Jiwon's Encyclopedia

2021 Library

These are notes and reviews on media I consumed in 2021. Use it to find new and interesting titles!

Nonfiction Books

Professional Student: The Survival Code of Those Who Turn a Crisis Into an Opportunity (프로페셔널 스튜던트: 위기를 기회로 만드는 사람들의 생존코드)

Professional StudentCover

Author: Yong-Seop Kim (김용섭)
Year: 2021
Rating: ★★✰✰✰

Professional Student is a self-help book for those worried about a post-pandemic employment crisis. The author argues that the COVID19 pandemic has accelerated existing trends in the labor market such as increasing automation, shortening job and industry lifespan, and widening the wage gap between industries. In addition, four-year universities are closing doors while new forms of education rise in popularity.

The 21st-century knowledge worker needs to update their repertoire continuously throughout their career. The author suggests taking advantage of MOOCs, professional degrees, corporate education, and more to strengthen technology, interpersonal, and liberal arts skills.

The most unique and memorable observation is that the last occupation to be replaced by automation won't be those who are irreplaceable, rather those with the most lobbying power to keep their jobs, such as doctors and lawyers.

Overall, the book was somewhat obvious and repetitive, as I have long been interested in the topic of lifelong learning. Yet, it included enough novel ideas and was short enough to make it worthwhile.

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication overload

A World Without Email Cover

Author: Cal Newport
Rating: ★★★✰✰

A World Without Email is a measured critique of an email and instant messaging-dominated work landscape accompanied with potential solutions. It is a short and fluidly written weekend read.

Unlike Cal's other works, the problem assessment and solutions in this book were not too applicable for my life. My issue is that the book mostly recites outdated solutions. Its mission is to proliferate structured project management techniques widely used in IT and software development to regular desk jobs. In particular, ticketing systems, kanban, scrum, and agile are upgrades to most desk jobs. These ideas just so happen to be old news to a CS student.

The strategies that I see being useful in my life are: using scheduling software, separating admin and deep work hours, and using project management software. Otherwise, much of the book was irrelevant.

I've seen readers complain about the random forays into academic trivia prevalent throughout the book. While I understand why a typical reader would find these ramblings to be distracting, I am someone who would voluntarily seek out a book with nothing but academic trivia. The fluff kept me blistering through the book despite an underwhelming subject matter.

So I Decided to Record. (기록하기로 했습니다.)

So I Decided to Record Cover

Author: Sinji Kim (김신지)
Year: 2021
Rating: ★★★★✰

So I Decided to Record is an essay on the habit of recording daily life, the things that we forget, and the things that we love. I've always been interested in lifelogging, so it was a no-brainer impulse buy.

I really like its tips on journaling. Theming or titling each day has made journaling much more structured and fun, like a creative writing exercise rather than a repetitive regurgitation of unspectacular days.

I also like the idea of a monthly best list to remember the more special occasions, and a yearly best to augment our frail memories by summarizing the entire year into a list.

Some other short suggestions for consideration are daily moments, personal spaces, good quotes, cool stories, inspirations, journaling for someone special, and recording the voice and videos of loved ones.

The Humble Pie: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World

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Author: Matt Parker
Year: 2020
Rating: ★★✰✰✰

The Humble Pie is a witty compilation of comedic and tragic math errors written for everyone. Its target audience is the general public unfamiliar with mathematics and engineering. As such, seasoned mathematicians or engineers will be disappointed. A good half of the examples were infamous case studies and programming errors that I know about.

At the end of the day, math errors that lead to disasters are engineering errors, and engineering errors are human errors. Even a book purportedly about math errors has to talk about the Swiss cheese model. It's a boring review to anyone who has read anything about disaster prevention before.

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

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Author: Lindsay Fitzharris
Year: 2017
Rating: ★★★★★

The Butchering Art is a gory, vivid tale of how surgery turned from a game of chances to a clinical science thanks to sterilization techniques invented by Joseph Lister.

I was surprised to be hooked by a story of a field that I have no special interest in. The author's flowing writing style and the sheer shock value of some of its subject matter absorbed me. From a modern lens, 19th century surgery is quite the barbaric mess. I was aghast to learn that Anesthetics increased death rates from surgeries due to an increase in infections!

Joseph Lister is barely known to the general public, overshadowed by Pasteur, Nightingale, and John Snow. A spotlight on a lesser-known figure is always welcome.

Being a biography, the book touches upon the human element of science that we too often miss or ignore. For instance, the orthodoxy and interpersonal conflicts of London's surgeons made me reflect on how modern academia suffers from the same problems.

Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology

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Author: Lisa Margonelli
Year: 2018
Rating: ★★★★★

"Are we more like termites than we ever imagined?" inquires the author in Underbug. It is a book that purports to be about the progress of termite science: from mathematicians attempting to understand the architecture of termite mounds, to geneticists decoding the genes in the termites' guts, and roboticists building swarm-intelligence robots inspired by termites.

It seems to me, though, that the author is more interested in how the way we look at termites reflect our worldview. Depending on who you ask, termites are an analogue to socialism, capitalism, finite-state automata, leopard patterns, or a dystopian cyberpunk nightmare. Underbug is, more than anything, a commentary on the nature of science through the lens of termites.

99 Variations on a Proof

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Author: Phillip Ording
Year: 2019

If 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is an exercise in style for the poet, 99 Variations on a Proof is that of the mathematician. We usually read mathematics in one of few established formats, such as contrived exam questions, the axiomatic proofs in a textbook, or the narrated proofs of research papers typeset in LaTeX. 99 Variations demonstrates that mathematics takes more forms than we often realize: as written and oral history, on online discussion boards, as conference papers, preprints and in casual conversations. To the seasoned mathematician, this book is a welcome reminder of the varied nature of mathematics and its long-winded history. To the layperson, it is a glimpse into the messy nature of mathematical progress that goes unmentioned in high school math classes.

Fiction Books

If We Can't Go at the Speed of Light (우리가 빛의 속도로 갈 수 없다면)

If We Can't Go at the Speed of Light Cover

Author: Kim Choyeop
Year: 2019
Score: ★★★★★

If We Can't Go at the Speed of Light is a compilation of award-winning short stories by an emerging Korean science fiction author. Her stories have a melancholic and humanistic tone akin to a pastel painting. The writing style is intimate, like peering into someone's diaries or listening to your grandma's old stories. She depicts how the marginalized – single mothers, nontraditional families, disabled folks, and the elderly – find a home and a family in a future world where progress in biotechnology and space engineering does little to eliminate discrimination. Every piece left me with an aching nostalgia for a place I had never been to. A brilliant debut piece.

The Last Wish

Last Wish Cover

Author: Andrej Sapkowski
Year: 1993
Rating: ★★★★✰

My first impression of The Last Wish is that the Netflix Witcher series finally makes more sense. The show tried to tell too many stories in one season, which led to messy plot lines and underdeveloped characters. It's satisfying to understand the context behind the striga, Ciri's birth, “The Edge of the World” and “The Last Wish.”

As the Witcher is set centuries ago, it's natural that there are many male characters who would be sexual abusers by modern sensibilities. Yet, when the omniscient narrator describes women in an unnecessarily sexual manner, one must wonder whether it reflects Geralt's perversions or the author's.

The book often conveys character and plot developments through subtle hints, respecting its readers' ability to read the subtext. Two examples stand out: Renfri's dagger insinuating that she gave up on revenge, and Geralt's last wish being left to interpretation.

The Greenhouse at the End of the Earth (지구 끝의 온실)

The Greenhouse at the End of the Earth Book Cover

Author: Kim Choyeop
Year: 2021
Score: ★★★★✰

The Greenhouse at the End of the Earth, Kim Choyeop's first long-form novel, has much of the same strengths and weaknesses as her previous works. In it, an uncontrollable swarm of self-replicating nanobots cause a "dustfall", suffocating all lifeforms in its path. Only the most vicious and powerful survive in the few dome cities that remain on Earth. The rare people with natural immunity to the dust are ruthlessly hunted and experimented upon.

In this bleak world, there is a small town inhabited by immune people that harbors a greenhouse of plants that can grow amidst the dust. The greenhouse is the last bastion of humanity and nature's coexistence on Earth. Its inhabitants, those persecuted for their immunity, mostly women, some of whom explicitly queer, are the only hope for nature's recovery. The author thusly imagines that perhaps those who are currently at the margins of society might be able to dream a future in which humans and nature exist symbiotically.

While her more humanistic, feminist themes are a welcome respite from more emotionally dry writings in the genre, her characters speak as if they're reciting a Shakespear's monologue. She writes dialogue like a STEM student. This quality is not a strict pejorative, as it works beautifully in many cases. When it doesn't, however, the dialogue sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise excellent novel.

Visual Media

The Boys

The Boys Poster

Available on: Amazon Prime
Year: 2019
Score: ★★★★★

My favorite superhero movies have always had a twist or two to keep the simplistic good-guys-beat-bad-guys genre refreshing. Logan is a gritty western; The Incredible Hulk is a classic tragedy; Shazam is a family holiday movie. The Boys takes it to another level. In this show, superheroes are the main villains. “Supes” as they are called, are merely a product of the private military complex whose job is to prioritize company PR over justice.

The Boys excels at creating a diverse array of believable characters whose moralities range from literal Nazi to generally good. It simultaneously avoids the black-and-white fallacy that permeates the superhero genre while also avoiding the fallacy of the grey that gritty, “realistic” shows fall prey to. Even the genocidal mass murderers are internally consistent; it makes sense why someone in their position might be compelled to act that way, even if acting upon such desire is morally deplorable.

The show is sharp and focused in its critique of contemporary American politics. The private military complex sells arms to both terrorists and the American army for profit. Racist politicians use dog whistles to avoid being labeled a Nazi while promoting the same ideals as Nazis. The show even name-drops real politicians in its promotional material and uses the term “white genocide” verbatim.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra Poster

Director: James Gray
Year: 2019
Score: ★★★✰✰

Ad Astra feels like an amazing science fiction novel adapted to the screen. It takes place in many different places in the solar system in an almost episodic manner, as the show switches focus between its numerous side characters. It's as if the filmmakers had to condense a multi-volume saga into 2 hours. I was surprised to find out that the movie was, in fact, not a book adaptation.

Ad Astra is gorgeous with brilliantly filmed space sequences. As a hard space sci-fi fan, I definitely reveled in them. The reason why the movie gets a barely passable score is that with so many settings and characters, not one is properly developed.


Storybook Brawl

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Developer: Good Luck Games
Year: 2021
Score: ★★★★✰

Storybook Brawl is an auto-battler inspired by Hearthstone Battlegrounds. With a cute, if a little generic, fairytale-inspired art style and a simple combat system, it delivers and improves upon the easy to learn, hard to master promise.

Its major mechanical changes from HS Battlegrounds keep it original, adding more mechanical depth than its rather simplistic predecessor. There are two lanes, with complex positioning mind-games; there are one-time spells; combining three copies of a card grants you a treasure that has passive effects on the board like Magic the Gathering's planeswalkers.

These changes make the core gameplay of Storybook Brawl fun, unique, and addicting. My only gripe is its business model: unlocking a new character costs around $7USD, which makes slowly grinding with a f2p account the only viable choice for most players. (The $5 bundle is worth it though.)

In short, I recommend Storybook Brawl for fans of the auto-battler genre.


Eliza Banner Art

Developer: Zachtronics
Year: 2019
Score: ★★★★★

From the legendary developer of sandbox puzzle games such as Infinifactory and Exapunks comes...a visual novel? I can't be the only one surprised by the release of this game, and the only one pleasantly surprised by how good it was.

Eliza is a game made by and (presumably) for tech professionals about the tech industry. There are numerous references and the highly specific woos and woes that those who worked an IT or software job would understand. It explores the topic of digital ethics: to what extent are engineers responsible for the social impacts of their product? When you make a product with good intentions that has unforeseen side effects, or is gobbled up by corporate greed, what can you even do, as a mear developer?

As someone interested in technocriticism, I can't not love Eliza. The protagonist Evelyn is scarily relatable - from the disillusionment that comes from the industry grind, to her fashion style that screams "engineer". It succeeds in what any good visual novel does well: getting me invested in the high-stakes choices that I have to make. I will remember this game for a long time.

Pandemic Love

Pandemic Love Banner Art

Developer: Red Skald
Year: 2021
Score: ★★★★✰

Pandemic Love is a free visual novel about meeting people during quarantine. Your interactions with the cast of three girls is limited to texting, socially distanced chats through the balcony, and talking over the door. The writing style is authentic, ripe with the awkwardness of real-life conversations. The protagonist gets a visit from an imaginary friend at night, a personification of his own mind perhaps, who bugs him with all of his insecurities.

Even though it purports to be a romantic VN, the core of Pandemic Love isn't dating and falling in love - after all, you can't even go on physical dates - but people surviving through the pandemic together. Haven't we all had to adapt to the isolation? Proactively reaching out to people and scheduling zoom calls became a survival strategy.

The game's endings are generally melancholic. There is a certain anxiety about what will happen next. I think it is suitable, since uncertainty of the future is the bread and butter of the pandemic era.

You can learn how to access by buying the game's $2 Guide and Extras DLC. I think that the hidden route is the most realistic of all the routes. Finding a girlfriend by talking across the windows or reuniting with an old friend from the apartment balcony are interesting conceits, but most gamers probably did what I did: talk with gaming friends far longer than is healthy. Bronja's route brings Pandemic Love into a whole new level of relatability. To skip it would be a mistake.

©️ CC-BY Jiwon Chang 2021