I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories review

I'm Waiting for You and Other StoriesI’m Waiting for You and Other Stories by Kim Bo-young

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really really liked the first and last stories. I just could not get into the second and third ones, although even so I was impressed by the world-building. Part of the problem is that I was expecting shorter stories, but I wouldn’t call four stories in 300+ pages “short”. (and it’s maybe not a coincidence that the first and last stories are shorter than average!)

(and if you read this, definitely read the reader’s notes for the first and last stories to see how they came into being – very sweet!)

It was neat to read “foreign” sci-fi, especially after I couldn’t bring myself to read “The Three Body Problem” for ethical reasons (since the author supports the Xinjiang re-education camps). Will definitely seek out more stories by Kim Bo-young in the future, but Ted Chiang is still my favorite sci-fi short story author 🙂

View all my reviews

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America review

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in AmericaStamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book claims to be the “definitive history of racist ideas in America”, and I’m pretty convinced this is the case! It’s a long (500+ pages) weighty read, but I learned a lot along the way and I think it’s going to help me spot racist ideas more effectively.

At the beginning, Kendi points out the many ways that the US is far away from racial parity in wealth, people in jail, etc. The question is why do these exist, and there are three main sides to the argument:
Segregationists blame Black people themselves
Antiracists point to racial discrimination as the cause
Assimilationists argue that both are to blame
Kendi’s point is that these three groups have existed for a very very long time, and the thing to realize here that assimilationists are still half arguing for racist ideas. There are all kinds of Black people, and grouping them all together to generalize about them is, by its very definition, racist!

Another big takeaway I had is about an idea Kendi calls “uplift suasion”; basically, if Black people improved their behavior, then White people would be persuaded away from their racist ideas. (this reminds me of the Simpsons episode Homer’s Phobia, where the gay man John saves Homer’s life, which makes Homer grudgingly accept him, and John says something like “now if we could just save everyone in America’s life…”) Anyway, this doesn’t work for a number of reasons, one of which is that if you’re a racist White person who sees an upwardly mobile Black person, you’ll probably just write them off as extraordinary and not an “ordinary” Black person. Another is that for the most part, racism isn’t based on logic; the desire to justify racial inequalities produced racist ideas. Yet another is that seeing upwardly mobile Black people seems as likely to make White people resentful. But this idea goes back hundreds of years and still persists today…

The book looks through the lens of five people in history – Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis, but it doesn’t limit itself to just talking about those people, which I appreciated. It really does seem fairly complete in that it starts in the 1600s and ends right around the time the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013.

I’m not going to try to summarize the book because this would be too long, but here is a collection of things I learned or thought were interesting:
– a group of Dominican Friars that were brought to Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1511 rejected the idea of slavery and preached against it! This was very impressive for that time…
– Kendi points out some examples back in 1700s that Americans would individualize White negativity (“oh, he’s a bad person”) and generalize Black negativity (“this is what’s wrong with Black people”).
– Over the years there was a whole history about whether enslavers should baptize their slaves. For a while this was seen as a good thing as they could tell themselves they were saving their slaves’ souls. Then there was a legal case where Elizabeth Key, who was a child of a White male slave owner and a Black slave and should have been free after her father died, was kept in slavery, and she eventually sued for her freedom and won. The fact that she had converted to Christianity was an important fact in her trial, so slave owners became worried that slaves that were Christian would be more able to sue for freedom and stopped wanting to baptize them! (states soon passed laws that this was not the case…)
– In Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, poor Whites and slaves combined to rebel against the governor of Virginia. After the rebellion was put down (by offering amnesty to Whites), the elites realized that poor Whites had to be kept separate from enslaved Blacks, and they did so by establishing a social hierarchy by giving all White people power over all Black people.
– After the Salem witch trials, Massachusetts authorities apologized and provided reparations! I had no idea!
– In the early 1700s, New England churches routinely gifted captives to ministers to be kept as slaves! Yikes.
– In 1706, Cotton Mather asked Onesimus, one of his new slaves, if he had had smallpox (a standard questoin), and Onesimus responded that he had had a tiny amount of pus from a smallpox victim scraped into his skin. This practice was known as “variolation” and was the precursor to inoculation, saved a bunch of lives, and of course racist European scientists refused to believe that people from Africa could have made such advances. (It took several more decades before they verified that variolation worked)
– The first known antislavery society of non-Africans in North America was the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, founded in 1774. England had already outlawed slavery in 1773…
– Thomas Jefferson hated slavery, but also liked his lifestyle, and so had slaves working his Monticello plantation. I guess this is what happens when it’s hard for people to imagine a world without slavery, but yuck.
– Sidenote, but somehow I didn’t realize that people knew at the time that Jefferson had several children by his slave Sally Hemings.
– One of the “compromises” that people came up with was colonization, the idea that Americans would send all Black people to Africa or somewhere in the Caribbean. There’s a funny story about a meeting of the American Colonization Society that took place in 1817 at a church with more than 3000 Black men. A few members talked about colonization, then asked the crowd who supported it, to which there was a definitive silence. When they asked who was opposed, a booming “no” rang out!
– The US did eventually form (probably fraudulently) the country of Liberia, but in the decade of the 1820s only 154 Black northerners out of more than 100,000 moved there.
– In 1822 Denmark Vesey planned a huge slave revolt in Charleston. Thousands of people had joined the plot, and they had plans for trusted house servants to assassinate top South Carolina officials in their sleep, and six infantry and cavalry companies were going to invade Charleston! For four years of planning no one had betrayed the revolt, but eventually someone did (probably an inevitability in a revolt of this size) and the plot was foiled.
– There’s a key idea that antislavery activist David Walker articulated in 1829: racism would only end when slavery ended. (or, put another way, it was impossible to end racism while slavery existed)
– Even going back to 1793(!), a White minister complained that a “Negro hut” had depreciated property values in Salem. Some things never change…
– Frederick Douglass refused to vote for Lincoln in 1860 because of his terrible Illinois record on Black rights. (Lincoln was anti-slavery at the time, but he was also in favor of colonization and against Black voting rights)
– After the beginning of the Civil War, thousands of runaway slaves fled to the Union, but Union soldiers enforced the Fugitive Slave Act and returned them to their owners. In August Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which said that any slaves used by the Confederate military could be seized as “contraband”; legally they were no longer enslaved, but they weren’t free either.(?) They could work for the Union Army and get paid, but they had to live in terrible conditions in the “contraband camps”. One out of every 4 of the 1.1 million people in the camps died in one of the worst public health disasters in US history!
– In 1862 Lincoln blamed the presence of Blacks in the US for the Civil War and tried to convince a delegation to move to Liberia.
– After the Civil War, the Civil Rights act of 1866 was passed, which among other things prohibited race-based discrimination. The problem is that it only banned rules that explicitly had race in the rules. (i.e. “no Black people can eat here”) But for most purposes it was easy enough to make a similar rule that didn’t explicitly use race but had the same effect. Kendi likens it to having a law against premeditated murder but not having manslaughter laws so you don’t have to prove premeditation. It also reminds me of bias in machine learning algorithms – even if race isn’t an explicit input to the algorithm, the algorithm can usually “figure it out” by zip code, etc.
– After the Civil War, there were Black churches that used a “paper-bag” or door test – people who had darker skin than the paper bag or door were excluded.
– W. E. B. Du Bois, in a similar insight to “racism will only end when slavery ends”, knew that “relentless color-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation”.
– The Knights of Columbus (the Catholic group) was pro-immigrant, and financed the publication of books focusing on the contribution of different racial and ethnic groups, including the Germans, the Jews, and Blacks. (Du Bois wrote the one about Blacks) That surprised me because that’s not how I think of the Knights of Columbus today!
– Eleanor Roosevelt was very popular with Black Americans – she publicly endorsed an anti-lynching law, among other things.
– I was vaguely aware of this, but in the 1950s Eisenhower was very concerned about anti-Black sentiment in the South (like the Arkansas National Guard blocking Black students from attending Central High School) because he thought it hurt our “freedom” image around the world.
– The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a big deal, but it also paved the way for the racist idea that presumed that discrimination had been eliminated. Ignoring the White head start, the idea is that if Blacks are behind in some way, it’s their fault.
– Conversely, in 1965 LBJ gave a speech at Howard University commencement saying “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” Kendi points out that this was perhaps the most antiracist thing a US president had ever said.
– The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was more effective than the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it banned poll taxes and literacy tests (some of the more effective ways of discriminating against Blacks without using the word “Black”). In Mississippi, for example, Black voter turnout increased from 6% in 1964 to 59%(!) in 1969.
– Kendi talks about the Bakke v. Regents case, in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that race-based quotas for admission to schools were not allowed, but race could be a factor in admission. He points out that at the time, UC David’s non-White medical students had much lower MCAT scores and college GPAs, but were basically the same at graduation and licensing exam passage rates is evidence that the MCAT and college GPAs are biased in some way.
– Kendi also talks about the general rule that wherever there are more police, there are more arrests, and where there are more arrests, people perceive there is more crime, which justifies more police, and the cycle continues. (this is also a problem with things like the COMPAS rating algorithm which grades how likely a defendant is to commit another crime and get caught)
– “Crack babies” was a huge rallying cry in the early 1990s in promoting racist ideas (like that crack was a lot more dangerous than other drugs), but in 2013 a study ended that showed that poverty was worse for kids than crack.

View all my reviews

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech review

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic TechTechnically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book. I feel like if you’re designing consumer products in the tech industry you should definitely read this book. Or conversely if you use social networks, etc. but haven’t thought about how much influence design decisions can have, you’d probably get a lot out of this book. But I’m kind of in the squishy middle, where I’ve heard a lot about this sort of stuff, but it doesn’t apply to me directly.

Which is not to say I didn’t get anything out of this book. Wachter-Boettcher’s thesis is that the tech industry has convinced itself that it’s a meritocracy of the best and brightest, which means that tech companies:
– don’t make products that are biased, they’re just based on algorithms (as if algorithms can’t be biased!)
– aren’t sexist or racist, they just hire the best people for the job

Sadly, both of these points are entirely wrong, but they are indeed commonly held in the industry based on what I read.

Odds and ends from the book:
– Wachter-Boettcher makes the point that a lot of design teams can just default to catering to the “average” user, and other people are “edge cases”. But people aren’t really “average”; she cites the study done in the 1950s on Air Force fighter pilots where they calculated their average dimensions in their shoulders, chest, waist, etc. Not a single pilot was in the middle 30 percent of all ten measurements.
– The book is full of examples of companies just not thinking about these “edge cases”. One of the interesting ones is about names. The author has five names (including a hyphenated last name), so she’s had some experience in dealing with systems that can’t handle her name. She describes this as being like a microaggression, which makes sense to me. (I feel the same way whenever I see forms for the kids that ask for a mother and father…) This spins off into a discussion of Facebook’s policy that you have to use your real name. But there are a lot of reasons people don’t want to use their real names – political refugees, victims of stalking, drag queens, etc. Facebook did eventually bend on this policy, but it was still much easier for people to report you for using a fake name than for you to respond to it. Wachter-Boettcher also talks about how Facebook’s messages about this also became more user-friendly, from “Your Name Wasn’t Approved” to “Help Us Confirm Your Name”.
– There’s a discussion about racism on Nextdoor, the social network for your physical neighbors. This was an infamous problem; people would often report suspicious activity whenever they saw a non-white person, sigh. The book says that Nextdoor banned racial profiling, but also spent a long time redesigning the form that people used to report suspicious activity to emphasize clothing, hair, etc instead of race. They also added rules that you can’t just specify someone’s race, and Nextdoor claims that all of these changes together reduced racial profiling by 75%. This came at the cost that a lot more people abandon the new form without submitting it, and most of the time this reduced “engagement” would be considered a terrible thing.
– Wachter-Boettcher talks about how in 2012 Google let you see what it thinks your interests, age, and gender is. (you can still see it here if you haven’t turned off ad personalization) And people realized that Google thought women that were interested in tech stuff (including the author!) were men. This isn’t a big surprise because Google’s algorithm was trained on what it saw in the past – that more men than women are interested in tech stuff. But now this has a cascading effect where the algorithm thinks it’s even more likely that people interested in tech stuff are men!
– There’s a discussion of ProPublica’s investigation into the COMPAS algorithm that is used to predict recidivism in people convicted of crimes, and how ProPublica found that the algorithm is biased against black people.

View all my reviews

Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency review

Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the PresidencyLucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency by Jonathan Allen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is pure guilty pleasure – lots of gossip, and since it was mostly sourced on background I’d be willing to bet some of it is exaggerated. (see this Perry Bacon Jr. article on the danger of unnamed sources) But it’s a pretty quick read, and it’s been long enough since the election that I was happy to relive some parts of it.

The main thesis of the book is that Biden was unusually lucky to win the primary and the general election. I’m not sure I buy it – sure, he was lucky in a number of ways, but so is every candidate that wins, right? Maybe he was a little luckier than most but I don’t think it was a dramatic difference. Although the final result was so close, I suppose you could argue that every lucky break he got was necessary?

And maybe this is just the style of books like this, but the authors seem to go out of their way to say negative stuff about everyone involved.

Odds and ends:
– Sanders supporters were notorious for having a toxic online presence in 2016, insulting Clinton and Clinton supporters. (some of whom, as we found out after the fact, where Russian bots, although this may have been true of aggressive Clinton supporters as well) When Bernie entered the race in 2020 he condemned “bullying and harassment”, but at the same time was taking advice and later hired David Sirota, one of the more aggressive people on Twitter.
– In October 2019 (when it was basically down to Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg), Obama made some private remarks where he sort of endorsed Warren!
– The whole fiasco around the final Des Moines Register poll did help Biden – he was in fourth place (the results were Sanders 22, Warren 18, Buttigieg 16, Biden 13), but since the results didn’t get released his supporters didn’t jump ship, and it didn’t give Sanders a boost that he probably would have gotten.
– The book recounts Warren’s dislike of Bloomberg and her preparation for the Nevada debate where she eviscerated him. (I realize the trope of one person “destroying” another one have become so common as to be passe, but I think it fits here!) Other than making me smile remembering how all that went, this was another “lucky” point for Biden, as it seemed like Bloomberg was poised to lure a chunk of Biden voters. The book also mentions that after the debate, each candidate had a staff member assigned to escort them back to a holding room, but no one came to pick up Bloomberg so he stood alone by himself just offstage🙂
– I wasn’t a huge fan of Biden saying he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court at the time (it seemed like pandering to me, although I agree it’s a good idea), but the book recounts how Jim Clyburn kept pressing Biden to announce this, including running up to Biden during a commercial break in the debate before the South Carolina primary to lecture him to do it tonight. (and Biden did!)
– This is not at all surprising, but it is interesting to hear how Biden and Obama called Buttigieg right after he dropped out to ask him to endorse Biden. (Obama pointed out that Buttigieg would never have more clout than he did right then) Apparently Obama tried to make a similar call to Klobuchar, but she realized what was going on and dodged his calls🙂
– The swing towards Biden between South Carolina and Super Tuesday sure appeared dramatic from the outside, and although winning South Carolina and gaining momentum from that was Biden’s plan, a senior adviser said that stuff was “nuts and incomparable to anything I’ve ever seen”.
– Just as the primary was effectively wrapping up, Biden changed campaign managers and hired Jen O’Malley Dillon. I missed all of this, which isn’t a surprise because this was mid-March when the coronavirus started hitting the US, so her first action was to hold an all-staff meeting at headquarters, introduce herself, and announce that headquarters was shutting down!
– The book says that Biden had a lot of trouble acknowledging that his past statements or positions were wrong (not unlike Trump!), but he was quick to offer personal apologies to people who felt harmed by him. (very unlike Trump!) I hadn’t quite noticed this duality…
– The book posits that Biden running his campaign from his basement was good for Biden because it kept the focus on Trump, which made the election more like a referendum on Trump than a choice between two candidates. Which feels right to me. The book says that this was another way Biden was lucky, which sort of makes sense, although I think even in normal times Trump sucks up a lot of oxygen so I’m not sure Biden would have made a ton of news.
– Trump’s first big indoor rally after the pandemic hit the US was an indoor one in Tulsa in mid-June. The story at the time was that a million people signed up for tickets, but most of these people were TikTok users trying to mess with the Trump campaign, which is why the actual attendance was embarrassingly less than that. The book says that Brad Parscale (Trump’s campaign manager at the time) thought there were 100,000 people that had signed up that were within 50 miles of the rally, so a big crowd was very possible. But Trump warned of protests and violence and that plus the police presence scared a lot of people away. Hard to say if this is accurate or not.
– Some of the people that had been with Biden’s campaign from the beginning didn’t like that O’Malley Dillon was the new campaign manager. Apparently O’Malley Dillon’s kids would frequently pop up when she was in meetings, and one “male campaign aide who did not have children” thought that she was bringing them in on purposes, like it was staged. As someone who worked for a long time from home with young kids, that male campaign aide may go to hell.
– Putting together a virtual Democratic National Convention was a big job which worked out pretty well in the end. One idea was to have a map with lights to show where the current speaker was broadcasting from, to show the geographical diversity of the Democratic party. This idea was scrapped when they realized how many speakers were broadcasting from places like Martha’s Vineyard🙂
– They asked Lin-Manuel Miranda to write and record a new song for the convention. But some wires got crossed, and Miranda wrote an instrumental piece played on the piano, and the organizers couldn’t find a good place to use it. #ReleaseTheLinManuelMirandaSong
– Especially after the recent allegations, there’s an amusing bit where the organizers asked themselves the same question they apparently ask every four years about Andrew Cuomo: “How is he going to f*** us this time?” In 2016 he spoke for double his scheduled time. This time, he was late delivering his recording, and it was more of a tribute to himself than to Biden. The words “Joe Biden” were first spoken four minutes and fifty seconds into a five-minute speech! And he refused to refilm it. (did this actually get aired? I don’t know…)
– The prose of the book is a bit heavy-handed at times, like this quote about the captain of Biden’s analytics team on Election Day: “Siegel sipped coffee from Elixr, a small chain of boutique Philadelphia coffee shops that boasted of the ‘transformative’ power of their lights roasts. She didn’t want a transformation, just an outcome that fell within the expected range.” 🙄
– The book points out that Trump lost by a total of 42,918 votes in three states (Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin), and flipping those states would have given him a victory. This irritated me because I had already done this calculation for my state election map and came up with a different number. But it turns out the book was right (not a big surprise!) and this prompted me to find some bugs in the map, about which I’ll write later🙂 (edit: writeup done!)

View all my reviews