Ellen Ullman's "Life in Code."

This is now the third time I've had Ellen Ullman's book Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, home from the library, and once again, I'm not going to finish it.

Life in codeThis is not because it's a bad book. I think it's actually a very good book. Unlike the last two times I've checked it out, this time I got through about 100 pages of it, and now it is overdue. (And it's perpetually on hold, so it's a popular book as well.)

Ullman (according to the book jacket), began her twenty-year programming career in the late-1970s/early-1980s. Evidently she is also the author of several novels and another well-known memoir, titled Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, which I'd never heard of. That makes sense, though; in 1997 I was still reading fantasy and studying film history, so the only nonfiction I read was biographies of James Dean and Montgomery Clift.

This book is a collection of pieces that have been written at various points in time; at the head of each chapter she tells you the year or the years when she first wrote it. This makes it a rather disjointed read (for me, anyway), but there's a lot here that made me go, "Oh, of course." A lot of things that bother me about our techie world, she talks about. She describes (in the 1994 chapter) how all programmers want to go "low," or "closer to the machine," so they can avoid the ridiculous work of creating systems for actual human users. She also describes a lunchroom conversation where all the techies try to figure out how long it would take to "wipe out a disease inherited recessively on the X chromosome." Eventually they get around to just killing every carrier. When she points out that that's what the Nazis did:

"They all look at me in disgust. It's the look boys give a girl who has interrupted a burping contest. One says, 'This is something my wife would say.'

When he says 'wife,' there is no love, warmth, or goodness in it. In this engineer's mouth, 'wife' means wet diapers and dirty dishes. It means someone angry with you for losing track of time and missing dinner. Someone sentimental. In his mind (for the moment), 'wife' signifies all programming-party-pooping, illogical things in the universe." (pp. 9-10.)

God. It's a good book. But you know the real reason I couldn't finish it? It made me so depressed I didn't think I could go on.

So I put it down and spent the rest of the weekend reading Agatha Raisin mysteries. I slept a lot better after those.


Great News!

Whistleblower Edward Snowden and his wife Lindsay Mills are having a baby!

Yes, I know you probably thought I was talking about something else, but let's face it, unless it pertains to whistleblowers, I don't follow political news at all anymore. I don't want to get into a whole big thing about it, but I might just caution against thinking rural voters are a completely different species than anyone else. For a truly eye-opening look at the cultures, economics, and politics of living in rural America, I would highly suggest reading Paula vW. Dáil's excellent Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest.

But: that is all neither here nor there.

Moral mazesThis week I'd like to tell you about this SUPER book I've been reading all summer long: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. It was first published in 1988, and I'm reading the twentieth anniversary edition from 2008, but I'm telling you, it reads like it was written this morning. Anyone who is feeling grossed out by our world of corporations and groupthink and organizational behavior (three things which all gross me out A LOT), is going to find a lot to read about in this book.

Ostensibly the book is about the "occupational ethics of corporate managers," and can also be considered a "sociology of the peculiar form of bureaucracy dominant in American business."

Now that makes it sound dry as hell, and I'm not going to lie to you, this is an academic book. It requires slow reading and attention, which is why I can only get through about 1.5 pages every day, in between yelling at the CRjrs to stop hitting each other so hard (I've given up on telling them to stop hitting each other full-stop). But if you put in the work, I think you'll be rewarded, because here is a quote from an actual manager that REALLY tells you what the book is about:

"As a former vice-president of a large firm says: 'What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'" (p. 4.)

And if that doesn't explain a lot of what is going wrong in the world today, I don't know what does.

More to come. Have a good week, all.


Happy COVID Autumn.

I used to enjoy living in Wisconsin. But it's not been the most peaceful of places just now.

I don't have any answers or any ideas and I'm actually kind of tired of listening to people who think they do. So, it's back to avoidance of life through reading, and friends, I EXCEL at that sport.

So what I have been reading?

First up: the Agatha Raisin cozy mystery series by M.C. Beaton. I was never really into Beaton before now, but then I watched the fantastic series Agatha Raisin, starring the always-underappreciated Ashley Jensen.

The mysteries are terrible, beyond simplistic, but I LOVE Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin, and it turns out in the books that I just love Agatha Raisin for all her middle-aged prickliness (which hides a soft gooey center of kindness and insecurity). I'm in the early part of the series still, before Beaton started to phone them in (I've read a few later entries and yes, they get a little more slapdash), so that's good stuff.

I also polished off a few illustrated biographies/histories by an author named Ted Rall, who I really enjoy. Previously I have read his biography of Edward Snowden*, titled simply Snowden, but this month I tackled Francis: The People's Pope and Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, which was a fantastic American history book no matter what your politics.** I would highly recommend Ted Rall, and, as a special treat for these troubled, disjointed times, they are very quick reads.

Last but not least, for most of the summer I dipped into and out of Paula vW. Dáil's superlative Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest, which, no kidding, is a meaty buy for your library or for you at $29.95. If you are at all confused about what it's like living in rural America today, this book will lay it out for you with research, personal interviews, and economic numbers that will make a lot of things very, very clear. I'm from the rural Midwest, and I loved this book for the many ways it was right on, and for the many ways it pointed out how rural people who know things are continually screwed in our country, and also the pros and cons of their rural communities (and how they live within them). It's not easy to find a scholarly book that isn't condescending, but this one isn't, and I was endlessly grateful for that. I won't lie--it can get dry--but wow, I sure kept reading it. I would highly recommend it.

So. What have YOU been reading?

*The only piece of news I've seen for months that really made me happy was this one: Edward Snowden has been given permanent residency in Russia. I'm sad because this means I'll probably never be able to vote for him for president, but I can also stop worrying every three years (that was how often they had been renewing his visa or whatever he had for staying there) that he'll be returned to this country and executed just for being a decent, thinking human being.

**Okay, Republicans probably won't like it, but I'm a Nothing (politically, socially, professionally) and I enjoyed it.


Your Friday Giggle: Welcome to the Future.

Elon muskMy most fervent desire for Elon Musk is that he eventually shoots himself into space and we never have to hear about him ever again.

Seriously, I hate him. And all his kind.

So when I saw there was an entire parody book titled Welcome to the Future: Which Is Mine, by "Not Elon Musk," well, you know I had to look into that.

And yes, it's funny. I can't read a whole lot of satire, or parodies, but when I flipped through this one there was lots to enjoy. Most notably the Foreword, by (Not) Mark Zuckerberg:

"To get the most out of reading this book, you will need to give me your personal information: A foreword by Mark Zuckerberg.

Hello!

Elon Musk, my close personal acquaintance/colleague, asked me to write this foreword...Before you start the exciting process of opening this book and looking at the thrilling words and fun images on its pages, I need you to take a brief moment of your time and give me all of your personal information.

This is a very important step in the partaking of this book, and it cannot be skipped. If you attempt to skip it, you will receive an error message and you will not be granted access.

Specifically, what I am asking you to do, before you flip to the next page or browse this book in any way, is to provide me with your email address, your work history, a street address where you can be reached at any hour of the day or night, and access to the camera on your phone.

This information will never be shared with advertisers or third-party app developers. You have the Mark Zuckerberg promise on that!" (p. 1.)

And it goes on that way for quite some time, getting steadily more hilarious and ridiculous. There's chapters headed with titles like "I Enjoy Normal Human Activities The Same As You" (he doesn't) and, my favorite, "Is It Weird That I Get a Little Jealous When Another Car Maker's Autonomous Vehicle Kills Someone?"

I enjoyed it, and it's nice to laugh at anything these days. Even though I don't think Elon Musk is any laughing matter. Seriously. The guy has made $20 million dollars EACH AND EVERY HOUR since January 1. That isn't right.

I also got a new essay published at Medium, and it's an ode to Mr. CR: "Famous Romantic Lines, If They'd Been Said By My Accountant Husband."He's a romantic fool, our Mr. CR.

Now: Happy weekend to all of you. Don't buy a Tesla.


Re-reading while older.

It's not as dangerous as driving while drunk, but re-reading books that I read as a young person, now that I am an old person, is turning out to be a bittersweet journey.

And yes, I know 46 is a little young to be feeling as old as I am. But frankly, the last few years BEFORE 2020 had aged me, and I think 2020 has aged us all. I think it's safe to say I feel about 84. On a good day. At least I don't have macular degeneration (yet). Kitchen

The other day I was reading something about Anthony Bourdain (how I miss him) and I thought, I'd like to re-read Kitchen Confidential. So I did; but only in parts. This is what I found out:

  • I really miss Anthony Bourdain. I didn't re-read Kitchen Confidential all the way through, but I read it in little bits here and there and every single page I flipped to sucked me in immediately. And what a memoir. I'd forgotten just how meaty it was--literally and figuratively (the paperback copy I've got is slightly over 300 pages). He really had a way of making everything that he talked about interesting (even the parts that weren't that interesting to me, including some of his harder-living days). I usually don't have a lot of patience for "bad boys" describing their hijinks, but I have patience for Bourdain, mostly because when he's acting like a jerk he clearly knows he's acting like a jerk, and sometimes you can hear him striving for a more perfect state of being, through food or perhaps his skill with food. It's inspiring.
  • He was just 44 or so when this, one of his biggest and bestselling books, was published, it is shocking to me how old Bourdain used to seem (when I first read this book I would have been in my late 20s or 30) to me, and now that I'm 46, he seems ridiculously young. How can sixteen years or so make that big a difference in perspective? (And of course he died much too young.)
  • I just really liked this book. Take the chapter where Bourdain describes being the chef in a restaurant that the mob set up to give to a compatriot who had spent time in prison for not ratting them out. Although the man was not really fit to be in charge of a restaurant, Bourdain describes how many of the wise guys really tried to help him make it:

"When we finally opened, we were packed from the first minute. Orders flooded in over the phone and at the counter and at the tables. We were unprepared and understaffed, so the Italian contingent--including various visiting dignitaires, all with oddly anglicized names ('This is Mr. Dee, Tony, and meet a friend, Mr. Brown...This is Mr. Lang'), all of them overweight, cigar-chomping middle-aged guys with bodyguards and ten thousand-dollar watches--pitched in to help out with deliveries and at the counter. Gusy I'd read about later in the papers as running construction in the outer boroughs, purported killers, made men, who lived in concrete piles on Staten Island and Long Beach and security-fenced estates in Jersey, carried brown paper bags of chicken sandwiches up three flights of stairs to Greenwich Village walk-up apartments to make deliveries; they slathered mayo and avocado slices on pita bread behind the counter, and bused tables in the dining room. I have to say I liked them for that." p. 148.)

It remains a classic memoir. And even though it made me feel old to re-read it, it was worth it.


Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

This week I got the best thing ever in the mail: a book present from a friend.*

The book in question is Derf Backderf's new book Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, and it is a nonfiction graphic novel about the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. That was when the National Guard was called in to restore order to the campus in the face of protests, and ended up firing into the crowd and killing four people (and injuring nine more). To this day nobody knows who gave the order to fire or why, and nobody knows who specifically did the shooting. If you don't know the story, you should immediately read this book, or read this to start with.

Kent stateAs my friend said, she hoped I enjoyed the book, although she felt that "enjoy" (considering the subject matter) was not really the right word to use.

The book is unbelievable. I'm not a huge graphic novel reader, but I find I enjoy graphic novel nonfiction in graphic form, particularly for historical or science stories that are interesting to me but on which I don't have the time to read a regular nonfiction book. What is perhaps the most stunning is the section of notes and bibliographical material; Backderf provides sources and information for every picture and page he draws, and it is fascinating to learn just how difficult it is to find the truth of this one story. History is anything but dry; excavating the layers upon layers of trying to find the facts of this story in different accounts and photos must have been quite a job.

I read the book in one breathless run (yes, I ignored the children, and the meals, and the house, and other work--you just have to do that sometimes). It also led me to do a little bit of poking around on YouTube to see what else I can find, and one thing I found was Glenn Frank's impassioned plea to the students to just leave the protest so they all wouldn't get shot. Frank was a professor at Kent State and you have got to go watch this recording of his scream. I've thought about this book (and that clip) a lot, this week.

This is what everyone should scream in the face of any violence: "Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this."

Buy, and read, this book.

And thank you to my friend who sent it. You're right, "enjoy" was the wrong word. But it was the right book for me at the right time.

*Okay, we all know the best things to get in the mail are checks. Preferably large ones. But that doesn't happen very often, and actually, book gifts are so FUN they might even beat checks.


Citizen Reader at The Progressive.

As previously noted: I love whistleblowers.

I have now taken my fan girl behavior up a notch, and moved from reading about whistleblowers, to writing about whistleblowers, with this article I just got published at The Progressive magazine:

"How a U.S. Army Whistleblower Revealed 'The Apparatus of a Police State.'"

Earlier this year I was able to interview Christopher Pyle, the whistleblower in question, who was a longtime professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He's a fascinating guy, just fascinating. I know this is going to be a hard sell, but really, consider watching this half-hour talk with him and another author about surveillance and privacy issues. Or you can read his defense of Edward Snowden.

Have a good Monday, everyone.


Happy Labor Day 2020, Everyone.

And welcome to my favorite holiday weekend of the year.

If you've been a reader for a while you might remember that I love Labor Day. I love it, I love it, I LUUURVE it (as Georgia Nicolson would say in the superlative teen novel Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging). A holiday with no family get-togethers, no church*, no memorializing of war. Just a good old-fashioned day off work (if you're lucky enough to get the day off work), and I can always get behind that. Particularly in 2020, when the coming of autumn and winter, traditionally my favorite seasons, seems a bit more ominous than usual. In Wisconsin, where I live, I notice people have been mobbing outdoor seating at restaurants, and doing a very good job of pretending "Hey, we can go out to eat in a pandemic, we're outside, everything's cool, everything's getting back to normal..." Tonight it was a bit chillier than it's been, with a bit of autumnal nip in the air, and you could almost feel the OH NO WE'RE ALL ABOUT TO BE STUCK INSIDE AND ALONE FOR SIX MONTHS OF DARKNESS vibes starting to thrum under the thin veneer of summer gaiety.

It's unnerving.

But I'm here and you're there and there's really nothing to do now but get through it, right? I am wishing good wishes for you and hoping winter will not be too bad but mostly, mostly, I am happy to share with you, as is our Labor Day tradition, the best books about work that I read during the past twelve months. So, without further ado:

Oh, okay, one further ado: Here are the lists from previous years, just in case you'd like to see them: 2019 part 1 and part 2. 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.

So, now, here are the books about work I read in 2020. Links go to my reviews of them.

  1. Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden.
  2. Adam Minter's Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale,
  3. Henry Marsh's Admissions
  4. Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love
  5. Arlo Crawford's A Farm Dies Once a Year
  6. Bonus: The Wire

Please note this is a very small list; I didn't get as much reading done during the past year as I would have liked, and what reading I did do tended to be about whistleblowing and whistleblowers. On the other hand, whistleblowing stories are almost always work stories, so there is that.

I added The Wire, even though it's a TV show, because The Wire is perhaps the most work-oriented show I have ever seen. It shows Baltimore cops at work, teachers at work, politicians at work, journalists at work. It even shows what a shitty, non-ending job it is to do drugs, sell drugs, and keep your drug-selling empire on top. Have you watched The Wire yet? You should really do that.

In the meantime: Happy Labor Day, all. Take care of yourselves and squeeze in all the end-of-summer picnics that you can.

*And I even really like my family and I don't mind church. But still.


Book Giveaway: Contours

Hi everyone!

So I really need to get reading some new nonfiction, but I've taken to re-reading Anne Tyler novels instead, and being horrified anew with each title I re-read. Characters who once seemed so OLD to me (when I was in my twenties) are now YOUNGER than me.

Ye Gods.

But that is all neither here nor there. What we have today is a Book Giveaway! I've got an extra copy of Contours: A Literary Landscape, New Work Collected by the Driftless Writing Center (which includes an essay by yours truly, but which also includes a ton of great essays, stories, and poems by writers who life in the "Driftless Area").

First person to email me at sarah.cords@gmail.com gets it!

And yes. I know we're all trying to pretend autumn and winter and Continuing Coronavirus are not happening. All the same: Happy September.


And now for something completely different: Raymond Feist's fantasy novel "Queen of Storms."

I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was younger, and every now and then I still like to read a good fantasy book. It doesn't happen very often, because I don't really have a good way to tell what fantasy I'll like just by looking at it, and there is too much fantasy published each year for me to plow through. But when I saw Raymond Feist had a new series out, I decided to go for it.

Queen of stormsWhen I was younger, Feist was one of my favorite fantasy authors. I still fondly remember his books Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master, featuring his main character Pug. I tend to read primarily because I like good characters (as opposed to needing a page-turning story or real comprehensive world-building, as you might see in Tolkien) and I thought Feist did a nice job of developing real characters and including some humor in his books.

The first book in the new series is King of Ashes, and I blew through that a few months back, so quickly that I barely remembered any of it when I finally got the sequel, Queen of Storms, from the library a few weeks ago. (Mr. CR liked the book too and was interested in getting the sequel as well, so hey, look at me, still playing librarian at home.) The story was pretty basic: One power-hungry king destroyed a neighboring kingdom (and bullied other nearby rulers into going in on the "betrayal," the invasion, as well), but the youngest member of the killed king's family was spirited away. Later in the book we see him growing up and being trained to be an assassin/spy, before...well, traveling somewhere.

I wasn't kidding when I said I really couldn't remember much of it. But it doesn't really matter. I remembered enough of the characters' relationships to one another that it was pretty easy to step right back into this world. The hidden heir, named Hatu, is now running an inn with a woman that he trained with when they were children (Hava). But all is not well in their world: an invading army, led by nobody knows who, is destroying cities left and right, and generally trying to send the message that they mean business. Meanwhile, Hatu is kidnapped by people who know who he really is, leaving Hava to try and find him. In the course of trying to do that, she herself is captured and sold as a slave, but she manages to take over the ship she and a bunch of other slaves are being transported on.

Yeah, I really liked Hava, if you can't tell.

It's a fun series. Good escapism of the sort I really kinda needed right now.