Mid-2019 book review

Photo of books on a desk

The news from this year’s book review is that I have belatedly decided I’m a fantasy fan. Even though I had read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager and the entire Song of Ice and Fire series (including the “Dunk and Egg” prequels) in my 20s, I still somehow thought of myself as “above” the glossy paperbacks with their scowling wizards and soaring pegasi. Well, the veil of self-delusion has lifted. Bring on the pegasi.

The other news is that I’m breaking 2019’s book review into two posts. There are just too many books to cover. (Famous last words! My reading velocity is going down as the summer starts to heat up.)

Quick links

Fiction

Non-fiction

Fiction

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

A haunting, beautiful book. I’d never considered myself a big fantasy fan, but somehow this one really stuck with me. I decided to read it because of this Atlantic article, and I’m glad I did.

I think what sets this one apart is that, while books like Harry Potter or the Narnia series are about childhood and its relationship with fantasy, The Last Unicorn is about growing up and growing away from fantasy. In the book, people have forgotten about unicorns or can’t see their horns. Some of them look upon the unicorn and start crying even if they don’t know why.

The book is ultimately about loss – loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of childish fantasies – as well as regret. It’s a very profound and moving book. Oh, and the author has a real gift for language; the book is filled with beautiful poetry to paint its fantasy world. Anyway, read it.

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

I decided after reading The Last Unicorn that I should start taking fantasy books a bit more seriously. So I picked up The Magicians, and quickly devoured all three books in the trilogy. The whole series is great, although for slightly different reasons than Unicorn.

At first glance, Magicians comes across as a mash-up between Harry Potter and Narnia, but with some decidedly adult elements thrown in. At times I burst out laughing at the incongruity between the magical situations that the characters found themselves in and their wry commentary on it. These are fantasy novels for people who think fantasy novels are a bit silly.

In the end, though, I think Magicians is actually closest in theme and tone to The Dark Tower by Stephen King. It has the same sense of taking old fables and tropes and turning them into something gritty and believable. It’s a fantasy world seen through a dark, ironic lens. But it’s also a great piece of storytelling. Well worth the read.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

I needed one last piece of post-apocalyptic fiction for the road, before switching over to the wizards and unicorns.

This one tells a good story, although ultimately I don’t find its depiction of a world waiting to die very believable. I just find it hard to imagine that, in the face of a nuclear dust-cloud descending inexorably towards Australia, that an entire continent would decide to go the “stiff upper lip” route and carry on as usual, pretending as if Armageddon wasn’t on its way.

Societal breakdown and anarchy seem more likely to me, although I guess that might be hindsight talking. This book was written in 1957, well before post-apocalyptic fiction had really settled into its groove and the Mad Max-style mohawked warlords had become staples of the genre. So it gets points for trying – I’m sure this book spooked a lot of people back in the days when fallout shelters and “duck and cover” drills were still a thing.

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

I loved this book. I’ve been reading Cory Doctorow’s blog posts for years, and I’m surprised at what an effective storyteller he is. Think Black Mirror, but funnier and less bleak.

The two short stories that stood out the most to me were the first – about a toaster oven that refuses to toast “unlicensed” bread – and the third – about cancer survivors radicalized by an online forum.

The first story in particular feels plausible in a disturbing way, and it cuts to the core of some of the concerns I’ve expressed about the ways that technology can be used to take more power away from those who are already powerless. For instance, consider this (true) story about renters in Brooklyn who are unable to stop their landlord from installing face-recognizing cameras. This story shows that Doctorow’s DRM toaster isn’t so much a vision of the future as it is an extrapolation of present trends. Which is what good science fiction is all about.

Nonfiction

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

A central fact about eating meat is that it’s much easier if you forget where it comes from. With this book I forced myself to take a hard look at where it comes from, and I found the results to be disturbing and appalling.

I don’t think it’s unnatural for humans to eat meat (my incisors are proof of that), but I do think that the modern factory farming system is immoral. It’s a form of industrial cruelty, systematized and magnified on a monstrous scale. Anyone who has owned a pet wouldn’t want it to experience even one minute of what these animals have to suffer every day of their lives.

If humans still did animal husbandry the old-fashioned way, on small-scale farms where the animals could live more-or-less decent lives, then I wouldn’t have a problem with eating animal products. What bothers me isn’t the way they die – it’s the way they live. Reading about the lives of egg-laying chickens and pigs in factory farms activates all my moral instincts and says in no uncertain terms, This is wrong. In fact, I think most meat-eaters would consider it wrong too, which is why they try to push it out of their minds.

I’d love to say that, after reading this book, I went fully vegan and never looked back. The truth is that I gave it a shot for a few weeks, found it too difficult, and then settled into a quasi-vegetarian/pescetarian thing, which is what I’ve been doing for the past decade or so anyway.

The main difference is that I have a better sense now of what kinds of foods actually reduce animal suffering. For instance: less dairy, more wild-caught fish. (I know; it’s surprising. Read the book.)

My relationship with food is still complicated, but at least this book has brought some facts and numbers to inform my decisions.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

I’ll admit: as recently as 2010, I probably would have described myself as a “climate change skeptic.” Not because I doubted the science (the consensus was clear at this point) but because I questioned whether the economic cost of combating climate change would outweigh the benefits of preventing it. India and China were rapidly developing – who was I to say that poor people in Kerala should live without air conditioning?

Like most everybody else, though, I’ve come around to the massive challenge posed by climate change. Living through two summer forest fires in Seattle, where people wore protective masks and the sky looked like a hazy Martian sunset, certainly helped change my mind. As did this book.

Before The Uninhabitable Earth I had also started reading Carbon Ideologies by William T. Vollmann. They’re good books, but honestly they’re so long and dense and meandering that it’s hard to recommend them to anyone but the convinced climate activist. If you’re really interested in the physics, the numbers, and the nitty-gritty, then these books are for you.

Wallace-Wells’s book is different. It’s short, it’s punchy, and it encourages you to actually envision a world after global warming, and to let it hit you at a gut level. I imagine a book like this will inspire some great science fiction (cli-fi?), which might do more to get people to care about climate change than all the facts and figures in the world. So for that, it’s a book I strongly recommend.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Kolbert’s book is another eye-opening look at humanity’s relationship with nature and where we fit into the grand arc of geologic history. I’ve had a longstanding interest in paleontology, and I find Kolbert’s defense of the Anthropocene (which is what this book amounts to) very compelling.

One thing that always puzzled me about climate change was why one or two degrees of average temperature, or a few percentage points of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, would really be such a catastrophic event for humanity. Wasn’t the carbon dioxide level orders of magnitude higher during the Mesozoic? Why would a few percentage points be our death knell?

What this book makes clear is that it’s not so much about the absolute numbers, but instead the rate of change. Earth has adapted to rapid changes before (such as an unlucky rendez-vous with an asteroid), but the recovery always takes a long time. Like, “longer than the human species has been around” long. Are we willing to trade 300 years of indulgence in fossil fuels for hundreds of thousands of years of getting the Earth’s ecosystem back on track?

If Wallace-Wells’s book hasn’t already bummed you out too much, then you should definitely pick this one up. It certainly helps put things in (geologic) perspective.

How to de-Google your Android phone

First, download a ROM from this Russian message board. It’s okay! You can totally verify the GPG signature. Allow yourself 30 minutes to remember how GPG works, then verify that forum poster LeetAndrej420 has indeed signed the file.

Next, root your Android phone. You will need to hold the volume-up and power buttons for ten seconds, then unplug from USB, then reboot a few times after you mess it up, then give up and download the Android dev tools.

After you figure out the Android adb and fastboot commands, you should see a friendly UI with green Courier text on a black background. Press the button that says, “I void my warranty and completely exonerate the OEM in the likely event that I am actually pwning myself by installing random software from the internet onto a tracking device I carry in my pocket every day.” But it’s okay. You trust Andrej, right?

Next you will need to install the “recovery” tool. Despite the name, this is actually the best way to brick your device. Luckily it is incredibly feature-rich, boasting 12 buttons on the home screen, including an “Advanced” button containing more buttons. These buttons will invite you to do things like “clear the Dalvik/ART cache,” which you totally know what that means.

When you download the recovery tool, make sure you get the right version for your phone! Of course, it’s not named after your phone’s brand name, but rather a cheeky internal name chosen by the OEM, like “bacon”, “cheeseburger”, or “mahimahi”. The professionalism on display from all parties should fill you with confidence.

You will download the recovery tool from a site called SickWarez.biz. Use GPG to ensure that it’s signed by Andrej.

Once downloaded, go into recovery mode and install the ROM, being careful to press the one correct button out of 12, like a game of Minesweeper that will brick your phone if you lose. This will also factory-reset your device, which is fine because all your photos and contacts are backed up to your Google account… ah, right. You’ll want to do something about that.

Assuming you have successfully installed the ROM without turning your phone into a $700 doorstop, you can now install apps. Thankfully there is F-Droid, which hosts all your favorite open-source apps. Wait, your favorite apps aren’t open-source? Well, at least it has Signal. Wait, it doesn’t have Signal?

Once you’ve installed the Yalp Store, which sideloads apps from Google Play in a way that may or may not be totally illegal and will get blocked by Google once they read this blog post and realize that it exists, you can now download some actually useful apps.

Thankfully, though, your personal data will be safe and secure from third-party developers, because these apps will not work. Be prepared for error messages like, “Please install Google Maps,” “Google Play Services required,” or “What kind of sicko has a Google phone without Google? What is wrong with you?”

After all this ceremony, you can now relax and enjoy your Google-free Android device. Note, though, that weather widgets, GPS, push notifications, and the majority of Android apps you rely on will not work. That said, there are some great note-taking apps! Plus SMS will still work. Good old SMS.

So now that you’ve successfully turned your $700 Android device into a glorified $30 Nokia flip phone, which may or may not be siphoning your passwords to a Ukrainian teenager, you can finally have a Google-free smartphone experience. Or you could just buy an iPhone.

One year of Pinafore

Screenshot of Pinafore showing a compose input

Pinafore is a standalone web client for Mastodon, which recently hit version 1.9.0. Here are some notable new features:

It’s been about a year since I first launched Pinafore. So I’d like to reflect on where the project came from, and where I hope to take it.

Background

In 2017, I was in a funk. I had stopped contributing to the PouchDB project largely due to burnout, and for various reasons I eventually left my job at Microsoft. In the meantime, I had become enamored of Mastodon and even contributed to it, but I was feeling restless and looking for a new project.

The Mastodon codebase is extremely well-written. I’m convinced that Eugen Rochko is some kind of savant. However, I never took much of a liking to React, and I found it difficult to fix some fundamental problems in the Mastodon UI, such as offline support or the occasionally jerky scrolling. I also really missed the single-column layout of Twitter (I was never a Tweetdeck fan).

So the idea came to me to create my own Mastodon web client. I had been working on web sites for years, but aside from some small prototypes, I had never built an entire web app by myself. This was an opportunity to test some of my ideas about how a web app “should” be, leveraging my experience in web performance and standards. Also, I wanted to teach myself about accessibility, which I had never really studied before.

I knew I wanted to use Svelte, because I agreed with Rich Harris and Tom Dale that JavaScript frameworks should focus less on being runtime APIs and more on being compilers. Incidentally, I was at the same talk by Jed Schmitt that Rich mentions in this video, and it blew my mind as much as it blew his. (The difference between Rich and me is that he actually went off and built a whole framework based on it!)

I started working on Pinafore at the end of December 2017, and released it in April 2018. So after 18 months of development, I’d like to consider where Pinafore has done well and where it can improve.

Success metrics

Pinafore doesn’t have any trackers on it, so I don’t know how many people are using it. Sure, I could use a privacy-respecting tracker like Fathom, but the Mastodon community is pretty allergic to any kind of tracking, so I’ve been hesitant to add it. In any case, I don’t really care, because I would work on Pinafore regardless of how many people are using it.

However, I do get a trickle of questions and bug reports about Pinafore, and the #Pinafore hashtag is pretty active. I’ve also heard from several folks that it’s their preferred Mastodon interface. The reasons they give are usually one of the following:

  • Accessibility: I’ve focused a lot on making Pinafore work well with keyboard navigation and screen readers. (Marco Zehe‘s guidance really helped!)
  • Design: the single-column layout of Pinafore is a key differentiator with the Mastodon frontend (although not for long).
  • Instance-switching: people who juggle multiple accounts on different instances don’t necessarily want one browser tab for each.

My favorite user testimonial, though, is from my wife. She told me, “I like Pinafore because it never loses my place in the timeline.” (Much of my motivation for working on Pinafore can be credited to “wife-driven development” – I like making her happy!)

So this confirms that I’ve achieved at least some of the goals from the Pinafore introductory blog post. Although notably, offline support is rarely mentioned, but I’ll get to that later.

Collaboration

Pinafore has also benefited from a lot of community contributions. I’d like to specifically thank:

And of course everyone else who contributed. Thank you so much!

There are some challenges with building a dev community around Pinafore. The app is implemented using Svelte v2 and Sapper, which unfortunately causes two downsides in terms of onboarding: 1) Svelte isn’t a very well-known framework, and 2) Svelte v2 is incompatible with Svelte v3, and there’s no upgrade path currently.

I’ll have to continue grappling with these challenges, but for now I’m very satisfied with Svelte v2. It’s fast, lightweight, and does everything I need it to. So I’m not in a big hurry to upgrade.

And oh yeah: Svelte really is lightweight. Pinafore only loads 32KB of compressed JavaScript for the landing page, and 137KB for the Home timeline. The total size of all JS assets is under 300KB compressed (<1MB raw). It gets a perfect 100 score from Lighthouse.

Screenshot of Lighthouse showing perfect 100 score in all categories, including Performance, Accessibility, Best Practices, and SEO

If you didn’t think I was going to brag about web perf vanity metrics, then you don’t know me very well.

Future plans

My first goal with Pinafore is completeness. Even though I’ve been working on it for over a year, there are still plenty of missing features compared to the Mastodon frontend. And although the gap has been narrowing, Mastodon itself hasn’t stopped innovating, so there’s always new stuff to add. (Polls! Blurhash! Keybase! Does Eugen ever sleep?)

Beyond that, I’d like to start focusing on features that make Pinafore a more pleasant social media experience. One of the virtues of decentralized social media is that we can experiment with features that give people control over their social media experience, even if it hampers addictiveness or growth. To that end, I’ve added a set of wellness features, inspired by Tristan Harris’s Center for Humane Technology. I’ll probably tweak and expand these features as feedback rolls in.

I’d also like to improve offline support. Even though Pinafore does have an offline mode, and even though it uses a Service Worker to cache static assets, it’s not very offline-first. Instead, it uses offline storage more as a fallback for when the network fails, rather than as the primary source of truth.

Given my background working on offline-first technology and advocating for it, I find this a bit disappointing. But it turns out that it’s really difficult to implement an offline-first social media UI. How do you deal with offline writes? How do you handle the gap between fresh content and stale content within the same timeline? These are not easy questions, and for the most part I’ve punted on them. But Pinafore can do better.

Conclusion

Pinafore is a passion project for me. It gives me something interesting to do on weekends and evenings, and it teaches me a lot about how the web platform works.

I also see Pinafore as an opportunity to provide more options to the Mastodon community, and to prove that you don’t have to treat Eugen as a gatekeeper for every minor UI tweak you’d like to see in Mastodon. Mastodon is decentralized; let’s decentralize the interface!

I have every intention to keep working on Pinafore, and I’m curious to know where you think it should go next.

Tech veganism

Hand draw picture of a computer with vegetables on the screen

A year ago I wrote a blog post about living with an open-source phone. A commenter on Reddit described this as “tech veganism,” and I thought it was a great metaphor.

For the past few years I’ve swum in a lot of “tech veganism” circles (mostly thanks to Mastodon), so I think I have a good definition now:

  • a preference for open-source software over proprietary software
  • a suspicion of big tech companies
  • a high bar for privacy and security

The parallel with veganism is a good one for several reasons. First off, a lot of people find vegans annoying. “What, you think you’re better than me?” It’s a lot easier to eat animal products if you don’t think about where they come from, and vegans are an uncomfortable reminder of food’s icky origins. Plus, it’s never pleasant to think that someone might be silently judging you for your personal lifestyle choices.

Now imagine someone telling you they don’t use Google, Facebook, etc. “What, you think you’re better than me?”

Second, people don’t typically choose tech veganism because it’s a better user experience. Even though some vegans may swear that their black bean burger tastes just as good as your Angus beef, the honest ones will acknowledge that it’s more about principle than palate.

Similarly, there are plenty of tech vegans who will claim that OpenStreetMap is a great replacement for Google Maps, or that DuckDuckGo provides better search results than Google. But if they’re being honest with themselves, they’ll admit that they’re more motivated by principle than quality or convenience.

Third, tech veganism is a good way to alienate people. Talk about it enough, and you may get accused of being overly dour, negative, cynical, etc. Can’t you just eat a burger and enjoy it like a normal person? Why do you have to bring up factory farms all the time, and ruin my meal? Similarly: why can’t you just use Google like a normal person? Why do you have to drone on and on about LibreOffice and OpenBSD?

Tech veganism can even cost you friends. In the same way that having one vegan in the group severely limits your restaurant choices, being the one tech vegan among your friends can really narrow down the options for communication apps. Sure, you can ask them to use Signal. Or email. But most likely, the group chat will just happen without you, and you won’t be getting any Facebook invites.

Fourth, in some cases tech veganism is difficult if not downright impossible. If you’ve ever actually tried to go vegan (note: I have), you’ll find it’s a constant battle of reading ingredient lists to find the hidden references to milk, eggs, fish, etc. (Some surprising things that aren’t vegan: Worcestershire sauce, kimchi, even sugar.) And once you travel to a foreign country, you might find yourself surviving on bread and water, or else giving up entirely and grabbing a croque-monsieur.

Similarly, it’s almost impossible to avoid proprietary software or the tech giants. Consider this FOSDEM talk, where the executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy admits to having proprietary software embedded inside her body, because that was the only option for a defibrillator. She advocates open-source software, and yet despite her best efforts, she’s a closed-source cyborg!

Try to avoid Google or Amazon and you may find yourself in a similar boat. There’s a great series of posts from Kashmir Hill where she shows that it’s nearly impossible to quit the tech giants because of how enmeshed they are in every app, website, and network request. It’s easier to find something vegan at a Brazilian barbecue than it is to eliminate big tech from your internet diet.

Another similarity: just as there are more vegetarians in India, tech veganism can be surprisingly region-specific. In particular, Europeans have more reason than Americans to embrace tech veganism, because the non-Chinese tech giants – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, the dreaded GAFAM – are all American.

The dominance of American tech platforms in Europe, and especially all the data from European citizens being siphoned back to Silicon Valley, can feel like an issue of national sovereignty. Hence we have France opting for the open-source Matrix project for government communications, or organizations like Framasoft depicting themselves as a tiny Astérix-like village holding off foreign invaders. And the invaders really are foreign!

One place where the veganism metaphor breaks down is that, although nearly anyone can be a vegan, tech veganism is mostly practiced by those who are expert enough or privileged enough to learn the elaborate workarounds to avoid the GAFAMs of the world. Setting up an Ubuntu laptop, a LineageOS phone, a Fastmail account, and wiring it all together so that you actually get calendar notifications is no easy feat. You will probably have to get your hands dirty on the command line.

I find that there’s a bit of a “let them eat cake” attitude among tech vegan boosters, because they often discount the sheer difficulty of all this stuff. (“Let them use Linux” could be a fitting refrain.) After all, they figured it out, so why can’t you? What, doesn’t everyone have a computer science degree and six years experience as a sysadmin?

To be a vegan, all you have to do is stop eating animal products. To be a tech vegan, you have to join an elite guild of tech wizards and master their secret arts. And even then, you’re probably sneaking a forbidden bite of Google or Apple every now and then.

So where does that leave tech veganism? Well, for the near term, it’s probably going to remain the province of geeks and specialists due to the difficulties described above. Ironically, that means that it’ll mostly involve tech workers building products that other tech workers refuse to use. (Imagine if veganism were only practiced by employees of meat companies.)

I also suspect that tech veganism will begin to shift, if it hasn’t already. I think the focus will become less about open source vs closed source (the battle of the last decade) and more about digital well-being, especially in regards to privacy, addiction, and safety. So in this way, it may be less about switching from Windows to Linux and more about switching from Android to iOS, or from Facebook to more private channels like Discord and WhatsApp.

Generation Z has grown up with smartphones and app stores as an inescapable fact of their lives. Does anyone under 21 actually care whether the code on their phone is open-source and whether, Stallman-style, they can dive into an Objective-C file and change something? Probably not many. Does anyone in that demographic care about their phone’s impact on their anxiety, their quality time with friends and family, and their safety from harassment and abuse? Probably a lot more.

In my opinion, this change is a good thing. You shouldn’t have to enter an elite tech priesthood just to preserve your privacy, security, and safety online. Tech veganism should be as easy as regular veganism – it should just be an option on the menu. That doesn’t mean that it won’t suffer from many of the same problems as regular veganism, but at least it will be democratized.

Get off of Twitter

Twitter logo with a red "no" sign over it

Stop complaining about Twitter on Twitter. Deny them your attention, your time, and your data. Get off of Twitter.

The more time you spend on Twitter, the more money you make for Twitter. Get off of Twitter.

You at-mention @jack and call him out for the harassment and disinformation on his platform. You get a few hundred likes and retweets, each one sending your brain a little boost of serotonin. Twitter learns that you are interested in people who criticize @jack and starts to recommend you their tweets. You end up spending more time on Twitter, and advertisers learn a little bit more about you. You make @jack more money.

Get off of Twitter.

You can’t criticize Twitter on Twitter. It just doesn’t work. The medium is the message.

There’s an old joke where one fish says to the other, “How’s the water today?” And the fish responds, “What’s water?” On Twitter, you might ask, “How’s the outrage today?” (The answer, of course, is “I hate it! I’m so outraged about it!”)

Get off of Twitter.

Write blog posts. Use RSS. Use micro.blog. Use Mastodon. Use Pleroma. Use whatever you want, as long as it isn’t manipulating you with algorithms or selling access to your data to advertisers.

You’re worried about losing your influence. How about using your influence for something good? How about using it to stick it to Twitter, if you really dislike Twitter so much? Maybe if you do it, and your friends do it, then it will cause a sea change. After all, who was ever “influential” by following the crowd?

As Gandhi said (in paraphrase), “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Or as another influencer put it: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” Or if you prefer: “Practice what you preach.”

Get off of Twitter.

In defense of the Right Thing

It has come to my attention that many people believe the Wrong Thing. I find this to be an intolerable state of affairs, so this is a blog post defending what is Right.

How do I know there are so many people who believe the Wrong Thing? Well because, like everyone, I use Twitter. And holy moly! My feed is chock-full of Wrong Thinkers.

Sometimes it feels like everyone in the world believes the Wrong Thing, and I’m the last lonely person clinging to what’s Right. There must be a global epidemic of Wrongness. Why else would Twitter fill my feed with so many of these dunces and ninnies and halfwits?

I don’t even follow these people. Why should they be in my timeline, unless the whole world is full of Wrong people?

Every time I see their Wrong tweets, I seethe with rage and eagerly click to read the full thread. I might spend hours this way, thumbing through Wrong tweets. “How can so many people be so Wrong?” I’ll say to myself, shaking my head as I continue to scroll.

Sometimes when I find a really Wrong tweet, I’ll quote it and tweet it out with the perfect devastating repartee. That way, more people who agree with me are exposed to these Wrong views. That’ll teach ’em!

I do have to commend the others who proudly rise in defense of what is Right. On Twitter, I often see them caught in an epic battle with the Wrongers – “34 people are talking about this!” Well, here comes a 35th, joining the fray to fight the good fight.

To be honest, I sometimes get tired of feeling angry all the time. But how can I not be, when the world is full of people who are so very Wrong?

Curiously, the Wrongers seem to come from all sides of any issue, and they are legion. People who use margarine instead of butter, people who peel the banana from the top instead of the bottom, people who crack a boiled egg from the big end rather than the small end. These are exactly the things that drive me nuts, and somehow my feed is full of people who believe the opposite of me on precisely those issues! Sometimes I feel utterly embroiled, helpless, a tiny voice of reason shouting against an angry mob of Wrong Thinkers.

But sadly, this is just how the world is these days. The world is full of people arguing, calling each other out, or watching a fight unfold with the horrified glee of a driver craning their neck to get a good look at a car wreck.

I know this is how the world is, because I see it on Twitter. And Twitter is an utterly unbiased mirror of the world, with no algorithms that subtly push the discussion in one direction or the other, regardless of whether it is good for discourse or compassion or human well-being but only whether it is good for Twitter.

2018 book review

In the spirit of last year’s blog post, this is an extremely belated round-up of books I read in 2018.

I read a lot of books last year. I chalk this up to many things, but quitting Twitter was probably a big one. Without Twitter, I actually run out of things to read on the internet. At some point the internet gets boring, and it’s nice to have a few books around to pick up the slack.

A photo of books on a bookshelf

A completely unstaged photo of my remarkably tidy bookshelf

To keep things simple, I’ll focus on the books I actually enjoyed, rather than the ones I thought were duds. Who wants to read about boring books, anyway?

So without further ado:

Quick links

Fiction

Non-fiction

Fiction

Life’s too short not to enjoy good fiction. I don’t read it often enough, but when I do find a good novel, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I can immerse myself in another world for a while, and try to empathize with its characters.

This year I didn’t read a lot of fiction, but what I did read was very good.

Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman (2018)

What a remarkable book. I read it because I got a sudden hankering for post-apocalyptic fiction last year, plus there was a review in The Economist.

This book definitely doesn’t disappoint on the post-apocalyptic front, but it’s also just a great piece of pop-science drama. It’s clear that the author did their research (about bonobos in this case) and developed the characters with a lot of care. Strongly recommended.

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman (2012)

This book is a bit harder to find, but I found it’s every bit as good as Schulman’s other book. Some well-researched science, a bit of colonial history, and once again Schulman’s keen eye for character development (even if her protagonist bears a resemblance to the one from Bastards). I may just have to read everything Schulman’s ever written.

Blindness by José Saramago (1995)

Continuing the post-apocalyptic trend, this is a tightly-written drama that captures what’s best about science fiction: an understanding of how humans react when put into unfamiliar situations, for good and for evil. Also it’s written in one of the most unique styles I’ve ever read – breathless, using mostly commas, with hardly a period to stop the flow of action.

Apparently there’s a movie, but the reviews were bad so I didn’t watch it. The book is great.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

I promise I didn’t just read post-apocalyptic fiction this year. In any case, this book is considered a classic, but I found it to be three thinly-connected novellas where only the first one is worth reading. If you get bored during the second one, I’d say skip it.

What’s great about this book is its understanding for how humans behave during a dark age. Knowledge gets lost or deliberately destroyed, history becomes myth, cult becomes religion. It’s chilling to imagine how that may happen to our own civilization.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2010)

Last post-apocalyptic fiction, I promise. This one is pretty good, although you’re better off not reading any reviews or synopses so as to not spoil the premise.

Also, if you’re expecting something like The Remains of the Day, then you should know that Never Let Me Go is not only very different thematically, but I also found it didn’t linger in my mind as much as Remains did. Still, it’s worth reading.

Once again, there’s a movie, but I haven’t seen it. I have no idea how you would adapt a book like this into a movie, but I guess that doesn’t stop people from trying.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)

Marvelous book. Maybe as someone who’s studied French and Japanese, and who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and who has developed a middling interest in Buddhism, the book also seemed to speak to me in a eerily precise way.

If you’re a fan of wordplay, inventive storytelling, and Murakami-style magic realism, this is a great book to pick up.

Cherry by Nico Walker (2018)

A strange, haunting, disturbing book, but also a page-turner. Apparently this is Walker’s first book, and it’s really a virtuoso performance. I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with next.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1987)

A bizarre book. You get the impression that Paul Auster had one story to tell, but he couldn’t decide how to do it, so he wrote the same story three ways. Somewhat like Canticle, you’re probably better off just reading the first one and skipping the others.

Still, it’s worth it, especially if you’re a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction and surrealism.

Non-fiction

As usual for me, I read a lot of non-fiction last year. For the purposes of this list, though, I’m skipping about half the books I read, because a lot of them didn’t have much new to say, or didn’t really stick in my mind.

So this list contains only books I would recommend. (Note: that doesn’t mean I agree with every sentence that the author has ever uttered. Which should be obvious, but hey, on the internet, you’re rarely given the benefit of the doubt these days.)

Sapiens (2014), Homo Deus (2017), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari

I first came across Harari in this excellent Atlantic article, and I quickly devoured all three of his books. I’m not really sure what to say, except that he’s one of the most clever, funny, and innovative thinkers writing today. Sapiens in particular is a masterpiece of history, anthropology, and political science.

Harari has upset my thinking on a lot of things – in particular, how technology interacts with democracy and citizenship to potentially upend the relationship between the individual and the state in the 21st century. I also found his portrayal of factory farming as one of the biggest moral failures in modern human history to be very compelling (and not just because I’ve been an on-again off-again pescetarian for years).

But probably the best thing I can say about these books is that they’re all page-turners, despite the dense subject matter. Also, Harari isn’t afraid to veer into controversy, but he’s always clear about where he gets the facts that inform his opinions. (His conclusion in Sapiens that, scientifically, we just don’t know why humans are a patriarchal species was refreshingly honest.)

Some of the best non-fiction I’ve read in my life, and definitely worth picking up.

The Mechanical Horse by Margaret Guroff (2016)

A joyous book, a celebration of the bicycle and its impact on American society. Even if you’re not a cyclist, you may find this book interesting, just to see how much a simple two-wheeled vehicle has reshaped our culture.

If you want a preview, you can take a look at this excerpt on how bicycles did, in Susan B. Anthony’s words, “more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.”

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (2018)

Everyone’s already reviewed, rebutted, and counter-rebutted this book to death during 2018, but I’ll toss my hat in the ring as well.

This is maybe the most important book I read last year.

In terms of non-fiction, I’ve spent the last few years mostly reading what my wife calls “tech is destroying the world” books. So my non-fiction diet is generally very dire and gloomy and focused on all the problems in the world (and, as a techie, how I’m partially complicit in it). Maybe it’s no surprise then that I tend to be pretty pessimistic in my outlook.

This book aims to destroy that mindset with cold-hard data. And the thing is, I can’t argue with most of his points. The world really has gotten better over the past few centuries, unless you want to refute dozens of meticulously-researched charts and graphs.

I’ve read some of the rebuttals, and most of them pick one or two points and try to skewer them to death, as if that invalidates the entire book. But the book is over 400 pages; you can’t take exception with one or two pages and then pretend that it invalidates the main sweep of his argument.

I still retain some skepticism that mankind can effectively tackle climate change, the transition away from fossil fuels, the drug epidemic (Pinker’s one graph that doesn’t slope in the good direction), or the decline of liberal values, but Pinker gives about a hundred reasons for optimism. So for that, I’m grateful.

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen (2018)

Now here’s a truly radical book, and one that might serve as a good contrast to Pinker’s. Deneen’s argument is basically that liberalism (in the sense of “Western liberalism,” or “the Washington consensus,” or whatever you want to call it) has become a victim of its own success. It works so well to elevate the individual – as a consumer, as a liberated sexual being, etc. – that it rips apart families and communities in the process.

Deneen might look at Pinker’s book and say, “Okay, so we’ve got all the material comfort we could possibly want, but maybe the human soul needs something more than that?”

One thought that this book helped crystallize in my head, along with Identity by Francis Fukuyama (which I read and thought was just okay) and Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright (which I started but didn’t finish) is that there’s a lot of wisdom to the Buddhist idea that suffering is caused by desire, and you can’t really address your suffering without addressing your desire.

Here’s Deneen:

“[H]uman appetite is insatiable and the world is limited. For both of these reasons, we cannot be truly free in the modern sense. We can never attain satiation, and will be eternally driven by our desires rather than satisfied by their attainment. And in pursuit of the satisfaction of our limitless desires, we will very quickly exhaust the planet.” (p125, hardcover)

Some of these arguments you may even call environmentalist. Others, like his critique of free markets, you might call anticapitalist. Despite broadly coming across as something like “radical reactionary paleo-conservative,” Deneen is hard to pin down.

I can’t really do this book justice by summarizing it here, as Deneen is such an original thinker that it’s best to let him explain his arguments himself. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I think if you want to understand the recent decline in liberal values, this book (as well as Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism, which I reviewed last year) would be a good place to start.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

This might be the second most important book I read last year (after Pinker’s). It’s a good overview of all the ways that our brains can fool us, and how statistical thinking can help reshape your perception of the world.

One part that stood out to me was the story of the Israeli flight instructor who would always criticize his students after a bad flight, and praise them after a good flight. And since a bad flight is usually followed by a better one, but a good flight is usually followed by a worse one, he concluded that criticism works, but praise doesn’t.

Kahneman points out that this is really just an expression of regression to the mean. If he had been berating his students on how high of a dice roll they got (“You got a six, stupendous!” or “You got a one, try harder!”) he would get exactly the same effect. The widespread belief in things like “streaks” and “hot hands,” though, shows how far most folks are from internalizing this basic statistical concept.

I’m sure this book hasn’t totally cured me of my monkey-brain misconceptions, but hopefully I’ll be able to catch a few more of them now.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier (2018)

Despite the snippy title, this is a well-thought-out and sobering book that puts a lot of recent social media controversies into perspective. I like how Lanier draws a line from Twitter and Facebook all the way back to old-school message boards.

This book has made me more skeptical of social media in general (even after deleting my Twitter account). If nothing else, reading this book is a good way to reflect on one own’s social media usage, and whether or not it’s a healthy relationship.

“Briefly I was one of the HuffPost’s top bloggers, always on the front page. But I found myself falling into that old problem again whenever I read the comments, and I could not get myself to ignore them. I would feel this weird low-level boiling rage inside me. Or I’d feel this absurd glow when people liked what I wrote, even if what they said didn’t indicate that they had paid much attention to it. Comment authors were mostly seeking attention for themselves.

We were all in the same stew, manipulating each other, inflating ourselves. (pp42-43, hardcover)

Atrocities by Matthew White (2011)

The funniest book about war, genocide, and famine that you’ll ever read. If it doesn’t sound like “funniest” belongs in the same sentence with those words, it’s best to pick up the book yourself to understand what I mean.

This book is not only well-researched and educational; it’s also a masterpiece of black humor that will make you gape and shake your head at the depths of human stupidity.

On Genghis Khan:

“Keep in mind that even with 16 million [living] descendants, Genghis Khan hasn’t replaced the number of people he killed.” (p115, 2013 edition)

On the Time of Troubles:

  • Location: Russia
  • Number of Dmitris: 4
  • Lesson learned: Always insist on seeing a photo ID before you proclaim someone emperor. (p207, 2013 edition)

There’s more, but I’d hate to spoil it by quoting it at length. In any case, it’s a hard book to put down, and a good conversation-starter to leave on a coffee table.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (2017)

A “strange but true” story about a guy who lived alone in the woods for 27 years. Pretty fascinating story, and a good meditation on what it means to live with other people, and why some might try to escape it.

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2002)

I was intrigued by Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, so I picked this one up. It’s a bit older, but its core argument is still relevant. It does a great job of unmasking a kind of lazy thinking that denies any evidence from biology that might be politically inconvenient. (On both the left and the right, but I think Pinker focuses on the left because that’s his target audience.)

Something this book helped me realize is that, if I have a core political belief, it’s that evidence and facts matter. Unfortunately there’s a growing strain of thought across the political spectrum that emphasizes lived experiences, feelings, and political expediency at the expense of evidence and a shared set of facts. It argues that science is a tool of oppression, and “facts” are only useful for information warfare.

I can appreciate the anti-elitism and distrust of authority that motivates a lot of this thinking, but I also think it’s inherently dangerous. Science, reason, and liberalism have lifted a large chunk of humanity out of poverty and misery, and we abandon them at our own risk.

The Curse of Bigness by Tim Wu (2018)

In a year conspicuously absent of “tech is destroying the world” books on my bookshelf (or at least, on this list), this one stands out. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it captures our present tech moment very well by identifying the main problem as being a political one, rather than an economic or a technical one.

Essentially, this is a history of antitrust and anti-antitrust thinking. Wu’s other books (The Master Switch and The Attention Merchants) did a great job of tying together present trends with a history lesson, and this book offers more of the same. Well worth a read.

Living with Tinnitus by Laura Cole (2017)

This is a very personal inclusion on this list, but I’ll put it here anyway.

Last year I developed tinnitus, which means that I constantly hear a low, high-pitched buzzing in my ears. It affects a large number of people (10-15% of the population according to Wikipedia), but surprisingly few talk about it.

How did I get it? Probably from listening to too many podcasts on the bus without noise-canceling headphones. Or maybe an ear infection. To be honest, I’m not sure.

When it first developed, it was scary and frustrating. I went to an audiologist, but they just ran some tests, told me my hearing was fine, and sent me on my way with a short pamphlet on tinnitus. For several months it affected my sleep, my mood, and my social life, but I wasn’t really sure what to do about it.

Almost a year later, I can say that my tinnitus doesn’t really bother me at all, and I rarely think about it, even though it’s the first thing I hear in the morning and the last thing I hear at night. This book was one of the things that helped with that.

As it turns out, tinnitus doesn’t have a lot of research. Reading internet forums can just make you more scared, as the symptoms and severity can vary wildly. This book acknowledges the lack of evidence, but offers a wide range of potential solutions, mitigations, and coping mechanisms. The author is also very clear about which ones have strong evidence and which ones don’t.

If you or one of your loved ones has tinnitus, I’d strongly recommend this book.