Living and Reading in Silicon Valley

Most recently, I read Disrupted, by Dan Lyons. While his subtitle bills it as his “misadventures in the start-up bubble,” I actually think that description sells it short.

 This time it was mint tea with honey (and creamer, cause I decided to treat myself) and no I did not take it for the sake of the picture but yes I did use it for three different photos. (I'm behind on these reviews, okay!)

This time it was mint tea with honey (and creamer, cause I decided to treat myself) and no I did not take it for the sake of the picture but yes I did use it for three different photos. (I'm behind on these reviews, okay!)

Because while it may start out as Lyons’ mere misadventures as a middle-aged man beginning a new career among fresh-out-college young professionals, the lighthearted storyline eventually devolves into sinister office politics, harsh critiques of the tech world, and even corporate espionage.

Actually I’ll take a few steps back here: what’s the book about in the first place? The story starts when Lyons, a 50-something career journalist, finds himself out of a job. And as he sees the journalism industry slowly caving in on itself, he’s simultaneously watching his tech friends make millions overnight. So, Lyons positions himself for a career jump: he decides to become a marketer at a tech company.

He lands a job at HubSpot, a Boston-based inbound marketing software company. His boss is half his age and he spends his days writing for the sake of sales, rather than writing for the sake of informing. He finds himself underutilized and often ignored, his valuable journalism expertise falling on deaf ears when he offers PR or writing advice.

While Lyons may have set out to write a funny memoir about an old guy at a young company (his words not mine) the book certainly packs a far more powerful punch than a simple humor story. He showcases both his journalistic chops and penchant for satirical writing (he currently writes for HBO’s Silicon Valley), intertwining facts and numbers with comedic anecdotes.

Though Lyons’ personal story does provide a strong backbone for his book, he fleshes it out with history of the tech industry and critiques of tech culture. His story centers on HubSpot--but ultimately, he uses the company as a stand-in, a concrete symbol showing the tangible faults of fervent entrepreneurism and Silicon Valley capitalism.

And I not only enjoyed reading his book, but I also learned a lot. Lyons' eloquently relays the evolution of venture capital, technology, and Silicon Valley. He explains things I didn’t even know I didn’t understand, like how valuations work, and what makes an IPO successful. (Real useful tidbits when you’re working in tech!) And he rolls it all up into an entertaining story, adding some much-needed flavor to the cold, hard facts.

By the end of the book I was absolutely on Lyons’ side. I hated HubSpot! Then I reminded myself that a well-written opinion is still an opinion, and even the most well-rounded stories have an angle. After all, wasn’t I was totally convinced of Stephen Avery’s innocence after watching Netflix’s Making a Murderer? And then I read some more facts and listened to some more interviews… and well… it’s really not that simple.

Not that a murder investigation is really comparable to a misadventure in the start-up bubble… but you get my point.

From a more personal standpoint, this story hit close to home. I live in Mountain View, practically the epicenter of Silicon Valley. (I know, I know! Palo Alto is the epicenter! That’s why I said “practically!”) And just as I was finishing this book, I was offered a job at a San Mateo tech company. (Called Owler. You should check it out. This is a shameless plug.)

I identified with Lyons’ sarcastic voice. With his cynicism, with his ability to see through the bullshit. It’s not being negative, per say--more like an unwillingness to fake it.

So, I couldn’t help but question if this industry was for me. Or would I, like Dan Lyons, find myself mixed up in misadventures set to the tune of tech?

But while there are certainly pervasive problems in the tech world, they don’t seep into every corner of every company. Rather than seeing Lyons’ book as big red flag warning against working anywhere in the entire industry, I look at it as a useful guide to help me understand the red flags at any single company.

And so far, I’m in the clear.

So This Is What Inspiration Feels Like

Last week, I finished reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.

If I remember correctly, I scavenged it from box of someone else's old books while I was living in DC. So, seeing as it was (a) free (b) used and therefore more sustainable, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and I started off on the right foot (no pun intended!!!!).

This is the third work I’ve read by Murakami, but obviously, very different from his novels. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a memoir, so the author speaks with his own voice, because that’s the definition of a memoir. But Murakami is especially transparent: in the foreword, he admits to being hesitant about writing this book and explains his intentions, ultimately introducing us the the “book in which [he] ponder[s] various things and think[s] out loud.”

While What I Talk About When I Talk About Running may simply be 180 pages of a man’s inner dialogue, he’s certainly an especially introspective and thoughtful man. Well, that and he’s an accomplished novelist, but you know, details details.

 I actually made this coffee for reasons other than this picture, which is pretty cool because I didn't end up drinking another hot drink that I didn't even want in the first place.

I actually made this coffee for reasons other than this picture, which is pretty cool because I didn't end up drinking another hot drink that I didn't even want in the first place.

As we learn about Murakami’s history of running, we simultaneously glimpse into his general history and more frequently, his daily thoughts. We learn that he started writing when, at age 29, “out of the blue [he] got the idea to write a novel.” Before that, he ran a jazz bar in Tokyo with his wife (who is a nameless and largely absent figure throughout the book, besides waiting at finish lines and packing snacks).

And though I certainly enjoyed the story, for me, my most significant takeaway was a renewed inspiration to get my lazy legs back to pounding the pavement.

To be honest, I feel kind of stupid describing myself as inspired. Inspiration always seemed so cheesy to me. Like photos of sunsets alongside a kitschy quote written in an italicized serif font, or public speakers who talk boldly about grabbing life by the horns, as if they’ve got it all figured out. It reminds me of those weird posters that hung from the walls in my pediatrician's office. Motivation. Dedication. Endurance. It feels too deliberate, too desperate, too forced--and not me at all. But when something stirs a strong emotion and spurs me to act, like this book, I guess that I have to admit to being inspired.

It’s not as if What I Talk About When I Talk About Running inspired me to immediately transform from couch potato to marathon runner. For one, I won’t be running a marathon anytime in the foreseeable future. But I’m also not a newbie: I have a long and winding personal history with long distance running. It’s just that recently, our relationship has been on shaky ground.

I’ve been running for 13 years, more or less. I started heading out for a daily mile in middle school, then increased my mileage as a cross-country runner in high school. In college, I’d run a loop around campus, sometimes extending my runs further into nearby Westwood. In Tel Aviv, I jogged along the beachfront after dark and eventually competed in a 10k with my running buddy and coworker. In Washington, I’d run through Rock Creek Park when the weather permitted, and hit a new peak mileage of 10 miles, a personal record that I still haven’t broken.

And then, summer 2015 came, and I moved back to California. It got hot, and I made excuses. I can’t go night running in the States, so my running hours were confined to dusk. On top of that, I tried to alter my running form to be less of a heel-striker and wound up with a stress fracture.

Since then, getting back to running has been slow. I’ll go out for a three or four mile run once or twice a week. So though I’ve been running, I’m not really a runner anymore.

But to Murakami, running isn’t just an activity. To him, runners are a community, and running is a way of life. He writes about training his muscles like animals (“muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase their load, step by step, they learn to take it."), his no-excuse policy, his overcoming of intense lethargy. And as I read about this middle aged man who logs 200 running miles per month and won’t allow himself two days of in a row, I realized that I’m kind of a wuss.

He explained his training, the hard work he puts in, the miles and races and trails. And I ate. It. Up. It was almost difficult to keep reading, because his thoughts made me feel like I should be running instead.

So, I decided to get tough on myself. I decided I’d run every morning, and I’d focus more on distance than speed.

And so far, so good. I’ve done more running in the last two weeks than in all of August combined, and I feel better with every run. I’ve still taken two days off in a row, and I highly doubt I’ll be able to run more than 100 miles in a month without breaking my body. But running is once again transitioning from a dreaded, painful necessity into an enjoyable way to start my day.

Musings on Science Fiction and Vonnegut's Galapagos

Sorry for the pretentious title.

Last week, I finished reading Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut. Truthfully, it took me a pretty embarrassingly long amount of time to get through it. Partly because I made the lazy decision to spend the majority of my free time watching Netflix (I couldn't let the world watch Stranger Things without me!), but mostly because I never find his stories very compelling. I mean, his books aren't exactly page-turners. (For me, at least.)

But that definitely doesn't mean that I don't like his work. Actually, I like it a lot.

 Obligatory book with a hot drink photo. Here I have a mango black tea, which I poured specifically for the purpose of taking this picture.

Obligatory book with a hot drink photo. Here I have a mango black tea, which I poured specifically for the purpose of taking this picture.

Because while I may not be totally invested Vonnegut's plots (I read Slaughterhouse Five a few years ago), I love the way he presents the world.

Science fiction is a particularly interesting genre. While there's a lot of variability to any genre of anything, there are usually a few common threads connecting work of the same genre. For one, most genres take place in the same universe governed by the same set of scientific laws. With science fiction, we throw all of that out the window and start from scratch: it might feature flying cars or people with superhuman abilities, or it might take place on another planet and feature another species entirely. The only rule of science fiction is that it’s imaginary. Oh, and that the story should "scientifically-based," but usually said "science" has absolutely no basis in reality.

On the science front, Galápagos sticks to the real stuff, using Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to explain the rise of small-brained, egg-laying, flipper-footed (and handed) humans a million years from now. But I'm no stickler for science in literature. I mean, I’m cool with a radioactive spider bite if that’s what gets the plot rolling.

Rather, what I really appreciate about Vonnegut's version of science fiction is that he uses it as a device to shed light on very real issues in the actual world. By using a narrator not of this earth or not of this time, he shows us our world through a kaleidoscope--where everything we hold as fact is called into question; where our reasoning, our actions, our rules are turned on their heads; where we see everything from an outsider’s perspective and get a glimpse of the sheer ridiculousness of our world.

For instance, in Galápagos, Vonnegut’s narrator (Leon Trout) tells a story about our earth in 1986 to humans a million (well, now it’d be 999,970) years in the future. Throughout the book, he references our big brains, the source of all the world’s problems. He blames our brains for the evils of the world, for famine, financial crises, and greed. And of course, he’s right.

I was also impressed by his references to environmental disasters. Though I’m not exactly sure what the environmental movement looked like in the 80s, it seemed that his awareness and concern was very much ahead of his time.

While I think that most good science fiction aims to expose the deficits of reality, Vonnegut's style is unique in that there's no denying his references to real world circumstances, and more poignantly, harmful shortsightedness.

My Newer Website

This summer, I took a course on HTML/CSS at the UC Berkeley Extension campus.

And while I am all for online courses, in-person learning was a refreshing change from my usual educational experience of staring at my computer screen while eating alone at my desk.

But human interaction aside, I loved the class for other reasons. Like the content, which is kind of an important thing to like about a class. Though I've taken some basic coding classes online, this course was my first real stab at learning to code. I learned the ins and outs of HTML (it's pretty simple) and the basic building blocks of CSS. After eight weeks, I walked away with an understanding of web development (if limited) and an appreciation for web design.

Since I'm a relatively visual person and I really like pretty things, I was amazed by everything that CSS could do. And since I'm an ardent believer in originality over all else (sometimes at the cost of lots of time), I decided that my final project would be to redesign this site (right now, you're reading this off of a lightly modified Squarespace template).

So, I read, googled, and coded. I came up with something to match my taste, and even better, my current resume design (a win for consistency!). My final product came out simple in every way (especially the code), but very much me.

But then... I needed to get it online. As it turned out, actually putting my HTML online was not as simple as I would have liked it to be. So though I devoted a few weeks to playing around with it (and actually accidentally deleted this entire site in the process, which was super awesome and not at all nearly disastrous), I haven't been able to figure out the best way to get my new site up.

Actually, that's not entirely true. I have it up, just not on this domain. My weeks of effort were not entirely fruitless, as I learned about Git, GitHub, repositories and got a basic overview of how much I don't know about this stuff (or any stuff, really). 

For the time being, I'm going to lay off my efforts to get my new template onto mollycornfield.com. Hopefully I manage to figure it out once I've recuperated from my first attempt. In the meantime, you can take a look at my new (and hopefully improved?) site here. And of course, any feedback is always appreciated!

First Blog Post

For reasons that I'll write more extensively on in a later post, I've been toying with a redesign of this site. And when I considered what was missing from this site, it suddenly struck me that as a writer, I should most definitely keep a blog here. 

So, welcome to my new blog! This will be mostly professionally angled, with a focus on skills I'm honing and learning, content I'm creating, and occasionally books I'm reading.