How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World by Deb Chachra

I love this book. It is informative and nerdy yet eminently readable. It is about the seemingly boring subject of infrastructure—how it came to be, why, what it is for, and what it’s future is. Not exactly your modern day thriller. Yet Deb Chachra somehow tells the story of infrastructure and makes it, if not fascinating (though it is to me), interesting and approachable.

The first part of the book lays out what infrastructure is and why we have it. In brief, it is how we manage our access to and use of energy. And we have it to enable humanity as a whole to do more with less. She then pivots to discussing infrastructure in the context of global anthropogenic climate change. And this is where the book really shines.

Her premise is that we need to move from combustion as our source of energy (fossil fuels) to renewable sources of energy (geothermal, wind, solar). This is hardly new or surprising. What is surprising is that she argues that doing so would move us from energy scarcity to energy abundance. After all, there are only so many fossil fuels on our planet to burn and burning them is causing catastrophic harm to our environment. But renewables are abundant. We just need to learn how to harness them for the use of all.

The rest of the book is a vision for how this is possible, desirable, and most of all essential to the well being of all humankind and our planet. That the author has told such a clear, hopeful story about such a challenging subject around a bleak prospect is a credit to her ability and passion for such a project.

My rating: 5/5

The Internet Con by Cory Doctorow

This is the third book about Big Tech and the internet that I have read recently. The first two are The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Chokepoint Capitalism. This is the most nerdy of the three as it goes into detail about the underpinnings of the internet and how they affect business and consumers. That said, it is a very engaging, interesting, and accessible read.

In part one, entitled “Seize the Means of Computation”, the author explains how Big Tech got big through network effects and by helping the government deliver on beating the “bad guys”. He then introduces the concept of adversarial interoperability. This would mean that you could leave Facebook and still interact with your friends there. The term is a mouthful. He helped coin a better term: competitive compatibility, or comcom for short. In part two, the author addresses many of the objections that come up when this solution is offered. These are “What about” questions like, “What about privacy?”, “What about harassment?”, and “What about child porn?”

Of these three books about technology and our modern world, this is the best for the general reader. For that reason, I would recommend this book first of the three. It is not the most thorough with the most documentation. That would be The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. But if you want a quick, easy read to better understand how we got in this mess with Big Tech and how we can get out of it, this is the book to read.

My rating: 5/5

Chokepoint Capitalism by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow

I picked this book up as a follow-up to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. While that book is a detailed look at how we got to Big Tech and what to do about it, this book focuses on culture. It covers creative arts industries like book publishing, music, news, movies, video games, and live performances.

The first part of the book outlines how culture got in its current state where artists are beholden to Big Tech. Each chapter covers a different aspect of culture (i.e. books, music, live events, etc.). Part two covers the authors’ proposed solutions to the issues outlined in the first part. These chapters focus more on collective action than steps that individual artists can take.

This book is an excellent look at the problems Big Tech presents to artists and how artists can act collectively in response. It is a good companion to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, especially if you are an artist or someone looking for a quick view on cultural issues in our digital world.

My rating: 4/5

Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff is one of the most important books of the twenty-first century. It outlines how our economy has largely shifted away from an industrial base to a technological base of surveillance-driven advertising. And like the industrial revolution introduced new ways of economic engagement that required decades of adjustment, we must also adjust to this new economic modality. Unfortunately, the pace of the change this time is so fast that we aren’t adjusting to it quickly enough to head off as much of the negative consequences as we have in the past.

This work is well-researched with extensive notes. What I first thought of as a criticism became a benefit as I continued to read. The author keeps coming back to the basic points and reiterates them in the context of the content she shares. It is a bit like a spiral staircase that turns on itself in order to take you up higher in a limited space. It is just as effective here, ensuring that the reader is able to follow a very complex argument that builds to a very complete picture.

The book is a bit long (over 240,000 words), but is worth every minute of time it takes to read. For those concerned about surveillance, privacy, and inequality it is an essential work explaining how we got here and what we might be able to do to about it.

My rating: 5/5

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

The silhouette of a running man seen through a keyhole on a blue background.

Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is a mystery/thriller about a forensic accountant. Doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a thriller, does it? I found it engaging and really liked the main character Marty Hench, the accountant. He is an usual character with a perspective that is both practical and technical. But I have to say that I enjoyed him more than the novel itself.

The book starts with a bang, one that involves cryptocurrency. Marty helps an old friend who gets himself into trouble and yields a giant payday. Just when he thinks he is retiring on his newfound wealth, things go sideways, and Marty finds himself on the run. Maybe I was just expecting too much, but this is where the story fell a little flat for me. Much of his “on the run” time, he isn’t doing much more than laying low.

Marty himself is very interesting. A sixty-seven-year-old accountant is an unusual protagonist. Somehow, Doctorow pulls it off. I found myself continuing to turn the pages even during the slow places. Doctorow has much to say about technology and society in this novel at the level of everyday people. It engaged me. But it felt like a setup for the book to follow. In that way, it totally worked. I am looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.

My rating: 4/5

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Stolen Focus book cover

I am fascinated by technology and how it changes us and our societies. One of the biggest concerns these days is how fragmented out attention has become due to smartphones and social media. These days it seems like no one can pay attention long enough for the person talking to them to finish their sentence. Sometimes I am talking to someone and they pull out their phone while I am still talking. Even worse, sometimes I am the one pulling out my phone while someone else is talking to me! What in the world in going on here?

This book presents research and discusses the reasons why we have such a hard time focusing, and not all of them are technological. There are two ways to address these challenges–individually and society. The first says that it is your fault. You need to get better control over your attention and what is distracting you. The author largely does not focus in this direction though encouraging the reader to do what she can. He encourages personal change to address the issues but feels they are not enough. He focuses instead on how our world has changed that makes it hard for us to pay attention. He compares it to trying to lose weight when everything around you is shouting at you to eat bad food and sit on the couch. Sure you can do something about it, but it is harder that it needs to be or should be.

My favorite aspect of this book is that the author has included all the interview audio on his website for the book. He is also very clear about where the research he shares is relatively settled or still highly in dispute. He makes a strong case for his perspective and solutions, but he doesn’t pretend that there aren’t others with differing opinions. Refreshing. A good place to start is the interview with Nir Eyal from chapter eight. Eyal favors focusing on what we can do for ourselves because collective action takes a long time. Both Eyal and Hari see the need for individual and collective change, but they differ on which we should start with.

My rating: 5/5

Why Humans (and Machines) Play Games

Seven Games book cover

Author Oliver Roeder in his book Seven Games uses those seven games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, and bridge) to explore both the human history of games in general as well as how the approach to creating artificial intelligence (AI) has changed as it has been applied to games. At first those developing AI tried to develop machines that think like humans do. But that direction was unfruitful due to the depth of the games. There was simply too much to these games to simply use brute force calculations. New approaches were attempted and the results were a completely different way to think about games, a machine way.

The book also highlights the best players of each of these games and how AI has affected them and game play in general. The author does an excellent job of showing the human side of playing games and their importance to human development. And he takes what could be a very dry topic (AI) and makes it extremely relatable. For anyone interested in games in general or the development of AI, I highly recommend this book.

Maintaining What We Have

The Innovation Delusion book cover

I have often wondered why we have such a hierarchy of jobs. Why are service and maintenance jobs considered so “low”? After all, someone has to do that work for our civilization to keep working. It takes a different set of skills and experience but there is nothing inherently more valuable to our society about doctors and lawyers than mechanics, nurses, and janitorial staff. We need them all.

Recently I went looking for a book on this subject. I tried searching for the term “maintenance”. Unfortunately most of the results were about how to do it. I had to give up. But then I started reading a book on my list and discovered that unlike its title, it is really about maintenance and those who do it. That book is The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell.

The authors are fed up with what they call “innovation-speak”. This is newness for its own sake and comes with all the cliches. We definitely need real innovation and technology. And we are surrounded by it – indoor plumbing, public transportation, electricity, etc. But our focus these days is on digital innovation to the exclusion of the physical technology that requires ongoing maintenance, as everything does.

This book is a primer on how our almost exclusive focus on building new stuff has led to us neglecting the maintenance of our existing technology. You hear this in the cries about our decaying infrastructure and the deep backlog of deferred maintenance. Unfortunately, the answers given in public are more about enhancing what is there or building new. We need to address how we will maintain what we have.

The authors do a thorough job of outlining how we got in this state and how it is affecting all of us while often devastating local communities. But the book is short on solutions, and that is on purpose. This book is a call to arms to pay attention to the situation outlined, to start a conversation that will lead to action. It is well-written and inspiring. And if you have any interest, in addition to reading the book you can follow what the authors are doing at

Which eReader?

Kobo Sage ereader

I have had my current ereader (a Kobo Aura ONE) for a little over five years now. I love it, and use it every day. But it has a few scratches on the screen despite my use of a cover. I’ve started to wonder if there might be some improvements that would entice me to trade up for a newer model. So I did some research.

First, I have to say that I am not really interested in any form of Kindle. They use a proprietary format that is different from everyone else. I’m also happy to support a different company in this space. On top of that, Kobo ereaders include Overdrive integration allowing me to borrow and read ebooks from my local library right from my device. I read more books from the library than I buy, so this is a big deal for me. Newer models also include Pocket integration. As a result, I am really only considering Kobo ereaders.

I like the screen size on my current ereader (7.8 inches) and would hesitate to get anything smaller, though I would consider a 7-inch ereader. I am only looking for something to read on, so I wouldn’t need any kind of note-taking or stylus either, though I wouldn’t eliminate such a device if it met my other criteria. In the end, I’ve narrowed it down to three choices:

The Forma is a generation older than the other two. The Libra 2 is cheapest but also has the smallest screen. The Sage seems to have it all, but is most expensive. Users have also reported that the battery life isn’t great, though a recent software update may have addressed that.

In the end, I just can’t decide yet. And since my current ereader continues to work just fine, I am going to hold off for now. But if I had to decide right now, I’d probably go with the Sage. My current device has lasted me over five years. I expect this one to as well. For me it would be worth the investment for all the time I spend reading.

How I Read

Kobo Aura ONE eReader and Box

Most typically, I read books on my ereader. I have an older model, high resolution, eight inch Kobo Aura ONE ereader. I also wanted something slightly larger than a pocket ereader. The one I have is about the size of a trade paperback. I picked an e-ink reader because I did not want to be distracted by all the things that a tablet could do. I wanted something dedicated only to reading.

Another reason I chose Kobo over Kindle was Kobo has library integration. I can use my ereader to borrow and read library ebooks from the comfort of my own home. And I borrow and read a lot of books from the library.

Probably my most favorite feature of using an ereader is looking up word definitions. Every ereader that I am aware of includes a dictionary. So, as I am reading and I encounter a word I am unfamiliar with, I simply long press the word with my finger. Then a separate small window pops up with a definition of the word. I simply close the window and go back to my reading. This is much less of an interruption than putting my book down to find a dictionary and lookup the word. I am so used to it, I sometimes find myself reaching a finger to long press a word in a magazine article or print book.

I also carry many books with me. I read around one hundred books a year. When I finish one, I start the next one pretty much right away. So instead of waiting until I am done to find my next read, I have quite a few from my “to read” list already on my ereader ready to go. When I am done reading a book, I return it to the library and pick one of the others already on my ereader.

I also take my ereader with me. When I am waiting in line or for an appointment, I take it out and read a bit. That’s how I am able to read so much in a year. I love reading on my ereader.