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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 73)

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

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

Nick Bilton

2017


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.

4/5. Finished 18 February 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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

Colm Tóibín

2018


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.

5/5. Finished 03 February 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Light Brigade

The Light Brigade

Kameron Hurley

2019


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.

3/5. Finished 30 January 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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

Greg Jenner

2020


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.

4/5. Finished 29 January 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Infinite Detail

Infinite Detail

Tim Maughan

2019


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.

3/5. Finished 09 January 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)