Book review: The Sympathizer

What does it mean to pretend to be something else? In one of my favorite books, Mother Night, the character Howard W. Campbell, Junior concludes that “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Viet Thanh Nguyen’s narrator in The Sympathizer reaches no conclusions, but he struggles with the thought throughout the story.

I saw — or imagined — a lot of parallels between Mother Night and The Sympathizer, which no doubt predisposed me to liking the latter. Both books take the form of the protagonist recounting his exploits for a captor, mixing self-reflection with facts. Both take place in a war setting, which characters having authentic connections to the people they’re trying to deceive.

But just because the themes rhyme, The Sympathizer is its own work. If nothing else, it’s a rare work that looks at the Vietnam War from the North Vietnamese perspective. It’s also a really enjoyable book in its own right. The fact that the narrator cannot answer the questions he asks himself gives the reader something to think about long after the book is done.

I loved this book to the point that I stayed up far too late to finish it. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel that I just found out existed.

Book review: If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal

I recently read Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. As humans, we tend to assume that our intelligence sets us apart and that our exceptional cognitive abilities are good. There’s no doubt that we’re exceptional, but it’s not clear that we’re good. As Gregg wrote:

Our many intellectual accomplishments are currently on track to produce our own extinction, which is exactly how evolution gets rid of adaptations that suck.

Unique among Earth’s animals, humans have bent our environment to our will. This, of course, has resulted in some undesirable side effects. Despite all of our supposed advancement, we are biologically predisposed to prioritize immediate needs over long-term needs. We get benefit from burning fossil fuels now and assume that we’ll be able to deal with the long-term impacts later. But will we?

Gregg studies animal cognition, so this book is steeped in facts. Indeed, the reader will probably learn more about animals than people. And after reaching the end, the reader may find it’s hard to disagree with Gregg’s assertion that Nietzche — and the rest of the species — would have been happier as a narwhal.

Evolution has many dead ends. It could be that what makes us special actually makes us less happy. Humans have a relatively short time on Earth, so it’s folly to assume that our unique adaptations aren’t maladaptive. It reminds me of the joke where an angel is talking to God about creating humans and says “you’ve ruined a perfectly good monkey. Look, it has anxiety!”

I didn’t come away from this book convinced that human cognition is a bad thing on balance. But as a philosophical starting point, I see a case for Gregg’s argument that “human intelligence may just be the stupidest thing that ever happened.”

Book review: Sapiens

I just finished listening to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuvah Noah Harari. It an interesting look at the history of our species as viewed through the lens of thee revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, and scientific.

Harari takes a detached — and sometimes cynical — view of history. He does not place humanity at the center of the story. Instead, he talks about humans and human systems as part of a broader evolutionary process. For example, he says “we did not domesticate wheat; it domesticated us.”

There is no inevitability

It is a mistake, he argues, to ascribe intent to evolutionary processes. Humanity is not the end goal. It follows, then, that there is no underlying purpose of human life. We exist because we exist. Whatever meaning we give life is a shared myth, as is all of human culture. Our economic, political, religious, and all other systems exist and have power because we agree they exist and have power.

For me, some of the more interesting parts of the book were the descriptions of how various economic systems influenced — or even necessitated — historical outcomes. European colonization and empire from the 15th century to today is not because of any innate nature of Europeans. Environmental factors and accidents of invention gave Europe’s leaders the ability and motivation to conquer the globe. Were we able to replay history a hundred times, how many times would western Europe become the home of global empire rather than, say, the Middle East?

Are you better off than your ancestors?

I was also intrigued by early discussions of the relative quality of life and later discussions of human happiness. For all of the hardships we imagine our ancestors faced, Harari argues that our hunter-gatherer forebears may have had a greater overall standard of living than their post-agricultural-revolution descendants. Nevertheless, the agricultural revolution prompted changes in our societies that made going back all but impossible.

“Happiness” is a difficult concept to explain, let alone measure. Nonetheless, it seems plausible that we are no more happy than our grandparents’ generation, or their grandparents’ generation, or… If happiness has not increased, what was the point of the millennia of changes? Why do we try to increase our wealth, expand our understanding, and conquer disease? What, truly, is the point of anything?

The questions to ask

“What, truly, is the point of anything?” is a question to ask. But it’s a mistake to think any answer find is universal. What we consider as fundamental human rights are only fundamental because we think they are. Perhaps societies many thousand years ago that had little concept of individual well-being and instead focused on the well being of the collective were right? Ah, but what does it mean to even be right? Rightness depends on the cultural context, which in tend depends on the shared myths in that place and time.

Sapiens ends with a look at the future and how our technology puts us in a position to render ourselves obsolete. We are forced to confront the question of “what do we want?” for our future. But that’s not the most pressing question, Harari says. We should be asking ourselves “what do we want to want?”

Should you read this?

Although I found much of the latter part of the book less interesting, the book overall was well worth the time. It was thought-provoking in ways that I did not expect. I may end up re-reading it with the intent of putting it aside to explore the thoughts as they arise.

Sapiens was first published in English in 2015. Although that was less than a decade ago, some parts of it feel out of touch. Harari describes a move away from nationalism. While that may be true in the broader sense, the last few years have bucked that trend — in the US and elsewhere. Similarly, he says that no state can “declare and wage war as it pleases”, yet Russia has done just that. Although it faces international retribution, and indeed may prove to be worse off as a result, it nonetheless is very much waging a war against Ukraine.

It’s a mistake to assume that history is a smooth line. Only time will tell if recent events are the start of a long trend or a ripple in the trajectory of history of homo sapiens.

Book review: Why Fish Don’t Exist

I found Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by accident. Someone had shared a screen capture of a Tumblr post which talked about how trees aren’t a thing, taxonomically speaking. How weird. And then I saw that fish are also not a thing. Mindblowing. Somewhere in my searches to prove to my girlfriend that I was not making this up (although she can be forgiven, because that is very much the sort of thing I’d make up), I found Lulu Miller’s 2020 book.

I checked it out from the library as an audiobook so that Miranda and I could listen to it together. We were prepared to learn all about how fish are a lie. But we did not learn that.

Well, we learned it eventually. But only in the last chapter does Miller actually touch on the subject. The rest of the book is a mix of her life and the life of David Starr Jordan. Jordan was a famous researcher in his day, credited with discovering a fifth of the fish species we know today. He was president of Indiana University and later was the founding president of Stanford University. Oh yeah, he was also a eugenicist and may have been involved in murder.

Miller does an excellent job of tying the ups and downs in her life to Jordan’s. He serves as both inspiration and…whatever the opposite of inspiration is. The book is a fascinating and engaging tale. Had I not been waiting to learn about the fish, I would have loved it. Instead, I found it frustrating. I might read it again, knowing what to expect—and what not to expect.

Book review: Word Freak

I wasn’t sure what I’d get when I started reading Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players by Stefan Fatsis. I’m a fan of the game, although I’ve never played it competitively. After reading this book, I never will.

It’s not that the book is bad. To the contrary, it’s surprisingly engaging. But the competitive game bears little resemblance to the game I play with friends. And the people who play at a high level? If Fatsis is to be taken at his word, they’re a pretty messed up bunch.

Can Fatsis be trusted, though? He’s hardly an objective observer. Instead of a distanced, sociological study, Fatsis immerses himself. He becomes what he studies, trying to achieve an expert ranking and befriending his subjects. Yet the way he describes them is hardly flattering. He paints them as a group of barely-functional obsessives.

Are they? Perhaps. It could be that he focused on the misfits because the normies don’t make for a good book. But whether or not the word freaks are representative of Scrabble’s top tier, Fatsis becomes one of them. Frankly, he does not paint himself in a very flattering light either. Although the arc of the book is his quest for an expert-level ranking, he’s not a sympathetic protagonist.

The history of the game is interesting. The strategies of the world’s top players are astounding. And the people are mostly pitiable. It makes for an interesting read, despite the length. But if you find yourself wanting to join that world, I think you should reconsider.

Book Review: Pleading Out

I was only a few pages in when Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class made me angry. It wasn’t because of how Dan Canon wrote. It was because of what he wrote. In Bordenkircher v. Hayes, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors could, in effect, punish a defendant for asserting their right to a trial. Potter Stewart wrote that this was part of “any legitimate system which tolerates and encourages the negotiation of pleas.”

While legal systems in the United States do tolerate and encourage plea deals, a reasonable person can question the legitimacy of the system. That Paul Hayes received a life sentence for forging a $88.30 check calls the legitimacy of the system into question.

Canon spends the rest of the book making the case that the plea bargain system as practiced in the United States is not legitimate. It does not serve the interests of justice, but of power. “The American legal system,” he writes, “was designed by people in power as a tool to keep them in power whatever the cost.”

American exceptionalism

Plea bargains are rare in other countries. In the United States, 97% of convictions come from guilty pleas. Most of those are bargained. Why is that? Prior to the 1830s, plea bargains were rare in America. Attitudes started shifting when labor solidarity developed in the early industrial factories. Plea bargaining hid prosecution from the public eye, preventing scrutiny and revolt.

The expansion of federal crimes after Prohibition led to a need to process cases more efficiently. “What we have inherited is an amoral system of criminal proceedings; it cannot be called criminal justice. Expediency, not fairness, is the principal concern.”

It’s no coincidence that the United States has the highest incarceration rate and also the highest plea bargain rate. As Michelle Alexander explores in greater depth in The New Jim Crow, the legal system creates a permanent criminal underclass that has long-lasting effects.

Liberty and justice for some

The high volume of cases means that lawyers can’t keep up. Prosecutors can’t screen cases to drop the obviously bad ones. Worse, defense attorneys can’t mount vigorous defenses. Canon notes that in 15% of exonerations, the defendant gave a false confession. Thousands of innocent people are sitting in jail today because the police or prosecutors railroaded them into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit.

Because plea bargains are secretive, there’s no accountability. Wealthy defendants can work themselves into a sweet deal. Poor and middle-class defendants have to take what the prosecution offers. If they dare insist on a trial, they face persecution, not prosecution. Ask Paul Hayes. This does not benefit society.

So what do we do?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Canon writes about the decade when Alaska eliminated plea bargaining. The system adjusted. Prosecutors dropped cases they couldn’t—or shouldn’t—prove. Police got more careful with their investigations, knowing they’d actually be accountable. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement.

Our current system doesn’t have to be our system forever. But it won’t change on it’s own. The first step is an informed populace. That’s why I’d recommend Pleading Out to anyone who cares about justice.

Book review: The Address Book

How did your street get its name? When did we start numbering buildings? What does it mean to have an address—or to not have one? If any of these questions are interesting to you, you’ll appreciate The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask.

I first heard about this book on the podcast “Every Little Thing“. Mask was a guest on a recent episode and shared the story of a project to name roads in rural West Virginia. This story was relevant to a memory I had long forgotten. Although I grew up on a named road, we didn’t have a numbered address until 911 service came to the area when I was in early elementary school. Prior to that, addresses were just box numbers on rural routes.

But newly-named and newly-numbered roads are not unique to the US. Mask explores how roads were named and renamed in different places over the centuries. Naming, of course, is an expression of power so names and numbers reflect the power at the time. Even today, there are millions of people who don’t have addresses, which increasingly cuts them off from what we understand as modern society.

I’d love a book of trivia about road names. The Address Book is not that. But it’s a fascinating look at the deeper meaning behind the act of naming.

Book review: A Place to Start

Jim Grey is a pretty ordinary guy. So why bother reading stories of his life? Because he tells them so well.

I first came to know of Jim through his roads website. At some point, I started reading his blog “Down the Road“. I can’t recall how long it’s been now, but it’s probably the better part of a decade, if not from the beginning in 2007. Although we’ve never met, I’ve come to feel like I know him. Not just because we share similar interests and have mutual friends, but because the way he is able to write his personal stories in a way that welcome strangers in.

Jim does not share every detail; his writing respects the privacy of those in his life. Nonetheless, he is able to warmly and openly share his stories in a way that invites to sit down and listen. There is no false modesty, no exaggeration, and no self-importance. Just honest tales of his life shared because he wants to share them.

Down the Road started in 2007 as a way to process and recover from a rough time in his life. Jim’s new (okay, six months old at this point) book A Place to Start collects some of the posts from the first two years of the blog.

The book is split into three parts: stories, essays, and faith. The stories are personal tales from all eras of Jim’s life. Told in no discernible order, they’re more like a conversation than a timeline. The short essays section contains reflections on lessons Jim has learned over the years. The faith section contains a mix of his personal experiences with his Christian faith along with what I would call sermons.

Admittedly, the faith section was the least engaging part for me. Being religiously indifferent myself, I suppose I’m not inclined toward that kind of story. Nonetheless, I do enjoy the way he is able to discuss his faith in a way that does not feel like evangelism. He shares his beliefs and how they color his life; the reader is free to do with that what they will.

Since each chapter is a blog post, they’re all short. This makes A Place to Start a great book for when you can only read in quick bursts. Even if you’ve never heard of Jim Grey before, this book with worth a read.

A Place to Start is available in print and digital forms from Midnight Star Press. I received no compensation for this review.

Book review: Range

In many parts of society, we ask people to specialize early and go very deep. This is the path to excellence. In Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world, David Epstein examines the role breadth plays. I should admit my bias up front: I am definitely a width person, not a depth person. So maybe I just agreed with this book because it reinforced the story I tell myself about my success.

But I do think there’s something to this. Throughout my career, I’ve found that the best colleagues are the ones who have academic or work experience outside of the tech industry. It’s not that they’re necessarily better technically, but they grasp the context much more easily. That becomes increasingly important when dealing with novel and poorly-defined problems.

I’ve long understood the value of coursework outside one’s major. Range helped me understand why that value exists. I sometimes heard at my alma mater that “we have a liberal arts school so we can produce well-rounded engineers.” Now I think perhaps we should have fewer major courses and more gen ed courses. (In addition to ethics classes which should be added to all curricula for separate reasons.)

In the context of the current time, with conspiracy theories enjoying a disturbing degree of acceptance, I find Epstein’s emphasis on amateurs a little concerning. Yes, novices sometimes make discoveries that elude the experts. Still, we must be careful not to replace “appeal to authority” with “appeal to lack of authority”.

I didn’t find Epstein’s writing style particularly compelling. This surprised me since he’s a journalist. I suppose books are a different beast. But the arguments were well-reasoned and supported by research. I would recommend this book to anyone thinking about their future career or seeking reinforcement of their past, seemingly-odd, changes in direction.

Book review: People Powered

Jono Bacon knows something about communities. He wrote the book on it, in fact. And now he has written another book. People Powered is a guide for how companies can create and curate communities.

I often see companies try to start what they call “communities”. In reality, they are ways for the company to get free labor that provide no real benefit to the the participants. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A community that doesn’t benefit the sponsoring company is not likely to continue receiving sponsorship. But if there’s no benefit to the community members, the community will not thrive. Only when everyone involved gets value from the community will the community be vibrant.

A community mission is different than your business vision, but tightly wound around it.

All too often, books like this prescribe the One True Way™. Bacon does not do that. He fills the book with many things the reader should do, but he also makes it clear that there are many right ways to run a community, just as there are many wrong ways.

People Powered is a starting point, not an answer. As I was reading it, I thought “this is a good set of recipes”. Further on, Bacon used the same metaphor. Curse you, Jono! But it’s an apt metaphor. The book presents advice and knowledge based on Bacon’s 20 years of community management. But each community has specific needs, so the reader is encouraged to selectively apply the most relevant parts. And in the tradition of open source, plans should be iterative and evolve to meet the changing needs of communities. Like any good cook, the recipe provides a starting point; the cook makes adjustments to taste.

If I could sum up People Powered in two words, I would pick “be intentional.” Given two more words, I’d add “be selective.” People are often tempted to do all the things, to be all things to all people. And while that may be in the future of a community, getting started requires a more specific focus on what will (and more importantly, what won’t) be done.

People Powered is full of practical advice (including a lot of calls-to-action to find resources on But it also contains more philosophical views. Bacon is not a psychologist, but he has made a study of psychology and sociology over the years. This informs the theoretical explanations behind his practical steps. It also guides the conceptual models for communities that he lays out over the course of the book. And to prove that it’s a Jono Bacon book, it includes a few references to behavioral economics and several to Iron Maiden.

I really enjoyed this book. Some of it was obvious to me, given my community leadership experience (admittedly, I’m not the target audience), but I still got a lot of value from it. Chapter 9 (Cyberspace and Meatspace: Better Together) particularly spoke to me in light of some conversations I’ve had at work recently. People Powered is an excellent book for anyone who is currently leading or planning to lead a community as part of a corporate effort.

People Powered (affiliate link) is published by HarperCollins Leadership and was released yesterday.

Disclosures: 1. I received a pre-release digital review copy of People Powered. I received no other consideration for this post (unless you purchased it from the affiliate link above). 2. Jono Bacon is a personal friend, but I would tell him if his book was awful.