Saturday, August 13, 2016

Reflections: Ready Player One

Ready Player One is the most referential book I have ever read.  Its pages drip with 80s pop culture references, some of them obvious, many of them not.  It's entertaining at first, especially when you understand the reference, but then it becomes a bit obnoxious and excessive.  This, in fact, is a good analogue to the book itself.  Its beginning is much stronger than its conclusion, and the aspects of the book which were its most entertaining element at the start become tired and worn-out by the end.

The book is on the whole enjoyable.  I described it to a co-worker as "aggressively okay."  The narrative pulls you along at a steady pace, interesting things happen, the mystery of the "Easter Egg" is sufficiently compelling, but it's the finer details that start to nag.  As mentioned, the references, the worship of 80s culture, although explained through the narrative, becomes irritating.  The details of the story are impressive, and the author's passion for the subject matter screams on every page.  The writing and dialogue serves the story fine and provides only a few moments of profundity. 

Sadly, the author, Ernest Cline, commits one of the most grievous mistakes of any science fiction or fantasy story, which I call "The Magic Wand."  Essentially "The Magic Wand" is a narrative tool to magically fix the story's most perplexing problems.  (Did you know reversing the Earth's orbit reverses time itself!?  Thank you, Superman).  Often times authors use this Wand when they've painted themselves into a corner.  "Oh, look, now the main character can fly!" or "travel through time!" or some such thing.  Ready Player One's Magic Wand is the main character's outlandish sudden ability to perfectly plan and execute a plan of such devious and conniving genius it leaves both the characters in the book and the reader of the book completely stunned.  Furthermore, throughout the book, there are far too many instances of the character needing to know some obscure or obtuse fact about 80s pop culture and the main character conveniently notifies the reader: "Good thing I've watched this film exactly 175 times."  Good thing, indeed.

Having said all of this, I enjoyed Ready Player One for what it was.  I was especially interested in the possible and entirely plausible future of virtual reality that the book showcases.  It's both exciting and dismaying.  Although the messaging of the book is muddled, which is too bad, the fiction aspect of it was very interesting.  (It's worth mentioning that according to an article in Businessweek, each new Oculus Rift employee—a company which has created a virtual reality headset—is issued a copy of Ready Player One).  A few years ago I was extremely skeptical of virtual reality's ability to be adopted by the mainstream.  Although that hasn't happened in a significant way yet, I do believe it will; in addition, I believe it very well could herald a massive shift in how we consume and participate in entertainment, education, business, commerce, and even how we interact with and make sense of reality itself.  Ready Player One shows a world that is either terrifying or exhilarating depending on your worldview.  I'm not convinced the author knows exactly which one it is. 

Ready Player One is being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg, and I think it might have a better chance being a great story as a film than a book.  I think the story needs to be trimmed, sliced and diced a bit, and leave behind many of the arcane details meant to be enjoyed by only a few.  There is definitely a fun adventure to be found here, but it might take some other storytellers to tell it a bit better.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Reflections: The Innovator's Dilemma

I've written before I'm not a big fan of many business books because many authors "intentionally or unintentionally, [attempt] to make [their] book some kind of new scriptural canon, demanding of our attention year after year."  The Innovator's Dilemma is a different book altogether; it's MBA territory and not meant for readers who enjoy a quick but mostly superficial exploration at self-help techniques.  Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma is a challenging and enlightening book, which purports to break new ground in the understanding of business and technology but also explores existing principles beneficial to all and not only the entrepreneur or senior manager. 

My awareness of The Innovator's Dilemma came while reading the excellent biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  Isaacson wrote: ". . . Christensen was one of the world's most insightful business analysts, and Jobs was deeply influenced by his book The Innovator's Dilemma."  I figured I should pay attention to this book so highly regarded by one of the most influential business leaders in recent memory.  Christensen's book attempts to document and explain how disruptive technology differs from sustaining technologies within industries—all detailed and defined, of course—and how entire industries have been significantly changed and how seemingly successful companies have folded or been greatly reduced in capability and reach due to disruptive changes.  That all sounds a bit esoteric, and in some ways it is without modest knowledge of businesses and organizations, but I found the information very interesting and useful.

Amazingly, I didn't find The Innovator's Dilemma to be redundant, as many business  books are.  It seemed that any time the book started to become too repetitious it would pivot to a new theory or model to continue explaining the phenomenon of disruptive technologies.  Although I was able to follow with a modicum of confidence the main ideas and principles, I certainly had to slow down a few times, re-read a few sentences, and ponder over a few graphs for a bit longer than usual to truly understand what was being presented and discussed.  In some cases, I'm still pondering.  As mentioned previously, this is not an easy read.  It will push you to dig deeper into seemingly straightforward business cases and consistently use your critical thinking skills.

Clayton Christensen offers something truly valuable and insightful with his book The Innovator's Dilemma.  I don't expect to create any disruptive technologies or necessarily be in a senior management situation having to make organizational decisions to deal with one, but I feel much more educated regarding business, organizations, and the constant change that is pervasive through most industries.

On a side note, Clayton Christensen's TED talk, How Will You Measure Your Life?, is well worth listening to and provides an impetus to reflect and examine your life and ambitions. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Steve Jobs
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reflections: The Night Circus

The Night Circus is a book that wanted so badly to be great but never quite got there. In fact, I wanted it to be great. I wanted Ray Bradbury—phantasmagorical, reality imbued with fantasy, seemingly effortless profundity. Alas, The Night Circus is not that book, no matter how hard it tried.

The book's imagery is at times striking, even evocative, but the story lacks consistency. Centering around a competition or duel established at the beginning of the book, the story meanders from scene to scene only occasionally addressing the central plot element. Yet, as if remembering why words were being put to paper, the author quickly and somewhat clumsily re-focuses the narrative during the last quarter of the book. As the story comes to a conclusion and as the characters find their closure, the overarching meanings feel a bit obtuse, and I was left wondering what the real purpose was and why I should care. (I had similar feelings after completing The Westing Game).

I have a propensity to enjoy books like The Night Circus. Something Wicked This Way Comes, for example, is one of my favorite books. I love stories that embrace hyper-reality—facts colliding gently and sometimes harshly with fiction. The Prestige is another example of a book and eventual film—yet another one dealing with magic and entertainment—that embraces fact and fiction and interweaves them together. The Night Circus in some ways does a wonderful job of cradling reality and fantasy, but it stumbles in other ways.

Having said all of that, The Night Circus does have a menagerie of interesting characters. The magical pull of the circus can be felt through the book's pages. It's a place I'd like to visit, to be, to experience. Mystery permeates basically every page of the book, albeit the resolution is inadequate. The book excels in its exhibition of imagination. Like any good fantasy, the new sights, sounds, and smells should intrigue and capture the reader. The Night Circus at times was captivating.

I wish there was more to recommend The Night Circus; yet, I feel the book is more feigned style than it is genuine substance. As a concept, the story has a lot for me to love, and visually I think a talented filmmaker could do something pretty special. The Night Circus frequently skirts the edge of greatness but never actually crosses the line. It's a shame because I really, really wanted it to.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Westing Game
Ray Bradbury & Me
Books to Movies: The Prestige

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections: Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery is one of the most important books I've ever read on education.  Although it's not its sole focus, Booker T. Washington provides clear and poignant direction on how to educate, including what is important and what is not.  The debate, like most things, continues today and in a form not terribly different than what it looked like during Washington's day.  In addition to the excellent commentary on education, Up from Slavery presents a leadership philosophy for African Americans I find oddly absent from today's debates regarding race and discrimination.  Although Washington feels a bit self-congratulatory at times in the book, I found Up from Slavery to be an enjoyable and insightful autobiography.

In the same tradition as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, who was Washington's contemporary, Booker T. Washington tells a story which feels ancient and unbelievable from a modern reader's perspective.  Washington grew up a slave and was emancipated when he was a boy.  His descriptions of experiencing freedom for the first time, along with other freed slaves, are quite educational.  Washington describes an America substantially different from today's, albeit still familiar in important ways. 

Second only to his commentaries on education, I found Washington's insight into leadership, especially in relation to African Americans, to be extremely interesting and shrewd.  Take, for example, the following statement:

"I think that the the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community.  No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward.  This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified."

I do not hear this philosophy of social existence today.  I've written elsewhere about my struggles with race relations in American, and I worry that a viewpoint like Washington's is so completely foreign and not a part of the general discussion.  Today's leaders, of all colors, seem insistent that the only causes of conflict for any race are external, whereas Washington seemed much more eager to look inwardly while not denying the injustices that existed.  I feel his viewpoint is needed in today's debates, regardless of whether or not you feel he's correct.

As mentioned earlier, I feel Washington's commentaries on education are some of the most important I've read.  Washington, in my opinion, would fit pretty comfortably in the grit school of thought today.  I admit my own bias toward that educational outlook while maintaining that my viewpoint, like most others', is nuanced and can't be perfectly categorized.  Washington did so much more, however, in the furthering of education than most commentariats, myself included.  He began and ran a successful educational institution and appears to have gained the favor of many, both in the South and the North (he's where he becomes a bit too self-congratulatory).  Like his viewpoints on leadership and social acceptance, his educational opinions ought not to be ignored today.  Like freedom, most African Americans were experiencing education for the first time.  In effect, a natural experiment was underway that simply cannot be duplicated today.  (Nor would we want to).  For that reason alone, Washington's conclusions and directions should hold a greater weight than most researchers and social scientist.

The Civil War period, before, during and after, is a fascinating, troubling, and heroic time in American history.  The personalities involved in those pivotal moments and events are overshadowed by only the founding generation.  Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery is an excellent addition to my knowledge of that time period and on critical issues, such as education and leadership. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
Reflections: Gods and Generals
Reflections: American Lion

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reflections: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I've been hesitant to read business-oriented books in the past.  I've laid out my reasons why in a separate blog post.  When I was invited to participate in a book club at work and read and discuss the business book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team I was thrilled to participate, but my excitement was more in being able to interact with other leaders and not as much regarding the book itself.  Happily, I found some value in the book and would be willing to recommend it to the others.

The first red flag that went up when I was introduced to the book was the subtitle: "A Leadership Fable."  I immediately thought of Who Moved My Cheese? and the fable it is intended to be.  That book, in my opinion, is so juvenile it's barely worth reading.  (In fact, I don't really think it is worth reading).  I was worried The Five Dysfunctions would also take the simplistic to the point of offense route.  Although The Five Dysfunctions is simply written (don't expect Dickens here), I would not consider it a simple book.  I fully admit that the book club interaction I had at work helped tremendously in assisting me to glean meaning and lessons from the book.  Yet, I do believe there are lessons to be learned here even in the absence of having a team or club to interact with while reading the book.  The fiction in this case, as opposed to something like Who Moved My Cheese?, was surprisingly effective.  It was applicable without being infantile.

Inevitably, The Five Dysfunctions posits its own "secret sauce" of teamwork along with the supreme obstacles to achieving it (hence the five dysfunctions).  Reading this book wasn't exactly a revelatory experience, but it does provide some additional insights I had not considered to the fullest extent.  If any one author truly has found the "secret sauce" of business, teamwork, or whatever else, there would probably be far less business books to peruse and digest.  I believe in the power of ideas, however, and The Five Dysfunctions give some tasty food for thought.

In the end, I was pleasantly (albeit mildly) surprised by The Five Dysfunctions.  I didn't find it pretentious, as I do many business books.  (Thankfully the author didn't recommend I had to read his book multiple times in a year in order to truly appreciate it!).  Teamwork, effective and efficient teamwork, is desperately sought after in almost all businesses, whether its a call center or an emergency room staff.  There is some good information to be found here, and it's worth a read.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Who Moved My Cheese?
Reflections: Steve Jobs
Reflections: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People