Book Review: A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam

A book of apercus, i.e., brief comments or references that makes an entertaining or illuminating point, framed around the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a book apparently famous for its lists. An illustrative example:


Honorable mention.

Spider veins.

Wet socks.

A half-hearted massage.

No coin for a fountain.

Fine dining at the mall.

Passport pictures.

Petting zoos.

A jukebox full of jazz.


Book Review: To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine

Enjoyable memoir on processing the death of her mother and coming to terms with her family history. Viv Albertine has a candor that is as refreshing as a pint of beer to the crotch, which I liked.

Recommended to women over 50, parents, and men who get The SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas.

Quotes I liked, some of which are quoting others:

“Every decision you make in life sends you off down a path that could turn out to be the wrong one.”

“Forcing something, whether a shit, song or a relationship, never gets the best results.”

“Let a person be who they are. If they do something that makes you feel uncomfortable or doesn’t work for you, tell them. If they don’t or can’t adjust, and it doesn’t bother you too much, ignore it. If it does bother you, leave.”

“Finding another person to love is finding another person to lose.”

“Sometimes the key arrives before the lock.”

“The worst four words in the English language are, ‘We need to talk.'”

“Love is in the eye of the beholder.”

“You should always call a person when you think of them.”

“You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.”

“Sometimes life needs a bit of a nudge to live up to our expectations.”

“No one comes through life clean.”

“Truth is splintered.”

Book Recommendation: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A former Russian Count is confined to a luxury hotel after the Russian Revolution. He lives there for a long time, and even in his confinement, life finds him. Even as a fictional character, he’s a pleasant person to spend time with. Touching story that brought tears to my eyes a few times. Quite a few wise observations on life. Recommended.

Quotes I liked:

“Adversity presents itself in many forms; and that if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

“[I]magining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different [is] the only sure route to madness.”

“By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration— and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”

“Trust that life will find you, in time. For eventually, it finds us all.”

“Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.”

Book Review: Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson

tl;dr: The eight-circuit model of consciousness: survival, emotions, reason, society/reproduction, body connection, imprint selection, connecting to life, and connecting to everything. If this all sounds like some New Age bullshit to you, then you might want to try some of the exercizes at the back of each chapter, e.g., “Try living a whole week with the program: ‘Everybody likes me and tries to help me achieve all my goals.'” Watch how your expectation shapes reality.

The framework of Prometheus Rising is Timothy Leary’s eight-circuit model of consciousness. In Robert Anton Wilson’s (RAW) telling, most people are robots that are dominated by one of the first four circuits of consciousness. They are ruled either by survival and comfort, their emotions, reason or the drive to reproduce and shape society.

Within circuits of consciousness, there are largely random imprints that shape their expression. For example, people that were enculturated as children and now belong to one of the top four religions – whether Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist – are often going to have a default emotional and rational style shaped by their religion. Or, people that grow up in circumstances of poverty or during a time like the Great Depression are going to have a greater focus on survival than people that didn’t. Other examples could include how our first sexual experience or relationship tends to define what turns us on or mate selection later in life. Similarly, our home life as a child tends to shape whether we want to recreate it or its opposite as adults.

He suggests that humanity is on the cusp of breaking free of the constraints of the space-time continuum. Scientific breakthroughs making immortality possible and enable the exploration and colonizing of interstellar space are going to radically change our mental models. And, this change in constraints is going to require reprogramming our minds to higher levels of consciousness, beyond the first four.

The fifth level of consciousness is a freedom from the compulsions of the first four circuits, where they are recognized as largely random imprints. In this state, we reconnect with our bodies. Freed from the demands of our imprints, we generally experience a sense of well-being.

The six level of consciousness, according to RAW, enables us to reprogram our random imprints. We are free to recognize the influence of our early poverty and decide that wealth and power, which both aid survival, isn’t as important to us. Or, we can decide to break with the model of relationships we have seen throughout our lives, and we can choose new imprints, e.g., to be polyamorous or bisexual. For rationalists, there is the opportunity to come to terms with how limited the tool of rationality is and how frequently it is used in the service of our drives for survival, for our emotions and for our social needs.

The seventh level of consciousness is to tap into our being at the DNA-level, where we come to terms with how we as individuals fit into the grand sweep of human history and how we fit into larger schemes of life on this planet and in the universe. Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Over-Soul, the Hindu atman, the Rastafarian I-and-I, the Baul Moner Manush (the person of the heart), the Quaker Light Within, and so forth seem like shades of this idea of how we connect with other humans, other sentient beings and the divine spirit of Life to transcend ourselves.

The eighth level of consciousness is to tap into the quantum entanglement of everything with everything else. It transcends the limitations of mere life and connects all to all.

Throughout the book, RAW’s primary project is not to lay out this framework clearly as I have done here, much of which is filtered through my own mind and not using examples from his book. His project seems to be primarily opening people up to the possibility of taking these ideas seriously. At the end of each chapter, he has a series of “exercizes”, which seem to be chosen primarily to give people practice in seeing the limitations in their worldview and in changing it.

This points to a key insight. It is impossible to tell people anything. You can talk about reality-tunnels and discuss theoretical frameworks like the eight-circuit model of consciousness, but it is difficult to make these ideas real. Ultimately, people have trouble accepting different worldviews than their own or that their outlook on life might be largely random and/or limited.

Most of us are getting on with the business of survival. We are subject to the vagaries of our emotions. We pretend that our rationality isn’t largely just rationalizations. And, we are subject to the demands of instinct, such as when biological clocks drive us to reproduce. Acknowledging these facts is difficult for most of us.

But, this fact is precisely why a book like Prometheus Rising can be so useful. There are other worlds, other ways of being. But, if we are only interested in the world we are in and the way we are, we are unable to see them. The expectations of the world shape us, and we, in turn, shape the world with our expectations. The central idea of this book is: Isn’t it worth the effort to change our expectations and get into a mental space where we are in control and can transcend our circumstances and our personal history?

Book Review: Three Masquerades by Rachel Ingalls

“And perhaps the girl had also meant exactly what she’d said about love–that it was from heaven, freely given and necessary, but rich people never had to feel necessity; if a friendship broke down, or a marriage, or a blood relationship, they somehow always managed to buy another one. Life could be made very agreeable that way. But love was what the goddess has said it was–not pure: poor.”

–Rachel Ingalls, “I See A Long Journey” in Three Masquerades. (Berkeley, CA: Pharos Editions, 2017), 76.

Recommended. Comprised of three novellas: I See a Long Journey, Friends in the Country, and On Ice. In these three tales, Rachel Ingalls starts with a female character and situating her in a domestic relationship. The first part conveys a sense of the protagonist — her hopes, dreams and fears. And then, in each of these stories, everything goes sideways in a strange, possibly even supernatural way. Reading each was like watching a magician doing something unanticipated, like opening a coffin and having a swarm of locusts emerge that devour the audience. Lovely and weird.

Book Review & Summary: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink

Review: Recommended. There is a lot of sound advice for life and business in this book. While the war stories do help to illustrate the points being conveyed, I thought that they distracted from the principles being discussed. Overall, worth your time.

Summary: The central idea is to own everything that happens to you, i.e., extreme ownership. Human tendency is to try to blame someone else, and the best way to short-circuit that is by holding only ourselves to blame. 

By extension, there are no bad groups, only bad leadership. If the person leading your group is bad, you need to find ways to help them. If you are having trouble with “others”, from suppliers to internal departments, then you need to take responsibility and build relationships with those groups or individuals, finding ways to help them help you. 

Providing so much help to other people requires keeping our ego in check. Believe that the larger goal you are trying to accomplish is bigger than your personal success. Know what you are trying to achieve, and know how what you are currently doing helps you to achieve it. Believe in what you are doing.

As a way of operating in the world, get help and then do what needs to be done. Keep your plans simple. Prioritize, focusing on the most important thing first and working your way down the list. One approach is to use the Ivy Lee Method of picking the most important six things you need to do at the start of every day and start at the top of the list each morning. If you can get someone else to do the job at 80% as well as you can do it, then delegate down. Delegating tasks frees up your perspective to look for problems you might otherwise miss.

To keep your edge, plan and create flexible standards. Lead from above and below. Act decisively with imperfect information. The more discipline you have and the more discipline you instill in your team, the more freedom you will have to deal with strategic goals and outlier problems, rather than spending most of your time reacting to situations with tactics.