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Here's what I read in May


The Spirit of Science Fiction, by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer. A lyrical stream of a book, conjuring adolescence in all its cusping possibilities and emerging sexuality. Slight but evocative, often blurring the line between prose and poetry.

Air Vol. 1: Letters From Lost Countries, by G Willow Wilson and MK Perker. My first graphic novel this year (I've been wanting to read something by G Willow Wilson for a while). It starts with a human mystery but quickly unfurls into an existential adventure that upends reality itself. Upon finishing, I immediately ordered the other volumes.

Team Human, by Douglas Rushkoff. I'm a huge fan of Doug; I once had the privilege of speaking to his class, and Known was mentioned in his book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. This is a manifesto for reclaiming civilization and embracing our humanity; a compelling vision rooted in empathy and compassion. A point of light and hope for the future. Emergent Strategy is a good companion read.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. I will be thinking about this book for the rest of my life. A vivid portrait of the horrors many Americans are forced to live through every day, and the people who profit from it. A national tragedy, made real through masterful narrative.

Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. A meditation on loss and longing that builds like a painting, its yearning expressed through discussions of color and light. Beautifully written; heartbreakingly felt.

The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, by Brooke Gladstone. Facts are not the same as truth; the latter has power, and can be fabricated by totalitarian leaders and gaslighters with a blanket of lies. A meditation on the Rashomon of modern life.

Notable Articles

Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymore. The Guardian's experiment with patronage has been a roaring success, and points to the fact that many people who subscribe to newspapers do so because they want the journalism to exist in the world, not because of any sense of exclusivity.

Silicon Valley is awash in Chinese and Saudi cash — and no one is paying attention (except Trump). A quiet secret about Venture Capital firms is that they often take money from regimes that have dubious human rights records. A question I have: when much of a VC fund is linked to a government, and the fund has a voting seat on the board of a company, and that company (for example) operates a giant surveillance apparatus, how independently can we trust the fund to make decisions?

'Wide-open potential for abuse': States are ground zero in the fight against child marriage. 17 states have no minimum age of marriage. That it isn't a political slam dunk to end child marriage is yet another thing that blows my mind about America.

AirPods Are a Tragedy. I depend on mine, but this exploration of the environmental impact has made me rethink (again) my technology purchases. If we really believe in making positive environmental steps, we've got to make better decisions. I'll stop buying AirPods, but I wish there was a clearer, more positive alternative for phones, laptops, etc.

'I see any dinosaur, I buy it': at home with the embattled owner of the Flintstone house. I see this house all the time from the 280. Visiting it is on my bucket list. The current owner kind of seems like a badass.

Three Feet From God: An Oral History of Nirvana ‘Unplugged’. This was one of the most influential albums on me as a teenager. It's a beautiful set, recorded live six months before Kurt Cobain's untimely death. The performance of Lead Belly's Where Did You Sleep Last Night is particularly affecting. It's neat to read the behind the scenes story.

What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right. A portrait of the male resentment and coercive outside factors that these hateful movements thrive on. It's like a cult. But the piece offers a glimmer of hope at the end.

The Problem With Supplements. There should certainly be stronger oversight over the supplement industry, and there are major potential ill effects. The argument isn't that all supplements are bad - it's that they're not necessarily good, either, and many are harmful, particularly without a doctor's supervision. Adelle Davis has a lot to answer for.

Is Conference Room Air Making You Dumber? The argument being made here is much more far-reaching than conference rooms. Indoor air quality is not regulated or monitored to anywhere near the same degree as outdoor air, but it may have a stronger effect on our health.

It's Time to Break Up Facebook. Chris Hughes, an estranged Facebook co-founder, repeats many of the arguments made in Tim Wu's The Curse of Bigness. I'm very happy to see these arguments being made in a more public way, both by Hughes and politicians like Elizabeth Warren. I strongly agree that reformed anti-trust legislation will have an outsized positive impact on both the technology industry and inequality overall.

Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might be the Worst Idea in Tech. It's an approach that often leads to bluster and doesn't work well with introverts. Let's all just be more comfortable with saying "I don't know; let's find out".

The tyranny of ideas. Once a creator becomes known for an idea, how can they move beyond it?

Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry. I'm holding onto my love by the finest of fine threads. I'd love to share Paul Ford's enthusiasm, and maybe I kind of do, but my love of tech was never about the computers themselves or transhumanism, and was always about the potential to connect people. For me as a teenager, and thereafter, the potential to be really seen. It's hard to be enthusiastic about that knowing what we know now about power, abuse and inequality. Still, the whisper of a hint of that old potential is still there. Maybe we can turn this ship around.

The Racist Origins of America’s Tech Industry. It's all to do with counting and tracking people - from the US census, through IBM's involvement in the Holocaust. Just as Nazi propaganda techniques paved the way for modern marketing, racist tracking techniques made the way for modern surveillance.

The Criminalization of Women’s Bodies Is All About Conservative Male Power. "The goal of the wave of anti-abortion laws in America is to put female sexuality under strict and brutal state control." More than sexuality, it's about enforcing patriarchy. "We live in a society that is comfortable letting men get away with sexual violence, but determined not to let women get away with consensual sex. This is why there are vast swathes of society who are comfortable giving vast executive and judicial power to men credibly accused of sexual assault—as long as those same men promise to confiscate women’s power to sexually self-determine."

Why America Can’t Solve Homelessness. "The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that punishing homeless people makes it harder for them to find housing and get work. Nonetheless, the most common demands from urban voters are for politicians to increase arrests, close down soup kitchens and impose entry requirements and drug tests in shelters." Why can't we be more compassionate? Better informed? As I learned by reading Evicted this month, it's because poverty is hugely profitable.

What Actually Happens When a Country Bans Abortion. "Romania’s prohibition of the procedure was disproportionately felt by low-income women and disadvantaged groups, which abortion-rights advocates in the United States fear would happen if the Alabama law came into force. As a last resort, many Romanian women turned to home and back-alley abortions, and by 1989, an estimated 10,000 women had died as a result of unsafe procedures. The real number of deaths might have been much higher, as women who sought abortions and those who helped them faced years of imprisonment if caught. Maternal mortality skyrocketed, doubling between 1965 and 1989."

Why Losing Our Newspapers Is Breaking Our Politics. "As local newspapers disappear, citizens increasingly rely on national sources of political information, which emphasizes competition and conflict between the parties. Local newspapers, by contrast, serve as a central source of shared information, setting a common agenda. Readers of local newspapers feel more attached to their communities. Unless something is done, our politics will likely become ever more contentious and partisan as the media landscape consolidates and nationalizes."

Inside the World of Racist Science Fiction. This is fascinating to me: for me, science fiction is all about extrapolating what humanity can be, both for good and ill. I guess that's true of racists, too, and they have a parallel set of literature where dystopias are characterised by unity and racial diversity. It doesn't sound great, and I have no desire to read any of it. It's worth noting, though, that some mainstream science fiction authors also harbored unpleasant views: Robert Heinlein, for example, became increasingly right-wing as he got older.

The 15 Year Layover. Merhan Nasseri is the real-life counterpart to, and inspiration for, Tom Hanks's character in The Terminal. Trapped in Charles de Gaulle airport, partially by beaucracy and partially by his desire to control his identity, he has managed to survive through a mixture of intelligence and the kindness of others. But it's also an inadvertent commentary on the ridiculousness of borders as they stand. Why should he be trapped this way? Why should arbitrary rules mean someone should spend over a decade sleeping on benches in a shopping mall? It makes no sense.

How Many Bones Would You Break to Get Laid? I'll admit I'm fascinated by incels. Their worldview is based on an unacknowledged misogyny; what they think is a bedrock of scientific understanding is actually just illogical sexism dressed up as reason. I don't sympathize with them in the slightest, but I think they probably need help. Particularly in the cases described here, where their disorder brings them to the point of getting plastic surgery to try and become more attractive. Perhaps if they tried to be empathetic, three dimensional people?

For the record: Jonathan Freedland on his sister’s farewell Desert Island Discs. A journalist's gift to his dying sister, and the role the resulting self-recorded radio show played in her goodbye.

W3C TAG Ethical Web Principles. For the first time, real humanist ethics are represented in the W3C platform. This is a huge step forward - I agree with everything here, even if I wish it went just a little bit further.


Here's what I read in April, March, February, and January.