Technological innovations, 2020

Over the last couple of days I’ve moved sunpig.com and other assorted domains to a new server. Still at Linode, but on a newer version of Ubuntu (20.04), with newer versions of nginx and PHP, and using MariaDB as a drop-in replacement for MySQL. The move seems to have gone fine. The two main drivers for the upgrade were that the WordPress dashboard was starting to complain about my PHP being out of date, and nginx periodically stopping and needing a manual restart. (I temporarily worked around that by using a cron job that restarted nginx every hour, whether it needed it or not. It was faster than setting up Monit, but not a great solution for the long term.)

I switched to the latest WordPress theme, twenty-twenty-one. It’s billed as a portfolio default theme rather than a blog-focused one, but I’m giving it a shot here anyway. It’s definitely very minimal. I like the font stack using system defaults, lazy loading images is nice, but having the search box tucked down at the bottom of the page feels wrong. We’ll see if it sticks.

In the middle of 2019 I bought myself a very nice Blue Yeti microphone with a boom arm, partly as a replacement for the cheap headset I’d been using until then, and partly as a toy when a few colleagues and I had been thinking about doing a podcast together. The podcast didn’t come together, but the microphone was nice. I used a set of Apple wired earbuds plugged into it as monitors.

Over time I found the setup to be a little cumbersome, though. On my desk I have a big screen directly in front of me, and my laptop up on a stand to the side. I had the microphone positioned for optimal use with the laptop’s built-in camera. As lockdown kicked in back in March, and as my new role at work required a lot of video calls, I was spending more and more time slightly twisted or angled in my chair. This led quickly to neck and shoulder pain. As it became clear that I wouldn’t be travelling again for white a while, I needed to find a better solution.

AirPods Pro

I had got Abi a set of wireless AirPods Pro for Christmas last year. Various colleagues also were using AirPods (pro and non-pro) for video calls, and I decided to try them out for myself. I bought a pair of nearly-new ones via Tweakers back in April, and they’ve turned out to be a great purchase. Not perfect. Sometimes one of the buds will fail to charge in its case, and I’ll go into a call with only one ear active. There’s some kind of bluetooth glitch between my work laptop (but not my personal laptop) and the AirPods that causes the laptop to occasionally drop the BT connection to the headphones and all other BT devices (keyboard, mouse) before reconnecting again. It only happens when I’m on a video call, though, not when I’m listening to music. This is very annoying, and no amount of resetting the AirPods or the laptop’s BT module fixed it. The problem even persisted when the entire laptop was replaced. A comment way down in this reddit thread has been the solution for me: set Zoom to use the AirPods for audio output, but use the laptop’s built-in microphones for input. So that takes me back to having a separate headphones and microphone solution again, but at least my audio doesn’t randomly cut out in the middle of conversations.

(They also don’t keep my ears warm on a cold day, but I don’t leave the house much any more. And I haven’t travelled with them yet, so I don’t know how tense I’ll feel about them dropping out of my ear while running through an airport.)

The second part of the ergonomic solution here was to get a webcam to mount on the big screen straight in front of me. This was easier said than done, because pandemic. Around March/April webcams became very hard to buy. Availability was low, and prices were sky-high. There’s some availability again now by the end of the year, but prices have remained high, despite them being essentially the same models from 5 years ago.

When I couldn’t find a real webcam, I tried using an old iPhone 6 taped to my monitor with a webcam app. The picture quality was good, but the experience of using it was terrible. In the end I convinced Fiona to let me borrow the standalone webcam from her desktop PC, with the promise of getting her a new one once they came back in stock. So I’m running with Fiona’s old Logitech C270 now, and a few months ago I got her a new Logitech StreamCam. The video quality of the C270 isn’t great, but it’s good enough. Now that I’ve figured out that I can only reliably use my AirPods Pro in video calls for sound, but not as a microphone, maybe I’ll look around for offers on a new webcam in the new year.

Ludicrously small Nobsound stereo amp

All this allowed me to break down the big microphone + boom arm combo from my desk, which gave me back quite a bit of visual space. Another thing I did at the same time was replace my 20+ year-old Arcam Alpha 7 amplifier with a ridiculously tiny €35 Nobsound stereo amp. The source selector knob on the Arcam had developed a wobble over time, and the L-R stereo balance was off. I’m sure audio purists will look down on the Nobsound, but I only have one input source, and it drives my Mission 750 LE speakers just fine, even without bi-wiring. It also frees up more space on my desk.

(Big) Brother MFC-L3770CDW colour printer

Still in the office area, we bought a Brother MFC-L3770CDW colour laser printer in January, and it has been amazing. Unlike the tiny amp, this is a big device, but it replaces two smaller printers (a Samsung mono laser, and an HP all-in-one inkjet) to take up not much more space overall. I do a lot of reading on my OP course, and I prefer to do that with paper printouts that I can scribble on and mark up with highlighter. I print mostly in black and white, but the colour option is nice to have for occasional use, and it’s fast. Also, the built-in document scanner does double-sided scans, and has a document feeder. Finally, it takes separate C/M/Y/K toner cartridges that aren’t DRM-locked to a single manufacturer – third-party recycled high-capacity units are easily available. I love this printer.

For reference, the 1500-ish-page stack of papers I printed out during the course of last term

This is also the first full year that we’ve been using a rice cooker. I think we got it sometime in the autumn of 2019, when Alex was living away, but honestly I don’t remember. I can’t imagine life without a rice cooker any more. They’re transformational. If you make rice, like ever, and you’ve never used one before, you owe it to yourself to invest €20-30 in even a low-end device. (That’s what ours cost.) You’ll never cook rice in a pan again.

This was also the year we got radiation shielding window shutters installed on the back of the house. Recent summers in NL have brought weeks of heat waves, and this will help keep our non-air-conditioned house a few degrees cooler. We also got the draughty balcony door in Alex’s bedroom replaced.

Some things I explicitly haven’t bought or upgraded this year include a new iPhone (I want it for the new camera system, but so long as I’m not travelling, going to concerts, or leaving the house much at all, my 3-year-old iPhone X is going strong), a PS5 (not for lack of desire – I just missed out on all the pre-order opportunities), and a Marantz NR1711 receiver to replace our old NR1603, which doesn’t pass handle 4K video (so long as the only 4K video source we have is the Apple TV, I’m content to keep switching between video inputs on the big TV; but the whole point of using receiver is so that I don’t have to do that. Well, that and the whole surround sound thing.)

Oh and then there was all the A/V kit and connectors we needed to assemble Studio A

Studio A

Mixed media, Monday 28 December 2020

As for why it’s been a while since the last Mixed Media post, see my previous answer. I’m still writing a lot; the output is just ending up in different places. Including, curiously, a 2000+ word private diary entry I seem to produce at the start of each of my exams online timed assessments.

Under the pre-pandemic regulations most of the modules were assessed by a two-hour hand-written (don’t get me started) exam. Because the exam centres are closed or inaccessible now, the alternative arrangement is that we get a similar set of exam questions at home, and we have 48 hours to write essays on 2 of the 5 topics. Because of the open-book format, the essays can be longer and make better use of references.

The exam paper is given to us at 10:00 UK time. I download the exam paper at the appointed hour, and take my time to look over the questions, and…start writing about something else? I could rationalize this as a way of reflecting on my first impressions, as a warm-up exercise, or as a simple avoidance technique. However, in my readings for this term (Life Career Development) I came across a much-referenced paper by Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate (2000) about everyday role transitions and boundary-crossing activities.

Most of us have different roles we adopt in our daily lives depending on context: parent, husband, colleague, manager, subordinate, etc. One way of examining these roles is by how segmented or integrated they are. Strongly segmented roles have high boundaries between them, enforced by behavioural norms or physical distance, for example a parent who works as an airline pilot. You can’t easily cross over between the two. More integrated roles have blurred boundaries, for example an engineer who is also a manager, and who has to jump back and forth between identities multiple times throughout a day depending on which meeting they’re in.

The more segmented two roles are, the easier it is to maintain boundaries between them, but the harder it is to cross back and forth. More integrated roles imply blurrier boundaries. Ashforth et al. propose that more segmented roles are more likely to be associated with “rites of passage” – little rituals a person performs when they leave one role and enter another. Think: putting on a uniform at work, or listening to your favourite podcast on your bus journey home from work. We construct these rituals to help us maintain boundaries, and to adjust to the demands of a different role.

In a work context, people have different preferences for how segregated or integrated they want their jobs to be. This has shown up quite a bit during this pandemic, when many office workers have been forced by circumstances into a more integrated lifestyle. This suits some people, but others have found it enormously stressful, and have had to work hard to establish and maintain new boundaries.

Rituals and ceremonies around role transitions can play a key part, and my “diversion” before getting down to the business of actually writing my exam essays may be a part of that: it’s what I do to get my head in the game. I spend a couple of hours clearing my mind, writing about what’s been going on all around me, trapping my thoughts in a document so they can’t ambush me in the middle of the assessment.

It also gives me something to look back at and gauge my mental state before each of these exams, and recognize that no matter how much preparation and studying I do for each one, I still feel stressed and unprepared. And yet I’ve come out of each one so far with a decent grade? We’ll see how this most recent one turns out.

And now I also realize that my process for getting into the right mindset around an exam strongly resembles how I find my way back into a Mixed Media post after a gap of four months. ?

Mystery Road movie poster

⭐️ Mystery Road

I’m going to give this a whole section of its own, because it spans movies and TV. Mystery Road the movie is from 2013. The sequel, Goldstone dates from 2016. Seasons 1 and 2 of the TV show Mystery Road were broadcast in 2018 and 2020, but the timeline of the TV show takes place between the first film and the second. After reading about them on Metafilter, I watched the films and the TV show in timeline order. They’re noir detective stories set in rural Australia, dealing with issues of race, greed, corruption, and exploitation. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Jay Pedersen as detective Jay Swan puts in a terrific performance as a man who is both driven and tormented by his pursuit of justice.

Episodic Video (TV)

  • ⭐️ Impulse (seasons 1 & 2) I’d mentioned previously that I’d started watching this with Fiona. It’s a great show about teenager Henry discovering that she has the power to jump (teleport), but only under circumstances of life-threatening stress. It deals with themes of abuse, anger, and coming-of-age similar to the Steven Gould books (Jumper, Reflex, Impulse, and Exo) they’re based on. The series was a YouTube exclusive, which makes it hard to find elsewhere. The amount of music (and its nature) included as part of the show made it feel a bit like it was trying to cross-sell YouTube Music. Cancelled after 2 seasons, boo.
  • ⭐️ I Am Not Okay With This (season 1) Another coming-of-age story with a girl realizing she has powers. Very different sensibilities, but deals with some similar themes of belonging and abandonment. The characters are more awkward, the episodes shorter, the finale even more unresolved. Cancelled after 1 season, boo.
  • ⭐️ La Casa De Papel (seasons 1-4) I do love a good heist story, and this keeps delivering for two seasons, at least. Seasons 3 & 4 are a bit of a re-tread, with a bigger budget, to cash in on the show’s unexpected popularity. (Like, literally, I wonder if they used the same set for the main hall of both the Mint in seasons 1&2 and the Bank in seasons 3&4, just with different dressing.) Reminded me of my desire to watch more non-American TV.
  • The Mandalorian (season 2) It’s fine. The production values are amazing, and it delivers heaps of Star Wars fanservice. I’ll be controversial and say that I thought the climactic scene in the season finale was weak, narratively unsatisfying, and didn’t match the quality of the special effects elsewhere. As time goes by, I’m less and less enthused by how cheaply life is treated in the Star Wars universe.
  • Westworld (season 3) It’s fine. It expands the canvas of the first two seasons to reveal the world behind it. Can’t help but feel that Jonathan Nolan’s earlier show Person of Interest did a more entertaining and less confusing job of handling the themes of fractured identity and emerging superintelligence, though.
  • ⭐️ Don’t F*** With Cats Bunch of internet nerds track down a serial killer. Terrifically entertaining multi-part documentary. There are many ways the facts of this case could have been assembled into a narrative, and the choice to go with this one was unique and fascinating.
  • ⭐️ Alice in Borderland (season 1) This has a bit of a Ready Player One vibe in the sense that the protagonist is transported into a world of puzzles where his background as a gamer is essential to his success and survival – but with a more lethal flavour. The first episode has echoes of Cube, and a few episodes later it shakes up the cast more ruthlessly than I’d expected. The whole season keeps you on your toes, with plenty of twists about what’s really happening. Hoping for a second season.
  • Archer (season 11) It’s fine. Archer came up in a meeting at work the other day. Is this season good enough to recommend that someone start at season 1 to get all the way here? No. So many of Archer’s running gags and catchphrases were established in much earlier seasons, which I also find hard to recommend because they’re kinda crude and insensitive. I think the last great gag that Archer pulled off was changing the entire setting of the show in season 8 but keeping the same characters in the same relationships and situations as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
  • ⭐️ Star Trek Picard (season 1) Hmm… I’m going to give this a star, even though there are some dubious story choices along the way, and the finale has plot holes big enough to pilot a Borg cube through. I enjoyed watching Picard assemble himself a new crew to take on one last mission. Raffi and Rios are great. I would like to have seen more of Picard’s Romulan staff Zhaban and Laris, who only show up in the first three episodes. Production values are lavish and modern, and I think it would be hard to re-watch episodes of Next Gen now to remind myself of some of the relevant storylines from back then. Also, interesting to see the Qowat Milat introduced here, after I’d come across them briefly in Discovery. I’m disappointed that the writers decided that the best representative of an all-female order for the quest was the one male who had ever been adopted by them. The phrase “a promise is a prison; do not make yourself another’s jailer” will stick with me.

Films

  • 💩 Power Project Could have been an interesting superpowers / detective thriller crossover. Wasn’t.
  • Timetrap Interesting low-budget one-way time travel thriller, but it features too many really poor life decisions the characters make along the way to make it really click together.
  • Hocus Pocus Fiona made me watch it.
  • ⭐️ Alita: Battle Angel Okay, I really liked this. Gorgeous production design, intriguing backstory, sympathetic characters, dastardly villains, and phenomenal action scenes. Except it doesn’t end. It just sets up for part 2, which, as far as I know, isn’t being made.
  • ⭐️ Arriety Sweet and gentle Studio Ghibly adaptation of The Borrowers. Lovely animation.
  • ⭐️ Tenet I’d been looking forward to seeing this on the big screen, because in the trailers it looked like one of the biggest movie spectacles in years. But then, you know, pandemic. I was annoyed at Christopher Nolan keeping on trying to get the movie into cinemas throughout the year, when it was pretty clear that being in enclosed spaces with other people was a really bad idea, but on the other hand, that kept pushing the release date further back, which meant longer and longer to wait before seeing the film. The Warner Brothers went “fuck it,” and decided to release all the films they’d been queueing up anyway, with same-day cinema and VOD launches throughout 2021. Tenet was available on 15th December, the same week as my exam, and I was holding it out for myself as a treat for when the week was over. It certainly is a spectacle! But perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. As Fiona and I were watching it, we kept being sucked out of the flow of the action wondering what had just happened and how it was supposed to work. I think I’ll need to rewatch it to feel like I understand it.
  • ⭐️ Soul Having just completed a whole module about life career development covering subjects of job satisfaction, person-environment fit, and callings, this made for interesting viewing. Wonderfully animated, sweet, laugh-out loud funny, I enjoyed this on many levels.

Books

  • ⭐️ Hal Herzog – Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat Great introduction to the field of anthrozoology, the sociological/psychological study of how humans interact with animals. The subtitle of the book is “Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals” This has my attention. I no longer eat meat but I don’t think I identify as a “vegetarian,” because to me the phrase feels too burdened with ideology. Also, I love our cats, but I fret about the morality of keeping companion animals for my human benefit. The book doesn’t have any clear answers beyond “it’s complicated”, but it presents a constant stream of thought-provoking questions. Recommended!
  • ⭐️ John Carreyrou – Bad Blood Abi had mentioned the podcast The Dropout about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, and I’d read various news stories about the company and it’s downfall, but for some reason an Ars Technica article in September tipped the balance towards me wanting to read more. The book is written practically like a thriller, and is a fascinating view of an utter train wreck of a Silicon Valley startup story.
  • DT Max – The Family That Couldn’t Sleep Not actually about sleep, (a subject that fascinates me) but about untreatable prion diseases like BSE and – the villain of this book – fatal familial insomnia. A medical and historical detective story.
  • ⭐️ Richard Thaler – Misbehaving The best parts of this book are Thaler’s descriptions of how the interplay between psychology and economics led to the field of behavioural economics; the worst parts are the somewhat self-congratulatory closing chapters. Thaler expresses a common frustration that although behavioural economics has become established at the microeconomic level, it continues to be underrepresented at the level of macroeconomic policy.
  • Mark Waid, Humberto Ramos et al.Champions (volume 1) For a book that starts with Ms. Marvel quitting the Avengers because she’s upset with the amount of punching and collateral property damage they cause, there sure is a lot of punching and property damage later on.
  • ⭐️ Ian Rankin – A Song for the Dark Times Tidy Rebus thriller, set partly in Edinburgh and partly in the Flow Country, which I’d just heard about recently on the 99% Invisible episode “For The Love Of Peat”. Two murders, hundreds of miles apart. Are they connected…?

Music

For me, this year has been characterised by long stretches of listening to all the works of a single artist or group. Halsey at the start of the year, Underworld in spring and early summer, The Naked And Famous late summer, and Dua Lipa has been the soundtrack of my December. I listened to the Song Exploder episode about Levitating back in October, but it took me a month or two to catch up. The Song Exploder TV show is also great, but I haven’t watched all the episodes yet. Fynn Kliemann’s thousand-plus track playlist of chilled out beats has been a regular palette-cleanser.

According to Spotify, I was in the top 0.005% of Underworld listeners this year. With 1.3M monthly listeners, I think that puts me into their top 100 devotees? What can I say? Drift is really good.

Podcasts

Home Cooking with Samin Nosrat (of Salt Fat Acid Heat fame) and Hrishikesh Hirway (of Song Exploder fame) is a delight. It’s a funny, charming, unpretentious cooking show with enough vegetarian (see note above) consideration to keep me happy. I need to try Marcella Hazan’s simple tomato sauce recipe, as noted in episode 2, soon.

Fun fact

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.

Looking good for 20

“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.

Jumper: Amazon.de: Gould, Steven: Fremdsprachige Bücher

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.

Bury Us

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.

Not that listening to Underworld non-stop is a bad thing – their one year “Drift” experiment is an apple cart full of crunch and wonder. I just wish I’d returned to them in time to catch them at the Ziggo Dome in November last year.

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.

(Made for Triple-J’s Like A Version)

Okay, you get some Underworld, too:

Mixed media, Sunday 9 August 2020

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 exam online 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.

Films

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  • 💩 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.

Books

  • ⭐️ 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 Ellis thing. 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, Trees vol 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 Saul season 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 SHIELD season 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.
  • Community seasons 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.

Games

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.

Post Mortem Review - The Last of Us Part II - Modern Gamer

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.

Quiet in the skies

Pretty much anyone who lives within 25 km of Amsterdam lives in at least one of the flight paths for Schiphol airport. (See this nice little article at 99% Invisible to understand how airport runways designations work. For example, Schiphol’s longest runway the Polderbaan is designated as as “18R-36L”.)

Most days, the skies over our house are criss-crossed with contrails. How many planes come zooming by, at what height, and how much noise they make all depends on the wind direction. On busy days, there’s one every few minutes. They can make a lot of noise, but you get used to it very quickly.

And now it’s not there any more. The skies are quiet and empty. I noticed it earlier this week as I was sitting downstairs having a sandwich for lunch, and I noticed the silence. Nothing moving in the street outside. The constant background noise of A8 motorway a few hundred meters away was minimal. And no planes.

Looking up out of my office dormer window, there’s nothing but cool, pale blue from horizon to horizon. The last time this happened was in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted and air traffic in northern Europe was shut down for a week because of the ash cloud.

I only have a vague memory of how everyone reacted over that. I seem to remember stories and speculation about what would happen if that became the new normal, and air travel was shut down permanently. But that passed, and everything carried on. Will this time be different?

Contrails casting shadows on clouds below them, September 9th 2009