(reading time: 9 minutes)
Starting in 2016, then 2017, then 2018, I've continued my yearly ritual of sharing the most personally meaningful books I read that year. Which books broke my heart and re-built it stronger? Which books were the keystone puzzle pieces in my mental jigsaw? Which books gave me the swords and shields to survive in our strange new world?
Well this year I finally got sick of books.
So, here's my Most Meaningful Media of 2019 – this includes books, but also films, comics, academic papers, web-interactives, etc.
Ted Chiang's sci-fi always hits a sweet spot of hard science and humanist feeling, because he knows what few others do: science is human. Technology is humanity's dreams and delusions, made real.
Exhalation (2019) is his newest anthology of short sci-fi stories. It begins with a story of deterministic time travel, as a person struggles to accept an unchangeable tragic past. Then there's a story of AI pet enthusiasts, as they struggle to raise their "children" in a brave new world. And it ends with a story of multiverse communication, as people suffer anxiety over what their alternate selves coulda-woulda-shoulda done.
I said that this year I got "sick of books". That's because so many novels are stuffed with fluff to meet their contract's 200-300 page mark. Not with Chiang. Each short story hits its ideas and feelings at lightning pace. Result: you spend half an hour reading one story, then half a day really thinking about it.
Speaking of writing good stories...
"Peter's uncle died and Peter fights crime." – that's not a story.
"Peter's uncle died because of Peter's irresponsibility, therefore Peter uses his great power with great responsibility, and fights crime." – that's a story so well-known, it's practically Mythology.
There might never be a Grand Unified Theory of Storytelling, but Robert McKee's Story (1997) comes close:
Story = Value + Cause
Value is emotional. Cause is logical. What I love about this equation is that it shows how great stories are both – they make us feel and think. (see: Chiang's humanist sci-fi)
That's why every human culture tells stories, even though they could use that time for improving one's survival: because stories do improve our survival. A simplified fiction guides us through the chaos of life, just as a simplified street map guides us through the chaos of a city.
Great stories show us what Causes what we Value.
(As for me, I used McKee's framework to design my interactive story, Adventures With Anxiety)
I said so many novels these days are fluff'd, but I find that most modern non-fiction is too. Especially pop science. This year, I skipped the books, and went straight to the source – the scientific papers themselves:
Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work (PDF) showed me that my career of making educational games was... kinda based on a lie. But this paper introduced me to powerful new ideas like Cognitive Load Theory + the Expertise Reversal Effect, and ultimately, this hard-to-swallow pill will make my educational games much better.
The Three Meanings of Meaning In Life (PDF) made my existential-anxiety episodes more useful. Previously, when I felt "meaninglessness", I'd get stuck in a loop because "meaning" is a fluffy word. This positive-psychology paper helped break "meaning" down into 3 parts: cognitive, affective, and motivational. (This explains why great stories, which make you feel and think, are such powerful sources of meaning!)
Daily Well-Being: The Role of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness (PDF) showed me Values & Causes in real life. The study shows how just 3 psychological human needs – being true to yourself (Autonomy), being with others (Relatedness), and doing good work (Competence) – predict better mental health, and even better physical health! Inspired by this paper, I kept a journal of how much my needs were fulfilled/frustrated each day... and how I could do better tomorrow.
Speaking of mental health...
Joker (2019) left me feeling like a worse and better person.
Great stories can also show us what Causes the opposite of what we Value – what turns people into monsters. You crush an at-risk person's 3 psychological human needs, and well... they may stop being psychologically human.
I already tweet-stormed my review of it, so I'll just repeat it here:
What's more, Joker is the only film I've seen so far that takes violence seriously. For contrast: I just saw the new Star Wars flick, where Kylo Ren kills more people in his first scene than Arthur Fleck does in his whole movie.
In Joker, the violence was almost anti-cinematic. No sanitized cut-aways, no pornographic close-ups, no soundtrack or sexy editing. I don't think any of the deaths even happen in the middle of the frame – as if the cameraperson just happened to be there.
Joker shows violence as it is. It's not a bringer of glory, nor a sexy taboo act.
It's just ugly.
Though, that's not to say I don't enjoy the occasional sexy violence...
When I Arrived At The Castle (2019) by Emily Carroll.
"Lesbian gothic horror furry vampire romance."
That's all I have to say about that.
Anyway, speaking of non sequitur segues...
You know how you read a great book, learn all kinds of insights... then a month later you've forgotten everything? (Another reason I'm now "sick of books".)
Quantum Computing for the Very Curious (2019) by Michael Nielsen and Andy Matuschak solves that problem. Not only is it an accessible-yet-deep intro to quantum computing – you don't need prior knowledge of quantum mechanics or computing! – it also has one core new innovation:
In-built Spaced Repetition, or, "flashcards on steroids".
Spaced Repetition feels like cheating. By just investing a few minutes – strategically spaced out over months – you can choose to commit anything you like to long-term memory!
Example: I read QCVC Chapter 1 in March, and nine months later I still remember what a Hadamard gate is, its exact matrix representation, and famous quantum circuits that use it. In contrast: in March I saw a bunch of talks at a conference and now I don't even remember which talks I saw.
Combined with the many other cognitive science papers I read this year (like the one which ruined/re-built my edu-games career), I think QCVC hints at how to Cause something I deeply Value – a bright new future of education:
One that actually works.
Each year, I share media that felt super meaningful to me at the time... but as the years pass, I realize what a gullible idiot infant child I was, and only 5% of the stuff I said was life-changing actually ended up changing my life.
But, I guess that's Time's job: to filter out the truly great stuff. So, here's things from years past that are still meaningful to me, even after all this time.
Before, during the 2010s decade:
What books/films/papers have influenced you the most? Tell me in the Twitter replies!
I hope some of my recommendations are good additions to your 2020 reading/watching/playing list. Happy New Year+Decade, y'all.