Tag Archives: books

Third Worlders are forward-looking

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

“When I started in real estate, I considered renovating old houses instead of tearing them down, but it didn’t make sense. Nigerians don’t buy houses because they’re old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn’t work here at all. But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past.”

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Obama could actually win this thing

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

Blaine’s knife stopped moving. He looked up, eyes lit, as though he had not dared hope she would believe the same thing that he believed, and she felt between them the first pulse of a shared passion. They clutched each other in front of the television when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. The first battle, and he had won. Their hope was radiating, exploding into possibility: Obama could actually win this thing. And then, as though choreographed, they began to worry. They worried that something would derail him, crash his fast-moving train. Every morning, Ifemelu woke up and checked to make sure that Obama was still alive. That no scandal had emerged, no story dug up from his past. She would turn on her computer, her breath still, her heart frantic in her chest, and then, reassured that he was alive, she would read the latest news about him, quickly and greedily, seeking information and reassurance, multiple windows minimized at the bottom of the screen. Sometimes, in chat rooms, she wilted as she read the posts about Obama, and she would get up and move away from her computer, as though the laptop itself were the enemy, and stand by the window to hide her tears even from herself. How can a monkey be president? Somebody do us a favor and put a bullet in this guy. Send him back to the African jungle. A black man will never be in the white house, dude, it’s called the white house for a reason. She tried to imagine the people who wrote those posts, under monikers like SuburbanMom231 and NormanRockwellRocks, sitting at their desks, a cup of coffee beside them, and their children about to come home on the school bus in a glow of innocence. The chat rooms made her blog feel inconsequential, a comedy of manners, a mild satire about a world that was anything but mild. She did not blog about the vileness that seemed to have multiplied each morning she logged on, more chat rooms springing up, more vitriol flourishing, because to do so would be to spread the words of people who abhorred not the man that Barack Obama was, but the idea of him as president. She blogged, instead, about his policy positions, in a recurring post titled “This Is Why Obama Will Do It Better,” often adding links to his website, and she blogged, too, about Michelle Obama. She gloried in the offbeat dryness of Michelle Obama’s humor, the confidence in her long-limbed carriage, and then she mourned when Michelle Obama was clamped, flattened, made to sound tepidly wholesome in interviews. Still, there was, in Michelle Obama’s overly arched eyebrows and in her belt worn higher on her waist than tradition would care for, a glint of her old self. It was this that drew Ifemelu, the absence of apology, the promise of honesty.

“If she married Obama then he can’t be that bad,” she joked often with Blaine, and Blaine would say, “True that, true that.”

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Old things

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

“But why is it prohibited?” Asked the Savage. In the excitement of meeting a man who had read Shakespeare he had momentarily forgotten everything else.

The Controller shrugged his shoulders. “Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.”

“Even when they’re beautiful?”

“Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.”

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The nationalism of liberal Americans

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

“I’m Kelsey,” the woman announced as though to the whole room. She was aggressively friendly. She asked where Mariama was from, how long she had been in America, if she had children, how her business was doing.

“Business is up and down but we try,” Mariama said.

“But you couldn’t even have this business back in your country, right? Isn’t it wonderful that you get to come to the U.S. and now your kids can have a better life?”

Mariama looked surprised. “Yes.”

“Are women allowed to vote in your country?” Kelsey asked.

A longer pause from Mariama. “Yes.”

“What are you reading?” Kelsey turned to Ifemelu.

Ifemelu showed her the cover of the novel. She did not want to start a conversation. Especially not with Kelsey. She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.

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Bloated from all he had acquired

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

He climbed out of the car. His gait was stiff, his legs difficult to lift. He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired—the family, the houses, the cars, the bank accounts—and would, from time to time, be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.

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He had discovered Time and Death and God

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

All alone, outside the pueblo, on the bare plain of the mesa. The rock was like bleached bones in the moonlight. Down in the valley, the coyotes were howling at the moon. The bruises hurt him, the cuts were still bleeding; but it was not for the pain that he sobbed; it was because he was all alone, because he had been driven out, alone, into this skeleton world of rocks and moonlight. At the edge of the precipice he sat down. The moon was behind him; he looked down into the black shadow of the mesa, into the black shadow of death. He had only to take one step, one little jump…. He held out his right hand in the moonlight. From the cut on his wrist the blood was still oozing. Every few seconds a drop fell, dark, almost colourless in the dead light. Drop, drop, drop. To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow …

He had discovered Time and Death and God.

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Hard to feel bad for a middle-aged white man

Less by Andrew Sean Greer:

There is an old Arabic story about a man who hears Death is coming for him, so he sneaks away to Samarra. And when he gets there, he finds Death in the market, and Death says, “You know, I just felt like going on vacation to Samarra. I was going to skip you today, but how lucky you showed up to find me!” And the man is taken after all. Arther Less has traveled halfway around the world in a cat’s cradle of junkets, changing flights and fleeing from a sandstorm into the Atlas Mountains like someone erasing his trail or outfoxing a hunter—and yet Time has been waiting here all along. In a snowy alpine resort. With cuckoos. Of course Time would turn out to be Swiss. He tosses back the champagne. He thinks: Hard to feel bad for a middle-aged white man.

Indeed: even Less can’t feel bad for Swift anymore. Like a wintertime swimmer too numb to feel cold, Arthur Less is too sad to feel pity. For Robert, yes, breathing through an oxygen tube up in Sonoma. For Marian, nursing a broken hip that might ground her forever. For Javier in his marriage, and even for Bastian’s tragic sports teams. For Zohra and Janet. For his fellow writer Mohammed. Around the world his duty flies, its wingspan as wide as albatross’s. But he can no more feel sorry for Swift—now become a gorgon of Caucasian male ego, snake headed, pacing through his novel and turning each sentence to sone—than Arther Less can feel sorry for himself.

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The Cubs Way, Music, and Management

“Is that Tom Waits?”

“Yeah. Do you like Tom Waits?”

“I love Tom Waits.”


I am haunted by a childhood memory. Around age 13, my Little League coach and assistant coach had a falling out. Team practices were put on hold. For a kid unenthused about sports, you’d think this was a blessing. But the team was working well together and… winning!

We had a fantastic cast of characters resembling The Sandlot. There were Bennys, Hams, and Yeah-Yeahs. Maybe a Squints here and there. I myself felt like Smalls. We were a mixed bag, some with little to no skill, but we bonded. We helped each other. The loss of practice was arresting. Devastating.

Mike called me up. He was one of the leaders — very much a Benny type. He was organizing a practice and called me up to summon others. After we got off the phone, I had a thought: we should bring music. I loved doing any activity to music. I called Mike back.

He didn’t call it a stupid idea, but he suggest that we didn’t need it. I hung up and felt silly for the idea. I’ve never forgotten how embarrassed I felt for suggesting the idea.

In his fantastic book “The Cubs Way”, author Tom Verducci notes an immediate tactic new Chicago Cubs coach Joe Maddon took with his team at the opening of the 2015 spring training — his first spring training with the team:

After Maddon’s opening speech as Chicago manager, the Cubs took the field—actually, a wide swath of grass out in back of their training center—looking like a different team. The best way to measure the immediate change in the Cubs under Maddon was in decibels. As the team began its morning stretch, a huge speaker blasted “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix. What followed were more tunes from among Maddon’s rock-and-roll favorites, including “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush.

“I’m a product of the ’60s and ’70s,” he told his new team. “You’ll have to put up with that.”

After reading this passage, I felt vindicated. My 13-year-old self’s idea was not stupid. Joe Maddon plays music. It’s not that big of a deal. Scaling back a bit of focus for a bit of fun encourages free thinking and flow. (A big reminder that my 13-year-old self had shit for brains.)

I’ve recently taken on a new management role. It is challenging beyond belief. With these challenges, I’ve put lots of attention into how my manager runs his team. One of the simplest and subtlest tricks he uses is playing music during one-on-ones and meetings. At times, it can feel distracting, but more often than not, it lightens the mood and opens up conversations outside of work. In a recent case, we hit on our shared love of Tom Waits. (What’s he building in there? A team. I’ll stop.)

I’ve now applied music to my one-on-ones. Nothing too distracting. No early-’00s post-hardcore, ’80s pop, or ’70s prog rock. Mellow electronic, jazz, or my Apple Music Chill Mix do the trick. I think it’s helping. It’s lightened the mood. And — for me at least — makes me feel a bit more connected to my team.

Music can be an equalizer. Embrace it. There shouldn’t be rules to how you manage or run your team meetings. Find energy. Find flow. Find commonality. And while you’re at it, find a copy of “The Cubs Way”.

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The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

God, you little devil.

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Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself is a primer for the state of science today. But at the heart of book lies a core belief and explanation for poetic naturalism. Just what is poetic naturalism? Here’s Carroll in an interview with WIRED’s Eric Niiler:

Atheism is a reaction against theism. It is purely a rejection of an idea. It’s not a positive substantive idea about how the world is. Naturalism is a counterpart to theism. Theism says there’s the physical world and god. Naturalism says there’s only the natural world. There are no spirits, no deities, or anything else. Poetic naturalism emphasizes that there are many ways of talking about the natural world. The fact that the underlying laws of physics are deterministic and impersonal does not mean that at the human level we can’t talk about ideas about reasons and goals and purposes and free will. So poetic naturalism is one way of reconciling what we are sure about the world at an intuitive level. A world that has children. Reconciling that with all the wonderful counterintuitive things about modern science.

For a layman, Carroll breaks down today’s fundamentals of science to painstaking detail (outside of the use of equations) and builds them back up to something simpler that speak to the justification for poetic naturalism. He dives into physics, philosophy, quantum mechanics, biology, and many other fields. He tackles many questions that are asked from casual daydreamers and the depths of Sci-Fi alike. And it all comes wrapped in an idea that there lies something between atheism and theism.

Carroll strives to pit Science against Theism on an even playing field, or one that’s as level as possible; Modern science challenging the ever shrinking God of the gaps. But for all of Carroll’s scientific professing, he is careful never to discount just how vast the gaps remain. By sheer virtue of his lessons on Bayesian credences, he never shuts out theism entirely, always leaving the door unlocked and possibly cracked open.

We’ll see that the existence of life provides, at best, a small boost to the probability that theism is true—while related features of the universe provide an extremely large boost for naturalism.

Chapters and sections read like deep troughs with a steep decline. As soon as the reader is introduced to a concept, Carroll has them barreling down a chasm at breakneck speed, only to bring them up for air in the last few paragraphs. I understood hardly a lick of the depths, but that’s okay. The meat lies in the simplified 30-percent of the pages. I took the rest as hard scientific justification, in the event the reader has any doubts as where Carroll comes up with these notions.

After 433 pages, Core Theory and quantum mechanics and multiverses and up quarks and down quarks are still a mystery to me. But what I did learn — what I can say without a shadow of a doubt — is with as much as we’ve discovered of the Universe, we still know very little. Maybe that will always be the case. Maybe there will always exist the God of the gaps with those gaps shrinking exponentially, but never quite stamped out.

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‘Nobody ever says “I don’t care if the music sounds bad.”‘

John Gruber, The Talk Show:

In general, I would rather read an interesting, well-written novel that’s poorly typeset than read a terrible novel that is beautifully typeset. Of course. That’s the difference. Even me as somebody obsessed with typography would agree with that. Whereas with music, nobody ever says “I don’t care if the music sounds bad,” like at a technical level. It’s fundamental to listening to music. But as the person making the device, that should be the obsession.

Relinking similar thoughts about broken video games from myself.

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