A quick summary of 2019
This year should have been bad. In February news came that my job was in danger. I'm not wed to this job, mind you, but I still don't like constantly imagining outcomes in which I have to move in with my parents, spend all my savings, and start a new job I can't handle.
In summer, things looked bleakest and I had lots of time to worry. I accomplished nothing remarkable. But every day I got out of bed, took care of whatever needed doing, plugged away at some digitization projects, worked on my first-ever garden, spent a lot of time walking and hiking, and kept in touch with my friends. It was one of my better summers as an adult.
Things ended up working out. The job is safe. And even though I suffered six months of anxiety and depression, I am okay with the way I coped.
The second half of the year was unremarkable, but pleasant enough. I made some new friends and kept up with all my responsibilities.
So that was all pretty good. Here are some other particularly good or noteworthy things happened throughout the year:
I did some research on political groups, which led to corresponding with some new comrades and uploading about a dozen rare items to the Internet Archive. This was connected to my hobby of digitizing obscure documents from the communist left.
Related to the above: for my personal note-taking, I switched from vimwiki to the stress-free, homegrown low-tech system I use now: lots of plain text files in markdown format, a shell script to turn them into html and copy them to my web server directory, and basic http authentication so that nobody without the username and password can see them. This is basically how I generate this blog, actually.
I finally replaced my aging Thinkpad x220. The Thinkpad X1 Carbon 6th generation is a worthy successor. The screen is bigger and better, the chassis is sturdier despite being lighter and thinner, and the island-style keyboard is no worse than the old-style Thinkpad keyboards. The icing on the cake is that it runs OpenBSD just as well as the x220 (which is to say perfectly). It's hard for me to believe, but now my trusty x220 is now my least loved laptop. It's slower than the carbon, and while it's faster than my x200, the x200 has a noticeably better build quality.
I upgraded my camera kit, swapping the Fuji XT-1 for an X-H1 that was both on clearance and open box. I also picked up the Fuji 50mm lens and a Mitakon 35mm f0.95. I even briefly owned the Fuji 56mm f1.2, but sent it back; nice lens, but the focal length and lack of weather resistance make it impractical for me.
I went to my first protest in a while, the local Global Climate Strike rally. Now I'm not saying this to virtue signal. Protests are fairly useless. Like all other reformist actions, they are useful only in as much as they prepare the "one great, comprehensive upsurge aimed directly at the heart of the enemy bourgeoisie." To that end, I passed out copies of two anti-capitalist leaflets and made an impromptu speech that drew a connection between ecological destruction and capitalism, and which ended with a call for the expropriation of all property and socialized production. Most didn't care one way or the other, but at least they took all the leaflets I brought and a few people shook my hand afterwards. The experience gives me confidence to get involved in other activities. (I should add that I also went a demonstration of striking Amazon worker a few months earlier, but there I just looked around and left without contributing a single thing.)
Resolutions for 2020
I need to get back to eating better and exercising more. 2019 was a hard year and I backtracked slightly on these things. The problem is, over the long run small actions add up to big outcomes. That's good and bad. So: track my calories every day and get back to regular exercise.
I should play Tetris for 30 minutes a day, every day. Per Wikipedia, "Moderate play of Tetris (half-an-hour a day for three months) boosts general cognitive functions such as 'critical thinking, reasoning, language and processing' and increases cerebral cortex thickness." Even if that doesn't pan out, there are other supposed benefits, plus it will be good to accomplish one goal every day. That will give me stick-to-it-ness I can use with other, harder goals.
I need to think about where my life is going. Recently I said to a friend that I'm stuck in a long, perpetual mid-life crisis. Every day is the same. Nothing changes, nothing satisfies. I need to find a new way of living.
My favorite media-ish things I encountered this year
This is where I list media-ish things I enjoyed for the first time in 2019, no matter what year they're from.
A Case of Distrust: Thinking about this one is as good as playing it. The game itself is nothing special, really. You're a 1920s detective. You have to inspect one-room scenes by clicking around and through dialog. But that's all pretty enjoyable because of the jazzy soundtrack and elegantly colorful, simple visual style. I hope for a sequel.
A Short Hike: A brilliant little game! I figured it was worth a look when I saw it described as "Animal Crossing meets Zelda." But it's better than any of those games. It's so simple -- you're just a little penguin that has to explore a small island. But it's so fun. Everything is joyous: the colorful graphics, the sharp dialog, the tight movement, the hidden items. This is the first game since Her Story that I beat in a single sitting.
Enderal: 10 years ago Rock Paper Shotgun ran an article on an Oblivion mod called Nehrim. Because I liked Oblivion and because I was out of school and out of work, I gave it a try. Quickly I came to see that Nehrim vastly exceeded Oblivion. More than that, it was one of the best games ever made. I still think that. Enderal -- a Skyrim-based follow-up set in the same world -- pretty much meets the standard set by Nehrim. It does come up short in a couple of ways. The story is weaker. The game is less linear than Nehrim was, giving the developers less opportunity to unveil breathtaking creations in a precise, scripted sequence. But on the other hand, Enderal is 10 years newer and has much more to do outside of the main plot. It also strikes me as more enigmatic, with some plot points, characters, and locations that I don't fully understand. In a good way. Like Nehrim, it exceeds the game whose engine it shares and stands as one of the best RPGs of its era.
Gris: This is a weird entry. Like Case of Distrust, I played it during a hot, hot summer, with my overtaxed laptop blowing even hotter air onto my trackball hand. I could hardly stand to play it for more than a half hour at a time. So the game conjures up some unpleasant memories. Worse for Gris, the kindest description of the gameplay would be "rudimentary." I mean, it works, but you're just shambling to the left or right and jumping now and then. Still, the game is very, very pretty, the sound is nice, and there seems to be some deep, sad meaning to all of the sights and sounds. It's worth a try if you can get it for less than the $20 dollar asking price.
Guacamelee 2: A colorful Metroidvania whose visuals are based on Mexican folk styles. Maybe not as great as the first game, but both games are still highly recommended.
Into the Breach: A turn-based strategy game for those with little time. A wonderful melding of simplicity and depth. I got this very late in 2019 so haven't had much time with it, but it took only a couple hours to secure its spot on this list.
Life is Strange: I first played this a few years ago. I wasn't impressed. The controls were fiddly, the pace was plodding, and it seemed pretentious. I never made it out of the classroom that is the game's initial scene. Playing it again, I managed to make it out of the classroom, which is when I immediately discovered how interesting this game's small world is. The story seems so open-ended; the little choices you make actually come back to influence the later events in a big way. And that matters because you come to love the characters and their problems -- you don't want to fuck up their lives. This is a wonderful game. The inferior prequel is also well worth your time.
Overwatch: My first impression was: serviceable FPS with simple deathmatch gameplay, tons of visual flair and selectable characters. I would play it because my oldest friends wanted me to, and it was a great way to connect with them. But I would not enjoy it and I certainly wouldn't play it by myself. That's what I figured. But after a few weeks it grew on me. Once you find a few characters you like and you get used to their skills, you realize there's a lot of depth and strategy here. What initially looked like shameful simplicity was actually great design.
Quarantine Circular: As short as it is brilliant. You play as different characters during an interrogation of a captured alien. You click different dialog options to make all kinds of ethical and interpersonal decisions, all while worrying about saving humanity from a plague that the aliens may have caused... or come to cure. The setting, backstory, and writing are all interesting, and I had to replay the game a couple times to get my ending just right.
Unforeseen Incidents: I think I saw this billed as an adventure game with elements from Twin Peaks and the X-Files. That's true, but the tone is campier than either one. And it works -- the game is genuinely funny. Plus the art is beautiful (I took many screencaps), the characters are fully fleshed out, and it isn't until later in the game that the story starts to unravel. I look forward to what the developers do next.
Unity of Command 2: The first Unity of Command is lauded for its crisp 2D graphics, its clean interface, and the easy-to-grasp mechanics. It really is an accessible wargame. Unity of Command 2 jettisons a lot of that, adding 3D graphics and additional complexity. I didn't have high hopes -- it looked like the classic mistake of a team trying to do more by adding more. But it turns out that Unity of Command 2 is a great game -- just a little different from the first. I haven't had much time with this one yet, either, but I've no doubt it will be a favorite for years to come.
Kristan Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset: Here's what you need to know: I disdain romance novels. The first third of this book is basically a romance novel. It is still one of the best, most compelling things I ever read. I knew about these books for almost 20 years before reading them. I wish I had read them sooner so that this summer could've been my second or third reread.
Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen: I picked this up from a Little Free Library thinking it was a detective novel set in Greenland. Not so. It's actually five intertwined vignettes about gay Greenlanders. But that's okay, because who doesn't like short novels with overlapping stories told from different points of view?
Memory of Empire by Arkady Martine: A taut novel of court intrigue with hints that something much bigger is going on in the background. The series could turn into a full-blown space opera -- if the author wants it to. I'm eager for the next book.
Now and After: the ABC of Communist Anarchism by Alexander Berkman: Let's put it this way. There are four books that really shaped my politics: State and Revolution by Lenin, Workers' Councils by Pannekoek, News from Nowhere by Morris, and Conquest of Bread by Kropotkin. Yet I would recommend this over Conquest of Bread as an introduction to communist anarchism. Even today it remains fresh, it is written in a simple, memorable way, and Berkman has the honor of having never betrayed the proletariat, unlike the renegade Kropotkin. But really, read both. In fact, read all of those books.
The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing: like an Alfred Hitchcock movie in book form. The last half is as suspenseful as anything I've ever read. It's also interesting on another level. Most of the 1940s media I encounter are radio dramas and movies; from those, you get the idea that people in the 40s were either squeaky clean or quite naive. Not so here. The main character is a serial adulterer. His mistress is a woman he just met. Another character is gay. Etc.
Movies and TV
Eighth Grade: This showed me that most of us are pretty much eighth-grade girls. Even adult men, like myself. Insecure, confused, and just looking for some safe harbor. A great movie, probably the best one I saw in 2019.
Family Ties: This show reminds me of my childhood, when it was constantly rerun. If nostalgia isn't your thing, or you're from a different time, skip this one. There are better uses of ~90 hours.
L.A. Confidential: 20 or more years ago I saw commercials for this. There were lots of guns. So it's fair that I wrote this off as a film noir in setting only. Turns out, this is a movie about people and plot, with only one big shootout scene. Also, because the movie begins at Christmas time and there's a house with Christmas lights, I declare this to be a Christmas movie. That makes it even better.
Marcella: A binge-worthy British cop drama.
Trapped: A binge-worthy Icelandic cop drama.
I didn't listen to much new music this year. I don't know why.
A Novelist - Folie: Progressive death metal with elements of blues, jazz, and who knows what else. This is an interesting release.
Departure Chandelier - Antichrist Rise to Power: Mid-paced, straight-forward black metal with a heavy, gloomy, driving sound provided by some strong keyboards. There's nothing innovative here, it's just really good.
Glistening - Human Emotions: I'm having a terribly difficult time putting into words what I like about this album. There's just something so modern about it. Not the music, not especially, but rather the sensibility. It kind of reminds me of Forgotten Words or Joyless, even though the music is not particularly similar. It's like something for adults, hip adults, adults with serious concerns. But these adults should also like raw black metal, because that's what this album is. But it's also something so far beyond that.
Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells: For the last few years I've listened to Ommadawn or Hergest Ridge whenever I want to relax on an airplane. Accordingly, I got this one before having to fly for the holidays. While I haven't had much time with it, it looks like it'll be a long-time favorite. A few other points: I tried to get into this many years ago, probably because it was described as a prog rock classic. It didn't do anything for me at the time. The intro to the album ended up as the Exorcist theme a couple years later. And Oldfield's growling singing style on parts of the record predicted the vocals of pioneering death metal bands like Possessed -- who, incidentally, also incorporated the Exorcist theme on their debut album. So is this proto-death metal?
Morok - Fiery Dances of Dying: Their debut demo impressed me over 10 years ago, but at the time it was their sole release and I mostly forgot about it. Then, this spring, I was looking for albums to delete. Any time I have just one album from an artist I think about deleting it. But first I listen. Morok's debut was too good to delete, so I figured I'd better get at least one more Morok album. This full-length debut grew on me slowly, but now I think it's one of the best folk (or pagan) metal albums ever, if not a top 10 metal album of all time.
Purity Renaissance - Purity Renaissance: See Departure Chandelier above. Just good, plain black metal. I actually first heard this in 2018 but it somehow missed that list.
Was (Not Was) - What Up, Dog?: The opium hum blog posted the follow-up to this album, calling it the "brilliant fourth album by art-funk iconoclasts." For some reason, though, I decided to use YouTube to listen to this album. Maybe All Music gave it a higher score. In any case, after a song or two my interest waned, I closed my browser, and I elected not put their name in my list of albums and bands to listen to or acquire. But I also thought I might give them another try if I ever stumbled on them again. I figured that'd be the end of it. Happily, just days later I found this on CD at a thrift store. I bought it. With every play my appreciation increased. Soon after I also got Are You Okay?, which is just as good. Both albums are full of good (and varied) tracks with funny, quirky, clever lyrics. The music ranges from discordant spoken word pieces to pop to rap to jazzy stuff.
Was (Not Was) - Are You Okay?: see above.
Spotify's "Your Top Songs of 2019"
Take Spotify's automatically generated playlist "Your top songs of 2019" with a grain of salt. I chiefly use Spotify for music I don't like enough to buy or even illegally download. Also, I've mostly stopped using Spotify because I worry about the amount of user tracking it does. And also because the obscure metal I want is missing, and because things are poorly organized (multiple artists under one entry, albums arranged by date of that particular version's release, etc.). Anyhow, here's the playlist (truncated after 25 songs):
- Purcell Consort - My Lady Carey's Dompe (anonymous composition)
- Res - They-Say Vision
- Oliphant - Mit gunstlichem herzen (Oswald von Wolkenstein composition)
- Uriah Heep - Living the Dream
- Nico - Winter Song
- Renaissance - Tyrant-Tula
- Res - How Do I
- Sarah Longfield - Sun
- Boston Camerata - Fas et nefas ambulant (Gauthier de Châtillon composition)
- On Thorns I Lay - Oceans
- Yaz - Situation
- Xasthur - A National Acrobat (Black Sabbath cover)
- Riverside - Guardian Angel
- Oingo Boingo - No One Lives Forever
- Garmarna - Salvatoris
- Sarah Longfield - Cataclysm
- Moses (Clear Rock) Platt - Old Rattler
- Oliphant - Mir hat eyn liet von vranken (Oswald von Wolkenstein composition)
- Riverside - Ultimate Trip
- Simnoid - Astral Alley
- Joe Jackson - Steppin' Out
- Oingo Boingo - Stay
- Renaissance - Northern Lights
- Isotope - Do The Business
- Fleet Foxes - He Doesn't Know Why