Things are not going well in AfPak. Since American troops will leave Afghanistan by 2014, everybody is pretty much waiting for them to have left before they make their move. The Afghan government is feeling isolated and abandoned. Pakistan wants to play a major role in shaping the future of Afghanistan, which it sees as a strategic component of its strategy regarding India, but it also has to deal with its home brand of islamist fundamentalists. All the other neighbors are taking a wait-and-see attitude. America is doing its best to make a dignified exit.
The last pages of the book mention the accidental killing of 26 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike on 2011-11-26. This prompted Pakistan to close to supply routes into Afghanistan. On 2012-05-21, the news mentioned a NATO summit where they were talking about these closed supply routes. Six months after the incident, the issue is still not resolved.
From the reviews, this books sounds a bit controversial and rubbing against the accepted wisdom. To be read with a dose of critical judgement. I like...moreFrom the reviews, this books sounds a bit controversial and rubbing against the accepted wisdom. To be read with a dose of critical judgement. I like to challenge my assumptions and consider alternatives, but that doesn't automatically make them right.
The book's premise is that humans are not naturally monogamous. Monogamy was introduced when we discovered agriculture. Prior to that, our hunter-forager ancestors had no notion of property and shared everything.
In The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris specifically ignored primitive societies. In order to study humans, he focuses on their dominant representation. In his view, primitive societies must have had some defect or other that limited their expansion. Not knowing what these defect might be, he abstains from including them so he does not taint his data.
The authors of Sex at Dawn take a different approach. To them, these primitive hunter-foragers can give us a glimpse of what our ancestors might have been like. They complement their approach by looking at our closest relatives in the animal kingdom: chimps but even more so bonobos. The picture that emerges is quite different from the mainstream vision we inherited from Hobbes in 1651, where human life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, and Malthus in 1798 where overpopulation and famine are unavoidable. Instead, they point at hunter-forager societies that live in equilibrium with their environment, share resources, and have a mostly peaceful existence.
By combining data on bonobos from biologists, on primitive societies from anthropologists, and on modern sexual behavior from psychologists, they raise the possibility that homo sapiens spent most of their evolutionary history in small tightly knit groups where both men and women had multiple sexual partners and no hard-fixed patterns. They shared everything, even of themselves, and child rearing too. When we discovered agriculture and property became important, this is when we tried to force ourselves in monogamous relationships and the nuclear family model. The tension between the demands of monogamy and our looser evolutionary attitude towards sex would be at the root of all our contemporary problems.
They don't go as far as recommending that we all go and start sleeping around. But understanding what drives our nature, refined through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, can help us be honest about ourselves and learn to live without the guilt.
All the material in the book made a lot of sense and much of it deserves further looking into. While they suspect bias in many other authors, it is not clear that they didn't have their own bias too. Some reactionary backlash is to be expected. I didn't care much for their writing style. All the snide sarcastic remarks and juvenile retorts made it look like is was written by a pair of teenagers. As if!
I liked The No Asshole Rule, so I thought I'd give this one a try too. Sutton bills the book as a follow-up to The No Asshole Rule, but with more of a...moreI liked The No Asshole Rule, so I thought I'd give this one a try too. Sutton bills the book as a follow-up to The No Asshole Rule, but with more of a focus on good management practices and less on the bad.
The key takeaway is that the job of a boss seems engineered to breed assholes. Bosses suffer from a double bias: they overestimate their own abilities and they cannot see how they are perceived by others. This leads people in boss positions to make poor decisions that everyone will notice but themselves. A good boss is more self-aware to note when these missteps and is more graceful about accepting and acting on their failings. They surround themselves with people who will keep them grounded.
It's a nice coincidence that I'm reading this book just as Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln is in theaters. This books discusses how Lincoln appointed some of his rivals to his cabinet because their honesty would result in better decision-making. This is all documented in the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns, on which the movie is based.
The rest of the book has a number of tips and tricks to help bosses deal with this double bias trap.
* Use repetitive and concrete advice (and keep repeating it). This is the basis for the KISS principle. Focus on executing the steps and the results will take care of themselves. This reminds me of kyudo (Japanese archery) where the focus on form rather than results, to the point where hitting the target is not really important.
* David Kelly of IDEO talks about the balance between what the business needs (performance) and what the subordinates need (humanity).
* More David Kelly: confidence breeds more confidence. Act confident and it will come to you. This reminded me of a part of the book Starship Troopers where the main protagonist is told in officer training that officers must always look like they have all the answers, even when they do not.
* Stand-up meetings to use people's time efficiently and respectfully. He references a paper by Allen C. Bluedorn on "The Effects of Stand-Up and Sit-Down Meeting Formats on Meeting Outcomes." He does not mention agile software development.
* Asshole Tax: charging more when having to deal with assholes. Assholes are costly in churn and lost productivity / innovation.
* Embarrassment and pride can be great motivators. Image your child were following you around.
* One manager took subordinates to a hospice to put evaluations into perspective.
* Acid tests for good boss: 1) Would people work with the boss again? 2) Do they know what it's like working for them?
* Favor small teams. Complexity increases exponentially with team size.
The book has a large number of anecdotes, taken from an extensive bibliography. You cannot deny that it draws from serious scholarship and lots of excellent research. But I was still left feeling like there wasn't a comprehensive theory of management behind it. Just my somewhat uninformed opinion, here.
Sutton teaches at Stanford and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is only normal that there would be some references to some things American.
* Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse.
* Management firm Bain, brought to general attention by presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
* Tommy Lasorda once said managing was like holding a bird: too tight and you kill it, too light and it flies away. I first heard it from my kendo teacher in Montréal. I don't know if he got it from Lasorda or if they both pick it from some other, common source.
* Sutton brings up the performance evaluations and feedback at Google. He advocates rewarding collective behavior over individual performance. From my memories of Google, their process does not reward collective action enough.
* The rescued Chilean miners in 2010-10.
* Steve Jobs: too brilliant to be imitated.
* The Hillsborough home invasion on 2008-11-25 where mother Loan Kim Nguyen was able to save her two young children but died herself.
Bosses need to promote performance AND humanity. Some bosses may owe their success to circumstances more than their skills (I'm thinking of the likes of Larry Page and Sergei Brin, who are brilliant but also owe a large part of their success to very lucky timing). Others owe their success to their constant dedication to work and team (Mitchell Baker of Mozilla, Ed Catmull of Pixar).(less)
The movie was pleasant enough and a friend recommended it, saying it was in line with other books I've read. The movie missed the boat, though, on its...moreThe movie was pleasant enough and a friend recommended it, saying it was in line with other books I've read. The movie missed the boat, though, on its depiction of running a reality show. The book was written in 2008 and the movie was made in 2011, when we have clear patterns of how these shows engage and entertain the audience to drive advertisers, from Survivor to American Idol. There are stages, constants recaps, and many engage the entire viewing audience using various voting schemes. All that was missing and instead we got a very simplistic show driven by a small elite of Sponsors, with most of the viewing audience left out. I understand that the powers-that-be don't care about the people in the districts, but they should at least get to everyone in the Capitol.
I was happy to find that the novel does a much better job of portraying the entertainment aspect of the Hunger Games that the movie did. While the book is told entirely from Katniss' point of view, we get glimpses of when she used to watch the Games and how she imagines things are playing out as she participates in them. Here, the entire audience of Panem gets to participate, though it is clear that residents of the various districts are limited by their economic situation.
I found the beginning annoying. Katniss, the main character, goes to great length to over dramatize what should be mundane experiences, such as eating a blackberry on a lazy morning. If there had been more context to make the moment special and to justify being over-sensitive, it might have worked. But that moment is a quiet moment but otherwise ordinary moment and did not deserve that level of intimate details.
As the situation gets worse for the main characters, things start to improve from a literary perspective. Just a little further, a passage really stands out for me, on page 40, as Katniss is coming to grips with having to fight others to the death (emphasis is mine):
"Katniss, it's just hunting. You're the best hunter I know," says Gale.
"It's not just hunting. They're armed. They think," I say.
"So do you. And you've had more practice. Real practice," he says. "You know how to kill."
"Not people," I say.
"How different can it be, really?" says Gale grimly.
The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, it will be no different at all.
This passage talks to how people can do truly horrible things to other people if they just dehumanize them first. As soon as we don't perceive the other as a fellow human being, we can excuse anything we do to them. This passage is clear and concise, without any superfluous sappy over-sensitivity.
And there is another passage on page 65:
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appear at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by?.
The trick here is that while Katniss can hardly imagine a world of plenty, the author and her contemporary middle class audience do live in such a world. It is difficult to be any clearer: the reader is not a sympathetic resident of District 12, but a citizen of the Capitol.
Unfortunately, these small glimpses don't get developed much further. Katniss is much too busy trying to stay alive to ponder these questions at great length.
The action parts are well done. I am not a hunter, so I cannot speak to the veracity of her experiences in the arena. But I wonder if the author has done any hunting herself, or else how she researched those aspects of the book.
By the time the crisis is resolved, Katniss has become overly sappy again. Her character has grown a bit, but there was a lot more potential there. Maybe the sequels will give her time to internalize her experiences.(less)
The book is a collection of essays written by Umberto Eco for various conferences.
On Some Functions of Literature (2000)
Literature keeps language al...moreThe book is a collection of essays written by Umberto Eco for various conferences.
On Some Functions of Literature (2000)
Literature keeps language alive. It creates a shared body of stories and characters. Different authors each given them their own spin, but their core is part of the collective consciousness.
A Reading of the Paradiso (2000)
Paradiso is about light, which was an important concept to medieval readers and thinkers. Cathedrals are all about different kinds of light. We don't pay as much attention to the quality light anymore; and it lessens our ability to truly appreciate the text as much as it was when it was written.
On the Style of The Communist Manifesto (1998)
The format and structure of the Manifesto is a great sample of packing a lot of power in a concise space. It has all the drama and plot twists of the best narratives.
The Mists of the Valois (1999)
How the imperfect tense can lead to enough fuzziness about the action to leave the reader in perpetual mists and create an atmosphere more felt than any feelings explicitly expressed in words. This effect can then be reinforced and amplified by various narrative techniques.
Wilde: Paradox and Aphorism (2000)
An aphorism is a maxim that is witty and which appears to be true. It expresses something commonplace. A paradox is a maxim that is witty and appears false at first glance, but reveals a deeper truth upon further examination. To tell them apart, reversing an aphorism produces something that still makes sense, whereas reversing a paradox yields nonsense.
A Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor (1991)
How James Joyce's style and literary pursuits were already well established by the time he graduated from college.
Between La Mancha and Babel (1997)
How Joyce and Borges try to re-invent language, each in their own way. Joyce by looking at all permutations of symbols. Borges by looking at all permutations of ideas.
Another interesting piece is how in Don Quixote, the story starts when the main character leaves a library to discover the world outside. In one of Borges' novels, the main character enters a Library of Babel to escape from the world outside and experience reality through books.
Borges and My Anxiety of Influence
Sometimes, an author borrows an idea from another author. Sometimes, an author develops an idea from the general context, not knowing that another author has also expressed the same idea too. Some times, an author develops an idea from the general context, not knowing that another author was directly responsible for putting it there.
On Camporesi: Blood, Body, Life (1995)
Camporesi was a cultural anthropologist who studied texts for cultural artifacts, studying the underbelly of civilization.
On Symbolism (1994)
Symbolism as understood by the scholastic philosophers. There is the perceived world of phenomena and the world of ideals hiding behind it. In this way, everything is a symbol that stands for an ideal which we cannot perceive directly.
On Style (1995)
Style is how a work of art is put together. Eco identifies three ways of studying style. In a review, the writer tells the reader about a book the reader has not yet read and impose the writer's judgment. A history of literature discusses works that the reader already knows. In both cases, the writer can do artifex additus artifici (an artist writing about an artist) where he explains how he felt as he produced the work of art. Or he can do philosophus additus artifici (a philosopher writing about an artist) where he explains why a given work of art is beautiful. The third way of studying style is the semiotic reading in which the writer shows how the work of art produces pleasure, rather then prescribing what gives pleasure.
Les Sémaphores sous la Pluie (1996)
How a writer relies on some common images or experiences shared with the reader. If the reader does not share a given image or experience, part of what the writer was trying to communicate will get deformed or lost.
The Flaws in the Form
Elements in the structure of a text. If the work of art arises from the whole of the composition and how the parts all fit together, then which parts essential? Does it mean that everything else just fodder? Will the art still arise if we remove those non-essential parts. And what about stopgaps, small particles that enhance the flow of the work and assure its stability?
Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading (1999)
Draws heavily on Eco's Reflections on "The Name of the Rose." Eco is a big fan of layering multiple levels of meaning in his prose. The reader can choose which level they latch on when interpreting a text. Not all readers can access all levels of a text. Some of them require specific knowledge to fully grasp them. But missing out on one level should not keep the reader from appreciating others.
The Poetics and Us (1990)
The influence of Aristotle's Poetics. Notions of pragma (action) and mythos (plot) and how they apply to the many forms of story-telling.
The American Myth in Three Anti-American Generations (1980)
Disregarding American politics, American literature of the late 19th and early 20th Century appealed to European intellectuals. The American it portrayed was open and free and devoid of all the barriers and structures that were so limiting on the Old World.
The Power of Falsehood (1994)
How lies and fakes have played pivotal roles in the history of the Western World. The Donation of Constantin solidified the power of the Catholic Church in Rome and was the basis of the power of the Papacy from the fall of Rome to modern times. The letter of Prester John motivated the West's exploration and expansion into the East.
How I Write (1996)
Eco's own quirky approach to writing his novels. It focuses on The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before, with some bits about Baudolino. He describes parts that were essential to him which I do not remember at all. Makes me want to re-read all his novels. Right now. (less)
I received this book as a Christmas present. I've liked previous Michael Crichton novels, but they do tend to become formulaic. Crichton was still wor...moreI received this book as a Christmas present. I've liked previous Michael Crichton novels, but they do tend to become formulaic. Crichton was still working on this manuscript when he died and Preston finished it for publication.
I started it while vacationing in Waikiki, which is interesting since the action is set on O'ahu.
Crichton novels are pretty formulaic. There is a team of experts. They get in trouble because of technology run amok. Not everyone makes it. Anyone who will anything to do with money is automatically a psychopath. The technologies change, the experts change, but the basic formula remains the same.
There are many facts that are well presented, so you learn a lot reading the book. But Crichton tends to take fringe ideas and use them as central plot devices. He expounds how these ideas are so revolutionary that they turn their field upside down. There is a good reason why these ideas are so fringe. And Crichton can be quite pedantic when he shows off how "he gets it better than all the experts in that field." This is why I stopped reading his novels after I had read "Timeline." (I still watched the movie, though.)
"Micro" is a typical Crichton novel. As someone else said: a kind of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" for adults. The premise is mildly interesting. The treatment is not really inspired. The characters are not really likeable. The plot twists are not completely surprising or really inspired. The novel has one really cool thing going for it: it is set on O'ahu. I'm glad I read it after my trip to Waikiki so I could really dig the landmarks. (less)