Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Previously, I read Childhood’s End in 1999. I vaguely remembered some sort of mystical transformation of humankind at the end. In fact, I remember a book cover (which maybe doesn’t exist) that was black and asymmetrical with a looming red/orange/yellow embryo symbolizing humanity’s next phase of existence. I think I was confusing it with a bluish cover for Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two.

I saw a cheap used paperback with a spaceship on the cover on my trip to the US in December and decided to buy it and read it again. I had the vague idea that maybe the book would have some relevant things to say about the transformation of society that some are predicting will occur as a result of the development of artificial intelligence.

I was disappointed.

See below to find out why.

Continue reading Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

When and Why I Read Childhood's End

Read it once before. Got a cheap copy in Atlanta December 2023. Wanted to read it because it's about the future of humanity, and the AI people keep talking about the future of humanity. This had nothing relevant to say though.

Genre: science-fiction
Date started / date finished: 30-Mar-24 to 31-Mar-24
Length: 218 pages
ISBN: 0345347951
Originally published in: 1953/1974
Amazon link: Childhood's End

Poster Girl by Veronica Roth

A 27-year-old woman who as a teenager posed for a propaganda poster under the previous government is released from imprisonment on condition that she locate a missing girl who was snatched from her family a decade earlier. Her luminescent ocular device, no longer connected to the system that conditioned every citizen via instant monetary rewards and punishments, can nevertheless still be used to spy on her.

The story, told in present tense, explores themes of community and making the best of what you have, like City of Ember. But the world of Roth’s Poster Girl is not a world where anyone emerges triumphant. Mostly, it’s about loss and evil and culpability; not just looking evil in the face, but casting aside self-deception and admitting you carry it inside yourself.

In addition, we’re warned that technology can be misused; specifically that we’re infinitely better off if our data is siloed on scattered devices than if it’s in the cloud, because someday the government will likely get it all, and whoever controls the government will use it however they see fit… and so will the next government.

I read in a review of Childhood’s End that it’s dull because its only plot device is “the slow reveal.” While that’s not the only plot device of Poster Girl, it might partly explain the deflated feeling I had, sunshiny epilogue notwithstanding, when I finished reading it. The 288-page novel hinges on the dark secret at its heart. About which, no more.

When and Why I Read Poster Girl

Got an email alert that a Veronica Roth ebook was on sale and bought it. Apparently she wrote it during the pandemic.

Genre: science-fiction/fantasy
Date started / date finished: 29-Mar-24 to 30-Mar-24
Length: 279 pages
Originally published in: 2022
Amazon link: Poster Girl

Passionate Persistence by Eve Sprunt

Two things stood out when I read Passionate PersistenceThe Life of My Mother, Ruth Chew by Eve Sprunt.

One is that all the dollar amounts mentioned for individual purchases, cars, salaries, etc. were really low compared to now, many decades later. I mean, of course I know about inflation, but appreciating these amounts, even with present-day equivalents given in the narration, is like having to think in another currency entirely. The past really is a foreign country, and reading a biography of anyone born in a previous generation is like traveling in time.

The other is that children’s authors aren’t necessarily good with their own kids. I would have assumed someone apparently full of entertaining stories for children would have been fully engaged with her own. It seems the truth is that Ruth’s offspring were expected to be as emotionally self-sufficient as the characters in her stories, who wander around having adventures with little if any interference from their parents.

The second-oldest of five, Eve has written a detailed account of her mother’s personal, professional, and family life, based on Ruth’s diaries and her own memories. She acknowledges Ruth’s challenges and successes, but also points out behavior that was negligent, self-indulgent, or biased and reminds us that we ought to pay attention to our impact on those around us.

When and Why I Read Passionate Persistence

This is a biography of children's author Ruth Chew, written by her daughter.

Genre: biography
Date started / date finished: 21-Mar-24 to 29-Mar-24
Length: 375 pages
Originally published in: 2024
Amazon link: Passionate Persistence

Xixing Ancient Town, Binjiang District, Hangzhou

Siqi and I went with his parents for a walk in Xixing Ancient Town. It’s a historic neighborhood surrounding an old canal that used to be important. A couple of old houses have been renovated and decorated as trendy coffee shops, and we saw a few people posing for photos on an old bridge like tourists, but it’s largely still a pretty quiet residential neighborhood (according to the Wikipedia page for Binjiang, inhabited since the Spring and Autumn period, which ended in 481 BCE), complete with unmentionables and other laundry hanging out to dry. There are a few signs in Chinese and English describing the landmarks.

See below for 18 photos from our stroll.

Continue reading Xixing Ancient Town, Binjiang District, Hangzhou

Person of Interest (S1 to S5)

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system that spies on you every hour of every day…”
quote from the show’s intro

My records indicate that I was watching this series in 2012. At the time, the premise seemed like just that, a premise: A guy gets some information about something bad that will happen unless he can prevent it, which then of course he sets out to do. That’s the same as the premise of a show I watched in the 1990s called Early Edition. In that show, a guy gets a magical newspaper and thus can read tomorrow’s news today.

Nobody reads newspapers anymore. In Person of Interest, the protagonist’s magical source of information isn’t yesterday’s technology, it’s tomorrow’s: artificial superintelligence.

See below for more on the show and what I thought of it.

TLDR? I think it’s a fantastically entertaining show, in part because it’s funny and in part because it’s deadly serious.

Continue reading Person of Interest (S1 to S5)

A Stroll by Nan Hu

It was a Saturday. Siqi and I took a walk near where we live.

Looks pretty dense and urban, right?

Yes and no! Yuhang District is developing so fast it makes my head spin. And there were already a lot of these tall housing blocks in the town of Yuhang before the latest wave of tech company offices and transportation infrastructure got built. But Zhejiang Lab, where I work, was plonked down in the middle of a bunch of farms on the other side of Nan Hu (South Lake).

I commute from one side of the lake to the other five days a week. It takes about 20 minutes by car. Siqi drives me or I summon a car and driver using an app, which costs 15 to 25 rmb (3 to 5 Singapore dollars, 2 to 4 US dollars).

Now that they’ve opened up a bike and pedestrian path beside the lake on the east side, we can actually try to enjoy living near this lake. Eventually I think they’ll build a path that goes all the way around.

See below for 13 photos from the peaceful water’s edge.

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What’s the best translation of In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past)?

You might think there are only two translations to choose from. Well. That’s what *I* thought.

But after many, many hours of collecting and organizing information on Marcel Proust’s masterwork, I can tell you, the situation is much more complicated…

Head over to the first of my Lost Time pages on We Love Translations to learn how many versions of the Scott Moncrieff translation the Anglophone world has produced (and is still producing!), plus details (on the second page) about the Penguin Prendergast project and the rather nebulous new Nelson and Watt project.

Intimidated by the scope and scale of the complete Search? If you want, you can read just a fraction of it. Visit my Swann’s Way page on We Love Translations for information on just Volume 1, and on the novella Swann in Love (which is contained within Volume 1).

If you want a quick-and-dirty recommendation, why not read the new, complete, modern, multi-translator Penguin version? Or at least the first volume of it? Lydia Davis translated Penguin’s Swann’s Way. She has a lot of interesting things to say about her process, and others (mostly) say positive things about the result.

Buy the Davis translation of Swann’s Way on Amazon

For more on Davis’s translation, keep reading.

Continue reading What’s the best translation of In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past)?

Bills and coins from Albania

Albania is not part of the EU or the eurozone, but at least some restaurants, shops, and museums accept payment in euros. (Neighboring countries Kosovo and Montenegro unilaterally adopted the euro as the de facto national currency in 2002… Europe is complicated!)

According to Wikipedia, the Albanian currency lek (plural leke) is named after Alexander the Great, and Albania operated on a gold standard until 1939.

The value of the lek is not pegged, but at the moment, 100 leke is worth about 1 US dollar or 1 euro, so the tourist shopping math is trivial, converting from one of those currencies.

More about my experience with Albanian bills and coins below.

Oh, and here are the other two souvenirs I brought back (apart from three books).

embroidered Albanian flag patch
flag pin

Continue reading Bills and coins from Albania

From Tirana back to Hangzhou

Again, a journey of many pieces, though not nearly as many as to arrive:

  • from the hotel to the airport (short taxi)
  • from the airport terminal to the plane (very short shuttle bus ride—we could have just walked)
  • from Tirana to Frankfurt (short flight, medium-sized plane)
  • from the plane to airport terminal (shuttle bus)
  • from Frankfurt to Shanghai (lonnnnnng flight, big plane)
  • from Shanghai home to Yuhang District, Hangzhou (we hired a driver… convenient!)

See below for photos of:

  • Tirana International Airport
  • transfer at Frankfurt Airport
  • interior of Air China plane
  • Shanghai Pudong International Airport
  • and something surprising I saw online after reaching home

Continue reading From Tirana back to Hangzhou

Dajti Ekspres Cable Car

In terms of tourist activities, mostly all I did in 3 days in Tirana was walk around, look at buildings, and buy books. It was fun. But I’d read about the cable car that goes up Dajti Mountain, and I figured it would be a fun and different thing to do with Siqi in the afternoon after seeing the sights in town. So we got a taxi to the bottom station of the Dajti Ekspres Cable Car and bought tickets (1,400 leke or 14 euros each; a little over US$14), and then up we went! Totally worth it. Lovely scenery (as shown below).

On the way down, we shared a gondola with a young Albanian woman (who spoke English) and her mom. We chatted with her most of the way down. She likes traveling in affordable places in the region and collects cigarette lighters and good food. She gave us a restaurant recommendation for dinner. She also drove us from the bottom station back to the Mariott, which was very kind. I gave her my business card and an American bill and a Chinese bill as souvenirs.

Continue reading Dajti Ekspres Cable Car