Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2021-01-18: Review: The Secret Barrister

Review: The Secret Barrister, by The Secret Barrister

Publisher Picador
Copyright 2018
Printing 2019
ISBN 1-5098-4115-6
Format Kindle
Pages 344

The Secret Barrister is a survey and critique of the criminal legal system of England and Wales. The author is an anonymous barrister who writes a legal blog of the same name (which I have not read).

A brief and simplified primer for those who, like me, are familiar with the US legal system but not the English one: A barrister is a lawyer who argues cases in court, as distinct from a solicitor who does all the other legal work (and may make limited court appearances). If you need criminal legal help in England and Wales, you hire a solicitor, and they are your primary source of legal advise. If your case goes to court, your solicitor will generally (not always) refer the work of arguing your case before a judge and jury to a barrister and "instruct" them in the details of your argument. The job of the barrister is then to handle the courtroom trial, offer trial-specific legal advice, and translate your defense (or the crown's prosecution) into persuasive courtroom arguments.

Unlike the United States, with its extremely sharp distinction between prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys, criminal barristers in England and Wales argue both prosecutions and defenses depending on who hires them. (That said, the impression I got from this book is that the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service is moving England closer to the US model and more prosecutions are now handled by barristers employed directly by the CPS, whom I assume do not take defense cases.) Barristers follow the cab-rank rule, which means that, like a taxicab, they are professionally obligated to represent people on a first-come, first-serve basis and are not allowed to pick and choose clients.

(Throughout, I'm referencing the legal system of England and Wales because the author restricts his comments to it. Presumably this is because the Scottish — and Northern Irish? — legal systems are different yet again in ways I do not know.)

If details like this sound surprising, you can see the appeal of this book to me. It's easy, in the US, to have a vast ignorance about the legal systems of other countries or even the possibility of different systems, which makes it hard to see how our system could be improved. I had a superficial assumption that since US law started as English common law, the US and English legal systems would be substantially similar. And they are to an extent; they're both adversarial rather than inquisitorial, for example (more on that in a moment). But the current system of criminal prosecution evolved long after US independence and thus evolved differently despite similar legal foundations. Those differences are helpful for this American to ponder the road not taken and the impact of our respective choices.

That said, explaining the criminal legal system to Americans isn't the author's purpose. The first fifty pages are that beginner's overview, since apparently even folks who live in England are confused by the ubiquity of US legal dramas (not that those are very accurate representations of the US legal system either). The rest of the book, and its primary purpose, is an examination of the system's failings, starting with the magistrates' courts (which often use lay judges and try what in the US would be called misdemeanors, although as discussed in this book their scope is expanding). Other topics include problems with bail, how prosecution is structured, how victims and witnesses are handled, legal aid, sentencing, and the absurd inadequacy of compensation for erroneous convictions.

The most useful part of this book for me, apart from the legal system introduction, was the two chapters the author spends arguing first for and then against replacing an adversarial system with an inquisitorial system (the French criminal justice system, for example). When one is as depressed about the state of one's justice system as both I and the author are, something radically different sounds appealing. The author first makes a solid case for the inquisitorial system and then tries to demolish it, still favoring the adversarial system, and I liked that argument construction.

The argument in favor of an adversarial system is solid and convincing, but it's also depressing. It's the argument of someone who has seen the corruption, sloppiness, and political motivations in an adversarial system and fears what would happen if they were able to run rampant under a fig leaf of disinterested objectivity. I can't disagree, particularly when starting from an adversarial system, but this argument feels profoundly cynical. It reminds me of the libertarian argument for capitalism: humans are irredeemably awful, greed and self-interest are the only reliable or universal human motives, and therefore the only economic system that can work is one based on and built to harness greed, because expecting any positive characteristics from humans collectively is hopelessly naive. The author of this book is not quite that negative in their argument for an adversarial system, but it's essentially the same reasoning: the only way a system can be vaguely honest is if it's constantly questioned and attacked. It can never be trusted to be objective on its own terms. I wish the author had spent more time on the obvious counter-argument: when the system is designed for adversarial combat, it normalizes and even valorizes every dirty tactic that might result in a victory. The system reinforces our worst impulses, not to mention grinding up and destroying people who cannot afford their own dirty tricks.

The author proposes several explanations for the problems they see in the criminal legal system, including "tough on crime" nonsense from politicians that sounds familiar to this American reader. Most problems, though, they trace back to lack of funding: of the police, of the courts, of the prosecutors, and of legal aid. I don't know enough about English politics to have an independent opinion on this argument, but the stories of outsourcing to the lowest bidder, overworked civil servants, ridiculously low compensation rates, flawed metrics like conviction rates, and headline-driven political posturing that doesn't extend to investing in necessary infrastructure like better case-tracking systems sounds depressingly familiar.

This is one of those books where I appreciated the content but not the writing. It's not horrible, but the sentences are ponderous and strained and the author is a bit too fond of two-dollar words. They also have a dramatic and self-deprecating way of describing their own work that I suspect they thought was funny but that I found grating. By the end of this book, I was irritated enough that I can't recommend it. But the content was interesting, even the critique of a political system that isn't mine, and it prompted some new thoughts on the difficulties of creating a fair justice system. If you can deal with the author's writing style, you may also enjoy it.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2021-01-04: New year haul

For once, I've already read and reviewed quite a few of these books.

Elizabeth Bear — Machine (sff)
Timothy Caulfield — Your Day, Your Way (non-fiction)
S.A. Chakraborty — The City of Brass (sff)
John Dickerson — The Hardest Job in the World (non-fiction)
Tracy Deonn — Legendborn (sff)
Lindsay Ellis — Axiom's End (sff)
Alix E. Harrow — The Once and Future Witches (sff)
TJ Klune — The House in the Cerulean Sea (sff)
Maria Konnikova — The Biggest Bluff (non-fiction)
Talia Levin — Culture Warlords (non-fiction)
Yoon Ha Lee — Phoenix Extravagent (sff)
Yoon Ha Lee, et al. — The Vela (sff)
Michael Lewis — Flash Boys (non-fiction)
Michael Lewis — Losers (non-fiction)
Michael Lewis — The Undoing Project (non-fiction)
Megan Lindholm — Wizard of the Pigeons (sff)
Nathan Lowell — Quarter Share (sff)
Adrienne Martini — Somebody's Gotta Do It (non-fiction)
Tamsyn Muir — Princess Florinda and the Forty-Flight Tower (sff)
Naomi Novik — A Deadly Education (sff)
Margaret Owen — The Merciful Crow (sff)
Anne Helen Peterson — Can't Even (non-fiction)
Devon Price — Laziness Does Not Exist (non-fiction)
The Secret Barrister — The Secret Barrister (non-fiction)
Studs Terkel — Working (non-fiction)
Kathi Weeks — The Problem with Work (non-fiction)
Reeves Wiedeman — Billion Dollar Loser (non-fiction)

Rather a lot of non-fiction in this batch, much more than usual. I've been in a non-fiction mood lately.

So many good things to read!

2021-01-03: Review: The Once and Future Witches

Review: The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow

Publisher Redhook Books
Copyright October 2020
ISBN 0-316-42202-9
Format Kindle
Pages 515

Once upon a time there were three sisters.

They were born in a forgotten kingdom that smelled of honeysuckle and mud, where the Big Sandy ran wide and the sycamores shone white as knuckle-bones on the banks. The sisters had no mother and a no-good father, but they had each other; it might have been enough.

But the sisters were banished from their kingdom, broken and scattered.

The Once and Future Witches opens with Juniper, the youngest, arriving in the city of New Salem. The year is 1893, but not in our world, not quite; Juniper has witch-ways in her pocket and a few words of power. That's lucky for her because the wanted posters arrived before she did.

Unbeknownst to her or to each other, her sisters, Agnes and Bella, are already in New Salem. Agnes works in a cotton mill after having her heart broken one too many times; the mill is safer because you can't love a cotton mill. Bella is a junior librarian, meek and nervous and uncertain but still fascinated by witch-tales and magic. It's Bella who casts the spell, partly by accident, partly out of wild hope, but it was Juniper arriving in the city who provided the final component that made it almost work. Not quite, not completely, but briefly the lost tower of Avalon appears in St. George's Square. And, more importantly, the three sisters are reunited.

The world of the Eastwood sisters has magic, but the people in charge of that world aren't happy about it. Magic is a female thing, contrary to science and, more importantly, God. History has followed a similar course to our world in part because magic has been ruthlessly suppressed. Inquisitors are a recent memory and the cemetery has a witch-yard, where witches are buried unnamed and their ashes sown with salt. The city of New Salem is called New Salem because Old Salem, that stronghold of witchcraft, was burned to the ground and left abandoned, fit only for tourists to gawk at the supposedly haunted ruins. The women's suffrage movement is very careful to separate itself from any hint of witchcraft or scandal, making its appeals solely within the acceptable bounds of the church.

Juniper is the one who starts to up-end all of that in New Salem. Juniper was never good at doing what she was told.

This is an angry book that feels like something out of another era, closer in tone to a Sheri S. Tepper or Joanna Russ novel than the way feminism is handled in recent work. Some of that is the era of the setting, before women even had the right to vote. But primarily it's because Harrow, like those earlier works, is entirely uninterested in making excuses or apologies for male behavior. She takes an already-heated societal conflict and gives the underdogs magic, which turns it into a war. There is likely a better direct analogy from the suffrage movement, but the comparison that came to my mind was if Martin Luther King, Jr. proved ineffective or had not existed, and instead Malcolm X or the Black Panthers became the face of the Civil Rights movement.

It's also an emotionally exhausting book. The protagonists are hurt and lost and shattered. Their moments of victory are viciously destroyed. There is torture and a lot of despair. It works thematically; all the external solutions and mythical saviors fail, but in the process the sisters build their own strength and their own community and rescue themselves. But it's hard reading at times if you're emotionally invested in the characters (and I was very invested). Harrow does try to balance the losses with triumphs and that becomes more effective and easier to read in the back half of the book, but I struggled with the grimness at the start.

One particular problem for me was that the sisters start the book suspicious and distrustful of each other because of lies and misunderstandings. This is obvious to the reader, but they don't work through it until halfway through the book. I can't argue with this as a piece of characterization — it made sense to me that they would have reacted to their past the way that they did. But it was still immensely frustrating to read, since in the meantime awful things were happening and I wanted them to band together to fight. They also worry over the moral implications of the fate of their father, whereas I thought the only problem was that the man couldn't die more than once. There too, it makes sense given the moral framework the sisters were coerced into, but it is not my moral framework and it was infuriating to see them stay trapped in it for so long.

The other thing that I found troubling thematically is that Harrow personalizes evil. I thought the more interesting moral challenge posed in this book is a society that systematically abuses women and suppresses their power, but Harrow gradually supplants that systemic conflict with a villain who has an identity and a backstory. It provides a more straightforward and satisfying climax, and she does avoid the trap of letting triumph over one character solve all the broader social problems, but it still felt too easy. Worse, the motives of the villain turn out to be at right angles to the structure of the social oppression. It's just a tool he's using, and while that's also believable, it means the transfer of the narrative conflict from the societal to the personal feels like a shying away from a sharper political point. Harrow lets the inhabitants of New Salem off too easily by giving them the excuse of being manipulated by an evil mastermind.

What I thought Harrow did handle well was race, and it feels rare to be able to say this about a book written by and about white women. There are black women in New Salem as well, and they have their own ways and their own fight. They are suspicious of the Eastwood sisters because they're worried white women will stir up trouble and then run away and leave the consequences to fall on black women... and they're right. An alliance only forms once the white women show willingness to stay for the hard parts. Black women are essential to the eventual success of the protagonists, but the opposite is not necessarily true; they have their own networks, power, and protections, and would have survived no matter what the Eastwoods did. The book is the Eastwoods' story, so it's mostly concerned with white society, but I thought Harrow avoided both making black women too magical or making white women too central. They instead operate in parallel worlds that can form the occasional alliance of mutual understanding.

It helps that Cleopatra Quinn is one of the best characters of the book.

This was hard, emotional reading. It's the sort of book where everything has a price, even the ending. But I'm very glad I read it. Each of the three sisters gets their own, very different character arc, and all three of those arcs are wonderful. Even Agnes, who was the hardest character for me to like at the start of the book and who I think has the trickiest story to tell, becomes so much stronger and more vivid by the end of the book. Sometimes the descriptions are trying a bit too hard and sometimes the writing is not quite up to the intended goal, but some of the descriptions are beautiful and memorable, and Harrow's way of weaving the mythic and the personal together worked for me.

This is a more ambitious book than The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and while I think the ambition exceeded Harrow's grasp in a few places and she took a few thematic short-cuts, most of it works. The characters felt like living and changing people, which is not easy given how heavily the story structure leans on maiden, mother, and crone archetypes. It's an uncompromising and furious book that turns the anger of 1970s feminist SF onto themes that are very relevant in 2021. You will have to brace yourself for heartbreak and loss, but I think it's fantasy worth reading. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2021-01-01: 2020 Book Reading in Review

In 2020, I finished and reviewed 42 books, two more than 2019 (although I had finished but not reviewed two books at the end of 2019, so the total is even more similar than that). This is the best year for reading in terms of book count since 2012, despite being seriously distracted by a new job, a pandemic, and US political meltdowns. Those distractions do show up in the drop in page count.

If it weren't for the pandemic, the count would have been higher. Just as I got into a rhythm of reading while I exercised, gyms became a bad idea for the rest of the year. Treadmills are good for reading; long walks around the neighborhood not so much. That time went to podcasts instead, which I'm not too sad about but which don't prompt reviews.

Finding the mental space and energy to write reviews proved as much of a challenge as finding time to read this year, and I once again had to do some catch-up at the end of the year. To the extent that I have goals for 2021, it's to tighten up the elapsed time between finishing a book and writing a review so that the reviews don't pile up.

I read one book this year that I rated 10 out of 10: Michael Lewis's The Fifth Risk, which is partly about the US presidential transition and is really about what the US government does and what sort of people make careers in civil service. This book is brilliant, fascinating, and surprisingly touching, and I wish it were four times as long. If anything, it's even more relevant today as we enter another transition than it was when Lewis wrote it or when I read it.

There were so many 9 out of 10 ratings this year that it's hard to know where to start. I read the last Murderbot novella by Martha Wells (Exit Strategy) and then the first Murderbot novel (Network Effect), both of which were everything I was hoping for. Murderbot's sarcastic first-person voice continues to be a delight, and I expect Network Effect to take home several 2021 awards. I'm eagerly awaiting the next novel, Fugitive Telemetry, currently scheduled for the end of April, 2021.

Also on the fiction side were Alix E. Harrow's wonderful debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a fierce novel about family and claiming power that will hopefully win the 2020 Mythopoeic Award (which was delayed by the pandemic), and TJ Klune's heart-warming The House in the Cerulean Sea, my feel-good novel of the year. Finally, Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth were a glorious mess in places, but I had more fun reading and discussing those books than I've had with any novel in a very long time.

On the non-fiction side, Tressie McMillan Cottom's Thick is the best collection of sociology that I've read. It's not easy reading, but that book gave me a new-found appreciation and understanding of sociology and what it's trying to accomplish. Gretchen McCulloch's Because Internet is much easier reading but similarly perspective-enhancing, helping me understand (among other things) how choice of punctuation and capitalization expands the dynamic range of meaning in informal text conversation. Finally, Nick Pettigrew's Anti-Social is a funny, enlightening, and sobering look at the process of addressing low-level unwanted behavior that's directly relevant to the current conflicts over the role of policing in society.

The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

2020-12-31: Review: A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking

Review: A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher Red Wombat Studio
Copyright July 2020
Format Kindle
Pages 287

Mona is fourteen, an orphan, and works in the bakery owned by her Aunt Tabitha. She's also a magicker, although a very minor one. She can tell bread to do things, like bake properly or slice itself, and can make gingerbread men dance. Also, there's Bob, her sourdough starter, into whom she put a bit too much panicked magic when she was ten. Her magic is a useful small talent for a baker, but nothing all that exceptional.

The dead body she finds in the kitchen when opening the bakery is certainly exceptional.

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking starts as a minor murder mystery. There are constables and sweet buns and Mona is accused of murder by an officious inquisitor, which was rather terrifying, but everything seems like it will work out and get back to normal. Except it won't, because someone is murdering magickers and the authorities who are supposed to be helping Mona don't appear to be on her side.

This is a very Ursula Vernon sort of book. (T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym that Vernon uses when not writing children's books.) The protagonist is brave, scared, and stubborn, the first-person narration has a stream-of-consciousness feel and an undercurrent of constant curiosity, and the story has a strong "this is awful but moping about it won't help so we may as well get on with it" energy. It is (as you might guess from the age of the protagonist) pitched a bit younger than Vernon's other recent Kingfisher work. If I had to classify it, I'd call it young adult possibly edging into middle grade.

It's also a book about creative use of magic powers. If you're the sort of person who liked analyzing an apparently unimpressive superpower and thinking up all the creative ways in which it could be quite powerful, well, that's a lot of the plot here. Vernon sticks to the rules of the game: Mona can only affect bread and dough and maybe icing in tiny ways if she tries very hard (but it gives her a headache). But there are a lot of creative ways that one can use dough and cookies, particularly once you get some help.

The other interesting and unusual thing about this book is its attitude towards authorities and heroism. Authorities who try to do good and authorities who are evil and corrupt are both common in fantasy. Authorities who let themselves get caught up in a tangle of small decisions and minor fears until they become ineffective are not quite as common, and usually fantasy dispenses with that sort of power by calling it weak and inviting the heroes to take over. This book does not go in that direction at all. It's startling and thought-provoking to see a fantasy novel treat Mona's elevation into unwanted heroism as an indefensible societal failure that is not excused by gratitude. This more than any other story element made this feel like a 2020 book.

I won't spoil the ending, but it caught me by surprise, was extremely moving, and further broadens that questioning of what heroism is and why we celebrate it.

This is not a book full of complex plotting or moral ambiguity. The villain is awful, the threat he provokes is rather thoroughly dehumanized, and the plot is a reasonably straightforward sequence of events. One reads this book for Mona's flustered first-person voice, Vernon's humor and no-nonsense morality, and the creative exploration of the limits of what one can do with bread magic and a seriously irritated sourdough starter. And the thoughtfulness about heroism, and the recognition that heroism comes with an impact that the rest of society doesn't want to think about.

To be clear, that thoughtfulness doesn't go beyond questioning here. This is still a heroism book. But it made me want to read the fantasy novel in which people work collectively to remake a society so that it won't need to have heroes again.

I think whether you like Vernon's previous Kingfisher books, particularly the more young adult ones, will strongly predict whether you like A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking. If you like her protagonists, recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-12-30: Review: Billion Dollar Loser

Review: Billion Dollar Loser, by Reeves Wiedeman

Publisher Little, Brown and Company
Copyright October 2020
ISBN 0-316-46134-2
Format Kindle
Pages 315

WeWork was founded in 2010 by Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey as a successor company to their similar 2008 GreenDesk business. (Adam's wife Rebekah is now presented as a co-founder. This seems dubious in Wiedeman's account, although Rebekah's role in the company is murky, ever-changing, and hard to pin down.) Its business model in reality was to provide turn-key, pre-furnished and stocked co-working and small office space to individuals and businesses on flexible, short-term leases. Its business model in Neumann's speeches and dreams, and represented by the later renaming of the company to the We Corporation, was nothing less than to transform the way people worked, learned, and lived.

Through aggressive, money-losing expansion, WeWork grew rapidly to over 500 locations in 29 countries and became the largest office tenant in New York City. Based primarily on massive financial support from Masayoshi Son, CEO of Japanese holding company SoftBank, WeWork's private valuation rose to $47 billion. In 2019, the company attempted to go public, but its IPO collapsed, in part due to deeper analysis of the company's books. Neumann was forced out of the company (with an individual payout valued at $1.7 billion), the IPO was withdrawn, SoftBank wrote down 90% of their investment in the company and took control of it, and WeWork laid off more than 20% of its workforce.

This book is a detailed history of WeWork's rise and fall, joining a genre that includes The Smartest Guys in the Room (Enron), Bad Blood (Theranos), and Super Pumped (Uber). I believe it's the first full book on WeWork, although it was preceded by several long-form stories, including "The I In We" by Wiedeman for New York magazine. As the first history, it's a somewhat incomplete cut: litigation between Neumann and WeWork is still pending, WeWork staggered into 2020 and a world-wide pandemic that made cramped open-plan offices an epidemiological disaster, and there will doubtless be new revelations yet to come. The discovery process of lawsuits tends to be good for journalists. But despite being the first out of the gate, Billion Dollar Loser reaches a satisfying conclusion with the ouster of Neumann, who had defined WeWork both internally and externally.

I'm fascinated by stories of failed venture capital start-ups in general, but the specific question about WeWork that interested me, and to which Wiedeman provides a partial answer, is why so many people gave Neumann money in the first place. Explaining that question requires a digression into why I thought WeWork's valuation was absurd.

The basic problem WeWork had when justifying its sky-high valuation is competition. WeWork didn't own real estate; it rented properties from landlords with long-term leases and then re-rented them with short-term leases. If its business was so successful, why wouldn't the landlords cut out the middle man, do what WeWork was doing directly, and pocket all the profit? Or why wouldn't some other company simply copy WeWork and drive the profit margins down? Normally with startups the answer revolves around something proprietary: an app, a server technology, patents, a secret manufacturing technique, etc. But nothing WeWork was doing was different from what innumerable tech companies and partner landlords had been doing with their office space for a decade, and none of it was secret.

There are two decent answers to that question. One is simple outsourcing: landlords like being passive rent collectors, so an opportunity to pay someone else to do the market research on office layouts, arrange all the remodeling, adapt to changing desires for how office space should be equipped and stocked, advertise for short-term tenants, and deal with the tenant churn is attractive. The landlord can sit back and pocket the stable long-term rent.

The second answer is related: WeWork is essentially doing rental arbitrage between long-term and short-term rents and thus is taking on most of the risk of a commercial real estate downturn. If no one is renting office space, WeWork is still on the hook for the long-term rent. The landlord is outsourcing risk, at least unless WeWork goes bankrupt. (One infuriating tidbit from this book is that Neumann's explicit and often-stated goal was to make WeWork so large that its bankruptcy would be sufficiently devastating to the real estate industry that it would get a bailout.)

There's a legitimate business here. But that business looks like a quietly profitable real estate company that builds very efficient systems for managing short-term leases, remodeling buildings, and handling the supply chain of stocking an office. That looks nothing like WeWork's business, has nothing to do with transforming the world of work, and certainly doesn't warrant sky-high valuations. WeWork didn't build an efficient anything. It relied on weekend labor from underpaid employees and an IT person who was still in high school. And WeWork actively resisted being called a real estate company and claimed it was a tech company or a lifestyle company on the basis of essentially nothing.

Wiedeman seems almost as baffled by this as I am, but it's clear from the history he tells that part of the funding answer is the Ponzi scheme of start-up investing. People gave Neumann money because other people had previously given Neumann money, and the earlier investors cashed out at the expense of the later ones. Like any Ponzi scheme, it looks like a great investment until it doesn't, and then the last sucker is left holding the bag. That sucker was Masayoshi Son, who in Wiedeman's telling is an astonishingly casual and undisciplined investor who trusted knee-jerk personal reactions to founders over business model analysis and historically (mostly) got away with it by getting extremely lucky.

(I now want to read one of these books about SoftBank, since both this book and Super Pumped make it look like a company that makes numerous wild gambles for the flimsiest of reasons, pushes for completely unsustainable growth, and relies on the sheer volume of investments catching some lucky jackpots and cashing out in IPOs. Unfortunately, the only book currently available seems to be a fawning hagiography of Son.)

On one hand, the IPO process worked properly this time. The sheer madness of WeWork's valuation scared off enough institutional investors that it collapsed. On the other hand, it's startling how close it came to success. If WeWork had kept the Ponzi scheme going a bit longer, the last sucker could have been the general investing public.

Another interesting question that Billion Dollar Loser answers is how Neumann got enough money to start his rapid growth strategy. The answer appears to be the oldest and most obvious explanation: He made friends with rich people. The initial connections appear to have been through his sister, Adi Neumann, who is a model and hosted parties in her New York apartment (and also started dating a Rothschild heir). Adam met his wealthy wife Rebekah, cousin to actress and "wellness" scam marketer Gwyneth Paltrow, via a connection at a party. He built social connections with other parts of the New York real estate scene and tapped them for investment money.

The strong impression one gets from the book is that all of these people have way more money than sense and we should raise their taxes. It won't come as a surprise that Adam and Rebekah Neumann are good friends of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Those are the questions I was the most curious about, but there's much more here. Wiedeman's style is nearly straight chronological reporting with little analysis, but the story is so wild and absurd that it doesn't need much embellishment. Neumann is obviously a megalomaniac whose delusions of grandeur got worse and worse as WeWork was apparently succeeding. Rebekah Neumann is if anything even less in touch with reality than he is, although in her case that appears to stem from having so much money that reality is an inconvenient speed bump. Miguel McKelvey, Neumann's co-founder, is an odd and interesting side note to the story; he appears to have balanced Adam out a bit in the early going but then wisely started to cash out and pocket his winnings while letting Adam dominate the stage.

There are some places where I don't think Wiedeman pushed hard enough, and which cut against the view of Neumann as a true believer in his impossible growth vision. Neumann took several investment opportunities to cash out large amounts of his stock even while WeWork employees were being underpaid and told their stock options would make up for it. He clearly used WeWork as a personal piggy bank on multiple occasions. And Wiedeman documents but doesn't, at least in my opinion, make nearly enough of Neumann's self-dealing: buying real estate that WeWork then rented as a tenant, or paying himself for a license for the name We Holdings (although there at least he later returned the money). I think a good argument could be made that Neumann was embezzling from WeWork, at least morally if not legally, and I wish Wiedeman would have pressed harder on that point.

But that aside, this is a great first history of the company, told in a clean, readable, and engaging style, and with a lot more detail here than I've touched on (such as Rebekah Neumann's WeGrow school). It's not as good as Bad Blood (what is), but it's a respectable entry in the corporate collapse genre. If you like this sort of thing, recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-12-29: Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea

Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune

Publisher Tor
Copyright March 2020
ISBN 1-250-21732-6
Format Kindle
Pages 398

Linus Baker is a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. His job is to evaluate the orphanages to which children with magical powers are sent and ensure those children are treated properly. This must be done properly, with professional care and detachment and careful documentation so that his superiors can make the correct choices.

Linus has no ambition or desire to be anything other than a case worker. He does his job meticulously by the book, namely the DICOMY Rules and Regulations, which he studies religiously. Linus is therefore caught entirely by surprise when he is summoned without explanation to the offices of Extremely Upper Management on the intimidating 5th floor. That summons turns out to be a new assignment for which Extremely Upper Management believes Linus to be ideal: an orphanage on an island far from the city, home to some highly unusual (and, in one case, disturbing) children and a headmaster who is as odd as his charges.

Management is correct about Linus up to a point. He is a bureaucrat and a stickler for rules. However, Extremely Upper Management did not account for the possibility that Linus does the work that he does because he cares deeply about children, or that, if the two come into conflict, the children might matter more than the rules.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is the sort of book that tells you exactly what it's doing, assures you that you'll enjoy it anyway, and then you actually do. The plot developments are obvious well in advance, the tugs on the heart-strings are telegraphed and obvious, and there are very few surprises. But the story is told with such charm and feeling that I at least didn't mind at all, and indeed would have been furious at the author if he hadn't delivered the expected ending.

This is not the book to read if you want to delve deep into the implications of the world-building. It follows children's book logic in several important places: intentions matter more than institutional structure, sincerity is persuasive, and courage is rewarded. A few reviews compare it to Nineteen Eighty-Four, but this is wildly misleading beyond a few trappings of the setting. The internal logic of the book is closer to a cross between Good Omens and Dr. Seuss. It's a "good people are rewarded" sort of book and wears that on its sleeve.

One of the things that Klune does extremely well is subtlety of characterization despite the relative lack of subtlety in the plot. Linus starts the book as a caricature whose life is nearly a blank canvas, and by the end of the book he feels like someone you know. Klune pulls this off less by filling in the canvas than by making careful use of all that negative space to put emotional weight and depth behind a few telling details like Linus's pyjamas, records, and cat. He also does an exceptional job with the mannerisms and habits of speech of both Linus and the headmaster of the orphanage. To say much more would be a spoiler; suffice it to say that Klune captures an interaction style that I have rarely seen in novels and certainly not in a fantasy novel of this type, and does it so well that I was strongly reminded of people I've known.

Anyone who knows me is unlikely to be surprised that my favorite character in the book is Zoe, the sarcastic and fiercely protective sprite who owns the island on which the orphanage is located, but almost all of the characters are wonderful. One or two of the children are a bit one-note, but the group dynamics make up for that, and the suspicious, thoughtful, and respectful interplay between the three adults is beautifully done. My only real complaints on the characterization front are that some of the confrontations in the nearby village felt a bit strained, and I think Helen got short shrift and could have been fleshed out some more. I will say that the motives of the villains never made much sense, but they didn't have to; they're essentially monsters in Linus's story, and they do enough to serve that purpose.

I now want to read the story of how Zoe and the headmaster met, although I'm not sure Klune is the right person to write it, and I'm not sure he left enough emotional space for another novel.

Sometimes I want to read a positive, hopeful book in which people learn and grow and good things happen to good people, one where the author is unapologetically manipulating my emotions and I don't care because I want these people to be happy. If you feel the same way, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's lovely.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2020-12-27: Review: Your Day, Your Way

Review: Your Day, Your Way, by Timothy Caulfield

Publisher Running Press
Copyright December 2020
ISBN 0-7624-7248-0
Format Kindle
Pages 236

In case you're wondering why I would pick up a self-help book with such an uninspiring title, it's because this book was originally published in Canada with the title Relax, Damnit! Why Caulfield's US publishers would have changed that title is beyond me. Canada clearly got the better end of this deal. (I'm hoping it's not because they thought "damn" would scare someone off, but it probably is.)

The topic of this book is a scientific take on all the little decisions that you may worry about throughout the day: whether to eat breakfast, how much water to drink, whether public toilet seats are risky, whether to weigh yourself, how important flossing is, and much more. Caulfield is a law professor at the University of Alberta specializing in health law and scientific ethics, but the hat he's wearing when writing this book is that of professional skeptic. I found out about this book through Dr. Jen Gunter, a connection that you won't find surprising when I mention that one of Caulfield's earlier books is titled Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?. (Spoiler: yes.)

Caulfield chose to organize this collection of random essays around the timeline of a single day, starting with waking up (how long should you sleep?) and morning routines (what do scientific studies say about brushing your teeth?), going through a work day (there's a chapter on multitasking and why you really shouldn't do it), and concluding with dinner (no, you can't taste the difference between most wines even if you think you can), evening routines, and sleep. This worked for me. It's still a bit arbitrary, but it's hard to organize random bits of skepticism, and this layout let Caulfield make a point about how frequently most people check their phones. (Stop doomscrolling. It makes you feel bad. Yes, I'm talking to myself.)

I've now read several books, and considerably more essays, on scientific skepticism of this type. They're all a bit the same, and unless you enjoy this general genre of writing, there aren't many compelling reasons to read this specific entry. (Ben Goldacre's Bad Science is still my favorite.) I think the only tidbit that I found surprising and hadn't heard elsewhere is that the science on flossing is meh at best. The rest is the standard mix of mainstream scientific advice (don't drink raw milk, you're not going to catch something from a public toilet seat, multivitamins just give you expensive urine), advice that's scientifically correct but that I'm still not going to follow (there's no scientific reason to wash your hair daily but I still prefer how it feels), and advice to not worry about things with no evidence on either side (it doesn't matter whether you eat breakfast, ten thousand steps is a marketing gimmick, drink water when you're thirsty and don't worry about how much). Caulfield does have a particularly good debunking of the myth that angry ranting helps you calm down and feel better (it does the exact opposite), but if you're reasonably well-read on scientific trivia, nothing here will be that novel.

If you don't follow scientific trivia and want a good collection of debunking essays, this book is fine. I certainly won't discourage you from reading it. Caulfield is engaging and succinct, and there's a balanced mix of odd trivia, debunking of pseudoscience, and good public health advice, all comfortably in line with what I've read elsewhere.

That said, I found it striking to read this book shortly after Can't Even. I was hoping that Caulfield would tackle the larger problem of anxiety and overload that is in part created by the proliferation of arbitrary standards and rules to which we hold ourselves. He does tackle some related topics, such as our bizarre belief in the US (and apparently Canada) that it is unsafe to let children walk to school without adult supervision, but Caulfield's solutions are nearly all individual. He wants to inform the reader, he wants to show you how to analyze scientific research and notice when news articles are scaring you unnecessarily, and he wants you to become more immune to fear-mongering.

Petersen's salient point in Can't Even is that many of us are burned out already and this is even more work. In order to avoid being gratuitously frightened and deceived by con artists and sensational news stories, we have to run a mental checklist of evidence evaluation and go do independent research. Sure, this works, makes you better at risk analysis, and may thus make you feel calmer, but this takes a lot of time and energy. Wasn't a point of having the news media that other people would do some of that work for you? Once again, everything that's wrong with the world becomes another chore or energy expenditure that we all have to independently make.

I know, it's asking too much of a harmless book on the scientific evidence behind daily life decisions to make a political point about individual versus collective effort. But it's hard to shake the feeling that asking individuals to try harder to ignore intentionally deceptive and well-funded propaganda campaigns doesn't scale. Not everyone enjoys skepticism as a hobby, and there's only so much individual energy to go around.

Relax, Damnit! is good advice as far as it goes. But I'm more in the mood for the books that look at who is making us so anxious in the first place and how we can (collectively) get them to stop. I don't know what that looks like (there are obvious free speech concerns), but we need reliable sources of information that don't make us anxious.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2020-12-26: Review: King of the Murgos

Review: King of the Murgos, by David Eddings

Series The Malloreon #2
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright April 1988
Printing November 1991
ISBN 0-345-35880-5
Format Mass market
Pages 403

This is the second book of the Malloreon, which in turn is a sequel trilogy to The Belgariad. You could start here, since Eddings does a good job at summarizing previous volumes, but I'm not sure why you'd want to.

This is the sort of book that gives epic fantasy series a bad name. After a lot of action in Guardians of the West, our band of heroes has been mostly assembled. They set out after the villain through the novel strategy of exploring the parts of the world map we have not yet seen. By the end of 400 pages of traveling they... are on the trail of the villain while exploring parts of the world map we have not yet seen.

What I'm saying is that you'd better be really enjoying Silk's nose twitching and Belgarath being grumpy at Polgara, because that's about all you get. The protagonists collect a few important plot coupons and set up some emotional conflicts whose resolutions are already telegraphed, and that's about it.

After wasting a bunch of time getting to and wandering around Nyissa, all of which felt pointless except for one moment of Errand doing something nifty (often the best parts of this series), the band of heroes ventures into enemy territory as foreshadowed by the title. The structure of Eddings's series is basically Suikoden (collect all the protagonists), so as one might expect the point of this excursion is to pick up another protagonist. In the process, we get to see a bit more of the Murgos than we have before.

I've commented before that Eddings takes racial essentialism to such an absurd degree that these books start feeling like animal fairy tales, which is why I'm willing to tolerate all of the stereotyping. It's Planet of Hats except with fantasy countries. That tolerance is stretched rather thin when it comes to the bad guys, since the congruence with real-life racism and dehumanization of enemies is a bit too strong. Eddings dodges this mostly by not putting many of the bad guys in the page, but in King of the Murgos he has a golden opportunity to undercut his racial structure and surprise the reader. What if one of the Murgos is a protagonist and is vital to the series plot?

I won't spoil what Eddings actually does, but if you imagine the stupidest and most obvious way to avoid having to acknowledge his fantasy races are not uniform, you probably just guessed the big reveal in this book. It's sadly not surprising, since Eddings is all in on his racial construction of this fantasy world, but it's still disgusting.

The main reason why I decided to re-read this series, which is notorious for being a re-run of the Belgariad, is because I think what Eddings does here with prophecy, the voice in Garion's head, and the meddling of the seers is hilarious. The plot is openly on rails to the point that the characters actively grumble about it. I find that oddly entertaining, a bit like watching a Twitch streamer play an RPG. In this installment, Errand does something random in the middle of a Murgo temple, Garion gets a level-up chime, the prophecy gets very smug about how well things are going, and no one knows why. It's an absolute delight, and I don't know of any other series that isn't pure parody that would be willing to use that as a plot element.

Sadly, King of the Murgos has only one or two enjoyable moments like that, a whole lot of frankly boring map exploration, some truly egregious racist claptrap, and no plot development worth speaking of. I probably should have skipped this one when re-reading this series.

Followed by Demon Lord of Karanda.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2020-12-25: Review: The Biggest Bluff

Review: The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova

Publisher Penguin Press
Copyright 2020
ISBN 0-525-52263-8
Format Kindle
Pages 335

After a particularly unlucky year for her family, Maria Konnikova was reading about the balance between luck and control in life and discovered, to her surprise, that John von Neumann, one of the foundational thinkers of computer science, was fascinated by poker. He found most card games boring because they relied on luck. Poker, however, he thought was the perfect balance between luck and skill: enough skill to make its effect undeniable, but enough luck that one could not control the game fully regardless of skill.

Konnikova decided on a research project: spend one year learning No Limit Texas Hold'em from one of the best poker players in the world, with a goal of competing in the World Series of Poker. She had studied the description-experience gap during her doctoral research in psychology and wanted to see if the experience of randomness in poker would teach her something the description of the randomness of life could not. Before starting this project, she didn't know the basic rules and had never watched a game. Erik Seidel agreed to mentor her, and The Biggest Bluff is her account of that experience.

This book is simultaneously frustrating and fascinating in ways that I don't think can be untangled without making it a far different book. Fitting, I suppose, for a book about how our brains entangle luck and skill.

First, if you're looking for a book about poker play, this is not one. Konnikova rarely talks about specific hands or tournaments in more detail than her overall trajectory. That was a disappointment. In the few places she does describe some of her betting decisions, analysis of the other players, and tournament strategy, her accounts are engrossing and suspenseful. I would have happily read a book chronicling her poker tournaments and the decisions she made, but this is not that book.

What The Biggest Bluff is instead is a psychological and philosophical examination of the process of learning poker. Konnikova uses her experiences as launching points into philosophical digressions. Even the lessons that have limited surface utility outside of poker, such as learning to suppress body language to avoid giving away information, turn into digressions about interpersonal dynamics and personality types. There are interesting tidbits here, but I've read a lot of popular psychology and was more interested in the poker. My frequent reading experience was impatiently waiting for Konnikova to finish lecturing and get back to her narrative.

What Konnikova does do though, at a level that I haven't seen before before in a book of this type, is be brutally honest about her mistakes and her learning process. And I do mean brutally: The book opens with her throwing up in a casino bathroom. (This is not a fun book to read if you don't like reading about stress reactions and medical problems. There aren't many of them, but they're... memorable.) Konnikova knows and can explain the psychological state she's trying to reach, but still finds it hard to do in the moment. Correctly reacting to probabilities, cutting losses, and neither being too over-confident or too scared is very hard. Most books of this type elide over the repeated failures in a sort of training montage, which makes the process look easier than it feels. Konnikova tries to realistically show the setbacks and failures, and I think succeeds.

That relentless introspection and critical honesty is the best part of this book, but I think it's also behind the stream of consciousness digressions about psychology and philosophy. It's a true portrayal of how Konnikova makes sense of the world. A more polished and streamlined book about the poker would have been more dramatically engrossing, but it might have lost the deep examination of how she combines poker with her knowledge of psychology to change her thinking.

The one place where I think that self-reflection may fall a bit short, which I want to mention because I thought it was a missed opportunity, is around knowledge of hand probabilities. Konnikova makes a point, early in the book, of not approaching poker through the memorization and mathematics route and instead trying to find a play style that focuses on analyzing the other players and controlling her own emotions. This is a good hook, but by the end of the book it's not entirely true.

The point that I think she was trying to make is that her edge against other poker players at her same level comes more from psychology than from calculation of precise odds in rare situations. This is true. But by the time she reaches high levels of play, she is using statistical simulators, practice tools, and intensive study just like any professional poker player. There is a minimum level of pure knowledge and memorization required that cannot be avoided. It's clear from the few things she says about this that those tools became more interesting to her as she became better at poker, and I wish she would have dug more into why and how that happened. How much of her newfound ability to make decisions and stick to a plan comes from emotional changes, and how much from that background store of confident knowledge? Or maybe those are different ways of looking at the same change?

I did appreciate Konnikova's explicit acknowledgment at the end of the book that poker did not, in the end, provide some deep insight into the balance of luck and skill in real life. Learning poker instead gave Konnikova more personal ability to make a plan for the things that she can control and let go of the things she can't. I'm glad that worked for her, but since reading this book I have noticed former poker players who think life is more knowable than it is.

Poker combines random chance with psychological play against other people, but it does so in a way and to an extent that is quantifiable. You can make the correct play and still lose a hand, but you can also know when this has happened. When you're used to analyzing the world through that frame and real life fails to provide that certainty, it's tempting to impose it anyway and insist your simplified models are more accurate because they're more comprehensible. But poker is a game, not a model; being more predictable and more constrained than real life is part of what makes it fun. The skill that Konnikova learned from it has a potential downside that she doesn't talk about.

I'm not sure how to sum up this book. Konnikova's internal analysis and honesty is truly admirable and illuminating, but it left me wanting to read a different book that was more focused on poker narration. I know there are lots of those books out there, but I doubt they would be written with Konnikova's self-awareness and lack of ego. However, they would probably also lack the moments that made me cringe or that were deeply uncomfortable to read.

My feelings are mixed. But if you want popular psychology wrapped around a deeply honest account of the process of learning poker, I suspect this book is one of a kind.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-12-25: DocKnot 4.00

This release of my static site generator and software release management tool is finally at a point where I'm happy with some of the interface and think that piece may be stable for a while.

This release converts the package metadata format from JSON to YAML and cleans up a bunch of organizational errors I made when I designed it originally. That also means that the entire metadata is now in a single file, docs/docknot.yaml by convention, instead of needing a whole directory of files. (This comes with the minor drawback that one edits Markdown in text blocks in YAML, which has somewhat less editor support, but it works fine for me.)

There's a whole other blog post in how I've now tried many different markup formats, including TOML, and have decided YAML is the best one around if you want humans to be able to write it. (JSON or Protobuf is probably best if you only care about information exchange between software.) The short version is that YAML is way too large of a language and very painful to fully implement, but everything else fails to deal with one or more hard problems: nested structure, multi-line text, comments, or not requiring tedious quoting of everything. I'll be converting other software I maintain over to YAML with time.

This release also drops support for pointing the bug reporting address at the CPAN RT instance, since that's going away early in 2021. I will need to do new releases of all my Perl modules to point them at a different bug tracker.

Also in this release are some fixes for word wrapping and verbatim paragraph detection, some improved markup in generated README.md files, and other minor fixes.

As of this release, I'm now uploading the Debian packages to Debian proper as well. I'm not sure if anyone else will ever use this software, but since I'm going to be doing more automatic generation of files in source releases using it, it's properly part of the build toolchain for the software I maintain.

You can get the latest version from the DocKnot distribution page.

2020-12-24: control-archive 1.9.0

This is the software used to manage the archive of control messages and the Netnews active and newsgroups files at ftp.isc.org.

This release switches to gpg1 in order to support older keys and produces better diagnostics when the X-PGP-Sig header is invalid because it's missing the useless version field. It also includes various hierarchy metadata updates, including adding rocksolid.*, removing dictator.* at its maintainer's request, and updating the fr.* key.

You can get the latest release from the control-archive distribution page.

2020-12-22: Review: Anti-Social

Review: Anti-Social, by Nick Pettigrew

Publisher Century
Copyright 2020
ISBN 1-4735-7639-3
Format Kindle
Pages 375

Nick Pettigrew was an anti-social behavior officer for council housing for over a decade. This book is a diary of one year in the life of that job. According to the author, the dates, names, and some of the identifying details have been changed but not exaggerated. While it's hard to verify that, and I'm sure a few of the stories have been tweaked to make better narratives, it has a messiness and chaos of half-resolved drama mixed with mundane office tedium that makes it ring true.

The subject matter requires some explanation for US readers.

Council housing is the UK's version of what the US would call public housing or "the projects," although it's a far larger percentage of the housing stock in the UK than it is in the US. These are buildings built by the government and run by local governments or non-profits to provide housing to working class and poor people at reduced cost compared to the private market. As in the US, new council housing construction has dropped off dramatically; as in the US, a bunch of it has been privatized, although in the UK the Right to Buy law at least sells the housing to the people living in it, as opposed to slumlords.

The 1998 UK Crime and Disorder Act collects under anti-social behavior a bunch of low-grade irritations that in the US would fall under public nuisance laws, noise ordinances, and other vague misdemeanors like "creating a public disturbance": essentially, all the irritating and obnoxious things that people subject their neighbors to, but which fall short of obvious criminal behavior like theft or assault. As Pettigrew puts it:

"I just don't want to hear the word 'cunt' shouted repeatedly at 3am every night any more. I don't think that's unreasonable."

That law required the organizations managing council estates to have a procedure to deal with anti-social behavior, and thus the job of an anti-social behavior officer was created.

In the US, these sorts of problems are dealt with by the local police, which is a little like trying to get rid of a raccoon by running it over with a balky, thirty-year-old car. The best outcome is that the raccoon gets freaked out by your efforts to get the car to start and leaves. The worst outcome is that you accidentally run over your neighbor's kid while aiming for the raccoon. Either way, neither you nor the car nor your neighbors are going to be happy about the process.

An anti-social behavior officer is someone with some authority to do things like install cameras, tell people who don't live somewhere that they need to stop coming there, and start eviction proceedings, but who doesn't carry guns, can't arrest people, and enforces those rules when necessary via court proceedings or calling the police. In other words, it's one of the types of alternative responders whose job is to solve problems rather than stop crimes that we've been talking about in the United States. And although Pettigrew is quite grumpy and cynical about his job (for very understandable reasons explained in this book), my takeaway from another country with even worse problems is that the system sort of works. It's underfunded and poorly managed and nebulous and sometimes very sad, but it also achieves some of what it sets out to do, and you can see the outlines of a better system beneath it.

My favorite thing about this book is that it forces the reader to grapple with the actual job in all its messiness, rather than our ideals of what we want the job to be. For example, if you're going to hire a bunch of people to do this job, you need some way to figure out whether they're any good at it, but it's not obvious how to measure success.

One infuriating KPI we're measured on is the final question a resident is asked once their case is closed: "Are you happy with the outcome of your case?" Because unless you evict the problem neighbor within a fortnight, erect a security wall around the complainant's house manned by armed guards, and bake them a cake, the answer will almost certainly be no.

Pettigrew has a background in comedy so he's sarcastically funny rather than strident or didactic, which for me was just the tone I needed to enjoy reading this enough to think deeply about it.

The thing that most surprised me, even though it probably shouldn't, was just how many of the problems Pettigrew had to deal with stemmed from drugs. My guess is that a good 75% of the issues he described were a direct result of someone dealing drugs, growing drugs, stealing things to buy drugs, throwing parties with druggie friends, doing bizarre and dangerous things because they were on drugs, not taking care of their property because they were too busy doing drugs, or letting their property be taken over by other people doing or selling drugs. It's just never-ending. The case load is clearly made worse by chronic understaffing and underfunding, and spending more money on giving people more assistance is part of any reasonable solution, but so is reducing the demand. If the pattern of complaints in the US is at all similar (and I bet it is), it's no wonder that the police perceive drugs as central to their job.

Pettigrew talks about this at some length in the epilogue, and I think one of his conclusions is worth quoting here:

Years of interacting with class A drug users has shown me that they really don't want to be out hustling to make enough money for their next score of diluted heroin. They want to sit at home, take drugs and when those drugs wear off, take some more. You may view this as a wasted life, and you may well be right, but here's the thing: they are going to do this anyway, whether we decide to criminalize them or not.

If, after a lengthy period of honest, mature drug education across the country via schools, further education, government advertising and so on, class A drugs were made legally available on prescription to adults via pharmacies, the vast majority of users would pick up their prescriptions, go home, take their drugs and leave everyone else alone. They couldn't be arsed to break into your car if they didn't have to.

The decriminalization argument is a lot larger than the space of this book review, so I won't get into it further, except to say that if you think that conclusion sounds unreasonable or dangerous or destructive to society, consider reading this book. One of the things that becomes obvious from Pettigrew's diary of incidents is that most people just want to feel safe, and a truly stunning amount of crime and anti-social behavior that makes them feel not safe is a direct or indirect result of people trying to get drugs or to get money to get drugs.

The other pattern that's obvious from this book (and obvious from most writing by anyone involved in the justice system) is that the system doesn't really work.

The best way to describe going to court is that it's like paying a visit to a run-down hospital where nobody gets better.

Some of that is because it's not set up to solve problems, and a lot of that is because solving problems is a lot more expensive than we want to admit and we don't want to pony up the resources.

I'm probably making this book sound hopelessly depressing, but it's not. It's angry and cynical, but it's also very funny (particularly if you like sarcasm), extremely quotable, insightful, and deeply empathetic. There are people trying their best to help other people despite a system that doesn't reward them for doing so, and surprisingly often they manage to do so. The path to helping more people isn't even that difficult to find. The epilogue of this book is full of solid and straightforward ideas that don't require some novel insight into humanity, just a bunch of hard work. And, while reading about the work of helping people and being exasperated by people, you'll also get to laugh at the bits of office nonsense that are universal.

The old form for monthly one-to-ones used to have two questions — "What did you do over the last month?" and "What do you plan to do in the next month?" — and my line manager at the time seemed unimpressed when I answered "my job" to both.

I loved this book. It was one of my favorite random finds of the year, and, at least judging from how difficult it is to find in Amazon search results, it's not gotten enough attention in the United States. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2020-12-20: Review: Behind the Throne

Review: Behind the Throne, by K.B. Wagers

Series Indranan War #1
Publisher Orbit
Copyright August 2016
ISBN 0-316-30859-5
Format Kindle
Pages 416

Hail is a gunrunner, an outlaw and criminal, someone who knows how to survive violence and navigate by personal loyalty. That world knows her as Cressen Stone. What her colleagues don't know is that she's also an Imperial Princess. Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol left that world twenty years earlier in secret pursuit of her father's killer and had no intention of returning. But her sisters are dead, her mother's health is failing, and two Imperial Trackers have been sent to bring her back to her rightful position as heir.

I'm going to warn up-front that the first half of this novel was rough to the point of being unreadable. Wagers tries much too hard to establish Hail as a reluctant heroine torn between her dislike of royal protocols and her grief and anger at the death of her sisters. The result is excessively melodramatic and, to be frank, badly written. There are a lot of passages like this:

His words slammed into me, burning like the ten thousand volts of a Solarian Conglomerate police Taser.

(no, there's no significance to the Solarian Conglomerate here), or, just three paragraphs later:

The air rushed out of my lungs. Added grief for a niece I'd never known. One more log on the pyre set to burn my freedom to ashes. The hope I'd had of getting out of this mess was lost in that instant, and I couldn't do anything but stare at Emmory in abject shock.

Given how much air rushes out of Hail's lungs and how often she's struck down with guilt or grief, it's hard to believe she doesn't have brain damage.

Worse, Hail spends a great deal of the first third of the book whining, which given that the book is written in first person gets old very quickly. Every emotion is overwritten and overstressed as Hail rails against obvious narrative inescapability. It's blatantly telegraphed from the first few pages that Hail is going to drop into the imperial palace like a profane invasion force and shake everything up, but the reader has to endure far too long of Hail being dramatically self-pitying about the plot. I almost gave up on this book in irritation (and probably should have).

And then it sort of grew on me, because the other thing Wagers is doing (also not subtly) is a story trope for which I have a particular weakness: The fish out of water who nonetheless turns out to be the person everyone needs because she's systematically and deliberately kind and thoughtful while not taking any shit. Hail left Pashati young and inexperienced, with a strained relationship with her mother and a habit of letting her temper interfere with her ability to negotiate palace politics. She still has the temper, but age, experience, and confidence mean that she's decisive and confident in a way she never was before. The second half of this book is about Hail building her power base and winning loyalty by being loyal and decent. It's still not great writing, but there's something there I enjoyed reading.

Wagers's setting is intriguing, although it makes me a bit nervous. The Indranan Empire was settled by colonists of primarily Indian background. The court trappings, mythology, and gods referenced in Behind the Throne are Hindu-derived, and I suspect (although didn't confirm) that the funeral arrangements are as well. Formal wear (and casual wear) for women is a sari. There's a direct reference to the goddess Lakshimi (not Lakshmi, which Wikipedia seems to indicate is the correct spelling, although transliteration is always an adventure).

I was happy to see this, since there are more than enough SF novels out there that seem to assume only western countries go into space. But I'm never sure whether the author did enough research or has enough personal knowledge to pull off the references correctly, and I personally wouldn't know the difference.

The Indranan Empire is also matriarchal, and here Wagers goes for an inversion of sexism that puts men in roughly the position women were in the 1970s. They can, in theory, do most jobs, but there are many things they're expected not to do, there are some explicit gender lines in power structures, and the role of men in society is a point of political conflict. It's skillfully injected as social background, with a believable pattern of societal prejudice that doesn't necessarily apply to specific men in specific situations. I liked that Wagers did this without giving the Empire itself any feminine-coded characteristics. All admirals are women because the characters believe women are obviously better military leaders, not because of some claptrap about nurturing or caring or some other female-coded reason from our society.

That said, this gender role inversion didn't feel that significant to the story. The obvious "sexism is bad, see what it would be like if men were subject to it" message ran parallel to the main plot and never felt that insightful to me. I'm therefore not sure it was successful or worth the injection of sexism into the reading experience, although it certainly is different from the normal fare of space empires.

I can't recommend Behind the Throne because a lot of it just isn't very good. But I still kind of want to because I sincerely enjoyed the last third of the book, despite some lingering melodrama. Watching Hail succeed by being a decent, trustworthy, loyal, and intelligent person is satisfying, once she finally stops whining. The destination is probably not worth the journey, but now that I've finished the first book, I'm tempted to grab the second.

Followed by After the Crown.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2020-12-19: Review: Can't Even

Review: Can't Even, by Anne Helen Petersen

Publisher Houghton Mifflin
Copyright 2020
ISBN 0-358-31659-6
Format Kindle
Pages 230

Like many other people, I first became aware of Anne Helen Petersen's journalism when her Buzzfeed article "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation" went viral. Can't Even is the much-awaited (at least by me) book-length expansion of that thesis: The United States is, as a society, burning out, and that burnout is falling on millennials the hardest. We're not recognizing the symptoms because we think burnout looks like something dramatic and flashy. But for most people burnout looks less like a nervous breakdown and more like constant background anxiety and lack of energy.

Laura, who lives in Chicago and works as a special ed teacher, never wants to see her friends, or date, or cook — she's so tired, she just wants to melt into the couch. "But then I can't focus on what I'm watching, and end up unfocused again, and not completely relaxing," she explained. "Here I am telling you I don't even relax right! I feel bad about feeling bad! But by the time I have leisure time, I just want to be alone!"

Petersen explores this idea across childhood, education, work, family, and parenting, but the core of her thesis is the precise opposite of the pervasive myth that millennials are entitled and lazy (a persistent generational critique that Petersen points out was also leveled at their Baby Boomer parents in the 1960s and 1970s). Millennials aren't slackers; they're workaholics from childhood, for whom everything has become a hustle and a second (or third or fourth) job. The struggle with "adulting" is a symptom of the burnout on the other side of exhaustion, the mental failures that happen when you've forced yourself to keep going on empty so many times that it's left lingering damage.

Petersen is a synthesizing writer who draws together the threads of other books rather than going deep on a novel concept, so if you've been reading about work, psychology, stress, and productivity, many of the ideas here will be familiar. But she's been reading the same authors that I've been reading (Tressie McMillan Cottom, Emily Guendelsberger, Brigid Schulte, and even Cal Newport), and this was the book that helped me pull those analyses together into a coherent picture.

That picture starts with the shift of risk in the 1970s and 1980s from previously stable corporations with long-lasting jobs and retirement pensions onto individual employees. The corresponding rise in precarity and therefore fear led to a concerted effort to re-establish a feeling of control. Baby Boomers doubled down on personal responsibility and personal capability, replacing unstructured childhood for their kids with planned activities and academic achievement. That generation, in turn, internalized the need for constant improvement, constant grading, and constant achievement, accepting an implied bargain that if they worked very hard, got good grades, got into good schools, and got a good degree, it would pay off in a good life and financial security.

They were betrayed. The payoff never happened; many millennials graduated into the Great Recession and the worst economy since World War II. In response, millennials doubled down on the only path to success they were taught. They took on more debt, got more education, moved back in with their parents to cut expenses, and tried even harder.

Even after watching our parents get shut out, fall from, or simply struggle anxiously to maintain the American Dream, we didn't reject it. We tried to work harder, and better, more efficiently, with more credentials, to achieve it.

Once one has this framework in mind, it's startling how pervasive the "just try harder" message is and how deeply we've internalized it. It is at the center of the time management literature: Getting Things Done focuses almost entirely on individual efficiency. Later time management work has become more aware of the importance of pruning the to-do list and doing fewer things, but addresses that through techniques for individual prioritization. Cal Newport is more aware than most that constant busyness and multitasking interacts poorly with the human brain, and has taken a few tentative steps towards treating the problem as systemic rather than individual, but his focus is still primarily on individual choices. Even when tackling a problem that is clearly societal, such as the monetization of fear and outrage on social media, the solutions are all individual: recognize that those platforms are bad for you, make an individual determination that your attention is being exploited, and quit social media through your personal force of will.

And this isn't just productivity systems. Most of public discussion of environmentalism in the United States is about personal energy consumption, your individual carbon footprint, household recycling, and whether you personally should eat meat. Discussions of monopoly and monopsony become debates over whether you personally should buy from Amazon. Concerns about personal privacy turn into advocacy for using an ad blocker or shaming people for using Google products. Articles about the growth of right-wing extremism become exhortations to take responsibility for the right-wing extremist in your life and argue them out of their beliefs over the dinner table. Every major systemic issue facing society becomes yet another personal obligation, another place we are failing as individuals, something else that requires trying harder, learning more, caring more, doing more.

This advice is well-meaning (mostly; sometimes it is an intentional and cynical diversion), and can even be effective with specific problems. But it's also a trap. If you're feeling miserable, you just haven't found the right combination of time-block scheduling, kanban, and bullet journaling yet. If you're upset at corporate greed and the destruction of the environment, the change starts with you and your household. The solution is in your personal hands; you just have try a little harder, work a little harder, make better decisions, and spend money more ethically (generally by buying more expensive products). And therefore, when we're already burned out, every topic becomes another failure, increasing our already excessive guilt and anxiety.

Believing that we're in control, even when we're not, does have psychological value. That's part of what makes it such a beguiling trap. While drafting this review, I listened to Ezra Klein's interview with Robert Sapolsky on poverty and stress, and one of the points he made is that, when mildly or moderately bad things happen, believing you have control is empowering. It lets you recast the setback as a larger disaster that you were able to prevent and avoid a sense of futility. But when something major goes wrong, believing you have control is actively harmful to your mental health. The tragedy is now also a personal failure, leading to guilt and internal recrimination on top of the effects of the tragedy itself. This is why often the most comforting thing we can say to someone else after a personal disaster is "there's nothing you could have done."

Believing we can improve our lives if we just try a little harder does work, until it doesn't. And because it does work for smaller things, it's hard to abandon; in the short term, believing we're at the mercy of forces outside our control feels even worse. So we double down on self-improvement, giving ourselves even more things to attempt to do and thus burning out even more.

Petersen is having none of this, and her anger is both satisfying and clarifying.

In writing that article, and this book, I haven't cured anyone's burnout, including my own. But one thing did become incredibly clear. This isn't a personal problem. It's a societal one — and it will not be cured by productivity apps, or a bullet journal, or face mask skin treatments, or overnight fucking oats. We gravitate toward those personal cures because they seem tenable, and promise that our lives can be recentered, and regrounded, with just a bit more discipline, a new app, a better email organization strategy, or a new approach to meal planning. But these are all merely Band-Aids on an open wound. They might temporarily stop the bleeding, but when they fall off, and we fail at our new-found discipline, we just feel worse.

Structurally, Can't Even is half summaries of other books and essays put into this overall structure and half short profiles and quotes from millennials that illustrate her point. This is Petersen's typical journalistic style if you're familiar with her other work. It gains a lot from the voices of individuals, but it can also feel like argument from anecdote. If there's a epistemic flaw in this book, it's that Petersen defends her arguments more with examples than with scientific study. I've read enough of the other books she cites, many of which do go into the underlying studies and statistics, to know that her argument is well-grounded, but I think Can't Even works better as a roadmap and synthesis than as a primary source of convincing data.

The other flaw that I'll mention is that although Petersen tries very hard to incorporate poorer and non-white millennials, I don't think the effort was successful, and I'm not sure it was possible within the structure of this book. She frequently makes a statement that's accurate and insightful for millennials from white, middle-class families, acknowledges that it doesn't entirely apply to, for example, racial minorities, and then moves on without truly reconciling those two perspectives. I think this is a deep structural problem: One's experience of American life is very different depending on race and class, and the phenomenon that Petersen is speaking to is to an extent specific to those social classes who had a more comfortable and relaxing life and are losing it.

One way to see the story of the modern economy is that white people are becoming as precarious as everyone else already was, and are reacting by making the lives of non-white people yet more miserable. Petersen is accurately pointing to significant changes in relationships with employers, productivity, family, and the ideology of individualism, but experiencing that as a change is more applicable to white people than non-white people. That means there are, in a way, two books here: one about the slow collapse of the white middle class into constant burnout, and a different book about the much longer-standing burnout of being non-white in the United States and our systemic failure to address the causes of it. Petersen tries to gesture at the second book, but she's not the person to write it and those two books cannot comfortably live between the same covers. The gestures therefore feel awkward and forced, and while the discomfort itself serves some purpose, it lacks the insight that Petersen brings to the rest of the book.

Those critiques aside, I found Can't Even immensely clarifying. It's the first book that explained to me in a way I understood what's so demoralizing and harmful about Instagram and its allure of cosplaying as a successful person. It helped me understand how productivity and individual political choices fit into a system that emphasizes individual action as an excuse to not address collective problems. And it also gave me a strange form of hope, because if something can't go on forever, it will, at some point, stop.

Millennials have been denigrated and mischaracterized, blamed for struggling in situations that set us up to fail. But if we have the endurance and aptitude and wherewithal to work ourselves this deeply into the ground, we also have the strength to fight. We have little savings and less stability. Our anger is barely contained. We're a pile of ashes smoldering, a bad memory of our best selves. Underestimate us at your peril: We have so little left to lose.

Nothing will change without individual people making different decisions and taking different actions than they are today. But we have gone much too far down the path of individual, atomized actions that may produce feelings of personal virtue but that are a path to ineffectiveness and burnout when faced with systemic problems. We need to make different choices, yes, but choices towards solidarity and movement politics rather than personal optimization.

There is a backlash coming. If we let it ground itself in personal grievance, it could turn ugly and take a racist and nationalist direction. But that's not, by in large, what millennials have done, and that makes me optimistic. If we embrace the energy of that backlash and help shape it to be more inclusive, just, and fair, we can rediscover the effectiveness of collective solutions for collective problems.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Last spun 2021-01-19 from thread modified 2008-08-13