Weekend Reading: The Worst Year to Be Alive, Chinese Sci-Fi, and Slack Networks

December 7, 2019 • #

🌋 Why 536 Was the Worst Year To Be Alive

You may have thought the entire 14th century was pretty bad, or maybe 1918 with its flu pandemic and millions of war casualties, but how about the 6th:

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

That sort of worldwide famine caused by devastating volcanic eruptions would’ve been impossible to deal with. And the Plague of Justinian was no small thing either, thought to have killed up to 25% of the global population.

Life is good these days.

👽 How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (translated by Ken Liu and featured here) is one of the best sci-fi works there is, regardless of origin or era. I also read and enjoyed Liu’s Paper Menagerie collection of short stories. I didn’t realize how involved he was personally in bringing so much new material here, and introducing so many Chinese authors to wider audiences:

He has found sci-fi stories in unusual corners of the internet, including a forum for alumni of Tsinghua University. Chinese friends send him screenshots of stories published on apps that are hard to access outside of China. As an emissary for some of China’s most provocative and boundary-breaking writers, Liu has become much more than a scout and a translator. He’s now a fixer, an editor and a curator — a savvy interpreter who has done more than anyone to bridge the imagination gap between the world’s current, fading superpower and its ascendant one.

His job as a translator, given the sensitivities of the material and the players involved, is a complex one:

“It’s a very tricky dance of trying to get the message that they’re trying to convey out, without painting the writers as dissidents,” Liu told me over coffee one day, as we sat in the kitchen of his home in Massachusetts. “A lot of Chinese writers are very skilled at writing something ambiguously, such that there are multiple meanings in the text. I have to ask them, how explicit do you want me to be in terms of making a certain point here, because in the original it’s very constrained, so how much do you want me to tease out the implications you’re making? And sometimes we have a discussion about exactly what that means and how they want it to be done.”

💬 Why Shared Channels Are So Cool

We’ve not scratched the surface much on Slack’s Shared Channels feature, but where we have it definitely makes staying plugged in with important tangential networks (like customers and partners) dead simple and much more engaging.

This network analysis uses some interesting visualizations to show the topology of the network, with its subnetworks creating a connection graph of communication pipes.

Also on an hourly basis, these mini-networks from the outer ring get sucked into the internal mega-network, as connections are formed between organizations on the inside and the outside. The overall result is a roiling sea of proto-networks surrounding an ever-expanding network of super-connected teams.