Things have been a little quiet here over the Christmas and New Year break, primarily because after two years of running flat out I’ve finally stopped to breathe!
I’ll write about it more fully in a separate post later this month but the important thing to note is that after a full month of disconnection (cutting all social media and ignoring my emails), trialing some new management systems (like Trello, Inbox, Keep and Do It Tomorrow) and plenty of journaling and self-reflection while sorting out literally years of notes… I’m ready to start writing again while taking forward all I’ve learned the last five years and introducing a few select projects much more slowly and carefully than I have previously.
Don’t expect to see massive changes straight away, but the last month has been vital for working out what I want to take forward with me into 2018 and what I want to leave behind. Checking out for awhile certainly gave me ample opportunity to read, watch, listen to and even play games over the last month too though!
What I’m Reading
Looking back I’ve been planning to read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius for nearly a year, but I’m only just starting to delve into it. One of my recent realisations during the break was that I regularly spend too much time getting “ready to begin” when I really should just “begin” and see where things take me. Starting this book is another classic case of that: I’ve known this is an important book to read, but I wanted to be in the “perfect” head space to really absorb the lessons from it.
As Aurelius himself says, there is no “perfect” time to start anything. So I’ve simply “begun” and will see what I can glean from reading it. I’ll often re-read books I’ve deemed important, and will often get different things out of the same book read years apart. Meditations is THE reference for Stoic philosophy, so while I’m learning from it now I’m sure I’ll read it again in the future and get even more out of it in a different, future context too. What I’m getting out of it now though is that many of the philosophies I’ve tried to develop for myself were expressed in much the same way as a one of history’s most revered leaders 1,850 years ago… so I’m guessing I’m probably on the right track reading it, and I’m sure I’ll gain additional perspectives as I read on.
On that note though there are several translations for Meditations, but it’s hard to go past the stark and modern prose of the “New Translation” by Gregory Hays. I’ve tried reading one of the older translations and the brutal clarity of Aurelius’s wisdom gets quickly lost in the old timey English.
I first picked up a copy of Stewart Smith’s The Complete Guide To Navy Seal Fitness in a San Francisco bookshop one a round-the-world trip with a friend in 2005, and the 12 Weeks to BUD/S workout has always remained my go-to reference for functional fitness. He’s put out a mountain of other military fitness books since, but this was the first and in my opinion the best for anyone looking for peak functional fitness. The 2005 print copy was still on my desk right up until mid 2017 when I found out an updated edition was available on Kindle, so I donated my battered copy and went fully digital.
Put simply the 12 week workout will destroy you in the first 4 weeks, completely decimate you even further in weeks 5-9, and then eases back fractionally in the final weeks so you can start back at Week 1 at a whole new level of fitness. You’re often looking at 2-3 hours of heavy duty running, swimming, push-ups, pull ups and situps for 6 days a week – you need to be fit just to start it, and it’s fucking hard when you do. I could only get to about Week 8 of it while I was preparing to move to the UK to join the British Commandos, and was still selected as one of the fittest of my recruit intake.
With a few more years of wisdom and still a reasonable level of fitness since I last tried the 12 week workout, I’m restarting it with a different very attitude to what I did before the Commandos: I’ve got plenty of time and don’t want to be brain-dead exhausted, so now it’s all about taking as long as I need to get through all of the exercises split across the morning AND afternoon, rather than trying to do all of them in a single soul-destroying workout.
It’s a great book with plenty of clear and simple exercises, and a brutal workout regime with a singular focus of getting you to the peak of “operational” fitness. Plus if the 12 week workout sounds (rightly) intimidating, there are two much easier workouts that will build anyone up to the point where they might be ready to take on the 12 week monster.
There are literally months of saved Instapaper articles on my Kindle waiting to be read at the moment, so I’ve been making an effort to read atleast one a day. I have no idea how I first found it (I saved it in mid October apparently) but by far the most relevant and interesting I’ve finally gotten to just this morning is The Coming Software Apocalypse published by the Atlantic in September.
Personally I’ve always struggled to make the leap from learning a programming language to actually using it. I’ve learnt IDL, Matlab and Python, and thought about delving into Java and C, but there’s always been a gap for me between learning a language and actually doing something with it. So for the last few months I’ve been looking at doing an online computer science course (probably through Khan Academy or Udemy) to actually understand how computers actually work. What this article is all about is that same disconnect – that the languages we use to interact with computers don’t fully reflect what we’re asking them to do, and as society relies more on complex software requiring with millions of lines of code (like emergency service automated lines and driving-assist systems) it’s becoming impossible to find bugs or even be sure the system will respond as required when human lives are on the line.
Thankfully there’s a growing push towards “model-based” software development which replaces the endless lines of human-written code with a far more sensible and human-focused interface, so I’m looking forward to implementing the computer science I Iearn over the coming months into what looks like the future of software development.
What I’m Watching
It’s probably not a huge surprise that I was at a midnight screening of The Last Jedi. What was a surprise was how damn funny it was! There’s been a huge backlash against it since it came out, with fans screaming that Star Wars has lost it’s way, that the comedy wrecked it, that The Last Jedi is the worst Star Wars film ever… people who have clearly forgotten just how bad the prequels were.
The fanboys can cry all they want, but I The Last Jedi is easily the funniest Star Wars film yet, and personally I think it’s the best… and yes I include the original trilogy in that. Is it perfect? No. But it’s weird, hilarious, and is all about letting go of the past – something that is especially relevant to me at the moment 🙂
The Simpsons was fairly banned in our house growing up, so I’ve only had a partial understanding of the endless Simpsons references that friends have made through the years, and while I’ve seen a few episodes through the years I’ve often not really understood why it was so funny because I hadn’t experienced it at the same age they had.
There’s not much I can do about “growing up” with the Simpsons, but over the Christmas break a new friend who’s loved the Simpsons all her life sat me down to watch some of the best and “important” episodes. She also gave me every Simpsons episode to date on a USB, so if I’m ever at a loss as to what to watch there’s 29 years of 22 minute episodes there for me!
This was really quite unexpected. I’ve had several female friends rave to me about Crazy Ex Girlfriend over the last year, but given 1) I don’t like musicals, 2) I don’t like romantic comedies, and 3) Not inclined to watch TV just for the sake of it; there really hadn’t been any desire to even investigate this. The few clips I’d seen were funny, but I hadn’t given it a second thought until I was driving around with a friend who had the soundtrack playing in her car and was singing every word.
So I found it on Netflix… and binged the whole lot. It’s genuinely funny, which is really saying a lot for a guy who hates musicals enough that I said Book of Mormon was only “kinda funny”. Halfway through the second season I started to get really pissed off at the main character Rebecca because her “crazy” had really stopped being endearing or relatable, but thankfully it’s all building towards an emotional implosion that leads to her getting help and actually growing emotionally.
Now that I’ve binged it I’m not champing at the bit waiting for the next episode, but it is definitely funny and I’m glad I finally came around to watching it.
I’ve always loved Charlie Brooker’s pitch-black writing, reading pretty much all of his books while I was with the British Commandos (probably a good reflection of my emotional state), but I didn’t discover Black Mirror until there was already two full seasons available. The premiere with the PM & the pig didn’t bother me I was so deeply troubled by the second episode – with the credit-generating bikes and the talent show – that it nearly put me off it for good. Thankfully, rather than shying away I reflected on why that was so personally unsettling, then kept going with the rest of the seasons.
With Netflix taking Black Mirror on, there’s definitely been a shift in the series tone. It’s still presenting pitch black dystopias, but it seems to have lost some of it’s heart-wrenching cruelty and the vicious twist endings the episodes of the first two seasons had. Season 4 is brilliant, but to me it’s only “Arkangel” that presents a scenario that even begins to tap into the emotionally and intellectually challenging nature of the season 1 & 2 episodes.
Netflix recommends a lot of absolute garbage, so I initially dismissed Circle as being some unimaginative B-grade horror film. When it started showing up as a recommendation for sci-fi though I paid a little more notice, and one night when I wanted something less than 90 minutes so I wasn’t up to late I decided to give it a proper look…
I won’t give too much away but the basic premise is that 50 people wake-up (with little memory of how they got there) in a dark room standing on glowing red dots in a circle around a black dome, every two minutes a laser from the dome shoots out and kills someone, and the group has a chance to choose who survives. It’s a simple and vicious film that says a lot about how negative circumstance can quickly reveal ageism, racism, sexism and class-ism in each of us that might otherwise go unnoticed.
It’s a bit ham-fisted on the social commentary at times, and probably would have been more unsettling if the final few minutes had been cut, but overall it was incredibly challenging and left me with plenty of questions and a really ominous sense of dread long after it’d ended. Highly recommend.
What I’m Listening To
I’m slowly building up a new 2018 Playlist on Spotify at the moment, but the eternal challenge is giving new music enough of a chance when it’s so easy to just play old favourites. “The Ones That Got Away” playlist Spotify generated at the end of 2017 unearthed a few gems, and as I’ve been hearing things I like I’ve been adding them to the 2018 playlist, but for the most part I think I need to start my Spotify listening from a nearly clean slate. I generally listen to music whenever I’m doing anything except writing, but I especially love a well curated “Running” playlist. So in the next few days I’ll go through my existing “Running” playlist and remove anything I often skip during exercise, but otherwise I’m going to just delete my other playlists and start things fresh!
I’ve known about DuoLingo for quite awhile and even played around with it before heading to Israel last year to teach for ISU, but unfortunately the Hebrew package wasn’t available in time to really give it a go. I’ve never had a problem learning new languages, but I’ve never felt motivated to learn a language “just for fun” like some do.
It might sound close-minded, but I struggled to give a shit learning French and Indonesian in school because I didn’t ever see my self moving to either country to use it. A bit like learning a programming language – unless you love linguistics or coding, why dedicate time and energy to it when you could direct your focus to something with an immediate practical use?
That all said, I do have an immediate and practical use for DuoLingo – learning Dutch before I move to the Netherlands to start my Masters in September! So now that I have a practical reason to learn a language, I’ve dived straight in with a DuoLingoPlus subscription – for $84AUD a year it’s 100% worth it, and the financial investment is extra motivation to get the most out of it. I’m absolutely loving the general design of the app, the Dutch course seems really well structured so far, and I’m picking up the basics fast… although in fairness when “Book” is pronounced “Book” and spelled “Boek” in Dutch, it might not be an overly complex language for an English speaker to learn afterall!
Sticking with the Dutch theme, I’ve also started the Wim Hof Fundamentals online course. I’ve mentioned Wim Hof in other posts, but it wasn’t until 2017 that I started to to really tune into this “Wim Hof Method” that I’d been hearing about for years. The Fundamentals course is broken up over 10 weeks of videos and a workbook, but while it’s technically video-based I’ve been spending more time just listening to Wim guiding the breathing technique.
It’s very early days yet, but I know deep down that this is something I’ll really excel at if I integrate it into my daily life. I’ve always joked that I’m a penguin, and much more comfortable at -30 degrees than I am at +30 degrees (something I tested on the top of Mt Kilimanjaro in a -56 degrees blizzard and tramping around Dartmoor with the British Commandos in -23 degrees) so Wim’s course is really about providing a structured framework I can use to really explore my that while coupling it with a breathing exercise to push & explore my cardiovascular system further too.
What I’m Playing
With my speaking commitments for 2017 done I had some more time on my hands to revisit Black Mesa and Half Life 2. My high school and uni years were littered with different video games, but when I sold everything pretty much everything and moved to the UK to join the Commandos in 2009 the first thing to go was my desktop computer, and I’ve never been in one place long enough to justify or want another. Since then I’ve occasionally played games on my Dad’s beasty home office desktop when I’ve been staying there and he’s at work, but I’ve not had a desktop computer of my own for nearly a decade and my laptops have been exclusively configured for writing instead of gaming.
With the 20th anniversary of Half Life coming up in November 2018 though, I was reminded just how it’s design and storytelling changed the way I saw the world when it came out, and how Half Life 2‘s environmental interactions and physics engine were equally disruptive for me. These games changed me and drove me to become a problem solver: to look at the world around me, study it’s systems, and work out how to improve them.
When Half Life 2 was released, Valve also put out Half Life: Source which took the original Half Life game files and blindly put them through the new Source engine for Half Life 2. The result was… disappointing. So a group of volunteer developers got together to do a complete port of Half Life to the Source engine from the ground up – all new textures and redeveloped maps that captured the original design, intent and storytelling; but gave it the sheer power of the Source graphics engine and Havok physics engine to create Black Mesa.
The very final “Xen” chapter of Black Mesa is still in development but the rest of the game is available on Steam, and playing it isn’t just nostalgic –
it feels like I’m 15 again, playing a game that is vaguely familiar but just so much more beautiful. One thing I’ve noticed revisiting films and music that felt so important when I was younger is that they haven’t aged well, and I’m often initially confused why it felt so huge at the time before realising I’ve just grown beyond it. Black Mesa isn’t like that, and neither is revisiting Half Life 2 – they were both completely ground-breaking for their time, but they also had incredible storytelling that created an incredibly rich universe you felt part of… that there was always so much more to explore, which I guess is why so many people have waited hopefully for a “Half Life 3” or even “Half Life 2: Episode 3” that both look increasingly unlikely.
Amusingly, I somehow missed Marc Laidlaw (the Half Life series lead writer) publishing a “crossgender snapshot of a dream” around my birthday last year that provided some explanation on the direction Half Life 3 might have gone had it happened. I’m going to read his original “Epistle 3” post right now, but you can also find another version (with the names and genders corrected) over at Pastebin.