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