bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 For my politics books club we decided on some light summer reading for June: Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, which explores the creation and expansion of different fascist movements for the purpose of arriving at a working sense of what fascism is based on how it has historically worked, rather than what its adherents said about it. 
As someone who got probably a pretty decent overview of both World Wars in high school by contemporary standards but has supplemented it with additional self-teaching in an extremely haphazard and piecemeal fashion (I like to read about very specific historical events like a single intelligence mission at a time), I felt like I had enough base-level knowledge to follow this without having to Google too many things, but it was also enormously helpful to have the subject set out in such an orderly manner. Paxton looks at different “stages” of fascism, of which only Mussolini’s and Hitler’s reigns both qualify as unambiguously fascist (rather than regular ol’ authoritarian) and went through all the stages he lists. 
I was expecting it to be a bit denser because some of the reviews I’d checked out said it was a bit dry, but while it doesn’t read in the novelesque way that some history books of more limited scope of subject manage to pull off these days, I really didn’t find it too dense or academic at all. It commits the occasional bit of academese, like “fascisms,” but it’s always quite clear what he’s getting at and overall I found it to be quite clear and straightforward. If you’re interested in the subject—which you should be, because otherwise why are you reading this book?—it should pull you along quite well; the prose style and the overall organization of the book just set everything out in a very plain and straightforward way. The content is terrifying without being either coy or gratuitously graphic. 
The book was written in 2004, and… well, I’d be quite interested in hearing Paxton’s take on current events. (ETA: I am a dumbass; he wrote an article about in in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine that I have just not gotten around to reading yet because I am a twit.) A lot of what he talks about regarding the early stages of fascism—it’s ideological incoherence, its poaching of grievances from the left, its roots in socialism and syndicalism even as it immediately became viciously anti-socialist, its alliances with conservative elites who thought they could use its energy for their own ends—sounds uneasily familiar to anyone following modern politics. But there are a lot of movements and regimes that are often called fascist and that may be sort of fascist in some ways but not in others. Paxton gives us a good rundown of unsuccessful fascist movements and of not-properly-fascist authoritarian regimes (I was perhaps inappropriately delighted at the section dedicated to the Perón regime in Argentina and the conclusion that it was not fascist, despite Perón’s ties to Mussolini. Musical theater is a helluva drug, apparently). 
This book doesn’t talk a huge amount about propaganda per se, which is something I would usually be disappointed with since propaganda is my favorite, but it does talk a lot about the appropriation of symbols, emotional manipulation, the slippery relationship between fascism and making any sort of coherent sense, and its anti-intellectualism, all of which is much fun, although it’s a bit terrifying to look at the legacy this kind of intellectual nihilism has left on mass politics in more recent years. It’s also terrifying when Paxton talks not about the internal properties of fascism itself but also about the political space that allows it to develop.
Though the book is short and is about 25% footnotes, I think we could end up having a very long book group discussion on this, especially if I come up with enough really good questions. It’s not for three weeks though so I’ll have to review it again when we get closer—and I’m really looking forward to doing so. 
Oh, and the book also contains a “bibliographic essay,” which basically is just a lifetime’s worth of book recommendations. Damn you, Paxton. Now I’ve got a TBR list I couldn’t hope to get through even if I turned into one of those doofy Stephanie Meyers vampires that never needs to sleep.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
 For this month's political book club selection, we picked (at Andrea's suggestion -- thanks, Andrea!) Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Pomerantsev is a documentary filmmaker who worked in Russia for ten years in the aughts, where he worked for Russian TV outlets bringing the "reality TV" concept to Russia. 
While Pomerantsev's writing style can be a bit pat and the printing of the book I had was somewhat poorly proofread, this was made up for, for me, by the fact that the subject matter is absolute catnip to me. Media studies, and especially media studies in broad political contexts, is very much my bag, baby, and Pomerantsev's book is basically an extended exploration of how the Russian government uses propaganda -- both on TV and outside of it, but mostly on TV -- to consolidate and maintain control over the populace, carefully managing what sort of dissent is allowed and how much, flooding people with ever-shifting narratives of total nonsense that sedate or disorient the populace. 
This particular case study in propaganda includes many of my favorite reading topics: The economic fuckeries of high finance capitalism, mafias, goofy mafia movies, murder mysteries, heartwarming tales of social activism, architectural hymns to great world capital cities. All it needs is a couple of poker games and it'd be a book version of that bit in The BFG where he makes personalized dreams for people by throwing a bunch of 'em in a jar and shaking it around. And this is all even written before the Russians got into screwing around with other people's elections!
The most disturbing aspect of this book is how much all the surreal reality-manipulating stuff Pomerantsev talks about really doesn't feel all that foreign or unfamiliar -- a lot of it's the same old hypercapitalist, sensationalist, reality-TV fuckery we've got going on in the U.S., just turned up to 11. It's even worse if you're relatively well versed in the hypocrisies and not-so-much-hidden-as-ignored brutalities within the U.S., like that we send people to jails for stupid shit, too, and in many of them, the conditions are unconscionable and people die mysteriously. The richest and most prestigious Russians, the oligarchs and models, jet around the world to London and New York and Switzerland, where the wealthy are above the law and the models are exploited terribly, because that's how it works throughout the whole developed world. 
The book is structured episodically, roughly giving project-by-project accounts of the lives of Pomerantsev's documentary subjects, but also discussing what had to get cut from the "documentaries" and why. One section covers a mafioso who has since become a filmmaker and writer, making films about his own life as a mafioso in a remote town in Siberia that mostly exists to import cars from Japan. Another deeply creepy section investigates the suicide of model Ruslana Korshunova and her involvement in a creepy corporate training/life coaching organization called Rose of the World which is apparently a cult. It reads like something a disaffected corporate underling like myself would write as a satire of the absurdities of the self-care/self-empowerment trend (deconstructed wonderfully by Laurie Penny at The Baffler), except apparently it's real and it's driven multiple people to suicide. It's also, unsurprisingly, based on a U.S. self-improvement module that's also had its share of lawsuits alleging that it's a cult, including wrongful death suits. A slightly less depressing section of Nothing Is True follows the story of a businesswoman whose entirely legal and fully permitted business selling some industrial chemical becomes illegal overnight, which she learns about when she is unceremoniously arrested. She is able to win her case and set up a nonprofit helping other wrongfully arrested upstanding citizens, but there is reason to suspect that she's largely being allowed to do this -- and to have a carefully framed film made of her experience -- mostly to give people a feel-good and laughably false story that corruption in Russia is mostly low-level petty stuff that's being successfully rooted out. 
The overall result of all of this is mind-bending, which I think is the point, and is of course a feeling that Americans have become increasingly familiar with since... um... frankly, it's been a boiling frog situation since at least the Bush/Gore election, as far as I'm concerned, but it's definitely gotten worse in the past year. Everything's just a chaotic funhouse mirror of total nonsense run by dumb schmucks who nevertheless can mess with you because they have enough money to buy whatever reality they want for you, in addition to for themselves.
I think we're going to have a lot to talk about at book club, especially since so many of the people in the book club are writers who I don't think are likely to have the same general doubts about the power of propaganda that a lot of folks seem to have (it's disheartening how many Americans seem to think that we're accusing Putin of having diabolical brilliance and superpowers when people report that disinformation "hacked" the election. I think just there's a fundamental reluctance to admit that you don't actually need superpowers to brainwash millions of people, just a lot of resources -- namely, enough to hire people who have studied comm and PR -- and some basic competence at opportunism, unencumbered by scruple). We already did a book about how fucked our voting system is, so I don't think we're blinded by any false faith in the strength of American institutions as a group. Therefore... I think it'll be fun. I'll try to come up with some really good questions. 
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
 The folks in my book group wanted something a little more action-oriented than Necessary Trouble, so for this month we read Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.

Popovic was one of the founding members of Otpor!, the Serbian student resistance movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in the late ‘90s, and since then has helped run CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, which trains pro-democracy activists across the world. So it’s clear that he’s got a track record of success in the subject.

The book is short and clearly written to be as accessible and entertaining as possible, each chapter dedicated to a specific principle or strategy—stuff like “make oppression backfire” and “have a vision of tomorrow”—and illustrating it with a lot of anecdotes from either Otpor! or other resistance movements that Popovic has worked with. Case studies range from the Israeli cottage cheese boycott of 2011 to the overthrow of the dictator Gayoom in the Maldives in 2008. A number of these stories are surprisingly delightful—the Israeli cottage cheese boycott was just the most bonkers thing; I actually laughed out loud reading about it—and in several cases this is by design. Popovic is a great proponent of what he calls “laughtivism,” or what I would more likely call “TROLLING FOR REVOLUTION” or possibly “meme warfare.”

(Aside: I spent much of this book wondering what Popovic thinks of the current Nazi-punching meme; obviously literally punching Nazis is an act of violence, but setting the gif of Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched to music and spreading it around the Internet seems otherwise the exact sort of goofy, low-barrier-to-entry rejection of a self-serious bigot that he’s advocating. Anyone can make and post Nazi-punching memes. And Popovic explicitly says that his commitment to nonviolence is more about tactical efficacy than about morals, and he gives Nazis as the quintessential example of “Obviously these guys had to be fought.” But there’s also long histories of both violent and non-violent resistance to Nazis and fascists that I think really need to be gone over in actual detail by anyone seriously thinking about how to best fight Nazis, and this book isn’t really about Nazis.)

At times, Popovic’s “I was just a regular college asshole” everyman schtick gets a little annoying, probably because I had bad experiences with Regular College Assholes, but I tried to sit with and examine that feeling until I got used to it, because inevitably any sort of mass movement is going to consist largely of people who are at least sort of assholes because people are like that. Avoiding everyone who’s even a little bit of a dick is a great way to end up hiding in a hole on some obscure corner of the Internet shitposting about those splitters at the People’s Front of Judea instead of getting anything done. Getting people to not be assholes to the rest of the movement in the course of doing the work is important so resentments don’t build, but that’s a more specific issue.

Probably the biggest blind spot in the book, though, is the conflation of specific political goals with fundamental cultural change. The second is a lot harder and Popovic doesn’t really talk about it, but sometimes it leads him into stepping into bits of American history that he doesn’t seem to know more than a surface-level amount about. The worst offenses are when he’s talking about the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, which he paints as being a huge success. It was successful if you consider it in terms of being a movement about legislative goals—ending the Jim Crow laws, passing the Voting Rights Act—and in that light, it was indeed a major victory. But the civil rights movement didn’t challenge a single unpopular figure with outsize power, like a dictator; ultimately, it was challenging a deeply rooted foundation of American culture, one with largely unexamined majority support. Any by that light, it only made very incremental progress. Popovic also ignores the role of Malcolm X and the more militant black power movement in framing Martin Luther King as a palatable, respectable alternative; nor does he discuss how the movement eventually devolved into riots in the early ‘70s. The message that can be fairly easily gleaned from what is and is not covered in this book is that cultural sea change is extremely hard; smaller, concrete policy goals are important to make sure you can claim yourself any wins at all. Most people don’t super enjoy living under murderous dictators in quite the same way that racists love living in a racist society, so the challenges are different.

The occasional foray into respectability politics aside, Popovic actually does do a pretty good job of presenting the case that the way a movement is presented and how it “sells” itself are pretty important. Symbols and storytelling are powerful tools; while some people certainly overestimate the importance of appearances over actually doing stuff, it’s also very true that people are emotional creatures, and they’ll respond to stuff better if it offers community, if it’s fun and exciting, if it feels cool and rebellious rather than strict and ideological, if it has a symbol and a narrative and all that good stuff. Otpor! also employed elements of what we’d now call gamification, such as giving out t-shirts for getting arrested, color-coded so that everyone could see what level of getting-arrested experience you’d earned.

The catalog of failed or partially failed resistance movements—Occupy Wall Street is a frequent case study—coalesces around one thesis: Learning from past movements doesn’t mean just looking at what they did and doing the same thing. It also means interrogating your own current situation and getting creative in figuring out the best way how to apply the principles of nonviolent resistance and when and in what way it will be effective to employ any given individual tactic. Occupying a space, Popovic stresses, is a tactic; it’s not a strategy or an identity. Activists need to be creative, perceptive, and flexible; striving to simply copy past successful movements makes you too predictable.  

Overall, I think it’s a charming, accessible little book that explains its basic principles well and would be an especially good thing to give to the sorts of people who ask dumb shit like “Why don’t they just protest peacefully?” as if a) graffiti is violent or something or b) there’s anything “just” about organizing large masses of people, because it will explain bog-standard concepts like “Maintaining peaceful control over a large crowd of upset people is in fact something you have to actively do, and it requires discipline and organizing, and it’s possible to fail at it” in much nicer and more persuasive ways than, say, shouting at them that they’re stupid and liberals are fucking useless, which is what I want to do every time I hear stuff like that. (If you don’t want to buy them a whole book, I also recommend this excellent Foreign Policy piece about political violence.)

I’ve probably got more to say, but book club is tomorrow and I should probably save at least some of it for that? And write up questions, because that’s my responsibility which I forgot about until right this second.

Anyway. Dictators hate it when you make fun of them, so go forth and troll for democracy.


Adventures of George Washington meme
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
A few weeks ago, at the ACES conference in St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of being in the audience at the very first reading for Kory Stamper's new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. I'd followed Kory Stamper on Twitter for a while, even before Merriam-Webster became the unlikely voice of The Resistance. Reading her blog, Harmless Drudgery, had definitely turned me into one of those people for whom being a lexicographer sounds like the best job ever, although now that I've read the book, I must concede that it's entirely possible I wouldn't be very good at it if by some miracle I did land a lexicographer job, since I'm prone to burnout about stuff generally, and because apparently it's not really possible to tell if your sprachgefuhl is quite strong enough until you've put it to the test.

Anyway. The book.

I loved it.

Inasmuch as it has a narrative thread, it is Kory Stamper's memoirs, starting with her job interview and walking us through her training and the major lexicographical challenges and triumphs of her career, for the purpose of illustrating what making dictionaries requires and what kind of weirdos make them. Within this basic framework we take many detours -- into Kory's pre-lexicographical life, into the history of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and of dictionaries in general, into the histories and uses of a lot of weird words, and many other odd and interesting places.

This book contains many footnotes, many of which are in the form of definitions, which is quite cute, but they also have jokes and funny asides in them, like Terry Pratchett footnotes. (My favorite bit was the one I found an error in and then I felt smart.)

Stamper's general style is one I tentatively dub Internet Witty, a form of speech that is marked not necessarily by fancily formal sentences, but by a wide range of registers, references, tidbits, factoids, wordplay, and other things that word nerds have fun with. It shows off a wide-ranging rather than a narrowly specialized education and worldview on the part of the writer. It's the playfully nerdy style that was elevated to an art form on The Toast, basically, highbrow and lowbrow and middlebrow at the same time. It gives us phrases like memento moron: "remember you, too, will fuck up." It marks Stamper as one of the tribe of people who know a lot of obscure liberal arts things but who do so because obscure liberal arts things are hilarious -- i.e., my people. In short, it is very, very far from the dry, objective, personality-less style mandated by the dictionary itself. Squeezing all the color out of a dictionary definition is quite a process, and one which Stamper walks us through with self-deprecating and sometimes juvenile good humor.

If you love words, you'll love this book. If you're a bit of a snob about words, it will challenge a lot of your assumptions -- one of my favorite bits of the book is Kory's journey to becoming an "irregardless" apologist -- but if you like rolling around in them and banging them together and pulling them apart to see what's inside, then boy is this book for you.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Due to time constraints we picked a short book for our next book club, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and although I read it all in one evening I've been mulling over it for several days after before attempting to write a review, and will likely try to reread it before we meet. There's a lot packed into the 106 pages here. The pair of essays -- one short, at just a few pages, the other more than ninety pages long -- combines Baldwin's personal and family history, American history, sociological and cultural commentary, an unnerving dinner with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed, and a call for all of us to truly reckon with America's history and legacy of racism.

The first essay, addressed to Baldwin's nephew (also named James), is personal enough that some of it almost feels a little voyeuristic to read, but its main point -- that at the time it was written, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, celebration was premature, and black Americans had not really been emancipated yet -- is of interest to any reader who is at all invested in America. This letter also introduces a theme Baldwin expounds upon later as well, which that white people, while not "devils" as some movements at the time concluded, were nevertheless not very smart, and that they were in charge of everything was no reason to accept their infantile framing that it was black people who needed to be accepted/assimilated into white society and to become more like white people, because the existing white power structure was dreadful and, within it, people became weird and stupid and dysfunctional (Baldwin writes this in more elegant terms than that, of course) -- in short, he tries to each his nephew to resist internalizing what we now call the white gaze.

The second essay is a mostly autobiographical set of musings about growing up and learning to face the world and all its absurdities and atrocities, and the many temptations and pitfalls and escapes that Baldwin either avoided or did not. He speaks of his terror of falling into a life of crime as he became closer in age to the criminals that haunted the streets of Harlem where he grew up, and of the somewhat self-aggrandizing refuge he found in the Church as a youth pastor -- and then, eventually, how he grew to find it hypocritical and leave it behind him. He writes about the Nation of Islam movement and about why it appealed to people, and he explains both why he thinks it's wrong and that he understands what it's an entirely understandable response to. There is a tendency in much of American liberalism, at least right now, to expend much more fury and moralizing denunciation upon the people supposedly on one's same "side" who are doing it wrong than against the actual forces of oppression, in order to show off that you are one of the reasonable ones and to try and keep your "side" in line. The results are usually a bad look. Baldwin here manages to avoid any sort of ostentatious pearl-clutching or unsightly scrambling to distance himself from the Nation of Islam movement; it is in part a testament to his great empathy and in part a testament to his skill as a writer that he instead portrays the movement and the dinner with a profound sadness and with a tension and feeling of uneasiness that makes this section of the essay especially unputdownable. He writes about the people who join the Nation of Islam in largely sociological terms, describing them as sort of getting entangled in hatred and its weird mythology the way other excellent writers have written about family members sinking into addiction or crime. Though he's understanding of the course of despair and frustration that leads to people joining what is essentially a cult, he doesn't gloss over the fact that it is a supremacist hate group, and that no amount of explanation actually makes that anything other than ugly.

Baldwin reserves some of his profound sadness for his insights into the psychology of white Americans, some of which still rings 100% true and some of which rings slightly less true until you remember he was writing in 1962 and you figure that if it's not completely true now it squares 100% with everything we know about the '50s. Sometimes I forget how weird the '50s must have been until I see, like, advertisements or TV footage or something like that from then, and it's just modern enough that the ways in which it is alien make me feel like I'm on bad drugs, with people smoking on airplanes and all the movies in eye-watering Technicolor. Baldwin describes us as "slightly mad victims of our own brainwashing," which is certainly true, and as being terrified of sensuality, which is something we have made some progress on in some spaces and pretended to make progress on in others, and made no progress on whatsoever in large swaths of American life. Some of the things Baldwin says about stress and psychotherapy, about the aridity of life under the sway of capitalism and its fantasies, have only become more true since the postwar boom ended and the economic deprivation that used to characterize Harlem has hollowed out the entire middle class (even as Harlem becomes gentrified out of existence, from what I hear).

For me personally, it was Baldwin's criticisms of Christianity that interested me the most. He talks about Christianity's history as an imperial power, allied with imperialist nations and foisted upon unwilling populations to "save" them, though the only thing they really needed saving from was the Christians. And he talks about the role of the black Church in ways that echo with criticisms I've read about the Irish Catholic Church, especially in pre-revolutionary Ireland, but the Church he is describing is also in other ways clearly very different, and not only because Catholic Mass tends to be a very stiff and formal affair. But I'm always very interested in people's stories of apostasy, especially people who were once very serious and therefore whose apostasy had to be very serious as well. Baldwin discusses the purposes that his Church serves, both in the community and in his life, purposes both good and bad, and how he came around to where the good parts had outlived their usefulness and stopped outweighing the various hypocrisies that tend to accumulate in religions once they've been around a while.

It is distressing how much of this essay is still relevant, even as the Nation of Islam has been largely reduced to a set of footnotes on the SPLC's hatewatch map. But America as a whole has still not really gotten around to doing much of the real reckoning with race that Baldwin requested of us, though more liberal sectors have started to do more in just the past couple years, as the elections of Barack Obama and the ensuing "whitelash" have brought racial issues front and center in a way we haven't seen in quite a while. We also put an idiot racist kleptocrat and a bunch of Nazis in the White House, though, which unfortunately is going to have a bigger immediate impact on a lot of people's lives than all the interesting new documentaries that are out recently, and I say that as someone who think these sorts of documentaries are really important. (Everyone should go see I Am Not Your Negro.) I'm looking forward to discussing this book with the book group and probably to reading a lot more Baldwin in the future.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For reasons that definitely have nothing whatsoever to do with modern politics, I have lately become very interested in dictatorial regimes again, and especially World War II. I read a lot of Holocaust memoirs and stuff when I was younger, but not a lot of stuff on the military and political history end of things. I also remember reading a bit about Nazi propaganda as part of general study of propaganda both in history classes and in media classes, but not really in great depth. So I figured it was time to look more at the political situation around the rise and establishment of the Third Reich than I got in ninth grade history.

To that end was recommended to me In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, who is best known for Devil in the White City, which I admit I have not read but which people seem to like. Garden of Beasts follows U.S. ambassador Charles Dodd and his daughter Martha as they establish themselves in Berlin in 1933, shortly after Hitler becomes Chancellor. Dodd is not a usual ambassador type, being that he's not a rich socialite; he is a history professor who just wants to work on his book about the Old South and finish it sometime before he dies. Martha is a 24-year-old boho type who falls in love with basically everybody, which is ordinarily something I would not necessarily judge her for, except that this doesn't stop when she goes to live among a bunch of Nazis, and I'm gonna judge anyone who dates multiple Nazis, I don't care that it was 1933 and you didn't realize. Dodd's wife and son are in Berlin too, but the book doesn't follow them as closely.

On the one hand, the book is a fascinating look into a historical time and place that I don't know all that much about, which is what I wanted, and it's exciting in that dreadful way that so much of the Weird History I like to read is. The surface pleasantries of 1933 Berlin, and discovering all the awful stuff going on just under its surface--police surveillance and basement prisons; the first concentration camps being built out in the countryside--is written in a brilliantly creepy way, peeling back layers of superficial urbanity with the mounting tension of a horror movie. The climax of the book, plotwise, is the Night of the Long Knives, an event I'd never heard of (I told you my early WWII political knowledge was lacking), although the Dodds stayed in Berlin for another three years before coming home and going on the lecture circuit, raising the alarm against the Nazis.

On the other hand, though, so much of this book was distressingly familiar. The various manifestations of liberal denialism--the it-can't-be-that-bad-ism, the it-can't-happen-here/now kind of thinking, the insistence that individual shocking events were isolated cases no matter how many of them cropped up, the assumption of rationality and earnestness where there was none just because people were in positions of power that are supposed to be occupied by respectable people, and above all, the constant refusal to believe the people who were pointing out what was going on, insisting that they must be overreacting--it's all so dreadfully, stupidly familiar, and it worries me, and it makes me think I should be doing more, now, before things get worse, although I still don't know quite what to be doing. Much like in Germany in 1933, the U.S. already has some of its infrastructure of horror built--our massive system of prisons, the ICE detention facilities where migrants wait for deportation for months, our terrifying surveillance and data-scraping capabilities, invasive security theater at airports--and many of our institutions are shockingly weak, but utterly resistant to doing the self-scrutiny that would allow them to strengthen themselves. At this time, the Holocaust hadn't started--Action T4 hadn't even been officially established--but Jews were losing their jobs, the concentration camp at Dachau had been built and was being used to warehouse political dissidents, and there were several secret torture basements around the city in use by the Gestapo. On the surface, people went to work and shopped and hung out in fancy restaurants in Berlin, all modern and normal.

So, basically, I did a lot of stopping to panic while reading this book. It hit home in a suffocating sort of way, giving me the sort of tilting feeling I sometimes get when I'm walking down the street in Allston and it's all perfectly normal and then I remember that there are other streets in the U.S. right now where unarmed people have been shot to death and left to die, or even when I go to a protest and it's the middle of the afternoon and the cops are quietly monitoring it all bored-looking and I remember that this is not what all protests are like and I've just been very lucky so far, or maybe lazy, that I've only attended preplanned marches, mostly in the daytime, that never got out of hand.

But I also learned a lot. I learned about all sorts of interesting characters with shocking life stories, Nazi and non-Nazi alike. I learned about the rivalries between the different arms of the Nazi brutality machine--the SA and the SS and the Gestapo and the regular army--and the intrigues that had Rudolf Diels fleeing the country on the regs and that eventually did in Ernst Rohm. I think the book did a good job of hitting that difficult balance of humanizing the Nazis, as in showing that they are, indeed, humans, but not soft-pedaling or excusing or minimizing any of the horrible stuff they did, the usual byproduct of "humanization," of the liberal instinct to study and explain butting up against the liberal belief that people are fundamentally good. The Nazis were fundamentally real humans, but they weren't fundamentally good. They were fucking Nazis. And apparently, living in Berlin by 1934 was like living with a bunch of pod people, as the surveillance increase and the state program of Gleichschaltung (coordination, i.e., normalization) sank deeper into the bones of the country.

Dodd and Martha seem idiotically naive at the beginning of the book, but Dodd quickly grew on me, being a very principled dude who never really buys into the whole Nazi thing, even though it takes him a distressingly long time to fully admit to himself just how bad it is. Martha is more actively irritating at the beginning since she's very taken in by all the uniforms and fit young dudes marching and stuff, but eventually grows disillusioned and, due to her love affair with a Russian diplomat named Boris, who is actually an intelligence operative, is eventually sort of half-assedly recruited as a Soviet asset. George Messersmith haunts the first half of the book like a longwinded Cassandra, warning a denialist State Department of just how "psychopathic" the Nazi leadership was. He and Dodd do not get along, and not long after Messersmith is transferred out of Germany, Dodd finds himself taking up mantle of giving long-winded warnings that go largely ignored by the U.S.

While the whole story has so much plot it's hard to believe it all really happened like this, the most important stuff in the book is its portrayal of how a bunch of utterly hateful, thuggish manbabies manage to take control of a country of nice, friendly people--the way they capitalize on the earnestness and disbelief of other people, their willingness to lie and dissemble, the feints toward moderation, the secrecy of the true extent of their plans and the visibility of the dysfunction that made their smarter, more rational opposition underestimate their danger. This is hardly unique to Garden of Beasts, though; the most important takeaway of any material about the Nazi's rise to power is always understanding of the tricks they use, and especially the pitfalls that educated, rational, nice, liberal, or otherwise "normal" folks fell into to allow it to happen. But Garden of Beasts illustrates some of them excellently, in a viscerally familiar way that feels like watching a car crash with that slow-motion affect that happens by itself when it's too late for you to do anything.

TL;DR This was an upsettingly excellent book and I recommend it highly.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the many, many drivers of the outcome in the past clusterfuck of an election was the under-reported but extremely serious wave of voter suppression that GOP legislators have been enacting since the VRA was gutted in 2013. Ari Berman had been valiantly reporting on this issue at The Nation for most of the circus, so I knew that his book on the subject, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America was going to be near the top of the list of books to read in the book club. (Side note: Anyone want to join my politics book club?)

I'm very much looking forward to discussing this one, as infuriating as it is, especially at the end.

The book begins with the Selma march where John Lewis got his head beat in, and vividly illustrates all the drama surrounding the passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Sometimes it's hard to realize that it wasn't all that long ago--there's such a Wild West-y amount of shooting, firebombing, and random street beatings going on. Then I remember that it was only 50 years ago, and also I'm lucky to live in relatively safe areas that are not "gun country," so probably even some of these places aren't as different now as I'd have assumed.

Despite all the shooting and firebombing and stuff, the earlier part of the book is still the cheerful one, because Act One ends with the Voting Rights Act being passed and implemented. Act Two is basically Adventures in Vote Dilution, and Act Three, most depressingly, is the legal counterrevolution that led to the Act being gutted, starting with the sick fucks in the Reagan administration.

The most depressing part of whole thing, oddly, was the "unholy alliance" between the Congressional Black Caucus and the GOP to draw majority-minority heavily gerrymandered districts in order to ensure any kind of minority representation in Congress, even though it made districts less competitive and increased the number of GOP-stronghold districts in the South by basically getting rid of all the moderate white Democrats. This turns out to have been a bad move given the degree to which partisanship has increased as a force in American politics relative to literally anything else. Also, gerrymandering is bad; the more competitive districts are, the better for democracy. So that was a bummer; it read like the fatal flaw that leads to the hero's downfall in a Greek tragedy. Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that, but it seems like a thread the consequences of pulling on were farther-reaching than anticipated.

The real problem, of course, is the cadre of "neoconservative" lawyers brought into the White House during the Reagan and both Bush administrations, "neoconservative" being the bullshit euphemism for "authoritarian, burn-it-down-if-we-can't-control-it reactionaries" that we had before we came up with "alt-right" to push the backwardness into straight-up Nazism. Among other things, they utterly weaponized the Supreme Court, turning it into the anti-human clusterfuck it is today and that the Republicans are hellbent on keeping it. There are many new names on my list of People Who Haven't Been Punched Enough after reading this book, although I probably won't remember the names.

The book ends with a discussion of the Moral Monday marches and of North Carolina's descent from reasonable moderation into an unsterile petri dish of retrograde GOP democracy-fucking experiments. It's simultaneously heartening and depressing.

Voting rights are the single most important issue in our democracy right now outside of not actually killing off the entire human race via nuclear incompetence or the drastic acceleration of global warming. Voting rights are the only hope we have of taking ourselves off the road to fascism, and the power-hungry sociopaths of the GOP know that and are going to do their best to destroy it.

Let's not make it easy.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
After the election, I decided to start a book club.

The first meeting is in January, well before inauguration. For our first book, we picked Sarah Jaffe's Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.

Necessary Trouble covers a bunch of the different protest/activist movements that have arisen in the U.S. since the financial crisis hit in 2008: Starting with the Tea Party, it moves on chapter by chapter to cover Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Our Homes, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays, and a number of climate actions. The section on climate actions, mostly the anti-fracking movement, are kept for the end of the book so that it ends on a maximally apocalyptic note: These are the people fighting government's attempts to literally burn the earth and poison people to make a buck.

Jaffe contextualizes each movement in terms of the events and policies that led up to it being born, often giving recap that go far back into the history of capitalism and of the United States. She ties that in with the stories of activists within each movement, providing in-depth interviews about how and why they got involved and what the movement means to them.

A couple key themes continually emerge. One is that many of these crises have been a long time coming and will not be easily solved. Another is a theme among the activists that so many of them found themselves ashamed of being in the sorts of situations that instigated these movements--of losing their jobs or retirement savings in the financial crash, of being foreclosed on, of holding student debt. Americans really, really want to be hard-working and self-sufficient, and this is part of what's allowed things to get as bad as they have: People will tell themselves that they should individually work harder to overcome whatever's being thrown at them instead of insisting upon being treated fairly, which we tend to believe sounds like petulant whining--that if someone's treating you unfairly, you should be awesome enough to make them treat you fairly, instead of complaining that they're not. The result of this is that the powers that be have been able to tilt the playing field ENORMOUSLY in their own favor before folks who see themselves as average hardworking Americans are willing to admit that they haven't been able to overcome the enormous structural disadvantages they've been put at and maybe you fuckers should just stop stacking the deck. Americans are highly prone to believing that there is still shame in losing even if the other guy was cheating, because you should have been awesome enough to stop the other guy from cheating you.

The book is very hopeful--hopeful that Americans are willing to learn and to organize and to come together in solidarity to get into "good trouble" and demand change. But it also warns of the temptations of the dark side of populism, the scapegoating, tribalist kind illustrated by Trump, who had not yet been, to our eternal shame and possibly to the end of our democracy, barely elected on a technicality with some help via cheating. (And yeah, in true American fashion, I'm pretty ashamed that the Clinton campaign couldn't still beat him even with the cheating, because he's the worst con man ever.) The hopefulness is alternately infectious--Americans have been organizing and fighting; we'll be able to do it more--and depressing. Frankly, the emotional whiplash is a little hard to take.

I learned a lot, though, even as someone who tried to follow these movements relatively closely on social media when they first happened. (For example, I didn't know that Lehman Brothers had gotten its start selling security bonds on slaves--honestly, and this is probably stupid of me, I hadn't realized you could create any sort of financial instruments with slaves as collateral, even though now that I think about it that's precisely what the "chattel" designation means. And I hadn't realized how much of what some of these banks got up to in the mortgage crisis was actually fraud--as in, already illegal--rather than just goddamn stupid.) And the book is so well-written that even though its subject matter is so heavy, it'll make you want to get out into the streets and crash your Congresscritter's next town hall. (My Congressman doesn't have a Town Hall scheduled so I called his office and asked him to have one. Le sigh.)

Highly recommended reading for the resistance. I can't wait to discuss it at book club.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I read and reviewed Alexander "Assassinato" Fitzgerald's new book The Myth of Poker Talent: Why Anyone Can Be a Great Poker Player over at the day job.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Somewhere in between my project to read poker strategy books in order to be better at poker and my project to read books on the history of poker and gaming so that I understand my current field better, there sat the decision to read David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker.

The Theory of Poker is older than me, although it has since been updated a few times. I have read about it in a number of the other, more recent poker-related books I’ve gone through this year. I know it was still being used widely as a resource when the poker boom kicked off fifteen years ago or so; Kenny Hallaert mentioned it when I interviewed him earlier this fall, saying it might still be useful for beginner players.

One thing that’s instantly noticeable about this book is that it was clearly written before no-limit hold’em became the game of choice for everyone and everything. While this can get a bit confusing for a reader who really only knows NLHE at all (i.e. me), it does allow Sklansky to illustrate concepts in multiple different ways in different games. Since this book is light on math (by poker book standards, at least—obviously it’s got a bunch of stuff about pot odds and basics like that) and more about how to reason through various poker plays, such a setup is fairly useful for showing how the concepts work. There’s a lot that’s explained that I would now consider to be very basic information, but I’ve also been reading beginner-level poker books pretty much all year so I suppose it’s good that some of it’s starting to sink in.

It’s not the most enjoyably written poker book I’ve read, featuring neither the goofy jokes of Phil Gordon’s little books nor the sarcastic cracks of Alexander Fitzgerald’s Myth of Poker Talent, but it’s pretty straightforward and accessible, usually erring on the side of over-explaining rather than conciseness. It’s basically a textbook.

This is also the book that introduced the awkwardly lengthy but still very important Fundamental Theorem of Poker, which I already knew about because it’s been cited in at least five other books that I’ve read this year. The Theory of Poker explains many, if not most, of the hands illustrated within it by relating it back to this fundamental theorem, ensuring that you’ll never forget it no matter how un-pithily it’s worded.

Even though so much of what’s covered in here is also covered in subsequently written poker texts, I’m still glad to have taken the time to read this book itself. How much it will help me out remains to be seen; unfortunately, this is a library copy so I probably won’t be going over it multiple times with a pencil and highlighter like I’ve been doing with some of the other poker strategy books I’ve found. (Somebody who got this book from the library before me did go over it with a pencil, but some people have, like, no manners.) But I definitely have a better sense of what everyone else is talking about when they’re talking about this book, and that’s pretty important for getting the most out of everything I read.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I was not 100% sure I was going to like Ship It Holla Ballas.

Quite frankly, I was unsure if I was going to like it for some of the same reasons I was curious about it. I was also a teenager during the Bush years, so I'm largely of an age with the people followed. I was unhip and culturally oblivious enough to have no idea that the poker boom was happening, but I do have some memories of that time period: Namely, that it was an awful cultural wasteland full of cargo shorts and McMansions, and that teenage nerds were terrible and teenage boys were especially terrible, also LiveJournal was still a thing. I didn't really want to revisit that time. (Full disclosure: My memories of that period may be influenced by the fact that I was at the time a bored angry Goth with clinical depression.) But I was quite curious about what these other teenage nerds were doing while I was learning to read Tarot cards, a hobby I have never even tried to monetize (although perhaps I should).

I had also heard one anecdote from this book referenced a few times, I think once on the Thinking Poker podcast. It was the one where Tom Dwan dares some one to jump into a pool full of sharks for five thousand dollars. At first a teenage girl whose mother had inexplicably left her with them volunteered; then she chickened out, so one of the other dudes did it. I thought this anecdote was amusing, so I figured there might be other like it. I also did the usual "What would I have done in that situation?" line of thinking one has sometimes, where I had to come to the reluctant conclusion that, as a 16-year-old, it is likely the lizardbrain sense of self-preservation would have won and I would have also chickened out, but now that I am 28 and more mature and know the value of a dollar, I would totally jump into a pool of sharks for $5k.

Anyway. The book is not about me.

The book starts just before the poker boom really blows up and starts following a few guys who are a little bit older, by online poker standards--guys who had already completed college and were starting their professional lives, guys in their late twenties or early thirties. These guys are not really the focus of most of the book but they provide an entertaining viewpoint to get comfortable with before their scene is roundly crashed by a bunch of high school and early college kids. It's an excellent hook, presenting the dropouts who would become the Ship It Holla Ballas from an older, outside perspective before getting deeper into their backstories and viewpoints.

Most of the book does a pretty seamless job of putting the Ballas' stories in context of the perfect storm of very particular factors going on at the time, both in online poker and, on the rare occasions merited, in the rest of the world. As someone who is very interested in the sociology of nerd groups, I was especially fascinated by the roles of the 2+2 forums and the eventual formation of the "crew" in shaping not only these kids' social lives, but their sense of normality and their poker games. I actually would have liked to hear a little bit more about how the way this community pooled knowledge and built off each others' ideas advanced the strategies and understanding of how poker works and the way it's played, but probably throwing in more stuff about math and spreadsheets would have slowed the book down a bit.

While there are certainly a lot of anecdotes about crazy expensive shenanigans that are entertaining, unsurprising, and possibly thrown in to let the reader live vicariously a little and wonder if we'd be that bananas if we were that rich at that age (since face it, most of us weren't but would like to be), there are also a lot of things that were toothache-inducingly familiar to me as someone who spent a lot of time around young nerd dudes, including living with them. Like, these kids went and bought a mansion in Vegas and they... did not know how to house. At all. I have lived with people who didn't know how to house. It is viscerally awful. Also these kids once got all their shit stolen because they didn't know where the circuit breaker was or, apparently, what a circuit breaker was. (Apparently I was the only person who came of age in the 2000s whose parents made sure she knew what a circuit breaker was before leaving home.) The descriptions of the Balla mansion were like all my worst bad roommate memories on steroids. All the stupid shit about The Game and pickup artistry was also unfortunately familiar. I don't know exactly how much The Game was responsible for nearly every dude I talked to between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five being completely intolerable, but Jesus, it did not help. There is one line regarding one of the kids profiled that says "Talking to women feels like a video game whose rules he can't figure out," which is probably intended to be sympathetic and which the authors probably felt was an at least middlingly original line. That shit gave me traumatic flashbacks. Dudes who think women are video games are legion, they are almost never subtle about it, and I spent ten years being mistaken for a video game before I managed to structure my life to avoid these people; what am I doing to myself going and reading about them? It took chapters before I could give a fuck about this character again at all, and then he goes and fucks it up again at the end of the book by noting in a tone of surprise that some of the techniques he has since learned for talking to women also help him talk to people in general. Hm... I wonder what talking to women and talking to people have in common? What's the connection between "women" and "people"? Everyone knows women are the opposite of people. 'Tis truly baffling.

Casual misogyny masquerading as social awkwardness aside (not that I'm the type to put that aside, obviously), the book does an excellent job of humanizing these weirdos, and illustrating the effects of their alienation from their non-stupid-rich peers, of being very successful very young at something that doesn't necessarily have a lot of meaning or social utility, of forming a crazy tight group of friends in your teens and slowly having it dissipate as you all go your separate ways as adults, of pursuing a goal and feeling empty once you achieve it because what are you going to do with yourself now? It grounds the book a lot more than you'd think it could be grounded considering the sheer volume of vapidly humorous anecdotes about obnoxious behavior and spending money on stupid things that fill the book.

The stuff about the transition from online to live poker and the generational warfare between the storied old guard and the "these Internet kids!" was, personally, my favorite material covered in the book; generational warfare always makes for lots of drama, also, Phil Hellmuth is annoying as hell and good on Tom Dwan for calling him out. Tom Dwan may have been my favorite person in the book, probably because he came off the least bro-y and the most like a space alien.

One thing about this book that is kind of weird is that all the online players are referred to by their screennames instead of their real names, throughout the entire thing. Some of these screennames I could match with players already and some I could not; it was also fun playing Spot the Screenname I Actually Recognize when other members of the online poker community were mentioned. Another upside of this dedication to screen names is that "durrrr" is consistently spelled right throughout the entire book, which is apparently not standard among poker publications.

There are some slightly disjointed-feeling bits near the end as important things happen in and around the world of poker that our now well-established main characters aren't necessarily in the middle of, such as the sneak passage of the UIGEA, and a deep dive into the gossip and scandal of the rest of the 2+2 forum subculture. This is all very important material to understanding the rise and fall of online poker in the U.S., it's just presented in a way that includes some very sudden jumps from the World Series to Washington.

But that's my only criticism of the book; all my other criticisms are strictly about the subject matter. Ship It Holla Ballas was a fun, fast, insightful, surprisingly grounded read about a bunch of idiot boy geniuses in a very unique, bizarre time and place.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
On my mother's coffee table there is a book.

It is a beautiful, beautiful book, a perfect blending of the best of old and new book styles, with deckle-edged pages and full-color illustrations and a glorious Baskerville-esque font.

It is the Hamiltome.

More properly known as Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter's history/look behind the scenes/giant scrapbook of the making of Hamilton: An American Musical is pretty much everything an obsessed Hamilton fan could want. My mother had this thing pre-ordered almost the second it became available for pre-order. The only thing that would make it better is if it came with a pair of tickets to the show, but alas, that would probably also raise the price several thousand percent.

It contains, obviously, the full lyrics of the show, annotated with goofy good humor by the Internet's wacky uncle himself, Lin-Manuel. It also contains biographical sketches of and interviews with nearly everyone involved in the show -- cast members and producers and designers and choreographers and all the other brilliant, dedicated people who make theater magic happen.

The story it tells is pretty awesome, and it's aware of its own awesomeness, but not in a smug way. It's just full of joy and pride and nerdy LOOK AT THIS COOL THING WE DID and it's great.

I almost cried multiple times, although frankly that happens when I listen to the soundtrack too, so it's not surprising.

If you are not an obsessed Hamilton fan and want to know why everyone else has suddenly become one over the past year, this book will certainly answer that question at length! Although I do also recommend just listening to the soundtrack and letting it eat your soul.

Anyway, book and soundtrack are both recommended for any and all humans who like musical theater, history, hip-hop, weird genre mashups, strange new things, clever wordplay, displays of genius, sass, joy, laughter, crying, or any combination thereof (I am particularly fond of sass + crying), and also for people who do not like or are unfamiliar with any or all of these things, because even if you don't like it normally you'll like it here. Like, I couldn't tell hip-hop from a hole in the wall until I heard Hamilton, and it doesn't matter.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So, despite my full knowledge that I am nowhere near ready for it, I went and read Phil Gordon's Little Gold Book: Advanced Lessons for Mastering Poker 2.0. Phil Gordon had promised me on Twitter that it would break my heart, but probably only because there is no emoji for breaking your brain.

Sometime, somewhere, back in the day—like, WAY back in the day—I actually quite liked math. Sometime before it got all abstract and it was fun actually seeing how things went together. Sometime when I was young enough that my teachers actually understood the math they were teaching me, before I hit the age where anyone who actually understood this stuff could get a higher-paying job than being a schoolteacher, and I started to not only lose interest but get sour about it, figuring a) that if my teachers didn’t need to know this stuff in order to be math teachers then I certainly couldn’t need it for anything, and b) if I can’t rely on my teachers to be able to help me with stuff I have questions about then fuck all of you I’m going to read trashy vampire novels in the corner. (You get no points for correctly guessing around what age this phase was. It was exactly what it sounds like.)

So I was a little surprised to find that a lot of the math in this book was actually enormously fun to read about. And it all stuck to involving real numbers, so I could mostly follow it! Of course, it’s easy enough to do that since Phil does all the math for you; the reader just has to see how it fits together, not do the calculations themselves. But I found myself wanting to do the calculations myself even though I am dreadfully out of practice on any math more complex than calculating a restaurant tip (I have just enough pointless pride not to use a tip calculator). Clearly I need a workbook of some sort, especially since there is always a considerable gap between when I read about a concept and when I can start recognizing it in live play, even the easy stuff. As in, I think I am just now starting to see results from the Little Green Book, and I have gone back and reread some sections of that several times, in addition to now reading two more Phil books and an Ed Miller book on top of it.

Weirdly, one of my favorite things about this book is that there are large chunks of it that I do not really need. For example, nearly a third of the book is dedicated to PLO, and I have not ever played PLO and probably won’t anytime soon, so it is good that I read it so I can understand other people a little bit more when they’re talking about PLO, but I don’t have to worry about going back and studying that part. Some of the Hold’em advice is geared toward online play, which is currently illegal in Massachusetts, but again, it’s good to know what all the HUD stats and such mean so that I can understand what other people are talking about better. This all leaves me with a much more manageable page count of things I actually need to go back and study.

I do want to master the math because I think it would be great if I could learn to like math again. I think a lot of the advice on specific plays will eventually become more useful if (hopefully, when) I “graduate” from the $0.25/$0.50 game, which is explicitly introductory, but in the meantime I certainly have plenty of work I can do to get a better grasp of exactly what is going on in that game, in terms of learning the math and hand reading and remembering odds so I don’t have to try to do actual calculations at the table (because that takes forever and also I’m bad at it) and sometimes even keeping track of how much money is in the pot besides “small pile of chips,” “medium pile of chips” or “big pile of chips.” And there absolutely are more experienced players than myself in the $0.25/$0.50 game that I will have to do a lot more work to figure out how to beat, because it’s really not hard to have more poker experience than me.

Another fun thing about this book is that we get some guest lectures from other pros, so we get a look at the learning process itself as Phil gets private lessons from “Internet Whiz Kids” like Annette Obrestad and Dan Cates. Multiple perspectives are always a plus, even though as far as strategy stuff I’ve read so far goes, I still like Phil as teacher better than anyone else. His style is very concise and approachable and, above all, friendly, which is tough because poker writing involves a lot of “lol these people are bad” and I’m like “but I’m bad too!” This book has fewer jokes than the Little Blue Book (the Blue Book was positively silly in places), but it’s still light in tone and the hand histories contain a large enough proportion of hands that Phil misplays or loses to make the reader feel like it’s OK to fuck up sometimes; see, poker is hard. And honestly, walking through mistakes is at least as instructive as walking through doing things perfectly. That said, this is still a book full of technical stuff for people who are actively working to develop a skill; it’s not something to be read for fun, even if you generally find poker interesting and possibly even if you like math more than I do. I was markedly in over my head for a lot of it, and I am highly motivated to learn this stuff as rapidly as I can because I am a deeply money-conscious person and cannot afford to be bad at poker for very long.

The book ends with a warning that if it’s later than 2013, it’s probably outdated already. Since it is, tragically, 2016, I will assume that at least parts of it are. If I ever get to a point where that matters, I am sure I’ll find something else to catch me up, but for now, I’ve got plenty of homework.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aight, buckle in, because this is going to be a long one.

I read James McManus' Positively Fifth Street a while ago and I liked it, so I picked up his more recent nonfiction book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. This one is basically just what it says on the tin, a nonfiction history of poker, with no memoir/personal essay bits. It was published in 2009, two years before Black Friday although after the passage of the UIGEA. This was also the year before I graduated college, and, though I managed to completely miss the poker boom while it was going on, it also really brought me back to that era, and not in a good way.

It's a very good book about the history of poker. But it has several flaws that all boil down to basically one major flaw that I have a lot of FEELINGS about, and that is: It hits every single shitty ubiquitous journalistic trope of that era, especially all the ones that drove me away from ever taking a single journalism course.

My specialization within my English major was something called "discourse studies," which consisted of additional genre studies (beyond the regular English requirement), some linguistics, some communications theory, some general media studies/media literacy stuff, and a bunch of creative writing courses. I took four creative writing courses because you needed to take four creative-writing-or-journalism courses, and my goal was to learn to write. Journalism, I figured, was clearly where you went to learn how to not write, at least if literally anything I was seeing in published newspapers or magazines was any indication.

In fact, the Death of Journalism was something I was (and am) enormously and morbidly fascinated by, the abysmal state of science journalism doubly so. The issues with the economics of news media and the collapse of advertising revenue were certainly fascinating, because I'm always interested in follow-the-money type stuff, but I'm also interested in the specific questionable themes and storylines we see over and over again in supposedly nonfiction works. The more I dug around finding criticisms of the bite-size, easily palatable oversimplifications and shallow framing I was seeing so frequently, the more I thought that the mainstream media functioned at least as much as a form of cultural mythmaking as it did a source of information -- it did the same work as fairy tales and Bible stories do for children and religious people, but for the adult, secular chattering classes. (I still think this, only more so.)

While some of this is slowly getting better and much of it is not, my college years were the absolute height of the neuro-nonsense/neuro-babble craze, which finally started seeing some well-deserved backlash around 2013 or so, although Slate puts the seeds of the backlash as far back as 2008. Suspiciously neat'n'tidy evolutionary narratives are, unfortunately, still going strong, although they're less omnipresent than they used to be (I have not had a dude try to hit on me using one in several years, at least, thank Jesus), and some of the recurring myths are starting to see some more pushback when they do crop up than they used to (exhibit A being the "women talk 3x as much as men" stat, thoroughly debunked several years ago at LanguageLog). I think this has less to do with the lazy allure of "we're just like that, nothing to be done lalala" wearing off or people becoming more informed than it does with the implications of the world economy imploding and society fraying at the seams -- much of the mainstream media's sciencey pep rallying has gone the full self-help route, promising that your brain and body has infinite power to change and adapt to anything at all so there can never be any sorts of real problems on the outside, like in society or with the economy or anything, it's ALL YOU, you have the POWER to CHANGE and just WILL yourself out of any sort of human limits or reactions to things by DOING YOGA AND EATING MORE KALE, etc. etc. The endless adaptability narrative (individual adaptability, of course) is what better enables cultural inertia right now, and so is getting more page space.

But around 2009? Dubious evo-psych wasn't just being used for its always-in-demand purpose of excusing men's shitty behavior. It was being used for literally fucking everything about every goddamn topic imaginable. There was shitty evo-psych about why people voted Republican or Democrat. There was shitty evo-psych about shopping malls. There was shitty evo-psych about intelligence and binge drinking. There was even some shitty evo-psych about introversion and extroversion, as played out by some highly specific type of goldfish or something, in Susan Caine's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.

And, apparently, unbeknownst to me at the time, there was shitty evo-psych about poker. And about some other things that McManus somehow managed to co-opt into being about poker.

Unfortunately, the worst stuff is front-loaded right at the beginning, which is why it took me so long to get into this damn book. He's determined to tell the whole story, not only all the way through chronologically right from the beginning, but all the way through chronologically from several millennia before the beginning. Playing cards don't get invented until Chapter 3.

Chapter 1 is mostly American mythmaking, with some anecdotes about various Presidents mashed up with some very sciencey-sounding stuff about the traits of immigrants being passed along in Americans' DNA, as if it were an either scientific or historical fact that Americans are all descended from voluntary immigrants and that's why we're so ~special~. While the erasure of the Native American population is pretty par for the course in most treatments of American history, it's slightly more surprising in publications about American gambling; in addition, the country's substantial black population came here almost entirely unvoluntarily; in further addition, quite a lot of the white people who came over when we were still colonies were shipped over as prisoners. McManus cites a figure of 2% (doesn't cite it from any study that I can find) for emigrating populations; this surprised me, since McManus is Irish and the Irish have, rather famously, been forced to emigrate in numbers up to ten times that -- and even in those cases, emigration was often "assisted." This whole section seems to come from a single book that's supposedly largely a cultural analysis, but which I will apparently now have to go read and dig into the sources used in order to figure out if it manages to square any of these circles.

A good fisking of Chapter 2 could provide the basis for a semester-long course on everything wrong with modern journalism. In my review of Positively Fifth Street, I said parenthetically that "Regrettably, this leads him down the tiresome evo psych path more than once, but as far as evo psych explanations for stuff go it could be a lot worse." Well, this book is the lot worse that it could be. I will spare you the full deconstruction, especially since I'd want to irrefutably source everything, and I didn't hold on to as many of the social science textbooks I worked on at Pearson as I should have. But suffice to say that this chapter contains a lot of stuff about the behaviors of prehistoric man (just man) that bears very little resemblance to anything I read in any of the anthropology, archaeology, psychology, history, biology, communications, or child development textbooks I edited at Pearson, or any of the scientific journal articles and studies I had to pore through when research-assistanting a university-level psych class on "Evolution, Culture, and the Mind." Behaviors of prehistoric women in this chapter were limited to a claim suggesting that women wore makeup and jewelry while men didn't -- findings straight out of the Flintstones Academy of Prehistoric Anthropology. I laughed so hard I dropped the book, and I didn't pick it up again for two weeks. I also recommend skipping this chapter if you're not in the mood to hear about how the entirety of human existence depends solely on unchecked male aggression, rather than it being a major threat to everyone's existence when not carefully controlled and mitigated by actual fucking prosocial behavior. (I think I got to this part on the same day that story broke about a dude stabbing a lady on the train in Chicago for turning him down, so I had approximately negative patience for "men are aggressive to attract the ladies" type bullshit. Maybe it's badass that you can kick the shit out of a woolly mammoth or whatever, but only if I'm ENTIRELY CERTAIN THAT YOU WILL ONLY EVER KICK THE SHIT OUT OF THE MAMMOTH AND NOT ME.) Like... for fuck's sake, dude. Poker requires aggression in betting, sure, but behaviorally it requires sitting at a table with a bunch of fellow humans for several hours. And the sooner poker players realize this and make acting like it as much of a requirement for being considered "good at" poker as knowing how to size their raises properly, the sooner they can stop whining about how hard it is to attract new players to sit at tables with them for several hours.

The book starts to get better once we move into actual history and there's actual on-topic material to address, such as the invention of playing cards and the development of early gambling games. This stuff is much more interesting, although the previous two chapters have certainly done quite a bit to damage McManus' credibility for anything where he doesn't show all his work. Many of the times and places discussed are areas of history where I have much less of grounding in than I do in problems with mainstream science journalism and the methodological weaknesses of self-serving evolutionary narratives, so I'm not armed with much in the way of how to determine if it's right or wrong.

The actual poker stuff -- which, to be fair, is like 80% of the book, and certainly the most important 80% -- I tended to find credible. McManus's approach to poker history/mythology is basically the opposite of his approach to all the tangential subjects he tries to tie it to: When it comes to old poker anecdotes, biographical information of legendary gamblers, famous poker hands of history, etc., he goes out of his way to demythologize it, often interviewing multiple subjects or visiting multiple primary sources, carefully examining the trustworthiness of each of them and putting them in context of the journalistic standards and reliability at the tame, making sure the audience knows when and where something could have been exaggerated for effect and what factors make it how likely that a given account is total bollocks or not -- you know, proper history study stuff. It's exhaustively researched and sourced. Names, dates, prizes, buy-in amounts -- all the poker data is there and accounted for. He clearly loves the subject of poker and wants to do as right by it as humanly possible, even if it means up giving up believing in some really fun tall tales. We're given some very detailed looks into the minutiae of what seems like every bracelet event ever played at the World Series. Careful attention is given to not forgetting the respected, talented players who came in second, third, and otherwise not-first in major events, who tend to be forgotten about in the usual poker lore of big winners. The demythologizing of actual, nuts-and-bolts poker history is so thorough and careful that it occasionally borders on dry.

I'll still take it over the re-mythologizing of everything else in order to create neat and simple buttresses for the central thesis of the book, which is that poker explains basically everything about American and world history and humanity and life itself. (There's even an additional cringeworthy chapter specifically about poker and sex, buried deep in the final third of the book, just when I'd managed to forget about all the shitty evo psych from earlier.) Poker is indeed incredibly multifaceted, so it's really weirdly easy to tie it to quite a large number of things, and as I've started studying it more I've also found myself conceptualizing of more and more regular, everyday stuff in poker terms. (I'll be interested to see if any of the things I learn from playing poker will noticeably affect my behavior or thinking in other areas of life -- if it'll improve my short-term memory, my long-atrophied mental math skills, my comfort with making decisions quickly, my assertiveness, all that stuff the strategy books say are transferable skills.) But because poker genuinely is so tie-in-with-able for so many things, it's somehow just extra annoying when someone seems to be overdoing it. And while it's a hallmark of nearly every nonfiction book published in the 21st century to dedicate at least the concluding chapter to expanding the reach of the subject until it encompasses the entirety of the human experiment (I'm looking at you, The Ghost Map), this book actually lacks a Theory of Everything last chapter, because the Theory of Everything bit is visited and revisited so many times throughout the text. In a unique twist, the book actually ends on a fairly limited, concrete call to action to do something about the UIGEA because it's terrible, and the observation that poker is very popular and will probably keep existing.

Anyway, 80% of this review has been about the 20% of the book I had a problem with, so here are some really fun things from the 80% of the book I liked:
--A long and colorful accounting of all the popular ways of CHEATING AT CARDS ON STEAMBOATS which is just as delightful as it sounds
--Many many presidential anecdotes for many many presidents
--A history of poker strategy literature, starting all the way back at the "how to cheat" primers with grossly long names that were popular long before the ones about non-cheating strategy
--Dr. Jerome Cardplayer
--A meticulous accounting of some absurdly rich dude's quest to bust a crew of the best limit Hold'em players in the world through sheer variance by basically hammering them with his bankroll
--Entirely too much stuff about the WSOP, considering he wrote a whole other book about it
--A decent amount of content about women poker players, although obviously not as much as I would have liked because there have not historically been as many women in poker as I would have liked, and there still aren't, but the ones who are there are totally badass and awesome
--Some funky stuff about AI and game theory, most of which involves interviewing actual scientists about actual scientific research!
--BATTLE STORIES about the Civil War, told using the word "bluff" a lot and therefore totally definitely actually about poker
--Adorable misspelled epigraphs culled from online poker forums/poker room chatboxes, complete with emojis and lots of all caps

All in all, this is a truly wonderful 300-page book, plus some crap that inflates it to a 425-page book. I would have gotten through the 300-page book in less than a week if that was all that was there to read. It's still a very valuable resource in my poker education, though, and it was indeed high time I read it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I just finished reading Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day, by Ferdinand Gregorovius.

I was reading this book, more or less, for a very, very long time.

I started reading it on Kindle back during one of the summers I was working at Pearson, picking it up after finishing Rafael Sabatini's The Life of Cesare Borgia because Ellen and I were in a Big The Borgias phase at the time. At some point I opened it on the Kindle app on my phone and it became The Book I Was Reading On My Phone, you know, the one I read when a) I don't have another book or e-reader on me and b) I'm not doing other stuff on my phone like checking Twitter or playing Sudoku. In other words... basically never. Hence the multi-year delay in finishing it.

This biography was first published in 1904 and presumably written several years before that, since 1904 appears to be after the author's death. It's very 19th century in style in that it has not learned to ape the trappings of objectivity, and the author regularly opines at great length about who is virtuous and who is dastardly, and rages against other historians whom he believes have come to the wrong conclusions about the various 15th/16th century Italian personages. On the upside, the book gives a pretty comprehensive look at what he could find out about Lucrezia's life and the lives of the rest of her family, and is very well sourced, quoting extensively from primary sources and illustrating exactly where there are gaps or questions of veracity in the historical record. So while it is definitely dated, it's not a bad piece of scholarly work for the time. It is, however, a little dry and hard to follow sometimes, largely due to the author's ever so proper habit of referring to people by their titles rather than their given names much of the time, and many nobles of the era went through a lot of different titles over the course of their lives.

The author is enormously pro-Lucrezia and unfortunately I think that's sort of boring? Like, evil scheming incest murderess Lucrezia is much more INTERESTING than gracious pious family lady Lucrezia who has been the innocent victim of slander because of her power-hungry relatives. There's fortunately some solid information on the machinations of said power-hungry relatives to keep things interesting, though.

Overall this was an interesting enough curiosity but if you want to actually learn about the Borgias there are many much more recent and probably more easily readable books available. I should check some of them out one of these days. And if you just want to be entertained, the ridiculous Showtime show is very fun (and has a very attractive cast).
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I picked up Ed Miller's Getting Started in Hold'em at a gorgeous secondhand bookstore in Harrisburg. Pros: It was dirt cheap. Cons: It was published in 2005, very shortly after the poker boom really kicked off, when everyone was throwing money around and few people had figured out what they were doing yet, so it's possibly kind of dated, and if I knew enough about poker strategy to really be able to evaluate what's still applicable and what's not, I wouldn't be reading books with "getting started" in the title.

But I bought it anyway, for a few reasons. One is that I seem to be doing an entire literature review of poker writing this year, so I figured it'd be interesting to compare/contrast to Phil Gordon's books and to the articles that cross my feeds and to whatever else I'm reading. Also I know Miller has written many more recent books, so I figured if I liked the approach/style in this books that should give me a better idea of if it would be worth my time to seek out and read the more recent ones.

The book starts off with an assurance that "Don't worry! Most of the people you play against will be bad!" which is basically the opposite of what you hear now, which is lamentations that even people who have never sat down in a cardroom before will have read all the books already (can confirm: Have never sat down in a cardroom; plan on reading all the books first. Why wouldn't I?). It also assures the reader that anyone who is "reasonably intelligent" can become a breakeven player pretty quickly, a statement I believe is designed to be soothing but which his basically going to just make me judge myself when I don't pick up stuff as fast as I'd like to, a thing that is already happening (probably at least partly because I am reading 10-year-old books instead of noodling around with Flopzilla like you're apparently supposed to in 2016). I'm also not an enormous fan of the setup (apparently pretty common in more general, beginner-level poker books) of teaching limit strategy and then teaching how to adjust it for no-limit; I've only ever played no-limit so information on limit is probably just going to confuse me and take up precious brainspace that I need for learning to play the games I'm actually in.

On the upside, the book is quite short, clocking in just shy of 200 pages; is written in a clear, concise, and very easy-to-follow manner; suggests concrete, actionable strategies complete with refreshingly simple charts and text callout boxes; and does contain a lot of less stressfully optimistic expectation-setting advice about dealing with variance, developing hand-reading ability (short version: you'll be bad at this for quite a while), and common psychological traps players fall into. There are some places where it diverged pretty sharply from the advice I've been reading elsewhere -- mainly in its suggestion that beginner no-limit players deliberately play short-stacked -- but overall I think it makes sense considering the focus of the book, which is not to teach about what the pros are doing to win the World Series, but instead to get a beginner onto a more-or-less functional TAG strategy as soon as possible so that they don't go broke while learning the game in more complexity.

The big question in any instructional reading is: Did it work? Was it helpful? Poker being poker, by the time I review something I feel like it's always too soon to tell. Getting multiple perspectives and strategy advice from different authors I feel can only help me, since it forces me to think about the material in different ways, and sometimes having concepts explained differently can make them easier for me to grasp. I did reread the no-limit cash game section in the park on Friday shortly before my women's game, and I did make money that night, but this is probably more due to my running decently well and not starting the evening off massively on tilt like I have for some of the past few weeks than it is to remembering anything much of what I'd read that afternoon. But I liked the style, and I'll probably try to scrounge up copies of the more recent and/or advanced books by this author sometime this year.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Book: Life's a Gamble by Mike Sexton

Review is here.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I kind of didn't want to read Disrupted.

I heard a lot about it because it takes place right around here, so it was getting a lot of press in the regional news; some of the reviews were also getting sent around a certain part of my social circle; namely, the part I developed when I worked at a hip and dysfunctional marketing tech startup in Boston. It was not HubSpot, but many of the things I was seeing in the reviews being sent to me sounded quite familiar.

I was partly curious to read it, but also sort of figured that since I'd already lived through a brief and disastrous tenure at a chic marketing startup, I figured that actually reading the book would mostly just give me unpleasant flashbacks and impede my attempts to let go of the whole thing. I am already pretty bad at letting go of grudges, so I figured I shouldn't actively sabotage myself.

Enter my mom, who, having had two children lose jobs at super trendy Boston-area startups in the space of about a year, ordered the book and read it, apparently to see if these places really are that unnavigably volatile or if her children are just stupid. Then she told me I had to read it. At this point, curiosity got the better of me and I started reading it, although I refused to actually borrow it and have it in my possession; it stayed at her place and I read it there.

My feelings on this book are mixed. Basically every shitty thing Lyons writes about HubSpot rings true to me, either from my own reading about the way the economy has gotten disastrously fucked, especially for young people; from my own lived experience working at a similar company; from stories I've heard from other people who work at similar companies (including other reports of people having a shitty time working at HubSpot; apparently they're TERRIBLE to their female web devs); and, in the latter half of the book, from dealing with and witnessing the behavior of gaslighting assholes whose main tactic is to stun you into compliance with WTF-ery so off-script from normal human behavior that you just can't figure out how to react to them.

So when it comes to strictly factual, reporter-y things, Lyons is stellar. He does a fabulous job of laying out how these "new economy" companies spin themselves as being Great Places to Work with tactics that sound good but actually screw people over — like "unlimited vacation time," which is code for "you don't bank PTO so when we let you go we don't have to pay you any banked PTO" (thank God the place I worked didn't do that one, at least), or giving people lower wages in exchange for stock options that vest in five years, when the tenure for most workers — especially lower-level ones, who are most likely to think that "stock options" sounds impressive and grown-up, and who probably don't realize that their salaries are being lowered to supposedly account for this because most industries have depressed entry-level wages ridiculously already — is half that or less, meaning that most workers will simply not receive this part of their supposed compensation. Shit's enough to make you vote for Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately, Lyons seems to have a severe cognitive disconnect between the stuff he reports on and his ability to understand exactly the same things when they are going on in his immediate vicinity — or, heaven forbid, to him — and there are times when it really hurts his reporting. Much review ink has been spilled pointing out that Lyons is clearly kind of an asshole, and it is true that he is playing the Cranky Old Man Journalist role to the hilt — an archetype I personally find to be in a weird halfway territory between relatable and insufferable — but my issue with his general cranky asshattery is not really that it is unlikeable, but that it prevents him from being able to get more than surface-level observations about the general weirdness and shenanigans going on around him. In short, he styles himself as an anthropologist, but he's definitely the sort of anthropologist that is why anthropology as a discipline has so many issues and so much incomplete information. What he doesn't manage to do is go undercover, which I think would have provided a lot more insight and depth into how anyone but Dan Lyons actually feels about any of the shit that goes on in these companies.

More specifically:
—Lyons points out the lack of diversity and the labor exploitation at these companies, but mostly just seems to use these stats as a club against companies to reinforce that they suck. He doesn't demonstrate any sympathy for the people hurt by practices like insta-firing or sexual harassment, or even interview them. This is a sharp contrast to the beginning of the book where he loses his own job and spends about two chapters illustrating at great length how destabilizing and scary it is, even though he gets notice and severance and all that stuff, and tries to negotiate for things like "just" staying through the end of the year (several months away at the time). While he's happy to point out that it's mean for HubSpot to fire people on a "go to lunch and don't come back" basis, he doesn't acknowledge — even in passing — that, judging from his reaction to being given notice and severance, if this had happened to him he would probably have had an actual heart attack.
—He notices that turnover is high and people get disappeared fast and mysteriously, also notices that everyone around him is RELENTLESSLY CHEERFUL and ALL-IN all of the time, and concludes that all millennials are dumb and easily hoodwinked. Dude: Everyone whose facade of less than 100% committed Kool-Aid drinking cracked even for a moment got let go before you were able to see it. DUH.
—He doesn't really establish relationships with his colleagues, so if any of them are secretly stressed to death and miserable under their cheerful marketer faces, there's no reason to believe they'd confide in him about it. In fact, as an older celebrity hire for whom a new position was specifically created and who seemed to be wandering around a lot of the time not actually doing much, I think if I, a twentysomething young lady who hates self-important business buffoonery with a passion that makes her teeth hurt, were working there during that time, Dan Lyons would be the absolute LAST person I'd let my Obedient Capitalist Robot face slide in front of, especially considering he doesn't seem to have the social intelligence to keep his opinions to himself in a dangerous situation and put on an Obedient Capitalist Robot face of his own, meaning if he didn't rat me out deliberately I'd worry he'd do it just without thinking anything of it. And I say this as someone whose Obedient Capitalist Robot face isn't even very good to start with.
—Specifically, at one point he asks his younger colleagues if they wouldn't rather make more money than be paid in candy, and is baffled when they're all like "I like candy!" Like having some Baby Boomer with a nebulously defined job trying to goad you into complaining about your pay IN THE WORKPLACE doesn't have IT'S A TRAP written all over it in aggressively orange letters with a gif of Admiral Ackbar on it. Millennials know what Baby Boomers think of us when we indicate in any way that we would like to be compensated for our labor. If Lyons is unaware, he should go read some of the stuff put out by the legacy media companies that can't afford to employ him anymore because millennials aren't subscribing to them, and see if he can't figure out why we're not.
—He believes that everyone besides him who worked at HubSpot liked it because they have great Glassdoor reviews. I know at least one hip martech company in Boston that has specifically asked employees to leave positive ratings/reviews on Glassdoor to cancel out negative ones. If Lyons had been at all plugged into the Secretly Miserable Stressed-Out Debt-Ridden Underpaid Millennial Underground Gossip Network at HubSpot, he may have heard something similar. Learning to tap into and navigate the gossip network at my old place of employment was the single most valuable skill I learned there, although I learned it too late. Lyons, it seemed, never learned to use gossip at all. He seems unaware that he could be missing anything. Not a good investigative journalist trait, dude. Be more suspicious!
—HE'S SURPRISED HE GOT IN TROUBLE FOR A COMMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA THE GODDAMN SECOND TIME HE GOT IN TROUBLE FOR A COMMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA. And after he'd seen other people also get into giant unprofessional fights over comments on social media. Learn from your experiences! And yet he continues to be incredulous, instead of appreciating that he's the only nonexecutive in the company who would be allowed to hang around long enough to do that twice.
—Basically he complains about how ageist HubSpot is, which is entirely true, but completely fails to acknowledge the other ways in which he still really does have old white guy privilege, because he keeps getting breaks other people don't get. Like being able to negotiate a leave of absence (lol) and actually being able to get anything out of his stock options. I know this stuff is probably invisible to him because it's supposed to be a standard part of how jobs work, but it's not anymore.
—OK, so basically all my complaints boil down to one thing: I think he blows off the younger generation of workers as stupid and hoodwinked too easily and glosses over the ways the 99.9999% of us who aren't startup founders are getting screwed, because his desire to tell an entertaining fish out of water story about how full of wacky people HubSpot is is stronger than his empathy for a generation that's been comprehensively fucked over economically, and certainly a hell of a lot stronger than his curiosity. Most of the people I know who have been struggling through workplaces like this are not dumb. I know people who have been made "executives" at content farms who are 100% aware the moment they get the job that a) they are not ready for this, b) the company is using the prevalence of internships and contract work in the "gig economy" to make themselves look good for giving people salaries at all even when they're abysmally low, c) calling someone an "executive" or "manager" is a shitty way to make them work an additional 20 hours a week with no overtime pay like they're a fuckin' lawyer or something, and d) we'll be called lazy and entitled and told to work harder and make better decisions if we point out that we can't live in the rapidly gentrifying cities where the jobs are and pay the student loan bills racked up from getting the degrees the jobs require on the wages the jobs are paying. WE DON'T LIKE WORKING FOR SHIT WAGES AND WE'RE NOT DOING IT DELIBERATELY TO UNDERCUT BABY BOOMERS. WE DON'T HAVE A FUCKING CHOICE. There's too many of us, too many of us are college-educated, we have mortgage-size debts to pay off even if we don't have houses and families, and so much former entry-level work has been downgraded to usually-unpaid "internships" that we can't afford to not take any job we can find that pays us in actual money at all — even if we're only being paid partly in money and the rest is in stocks we'll never cash out, or salt and beer like we're in the fucking first-century Roman Army. Oh, and if we ever turned down a job just because it was laughably underpaid, five million pseudoCalvinist Baby Boomers with pensions 'n' shit would immediately materialize to lecture us on how awfully full of ourselves and lazy we are and that we should be grateful we could get a job at all and not think we're too good for it. Hey, wait, no — we don't even have to turn down the laughably underpaid jobs for that to happen! But basically, if Baby Boomers are worried that their jobs are being threatened because companies can hire 22-year-olds for a third of the salary they'd have to pay real adults, they may also wish to STFU about how enormously entitled 22-year-olds are that they think they deserve a whole third of a salary. Please see how these two things are related and stop calling us dumb.

Obviously, there are only so many things you can cover in one book, and Lyons' focus here was on how colorfully strange HubSpot is and on the shortsighted, jargon-riddled fuckery of the startup bubble, rather than the younger generation's lack of economic opportunity. But if someone's getting overpaid, someone else is getting underpaid — and I think the underpaid deserve a little more real compassion than just being used as a rhetorical device against the overpaid. Also, full confession: Baby Boomers whining about millennials like we fucked ourselves over is something that got on my last goddamn nerve several years ago; I am well out of nerves and even the slightest hint of it will turn me into a giant angry class warfare rage monster.

For a calmer and more rational takedown than mine of the irresponsible, victim-blaming ways the media covers the idiosyncrasies of millennial lifestyles and economic habits, please see Sarah Kendzior's excellent piece on Quartz this week:

I got less angry near the end when the story refocused away from "observing" the rest of the company and making assumptions about them and onto the process of Lyons getting what in the business world I guess is called "managed out," in this case, the process by which it happened is, in the mental health, sociology and social justice worlds, called "gaslighting." Trotsky's calculatedly incomprehensible behavior is probably unfamiliar to anyone who has so far escaped being in the line of fire of similar emotional abuse, but from my weird addiction to reading advice columns, I don't think it's as uncommon as we'd all hope it would be. Some people just regularly operate in extreme bad faith. This part of the book also reawakened my sympathy for Lyons because nobody, nobody deserves to be deliberately blocked from getting shit done at work, especially not by the people whose job it is to enable you to get shit done. This is the opposite of the point of work and it is truly, truly baffling to deal with, especially in places that talk a big talk about rewarding people who TAKE INITIATIVE and DO THEIR OWN THING but if they personally don't like you they will permanently back-burner any idea you try to run past your superiors and dress you the fuck DOWN for subordination if you try to do anything without running it past your superiors. People and places that operate solely on vague buzzwords do it because they don't want you to have anything to fight for yourself with. It's all too common, but its still inexcusable, and Lyons documents it all clearly, thoroughly, and with the same sense of disbelief/naivete that irritated me so much during the rest of the book, except here it comes off more as a type of innocence that it's sad to see destroyed.

Honestly, the scariest, most effective, and most dramatic part of the whole book is the afterword, which covers the scandal surrounding the firing of two HubSpot executives for what, as far as anyone's been able to figure out, appear to be attempts to procure a copy of the manuscript for Disrupted via hacking and possibly extortion. This is the kind of stuff that really illustrates why the self-important cowboy culture of startups — the deliberately ill-defined rules, the cults of personality, the might-makes-right (or more often, money-makes-right) sense of entitlement, the unshakable belief that if you can get away with something, it must be a moral good for you to get away with it — aren't just irritating quirks of individual douchebros with too much money, they are problems. They allow morally bankrupt people with delusions of technosainthood to seriously fuck with the rest of us honest dumbasses who got suckered into trying to work for a living.

In short: Eat the rich.

Anyway, things end fairly well for Lyons, as he goes on to be a writer for Silicon Valley, which is better than being jerked around in a culty martech startup in New England, and if the people at HubSpot legitimately don't understand that then maybe they are even weirder than the people in other culty martech startups. Things ended OK for me, too, in case you were wondering; I got a job at a newsroom in an industry that might have the least social utility of any sector of journalism ever, but I am OK with that, since I am also allowed to make jokes and they are even letting me occasionally do journalism-ing instead of just editing (I'm still probably getting paid like a third of what Lyons was making as a journalist, though, so we can't put that one entirely on startups). Lyons is right that journalism is much much better for people with cranky senses of humor, even though I know he would probably think I am dumb because I am an overly excitable young lady with a cranky sense of humor instead of an important middle-aged guy with A Family To Support.

Anyway, I know this is (a) a long political rant and (b) about the farthest thing away from an objective book review as you can get, but I did only read the book because someone wanted to hear about it specifically through the filter of my personal experiences with a similar type of company, so that's what you're all getting (congratulations if anyone who's not my mom actually read it this far; I owe you a drink or something) (Mom, I probably owe you a drink too).

Should you read this book? This is going to depend a lot on your personal experiences. If you've worked at one of these places and have any political opinions in the directions that work should produce something useful, or companies should treat employees like humans, then maybe not; it's bad for your blood pressure. If you think that genius is directly correlated to net worth, don't bother — this book is going to challenge your assumptions, but let's face it; you're not going to want to hear it and you're going to write Lyons off as a douchebag who's just sour that he's not quite a big enough douchebag to pull off bilking other people out of millions. (Also, get back in the sea.) If you're a person who has been sheltered within traditional office environments and you are curious about how all this hip open-office-plans-and-ping-pong-tables stuff you've been hearing about works in practice (spoiler: it doesn't), then you should DEFINITELY read it. If you're a manager dealing with low employee morale and are considering trying to fix it by adding branded taps and a foosball table instead of taking another look at your training or performance evaluation processes and making sure they're not made out of holes, also read this book.


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