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The Bezzle

by Maria on March 6, 2024

I recently read Cory Doctorow’s new novel, The Bezzle. (FYI his publisher sent me a copy.) It’s the follow-up (and in the story’s own timeline, a prequel) to Cory’s excellent tech-themed thriller, Red Team Blues. The hero of Red Team Blues is Marty Hench, a forensic accountant who loves barbecuing, whiskey, and exposing elaborate financial scams, especially cryptocurrency ones. He’s in his early sixties and gets called in by a vastly wealthy friend to retrieve the crypto-key an international crime family is after. It’s a thrilling ride that got me back into reading the first time covid fried my brain. Red Team Blues is also fascinating on crypto and cyber-security, and its attention to cultural and sociological detail is lovingly rendered, line by snappy line. The Bezzle takes Marty back to the dot com boom. Same guy, very different novel. Utterly worth your time.

First, the title. ‘Bezzle’ was coined by JK Galbraith to describe the blissful and often long moment when an embezzlement has occurred but before it’s been discovered. The embezzler has his money. The victim still thinks he has his. It’s the gravity-defying interval when Wile E. Coyote is running on air and hasn’t begun to fall.
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Notice about Harry’s father, Sir Tim Brighouse

by Maria on December 16, 2023

I know many Crooked Timber readers will want to mark the passing of Harry’s father, Tim Brighouse. Harry has sometimes written here about his father’s pedagogy and influence, and more obliquely at his singularity and sheer loveliness. Today’s Guardian newspaper carries an obituary:

“Teachers and education experts this weekend paid tribute to Sir Tim Brighouse, “one of the great educators of this century” and “a delightful human being”, who has died at the age of 83.”

A life truly well spent is the best rejoinder to our inevitable mortality, and Tim clearly did so much for so many people with his. But I do still wish for the UK that it had been the sort of country, these last couple of decades, that could have put him in a position where he may have done even more.

Our sympathies, Harry, to you and yours.

2023 Book recommendations Part II – Novels

by Maria on December 15, 2023

Rightso! Novels. My three runaway favourite novels this year, which I recommend to you wholeheartedly, are Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors and, friend of this parish, Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz. Cahokia Jazz I want to write something dedicated about, and imminently, so let me tell you about the first two now.

Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic Leave the World Behind came out in 2020, and a Netflix adaptation has just been released. Read the novel first. From what I’ve seen of the trailer (and it looks great), the film takes place during a more explicit and amped up catastrophe, making it a very different kind of beast. The novel is more subtle and mysterious about an unfolding disaster which, at first, only insidiously impinges on what starts as a class and race-based comedy of manners, with a high social capital white New York couple taking their perfect family to a perfect vacation house outside of New York, only to be disturbed one night by the house’s Black owners seeking refuge from the city. One of my sisters gave the book to me as we returned home from a holiday, and I read it straight through on a horribly delayed flight, barely even registering the usual Ryanair shenanigans and the misery of freezing, drunk-filled Liverpool Street night buses, I was so rapt. Ironic, really, how a book about an (at first) insidious apocalypse gets you through the falling down bits of broken Britain in the dead of winter.
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2023 book recommendations – Part I

by Maria on December 13, 2023

It’s time for my annual-ish reading round-up. Record-keeping has many benefits, chief amongst them, counter-intuitive insights. This year’s book diary has revealed that in a year I’d have said was pretty so-so, it turns out the number of books I really loved was unexpectedly high, about three times that of the previous two years. The number of books I read was pretty consistent, on average a book a week. In these increasingly short-form times, that starts to seem like a lot, but it’s average or slightly below average for bookish types. And I still outread fiction to nonfiction by about 8:1.

In 2022, rather shamefully, I read no non-English language book, and only six in translation, and no complete poetry collection. This year wasn’t much better. The only poetry collection I read beginning to end was Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, and that’s largely because I read them aloud to our second dog, Molly, who seems to enjoy it. I read no books in Irish (though some poetry and a few short stories), but did manage Balzac’s Père Goriot in French. (In an act of completism or perhaps just insecurity, I then also read it in English and listened to a French audiobook. I enjoyed it a lot, perhaps especially as it’s so interesting and freeing to experience the much roomier concept of what a modern novel is, in the hands of one of that form’s creators.) [click to continue…]

The Last Days of Literary Friction

by Maria on November 30, 2023

My favourite ever podcast, Literary Friction, is finishing after ten great years of monthly episodes interviewing authors and talking about books. I’d begun to guess something was up when, over the past few months, its hosts – Octavia Bright and Carrie Plitt – remarked several times about how long they’d been going. Still, when they announced a couple of weeks ago that they’re wrapping it up at the end of the year, I was surprised and sad, a bit like when a couple splits up and you realise them being together was a hidden foundation of your little world. But in a para-social, internet-y kind of way. Well, nothing good lasts forever! If you’re interested in literary fiction, there’s a tremendous back catalogue of episodes.

Each episode has an author interview, then some discussion about a theme the book suggested, then some cultural recommendations. My favourite episode ever was probably the one with the poet Ocean Vuong about his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I’d not heard of him before listening to the podcast, and hearing him read his prose so softly and beautifully made me fall in love with the book. It became one of those books that you spot people reading on the Tube and can’t help smile at them. (Weird! I know. But only this past weekend I was walking to a WH Smith till with a Deborah Levy book and a woman came up to me to say how delighted she was by it. I’m so very much here for these awkward little encounters. Reminds me how, in the risible SF section of the same airport bookshop last year, I imposed myself on two American teenaged goths who were mournfully returning to a red state, and hand-sold them A Wizard of Earthsea.)
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1. Ideology

Silicon Valley’s ideology is this: Libertarianism for me. Feudalism for thee.

In more detail:

• Surveillance, manipulation and coercion; at first, just for profit, later by necessity, and ultimately for the hell of it

• Disruption and capture, not competition; monopoly or at least duopoly in each industry it envelops.

• Oligarchy to begin with, creeping autocracy for the win. Overseas autocrats the best of friends.

• Pick me or China wins.

• Ever-increasing inequality and the concentration of capital within a small, interconnected group who back each other’s companies and public moves.

• There is no such thing as human rights. There is only identity politics and culture war, which are profit centres.

• Far right white supremacism; libertarianism for white men, forced birth for white women. Eugenics for everyone else.

• A series of bullshit dark utopias designed to drive the hype and private equity cycles, distract and dazzle gullible politicians and policymakers, and convince everyone else that there is no alternative. E.g. crypto-currencies, Facebook’s Metaverse, AI and, of course, Mars.

• Systematic racism and misogyny in the workplace, the destruction of organised labour, the ever-worsening of working conditions, extreme inequality.

• Denigration of human agency and creativity, beginning with writers, artists and musicians. Systematic destruction of their ability to earn a living and suggest alternatives.

• Obsessive optimisation along narrow spectrums; externalisation of risks and costs to others, i.e. workers, ‘data subjects’, the public sector.

• Gutting of independent media, hatred of journalism in particular and accountability in general. Buying out or shutting down all opposition.

• State subsidies and tax dodging. Hollowing out the state. Making private – both in terms of ownership and secrecy – what used to be accountable and universal public services.

• The spoils to the strong, the costs to the weak. Might is right. Winner takes all. The state is an enforcer, not a support. Let the long tail starve.

Silicon Valley ideology is a master-slave mentality, a hierarchical worldview that we all exist in extractive relation to someone stronger, and exploit and despise anyone weaker. Its only relations to other humans are supplication in one direction and subjugation in the other, hence its poster-boys’ constant yoyoing between grandiosity and victimhood. Tech bros like Thiel, Musk and Andreesen are the fluffers in the global authoritarian circle jerk. Putin is the bro they’d be tickled to receive calls from, making them feel they’re on the geopolitical insider’s inside track. MBS is the bro they envy but tell each other scary stories about. Like most of them, MBS inherited his head start in life. He has all the money, all the power, a nice bit of geo-engineering on the side, and he dismembers uppity journalists without consequence. A mere billionaire like Thiel can only secretively litigate them out of business.
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Summer 2023 Fun Reads

by Maria on August 31, 2023

Quick round-up of books I read for fun over the summer. I’m mostly reading books about ecology and network design for other things, so perhaps my fiction brain isn’t quite optimised for full immersion at the moment, but I’ve not really sunk deep into anything I’ve read for some time.

‘You made a fool of death with your beauty’ is a novel by Nigerian writer Akwaeki Emezi about a bereaved young American artist who’s just started dating again. A lot of it happens in an unnamed Caribbean island where there’s a love triangle, an engaging and convincing art project and a captivating older man at the height of his creative and personal game. I really enjoyed how it concerns Black people and Blackness, centred on love in unexpected places and also the chemistry of two artists in different fields and different generations, how each opens up a world to the other. Plot-wise, it’s mostly about how two people figure out the emotional and familial constellations required for them to be together, so that felt slightly anticlimactic towards the finish. But I don’t often read romance, and, well, it is bound to be about whether the protagonist’s couple makes it. And it was good to read about Black joy and queer friendships and love without the gathering dread of older narratives where someone must be about to take a massive fall. The only slightly off-putting thing – and perhaps this is generational – is the rather YA-ish first person, repetitive self-doubting. That’s a quibble. The language, the setting, clothes, celebrations and dialogue are all wonderful. Solid recommend. [click to continue…]

Coercion versus Care

by Maria on August 12, 2023

I was recently in Stansted Airport, queueing in a low-ceilinged, quasi-temporary structure to enter the departure area for a Ryanair flight. There were two queues; the ‘priority queue’ which passengers had paid extra to join, and the ordinary one, but just one airport employee covering both, toggling stressfully between two irritated groups. Each time she switched, she left a line of people to wait. As I neared the front of the ordinary queue, she told a man with a wheelie case that he’d have to pay extra as his bag was too big. He objected and put it into the measuring frame. It fit easily, but the check-in woman refused to accept this, and demanded an extra £40. The man objected again and asked why the rules weren’t being followed, but ultimately paid up as he had no choice. He was clearly upset, but never raised his voice, used insulting or abusive language or made threatening gestures. He simply didn’t supply the meekness the very stressed out airport employee desired. As he moved into the boarding area, she called after him that she could have him taken off the plane, but it was very full and noisy, and he either ignored this or didn’t hear it and took a seat near the door. Both lines were now even longer, and she was dealing with the 200-odd passengers alone.
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Twenty years a-growing on CT

by Maria on July 8, 2023

Wow. Twenty years. I’ve recently (perhaps not so recently) aged into the demographic who recall events from twenty years back, even though those events occurred in an already reasonably established professional life. That still seems wild to me. I learnt quickly that saying things to the youth like ‘Well, I’m old’ doesn’t yield reassuring denials. The states you think of as temporary and contingent turn out to be long phases of life or even permanent conditions. And it’s good. It’s all good, really. Given the alternative. Mostly I feel guilty about Crooked Timber, about not writing often enough and not figuring a way to be less essay-ish and highstrung about it. Also about giving so much of my time and thoughts away to billionaire trashfire content-farms. But a twenty-year anniversary is a moment to go, wow, this thing lasted, and what a bunch of people to have seen out those years alongside, both fellow writers and commenters. I’m perennially grateful to my fellow bloggers who keep CT going, especially Chris, whose Sunday photo is occasionally the only post all week. And I feel bad for not getting to know our new bloggers well. I hope time will fix that! But especially, I really, really, really miss our friends who don’t blog here any more. Reading their pieces made me feel part of a gorgeous collective, a joint endeavour. Also, they’re great humans with interesting things to say. But change is inevitable and we’re incredibly lucky to have found people who want to keep doing this thing going. [click to continue…]

When crypto meant cryptography

by Maria on May 11, 2023

I recently caught up with an activist friend I’ve known for twenty-five years. We got into this stuff at the tail end of what were then called the crypto wars, a set of legal and policy battles to free strong encryption from the US and UK’s security services and allow it to be used to secure the internet. (If our guys had lost, there would never have been any of what we used to call “e-commerce”, remember that?) We drank very good coffee and talked about the weirdness of aging into and then (for me) out of the management side of tech policy, and reminisced about people who’d been central both in fighting and passing the laws that created the UK’s unusually comprehensive surveillance system. We also shared ways to exercise with fewer joint injuries and laughed a lot about being grumpy old fucks. We made some pretty fine distinctions between being jaded – neither of us feels that – but markedly less excitable than people for whom the latest state efforts to cripple encryption are a novel outrage. We briefly tried to figure out if we were on the fifth or the sixth UK attempt to backdoor end-to-end encrypted messaging. Sitting down with an old friend who profoundly gets political storytelling, from being so many times around the same apple cart, and can mine hard-won self-knowledge seemingly without limit was a pleasure my twenty-five year old self wouldn’t have even known to anticipate. So when I sat down last week to re-read Cory Doctorow’s Red Team Blues, whose t-shirt slogan is ‘crypto means cryptography’ and is about a battle-hardened old fart, I was primed to enjoy it at least as much as my first go-round.

Henry wrote about Red Team Blues here a couple of weeks ago. We’d both been talking about it and emailing with Cory. I have a strong reader’s debt to this extremely fun and thought-provoking noir-ish crypto thriller. When my brain was completely scrambled, Red Team Blues basically taught me to read again for joy, no less.
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Burning Men

by Maria on March 8, 2023

My rather long short story “Burning Men” was published this morning by the Australian literary magazine, Westerly. It’s the first story I felt I was channeling, not writing. Burning Men is about a world where the cost of sexual violence is born by the perpetrators and how that changes everything. It burst out of the personal experience of deeply loving someone whose life was fractured by this kind of violence, and also from the mood music of brexit and covid.

It’s taken a year to find someone to publish this story, but I’m glad I kept trying. Westerly’s editor, Catherine Noske, ran deft fingers over every thread of it and pushed me to make it clearer and better.

Burning Men is a lot of things – a friendly satirist even tells me it’s LOL funny, which is marvellous – but much of its work is to be a vessel for rage. Sometimes I think rage is biohazard or radioactive material and needs to be carried and stored with extreme care, and labelled to prevent harm to the bearer and to others. (Although the story is not explicit it has a content warning, and I respect and share the need for people to choose if/when to read this kind of thing.) Revenge fantasy is necessary, but there’s more of it just about Liam Neeson avenging his wife or kid than about all the people whose lives have been blown apart by sexual violence. But I also think rage is fuel for the road, or maybe the lee lines and desire paths change travels on. I hope this story can help point the way.

“Late on Wednesday afternoon, just after a desultory PMQs in which the leader of the opposition failed once again to achieve cut-through, the Prime Minister sagged into the backseat of his car, sighed at a red traffic light on Parliament Square, and spontaneously combusted.”

My novel of the year: Pod, by Laline Paull

by Maria on December 16, 2022

This year I spent three months in Western Australia without the notebook I record my reading in, and never caught up again, so I’ve no idea whether I read ‘enough’ in the categories I intended to; nonfiction, fiction in translation, fiction in Irish and French. (I strongly suspect not, though.) I began recording books started/read about five years ago and found it instantly made me more able to give most away afterwards; once the book’s name, author and my impression have been written down, I feel far less need to hold onto it. At first, I kept another notebook and wrote a page or so about each text, but I immediately fell hopelessly behind. I switched to – hold your nose – using a smiley face system in the first notebook to record my impressions. Very occasionally I’ll add a comment like ‘great dismount’, but most books just get :-( :-| :-) or the coveted :-0 which means I was awestruck. It’s actually a neat little system, as seeing each book listed with others I read in the same month jogs my memory of them all, and reminds me of where I was. I also record an R for re-reads, P for poetry, NF for non-fiction and T for in translation. About 60% of what I read is novels written in English, so that dominant doesn’t need a category at all. At the end of the year I tot up the total. It’s edged from around fifty per annum to the high sixties (I don’t include most books or any parts of books read for research, or articles, etc.), which feels low compared to many book-ish people, but a reasonable amount to be getting on with. It’s also … clarifying … to realise that at this rate I’ll likely read – for interest and pleasure – only another two thousand or so books in my life. They can’t all be :-0 of course, but I’m now less likely to persevere with ones I don’t get on with.

Anyway, this is all to say that in 2022 one book swam swiftly through my system leaving no less than two :-0’s in its wake, and merits not just a proper write-up but a strong exhortation to consider getting your hands on a copy for yourself or someone else. On this final weekend before Christmas, I commend to you Pod, by Laline Paull, the most extraordinary, beautiful, dramatic and arresting novel I’ve read this year.

Pod is a novel about dolphins, mostly, told from the points of view of several marine creatures living in the Indian Ocean. Its main character is Ea, a young spinner dolphin who lives in a small, egalitarian and loving pod off an archipelago. Ea can’t spin or hear the ocean’s own soothing music, but she hears and can’t ignore the devastating song of pain and fear sung by a lone humpback whale out in the deep ocean. The pod is sympathetic to Ea’s disability, but her strong feelings of difference propel Ea out of her family group and into the orbit of the autocratic and patriarchal tribe of tursiops, or common bottle nose dolphins, who previously ejected her people from their ancestral home.
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Your platform is not an ecosystem

by Maria on December 8, 2022

Another day, another exhortation to join an “ecosystem” that’s anything but. I could pick a hundred examples, but one that recently caught my eye was an ad placed in the Financial Times by the Singapore stock exchange, SGX Group, promising “multiple growth avenues, one trusted ecosystem”. SGX wants companies to list on its exchange rather than, say, the Hong Kong one which has more or less the same exclusive offer. SGX promises “access (to) Asia through our trusted ecosystem anchored in Singapore.” Ecosystems can be a lot of things. ‘Trusted’, by which they mean centrally policed to achieve defined, lower-risk outcomes, is not one of them. Calling built environments ‘ecosystems’ is common everywhere from financial services to supply chains to – quite a stretch, here – a retirement living complex. But it’s most often used in the tech world to describe the relations between software, services and hardware typically owned by a single company. For example, it’s how Google describes everything that hangs off the Android operating system. These kinds of proprietary and deterministic architectures are called ecosystems so often that we’ve stopped noticing. And that’s kind of the point. We need to start seeing this metaphor again, and what it’s hiding in plain sight. But first, a reminder of what an ecosystem actually is.

An ecosystem is a set of unbidden organisms and the physical environment with and in which they interact. It’s constantly evolving, and the real interest, value and drive for change all come from the emergent properties of the relations between its many parts. An ecosystem is not the plaything of a pampered princeling, like Meta, but a set of living, striving things, both competitive and cooperative, and the place they live. The two kinds of system are almost impossibly different. One is biological, the other technological. One is complex and adaptive, the other only pretends to be.
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It’s been a week since Elon Musk, funded by a distasteful assortment of backers, bought Twitter. In no particular order, some thoughts on what it means for various groups.

Predictably, swaths of US employees have been sacked without notice or compensation, in contravention of Californian law. Many of them were sacked soon before share ownership rewards were to deliver. All of them were ordered a week ago to work “24/7” on objectives the new management deemed urgent. For the several hundred at-risk or sacked employees in the UK and Ireland, there are legal protections which may be harder to ignore. But breaking labour law is at worst subject to fines, so simply a cost benefit operation for firms who can break the law with impunity. (Following a UK ferry operator sacking all its ship workers and immediately employing agency staff earlier this year, there is a growing case for strategic and profitable law-breaking on this scale to be criminalised to create a genuine disincentive. I don’t see the next Labour government having the backbone to do it, however.)

The US employees will find themselves out on the street with no health insurance. That’s catastrophic, and stop-gap insurance cover is prohibitively expensive. I availed of it myself over a decade ago, and it was more than a thousand dollars a month – not the kind of money you have lying around when you’ve just been sacked. Many senior Twitter managers resigned before they were sacked, and the mass lay-offs were clearly in the post, so many employees – the ones with the sense not to work 24/7 to keep a job they were likely to lose, anyway – will have taken steps to stay in contact with former colleagues once they’re locked out of their work messaging channels. The levels of chaos and dysfunction inside Twitter right now can only be imagined. Relatively few workers are unionised, and in these situations many people think they can keep their jobs by screwing their co-workers or just ignoring abuse, so those who remain will be in an increasingly toxic situation. It can be fifty-fifty as to whether the lucky ones are those who got sacked or walked early on. [click to continue…]

Settling in for the long haul

by Maria on July 5, 2022

A couple of tweets flicked across my screen in the past week or so from people I don’t know asking how, perhaps a year or two in, the knowledge settles across your shoulders that you’re not recovering from long covid and may not ever fully recover, you, well, deal? No surprise; I have thoughts and feelings about this. But, surprise (to me anyway); the series of moments when it seeps into your bones that no one and nothing is coming to rescue you are emotionally just really fucking hard, and I’ve shied away from thinking too much about this period of my life. Partly because I read the tweets from these people who may have this and far worse ahead of them, and I don’t want to make any of it the tiniest, least perceptible bit harder. But also because that time for me was a long interstitial of brain fog and denial, hopes raised and dashed, chasing after a doctor or a programme or sure fire cure of some kind and just being repeatedly floored by disappointment while slowly realising I was no longer, really, a person in the world, a person with friends and fun and any kind of over-arching telos in my life, and partly because I HATE stories that resolve with ‘I just had to get used to it and when I did, things didn’t get better but I felt slightly better about them.’

Reader, I just had to get used to it.

This will be a digressive piece. I come at these things and flit away, a bit like the tweets that flash up from people saying stuff like ‘my parents are starting to believe the doctors and are telling me it’s psychological, I just don’t want to be well, I have literally nowhere else to go.’ I mean, what do you do with that? You can say, well, this is a mass disabling event, there are so many more of you now that even doctors are staying sick and occasionally even saying ‘ok it’s real now even I get it’, so there’s more chance you’ll be believed and hundreds of times more money going into real research than did for the last couple of decades. But that’s not going to help the college student who’s returned home to a stalled life and a support system that seemed encompassing at first, but which is now coldly, methodically, pulling its arms away when the kid doesn’t recover in a socially acceptable period of time. (And that scenario, to be fair, is still the Cadillac of long covid support systems.)
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