Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

Good night stories for Rebel Girls – inspiring women with inspiring stories

I bought Good night stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo for a very smart and ambitious 14-year-old girl and loved the idea so much that I bought it for myself. The book starts with some advice.
To the rebel girls of the world:
Dream bigger
Aim higher
Fight harder
And, when in doubt, remember
You are right.
I’m not entirely convinced parents of 14-year-olds will agree that they are always right, but believing in yourself is a good point to start from in life.

The book contains 100 stories of special, fierce, talented and successful women. I find it inspiring and I’m fascinated by the stories. I have no idea if it is inspiring to a teenage girl. I don’t remember how the brain of a 14-year-old works. I do strongly believe that having role models helps. To see someone like you do something means that it’s easier to imagine that you can do it too. I’ve written before about my mum being a perfect role model for me as one of the first female software developers.
I’m not 100% sure that a short story in a book is enough to be a role model. But it also won’t hurt. I hope some of it sticks for the girls who read this book.

I tried to pick out one or two stories that I liked most, but I ended up with almost every page having a sticky note on it. In the end, I did make a selection but even if you feel you don’t need a role model I highly recommend reading the book and learning about all these inspiring women.
The stories are very diverse. There are stories about inventors, scientist, professional sports people, journalists, and activists. Something else that I love about the book is that it picks up on many themes that are relevant for all girls and women.

The Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (love the name) was a painter before women were allowed to get close to artists’ studios and people didn’t believe the paintings were hers. When her father found her a tutor, he pressed her to become his lover. She refused and had to fight this powerful man in court. She lived between 1593 and 1653, but this is something that still happens today, 400 years later.

Brenda Chapman is a director at Walt Disney Studios, who at a very young age decided that she wanted to create animated films with strong and brave girls and women in them. She didn’t like that the girls she saw in most animated films were helpless princesses. She moved on to create Brave with the strong princess Merida and won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for it.

Irena Sendlerowa is a Polish war hero who saved 2,500 children by fostering Jewish children in Christian families and give them Christian names. She wrote down their real names and their new names on slips of paper that she hid in jars in a friend’s garden. After the war, she dug up the jars and was able to reunite many kids with their real families. It’s something a certain modern-day organization with much more advanced options to keep track of children could have learned a lot from if they were at all concerned with the wellbeing of these vulnerable kids.

In Mexico, an exceptionally bright girl called Matilde Montoya wanted to be a doctor. She was told that women couldn’t be doctor’s and the university tried to expel Matilde more than once. Matilde wrote to the Mexican president, who stepped in and stood up for her in her fight against the unfair treatment she received from the university. It’s an example of men speaking up in support of women can really make a difference. Yes guys, I’m looking at you!

Women sticking together can also have a big impact as Wangari Maathai proved in Kenya by creating a movement of women who all planted trees in their villages. She started small. Several women from her own village collected seeds from the forest and planted them in cans at their homes. When they were strong enough, they planted them all around the village. Eventually, the Green Belt Movement expanded beyond the Kenyan border, forty million trees got planted and Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of small changes added together can have a huge impact. Don’t be discouraged by starting small, if we don’t start with small steps because we think they won’t matter we will not be able to achieve significant change.

Wangari Maathai

My heart hurts not being able to also write in more detail about the first suffragette’s in New Zealand, Kate Sheppard and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton who worked for NASA and saved the Apollo 11 mission by solving an issue that could have stopped Apollo 11 from landing on the moon in mere minutes. I hope you will read the book and learn about all the inspiring stories for yourself.

Emilia – Do you feel it? Inside of you.

Emilia is a play written by playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Emilia is Emilia Bassano, born in 1569 as the daughter of a royal musician. After her father dies when Emilia is just 7 years old she comes to live with Susan Bertie, the Countess of Kent. She gets a good education and introduced to well off men at the court. As there are many uncertainties about the details of Emilia’s life the play describes a possible version of it.
The book was a gift from a dear friend and it made the message resonate that much stronger because of it.

It’s heartbreaking to read how Emilia feels like she is being silenced and tamed.
“My voice feels too loud in here. I must try to whisper more. Though sometimes I can’t help but scream! […] I must try to only speak when I’m asked. No screeching. No jumping about. I’m a young lady now. This is what I’ve learnt. You see? I can be tamed. I know now that as I grow I must also shrink. I must not take up too much space. If I am to marry well I need to practice these tricks to hush my whole being so that I am only seen when needed.”

Emilia is afraid that getting married would mean that she won’t be able to write anymore, that her life will just be focused on supporting her husband and she opts instead to become the mistress of the older Lord Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. Lord Carey makes sure that Emilia is well taken care of financially and allows her to continue writing. When he gets Emilia pregnant though he arranges for her to marry her cousin Alphonso Lanier. In the play, it is suggested that Alphonso is gay and that the marriage is one of convenience for both of them. Emilia gives birth to a son that she calls Henry, presumably after his father.

Emilia and William Shakespeare meet by chance and they fall in love with one another and have a passionate affair. Emilia even gets pregnant and gives birth to Shakespeare’s daughter, Odilya, who dies when she is only 10 months old. Odilya’s death breaks something in Emilia and she feels an even stronger drive to write. Her frustration at not being able to get her work published and see it performed as Shakespeare does his work reaches a boiling point.
“The pain and anguish of your own losses written large upon the stage. Does it help? I think it must. If only my own grief could be dissipated as such. But it can’t. Can it? And it is because of this that grief is not my only pain. It is my whole existence in your shadow. It is women born to a status that dooms us to your ill will”.

For me and hopefully for most people living now it’s easy to feel Emilia’s anger and frustration about how unequal women were being treated. In her time she was one of the very few people advocating of equal rights for men and women and it was a dangerous opinion to share.
As Alphonso is spending all of their money and leaves them in debt, Emilia goes to live with Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford. Lady Margaret is also a feminist whose husband George has multiple indiscreet affairs. She asks Emilia to be a tutor for Lady Anne and to write poems for women, to warn them about the wicked ways of men.

As women’s writings are censored and they are only allowed to write about religion and virtues they distribute and reproduce the poems through an underground network of women. When some of them fall into the wrong (male) hands they get paid a visit by Sir Thomas Howard and it becomes clear how dangerous it is to advocate equality.
“Instead of giving thanks for the generous and kind disposition of all men she seems to suggest that men are to be ignored and discarded in favour of a new order in which women are seen as equal. This preposterous notion gives no thought to clear fact that for as long as time immemorial women have never been equal to men and instead must accept the natural order of things. Inferior. Ever more so and subservient to the end. This poetry, if you can call it that, is akin to a call to arms and it is the most dangerous rubbish I’ve ever read. […] Do not forget the growing discomfort the spread of a certain kind of sorcery that this could be described as. You would not want to be tried as a witch Emilia – I fear your crimes would not go down well.”

As Emilia and Alphonso hit rock bottom financially Emilia starts to teach poor women, both because she wants to give these women a voice and to make a bit of money. The women embolden each other to speak up louder and louder, despite the danger. They encourage Emilia to start writing feminist messages hidden in religious poems, so her work can get published and it finally does. These published poems are the only things that she wrote that have been saved for us to read. At least the only ones that she has been credited with as the writer…

Emilia in action

The fierceness of Emilia and the other women is intense and inspiring. It’s emotional even when reading it. I’m sad that I won’t get to see the play (unless it will be extended), but there is talk about a film, so I’m keeping my hopes up. If you are in London while it’s still running I urge you to go and see it. If not I highly recommend the book. Even if just to read Emilia’s final speech, which is quite something.
We’ve come a long way, but we also still have a long way to go. And these days we even have to be vigilant to make sure that we are not going backward!

“Listen to us. Listen to every woman who came before you. Listen to every woman with you now. And listen when I say to you to take the fire as your own. That anger that you feel it is yours and you can use it. We want you to. We need you to. Look how far we’ve come already. Don’t stop now.”

The Happiness of Pursuit – revealing the quest that I’m on

Some of the world’s best-known stories reflect our desire to hear about struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of a goal. We get drawn in because we want to know if the hero is going to succeed.
When I started reading The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau I thought the book would describe an inspiring adventure like this. I picked the book based on a recommendation I came across on Pinterest, so I have to admit that I didn’t do a lot of research before diving in.

As it turns out the book is more a “how-to” that provides advice and insights about starting a quest. It suggests that if you feel like something is missing from your life that it would perhaps be a good idea to find a quest of your own. The quest would give you a purpose and a goal to pursue, thus giving your life “meaning”.

A quest is defined as a journey towards something specific, with a number of challenges throughout, that will require personal growth and a sacrifice of some sorts. Most quests don’t take special powers, but persistence and dedication are essential. The book has clichés sprinkled all over it like “If you want to achieve the unimaginable you start by imagining it” and “If you don’t try you might always wonder ‘what if'”.
Both mostly true of course, that’s why they are clichés.

The book describes the quests of many different people, including that of the author. The author’s quest was to visit all countries in the world while many others also have a physical challenge in them like walking across the US or riding a bike or sailing a boat around the world.
Most of the people that were interviewed for the book were unable to clearly explain why they gave up their existing lives to go hunt for something elusive, with a real chance of failure. They were simply unsatisfied with the life they were living and were looking for something deeper.

You can probably tell that I’m not about to sell my home to go on a quest around the world anytime soon. However, almost every book provides some insights or inspiration and so does this one. I did realize that I’m on a quest of some sorts myself, and this might be a good moment to share a bit more about it.

Towards the end of February, I realized that I had read well over a book per week in 2019 up until that point. I made the biggest splash during the Christmas holidays when I spend most of my days reading and running. At that point, it dawned on me that perhaps I would probably be able to read 52 books this year. I’d heard about other people doing that, but until now I’ve always assumed that they would have to be crazy people without much of a life. If that’s true then I now fit into that category and I’m quite comfortable there.

The Happiness of Pursuit is the 26th book I’ve read this year and we’re only 4,5 months into the year. The amazing thing is that I don’t even have to try hard. During the week I keep the television turned off on most evenings and instead I read a book (when I’m not running, rock climbing, or playing tennis or piano). It might not be a quest according to Guillebeau as it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. I love reading and I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not watching TV.

As I was struggling to come up with topics to write about regularly, I figured that writing about the books I read would provide me with an ongoing stream of topics as well as some structure. As long as I finish a book I’ve got the subject of the week’s blog post covered and I just have to sit down and do the actual writing.
So while The Happiness of Pursuit wasn’t what I thought it would be, it did provide a trigger to write about my own goal this year and thus was still useful. Now that I have shared my goal publicly it will be harder to weasel my way out of it in case it does for whatever reason become harder to keep going later in the year. I hope you will follow me on my journey through the books. It would make me very happy!

Thinking Ahead – dealing with the impact of increased complexity

Thinking Ahead is a collection of essays on Big Data, Digital Revolution, and Participatory Market Society (co)written by Dirk Helbing. Helbing’s Wikipedia entry is mostly a very long list of achievements and awards in several areas. His interest and expertise run from traffic management to crowd disasters to the risks and opportunities of the digitalizing of the world. The constant is that all these topics are about managing complex systems. The definition of complex systems as used in the book is: “Complex systems are characterized by numerous interacting actors and factors. Examples are social, economic, or traffic systems, as well as the behavior of crowds or ecosystems. The behavior of these systems is often dominated by their internal dynamics. Attempts to control them from outside frequently lead to unexpected and unintended results”.

Complex systems and the financial market
The financial market and crisis are frequently used as an example by Helbing. The global financial market is so complex that it can’t be monitored and controlled anymore. More and more assets don’t have real-world value. It’s almost impossible to understand what is behind these completely virtual assets, which means that we can’t tell whether their value is realistic or if it’s inflated.
Many ideas about the financial market (conventional economic thinking) and how to manage it and keep it from crashing are either outdated or just plain wrong. These ideas don’t take the effect of all systems being connected into account. The fact that globalization has led to more interconnections between financial markets means that the risk of a local problem leading to a global crisis has increased significantly. The resilience of the system is not described by the average stability, but by the weakest link. To be able to isolate risks a system needs compartmentalization and there are no safety points in the financial market today.

The current models for how the financial market will behave is based on the idea that people are completely rational. That we act as “homo economicus” and make optimal decisions.
It turns out that this is not a truthful projection of how humans behave. While some people might take decisions based on purely rational arguments, most people are impacted by emotions. It’s also not true that all people make decisions that are most favorable for them personally. There is not just “homo economicus”, but also “homo socialis”. “Homo socialis” displays other-regarding and cooperative behavior. While older models might suggest that other-regarding behavior is unfavorable in terms of evolution and will therefore eventually disappear, it turns out that this is only the case if a cooperative person is placed amongst a group of selfish people. If a group other-regarding people can stick together it’s the cooperative behavior that gets favored and allows “homo socialis” to spread.

Big Data
Helbing also dives into the challenges and opportunities of “Big Data”. Big Data is a term that has been around for more than 15 years now and it means that data sets are now so big that they can’t be coped with using standard computational methods. Big Data is also referred to as the oil of the 21ste century. It’s worth a lot of money if we can process it. Big Data in itself doesn’t pose a lot of value or risk. We must learn to drill and refine data so we can transform it into useful information and knowledge.

Big Data

While the processing of Big Data offers a lot of opportunities, it also poses a lot of risks. We share information almost constantly, both implicitly and explicitly. Of course, sharing information on social media platforms is explicit. However, by using services like Google Maps we share our whereabouts. By using loyalty systems in the supermarket it’s possible to determine how you live your life and when your life might be changing. Even just browsing the internet we leave behind a telling tale of our lives, our loves, our hates and our opinions.

The way in which information is processed can reinforce patterns. This means that it can reinforce discrimination and promote homogeneity. If that would happen it could of course negatively impact any minority, but it would also be bad for everyone else. Innovation only takes place if people with unique interests and ideas, who are ahead of the curve, can flourish. Filtering out uniqueness would be disastrous for our well-being and economy.

Another challenge is that we can’t really opt out of all of this information sharing. You can decide to not join any social media networks. Web browsers make it possible to turn off cookies, although it means that many web sites become almost unusable. There are tools that support obfuscating your IP address while you are browsing the web, but this still doesn’t guarantee that you are browsing anonymously. And as the number of smart and connected devices is increasing the amount of data that is being collected is exponentially increasing.

Staying in control of data from you or about you is hard, if not impossible. We cannot control what information companies and people collect about us and we cannot control what they will do with the information, or how long they will keep it. Incorrect information about us might also be stored and even spread. This can happen either on purpose or by accident and it’s very hard to correct it.

The European GDPR law has been created to try and protect people from misuse of data from and about them. It forces companies collecting data to be transparent about what data will be used for and it prohibits them from using it for any other means. Once data has outlasted its original purpose it has to be destroyed and if your data is leaked because it wasn’t adequately protected companies will have to pay significant fines.

Conclusion
To me, the book provided a very interesting brain exercise. In the essays collected in Thinking Ahead Helbing does an excellent job of explaining the challenges and risks of globalization and Big Data in a way that’s relatively easy to understand. He also talks about several ideas that might go some way towards limiting risks and providing solutions. None of these ideas will be easy to implement in the real world though and a lot of them will have a significant impact on the lives of many. Based on the book I find it hard to form clear ideas about solutions.
I would personally be interested in exploring some potential solutions a little more and learning about what steps we could take to get closer to a more stable and a more fair world.

Rip Tide – more to it than meets the eye

After all the seriousness from the last few weeks, I read Rip Tide by Dame Stella Rimington this week. I love the idea of – and reading about – badass women. Both Stella and Liz Carlyle, the protagonist, fall into that category. Stella Rimington was the head of MI5 before she became a writer. I can’t begin to imagine the obstacles she must have faced to become the head of MI5. I’m sure not everyone was happy to see a woman climb the ranks like that. It must have taken a lot of hard work and perseverance to get there. And she must have been very very good at her job.

I have no idea how good Stella really was as an agent and the head of MI5, but I love her writing. She has written what is so far a 10 part series about Liz Carlyle, who is also an MI5 agent. Rip Tide is the 6th book in the series.
Even though the protagonist is a woman, the books are not just for women. After all, women also read books with male protagonists. If we didn’t it would limit our choice of books to read significantly and we would miss out on many beautiful stories.

Liz comes across as a real woman. There is no over the top drama, she’s not worried about the size of her breasts or the way they might be moving (or not). She does sometimes regret wearing heels, or worries about what to wear to not stand out and feel uncomfortable at particular events or places.
I love Liz’s empathy and her concern for other people’s wellbeing and the way in which we see her struggle when her values clash with the responsibilities that are part of her job.

In Rip Tide, a charity’s ship is being attacked by pirates of the coast of Somalia. It’s the third time pirates try to take one of their ships and its crew hostage. Is it a coincidence or is there more to it? One of the pirates is not like the others. He doesn’t communicate with the other pirates. What’s his story?

All the Liz Carlyle novels are enjoyable and exciting from start to finish. They are easy to read and there is enough tension to not want to put the book down, but it’s not so tense that you are afraid of what you’ll discover if you read on.
I highly recommend all Liz Carlyle books, including Rip Tide. For those new to the series, the first book is At Risk.

Stella Rimington

Stella Rimington was the chair of judges of the Man Booker prize in 2011 and her speech describes some of the interesting dynamics around that role.
It’s almost impossible to just pick one snippet from it, so I’ll just share the start. You can find the full speech at the Man Booker Prize web site.

“Well – I thought the intelligence world was the place for intrigue – but that was before I met the publishing world.
Since our shortlist was announced we’ve seen black propaganda, de-stabilisation operations, plots and double agents – worthy of the KGB at its height.”

The Secret River – how a lack of understanding can lead to a disaster

The Secret River is loosely based on the story of Kate Grenville’s ancestor Solomon Wiseman, but it’s a work of fiction.
It’s incredibly well written. The book tells the story of William and Sal and it feels heavy from start to finish.
William and Sal meet as kids in London. William has a big family with a lot of brothers and sisters. There isn’t enough food for everyone and he’s often cold. Sal’s an only child and her family is a bit better off. William and Sal end up being some of Australia’s early settlers.

Usually, when reading I try to identify with one of the main characters. In this book, I’m on the outside looking in. None of the characters are very likable. I felt sorry for them, but at the same time, they don’t seem to handle their circumstances very well. It’s easy to say that while being sat on a comfortable sofa with tea and a biscuit of course.

In a way, the book shows the worst sides of humans. There is a total lack of empathy for other classes and people with a different background and culture. Those in a position of power treat the people that need their kindness and support the most with contempt. As they gain power people behave like their former oppressors, even though they are aware of how that behavior hurt them in the past. They take the full force of their self-loathing out on others.
Throughout the book decisions and actions lead to crashes in slow motion. With horrible consequences. While it’s easy to see it happening from a distance it does make me wonder if I would be able to see it happening if this was my life and these were my decisions and actions.

The Secret River is a strong reminder of how important it is to be open to other people and to try and understand what’s driving them. The characters in the book are unable to truly connect and reach each other and shame and entitlement is stopping them from really trying. It’s painful to watch.
The more different people seem to be at first glance, the harder it can be to connect. We should look for ways to communicate and not give up because it’s hard. We shouldn’t feel embarrassed because we are trying and not succeeding the first time.
This is a reminder for myself as much as anyone. Especially being prepared to try to connect, fail and try again. It’s ok to be uncomfortable and as today’s world is becoming smaller and more diverse it might be more important than ever.

The Secret River made me feel some of the painful history of Australia. It also made me realize while I learned about the facts of Dutch colonization, I have little awareness of the feelings and the emotions that must have been part of it. The violence, pain, and injustice.
I want to find a book like The Secret River that can teach me about the pain and injustice that are part of my own past.

I learned about The Secret River through this Youtube video.
If you are lucky enough to have an Australian iTunes account I think the Secret River mini-series will be well worth a watch.

The Secret River

Macbeth – A tale of ruthless ambition

Macbeth is the second Shakespeare play that I read. Before I tried, I didn’t think I’d be able to understand, let alone enjoy Shakespeare. Last year I visited Shakespeare’s Globe during a weekend trip to London. I found these cute little books from the Macmillan Collector’s Library that didn’t seem too daunting, so I decided to try one. Some of the words look a bit different, but often reading out loud will make it easier to understand.

The books in this series start with an extensive introduction, which explains the outline of the story. There’s also an overview of the names and roles of the most important characters in the play. With names like Macbeth, Macduff, and Malcolm this is helpful.

Macbeth is a story about how ambition and greed can make ordinary people become violent and ruthless. It’s called the Scottish play, as most of it is set in Scotland and focuses on the fight for the Scottish crown.
Macbeth is a general in King Duncan’s army. When three witches tell him that he will one day be king Macbeth’s ambition gets the best of him. He decides not to wait for “one day” and takes matters into his own hand. At first, Macbeth is hesitant about killing, but Lady Macbeth is ruthless and even asks the spirits to fill her with cruelty.
After having killed the roles are reversed. Macbeth develops a taste for it while his wife is being consumed by guilt and slowly loses her mind.

There is a lot of violence and death in the book, but the most heartbreaking part is when one of the noblemen has to deliver the news of the death of Macduff’s wife and children to him in England.
“Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard”

Needless to say that the writing is beautiful. It’s easy to be so focused on the story that you forget to pay attention to the beautiful sentences. There are several parts of the book that I read multiple times because I wanted to focus on the beauty of the prose rather than just read and understand the story. I know that I’m a couple of centuries late to this party, but I feel it’s worth noting as there might be more non-native English speakers who shun away from Shakespeare, thinking it will be too difficult to read. It’s doable and worth the effort!

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes