Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s Exhalation is one of my favourite short stories. Its centrepiece is a meticulous description of the protagonist’s self-dissection of his own brain. It’s a mechanical being (although the word mechanical seems too crude) so rather than blood and bone, it’s an assemblage of intricate mechanisms. Reading it takes some concentration — you really have to pay attention to each word and try to hold the image in your head as each detail is added — but it’s well worth the the effort.

When I was done, my brain looked like an explosion frozen an infinitesimal fraction of a second after the detonation, and again I felt dizzy when I thought about it. But at last the cognition engine itself was exposed, supported on a pillar of hoses and actuating rods leading down into my torso. I now also had room to rotate my microscope around a full three hundred and sixty degrees and pass my gaze across the inner faces of the subassemblies I had moved. What I saw was a microcosm of auric machinery, a landscape of tiny spinning rotors and miniature reciprocating cylinders.

You can find the story online at the Night Shade Books site, or in Chiang’s recent collection, also called Exhalation.

The Assassination of Albert Camus?

“The accident seemed to have been caused by a blowout or a broken axle; experts were puzzled by its happening on a long stretch of straight road, a road 30 feet wide, and with little traffic at the time,” Herbert Lottman wrote in his 1978 biography of the author.

Catelli believes a passage in Zábrana’s diaries explains why: the poet wrote in the late summer of 1980 that “a knowledgeable and well-connected man” had told him the KGB was to blame. “They rigged the tyre with a tool that eventually pierced it when the car was travelling at high speed.”

News of a book outlining a theory that Albert Camus was assassinated by the KGB has been making the rounds recently. My gut feeling is that it’s nonsense. A scheme to kill someone by making a tyre blow out seems like it would have a pretty low likelihood of success, even if everything went to plan.

Net Zero Emissions

It would be an overstatement to call this article hopeful, but it’s a good overview of things that could and can be done to draw CO₂ from the atmosphere. The upshot is that the current technological solutions cost too much and do too little. Lower-tech approaches, including planting forests and storing crop residue at the bottom of the ocean, seem to be a better place to start right now.

New technologies may in fact hold the key to the problem. In the second half of the century we should be doing things that we can’t even dream of yet. In the next century, even more so. But it takes time to perfect and scale up new technologies. So it makes sense to barrel ahead with what we can do now, then shift gears as other methods become practical. Merely waiting and hoping is not wise.

Of course, working out how to do it may not even be the hard part.

Even if we try, we are far from guaranteed to succeed … But will we even try? That is more a matter of politics and economics than of science and technology.

Pocari Sweat

This is a fascinating history of my go-to summer drink in Japan. I’ve drunk gallons of the stuff, but had no idea how it came about.

“Nearly 50 years ago, an Otsuka researcher named Rokuro Harima was on a business trip to Mexico when he was hospitalised due to diarrhoea. The doctor told him to make sure that he got enough water and nutrition, but just gave him a regular carbonated drink,” he says.

“This led Harima to think how much better it would be if he had an easy-to-drink beverage that could supply both the water and the nutrients that he needed. Later, Harima saw a doctor drinking a pouch of IV solution to rehydrate himself after finishing surgery, which gave him the idea for a drinkable IV solution.

Butter and Salt

I’ve long wondered why simple bread and butter at Bread in Common tastes so good. I always assumed it was because they used some kind of special gourmet butter, but now I think it has more to do with the way it’s served — a pat of unsalted butter with salt on the side for sprinkling on top. I tried it today with some ordinary supermarket butter and it was sensational.

The Husband Stitch

A modern fairytale by Carmen Maria Machado.
The whole thing is wonderful, but I especially like the instructions for storytellers, such as —

(If you are reading this story out loud, force a listener to reveal a secret, then open the nearest window to the street and scream it as loudly as you are able.)

iTunes Movies with Japanese Subtitles

Finding a movie with Japanese subtitles to watch on the Australian iTunes store can be a pain because most don’t have them and there’s no way to just see a list of those that do, as you can with Netflix.

To keep a track of the ones that do I’ve made a list that I intend to add to as I find more.

San Choy Bow

I tried this recipe from Recipe Tin Eats the other day and it was a total success — a nice bounceback after my dry-as-sawdust bulgogi disaster of the previous day.

The recipe seems quite forgiving. It only calls for 300 grams of pork, but I used 500 grams, increasing the other incredients with some very rough approximation, and it turned out fine.

Definitely adding this one to our general meal rotation.

The Draughtman's Contract on Kanopy

A cause for celebration — Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract has popped up on Kanopy. It’s one of a handful of eighties and nineties indie films that I’ve long wanted to watch again but have been unable to track down on iTunes or any of the streaming services in Australia. Maybe Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster, Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool, and Walt Stillman’s Metropolitan will show up someday.

Running Mac OS from a USB drive - a cautionary tale

A few months ago the SSD in my ancient MacBook Air began to falter. The sensor that told my Mac the SSD existed was intermittently failing, so I could use it for a while, then it would freeze as if the system drive had been unplugged.

I wasn’t keen buying a new one until Apple sorted out its keyboard woes, and the prospect of installing a new SSD myself was rather daunting, so my brain came up with what seemed like a brilliant and cheap stop-gap workaround — install the OS onto a USB drive and run the system from that. My thinking (if it can be called that) was that a USB drive is basically a kind of SSD anyway. I knew it would be slower because it would be limited by the speed of the USB bus, but I figured it’d be worth a shot and would keep me going until Apple got its act together.

My idea turned out to be neither brilliant nor cheap. I was able to get it up and running after a lot of futzing about, but I was plagued by spinning beachballs, freezes and random crashes multiple times a day, even when I was running just a text editor. After a month of putting up with that, I ended up ordering a new SSD from Upgradable.com for about $150, which is about three times more than I spent on the USB drive, but the SSD was twice as big and, more importantly, actually works. Installing it was a doddle and took no more about twenty minutes.

I’d thought I’d learnt my lesson from past cheapskate shenanigans, but it seems not. On the bright side, it seems that Apple has a new keyboard ready to be introduced sometime next year, so when this MacBook Air finally gives up the ghost, I hope I’ll feel less trepidation about getting a new one.

Knives Out Trailer

The trailer for Knives Out looks great. Daniel Craig’s American accent threw me at first, but I suspect, like Martin Freeman’s in Fargo, it’ll be slightly jarring for five minutes but seem completely natural after that.

The New Wilderness

Maciej Ceglowski on privacy in the age of surveillance capital  —

This requires us to talk about a different kind of privacy, one that we haven’t needed to give a name to before. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call it ‘ambient privacy’–the understanding that there is value in having our everyday interactions with one another remain outside the reach of monitoring, and that the small details of our daily lives should pass by unremembered. What we do at home, work, church, school, or in our leisure time does not belong in a permanent record. Not every conversation needs to be a deposition.

The New Wilderness

Kindle Page Turn Buttons

I agree wholeheartedly with Jason Snell’s comment on page-turn buttons in his review of the latest Kindle Oasis —

People will tell you that it’s just fine to find a grip that lets you slide a finger over to the screen, tap, and then slide back every single time you turn the page. Sure, it’s fine. But this is way better.

When my Paperwhite broke, I started using my old Kindle again — it’s so old it has a physical keyboard — and immediately appreciated how much better buttons work to change pages. It sounds trivial, but it really makes a difference. Another benefit is that because the screen is completely inert, you can pick the Kindle up and put it down without worrying about inadvertently causing it to jump to another page, close the book or do anything at all. The buttons plus the inert screen really do make it a superior — and calmer — reading experience, even if I do have to have a lamp on in the evenings. It’s a pity Amazon reserves what was once a standard feature for its priciest offering.

The warm front-lighting on the new Oasis sounds nice, but I find it hard to imagine I’ll feel comfortable parting with AUD$400 for a book reading machine any time in the near future.