Some Books of 2015

I read some books this year! Even though I’ve been always busy and/or tired (working full time, then going home even if your partner does most of the household and family maintenance is still tiring). But I read some books this year and some I want to share.


Black Fire by Sonni Cooper. This is an old Star Trek book. I read it when I was in junior high. I remember loving it (like many girls my age I had a crush on Spock) and wanted a nostalgia re-read. This was a mistake because it did not hold up. The plot was just not believable. Oh well. Spock was still a hot pirate. So on to some good books!

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey and sequels (Kushiel’s Chosen and Kushiel’s Legacy). Kushiel’s Dart is one of those fantasy novels that I’ve walked past on fantasy shelves for a decade or more. I finally read it this year and enjoyed it! To be honest I’d probably avoided it because I thought it was just erotica set in a fantasy universe. And while there’s erotica (of a somewhat BDSM variety), there’s also a standard fantasy romp of saving the kingdom with the saving being done by a woman using intelligence and influence (rather than some men being violent). The second two books aren’t as great, but like is often the case, it’s hard not to read them because I liked many of the characters.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin and sequels (The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods). I am not usually a fan of stories told from the point of view of a character whose an unreliable narrator which is how the first one reads. But I enjoyed it so much I think I read it over about two days (work days even, so mostly really late at night). The main character is an outcast daughter called “home” to the center of power of a fantasy world. That central power is maintained because they literally control the powers of a captive god. It honestly wasn’t clear to me to start that there were literally gods in this universe. If you told me that the book was about what it is about, I’d probably not want to pick it up. How can you make literal gods mixing among humans a good read (never mind Greek stories)? But she did.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. I’ve read nearly everything by Stephenson, usually multiple times. Seveneves was another book I read really fast. It is however a very mixed book. The world-building in the final section is awesome (albeit with a flawed premise). The “present day” story is painful and sad and amazing. I wouldn’t rank it his best book, but it’s one I re-read parts of almost immediately after finishing it.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu). I can’t really say what this book is about without giving away something but the fundamental sci-fi story was definitely in a tradition that I enjoy. The best aspect of this book for me, though, was a reminder that American (and British) scifi has a lot of cultural assumptions going on that I don’t even notice. Since this was written in Chinese, rooted in Chinese modern history, there are very different cultural assumptions (which the translator footnoted in many cases). So not only did I get a good scifi story, I got to learn a few bits here and there about modern Chinese history that I didn’t know (or hadn’t really understood the importance of).

Bloodchild and other stories by Octavia Butler. Patternmaster by Octavia Butler and related books (Mind of my Mind and Clay’s Ark). After a panel at GeekGirlCon about Butler and her influence, I finally read the Patternmaster books (which I’ve known about for some time but hadn’t read). They are honestly very “mixed” books, but all have all these ideas (about emotions and human relations) that I can see why these books are well liked even if Parable of the Sower is, to me, a far better book. The short story collection I got primarily for the story “Speech Sounds”. I still think about it (which is what the panelist who recommended it said). But every story in the collection had some gem of an idea or a character (or both) that stuck with me.


Normally I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. That I read so much fiction this year is strange (and the above isn’t even every book). But I did tackle some pretty heavy books this year, starting out with still reading Reconstruction by Eric Foner which I still haven’t finished. I’d started it after finishing Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson last year. But I found Reconstruction extremely slow going and hard to “stay into” so I’ve been reading it off and on all year. But here are some non-fiction books that I’ve finished this year that are interesting or otherwise ones I recommend.

I read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds on the recommendation of a coworker when I asked him for advice about giving a talk. I’m sure there are other books giving similar advice, but this is the one I followed. I ended up giving a really great talk at an internal work conference. (Or everyone says it was great — I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the recording even if I could have an honest assessment about it.)

The short ebook The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong is about spam and abuse and harassment and why the internet has so much of it and why it’s hard to control. If you keep up on those topics, it might not be anything incredibly new to you, but her presentation is entertaining.

When Cate Huston hosted a “ladies and lasers” event at Glowforge, I already knew about Dan Shapiro’s book The Hot Seat: The Startup CEO Guidebook because Cate had recommended it a bunch. I’d started reading the ebook and then Dan’s folks made sure I got a copy of it in print. I had left Grace Hopper Celebration thinking I might (maybe) one day start my own company. By the end of reading it, I was reconsidering that idea, though I did think the process was de-mystified a bit. Also I felt like I finally understood capitalism and modern “venture capital” in tech (I was then disabused of the idea that I understood it within a month.)

I believe I decided to read What Works for Women at Work by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey because of something Leigh Honeywell said sometime. I found it depressing and inspiring and it confirmed or solidified many things I already knew (or thought I knew) about women and the workplace. It was a particularly good reminder of how hard it is for women to support each other — the patriarchy is encouraging us to tear each other down, yo! — but that we should support each other anyway.

I read a lot of history this year (I usually read a lot of history). The more distant history included a book of short essays, Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard and SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, also by Beard. The former made me think of the kind of articles I’d expect in any number of publications and combined discussions of a historical event, artifacts, how history is thought about, etc. with a defense of “classics” as a discipline. While nothing stands out (I have no awesome anecdote from it), it did remind me how much I love the idea that we re-interpret history and the re-interpretation matters in itself. History (and classics) as a discipline matter not because it’s important (necessarily) to know exactly what happened in year 212 but rather the process by which we understand it and what we take out of it informs ideas we have and choices we make now. It’s an idea that I was exposed to in high school and one reason I tend to read a lot of history books. It’s nice to read a book defending the idea that classics matter and why (plus I did study Latin in college and like to cheer for my team). SPQR is a more integrated work (not surprisingly) and was just excellent. I’ve read a lot of scattered parts of Roman history (including some, obviously, actually in Latin). However, most histories I’ve read focused more on particular periods, e.g. the Julio-Claudians, without putting it into the larger context of Roman expansion into Italy and beyond. How did that happen? Why there? Why then? What conflicts existed within Roman society that helped drive (or prevent) that expansion? If you’ve never read an integrated history of Rome, this one is a pretty good one as it tries to tie the ideas and ideologies together with the people. Plus, unlike many histories she tries to talk about people who aren’t in power as much as we can given what records remain. That said, I know a fair bit of Roman history and I tended to look things up in Wikipedia a lot, especially in periods I wasn’t as familiar with (Kindle X-Ray for Books also came in handy).

The next history I read was A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. This got on the reading list on the recommendation of Ta-Nehisi Coates. While I do know a bit about the period (though more about the periods just before and just after) what I do know is fairly broken up. A story about some king here or battle over there. The Hundred Years War (a big part of this period) is not an event I understood as a thing. I mean sure a war between France and England since France and England shared lots of family in their nobility and kings die without strong heirs, etc. But not how did it all go together? Plus I really had no feeling for what it was actually like to live then. How did nobles make money? How far along was non-feudal organization really going? Parts of this book was slow going, but some was just utterly entrancing. Also one reason why the 14th century sucked? The people in charge were often basically teenage boys with swords, servants, and too much booze.

These last two are hard. One is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s not a lot I can say about this that would improve upon anything anyone else has said. I read it because a lot of what TNC has written has moved me to read other things (and do and think in different ways). I’m still not sure how it will affect me long term. The last book I want to talk about is The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist. If there’s any book here that I would want my (American) friends to read it would be this one. It is a history of slavery in the United States. But to say it that way is to reduce it, I think, to just another book detailing how awful slavery was. And while it is that, it’s importance to me is that it makes it clear just how much wealth and power that we have now is built on slavery even in the North which we pretend was “different”. That which was built did not disappear in 1865. And there was just so much that was built on the bodies and minds and lives of black men and women. That we still haven’t repaid and may never repay, if it’s even possible. The debt has compounded a long time. Americans like to pretend slavery was a long time ago and ended and that it has almost as little bearing on the present as the emperors of Rome. Baptist’s book makes it clear that too much has been swept under a rug for that to be true.

Recommended Reading on Genetically Engineered Foods

Late June in 2009 (wow, almost four years ago), I went to a talk at the Long Now Foundation. It was Pamela Ronald, plant geneticist, and her husband Raoul Adamchak, organic farm instructor, talking about their vision for the future of food. I won’t say I was against genetic engineering before that talk, but I was vaguely of the opinion that GE was bad, categorically, bought mostly organic food, etc.

I’d been living San Francisco (or the area) for a while. I shopped at my local co-op (I miss Rainbow) or Whole Foods. I bought foods in bulk by preference. I often chose organic food (I can afford it). I went to the farmer’s market weekly. I won’t say I was a “well-informed consumer” but I did believe I was making choices that were at least a bit better for people and the environment. I vaguely thought GMOs were dangerous. And anyway, they were only used for corn/soy agriculture feeding animals (and creating lagoons of polluting animal manure) — or for processed food I didn’t buy much of. Processed foods are bad for you, right? But the talk description was intriguing. What could organic farming and genetic engineering have to do with each other?!

But I went. I learned a lot. That both of them were there, coming from different perspectives, made it easier to believe what I was hearing. An organic farming teacher from UC-Davis surely would not let lies go by. Nor did they try to pretend there were no problems with modern agriculture. The idea was: how do we use the best of all the tools we have? So I went home and read their book. Then I read another book and then read some more. Soon I became fascinated with how complicated agriculture is — even that corn/soy monoculture I was (and many others are) so dismissive of. I became enthusiastic about how food changes the world. Not food in the sense of buying organic (though I still buy a lot of it) or going to “local, sustainable, etc.” restaurants (though I still do a fair bit!). Agriculture changes the world by making it easier and safer for us to feed more people, while valuing the rest of our environment. The process is messy, it’s not always equitable and we will never be perfect.

But we are getting better. With a bit of reading (and an open mind and informed by some smart science communicators) I realized that even parts of agriculture I was uncomfortable with had something important to say about the future of food. These are some of the books that gave me a better perspective on agriculture and food. You don’t have to read all of them (and if you only read one, read Tomorrow’s Table) but depending only on inflammatory and shallow web stories (the current food scare!) doesn’t support a good conversation about food and agriculture.

Tomorrow’s Table

Tomorrow’s Table opened my mind to what can be done with modern biotechnology that is more sustainable than what we have now (and this includes the unfortunately dichotomous “organic” and “conventional”). Why shouldn’t we use science to make plants better able to survive floods so farmers don’t lose their crops? Why shouldn’t we use science to let a plant defend itself rather than using external pesticides (which organic systems use as well)? Yield is important for sustainability and protecting the natural environment: the less land we have to use to feed everyone, the more land can be left for other purposes (including wild spaces). Tomorrow’s Table is the best single volume I know of that introduces the breadth of agriculture and biotechnology (“GMOs”) without being too technical. On the way it covers many of the controversies and fears, but I think in a way that isn’t dismissive of why people believe them (I believed some of them once!) There are some awkward stylistic issues — neither of the authors are polished non-fiction writers — but their knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject are clear. You don’t teach organic agriculture or search for genes to make rice flood tolerant because you want to become rich and famous. You do it because you believe you can make the world better.

The Doubly Green Revolution

There are millions if not a billion of people that would likely not exist without the first Green Revolution. The first Green Revolution brought us plants with wildly increased yields with fewer people having to work on farms due to mechanization. But it also brought increased pesticide use, indiscriminate fertilizer use and an emphasis on limited cereal crops to the detriment of diversity. It undeniably improved many lives but it wasn’t perfect. Gordon Conway’s The Doubly Green Revolution tells the story of the first Green Revolution and asks what we can do better. It’s a bit dated (published in 1997) but it is a broad sweep. It’s not only about genetic engineering, though he mentions it (at the time very few GE crops were in the hands of farmers). After reading this book I had a better idea of the broad sweep of agricultural history and a greater respect for the “conventional” agriculture I feared so much. It’s not perfect but there’s a reason it exists the way it does. The book is also unabashedly (and I think not unreasonably) optimistic (the author is still optimistic). We solve problems by understanding the world and figuring out a better way to implement our values. I want everyone to live a fulfilling life — well-fed — and able to decide how to live their own life. Agricultural science can help make that happen.

Mendel in the Kitchen

After a while I became more interested in more “nitty gritty” about agricultural biotechnology. Higher level descriptions, appropriate more for a long magazine feature, of how biotechnology works wasn’t really enough. I wanted a bit more. Fortunately I found Nina Federoff’s Mendel in the Kitchen. It’s not a scientist’s book: it’s still written for a non-expert. But it does go into enough detail that sometimes I had to go read some other sources to really get to the meat — and it had enough references for me to find more sources. The best part is it walks thru a history of breeding plants to explain genetics. This was the first book that made me realize that a lot of words I had for food had a lot more history behind them. What is kale really?

The Partisans Speak

The next couple books are unabashedly what you might call “pro-GMO”. When I first read them, I was ready to be convinced by every word. Soon I realized they were a bit too pro. But that doesn’t make them bad books: that just means you have to read more skeptically. There is good stuff in both. Better still, though, they help you understand why some (on the “pro-GMO” side) find it so hard to accept GMO labeling1. To many working and advocating in this field, the decades of misunderstanding and restrictions don’t seem reasonable and sometimes even seem harmful. It’s very easy to become very partisan and unwilling to give an inch if you feel embattled. Anyway, on to the books.

Pandora’s Picnic Basket by Alan McHughen covers the “myths and truths” about GMOs. It’s been a while since I read it so I’m sure I would find more things to quibble with now than I did when I first read it, but overall it is a good resource. Many of the usual scare stories about GMOs are either not true or are far more interesting (and less scary) than the short version and he gives descriptions of them all. The book also contains clear and concise descriptions of the regulatory process and some of the terms used in it. Ever wonder what “substantial equivalence” really means? He explains it well (with examples). Ever wonder how complicated it is to get a GMO crop to market in an international food market? There’s that too. Stylistically, it’s arranged in relatively easy to read chunks. You can read a small section at a time and get something out of it.

Starved for Science by Robert Paarlberg is the most political book I’ll recommend. The author is morally outraged at what he sees as a very paternalistic attitude that European and North American groups have towards people in Africa. In short, the fears of the well-fed (in Europe and here) keep scientific advances from farmers in Africa. This is not quite true but the idea is compelling (the details, however, matter). But Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, and Jimmy Carter were willing to write a forward for it, so you might be willing to give it a try. The moral determination behind the viewpoint of the author is similar to the one behind projects like HarvestPlus. We can improve the lives of all through agriculture, but it will require using all the tools available.

Improving the Conversation about Agriculture

So there’s a few book recommendations. If you are skeptical about agriculture or biotechnology, read one (especially Tomorrow’s Table). I don’t expect reading a book will change your mind overnight. I hope that reading a book from someone who is passionate about what agricultural science can do for the world will shift our conversation a bit. Can we talk about improving agriculture without dividing into pro/anti camps? Can we accept that agriculture (and especially the commercial part) is not perfect, but that all parts have some value or at least something to say? We need to talk about what might work rather than condemning the “other side”.

  1. I have a post planned soon on my current ideas about GMO labeling — with a surprise announcement!

Positions, Science and Values

I’ve recently finished reading The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson. While there’s a lot more to it than what I’m going to talk about here, it did give me better words for describing why I find certain political positions (and ways of advocating for them) frustrating. Many people are holding a belief for values-based reasons but claim evidence (usually scientific) for why they do. This avoids discussing the real underlying issues and so nothing can be resolved.

An early point Henderson makes in The Geek Manifesto is blindingly obvious but seeing it written out is helpful. Values are different than science. Science can’t tell us what to do, only what the possible effects might be. However, evidence, especially “scientific evidence”, has a halo. If the “science says” something, then how can we argue against it? This halo is so strong that politicians, lobbyists, even a person individually will seek out scientific justification for a particular position. And we do this even if that scientific justification doesn’t really exist or we have to cherry pick the one study out of hundreds that “proves” our point. Henderson calls this looking for “policy-based evidence” rather than making “evidence-based policy”. I would extend this to using “position-based evidence” to support one’s beliefs.

His point isn’t that we shouldn’t make decisions unless we have proper scientific evidence. It’s that we should be honest when we are making a decision (or believing something) without or in contradiction to what scientific evidence tells us will happen. One of his examples is somewhat extreme but illuminating. Science might tell us that an early curfew would reduce crime. However, most of us probably value freedom of movement and limitations on government power more than we value the reduction in crime. If a politician proposed a curfew and supported it with a good review of scientific evidence, most of us would rightly say that the science doesn’t matter in this case.

But on other topics, politicians feel the need to find some evidence — whether it’s representative or fair is irrelevant — because the values-based reasons to support the policy aren’t as clear (or as widely shared). Using “science” makes the argument more convincing to disinterested people and avoids making trickier arguments about values that might interest them. I might just recommend you read the book (and I do!) but I think a few examples might be helpful.

The GM Debate

This is painfully common in the current GM food debate. I’ve touched on this before when talking about GM labeling being a poor proxy for other worries regarding our agricultural system. If you get into any kind of argument about GM foods, the litany of reasons why GM food is bad will include a large number that are problems with conventional agriculture (and even organic). Some worry about safety and long-term health effects will be thrown in (generally justified with cherry-picked evidence), but much of it is related to things like over-use of pesticides, monocultures, farmers being beholden to seed companies, people not really understanding how their food system works, etc. None of these are peculiar to transgenic technology and all pre-date adoption of transgenic crops. I’m not sure why the technology became a poster-demon for the green movement but today it serves as a convenient boogeyman for many other concerns about agriculture that are largely about values. Large monoculture fields growing commodity corn or soy primarily to feed animals or make biofuels doesn’t fit with our conception of a “family farm”. But facing the those challenges is a lot harder than getting GM foods pulled off the market — and the decisions we will have to make are a lot more contentious. Given how much I’ve written, I’ll not bore you with more here.

Organic Food Marketing

Another example is organic marketing and foods (and I’m going to write a bit more on this than the above). I personally eat a lot of organic food. My reason for doing so is that without further information about how conventional food is grown (pesticide use, attempts to reduce runoff, etc.), organic is the best proxy I have for finding food grown with “less impact”. I put that in quotes because it’s a really hard thing to judge — for example, current organic practices generally require more land to produce the same yields (for most crops — as always, there is variability). That said, I don’t sweat not buying organic either. It’s only an inadequate proxy after all. Eating less meat probably has a far greater impact. But that’s a lot of complexity in reasons that aren’t really going to be convincing in marketing materials. “It’s probably a little better (sometimes) than the conventionally grown alternative!” does not make a convincing advertisement. Instead, inadequacies in modern organic (see above about land use) are ignored and many activists and companies make claims that are far more about values than evidence.

It’s widely believed, for example, that organic food is literally more nutritious than conventionally grown food. The evidence for that is pretty uncertain. Some studies see a difference, many don’t and many that do see a difference show very small differences (or insignificant ones in the context of a full human diet). But many of us value the idea of eating more nutritiously. A claim that organic is more nutritious provides an easy way to support that value — even if just eating more vegetables (organically grown or not) would work just as well.

Another common idea is that organic foods are grown “without chemical pesticides or fertilizers”1. Of course organic methods do use chemical pesticides and fertilizers (copper fungicide, Bt sprays, manure and compost all are made of chemicals). Sometimes the common organically permitted pesticide is even more harmful than the conventional alternative. There are two main values being sold here. First, the idea that we can have agriculture and not impact the environment. Second, the idea that “chemicals” are dangerous and organic lets you avoid them.

For the first, human agriculture absolutely requires inputs. Our food crops are bred for yields and quality and often not good resistance to pests or tolerance of resource limitation. Thus, we fertilize them and apply pesticides to ward off pests and competitors — even organic farming must or suffer commercially infeasible yields. The second is implying that food that isn’t grown with organic is somehow dangerous to eat and yet there’s very little (broad, repeated) evidence that we’re getting dangerous levels of the pesticides used in conventional agriculture — the USDA measures produce every year and almost uniformly finds levels undetectable or well below regulatory limits (which are set well below levels where effects have been seen).

But let’s leave it at that. In general, I think organic agriculture has a lot going for it. But it’s currently being sold in a way that exaggerates its benefits while demonizing agriculture seen as being in opposition. Meanwhile, evidence and the scientific process is ignored or misused.

The Geek Manifesto is about a lot more than just this idea of evidence-based policy decisions. There are chapters applying it to education policy, health, law and order, environmentalism and more. Each showing how evidence is ignored or manipulated and how “the geeks” can change policy for the better. Most examples are directly taken from UK politics but most of it is very relevant to the United States (and at least in part most modern democracies) so don’t be put off by the UK-centrism. It’s got me thinking a lot about how to communicate ideas in a way that is actually effective and it’s well worth reading.

  1. If this phrase seems like a strawman and organic advocates wouldn’t literally say that, google the literal phrase “without chemical pesticides or fertilizers” (in quotes).