In a meeting the other day, we were invited to give a “fun fact” about ourselves as an icebreaker. What I came up with is that I’ve been running my own blog for over 20 years.
“Blogging” is a hobbyist niche part of the web these days, so it counts as quirky; “20 years” is a round and notable number. But as soon as I said it out loud, I started worrying that everyone would think I was self-promoting and trying to drive traffic. Don’t forget to like and subscribe!
I’m not treating this as special event, and the only reason it even crossed my mind was because I wrote two whole posts in the last week and was surprised that two people (Hi Dave! Hi Alex!) even noticed. I first started writing this blog just after moving jobs in 2000 as a kind of a public postcard to people who knew me. For a while I enjoyed the “blog ring” community, finding new voices, linking to people I found interesting, cherishing hope that they’d like things I wrote and link back. I even did a small amount of tech blogging, again probably in the hope of getting recognized by bigger fish. In the last decade social media has changed the landscape, and blogging has waned. For a while I had an IFTTT recipe set up to auto-post anything I wrote here to Twitter, and occasionally that would generate some kind of comment response. The phase I’m in now is that I’m writing this blog for an audience of one: me. Both me now, because getting thoughts out of my head is an important tool for not getting stuck on them; and also for future me, who periodically comes back to look at thoughts and feelings from the past.
I’m not going to turn you away, beautiful stranger who stumbled in here by accident! But don’t expect me to go all Kottke.
For example: one of my work friends is following a course to become a personal trainer. She posted a chat message about keto diets, which prompted me to go back and look at what I wrote about hating Atkins many years ago. From a historical record perspective, it was a reminder that I’ve hit a “peak” weight of 77kg many times in the past, even though I have an enduring sense that I “should” be in the 71-73kg range. I stepped on the scales in early January this year and was dismayed to see myself at just over 88kg.
An interesting side effect of the pandemic lockdown is that I’ve had a lot of time to establish some different and consistent eating habits, and to “change my relationship with food” — something I’ve long felt would be much more useful to me than periodically going on a weight-loss diet. Before March, when I was flitting back and forth to Scotland every fortnight, I had some acquired some very bad snacking habits. There were always tasty treats available in the office; and at the end of the work day it was far too easy to load up on sweets and treats at the supermarket on the way back to my B&B. Travel itself was an opportunity to comfort myself with food. I’d fallen into a pattern of buying the same sandwich and snacks at Amsterdam and Edinburgh airports whenever I passed through, regardless of whether I was actually hungry.
When the opportunity isn’t there, the action can’t follow. For now, I’ve broken that pattern, and aligned myself with a different one. Even with almost no physical exercise, and without making any conscious attempts at calorie restrictions, I’ve somehow come down to 83kg. Reading my past notes about weight loss, reminding myself that I’d been at 77kg multiple times, and that 71-73 is not actually what I normally weigh, was a useful challenge to some of my negative thoughts. Thanks, past me! Future me: you’re probably reading this when you’re feeling bad about hitting some other arbitrary weight limit. Go easy on yourself. You’ve done this before, you can do it again.
Even though this blog has been active for 20 years, the underlying technology has changed quite a bit. The first articles I wrote were manual HTML fragments in a little PHP app I’d built myself on a shared account on EZPublishing. I switched to Movable Type in 2001 and loved it. I stayed up to date with all the versions, dabbled in the community, knew the template language inside out, even wrote a couple of plugins. In 2014 I moved to WordPress, because MT was creaking at the seams, and WP had reached a level of maturity I was happy with. I moved to shared hosting at Pair.com, and in 2014 switched to running my own server Linode. I’m still happy with that. In recent years I’ve swapped Apache for Nginx, and Let’s Encrypt and certbot now take care of all the annoying SSL stuff. When I see other people hand-crafting beautiful templates for their own site I still miss rolling my own designs, but usually only briefly. For now, I’m very happy with the balance of control and convenience that I get with WP.
I don’t know how many words I’ve written here, but they’ve all been non-fiction. At school, at uni, and well into the 90s I used to write short stories and occasionally, unsuccessfully, send manuscripts off to magazines. (Shout out to the IMPs from the Compuserve days.) It’s not something I’ve done in ages. I do still occasionally get the urge to write fiction again — usually just after I’ve read a book or watched a film that’s right up my alley. I want more of those stories to exist in the world!
Over the last week or so Fiona and I watched season 1 of Impulse. I’d spotted JWZ making reference to it a couple of times, and I was intrigued. It’s loosely based on Steven Gould’s book in the Jumper series. It’s really good, but also much darker than I’d expected: the story is driven by the main character’s experience and survival of sexual assault. This week I went back and re-read Jumper, and realized that the theme is not out of place at all: Jumper deals with domestic abuse, anger, and ambiguous feelings about revenge in a very open way as well. Both fall in the superpowers-but-not-superheroes genre, an area I enjoy a lot, and they shook loose a few story ideas I’ve had on the shelf for a while.
Here’s where I see another interesting difference between me twenty years ago and me, now: when I think about the effort that would go into writing a piece of fiction, I’m wondering how (and why) I would ever do something like that alone. Almost all the intellectual work I do these days, in the software arena, is a collaborative effort. We discuss, we plan, we prepare together, before we write a single line of code. The idea of going off and putting something down on paper before hashing it out thoroughly in a group first feels…strange.
Isn’t that what I’m doing right now on this blog, though? Where’s the difference? The image of the lone creator I have in my head isn’t even correct in the first place. Code review maps to early readers, QA maps to the editorial process. Architecture is reviewed in workshops and writing groups. The lone creator has never been alone.
But I really don’t need another project right now. So this weekend I’m just enjoying some world building inside my own head, and that’s where it’s likely to stay.
I’d call this my “song of the summer” if it weren’t one of the only new songs I’ve listened to recently. For whatever reason (Lockdown = no concerts? Stress = retreat from novelty?) it feels like I’ve been listening to Underworld non-stop since March, with occasional forays into Kimbra and Mull Historical Society whose previous album Dear Satellite seems so strongly embedded in my memory that it feels like it ought to be way older than 2016.
As another illustration of how out of touch I am with current music, I kept wondering why the awesome song “Blinding Lights” by TNAF wasn’t included on their new album Recover, until the original (massive global hit, lol) by The Weeknd came up on our weekly playlist at work, which this week has the theme “Earworms”. Sure is catchy! I’d never heard it before. I prefer the cover.
My last Mixed Media post was about five months ago; my last post at all here was on 28th March. I wrote the latter while procrastinating in the middle of the “48-hour online timed assessment” (don’t call it an “exam”) at the end of the Learning & Development module for the Org Psych course I’m following.
The course is a big time commitment. The university suggests that we should expect to spend around 15 hours per week on it during term time. This comes in the form of a weekly lecture, readings, and writing assignments for the online forums. My intention is always to spend use “evenings and weekends” for this, but reality is that I’m often too tired at the end of a full work day to hit the books after dinner. I find myself doing most of the work in the weekends, submitting my forum posts long after everyone else has chewed over the subject of the week, trying hard to contribute something new or useful. In terms 2 and 3 I experienced a pattern of feeling like I was constantly falling behind, and a huge amount of stress and anxiety before the assessment.
Is this fun?I’m not taking this course because I have to. I’m doing it because I’m interested in the subject, because I thought a deeper understanding of organizational psychology would help me be a better manager, and because it seemed like a bit of a challenge. There are many other things I could be doing with my time, such as, oh, not putting myself under that kind of pressure 30 weeks out of the year. I’m learning a lot, and I’m gaining a sense of achievement from doing this, but is it worth the cost?
The examonline timed assessment (there’s a rant in there, but I’ll save it for another time) for term 3 was about a month ago, so I’m in the middle of the summer break now until the start of October. It’s very relaxing! I can wake up at the weekend and spend a day doing absolutely nothing without a feeling of guilt that I should be reading and studying. (I still spend time doing nothing, or at least nothing “productive” during term time; it just leads to me feeling bad.) I tried to go easy on bingeing TV shows during term, and I deliberately held back on buying The Last of Us Part II until the assessment was over. If I wasn’t spending time studying, is that all I would do, though, read books, watch TV, play video games? (I could say that I’d spend the time getting back to practicing the bass, but let’s keep it real.) Would simply enjoying myself be a bad thing? Don’t answer that, I already know.
So I’m spending some time thinking about whether to continue the course after the summer. I don’t have to decide straight away, and because I’ve got 5 years in total to complete it, perhaps I just space out the modules a bit more, and do 2 per academic year instead of 3. Maybe future modules will be different?
Last term was a bit of a pressure cooker: the Selection & Assessment module covers subjects of fairness and biases in hiring practices, the role of “intelligence” (aka “general mental ability”), and the differences in average test scores between racial groups. In the light of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and elsewhere, I found myself getting genuinely angry at some of the research literature I encountered that didn’t address scientific racism, but instead took a hands-off “we’re just reporting the numbers, what you do with them is up to you” attitude. Many researchers do try hard to come up with methodological explanations for the means differences: the apparent numbers just can’t be right, so what’s causing them? But the journals of I/O psychology are not exactly a hotbed of social justice activism. This is frustrating because outside the field, there’s a much simpler answer: the prolonged effects of structural racism!
Also COVID-19 and lockdowns. That’s not making me feel happy and comfortable, either.
Hmm, I started this blog post with the intention of writing about media.
💩 Need for Speed: Too much nonsensical plot, not enough racing. Fast & furious, this isn’t. I watched it because I was looking for something mindless, and that’s what I got.
⭐️ El Hoyo: Tight and tense sci-fi thriller about a prison? Rehab centre? Social experiment gone wrong?
Bloodshot: I’d been looking forward to seeing this in the cinema, but then lockdown hit. Fortunately, the studio released the film for download. It’s daft, but neat. Interesting for a film to offer a twist beginning rather than a twist ending. Don’t see it spawning a major franchise.
Rampage: Daft, but entertaining.
⭐️ Booksmart: Yes, it’s good, with good gags, strong characters, and a nice pay-off; but I’d hoped for it to be a little less cringe-y.
⭐️ Onward: Good Pixar, not great Pixar.
Code 8: I remember seeing the short film a few years ago; this is the full-length thing, a low-budget, low-key crime thriller in a world where some people have powers, but society has grown to shun and marginalize them. Engaging.
⭐️ Jumanji – The Next Level: More fun than it has any right to be. It’s simple and silly, but the cast sell it really well.
💩 Central Intelligence: I’d been going to say something about how I enjoy pretty much anything with Dwayne Johnson in it, but I’m putting that thought back on ice.
⭐️ Colossal: The premise is weird, and for a while it looks like the characters will follow a certain kind of redemption arc, but it goes somewhere darker instead.
The Lovebirds: Throwaway romantic comedy. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
Brightburn: What if Superman origin story, but he turns out as a brutal psychopath instead? Jump scares and some slasher-ish horror, but it’s not much deeper than that.
Mute: Very pretty Blade Runner vibe to the production design, with a very earnest tragic romance driving the plot, but lacking in focus. I didn’t need to see so much of both sides of the curtain.
💩 Bad Boys For Life: I got about five minutes into this and couldn’t watch any more. After the Black Lives Matter protests and the heightened awareness of police brutality in the US, the opening scenes felt laid bare as a classic building block of pro-police propaganda that I hadn’t critically examined before. See also Jordan Calhoun’s article “Saying Goodbye to Law & Order” in the Atlantic.
⭐️ The Old Guard: Satisfying action thriller with a bunch of immortals trying to come to terms with who they’re fighting for, and why.
⭐️ Mick Herron – Joe Country:I’m still enjoying these Slough House spy stories.
⭐️ Curtis C Chen – Kangaroo Too: Sequel to Waypoint Kangaroo. I don’t think he has written any more in the series, which is a terrible shame because I love the wise-cracking space opera spy with superpowers vibe here.
⭐️ William Gibson – The Peripheral: I got a few chapters into this a couple of years ago and gave up because I couldn’t get a handle on it. This is a very dense book. The writing style is sparse, and there’s no surplus exposition. You have to build your picture of the world from the inside out. At times it feels like Gibson started with a 1200-page draft and then deleted every other word to bring it down to size. But I found it enormously rewarding once I got properly stuck into it, especially because the current pandemic makes it feel like we’re living out part of the Jackpot, a decades-long slow-motion global catastrophe.
⭐️ William Gibson – Agency: I felt an ache when Gibson described the circumstances in the present-day “stub” world, where most of the action in Agency takes place: Trump didn’t win, and no Brexit. The world is in peril for different reasons, though, so still no party. The writing feels lighter and faster-paced, but maybe that’s because I’d already bootstrapped my understanding of the world from The Peripheral. The ending also felt a little too tidy and hopeful. You’d think I’d enjoy a bit of hopefulness? Given the backdrop of the Jackpot in the book, and the current situation of our world, it rang a bit hollow.
Warren Ellis & Jason Howard – Trees vol 3: So there’s the Warren Ellisthing. This struck me because it came hot on the heels of the allegations and accusations around Max Temkin. I had enjoyed the weekly podcast Do By Friday with Temkin, Merlin Mann, and Alex Cox for a couple of years, and had just recently backed his Magic Puzzles kickstarter. Picking up the first two volumes of Transmetropolitan, along with Matt Fraction, David Aja, & Javier Pulido’s Hawkeye: My Life As A Weapon at Dr. Comics & Mr Games in Oakland in the summer of 2013 feels like the start of my ongoing love of modern comics. I had consistently sought out Ellis’s other comics. I subscribed to his newsletter, and through it learned about many other artists and people of interest. I’m fully aware that any fondness I had for Ellis and Temkin was parasocial. But the fondness was there, and when it gets betrayed there are feelings. June 2020 was a pretty fucking intense month for feelings. Anyway – ignoring the author, Treesvol 3 is a minor addition to that canon: a claustrophobic murder mystery/ghost story that doesn’t contribute to the global events the first volumes showed. I’d be surprised if we ever see any more.
💩 Stuart MacBride – All That’s Dead: Filler material in the Logan McRae series. Gratuitously gruesome. No character evolution. Skip it.
Max Brooks – Devolution: Remote Washington residential community for clueless rich people gets attacked by Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) when Mt Rainier erupts and cuts them off from the rest of the world. Much more easily filmable than World War Z, but much less interesting as a result.
Episodic Video (“TV”)
⭐️ The Witcher season 1: Highly entertaining fantasy. Neither Tolkienesque nor GoT-ish grimdark. Looking forward to more of this.
⭐️ Tiger King: So much has been written about this already. It’s compelling viewing, each episode filled with more WTF than the next. One of the wildest things was how the film-makers got footage of the whole story as events unfolded over several years. The result is far more reality show than an investigative documentary.
⭐️ Better Call Saulseason 5: Beautiful, meticulously constructed, and continues to generate empathy for characters, good and bad, whose destiny is already written. Except for Kim: she’s never mentioned at all in Breaking Bad, yet she’s grown to be one of the biggest elements of the show, and is thus the biggest mystery. I’m looking forward to and dreading the final season.
⭐️ Agents of SHIELDseason 6: Took a very different direction than the out-in-space season 5. Still great. Annoying that season 7 isn’t up on Disney+.
Halt and Catch Fire season 1: It’s a wonderful production, full of intricate historical verisimilitude. You can watch it as a computer expert and not strain your eyes from rolling them. At the same time, the characters are horrible people, I don’t like them, and if I keep watching the following seasons sooner or later one of them is going to kill someone, possibly accidentally, but definitely with a lot of secrecy, guilt and remorse, and I’ll like them even less. I don’t think I’m up for that.
Communityseasons 3, 4, 5: Funny, yes, but there’s a certain cruelty that always seems very close to the surface, and shows its face often enough for it to make me uncomfortable.
Runaways season 2: Entertaining enough. Annoying that season 3 isn’t up on Disney+.
⭐️ Dead to Me seasons 1 & 2: Brilliant dark comedy drama.
⭐️ ⭐️ Chernobyl: 😳 Utterly astonishing. As a teen in the Netherlands at the time of the events of 1986, I remember only the general shape of news events, and a heightened sense of alarm about radiation. In the years since, the disaster has been sanded down by history, and rendered abstract by factual articles and encyclopedia entries. This 5-episode mini-series brings out the full horror or the catastrophe, and shows how close we came to it being unimaginably worse. The image of a shaft of blue light, caused by Cherenkov radiation, spearing up up into the sky from the exposed core is something that will stay with me.
💩 Space Force season 1: I couldn’t watch more than the first two episodes. First of all it’s just not very funny. Secondly, I have no appetite for gentle satire of government and administrative incompetence when genuine malfeasance is rampant and needs to be attacked, not made light of.
⭐️ Dark seasons 2 & 3: I appreciate a show that actually brings things to an end. And for a show all about free will versus determinism, and the ambiguity of “good” and “bad” within the context of a time loop (the characters spend much of their time apologizing to younger versions of themselves or their family members about horrible things that are about to happen, or staring at things in regret), the ending was surprisingly tidy. It made me wonder a lot about how the writers had planned from the start, and how much they tweaked on the fly between seasons. Dark is a deliberately slow burn, but even at that careful pace, it’s one of the densest, twistiest time travel stories I’ve ever seen.
I finished Desert Golfing. I’d seen a video of someone finishing the game at around 24,000 holes, but that was from some time ago. Originally the game was “unending”, but had some impossible holes in it. In an update a couple of years ago the creator put a 10,000 limit in place for new games, or 10,000 more than wherever you were at the time of the update – hence why some people have so many holes.
I’ve picked up Golf on Mars, the follow-up, but the physics are a bit different, and hard to get used to after so much of the original. It also has 25,770,000,000 holes, which is effectively infinite. This somehow makes it feel less challenging and more pointless? Not that there was much point in finishing Desert Golfing, but it always felt like there was an end I was striving for – some kind of achievement. Without such a goal, and no high-score to beat, I’ve quickly lost interest.
I’ve also finished The Last of Us Part II. Fiona and I played it together: me on the controls, and Fiona providing snark about how bad I am at killing zombles. After the end credits rolled, the game presented a screen asking us if we wanted to start a New Game + session to level up the characters even further and pick up all the collectibles we’d missed. We were both very much NOPE NOT GOING BACK THERE THANK YOU.
It’s an amazing game in many ways: the graphics, environment, and art are stunning; the post-apocalyptic world is richly portrayed; the character models are shockingly emotive; the voice acting is unparalleled; the gameplay is fluid, with well-balanced difficulty that can nonetheless be adjusted on-the-fly so that you don’t get stuck and get bored.
But it’s also continuously, intimately violent far beyond my comfort level. The absence of choice in all of the actually meaningful encounters makes a mockery of your ability to sneak past enemies instead of shooting or stabbing them along the way. This is very much not an open-world game, or a role-playing game where you can steer your character’s personality. It forces you to become attached to a sympathetic character, and then forces you to watch her (to be her) as she then consistently makes the worst possible choices. It’s maddening, bordering on sickening. Maddy Myers describes it very well in her review at Polygon. Art doesn’t have a responsibility to make us feel happy or comfortable. I’m glad that I’m done with the game; I’m not sure if I’m glad I played it.