Mmhmm

I have no doubt this will eventually get sherlocked because it's such a great idea: use your video's virtual background for actually useful stuff, like presenting slides, so that the audience don't have to choose if they want to see the presenter or the slides.

The Technium: 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice →

To commemorate his 68th birthday, Kevin Kelly came up with 68 bits of unsolicited advice. Knowledge he's gathered over his 68 years. And they're all wonderful. My absolute favourite is

Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.

This is something I've only recently come to realise and I've been trying to apply it wherever I can. Go read the rest, they're worth your time.

Nostalgia

In December, the hardest working man on YouTube, KillianM2 uploaded a copy of the Late Late Toy Show from 1985. The entire thing1. For a little context, I'm a 41 year old man with two children and a mortgage. The toys and gadgets I currently have in my house are so fantastically beyond anything 1985 could even imagine that they even go beyond science fiction for them. In my phone, I have something with more computing power than basically all the computers in 1985, and with it I can access any information I want, read any book I want, watch any film I want, listen to any music I want.

Even still, as I was watching this flashback where Gay Byrne in his slightly snarky, slightly soused manner demonstrated the year's popular toys to the mammies and daddies of Ireland in 1985, I found myself with this deep, deep pain and sadness bubbling up inside me. Because I would love to have -- I dunno take your pick of all the crappy toys -- some shitty remote control Nissan outlander. I would give up my iPhone to have one. In a fucking heartbeat, I would.

As they say, nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

Of course it's not about the actual toys on the show. I don't actually want a remote control Nissan Outlander. Looking at the toys with grown-up eyes, the logical part of my brain can see that they're all cheap Chinese garbage and the ones that aren't changing hands for obscene amounts of money on eBay are all piled up in a landfill now. It's everything around the toys that got to me. It's the design of the toys, the boxy shape of the cars, the vibe of the thing, the hairstyles, the clothes (the audience are dressed like normal people, not an ironically awful Christmas jumper to be seen). These are the thing that remind me of home. They remind me of my childhood. Of that special feeling of safety I was fortunate enough to experience as a child. Of feeling looked after. Too right that's a powerful thing. At one point, the show covered some toys I actually owned back then and I swear to god right then I could smell the room in my house where I used to play with those toys, I could feel the carpet.

Create a weapon that can trigger that sensation and you'll end all wars forever.

But I don't think nostalgia is necessarily a bad thing. Especially now, what with one thing and another. It's easy to dismiss nostalgia as something to be avoided, like some pithy aphorism embroidered on a tea towel: "you never move forward when you're living in the past". But at the same time, this kind of nostalgia can be a reliable way of recreating a feeling of safety. It's a way of self-soothing.

As I said, I'm a 41 year old man with two kids and a mortgage and, to top it all off, we're in the middle of a global pandemic. This is my reality and I can't escape it. Wait, no. This is our reality and we can't escape it. I've found myself struggling to engage with things. I'm sure you're the same. I start a new book and I can't focus on the words because my brain goes elsewhere. I start watching a film and I end up checking the latest infection figures. And so I've found myself going back to familiar things -- rewatching Parks and Recreation, for example -- because they make me feel safe and looked after.

And this, in turn, lets me try to make my kids feel safe and looked after so that when they're in their 40s and they watch a video of the Late Late Toy Show from 2020 (assuming it even happens, of course), they won't have any memory of feeling fear or anxiety about the state of the world., they'll just have the same warm, comforting feelings I'm talking about here.

So whatever it takes for you to get through this, whatever media you need to consume to make you feel all right, don't feel ashamed, just do it.

Stay safe.

1

Since then, he's taken it down, I'm guessing for Copyright reasons?

Best Games I Played in 2019

Previously: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018

I realise we're more than a third of the way through 2020 already but what with one thing and another, now seems like an ideal time to sit in and bang outa couple hundred words on something that no-one cares about. As with previous years, normal caveats apply: I have two small children and limited free time (which is why this post is being written in April), so I missed a lot of big-budget games that, had I played them probably would have appeared on here 1

What the Golf?

I thought this was going to be just a good golf game. Now, let me make it clear that there's nothing wrong with being just a good golf game. Last year's Golf Story was a good golf game and ended up being one of my favourite games of the year. But What the Golf is so much more than just a golf game. The first level is straightforward, you pull down and release to knock a ball to the flag. The second level, you pull down and release and the golf club flies forward, and you have to make the club hit the flag. And the game continues in this manner, getting more and more wild and creative and wildly creative on each level. At one point, about halfway through, it starts making golf versions of other popular games, so you'll get Super Meatboy with golf. Or Portal with golf. This was the most fun I've had with a game all year. (It's also the most frustrated I got with a game, but that's another post).

The Outer Wilds

I guess this is best described as a science fiction archaeology game? You launch your spaceship, visit different planets, and I guess that could describe the entire game, if you wanted it? I mean, there's nothing driving you forward in the game except your own curiosity. But it rewards that curiosity better than any other game I can think of. And I loved it so much because of that. More games like this, please.

Heaven's Vault

Typical. You wait your whole life for a science fiction archaeology game and two come along at once. This one is done by the people who made 80 Days, so as you'd expect, it has much more straightforward narrative than Outer Wilds (i.e. it acts and feels like a choose-your-own-adventure game). But the puzzles in this one are so cleverly constructed. You start uncovering alien artefacts and, through them, you start learning an entirely new language, creating meaning via logic and context, just like learning a real language. When the pieces started falling into place, I felt like a genius. Again, more games like this, please?

Death Stranding

I found the last few Metal Gear Solid games a little too much for me to handle, but I really liked Death Stranding so I want to say that Death Stranding is like a Hideo Kojima game with most of the Kojima-ness washed off. But even that's not entirely true because this is an incredibly Kojima game. I think it's because it's got all his heart and his creativity but none of the dark cynicism? Despite the bleak setting, Death Stranding is a game about hope and I can't think of anything we need more in 2019.

Tetris Effect

Technically this came out in 2018 but I played it for the first time in VR in 2019 and I'm usually pretty strict about such things but honestly, this was the closest I came to having a religious experience all year.

Legend of Zelda Cadence of Hyrule

I hadn't played the original Crypt of the NecroDancer so the mechanic of this took me a while to get used to. Basically, it's a rhythm-based Zelda game, where you need to move and fight on the beat. But once you settle into it, it works really well as a Zelda game and the art style is gorgeous. I just wish there was more of it.

Dragon Quest Builders 2

I'm probably in the minority here, but I'm not a fan of Minecraft's story mode. It feels unnaturally bolted on to what is, essentially, just a Lego sandbox. Dragon Quest Builders 2 has the opposite problem: it has a wonderful story mode (I hadn't played DQB1 or many of the DQ games before 8 so I'm not big into the lore and I still enjoyed it), to the point where every time it presented me with its creative mode, I wasn't that interested. "Hey did you know you can build up a town for these people with all sorts of different buildings like bedrooms and saloons and showers and toilets?" "IDGAF give me the next bit of story". I haven't been pulled through a game like this in a while.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

The best Star Wars game since Knights of the Old Republic? I loved how it didn't shy away from its Star Wars-ness and didn't just wear it like a coat of paint over a generic sci-fi game. I'm not sure the Dark Souls influence really works in this game: the controls aren't as good or reliable as they need to be to hang with the Souls games, but that's a minor complaint for what is an otherwise great game.

Luigi's Mansion

This was a lovely little palate cleanser of a game. It's so light and delicious and every time I felt myself losing interest because it's too light, the game would do something delightful and draw me back in again.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Again maybe another cheat because this is an old game, but it only came out on Switch in 2019 and that's the first time I played it. And I feel weird about putting it on here because technically I hate-played it. Remember I mentioned above about how Fallen Order's controls weren't as precise as they needed to be? Ori's controls are exactly as precise as they need to be. It's a beautiful game from that point of view. And after a few hours, when you've unlocked most of your abilities and can chain together some beautiful moves, it's a wonderful flow game. That is then completely ruined by some of the worst set-pieces I've ever seen that rely almost entirely on failure and memorisation. I loved this game. I hated this game.

1

Just wanted to mention that I did, however, finish Diablo 3 because the switch is the perfect platform for this game because it meant I could chip away at this game in five-minute doses.

Protecting Lives & Liberty: How Contact Tracing Can Foil COVID-19 & Big Brother →

There's an old, not very funny joke about the two hardest things in computer science being cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

But I'd like to add that the real hardest thing is taking complicated concepts and explaining them in simple language so that even non-computer-people can comprehend them. And that's something Nicky Case is great at. Along with security & privacy researcher Carmela Troncoso and epidemiologist Marcel Salathé, Nicky came up an explanation of how DP-3T works that is so great, so understandable that I'd feel comfortable showing it to my mother so she could make sense of it.

The reason I'm linking to it, besides it being a great example of how to do explainers like this properly, is that this is kiiiinda like the model proposed by both Google and Apple for their contact tracing protocol, and that's probably something that's going to become incredibly important over the next few months so it's important people understand it.

How the Death of iTunes Explains the 2010s - The Atlantic →

What the idealized iPhone user and the idealized Gmail user shared was a perfect executive-functioning system: Every time they picked up their phone or opened their web browser, they knew exactly what they wanted to do, got it done with a calm single-mindedness, and then closed their device. This dream illuminated Inbox Zero and Kinfolk and minimalist writing apps. It didn’t work. What we got instead was Inbox Infinity and the algorithmic timeline. Each of us became a wanderer in a sea of content. Each of us adopted the tacit—but still shameful—assumption that we are just treading water, that the clock is always running, and that the work will never end.

This might be one of the best essays on technology (and my favourite topics: the internet that was and the internet that could have been) that I've ever read.

Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication →

I work remotely with a team that's spread across Europe and I just before Christmas, I calculated that I lost a full third of my week to video calls, most of which should have been emails. So I read this and shouted OMFG YES to almost every point. Obviously, every team is different and this guide isn't a one-size-fits-all solution (nor does it claim to be) but there's so much in here to take on board.

(Until I sort out my professional blog, you're just going to have to put up with the occasional work/devops related post on here, sorry about that.)

Internet via Email

Knowing there's a real risk of this blog turning into "old man yells at cloud1", here are few thoughts, sort of connected.

First there was Dan Frommer talking about his first year of running a subscription newsletter:

Social media continues to strengthen direct relationships between readers and writers. The internet has made discovery easier for quality, niche publications. (Though that is probably the biggest hurdle.) Email remains an amazing delivery and distribution method for timely written content.

Here's John Gruber's take on this:

And readers love newsletters. Websites are getting harder and harder to read. Paywalls forget who you are on a seemingly weekly basis. Websites put interstitial popovers directly over the content you’re trying to read. Videos are set to autoplay. How many times are you supposed to tell the same goddamn website whether you’ll accept their fucking cookies? It’s like they’re purposefully making it hard to read. Newsletters have none of that. They’re just easy and fun to read. The web can and should be that way too, but all too often it’s not.

It's a fair point - websites are, for the most part, terrible content delivery mechanisms. Which makes me think that maybe RMS, as shitty as he could be, might have hit on something when he talked about the way he consumes the internet

I generally do not connect to web sites from my own machine, aside from a few sites I have some special relationship with. I usually fetch web pages from other sites by sending mail to a program (see https://git.savannah.gnu.org/git/womb/hacks.git) that fetches them, much like wget, and then mails them back to me. Then I look at them using a web browser, unless it is easy to see the text in the HTML page directly. I usually try lynx first, then a graphical browser if the page needs it (using konqueror, which won't fetch from other sites in such a situation).

Incidentally, I've recently moved my RSS from Inoreader to Feedbin and one of the features that drew me away was the newsletter-to-rss gateway - you get a unique email address with which you can sign up for newsletters and they automatically get created as RSS feeds for you. Which means you can read the content in RSS2. So I've spent my day unsubscribing with my email address and re-subscribing with my Feedbin address and my email inbox feels so much lighter and fresher and how an email inbox should feel3.

1

:goodjoke:

2

which is how the internet was going until Google Reader killed RSS

3

I have a strict policy regarding notifications on my phone - no notifications unless they came from a human being directly to me. I don't see why my email should have a different policy.

2019 Movie Trailer Mashup

While we wait for David Ehrlich's video of his best films of 2019 (which are still the high water mark for this kind of thing - 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012), Sleepy Skunk has put together a pretty great mashup of some of the trailers from the year.

I've probably seen maybe a quarter of the films in this video, and of the one's I've seen, not all of them were particularly great (I wasn't, for example, a fan of Midsommar. In fact, I think Ari Aster might be a complete charlatan), but in the context of this mashup, they all looked amazing. Which made me think maybe Errol Morris was right when he said

I believe that there are no good movies, no good books, no good music compositions just great scenes, great passages, great moments.

(Except for Mad Max: Fury Road. That is a perfect movie.)

It's so much more than cooking →

Leaving aside the sexism in this article, I feel like it's articulated a lot of things that have been bothering me subconsciously. My job is 100% remote and I work from home, so there's a sort of expectation in our house that I'll do almost all of the the cooking. And that's sort of fine, because I genuinely enjoy cooking. But it's also extremely stressful because it's not just cooking. It's the planning (two small picky-eating children who even smell garlic and complain "it's too spicy!"), it's the shopping, it's the prepping. It's the mental and emotional labour around cooking that makes it so stressful.

Inside the Tiny Bedroom Where Finneas and Billie Eilish Are Redefining Pop Music

Over the summer, I watched the Showtime documentary series Shangri-La, which is all about Rick Rubin and creativity and inspiration and his Malibu studio, which is treated like some holy place by everyone in the documentary. For example, when they are between artists, Rubin has his interns repaint the studio floors - I dunno, to make it feel like some blank page for the next artist that's going to use it?

By contrast, Billy Eilish's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was produced in her childhood home, by her brother, using prosumer-level equipment. And, for my money, it was one of the best-produced albums of 2019.

This video is a really great companion piece to Shangri-La - both emphasise how important the space is to the creative process, but they approach the topic from entirely different ends of the spectrum.

Now

tl;dr this site now has a /now page where you can keep track of what I'm up to right now.


Back in the old days -- I mean the old old days -- there was this wonderful command called finger where you could look up information about users on a UNIX system1. It would tell you some personal information about the user, like their name and their phone number. But my favourite part about this command was that it would also return the contents of the user's plan file.

.plan was supposed to be to tell people what you were working on that day, but people eventually turned started using it for other forms of expression. I guess it was an early form of microblogging2.

Looking at the blogs I still read in 2019, there's a lot of "here are a list of curated links to cool things on the internet" and there's a lot of "here is an article I have written so I can include it as a 'publication' on my linkedin profile". But there's not much in terms of personal writing. I never get a real sense of what the person writing the blog is doing, what they're working on, what they're reading, what's bothering them (And before you say "isn't that what Twitter is for?" I'd ask have you actually seen Twitter these days?) (And don't get me started on Facebook).

The idea behind a 'now' page is to bring back some of that same .plan feeling. From Derek Sivers's nownownow.com:

Besides answering the common question, “What are you up to these days?”, those who have a now page say it’s a good reminder of their priorities. By publicly showing what you are focused on now, it helps you say no to other requests.

So if you want to see what I'm up to now, you can just go to lowbrowculture.com/now.

1

I realise the command wasn't limited to just UNIX systems, but let's just keep it simple, shall we? 2: For a great example of someone using the .plan file and watching its use morph over time, check out the John Carmack .plan Archive

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The Final Rodeo →

I wasn't fully taken with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (On my letterboxd ranking of Tarantino films, it's second from bottom), but Priscilla Page makes a pretty great argument for the film, explaining a lot of the smaller details that idiots like me might have missed, such as:

... their front gate opening to him like the pearly gates of heaven as Maurice Jarre’s “Miss Lily Langtry” plays. (When this song plays in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, the title card reads: “Maybe this isn’t the way it was…it’s the way it should have been.”)

An Elite Athlete's Training Plan →

You don’t necessarily have to train long for this, just smart. This is true for nearly any endurance event, whether it’s a 5K or 100 miles or everyday life. You have to be creative. You have to steal time from the edges of your day, teach yourself to eat on the fly, learn to function on suboptimal sleep, and keep going even when you want to lie down and cry. In other words, just like parenthood.

I'm not an elite athlete, but I am father to two children under 4 and it definitely confirm what this lady is saying - being a parent makes you very good at two things: ruthlessly prioritising and getting comfortable existing at the edges of what most people would consider 'tolerable living'. I haven't had an unbroken night of sleep in almost four years. When I finish something for myself, even something as simple as reading a book, it's because I slowly slowly chipped away at it and it feels like a major accomplishment.

Anyway, this lady's whole article is terrific and is worth reading.

Five Books →

Ever since the death of The Oyster Review, I've been pretty suck for a good source of book recommendations. The Algorithm is good at many things but recommending things that depend on personal tastes and interests is not one of them. Five Books seems like it might be a good replacement though1. It bypasses The Algorithm and asks real live human experts to recommend, as the name implies, five books on a given topic. For example, 5 Sci-Fi books on the future of Europe, or 5 books on The Art of Living.

1

Come to think of it, could Five Books actually be related to The Oyster Review? "five books" was one of their original features too.