Book Review: The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

For me, this book was a bit of a slog to get through. I had originally started it early last year and had read pieces of it in fits and starts. It’s been partially read for nearly 12 months now, so I decided to try and finish it in earnest.

It’s an account of the near future, as drastic side effects due to climate change become more prevalent and catastrophic (the book opens with a heat wave in India that kills millions).

The story is told through a series of eyewitness accounts that take us across the world, detailing the effects of climate change and some of the (far-fetched and even fantastical) ideas people have to cope with it.

Some of the accounts and stories told by various characters are compelling, but a number of them are dry and uninteresting.

Eventually we get into current events and a discover a sort of utopia being created around the world to combat climate change together. Side note: the negative response of various groups of citizens and even some countries to the COVID-19 pandemic makes me think this sort of thinking is truly in the realm of fiction. Cli-fi if you will.

Anyway, I really couldn’t get into it. In general, I think I like the idea of Kim Stanley Robinson books more than I like reading them.

(That said, there are still a number of his other books on my bucket list that I will inevitably read.)

★★☆☆☆

Book Review: Integral Meditation by Ken Wilber

I’ve been making a conscious effort to be more mindful in various aspects of my life. Somehow, I stumbled upon this book (perhaps it was a Goodreads recommendation), and thought the blurb sounded interesting. Could this be what I need to take my mindfulness practice to the next level?

Uhhhhhhhhhhh. What?

First, the good news: I finished it!
The bad news: Seriously, what did I just read?

Okay, sure, maybe I should have been more familiar with “integral theory and practice” before I started reading this, (“more” meaning, any sort of familiarity at all). But come on, the blurb sold me: “a radical approach to mindfulness—combining an ancient meditation technique with leading-edge theory, resulting in a powerful new method of self-transformation.”

The 240ish something pages start off interesting. Ken Wilber makes an effort to explain what integral mediation is and how we can use it to grow up (not just wake up / achieve nirvana). This is the first I’d heard of “growing up” used in this context. Wilber uses various stages of human societal evolution as an analogy for the different aspects of growing up and becoming a better, more aware / awake person.

As the book goes on, it goes deeper down the rabbit hole of how awake you should be for given stages of your personal development and steps are needed to achieve the next level.

But as you progress through the book (and presumably through the levels), things seem to make a lot less sense and start to sound downright silly.

A random, out-of-context quote that highlights some of the word soup you’ll need to wade through:

“This, needless to say, was not an incentive to contemplative development, and the religious engagement of individuals increasingly focused on legalistic creeds, codes, and mythic-literal dogma of a particular stage of spiritual Growing Up, namely the mythic-literal. And so we ended up with the two major problems with religion in today’s Western world: no spiritual Waking Up, and rather low levels of spiritual Growing Up. Taken together, this is a cultural disaster of the first magnitude. I just can’t emphasize enough what a staggering nightmare this has been for Western civilization.”

Ultimately, it was a lot of random words jumbled together that I don’t entirely understand. There might be a time and place for reading it and getting something out of it, but I don’t think I will ever get there.

If you’re a Wilber fan, there’s probably a lot here you’ll like (it seems like others do). If you have no idea who this dude is and it’s your first time wading into one of his books (like me), I wish you the best of luck.

★★☆☆☆

Book Review: One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs

“I think this is scarier than the Cuban missile crisis,” said my mom, as we recently chatted on the phone about the current events in Europe and the lack of response by the West due to the threat of nuclear war.

That seemed a bit extraordinary  — but then again, I realized how little I knew of the Cuban missile crisis. Sure, President Kennedy seemingly went “eyeball-to-eyeball” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 and the world was this close (*makes pinching motion*) to nuclear armageddon. The Soviet Union eventually blinked and the world breathed a sigh of relief.

I’m always one to dig into history, and given the relevancy to current events, I decided to find the best book I could about this topic.

Oh, wow. This was a doozy.

It’s an hour-by-hour account of those stressful 13 days in October of 1962, switching between Washington DC, Moscow, and everywhere in between.

It’s surprising how close we actually were to war.

Kennedy agonized over whether to invade Cuba to remove the missiles, knowing that Russia would probably respond in kind in Europe. He had to balance the more hawkish elements of his cabinet (those who favored immediate airstrikes) with more diplomatic suggestions (remove nuclear missiles from Turkey and seemingly backstab a NATO ally).

A number of mistakes and miscommunication along the way didn’t help:

  • A U2 on a reconnoissance mission over Cuba was shot down by a Russian SAM site and the American pilot was killed. A highly ranked supervisor was off duty, so subordinates took it upon themselves to shoot down the plane, believing it to be part of an imminent attack on Cuba.
  • At the same time, a U2 on a high-altitude air sampling mission over the North Pole got lost, due to the aurora borealis (and being unable to properly sight stars for navigation), and ended up over Russia. Miraculously, the U2 made it back to Alaska (just barely). Russian fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane. American fighter jets were also scrambled to escort the plane and defend it, if needed. The kicker: the fighter jets were armed with nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles and the pilots had ultimate authority on whether or not to use them. Fortunately, the Soviet fighter jets had returned to base by the time the American planes met up.
  • A Russian submarine that was being chased and harassed by American naval forces (who were dropping practice depth charges and grenades into the water) couldn’t surface at appropriate times to get the latest communications from Moscow. The captain of the sub feared that World War 3 could have already begun and they didn’t know it. The kicker: the sub was equipped with a nuclear-tipped torpedo that the captain had authority to fire if they felt they were in mortal danger.
  • NORAD reported an (erroneous) missile launch reading from Cuba that was headed toward Florida. By the time military officials realized it was a false alarm due to a configuration issue, the “missile” would have already landed.

Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamarama, was later asked how we managed to survive and avoid a nuclear war:

Luck. Luck was a factor. I think, in hindsight, it was the best-managed geopolitical crisis of the post-World War II period, beyond any question. But we were also lucky. And in the end, I think two political leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were wise. Each of them moved in ways that reduced the risk of confrontation. But events were slipping out of their control, and it was just luck that they finally acted before they lost control, and before East and West were involved in nuclear war that would have led to destruction of nations. It was that close.

May we always be as lucky.

Debugging problems as of late

I’ve been trying to fix a particularly tricky bug lately that only ever manifests itself in our production environments. So, I’m unable to reproduce it on my local machine. It’s been fun. Let me tell you…

I’ve been stuck somewhere between stage 4 and stage 6 for weeks now.

Covidechella

Our town does something roughly once a month called Covidchella. Tons of musicians jamming in front of houses on every block.

Walking out the front door, you just hear a cacophony of music drifting through the air. It is awesome. ❤️

Book Review: The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

Edit: I wrote this on the morning of March 25th. Later that day, we find out news that Foo Fighters drummer, Taylor Hawkins, died while on tour with the band in Colombia.

An excerpt from the book on the fast friendship between Taylor and Dave:

“Taylor and I had become practically inseparable since he had joined the band the year before, becoming devious partners in crime from day one. During his stint as Alanis Morissette’s drummer, long before he became a Foo Fighter, we would bump into each other backstage at festivals all over the world, and our chemistry was so obvious that even Alanis herself once asked him, “What are you going to do when Dave asks you to be his drummer?” Part Beavis and Butthead, part Dumb and Dumber, we were a hyperactive blur of Parliament Lights and air drumming wherever we went…”

—-

One way to know I’m getting old is that I’m reading (and enjoying!) all sorts of biographies. Some of the more recent ones I’ve read are about Bad Religion and Kurt Cobain. There’s something especially fascinating about sitting down and learning about the people who shaped the soundtrack to my adolescent life.

Anyway, The Storyteller by Dave Grohl has been on my to-read list for a bit now. He’s always seemed like such a character and though I don’t consider them one of my favorites, I’ve definitely enjoyed listening to the Foo Fighters over the years.

His story seems so improbable. (Interestingly, I said the same thing after reading Heavier than Heaven: “Also, after reading this, I think it’s incredible and seemingly improbable that Nirvana actually happened.”)

How did this guy go from a scrawny, goofy high school dropout who was just bashing on the drums for Scream (and then onto Nirvana) to fronting a mega rock band, collaborating with some of the biggest names in music, appearing / performing at countless awards shows, the White House and appearing on Saturday Night Live more than any other musician?

Luck, being in the right place at the right time, and raw tenacity. Plus, being open to whatever the universe throws at him and always up for going along for the ride.

He reflects on his life as he’s gotten older:

“Sometimes I forget that I’ve aged. My head and my heart seem to play this cruel trick on me, deceiving me with the false illusion of youth by greeting the world every day through the idealistic, mischievous eyes of a rebellious child finding happiness and appreciation in the most basic, simple things.”

Aye, I hear that!

He writes about how much music affected and shaped his life and it’s so true. How he spent countless hours practicing guitar and drums by playing along to his favorite bands. I can relate — I remember looping songs over and over again so I could try to nail certain guitar riffs and trying to imagine the slightest bit of what it would be like to be a rock star.

The book is a quick read and I found myself wanting more details about every aspect of his life. But I found myself laughing out loud at a number of parts, and nodding my head in agreement in others (the passages he writes on being a dad and how much his daughters mean to him got me good).

Anyway, if you appreciate Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters, or rock music in general, you’ll probably dig this.

Book Review: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

Bloodlands cover

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, I found myself glued to Twitter, reading updates and reactions. As the war ground on and Russia increasingly attacked and destroyed civilian infrastructure and lives, I saw various people mention an informative book that details some of the struggles Ukrainians (and Poles and Belarusians) have endured over the last 100 years due to murderous policies of both Germany and Russia and the geographical location between these two countries.

How do you realistically review a book like this? You really can’t. It’s an insightful and depressing look at humans at our worst. When discussing the horrors of World War II, we often think about the raw numbers of dead — 14 million people explicitly murdered between 1933 and 1945.

It’s a number that is so huge that it makes no sense and it’s impossible to understand. How could something like that happen?

This book explains how. In excruciating detail, it dives into the famines induced by Stalin’s collectivization of farms, which caused the starvation of 3 million Ukrainians.

It examines Stalin’s Great Terror (700,000 victims in 1937 and 1938, many of Polish ancestry) and the killing quotas Moscow imposed.

The killing and imprisonment quotas were officially called “limits,” though everyone involved knew that they were meant to be exceeded. Local NKVD officers had to explain why they could not meet a “limit,” and were encouraged to exceed them. No NKVD officer wished to be seen as lacking élan when confronting “counter-revolution,” especially when Yezhov’s line was “better too far than not far enough.” Not 79,950 but five times as many people would be shot in the kulak action. By the end of 1938, the NKVD had executed some 386,798 Soviet citizens in fulfillment of Order 00447.

It explains how German armies marched through towns, rounding up Jews to murder.

…then they lined up the prisoners against a wall at the bank of the Vistula River and shot them. Those who tried to escape by jumping into the river were shot—as the one survivor remembered, like ducks. Some three hundred people died.

…in one case a hundred civilians were assembled to be shot because someone had fired a gun. It turned out that the gun had been fired by a German soldier.

…in Dynów, some two hundred Jews were machine-gunned one night in mid-September.

…then they drove several hundred more Jews into the synagogue and set it on fire, shooting those who tried to escape.

And on, and on, and on.

From front to back, this book is just a sea of destruction and despair. But it’s important history to know and remember.

A salient point this book makes that equally applies to current events as we see endless news of Ukrainians being murdered, and cities and homes destroyed:

“Jewish resistance in Warsaw was not only about the dignity of the Jews but about the dignity of humanity as such, including those of the Poles, the British, the Americans, the Soviets: of everyone who could have done more, and instead did less.”

Slava Ukraini.