Monthly Archives: December 2019

Looking back

Towards the end of February, I realized that until that moment, I had read more than a book per week on average in 2019. I had heard about people reading a book per week and always thought it was impossible, but I decided that I would start tracking the books that I read and see how far I would come.
In March, while thinking about a structural solution to the ever-returning question of ‘what to blog about’, I decided to write about the books that I read. This had the added benefit of making what I learned from the books stick.
I’ll throw in the spoiler right here: I read 60 books this year and while I’m proud of the number, it didn’t feel like hard work at all. Reading makes me happy. I feel more relaxed after reading for an hour than I do after watching TV for an hour. Watching TV is the only thing I stopped doing to free up time for reading. I didn’t have to put everything else in my life on hold. It’s almost the opposite. There were several other “projects” that made 2019 a great year.

I started to learn to play the piano in February. As a teenager, I’d had guitar lessons for several years, but I never felt in any way competent or confident playing the guitar and gave up on it eventually. Since falling in love with Tim Minchin and his work and hearing him talk about how much he loves playing the piano I had been tempted to try playing the piano myself. Not to become famous or even ever play in front of an audience. Just for me. In February I made the decision to start small and sensible by renting an electric piano for 6 months.
I had one lesson but unfortunately, the piano teacher’s schedule didn’t align with my (pretty rigid) work schedule. Thankfully I got some good tips, the most impactful being the recommendation of the SimplyPiano app. It’s flexible and easy to use and as the app only uses positive reinforcement it’s also stress-free. The app allows you to play songs pretty much right away and it’s easy to track progress. In August, after 6 months with the rental piano, I decided that I liked (loved) it enough to buy my own piano. I will never be a concert pianist, but I absolutely love playing and I make enough progress to keep me interested (hooked).

In June I agreed to run the 16km “Dam tot Dam” run on September 22nd as part of a team from work. Anyone knowing me a little bit will realize that when entering a race, I don’t just want to finish it, I want to do well. Not to win it, but to run a decent time. I increased my running schedule significantly over the summer to get from my usual 10km to 16km at a decent pace. A bad cold just a few weeks before the race threw me back a bit, but I was able to finish in a decent 1:26:56.

In November I spent most of the month traveling to see Tim Minchin perform in the UK 5 times in 3 different places. I’ve been a big fan of Tim for 4 years, but as he hadn’t toured for 8 years, I hadn’t seen a full live show from him. It was a brilliant, crazy, and ok, somewhat tiring month.

While my reading wasn’t materially impacted by my other adventures, writing a blog post per week has proven to be challenging. Writing a post takes me between 3 and 6 hours. That’s almost a full weekend day. Towards the end of the year, I couldn’t find the self-discipline and motivation to invest that much time every weekend. Overall, I wrote 34 book-related posts since the beginning of March, which I’m happy with.
I’ve also learned that there are some books that don’t have a blog post in them for me. They can be great reads but might just not have enough background story to warrant a complete post. This mostly happens with fiction, as I don’t want to give away any spoilers beyond the basic premises of the book. It has made me decide not to write about books if I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about them. The best examples of this are Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle books. I’ve written about a couple of them and I feel I’ve said everything there is to say about the series. I heartily recommend reading them, both the author and the protagonist are bad-ass women, but I won’t be writing about them anymore.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the full list of the books that I’ve read and the blogs I wrote about them. Having read this much I felt I should also list my top picks for this year. I liked most of the books that I read, but these stood out for one reason or another. My top has turned out to be a top 4 and it’s a 50/50 split between fiction and non-fiction.

  • Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller and the best story that I’ve read from him so far is The Graveyard Book. It’s tense and emotional and uplifting and heart-breaking. It’s beautiful and I wish I could read it for the first time again.
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman has been mentioned in at least half of the other non-fiction books that I’ve read this year. It explains why humans behave the way we do. Perhaps if more people read it and understood the implications it would mean we could start thinking a bit more again and shout a bit less.
  • The Alice Network by Kate Quinn is based on a real-life story and evokes all the emotions. All the protagonists are women and I still can’t believe how brave these women were. Absolutely stunning.
  • Caroline Criado Perez is also a bad-ass woman for writing Invisible Women. This book talks about several situations and places where women are structurally neglected or simply forgotten about. It’s a bit of a depressing, but very important read. And if reading it pulled me down, I can’t imagine how Criado Perez felt while writing it, but we should all be grateful that she did.

I intend to continue reading at approximately the same pace next year. I’m enjoying it and it makes me feel good, so there is no reason not to. On top of that, there is always a list of books that I want to read. More books get added to the list all the time. At the moment the list is 15 books long, but I’m always looking for new ideas, so if you have a book recommendation please let me know what it is.
For now, the plan is to write (and publish) a blog post every two weeks. This will allow me to be a bit more selective when deciding what books I want to write about and it means I can spread the writing effort a bit.

First things first, though. I hope that you have a great New Year’s Eve and I’m wishing you a happy and healthy 2020. I’m looking forward to more books, friendships, music, travel, and beauty when you least expect it.

#

Title

Author

Blog

1

Start with Why

Simon Sinek

2

The Fault in our Stars

John Green

3

The Psychology of Time Travel

Kate Mascarenhas

4

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

5

Homo Deus

Yuval Noah Harari

6

Becoming

Michelle Obama

7

Drive

Daniel H. Pink

8

Creativity Inc.

Ed Catmull

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/30/creativity-inc/

9

Deadline

Stella Rimington

10

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams

11

Maybe This Time

Jill Mansell

12

Onbehagen

Bas Heijne

13

On Writing

Stephen King

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/09/on-writing-writing-advice-from-stephen-king/

14

Thinking Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/04/thinking-fast-and-slow/

15

Present Danger

Stella Rimington

16

Life, The Universe and Everything

Douglas Adams

17

Kern = King

Marco Frijhoff

18

The Power of Habit: why we do what we do, and how to change

Charles Duhigg

19

Milkman

Anna Burns

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/16/milkman/

20

Macbeth

Shakespeare

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/14/macbeth/

21

Good Omens

Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/03/23/good-omens/

22

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

Francis Wheen

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/07/how-mumbo-jumbo-conquered-the-world/

23

The Secret River

Kate Grenville

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/21/the-secret-river-how-a-lack-of-understanding-can-lead-to-a-disaster/

24

Rip Tide

Stella Rimington

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/04/28/rip-tide/

25

Thinking Ahead

Dirk Helbing

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/05/thinking-ahead/

26

The Happiness of Pursuit

Chris Guillebeau

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/12/the-happiness-of-pursuit/

27

Emilia

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/19/emilia/

28

Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/01/midnights-children/

29

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/05/26/good-night-stories-for-rebel-girls/

30

Singing in the Brain

Erik Scherder

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/09/singing-in-the-brain/

31

Taking the Work out of Networking

Karen Wickre

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/15/taking-the-work-out-of-networking/

32

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Douglas Adams

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/22/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish/

33

Women in Tech

Tarah Wheeler

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/06/30/women-in-tech/

34

The Geneva Trap

Stella Rimington

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/06/the-geneva-trap/

35

The War for Kindness: building empathy in a fractured world

Jamil Zaki

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/14/the-war-for-kindness-building-empathy-in-a-fractured-world/

36

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Gail Honeyman

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/21/eleanor-oliphant-is-completely-fine/

37

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

Dale Carnegie & Associates

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/07/28/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-in-the-digital-age/

38

The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/04/the-taming-of-the-shrew/

39

The Alice Network

Kate Quinn

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/11/the-alice-network/

40

The Science of Storytelling

Will Storr

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/08/25/the-science-of-storytelling/

41

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/09/08/to-kill-a-mockingbird/

42

The AI Does Not Hate You

Tom Chivers

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/09/21/the-ai-does-not-hate-you/

43

Close Call

Stella Rimington

44

The Handsmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/06/the-handmaids-tale/

45

Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/13/nonviolent-communication/

46

Invisible Women

Caroline Criado Perez

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/12/15/invisible-women/

47

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Heather Morris

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/11/24/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz/

48

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/10/20/fahrenheit-451/

49

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare

50

Mostly Harmless

Douglas Adams

51

The Go-Giver Leader

Bob Burg & John David Mann

52

Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas

Adam Kay

53

Unmasked

Andrew Lloyd Webber

54

Sensemaking

Christian Madsbjerg

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/11/03/sensemaking/

55

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

Greta Thunberg

56

A View from the Cheap Seats

Neil Gaiman

57

Bluebeard

Kurt Vonnegut

58

The Monarchy of Fear

Martha C. Nussbaum

https://kalliopesjourney.com/2019/12/22/the-monarchy-of-fear/

59

Het Wit en het Purper

Willemijn van Dijk

60

Pale Blue Dot (audio book)

Carl Sagan

My piano

The Monarchy of Fear – A Philosopher Looks at our Political Crisis

Martha Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear is first and foremost a call to think. To think critically, even when it’s uncomfortable. In her own words “Even though it’s hard, it’s important to think and examine options and angles, rather than lazily jumping to conclusions and blaming minorities or women.”. If you do think critically you might think that the title suggests that the book is about fear instead of about thinking and you’d be right. Fear and thinking are closely linked in the sense that it’s hard to think clearly when you are afraid.
In evolutionary prehistory this was useful. When seeing a tiger up close, following fear’s instinctual prompting is much more useful than thinking long and hard and deep until you end up as the tiger’s dinner. In our complicated modern world, however, we can’t rely on instinct. We have to think and think critically.

There is a lot of fear in the world today and most of it is based on real problems like rising real-estate prices, increased costs of health-care and education, the climate-emergency, and the uncertainty about what the impact of AI will be on the job market and the type of work that we do.
These problems are difficult to solve. A lot of studying, modeling, and thinking is required to come up with potential solutions. Implementing these solutions will also take a long time and require that we change the way we live. Even then there is no guarantee that these solutions will indeed resolve the problems they were designed to mitigate.

With so many things to be afraid of and so few easy solutions, it’s comforting to be able to find a “bad guy” who can be blamed for it all. People have a deep-rooted need to feel that the world is just. When it doesn’t present itself in that way pinning blame and punishing the adversary feels like taking back control. When there isn’t really a person or institution to blame it seems very attractive to start “othering” groups like immigrants, religions, women, or the wealthy elites. Fear gets mixed with anger, blame and envy and makes it hard to be empathic. Fear makes us naturally asocial and narcissistic. Add all that together and you can see today’s world emerging.

Unfortunately, aggressive “othering” strategies stop people from thinking and doing useful analysis. Thinking is hard, anger and blame are easy. And they are retributive, seeking to inflict pain in return for the fear a person or group is feeling. This burning desire for payback of perceived wrongdoings is a risk for democracy.
Aristotle discussed fear in a treatise on rhetoric for politicians. In order to persuade people to do what you want, he said, you have to understand how their emotions work, and then you can tailor what you say to their own psychology. To whip up fear politicians should
• Talk about supposedly impending events that are highly significant for survival or well-being;
• Make people think it will happen soon;
• Suggest that things are out of control.
Through this recipe, fear can be manipulated by spreading false information and by phrasing impending events as unavoidable and significant threads. This knowledge can be used for good but it can, of course, also be used with bad intent. This is exactly what’s happening with companies like Cambridge Analytica, who influenced voters through social media campaigns full of lies, tailored to play into their specific fears.

To fight these tactics is hard and it requires a lot of effort and awareness from individuals. We need to all think critically and read widely. Meaning don’t just read what’s offered to you through the echo-chambers of the internet, but also actively look for other sources of reliable information. That’s not just true for “them”, but also for you and me. The echo chamber echos for everyone and adds to our confirmation bias, our natural tendency to dismiss any information that isn’t in line with our previously held beliefs.

Another way to fight the false dichotomies created by fear and misinformation is by being hopeful and spreading messages of hope. People who were able to remain empathic and hopeful in the face of fear and oppression were, for instance, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Both were able to unequivocally condemn racism without seeing racists as evil or inhumane. Even after 27 years of captivity, Mandela saw the humanity and the will to do good in his oppressors, despite their awful deeds. Most of us don’t possess this level of patience and empathy, but most of us aren’t held captive for 27 years either, so perhaps we can manage to show some empathy and kindness towards someone who is tweeting something you don’t agree with. Although never imprisoned, former president Obama is setting the right example with the most-liked tweet ever: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I feel that the topic of this book is incredibly important. The better we understand the mechanisms behind the fear and the anger and the othering, the better we can counter it. Please remember that we have to counter it with patience and love and empathy and not with more anger and othering. You might have every right to be angry about something someone else says or does, but attacking them isn’t going to convince them to change their minds. It’s only going to make them angrier. It’s incredibly difficult, but we have to try to fight anger and hate with love and empathy. Let’s try to help each other to show love and see other people’s humanity. And if you can, read The Monarchy of Fear to get a better understanding of what we’re up against.

Invisible Women

Reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez was hard. The book is about the patterns of the gender data gap. There are so many that at times reading about them made me feel small and inconsequential. Realizing that large parts of the world are not designed for you, or in some cases are even actively working against you is painful and difficult.
The gender data gap is not malicious. It is the result of a way of looking at the world and documenting it from one particular point of view: that of men. The male perspective has come to be seen as the norm, while the female perspective is seen as a niche. Even though we make up about half of the world population.

The book is filled with examples of where the gender data gap is hurting women. I urge both men and women to read this book. It will change your perspective. At least it did mine. It will also make you more vigilant, which I think is what we all need to be to get to a state where women and our bodies are no longer seen as odd or complicated. After all, we are about 50% of the world’s population.
If I were to mention all the examples in the book, I would be rewriting it. I picked some examples that seemed particularly painful to me.

Crash test dummies, used for testing how car safety and airbags, are 1,77m tall and weigh 76kg. That’s based on the average height and weight of a male body. Women are smaller and lighter on average and are much more likely to sustain serious injuries in a car crash. That’s not because we’re more likely to be involved in serious car accidents, but because cars aren’t as safe for us as they are for men.
In recent years there are some crash tests for which alternate dummies are used, but only in the passenger seat. And the alternate dummy is simply a smaller and lighter version of the male body, so it doesn’t account for having breasts for instance.
This gender data gap is costing lives.

New medicines are usually only tested on men. The reason for this is that women’s bodies might respond differently to medicine depending on their hormone levels. Levels that differ during the month. Because of this testing medicine on women is considered “too complicated”. This is ignoring the fact that once the medicine has been approved for use based on tests on male test subjects women will start using the same medicine. Women’s bodies might respond completely different to the medicine, but these reactions have never been tested.
This gender data gap is costing lives.

The average temperature in an office is based on male bodies and metabolism. It has been scientifically proven that for women to be comfortable the temperature needs to be about 5 degrees warmer. Nobody working in an office will be surprised about this. We’ve all seen men walking around in shirts and women shivering while wearing vests or while hiding under blankets. What’s remarkable is that this is mostly just made fun of and filed under “things women nag about”.

One more, then I’ll stop. Voice recognition systems are trained using large databases of voice recordings. Unfortunately, thanks to the gender data gap, these databases mostly contain male voices. This means that voice recognition systems are trained to recognize male voices. And they do!
These systems are used in more and more places, but a common use is in cars. Using voice recognition instead of using your hands and having to look at buttons or a screen allows for safer driving. Unless it doesn’t work, in which case it might be more dangerous. I’ve experienced this myself (and I have a pretty low voice for a woman). When I had picked up my new car from the garage and was driving home in it I figured I would use voice recognition to call a friend. The system didn’t understand me at all the first few attempts and eventually tried to call someone I really didn’t want to talk to. I nearly crashed trying to abort the call…
Fortunately, the leading voice technology supplier, ATX, has a solution for fixing the issues with women’s voices. According to their vice-president, what women need is “lengthy training” on how to use the voice recognition software. The fact that women aren’t willing to submit to it is their own fault.

Writing this down makes me furious all over again. Research and our surroundings all assume that the default human being is a man. Many of the tools that we use and the places that we visit have forgotten to take half of humanity into account. This is tiring and inconvenient at best but deadly at worst. These are not exceptions. As I said in my introduction, the book is filled with similar examples touching on government policies, pensions, toilets, video games, and language.

It will take a very long time to fix the gender data gap and the resulting biases because they are everywhere. As the use of algorithms increases the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. This is not an attack on men. We are wired to think that our own experiences mirror those of human beings in general. This is called projection bias. We naturally see ourselves as the center of the world, as we experience the world through our own eyes. There is no way around this. Seeing things differently is hard work. This is true for everybody. And I can imagine that this experience is magnified for white straight men, who constantly see their own experience reflected back to them by the culture in which we live.
The way to fix it is to get more women involved in the designing stage of everything. From software to buildings to policies. After all, women are less likely to forget about women.

Representation of the world