My January and February Reads

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford Book cover - An amazingly original book and probably my favorite read of the year so far. I first became interested in it based on this review. Objectively, Red Plenty consists of a series of short stories taking place in the USSR in the 1960s-70s, interspersed with a few nonfictional essays. Many of the stories focus on real historical figures (most notably, Leonid Kantorovich and Nikita Khrushchev); some on fictionalized composites based on real people (for example, Abel Aganbegyan); others on fully fictional characters who are nonetheless intended to represent some real-world class of Soviet citizen. In spirit, the book is a portrait of the period of Soviet history where it really appeared–both to Soviets and to outsiders–like the planned economy of the USSR might well outstrip capitalist economies in productivity within a couple of decades. The period it covers, following the death of Stalin, was one in which the USSR was recovering from a generation where much of its intelligentsia had been killed or sent to the gulag, and where the country was rediscovering an openness to ideas. The promise of computing is just beginning to blossom. It’s quite a sympathetically rendered portrait, and one that left me with a sort of ache for what might have been. Spufford provides copious endnotes about the sources he drew on for even minor things such as jokes–it’s an exhaustively researched book, and one that sent me down quite a few internet rabbit holes. I thought quite a bit while reading it about how much the historical existence of the USSR still shapes American politics today, yet how little I actually know about Soviet history and life. Spufford observes, in the chapter recounting the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre, that contemporaneous Soviet citizens generally knew even less about their country’s history, due to official suppression, than an American today would. If, like me, you liked the HBO Chernobyl miniseries so much that you read Svetlana Alexievich’s book, you’d probably also appreciate this one.

The Good Life For Wage Slaves, Robert Wringham - I don’t think of myself as a “wage slave,” but I nonetheless enjoyed this book and generally enjoy reading Wringham (formerly editor of The New Escapologist magazine). His previous book, Escape Everything, was about arranging your life to avoid having a regular 9-5 job. This one is about designing a well-balanced life with plenty of room for non-work stuff while having a regular job. I was happy to feel like I already follow a lot of the advice he gives in this book. (It was written pre-pandemic, and certainly a lot of his advice about working from home is much more broadly actionable now!) In my review of his previous book, I called Wringham “a helpful gadfly to have in your corner,” and I stand by that description.

Data Feminism, Catherine d’Ignazio and Lauren Klein - This is available for free online, which is where I read it. A valuable book that I thought had a couple of missteps. It might more appropriately have been called something like “Critical Data Science,” as the authors engage with issues of power and privilege in data science along many dimensions, not just that of gender. The authors go far beyond the relatively straightforward issues of women being underrepresented in many data samples, to talk about things like the power structures in which data and analyses are produced, and the risks of “strangers in the dataset.” These are powerful ideas that I think belong in any data such curriculum, with at least as much emphasis as more commonly addressed issues such as visual perception of quantity. I did think d’Ignazio and Klein unnecessarily overreached at times, such casting vague aspersions on Hadley Wickham’s “tidy data” approach by linking it with eugenics due to “a generalized belief in the benefit of control and cleanliness.” What?! Think twice next time you reach for your vacuum cleaner…

Financing the Green New Deal, Robert Hockett - An interesting monograph that is very MMT-adjacent; I have Stephanie Kelton’s book on hold and may write about both once I’ve read that one.

Eartheater, Dolores Reyes - Did not finish. It seemed like an interesting premise, but I just didn’t find myself looking forward to reading it.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits, Britt Rusert and Whitney Battle-Baptiste - A graphic from W.E.B. Du Bois's Data Portraits One of my favorite semi-unusual charts from the book, with interesting use of radial symmetry to compare proportions in two groups, and of negative space for the legend. A really cool book that I learned about from Jamelle Bouie’s Twitter feed. It’s a mostly visual book reproducing a few dozen graphics that Du Bois created on the state of Black America for the 1900 Paris Exposition, along with a few accompanying essays. There’s something really wonderful about seeing an ambitious data visualization project from before the computer age. Many of the visualizations are instances of generic types that are very recognizable to the modern eye (bar chart, choropleth, etc.), but some are interestingly different, and a couple are totally off the wall. The “weirder” ones certainly wouldn’t pass muster with modern data visualization best practices (e.g. in terms of making relative quantities visually apparent), but I also noticed that these ones in particular really drew my eye in and made me stare at them for a while, as opposed to familiar chart types that I breezed over more quickly. So perhaps there’s something to be said for violating standards. One of the main things I was thinking while reading this book was how using graphics packages like ggplot2 limits us as it also empowers us. Surely, modern dataviz experts using something like d3.js can be practically unlimited as well, but it’s a much higher barrier to entry compared to just drawing stuff on paper.

Mutual Aid, Dean Spade - I’m interested in mutual aid as an alternate model of social support contrasted with institutional charity, and picked this book up based on that interest. It’s very practical and targeted to people running and participating in mutual aid organizations, focusing on the challenges of running a non-professional volunteer-based organization and suggesting strategies for handling them. There was a short section about the concept in general, but it wasn’t exactly the book I was looking for. Seems very useful for on-the-ground organizers!

The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste - Did not finish. Again, I was really interested in the premise and setting, and I think Mengiste is a talented writer. The material is pretty heavy and I think I just wasn’t feeling that at the time I picked it up.

DMZ Colony, Don Mee Choi - I’m not a big poetry reader, but this 2020 book piqued my interest. It’s a mix of oral history, photographs, essays and poetry about postwar Korea in the eras of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-Hee, including some personal/family history by the author. The title is a bit ironic, as a lot of the material focuses on the ongoing presence of violence disrupting ordinary lives in a nominally demilitarized country. It didn’t click with me quite as much as 1919, but I still appreciated it.

Book of Challenges, Daniel Kaufman - Did not finish. This is an old 3E D&D book that was recommended by Matt Colville on his YouTube series about running D&D. It’s basically a series of trap-like encounters to add to campaigns. Although it’s “written in 3E,” it’s easy enough to get the idea of the encounters for someone playing in 5E. I love Colville, but unlike him, I didn’t really find the ideas inspiring.

A Moral Theory of Solidarity, Avery Kolers - I found this really interesting, if not 100% convincing, and hope to write something longer touching on it!

The Lost Steersman, Rosemary Kirstein - The third in a (currently!) four-book series that I continue to enjoy very much about a rationalist detective/ranger lady in a fantasy world. In some ways, this volume seems to do almost nothing to move the main plot forward. Instead, it moves the world-building forward. Without spoiling too much, I thought it provided a great depiction of how human contact with a very alien, yet at least somewhat, intelligent species might go–I thought of “Arrival” as well as Grass while reading it. Most importantly, I think Kirstein knocks it out of the park in this volume with her new characters–Steffie especially, but also Zenna. Maybe because it mostly takes place in a fixed location, as opposed to the earlier volumes that mostly took place “on the road,” this book had a nice hang-out vibe.

Nights When Nothing Happened, Simon Han - Did not finish. True to the title, it’s quite a slow-moving book, and I wasn’t into it enough to keep reading. In a lot of ways I got similar vibes to Chia-Chia Lin’s book The Unpassing.

Cybernetic Revolutionaries, Eden Medina Record player A government-made record player from the Allende era, designed to be an inexpensive mass consumer good. I love how this looks! - I must have learned about this book after Red Plenty got me interested in the general topic of 60s-70s era attempts to use computers for economic planning. This one documents the history of Project Cybersyn, an effort under the democratic socialist Allende government of Chile to develop a computer-based system to provide “cybernetic” mechanisms for collecting and using feedback on economic production. It was cut short by the 1973 Pinochet coup, but an impressive amount of work was completed on it beforehand. This book is an expansion of Medina’s PhD dissertation on the topic. I found it to be a fascinating read. Medina uses the project as a sort of extended case study of an effort to build political convictions into a technological system, both the possibilities and limits thereof. She also takes it as an opportunity to discuss the history of computing in the developing world, which she describes as a little-studied topic. It’s pretty impressive what Cybersyn’s developers were able to achieve with extremely limited computing resources. Although Cybersyn never did reach full fruition, Medina makes a compelling case that it played a meaningful role in helping the Allende government hold out in the face of capital strikes prior to the military coup. Finally, I found it very interesting how much of the design effort for the project went into the design of the “control room”–it almost seems as though the aesthetic conception of this room was the driving force behind the entire design of the project.