Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Recommendations from 2023

Another year panning for gold, another year finding wondrous nuggets in our cultural stream. Here are some of my favourites:


This year, my surroundings opened up to interpretation like never before, and I have Tristan Gooley’s books to thank for it. I read "How to Read Nature" and "The Natural Navigator" in puzzlement by the mystery of why would extremely practical and life-enriching pointers such as these not be better known. The shape of the trees around you indicates the path of the sun! A glance at the crescent moon, or at a flag flapping in the wind, is often enough to get your bearings! It’s astounding, the stuff we are oblivious to, and that Gooley points out effectively and lovingly.

In the late nineties, I would listen to Pulp nonstop. I imagined the band leader, Jarvis Cocker to be a kindred spirit, going by lyrics and sensitivities alone, in the naive way a fan does with their stars. Then for a long time I stopped listening to them. When I revisited them, I was apprehensive: I’ve found other early musical loves cringeworthy in hindsight. But Pulp still holds up pretty well, and Cocker may be a kindred spirit after all, judging by the excellent "Good Pop Bad Pop": a sort of memoir of his and the band’s early days that is funny, endearing, and seductive.

Wally Koval’s "Accidentally Wes Anderson" is a coffee table book with a compilation of places and things that match the director’s aesthetic. They are a joy to browse—and note that you can do that on the website rather than on the page. Not every photo lands—these shots sometimes aim at a parody rather than the original, the way ChatGPT can parrot the caricature of a poem with none of its soul—but when they do they’re exquisite.

I wrote recently of my love for Chris Oliveros’ "Are you willing to die for the cause?", and I must include it in my year-end list as well. An oral history in comic-book form about the Québec revolutionaries of the 1960s with implications for activism today.

Finally, Steve Easterbrook’s "Computing the Climate" is a great overview of the early and current work to model our climate. I’m biased, of course—Steve was my doctoral advisor—, but I can proudly and safely recommend it to everyone looking to understand how climate science is done, regardless of their previous knowledge on the matter. There are fascinating bits here everywhere, from the earliest models, calculated by hand a century ago, to the bleeding edge work at the top climate centres in the world, and they are explained with care and with respect for your intelligence.


Speaking of climate change: I wonder if Paul Murray’s "The Bee Sting" might not be the best novel published on the topic. Or rather, and perhaps because, it’s not about climate change, but about our attitude when the writing is on the wall, when something bad is about to happen and everyone can see it, but they still can’t help play their part in the unfolding tragedy. The sense of impending doom is personal and familial rather than societal, and that makes it more real. The novel doesn’t beat any drums, and it is about many, many other things as well: secrets, isolation, status, money, love, sexuality, the mystical in the modern, the tides that carry us, and the hurt we are responsible for; patterns that reverberate and harmonize through 600+ gripping pages. Wonderful, darkly comic, but also painful.

For something lighter, how about a murder mystery? Last year I pointed to a book by Stuart Turton ("The Seven Deaths…"), this year, I’m happy to recommend another one, "The Devil and the Dark Water". A sort of Holmes and Watson pair work to tackle an impossible puzzle of a murder at sea. Impossible unless they accept the supernatural as an explanation—should they? A very fun read.

I loved Clare Pollard’s translation of Ovid’s "Heroides". It’s an ancient text, but it feels fresh even now! The poem is structured in the form of letters from women in myth—letters in which the writers (Phaedra, Medea, Penelope, and others) describe their plights and their dilemmas. Pollard says it is “a daring act of literary transvestism” for Ovid to have taken this on, and I agree. She also points out it is the first book of dramatic monologues, and the first example we have of epistolary fiction. And it is so good, so raw, so human!

There is a podcast, Backlisted, which I discovered this year but can only take in very small doses, as it’s full of great book recommendations that would take me forever to chase. For instance, these three are books they mentioned, that I adored, and that I’d like to pass on to you: first, Raymond Briggs’ "Fungus the Bogeyman", a delightfully dour children’s picture book depicting the life of a working class monster. Second, Jessica Au’s "Cold Enough for Snow", a slim, calm, meditative novel about a mother-daughter holiday in Japan, and third, Pete Dexter’s "Deadwood", a fantastically good western—no connection to the also great HBO show, or at least no connection that HBO would want to acknowledge.

TV and Movies

This was the year that "Succession" wrapped up, and what an absolute knockout of a last season that was. If you haven’t seen it, I’m afraid my superlatives might turn you off—and yet I can’t remember being stunned like this by a TV show before. Deliciously clever writing, wonderful acting, just perfect in every way.

But if a dark tragicomedy of greed and power is not your thing, how about "The Leftovers"? A seemingly random 2% of the population vanishes in an instant; the series picks up in the aftermath as those left over struggle to maintain their social order and their mental health in the face of the absurd and unexplainable. At times nightmarishly Lynchean—the first season has echoes of "Twin Peaks"—, the series succeeds thanks to its heart and unpredictability.

Two simpler but very enjoyable shows: "Extraordinary" is set in a world like ours, but where everyone gets superhero powers when they reach adulthood, except for our protagonist, a plainly ordinary woman. It’s very silly fun. And the case-of-the-week show "Poker Face" features a drifter with one key asset: the uncanny ability to tell when someone is lying. As in Columbo, you know who did it from the start, but you still want to see how the case gets solved.

Were you as nonplussed as I was by the adaptation of The Sandman to the screen? If so, then let me suggest Jim Jarmusch’s "Only Lovers Left Alive" as the fix to your ailments—such a good movie! A despondent vampire wonders why he should keep waking up every night among the “zombie” mortals; his wife comes over to lift his spirits. It’s everything there is to love from the classic issue "The sound of her wings", set to gorgeous photography, music, and performances, and none of that dumb CGI.

Finally, what a ride "Triangle of Sadness" was! The smartest movie I’ve seen in a while—it’s also fiercely anti-ideological, original, surprising, and funny. I shouldn’t try and summarize it for you; it’s one of those films that benefits from going in not knowing what to expect. I can’t wait to see what Östlund does next.


It was also a good year for games for me. The very best find, I think, was Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir, a board game in which players take the role of local Afghan leaders trying to navigate the “Great Game” of geopolitics played by the empires above them. It is technically innovative and tight—I heard it described as a knife fight in a phone booth—, extremely tactical, with multiple plausible strategies, and crafted so that all players have a reasonable shot at victory until the end. At the same time, it is illustrative on the role of local powers in empire-building, and on an aspect of world history I was not familiar with. The components are beautiful, but you can also play the game online at Rally the Troops.

Years ago, I recommended Flamme Rouge as a game that I felt got bicycle races intuitively right. I feel the same now about Granerud and Pedersen’s Heat: Pedal to the Metal, for car racing: the rules are simple and elegant, and they push you to get to the finish line with all you’ve got, your machine about to blow up—unless maybe you pushed it a bit too much. Lighter fare than Pax Pamir, and far easier to teach too I believe.

A late, wonderful discovery, was the most recent Spiel des Jahres winner, Dorfromantik, designed by Michael Palm and Lukas Zach. I became so fond of this game, perhaps because it reminds me so much of Carcassonne, the game that got me into modern Euro designs. Dorfromantik, in fact, looks like an evolved, mature, corrected Carcassonne—similar to the evolution from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to Tears of the Kingdom. It is a cooperative “campaign” game (early successes unlock more tiles and complexity), and it works perfectly fine as a solo game. Challenging at higher levels, and addictive.

On the Switch, I also enjoyed playing Chants of Sennaar with my son. A unique game of linguistic puzzles—the task is to piece together utterly foreign languages—, with an inspired aesthetic and a fine story.


I had no idea that Nick Cave, the musician, had such an expansive, loving soul. In his website, The Red Hand Files, he takes on questions from random strangers, and gives back compassionate, wise, heartfelt answers. I read them carefully whenever a new one pops up.

One podcast recommendation (other than the aforementioned Backlisted): the epic takedowns of airport bestsellers that is If Books Could Kill, with Michael Hobbs and Peter Shamshiri. Smart, funny, and good at pointing out just what is off about the usual suspects hogging the mike all the time.

I have been trying to wean myself off of Google this year. I feel like I’ve had enough of it, and the less I give them the better we’ll be. I’m still checking alternatives to their mail and calendar applications, but I found it easy to get off their maps and browsers. Search is crucial, and for that the key for me was learning about Kagi. I switched to it and I haven’t looked back. The search results are great, and there are no ads. The price seems fair for not being the product myself.

To cure your clogged-mailbox-and-dozens-of-browser-tabs syndrome, I’m happy to suggest Omnivore, the best Read Later service I’ve found. Free, open source, cross-platform, beautifully designed. Send your newsletters there, send your open tabs there as well, then take them on when you have the dedicated time to clear them.

Finally, if you are in Victoria, drop by the Dumpling Drop downtown for some fantastic food. Vegan options available; top it up with a Kid Sister popsicle from their freezer, then coffee from the reliably good Hey Happy or the just as good but far less well known Saint Cecilia nearby. And if you do go, let me know and I’ll join you! It will give me a brilliant excuse to have some more myself.

I believe that’s it. I hope you found something above that tickled your curiosity. If you did, I’d love to learn about it, as well as about any of your own finds. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, ...)

Are You Willing to Blow Up the Cause?

I approached Andreas Malm‘s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” with some trepidation, after reading positive coverage, either of the book or of the movie based upon it, from people I respect. Trepidation because I knew the gist of its argument (for attacks on property to fight climate change), yet I am both temperamentally and pragmatically nonviolent. Would the enormity of the climate crisis and the arguments in this pamphlet change my outlook? Turn me into an advocate for, and a perpetrator of, property destruction to help stop the rise in carbon emissions? Would it lead me to sabotage?

That would have been a very tall order, for me. I admire Gene Sharp and his writings. I’ve read and been convinced by Erica Chenoweth‘s and Maria Stephan‘s studies about the statistical analysis on the superiority of nonviolent tactics. I watched with despair first-hand as the peaceful messages from G20 protesters in Toronto were hijacked by black bloc doofuses, burnt in a dynamic of pointless vandalism and indiscriminate repression. I admire the practical emphasis on nonviolent civil disobedience by Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil (setting soup-throwing-into-artworks incidents and their ilk aside, of course—these hurt nothing except our collective intelligence). Still—global warming is an enormous problem, and I have turned my life around on a good argument several times. What if Malm is right?

Well, I shouldn’t have bothered. “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” turned out to be one of the sloppiest and most irresponsible arguments I’ve read in print in a long time. It is sloppy in its analysis of nonviolent protest, and irresponsible in its careless endorsement of sabotage.

On his analysis against nonviolent protest, Malm makes three main points: (1) sometimes violence is necessary, as when faced against a mass shooter, so anyone who thinks they are nonviolent are fooling themselves, (2) pragmatic nonviolent icons are not the doves they’re cracked up to be, and (3) what if nonviolence doesn’t work and our commitment to it is a waste of time? Each of these has glaringly obvious replies — (1) a systemic, slowly unfolding problem is not a mass shooter, (2) so what?, and (3) any approach could indeed fail, but some may go beyond failure and poison the cause; why wouldn’t “try a couple of bombs” fail even worse? But Malm doesn’t see these replies. I have the sense that he’s too drunk with retributive power to see them. Early in his book, he narrates how he and his friends would go out at night and puncture the tires of SUVs, calling themselves, with baffling tone-deafness, the “Indians of the Concrete Jungle” (no, I’m not making it up, I wish). The idea was to instill fear in the hearts of wasteful motorists. He claims, with zero evidence, that drops in SUV sales are a result of his fine slasher work.

Malm thinks that that’s the path to follow, just amped up by a kiloton or two. He disses the climate movement as too doughy, too mild-mannered—he repeats a criticism of Extinction Rebellion kids looking like they just stepped out of a community theatre (rather than the proper anarchist uniform he sports, I guess). Not edgy enough! He feels that someone should, you know, really do something. If someone just had blown up some infrastructure, some light sabotage here and there, a decade or two ago, that would’ve taught them a lesson, and maybe we’d already be on our way out of this crisis. He’s not saying that everyone should be violent, but hey. A bit of diversity of tactics! Normie protesters with their cute signs and community organizers and children over there, bomb throwers over here, all working in harmony for a common but not quite articulated goal.

It really is a good thing for him that the supposedly common goal is left as an exercise for the reader, because I doubt that spelling it out would gain him much traction in the mainstream. Reading between the lines, the ambition goes, predictably, way beyond stopping carbon emissions—indeed it doesn’t even seem to be primarily about that. Because Malm takes as a premise that you simply cannot fix the problem under our economic systems. So it follows that you must overthrow the government, and not just yours, as this is a global problem, but nearly every government in the world, and institute in its place, I suppose, a worldwide Leninist regime? Something that will ban property everywhere, in any case, as he warns us that “property will cost us the earth”. This is how we get to the trope that plagues so much left commentary of late: if you want to avert the collapse of our civilization, you must bring about the collapse of our civilization. Best to leave all of this unsaid in your sales pitch!

Let’s say, instead, that of course, we will take the utmost care in not hurting anybody. Of course, our acts of sabotage won’t ever be thought of as terrorism by the public: we’ll define terrorism in a way that doesn’t cover us and everyone will adopt our definition! Of course, the targets will be selected surgically and with a galaxy-brain analysis of the impact of our actions. And ah of course, of course, uhm someone else should actually do the deed? Maybe some kid somewhere? Malm himself would in principle get his hands dirty, he just uh, hasn’t gotten around to it yet. He’s the brains of this outfit!

Well what does he think would happen if we listened to him? When the opponent has the most sophisticated surveillance technology and the most devastating weapons in existence? A couple of well-placed bombs, the oil companies fold, the system is brought to its knees, the spell is broken, blood is left unspilled, the blinkers come off of everybody’s eyes, then a radical transformation of every aspect of life and a magical eco-utopia? Are we on a matinée action movie? That really is the level of strategic thinking here. Even Jacobin is telling Malm to come off it, and these are the guys who sell DIY guillotine posters!

Reading Malm I was doubting myself: how is this taken seriously by anyone? What am I missing? Which is why it was so refreshing, coming out of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline?” to read Chris Oliveros’ new and excellent “Are You Willing to Die for the Cause?”, a graphic novel about the Québec revolutionaries of the 1960s. Different situation, but so many similarities! It’s all there: pseudo-intellectual windbags egging each other...

...the Che cosplay...

...the lazy "there would be even more damage if we don't do this" rationalizing...

...the "it will be just property damage" good intentions...

...the poor kids not knowing what they're getting into...

...the stupidly unnecessary deaths...

...the predictable reaction of the state...

The same course of action staring back at us, from sixty years ago! The same tragedies to avoid, for those who want to listen—and we’re lucky that most in the climate movement have, so far.

I don’t know what it is about Oliveros' writing, or about his graphic style, that works so well at conveying the deadly, assured cluelessness of these fellows; their futility. I just hope that, sixty years from now, people will have managed to navigate out of this crisis without falling into the same traps, without the same kinds of self-inflicted wounds. And it’s possible. We are seeing progress on multiple fronts (too, too slow, yes), we have the high ground, and public opinion is vastly on our side. Let’s not blow it.

Recommendations from 2022

When you look for a recipe online, do you quickly scroll past the long reminiscences about growing up on a farm and Nonna’s secret spices? Me too. So let’s just skip the preamble here and get to the good stuff:


I had a blast with Turton’s “The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle”. I really couldn’t put it down… in fact I had so much fun that I read it all again a second time the moment I finished it! Without spoiling much, I would describe it as a combination of Groundhog Day, Agatha Christie mysteries, and Quantum Leap, and if any of those appeal to you, I think you’re going to love it.

DeWitt’s “The Last Samurai” was also fun, although a fun of a different kind. Denser, concerned with learning, exploring, non-conforming—concerned with genius, I suppose, but a genius that here feels within reach. It is also about parental and filial love, and it is surprisingly touching.

I’ve recommended many of Ursula LeGuin’s books before. This year I read “The Word for World is Forest”, and I think it is another gem. She explores colonialism, exploitation, violence, and cultural infection. Needless to say, it is a sad book. Also a very Taoist one.

Two more old books, but new to me. First, “The Great Gatsby”. How is it so good? I was dreading either a stiff solemn tragedy on ambition and hubris, or glitzy Leonardo DiCaprio, bootleg whiskey, and flappers. But Fitzgerald’s short book about class is neither. Instead it is fun, clever, nimble, quirky, beautifully written, and still relevant.

The other old book I only recently read is John Williams’ “Stoner”. I knew nothing about it—nor about Williams—when I picked it up at the bookstore, except that it was in the Staff Picks section. The cover was boring and one of the blurbs referred to the novel as “quiet.” It’s a campus book, and campus books tend to be rather meh. You are told what will happen to Stoner within the first paragraph, and it isn’t much of consequence. And yet, I think this is my favourite book of the year. It is wise, kind, observant, and it praises the persistent, dedicated, imperfect, and loving work that so many do every day to keep what is good alive.


If you approach self-help books with the same kind of subtle shame I do (it’s hard to admit you may need help, and that you are naive enough to think you might find it in a place as full of quacks and hucksters and fakers as the self-improvement genre), you’ll find much to like in Schaffner’s “The Art of Self-Improvement”. Schaffner studies the self-help literature academically, distilling what the best of these books are trying to say, what do they value, how has their advice changed over time, and how our stance about improving ourselves bleeds into the political domain. The result is enlightening.

“How to Invent Everything”, by Ryan North, is a book that I’ve always wanted, but I had never known how to ask for it. Want to know how to make fertilizer, soap, or baking soda from scratch? Glass or steel? Simple machines, musical scales, paper? How to find salt or domesticate animals? It’s all here, under the premise that you are stuck back in time and need to get civilization going by yourself. More instructive by far than any classroom lectures I’ve attended—this is what popular science books should be. Very funny, very cool.

Davies’ “Extreme Economies” attempts to understand economics by looking at what happens when certain conditions of social life are at the edge: refugee camps, prisons, failed states, reconstruction after a disaster, extreme old age, and so forth. I appreciated the novelty of the idea more than its execution, but I still found it quite valuable.

Kate Beaton’s “Ducks”, a graphic memoir of Beaton’s two years working in the Alberta oil sands, is both deeply personal and broadly useful to understand what it’s like out there. I don’t know why the graphic medium is so good at conveying everyday life in the far north, but it works.—and Beaton is so talented at conveying emotion and thought visually, in a seemingly effortless manner, that the book is a joy to read. (Don’t take my word for it either! This book is my one point of overlap with Obama’s own book recommendations for the year.)

Finally, in Reilly’s “The Staff Engineer’s Path” I found a fantastic description of what it is I should be doing and thinking about at this stage of my career. It is thorough, kind, supportive, and full of practical advice. Highly recommended.


“The Carrying”, by Ada Limón, spoke to me particularly well. Limón’s poems deal with both the mundane and the transcendental—and with the fact that you get to the latter via the former. They are like gardens: productive, weedy, a miniature universal struggle. They are full of life and death. Not every poem hits, of course, and Limón is very immersed in the United States. This is an American book, often a very NPR book. But when these elements are quieter, it’s also a humane, joyful, empathetic, sorrowful experience.

Film and TV

So much to share! But I have to start with the wonderful “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. What an exhilarating experience! Goofy and profound and fresh and thrilling.

Some fun movies: “Glass Onion”, while not as mind-blowingly good as “Knives Out”, is still excellent. Rian Johnson and Daniel Craig seem to be having a lot of fun, and we are all the better for it. “Confess, Fletch” is a light dry noir comedy, and shows that Jon Hamm can be quite funny. And after watching Val Kilmer’s appearance in the new Top Gun, I remembered an early movie of his that I thought was a classic, only to discover it is half-forgotten: “Top Secret!” Old comedy often grows stale but this is still so good—cheesy, zany, dumb fun.

On TV, I thought “Severance” was nearly perfect. Stylistically precise and gorgeous in its surreal and sterile corporate propaganda aesthetic; narratively tight and complex. The one small knock against it is that the finale leaves more out than in, and the second season won’t come out for a while, so it feels incomplete. “Slow Horses” is astute and twisty, and Gary Oldman is a delight in his role. “Only Murders in the Building” has a cheeky look at the true crime podcasting genre and great character interactions; both seasons so far have been quite enjoyable.

I’m surprising myself a bit by recommending something from the Star Wars franchise, but “Andor” was excellent as well. I read somewhere that it’s like The Wire on space, and while I certainly would not go that far, the comparison aims in the right direction: Andor is a sociological story of resistance and insurgence, with full-fledged characters with complex motivations. No lightsabers in sight.

Sports stuff

I started running more seriously again this year, and to a lesser extent, swimming. A few things have helped me a lot: for my running, the approach in Fitzgerald’s “80/20 Running” has been exceptionally good—it helped me realize I had been going too hard in previous years (leading to injury and an overall decreased mileage), and how to craft better running plans for myself. I’ve also made heavy use of my Garmin Forerunner 255, of some rolls of KT Tape, and of a Roll Recovery R8 Plus self-massager.

In the water, my big obstacle for the longest time was the lack of goggles that wouldn’t leak. No goggles I tried would help, and I tried a lot of them—I suppose they don’t make them with my head shape in mind—, which meant stopping frequently to drain them and putting up with the red itchy eyes afterward. However, this year I found the goggles from THEMAGIC5, which are custom-made to your face: you submit a face scan and get a 3D-printed fit for you. The effect is miraculous, with absolutely zero leaks. They are a bit pricey, but they essentially unlocked swimming for me. I love them.


The best source to navigate the war in Ukraine has been the series of columns from Lawrence Freedman in Comment is Freed. Such a bright strategic mind, with so much clarity of thought. Whether it is the possibility of nuclear war, the potential angles of a peace negotiation, or the tactical positions of each army, I learned a lot about how to think of these issues from Freedman’s approach. Similarly, Hannah Ritchie, in her Substack and Twitter feed (oh, Twitter…) cuts through the misinformation and doomscrolling of our climate crisis to present an evidence-based, highly numerate, and useful climate commentary.

One boardgame I enjoyed this year was Cascadia. Winner of the Spiel des Jahres, and based in the fauna of the Pacific Northwest, it's a deep game with a moderately simple ruleset. Another one was also nominated to the same award: SCOUT, a trick-taking card game with even simpler rules but an amazing execution. And finally, the WASGIJ? puzzle series gives a good spin to the classic jigsaw puzzle model by asking you to assemble not what you see in the box, but what a character within sees, or what will happen later.

Yet again this was a difficult year for the world. I do think though that art, books, stories, and beauty provide not just—or not necessarily—escapism to cope, but a deep value worth fighting for; a window into what we actually are, what we want, and how we can reach contentment. I hope you find a nugget or two for yourself in the list above. Until next time!

(Previously: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, ...)

For effective altruism, but against Effective Altruism

There is nothing wrong, and much right, about promoting altruism. You are privileged and have more than you need; others need your surplus (be it resources or time); sharing it is good and laudable. Encouraging others to do the same is good and laudable too.

There is also nothing wrong, and much right, about striving for altruism to be effective. You could share your surplus to charitable efforts that achieve nothing, or to others that are almost certain to alleviate extreme suffering—indeed, to save lives. Personal sympathies for specific causes aside (and personal sympathies are quite important!), advocating for effective charities as the default target for our efforts is worthwhile.

Being an altruist, an effective altruist, seems commonsensically good. I wish altruism was well established in our society, and I wish altruists gravitated towards charities with proven benefits for those in dire need.

And so you may be forgiven if you find a community called “Effective Altruism” (EA) and assumed this is what it’s doing. It says it does, and it looks like it does at first, if you squint, and I suspect many in the community have been squinting for a long time. But its leaders have a tendency to follow philosophical rabbit holes that land them in positions that would seem satirical, were they not taken in earnest.

The core of the problem, I think, is that Effective Altruist leaders are not trying to be effective altruists, but maximizing altruists. They want to find the way in which they can do the most good, and they have the hubris to imagine they can do it. This maximization impulse is a black hole. It pulls every effort into the initiative with the greatest Expected Value.

This is how you get to longtermism, the current (but not first) cancer of EA. There are 8 billion of us today. There may be 8 trillion some day; there may be none if we go extinct. If we think that life is worth living, then 8 trillion is way better than 8 billion, and bringing about that future, eliminating the obstacles in its path, becomes the one thing that matters. This goal overrides everything: by this logic, poverty, famine, climate change, war, and genocide, while deplorable, are mere ripples in comparison to the catastrophe of extinction, or to the tragedy of failing to fulfill our galactic potential.

The conclusion of this stance is abhorrent, and longtermists, knowing it is unsellable, attempt to paper over its monstrousness with platitudes. They know it is a gruesome position. I sometimes suspect that, deep down, they are themselves not convinced of its validity. But they lock themselves within it via rhetorical tricks.

The main longtermist trick is disguised with mathematics—it consists of adding zeroes to the side of the equation you favour until you get the answer you want. For instance, via creative hand-waving, we can say that in the far future the Milky Way could support a ridiculously high number of human lives, say 10^58. If there’s no actual physical space for such a large number, we can always say some of those will live in simulation form. If you have a remotely minute chance of helping, via your actions, to bring about that future, or help those incomprehensible large numbers of humans be even remotely happy, then the maximization calculation overwhelms every other alternative to ease suffering in the world. And if you run the numbers and the longtermist solution does not come out on top? Just add another zero or two or ten to your expected number of humans in the far future and you’ll be all set. You can use any number you want from the vast unknowable future to justify your prefered alternative in the present.

The consequence is the exact opposite of being effective with our altruism: it entails the dismissal of attempts to ease actual suffering today, especially in the Global South. Longtermist leaders have advocated for focusing only on existential risks, for valuing lives in the developed world higher than those elsewhere (because of their greater potential to advance cutting-edge science), and for funding Artificial Intelligence research initiatives—led, it has to be said, by their friends and contacts—rather than bringing people out of poverty. They advocate for giving money to their peers and acolytes, because those are the people that really get it.

Today, Effective Altruism is licking its wounds from its association with the Sam Bankman-Fried implosion. Perhaps the movement will not recover, and perhaps that’s a good thing. And yet, I wish people separated actual effective altruism from the EA label. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of derision thrown at people trying to be effective with their altruism, and I think that’s unfortunate.

Do you donate your time or money to improve the lot in life of others? You are an altruist. (And if you don’t—why not? If you are reading this, you are probably luckier than most, living in relative luxury, and as Singer’s Drowning Child thought experiment illustrates, you are at least partially responsible to mitigate their suffering. Your generosity can quite literally save lives.)

Do you donate to causes that are likely to actually make a difference? You are trying to be an effective altruist. Please, keep sending your funds to global charities that have extensively demonstrated to have a good impact—GiveWell keeps the best list—, or to local charities you trust, and keep giving your time as best you can.

And do you think we’d be in a better spot if more of us did the same? Well, then you have the seeds of an effective altruism movement... but beware: movements evolve in the most unfortunate ways.

Recommendations from 2021

To the persistent souls that still visit this resurrection plant of a blog, hi again! I often tell myself I'll return to regular posts soon, and that will be true one day. In the meantime, as long as I'm around and remember where I left the keys, I will at least keep coming to share my list of yearly finds, hoping you will like some of them too. Here we go:


Let's start with Rivka Galchen, whom I was grateful to discover this year. I loved Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, in which we get a first-person account of the real life trial, for witchcraft, of Johannes Kepler's mother (!). Darkly comical, but humane, never cold; Galchen's writing gives me Ibargüengoitia vibes, partly in its commonsensical pragmatism in the face of historical aberrations. Like Ibargüengoitia, Galchen is also an autobiographical essayist, and her Little Labors collection, on motherhood and raising a baby, was fantastic. (For a sample of her writing, check out this article on nuclear fusion: she makes the subject's mysteries both accessible and beautiful.)

It was through Galchen that I got to Rachel Ingalls' Mrs Caliban, perhaps my favourite book of the year. I'm afraid to say too much about it, because I don't want to spoil it for you. But I'll say I found it very funny, very clever, very moving, and deliciously absurd.

Natalie Haynes' A Thousand Ships is a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of the large cast of women involved—human and divine. A brilliant idea, well executed—the range of voices and experiences is eye-opening.

I laughed with the new translation, by Julia Lovell, of Journey to the West—especially on the first few chapters. I was unaware of the long Chinese tradition of the Monkey King character; his ridiculous hijinks are whimsical and dream-like. Also dream-like was Sussana Clarke's Piranesi; like Mrs Caliban, this is perhaps a book best approached without too much research—just plunge in.

Three fun books: Richard Osman's The Thursday Murder Club (septuagenarians playing detective in a retirement home), Laurent Binet's Civilizations (Incas and Aztecs dodge their guns-germs-and-steel trap and conquer Europe), and Jon J Muth's graphic novel adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's The Seventh Voyage (an astronaut attempts to fix a spaceship clunker with the help of a time loop).

There were a couple of books I would not typically pick up, but I am glad I did. The first was Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me: an intergenerational drama starring ballet dancers. Extremely good; sharp and full of energy. The second—it was actually a book I did pick up, then almost dropped when I realized it was about a pandemic; I've got enough of pandemics for a good while thank you—was Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven. Despite striking a few false notes (a cartoon villain, some postapocalyptic tropes), on the whole it was great. It's at its best when making the case for the simple pleasures and opportunities in everyday experience.


A suggestion: if you will get and read only one of the books in this post, I think you should make it Joe Sacco's Paying the Land. It's a graphic journalism piece on the Dene, in the Northwest Territories. I thought it was illuminating, complex, honest, probing, humble, full of beautiful illustrations, of love for the land and of empathy for the people Sacco interviewed within.

Chelsea Vowel's Indigenous Writes was sardonically enlightening on some of the same issues—of indigenous identity, culture, interactions with the Canadian government, treaties, stereotypes, law, and the day-to-day perspective and outlook of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people.

George Saunders' A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was a real treat. It's a book about writing and reading—about exploring what in a story makes it work, and why, and how can we use the same principles if at all. There is genuine love for literature here; Saunders' advice is warm, practical, and full of compassion.

Speaking of practical advice, Julia Galef's The Scout Mindset has it too, though of a different kind. Early on, perhaps, you'll read her description of the "scout mindset" and proudly think "oh yes that's me," but in the rest of the book Galef will show you how difficult it actually is to remain open to changing our positions. More importantly, and in contrast to the plethora of more fatalistic accounts of our cognitive flaws out there, she will provide good tools to help us get closer to that scout ideal.

One more non-fiction recommendation: Nina MacLaughlin's Hammer Head. MacLaughlin was a journalist with a career crisis; she became a carpenter apprentice by chance. This memoir of her apprenticeship is deep—it's a story of a change of professional identity, of craftsmanship and teamwork, of gender, of the wonder of turning trees into spaces for living, of the pride in being able to effect these transformations, of humbling mistakes, and of the endless road to mastery. As a very occasional and very amateur carpenter, I found a lot to like.


Succession finished its third season and continues to be immensely enjoyable. Dune on theatres was a hypnotizing experience. Get Back is a bit of a miracle: I grew up listening to these Beatles songs and now it turns out there is fascinating footage of the moments they sprung up, almost casually, on the spot. We're in the midst of watching Money Heist; awesome so far.

I loved playing Disco Elysium—what a weird and idiosyncratic detective point-and-click game this is. My gaming group and I have only played a few sessions of Masks, but I'm also liking it so far. And on the Switch, my boy and I are currently going through our third playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and we are still not tired of it.

I now use Obsidian for note-taking, (following, kind of, the Zettelkasten method) and Dash for API documentation; I've been using both for months, pretty much daily, and I absolutely love them. Simple, well-made, useful. Also for work, the StaffEng podcast has lots of exactly the kind of advice and perspective I feel I needed at this point. All of these resources, by the way, I found via mentions by Lorin Hochstein, and if you work in software you would do well to check his Twitter feed and his excellent Resilience Engineering papers compilation.

And that's it for the year! Thank you for coming around. If you do decide to try out any of these recommendations, please drop me a line—you can find out how fairly easily if you don't know already. I would love to learn your thoughts.

I hope you have an off-the-charts spectacular 2022—or a calm and steady 2022, really, if that's what you are after; after the past couple of years who could blame you. Lots of love and contentment, in any case.

(Previously: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)