The Books of Babel

The first of the Books of Babel, Senlin Ascends, starts with Thomas Senlin and his wife Marya heading to the Tower of Babel for their honeymoon. They get separated before even entering the tower, Thomas enters the tower to seek Marya, and… ascends. This takes him through various “ringdoms”, such as the Parlour. His guidebook tells him that this is a theater district, so he expects to see a show, and is surprised to be told that he must play the part of the Butler.

I was fascinated by the Tower, by some of the people Thomas meets, and by the mystery of Marya. There were a couple of ways in which I wasn’t convinced by the character of Thomas. But the second book, Arm of the Sphinx, addressed one of them. More generally, I enjoyed the second book even more than the first. I admire the pacing: the rate at which we find out about the characters and the world, while given more mysteries to ponder.

Josiah Bancroft plans to write two more novels in the Books of Babel series. He self-published the first two, and now has a deal with Orbit to republish them, and to publish the third (which I believe he’s currently writing) and fourth. I look forward to the last two books, and to more covers by Ian Leino.

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

On Monday, Ursula Le Guin parted from this world. I’ll link to one of the many appreciations online, then get on with my own appreciation.

A few weeks ago, I parted with most of my remaining books. I donated a few hundred of the dusty dead-tree things. About a dozen were by Le Guin, most of them decades-old UK paperback editions.

I don’t regret having parted with the books, even after learning of Le Guin’s passing. At first I was surprised at myself. Then I reflected, and realized that there are several reasons for the lack of regret.

Those particular instances of the books are just objects. The Left Hand of Darkness is important to me because of the writing, rather than because of the particular object with print on its pages that I used to own.

I’ll be able to re-read the books (again). There are e-books, libraries, pleasing new editions, and so on. Here’s herself on re-reading.

“If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell you it again when you’re fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.”

I may be able to re-buy one of my own Le Guin books. I’m thinking of The Dispossessed: it’s one of my favorites; and my copy of it was in better shape, and had larger and more pleasing type, than most of the others. If I don’t get to it in time, that’s fine: it will mean that it has found a new reader and a new home, many years and many miles from its first home with me. It will also mean that the Friends of the Library have sold it, thus raising money for the good things they do.

Books are wonderful. Libraries are wonderful. Ursula Le Guin is, and always will be, wonderful.

Engagement: Employees, etc.

How do we know if something has reached the mainstream? One answer is: there’s a “For Dummies” book about it.

So employee engagement is in the mainstream, if the publication of Employee Engagement For Dummies is anything to go by.

Author Bob Kelleher defines employee engagement as “the capture of discretionary effort”. He actually acknowledges that there are multiple definitions, but he describes the definition just quoted as “the gold standard”. Another book defines employee engagement similarly (“willingness to go above and beyond”), then describes three components: the rational, the emotional, and the motivational.

These three components will be familiar to students of Psychology, Organizational Behavior (OB), etc. They are often described as, respectively: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Having introduced such academic terms, let me have a look for employee engagement in the textbook from which I’ve most recently taught OB (George and Jones). It’s not in the index, and I don’t recall any mention of employee engagement anywhere in the book. There is at least one very similar concept (organizational citizenship behavior), but I won’t get into that now.

It seems that employee engagement is a term used more by consultants than by academics. Bob Kelleher is a consultant. The other book mentioned above is Closing the Engagement Gap, by Gebauer and Lowman, both of whom were at Towers Perrin when the book was published.

In the next week or so, I’ll post more about employee engagement. For now, I’ll note that the term engagement is widely used, and provide a couple of examples. Rajat Paharia (founder of Bunchball) brings together employee engagement, customer engagement, big data, and gamification to describe Loyalty 3.0. Alex Pentland (an MIT prof) uses a behavioral definition of engagement in his account of Social Physics.

Washington: From General to Statesman

Washington, Ron Chernow’s biography of America’s first president, is tremendous. I’m just over halfway through it. I’ve just finished the third and longest of its six parts: The General. Part Four is The Statesman: hence the title of this post.

Chernow deftly sums up a couple of striking things about Washington the General.

Throughout history victorious generals had sought to parlay their fame into political power, whereas Washington had only a craving for privacy…

He was that rare general who was great between battles and not just during them.

Indeed, maintaining the Continental Army, given the lack of resources, the differences among the thirteen colonies, and other obstacles is as impressive as any specific victory.

I’m looking forward to the last three parts: The Statesman! The President!! The Legend!!! Those are Chernow’s titles, but my punctuation. There’s a great cast of characters: not only Washington himself, but also Martha, Lafayette, and of course Hamilton. That said, I may spend some time with shorter and more fictional reading before I read the next 360-ish pages.

I’ve been reading Common Sense…

by Thomas Paine, and I’ll quote from it in this post. But hey, I just quoted Angelica Schulyer! Here she is, with her sisters, and other members of the Hamilton company, at the White House.

Now to quote T Paine himself. There’s a wonderful passage from toward the end of Common Sense. Here’s the setup.

We ought to reflect, that there are three different ways, by which an independancy may hereafter be effected… By the legal voice of the people in Congress; by a military power; or by a mob

And here’s the payoff.

Should an independancy be brought about by the first of these means, we have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

Feel free to share your own favorite quotes from Thomas Paine, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or…

Nevertheless, she persisted

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. Tor is marking the day with a festival of flash fiction, in the form of stories inspired by the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted”.

I’m about to read the contribution of Catherynne M. Valente: The Ordinary Woman and the Unquiet Emperor. I’m looking forward to the other contributions.

I hope that the day goes well for you.

Seven Surrenders on the Seventh

My most eagerly awaited book of 2017 is Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer. It is the sequel to my favorite book of 2016, Too Like the Lightning. 7S will be published on the 7th (of March, 2017). So it’s just a few hours away as I edit this post.

What does the title Seven Surrenders mean? I suspect that it means that each of the seven Hives in some sense surrenders. But if so, to whom? To Bridger, the remarkable kid we met early in TLtL? And why, and how, and…

Or the number seven might refer to days of the week. The narrator, Mycroft Canner, tells us toward the end of TLtL that it takes two books (presumably TLtL and 7S) to tell a seven-day story. TLtL covered Monday to Friday. I expect 7S to describe a wild weekend!

These books make me want to write as well as to read:

Future Countries in Favorite Fiction

The world currently consists of about two hundred countries: sovereign states, most of which are members of the United Nations (UN). They tend to be durable entities with rather stable borders.

The world of the future isn’t divided up in this way. At least not according to a couple of recent novels I enjoyed very much. I refer to:

Continue reading “Future Countries in Favorite Fiction”

Reading Matters: Fiction and Links

Reading matters a lot to me. This post is about some current fiction and about some related websites.

A Conjuring of Light is the just-published novel by V.E. Schwab. It’s a fantasy set in Londons: yes, there is more than one London, and there is travel between them, and there is magic. Like many fantasy novels, it’s part of a series. The Kindle edition of the first novel in the series is currently on sale, and the cover illustration is wonderful, so a graphical link to that book seems in order.

I’m looking forward to Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer. It’s a sequel to Too Like the Lightning, my favorite novel of 2016. I recommend you sample the first few pages of TLtL (follow the link and look inside the book). If you like the the narrator’s voice, and the way in which he “gazes back” to the 18th century from the 25th, you’ll probably love the novel (or novels, since I don’t think that the forthcoming one will disappoint).

Now for those reading-related websites.

  • Goodreads, where I keep track of my reading, write the occasional review, and see what other people are reading.
  • Tor.com, “a site for science fiction, fantasy, and all the things that interest SF and fantasy readers”. Tor is a publisher, but the site tries to engage interest, rather than to sell books directly. And it often gives books away!
  • Amazon. Yes, those links above are affiliate links, and I’d love to cover my hosting costs from such links. But if you get the books elsewhere, that’s great, because books are great, and so are bookstores and libraries.

If I Were a Patriot, Invited to the White House

If I were a Patriot, I’d be proud, but uncertain about how to reply to the invitation to the White House. The word Patriot here refers to the Superbowl-winning New England Patriots. I’m not a Patriot in that sense.

So, if I were a Patriot, what would I be thinking? I believe Tom Brady’s statement: Everybody has their own choice. I’d respect each teammates’ individual decision, whether it be Brady’s decision to go this time, or the decision of several others not to enter the Trump White House.

I’d go. I’d take a gift for the 45th President: a book on the constitution. Given the recipient, it shouldn’t be a tome. I’d go with The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution. The pages are neither large nor numerous (a little over 200 of them). The type is not small.

Constitutional scholar Richard Beeman adds annotations and a few short chapters to:

  • The Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson’s second paragraph describes governments as “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.
  • The Constitution itself.
  • The Amendments. I might highlight the first amendment, which of course is about freedom: of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of petition.
  • Three of The Federalist Papers: 10, 51, and 78. The last of these is Alexander Hamilton’s essay on the importance of protecting “the weakest of the three departments” of government: the judiciary. I think that the judiciary will prove less weak than Hamilton feared, or than Trump seems to hope.

What would you do, if you were a Patriot, invited to the White House?