Book review: Altered Carbon

Book cover for Altered by RIchard K. Morgan

What is human consciousness? Is it an abstract concept, an ephemeral state, or a thing that can be captured and stored? If it’s a thing that can be stored, does that “thing” represent who we are? If that thing were put into another body, or a similar body, would we be the same person?

Based on my knowledge, modern science doesn’t have the answer to these questions. Fortunately, the lack of scientific evidence hasn’t stopped people from writing books about or based upon it.

A significant number of science fiction books I read treat the human mind as something that can be captured and stored. Depending on the book, that representation of the mind can live on inside a computer, or it can be placed into and/or transferred between bodies. Seeing how different authors explore the concept is an interesting thought experiment. It begs all sorts of questions such as is the stored representation really me? Will that representation realize it’s a copy? What are the ethical implications if multiple copies of me are active at the same time? It’s a long list that goes on and on.

Given that science fiction has a peculiar way of foreshadowing future technologies, it wouldn’t surprise me if some variation of these visions appear in the future, especially given the desire of those who want to live forever. My latest science fiction read to explore this concept was Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan.

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Measuring Character

I was recently reminded of a post that came across my blog feed a while back by Dave Winer titled – “Your human-size life.” The entire post is worth a read, but the opening is great:

In the early years of this blog I wrote a lot about the personal struggles of people who had attained financial independence only to find out that it revealed that money was not what was standing in the way of happiness.

It’s a reminder that money is important, but it isn’t everything. Sure, we need it to live, but there is a point where it isn’t about how much you have.

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Sourdough Lessons

Jar with the beginning of a sourdough starter

When I started my bread baking adventures a few months ago, growing my own starter was not on my radar. If anything, I was against it. It felt like so much work. The feeding, the maintaining. I didn’t want the responsibility. Even though one of my favorite books from last year made it sound like a lot of fun, I wasn’t convinced.

My curiosity got the best of me. After baking a number of loaves with commercial yeast, I wondered why people were infatuated with sourdough. Could sourdough loaves be that much better than what I was already baking?

I’m here to tell yes, they are. They may not be worlds apart, but there’s a noticeable difference.

When starting out, it can be intimidating. How a simple mixture of flour and water (see picture above right) turns into an active concoction of live yeast is a marvel of nature. It’s also quite the science experiment, which I’m about 2 months into.

Here are a few lessons I learned in the process of growing a sourdough starter. This isn’t going to be about how to make one, or how to care for it. There’s plenty of how-to articles already out there.

Consider this a post to inspire you to grow your own starter or to press on if you’re struggling.

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Book review: Snow Crash

Book cover for Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

As part of my reading list for the year, I make it a point to include “classic” science fiction. I consider pretty much anything written prior to the year 2000 as classic.

One of the other elements I look for in these classic works is their ability to stand the test of time. I’ve read books from Asimov, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Peter Hamilton, Joe Haldeman, Orson Scott Card, and others. I find it fascinating how many things these authors foreshadowed in their novels that have come to pass or are close to happening. It’s even more amazing when you consider that some of these novels were written over 50 years ago, and some are even older!

For my latest classic science fiction read, I read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. A good friend and former colleague suggested I read Stephenson’s works, and he strongly recommended that I start with this one.

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Takeaways from the Pygmalion Effect

Over fifty years ago, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson performed an experiment where teachers were told which students in their class had higher potential based on the student’s performance on an IQ test. The students were tested again at the end of the year. The students the teachers were told had higher potential improved their scores more than the others. The catch? The students labeled as higher potential were not based on the test results. The researchers chose them randomly.

“Higher expectations lead to higher results” was the primary finding of the study. It’s become known as the Pygmalion Effect, or Rosenthal Effect. It’s a powerful finding that can be applied across many facets of our life.

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Book review: Slow Burner

Book cover for Slow Burner by Laura Lippman (Amazon Hush Collection)

Next to science fiction, the short story format is one of my favorite types of fiction to read. I love how an author can capture your imagination and compress an engaging story into a compact form. I especially like how a really good short story comes to a close but leaves you with unanswered questions. It forces me to replay the story over and over in my mind and allows me to fill-in the blanks.

Amazon, my nemesis, has been doing a great job putting together short story collections. After reading their Forward collection, I recently finished reading the six short stories of their Hush Collection. Instead of reviewing each of the books individually, I’m going to focus on my favorite of the group, which was Slow Burner by Laura Lippman.

You can see my ranking of all the books in the Hush Collection here: Ranking the Amazon Hush collection of short stories

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No such thing as a wasted vote

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. - Albert Einstein

As we finally move on from the 2020 Presidential Election, I decided to reflect on my posts from four years ago. I wrote three posts following that election:

Since that time, nothing has changed. I could repost those same articles, change the year from 2016 to 2020, and they would be just as applicable today as they were then.

Given that the system has not changed, no one should be surprised at the result. The election did more to divide us than to unite us. If Einstein were alive, I believe he would agree that our process of electing a President has reached new levels of insanity.

I still believe what I stated four years ago – it’s time we had more than two viable candidates to choose from for President. If anything, this year’s election only reinforced and strengthened my belief.

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Book review: Digital Minimalism

Book cover for Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

It’s amazing how fast life can change. When I think back 20 years ago, I spent time online, but not all the time. I would regularly check emails, and I might use the internet occasionally in the evening to check sport scores, read up on current events, or do some research. At most the internet was a diversion, a source of entertainment.

These days the internet is a pervasive, integral part of my life. I couldn’t do my work without it, and even when not working, I spend time online researching articles, or doing what I’m doing now – writing on my blog. Even when I’m not on my computer, I carry the internet around with me on my smartphone (currently using a Pixel 3 playing for Team Android). Not only does my phone keep me connected through voice calls and email, but I use it a lot for text messaging to keep in touch with friends and family.

For some, the connection goes even deeper. They are glued to the apps on their phone, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, or whatever the latest social network du jour is. It begs the question, is there a point where you can be over-connected?

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Government for Sale

California 2020 ballot proposition 22

If you have $200,000,000 lying around, there’s something new you can do with it. You can write your own law in California. That’s effectively what Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and others did recently so they could classify their employees as independent contractors. It allows them to save hundreds of millions of dollars annually by not having to pay their fair share of FICA taxes (Social Security and Medicare), unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, and state and federally mandated benefits such as health benefits, family and medical leave, and paid time off.

I usually don’t get too wrapped up in politics, but this one got me pretty wound up, as those close to me can attest. But, the election’s over, the people have spoken, and Proposition 22 passed. So before I put this one behind me, there are just a few remaining items I’m going to say, and then I’ll let this one rest for good.

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Book review: Chaos Monkeys

Book cover for Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez

There are a number of notable technology startup communities across the U.S. There’s Boston, Austin, Los Angeles, San Diego, Boulder, Seattle, and Raleigh-Durham. Still, even today, the one that stands head and shoulders above all these areas and others is the Bay Area of Northern California. I liken it to being in the major leagues of technology, particularly when it comes to tech startups.

I’ve not been involved in a Bay Area startup, and at this point in my career, I doubt that I ever will be. But as someone who works in tech, it’s interesting to read stories about the Bay Area technology scene. From the outside it always seems so glamorous, but one knows that’s never the whole story. For every Facebook and Google, there are hundreds of forgettable companies, or ones that no one ever hears about.

Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez is an autobiographical look at that other side of Silicon Valley. The subtitle, Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, is a good indication of what to expect when you read it.

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