American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road

Nick Bilton


The Silk Road occupies an interesting place in the history of the internet. To many it is the "dark web", the place where people can buy contraband with cryptocurrency. (Indeed, this is basically the only real-world use case for cryptocurrencies so far.)

It's a strange tale of someone who didn't seek to create the world's dark marketplace, but once he had was sucked-in to a vortex of ever-expanding crusade to support "freedom", of that particularly libertarian kind in which no harms are admitted and no constraints regarded as valid. Ross Ulbricht also seems curiously divorced from the success of his creation, in the sense that he never spent any of the millions he made, and never seems to have much intention of doing. It's a fascinating to ask what would have happened to him if he'd walked away (as he told his girlfriend he had) in the relatively early years.

There are some questions left largely unanswered, though. Does having a safe, legal, marketplace for drugs reduce harms, by removing the criminals and violence? It's hard to say, as the Silk Road never really removed the criminals from the equation. Is a recommender system sufficient to regulate a marketplace for contraband? Is the middleman as guilty as the seller – or the buyer? Taking down the Silk Road didn't end the dark web, and indeed it's now a fragmented and dynamic place that's more difficult for both law enforcement and consumers to navigate. Another thing Ulbricht never seems to have foreseen.

Finished on Thu, 18 Feb 2021 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Colm Tóibín


While the description may be over-the-top when applied to Sir William Wilde or John Butler Yeats, it certainly applies in spades to John Stanislaus Joyce, whose life is almost a caricature of an artist in search of himself at the expense of his family. This is a wonderful book, full of telling character observations and synthesising a wide range of sources.

But actually the most moving part for me (as a former Dublin resident) was the loving description of one street: Westland Row, that runs along the back of Trinity College up towards Merrion Square. Tóibín moves up it almost house-by-house, detailing what happened where and how it's change in the intervening century. It gave me a sudden pull of nostalgia, so poignant that I could see the street and hear the trains on the Dart bridge above. That was an unexpected additional pleasure from an excellent biography.

Finished on Wed, 03 Feb 2021 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Light Brigade

Kameron Hurley


A war fought in non-linear time – and that's the lived experience of the protagonist, not simply a narrative structure. Faster-than-light transportation leads to time shifts for some and worrying injuries for others.

It doesn't quite hang together as a novel, in my opinion, but the writing is evocative and the society – a post-climate change corporate dystopia with echoes of 1984 – is detailed and well-drawn. It needs a clearer arc to carry the complexities.

Finished on Sat, 30 Jan 2021 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen

Greg Jenner


A romp through what it means to be famous. And indeed what "famous" means, which is actually a more nuanced question than it might first appear. Are "influencers" famous? – not according to Jenner, and it seems a slightly arbitrary distinction. When did fame begin? – one has to start somewhere, so the start of newspapers seems sensible but excludes some who might otherwise be in consideration. Nonetheless there are some excellent vignettes on what it means to achieve fame, and the consequences when one has done so, enough ( suspect to kill-off many people's latent desire for celebrity.

Finished on Fri, 29 Jan 2021 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Infinite Detail

Tim Maughan


What would happen to society if the the internet died? That's premise of this book, and it comes to w weirdly similar technical conclusion to that in How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.: replace it with a decentralised network that's inherently privacy-preserving.

Of course there's a lot more to it than that, and it's a well-drawn story of what a social collapse might look like when "just" to communications infrastructure collapses, leaving everything else intact – but useless because it's all been optimised to algorithmic control and can't meaningfully function without it.

Finished on Sat, 09 Jan 2021 08:02:21 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.

Cory Doctorow

A lot continues to be written about artificial intelligence and machine learning – most of it nonsense, which makes it especially refreshing and valuable to encounter a book for a popular audience that takes a wide perspective while treating the science and technology properly and accurately.

What effects is surveillance capitalism having on politics and society? Doctorow identifies the problem as one of monopoly rather than of technology, with the proviso that technology makes monopoly far more powerful than it might otherwise be. Monopoly deprives people of opportunities for choice by crowding-out other voices and services; technology then magnifies the ability to target specific groups who can be identified because of monopoly data collection.

But he also explodes the hypocrisy and pretensions of the tech giants. Hypocritical in gorging on the "digital smoke" we emit for free through the use of devices and services, while claiming ownership of that data and anything arising from it. Pretensious in making claims to the efficacy of their digital targeting that is wildly excessive compared to the limited success that machine learning can show in proper scientific trials. He also nails the dangers of loading0-up "Big Tech" with responsibilities to police their content, the expense of which puts a floor under the size of company who can come into the market: perhaps why these regulations aren't being fought too vigorously.

Finished on Sat, 02 Jan 2021 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.


John Hersey


A book that's lost none of its power in the three-quarters-of-a-century since it was written. By focusing on the lives of six Hiroshima survivors (or hibakusha, "bomb-affected persons", as they are called in Japanese, to avoid any possible slight to those who died) Hersey manages to describe the suffering without making it spectacular. Originally written as an artcle in 1946, in the book he returns to Hiroshima after thirty years, which means he can assess the short- and longer-term effects of radiation sickness in ways that weren't visible in the aftermath (and which weren't wholly anticipated beforehand, although there is debate about the extent of what was known).

Finished on Thu, 31 Dec 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (D.O.D.O. #1)

Neal Stephenson


Magic is dead – or is it just postponed? If a secret US military agency has its way, witches will be re-empowered (within closely controlled limits) and able to influence the past (again, within limits) in advantageous ways, But the witches have other ideas....

It's the limits that make this book interesting. They've been carefully crafted to structurally avoid the contrivances that often plague time-travel novels. It also takes aim at the dangers and blindness
of a bureaucracy trying to control something that its fundamentally doesn't understand.

This is something of a return to form (in my opinion) for Stephenson after Anathem and (especially) Reamde: back to the style of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Although having said that it's a book that's clearly a scene-setter for a sequel rather than in any way self-contained.

Finished on Tue, 29 Dec 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.