Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Dip by Seth Godin

The Dip by Seth Godin is a short and solid book about the decisions we make to either stick with things or quit them. He makes the point that single-minded determination and a never say die attitude not always a good thing, it often is better to move on from something and focus energies elsewhere.

The idea of the dip as Godin describes it is the hard period of something, the long slog between starting and mastery. Almost everything has a dip. It’s supposed to be there and is in effect a barrier to entry that creates value. Also, Godin points out that many professions have superstars and then a bunch of also-rans. Second or third place isn't a terribly successful place to be. The goal really should be to be the best at something, even if it a small area, not to muddle your way to an ok level of competence. Pushing through the dip is a good thing, what you don't want to do is quit in the middle of the dip, when it's hard, but still worth it to succeed. 

It's noted that along with dips, there's also cul-de-sacs, spots where no matter how hard you try, things won't get better. Those are the dead ends that should be abandoned. Godin also points out that coping is a lousy alternative to quitting. All coping does is waste your time and misdirect your energy. If the best you can do is cope, you're better off walking away. Highlighted is that winners quit fast and often, and then beat the right dip for the right reasons. Quitting the things you don't care much about, are mediocre at, or aren’t going anywhere (a cul-de-sac) frees you up to push through the dips on the things that do matter. When you are ready to quit something, go for broke, be willing to ask for what you want, and willing to walk away. Going into new situations lets you reinvent yourself; you've left behind those who have branded or pigeonholed you.

The right idea isn't "never quit," the right idea is "never quit something worthwhile just because it's hard at that moment." Don't quit your strategies, quit your tactics, and remember that a particular job is tactic, not strategy. Getting through the dip is never quitting the big idea. "Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other." 

How Lucky by Will Leitch

How Lucky by Will Leitch feels full of contradictions, with those combining together into a really good novel. 

It's about someone with SMA, or spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that typically has symptoms appear in early childhood and eventually leaves a person confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak. They're mentally sharp, but with a body that didn't sign up for the ride. It's described in the book as akin to Lou Gehrig's Disease, or ALS, but with it coming much earlier in life and having a much longer deterioration period. Also, SMA is a progressive disease, once a body part fails, that function is gone, and that's the way it's going to remain. 

Along with being about someone who has a debilitating disease, the book also is a nice story, one about someone living their life, the people who love them and they love in turn. The best people in the main character's life are those who don't feel sorry for him, but treat him like the real person he is.

Leitch set the book in his town of Athens, Georgia and noted writing it after his friends had a child with SMA. The story is a lot of  things, it's a mystery about an abduction, funny, and heartwarming, with the main character narrating "I have helped people, and I have people who have helped me."

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

 Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton is a solid work of nonfiction about the expedition of the Belgica, which sailed in August 1897 from Belgium for Antarctica, attempting to reach the magnetic south pole. 

The ship was under the command of Adrien de Gerlache, from a distinguished Belgian family and in his early 30s when the expedition began. It was funded in part by a national subscription campaign, with some 2,500 Belgians contributing donations, and de Gerlache would have liked to have the ship have an entirely Belgian crew, but to fill the roughly twenty spots had to enlist many non-Belgians, including American Dr. Frederick Cook and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. de Gerlache was neither a good manager of the crew nor particularly good decision-maker, with many of his choices driven less by prudence and more by concern about how his Belgian benefactors and the press would look upon him in the future.

 A man was lost overboard on the way from South America to Antarctica and de Gerlache had assured those who signed up for the expedition that they would not winter in Antarctica. However, once they at the continent in early 1898, he made the choice to sail into the ice rather than abandon the quest to be the first to the magnetic south pole. de Gerlache knew that they would get stuck in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea for the winter but concealed his intent from the crew. The sun went down in mid-May for close to seventy days of 24-hour darkness. de Gerlache during the Antarctic winter spent much of his time sequestered in his cabin with horrible headaches and one of the men had a weak heart and died during the arctic winter. The men started to suffer from scurvy, with their conditions then improving for those who would eat seal or penguin meat, but de Gerlache largely refused, sticking with the canned goods that he planned for and his backers paid for.

Crew members Cook and Amundsen became close during the expedition and were the two most hearty polar explorers, with each of them leading future expeditions and especially Amundsen becoming well-known for his accomplishments. As the crew moved into the Antarctic summer of October and November, one of the sailors began have his mental state deteriorate rapidly and it noted in the book that the second Christmas aboard the ship was a grim affair, with it becoming apparent that many of the men would not survive a second Antarctic winter and the food stores were being rapidly depleted. A plan was hatched to cut trenches in front of the ship, trying to create a waterway for the Belgica. Initial progress that was made was lost at the end of January when the ice pack shifted, but then on March 14, 1899 they broke out of the ice.

Upon their return to civilization, one man had lost his sanity while stuck in the ice and was committed to an asylum and another died after growing sick during the expedition. It would take de Gerlache a year to regain his health after the trip and Amundsen and Cook both embarked on other expeditions not long after the Begica’s return. Amundsen became an acclaimed polar explorer and Cook was as well for a time, until his exploits, specifically a claimed journey to the geographic north pole was called into question. Cook’s membership to the New York Explorer’s Club, of which he was president, was revoked and then then became an oil speculator and was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. Overall, it’s an interesting book with tales of danger, bravery, and horrific decisions. 

Saturday, July 03, 2021

A Knock at Midnight by Brittany Barnett

A Knock at Midnight by Brittany Barnett is a great book subtitled A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom. It’s a memoir about her growing up in central Texas, having a mother who went to jail for a drug offense, then becoming a lawyer advocating for the release of people serving life sentences without parole for drug offenses. 

Barnett grew up first in the small Texas towns of Fulbright and Bogata and was ten when she found her mother’s crack pipe in the house. She along with her sister Jazz went to live with their father and grandparents in nearby Campbell and it was difficult having a mother who was an on again, off again addict. Barnett when she started high school moved to Commerce to live with her other grandparents and get away from her mother’s addiction. She in college studied accounting, receiving a bachelors and then masters degree, with her mom unable to attend the graduation as she was in jail, sentenced to 8 years in prison for repeatedly failing drug tests while on probation for an arrest 6 years prior. Barnett notes how in her county growing up, blacks were 34 times more likely to be charged for marijuana possession than whites.

Barnett was a first-year law student at SMU, taking a class on the intersection of race and law, when she came across the case of Sharanda Jones, someone who had served ten years of a life sentence for a first-time drug offense. The environment under which Jones arrested was one with drug laws focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation, which is what sent Barnett’s mother to jail, and one with a racial bias. There was a sentencing disparity of 100 to 1 between crack and cocaine and prosecutors had enormous latitude to charge people with conspiracy to distribute drugs, a charge that required no physical evidence to prove. Additionally, mandatory minimum sentences were attached to many cases, effectively taking sentencing out of the hands of judges or juries. Prosecutors would also frequency focus on flipping defendants, even having higher-level dealers testify against lower-level dealers, and stacking charges or adding on 851 enhancements, bringing into sentencing past transgressions, no matter how small. 

When Jones was sent to prison on a conspiracy to distribute charge, she had been a low-level mover of drugs, was no longer involved, and entrapped by a friend looking to be an informant and get a lesser sentence. Jones was told by prosecutors she as well could get a lesser sentence if she flipped on her Dallas police officer friend, someone not involved at all with drugs. Jones didn’t testify against anyone else and after her lawyer told her she would likely go free, and worst case would have a five-year sentence; she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, going to prison when her daughter eight years old. 

While still in law school, Barnett began advocating for Jones, and continued to do this pro bono work as she became a corporate lawyer in a large firm. She in the book details the dehumanizing conditions for inmates, including visitors having to ask for people by their prison number rather than name. While Barnett trying to get Jones released, mandatory sentencing guidelines were ruled unconstitutional, but not retroactively. Barnett then felt that the best path to release was clemency, something that could be granted by the President and noted in the book as being described by a fellow lawyer as “where justice meets mercy.” Barnett mentions a 2015 Washington Post story by Sam Horwitz on Jones and others serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, even though they would have received lesser sentences under current guidelines, and Jones was pardoned by President Obama, with release in 2016. Also noted in the book are others that Barnett would help get clemency, including Donel Clark, Alice Johnson, Corey Jacobs, and Chris Young  (with the judge that sentenced him, Kevin Sharp, having left his seat because he felt mandatory minimum sentences were wrong).

It’s a remarkable story from Barnett about a grave injustice. Also interesting was both how strong the writing in the book is (it seems many lawyers are often good writers) and how Barnett before she left corporate law combined her accounting degree and the tangible skill it gave her with the tangible skill from her law degree.

Friday, July 02, 2021

Freedom by Sebastian Junger

Freedom by Sebastian Junger is a short book with interesting ruminations on his roughly year-long walk up the East Coast of the U.S. He and several friends, including a conflict photographer and two Afghan War vets, walked around 400 miles, illegally traveling along on rail lines, many through small towns that were dying away, and the book covers well this time of him simply walking, moving forward with self-reliance.

Junger previously wrote Tribe, War, Fire, A Death in Belmont, and The Perfect Storm, with all of them good books and Freedom being particularly like the first three with it examining the history of something and Junger's thoughts on it. There's a lot about the people of America and government in it and the book covers how it important to remember what happened in the past. Junger writes that "the idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing." It's a good book, with other quotes from it...

"In a deeply-free society, not only would leaders be barred from exploiting their position, they would also be expected to make the same sacrifices and accept the same punishments as everyone else." 

"An insurgency or political movement with leaders who refuse to suffer the same consequences as everyone else is probably doomed. Unfair hierarchies destroy motivation, and motivation is the one thing that underdogs must have more of than everyone else." 

"If democratic power-sharing is a potent form of freedom, accepting an election loss may be the ultimate demonstration of how free you want to be. History is littered with fascist leaders who have rigged elections and tortured or killed critics, but their regimes are remarkable short-lived, especially considering the obsession these men usually have with holding power. Many wind up dead or in prison, and almost none leave behind stable regimes."

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is a novel from the writer of The Martian, and while I thought his latest was better than his book Artemis, it wasn't near the level of his bestselling and adapted into a hit movie first book.

Weir has a large amount of science writing in Project Hail Mary and I'm assuming that it was thought out well and as such deserves credit, but I would have liked to have seen events on Earth covered more thoroughly. Overall the novel struck me as just a fine read, neither terrible nor great.