Reflecting on 2020

It’s been a year, eh?

I didn’t have a lot of plans for 2020. And those that I did have were pretty simple. That was deliberate as I tend to beat myself up for not achieving everything. But it turned out to be for the best anyway.

I’m not really expecting 2021 to be any different to be honest. But I’ll write another post about plans for the next 12 months.

For now, I just want to write a diary entry with a few reflections and notes on the year. Largely because I want to capture some of the positives and lessons learned.

Working

Coming in to 2020 I’d decided it was probably time for a change. I’ve loved working at the Open Data Institute, but the effort and expense of long-term distance commuting was starting to get a bit much.

Three trips a week, with increasingly longer days, on top of mounting work pressures was affecting my mood and my health. I was on a health kick in Q1 which helped, but The Lockdown really demonstrated for me how much that commute was wiping me out. And reminded me of what work-life balanced looked like.

I was also ready to do something different. I feel like my career has had regular cycles where I’ve been doing research and consultancy, interleaved with periods of building and delivering things. I decided it was time to get back to the latter.

So, after helping the team weather the shit-storm of COVID-19, I resigned. Next year is going to look a lot different one way or another!

I’ve already written some thoughts on things I’ve enjoyed working on.

Running

I set out to lose some weight and be healthier at the start of the year. And I succeeded in doing that. I’ve been feeling so much better because of that.

I also took up running. I did a kind of self-directed Couch to 5K. I read up on the system and gradually increased distance and periods of running over time as recommended. I’ve previously tried using an app but without much success. I also prefer running without headphones on.

The hardest part has been learning to breathe properly. I suffer from allergic asthma. It used to be really bad when I was a kid. Like, not being able to properly walk up stairs bad. And not being allowed out during school play times bad.

It’s gotten way better and rarely kicks in now unless the pollen is particularly bad. But I still get this rising panic when I’m badly out of breath. I’ve mostly dealt with it now and found that running early in the mornings avoids issues with pollen.

While its never easy, it turns out running can actually be enjoyable. As someone who closely identifies with the sloth, this is a revelation.

It’s also helped to work out nervous tension and stress during the year. So its great to have found a new way to handle that.

Listening

My other loose goal for 2020 was to listen to more music. I’d fallen into the habit of only listening to music while commuting, working or cooking. While that was plenty of opportunity, I felt like I was in a rut. Listening to the same mixes and playlists as they helped me tune out others and concentrate on writing.

I did several things to achieve that goal. I started regularly listening to my Spotify Discover and Release Radar playlists. And dug into the back catalogues from the artists I found there.

I listened to more radio to break out of my recommendation bubble and used the #music channel on the ODI slack to do the same. I also started following some labels on YouTube and via weekly playlists on Spotify.

While I’ve griped about the BBC Sounds app, and while its still flaky, I have to admit its really changed how I engage with the BBC’s radio output. The links from track lists to Spotify is one of the killer features for me.

Building in listening to the BBC Unclassified show with Elizabeth Alker, on my Saturday mornings, has been one of the best decisions I’ve made this year.

Another great decision was to keep a dedicated playlist of “tracks that I loved on first listen, which were released in 2020“. Its helped me be intentional about recording music that I like, so I can dig deeper. Here’s a link to the playlist which has 247 tracks on it.

According to my year in review, Spotify tells me I listened to 630 new artists this year, across 219 new genres. We all know Spotify genres are kind of bullshit, but I’m pleased with that artist count.

Cooking

I generally cook on a Saturday night. I try out a new recipe. We drink cocktails and listen to Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show.

I’ve been tweeting what I’ve been cooking this year to keep a record of what I made. And I bookmark recipes here.

I was most proud of the burger buns, bao buns and gyoza.

We also started a routine of Wednesday Stir Fries, where I cooked whilst Debs was taking Martha to her ice-skating lesson. Like all routines this year that fell away in April.

But, I’ve added Doubanjiang (fermented broad bean chilli paste) to my list of favourite ingredients. Really quick and tasty base for a quick stir fry with a bit of garlic, ginger and whatever veg is to hand.

Gardening

I’ve already published a blog post with my Gardening Retro for 2020.

Reading

Like last year I wanted to read more again this year. As always I’ve been tweeting what I’ve read. I do this for the same reason I tweet things that I cook: it helps me track what I’ve been doing. But it also sometimes prompts interesting chats and other recommendations. Which is why I use social media after all.

I’ve fallen into a good pattern of having one fiction book, one non-fiction book and one graphic novel on the go at any one time. This gives me a choice of things to dip into based on how much time, energy and focus I have. That’s been useful this year.

I’ve read fewer papers and articles (I track those here). This is in large part because my habit was to do this during my commute. But again, that routine has fallen away.

If I’m honest its also because I’ve not really felt like it this year. I’ve read what I needed to, but have otherwise retreated into comfort reading.

The other thing I’ve been doing this year is actively muting words, phrases and hashtags on twitter. It helps me manage what I’m seeing and reading, even if I can’t kick the scrolling habit. I feel vaguely guilty about that. But how else to manage the fire hose of other people’s thoughts, attentions and fears?

Here are some picks. These weren’t all published this year. Its just when I consumed them:

Comics

I also read the entire run of Locke and Key, finished up the Alan Moore Swamp Thing collected editions and started in on Monstress. All great.

I also read a lot of Black Panther single this year. Around 100-150 I think. Which lead to my second most popular tweet this year (40,481 impressions).

Non-fiction

Fiction

I enjoyed but was disappointed by William Gibson’s Agency. Felt like half a novel.

Writing

I started a monthly blogging thread this year. I did that for two reasons. The first was to track what I was writing. I wanted to write more this year and to write differently.

The second was as another low key way to promote posts so that they might find readers. I mostly write for myself, but its good to know that things get read. Again, prompting discussions is why I do this in the open rather than in a diary.

In the end I’ve written more this year than last. Which is good. Not writing at all some months was also fine.

I managed to write a bit of fiction and a few silly posts among the thousand word opinion pieces on obscure data topics. My plan to write more summaries of research papers failed, because I wasn’t reading that many.

My post looking at the statistic about data scientists spending 80% of their time cleaning data, was the most read of what I wrote this year (4379 views). But my most read post of all time remains this one on derived data (25,499 views). I should do a better version.

The posts I’m most pleased with are the one about dataset recipes and the two pieces of speculative fiction.

I carry around stuff in my head, sometimes for weeks or months. Writing it down helps me not just organise those thoughts but also move on to other things. This too is a useful copying mechanism.

Coding

Didn’t really do any this year. All things considered, I’m fine with that. But this will change next year.

Gaming

This year has been about those games that I can quickly pick up and put down again.

I played, loved, but didn’t finish Death Stranding. I need to immerse myself in it and haven’t been in the mood. I dipped back into The Long Dark, which is fantastically well designed, but the survival elements were making me anxious. So I watch other people play it instead.

Things that have worked better: Darkest Dungeon. XCOM: Chimera Squad. Wilmot’s Warehouse. Townscaper. Ancient Enemy. I’ve also been replaying XCOM 2.

These all have relatively short game loops and mission structures that have made them easy to dip into when I’ve been in the mood. Chimera Squad is my game of the year, but Darkest Dungeon is now one of my favourite games ever.

There Is No Game made me laugh. And Townscaper prompted some creativity which I wrote about previously.

That whole exercise lead to my most popular tweet this year (54,025 impressions). People like being creative. Nice to have been responsible for a tiny spark of fun this year.

This is the first year in ages when I’ve not ended up with a new big title that I’m excited to dip into. Tried and failed to get a PS5. Nothing else is really grabbing my interest. I only want a PS5 so I can play the Demon’s Souls remake.

Watching

For the most part I’ve watched all of the things everyone else seems to have watched.

Absolutely loved the Queen’s Gambit. Enjoyed Soul, the Umbrella Academy and The Boys. Thought Kingdom was brilliant (I was late to that one) and #Alive was fun. Korea clearly know how to make Zombie movies and so I’m looking forward to Peninsula.

The Mandalorian was so great its really astounding that no-one thought to make any kind of film or TV follow-up to the original Star Wars trilogies until now. Glad they finally did and managed to mostly avoid making it about the same characters.

But Star Trek: Discovery unfortunately seems to have lost its way. I love the diverse characters and the new setting has so much potential. The plot is just chaotic though. His Dark Materials seems to be a weekly episode of exposition. Yawn.

If I’m being honest though, then my topic picks for 2020 are the things I’ve been able to relax into for hours at a time:

  • The Finnish guy streaming strategy and survival games like The Long Dark and XCom 2
  • The Dutch guy playing classic and community designed Doom 2 levels
  • And the guy doing traditional Japanese woodblock carvings

I’m only slightly exaggerating to say these were the only things I watched in that difficult March-May period.

Everything else

I could write loads more about 2020 and what it was like. But I won’t. I’ve felt all of the things. Had all of the fears, experienced all of the anger, disbelief and loss.

The lesson is to keep moving forward. And to turn to books, music, games, walking, running, cooking to help keep us sane.

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