from the collection "Exhalation"

February 11, 2020
I just finished Ted Chiang's short story collection "Exhalation" - about half of the pieces I had already read, but he is truly a master at what I love about science fiction - exploration of the human by looking into what would be different if just a few parameters were changed - a new technology, or a belief system discredited in our world turning out to be true. (At their best "Black Mirror" and "Rick and Morty" pull the same trick.)

Chiang is especially interested in issues of free will and consciousness...

Experience isn't merely the best teacher; it's the only teacher. If she's learned anything raising Jax, it's that there are no shortcuts; if you want to create the common sense that comes from twenty years of being in the world, you need to devote twenty years to the task. You can't assemble an equivalent collection of heuristics in less time; experience is algorithmically incompressible.
Ted Chiang, "The Lifecycle of Software Objects"
The story is about people raising virtual creatures - basically digital toddlers, with similar capacity for learning. He talks about this idea that it might always take a few decades to grow a mind in the "Story Notes "section. I think some sense of human value comes from the way so many years of effort goes into raising it. But of course, humans have the additional "value" that unlike software they can't then be trivially duplicated... Update: my coworker Scott Schmitt, who mentioned this collection, read my comment on human value because of unduplicatibility (and hence, scarcity) and suggested:
I would say, trivially duplicated or reset to an earlier state. Once experience is in us, it never really goes out.
Great quote (the concept of "rolling back to a previous state" gets a lot of play in the story.)
As he practiced his writing, Jijingi came to understand what Moseby had meant: writing was not just a way to record what someone said; it could help you decide what you would say before you said it. And words were not just the pieces of speaking; they were the pieces of thinking. When you wrote them down, you could grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn't if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, make them stronger and more elaborate.
Ted Chiang, "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling"
Cool story drawing parallels with a oral-tradition culture learning European writing and hypothetical future tech that would let us quickly jump into any moment we had livestreamed (and which might then replace our regular ways of remembering things...) and what that has to do with our sense of truth and meaning. (Another quote that struck home for me: “Fine,” she said. “But let’s be clear: you don’t come running to me every time you feel guilty over treating me like crap. I worked hard to put that behind me, and I’m not going to relive it just so you can feel better about yourself.”- the ran parallel to some pushback I've gotten from exes as I try to evaluate what the hell happened...)
Lord, perhaps you don't hear my prayers. But I've never prayed with the expectation that it would affect your actions; I prayed with the expectation that it would affect mine.
Ted Chiang, "Omphalos"
Deep dive into "What if the physical evidence for a Young Earth was there?"
I'm pretty confident that even if the many-worlds interpretation is correct, it doesn't mean that all of our decisions are canceled out. If we say that an individual's character is revealed by the choices they make over time, then, in a similar fashion, an individual's character would also be revealed by the choices they make across many worlds. If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you'd have to go far afield to find one that didn't defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.
Ted Chiang, story notes for "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom".
See also some quotes from The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, a beautiful, Tales of the Arabian Nights tinged study in the only kind of time machine that might be vaguely possible, a portal connecting to different eras (in the story notes he mentioned he took on Islamic trappings because there seems to be an acceptance in those cultures of Allah preordaining everything.)