The Peripheral (Amazon Prime) doesn’t mess about. It drops you right in, and you’ve gotta keep up. You may struggle, as I did, because it takes no prisoners. But it’s worth it.
The year is 2032. There’s been an internal US war of some sort. VR is pretty immersive now, and ex-soldiers make a living in ‘sims’ – violent video games. But one soldier is continually outplayed by his younger sister, so when a new VR device arrives, and the money’s too good to pass up, he asks her to take his place. She lands in London, in a simulation so real she can actually feel what’s happening to her. It does not go well.
The future comes thick and fast and in deep grandeur. London is overlooked by statues the height of mountains. Sure, you think, whatever – it’s the future. But there’s a reason. There’s always a reason.
Everyone is intelligent and does the smart thing in any given situation. Everyone is capable of absorbing new information without requiring half an episode to freak out and be talked round. Everyone is gracious under pressure. Essentially: everyone behaves exactly as you’d hope you would if your reality were upended. But despite doing everything right, *it all still goes wrong*. I like this.
While everyone’s smart, some of them are proper psychotic. You think you’ve seen it all, but this show comes up with some truly appalling ways to behave. Geez. It helps that half the cast are Brits and the others have southern US accents to die for: the Brits sound super sinister in comparison. Plus they all get to say interesting stuff *all the time*, and are charismatic to a fault. One showdown in particular is just phenomenal – you’ll know it when you see it.
It’s not really a show you can make predictions about. From time to time you think you’ve got the lay of the land, but then there’s some whirlwind of new ideas and probably an unexpected robot and whoosh – everything’s different. Just enjoy the spectacle. This is to be expected as it’s based on a William Gibson novel: it stays true to his form. You just land in the world, and there’s a lot that’s incomprehensible for a while. It throws you the odd bone, but you spend a lot of time trying to stay afloat.
If you wanted to be a cheap critic you could say it exploits the sunk-cost fallacy. It’s a lot of work to figure out what’s going on, and your brain really does not want this to be a waste of your time. So it’s in your interest to think you’re enjoying it, and the threshold for backtracking is super high. And I agree that when people do this in the real world it’s a grubby trick. Continental philosophy innit. But for entertainment: bring it on. Exploit me. Manipulate my emotions as much as you like. Do whatever you gotta do to get me invested – that’s what I’ve signed up for.
I don’t think it’s all a trick, though. There’s enough food for thought that your brain chews on it for a day then cheerily spits stuff out when you want to sleep.
All in all: loved it; very exciting; favourite sci-fi since The Expanse; did I mention the adorable southern accents, you’ve never heard people tell each other to fuck off like this, come the metaverse I’m giving myself a Texas drawl.
The coming existential crisis
Have I mentioned I’m turning 40 this year? I’m turning 40 this year.
I have friends who are sailing through this with nary a breakdown. It is, they say, fine:
- Time is a continuum
- You’re only one day older than you were yesterday
- The past is done and the future hasn’t happened yet so all you can do is enjoy now
All of this is true and indeed wise but, you see, that’s about them and it’s me who’s turning 40. I am.
When I was a kid I read a lot about the history of magic and I learnt that Robert Houdin, the father of modern magic and the magician’s magician, didn’t start until he was 40. I have always remembered this. No matter what happened, I thought, I could always change direction in the far distant future and become the father of modern magic.
But that’s now, guys, it’s now. I don’t even know what needs birthing.
Something needs to happen, though. There is a tickle at the back of my mind that won’t go away. I don’t know what it is yet. But I feel like it’s kicking for the surface.
While I await existential enlightenment, the obvious backup plans are:
- Curl up in a ball and await the Singularity
- Van life
Or some combination of the above. I’d better get ready.
Good things of 2022
Fiction: The Expanse series
I got slightly obsessed with The Expanse last winter and tore through all the books. I thus recommend them, which is certainly not the sunk cost fallacy. They are top sci-fi, I promise. Humane, thoughtful, and rich. Cavalier captains, cowboy pilots, badass marines, sweary diplomats, noir detectives – it’s just great.
Fiction: Children of Time
Do you want to read a book about giant space spiders? Are you sure you want to read a book about giant space spiders? Because it is an odd sensation to experience constant low-level revulsion while reading a story, but if you’re good with that this is the book for you. It is a book about giant space spiders. They evolve out of tiny space spiders. There are some humans too, but they’re mostly jerks. The spiders are where it’s at. Just relax into it.
Non-fiction: The Natural Navigator
I assume everyone’s jealous of people who can read nature. People who can identify bird calls, or point at a tree and say ‘that’s unusual’, or point at a cloud and say ‘that’s worrying’, or point at a bee and say ‘that’s Ernesto’, or very confidently know what a fern is. Such people seem to experience the world in a very satisfying way. It’d be nice to be like that.
I figure your options for achieving this are:
- Retroactively develop an interest at age 5
- Experience some sort of amnesia, get rescued by a hot recluse, learn the wonders of nature, get rescued, go back to the city and realise it sucks and you want to be a hot recluse too
- Get an ecology degree
- Tristan Gooley
Tristan Gooley is the easiest option. He will get you 10% of the way there, anyway, and that’s enough to feel like a wizard for a bit.
I’ve read three of his books about the natural world, and they’re all one fascinating fact after another. The Natural Navigator is a good start. It teaches you to answer one question: which way am I facing? Other than the position of the sun, how do you know?
You learn that the branches of trees are most dense towards the south, and then you suddenly notice that lots of trees are like this. You learn that birds usually sit facing the wind so they can take off quickly, and then you suddenly notice birds more. It’s great.
You read one book for 90mins and then get to wander around the world spotting all sorts of patterns and clues that were there the whole time. I recommend this experience wholeheartedly.
This is Us
This is Us is the best written show on TV and I will hear nothing against it. The words, man.
(I haven’t actually finished it yet, so don’t tell me anything please)
Blundstone boots are the magic trinity of ankle boots: light, comfortable, and hard-wearing. They work for the office, and for the Devon coastline. They have grip, without looking like hiking boots. If you walk funny, like me, they take two years to wear down on one side. And the colour doesn’t fade for ages.
In 2022 mine dealt with Norwegian forests, muddy towpaths, snowy pontoons, Disneyland, and fundraising dinners. They aren’t actively waterproof unless you buy a specific model, but in practice I’ve had no trouble. There are dressier versions too, although they’re still boots.
If you would like a second opinion, see Adam Savage.
The Body Coach app
Joe Wicks’ Body Coach app has kept me fit for 2 years now. You get a series of workouts to do, at home, in monthly cycles. Some are 20mins, some are (urgh) 40mins. Once complete, you get a harder series. And repeat. It’s always a challenge, but always achievable.
Joe does the workouts in real-time with you, so it’s not like those YouTube videos where you’re yelled at by some beefcake who won the genetic lottery. You see him struggling, or needing a rest, or really not enjoying himself. He’s likeable too, or at least he is when he’s not making you do fucking squat jumps.
It’s a mixture of aerobic exercise and weight-training. He introduces dumbbells at a certain point, but you don’t need any more equipment than that.
And most of all, it actually works. I have kept it up. As a result I’ve been doing weight-training for 18 months, which is not a sentence I ever thought I’d write. It is very pleasant to feel fit, and I do – anecdotally, sample size of 1 etc – feel mentally sharper. I recommend just getting up and doing it before work: you get an early sense of achievement, and very little time to think up an excuse.
She’s a Beast
Relatedly: if you’re interested in weight-training but are put off by the constellation of bullshit that surrounds it, I recommend the She’s a Beast newsletter. It’s not about magically gaining 30lb of muscle in 3 months (impossible), or wanting to look like Chris Hemsworth (losing his hair anyway, pfff). It’s just lifting weights to be strong and healthy, via evidence, evidence, and more evidence. What works (slow and steady), what’s wishful thinking (you can’t lose weight and gain muscle at the same time), what’s unknown (how different genetics interact with different routines), what’s stupid (random supplements).
Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick is a surprisingly quiet film. I mean obviously there are lots of F-18s going neeeooooowwwww which is great, but behind it there’s a kind of peace. Honestly.
It’s not macho, and it’s not shouty, and the soundtrack doesn’t bombard you, and it’s not trying to trick you. When you’re excited, it’s because there is cause to be excited. When you’re sad it’s because it’s genuinely sad. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with having my emotions manipulated – that’s what stories are for – but it’s nice when it’s done by making you feel part of a team. You feel *trusted*.
That’s partly because it’s a simple story, well-told. The big action sequence is so well-telegraphed that it’s easy to follow – despite being super-fast. In fact the whole film just flows. It has a pace and a rhythm and it sticks to it. It’s almost musical. When things heat up it’s fast and exciting – but still clear and direct. When it needs to slow down it does so cleanly. It’s somehow *graceful*.
I would guess this is due to the teamwork of Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie, who are getting very very good at this kind of smart blockbuster. It’s their signature style to treat the audience like an intelligent friend who needs the details explaining and can take it from there. The dialogue says a lot in a little. The aerobatics are astonishing, but not ridiculous. Danger is fed in moderation. And Jennifer Connelly is about the same age as Tom Cruise.
It also pulls off the trick of being a sequel in spirit but not blueprint. It’s worth rewatching the original Top Gun beforehand as the story follows on smoothly, without needing any major reversals or shoehorny twists. Obviously it’s still about fighter jets, but it pays homage to the beats of the first without repeating them. It even manages to introduce a character’s child – usually a death-knell for any sequel – without being tedious. Even Penny is a callback if you listen carefully (it turns out). And they ditch the weird 80s dialogue, thankfully.
It’s still essentially one man’s story. The focus is on him throughout, just as in the first film – there aren’t really any side-plots to speak of. This is always a risky move as you’re banking on everyone finding said character interesting. But he is. Possibly in a Tom Hanks we-just-all-want-to-be-him kinda way, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And it’s done so well that it seems meaningful to be watching the end of his 30yr career – even if you hadn’t thought much about Top Gun in decades.
This is what I mean about it being quiet. It doesn’t yell this stuff. It’s just there and pleasing. McQuarrie is known for showing his films to people and iterating till he gets the reaction he wants. What a concept.
I didn’t end it wanting to be a fighter pilot. But I did end it wanting to be…a hard-working good person? Also to have my own airstrip and a little plane I maintain in a golden-hour barn.
2:22 A Ghost Story
I really enjoyed this. It’s the story of a woman trying to convince her husband and friends that her house is haunted, and her baby in danger. One’s a know-it-all skeptic (comparisons were made), one’s a believer, and all have a past. Debates happen. Things evolve. The set starts to feel like home. I thought it was good.
It’s not a full-on scarefest, but has its moments and is unnerving enough that your adrenalin levels are just that little bit elevated from beginning to end. And the audience reactions are entertaining in themselves.
Also it has Rosa from Brooklyn Nine-Nine in it, which is awesome because Rosa. She is not particularly Rosa in this play, and even though I do understand how acting works this was still surprisingly surprising*. I found her and the others entirely compelling.
I am not normally very good at plays, so any play I enjoy is usually at least different. Thank you very much to Hiba for the suggestion and the tickets!
*also see: Encanto
This year I got very excited about Personal Knowledge Management systems, and then I got over it.
PKMs are tremendously promising tools that aim to organise everything interesting in your life. Listening to a podcast and hear some amazing fact? Into the PKM it goes. Reading something that triggers a connection to said amazing fact? Link it in the PKM! Look up either one later and you’ve got them both, and the context in which they came up! It’s easy!
The PKM magically links your interesting stuff to other interesting and relevant stuff, and surfaces it at useful times. It’s all structured and easy to review. It’s not the black hole of Evernote, but a world you inhabit: your accumulated knowledge, there for the taking and the growing.
This sounded brilliant, and seemed to satisfy some deep-seated fear that I was skating on top of a lake of potential in which I wanted to swim. It promised something that could do for stuff-I-want-to-remember what You Need A Budget did for my finances: solve the problem. Total Andrew catnip.
And there’s certainly plenty to sink your teeth into. Roam is one of many PKMs: Notion, Obsidian, Logseq. They’re all trying to do the same thing, with overlapping but different approaches. And they’re definitely achieving something.
Roam in particular does some innovative stuff, most notably creating a new ‘Daily Note’ every morning into which you just start typing. This alone is surprisingly pleasing, and it’s fun to scroll back through the last few weeks and watch your thoughts evolve. Roam also has some very clever ways to bring information together. So it’s not a con or a cash-in: the people who make it are genuinely trying to build something useful. The evangelism got a bit much sometimes, but that’s understandable.
So I got very excited about Roam. And Zettelkastens. And methods of implementing Zettelkastens in Roam. I signed up for courses, and completed some of them. I watched YouTube videos of super-psyched instructors waxing lyrical about how these tools will encourage methods of thought that will change the world. I read up on implementations, from the simple to the…extremely not simple. I set up the systems, and started applying them to books I was reading. I introduced it to colleagues. I was all in.
But it turns out: nothing is quite there yet.
It feels like something must be there. A lot of rhetoric flies about. There’s certainly a mini-industry set up around teaching people how to launch themselves into this bright new future. And it’s a profitable little industry, going by the prices of the courses. But it’s much harder to find people actually living the dream.
This is because nothing quite clicks. Nothing quite lives up to the promise of…whatever it is I was after. Daily insights? Making sure I saw notes about the thing I saw a year ago? Making sure I didn’t loop on the same problems over and over? What did I even want to achieve other than a nebulous nirvana in which no knowledge is lost?
Everything claims to help pin this down, but in practice it’s always just over the next hill. And the only way over the hill is via a surprising amount of admin. And the admin overhead is…too much. Which sounds pathetic. But it’s just too much. All the systems require maintenance that just isn’t sustainable outside of specific projects. For a general-purpose my-entire-life PKM, the novelty wears off and it’s just more work. And the bigger it gets, the hard it is to wrangle.
Everyone kinda knows this, but it’s assumed the right system/approach/method is there if we can just find it. And maybe it is! But at the moment the excited community isn’t the tip of an iceberg of productive users. It’s the entire user base.
Also the loudest voices in the community were a bit odd. It’s all very Silicon Valley: I’ve never heard the word ‘startup’ more in my life. It’s a bit like the very early days of Twitter – back when there was a complete feed you could just about keep up with – when all anyone did was talk about Twitter, and the potential of Twitter, and potentially monetising Twitter. After a while it all feels rather insular.
The community then waned surprisingly quickly: as the year wore on more and more people started flocking to the bright lights of cryptocurrency and NFTs. The PKM newsletters started to wax lyrical about the potential of this new financial revolution. Thankfully I was not far gone enough to join them. I have some self-awareness.
I wasn’t getting the promised feedback loops of positivity and insight. So, as you’d expect, I slowly stopped making the assiduous notes, and I stopped writing up my days, and I didn’t complete the remaining courses. Then towards the end of the year I read Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman. It’s his journey through, and attempt to understand, the whole area of productivity hacking. It’s a similar industry to PKM, and and his assessments all felt very familiar. That book deserves its own post, but his ultimate conclusion is that we’re chasing a ghost.
So as things stand at the end of 2021 I am still using Roam. Not as a full PKM, but as a useful repository for particular projects, for freeform notes on stuff, and for easily collating things like ‘books I read’ and ‘films I watched’. I far prefer it to Evernote. This is satisfactory.
Books of 2021
Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson
It’s politically toxic to suggest that climate change could be addressed by geoengineering – deliberate and large-scale intervention in the climate system – because the effects would be hard to predict. But maybe we should do it anyway.
It’s the end of the 21st century and climate change is impacting most of the planet, sometimes catastrophically. Unilateral geoengineering becomes an option. Cue a giant technothriller that’s as much about teaching you about how levees work as following the trials of a ex-ranger hell-bent on revenge against a particular feral pig (there are a lot of feral pigs), or the combatants in a YouTube-led martial-arts-based ‘performative war’ at an ever-shifting India-China border in the Himalayas (it’s hard to explain), or the piloting skills of the Queen of the Netherlands (what it sounds like). And then there are the global political ramifications.
Spectacular first 50 pages. And, following the initial craziness, some plausible and often-brilliant insight into how the future could look. But it’s mostly a paean to human ingenuity, and how we interpret politics as damage and route around it.
As ever with Neal Stephenson he tries to shift the overton window of competence. Everyone is very good at their jobs. Everyone is curious, and eager to learn. And most of them can and do kick ass when needed, whether physically or verbally. This is all just normal.
Every Neal Stephenson book goes off the rails at some point – sometimes brilliantly, sometimes…less so. To read him is to be waiting for this to happen. I’m pleased to report that Termination Shock does so only at whatever point you realise it’s actually a long letter to Elon Musk.
Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir
The sun is fading. Not a lot, but enough to induce permawinter and kill us all off. Why is the sun fading? Dunno, but lots of nearby stars have the same problem. Except one. So let’s send a team to it in the desperate hope they can figure out what the difference is.
Bit of geoengineering in this one too, except this time to deliberately keep the planet warmer while they wait.
It’s from the guy who wrote The Martian, and the style is the same: great ideas, interesting and coherent science, and pulp-fiction dialogue where everyone precisely expresses their exact thoughts and feelings.
Go in blind to this one. Stuff happens.
The Scout Mindset, by Julia Galef
This book could not be more relevant to my interests. It’s also highly recommended by Dominic Cummings. I don’t know what to do about that.
It’s about how to think clearly. This usually means: ‘here are a list of common mistakes we all make, so don’t make those!’. But Julia Galef goes beyond this, giving practical advice on how to avoid such cognitive biases.
She emphasises that it’s often very difficult. It’s all very well being told that our rational mind often acts as press secretary for our emotions, justifying what we want rather than thinking things through from the ground up. But recognising this in day-to-day practice is tough.
Cue the advice, drawn from years of research: she started a foundation dedicated to actually investigating such things.
Her main approach is a series of questions you can ask yourself, like ‘would you support the findings of this study if it supported the other side?’, or ‘if this idea were not the status quo, would I support changing the status quo to it?’. Get into the habit of asking these, she says, and you stand a better chance. It’s some work to do this – you basically need to write a list and check it. I haven’t done this yet. But it all seems sensible, and I fully intend to do so!
If this piques your interest, this is a better review: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-the-scout-mindset
The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle
What makes for good culture in any group of people? You may not be able to define ‘good culture’, but we know it when we see it. And we certainly recognise the opposite.
The author argues that this isn’t as mysterious as we think: it is caused by particular approaches (not people), which can be laid out.
These approaches are:
- First, you build psychological safety. This makes people feel like a team.
- Then you turn this into actual trusted cooperation by encouraging the sharing of vulnerability. This sounds like Goopy wellness stuff but is just being open about weaknesses and difficulties.
- Finally, you establish purpose by clearly showing what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to do it.
- This is more than just having a clear purpose. It’s about knowing how you will achieve your purpose, then communicating it loudly and clearly and continually.
- And you achieve all of these via small, everyday behaviours – or ‘signals’. These signals must be everywhere, all the time.
I found this very useful at work. It’s changed how I induct new staff, as well as how I write documentation and introduce new concepts. Worth a look if this is your bag.
The Harry Bosch novels, by Michael Connelly
I caught up on the Harry Bosch novels this year. They’re classic hard-boiled police procedurals, based in Los Angeles, and solid as hell.
I like them because everything follows from the detective work. There are no magical gut feelings, or unlikely coincidences. You can run a string from the crime to its conclusion and know it all makes sense. It’s super relaxing to have that certitude.
And Harry is a long term friend and role model. He acknowledges the complexities of criminal behaviour in a vastly unequal society, but isn’t afraid to judge. He has a diamond moral code that drives everything he does, often to his detriment. You may not always agree with his actions, but they’re coherent.
By all accounts it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the LA police force, too. It’s all real acronyms, processes, frustrations, and corruptions. Also the *city* is real: Michael Connelly famously only uses real locations, and you’ll never see someone cheatily beat the traffic at rush hour.
Harry’s getting a bit old now (worrying), and has a younger partner who isn’t just him in a different body. She’s good too. Lives in a tent. Has a dog. I like her.
You might have seen the Amazon TV show, which ended this year. I thought it started off a bit weak, but it hit its stride in series 4 and was great after that. It accords to the same principles as the books, but also plays with the form. You see a lot of unnecessary action: people walking to cars, getting coffee, standing in lifts. As a result you never know when something is going to happen. They leave open doors in the background of shots for the same reason. Plus the lead actor is a perfect fit. The Harry in my head is now 50% the guy I’ve known for 20 years, and 50% Titus Welliver.
If you need a fast, satisfying read, I highly recommend these books. There are loads of them. The first is The Black Echo. Here’s a timeline.
If you see a ghost, the correct thing to do is poke it. The next thing to do is get out the HD camera you carry on you at all times and document said poking in great detail in preparation for your Nobel Prize. It is not, repeat not, to scream, run away, trip over, split up, flee crowded areas, devise a super-clever anagram and scrawl it into a manhole cover using your own tooth enamel, etc.
All the kids in Ghostbusters: Afterlife get this. They find ghosts; they’re curious about the ghosts; they investigate the ghosts; they handle the damn ghosts. I do not have kids, but if I did I would swap them for these ones. They get a lot of good jokes, and the cool action scenes. They’re good kids, Brent.
The adults try pretty hard too. They’ve mostly got their own boring adult issues like rent and paying for property damage and making sure your kids don’t die, but they’re interesting and not annoying and also resist the impulse to run away from stuff they don’t understand.
But it’s the kids who carry the story, which is decent enough and gets more nostalia-y as it goes on. No doubt this annoyed some people. Sure, it’s super-poignant if you’re like me and watched Ghostbusters as a kid, and sure, if you’re not like me and didn’t it may lack the same punch, and sure, it could have not done this and still been a decent film. But it didn’t and that is that.
What it *did* do is warm and funny and inventive. There’s a Spielbergian touch to it all, from the kids all being bright, excitable, and likeable, to the deft intelligence of the action scenes. Childlike but not childish. It’s properly these-characters-are-your-friends-now *fun* and I enjoyed every second of it. The only real weirdness was the third act was surely missing like 10 minutes of footage and maybe a subplot?! But it still worked and that aside I highly recommend doing yourself the favour of sitting in the dark for a couple of hours, smiling.
After 7 months of lessons, rudely interrupted by lockdowns, I flew solo for the first time this morning. That means: taking off, doing a circuit of the airfield, and landing again – without an instructor beside you. They wish you luck, hop out of the aircraft, and you’re on your own. It’s quite the moment!
I was up half the night worrying, but thankfully it turned out great. Beautiful weather, and a quiet airfield.
It was actually fun. This came as a surprise: I’ve found learning to have a high cognitive load – there’s a lot going on at once, and many things that need to be *just so*. I thought being by myself may make this worse. But today it all felt surprisingly natural. Free and easy. I really enjoyed it.
I’m by no means a licensed pilot yet: this step marks (roughly) the end of learning to fly and the beginning of learning to navigate. I’ve another 6 months or so of lessons, not to mention 6 exams plus the big skills test at the end. So going solo carries no legal weight, but it’s a traditional milestone and a big life goal!
Thanks to all at the excellent Redhill Aviation Flight Training for getting me here.