Journal tags: reading

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Subscribing to newsletters

I like reading RSS feeds. I’ve written before about how my feed reader feels different to my email client:

When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.

Giles put it far better when described what using RSS feeds feels like :

To me, using RSS feeds to keep track of stuff I’m interested in is a good use of my time. It doesn’t feel like a burden, it doesn’t feel like I’m being tracked or spied on, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just another number in the ads game.

To me, it feels good. It’s a way of reading the web that better respects my time, is more likely to appeal to my interests, and isn’t trying to constantly sell me things.

That’s why I feel somewhat conflicted about email newsletters. On the one hand, people are publishing some really interesting things in newsletters. On the hand, the delivery mechanism is email, which feels burdensome. Add tracking into the mix, and they can feel downright icky.

But never fear! My feed reader came to the rescue. Many newsletter providers also provide RSS feeds. NetNewsWire—my feed reader of choice—will try to find the RSS feed that corresponds to the newsletter. Hurrah!

I get to read newsletters without being tracked, which is nice for me. But I also think it would be nice to let the authors of those newsletters know that I’m reading. So here’s a list of some of the newsletters I’m currently subscribed to in my feed reader:

The Whippet by McKinley Valentine:

A newsletter for the terminally curious.

Sentiers by Patrick Tanguay:

A carefully curated selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.

The Fitzwilliam:

Policy, ethics and applied rationality with an Irish slant.

The Science Of Fiction:

How science shapes stories about the future and how stories about the future shape science.

Adjacent Possible by Steven Johnson:

Exploring where good ideas come from—and how to keep them from turning against us.

Faster, Please! by James Pethokoukis:

Discovering, creating, and inventing a better world through technological innovation, economic growth, and pro-progress culture.

undefended / undefeated by Sara Hendren:

Ideas at the heart of material culture—the everyday stuff in all our lives

Today in Tabs by Rusty Foster:

Your favorite newsletter’s favorite newsletter.

Two books

I’ve mentioned before that I like to read a mixture of fiction of non-fiction. In fact, I try to alternate between the two. If I’ve just read some non-fiction, then I’ll follow it with a novel and I’ve just read some fiction, then I’ll follow it with some non-fiction.

But those categorisations can be slippery. I recently read two books that were ostensibly fiction but were strongly autobiographical and didn’t have the usual narrative structure of a novel.

Just to clarify, I’m not complaining! Quite the opposite. I enjoy the discomfort of not being able to pigeonhole a piece of writing so easily.

Also, both books were excellent.

The first one was A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s sort of about the narrator’s obsessive quest to translate the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. But it’s also about the translator’s life, which mirrors the author’s. And it’s about all life—life in its bodily, milky, bloody, crungey reality. The writing is astonishing, creating an earthy musky atmosphere. It feels vibrant and new but somehow ancient and eternal at the same time.

By contrast, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is rooted in technology. Reading the book feels like scrolling through Twitter, complete with nervous anxiety. Again, the narrator’s life mirrors that of the author, but this time the style has more of the arch detachment of the modern networked world.

It took me a little while at first, but then I settled into the book’s cadence and vibe. Then, once I felt like I had a handle on the kind of book I was reading, it began to subtly change. I won’t reveal how, because I want you to experience that change for yourself. It’s like a slow-building sucker punch.

When I started reading No One Is Talking About This, I thought it might end up being the kind of book where I would admire the writing, but it didn’t seem like a work that invited emotional connection.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I can’t remember the last time a book had such an emotional impact on me. Maybe that’s because it so deliberately lowered my defences, but damn, when I finished reading the book, I was in pieces.

I’m still not quite sure how to classify A Ghost In The Throat or No One Is Talking About This but I don’t care. They’re both just great books.

On reading

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder is a very short book. Most of the time, this is a feature, not a bug.

There are plenty of non-fiction books I’ve read that definitely could’ve been much, much shorter. Books that have a good sensible idea, but one that could’ve been written on the back of a napkin instead of being expanded into an arbitrarily long form.

In the world of fiction, there’s the short story. I guess the equivelent in the non-fiction world is the essay. But On Tyranny isn’t an essay. It’s got chapters. They’re just really, really short.

Sometimes that brevity means that nuance goes out the window. What might’ve been a subtle argument that required paragraphs of pros and cons in another book gets reduced to a single sentence here. Mostly that’s okay.

The premise of the book is that Trump’s America is comparable to Europe in the 1930s:

We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

But in making the comparison, Synder goes all in. There’s very little accounting for the differences between the world of the early 20th century and the world of the early 21st century.

This becomes really apparent when it comes to technology. One piece of advice offered is:

Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.

Wait. He’s not actually saying that words on screens are in some way inherently worse than words on paper, is he? Surely that’s just the nuance getting lost in the brevity, right?

Alas, no:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. … So get screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

I mean, I’m all for reading books. But books are about what’s in them, not what they’re made of. To value words on a page more than the same words on a screen is like judging a book by its cover; its judging a book by its atoms.

For a book that’s about defending liberty and progress, On Tyranny is puzzingly conservative at times.

Books I read in 2021

I read 26 books in 2021, which is a bit more than I read in 2020. That said, some of them were brief books. I don’t think I actually read any more than my usual annual allotment of words.

I’m glad that I’m tracking my reading here on my own site. About halfway through the year I thought that I was doing a pretty good job of reading a mix of books from men and women, but a glance at my reading list showed that wasn’t the case at all and I was able to adjust my intake accordingly. I wasn’t doing as badly as some but by just keeping an ongoing reading list is a handy to spot any worrying trends.

I continued my practice of alternating between fiction and non-fiction. It’s working for me.

Now that the year is at an end, I’m going to my traditional round-up and give a little review of each book. I’m also going to engage in the pointless and annoying practice of assigning a rating out of five stars for each book.

To calibrate:

  • a one-star book would be rubbish,
  • a two-star book would be perfectly fine,
  • a three-star book would be good,
  • a four-star book would be excellent, and
  • a five-star book is unheard of.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

★★★☆☆

I was reading this at the end of 2020 and finished it at the start of 2021. I let it wash over me, which I think is how this impressionistic and rightly short book is meant to be enjoyed. But I might just be telling myself that because I wasn’t following it closely enough.

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

★★★★☆

A terrific book about human nature. As I wrote at the time, it makes a great companion piece to—and is influenced by—Rebecca Solnit’s excellent A Paradise Built In Hell.

The only frustrating facet of Bregman’s book is that it’s also influenced by Yuval Noah Harari’s mess Sapiens. That’s probably where it gets its wrong-headed fantasy about the evils of the agricultural revolution and the glories of a pre-civilisational nomadic lifestyle. Fortunately it sounds like this pernicious myth is in for a well-earned skewering in Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s new book The Dawn of Everything

Apart from that though, Humankind is pretty darn wonderful.

The Stinging Fly Issue 43/Volume Two Winter 2020-21 — The Galway 2020 Edition edited by Lisa McInerney and Elaine Feeney

★★★☆☆

Reading this collection of stories, poems and essays was my way of travelling to Galway when a global pandemic prevented me from actually going there. The quality was consistently high and some of the stories really stayed with me.

The Moment of Eclipse by Brian Aldiss

★★☆☆☆

Another pulp paperback of short stories from Brian Aldiss. I wrote about reading this book.

Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood

★★★☆☆

Reading a title from A Book Apart almost feels like a cheat—the books are laser-focused into a perfectly brief length. This one is no exception and the topic is one that every web designer and developer needs to be versed in.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

★★★☆☆

A thoroughly enjoyable first-contact story set in Nigeria. It’s absolutely dripping in atmosphere and features fully-formed characters that feel grounded even when in the middle of fantastical events.

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans

★★★★★

Yeah, that’s right: five stars! This books is superb, the perfect mix of subject matter and style as I wrote as soon as I finished it. What a writer!

British Ice by Owen D. Pomery

★★☆☆☆

This is a bit of a cheat on my part. It’s a short graphic novel, and the story is told more through pictures than words. The story is somewhat slight but the imagary, like the landscape being described, is hauntingly sparse.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

★★★☆☆

This one divided opinion. I thought that, on the whole, the novel worked. There are moments of seeing the world through a robot’s eyes that feel truly alien. It’s not in the same league as Never Let Me Go, but it does share the same feeling of bleak inevitability. So not a feelgood book then.

It pairs nicely with Ian McEwan’s recent Machines Like Us to see how two respected mainstream authors approach a genre topic.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez

★★★☆☆

Sharp and scathing, this is a thorough exposé. Sometimes it feels a little too thorough—there are a lot of data points that might have been better placed in footnotes. Then again, the whole point of this book is that the data really, really matters so I totally get why it’s presented this way.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

★★★☆☆

Properly good human-level space opera with oodles of political intrigue. I will definitely be reading the next book in the series.

My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn

★★★☆☆

I really enjoyed this account of the friendship between Tracey Thorn and Lindy Morrison. I’m a huge Go-Betweens fan, but the band’s story is almost always told from the perspective of the boys, Grant and Robert. You could say that those narratives have (puts on sunglasses) …Everything But The Girl.

Anyway, this was a refreshing alternative. Writing about music is notoriously tricky, but this might be the best biography of a musician I’ve read.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

★★★★☆

I loved this! If I tried to give a plot synopsis, it would sound ridiculous, like someone describing their dreams. But somehow this works in a way that feels cohesive and perfectly internally consistent. Just read it—you won’t regret it.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

★★★☆☆

I enjoy reading books about the craft of writing and this is one that I had been meaning to read for years. It didn’t disappoint. That said, I think I might have enjoyed it more as an autobiography of an American childhood than as a guide to writing. Some of the writing advice is dispensed as gospel when really, that’s just like your opinion, man.

A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction edited by Jack Fennell

★★☆☆☆

A quirky collection of 19th century and early 20th century short stories. Today we’d probably classify them as fantasy more than science fiction. What was really interesting was reading the biographies of the writers. The collection has an impressive amount of stories by fascinating women. Kudos to Jack Fennell for the curation.

Let The Game Do Its Work by J.M. Berger

★★☆☆☆

An enjoyable little study of dystopian film sports (I’ve always wanted to do a movie marathon on that theme). The format of this work is interesting. It’s not a full-length book. Instead it’s like a quick exploration of the topic to see whether it should be a full-length book. Personally, I think this is enough. Frankly, I can think of plenty of full-length non-fiction books that should’ve been more like this length.

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

★★★☆☆

Sci-fi? Fantasy? Magical realism? This has a premise that’s tricky to pull off, but it works. That said, I think it could’ve been shorter. I enjoyed this but I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any sequels.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Roennlund

★★★★☆

Wonderful! A book about facts and figures with a very human soul. It can be summed up in this quote:

The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.

Sometimes the self-effacing style of the late Hans Rosling can be a little grating, but overall this is a perfectly balanced book.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

★★★☆☆

Dripping with creepy Brexity atmosphere, this is more of a slow rising damp than a slow burn. But while the writing is terrific at the sentence level, it didn’t quite pull me in as a book. I admired it more than I enjoyed it.

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★☆☆

More escapist wish fulfilment in the Lady Astronaut series. These books aren’t great literature by any stretch, but I find the premise of an alternative history of the space race very appealing (like For All Mankind). This third book has a change of narrator and a change of scene: the moon.

Let It Go: My Extraordinary Story - From Refugee to Entrepreneur to Philanthropist by Dame Stephanie Shirley

★★★★☆

Absolutely brilliant! Both the book and the author, I mean. Steve Shirley is a hero of mine so it’s gratifying to find that she’s a great writer along with being a great person. Her story is by turns astonishing and heartbreaking. She conveys it all in an honest, heartfelt, but matter-of-fact manner.

I didn’t expect to find resonances in here about my own work, but it turns out that Clearleft wouldn’t have been able to become an employee-owned company without the groundwork laid down by Steve Shirley.

If you’re ever tempted to read some self-help business autobiography by some dude from Silicon Valley, don’t—read this instead.

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

★★★☆☆

The third in the Binti series of novellas is just as good as the previous two. This is crying out to be turned into a television show that I would most definitely watch.

Design For Safety by Eva PenzeyMoog

★★★☆☆

Another excellent addition to the canon of A Book Apart. I found myself noting down quotations that really resonated.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

★★★★☆

Excellent writing once again from Octavia Butler. Like Kindred, this can be harrowing at times but there’s a central core of humanity running through even the darkest moments. I’ll definitely be reading Parable of the Talents.

Responsible JavaScript by Jeremy Wagner

★★★☆☆

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that this book was right up my alley. I was nodding my head vigorously at many passages. While I might talk about progressive enhancement at the theoretical level, my fellow Jeremy dives deep into the practicalities. If you write JavaScript, you have to read this book.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

★★★☆☆

I wasn’t that into the first book in the Wayfarers series. I enjoyed the second one more. When it came to this third installment, I was completely won over. I was in just the right mood for it after the heaviness of Parable of the Sower. There’s not much in the way of threat, but plenty in the way of warmth. I’m also a sucker for stories of generation starships.

The Road from Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music, A Memoir by Paddy O’Brien

★★★☆☆

An enjoyable series of vignettes told from the viewpoint of a young boy growing up in rural Ireland. I was hoping for more stories of the music, but if you’re involved in trad music in any way, this is well worth a read.


Now it’s time to choose one book of the year from the fiction stack and one book of the year from non-fiction.

In any other year I think Parable of the Sower would be the fiction winner, but this year I’m going to have to go for Piranesi.

There’s stiff competition in the non-fiction category: Humankind, Factfulness, and Let It Go are all excellent. But it’s got to be Broad Band.

Most of these books are available on Bookshop if you fancy reading any of them.

And for context, here’s:

Reader

I’ve written before about how I don’t have notifications on my phone or computer. But that doesn’t stop computer programmes waving at me, trying to attract my attention.

If I have my email client open on my computer there’s a red circle with a number in it telling me how many unread emails I have. It’s the same with Slack. If Slack is running and somebody writes something to me, or @here, or @everyone, then a red circle blinks into existence.

There’s a category of programmes like this that want my attention—email, Slack, calendars. In each case, emptiness is the desired end goal. Seeing an inbox too full of emails or a calendar too full of appointments makes me feel queasy. In theory these programmes are acting on my behalf, working for me, making my life easier. And in many ways they do. They help me keep things organised. But they also need to me to take steps: read that email, go to that appointment, catch up with that Slack message. Sometimes it can feel like the tail is wagging the dog and I’m the one doing the bidding of these pieces of software.

My RSS reader should, in theory, fall into the same category. It shows me the number of unread items, just like email or Slack. But for some reason, it feels different. When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.

I’ve managed to wire my neurological pathways to put RSS in the books category instead of the productivity category. I’m very glad about that. I would hate if catching up on RSS feeds felt like catching up on email. Maybe that’s why I’m never entirely comfortable with newsletters—if there’s an option to subscribe by RSS instead of email, I’ll always take it.

I have two folders in my RSS reader: blogs and magazines. Reading blog posts feels like catching up with what my friends are up to (even if I don’t actually know the person). Reading magazine articles feels like spending a lazy Sunday catching up with some long-form journalism.

I should update this list of my subscriptions. It’s a bit out of date.

Matt made a nice website explaining RSS. And Nicky Case recently wrote about reviving RSS.

Oh, and if you want to have my words in your RSS reader, I have plenty of options for you.

Talking about sci-fi

I gave my sci-fi talk last week at Marc’s Stay Curious event. I really like the format of these evening events: two talks followed by joint discussion, interspersed with music from Tobi. This particular evening was especially enjoyable, with some great discussion points being raised.

Steph and I had already colluded ahead of time on how we were going to split up the talks. She would go narrow and dive into one specific subgenre, solarpunk. I would go broad and give a big picture overview of science fiction literature.

Obviously I couldn’t possibly squeeze the entire subject of sci-fi into one short talk, so all I could really do was give my own personal subjective account. Hence, the talk is called Sci-fi and Me. I’ve published the transcript, uploaded the slides and the audio, and Marc has published the video on YouTube and Vimeo. Kudos to Tina Pham for going above and beyond to deliver a supremely accurate transcript with a super-fast turnaround.

I divided the talk into three sections. The first is my own personal story of growing up in small-town Ireland and reading every sci-fi book I could get my hands on from the local library. The second part was a quick history of sci-fi publishing covering the last two hundred years. The third and final part was a run-down of ten topics that sci-fi deals with. For each topic, I gave a brief explanation, mentioned a few books and then chose one that best represents that particular topic. That was hard.

  1. Planetary romance. I mentioned the John Carter books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss, and the Riverworld saga by Philip José Farmer. I chose Dune by Frank Herbert.
  2. Space opera. I mentioned the Skylark and Lensman books by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds, and the Machineries of Empire books by Yoon Ha Lee. I chose Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
  3. Generation starships. I mentioned Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. I chose Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.
  4. Utopia. I mentioned the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. I chose The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
  5. Dystopia. I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I chose 1984 by George Orwell.
  6. Post-apocalypse. I mentioned The Drought and The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I chose Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
  7. Artificial intelligence. I mentioned Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan and Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.
  8. First contact. I mentioned The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, Childhood’s End and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and Contact by Carl Sagan. I chose Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang.
  9. Time travel. I mentioned The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and The Peripheral by William Gibson. I chose Kindred by Octavia Butler.
  10. Alternative history. I mentioned A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. I chose The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
  11. Cyberpunk. I mentioned Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. I chose Neuromancer by William Gibson.

Okay, that’s eleven, not ten, but that last one is a bit of a cheat—it’s a subgenre rather than a topic. But it allowed me to segue nicely into Steph’s talk.

Here’s a list of those eleven books. I can recommend each and every one of them. Still, the problem with going with this topic-based approach was that some of my favourite sci-fi books of all time fall outside of any kind of classification system. Where would I put The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, one of my all-time favourites? How could I classify Philip K. Dick books like Ubik, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, or A Scanner Darkly? And where would I even begin to describe the books of Christopher Priest?

But despite the inevitable gaps, I’m really pleased with how the overall talk turned out. I had a lot of fun preparing it and even more fun presenting it. It made a nice change from the usual topics I talk about. Incidentally, if you’ve got a conference or a podcast and you ever want me to talk about something other than the web, I’m always happy to blather on about sci-fi.

Here’s the talk. I hope you like it.

Broad Band

I like to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is often of the science variety. Actually, so is the non-fiction.

There was a non-fiction book I had queued up for a while and I finally got around to reading. Broad Band by Claire L. Evans. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it earlier. I think I might’ve been remembering how I found Mar Hicks’s Programmed Inequality to be a bit of a slog—a fascinating topic, but written in a fairly academic style. Broad Band covers some similar ground, but wow, is the writing style in a class of its own!

This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.

It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.

I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:

Because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.

Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn’t.

Yes! That!

Read it for yourself and see what you think.

Of the web

I’m subscribed to a lot of blogs in my RSS reader. I follow some people because what they write about is very different to what I know about. But I also follow lots of people who have similar interests and ideas to me. So I’m not exactly in an echo chamber, but I do have the reverb turned up pretty high.

Sometimes these people post thoughts that are eerily similar to what I’ve been thinking about. Ethan has been known to do this. Get out of my head, Marcotte!

But even if Ethan wasn’t some sort of telepath, he’d still be in my RSS reader. We’re friends. Lots of the people in my RSS reader are my friends. When I read their words, I can hear their voices.

Then there are the people I’ve never met. Like Desirée García, Piper Haywood, or Jim Nielsen. Never met them, don’t know them, but damn, do I enjoy reading their blogs. Last year alone, I ended up linking to Jim’s posts ten different times.

Or Baldur Bjarnason. I can’t remember when I first came across his writing, but it really, really resonates with me. I probably owe him royalties for the amount of times I’ve cited his post Over-engineering is under-engineering.

His latest post is postively Marcottian in how it exposes what’s been fermenting in my own mind. But because he writes clearly, it really helps clarify my own thinking. It’s often been said that you should write to figure out what you think, and I can absolutely relate to that. But here’s a case where somebody else’s writing really helps to solidify my own thoughts.

Which type of novelty-seeking web developer are you?

It starts with some existentialist stock-taking. I can relate, what with the whole five decades thing. But then it turns the existential questioning to the World Wide Web itself, or rather, the people building the web.

In a way, it’s like taking the question of the great divide (front of the front end and back of the front end), and then turning it 45 degrees to reveal an entirely hidden dimension.

In examining the nature of the web, he hits on the litmus of how you view encapsulation:

I mention this first as it’s the aspect of the web that modern web developers hate the most without even giving it a label. Single-Page-Apps and GraphQL are both efforts to eradicate the encapsulation that’s baked into the foundation of every layer of the web.

Most modern devs are trying to get rid of it but it’s one of the web’s most strategic advantages.

I hadn’t thought of this before.

By default, if you don’t go against the grain of the web, each HTTP endpoint is encapsulated from each other.

Moreover, all of this can happen really fast if you aren’t going overboard with your CSS and JS.

He finishes with a look at another of the web’s most powerful features: distribution. In between are the things that make the web webby: hypertext and flexibility (The Dao of the Web).

It’s the idea that the web isn’t a single fixed thing but a fluid multitude whose shape is dictated by its surroundings.

This resonates with me because it highlights two different ways of viewing the web.

On the one hand, you can see the web purely as a distribution channel. In the past you might have been distributing a Flash movie. These days you might be distributing a single page app. Either way, the web is there as a low-friction way of getting your creation in front of other people.

The other way of building for the web is to go with the web’s grain, embracing flexibility and playing to the strengths of the medium through progressive enhancement. This is the distinction I was getting at when I talked about something being not just on the web, but of the web.

With that mindset, Baldur then takes us through some of the technologies that he’s excited about, like SvelteKit and Hotwire. I think it’s the same mindset that got me excited about service workers. As Baldur says:

They are helping the web become better at being its own thing.

That’s my tagline right there.

Reading resonances

In today’s world of algorithmic recommendation engines, it’s nice to experience some serendipity every now and then. I remember how nice it was when two books I read in sequence had a wonderful echo in their descriptions of fermentation:

There’s a lovely resonance in reading @RobinSloan’s Sourdough back to back with @EdYong209’s I Contain Multitudes. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction, but they’re both microbepunk.

Robin agreed:

OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!

I experienced another resonant echo when I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell and then starting reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind. Both books share a common theme—that human beings are fundamentally decent—but the first chapter of Humankind was mentioning the exact same events that are chronicled in A Paradise Built in Hell; the Blitz, September 11th, Katrina, and more. Then he cites from that book directly. The two books were published a decade apart, and it was just happenstance that I ended up reading them in quick succession.

I recommend both books. Humankind is thoroughly enjoyable, but it has one maddeningly frustrating flaw. A Paradise Built in Hell isn’t the only work that influenced Bregman—he also cites Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Here’s what I thought of Sapiens:

Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.

Humankind echoes this fabrication. Again, the giveaway is that the footnotes dry up when the author is describing the idyllic pre-historical nomadic lifestyle. Compare it with, for instance, this description of the founding of Jericho—possibly the world’s oldest city—where researchers are at pains to point out that we can’t possibly know what life was like before written records.

I worry that Yuval Noah Harari’s imaginings are being treated as “truthy” by Rutger Bregman. It’s not a trend I like.

Still, apart from that annoying detour, Humankind is a great read. So is A Paradise Built in Hell. Try them together.

The moment after eclipse

I’m almost finished reading a collection of short stories by Brian Aldiss. He was such a prolific writer that he produced loads of these collections, readily available from second-hand bookshops, published on cheap pulpy paper.

This collection is called The Moment Of Eclipse. It’s has some truly weird stories in there, as well as an undisputed classic with Super-Toys Last All Summer Long. I always find it almost unbearably sad.

Only recently, towards the end of the book, did the coincidence of the book’s title strike me: The Moment Of Eclipse.

See, last time I had the privelige of experiencing a total solar eclipse was on August 21st, 2017. Jessica and I were in Sun Valley, Idaho, right in the path of totality. We found a hill to climb up so we could see the surrounding landscape as the shadow of the moon raced across the Earth.

Checked in at Valley View Trail. Hiked up a hill for the eclipse — with Jessica

When it was over, we climbed down the hill and went online. That’s when I found out. Brian Aldiss had passed away.

Books I read in 2020

I only read twenty books this year. Considering the ample amount of free time I had, that’s not great. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Yes, I may have spent more time watching television than reading, but I’m cutting myself some slack. It was 2020, for crying out loud.

Anyway, here’s my annual round-up with reviews. Anything with three stars is good. Four stars is really good. Five stars is practically unheard of. As usual, I tried to get an equal balance of fiction and non-fiction.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

An enjoyable sequal to Ninefox Gambit. There are some convoluted politics but that all seems positively straightforward after the brain-bending calendrical warfare introduced in the first book.

The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society by Norbert Wiener

★★★☆☆

The ur-text on systems and feedback. Reading it now is like reading a historical artifact but many of the ideas are timeless. It’s a bit dense in parts and it tries to cover life, the universe and everything, but when you remember that it was written in 1950, it’s clearly visionary.

The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★☆☆

Simultaneously a ripping yarn and a spiritual meditation. It’s Vietnam and the environmental movement rolled into one (like what Avatar attempted, but this actually works).

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

★★★★☆

Here’s my full review.

A Short History Of Irish Traditional Music by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

★★☆☆☆

A perfectly fine and accurate history of the music, but it’s a bit like reading Wikipedia. Still, it was quite the ego boost to see The Session listed in the appendix.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

★★★☆☆

McEwan’s first foray into science fiction is a good tale but a little clumsily told. It’s like he really wants to show how much research he put into his alternative history. There are moments when characters practically turn to the camera to say, “Imagine how the world would’ve turned out if…” It’s far from McEwan’s best but even when he’s not on top form, his writing is damn good.

The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch

★★★☆☆

I’ve attempted to read this before. I may have even read it all before and had everything just leak out of my head. The problem is with me, not David Deutsch who does a fine job of making complex ideas approachable. This is like a unified theory of everything.

Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

The third and final part of Aldiss’s epic is just as enjoyable as the previous two. The characters aren’t the main attraction here. It’s all about the planetary ballet.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

★★★★☆

A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.

A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★☆

There’s a real pleasure in finally reading books that you should’ve read years ago. I can only imagine how wonderful it would’ve been to read these as a teenager. It’s an immersive world but there’s something melancholy about the writing that makes the experience of reading less escapist and more haunting.

Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

★★★★★

Absolutely superb! I liked Angela Saini’s previous book, Inferior, but I loved this. It’s a harrowing read at times, but written with incredible clarity and empathy. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Purple People by Kate Bulpitt

★★★★☆

Full disclosure: Kate is a friend of mine, so I probably can’t evaluate her book in a disinterested way. That said, I enjoyed the heck out of this and I think you will too. It’s very hard to classify and I think that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Technically, it’s sci-fi I suppose—an alternative history tale, probably—but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s all about the characters, and they’re all vividly realised. Honestly, I’m not sure how best to describe it—other then it being like the inside of Kate’s head—but the description of it being “a jolly dystopia” comes close. Take a chance and give it a go.

How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford

★★★☆☆

Good stuff from Adam Rutherford, though not his best. If I hadn’t already read Angela Saini’s Superior I might’ve rated this higher, but it pales somewhat by comparison. Still, it was interesting to see the same subject matter tackled in two different ways.

Agency by William Gibson

★★☆☆☆

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Agency, but there’s nothing particularly great about it either. It’s just there. Maybe I’m being overly harsh because the first book, The Peripheral, was absolutely brilliant. This reminded me of reading Gibson’s Spook Country, which left me equally unimpressed. That book was sandwiched between the brilliant Pattern Recognition and the equally brilliant Zero History. That bodes well for the forthcoming third book in this series. This second book just feels like filler.

Last Night’s Fun: In And Out Of Time With Irish Music by Ciaran Carson

★★★☆☆

It’s hard to describe this book. Memoir? Meditation? Blog? I kind of like that about it, but I can see how it divides opinion. Some people love it. Some people hate it. I thought it was enjoyable enough. But it doesn’t matter what I think. This book is doing its own thing.

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

The third book in the Machineries of Empire series has much less befuddlement. It’s even downright humourous in places. If you liked Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem, you’ll enjoy this too.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

★★★☆☆

The central thesis of this book is refuting the Hobbesian view of humanity as being one crisis away from breakdown. I feel like that argument was made more strongly in Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball. But where this book shines is in its vivid description of past catastrophes and their aftermaths: the San Francisco fire; the Halifax explosion; the Mexico City earthquake; and the culmination with Katrina hitting New Orleans. I was less keen on the more blog-like personal musings but overall, this is well worth reading.

Blindsight by Peter Watts

★★☆☆☆

I like a good tale of first contact, and I had heard that this one had a good twist on the Fermi paradox. But it felt a bit like a short story stretched to the length of a novel. It would make for a good Twilight Zone episode but it didn’t sustain my interest.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I’m still reading this Hugo-winning novella and enjoying it so far.


Alright, time to wrap up this look back at the books I read in 2020 and pick my favourites: one fiction and one non-fiction.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year was easily Superior by Angela Saini. Read it. It’s superb.

What about fiction? Hmm …this is tricky.

You know what? I’m going to go for Purple People by Kate Bulpitt. Yes, she’s a friend (“it’s a fix!”) but it genuinely made an impression on me: it was an enjoyable romp while I was reading it, and it stayed with me afterwards too.

Head on over to Bookshop and pick up a copy.

Bookshop

Back at the start of the (first) lockdown, I wrote about using my website as an outlet:

While you’re stuck inside, your website is not just a place you can go to, it’s a place you can control, a place you can maintain, a place you can tidy up, a place you can expand. Most of all, it’s a place you can lose yourself in, even if it’s just for a little while.

Last week was eventful and stressful. For everyone. I found myself once again taking refuge in my website, tinkering with its inner workings in the way that someone else would potter about in their shed or take to their garage to strip down the engine of some automotive device.

Colly drew my attention to Bookshop.org, newly launched in the UK. It’s an umbrella website for independent bookshops to sell through. It’s also got an affiliate scheme, much like Amazon. I set up a Bookshop page for myself.

I’ve been tracking the books I’m reading for the past three years here on my own website. I set about reproducing that list on Bookshop.

It was exactly the kind of not-exactly-mindless but definitely-not-challenging task that was perfect for the state of my brain last week. Search for a book; find the ISBN number; paste that number into a form. It’s the kind of task that a real programmer would immediately set about automating but one that I embraced as a kind of menial task to keep me occupied.

I wasn’t able to get a one-to-one match between the list on my site and my reading list on Bookshop. Some titles aren’t available in the online catalogue. For example, the book I’m reading right now—A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit—is nowhere to be found, which seems like an odd omission.

But most of the books I’ve read are there on Bookshop.org, complete with pretty book covers. Then I decided to reverse the process of my menial task. I took all of the ISBN numbers from Bookshop and add them as machine tags to my reading notes here on my own website. Book cover images on Bookshop have predictable URLs that use the ISBN number (well, technically the EAN number, or ISBN-13, but let’s not go down a 927 rabbit hole here). So now I’m using that metadata to pull in images from Bookshop.org to illustrate my reading notes here on adactio.com.

I’m linking to the corresponding book on Bookshop.org using this URL structure:

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/{{ affiliate code }}/{{ ISBN number }}

I realised that I could also link to the corresponding entry on Open Library using this URL structure:

https://openlibrary.org/isbn/{{ ISBN number }}

Here, for example, is my note for The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. That entry has a tag:

book:ean=9780356506999

With that information I can illustrate my note with this image:

https://images-eu.bookshop.org/product-images/images/9780356506999.jpg

I’m linking off to this URL on Bookshop.org:

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/980/9780356506999

And this URL on Open Library:

https://openlibrary.org/isbn/9780356506999

The end result is that my reading list now has more links and pretty pictures.

Oh, I also set up a couple of shorter lists on Bookshop.org:

The books listed in those are drawn from my end of the year round-ups when I try to pick one favourite non-fiction book and one favourite work of fiction (almost always speculative fiction). The books in those two lists are the ones that get two hearty thumbs up from me. If you click through to buy one of them, the price might not be as cheap as on Amazon, but you’ll be supporting an independent bookshop.

Reading

At the beginning of the year, Remy wrote about extracting Goodreads metadata so he could create his end-of-year reading list. More recently, Mark Llobrera wrote about how he created a visualisation of his reading history. In his case, he’s using JSON to store the information.

This kind of JSON storage is exactly what Tom Critchlow proposes in his post, Library JSON - A Proposal for a Decentralized Goodreads:

Thinking through building some kind of “web of books” I realized that we could use something similar to RSS to build a kind of decentralized GoodReads powered by indie sites and an underlying easy to parse format.

His proposal looks kind of similar to what Mark came up with. There’s a title, an author, an image, and some kind of date for when you started and/or finished reading the book.

Matt then points out that RSS gets close to the data format being suggested and asks how about using RSS?:

Rather than inventing a new format, my suggestion is that this is RSS plus an extension to deal with books. This is analogous to how the podcast feeds are specified: they are RSS plus custom tags.

Like Matt, I’m in favour of re-using existing wheels rather than inventing new ones, mostly to avoid a 927 situation.

But all of these proposals—whether JSON or RSS—involve the creation of a separate file, and yet the information is originally published in HTML. Along the lines of Matt’s idea, I could imagine extending the h-entry collection of class names to allow for books (or films, or other media). It already handles images (with u-photo). I think the missing fields are the date-related ones: when you start and finish reading. Those fields are present in a different microformat, h-event in the form of dt-start and dt-end. Maybe they could be combined:


<article class="h-entry h-event h-review">
<h1 class="p-name p-item">Book title</h1>
<img class="u-photo" src="image.jpg" alt="Book cover.">
<p class="p-summary h-card">Book author</p>
<time class="dt-start" datetime="YYYY-MM-DD">Start date</time>
<time class="dt-end" datetime="YYYY-MM-DD">End date</time>
<div class="e-content">Remarks</div>
<data class="p-rating" value="5">★★★★★</data>
<time class="dt-published" datetime="YYYY-MM-DDThh:mm">Date of this post</time>
</article>

That markup is simultaneously a post (h-entry) and an event (h-event) and you can even throw in h-card for the book author (as well as h-review if you like to rate the books you read). It can be converted to RSS and also converted to .ics for calendars—those parsers are already out there. It’s ready for aggregation and it’s ready for visualisation.

I publish very minimal reading posts here on adactio.com. What little data is there isn’t very structured—I don’t even separate the book title from the author. But maybe I’ll have a little play around with turning these h-entries into combined h-entry/event posts.

A reading of The Enormous Space by J.G. Ballard

Staying at home triggered a memory for me. I remembered reading a short story many years ago. It was by J.G. Ballard, and it described a man who makes the decision not to leave the house.

Being a J.G. Ballard story, it doesn’t end there. Over the course of the story, the house grows and grows in size, forcing the protaganist into ever-smaller refuges within his own home. It really stuck with me.

I tried tracking it down with some Duck Duck Going. Searching for “j.g. ballard weird short story” doesn’t exactly narrow things down, but eventually I spotted the book that I had read the story in. It was called War Fever. I think I read it back when I was living in Germany, so that would’ve been in the ’90s. I certainly don’t have a copy of the book any more.

But I was able to look up a table of contents and find a title for the story that was stuck in my head. It’s called The Enormous Space.

Alas, I couldn’t find any downloadable versions—War Fever doesn’t seem to be available for the Kindle.

Then I remembered the recent announcement from the Internet Archive that it was opening up the National Emergency Library. The usual limits on “checking out” books online are being waived while physical libraries remain closed.

I found The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard and borrowed it just long enough to re-read The Enormous Space.

If anything, it’s creepier and weirder than I remembered. But it’s laced with more black comedy than I remembered.

I thought you might like to hear this story, so I made a recording of myself reading The Enormous Space.

Nice

Yesterday was Wednesday. Wednesday evening is when I play in an Irish trad session at The Jolly Brewer. It’s a highlight of my week.

Needless to say, there was no session yesterday. I’ll still keep playing tunes while we’re all socially distancing, but it’s not quite the same. I concur with this comment:

COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.

It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.

But it’s not the same though, is it?

I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”

Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:

It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.

Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.

I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

I got an email a little while back from Michael at Repeater Books asking me if I wanted an advance copy of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism by Wendy Liu. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I said “Sure!”

I’m happy to say that the book is most excellent …or at least mostly excellent.

Contrary to what the book title—or its blurb—might tell you, this is a memoir first and foremost. It’s a terrific memoir. It’s utterly absorbing.

Just as the most personal songs can have the most universal appeal, this story feels deeply personal while being entirely accessible. You don’t have to be a computer nerd to sympathise with the struggles of a twenty-something in a start-up trying to make sense of the world. This well-crafted narrative will resonate with any human. It calls to mind Ellen Ullman’s excellent memoir, Close to the Machine—not a comparison I make lightly.

But as you might have gathered from the book’s title, Abolish Silicon Valley isn’t being marketed as a memoir:

Abolish Silicon Valley is both a heartfelt personal story about the wasteful inequality of Silicon Valley, and a rallying call to engage in the radical politics needed to upend the status quo.

It’s true that the book finishes with a political manifesto but that’s only in the final chapter or two. The majority of the book is the personal story, and just as well. Those last few chapters really don’t work in this setting. They feel tonally out of place.

Don’t get me wrong, the contents of those final chapters are right up my alley—they’re preaching to the converted here. But I think they would be better placed in their own publication. The heavily-researched academic style jars with the preceeding personal narrative.

Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.

The book will be released on April 14th. It’s available to pre-order now. I highly recommend doing just that. I think you’ll really enjoy it. But if you get mired down in the final few chapters, know that you can safely skip them.

Three books

Lurking: How a Person Became a User by Joanne McNeil will be published on February 25th.

In Lurking, Joanne McNeil digs deep and identifies the primary (if sometimes contradictory) concerns of people online: searching, safety, privacy, identity, community, anonymity, and visibility. She charts what it is that brought people online and what keeps us here even as the social equations of digital life—what we’re made to trade, knowingly or otherwise, for the benefits of the internet—have shifted radically beneath us. It is a story we are accustomed to hearing as tales of entrepreneurs and visionaries and dynamic and powerful corporations, but there is a more profound, intimate story that hasn’t yet been told.

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson will be published on May 12th:

Henry Every was the seventeenth century’s most notorious pirate. The press published wildly popular—and wildly inaccurate—reports of his nefarious adventures. The British government offered enormous bounties for his capture, alive or (preferably) dead. But Steven Johnson argues that Every’s most lasting legacy was his inadvertent triggering of a major shift in the global economy. Enemy of All Mankind focuses on one key event—the attack on an Indian treasure ship by Every and his crew—and its surprising repercussions across time and space. It’s the gripping tale one of the most lucrative crimes in history, the first international manhunt, and the trial of the seventeenth century.

How To Future: Leading and Sense-Making in an Age of Hyperchange by Scott Smith with Madeline Ashby will be published on July 3rd:

Successfully designing for a future requires a picture of that future—a useful map of the horizons ahead that can be used for wayfinding, identifying emerging opportunities or risks. Accurately developing this map means investing in better awareness of signals about the future, understanding trends in context, developing rich insights about what those signals indicate—relative to companies, people, citizens or stakeholders. It also means cultivating ways to share these future insights through tangible yet provocative scenarios or stories, turn these into prototypes, or connect them to strategies.

Books I read in 2019

I read 26 books in 2019. That’s not as many as I’d like, but it is an increase on 2018.

Once again, I tried to maintain a balance between fiction and non-fiction. It kinda worked.

Here, in order of reading, are the books I read in 2019. For calibration, anything with three stars or more means I enjoyed (and recommend) the book. I can be pretty stingy with my stars. That said…

Kindred by Octavia Butler

★★★★★

Kindred is a truly remarkable work. Technically it’s science fiction—time travel, specifically—but that’s really just the surface detail. This is a study of what makes us human, and an investigation into the uncomfortable reach of circumstance and culture. Superbly written and deeply empathic.

The Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder

★★☆☆☆

This is a well-regarded book amongst people whose opinion I value. It’s also a Pulitzer prize winner. Strange, then, that I found it so unengaging. The prose is certainly written with gusto, but it all seems so very superficial to me. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a chronicle of a bunch of guys—and oh, boy, are they guys—making a commercial computer. Testosterone and solder—not my cup of tea.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

★★★☆☆

A thoroughly entertaining space adventure, although my favourite parts are the descriptions of the inner magic of mathematics. This is a short read too, so go ahead and give it a whirl. Recommended.

The Order Of Time by Carlo Rovelli

★★★☆☆

The writing is entertaining, sometimes arresting, though it definitely spills over into purple prose at times. As a meditation on the nature of time, it’s a thought-provoking read, but I think I prefer the gentler musings of James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

★★☆☆☆

Another highly-regarded book that I just couldn’t get into. That’s probably more down to me than the book. I can see how the writing is imaginative and immersive, but the end result—for me, at least—was no more than perfectly fine.

Reading this kind of reminded me of reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. They’re both perfectly fine books that were lavished with heaps of praise for their levels of imagination …which makes me think that people need to read more sci-fi and fantasy.

A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented The Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

★★★★☆

A terrific biography! Admittedly you’ll probably want to be interested in information theory in the first place, but how could you not?

This book could probably have been a little shorter without losing too much, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s a great companion to James Gleick’s The Information.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

★★★☆☆

This is like the love child of Craig Mod and Umberto Eco …and I mean that in the nicest possible way. A thoroughly entertaining genre-crossing jaunt that isn’t going to stress you out. Fun!

Inferior: The True Power Of Women and the Science that Shows It by Angela Saini

★★★☆☆

Superbly researched and deftly crafted. This is an eye-opening journey into the cultural influences on experimental science.

Resilient Management by Lara Hogan

★★★★☆

I’m getting kind of cross with Lara now. First she writes the definitive book on web performance. Then she writes the definitive book on public speaking (I’ve loaned it out so many times, I’ve lost track of it). Now she’s gone and written the definitive book on being a manager. It hardly seems fair!

Seriously, this book is remarkably practical, right from the get-go. And the one complaint I have about most management books—that they’re longer than they need to be—definitely doesn’t apply here. If your job involves managing humans in any way, read this book!

The Future Home Of The Living God by Louise Erdrich

★★☆☆☆

There’s nothing wrong with this book, per se. But I think it’s situated too much in the shadow of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to stand on its own merits.

Binti Home by Nnedi Okorafor

★★★☆☆

The second novella in the Binti series. Just as much fun as the first. I’m looking forward to reading the third and final book in the series.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

★★★☆☆

I really enjoyed this evolutionary tale. It’s equal parts biology and philosophy. I will never look at cephalopods quite the same way again.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

★★★☆☆

Just as entertaining as Robin’s first book, this has a fun vibe to it.

By pure coincidence, I followed Sourdough with…

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

★★★★☆

I wrote:

There’s a lovely resonance in reading @RobinSloan’s Sourdough back to back with @EdYong209’s I Contain Multitudes. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction, but they’re both microbepunk.

To which Robin responded:

OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!

I Contain Multitudes is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining work. You might not think you want to read a book all about microbes, but trust me, you do.

I stand by this appraisal:

They’re both such wonderful books—apart from the obvious microbial connection, there’s a refreshingly uncynical joy infusing the writing of each of them!

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

★★★☆☆

An first-contact novel with a difference. The setting, the characters, the writing—everything is vivid and immersive. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker

★★★☆☆

The sheer joy of the writing is infectious. If you’ve got some long-haul flights ahead of you, this is the perfect reading material.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

★★★★☆

This has stayed with me. This is Ann Leckie’s first foray into more of a fantasy realm, and it’s just as great as her superb science fiction.

Internal consistency is key to world-building in works of fantasy, and this book has a deeply satisfying and believable system that is only gradually and partially revealed. Encore!

The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

★★★☆☆

This book has an unusual structure. At times, it’s like a masterclass in writing. At other times, it’s deeply personal. I don’t know quite how to classify it, but I like it!

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆

Brilliant, as expected. Some of the stories in here have stayed with me long after I finished reading them. If you haven’t already read this or Stories of Your Life and Others, you’re in for a real treat.

Is Exhalation quite as brilliant as Ted Chiang’s debut book of short stories? Maybe not. But that bar is so high as to be astronomical.

Now we just have to wait a few more decades for his third collection.

Motherfoclóir: Dispatches From A Not So Dead Language by Darach O’Séaghdha

★★★☆☆

I don’t know if this will be of any interest if you don’t already understand some Irish, but I found this to be good fun. There were times when an aside was repeated more than once, which made me wonder if the source material was originally scattered in other publications.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★☆☆

An alternative history novel with a thought-provoking premise. The result is like a cross between Mercury 13 and Seveneves. There’s a dollop of wish fulfillment in here that feels like a guilty pleasure, but that’s no bad thing.

1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire by Rebecca Rideal

★★★☆☆

This is how you bring history to life! The style of writing feels much more like a historical novel than a dry academic work, but all of the events are relayed from contempary source material. The plague is suitably grim and disgusting; the sea battles are appropriately thrilling and frightening; the fire is unrelentingly devestating. I know that doesn’t sound like there’s much enjoyment to be had, but this is the best history book I’ve read in a while.

Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

I know I joke about seeing pace layers everywhere but seriously, Brian Aldiss’s Heliconia series is all about pace layers. Each book deals with one point in time, where we’re concerned with the dynastic concerns of years and decades, but the really important story is happening on the scale of centuries and millennia as the seasons slowly change.

This one was just as good as Helliconia Spring and I’m looking forward to rounding out the series with Helliconia Winter.

The Canopy Of Time by Brian Aldiss

★★☆☆☆

I decided to stay on a Brian Aldiss kick, and grabbed this pulpy collection of short stories. It’s not his best work, and there’s an unnecessary attempt to tie all the stories together into one narrative, but even a so-so Brian Aldiss book has got a weird and slightly haunting edge to it.

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★☆☆

The sequel to The Calculating Stars and the last in the Lady Astronaut series. Good space-race entertainment.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

I’ve just picked up this sequel to Ninefox Gambit. So far it’s not as bewildering as the first book—where the bewilderment was part of its charm. I’m into it. But I won’t rate it till I’ve finished it.


Alright, time to pick my favourite fiction and non-fiction books of the year.

Certainly the best fiction book published this year was Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. But when it comes to the best book I’ve read this year, it’s got to be Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Hard to believe it’s forty years old—it’s shockingly relevant today.

As for the best non-fiction …this is really hard this year. So many great books: A Mind At Play, Inferior, 1666, Other Minds; I loved them all. But I think I’m going to have to give it to Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes.

Only 10 of the 26 books I read this year were by women. I need to work on redressing the balance in 2020.

Building links

In just over a week, I’ll be giving the opening talk at the New Adventures conference in Nottingham. I’ll be giving a workshop the day before too. There are still tickets available for both.

I have to admit, I’m kind of nervous about this talk. It’s been quite a while since the last New Adventures, but it’s always had quite the cachet. I think I went to most of them. It’s quite strange—and quite an honour—to shift gears from attendee to speaker.

The talk I’ll be giving is called Building. That might be a noun. That might be a verb. You decide:

Every new medium looks to what has come before for guidance. Web design has taken cues from centuries of typography and graphic design. Web development has borrowed metaphors and ideas from the world of architecture. Let’s take a tour of some of the most influential ideas from architecture that have crossed over into the web, from pattern languages to responsive design. Together we’ll uncover how to build resilient, performant, accessible and beautiful structures that work with the grain of the materials of the web.

This talk builds upon the talk I gave at last year’s An Event Apart called The Way Of The Web. It also reflects many of the ideas in Resilient Web Design. When I gave a run-through of the talk at Clearleft last week, Andy called it a “greatest hits.” For a while there, I was feeling guilty about retreading some ground I’ve covered in previous talks and writings. Then I realised it was pretty arrogant of me to think that anyone in the audience would be familiar with any of it.

Besides, I’ve got a whole new avenue of exploration in this talk. It’s about language and metaphor—how we talk about what we do on the web. I’ve just finished giving another run-through at the Clearleft studio and I’m feeling pretty good about it. That’s good, because I find that giving a talk in a small room to a handful of colleagues is way more stressful than giving a talk to hundreds of people at a conference.

Just as I put together links related to last year’s talk, I figured I’d provide some hyperlinks for anyone interested in the topics raised in this new talk…

Books

Articles

Audio

Books I read in 2018

I read twenty books in 2018, which is exactly the same amount as I read in 2017. Reflecting on that last year, I said “It’s not as many as I hoped.” It does seem like a meagre amount, but in my defence, some of the books I read this year were fairly hefty tomes.

I decided to continue my experiment from last year of alternating fiction and non-fiction books. That didn’t quite work out, but it makes for a good guiding principle.

In ascending reading order, these are the books I read in 2018

A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

★★★☆☆

I started this towards the end of 2017 and finished it at the start of 2018. A good sci-fi romp, but stretched out a little bit long.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

★★★★☆

I really enjoyed this, but then, that’s hardly a surprise. The subject matter is tailor made for me. I don’t think this quite matches the brilliance of Gleick’s The Information, but I got a real kick out of it. A book dedicated to unearthing the archeology of a science-fiction concept is a truly fascinating idea. And it’s not just about time travel, per se—this is a meditation on the nature of time itself.

Traction by Gino Wickman

Andy was quite taken with this management book and purchased multiple copies for the Clearleft leadership team. I’ll refrain from rating it because it was more like a homework assignment than a book I would choose to read. It crystalises some good organisational advice into practical steps, but it probably could’ve been quite a bit shorter.

Provenance by Ann Leckie

★★★☆☆

It feels very unfair but inevitable to compare this to Ann Leckie’s amazing debut Imperial Radch series. It’s not in quite the same league, but it’s also not trying to be. This standalone book has a lighter tone. It’s a rollicking good sci-fi procedural. It may not be as mind-blowingly inventive as Ancillary Justice, but it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, with guest editor Juliet Ulman

★★★☆☆

This book is free to download so it’s rather excellent value for money. It alternates sci-fi short stories with essays. Personally, I would skip the essays—they’re all a bit too academic for my taste. But some of these stories are truly excellent. There’s a really nice flow to the collection: it begins in low Earth orbit, then expands out to the Mars, the asteroid belt, and beyond. Death on Mars by Madeline Ashby was a real standout for me.

The Best of Richard Matheson by Richard Matheson, edited by Victor LaValle

★★★★☆

For some reason, I was sent a copy of this book by an editor at Penguin Classics. I have no idea why, but thank you, Sam! This turned out to be a lot of fun. I had forgotten just how many classics of horror and sci-fi are the work of Richard Matheson. He probably wrote your favourite Twilight Zone episode. There’s a real schlocky enoyment to be had from snacking on these short stories, occassionally interspersed with genuinely disturbing moments and glimpses of beauty.

Close To The Machine: Technophilia And Its Discontents by Ellen Ullman

★★★☆☆

Lots of ’90s feels in this memoir. A lot of this still resonates today. It’s kind of fascinating to read it now with the knowledge of how this whole internet thing would end up going.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

★★★★☆

This gripped me from the start, and despite its many twisty strands, it managed to keep me with it all the way through. Maybe it’s a bit longer than it needs to be, and maybe some of the diversions don’t entirely work, but it makes up for that with its audaciousness. I still prefer Goneaway World, but any Nick Harkaway book is a must-read.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

★★★★☆

Terrific stuff. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve got about one tenth of the story. The book charts a longer arc and provides much deeper social and political context.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

★★★☆☆

This is filled with interesting ideas, but the story never quite gelled for me. I’m not sure if I should continue with the rest of the Lilith’s Brood series. But there’s something compelling and unsettling in here.

Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

★★☆☆☆

Frustratingly inconsistent. Here’s my full review.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

★★★★☆

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

★★★☆☆

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

★★★☆☆

I devoured these books back-to-back. The Fifth Season was terrific—packed to the brim with inventiveness. But neither The Obelisk Gate nor The Stone Sky quite did it for me. Maybe my expectations were set too high by that first installment. But The Broken Earth is still a fascinating and enjoyable series.

Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks

I was really looking forward to this one, but I found its stiff academic style hard to get through. I still haven’t finished it. But I figure if I could read Sapiens through to the end, I can certainly manage this. The subject matter is certainly fascinating, and the research is really thorough, but I’m afraid the book is showing its thesis roots.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

★★★☆☆

This plays out its conceit well, and it’s a fun read, but it’s not quite a classic. It feels more like a Neil Gamain or Lauren Beukes page-turner than, say, a Margaret Atwood exploration. Definitely worth a read, though.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

★★★★☆

The world-building (or maybe it’s world rebuilding) is terrific. But once again, as is often the case with Kim Stanley Robinson, I find the plot to be lacking. This is not in the same league as Aurora. It’s more like 2312-on-sea. It’s frustrating. I’m torn between giving it three stars or four. I’m going to be generous because even though it’s not the best Kim Stanley Robinson book, it contains some of his best writing. There are passages that are breathtakingly good.

A Thread Across The Ocean by John Steele Gordon

★★★★☆

After (temporarily) losing my library copy of New York 2140, I picked this up in a bookstore in Charlottesville so I’d have something to read during my stay there. I was very glad I did. I really, really enjoyed this. It’s all about the transatlantic telegraphic cable, so if that’s your thing—as it is mine—you’re going to enjoy this. It makes a great companion piece to Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet. Come for the engineering, stay for the nautical tales of derring-do.

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

★★★★☆

Not as disturbing as the Southern Reach Trilogy, but equally unsettling in its own way. Shades of Oryx and Crake, but in a more fantastically surreal setting.

The Airs Of Earth by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

A good collection of short stories from the master of sci-fi. I’ve got a backlog of old pulpy paperback Aldiss collections like this that make for good snackfood for the mind.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

A Christmas present from my brother-in-law. I just cracked this open, so you’ll have to come back next year to find out how it fared.

Alright. Now it’s time to pick the winners.

I think the best fiction book I read this year was Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon.

For non-fiction, it’s a tough call. I really enjoyed Hidden Figures and A Thread Across The Ocean, but I think I’m going to have to give the top spot to James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History.

But there were no five star books this year. Maybe that will change in 2019. And maybe I’ll read more books next year, too. We’ll see.

In 2017, seven of the twenty books I read were by women. In 2018, it was nine out of twenty (not counting anthologies). That’s better, but I want keep that trajectory going in 2019.