Best Science Fiction Books of 2013


INTRODUCTION

This post is dedicated to the blogger known as Driftglass, who is not only an accomplished blog write on his own, but who is part of a husband-and-wife podcasting team called The Professional Left whose weekly podcast is a commentary on political and other current events from a progressive point of view.  That podcast sometimes finishes with “Science Fiction University,” where Driftglass answers questions on science fiction that are sent to him by listeners.

It was that science fiction segment which got me interested in reading science fiction once again this year.  I have had a long love affair with science fiction that started when I was in 4th grade and my uncle described the plot of The Foundation by Isaac Asimov.  I read that book, and I am proud to say that I never took drugs in junior-high or high school because I had already found an effective mind-expanding drug in the form of science fiction.

Now the title of this blog is somewhat of a misnomer.  These are the best science fiction books I have read in 2013, although some are classics, and some may have been written in 2012.  With that disclaimer, here’s how I found the books to read.

First of all, I got suggestions for reading some of the science fiction classics from Driftglass’ Science Fiction University segment of the Professional Left podcast, including The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl which is predictive of today’s America with its dismantling of the government and the rush towards privatization that it is extremely humbling to realize that it was written in the 1950s.  Then I went to the edition of Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction that came out this summer.  Gardner Dozois puts out the previous year’s best short-form science fiction in the form of the novella, the novelette, and the noveleeny (better known as the short story).  As a lagniappe to his science fiction audience, he also puts out what he considers the best novels of the previous year as well.  From those two sources, I gathered the list of the 10 science fiction books which I thought were the best reads.

1.  Foundation by Isaac Asimov

This is the book that started it all for me, and re-reading it this year re-started my love of science fiction.  It is the tale of the collapse of the Galactic Empire and the efforts of a future historian named Hari Seldon to establish a Foundation at the edge of the empire that would be the repository of the technical, intellectual, and cultural knowledge of the galactic civilization.  The book covers the collapse of the old galactic civilization and the re-establishment of the new civilization, with the Foundation at its core.  But the meticulously wrought plans of Hari Seldon start to be thwarted by a rival Foundation that threatens to remake the galaxy in its image.  This is the key of space opera on a grand scale that blew me away as a 4th-grader, and I was still impressed with how tightly plotted and how economical the language is, where every sentence has a purpose and is part of the larger structure of the story.

Reading it from the vantage point of the 21st century, however, it is clear that Isaac Asimov is writing in the sociological climate of the 1950s, because like The Iliad, this is a man’s book.  There are very few women, and those that are in the book are ancillary to the protagonists of each episode.  It is hard to escape the cultural prisons in which we are born, no matter how liberated the imagination may be.  But I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this, and still recommend it as a good place to start.

In the time when our own American Empire is starting to fall apart like that of Rome 2000 years ago and the British 100 years ago, the story is even more poignant.  In fact, I consider The Professional Left a kind of “mini-Foundation” of its own, trying to preserve the memory of the changes in the political landscape over the past 50 years, despite the media that would make us forget it.

2.  The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth

For sociological analysis, I turn to other science fiction writers and this is one classic that I’m sorry I missed the first time around.  It is the story of a future where corporations have replaced government.  To a libertarian, it should sound like paradise, but it turns out to be anything but that for Mitch Courtenay, who is the future version of one of the “Mad Men,” and advertising executive who is struggling to succeed as what we would call today the “1%.”  However, he is thwarted by a rival who has him stripped of his identity when he is on a business trip and he soon finds out what life is like for the other 99%.

The portrayal of this future is so eerily similar to what is happening in our time that you will be stunned when reading it.  If you want to see what life would be like without government, then read this book.  It is also important because it talks about the environmental and ecological consequences of having no government but those corporations that want to exploit whatever natural resources are left.  This is another classic that is worth revisiting, because it is even more relevant now than it was in the 1950s when it was written.

3.  2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson writes about a future where mankind is flung out throughout the solar system, and has already completed the terraforming of Mars, and is working on the next big project, the terraforming of Venus.  I won’t describe the plot, but I will say that he is one of the best writers on politics.  It is not just a conflict between people you will read about in his novels, but conflicts between political, technological and economic systems.  He also has an uncanny way of describing the process of change.  It is one thing to write about the future, which is hard enough.  But to able to describe the process of how we go from here to there in a plausible manner, is even more difficult, and he accomplishes this well.

As a solar system-spanning space opera, this is one of the best of its kind and I heartily recommend it to those, even those who have not read his previous works such as Red Mars and the subsequent works.

4.  The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

The passing of the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks is to be lamented, but his last novel of the multicultural utopian future civilization called simply The Culture is to be celebrated.  There is a civilization called the Gzilt that is a member of the Culture that has decided to leave the known universe and enter the hyperspace realm in a process called Subliming.  There are many civilizations, however, that are fighting to claim the spoils that the Gzilt has left behind, and it is this intrigue that forms the plot of the novel.

One of my favorite part of the Culture novels is the depiction of the sentient starships that, like people, can suffer from what we would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological trauma.  The philosophical backdrop to the novels in The Culture series are the questions of how difficult it is for a utopian culture to participate in contact with galactic civilizations that do not reflect its values, and sometimes even go to war with those other cultures, without its own core values being compromised.

Again, this is a relevant topic for anyone who is witnessing the efforts of the President of the United States to compromise with factions that do not even know what the concept of “compromise” even means.  When you are fighting against a group for whom there is no such thing as a loyal opposition, you must remember you are fighting with a group that plays by a different set of rules.  How do you fight them without compromising your own principles?  Here is a discussion of politics at its playful best, and to Iain M. Banks, I salute you for such an enjoyable capstone to a wonderful life and career as a science fiction novelist.  Another feature I enjoyed about the book was that it is from outside the United States; Iain M. Banks is a Scottish novelist and I appreciated having a non-American science fiction writer on the list.

5.  Blue Remembered Earth by Alistair Reynolds

This is another writer from the UK, this time a Welsh author named Alistair Reynolds who writes about a future where Africa is the technological leader of the world.  For this reason alone, I thought it was noteworthy because many science fiction stories are centered in either the US or in Europe, because that is where the writers come from.  But more and more, science fiction writers are coming to write about what the future will mean to the developing world, and not just the developed world.

In this story, a brother and sister who are part of a powerful African corporate family get cryptic messages left behind by their recently-departed grandmother.  These clues lead the pair on a series of adventures which promise to help them break the stranglehold that the 1% of this technological future have over the resources of the solar system, and eventually to leave the solar system altogether.

Alistair Reynolds writes really well about how technology will affect our consciousness not only of ourselves, but our concepts of what it means to be a society and its attendant questions such as how the lines of privacy will be drawn, and how much power of surveillance the central government should have.

It was another of the space-opera type genre which I confess is probably my favorite in science fiction.

6.  Among Others by Jo Walton

This was the Hugo Award winner for 2012 and is again from a Welsh writer who writes a fantasy novel about a 15-year-old who is sent to live with her father after her sister is killed in an accident.  It is a story about how she comes to term with growing up through reading science fiction, and it is really a paean to the process of reading itself and the way it can enlarge the perspective of a reader.  I want to go back and copy down every single reference she made to the classic science fiction writers of the late 70s and early 80s and re-read them, because her journey as a young woman and science fiction fan echoed my own growth as an adolescent under the strange and wonderful tutelage of the masters of science fiction.

7.  Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

This and the book Redshirts are what I would call a relative rarity in that they are science fiction comedies.  However, in the case of Blackout and All Clear, comedy is mixed with the character study of the everyday lives of the British during World War II.  The ostensible plot of this diptych of novels by Connie Willis is that future historians from around the middle of the 21st century start to send historians back in time to World War II as “field observers”, with the understanding that they will not be allowed to change the past.  However, something starts happening to the various missions, and for a group of time travelers, it is becoming increasingly uncertain whether they will be able to return to their own time, and the doubt grows as to whether one of them may have inadvertently changed the past after all.

The real meat of the story, of course, is the depiction of everyday life among the inhabitants of London during the various raids first by V-1, and then the more destructive V-2 rockets towards the end of the war.  Look how the bombing of one morning on September 11, 2001, changed not only the lives of New Yorkers, but that of all Americans (and the unfortunate Iraqis and Afghans during the following decade).  What would have happened if the bombings had continued in New York City for YEARS?  That is the magnitude of what those in Britain, and in particular those inhabitants of London, had to put up with, and they came out all right in the end.  But what they had to endure to get there is portrayed with great depth and great humor by Connie Willis.

8.  The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

This is the debut novel by the Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi.  He is a theoretical physicist who studied string theory, and the wacky, wonderful world of quantum mechanics figures prominently in this novel of the far future.  The story takes place in chapters that alternate between the thief Jean le Flambeur and the detective Isidore Beautrelet.  Like a pair of quantum-entangled particles, the stories of these two seem to be separate stories but you end up realizing how the stories are entangled as the story goes on.

There are various themes that are relevant today, such as the how the government institutions of the prison and of the surveillance of the citizenry end up spreading their controlling memes throughout the society like a cultural illness.  One of the challenges of reading the book is that he chooses what could be called the dramatic style rather than the epic style of writing, where the objects are shown, but not explained.  This dramatic style is the style James Joyce chose, as opposed to the more explanatory epic style of his contemporary, the German writer Thomas Mann.  Because of this it is often harder for the reader to discern what is going on.  But it reaps its rewards with the immediacy of the experience presented from the standpoint of the characters when it is uninterrupted by the narrator’s commentary.

It’s an impressive first novel, and a writer I will definitely turn to in the future.

9. Redshirts by John Scalzi

Science fiction fans often take science fiction seriously to the point of parody (e.g., the characters in Big Bang Theory).  This novel was one of the funniest science fiction novels I read not only this year, but I think of all the science fiction novels I have ever read, rating close to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but centered around poking fun at the science fiction universe of Star Trek.  The novel talks about what life would be like aboard the Enterprise if you were one of the red-shirted crew that end up going on away missions and then realizing that your colleagues have a disturbingly high mortality rate …

10.  Existence by David Brin

This is a first-contact story, a treasured theme in science fiction where mankind finally meets another civilization in space.  In this case, it is not just one civilization, but an entire league of civilizations, a concept which reminded me of the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still.  I enjoyed the meditation on what life will be like in the next 50 years, especially how the communication technologies we use will transform our lives.

One of the challenges of reading David Brin’s work is that there is a main plot, and then there are other subplots which seem to have no direct bearing on that main plot.  For those readers who want to just read a story, this can be annoying.  However, it is similar to the way that some of the best science fiction classic works, like Stand on Zanzibar written in 1968, are put together, in that these various side plots and other seeming irrelevancies are actually contributing to the atmosphere of the story by showing different facets of the future depicted in the main story.  Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is actually written in a similar way, where you get statistics, philosophical musings, and historical detail about whaling in various chapters interspersed with the main story about Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the great white whale.   You know the universe of whaling in a more fine-grained way than you would by just reading a linear plot-line.

In a similar way, you learn about how far the consciousness of a typical citizen of the near-future will be enhanced by what is already starting to happen now with technological devices such as Google Glass.  For those who want a quick read, this discursive quality of David Brin’s may be difficult, but if you want to immerse yourself in a carefully thought out world that is built with extreme care in the details, then this is a perfect novel for you to get lost in for a week or so.

CONCLUSION

This is the crop of science fiction books which I thought were the most impressive of the ones I read in 2013.  Science fiction is about the liberation of imagination, and I know that I would often have very colorful and very imaginative dreams after reading one of the novels, because my own imagination had been freed from its everyday moorings by the sublime expansion of the boundaries of the mind which occurs when one is reading excellent science fiction.  I look forward to an even more expansive science fiction year in 2014!

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Best 5 History Book Reads of 2013


1.   Introduction

This summer I started a combination weight-loss, nature hike, and reading program that I refer to as the Izaak Walton Book Club.    There’s only one member, and that is myself.    The title of this post is kind of a misnomer, because these five books are, in fact, the ONLY five history books I have read or am currently reading this year.   Also, they were not written in 2013, but rather are books that I read in 2013.    With all those disclaimers out of the way, let me explain why I wrote this post.

After I moved from LA to Homewood, one of the South Suburbs of Chicago, back in May of this year, I found out that the western entrance to the Izaak Walton Nature Preserve was only three blocks away from my house.    I decided to become a member and walked its 3+ miles of paths around the lakes and through the woods at least once every other day.

To motivate myself to walk such long distances, I went to the wonderful Homewood library, and downloaded the history book Nixonland by Richard Perlstein, which it drew me into the narrative of Nixon’s ascendancy to the Presidency.    Soon after finishing that book, I decided that, rather than reading about the fracturing Republic that America had become, I wanted to read about America when our country was brand new.     I listened to the audiobook version of 1776 by David McCullough.    Soon that led me to go to the Goodreads website and to pick the best history books of all time, starting with John Adams, a biography of one of the key Founding Fathers by the same David McCullough who had written 1776.    I found out from the Goodreads list that the #1 and #2 history books as voted for by the Goodreads readers were John Adams and 1776.

Having finished John Adams, I am now currently listening to The Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.   I wanted to read alternate or what some call “revisionist” histories of the United States, so I read Lies by Teacher Told Me by James Loewen (#14 on the Goodreads list).

I found that the simple experience of a captivating history, namely Nixonland, sparked a passion for history reading that promises to grow in the coming year.    After talking about the five history books I have read or am currently reading, I will list the 10 books I want to read in 2014.

2.   The 5 Best History Book Reads of 2013

a.  Nixonland

The full title is Nixonland:  The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.    Nixon was a very fearful, some may say, even paranoid personality.   In his political life, this became a blessing as well as a liability, because his personality made him attuned to the fears and paranoias on the Right that were engendered by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the attendant social upheavals that took place in the 1960s.

He was one of the first of the Republican politicians who exploited the potentials of the Southern Strategy, the strategy of courting the disaffected white Southern politicians who had been Democrats, the so-called Dixiecrats, and bringing them into the fold of the Republican Party.    He also spoke for the so-called Silent Majority of those who supported the war in Vietnam, mainly those whose patriotism was forged in the memories of the struggles of World War II and who could not fathom that the war in Vietnam was a totally different type of war against a different kind of foe than the US had fought back in the 1940s.  

Just like the movie Nixon, however, the reading of history through the lens of the Nixon presidency also made me appreciate some of his positive qualities, i.e., the fact that his childhood poverty left him some empathy for populist sentiments, like those that led him to create the Environmental Protection Agency over the objection of the oil and auto industries.   Also, he had such a firm grasp on the geopolitics of the time, that he foresaw the possibility that the conflicts between the Soviet Union and China could be exploited.   In addition, he foresaw the fact that the US economy would run into competition from its former enemies from World War II, Germany and Japan, because their economies which the US had helped rebuild were now growing at a pace that outstripped that of the US.    

It’s too bad that his paranoia got him into trouble in the Watergate era as the levers of power were used not to further policy goals, but to eliminate political enemies.    This reminds me of an apocryphal quote from Henry Kissinger about his former boss, “when everybody actually does hate you, you are not being paranoid.”

Like it or not, we live in the political divide that was engendered by Nixon’s political schemes and you must read this book to understand its origins.

b.  1776

This book had me riveted from the very beginning, as it describes the military maneuverings that occurred in the one year period that marked the birth of our nation with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.    It follows George Washington and both the military successes and failures that he encountered, and how he gradually learned from the latter.    However, it also showed the exploits of those military leaders under him, such as Nathaniel Greene, a Quaker from New England who was made a general at 33, and became one of the best disciplined and well-read generals in military history under Washington.    Then there is the tale of Henry Knox, who had the tenacity to take his seemingly hare-brained scheme of hauling the cannons abandoned at Fort Ticonderoga overland across frozen rivers, woods and hills all the way to Boston, and turning it into a success, one that forced the British out of Boston altogether, to set up their military headquarters in New York.

The disastrous encounter of Washington’s troops against the British on Long Island almost led to the capture of Washington’s army.    The retreat from Long Island was carried out in such a spectacularly success fashion that it has to be listed as a “successful failure”, that is, a retreat that prevented the capture of the remnants of Washington’s army and allowed them to live to fight another day, which they certainly did.    Washington’s plan of turning the retreat into a symbolic victory at the Battle of Trenton is told in stunning detail, and this bold move provided a desperately needed morale boost to an army that had been close to collapse earlier that year after the disastrous Battle of Long Island.

On a personal level, I found it fascinating to see how George Washington grew visibly as a leader in the course of the year.    He has been idolized by generations after the Revolutionary War, but he did have certain deficits compared to the generals that he was facing on the British side, namely in terms of military experience and acumen.   But he had considerable positives, including his ability to learn from his past experiences, and a willingness to take the advice of others who had superior knowledge of military tactics and strategy (such as Nathaniel Greene), that these, taken together with his impressive physical bearing and his ability to keep his mind tightly focused during battle, were what brought victory finally to that ragtag band of farmer, merchants, and other citizen-soldiers that made the Continental Army.

c.   John Adams

1776 focuses on the military side of the Revolutionary War; for the political side, you need to turn to the biography of John Adams to understand it.   John Adams was a person who, like Benjamin Franklin, was one of the true geniuses of the time that ended up contributing monumentally to the cause of the American Revolution.    John Adams was one of the few who predicted that the Revolutionary War would last closer to 10 years than the 1 year or less that most others had predicted.    He also predicted that the Revolutionary War would, if successful, ignite other revolutions in Europe.

His keen understanding of political theory led him to support a Republican form of government in the colonies independent from that of Great Britain.   He understood that rapprochement with the British was impossible because of the drive of the British government to exploit the resources from the colonies came at the cost of both the livelihoods and the political liberties of the colonists themselves.

On a personal level, I found his relationship to Abigail Adams to be very moving, not just in emotional terms, but on an intellectual level, as she reminded him of the hypocrisy of talk about the rights of white men while advocating the slavery of black men, something which John Adams agreed with.    Where she was ahead of even her forward-thinking husband was the insistence that the Constitution also speak to the rights of women.

d.   Lies My Teacher Told Me

I saw this book on a display at the Homewood Library of interesting historical books, and I picked it up and was captivated immediately.    It talks about the way that American history is taught to high school students, where the promulgation of mindless patriotism takes precedence over teaching critical thinking skills.    The reason why I was captivated by this book was because my Master’s Degree thesis in Asian Studies consisted of an analysis comparing the way that the subject of World War II was taught in high school textbooks in a) Japan, b) Germany and c) the United States.    The United States focused more on the military rather than economic origins of the war, Japan was the other way around, and it turns out that Germany had the most balanced approach in terms of teaching their own schoolchildren the origins of the war.

Some surprises are in store for anybody who is not a professional historian and whose history education is limited to memories of classes in High School.    For example, the biography of Helen Keller, a beloved figure for many schoolchildren, is taught with a focus on her personal struggles over blindness and deafness, but pretty much stops there.    When she studied the distribution of blindness among children in the United States, she found that it pretty well correlated with the economic class that these children belonged to.   This academic finding led her on the path to socialism.    Because socialism is such a charged political topic in this rightward-leaning age, this political leaning of Helen Keller’s is totally cut out of any biography that children may learn of this heroic woman.

On the other side of the ledger, the totally laudatory treatment that Woodrow Wilson gets in American high school textbooks is counteracted by the fact that, despite Woodrow Wilson’s championing of the rights of nations after World War I, he was against the rights of women and of blacks in his own country.    He was dead set against the idea of votes for women, and he was responsible for the biggest setback of civil rights since the Reconstruction era by the institution of segregation in Federal Government employment and the support of the so-called Jim Crow laws in the Southern states.    It took the civil rights movement of the 1960s to undo the damage he did to African-Americans in the course of his presidency.

These are just two of the subjects that are discussed in James Loewen’s book.   It is one of the most enlightening history books you will ever read, because you will realize that, as the title says, history is one of the greatest sources of propaganda that the educational system has ever produced.     But on the positive side, the fully-rounded portraits of various figures in American History emerge and it makes you realize that history can be an  interesting subject if taught in a way that respects the subject as well as the person you are teaching it to.

e.   A Team of Rivals

This book is the one that the much-acclaimed movie Lincoln was based on.   It’s a political biography that shows how President Lincoln took all of those who lost the Republican nomination for the presidency back in 1860 and, rather than shun them as political rivals, he incorporated their opposing viewpoints into his own administration by giving them all cabinet posts of one sort or another.

From the very beginning, the author of this wonderful history, Doris Kearns Goodman, is at pains to rectify the popular notion that it was just chance that led President Lincoln to be nominated for president, and shows that even before his presidency, his political shrewdness, and even his gift at storytelling proved to be elements that won him the nomination over his rivals.   But it was his ability to use their conflicting opinions as a palette upon which he painted the outlines of his political strategies that takes him from the realm of mere competency to that of being a true political genius.

She also dispels the notion that he, like his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, suffered from depression.   He had a melancholy temperament, to be sure, but rather than paralyzing him, like depression can often do, it led him to action, action that was decisive enough to bear the brunt of criticism from his “Team of Rivals.”

I think anyone who wants to learn not just about that crucial period of American History, but also about the nature of leadership and its attendant skills of conflict resolution, negotiation, and articulation of vision, will find this a fascinating book

3.   History Books to Read in 2014

I am using the following lists of books to compile the list of history books I want to read in 2014:

  • Goodreads Best History Books (of all time)
  • Goodreads Best History and Biography Books of 2013
  • Economist’s Best Books of 2013
  • Harold Bloom’s Great Books of the Theocratic Age (from Western Canon)

Here are the 10 books I want to read in 2014, not in any particular order, together with the category of history to which they belong.

1)  The Great War by Peter Hart (Modern European History)

2)  The Histories by Herodotus (Ancient History)

3) Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Hillbrick (American History)

4)  The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (Modern World History)

5) A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman (Medieval World History)

6) Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Modern Middle East History)

7) Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Ancient Middle East History/Religion)

8) The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox (Ancient Middle East History)

9) The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (Ancient History)

10) Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson (US History, Civil War)

The works 4, 5, and 10 are from the Goodreads History Books of all Times, 2 and 9 are from the Great Books series by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 is from the Economist Best Books of 2013, and 3, 6, 7 and 8 are from the Goodreads History/Biography Books of 2013.

They may not be the most interesting books to all readers, but they follow either on interested I had already established (for example, Lawrence in Arabia is a good follow-up to the biography of Lawrence called Hero that I read in 2012), or interests that have developed this year (such as my interest in the Civil War era sparked by Team of Rivals.

My goal is to learn more about history while reading books that, rather than putting the living to sleep, make the dead come alive and speak to us in urgent tones about problems of past ages that may indeed have things to teach us in dealing with the problems of our own age.

Essential Integral, Lesson 6: Types


Types are categories of horizontal variance available at every level. They account for the similarities and differences between people that are not explainable through variance in the other elements of the Integral map. They are best described by systems called typologies. This lesson explores two typologies: masculine and feminine and quadrant orientation.

TO BE CONTINUED

Introduction to Zen Meditation


At the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Park Forest, IL, there was the first meeting of a Zen meditation Meetup group, led by Steve McCabe.   Steve McCabe is a member of the Prairie Zen Center, Champaign IL, (www. prairiezen.org), and he also leads the Wetlands Zen Group sitting group, which meets Sunday evenings at Insight Awareness Center in Homewood, IL.     He is now forming a Zen Meditation group in the South Suburban Chicago area  through Meetup which meets at UUCC in Park Forest, and today was the first meeting of the group.

1.   Reasons for joining

I joined the group on Meetup for the following reasons:

  • I have been a meditator for many years using the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique, but have wanted to try new meditation methods to enliven my meditation practice
  • I am already a member of the UUCC Congregation, and I was familiar with the meeting place
  • Steve McCabe was recommended to me by someone experienced at the church as someone knowledgeable about Zen and Zen meditation

2.  The Purpose and Benefits of Zen Meditation

For the beginner, Steve McCabe gave a simple example of what Zen Meditation is all about before he explored what we would do in the sitting meditation portion of the program.

It is about taking the contents of the mind, one’s thoughts, memories, perceptions, etc., and becoming aware of them and then dis-identifying from them so that you are centered in the awareness of those phenomena.    By doing this, you are training yourself to, in a sense, not to “go with the flow” but rather to be separate from it.     There are physiological benefits to meditation, such as lowered blood pressure,as well as psychological benefits, like greater mental acuity and ability to focus, etc.

I liked Steve’s very simple but elegant way of describing, in simpler words than mine written above, what the purpose and benefits were.    He then went on to describe how to meditate.

3.  Preparation for Zen Meditation

You need to sit, either on a cushion, pillow or blanket on the floor, or on a chair, if you prefer, so that your spine is straight, and your head is erect, with your gaze going towards the floor.    It is not necessary for you to close your eyes, as some practices have you do.    You should move back and forth so you can make you’re an equilibrium point on your sitting bones.    If you are alone, you should set a timer for 20 minutes.    Sometimes a nice starting point to a meditation is a small chime or gong, because the mind can focus on the gradual dissipation of the tone as its way of starting the meditation.    You should make sure you are wearing loose, comfortable clothing and wearing enough clothes so that you will not be feeling either too cold or too warm during the meditation session.

4.   Zen Meditation Process–Sitting Meditation

Now, during the meditation, you will count from 1 to 5, although some people count from 1 to 10, so that with the intake of each breath you will count inwardly “1”, then release the breath, going on to “2”, etc.    When you get to “5”, then start the series over again.   Gradually you will notice your breath start to slow down, but you may also notice that thoughts start to stray into the meditation.    Once you notice your thoughts straying, you simply return your focus to the breath and start back from “1”.    When you do this, you make no judgment about either the thoughts themselves or the fact that you’ve strayed from the meditation.

5.  Zen Meditation Service

We actually had an entire Zen Meditation service, which consisted of the following

a)   a 20-minute sitting meditation

b)  a walking meditation, where we stood up and walked in a slow, consciously deliberate series of steps around the circle back to where we started from

c)  another 20-minute sitting meditation

d)  a short service where the principles of Buddhism were read, and we asked for help for important people in our lives

The point of walking meditation is to break up the sitting meditation sessions through movement, but to engage in movement in a deliberate way where you are aware of what you are doing.    It is called a meditation for that reason in that you maintain conscious deliberate focus on your actions.    Steve challenged us to try ordinary tasks at home in that same meditative state.

6.   Conclusion

Ironically, I woke up that morning thinking of the gigantic list of pre-Christmas activities I had to accomplish that day, saw the light rain outside, and felt that I didn’t have time for Zen meditation.    And then I realized, hey, when I’m stressed (as many are at holiday time), it is exactly the time for Zen meditation.    On the drive back, rather than listen to music or the radio, I drove in a consciously deliberate manner and viewed the winter landscape with an intensity that was really amazing.    It’s great when you no longer live on “autopilot”!    This is part of my New Year’s resolution to learn a new meditation technique, and I find the group a congenial group as well, since they are obviously interested in learning more about Zen as I am.

I look forward to making this a regular part of my life next year.   As an additional bonus, I had heard about the Insight Awareness Center at 18110 Martin Ave., Homewood, IL 60430 from someone else at  UUCC Park Forest.   That is where a Zen Meditation service is held on Sunday at 7 PM.    Learning that Steve McCabe is holding a service there as well as at UUCC has now prompted me to visit the Insight Awareness Center in the New Year.

For those either in a meditative practice now, or for those wishing to start one, I recommend the Zen Meditation practice.    When I returned home, I got so much done and went from one task to another in a totally un-stressed state of mind.

Give yourself the gift of Zen for the holidays!

 

 

 

 

Project Planning, Schedule & Control–Chapter 5: Whole-Brain™ Project Management


This blog post is part of a series that summarizes the 5th edition of the classic project manager’s handbook Project Planning, Scheduling & Control by James L. Lewis, Ph.D., the founder of the Lewis Institute, Inc.    I wanted to go through the book and take notes for my own use, but also in the hope that my summary would be of interest to both those already in the project management field or those who want to enter that field.

1.  Introduction–Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain

TO BE CONTINUED

Project Planning, Schedule & Control–Chapter 4: How to Achieve High-Performance Project Management™


This blog post is part of a series that summarizes the 5th edition of the classic project manager’s handbook Project Planning, Scheduling & Control by James L. Lewis, Ph.D., the founder of the Lewis Institute, Inc.    I wanted to go through the book and take notes for my own use, but also in the hope that my summary would be of interest to both those already in the project management field or those who want to enter that field.

1.  Introduction–What is High-Performance Project Management™

In this chapter, Dr. John Lewis presents his model for High-Performance Project Management™, a model he developed at the Lewis Institute for defining project management maturity.

Here are the five levels of High-Performance Project Management™, which I will abbreviate forthwith as HPPM.

HPPM Level Explanation
One Bare Awareness
Two Minimal Performance—3Σ Level
Three Bronze Level–4Σ Level
Four Silver Level–5Σ Level
Five Gold Level–6Σ Level

The difference in quality between the 3Σ level, which most organizations operate at, and the 6Σ level, is significant.   At the 3Σ level, an organization is losing 25 to 30 cents of every sales dollar because of defects.    That cost of poor quality is reduced to only 3 cents on the dollar at the 6Σ level.

You achieve HPPM not only by achieving the 6Σ level of quality on projects, but by consistently meeting the PCTS (performance-cost-time-scope) targets for your projects.    As per the discussion in the first chapter, three of these variables can be dictated, but the fourth must be allowed to float.    Since these three targets can be estimated, in essence achieving HPPM means being able to improve your ability to estimate.    Since estimation is difficult for highly complex projects such as software design, it may be impossible to hit all these targets consistently, but you should strive to do so nonetheless.

2.  Benefits of HPPM

HPPM takes you from a seat-of-the-pants project management approach to a structured approach.   As an example of the benefits of such an approach, Dr. Lewis mentions the San Diego Building Association’s competition in 1983 to see how fast a typical single-family home could be built (defined as a single-story house built on a cement slab with 2,000 square feet of floor space).   Highly detailed plans were developed, and the best practice run yielded a building time of six hours.   However, by revising the plan, it was estimated that the house could be built in as little as 3 hours and 39 minutes, so the competition was called the “four-hour house project.”   The results were impressive, with the record being 2 hours and 45 minutes!

The key is in the planning, but many project managers are pressured to start work before a project plan is completed.

3.  Three Components of Poor Project Management

Back in Chapter 1, the three elements of project management were introduced:  tools, systems, and people.   Poor project management can have its origin in any of these three areas.

a.  People

Coaches, surgeons, and actors, three totally different professions, have one thing in common:   it takes years for people to master their craft.    And yet, many project managers are expected to perform immediately after taking a seminar!    Project managers don’t just need to learn the tools & techniques of project management, but the skills in dealing with people.   They must be supported by ongoing feedback on how they are performing, and with coaching to improve their performance.    In short, the application of these tools, techniques, and people skills needs to be supported.

b.  Tools

Microsoft Project is a tool, so is a saw.   Handing a person a saw does not make them a carpenter, no more than handing them Microsoft Project makes them a project manager.   Dr. Lewis recommends that prospective project managers need to be given a course in project management first and THEN be taught the software.    Sufficient time must be given for the prospective project manager to learn the software (at least two full days for the basics).

c.  Systems

Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990) shows that systems generate behavior, regardless of the people in the system.   Unless you change the system, you will continue to get the same behavior.    If people don’t seem to be performing acceptably, you must take into account the system within which they are working.    

Dr. W. Edwards Deming demonstrated in Out of the Crisis (Cambridge, Mass:  MIT, 1986) that if you have given workers a system that is going to inherently produce a certain defect level, you can admonish them to “do it right the first time” all you want, and it will make no difference–they cannot produce results better than those that the system is capable of producing!

The reward system within an organization needs to support good project management.    Most reward systems encourage individuals to maximize their performance, even though it may be at the expense of other people in the group.    In an example not in Dr. Lewis’ book, I can that Edward Lampert, the hedge fund manager who became the chairman of Sears, set up a reward system that encouraged individual departments to maximize their performance, even at the expense of other departments, and the result has been a disaster for Sears.   Department heads spent most of their time battling others in the organization rather than cooperating in order to fight against the competition.   This kind of “Hunger Games” system of rewards does not promote the cooperation either within project teams or between the project manager and the functional managers and should thus be avoided because it does not promote good project management.

d.   Joint Optimization

Since these three elements of project management of people, tools, and systems are interrelated, you cannot optimize any of these three factors independently of the others:    good project management demands improvement of all three elements!

4.  Stages of Development

Of the five stages of maturity level of HPPM described in paragraph 1 above, it takes about one year for an organization to mature from one level to the next.    Many companies abandon project management because they do not get immediate benefits from it.

5.  Problems with Project Management

Here are some problems organizations have with projects.

a.   Too Many Projects

One of the major reasons why organizations have problems with projects is because they are trying to do too many projects given their resources.   The reorientation that people undergo when they shift from one project to another is called setup time in manufacturing parlance, and it is an example of non-value added activity.   Dr. Lewis’ advice for such organizations is

  • quit trying to multitask–it creates the illusion that a lot is getting done
  • prioritize your projects
  • assign each person a top-priority project and a backup project
  • use the backup project to fill dead time on the top-priority project

b.  Negative Environment

This means a climate of blame and punishment for things that go wrong.   When failure to meet project targets is seen as a sign of weakness or moral failure on the part of people, you do not have an environment that support high performance.    Variance is a fact of life and must be accepted.

Tuft battles are also detrimental to high performance.   Senior management needs to spend more time promoting cooperation rather than competition.   (See example about Edward Lampert’s disastrous stewardship at Sears in paragraph c above.)

Most organizations set up a system of external rewards for good performance, but Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards (Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1999) wrote that almost all external reward systems collapse over time, as employees will try to maximize their rewards, and will do even at the expense of cooperation and even actual performance (also known as “gaming the system”).

This is not a popular notion in management circles.   However Daniel Pink confirmed this in his more recent book Drive:  The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).   When external incentives are used, people lose interest in an activity.   The only true motivation is intrinsic.    The only legitimate reward system is one in which people are rewarded by true achievement and pride in the work that they do.

6.   A Better Approach to Project Management

A management approach that does support high performance project management is that which is outlined in Dr. Lewis’ book Working Together (Baltimore, MD: Beard Books, 2005), where he outlines the principles developed by the former president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Alan Mullally, who went on to be the CEO at Ford.

Project Planning, Schedule & Control–Chapter 3: The Role of the Project Manager


This blog post is part of a series that summarizes the 5th edition of the classic project manager’s handbook Project Planning, Scheduling & Control by James L. Lewis, Ph.D., the founder of the Lewis Institute, Inc.    I wanted to go through the book and take notes for my own use, but also in the hope that my summary would be of interest to both those already in the project management field or those who want to enter that field.

1.   Introduction

The problem of teaching project management is that it is something that is learned by doing (Dr. Lewis calls it a “performance art”), and is more right-brained in nature.   A traditional MBA program teaches tools for analyzing data and planning, both of which are left-brained activities.

Dr. Lewis emphasizes as he did in the first chapter that project management requires people skills.   One of the core activities of a project manager is dealing with politics.   If you hate dealing with politics and conflict, then you should not be a project manager.

To be a good project manager, you need to be a leader and get people to want to do something you believe should be done.

2.  5 Qualities of a Great Project Manager

A great project manager is …

  • Dedicated (not accidental)–takes total responsibility from project initiation to project closeout (accidental means you don’t fully understand the role)
  • Proactive (not reactive)–takes initiative, anticipates problems and tries to prevent them (reactive means reacting to problems as they happen)
  • Assertive (not aggressive)–stands up for his or her own rights while simultaneously respecting the rights of others (being aggressive means ignoring the rights of others while getting what you want)
  • Authoritative (not dictatorial)–taking as much authority as you are willing to assume by virtue of your position
  • Forward thinking–making unsolicited contributions to the organization in order to improve it

3.  The Law of Requisite Variety

An organization is like a system, and a law in systems theory called the “law of requisite variety” states that “in any system of humans or machines, the element in the system that has the greatest variability in its behavior will control the system.”   You must either increase your flexibility or reduce the variation in the behavior of the organization.  So for you to be in control, you have to increases your flexibility so that it is greater than that of any other element in the system.

Many managers resort, however, to the second approach, by trying to reduce the variation in the system through rules and regulations.   However, a better way to reduce variation in system behavior is through proper planning.   Your long-range planning should be tentative and broad-brush in nature, your day-to-day planning can and should be more detailed, but not to the point of micromanaging:   every employee has to be in control of his or her own behavior.

4.   Project Planning is a Team Effort

The first rule of good project planning is:   the people who do the work should do the planning.    The two reasons for this are:

  • People have no commitment to a plan conceived by someone else
  • The team will think of things that the project manager would not think of

5.   Project Manager Traps

Here are some traps that new project managers may fall into.

  • Having no clear vision or mission–if you are extremely clear about what you want to accomplish with your project team, you can get rid of the anxiety about whether you are doing is what you should be doing
  • The “doing trap”–working on technical issues and neglecting your management duties, just because you feel you can do them more quickly or effectively than someone on your team
  • Micromanagement–supervising your direct reports or team members very closely, because you don’t fully trust your direct reports or team members to do the job as well as you would do it
  • Being a “working project manager”–when you are expected to do some of the work that is being done by other members of the project team, with the result that when there is a conflict between getting work done and managing the team, the work always takes priority, and the managing suffers

6.   Project Management as a Career

Dr. Lewis recommends the book The World-Class Project Manager by Bob Wysocki and himself (Boston: Perseus Books, 2000) for a fuller treatment of project management as a career path.