Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Chiang, Ted. Exhalation. New York: Knopf.

Wow. This is some of the best science fiction I have read in a very long time. Chiang uses the flexibility afforded by the implicit rules (or lack of rules) of the genre to craft shorts stories that meditate on various philosophical issues, stories richly informed, it seems, by reading of the relevant literatures.

The one that resonated most for me is "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" which concerns the difference between, bluntly, what actually happened and the narratives that people construct around their pasts. One strand of the story plays out in the context of the world where some people create "life logs" - essentially videos of their entire lives - and the cost of searching the lifelog suddenly falls dramatically, leading to a lot more sometimes wrenching comparisons between actual facts and remembered narratives. I tend to think about these issue in terms of my last few years at Michigan, as my mental narrative of those years differs dramatically from that of others (and, of course, I think mine does a much better job of tracking actual events).

I also quite enjoyed "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," which  conemplates the moral status of artificial intelligences, and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," which concerns the ethical implications of parallel universes.

The book concludes with a few pages of notes about the origins of each of the stories, a feature I would be happy to see in basically every fiction book (and mybe in non-fiction books and papers too).

Highly recommended.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks and mortar bookstore at which I purchased the book

Addendum: A market test of sorts: used hardcover copies of Chiang's first book of short stories - Exhalation is his second - in good condition go for nearly $200 on

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

An Atlantic piece on Americans and gunf

This Atlantic reporter does the unthinkable and actually tries to understand both the gun nuts and the anti-gun nuts. The result is, I thought, interesting and useful.

Among other things, the debate - not the best term given the general absence of actual engagement on either side - highlights the "elite virtue signalling" versus "deplorable rebellion against smug elites" dynamic that seems to me to be the signature aspect of American cultural and political life these days.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Conference call bingo

It is interesting to get to see (part of) everyone's home office on video conference calls. I seem to have the most books.

Hat tip: An amazing Dane

Monday, March 30, 2020

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Assorted links

1. Some shelter in place amusement from McSweeney's.

2. Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic - one of my favorite of their writers - considers Megxit. The Royal Family is a bit on my mind as we just finished Season 3 of The Crown at our house.

3. Post-pandemic travel predictions from Gary Leff.

Hat tip on #1 to my favorite international relations scholar

Saturday, March 28, 2020

All Hail Literati or, people in Ann Arbor really like books

Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor, which in some spiritual sense replaced Borders #1 when the chain went under, managed to raise over $100,000 on GoFundMe in just two days (!) this past week.

Glad to see a couple of former Michigan colleagues on the list of donors too.

Book: Riding the Elephant by Craig Ferguson

Ferguson, Craig. 2019. Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations & Observations.New York: Blue Rider Press.

Craig was (without quuestion) my favorite relatively recent late night talk show host. None of the cuurrent crowd even comes close. So I miss him and his antics and the fake horse and the talking skeleton and the fact that his politics were not completely and utterly obvious (and, by extension, not completely and utterly tiresome). Plus we are very close to the same age, which I think matters a bit too.

So I was bought his new memoir - really more of a collection of sketches from his past than a proper narrative memoir but probably that's better anyway - the first time I saw it in a bookstore. I was not disappointed. Craig is a great teller of stories. I particularly enjoyed the stories about his relatively humble upbringing in Scotland and the chapter on the "four queens".His history of addiction (mainly alcohol) and subsequent recovery via AA is in the background here, rather than in the foreground as in his earlier memoir, but one sees the AA emphases on critical self-reflection and on making amends throughout the text.

I was a bit disappointed to learn that he has become a vegan, or so he claims. It seems both too trendy for someone who generally poses as a genial cynic and outsider and also a bit of an addiction in its own way.

In any case, despite the vegan blot, if you miss Craig's more thoughtful monologues even half as much as I do, you'll quite enjoy the book.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks-and-mortar bookstore where I actually purchased the book (as I recall).

N.B. I am not actually spending every waking minute reading enjoyable books - rather I am catching up on posting about books read over the past 18 months or so.