Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #6)The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was completely unaware that this was the 6th book of a series. I don’t think that really hurt my understanding of the expertly crafted world. This book explores, race, the sexes, sexuality, and the meaning of being human. Int his universe there are a number of worlds where humans live, at least 84, there could be more, but we only know of 83, plus the planet of Winter, where the story takes place.

The world is interesting for two main reasons. First, it takes place on a planet that has been in an iceage for millennia. Second, humans don’t have the two obvious genders, male and female. The humans on this planet are able to, and do, switch between the two during their “kemmering” whichis the ONLY time there are any sexes on the planet. In fact, the rest of the time they are essentially eunuchs. Technically having both male and female sex organs at this point. The book is interesting, because it’s a study of what life could be like without the duality of male/female. These discussions are important in this day and age, given importance of Trans rights in the political discourse and the general transphobia in parts of the polity (I literally looked at my twitter feed and the ACLU had just posted an article about a trans girl in Texas).

The book is, generally, written from the perspective of an Earth human, a young black man named Genly Ai. Which allows us to feel very connected to this book. The character struggles with handling the lack of duality and continually assigns maleness or femaleness to characters. He often gets them very wrong, especially in the case of his “Landlady.” Who looks more feminine to Genly Ai than many of the other humans on this planet. However, whenever he asked, he learned that the Landlady had never had any children of the flesh but had many children overall (essentially meaning the Landlady had never gotten pregnant but had gotten a number of other people pregnant).

Aside from the obvious relevance of the topic related to Trans rights, the book looks at how politics can change when a leader changes. How a peaceful country that has never known war, can create an otherness out of their neighbor and begin down the path of war. You can see through the action of people the impact of rhetoric of their leaders. This was written at the beginning of the Nixon administration and the end of the Johnson administration. But I think it still rings true given the Trump administration today. Our sense of otherness has moved from outside of our boarders to within our boarders in a terrifying way.

I really enjoyed this book. It was very thought provoking and definitely something worth checking out.

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What Books Have Meant to Me

I have been a voracious reader most of my life. However, it didn’t come easy to me at first. In First Grade, where we really started to learn to read, I struggled a great deal. I always feared reading out loud because I would jumble words. They would swim in my vision and make it really difficult to read. I still switch words and I feel like when I’m reading out loud, I’m staring at the whole page rather than a specific line. It’s very difficult. However, I liked the stories that I was plunged into and it definitely made things feel worth it. In 3rd grade I really started to read ahead, but started to get major headaches while reading, so I had to get glasses just for reading. It eventually turned into requiring glasses all the time.

In 5th grade I really jumped into the world of Fantasy. When i’d get in trouble with the parents, we’d get sent to corners and one of the corners was next to my parent’s “nice” book shelf. In there was a really old version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was super interested by the book spines, as there was this crazy eye in the center of a ring. I decided to read this book when I got an assignment for doing a diorama about a specific book. Most of my classmates selected much shorter books, but I was super proud of selecting that book.

A few years later, my friends and I had a falling out. I ended up falling back into that series again. I read everything i could get my hands on. I was so depressed, but didn’t really understand what depression was. I was alone, but couldn’t really articulate to my parents and nor could my parents help me with my depression and loneliness because they didn’t have the emotional tools to help me with my depression. My dad specifically, because he was struggling with his own depression so he just wasn’t there.

As a result, I end up spending a great deal of time with Middle Earth. Since this was around when Metallica Load came out, I deeply associated that album with the Lord of the Rings. To the point where I was really disappointed with the video of “Hero of the Day” because I kept associating the narrator of that song with Frodo. It’s not the worst video, but it definitely didn’t fit with what I was expecting given how many times I heard that album while reading those books.

Over the years I’ve escaped into books to deal with the depression rooted in my parents fighting. Dealing with my girlfriend in HS. The divorce of my parents. Books were always my escape from these difficult times. Lately, I’ve been depressed to the point where it was a struggle to read.

I plan to start a small series on here for when the fancy strikes to write about a book that meant something to me and why it meant something to me. Something in more detail than what I wrote, here, about Lord of the Rings. This idea came from the Movies with Mikey episode about what Animation Taught Us. For me though, since I was limited in what I could watch on TV, including Movies, I think that Books are more appropriate. I’m not sure exactly how this will play out, so we’ll see.

Talking about Depression: You aren’t “Broken”

I’ve wanted to write this one for a while now. It’s a common theme in books, songs, and movies that if you have depression or PTSD that you’re a broken person. A shell of who you used to be. Yes, you’re different than you were before the trauma or the start of your depression. You aren’t broken though. I think about this every time I hear lovelytheband’s song broken. Which talks about how a couple gets together because they were both depressed in a similar way. This is the basis of starting a relationship together.

I find this problematic, because it implies that a very natural reaction to stressful situations leads us to be broken that everything is our fault and that there’s no systemic problem at play here. For example, calling a solider with PTSD, broken may make it harder for them to get help because it puts the burden on them. The fact that they have PTSD is solely their fault when it certainly wasn’t their fault. There were a whole slew of reasons that lead them to enlisting in the first place. They were not the person making the decision to go to war. They weren’t the one making the decision to lead them into the battle that caused them to experience the traumatic event. Even if they were in charge, it’s impossible to know a priori what sort of event would trigger PTSD for a given person or themselves.

When it comes to more general depression due to the general factors controlling your life, think of that friend you know that never seems to have luck and ends up working at some shitty gas station. The one that was super smart that everyone thought would do really well for themselves. But then one thing went sideways, maybe they got sick, then their future collapsed into a single point where there’s no way out. Their going to be depressed. They aren’t broken, even though they have been beat up. They are reacting in an emotional way and a natural way. That person isn’t in that position because they wanted to be there. Their life isn’t what they wanted it to be. That doesn’t mean they are a broken failure of a person. Lucky always plays a role in anything that happens in our lives. For some people, it’s a case of bad luck that leads you to where you are. Other people they get a lucky break a different way and end up with a very different life.

I bring up the job example, because I watched a really interested video on YouTube, by a channel I enjoy watching, WiseCrack. They looked at the psychology and physiology of being depressed and what can cause a person to feel depressed. They typically explore themes in pop culture using philosophy and they’ve explored the Philosophy of One Punchman before. This time they use the same character to investigate depression related to not being properly challenged in your life. In this context “properly” can mean the amount of stress you’ve experienced across your life, it could be too much or too little. Each resulting in differing negative consequence when you’re stressed in the future. The other context for properly challenged means that even if you had been stressed in a healthy manner growing up, that in your current job you could be insufficiently challenged leaving you without a meaningful life.

Neither case means that you’re broken. You are reacting to what your body has been trained to respond to its entire life. Which isn’t being broken. Society is broken though. There are so many things that don’t align with our intrinsic values or needs, that we can’t help but look broken if we’re doing something that runs counter to that societal norm.

Anyway, I plan to revisit this topic again in the future. In the interim, check out some of the science of depression due to missing meaning in life.

Black Mirror: Nosedive, Authenticity, and Lost Connections

I just finished watching Black Mirror’s episode called Nosedive, which is an interesting episode about the impact of continually rating people for every social interaction. It explores what happens when someone who was previously a very high rated person has a very bad day. It was, implied that it would happen throughout episode, that everyone was just a series of misfortunate events away from dropping from their current social hierarchy to a lower strata where they’d be unable to function in current society. Ratings indicate which jobs a person can have or not. Dropping too low indicates you’re not worthy of that job and in many cases, network effects and game theory type logic comes into play. Where you have to judge if a low ranking person or a person that’s currently out of favor would negatively impact your image.If that would drop you from a person of respect to a person of disrepute.

This episode made me uncomfortable to watch, because in a lot of ways it feels like it hits close to home as it deals with a major reason why I don’t like social media. I don’t like the constant need for validation through pictures, likes, and comments. I’ve tried to, in general avoid, Facebook lately, because it feels inauthentic, and creepy. Between Facebook, itself, tracking what you do online and partners with companies to track your shopping habits offline. Combing that with the desire to display the best of your life on platforms like Instagram, this can lead to depression.

In many articles it’s because of the fact that you’re comparing your messy every day life to what people are willing to post, which typically represents the best parts of their life. Their happy dogs, walking in a vineyard, going surfing, or some new thing that they bought. Even if you know that you are doing this, doesn’t really help. However, I think there’s a few reasons beyond that. For one, it forces you to live an inauthentic life, which is one of the major themes in the show Nosedive. The character knows she’s putting on a show and clearly has some serious anxiety around behaving that way. Her brother, who lives a more authentic life, doesn’t care as much about his social media score and directly asks for Lacie (the main character) to return to her authentic self (“remember when we had real conversations?”)

Being an inauthentic version of yourself is a type of acting as well pushing down the values you actually believe in. This is something referenced in Lost Connections as a root cause of depression. Where our intrinsic values do not align with society’s values and we must adopt society’s values over our own we become depressed. In the episode it Lacie only became aware that it was a possible to reject those norms when she was picked up by a trucker with a rate of 1.4/5. This woman allowed her to reflect on her experience as her rating declined and bottomed out.

However, it wasn’t until she’d been rejected by the society and put into a prison of sorts that she was able to find a truly authentic interaction. It was rage filled, but eventually became filled with joy as the two people in prison were able to be an authentic version of themselves.

In our society, while we don’t have the intensity portrayed in the episode with social media, it is possible we could move into that direction over time. For us to really have authentic interactions, we need to find people that support us being our authentic selves even when there are people in our lives that might not fully support our decisions. Or people in our lives that make it more difficult to be authentic.

A Competition of Values

I’ve written about values in the past and it was something that I’ve felt was really important to me. However, it wasn’t until I had read Lost Connections (see my review here) that my values, education as a Lean practitioner, and my work environment was a major source of my depression. I think at some level I knew this, because I would get frustrated often and talk about it with the one or two people that really understood it. When I read two sections of Lost Connections, I put a couple pieces together.

In one section, Hari talks about how being unable to control things in your job, regardless of the type of work, completely destroys someone’s sense of worth and drives you into a state of hopelessness and depression. This can lead to anxiety and the inability to plan, because the depression and anxiety shrink your time horizon down to the immediacy of dealing with the person in control of your work life. This is something that his abhorrent to Lean, Agile, and Six Sigma methodologies. Where the goal is to push down decision making to the person closest to the actual work. In companies that really focus on driving down cost or having the single point of decision making, this can be anathema to the company culture.

The second section that hit home was the portion about our culture being at odds with our intrinsic values. Considering that I’ve been immersed so deeply with Lean, I have a strong sense of what i believe is fair for technology and social policies, it’s unsurprising that the current political environment was contributing to my depression. I had tried to fight this by writing, but I had just felt beaten down. I didn’t feel like I had anyone around me to talk with to support my values, this plunged me into farther depression.

This is where you need to find like people around you and I completely failed in that. I needed support for my values to be able to compete with the unhealthy cultural values i was thrown into at work. While I threw myself into an unhealthy amount of news and media about current politics. These two together over a series of months and years really started to take a toll on me. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. No matter what your principles are, you need to have a strong support network to keep those values healthy. You also have to be aware that your values are under attack by a society that values things very differently than you do. By a society that’s trying to exploit your anxiety to take your money to make you feel better. Because that item is the only thing that will make you feel better.

I had thought I was immune to that because I read a lot. I wasn’t out on Facebook or any places like that really trying to keep up with the Joneses. But I believe that I just dealt with that issue in other ways, including eating more than I should when I’m depressed, having a couple more drinks that I needed, or by shutting myself away from friends and family through gaming or reading or staring off into nothingness.

However, I now know that this is a thing that has happened to me and I can stop and listen to what I’m feeling. I’m going to with help of my friends locally and online to discuss my values and how I’m feeling about things. I’m going to sit with these feelings to understand them and figure out what it is that is in conflict causing me to feel this way and then make a plan to address it. As it is, i’m going to be working with my wife to figure how to get more connected with nature and how to get connected with more people in the area. As a way to get connected and be healthier.

I’m really glad I found this book, because it’s helped me feel a lot lighter about things. It’s helped me understand that I’m not broken, I have problems that cause depression, but they are solvable and I just need to ask for help and figure out to fix them with my partner.

Review of Oathbringer by Brand Sanderson

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive, #3)Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was definitely ok. It was a good way to pass time, but I don’t think this book is nearly as good as some of Sanderson’s other writing. I find these books to be bloated, take an overly long time for events to happen, and for there to be a general lack of emotional depth for many of the characters. The story progresses along a somewhat predictable path with a few minor twists and turns that feel like they come out of no where, but it doesn’t really matter. The twists don’t really feel like they materially change the general direction of the story.

The author tried to add a great deal of tension throughout the story, but I never felt that the important characters were really ever at a real threat to being killed. I also didn’t feel like there was a threat to them being removed from the real important battle in a meaningful way. This was basically accurate throughout the story.

I also felt that many of the characters still seemed two dimensional even though we’ve now been with them for three books. This was simply confounded by the fact that no one truly grieved when an important (but not a main) character was killed. I couldn’t help but compare the death of this character to my reactions to characters that were significanly more minor or insignificant generally to the story, but we learned more about them in series like Malazan Book of the Fallen.

This was a good entertaining book, it’s not the best fantasy out there. It’s good enough to get you through to a better series though.

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On Being a White Liberal In Portland OR

Portland Oregon has been in the news a lot lately. Mostly for not very good things. The city has a great image generally, but that’s because the people talking about Portland, generally look and think like me. White, bearded, and generally liberal. However, there’s a history to Portland that’s rarely talked about, which is that it was essentially founded to be a White Utopia. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a great article interviewing people of color after the Max Light Rail attack, I recommend you read that here, because they do a great job explaining the background.

I think generally, it’s safe to say, that Portland encompasses both the best and worst of being a white culture. You’re able to find good high paying jobs in technology. You are able to be around other white people because you have a similar background. I can’t decided if those two sentences are the best or worst. On the one hand it means that generally white people are well off, but that also means that we are exclusive and not well integrated with the rest of the community at large. This leads to ignorance, in liberals it results in something of a White Hero mentality, regardless of good intentions. In Conservatives it can manifest itself into hate, including white supremacy and neo-nazi’s. The former wants to make friends with minorities to understand them better, but that can result in tokenism. While the latter ends having “our Mexican” who isn’t like those other Mexicans out there. Which is a justification for liking one Mexican while hating all other job stealing Mexicans.

I’ve become acutely aware of this over the past several years in Portland. I am married to a Mexican-American woman as many of you know. In Austin these issues didn’t come up as often as they do now, and I think that was more due to the people she was working with during her PhD studies and Post-Doc. However, whenever she started working at Intel, which has a big problem with diversity, these issues became a focal point of many things she does. She’s been heavily involved in Women’s groups at Intel. She’s a member of the Saturday Academy working to get under privileged and minorities involved in science and technology at an earlier age. These were things that, to be honest, are fairly new to me as a thing that needs to be done.

Growing up in Grove City, you didn’t really realize that you had it pretty well. It was a very very very White community. The school system was really good. Opportunities were there for anyone to join Saturday Science, there were ways to easily take more advanced classes in any subject if you were on the college path. Since Grove City was a really small school, our High school had 800 some odd students, we didn’t have the massive disparities due to differing socio-economic. They were there to be sure. It was a handful of kids rather than the majority of the kids as some rural or inner city schools see.

I guess it’s really fair to say i grew up sheltered and started to experience more diversity while studying at Pitt. I have been lucky since going to Pitt to marry my amazing wife, study in Europe meeting people from all over the world. People from countries the US has foreign policy issues with.

Even despite that, I’m still uncomfortable around people that I don’t know how to start a conversation. I think it’s important to be honest about that discomfort to myself and use that as an opportunity to grow. The only way to get rid of the discomfort is to meet more people. I don’t want a black friend because they are black. I want and need more friends of diverse backgrounds to grow into a better person. My wife has opened my eyes to her family’s cultural. I really enjoy Mariachi music now, Son De La Negra is one of their favorite songs and one of mine too.

So how does all this relate to being a White Liberal in Portland? Well, I think for a start, we need to meet people where they are, try to understand their world and world view. It’s very different than ours. We need to start joining groups and becoming part of the larger more complex city of Portland or whatever city you currently live in. The other thing that we must do is listen. When people are talking about their history and where they came from, you’ll hear both a lot of similarities and many defining differences. You can build bonds on the similarities, while using those differences to understand people in a way you never could before. These differences can be painful because it forces you to look into the mirror and really think about where you came from and for you to grow as a person it requires to potentially reevaluate how you got where you are. I know that I grew up in a pretty special area that gave me a huge amount of opportunity. My parents were in a position where they enabled me to go to Pitt leaving with minimal debt. This makes me very fortunate and puts me in a very different place than people who built up a lot of debt going to school or came from an area where they weren’t enabled to succeed.

Upon self-reflection, I need to do more listening and growing.