The kids take in Entwined by Charles Gadeken.

— December 28, 2020

The only way you're going to survive this awful, terrible winter is reading a gigantic epic science fiction or fantasy series

  • There is one trick to successful mental health in this awful, exhausting time: escapist, engrossing fantasy literature.
  • Do not try to read contemporary fiction or fiction with a realistic setting.
  • Television shows are great, but they’re over in 10 hours, and there are 3,000 hours between now and the end of March.

I also like his pitch for The Power Broker:

My friend/partner/boss is really into Robert Caro, does his stuff count?

The incomplete LBJ biography does not, but “The Power Broker” is about a clever man who rises from nothing to accumulate a vast amount of power in a corrupt political system, doing some stuff in the process that now seems pretty racist, and that sounds like an Orson Scott Card protagonist to me! Not to mention that it’s set in a fanciful, magical city where it was possible for someone to fix the subway, so yeah technically speaking it’s fantasy, go for it.

— December 10, 2020

My favorite books of 2019

Last year it took me 11 months to write up my favorite books and now it seems I’m making a tradition of it.

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White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, Margaret A. Hagerman

This was the most challenging and thought-provoking book I read last year. Hagerman looks at the school choices of upper-middle class white parents in a small Midwestern city (The location is anonymized, but based on the described geography, my guess is Madison, Wisconsin. It was fun to try to figure that out while reading.). The parents fall into three groups: those that live in a conservative exurb and deny racism is a problem, those who live in a neighborhood with a majority-white “good” school, and those who desire diversity and send their children to an integrated school. While the parents had differing attitudes towards race, all of them are well-off, and therefore are able to choose where their kids go to school and what activities they do. Hagerman investigates how these “bundled choices” affect the attitudes about race among the kids.

One of the difficult things about this book is that the author does not provide any guideposts for right action. Even the parents at the integrated school are criticized for supplementing their kids' education with extracurricular activities:

Even with these priorities of working to confront inequality, Tom and Janet Lacey at times unintentionally reproduce the very inequality they seek to disrupt. For instance, they supplement their daughter’s education by providing Charlotte with a number of additional extracurricular learning opportunities such as tutoring, private music lessons, summer programs, and elaborate trips and vacations, among others. They provide Charlotte with a private opportunities not available to other students, a reality that at times contradicts their stated intention of supporting equal public educational opportunities for all. Tom and Janet, along with other affluent, white parents in this study who identify as progressives, are often faced with what I refer to as a conundrum of privilege: how much work is enough?

There’s no way to avoid passing on the advantages of wealth and whiteness. In her conclusion, Hagerman writes that she can offer no easy answers:

[P]arents of race- and class-privileged children are faced with a difficult paradox: in order to be a “good parent,” they must provide their children as many opportunities and advantages as possible; in order to be a “good citizen,” they must resist evoking structural privileges in ways that disadvantage others. Decisions about navigating this paradox are part of a complex, ongoing, everyday process of parenting, a process that is filled with many other challenges, day-to-day trials, and unintentional missteps. This is not easy work, and it also may never be possible to solve structural problems entirely through individual acts.

Her hope is that rich white parents stop hoarding as many resources as possible for their own children, and “accept the radical notion that the happiness, success, health, and well-being of other children is as important as that of their own.”

This seems difficult to implement in America’s increasingly unequal society. I doubt structural racism can be solved by individual action, though understanding how it affects our society is clearly important to making any changes at all! Perhaps by making our society more equal and less zero sum, we can raise up all children. Given our history, however, a relative decrease in inequality could be regarded as a threat for those who already have privilege (see Strangers in Their Own Land from my 2017 books).

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How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Jason Stanley

This terrifying book should be titled How Fascism Works a Little Too Well. It’s a playbook for authoritarianism, and contrary to “it can’t happen here” sentiments, it shows how fascism subverts the principles of democracy to take control. Most fascist governments were elected.

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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997 by Piers Brendon and Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe by Peter Heather

I read two histories about the fall of empire. The first is a biting account of the accidental expansion and ultimate failure of the British empire. It’s full of amusing tidbits about the oddities of the imperialists, like the general who held interviews while lying naked in bed and combing his body hair with a toothbrush. The British claimed liberal principles but their lack of follow-through provided a lever for criticizing the Empire’s policies at home and in the subject territories. Brendon argues this hypocrisy was a fatal flaw.

Despite controlling a quarter of the globe, the British empire was a paper tiger, hollowed out and weak. When the Japanese easily defeated them, nationalists everywhere saw their chance and took it.

The second is about how Rome managed its relationships with border states. I picked up Empires and Barbarians because we took a trip to Barcelona (Remember trips? Those were fun.). I wondered, why did the Visigoths come here and how did they get here and take control? Empires and Barbarians answers that question, but it is about the broader question of how Rome stimulated the political development of peoples outside the frontiers.

Rome did not set up thousands of miles of wall and guard it. There were border outposts, but they mostly served to manage trade back and forth across the border. Barbarian states were essential for providing supplies to troops on the border, and they fought wars with each other in order to become Roman client states. Needing to dominate other groups as well as stand against the Empire’s superior forces led to political development.

Even without the Huns, moreover, these processes of development would eventually have undermined the Roman Empire. Looked at in the round, what emerges from the first-millennium evidence is that living next to a militarily more powerful and economically more developed intrusive imperial neighbour promotes a series of changes in the societies of the periphery, whose cumulative effect is precisely to generate new structures better able to fend off the more unpleasant aspects of imperial aggression. In the first millennium, this happened on two separate occasions. We see it in the emergence of Germanic client states of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, and again – this time to more impressive effect – in the rise of the new Slavic states of the ninth and tenth. This repeated pattern, I would argue, is not accidental, and provides one fundamental reason why empires, unlike diamonds, do not last forever. The way that empires tend to behave, the mixture of economic opportunity and intrusive power that is inherent in their nature, prompts responses from those affected which in the long run undermine their capacity to maintain the initial power advantage that originally made them imperial. Not all empires suffer the equivalent of Rome’s Hunnic accident and fall so swiftly to destruction. In the course of human history, many more have surely been picked apart slowly from the edges as peripheral dynasts turned predator once their own power increased. One answer to the transitory nature of imperial rule, in short, is that there a Newtonian third law of imperial rule. The exercise of imperial power generates an opposite and equal reaction among those affected by it, until they reorganize themselves to blunt the imperial edge. Whether you find that comforting or frightening, I guess, will depend on whether you live in an imperial or peripheral society, and what stage of the dance has currently been reached.

The two tied together for me. One of the themes of Empires and Barbarians is that empire is sustained by a technological gradient. The Empire maintains hegemony because it is more economically efficient. As technology diffuses, border states become more powerful. The empire is still more powerful than individual competitor states, so they may be contained one at a time and played against each other (reminiscent of the British “divide and rule” strategy), but simultaneous crises can be fatal. As the empire loses land, it loses economic power, setting off a cycle of decline.

The lessons for today’s leaders are there, but so is the historical fact that wicked problems usually don’t get solved.

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Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, Christina Thompson

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in Polynesia. How did the Polynesians settle the islands of the Pacific? Where did they come from? Why did they stop voyaging? Thompson frames these questions through those who have asked them: from the first European eye witnesses, to early anthropologists and on to modern scientists and Polynesians rediscovering and reinventing their culture. This is a fascinating book about one of the greatest achievements of humanity.

My full list of books from 2019 is below. You can also review lists from previous years: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 (retroactive favorites), 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racial Divided America, Margaret A. Hagerman

Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

Burning Paradise, Robert Charles Wilson

The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide (translated by Eric Selland)

Binti, Nnedi Okorafor

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee

The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce

The Dispatcher, John Scalzi

Fox 8, George Saunders

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah Rose

Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, Kim Brooks

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997, Piers Brendon

Where Angels Fear to Tread, E. M. Forster

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Peggy Orenstein

Tattoo, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (translated by Nick Caistor)

How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilization, Mary Beard

Life is sho, Enric Jardí

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Jason Stanley

Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful, Louise Boutes Ames and Frances L. Ilg

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna

Maurice E. M. Forster

Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, Peter Heather

The Compleat Traveller in Black, John Brunner

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, Christina Thompson

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

— December 2, 2020

A Night in the Lonesome October

Tonight is Halloween. And the Moon is full. The stars are right to attempt an Opening. The Players will gather and contest the Opening. You best hope the Closers win.

That is the premise of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, which is entirely told from the perspective of Snuff, a watchdog.

Sometimes called the best Halloween novel you’ve never read, it’s a cult classic, with some people making a tradition of reading it a chapter per day during October.

A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

I stumbled across the book at a used book store in Fort Bragg, California. I’d read some of Zelazny’s books (Lord of Light is one of my favorite science fiction books) but I’d never heard of this one. I’m glad I bought it, because this strange little book with its weird cartoons by Gahan Wilson wormed its way into my brain and never let go. Even though I didin’t re-read it this year, I like to dip in and revisit favorite parts:

“I’ve come for my dog,” [Jack] said. “That’s him on your table.”

He moved forward.

“No you don’t laddie,” said the beefy man. “This is a special job for a special client.”

“I’ll be taking him and leaving now.”

The beefy man raised his scalpel and moved around the table.

“This can do amazing things to a man’s face, pretty boy,” he said.

The others picked up scalpels, also.

“I’d guess you’ve never met a man as really knows how to cut,” the beefy one said, advancing now.


It was into him, and that funny light came into his eyes, and his hand came out of his pocket and captured starlight traced the runes on the side of his blade.

“Well-met,” Jack said then, though the teeth of his grin, and he continued to walk straight ahead.

I saw a tweet asking what movie you wish you could experience again for the first time. If you ask that question about a book, A Night in the Lonesome October would be right up there. Supposedly the result of a bet that Zelazny couldn’t write a book with Jack the Ripper as the protagonist, it features a grab bag of classic horror tropes, Lovecraftian cosmic horror, familiar characters, and obscure references. Zelazny had a gift for suggestion that gives you just enough of a hint to put the picture together. A big part of the fun is figuring out not just who’s an Opener and who’s a Closer, but who the characters are. (After you read it, there are some pretty comprehensive references that are fun to check out.)

— October 31, 2020

Lu You's cat poems

This is a great Twitter thread of translations of Chinese poet Lu You’s cat poems.

And don’t miss the follow-up:

— October 29, 2020

I would love to know how this beautiful Schwinn Super Le Tour made it from Minnesota in the 1970s to Noe Valley in the 2020s.

— October 17, 2020

Days before the lockdown, we visited the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden and I shot with my film camera for the first time in over a decade.

— September 27, 2020

Your Phone Wasn’t Built for the Apocalypse

It looked like Mars, or the Southern Californian wasteland in Blade Runner 2049, or the deserts of Dune. Almost 100 wildfires have ravaged the western United States in the past month, scattering particles of ash and smoke into the air and forcing 500,000 people to evacuate their homes in Oregon alone. On Wednesday, residents across the West, already suffering from a pandemic, economic collapse, wildfires, and dangerously bad air quality, woke up to a dark, bronzed sky that nearly shut out all daylight. As the day wore on, the smoke thickened and receded, making the city seem red at some hours, amber at others. Masks to ward off the coronavirus now served double duty.

But as people tried to capture the scene, and the confusion and horror that accompanied it, many noticed a strange phenomenon: Certain photographs and videos of the surreal, orange sky seemed to wash it out, as if to erase the danger….

Under the blood-red San Francisco sky, white balance doesn’t have a reference against which to calibrate accurately. Because everything was tinted red, the software assumed that the entire scene was generally neutral. People felt confused or even betrayed when their phone cameras transformed the tiger sky into images that washed out the orange, or in some cases made it look mostly gray, like an overcast day.

It’s hard to describe how distrurbing this was to experience. I also struggled to capture it, but failed.

Giraffes at the San Francisco zoo under a red sky my phone couldn't capture

I wish I could say this will be a wake up call to get serious about climate change, reducing the wildland-urban interface, and forest management. But I’m not sure it will be.

— September 13, 2020

I’m breaking up with sourdough bread baking

Every word of this is true.

Sourdough, I’m breaking up with you.

It’s not you, it’s me. Actually, who am I kidding? It’s you. You’re the worst. At this point, sourdough, you have left me crying alone in my kitchen one too many late nights, my sweatpants caked in flour, and I can’t justify putting myself through the agony any longer….

Look, I wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want you to find out this way, but I have to come clean: I baked bread with yeast back in May. Only once, I swear. OK, a couple of times. And you know what, sourdough? It was great. That yeasted bread respected my time. It was so easy to get along with. The conversation just flowed. And I went to sleep that night without feeling consumed by guilt and failure.

— August 1, 2020

When Is a Nazi Salute Not a Nazi Salute?

America First rally, New York, 1941

Are Senator Wheeler, Charles Lindbergh, and Kathleen Norris giving the Nazi salute or a more begein flag salute at this 1941 America First rally, as some of their modern-day apologists argue?

This is an interesting deep dive into a contested Getty photo caption. The caption turns out to be wrong in more than one day, and Matt Seaton digs deep into the archives to piece together what is most likely true.

— August 1, 2020