The kindness of book-loving strangers

Seven library books came due yesterday, but I could only find six. I engaged my (almost) eight-year-old to help find the book, which led us to take the mess of his books strewn around the house and put them into a barely-used bookshelf in his bedroom.

After we’d filled three long rows of books, Li’l D was pretty proud of our work … and his book collection, which he could finally see in full! Still, somehow, this didn’t stop him from being annoyed when I later found my missing library book exactly where it belonged. Continue reading “The kindness of book-loving strangers”

Advertisements

Four Titanic Corporations

I recently wrote about one key reason I keep reading on politics: I do not wish to be susceptible to propaganda. As such, I laughed when I heard about Hillary Clinton’s What Happened. “Actually paying to be propagandized? No, thanks!”

From my perspective, that’s the sole purpose of this book: not to lay out anything new, but to (1) gain financial benefit while (2) setting out the Official Democrat Version of Facts. This might sound extreme to someone who reads lots of mainstream media and skips the fuller explorations afforded by (non-self-aggrandizing) books. For me, now, it seems funny that I ever didn’t understand how deeply propagandized Americans are.

(It’s been this way for decades to a century. Search for “Edward Bernays” if you’d like to understand how that really crystalized, and then search for “concentration of media ownership” to understand how it’s been worked the last several decades.)

Out of curiosity, I decided to check reviews of What Happened yesterday. Folks wrote some hilarious reviews of Clinton and Kaine’s book last year, and I thought I might find more of the same now. Instead, I found a 23% rating on Google, a 3.8-star rating on Goodreads and … a 5-star rating on Amazon?!

It was pretty quickly clear how Amazon’s 5-star rating was achieved. You don’t have to look far at all; the first eight reviews revealed without clicking Amazon’s read-more variant are one- and two-star ratings. The very first review is titled “Review Deleted–Again.” Of the top eight, another couple reviewers had their original review(s) deleted.

Sorting through the one-star ratings, I found dozens of people whose non-glowing reviews had been deleted. One called Amazon and found his review had been deleted because it was “spiteful.” Some reviewers had their reviews deleted multiple times.

This is a key part of how America is now propagandized: by the quiet censorship of too-powerful tech companies and the rule of their algorithms.

Much as I abhor Amazon and its outsized power to shape and reshape America’s political landscape (see also: Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post), I’ve occasionally purchased difficult-to-find items there. That’s done effective now.

So, yeah. No What Happened for me, thanks. As for what I’ll be reading instead? Why, last week’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, which I’ll be buying from anyone but the book’s “four titanic corporations” of doom.

Lost in fiction

I recently picked up Erin Bowman’s Taken for a quarter at a library book sale. Reading it reminded me how fun it can be to read fiction. Reading politics and history is many positive things, but “fun” isn’t exactly one of them.

As I neared its conclusion, I cursed to realize it was part of a series. I didn’t want a series. I wanted a one-and-done story.

By the time I wrapped up reading it, of course, I’d changed my mind. I was glad there were more books to read. These, I checked out from the library.

I’m nearing the end of the third and final book right now. Some of the passages read as if they’re extensions of my political reads:

“[Rebels] are roaches crawling around the outskirts of my cities. They are greedy and ungrateful. All they do is consume. They eat and take and they grow their colony. They think there’s a better way because they don’t realize that they are pests, that they will destroy any chance of security and safety with their ways. They are trying to invade my domed paradises that keep out the evils of the world.” 

(This ties to my recent “starfish” post.)

This one really reads like the non-fiction on my bookshelf:

“My father was always trying to fix the country, the men in power before him tried to do the same. But the truth is that the government isn’t broken. People are. I’m fixing people, Gray. I’m making a world where people are grateful and fair, where they follow rules and laws, where order trumps all.”

If I’d read these excerpts two years ago, I’d’ve thought, “Thank goodness this isn’t my world!” Now, though, I’ve read enough to see the very real, very strong parallels between this particular dystopia and the world I inhabit today.

But, hey. While I type this post, I get no closer to finishing seeing how Bowman concludes the story. No matter which way she takes it, I’m pretty certain I’ll enjoy, and be glad I happened upon the first book.

It’s such a joy to be lost in fiction, even if the fiction is sometimes a little too close to non-fiction for comfort!

The simplest form

On a now-defunct blog, I wrote about something I intended to write there someday: a summary of a memorable conversation with one of my law professors. I closed up shop at that blog soon afterward, without having written about that conversation.

I’m glad I didn’t write about it then. While I had a glimmer of an idea about my professor’s insight, it was fractional.

The books I’ve read the last couple of weeks have dramatically changed how I understand that conversation, and how it ties to … everything that’s frustrated me since I realized I’d confused a vision of reality with reality itself. Since I saw I’d been creating my vision of reality by fixedly looking at a little pond of things known to me while pointedly turning away from the vast oceans of information, ideas, perspectives that existed outside the pond. Since, most importantly, I decided to dive into the ocean.

The easiest way to summarize what I now understand is this: What’s left out of the pond is at least as important–often more so–as what’s let in. (Nowhere is this more startlingly clear than in the first few chapters of Goldacre’s Bad Pharma.)

But, of course, the simplest form seldom reveals–and often conceals–much. There’s more to come, after I’ve (1) finished reading Taleb’s Incerto books and (2) had time enough to articulate what I’ve seen so that it’s not as abstract as this … seed of what I hope will come.

Antifragility

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash is an engaging audiobook, but not what I wanted to hear this morning. In the wee, dark hours, then, I perused other audiobooks available through my library.

Nothing caught my eye, at first. It was only when I peeked at the Business section that I found anything I wanted to check out. One book, Antifragile, really jumped out at me.

I started the book as I began my 70-minute drive to work. Within a couple of minutes, my sense of openness to hearing the author was replaced by one of ebullience. By the time I reached the freeway maybe ten minutes later, I had to restrain myself from pulling over and doing a dance on the side of the freeway.

Many times over the last many months, I’ve come up against invisible walls when trying to explain certain things. Some of those walls are my own; I try to explain something, but so narrowly understand that I can’t find the words.

There’s something still invisible to me that bars me from tying together threads of understanding, or hoping to express myself successfully. And so, I search, hoping to circumnavigate invisible walls, pressing up against things I can hear but not quite touch.

Other times, other folks’ walls are the critical barrier. Since it’s much easier to see someone else’s blind spots than my own, I can see huge portions of the world they’re choosing to avoid, because they’re distressing or uncomfortable or inconsistent with prior understandings. I struggle with how to converse around these walls, but I’m not giving up.

While the author has already said a few things I contest–for now, anyway–he’s already given me words to express ideas I thought might be years to decades beyond my reach. He is describing these walls, and, beyond that, pointing to them on a map.

I love my job, but I’m annoyed I have to do it right now. I’d much rather sit and continue soaking up Antifragile.

Life-changers

I used to think it was funny when people called books “lifesavers.” I’d enjoyed many books, but never to the point where they’d actually improved my life in observable ways.

Now, it would probably be fair to say that each book I read changes my life. I read to see through others’ eyes, to learn a fraction of what they’ve learned and to understand the ways they’re reasoning. Each book I read helps my roots grow deeper.

That being said, there are a few books that have changed my life for the much, much better.

The first was Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. It affirmed that instincts are a powerful force for good, no matter who mocks or belittles them; indeed, those who belittle often have something to gain by another person’s instincts being overridden.

Even more importantly, one of my sisters might not have survived an abusive relationship but for wisdom I gleaned from The Gift of Fear. It gave me the words to communicate my concerns to her. Now, a few years later, she’s not only alive, but kicking (, punching, blocking, and all other things martial arts/boxing).

The second was Rick Hanson’s Just One Thing. A friend recommended it to me about five years ago, suggesting it would help me retrain my brain to be less stressed. Thanks to this book, I learned (1) about the principle of neuroplasticity and (2) how to apply these principles to become less stressed. I’m coming back to this again, having come to understand that destressing isn’t work you do one time and call done. It’s work that must be undertaken ongoing for best results!

The third was It Starts with Food, which taught me how to ease inflammation at a point where I was scarily inflamed. After a couple of months eating as recommended by the book, my bloodwork looked great and I felt great. I ate mostly according to its principles until this time last year, when I became overwhelmed by political readings and lost all equilibrium. I’m getting back into the swing of things now, and am so grateful to know exactly where to fall.

This list will probably grow with time, but for now: These are three books that have changed my life for the better.

Whose experts, exactly?

A majority of Americans agree that global warming is happening, manmade, and “most scientists believe global warming is occurring.” Nearly one-third of Americans disagree, and it’s not necessarily because they missed out on higher education.

If you’re an American, you might have noticed a tendency for reporting to present “two sides” of every issue. There are no spectrums or quadrants; there’s simply a balance that can fall only one of two ways.

I use the word “balance” above very intentionally. Why? Lots of news organizations aim to provide “fair and balanced” reporting, which is taken to mean presenting exactly two sides of every story. This often involves reporting how some say this, and others say that. This kind of reporting can lend to an impression among readers that, hey, the verdict’s still out, concealing facts like that only a fraction of scientists reject that global warming is occurring at all.

By seeking a superficially fair balance, real–and sometimes grave–imbalances of evidence are concealed. For more on this, see, for example, Columbia Journalism Review‘s “The danger of fair and balanced.”

I was stunned to see this at play in an economics article on HBR this morning. It’s not that I was stunned that it was at play, even in an HBR article. It was that I could see exactly how the power-concealing ideas behind “fair and balanced” were playing out, knowing that August 2016 me would–and could–not have seen it.

If you read much business literature, you’ll see occasional references to “short-termism”: roughly, the notion that companies are increasingly sacrificing long-term gains for short-term ones. In this particular HBR article (“Worries About Short-Termism Are 40 Years Old, but Are They Overblown?”), the author starts by pointing out many prestigious folks who have cautioned populations about the dangers of short-termism.

Then, in a move straight from all “fair and balanced” global warming articles, the author continues, “But not everyone agrees.”

I wasn’t laughing yet. I wanted to see what arguments would be brought forth, and who would be bringing them.

It was when I read the next paragraph that I started laughing. I laughed even harder reading the next paragraph.

Which economists, exactly, were disagreeing with the existence of short-termism? Larry Summers and a University of Chicago professor. 

In other words, this article is a perfect example of how understanding which experts are being trotted forth matters.

See, Larry Summers and the University of Chicago have shown up in a lot of my readings the last year. Summers is, arguably, directly responsible for some of the suffering wrought under neoliberalism, which has played a heavy role in the rise of finance sector dominance that’s crushed so many millions of people who couldn’t point out Summers in a line-up. While Summers has shown up in at least a dozen books I’ve read the last year, here’s how he shows up in the last book alone:

  • advocated cutting corporation tax and unemployment insurance;
  • supported (while at the World Bank) the idea of rich nations exporting pollution to poor countries on the grounds that thinly populated African countries were “underpolluted”;
  • denied anthropogenic climate change and resource limits;
  • suggested women were inferior to men at scientific reasoning (for which he later apologized);
  • actively promoted the deregulation of derivatives that turned out to be toxic (those that Harvard ‘invested’ in while he was President dropped in value by $1 billion dollars), and endorsed the removal of barriers between retail and investment banking;
  • lobbied energetically for a range of financial businesses to which he gave lavishly paid speeches; in 2008 he made $1.7 million from 31 speaking engagements (Goldman Sachs paid him $135,000 for one speech);
  • before his appointment by Obama worked one day a week at a hedge fund for over $5 million a year, while holding a chair at Harvard.

And the University of Chicago Economics department? For decades, they forcibly exported their toxic economic theories to Latin America, playing an enormous contributory role in the rise of economies with nominal growth–for wealthy fractions of populations, natch–and massive, massively fatal rises in inequality. You can read all about this in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, if you’re prepared for about ten hours of being gut-punched by how much brutality has been spread to secure the enduring economic dominance of the few.

When these particular economists suggest short-termism is overblown, I understand exactly which industries–and which actors–benefit by the general populace believing the debate is still out … and that, of course, regulating anything more heavily would thus be premature. (A blow to “the market,” sigh. Can’t have that!)

I can see the puppet strings, and the fact I can do so makes me grateful for all the reading I’ve done. 

But for that, I’d still weigh every expert equally. It’s the fair and balanced thing to do, you know.