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Reading, watching, playing, using: January 2020

Every month in 2019, I rounded up the books and notable articles I'd read. This year, I'm expanding that to include the streaming media and apps that I meaningfully engaged with.

As ever, none of the links below are affiliate programs or were added for payment. I just want to recommend stuff I found interesting.

Books

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson. Ruthlessly honest; sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking. A wonderful novel about race, identity, and family, delivered with incredible wit and insight. I couldn't recommend it more.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. I found this a difficult read, but was immediately kind of ashamed that I hadn't read it earlier. I think all white people should consider picking it up, and really thinking not just about the substance of its arguments, but the way it feels to read them. Powerful, important, but just one step on what has to be a much longer journey.

Apps

Duolingo. We have a league at work, which I fell into accidentally. When I was seven years old, we lived in Austria for a year, and I almost became fluent in German. I've always felt guilty about dropping that ability. Duolingo genuinely makes it easy to learn something new every day, and I've found those language skills coming back. It's a little buggy, but it does the job.

Blinkist. I love reading, but I find business books in particular to be kind of padded out and interminable. Often they could have quite happily been a long-form article. So for those books, I'm experimenting with using these Sparks Notes instead. So far so good. (And I can happily spend more time reading the novels and non-fiction books I want to read, instead of the ones I feel I should. No shame here.)

Streaming

Doctor Who Season 12. Jodie Whitaker is brilliant, and the whole season so far has been one of the best in years. Yes, I'm a lifelong, die-hard Whovian, but this year's stories have made me very very happy. Side note: I'm loving that a bug in Rotten Tomatoes means their description for this season reads as follows: "Alongside Sarah and Harry Sullivan, the Fourth Doctor tries to avert the genesis of the Daleks and in deep space he faces Cybermen, Vogans and the deadly Wirrn!" That Doctor Who Season 12 started its run in 1974. This one is right up there.

Star Trek: Picard. As someone who really hated the JJ Abrams Kelvin timeline movies, I'm pretty excited about Star Trek's renaissance on CBS All Access. (Some fans hated Discovery; I was emphatically not one of them.) This isn't at all Star Trek: The Next Generation, despite sharing some characters. It's something new, very much for adults, that (so far) touches on identity, personal meaning, and tolerance.

The Good Place. The first season was fine; it then evolved into the kind of show that feels comfortable discussing philosophical constructs within the bounds of a 30 minute comedy - and is smart enough to. The finale was outstanding.

Dark: Season 2. If you haven't encountered Dark yet, I'm jealous. This is intricate and literary science fiction. Just don't watch the dubbed version.

Fleabag: Season 2. I finally finished watching it in January. Season 1 was great, but honestly a bit like a smarter Peep Show (which, hey, I also love); the second season is like watching theater, in the best possible way.

The Heart. Revamped and beautiful, the new iteration of this podcast describes itself as "an audio art project about intimacy and humanity". It's edgier and more overtly queer, with a more experimental sound. And its pulse is racing. I'm really glad I kept my subscription, even when the old podcast went dead.

Notable Articles

Politics

Exclusive: Unredacted Ukraine Documents Reveal Extent of Pentagon’s Legal Concerns. “Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.” Just one of the many sets of documents Republicans didn't want the public to see.

Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’.  They worked in 68 countries. “I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.”

Report: Trump Cited GOP Senate Impeachment Pressure As Reason to Kill Soleimani. "This would not mean Trump ordered the strike entirely, or even primarily, in order to placate Senate Republicans. But it does constitute an admission that domestic political considerations influenced his decision. That would, of course, constitute a grave dereliction of duty."

American history textbooks can differ across the country, in ways that are shaded by partisan politics. We're living in different worlds - and the way we teach perpetuates this. The  differences are shocking.

Not a Joke: Trump Is Looking Into Making Bribery Legal. It's hard to know where to look anymore.

Meet the Boy Scouts of the Border Patrol. No unsettling historical analogues here; none at all.

Andrew Yang and the New American Tories. "Yang seems to uniquely attract this kind of person — the recently established and self-regarding. His supporters include Tesla founder Elon Musk, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, rapper and actor Donald Glover, who threw an impromptu concert for Yang in December, Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo, and actor Nicolas Cage. They all in one way or another belong to a previous age, in which the pretensions of wealth and talent were given more deference."

Culture & Society

I’ve Talked With Teenage Boys About Sexual Assault for 20 Years. This Is What They Still Don’t Know. "Teenage boys are hungry for practical conversations about sex. They want to know the rules. They want to be the good guy, the stand-up, honorable dude. Their intentions might be good, but their ignorance is dangerous. Our society has begun talking a bit more openly about these issues, but that doesn’t mean teenage boys suddenly have all the information they need."

Installing air filters in classrooms has surprisingly large educational benefits. A $1,000 air filter "can raise a class’s test scores by as much as cutting class size by a third." So we should do this everywhere.

Read all about it – the truth about British colonialism. Britain is really bad at talking about the  horrors of the Empire. I love that these students set out to do something about it, Yes Men style.

The Anti-War, Pro-Animal Rights, Colonialist History of Doctor Dolittle's Creation. "Even though Lofting’s work espoused revolutionary views toward animal rights, it was regressive when it came to issues of race. The original Doctor Dolittle books are rife with racist tropes and colonialism, both in the writing and illustrations. (The Story of Doctor Dolittle features a storyline about a black prince who begs Dolittle to turn him white.)"

The Amish Keep to Themselves. And They’re Hiding a Horrifying Secret. "Over the past year, I’ve interviewed nearly three dozen Amish people, in addition to law enforcement, judges, attorneys, outreach workers, and scholars. I’ve learned that sexual abuse in their communities is an open secret spanning generations."

People are seeing ‘Cats’ while high out of their minds. These are their stories. Honestly, getting high isn't usually my thing, but I wish I'd done this.

Study: Men are more emotional than women at work. Not shocked.

How the Bay Was Built. I'm new to this: "a community archive of documents about the Bay Area, focused on race and housing" that Alexis Madrigal published last year. It's a fascinating look at the history of the Bay Area.

How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town. The amazing, very human story of an art project that celebrated inclusion, and how it affected the residents in a small, Trump-leaning town.

Higher minimum wages are linked to lower suicide rates. People need more support, end of story.

Tech

Citizen journalism platform uses Bluetooth to bring news to media dark villages in India. This is a super-cool project in every way. I wish there was more funding and support available for these kinds of endeavors.

Students Are Campaigning to Ban Facial Recognition From College Campuses. "Students should not have to trade their right to privacy for an education, and no one should be forced to unwittingly participate in a surveillance program which will likely include problematic elements of law enforcement." Power to them. This kind of use of face recognition should be heavily regulated at the very least.

Meet The Viral Icons Of Twitter. Joke Twitter (and its close cousin, Weird Twitter) is a pretty  wonderful internet subculture that reminds me of the old-school web.

Helen Leigh: “Art shouldn’t be only for those who can afford to make it”. I'm so proud of my friend Helen. Completely inspiring.

The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication. "How do we keep everyone in the loop without everyone getting tangled in everyone else's business? It's all in here." Some really great principles for intra-company communication. I'm in too many meetings; I don't believe that it's the same as being productive. This list appeals to me a lot.

Opera: Phantom of the Turnaround – 70% Downside. Opera (the browser company) has started making money through predatory lending. A surreal and sad result of a bad acquisition.

The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It. Dystopian but inevitable. Everyone who works on this kind of software should be ashamed. And our legislature needs to catch up to our technological reality.

The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure. I very strongly think this needs to happen. Public service digital media is an important counterbalance to the exponential capitalism we see dominating the internet today.

Exclusive: Apple dropped plan for encrypting backups after FBI complained - sources. When I posted this on Twitter I got some backlash, but no, this is a silent change to their stated policy. And it makes me trust Apple significantly less.

United States of Surveillance. "The patchwork of U.S. surveillance laws has proven ineffective at countering terrorism, instead turning citizens into suspects." A really great, in-depth overview of its history and implications.

You Are Now Remotely Controlled. "In the absence of new declarations of epistemic rights and legislation, surveillance capitalism threatens to remake society as it unmakes democracy. From below, it undermines human agency, usurping privacy, diminishing autonomy and depriving individuals of the right to combat. From above, epistemic inequality and injustice are fundamentally incompatible with the aspirations of a democratic people."

Health-Records Company Pushed Opioids to Doctors in Secret Deal With Drugmaker. Practice Fusion made a deal with a company that looks like Purdue to push a drug that looks like it was OxyContin. Imagine being the entrepreneurs or the coders who built this. They need to go to jail.

Rich people can't build social networks. Bad headline (they can and do), but an important story about a really dumb-looking new network called Column, from some Thiel associates, and a guy who is chummy with the founder of the Proud Boys. With its focus on celebrities, it's like an online Fyre Festival. MIT Technology Review has a more journalistic take on the story.