Strange Rituals

Every day, at hundreds of thousands of software development companies across the world, a number of bizarre and secret rituals take place. Outsiders are rarely told of these obscure practises, because they'd fall over laughing once they realised their legs weren't being pulled.

Supplicants ritually stand up from their chairs, huddle together and intone unenthusiastically what they did yesterday, and what they're going to do today. The master of this ceremony will then ask, seriously, "is anyone blocked?", and all bring the benediction to an end by saying the word "no". Everyone sits down again.

Elsewhere, groups of developers shuffle determinedly into inquisitions that often run for hours. Here, the master will read out a particular piece of scripture, and all present must divine the difficulty of said reading in esoteric "story points", which bear little relation to the ordinary integers that you or I might now. But should one of the supplicants guess wrongly, either too high or too low, they are subjected to rigorous questioning on their heresy, and will often recant their guess to match the orthodox guess. From these guesses, the priests will be able to foretell the work of the coming fortnight.

Elsewhere, ordinary index cards will be solemnly moved between squares inscribed on a wall. Everything here has meaning - the position of their cards, and even their colour. Coloured stickers are sometimes placed on the cards, themselves rich with further meaning to the initiated. 

I am, of course, exaggerating the above, but not by a whole lot. 

The Books I Read in 2017

1. AskGaryVee - Gary Vaynerchuk - The more I think about business, the more I think that marketing is perhaps the most important of all the disciplines. So this year, I resolved to read more books about that, starting with this one. Vaynerchuk has assembled and tidied up a content from his YouTube videos, but there is enough wisdom here to be worth the price of admission. Perhaps most importantly, one is reminded of the need to "hustle" - just to do the damn work, and do it harder than anyone else.

2. Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood - Living in Berlin, I have something of a fascination of the history of this city, which is both visible and hidden everywhere. The time before the Nazis were in full control particularly fascinates me, because that descent from the decadent, theatrical creative Berlin of the 1920s to the streets of rubble in 1945. The threatening shadow of the Nazis hangs over Christopher Isherwood's robust and vibrant characters, and his description of a time long past.

The Coming Storm

Tomorrow I am going to England. In a few weeks I shall return, but only to pick up my things, before leaving Berlin altogether.

Poor Frl. Schroeder is inconsolable: “I shall never find another gentleman like you, Herr Issyvoo - always so punctual with the rent ... I’m sure I don’t know what makes you want to leave Berlin all of a sudden, like this...”

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about “Der Führer” to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the election last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whichever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
— "Goodbyte to Berlin" by Christopher Isherwood

The Books I Read in 2016

(This post will be updated throughout the year, so check back often.)

Last year, I set myself the goal of reading 52 books in the 52 weeks of the year. That didn't quite happen - I only made it to 22. But no matter. I'm going to try again this year, and hopefully get closer to the goal of 52.

But this year, I'm adding a twist. Not by design, but all the books I read in 2015 were written by men. Every last one. And it seems, I'm not getting a particularly balanced view of the world. So in 2016, I've decided to only read books written by women. Even so far, it's proved challenging - browsing in Foyles, I was shocked at just how big a portion of their stock was written by men. It took significant time to find 5 books, written by women, that I wanted to read.

1. Hard Work - Polly Toynbee. I've not been too much of a fan of Polly Toynbee, finding her middle-class support of UK Labour as some sort of progressive force rather awful. But this book was something else, it was rolled-gold journalism. I thought I had some insight into the lives of the working poor in the UK, but I understood nothing. Those massive council estates you see, mostly filled with people who work at the most appalling jobs for wages that are unfit for a first-world country, and dealing with a Kafkaesque social benefits system. I doubt things have improved since 2003, when Toynbee wrote this.

2. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimanda Ngozi Adiechie. If there was a time and place so far removed from my current existence as to be completely unknowable to me, then the Republic of Biafra, the short lived secessionist state of the Igbo people of Nigeria during the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, would have to be it. Half of a Yellow Sun recalled Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, another book where the relentless cruelty of circumstance takes almost everything away, as it does from the four characters we follow through the breakdown of society and the terror of war.

3. Smile or Die - Barbara Ehrenreich. I admit to having a perverse interest in the architecture of kookery that surrounds the idiots who preach the Law of Attraction - the foolish idea that one can "manifest" material desires by simply thinking about them. Where Ehrenreich takes on this industry of nonsense was pleasing to me, but on the whole, the book felt a bit empty, as though I'd read all the things in it before. It's well-travelled ground, so maybe I had.

4. Strange Weather in Tokyo - Hiromi Kawakami. A love story, though an unusual and poignant one, between Tsukiko, a 30-something woman, and one of her high school teachers, Sensei, who she meets in a Tokyo bar long after she had graduated. Slowly, they bond, and finally fall in love. This was a delicate book, written with light words, and subtle themes, but rich in images and ultimately very rewarding.

5. Indonesia, Etc - Elizabeth Pisani - I have to admit, I picked this book because I liked the cover art, and because I had some vague interest in learning about Indonesia, that massive country so near to Australia, and one which I've briefly travelled in. And what I saw of Bali, and the few big cities of Java was very different to the diverse and far-flung parts of Indonesia tourists like me never visit. It was a pleasure to learn more about these places, and the social and historical context of them, and it made me see Indonesia in a different way.

6. Françoise Sagan - Bonjour Tristesse

7. Nawal El-Sadawi - Woman at Point Zero - This is a short book, but one that burns with anger at injustice, at violence and at abuse. It is, in a perverse way, also empowering: Firdaus, the titular woman, is finally only able to smash the men who control her and torture her through violence, but only at the cost of her own life. 

8. Lisa Hilton - Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince

The Books I Read in 2015

I'd originally set myself a goal of reading one book per week this year, but only completed 22 - though I am in the middle of reading Raoul Vaneigem's "The Revolution of Everyday Life" (phiosophical gems amongst somewhat hard going) and Avishai Margalit's "The Decent Society" (clear and thought-provoking). In the order I read them, with some notes:

1. The Road - Cormac McCarthy. A bleak, bitter portrait of two humans in a burnt-out, desolate and cruel land. Others have called the ending wrenching and draining, but to me it seemed apt - the final extinguishment of hope in a hopeless world.

2. The Republic - Plato. Penguin has just released a new translation of this, by Christopher Rowe, and I found it made this foundational work of western philosophy leap off the page. Astonishing that ideas written over 2,000 years ago can still have currency.

3. How to Find Fulfilling Work - Roman Krznaric. I read this when I was pissed off at my job. I recall it seeming interesting at the time, but when I write this months later, nothing really sticks in my mind.

4. Antifragile - Nicholas Nassim Taleb. Along with The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, this forms part of Taleb's "Incerto", which has rightfully reconfigured a lot of thinking about probability and risk. Antifragile looks at the response of systems - economic, biological and technical to risk and stress, and has changed my thinking about the world. This is probably the only book in this list I will re-read.

5. For Whom The Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway. Months later, I still recall the vivid characterisations - particularly the women. And the ending. A monument to the futility and cruelty of war.

6. In Defence of Food - Michael Pollan. Maybe this book would seem more radical in the United States, that land of florescent orange cheese and unrecognisable processed meat products. To anyone who eats decent meat and decent vegetables that they cook themselves, it will confirm but not surprise.

7. Nagasaki - Eric Hayes. A slim, but powerful novel that comments on the ever-growing loneliness of society - particularly in Japan. Depressing, but necessary.

8. Empire of Illusion - Chris Hayes. This book really impressed me - it's a series of essays about America, focussing on the surreal, the corrupt and the violent. The one that really stands out is the chapter where he carefully and convincingly draws out the violence now ubiquitous in pornography.

9. The Black Swan - Nicholas Nassim Taleb. You don't know what you don't know. And unless you know that, you may find yourself at mercy of a black swan: events that fall far outside the ability to foresee them and models to predict them, with consequences - both good and bad - to match.

10. Utopia of Rules - David Graeber. Graeber is probably one of the most interesting voices in the world today. One might associate bureaucracy with socialist governments and Terry Gilliam films, but Graeber shows that it is a product of capitalist governments and corporations as well. Why do we have all these rules, and who do they serve?

11. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde. Come to think of it, this might explain why some of my friends never seem to age. I found it most interesting to read for the implicit references to homosexuality, which seem to form a part of Dorian's tortured and cruel soul.

12. Platform - Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is the literary equivalent of fast food - nasty, greasy, bad for you, but sometimes it just tastes so good. Depravity, misanthropy, cynicism and even a hint of racism.

13. Explore Everything - Bradley Garrett. This was, I think, the standout book I've read this year. A magisterial treatment of urban exploration, with a mix of tense recounting of actual infiltrations and perspicacious philosophical discussions of the nature of private and public space. 

14. The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger - I'd read this in high school 20-odd years ago, so decided to read it again. Holden Caulfield is still a knob.

15. The Lucky Country - Donald Horne - For a book written more than 30 years ago, it is breath-taking how relevant it is to modern-day Australia. Horne has found some of the essence of Australia, as a fundamentally good country that has succeeded less through effort and skill, and more through luck.

16. Zero to One - Peter Thiel - There is a view, that I share, that capitalism as now practised is tending towards a system of rent-seeking and wealth-concentration, rather than a system of innovation and wealth-creation, as imagined by Schumpeter (and, for that matter, Marx). So it was refreshing to see a venture capitalist put forward ideas for the second type of capitalism.

17. Siddhartha - Herman Hesse. A beautiful, short book, rich in images and meaning. A reminder that intellectual pursuits aren't everything, and sometimes you need to simply experience the world.

18. Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes. In 2011, Hitler suddenly reappears in modern-day Berlin, and - of course - becomes a YouTube sensation. Fantastically written, with a number of brave and trenchant jokes that had me laughing out loud.

19. Affluenza - Oliver James. Imagine that materialism and sociopathy is some sort of virus, and our societies infect us with it, causing us to be unhappy even as we're richer than ever. Not a bad idea, but James ruins it by his stretched and tortured virus metaphor, and the digressions into neo-Freudian psycho analysis make this book downright weird. A waste of time.

20. Mammon's Kingdom - David Marquand. The United Kingdom fascinates me, as a country I've lived in, and the country perhaps furthest along the road of capitalism. Marquand is deeply concerned, giving a portrait of "a society sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism". I'm not sure he was that effective, as I can not remember much of what he said even a few months later. Something is wrong in the UK, but this isn't it.

21. Consolations of the Forest - Sylvain Tesson. Now this was fantastic, even more so because it was true. Sylvain Tesson, a French writer, goes to spend 6 months in a cabin in the Siberian taiga, a sort of modern-day Thoreau with crates of vodka. Pithy, rough and I think revealing of some of the substance of life.

22. The Martian - Andy Weir. A bit of light sci-fi to round out the year, and a thoroughly enjoyable bit at that. I like sci-fi like this, where every last bit rings technically true, and I don't have to suspend my disbelief at all. Tense, realistic and funny.