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What I love about SRE

My childhood was soaked in science. As I learned the alphabet and how to tie my shoes, my dad spent his days taking water samples and caring for the fish that made up the research cohort for the aquaculture study he ran. We lived at a research site on the lake and I toddled along through three hot summers, staring into the eyes of whiskered catfish and witnessing the hard, mundane work of science interwoven through our daily lives.

I did a search recently and the only monument to that time I can find is an eight page document that basically says “meh”.

One morning, years later, I sat in my dad’s lab injecting nematodes into hundreds of tiny, clear Dixie cups full of dirt samples, some of which would later be paired with marigold extracts. It wasn’t the most exciting “Take your son to work” Day, but once I developed a cadence there was a calming quality to it and time melted away.

It was more interesting to me as an adult, when I learned this type of research, as boring and un-sexy as it is, impacts whether millions of people get enough to eat.

Our living room and porch were filled with hybridization experiment rejects – peppers, squash, and random erosion-control plants in an assortment that would in no way be considered normal by anyone who actually raised house plants. They were misfits that didn’t have the right taste, shape, structure, or hardiness to make it to the next round and the smell of their potting soil and green of their leaves transformed our house into a primordial jungle. For all of my dad’s commitment to the logic of science, a bit of animism also threaded through his work. He’d feel bad if he had tilled these plants back into the dirt or tossed them into an incinerator.

These “failures” were each data points and lessons. Some of those lessons were “don’t touch this and then rub your eyes”.

All of these objects and experiences embedded a system of discovery in me (Some might call it a method ūüėú.): make a guess -> try to prove your guess wrong and measure the results -> analyze and iterate. This method is a tool that helps reveal the fabric of reality. It’s the best thing humans have ever come up with.

Growing up surrounded by the practices of science taught me to find interest and beauty in the outwardly mundane, that there was opportunity, even in the most boring-seeming places, to discover something that no one else in the whole world knows – at least for a brief moment.

This kind of childhood inspired me to be curious and persistent. Other aspects of growing up weren’t great but this part of growing up was as close to perfect as I can imagine and I am grateful for it.

My career has meandered its way not into the biological or physical sciences, but into something we’re currently calling site reliability engineering – a strange amalgam of systems administration, performance management, software development, quality control, and the crafting of antifragility, a practice I don’t really know what to call other than “applied statistics”. In the narrowest view, SRE can be limited to a fancier name for release management, but in most organizations there is runway to make it much more.

As with any maturing discipline, people find different areas of focus, but the aspects of SRE that appeal most to me are those that mirror what I saw growing up, areas where the scientific method can be leveraged to chip away at problems that have, up until very recent history, only been attacked with intuition and business process consultations.

SRE doesn’t hold a monopoly on this approach. Anyone can start challenging assumptions with “What do we think is true and how would we know we’re wrong?” questions, but there are some unique, SRE-specific opportunities for experimentation at scale and within the distributed systems that SREs manage. And because of its inherent technical nature and practitioners’ comfort with data, SRE (along with data engineering and finance) provides a good beach head for science to wiggle its way into the rest of a business.

Science manifests itself in SRE in expressions as simple as “How do we measure and increase reliability? When and where do we encounter diminishing returns?” That’s a good place to start, but not where anyone should stop. Continuing the line of questioning of “What matters to us and how do we keep ourselves honest?” provides a lot of opportunities to provide value and make interesting discoveries.

Questions you ask could lead you to dig into cloud provider bills, or analyze access patterns to blob storage, or purposefully inject failure into systems to find their weaknesses. Managing servers is part of the job in a similar way to my dad having to feed the fish he was studying. It’s a base requirement, but it’s not the point.

The really interesting opportunities in SRE present themselves when you open yourself up to a broader definition for your role, what questions you should be asking and to whom. Thinking more broadly than what you need to do to address the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for systems operations allows you to affect change and make useful discoveries. This is where I thrive and find the things I love about doing SRE work – having real things to measure, make decisions about, and improve through a methodology that requires you to be honest about the world you live and work within.

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Books from Q4 2018

Continuing from Q1, Q2, & Q3.

48. “The Worst Journey in the World” – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The title of this book is pretty accurate. It covers the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole during 1910-1913 – a failed race (Roald Amundsen won) that resulted not only in reaching the pole late, but in the death of the main expedition teams. Overall, it’s a very un-even book and could have used a more forceful editor. The story and mission of the team are compelling, but the interesting bits are bogged down by redundant descriptions of countless identical mountains, valleys, and ice floes.

49. “Blood of Elves” – Andrzej Sapkowski

Schlocky low fantasy at its finest. This wasn’t nearly as terrible as I was expecting and I’ll likely finish the rest of the Witcher series.  It’s obvious that there’s a bit lost in translation from Polish to English, but once you get through the first few chapters you don’t notice it as much. There’s considerably less misogyny than in the Witcher games, but it is only book one.

50. “Hollywood Dead” – Richard Kadrey

The Sandman Slim novels are a guilty pleasure of mine. Kadrey is weirdly inconsistent book-to-book and this was one of the lesser entries in the series. The end does a bit of tacked-on setup for a sequel but I think it would have been OK to end the series here. It doesn’t feel like there’s much ore left in the mine.

51. “The Time of Contempt” –¬†Andrzej Sapkowski

More Witcher.  The translation work gets better, probably the original authorship as well. 

52. “Baptism of Fire” –¬†Andrzej Sapkowski

These titles are terrible. Maybe they sound better in Polish. Sapkowski hammers on some fantasy cliches pretty hard. The pace and world building are entertaining, but there’s a lot of deus ex machina as the series  goes on and stuff like “how magic works” becomes increasingly nonsensical.

53. “Tower of Swallows” –¬†Andrzej Sapkowski

Seriously, what is with these titles? A non-linear narrative starts creeping in for this book. It’s slightly confusing at first, but I eventually figured out that it was likely being used as a way to glue short stories together to make a novel. As that kind of tool, the narrative works pretty well.

54. “The Lady of the Lake” –¬†Andrzej Sapkowski

Sapkowski does a decent job of tying together all the loose ends and bringing things to a close. The pace is un-even and there’s a bit of a “The 20x endings The Return of the King (the film)” effect. “Is it over?” Nope. “How about now?” Still nope. That does make the actual ending a bit abrupt. If you’re glueing short stories together, I guess there’s probably not a clear way to end your book other than to stop glueing and that’s pretty much what happens.

55. “The Self-Driven Child” –¬†William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

The core of this is pretty much “Control is an illusion. Let your child make mistakes and be there to support and advise them.” I can’t really say that it was good or bad, just that it was written for a much more anxious person than I, for I am a blade of grass in the breeze.

56. “Season of Storms” – Andrzej Sapkowski

This book is nearly unreadable. I made it three chapters in and couldn’t go any further. It starts with what could only be described as a scene from Fantasy Law & Order, with characters, including a sorcerer and a witcher, exchanging legalese in Latin. I feel dumber for having read the few pages I did.

57. “Kubernetes Up and Running” – Brendan Burns, Kelsey Hightower, Joe Beda

This is one of the better “Up and Running” O’Reilly books. A lot of it is out of date, even though it’s only a year old, due to how fast Kubernetes is evolving. Fortunately, the core concepts are the same and most of the out-of-date knowledge is easily updatable. The only thing I’ve done with Kubernetes prior to reading this book was a convention workshop two years ago (although now that I’m thinking about it, that may have been Docker Swarm), so the hands on stuff was really helpful to get me up to speed enough to start building things.

58. “Designing Data-Intensive Applications” – Martin Kleppmann

I don’t have enough computer science knowledge to get the full benefit of this book. It goes deep into things like b-trees and the history of replication algorithms that I lack the depth to grok. There were a few chapters that I understood reasonably well and were interesting to me, but several where I mostly thought “I know what these words mean individually…”. It has an illustrated map at the beginning of each chapter, which was fun.

59. “Symphony for the City of the Dead” – M.T. Anderson¬†

That the Soviets measured how well things were going in Stalingrad during its siege by how many people were being arrested for cannibalism says a lot about both the contents of this book and the Russian experience of WWII, which really isn’t covered much in US history lessons. The book itself is odd but engaging. Somewhat set up as a biography of Shostakovich, he mostly fades into the background of the hell being visited upon Russia during his life. Maybe that’s partially the point though.

60. “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz¬†

I don’t know what to say about this book other than everyone should read it.

61. “American Indian Stories and Old Indian Legends” – Zitkala-Sa

I’m glad this exists as a historical record, but it doesn’t really succeed as a book. It’s a mish-mash collection of Zitkala-Sa’s serialized autobiography and some Sioux folklore.

62. “October” – China Mi√©ville

I wanted this to be better than it was. I picked it up as it is the confluence of two interests – Russia and China Mieville, whose weirdness I thought would do justice to the weirdness of the Russian revolution, but he mostly plays it safe with a not-that-interesting, month-by-month narrative leading up to the October Revolution.

63. “Factfulness” – Hans Rosling

I bought a box-worth of this book to give as Christmas presents. It’s soooooo good and is exactly the book the world needs right now, filled with hope and wisdom. It is the perfect mix of STEM comms with both clearly translated data and infectious passion. This was by far my favorite book of any I read this year.

64. “Scarcity” – Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

It was likely a mistake to read this after “Factfulness”. It’s possible that it is an OK book, but it pales in comparison and follows the standard slog of “here’s a mildly interesting thesis followed by 300-400 pages of repetitive narrative to back it up.” 

65. “The City of Brass” – S. A Chakraborty

Middle-Eastern-themed fantasy. Yaaaas! None of the historical context makes any sense given the anachronisms referenced but the novelty of the setting and mythology relative to what normally makes its way into Western readers hands makes up for it. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

66. “Annihilation” – Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy reminds me a lot of Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris“. The film treatment of “Annihilation” is tons better than “Solaris” though (I can’t speak to the Russian film version as I have not seen it.). Like “Solaris” I would caution against reading this before bed as you will have strange, potentially disturbing dreams.

67.¬† “Authority” – Jeff VanderMeer

See above.

68.¬† “Midnight’s Children” – Salman Rushdie

I tried, but this got super-boring after the first 100 pages or so. I get why it was/is an important book in the context of India giving the middle finger to colonialism and such, but Rushdie’s writing comes off very smug in the “Look at me, I’m a literature major”-type of way. I feel the same way about¬†Gabriel Garc√≠a M√°rquez though so maybe I’m the problem.

69.¬† “Things Fall Apart” – Chinua Achebe

This was a good reminder that I need to read more African literature. I came away challenged by it and need to read more about how it was received within Nigeria as the author is pretty matter-of-fact about “Here are some things that sucked prior to colonialism and here are some sucky things white people brought. Both sets of things suck.”

70.¬† “Naked Lunch” – William S. Burroughs

No. Just no. Paul Bowles remains the only Beat writer I can tolerate. 

71.¬† “Boom Town” – Sam Anderson

I wish more sports writers would pivot to non-sports writing. They come at their subjects with so much energy. Anderson’s subject in this case is Oklahoma City which he tackles in a way I don’t think anyone ever has, addressing both the city’s strangeness and banality. I am somewhat biased, being a resident of OKC, but enjoyed the book a lot and think non-residents would as well. Other residents have complained about how much space is given to Wayne Coyne, given that he mostly seems to be a sad, coked-out, creepy-old-man these days, but that all seems to fit the nature of the place to me.¬†

72.¬† “Rework” –¬†Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

I enjoy the sentiments of Fried and DHH’s writing more-so than the writing. That’s possibly an issue with the format, given that their books tend to be blog posts edited into book form. There’s probably a jokey metaphor about the Ruby programming language hidden in that description, but I’m not savvy enough to reach for it.

73.¬† “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” – Hunter S. Thompson

Matt Taibbi’s intro to this book sums up my thoughts on Thompson pretty well. If you read Thompson thinking that his drug-fueled escapades are the point, you are, in fact, missing the point. Thompson’s vices served to help quiet the voices in his head and help him cope with a world he wished was different. Taibbi does hand-wave past Thompson’s racism in the book a bit too easily – there’s… a lot of it.

Also, the recent wave of people trying to rehabilitate Nixon can all go die in a fire.

74.¬† “Acceptance” – Jeff VanderMeer

See above for the comments on the Southern Reach trilogy in general. As for the closing book, a few threads get away from VanderMeer, but he does a good job of wrapping things up. I hope he keeps writing weird stuff. 

75.¬† “All the Real Indians Died Off” – Roxanne¬†Dunbar-Ortiz¬†and¬†Dina¬†Gilio-Whitaker

This is a really accessible intro into modern issues and misconceptions around North America’s indigenous peoples. I finished it while visiting my home town for Christmas, which happens to be the capital of the Choctaw Nation. There are a couple of interesting chapters on the standards that indigenous people are held to by others, especially related to authenticity and being “too white”.

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Books from Q3 2018

Continuing from Q1, Q2

36. “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” – Jordan Ellenberg

I thought this was a good example of how STEM communication can work well. The author introduces concrete, everyday problems then provides the math and logic to work through them. That is surprisingly rare in STEM comms.

37.¬† “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” – N. K. Jemisin

I’m on a N.K. Jemisin tear this year. It’s awesome that genre fiction is opening up to under-represented voices. The hegemony of old white dude authors needs to die.

38. The Broken Kingdoms – N. K. Jemisin

See above.

39. The Kingdom of Gods – N. K. Jemisin

See above.

40. The Awakened Kingdom – N. K. Jemisin

See above.

41. “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” – Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson

The core ideas of this book are very interesting but it feels very much like a research thesis stretched to book-length. The repetitive examples of how prosperity did or did not develop in different areas of the world are supporting evidence of the thesis, but become a bit of a slog. Definitely worth reading, but I’d recommend selective skimming once you get a handle on the core of it.

42. “The Stories of John Cheever” – John Cheever

Cheever’s short stories are strange in that they feel both very foreign and very familiar. The style and melancholy are modern and relatable. The settings and context… aren’t, at least to me. These are East Coast stories that take place in the 20’s-50’s. They reference household servants, wet bars, and console radio sets. Those things aren’t strange by any means, but it’s a testament to the quality of the writing that even set 70-100 years in the past, the stories themselves feel contemporary.

43. “Remote” – Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson¬†

This was a re-read. I’d read it when it first came out a few years ago. It’s one of those business books that companies buy for all their employees to try to pitch a new philosophy. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that is it fairly light. It’s meant as a sales pitch for remote work. I dove back in to pull out some items relevant to a job I recently started.

44. “Destiny of the Republic” – Candice Millard

I started this book knowing almost nothing about James Garfield and came away with a lot of respect for him. Had he survived his assassination, I don’t know that he would have been a “great” president, but he appears to have been an incredibly decent man. His death helped bring the country together and heal some of the wounds from the Civil War. It also, at least in part, inspired Chester A. Arthur to completely turn his life around and reject the Tammany Hall corruption he had spent his career soaked in. This is a super-engaging historical narrative.

45. “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” – William L. Shirer

This is by no means a flawless book, but it is the most comprehensive history of Hitler’s empire that I have read. Granted, it is 1300ish pages. Given the subject matter, it’s not a book you can read without feeling something. The Nazis’ crimes are almost impossible to process – too terrible to fit wholly in your brain.¬† There is so much in the history of the Third Reich to be angry about, things we should remain angry about and watchful of for as long as our species exists.

46. “Deep Work” – Cal Newport

I needed something a little lighter to recover emotionally from the previous book. The core idea here is that your time and attention are invaluable and you should viciously protect them. Also, that open offices for “collaboration” are a sham, which is no surprise to anyone who has ever worked in one.

47. “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” –¬†Nancy Isenberg

Read this on the recommendation of a friend and enjoyed it, only minimally due to it being about my people. The author goes into detail about how class has been used as a weapon in the U.S. to control and divide. The history covered adds to the mountain of evidence that Southern Secession was never about states’ rights and that the possibility of upward mobility is no where close to evenly distributed.


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Books from Q2 2018

This is a continuation of what I started with “Books from Q1 2018“.

19.¬†“Semiosis” – Sue Burke

I really enjoyed this book. It’s basically “if a botanist wrote sci-fi” and felt very fresh as I haven’t read anything in that vein before. It does suffer somewhat from what I call Clarke-Doctorow syndrome¬† – a condition in which the quality of the ideas presented vastly exceeds the quality of writing.

20. “Principles” – Ray Dalio

I normally don’t care for ‘business’ books but this one was fairly interesting. Dalio presents a unique take on what a data-driven culture looks like. Working at his firm, Bridgewater, doesn’t sound like much fun to me, personally, but they do seem to have achieved as mature an analytical culture as I have seen.¬† I didn’t particularly care for the structure of the book as it’s setup as part-autobiography, part reference book, but it makes sense in the context of the ideas presented.

21. “Life” – Richard Fortey

This is such a weirdly wonderful book. Fortey weaves his personal history as a paleontologist through a history of life on Earth. He balances passages on the evolution of trilobites with anecdotes about laying under the stars in the Australian Outback. This is a type of book we need more of as it humanizes science while broaching big, hard-to-comprehend ideas.

22. “Binti” – Nnedi Okorafor

I wanted to like this more than I did. “Binti” is the first of Okorafor’s books that I have read and I will attempt another as there were the seeds of many interesting things here, but this novella read like a first draft for a novel. I normally like terse writing, but this stretched that. It’s the skeleton of a story without much of the meat.

23. “The Sisters Brothers” – Patrick deWitt

This was recommended to me as an alternative to “Blood Meridian” since I enjoy Cormac McCarthy’s stories but hate his actual writing. It’s a perfect mix of dark and funny.

24. “The Killing Moon” – N.K. Jemison

I liked the other Jemison books I’ve read this year so decided to try one of her other series. The Dreamblood duology was tight and well done. It’s heavily influenced by Egyptian mysticism, which was a nice break from the standard fantasy tropes of European heritage.

25. “The Shadowed Sun” – N.K. Jemison

See above

26. “How to Lie With Statistics” – Darrell Huff

This is a really solid, if dated, primer on statistical misrepresentation. It was written in the 1950s so you have to keep reminding yourself of the context around any dollar amounts thrown out. The companies used in many of the examples might as well be made up names given how few of them exist anymore, but that’s fun in it’s own way, inspiring some Wikipedia searches to find out what happened to them. Aside from that, the tactics described are timeless and I could think of countless contemporary examples of their use. If you like charts and graphs, this is a good, short read.

27. “Dispatches” – Michael Herr

I had to read this book in short bursts. It’s written in the gonzo-journalism style of the late 60’s/early 70s (think Hunter S. Thompson) in which the narrator is definitely unreliable. It’s a fever dream of the Vietnam War that is disorienting and easy to get lost in, definitely not something I could follow when I was tired. The second half of the book is an easier read, more grounded.

28. “Building Microservices” – Sam Newman

Reading this at the same time I was dipping into “Dispatches” helped me stay grounded in reality. It’s one of the better O’Reilly books I’ve read, being easy to read and covering enough detail to be useful. The author presents a sane approach to thinking about microservices architectures and how to go about chopping up a monolithic application into microservices.

29. “The Left Hand of Darkness” – Ursula K. Le Guin

I hadn’t read anything of Le Guin’s since the Earthsea trilogy in middle school, which I remember liking but feeling that it wasn’t very substantial. This left me with a different impression of the author. There’s a lot packed into its 300 or so pages with much of the weight given to how gender norms shape society.

30. “Docker Up & Running” – Karl Matthias & Sean P. Kane

This is a decent run-through of Docker and how to do some basic troubleshooting. I’ve run through better tutorials online that were more up-to-date but lacked some of the context the book provides. It’s a good addendum, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it as a place to start with Docker.

31. “Site Reliability Engineering” – Various

It’s an OK desk reference for different SRE topics, but “The Practice of Cloud Systems Administration” is a far better resource. I discovered¬† after I purchased it that it’s available online for free and would have preferred to have gone that route as it’s basically a collection of blog posts by Google alumni.

32. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” – Daniel Kahneman

This was an odd case of being familiar with a lot of the author’s research from other sources and thus finding the actual source material a little less engaging than I might have otherwise.¬† If you are new to behavioral economics, meta-cognition, or the study of biases, this is an excellent place to start.

33. “The Last Days of New Paris” – China Mieville

This is perhaps my least favorite of Mieville’s books, perhaps because of my lack of familiarity with French surrealism. It’s only a little longer than novella length and may have benefited from some more meat on its bones to help add context for those not intimately familiar with the vernacular (or all the French for that matter).

34. “The Lies of Locke Lamora” – Scott Lynch

Some dumb algorithm recommended this to me based on my like of China Mieville. Scott Lynch is good at setting pace but that’s pretty much it. Tone is all over the place. None of the characters are believable and there is a significant amount of repetition and deus ex machina.

35. “The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World” – Niall Ferguson

This is more a history of finance than of money. Ferguson is very much in the conservative camp of economists so I found myself challenged by some of his views. The last quarter of the book covering modern issues seems a bit tacked on and rushed. Overall, it’s a good read, but heavily biased towards a Western, conservative economic view point.

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Books from Q1 2018

I’ve been reading more than writing¬† so far this year.¬† I¬† tend to go in bursts like that – lots of writing, lots of reading, lots of Netflix, repeat. I’m not sure why, it just happens.

So far this year, I’ve read 18 books, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I’m putting together notes on what I’ve read so I can come back to them and so they might be useful to others. I guess they’re sort of lazy mini-reviews. None of these are affiliate links, because I don’t care.

1. “The Fifth Season” – N.K. Jemisin

This is book one in “The Broken Earth” trilogy and is the first book of the author’s I have read. The story takes place in a fantasy future-Earth setting – think Shannara, but not shitty. I enjoyed Jemisin’s style and perspective. Her world is logically consistent and filled with truthful subtext.

2. “Made to Stick” – Chip Heath & Dan Heath

It’s a book that has made all sorts of lists and is very much in the vein of “could have been a blog post instead of a book.” If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” you can skip this one

3. “The Heart of What Was Lost” – Tad Williams

This is probably the shortest book Tad Williams has ever written, although “Child of an Ancient City” may tie it. I’m too lazy to check. It’s effectively a long prologue that ties Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” trilogy (or quadrilogy if you read it in paperback) together with his new “The Last King of Osten Ard” series. I enjoyed the brevity, and that there were a limited number of subplots, which is rare for Williams.

4.¬† “So Good They Can‚Äôt Ignore You” – Cal Newport

Another “on all the lists” and “could have been a blog post” book. It was significantly better than “Made to Stick” in that it broke more original ground and is better written. The basic premise is “Don’t follow your dreams. Get really good at something and opportunities will present themselves.”

5. “The Water Knife” – Paulo Bacigalupi

I enjoyed Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” and hoped to enjoy this. It’s not as good as that book, but the story is compellingly told. The almost gleeful descriptions of torture and abuse that bothered me in “The Windup Girl” are cranked up to the point that it gets in the way of the story and you start to worry about the author (and yourself) a little bit. I probably won’t read his next book.

6. “The Witchwood Crown” – Tad Williams

Related to item 3 above. Williams has gotten so much better over the years. His pacing is still molasses slow-build up to frenetic chaos, but he’s done a better job of culling boring subplots and characters. That’s not to say this doesn’t sprawl, but his writing feels more purposeful.

7. “The Industries of the Future” – Alan Ross

The curse of knowledge ruined this book for me. It is likely a very solid layman’s primer for near-term technological trends. But, being in the industry, my response to the info presented was “yep, and…?” That’s no dig at the author, I’m just not the target audience.

8. “Strange Dogs” – James S.A. Corey

This is marketed as a novella but is barely that at 81 pages. It’s a solid aside set in the Expanse universe and serves as an acceptable fix to carry oneself over until the next release in that series. It sets up a premise that could be its own set of novels but that’s a lot of things in the Expanse series, which is expansive.

9. “Homo Deus” – Yuval Noah Harari

I seriously have to stop picking books off of lists. Given that I remember literally nothing about this book, it was apparently unremarkable.

10. “The Obelisk Gate” – N.K. Jemisin

Book 2 in the “Broken Earth” series. If you liked book 1, you should read it if. If you didn’t, you shouldn’t.

11. “The Stone Sky” – N.K. Jemisin

Finishes the “Broken Earth” series. It left me thinking a lot about coded language as well as motherhood and mother-daughter things that are completely foreign to me and that I will likely never fully understand. Thus is the power of reading books by authors who aren’t hetero white men.

12. “Antifragile” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I’m very interested in anti-fragility and resiliency, so this book was fun for me. It fed into a lot of ideas I’ve been thinking about related to chaos engineering. Taleb’s ideas are powerful and feel so uncomfortably true that it’s easy to look past what appears to be massive ego and condescension towards his peers. I actually like this book better than his “The Black Swan”, but that may just be because it lines up well with current thoughts.

13. “Borne” – Jeff VanderMeer

Magical realism tends to go one of two ways for me. 1. This is fucking stupid. 2. This is amazing. This book was the latter. The¬† setting of the story is a post-apocalyptic city inhabited by a giant flying bear. It’s completely bonkers but works wonderfully and inspires me a little in a “this is the kind of book I want to write” way.

14. “Other Minds” – Peter Godfrey-Smith

This is a book about a possible theory of mind and sentience for cephalopods. I would summarize it with “Octopodes are super smart in ways that are completely foreign to us.” I’d given up on eating octopus a few years ago after watching videos of them using tools and this made that decision concrete for me (in addition to expanding that food-ban to squid). I probably need to be careful reading similar books as I may end up not being comfortable eating anything.

15. “Dreams From My Father” – Barack Obama

Given our current situation, this book made me both sad and grateful. One thing it really hammered home for me was how broad and open Obama’s world view is, more so than any president we’ve ever had. Similar to other black American memoirs I’ve read, there is much I couldn’t truly understand but is still ugly and painful.

16. “The City & The City”¬† – China Mieville

This is the least weird of Mieville’s books I’ve read. I think he wrote it for his mother or some such. I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as “Embassytown” or “Perdido Street Station”, but it was good.

17. “WTF?” – Tim O’Reilly

I normally struggle a bit with “future” books, but O’Reilly has good credentials and writes with an authority that lends weight to his vision. Some of the first chapters felt a bit “look at me! I invented the internet!”, which is related to the previous statement. All in all, his is a compassionate take on a potential path for the future of work and business. I wished more startups would heed his advice.

18. “Vacationland” – John Hodgeman

To be honest, this is the first book of Hodgeman’s that I’ve actually liked. His fake trivia books hinted at something more interesting, but never really got there for me. This book is conversational storytelling and succeeds as such. It’s definitely in the vein of “NPR humor”, so your mileage may vary depending on your appetite for that.

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Learning People Tech

Do’s and Don’ts For Writing Online

If you were to ask me for one thing to do to advance your career, my answer would be: write.

Even if no one ever reads what you write, it’s worth it. Writing helps you think things through and work out problems, both personally and professionally. Over time, it also makes you a better communicator, more able to get your ideas onto the table and acted upon.

Putting your writing online¬†helps you connect with people. It drives conversations that make you think and revisit your assumptions. If you establish a unique voice and present solid ideas, it’s also a really good way to market yourself.

Ultimately, I think that writing makes you a better person, someone who is more self-aware and able to empathize with others.

I’ve been writing online off and on for more than fifteen years, working as a freelance copywriter for some of that time. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that I try to improve upon every time I write.

Do

Write like you talk.¬†The world is clogged with overly formal academic- and corporate-speak. Formality and circular language put a wall up between you and the reader. Peppering in $10 words when 2 cent words work just fine doesn’t make you look smarter . It makes you look like a blow-hard who isn’t worth listening to and shouldn’t be trusted.¬†¬†Here’s an example:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‚Äúnormalize‚ÄĚ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality. –¬†Homi K. Bhabha¬†via The Bad Writing Contest

If you can figure out what Mr. Bhabha is trying to get across, you are smarter and more patient to me. I made it to “ruse of desire” before I started zoning¬†out. It could be that he is saying something really profound, but no one will ever know because he wanted to be smart and¬†fancy¬†more than he wanted to express his idea.

There are times to jump into the deep end of English to pull out words that are beautiful and complex, but hammering people over the head with your word choices tends to dull your message.

Be clear and concise. I’m not advocating that you dumb things down, only that you need to be clear in what you express.¬†Even if you use simple language, you can write a maze that’s difficult for people to follow.

Read some Ernest Hemingway, then read Charles Dickens. It depends on the subject and your personal voice, but using the razor-sharpness¬†of Hemingway’s short, direct sentences often conveys more information than Dickens-style paragraphs.

Start simple, cut your ideas to the bone, then add meat if needed. Everything else is dead weight that gets in the way of understanding. You may end up at Dickens if that’s what’s needed to get your idea across, but start with Hemingway.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ‚Äď in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. – Charles Dickens

vs.

Sometimes things are good and bad at the same time, and that can be confusing. – Me

Be honest.¬†This doesn’t just mean “tell the truth.” It also means “be yourself.” The closer you can get to “yourself”, the more compelling your writing will be. ¬†It’s scary to be honest, because you start expressing things that matter to you and make you feel (and look) vulnerable.

If you’re angry, happy, sad, or scared, express it. If you’re uncertain, even better.¬† It doesn’t matter if you’re journaling or writing professionally, let the doors open, even if it’s just a little. That’s not an excuse to rant or gush. It’s more effective to¬†focus those emotions into surgical strikes that support the truth you’re telling without overwhelming it.

Showing that you are human creates a connection that helps people care about you and your writing. No one likes showing off their soft underbelly, but if you want an audience that cares, you’ve got to give them something.

Why else are songs about broken hearts so popular?

Admit when you are wrong.¬†I screw up all the time. Last week I screwed up by not attributing a cartoon I used in a blog post to the artist. A couple of people called me on it. At first I was a little annoyed by being called out, but then I took a breath and said “You’re right. I screwed up.” and took the image down.

People often bring up angles I haven’t¬†thought about in my arguments. I do my best to fold their feedback into my thought process and change course when needed. Sometimes that means retracting things I’ve written.

I do this for two reasons:

  1. I care about figuring out the truth of things more than “being right”.
  2. It’s more embarrassing to me to puff up and be dishonest than it is to say “I was wrong”.

The muscle you have to exercise in this is learning to let go of your ideas, both during and after you write. I don’t know how many times I’ve started writing something with a conclusion in mind only to do a 180 once I get a few paragraphs in – thinking the idea through and putting myself inside of the counter-argument¬†forces me to let go of my idea and take hold of a new one.

Don’t

Tie success to page views.¬†The truth is, for every post you publish that gets thousands of readers, you’ll probably have written millions of words¬†that almost no one read or responded to. Sometimes it feels a bit like shouting into¬†a bottomless pit and it’s easy to get discouraged when you never hear an echo.

Even if no one is reading, keep writing. Write and write and write and write. Get comfortable with the idea that you may never have readers and learn to write for the sake of writing. The point when you stop caring is often the same point when you start getting readers. It just works out that way.

From time to time, go back and read your past writing. If you’re embarrassed by it, keep writing, because it means you’re improving. If you’re not at least slightly embarrassed by or frustrated with it, it’s probably OK to stop writing, because something is wrong – you’re either an egomaniac or you’re not getting better.

Forget to read.¬†If you want to write well, you need to read. Immersing yourself in other people’s’ writing will help you identify strengths and weaknesses in your own writing.

Don’t limit yourself to a particular genre or type. Fiction, non-fiction, long-form, short, sci-fi and the classics – it all helps give you perspective and broadens your knowledge of what is possible.

Books about writing should be read with caution as they tend to steer people down rabbit trails where they spend all their time reading about writing instead of writing. There’s a danger in getting trapped in a search for “the secret” that will unlock your writing magic. However, used sparingly, some books about writing can be really helpful.

Here are a few that have helped me:

Be afraid to have an opinion.¬†Take a stand.¬†Don’t be¬†so worried about people disagreeing with you¬†that what you¬†write is watered down, boring, and sounds exactly like everyone else. Why bother if you’re going to play it safe and generic?

People will disagree with you. That’s OK. If you’re writing stuff that no one would disagree with, it’s probably not very interesting.

One of the benefits of these disagreements is that they help you figure out who your audience isn’t. Something to keep in mind as well is that people who disagree with you are much more likely to respond than those who agree, so the negative voices will almost always outweigh the positive. If you need proof of this, look at Yelp.

There are people you will never be able to please, and you shouldn’t try to. It’s wasted effort. It’s OK to consider other people’s opinions, but focus your energy on the people who like your writing. In Seth Godin terms, those people are¬†your tribe. Lead them.

You may be worried about turning off potential employers with your opinions, but consider this: if you have to hide who you are to work for someone, do you really want to work for them?¬†If your views are polarizing, it may be a good idea to temper them a little, but if they are fundamental to who you are, you’re going to be miserable working for someone who would judge you for them.

Lastly, don’t feed the trolls.¬†

Some people will go past disagreement and try to drag you down with insults. It’s not worth engaging with them. Roll your eyes and move on. They just want a reaction and are starved for attention. Don’t give it to them.

Photo credit: Fredrik Rubensson