Thanks, Obama

REN0724 ObamaObama has been President for most of my adult life, and it is weird to consider that very soon he won’t be. I will always sympathize with him, but he wasn’t a good or successful president. The reason why: I don’t think it’s controversial that the world and the U.S. are in worse shape now than they were when Obama was elected. The main factor in this is the election of Donald Trump, a disaster of historic proportions. Of course, Trump’s election is not exclusively – or even primarily – Obama’s “fault”. But it happened in reaction to Obama’s presidency. Trump and the Republicans can quickly work to undo most of Obama’s other positive achievements. For now, it seems fair to me to say that the primary legacy of Obama’s presidency is the election of Donald Trump.

Most or all of Obama’s achievements – Obamacare, the Paris Accords, the EPA rules on carbon, the Iran nuclear deal, Dodd-Frank, changes in the tax system, etc., can quickly be reversed. Jon Chait makes the counterintuitive claim that Obama’s legacy can endure, but I don’t buy it. His argument mainly consists of two parts: (a) lots of stuff happened on Obama’s watch that isn’t in the purview of U.S. government and (b) Trump and Republicans may pay a political price for undoing Obama’s achievements. I think it’s not right to give Obama so much credit for (a), and overly optimistic to think Republicans have no aims other than staying in power for (b).

Obama had a theory about how the world works. I sympathize with Obama, because I thought his theory was correct. It seemed like careful, small nudges in the direction Obama thought the world should go were the best way to proceed. But they weren’t. Trump’s election has shown that he was wrong.

In his farewell address, Obama spoke as if he still believed in this vision. But I don’t. Not anymore. As Anton Chigurh says, “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” And I am very doubtful that Obama believes it anymore either. I think he is scrambling to figure out a new way to see the world and how he should act with the power that he has in it. I think moves like the UN resolution on Israel are examples of this scrambling.

***

It’s not useful to talk about whether a President is a “good guy”. The moral decisions of the US presidency necessarily involve knowingly killing innocent people for complicated geopolitical gamesmanship reasons. If someone does that and is not horrified every minute of every day, his morality is at least not one I can recognize. But Obama was a person I admired.

There’s one more reason I will appreciate him more than his achievements warrant. Unlike most politicians, he seemed extremely, sincerely worried about trying to do a good job. Maybe that’s not much – after all, Mark Zuckerberg also seems to be sincerely worried about doing a good job, and I think electing Mark Zuckerberg as President would be terrifying. Still, it’s a surprisingly rare trait: I don’t think Trump, Bush, or either Clinton possess it. But Obama did, and I am grateful for that.

So, bye bye, Obama. And Thanks.

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2016 in Review: Articles etc.

Here are some interesting things I read on the internet in 2016, in this episode of “no value added”

World

U.S. Politics

Life and Culture

Fiction and Essays

  • The Inner Ring C.S. Lewis gives a commencement speech
  • On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi William Tenn writes, well, you’re not convinced you should read this from the title? What do you need, a hand-printed invitation, maybe?

 

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2016 in Review: Quotes Part 2

…continuing with quoting stuff…

Now, setting a booby-trap for a respectable citizen like a head master (even of an inferior school to your own) is not a matter to be approached lightly and without careful preparation. I don’t suppose I’ve ever selected a lunch with more thought than I did that day. —P.G. Wodehouse The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy

I think the accusation that someone has read Derrida is always offensive —Geoffrey Pullum

This reminds me of Ploetz, Dr. Charles Ploetz, one of the vicarious tormentors of my youth, who wrote the most comprehensive French grammar in existence. This work was so maddeningly comprehensive that it contained all the exceptions to all the rules, and all manners of expressing the same thing in different ways. Ploetz’s last words were “je meurs, but it is equally correct to say je me meurs.” —Edith Templeton The Surprise of Cremona

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. —Albert Camus

This show would be so bad if there were no anthropomorphic animals in there, but there are so it’s raw and beautiful. —Peli Grietzer on “BoJack Horseman”

I remember […] coming to the distinct conclusion that there were only two things really worth living for—the glory and beauty of Nature, and the glory and beauty of human love and friendship. And to-day I still feel the same —Edward Carpenter My Days and Dreams

Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. —C.S. Lewis

That winter, Alice Toklas, Picasso, and myself took a villa in the south of France. I was then working on what I felt was a major American novel but the print was too small and I couldn’t get through it. In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she said, “No.” I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day. —Woody Allen A Twenties Memory

The Hollow Earth theory was not going over well in the quarry. —Neil Gaiman Good Omens

Centralised control is a necessary pre-condition of Socialism, but it no more produces Socialism than my typewriter would of itself produce this article I am writing.  —George Orwell Catastrophic Gradualism

Election morning, thousands of left-footed shoes were distributed to Roma voters with the promise that if Bajram won the election by nightfall, right-footed shoes would also be distributed.  —Alexander Clapp in the Baffler

Taheri-Azar’s incompetence as a terrorist is bewildering —Charles Kurzman in FP

Such conflicting questions ride
Around in my brain:
Should I order cyanide
Or order champagne —Cole Porter I am in Love

Художник, не стремись быть современным. Это единственное, чего ты, к сожалению, как бы ни старался, не сможешь избежать. —Сальвадор Дали

There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it. —C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity

There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it. — Mark Twain

Suppose you are walking in a thunderstorm, and you say to yourself, “I am not at all likely to be struck by lightning.” The next moment you are struck, but you experience no surprise, because you are dead. —Bertrand Russell

If you say guns kill people one more time, we will shoot you with a gun, and you will, coincidentally, die. —joke NRA bumper sticker

the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence. —Vaclav Havel

When one arrives for the first time at a city, and especially if one arrives at night, the people in the streets have, just for that moment, a special quality: they are adepts in a ritual the traveller doesn’t know; they are moving from one mystery to another. —V.S. Naipaul The Middle Passage

No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the Internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all. —Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker

Возьмем для примера трех лидеров живой и неживой природы: лидер из неживой природы — солнце, лидер из животных — ёжик, из человеческих изделий — айфон… —Ариша Назанская

The Council of Eleven Nations Terrestrial wants no trouble with the Vegans over a sliver of land like Israel, not in these times with what’s going on in the galaxy: If both sides in the Vegan Civil War are going to claim the place as holy territory because the men they call the founders of their religions once walked in it, let the bivalves have it, says the Council, let them fight it out between themselves. —William Tenn On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi

Listen, it could have been worse. As Esther said to Mordecai when he told her of Haman’s plans to massacre all the Jews of Persia—it could have been worse, but I don’t for the moment see exactly how. —ibid.

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2016 in Review: Quotes Part 1

Here is the first part of this year’s quotes list

“Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.” —Heidegger quoted by Meghan O’Rourke

“To catch a bus you have to think like a bus” —tumblr user neptunain

“All men are selfish, brutal and inconsiderate—and I wish I could find one” —Shulamith Firestone quoted by Amber Frost

“—Завидуешь, Леня?
—Завидую факту, а не объекту.” —Василий Гроссман Жизнь и судьба

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people” —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

“The occupational hazard of the literary intellectual is to believe that he is redeemed by consciousness.  He knows, for example, what mean-spiritedness is, and he is, of course, against it; therefore, he need have no further worries about falling into it himself.” —Norman Podhoretz

“Male urination is a form of commentary” — Camille Paglia

“//Marriage,/The ultimate double dare” —A Softer World

“In the life of every human being there is a point in time where each discovers that one is only what one is. All at once we realize that the world no longer concedes us credit for our future, it no longer wants to entertain seeing us for what we could be… We find ourselves to be creatures without potential. No one asks us any longer, ‘What do you want to do?’” —Jean Améry quoted by Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story

“Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.” —W.H. Auden The Fall of Rome

“Странник прошёл, опираясь на посох, —
Мне почему-то припомнилась ты.
Едет пролетка на красных колёсах —
Мне почему-то припомнилась ты.

Вечером лампу зажгут в коридоре —
Мне непременно припомнишься ты.
Что б ни случилось, на суше, на море
Или на небе, — мне вспомнишься ты.” —В.Ф. Ходасевич

“Welcome to Meteor Deflection Corp. Our quest is to maximize shareholder value this quarter.” —@InstanceOfClass quoted by Scott Alexander

“Like, you just messed up at reading a book. You read a book so poorly that you died.” —Ryan North describing choose your own adventure books

“’Lots of exciting outdoor recreation opportunities,’ they said—but they didn’t add ‘for the survivors.’” —Jeremy Stewart Theory of North

“Принес ей ‘Технологию Секса”. Книга замечательная. Первую страницу открываешь, написано “Введение”. Уже смешно.” —Довлатов Компромисс

“It’s sad that a family can be torn apart by something as simple as a pack of wild dogs.” – Jack Handey

“Человек без бороды умным быть не может” —Герман Стерлигов

“CORRECTION: Boris Johnson’s award-winning limerick about the Turkish president referred to Erdogan as a wanker who performed a sex act with a goat. A previous version of this article included the prompt for the poetry contest, which included a different sex act, also with a goat.”  —Buzzfeed corrections dept.

“I once asked Danny Dorling why, when I was at school, geography was about the shapes of rivers, but now all the best-known geographers seem to be Marxists. He said it’s because when you look at a map and see that the people on one side of some line are rich and healthy and long-lived and the people on the other side are poor and sick and die young, you start to wonder why, and that turns you towards deep-causal explanations, which then lead in the direction of Marxism.” —John Lanchester

“Insofar as the other great antagonism is that of classes, could we not also imagine a homologous critical rejection of the class binary? The “binary” class struggle and exploitation should also be supplemented by a “gay” position (exploitation among members of the ruling class itself, e.g., bankers and lawyers exploiting the “honest” productive capitalists), a “lesbian” position (beggars stealing from honest workers, etc.), a “bisexual” position (as a self-employed worker, I act as both capitalist and worker), an “asexual” one (I remain outside capitalist production), and so forth.” —Žižek being Žižek

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Why zipppa’s post is totally wrong

Hey, have you noticed we have a new contributor to the blog? I want to welcome him by writing about how I think his post directly below this one is really bad.

I confess to not knowing about the Minnesota case until zipppa asked if he could write a blog post about it (zipppa: you don’t have to ask permission, btw, write whenever you want). All I know about it now is what I read in his summary, so I may be wrong in what I think happened. But here is how I would resummarize it:

  • A woman named RS met two men at a frat party type thing and had sex with them
  • RS was drunk at the time
  • At some point, more people joined in
  • Some of this is on videotape for some reason
  • RS didn’t remember much of what happened
  • The next day, she felt “conflicted” about the situation and didn’t want to press charges
  • RS’s mom pressed charges. RS reports not saying “no” during sex because she was in shock
  • She generally “didn’t act like a victim”
  • Based on this, the men who were part of this incident were suspended from their football team

zipppa interprets this as a story of how men are always assumed to be inherently guilty and that basically consensual sex is now illegal. But it seems to me that in this case that argument is totally bullshit:

First off the “acting like a victim” bit is sketchy. If you look at how true, verifiable victims of rape/sexual assault/other types of assault act, you can draw up some statistics. And “not acting indignant immediately” is pretty fucking common. Fuck, even dissociation is a thing. I don’t have to tell you this. Before proclaiming expertise on how victims are “supposed to act”… like at least do the minimal thing of figuring out whether your idea is anywhere close to right.

Second off, if RS was drunk enough to “not remember much of what happened” that suggests she was pretty incapacitated.

Third off, even consenting to sex with two people doesn’t somehow imply you consent to a bunch of other people joining in, or the thing being on videotaped. Like, I think that’s relatively obvious?

There’s not enough evidence to convict them  of rape. So they have not been convicted of rape! zipppa uses this as evidence that they’re actually innocent, but it’s not. It just shows that the system works in a sense. I would be against these men being convicted of rape – but they haven’t been!

In fact, they haven’t been convicted of anything in terms of criminal law – they’ve been suspended by the University. This is where the idea of “sexual assault” – which as zipppa correctly says is annoyingly nebulous – seems to be useful. This wasn’t provably rape, and so you can’t say that it was. And yet you want to prevent incidents like this from happening in the future and get through to people that it’s not OK. So “sexual assault” is a useful thing here.

I think the way universities adjudicate sexual assault has a bunch of problems (I like this article about it which brings up a lot of where I see the problems). But it really seems like this situation isn’t an example of that.

 

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Yes Means No

The Setting

In 1972, Title IX is passed.  It states that: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

In 1980, Alexander vs Yale, sets the precedent for the notion that sexual harassment on campus can constitute a violation of Title IX. This eventually leads colleges to set up a process for internal investigations of sexual misconduct, with tribunals tasked with discovering the truth of allegations and punishing perpetrators.

In 2007, the Campus Sexual Assault study conducted by the department of justice asserts that 19.8% of female college students in their sample experienced sexual assault, which is widely interpreted proof that 1 in 5 college students in the US is raped.

~2010, the Affirmative Consent movement starts to gain steam, possibly originating with 2008 the publication of a book by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (this is a guess, I do not know the origins for certain)

2011, a Dear Colleagues from the Department of Educations urges colleges to be more aggressive in dealing with Sexual Harassment on campuses, in order to remain in compliance with Title IX, threatening cutting funding to institutions not in compliance.

2014, California passes Senate Bill No 967, mandating all educational institutions receiving state funding to use affirmative consent as the standard in adjudicating sexual assault allegations.

What happened

On the night of September 2nd, ’16, two University of Minnesota football team members met a female student (RS) at a party in their apartment. The female student was drinking before arriving at the party, and was later drinking with the two team members. Afterwards they led her to a room where they engaged in sex with her. At some point more team members and/or male students and a high school prospect who was at the party, observed the sex act, with some of them also participating in the sex act which at times involved more than two people at a time.

Afterwards RS had little recollection of what had happened. After the effects of the alcohol started to wear off, she apparently felt conflicted about what had transpired, and tried to seek reassurances. She confided to her friend that she did not really know what happened and did not know whether she had been raped. She did not wish to go to the police. She went to a hospital where she was examined and no significant injuries were discovered. At some later point she told her mother about what happened, and her mother called the police asking them to investigate the rape of her daughter.

RS proved to be a reluctant witness. At her interview she provides a hazy recount of the event. She states that sex with the first two participants “may have been consensual, but believes that sex with the others was not”. Among indications of her lack of consent she mentions that she was scared, that at some point she tried to push someone off, but was unsuccessful, that at some point she yelled to one of the male students to stop letting more people in. It appears that, more so than try to accuse anyone, she’s trying not to come off as an overly eager participant in front of the officer(s) interviewing her.

The Minneapolis police choose not to pursue the case because of lack of evidence and also because of two videotaped recordings of part of the act, in which she appears alert, a willing participant, and not showing any signs of distress.

The University of Minnesota’s office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action conducted a separate investigation. In it, RS revealed many more details as the investigation progressed. She claimed that she felt “shocked and overpowered”, that she didn’t resist because “she felt here resistance would be ignored”, that at the start of the encounter “she did not want to do this but felt compelled”. All of this was directly contradicted by both the statements of all of the accused and also the two videos which were taken after the start of the encounter.

These contradictions did not go unnoticed by the EOAA, rather, they were willfully ignored, as they chose to suspend 10 students for “Sexual Harrasment” and “Sexual Assault, Stalking and Relationship Violence”. The leaked report says as much:

We considered that RS at times behaved in ways that may appear contrary to how one might expect a sexual assault victim to behave. For example, RS reported the following to EOAA. She returned to apartment B to speak with A2 soon after the alleged sexual misconduct occurred in that same apartment. She did not consistently scream, fight or try to escape during and between the violent sexual assaults that she describes, and she engaged in what could appear to be casual conversation with some of the men in between these sexual encounters, such as speaking with A6 about their previous conversations over Tinder, telling A10 that she probably would not remember his name and asking A1 and A5 how long she had been in the apartment.

We do not find that these behavior indicate that RS did not experience the sexual misconduct that she describes. Rather, we find that RS conduct during the sexual encounters likely resulted from her shock, confusion and inability to focus because of the events she was experiencing. We also find it likely that RS communicated with A2 after leaving apartment B in an attempt to determine what had happened to her, to normalize the situation and to regain control of the situation.

The “Sexual Assault” that the students were found in violation of is code word for rape. “Stalking” and “Relationship Violence” are obviously not at issue here, and neither are any of the categories of the nebulous and confusing definition of “Sexual Assault“. The delta between “Sexual Assault” and rape is simply designed to allow for obscuring the fact that evidence of rape (in cases such as this one) is lacking, while not relinquishing the right to assert that a heinous crime took place.

The football team tried to protest the injustice befalling their teammates by boycotting  the Holiday Bowl, but they were pressured by the university to abandon their attempt.

CNN, Washington PostForbes, and other publications responded with ardent calls to equate innocence with guilt. Issac Bailey of CNN writes that he’s horrified at how no one intervened in order to stop what was a consensual sex act. The major theme in the coverage is “ok, they may be innocent but…”.

The precedent the EOAA findings are trying to set is clear. You are always guilty. Even if there is ample evidence of your innocence, even if you have a video recording of the event, demonstrating your innocence, you are still guilty. She was only faking consent because she was scared and in a deep state of shock.

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The Best Books I Read in 2016

Here are the best books I’ve read this year. As usually happens, none of them were written this year, so it doesn’t really matter.

Nothing is True and Everything is PossibleNothing is True and Everything is Possible (Peter Pomerantsev, 2014) — Pomerantsev is an Englishman of Russian roots who worked as a documentary filmmaker for TNT, a Russian state-owned TV channel. This book is a memoir of his time there, with all the parties, politicians, gangsters, supermodels, prostitutes, suicides and intellectuals. It’s wildly entertaining. I think it also gets at the monumental cynicism of Russian life, and how basically everyone is in some way compromised. I remember reading DFW’s essays and thinking “you know, he’s a really good writer, but he seems like a totally insufferable person”. It only later dawned on me that that was a conscious choice in the writing. Now I have more faith in the authorial voice. Pomerantsev is a masterful writer, but makes himself sound like not a particularly good person. I think this is part of the book’s message: you can’t be a part of that wild world and yet somehow stay above it.

The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2015) — The fundamental asymmetry of the universe is that things are much easier to break than to mend. This is also super true about human relationships — as Shishkin has written, люди ругаются на полную, а мирятся напололвину (people fight wholly, and make-up halfway). Maybe in a world where the arrow of time points the other way, getting people to fight is hard, and getting them to reconcile is easy; it’d be a nice world, but that’s not the world we live in. The Buried Giant is about this fact, transposed onto the world of the Arthurian legend. It’s a book that’s beautifully written and beautifully formatted and extremely sad. It’s obvious in some ways — Sir Gawain is irritatingly ridiculous, and I think V. is right that rarely is there a book for adults where the moral questions are so direct and straightforward — which is not to say easy. But it’s also interestingly understated in some ways, like the Buried Giant itself.


The Three Body Problem
(Liu Cixin, 2007) — Having worked in science academia, I’m always a sucker for well-written fiction set in that world. I’ve only ever seen that in the “Soviet academic setting” of Grekova or even the Strugatsky brothers. Luckily, Liu Cixin went ahead and wrote a Chinese version. Of course, he also did a lot more. History of Communist China and dying alien races intent on conquest. Miniaturized dimensions and computer games. Antihumanism and hard boiled cop. His book is awesome and captivating throughout. Especially suggested to people who either like Neal Stephenson, or like the Neal Stephenson type book but just don’t buy the specific vision Stephenson is selling. My only complaint: I was waiting for a love triangle for the entire duration of the damn book and there was nothing. What the hell do the words “Three Body Problem”  even mean to you, Liu Cixin?

The Surprise of Cremona (Edith Templeton, 1954) — I bought this book in a 90’s reissue edition, which is notable for two reasons. For one, it’s bizarre there would be a reissue of a travelogue of Northern Italy in the 50’s by a random conservative Englishwoman of no especial renown. For the second, I read the introduction, and it makes that exact point: that it’s weird that they’d be reissuing this book, and it’s not really clear why anyone would think that’s a good idea, and in any case, it really doesn’t seem like there’s much Templeton can teach you, either about the locales she visits, or about life in general. With an introduction like that, who needs [whatever the opposite of an introduction is]. And it’s true. Because tourism is very different now than it was in the fifties, and social mores are too, neither the facts nor the opinions in this book Life and Fateare all that captivating. But Templeton is just so damn witty that I loved every page even when I couldn’t care at all about the sights or disagreed with everything she was saying.

Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, 1959) — a lot of people I’ve talked to about this book say that their biggest impression is the huge emotional impact. And it’s undeniable. Shtrum’s mother’s letter, Sonya Levinton in the concentration camp, the kapo chapter, are among the most emotionally powerful things I’ve read. But for me, it almost gets lost in the scope of the book. It’s true that that immense scope also makes it a little didactic at times. But what that gives back is a more complete picture. Because my parents and their friends are mostly Soviet big-city intellectuals, most of the literature that they suggest to me is written by and about Soviet big-city intellectuals. To read Grossman is to look at War through the eyes of — it feels like hundreds of — people of different outlooks, social classes, etc. Through it all, you have Grossman’s authorial voice reminding you subtly which outlooks are “correct” and which aren’t — and that’s a little annoying. But if that’s the price to get that experience, then it’s totally worth it.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle
(Shirley Jackson, 1962) – What happens when I read Shirley Jackson is that I remember times when I felt very strong emotions that I’m now embarrassed about. With “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, it was my first time being jealous. I was on the dacha, and  Sveta, the girl whose parents were renting the dacha from us (and who was thus effectively my babysitter) just met Arkasha, the guy from the dacha across. And now he was being included in our games. And it was just wrong. Since then I’ve felt jealousy, but it was never this pure in its selfishness. When I’m jealous now, it’s full of self-doubt and maybe even self-hatred. Then, it was righteous. I wanted Arkasha gone, and for Sveta to see thWe have always lived in the castlee certainty that we should band together against this intruder. Merricat Blackwood, the supposedly 18-year old protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is like an embodiment of a similar burning childlike strength of feeling and self-righteousness. She is a whirlwind.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Wells Tower, 2009) — We all know that “everyone’s a hero in their own story”.  This is a book of stories that take vignettes of everyday life and apply that idea. It’s a book of empathy for characters that are not particularly sympathetic. And all of it is drawn in fine detail, affecting, and funny. None of it is as funny as the title story, though, which is from the point of view of a reluctant conscript in a viking raid on Lindisfarne, and is just full of this sweet oafishness and lyrical beauty.

The Northern Caves (Rob Nost, 2015, link) — One part discourse on the feeling of inherent cosmic wrongness of the world, one part warmhearted nostalgic sendup of phpBB fandom communities. Does that sound like a natural pairing to you? Not to me, but maybe that’s why it feels all the more satisfying when it works. This year was the first year I read any books online, and while a couple of them were on sketchy Russian websites with flashing ads, there was also “The Northern Caves”. I was really happy that I read it online, in its native environment. I would not want a print version of phpBB forums. I spent a lot of time on such forums and I appreciated how true-to-life The Northern Caves read. It captured both the obsession-detachment divide of fandom, and tneuromancerhe cadence of bulletin board conversation. This is really where technology for reading can have an advantage. As more of our interpersonal interactions happen online, there are worthwhile things to do with the format of the book that can only be done online. And everyone knows that in theory, but this is the first book I’ve read where that was attempted in a successful and non-gimmicky manner.

Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984) — This is the only book I’ve ever read that I’d describe as sexy or even as stylish. True, it’s a bunch of gobbledygook about hackers by a guy who may or may not have ever seen a computer at the time. And it’s got a frustrating meathead protagonist surrounded by basically a random assortment of odds and ends. But man does it look cool and does it have some really fucking sweet shades and flashy knife-like appendages. I heard of it as the book that started cyberpunk. I’m not sure how universally that claim is accepted. But if it did, there’s a reason. Even though the Neuromancer world would be terrible to live in, everyone wants to visit cause it’s just so hot.

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