two get together and convince more, and next thing you know they’ve got the field workers whipped up. Happened about fifteen, twenty years ago. The field workers in five different plantations sat down and refused to pick the tea. Just sat right down! And of course we stopped feeding them, on the grounds they’d refused their assignments. But there’s no point on a planet. Anyone who doesn’t feel like working can live off the land.”

It struck me as likely that living off the land wasn’t so easy as all that. “You brought workers in from elsewhere?”
Location 1428

An example of that privilege thing.

So many questions I could ask. “And the workers’ grievances?”

“Grievances!” Fosyf was indignant. “They had none. No real ones. They live a pleasant enough life, I can tell you. Sometimes I wish I’d been assigned to pick tea.”
Location 1436

Imagine this conversation happening in the 1850s in the South in the United States of America, and you'd get similar if not the same words.

“Tourists!” said Raughd. “They want to be robbed. It’s why they go there to begin with. All the wailing and complaining to Security.” She waved a dismissive, blue-gloved hand. “It’s part of the fun. Otherwise they’d take better care.”
Location 1446

Yeeeeeep. Blame the victim.

And if expansion stopped, what to do with all those ships and ancillary soldiers? The officers that commanded them? Keeping them was a drain on resources, to no purpose. Dismantle them, and systems on the periphery of Radch space were vulnerable to attack. Or revolt.
Location 1507

Questions that need to asked about the American Military Complex, tbh.

But I had never noticed that anyone profited from needless spite, and besides I suspected that the entire Undergarden was already in a dire state, as far as ritual uncleanness went.
Location 2010

"To you, of all people. And it’s so easy to just go along. So easy not to see what’s happening. And the longer you don’t see it, the harder it becomes to see it, because then you have to admit that you ignored it all that time. But this is the moment when it’s laid before you, clear and unambiguous."
Location 2164

“You disagree,” Sirix said into my silence. “But isn’t justice the whole reason for civilization?”
Location 2868

I came to see her strangely serene manner as both a sign of just how much she expected to get whatever she wanted, and also an instrument by which she managed to do that, plain persistent saying what she wanted to be true in the expectation that it would eventually become so. It’s a method I’d found worked best for those who are already positioned to mostly get what they want.
Location 3038

“But they could still grow them here,” Tisarwat argued, “and still sell them themselves. So I don’t know what the problem is.”
Location 3054

“For my part,” I replied, “I find forgiveness overrated. There are times and places when it’s appropriate. But not when the demand that you forgive is used to keep you in your place.
Location 3369

“Do you even know,” she said, and I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was about to cry, “can you even imagine what it’s like to know that nothing you can do will make any difference? That nothing you can do will protect the people you love? That anything you could possibly ever do is less than worthless?”

I could. “And yet you do it anyway.”
Location 3412

“Most esteemed Queter,” I said, “idealist that you are, young as you are, you can have no idea just how easy it is for people to deceive themselves.”
Location 3417

The magistrate turned to Queter, who had stood straight and silent this whole time. “Is this what you wanted, Queter? All this heartache, a family destroyed? For the life of me I don’t understand why you didn’t put your obvious determination and energy into your work so that you could make things better for yourself and your family. Instead, you built up and fed this… this resentment, and now you have…” The magistrate gestured, indicating the room, the situation. “This.”

Very calmly, very deliberately, Queter turned to me. “You were right about the self-deception, Citizen.”
Location 3581

Again, blaming the victims with this one.

And yet, isn't this a similar example for the Ivy League swimmer guy who raped a woman? He destroyed her life, but people were still asking for leniancy for the guy, who received it.

"Citizen?” I replied with my own question. “Where did justice lie, in that entire situation?” Sirix didn’t reply, either angry or at a loss for an answer. Both were difficult questions.

“We speak of it as though it’s a simple thing, a matter of acting properly, as though it’s nothing more than an afternoon tea and the question only who takes the last pastry. So simple. Assign guilt to the guilty.”

“Is it not that simple?” asked Sirix after a few moments of silence.

“There are right actions and wrong actions. And yet, I think that if you had been the magistrate, you would have let Citizen Queter go free.”
Location 3603

“No sympathy for Queter? Raughd acted from malice and injured pride, and would have destroyed more than me if she had succeeded. Queter was faced with an impossible situation. No matter what she did, things would end badly.”

A moment of silence. Then, “All she needed to do was go to the magistrate in the first place.”

I had to think about that for a few moments, to understand why Sirix of all people thought Queter could or should have done that.

“You do realize,” I said finally, “that Citizen Queter would never have gotten within a kilometer of the district magistrate without my having explicitly demanded it. And I beg you to recall what generally happened in the past when Citizen Raughd misbehaved.”

“Still, if she had spoken properly she might have been listened to,” Sirix replied. Queter had been right to expect no help from the district magistrate, I was sure. “She made the choices she made, and there’s no escaping the consequences of that. I doubt very much she’ll get off lightly. But I can’t condemn her. She was willing to sacrifice herself to protect her sister.”
Location 3618

“There’s been some complaining outside the Undergarden the past few days, about residential assignments.” Ostensibly calm, only the barest trace of her feelings in her voice. “There are those who think that it’s not fair the Ychana are going to suddenly have luxury quarters, and so much space, when they don’t deserve it.”

“Such wisdom,” I observed dryly, “to know what everyone deserves.”
Location 3695

“And when you want something,” the governor remarked, her voice sharp, “you say so, and you expect to get it.”

“So do you,” I replied. Serious. Still calm. “It comes with being system governor, doesn’t it? And from where you sit, you can afford to ignore things you don’t think are important. But that view—that list of important things—is very different if you’re sitting somewhere else.”

“A commonplace, Fleet Captain. But some points of view don’t take in as much as others.”

“And how do you know yours isn’t one of them, if you’ll never try looking from somewhere different?” Governor Giarod didn’t answer immediately.
Location 3793

“When they behave properly, you will say there is no problem. When they complain loudly, you will say they cause their own problems with their impropriety. And when they are driven to extremes, you say you will not reward such actions. What will it take for you to listen?”
Location 3802

“Everyone is potentially one of those people, Governor,” I replied. “It’s best to learn that before you do something you’ll have trouble living with.” Best to learn it, really, before anyone—perhaps dozens of anyones—died to teach it to you. But it was a hard lesson to learn any other way, as I knew from very personal experience.
Location 3822

“Not mad,” I corrected. “When you’ve lost everything that matters to you, it makes perfect sense to run and hide and try to recover.”
Location 4249

“How are you feeling?”

“Better,” she said. “I think Medic has me dosed up. I can tell because I’m not wishing every ten minutes or so that you’d thrown me out the airlock when you found me.”
Location 4270

“But then, people can look very strong on the outside when they’re not, can’t they."
Location 4375

“Mostly. I think. To be honest, Fleet Captain, I feel like… like everything I thought I could depend on has disappeared, like none of it was ever true to begin with and I’ve only just realized it, and now, I don’t know. I mean, I thought I was safe, I thought I knew who everyone was. And I was wrong.”
Location 4380

Because of Winn-Dixie

Book Review

When visiting Mom last week, as I was lying on my bed, she came in to lie down next to me and chat. This is a ritual we do, and I love it. We lie on the bed, talking about life, memories, upcoming plans, and sometimes hard topics. We talk about her mother, and her relationship with her. We talk about family. We talk about what's on our minds.

And sometimes, we can't talk. There's a space between us, an argument gone too far with a dead brother, a reminder of the short time we have, the distance that fluxes.

During one of these times, Mom pulled a book from the bed's headboard bookcase (one must truly love a bed that has a bookcase as a headboard, I know I do), and handed it to me. "This is a good read," she said. I said thanks, and added it to my small pile that I was attempting to read during my week visit.

It was this book. I didn't finish my previous books until today, so this one came up. The book is a Newbery Honor winner, unsure if that's the "winner" or the "finalists list" but, hey, has Newbery associated with it. which makes it a finalist, but not a winner.

The book is about acceptance: accepting losses, accepting people for who they are, accepting loneliness, accepting mistakes, accepting. I struggled a bit with the speech patterns in the book, imagining different races to the characters than what was described, based on the media portrayal of language patterns, and fought the whole book to keep the correct image in my mind of the characters' described race. I did give up and imagine the characters as I saw them, and that made for a better reading for me, even if it wasn't as the author imagined.

It is, as Mom said, a good read. It's short. I recommend reading it with a small person, and getting her take on it. If you don't have a child, niece, nephew, or the like, cuddle up with your five year old self and read to her.

“He just doesn’t want to be left alone,” I told the preacher. “That’s all. Let’s take him with us.” I could understand the way Winn-Dixie felt. Getting left behind probably made his heart feel empty.
Page 31

I finally decided that I was more afraid of losing Winn-Dixie than I was of having to deal with a dog-eating witch, so I went through the gate and into the yard.
Page 62

He was eating something right out of the witch’s hand. She looked up at me. “This dog sure likes peanut butter,” she said. “You can always trust a dog that likes peanut butter.”
Page 63

Except all dogs like peanut butter.

She told me she used to love to read stories, but she couldn’t anymore because her eyes were so bad. “Can’t you get some really strong glasses?” I asked her.

“Child,” she said, “they don’t make glasses strong enough for these eyes.”
Page 92

When I grow old and can no longer read, I want someone to read to and for me.

I said, “I don’t know. Why are all those bottles on it?”

“To keep the ghosts away,” Gloria said.

“What ghosts?”

“The ghosts of all the things I done wrong.”

I looked at all the bottles on the tree. “You did that many things wrong?” I asked her.

“Mmmm-hmmm,” said Gloria. “More than that.”

“But you’re the nicest person I know,” I told her.

“Don’t mean I haven’t done bad things,” she said.
Page 94

“The preacher says that sometimes she couldn’t stop drinking.”

“Mmmm-hmmm,” said Gloria again. “That’s the way it is for some folks. We get started and we can’t get stopped.”

“Are you one of those people?”

“Yes ma’am. I am. But these days, I don’t drink nothing stronger than coffee.”

“Did the whiskey and beer and wine, did they make you do the bad things that are ghosts now?”

“Some of them,” said Gloria Dump. “Some of them I would’ve done anyway, with alcohol or without it. Before I learned.”

“Learned what?”

“Learned what is the most important thing.”

“What’s that?” I asked her.

“It’s different for everyone,” she said. “You find out on your own. But in the meantime, you got to remember, you can’t always judge people by the things they done. You got to judge them by what they are doing now."
Page 95

And this was when, while reading the book, I realized why my mom had given me this book to read.

"War,” I told her. “That was the war between the South and the North over slavery.”

“Slavery, yes,” said Miss Franny. “It was also about states’ rights and money."
Page 101

Well, no.

It was about money, yes. It was about money because the slave-owners of the south didn't want to lose the cheap labor they had, so that they could keep their money.

States' rights became a sanitized cause, but wasn't really the point.

“Men and boys always want to fight. They are always looking for a reason to go to war. It is the saddest thing. They have this abiding notion that war is fun. And no history lesson will convince them differently."
Page 105

"He went off to be a hero. But he soon found out the truth.” Miss Franny closed her eyes and shook her head.

“What truth?” I asked her.

“Why, that war is hell,” Miss Franny said with her eyes still closed. “Pure hell.”
Page 105

“There’s a secret ingredient in there,” Miss Franny said.

“I know it,” I told her. “I can taste it. What is it?”

“Sorrow,” Miss Franny said. “Not everybody can taste it. Children, especially, seem to have a hard time knowing it’s there.”

“I taste it,” I said.

“Me, too,” said Amanda.

“Well, then,” Miss Franny said, “you’ve probably both had your share of sadness.”
Page 114

Sometimes, it seemed like everybody in the world was lonely. I thought about my mama. Thinking about her was the same as the hole you keep on feeling with your tongue after you lose a tooth. Time after time, my mind kept going to that empty spot, the spot where I felt like she should be.
Page 132

“There ain’t no way you can hold on to something that wants to go, you understand? You can only love what you got while you got it.”
Page 159

The Wife Between Us

Book Review

Despite being on a non-fiction reading kick as of late (no, I don't know why either), this book caught my eye when I was wandering a bookstore (people do this, right? Just wander in bookstores. Right?), so I added it to my hold list at the library and pretty much forgot about it until it dropped into my reading list.

Problem was, when I actually started reading the book, I didn't know why I had added this book to my reading list. Then, when I read the book details, the summary and one-line reviews of the book, I was annoyed that they all commented about the O'Henry style plot twists (which, actually, I adore, but not if I see them coming). Don't tell me about the plot twists, because then I'll be all suspect of everything in the book.

Which is why I was surprised when the first one dropped. I was stunned, and went back to reread the part before and after several times. And, thought, "How clever!" And then the book kept going, and, "Oh. Hello."

I can't say I particularly liked the fundamental motivation of the plot, it struck a lot too close to home for me to feel comfortable, but the tale is told delightfully well and the ending, okay, I'm REALLY glad I didn't skip to the end for this one.

The book is a new-release, which is somewhat odd for me to have read, as I tend to read books 1-2 years old, if not 60 years old or more, but this one is a quick, totally O'Henry twist, entertaining book to read.

It wasn’t difficult to dodge questions once you learned the tricks. When someone asked about your childhood, you told them about the tree house your father built for you, and your black cat that thought he was a dog and would sit up and beg for a treat. If college came up, you focused on the football team’s undefeated season and your part-time job at a campus restaurant, where you once started a small fire while making toast and cleared the dining area. Tell colorful, drawn-out stories that deflect attention from the fact that you aren’t actually sharing anything. Avoid specifics that will separate you from the crowd. Be vague about the year you graduated. Lie, but only when completely necessary.
Page 23

Something about their fearlessness, the way her coworkers exposed their hearts and chased their dreams despite the rejection they continually suffered, spoke to a part of Nellie that had been switched off during her last year in Florida. They were like children in that respect, Nellie realized—they possessed an undaunted optimism. A sense that the world and its possibilities lay open to them.
Page 40

I was happy, I think, but I wonder now if my memory is playing tricks on me. If it is giving me the gift of an illusion. We all layer them over our remembrances; the filters through which we want to see our lives.
Page 96

I couldn’t stop thinking about that shoe, or the woman it belonged to. She must have gotten up that morning, gotten dressed, and stepped out of a window into the air. I searched the newspapers the following day, but there was only a tiny mention of the incident. I never knew what had made her commit such a desperate act—if she’d been planning it, or if something inside her had suddenly snapped. I think I’ve figured out the answer, all these years later: It was both.
Page 130

“Lovey, you seem so concerned by what he thinks all the time.”
Page 135

But instead of racing toward my future, I began making plans to run away from my past.
Page 245

In my marriage, there were three truths, three alternate and sometimes competing realities. There was Richard’s truth. There was my truth. And there was the actual truth, which is always the most elusive to recognize. This could be the case in every relationship, that we think we’ve entered into a union with another person when, in fact, we’ve formed a triangle with one point anchored by a silent but all-seeing judge, the arbiter of reality.
Page 248

I’d told myself I’d been partly to blame for Richard’s violence.
Page 281

When Things Fall Apart

Book Review

I read this book. I am, however, not sure I should mark this as read, because as soon as I finished it, I restarted reading it.

So, maybe I can count this one as read? Maybe? Not sure.

One of the issues I have with this book is that I, and a number of other people I know, have read this book at a hard part in life. Things are difficult, problems are numerous and overwhelming, and this is when we turn to this book for comfort.

Yet, sitting with that discomfort is part of the story, part of the journey to becoming whole and not-whole again.

This is a book that needs to be read, too, when things aren't falling apart, when we can think as clearly as we are able, when we can see the wisdom of the words without the sorrow of our souls.

I strongly recommend this book, with a caveat. Yes, read this book, but experience it again with someone reading to you. Either check out the abridged version of the author reading it, or the unabridged version with another reader, but do listen to the book. The experience is much different, and differently richer.

Everybody Lies

Book Review

Okay, unlike the last big data book I read, this WAS the big data book I wanted to read. While it does describe the mathematics used in the different ways big-data affects society, it does show how big data, how using small bits of innocent data can reveal surprising truths about who we are and what we really think.

If you start with the assumption that everybody lies on surveys (and this isn't a bad assumption, people mess with surveys all the time, to make themselves look good, to make someone else look bad, to withhold information for ulterior reasons, or really just to f--- with the survey data), then the fundamental data from which theories and beliefs develop is wrong.

But put people in a place where they believe their thoughts are anonymous, truly believe the data they provide will not be traced back to them, then said people become more open and, well, more honest with what they are thinking.

Which is where Stephens-Davidowitz's data research idea came from, to use Google search data as a research source, and where many assumptions about what people are thinking can be debunked.

And the results are fascinating.

Stephens-Davidowitz provides a number of examples of "here's common knowledge, everyone knows this," and shows where, with big data, the "knowledge" is wrong. Either we aren't the same as when the knowledge was first determined, or it was declared as true based on something unknown, or simply accepted as true based on some voice of authority. Regardless of the source, the actual data, the actual numbers, show a different story, and that is the fascinating part.

This book is a good introduction to how powerful big-data can be. It only briefly touches upon how badly big-data warps society, which makes this book a good first book on what big-data can do, and WMD a good follow up on the flip side. Together, they make a good good-side-bad-side story of Big Data™.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I strongly recommend it.

In the previous three elections, the candidate who appeared first in more searches received the most votes. More interesting, the order the candidates were searched was predictive of which way a particular state would go. The order in which candidates are searched also seems to contain information that the polls can miss.
Page 10

But for now it doesn’t matter. Seder is in the prediction business, not the explanation business. And, in the prediction business, you just need to know that something works, not why.
Page 71

Women also like men who express support and sympathy. If a man says, “That’s awesome!” or “That’s really cool,” a woman is significantly more likely to report a connection. Likewise if he uses phrases such as “That’s tough” or “You must be sad.”
Page 82

And as previously noted, a woman is also more likely to report a connection after a date where she talks about herself. Thus it is a great sign, on a first date, if there is substantial discussion about the woman. The woman signals her comfort and probably appreciates that the man is not hogging the conversation.
Page 82

Some of the findings, however, were more interesting. Women use the word “tomorrow” far more often than men do, perhaps because men aren’t so great at thinking ahead.
Page 83

Adding the letter “o” to the word “so” is one of the most feminine linguistic traits. Among the words most disproportionately used by women are “soo,” “sooo,” “soooo,” “sooooo,” and “soooooo.”
Page 83

Maybe it was my childhood exposure to women who weren’t afraid to throw the occasional f-bomb. But I always thought cursing was an equal-opportunity trait. Not so. Among the words used much more frequently by men than women are “fuck,” “shit,” “fucks,” “bullshit,” “fucking,” and “fuckers.”
Page 83

I am a guy. Or as Priyanka says, I was a guy in a previous life. No wait, still am.

Many people, particularly Marxists, have viewed American journalism as controlled by rich people or corporations with the goal of influencing the masses, perhaps to push people toward their political views.

Gentzkow and Shapiro’s paper suggests, however, that this is not the predominant motivation of owners. The owners of the American press, instead, are primarily giving the masses what they want so that the owners can become even richer.
Page 96

These days, a data scientist must not limit herself to a narrow or traditional view of data. These days, photographs of supermarket lines are valuable data. The fullness of supermarket bins is data. The ripeness of apples is data. Photos from outer space are data. The curvature of lips is data. Everything is data! And with all this new data, we can finally see through people’s lies.
Page 104

Men’s top Googled question related to how their body or mind would change as they aged was whether their penis would get smaller.
Page 124

Dying here.

For every search women make about a partner’s phallus, men make roughly 170 searches about their own.
Page 124

More than 40 percent of complaints about a partner’s penis size say that it’s too big.
Page 124

Still cracking up.

In fact, we are all so busy judging our own bodies that there is little energy left over to judge other people’s.
Page 127

There is also probably a connection between two of the big concerns revealed in the sexual searches on Google: lack of sex and an insecurity about one’s sexual attractiveness and performance. Maybe these are related.

Maybe if we worried less about sex, we’d have more of it.
Page 127

Who is more sexually generous, men or women?

Women, duh.
Page 128

And when men do look for tips on how to give oral sex, they are frequently not looking for ways of pleasing another person. Men make as many searches looking for ways to perform oral sex on themselves as they do how to give a woman an orgasm. (This is among my favorite facts in Google search data.)
Page 128

Parents are about twice as likely to ask how to get their daughters to lose weight as they are to ask how to get their sons to do the same.

Just as with giftedness, this gender bias is not grounded in reality. About 28 percent of girls are overweight, while 35 percent of boys are. Even though scales measure more overweight boys than girls, parents see—or worry about—overweight girls much more frequently than overweight boys.

Parents are also one and a half times more likely to ask whether their daughter is beautiful than whether their son is handsome. And they are nearly three times more likely to ask whether their daughter is ugly than whether their son is ugly. (How Google is expected to know whether a child is beautiful or ugly is hard to say.)
Page 136

In general, parents seem more likely to use positive words in questions about sons. They are more apt to ask whether a son is “happy” and less apt to ask whether a son is “depressed.”
Page 136

A recent Southern Poverty Law Center report linked nearly one hundred murders in the past five years to registered Stormfront members.
Page 137

It turns out, some kids make some tragic, and heart-wrenching, searches on Google—such as “my mom beat me” or “my dad hit me.” And these searches present a different—and agonizing—picture of what happened during this time. The number of searches like this shot up during the Great Recession, closely tracking the unemployment rate.

Here’s what I think happened: it was the reporting of child abuse cases that declined, not the child abuse itself. After all, it is estimated that only a small percentage of child abuse cases are reported to authorities anyway. And during a recession, many of the people who tend to report child abuse cases (teachers and police officers, for example) and handle cases (child protective service workers) are more likely to be overworked or out of work.
Page 146

In 2015, in the United States, there were more than 700,000 Google searches looking into self-induced abortions. By comparison, there were some 3.4 million searches for abortion clinics that year.
Page 147

What drives interest in self-induced abortion? The geography and timing of the Google searches point to a likely culprit: when it’s hard to get an official abortion, women look into off-the-books approaches.

Search rates for self-induced abortion were fairly steady from 2004 through 2007. They began to rise in late 2008, coinciding with the financial crisis and the recession that followed. They took a big leap in 2011, jumping 40 percent. The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization, singles out 2011 as the beginning of the country’s recent crackdown on abortion; ninety-two state provisions that restrict access to abortion were enacted.
Page 148

We can’t blindly trust government data. The government may tell us that child abuse or abortion has fallen and politicians may celebrate this achievement. But the results we think we’re seeing may be an artifact of flaws in the methods of data collection. The truth may be different—and, sometimes, far darker.
Page 149

Facebook is digital brag-to-my-friends-about-how-good-my-life-is serum.
Page 152

Not exactly cheery stuff. Often, after I give a talk on my research, people come up to me and say, “Seth, it’s all very interesting. But it’s so depressing.” I can’t pretend there isn’t a darkness in some of this data. If people consistently tell us what they think we want to hear, we will generally be told things that are more comforting than the truth.

Digital truth serum, on average, will show us that the world is worse than we have thought.
Page 158

First, there can be comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your insecurities and embarrassing behavior. It can be nice to know others are insecure about their bodies.
Page 158

In fact, I think Big Data can give a twenty-first-century update to a famous self-help quote: “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.”
Page 160

The second benefit of digital truth serum is that it alerts us to people who are suffering.
Page 161

The final—and, I think, most powerful—value in this digital truth serum is indeed its ability to lead us from problems to solutions.
Page 162

When we lecture angry people, the search data implies that their fury can grow. But subtly provoking people’s curiosity, giving new information, and offering new images of the group that is stoking their rage may turn their thoughts in different, more positive directions.
Page 162

Noah finds baseball impossibly boring, and his hatred of the sport has long been a core part of his identity.
Page 165

Huh. Can't say "core" is accurate, but I might understand some part of this.

One hypothesis—and this is speculative—was put forth by David Cutler, one of the authors of the study and one of my advisors. Contagious behavior may be driving some of this. There is a large amount of research showing that habits are contagious. So poor people living near rich people may pick up a lot of their habits.
Page 178

In fact, Chetty’s team found even more evidence that knowledge drove this kind of cheating. When Americans moved from an area where this variety of tax fraud was low to an area where it was high, they learned and adopted the trick. Through time, cheating spread from region to region throughout the United States. Like a virus, cheating on taxes is contagious. Now stop for a moment and think about how revealing this study is. It demonstrated that, when it comes to figuring out who will cheat on their taxes, the key isn’t determining who is honest and who is dishonest. It is determining who knows how to cheat and who doesn’t.
Page 180

The greater the percentage of foreign-born residents in an area, the higher the proportion of children born there who go on to notable success. (Take that, Donald Trump!) If two places have similar urban and college populations, the one with more immigrants will produce more prominent Americans. What explains this? A lot of it seems to be directly attributable to the children of immigrants.
Page 184

For better or worse (okay, clearly worse), there is a huge random component to life. Nobody knows for sure what or who is in charge of the universe.
Page 226

For Ahmed Yilmaz, the son of an insurance agent and teacher in Queens, Stuy was “the high school."

...
He still remembers the day he received the envelope with the results. He missed by two questions. I asked him what it felt like. “What does it feel like,” he responded, “to have your world fall apart when you’re in middle school?”
Page 232

How horrible would this be?

More than a decade later, Yilmaz admits that he sometimes wonders how life would have played out had he gone to Stuy. “Everything would be different,” he says. “Literally, everyone I know would be different.”
Page 232

But these what-ifs seem unanswerable. Life is not a video game. You can’t replay it under different scenarios until you get the results you want.
Page 233

The economists found that prisoners assigned to harsher conditions were more likely to commit additional crimes once they left. The tough prison conditions, rather than deterring them from crime, hardened them and made them more violent once they returned to the outside world.
Page 235

People adapt to their experience, and people who are going to be successful find advantages in any situation. The factors that make you successful are your talent and your drive.
Page 237

This book is called Everybody Lies. By this, I mostly mean that people lie—to friends, to surveys, and to themselves—to make themselves look better. But the world also lies to us by presenting us with faulty, misleading data.
Page 239

Huh. Yuuuuuuuup.

The fundamental problem is that they tested too many things. And if you test enough things, just by random chance, one of them will be statistically significant.
Page 248

We can find patterns in ANYTHING.

This time, IGF2r did not correlate with IQ. Plomin — and this is a sign of a good scientist — retracted his claim.
Page 250

This is huge. I applaud Plomin. How hard it is to admit you're wrong. How nearly impossible it is to admit you're wrong with the world knowning? F'ing hard.

I wish we were all good scientists.

How can you overcome the curse of dimensionality? You have to have some humility about your work and not fall in love with your results. You have to put these results through additional tests.

Social scientists call this an “out-of-sample” test. And the more variables you try, the more humble you have to be. The more variables you try, the tougher the out-of-sample test has to be. It is also crucial to keep track of every test you attempt.
Page 250

But it points to a potential problem with people using data to make decisions. Numbers can be seductive. We can grow fixated with them, and in so doing we can lose sight of more important considerations.
Page 253

Consider the twenty-first-century emphasis on testing in American schools—and judging teachers based on how their students score. While the desire for more objective measures of what happens in classrooms is legitimate, there are many things that go on there that can’t readily be captured in numbers.
Page 253

We can measure how students do on multiple-choice questions. We can’t easily measure critical thinking, curiosity, or personal development.
Page 254

It was easy to measure offense and pitching but not fielding, so some organizations ended up underestimating the importance of defense.
Page 254

You might think — or at least hope — that a polite, openly religious person who gives his word would be among the most likely to pay back a loan. But in fact this is not the case. This type of person, the data shows, is less likely than average to make good on their debt.
Page 258

This fact cracks me up.

Hey, guess what, you can be an honest person without the threat of a omniscient, bearded man watching you.

Go figure.

Phrases such as “lower interest rate” or “after-tax” indicate a certain level of financial sophistication on the borrower’s part, so it’s perhaps not surprising they correlate with someone more likely to pay their loan back. In addition, if he or she talks about positive achievements such as being a college “graduate” and being “debt-free,” he or she is also likely to pay their loans.
Page 259

Generally, if someone tells you he will pay you back, he will not pay you back. The more assertive the promise, the more likely he will break it. If someone writes “I promise I will pay back, so help me God,” he is among the least likely to pay you back.
Page 259

Another word that indicates default is “explain,” meaning if people are trying to explain why they are going to be able to pay back a loan, they likely won’t.
Page 259

In sum, according to these researchers, giving a detailed plan of how he can make his payments and mentioning commitments he has kept in the past are evidence someone will pay back a loan. Making promises and appealing to your mercy is a clear sign someone will go into default.
Page 260

Regardless of the reasons—or what it tells us about human nature that making promises is a sure sign someone will, in actuality, not do something — the scholars found the test was an extremely valuable piece of information in predicting default. Someone who mentions God was 2.2 times more likely to default.
Page 260

They found that Facebook likes are frequently correlated with IQ, extraversion, and conscientiousness. For example, people who like Mozart, thunderstorms, and curly fries on Facebook tend to have higher IQs. People who like Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the country music group Lady Antebellum, or the page “I Love Being a Mom” tend to have lower IQs. Some of these correlations may be due to the curse of dimensionality. If you test enough things, some will randomly correlate. But some interests may legitimately correlate with IQ.
Page 261

First, it must be acknowledged that there is growing evidence that Google searches related to criminal activity do correlate with criminal activity. Christine Ma-Kellams, Flora Or, Ji Hyun Baek, and Ichiro Kawachi have shown that Google searches related to suicide correlate strongly with state-level suicide rates. In addition,
Page 266

If more people are making searches saying they want to do something, more people are going to do that thing.
Page 267

My phone is filled with emails I forgot to respond to, e-vites I never opened, Bumble messages I ignored.
Page 282

I learned about Bumble only a week or so ago. I wish I had not learned about Bumble.

For example, Leonard Cohen once gave his nephew the following advice for wooing women: “Listen well. Then listen some more. And when you think you are done listening, listen some more.” That seems to be roughly similar to what these scientists found.
Page 340

Ancillary Justice

Book Review

This is book 1 of the Imperial Radch trilogy

Rob Brackett had recently finished the third book of the Imperial Radch trilogy, and raved about it. Given that Susan also spoke highly of the book, I added the book to my library hold queue, which always sets a deadline for "Read before the loan expires!" So, I read this one curled up on my bed at Mom's, giving her alone time as I had my alone time.

This book confused me until I had read enough of the book to understand the world Leckie built. The lack of gendered pronouns is both fantastic (I love the use of "she" instead of our world's default "he" as the gender-neutral pronoun) and confusing (which gender do I imagine this character?). I worked through a large part of the book trying out the opposite gender that I had originally imagined, which was a great treat. Worth trying.

While I was expecting this book to be mostly brain candy, I was delighted (and in hindsight not surprised) by the social commentary in the book. The world has the dominant class (ruling class, aristocracy, privileged class, rich class, oligarchy, victors, call it what you want), which believes that being born into the class makes them by default superior to everyone else.

How familiar. How... human.

The commentary isn't overt, but it is consistent in the book. The book's plot, the plot's action, and the main character's (Breq's) development all pull the reader along quickly, making this an enjoyable read. That it won Hugo and Nebular and Clarke awards just means I'm late to the reading.

Recommended.

Left to her own devices she would find herself another hit or three of kef, and she would find her way into another place like that grimy tavern and get herself well and truly killed. If that was what she wanted I had no right to prevent her. But if she had wanted to die, why hadn’t she done the thing cleanly, registered her intention and gone to the medic as anyone would?
Page 8

If someone wants to be done, why not let them? Imagine a world where, instead of preventing said death, those arround allows it, and eases that pain.

How is it that this idea is consistent in Utopian and Dystopian futures, and seems impossible in ours?

All wore the jewelry that few Radchaai would ever give up — gifts from friends or lovers, memorials to the dead, marks of family or clientage associations.
Page 14

“I know what Seven Issa, or at least those like them, do to people they find on the wrong side of a dividing line. Five years ago it was noncitizen. In the future, who knows? Perhaps not-citizen-enough?”
Page 18

"Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew."

Yeah. That.

Things happen the way they happen because the world is the way it is. Or, as a Radchaai would say, the universe is the shape of the gods.

The smallest, most seemingly insignificant event is part of an intricate whole and to understand why one particular mote of dust falls in one particular path, and lands in one particular location, is to understand the will of Amaat.
Page 33

I had once had twenty bodies, twenty pairs of eyes, and hundreds of others that I could access if I needed or desired it. Now I could only see in one direction, could only see the vast expanse behind me if I turned my head and blinded myself to what was in front of me.
Page 35

How amazing would this be, to be able to see from twenty different viewpoints? Or even just more than one?

Sometimes even the head priest of Ikkt would come — that god, like Amaat, not demanding that its followers refuse to acknowledge other gods.
Page 44

For I, your god, am a jealous god.

“When you shoot a person, you say why and do it, without excuse. This is how the Radchaai are. But in the upper city, before you came, when they would shoot Orsians, they would always be careful to have an excuse."
Page 49

“And of course,” interjected Jen Taa, oblivious, “they see what we have, and don’t understand that you have to work for that sort of life, and they’re envious and resentful and blame us for not letting them have it, when if they’d only work…”
Page 55

This comment was made by a character in the ruling class, by those who were born into the ruling class, and fed the abused, poor, and lower class the bullshit that work hard and you'll succeed, it's not our fault you are poor, when, actually, yes, the system works to keep the poor poor, the abused from finding help, and the ignorant uneducated.

Hate this line of thinking. Which, I think, is part of what Leckie is trying to say.

"And you don’t like my saying that, but here’s the truth: luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.”
Page 63

“When you grow up knowing that you deserve to be on top, that the lesser houses exist to serve your house’s glorious destiny, you take such things for granted. You’re born assuming that someone else is paying the cost of your life. It’s just the way things are. What happens during annexation — it’s a difference of degree, not a difference of kind.”
Page 63

Yeah.

“Awn, my good friend. Don’t trouble yourself over things you can’t help. Things are as they are. You have nothing to reproach yourself with.”
Page 64

Said one of the lucky-born to another of the lucky-born.

"She’ll come around in time. They all will.”

“And the dead?”

“Are dead. No use fretting over them.”
Page 64

“You are where you are,” I said, in an even tone, “as a result of decisions you made yourself.” Her spine straightened, her shoulders went back.

“You don’t know anything about me, or what decisions I have or haven’t made.” It was enough to make me angry again. I knew something about making decisions, and not making them.

“Ah, I forget. Everything happens as Amaat wills, nothing is your fault.”
Page 72

“Ships have feelings.”

“Yes, of course.” Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions."
Page 88

"And then one day someone tells you maybe you were mistaken. And your life won’t be what you imagined it to be.”

“Happens to people all the time,” said Strigan, rising from her seat. “Except most of us don’t delude ourselves that we ever had great destinies.”
Page 103

Not this world. Most people do delude ourselves into that belief.

“I don’t believe in any god,” she said, with a slight vehemence. “Still. Things will happen as they happen.”
Page 108

But the idea of shooting citizens was, in fact, extremely shocking and upsetting. What, after all, was the point of civilization if not the well-being of citizens?
Page 121

She had mostly stayed in her quarters talking to me — Justice of Toren–me, not One Esk–me, but she had asked One Esk to sing for her. I had obliged with a Valskaayan piece. It had been ninety-four years, two months, two weeks, and six days before, shortly after the annexation of Valskaay. I opened my mouth to say so, but instead heard myself say, “Two hundred three years, four months, one week, and one day ago, my lord.”
Page 122

Imagine this emotion. You know the truth, you know the answer, and yet, you answer something else. The torture with this, the puzzlement, the conflict, why did I answer that way when I know the answer is this other?

Information is power. Information is security. Plans made with imperfect information are fatally flawed, will fail or succeed on the toss of a coin.
Page 138

Welcome to Big Data!

If I answered Strigan’s question—if I answered it fully, as she would certainly demand—I would be giving her something she could use against me, a weapon. She would almost certainly hurt herself in the process, but that wasn’t always much of a deterrent, I knew.
Page 138

I know this feeling.

I was left with blind chance, a step into unguessable dark, waiting to live or die on the results of the toss, not knowing what the chances were of any result.
Page 138

“You, and anyone else they found undefended. Lieutenant Awn did what she could to prevent bloodshed last night. It wasn’t her fault she failed.”

“It was.” Her back was still to me. “God forgive her for it. God forbid that I may ever be faced with such a choice.”
Page 144

“People often think they would have made the noblest choice, but when they find themselves actually in such a situation, they discover matters aren’t quite so simple.”
Page 145

The world is not black and white. In the moment, we aren't the heroes of the story that we thought we would be.

“Everything else would have fit, they could ignore that. They’ll ignore anything that doesn’t get them what they want. And what they want is anything they can grab.”
Page 150

If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference, Lieutenant Skaaiat had said, and I had agreed. I still agree. The problem is knowing when what you are about to do will make a difference. I’m not only speaking of the small actions that, cumulatively, over time, or in great numbers, steer the course of events in ways too chaotic or subtle to trace. The single word that directs a person’s fate and ultimately the fates of those she comes in contact with is of course a common subject of entertainments and moralizing stories, but if everyone were to consider all the possible consequences of all one’s possible choices, no one would move a millimeter, or even dare to breathe for fear of the ultimate results.
Page 151

If you’re going to do something that crazy, save it for when it’ll make a difference. But absent near-omniscience there’s no way to know when that is. You can only make your best approximate calculation. You can only make your throw and try to puzzle out the results afterward.
Page 153

“It’s easy to say that if you were there you would have refused, that you would rather die than participate in the slaughter, but it all looks very different when it’s real, when the moment comes to choose.”
Page 155

“Virtue is not a solitary, uncomplicated thing.” Good necessitates evil and the two sides of that disk are not always clearly marked.

“Virtues may be made to serve whatever end profits you. Still, they exist and will influence your actions. Your choices.” Strigan snorted. “You make me nostalgic for the drunken philosophical conversations of my youth. But these are not abstract things we’re talking about here, this is life and death.”
Page 156

“It bothers you, that the Radchaai don’t have the freedom to destroy their lives, or other citizens’ lives.”
Page 161

"Any doctor could have helped him, if he’d wanted it. But that would mean admitting he had a problem, wouldn’t it? And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Page 165

Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?
Page 207

It makes the history hard to convey. Because still, “I” was me, unitary, one thing, and yet I acted against myself, contrary to my interests and desires, sometimes secretly, deceiving myself as to what I knew and did. And it’s difficult for me even now to know who performed what actions, or knew which information. Because I was Justice of Toren. Even when I wasn’t. Even if I’m not anymore.
Page 207

“I just think you worry too much about it. Who cares what people like that say?”

“It’s easy not to care when you’re rich, and the social equal of people like that.”

“That sort of thing shouldn’t matter,” Lieutenant Dariet insisted.

“It shouldn’t. But it does.”
Page 210

Holy f--- it matters. Some seriously stupid people have money, and do some seriously stupid things with it.

Speak and your possession of an opinion was plain, clear to anyone. Refrain from speaking and still this was proof of an opinion.
Page 211

She was silent for five seconds. “I’ve been sitting here, thinking. I accused you of hating me because I was better than you.”

“That’s not why I hate you.” She ignored that.

“Amaat’s grace, that fall… it was my own stupid fault, I was sure I was dead, and if it had been the other way around I’d never have jumped to save anyone’s life. You never knelt to get anywhere. You are where you are because you’re fucking capable, and willing to risk everything to do right, and I’ll never be half what you are even if I tried my whole life, and I was walking around thinking I was better than you, even half dead and no use to anyone, because my family is old, because I was born better.”

“That,” I said, “is why I hate you.”
Page 219

“No! I swear I didn’t.”

I didn’t answer.

“You don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. You can check, as soon as your hands are free.”
Page 222

“Nothing quite clarifies your thoughts like thinking you’re about to die.”

“The effect is often temporary.”
Page 223

You’re thinking that any fool knows better than to speak up and criticize a government official for any reason. And you’re thinking that if anyone who speaks up to criticize something obviously evil is punished merely for speaking, civilization will be in a bad way.
Page 231

Unity, I thought, implies the possibility of disunity. Beginnings imply and require endings.
Page 236

Thoughts are ephemeral, they evaporate in the moment they occur, unless they are given action and material form. Wishes and intentions, the same. Meaningless, unless they impel you to one choice or another, some deed or course of action, however insignificant. Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.
Page 247

Waiting for the airlock to cycle, I felt my aloneness like an impenetrable wall pressing around me. Usually one body’s off-kilter emotion was a minor, easily dismissable thing. Now it was only this one body, nothing beyond to temper my distress.
Page 251

I had been thinking of all the ways things could go wrong, starting now, starting the moment I stepped off the ship and confronted the dock inspectors.
Page 269

How classically Stoic.

“And surely,” added Seivarden with a slight sneer, her mask finally cracking, “it’s always safe to complain about lower houses and provincials.”

“You’d think,” said Rose-and-Azure beside me, mistaking Seivarden’s intent. “But we are sadly changed, Captain, from your day. It used to be you could depend on the aptitudes to send the right citizen to the right assignment. I can’t fathom some of the decisions they make these days. And atheists given privileges.”
Page 315

This conversation is one of the core messages of the book, about privilege and power and being born into a life instead of a level playing field, and arrogance associated with said privilege.

“The point is, it was mutiny. Mutiny winked at, but one can’t make a plain statement of fact about the dangers of promoting the ill-bred and vulgar to positions of authority, or policies that encourage the most vile sort of behavior, and even undermine everything civilization has always stood for, without losing business contacts or promotions.”
Page 317

“I don’t know if that unit leader did the right thing. But I don’t know what the right thing to do would have been. And I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to die for that right thing if I knew what it was. I mean…” She paused. “I mean, I’d like to think I would. There was a time I’d have been sure I would. But I can’t even…”
Page 319

"The noblest, most well-intentioned people in the world can’t make annexations a good thing. Arguing that ancillaries are efficient and convenient is not, to me, a point in favor of using ancillaries. It doesn’t make it better, it only makes it look a little cleaner.”
Page 325

“It’s so easy to go along with things, isn’t it?” Skaaiat said. “Especially when, as you say, it profits you.”
Page 326

The Security officer gestured ambiguity. “I couldn’t say, citizen.”
Page 327

Gestures are mentioned in several sci-fi books I've read recently. We have gestures, shrugs and hand gestures like halt, forward, so-so and the like. I like the idea, however, of having larger, more-defined gestures that could convey entire conversations.

The omen Stillness had flipped, become Movement. And Justice was about to land before me, clear and unambiguous.
Page 328

I was done pretending. It was terrifying, because I knew I couldn’t live long past this, but also, oddly, a relief. A weight gone.
Page 332

The end of struggling brings its own relief.

Anaander Mianaai stopped, turned to look at me. “That wasn’t me. Help me now, I’m fighting that other me even now, I’m quite certain. I wasn’t ready to move openly, but now you’ve forced my hand, help me and I’ll destroy her and remove her utterly from myself.”

“You can’t,” I said. “I know what you are, better than anyone. She’s you and you’re her. You can’t remove her from yourself without destroying yourself. Because she’s you.”
Page 339

“Pain is a warning,” said Anaander Mianaai.
Page 341

“What would happen if you removed all discomfort from your life?”
Page 341

As Seneca commented, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”

“And if I had wings I’d be a sail-pod.” Ifs and would-haves changed nothing.
Page 370

“Half your anger is for yourself.” She ate the last bite of pastry and brushed her small gloved hands together, showering fragments of sugar icing onto the grass. “But it’s such a monumentally enormous anger even half is quite devastating.”
Page 374

“Justice of Toren,” said Mercy of Kalr from the console. The name caught me by surprise, started exhausted tears. I blinked them away. “I’m only One Esk,” I said. And swallowed. “Nineteen.”
Page 382

Black Hole Blues

Book Review

When I joined the Caltech Alumni Book Club, I didn't realize what the theme of the book club would be. After this book and the last one, I can say with a good level of confidence that the theme is "has to do with Caltech." And really, that's expected and probably in the book club description that I didn't read when I joined ("A book club? SQUEEEEE! Join!"). The book club reads more slowly than I read, which is to say, more slowly than the maximum library checkout time, so I've been finishing these books faster than the book club. Not a great thing when I want to be participating in the book club.

Phew. That all said...

This book is, unsurprisingly, about the gravitational wave experiments, the people involved in it from the beginning, the stumbling blocks, the successes, and the failures. It's a great scientific tale that I enjoyed reading about.

That some of it occurred while I was AT Caltech reminds me of just how f---ing oblivious I was when I was at Tech, as well as how oblivious I must still be about my world. I want to believe I'm more aware, and more appeciative, of things around me. NO IDEA IF I AM.

That this book was published before LIGO succeeded is delightful. That LIGO succeeded is even more delighful. I enjoyed this book, enjoyed reading about people who love science as much as I do, and had the courage to pursue that love.

I recommend this book to anyone who has a slight interest in the biographical information about the LIGO project, black holes in particular, or science in general. Fun read.

“I went to MIT for college—I wanted to learn how to do audio engineering well, because that was all I knew. But I very rapidly realized that I didn’t want to become an engineer. I switched to physics, and I don’t know why…. No, I’ll tell you; it was really stupid. The Physics Department had fewer requirements than the others, and I was totally undisciplined—I didn’t want any requirements.”
Page 11

I understand this.

“Anyway, I was totally gaga, crazy in love. I didn’t think of what the consequences of that would be. Of course, the girl went off with somebody else. You can never fall in love — I mean, you’re not allowed to do that. You know how it is. So I came back."
Page 14

"But I would have stayed a graduate student forever, because it was fun. I could go from one experiment to the other, and I never thought about money or any of that stuff, so I did one experiment after the other. Some of them were pretty zany.”
Page 15

The hasty construction of the Palace reflected an unpreparedness the government intended to amend in the wake of World War II. Roughly shaken out of introversion, the country did not have an army of trained scientists and engineers, and this deficit was believed to hamper military research. Under the pressures of the war, incited by that urgency, technologies were constructed as suddenly as the building, if with higher production value.
Page 19

Which is, sadly, HOW THE UNITED STATES IS BECOMING NOW. Both with its anti-immigration policies and with its attack on science and the truth.

This saddens me beyond belief.

In the quirky climate of the Plywood Palace, the notorious academic pressure to publish or perish also abated, so that Rai could adhere to simple principles and high standards.
Page 20

How wonderful would this be!

Rai was bold and practical and effective but not politically ambitious. He pursued experiments out of raw curiosity, indifferent to his career trajectory. He says, “I didn’t even think of the tenure clock. It was not in my consciousness. I was a professor, they had just hired me, and I was going to try to do the most interesting thing I could think of. The hell with it.” His unfettered attitude let him explore and take risks.
Page 21

Love this. I wish everyone who loved the hard sciences could be like this.

With prerogative and talent as cargo, under obligation to a comprehensible universe, he wandered unfamiliar streets on a trip to the Northeast in the hopes that a brisk constitutional could dislodge an answer to the question, “What am I supposed to be doing with all that I have?”
Page 25

Wheeler turned to relativity as he emerged from the nuclear weapons program. He helped to design and to use the plutonium production reactor in 1942 until the end of the war.
Page 27

The Trinity test of the plutonium fission bomb detonated the mortifying equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT, lighting up an American desert and inspiring Oppenheimer’s memorable translation of the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Page 27

... despite his friendships with the intellectual émigrés, including his close friendship with Albert Einstein, he found the rumors of German atrocities impossible to believe. He didn’t believe them.
Page 28

It is impossible to see what you do not want to see, and harder to believe.

In his autobiography, Wheeler describes his sympathy for the German state, his conviction that German dominance would translate to European stability, his parents’ chastisement, and the gradual ebbing of his sympathy for Germany as the war progressed. He writes frankly about his error in judgment, which he fully accepted, along with his parents’ assessment, as news of atrocities accumulated. He admits, “It is hard now, more than fifty years later, to recapture my frame of mind at that time…. Even when I was doing everything I could to help defeat Germany, I clung to the belief that people are fundamentally decent everywhere…. By the end of the war I knew better. But not until I visited Auschwitz in 1947 was the full horror of German barbarism brought home to me.”
Page 28

I understand this desire to want to believe people are fundamentally decent.

When challenged on the use of the atomic bomb, he would respond as he did in his autobiography: “One cannot escape the conclusion that an atomic bomb program started a year earlier and concluded a year sooner would have spared 15 million lives, my brother Joe’s among them.”
Page 28

He was not entirely against the anticommunist fervor that purged academics from their ivory-tower ranks for crimes of silence either.
Page 29

Kip was among the first generation of physicists bred on relativity. He had the good fortune to mature in a time of significant unsolved astrophysical problems that awaited relativity for their unlocking, and he had the brilliance to make the most of his good fortune.

...

Kip perceived paranoia and ignorance as driving factors in the Cold War arms race. But Wheeler’s controversial involvement in the escalation of the thermonuclear weapons program was an undeniable part of the intellectual context he offered.
Page 33

Ron cultivated the aura of a scientific Mozart — Rai’s analogy — a childlike spirit attached to a wondrous mind that just seemed to emanate astonishing compositions. Everyone around him was forced to play Salieri, unfairly catalogued as a plodding technician in the shadow of Mozart’s genius. Talented scientists felt miscast by Ron in the lesser role. The laboratory was his private Exploratorium.
Page 50

The atmosphere was good in Scotland, a culture he better understood, that he perceived as more open and collaborative. He felt the scientists, even the students, at Caltech were discouraged from collaboration, were unwilling to work together, were more competitive.
Page 53

I ask Kip, “Was he argumentative?”

Kip laughs. “No, because nobody was arguing with him.”

“I sensed some jealousy on his part,” I say.

Kip concedes, “Oh yes, there was a lot of jealousy. That was a real problem.”

I reply, “There was such paranoia and also real complaints all folded together.” Kip agrees. “That’s how these things always are. All tangled together.”
Page 104

He was advised he could get a $ 10 million allowance in a payoff for the libel, but it would take at least five dedicated years that Joe was not prepared to spend in court. “It’s a question of what you want to do with your life,” Joe says.
Page 105

“I simply cannot understand the vehemence and the professional jealousy, and why each guy has to feel that he has to cut off a pound of my flesh. Ah, it’s a waste of effort. I’m in good health. Boltzmann committed suicide with this sort of treatment. But I just, I don’t have suicidal tendencies, I just, ah, keep wondering what the point of it all is.”
Page 106

Joe: "If you do science the principle reason to do it is because you enjoy it and if you don’t enjoy it you shouldn’t do it, and I enjoy it. And I must say I’m enjoying it.”

Kip: “I agree with that philosophy completely.”

Joe: “That’s the best you can do.”
Page 106

“Oh, it’s terrible. Freeman feeling responsible for encouraging him, he writes Joe a letter imploring him to stand down.”

Kip laughs, clearly stunned, and says, “Wow, he must be a very… ah… a very optimistic person.”
Page 107

"... A great man is not afraid to admit publicly that he has made a mistake and has changed his mind. I know you are a man of integrity. You are strong enough to admit that you are wrong. If you do this, your enemies will rejoice but your friends will rejoice even more. You will save yourself as a scientist, and you will find that those whose respect is worth having will respect you for it. ..."
Page 108

“Science is a self-correcting process, but not necessarily in one’s own lifetime,” she tells me rightly.
Page 108

Twenty-three years her senior, he always insisted she do what she wanted and needed to do.
Page 110

These partners are the best partners to have.

“This takes a lot of patience,” I say, not proud of the obviousness of the statement.

“Are you patient?” I ask, undeterred.

“No, and neither are you,” he says.

“You can tell?”

“Yes. You keep finishing my sentences,” he says, not unpleasantly.

I’m chagrined. He waves away any criticism: “It’s okay. It’s good.”
Page 123

“Ron was very difficult to deal with. At the time, I had a lot of respect for Ron, of a different kind. I began to understand Ron better as a scientist. I also found out why he was impossible to deal with: He doesn’t think the way you or I think; he thinks in pictures. And he doesn’t remember what he thought the day before, so you could never make a decision. You could watch his process. He’d go through the same logic about a decision on how big the laser beam should be or how many mirrors there should be—I don’t know, pick anything in the interferometer. And you would discuss this with him, and you would get to the same point, and he would agree that his viewpoint was not right—or maybe he wouldn’t quite agree—and then the conversation would start all over again the next morning, from exactly the same place. And we’d come to the same conclusion. This would go on day after day; you’d never come to a resolution. That was one of the troubles."
Page 124

How frustrating!

Rai had his own ideas about the instrument, about design implementation. But he had to put his own ego aside, not without some personal suffering, to get the thing done. He worked on site selection, or an industry study, tested mirror coatings, built his own laser.

Even now he’ll work wherever on whatever is needed whenever, sweeping away wasps, walking the tunnels, testing systems, building electronics. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “We better ask Rai.”
Page 125

Despite the prophetic name, Robbie says of himself, “I am well known as a person who detests any authority.”
Page 129

“No one was more insightful and creative than Robbie, no one better at solving a problem. And no one was better at creating one.”
Page 134

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

—MACHIAVELLI, The Prince (1513)
Page 134

The selection of the sites was going to be announced in the Senate Building at a press conference, and he wanted Robbie there to back him up. Robbie relays the exchange: “And I say, ‘Walter, what did you pick?’ He says, ‘You’ll find out when you get here.’ ”
Page 140

I f---ing HATE this. DO NOT tell me to come see, tell me what the f--- you want me to know. YEARGH.

Maine had invested heavily to support the site selection. Mitchell had fought hard for LIGO, but Maine was also scientifically the better site. Vogt eventually learned that the turn was specifically political. The Republican White House made the decision to punish Mitchell, the Democratic majority leader of the Senate.
Page 140

Asshats.

Robbie’s skunkworks management style was motivated by his archetypal hatred of authority. His contempt for executive supervision often drove him. He would accept an administrative job due to this loathing.

Learning of the alternative to his nomination, he would think, “Not that idiot” and begrudgingly accept the position in order to spare everyone. He says, “Whenever I held office I was always convinced that the office above me was an idiot and that I had the most important job. And as I moved up the ladder I found out there was always someone above me that was an idiot.”

To avoid this recurrent problem, Robbie was determined that there be no one above him, not even the NSF. They were to deliver the funds and stay out of the operation. There would be essentially no bureaucracy and no obligation to justify the rolling decisions the scientists made, to the NSF or to anyone else.

“If an authority wants power they have to persuade me I respect them. If they are bureaucrats, I will simply not respect them, and if I don’t respect them I will not cooperate. I have not cooperated since and it has gotten me in a lot of trouble. But it has given me a personal comfort that that’s what I wanted to live like.” Robbie explains, “Anyone who lived under the Nazis should hate authority.”
Page 144

“Incidentally I have always had a prejudice in favor of women because I felt they were not getting equal rights, and not because I was a white knight or a good person. And the reason is my mother had been running a big industrial operation because she had been the only daughter of a man…. And I admired my mother. My mother was the most beautiful woman in the world and the most able woman in the world…. And she took me to her plants, which I understood…. And I had female professors who were very good so I was prejudiced in favor of smart women.”

“It’s a good prejudice to have,” I congratulate him.
Page 144

I do, too.

Many Germans suffered under the Nazis, he wants me to understand. “Other Germans were not victims like the Jews, but life under the Nazis was indescribable,” although he tries. “At that time the Nazis had a very powerful method of discouraging people from opposing them. When they arrested a man they arrested his wife also.” The orphaned children of political prisoners were placed in cadet schools, then sent to fight. A fourteen-year-old could be charged with an entire troop of child soldiers. A child had “a body that could stop a bullet and that’s all they needed.” The children would have no military training. They had pickaxes and shovels. When the invasion happened in 1944 and the British broke through, the German Army issued bazookas and rifles and would send these “kids” into combat. None of them would survive.

Robbie’s rage and deep-rooted contempt for authority surfaces vividly as he describes the atrocities. “The government had power over its citizens and used it ruthlessly.”
Page 145

“I will not be a celebrity or made a hero by anybody. I want to be anonymous.”
Page 146

Kip has heard this before, the accusation of optimism, which he patiently refutes with references, documents, and published graphs.
Page 149

Love this.

“For the record,” says Kip, “I think the bet hung on the wall continuously except for a few days when I took it down to sign my concession.”
Page 154

Jerry was cross that all of the major projects over the past many decades were vetted by the Decadal Survey, but not LIGO. He was upset, as were others, that money was spent on tunnels and not on graduate students. On this issue Kip protests, “A key point is that LIGO was being funded out of the Physics Division of NSF, not the Astronomy Division. The Astronomy Division was never in the loop in any significant way; it was always Physics.
Page 154

Although Kip outgrew the tedious moralizing, the sexism, and the religiosity of his Mormon roots, the suggestion was that he never shed the urge to proselytize for a righteous cause and LIGO was that cause.

Why was LIGO funded despite the staggering cost and the tremendous risk? Because Kip was a very charming and very convincing advocate. He was also very thorough scientifically, clear in his analysis and reviews of the state of the art, and respected for his integrity. Kip could make you believe.
Page 155

In the beginning of Vogt’s term as director, Drever says he was not entirely unhappy, although Vogt did make many organizational changes and, unconcealed, did cart around a difficult temperament. The operation overall became more professional, more effective, and substantially funded. At first Drever thought Vogt was “quite okay,” although he was sore that not all of his technical decisions were implemented immediately.

He complained that it was hard for anyone else on the team to fully understand the status of operations at all levels, Vogt so tightly controlled the flow of information — Ron’s impression, not, for instance, Kip’s.
Page 158

I struggle mightily in environments where this is acceptable behavior, hoarding information that is needed for everyone to do their jobs well (cough, cough, TWITTER, danm, Arnaud, asshats both of them).

Maybe not with the full force of his rancor, but with enough of it, Vogt began to attack Ron in the weekly group meetings. “Particularly he kept accusing me of not using the scientific method. And this hurt me tremendously.”

Ron attributes the techniques he learned in the United Kingdom to Rutherford’s influence. He cut corners without compromising performance, did many experiments very quickly, skipped extraneous details, and moved very fast. His practices should not be misinterpreted as slipshod.

And there is no doubt that Ron invented an impressive collection of ingenious experimental techniques and designed significant original elements still crucial to the machines today. He protests, defensive, that his methods had put them ahead. He could work twice as fast as traditional groups and, always frugal, for less money.

...

“I would take a step that wasn’t obvious, and it would work. Robbie would say, ‘He guessed!’ Well, I didn’t guess. My intuition was very powerful—it is very powerful… but I found it difficult to explain it.”

Ron continues, “But he became more and more against me, and I didn’t know at the time quite why.”
Page 161

Peter Goldreich, professor emeritus at Caltech and Princeton, recounts, “I remember Ron telling me one time, ‘This is awful. This is awful.’ Robbie would be yelling at him. And I’d say, ‘Why don’t you just walk away if he starts yelling at you?’ Ron said, ‘Could I do that?’ And I said, ‘Of course you can do that. You are a professor here.’… I couldn’t believe that Ron was so naïve.”
Page 161

Forbidden by Vogt to do so, he presented anyway.
Page 163

Yeah. Understand this, too.

Maybe Vogt hoped Drever would just resign, go back to Glasgow, as any person with a more conventional and reactive psychology might. Ron’s unconventional mentality could have made him oddly resistant to ordinary manipulation. Push him unremittingly in one direction and he could still move unpredictably in another. Apparently his primary reaction to the pressure was an impassive bewilderment instead of a spiteful resignation. He lived for the work, for the lab, for the implementation of his inspired ideas. LIGO was centered at Caltech. There was nothing else for him and nowhere else to go.
Page 164

“Before Robbie became director, Ron had already alienated most of the members of the LIGO team, and in subsequent years the alienation grew…. Among the factors contributing to the team’s alienation from him were his effort to maintain full and sole control of his group’s research, using other scientists as his assistants and rarely granting any significant responsibility or authority to them.”
Page 166

And that’s, I think, fundamentally what finally happened to them. Ron pushed a button that made Robbie feel like a second-rate person, and Robbie couldn’t deal with that.”
Page 167

Aware that his reputation preceded him, in the fifth hour of our conversation Robbie says, part defense, part confession, “The mistakes I made were because of the information I had at the time.”
Page 169

Jamie says, “It’s a kind of celebrity.” Part of Rana’s charisma is related to the social power of indifference. He’s not generally indifferent, though. He listens to other people sometimes with uninterest, true, and that could be interpreted, wrongly, as diffuse indifference. He might occasionally remark on someone’s contribution to the conversation, usually with mild derision, his voice so smooth and calm you’re expecting consensus, and then the meaning slowly resolves as mockery.

Part of Rana’s social power lies in his seeming indifference specifically to external validation. He doesn’t need for you to like him, self-esteem wise. I doubt this self-assuredness is humanly possible, but the impression, the illusion created is powerful.
Page 173

“All I had to assess was if I thought I could make a difference.”
Page 180

In sum total the apartments say, “I don’t plan on being here forever,” even when the resident unexpectedly stays in that noncommittal arrangement for years. Two or four or five, traveling from that base, never quite settling in, never quite committing.
Page 188

Or my last five years, one could say.

Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There’s an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics—the French guy, the German guy, the American girl. So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms. In the end it’s personal, as much as we want to believe it’s objective.
Page 189

"It is sad that I’m no longer part of Caltech now…. I’ve had many setbacks but every setback, somehow life compensated me again for it in some way. At the moment I got fired or if I had to step down or… it was very hurtful. It was devastating… but there were always people at the right moment who gave me an assist. Every time there was a change in my life, there was always a human being involved to help me. I was lucky."
Page 197

I am Number Four

Book Review

After reading four non-fiction books in a row, thereby nearly guaranteeing my goal of "1/3 of my books read this year should be non-fiction," I needed brain candy. I needed a book that was just plain fluff, that wasn't going to be anything but an adventure. I had I am Number Four on my list for a bit, likely some Book Riot recommendation, and had started reading it in Montreal when Snook and Ara were busy catching up on tattoos and such in the local bookstore's Starbucks. I had read up to page 47 in the book, and wanted to continue it. TMI? Possibly, but it wins me brownie points.

My plan was to read this book today (check), and watch the movie tonight (less check). The former I managed, the latter I mostly managed. The book is better. Way better.

Anyway, there are 18 known inhabitable planets in the universe (how they know this in the UNIVERSE and not merely our galaxy, I have no idea, but let's go with it, this is brain candy, not discovering gravitational waves or some such. One of them was destroyed by its own race, which then destroyed a second of them, and is coming for its third, Earth. The previous planet's occupants had some pretty fantastic abilities, and these are what John Smith, the 15 year old protagonist, might developer. Or maybe does develop? Okay, fine he does.

The book was exactly what I needed, brain candy. The movie was an experience in frustration and confusion - why would they change the father-son, guardian-trustee, friendly relationship between Henri and John in the book, and make it adversarial and secretive in the movie? The change did not improve the movie at all.

If you're a fan of science fiction, this is a fast, easy read. If not, skip it, and likely the remaining six books in the series. I'll be skipping the remaining six books myself.

Sarah laughs. She places a new egg in my hand and takes my hand in hers and shows me how to crack it on the rim of the bowl.
Page 89

No, that is a crappy way to break an egg. Breaking an egg along the rim of a bowl shatters the shell, increasing the likelihood of shell in your bowl and your batter (or whatever you have in the bowl).

Crack the egg by knocking it against the countertop to create a broken flat area of shell. Press both thumbs into this broken circle area, and pry apart as if the egg has a hinge on the opposite side of the egg from the broken flat area where you are putting your thumbs.

"She was a late sleeper, and I always woke before she did. I would sit in the den and read the paper, make breakfast, go for a walk. Some mornings I would come back and she would still be sleeping. I was impatient, couldn't wait to start the day together. She made me feel good just to be around her. I would go in and try to rouse her. She would pull the covers over her head and growl at me. Almost every morning, always the same thing."
Page 139

Dis me.

"Hope?" he says. "There is always hope, John. New developments have yet to present themselves. Not all the information is in. No. Don't give up hope just yet. It's the last thing to go. When you have lost hope, you have lost everything. And when you think all is lost, when all is dire and bleak, there is always hope."
Page 148

"Do you think it's possible for us to be loved?" I ask.

"What are you talking about?"

"By humans. Do you think we can be loved, like, truly be loved by them?"

"I think they can love us the way they love each other, especially if they don't know what we are, but I don't think it's possible to love a human the way you would love a Loric," he says.

"Why?"

"Because deep down we're different from them. And we love differently. One of the gifts our planet gave us is to love completely. Without jealousy or insecurity or fear. Without pettiness. Without anger. You may have strong feelings for Sara, but they aren't what you would feel for a Loric girl."
Page 315

Can you imagine such a love?

"What happens if we try to have children with humans?"

"It's happened many times before. Usually it results in an exceptional and gifted human. Some of the greatest figures in Earth's history were actually the product of humans and the Loric, including Buddha, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, THomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein..."
Page 316

"No more running. No more fighting. Blood from the knife wound runs down my back; my hands and legs are both shaking. The dagger is still tucked into the waistband of my jeans, but what's the point in grabbing it? What faith is there in a four-inch blade against a forty-foot beast? It would be the equivalent of a splinter. It'll only make it angrier. My only hope is to bleed to death before I am killed and eaten.

I close my eyes and accept death. My lights are off. I don'ot want to see what is about to happen."
Page 463

Geez, this kid accepts his death easily. And repeatedly. He kept accepting it, and accepting it, and accepting it, even as everyone around him kept fighting. Maybe Henri should have worked on those grit lessons, too.

Weapons of Math Destruction

Book Review

Okay, this book has been on my to-read list for a long while. I bought it I don't know when, with the intent of reading it, but it just lingered. When Suzanne said her session of the book club she and Bob are in, is reading it, and that the session would meet the Monday I'm there, well, I pulled out the book and started reading.

It was not what I was expected, which is fine, really, most books aren't quite what I was expecting. This one, however, caught me more off-guard than I was expecting. I thought this was a book describing the mathematics used in the different ways big-data affects society. Instead, it is a book describing the ways mathmatics is used in big data to disadvantage the already disadvantaged.

It is, at its core, a book about the growing unfairness of big-data in our lives. It is about the ways the poor are kept poor, the rich can stay rich, the powerful abuse their power, and society continues to stratify, all with the help of numbers and math and statistics and data.

The first session of the book club summed up the book as, "It reads like a novel, and is mostly about the unfairness of big-data, it's a social justice book." Bob commented, "Yep, we're done, I don't think there's anything else to talk about." I agree. The book was example after example of the ways big-data is problematic. The examples are important to know. I recommend the book.

Math provided a neat refuge from the messiness of the real world.
Page 1

I can understand this desire to leave the messiness for the beauty of mathematics.

There would always be mistakes, however, because models are, by their very nature, simplifications. No model can include all of the real world’s complexity or the nuance of human communication.
Page 20

A model’s blind spots reflect the judgments and priorities of its creators.
Page 21

Here we see that models, despite their reputation for impartiality, reflect goals and ideology.

Our own values and desires influence our choices, from the data we choose to collect to the questions we ask. Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.
Page 21

Racism, at the individual level, can be seen as a predictive model whirring away in billions of human minds around the world. It is built from faulty, incomplete, or generalized data.

Whether it comes from experience or hearsay, the data indicates that certain types of people have behaved badly. That generates a binary prediction that all people of that race will behave that same way. Needless to say, racists don’t spend a lot of time hunting down reliable data to train their twisted models. And once their model morphs into a belief, it becomes hardwired. It generates poisonous assumptions, yet rarely tests them, settling instead for data that seems to confirm and fortify them.

Consequently, racism is the most slovenly of predictive models. It is powered by haphazard data gathering and spurious correlations, reinforced by institutional inequities, and polluted by confirmation bias.
Page 23

The second false assumption was that not many people would default at the same time. This was based on the theory, soon to be disproven, that defaults were largely random and unrelated events. This led to a belief that solid mortgages would offset the losers in each tranche. The risk models were assuming that the future would be no different from the past.
Page 41

I was already blogging as I worked in data science, and I was also getting more involved with the Occupy movement. More and more, I worried about the separation between technical models and real people, and about the moral repercussions of that separation. In fact, I saw the same pattern emerging that I’d witnessed in finance: a false sense of security was leading to widespread use of imperfect models, self-serving definitions of success, and growing feedback loops. Those who objected were regarded as nostalgic Luddites.
Page 48

And this is the a-ha moment, the inception, for this book.

In a system in which cheating is the norm, following the rules amounts to a handicap. The only way to win in such a scenario is to gain an advantage and to make sure that others aren’t getting a bigger one.
Page 63

Emphasis mine. Welcome to human nature.

the University of Phoenix targeted poor people with the bait of upward mobility. Its come-on carried the underlying criticism that the struggling classes weren’t doing enough to improve their lives. And it worked.
Page 70

If it was true during the early dot-com days that “nobody knows you’re a dog,” it’s the exact opposite today. We are ranked, categorized, and scored in hundreds of models, on the basis of our revealed preferences and patterns. This establishes a powerful basis for legitimate ad campaigns, but it also fuels their predatory cousins: ads that pinpoint people in great need and sell them false or overpriced promises. They find inequality and feast on it. The result is that they perpetuate our existing social stratification, with all of its injustices.
Page 70

A 2012 Senate committee report on for-profit colleges described Vatterott’s recruiting manual, which sounds diabolical. It directs recruiters to target “Welfare Mom w/ Kids. Pregnant Ladies. Recent Divorce. Low Self-Esteem. Low Income Jobs. Experienced a Recent Death. Physically/ Mentally Abused. Recent Incarceration. Drug Rehabilitation. Dead-End Jobs—No Future.”

Why, specifically, were they targeting these folks? Vulnerability is worth gold. It always has been.

Once the ignorance is established, the key for the recruiter, just as for the snake-oil merchant, is to locate the most vulnerable people and then use their private information against them. This involves finding where they suffer the most, which is known as the “pain point.”
Page 72

Because there is always someone willing to exploit the less-well-off.

But zero tolerance actually had very little to do with Kelling and Wilson’s “broken-windows” thesis. Their case study focused on what appeared to be a successful policing initiative in Newark, New Jersey. Cops who walked the beat there, according to the program, were supposed to be highly tolerant. Their job was to adjust to the neighborhood’s own standards of order and to help uphold them.

Standards varied from one part of the city to another. In one neighborhood, it might mean that drunks had to keep their bottles in bags and avoid major streets but that side streets were okay. Addicts could sit on stoops but not lie down. The idea was only to make sure the standards didn’t fall.

The cops, in this scheme, were helping a neighborhood maintain its own order but not imposing their own.
Page 88

Huh.

In this sense, PredPol, even with the best of intentions, empowers police departments to zero in on the poor, stopping more of them, arresting a portion of those, and sending a subgroup to prison. And the police chiefs, in many cases, if not most, think that they’re taking the only sensible route to combating crime. That’s where it is, they say, pointing to the highlighted ghetto on the map. And now they have cutting-edge technology (powered by Big Data) reinforcing their position there, while adding precision and “science” to the process. The result is that we criminalize poverty, believing all the while that our tools are not only scientific but fair.
Page 91

While looking at WMDs, we’re often faced with a choice between fairness and efficacy.

Our legal traditions lean strongly toward fairness.

The Constitution, for example, presumes innocence and is engineered to value it. From a modeler’s perspective, the presumption of innocence is a constraint, and the result is that some guilty people go free, especially those who can afford good lawyers. Even those found guilty have the right to appeal their verdict, which chews up time and resources. So the system sacrifices enormous efficiencies for the promise of fairness.

The Constitution’s implicit judgment is that freeing someone who may well have committed a crime, for lack of evidence, poses less of a danger to our society than jailing or executing an innocent person.
Page 95

Back when arguing meant discourse, not bullying or outight lies. Go fig.

They try in vain to measure “friendship” by counting likes and connections on Facebook. And the concept of fairness utterly escapes them. Programmers don’t know how to code for it, and few of their bosses ask them to.
Page 95

The question is whether we as a society are willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency in the interest of fairness. Should we handicap the models, leaving certain data out?
Page 95

But a crucial part of justice is equality. And that means, among many other things, experiencing criminal justice equally. People who favor policies like stop and frisk should experience it themselves. Justice cannot just be something that one part of society inflicts upon the other.
Page 96

What’s more, for supposedly scientific systems, the recidivism models are logically flawed. The unquestioned assumption is that locking away “high-risk” prisoners for more time makes society safer. It is true, of course, that prisoners don’t commit crimes against society while behind bars. But is it possible that their time in prison has an effect on their behavior once they step out? Is there a chance that years in a brutal environment surrounded by felons might make them more likely, and not less, to commit another crime? Such a finding would undermine the very basis of the recidivism sentencing guidelines. But prison systems, which are awash in data, do not carry out this highly important research. All too often they use data to justify the workings of the system but not to question or improve the system.
Page 97

This was one of the pillars of the original “broken-windows” study. The cops were on foot, talking to people, trying to help them uphold their own community standards. But that objective, in many cases, has been lost, steamrollered by models that equate arrests with safety.
Page 103

Even putting aside the issues of fairness and legality, research suggests that personality tests are poor predictors of job performance.

Frank Schmidt, a business professor at the University of Iowa, analyzed a century of workplace productivity data to measure the predictive value of various selection processes. Personality tests ranked low on the scale—they were only one-third as predictive as cognitive exams, and also far below reference checks.

This is particularly galling because certain personality tests, research shows, can actually help employees gain insight into themselves. They can also be used for team building and for enhancing communication. After all, they create a situation in which people think explicitly about how to work together.

That intention alone might end up creating a better working environment. In other words, if we define the goal as a happier worker, personality tests might end up being a useful tool.

But instead they’re being used as a filter to weed out applicants. “The primary purpose of the test,” said Roland Behm, “is not to find the best employee. It’s to exclude as many people as possible as cheaply as possible.”
Page 109

The practice of using credit scores in hirings and promotions creates a dangerous poverty cycle. After all, if you can’t get a job because of your credit record, that record will likely get worse, making it even harder to land work. It’s not unlike the problem young people face when they look for their first job—and are disqualified for lack of experience. Or the plight of the longtime unemployed, who find that few will hire them because they’ve been without a job for too long.

It’s a spiraling and defeating feedback loop for the unlucky people caught up in it.

Employers, naturally, have little sympathy for this argument. Good credit, they argue, is an attribute of a responsible person, the kind they want to hire. But framing debt as a moral issue is a mistake.

Plenty of hardworking and trustworthy people lose jobs every day as companies fail, cut costs, or move jobs offshore. These numbers climb during recessions. And many of the newly unemployed find themselves without health insurance. At that point, all it takes is an accident or an illness for them to miss a payment on a loan.

Even with the Affordable Care Act, which reduced the ranks of the uninsured, medical expenses remain the single biggest cause of bankruptcies in America.
Page 149

(Wealthy travelers, by contrast, are often able to pay to acquire “trusted traveler” status, which permits them to waltz through security. In effect, they’re spending money to shield themselves from a WMD.)
Page 150

To which, as someone who has been sexually assaulted by a TSA officer, yes, I will pay my government $20 a year not to sexually assault me.

THAT said, I STILL get the "random" checks when I go through the TSA Pre line. "Random" really means, "we will prove we are not racially profiling travellers by always targeting the slender, big boobed, conservatively dressed woman in cords, because hey not a Muslim dude."

Not all WMD backlashes are accurate either.

As we saw in recidivism sentencing models and predatory loan algorithms, the poor are expected to remain poor forever and are treated accordingly—denied opportunities, jailed more often, and gouged for services and loans. It’s inexorable, often hidden and beyond appeal, and unfair.
Page 155

According to a report in Forbes, institutional money now accounts for more than 80 percent of all the activity on peer-to-peer platforms.

For big banks, the new platforms provide a convenient alternative to the tightly regulated banking economy. Working through peer-to-peer systems, a lender can analyze nearly any data it chooses and develop its own e-scores. It can develop risk correlations for neighborhoods, zip codes, and the stores customers shop at — all without having to send them embarrassing letters explaining why.
Page 159

Of course it is. Banks go where the money is.

Quoting this book is becoming tiring, tbh. Might be easier to read the book than all my extracted quotes.

Hoffman’s analysis, like many of the WMDs we’ve been discussing, was statistically flawed. He confused causation with correlation, so that the voluminous data he gathered served only to confirm his thesis: that race was a powerful predictor of life expectancy. Racism was so ingrained in his thinking that he apparently never stopped to consider whether poverty and injustice might have something to do with the death rate of African Americans, whether the lack of decent schools, modern plumbing, safe workplaces, and access to health care might kill them at a younger age.

Nearly a half century later, however, redlining is still with us, though in far more subtle forms. It’s coded into the latest generation of WMDs. Like Hoffman, the creators of these new models confuse correlation with causation. They punish the poor, and especially racial and ethnic minorities.
Page 162

<sarcasm>
What?

How can that be?
</sarcasm>

Mathematicians didn’t pretend to foresee the fate of each individual. That was unknowable. But they could predict the prevalence of accidents, fires, and deaths within large groups of people.
Page 163

... for the first time, the chance to pool their collective risk, protecting individuals when misfortune struck.
Page 163

The move toward the individual, as we’ll see, is embryonic. But already insurers are using data to divide us into smaller tribes, to offer us different products and services at varying prices. Some might call this customized service. The trouble is, it’s not individual. The models place us into groups we cannot see, whose behavior appears to resemble ours. Regardless of the quality of the analysis, its opacity can lead to gouging.
Page 164

In other words, how you manage money can matter more than how you drive a car.

...

And in Florida, adults with clean driving records and poor credit scores paid an average of $ 1,552 more than the same drivers with excellent credit and a drunk driving conviction.
Page 165

Emphasis not mine.

But consider the price optimization algorithm at Allstate, the insurer self-branded as “the Good Hands People.” According to a watchdog group, the Consumer Federation of America, Allstate analyzes consumer and demographic data to determine the likelihood that customers will shop for lower prices. If they aren’t likely to, it makes sense to charge them more.

And that’s just what Allstate does. It gets worse. In a filing to the Wisconsin Department of Insurance, the CFA listed one hundred thousand microsegments in Allstate’s pricing schemes. These pricing tiers are based on how much each group can be expected to pay.
Page 166

The stated goal of this surveillance is to reduce accidents. About seven hundred truckers die on American roads every year. And their crashes also claim the lives of many in other vehicles. In addition to the personal tragedy, this costs lots of money. The average cost of a fatal crash, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, is $3.5 million.
Page 168

Wow.

When I talk to most people about black boxes in cars, it’s not the analysis they object to as much as the surveillance itself. People insist to me that they won’t give in to monitors. They don’t want to be tracked or have their information sold to advertisers or handed over to the National Security Agency. Some of these people might succeed in resisting this surveillance. But privacy, increasingly, will come at a cost.
Page 170

Yeah.

At some point, the trackers will likely become the norm. And consumers who want to handle insurance the old-fashioned way, withholding all but the essential from their insurers, will have to pay a premium, and probably a steep one. In the world of WMDs, privacy is increasingly a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.
Page 170

Insurance is an industry, traditionally, that draws on the majority of the community to respond to the needs of an unfortunate minority.
Page 170

In the villages we lived in centuries ago, families, religious groups, and neighbors helped look after each other when fire, accident, or illness struck. In the market economy, we outsource this care to insurance companies, which keep a portion of the money for themselves and call it profit.
Page 171

As insurance companies learn more about us, they’ll be able to pinpoint those who appear to be the riskiest customers and then either drive their rates to the stratosphere or, where legal, deny them coverage. This is a far cry from insurance’s original purpose, which is to help society balance its risk. In a targeted world, we no longer pay the average. Instead, we’re saddled with anticipated costs. Instead of smoothing out life’s bumps, insurance companies will demand payment for those bumps in advance.
Page 171

Once companies amass troves of data on employees’ health, what will stop them from developing health scores and wielding them to sift through job candidates? Much of the proxy data collected, whether step counts or sleeping patterns, is not protected by law, so it would theoretically be perfectly legal.

As we’ve seen, they routinely reject applicants on the basis of credit scores and personality tests. Health scores represent a natural—and frightening—next step.
Page 175

The national drugstore chain CVS announced in 2013 that it would require employees to report their levels of body fat, blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol—or pay $ 600 a year.
Page 175

Wow.

It gives companies an excuse to punish people they don’t like to look at—and to remove money from their pockets at the same time.
Page 177

In fact, the greatest savings from wellness programs come from the penalties assessed on the workers. In other words, like scheduling algorithms, they provide corporations with yet another tool to raid their employees’ paychecks.
Page 178

By sprinkling people’s news feeds with “I voted” updates, Facebook was encouraging Americans — more than sixty-one million of them — to carry out their civic duty and make their voices heard.
Page 180

Studies have shown that the quiet satisfaction of carrying out a civic duty is less likely to move people than the possible judgment of friends and neighbors.
Page 180

Of course.

Facebook is more like the Wizard of Oz: we do not see the human beings involved. When we visit the site, we scroll through updates from our friends. The machine appears to be only a neutral go-between. Many people still believe it is.
Page 183

Sadly.

Using linguistic software, Facebook sorted positive (stoked!) and negative (bummed!) updates. They then reduced the volume of downbeat postings in half of the news feeds, while reducing the cheerful quotient in the others. When they studied the users’ subsequent posting behavior, they found evidence that the doctored new feeds had indeed altered their moods.

Their conclusion: “Emotional states can be transferred to others…, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.” In other words, Facebook’s algorithms can affect how millions of people feel, and those people won’t know that it’s happening.
Page 184

The engines they used were programmed to skew the search results, favoring one party over another. Those results, they said, shifted voting preferences by 20 percent. This effect was powerful, in part, because people widely trust search engines. Some 73 percent of Americans, according to a Pew Research report, believe that search results are both accurate and impartial.
Page 184

Trying to please everyone is one reason most political speeches are boring (and Romney’s, even his supporters groused, were especially so).
Page 185

Basking in the company of people he believed to be supportive and like-minded, Romney let loose with his observation that 47 percent of the population were “takers,” living off the largesse of big government. These people would never vote for him, the governor said—which made it especially important to reach out to the other 53 percent.
Page 186

I find it interesting that this incident is in this book, as it is in Dark Money, too. Different spins happening, though.

Modern consumer marketing, however, provides politicians with new pathways to specific voters so that they can tell them what they know they want to hear. Once they do, those voters are likely to accept the information at face value because it confirms their previous beliefs, a phenomenon psychologists call confirmation bias. It is one reason that none of the invited donors at the Romney event questioned his assertion that nearly half of voters were hungry for government handouts. It only bolstered their existing beliefs.
Page 187

In late 2015, the Guardian reported that a political data firm, Cambridge Analytica, had paid academics in the United Kingdom to amass Facebook profiles of US voters, with demographic details and records of each user’s “likes.” They used this information to develop psychographic analyses of more than forty million voters, ranking each on the scale of the “big five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Page 191

MORE HUH.

The scoring of individual voters also undermines democracy, making a minority of voters important and the rest little more than a supporting cast. Indeed, looking at the models used in presidential elections, we seem to inhabit a shrunken country. As I write this, the entire voting population that matters lives in a handful of counties in Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and a few other swing states. Within those counties is a small number of voters whose opinions weigh in the balance.
Page 196

Instead of targeting people in order to manipulate them, it could line them up for help. In a mayoral race, for example, a microtargeting campaign might tag certain voters for angry messages about unaffordable rents. But if the candidate knows these voters are angry about rent, how about using the same technology to identify the ones who will most benefit from affordable housing and then help them find it?
Page 197

Because, you know, money.

Change that objective from leeching off people to helping them, and a WMD is disarmed—and can even become a force for good.
Page 197

At the federal level, this problem could be greatly alleviated by abolishing the Electoral College system. It’s the winner-take-all mathematics from state to state that delivers so much power to a relative handful of voters. It’s as if in politics, as in economics, we have a privileged 1 percent. And the money from the financial 1 percent underwrites the microtargeting to secure the votes of the political 1 percent. Without the Electoral College, by contrast, every vote would be worth exactly the same. That would be a step toward democracy.
Page 197

This might need to be my next mission.

Along the way, we’ve witnessed the destruction caused by WMDs. Promising efficiency and fairness, they distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy. It might seem like the logical response is to disarm these weapons, one by one. The problem is that they’re feeding on each other. Poor people are more likely to have bad credit and live in high-crime neighborhoods, surrounded by other poor people.
Page 198

Our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, means “Out of Many, One.” But WMDs reverse the equation. Working in darkness, they carve one into many, while hiding us from the harms they inflict upon our neighbors near and far. And those harms are legion.
Page 198

We cannot count on the free market itself to right these wrongs.
Page 198

Indeed, all too often the poor are blamed for their poverty, their bad schools, and the crime that afflicts their neighborhoods.
Page 198

Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead. Sometimes that will mean putting fairness ahead of profit.
Page 198

Clearly, the free market could not control its excesses. So after journalists like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair exposed these and other problems, the government stepped in. It established safety protocols and health inspections for food, and it outlawed child labor.

These new standards protected companies that didn’t want to exploit workers or sell tainted foods, because their competitors had to follow the same rules. And while they no doubt raised the costs of doing business, they also benefited society as a whole.
Page 198

The government, using tax dollars, attempts to compensate for it, with the hope that food stamp recipients will eventually be able to fully support themselves. But the lead aggregators push them toward needless transactions, leaving a good number of them with larger deficits, and even more dependent on public assistance.
Page 198

And the same is often true of fairness and the common good in mathematical models. They’re concepts that reside only in the human mind, and they resist quantification.

And since humans are in charge of making the models, they rarely go the extra mile or two to even try. It’s just considered too difficult. But we need to impose human values on these systems, even at the cost of efficiency.
Page 198

To disarm WMDs, we also need to measure their impact and conduct algorithmic audits. The first step, before digging into the software code, is to carry out research. We’d begin by treating the WMD as a black box that takes in data and spits out conclusions.
Page 198

There’s no fixing a backward model like the value-added model. The only solution in such a case is to ditch the unfair system.
Page 198

In this case, it’s simply a matter of asking teachers and students alike if the evaluations make sense for them, if they understand and accept the premises behind them. If not, how could they be enhanced? Only when we have an ecosystem with positive feedback loops can we expect to improve teaching using data. Until then it’s just punitive.
Page 198

They predict an individual’s behavior on the basis of the people he knows, his job, and his credit rating—details that would be inadmissible in court. The fairness fix is to throw out that data. But wait, many would say. Are we going to sacrifice the accuracy of the model for fairness? Do we have to dumb down our algorithms? In some cases, yes. If we’re going to be equal before the law, or be treated equally as voters, we cannot stand for systems that drop us into different castes and treat us differently.
Page 198

Movements toward auditing algorithms are already afoot. At Princeton, for example, researchers have launched the Web Transparency and Accountability Project. They create software robots that masquerade online as people of all stripes—rich, poor, male, female, or suffering from mental health issues. By studying the treatment these robots receive, the academics can detect biases in automated systems from search engines to job placement sites.
Page 198

Academic support for these initiatives is crucial. After all, to police the WMDs we need people with the skills to build them. Their research tools can replicate the immense scale of the WMDs and retrieve data sets large enough to reveal the imbalances and injustice embedded in the models. They can also build crowdsourcing campaigns, so that people across society can provide details on the messaging they’re receiving from advertisers or politicians. This could illuminate the practices and strategies of microtargeting campaigns.
Page 198

Auditors face resistance, however, often from the web giants, which are the closest thing we have to information utilities. Google, for example, has prohibited researchers from creating scores of fake profiles in order to map the biases of the search engine.
Page 198

Facebook, too. The social network’s rigorous policy to tie users to their real names severely limits the research outsiders can carry out there.
Page 198

Of course they do. Again, money.

These regulations are not perfect, and they desperately need updating. Consumer complaints are often ignored, and there’s nothing explicitly keeping credit-scoring companies from using zip codes as proxies for race. Still, they offer a good starting point. First, we need to demand transparency. Each of us should have the right to receive an alert when a credit score is being used to judge or vet us. And each of us should have access to the information being used to compute that score. If it is incorrect, we should have the right to challenge and correct it.
Page 198

Next, the regulations should expand to cover new types of credit companies, like Lending Club, which use newfangled e-scores to predict the risk that we’ll default on loans. They should not be allowed to operate in the shadows.
Page 198

If we want to bring out the big guns, we might consider moving toward the European model, which stipulates that any data collected must be approved by the user, as an opt-in. It also prohibits the reuse of data for other purposes. The opt-in condition is all too often bypassed by having a user click on an inscrutable legal box.

But the “not reusable” clause is very strong: it makes it illegal to sell user data. This keeps it from the data brokers whose dossiers feed toxic e-scores and microtargeting campaigns. Thanks to this “not reusable” clause, the data brokers in Europe are much more restricted, assuming they follow the law.
Page 198

I WOULD LOVE THIS.

Finally, models that have a significant impact on our lives, including credit scores and e-scores, should be open and available to the public. Ideally, we could navigate them at the level of an app on our phones. In a tight month, for example, a consumer could use such an app to compare the impact of unpaid phone and electricity bills on her credit score and see how much a lower score would affect her plans to buy a car. The technology already exists. It’s only the will we’re lacking.
Page 198

Dark Money

Book Review

While I do have a reading goal this year of having one third of the books I read be non-fiction books, I was really planning on reading more science books than politics books. When Bob said this was one of the books he was reading for his local book club, I checked the library and was delighted that it had a short wait time for the book. The next day, I had the book. Unfortunately, I managed to finish it only just before arriving in Pasadena.

Reading this book is like talking with Dad about politics, which was interesting to me because I now understand where he gets the crap he spouts. I had commented to him a couple years ago that he doesn't have any original thought it in head, he parrots back whatever hate he's getting from somewhere without thinking through the unintented (or intended, actually) consequences of his ideas. Well, the political agenda this book chronicles is pretty much what Dad is parroting. Dad is the type of person the conservatives targetted with their hate. This book describes the origins of that hate, not the reasons for it, but how it came to be and how it grew into the abomination that it is.

Abomination? Is that the correct word to use? When you have 27 families in a country of 360,000,000 million people able to stop the government and services of said country, yeah, you have an abomination.

This was a hard book to read, mostly because I kept wanting to throw it against the wall. I wanted to participate in Bob's book club, though, so I kept reading.

It comes down to this: liberals fundamentally believe that everyone can govern themselves, conservatives believe only they can govern and everyone else should bow to them. It's a matter of trust.

What I missed, and what Bob also agreed was missing from the book was what to do about the problem of dary money in the political system. People like my Dead Brother have given up, they are sheep with no will for change. People like Bob have not given up. As such, they, too, seek ways to undo the damage of the abomination.

I didn't like the topic of the book, but the book, wow, way worth reading. Strongly recommended.

The gap between the top 1 percent of earners in America and everyone else had grown so wide by 2007 that the top 1 percent of the population owned 35 percent of the nation’s private assets and was pocketing almost a quarter of all earnings, up from just 9 percent twenty-five years earlier.
Location 410

It is unclear what Fred Koch’s views of Hitler were during the 1930s, beyond his preference for the country’s work ethic in comparison with the nascent welfare state in America.
Location 768

Of a visit home, she wrote, “As soon as we arrived I felt an overwhelming urge to prostrate myself on the floor and eat dirt in order to illustrate how grateful I am for everything they’ve done for me, that I’m not the spoiled monster they warned me I’d become if I wasn’t careful.”

She described “chasing” her father around the house, trying to impress him with her interest in economics, and “staring down that dark well of nothing you do will ever be good enough you privileged waste of flesh.”
Location 866

A generation before, stern admonitions against becoming spoiled had emanated from Fred Koch to his offspring as well. Even as he laid plans to leave huge inheritances to his sons, he wrote a prophetic letter to them in 1936. In it, he warned,

When you are 21, you will receive what now seems like a large sum of money. It will be yours to do what you will. It may be a blessing or a curse.

You can use it as a valuable tool for accomplishment or you can squander it foolishly. If you choose to let this money destroy your initiative and independence, then it will be a curse to you and my action in giving it to you will have been a mistake.

I should regret very much to have you miss the glorious feeling of accomplishment and I know you are not going to let me down. Remember that often adversity is a blessing in disguise and certainly the greatest character builder. Be kind and generous to one another and to your mother.

...

“Never did such good advice fall on such deaf ears.”
Location 878

Ironically, the organization modeled itself on the Communist Party. Stealth and subterfuge were endemic. Membership was kept secret. Fighting “dirty” was justified internally, as necessary to combat the imputed treacherousness of the enemy.
Location 915

Of course. That is the way of people in power when what they do is not honest.

One ploy the group used, he said, was to set up phony front groups “pretending to be other than what they were.”
Location 918

Among those delivering papers on how the fringe movement could obtain genuine power was Charles Koch. The papers are striking in their radicalism, their disdain for the public, and their belief in the necessity of political subterfuge.
Location 1210

It called for the repeal of all campaign-finance laws and the abolition of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). It also favored the abolition of all government health-care programs, including Medicaid and Medicare. It attacked Social Security as “virtually bankrupt” and called for its abolition, too. The Libertarians also opposed all income and corporate taxes, including capital gains taxes, and called for an end to the prosecution of tax evaders. Their platform called for the abolition too of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, and the CIA, among other government agencies.

It demanded the abolition of “any laws” impeding employment—by which it meant minimum wage and child labor laws.

And it targeted public schools for abolition too, along with what it termed the “compulsory” education of children. The Libertarians also wanted to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seat belt laws, and all forms of welfare for the poor.

The platform was, in short, an effort to repeal virtually every major political reform passed during the twentieth century.
Location 1274

Which is what rich people want: more ways to abuse the poor.

Scaife’s great-grandfather Judge Thomas Mellon, the founder of the family fortune, had worried about the corrupting influence that inherited wealth might have on future heirs.
Location 1351

For good reason, apparently.

Surveying his great fortune, however, in 1885, Mellon fretted that “the normal condition of man is hard work, self-denial, acquisition and accumulation; as soon as his descendants are freed from the necessity of exertion they begin to degenerate sooner or later in body and mind.”
Location 1354

Years later, he would nonetheless help fund the social critic Charles Murray, a leading proponent of the theory that a superior work ethic and moral codes account for much of the success among the affluent.
Location 1447

Which is such complete bullshit. Luck plays a much more important role in the success of the affluent. Hell, being born white male in the United States makes you lucky.

In developing regulations, the EPA was directed to weigh only one concern—public health. Costs to industry were explicitly deemed irrelevant.
Location 1580

Income in America during the mid-1970s was as equally distributed as at any time in the country’s history.
Location 1597

Enraged that his own son had become a hippie at the school, he railed during a commencement address against “pleasure-minded parasites… living off the state dole.”
Location 1658

Interestingly enough, the "pleasure-minded parasites" are also found amongst those people who have money from an inheritance.

The hazard, however, was that partisan shills would create “balance” based on fraudulent research and deceive the public about pressing issues in which their sponsors had financial interests.
Location 1737

Yet one former aide to Scaife, James Shuman, told The Washington Post that had Scaife not inherited a huge fortune, “I don’t think he had the intellectual capacity to do very much.”
Location 1759

Cracks me up.

And saddens me.

Scaife’s extraordinary self-financed and largely tax-deductible vendetta against Clinton demonstrated the impact that a single wealthy extremist could have on national affairs, and served as something of a dress rehearsal for the Kochs’ later war against Obama.
Location 1809

Contrary information rarely penetrated it. Instead, Scaife’s family fortune enabled him to build a political bulwark reinforcing his ideology and imposing it on the rest of the country.
Location 1822

Lower taxes, looser regulations, and fewer government programs for the poor and the middle class all corresponded to the Kochs’ accumulation of wealth and power.
Location 1856

Andrew Mellon himself would have been pleased with the succession of hefty tax cuts that Reagan pushed through Congress. He slashed corporate and individual tax rates, particularly helping the wealthy. Between 1981 and 1986, the top income tax rate was cut from 70 percent to 28 percent. Meanwhile, taxes on the bottom four-fifths of earners rose. Economic inequality, which had flatlined, began to climb.
Location 1906

Simon disparaged these “college-educated idealists” who claimed to be working for “the well being of ‘consumers,’ the ‘environment,’ ‘minorities,’ ”and other nonmaterial causes, accusing them of wanting to “expand the police powers of the state over American producers.” He challenged their purity. Noting that they claimed to care little for money, he accused them of being driven by another kind of self-interest. Quoting his colleague Irving Kristol, the neoconservative intellectual, he charged that these usurpers wanted “the power to shape our civilization.” That power, he argued, should belong exclusively to “the free market.”
Location 2112

Also known as "the born rich."

Bradley was also a keen supporter of the Manion Forum, whose followers believed that social spending in America was part of a secret Russian plot to bankrupt the United States.
Location 2409

Dying!

“Almost the worst part,” she said, was that “he died thinking he’d let us down financially.” She added, “My husband was the sort of man who truly believed that if you worked hard and did a good job, you would be rewarded.”
Location 2496

How to blackmail the poor, convince them that working hard leads to success, while the system manipulates to keep them in poverty. See also Weapons of Math Destruction.

Even before the new congressional session began, Eric Cantor, a lawyer from Richmond, Virginia, who was about to become the new minority whip in the House, told a handful of trusted allies in a private planning meeting in his Washington condo, “We’re not here to cut deals and get crumbs and stay in the minority for another forty years.” Instead, he argued, the Republicans needed to fight. They needed to unite in opposition to virtually anything Obama proposed in order to deny him a single bipartisan victory.
Location 3443

This is so enraging. That the Republicans don't want to actually lead, they just want to obstruct.

Right, because that's how things get done.

As he flashed through a slide presentation at the Annapolis Inn, he asked his colleagues, “If the Purpose of the Majority is to Govern… What is Our Purpose?” His answer was simple: “The Purpose of the Minority is to become the Majority.” That one goal, he said, was “the entire Conference’s mission.”
Location 3453

I would argue his true answer was "The Purpose of the Minority is to rule the Majority," but you can't really say that out loud, can you?

The Republican leadership, according to an anecdote related by Grunwald, told GOP members of the House that as one of them, Jerry Lewis, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, put it, “We can’t play.”

David Obey, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was incensed at the lack of cooperation. “What they said right from the get-go,” he said, was that “it doesn’t matter what the hell you do, we ain’t going to help you. We’re going to stand on the sidelines and bitch.”
Location 3472

Frank argues that “the Tea Party wasn’t subverted,” as some have suggested. “It was born subverted.”

Still, he said, “it’s a major accomplishment for sponsors like the Kochs that they’ve turned corporate self-interest into a movement among people on the streets.”
Location 3614

Fanning the flames were the right-wing radio hosts. “It’s not about saving the planet,” Rush Limbaugh told his audience. “It’s not about anything, folks, other than raising taxes and redistributing wealth.”
Location 4316

Well, he was accurate about that redistributing part, from the poor and middle class to the rich.

In Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, the journalist Chrystia Freeland describes how those with massive financial resources almost universally use them to secure policies beneficial to their interests, often at the expense of the less well-off.
Location 5313

“Wealthy people self-tax,” he argued, by contributing to charities. “It’s a question—do you believe the government should be taking your money and spending it for you, or do you want to spend it for you?”
Location 5659

Dying laughing! What a line of bullshit.

But according to the cultural critic and Jewish scholar Leon Wieseltier, who has taught several university courses on Maimonides, “This is false and tendentious and idiotic.” He explains, “Maimonides did indeed prize the sort of charity that made its recipient more self-reliant, but he believed that the duty of charity is permanent” and that the responsibility to help the poor was “unequivocal and absolute.” In fact, he points out, Maimonides declared that “he who averts his eyes from the obligation of charity is regarded as a villain.”
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Cantor later told the real story to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. Blowing up the grand bargain had been his idea. He said it was a “fair assessment” to say that in the critical final moments he had talked Boehner out of accepting the deal for purely political reasons.

Cantor had argued, why give Obama a win? Why aid his reelection campaign by helping him look competent? It would be more advantageous for the Republicans to sabotage the talks, regardless of the mess it left the country in, and wait to see if the next year’s presidential election brought them a Republican president who would give them a better deal.
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A political minority, responding to the interests of its extreme sponsors, had succeeded in rendering the most powerful democracy in the world dysfunctional.
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The staggeringly lopsided situation made 2012 the starkest test yet of Louis Brandeis’s dictum that the country could have either “democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” but not both.
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Charles Koch often described his support for slashing taxes as motivated by a concern for the poor. “They’re the ones that suffer” from “bigger government,” he argued in an interview with his hometown paper.
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If anyone believes this, they are deceiving themselves. The poor benefit from the help of government.

Obama denounced the “breathtaking greed” that had led to the housing market’s collapse, as well as the Republican Party’s “you’re-on-your-own economics.” He also had some stinging words for big money’s influence on politics. “Inequality distorts our democracy,” he warned. “It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder.”
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In an early 2012 meeting in the Roosevelt Room, his campaign manager, Jim Messina, shocked the president by sharing the bad news that they now expected outside Republican spending against him to reach $ 660 million. “How sure are you?” Obama asked. “Very sure,” replied Messina.
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As he described them, they were people who were “dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, food, to housing, you name it.”
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Gerrymandering was a bipartisan game as old as the Republic. What made it different after Citizens United was that the business of manipulating politics from the ground up was now heavily directed and funded by the unelected rich. To get the job done, they used front groups claiming to be nonpartisan social welfare groups, funded by contributions from some of the world’s largest corporations and wealthy donors like the Kochs.
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In theory, redistricting was supposed to reflect the fundamental democratic principle of one person, one vote.
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The legislature slashed taxes on corporations and the wealthy while cutting benefits and services for the middle class and the poor. It also gutted environmental programs, sharply limited women’s access to abortion, backed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and legalized concealed guns in bars and on playgrounds and school campuses.

It also erected cumbersome new bureaucratic barriers to voting. Like the poll taxes and literacy tests of the segregated past, the new hurdles, critics said, were designed to discourage poor and minority voters, who leaned Democratic. The election law expert Richard Hasen declared, “I’ve never seen a package of what I would call suppressive voting measures like this.”
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This segment of the American population tended to believe that liberals cared more about ordinary people like themselves. In contrast, he said, “big business they see as very suspicious… They’re greedy. They don’t care about the underprivileged.” Assuming that he was among friends, Fink readily conceded that these critics weren’t wrong.

“What do people like you say? I grew up with pretty much very little, okay? And I worked my butt off to get what I have. So,” he went on, when he saw people “on the street,” he admitted, his reaction was, “Get off your ass and work hard, like we did!”

Unfortunately, he continued, those in the “middle third” — whose votes they needed — had a different reaction when they saw the poor. They instead felt “guilty.” Instead of being concerned with “opportunity” for themselves, Fink said, this group was concerned about “opportunity for other people.”
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Difference between looking up and looking down.

The Kochs’ extensive research had shown that what the American “customer” wanted from politics, alas, was quite different from their business-dominated free-market orthodoxy. It wasn’t just that Americans were interested in opportunity for the many, rather than just for themselves.

It also turned out, Fink acknowledged, that they wanted a clean environment and health and high standards of living, as well as political and religious freedom and peace and security. These objectives would seem to present a problem for a group led by ultrarich industrialists who had almost single-handedly stymied environmentalists’ efforts to protect the planet from climate change.
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Again, huh.

These political problems would seem to have been compounded by new statistics showing that the top 1 percent of earners had captured 93 percent of the income gains in the first year of recovery after the recession.
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Freedom fighters, as Fink labeled the donors, needed to explain to American voters that their opposition to programs for the poor did not stem from greed, and their opposition to the minimum wage wasn’t based on a desire for cheap labor.
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Dying laughing again. OF COURSE IT WAS.

The financially pressed Topeka school system, for instance, signed an agreement with the organization which taught students that, among other things, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t alleviate the Depression, minimum wage laws and public assistance hurt the poor, lower pay for women was not discriminatory, and the government, rather than business, caused the 2008 recession.
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So, a bunch of liars.

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