Reading Round-Up: July 2018

One of the things about July being a long month (and feeling like a longer one, since we had some travel and suchlike in it) is that I can barely remember what I read just a few weeks ago. Oh well, that’s why I write things down! Here’s the list for last month:

  1. Come Rain or Come Shine (Jan Karon)
  2. To Be Where You Are (Jan Karon)
  3. Pilgrimmage: The Book of the People (Zenna Henderson)
  4. The House on the Strand (Daphne duMaurier)
  5. Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It (Jennifer Fulweiler)
  6. Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley (Antonio García Martínez)
  7. Kindest Regards: Collected Poems (Ted Kooser)
  8. Beartown (Fredrik Backman)
  9. Us Against You (Fredrik Backman)
  10. Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves to be Noticed (Sara Hagerty)
  11. The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  12. Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
  13. And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer (Fredrik Backman)
  14. The Art of Stillness (Pico Iyer)
  15. The Deal of a Lifetime (Fredrik Backman)

Two of those have their own posts up: Chaos Monkeys and Unseen.

Unlike June, July was pretty heavy on the fiction — I seem to get into waves that way. So let’s tackle the nonfiction first:

Something Other Than God is Jennifer Fulweiler’s first book, which I read second (I wrote up her second book, which I read first, here). This is the testimony of her conversion from a rationalist atheism to Roman Catholicism, a lovely and moving story. I found One Beautiful Dream a little more engaging — perhaps because it was dealing with a lot of the sort of questions I’ve been asking myself lately — but this was an enjoyable read.

I started reading Kindest Regards in June, and then put it down to read other things because I wasn’t enjoying it very much. But then when I picked it up again, I enjoyed it greatly — which just goes to show that sometimes it isn’t the book, it’s just the timing or your mindset. What I love about Ted Kooser’s poetry is how tight his imagery is: not a single word is wasted.

The only other nonfiction I read this month, besides the two that got their own posts, was Pico Iyer‘s The Art of Stillness. He has a TED Talk of the same name if you want the Cliff’s Notes version (though The Art of Stillness is so slim a volume that hardly seems necessary). Pico Iyer thinks that we should all slow down and practice stillness, in meditation or sabbath-keeping or various other forms, and he’s doubtless right. But the book didn’t really grab me and I can barely recall anything in it. Sorry, Pico.

On to the fiction: last month began with the final two installments of Jan Karon’s sprawling Mitford series. Come Rain or Come Shine is about the wedding of Dooley Kavanagh, Father Tim’s adopted son (well, the wedding and the preparation thereof). In To Be Where You Are, Father Tim is wrestling with his sense of purpose after retiring from the parish he pastored for many years. Like the others, they are sweet books; although they often deal with heavy themes, Karon handles them in a gentle and good-hearted manner. A+ comfort reading.

Zenna Henderson‘s Pilgrimmage: The Book of the People was a blast from the past for me; I read the copy that resides at my parents’ house which I probably hadn’t touched since high school or so. This is one of her books concerning “The People”, a group of extraterrestrials stranded on earth after the break-up of their home planet. The People look human, but they have powers — telekenesis, some telepathy, things like that — and a lot of her themes concern the tension between blending in and staying true to your self/heritage/home. They’re very thoughtful books.

Also in the fantasy realm, I loved Daphne duMaurier’s The House on the Strand. I hadn’t picked it up previously, despite owning it for ages, because the cover of my copy makes it look very blah. I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its yadda yadda whatever. But it’s actually tremendously exciting, with drug-induced time travel and family unravellings and all sorts of delicious medieval drama. I’ll read this one again.

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict is fourth in Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society series, which I have been reading all out of order. That doesn’t matter a whit in this case, as it’s a prequel, about the childhood about the aforementioned mysterious (Mr./Nicholas) Benedict. Orphans! Mysteries! Adventures! And also some salient questions about the kind of people we choose to be, and how we make those choices. It’s good stuff.

Farenheit 451 was also a re-read for me, although it’s been so long since I read it (circa age fifteen) that I didn’t remember anything about it except that I hadn’t liked it very much. It definitely reads very differently in my thirties than it did in my teens! I was struck by Bradbury’s prescience in predicting not the precise political and technological details of our age, but its spirit: where we are quickly forgetting how to think in a pervading ethos of soundbites and entertainment over all. We don’t need to install parlour-sized TVs for this, of course; we carry our distractions around in our pockets.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to Fredrik Backman: two novels (Beartown and Us Against You) and two novellas (And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and The Deal of a Lifetime). Fredrik Backman, Fredrik Backman… Fredrik Backman will break your heart every time. Beartown and Us Against You are hockey novels (although they are so much more than that), set in a depressed town in the heart of the forest in Northern (I assume Northern) Sweden, where the only thing the town has going for it is that its Junior Hockey Team has a chance at the playoffs for the first time in twenty years. But then the team captain rapes the GM’s daughter at a party and everything unravels. I won’t spoil either book for you — but they’re fantastic. You know, in a heartbreaking way.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a poignant and touching story about a grandson and his grandfather, whose brain is giving up before his body — about memory and what happens when we don’t remember anymore. It’s beautiful and sad, and all the more so for me as we have an elderly family member who is now in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The Deal of a Lifetime is a letter written from a father to his grown son, about the choices he’s made in the past, his triumphs and (mostly) his regrets, as he contemplates one last choice that will change everything. I thought it was the weaker of the two novellas, but I’m still glad to have read it.

And that’s my month in books. I hope yours was enjoyable as well!

Confessions of a chaos monkey

(Alternate post title: In which I continue my descent into anti-technology crankdom.)

You may have noticed, gentle readers, that I’ve been on a bit of a kick lately reading and writing about technology, social media, Silicon Valley, etc. I ran across the name Antonio García Martínez in an article about the same, which pointed me to an interview with him that I can no longer find in my bookmarks, but which at least served the purpose of leading me to his recent memoir, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. García Martínez tells all in this chronicle of his own Silicon Valley days: from the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, through a few years at ad-related startups, to his two all-consuming years at Facebook in the early 2010s. And what is Silicon Valley really like, at least as far as Chaos Monkeys shows us? As it turns out, it seems less a centre for incredible innovation than the kind of dystopian subculture you might find if a) Machiavelli ran your high school, b) everyone in said high school had millions of dollars of other people’s money to play with, and c) the only ethical/moral question that needs an answer is “is this legal or not?”. It’s not pretty. Actually, I had to stop reading Chaos Monkeys before bed because it was giving me bad dreams. I wish I were joking.

First, a word on the title: what, exactly, is a chaos monkey (besides a little phrase that’s pretty fun to say)? As García Martínez explains it, Chaos Monkey is a software tool developed by Netflix that tests whether your system can stand up under the stress of random failures. As a metaphor, it extends to the Silicon Valley ethos as a whole, as technology entrepreneurs look for society’s weak points in order to either fix or exploit them, depending on your point of view:

In order to understand both the function and the name of the chaos monkey, imagine the following: a chimpanzee rampaging through a data center, one of the air-conditioned warehouses of blinking machines that power everything from Google to Facebook. He yanks cables here, smashes a box there, and generally tears up the place. The software chaos monkey does a virtual version of the same, sutting down random machines and processes at unexpected times. The challenge is to have your particular service — Facebook messaging, Google’s Gmail, your startup’s blog, whatever — survive the monkey’s depradations.

More symbolically, technology entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, pulling the plug on everything from taxi medallions (Uber) to traditional hotels (Airbnb) to dating (Tinder). One industry after another is simply knocked out via venture-backed entrepreneurial daring and hastily shipped software. Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos moneys are kept, and their numbers only grow in time. With the explosion of venture capital, there is no shortage of bananas to feed them. The question for society is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what cost. (103)

Chaos Monkeys provides a fascinating inside view of this social-norm-breaking chaos monkeydom, many aspects of which Jaron Lanier warns about in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (my review here). One of Lanier’s strongest arguments has to do with the way the big, secretive algorithms at social media companies work to ever-refine the content that you see in order to maximize your engagement with the platform in question: feeding you mostly things you like (your best friend’s baby pictures) along with carefully calculated small doses of the rage-inducing (your crazy uncle’s political rants). All of the news and other content we encounter on Facebok only crosses our feeds because the algorithm has decided that it will keep us engaged; besides the very real problem of fake news, this also leads to a thoroughly myopic vision of whats going on in the world. We miss a lot, and because we only see what we’re shown, it gets harder and harder to even know what we’re missing. All of this is on purpose. García Martínez recounts the rousing speeches at his new employee orientation/on-boarding at Facebook, and the pictuer that high-ups in the organization painted of the brand new world Facebook was (and is) working hard to construct:

Facebook was the New York Times of You, Channel You, available for your reading and writing, and to everyone else in the world as well, from the Valley VC [Venture Capitalist] to the Wall Street banker to the Indian farmer plowing a field. Everyone would tune in to the channels of their friends, as people once clicked the knob on old cathode-ray television sets, and live in a mediated world of personalized social communication. That the news story in question was written by the Wall Street Journal was incidental: your friend Fred had posted it, your other friend Andy had commented on it, and your wife had shared it with her friends. Here was the first taste for the new Facebook employee of a world interpreted not through traditional institutions like newspapers, books, or even governments or religions, but through the graph of personal relations. You and your friends would redefine celebrity, social worth, and what should be churning through that restless primate brain all day.

Andy Warhol was wrong. In the future, we wouldn’t all be famous for fifteen minutes, we’d be famous 24/7 to fifteen people. That was the new paradigm, even if the outside world didn’t realize it yet. Facebook employees — we few, we happy few — knew what world was coming, and we’d help create it. (261)

In his two years at Facebook, García Martínez worked for the Ads department, in the early days of Facebook’s ads monetization projects. Perhaps because he’s an ad man, García Martínez is not impresed with people who use ad blockers in an effort to cut down on some of the noise they see online. Nor is he impressed with those who  are concerned with online privacy: in a point late in the book, he essentially makes the argument that we should all be grateful that Facebook captures and holds all our data, because otherwise facebook wouldn’t exist. I remain entirely unconvinced that this would be the disaster he purports it to be. If Facebook had kicked the bucket back in 2011 or so, when most of the book is set — well, so what, exactly? Their software engineers etc. would have moved on to other companies and users would have moved on to other platforms. Are any of us still mourning the death of MySpace or Friendster? It’s an interesting position for him to take, especially given the way he now looks back at his time with the big blue social media giant:

I could barely remember what my life was like before Facebook, and there was a trail of destruction I had caused by spending my entire life there: two children neglected, two different women whose worthy love I’d spurned, two boats rotting in neglect, and anything like an intellect or a life outside campus nonexistent due to indifference and my dedication to the Facebook cause. Don’t be deceived by my whithering treatment of Facebook in this book; inside every cynic lives a heartbroken idealist. If I’m now a morant critic, it’s because at one point […] I, too, lived and breathed for Facebook, perhaps even more than most. (458-9)

García Martínez’s time at Facebook didn’t end well; he was fired after a bitter internal battle over two different products/directions the Ads department was considering. That fact seems to fuel much of the book’s bitterness (and it is a deeply bitter book), as well as the occasional ambiguity of his positions. In truth, I didn’t find him a sympathetic narrator. García Martínez describes himself as “high-strung, fast-talking, and wired on a combination of caffeine, fear, and greed at all times” (161) and despite his avowed distate for the Silicon Valley lifestyle, he certainly appears to have lived it to the fullest measure, questionable ethical mores included. For example, he relates the following story from when his startup, AdGrok, was courting/being courted by two different companies: Facebook and Twitter, both of them still relatively nascent. Twitter was interested in buying the company and its three founders (in what’s called an acqui-hire), while Facebook wanted García Martínez but not rest of his team. How should he decide which company to work for? Here’s how:

Here’s another data point for you: As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille game with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. […] Facebook it was. (228)

(I found a news article about the incident in question. It’s incredibly disturbing. I don’t recommend reading it, but I will leave the link here so you know that this isn’t something García Martínez is making up for the shock value. It happened.) But consider the attitude that looks at a story like that — social media-driven infanticide — and decides that the company that inadvertently facilitated this truly horrifying incident is the one to work for, not the one to avoid. “If Facebook can do this, then Facebook can’t fail, therefore I should work for Facebook.” I… can’t even imagine making that decision. But that was his choice and his plan, which he enacted with some serious machinations that resulted in Twitter buying out his AdGrok co-founders while he escaped to Zuckerberg-land. According to Chaos Monkeys, this is the sort of decision that many Valley types would make:

As every new arrival in California comes to learn, that superficially sunny “Hi!” they get from everybody is really, “F— you, I don’t care.” It cuts both ways, though. They won’t hold it against you if you’re a no-show at their wedding, and they’ll step right over a homeless person on their way to a mindfulness yoga class. It’s a society in which all men and women live in their own self-contained bubble, unattached to traditional anchors like family or religion, and largely unperturbed by outside social forces like income inequality or the Syrian Civil War. “Take it light, man” elevated to life philosophy. Unfortunately, the Valley attitude is an empowered anomie turbocharged by selfishness, respecting some nominal “feel-good” principals [sic] of progress or collective technologcal striving, but in truth pursuing a continual self-development refracted through the capitalist prism: hippies with a capitalization table, and a vesting schedule. (232)

There’s a lot more to say about the world of SiIicon Valley and the world it is trying to build, but I need to cut this off at some point — Chaos Monkeys clocks in at over 500 fascinating and depressing pages. In many ways it is not an easy read, and it certainly isn’t an uplifting one. But as we consider questions about how we develop and use technological tools, it’s also worth interrogating the culture behind those tools. “Move fast and break things” (an early Facebook motto) may work for shipping software, but it’s a poor way to construct a society, and we would do well to be wary of embracing the technological innovations that come our way without serious thought. Chaos Monkeys contributes to that discussion, filling in a lot of the background for us as we think about how to shape techonology, and how it in turns shapes us.