The Core Dump

The Core Dump is the personal blog of Nic Lindh, a Swedish-American pixel-pusher living in Phoenix, Arizona.

[By Nic Lindh on Sunday, 18 October 2015]

Book roundup, part 20

Includes The Antidote, One Nation, Under Gods, Losing the Signal, The Todd Glass Situation, The Last Policeman, The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Beacon 23, Killing Pretty and Queen of Fire.


The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman ★★★★☆

If you find go-go-think-positive self-help books either turn you off or simply don’t help, The Antidote is an excellent alternative. Burkeman looks at the philosophy of the ancients like the Stoics and the Buddhists and current research into motivation to find out how we can be happier.

The Antidote makes the very good point that if the kind of positive thinking espoused by the Tony Robbins of the world actually worked, they wouldn’t get much repeat business. Which they most certainly do.

The optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to happiness is exactly the kind of thing the ego loves. Positive thinking is all about identifying with your thoughts, rather than disidentifying from them. And the ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now. Schemes and plans for making things better fuel our dissatisfaction with the only place where happiness can ever be found—the present.

Essentially, Burkeman’s thesis is that we need to not run away from our negative feelings—which is what the positive thinking mantras suggest—and instead to accept and understand them.

Without butchering the argument by compressing it too much, Burkeman suggests we can find a lot of guidance in Buddhism and the Stoics:

For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word ‘happiness’. And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances. One way to do this, the Stoics argued, was by turning towards negative emotions and experiences; not shunning them, but examining them closely instead.

The Antidote is an interesting read and well worth your time.

One Nation, Under Gods, by Peter Manseau ★★★★☆

As America heads into election season, rhetoric is heating up and one of the most common conservative tropes is that America was founded as a Christian nation and thus any attempts to limit overt religion in government is a Bad Thing™. In One Nation, Under Gods Manseau provides a religious history of the United States, documenting the influences and thoughts that were a part of the great melting pot from the beginning and up to the present, showing that, in short, the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation is at best a gross oversimplification.

Of all the myths associated with the founding of the United States, there is none so stubborn as the notion that the colonists who rose up against the Crown did so mainly because they were a people motivated and sustained by faith. While the religious inclinations of the founding fathers provide fodder for endless contemporary political disputes, the colonial population as a whole—the more telling piece of this puzzle—is less often considered. Historians who have taken the time to tally religious adherents in the colonies have not found the first Americans to have been particularly moved by Christian commitment. One need only look at the statistics of church membership to begin to imagine an alternate scenario. The image of colonists filling chapels before and during the fight for Independence may fit a contemporary narrative—that the United States was formed with the help of the divine. However, in most cases colonists were too busy and too spread out to gather very often for prayer.

The Puritans were certainly Protestant zealots of the highest order, but the native Americans who helped them not all starve to death had a rich political and religious history of their own, and the mass of slaves brought over from Africa had their own religious traditions as well. Though hard numbers are difficult to come by, Manseau estimates about 20 percent of slaves were Muslims.

There was a lot of handwringing by slave owners over whether slaves should be converted to Christianity since—and this kind of sophistry is pretty difficult to think about without your blood pressure rising dangerously—Christians shouldn’t keep other Christians as slaves, so it might be better to have the slaves retain whatever religion they already had, but at the same time it was the duty of all Christians to convert other people, so perhaps it would be better to forcibly convert the slaves to Christianity?

One Nation, Under Gods does a good job of showing the complicated reality of the religious history of the United States and is well worth reading.

Losing the Signal, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff ★★★★☆

A thoroughly researched and well-written book that chronicles the humble beginnings, meteoric rise and spectacular cratering of BlackBerry, née Research in Motion.

Of course, the story of BlackBerry is really the story of its co-CEOs, Balsillie and Lazaridis. Losing the Signal does not paint a flattering portrait, with Balsillie coming across as overbearing and aggressive, and Lazardis as a genius engineer disconnected from everything but engineering.

And yes, the obvious Jobs and Woz parallel is thought-provoking.

The story of BlackBerry proves the old adage, “success hides problems.” As when the cracks in the business start to show and outside consultants are brought in to assess the company:

Traditional standards for measuring CEO accomplishments didn’t seem to exist at RIM. There were no written job descriptions or performance objectives for Balsillie or Lazaridis—benchmarks used by directors to measure compensation. Also missing was a succession plan. Incredibly, no one was being groomed to grab the reins if something happened to the CEOs. Weak accountability was a problem at other levels. The company set goals for lower-level managers, but Protiviti found employees “were not held accountable for meeting the objectives.”

Losing the Signal provides a fascinating glimpse into the cut-throat computer business and just how fast circumstances can change, with BlackBerry going from top of the world to ruin in just a few years.

While it’s hard to root for the flawed characters of Balsillie and Lazardis, this particular Greek tragedy does make you feel for the BlackBerry employees who worked heroically only to have their livelihoods wrecked by the incompetence of those above them.

The Todd Glass Situation, by Todd Glass ★★★☆☆

Stand-up comic Todd Glass talks about growing up dyslexic, ADD and closeted gay. The book is both funny and touching.

As a sample, here’s Glass talking about his struggles upon discovering he’s gay:

I was failing out of school and didn’t know what was wrong with me, met people who hated me for being part of a religion that I hardly practiced, had been to five different schools in eight years leaving me with almost no close friends, and now I was going to have to be gay, too? I must have been a real asshole in my past life to deserve all that in this one.

The Todd Glass Situation is funny and humane.


The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters ★★★★☆

Haunting and beautiful story of a literal countdown to end times as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth and will cause an extinction event. Henry Palace is a small-town policeman who becomes obsessed with a murder case as society falls apart around him.

Yes, it’s a police procedural set at the end of civilization and thanks to Winters’s lyrical, sensitive writing and twisty plot, it works.

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu ★★★★☆

Cixin Liu is a massive sci-fi writer in China and his work is starting to be translated to English. It’s easy to tell he read a lot of classic Western sci-fi growing up, as The Three-Body Problem is a combination of hard sci-fi—smart scientists doing science things—and Chinese thought and references. The novel starts off during the Cultural Revolution—which seems like it was very much not good times—and moves on to First Contact with an alien species. An alien alien species.

It’s really hard to do any kind of plot summary without spoilers, so let it just be said that if you like hard sci-fi, The Three-Body Problem should be high on your reading list.

As a niggle, Liu does like to have characters do exposition, and I’m not sure if that’s his style or a Chinese thing, but it does detract a bit from the brilliance of the work.

The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu ★★★★☆

Sequel to The Three-Body Problem and it’s a doozy. Somewhat meandering and with some clunky dialogue, but the core idea is so, so good.

The basic plot is that humanity is getting ready for the arrival of the alien fleet from The Three-Body Problem and, well, things are difficult.

At its core, The Dark Forest provides an answer for the Fermi Paradox that is so crushingly depressing and logical it’s devastating. Once you realize what the title refers to, you’ll feel sad.

Beacon 23, by Hugh Howey ★★★☆☆

Beacon 23 is a collection of five Kindle singles that together form a short novel.

Interesting and fun and with some beautiful writing, like “When we’re young, every imaginary battle ends with heroics. Finales come with a bang. Then you get older, and you see that life ends in wrinkles and whimpers.”

Beautiful writing aside, the plot is pretty thin, but it’s an enjoyable, breezy read. It also provides a very American take on the same issue as The Three-Body Problem.

Killing Pretty, by Richard Kadrey ★★★☆☆

Killing Pretty is an in-between book in the great Sandman Slim series. It feels like Kadrey has wrapped up his current story arc and is more or less thinking out loud about where to take the series next.

It’s not bad, but also doesn’t go off in any new directions. This one is definitely for the fans.

Queen of Fire, by Anthony Ryan ★★★☆☆

A solid conclusion to the Raven’s Shadow trilogy that earned an initial batch of terrible reviews on Amazon for some reason I don’t understand. Queen of Fire does have problems with way too many characters and a bit of a meandering plot, but it does bring the trilogy home and is an enjoyable, easy read.

As with any series, you should start at the beginning, with the outstanding Blood Song, one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot of fantasy.

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