As everybody who writes something today will say: it’s not been a good year. The unremitting bleakness has felt a bit much at times. But hey, we made it to the end, so let’s summarise!
At the start of January I’d just left FutureLearn after being their CTO for three and a bit years. I didn’t have a plan beyond taking a couple of months off to relax and decide what to do next. I think I expected to go back to consulting work but by March it became clear that meeting people for chats over coffee was not going to be a practical option.
Working for Shopify has turned out to be a largely enjoyable alternative. In some ways I’ve found it difficult to adapt to collaborating remotely with people in another time zone, but most knowledge workers are dealing with some version of that problem these days anyway and I’m fortunate to have teammates who are extremely patient and accommodating, so it’s not turned out to be a big problem.
My job had a somewhat rocky start for various reasons but right now I’m excited to be working on a Ruby implementation and immensely proud of the smart people I’ve been able to mentor so far. Ultimately I’m grateful to have a stable income at a time when so many people have lost their livelihood altogether.
Several of my London friends have already moved, are currently moving or soon intend to move away from the city. Some of this would have happened regardless of the pandemic but it’s hard to ignore the effect of city life having more downsides than upsides when it’s not safe to be near other people.
In general I’m surprisingly sad about this; it feels like more of an ending than I was psychologically prepared for. I suppose it doesn’t make much practical difference since I can’t see anyone in person anyway but it does take away some of the hope of life ever returning to normal. Departing friends: I hope I can visit some of you once it’s safe.
I’ve been pretty healthy this year. I had a grim couple of weeks in July when kidney stones appeared out of nowhere, and there have been occasional miscellaneous pains caused by either sitting in front of a computer all day or not sitting in front of a computer all day, but overall I’m relieved to have made it through the year without needing serious medical attention at a time when that attention is scarcer than ever.
I’m finishing the year stronger than I started it, although I’m not getting enough exercise at the moment so Christmas has taken a toll on my weight and overall fitness. I badly miss going to the gym, which would normally be my January solution to this feeling, but I assume I’ll need to find an alternative in the new year since it’s not going to be safe to go back there for a while. Maybe it’s time to dust off my bike now that the days are getting longer again.
While I’m glad of my physical health, the worst psychological effect of a year of being shut inside has been an inability to focus on or think hard about anything in particular. I haven’t felt any enthusiasm for side projects or long form reading; everything I’ve made has been an incomplete sketch, and most of my reading has been articles and blog posts. I feel oddly guilty about this lack of productivity and personal betterment but I’ve decided to give myself a pass for it. It’s fine. I survived.
So what did I achieve this year? Not much beyond surviving. A lot of the time has felt wasted. On balance it’s lucky that I’m so comfortable doing nothing — I can browse the web, watch videos and play games for hours without feeling restless or bored — but that tendency has expanded to fill all available time.
I haven’t written any prose or code of note, and I haven’t even tried to give a conference talk this year. All emotional and intellectual energy has been spent pushing back against the psychological resistance of being separated from the rest of society: keeping on top of chores, staying in touch with friends, puzzling out the logistics of food and other necessities, and remaining calm and patient when the situation becomes frustrating.
I suppose the year’s most clear-cut achievement was learning to bake good sourdough. I really struggled at first, as you can see from my first loaf of the year:
It was a long time before I produced anything I was proud of. But now it’s part of my weekly rhythm and pretty much every loaf is excellent. Here’s my last loaf of the year:
I can’t tell whether this change is because I improved my technique or just eventually got the right equipment and flour, but either way I’m glad I can now reliably make high-quality food at low cost and have fun while I’m doing it.
Best video game this year: The Last of Us Part II, which offered by far the most impressive and emotionally affecting experience I’ve had with a game. Honourable mentions go to Animal Crossing New Horizons (“played for 115 hours or more”), Astro’s Playroom and 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2 (as a spectator in 2020) which have all brought me a lot of joy.
Cyberpunk 2077 was a big disappointment for obvious reasons, but so was Ghost of Tsushima, the first half hour of which was so boring that I never got past it despite trying a couple of times, and Watch Dogs: Legion which I only managed to wring a single mildly amusing video out of before I lost interest.
Best service (digital) this year: as previously mentioned, YouTube Premium has improved my quality of life significantly. GMTK, hbomberguy, RedLetterMedia, 3Blue1Brown and Ben Eater have been particular pleasures.
Disney+ has also been unexpectedly valuable as a source of mindless stuff to watch during workouts, and Apple TV+ (which came free with my work computer) surprised me by producing Ted Lasso.
Best service (physical) this year: allplants has been really good at relieving the effort and monotony of cooking every evening. I was expecting “frozen meal delivery” to be shit but, happily, it isn’t. Everything’s vegan and I’ve been impressed by the convenience, quality and variety of the food. My faves so far are teriyaki udon and spicy szechuan noodles; most disappointing have been the various curries, since it’s easy for me to make tastier versions of those myself so they don’t feel like a very effective cheat.
I wouldn’t want to eat a ready meal every day, plus it’s quite expensive compared to cooking from scratch, but they’re basically perfect for stashing in the freezer and then activating when you can’t be arsed to organise something else.
What are my hopes for next year? I’d like to get through it. I’d like to become healthier, which for me mainly means losing some weight (again) and continuing to improve my strength and flexibility. I’d like to spend more of my attention on interesting technical problems, both at work and in my spare time. It’s been a while since I’ve had the satisfying feeling of building something, so I’d like to find a way to regain that somehow. And I want to push harder on mentoring and get some big results for the people I’m helping so that I can do more of this sort of thing (and perhaps work out how to scale it?) in future.
Oh, and weeknotes have been fun. I often resent writing them but I’m glad to have the record to look back on. The regular reflection is probably psychologically useful and I occasionally get nice feedback which indicates that someone out there is enjoying or at least reading them. Let’s see if I can knock out another 52 of those.
Thanks for listening. See you next year.