My Favourite Books I Read in 2016

I tend to have at least two books on the go at any one time: one fiction, one non-fiction. I read fiction when I go to bed, since I read somewhere that fiction encourages present-state attention, which makes you feel sleepy. It works for me. I generally read non-fiction (or, more often, Pocket articles) when I’m commuting.

My Goodreads Year in Review tells me I read 33 books last year. These are the highlights.

The best book I read was John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine, an attempt to explain the 20th century through philosophy, art and science, rather than geopolitics. I wrote a post about it which you can read if you want more detail; but if you’re willing to take my word, it comes with a strong recommendation from me.

The Inevitable, by Wired founder Kevin Kelly, looks at technologies which will shape the near future. Not specific implementations, but more general trends: sharing, remixing, tracking, etc. If you keep up to date on tech trends some of this can seem like it’s just reinforcing what you already know; even so there are enough interesting points of view and insights to make this a good and compelling read.

Time Travel, by James Gleick, is an exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) exploration of its subject in fiction, philosophy, and physics. I didn’t enjoy it as much as his previous book, The Information, but it’s still worth your time.

Andrew Hosken’s Empire of Fear is a history and investigation of the so-called Islamic State (as the BBC put it). It really helped me better understand the complicated situation in the Middle East, and the shameful decisions by foreign powers that made it all happen.

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat), by Andrew Hankinson, is a semi-fictionalised first-person account (it uses real dialog, social services documents, and police reports) of the last days of the man hunted by police in 2010. Phenomenal true-crime writing.

In comics, Steffen Kverneland’s Munch is both an incredible biography of the Norwegian artist and his relationship with the author August Strindberg, and a fourth-wall-breaking story of how the book was written. And that barely scratches the surface. It apparently took seven years to create, and that’s apparent in the breadth and detail.

Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus, by Chester Brown, retells (with copious footnotes and reference) Bible stories that feature prostitutes. It’s part of the author’s ongoing attempts to contextualise and justify his own use of paid sex, and is quite fascinating.

The novel I enjoyed most was Don Winslow’s The Cartel, a story of the drug wars in South and Central Americas (and sequel to The Power of the Dog). It’s a robust thriller that only occasionally slips into cliche.

Finally, Beast, by Paul Kingsnorth, and Pig Iron, by Benjamin Myers, are very different stories but both are first-person, and use the language of the narrator, and their landscape and environment, to create a feeling of deep immersion. Both authors are poets, which shows.

I’ve got three books on the go right now which didn’t quite make it into this roundup, and another ten in my to-read list. Exciting and daunting.

Making Nature: how we see animals

A visit to the Wellcome Collection this week, for the exhibition Making Nature. It explores human interaction with animals; how we classify them, display them, observe them, and change them. From Walter Potter’s taxidermy tableaux, to tigers in Manhattan apartments, to BioSteel™ goats that lactate spider silk, it’s a well-curated, thoughtful, and eventually unsettling experience.

It starts with Linnaeus’ taxonomies, the desire to impose order on the natural world. Perhaps well-intentioned, but his racist human stereotypes (‘indolent and capricious Africans’) indicate that order is as much about opinion as fact.

Making Nature shows how our view of animals changed from asset to resource to commodity, to entertainment and decoration. This observation struck me:

Humans soon discovered they could train captive birds to sing songs that may not attract mates in the wild, but would captivate human listeners.

The songbird became a programmable musical device.

Perhaps the saddest part of the exhibit was the video installation The Great Silence, by artists Allora & Calzadilla with author Ted Chiang. It contrasts shots of two locations in Puerto Rico—the Arecibo observatory for monitoring signals of alien life, and a sanctuary for endangered parrots—simultaneously with Chiang’s eponymous short story, written from the point of view of one of those parrots.

Humans have lived alongside parrots for thousands of years, and only recently have they considered the possibility that we might be intelligent.

But parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to recognize an alien intelligence if all they can do is eavesdrop from a hundred light years away?

The exhibition is, like everything in the Wellcome Collection, free to visit. It runs until 21st May, and is the first in a year-long series exploring our relationship with nature.

Notes on São Paulo, in four apps

Aerial view of São Paulo
Aerial view of São Paulo

I’ve just come back from two weeks in São Paulo, Brazil, visiting friends and family (my wife’s side). I last visited three years ago, and since that time there’s been a clear increase in smartphone use. Brazil’s smartphone penetration is about 40% (of mobile users), and in comparatively wealthy São Paulo it’s likely much higher than the national average. I saw a few ways where the prevalence of smartphones has enabled big behavioural changes in the three years since I last visited; in each case the changes were in fundamentally new services, exposed to users through a mobile app.

As I’m curious, I made a habit of asking people about the services, the apps, and the changes in behaviour, and my observations are written here. They aren’t in any way meant to be comprehensive, or even necessarily to have any conclusions drawn from them. I’ve written this article solely out of interest.

And I want to make clear that I’m not trying to make generalisations about the city as a whole; from a municipal population of some 12 million people, my observations are based on a limited sample of people I met and spent small amounts of time with: mostly middle class friends and family, and working taxi and private hire drivers.

A quick note about the prices in this article: the currency of Brazil is the Real (R$). R$1 is worth about £0.25, or $0.30. Minimum wage is R$880 (£225 / $275) per month. Luxury goods tend to be priced equivalently to Western markets, making them relatively much more expensive.

Two men holding a banner advertising a prayer app
Evangelical Christians advertise a prayer app

WhatsApp

The most commonly used messaging app, by quite a margin, is WhatsApp (known colloquially as Whats). Everyone I asked uses it. Messenger is also known, but apparently used mainly to reach the few friends you don’t yet have in your WhatsApp contact list.

When I arrived at Guarulhos airport I bought a local SIM. Tech support was provided as a WhatsApp number. Around São Paulo there are all sorts of informal services offered — these range from receiving nude pictures, to small scale witchcraft (love spells, and the like). They’re all organised through WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is so prevalent that it’s included as an incentive in mobile tariffs; for example, the telco Claro are promoting a package offering 600MB of data, but unlimited WhatsApp. For users in a developing country, even in comparatively wealthy São Paulo, free calling is a no-brainer.

Showing three uses of WhatsApp in advertising: Free use in a mobile tariff; nude photo exchange; love magic
WhatsApp (L-R): free use in a mobile tariff; nude photo exchange; love magic

Waze

There are some 12 million people in the city of São Paulo, and over 4 million cars. Almost half the households in the city commute by car. And, with very few exceptions, all journeys by car involved Waze.

Every taxi or private hire driver used it, and most citizen drivers too. São Paulo is a sprawling city with a chronic traffic problem, and Waze helps drivers find their way, and avoid some of the worst congestion. Waze was seen as better than Google Maps for directions (the few drivers I asked didn’t know that Google own Waze).

One thing taxi drivers didn’t like about Waze is that, in São Paulo, taxis can avoid congestion by using bus lanes at peak times; but Waze doesn’t know that it’s being used in a taxi, so doesn’t recommend those routes. When entering a taxi, the driver would often ask “is it OK if I use Waze?” – letting the passenger give directions if they know a better route, to avoid accusations of ripping off.

Aside: all the taxi drivers were using Android phones, mostly Samsung or Motorola. A popular phone seems to be the Samsung Galaxy J1, which costs R$600 new (or 14 monthly payments of R$60). For comparison, the entry-level iPhone SE starts at around R$2,100.

São Paulo (L-R): external power cables; shattered bulletproof glass in a metro station; free phone charger in a bar
São Paulo (L-R): external infrastructure; shattered bulletproof glass in a metro station; free phone charger in a bar

Uber & 99Taxis

São Paulo’s public transport infrastructure has problems. The metro is formed of four underground lines connecting to a handful of train lines, serving only a small portion of the city. Some of the stations are (or at least, feel) dangerous, with groups of homeless drug addicts sleeping rough and begging for money. Each metro journey costs $3.80.

Many people rely on the bus, although that suffers from a lack of timetable information and signalling at bus stops. It costs the same as the metro, so is comparatively quite expensive. (It also has a reputation for being dangerous.)

There are plenty of taxis, but they’re also quite expensive, starting at R$4.50 plus R$2.75 per km.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising that Uber is very popular among those that can afford it (largely the middle classes). Many journeys that would have been taken by bus, especially, are now taken by Uber instead; when people are sharing a car for a short trip the cost is only a little more than a bus ticket, with the advantage of picking you up and dropping you off wherever you want.

There are a handful of local rivals, of which 99Taxis (usually known as 99) is the best known. 99 began as a free app to connect users with the local taxi companies, before launching a mobile payments platform. It offers taxis at the general lower rate, a 30% discount over the standard street pickup tariff. Recently 99 expanded to include 99POP (private hire drivers) and 99TOP (private hire luxury car drivers). 99POP undercuts the prices of taxis, even with the discount, so some taxi drivers are boycotting the platform and using alternatives.

Many private hire drivers are registered with both Uber and 99 (and sometimes other services too), picking up whichever call arrives first. 99 offers the better deal for drivers, taking only a 15% cut compared to Uber’s 25%. Uber is much easier to sign up to, however; registration can be done entirely through the app, whereas 99 requires drivers to register in person and undergo some testing.

In a country where many people don’t have access to a credit card, both Uber and 99 offer an option to pay for a journey in cash (Uber launched card-only, but later dropped the requirement). This lets more passengers onto the platform, but decreases financial security for drivers; one driver told us that he took a passenger on a ~R$30 trip, only for them to flee on foot when they arrived near the destination.

Another of the advantages for drivers of 99 over Uber is that 99 lets drivers choose to accept requests only from passengers with registered cards. Uber doesn’t permit that option, although apparently will refund drivers for any lost fares through bad payments or criminal action.

Like so much of life in São Paulo, crime is rife with private hire services. Another driver told us that he got called out to a remote address, only to be robbed of his mobile at gunpoint. It seems that criminals steal mobiles from people in the street then use them to call Uber, knowing that at the very least they’ll be able to steal another phone, a wallet, and possibly even a car. Another story we heard, although not first-hand, was that criminals would call UberPOOL and rob all the passengers on board.

All of this criminal behaviour was a risk for taxi drivers before the advent of private hire apps, but the apps have put more drivers on the road and created more opportunities for crime. The positive impact, however, is that two people I spoke to told me that access to services like Uber and 99 has meant that they can get rid of their own cars and still feel able to get around the city easily and safely.

Pokémon and Public Shaming

I missed out on the Pokémon craze the first time around, because I’m old. So I don’t have any nostalgic attachment to it, and while I have Pokémon Go on my phone, I don’t play it beyond occasional thumb-twiddling moments; it makes me too closely identify with Stephen Collins’s cartoon.

Cartoon about playing Pokémon Go as an adult
Stephen Collins, published by The Guardian

But generally, I don’t get agitated about people playing it. It’s pretty fun, it’s interesting, I don’t see it as any worse than many other entertainment pastimes. I definitely don’t see it as enslaving brain-dead humanity.

Phone-obsessed man being ridden like a horse by Pikachu
‘ABVH’, based on a cartoon by Pawel Kuczynski

I really can’t abide this vision. Apart from being essentially misanthropic, it’s ignorant of history, and part of a repeating pattern of public shaming and moral panics over new technology. This includes the umbrella; early users were “hooted and jeered at”, and called “mincing Frenchmen”.

We need to put aside this idea that new technology makes us dumber, more self-obsessed, or isolated. As Randall Munroe’s XKCD put it: “It’s been two centuries. Take a hint.”

Cartoon: bemoaning new technology through the ages
Randall Munroe, XKCD