Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Recommendations from 2019

The year wraps up, the decade (depending on how you count) wraps up, and so here I am, dusting up this blog once more to share some of the things I enjoyed in the past twelve months:


The most intriguing and beautifully written fiction book I read this year has to be Davies' West, in which, baffling everyone around him, an American settler and mule breeder leaves her ten-year-old daughter behind to go on a solo expedition to find the fantastical creatures that would match the—prehistoric—bones recently discovered in Kentucky. The world treats him and his daughter with predictable harshness, but the author is tender to them, and explores alienation, grief, vocation, extinction, displacement, and the wilderness in a very slim, careful text.

Armitage's revised translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, was an enjoyable read. Perhaps the alliteration that Armitage emphasized so keenly in his translation gets in the way somewhat, but on the whole the story, the rendering, and the illustrations are all quite compelling.

The tale of Sir Gawain is about preordained death, and so is Vila-Matas' short story El Día Señalado (in Spanish; no translation as far as I am aware), in which a fortune teller predicts the day of the year and the conditions in which a girl will die. We follow her cycles of anxiety each year as the date approaches and she attempts to avoid the predicted conditions. I liked the story's arc as well as its incisive and unexpected observations about Mexico.

Recent years have given us a number of Roberto Bolaño's unfinished works that I sadly found I could not recommend. It would seem that, after his death, the vultures feasted on his archives, publishing anything and everything they found. Despite my better instincts, I would buy and read it all, with the result that I had inadvertently soured somewhat on his works as a whole. This is why it was such a pleasure to read his Monsieur Pain, one of the first books he published and which I had not been able to find before. While it's not his best work, it features a lot of what I like about him—his mixture of precise and ambiguous imagery, the turns of a scene from the banal to the nightmarish, that fantastical but plausible combination of Borges and Lynch.


I loved Goff's Galileo's Error and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in the philosophy of consciousness. I remember a conversation with a friend, ten or fifteen years ago, in which I claimed (in lucky ignorance) that deep down everyone is stumped by the question of consciousness. He said that this was not the case—Dennett had explained it—and I went, checked out Dennett, and was thoroughly disappointed: it didn't seem to me he was even in the right ballpark, yet without the proper training I could not explain why with any rigor, nor find satisfactory alternate explanations. This issue lay dormant for me until fairly recently, when I learned of Chalmers and then of Goff, who in his blog and his recent book explains, to a wide audience, with kindness and patience but without dumbing down, the state of the philosophical debate on consciousness. It's far more fascinating than I expected; as fascinating as the subjective experience of consciousness itself should have led me to expect.

Another great find for me was Tetlock and Gardner's Superforecasting. Tetlock has done the kind of research that I would have loved to conceive of and carry out: he analyzed the forecasting accuracy of experts, over many years, and though he found it seriously lacking (on the whole, hardly better than chance), he discovered that some people are actually great forecasters, and went on to investigate why, and how to transfer that skill to the rest of us. The book is enjoyable, smart, and in its own way, inspiring.

On the topic of mathematical thinking, I thought that Page's The Model Thinker was informative and useful. Page walks through a large number of models to conceive of a situation, and while the book is uneven, at the very least it provides the seed of insights one can pursue by oneself. Finally, I thought Broussard's Artificial Unintelligence gives the current AI hype a good cold shower. I would particularly recommend it to those for whom computing and AI appear alien and threatening.

Movies and TV

This was a great year for movies and TV, in my opinion. I had tons of fun with Knives Out; so much I had to watch it twice: first just to enjoy it, then to understand how it was done. It's one of those films you'll enjoy best if you don't know anything about it, so I won't comment on it further. Just resist the urge to even watch the trailer and go find it in the theatres, if you can.

While I don't usually go for a horror movie, I thought Us was excellent. Great atmosphere and performances; ideas, scenes, and social commentary that stay with you far longer than the thrill itself. Jojo Rabbit was great too: a combination of comedy and gut-punching tragedy that must have been very hard to pull off. And Julianne Moore was incredible in Gloria Bell, a movie that is down to earth, guardedly hopeful, and wise.

My favourite TV show this year (though it was a close call) was Russian Doll. Any story with a Groundhog Day premise gets my attention; this one plays with the plot with intelligence, a couple of great twists, and an increasing sensation of needing to right a world gone askew.

The other contender was Succession, which is deliciously nasty and sharp (I've yet to watch the second season; please do not spoil it for me). I also enjoyed The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, though if I'm honest, only the first season. The pilot is stunningly good on its own.


I found a great podcast series from Canadaland: Commons. Currently exploring Canadian dynasties, the previous season focused on the oil sector, and was quite eye-opening. Canadaland also produced Thunder Bay, an excellent walk through the racism, corruption, and homelessness that plague a city most of us rarely think about. Cautionary Tales was another informative podcast this year: good popularization of social science research, relevant for everyday life.

And finally, a boardgame recommendation for a game I only tried once, recently, but stayed with me: the very asymmetric Root. Four players with very different goals and game mechanics play on the same board and can cooperate or hinder each other (one plays for industrialization, another for military dominance, a third for class struggle, and the fourth for solo adventuring) in the context of a forest filled with cute critters. Such disparate mechanics and goals should make for an unbalanced game, and yet it all worked well together. I expect I'll be playing this one much more.

I'm happy to say 2019 was another good year for me and my family. I made a point of disconnecting more from the news firehose last year—from Facebook (pretty much everywhere), from Twitter (on my phone), from obsessively checking the dumpster fire in the most powerful country in the world—and the benefits were clear to me. I plan to continue along this path.

As part of this disconnection, I almost did not touch this blog at all. I did not announce, for instance, that I switched jobs midyear, leaving Limbic Media after six years and joining Workday; I did not drop by to say that I'm having a tremendously great time in my new position. I did not write about my disappointment, when going on a bit of a pilgrimage to see Remedios Varo's works at the Museo de Arte Moderno, that the museum's Varo collection was entirely in storage after being featured in a major exhibition that I missed by a couple of weeks. I did not mention that Mushi the Cat went missing from the family that adopted him (I don't believe I had mentioned that we had to give him up for adoption either), nor that he was thankfully found again. I didn't mention I gave a couple of talks, after years away from the microphone. I didn't come to presume to tell you who to vote for in the Canadian Federal election this time around.

I'm not sure how to feel about that. Bittersweet? I would have liked to share some of those things, but I don't believe you needed them. Nevertheless I think I'll come to the blog more often in 2020, though I'm not sure what for, how frequently, or when. Subscribe if you want to, but I promise nothing :-).

I wish you a happy 2020!

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