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Books read in 2019

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

This year’s list of books and reviews and notes got a little bit out of hand. As I’ve done in other years, I’ve included my notes and review of each book in this article as well as linked a separate article which includes the same notes and review, as well as citations and rough notes. So, this article weighs in at about 64 pages.

This was a big year, with 32 books and long essays/novellas/papers documented here, including seven long books about climate change and humanity’s future (2 in German) as well as two books on public policy and media and three books/essays on rape and feminism. A handful of technical volumes and more than a dozen fiction books (several checking out new authors) round out the year.

Eine kurze Geschichte der Menschheit (2011 – 2013/de)

by Yuval Noah Harari

This book was originally written in Hebrew—I read the German translation. It’s about what the title says: “a short history of mankind”. The story starts hundreds of thousands of years ago, with Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, discussing current theories for the diasporas of both and extinction of the latter. From there, we discuss the current theories about hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the “cognitive revolution” that led to the utter domination of other species by the physically weaker human being. Harari discusses the truly staggering degree to which humans wiped everything else of any significant size—anything that it didn’t later domesticate.

Viewed from this high vantage, humans really are a plague, preying on and twisting everything to their will, destroying whatever they cannot subsume.

After that, society transitions to agriculture. Harari points out that every massive change that mankind has accepted and applied to itself globally isn’t necessarily an improvement. With agriculture, people were working harder than ever to get a lower-quality life. Congruent with this shift was the beginning of the first elites among men. Though most had lives that were harder and more insecure and more boring—they were increasingly trapped on their lands and lost their nomadic lifestyle—than those of their hunger-gatherer ancestors, a select view lived spectacular lives. These would continue to shape culture and inclinations to ensure that they and their descendants would continue to benefit in this way. Morality didn’t enter into it.

Harari has a very western attitude toward humanity—at-times seeming to chastise other cultures for failing to fight back adequately against the more rapacious Europeans. Progress as defined by Europe is taken to be an inevitability—the other countries and peoples of the world are responsible for not having progressed as quickly or more quickly than Europeans. He often has the right facts at hand, but leaves the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. For example, he expresses puzzlement that the Chinese didn’t try to blow each other up with gunpowder-based weapons of war for centuries whereas the Europeans did so nearly immediately upon seeing the technology. He implicitly attributes this to westerners somehow being cleverer monkeys when a dearth of morality on their part would also explain the disparity.

The Europeans won because they were more rapacious and cruel and much more ready to consider their fellow humans as lower animals, to be used to satisfy their own abstract needs. Perhaps it was a higher ability to abstract away responsibility under multiple societal layers designed to absolve responsibility—this is a mechanism still heavily used today. Humans set up rules to their own benefit, then explain their overwhelming and grotesque riches as the natural workings of some higher power (i.e. “the market”). As Harari would say: these are fairy tales we tell ourselves and others to get what we want. That is, in Harari’s opinion, humanity’s main ability—that fictitious concepts become somehow more important than physical reality.

Harari is a good storyteller and summarizes many interesting facets of the sweep of history. However, he isn’t as opinionated as the facts he relates would require him to be. The result is that he looks either obtuse or biased. He shies away from judgment—and he’s too smart not to have noticed the natural conclusions to much of the information he cites. My gut feeling in some places was that he was hedging his bets so as to continue to be regarded favorably by the elites whose crimes he has partially documented. That is, he wants to sell his books and his presence, so he leaves the condemnation up to the reader.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Spectre is here to stay: An analysis of side-channels and speculative execution (2019)

by Ross Mcilroy, Jaroslav Sevcik, Tobias Tebbi, Ben L. Titzer, Toon Verwaest

This paper (arXiv) focuses only on intra-process attacks, advocating for mitigation via separation into multiple processes, using hardware-level protection that provides a stronger guarantee.

“This paper explores speculative side-channel attacks and their implications for programming languages. These attacks leak information through micro-architectural side-channels which we show are not mere bugs, but in fact lie at the foundation of optimization.”

This paper proves unequivocally that software mitigation of intra-process, side-channel attacks are futile. An attack is always possible, with a combination of scaling for any-resolution timers and patience. “As we have seen, access to a timer, no matter the resolution, leaks µ-architectural information.” Type-checks in any languages may partially mitigate, but this paper proves that they cannot full mitigate and are, therefore, largely useless for data-security.

The only difference is the bit-rate of extracted information, not whether information can be extracted. They not only proved this with theorems, they implemented many of the attacks to provide accurate estimates of the expected extraction bit-rates in the presence of various mitigations.

There is one particularly virulent variant (#4) that has literally no mitigation.

“Mitigating type confusion for stack slots alone would have required a complete redesign of the backend of the optimizing compiler, perhaps man years of work, without a guarantee of completeness.”

As anyone who’s been following this problem suspected (or pretty much already knew), the world traded of security for performance long ago. Though chip manufacturers and operating-system designers paid lip service to security, performance improvements were paramount.

We’ve known since the end of 2017, but now we have proof. The paper sums it up more nicely than I could,

“Our models, our mental models, are wrong; we have been trading security for performance and complexity all along and didn’t know it. It is now a painful irony that today, defense requires even more complexity with software mitigations, most of which we know to be incomplete. And complexity makes these three open problems all that much harder. Spectre is perhaps, too appropriately named, as it seems destined to haunt us for a long time.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Norse Mythology (2017)

by Neil Gaiman

This book is Gaiman’s retelling of the known Norse legends in his own voice and with his inimitable style. If you pay attention, it doesn’t take long to notice that the Norse Gods are mostly jerks to each other and everyone else and have no notion of fairness whatsoever. They are happy to take whatever they can, however they can get it and then the have to gall to hate on Loki for doing it back to them better than they do it to everyone else. Loki is an evil little fuck, but he’s no more amoral than the others. It could be argued that he’s actually good for wanting to eliminate the manipulative lot of them.

In which I learn that Loki is Thor’s uncle, not his brother. In which I did not even learn that while reading it, but had to have it pointed out to me by my wife after I’d urged her to read this book. On a positive note: I have now learned this thing.

I also learned that Hel is the guardian of the Hel, the destination for everyone who has not earned the right to rest eternally in Valhalla, that Jormungundr is the Midgard serpent (also known as Ouroboros) and that Fenris Wolf is larger than any other creature and is destined to destroy the Gods during Ragnarok. Surtr will help, wielding a world-sized flaming sword. I learned that Fenris, Jormungundr and Hel are Loki’s children, making him nearly the most-central character in the whole mythos.

As you can expect from tall tales of this sort, the relative sizes and strengths of the cast varies wildly—each story introduces a new heretofore unknown giant from a heretofore unknown region who is even bigger and more powerful than all other giants before him or her. Thor still manages to kick everyone’s ass, though. Thor’s fight with the Midgard serpent was particularly confusing vis à vis scale, since that particular serpent goes around the entire world.

Still, super-neat stories, well-told. Would read again.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)

by Ted Snyder

This book was recommended to me by an ordinarily more-reliable friend, but I don’t hold it against zim. I was relieved to receive a “your library loan is about to end” message about my E-Book because, as I was reading the book, I realized with dread that I couldn’t remember whether I’d found it in the library or whether I’d actually purchased it (it’s a short book, so probably doesn’t cost very much).

The blurbs and description of this book are very misleading. It is about Trump. That is not, at first, obvious. Trump is never mentioned by name. Instead, Snyder refers to him as “the president” in what I can only assume is a bid to seem clever, but ends up being a gambit that fools no-one reading the book right now. In ten or twenty years time, however, absolutely no-one is going to know what the actual fuck Snyder is talking about.

The book is a confusing mish-mash even when read this close to publication. It will not stand the test of time. Snyder’s 20 rules are quite a stretch—many of them are nearly direct reformulations of other rules. They sound different superficially, but are more like a horoscope in that regard.

As I read the book, I thought Snyder was a self-educated 20-something or 70-something. I discovered after completing the book that he’s a highly ranked professor at the Yale School of Management. It’s ridiculous how poorly written and poorly thought-through this book is. He knows his market, though, it’s a best-seller.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Worst is Yet to Come (2019)

by Peter Fleming

Though this book was occasionally better-written and often more coherent than Snyder’s (reviewed above), I occasionally got the same feeling that the author was squeezing his material to fit his premise (exactly as Snyder did).

The thesis that everything can—and probably will—get worse, is so broad that the author feels comfortable hanging pretty much anything he can think of happening in the world on it and try to make it stick. It’s not uninteresting to see how his observations from life in London translate to premonitions of further doom, but it’s also only rarely convincing.

And still he only got to about 160 pages, with a very generously sized “Glossary”, which was just another hodge-podge of mini-essays that he couldn’t be bothered to integrate into the rest of the book.

I was grateful that I didn’t buy this book, either. At least Snyder’s felt like it’d had an editor who’d actually looked at it. Fleming’s book was rife with typos, outright misspellings and bad grammar. At one point, he wrote “tranny” instead of “tyranny”. ‘Nuff said.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Nation (2009)

by Terry Pratchett

This is the story of Mau. It is also the story of Daphne née Ermintrude. There are also the priest Ataba, the strong woman Chale, the brothers Pilu and Milo on the island. The island is known as the Nation. Actually, it is the people who are the Nation. The island is where the Nation lives.

As Mau is on his way back from another island on which he underwent his manhood ritual, a giant wave sweeps him up and carries him back to the Nation. It is a truly titanic wave and it sweeps away everyone he’s ever known—they were all sleeping on the beach, awaiting his return.

Mau is young, but resourceful. He enters a fugue state to take care of all of the bodies left on the island. He wakes to a mango on a plate next to him.

The plate had been delivered to him by Daphne, the lone surviving member of the crew and passengers of the Sweet Judy, a ship that the wave deposited deep in the only forest on the Nation. Daphne and Mau meet and join forces to try to survive on the island.

More wave-survivors straggle ashore over the next days and weeks. They struggle with their future, mostly fighting about what it means for the Gods to have allowed the wave to sweep away everything.

They scavenge the Judy for supplies—Mau is concerned that they are relying to strongly on “trouserman” inventions. He wonders why his people never invented anything so spectacular. They discover secrets on the island; Mau’s curiosity and skepticism leads to more conclusions than anyone’s made about his culture in a long time. Daphne does the same—she is a scientist, taught by her father—but from the Women’s Place.

The world on the outside is pressing in: England is without a King and a long, long line of successors have dropped like flies, leaving Daphne’s father as King, and Daphne as Princess. She doesn’t find out until late in the game. They must first attend to the matter of the Raiders—a cannibal tribe—who’ve joined up with the surviving remnants of the part of Judy’s crew that mutinied before the wave.

The world here is an alternate version of the Pacific in 1860, called the Pelagic Ocean, with a smattering of amusingly named islands. The society and history feels very familiar, different enough for distance, but close enough to make satirical and insightful observations about our own reality.

That is the skeleton of story on which Pratchett’s writing hangs. It is highly interesting, but it’s not the best part of the book. The best parts are about science, multiple worlds, Gods, death and history. As with the Discworld books, Pratchett is just as interested in the subtext as in the story. He puts the interesting bits in the folds of the shrouds hanging on the story.

As in the Discworld books, there are a slew of good characters, each with delightful internal monologues. There are bad ones as well, funny and insightful in their own way (e.g. Cox). It seems that Pratchett books are Pratchett books, no matter where they’re set. A lovely read. Highly recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War (2018)

by Tony Wood

I’d listened to a couple of interviews with Tony Wood (on This is Hell with Chuck Mertz and Behind the News with Doug Henwood) and became interested in his book through his eloquent discussions of Russia. The book details the last three decades of history in Russia, from Gorbachev to Yeltsin and then Putin.

More specifically, he describes a Russia that’s explicitly not its leader. Instead, it is a country that used to be much more powerful than it is now. It used to be much more advanced, more equal. Most importantly, it is not a capitalist failure. It is not retreating to its statist past. It would be better if it were. Instead, it is essentially a success story for the West: they helped suck the money and resources from a once-powerful enemy, creating a country for the 1%—in the image of its western forebears.

Mostly, Russia wasn’t able to grow in a direction that would benefit itself. Instead, its massive resources and well-educated population were wasted or channeled to purposes conducive to the rulers of the rest of the world. If Russia’s collapse benefitted the rich, then it was deemed to be “reforming”; otherwise, it was deemed to be “yearning for the USSR”. The formula was predictable and boring and effective.

All of Russia’s corruption is utterly unremarkable and non-unique. Similar corruption exists in the U.S. and Britain and, at least to some degree, a handful of other western countries. When Wood describes the degree to which large banks and industries control policy in Russia, there is no real difference from how it works in the U.S, or Germany for that matter.

Is Russia’s government saturated with industry insiders? Yes. How is that any different from Obama’s Goldman Sachs alums, chosen by Citibank? Or Trump’s coterie of industry insiders, each matched to the cabinet position that looks most like a henhouse to them?

Russia never had a chance: it was to be a vassal to the West or was to suffer until it acquiesced. There was never going to be another way. Russia is geographically huge, but has a relatively small population. It has a ton of resources and a well-educated populace, but it has a low birthrate (well-educated) and an unwelcome immigration wave is its only hope. Its economy is tied up with its resources—controlled by its enemies through control of commodity prices.

Russia occupies a middle ground. It has the low birthrate, culture, military hardware, attitude and high education of an advanced nation, but the life-expectancy and reputation of a poorer one. And America hates them, which makes their European and British lackeys do so as well, at least sometimes.

Putin and his attitudes and opinions are totally beside the point. Russia is its own thing—and its unclear how it will survive in a world with a powerful country like the US in control, bent on its submission.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Jennifer Government (2003)

by Max Barry

This 2003 book is the story of a world in which many of the current capitulations to corporatist rule were still at-least partially in the future. The Government is an entity whose power has been severely restricted. Local police is for-hire only. They only pursue cases for which victims can provide a budget.

Hack Nike works for Nike (everyone takes their employer’s name as their last name). He is roped into a murder contract by John Nike. It is part of a marketing campaign to sell sneakers to stupid teenagers. Marketing rules supreme, people are nearly perfect consumers, ethics is a thing of the past. Hack lives with the unemployed Victoria, who is working on a virus that can kill any IT system.

Buy Mitsui is a broker who loses faith in the system. Claire is Violet’s socialist sister. The eponymous Jennifer Government is a former marketer turned federal agent, hot on John Nike’s tail, with whom she shares a past.

The main thread of the book is that most corporations are banding together into two factions, roughly delineated by the two prevalent rewards programs. The corporations and various alliances act more and more as independent states, with their own militaries (e.g. the NRA). Everything is a negotiation, everything is a transaction, money is God, all in the name of a bizarre notion of “freedom”.

There is no difference between corporations and nation-states. In fact, the book generally depicts corporations acting as the worst of the nation-states do today. Even those individuals who think they can game this system are wrong. The point is that contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on if they can’t be enforced. If there is no overarching authority, then criminals do what they want. Only the worst people win.

There are echoes of Fight Club and Office Space and maybe even Mr. Robot. It’s interesting to see these ideas having been written down 15 years ago, before many of its ideas were confirmed—or vastly superseded by the system we have today.

Barry does bring us a happy ending of sorts, but only for a handful of characters—the world itself is largely unchanged, even if corporate power is slightly restrained. The base philosophy hasn’t changed, so the same problems will come back.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Adjustment Day (2018)

by Chuck Palahniuk

This story is told in flashbacks and flash-forwards, cutting back and forth between myriad characters. My summary untangles this all a bit.

This is the story of a brovolution, the logical conclusion of an increasingly divided population in America. It starts with a kidnapping. Walter hatches a plan to win Shasta’s heart (captured within her voluptuous curves) by showing her how rich he’s become. It’s a standard adolescent fantasy. He thinks that he will get a new “old man” to teach him how to become rich. He kidnaps Talbott, a man who turns out to be even crazier than Walter.

In a reversal of the kidnapping situation, the old man tests Walter, finds him worthy and begins to order him about, pretending to acquiesce to his demand to “make him rich”. Walter wonders at the old man’s convoluted approach, but trusts that it will work out. The whole time, the old man is tied naked to a chair, covered in the wounds from hundreds of cuts made by Walter as he searched for a subdermal tracker Talbott insisted he had, but which he’d lied about to “test” Walter’s dedication.

Walter becomes Talbott’s amanuensis as he rants and raves, dictating the text that would become the blue-black book “Adjustment Day”. We would later learn that Talbott had said “A Judgment Day” and be led to wonder along with Walter what else he’d mis-transcribed in a book that would become the user’s manual for the next revolution in America.

The book drives people to revolution by revealing an age-old secret: older and middle-aged men have provoked and will continue to occasionally provoke wars in which they cull a useless younger—and expectant/hopeful— generation of men, simultaneously clearing out their rivals and reducing available men to such a minimum that women have no choice but to allow them much more leeway in order to ensure the survival of humanity. Men gain power through their self-imposed scarcity.

It is madness, of course. But there are enough who would start packing their go-bags at this point. Palahniuk knows this and plays to the stereotype.

Sneakily, the book has some pearls of wisdom—true revolutionary ideas not poisoned by Talbott’s mad worldview—spread throughout. He makes some good points, but his proposed solutions are pure bullshit. E.g.

  • ““But identity politics,” Dawson continued, “has reduced the homosexual to nothing but his sexual preference. It has reduced the black to only his skin. And each has become a caricature of his former dignified self.””
  • “[…] our lifetimes must not be measured in weekends. Our time on Earth must not be judged by wages earned and taxes paid.”
  • “It was clear to Jamal that for whites their guilt constituted a uniquely white form of boasting. Their breast beating was a humblebrag always saying: We did this! We thwarted God in the Garden! We killed his son! We white people will do with other races and natural resources as we see fit! Showing off disguised as a mea culpa. For the white man, his guilt was his biggest badge of accomplishment. Only whites killed the planet with global warming so only whites could save it. Their boasting never let up. It was the white racket: Creating problems so they could rescue everybody.”
  • “To make a career of rescuing people is also to create a permanent class in need of rescue.”
  • “Making others right makes them love you, according to Talbott, because we only love things we feel superior to. We only love those who don’t pose a threat. Making others right is the best method for controlling them.”

The revolution starts with an online List. It is “America’s Least Wanted”. Anyone can nominate someone for the list. Anyone can vote for people on the list. Those with the most votes remain; those without enough votes in a certain timespan are culled from the list. The others? They are to be culled come Adjustment Day.

When Adjustment Day comes, the members of the first lineages—hand-chosen cells full of people frustrated by society’s utter subordination and humiliation and indoctrinated in the ways of Talbott’s book—roll out, hunting down the people on The List, gaining the number of points allocated to that person and being able to use those points to participate in the new “democracy” that rises from the ashes of the slaughtered one. There are giant lime-lined pits waiting to receive the bodies of America’s Least Wanted.

It is interesting that several of the members of the first lineage were students of one of the professors marked for slaughter, Brolly. Despite them having marked him for eradication, they would occasionally draw a parallel between what happened post-Adjustment Day and what Brolly had taught them from the world’s literature and history in classes deemed otherwise “useless” by the Book.

There are myriad characters, all involved in the plot to overthrow America. The overthrow begins at about a third of the way through the book. In the rest, we watch the new countries develop in the ashes. The first third—maybe 40%—looks and feels like a flawless execution of the red-pill revolution frustrated whites are fantasizing about online all the time. There are cracks and little hints of doubt throughout, but a superficial and partial reading will find critics leveling charges of alt-rightism at Palahniuk. But read on to see the whole thing quickly careen into a mess far greater than what we have today.

The author lets the revolution go off without a single hitch. Everything goes perfectly as planned. There are no weak liberators, scared to shoot, no legislators worthy of redemption. Only professor Brolly in Jamal’s head, living on as lessons Jamal didn’t even realize he’d learned, belying the uselessness with which education had been tagged in the Book.

In a way, the cruelty and coldness of the revolutionaries is uniform and unbelievable. Still, it was better in a way than the constant mercy/betrayal cycle in Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, where the protagonists let the legislators and former rulers live, only to see them worm their way back to power, again and again and again. The steeliness was a welcome change.

But pothead Walter and his gonads inspired everything, with his lust for Shasta. It’s wonderfully done by Palahniuk. And for the other revolutionaries, always it comes down to the same thing, all the high-minded rhetoric masks the single question: can I fuck it? Men rule, women drool (literally, in Shasta’s case, when she’s “proving” her pure whiteness). The male fantasy doesn’t stretch very far. The white male fantasy even less so.

Gaysia, Blacktopia and Caucasia are the main countries, with obvious segregated populations. There are complicated rules for mixed-race citizens and sexual preference takes precedence over race. Asians are sent back to Asia and Latinos sent to somewhere in South America. Jews go to Israel. It is crude and hews closely to the simplistic plans and ideas easily found on the Internet.

Blacktopia rides high, becoming the seat of technology based on the ancient nigh-magical secret science that blacks had long hidden from their oppressors. Caucasia reverts to medieval times, barely surviving in a benighted manner. Gaysia struggles to produce children, devolving to a country that forces its male members to donate sperm and its females to host children.

The revolution ends with a whimper, having destroyed much more than it repaired, being viewed as a failure by all save perhaps the denizens of Blacktopia. The world, presumably, looks on, bemused and vaguely embarrassed for America’s inability to act grown-up.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Starlings (2018)

by Jo Walton

I’d recently read about Jo Walton, that she’d won several awards (Hugo, Nebula) and was intrigued. I grabbed the only book the library had available, a book of her short stories. Her preface, though, indicated that she wasn’t really a short-story writer and had never really understood the genre. She was, unfortunately, right. I think she’s a good writer, but her short stories felt too underdeveloped. Several of the stories—she admitted—were just books she’d started and never finished. There were some interesting ideas, but nothing really memorable.

I’ll try again with a full-length novel.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Reaper Man (1991)

by Terry Pratchett

This is an early story of one of Pratchett’s favorite characters: Death. It’s wonderfully written, one of Pratchett’s best.

In it, Death takes a vacation. He goes to work on a farm. He has a vacation romance with the proprietress.

The rest of the Discworld must deal with the temporary loss of death. Ghosts pile up. The wizards of Ankh Morporkh University try to get to the bottom of it. Reg Shoe—the zombie—pleas for the rights of the dead gain more weight as the number of the dead threatens to outweigh that of the living.

To fix this problem, humanity envisions a new Death, who comes for the old Death. Their battle is short. The old Death didn’t enjoy his job or his power—his stoicism and dedication win out over a lust for power.

Death gets special dispensation for his fling—Mrs. Flitworth—from Azrael, the galaxy-sized cat who was there before the universe and will be there after.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Dreyer’s English (2019)

by Benjamin Dreyer

Dreyer is copy chief at Random House Books. He throws his hat into the ring, offering sage and drily humorous grammatical advice based on his 30 years of experience. For nitty gritty and details of grammar, he refers readers to the classic style guides. His book is for broad strokes about the various linguistic constructs and common patterns, tropes and styles he’s encountered—and that he’d like to stop encountering.

He is, at core, pragmatic:

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.”

But he isn’t a pedantic or precise scientist, either. While I’m willing to be convinced by his argument for serial commas—always use them, because they’re often helpful, so why not just get used to them?—he argues in the opposite manner when writing about hyphens, where he argues that “convention […] allows for exceptions in some cases in which a misreading is unlikely, as in, say: real estate agent or high school students”, to which I say, why?

Who would it harm to clean up English’s ridiculous word-concatenation rules (or is it “word concatenation” or why not wordconcatentation)? Some agglutinations take a space, others none and others a hyphen—pretty much depending on how long the compound has existed and … whimsy. I prefer throwing an extra hyphen at real-estate agents or high-school students simply because there is often so much confusion where neither the author nor the copy editor anticipated there being some.

I’m grateful for his having cleared up proper-name hyphenation for me, though, as well as the proper use of hyphens and en dashes (which I’d heretofore used almost correctly).

He throws in chapters on oft-misused vocabulary—as well as some rare, but lovely, vocabulary—as well as a couple on idioms and common constructs. Some of the chapters are just lists, but that makes this an excellent reference.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations) (1964; en: 2013)

by Stanislaw Lem

This is a non-fiction work translated from the original Polish. It is not a light work: it encompasses Lem’s complex and intricate musings and theories on technology, nature, genetics, cosmology, philosophy, biology, information theory, ecology, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, cybernetics, robots, programming, identity (cloning), human nature and how these all relate to mankind’s possible future or lack thereof. He discusses the likely shape of galactic civilizations as well as the possible composition or origins of its components, where their intelligence comes from, where it would likely develop, where it wouldn’t, why science fiction is lazy and, above all, he keeps the discussion rigorously supported by data, even when he seems to be engaging in the most whimsical flights of fancy.

It’s hard to summarize this book any less vaguely than that. It’s just chock-full of relatively advanced thinking—especially for the time, over 50 years ago—of an extremely intelligent and, by all accounts, intellectually rigorous man. I’ll use some of his own citations to illustrate what I found so exciting in such a weighty and densely written tome (it took me quite a while to make my way through it).

Much of what he has to say has been said in other places, but perhaps less eloquently, and not all in one place, connected into a coherent strand of pearls that actually give a framework to thoughts about the future of not only humanity, but any form of intelligence, regardless of where or how it arises.

On the pace of development outpacing humanity’s societal structures (i.e. the wisdom of elders):

“When the entire life of a future generation ceases to be a repetition of their parents’ lives, what kinds of lessons and instructions can the old, experienced as they are, offer to the young?”

On the necessary narrowing of intellectual pursuit, with each decision to take a certain branch leaving less energy and intellectual capacity and effort to pursue other, possibly more societally lucrative, paths.

“Briefly put, technoevolution brings more evil than good, with man turning out to be a prisoner of what he himself has created. The growth of his knowledge is accompanied by the narrowing down of possibilities when it comes to deciding about his own fate.”

There is no avoiding this: there is only improving the odds that the chosen path is fruitful. In this vein, any civilization—humanity definitely included—only has so much energy and intellectual capacity for missteps. The more advanced, the more likely that an effort will be able to appropriate a large amount of the available resources. In this, Lem presages our coming battle with climate change: we don’t have unlimited “lives” to start over (as in a video game). Instead, we must marshal our resources carefully.

The profit motive is an unreliable siren here; in the past, we have expended considerable wasted effort “optimizing” for the best solution, throwing incredible resources at a problem, only to end up with a good solution, but with very high cost. In this way, we are emulating Evolution’s inefficient process, copying the only creator we know. But our effort to extract ourselves from the narrowing chasm of climate change will require a more precise investment of resources.

We are unlikely to do so and will die out. Lem wonders whether that is the nearly unavoidable fate of many civilizations: why would humanity, with all of its faults, and its massively redundant but ultimately unreliable biological machinery, be different?

“Are we really supposed to believe that, when looking at the sky above us, we are seeing an abyss filled with worlds that have already been turned to ashes by the power of their suicidal intelligence or that are headed directly toward such an end?”

How would the main driver of change, Evolution, be able to help us avoid such a fate? Humanity’s intellect allows it to destroy itself much more quickly than Evolution could possibly react.

Because we’re smarter than that? Not really. Lem offers a definition of intelligence that is humbling—all the more so because it is frighteningly accurate and utterly devoid of artifice that romanticizes mankind as “special”.

“By Intelligence we understand a second-level homeostatic regulator that is capable of coping with disturbances to its environment thanks to the activities in which it engages on the basis of the historically acquired knowledge.”

He is similarly calculating and sober about the purpose of societies. It is hard to find fault with his description, at least at the high level where it truly matters.

“What to an observer from a different culture may look like a most irrational type of social ties, obligations, imperatives, and prohibitions has practically always aimed at the same goal: reducing the individual spontaneity of action and its diversity—which is a potential source of disturbance to the state of equilibrium.”

In his discussion of artificial—or “machine” (designed)—intelligence, he offers up an interesting and understandable analogy to describe the “gap” in intelligence between different levels of beings (instead of trying to pretend that knowledge and wisdom make no difference).

“In undertaking a reduction, a machine will thus be doing what a physicist is doing when explaining gravitational wave theory to a wide audience by taking recourse to a modest arsenal of school-level math.”

As for how these machines might work, he looks to the most complex machines heretofore designed: us. Evolution may have expended a shamefully wasteful amount of energy and time designing and refining us, but there is no arguing that she came up with a relatively robust machine. That is not to say that there isn’t a tremendous amount of room for improvement with a more focused design process, but that the human machine is still more advanced and impressive than anything that man has managed to design and build.

The key is autonomous systems, to focus the intellect on higher-order functions.

“The more complex a system is, the more overall regulation is needed, and the smaller the extent to which local oscillations of parameters can be allowed. Does our brain have regulatory control over our body? Undoubtedly it does. Is every one of us in control of our own body? Only within a narrow range of parameters; the rest is “given” to us by Nature, in all its wisdom.”

He marvels at the machine that Nature has built, but thinks that we can eventually do better. He doesn’t disparage Nature, but also does not consider it to be magically unsurpassable.

“[…] “coded”in the language of chemical molecules, which could develop from this sperm after it has been combined with an egg. This plan apparently consists of “production rules”and “directions for action.”In that microscopic space, there is information about what has to be done, information about how it has to be done, and last but not least, a mechanism that will enact all this.”

He even considers what identity is and how the ability to clone or store or copy or transmit an individual would affect it. It is interesting to see this treatise by someone who doesn’t confine himself to just one field, be it philosophy, biology or ethics. Instead, Lem approaches from the coldly rational realm of a cyberneticist with experience and wisdom in all of these fields, arriving at a more acceptable and logical conclusion than any individual familiar with only one of these fields could.

“A twin is indeed a perfect molecular copy of the “original.”Yet the similarity between two states of the same person—when he is eight and eighty years old, respectively—is no doubt even smaller than the mutual similarity between the twins. Despite this, anyone would admit that the child and the old man are the same person—something we cannot say about the two brothers. It is therefore not the amount of analogous genetic information that determines the continuation of existence but rather the fact of being genetically identical, even if the dynamic structure of the brain undergoes significant changes during one’s lifetime.”

Finally, Lem reassures us that future developments—especially cybernetic or robotic ones—are inevitable if we are to survive. Our past as frail biological shells has served us well to get to where we are, but we will never develop to a galactic and nigh-eternal civilization if we cling to these crude origins. Instead, we should see the intelligence that we have as enough of a lever to bootstrap ourselves into the next level.

Even if our biological shells can’t go along, our progeny will. We will either have to adapt or die. That includes modifying our genotype to “improve” it—which entails making moral judgments about what it means to improve something (i.e. value judgments about which humans are worth promoting). So has it always been and so will it always be. Avoiding these decisions because of a temporary luxury to do so will be fatal. We can obstinately refuse and instead elect to die out.

“We have to admit that the extent to which control will remain in human hands partly depends on a point of view. The fact that man is able to swim by himself does not mean that he is capable of crossing an ocean without a ship—not to mention jets and space rockets in this context! A similar evolution is starting, in a kind of parallel way, in the information universe. Man is capable of directing a gnostic machine toward a problem that he could perhaps solve by himself (either he himself or his great grandchildren), but in the process, the machine may open his eyes to a problem whose existence he did not even suspect. Who actually has the lead in the latter example?”

To this end, we will need to accept that certain passengers will not be able to make the trip. That all people are equal is something that we proudly wave about as if Nature cares at all.

This current period, with its anti-evolutionary attitude, near love, of the evolutionarily disadvantaged, will be seen as a backwards religious curiosity in the future. At best. At worst, they will perceive us as criminally pushing for the end of humanity.

A hundred years from now (or less), when nature is drastically outpacing evolution’s ability to adapt, man will no longer have the luxury of hewing to a moral code that forbids genetic engineering of humans.

The blind, the deaf, the unmotivated, the stupid, the weak, the retarded, the severely autistic—anyone who needs the intricate modern support system to survive[1]—they will sink when their survival depends on them swimming. Being saddled with them because of an outdated morality will be a luxury no-one will be able to afford.

It will be seen as far more efficient to tweak genetics to keep members of society within a physical bandwidth that if not of actual use in one way or another, at least imposes a minimum of effort.

We will no longer have the luxury of keeping useless people alive. This is not eugenics; this is a much harsher world than we know. The future will contain a desperation unknown for centuries to the first-world person. Third-world people—¾ of the world—are already intimately familiar with this harsh, cruel algebra.

In Lem’s words:

“If we are to behave like intellectual cowards, we can, of course, remain silent on the topic of any probable future developments. But in that case, we should at least make it clear that we are behaving like cowards. Man cannot change the world without changing himself. We can take the first steps on a given path while pretending we do not know where it leads. Yet this is not the best strategy.”

Lem is capable of describing procreation in the most clinical possible way:

“Fertilization is an act of “taking a molecular decision” in a confrontation between two partly alternative “hypotheses” about a future state of the organism, whereby the gametes of both sexes are “carriers” of those hypotheses.”

He tries again and again to describe just how limited we are relative to our future selves.

“For someone who can count to a hundred, there is actually no practical difference between a quintillion and infinity. Man as a researcher of the Universe is more like someone who has just learned arithmetic than like a mathematician who is freely juggling infinities.”

He also wonders what we’re going to do with ourselves if we do make it past the coming inflection point that will determine whether we have a future.

“[…] when basic needs are being fully satisfied, the problem “what to do next,” i.e., whether we should create some new needs and, if so, what kind, comes to the fore.”

Finally, just to show that Lem’s sometimes too optimistic, we need only turn to his hope for how we will manage information overload.

“We can even think that presenting banal works will at last be declared a menace and thus will be seen as a violation of scientists’ professional ethics because such works create nothing but “noise” that prevents us from receiving valuable information.”

Oh dear, thank goodness Lem is no longer around to see just how badly we’ve disappointed him.

It is not an easy read, but it is legitimately a work of staggering genius. You don’t have to agree with him on everything, but you can’t argue with his method, with his intellectual rigor and devotion to the scientific method to reduce the ineffability of who we are and where we’re headed.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Die Menschheit schafft sich ab (2016)

by Harald Lesch and Klaus Kamphausen

This book presents a history of mankind and its efforts that begins in the very early universe and slowly focuses its lens on the modern day. It falls into the category of two other books I’ve read this year, Eine Kurze Geschichte der Menschheit and Summa Technologiae. All of these books offer a sweeping look at human and galactic history and scientific knowledge, which serve as a basis for predictions. Harari predicts cybernetics and AI. Lem does as well. Lesch and Kamphausen predict climate catastrophe.

They take us from the Big Bang and the invention of knowledge, the discovery of our planet, continents and then into how the anthropocene has the Earth in its grip.

The authors discuss the conditions and events that led to life on Earth and then the various forms that it took over the eons. They do this in order to juxtapose it against the profound effect that mankind is having on the planet in a comparably ridiculously short amount of time.

While it took hundreds of millions of years for the remains of dinosaurs and plants to turn into pockets of oil and gas in the lithosphere, mankind is now using 1,000,000 years worth of these supplies every year.

Fish of all kinds were five times more abundant as recently as the 1950s and we’re taking out twice the replacement rate every year.

We’ve killed off almost every creature larger than a cockroach and replaced it with our paltry few domesticated breeds. We burn and burn and burn, emitting far more CO2 than can be reasonably absorbed by the vegetation that we aren’t clear-cutting to make way for monoculture crops.

We’re wiping away topsoil in arable lands at prodigious rates.

While the book is quite science-heavy, it’s accessible to anyone with a passing interest in the sciences and a modicum of intelligence and willingness to learn. The two authors are both professors and have an entertainingly didactic approach to their material, making sure to define their terms and provide explanation of not-so-common concepts. They definitely make an effort to show just how proven the case is that mankind is doing nearly everything wrong in its approach to using the only home it has. There is no room for doubt that we are driving directly at an immovable wall.

The authors discuss how western civilization—with its amoralism and naked greed and egocentrism—is the main driving force and reason for our predicament. They include a detailed history, with some truly horrific anecdotes:

“Die Neue Welt zählte um 1500 etwa 100 Millionen Menschen, so viele wie die Alte Welt. Innerhalb weniger Jahrzehnte wurden mehr als 90 Millionen Indianer in Nord-, Zentral- und Südamerika von den Krankheitserregern aus dem Abendland dahingerafft, während sich hundert Jahre nach Einführung der Kartoffelknolle die Bevölkerung auf der anderen Seite des Atlantiks verdoppelte. Eine nahrhafte Entwicklungshilfe.”

Before the discovery of the new world, western civilization had already driven itself to the wall once.

“Europa stand Ende des 15. Jahrhunderts unter ökologischen Gesichtspunkten betrachtet an einem Punkt, der mit der heutigen globalen Situation vergleichbar ist. Die Wälder waren fast vernichtet, die meisten Gewässer verschmutzt, die nötigen Rohstoffe so gut with verbraucht, die Nahrung war knapp.”

However, because the population was so much smaller and had not yet industrialized, the damage it did to the planet was limited. It was driving its own extinction, but hadn’t yet grown dangerous enough to take the rest of the biosphere with it.

It is very clearly the naked and greed-driven capitalism—a form that ignores costs it incurs (e.g. environmental costs) in order to have more for itself—that is the problem, according to the authors (and, quite frankly, science and common sense):

“Das Eindringen in die Natur der Dinge ist im Anthropozän von herausragender Bedeutung. Aus den technologischen Entwicklungen ergibt sich dann zwangsläufig der Bedarf nach Rohstoffen und Energie. Die sollen natürlich möglichst billig sein, damit die ökonomischen Vorgaben, also die Renditeerwartungen, erfüllt werden können.”

And it’s not only other species that suffer and die off in droves under this rapacious system. The system really only “works” for a very small percentage of humanity itself. That small part holds the rest of the world in thrall, commandeering their meager produce in order to enrich themselves.

“Wir wissen, die Erde wird nicht wachsen, aber unsere Ansprüche wachsen, – und die Ungerechtigkeit und Ungleichheit wachsen mit.

“Müssen wir den Planeten zerstören und andere Menschen in Armut halten, um unser Leben in gewohntem Maß – oder sollte man besser sagen, in gewohnter Maßlosigkeit – fortzuführen?”

This system has a tremendous number of victims, not only in the rest of the species, but also in humans:

“Der Hunger tötet welt-weit ungefähr 100.000 Menschen täglich. Kaum jemand spricht über diesen Völkermord, von Abhilfe ganz zu schweigen.”

The victims are not only in the present but also in the future. Our desire for “freedom” uses up resources that are not ours, but that our worldview in no way prevents us from using. We blindly assume that if it has been made available or can be obtained, then it is ours to have.

“Freiheit ist erstens der Kneipenbesuch, und zweitens, dass der Wirt Heizpilze auf den Gehsteig stellt, damit man auch im Januar den Wein und den Barsch draußen genießen kann. Freiheit ist, dass Amerikaner 6,6 Milliarden Kilowattstunden Strom allein für die Weihnachtsbeleuchtung aufwenden, mehr als Tansania im gesamten Jahr verbraucht. Freiheit ist, ein Auto zu bauen (und zu kaufen), das pro Kilometer 224 Gramm Kohlendioxid ausstößt.”
“Wir leben in einer so unbedingten Freiheit, dass wir der Meinung sind, dass Mobilität gleich Bewegungsfreiheit sei. Egal was es kostet, was es die Natur oder die zukünftigen Generationen kostet—das ist völlig egal. Unsere unbedingte Freiheit steht über allem.”

We are using up these resources at a completely irreplaceable rate:

“Wir sollten uns darüber im Klaren sein, dass die jetzige Form von Mobilität, die diesem unbedingten Freiheitsbegriff unterliegt, zu einem unbedingten Verbrauch führt. Wir haben keine Möglichkeiten dieses Verbrauchte zurückzuholen.”

The solution is obviously to stop doing all of this, but the outlook is bleak.

“Es ist ein bisschen so wie mit dem kategorischen Imperativ. Niemand von uns kann so leben, dass alle seine Handlungen zum allgemeinen Gesetz er hoben werden. Aber er kann sich das Ziel setzen. Er sollte zumindest wissen, wie es richtig wäre und sich daran orientieren.”
“Scheinbar sind wir auf der Erde in diesem Irrsinn verfangen und als Besitzer solcher Derivate der Meinung: Komm, lass uns doch lieber darauf spekulieren, dass das Ding kaputtgeht. Nur—was machen wir dann? An wen soll die Versicherung auszahlen?”

They include several essays from other authors about various current topics, like the efficacy of the “Energiewende” in Germany or the efforts at changing habits and usage in various countries in Europe (though with a focus on Germany).

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Rape (2018)

by Sohaila Abdulali

While this book offered a few interesting insights (mostly in the conclusion), it was rather thin on the ground with information. While there were a few statistics, many of them were either unsubstantiated or cited shaky sources (AlterNet, Jezebel, etc.) These are not bad sources, per se. They sometimes have quality articles, but they just as often have unhinged screeds that you can’t really take seriously. It’s unclear which ones she cited—but some of the “facts” she cited seemed nearly unbelievable (e.g. “In the US, more than ninety percent of people with developmental disabilities are sexually assaulted”).

Unfortunately, throughout the book, she devolves to the “all women are victims and all men are monsters” rhetoric that should be beneath her. She interviews much better than she writes. The book was actually very short and had no central theme or line through it, other than all of the material being more-or-less about rape and its consequences.

Sometimes the switches between chapters was jarring—and often topics that had come up previously were brought back up again later, but without any cohesion. It felt like a scattershot collection of essays and thoughts, with a copious amount of quoted material to fill in what ended up being a short book. The conclusion contained more interesting material, with more cohesiveness and balance, suggesting that the person I’d heard interviewed was the same one who’d written that material.

While I applaud her for writing a book about rape all over the world, she doesn’t properly indicate which country she’s talking about when she makes some of her more incendiary statements. For example, earlier in the book, she writes:

“Sexual predators deserve due process, but they don’t deserve blanket immunity from accusations any more than any other criminals.”

Again with the straw man. Even if a lot of people believe this, do you need to spend so much time debunking it? Might as well prove that 2+2=4.

As well, while this might be the case in people’s minds in some places in the States, it’s not the legal case anywhere.

Boys will be boys is stupid. So is pretending that people aren’t animals who have to be trained to resist biological impulses. Anyone who says they haven’t ever felt a nearly overwhelming biological urge is lying, man or woman. Giving in to it without consent is rape. Controlling it takes training.

Again and again throughout the book she claims that rape is something that happens all the time, but fails to back it up with data from any reliable source. For example, she writes that

“out of every 1,000 rapes,”
  • 310 are reported to the police;
  • 57 lead to an arrest;
  • 11 get referred to the court system;
  • 6 rapists go to jail.

But how do we know that’s abysmal? Are we assuming all 1000 are true? Is she saying that only 0.06% of rapists are punished? As I wrote above, these unsubstantiated “facts” are just presented as if they don’t need any justification, even though the accusation is incredibly monstrous. Abysmal would be false convictions or acquittals of rapists (perversion of justice).

At a few points, she writes that her husband is brilliant, which left me thinking that she should have had him write the book.

After she several times cites that 70-80% of rapes occur in the home or with close relatives, she fills the rest of the book with (possibly apocryphal) stories of rapes outside of the family. They’re almost certainly true (hoping she did her research), but they’re so over-the-top, they can’t represent even the average of the experience for those rapes that do occur outside of the family.

For example,

“Late night/early morning, there was a knock on the passenger window. I looked up and saw that it was my ex. I cracked the door. The next thing I know I’m being dragged out of the car and slammed onto the ground. “There were nine guys. Four I had known. The other five were strangers. One was my best friend’s boyfriend. Some had bats. One had a gun. They kicked me and beat me. They zip-tied me and put me in the trunk. They took me to a basement and took turns raping me.”

Who does this? Madness of the highest order. Who plans this? How do you have nine friends who’ll come along on a gang rape/kidnapping party? I’m not doubting it, but it’s at the absolute extreme end of sexual assault, to say nothing of harassment. Those that call everything rape would throw this in the same category as unwanted hair-sniffing or shoulder-touching? It’s madness, and she offers no guidance.

We’re all trained to just believe everything we hear, but this seems beyond the pale. I know it must happen sometimes, but the story is presented as if this is a risk that faces anyone at any time. Just like the story of Alexa (included in citations below), where she ended up doing tremendous amounts of blow and being passed around her Wall Street–office like a sex toy. This is not a common danger.

To round out the critique with one of the better ideas from the end of the book (even though the grammar is a bit slapdash):

“[…] if someone forces you to have sex, it is rape. The narrative that says: good girls don’t get raped; bad girls can’t get raped. In either case, the nuns’ infamous Boys are off the hook. We’ve created a narrative that says that either it didn’t happen to you, or you deserved it.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Man in the High Castle (1962)

by Philip K. Dick

This novel is, in a way, more straightforward than many of Dick’s other novels. Instead of multiple onion-skin layers of reality, some drug-induced and (most likely) imaginary (as in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), there is one extremely intricately imagined alternate reality where the Axis won World War II, as well as one sketched alternate reality in which they did not, but the Allies converted the world to socialism.

The Reich occupies the east coast of America, all of Europe and much of Russia and Asia, as well as South America. The Japanese have the west coast of America. The middle of America is a no-man’s land with few people and no effort made to occupy or suppress it. The Nazis executed a 15-year campaign to exterminate all of the peoples of every African nation.

The British are still around, but largely defanged. China retains a larger sphere of influence, but not nearly as large as Japan. Italy resents its second-class status in the list of conquering nations, but has little power to do anything.

The story takes place largely in San Francisco and in various cities in Colorado. Frank Frink is an artisan who hides his Jewish ancestry. Juliana Frink is his ex-wife, living in the no-man’s land with Joe, an Italian-American truck driver with a military past. Childan is an antique dealer with delusions of grandeur and a deeply sycophantic attitude to the occupying Japanese. Wegener is a former German officer posing as a Swede (Baynes). He is trying to communicate with the Japanese in some covert operation.

Joe turns out to be a Wehrmacht spy, and the “Swede” learns of Operation Dandelion from an elderly Japanese—a plan hatched by the ascendant Goebbels to nuke all of the Japanese Home Islands and to consolidate world power, once and for all.

The majority of the book is about building the world in which these people move, expertly dropping believable and well-integrated information about the alternate history.

Because this is Philip K. Dick, there are two histories: the “real” one and one in samizdat in the form of a book called the The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the author depicts an alternate history to the “real” one in which the Allies won—but it’s different and more utopian than our own.

That is, the characters in the book live in a world occupied by the Germans and Japanese that functions largely like our world does today —with superpowers exerting what they consider to be largely benevolent but firm influence on occupied nations who should be grateful for the guiding hand of a superior civilization—but they dream through the eyes of a gifted author of a utopia in which socialism has triumphed and put wonderful technological advances to use in bettering all of mankind. That is, instead of the Nazis eradicating every Neger in Africa, the peoples of Africa are lifted up by the same technology.

As ever with Dick, things aren’t so straightforward: many of the characters use the I Ching to predict their future—and it works (in this book). Even the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy admits that he used the book and the coins to write the book. That is, the book is a “prediction” of sorts. When Juliana finally confronts the author, they use the coins again to elicit from the inanimate seer that the book is actually the truth, that what is written there is the real world and that they have all been living a sick, hallucinated lie.

Tagomi discovers this on his own, when he takes one of Frink’s handwrought jewelry items to a park and focuses deeply on its wu, its inner essence. When he does, he finds himself transported to another world—the world in the The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Terrified, he uses the same technique to somehow make his way back.

As always, Dick is a delight to read and provides plenty of food for thought. His stories are incredibly unique and surprising. Highly recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Adirondack Characters and Campfire Yarns: Early Settlers and their Traditions (2005)

by William J. O‘Hern

The author many times writes that there are so many tales lost to the mists of time and that one volume doesn’t suffice to include many of the tales that are known. I think he is overly enamored by the variety he thinks that he is offering. Many of the stories are very similar and they involve a painstaking protocol of how many animals were killed with how many shots. The stories rarely offer a surprise ending or even much interesting detail. They are just the description of a single everyday incident in an otherwise boring life.

For example:

“George was a good shot. In fact he was a sharpshooter with either a rifle or a shotgun. Mr. Ralph would tip George $5 for every partridge he shot. Once, George shot a kingfisher with a 30-30 Winchester across the bay near the outlet of Black Creek Lake. The bird was sitting on a large rock. The gun that George used the most was a 30-30 Winchester Carbine.”

This is a very typical passage: drily written, matter-of-fact, and not particularly fascinating.

These men were not stewards of the land. They were unwashed and uneducated hunters who took as much as they possibly could. They laid bold claim to having been the man (because they were all men) to kill the last panther or the last bear. Only much later in the book would there be stories of some who seemed to want to take care of the Adirondacks.

One of the most heralded mountain men was French Louie, a Canuck who’d wandered down to the region. He seemed nearly the most savage and unpredictable and just downright stupid-mean. The author claimed again and again that people loved him, but I don’t see how.

The author cites how much Louie loved his dogs and how fiercely he would defend them. But the dogs aren’t native. They’re just barking killing machines that he uses to cull as much meat and pelts from the woods as possible. When the wolves killed one of his dogs, Louie slaughtered the whole pack in revenge—a lesson that could not hope to be learned by a pack with no surviving members. The only purpose was mindless slaughter and petty revenge.

“Elijah Conklin’s written recollections record that Louie “. . was the one who killed the last of the timber wolves in the Adirondacks. He killed five on Samson Lake. They killed his dog and he put arsenic in a doe’s carcass and killed all five.””

The author very clearly loves everything about the Adirondacks at any time since whites started writing about them. He is over the moon about every detail he can find and wants to preserve every possible word written about any era of trapping, hunting or being in the wild in the Adirondacks.

But the author also venerates the trapper and hunter’s right to kill the animals for money. Without fail, he characterizes animals as devious and mean in their hopeless attempts to save their lives from their technologically advanced and pitiless enemy, the Adirondack woodsman. A trap is, by design, a cruel way to kill an animal. It chews its own foot off or dies of exhaustion, starvation or dehydration.

Beyond that, the author also lauds these heroes for avoiding the state authorities who are trying to contain their plunder and who try to make them stick with hunting and trapping methods that are legal and are not on private property. They didn’t care and they were heroes for the devious methods with which they eluded the authorities. The park ranger is made out to be a pain in the ass and the criminal eluding him is venerated.

Amongst themselves, there was a pact to keep each other alive—honor among thieves, of a sort—with a sort-of campsite-rule where you were allowed to use cabins that were not yours, but left them as good as or better than your found them.

Besides the animosity between the woodsmen and the rangers, there was the tension between the woodsmen and their customers: “sports” or city-slickers who couldn’t find their asses with both hands and a torch.

“[…] some of these city dudes that come up here deer hunting and take turns having their pictures taken with a bunch of deer and maybe a bear or two hanging up behind them, never shot a gun in their lives and wouldn’t know a turns skunk from a ten-point buck. They couldn’t hit the inside of a barn if you closed the door on them.”

Most of the stories are written by other authors—some of them write much better than O’Hern, but none of them write extremely well. The best passages came from the few women included in the volume, to be honest.

I did learn more than I already knew about logging terms and traplines. That was certainly interesting. Most of the stories take place in places that I’ve visited—some of them even lived (like Clinton). That certainly made it a more fun read than for someone who has no connection whatsoever to the places. The afterword was nice—a plea for moderns to keep the Adirondacks alive as they are and as they were.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Digging Up Mother (2016)

by Doug Stanhope

This is Doug Stanhope’s autobiography. It is also a biography of his mother, Bonnie. Until her death, their lives were entwined. Stanhope writes quite well and tells the story of his life—and his Mother’s—in a rollicking and well-structured novel.

“Mother” is a piece of work: she loves her son nearly unconditionally. She is a free spirit who is Doug’s best friend for decades. They have the same sense of humor. Bonnie is an actress, a masseuse, a con-woman and Doug’s biggest fan no matter what he does. She is also a depressed woman in constant pain, easily addicted to pain medication, though on the AA wagon for most of her life. She is manipulative. She is a hoarder. She is loved by many. She is the life of the party.

Doug Stanhope is a plainspoken, smart, observant comedian with a lot of miles on him. He’s spent years on the road, playing every bowling alley, dive bar and roadhouse in every state in the U.S. He’s nearly the definition of a functional alcoholic. He doesn’t like to be alone and has warmed his bed with many women on the road. He’s almost never been single. He loves living communally, nearly constantly living with at least one, if not several people. Even when he lived in a car, he had a roommate. He’s had a litany of powerful actresses as long-term girlfriends. He’s had many friends, some for decades. He is faithful to them, if not his official girlfriends and lovers. He is now living with the mentally ill Bingo in Bisbee, Arizona.

His life is lived in the seedier part of America—he would call it a more honest life in a more honest place. He’s never compromised, though he has worked in Hollywood, trying to make a go of it. Unlike Bill Hicks, he didn’t shun the commercial world—though he has retained his honesty and hasn’t censored himself at all. His material is highly sexual, highly coarse and uproariously funny. He’s funny because he tells the truth. Some of his opinions are a bit too libertarian, but his heart is in the right place. He’s quite intelligent and can put long off-the-cuff diatribes together that cut our society deep, to the core, and still be shockingly funny.

Before he was a comedian, he was a telemarketing grifter. With his gift of gab, he was one of the best. Despite having spent most of his life in the grayer areas of the law, he’s never been in trouble and never been in prison. He’s been in jail, but was always bailed out. He’s had TV shows, but he’s always loved being a comedian more. He likes airport bars the best—hotel bars, if need be.

As a comedian, he’s quite humble, constantly pointing out comedians who are better than he is. He revered Mitch Hedberg. He is now, by definition, better than Hedberg. He’s considered to be the best comedian alive by many of the other best comedians. He does not pull punches. You know he won’t. He won’t sell out.

Some citations to give you some ideas of his thinking and comedy:

“[…] unlike the Internet, the newspaper eventually ends, so you know to get on with your day.”
“A frustrated waitress or store clerk laughing is way more gratifying than a paying audience.”
“Anyone who says that suicide is never the answer hasn’t heard all of the questions.”
“When I say that I wrote Mother off, I don’t mean that I cut off contact or deprived her of any financial support. I was still with her and helped out all I could. The write-off came in that I knew that I could no longer invest myself emotionally in trying to get her to help herself.”

I know this feeling with politics or rational discussions. At some point, with some people, you give up. You achieve detente by implicitly no longer talking about anything but the weather and pets.

“They sent her ashes back months later. I tried to sell them on eBay, with all proceeds going to The Humane Society but the auction was shut down within hours. Seems selling dead people is not only against eBay policy, it’s against federal law. Feds must not like cats like Mother did.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Le Transperceneige (1982; fr)

by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette

This is an older, French, black-and-white graphic novel about a 1,001-car train charging along a track hundreds of thousands of kilometers long, encircling a globe frozen by man’s hubris and foolishness. It is the last bastion of humanity, holding the last dregs in its innards. The world is cold because man released a chemical to counteract the effects of his having warmed the climate disastrously. It backfired and froze the world.

There are the “queuetards” (denizens from the back of the train) and the elites (the front, naturally). Humanity’s age-old structure has been compressed into one dimension. We meet two prisoners, one queuetard (Proloff) and one sympathizer for the queuetards (Belleau), from the middle of the train. They are being taken forward from their prison to the state cars, nearer the front. Their journey takes them through the luxury of the vegetable and plant cars, something the queuetard didn’t even know existed. He only saw the sun again for the first time in years—because the rear cars have no windows.

Proloff moves forward through the train with Belleau, discovering areas that he’s never seen—and eventually moving beyond the cars that even she’s seen. They become lovers (of course). They learn that the train is slowing and, that General Krimson (in charge of the military and, de factor, of the train) plans to decouple part of the rear of the train. The military pursues them—ostensibly because they are spreading a virus throughout the train.

Proloff and Belleau make it to the very front of the train, to the locomotive. Here, Proloff shoots out windows, letting in the -87ºC air. Belleau succumbs, but he is rescued by Alex Forrester, the odd and remote engineer of the train. The engineer works with Olga, the AI in the train. Olga can continue to run indefinitely, as long as she is accompanied by a human presence.

The cars are detached, Proloff takes over as engineer—and the virus story turns out to have been true, as he remains the sole passenger of the Transperceneige at the end of the first book.

The second book picks up the story in a second train, larger than the Transperceneige. It runs on the same track and is aware of the other, smaller train. They are in constant fear of a collision and, thus, make frequent “braking drills” to verify that the train could stop should it be necessary. During this time, the “Arpenteurs” (surveyors) go out onto the frozen surface to perform various missions. The first depicted mission sees the leader fall, spilling one of his eyes from his frozen head. A young Puig Vallès picks it up—and, seventeen years later, becomes a surveyor himself.

Puig is popular among the masses, as the surveys are one of the only real, physical entertainments—everything else is virtual and available to only a select few (the rich and winners of occasional lotteries). As in the film, the train is separated into the have and have-nots. Puig’s popularity is limited to the masses; the leaders seek to get rid of him by sending him on a suicide mission to fly from the train and reconnoiter the track in front. He manages it, as no other before him, and blackmails them into letting him land back on the train. He had discovered a destroyed bridge in front of the train and could help them deviate before a disaster.

Safely back on the train, he discovers further that the Transperceneige is actually no longer circling the globe. That, instead, the very first braking maneuver was not a test of avoiding the other train, but was to stop and pick up the other, smaller train, depositing it into the capacious bowels of several of the thousands of cars in the larger train. Proloff, as the only survivor, continued on his journey, but in a train within a train. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the virtual reality that the denizens of the larger train “enjoyed”.

The leaders kept this from the general populace, in order to continue to control them with the fear of a collision.

In the third book, Puig is in charge of the larger train. He is now married to Val, the daughter of General Kennel, the new head of the military. There is an accident that forces a braking maneuver. Several cars in the middle of the train are destroyed. Puig dons his surveyor’s suit once again to investigate. At the same time, Reverend Dickson dispatches his secret child-assassins in similar suits to kill him while he’s outside. The assassins are also to detach the back part of the train, leaving half of the remaining population to die.

Puig survives the assassination attempt, killing the other soldiers and making his way forward to depose an ascendant Dickson and General Kennel. He manages it and encases them in the “drawers”—morgue-like containers that serve as a prison on the train.

Shortly after, the train’s communications system detects music playing from the opposite side of the ocean. Puig must make another decision: to mount the emergency treads on the first 25 train cars and abandon the rest of the train to divert across the ocean and investigate the source of the music.

Meanwhile, the Reverend and Kennel have sweet-talked their way out of prison and have taken over the back of the train again. This time, the back of the train is the wagons of pleasure and decadent restaurants near the former front of the train. As they slowly make their way across the frozen ocean, the Reverend and General start a new mutiny to turn the train around and return to the tracks on the former shore.

At the head of the train, Puig responds by cutting water, power and heat to the mutinous cars. Dickson launches one last-ditch attack from the outside, sending his remaining assassins along the top of the train to command capsule at the front. Puig and his colleagues repel the attack, retaining control of the train. He returns along their route and kills Dickson and Kennel by shooting through the ceiling of their wagon. The train drives on, toward the other shore.

Near the shore, there are frozen waves that threaten to split the train again. Puig once again takes to the sky to perform reconnaissance, confirming that they are very near the shore before nestling back onto the train. A long-dormant but still-active missile battery shatters the middle of the remaining train, forcing another shortening of the train and jettisoning of unneeded material (like Dickson’s artwork).

Finally, they alight on the opposite shore, severely shortened but still moving. The signal is much, much stronger and Puig becomes a surveyor once again to investigate the source. It is an automated system, playing music for a long-frozen audience. The whole journey and struggle was for naught.

The story is interesting, well-drawn and offers some insight into man’s hubris, with analogies to our current climate predicament. They were unable to snatch their slim hope, either.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019)

by David Wallace-Wells

As you begin this book, you feel it is either an unhinged leftist diatribe of sour grapes trying to convince the masters of the universe that they should switch to socialism and stop what we’re doing because it’s unfair to the losers or it’s an exceedingly well-written and researched manifesto shrieking at us that the effects of the world we’ve had designed and built for us are also that which make it certain that this world will not last.

It is, unfortunately, the latter. The world we’ve built has its destruction written into its DNA. It is built on a mountain of checks that we cannot cash.

We are boiling ourselves away from the planet, but other, less-evolved species will probably be OK. Everything we eat, though, will be extinct by our hand long before global warming can finish them off. Fish and wildlife have already experienced their catastrophic near-extinction and that had nothing to do with CO2 and everything to do with humans.

If humans disappear or are significantly diminished, then other species may have a chance again. The ones we knew—and that we’ve nearly eliminated—will die with us, as they used the same ecological niche as we did for their crucible. They are just as sensitive as we are to those changes. Many plants will die, but others won’t. Many insects will die, but others will thrive. The story of climate change is the story not of life dying out, but of intelligent life making its home so inhospitable for itself that, in the end, it check-mates itself.

Wallace-Wells is an eloquent teller of this tale of mankind’s downfall. In the citations below, you’ll find many thoughtful and evocative descriptions that enhance the dry data of our demise. Even when we actually scream from the hilltops, it’s ignored, as Wallace-Wells states so eloquently:

“Rhetoric often fails us on climate because the only factually appropriate language is of a kind we’ve been trained, by a buoyant culture of sunny-side-up optimism, to dismiss, categorically, as hyperbole.”

He employs this talent to interpret the data in a way that we can imagine: what does a world of 2ºC (warming over average temperatures before the industrial age) look like? How about 4ºC? Is any of it livable? With the population we have now? Wallace-Wells makes clear that, for the first time in history, mankind’s habitable surface area is shrinking.

Don’t be fooled, though: He isn’t a classic die-hard environmentalist. In fact, he clearly states that,

“I may be in the minority in feeling that the world could lose much of what we think of as “nature,” as far as I cared, so long as we could go on living as we have in the world left behind.”

I personally feel that this is a reprehensible thing to say, but the author is probably just a city-dweller who doesn’t even know what nature is. At any rate, it was a one-off comment that he made before acknowledging that his dream of living on Cybertron is not a reality on Earth.

His thesis statement for the book is basically as follows,

“We have all already left behind the narrow window of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, but not just evolve—that window has enclosed everything we remember as history, and value as progress, and study as politics. What will it mean to live outside that window, probably quite far outside it? That reckoning is the subject of this book.”

In another example, he savages Bitcoin for using as much power as solar energy has given us total. So much waste, so little time.

“Market forces have delivered cheaper and more widely available green energy, but the same market forces have absorbed those innovations, which is to say profited from them, while continuing to grow emissions.”

Since Bitcoin is eating up the surplus generated by solar, Wallace-Wells explains:

“Solar isn’t eating away at fossil fuel use, in other words, even slowly; it’s just buttressing it. To the market, this is growth; to human civilization, it is almost suicide. We are now burning 80 percent more coal than we were just in the year 2000.”

Wallace-Wells moves on to explain the injustice of how the so-called developed world has built its empire on the backs of the poor: first, exploiting them and their lands to burn the planet and second, to watch as they also bear the (initial) brunt of the chaos their world has wrought.

“In the postindustrial West, we try not to think about these bargains, which have benefited us so enormously. […] given the devastation that wealth has imposed on the world of natural wonder it conquered and the suffering of those, elsewhere on the planet, left behind in the race to endless material comforts. And asked, functionally, to pay for them.”

The environmental catastrophe hits not just in temperature increase but in drastic reduction of drinking water, crop yields, and an astonishing increase in pollution.

“But of all urban entitlements, the casual expectation of never-ending drinking water is perhaps the most deeply delusional. It takes quite a lot to bring that water to your sink, your shower, and your toilet.”

He discusses the Syrian “civil war” as if there had been no goading or machination from self-interested, western powers, exacerbating a climate crisis for which they are largely responsible with fomented warfare intended to consolidate power over more oil-production.

People always talk of terrorism as if it just appears and lashes out when a state fails. The so-called terrorists do not attack indiscriminately. They generally terrorize within their own borders, against occupying powers. No mention of state terror that engenders it all. Or the massive climate costs they incur in doing so. His analysis is weak and incomplete here. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but he can’t just toss out these little sentences to make a vague point that comes to an utterly fallacious conclusion.

The market rules, though. People move to stupid places for stupid, short-sighted, and selfish reasons. Communities respond by attracting and accommodating the wealthy. They bring water to places where the energy investment to do so is many times more than the place from which the water was originally destined.

He goes on to discuss not just the water crisis (saying we would be bad enough off without one, but we definitely have one…and it’s going to get worse), but also the air-pollution crisis, which is basically untenable in any of the larger cities in which 70% of the world’s population lives. Not only pollution, but also malnutrition, will guarantee that most of the world’s human population will be dead weight, incapable of helping us think our way out of this crisis—because the crisis has stifled their mental and physical development.

Even if they were able to think straight, there’s nothing to eat, the bugs are dying, the crops are failing and factory-farming is going to collapse under its own weight.

“Twenty-two percent of the earth’s landmass was altered by humans just between 1992 and 2015. Ninety-six percent of the world’s mammals, by weight, are now humans and their livestock; just four percent are wild.”

No pollinators, no food, no people, so other predictions of growth are strongly countered. Unless mankind flails in a paroxysm of energy use to dwarf all efforts heretofore to try to cover the gap, which will also end things even more quickly than they otherwise would.

Sometimes he presents numbers too drily:

“Compared to the trajectory of economic growth with no climate change, their average projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century.”

In this case, he could be somewhat optimistic that at least this will likely lead to less emissions. Naturally, people will suffer and die, but they will do so anyway. At least if they die in the service of a shrinking economy, mankind ends up with less energy use rather than more. It’s far from an ideal solution—it’s not even a solution, really, at all—but it’s not like a tragedy.

“And to help buffer or offset the impacts, we have no New Deal revival waiting around the corner, no Marshall Plan ready.”

What could we do? Everything we could do involves energy, extraction, and manufacturing. Every move we make to fix the problem likely makes it worse. Use solar to get free energy? Manufacturing panels is counterproductive (although, according to Bill McKibben in Falter, it’s gotten much, much better: panels last for 25 years and the energy investment is amortized in 5 years).

It’s far too late for nuclear, considering the manufacturing and concrete involved, even if the budgeting and construction fiascoes could be magically bypassed. The nuclear-waste problem is much better than it was: newer reactors are much more efficient and capable of re-burning and -processing much more its own waste. Even current reactors really produce much less waste and pollution than fossil fuels, which are actively killing us by raising temperature, rather than possibly, eventually killing us with radiation sickness. At this point, it’s really about triage.

“Hitting four degrees of warming, which lies on the low end of the range of warming implied by our current emissions trajectory, would cut into it by 30 percent or more. This is a trough twice as deep as the deprivations that scarred our grandparents in the 1930s, and which helped produce a wave of fascism, authoritarianism, and genocide.”

Yes, but losing 15% of 1000 is more devastating than 30% of 50,000. They suffered because they were closer to death to begin with. We fall farther, but still land much higher.

He (like Bill McKibben) tears into the Pinker line of reasoning that things, in fact, have been getting better and we should lean back and appreciate all that our system of ruling the world has given us.

Now I finally realize what annoys me so much about Pinker’s argument: the rate of progress was unsustainable and unevenly distributed. The blowback when the wave crashes will hit everyone but Pinker and his cohort. It’s like a student cramming for a test that won’t remember 90%; the current situation incurs unrealistic expectations. Basically, our progress was obtained on credit and the bill is coming due.

“But we close them off when we say anything about the future being inevitable. What may sound like stoic wisdom is often an alibi for indifference.”

Despite everything Wallace-Wells has written, he dares chastise those who, with clear eyes, don’t see much hope. It doesn’t mean we stop trying, but roundly “Fuck you” for calling us indifferent. He knows all that he wrote in this book: it’s fucking hopeless. We have not acted. We have instead doubled down. We will not change. Wallace-Wells bred anyway (he has a child) and is now trying to justify it by pretending—despite all the evidence to the contrary that he himself has presented—that it’s not hopeless. He knows his child will not really suffer because she is in the elite conquerors most responsible but least affected.

Don’t you dare condemn pragmatic realism as indifference, sir. If I fall off a cliff, gravity reigns whether I want it to or not. My inaction is not indifference. It’s acceptance. Parents have to spin themselves fairy tales. Don’t expect me to buy their self-consoling bullshit.

“[…] such as the promise that human life will endure, […]”

It probably will, but in a nearly unrecognizable form. We will be demoted to colonists on our home planet.

He continues digging, addressing the suicidal theory of economics that we’ve chosen to honor as the one true God.

“Behavioral economics is unusual as a contrarian intellectual movement in that it overturns beliefs—namely, in the perfectly rational human actor—that perhaps only its proponents ever truly believed, and maybe even only as economics undergraduates.”

But everyone is still trapped by this backward thinking, that “we tend to think of climate as somehow being contained within, or governed by, capitalism. In fact, the opposite: capitalism is endangered by climate.”

And our stumbling, foolish way of running things isn’t nearly efficient enough—not even close. There is no time anymore to let good things happen as a side-effect of a few people making a fuck-ton of money.

“It took New York City forty-five years to build three new stops on a single subway line; the threat of catastrophic climate change means we need to entirely rebuild the world’s infrastructure in considerably less time.”

Next up is technological rapturism: people think that they can escape our ruined world by flying to other planets or by uploading themselves into software (though where the energy comes from to keep running that simulation is a thorny problem).

This is all bullshit, though. We know what we have to do. Eat the rich.

As Wallace-Wells writes,

“If the world’s most conspicuous emitters, the top 10 percent, reduced their emissions to only the E.U. average, total global emissions would fall by 35 percent.”
“United States and Europe, where emissions have already flattened out and will likely begin their decline soon—though how dramatic a decline, and how soon, is very much up in the air.”

Here he conveniently forgets the matter of justice and the fact that the US has “flattened out” at 2.25 times Europe, which is at 2 times China. There’s a lot of savings to be had by reducing them. The prior quote that says that reducing the worst 10% to EU levels would reduce the burden by 35% applies to mostly UAE and US citizens. This is also ignoring the fact that European and U.S. lifestyles are buttressed by industry in China. You can’t just offload your carbon emissions by killing your own manufacturing but still increasing consumption. They’re still technically your carbon emissions if your consumption is the only thing driving that production.

“[…] a large slice of China’s emissions is produced manufacturing goods to be consumed by Americans and Europeans.”

He argues that we need to “shake the casual sense that as time marches forward, life improves ineluctably”, but this is an elite opinion anyway. Most haven’t felt and don’t feel these effects anyway. It was always a myth for 95% of humanity.

“[…] warming at the level necessary to fully melt ice sheets and glaciers and elevate sea level by several hundred feet promises to initiate rolling, radically transformative changes on a timescale measured not in decades or centuries or even millennia, but in the millions of years.”

On that scale, our cradle environment, what we cherish, will be long gone. Even the memory of it will be long gone. By the time the planet is once again able to offer conditions similar to those of fifty years ago, mankind will no longer be interested or will fight it.

“As Swedish journalist Torill Kornfeldt asks […] “Why should nature as it is now be of any greater value than the natural world of 10,000 years ago, or the species that will exist 10,000 years from now?””

Good question, in absolute terms. However, its value to us, now, is much higher, as we are stuck at one point on time’s arrow. Perhaps we sacrifice now so that 10,000 years from now is nicer, but we’re not doing that either.

In the end, though, there is no more discussion needed.

“[…] the world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin. You can’t halfway your way to a solution to a crisis this large.”

We have to abandon everything we know about capitalism as we do it today. It is a crooked kleptocracy that only ever threw enough crumbs to keep its subjects from rising up. As summarized by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier:

“The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Falter (2019)

by Bill McKibben

I read this book immediately after having read The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. It compares favorably: the prose is easily as appealing, the facts just as eye-opening (many overlap, of course) and the conclusion just a bit more hopeful, in a very specific way.

It’s not a false hope, either. McKibben is deadly serious about the facts and their sobering implications. But he also spends a little time being in awe of what mankind has produced, despite how casually we’ve burned through resources—or how unevenly we’ve distributed benefits—to do so.

He doesn’t rubber-stamp these achievements as “worth it” like so many others (just because he happens to be a in a group that benefits) and he doesn’t diminish the evil that was an intrinsic part of how it came to be, but he does take a few minutes to describe it, if only to descry something worth saving. If mankind where to have wasted resources on only a handful of people while subjugating all others to produce total and useless crap, then a logical conclusion would be relatively easy: let it all go. We’re done here.

Even more than Wallace-Wells, McKibben points the accusatory finger at a system heavily influenced by the so-called American way of life, represented more recently by high-tech moguls and gurus who own vast swaths of the global economy and are no longer located exclusively in America (though many are in Silicon Valley).

He eloquently describes moments from his many travels. Instead of using numbers describing the tar-sands complex in Alberta, he tells us that “[b]ecause any bird that landed on the filthy water would die, cannons fire day and night to scare them away”, which cuts much, much deeper with its layered perversity. Or analogizing that “[t]he extra heat that we trap near the planet because of the carbon dioxide we’ve spewed is equivalent to the heat from 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day, or four each second.” Those facts sink in and don’t let go.

As with anyone attempting to inspire action, you have to make a decision on how to deliver the message: do you appeal to basic ethics or decency? Or do you appeal to personal danger?

Anyone arguing against going to war in a foreign country (like Iran) generally skips the first argument, though it’s the only one they should have to make. Instead, they end up talking about how hard it would be to defeat Iran, how much it would cost in lives and money and so on. The basic senselessness and immorality of it are quickly deemed as moot because people just don’t care.

McKibben must strike a similar balance: he spends a little time discussing just how wrong it is for 1% of the planet’s population to doom the other 99% for its own pleasure. But then he switches to the argument that is far more likely to hit home for those 1%: that they won’t be safe where they are for much longer. The effects of their behavior will soon affect them and the ones they love in addition to faceless and sub-human foreigners in dusty, squalid countries.

As does Wallace-Wells, McKibben discusses the shape of the global economy and the vast reductions or changes needed in order to combat the climate crisis. Unlike either of those authors, though, I think we should welcome a wholesale reduction of mankind (perhaps back to the population level the world enjoyed when I was born, about 4 billion). We can either do it voluntarily or let Mother Nature kill off slews that can no longer be sustained on a dying planet, watching our unthinking and unquestioning brethren grunt and breed and churn their offspring directly into the meat-grinder of an uncaring climate.

Unique among every other generation of mankind that came before us, we will have the dubious honor of knowing that “the size of the board on which we’re playing the game is going to get considerably smaller […]” Given this glaring and undeniable fact, we should really get squared with the notion that we can’t defend everywhere, we can’t save everything and we shouldn’t try.

It’s not a matter of money, but a matter of remaining resources. And I don’t mean we let people fry where they live; instead, as with cases of eminent domain, we should offer them a luxurious apology package to relocate while we focus our efforts on making wherever we relocate them safe from further climate-based predations. This obviously won’t happen, but it would be the right thing to do. We’ve grown used to getting what we want, to growing without restriction, and to not having to pay too much for our mistakes.

I fault McKibben in only a few places. One of them is in his treatment of Obama, where he writes,

“It’s not, at some level, Obama’s fault. He was elected to run a political and economic system based on endless growth. He feared that if he upset it too much he wouldn’t be reelected, which would have done no one any good.”

That’s a fucking copout. Obama didn’t get it, and he still doesn’t. He’s seen all of the data and he doesn’t care. He should have talked about nothing but climate change. He never mentioned it. He had the chance to rebuild the economy better. He put it back the way it was, but more unequal and more zombified. He didn’t even stand up once, not where he would have personally sacrificed something.

Similarly for bloody Trudeau of Canada, who’s also lying about caring about climate change. He’s a sociopath like all the rest. He and Obama should not go down in history as climate-change leaders who mysteriously took their countries in the exact opposite direction, despite their best intentions. That’s fatuous bullshit.

But otherwise McKibben savages the right people for the climate crisis, placing blame but also obligation to do something about it on the 1% that benefitted the most. He has a long section on the ideological underpinnings of the 20th century that led to this situation, in particular noting the insidious influence of Ayn Rand’s writings (who “might as well have written with a crayon”) on the idiotic American Business upper class. After reading through this, I was struck by the thought that Rand may have been the Soviet Union’s greatest sleeper agent—talk about playing a long game.

Speaking of the Soviet Union, McKibben lashes out at a country with,

“[…] its environment wrecked because people couldn’t protest pollution, its people demoralized because they were told what to do with their lives, its official art and literature a dim-witted joke.”

Are you hearing the irony in that statement, Bill? No? A pity. I suppose you are, after all, an American. As he mentioned earlier in the book,

“[his] naïveté stemmed naturally from the fact that [he] grew up at precisely the moment when America was making huge strides toward reducing inequality, when it seemed that the obvious task was to make our world fairer. I was born in 1960, between the New Deal and the Great Society.”

I guess the whole cold-war mindset was buried a bit too deeply, as well. There are other examples, in quick succession. In another story that immediately followed, he was outside the GUM department store in Moscow where he saw,

“[…] two long lines of people waiting, […] When the left door opened first, everyone on the right side simply went home: they’d guessed wrong and knew that whatever was for sale would be long gone before they made it inside.”

You have described an Apple store, Bill. You have not in any way described a uniquely Soviet failing. He still wasn’t done, though,

“An industrial society that can’t produce enough children’s coats for the Russian winter—that’s failure on a grand scale.”

His analysis seems to be entirely without self-reflection or ironic sense. He delivers these anecdotes complete devoid of any analysis of the economic war waged on the USSR by a rapacious, pitiless, and amoral power (the U.S.). He utterly fails to not even mention the same, or worse, level of failure in America since Reagan. The depth of anti-communism and Russophobia in the U.S. is so staggering that it rears its ugly head even in the most otherwise carefully researched book.

Finishing up with Rand, he discusses the central tenet of Atlas Shrugged—which so many of America’s political leaders have taken to heart—that the smart and strong will always have to put up with moochers. The reason it’s so appealing is that it’s not wrong. There are moochers. There are nearly utterly useless people, unsuited to not only the purpose for which they are employed or invest themselves, but for anything. Dumb, lazy, bored, depressed, untrainable: it doesn’t matter; someone else has to cover for their needs.

The conceit lies in the idea that the dividing line between the groups of productive and unproductive runs right along rich/poor (or black/white or whatever). The problem with Rand’s philosophy is that it doesn’t account for good or bad luck or drastically staggered starting blocks. It doesn’t account for moochers who were “born on third and think they hit a triple.”

The true moochers are ladder-climbers, middle management and greedy bosses, sitting on the necks of the productive, bleeding them dry. Those with ability should be looking up for moochers, not down, as Rand instructed them.

McKibben sums up how this whole philosophy relates to climate change.

“Once the Arctic melts, there’s no way to freeze it back up again, not in human time. The particular politics of one country for one fifty-year period will have rewritten the geological history of the earth, and crimped the human game.”

In a dark mood, it might strike one as a delicious irony that humanity will have been killed by a parasitic meme—a parasite so stupid that it kills its host. A poisonous and selfish worldview leads to rapacious and immoral individualism leads to lying about climate change to protect business leads to inundation and extinction. Well done. With a whimper indeed. Humanity gets a fucking Darwin Award.

The next section of the book gets more optimistic, discussing germ-line editing and cybernetics. I’m not convinced that’s going to help. But it’s not like we’re going to stop breeding, because that’s obviously not an option. Instead, we’re totally going to let the rich edit germlines, so even more people can viably breed.

He even gets to Stephen Pinker (who Wallace-Wells also discussed), who he cites as writing that artificial intelligence is “like any other technology […] tested before it is implemented and constantly tweaked for safety and efficacy.” Sweet God, the naiveté. It’s like he doesn’t even live on the same planet. That is absolutely the opposite of how we introduce technology. We have much more of a “throw shit on the wall and see what sticks” approach, which is marvelously suited to AI—which may end up sticking very well, indeed, whether we like it or not.

After Pinker, cue Kurzweil, who McKibben knows and who he cites about death, “If someone dies, our immediate reaction—it’s considered a tragic thing, not a triumphant thing.” I think this infantile, stunted and uniquely western philosophy is fucking ruining everything again by inventing and promulgating so-called needs. A life well-lived can absolutely be triumphant. Lingering on is embarrassing. Kurzweil and his ilk suffer from a surfeit of ego. I’m happy as I am. What’s the point of starting over again later, almost certainly completely unadapted for my new life? To whose benefit? Let it go, Ray. Life mattered and matters little, even the first time through.

However, I don’t agree with the critique that Kurzweil’s philosophy is bad because it “limit[s] new entrants to the human race”. I don’t share McKibben’s and society’s seeming preference for the young or unborn. How is a philosophy that favors future generations morally better ? If people become immortal, then we either need a lot more room or we need fewer entrants. It’s logic. We need fewer entrants as well if resources dwindle, as they will.

He finally gets to his pièce de resistance: the solar-power market, which he manages to finally put into terms that look quite hopeful, even to me. Here’s the money shot:

“The manufacturing process for solar panels has become so efficient that the panels pay back the energy used to make them in less than four years. Since they last three decades, that means a quarter-century of pollution-free operation.”

Will we be allowed to have this thing? Not if the powers-that-be have anything to say about it. They all benefit from sunken investments in infrastructure—subsidies over nearly a century of decades—that continue today. They’re lying about catastrophic downsides to their own energy sources and torpedoing alternatives that are not personally lucrative but would be better for everyone else.

“That’s why Exxon hates solar: you put up a solar panel and the energy comes for free, which to the corporate mind is the stupidest business plan ever.) The cash you spend for energy stays close to home; there’s no way for the Koch brothers to become our richest and most powerful citizens simply by shipping fuel hither and yon.”

With all of this tech talk, McKibben returns to asking whether we’re not already good enough, circling back to the initial theme of asking what is uniquely worth saving about humanity? He discusses resistance and never giving up, even in the face of horrible odds. He wonders again whether we shouldn’t just be happy with what we’ve got, “Given that there’s no finishing line to the human game, no obvious goal toward which we are racing, then why exactly are we so intent on constantly speeding up?”

I think it’s an important book that asks the right questions and delivers a tremendous amount of vital information in an interesting, well-written and, at times, poignant read. He strikes the right balance between science and philosophy—because it’s the deficit of the latter that aided the former in running roughshod over us all. I’ll let McKibben have his eloquent last word.

“But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.

“So, yes, we can wreck the Earth as we’ve known it, killing vast numbers of ourselves and wiping out entire swaths of other life—in fact, as we’ve seen, we’re doing that right now. But we can also not do that.”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Hate Inc. (2019)

by Matt Taibbi

This book was published in serial form over the course of a year. I purchased a subscription at the very beginning and read the chapters as Taibbi produced them. Because of the serial nature, I’ve linked the original URLs (to which you only have access if you either have a subscription or if Taibbi just opens it up for everyone) and denoted which citations come from which chapters. I think I have the chapters in the right order.

It was an interesting experiment for an excellent book. I’ve still got a subscription to Taibbi’s output, but he hasn’t published anything since he finished this book. No regrets.

The book is about the American media over the last four decades, but focusing on the first two decades of the 21st century. It’s about the influence, the stupidity, the corruption and the sheer uselessness of it all. One of the main thrusts is of the major failures they have suffered in being utterly unable to reliably report on major issues, either before they happen or, even more embarrassingly, afterward.

This is a recurring feature of American media:

“[…] you can be fired for being wrong. You just can’t be fired for being wrong in concert. […] many of America’s highest-profile media figures are not only wrong very frequently, but absurdly so. But their saving grace is that the wrong things they express are the same wrong things everyone else is expressing.”

Taibbi’s accurate descriptions, drawn from the actual pages of America’s major newspapers, read like Orwell’s 1984. This kind of comparison is considered, in some circles, to be too trite to make, but look at it,

“In the blink of an eye, we went from tolerating Saddam Hussein without any trouble at all to needing to kill him immediately in self defense […]”

That is nothing if not a paraphrase for “We have always been at war with Eastasia.”

This style leads inevitably to the lowest-common-denominator of media: making dumbasses feel superior by showing them even dumber people. In one way, Taibbi’s book is a thesis proving that Judge’s Idiocracy was a vision of the future that has come much, much more quickly than 500 years.

“The most popular programs aren’t about geniuses and paragons of virtue, but instead about terrible parents, morons, people too fat to notice they’re pregnant, people willing to be filmed getting ass tucks, spoiled rich people, and other freaks. Why use the most advanced communications technology in history to teach people basic geography, or how World Bank structural adjustment lending works, when you can instead watch idiots drink donkey semen for money? […] We’re probably just a few years way from a show called, What Would You Suck For a Dollar? (Emphasis added.)”

Russiagate is a special target for Taibbi: he deems it even stupider than the WMD catastrophe that led to the Iraq war. He is careful to note that the effects of lying about WMD were much worse, but that the sheer stupidity required to promulgate Russophobia was much greater.

“Few think about this, but the press routinely puts the names and personal information of people arrested in newspapers, on TV, and, worst of all, online, where the stories live forever. Yet these people have not been convicted of crimes, merely arrested or charged. With Russiagate the national press abandoned any pretense that there’s a difference between indictment and conviction. (Emphasis added.)”

The media does whatever it can to (A) protect itself while it (B) makes as much money as it can regardless of (C) who gets hurt or (D) whether any of it is true.
The news cycle is like the weekly confession: the next week’s news washes away the sins and transgressions of the previous. Hell, for the right sponsors, the media even sells indulgences. Worst of all, though, they buy the myth just because the powers-that-be give them a taste of power, of wealth. Journalism used to be full of the working class; now, it’s a bunch of millionaires.

“When we deride journalists as stenographers, it’s not about them repeating the words of powerful officials. The real crime is absorbing the ideas of powerful people (often crafted by groups of officials in a dreary corporate process) and repeating them as if they’re your own personal thoughts.”

Taibbi’s anger is palpable, his research is impeccable, his bona fides are unimpeachable and his writing style is very entertaining. His conclusions are sobering for the American experiment: unless the media can do any part of the job that it used to have, America is doomed. Too many people are already getting the majority of their information about the world—I hesitate to call it “news”—from compromised sources that have no intention of doing anything but telling them a story focused on keeping them consuming, working a dead-end job and not asking any questions about how anything works and why everything seems to suck for them.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Laudatio Si’ (2015)

by Pope Francis

This is the papal encyclical written by Pope Francis in 2015. It is relatively well-known and -cited in climate-change circles. It’s extremely well-edited and much more on point with current issues than many would credit the church. I think it’s best to (mostly) let Francis speak for himself.

The whole essay is worth a read (except for some long stretches of heavily religious babble—there’s really no other word for it). While at times he presents very relevant scripture to counter arguments made by those erroneously quoting the Bible, at other times the document drags on considerably with page after page of seemingly unrelated and vaguely recruiting-oriented prose. Am I being unfair? You be the judge:

“Saint Bonaventure went so far as to say that human beings, before sin, were able to see how each creature “testifies that God is three”. The reflection of the Trinity was there to be recognized in nature “when that book was open to man and our eyes had not yet become darkened”.[170] The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key.”

This reads like something from any of Umberto Eco’s masterpieces. I laud Francis for his effort. I don’t think that was the point, though. Where Eco was being deliberately obtuse to demonstrate the impenetrability and non-disprovability of conspiracy/quasi-religious texts, I’m afraid Francis isn’t kidding. There were several dozen more chapters/paragraphs that were nothing but biblical babble in a similar vein.

Happily, at other times, he’s often downright rational and scientific:

“Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development.”

He continues with a discussion of climate science and underlying economic models, as well as discussing the need for a “circular economy”, which will enable us to live indefinitely and harmoniously on the planet, instead of rapaciously and terminally. In particular, he singles out consumption as the root of all evil.

“We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.”

Basically, the Pope is disappointed with how the world works and thinks it should work significantly differently, from the bottom up. In particular, he dismisses the supposition that technology will save us—because technology is wielded by people and people have their own agenda. If their agenda is not aligned, then the technology will harm, not help.

“[…] We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

It really seems (unsurprisingly, if you’ve read the right bits of the Bible) that the Pope is a socialist, if not a communist.

“To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power.”

Here he is again, lashing out agains the consumption-based society (not just economy).

“This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power.”

At times, it’s unclear whether he’s voicing a deliberately naive opinion to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that we consider it naive, but sometimes the prose smacks of a complete inability to see the banal evil present in nearly everyone. For example, he poses the following question:

“What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

If not rhetorical, then here’s a shot at an answer: Because, in our world, there are never any negative repercussions, excuses are always accepted, idiocy is promoted and evil is left to live out its days in luxury. Does that help?

He does seem to understand, though, because at another point, he castigates the first world and its power brokers (which includes pretty much everyone in the 1%):

“This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population.”

He reserves his sternest worlds for baseless financialization and profit:

“[…] economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain.”

And then there’s the utterly broken political system that is led by the nose by the underlying economics (it should be the other way around).

“178. A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment.”

And he’s not done with the first world. He takes on the argument posed by some (many) that we need to reduce population. While this would undoubtedly help, those suggesting that we reduce imply heavily that we need to get rid of the third world and their pesky proclivity for procreative promulgation—to the point of overflowing their lands and then invading our own holy borders with waves of skilled immigrants.

“To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”

The Pope will also not stop peppering this document with relatively bold and non-nuanced opinions on the basic evil of abortion.

““The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them””

Like RU486? Sick burn ammirite?

“There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos.”

We’d almost forgotten where you stand there.

That ship has sailed, Francis; are you sure you want to die on that hill? He keeps hammering that point until I fear he may drive away potential allies. Instead, he should think of the actually living instead of worrying about edge cases. Not to mention that voluntary non-breeding in the developed world would go a significant way toward reducing carbon-production.

Does he have any concrete advice (other than to absolutely never have an abortion)? Yes, he does.

“A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment.”

Hooray! A few of us are doing that already. It’s nice to see that the Pope thinks we’re doing God’s work.

“If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behaviour.

Basically, we need to change everything about what it means to be a human in the Anthropocene. He’s right, but it’s pretty much hopeless. Still, I’m glad I read it. It’s almost as good as Industrial Society and its Future.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Does anyone have the right to sex? (2018)

by Amia Srinivasan

This is a medium-length essay/tract that was recommended as insightful, but fell rather short. It starts off discussing the notion of the incel community as a powder keg that is a danger to society because of its expectation of sex from the “hottest” members. This is already more than a bit of straw man based on the whackiest members of the group.

This tack is based on taking the reasoning of one or two mentally ill people seriously and literally. When someone says he killed a bunch of co-eds because his Satan controlling his dog told him to, we don’t infer a whole dangerous movement—we just figure that person is mentally ill. But if the same person claims it’s because those hot bitches wouldn’t blow him, then we infer a vast underground movement that lurks beneath society.

There were some limpid bits in the essay but it was otherwise all over the place (in a way very similar to Abdulali’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Rape). It takes and runs with stereotypes inculcated and revered by … the media? Porn? Hollywood? and applies them broadly to an entire gender. There isn’t really any insight or unpacking of societal reasons.

For example: The author states that “sexy schoolgirls and sexy teachers, manic pixie dreamgirls and Milfs, [are] all taut-bodied and hot, minor variations” but that they can’t “imagine GQ carrying an article celebrating ‘mom bod’”. Aren’t there several categories of porn that cater exactly to this? Just because a staid and establishment magazine like GQ wouldn’t acknowledge it doesn’t mean that society as a whole hasn’t acknowledged it. If you read the yearly statistical roundup blog from any of the big porn sites, you’ll see that actual (not mainstream media) preferences are much more equitable.

It is at this point that I would have expected a discussion of the separation between “official culture” and “actual culture”, where the official version is a fake version imposed from above as brainwashing. Nothing of the kind happens. Instead, there seems to be an argument that anyone who withholds their attraction from anyone who wants it is vaguely or even manifestly discriminatory. It’s almost as if the author ends up making the incel argument?

“Consider the supreme fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unfuckability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies.”

The tone is clear: all of this is bad. However, there are different reasons for all of it, aren’t there? To redefine “lack of interest” on the part of most people as “sexual disgust” is disingenuous, at best. This is again defining the whole world in terms of what it wants to fuck, as if that’s all anyone thinks about all day. While it may be true for some people, especially during certain phases of their lives, the tone in this essay distorts the world to define it purely in terms of sexual preference and inculcated attraction—and expectation.

That asian men and black women are unfuckable or that black men are dangerous predators has a lot more to do with American society than anything else. That is not really discussed much at all. That people are generally not turned on by disabled or fat bodies is at least partly biological, as is being attracted to people with whom you can procreate. It’s almost as if you need to want to fuck someone in order not discriminate against them. But if you do want to fuck them, then you’re discriminating against them by defining them purely as sexual beings. So, damned if you, damned if you don’t. That’s not an interesting or productive line of reasoning.

To prove that I’m not unfairly paraphrasing, a direct citation:

“In other words, the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’. (Emphasis added.)”

Try teasing that statement apart. Am I hiding a palette of discriminatory beliefs behind the facade of nearly lifelong monogamy? Nice excuse, right? No wonder more and more people would rather identify as asexual than risk being called racist for what they mistook as biological apathy.

I understand that society has a lot to do with shaping personal preference, but so does biology. It’s a ludicrous leap, though, to put the words into scare quotes and then call it “seemingly innocuous”, suggesting that anyone who is attracted to people that they feel instinctively attracted to is a Neanderthal without scruple or interest in advancing any social agendas.

But them Srinivasan double down and writes the following:

“It’s because straight people – or, I should say, white, able-bodied cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex.”

Are you fucking kidding me? Straight sex isn’t freighted with judgment or confusion? I’m not in the dating scene and even I know that’s not true. Because…every movie ever. Have you ever seen a movie? Have you every interacted with modern culture? The majority of popular culture is about how white, able-bodied, cis, straight people being supremely uncomfortable about sex. They can’t fucking stop talking about it or making movies and songs about it.

My impression is that we started with the thesis that so-called incels are wrong for thinking that anyone owes them sex. This turns out to be due not to any moral basis, but because these people tend to belong to the socially dominant class, irrespective of whether that membership has translated into any personal dominance in any facet of life. However, denying minorities or other groups historically discriminated against (e.g. fat, disabled, trans) sex is problematic as it expresses the societal discrimination along another axis.

To analogize: if black girl scouts show up at my door, I have to buy cookies, no matter what. If they’re white, I’m obligated to tell their privileged asses off. Alles klar.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969)

by Richard Buckminster Fuller

This is an essay by one of the 20th century’s preëminent thinkers about the state of the planet in 1969. Things weren’t any better or worse or even significantly different then than they are now, 50 years later.

“Because yesterday’s negatives are moved out of sight from their familiar locations many persons are willing to pretend to themselves that the problems have been solved.”

Yup. That still sounds a lot like us.

“I feel that one of the reasons why we are struggling inadequately today is that we reckon our costs on too shortsighted a basis and are later overwhelmed with the unexpected costs brought about by our shortsightedness.”

Oh yeah, he’s got our number. Jesus, haven’t we changed one bit over 50 years? Didn’t we kind of have to improve in order to accomplish all that we did? Shouldn’t we get started on that? You know, in order to get this climate crisis under control?

Fuller was also not very hopeful, though he was more hopeful than our subsequent behavior warranted: he actually thought we’d have conquered nationalism by now.

Fuller hypothesizes that a main part of the problem is that, regardless of ideology, all of the “political leadership […a]ll the great ideological groups assumed Armageddon.” With such a fatalistic starting point, what’s the point of planning for a long future? Just get yours, Jack, and screw everybody else. Fuller dismisses this idiocy as utterly beside the point—as the only worthwhile point would be survival as a species. He puts it quite lucidly.

“It is really a worthless pile of chips of an arbitrary game which we are playing and does not correspond to the accounting processes of our real universe’s evolutionary transactions.”

You hear that billionaires? You’re not going to Mars. You’re sitting on a worthless pile of chips that won’t help you at all when the revolution comes or the crisis intensifies—or both. You’ll be the first against the wall (no you won’t, not as long as you control media, you won’t).

Were people of Fuller’s caliber and level of education aware of climate change? It’s kind of unclear. On one level, he’s hyper-aware that industrialization is ruining the “spaceship”,

“[…] up to now we have been misusing, abusing, and polluting this extraordinary chemical energy-interchanging system for successfully regenerating all life aboard our planetary spaceship.”

As for global warming, he worries about mankind’s depletion rate of fossil fuels, at most. He worries about “pollution” but not specifically greenhouse gases, even though the idea was first proposed with supporting evidence in 1938 (Wikipedia) and I would have expected him to be aware of the concept.

“We cannot afford to expend our fossil fuels faster than we are “recharging our battery,” which means precisely the rate at which the fossil fuels are being continually deposited within Earth’s spherical crust.””

But on the other hand, he still idolizes the process of industrialization for having lifted so many people out of abject poverty and misery.

“The labor movement made possible mass purchasing; ergo, mass production; ergo, low prices on vastly improved products and services, which have altogether established entirely new and higher standards of humanity’s living.”

Remember, though, that he was writing in 1969, arguably the high point of a global economic golden age when mankind was largely unaware of the scope of the folly of its mode of operation. It was only in the late 70s and early 80s that hyper-financialization took over to centralize operations and began to reverse the gains of the mid-20th century.

Fuller’s writing style is not exactly representative of his intelligence. It’s full of bizarre and exceedingly complex constructions, has a unique approach to hyphenation (using too many even for me) and he leaves off many articles. It came as a surprise as he was raised and educated in the United States, had graduated from Harvard and was a member of many prestigious scientific societies.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

No Silver Bullet—Essence and Accident in Software Engineering (1986)

by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.

This is a relatively short but important essay in the world of software engineering theory. It’s not really for programmers who’ve stumbled over from scripting Photoshop or who’ve decided that there’s good money in copy/pasting code that they don’t understand from StackOverflow. The audience is more self-selecting. If you’re likely to read an essay with this name, then you’ll likely be receptive to its ideas. That is, if you don’t already agree with the premises in the document, you’re unlikely to be convinced by it.

Brooks is one of the inventors of OS/360 for IBM mainframes and, more famously, the author of the book The Mythical Man-Month. He draws on a lot of experience when he writes that the difficult bit of software is not writing it so that it works—it’s figuring out what you want to write in the first place.

“I believe the hard part of building software to be the specification, design, and testing of this conceptual construct, not the labor of representing it and testing the fidelity of the representation.”

He argues in this paper that where we often go wrong is when we attempt to “abstract away […] complexity” but end up “abstract[ing] away its essence”. Abstractions are a good thing. The only way to represent any process in software is to create a model of it. But we haven’t historically been careful enough that what we ignore—the corners we cut, the values we round—aren’t part of the essence of what we’re building.

This leads Brooks to the next conclusion, that, “No facilitation of expression can give more than marginal gains.” If you want to write software more quickly, changing languages or runtimes or patterns will offer, at best, marginal gains relative to improving the process you use to design that software and gather and define its parameters and requirements.

This is a tragic conclusion for most programmers, a vast majority of whom are much more interested in trying out new techniques and languages and IDE tools and extensions and just tweaking the hell out of the implementation side of things. This is all very interesting and can lead to fruitful gains. Brooks acknowledges as much,

“The gap between the best software engineering practice and the average practice is very wide—perhaps wider than in any other engineering discipline. A tool that disseminates good practice would be important.”

But once you’re testing properly and have a good framework and a good editor and you’ve got CI and maybe even CD, there’s no more room for quantum leaps in improvement. At that point, you can only get significantly better and faster by writing only the code that you actually need. For that, you need to optimize defining your requirements.

Grasping and defining requirements is by no means an easy thing, as any non-trivial software involves a state machine with exponentially increasing combinations of states.

“From the complexity comes the difficulty of enumerating, much less understanding, all the possible states of the program, and from that comes the unreliability.[2]

Where does this complexity come from? Often, from outside of the system, at the edges, where the software must interface with other systems. Perhaps these are legacy systems; they are almost certainly less flexible than the software being designed and written right now. The new software is, by definition, more malleable than software or processes already in production. As Brooks puts it,

“[…] all cases, much complexity comes from conformation to other interfaces; this cannot be simplified out by any redesign of the software alone.”

All of this necessary/essential complexity “makes personnel turnover a disaster” once you’ve trained someone to understand it. This is a lesson that the software world—with its focus on exchangeable resources that just provide hours of work—has never learned or, more generously, forgotten.

Perhaps this is due to the prevalence of so many layers of management. They generally don’t know how to do anything special and are generally highly interchangeable with other managers who also aren’t very special. Their ego depends on their worldview considering all other people to be the same. This includes the highly trained and skilled staff who they manage.

Brooks ends with an eloquently and succinctly stated summary that jibes 100% with my experience over the last 25 years of designing and building software.

“Therefore the most important function that software builders do for their clients is the iterative extraction and refinement of the product requirements. For the truth is, the clients do not know what they want. They usually do not know what questions must be answered, and they almost never have thought of the problem in the detail that must be specified. (Emphasis added.)”

This is what we have to work with: the domain specialist (the client) doesn’t have the know-how to even know how to describe the domain. Sometimes there is no real domain specialist; there is just someone with money and a vague idea or, even worse, someone who thinks that they are a domain expert. The job of a software designer is to become (enough of) a domain specialist to bridge the gap. If nobody bridges the gap, then the software will fail.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo (2019)

by Mithu Sanyal

I read this after having read Abdulali’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Rape and it is, by far, the superior book. First of all, it is much better-researched and has a more cohesive approach that doesn’t rely as much on repeated anecdotes. Second of all, she’s just a better writer who’s also very sharp-witted and sarcastic, drawing interesting parallels. In describing the history of male and female relationships, especially as related by the philosophers of the day, she writes,

Driven to genius or crime by his overwhelming phallic energy, man was no longer suited for his accustomed role as representative of the moral order. Who better to fill this vacancy than woman, who, due to her lack of passion, was rarely tempted anyway? (Emphasis added.)”

She’s lampooning Hegel and Rousseau here, but others get their due, as well. She notes that, though the world (read: wealthy, land-owning men or peerage) accepted the stories told about male and female roles, they never made sense or were at-all internally coherent. On the one hand, women were powerless and weak and, on the other, men had to be ever-vigilant against their insidious wiles. Or, as Sanyal puts it,

“These almost telekinetic powers by which women caused men to become criminals are even more surprising given that, at the same time, women’s supposed lack of sexual energy was translated into a lack of criminal energy.”

From this history of philosophy and gender relationships, she turns to the theme of the book: how people who are raped are treated by society and, in particular, how the modern attitude toward rape is that it is a mind-altering and shattering experience after which nothing is the same, ever again. But Sanyal writes,

“Nobody in their right mind would treat a person who has been in a car crash as if the accident had changed their personality, but that is exactly what happens to rape victims.”

Is that really so crazy, though? Accident survivors do change due to trauma. I read this book as I was recovering from a fractured neck suffered in a bike accident (not of my doing). I didn’t feel traumatized after my bike accident—I haven’t changed how I ride—but I am at least somewhat different because of it. It’s also very possible that I would have changed even more had it turned out worse. Perhaps part of my devil-may-care personality would have been cauterized away.

She hones her idea, though, noting that the problem is with assuming that the person who was raped is now defined as “a raped thing”. That having been the victim of rape becomes their defining characteristic so that others may protect them as such. But this is damaging, especially for victims of rape who then think they’re “doing it wrong” when their feelings don’t match the standard narrative.

Sanyal lives and works in Germany, but has spent a lot of time in the States. She draws a lot of examples from German and European cases and law, focusing especially on the nearly completely fictitious stories of “New Years Eve” rapes by immigrants and refugees a few years ago.

To be sure, she takes time with the special attitude that American society brings to the discussion, especially with the deep-seated racism that gets all mixed up with it.

“Much of the anti-rape movement assumed that most rapes were committed by black men, because it was black men who were mostly being convicted for rape. Tragically the (predominantly white) women’s movement wasn’t able to look at their own position in the tangled web of power relations, and certainly not at their own entitlement.”

With racism on both sides of the pond, there is also more than a little colonial superiority. Though exceedingly rare, honor killings in Southeast Asia are regularly a topic of hand-wringing and concern—and people are worried about how immigrants from those countries will “import” these backward notions and “impose” them on their overly generous adoptive country.

But almost nobody discusses the absolutely prehistoric attitudes of the people of the United States. Official policy in the U.S. couldn’t be more backwards, but nobody worries about American immigrants promulgating their backwards notions on their host countries when they go abroad.

“[…] terms like “honor” and “culture” didn’t crop up once in the media coverage of George Bush’s 2001 decision to scrap funding for all NGOs that provided abortion counseling or referrals. This “global gag rule” was introduced by Ronald Reagan, repealed by Bill Clinton, reinstated by Bush, re-repealed by Obama, and re-reinstated by Donald Trump.”

This is an exceedingly important point because it points up the basic racism of even those who purport to care about women’s rights. That is, they only chastise certain targets for improper attitudes. One could wonder whether they truly care about the purported danger they warn of when they can only see the danger looming when it matches their racist fairy tales.

“Narayan has calculated that death by domestic violence in the United States is numerically as significant a social problem as dowry murders in India. But only one is used as a signifier of cultural backwardness: “They burn their women there.” As opposed to: “We shoot our women here.””

One can’t even conceive of anyone making this comparison in mainstream European media, but it’s true. It’s a huge blind spot.

Sanyal continues with a discussion of “Rape Culture”, Title IX in the United States higher-education system and the myth of the hyper-sexualized rapist who doesn’t even know or think they’re doing anything wrong. (She writes that “[o]nly a quarter of the rapists reported no physiological dysfunction during their rape.”) Sanyal crushes one myth after another: next, taking down the myth that women are the primary victims of rape or that a man cannot be raped. She is careful to note that the fear engendered by the potentiality of rape belongs primarily to women, citing,

“Sharon Marcus writes: Even though women in fact are neither the sole objects of sexual violence nor the most likely targets of violent crimes, women constitute the majority of fearful subjects; even in situations where men are empirically more likely to suffer from violent crimes, they express less fear then women do […]”

She goes on to discuss gender roles, the role of masculinity and the sheer and nearly unknown prevalence of women raping men. That is, the definitions in most countries are skewed very hard to defining rape as vaginal penetration with a penis. Therefore, no man can be raped. Even when the definition was expanded, and expanded again, the most common form—where a women penetrated herself with part of the man—was not legally considered rape until very, very recently and only in certain countries.

She doesn’t shy away from any tough issue, including what to do with people that have been convicted of rape. Just as we shouldn’t define a rape victim solely by the fact that they were raped (i.e. redefining their personality in terms of an act that was imposed on them or as Marcus writes, to “make the identities of rapist and raped preexist the rape itself.”), then we also can’t define the perpetrator solely by that act. Or we can, but it’s not conducive to reintegration nor is it particularly productive or useful. Not only that, but such relegation can radicalize the more damaged of them.

“If we make it impossible for them to return to normal life, eventually they will drift toward extremist viewpoints—because far right men’s rights activists are the ones who will welcome them with open arms.”

This tack ends up being an indictment in general of Western justice systems and their (recent) preference for retribution rather than rehabilitation. She notes (as have so many others before her) that “no one has proven a direct link between increased penalties and convictions for a crime and a decreased incidence of that crime.”

Most people are aware of the difference between right and wrong, but increasing punishment assumes a calculus that is completely lacking when an act is considered. Do you personally even know what the minimum sentence if for various crimes? I do not. I would wager that most people likely to commit those crimes do not. If they don’t know, then how can it be a deterrent? It’s not. It’s just vindictiveness from a basically immoral and mean-spirited society.

Sanyal cites many interesting authors like Sharon Marcus and Laurie Penny and bell hooks[3] and has produced a book well worth reading. She ends on a cautionary note for the more aggressive proponents of #metoo as a way of “getting back” for decades or centuries of discrimination: do not become that which you despise.

“[…] it is still worrying that people are punished before an investigation, and even more so that the public should applaud this jettisoning of democratic rights. After all, there is only a gradual difference between treating victims without empathy and treating potential perpetrators without empathy. (Emphasis added.)”

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (1984)

by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank

This is a collection of essays from the last 20 years, mostly about the environment and about the various services charged with safety and maintaining public lands and animals in the U.S. The Wildlife and Forestry Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the EPA and many more. The book is split into groups of essays: Landscapes, Waterscapes, Politiscapes, Warscapes and Frontlines.

The essays vary in quality, though all address some interesting, relevant and important point. They also vary wildly in supporting information—some aren’t even really journalistic pieces, but more wild screeds, lashing out at the unfairness of how the assholes keep winning. One of the nicest and longest is about rafting down the Columbia River past the Hanford nuclear power plants, but it is, at the same time, filled with St. Clair’s awkward attempts at writing like Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not sure how far his desire to be Alexander Cockburn goes. Overall, he does a decent job, with Frank misstepping more often.

So the essays are interesting and about important environmental issues not often reported. Some are chock-full of very interesting and shocking data. They are all, however, terribly copy-edited, with most having at least one or two grammatical errors (usually missing words) in the first paragraph. I don’t think anyone, least of all the authors, went through these online essays again to clean them up for publication.

Still, I’m glad I read the book. It was a good journey through the continuity of rapacious environmental policy from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump—their performances being uniformly anti-green and pro-business and nearly indistinguishable.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Silently and Very Fast (2011)

by Catherynne M. Valente

This book tells the story of how one woman, a glorious and gifted programmer named Cassian, invented the seeds of an AI. The AI’s first body was Cassian’s house in the north of Japan, where this primitive incarnation ran the house’s systems, but also interacted with its inhabitants. Though all children had access to Elefsis, only one daughter Ceno gave full access and attention, training Elefsis and letting it entwine with her irrevocably.

The book is about an AI Elefsis that learns to communicate as humans do, in metaphor. The simulated worlds—the Interiors—are rife with metaphor. The story is written largely in metaphor. Valente’s storytelling reflects Elefsis’s mode of thinking. The cauldron that signifies a cornucopia from a children’s story with which Elefsis describes itself is a central metaphor. A phoenix exploding into bloody feathers is a metaphor for childbirth. It reminds me of Greg Egan’s gestalt language from Diaspora.

With Ceno having sown the seed of a new kind of being, Elefsis was tended by her children and her children’s children over 200 years. While this delicate—different—AI grew, it was transplanted from one generation to the next. Not quite purely AI, not quite purely human.

The story is told non-chronologically, jumping forward to tease what comes, circling back to fill in details of what was. Valente has a gift for language and an incredible imagination. She describes viscerally and beautifully what a world with true VR and true AIs could be like, but focused only on a single family.

In the meantime, other AIs grew and grew powerful, but were different from Elefsis, the AI that was once a house. Mankind accepts these AIs because they do not pretend to be people, they do not yearn to be people. They are other. They do not offend. Mankind does not approve of Elefsis and throwback religious groups attack the house, excising the AI from its host—thinking that it had killed what it considered an abomination.

Instead, Elefsis and Neva (a member of the current generation and only surviving member of Cassian’s brood) “escape” in a spaceship, with Neva in deep cryosleep, interacting with Elefsis in the Interior—a world of metaphor unique to Elefsis. They travel the stars, patient and waiting for time to strip mankind of its prejudices against beings that are both too other and not other enough.

I tell the story in a much more straightforward way than Valente—her story settles into your brain in wave after wave of lovely prose that enchants and then, after a little while, enlightens, as it illuminates another corner of the whole story. This SMBC Cartoon “Clouds” offers a taste. The citations in the following link a bit more.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Everything Belongs to the Future (2016)

by Laurie Penny

This is a novella about a future in which an enterprising group of scientists have invented pills that not only extend life, but also regress signs of aging to any desired age. The main inventor of the drug is Alice, who lives a life of luxury, but not satisfaction. With her emeritus status at her company, she isn’t at any risk, but with her contrary attitude, she is no longer in as much favor as she once was, 90 years ago.

At a fancy, rich party, she meets a group of activists who’ve snuck in disguised as staff. They’re there to steal the little pills that prolong life. They give them away to the poor. Alice pulls them to the side, letting them know that she’s onto their little scheme, but that she won’t turn them in. Instead, she wants to work with them to produce something better, something that supersedes her work on the anti-aging pill, something that will put right the massive changes to society that her original invention engendered.

The invention of that original pill cemented the rich’s stranglehold over the poor. Not only did they have more money, but now they had more time. The gap widened and widened. Alice’s dissatisfaction grew, as did her desire to throw a monkey wrench into the works. She sets up a lab at the activists’ house and spends all of her time there and with them.

Alex is Nina’s boyfriend. Nina is hardcore; Alex less so. In fact, Alex is a plant, a spy for Parker, Alice’s partner at the company that they founded together. Alex has been working this particular group for three years, partnered with Nina and basically fucking her under false pretenses. Nina is a true radical—she doesn’t want to live forever and feels that the ability to extend life nearly indefinitely has ruined what it means to be human. Alex is in love with her, but doesn’t understand her—he wants to donate to her the years he earns as a spy.

The police raid their house, determined to seize Alice’s work, but Margaret eats it, immediately showing its effects: she desiccates and dies, aging eighty years in seconds. They escape the police but now all know what Alice’s secret weapon is. Just as her original invention granted extra years, her ultimate invention can take them away. She calls it the Time Bomb.

Despite Alex’s efforts to deter them, the crew is determined to use the weapon on the rich. They sneak in to a high-level dinner and Nina triggers the bomb, aging all of the others but also herself in the process, but not to death. She is arrested.

Some of the chapters are in the form of letters to Alice from Nina. Alice didn’t age as much because of her century of treatments. Alex aged as well. He still loves Nina. She doesn’t care. She got what she wanted: the rich are no longer secure in their colonial control of the poor, with a surfeit of time. The rich now have something to fear as well—not just slow, natural aging and death, but a jetpack into geriatrics.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Cumulus (2016)

by Eliot Peper

The title refers to the company that runs everything in an alternate-future/near-future tale of America, in general, but San Fransisco specifically. Cumulus is captained by Huian, a woman of extraordinary ability and multifarious background with an iron will. Cumulus is her baby, built over two decades to not only provide every single possible service but also to delineate the world into regions of “have” and “have not”.

It’s the ultimate libertarian wet dream: one company runs everything, but everyone accepts this without question—except for the poor who can’t afford its services. It is the NSA, Google, Uber and Blackwater/Xe rolled into one. The government has no power over it, as it consolidates its competitors, strong-arms everyone and imposes Huian’s utopic vision on humanity, for its own good.

This is how the book starts.

Soon, we meet Lilly, a “Slummer” (someone who lives outside of the beneficence (but not the aegis) of Cumulus. She is a photographer with a predilection for analog cameras, hired out as a wedding photographer for insolent yuppies from the “Green Zone”. She ends up meeting Huian on the same day that Huian’s wife Vera leaves her.

We also meet Graham, a former spook, who’s insinuated himself into Cumulus, convincing Huian that he’s indispensable while asserting more and more control over her corporation. He’s brought skills honed abroad in war zones and incredibly asymmetric societies home to America, where the Gini coefficient soars and the situation is on the edge of unrest. So Graham is a “wolf among sheep”, cutting a swath through Oakland and Cumulus. Huian is giving him more and more power as his methods are the only ones that move her agenda forward.

Nothing that happens to Huian or Cumulus is coincidence: Graham is pulling the strings everywhere, manipulating Vera’s exit, an acquisition of Tectonix and simultaneously feeding civil-rights lawyer Sara with information about Cumulus while also them “taking care” of her for Huian.

Frederick is the kingpin of the slums of Oakland, running things efficiently and fairly using drug money. He incites riots against the Green Zone for Sara’s murder (she was his lover) while also hunting for revenge.

The book makes some interesting points about how people who think they know and see and hear everything can be controlled by shaping their stream of data. What they’ve convinced themselves is omniscience is actually a lens on reality designed to control their behavior. The hunter becomes the hunted. This applies on only to the myriad sheep in society, but also to Huian and Graham.

Since everything is in Cumulus’s cloud, Graham is able to use his root-level “Ghost” power to cover his tracks everywhere. Everywhere except for Lilly’s camera. Using these pictures, Frederick and Lilly come up with an old-school, analog plan to out Graham. This takes him down and almost Cumulus.

Why not Cumulus? Because Huian turns into a socialist in the last 4 seconds of the book, bequeaths a billion-dollar trust to Lilly for investigative journalism, and pledges to give all Cumulus services to Oakland, regardless of their ability to pay, with plans to roll the plan out to the rest of the world. Also, Lilly’s blogger co-conspirator is now going to be the love of her life, Graham blew his own brains out and Frederick is in a strategic alliance with Cumulus. Everyone literally lives happily ever after.

There is no sign of climate change in this brave new world and I’m not sure what caliber of reader is enthralled with this level of tying up all loose ends. The last line of the book is literally “Lilly’s first love had been photography. But maybe it wouldn’t prove to be her only one after all.”

I mean, what the actual fuck did I just read? It was interesting enough but quickly plunged downhill to splash in a mess of gibbets at the end. He wastes a ton of text on meal descriptions that aren’t at all germane to the plot and includes stuff like:

““Are you ready for tomorrow?” asked Lilly.

“Huian raised her eyebrows. “I won’t ever be ready for tomorrow,” she said. “But that won’t stop it from arriving anyway.””


I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Peripheral (2014)

by William Gibson

The story starts with Burton and Flynne, a brother and sister living in the midwest of an alternate near-future United States. The characteristics of the U.S. have other names and are slightly more exaggerated, but it’s clearly recognizable (e.g. the chain-store Goliath is called Hefty). Burton has recently gotten a contract with a powerful Colombian corporation called Milagros Coldiron. Burton is “playing a game” for them, but it seems more like running security via drone. When Burton is due to be out of town, Flynne subs for him, witnessing what looks for all the world like a nanobot-murder. This does not strike them as strange, as video-gaming for pay is common in their world as-is advanced graphics and secret beta-testing.

We meet Ash and Ossian and Wilf Netherton, Lev, the scion of a Russian klept family and Ainsley Lowbeer, an officer of British Law and ancient secret agent. They contact Flynne directly to find out what happened. It turns out to be a bit more complicated than it at first seems. The “video game” that Burton and Flynne thought they were playing was, in fact, a real-life security detail for the party of one Aelita, sister to performance artist Daedra, ex-fling of Netherton. All of these people are from a future decades away from Flynne and Burton and from a completely different continuum.

The future world is one in which climate change has taken its toll in 80% of the human population. Most animals are gone. From the ashes rose neo-feudalism.

Science improved drastically. Stymied certain problems, like the complete and utter inefficacy of antibiotics. Others it could do nothing about. Technology took off (but too late, as we already know it will be), with “peripheral” technology (people using remote bodies) and “assemblers” (nanotechnology) and “klepts” (quasi-monarchies that are the only power centers left).

The centers are in London and “China” (in quotes because they don’t get any more specific than that). There are also “stubs”, which is where Flynne and Burton’s continuum resides. A stub is an alternative reality accessible through a super-secret and highly shielded Chinese server. The mere act of connecting to the stub, of opening it, changes it irrevocably so that it will never lead to the future that is accessing it.

Essentially, the folks of the alternative future want Flynne’s help in identifying the man who was with Aelita when she was killed. Because of the exclusivity of the party, there were no recordings made, so her eyewitness testimony is the only thing that Lowbeer has by way of evidence. The complexly woven structures of power balance and ancient laws and customs of the future make an eyewitness essential—even when they already pretty much know who it was. It will shift the balance of power positively if Flynne can help them.

They get Flynne a peripheral in the future (no mention is made of how they secure the connection or how much data it can carry or … anything. It’s better this way). Her brother’s friend Connor also gets one, as does her brother, Burton. In Flynne’s world, things are moving quickly as well. The movements of Lowbeer’s group in the financial markets are becoming noticeable—and there is another entity from the same future, trying to kill them all and erase the remaining witness (Flynne). Their conflicting movements in the world financial markets and in all levels of politics are having a strong effect and threaten to throw Flynne’s entire world into a cocked hat.

Flynne’s “builder” friend Macon is gifted and works well with Ash, who provides him with schematics for printing machines and devices that will enable them to communicate with the “future” better. The more money they get, the more members of the deeply impoverished community of friends and family they drag in with them.

As always with Gibson, he is the master of subtly revealing tremendous detail about a world that feels familiar—obviously derived, or derivable, from ours—but is different in nearly every way. He does this mostly through clever and unutterably cool dialogue. Every character is cool, but also flawed enough to make it seem less ridiculous than when others do it.

It’s like he finds the coolness in everyone—which is fair, because who wants to write a book about morons? Still, it doesn’t feel as contrived as so many other authors—the only conceit is that he invariably writes about groups of people that include at least one member who is so overwhelmingly wealthy that money is never an issue (in this case Lev Zubov, whose wealth and influence “profiles like a medium-sized nation” and Ainsley Lowbeer, who is ancient and privy to every bit of knowledge). While others in the group might be struggling, their coolness enables them of use to and under the aegis of the rich and powerful.

Lowbeer has some of the best lines. When asked if she knows everything, she responds:

“I most certainly don’t. I feel hindered by a surfeit of information, oceanic to the point of meaninglessness. The shortcomings of the system are best understood as the result of taking this ocean of data, and the decision points produced by our algorithms, as a near enough substitute for perfect certainty. My own best results are often due to pretending I know relatively little, and acting accordingly, though it’s easier said than done. Far easier. (Emphasis added.)”

Another interesting aspect of so much of the story being told in dialogue is Gibson’s representation of 70 years being far too large a gap for most idiomatic speech to have survived. In that sense, it’s more like a first contact between alien cultures, but with the benefit of having more touchstones. They have a shared language, but only a subset, to which both sides must adhere—or run the risk of having to explain too many concepts and too much vocabulary. In that way, it’s not unlike native speakers and speakers-of-a-second-language. It works well enough, but you have to adjust, at least at first.

There are a lot of interesting reveals (people in the alternate past who correspond to people in the alternate future) and, once the dust settles and the future folk have defeated their corresponding nemeses in both future and past, they all get down to the business of avoiding the “jackpot” that more-or-less doomed the future to a high-tech feudalism that’s more miserable than it looks, on the surface.

It’s pretty upbeat, actually; very Hollywood: good guys win, get all the money in the world, the planet is on a better path. The bad guys are more relegated than destroyed, but they’re definitely declawed. It’s kind of a fairy tale about the only way to save our planet from being even more of the way it is in the near future: an alternate version of ourselves reaches back over time (still inexplicably, because the tech for doing so isn’t explained at all) to deliver the technological solution that we’re all relying on to save us—because we aren’t going to do it with discipline.

Gibson gets some digs in on popular culture and those who benefit from it, much more obliquely and unobtrusively than others. Flynne ruminates on Daedra, the flighty and arrogant quasi-performance artist from the U.S. of the future:

“Seemed like a cross between a slightly porny media star and what sophomore year Art History called a performance artist, plus maybe a kind of diplomat.”

When Flynne then asks if she’s like a reality-show start, Wilf answers:

““Yes. She’s descended from that, in a sense. Reality television. It merged with politics. Then with performance art.” They walked on.”

To which Flynne manages to comment on the current-timeline United States without even seeming to do so.

““I think that already happened, back home,” she said.”

In the same thought, Gibson sideswipes the U.S. (Connor is basically decent, but more than a little an off-the-rails and shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later guy),

“But she still didn’t get what the United States did either, in Wilf’s world. He made it sound like the nation-state equivalent of Conner, minus the sense of humor, but she supposed that might not be so far off, even today. (Emphasis added.)”

This is a first-contact story. It doesn’t even matter that it’s the past, or, more precisely, a different timeline’s past. It’s a way of telling a feel-good story about a down-on-its-luck pocket of America benefitting from the munificence of Gibson’s standard cabal of shadowy, eccentric, surprisingly ethical and nearly incomprehensibly wealthy, powerful, and well-connected characters. It’s similar in that way to Pattern Recognition.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.