Thursday 30 December 2021

Best books I've read in 2021

Last January, I finally caught up with William Gibson’s classic trilogy Sprawl (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive). While I’m more fond of his new books (The Peripheral / Agency), Neuromancer, published in 1984, is really remarkable. Gripping, and it’s hard to overstate how much Gibson has captured and shaped the overall nerd imagination. It’s no accident that kids who grew up on Sprawl are now molding the tech companies to their preference. Perhaps a shame though that we seem to have missed the fact those books were meant to show a dystopia, not a preferred path forward.

In August, I went on a kind of a media refuge. Not quite a hermitage, I was nevertheless secluded in Bieszczady mountains, mostly offline, time dedicated to hiking - and books. I devoured the last three parts of the Expanse series (not quite true now - the final book was published this December and I look forward to reading it). The James S.A. Corey writing duo has created something remarkable. The vision on screen is one thing, the details of the written story have a different pacing to them - but the overall result is incredible just the same. One of those books that can be emotionally engaging enough that I sometimes need time away from them, to not amplify the stress of daily life - but that made them perfect reading for the leisurely summer holiday time.

I’ve only really picked up audiobooks recently. Of the non-fiction books this year, most I have listened to - either on dog walks or while driving. Unfortunately I’m not the type of a person who can listen to a book and simultaneously concentrate on work. However, adding audiobooks to my walks increased my overall book consumption quite a lot - I’ve finished 36 books overall this year, the most since I’ve started keeping track.

Out of those, the most impactful probably was Akala’s reading of his own Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He’s got a brilliant voice, full of personality, and his writing is very engaging as well. The book touches on hard topics the UK museums still do their best to stay clear of, digging into the history and impact of slavery and the class system. From my central-European perspective, the passages on Ham and the biblical justifications of oppression were especially interesting.

The English biblical Ham translates to Cham in Polish. The appetite kindled by Akala led me to two books focusing on history more local to my origins: Chamstwo by Kacper Pobłocki and Ludowa Historia Polski by Adam Leszczyński. Somewhat surprisingly (at least to myself), I was mostly blind to the impact the class society of XIX still has on the supposedly class-less XXI century culture and social norms. Those books serve as a harsh awakening. Kacper Pobłocki focuses more on the culture side, while Adam Leszczyński reanalises the history of Poland from the point of view of the vast majority of its population. It is not a pleasant picture, but the books are well worth reading.

Similar train of thought led me to finally reading The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. Over 120 years old and rather lengthy, I’d probably struggle to get through it if not for the audiobook version. Thorstein observations at the end of the era of aristocracy (even when it wasn’t yet feeling its nearing demise, or at least, downfall) are still applicable today. His views on race and gender unsurprisingly are really outdated, but what stands out are the parts that do not change, starting with how the moneyed groups value tradition over human life.

Veblen’s book neatly tied into a very modern one I’ve followed it with: Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent, by Brook Harrington. In the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008, Harrinton trained for two years as a wealth manager and then continued her academic research for another six, documenting the off-shore and transnational nature of modern wealth. The book is as much a fascinating and morbid view into the modern upper class as it is a villain’s manual.

Then, prompted by a Freakonomics podcast episode, I’ve read Nudge: the Final Edition by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. 14 years since the first edition, governments all over the world (or at least the English-speaking ones) embraced its approach.However, I’m mostly reading it from an tech professional point of view, and it’s brilliant enough to be a required training: pointing out how practically every decision has an impact on the user behaviour, and needs to be considered from their point of view.

Monday 15 March 2021

A year went by

It’s been exactly a year ago that I’ve posted about the pandemic for the first time. In retrospect, the numbers that were frightening then look positively optimistic. In many countries, the first peak - the Spring 2020 one - does not even register when looking at a full year history. The third peak has started in full swing in multiple places, and it might be worse than the second one. Poland is well on the way to topping the infection numbers from November 2020, though we’re not hitting comparable daily death counts yet. Potentially the vaccination campaign has at least managed to remove the most vulnerable from the pool.

Poland now has 4.5 million people vaccinated, versus 1.9 million who’ve contracted the disease. Worldwide, it’s 355 million vaccinated versus 120 million recorded cases. Certain threshold has been reached, but it will be the end of 2021 before wealthy countries are done with the vaccination drive, and potentially even 2023 until the whole world has achieved a reasonable level of immunity. Global deaths are estimated at 2.65 million, but likely to be severely underreported.

In terms of global impact, this definitely is a generation-defining event, as was predicted a year ago. In local terms, I see people I know dealing in very different ways. Burn out and anxiety are through the roof, as the unending unpredictability of the circumstances takes a toll. Statistically, I’m aware that birth rates have taken a heavy hit, but among my close family, this seems to have been the year to have offspring in multitudes.

Personally, I’ve tried to leave most social media and newspapers behind, as news was causing me a significant amount of stress I could not resolve in any way. Winter darkness has also taken its usual toll. We have hardly met with any friends or family the past year. At times I question the sanity of my own choice, when I hear about elder relatives entertaining 10+ guests, indoors. Only weeks away from being vaccinated, this feels like a particularly unreasonable behaviour. Though we have discussed this so many times that I have no hope left of getting through to them.