Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

Recommendations from 2020

Well, what a year.

But if you are reading this, you made it to the end. I hope that you and yours made it unscathed, and that whatever is brewing for 2021 is gentler for the world than what we've gone through.

As usual, I have a few recommendations to share as the year ends. Maybe you'll find something new to like here.

Fiction

Is there a bad Strugatsky brothers novel? I have been going through them piecemeal over the years, and it seems to me they could do no wrong. This year it was Hard to be a God, in which a scientist from a technologically advanced, communist Earth is sent to another planet to observe the dealings of an alien society stuck in the cruelty, superstition, and oppression of the Middle Ages—and is ordered to not intervene. He can see all that's wrong; he thinks he could stop the suffering; yet intervention may be counterproductive.

In a somewhat similar track, in Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann, we get the story of a vagabond performer in times of war and plague. It is both sharp and humane, with just a touch of the fantastical. It's also instructive—a camouflaged historical novel about the horrendous Thirty Years War. Kehlmann wrote another more clearly historical novel that I enjoyed this year as well, Measuring the World, on the lives and academic pursuits of the mathematician Gauss and the explorer von Humboldt; diametrically opposed yet harmonizing.

There is a fairy tale, Lucky Hans, about a fellow who gets a huge treasure for his work and sets out on a journey. He gradually trades it all away, happy with each seemingly detrimental exchange, until he has nothing. Henrik Pontoppidan took that structure for Lucky Per, another novel I enjoyed this year, despite its length and the self-centredness of Per, the protagonist, which perhaps made me cringe because I saw some of myself in him.

The wizard in Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea starts from a similar point, but goes in an entirely different direction: the hero's journey here consists of restoring the balance after some early mistakes. I think Le Guin's books are so brilliant not because she packs a lot of plot per page—though she does; this slim book could be a multi-volume set in lesser hands—but because she packs a lot of wisdom. She translated the Tao Te Ching, and I think there is some of that here too. We are lucky to have her writings, and I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

Non-fiction

I had my first run with social psychology in grad school, in the early 2000s, and I think now that it did some damage. "Researched showed" that we humans are not to be trusted: we will electrocute and might kill a stranger if asked to, we will brutalize our peers if given a police uniform and told to act as guards, we will not stop or call for help when we find someone in need. I would read these studies, surprised, and think "if the time comes, I need to do better than that," fearing that perhaps I actually would not. But I should have relied on that instinct of surprise more: in one of my favourite books this year, Rutger Bregman's Humankind, I learned that most of this initial research was deeply flawed, and in some cases outright deceptive. Bregman shows, with plenty of examples and findings across disciplines, that this cynical view of human nature is wrong. The large majority of us, across cultures and time scales, actually tend to be kind and protective of each other; this is our strength. We can be ruthless, of course, especially if we think ruthlessness is the way to live, which is why it's particularly important to spread the word that it is not. This book restored my faith in us, and I recommend it deeply.

Where Bregman clarified my mind, Peter Godfrey-Smith's Metazoa expanded it. It is a philosophical, yet empirically informed, exploration of animal consciousness; a lot of it based on underwater observations, because our farthest-removed relatives live under water. I saw it described somewhere as "philosophy in a wetsuit," and it's a fitting description. While I don't think it solves the mystery of the subjective experience, it helps illuminate it.

On a very different topic, but no less consequentially, Stephanie Kelton's The Deficit Myth demolished and reconstructed my understanding of economic policy. Kelton's plain prose and clear arguments make it easier to understand what I think is the economics equivalent of a Copernican revolution. I knew Modern Monetary Theory existed—I just didn't know I would find it so straightforwardly true. But be warned: if Kelton lifts the veil for you like she did for me, you'll be endlessly annoyed by the inane mainstream political commentary wondering "how are we going to pay for all these government programs" or lamenting "the national debt that we're passing on to our children and grandchildren."

Annie Duke's How to Decide is a handbook—a set of guided exercises, with commentary—that I found quite useful. It was initially meant to be a companion of her (also very good) Thinking in Bets, and it drove home some of the points of that book that I had only glossed over before.

Finally, Sarah Cooper's (yes, that Sarah Cooper's) 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings was a lot of embarrassing fun. I confess I had independently, and I think unconsciously, discovered some of these "tricks," and having them described as cynical ploys on the page, along with those I've seen from others, helped inoculate me from that low-level, counterproductive organizational sparring.

Miscellaneous

I think I only went to the movies a couple of times this year, before the pandemic closed it all down! But I was glad that one of those times was for Parasite; if you haven't seen it yet, I suggest you do. The less I say about it the better.

We did watch some TV, but oddly for a time of lockdowns, far less than previous years. I liked both seasons of The Umbrella Academy, and, so far, the first season of The Man in the High Castle.

The piano has been my Covid hobby. We bought a digital piano—a Roland HP702, which I love—in late July, and I have been playing it every day since. Among the resources that I've found most useful, I would recommend the Theory Lessons website and app, a great primer on music theory for a beginner like me, and Carl Humphries' The Piano Handbook, which I'm slowly going through.

My boardgaming group met very little in person this year, and it transformed into a Discord-based role-playing group. We have been playing a campaign using the Dungeon World system, which is accessible, flexible, and fun. (I have also been listening to the hilariously ridiculous Spout Lore podcast, an "actual play podcast" from some great Victoria-based improv comedians.)

With the family, I've been playing some escape room games that I think are very well done. We liked The Dungeon from Adventure Games, and pretty much every scenario from the Unlock! series that we've tried.

Speaking of escape rooms, I also decided to try out the Escape Mail puzzles from Mobile Escape, and I have been having a lot of fun solving them so far.


This was an odd, hard year, but I have many reasons for gratitude.

I'm grateful that most of my family remains healthy, that we're happily employed, and still discovering beauty around us.

I'm grateful for medical science—I believe the vaccines rolling out these days are the biggest scientific success of my lifetime.

I'm grateful to live in British Columbia, where we have the guidance of a great Public Health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who preaches kindness and calm.

I'm grateful at the prospects of a little more sanity in the political discourse down South.

And I'm grateful for the still slim but slowly growing chances that I will get to see, hug, and kiss my family far away, perhaps within a year or so.

May you have a healthy and happy 2021.

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