|burn||Burn any copy you find of this book, it is horrific.|
|mock||This book is awful. Don't read this book and mock anyone you see reading this book.|
|don't||Don't read this book.|
|desert||If you're on a desert island and are bored out of your mind, this book is okay to read.|
|fan||If you're a fan of this author / genre, this book is worth reading.|
|worth||This book is interesting, fun, entertaining, and thus worth reading. I would hand this book to a friend who asked for a _____ type book.|
|strongly||I strongly recommend this book|
|amazing||OMG, this book is amazing and/or life-changing, let me buy you a copy.|
Okay, we know that I really disliked the first book I read that says things don't suck. Most of my intense dislike of the book comes from the Gladwell way that Ridley writes: "Let me state something as fact, give you a story that supports the fact, and claim it true for everything," which is, lets be open about this, quite what the whole Cheetoh delusion is about. The difference between Cheetoh and Ridley / Gladwell is that we like what Ridley / Gladwell are saying, so we don't go out and track down the sources and sees what's up. At least with Cheetoh, we know he's lying. With Ridley, we don't know, because he buried his sources and when we found them, we realized they were quoting other sources that quoted other sources and no one actually did much of the research.
Anyway. I'm grumpy. I'm not a fan of the everything is sweet and wonderful, because not everything is.
That said, show me the evidence, show me the data, and I will listen. Point out that pessimism is often used as a reason to do nothing, and I will hear you.
Show me where I am wrong, and I will change my mind.
Not about disliking a poorly supported book of anecdotes heralded as science, but about the progress of mankind.
This book does a great job at showing us just how much better we are with progress. However much we rail against the destruction of the planet, the injustices of the world, the atrocitities of men, and the shit people do to each other, in a collective way, we are much better off than we were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago, a millenium ago. We murder less. We starve less. We live longer. We have more opportunties.
We have different health problems, sure. Fewer women die in childbirth (yay!), more people die of drug overdoses (boo!). Fewer people die of the flu (yay!), more people die of Alzheimer’s (boo!). I don't know anyone who wants to go back to outdoor toilets, cleaning clothes by beating them, or an era without dentists, painkillers, easy transportation, or computers. "Roughing it" has its appeal in the ability to go back to not-roughing-it.
Which is what this book is saying. We are all "enlightened" similar to the Enlightenment, and that's a good thing according to Pinker. Many things happening in the world really suck, and we're heading in the wrong direction locally thanks to the deliberate greed in the Executive Branch of the United States, but overall, humans are in a better place than we have ever been.
This book is long. It took me a while to read it. If ever I were going to make an argument for tracking the number of book pages read instead of the number of books I've read, this book would be Exhibit A. I could (and should) have expected this book to break my rapid reading streak. I still recommend it, though, to anyone who can read a long book (I know a lot of people who can't or won't), or is interested in the topic, or wants to tell me that things are awful. The local might be horrible, but the global isn't.
The reason the punishment should fit the crime, for example, is not to balance some mystical scale of justice but to ensure that a wrongdoer stops at a minor crime rather than escalating to a more harmful one. Cruel punishments, whether or not they are in some sense “deserved,” are no more effective at deterring harm than moderate but surer punishments, and they desensitize spectators and brutalize the society that implements them. The Enlightenment
Though everyone wants to be right, as soon as people start to air their incompatible views it becomes clear that not everyone can be right about everything. Also, the desire to be right can collide with a second desire, to know the truth, which is uppermost in the minds of bystanders to an argument who are not invested in which side wins. Communities can thereby come up with rules that allow true beliefs to emerge from the rough-and-tumble of argument, such as that you have to provide reasons for your beliefs, you’re allowed to point out flaws in the beliefs of others, and you’re not allowed to forcibly shut people up who disagree with you. Add in the rule that you should allow the world to show you whether your beliefs are true or false, and we can call the rules science. With the right rules, a community of less than fully rational thinkers can cultivate rational thoughts.
So for all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets.
Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment. 1 They are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.
To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason. Religions also commonly clash with humanism whenever they elevate some moral good above the well-being of humans, such as accepting a divine savior, ratifying a sacred narrative, enforcing rituals and taboos, proselytizing other people to do the same, and punishing or demonizing those who don’t. Religions can also clash with humanism by valuing souls above lives, which is not as uplifting as it sounds. Belief in an afterlife implies that health and happiness are not such a big deal, because life on earth is an infinitesimal portion of one’s existence; that coercing people into accepting salvation is doing them a favor; and that martyrdom may be the best thing that can ever happen to you.
Enlightenment idea is that people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up. An obvious example is nationalism, in which the superorganism is the nation-state, namely an ethnic group with a government.
Humans are a social species, and the well-being of every individual depends on patterns of cooperation and harmony that span a community. When a “nation” is conceived as a tacit social contract among people sharing a territory, like a condominium association, it is an essential means for advancing its members’ flourishing. And of course it is genuinely admirable for one individual to sacrifice his or her interests for those of many individuals. It’s quite another thing when a person is forced to make the supreme sacrifice for the benefit of a charismatic leader, a square of cloth, or colors on a map. Nor is it sweet and right to clasp death in order to prevent a province from seceding, expand a sphere of influence, or carry out an irredentist crusade.
Defenders of the faith insist that religion has the exclusive franchise for questions about what matters. Or that even if we sophisticated people don’t need religion to be moral, the teeming masses do. Or that even if everyone would be better off without religious faith, it’s pointless to talk about the place of religion in the world because religion is a part of human nature,
Yes, it’s not just those who intellectualize for a living who think the world is going to hell in a handcart. It’s ordinary people when they switch into intellectualizing mode. Psychologists have long known that people tend to see their own lives through rose-colored glasses: they think they’re less likely than the average person to become the victim of a divorce, layoff, accident, illness, or crime. But change the question from the people’s lives to their society, and they transform from Pollyanna to Eeyore.
Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have
The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. 11 In many walks of life this is a serviceable rule of thumb. Frequent events leave stronger memory traces, so stronger memories generally indicate more-frequent events:
But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.
Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, . . . complete avoidance of the news.” 15 And they become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.” 16
This “ideological rather than accidental innumeracy” leads writers to notice, for example, that wars take place today and wars took place in the past and to conclude that “nothing has changed”—failing to acknowledge the difference between an era with a handful of wars that collectively kill in the thousands and an era with dozens of wars that collectively killed in the millions.
Experiments have shown that a critic who pans a book is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it, and the same may be true of critics of society. 27
At least since the time of the Hebrew prophets, who blended their social criticism with forewarnings of disaster, pessimism has been equated with moral seriousness. Journalists
The financial writer Morgan Housel has observed that while pessimists sound like they’re trying to help you, optimists sound like they’re trying to sell you something. 28 Whenever someone offers a solution to a problem, critics will be quick to point out that it is not a panacea, a silver bullet, a magic bullet, or a one-size-fits-all solution; it’s just a Band-Aid or a quick technological fix that fails to get at the root causes and will blow back with side effects and unintended consequences. Of
Trump was the beneficiary of a belief—near universal in American journalism—that “serious news” can essentially be defined as “what’s going wrong.” . . . For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root. . . . One consequence is that many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change. 30
Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.
Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder.
In my view the best projection of the outcome of our multicentury war on death is Stein’s Law—“ Things that can’t go on forever don’t”—as amended by Davies’s Corollary—“ Things that can’t go on forever can go on much longer than you think.”
History is written not so much by the victors as by the affluent, the sliver of humanity with the leisure and education to write about it.
“In 1976,” Radelet writes, “Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act: he died.” 32
For reasons we have seen, market economies can generate wealth prodigiously while totalitarian planned economies impose scarcity, stagnation, and often famine. Market economies, in addition to reaping the benefits of specialization and providing incentives for people to produce things that other people want, solve the problem of coordinating the efforts of hundreds of millions of people by using prices to propagate information about need and availability far and wide, a computational problem that no planner is brilliant enough to solve from a central bureau.
In developing countries, inequality is not dispiriting but heartening: people in the more unequal societies are happier. The authors suggest that whatever envy, status anxiety, or relative deprivation people may feel in poor, unequal countries is swamped by hope. Inequality is seen as a harbinger of opportunity, a sign that education and other routes to upward mobility might pay off for them and their children.
Many studies in psychology have shown that people, including young children, prefer windfalls to be split evenly among participants, even if everyone ends up with less overall. That led some psychologists to posit a syndrome called inequity aversion: an apparent desire to spread the wealth. But in their recent article “Why People Prefer Unequal Societies,” the psychologists Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom took another look at the studies and found that people prefer unequal distributions, both among fellow participants in the lab and among citizens in their country, as long as they sense that the allocation is fair: that the bonuses go to harder workers, more generous helpers, or even the lucky winners of an impartial lottery.
Narratives about the causes of inequality loom larger in people’s minds than the existence of inequality. That creates an opening for politicians to rouse the rabble by singling out cheaters who take more than their fair share: welfare queens, immigrants, foreign countries, bankers, or the rich, sometimes identified with ethnic minorities.
zero in on solutions to each problem: investment in research and infrastructure to escape economic stagnation, regulation of the finance sector to reduce instability, broader access to education and job training to facilitate economic mobility, electoral transparency and finance reform to eliminate illicit influence, and so on. The influence of money on politics is particularly pernicious because it can distort every government policy, but it’s not the same issue as income inequality. After all, in the absence of electoral reform the richest donors can get the ear of politicians whether they earn 2 percent of national income or 8 percent of it.
Scheidel concludes, “All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.” 28
The explosion in social spending has redefined the mission of government: from warring and policing to also nurturing.
And tellingly, the number of libertarian paradises in the world—developed countries without substantial social spending—is zero. 39 The correlation between social spending and social well-being holds only up to a point: the curve levels off starting at around 25 percent and may even drop off at higher proportions.
In reality social spending is never exactly like insurance but is a combination of insurance, investment, and charity. Its success thus depends on the degree to which the citizens of a country sense they are part of one community, and that fellow feeling can be strained when the beneficiaries are disproportionately immigrants or ethnic minorities. 40 These tensions are inherent to social spending and will always be politically contentious.
Today’s discussions of inequality often compare the present era unfavorably with a golden age of well-paying, dignified, blue-collar jobs that have been made obsolete by automation and globalization. This idyllic image is belied by contemporary depictions of the harshness of working-class life in that era,
Income inequality, in sum, is not a counterexample to human progress, and we are not living in a dystopia of falling incomes that has reversed the centuries-long rise in prosperity.
Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing.
A second realization of the ecomodernist movement is that industrialization has been good for humanity.
Economists speak of the environmental Kuznets curve, a counterpart to the U-shaped arc for inequality as a function of economic growth. As countries first develop, they prioritize growth over environmental purity. But as they get richer, their thoughts turn to the environment. 9 If people can afford electricity only at the cost of some smog, they’ll live with the smog, but when they can afford both electricity and clean air, they’ll spring for the clean air.
Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, using data from the World Values Survey, have found that people with stronger emancipative values—tolerance, equality, freedom of thought and speech—which tend to go with affluence and education, are also more likely to recycle and to pressure governments and businesses into protecting the environment. 10
according to the ecologist Stuart Pimm, the overall rate of extinctions has been reduced by 75 percent. 31
Like all demonstrations of progress, reports on the improving state of the environment are often met with a combination of anger and illogic. The fact that many measures of environmental quality are improving does not mean that everything is OK, that the environment got better by itself, or that we can just sit back and relax.
The problem is that carbon emissions are a classic public goods game, also known as a Tragedy of the Commons. People benefit from everyone else’s sacrifices and suffer from their own, so everyone has an incentive to be a free rider and let everyone else make the sacrifice, and everyone suffers.
I agree with Pope Francis and the climate justice warriors that preventing climate change is a moral issue because it has the potential to harm billions, particularly the world’s poor. But morality is different from moralizing, and is often poorly served by it.
The enlightened response to climate change is to figure out how to get the most energy with the least emission of greenhouse gases.
zones of anarchy are always violent. 28 It’s not because everyone wants to prey on everyone else, but because in the absence of a government the threat of violence can be self-inflating. If even a few potential predators lurk in the region or could show up on short notice, people must adopt an aggressive posture to deter them. This deterrent is credible only if they advertise their resolve by retaliating against any affront and avenging any depredation, regardless of the cost. This “Hobbesian trap,” as it is sometimes called, can easily set off cycles of feuding and vendetta: you have to be at least as violent as your adversaries lest you become their doormat.
Here is Eisner’s one-sentence summary of how to halve the homicide rate within three decades: “An effective rule of law, based on legitimate law enforcement, victim protection, swift and fair adjudication, moderate punishment, and humane prisons is critical to sustainable reductions in lethal violence.” 32
While the threat of ever-harsher punishments is both cheap and emotionally satisfying, it’s not particularly effective, because scofflaws just treat them like rare accidents—horrible, yes, but a risk that comes with the job. Punishments that are predictable, even if less draconian, are likelier to be factored into day-to-day choices.
Troublemakers also have narcissistic and sociopathic thought patterns, such as that they are always in the right, that they are entitled to universal deference, that disagreements are personal insults, and that other people have no feelings or interests. Though they cannot be “cured” of these delusions, they can be trained to recognize and counteract them.
Other terrorists belong to militant groups that seek to call attention to their cause, to extort a government to change its policies, to provoke it into an extreme response that might recruit new sympathizers or create a zone of chaos for them to exploit, or to undermine the government by spreading the impression that it cannot protect its own citizens. Before we conclude that they “pose a threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” we should bear in mind how weak the tactic actually is. 15 The historian Yuval Harari notes that terrorism is the opposite of military action, which tries to damage the enemy’s ability to retaliate and prevail.
From their position of weakness, Harari notes, what terrorists seek to accomplish is not damage but theater.
Though terrorists hope for the best, their small-scale violence almost never gets them what they want.
Indeed, the rise of terrorism in public awareness is not a sign of how dangerous the world has become but the opposite.
Harari points out that in the Middle Ages, every sector of society retained a private militia—aristocrats, guilds, towns, even churches and monasteries—and they secured their interests by force:
As modern states have successfully claimed a monopoly on force, driving down the rate of killing within their borders, they opened a niche for terrorism: The state has stressed so many times that it will not tolerate political violence within its borders that it has no alternative but to see any act of terrorism as intolerable. The citizens, for their part, have become used to zero political violence, so the theatre of terror incites in them visceral fears of anarchy, making them feel as if the social order is about to collapse. After centuries of bloody struggles, we have crawled out of the black hole of violence, but we feel that the black hole is still there, patiently waiting to swallow us again. A few gruesome atrocities and we imagine that we are falling back in. 19
As states try to carry out the impossible mandate of protecting their citizens from all political violence everywhere and all the time, they are tempted to respond with theater of their own.
Instead, countries could deal with terrorism by deploying their greatest advantage: knowledge and analysis, not least knowledge of the numbers. The
The media can examine their essential role in the show business of terrorism by calibrating their coverage to the objective dangers and giving more thought to the perverse incentives they have set up. (Lankford, together with the sociologist Erik Madfis, has recommended a policy for rampage shootings of “Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them, but Report Everything Else,” based on a policy for juvenile shooters already in effect in Canada and on other strategies of calculated media self-restraint.)
Over the long run, terrorist movements sputter out as their small-scale violence fails to achieve their strategic goals, even as it causes local misery and fear.
Political scientists are repeatedly astonished by the shallowness and incoherence of people’s political beliefs, and by the tenuous connection of their preferences to their votes and to the behavior of their representatives. 21 Most voters are ignorant not just of current policy options but of basic facts, such as what the major branches of government are, who the United States fought in World War II, and which countries have used nuclear weapons. Their opinions flip depending on how a question is worded: they say that the government spends too much on “welfare” but too little on “assistance to the poor,” and that it should “use military force” but not “go to war.” When they do formulate a preference, they commonly vote for a candidate with the opposite one. But it hardly matters, because once in office politicians vote the positions of their party regardless of the opinions of their constituents. Nor does voting even provide much of a feedback signal about a government’s performance. Voters punish incumbents for recent events over which they have dubious control, such as macroeconomic swings and terrorist strikes, or no control at all, such as droughts, floods, even shark attacks.
They use the franchise as a form of self-expression: they vote for candidates who they think are like them and stand for their kind of people.
When an election is a contest between aspiring despots, rival factions fear the worst if the other side wins and try to intimidate each other from the ballot box.
The latest fashion in dictatorship has been called the competitive, electoral, kleptocratic, statist, or patronal authoritarian regime. 22 (Putin’s Russia is the prototype.) The incumbents use the formidable resources of the state to harass the opposition, set up fake opposition parties, use state-controlled media to spread congenial narratives, manipulate electoral rules, tilt voter registration, and jigger the elections themselves. (Patronal authoritarians, for all that, are not invulnerable—the color revolutions sent several of them packing.)
In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that democracy should be understood not as the answer to the question “Who should rule?” (namely, “The People”), but as a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed. 23
Democracy, he suggests, is essentially based on giving people the freedom to complain: “It comes about when the people effectively agree not to use violence to replace the leadership, and the leadership leaves them free to try to dislodge it by any other means.”
The contrast between the messy reality of democracy and the civics-class ideal leads to perennial disillusionment.
Reviewing the history, Mueller concludes that “inequality, disagreement, apathy, and ignorance seem to be normal, not abnormal, in a democracy, and to a considerable degree the beauty of the form is that it works despite these qualities—or, in some important respects, because of them.” 26
Its main prerequisite is that a government be competent enough to protect people from anarchic violence so they don’t fall prey to, or even welcome, the first strongman who promises he can do the job.
Ideas matter, too. For democracy to take root, influential people (particularly people with guns) have to think that it is better than alternatives such as theocracy, the divine right of kings, colonial paternalism, the dictatorship of the proletariat (in practice, its “revolutionary vanguard”), or authoritarian rule by a charismatic leader who directly embodies the will of the people.
Conversely, as people recognize that democracies are relatively nice places to live, the idea of democracy can become contagious and the number can increase over time.
The freedom to complain rests on an assurance that the government won’t punish or silence the complainer. The front line in democratization, then, is constraining the government from abusing its monopoly on force to brutalize its uppity citizens.
These red lines are not the same as electoral democracy, since a majority of voters may be indifferent to government brutality as long as it isn’t directed at them. In practice, democratic countries do show greater respect for human rights.
There are five main female characters in this book, and I identify with four of them. Why did I pick up this book again?
Okay, for reals, this was not an easy book for me to read. The plot has five intertwined plots, a single woman who wants a child, an overachieving teen, a wife/mother in a relationship that isn't working, an arctic explorer/scientist, and a hippie / herbalist / off-the-grid non-conformist. Four of them live in costal Oregon, the explorer is the subject of the single woman's biography.
I do not know how this book ended up on my reading list. I suspect because it is a reasonable Handmaid's Tale-like near-future dystopian where Roe vs. Wade is repealed, and an eight-celled blastocyst is considered a full person in the eyes of the law, making even miscarriages suspect under the law, and women are aware that this near-future dystopian is much, much closer than we want to believe.
As far as I'm concerned, abortion can be illegal when we get the equivalent for men, something where they have no control over their own bodies, are shamed by society, forced to live with the consequences of a strongly personal and highly private decision made public decided by someone else, have to risk their lives, and have their bodies destroyed for the rest of their lives. Which is to say, no, abortion should never be illegal because it isn't your decision, it is the carrying woman's and only the woman's decision. The cells are not a person until they can sustain themselves outside of the womb. This book hits nearly every trigger I can imagine when it comes to women being lesser than men.
The single woman teacher who wants a kid. Fuck.
The overachiving high school student with all the same arguments I make. Fuck.
The wife / mother in a relationship that isn't working. Fuck.
The arctic explorer who needs a male peer to publish her work under his name to get it published. Fuck.
The non-confirming weird herbalist character? Didn't particular identify with her. 80% isn't too bad for an author, I'd argue.
Anyway, yes, this book is worth reading. I started it, couldn't put it done, was done with is in a day. Four books in four days, time to read something that'll take me a bit to finish.
The sea does not ask permission or wait for instruction. It doesn’t suffer from not knowing what on earth, exactly, it is meant to do.
These kids, after all, have not been lost yet. Staring up at her, jaws rimmed with baby fat, they are perched on the brink of not giving a shit. They still give a shit, but not, most of them, for long.
Waiting on the hard little plastic chair, under elevator music and fluorescent glare, the biographer takes out her notebook. Everything in this notebook must be in list form, and any list is eligible.
A book of lists. This intrigues me, but not enough to convert my journal to the format.
On the first night, the mender asked what that noise was and learned it was the ocean.
“But when does it stop?”
“Never,” said her aunt. “It’s perpetual, though impermanent.”
And the mender’s mother said, “Pretentious much?”
The hard-sunk eyes the wife once found beguiling are not eyes she would wish upon her daughter. Bex’s will have purplish circles before long.
But who cares what the girl looks like, if she is happy?
The world will care.
She’s one of those people who think they will understand something if they hear its name, when really they will only hear its name.
“Let’s spend the taxpayers’ money to criminalize vulnerable women, shall we?” said Ro/ Miss in class, and somebody said, “But if they’re breaking the law, they are criminals,” and Ro/ Miss said, “Laws aren’t natural phenomena. They have particular and often horrific histories. Ever heard of the Nuremberg Laws? Ever heard of Jim Crow?”
The border control can detain any woman or girl they “reasonably” suspect of crossing into Canada for the purpose of ending a pregnancy. Seekers are returned (by police escort) to their state of residence, where the district attorney can prosecute them for attempting a termination.
Or does the desire come from some creaturely place, pre-civilized, some biological throb that floods her bloodways with the message Make more of yourself! To repeat, not to improve.
Asking why she wants a kid.
Her eighth-grade social-studies class held a mock debate on abortion. The daughter prepared bullet points for the pro-choice team.
Her father proofread her work, as usual; but instead of his usual “This is top-notch!” he sat down beside her, rested a hand on her shoulder, and said he was concerned about the implications of her argument. “What if your bio mother had chosen to terminate?”
“Well, she didn’t, but other people should be able to.”
“Think of all the happy adopted families that wouldn’t exist.”
“But Dad, a lot of women would still give their babies up for adoption.”
“But what about the women who didn’t?”
“Why can’t everyone just decide for themselves?”
“When someone decides to murder a fellow human with a gun, we put them in jail, don’t we?”
“Not if they’re a cop.”
“Think of all the families waiting for a child. Think of me and your mom, how long we waited.”
“An embryo is a living being.”
“So is a dandelion.”
“Well, I can’t imagine the world without you, pigeon, and neither can your mother.”
A hundred miles is too far for an unplanned pinch. She is thirty-seven years old and pines for her mother.
I understand this. Very much.
“Given your age, your FSH levels, and now this diagnosis, the chance of conception via IUI is little to none.”
“But if there’s a chance, at least—”
“By ‘little to none,’ I mean more like ‘none.’”
Taut pain at the back of her mouth. “Oh.”
I understand this. Very much.
This planet may be choking to death, bleeding from every hole, but still she would choose them, every time.
“Your shift now,” she says. “I’m going for a walk.”
“What about lunch?”
“I ate with the kids in town.”
“But I haven’t eaten.”
“I was waiting for you,” he says. “There’s nothing in the house.”
“What am I supposed to have, then?”
The wife starts for the kitchen, then stops. “Actually, it’s not my job to figure out what you’re having for lunch.”
I understand this. Very much.
The nurse has trouble, as usual, finding a vein. “They’re way buried.”
“The one closer to the elbow usually works better—?”
“First let’s see what we can get over here.”
F---ing hate this when it happens. Look, I know my body better than you do, if I say use this other place, use this other place.
... the biographer wrote emails to her representatives. Marched in protests in Salem and Portland. Donated to Planned Parenthood. But she wasn’t all that worried. It had to be political theater, she thought, a flexing of muscle by the conservative-controlled House ...
Because those in power don't listen to the people they represent.
A smart spinster. If the daughter were to say that word in front of Ro/ Miss, she’d get a sermon: What does the word “spinster” do that “bachelor” doesn’t do? Why do they carry different associations? These are language acts, people!
She is too chickenshit to leave her marriage. She wants Didier to leave it first.
Why do some walruses in Washington, DC, who’ve never met the daughter care what she does with the clump? They don’t seem bothered that baby wolves are shot to death from helicopters. Those babies were already breathing on their own, running and sleeping and eating on their own, whereas the clump is not even a baby yet. Couldn’t survive two seconds outside the daughter.
“Tell me what’s going on, Mattie.”
“You’ve never gotten a B minus on a quiz before.”
Apparently my junior high school experience wasn't special, other smart girls had similar ones with grades slipping, too.
I first saw this book at the Getty Villa bookstore, when I didn't buy a bunch of physical books because I didn't want to carry them home, and was intrigued at the opening discussion about how Odysseus' wife Penelope's son told her to shut up when she voiced her opinion about her own future. Did I really read that opening correctly? Had I missed this when I was reading as a kid?
Yuuuuuuuuuup. I read it correctly. Yep, I missed it as a kid.
I picked up this book shortly thereafter from the library and read it quickly, it's a short book, essentially two essays from two lectures Mary Beard had given about women and, uh, power.
More specifically, the way women are seen in public discourse (not favorably) and in power (not favorably). Women have been dealing with being second class citizens for centuries, millennia even, of being told they are property or unfit or less.
Beard shows us the literature, gives us the quotes, demonstrates how over and over again power and the female gender do not go together historically. The concept isn't new, but it is finally, finally coming to the nation's, nay, the world's awareness.
My only gripe with the book is the subtitle, "A Manifesto." A manifesto is "a public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate." This book is a reflection, it gives no guidance or policy or direction from where we have been. I wanted the direction.
I recommend the book, yes, but read it as "this is how it is and was," not "here's a path to change."
Women, in other words, may in extreme circumstances publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole.
As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man (or at least an elite man) was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness.
In the words many of us learned at school, she seems positively to avow her own androgyny: I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too –an odd slogan to get young girls to learn. The truth is that she probably never said anything of the sort. There is no script from her hand or that of her speech-writer, no eye-witness account, and the canonical version comes from the letter of an unreliable commentator, with his own axe to grind, written almost forty years later.
A notorious recent case was the silencing of Elizabeth Warren in the US Senate – and her exclusion from the debate – when she attempted to read out a letter by Coretta Scott King.
Few of us, I suspect, know enough about the rules of senatorial debate to know how justified this was, formally. But those rules did not stop Bernie Sanders and other senators (admittedly in her support) reading out exactly the same letter and not being excluded.
Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say.
It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they do not hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it; they don’t hear muthos.
More interesting is another cultural connection this reveals: that unpopular, controversial or just plain different views when voiced by a woman are taken as indications of her stupidity.
It is not that you disagree, it is that she is stupid: ‘Sorry, love, you just don’t understand.’ I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called ‘an ignorant moron’.
And I've lost count of the number of times a guy has told a woman she should "read the paper," when she's the one who authored said paper.
How do I get my point heard? How do I get it noticed? How do I get to belong in the discussion? I am sure it is something some men feel too, but if there’s one thing that bonds women of all backgrounds, of all political colours, in all kinds of business and profession, it is the classic experience of the failed intervention; you’re at a meeting, you make a point, then a short silence follows, and after a few awkward seconds some man picks up where he had just left off: ‘What I was saying was …’ You might as well never have opened your mouth, and you end up blaming both yourself and the men whose exclusive club the discussion appears to be.
Why, yes, yes this was my experience at Twitter, thanks to Arnaud, who would routinely tell me no, but yes to the guy who repeated my words immediately after.
The regulation trouser suits, or at least the trousers, worn by so many Western female political leaders, from Angela Merkel to Hillary Clinton, may be convenient and practical; they may be a signal of the refusal to become a clothes horse, which is the fate of so many political wives; but they are also a simple tactic –like lowering the timbre of the voice –to make the female appear more male, to fit the part of power.
Ben Cody once commented to me that I dress very conservatively. I wondered about his comment, have looked at my standard outfit, and realized that, well, yeah, it is remarkably conservative: no hijab, but all of my body is covered with many layers, my clothes are unshaped, and nothing beyond my hands and head are exposed. I'm not sure when I drifted into my uniform, but I know it was a defensive response to cultural pressures I didn't want.
And it was that idea of the divorce between women and power that made Melissa McCarthy’s parodies of the one time White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live so effective. It was said that these annoyed President Trump more than most satires on his regime, because, according to one of the ‘sources close to him’, ‘he doesn’t like his people to appear weak.’ Decode that, and what it actually means is that he doesn’t like his men to be parodied by and as women. Weakness comes with a female gender.
"Weakness comes with a female gender." We all know Trump is weak, so go McCarthy and her parody!
But Athenian drama in particular, and the Greek imagination more generally, has offered our imaginations a series of unforgettable women: Medea, Clytemnestra and Antigone among many others. They are not, however, role models –far from it. For the most part, they are portrayed as abusers rather than users of power. They take it illegitimately, in a way that leads to chaos, to the fracture of the state, to death and destruction. They are monstrous hybrids, who are not, in the Greek sense, women at all. And the unflinching logic of their stories is that they must be disempowered and put back in their place. In fact, it is the unquestionable mess that women make of power in Greek myth that justifies their exclusion from it in real life, and justifies the rule of men.
Then she’s a virgin, when the raison d’être of the female sex was breeding new citizens.
Athena, warrior god, was portrayed as a man. Gotcha.
We have to be more reflective about what power is, what it is for, and how it is measured.
But I do wonder if, in some places, the presence of large numbers of women in parliament means that parliament is where the power is not.
Those reasons are much more basic: it is flagrantly unjust to keep women out, by whatever unconscious means we do so; and we simply cannot afford to do without women’s expertise, whether it is in technology, the economy or social care.
But this is still treating power as something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called ‘leadership’, and often, though not always, to a degree of celebrity. It is also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few – mostly men – can own or wield (that’s exactly what’s summed up by the image of Perseus, brandishing his sword). On those terms, women as a gender – not as some individuals – are by definition excluded from it.
You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘ to power’), not as a possession.
What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don’t have –and that they want. Why the popular resonance of ‘mansplaining’ (despite the intense dislike of the term felt by many men)? It hits home for us because it points straight to what it feels like not to be taken seriously: a bit like when I get lectured on Roman history on Twitter.
If I were starting this book again from scratch, I would find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong, at least occasionally.
I bought this book on a whim while visiting a newly opened journal / papergoods / travel lifestyle shop in Los Angeles a couple weeks back. The book was small, with the blurb, "The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, no unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. 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." Yes, okay, I'm interested, keep going.
Turns out, the whole book was one big smack upside the head, complete with actionable items to do to help stem the tide of tyranny currently rising in our country. While reading the book, I wanted to highlight every passage, share all of the lessons with everyone, buy a million copies and send them out to everyone I come in contact with in all aspects of life. It is a fast read, 128 pages, so even people who don't read much or fall asleep while reading (read: many of my relatives) can finish it.
The book reminds us that we are not special. Democracy has fallen many times in the last century, and we have the advantage of historical perspective to see what happened. We aren't coming into this blind, we can see what is happening. We can stop it. Others have, we aren't too late.
So, yeah, I strongly recommend this book, it is incredibly worth reading. Let me buy you a copy, ebook or physical, I don't care which. I want you to read this book.
The twenty lessons:
1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You've already done this, haven't you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don't protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.
3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.
4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of "terrorism" and "extremism." Be alive to the fatal notions of "exception" and "emergency." Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don't fall for it.
6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don't use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps "The Power of the Powerless" by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.
10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.
14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.
15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.
16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)
19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.
20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.
Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself.
We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it.
Words written in one situation make sense only in that context. The very act of removing them from their historical moment and dropping them in another is an act of falsification.
In the twentieth century, all the major enemies of freedom were hostile to non-governmental organizations, charities, and the like.
Today’s authoritarians (in India, Turkey, Russia) are also highly allergic to the idea of free associations and non-governmental organizations.
To Ukrainians, Americans seemed comically slow to react to the obvious threats of cyberwar and fake news. When Russian propaganda made Ukraine a target in 2013, young Ukrainian journalists and others reacted immediately, decisively, and sometimes humorously with campaigns to expose disinformation.
The most intelligent of the Nazis, the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, explained in clear language the essence of fascist governance. The way to destroy all rules, he explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.
People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.
Similarly, it is none too difficult to imagine choices that increase both freedom and safety, like leaving an abusive relationship or emigrating from a fascist state. It is the government’s job to increase both freedom and security.
When the American president and his national security adviser speak of fighting terrorism alongside Russia, what they are proposing to the American people is terror management: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy.
Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.
A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.
A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.
The acceptance of inevitability stilted the way we talked about politics in the twenty-first century. It stifled policy debate and tended to generate party systems where one political party defended the status quo, while the other proposed total negation. We
Eerily, when judges said that a parliamentary vote was required for Brexit, a British tabloid called them “enemies of the people”—a Stalinist term from the show trials of the 1930s.
In his 2016 campaign, the American president used the slogan “America First,” which is the name of a committee that sought to prevent the United States from opposing Nazi Germany.
The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems.
itself. History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom.
History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something.
One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it.
This is book 2 of the Peter Grant series.
Okay, yes, so my reading list contains a whole bunch of non-fiction books, to balance out the copious fiction I've been reading as of late. Except that I enjoyed Midnight Riot so much, that I ignored my entire reading list, expecting I could squeeze this book in before the next book on my list becomes due in 12 days. And hey, I managed it!
As I enjoyed the last Peter Grant book, I also enjoyed this Peter Grant book. The humour flavor isn't quite Dresden, clearly my reading yardstick for urban fantasy, but Aaronovitch still does the Talking To The Camera / Breaking The Fourth Wall style really well. The humour is drier than Dresden, but still great.
What I am particularly enjoying with the Grant series so far, other than the world building, the magic rules, Grant's scientific inquiry instead of mere acceptance of magic, and the dry wit, are the history lessons. Aaronovitch drops names and events into casual conversation and I'm left wondering, "Wait, what?" Off to Wikipedia I go, and, oh, there's the Great Stink, Tacitus, the sons of Mūsā ibn Shākir, and the Thief-Taker General Jonathan Wild. History lessons dropped into casual conversations that are completely fascinating!
I'm pretty sure once I finish the current 10 book reading list I have to clear the library holds I currently have, I'm going to rip through the next 5 Peter Grant books. Totally enjoying them, strongly recommended so far for fans of urban fantasy.
I knew all this because I’d been reading the Annals of Tacitus as part of my Latin training. He’s surprisingly sympathetic to the revolting Brits and scathing about the unpreparedness of the Roman generals who thought more of what was agreeable than expedient.
Yeah. People. In war.
Whatever you see, he’d said, take as long a look as you need to get used to it, to accept it, and then move on as if nothing has changed.
EVERY HOSPITAL I’ve ever been to has had the same smell, that whiff of disinfectant, vomit, and mortality.
“Do I have a signature?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Nightingale. “When you practice, things have an alarming tendency to catch fire.”
The sons of Mūsā ibn Shākir were bright and bold and if they hadn’t been Muslims would have probably gone on to be the patron saints of techno-geeks. They’re famous for their ninth-century Baghdad bestseller, a compendium of ingenious mechanical devices that they imaginatively titled Kitab al-Hiyal—The Book of Ingenious Devices.
This is one I looked up. Fascinating!
And what do Nightingale and I have to measure vestigia with?
When I read books, I listen to the audiobook when I'm out and about (usually walking) or doing errands or chores (raking leaves, washing dishes, etc.). I much prefer to read the words than to listen to the words, but when a story is engrossing, I want to keep going.
I happened to be listening to the book as I was reading it, and, oh, there are significant differences between the British and Amercian versions of the book. The ebook American version has "Nightingale and I," whereas the British audiobook has "me and Nightingale."
I have to say the "me and _______" form drives me nuts. It is an emerging speech pattern that makes me want to go all grammarian on people's asses when they use it. New pet peeve, I guess.
In 1986 Courtney Pine released Journey to the Urge Within and suddenly jazz was back in fashion and with it came my dad’s third and last brush with fame and fortune.
Well, I guess I have a new album to consume now.
My dad always said that a trumpet player likes to aim his weapon at the audience, but a sax man likes to cut a good profile and that he always has a favorite side. It being an article of faith with my dad that you don’t even pick up a reed instrument unless you’re vain about the shape your face makes when you’re blowing down it.
I’ve never been what you’d call a strong swimmer but if the alternative is being a statistic it’s amazing what you can pull out of the reserves.
People don’t like to speak ill of the dead even when they’re monsters, let alone when they’re loved ones. People like to forget any bad things that someone did and why should they remember? It’s not like they’re going to do it again.
The central atrium at the Trocadero Centre is four stories high with an open basement that added another story to the fall. The space is crisscrossed at random intervals by escalators, presumably because the architects felt that disorientation and an inability to find the toilets were integral parts of the shopping experience.
Cracked me up.
“What made you think Ty would tell you?” asked Nightingale.
“She couldn’t help herself,” I said. “First law of gossip—there’s no point knowing something if somebody else doesn’t know you know it.
You don’t experience a bomb blast so much as remember it afterward. It’s like a bad edit or a record jumping a groove. On one side of the moment there is music and laughter and romance and on the other—not pain, that comes later, but a stunned incomprehension.
It’s weird watching an elderly parent when he’s half naked. You find yourself staring in fascination at the slack skin, the wrinkles, and the liver spots, and thinking—one day all that will be yours.
I grabbed her wrist and twisted her knife hand up and away. The rule for fighting a person with a knife is to start off by making it point away from you and then ensure that it hurts too much to hold on to.
Whatever you’ve been told, seeing is not believing. Your brain does a great deal of interpretation before it deigns to let your consciousness know what the hell is going on. If we’re suddenly exposed to something unfamiliar, a damaged human face, a car flying through the air toward us, something that looks almost but not quite human, it can take time, sometimes even seconds, for our minds to react.
This is an example of the fourth wall explanation thingy that I enjoy.
It’s no fun looking down on people if you can’t let them know you’re above them.
I’d been working on loosening the chimney stack with what I call impello vibrato, but Nightingale called will you stop messing about and pay attention, while Faceless had been chatting.
For a terrifying moment I thought he was going to hug me, but fortunately we both remembered we were English just in time. Still, it was a close call.
You do this because it is your job, because it’s necessary, and because, if you’re honest, you love it. Repeat this process until the bad dreams stop or you just get used to them—whichever comes first.
This is book 1 of the Peter Grant series. Finally, a wizard who isn't named Harry. No, wait. Finally a wizard series not in Chicago. No, wait. I give up, it's a wizard in London, not Potter, not Verus, not Harry, but loads of fun, and I am wonderfully delighted to find another modern-day, urban-fantasy, adult wizard series. This book was recommended on micro.blog, as the Rivers of London, which is the English title of this book. I thought, "Eh? Adult wizard not named Harry? Sign me up!"
I enjoyed this book enough to immediately check out book two from the library. I was planning on reading a few other books before reading the second one, but enjoyed this one enough to skip over the carefully curated to-be-read pile and read that one, too.
Right, so, this book.
Peter Grant is a a sucky cop in London. He happens to have a whiff of wizardly talent, which makes him qualified for an apprencticeship in the supernatural branch of the London police. He rather sucks at being a detective, missing a lot of details around him and being generally oblivious to much around him, but seems to do okay as a cop, with his size and such. His partner, a woman, however, is a fine detective, but has to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good.
Anyway, Grant has a bit of wizarding in him, and is recruited, with his training actually being difficult. Imagine that, wizarding powers that take some effort and a lot of hard work, over the course of weeks and months and years, to build up. IMAGINE THAT.
I like Grant's science bent, too. "Well, that's nice, but HOW?"
I'm glad there are seven books (so far!) in the series. It's going to be difficult not to read through all of them in one sitting.
This is why you have procedure, training and drill, so that you do things when your brain is too shocked to think for itself—ask any soldier.
The window over the stairs had had sheets of black construction paper crudely taped over to block the sunlight.
Nightingale said that everything was true, after a fashion, and that had to include vampires, didn’t it? I doubted they were anything like they were in books and TV, and one thing for certain, they absolutely weren’t going to sparkle in the sunlight.
Cracking up here.
Despite what you think you know, most people don’t want to fight, especially when evenly matched. A mob will tear an individual to pieces and a man with a gun and a noble cause is happy to kill ever so many women and children, but risking a fair fight—not so easy.
That’s why you see those pissed young men doing the dance of “don’t hold me back” while desperately hoping someone likes them enough to hold them back. Everyone is always so pleased to see the police arrive, because we have to save them whether we like them or not.
Magic, as Nightingale understood it, was generated by life. A wizard could draw on his own magic or on magic that he’d stored by enchantment, which sounded interesting but not relevant to exploding cash tills. However, life protected itself, and the more complex it was, the more magic it produced, but the harder it was to draw off. “It’s impossible to draw on magic from another human being,” said Nightingale. “Or even a dog, for that matter.”
Even at closing time, Covent Garden was packed; the post-performance crowd was emerging from the Royal Opera House and looking for somewhere to have a bite to eat and a pose, while clusters of young people on school-sponsored holidays from all over Europe exercised their time-honored right to block the pavement from one side to the other.
My dad had once told me that the secret to a happy life was never to start something with a girl unless you were willing to follow wherever it leads.
Sometimes when someone tells you not to go somewhere, it’s better not to go there.
The tube is a good place for this sort of conceptual breakthrough because, unless you’ve got something to read, there’s bugger all else to do.
Nightingale’s breath started to falter.
“Keep breathing,” I said. “It’s a habit you don’t want to break.”
The trouble with the old boy network is you can never be really sure whether it’s switched on or not and whether it’s operating in your interest or some other old boy’s.
Sometimes you have to stand still and take the first blow, that way you see what the other man has in his hand, expose his intentions and, if that sort of thing is important to you, put yourself unequivocally on the right side of the law. And if the blow is so heavy that it puts you down? That’s just the risk you have to take.
“How fast can you move something?” said Seawoll.
“Not as fast as a bullet,” I said.
“Really,” said Stephanopoulos. “How fast is that?”
“Three hundred and fifty meters per second,” I said. “For a modern pistol. Higher for a rifle.”
“What’s that in old money?” said Seawoll.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But if you lend me a calculator I can work it out.”
I looked at Seawoll and he gave me the “at last he wakes up” look so beloved of teachers, senior detectives and upper-middle-class mothers.
There we continued the time-honored tradition of brazenly lying through our teeth while telling nothing but the truth.
“The Fire Brigade are sailors?”
“Not now,” she said. “But in the old days, when they were looking for disciplined guys who knew about water, ropes, ladders and didn’t freak out at altitude. On the other hand, you had a lot of sailors looking for a nice steady career on dry land—marriage made in heaven.”
“Still, Neptune,” I said. “Roman god of the sea?”
Beverley laid her head on my shoulder. Her hair was wet, but I wasn’t complaining. “Sailors are superstitious,” she said. “Even the religious ones know you got to have a little respect for the King of the Deeps.”
“It’s not that I’m scared of commitment,” I said to the ceiling. “It’s just that I want to know what I’m committing to first.”
“Was that part of the deal?” I asked.
“Apparently so,” said Dad. “Your mum thought it was, when I told her. She said that only a fool expects to get something for nothing.” That sounded like Mum, whose principal saying was, “If it doesn’t cost something it isn’t worth anything.” Actually her principal saying was, at least to me, “Don’t think you’ve got so big that I can’t still beat you.” Not that she ever beat me, a deficiency that she later blamed for my failure to pass my A-levels.
“I don’t want to go,” said Henry Pyke.
“You must,” I said. “That’s the mark of true greatness in an actor—knowing, down to the precise moment, when to make his exit.”
“How wise of you, Peter,” said Henry Pyke. “That is the true mark of genius, to give oneself to one’s public, but to retain that private side, that secret space, that unknowable …”
“To leave them wanting more,” I said trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.
“Yes,” said Henry Pyke. “To leave them wanting more.”
Okay, with my renewed interest in many things Caltech, I learned about this book when I was looking at some Wikipedia page that referenced popular culture that included something about Caltech. I'll admit I knew about the big ones, Real Genius and the TV show Numb3rs. Books, however, I knew less so, with the exception of Contact.
This one was a new one for me, and, oh boy, am I glad I picked it up. I've enjoyed Sanford
You can tell the Sanford parts reading Saturn Run, said definitely shows through. The characters in Saturn Run have a similar flavor. That the book starts at Tech doesn't hurt, either.
Basic premise: fluffy pretty-boy Caltech grad student is the first to spot a decelerating object near Saturn, and (because objects don't decelerate naturally in space), all hell^H^H^H^Hconspiracy theories break loose. Pretty much the US and China do a mad dash to Saturn to see what the hell this thing is. If not for the space race going on, we'd get there in a unified fashion, but, well, people.
The science in the book is lots of fun, and, much like The Martian, believable (which, I gather in the point, Ctein being Sanford's science guy). If you're not a fan of the science stuff, the long winded technical parts might suck for you. I thoroughly enjoyed them, and strongly recommend this book to my geeky friends who want a fun read. Non-geeky friends, read fast through those part maybe?
If you do read the book, note how quickly you discover that the fluffy guy really isn't so fluffy. Fun stuff.
The other thing is, I looked at his VA psych files, and I suspect Darlington does want something. Desperately. And we can give it to him.”
“He wants something to do,” Crow said. “Something serious.”
Every smart person does.
“I’m really not interested in killing anybody,” Sandy said. He took a hit of Dos Equis. “Not anymore.”
“If you got to the point where you had to kill someone, you’d most likely be saving the whole crew, as well as your own ass,” Crow said.
Sandy said, “Okay. That, I could do.”
Becca was annoyed with herself. She was about to take a trip that maybe one person in a million got to make, that every techie dreamed of, and she couldn’t stop thinking about heat flow integrals.
One in a million would be over 7000 people. More like 100 million?
“Hold on a sec.” Howardson was reading through his logs. “I’m looking at the simulation optimization you requested six months back. It’s the right answer—it gets you there fastest, which is what you asked for. You wanted the fastest trip because it reduces the expenditure of life-support supplies.”
“But now you’ve changed the question. Implicitly, anyway. You don’t want to get there fastest, you want to get there soonest. Right?”
Crow interjected, “What’s the difference?”
“You may not feel that way in a minute. I’ve got news you’re not gonna like.”
“Santeros scrubbed the mission?”
“That’d make life simpler, not harder. She’s advanced the launch date by five months. You’ve got nine months to get ready.”
Becca responded, and when she ran out of breath, Vintner asked cheerfully, “All done? ’Cause, you know, you were repeating yourself there at the end. I think you said ‘bitch’ at least four times and ‘motherfucker’ five or six.”
Cracked me up.
Becca fidgeted. Buying into a schedule she didn’t believe in was a plausible path to professional suicide. On the other hand, quitting in midstream would also trash her reputation. Game theory, she thought. If I quit now, I keep my professional integrity and it’s a sure loss. If I stick it out, there’s a chance I might be able to pull it off and no one will know that I was blowing smoke. A guaranteed loss vs. a possible win.
Time to blow smoke!
The news links now had countdown clocks on their screens, and England’s Daily Mail announced a new construction disaster at the top of every cycle, along with rumors of zero-gravity orgies, secret contacts with the aliens (with photographs of Santeros talking with a meter-tall large-eyed silvery alien in the Oval Office), and rumors that the whole trip was a fraud by the Americans and Chinese, just as all twenty moon landings had been.
Based on empirical evidence, what would actually happen.
“Nothing. I’ve been up here for weeks, never a thought about it—the separation. Now I’m thinking about it.” She pushed an egg around her plate, nibbled at a piece of toast.
“Well, stop thinking about it.”
“Not always that easy.” She looked past him, at the shrinking Earth out the window, and at the altitude display, which was steadily clicking off kilometers like a second hand, each clock-tick marking their increasing separation from home.
“No, but you’ll get used to it,” Clover said.
Clover sighed and smiled at Sandy. “On our way. Thank God. Life gets easier when there aren’t any choices, you know what I mean?”
As they headed for the showers, Sandy said to Crow, “He kicked your ass. A pencil-necked shrink. A fuckin’ violinist. A snowflake. A delicate little flower . . .”
“In sports, the rules define outcomes,” Crow said. “He won because I wasn’t allowed to bite his nose off, knee him in the balls, or gouge his eyes out.”
“There’s gotta be some rules,” Sandy said.
“Really? I hadn’t heard that.”
Only the criminally stupid or naïve assumed the “other side” was less clever. And who would that be in this case?
Designing commercial power plant cooling systems meant dealing with company executives who felt the laws of engineering and even physics ought to be bent to improve the fiscal bottom line.
And time. Time needs to be bent, too.
“Nah. The fact is, I don’t have music in my head,” Becca said. “If you don’t have music in your head, you can’t really play—all you can do is reproduce what’s on the page. No fun in that.”
But she couldn’t let go of that structure. She’d seen him drawing, freehand, different concepts for guitars that he was manufacturing with Martinez, and asked him to teach her a little drawing. As it turned out, she could draw neither a straight line nor an accurate curved one. She insisted on drawing what she knew, rather than what she saw, a tendency not easily curable.
“Sandy...” She paused for a moment, organizing her thoughts before responding. “I have to be. You are a rich, handsome, privileged, white guy. You get to play on the easy level. If you gave a crap, people would take you seriously, automatically, because guys like you get that as a freebie. I’m a short, blond woman who was raised Minnesota Nice, plus I have a cute face and I’m fat! How seriously do you think I’d get taken in the world if I didn’t regularly throw it in their faces?”
Sandy’s gaze was fixed on her; it was a little unnerving when he focused like that. “But wouldn’t people like you better if you weren’t quite so, um...” He fumbled for a word.
Becca interrupted him. “What? Assertive? Aggressive? Pushy? Do you really think people will pay more attention to my technical advice, my expertise, if it comes from a nice Minnesota girl? Really?”
“Didn’t do the drugs,” Crow said. “I wanted to feel it. I think if anything like that ever happened again, I’d do the drugs.”
“Which is why I’m sitting here watching this moronic vid with a smile on my face,” Sandy said. “They got good drugs now, man. You’re still all fucked up, but it doesn’t hurt as much.”
The idea of drugs to help you get through the pain of grief while it is overwhelming, until it settles into a bearable dull ache? Fuck, sign me up for that.
The helmsman began to sob. It was not professional. Zhang found it entirely understandable.
“Ma’am, we need to do more than plan for ship security. We also need to plan for what we’d do if security fails and the Chinese manage to take over the ship. That might be a small possibility, but we have to consider it.”
“What happens is, your brain gets stuck in a feedback loop. Why did this happen? Is there something wrong with me that it keeps happening—first in the Tri-Border, and now here? What could I have done? What could I have said to her that I didn’t? You get these flashbacks and every time you flash back, the loop intensifies. The meds break the loop and smooth out the thought processes, and eventually time starts to erode the power of the flashbacks."
Again, sign me up.
“You’ve been thinking about this.”
“My history in the Tri-Border: trust no one, everything breaks, nothing works as advertised, and if anything can go wrong, it will.”
“And you’re so young.”
“But getting older by the minute,” Sandy said.
The level of failure that he felt, the deep melancholy, that was something he could barely endure. Every morning he woke from fitful sleep into a worse nightmare. He’d done his best to be a good commander, to make the right decisions, but all he could say of himself was that his very best had only been enough to keep a near-total disaster from being total.
Margaret Atwood is ON FIRE as of late, what with Handmaid's Tale being made into a Netflix something or other. I recall reading Handmaid's Tale when I was working in a bookstore in high school, the book having been handed to me by my boss (who was a woman, yes). When I said, "It was okay," thereby indicating that I didn't understand the true lesson to be learned, she commented that I would understand later. She was right, and I wish I could find her and thank her for trying to explain to me just how much we were / are considered second class, just because of our power to create life.
Atwood. This book.
The premise is that the world has descended into an economic depression that took out the east half of the United States far worse than the left half. Given only crappy jobs are available, and those provide barely enough to sustain our protagonists, when an opportunity to live in a walled off city where half the time you are a normal person with a good job, and the other half of the time you are a slave (prisoner, what-have-you) but both times you have food to eat so it's okay, the not-really-that-smart-woman half of the protagonist couple says yes!
Understandable to crave security in an uncertain world. Less understandable to give up complete autonomy (read: freedom) to get it.
Lest one think this is the serpent tormenting the first-sin woman, the male protagonist went along with the whole plan.
Aaaaaand it turns out to be a series of twists and turns and misinterpretations and intrigue and holy sh-t she was okay doing what, and he did what's it now?
I kept waiting for the next plot twist, for the person who was an agent to be a double agent or a triple agent, but apparently I've been reading too many mystery books lately (Narrator: she hasn't been reading mystery books, she just doesn't trust anyone these days).
A couple of times I wanted to reach through the pages and slap the female protagonist, so there's that for being invested in a book.
If you're a fan of dystopian futures or Atwood, though the latter implies the former, definitely read this book.
If you want a good book club book to read about the direction our society seems to be going, have at it, this is also a good one.
She could watch the nearest flatscreen, where a baseball replay is going on, but she isn’t much interested in sports; she doesn’t see why a bunch of men chasing each other around a field and trying to hit a ball and then hugging and patting butts and jumping up and down and yelling can get people so worked up.
“Hello,” she says. “Isn’t it a lovely day? Look at all that sunshine! Who could be down on a day like today? Nothing bad is going to happen to you.”
This is true: from all she’s observed, the experience appears to be an ecstatic one. The bad part happens to her, because she’s the one who has to worry about whether what she’s doing is right. It’s a big responsibility, and worse because she isn’t supposed to tell anyone what she’s actually doing, not even Stan.
She’d have to slide the needle in while Stan was asleep, so he’d be denied a beatific exit. Which would be unfair. But there’s a downside to everything. What would she do with the body? That would be a problem.
Okay, this is an element of the female protagonist that mortified me, that not only was murder a serious thought, but that casual murder was even remotely contemplated.
How dare she show herself to be everything he was so annoyed with her for not being?
At those moments she’d say anything. What he doesn’t know is that in a way it’s always both at once: whichever one she’s with, the other one is there with her as well, invisible, partaking, though at an unconscious level.
The hedge doesn’t need trimming – it’s the first of January, it’s winter, despite the lack of snow – but he finds the activity calming for the same reasons nail biting is calming: it’s repetitive, it imitates meaningful activity, and it’s violent.
But crankiness leads to bad outcomes, if you don’t have any power to back up your crankiness. People blow you off, or else they get even crankier than you.
No, because the contract is for life. That’s what they were all told before they signed. But – this is a new thought for Charmaine, and it’s not a nice one – there were no guarantees about how long that life might last.
She should have run out of the room the first minute she laid eyes on him. She’s been such a pushover. And now she’s all alone.
He hadn’t recognized it when they’d been living together – he’d underestimated her shadow side, which was mistake number one, because everyone has a shadow side, even fluffpots like her.
Muck-raking journalists trying to worm their way in, to get evidence… to get pictures and other material that they can distort for so-called exposés, in order to turn the outside world against everything the Positron Project stands for. These shady so-called reporters aim to undermine the foundations of returning prosperity and to chip away at trust, that trust without which no society can function in a stable manner.
Erosion of institutions leads to tyranny.
How to explain the wish of such people to sabotage such an excellent venture? Except by saying they are maladjusted misfits who claim to be acting as they do in the interests of so-called press freedom, and in order to restore so-called human rights, and under the pretense that transparency is a virtue and the people need to know.
He himself has fucked his life up, but for the other people in here – anyone he knows, at least – this place beats the hell out of what they had before.
“What was he talking about?” says another.
“What sounds? I didn’t hear anything.”
“We don’t need to know,” says a third.
“When people talk like that, it means don’t even listen, is what they mean.”
But she’ll refuse to think about that, because you make your own reality out of your attitude, and if she thinks about it happening, then it will.
Though why shouldn’t a person have both? says the voice in her head. I’m making an effort here, she answers. So shut up.
I should have worked out more, he thinks. I should have done everything more. I should have cut loose from… from what? Looking back on his life, he sees himself spread out on the earth like a giant covered in tiny threads that have held him down. Tiny threads of petty cares and small concerns, and fears he took seriously at the time. Debts, timetables, the need for money, the longing for comfort; the earworm of sex, repeating itself over and over like a neural feedback loop. He’s been the puppet of his own constricted desires.
The mere thought of her, and of the house he once found so boring, makes him feel weepy. But he can’t rewind anything. He’s stuck in the present.
Sex in the movies used to be so much more sexy than it became after you could actually have sex in the movies. It was languorous and melting, with sighing and surrender and half-closed eyes. Not just a lot of bouncy athletics.
Not flavourful but not awful. Something you didn’t want that had to be accepted because of something you did want.
Oddly, he does look something like Elvis. Is that all we are? he thinks. Unmistakable clothing, a hairstyle, a few exaggerated features, a gesture?
Consilience takes a dim view of drunks because they aren’t productive and they develop medical problems, and why should everyone pay because one individual has no self-control?
This is, unfortunately, a common attitude today. Addiction is very often not about self-control.
Because there’s always two sides, at least two sides. Some say those who got their organs harvested and may subsequently have been converted into chicken feed were criminals anyway, and they should have been gassed, and this was a real way for them to pay their debt to society and make reparation for the harm they’d caused, and anyway it wasn’t as wasteful as just throwing them out once dead.
Does loving Stan really count if she can’t help it? Is it right that the happiness of her married life should be due not to any special efforts on her part but to a brain operation she didn’t even agree to have? No, it doesn’t seem right. But it feels right. That’s what she can’t get over –how right it feels.
If you do bad things for reasons you’ve been told are good, does it make you a bad person?
“Nothing is ever settled,” says Jocelyn. “Every day is different. Isn’t it better to do something because you’ve decided to? Rather than because you have to?”
“No, it isn’t,” says Charmaine. “Love isn’t like that. With love, you can’t stop yourself.” She wants the helplessness, she wants…
“You prefer compulsion? Gun to the head, so to speak?” says Jocelyn, smiling. “You want your decisions taken away from you so you won’t be responsible for your own actions? That can be seductive, as you know.”
This is a cute book.
It showed up on a number of recommended books lists, mostly in young adult fiction. After reading Love in the Time of Cholera, I wanted a quick read, and this one was (read it in one sitting). It was also fun.
Instead of the usual trope of "boy meets girl," we have the premise of "boy wants to meet girl, is too shy to do so," which Kelly writes delightfully well. While there are moments of bullying in the book (and, yes, the scenes frustrated me, as all power abuse situations annoy me), and the ending is a bit tidy, the book is a children's book, so we can both forgive and appreciate these quirks.
The book won the 2018 Newbery Medal (perhaps another reason I added it to the reading pile), so clearly I am far far far from the only one who enjoyed this book and recommend it.
“How come so many of your stories have boys getting eaten by stuff, like rocks or crocodiles?”
“Not all of them are about boys getting eaten. Sometimes it’s girls.”
I only pray at night, because it’s my least favorite time of day. Everything is still and dark, and I have too much time to think.
“Do you believe in fate?” Lola sat back.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Certainly I do.”
“So you believe things happen for a reason?”
“Ay sus. Don’t talk with your mouth full. And yes, I do. I think good things happen for a reason. And bad things, too.”
Virgil swallowed. “Why do you always bring up the bad things?”
“If you didn’t have bad things, you wouldn’t have good things. They would all just be things. Did you ever think about that?”
Gen sat down with her legs stretched in front of her and grabbed her toes. She’d always been a wiggly girl.
This book has been on my reading list for a while now. I thought it was older than it is, having been published in 1985, in English in 1988. When I think about it, I am not surprised this book is in my awareness, as it was popular when I was working in bookstores. 100 Years of Solitude is also on my list, also by Gabriel García Márquez, which goes to show you that, like The Beautiful and Damned, I keep reading the other book, instead of the one actually on my reading list.
This book is a love story. Sorta. It's also a book about growing old.
It is a love story that tells you that love sucks when it is an intense longing that lasts. It is a love story that tells you that love is beautiful and enduring when it is a reciprocated one that lasts. It is a love story that considers love as a disease, something to endure and recover from. So many different ways to view love.
The book was a slow read for me, which means either I was deeply invested into the characters, or the book had a lot of words (or both). Translators affect how readable a book is (the translation for Inkheart, for example, spoils the beauty of the book), which is why I'm unsure if the translation affected my reading speed also.
What I liked most about the book, however, was the flawed characters. Fiction books are made up, and in that making up, authors can create lovable if flawed characters who still Do Something Impressive™. In this book, we have Fermina Daza, the woman who fell in love with the idea of Florentino Ariza, but realizes said love is actually a fantasy. So, yes, wow, the recognition of love as a passion that often has no basis in reality, go Fermina.
Yet, okay, Fermina is quick to anger, blames others even she is at fault, and is written as a mercurial person. Her husband, Juvenal Urbino, recognizes all of this and balances his world, changes his reactions, to accomodate her personality. Isn't this what we do for our loved ones? How long relationships last when we find the person whose quirks we can live with, accept the other person as who they are, and adapt without losing ourselves.
Or maybe more of our stories are fiction than we realize.
I enjoyed the book. It's a classic, so "of course" it's worth reading, if only for the beautiful imagery. I'd hand it to a friend who is asking for a slow, languid love story to read over the course of a couple weeks. Or for a literature course where you need 18 different interpretations to discuss to make the class interesting.
Internet attacks are incredibly common. Mob mentality and outrage du jour are so frequent they seem normal. They are not. They are not normal, they are not okay, they are not acceptable.
They occur with incredible frequency because we like to misinterpret, we like to take sides, we like to be outraged at someone else instead of doing the hard work of improving ourselves.
I often wonder what on this site is going to come back to bite me. Which post of mine is going to be taken out of context and held up for public scrutiny? Will it be the time I made a TSA agent cry, because that one received a number of "you shouldn't have been sexually assaulted by your government, what did you do wrong?" comments that, well, I chose not to publish, because ground rules. Maybe it'll be the part about Chris and Dana and their beliefs that gay people are second class citizens, oh, boy that incident was fun, where I was told to shut up about repeating what they said.
Regardless, it'll happen, I'm sure of it. Wouldn't it be a good thing to consider what I'll do when it happens? I think so, so I picked up this book to read.
The first part of the book had me wondering why I figured this would be a good book to read on the subject. It started out with, "Hey, look, here's what happened to me, the author," and went into something like, "huh, public shaming, it's a thing." And then I learned the story of Jonah Lehrer, which I headn't really paid much attention to at the time of its occurance. I could argue my life is better for not having been aware of Lehrer at the time, but I will admit I grew tired of the Twitter Outrage Of The Day™ many, many years ago.
I kept reading, however, as I do, and the book became interesting. It became relevant. It provided story after story of how internet public shaming is far, far worse than the public shaming of yester-century, and how incredibly damaging shame is.
So, how does one survive public shaming?
Turns out, the way to endure and survive public shaming is not to be shamed. Which cracks me up, because so many older people are outraged (OUTRAGED) and how shameless (SHAMELESS!) young folk seem to be. Perhaps there's a cause and effect there.
This book, along with Daring Greatly, goes a long way to providing a game plan for surviving public shame. I truly hope I never have to care, but, well, the Internet. It's a matter of when, not if.
I recommend this book, it's worth a read.
We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and in 1839 in the United States), it was back in a big way.
“Bad liars always think they’re good at it,” Michael said to me. “They’re always confident they’re defeating you.”
When I finished the story, he said, “It’s about the terror, isn’t it?”
“The terror of what?” I said.
“The terror of being found out,” he said. He looked as if he felt he were taking a risk even mentioning to me the existence of the terror. He meant that we all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it got out—some “I’m glad I’m not that” at the end of an “I’m glad I’m not me.”
I think he was right. Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried.
Maybe it’s a work impropriety. Or maybe it’s just a feeling that at any moment we’ll blurt something out during some important meeting that’ll prove to everyone that we aren’t proper professional people or, in fact, functional human beings. I think that even in these days of significant oversharing we keep this particular terror concealed, like people used to with things like masturbation before everyone suddenly got blasé about it online. With masturbation, nobody cares. Whereas our reputation—it’s everything.
"But at the time I didn’t think it was wrong. If I’d thought it was wrong, I would have taken some trouble to hide my tracks.”
There must have been among her shamers a lot of people who chose to willfully misunderstand it for some reason.
I think this is a key attribute of today's society. We choose to willfully miscontrue what other people are saying, like it's a game to show someone where they are wrong and you get points each time you twist the truth into bullshit.
I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.
I suppose it’s no surprise that we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt — before, during, or after the hurting occurs. But it always comes as a surprise.
In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone). And so to ease the pain we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior.
Ted Poe’s punishments were sometimes zany — ordering petty criminals to shovel manure, etc. — and sometimes as ingenious as a Goya painting. Like the one he handed down to a Houston teenager, Mike Hubacek.
In 1996, Hubacek had been driving drunk at one hundred miles per hour with no headlights. He crashed into a van carrying a married couple and their nanny. The husband and the nanny were killed.
Poe sentenced Hubacek to 110 days of boot camp, and to carry a sign once a month for ten years in front of high schools and bars that read I KILLED TWO PEOPLE WHILE DRIVING DRUNK, and to erect a cross and a Star of David at the scene of the crash site, and to keep it maintained, and to keep photographs of the victims in his wallet for ten years, and to send ten dollars every week for ten years to a memorial fund in the names of the victims, and to observe the autopsy of a person killed in a drunk-driving accident.
And it worked. Hubacek did this, took responsibility for his actions.
“The justice system in the West has a lot of problems,” Poe said, “but at least there are rules. You have basic rights as the accused. You have your day in court. You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”
It felt like we were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.
He conceded that a few “distinguished women” did exist, but “they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity . . . Consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”
I wish said asshat didn't have people who, even these days, believe his crap.
“When I was writing my biography of LeBon,” Bob Nye told me, “he seemed to me the biggest asshole in the whole of creation.”
And his second message was that a smart orator could, if he knew the tricks, hypnotize the crowd into acquiescence or whip it up to do his bidding. LeBon listed the tricks: “A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”
“The ‘only acting’ line is a red herring,” Haslam wrote, “because if you are on the receiving end of brutality it doesn’t matter if the person was acting or not.”
“Acting is not ‘unserious,’” Reicher added. “Even if we are performing, the question remains, ‘Why did we act in a particular way?’”
This is in regards to the Stanford Prison Experiment, where the one "guard" who instigated the whole abuse thing says he was "only acting the part, making things interesting" because that's what the researcher wanted.
“The irony of those people who use contagion as an explanation,” Steve Reicher e-mailed, “is that they saw the TV pictures of the London riots but they didn’t go out and riot themselves. It is never true that everyone helplessly joins in with others in a crowd. The riot police don’t join in with a rioting crowd. Contagion, it appears, is a problem for others.”
"So the question we have to ask—which ‘contagion’ can’t answer—is, How come people can come together, often spontaneously, often without leadership, and act together in ideologically intelligible ways? If you can answer that, you get a long way toward understanding human sociality. That is why, instead of being an aberration, crowds are so important and so fascinating.”
I asked Mercedes what sorts of people gathered on 4chan. “A lot of them are bored, understimulated, overpersecuted, powerless kids,” she replied. “They know they can’t be anything they want. So they went to the Internet. On the Internet we have power in situations where we would otherwise be powerless.”
By some strange circular coincidence, it was Jonah Lehrer’s fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell who had popularized the stop-and-frisk policy. When it was first implemented in the 1990s—it was known as broken-windows policing back then—Gladwell wrote a landmark New Yorker essay about it, “The Tipping Point.” He called it “miraculous.” There was a correlation between coming down heavy on petty criminals like graffiti artists and fare dodgers, his essay argued, and New York’s sudden decline in murders.
Yet another reason Gladwell books are garbage. REALLY not a fan of his "let me take a story, claim it is scientific evidence, and print a book about it" style of story telling.
"Part of the reason all these kids have become experts on the Internet is because they don’t have power anywhere else. Skilled trade is shrinking. That’s why they went there. And then, holy shit, it blew up.”
I asked Mercedes to explain to me one of the great mysteries of modern shamings—why they were so breathtakingly misogynistic.
Nobody had used the language of sexual violence against Jonah, but when Justine and Adria stepped out of line, the rape threats were instant. And the 4chan people were about the most unpleasant.
“Yeah, it’s a bit extreme,” Mercedes replied. “4chan takes the worst thing it can imagine that person going through and shouts for that to happen. I don’t think it was a threat that anyone intended to carry through. And I think a lot of its use really did mean ‘destroy’ rather than ‘sexually assault.’” She paused. “But 4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men, they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired, they lose masculinity points. With Donglegate she pointlessly robbed that man of his employment. She degraded his masculinity. And so the community responded by degrading her femininity.”
From his look, I guessed he considered them places of integrity — nonexploitative, shame-free retreats from a world that overvalues shame as a weapon.
Eventually, General Motors was forced to admit the plot and apologize to Nader in a congressional hearing. The incident proved to him, and later to Max, that the car industry was not above trying to shame its opponents into silence in its battle against safety do-gooders, and that people in high places were prepared to ingeniously deploy shaming as a means of moneymaking and social control. Maybe we only notice it happening when it’s done too audaciously or poorly, as it had been with Ralph Nader.
Ha. Like we would believe corporations are good. Even the best, nicest, cleanest corporations are made up of people, and there is always more than one side.
“Growing up I was ashamed of everything,” she wrote, “and at a certain point I realized that if I was open with the world about the things that embarrassed me they no longer held any weight! I felt set free!” She added that she always derives her porn scenarios from this formula. She imagines circumstances that would mortify her, “like being bound naked on a street with everybody looking at you,” and enacts them with like-minded porn actors, robbing them of their horror."
Donna nodded but said she didn’t want to talk about other parts of the porn industry. She wanted to talk about what she was trying to achieve with Public Disgrace. “America is a very puritanical place,” she said. “If I can help one person feel less freakish and alone because of what they like, then I’ll be a success. But I know I’ve already reached more people than that.”
And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”
I reread Max’s e-mail. Could that be it? Does a shaming only work if the shamee plays his or her part in it by feeling ashamed?
And on it went. Almost none of the murderous fantasies were dreamed up in response to actual danger—stalker ex-boyfriends, etc. They were all about the horror of humiliation. Brad Blanton was right. Shame internalized can lead to agony. It can lead to Jonah Lehrer. Whereas shame let out can lead to freedom, or at least to a funny story, which is a sort of freedom too.
But there was one exception, Andrew said. The conversation between them turned to the one woman who had visited Alexis.
“Everyone was laughing about her,” Andrew said. “Then, suddenly, this one older gentleman, who had been much quieter than the others, said, ‘That was my wife.’ Oh, Jon, you could feel the energy shift. Everything changed immediately.”
“What kind of jokes had you all been making about the wife?” I asked.
“I don’t remember exactly,” Andrew said, “but they had been more mocking. She was looked at differently by the men and, yes, with her it was considered more shameful.”
But the shifting sands of shameworthiness had shifted away from sex scandals—if you’re a man—to work improprieties and perceived white privilege, and I suddenly understood the real reason why Max had survived his shaming. Nobody cared. Max survived his shaming because he was a man in a consensual sex shaming—which meant there had been no shaming.
I think we all care deeply about things that seem totally inconsequential to other people. We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?
“An apology is supposed to be a communion—a coming together. For someone to make an apology, someone has to be listening. They listen and you speak and there’s an exchange. That’s why we have a thing about accepting apologies. There’s a power exchange that happens. But they don’t want an apology.” He looked at me. “What they want is my destruction. What they want is for me to die. They will never say this because it’s too histrionic. But they never want to hear from me again for the rest of my life, and while they’re never hearing from me, they have the right to use me as a cultural reference point whenever it services their ends. That’s how it would work out best for them. They would like me to never speak again.”
But I think he read all this in my face, because he suddenly said: “The way we construct consciousness is to tell the story of ourselves to ourselves, the story of who we believe we are. I feel that a really public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person. One story tries to overwrite the other. And so to survive you have to own your story. Or”—Mike looked at me—“ you write a third story. You react to the narrative that’s been forced upon you.” He paused. “You have to find a way to disrespect the other narrative,” he said. “If you believe it, it will crush you.”
“Let me ask you three questions,” he said. “And then you’ll see it my way.
"Question One: What’s the worst thing that you have ever done to someone? It’s okay. You don’t have to confess it out loud.
"Question Two: What’s the worst criminal act that has ever been committed against you?
"Question Three: Which of the two was the most damaging for the victim?”
“Oh, it’s a very simple game,” he said. “You need to figure out something that’s so esoteric the expert can’t possibly know about it. Maybe it’s something that’s not relevant to the case, but it has to be something they cannot know the answer to. They’ll be incapable of saying they don’t know. So they’ll gradually walk down the garden to the place where they look really stupid.”
“Why are they incapable of saying they don’t know?”
“It’s their entire profession,” Clive said. “It’s respect. It’s a big deal being an expert. Imagine the things you can discuss at dinner parties as opposed to the other boring people at the table. You’re the witness who put Ted Bundy away. They’ll do anything to not look stupid. That’s the key thing. And if you can make them look stupid, everything else falls by the wayside.”
Then I caught myself. Judging someone on how flustered he behaves in the face of a shaming is a truly strange and arbitrary way of forming an opinion on him.
This is the reason why: Throughout the 1980s, Gilligan ran experimental therapeutic communities inside Massachusetts’s prisons. They weren’t especially radical. They were just about “treating the prisoners with respect,” Gilligan told me, “giving people a chance to express their grievances and hopes and wishes and fears.”
The point was to create an ambience that eradicated shame entirely. “We had one psychiatrist who referred to the inmates as scum. I told him I never wanted to see his face again. It was not only antitherapeutic for the patients, it was dangerous for us.”
At first, the prison officers had been suspicious, “but eventually some of them began to envy the prisoners,” Gilligan said. “Many of them also needed some psychiatric help. These were poorly paid guys, poorly educated. We arranged to get some of them into psychiatric treatment. So they became less insulting and domineering. And violence dropped astoundingly.”
I want more of these programs, tbh.
But we know that people are complicated and have a mixture of flaws and talents and sins. So why do we pretend that we don’t?
“It’s disorienting,” I said, “that the line between hell and redemption in the U.S. justice system is so fine.”
“What the first page looks like,” Michael’s strategist, Jered Higgins, told me during my tour of their offices, “determines what people think of you.” As a writer and journalist—as well as a father and human being—this struck me as a really horrifying way of knowing the world.
Justine had tweeted them herself, laboring under the misapprehension—the same one I labored under for a while—that Twitter was a safe place to tell the truth about yourself to strangers. That truth telling had really proven to be an idealistic experiment gone wrong.
But I was struck by a report Anna Funder discovered that had been written by a Stasi psychologist tasked with trying to understand why they were attracting so many willing informants. His conclusion: “It was an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing.”
“The biggest lie,” he said, “is, The Internet is about you.” We like to think of ourselves as people who have choice and taste and personalized content. But the Internet isn’t about us. It’s about the companies that dominate the data flows of the Internet.
Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place—a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $ 4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of thirty-eight cents for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: thirty-eight cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million were people searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $ 456,000.
"Google has the informal corporate motto of ‘Don’t be evil,’ but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.”
“I suddenly feel with social media like I’m tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
That line about how we don’t feel accountable during a shaming because “a snowflake never feels responsible for the avalanche” came from Jonathan Bullock.
I have had this book on my shelf for over a year, and this week was the time to start reading it. I'm pretty sure it came into my awareness because the third book in the trilogy was being released and both the first and second book won the Hugo awards. So, bought, not read, until now.
The book opens with three three stories being told. The Fifth Season is a recurring but not periodic time of "catastrophic climate change." The people prepare for these upheavals, and for the most part survive them. The plot begins with a man triggering the Fifth Season to end the world.
Sometimes one thinks, "People," shakes her head, wonders if such an event might not actually be our unexpected end, if not in the same format.
Unsurprisingly, since the book won a Hugo, I liked it. The world building is great, the story telling engaging. At one point during the book, two of the storylines merged, so, unsurprising if you know me, I "skipped to the end" and determined that all three storylines merge, and was able to return to the place I left off and keep reading. There were a couple moments where I actually yelled, "No!" to a part of the story, so clearly the Reader is Invested™.
Strongly recommend this book. It's a beautiful if heart-breaking-in-moments book. I'll be reading the next one when it drops from my library hold into my checkout queue.
There is an art to smiling in a way that others will believe. It is always important to include the eyes; otherwise, people will know you hate them.
This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.
They chose to keep something rather than lose everything.
Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default.
This is pretty much how non-privileged groups of people feel.
"The people we love are the ones who hurt us the most, after all.”
"Survival doesn’t mean rightness. I could kill you right now, but that wouldn’t make me a better person for doing so.”
“Children are the undoing of us,” Alabaster says, his eyes full of the fire.
She can feel nothing but pity for the boy, relief for his release.
"But then, how can they? Who misses what they have never, ever even imagined? That would not be human nature."
She’s never been able to use hot water every day like this, tons of it just falling from holes in the ceiling like the most perfect rain ever. She tries not to be obvious about it, because some of the other grits are Equatorials and would laugh at her, the bumpkin overwhelmed by the novelty of easy, comfortable cleanliness. But, well, she is.
“Come on in, and I’ll show you a marvel or three.” As if she hasn’t already done so. But you move to follow her, because neither myths nor mysteries can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope.
She’s whispering, because that’s what one does in the dark.
Syen doesn’t really need Alabaster to explain that Innon is telling everyone a story—because Innon does this with his whole body. He leans forward and speaks more softly, and everyone is riveted to whatever tense moment he is describing.
Flirting unnerves her. Much better to be straightforward like this.
Oh, heavens yes.
Innon laughs — softly, for him — and shifts to lean sideways against the wall, perpendicular to Syenite so that she will not feel boxed in, even though he’s close enough that she can feel his body heat. Something big men do, if they want to be considerate rather than intimidating. She appreciates his thoughtfulness.
Here is what you need to understand. In any war, there are factions: those wanting peace, those wanting more war for a myriad of reasons, and those whose desires transcend either. And this is a war with many sides, not just two.
“You’re always restless. What are you looking for?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
You want to ask more about that, then decide against it. If he wanted you to understand, he would’ve explained.
As you sigh, you hear him say, softly, “I won’t hurt you.”
You blink at this, then lower your hands slowly. It hadn’t even occurred to you that he might. Even now, knowing what he is, having seen the things he can do… you’re finding it hard to think of him as a frightening, mysterious, unknowable thing.
“It’s a gift if it makes us better. It’s a curse if we let it destroy us."
It’s reassuring, though, somehow. The kind of lie she needs to hear.
Syenite brings a truly awful novel someone found on the looted freighter, the sort of thing whose first page made her wince and burst into giggles. Then, of course, she kept reading. She loves books that are just for fun.
“I’ve never wanted much from life. Just to be able to live it, really. I’m not like you, Syen. I don’t need to prove myself. I don’t want to change the world, or help people, or be anything great. I just want… this.”
This book, along with Dark Orbit were two books recommended by Daniel Goldsmith, as two of the books on Kameron Hurley's Five Books That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity. Other than "recommended by someone whose opinion I value" and "is science fiction," I didn't really know what to expect.
The world building was great. While I didn't really understand the motivation of The Stranger (always need some conflict in a plot, and this one included the introduction of A Stranger™), and why everyone in the colony was okay with his incredible pushiness. Of course, it was revealed in the end, so that mystery was solved.
The main character though, wow, does Newman get some of the personality imbalances correct. At one point, her despair comes through so strongly I had to stop reading for a bit.
The book is clearly the first in a series, and I've read the second books is darker than this one, but the end of this one was good enough to be a stand along book. If you're a science fiction fan, this is a good read.
I think “majority” is one of my least favorite words. It’s so often used to justify bad decisions.
The resurgence of this kind of religious talk makes the skin on the back of my neck prickle. The times it’s blossomed in the colony have brought us closer to self-destruction than anything Mack has kept hidden.
“This is wrong, Renata.” My father’s voice had dropped to a lower register, one within the vocal domain of disappointment. Even though I was in my late twenties I still felt the same twinge in my chest that his disapproval elicited when I was much younger. It irritated me. When would I stop being a child?
Answer: to our parents, never.
“Don’t exaggerate.” I sat down, automatically keeping my weight off the back left leg of the chair that had already broken once. “I stood on the shoulders of a lot of people. Nobody does anything single-handedly anymore.”
Nope. You didn't make that.
I can’t remember why I came back. Perhaps it was simply a matter of having formed enough emotional scar tissue to cope. Perhaps my curiosity steadily built up its own pressure until it became more powerful than the avoidance.
There’s no sound except the wildlife staking out territories and calling for a mate. The sounds are different here than on Earth, but the purpose seems the same. “This is my patch!” they scream. “I want sex! Come and shag me! I’ll give you strong babies!” It’s the same stuff humans say most of the time. We just dress those needs up in fancier linguistic clothes.
Sung-Soo is leaning against one of the windows, hands cupped either side of his face to shield out the light as he peers in. Even though there’s no way he can see inside, I’m still irritated. Why do people do that when there’s no answer at a door? Do they expect to see the resident in there, feet up, oblivious? Are they checking they’re not being snubbed, rather than whether the resident is at home?
I can feel my lip curling in disgust at my younger self’s taste for melodrama.
and the clothes I’ve moved to find the top I’m wearing now. I need the tightness around me, like being held, before I open the file.
It takes a few minutes to summon the courage to open the file, and it’s only my irritation with myself that makes me do it in the end. The worrying about how it will make me feel has finally been ousted by the desire to stop feeling the twisting tightness in my chest. I need to be able to think of something else.
I can’t help looking down, now that she’s put the idea in my head, and I trace the outline of her buttocks through the flight suit, the way her hips flare out at the tops of her thighs, far wider than her waist and shoulders. She used to hate her short legs and pear-drop shape but since the coma she’s been above such things. I look away when Mack clears
There may be only a thousand or so people here, but it’s easy enough to make the pressure of conformity irresistible. Hell, sometimes we only need one other person to make us fall into line.
He knows that I’m struggling because he has struggled every year. I need to be kinder to him. I don’t know a better way to handle this and I don’t like what he’s doing, but it doesn’t change the fact that it has a cost for him too.
I’m too wired mentally and too exhausted physically to be able to cope with being curled up, awake and caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of guilt and reminiscence.
I groan. “This isn’t a good time.”
“I have the feeling there won’t ever be a good time.”
We stare at each other, his hands palm up and his face open and expectant. I feel like a child given one of those utterly shit choices parents offer to trick the child into thinking it has a say in anything: “Do you want to record that thank-you vid for Aunt Jasmine now or after dinner?”
I stand in the doorway, chewing my thumbnail for what seems like a horribly long time. Unable to act, I check my in-box and the network, but all the while I know I’m merely trying to divert my attention away from this paralysis.
Even though I’m aware of the inherent bias of getting attached to the first explanation of a mystery, I can’t shake it.
He smiles, but the usual warmth and delight is guarded now. I’m not the person he thought I was. I have no idea who that was supposed to be. Now he knows what I’m really like. A sour thought, if there ever was one.
Before I was nothing more than an unbearable throbbing pain with a mind and voice. Now I feel other parts of my body.
I close my eyes and take a moment to suppress the panic that’s rising within. Losing my shit is not going to help.
“Perhaps you should take up running,” I suggest.
“Outside. Or in the gym. There’s one under the Dome.”
“What would I chase?”
“No, I mean run for the sake of running.”
He looks at me like I’m an idiot.
Mack understands these people far too well. They may be scientists and experts and handpicked from thousands of hopefuls vying for every single place on Atlas, but they’re just people.
How much easier to regret not leaving than being here now—knowing so much and yet so little—so very far from home.
I don’t remember as clearly as I do the sight of the old plane trees in the London square her flat overlooked. It was fenced off from people who couldn’t afford to touch the peeling bark on the trees. Those were reserved for dogs owned by the wealthy to piss against three times a day when walked by the au pair.
“I’m glad you told me. I understand. It would kill you to be left behind, always wanting to know what they’ll find. You wouldn’t be living anymore, wishing yourself so far away.”
By then I was so mired in the physicality of exhaustion that I’d forgotten to be hopeful. We’re such base creatures, so easily pulled from higher things by the needs of the body.
The sequel to this book is coming out soon, or was just published, or something of the sort, and is being promoted heavily, which means this book is also being promoted heavily. So.... no surprise it ended up on my reading list. I had, I don't know, enough non-fiction books read that a binge on fiction books didn't seem TOO out of character for me, and this one was available at the library, so, I read it.
Definitely a young adult book, though I'm not fully sure why I feel that way. Maybe the speed of the reading, maybe the uncomplicated words used, maybe the plot, maybe the characters themselves are young, maybe the lack of subtlety, I don't know. The book felt YA in a way that many YA don't feel.
Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it. I did, it just wasn't a difficult read. Fast paced fluff, set in a magical alternate universe of feudal Japan. All the "women are property" and "boys fight with swords" and "this boy happens to have none of the usual hormones in him during his teens" stereotypes of how feudal Japan is viewed from the West.
Quick read, I added the sequel to my reading list, putting the hold out at two months. I'm somewhat invested in the characters, but not enough to drop everything. It's a cute book, and recommended if you're a fan of the genre or the author. If you want a great review of the book from someone writing a review and not just posting notes as I am, Alex Brown has a good one, which also lists more eloquently some of the reasons for my lack of enthusiasm for the book (because it's been done before).
She knew she was being difficult. Knew Nobutada wished for her to make a decision. At the very least, wished for her to offer an opinion. To make a useless play at control. A play Nobutada could then smugly subvert, as her elder. As a man.
Try as she might, Mariko could not help the resentment simmering beneath the surface. Control is an illusion. Expectations will not rule my days. Not anymore.
She softened her tone—a pitiful attempt to mollify him. One that was sure to chafe, as her contrary nature so often did. Her brother, Kenshin, frequently gave her grief about it. Frequently told her to be less ... peculiar. To conform, at least in these small ways.
Yeah, less odd.
A constant reminder. But he could not afford to feel remorse for his past decisions. They had not been made lightly.
This was an experiment, and experiments of all sorts intrigued her. They offered a way to glean knowledge. To use it—shape it, mold it—into whatever she needed it to be.
Hattori Mariko had lived a life disdaining much of the silk and luxury her status had afforded her, and there was a delicious comfort in no longer having to put on airs that had always seemed so foreign to her.
Sometimes we must fall forward to keep moving. Mariko had not understood it at the time. Only recently had she begun to grasp its meaning. Remain motionless—remain unyielding—and you are as good as dead. Death follows indecision, like a twisted shadow. Fall forward. Keep moving. Even if you must pick yourself up first.
“If you intend to take anything, then take my advice,” he said. “This one time only, I’ll offer it without cost: the best way to win a fight is to avoid it.”
“You haven’t brought your sword to be polished in quite some time.” Amaya stepped toward him. “My father mentioned it only yesterday.” She held out her left hand. “Give it to me.”
“I am not calm,” she said finally. “It’s a constant effort to quell my fear.”
“Then why bother?”
“Because I do not wish to appear weak.”
“And you shouldn’t dismiss your abilities. It insults both you and me at the same time.” Another raise of his brows. She suspected people did not often speak to Yoshi in such a direct manner.
“Is that so?”
“Yes. You insult yourself by dismissing skills that took you a lifetime to develop. At the same time you insult me by stating that I need only try—as though the only hindrance is my own lack of effort.” Mariko’s speech grew more rapid with each passing word. She took a deep breath before continuing. “To even attempt something, one must first believe in the possibility. And then be granted an opportunity.”
“Consistency is not enough. It doesn’t account for chance, and there is always a chance the handle will strike the mark instead of the blade. No amount of skill can thwart it every time.”
“I believe the stars align so that souls can find one another. Whether they are meant to be souls in love or souls in life remains to be seen.”
Beautiful words were beautiful words, even to the most practical of minds.
“Have you ever loved anyone?” she asked Ranmaru bluntly, pleased to see him startle, if only for a heartbeat. Serves him right for starting this mess. Ranmaru hesitated before replying.
“Did it feel like magic?”
Irritation bled into each syllable. “Sometimes it does.” But his smile was not from the heart. “Other times it feels like an endless siege.”
“Another reason I cannot possibly be water.” Though there was heat to her words, she kept her voice even. “Water is temperamental. It doesn’t assume any shape on its own. It takes the shape of whatever is around it. And I have never wished to be controlled by my surroundings.”
“And yet you are, all the same.” She splashed water at him. His smile was thoughtful. “Water is not beholden to anything. It can cut through rock. It can vanish into thin air. With time, it can even destroy iron. You should not see it as a weakness.”
“Do you want me to promise?”
“Promises mean nothing to me.” Ōkami’s tone was soft. Severe. “They are words said to assuage any fool who wishes to believe.”
“Don’t draw a line. Unless you wish for me to cross it.”
“Well then, don’t cross it.”
Don't think about elephants.
“It’s the meaning I give it. Each breath exists for that one moment only. We live for that one moment only.”
“Don’t have expectations of me. Don’t look at me and think you should be seeing something else.”
For all those times a man had caused her to feel fear. For all those times she’d been made to think something was wrong with her. For all those times she’d been forced to believe a girl was somehow less than a boy.
“I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.”
“The only power any man has over you is the power you give him.”
This is Book 7 of The Expanse series
Ah, yes, the Expanse series. Again, as before, reading this book was like coming home. Yes, the plot starts twenty years after the end of the last book, yes, the book includes Holden and his righteous ass, yes, everyone is the same and everyone isn't the same, twenty years changes a lot.
The ship is transferred to Bobbie, we all saw that coming. The dynamics of the power exchange are tense, we all, also, saw that coming, if only because we react similarly when our worlds shift, and James S. A. Corey, I mean, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, know how to write people.
I read enough "but I don't want to spoil it for you!" blurbs to know someone dies somewhere in the book, so I went ahead and read the plot summary on Wikipedia, which does spoil that particular plot point for the reader. I actively wanted to know so that I could read the book in peace, ymmv.
I noticed I started reading more slowly in the second half of the book, and recognized I was going it so that the book would last longer. I did enjoy the book (unlike Cibola Burn, which nearly turned me off the series), and would recommend the series to any science fiction fan (if only so that they could see Holden's actions at the end, so worth it).
In the time he’d worked with Winston Duarte, Paolo had found much to admire in the man. The high consul was intelligent, given to astounding leaps of comprehension on complex topics but still measured and thoughtful in his decision making.
Duarte valued the counsel of others but was decisive and firm once the information was gathered. He could be charismatic and warm without ever seeming false or insincere. But more than anything else, Paolo respected his total lack of pretension.
Many lesser people, holding a position like absolute military dictator of an entire planet, would wrap themselves in pomp and glittering palaces. Duarte had instead built the State Building of Laconia.
“The ironic thing?” Duarte said. “I’ve always rejected the great-man idea. The belief that human history was formed by singular individuals instead of broad social forces? Romantic, but …” He waved a hand vaguely, like he was stirring fog. “Demographic trends. Economic cycles. Technological progress. All much more powerful predictors than any one person."
But as an objet d’art, Terra was hard to beat. Humanity had done its level best to kick the shit out of the slowly spinning egg. Overpopulation, exploitation, atmospheric and oceanic imbalance, and then three military-level meteor strikes, any one of which would have fucked up the dinosaurs. And here it still was, like a soldier. Scarred, broken, reimagined, rebuilt, and remade.
Time was supposed to heal all wounds. To Drummer, that was just a nice way of saying that if she waited long enough, none of the things that seemed important to her would turn out to matter. Or at least not the way she’d thought they did.
It was an excellent question. Policy was a ratchet. If she pulled the trigger, gave the order that the next unauthorized ship through was going to be turned into scrap metal and regrets, it wasn’t something she could pull back from.
Someone much better at this than she was had taught her to be very careful doing something if she wasn’t ready to do it every time from then on. But, Christ, it was tempting.
“There are always people who are wary of change. And that’s a good thing. Change should be watched, moderated, and questioned. But that conservative view shouldn’t rein in progress or put a damper on hope."
She’d grown up in a universe where people like her were disposable, and she’d lived long enough for fortune’s wheel to lift her up higher than Earth’s sky.
Time healed all wounds, but it didn’t erase the scars so much as decorate them.
Age showed up in unexpected ways. Things that had always worked before failed. It was something you prepared for as much as you could.
It seemed to her that the real sign you were getting old was when you stopped needing to prove you weren’t getting old.
She climbed the short ladder up through the hatch into the cockpit, trying to enjoy the ache in her shoulders the way she’d once enjoyed the burn after an intense workout. As an old drill sergeant had told her, pain is the warrior’s friend. Pain reminds you that you aren’t dead yet.
“You really think they’ll be dumb enough to make a play?” Bobbie asked.
“I don’t want to bet my life on other people being smart,” Holden said.
“Voice of experience?”
“I’ve been hurt before.”
That seemed to be the human pattern — reach out to the unknown and then make it into the sort of thing you left in the first place. In Holden’s experience, humanity’s drive out into the universe was maybe one part hunger for adventure and exploration to two parts just wanting to get the hell away from each other.
“You should come back soon, then,” she said. “And stop hooking up with all the girls on Medina.”
“I would never be unfaithful to you.”
“Damned right you wouldn’t,” Drummer said, but there was laughter in her voice too now. Drummer knew that she wasn’t an easy woman to love. Or even to work with. There weren’t many people in the vast span of the universe that could navigate her moods, but Saba was one of them. Was the best at it of anyone.
Even for a woman born to the void, it was overwhelming. And everyone seemed to want her to control it for them. To take responsibility for it all so that they could feel like someone, somewhere was in charge.
“Really? Because I’ve got a half dozen other arguments I’ve been working on for why it’s not a terrible idea.”
“Oh yeah, hold on to those,” Holden said. “I’m going to flip my opinion back and forth for weeks.
“That you were letting the universe down by not taking on every fight there was? Because I worked on that one for a while. I’ve got some good lines practiced up.”
Time and age, sorrow and laughter had taken some of the curve out of her cheek, left her skin a little looser at her neck. They weren’t young anymore. Maybe you could only really see that someone was beautiful when they’d grown into themselves.
There was a certain luxury to the thrust gravity of steady acceleration. Hooking your nethers to a vacuum toilet was one of the indignities space travel occasionally forced you into. On the float, with nothing to pull your waste away, it was that or have pee globes sharing your living space. Being able to just sit on a toilet in the crew head and relax for a moment while you did your business was something to appreciate.
Plan it through before you go in, because once the bullets start flying, the time for thinking is over. All you can do is move and react.
Holden was Holden. He’d need to take the weight for every bad thing that happened, and to overstate his appreciation for the good ones. It’s what made him him. He projected selfless heroism on everyone because that’s what he wanted to see in people. It was the same thing that caused most of the problems in his life — most people weren’t who he wanted them to be.
This I understand.
“No one is ever ready,” the admiral said. “But you don’t know that until after it’s happened.”
“Yeah, but my favorite thing about Holden was knowing he’d take a bullet for any one of the crew. Pretty sure you actually have taken a few for us, so that ain’t changing,” Amos said, then paused for a moment.
“Don’t let things sit for too long. It’s always tempting to just ignore the things that aren’t actually on fire just at the moment, but then you’re also committing to spend your time putting out fires.”
It wasn’t even that she was worried about the outcome of this particular encounter. It was that there was a better approach, she’d told them what it was, and they weren’t going to do it. And her ship — her people — were going to shoulder some part of the unnecessary risk. There was no scenario ever that was going to make that okay with her.
"I mean, I’m all for forgiveness and bygones being bygones, but it’s easier to stomach that after the assholes are all dead.”
She opened a channel to the rail-gun emplacements before she was consciously aware she’d done it, the certainty growing in her even as she got the lock that it wouldn’t be enough. That nothing would be. But there was a way you did these things. An order to battle, even when the battle was doomed.
“It’s … magnetic?” Naomi said, her tone managing to be authoritative and astounded at the same time. This is what it is, but I don’t believe what I’m seeing.
“Is that possible?” the duty officer said, her voice small and tight.
“Only if you define ‘possible’ as things that have already happened,” Naomi said,
“Yes, sir,” she said. “Are you taking command?”
“No, I’m not. But this is the right thing to do, and we need to do it now. So we should do it. Please.”
Her expression fell a degree. She’d hoped someone in authority had arrived. Someone who knew what to do. He recognized the hope and the disappointment both.
Watching it all happen from his position in the ops center, Holden found that he had to admire the level of training and discipline the Laconians displayed. They left no doubt that they were absolutely in charge, and they responded to any aggression with immediate lethal force. But they didn’t abuse the civilians. They didn’t push anyone around. They showed nothing that looked like bravado or bullying. Even the violence didn’t have any anger behind it. They were like animal handlers.
"Loyal citizens of the empire will know only peace and prosperity, and the absolute certainty of their own safety under our watchful eye. Disloyalty has one outcome: death.”
“Ah,” Naomi said, though it was more a long exhalation than a word. “The nicest totalitarian government ever, I’m sure.”
“By the time we figure out all the ways it isn’t,” Holden said, “it will be too late to do anything about it.”
“Will be?” Naomi asked. “Or is?”
“You’re about to fuck up,” Avasarala said, and her voice was harder than stone. “I can keep that from happening. And we can have that conversation here in front of these poor fucking shitheads, or you can roll your eyes and humor the crazy old bitch with a cup of tea and we can have a little privacy. You can blame me for it. I won’t mind. I’m too old and tired for shame.”
“It was a dick move,” Avasarala said, pouring a cup of tea for herself and then another one for Drummer. “It’s my fault. I overreact when I’m scared.”
“How am I about to fuck up?”
“By trying to get back your losses,” Avasarala said. “It’s not just you either. You’re going to have advisors on all sides who want the same damn thing. Mass a force to reclaim Medina, find a way to coordinate, take the fight back to Laconia. Through a massive effort and at tremendous cost, push our way back to the status quo ante.”
“You don’t think we can get the slow zone back?”
“How the fuck would I know? But I do know you can’t get it back as your first step. And I know how much you want to. It feels like if you’re just smart enough, fast enough, strong enough now, it won’t have happened the way it already did. But that’s not how it’s going to work. And I know how consuming that grief can be. Grief makes people crazy. It did me.”
“I’m telling you he came back because he thinks he can win,” Avasarala said. “And if he thinks that, you should prepare yourself for the idea that it’s true.”
“There’s no point, then,” Drummer said. “We should just roll over? Put our necks under his boot and hope he doesn’t step on us too hard?”
“Of course not. But don’t talk yourself into underestimating him because you want him to be the next Marco Inaros. Duarte won’t hand you a win by being a dumbfuck. He won’t spread himself too thin. He won’t overreach. He won’t make up half a dozen plans and then spin a bottle to pick one. He’s a chess player. And if you act on instinct, do the thing your feelings demand, he’ll beat us all.”
“I’ve seen this before. This is us getting paved over. All we can do now is try to find some cracks to grow through.”
“Cracks?” Alex said, then sat back down with a thump. “How long I known you? Half the time I still got no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”
In the distance, the Belters were pulling things out of their coats and bags. Bobbie felt the surge of adrenaline in her blood the same moment as the calm descended on her: danger followed immediately by the well-cultivated response to danger. It felt like being home.
"Bringing Laconian focus and discipline to Medina Station and the other systems isn’t a matter of imposing our customs and rules on them.”
“I’m surprised to hear you say that.”
“Our discipline is ours, sir. The same actions can have different meanings in different contexts. What would be routine back home would seem draconian here. Anything harsher than routine will read as a wild overreaction. I believe the high consul would agree that underreacting to this would be a more persuasive show of authority.”
“I’m really wishing Titan were still on that list of options.”
“That’s waiting for yesterday, sweetheart.”
I love this response. Going to co-opt it.
Naomi murmured, shifted her pillow, and fell back into it without ever quite breaching up to consciousness.
Naomi shifted again, pulling the pillow over her head. She sighed. Her eyes stayed closed, but she was with him again. Awake, but not ready to admit it.
“Been brooding the whole time?” she asked.
“Some of it, yeah.”
“Did it help?”
The deep human instinct to come together in crisis. To take care of each other. In its best light, it was what made humanity human.
Bobbie had never really thought about how much communication changed when every time you spoke, you had to be close enough that the other person could stab you if they wanted to. Never before, anyway.
History was a cycle. Everything that had happened before, all the way back through the generations, would happen again. Sometimes the wheel turned quickly, sometimes it was slow.
“I’m thinking this through while I’m saying it, so just …”
“Got it,” Holden said. “Whatever it is, take a swing at it. We’ll work it out.”
“I’ve heard that story,” Bobbie replied. “Wish I’d been here to back you guys up in that fight.”
Clarissa shrugged. “The story’s more fun than the actual experience was. You didn’t miss much.”
“I’m as surprised as you are,” Avasarala said. “Though I feel like I shouldn’t be. I actually read history. It’s like reading prophecy, you know.”
Singh assumed there was a faith element to the risk that he was just missing. In his opinion, faith was generally for people who were bad at math.
Panic and alarm were exhausting. He was exhausted by them, and Medina was exhausted too. It was already shifting into its new routine.
But the fear was eroding her bit by bit and taking away all the things that let her recover. Like a recycling pond with a plugged drain, she was filling with shit, and sooner or later, she’d overspill. It wasn’t a source of anxiety. It was just something she knew about herself, as if she were thinking about some different woman.
She should have been kinder, wiser, more cunning. She should have been something other than what she was. There had to have been a moment when she could have chosen something different, when all of this could have been stopped. She couldn’t think when it had been.
His expression was almost rueful. That would be a pose, of course. A decision he’d made about how to appear. She hated that, even knowing that, she felt herself hoping he could be reasoned with. Wanting to like him, because then maybe he’d like her. Stockholm syndrome’s first, pale roots. She pushed the gentle impulse away and summoned up her hatred.
It was the nature of bad news to spread, and once it was out, it was out forever.
There were two ways to hide something. Either put it where no one could see it or leave it in plain sight with a thousand others just like it. If the alarm went off in the secure room, that would mean one thing. If a bunch of alarms went off all through the engineering and dock levels, and it was only one, maybe the guards had panicked. It would just be more noise in the chaos. Unremarkable.
Situations like this one, they could see death coming, and it didn’t matter. Death still came.
..., and she waited for the joy to fade before she risked thinking about it again. It was always dangerous when the universe fell down in a pattern where the thing you wanted and the wise path were the same.
There was no way for her to ask. That was the trick of living under the thumb of a dictator. It broke every conversation, even the private ones.
Holden had always been the one who soaked up the fame and celebrity, because for the most part he didn’t notice it. He just kept on being himself, and got vaguely surprised when anyone recognized him.
Some things slipped when you were hiding from authoritarian police squads and trying to topple a conquering army. Linens appeared to be one of those things.
“Alex, I live here,” Naomi said. “I can’t tell you how many times he’s put me here. How many times he’s seen the right thing to do and rushed off to do it without thinking about the price. Without letting me or you or the Roci scare him into being less than his conscience demands. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it. It’s natural to him. Who he is. It’s the only thing about him I’m really angry about.”
“He’s exhausting,” she said. “But we love him.” She sighed. “We do.”
"It’s not I don’t trust, it’s that I don’t trust blind. People are people. Fucked up like we all are, it amazes me when we can even make a sandwich.”
“A man of infinite cynicism,” Naomi said.
If he was going to find something that he could exploit, he had to believe there was good in him, even if he only maintained the illusion for a little while.
"Your empire’s hands look a lot cleaner when you get to dictate where history begins and what parts of it don’t count.”
If there was one thing Laconia’s history taught, it was the power of the right person at the right moment.
The one thing he’d said that stuck with her was, I am a human being. Anything that happens to human beings could happen to me.
Hello, tenant of Buddhism and Stoicism both.
And a though of any thinking person.
"It’d be a better world if there was always at least one right answer instead of a basket of fucked.”
“Don’t worry. These Laconians are just like Earthers. They only think of ships and stations as inside. Comes from growing up in free air.”
“‘The predictable limits of a conceptual framework,’” Bobbie said. A phrase from her classroom on Olympus Mons.
Her heart was pounding. Her muscles ached. She’d just killed two of the enemy. There would always be a little something — that tug on her humanity that came from doing violence. There was a satisfaction too. It didn’t mean she was a good woman or a bad one. It meant she was a Marine.
The green dots shifted, swirling in the display as the ships did in the darkness. A few dove toward the Tempest, moving almost at the same speed as the torpedoes. As gentle as it looked on the display, it was a killing burn. A suicide run for the crews of every ship that did it. More followed suit until dozens of ships were driving down toward the enemy. It was a tactic of unspeakable bravery and desperation.
Drummer didn’t notice that her hands were in fists until the ache caught her attention. She made her fingers open, looked at the little flaps of skin she’d carved off with her nails. The suicide attack reached its peak. It reminded her of pictures she’d seen of cloudbursts over the deserts of Earth. Huge, angry clouds.
“What about evac?” She knew what he meant. If he could blow the reactor, should he? Was the mission more important than living through it?
“You okay?” Naomi asked. Clarissa lifted her hand in the same Schrödinger’s answer she always had, no matter how she expressed it. Always yes, and always no. Yes, I’m fine in that I am not presently in medical collapse. No, having that be what fine meant didn’t ratify her early life choices.
“Thank you. It’s not … what I was expecting.”
“Yeah,” Clarissa said. “It seems like there’s always the way we wanted things to go, and there’s what actually happens.”
“Listen,” Naomi said. “They’re playing our song.”
“Oh my,” Clarissa said, laughing. “We have lived our lives wrong, haven’t we?”
The worst part was that she’d done it to herself. The damage to her body, the wear and the weariness, were all products of conscious, determined choices made by a girl she hadn’t been in decades. She carried the weight of those decisions like a sack of bones. Like a toolbox full of them. Some sins carried their own punishment. Sometimes redemption meant carrying the past with you forever. She’d gotten used to that over the years, but it was still pretty fucking inconvenient.
I teared up at this line.
Yes, so many yeses.
She tried to think what to say that would clarify that, but it was a lot of effort. And what did it matter really if anyone else understood? She knew. Fuck it, she thought. Some things you take to your grave.
The pilot flinched back, shot a look at Davenport. He stared hard at her, like he was looking at his death. Like he was trying to talk himself into being brave and hadn’t quite managed it yet. There was a chance there in the space between who he was and who he was trying to be.
“It’s the reward of old age,” Avasarala said. “You live long enough, and you can watch everything you worked for become irrelevant.”
Freehold was pain. Some days that was a good thing. It gave her something to push against, something to fight. Other days it was just wearying.
"The founding impulse of Freehold is sticking it to the government.”
“Loses some of its shine after you get elected.”
Everything changed, and it went right on changing. A terrible thought when things were good, a comforting one now.
This book was recommended on m.b. by Daniel Goldsmith, which is why it ended up on my book list (more so than the Hugo Award nomination, which may say something about my awareness of something or other). It dropped into my reading list quickly (given said nomination, the speed surprised me), so I read it quickly.
The book has this quirk of starting with one character, investing in said character's development, then switching to another character for the duration of the book. The initial character was entertaining, making the relegation to secondary status a bit disappointing.
A main point in the book, however, about how consciousness, the thing that none of us really understand, shapes reality, is far from disappointing. The introduction and exploration of the concept makes this book worth reading, with the science fiction and adventuring parts the icing on the cake. More succinctly, there's a reason for that nomination.
There would be no shortage of volunteers. It was the mysterious power of this driving will to know.
Knowledge is our wealth, our honor, our sacrament, Sara thought. It drives us to give up family, home, and place in time for its sake. Would we also sacrifice our lives, like ancient martyrs longing to see the face of God? Is knowledge that sacred to us?
Could she betray him? She had always considered herself cheerfully amoral, culturally relative to the bone. Conscience needed to adapt; morality was contextual. Yet she had never had a temptation that really mattered.
“Sara, you can’t go around arbitrarily disobeying rules. Some of them are for your own good.”
“I didn’t realize the planet had adopted universal surveillance.”
“It’s the price we pay for a free society."
Outsiders derisively called them Wasters, and they called the rest of the human race Plants. For a Waster, time seemed like a mere convention—an arbitrary way of sorting events into a sequence, no more.
Over and over, they outlived all they knew. Their homes were torn down between visits, their siblings became their elders, they would meet and strike up friendships with the descendants of people they had known. At every stop, they plunged into new trends, new attitudes, new inventions. They saw governments change, companies rise and fail. Each time they leaped off into the void it was an exercise in faith—faith that the equipment would still be operating to receive them at the other end, that people would still remember, that people would be there at all.
This was part of the science fiction part, people space travel by dismantling into component parts and being beamed along a radiation stream to their destination. Said beam travels the speed of light, which makes a fifty light year trip take, well, fifty years.
They wanted to rest in one place for a while. But even that was hard. What did a Waster have to say to people who had never seen by the light of another star, who had existed in a single sequential time frame? To Plants, their own time, their own place, was of universal importance. Sara sometimes thought that planetary gravity warped the imagination, bent perspective till the horizon was uncomfortably close, and everyone had a uniform myopia.
For others, time passed. For a Waster, it was always just now.
Everyone knew that Balavatis were rebels who loved to undermine all hierarchy, and Ashok fit the description: he was fascinated with authority and all its susceptibilities. What people didn’t know was that, to undermine hierarchy in truly creative ways, you have to understand it extremely well. The exercise of power was something Ashok absolutely rejected for himself, but analyzing it in others filled him with evil glee. His dilemma, of course, was that to study authority, he had to leave it strictly alone.
“What kind of word is ‘methodal’?” David asked.
“A buzzword,” Ashok answered, this time himself.
“Methodal. Sounds like a drug.”
“That’s what buzzwords are. Tranquilizers.”
“Thought suppressants, you mean.”
I need to record this now, while it is still fresh in my mind. Eyewitness accounts are unreliable, because the senses are unreliable, but memory plays havoc even with the shards of truth that come through to us untouched.
“You want to meditate on the unknowable. Well, science denies there is anything that can’t be known. Only religion revels in mystery, in order to reserve a place for God.”
“It is unscientific, wouldn’t you say, to deny that there are things we don’t know?”
“It doesn’t matter. Here we are on a new planet—none of us has any past here. We can all start over from scratch.”
If only that were true, Sara thought. We packed our past in our baggage. We always do.
The woman rarely spoke about the ship, or events of the day, or other people, the types of things that filled Sara’s life. Instead, the audio diary was internally focused. Dreams, musings, memories, and speculations filled Thora’s journal. She was torturously self-aware, always critiquing herself, analyzing her own motives. The slightest event led to endless echoes of self-examination: why did I act so? why did I think of acting another way? did I want some other outcome, or am I content? if I had acted otherwise, what would that have reflected about me? was there some better way I could have acted? what do I mean by “better?”—and on and on, to a paralysis of introspection. It was a miracle that the woman could stir from bed, Sara thought.
It was entirely foreign to Sara’s own method of living. Her mind had never struck her as a terribly promising research topic. It was an uncomplicated affair, motivated mainly by the twin desires to escape boredom and not to get caught doing the things that prevented boredom. She preferred to barrel forward through her day, collecting new experiences, regardless of their impact on her character. Living as Thora did, in a world of her own thoughts, would have been like prison.
I have to acknowledge that I may not escape. This is not despair speaking; it is anger. To die this way seems so random, so trivial. I have been robbed of meaning before being robbed of life. To die in darkness, alone—for what purpose was I ever alive? It is as if I emerged from darkness into delusion, then sank back into darkness forever.
Exoethnologists were after cultural resources—new knowledge and new ideas, the ultimate source of all profit. They took advantage of the fact that, in both biology and culture, isolation created diversity. In a closed information system, divergence took place, and the more different the system became, the more valuable it was. But when the isolation was broken, cultures were like thermodynamic systems—uniformity quickly resulted. There was always a short window of opportunity to document and save the precious information before it was hopelessly contaminated by adaptation. Biologists’ window of opportunity was longer. Culture could change with blinding rapidity.
“We’re all inadequate,” David answered. “Just think: the light from the outside world is mapped onto the retina, then further mapped onto the visual cortex, then broken apart and analyzed in other areas of the brain. At every step there’s a loss of information. In the end, what we are aware of is not the outside world per se, but the image of the world projected onto our brains. Plato was anatomically right; we do see shadows on a wall.”
“The Three wish to treat with the stranger.” My interview with the authorities, I assumed.
“Who are the Three?” I asked Hanna.
“The old ladies—Songta, Rinka, and Anath.”
“Are they in charge?”
“Only when we let them be. I will go with thee.”
She had a stormy side to her personality, and a low tolerance for failure.
My estimation of Songta went up, to think that she was the one who had been beminding him all these years. He would not be the man he was without her. It was one of those mysterious marriages where the partners co-create one another.
Okay, this is another case of a "dropped" book. Doron commented to me, "I'm reading this book now," to which I responded, "Oh, you are? Let me check it out from the library and read it, too," and here we are.
Except I read it faster than he did, finishing when he was a couple chapters in, and, well, okay, I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this, but it was an exciting read.
So, there's this guy, Pablo Escobar. You might have heard of him. I, for my part, was incredibly oblivious to much of the world around the time of Escobar's rise, domination, and fall, so while I was vaguely aware of his existence, I wasn't aware of his story.
Well, now I am.
This is the story of Pablo Escobar, as told by his older brother, Roberto. It is a fascinating story somewhat tarnished by Roberto's bit of whining "we didn't do anything illegal!" in various parts of the book. Okay, sure, doing the accounting for a cocaine cartel wasn't illegal, the whole operation wasn't exactly moral or legal. Neither was cooking the books to make the drug money appear to be real estate deals. So, while the history is fascinating, the near pleading "I didn't do anything wrong" was difficult to read non-judgmentally.
If you like non-fiction, and want an interesting recent-history read, this book is a good choice. If you're a fan of this genre, this is also a good choice. If you're more like me, and read it because you wanted to talk with a friend about the book he was reading, this is also a good book to read. I would not have chosen this book for myself, but still enjoyed the reading of it.
The point he emphasized so many times was that the growing legend of Pablo Escobar was used by other groups to service their own needs, from the traffickers of Cali who were ignored while the focus remained on Pablo Escobar, to the various factions within the government who used the shadows that covered the search for him to settle old feuds and destroy growing opposition, and even by those men who once had worked for him and after being arrested provided information that would reduce their own sentences. It was easy for everyone to blame all the violence, all the killings, on Pablo Escobar.
Our country has always been ruled by a class of wealthy families that did very little to help the poor. There were very few social programs that assisted people in making their lives better. We have a system of laws in Colombia, but we lived by a different set of rules. From the time we were growing up the government was run by corrupt people who made themselves richer while claiming they were starting programs to help the less fortunate live a better life.
Legends are built in many ways, but part of such legends consists of accusations made by enemies, and often for their own benefit.
The business of contraband means simply bringing goods into the country without paying the required government fees, the duties and taxes, which allows you to sell the goods to people for much less money than they would have to pay in the stores. It’s very profitable. While contraband certainly is illegal, because it benefits people and hurts only the government, it has long been an accepted part of the Colombian economy.
Once cocaine had been widely and freely used in America. A small amount was part of the original Coca-Cola and some cigarettes; it could be bought in drugstores. The first laws were passed against it in America in 1914, when people were told it made black people in the South crazy and caused them to attack white women.
Almost from the very first day Pablo knew he had to pay big bribes, just like in the contraband business. Pablo was generous with these payments, he wanted to make it so rewarding for people that they would never betray him.
We also knew that the kidnappers were calling our mother’s home from public phones. So Pablo gave out hundreds of radio transmitters to our friends and workers and instructed them to listen to a well-known radio station. Every time the kidnappers called my mother’s home the announcer on the station said, “This song is dedicated to Luz Marina [a code name that was used]; it’s called ‘Sonaron Cuatro Balazos’ and is sung by Antonio Aguilar,” those people were to check nearby pay phones to see if they were being used.
When the rivers rose during the winter there were many floods and Pablo and Jaime would go around our country replacing everything washed away by the waters, bringing mattresses, cooking utensils, furniture, and the things people needed for living. And then they would bring engineers to find ways to prevent more flooding. Pablo would supply the materials to the villagers so they could help reconstruct the affected areas.
Under the law of my country, our president must give several cabinet posts to members of the opposition parties.
I find this idea appealing.
There was a new method of assassination that was becoming common in Colombia. It was to become known as parrillero: A man with a machine gun riding on the back of a motorcycle sprayed his victim—usually in a cart—with bullets. The safety helmets gave the assassins a good disguise and the bike provided the best way of escape after the shooting. Eventually this method became so common in Colombia that the government passed a law against people on motorcycles wearing helmets, so they could be identified.
It was one of these colonels who informed Pablo that Noriega had said that he was going to speak with the North American government, especially to the DEA.
To watch your family suffering and not be able to stop that is the most terrible feeling. And I was a fugitive without committing any crimes: I was pursued by Belisario Betancur’s government just for being Pablo’s brother.
An example of an "ehhhhhhhh, I don't quite believe you there" moment.
The secret police death squads would go in black cars into the poor neighborhoods, the barrios, at night. Most regular people would stay off the streets after work, so the police decided anyone on the corner was a bad guy, and that they worked for Pablo. Their secret squads with machine guns would drive around shooting young people for just standing on the corner, or they would take them away and later people would find their bodies. This was every night.
The impossible thing to know about the police was whether they were working honestly or in the kidnap business. Or worse, if they were people just pretending to be police. There was no way of knowing.
I don't know how the people of the U.S. would react to something like this.
I suspect some people in the U.S. already experience this.
In your mind part of you is always the person you used to be. For me, that was the bicycle champion. If I had paused to think about the journey I’d taken it would have been impossible; from representing the country I loved in the sport I loved to running through the jungle as police helicopters fired tracer bullets down on me. So I didn’t think about it. I know that it seems difficult to understand, but it is true. Maybe that was my means of dealing with my reality.
"I saw this person who had been so powerful, so rich, who had always been surrounded by people, so all alone. I had tears.”
I'm a big Alex Verus by Benedict Jacka fan. I found the books on the recommendation of Jim Butcher on some tweet years and years ago, and have been enjoying the Verus series, reading each one pretty much as soon as it is published. I appreciate that Jacka delivers his books very regularly, which means I'm not waiting for a series to continue as the world is with Harry Dresden and the Song of Ice and Fire and the Kingkiller Chronicle (which I am now convinced Rothfuss doesn't know HOW to finish, so he won't) and whatever else books have the author off on a different tangent because that's what interests them at this time and oh, wow, do I appreciate Jacka.
I enjoyed this book. I have enjoyed this series. Two chapters into this book and I realized that reading it felt like coming home in a way, the comfort level of the world that has been developed, my connection with said world and the characters in the world, and the writing style of the author. The Dresden Files does this, too. As did Connolly's Twenty Palaces series.
And I just realized I seem to have a thing for white male author, urban fantasy fiction.
Good thing I'm on a non-fiction kick this year. Go me.
The book was a fun read. If you haven't started on the Verus, start with book one, which is Fated (the naming of which reminds me to add it to my "I have read, but I don't recall when or any of the plot, but I know I've read it" list). Once you're done with those, head over to the Dresden series. And keep reading.
There’s a rhythm to battle, a cadence, almost like a dance. Every move has its counter, every strike its timing. Once you understand it, it doesn’t feel as though you’re attacking at all: you just do what’s natural.
Some of the younger men in his profession, the ones who have something to prove, will ignore warnings like that. The ones who survive to Little’s age don’t.
“However, justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done."
“None of the tests were able to find anything,” I said. “But not finding anything doesn’t mean there’s nothing there."
"It’s a matter of personality, not what you feel you need, and you simply don’t have enough of a desire to dominate and control.”
Yeah. I understand this.
“Everyone has aggressive impulses,” Dr. Shirland said. “They’re a fundamental part of the human condition. If you meet someone who seems not to have any, they’re channelling them somewhere else or keeping them suppressed. Usually, in the latter case, it ends up turning inward and manifesting as depression."
"She’s been a little too isolated lately and I don’t think leaving her alone with the contents of her own head for company is a good thing.”
I know a few people that this could be applied to, too.
I’ve never lived a safe life and I’ve always accepted that, but it’s one thing to know that there’s a good chance you’re going to die a violent death, and it’s something else to know that it might be someone else doing the dying in your place.
"Sure, they’ll offer you protection — as long as you do as you’re told. But as soon as you stop, they’ll make a point of targeting you, just to send the message of what happens to other people who don’t get in line. It’s not getting into those sort of groups that’s the problem, it’s getting out.”
You build an army because you’re planning to fight someone.
... and the less we knew and trusted each other, the more “harder” shaded into “impossible.”
... one of the more useful concepts I’d picked up was the Eisenhower Matrix, a method of ordering tasks by importance and urgency. The idea is that you file every task into one of four quadrants: important and urgent; not important but urgent; important but not urgent; and neither important nor urgent. Depending on which of those four a task is in, you do it, delegate it, schedule it, or ignore it.
Rulers don’t like turning on their own if they can avoid it. It gives the common folk ideas.
"... If there’s one thing the Council can agree on, it’s that their power and privileges shouldn’t go to anyone else.”
“Resentment is an unproductive emotion,” Morden said.
I judged him to have potential. Unfortunately power can be a discouragement to growth, and he’s had difficulty adapting.
There was another pause. There’s a lot of waiting in battles: when one wrong move can get you maimed or killed, people are understandably reluctant to make hasty decisions.
It hadn’t been my fight... but then, that’s how people like Pyre always keep getting away with it, isn’t it? The ones who can stop them won’t, and the ones who want to stop them can’t.
“He’s a psycho, but he’s a rational psycho,” Kyle said. “If you can give him a good reason not to attack you, he won’t.
“The number one rule when you’re dealing with Dark mages is that you have to negotiate from a position of strength,” I said. “The worst thing you can do is make them think you’re weak. If I don’t have the authority to settle terms, then in their eyes, that automatically makes me weak. And by implication, that makes you weak.”
“Don’t people always think that every long-lived institution is immortal right up until the point where it falls apart?”
Dragons can tell you your future, after a fashion. But I’ve never known whether they tell you what’s going to happen, or whether hearing it from them is what causes it to happen.
Vari’s answer was that everyone has a reason. And when I thought about it, he was right. It’s not like anyone just wakes up one morning and thinks, ‘Hey, you know what, I feel like being a bad guy today.’ Everyone’s got some way to justify what they do. They’ll say that the other guy’s an asshole, or they don’t have any choice, or it’s not like it matters, or it’s just the way the world works, whatever. The point is, knowing why someone’s after you doesn’t really help.
I couldn’t change what I’d done. But I could learn from my mistakes.
I had this book in my hold queue for a long time before I released it and it dropped into my read queue. I'm fairly certain it was on a Book Riot young adult book, but it has zombies in it, so, yeah, I read it.
This was a very fun read. The premise is that a zombie epidemic starts sometime during the Battle of Gettysburg, which lasted three days in our timeline, a different amount in the America of Dread Nation. The Civil War ended as the living now united against the dead. Except the attitudes and idiocy of the times didn't change, the slave owners still believed the slaves weren't people, still believed they were somehow entitled to subjugate another person, still believed in their own collective superiority. In this world, the ex-slaves and Native Americans were forced into combat schools, where they were trained to kill the dead.
Of course. Because once you have entitlement, you can't not have that entitlement until said entitle-ees are dead (typically of old age, tbh).
This was a fun read. Ireland portrays the prejudices well, gives us a heroine we can root for (root for, verb, informal, support or hope for the success of (a person or group entering a contest or undertaking a challenge): the whole of this club is rooting for him), and creates action and mystery at the same time. The letters to and from the heroine and her mother are heartbreaking in a way, but further the plot in a good way.
If you're into zombie fiction, this is a good book to pick up. If you're not into zombie fiction, you might still enjoy the heroine's sass, the book is worth reading.
“What happened then?” I asked, because there’s nothing better than the memories of others when you’re little and have no stories of your own.
I’ve heard enough political speeches to know that letting rich white city folk think that we’ve made even a small part of America safe again is a better stump speech than telling them that we’re still in trouble five years after the Army stopped fighting the dead.
Momma used to tell me, “Deny it until they’ve got you dead to rights, sugar. If they can’t prove it, it never happened.” It’s good advice, and it’s served me well.
But that’s the way life goes most of the time: the thing you least count on comes along and ruins everything else you got planned.
The boy had always been a bully, and the thing about bullies is they never learn how to run like the rest of us do.
In my head the ideas are so clear and make perfect sense, but when the words come out they’re a mess.
I shrug. “Sometimes you have to live down to people’s expectations, Kate. If you can do that, you’ll get much further in life.
That last bit is a lie, but the easiest lie to tell is the one people want to believe.
But when you think of shamblers as things, as mindless creatures who have to be put down so that we might live, ending them gets to be a lot easier. The farmer doesn’t cry over slaughtering a hog.
“Jane, your point is well taken, but heroism means little when it rests on lawlessness."
Yeah, what? No.
Miss Preston was convinced that the best way to correct minor misconduct was a little drudgery, and housework was the pinnacle of drudge.
This amused me.
Still, the thought of them together is enough to make me more than a little stabby. Jealousy is a terrible thing, and I swallow the emotion down hard as I can.
That’s the way it is when you fancy someone. Your heart starts doing the thinking, and your brain? Well, it gets left out of the equation until too late.
There was a big scary world beyond the boundaries of Rose Hill. I was bold, but not so foolhardy as to think there was something worthwhile on the other side of the barrier fence that kept the dead out.
And if folks could overlook the rumors of a white woman birthing a Negro, well, they could forgive just about anything, couldn’t they?
In Rachel’s mind, every ill that befell her was the work of someone else.
One of the other aunties, Auntie Eliza, once told me it was because Rachel was the major’s favorite before he went to war, and she liked the easy life he gave her. Rachel had adjusted to being owned, to being property, and she didn’t like the new situation, where she wasn’t nothing but a house servant with wages, a servant that had to work just as hard as everyone else.
“Surviving can make people right mean,” Auntie Aggie told me.
It’s a question I’ve refused to ask myself. I don’t want to think about what it would do to my world if Momma is dead.
I get an uncomfortable feeling like I’m sliding backward down a slope into a deep hole that I dug my own self.
"... That’s how men like the mayor maintained control. You believe strongly enough in an idea, nothing else much matters.”
I reckon we all have our childhood scars, whether we wear them on the outside or not.
“Look at you, with those pretty manners. Wherever did they find you?”
“At the junction of hard luck and bad times,” I answer. It’s something that my momma says.
But that means backing down from Cora, and I’ve seen her kind. She’ll do everything the people in charge tell her to, even if that means she ends up broken and bloody. She’s one of those people that never learned to breathe, never understood the true meaning of freedom. She’s a dog, happy even with a cruel master. She eats her three squares and takes her bit of pocket change and happily wears the collar around her throat, because that’s enough for her. But it ain’t for me.
"... I ain’t never going down there again if I can help it. But if you want answers, that’s where they are.”
A bark of laughter escapes from her. “Here you are flayed within an inch of your life and you’re asking after me.”
I sigh. “Sometimes it’s easier to think about other folks’ small hurts than your big ones.”
“You shouldn’t jump to conclusions about people, Mr. Gideon. I contain multitudes.”
I laughed at this one, well, because.
But I can’t change the past; I can only push headlong into an uncertain future. “Kate,”
Momma used to say there were lots of ways to survive. Don’t be afraid to pretend to be something you aren’t, Jane. Sometimes a little subterfuge and chicanery is in order and the quickest way to achieve one’s goal. It ain’t hard to imagine Ida pretending to be just another dumb colored girl in order to make it out here. Survival by any means necessary.
I’ve learned a lot in the past few years. Including that a group of panicked people ain’t that different from a herd of sheep. Nip at their heels a little and they’ll go wherever you tell them to.
Here’s a thing about me: I regret most of my actions five minutes after the fact. I’m rash in my decisions and I spend half my time trying to extricate myself from situations of my own making.
Alan’s jaw tightens and he looks straight ahead. “It was mostly the colored folks that fought the shamblers. No surprise there. Government pays to send them to those fancy schools while real men like me are left to fend for ourselves.”
So, in this story, Alan is a white guy. He believe that forced slavery of black people into killing zombies, which included forcing them into a re-education system which enabled them to be effective at killing zombies, was "fancy schools."
The unfortunate thing about this particular quote and thinking is that it is just_so_true. It's like Louis complaining he has to pay taxes, but he drives on the roads those taxes paid for. His kids go to the schools those taxes paid for. His devices use the GPS information that those taxes paid for. But, no, he complains and complains and complains and says everyone else has it better.
“It matters not, my dear. It is God’s wrath for our sins.” The sheriff lights his cigarette and looks out at the horizon. “The dead never walked until brother fought brother. Until we penitent folk betrayed one another.”
I wouldn't be surprised if this happened, too, in a zombie outbreak. It's about power and control in a fear-laden world.
I didn’t like the big girl, I ain’t never been a fan of snitches, but turning shambler is not a fate I’d wish on anyone, not even the girl who got me whipped.
Well, except for the guy she was planning on killing. Not the point.
“See, the problem in this world ain’t sinners, or even the dead. It is men who will step on anyone who stands in the way of their pursuit of power."
This is the next book in the Caltech book club. I, admittedly, skipped over the biological sciences when I was at Caltech, and that skipping is one of my regrets about my time at Caltech: I came in with these just plain wrong notions about science. Those ideas adversely affected my education, but, fortunately, not my love for science in all its (correctly science) forms.
I read this book, finishing before the first week's discussion, mostly because I keep checking these books out from the library, with due dates much sooner than the slower 1-2 chapters a week pace the book club has. Which is fine, I read the book club books quickly. That I subsequently don't participate in the book club discussions is less fine, I guess.
This book was a meandering survey of various studies, current research, and microbe history. I say meandering because the book lacked a compelling narrative arc. I was expecting maybe a history arc, or a current research arc, or even the author's journey arc. Instead, the end of each chapter lead into the beginning of the next chapter, with each chapter a swirl of interesting information and sometimes a self-contained narrative. Mostly though, each chapter was a fascinating, meandering discussion of a new topic about microbes.
And by fascinating, I mean fascinating. My incoming supposition was, given how much influence chemicals have over our mental state and body composition, the idea that microbes could and do produce chemicals to induce a state in their host doesn't seem so farfetched. After reading the book, learning about how much we know about microbes, and seeing how much we don't know about microbes, my supposition is more like a fixed assumption in my world. One of those "but, of course" obvious things only after the fact.
I enjoyed reading the book. This book is very much worth reading.
Now we’ve seen that they can sway the brain too – the organ that, more than any other, makes us who we are. It is a disquieting thought. We put such a premium on our free will that the prospect of losing independence to unseen forces informs many of our deepest societal fears.
Wolbachia can only pass to the next generation of hosts in eggs; sperm are too small to contain it. Females are its ticket to the future; males are an evolutionary dead end. So it has evolved many ways of screwing over male hosts to expand its pool of female ones. It kills them, as in Hurst’s butterflies. It feminises them, as in Rigaud’s woodlice. It eliminates the need for them entirely by allowing females to reproduce asexually, as in Stouthamer’s wasps. None of these manipulations is unique to Wolbachia, but it is the only bacterium to use them all.
Huh. So, gay woodlice.
Here is a strange but critical sentiment to introduce in a book about the benefits of living with microbes: there is no such thing as a “good microbe” or a “bad microbe”. These terms belong in children’s stories. They are ill- suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world.
A cut or a bruise can split some of your cells apart and spill fragments of mitochondria into your blood – fragments that still keep some of their ancient bacterial character. When your immune system spots them, it mistakenly assumes that an infection is under way and mounts a strong defence. If the injury is severe, and enough mitochondria are released, the resulting body-wide inflammation can build into a lethal condition called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). SIRS can be worse than the original injury.
Some of these molecules get saddled with negative names, like “virulence factors”, because they were first discovered in the context of disease, but they are inherently neutral. They are just tools, like computers, pens, and knives: they can be used to do wonderful things and terrible things.
Couples might work well together, but if one partner can get the same benefits without spending as much energy or effort, it will do so unless punished or policed.
Well, this one hit home pretty hard.
These principles are easy to forget. We like our black-and-white narratives, with clear heroes and villains.
We do. Some of us more than others.
A well-functioning partnership could easily be seen as a case of reciprocal exploitation. “Both partners may benefit but there’s this inherent tension. Symbiosis is conflict – conflict that can never be totally resolved.”
To allow our first microbes to colonise our newborn bodies, a special class of immune cells suppresses the rest of the body’s defensive ensemble, which is why babies are vulnerable to infections for their first six months of life. It’s not because their immune system is immature, as is commonly believed: it’s because it is deliberately stifled to give microbes a free-for-all window during which they can establish themselves. But without the immune system’s full selective powers, how can a mammalian baby ensure that it gets the right communities?
I find this fascinating.
As humans make our presence felt, we disturb the ancient relationships between corals and their microbes, converting the vivid splendour of fish-filled reefs into bleak algal barrens submerged in a pathogenic soup.
And I find this depressing.
... a Grand Unified Theory of Coral Death. It shows how the largest sharks are connected to the smallest viruses.
The most obvious difference lay in the ratio of the two major groups of gut bacteria: obese people had more Firmicutes and fewer Bacteroidetes than their leaner counterparts.
An important lesson emerged: microbes matter but so do we, their hosts. Our guts, like all ecosystems, aren’t defined just by the species within them but also by the nutrients that flow through them.
Herbert “Skip” Virgin published a case study that beautifully supports this idea. He worked with mice that had a genetic mutation common in people with Crohn’s disease. Those rodents developed inflamed guts, but only if they were infected by a virus that knocked out part of their immune system, and were exposed to an inflammatory toxin, and had a normal set of gut bacteria. If any of these triggers was missing, the mice stayed healthy.
Dogs carry microbes from the outdoors to the indoors, offering us a bigger library of species with which to populate our developing microbiomes. When Lynch fed these dog-associated dust microbes to mice, she found that the rodents became less sensitive to various allergens.
Nonetheless, Burkitt was on the right track. “America is a constipated nation,” he said, indelicately. “If you pass small stools, you have big hospitals.”
Scientists will talk about Occam’s razor – the principle that favours simple, elegant explanations over convoluted ones. I think the truth is that scientists, like everyone else, find simple explanations psychologically soothing.
Still, they provide more questions than answers. Did the microbes set symptoms in motion or just make a bad situation worse? Was one species responsible, or a group of them? Is it the presence of certain microbes that matters, or the absence of others, or both?
But if you looked at these communities in isolation you might conclude that their owners were on the verge of chronic disease, when they were merely on the verge of motherhood.
Ecosystems are complex, varied, ever-changing and context-dependent – qualities that are the enemies of easy categorisation.
Hello, systems thinking!
So, mammalian success was founded on vegetarianism, and that vegetarianism was founded on microbes. Time and again, different groups of mammals swallowed plant-breaking microbes from their environments, and used their enzymes to mount assaults on leaves, shoots, stems, and twigs.
The macrotermites there build enormous mounds. Some can tower for up to 9 metres, scraping the skies with Gothic ensembles of spires and buttresses. The oldest one on record – now abandoned – is 2,200 years old.
I want to see one of these mounds now.
Bacteria offer an alternative. They are masters of biochemistry, and can degrade everything from heavy metals to crude oil.
Beetle outbreaks come and go but the current one, fuelled by a warming climate, is ten times bigger than any other. Since 1999, the beetles and their attendant fungi have killed more than half the mature pines in British Columbia and affect 3.8 million acres in the United States. They have even hopped over the cold Canadian Rockies, which long fenced them into the west coast, and are now spreading east. A continuous belt of lush vulnerable forests lies in front of them.
You can see this on any drive in any West Coast state.
Hornets, hawks, and humans might gradually accumulate beneficial mutations, but that individual hornet, or this specific hawk, or those particular humans can’t pick up beneficial genes for themselves. Except sometimes, they can. They could swap their symbionts, instantly acquiring a new package of microbial genes. They can bring new bacteria into contact with those in their bodies, so that foreign genes migrate into their microbiome, imbuing their native microbes with new abilities.
The genes they left behind, these ghosts of symbionts past, aren’t sitting idly among the mealybug’s DNA. Some make amino acids.
Whatever the case, it is clear that an insect, a bacterium, and a virus have formed an evolutionary alliance against a parasitic wasp that threatens them all.
Which is really, really cool.
This point is worth repeating: taking any fast or instant evolutionary shifts as a refutation of the slow, gradual changes we associate with Darwin’s vision is a fatal mistake because these quick shifts are still powered by gradualism.
That is the power of symbiosis: it allows gradual mutations in microbes to produce instant mutations in hosts. We can let bacteria do the slow work for us, and then quickly change ourselves by associating with them. And if these alliances are beneficial enough, they can spread with blinding speed.
When the parasite arrived, it spread like wildfire, riding through the forests in the bodies of its sterilised hosts. The flies needed a countermeasure and Spiroplasma rose to the occasion. It restored its hosts’ ability to reproduce, and allowed them to outcompete their sterile peers. Since the flies could pass these little saviours to their offspring, the proportion of infected insects grew with each generation. And Jaenike had caught this spread at exactly the right moment. “It made me doubt my sanity,” he says. “What are the chances?”
Say goodbye to dated and dangerous war metaphors, in which we are soldiers hell-bent on eradicating germs at whatever cost. Say hello to a gentler and more nuanced gardening metaphor. Yes, we still have to pull out the weeds, but we also seed and feed the species that bind the soil, freshen the air, and please the eye. This concept can be hard to grasp, and not just because the idea of beneficial microbes is new to many.
To control a microbiome is to sculpt an entire world – which is as hard as it sounds. Remember that communities have a natural resilience: if you hit them, they bounce back. They are also unpredictable; if you tweak them, the consequences ripple outwards in capricious ways. Add a supposedly beneficial microbe, and it might displace competitors that we also rely on. Lose a supposedly harmful microbe, and an even worse opportunist might rise to take its place.
These emerging infectious diseases of wildlife are emerging ever more quickly, and humans are at least partly to blame. On planes, boats, and boots, we carry pathogens around the world with unprecedented speed, overwhelming new hosts before they can acclimatise and adapt.
Yet despite the excessive hype, the concept behind probiotics is still sound. Given all the important roles that bacteria play in our bodies, it should be possible to improve our health by swallowing or applying the right microbes. It’s just that the strains in current use may not be the right ones. They make up just a tiny fraction of the microbes that live with us, and their abilities represent a thin slice of what the microbiome is fully capable of. We met more suitable microbes in earlier chapters. There’s the mucus-loving bacterium, Akkermansia muciniphila, whose presence correlates with a lower risk of obesity and malnutrition. There’s Bacteroides fragilis, which stokes the anti-inflammatory side of the immune system. There’s Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, another anti-inflammatory bug, which is conspicuously rare in the guts of people with IBD, and whose arrival can reverse the symptoms of that disease in mice.
We have already seen that what we eat can substantially change the microbes in our gut, and prebiotics like inulin are in plentiful supply in onions, garlic, artichokes, chicory, bananas and other foods.
Jim Collins is more circumspect. Given how much we still don’t understand about the microbiome, he is unsettled by the prospect of engineering microbes that can permanently establish themselves in our bodies. That’s why he is also focusing on building kill-switches that will force the microbes to self-destruct if something goes wrong, or if they leave their hosts.
Or that so many scientists would study it that they would organise a bi-annual, Wolbachia-devoted conference to share their results?
Of course they would! Humans love their communities, we are social creatures.
I contain multitudes, yes, but only some of them; the rest, I extend into the world like a living aura.
We all have our cloud of microbes! I love this!
Within 24 hours of moving into a new place we overwrite it with our own microbes, turning it into a reflection of ourselves.
We also change the microbes of our housemates. Gilbert’s team found that room-mates share more microbes than people who live apart, and couples are even more microbially similar.
In both settings, sterility is a curse not a goal, and a diverse ecosystem is better than an impoverished one.
In the developing world, around 5 to 10 per cent of people who check into hospitals and other healthcare institutions pick up some kind of infection during their stay, falling ill in the very places that are meant to make them healthier. In the United States alone, this means around 1.7 million infections and 90,000 deaths a year.
By removing harmless bacteria that would otherwise impede the growth of pathogens, perhaps we have inadvertently constructed a more dangerous ecosystem.
Gibbons showed this by studying public toilets. He found that thoroughly scrubbed toilets are first colonised by faecal microbes, which are launched into the air by roiling, flushed water. Those species are eventually outcompeted by a diverse range of skin microbes, but once the toilet gets scrubbed again, the communities go back to square one. So, here’s the irony: toilets that are cleaned too often are more likely to be covered in faecal bacteria.
Jessica Green, an Oregon-based engineer-turned-ecologist, found a similar pattern among the microbes that float inside air-conditioned hospital rooms.7 “I assumed that the microbial community of the indoor air would be a subset of that of outdoor air,” she says. “It really surprised me that we saw little to no overlap between the two.” Outdoors, the air was full of harmless microbes from plants and soils. Indoors, it contained a disproportionate number of potential pathogens, which are normally rare or absent in the outside world, but had been launched from the mouths and skins of hospital residents. The patients were effectively stewing in their own microbial juices. And the best way of fixing that was remarkably simple: open a window.
And I see, in the driver’s seat, a guy who notices those rivers of microscopic life and is enthralled rather than repelled by them. He knows that microbes are mostly not to be feared or destroyed, but to be cherished, admired, and studied.
We see how ubiquitous and vital microbes are. We see how they sculpt our organs, protect us from poisons and disease, break down our food, uphold our health, calibrate our immune system, guide our behaviour, and bombard our genomes with their genes.
A bacterium in your gut might be able to transfer its genes into one of your intestinal cells, but once that cell dies, the bacterial DNA goes with it. The gene might become part of a human genome, but never the human genome.
In 2013, Dunning-Hotopp showed that these short-lived unions are surprisingly common (Riley et al., 2013). She analysed hundreds of human genomes that had been sequenced from body cells – the ones from kidneys or skin or livers, none of which get passed on to offspring. She found traces of bacterial DNA in around a third of them. They were especially common in cancer cells; an intriguing result with unclear implications. It might be that tumours are especially prone to genetic intrusions, or that bacterial genes help to transform healthy cells into cancerous ones.