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"Disposable income"?

A mortgage adviser wanted to know our disposable income. We weren't sure how to answer, and the more we tried to drill down into what he meant by it, the more confusing it got. The concept seems to rely on two assumptions, both of which I disagree with: 1) that there's a clear binary division between needs and wants, and 2) that this corresponds to the distinction between regular recurring payments and ad-hoc spending (apart from food).

Lots of spending is irregular but necessary (e.g. car breakdown, essential appliance breakdown, dentist bills, vet bills). And lots of spending is regular but non-essential and could be cut back if we were struggling (e.g. charity giving, kids' extracurricular activities, subscriptions to video streaming services/magazines/websites).

He talked in terms of "money left in your account", but that's also a concept I found confusing: all money is either spent, given away, or saved/invested, so all of these involve it leaving your account (unless you "save" it by just leaving it sitting there, but that's not different in any mortgage-relevant way from moving it to a savings account). Whether you save money using a regular standing order to a savings account/investment vehicle, or by manually transferring some ad-hoc whenever you have a bit spare, or by just leaving it in your current account, is not a function of how wealthy or financially stable you are, it's a function of temperament (and, if there's any correlation between that temperament and mortgage suitability, it would probably go the other way: people organised enough to bother setting up a regular transfer to savings/investments are probably a better mortgage risk, even if they thereby have "less disposable income").

I'm aware we're quite privileged in that we have enough money for all our needs and most of our wants. If we were quite a bit poorer, then we would pay all the essential fixed bills (mortgage/rent, utilities, council tax, etc) and then be like "this is how much we have left for food and any other costs this month," so then we might have a better-defined idea what our "disposable income" was (even though it would be very low in that situation). But presumably most people in a position to be speaking to a mortgage adviser aren't in that situation. For us it's more like a complex system with feedback loops: we spend on non-essential stuff to the extent that we have spare money, and spend less when money is tighter, but it's kind of organic and averaged out over longish time periods, not like "we have X pounds and Y pence left at the end of this month." Big discretionary purchases like furniture/appliances and (in non-pandemic times) holidays dwarf the small everyday discretionary spending on things like games or takeaways, so I have no idea what our "regular" spending on that kind of thing is without doing a big calculation with rolling averages, and even then it would depend massively on what arbitrary time period you pick.

Would you be able to answer the question "how much is your disposable income?" I'm not asking for a number, just asking if you think it's a meaningful question.
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Recent book

(The title of this post is in the singular because I've been too busy these last few months trying to juggle homeschooling to have much time for reading, but thankfully schools have reopened now.)

An Elegant Solution – Anne Atkins

This book is delightful. It's so very, very Cambridge. It richly evokes a world of punting and college architecture and porters and May Balls and the Assassins' Guild and Gardies and interesting conversations at odd hours of the day and night. I really liked both the main characters, and so much of it was familiar and relatable, like Charlotte saying Cambridge was the first place she really felt at home, and that she no longer stood out, and that some other freshers found this change difficult to adjust to but she liked it; or the bit about how the intense eight-week terms mean that romantic relationships develop as much in a few weeks as they would in a few years in an office; or Theo having spent his childhood being told off by adults who then got even angrier because they mistook his quiet expression of distress for nonchalant defiance.

Maths and cryptocurrency both play a major role in the story. The characters are clever, most of them in a playful and fun way, and there's a lot of wordplay and etymological puns and nerdy in-jokes. I kept reading out particularly entertaining bits to Alex.

It's not perfect. I found there were slightly too many viewpoint characters for me to keep track of comfortably, and it wasn't always clear when the narrative shifted from one to another: if the shift happened over a page break so there wasn't the clue of an extra line break, and if the new section just started using "he" or "she" rather than a name, which it often did, then it wasn't clear it wasn't still talking about the previous character. There are a couple of bits where the author seems to withhold information just for the sake of it, rather than because it contributes to the suspense in any meaningful way. The unsympathetic characters are a bit caricatured. There was a loose thread that I was expecting to see tied up and wasn't as far as I could tell (gur pvephzfgnaprf bs Gurb'f sngure'f qrngu). And there were a lot of proofreading mistakes (there are two proofreaders credited in the acknowledgements, but it isn't consistent about the hyphenation between the two of them, so one is a proofreader and the other a proof-reader; there are a lot of capitalisation mistakes around dialogue, like "Hello," She said; and there are lots of misspelled proper names, like "Oepidus" or "Glaxo Smith Klein" or Don "McClean"). And I was a bit unconvinced by some of the cryptocurrency details. But overall it was a really good book: delightful and enjoyable enough to abundantly make up for these flaws. I think atreic and geekette8 would probably like it.

There is apparently a prequel, which I'd like to read next.
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Bitcoin

Bitcoin is having a moment. It's appreciated from $30k to $57k just this year so far (I predict $60k by the end of February). Tesla made more money by investing in Bitcoin in the last month than by selling cars in the last year.

I bought some in 2018, but only a tiny amount: not enough to be worth it as a hedge against losing savings to inflation or even as a dectuple-your-money-in-three-years strategy (although in hindsight I should have invested enough to do those things), but more as a very long-term hedge against Bitcoin eating most or all of the whole world economy and the haves and have-nots being defined by whether you own any Bitcoin at all. That sounds ludicrous and far-fetched, and I admit it's only a remote possibility, but it seemed plausible enough to invest a trivial amount to put myself on the right side of that binary divide.

(I don't think Bitcoin will ever become the default currency for everyday buying and selling of goods, because of the transaction costs, although possibly some other currency built on top of or backed by Bitcoin might. But I do think it will become more and more attractive as a long-term store of value. Maybe in the future your savings will be denominated in Bitcoin and you'll convert some into another currency about as often as you withdraw from an ISA or a pension fund.)

The market capitalisation of an asset (I only learned this recently) is the total value of all of that asset, calculated by multiplying the total amount that exists by the current market value. The current market capitalisation of bitcoin is... (drum roll) just over $1 trillion. (Sanity check: $50k * 21 million ~= 1 trillion, and 21 million is the hard upper limit on how many bitcoins can ever exist. It's this hard limit that makes Bitcoin attractive as an inflation-proof store of value.)
(I know market cap is kind of an abstract theoretical concept, in that if everyone holding bitcoins tried to sell all at once that would tank the price and they wouldn't actually make $1 trillion between them. But this doesn't make Bitcoin "not real", because the same is true of gold, or shares in a company, or probably most foreign currencies.)

Total world wealth is apparently 360 trillion. That means Bitcoin already accounts for 1/360 of world wealth, which is actually a lot closer to "eating the whole world economy" than I had thought. It also means that Bitcoin can only grow by another 360 times at most (not counting real-terms growth in world wealth, which will probably be only low sigle-digit percentages per year, which is relatively negligible).
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Top-down and bottom-up processing

A couple of Scott Alexander's latest posts (and some of his earlier ones) relate to the balance between how much you rely on incoming sensory information versus priors, or bottom-up versus top-down processing. (This is not as simplistic as saying "some people won't change their pre-existing beliefs even when confronted with contradictory evidence." Top-down processing is a vital component of anyone's cognition. It's what allows you to see some unconnected pieces of dog through the gaps in a fence and effortlessly perceive a whole dog, or to hear a cashier's shout distorted by a noisy supermarket into "ex ease" and know it's overwhelmingly likely to be "next please" and not "sex cheese". Everyone needs to give some weight to their priors and some weight to the new incoming information; it's just that some people in some situations err more in one direction than the other.) The balance between the two types of processing has implications for all sorts of things in psychology, like autism, schizophrenia, and depression.

I think this has also given me a new insight into the iNtuition–Sensing axis of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

(Brief digression about the MBTI: I'm not saying it has any particular objective validity (the Big Five is better for that, as it's supported by factor analysis), but pretty much any arbitrary personality classification system has some value, even Hogwarts houses, in that it provides a useful shorthand and shared vocabulary for talking about certain aspects of personality variation. Alex and I also found the MBTI helpful when we were at a church where we felt unhappy and alienated: it helped us understand that we weren't Wrong and the church wasn't Wrong, but the church was very F on the Thinking–Feeling axis and we were very T.)

I've always been a bit unsure about what the N–S axis represents. I thought maybe N meant "rich inner life, head in the clouds, comfortable with abstraction" and S meant "more concerned with concrete practical realities", and on that axis I'm more N. But now I'm wondering if another way of looking at the N–S axis is that it captures the the tradeoff space between top-down and bottom-up processing: how much you rely on new incoming sensory information versus the "intuition" of your priors. Under this interpretation, I'm very strongly S.

This is what makes me good at maths and programming and proofreading: I see the detail of what's actually there rather than what I expected to see. (Although I'm not completely immune to seeing what I expected to see: another pet hobby of Scott Alexander's is to sneak instances of repeated "the the" into his essays about top-down processing and seeing if anyone notices them, and even though I'm pretty good at spotting other typos, that one doesn't leap out at me in the same way. Luckily for my actual proofreading work, Word and Google Docs are good at spotting repeated words. Did you spot the "the the" I put in earlier in this post?)

It's also what makes me bad at engaging properly with Bible studies: I get hung up on the one point in the whole passage that says something that doesn't seem to make sense, and to me it feels like other people are spouting obvious platitudes while ignoring the elephant in the room, while to them it probably feels like I'm missing the forest for the trees and obsessing over a minor irrelevant detail. (The one time I ever led a study myself, it was on James 2, and I spent most of my preparation time trying to figure out whether there was any sensible explanation for the glaring inconsistency in verse 18 or whether it was just an error: where James, who is making an argument that faith without deeds is not enough and deeds are also needed, has his opponent saying "You have faith; I have deeds", rather than the other way round, and then answers them "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds." It turned out the others in the study had literally not noticed the inversion and had read it as if it said "You have deeds; I have faith", and even when I pointed it out, it didn't seem to bother them or have any effect on the high-level message they got from the passage, which was just that faith and deeds are both important.)

I'm also incapable of getting so absorbed in an activity that I forget to eat. I like the idea of being an abstract ethereal being of pure intellect who's untroubled by such base concerns as food, but in practice I can't pull it off, because the immediate sensory data of hunger is too salient for me and can't be overridden by mental focus on an activity.

Also, in the same way as Scott describes depressed people viewing all their expreiences through a depressive lens and therefore not being able to let neutral or positive experiences update their long-term depressive priors, I wonder if my "always like this fallacy" is something like the inverse of that: I over-update on my current experience, whether positive or negative, and feel like my whole life has always been like that and always will be. This seems to fit with over-weighting current incoming sensory information (using "sensory" in the same slightly broader way that Scott uses it) at the expense of priors.
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A few more Scott Alexander links

A couple more Scott Alexander posts I'm wishing I'd mentioned in my post last week are https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/02/23/in-favor-of-niceness-community-and-civilization/ and https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/03/24/guided-by-the-beauty-of-our-weapons/ , which are excellent arguments for arguing logically and in good faith rather than taking the importance of one's cause as an excuse for fighting dirty. "Logical debate has one advantage over narrative, rhetoric, and violence: it’s an asymmetric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys. ... Violence is a symmetric weapon; the bad guys’ punches hit just as hard as the good guys’ do."

Also, shout-outs for a couple of his latest posts: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/covidvitamin-d-much-more-than-you , which is a great example of one of his examinations of the state of research in some area in science or medicine, where he points out some of the logical and statistical errors the researchers make; and https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-the-cult-of-smart , which is a very interesting essay on intelligence and meritocracy and credentialism and so on (it's ostensibly a book review, but to a large extent he just uses the book as a jumping-off point for his own opinions on the topic, which makes it more interesting IMO than the phrase "book review" suggests). I don't agree with everything he says in this one, but I commend it to @Stark as an example of Scott getting emotional and impassioned about something (in part III).
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Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex / Astral Codex Ten)

Scott Alexander is my favourite blogger/essayist. He's an extremely smart psychiatrist who writes fascinating, insightful, often very funny (but also long) posts about lots of aspects of psychology, cognition, medicine, science in general, politics and culture. His ideas have shaped my thinking more than any other writer, with the possible exception of CS Lewis. He writes lucidly and compellingly on interesting topics, and has a brilliant ability to draw together ideas from wildly different fields and spot illuminating parallels between them. Until last year he blogged at Slate Star Codex (which is a near-anagram of his name), where most of the archives of his posts still are, but now he's publishing new posts at Astral Codex Ten (which is a better anagram).

I'm making this post partly prompted by someone who asked me and other fans of Scott's to recommend some favourite posts from the archives for new readers, and partly because I'm planning a post based on some of his most recent posts, so I wanted to write this as context in case people don't know who he is when I mention him.

I found the "recommend your favourite post" request hard, as I have trouble consciously remembering specific essays of Scott's and what's in them, but I do find his ideas have shaped my thinking so much that I sometimes say or write things I think are my own ideas and later embarrassingly find them in one of his old essays, where I must have first come across them. But here's a non-exhaustive list of some of his posts I particularly like.

https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/10/society-is-fixed-biology-is-mutable/ contrasts social and biological solutions to social problems, e.g. banning leaded petrol; https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/31/the-parable-of-the-talents/ is about innate ability versus effort, and uses the straightforward example of basketball ability to illuminate the emotionally and politically fraught example of intelligence; https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup/ is about the paradox of tolerance and about the outgroup not necessarily being who you think it is; https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/21/the-categories-were-made-for-man-not-man-for-the-categories/ explores where you draw the lines between categories and why, because often there's no factually correct division but just a variety of possible divisions with different tradeoffs; he argues convincingly in favour of accepting trans people as the gender they say they are, which makes it a good one to cite against the people who bafflingly label a Jewish Democrat-voting Trump-denouncing blogger who lives in a poly group home in California as a dangerous right-wing extremist; and https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-brick-in-the-motte/ popularised the concept of a motte-and-bailey argument, a discussion about which was what prompted the original request for post recommendations.

https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/03/17/what-universal-human-experiences-are-you-missing-without-realizing-it/ covers things like aphantasia (lack of visual imagination), and I just find the general principle of the essay really useful and insightful: to remember not to assume your own experiences are universal. https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/02/different-worlds/ is more of the same (i.e. people's experiences are more different than you realise), but on an interpersonal rather than individual sensory/mental level. It deals with filter bubbles and the way that people, presumably through no fault or merit of their own, just seem to consistently find themselves surrounded by certain types of people and thus have certain types of life experiences which are dramatically different to those of other seemingly-similar people. I am not the woman quoted in part IV, but I could have written something similar.

https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/01/24/conflict-vs-mistake/ categorises two different approaches to disagreements; the first couple of paragraphs are a bit jargony so I recommend starting with "Mistake theorists treat politics..." When I first read this, I thought it was saying that mistake theory was obviously right and I thought its description of conflict theory was a grotesque caricature of how some other people allegedly operate; and yet there are people who read it and came away identifying as conflict theorists, so again that shows how people are more different than I first believed.

https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/03/08/the-slate-star-codex-political-spectrum-quiz/ captures a distinction in political attitudes that's quite central to my thinking and a concept I often want to refer people to.

He's also doing some really interesting original research on birth order effects (see https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/01/08/fight-me-psychologists-birth-order-effects-exist-and-are-very-strong/ ). His annual survey of around 8000 people who read his blog skews heavily in favour of firstborns, and he's controlled for things like "some demographics have larger families so are less likely to be firstborns): just out of readers with one sibling, 71.4% of them are the elder. An interesting question is what exactly is being correlated with firstborn-ness here. It's something like intelligence, but not precisely that: the effect doesn't seem to be as strong in groups that are selected for intelligence but not selected for a kind of nerdiness or intellectual interestedness. People have suggested all sorts of armchair theories about why the correlation might exist, some biological (e.g. parental age, depletion of maternal nutrients) and some social (either that firstborns get more parental attention because there's less competition, or that later-borns have the advantage of a close-age peer to copy from and interact with, whereas firstborns have to learn to figure out more stuff for themselves and/or spend more time in their own imagination), so Scott is working on refining his results by drilling down into the effects of biological versus social siblings (e.g. biological siblings you didn't necessarily grow up with, versus adopted or step-siblings that you grew up with but weren't biologically related to), and I'm looking forward to seeing those results.

There was a post on his old LiveJournal on futarchy (which I can't now find on archive.org), which was the first one I remember ever reading and thinking this guy is worth following.

I also love his short stories, especially https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/10/30/sort-by-controversial/ , which is a really insightful take on social conflict in the internet age, and has given us the concept of a "scissor statement", which is a generically useful piece of mental architecture in the same way as "motte and bailey"; https://www.gwern.net/docs/fiction/2011-yvain-thestoryofemilyandcontrol.html , about an identical twin who is the "control group" for her sister, which is chilling and creepy and a great example of interesting speculative fiction; and https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/06/02/and-i-show-you-how-deep-the-rabbit-hole-goes/ , which is just really fun.

He also makes some very fun, silly, and nerdy posts, like the recent https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/list-of-fictional-cryptocurrencies , or his collections of Swifties, which are the best and cleverest I've seen anywhere: https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/08/14/fifty-swifties/ https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/06/15/fifty-more-swifties/ https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/10/02/swifties-3-the-race-is-not-to-the-swifty/
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Travellers (TV review)

Episodes 1-5 were OK, a bit meh, didn't really grab me in the same way as Timeless or Manifest, but I was enjoying it enough to keep watching.
Episode 6 just degenerated into a massive pile of incoherence.

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I am not normally a big nitpicker of fiction. I'm fairly happy to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the show. But there's a limit to how much sense and consistency can be sacrificed for the sake of dramatic tension, and this episode went way past that limit. I don't think I'll bother watching the rest of this series.
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Recent books

Looks like I've read a lot of psychological thrillers lately. And one collection of sci-fi stories.

Exhalation – Ted Chiang
This is a really brilliant collection of sci-fi stories. They are proper speculative what-if stories, like sci-fi should be, not just relationship drama in space or whatever. Almost every one is thought-provoking and memorable.

The Escape Room – Megan Goldin

This is about a group of high-powered banking employees who are summoned to a corporate team-building exercise which turns out to be a too-real escape room where their secrets are revealed to each other.
The actual escape room part was pretty unsatisfying. The puzzles weren't very interesting, and the characters were very bad at solving them (like there was a message written in a straightforward A=1 B=2 etc alphanumeric cipher that they didn't have a clue what to do with). They're supposed to be very intelligent people who work with their minds. My 10yo could have solved it easily and my 7yo could probably have got there sooner than these people did.
The most memorable part about this book for me was the horrifying peek inside the City banking industry. These are people who get into work before dawn and leave after midnight, then commute home across London, and subsist on energy drinks and stimulants, who have to wear expensive designer clothes and makeup as part of the job requirements, and who are devastated to get only a £300k bonus if a colleague got a £600k one.

The Dilemma – B A Paris

Livia is throwing a huge 40th birthday party that she's been really looking forward to. Her daughter Marnie is on her gap year and can't get a flight home for the party. She actually does get a flight at the last minute, and arranges with her father to keep it secret from her mother and turn up to the party as a birthday surprise. But the plane crashes. Her father doesn't know if she was definitely on it and if she's OK, and he's unsure whether to tell Livia, or to just try and keep everything normal until after the party, since it might all be fine and the party means so much to Livia. But Livia has her own secret involving Marnie that she's weighing up whether to tell her husband or not.
I don't think this was as good as B A Paris's debut Behind Closed Doors, but it was pretty good.

Don't Say a Word – A L Bird

I was excited to read this because A L Bird's The Good Mother is possibly my favourite psychological thriller of all time, but this wasn't as good. It was quite good and had a reasonable twist, but not spectacular. It's about a single mother who's on the run with her 10yo son from something in her past.
I also found it quite implausible that a mother of a 10yo boy would *mistakenly* assemble a Lego kit the boy was given and not realise the boy would want to do it himself. It's not even like the usual "some assembly required" toys, where some kids would want it done for them so they could get on with playing with the toy and others would want to do it themeslves; with Lego the whole point is doing it yourself. I almost wonder if it was originally written as Playmobil or something and then changed.

The Classroom – A L Bird

Another deliberate attempt on my part to seek out more A L Bird, but this one also doesn't live up to her first one.
It's about a mother who's anxious about her daughter starting school, and a teacher who seems too interested in the little girl.
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Watching You – Lisa Jewell

I liked this. There were several interesting characters with interconnected lives. I particularly liked the probably-autistic teenage boy, who I was worried was going to end up being a villain because he liked to spy on people from his window, but he was actually portrayed very sympathetically and ended up being key to solving a mystery. I liked his style of thinking and his banter with his father was enjoyable. I don't remember all the details of this, but would like to reread it sometime.

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

This is about a psychiatrist, Theo, working with a woman, Alice, who shot her husband a few years ago and hasn't spoken a word since. He wants to get through to her where other doctors have failed, and solve the mystery.
This was quite compelling, with the artistic lifestyle of Alice and her husband well portrayed.
The outcome was impressively twisty.
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The Playdate – Alex Dahl

This is about a kid who goes on a playdate to a school friend's house and then disappears - when her parents go to collect her, the supposed family house where she was playing is just an Airbnb that a kidnapper was renting.
This was quite an interesting and twisty story, but I didn't like the characters. Both her parents, especially her mother, could have done a lot more to save her a lot sooner, and since they didn't, it came across like they didn't care that much.
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Sara's Game – Ernie Lindsey

This is about a woman whose kids are kidnapped from their separate schools simultaneously, by someone who contacts her wanting to play a "game" with her for their lives.
Sara is a strong, resourceful and likeable character. I didn't know how to feel about this book. On one hand, the "game" is cleverly designed and kind of fun in an abstract way, like a treasure hunt across town following one clue to the next, culminating in an escape-room-like climax (more so than The Escape Room). But on the other hand, the fact that her kids' lives are the stakes in the game, and the opponent is clever and calculating and capable of hurting them, turns it into something horrific. It's a weird superposition of emotions. It's like this book is partway between a fun escape room / treasure hunt / puzzle hunt and something like Saw, which I haven't seen and really don't want to see because even brief descriptions of it are too horrible. It seems weird that something could even exist that's in between the two.
It's comparable to reading an erotic story that incorporates something like your kinks but takes them further than you would like, and you don't know whether to be intrigued or repulsed.
There are two sequels. Normally if I like a book I'm glad there are sequels, but in this case I felt for Sara so much and was so relieved that everything turned out OK for her and her family, that I was actually sad that there were sequels, because I thought they'd suffered enough and deserved a quiet life from now on. I guess that's a mark of good writing, to make me care that much about fictional characters as if they were real.

The Choice – Alex Lake

This has a very compelling hook: a couple's children are kidnapped, and the ransom demanded is the mother in exchange for the kids.
I really enjoyed this. The couple come across as having a strong relationship, and work together to solve the very difficult situation they find themselves in. They are brave and ingenious, and work against the bad guy rather than against each other.
I was guessing all through until the final reveal, but also found the final reveal plausible.

The Catch – T M Logan

This is told from the POV of a father whose young adult daughter's new boyfriend seems too good to be true. The father is suspicious that he's hiding something, but the mother and the young woman herself think he's being silly or paranoid and get angry with him for not dropping it. He becomes increasingly obsessed with spying on the boyfriend and tracking him and trying to prove there's something not right about him.
This was good and kept me guessing, and I like the double meaning in the title.

The Wife – Shalini Boland

This is about a woman who fainted on her wedding day and doesn't remember the events immediately beforehand. Now she's celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary at the same venue and it's starting to stir some memories. She's also trying to track down her missing sister, who's been semi-estranged and away travelling for most of her adult life.
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The Family Upstairs – Lisa Jewell

I didn't enjoy this as much as others by Lisa Jewell. I didn't find it very convincing.
There's a rich but otherwise normal family living in a big house in London. The parents let an acquaintance come for the weekend to film a music video for her band, but she doesn't leave after it's over. Then her boyfriend comes to stay, then another family who are friends of theirs move in as well, and none of them leave. Then the father of the newest family becomes some kind of cult leader, sleeping with both the other women, and making increasingly strict and abusive rules for the rest of the house to follow. The kids (his own and the ones who originally lived in the house) are made to drop out of school and are literally never allowed to leave the house, and they wear home-made black robes and eat only vegetables. It's all very messed-up. I don't have a problem with messed-up in the service of an interesting and compelling plot, but this seemed more like a catalogue of random and implausible bad things happening.
It didn't seem plausible to me that the other adults in the house would just accept and submit to all this, especially given the negative effects on their own children, and it didn't seem plausible that no one from the kids' schools or the neighbourhood or former friends of the original couple would check in with them.
Also, some chapters are narrated by Henry, the son of the family originally living in the house, and some chapters follow a woman called Lucy several years later. Henry has a sister who he only refers to as "my sister", and as the reader you begin to suspect that she is Lucy, but this is not revealed until near the end. But at one point in the middle of a chapter Henry does refer to her as Lucy. It doesn't come across as a big reveal, and he always refers to her as "my sister" every other time, so I think it's just a mistake on the author's part.

Apple of my Eye – Claire Allan

This is about a pregnant woman receiving sinister anonymous notes from someone who wants her to think her husband is cheating on her.
I think she was a bit too quick to believe them without any evidence, and to move to "oh no everything I thought I believed was a lie and I'm now going to have to raise this baby alone." The couple seemed to have a fairly good relationship at the start, so she should have had a stronger prior for "someone is playing a prank" or "someone is spreading malicious lies" than for "my husband is cheating".
There was quite a good twist, although I figured it out fairly early on.
Also, if you are trying to convince someone that their partner is unfaithful, I'd have thought fake evidence would be more successful than anonymous notes (or maybe both in tandem). The person writing the notes could have planted receipts from lingerie shops or romantic restaurants or something, and I'm not sure why they didn't.

The Good Samaritan – C J Parsons

This one was very good.
The main character, Carrie, is a mother who's on the autistic spectrum and finds it difficult to read others' emotions or express her own in conventionally recognisable ways. I identified with her for this, although I think she is more extreme in that direction than me.
Her 5yo daughter Sofia goes missing in a park. A woman she's never met helps her look, but they don't find Sofia and end up calling the police. A day or two later, a man she's never met finds Sofia locked in a shed while he was out for a walk, and rescues her, unharmed. He has a good alibi for the actual disappearance.
Both of these "good Samaritans" become quite close to Carrie quite quickly over the following weeks – but there are hints (to Carrie and/or the police, or just the reader) that each of them might be hiding something or might be involved in the abduction. Each of them becomes aware of the other's existence and warns Carrie that the other is suspect (for their tangential involvement in the events of the abduction and their subsequent fast-moving relationship with Carrie) and is not to be trusted, and Carrie doesn't know who to trust, and neither did I. The book really kept me guessing, right up until the climax, where Carrie is put in an acute situation where her and Sofia's lives depend on her making a snap decision which of the two of them to trust.
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XKCD "Set in the present"

I wrote in this post about six months ago:

"Also, minor quibble, but the "present" bit is set in 2020 and the "future" bit in 2025. Why not just have them in 2014 and 2019, to avoid having to set most of the book in an unknown future? That always bugs me a bit - unless you're writing sci-fi that has to be set in the future, writing ordinary fiction set in the future just seems unnecessarily set up to fail. A book covering the current period but not mentioning the coronavirus pandemic breaks suspension of disbelief, and who knows what other world events will happen in the next 5 years that will have the same problem."

Randall Munroe of XKCD agrees with me: