Book Review: Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic by John Steinbeck written in 1939 about the great depression and a Oklahoma family who lost their farm and packed everything up to try to make a new life for themselves in California.

I’m sure I read the novel in high school or at some point, but don’t really remember, definitely do not remember the magnitude of despair nor the strength of the family. It’s almost a shame that such great books are “wasted” as assigned reading to teenagers. I would almost reverse it and let the kids read fun horror and sci-fi that they might enjoy and cultivate a love for reading; leaving the classics for when they get old.

The Grapes of Wrath is a pretty amazing story, especially reading it in today’s climate with so many people feeling forgotten and cast aside. The book is over 75 years old and the human struggle still resonates today. Even with all the struggles, it gives a small bit of encouragement that conditions are improving, systems are in place to help, fewer people are starving, baby mortality rates are improved, life expectancy is longer.

The people in flight from the terror behind—strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.

I always remembered the story as the families needed to move because of the dust storms and the inability to farm. However, it is a bit more nuanced, yes the family goes through a few bad seasons which require them to take a loan. Once the loan is started they end up falling behind and unable to pay it back; finally losing the farm to the bank. The banks repossess the family farms, displacing the families, and use new tractors to manage the expansive farmlands with minimal workers. A similar story of innovation and progress displacing laborers, and the greed and corruption of power.

If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ’cause he feels awful poor inside hisself

Steinbeck does a wonderful job capturing the family, the emotions, the power of human spirit and strength for them to keep going on. He writes in the dialect o the family which at times can be tricky to read, but captures their essence well.

It is an amazing story of America, the good and the bad.

Length: 464 pages
Reading time: 15 days

Esperanto

Esperanto is a constructed language. It was created in 1887 by a Polish-Jewish doctor L.L. Zamenhof as an easy language to learn. His goal was to foster harmony between people from different cultures and countries; a lingua franca for the world.

“The place where I was born … the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. … the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.”

L.L. Zamenhof, in a letter to Nikolai Borovko, ca. 1895

Esperanto will likely not reach the lofty goal Zamenhof had to unite humanity, though you have to applaud anyone who tries. The current estimate is 2 million Esperanto speakers worldwide of varying capabilities. Surprisingly, there are around 1,000 households who speak Esperanto as their first language, even though it is not even an official secondary language in any country.

So why take the effort to study and learn Esperanto. Some say learning Esperanto helps train your brain for acquiring other more complicated languages, priming the pump so to speak. I’m not sure how much credence I give that theory, though it did refresh my grammar terms and helped me understand language construct.

I just find it interesting to study a fully constructed language. How would you construct a language from scratch? What rules do you make so it is easy to learn, easy to speak, and fits into an existing world?

Esperanto rules include: all conjugation is removed, so verbs do not change based on plurality, or gender. There is no gender grammar rules in Esperanto. You can easily follow these simple sentences. Pronouns have the suffix -i and the suffix -n is added for objects of a sentence.

Mi amas ŝin.  I love her.
Ŝi amas min.  She loves me.

All nouns end with the suffix -o and follow the same rule with the suffix -n added if it is an object.

Li vidas gitaron.        He plays a guitar.
La gitaro estas granda.  The guitar is big.

As you can see above, adjectives end with the suffix -a and you can notice all present tense verbs end in -as.

English: I am He is We are
Esperanto: Mi estas Li estas Ni estas

The vowel letters in the Esperanto alphabet are the same word as their sound. The letter “e” does not make the sound “eh”. The letter and sound are the same. I really noticed this as my daughters are learning to read, having to learn the name of the letter and the sound. The consonants are similar, the letters and sound are the same but letters include the -o suffix.

Two other suffix endings are -j for plurals, and -e for adverbs.

La aŭto estas rapida.    The car is fast.
La aŭtoj estas rapidaj.  The cars are fast.
Mi legas malrapide.      I am reading slowly.
Ŝi legas rapide.         She is reading quickly.

You can see in the above example how the same word root (rapid) can be used in multiple different ways just by changing the prefix or suffix. Here are a few resources to learn more about Esperanto:

And if you really want a lofty goal, La Hobito, aŭ, Tien kaj Reen: The Hobbit in Esperanto.

Podcasts, Authenticity and Old Media

Modern times seem to opt more for authenticity and rejecting the overly refined, polished, and fake. You see this in the popularity of Reality TV and social media, both have the appeal of non-scripted and authentic content.

I also see this desire in podcasts. I’m a bit of a podcast junkie, I’ve been listening for years on my runs, walking the dog, and previously when I commuted to work. My favorite podcast once was This American Life, a highly polished professional podcast. Now, I’m less interested and even took it out of my rotation entirely.

I’d rather listen to Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell, equally high production value, but Malcolm interjects with his own opinions and personality. His podcast feels a lot more real and authentic and less formulaic.

An even better example is Bill Simmons whose podcasts are more off the cuff, filled with swearing, his buddies, and more just hanging out with him then a professional broadcast. They are great to listen to, he conducts better interviews of athletes with real questions and answers you would never get from a “professional” organization like ESPN or Fox Sports. Listen to his interviews with Kevin Durant, networks would never get that real.

To illustrate the point, ESPN just suspended one of their stars for saying something barely controversial. Oh, they are also the network that fired Bill Simmons for speaking his mind.

Another podcast example, the interview podcasts WTF Podcast with Marc Maron, a more casual podcast that takes place in his garage outranks the long running NPR podcast Fresh Air with Terry Gross and all its formality.

The last example, NPR’s daily news summary podcast Up First has the intent as a short quick catch up with the day’s news. They fall victim to the same overly formal formulas. They start each podcast by giving an intro and outline of the news summary they are going to tell you. For pete’s sake, just jump right into it.

Also, for the love of god, please stop the format of two reporters asking each other incredulous questions. It’s just weird fake conversation.

Here’s a sample:

Beginning intro to the podcast

“More protests in the NFL, Donald Trump weighs in on what he thinks should happen”

Reporter #1: “There are more protests happening in the NFL this week. Now with more on the story, we go to Reporter #2. Reporter #2, so what is going on there?”

Reporter #2: “That’s right, there are more protests happening in the NFL this week. Even Donald Trump weighs in on what he thinks should happen”

(Plays soundbite of Donald Trump )

FFS, you could just play the Donald Trump soundbite and everyone would get what’s going on.

This is one of the reason old media suffers, they are repetitive and boring. Most of it is filler from an age when they were people’s only source of information, so they include every detail and not assume anyone has heard anything before. Now, I can get the original video they are reporting on faster than it is even reported.

I remember when to get a sports score I had to turn on ESPN’s Sportscenter and wait for the crawl on the bottom, or for them to cover the game. Those days are long gone, you need to provide something fresh or people will tune you out, which is happening. How about an authentic person who can speak their mind? People seem to like that.

On Social Media

Unfortunately there is no better way to publish photos, writing, or other personal content without using social media. The corollary is also true, there is no better way to follow content from someone you are interested in than using social media.

The open web and RSS were not successful enough to escape out of the tech crowd in the way Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have. I’m a firm believer in owning and controlling your own content. However, even if I publish all my content on my own personal sites, which I do, no one will see them unless I syndicate them out.

I try to use Twitter as a glorified RSS reader, both as a means of publishing links back to my content and viewing others. The problem is Twitter is also a communication platform, filled with all the problems of the internet like nowhere else. It is rarely an enjoyable place to visit, so I find myself doing it less and less and less.

Instagram is quite a bit better staying out of the gutter, especially if you take the effort to cull your follow list to quality people. However, a few things happen on Instagram:

  1. It feels that everyone tries to stay consistent and “on brand” because that is supposedly the best way to build your followers, so everything gets stale. After browsing Instagram over a period of time, it just feels like seeing all the same stuff over and over again.
  2. This may be related to above, but the recent feed changes away from chronological order make me feel like I’m always missing stuff. It removes any sense of timeliness which is especially profound on posts that are around events. It’s confusing to see things out of order. Plus, in trying to be smart it is showing me more content from people I interact with, and less from others I follow, which only reinforces that I won’t see all the content from who I follow.
  3. Instagram has tremendous lock-in which as a photographer I quite dislike. You are locked into their format, limited links, no control over presentation and how sets are delivered. I find myself thinking how do I transform my work so it looks good on Instagram, which is not the same as how do I make the best work I can.

Unfortunately, there is not much choice. Instagram has the biggest and most engaging audience, particularly for photography. If I post to Instagram I’ll get a dozen likes and a few comments – more if it’s a popular cliche shot. If I post the same content on my personal blog, I’ll be lucky to get a few views and maybe a like or two, definitely no comments.

Likes and comments aren’t all that important, though the platforms really suck you into the popularity content aspect. I’m not posting for the popularity, but as a means of sharing and connecting to other. There are numerous family and friends I want to share my photos with who wouldn’t see them otherwise.

This is the great catch-22 of social media. It is hard to live with, and living without just leads to isolating from other’s work and obscurity for your own.

Book Review: Little Brother

After a major terrorist attack hits San Francisco, the government creates an Orwellian surveillance society, a techno-savvy teenager rebels back — a geek focused coming of age story.

The author, Cory Doctorow, is quite knowledgeable and explains technology well. Even though the story was written almost 10 years ago, the technology topics still hold up. It would be a slightly different story written in our post-Snowden, smart phones everywhere world, but not that different.

The book is realistic, though a bit over the top with the author taking the themes of surveillance, freedom, and rights to the extreme to make his points. They are important and good discussions.

I quite enjoyed the book, it is filled with good action and an interesting story; it was a pretty quick read, I ended up staying up late a couple nights to finish it. I would definitely recommend, especially for software engineers and open source fans.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is released under creative-commons and available for free download in numerous formats. You can still purchase from Amazon to support the author.

Length: 387 pages
Reading time: 2 days

 

Book Review: Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc is an excellent book for both the history of Pixar, and the business lessons managing creative teams and people.

First off, I’m biased. I love Pixar. I love their movies. I’ve watched several behind-the-scenes and making of movies about Pixar. I was even lucky enough to get a tour of their campus. So I’m predisposed to liking something about them. With that said, even if you do not like Pixar but are interested in business organization & management there is still quite a bit to get out of Creativity, Inc.

The book covers the CEO Ed Catmull career at Pixar from the beginning of starting the company, to selling it and taking over Disney Animation. He discusses the numerous challenges they faced along the way and packages them up into thoughtful management advice.

Here are a handful of quotable quotes from the book to give a sense of its content:

“Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they’ll get the ideas right.”

“When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today.”

“Many managers feel that if they are not notified about problems before others are or if they are surprised in a meeting, then it is a sign of disrespect. Get over it.”

“The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal — it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.”

“Excellence, quality, and good should be earned words, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.”

Length: 370 pages
Reading Time: 8 days

Week #26, 2017

Design

Engineering

Photography