All The Books I Read In 2023


Some notes and quotes from the books I have read this year:

  • Arbitrary Lines

    • Zoning is a relatively recent invention (~1920) and its purpose was to “prop up incumbent property values, slow the growth of cities, segregate the United States based on race and class, and enforce an urban ideal of detached single-family housing.”
    • Three ways zoning increases housing costs:
      • Blocking housing altogether, either by blocking new housing, prohibiting affordable housing or restraining density
      • By forcing housing that is built to be higher quality than residents might want through minimum lot sizes, minimum floor area requirements and minimum parking requirements
      • By adding extra layers of review to the permitting process that take time and money.
    • “Relatively little housing is being built, and where it is built at all, the housing is kept prohibitively expensive by unnecessary mandates and a costly permitting process.”
    • “In nearly every major US city, apartments are banned outright in at least 70 percent of residential areas. In suburbs, this share is often much higher, if apartments aren’t banned altogether.”
    • “While a developer has the incentives and local knowledge to make an educated guess at how much parking a particular project actually requires - if they supply too few spaces, they can’t lease or sell the units; if they build too many spaces, they lose money - minimum parking requirements supersede this judgement with arbitrary standards.”
    • “By forcing cities to sprawl out, writing automobile dependence into law, and pricing Americans out of our most temperate cities, zoning is such a slow motion environmental disaster and deserves to be recognized as such. If we are serious about preserving undeveloped land, reducing our fossil fuel dependence, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions, zoning has to go.”
    • “Few US cities price the social costs with lost open space, congestion, or new infrastructure correctly, giving a free pass to sprawl developers and residents to impose costs on the rest of society.”
    • “Standard zoning rules frequently force developers to build at least one or two parking spaces per residential unit. In this regard, zoning assumes that every resident owns a car, which may not be the case in many walkable or transit-accessible neighborhoods. And once a unit is built with a parking spot and the resident has already been forced to eat the cost, why not just buy a car?” After all, most zoning codes will also force any location they might travel to - from shops to offices to bars - to also provide off-street parking. This will usually come in the form of a massive surface lot, which has the added effect of reducing densities and making walking profoundly unpleasant. In this way, zoning simultaneously forces us to collectively subsidize driving while making walking, biking, and taking transit as uncomfortable as possible."
    • Some low hanging fruit changes that can be made to local zoning regulations:
      • End single-family zoning
      • End minimum parking requirements
      • Eliminate or lower minimum lot size and floor area regulations
    • “As long as we encourage Americans to think of their homes as an investment and allow every small suburb to incorporate and determine what can and can’t be built, zoning will always serve to perpetuate housing scarcity, stagnation, segregation and sprawl. We can’t tinker our way out of this one; the longer-term objective must be zoning abolition.”
    • “While zoning codes often ignore what a normal person might think of as negative externalities - such as noise, smells, smoke, or traffic - they are often packed to the gills with regulations to address ‘externalities’ that simply don’t deserve regulatory deference.” Things like aesthetic changes and the “community-character” dog whistle.
    • “Given how technically and politically challenging it can be to overhaul an entire zoning code, zoning codes often stick around decades after their dictates have stopped being relevant.”
    • Houston has no zoning regulations but does have deed restrictions. These are “private, voluntary agreements among property owners - typically the homeowners of a particular sub-division or neighborhood - regulating how they can and cannot use their land. These are literally tied to the deed, meaning the property owner must agree to them as a condition of the sale.” Roughly 25% of the city has deed restrictions.
    • “The history of zoning referenda in Houston tells a clear story: when their deed restrictions were threatened, middle- and upper-income homeowners started agitating for zoning. Public enforcement of deed restrictions should thus be understood as a clever compromise that ultimately keeps the broader city free of the dead hand of zoning: by granting those pro-zoning minorities the opportunity to voluntarily opt in to the restrictive land-use regulations they desire within their immediate vicinity, Houston is able to protect the vast majority of the city from the types of arbitrary use distinctions, density limits, and raucous public hearings that cause so much harm in every other US city. That is to say, in exchange for respective pockets of private land-use regulation, Houston is able to grow, adapt and evolve like no other city.”
    • Without zoning things tend to sort themselves out naturally:
      • Industries need to be where land is cheap and transportation is accessible, and complaining neighbors are few and far between.
      • Large offices and commercial centers thrive on the visibility and access afforded by major corridors and transit interchanges.
      • Residential developments are content to fill up the quiet side streets in between, along with inoffensive retail - think corner stores and cafes.
    • “The ultimate lesson of land-use regulation in unzoned Houston is that, if a vocal minority of homeowners with unusually strong preferences for zoning are given what they want, they will leave the rest of the city alone. Once such groups are satiated with deed restrictions that perform roughly the same function - yet without doing all the damage of typical zoning code - it’s unclear that there will be any constituency for zoning left to raise a stink. And once zoning is out of the way, a lot of the other challenges facing cities become much easier to solve.”
  • Cloudmoney

    • “The ability to chaperone payments not only entrenches the overall power of the banking sector, but also enables three further things. First, transaction surveillance: the money-passers can monitor your transactions to collect sensitive data about your daily life. Secondly, transaction censorship: they can block transactions they do not like, and, because you do not directly hold the money, can free and expropriate it. Thirdly, mass automation leads to further corporate power: remote digital corporations require remote digital money.”
    • “Conspirators” lobbying and influencing infrastructure against cash:
      • The banking sector - locks people into full dependence on the banking sector for all payments
      • The payment companies - they make fees from facilitating payments
      • The financial technology industry - cash does not gel well with automation
      • States and central banks - greater surveillance over a country’s economic activity and greater monetary control
    • “Banks do not ‘lend state money’ to people who ask for loans. To return to the more accurate casino metaphor, they simply issue out digital chips to people who ask for loans, and in return extract loan agreements from them. In more technical terms, banks expand the short-term IOUs they issue as a way to build up a war chest of long-term future loan agreements that are worth more than the IOUs they issue to get them.”
    • “The basic principles of digital payment are straightforward: there are banks, messaging platforms between them, and messaging devices for us. From here you can understand most payment ‘innovations’, which normally entail building a layer on top of the same system or creating a new way to message the banks directly to bypass the card networks, or to augment those card networks. ApplePay and GooglePay, for example, are just new ways to send messages into the same old system, turning my phone into the equivalent of a card (with the side effect that Google now gets a new data stream of my payment activity).”
    • “But banks have begun to present ATMs as a helpful but outdated public service that they are encumbered with running. It is like a casino presenting the redemption of their chips as a charitable service they offer, rather than a legal requirement. Banks now present themselves like this while slowly closing down the cash infrastructure. This makes the chief competitor to their chips - cash - harder to access, which in turn makes cash seem less convenient, which in turn pushes more people towards their systems, an influx that is then used to justify closing down further cash infrastructure.”
    • “Partisans with an anti-cash agenda paint cash as an impediment - blocking the road for the fast cars seeking to overtake it. Yet there is no conflict in maintaining both systems. The closest transport analogy for cash is the bicycle, and going cashless is like closing down bike lanes that run parallel to roads in a city of cars.”
    • “Cash gives space for back-street, small-scale, family-run-business styles of capitalism. Corporations might battle each other for dominance, but they are allied in their desire to conquer that style. They want to swallow up mom-and-pop shops and consolidate them into a major branded chain, or to displace an informal street market with a supermarket listed on the stock exchange. Cash, in other words, appears resistant to both the ethos and future development of corporate capitalism.”
    • “Progressive social change is often marked by the legalisation of once criminal behaviours, examples of which include homosexuality, interracial relationships and - following Prohibition in the US - alcohol. Authorities attempted to cast drinking alcohol as a black-and-white case of ‘doing wrong’, and yet tens of millions of people continued to drink, suggesting that while they recognized its illegality, they did not see drinking as immoral. Rather, it was a ‘grey area’, and attempts to clamp down on grey areas have always resulted in driving them underground, where cash provides life support. Cannabis too relied on the cash economy while its advocates fought for its legalisation. Now that it paying off as the positive role it can play in many medical conditions is being recognized. But if cash were to be fully phased out, this type of life support could be severely curtailed. Zealous attempts to choke black markets have the effect of simultaneously choking routes for creative deviance in a society. In a world where a citizen’s every activity can be monitored via digital payments, the ability for law enforcement to locate and stamp out grey areas greatly increases.” Without cash grey area markets would not survive long enough to gain acceptance.
    • “Imagine a theocratic state blocking the ability to purchase alcohol, or an authoritarian state punishing political opponents by placing limits on their spending. If you think that sounds unlikely, these systems are already being piloted: for example, the Australian ‘cashless welfare card’ stops welfare recipients spending in non-approved stores for non-approved goods.”
    • “While some people may like apps and others not, the banks are going to push you onto them regardless, because they have a commercial imperative to do so. And in the same way as they have to change attitudes towards cash, so they have to find ways to wean non-compliant people off physical service. I have worked with user experience design teams in London who are given explicit briefs by banks to help them solve the ‘problem’ of older people who still expect this service.”
    • While digital finance might have had a major win during Covid, the commercial banks that provide the underlying digital money find themselves in a delicate position. Their pandemic success may have been too rapid, making central banks nervous. Central bankers know that if they push Cental Bank Digital Currency as a replacement they could destablise those very institutions. Central banks are not in the business of putting commercial banks out of business. If, however, they do not provide a form of ‘digital cash’, they risk creating public demand for dark-market alternatives like the stablecoins Tether provides."
    • “The desire to use cash is presented by the fintech industry as a stubborn refusal to move forward with the times, but I prefer to cast it as a stubborn refusal to go with the grain for corporate capitalism.”
  • Internet for the People

    • “Those who suffer the most from a profit-driven system belong to communities that are too poor or too remote to merit the attention of the broadband monopolists. They are ignored because more money can be made elsewhere.”
    • “In an internet organized by the profit motive, not everyone can obtain the resources they need to freely choose the course of their own lives. Nor can everyone participate in the decisions that affect them. This isn’t just because most people aren’t executives and investors. At a deeper level, even the decisions of the decision-makers are delimited by an imperative nobody controls. The people can’t rule because, in a sense, nobody can.”
    • Community networks are being setup in places like Chattanooga. “It has also become one of the country’s most popular ISPs, by charging reasonable rates for some of the fastest residential speeds in the world. Moreover, it makes access a priority: low-income families are eligible for a special plan that gives them 100 megabit-per-second service for less than half the standard rate.” Publicly and cooperatively owned ‘community networks’ can supply better service at a lower cost than private ISPs.
    • “Hospitals and universities also tend to loom large in local economies. A 2021 study found they were the top employers in twenty-seven states. Sometimes these entities are public, sometimes private, but they all benefit from public money and tax breaks. What if, in exchange, they were required to purchase their internet access from community networks? Their subscription fees could help defray the costs of supplying households with free internet from the same fiber.”
    • “Embedding community networks in these kinds of arrangements would both buoy them financially and reinforce the democratic values that should define them, values that push against the inhuman power of the profit motive and towards the possibility of people ruling themselves together.”
    • Simply having more competition isn’t a solution. “Competition works best for customers who are worth competing for. Many people will remain ‘bad’ customers no matter how much competition exists, because they’re too poor, or they live in places too remote to be profitable.” “An ISP that faces competitive pressure is just as likely to spy on its customers' browser history and sell that information to advertisers, for instance, or to violate net neutrality by creating premium ‘fast lanes’ for certain kinds of content. Indeed, competitive pressure may push firms to do these sorts of things more frequently, as they search for additional revenue to offset thinning profit margins.”
    • “Making markets more regulated or more competitive won’t touch the deeper problem, which is the market itself. The online malls are engineered for profit-making, and the profit-making is what makes them inequality machines. The exploitation of gig and ghost workers; the reinforcement of racism, sexism, and other oppressions; the amplification of right-wing propaganda - none of these diverse forms of social damage would exist if they weren’t profitable.”
    • Protocolizing and interoperability are possible solutions.
    • “The goal of deprivatization is not an internet with more competitive markets, but an internet where markets matter less. This is why, while working to disassemble the online malls, we must also be assembling a constellation of alternatives that can lay claim to the space they currently occupy. And these must be real alternatives, not smaller or more entrepreneurial versions of the tech giants but institutions of a fundamentally different kind, engineered to curtail the power of the profit motive and to enshrine the practices and principles of democratic decision-making. Some are already emerging in rudimentary form - self-governing social media communities, worker-owned app-based services - but they will need to be refined and expanded through public investment.”
  • Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance

    • Electronic logging devices (ELDs) are mandated in all trucks in the US. These create a digital records of all activities with the intention of being able to better police safety rules.
    • “The ‘wiggle room’ around rules is a site for strategic negotiation, for economic functioning, for relationship management - for both good and ill. So when we decide to more strictly enforce rules using technology without accounting for what has been happening in the gap, we may well disrupt the social order of a particular context in unforeseen ways.”
    • “Technology often fails as a solution because the problems it’s intended to solve aren’t, at their core, technology problems - they’re social, economic, and cultural problems, and they require solutions in the same register.”
    • “The ‘race to the bottom’ engendered by deregulation took its toll on drivers not only economically, but in terms of the conditions under which they did their day-to-day work. Overwork and cost cutting wreaked havoc on drivers' physical and mental health and wellbeing - leading transport economist Michael Belzer to compare post-deregulation trucking workplaces to ‘sweatshops on wheels’.”
    • “Rather than significantly raising wages or improving working conditions to improve driver retention, the industry has responded by lobbying for the removal of what they see as burdensome safety regulations, and by recruiting new demographics of workers into trucking.” There isn’t a labor shortage, there is a better pay and conditions shortage.
    • “It is widely acknowledged that truckers lie on their logbooks. They do so routinely - so much that they are often dismissively referred to as ‘comic books,’ ‘coloring books,’ or ‘swindle sheets.’ Recall that these documents are used for regulatory and compliance purposes, but typically not for driver compensation; thus, adjusting a log doesn’t have a detrimental financial effect for a driver, and much more likely frees him up to make more money.”
    • “The problem’s roots are economic - to make a living, truckers have little choice but to break the law and to put themselves, and the motoring public, in danger. … Rather than change the underlying conditions that give rise to lawbreaking, regulators and companies have tried to make it more difficult for truckers to falsify their time records. They have done this by mandating the use of digital devices, integrated into trucks themselves, that create a record of the hours the truck is driven.”
    • “A driver using paper logs, faced with a full truck stop, might hunt for parking at the next stop even while officially off duty. But because the ELD automatically detects a truck’s movement, doing this might thrust a digitally monitored driver from being off duty to being on the clock again - potentially putting him in violation of the rules. A digitally monitored trucker thus has much less flexibility about when he can stop for the night.”
    • “Many truckers agreed that they were under time pressure in their work, and that they often didn’t get enough rest to drive safely. But focusing on truckers' log fudging treated a symptom of the problem, not its root cause. Truckers weren’t tired because they were able to falsify their logbooks; they were tired because the industry was set up in ways that necessitated them breaking rules. By focusing on what truckers were doing to react to that system, the ELD mandate viewed them - the least powerful members of the industry - as untrustworthy liars who needed to be better policed, rather than professionals doing their best to negotiate difficult logistics in the face of countervailing demands.”
    • “It’s that unacknowledged, unaccounted-for work time that truckers say, is the real driver of fatigue in the industry! Truckers pointed overwhelmingly to a chief example: what is known in the industry as ‘detention time.’ When truckers arrive at a shipper’s or receiver’s terminal, they don’t immediately drive up to be loaded or unloaded. Instead, they often face very long (and unpredictable) delays while they wait for a dock and personnel to become available.”
    • “Detention time causes significant problems for hours-of-service compliance, as a driver facing a long delay may run out of available hours to drive to his next destination.”
    • “But crucially, the study did not find that the rollout of electronic monitoring led to any improvement in the safety outcomes we actually care about. Truck crashes didn’t decrease after the mandate began to be enforced - and for small carriers, they actually increased. The number of fatalities in large truck crashes hit a thirty-year high in the first year of the ELD mandate, even as general vehicles fatalities decreased.”
    • “Imagine you are told you have about ten hours to complete a six-hundred-mile trip to see your grandmother. But you know that if it actually takes you ten-and-a-half or even eleven hours, no great negative consequence will befall you …. Now imagine that you have to make this same trip, but your grandmother has told you she’ll write you out of your will if you don’t arrive within ten hours exactly. How do you feel? How do you drive? Do you take time to stretch, or get a cup of coffee, or go a little slower through an icy patch?”
    • “Information technologies can attenuate this connection between work tasks and embodied knowledge - by breaking up work processes into discrete, rationalized, lower-skill tasks; by decontextualizing knowledge from the physical site of labor to centralized, abstract databases; or by converting work practices into ostensibly objective, calculable, neutral records of human action. In these ways, information technologies legitimate some forms of knowledge while rendering others less valuable, to potentially detrimental effect on worker power.”
    • “Not only do these capabilities replace road knowledge and self-knowledge, but they introduce a new form of valuable information - aggregation and comparison of information about multiple drivers, gleaned from afar. A driver may state that a road is currently impassable due to weather conditions, an assertion that would previously have been difficult to challenge - but using aggregated data, his dispatcher may responded that ‘I know the weather is not too bad for you to continue driving down I-80 because I see that I have four other trucks on that road now.'”
    • Some ways to resist being monitored or get around rules:
      • Ghost logs - Log in to the ELD using another username/password when you reach your limits. There are often demo and dummy accounts.
      • Mis-logging non-driving work - Loading/unloading time is manually entered by drivers. You can log it as off-duty rest time to preserve work hours.
      • Rolling to stops - “In one of my observations at a trucking firm, a driver had very little time remaining on his fourteen-hour duty and eleven-hour driving clock, yet was still a few miles from his pickup point. The dispatcher instructed the driver to park the truck at a Walmart he was approaching and to record himself as being off duty on his ELD…. At that point, the driver was legally required to take a ten-hour rest break in order to gain more work time. But the dispatcher instead instructed the driver to ‘roll’ the remaining handful of miles to the pickup point, at a speed of less than fifteen miles per hour, in order to avoid triggering the ELD from registering the truck as ‘driving.'”
      • Some companies selling ELDs market themselves as companies that only track what is legally required for compliance and nothing more.
      • Quitting - Many older drivers just quit instead of having to be constantly monitored. This is bad from a safety perspective since it means there will be more newer drivers and they are more likely to cause crashes.
      • Collaborative omission - When a law enforcement officer inspects a driver’s time logs they ask for documents to verify their recent whereabouts. Some truck stops stopped including the time on receipts, they just had the location and date. The lack of time gives the truckers more leeway to fudge things.
    • “Some industry insiders believe that it’s only a matter of time before trucker wearables and driver-facing camera systems become standard - or even legally required, following the path of the ELD before them.” Things like detecting if the driver’s eyes close or look away from the road for too long and sounding an alarm and sending a video to his boss.
    • “A naive reading of the situation might suggest that automation obviates the need for surveillance. But recall that even the most sophisticated autonomous vehicle systems on the market today require humans to maintain attention and be at the ready to step in. And recall that humans are extremely bad at maintaining such attention - and will look for creative ways around doing so. So how do we impel humans to fulfill their roles? By monitoring them, and nagging them, and imposing legal liability on them if they fail. Despite marketing rhetoric of humans kicked back and napping while their cars autonomously zip them around town, the consumer market for autonomous vehicles is rife with surveillance.”
    • “The problem in trucking is that drivers are incentivized to work themselves well beyond healthy limits - sometimes to death. The ELD doesn’t solve this problem, or even attempt to do so. It doesn’t change the fundamentals of the industry - its pay structure, its uncompensated time, its danger, its lack of worker protections. At best, it prevents some of the very worst-of-the-worst carriers from pushing drivers too far - but as we have seen, it remains both possible (and sometimes encouraged) for drivers to exploit the limitations of electronic monitoring.”

See also