Unique Critiques

Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try

Science Book Review

Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try hits you like a firehose of knowledge.  Dr. Srini Pillay looks into the depths of the brain and asks the central question – what are our brains doing when they are not focused?  Why is unfocused time important?  The zeitgeist, at least in Western culture, is that focus is king.  If you haven’t started down the path of focused world domination by the time you’ve finished that first cup of coffee, you’re doing it wrong.  And if you are not still focused on that goal of complete self-improvement by the time you’ve finished you’re second power scotch of the evening then you are an utter failure.  How we acquired this attitude is the subject of countless other books.  This book talks about why focusing all the time is a bad idea.

Fair warning: this book is not light reading.  Dr. Pillay does his best to sprinkle antidotes and lightness throughout the book, even adding little sidebars that have the smell of a ‘for dummies’ book.  For Dummies it is not as any green Jedi master might tell you.  When reading the book it feels as if the author has too much to say and was told by a publisher somewhere that he had to fit all of these cool ideas into a book that’s under 200 pages long.   This makes the transitions from chapter to chapter a little stilted.  The flow from idea to idea disjointed.  Please don’t let this discourage you from the read though because Dr. Pillay has a lot to teach.  I took more notes in this book than I have in a long time.

Pillay opens the book by taking on the ‘cult of focus’.  One of the examples he brings up is the famous gorilla suit experiment.  This is the one where participants are asked to focus on a team passing a basketball back and forth and is asked to count the number of passes.  Almost all participants miss the dude in the gorilla suit that walks right through the basketball game because they are so focused on counting passes.  Dr. Pillay posits the right questions here: “If focus makes you miss seeing a gorilla, what else are you missing in life?”

Another interesting fact shared is that when we are hyper-focused we lose the ability to care.  “Hyperfocus depletes the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), which helps us make moral decisions.”  I can’t imagine a scenario where that is a good thing.  Pillay goes on to talk about the importance both focus and unfocus have on the brain with a great analogy.  “Focus and unfocus are two different settings.  Focus is the close and narrow beam that illuminates the path directly ahead.  Unfocus is the beam that reaches far and wide, enabling peripheral vision.”  Both are important to living a valuable life, so why don’t we give ourselves the chance to let go more often?

One of the things I liked about the book is that Pillay had zero hesitation about diving into the science.  The part of the brain that manages unfocus is called DMN or the default mode network.  At first we did not understand much about this circuit and before the value of unfocus was discovered it used to be referred to as the ‘do mostly nothing’ circuit.  After quite a bit more study, we discovered that this DMN circuit is actually one of the greatest consumers of energy in the brain.  Pillay shares a laundry list of things that it is used for:

  • It acts as a distraction filter
  • It builds mental flexibility
  • It connects you more deeply with yourself and others
  • It integrates the past, present and future
  • It helps you express your creativity
  • It helps you dredge up intangible memories

These are all traits we would be lost without.  Pillay’s advice is take the focus with the unfocus.  His personal experiments have led him to “strive for fifteen minutes of unfocus for every forty-five minutes of focus.”

He next dives into creativity and our first of the title topics, dabbling.  He starts by talking about two of the great polymaths in recent history, Einstein and Picasso.  Both men were great dabblers.  “Einstein was strongly influenced by aesthetic theory and was fascinated by Freud’s work.  Picasso was strongly influenced by photography and X-ray technology.  Neither man felt he had to become expert in these side interests.  Both indulged their curiosity, mulled over their responses, and discussed the resulting ideas with their respective think tanks.  The results changed the world.  Deciding to dabble can be a profound choice.  It means being willing to try something out and be a student again.”  Who doesn’t want to go back to beginner’s mind?  Anytime you try a new sport or hobby, you typically gain huge strides early in the process.  More importantly, trying something new opens the brain to new experience and lets a tsunami of new thoughts in.  This is where breakthroughs are made.  If you’re not trying new stuff, you’re not learning, you’re not expanding.  Being static in this day and age is a recipe for disaster.

He dives more deeply into learning, specifically dynamic learning.  Dynamic learning is “to own up to, talk about, learn from, and correct errors rather than following a hypothetical ‘right’ way.”  If anyone thinks that there is only one right way to learn these days, they are eons behind the times.  We have even started acknowledging failure as a big part of that learning – “As long as you ‘fail forward’, ‘fail fast’, and recognize that ‘done is better than perfect.’  When you do, you ostensibly avoid intellectual stagnation and overcome fear of failure.  Put more simply. Talk is cheap, so keep on doing what you’re doing until you get it right.”  This is more of his tinkering mindset shining through.

He dives into doodling through the side door of multitasking.  Multitasking is not something I believe is ever effective but he makes an interesting argument about doodling.  “One way to activate your unconscious brain and release yourself from the clutches of focus is to doodle.  As we have previously seen, it activates the DMN and gets your focused, conscious brain out of the way.”  He segues this nicely into play by talking about how play actually helps your brain become less distracted.  Play is where we figure stuff out without the risks of commitment.  Play is basically just another form of doodling.

He also draws some interesting parallels between authenticity and possibility.  This naturally contrasts intrinsic rewards with external rewards.  When we are naturally curious and solve things using that curiosity, the rewards we gain are often deeper than an external pat on the back.  Yet we cannot find what will bring these intrinsic rewards without tinkering and finding what is meaningful to us.  That’s where authenticity comes in.  You’ve got to tinker your way down enough paths to find those that are authentic to you.  This is also a great way to find purpose.  He quotes Lao Tzu – “Lao Tzu once said, ‘When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.’  Possibility is about being and letting go; tinkering is the process of becoming.”  Powerful stuff.

 

 

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

To understand who we are, it’s always a good idea to look at who we were.  It’s certainly cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true.   Yuval Noah Harari has written a masterpiece on the history of our species in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  He brilliantly takes us on an anthropological journey that defines who we are as a people.  This book has taken its place on my shelf as one of the all-time greats.

He starts from the very beginning.  2.5 million years ago, the humans evolve into being in Africa.  We were weird: big brains, skinny, we walked upright, we used tools.  The world didn’t know what it was in for.  Since we walked upright, women had a really tough time of it when it came to giving birth.  The upright gait required much narrower hips which constricted the birth canal.  Big brains required big heads and death in childbirth was a huge problem.  So we evolved to give birth to very premature babies.  If you look at other species, like horses, or even giraffes, they start walking within days.  It takes us over a year, but we’re vulnerable for far longer than that.  This required us to evolve communication and communities to take care of our young.  That’s what got the ball rolling towards world domination.

Harari breaks the book down into four sections: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the unification of humankind and the Scientific Revolution.  There are a ton of insights in each section of the book so I’ll do my best to capture the ones I found most interesting in this quick review.  There is so much more in there though, so please do yourself a favor and read the book.

Cognitive Revolution

The Cognitive revolution started about seventy thousand (70K) years ago.  This is my back of the napkin math, not Harari’s, but if we consider that over history there was roughly five generations per century, this means that we started serious cogitation about thirty five hundred (3,500) generations ago.  That’s a lot of chance for evolutionary mutations but nothing compared to the roughly 2.4 million years before that time started that it took for us to figure out the tools and weapons to take us from the middle of the food chain to the top.  During that much longer period of time, sapiens weren’t the only kids on the block.  There were the Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster and several others.  The evolution to sapiens wasn’t a serial progression from these other species.  There is DNA evidence that we did the nasty with Neanderthals and we didn’t drive them to extinction until about thirty thousand(30K) years ago.  It wasn’t until about thirteen thousand years ago that Homo sapiens were the only humans left.

So why did sapiens make it when the rest of the competing human species didn’t?  The conclusion that Harari draws is fascinating.  He claims that our big edge was our ability to create fiction.  In his words, “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”  There are natural laws like the law of gravity that would exist even if humans were not on the planet, but “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of the human beings.”  All of those things exist only because we made them up.  Our ability to create these fictions allowed us to “revise our behavior rapidly in accordance with changing needs.  This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.”  When everyone believes in a similar idea or concept, it builds trust, which allows us to work effectively in much larger groups than chimps or Neanderthals.

The other really big step we took in the Cognitive Revolution was when groups of sapiens near Indonesia figured out how to build ships and leave Afro-Asia.  This was a monumental advantage over other creatures because we didn’t have to wait to evolve flippers and fins.  Instead, we built boats and sailed to Australia.  “The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”  As soon as we got there, we wiped out 90% of the megafauna.  All of the big animals there didn’t see us as a threat until we stuck them full of spears.  They never had the chance to evolve a fear of sapiens and they were destroyed, by us, long before that could happen.  Sadly, this was true with every other landmass we migrated to.  We migrated there and wiped out all of the big animals.  This is a disturbing trend of our species.  We move in, we pillage and destroy, and we completely change the ecological environment.

Agricultural Revolution

The Cognitive Revolution was followed by the Agricultural revolution which started around 9500-8500 BC.  Harari calls the Agricultural Revolution the biggest con job in history.  “The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return…Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields.  This completely changed their way of life.  We didn’t domesticate wheat.  It domesticated us.”  Farmers got a raw deal and were pretty miserable.  Bigger communities meant a lot more violence and a ton more disease.  As a species though, it was great.  We banged like rabbits and our population went through the roof.

The Agrarian society also had us thinking about the future for the first time.  Since we were no longer foraging, one bad crop could wipe everybody out.  This drove us into planning for the future and accelerated things like trade with other communities.  With that many humans now living together there was a ton of bloodshed.  “The problem at the root of such calamities is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals.  The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”  This made fiction and the shared myths even more important, especially when it came to organized violence like armies.  “At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood or money….How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism?  First, you never admit that the order is imagined.  You always insist that the order sustaining the society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.”

The other big advance that came out of the Agricultural Revolution was writing.  “The human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases, for three main reasons…. First, its capacity is limited.  Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them.  Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store and process only particular types of information.”  These were things like what plants and animals it was safe to eat.  With all these people living together it became important to process large amounts of data.  Writing and math were an inevitable progression so the whole system didn’t come crashing down.

The Unification of Humankind

The next stage he covers is the unification of humankind which started about 5,000 years ago.  Harari posits that the three great unifiers were money, empires and religion.  “Money is based on two universal principles: a. Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge. b. Universal trust:  with money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project.”  There was a serious dark side that came with money.  “When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.”

Our current liberal societies don’t relish the idea of Imperialism.  However, empires were incredibly effective in unifying people.  “Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region.  Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms.”  They did this for two reasons.  This made life easier for those running the empire but a common culture also brought legitimacy to their rule.

Religion was the final unifier.  This is how Harari defines religion, “Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.”  All religions had two big rules, “First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere.  Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone.  In other words, it must be universal and missionary.”  Two pretty powerful rules, they knew their marketing.  It’s not a huge surprise that the idea of religion became such a unifier.

The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution started about 500 years ago.  Science was very different from the traditions that came before it in three primary ways, “The willingness to admit ignorance…The centrality of observation and mathematics….The acquisition of new powers.  Modern science is not content with creating theories.  It uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies.”  This led to my favorite quote of the book, “The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge.  It has been above all a revolution of ignorance.  The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to the most important questions.”

One of the kickers for science is that it needs an alliance with an ideology to flourish.  The ideology is necessary to justify the cost of research.  The two big allies for science were imperialism and capitalism.  One of the primary reasons why Europe dominated the Scientific Revolution was, in Harari’s words, “The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset.  Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’  They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries.  And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.”  This quote reminded me of the Patrick O’Brian books where Captain Jack Aubrey was always accompanied by Dr. Stephen Maturin, conqueror and naturalist going hand in hand to take over the world.

This ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution.  “The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.”  This led to a great story he told about time.  All local communities used to track time in their own unique way.  Based on how they calculated time, It might be 8 AM in London but 8:04 AM in Liverpool.  This was true until trains starting making their way across Britain and the train timetables were getting all screwed up.  So, in 1847, the train companies set all of their timetables to Greenwich time  Thirty years later, the British government followed suit and that is how the world got Greenwich Mean Time.

The Industrial Revolution came with a serious downside.  “Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.”  Neighbors used to work on barter agreements.  Your fence falls down, I help you fix it.  My wall topples, you help me.  With the Industrial Revolution all of this changed.  “In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.  The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused.  ‘Become individuals.'”  Study after study shows that when we are surrounded by family and community we are happier.  We love to describe ourselves as rugged individuals but the cost turned out to be a whole lot of happiness.

Harari is a bit of a cynic when it comes to happiness.  He broke happiness down into three theories.  The first is that happiness is in the hands of our biochemical system.  Once we can regulate that machine like a well-tuned air conditioner we can engineer our way into happiness.  Meh.  The second is that “perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusion.  As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.  This is quite a depressing conclusion.  Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?”  He didn’t like that idea either but this seems to be the Facebook fallacy.

Know Yourself

His third theory comes down to ‘Know Thyself!’.  This is the one I prefer.  He uses Buddhism as a way to describe this knowledge.  In Buddhism, “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.”  He goes on to add, “In contrast, for many traditional philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are.  Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes.  When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry.  This is my anger.’  They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others.  They never realize that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.”

I like his systematic approach to analyzing happiness.  He seems to come to no conclusion on what theory is the best approach allowing us to draw our own.  He closes by bemoaning that we really don’t have any historical study of happiness and that is a huge gap in our collective knowledge.  “Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists.  They have much to tell about the weaving and unraveling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies.  Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals.  This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history.”  Lacuna, cool word.

The Land: Founding

Fantasy Book Review

Aleron Kong has pioneered a new genre of fantasy.  This is something called LitRPG.  This was my first foray into the genre and I  didn’t even know it existed until after I finished the book and found a whole host of others writing in the same style.

LitRPG is, what I presume, short for a literature role playing game.  The author takes you into an RPG world of their creation and lets you perch on their shoulder while they ‘play’ this game of literature.  This is a shockingly simple concept and I’m pissed that I didn’t think of it.  It should be boring but it isn’t.  You get sucked in quickly because the rules of the world are familiar to any gamer and therefore inviting.  From the first chapter on, it’s like sitting down to a hot meal of comfort food.  There’s not a whole lot of kale for your brain within these pages, but who cares if it tastes good.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this is successful.  I am constantly shocked that my kids spend 20X the time watching other people play video games then they spend watching scripted shows.  There’s a reason that Twitch was sold for roughly $1 billion.  One billion dollars!!!  Watching other people play video games is an absurdly profitable business.  LitRPG is a logical progression that, in hindsight, seemed inevitable.

The character development is…analytical.  You get to see the literal D&D style character sheet in many different flavors as the character progresses throughout the world.  As far as emotional development goes, it’s almost nonexistent.  I actually just finished the fifth book in the series, so I obviously can’t judge this too harshly, but there is no emotional growth at all in the main character.  He has the emotional intelligence of an unripened kiwi fruit but, for the genre, it works.

Our main character is known by his RPG handle, Richter, after the first couple of chapters.  I’ve forgotten what his real name is at this point and since we never revisit his past, it becomes irrelevant.  This is an area where color could have been added to the character and it feels like a bit of a miss.  Does he miss his mom?  How about friends or family at home?  Unlike Cline’s book, Ready Player One, you are in the game with Richter all the time.  Richter has all the complexity of a frat boy that gets to play with a bunch of medieval toys.

One of the elements that I loved about the book is Richter is not just leveling himself up.  He quickly gains the opportunity to start and level his own town.  So now we are combining the elements of RPG with turned based strategy.  That was always one of my favorite types of games so it resonated with me.  While the character himself is not that complex, the world that Kong builds is rich with detail.  The skill trees presented to Richter are satisfyingly deep as are the complexities of the town.

Knowing that you are in a game the entire time removes a layer of  the suspension of disbelief that I typically look for when I dive into high fantasy.  However, knowing the rules before you jump helps create the world for you as you read through it.  I didn’t want to like these books as skipping the whole world build part almost seems like cheating.  Like I said earlier I’m five books in, so they’re not all bad.  Feel free to add the series to your guilty pleasure list.

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies and Companies

Math and Science Book Review

Scale is an impressive body of work authored by one of America’s top scientists, Geoffrey West.  Dr. West recently headed up the Santa Fe Institute which is a think tank in the true sense of the term.  This is a bunch of scientists with the goal of advancing science unencumbered by some partisan political stance.  They bring in a ton of different scientists from many different disciplines and try to tackle the tough problems of the age.  One of their big targets has always been complex systems and building on an overall complexity theory.  In his book Scale, West takes on the big question of what happens to things when they grow.  He draws parallels between biological systems, cities and companies using a scientific approach backed with a good amount of layman’s math and illustration.

This is a wonderful book but it does require a pretty high level of concentration to get through all of the concepts.  While you don’t need a mathematical background to enjoy it, having a bit of that background makes the first read through a little easier and I would guess a little more enjoyable.  I found that as he dove into scaling and power laws I was able to draw a bunch of parallels to other scientific adventures I had taken in school or independent study.

He does a craftsman’s job of explaining what nonlinear growth means – “nonlinear behavior can simply be thought of as meaning that measurable characteristics of a system generally do not simply double when its size is doubled.”  He gives some solid definitions for what sublinear and superlinear growth mean and then starts hitting you with examples.  One of the most important example to understand is what happens to a structure when it grows.  If you are building a rudimentary square shed that is 10′ X 10′ X10′ and you decide to increase the length of each side by a factor of 10, the area and strength to support that area increases by a factor of 100.  So your 100′ X100′ shed now has an area of 10,000 instead of the original 100.  The volume increase and the strength to support it is even worse, you go from a volume of 1,000 to a volume of 1,000,000 which is a massive increase required in the strength to support the structure.  Another example is the Richter scale for earthquakes which is a logarithmic (exponential) scale.  So an earthquake that registers as a 6 on the Richter is 10 times more powerful than one that registers as a 5 and 100 times more powerful than one that registers as a 4.

This concept of Scale and it’s nonlinear growth make up the central questions answered by the book.  His first exploration of scale is through biology where we learn why larger animals live longer than smaller animals on average.  “Because larger animals metabolize at higher rates following the 3/4 power scaling law, they suffer greater production of entropy and therefore greater overall damage, so you might have thought that this would imply that larger animals would have shorter life spans in obvious contradiction to observations.  However…on a cellular or per unit mass of tissues basis metabolic rate and therefore the rate which damage is occurring at the cellular an intracellular levels decreases systematically with increasing size of the animal-another expression of economy of scale.”  The main takeaway then being, “So at the critical cellular level cells suffer systematically less damage at a slower rate the larger the animal, and this results in a correspondingly longer life span.”

He dives deep into the scaling of cities and finally the scaling of companies but through all three of these systems he comes up with a universal theory of how we scale ‘allometrically’:  “the generic geometric and dynamical properties of biological networks that underlie quarter power allometric scaling are: (1) they are space filling (so every cell of an organism, for instance must be serviced by the network); (2) the terminal units, such as capillaries or cells, are invariant within a given design (so, for instance, our cells and capillaries are approximately the same as those of mice and whales); and (3) the networks have evolved to be approximately optimal (so, for instance, the energy our hearts have to use to circulate blood and support our cells is minimized in order to maximize the energy available for reproduction and the rearing of offspring).”

He then ties this directly to cities and companies.  In a city, our road and transportation networks must fill space to service every region as do all of the utilities that must service homes and buildings.  This is also true of social networks, we collectively fill the socioeconomic space available to us.  As far as the terminal units go, he uses the plug as a great example.  A plug is the same standard size regardless of what you plug into it.  Finally, we will always try to optimize these systems for both biological and economic reasons.

One other point that I found fascinating and is worth highlighting in this review is around what happens when we get too big.  “In this scenario demand gets progressively larger and larger, eventually becoming infinite within a finite period of time.  It is simply not possible to supply an infinite amount of energy, resources, and food in a finite time.  So if nothing else changes, this inextricably leads to stagnation and collapse,”  The key here is ‘so if nothing else changes’ because this is where innovation comes into play.  He addresses innovation with, “A major innovation effectively resets the clock by changing the conditions under which the system has been operating and growth occurring.  Thus, to avoid collapse a new innovation must be initiated that resets the clock, allowing growth to continue and the impending singularity to be avoided.”  Sounds good right?  If we just keep innovating we’ll be fine.  Not so fast.  “There’s yet another major catch, and it’s a big one.  The theory dictates that to sustain continuous growth the time between successive innovations has to get shorter and shorter.  Thus paradigm-shifting discoveries, adaptations, and innovations must occur at an increasingly accelerated pace.”  So, to keep growing we have to innovate faster and faster but it seems inevitable that we will eventually hit this limit and stagnate.  Scary stuff.

There are many more beautiful nuggets of wisdom within these 500+ pages but it does tend to get dry at times.  Stick with it because it is a brilliant, innovative way to look at what happens when things get bigger.

Rework

Business Book Review

Rework is one of those books that is very easy to cast aside as an anti-establishment rant.  Do so at your peril.  Fried and Heinemeier Hansson have some strong, experienced based wisdom to impart.  You may not agree with all of it and they freely acknowledge that that is OK.  The book is heavily opinionated based on what has worked for them.  Opinionated in this case is good because those opinions are laden with passion.  These guys live their philosophy and they are unapologetic about doing so.  That alone makes Rework a refreshing read.

The book is short but packed with impact.  The authors are very concise and don’t waste your time with flowery prose.  They exemplify the ‘never use 10 words when 1 will do’ rule.  Their delivery is much more fortune cookie than Dickens which makes using the book for reference a lot easier.

The authors of Rework started 37Signals who are the creators of Basecamp.  For those not familiar, Basecamp is SaaS based project management software.  They were one of the early companies to come out with this style of collaborative software project management.  I like their blog a lot more than I like their software.  I’ve used Basecamp in the past and it never really did it for me.  To be fair, I haven’t used the software in years and my experience is in creating products for the market and not for managing projects for specific customers.  Their software seems to be more tailored for the latter approach (or at least it was when I used it.)

So let’s dive into the wisdom they have to impart.  They start by trying to dispel common misconceptions about business.  They started off with one that actually pissed me off a little: ‘Learning from mistakes is overrated.’  Their point was that you learn a lot more from success and that failure is not a prerequisite for success.  However, by saying something like that they are not attributing any of their own success to luck of being in the right place at the right time.  There’s a reason that only 5% of startups survive even if you do follow these principles.  And luck plays a big part in that reason.  It’s almost like blaming a cancer patient for getting cancer.  In my opinion, you should learn from everything, both your successes and your failures.  I did agree with most of their other points though.  The next being that planning is guessing.  Their comment was that ‘writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t actually control.’  This has a lot of merit when coupled with their idea that it is ‘ok to wing it.’  I think there can be benefits to a plan when it makes you think through all possibilities before investing a ton of money in something.  But you can definitely wing it with smaller decisions especially if you are getting feedback from the market early and often.

I really did like their piece on workaholism.  I don’t know when workaholics became heroes in our society.  I agree with our authors that say, “Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done.  It just means you work more….Workaholics miss the point, too.  They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them.  They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force.  This results in inelegant solutions.  They even create crises.  They don’t look for ways to be more efficient because they actually like working overtime.  They enjoy feeling like heroes.  They create problems just so they can get off on working more.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  When a company needs heroics, you’re doing it wrong.  “Workaholics aren’t heroes.  They don’t save the day, they just use it up.  The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.”

I’ve already touched on this but the authors strongly advocate for strong opinions.  It’s ok to piss people off.  “If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”  With strong opinions come passion.  With passion comes movement.  They also debunk the idea of starting a company with an exit strategy in mind.  “You need a commitment strategy, not an exit strategy.  You should be thinking about how to make your project grow and succeed not how you’re going to jump ship.  If your whole strategy is based on leaving, chances are you won’t get far in the first place.”

I really liked their thoughts on cutting stuff to it’s core.  This is the philosophy of the MVP.  In their words, “So sacrifice some of your darling for the greater good.  Cut your ambition in half.  You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.”  Cutting down to that level is tough.  They have some advice here too, “The stuff you have to do is where you should begin.  Start at the epicenter.  The way to find the epicenter is to ask yourself this question” ‘If I took this away, would what I’m selling still exist?” A hot dog stand isn’t a hot dog stand without the hot dogs.”

Another important part about being an entrepreneur is making decisions and keeping those decisions and your projects short and sweet.  “When you get in that flow of making decisions after decision, you build momentum and boost morale.  Decisions are progress.”  And, “long projects zap morale.  The longer it takes to develop, the less likely it is to launch.  Make the call, make progress, and get something out now”

They take a programmer’s approach to estimates and solving problems.  I really like this quote because it is something I have found to be true again and again.  “Your estimates suck.  We’re all terrible estimators.  We think we can guess how long something will take, when we really have no idea.  We see everything going according to a best-case scenario, without the delays that inevitably pop up.  Reality never sticks to best-case scenarios.”  This is also a truth I have found to be universal, “Whenever you can, divide problems into smaller and smaller pieces until you’re able to deal with them completely and quickly.  Simply rearranging your tasks this way can have an amazing impact on your productivity and motivation.”

They caution not to fear competition.  In my experience, having competition is far better than not having any.  When you don’t have a competitor you have to define your space which is incredibly difficult.  “Having an enemy gives you a great story to tell customers, too.  Taking a stand always stands out.  People get stoked by conflict.  They take sides.  Passions are ignited.  And that’s a good way to get people to take notice.”

They also dive into the power of No.  “Start getting into the habit of saying no-even to many of your best ideas.  Use the power of no to get your priorities straight.  You rarely regret saying no.  But you often wind up regretting saying yes.”  It’s hard to give up on good ideas but, “The enthusiasm you have for a new idea is not an accurate indicator of its true worth.  What seems like a sure-fire hit right now often gets downgraded to just a ‘nice to have’ by morning.  And ‘nice to have’ isn’t worth putting everything else on hold.”

They have some really good ideas on promotion.  They go deep into building an audience so that, “when you need to get the word out, the right people are already listening.”  Educating that audience is also a good way to get out there, “Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach them.  Teaching probably isn’t something your competitors are even thinking about.  Most businesses focus on selling or servicing, but teaching never even occurs to them.”  They are also big proponents of transparency.  Share your experiences with your customers.  “Letting people behind the curtain changes your relationship with them.  They’ll feel a bond with you and see you as a human beings instead of a faceless company.”

Their thoughts on hiring are very entrepreneurial and I don’t know if I agree with all of them.  They claim to “never hire anyone to do a job until you’ve tried to do it yourself first.  That way, you’ll understand the nature of the work.  You’ll know what a job well done looks like.”  My caveat to this would be, don’t do those jobs for long especially if you don’t like them and aren’t very good at them.  I know I’m not a great marketer because it pains me to do it and I know a lot of really good marketers that can do the job better than me.  But their point is valid because I didn’t know that until I tried it first.  I also liked their comments on how to narrow it down between several finalists.  “If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer.  It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever, their writing skills will pay off.  That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing.  Clear writing is a sing of clear thinking.  Great writers know how to communicate.”

They also have some interesting thoughts on damage control and culture but I don’t think there was anything new there.  Overall, it is worth the read.  It’s quick and it hits a cord.

Meta Series

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy book review Fantasy Book ReviewFantasy book review

This is a review of the series that Tom Reynolds has written so far.  I thought there was a chance he would be tying it off after three books and making it a trilogy.  After finishing the third book, that’s clearly not the case.  You can see why though: the books are selling.  There’s still a lot of interesting situations that he can throw his characters into and, if anything, he seems to be just finding his stride.

I’ve tried to understand why these books are interesting when the whole superhero thing has become so overplayed.  Marvel has something like three movies a year coming out and most of them are surprisingly good.  Superheroes have evolved dramatically from the black and white Superman character to these deeply flawed, incredibly interesting everyman characters that each have their own twist.

Each superhero story has become this Freudian battle between the hero’s super charged id and their super-ego.  This battle was phrased most clearly by Uncle Ben in Spiderman with his, “With great power comes great responsibility” quote.  Spiderman was still pretty clean cut however.  Luckily, these internal demon battles have become far more nuanced and a lot more interesting.  Netflix is doing some of the most groundbreaking stuff with their superheroes in NYC.  Talk about your superhero screw ups just trying to make their way in the world.

The ego, which tries to be based in some level of reality, plays the role of secret identity or ‘alter ego’ if you will.  The stories that get it right make the ego identity just as interesting as the superhero one.  When done well, you find yourself wanting to find out how each side of the identity coin is going to weather the inevitable shit storm they are thrown into.

The villains are getting a lot more attention too.  In the good stories, the villains go one of two ways.  The first is a villain that is so loathsome that you love to hate them.  Their debauchery and maliciousness is both creative and innovative.  When the author spends the time truly making you hate these characters, their comeuppance becomes cathartic.  The second approach is the misunderstood villain.  These villains are the byproducts of bad choices.  These are bad choices that you or I could have easily made.  Now they find themselves in situations where every choice is filled with regret.  These are the villains we feel sorry for because we can relate.  We also feel thankful that we aren’t them in much the same way that we derive pleasure from these poor idiots that make asses out of themselves on reality TV.

So where does Reynold’s Meta fit in?  It’s been pretty fun to watch the evolution of this character.  It is definitely YA fare but Reynolds has the gift of building an interesting plot.  Our hero starts off whiter than Wonder Bread fighting one dimensional villains.  By the third book the character is decidedly more interesting.  He gets put into situations where there aren’t the build your own adventure good and evil choices but instead choices that make him question his own morality.  It has almost become a coming of age story and I think that’s why it’s interesting.

Our main character is Conner Connoly whose super powers literally drop from the heavens in the form of meta bands.  These meta bands are the source of all of his powers and are what transform mild mannered Conner into Ultra.  Ultra is very similar to Superman but is heavily reliant upon the charge of his meta bands.  So basically Superman with a battery. iSuperman.

These meta bands aren’t new to the world.  Conner, aka Ultra, is the first of a second generation of metas.  The world saw a stew of these superheroes about 10 years ago.  The first generation of metas died out when the top superhero dragged villain numero uno into the sun.  Once that happened, all the other heroes saw their meta bands go defunct and the first generation of heroes vanished.

Having your super powers drop from the sky is not much of an origin story.  I saw this as a huge weakness in the first book because the origin story is typically the best part of any superhero drama.  However, Reynolds reveals that there is quite a bit more to this genesis in the third book.  This was refreshing background information that drew me back in.

The fact that the story has gotten more interesting as it has progressed brings a lot of hope for the series as most of these YA series seem to lose steam after the first book.  I will definitely continue to read the series and I recommend giving it a shot.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

If you haven’t read this one already, read it now.  This is as insightful a look at why humans do the dumb shit that we do as anything Kahneman has put out there and I loved his book: Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Ariely takes us through, step by step, all of the major irrationalities that we buy into every day.  The beauty of this book is that we know that we are irrational but this book will show that this irrationality is actually predictable.  Or as Ariely puts it, “our irrationality happens the same way, again and again.”

All of the theories in the book are backed up by empirical experimentation.  While sample size always needs to be considered, having real numbers trumps gut feel every day of the week.  The way he runs each experiment is telling.  He always sets out to answer a question that bothers him then comes up with a data driven answer.  Curiosity coupled with experiment makes for great reading.

There are so many lessons to pull from this book that it would be a shame not to list them all here for a Cliff Notes review at the very least.  That is the purpose of a lot of these business book reviews, to make sure that the lessons are extracted for future reference.  They also help me distill what I took as the most important nuggets from a particular author’s teaching.  So without further ado, let’s dive in.

The first lesson is about the cycle of relativity.  This starts with our author’s fundamental observation: “most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context.”  You didn’t know that you wanted that Tesla until you saw it next to your crappy 1994 Toyota Carola.  This makes sense, right?  The discovery that the author puts in front of us is that every marketer in the world knows this and uses it to their advantage.  My favorite example of this, “…people generally won’t buy the most expensive dish on the menu, they will order the second most expensive dish.  Thus, by creating an expensive dish, a restaurateur can lure customers in to ordering the second most expensive choice.”  He calls this the decoy effect.  The opposite of offering the most expensive item is by offering a clearly inferior option, either at the same price or at a negligibly cheaper price, to make the more expensive option look far more appealing.  This decoy effect “is the secret agent in more decisions than we could imagine.”

He next dives into the fallacies of supply and demand and how easily these forces can be manipulated.  There were two big lessons I pulled from this, price anchoring and creating demand.  Price anchoring comes about by something called arbitrary coherence.  “Initial prices are largely ‘arbitrary’ and can be influenced by responses to random questions; but once those prices are established in our minds, they shape not only what we are willing to pay for an item, but also how much we are willing to pay for related products (this makes them coherent).”  The message here is be very careful with your pricing strategies, especially if you are defining a market.  The other side of this is that if prices in your model are already anchored, then you have to change the experience to change the pricing.  This is what Starbucks did with coffee.  They turned buying coffee into a new, exotic experience then were able to charge a lot more for it.  In creation of demand he quotes Mark Twain, “Tom had discovered a great law of human action, namely, that in order to make a man covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”  This can be seen everywhere but I believe my brother describes it best when he says that ‘people love to wait in line.’  The reason for this is what Ariely calls behavior herding.  “It happens when we assume that something is good (or bad) on the basis of other people’s previous behavior, and our own actions follow suit.”

His next experiment dives into why we find “FREE!” so exciting.  His theory is that something free gives us such a charge because, “…humans are intrinsically afraid of loss.  The real allure of FREE! is tied to this fear.  There’s no visible possibility of loss when we choose a FREE! Item (it’s free). But suppose we choose the item that’s not free.  Uh-oh, now there’s a risk of having made a poor decision – the possibility of loss.  And so, given the choice, we go for what is free.”  Removing this risk of a ‘poor decision’ drives us to make all sorts of poor decisions like buying two for one deals of items that you never would have bought one of in the first place.  I have an uncle that is famous for this, he once bought a case of Italian salad dressing, even though he doesn’t like Italian salad dressing, just because it was ‘such a good deal’.

He then dives into the dichotomy of social norms vs. market norms.  “The social norms include the friendly requests that people make of one another.  Could you help me move this couch? … Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community.  They are usually warm and fuzzy.  Instant paybacks are not required.  …market norms, is very different.  There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it.  The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits.”  He uses two great examples here, imagine offering to pay grandma for the cost of the Thanksgiving dinner she put out for everyone or explaining to a date the amount you are shelling out for the last three dates you took her out on.  Both of these cases, even if well meant, are a serious violation of the social contract!  Sadly, “when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time.  In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish.”

He also goes in to how valuable social norms can be in the business world.  Take open source software for example.  Who would have ever thought Linux or Wikipedia would have been so popular?  He gives another example of a group of lawyers that were approached to help out a retirement community.  The community asked if they could help and offered to pay them well below their normal fee.  The firm said absolutely not.  They asked again but this time if they would consider doing it for free.  The firm readily agreed.  They had gone from a market norm to a social norm.  He also examines the social contract in modern day business.  Businesses used to take care of their employees with pensions and, at the very least, solid benefits.  Nowadays, these things have been cut and businesses bemoan that they can’t find loyal employees anywhere anymore.  You can’t have it both ways.  Loyalty comes from social norms not market norms.

One more example worth mentioning is why, when you are dining out, taking the last hors d’oeuvre is such a big deal.  The answer, “the communal plate transforms the food into a shared resource, and once something is port of the social good, it leads us into the realm of social norms, and with that the rules for sharing with others.”

He devotes a whole chapter to the fact that we are incredibly stupid when we are sexually aroused.  Well duh.

He dives into procrastination and self-control.  The best example here was with how we are all addicted to our devices especially e-mail.  “I think e-mail addiction has something to do with what the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner called ‘schedules of reinforcement’. … “On the face of it, one might expect that the fixed schedules of reinforcement would be more motivating and rewarding because the rat can learn to predict the outcome of his work.  Instead, Skinner found that the variable schedules were actually more motivating.  The most telling result was that when the rewards ceased, the rats ho were under the fixed schedules stopped working almost immediately, but those under the variable schedules kept working for a very long time.”  This is why gambling is so popular.  “If you think about it, e-mail is very much like gambling.  Most of it is junk and equivalent to pulling the lever of a slot machine and losing, but every so often we receive a message that we really want.”

I loved his study on the high price of ownership and the “Ikea effect.”  He has a great line in there, “In fact, I can with a fair amount of certainty say that pride of ownership is inversely proportional to the ease with which ones assembles the furniture.”  You spend time on something, you add a value of ownership to it.  This ownership effect is another cause for irrationality.   This can be summed up in the maxim, “‘One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. ‘ Well when you’re the owner, you’re at the ceiling; and when you’re the buyer, you’re at the floor.”  According to Ariely, this irrationality is propelled by three quirks: 1) we fall in love with what we already have 2) we focus on what we may lose, rather than what we may gain and 3) we assume other people will see the transaction from the same perspective as we do.

It’s stunning to see his experiments around the effect of expectations.  The general idea here is that if we expect that something is going to be good or bad, that expectation greatly impacts the experience.  He has a great quote on this, “As it turns out, positive expectations allow us to enjoy things more and improve our perception of the world around us.  The danger of expecting nothing is that, in the end, it might be all we’ll get.”

He’s fascinated by the study of the placebo effect and rightfully so.  The placebo effect is an amazing way that our mind controls our body.  What was most fascinating about his study though was how big of an impact price has on the placebo effect.  When study participants were given placebo drugs, they did far better in their treatment when they found out that the placebo drug was very expensive.

This leads into a nice segue on the cycle of distrust.  When marketers abuse things like the placebo effect or any other of irrationalities we believe them, but only for a time.  He presents two morals, “The first is that people are willing to forgive a bit of lying.  But the second, more important moral-one that we are just beginning to understand-is that trust, once eroded, is very hard to restore.”

He then dives into all of the experiments he ran on cheating.  This stuff was fascinating.  “when given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat.  In fact, rather than finding that a few bad apples weighted the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little.  The second, and more counter-intuitive, result was even more impressive: once tempted to cheat, the participants didn’t seem to be as influenced by the risk of being caught as one might think…This means that even when we have no chance of getting caught, we still don’t become wildly dishonest.”  He then primed the pump in his experiments by having folks recall the Ten Commandments before the experiment and, “the students who had been asked to recall the Ten Commandments had not cheated at all.”  So there is definitely something to these honor code things.

Finally, what he found out is that “cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money.”  Any time they ran their experiments on tokens that were worth a certain amount of money, cheating went up dramatically.  This means cheating on things like airline miles is far easier to do because it’s not linked directly to money.  He cautions banks not to get to far away from real money because of this effect.

As a closer, he offers a plan of action.  “although irrationally is commonplace, it does not necessarily mean that we are helpless.  Once we understand when and where we may make erroneous decisions, we can try to be more vigilant, force ourselves to think differently about these decisions, or use technology to overcome our inherent shortcomings.”  Very cool stuff and a ton of lessons to take away from this book.

The subtle art of not giving a f*ck: a counter intuitive approach to living a good life

Business book review

This book is a fun blend between self help and philosophy.  The good news is that the philosophy elements are well thought out and meaningful.  This is not a business guide with a plan to follow but neither is it all flowery fluff.  The concepts are worth your time with a fair amount of fun stories from the author’s life to keep you interested.  I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece but it’s worth the read.

Manson starts the book with a call out to Bukowski, the poet beloved by drunks and misfits.  He calls him out in an appropriate way though by referencing Bukowski’s authenticity.  “…his success stemmed not from some determination to be a winner, but from the fact that he knew he was a loser, accepted it, and then wrote honestly about it.  He never tried to be anything other than what he was.”  Authenticity is always a good quality but finding it is incredibly difficult.  Manson seems to suggest that one of the ways to finding authenticity and the good life is, “…not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.”

So how do we get there?  Manson’s philosophy is that we are all doing everything we can to avoid negative experiences and filling them with false positive experiences.  His statement that, “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience.  And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience,” rings really true.  Most of this comes down to acceptance of who you are rather than trying to do everything you can to become something else.  That is not a bad definition of authenticity. Another quote that really resonated was, “Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others.  The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships.  Suffering through your fears and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance.”  And, “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience.”  In other words, embrace the pain, don’t be shamed by it.  I have personally found this to be very true.  The more vulnerable you are with others, the more powerful the relationships you build.

He takes this a step further to define happiness as solving problems. “True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.”  This is tightly linked to accomplishment which has always been one of my primary measures for happiness.  When I’m getting stuff done, I’m happy.  I like Manson’s definition better because rather than just accomplishment he is linking happiness to solving, not just finishing.  He mentions the two big things that get in the way and hits this nail right on the head.  “Denial.  Some people deny that their problems exist in the first place….Victim Mentality.  Some choose to believe that there is nothing they can do the solve their problems, even when they in fact could.”  I think denial is very common with the older generation, those that like to sweep stuff under the rug.  The victim mentality is much more common in the younger generation, especially with the entitled.  Victim mentality and entitlement are closely linked.

Manson doesn’t let entitlement off the hook.  He describes it in one of two ways, “1. I’m awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment. 2. I suck and rest of you are all awesome, so I deserve special treatment.”  Both of these approaches get you nowhere, except maybe with enabling parents.  Manson believe that we need to accept that we are not special and deal with it.  “Often, it’s this realization – that you and your problems are actually not privileged in their severity or pain – that is the first and most important step toward solving them.”

He then takes on values and how values define well lived life if those values are based on the right things.  In his definition, “Good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable.  Bad values are 1) superstitious, 2) socially destructive , and 3) not immediate and controllable.”  Understanding this requires responsibility of your own well-being.  Responsibility is the biggest part of growing up and becoming authentic.  As Manson puts it, “This is the realization that we, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances.”  You made your choices and they got you here.  Time to accept that and be an adult.  And in those cases of, “We don’t always control what happens to us.  But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.”  You’re still making choices, so stop playing the victim.

Manson takes us through a cool exercise of questioning ourselves or trying to be a little less certain about who we think we are.  He gives us three questions to ponder.  #1: What if I’m wrong?  #2: What would it mean if I’m wrong?  #3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?  This is a good litmus test for any sentient being.  Introspection is a good thing.  Challenge yourself on a regular basis.

Manson also spends some time on relationships.  He goes deep into building trust and how that is the keystone for something real.  The part I liked the most about this was his concept that commitment spawns freedom.  This concept is very counter intuitive.  “Commitment gives you freedom because you’re no longer distracted by the unimportant and frivolous.  Commitment gives you freedom because it hones your attention and focus, directing them toward what is most efficient at making you healthy and happy.”  I like this way of looking at commitment.  You’re not settling, you’re focusing.

He finishing up the book with a call to action that balances on something light: death.  “Confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life.  While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: what is your legacy?  How will the world be different and better when you’re gone?  What mark will you have made?”

Get out there and get it done by only giving a fuck about the stuff that matters.

 

 

 

 

Dak’arai

Another original

Dak’arai

I have been a member of the dak’arai for as long as I can remember.  We are a sacred order sworn to protect members of the royal family since the dawn of time.  I have slowed down over the passage of years; eyesight dimming; ears not what they once were, but I still do my duty and will do my duty until the time of my death.  This is my story.

My childhood was happy but tough.  I was darker than the rest of my siblings and my hair grew a bit wilder and longer even when I was very young.  My brothers and sisters would often tease me about these differences and I would have to prove my worth by wrestling; sometimes even fighting them tooth and nail.  At times, it would get too rough and one of us would be bloodied after a fight.  At these times my mother would bark recriminations at the lot of us as we hurried away to separate corners to escape her wrath and lick our wounds.  I was involved in almost every one of these tussles and because of it my mother would complain to my sire about what a troublemaker I was. My father would always come to my defense, reminding her of the great destiny I had in front of me.

My father believed I was a reincarnation of the great F’illaster.  F’illaster was the first of the dak’arai.  He was the first of the great Wa’holf warriors to propose a peace with the royal family thus ending eons of war between the clans and the royals.  To cement his belief in peace he offered to act as a protector to the ancient empress of Ma’han.  Many of the Wa’holfs of the time saw his actions as traitorous and vowed to never respect the alliance.  But as the years passed it became clear that F’illaster’s actions saved many lives of Wa’holf and royal alike.  All but a very few came to see the wisdom of F’illaster’s decision.  Some say that there are still wild Wa’holf warriors roaming the lands today but that is myth.  Those that accepted the peace found their way into the society of the royal family in one form or another but very few follow the ancient way of the dak’arai.  I am one of the last.

I was separated from my mother and sire at a very early age to begin my training.  Maybe it was because I looked so different from the others that I was chosen, or maybe my father’s beliefs were true, maybe I really was the reincarnation of F’illaster.  Whatever the reason, none were surprised when the Empress herself came to pick me up.  My siblings and even my mother and father cowered from that divine gaze, but I held my ground.  I did not even whine when she picked me up and examined me.  I was not afraid; I knew I was destined for great things.  I was sad to leave my brothers and sisters and my parents—for I knew I would never see them again—but such is the way of the dak’arai.  When she placed me in her carriage I did not look back except to scan for threats to my new mistress.

My training was rigorous but fun.  I learned the rudiments of protocol with other dak’arais in training.  We learned how to sit, lie down, and even offer a leg in front of the eyes of royalty.  We also learned the way of the La’heash.  The La’heash was a sacred connection between a dak’arai and his royal.  It was our sacred duty to protect our charges especially when they were away from their castle and most vulnerable.  This is where the La’heash came in.  We used the La’heash to direct our charges away from anything that might be deemed dangerous.  In turn, the Empress could use the La’heash to let us know if we were breaking foreign protocol of some other royal.  I eagerly looked forward to every training session and to no one’s surprise I took the prize as top student.  I was the Empress’s personal dak’arai after all.

My first two official years as dak’arai were my toughest.  The Empress was traveling often in the attempt to build strong political relationships.  I protested mightily when she did not allow me to accompany her to these events.  She explained that the other royals she met did not understand the way of the dak’arai and that my accompaniment would be a serious breach in protocol.  But how could I protect her if I was not present?  In my frustration and immaturity I often took out my rage on inanimate objects.  I possessed nothing myself so I chose those items least valuable to the Empress, like her footwear.  If she trod upon these pieces of leather, how valuable could they be?

I was rightly punished for this behavior.

I immediately distrusted the Emperor the first time we met.  Well, he was not the Emperor yet but he was the most constant of the suitors.  Despite my suspicions, he treated me well and as a male he was an okay sort.  He often tested my fighting and training skills and was much less gentle than the Empress in doing so.  I always won these tests of martial skill but in his defense he never went through the rigorous dak’arai training that I did.  One evening when he got in a shouting match with the Empress, I grew very distraught.  I knew that the Empress would object to harming the Emperor but I had to take some action against the raising of his voice to my royal charge.  I took the subtle approach of defecating in a piece of his footwear.   The Empress thought this was highly comical but the Emperor did not approve.  He smacked me hard once on the nose.  I bared my teeth but did not retaliate.

I remembered my training.

Time heals all wounds and after enough had passed, the Emperor and I reconciled our differences.  We grew to respect each other and even enjoy each other’s company.  It was the Emperor that introduced me to the game of Fra’hisbee.  It was very popular in the royal court at the time.  The royals would throw a colorful disc through the air to each other.  Once one royal caught the disc he would then throw it to the next.  Naturally, with my superior speed and leaping ability, I excelled at this game.  The royals loved testing my limits by throwing the disc as far as they could and seeing if I could still catch it.

I never failed.

Over time I had grown to understand that more and more royals did not approve of the old dak’arai ways.  This meant that when the Empress was out, and I could not accompany her, I was placed in charge of protecting the household.   It was in one of these periods, shortly after the Emperor and Empress moved into their permanent castle, that I met my most sinister enemy.  This enemy would approach the castle when both the Emperor and the Empress were away performing their royal duties.  He would nonchalantly stand outside of the castle doors looking for ways to break in.  When I discovered his probing attacks I would loudly make my presence known.  At this point he would flee, but not before shoving pieces of paper through a sentry slot in our castle door.  I recognized these pieces of paper as the weapons they were, so naturally I did everything in my power to destroy them.  I was wary of poison, hidden blades, and even political propaganda, but it was my duty to protect, so I was fearless in my dedication to destroy these threats.

The Empress was amused by my dedication to this cause but the Emperor did not understand.  He asked me not to destroy these weapons of the enemy.  He tried to explain to me that in carefully examining his weapons we could better understand the enemy.  This is something that the Emperor and I don’t see eye to eye on.  Luckily for the Empress, I am in charge of security and not the Emperor.

The Emperor could be petty about such matters and he often held a grudge.  He would never dare to openly dispute a final decision by the Empress but he had other ways of getting back at me.  Shortly after one such disagreement—after a particularly harrying day where I fought off not only a skirmish with my devious enemy but two full frontal assaults of hired mercenaries that dropped their weapons well before the castle gates in sheer terror of my furious defense—the Emperor struck hard at my pride.

He arrived home with a dak’arai warrior of his own.  This warrior was young and largely untrained.  I was stung by this obvious assault on my personal integrity.  Wicked thoughts went through my head.  If he believed that I could not protect the both of them maybe I should retire my service and leave them to their foolishness.  A warrior of lesser stature may have given into these baser thoughts and shamed himself, but I am dak’arai.  Instead, I took this young warrior under my wing and tried to teach him the ancient ways.

Unfortunately, the new warrior was of a lesser caste.  No matter how hard I tried to instill a sense of decency and a respect for the ancient ways, he failed at his training.  In the first battle with our most serious enemy, who after years of facing my stolid defenses still continued his daily probing of my lady’s demesne, my new partner quailed under the attack.  He fled at the sight of the three small pieces of paper that my enemy had managed to fit through the sentry slot before I repelled his attack.  It was a small attack and this new ‘dak’arai warrior’ had run like a sissy Pa’hoodle.  He then had the nerve to greet the Emperor as if he were some victorious warrior when the Emperor returned home.  And the Emperor, and even the Empress, greeted him with open arms!

I was sickened.

I knew I would have to raise the level of my vigilance.  The Emperor and the Empress believed that they had two dak’arai warriors protecting them now, so I knew they would let down their guard under this increased security.  I now had to do the work of two.  I reprimanded the young one for fleeing in the face of battle but my snarls of discontent seemed to matter little to this young fool.

He redeemed himself slightly in our first and only face-to-face confrontation with the devious enemy outside the gate.  It was a beautiful summer day and both the Empress and Emperor were home from their many political journeys.  They were taking pleasure reclining in the front grounds outside the castle.  Naturally we were out guarding them; well, I was guarding them anyway.  The enemy approached.  My young companion saw him before I did and to my absolute surprise, he charged.  I followed sharply on his heels but he took the brunt of our enemy’s counterattack.  The devious one pulled a cylinder out of his pocket and launched a stinging spray squarely into the face of my companion.  I only received a glancing blow from this spray but it was enough to burn my nose and eyes for several hours.  I could only imagine the pain my young friend went through that day.

The Emperor was glorious that day.  He expelled our enemy from the grounds with a severe tongue-lashing.  I was proud of the power exhibited by the Emperor but ashamed at my own weakness.  I had been incapacitated by the enemy’s first simple attack.  I hung my head in shame.

I offered my dinner in sympathy to the young warrior that stood by my side that fateful day.  He did not understand.  It was then that he told me that he was merely greeting the enemy as if he were a foreign dignitary.  I was shocked.  I could not believe the stupidity of this young warrior.  I explained to him that that was the enemy that had been plaguing us for years as the young warrior stared at me with ever widening eyes.  I took pity on the pup.  His innocent bravery in the face of danger was endearing.

We got along better after that.  I accepted that he would never be a true dak’arai warrior and he continued to give me the respect that I was due.  He let me take care of the security and I allowed him the simple pleasures of wrestling with the Emperor and even the Empress.  The Empress was fond of the young warrior but she would never entrust him with her safety.  That job was for me alone.

Over the last couple of years as I’ve aged, I have started to slip a little.  We have a new enemy that grows awfully bold in the spring and summer months.  Using siege engines they have broken through the rear wall on several occasions.  Luckily, I have been able to drive them off before they breach the inner keep.  Their siege weapons have been unable to do any damage to any of the permanent fortifications and the cowards flee before doing any more than minimal damage to the grasses and shrubs in the rear grounds.  They must be from the south because they are not hardy enough to show their faces during the winter months.

I fear for the future security of the Emperor and Empress.  My hearing is no longer what it once was and, as I said before, my vision is starting to fade too.  This new enemy worries me and we still have the daily approaches of my arch nemesis.  There is no indication that my royal charges will replace me until my tenure ends.  I fear for this new breed of protectors however.  There are so few true dak’arai left.

After all these years, the Emperor and I have come to a final peace.  He respects me and I him.  I believe that the respect even borders on love these days.  I catch another look from the Empress.  More and more often she has been looking at me with sad eyes.  She recognizes that my tenure is nearly up but she loves me and respects me too much to say so, bless her heart.  I would die if anything ever happened to her.  I will leave this world with the dignity befitting my station.

I am dak’arai.

The Wolf of the North: Wolf of the North Book 1

Fantasy Book Review

I am familiar with Hamilton’s work from his Society of the Sword series.  That series was really good but I’m happy to say that he has gotten better.  These books feel darker, almost like he added a dash of Abercrombie to his previous mix.  The darkness together with the wonderful plot building makes the Wolf of the North well worth the read.

He’s not breaking any new ground within the Northman genre.  This has all of the usual Viking tropes but the tropes are what make the Vikings interesting in the first place so you find yourself forgiving them.  He does his best to show the limitations of the Warrior driven, patriarchal society but it comes across a little light, especially in how the women are treated.  I’m not for misogyny in any universe but the way in which the women are humored seems a tad bit out of place considering that there aren’t any women Warriors.  You know Loki wouldn’t have put up with that shit.  It’s his world though and since he is not pretending any level of historical fiction, it works.

The story starts with our hero Wolfric as a chubby little pud that is constantly getting the crap kicked out of him.  He is the son of the First Warrior though, so his extreme level of sissitude is unacceptable in the family dynamic.  With a little mystical help, he finally stands up for himself and in a berserker rage, goes apeshit on one of the bullies that has made his life hell.  Their fortunes immediately switch.  The bully becomes a despised cripple that is kicked out of the Warrior caste and Wolfric is elevated into it.  In standing up for himself he did make an enemy for life and that enemy comes back to haunt him later.

Wolfric then enters his training and spends several of his formative years working on the multiple badges of bad-assery inherent to the Warrior society.  Things are looking good until an old evil slithers into their lives and war breaks out between their village and their closest neighbors.  As chaos ensues and the ranks of the Warriors are thinned, the village is forced into making one devil’s bargain after another until their society is forever changed.  Wolfric and the Warrior caste quickly find themselves pariahs in a new age of softer values.  This book does a wonderful job of bringing these struggles to life and captures the emotions of each stage with a poignant grace.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a master storyteller, much in the same way as Rothfuss tells his stories in the King Killer Chronicles.  This lends a misty uncertainty to the tale and it gives the author a ton of artistic freedom because the story can fall prey to the memory of the storyteller.  This allows for artistic embellishment and a sense of literary tension around what is true and what isn’t.

The culture shift that the Warriors go through is a major component of the novel.  It drives the majority of the pain of the characters as change is wont to do and you find yourself super invested in how these clash of cultures is ultimately going to work out.  There is romance in the book as well but it is somewhat secondary to the more visceral elements of survival in the harsh climate.  At the end of the first novel, the change of cultures is nearly complete and Wolfric and his brethren are not handling it well.  When his romantic interest is dealt a rotten hand Wolfric takes off to do something about it and what that is will probably make up the second book.  I look forward to it!

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