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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

Things I enjoyed reading in 2021 by CJ Q. '23

another year another book post

This is my third year doing this; see the 2019 post and the 2020 post I made.

Things I read for class

I took only two (count ’em: two) classes that had readings, which were 21W.755 Writing and Reading the Short Story, and 24.903 Introduction to Semantics. And, uh, I’m not sure I would cite any of the 24.903 readings here. I’m kinda ashamed that I’m faking my way through the humanities requirement by doing linguistics, so maybe I’ll feel guilty enough to take actual humanities classes.

The Man to Send Rain Clouds (≈1750 words). A beautiful, poignant short story about cross-cultural death rites. Nice and short, go and read it!

Across the brown wrinkled forehead he drew a streak of white and along the high cheek bones he drew a strip of blue paint. He paused and watched Ken throw pinches of corn meal and pollen into the wind that fluttered the small gray feather. Then Leon painted with yellow under the old man’s broad nose, and finally, when he had painted green across the chin, he smiled.

“Send us rain clouds, Grandfather.”

Woven (3560 words). Content warning for domestic violence. This isn’t a short story, but I think it was assigned reading anyway? A piece about relationships, violence, and Lithuanian mythology. The word woven takes on many different roles in this honest autobiographical essay.

Every story I have ever told has a kind of breach to it, I think. You could say that my writing isn’t quite right. That all the beginnings have endings in them.

The Lottery (3381 words). Content warning for violence. This one’s cheating because this wasn’t even assigned reading in class, it was just mentioned in passing as an example of a short story inspired by so-and-so element. Anyway, it’s apparently a classic, and it reads like a surprisingly modern piece despite being published in 1948.

“They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”

Old Man Warner snorted. “Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while.”

Fiction

Last year I had two fiction pieces with hard-to-count word counts: 17776, because of its multimedia presentation, and Saga, because it’s a comic book series. Well, this year, I have three such pieces, and all of them are webcomics. (I promise I did read some fiction that wasn’t webcomics, but they didn’t make the list.) My methods for counting was basically just wildly estimating, and your mileage may vary.

The Old World (≈3500 words). This year’s token “favorite short story I read this year”. Speculative comic about technology and mortality. Ryan Armand wrote many excellent webcomics; if you liked this, you’d like the rest of the short stories.

“I am leaving this new world and returning to the world of old.”

“New world?”

“This world of screens and metal. This world of gas and lights. I’m leaving this world where neon signs litter the starless nights.”

The Serpent, the Moose, and the Wanderer’s Library (≈7600 words). Set in the SCP universe, where a titular, secret, worldwide organization aims to hide and contain supernatural objects. This is, once again, the token “favorite thing from SCP I read this year”. Well, this isn’t quite my favorite, as I liked SCP-6001 more, but I think this SCP is more amenable to people who haven’t read any other SCP things. No particular content warnings for this one, other than pictures of snakes.

“I think this is it.”

“This is what?”

“My happy ending.”

Kill Six Billion Demons (250k+ words). Content warning for violence. K6BD is an ongoing fantasy webcomic with stunningly beautiful depictions of legendary supernatural beings in combat, juxtaposed with badass koans and names like “Murder the Gods and Topple their Thrones”, steeped in fractally detailed worldbuilding. The art starts out rough but gets way better.

Pree Ashma. Yis-Asram, the Blooded One. Yis-Prama, Hansa and Prat Pavam, who temper my heart. YISUN Atru Vyam. Forgive me for this violence I am about to inflict.

YISUN was questioned once by their disciples at their speaking house. The questions were the following:
‘What is the ultimate reason for existence?’
To which YISUN replied, ‘Self-deception.’
‘How can a man live in perfect harmony?’
To which YISUN replied, ‘Non-existence.’
‘What is the ultimate result of all action?’
To which YISUN replied, ‘Futility.’
‘How best can we serve your will?’
To which YISUN replied, ‘Kindly ignore my first three answers.’

Namesake (330k+ words). Existential dread in a fantasy bildungsroman? Yes please. An ongoing webcomic about faith, fate, and fairy tales. Art really varies quality-wise, and the plot is kinda sketchy at times, but it has been a real page-turner.

Oz? Like Australia? Wait… the road is yellow. Oh HELL no.

If you ever threaten me again, it will be the last time you ever speak. Just remember that I have the power to unwrite your existence.

Vidrun’s Technical Interviews (≈12k words). “Fiction” in as much as it’s musings about programming wrapped in Norse mythology. A series of short stories in which literal god of programming Vidrun spectacularly flunks technical interviews. Probably difficult to appreciate without at least some functional programming background, though, oops.

“That’s not a list,” the interviewer says. “That’s an if statement.”

“What else are lists,” you reply, your eyes flashing, “But alternatives?”

The Church. The lambda calculus. The gay agenda. It has known a thousand names, a thousand forms. Aisha slams her palms together, and with the crash of mountains, summons the thousandth-and-first.

Not fiction

Hunting for What We Lost (993 words). Did you know that MIT Graduate Admissions also has a student-run blog? This is a blog post from Mary. D ’20 about the 2021 Mystery Hunt, which I helped write. I’m including it because it’s a very short piece that captures pretty closely what Galactic wanted people to feel during Hunt.

It sat where the sidewalk ended: Next House. Seeing that digital representation of my old home made my heart ache.

Blogging Advice For People Exactly Like Me (5222 words). Continuing last year’s theme of having pieces from MIT alumni, this one is from Brian C. ’19, with advice on writing blog posts. I generally dislike these kinds of posts, but I thought this one was pretty nice, mostly because I think I’m pretty similar to Brian myself.

A lot of posts similar to this one will tell you to write regularly, to block out time in your schedule every week or so just for writing. […] Here’s some alternative advice: If you don’t have any good ideas for what to blog about, try harder to see “missing blog posts” in the world around you, and to cultivate the ability and confidence to do so.

Patterns in confusing explanations (4182 words). I care a lot about writing (if it wasn’t already clear), and specifically I care a lot about writing explanations. A lot of the writing I’ve made outside blogging is aimed at explaining things that I thought weren’t explained nicely anywhere else. In this post, Julia articulates pretty clearly what I think good explanations should look like, and I aspire to explain things as clearly as she did in this post.

This list isn’t meant to make you feel bad about your writing. I’ve probably done all of these things! I’m certainly going to do them again! I even did at least one of them while writing this post!

But knowing that I’m likely to accidentally do these things makes it easier for me to avoid them, and it makes me more receptive to critique when people point out issues with my writing (“Julia, this is assuming a lot of knowledge that I don’t have!“).

The Book of Human Emotions (92k words). The bulk of the book is an alphabetical index of emotions, broadly construed, which makes it a bit awkward for continuous reading. It’s probably better to read in pieces, as it’s more of a collection of essays. But I find it a useful reference when trying to describe feelings; it’s how I came to the word mudita, for example.

In France, the feeling of being an outsider is known as dépaysement (literally: decountrification). Sometimes it is frustrating, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of place (see: ambiguphobia; paranoia). And then, just sometimes, it swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home. When the unlikeliest of adventures seem possible. And the world becomes new again.

A Philosophy of Software Design (56k words). I’m at the stage where I feel like my bottleneck as a programmer is not writing code, but the matter of designing it. This feels like the gulf between my code and code I admire, because the code I admire seems to have thoughtful design decisions put into it. It was a tough call between this book and The Essence of Software (≈100k words), the two books I read this year that had the largest impact in how I approached programming. I think these two books are both awesome, but if you only have time to read one, read Philosophy.

The first step towards becoming a good software designer is to realize that working code isn’t enough. It’s not acceptable to introduce unnecessary complexities in order to finish your current task faster. […] Your primary goal must be to produce a great design, which also happens to work.

fifty ways to make people more reflective (1068 words). A hilarious listicle.

hold them by the shoulders, shake them, and shout reflect, gosh darn it, reflect