Book review: Why Fish Don’t Exist

I found Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by accident. Someone had shared a screen capture of a Tumblr post which talked about how trees aren’t a thing, taxonomically speaking. How weird. And then I saw that fish are also not a thing. Mindblowing. Somewhere in my searches to prove to my girlfriend that I was not making this up (although she can be forgiven, because that is very much the sort of thing I’d make up), I found Lulu Miller’s 2020 book.

I checked it out from the library as an audiobook so that Miranda and I could listen to it together. We were prepared to learn all about how fish are a lie. But we did not learn that.

Well, we learned it eventually. But only in the last chapter does Miller actually touch on the subject. The rest of the book is a mix of her life and the life of David Starr Jordan. Jordan was a famous researcher in his day, credited with discovering a fifth of the fish species we know today. He was president of Indiana University and later was the founding president of Stanford University. Oh yeah, he was also a eugenicist and may have been involved in murder.

Miller does an excellent job of tying the ups and downs in her life to Jordan’s. He serves as both inspiration and…whatever the opposite of inspiration is. The book is a fascinating and engaging tale. Had I not been waiting to learn about the fish, I would have loved it. Instead, I found it frustrating. I might read it again, knowing what to expect—and what not to expect.

Book review: Word Freak

I wasn’t sure what I’d get when I started reading Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players by Stefan Fatsis. I’m a fan of the game, although I’ve never played it competitively. After reading this book, I never will.

It’s not that the book is bad. To the contrary, it’s surprisingly engaging. But the competitive game bears little resemblance to the game I play with friends. And the people who play at a high level? If Fatsis is to be taken at his word, they’re a pretty messed up bunch.

Can Fatsis be trusted, though? He’s hardly an objective observer. Instead of a distanced, sociological study, Fatsis immerses himself. He becomes what he studies, trying to achieve an expert ranking and befriending his subjects. Yet the way he describes them is hardly flattering. He paints them as a group of barely-functional obsessives.

Are they? Perhaps. It could be that he focused on the misfits because the normies don’t make for a good book. But whether or not the word freaks are representative of Scrabble’s top tier, Fatsis becomes one of them. Frankly, he does not paint himself in a very flattering light either. Although the arc of the book is his quest for an expert-level ranking, he’s not a sympathetic protagonist.

The history of the game is interesting. The strategies of the world’s top players are astounding. And the people are mostly pitiable. It makes for an interesting read, despite the length. But if you find yourself wanting to join that world, I think you should reconsider.

Book Review: Pleading Out

I was only a few pages in when Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class made me angry. It wasn’t because of how Dan Canon wrote. It was because of what he wrote. In Bordenkircher v. Hayes, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors could, in effect, punish a defendant for asserting their right to a trial. Potter Stewart wrote that this was part of “any legitimate system which tolerates and encourages the negotiation of pleas.”

While legal systems in the United States do tolerate and encourage plea deals, a reasonable person can question the legitimacy of the system. That Paul Hayes received a life sentence for forging a $88.30 check calls the legitimacy of the system into question.

Canon spends the rest of the book making the case that the plea bargain system as practiced in the United States is not legitimate. It does not serve the interests of justice, but of power. “The American legal system,” he writes, “was designed by people in power as a tool to keep them in power whatever the cost.”

American exceptionalism

Plea bargains are rare in other countries. In the United States, 97% of convictions come from guilty pleas. Most of those are bargained. Why is that? Prior to the 1830s, plea bargains were rare in America. Attitudes started shifting when labor solidarity developed in the early industrial factories. Plea bargaining hid prosecution from the public eye, preventing scrutiny and revolt.

The expansion of federal crimes after Prohibition led to a need to process cases more efficiently. “What we have inherited is an amoral system of criminal proceedings; it cannot be called criminal justice. Expediency, not fairness, is the principal concern.”

It’s no coincidence that the United States has the highest incarceration rate and also the highest plea bargain rate. As Michelle Alexander explores in greater depth in The New Jim Crow, the legal system creates a permanent criminal underclass that has long-lasting effects.

Liberty and justice for some

The high volume of cases means that lawyers can’t keep up. Prosecutors can’t screen cases to drop the obviously bad ones. Worse, defense attorneys can’t mount vigorous defenses. Canon notes that in 15% of exonerations, the defendant gave a false confession. Thousands of innocent people are sitting in jail today because the police or prosecutors railroaded them into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit.

Because plea bargains are secretive, there’s no accountability. Wealthy defendants can work themselves into a sweet deal. Poor and middle-class defendants have to take what the prosecution offers. If they dare insist on a trial, they face persecution, not prosecution. Ask Paul Hayes. This does not benefit society.

So what do we do?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Canon writes about the decade when Alaska eliminated plea bargaining. The system adjusted. Prosecutors dropped cases they couldn’t—or shouldn’t—prove. Police got more careful with their investigations, knowing they’d actually be accountable. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement.

Our current system doesn’t have to be our system forever. But it won’t change on it’s own. The first step is an informed populace. That’s why I’d recommend Pleading Out to anyone who cares about justice.

Book review: The Address Book

How did your street get its name? When did we start numbering buildings? What does it mean to have an address—or to not have one? If any of these questions are interesting to you, you’ll appreciate The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask.

I first heard about this book on the podcast “Every Little Thing“. Mask was a guest on a recent episode and shared the story of a project to name roads in rural West Virginia. This story was relevant to a memory I had long forgotten. Although I grew up on a named road, we didn’t have a numbered address until 911 service came to the area when I was in early elementary school. Prior to that, addresses were just box numbers on rural routes.

But newly-named and newly-numbered roads are not unique to the US. Mask explores how roads were named and renamed in different places over the centuries. Naming, of course, is an expression of power so names and numbers reflect the power at the time. Even today, there are millions of people who don’t have addresses, which increasingly cuts them off from what we understand as modern society.

I’d love a book of trivia about road names. The Address Book is not that. But it’s a fascinating look at the deeper meaning behind the act of naming.

Book review: A Place to Start

Jim Grey is a pretty ordinary guy. So why bother reading stories of his life? Because he tells them so well.

I first came to know of Jim through his roads website. At some point, I started reading his blog “Down the Road“. I can’t recall how long it’s been now, but it’s probably the better part of a decade, if not from the beginning in 2007. Although we’ve never met, I’ve come to feel like I know him. Not just because we share similar interests and have mutual friends, but because the way he is able to write his personal stories in a way that welcome strangers in.

Jim does not share every detail; his writing respects the privacy of those in his life. Nonetheless, he is able to warmly and openly share his stories in a way that invites to sit down and listen. There is no false modesty, no exaggeration, and no self-importance. Just honest tales of his life shared because he wants to share them.

Down the Road started in 2007 as a way to process and recover from a rough time in his life. Jim’s new (okay, six months old at this point) book A Place to Start collects some of the posts from the first two years of the blog.

The book is split into three parts: stories, essays, and faith. The stories are personal tales from all eras of Jim’s life. Told in no discernible order, they’re more like a conversation than a timeline. The short essays section contains reflections on lessons Jim has learned over the years. The faith section contains a mix of his personal experiences with his Christian faith along with what I would call sermons.

Admittedly, the faith section was the least engaging part for me. Being religiously indifferent myself, I suppose I’m not inclined toward that kind of story. Nonetheless, I do enjoy the way he is able to discuss his faith in a way that does not feel like evangelism. He shares his beliefs and how they color his life; the reader is free to do with that what they will.

Since each chapter is a blog post, they’re all short. This makes A Place to Start a great book for when you can only read in quick bursts. Even if you’ve never heard of Jim Grey before, this book with worth a read.

A Place to Start is available in print and digital forms from Midnight Star Press. I received no compensation for this review.

Book review: Range

In many parts of society, we ask people to specialize early and go very deep. This is the path to excellence. In Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world, David Epstein examines the role breadth plays. I should admit my bias up front: I am definitely a width person, not a depth person. So maybe I just agreed with this book because it reinforced the story I tell myself about my success.

But I do think there’s something to this. Throughout my career, I’ve found that the best colleagues are the ones who have academic or work experience outside of the tech industry. It’s not that they’re necessarily better technically, but they grasp the context much more easily. That becomes increasingly important when dealing with novel and poorly-defined problems.

I’ve long understood the value of coursework outside one’s major. Range helped me understand why that value exists. I sometimes heard at my alma mater that “we have a liberal arts school so we can produce well-rounded engineers.” Now I think perhaps we should have fewer major courses and more gen ed courses. (In addition to ethics classes which should be added to all curricula for separate reasons.)

In the context of the current time, with conspiracy theories enjoying a disturbing degree of acceptance, I find Epstein’s emphasis on amateurs a little concerning. Yes, novices sometimes make discoveries that elude the experts. Still, we must be careful not to replace “appeal to authority” with “appeal to lack of authority”.

I didn’t find Epstein’s writing style particularly compelling. This surprised me since he’s a journalist. I suppose books are a different beast. But the arguments were well-reasoned and supported by research. I would recommend this book to anyone thinking about their future career or seeking reinforcement of their past, seemingly-odd, changes in direction.

Book review: People Powered

Jono Bacon knows something about communities. He wrote the book on it, in fact. And now he has written another book. People Powered is a guide for how companies can create and curate communities.

I often see companies try to start what they call “communities”. In reality, they are ways for the company to get free labor that provide no real benefit to the the participants. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A community that doesn’t benefit the sponsoring company is not likely to continue receiving sponsorship. But if there’s no benefit to the community members, the community will not thrive. Only when everyone involved gets value from the community will the community be vibrant.

A community mission is different than your business vision, but tightly wound around it.

All too often, books like this prescribe the One True Way™. Bacon does not do that. He fills the book with many things the reader should do, but he also makes it clear that there are many right ways to run a community, just as there are many wrong ways.

People Powered is a starting point, not an answer. As I was reading it, I thought “this is a good set of recipes”. Further on, Bacon used the same metaphor. Curse you, Jono! But it’s an apt metaphor. The book presents advice and knowledge based on Bacon’s 20 years of community management. But each community has specific needs, so the reader is encouraged to selectively apply the most relevant parts. And in the tradition of open source, plans should be iterative and evolve to meet the changing needs of communities. Like any good cook, the recipe provides a starting point; the cook makes adjustments to taste.

If I could sum up People Powered in two words, I would pick “be intentional.” Given two more words, I’d add “be selective.” People are often tempted to do all the things, to be all things to all people. And while that may be in the future of a community, getting started requires a more specific focus on what will (and more importantly, what won’t) be done.

People Powered is full of practical advice (including a lot of calls-to-action to find resources on jonobacon.com). But it also contains more philosophical views. Bacon is not a psychologist, but he has made a study of psychology and sociology over the years. This informs the theoretical explanations behind his practical steps. It also guides the conceptual models for communities that he lays out over the course of the book. And to prove that it’s a Jono Bacon book, it includes a few references to behavioral economics and several to Iron Maiden.

I really enjoyed this book. Some of it was obvious to me, given my community leadership experience (admittedly, I’m not the target audience), but I still got a lot of value from it. Chapter 9 (Cyberspace and Meatspace: Better Together) particularly spoke to me in light of some conversations I’ve had at work recently. People Powered is an excellent book for anyone who is currently leading or planning to lead a community as part of a corporate effort.

People Powered (affiliate link) is published by HarperCollins Leadership and was released yesterday.

Disclosures: 1. I received a pre-release digital review copy of People Powered. I received no other consideration for this post (unless you purchased it from the affiliate link above). 2. Jono Bacon is a personal friend, but I would tell him if his book was awful.

Book review — Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit

Who was Robert Francis Kennedy? To me he was always primarily JFK’s brother. That’s not fair, of course. Bobby Kennedy was an accomplished man — campaign manager, Congressional counsel, attorney general, senator, and presidential candidate. Fortunately for me, I recently grabbed Chris Matthews’ Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit (2017) from my local library.

In A Raging Spirit, Matthews explores what made Bobby Kennedy the man he was. Matthews explores how Bobby related to his parents and to the other Kennedy kids, particular older brothers Joe, Jr. and John. What I found missing was his other family relationships. His wife Ethel and their 11 children make only minor appearances in this book. While we know Kennedy’s professional life, we’re left to know what kind of husband and father he was.

It’s clear that Matthews has a deep respect for this subject, but the book is not a hagiography. We see how Kennedy’s desire to support the civil rights movements was tempered by his disagreement with Dr. King’s non-violent protests and his concerns for the political impacts in southern states. His caring and empathetic nature — perhaps a surprise given the wealth and privilege he was born into — often appeared after his fierce and tempestuous side. Matthews gave several examples of times when Kennedy would initially react with anger, only to soften over the next few days as he gave further consideration to a matter.

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit is a fascinating look at an influential figure of the mid-century who is too often overshadowed by his brother. It is a well-researched book that nevertheless reads lightly and quickly. The main narrative weakness is the occasional interjection of personal anecdotes from the author. Nevertheless, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the man some have called America’s greatest attorney general.

Book review — A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees story

It’s easy to see the modern Ku Klux Klan (KKK) not as the domestic terrorism organization that murdered and oppressed black and Jewish people for decades, but as a small group of impotent ragers making noise on the fringes of society. And it’s equally tempting to see this diminished stature as the direct result of society coming to realize that the KKK’s views are abhorrent. But for as much as we might like to think that American society marginalized the KKK on its own, credit also goes to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC’s novel suits against KKK organizations helped bring legal constraints and financial ruin to prominent KKK organizations in a time when they were feeding off the resentment festering in the wake of the civil rights movement.

At the center of the suits was SPLC co-founder Morris Dees. In his book, co-authored with Steve Fiffer, Dees tells his story. He talks about how his upbringing as the son of a poor Alabama farmer shaped his life and his resulting career as a private attorney and the leader of a prominent anti-hate-group non-profit.

I received a copy of A Lawyer’s Journey after making a donation to the SPLC. If I knew I was going to receive a copy when I made the donation, I had certainly forgotten by the time it showed up. The title hardly suggested an exciting read and I didn’t know who Dees is. Nonetheless, I picked it up. Within a few chapters, I had a hard time putting it down.

As a white person who grew up in the (nominally) not-South during the time many of the cases in question were tried, I had very little knowledge of the efforts the SPLC and others made to stop the KKK in the 1980s. I assumed that the KKK went away because polite society realized it couldn’t tolerate white supremacy. Instead I learned how a few very motivated lawyers (and their brave clients) went toe-to-toe with the KKK using legal strategies that had never been tried.

As interesting as the content is, this book is not great from a literary point of view. The timeline jumps around without a clear reason. As with any autobiography, readers are obliged to read with a critical eye. Even if Dees is entirely truthful in what he tells, he presents only what he wants the reader to see. He mentions his divorces in passing, but his personal life beyond his teens years is largely absent. Apart from describing the time he and his daughter fled to a panic room (and her subsequent attendance at a major trial), we don’t know what effect the lawyer’s journey had on his family’s journey.

Given the recent resurgence of nationalism and white supremacism, this book deserves a read. People can fight hatred in many ways, and Morris proved that civil suits can be effective.

Book review: Habeas Data

What does modern technology say about you? What can the police or other government agencies learn? What checks on their power exist? These questions are the subject of a new book from technology reporter Cyrus Farivar.

Habeas Data (affiliate link) explores the jurisprudence that has come to define modern privacy law. With interviews with lawyers, police officers, professors, and others who have shaped the precedent. What makes this such an interesting subject is the very nature of American privacy law. Almost nothing is explicitly defined by legislation. Instead, legal notions of privacy come from how courts interpret the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This gives government officials the incentive to push as far as they can in the hopes that no court cases arise to challenge their methods.

For the first two centuries or so, this served the republic fairly well. Search and seizure were constrained to the physical realm. Technological advances did little to improve the efficiency of law enforcement. This started to change with the advent of the telegraph and then the telephone, but it’s the rapid advances in computing and mobility that have rendered this unworkable.

As slow as legislatures can be to react to technological advances, courts are even slower. And while higher court rulings have generally been more favorable to a privacy-oriented view, not everyone agrees. The broad question that courts must grapple with is which matters more: the practical effects of the technology changes or the philosophical underpinnings?

To his credit, Farivar does not claim to have an answer. Ultimately, it’s a matter of what society determines is the appropriate balance between individual rights and the needs of the society at large. Farivar has his opinions, to be sure, but Habeas Data does not read like an advocacy piece. It is written by a seasoned reporter looking to inform the populace. Only by understanding the issues can the citizenry make an informed decision.

With that in mind, Habeas Data is an excellent book. Someone looking for fiery advocacy will likely be disappointed, but for anyone looking to understand the issue, it’s a great fit. Technology law and ethics courses would be well-advised to use this book as part of the curriculum. It is deep and well-researched while still remaining readable.

It has its faults, too. The flow of chapters seems a little haphazard at times. On the other hand, they can largely be treated as standalone studies on particular issues. And the book needed one more copy editing pass. I saw a few typographic errors, which is bound to happen in any first-run book, but was jarred by a phrase that appeared to have been accidentally copy/pasted in the middle of a word.

None of this should be used as a reason to pass on this book. I strongly recommend Habeas Data to anyone interested in the law and policy of technology, and even more strongly to those who aren’t interested. The shape that privacy law takes in the next few years will have impacts for decades to come.