Mixed Media, Sunday 10 February 2019

Films:

High Flying Bird movie poster
  • High Flying Bird: Soderbergh at his best, with a powerful script about race, wealth, sport and passion. Compelling and subtle.
  • How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World: lovely cap on the trilogy. The bad guy was kinda meh, and the comedy more subdued, but it makes up for it with gorgeous animation and a sweet, emotionally resonant story.
  • Thoroughbreds: Deadpan murder girls. Not a comedy, more of a Hitchcockian tension-building thriller. Anyone with a teenage daughter should be suitably wary.

Books:

  • ⭐⭐ Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker: potentially life-changing, as previously mentioned
  • 💩 Gathering Prey by John Sandford: dull. The last 200 pages are essentially a single shootout scene. The “Prey” books are at their best when protagonist Lucas Davenport is investigating and executing political manoeuvres. This has practically nothing of either. The only redeeming factor is that Davenport’s daughter Letty gets some good protagonist time. She needs her own spin-off series.
  • All-new Inhumans vol 1 (Global Outreach) and vol2 (Skyspears) by James Asmus, Charles Soule, André Araujo, et al: lovely art, but the characters failed to ignite my attention.

“TV”:

  • The Blacklist seasons 2,3,4,5: I kinda went on a binge during January, and finished the remaining seasons I could hoover up from Netflix. Feels like that was almost the only thing I did in my spare time in January. I continued to enjoy it, apart from the first part of season 5, in which they briefly tried to turn it into a weird buddy comedy heist show. There are some shockingly good episodes of TV in here, though, with “Requiem” in season 4 as my standout favourite (the one where we see how Mr. Kaplan became Mr. Kaplan.) They wrapped up a lot of plot threads at the end of season 5. Although there was a notional “cliffhanger” ending in which the next volume of secrets was teased, I’d be okay if I didn’t see any more. The show takes a lot of moral liberties for the sake of story, and the compromises the characters make don’t land with enough impact.
  • The Punisher season 2: follows the standard Netflix Marvel show template. Sincerely made but unremarkable. It may be superfluous to say that it’s “very violent”, but, well. I keep thinking I don’t need more shows like this in my life, and then I keep watching them.
  • The Good Place season 3: continues to be adorable, fast-paced, witty, and continues to drive the premise further and further.
  • Russian Doll: This is straight up amazing. Takes the time loop of Groundhog Day and twists it. You may think you know where this is going to go, but you’re wrong. (Or are you?) Hilariously funny — I laughed out loud while watching this through headphones and my iPhone on an airplane, with a stranger sitting next to me — and moving. Natasha Lyonne is a cranky whirlwind, and a sheer joy.

Podcasting:

  • The Dream season 1 was a fascinating deep dive into multi-level marketing, and the people who take part in it.
  • The most recent episode of Willa Paskin’s Decoder Ring, The Grifter has some nice parallels with Jason Scott’s recent instalment about Robert Hoquim. In it he refers to an old (2015) episode of Reply All, The Man In The FBI Hat. These three episodes make for a fascinating look at con artists, and why they make for such engaging stories.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Book cover for "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker

Every now and then a book comes along that makes me want to grab everyone by the lapels and shout “YOU MUST READ THIS” while shaking them vigorously. This book is like that, but I think it’s so important that I want to be cautious about how I pitch the message, so that I don’t put people off.

I first heard about it from Paul last year, but I didn’t get around to reading it until last month. Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, where he founded and directs the Center for Human Sleep Science. Over the last 10-20 years our knowledge of what sleep is and what effects it has on our brains and bodies has come on in leaps and bounds. Walker’s book summarizes the state of the art of current research, and the message is clear: there is almost no part of your overall health and well-being that is unaffected by lack of sleep. The recommendation for “enough sleep” is 7-9 hours per night for adults. Less than 7 hours a night is enough to produce objectively measurable impairments, both cognitive and physical. Unfortunately, humans are terrible at recognizing that impairment in ourselves. “I’m fine,” we tell ourselves, when we’re really not.

We all know that we should get a good night’s sleep, but most of us feel like it’s advice that doesn’t really apply to us. Western society conditions us to stay up late, and treat sleep like a luxury. We envy people who claim to get by on 5 or 6 hours a night, because they seem more productive than the rest of us. Except the science says that they’re putting themselves at increased risk of cancer, dementia, and mental health issues. Not only that, but they’re putting the rest of us at risk if they get behind the wheel when tired, or if they perform surgery on us at the end of back-to-back 12-hour shifts.

You can’t “catch up” on sleep at the weekend, nor can you bank it for the future. Weekend lie-ins may alleviate your exhaustion, but if you’re talking about the impact of sleep on memory, the benefits conferred by sleep happen on the day, not at some future time of your choosing. Humans are the only animals that voluntarily deprive themselves of sleep, and evolution has never needed to come up with a sleep storage mechanism.

Okay, so I feel like I’m failing at “not shouting at people to get across the message” bit. Let me wrap up by saying that if you’ve got ten minutes, read Matthew Walker’s recent article in the Guardian: “The best thing you can do for your health: sleep well”. If you’ve got an hour, watch the video of a talk he gave at Google. If you’ve got more time than that, read the whole book. It has changed my behaviour; it may change yours.

Bilderbuch

While skipping through my “favourites” playlist from 2015 ago, I came across the track “OM” by Austrian band Bilderbuch:

I loved this back then, and I still love it now. The lyrics have a callback to Falco’s song “Jeannie” from the 1980s, and combined with my trip to Austria in January, this has sparked off a wave of nostalgia and fondness for Austrian rap-infused pop-rock.

There’s always the risk that a newly discovered band doesn’t live up to the hooks that attracted you to them in the first place. I’m finding that after bingeing on Tom Misch for the last couple of weeks, I’ve now got Bilderbuch’s discography on constant repeat now. And I’m loving it.

(Their shout-out to Spezi in the song “Softdrink”? :chefkiss:)

Tom Misch

I’m currently loving the heck out of Tom Misch, and his jazzy funky sound. He played Paradiso back in November, and I seem to remember that Spotify’s weekly Discover playlist surfaced him to me around that time. It’s only in the last couple of weeks that I’ve had his albums Geography and Beat Tape 2 on constant repeat. They’re hitting my sweet spot for work productivity music right now.

The video for “It Runs Through Me” is so laid back it’s on the floor.

Healing

Previously: Anhedonia

Now: “better” doesn’t quite cover it. I feel genuinely good, for the first time in a long while. It’s an unusual feeling.

When I started my break at the end of July, I had planned to take two months off. At the start of September I was feeling some improvements, but the thought of going back to work in October still filled me with weariness and dread, so I asked to take October off as well. My manager Keith immediately approved it. Even though this was unpaid leave, it was still time off during the busiest time of year for our business. I tried not to feel guilty about the request. I tried to persuade myself of the same thing I tell all of my colleagues when they’re sick: don’t come back until you’re well.

It worked. As October progressed, I felt things click back into place. By the time the last week of October rolled around I was looking forward to going back to work, seeing my colleagues again, and letting fly with some of the ideas that shaken loose in my head over the course of my break. When I got back to work in November, the word I used for my time off was transformative.

The big question is: to what do I attribute this turnaround? Was it the time off? The antidepressants? The therapy? All of the above? It’s hard to say because I hit myself with them all at once. I wasn’t trying to experiment with gradual improvements. I had reached a crisis point, and I needed change right away.

If I had to pick one, I’d say it was the time. Time to stop, look around, and make changes to my environment, to my habits, to myself. A bit like Quicksilver running around at hyper-speed in X-Men while everything else appears at a standstill.

So what did I actually do during that time?

First of all, I didn’t try to do anything. I didn’t set out with a grand plan. My initial priority was purely to rest, nothing more. But as I started following my heart, a pattern started to emerge: I was admitting to myself that I’m no longer the person I was five, ten, twenty years ago. What defined me then is not what I’m interested in now. But the mental and physical baggage was weighing me down, and not allowing me to move on. This manifested in a variety of ways:

  • I’ve had a subscription to Edge magazine since 2000, and I have a sentimental attachment to the issues from the early 2000s. I also have a physical attachment, because I never got rid of any of them. I have many boxes! I had the idea of scanning them, but I found a chap in New Zealand who has already done just that. His collection wasn’t complete, though, but I was able to fill in a lot of the missing pieces. As a result he now has a complete collection of scans, and I can get rid of a ton of paper safe in the knowledge that the magazines are digitally preserved.
  • At Worldcon 2014 in London I dropped a chunk of money on a piece of stained glass made by the late Bob Shaw. I have been collecting Bob Shaw’s books for well over twenty years now, and in a way the stained glass was the pinnacle of the collection. I have copies of almost all english-language editions of all his books, many foreign-language editions, and quite a lot of the magazine issues in which his short stories first appeared. But although I love it, the stained glass piece (titled “Twin Planets”) never sat completely right with me. I bought it at auction, and to do so I had to outbid Justin Ackroyd, the well-known fan and bookseller, who named his actual bookstore (Slow Glass Books) after Shaw’s most famous science-fictional invention. So I contacted him and offered to give him the piece. Doing this felt right: like I was returning it to the person it really belonged to in the first place.
  • I ruthlessly pared back the amount of books and junk I keep in my office while I was redecorating it, giving myself more empty space. For a while I thought that a chair would fit in the space nicely, but it was too much, so it migrated downstairs to be closer to our big bookcases.
  • I started paying much more attention to my sleep. Basically, sleep more = feel better. It’s not even funny how much sleep matters to me now.
  • I finished the work of geo-tagging and archiving our old digital photos going back to 1999. They’re now safely backed up in multiple locations.
  • I let go of the glimmer of an idea that I was going to pick up the drums again. I dropped my practice pad, stand, and collection of old drumsticks at the nearby second-hand store, and felt much better. This created space in my head for me to pick up the bass.
  • I’m not going to go climbing again any time soon, if ever. I got rid of my climbing shoes.
  • I don’t enjoy golf any more. I got rid of my old clubs.
  • I stopped regularly checking in on a couple of Slack groups that were a source of and FOMO, but were not contributing to my mental well-being.
  • Earlier in the year I got a tattoo of a magpie on my forearm. In September I was playing around with my iPhone, trying to get pictures of the birds in the back garden by setting it up in time-lapse mode, spreading out some peanuts in front of the camera, and hoping to catch them in action. At the start of October I bought a new camera, and joined a photo-a-day challenge with some friends. I ended up taking a lot of pictures of birds in our back garden and on the canals nearby. Spending so much time with them and enjoying their beauty, I found that I could no longer justify coming back home and then eating a chicken for dinner. I couldn’t do it any more. So since October I have stopped eating meat.
  • I’ve stopped drinking alcohol as well. Not that I drank much before, but age and IBS have conspired to make the next-day consequences of drinking more than a glass of wine or a single G&T actively unpleasant. And as a single glass isn’t enough to get me feeling tipsy, what’s the point in drinking alcohol at all?

But perhaps the biggest change of all is that I’ve discovered that I really don’t care much about writing code any more. What I really care about is the teamwork, interaction, communication, collaboration, consensus-seeking, and mentoring that goes on around coding activities. You know…leadership and management stuff.

This came as a shock to me. I’ve been working in software for over twenty years now, and during that time I have only ever sought work as a programmer or as a consultant. Writing code was part of my identity. Although I have led teams and managed people, I have never interviewed for a leadership or management role. People around me have often said I would do well in such roles, and as I get older and more senior it’s perhaps seen as an obvious career move.

“Management” has always scared me. Some of that is because it’s unfamiliar. I know how to code, and I (used to) know how to interview for coding jobs. Some of it is because I fear the responsibility. I burned out on teaching secondary school way back in mumblety-aught — a story for a different time — but the experience of how terrifying it is to be in charge of a group of young minds left its marks on me. Some of it is knowing how easy it is for my skills to slip out of date, especially in a field so relentlessly and ridiculously fast-moving as front-end web development. If I dedicated myself to a management position, and found that I didn’t enjoy it, or if I lost my job and had to fall back on coding again, would that even be possible?

But you know what? This is where my head is at right now. The problems I think about and want to be involved with at work are in the areas of human psychology, team dynamics, leadership and management processes. Honestly, this was probably where I’ve been heading for some time now. I just hadn’t admitted it to myself.

At the start of 2017, when Fiona was at the nadir of her illness, I was leading a team at work, but I felt like I had to conserve my emotional energy for home and the family. I took a step “back” to become an individual contributor again. (Charity Majors’ article on the Engineer/Manager Pendulum was a big influence.) This was good for me at the time because it took some pressure off, but it also left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. There was a growing urge inside me to mingle in a different problem domain, and I didn’t acknowledge it. I had convinced myself that what I was doing was also what I wanted. When actually, I wanted something else. Hello, cognitive dissonance.

Most of my healing has therefore been shedding my old, worn-out skin, and learning to be okay with that. I’m incredibly lucky and privileged to have been able to do that without walking out on my job, or blowing up my closest relationships. Looking back, it was a pretty close thing. I find it hard to believe how much I feel like I changed in that time. I joke that I was able to compress my mid-life crisis into the space of three months. Realistically, though, the pressure had been building up for a long time. That was one of the sources of my depression. I needed to change, but I wasn’t letting myself change.

Frantically clinging to a capsized ship, I’d forgotten I could swim.