CW: This is going to be pretty self indulgent in a year where there was widespread suffering. As much as anything, I am writing this for future-me to look back at.
In a year where I switched to working from home, lost my daily commute and generally didn’t leave the house as much as I used to, I’m surprised how well I’m doing; I’ve put on ~2Kg but also feel fine.
I used to have a catered buffet lunch at work (and technically breakfast, which I didn’t have very often), and now lunch is often left-overs or instant ramen. (i.e. the same as my lunch for most of the previous 10 years before joining Shopify). It’s probably fewer calories, but it’s definitely less balanced than eating at work was.
We eat a lot of take-out food. At the start of the pandemic we actually cooked a lot, but once the strict lockdown ended and H was working again, and I had a post-work routine (dog walk, bike ride, dinner), neither of us wanted to cook that often. And we moved house in the middle of the year so we had a period of not wanting to use the kitchen, to boot. (Balancing things out: I haven’t been to a restaurant since the start of March, and the take-out is not just like … pizza and A&W).
From March to October I took up ~daily cycling with my son – between 5Km and 30Km (mostly 5-10Km though) – and that clearly was good (as well as being good for both of our mental health and generally just fun). I got wide tires for my bike as I imagined myself being able to ride in the snow but a) I’m too worried about another bike accident (I broke my collar bone a few years ago, which made me skittish) and b) the cold is a much bigger issue for me than traction.
We bought a weight bench in June. Dylan assembled it. I don’t think either of us has used it once. The assembly and carrying it down to the basement are the sum-total of the exercise.
Actually, I don’t think I made New Year resolutions in 2020, but let’s check in on some from 2019:
- Discover more new music.
- Be intentional about what I read.
That’s it. These are the tip of their respective icebergs though, in terms of the problems I felt I had and the ways I’ve tried to solve them.
Problem: I listen to pretty much the same music all the time, and most of it is from bands I have liked for 10+ years.
Google Music, and now YouTube Music, do such a poor job of recommending new music to me; I often feel I have been put into a 90’s alt-rock bucket. I mean, that is a reasonable bucket for me, but I like to think that I have diverse music tastes. Regardless of what I ask Google to play, left on its own, its algorithm will eventually play Loser by Beck.
Spotify was better when I used it, and Apple Music was even better, but they’re both just incremental improvements. Being better than YouTube Music is not an impressive bar. At best, Apple Music was great at introducing me to other 90’s alternative bands I might have missed (it correctly suggested Pacer by The Amps to me, because I like Breeders and Pixies – good call!).
I tried using Soundcloud to discover new music, and it is good for that, especially electronic music, but I always felt it was good as like … a radio station that played things I might like, but didn’t help me discover new albums and artists, mostly it turned me on to some great mixes.
I used Hype Machine in the past to discover new music. They went behind a paywall for a bit and now they are listener supported, so I’ve started supporting them. I’m still loading a homepage and clicking “play”, as if it’s a radio station, but the artist is put front and foremost and I can collect all my likes and go straight to a band’s artist page on the streaming services or their Bandcamp (if they have one). If there’s anything problematic about Hype Machine, it’s that the music blogs that they aggregate are doing so much of the heavy lifting 🤷.
Definitely worth it for me. I’m also adding an implication to my 2019 resolution: be more intentional about music. I started by thinking I was going to “get into cassettes” and I do have a few and I fixed up three tape players this year, but it’s almost too ridiculous a format, and they’re just not … nice. I had tapes growing up, they hold some nostalgia but very little aesthetic appeal.
I started collecting vinyl, not because it sounds good (it does not), but because I do just enjoy having physical tokens of the music I listen to and artists I like. It’s pretty much a three way split between almost-free thrift-store finds, over-priced reissues from artists I love (NIN is over-represented) and reasonable-considering-the-niche limited releases from Bandcamp or fan sites.
Honestly, the two real winners for intentional music consumption in 2020: CDs and Zip files of MP3s.
I like cueing up a record. I appreciate the ridiculous act of rewinding a tape. But what I was missing was just listening to albums, in order, and the subtle reinforcement that comes from only having 5 discs in the CD changer and having to make an effort to pick something new to play. Even just having an iPod nano, instead of having waves hands the entire recorded history of music ready to stream and be auto-recommended to me, has been an exercise in pleasant limitation.
(I am ready for mockery here because even I am reading this and mentally writing the headline “Irishman rediscovers albums in 600 words”)
Problem: I read a lot of crap. It doesn’t nourish my intellect and it’s often not entertaining. I have a mass of tabs to get to.
But there’s still enough interesting stuff that I get via RSS and recommendations and from folks on Mastodon that I could spend whole (work) days reading and not getting anything done.
Some habitual changes I made:
I buy technical books on paper where possible. They serve as a reference and as a physical queue. These paper books live in my office, at least until they are mostly read.
I’ve read more technical books in 2020 than probably the 3 years before that, so I think it’s working. I’ve loosened this rule and I will read technical books on my iPad if I happen to have a digital copy. This is also working well. (Mostly, I have ended up reading work-related Java and/or Kafka books.) I do whatever I can to avoid reading a massive PDF sat at my computer desk.
I buy fiction secondhand or on Kindle. Paper copies live in our parlour, and I often leave the book I’m reading on the mantle so it’s effortless to pick it up if I’m just sitting around in there.
Having just fiction / personal reading on the Kindle means that there’s no task switch when I pick it up to move from one type of book to another, that might trick my brain into carrying on with the “wrong” type of book. Also technical books on Kindle are the pits. I can’t believe they’re still so bad.
I have given myself permission to just abandon more books: if it’s fiction and I am not enjoying it, I might read a spoiler on Wikipedia. If it’s technical, I’ll drop a bookmark in and move on. Most technical books have one or two chapters I really want, some “maybe” chapters and a bunch of stuff that I don’t have time for. This is okay.
I no longer have a commute, so I’ve had to purposely cultivate the habit to read technical books. I try and take 30m around a coffee break to sit in an armchair and read instead of going back to my desk.
Some technical changes:
The first thing I tried, in 2019, was to use Pocket, and especially to sync Pocket to my Kindle. I’d read on mobile during my commute and save anything long to be delivered on a Saturday morning to my Kindle. This worked for a while but had a lot of drawbacks and I no longer do it:
- Pocket recommends me things. This is the last thing that I want, sorry.
- Its HTML scraping isn’t great, and sometimes I would miss significant parts of pocket-ed articles without realising.
- It conflicted with the idea that the Kindle is for non-work reading.
- The Pocket -> ePub flow (which was 3rd party) had rough edges around Unicode and then they discontinued the service. I didn’t replace it.
- Handling articles which were full of links was wonky. I could add them directly to my Pocket queue, which wasn’t always what I wanted, open them on my phone browser or make a note of them on Kindle.
The second thing was subscribing to Pinboard. I still use this, including the Read Later functionality. I can see a link on Twitter then “share” it and I have an iPad app which can save the bookmark from a pop-out dialog. It could be smoother, but it’s pretty decent.
This has mostly been good as saving links I find on mobile, to stop me hoarding tabs on several devices. On the desktop however …
The third and final thing has been adopting Tree Style Tabs. This doesn’t actually remove the “you have a dozen interesting things distracting you” problem, but it hides it. I put most of my “that’s interesting but not directly related to my current focus” things under one collapsed tab and then I binge it once a week; once on my work computer and once on my personal one.
This is a recent change, but it’s working well. Tree Style Tabs is just great for switching between contexts in my work, something Mozilla has tried to add to the browser a few times. I can roughly separate my browser tabs into “Google docs to read and comment on”, “GitHub notifications to process”, “things that were opened from emails” and then topic-specific trees. Game changer.
Those specific things went pretty well in 2020. I haven’t picked any new resolutions, in the same way that I didn’t in 2019. There’s still work to do here. Intentionality might never be done?