Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Recommendations from 2017

Another year over! And as I learned this year, whatever the news and the grand-scale history, our small lives carry on, if they can, cooking and enjoying breakfast, making funny faces to our kids, watching the birds and the trees on the way to work, and trying to find love, beauty, humour, skill, and good ideas around us.

In that spirit, and following my little yearly tradition of sharing what I've found, these are some of the things I enjoyed the most in 2017:

The book that surprised and delighted me the most has to be Wilson's new translation of "The Odyssey". I had read the book in Spanish a long time ago, more in an effort to pay my literary dues than for fun, and I had found it obtuse and remote; a dusty relic. I have the sense, perhaps not wholly justified, that large egos over the centuries have tried their hand at translating Homer in an effort to impress us with their flowery language, rather than in an effort to translate. But in Wilson's version the text is raw, fresh, human; it pulsates with life and blood. It helps me understand why others before me worshipped the ancient gods the way they did, the mixture of fear and curiosity they must have felt when seeing a stranger come to shore, or when landing their ship in a foreign island, and the attraction to the story that made them huddle in silence to listen to a poet deliver the next installment of their epics.

In a previous post I had mentioned how much I like Roald Dahl's children books, but I've now read "Kiss Kiss", a collection of some of his adult short stories, and I like him even more. That same spice is here, the same eye for twisted souls, the same storytelling strategy of plots that spiral into the absurd and nevertheless work well. I also loved the Strugatsky Brothers' "Roadside Picnic", a great take on an incomprehensible interstellar visit.

In literature in Spanish, I thought Villalobos' "No Voy a Pedirle a Nadie que me Crea" was marvellously funny. He has the same deadpan humour that Ibargüengoitia had, a great ear for character voices, and, in this book, a page-turning plot as well. Another excellent find was Pauls' "El Pudor del Pornógrafo", an earnest, impassioned, and claustrophobic epistolar novel, a bit of Kafka and a bit of Lynch. Finally, Zambra's short story collection, "Mis Documentos", though a mixed bag, has some real gems.

Three great non-fiction books: Duncan's "The Storm before the Storm", Brown's "Building Powerful Community Organizations", and Kleppmann's "Designing Data-Intensive Applications". I still love Duncan as a podcaster—I continue being an avid listener of his Revolutions series—, and his jump to the printed page is just as good as his other work, and topical for the state of the American republic today. If you are concerned about that state, or the state of your own country, city, or neighbourhood, Brown's handbook is a great guide to get started organizing a better world. And Kleppmann's book is simply one of the best technical books for my line of work that I can think of. If you work with databases, queues, concurrent processes, or anything along these lines, my guess is you'll find many insights here.

There are so many good podcasts around these days! Among those that I particularly enjoyed, the first one has to be the hilarious "My Dad Wrote a Porno". Because if your dad tells you he's been writing raunchy erotic literature, and that he goes by the pen name Rocky Flintstone, I think one of the best things you can do to stay sane is to gather with your best friends, read his ouvre, and absolutely tear it apart. It makes me laugh so hard that my face hurts.

Now, on the more informative podcasting front, Adamson's "History of Philosophy without any gaps" is fun and accessible, (though I think maybe one or two gaps would have been alright), and Bortolotti's "Canadian Couch Potato" podcast, a companion to his blog, provides professional, consistent, and trustworthy financial advice.

"American Vandal", a Netflix TV show, was another great discovery. It's an antidote for the seriousness and the tropes of true-crime podcasts and shows, which is a good enough reason to recommend it, but it also has good writing and pitch-perfect performances. It also made me laugh a lot.

I recently wrote about my love for Twilight Struggle and Go, so I won't talk more about those games here, but there were two other boardgames that I liked this year. The first is Terraforming Mars, which is perhaps what you would get if you developed the fantastic Race for the Galaxy card game into a longer, but still tight and balanced, boardgame. The second is T.I.M.E. Stories, a cooperative game and a mashup of Quantum Leap with a Groundhog Day mechanic. I've played a handful of scenarios, and they have all been different, satisfying, and challenging in different ways.

On the computer, my six-year-old and I spent many fun hours working a farm in Stardew Valley, a cute and versatile game without any Farmville-esque psychological traps. When playing alone, I had the most fun with Darkest Dungeon, a kind of dungeon-crawling X-Com cousin, and (on my phone) with Dreamquest, a poorly drawn but well designed deck-building game.

Thanks to everyone who gave me tips to some of the above; I hope you'll find something to like here. And if you have any recommendations for me, please share them! I'm easy to find. Here's to a happy and healthy 2018!

(Previously: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

Over a Hundred Years of Research

I agree with everything Greg Wilson wrote here, and I had been thinking along similar lines after recent incidents such as:

In all of these cases, reactions from humanities academics tend to express an exasperation with how little society minds them. "Ha, Cathy O'Neil is laughable, there's entire research centres dedicated to this!" "Pfff, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, may I introduce you to the fields of Epistemology and Science and Technology Studies? You may like them." "Geez Twitter, we've been researching status for over a hundred years. Why doesn't anybody study this?" And, to some extent, I see where these critiques come from. After all, if you have dedicated your life to the study of a problem, and the world seems to ignore your work, or to pretend you're not around, it's understandable if you feel frustrated. But I think this natural reaction is misguided.

As I see it, the mission of academia is twofold: to explore outstanding questions, and to explain our understanding to the rest of society. Research without dissemination leads to isolation, to the ivory tower; dissemination without research, to stagnation. From this stance, evidence that the public knows nothing about your decades of volumes and treatises should be classified as a failure of your field; a failure to fulfill your mission. The healthy reaction to cases like the above should be "hmm, how can we make ourselves clearer?", not "lol look at these ignoramuses."

I did interdisciplinary research. Coming from computer science, I studied, and truly enjoyed, sociology, epistemology, philosophy, and organizational science. But it was not easy to crack them, and most people in the mainstream don't have the time, the resources, or the inclination to do a second degree. The idea that the average person is going to meet you where you are is a fantasy; the task and the challenge is to meet them where they are. So, if your field is over a hundred years old— where are its entry points for lay people? Where are the texts that present the findings that citizens and policy makers should know, in an accessible format and without sacrificing substance? Where are the articles or blog posts where regular folks can learn about new developments? If these don't exist, or if they can't yet be produced because research is inconclusive, or because these are genuinely thorny concepts, then that's hardly a failure to pin on the confused lay person, and you should not wear your rarefied isolation as a badge of honour.

Twilight Struggle and Go

For the past few years, I have been playing two boardgames online quite regularly: Twilight Struggle and Go. I usually play them asynchronously—Go in the Dragon Go Server, and Twilight Struggle through Steam (there is also an iPad app linking to the same server). I love making a move or two when I need a break, and though games tend to last weeks or months in both cases, I like how their arcs intersect with my daily life.

Frankly, I am still quite bad at Go, but it has been on my mind a lot recently due to the AlphaGo Zero developments. To beat Go masters, previous versions of AlphaGo (Google's AI Go player) used a combination of machine learning techniques, recorded historical games, and human expert input. But AlphaGo Zero started from scratch, with no reliance on recorded games. It reached a level high enough to beat the previous champions a few weeks after starting training.

It is by all accounts both the most advanced Go player we've seen, and the most foreign; not merely a better execution of known strategies, but a new and (in my case, impossibly) hard to understand approach to the game.

Now, I don't care so much that we've found a way to program computers to beat us at it (though that is very cool), and I don't care for the silly singularity fears and ecstasies that Artificial Intelligence triggers in some folks (except to the extent that this distracts their efforts from more important issues). But I do care about the idea that a boardgame that has perhaps been with us for four millenia has had this infusion of freshness and creativity in our lifetimes. It's as if aliens had independently discovered the game, too, and played it better than us, and, though we can't understand each other, they are letting us watch over their shoulders and learn.

Twilight Struggle, on the other hand, is not likely to continue being played four millenia from now: it is too historically specific, and its ruleset too fiddly to travel easily across generations. But these qualities do not affect the game in the here and now. It's a great game, complex and knotty, and since it's less well known than Go, I'd like to describe it briefly.

Twilight Struggle is an asymmetrical game about the Cold War, for two players. One plays the United States, the other, the Soviet Union. The Cold War in the game is driven by three main factors: first, the Domino Theory of ideological contagion and regime change, second, the inevitability of world events, and third, the spectre of nuclear annihilation.

Both powers attempt to maintain their presence around the globe, blocking their opponent from achieving an overwhelming dominance in any region. They have a glimpse at some of the events bubbling up (revolts in Vietnam, charismatic Communist or Capitalist regional leaders angling for power, the Cuban Missile Crisis), and must position themselves to take advantage of these events, kick them down the road, or at least try to mitigate them. And though, by the sick logic of Great Empires, they must assert their authority everywhere, sponsoring coups, meddling in local governments, and so on (if they don't, their opponent will), the more aggressively they act, the closer they bring the world to a nuclear holocaust.

This morbid dynamic of whether to push things right to the brink of destruction in an already chaotic world, just to deny your opponent any room to maneuver, is the stroke of genius of the game. Novice or reckless players end blowing up the world a lot—a gloomy realization these days—, and though with experience (and a good guide) one improves humanity's chances of survival, the spectre of annihilation gives the game a long-running tension.

There is randomness in Twilight Struggle, and between players with similar skill a couple of bad hands or a string of unlucky dice rolls may doom the less fortunate player's chances. But provided one knows this coming in, this randomness colours, rather than spoils, the game, as it adds to its sense of certain but limited power. Rather than luck, and just like Go, Twilight Struggle rewards study, patience, and prudence. I find it amazing that, given the asymmetry, the large amount of events in the game, and the complexity of the board and rules, the game remains well-balanced, tight, and engaging.

Both of these are "just games," of course, but a good game captures our imagination. There is a joy in discovering this kind of strong, sharp, robust design, in exploring it, grasping it, however imperfectly, and slowly making it part of our lives.

Horgan is the new BC Premier

A couple of months ago, worried about the agenda of the BC Greens leader and his likelihood to collaborate with the BC NDP, I wrote:

Andrew Weaver, please prove me wrong! Agree to a solid, stable collaboration with the BC NDP, one that will bring forth electoral reform, enact environmentally strong policies, and reverse the damage done by the current government. Many of us would be happy to give you our support in future elections if you do so.

Well, after a roller-coaster ride, John Horgan, the BC NDP leader, is the new Premier; Weaver proved me wrong; and I am extremely happy about all this.

Weaver's (and his party's) support for the new BC NDP minority government seems strong, and the Greens appear to have forced the NDP hand somewhat: the new government commits to an electoral reform referendum, to re-explore the viability of the Site C dam project, to stop oil pipelines construction projects in BC, and to a number of additional sensible policies.

This path to Horgan's premiership was absolutely unlikely, but the outcome is equally promising.

Unlikely, because it relied on very slim margins of victory in several ridings, as well as on the support of an opponent with which, from the outside at least, he seemed to hold a bitter rivalry.

And promising, not just because the policies of the new government are big steps in the right direction, nor because the Greens will help keep the NDP honest and on target, but because, in a time with a generally dark political outlook, the NDP/Green agreement shows the way towards inter-party collaboration in Canada. I have always been puzzled at the lack of collaboration under the parliamentary system here, which seems to have much less interplay than similar systems in Europe. I believe Canada suffers from some fear or aversion to rise to a collaborative pattern, and to the extent that the BC NDP/Green agreeement is successful, we will gradually learn to think of collaborative solutions by default.

(One additional source of hope: the arrival of Sonia Furstenau, a teacher and environmental activist turned politician, to the Legislature as the MLA from Cowichan and Deputy Green Leader. Best of luck to her, to Horgan, to Weaver, and to everyone in the new government.)

Scientific computing in 10 years

Greg Wilson, being the gloomy jaded pessimist he is, thinks leading-edge programmers will be doing scientific computing in JavaScript in 10 years. I disagree—I don't know what these programmers will be using then, but to the extent that they will be building on currently mainstream technologies I think it will continue being R and Python, rather than JavaScript. We placed a bet on it; this post is here for reference.

Going for him, Greg has the most popular language today, which, from a humble and rushed start in our browsers, continues to shift shape and burrow in the most unlikely places, and to prove all of its naysayers wrong. Against that, I have technologies that have ingrained themselves in the scientific community, which have fast, usable, and sophisticated modules that took many years to build and get right, and which offer newcomers a different career path and paradigm, spiraling out of data and formulas (rather than out of the browser) into the rest of the world.

Whoever wins the bet, it should be a fun dinner in 2027, and I'm looking forward to it.