Stop right now and create a Brag document

Julia Evan’s Get your work recognized: write a brag document may be a little too long, but her advice is bang-on.

I don’t recall exactly when or why I started a yearly “Accomplishments” text file (stashed in Dropbox), but it undoubtably helped me in my career. Briefly, at the time of your annual performance review, it’s difficult to remember all that you’ve done over the past year. And, most importantly, it’s not your manager’s job to remember either. Keep an ongoing list of what you’ve contributed — to products, administrative, and otherwise — and you’ll have a better and easer to write review.

It’s also handy for when you need a self-administered pat on the back. (And for that reason, it’s not a bad idea to keep it going in retirement, too.)

Do it. Seriously.

Book Review: God, Human, Animal, Machine

This 2022 publication by Meghan O'Gieblyn is subtitled Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning.

gordon meyer holding book cover

I’m not certain how to categorize this book. If the book is journalism, it’s overly dense and repetitive, but appropriately neutral in its perspective. If it’s intended to be an academic tome, it’s superficial, omits too many important precedents, and lacks a thesis. But it does raise several significant questions and offers some interesting insight.

The author is a former fundamentalist who seems to have replaced her Christian belief system with fundamental materialism. (I should clarify that I am not a fan of either position.)

As I was reading this book, there were many occasions when I almost decided to quit and let it go unfinished. But, I kept reading, as there were just enough intriguing (but largely underdeveloped) tidbits to pull me along. By the time I reached the end, I felt like I had finished a big tub of movie theatre popcorn. I enjoyed it, but with some shame, and I knew I probably should have stopped myself sooner.

What kept me going was the contemplative observations about technology, and my heart sung at citations to the work of the great sociologist, Max Weber, and more rarely, Hegel. But throughout the book, I couldn’t help notice the complete lack of references to Marxism. At first, I was irked that the book ignores a wide swath of relevant scholarship, but I eventually chalked it up to the author’s Wheaton Bible College education, where the writings of Marx were probably forbidden.

Aside from Weber, I was also glad to find discussion of Ray Kurzweil. Clearly the singularity is relevant to her discussion and perspective, and she addresses it quite well. But there are a few other relevant works that I was hoping she’d bring into the conversation. The writings of philosopher Robert Anton Wilson would provide broader context to her observations, and the books The Soul of A New Machine and What The Dormouse Said would steel her arguments.

Here are just a few of the tasty nuggets that I collected from the book:

  • Our brains can’t fundamentally distinguish between interacting with people and interacting with devices. (Clifford Nass, Stanford)
  • Metaphors die when we forget that they are metaphors and take them literally. This has happened to the “computational theory of mind.” Our brains are not computers; our computers are not brains. But you’d never know it by listening to people talk about A.I., and other technologies.
  • For most of human history, we accepted that our lives were being watched, listened to, and supervised by gods and spirits. Not all of them benign.
  • Science set aside consciousness because it is too difficult to study objectively. This led to metaphysical avoidance, and eventually, metaphysical denial.
  • If the fascists in Florida want to protect people, they should focus on transhumanism (a concept born of the 1800s) instead of transgenderism. (This sentiment is mine, not the authors, to be clear.)
  • Wikipedia goes to great lengths to obscure the human authorship of its articles to imbue itself with the aura of a holy text.
  • The theory of a “participatory universe,” briefly mentioned in the book, led me to this interesting summary.
  • The author’s college offered only one course in Literature, and it was focused exclusively on works with Christian themes, such as stories by C.S. Lewis.
  • Standardized testing is all about making students look good to an algorithm.

I know this review has a bit of a negative tone, but ultimately, I was left with 35 notecards of compelling tidbits or references to explore. That’s a successful book, even though I didn’t always enjoy it. If you’d like to dive into this book for yourself, pick up a copy at the Amazon. I found mine at Barbara’s Bookstore.

Book Review: Opus Dei

This 2005 publication by John L. Allen, Jr. is subtitled “An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church.” Allen is a well-established Vatican reporter, and this extensive and insightful book could only come from the pen of someone with his background, creditability, and connections.

I had a hard time finding a copy of this book. I wanted to read it because, unbeknownst to many residents, Opus Dei is deeply ensconced in my neighborhood. My experience with local Opus Dei members and clergy has been nothing but positive and supportive, and I am grateful for all of it. So, it was important to me that I learn more about their organization from a source that wasn’t bent towards the hysteric. Allen’s book is the perfect answer for cutting through that noise.

gordon meyer holding book

Most of you, if you’ve heard of Opus Dei at all, probably know of it from reading or watching The DaVinci Code. (Which, by the way, is not a documentary.) If you’ve never heard of the group, in brief outsider’s terms, it’s an ultra-conservative Catholic order, unique because it reports directly to Rome, and its members — most of which are laypeople — don’t outwardly advertise their affiliation. They have regular jobs, and do ‘the work’ of the Church amongst the rest of us. Privately, many of them live in group homes, give most of their money to the church, sleep on the hard floor, pray several times a day, and occasionally submit themselves to obedience training in the form of self-flagellation.

There are plenty of other salacious details, theories, and sensationalism about “Octopus Dei,” should you care to seek it. In some countries, such as Spain, they are often suspected to be a shadowy political force. Closer to home, my favorite rumor is that due to Opus Dei’s apparent ties to the infamous Knights Templar, they are believed to possess the Holy Grail. (Which may or may not be kept at their only American parish, located in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago.)

Unless you’re a Roman-Catholic, much of the nitty-gritty in the book will go over your head (it certainly did mine), but there is still plenty that will hold your interest. The book is well written, certainly sympathetic, and interesting. Did I learn some surprising details about Opus Dei membership and practices? Absolutely. But I also gained a new appreciation for their dedication to their deeply held convictions — despite my disagreement with many of their tenants.

Having read this book, my conclusion about Opus Dei is that the organization is both stranger and more mundane than I had previously heard. I have a better understanding of why critics call it a “Catholic cult,” but I also found myself feeling sympathetic towards their organizational secrecy and admiring their ability to embrace the supernatural in everyday being.

I was also left with a feeling of admiration for the author’s accomplishment. Although I’m not convinced of the book’s stated objectivity, it tackled a far-reaching and complicated topic in a well-organized and understandable way. (Just be prepared to look up, or skip, theological and organizational details if you’re not a Roman-Catholic.)

You can get an ebook version of the publication from the Amazon, and if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll have a printed edition too.

Briefly noted

"Brevity naturally provides an opening to mystery because the mysterious eludes all explanation. It speaks to something more significant than what can be explained. There is always something beyond. We can feel that anticipation, the suspense that naturally resides between the known and the unknown, the opening up of questions."

Writer’s Digest

Book Review: Apocrypha Now

This 2016 book, by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler, is a fresh look at writings that were omitted from the Bible in AD 325. Additionally, the book offers many tales that were included, and from related sources such as the Talmud, but are often overlooked in today’s world.

Comic from book

The stories are retold in contemporary style and language. This makes them more relatable than usual, and the writing is sharp and often laugh out loud funny. Shannon’s clever comics add to the fun, too. (Such as the story of when God turned Abraham into a giant to fight the Elamites. By the way, I call dibs on “Seventy Foot Abraham” as a band name.)

The book even provided me with some unexpected clarity, particularly the Epilogue, which summarizes that history and tribulations of the Jewish people under Greek, Roman, and Christian rule. (It seems like Jared Kushner could have benefited from reading this, too.)

A small selection of other tidbits that I particularly enjoyed:

  • There is a 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments. Despite two years of religious training as a young man, somehow this fundamental fact was never communicated to me, nor did I notice it.
  • The proper form of “Mary Magdalene” would be “Mary the Magdalene.” Magdalene is not, of course, her surname. It means “reformed prostitute.” So omitting the article is rather disrespectful. Changing the culture to use “Mary the Virgin” when referring to the other Mary would be nicely parallel, but I’m confident that ship has sailed.
  • A lost book, The Gospel of Judas, is a rather contemporary discovery (1990s) and it wasn’t translated into English until 2005. It shockingly states that Judas was secretly asked by Jesus to turn him over to the Romans. It was not a betrayal at all.
  • The great sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were their greed and xenophobia, not buggering. It was for these acts that these (and other) cities of the Jordan Plain were destroyed. Republicans, take note.

The Bible, for better or for worse (mostly the latter) permeates society in both subtle and obvious ways. It’s a good idea to remind yourself what’s in it, what used to be in it, and how just how crazily selective some adherents are to its details. I bought my copy of this highly recommended book at Quimby’s, but of course, it’s also found on the Amazon.

HAIL The Satanic Temple

When I grew up in Utah, every public middle and high school had a Mormon seminary building in close proximity. (Often right next door.) Once a week, Mormon students were excused from class to leave the school property and go study their religion at “Seminary.”

Not being a member of the LDS faith, I never got to participate in this “release program.” As far as I, and the rest of the “gentiles” could tell, the religious training consisted of social activities, field trips, and preparation for becoming a Mormon Missionary.

LDS Seminary’s sociological impact was (and as far as I know, still is) an institutional form of indoctrination for insiders, and systematic identification, exclusion, and social isolation of outsiders.

As a childless adult, I didn’t know that in the years since my schooling, the Mormon model of “release time religious instruction” has spread across the country. But I am pleased to learn that The Satanic Temple is introducing an alternative program of public school religious training: The Hellion Academy of Independent Learning (HAIL).

The HAIL program is available in any school district who already has release time religious instruction in place. For more information about it, see the newsletter announcement. I almost wish I had a child in the Utah school system so that I could lead the charge to bring HAIL to my old hometown.

If you’re not familiar with the work of The Satanic Temple, see their website. Briefly, they are a brave organization that utilizes the tactics of Christian fanaticism to advance the cause of personal freedom and science. They are worthy of your support.

Nevada Political candidate signs

It’s election season in Nevada, and I was surprised to see how many candidate signs were placed in empty lots around Las Vegas. They were all lined up, like rows of corn plants in the Midwest.

But after seeing so many of these strange outcroppings, I began to notice a disturbing similarity. Many of the signs featured portraits of the candidates. (In fact, at first glance, they’re easy to mistake for Realtor advertisements.) However, of the signs that featured a photo, they were almost exclusively showing Caucasians. Mostly men, of course, but also white women.

nevada campaign signs in empty lots

Now, granted, Nevada is about 73% white, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that the message being sent was “Vote for me because I look like you.”

How the Mormon church pervades everything in Utah

The sign in this photograph is near the entrance to a popular fast food taco restaurant in Cedar City, Utah. It is promoting, without saying, the Mormon Church’s edict of “Family Home Evenings” — wherein families are required to engage in weekly at-home religious studies.

family home evening door sign photographed by gordon meyer

The “Parents Empowered” organization is, apparently, an arm of the state’s liquor control board, although their website almost completely obfuscates that connection. The LDS Church, of course, prohibits the consumption of alcohol and demands unquestioned obedience from children, so the overall message of the site — in addition to promoting Family Home Evenings — slots in perfectly with church scripture.

When people find out that I was born and raised in Utah, I’m often asked what it’s like to live there. This is a fine example of how the state government and culture intertwine with Mormonism.

Book Review: The Lake Michigan Mothman

Having grown up in the land of the Bear Lake Monster, Skin Walkers, and Bigfoot, I simply can’t deny that, for me, there’s no lore like cryptid lore. So for that reason alone, this book by Tobias Wayland was a no-brainer addition to my library. When you add that it’s centered in my hometown — even in my neighborhood, — and that the legend is part of my annual “Dark Tales of Bucktown” tour, it’s surprising that I haven’t read it multiple times already.

Gordon Meyer with mothman book

Did I enjoy the book? Duh. Do I wish it were better organized and written? Yeah, I do. Don’t get me wrong; the book is unique and useful because it compiles so many creature sightings into one volume. And almost all of them are first-person accounts as written by the witnesses. Unfortunately, this is also where the books desperately needs an editor and unifying perspective. It’s great these witnesses came forth with what they saw, but most of them are not going to win any essay contests (or even get a passing grade in English 101.) It takes a more tolerant reader than I am to read more than a few pages of this book at one sitting.

The only other beef I have is the book’s title. It should be called “The Chicago Bat.” I understand that “Lake Michigan” is more inclusive, accurate, and commercial, so I’ll accept that. But “Mothman” is, in my opinion, just wrong. Let West Virginia keep the Mothman to themselves. (They have so little to boast about, after all.) And while I understand that referring to the creature in this way is easy shorthand, it’s also misleading. The only significant similarity between the Chicago creature and the West Virginia creature is that they are winged humanoids. (OK, I can hear some of my fundamentalist friends thinking — “Um, both are also imaginary.” But I’ve moved beyond that.) Furthermore, as it becomes clear from the reports in the book, almost every witness describes it as being similar to a bat. So for these reasons, and more, I will continue to use the name “Chicago Bat” instead. (But not, for certain, “Batman.”)

Now, I should acknowledge that if it weren’t for the Milwaukee-based Singular Fortean Society, much of this creature’s story would be lost. Through their website, and now this book, they are the leading source of timely and interesting reports of all kinds of unusual occurrences. Bravo, and gratitude, for their work.

Here are a handful of tidbits that stood out for me, but like all good stories, there are more if you dig in and follow the trails embedded within.

  • There have been more than a hundred sightings of the Chicago Bat since 2017, but Wayland’s research convincingly extends the timeline back to 1957. The latest sighting, as I write this, was less than a month ago, in the Loop.
  • The book’s subtitle is “High Strangeness in the Midwest.” I love this turn of phrase.
  • Regarding the controversial, if not downright wacky aspects of these types of stories, Wayland writes: “…(all this) is a hard pill to swallow for scientific materialists, but my job as an investigator isn’t to make mainstream scientist types feel better; my job is to follow the trail wherever leads, even if that’s right into the gaping maw of the impossible.”
  • One possible rational explanation for the sightings is that large migratory birds not normally seen in the midwest are being driven to the Lake Michigan area by climate changes. How’s that for an unforeseen consequence of global warming!

I bought my copy from Amazon, but you can also buy a signed copy directly from the publisher. Either way, you’ll enjoy the tales, and if you’re a local — keep your eyes peeled!

Book Review: Tono Monogatari

This is a very unusual book for me. It’s the re-telling of ancient Japanese folk tales using sequential art, and it’s published in the traditional Japanese manner so it’s read “back to front” and “right to left,” compared to other texts. (It took me about 25 pages to get used to this, by the way.)

The stories are illustrated by Shigeru Mizuki, who is apparently a Big F’in Deal in the world of Manga. (I don’t phrase it this way to dismiss him or the claim, but only to highlight the large gap in my knowledge.) The artwork is outstanding, and describing it as “stunning” seems like faint praise. Mizuki also helps bring extra life to the stories by including a few auto-biographical panels that are in reaction to the events being described, which is very charming.

gordon meyer with book

The stories of the Tono Monogatari are essentially the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, of Japan, and in fact, are similarly cataloged and varied. They were documented in 1853 by Kunio Yanagita, a cultural bureaucrat during the period when Japan was opening up to the rest of the world, and its rich and varied regional lore was being rapidly lost or willfully destroyed.

In reading these tales, I felt an immediate affinity for Yanagita, not just for the subject matter, but also for his sparse and first-person writing style. (Apparently known as bungo.)

Of the 119 tales in the book, the ones I enjoyed the most featured fairy-like beings, ghosts, shape-shifting foxes, tricksters, and giants. (The giants are described as humongous creatures who stand more than six feet tall. Who could imagine such a thing‽)

I learned a lot from this book and I greatly enjoyed it. If you’re a fan of lore, incredible ink art, and cultural surprises, I think you’ll like it too. I bought my copy at Quimby’s Books in Chicago, but of course, you can also find it in the Amazon.