Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

The cover of the book #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso

#Girlboss

I’d never heard of Sophia Amoruso. That might be because I’ve been hiding under a rock, or it might be because I’m not the target audience of her successful webshop, Nasty Gal. I’m also not the target audience for her book, #Girlboss (hashtag included). The target audience of the book is young women (perhaps up to 30?) and girls. The target audience of the webshop is described on the site itself: “WE EXIST FOR THE “GIRL IN PROGRESS”. BADASS TO THE CORE, EVER-EVOLVING AND GROWING, STRIVING TO BE BETTER EVERY. DAMN. DAY. FLAWS ENCOURAGED.”. Caps included. I love growing and evolving, but I’ve always lacked in the badass department.

The book is about Sophia’s own journey from being completely broke and starting a little eBay shop selling vintage clothes to owning and running the multi-million dollar business that Nasty Gal is today. The book is filled with tips for girls who would like to start a company and become a “girlboss” too, but it also includes many tips on how to handle some of life’s challenges in general.
The book is a funny mix of stories about rebellion and an anti-establishment attitude and sensible and quite conservative advice.

In the book’s introduction, Sophia tells her readers to never grow up and to not become a bore. I failed miserably there and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Shortly after that inflammatory advice, Sophia explrds that are really credit cards and how forgetting about them can easily ruin your credit score, even if you only bought something small and cheap on them. She warns that you shouldn’t spend money that you don’t have. Nowadays this advice might not be uncontentious, but it’s very sensible!

Some of the advice and insights that speak to me (and admittedly make me feel righteous), as a manager of young people includes:

  • If you get to talk to customers on behalf of your company, you are the face of the company. Make sure you are polite and that you apologize on behalf of the company if something went wrong, even if it wasn’t your fault.
  • Compromise is a part of life
  • Promotions at work are earned by doing really good (and perhaps not always fun) work for years. They are earned by standing out and taking responsibility.

You could argue that she’s a hypocrite for moving between an anti-establishment attitude and promoting capitalism in the space of only a few pages. It made me smile though. Imagine going from having no responsibilities, all the time in the world and no money or worldly possessions to being a successful businesswoman, running a company that employs thousands of people and having a Porsche car and millions in the bank in only a few years. Part of her brain might still be trying to catch up with her current role and life. Throughout most of the book, this results in a fun and refreshing sort of quirkiness, that might be exactly what young girls who are looking for some inspiration can relate to.

Although the book clearly wasn’t written for me, I did find it inspiring. It gave me a little kick in the behind during the holidays to get up and do something useful with my time off (other than reading lots of books, which I do also think is useful) and it made me determined to get to the bottom of some work-related topics that I was still a bit mystified by.
The advice to not always take everything so seriously and see small challenges as a game does apply to me. It’s been given to me before and I still have no clue how to implement it. There’s always more to learn. It’s what makes me feel energized and alive.

I’ll finish this post with a statement from the book that I can fully get behind:
“Being mean won’t make you cool, being rich won’t make you cool, and having the right clothes won’t make you cool. It’s cool to be kind. It’s cool to be weird. It’s cool to be honest and to be secure with yourself. Cool is the girl at a party who strikes up a conversation with you when she notices you don’t seem to know many people there.”

Sand Talk

The first book I’ve read in 2020 is Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. Tyson is an Aboriginal person from Australia and in this book he tries to show the reader what today’s world looks like through the eyes of an Indigenous person. Tyson’s background is probably as far removed from mine as it can be.
The fact that I don’t know much about Aboriginal culture means that I lack quite a bit of basic knowledge that would have helped to place some parts of the book into context. At several points in the book, I have to work hard to keep up with the pictures that are painted (sometimes literally) and the explanations that are given. Tyson empathizes with his readers. Stating he gets frustrated when elders seem to mix mind-blowing insights with random, illogical ideas. Wildly new ideas don’t just blow a mind though, they also expand it.

Learning
Expanding your mind, or learning is fun. When new neural pathways are created our brain rewards us with a chemical burst that makes us feel good. Often when people are learning they are smiling.
Today, many people are also afraid of learning. They feel insecure and prefer to have their existing ideas echoed back at them rather than learning about other people’s experiences and points of view. Seeing as learning makes us feel good, we shouldn’t fear to learn about new ideas, we should be actively looking for them! Learning about new ideas doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your mind. You might still feel that your idea is better than the new idea, but at least try to temporarily suspend your confirmation bias to listen to and learn from others.

Stolen generation
Tyson is part of the stolen generation. In the 1920s the Australian government felt that it would be a good idea to take Aboriginal kids away from their parents and put them in white foster families. Even typing it almost makes me cry. People can be so needlessly cruel, even to innocent kids. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it doesn’t happen today, as separating refugee kids from their parents at the border isn’t any better. And in The Netherlands, the government likes to send kids who have been here all or almost all of their lives “back to where they came from”. Which is a country they don’t know anything about and where they don’t speak the language. Aaargh!
Right, sorry, I was talking about the book.

Patterns and systems
Indigenous Australian cultures think in patterns, rather than in individual and concrete events, words and objects. They feel that we shouldn’t look at individual elements of a system, but that we should always look at the system as a whole. For instance, the terrible fires in Australia and the floods are in Indonesia shouldn’t be looked at as separate, standalone situations. They are both parts of the same system, they are connected. To resolve them we need to look at the whole system. We need to work with the land and our environment, rather than against it. We’ve been trying to force it into submission for a long time, but it’s starting to hit back at us. It’s time for us to adapt and to find a more sustainable way to interact with our planet. This means that many of us will have to adjust our way of thinking and our way of living. That’s going to be hard and disruptive, but fires and flooding are even harder and more disruptive.

Narcissism
We also need to work together as people, instead of against each other. Even within our own tribes, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. This is bad for our mental health, but it also stops us from working together effectively. Aboriginal culture assumes that everybody has a bit of idiot in them from time to time. A part of you that whispers that you are special and better and more important than other people. Some people feel like this all or most of the time. Fighting this narcissism is hard and the internet and social media make it even harder. According to Tyson, the excesses of malignant narcissism need to be contained in a team effort, by all of society, working together.

Leadership
Aboriginal wisdom asserts that sustainable leadership consists of four steps: Respect, Connect, Reflect and Direct. Notice that too often we get this completely backward. Not just as individuals, but also as organizations and governments. We start with the assumption that we know better and try to Direct people, communities, or even our kids to do what we want how we want it. When that fails we might Reflect on why it’s not working (in the most positive scenario, there are plenty of examples where we just direct some more, but let’s assume we learn). We gather data and measure outcomes and figure out that we need to hear from the people we are trying to direct. We try to form relationships and Connect with those we want to tell what to do or how to behave. Through these relationships we discover the final step (which should have been the first), we find a profound Respect for those we originally felt were just pawns that we had to get to execute or support our brilliantly (in isolation) crafted plans.
Needless to say, you’re much likely to build support and sustainable relationships if you turn the steps around and start by respecting people and trying to connect with them.

The book is a very interesting read. I can relate to many of the ideas that Tyson shares in it. I’m not sure if it will be possible to get people’s mindset changed to embrace the idea of living in harmony with the land. How most of us think and live today is so radically different the change is even hard to imagine, let alone execute. This isn’t to say that I don’t think it would be a good idea. I’m just not sure if it’s possible. Where would you start if everything had to change? Colonists have tried to force their ideas and way of living onto the Indigenous people of Australia. They have been trying for a long time now and used a lot of violence and while they have significantly damaged Aboriginal lives and heritage, I don’t think they’ve managed to change Aboriginal culture. I’m not convinced it’s possible to do so the other way around either.

I tried to share some of the ideas that Tyson lays out in the book. I had to use my own words and sentences, which means that it has a completely different vibe than the book does. By doing this I did exactly what the book describes we shouldn’t be doing: I picked individual ideas and expanded on them, rather than looking at the whole system at once and look for patterns.
If you feel that the ideas are interesting then please go and read the book, so you Tyson can explain them properly and you can get a better sense of where the ideas are coming from.

Tyson Yunkaporta

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

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The tattooist of Auschwitz is the story of Lale as he told it to the author, Heather Morris. The book is very well written and so tense that at times I’m afraid to breathe. It’s hard to put down and reads pretty quickly, but not quick enough to be able to finish it without breathing.
The people in the book are all very human. Even the SS officers have their weaknesses.

Lale is a survivor, he does what he needs to do to have the best possible chance to survive the atrocities of Auschwitz. He’s careful not to hurt other prisoners, but he will not pass on an opportunity to get more food or clothes or protection for himself and his friends. You could argue that by tattooing the numbers on each new prisoner who enters either Auschwitz or Birkenau he hurts them by definition. But he figures that if he doesn’t do it someone else will and he’s probably right about that. The situation is a clear example of how hard it is to decide where you stand and how you will behave in a war. I don’t think you can know this if you haven’t been in a life or death situation. And I can imagine your decisions and behavior will change if the life or death situation lasts 3 years.

Lale falls in love with Gita in the camp. Their love lifts their spirits and the spirits of those around them. Their love is heartbreaking and empowering at the same time. It must have been very strong to be more important and more pronounced than their hunger and their fears. They take significant risks for each other. It also makes the story more bearable for the reader as it provides a glimmer of hope and occasionally even happiness.

Despite the love between Lale and Gita it’s a hard book to read. It would be easy to think this won’t happen anymore. That we won’t let one group of humans slaughter another group of humans based on one or more almost random criteria. But we know this is not true. Myanmar has rejected the citizenship of Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar security forces burn down Rohingya villages, murdering and raping the people.
In China at least 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims are being detained and tortured. Their children are often taken away from them and put into non-Uyghur families. We can pretend that ethnic cleansing is a thing from the past but its not.

Humans can be terrible people. And if we feel being terrible will allow us to be part of a tribe we would like to belong to we find it very hard not to be terrible. You don’t have to go to China or Myanmar to see this in action. I’m sure there is a social media pile-on happening as you read this. Someone who presumably said something someone didn’t like or did something they don’t understand will receive a terrifying amount of hate and threats from people they don’t know. No questions asked.

Selfishness has reached peak levels. If you are wealthy you don’t need a community to survive and many feel that they have to protect what they’ve got. Instead of helping those less fortunate than they are they fight to minimize taxes. They keep people who are in any way different at as much distance as possible. If they might get too close then perhaps bullying and threatening will scare them off. If people ask for help they are sent away, preferably to a place more horrible than the situation they originally fled.

Why do we do this to each other? Why not, if you have been lucky enough in life to have everything, share some of what you have with someone less lucky. Why not live and let live, even if people want to lead a different life than you do? It has been proven over and over again that material wealth doesn’t bring happiness (as long as you have enough to pay for all basic necessities). Helping others and bringing happiness to others is much more likely to bring happiness to you than money or possessions are. Maybe we can all just put this to the test. Who knows how much good it will do to us and the world around us.

Be kind to others, respect their opinions and preferred way of life, help people in need. Next time you feel outraged because someone is different, or doesn’t like something you like or likes something you don’t like try to take a deep breath and think about why this makes the other person a terrible person. What is it that upsets you? Can you try and put yourself in their shoes and empathize with them?

The story of the tattooist of Auschwitz is a powerful one, but it did nothing to improve my faith in humankind. This is exactly why the book is a must-read. We need to be aware of how easily we can be corrupted, so we can be vigilant.
When you finish the book you will be rewarded with the story about how the book was written, which is almost as good as the book itself and moving in its own regards.

Sensemaking – What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm

In Sensemaking Christian Madsbjerg makes a plea for the value of the humanities in a time where there’s a lot of focus on STEM-knowledge. It was recommended by Bas Heijne, a Dutch writer and thinker whose work I love. Sensemaking is defined as the practice of cultural inquiry using human intelligence to develop a sensitivity toward meaningful differences. In other words, we want to gain an understanding of other people and their worlds and experiences. What matters to them and how is this different from what matters to us? Sensemaking allows us to empathize. This is valuable from a philosophical and political point of view, but also, at a much more cynical level, from an economic point of view. It can tell us how people will vote in the next election and what type of car they are likely to buy.

The book refers regularly to the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his ideas. Heidegger argues that our reality and how we experience the world is highly contextual and historical. Most of the time we are incapable of thinking beyond our own social context. While we feel like we’re completely autonomous individuals, our thoughts and actions are heavily influenced by where and how we live and grew up.
To gain some insights into other people and their lives, we have to let go, at least a little bit, of our own biases and assumptions. The humanities are essential in teaching us how we can do this.

Science and algorithms can explain gravity and solar eclipses and they can eradicate smallpox and measles. To explain why Trump and Brexit are happening and why we are giving measles another chance we need to study people and cultures. Making sense of cultures, customs, and meanings requires a perspective, which is why it’s unlikely that algorithms will be able to figure them out. Algorithms lack a point of view and they lack empathy.
One way to build empathy is by reading. Reading shows you that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. It can be different. Reading allows us to experience other lives and other worlds than our own We get to live them in our imagination. While watching TV you’re a spectator, but reading makes you a participant.

My own journey is somewhat parallel to that of the world at large. Until I started working fulltime I was an avid reader. I read everything I could get my hands on from adventures to spy stories to historical novels. In high school, I got the opportunity to become a lighting engineer in the theatre production that we set. I loved it. I loved the magic of theatre and the combination of technology and creativity. When I went on to study electrotechnical engineering with the aim to make a career as a lighting engineer. I took a different turn and ended up in software development. For over 15 years, most of what I read had to do with technology. I told myself I didn’t have time to read books and I lost interest in them.

Working hard and gaining specific technical knowledge will serve you well up to a certain point in your career. Three years ago I moved away from software development towards a leadership role and I felt ill-equipped. I started reading books on people, culture, and behavior to fill the gap that I felt I had in terms of understanding what drives and motivates people.
For people in technical roles, we all accept that it’s necessary to continue to updates your knowledge. In the past large software platforms released new versions approximately every three years, which means that you had to refresh about 75% of your skillset every three years. Now that these large platforms are all offered as cloud services that are getting new releases at least weekly, a lot of technical specialists have to refresh their knowledge constantly.

What I find remarkable is that we seem to find it acceptable that people in leadership or sales roles for example still base their behavior on insights that were common 20 years ago. They don’t read up on the latest studies about human behavior. They feel that because they have been successful in the past there is no need to change. These are the same people who feel that the people with technical skills should always be fully up-to-date on the latest developments in the world of technology, have the latest certifications and preferably be experts in multiple technologies or skillsets to ensure that they can be staffed on as many different projects as possible. The hypocrisy blows my mind.

Maybe I felt driven to learn more about people and cultures because I was used to always studying technology and it felt unnatural to stop learning just because I moved away from technology. Maybe I was driven by my perfectionism. Perhaps it was just insecurity. Whatever it was my change in job sparked a renewed love for reading in me. I’m alternating reading fiction and non-fiction and both have helped me tremendously in getting to grips with my new role and who I wanted to be as a leader. Reading helps me to get up to date with the latest studies on human behavior, it helps me to get a better understanding of how people and cultures are changing over time and the stories and wisdom that I read about inspire me.

I full support Christian Madsbjerg’s plea for the value and importance of the humanities. We have so much data and logic at our fingertips that at times we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start seeing them as the only truth. We forget or even lose the ability to apply critical thinking. The numbers are one perspective, but it’s understanding the human circumstances that will help us to understand people’s motivations and our world. Human behavior doesn’t follow models, it’s by definition irrational and thus hard to predict.
In order to make a meaningful difference, you have to give a damn and algorithms will never actually give a damn. We need people for caring and the humanities to teach them how to.