19 Reads I Recommend from 2019

Here are 19 works I read in 2019 that I am still thinking about. I’ve divided the list into fiction and nonfiction, but that’s the only organizing principle at work here. Please note that while I read these works in 2019, not all were published in 2019.

Fiction

  1. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, body horror, and a whole bunch of necromancy). Are lesbian necromancers in space your thing? If so, read Gideon the Ninth immediately. If not, reassess why you feel that way, then read Gideon the Ninth immediately.
  2. Programmer at Large by DRMacIver — Novella (Content Warnings for social anxiety, privacy, and discussions of gender. Based loosely based on the Qeng Ho from Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky”, DRMacIver explores updating millenia-old computer code alongside discussions of how society might evolve with computer mediation. You don’t need to have read Vinge’s work (and, in fact, I haven’t read “A Deepness in the Sky”).
  3. Operation Spring Dawn by Mo Xiong, translated by Rebecca Kuang — Novella (Content Warnings for human extinction). Xiong also examines a potential future, with the story of a super ice age playing out over tens of thousands of years. The story isn’t a happy one, but it is meaningful.
  4. This microfiction by O. Westin — Flash Fiction (Content Warnings for ghosts). This story is just a couple of lines long, so go read it. I’m not going to write a critique of a story that’s longer than the story itself.
  5. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather — Novella (Content Warnings for virulent illnesses, violence, and religion). Rather’s world-building in this novella is exceptional, with small details that elevate the story from yet another story of the aftermath of an interstellar war. 
  6. Hot and Badgered by Shelly Laurentson — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, smut, snakes, and ableism). Let me preface this item with a confession: I read romance novels of all kinds, including novels about shapeshifters. Especially about shapeshifters. There’s a certain level of absurdity that goes with the standard plots of shapeshifter romance novels which I adore. The pinnacle of that absurdity may very well be “Hot and Badgered,” in which a honey badger shapeshifter finds true love. 
  7. Ironheart by Eve Ewing and Kevin Libranda — Comic Books (Content Warnings for racism, violence, and ageism). Marvel’s “Ironheart” is just finishing a 12-issue run. Superhero Ironheart, AKA Riri Williams, is a genius who reverse-engineered Tony Stark’s Ironman suit when she was 15. She’s awesome, though enjoying her series may be hard if you don’t have at least a vague idea of the Marvel universe. Watching “The Avengers” probably covers the bare minimum of background knowledge.
  8. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal — Novel (Content Warnings for racism, sexism, natural disasters, and anxiety). The Calculating Stars won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Kowal’s alternate history of the space race won those awards for a reason.

Non-fiction

  1. Malfunctioning Sex Robot by Patricia Lockwood — Article (Content Warnings for misogyny, sexism, and John Updike’s particular brand of weird sex writing). Lockwood’s review of a recent reissue of John Updike’s work is a truly beautiful piece of criticism. She sets the tone from the start, exclaiming “You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” and slogs through Updike’s career with an admirable persistence. The article is probably better if you’ve read any of Updike’s work (watching “The Witches of Eastwick” doesn’t count).
  2. American Radicals by Holly Jackson — Book (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, sexism, and violence). “American Radicals” offers background on the organizations and activists who championed slavery abolition, universal suffrage, and a variety of other causes during the 19th century. Jackson provides the context that reading about these movements on their own just can’t provide. I enjoyed the book thoroughly. My sisters, however, may not have appreciated me reading this book because, when we watched the new “Little Women” movie, I kept wanting to talk about Louisa May Alcott’s references to transcendentalism. 
  3. The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones — Interactive Website (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, and violence). The 1619 Project comprises essays, poetry, photography, and more — all of which are worth your attention. Hannah-Jones developed the project to observe the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first african slaves in America. 
  4. Jurassic Emoji by Courtney Milan — Proposal. Milan is a phenomenal romance novelist, but her application for the expansion of dinosaur emoji options is a great piece of writing and even includes scrupulous research into the need for such emojis. Milan has also created a timeline, if you’re curious about the process of creating new emojis.
  5. The Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah translated by Itamar Haritan — Booklet (Content Warnings for Zionism and racism). Created in 1971 as a protest of the treatment of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, this haggadah uses the story of the exodus as a uniquely Jewish way to protest. 
  6. Being “Polite” Often Gets Women Killed by Scaachi Koul — Article (Content Warnings for murder, sexual violence, and stalking). Koul’s deep dive into the culture and communities of true crime podcasts is fascinating (kind of in the same way that true crime shows are fascinating). She uses the topic as a way to examine women-oriented media’s ability to cover the reality that women face violence at higher rates than men in our culture.
  7. Algorithmic Colonization of Africa by Abeba Birhane — Article (Content Warnings for racism, colonialism, and privacy). A discussion on the ethics necessary for new technologies, Birhane highlights the way startups are recreating destructive systems in digital form. In particular, the article highlights how importing technology means importing the ethics of that technology’s creators.
  8. You Should Have Asked by Emma (Content Warning for emotional labor and gender). Emma managed to sum up some of the feelings I’ve had about emotional labor. If comics aren’t really your thing, Zoe Fenson’s article, It’s so much more than cooking is also a good read.
  9. How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr — Book (Content Warnings for colonialism, racism, violence, genocide, incarceration. If I’m being precise, I still have a few chapters to read in this book, but I’m already convinced that every American needs to read this book. I like to think of myself as fairly conversant in the history of this country, but Immerwahr surfaces new information and offers new context to the point that I feel like I’m relearning centuries of history as I read.
  10. How Desire Built One of the Best Information Archives Online by Thursday Bram — Article (Content Warnings for privacy and links to sites that may host explicit material). Since this is my list and I make all the rules, I’m allowed to include my own work. This article is probably my favorite piece of my own writing from this year. Basically, my editor let me write about information architecture, fan fiction, and how sexy stories set new expectations for privacy.
  11. Reasons and Strategies for Avoiding Obsolete Terms by Erin Grace — Article (Content Warnings for slavery and racism). Editing this article caused me to immediately change how I wrote about certain topics. Sure, I’m biased because I worked on the project, but reading this article improved my writing.

This is hopefully enough reading material to keep everyone out of trouble for the next few months.

Glitter, Radical Protests, and Tee Ball on the South Lawn.

Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals

The whole book is a useful read, albeit a bit dated — it was published by a professional organizer in 1971. But Alinsky’s rules remain widely applicable:

  1. Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.
  2. Never go outside the expertise of your people.
  3. Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.
  4. Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.
  5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
  6. A good tactic is one your people enjoy.
  7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
  8. Keep the pressure on. Never let up.
  9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
  10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
  11. If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.
  12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
  13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

A Glitter-Infused Protest

Reading today’s headlines would have made Saul Alinsky proud: around 200 activists grabbed the national news cycle by holding a dance party. Of course, holding the dance party outside of the vice president-elect’s home in Washington, D.C. definitely helped.

A Brief Buyer’s Guide: Glitter

I do not like the aftermath of glitter. Glitter gets everywhere and stays there for approximately the rest of forever. Seriously, glitter is so good at adhering to things that forensic scientists have written lengthy odes to glitter’s value in solving crimes.

But we’re going to need a lot of glitter for protest dance parties in the near future, so let’s talk about the environmental impact of glitter. On Amazon, you can buy glitter by the pound for under $20 per pound (which I’m not linking to, because no one should have that sort of power). When you buy a pound of glitter, you’re buying a pound of tiny pieces of plastic you fully intended to scatter around. Glitter is really does stick around forever.

So we need to switch to the biodegradable stuff. Luckily, biodegradable glitter comes in a variety of lovely colors, perfect for adding that something special to your next protest. No word yet on what forensic scientists think of biodegradable glitter, though.

Fireworks, Another Bright and Sparkly Option

Every American Inauguration Day has been celebrated with fireworks. The president-elect is keeping the fireworks for tomorrow’s festivities, even though he fired Charlie Brotman, who has announced every American presidential inauguration since 1957, when Brotman swore in Dwight D. Eisenhower for a second term. Brotman also was the stadium announcer for the Washington Senators, as well as announcing tee ball games on the South Lawn of the White House.

via GIPHY

A Brief Review of PyCon 2015, Based Entirely on Swag

Last week, I flew up to Montreal for PyCon. I’m now home, without any new international incidents to add to my record. It was my first PyCon, but it won’t be my last.

If Python (or open source development in general) is your thing, all of the talks from this weekend appear to already be on YouTube. Since I mostly stuck to the hallway track, I’ll be watching a lot of these videos myself and don’t feel qualified to offer a review. However, the hallway track was fantastic and I would recommend it in future years.

I can review the swag I gathered at PyCon, though. Based on t-shirts alone, I’m pretty pleased. I found not one, not two, but three ladies tees that I liked enough to take home. Considering that booths at most other tech conferences only offer men’s shirts, the availability of ladies’ tees is a good indicator of an inclusive community.

Even better, though, there was plenty of non-shirt swag. Since I’m trying to make sure my wardrobe doesn’t entirely look like it came from a trade show hall, I’m always excited to see other swag that I’m actually interested in. I’m now stocked up on small notebooks for quite awhile, including a few that have a variety of pages for sketching different types of wireframes. I’m also up a beer glass, breath mints in reusable tins, and some pretty cool fake tattoos that I’ll actually wear.

I’d like to note that I’m totally cool with the booths that didn’t offer a whole lot of swag (or any at all) — I’m just as thrilled to just talk about cool products that I didn’t know about in advance and see some demos. I don’t have to have swag, but if it’s on offer, I like to see a variety that’s appealing to all sorts of conference attendees, rather than just to stereotypes.

And, as an added bonus, next year’s PyCon is here in Portland. If you’re interested in attending, keep an eye on the PyCon website. Just a head’s up, though: my couch is already booked for PyCon 2016 and tickets are guaranteed to sell out.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Annual Report Remains Well Worth Reading

The 2014 Annual Report from Berkshire Hathaway came out recently. I always look forward to reading Warren Buffett’s letter to shareholders, but I found this year’s report especially worth reading.

2015 is the fiftieth anniversary of Buffett Partnership Ltd. taking control Berkshire Hathaway (then a faltering textile manufacturer). The textile manufacturing part of the business has been gone since the 1980s, but Buffett seems to be doing just fine.

A few points specifically stood out while I was reading.

  • Buffet doesn’t like a lot of the standard numbers used to calculate a company’s worth (even though the companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway tend to be successful by those metrics). He’s clearly comfortable with all sorts of financial metrics, but keeps score by his own numbers. That’s a set of characteristics well worth copying.
  • Berkshire Hathaway owns nine companies that, if those companies were independent, would be members of the Fortune 500. Berkshire Hathaway also owns BNSF, which transports about 15 percent of all intercity freight in the U.S. (more than any other company in the country).
  • Airbnb got a mention as a viable option for travelers to Omaha for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, which drew 39,000 people last year. I wonder just how much that mention is worth to Airbnb — and how many of Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders were willing to use Airbnb before that subtle endorsement.
  • Berkshire Hathaway’s federal income tax return runs 24,100 pages. The company files an additional 3,400 state income tax returns. Even more impressive? Those documents are prepared by the Berkshire Hathaway office in Omaha, which has a staff of 25. The same 25 people are responsible for setting up an annual meeting for 39,000 attendees and a few other minor matters.
  • That huge stack of paperwork, however, would be far larger if all of Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries operated independently. Buffett’s approach to running companies is as bare bones as possible. I expect that sort of lean leadership to be a major trend in years to come.

In honor of the 50th anniversary, Buffett wrote a more extended look at Berkshire Hathaway’s past then he normally does in these letters. He admitted a few crucial mistakes that he learned from, making this letter perhaps more valuable to read than most years. Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report from 1964 is also included at the end of this year’s.

If you’re an entrepreneur who hopes to grow your business beyond just covering your own expenses, read this year’s report — and maybe check into some of the past reports.

IFTTT’s Do Apps Are Pretty Cool

IFTTT released a new set of apps that have kept me pretty entertained lately as I’ve worked on figuring out just how to use them. The apps are:

  • Do Button
  • Do Camera
  • Do Note

All three are available for iOS and for Android. Each app allows you to set up a certain action that happens whenever you hit the Do Button, take a photo with the Do Camera, or write a Do Note. With IFTTT’s endless connections to other apps, as well as hardware, the possibilities are pretty near endless.

Sure, a lot of the connections you can make aren’t much more than streamlining tasks you can already do from your phone. Consider this Do Camera recipe that sends receipt photos to a specialized Evernote notebook:

IFTTT Recipe: Save Receipts to Evernote connects do-camera to evernote

You could open up the Evernote app on your phone and fiddle around with it. But if you’re just trying to capture a receipt as you’re winding up lunch or grabbing office supplies, the Do Camera integration is going to be a lot faster. For a busy entrepreneur, IFTTT just made it that more likely that all of your business receipts will be available when you go to do your taxes next year.

A New Use for Hemingway: Ghostwriting

I’ve been finding Hemingway surprisingly useful when working on ghost-writing projects lately. It’s a useful sort of a writing hack to get some quick insights when you’re trying to mimic someone else’s writing style.

Of course, Hemingway is fundamentally intended to help writers sound more like the man himself. But it does that by highlighting certain characteristics of writing:

  • passive voice
  • adverbs
  • vocabulary

By putting in writing samples from a client who I need to mimic, I can see pretty quickly how they use words. I can do that sort of analysis by hand, but it’s tedious enough that I don’t actually do so except on really well paying projects.

If you’re trying to mimic the style of someone’s writing, I suggest looking at several examples of someone’s writing through Hemingway’s lens, not just one. Getting the style right on a ghost writing project is hard enough when you’ve got multiple samples — getting style right off of just one sample is impossible.

Putting in several samples can be time-consuming, though. I do wish Hemingway had an API so that I could integrate it with some of my other writing tools, as well as automate the process of putting writing samples into the app. But I don’t absolutely need an API to keep finding new ways to use Hemingway — it’s just something that would be nice to have.

How To Level Up

sandcastle

Stagnation is a very real threat, especially when you do creative work every day. Clients are only ever interested in what you can already do and repeats of what you have already done. (While I can’t speak from experience, I assume the same is true of employers.)

Doing just what is expected of you is an option, I suppose. But if you’ve already decided to go out and read blog posts about creativity, you’re probably not the sort of person to be forever content with the status quo. You want to level up, preferably on a regular basis.

It’s certainly possible to force yourself to level up creatively. You need to invest some time and take some risks.

  • Force yourself to launch new personal projects on a regular basis.
  • Find a way to work on the projects above your pay grade, even if it means acting as an assistant to the primary creative on the job.
  • Tell people what you’re doing so that they’ll hold you accountable.
  • Do work that scares you (in the risk-taking sense of the word, not in the working-with-bad-clients category).

Right now, I’m gearing up to launch something that will stretch my abilities in whole new ways. It’s pretty intimidating. But I keep telling more and more people about the idea, so it will be a whole lot scarier for me if people think I’ve given up than to actually finish the work.

Image by Flickr user williamcho

Why Freelancers Should Embrace Dwolla

Payment processing is something of a pet peeve for me. Getting paid through a site like PayPal is very convenient, but I have to give up 2.9 percent of my income (plus an added 30 cent fee) on every transaction. Consider what that means I’m paying:

Income Payment to PayPal
$100 $3.12
$1,000 $29.30
$10,000 $290.30

That amount doesn’t seem like all that much, but it only ever goes up even as the expense of having a bank account remains the same. I don’t feel like I get all that much for my money, especially since PayPal doesn’t always protect service providers from scams.

The real reason I still use PayPal at all is because all of my clients are familiar with the company. They mostly have accounts already and don’t have to think about the process of making a payment. I generally ask clients to pay with a check over sending a PayPal payment, though, or use Stripe’s integrations with invoicing tools to pay with a credit card.

In an ideal world where clients are willing to try new things, though, I would ask everyone to use Dwolla. Dwolla costs 25 cents per transaction (look at that adorable flat rate!) and has real humans in charge of customer service. Unlike both PayPal and banks (including my nice, local credit union), I’ve heard almost no stories of problems and even those seem to be either resolved to the customer’s satisfaction or be the results of misunderstandings. The main exception seems to involve using Dwolla to purchase Bitcoin, so I’m not too worried. About 35,000 businesses were using Dwolla as of June, along with several state governmental agencies.

Now I just need to convince some clients…

Review: Happiness of Pursuit

Chris Guillebeau’s third book, “The Happiness of Pursuit” is a perfect fit with the themes of his previous books. The logical progression of Guillebeau’s books makes perfect sense:

  • In “The Art of Non-Conformity“, Guillebeau laid out a vision of how readers can choose a more personal path. The book offers insights for deciding what your goals might be and how you might live your life differently.
  • In “The $100 Startup“, Guillebeau offered strategies for funding those different approaches to life. It’s effectively the guide for for how to afford the goals readers set in response to “The Art of Non-Conformity.”
  • In “The Happiness of Pursuit“, Guillebeau has created a guide to actually completing those goals, now that readers have a business that allows for a bigger view of life.

Guillebeau’s new book is an look at pursuing big goals, from visiting every country ontche planet to changing the world. He lays out story after story of people who set big, hairy, audacious goals and then reached them. Guillebeau highlights what those stories have in common, offering some crucial insights into how we all can complete our own quests. “The Happiness of Pursuit” makes incredibly big goals seem accessible. After reading the book (straight through), I wanted to immediately go out and accomplish something. I have a feeling I’ll reread the book when I need motivation to get off the couch. If you’ve ever struggled with motivation, I’d definitely give this book a read.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of “The Happiness of Pursuit” from the publisher.