Infinite Ascent.

by CJ Quineson

Things I enjoyed reading in 2023

year 5 of pretending i read

Previous years: 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022.


Most of my fiction consumption this year wasn’t reading, so I guess this is it.

Watchmen (125k words). Content warning: violence, death. Superhero graphic novel. Read it partly for an IAP class, which influenced some of my thinking behind Two hundred puzzles, fifty years later. Chapter 4, Watchmaker, is my favorite graphic novel chapter ever, for using the medium so well; though arguably Chapter 5, Fearful Symmetry, could also take that prize. A bit of a slog to go through at times, though.

The photograph is in my hand. It is the photograph of a man and a woman. They are at an amusement park, in 1959. In twelve seconds time, I drop the photograph to the sand at my feet, walking away. It’s already lying there, twelve seconds into the future. Ten seconds now. The photograph is in my hand. I found it in a derelict bar at the Gila Flats Test Base, twenty-seven hours ago. It’s still there, twenty-seven hours into the past, in its frame, in the darkened bar. I’m still there, looking at it. The photograph is in my hand. The woman takes a piece of popcorn between thumb and forefinger. The ferris wheel pauses. Seven seconds now. It’s October, 1985. I’m on Mars. It’s July, 1959. I’m in New Jersey, at the Palisades Amusement Park. Four seconds. Three. I’m tired of looking at the photograph now. I open my fingers. It falls to the sand at my feet. I am going to look at the stars. They are so far away, and their light takes so long to reach us… all we ever see of stars are their old photographs.

Strong Female Protagonist (180k words). Content warning: violence. Superhero webcomic, on indefinite hiatus. You’d think I’d be done with superhero deconstructions, after Watchmen and A Practical Guide to Evil, but this took a different angle. Bit of an Author Tract at times, unsurprising given Brennan Lee Mulligan wrote it, true to his Dropout stereotype and philosophy degree. To be honest, this one’s only here because I realized I didn’t have enough fiction pieces for this post, so I archive binged it, and I’m glad I did.

I fantasize about killing people all the time. I think about how easy it would be. What if I just started showing up to Kitan rallies with an I-beam? Knock down the capitol building, force them to pass Universal Health Care, stuff every Ayn Rand fanatic into a big mason jar and hurl them into the sun. I could do it, you know. I really could. And then there’s these people with their fucking sneers going “You’re a monster! You’re a thug! You kill people!” No fucking shit I kill people! I put holes in mountains! I break shit constantly without even trying! I saved the world on no less than seven fucking occasions, and guess what, super-accuracy is not one of my anomalies! Am I supposed to be impressed that you’ve never killed anybody? What a bold moral choice from a person who’s terrified of violence and scared shitless of going to jail! It’s like, have you ever had the option of murdering a bunch of people!? Okay, then why the fuck am I listening to your opinion on the matter!? Every day I don’t kill a thousand fucking people, they should throw me a god-damned tickertape parade!

Not fiction

Going to bias this towards longer reads, as my Curius bookshelf tracks my shorter reads. Eventually I’ll get to cataloging my media consumption better, but not now I guess.

The California Problem (20k words). Any critical piece about indie media and its role in industry warms my heart. Liz comes from a perspective of years of experience and love for the video game medium, and it shows in her delivery. Great analysis of video game mechanics over the past few years.

the point i’m making here is that it’s not so easy to cleave the utopian, communal side of games that celebrate the passion of creative expression from the cutthroat business landscape filled with whisper networks and rampant exploitation of developers. […] any attempt to create a portrait of this space that ignores or reduces any of these complicated tensions is very much papering over the reality, of which there always seems to be a concerted effort in the game industry to do. and that’s what makes it so fucking difficult to talk about any of this!

Higher-Dimensional Categories (46k words). Of the technical reads I’ve read this year, this is the one I view as most aspirational, because of its clarity of exposition. Rough around the edges, lots of pictures. Prerequisites are “categories, functors, natural transformations and a little about limits and adjunctions,” which is about as much category theory as I’ll admit to knowing.

Our aim here is just as it was when we first sat down with our coffees: to shed as much light on the definitions as we can. These notes are by-and-large a record of our discussions and as such we lay no claims to completeness; we have simply included everything we found helpful along the way. We have chosen intuition over rigour wherever a choice seems to be required. This often means “waffle” over “concision” as we have aimed towards readable prose rather than elegant mathematical exposition that demands hours (or days) of reading and re-reading, sentence by sentence.

There Is No Right Way to Meditate (≈1k words). A pretty, short, and pretty short book about mindfulness. I’ll confess to having never had a formal meditation practice myself. Beautiful illustrations, pithy writing, comforting read.

Sometimes it’s okay if the only thing you did today was breathe.

How Buildings Learn (80k words). A classic which I read while working on my You don’t have to be a founder post, about how buildings are made to adapt over time. The potential analogies to software engineering abound. Probably where most people have heard of the legendary Building 20.

What does it take to build something so that it’s really easy to make comfortable little modifications in a way that once you’ve made them, they feel integral with the nature and structure of what is already there? You want to be able to mess around with it and progressively change it to bring it into an adapted state with yourself, your family, the climate, whatever. This kind of adaptation is a continuous process of gradually taking care.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (81k words). Has the same vibes as The Book of Human Emotions, which made my 2021 list. Somewhat similar format, with a five-ish page section on each sorrow, but is organized in chapters, making it slightly better suited for continuous reading than Human Emotions. Unlike Human Emotions, the words in Obscure Sorrows are mostly coinages; sonder perhaps the most famous.

This is not a book about sadness—at least, not in the modern sense of the word. The word sadness originally meant “fullness,” from the same Latin root, satis, that also gave us sated and satisfaction. Not so long ago, to be sad meant you were filled to the brim with some intensity of experience. It wasn’t just a malfunction in the joy machine. It was a state of awareness—setting the focus to infinity and taking it all in, joy and grief all at once. When we speak of sadness these days, most of the time what we really mean is despair, which is literally defined as the absence of hope. But true sadness is actually the opposite, an exuberant upwelling that reminds you how fleeting and mysterious and open-ended life can be. That’s why you’ll find traces of the blues all over this book, but you might find yourself feeling strangely joyful at the end of it. And if you are lucky enough to feel sad, well, savor it while it lasts—if only because it means that you care about something in this world enough to let it under your skin.

The Rationality Community Sucks (643 words). This was shared so many times in my social circles that I had to share it again.

Standard Rationalist dinner conversation: Bob is talking about dumb people he met in his physics PhD in a fruitless attempt to address his insecurity, someone mentions a case of someone in the out-group being irrational, everyone laughs.