Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Week 3: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Reading in High School

Disclaimer: I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this week. It was the second time I was assigned this book to read, the first time being my junior year high school. This week was the first time I read the book. The writing in the following dialogue is a little more vulgar than the typical prose on this blog (not too vulgar though--I said I’d keep everything here reasonably clean). This style is necessary to make the piece authentic. Enjoy!

Craig: Yo Nick! What’s up bro.
Nick: Hey man what’s goin’ on.
Craig: Nothing. Did you do the reading for English class yet?
Nick: Some of it...what pages did we have to read?
Craig: 147 to 302. What, you didn’t do it?
Nick: I read some of it.
Craig: Like how much?
Nick: ...Maybe 20 pages.
Craig: Huh really? Yeah I read probably half of it, but I skimmed a bunch too.
Nick: We’re gonna be in rough shape if there’s a quiz or something.
Craig: Yup. What do you think of the book?
Nick: Huck Finn? I mean, it’s a decent book. It’s better than some of the other stuff we read. Like I’d rather read that than Shakespeare or fucking Great Expectations.
Craig: Yeah that one was brutal. You could tell Dickens got paid by the word. Yeah, I mean, I don’t think the book is bad. The language is a little tough, but once you get used to it it’s a pretty good story. I kinda think Huck Finn is like an American hero. 
Nick: Yeah he’s kind of a badass.
Craig: I mean, he fakes his own murder, and then he helps a slave escape and floats down the Mississippi River. And what he is, like 12 years old? My mom wouldn’t even let me watch Goodfellas when I was 12.
Nick: What? You’ve never seen Goodfellas?
Craig: No dude I saw it when I was 14. I saw it at your house when your parents weren’t there, remember?
Nick: Oh yeah we did that.
Craig: Anyways, Huck Finn is the man. Plus, Twain’s a pretty funny guy, at least for the times. Like how teachers say Shakespeare was super dirty for the 1600s and made all these sex jokes? Twain was the same way for the 1800s. It’s hard to understand with all of the weird dialect in the book, but some of his stuff is hilarious. Like the Duke of Bilgewater? Funeral orgies? Classic.
Nick: Funeral orgies?
Craig: Yeah if you did any of the reading you would know about that. Also, the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons...
Nick: Yeah I know those guys.
Craig: Word. Yeah that part has some really dark humor in it too. Like they can’t remember what the feud was about, or who killed who first. It’s like a Tarantino movie.
Nick: I thought your mom wouldn’t let you see Pulp Fiction?
Craig: No I saw it at Jeff’s like a month ago. It’s amazing. I love Tarantino dude.
Nick: What other Tarantino movies have you seen?
Craig: Uh, just that one. My parents are ridiculous about that stuff.
Nick: How are you a Tarantino fan if you’ve only seen one of his movies? You didn’t see Inglorious Basterds?
Craig: No dude not yet, but Pulp Fiction is like his defining movie. Samuel L. is pretty much the man there. And I think Huck Finn has some of that badassery in it too.
Nick: But you didn’t do all of the reading?
Craig: I mean, I read some. But then I played some COD and watched TV. The U Part 2 was on ESPN last night.
Nick: Oh man I want to see that. Is it good?
Craig: Yeah it’s frickin’ sweet. Not as good as the first one though. But I watched that, and then Jessica started Snapchatting me.
Nick: Oooohhh Jessica.
Craig: Shut up dude, we’re just friends. Anyways, I just kept getting distracted and couldn’t finish it.
Nick: Me too man. Keith and I hit the gym for a bit, then we went to Five Guys for like two hours. Heather works there so we were just making fun of her the whole time.
Craig: Dude Heather...
Nick: Yeah bro. We were going to go to Chipotle, but no hot girl has ever worked at Chipotle.
Craig: TRUE STORY. But their food is the illest.
Nick: Yeah it’s chill. You know Keith ate three bowls in one sitting last week?
Craig: What?
Nick: It was crazy. But then he spent the entire next day in the bathroom. He literally missed three classes, including a Spanish quiz.
Craig: That Chipotle was his Spanish quiz dude. He probably couldn’t sit down for three days after that.
Nick: Yeah that’s stuff’s disgusting if it hits you wrong. What were we talking about before?...oh yeah, so after that I just went home and passed out. Whatever, I just hate reading for English class. 
Craig: Ya heard? I’m not sure what it is. Nobody really likes doing anything for school though, right? Everybody hates homework and shit. 
Nick: Teachers always make this stuff seem so boring. Who cares about what foreshadowing is, or what the major themes are in the book? Can’t we just read this stuff to enjoy it?
Craig: Mr. Abbott is okay. We watched The Godfather in class, which is legit. Plus you see boobs in that movie. That class is pretty fun aside from the work.
Nick: That dude is an aging hippie. You know he smokes up on a regular basis.
Craig: What? Really?
Nick: Yeah, Steve said his dealer sells to him too. That dude has been out of it for like thirty years.
Craig: Steve always makes up shit like that, but I could still believe Mr. Abbott blazes. What a burnout.
Nick: Yeah what a burnout.
Craig: And that class does kinda suck--it low-key pisses me off. Did you read the note at the beginning of the book?
Nick: Nah.
Craig: It’s hilarious, here hold on...yeah, here it is: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
Nick: Heh yeah, so I guess Twain doesn’t even want us to judge the book.
Craig: It would be great if we could just read these books on our own, without having to be tested on some stupid details about minor characters in the book or talk about what the author “meant” by some obscure passage nobody cares about.
Nick: Why don’t we read books that are, like, newer?
Craig: What?
Nick: Every book we read is like 200 years old.
Craig: We read Catcher in the Rye last year; that was written in the 1950s.
Nick: Whatever, you know what I mean. I can’t pay attention when I’m reading these older books because the language is so absurd. I don’t care if our teachers think Shakespeare is great--I just want to read something I actually like.
Craig: Like what would you read?
Nick: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. Tucker Max is hysterical.
Craig: I thought your parents wouldn’t let you get that?
Nick: I borrowed it from Jeff--I’ll lend it to you. Funniest thing I’ve ever read. His parents will let him do anything--they really don’t care. You know he’s having another party at his house this weekend?
Craig: Again? Where are his folks?
Nick: Going to Maui or some shit. His Dad is loaded. Also, his sister is pretty hot.
Craig: I knooow dude, she’s a dime. Is she going to be there?
Nick: Doubt it. It’ll probably just be a bunch of dudes again.
Craig: That’s limp man. Do you think Jeff’s sister is hotter than Rebecca?
Nick: No way bro. Rebecca’s like the hottest girl in the grade below us.
Craig: You think? I’m a big fan of Brittany.
Nick: Nah, she’s got a weird face.
Craig: Not at all dude. You headed to class?
Nick: Yup.
Craig: Are you gonna do any more of the reading?
Nick: I’ll probably just get the Cliff’s Notes.
Craig. Chill. Later man.
Nick: Later.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

New Alcatraz, by Grant Pies: Time Travel, Freedom, and Five Good Things About Good Fiction

Author’s Note: The book reviewed here was written by the brother of one of my good friends, Warren Pies. I have done my best to not let that bias my review, but I do think this book is awesome. I recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by time travel, freedom or the future. You can find the book here, and you can read more from the author at For future reference, most of my reviews on this blog will be positive. Why? Because I am only reading books I think I will like. Life is too short to read books you hate.

I think about time travel all the time. Or at least I used to. It’s one of those concepts any kid with a ripe imagination should think about seriously. It’s cool, right? So when my friend told me his brother had just published a book about time travel, I knew I wanted to read it. This book, New Alcatraz, did not disappoint. It gets the reader thinking about how time travel could be used and, more importantly, whether time travel could allow us to see time as a fourth dimension that does not always run in a straight line.

NA is debut effort of Florida author Grant Pies. It is part science fiction, part action thriller, part political statement, and part essay on the meaning of human existence. While it has a few small flaws, the book is, on the whole, top notch. The story centers on a narrator named Powell, who lives in a dystopian future where time travel and android technology have been invented but are heavily controlled by a shady cartel of federal government agencies and massive corporations. Powell comes from difficult origins, with his mother dying at his birth and his father dying when Powell is still a young boy, but he manages to get through school and settle into a career as a lawyer. Powell’s life is reduced to dreary routine until he is abruptly arrested on charges of murdering a “Time Anomaly Agent,” a person who patrols for unauthorized time travelers. Powell is framed and convicted of the murder, and he is sentenced to a prison called “New Alcatraz,” a time 3,000 years in the future when all human life on Earth has ceased to exist.

First, the flaws: the start of New Alcatraz is not as exciting as the rest of the book, and it contains a little of the sloppiness you expect from a self-published book. While Pies’ economical language makes it easier to charge through some of the slower parts of the early story, the pace does not pick up until after the first 100 pages. The other major issue is the parade of overdone murder scenes. I am all for good descriptive writing, but Pies goes into graphic detail about every flesh wound and murder incurred in the book. I did not have any problem getting through these scenes, but anyone with a distaste for violent language (or a weaker stomach) will have a harder time with them.

Beyond these minor caveats, NA is great, and it tackles two topics I really enjoy:

1. Big Business and Big Government vs. Individuals
NA describes a future in which the North American government and large corporations have control of all science and technology. The most advanced of this science is the ability to travel through time. In the world of New Alcatraz, the government has a monopoly on legal time travel, and they conduct all time expeditions from a giant vault buried hundreds of feet below the Denver Airport (in real life, the Denver Airport has a legend surrounding it about a hidden underground vault. You can read a tongue-in-cheek account of it here). The government’s stated rationale is time travel is too dangerous in the hands of private citizens, and it therefore must be controlled by a central power.

When covering the subjects of big business and big government, writers often use cliches denouncing “evil corporations” and perpetuating government conspiracy theories. Pies takes a more thoughtful route. He asks the reader a question throughout the book: are we better off letting large companies and government dictate the course of technology, or should individuals be the ones to drive progress? The answer in NA is clear: significant government interference in technology is bad for technology, and it will squander the potential of human discovery. 

Being a small-government, free market kind of guy, I agree with Pies’ point of view here. Consider the Viennese economist Joseph Schumpeter. He argued in his book The Theory of Economic Development that government or big business does not sustain the modern economic system. Rather, an enigmatic creature known as the “entrepreneur” keeps the system going. The entrepreneur, not the standard businessman, creates new products and develops new technology. Without the entrepreneur, capitalism stagnates as people become more comfortable, and the system eventually collapses under its own weight. 

As Schumpeter points out, the entrepreneur does not necessarily need monetary incentive to work at his craft. After all, the businessman, not the innovator, is really the one making the lion’s share of the money. The entrepreneur does his work for the joy of either conquering new worlds or creating new things. Since innovators are driven by intangibles beyond money or status, governments do not necessarily need to “encourage” entrepreneurship. The government (and, for that matter, all types of private business) should simply not stifle creativity and self-reliance, as these qualities often lead to an entrepreneurial mindset. Because without the possibility for original creation, human civilization might stagnate or decline as portrayed in New Alcatraz.

2. Time Travel
Call me old-fashioned, but I struggle to picture time as anything but chronological. Like any good time travel story, NA challenges this idea immediately. Pies lays out the book in non-linear fashion, jumping between court cases hashed out in 2070, childhood adventures 20 years earlier, and temporal prison three millennia in the future. At first the reader thinks he knows what constitutes the present, past and future in the story, but these definitions become blurrier as the book moves along. By the end, I was persuaded that moving between different points in time at will is possible. More importantly, it made me believe that it is possible, or even preferable, to live life out of order.

The best explanation of the time travel paradox comes in an extended passage on pages 239 to 241 from one of the supporting characters, a scientist named Dr. Adler. He says, “Imagine on that piece of paper is a person, a two dimensional person. Imagine that a two dimensional cage surrounds the person. A square. To them their entire world is to the left and the right of them. To that person he is trapped, but to an outside three dimensional observer like us, this person is not trapped.” He continues later, “Now imagine that there is a person, a three dimensional person, stuck in a cell. Not just a square, but a cube...the same concept holds true for this three dimensional person.” He concludes, “To a fourth dimensional observer, it is just as simple to rescue the third dimensional person from his cube.”

For us in only three dimensions, a fourth seems incomprehensible, but time is not a constrictive linear scale. It is in theory possible to jump across time just as you might fly on a plane from New York to Los Angeles. It is also, in theory, possible to be in two places at one time and to experience multiple realities. This leads to another question: is there only one, predestined version of events? NA does not give a definitive answer, but I enjoyed the thoughts of another supporting character in the story, Hamilton. He says, “The end and the beginning of all time will be indistinguishable. Looking backward in time will be the same as looking forward, and all things will essentially be reset. Recycled. We will do all of this over again; we already have.” He is either saying all events will take place again in the same way, or saying all events will be redone in millions of different iterations. I, for one, prefer the latter interpretation. It is more freeing to ignore what is supposed to happen and instead focus on what is possible. If you have that attitude, time becomes as trivial as the measurements of your living room.

These two big concepts tie in nicely with my theme of “I know nothing” from last week. This blog is a journey of self-discovery for me, and New Alcatraz allows me to add “see beyond your own world” and “don’t let others define your world for you” to my list of lessons learned. Maybe at the end of this journey, I will publish a huge list of these lessons learned for the world to read. Until then, here is a slightly less ambitious list of things I have learned about reading:

Five Good Things About Good Fiction
  1. It’s entertaining. Call me a spoiled, entitled millennial, but I want to be entertained constantly. Also, most professionals read non-fiction writing for their work that is dry as hell. So, if you want something that is stimulating but still self-improving, a good novel is a good way to go. I am all about learning and hard work, but I also think long bouts of productivity can only be gotten if they are punctuated with intermediate bouts of blowing off steam. Since video games and television are usually stupor-inducing time wasters, fiction is your best bet.
  2. It’s fast-paced. Good non-fiction writing is tremendous. I will read anything Michael Lewis, mostly because he focuses on character development more than most reporters. But good non-fiction can also be a slog. If you have a 300-page book on the Battle of the Somme, it could take you weeks to get through it if you really want digest all of its main points. Good fiction moves much faster, especially if the author is economical with the language in the book. See New Alcatraz as Exhibit A.
  3. It gets you into the groove of reading. Do you want to be the next John Lyon and start your own book-a-week challenge? First, find a less pathetic goal. Second, do NOT begin with the latest biography on Xanthippe (Socrates’s wife and the namesake of the Lyon family’s first cat). Pick up a book you know will hook you immediately. Don’t worry if you think that book is a guilty pleasure. It’s probably better if the book is a guilty pleasure, because you will zoom through it with ease. Start with whatever gives you momentum with your reading, then move on to the tough stuff.
  4. It inspires the imagination. Non-fiction is very structured and restrictive. It lays out an argument or story point by point, and the author can do very little to deviate from the logical progression of the piece. Fiction does not have these constraints. It can be non-linear in nature, include passages of song or poetry, and begin in the middle of things. It can also create its own reality, its own dimensions and its own visions of the world. Good non-fiction must operate within the boundaries of what is. Good fiction pushes those boundaries to challenge our own view of the truth.
  5. It can make your writing less boring. Try using a motif to introduce some rays of light to an otherwise bleak office-wide email, or start smaller and use onomatopoeia to create buzz for your next company event. At worst, adding acceptable alliteration alienates asinine associates. At best, it makes people think, “that person is super literate.” Either way, it will be fun. In fact, I promise to use a literary device in at least three office communications this week. If you want, you can do the same and post them (anonymously, if you wish) to the comments section below.
Next week, I will tackle a classic which I did not give proper due when I first read it in high school, and I will ask a more pointed question: “does high school make students hate books?” Later skaters.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Trust Me, I’m Lying, By Ryan Holiday: 11 Reasons I’m Doing This Blog

Author’s Note: This post has two parts. Part one is thoughtful and slightly depressing. Part two is less thoughtful and goofy. Read either one at your leisure.

Part One: The Main Reason

I don’t know anything. That is the main reason I am doing this blog.

My goal is to read one book per week for the next 52 weeks and write a blog about it. I think this one-year challenge is the best way to broaden the scope of my knowledge, share that knowledge with friends, and create a little friendly challenge for myself. Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday’s take on the twisted world of blogs, was the book that showed me I do not know as much as I think. Not knowing enough is a problem I really need to address.

In my freshman year of college, we were all required to take a course called “Western Traditions.” The class reviewed the great philosophers starting in ancient Greece moving through to the Renaissance period. The point was for us to understand early Western thought on a basic level before diving into whatever subjects we chose to study in more detail. Frankly, I remember very little about each of the so-called classics we studied, but I have always come back to one particular piece from that course, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I am a visual learner, and I remember vividly my professor drawing out the setting of the beginning of the story on the blackboard in our classroom:

“And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.”

Plato explains what humans see as truth is not actually “Truth with a capital T” (as our professor would always say)--it’s just someone else’s projection of truth through an unreliable medium. The real truth, the one that is important to philosophers and intellectuals, is not readily visible and can only be found through extensive exploration.

This idea, that what we humans think is true might actually be false, blew me away. At the time I was a naive 18-year-old, and it never occurred to me that things I thought of as real could be fake. The thought was unsettling to say the least.

In the years following, I continued to take things in the world around me at face value more often than not. But occasionally I would come back to that story of The Cave. When I did, I would apply it more literally to the two media that define the view of “truth” in the modern world: television and the internet. Here were two examples of where notions of truth were not just being metaphorically screened in front of us, but were being physically screened for everyone to see. These channels for thought were so powerful and so prevalent that if the ideas they were espousing were actually false, it could be extremely harmful to any viewer’s freedom of thought.

Reading Trust Me, I’m Lying has brought this train of thought full circle for me. Holiday, who has served as a marketing advisor to public figures like Dov Charney and Tucker Max, explains how the economics of blogs make bloggers easy targets for manipulation. Most blogs rely exclusively on metrics like page-views and ad clicks to determine how much revenue they get from sponsors. More views and clicks equal more ads, so for-profit blogs will almost always choose content that will get a high number of views over content that is high quality. This often leads blogs to publish stories of questionable factuality. 

Holiday describes how he would often use phony names and email accounts to send bloggers fake news stories designed to gain more publicity for his clients. Bloggers are so starved for “click bait” content, he says, that they would usually accept his “tips” as fact and publish related stories without verifying any sources. Holiday says he would take advantage of this sloppy reporting by “trading up the chain”, feeding outrageous ideas to low-level blogs knowing the stories would, for the sake of clicks, eventually get picked up by more elite news agencies. Oftentimes these stories would show his clients in a negative light, but since guys like Charney and Max thrived on being reviled, this bad press was actually good press. These tactics are one of the reasons Holiday is the marketing superstar he is today.

While the first part of TMIL is all fun and games, Book Two, called “The Monster Attacks,” is much darker. Holiday shows how the moral ambiguity of these blogs (which include The Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, and Business Insider among many others) will often (surprise!) do more harm than good. By the end of the book, Holiday becomes very cynical about major blogs, and even the internet as a whole, as a means of human communication.

I do not agree with Holiday that internet communication is a total waste of space. But I have realized anything passing for “daily news” on the internet could be utterly fabricated. As Holiday points out, this is a tough pill to swallow. Holiday writes, “Suppressing one’s instinct to interpret and speculate, until the totality of evidence arrives, is a skill that detectives and doctors train for years to develop. This is not something us regular humans are good at; in fact, we’re wired to do the opposite.” When we see a report on a celebrity scandal or hot-button political issue, our instinct is not to contemplate but to react. We will not take time to analyze what is truth and what is embellishment. Instead, we will laugh, cry, or kerfuffle, and we will accept what’s written as fact.

Of course, this blind acceptance is not a major problem if, as Holiday says, “they (the bloggers) hadn’t meant anything they wrote. It had all been a game.” I realized accepting the collective thought of the blogosphere as even remotely accurate could warp my entire perception of reality. That is why I have to do this blog. I need to turn off the spigot of modern media flow into my brain and turn on the spigots of literature and thoughtful commentary. Only then can I find the Truth with a capital “T” my professor always discussed.

Part Two: 10 Other Reasons

Okay, so Part One was a little heavy. If you have gotten this far (thanks Mom), I’ll try to reward you with a little humor and lightheartedness. So, here are ten other reasons I’m doing this blog:

  1. I’ve always wanted to do a blog. Aside from wanting to be a professional golfer, a professional football player, and a professional baseball player, the main career dream I have in my young adult life is to be a writer. Maybe the best way to be a writer today is to start a blog. Big problem: before now, I had nothing interesting to write about. While the one-book-per-week idea is not earth shattering, it is the best I have for right now. How’s that for a sales pitch?
  2. I want to improve my writing. I found my fire for writing while I was in college, and while I lost a little of it in my first couple of years after school, my most recent job has rekindled that fire into a roaring blaze. I have brainstormed a few different ways to improve, and I figured that writing articles for the whole world to see would be the best way to get better. Hopefully this is the worst post I ever write for this blog.
  3. I want to read more. When I tell myself this, I always think of Brian Regan’s standup routine, where he says, “you never hear anybody bad-mouth reading.” Also, my parents often ask me, “what are you reading right now?” in a concerned, parental tone. Now I don’t have to answer that question; I can just tell them to read my blog.
  4. Routine is key. I don’t have my bowel movements timed out or anything, but lately I have become more interested in routines. I knew I wanted to read more, but I knew I would not do it unless I had a schedule. That’s how I came up with the “one book per week” idea.
  5. Stakes are a good thing. Nothing motivates me like a set of stakes, and no set of stakes motivates me like the possibility of total social embarrassment. And that’s what will happen if I fail to follow through on the promise of this blog. That’s why I turned the “one book per week” idea into a blog. Also, I need stakes if I am going to prioritize this blog, which has my full-time job, sports, food, family, and friends as competition for my time.
  6. What are other people reading? It’s a good question for friendly conversation, but it is something that is rarely discussed any more. I want to know what other people are reading. What did you read that rocks? What did you read that sucks? What should I read next? Send me suggestions by commenting on this post or emailing me at, and I’ll add your book to my to-do list (probably). By the way, this question is one reason I will keep these blog posts reasonably clean: I want to hear what everybody is reading. That includes my 13-year-old cousin, who reads more than anybody I know (which is like 18 people, but still).
  7. Tackling tough topics. This blog is where I can write honestly on topics I care about. Is time travel possible? Is going gluten free the way to be? Does high school poison you against reading? I will discuss these hard-hitting questions, and more, in future posts.
  8. Becoming a Jack of All Trades. Tim Ferriss did an awesome podcast back in July about why being a "Jack of All Trades" is way cooler than being a specialized insect. Or, in the words of James Altucher: “winners focus, losers diversify.”
  9. Connecting with New People. One of my big things since moving to Sarasota has been meeting new people (and meeting girls). I am hoping this blog will be a way for me to connect with even more new people (although very few of them are likely to be girls).
  10. Filter the Flow of Info. I kind of already said this one, but I needed a 10th reason. Although this is technically an 11th reason. Either way, I want to cut my flow. I already refuse to have a TV, and I am thinking about cutting out my internet service. And I live in south Florida, away from the din of large cities. If I get a bunch of cats, I can be a 25-year-old male version of a cat lady who doesn’t have TV or internet. Pretty cool right?

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I hope enjoy following me on my journey of one book per week for the next year. Thanks! Later.