What I call the “status of the wholes” is my own distinct blend of annual review-slash-roundup. It’s both a personal reflection and a summary of my various activities. This entry covers 2022 and it is the fourth so far—the others concerned 2019, 2020 and 2021. Here’s what it contains:
- I, Theseus
Before the full review begins, however, I want to relay what I thought were the major motifs of 2022 for me. Upon reflection I identified three: stances, intersections and opportunities.
Several years back, I read The Book of Five Rings and learned of “stance-no-stance”:
“The so-called Stance-No-Stance calls for no stance at all to be taken with your sword. However, as I place this within the Five Stances, there is a stance here. According to the chances your opponent takes, and his position and energy, your sword will be of a mind to cut him down in fine fashion no matter where you place it.”
Later, I learned of what David Chapman calls the “complete stance”:
“The negative definition of the complete stance, as not fixating or denying meaning, is unappealing. However, it points to the main promise: freedom. Freedom from metaphysical delusions, and their propensity to limit action.
The shared metaphysical mistake underlying eternalism and nihilism is that the only meaningful kind of meaning would be non-nebulous: objective, eternal, distinct, changeless, and unambiguous. Recognizing that meanings are never that way, yet real all the same, is a more positive definition of the complete stance.”
More recently, a Venkatesh Rao talk—There Are Many Alternatives: Unlocking civilisational hypercomplexity with Ethereum—contrasted TINA (“there is no alterernative) with TAMA ideologies.
Venkat supplied a handy chunk of nuance to the divide, as well as a definition of “hypercomplexity”—property of a system that allows it to sustain many mutually incommensurate, divergent narrative futures at the same time—but the general difference is this:
- TINA ideologies imply one future that we’re inevitably converging to
- TAMA ideologies imply the achievement of a plurality of co-existing futures
TINA ideologies are hard and uncompromising, invoking merciless exertion and struggle on a long timeline in pursuit of an immutable state of perfection. TAMA ideologies are kind and compassionate, requiring ease as one traverses a terrain prone to temporariness and orientates via an uncertain telos.
In 2022—more than any other year yet, perhaps excluding childhood—I have adopted am enhanced infinite game stance, a paradigm based on an equally deepening sensitivity to myself and my reality and the many alternatives available to me in the immediate, near and far future.
This seems grand, so let me refer to a practicality. Sachin Benny observed: “at this point I’ll consider to have made it if I get to 35 without my world view collapsing into a single narrow thing like aesthetics or effective altruism”. The adopted infinite gaming+ stance has one pivotal outcome: it prevents worldview collapse.
Bolstered by a stance that recognises the great availability of alternatives, I’ve also become more attentive to the intersections around me.
Two years ago, when I began my product management journey, I sliced up the domain into five elements—business analysis, UI/UX design, software development and engineering, project management, and interfacing and integration. Each of these contains their own “useful fictions” and are themselves situated in and entangled with a variety of sociotechnical systems.
More recently, I’ve begun to contemplate the unique confluence of my own writing, product management and technical skills, to recognise a cohering interest in the places where complex systems, computing and communication collide, and to see myself as a spaghetti-junction-in-motion. As a tangle of comings and goings, of inputs and outputs, of overs and unders and arounds, of insides and outsides and in-betweens.
Stances; intersections. The way I’ve described these above creates a perception of unfettered opportunity, of latent agency just waiting—begging—to be exercised. “I can do anything!” This is not at all true.
This year is perhaps the first in which the opportunity cost inherent in every lived moment and decision made has started to feel tangible. Is it a consequence of being on the other side of thirty—or maybe just a delayed arrival of maturity concerning the impact of one’s choices? Regardless, I’ve never been more aware that doing one thing means the curtailing of many other possible things.
This induces minimal despair, however. The thing that one does involves an irrefutable opportunity cost. But if that thing also contributes to a civilisational gain in hypercomplexity—at whatever scale, from one’s self to a societal-shaking technological discovery or philosophical insight—then it’s a fair trade. Incremental gains in civilisational hypercomplexity are, to me, worthy recompense for personal opportunity cost.
And if that effect on civilisational hypercomplexity isn’t visible? If it can’t be mapped? That’s okay. I think I now have enough faith in myself to trust my instincts and intent, to buy-in to the possibility that while it might be hard to make the optimal, right move, it is easy to make a roughly right one with consistency.
Stances, intersections and opportunities have been the motifs of my 2022. Yet they’ve only triggered subtle, subterranean alterations to the rhythms of my life, rather than overt and measurable earthquakes. In 2023, I expect the consequences of those shifts will begin impacting the visible manifold.
Now, onto the full review-roundup.
Here’s the origin story of the six-part structure that I use as a guide for these things:
- 26/03/16: I combined three ideas—80/20, Parkinson’s Law and minimum effective dose—to create a daily standard for myself. Shorthand, it looks like: Br / Re / Wr / Mo / Pl. Breathe, read, write, move and play.
- 25/02/18: After learning about Josh Waitzkin’s method for compressing rituals (“making smaller circles”), I changed the daily standard into a scalable loop. The standard could be compressed, extended and performed multiple times, and different components could be emphasised or even omitted.
- Sometime in 2019: a sixth element was added: “speak”. Its meaning was first relationship focused—talking to my friends and family. But it also included attempts to pick up some rudimentary French.
Here, in 2022, I no longer enforce the standard or utilise the scalable loop day-to-day. However, Br / Re / Wr / Mo / Pl / Sp is still used as an organising paradigm for how I think about myself and my actions.
Another thing to consider: the use of the word “wholes” in this review-roundup is deliberate, and important.
A while back, Joe Norman penned an essay called Generating Wholes. He said:
“In living systems the whole generates the parts. The parts do not exist a priori. In each step of this process we can see that both wholes and parts come from existing wholes. They are not constructed in the usual sense—they are not manufactured. They are synthesized via an unbroken chain of wholes, extending back to the beginning.”
I see each element—breathe, read, write, move, play, speak—as a whole. “I contain multitudes”, as the saying goes, and these are some of the headliners. I also see these elements of vehicles of practice.
A while ago, I learned of samaya bonds from Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. It is a sacred vow, an unconditional commitment that a teacher and a student make to one another.
“If the student accepts and trusts the teacher completely and the teacher accepts the student, they can enter into the unconditional relationship called samaya. The teacher will never give up on the student no matter how mixed up he or she might be, and the student will also never leave the teacher, no matter what.”
Breathing, reading, writing, moving, playing and speaking are the teachers; I continue to be their student.
So, let’s iterate through them and see what they’ve helped me do and learn.
Moment-to-moment—and for the majority of my time—I remain a nasal breather. This may seem like a small fact but I am convinced that it is of monumental impact, especially as the timeline of adoption begins to extend over years and towards decades. More important than straight-up respiratory efficiency or its contribution to overall health, nasal breathing has a profound effect on one’s composure.
The breath is coupled to nervous system activity. There is both a push and a pull between them. Whilst nasal breathing, one breathes slower and more effectively which results in a dampening of the sympathetic nervous system.
“With sympathetic nervous responses, the body speeds up, tenses up and becomes more alert. Functions that are not essential for survival are shut down.”
Under the duress of intense exercise; in typically stress-inducing situations, like public speaking, or even verbal conflict; whilst sleeping—nasal breathing makes it is easier to retain one’s composure, mentally and physically, metaphorically and literally. And that is an incredible boon.
Now, let’s move away from moment-to-moment breathing towards the breath involved in contemplative practice. The release of my novella, Riven had a noticeable effect here.
Riven is, most simply, about a man who goes into the woods. More specifically, it is about a man who goes on a solitary contemplative retreat. I’ve described the process of producing Riven in the post-project review and surfaced the resources concerning contemplative practice used therein. I won’t talk more about these things here.
Instead, let me chart the focusing effect of completing and releasing a book about a man who engages in contemplative practice. In short, it compelled me to re-up my own.
In recent years, I’ve experimented with basic concentration protocols: counting the breath, watching its inflow and outflow, experiencing its passage at the tip of my nose, watching that motion brighten and darken a mote of light… After Riven I began reading Tasshin Fogleman’s work and decided instead to try practicing love. Most mornings and some evenings, I did my usual Wim Hof warm up, and flicked on a basic metta guided meditation. I did this for three to four months. Then I stopped.
Habit and identity
Dan John often summarises his experience of various movement and health regimes by saying something like: “It worked, so I stopped doing it.” This happened to me (again) with contemplative practice. And I’ve been trying to work out why.
Contemplative practice doesn’t have a high barrier to entry, yet—and I have no evidence for this—I suspect it sees smaller adherence overall than other attempts at habit change in realms such as medicine, health, fitness and nutrition. All that contemplative practice requires is that one sit down for a minimum of five minutes in a place of relative quiet consistently. Yet, it’s a gnarly practice to consistently engage in. And I think it has to do with what I’ll call the “identity gap”, which can be summarised using the wrapper of Clarke’s third law:
“Sufficiently advanced habit change is indistinguishable from an identity shift.”
I remember Layne Norton talking about this idea that habit adoption is easier when one explicitly, deliberately and consistently tells oneself, “I am the sort of person who X” (where X is the habit being adopted).
Imagine this from the perspective of someone who’s succeeded in adopting an arbitrary habit. They do it regularly. Consistently. It becomes a part of who they are. You likely know someone who is unfailingly kind, right? Do you think of their kindness as repeated isolated acts of compassion and goodwill whilst denying them the label of “a kind person”? Of course not; their acts of kindness are downstream of this person’s identity, of this person’s self embodying kindness.
This idea has two implications.
First, it makes it possible to estimate the degree of difficulty associated with any given habit change. For example, I can more easily imagine myself as the sort of person who does time-restricted eating every day than someone who engages in contemplative practice for one hour daily. The difficulty of a habit change is equivalent to the magnitude of the identity shift that occurs upon its completion. What makes this more interesting is that it can be used to estimate the degree of difficulty of both positive and negative habit change. Who’s more likely to hit a child; a monk or an alcoholic father?
Second, it provides a way to hack the habit adoption process. Instead of incrementally building to some sort of habit adoption fait accompli, which is what I think most people experience when they have sustained a change for a sufficient amount of time, it becomes possible to skip to the end of the book. Deciding to become “the sort of person who X” right at the start of the journey doesn’t obliterate the need for travel, but it sure as hell clears the tracks. Perhaps this is what lies behind the icky ability of affirmations to inspire tangible change—to enable affirmers to “manifest” their intent?
High level stats
2022 was a good year for reading. A great year, in fact; I had a lot of fun. Below are some high level stats for my reading year.
- 91 books in total logged / entered on my reading sheet in 2022
- 89 books in total read in some way between December 2021 and January 2023
- 11 books quit in the same period for various reasons after various time invested
- 78 books read between December 2021 and January 2023
- Of the 78: 40 were ebooks, 5 were hardcovers and 33 (inc. 8 comics) were paperbacks
- Of the 78 read: 44 were non-fiction, 34 were fiction
- 55 unique authors, 35 of whom were male, 20 of whom were female
- 99 days was the longest read time, <1 day the shortest, 18 days the average
Now, onto the specifics.
Each book I read gets a quantitative rating. This is simple for fiction books—it just mirrors how I decompose a story when I author fiction:
- Character: the cast of beings
- World: the world the cast inhabits
- Events: what happens in the world, to the cast
- Narration: how what happens in the world, to the cast, is described
- Authorial intent: purity and potency of the author’s purpose
Non-fiction poses a greater challenge. I settled on these five categories:
- Authorial intent: purity and potency of the author’s purpose
- Style: quality of the prose
- Rhetoric: persuasiveness of logic, argument or narrative
- Density: research, thought or experience communicated per page
- Salience: a book’s individual rightness and its impact upon myself or society
Below are the top rated books according to each of these criteria:
- (F) Character: Surface Detail and Seven Surrenders (9)
- (F) World: Terra Ignota II, III and the 8th, 9th and 10th entries in the Culture series (9.5)
- (F) Events: Terra Ignota (full series) and Surface Detail (8.5)
- (F) Narration: The Hydrogen Sonata and Where the Crawdads Sing (9)
- (F) Authorial intent: The Deep and Where the Crawdads Sing (8.5)
- (NF) Authorial intent: Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity (9)
- (NF) Style: a six-way tie (all 8.5s)
- (NF) Rhetoric: Seeing That Frees (9.5)
- (NF) Density: Theory of the Earth, Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity and The Matter with Things Vol. 1 (9.5)
- (NF) Salience: Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity (9.5)
As you can see, there’s some recurrence. So there won’t be too many surprises when I rank the top fiction and non-fiction reads of 2022 for me.
The top fiction reads, rated out of 50:
- The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture X) (43)
- Surface Detail (Culture IX) (43)
- Seven Surrenders (Terra Ignota II) (43)
- Where the Crawdads Sings (42.5)
- Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota I) (42.5)
- Matter (Culture VIII) (42.5)
- Perhaps the Stars (Terra Ignota IV) (42)
- My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels 1) (40.5)
- Chronicles of the Black Company (Black Company 1-4) (40)
- Harbinger of the Storm (Obsidian and Blood II) (39.5)
- Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian and Blood I) (39.5)
The top non-fiction reads, rated out of 50:
- Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity (45)
- Theory of the Earth (44.5)
- The Matter with Things Vol. 1 (44.5)
- Seeing That Frees (43.5)
- Understanding Comics (42.5)
- Working (41)
- The Figure of the Migrant (41)
- Theory of the Image (40.5)
- Ideas That Created the Future (40)
- Product Management in Practice (2nd Ed.) (40)
- Theory of the Border (40)
- The Living Mountain (Grampian Quartet 4) (40)
- Theory of the Object (40)
Works that stand out to me as I scan the full list—which I’ll classify as “honourable mentions”—include:
- Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: The Complete Interviews
- Embodied Cognition (2nd Ed.)
- Mathematics as Sign
- Kalpa Imperial (Trans. by Ursula K. Le Guin)
- The Principles of Product Development Flow
What’s made high volume reading possible is highlighted by the Gantt chart above: continuous, parallel consumption. Which isn’t exactly a new thing for me.
Historically—at least, from my early twenties onwards—I’ve always read multiple books at a time, for both fiction and non-fiction. I’m a somewhat moody reader and reading multiple texts at any one time simply raised the probability that there’ll be something I’m interested in continuing at any one time.
In the last couple of years, however, I’ve begun to more explicitly manage this process using “tracks”.
For 2022’s fiction reads, this meant queueing up and reading:
- One sci-fi work
- One work of fantasy
- One work considered classic/seminal or released recently
These are guidelines, and there has been some slippage and crossover between them at times. Yet as a whole it’s worked fantastically well as an attentional brace.
The additional constraint on the fiction side for most of 2022 was the focus on reading female authors exclusively—a constraint which held until I caved and dug in to the first round of Glen Cook’s Black Company series. Also of note: my fiction reads for 2022 were all ebooks.
On the non-fiction side for 2022—and in dead-tree format—I followed three tracks: motion, computing and intelligence. I self-defined some context for them earlier in the year:
- Motion: the study of motion as an abstract phenomena (flows, folds and fields) and as an applied concept (flows, folds and fields in different domains)
- Computing: the study of computing across the entire range of the technological stack, from the boring edge to the bleeding edge and from established paradigms to alternative, adjacent possible, truncated ones
- Intelligence: the study of how one—a person, an animal, an entity, a system, agents, sub-agents, or super-agents—situates themselves in the world, constructs realities, makes decisions and embodies actions
This left me a lot of wiggle room when it came to choosing what to read, which is, I think, reflected in the record of actual consumption for the year.
Moving into 2023, the non-fiction tracks consumed via dead-tree books is remaining the same. However, there’s been a big shift on the fiction front.
In 2022, I kept mostly to the fantasy plus sci-fi plus contemporary/classic trichotomy and enjoyed the female-authors-only constraint. For 2023, I wanted to add another interesting constraint into the mix somewhere. The result? After realising that I had read exactly zero graphic novels or comics, I decided to switch exclusively to them.
I started my “sequential art” journey with the seminal Understanding Comics before soliciting some recommendations from various people and places. The aim is to preserve the three fiction tracks above but it’s going to take me a little time to work out how to quickly parse, queue and select appropriate reads.
Right now, I’ve read two series that I picked up at a local book fair—Middlewest and The Midas Flesh—and I’ve started Watchmen, The Complete Persepolis (I know; not fiction) and Maus. In the backlog are another thirty-odd recommendations, all of which should be sufficient enough to launch me deep into the domain of comics and graphic novels and, hopefully, enable me to navigate to some more diverse works, too.
Overall, 2022 was a fantastic year for reading, in both outcome and process. Which seems appropriate. If, for some reason, I were forced to pick a single activity as a stand-in label for me as a whole person, “reader” would be the ideal candidate. Many of the good things—the best things—in my life have a foundation in this seemingly banal activity. And I don’t think I’m alone in this; there’s a reason that The Velocity of Being exists.
A man goes into the woods
The big event of 2022, writing-wise, was the release of Riven. This is my fourth self-published book, and the shortest (the other three being a collection of early blog posts, a novel about an alternative education and the culture wars, and a multi-genre volume of short stories).
The status of “big event”, of course, refers to its personal significance and not it’s commercial success. I’ve done my usual post-project review and made available the selected resources that influenced the project.
There’s more I could say now there’s a little more distance between me and the project. But I realise this is already perhaps approaching over-indulgence. I’ll just reproduce the still relevant answer to a question from the PPR: “What did I learn?”
Several minor things. I’ll list four:
- Both technical and creative projects take longer, individually and collectively, when I pursue them in parallel (as opposed to sequentially).
- I enjoy the production of fiction—research/ideation, outlining, drafting, editing—more than I do the marketing (which is non-existent for this project) and the shipping.
- Finishing a project provides a significant, durable gain in energy that can be used to catalyse efforts in other directions and domains.
- Writing for people I care about and/or know is the most rewarding part of this entire process.
The major thing I learned as a result of this project concerns my own abilities. I’m fairly certain that I could go on producing small, self-contained works of fiction for a small audience indefinitely. Nothing about this project, from conception through execution and to release, presented a real block. I was not really, at any point, confounded.
As I’m not content to plateau this is a problem, and there’s two angles to it: imagination and nerve.
- Imagination: facilitating the emergence of world and event complexity
- Nerve: facilitating the emergence of character complexity
I think I displayed a decent level of imagination and nerve with Barker. Ss and Riven, with their harshly constrained scopes and deliberately shortened project timescales, meant that I couldn’t pursue bolder, more imaginative instances of the stories I was working on. That’ll have to change for my next creative project. If it doesn’t, there’s a risk I’ll get bored and be personally disengaged, and produce something that even the people who enjoy my fiction don’t like.
In 2022, I managed to post twenty-one times to my blog, Swell and Cut. My favourites:
- A roadmap for catalysts
- Reward bad ideas
- May the mirror decide
- Useful fictions
- Noise alliance
The common thing between these posts is, I think, the need to post them in the first place. It was easier, in terms of cognitive load, to produce these posts than it was to continually carry around the insight motivating them and the intent to produce them.
This itself—this subtle, unending intent and sense of insight—is a strong signal that I am in a good place. When I’m content, attentive and energetic, the desire to produce is always lurking.
The Magnificent Seven
Imagine a spectrum with consumption on one end and production on the other; curation is a practice that falls somewhere in the middle, embodying elements of the compositional eye and creativity of production alongside the collection and ingestion of consumption. This is why my weekly newsletter of curated artefacts, The Magnificent Seven, still counts as writing to me.
The provider of the email itself is now Buttondown (which is great and highly recommended) and it’s been going for over two years—at the time of writing I’m at issue number 130-something. That means I’m at or over a thousand-odd links to various things found in various places.
There’s no plans to radically alter Mag7, or to discontinue it. It’s comparatively low effort to produce and yields continually compounding benefits. As I wrote in the post about attentional braces:
“The aim is to guide my attention—and thus my thoughts, and thus my actions and decisions, and thus my outcomes—towards more fertile, unexplored, non-normal territories.
It feels like this ploy has worked. In arbitrary exercises of thought, it feels like I have a wider band of perspectives to draw on, as well as a deeper bag of initial references with which to inspire further explorations. I’m also, as a result of the attentional bracing, more aware of what I’m not paying attention to. What I’m ignoring, avoiding or otherwise blind to; how much of a crackpot I could be.”
Like a journalist
There’s a less visible aspect of my writing practice, too. My day job involves a lot of writing—specifically, it involves comprehending the complexities of B2B software and distilling the wide array of capabilities and positioning down into accessible, consistent terms.
I recall an episode—I’ve no idea which one—of the Tim Ferriss Show where he asked about overcoming writer’s block. He contextualised the question by referencing the consistent absence of writer’s block amongst journalists. The job of a journalist is, amongst other things, to write, and it is the sheer accumulation of volume that, I think, annihilates “writer’s block” as an impediment—even as an entire concept. In addition to the accumulation of sheer volume, I also operate under an alternative paradigm which considers “creative” as the base state of humanity.
In 2022, it become apparent that having near-zero friction when it comes to writing—which is, after all, a proxy for thought—is an unreasonable advantage. Especially in a domain like product management where communication is so critical.
Experience and technological change
2022 was, I think, a good writing year. Writing holds immense enjoyment for me as a process. There is nothing quite like it, and my relationship to writing as a practice is continuing to deepen.
2022 was also a year in which many technological changes came about. It’s not just the production of text that is proclaimed to be “under threat”—images, video, animation, music; human culture at large is endangered by the machines!
The real story of technology’s impact on human culture is, of course, a little more nuanced than that. And it’s been charted in greater depth, with more rigourous detail, and with vaster imagination and nerve and care by other people. But what about its impact on me and my writing? Tl;dr: there’s nothing to worry about.
My stance regarding these things is simple: these technologies are incredibly generative—centaurs, not butlers as the phrase goes. They are amplifiers of creativity, not stranglers.
In fact, if one narrows the focus exclusively to writing—meaning, the sequential creation of words that yoke together to convey a meaning—then the future looks bleak. It will, as a practice, become moot (except for the artisans, of whom I will likely still remain to some extent). But if one expands the focus and comprehends writing as a mere subset of production, then the game becomes magnitudes more exciting.
A method, research and indefiniteness
In the coming year I do not anticipate producing a great number of blog posts for Swell and Cut. If I do produce any, however, I think I will explicitly adopt a method based on the 1Q84 excerpt that gave the blog its name:
“Once he had filled out this first block of text, Tengo’s next task was to eliminate from his bloated manuscript everything that was not strictly necessary, to remove every extra bit of fat. Subtraction was a far simpler process than addition, and it reduced the volume of his text by some thirty percent. It was a kind of mind game. He would set a certain time period for expanding the text as much as possible, then set a certain time period for reducing the text as much as possible. As he alternated tenaciously between the two processes, the swings between them gradually shrank in size, until the volume of text naturally settled down where it belonged, arriving at a point where it could neither be expanded nor reduced. He excised any hint of ego, shook off all extraneous embellishments, and sent all transparent signs of imposed logic into the back room. Tengo had a gift for such work. He was a born technician, possessing both the intense concentration of a bird sailing through the air in search of prey and the patience of a donkey hauling water, playing always by the rules of the game.”
The method I foresee would involve adding details, qualifications, questions, connections and negations to a concept, and then taking them away, reducing its dimensions down and down and down, cycling through this process several times. This is informally what I’ve done in the past, but in the future I will hold to it more explicitly and with more rigour—if I end up writing S&C posts at all.
The reason I may not end up blogging at all is simple. The grand project I’ve referred to as “researching motion-based approaches to computing and intelligence”—and described only tersely, and only then to a handful of people—is beginning to emerge from its read-only phase. My amassed strands of thought, evidence and possibility are becoming unruly and I have little choice left but to begin actively weaving them, to move from somewhat-passive research to a more interactive, productive stance. I’ve set myself the target of completing a written artefact by the end of the year—a primer, of sorts, perhaps something more formal, like a whitepaper. But that is downstream of some other moving pieces that must be dealt with early in 2023. This written artefact will be the focus for me.
Fiction will be neglected, for the most part. Outside of an unlooked-for commission that’s already in progress, I don’t foresee any activity here in the immediate future. In the near-future (one-plus years), I do.
I have a backlog of stories just waiting, begging, for some attention. Originally envisioned as books, I now doubt whether that is the format in which they will be realised, though. My preference is for books enabled via some voodoo contemporary publishing tool-stack, instead of books in the manner of Riven, Ss, Barker and Disconnected. An approach that facilitates open-ended, indefinite production on my part and is accessed by a reader via an arbitrary, ad hoc, on-demand packaging and distribution mechanism.
2022 was, from a movement perspective, my best year yet. Mostly because I’m as healthy and as fit as I have ever been. More so than when I was coaching movement in a Gym Jones-style facility, training five or six times a week, and doing recovery sessions that consisted of one hundred Turkish getups or a one hour row.
This best-year-most-fit-and-healthy assertion has several causes:
- I have a regular job instead of either three or four random jobs or shift work in a factory—hooray for consistent sleep patterns
- I continue to practice nasal breathing during the day at all times (see above), and I mouth tape whilst sleeping
- I lost ~12kg in the early months of 2022 (97kg to ~85kg) using Carbon, still maintain mid-80s, and practiced time-restricted eating for a high percentage of days
- I started indoor climbing and my general preference for being outside/doing activities over training inside developed further
- Training sessions were mostly built on the Simple and Sinister model and prioritised hinges, carries, single-leg work and continual motion instead of discrete sets
- In and around movement sessions and activities I leaned into Katy Bowman’s movement-as-life approachand spritzed Original Strength moves throughout my days
I even begun to break my “1 Sessions” (the counterpart to the things done in the other twenty-three hours of the day) down into categories and try to shift myself towards a normative setup. The categories of sessions I came up with were:
- Simple and Sinister: numerous variations, such as the test protocol or a leisurely every-minute-on-the-minute structure
- Tempo-focused: harmonising (e.g. dance-like coordinations, partner work) or disruptive (e.g. grappling, striking practice)
- Natural: varied climbs, cycles, swims, weighted carries, runs and mixed MovNat explorations
- Stimulating: structured, low intensity, continuous sessions designed to promote recovery and looseness
With a buffet of these sessions to pick from I set myself the aim of doing the following each week:
- Three natural sessions (e.g. one climb, one long cycle, one one-mile weighted walk)
- Two Simple and Sinister sessions (e.g. the test protocol and the traditional 100+10 session)
- One tempo session (e.g. jump rope progressions and “graceful” ground movements)
- One stimulating session (e.g. a hinge-push-squat-pull quad-set followed by two of either TGUs, carries or crawling variations)
I didn’t manage that consistently, yet the intent was true and sincere.
Generally, the above approach is akin to that described in this Quarantine Fitness article. Interestingly, it’s distinct from what I would have advocated as my perfect training structure ten years ago. A younger me would have been content—ecstatic even—with five or six gym-based sessions. Now, that seems awful. Now, evaluating what an ideal week looks like in terms of explicit sessions, I’d probably go for something like this:
- Three Brazilian jiu-jitsu sessions
- Two climbing sessions
- Two Simple and Sinister sessions
- One Super Simple Strength session
- Extras: a cycle or a swim
- Unmentioned: movement snacks, dog walks, other movement-as-life habits
Alas, Brazilian jiu-jitsu remains off the cards given the spikes in general societal sickliness (and given the logistical inconvenience it would currently involve for me). But the focus remains the same. And the three points of that focus have started to explicitly cohere: embodiment, longevity and utility.
Embodiment, longevity and utility
Movement is an experiential thing, and most of its practitioners either can’t or won’t lean heavily on the written word to communicate their insights. This article on embodied exercise comes as close as I’ve seen to providing an accessible summary of what I consider to be one of the biggest components of the “right” approach to movement.
“Embodied exercise is moving your body while paying attention to everything you experience. Move and feel it. Cultivate presence to experience whatever emerges within. Your breathing, muscle contraction, heart rate, adrenaline, fatigue, and yes even joy.
Taking an embodied approach unlocks intrinsic motivation because it connects you to the actual experience of exercise within your body. This unlocks deep intrigue and satisfaction. Curiosity and enjoyment occur during the exercise itself not when you have completed it or when you’ve achieved an external goal.
You shift from the satisfaction of completing a workout to satisfaction of doinga workout. Instead of grinding through months of painful or unsatisfying exercise with blind faith, you can intentionally cultivate this approach from day one.”
Another component that’s come increasingly into focus is the emphasis on longevity. Dan John has preached this dogma—and practiced it himself—for as long as I’ve been reading his work. So have a handful of others. But I have a more qualitative understanding of its importance now.
After starting indoor climbing I found myself paying attention to two opposed types of climbers. The first group is the kids, the youths. The young things scaling walls with an astonishing sense of ease and audacity and exuberant and rough youthful skill. The second group was forty-fifty-sixty year old grey beards/ponytails, all cool, composed, content and absolutely capable.
The clock doesn’t roll back, so I’ll never recreate that youthful exuberance to the same extent, but I most definitely can and have explicitly decided to try and embody that more mature capacity as far into the closing stretches of my life as possible.
The final cohering focus—after embodiment and longevity—is utility. There hasn’t been an episode in 2022 that has made this focus particularly relevant for me. Instead, I’ve increasingly found myself reflecting on one of the MovNat tenets: “Be strong to be helpful.”
A couple years ago, our family’s Labrador passed away. He lived his final years minus a front leg and gradually succumbed to arthritis. There came a day where he couldn’t get up and leave his bed. The decision was made to euthanise the goodest boy. Being a Labrador—and despite missing a leg—he weighed in at close to forty kilos. This made getting him into the car and into the vets a real, practical problem. Fortunately, I was able to lift him from the ground and carry him to the car and get him inside once we arrived at the vets.
I will always remember the surprise and joy he displayed at being borne totally in someone’s arm, like he were a puppy again. And I will always be grateful for the privilege of bearing him, of having him rest in my arms during those precious, final moments, of carrying him to his death when he himself could no longer walk.
Episodes like these are why strength matters, why movement matters.
My notion of “play” has, in 2022, become increasingly entangled with what I originally called “stack entry”—the quest to assay various elements of the technological stack, from the boring edge to the bleeding edge and through the lumpy middle.
This exploration was driven first by professional necessity, but now mostly via the esoteric research project mentioned above (“motion-based approaches to computing and intelligence”).
The initial forays into applied data science with Python were led by my product management work—mostly, I was interested in:
- Predicting the likelihood of a user exhibiting a business-critical behaviour
- Using clustering techniques to inform product development priorities and decisions
That was in early 2022. By 2022’s end I found myself pulled down the stack and towards the level of embedded systems, to the points at which the analogue becomes digital. This is where i think the secret sauce of the research project referenced above is going to be found. So, with some assistance from a friend, I ended up poking around with C/C++ in PlatformIO and working out how to blink and fade a FeatherS3.
Like the data science explorations earlier in 2022, this tinkering has stalled out pending the completion of a couple time-sensitive initiatives and commitments. But unlike the data science stuff, I foresee this activity being re-upped and folded into an integrated set of activity that includes:
- Reading and research (see Reading tracks)
- Tinkering and building things (see below)
- Writing / synthesis based on the above (see A method, research and indefiniteness)
Security, graphs, adoption and augmentation
Sticking with the theme of “play” and adjacent to the data science and embedded systems engagement, I found myself interested in a few other technological areas.
I’ve ended up listening to nearly all of the Darknet Diaries back catalogue. I’ve previously worked in physical security, mostly as part of response teams at various events. There were the occasional, more tellable episodes—quelling brawls, re-sweeping closed areas because of suspicions of sexual assault, tracking drug dealers—but the majority of the work was either welfare cases or simply being present, paying attention and communicating what one saw. Those experiences nurtured a disposition already inclined to suspicion and general heightened awareness, especially in crowded environments.
Technologically, this disposition manifested itself via an interest in information security. I recall effing around with TrueCrypt as a teen. As an adult—perhaps three or four years ago—I remember scrawling a master string for a password manager on a scrap of paper and hiding it ingeniously in one of many books within my study. Naturally, I forgot which book held the paper and never found it again—even when we moved and I checked every book for it.
Now, working in tech, this disposition can begin to really run. On the personal side: cue obsessive password management, 2FA everywhere, strategically secured physical keys, a migration away from the big GOOG to Proton, Tailscaling, email aliasing etc. etc.. Professionally: cue dialogues, actions and outcomes informed by tangible concerns for privacy, security etc. etc.. It’s a lot of fun (even though I recognise it is, to some extent, a LARP).
The perpetuation of The Magnificent Seven has meant that I’ve amassed a significant library of links to different artefacts. It also means that I need to maintain and consistently feed several distinct link queues, evaluate and annotate them, and prep them for distribution to newsletter subscribers. I began thinking about how to productise around these jobs-to-be-done. Again, this didn’t see much progress for a few reasons. However, it did end up seeding a wider focus on graph minds and a collective’s ability to think together.
My own newsletter is a single player game involving knowledge capture, triage, consumption, annotation, distribution and reference. Groups like the Yak Collective—not to mention businesses, public orgs etc.—engage in similar processes, albeit multiplayer versions. Interestingly, such groups also have a problem related to but beyond the corralling of inputs and outputs—surfacing in-group/institutionalised knowledge and contexts to outsiders or newcomers. My suspicion is that the thing that solves the collective-knowledge-inputs-to-outputs issue will also make institutionalised collective intelligence and dynamic contexts more accessible to the un-immersed.
Less an area and more a theme, this began to interest me because I spend a lot of time flitting between enterprise software in a professional context and emergent technological areas personally.
Most have heard the Gibson sound-byte concerning the presence and uneven distribution of the future. It points to a quirk in technology adoption lifecycles; their non-normality. More generally, this uneven adoption of technological futures is considered constant. Fine so far. But what about the inverse of adoption? What about technological abandonment?
Listening to the Acquired podcast and hearing about absurd migrations from old technologies to newer ones—such as Amazon’s multi-year drive to bring Oracle services in-house—I began to wonder. Is the rate of technological adoption above or below the rate of technological abandonment? Yet another suspicion: I think new technology is diffusing into civilisational circulation faster than it is being expelled and retired, especially in the arena of enterprises. What this means—if true—is that there’s a continually expanding space that will require a pool of expertise, services and products solely orientated around moving organisations from older technologies to their newer incarnations.
The new wave of AI-focused tooling is set to rework a lot of my key activities and influence the outcomes I aim for. This is good, actually. But one area I think this is of particular interest is in the building of things. Specifically, an amateur’s ability to build, produce and create with technology.
Take my interest in embedded systems. Entry-level LED blinks and fades can be accomplished through the usual means—correspondence and interaction with colleagues, peers, and friends who know what they’re doing, traditional online and offline resources etc.. But more complicated things can now be augmented.
If the priority is productivity, achieving a specific outcome, then tools like Copilot make it possible to speedrun building activities and get to the “done” state (obviously, risks are entailed here). As do the less fancy wealth of no/low-code tools becoming available.
If the priority is learning, then tactics like rubber duck debugging are transformed from reactive, problem-solving activities into the kernels of learning itself. Consider the abstract from this paper, which advocates for centralising augmenting technologies instead of eschewing them:
“Chatbots are able to produce high-quality, sophisticated text in natural language. The authors of this paper believe that AI can be used to overcome three barriers to learning in the classroom: improving transfer, breaking the illusion of explanatory depth, and training students to critically evaluate explanations. The paper provides background information and techniques on how AI can be used to overcome these barriers and includes prompts and assignments that teachers can incorporate into their teaching. The goal is to help teachers use the capabilities and drawbacks of AI to improve learning.”
Technological augmentation can help us achieve outcomes more easily and more reliably. The problem is that they invalidate the proxies we have typically relied on as indicators or predictors of our desired outcomes. How we respond to that at a societal level is telling; individually, I think it best to lean into and explore these capabilities whilst attempting to remain aware of their higher order effects.
And this doesn’t displace or make irrelevant traditional forms of learning and interaction. Instead it distills them to their highest value form. Instead of getting a friend to field a super basic question, I can get the answer easily elsewhere and instead discuss more complex, human questions and issues with them.
Playspaces and endgames
Enough tech. Let’s focus on “play” as a concept.
In recent years I’ve described how play has begun to seep into every domain of my life. For example, in last year’s Status of the wholes I wrote:
“In this last year, play has noticeably permeated even more aspects of my life. I’ve felt the play inherent in the early stages of my contemplative practice. The year’s reading has been influenced by a desire to explore and ask open-ended questions. The writing I’ve done in all domains has been tinged with pleasure at the process and deepening excavations. Even my movement has taken on a more playful character.
One element of play I’ve begun to comprehend more fully is the lack of attachment to specific outcomes. Not the absence of desired outcomes or goals overall, just a definite lessening in their importance.
It’s known that the score takes care of itself when the right processes are in place. I think I’ve realised that play can imbue every process with its essence without counteracting any existing sincerity, seriousness, rigour or determination.”
I think it’s fair to say that, in 2022, play has completed its takeover. In any area I care to mention, there’s a definite sense of and an orientation towards play—infinite play, an intent to keep the game alive and make decisions that increase its interestingness.
This has led me to think that life-as-lived doesn’t really have an endgame. Biologically, sure, death causes play to stop. But life-as-lived—up to one’s final moment—isn’t necessarily experienced as an endgame with an immutable, eternal outcome. That is not to say that the stakes cannot be high, that meaning is void, nor that suffering is absent or even diminished. It’s just to say that life is like a continuous stream of evolving and overlapping playspaces.
Our task is to keep playing.
The missing quadrant
Play is a multi-faceted activity. Reading about Protocol Labs Research turned me onto Pasteur’s quadrant. This is taken from a 2×2 which shows that “scientific research can be classified by whether it advances human knowledge by seeking a fundamental understanding of nature, or whether it is primarily motivated by the need to solve immediate problems.” It yields three classes of research:
- Pure basic research (does quest for fundamental understanding; doesn’t consider use)
- Use-inspired basic research (does quest for fundamental understanding; does consider use:)
- Pure applied research (doesn’t quest for fundamental understanding; does consider use)
Conspicuously, there’s a missing quadrant. A class of research that doesn’t consider use and doesn’t quest for fundamental understanding. Care to guess what this mysterious missing quadrant is? What this serious and absent class of research involves? Yes. You guessed it. Fuck around and find out.
In 2021’s entry, I wrote:
“When I ask myself, “Would I prefer to do an arbitrary activity with others or an arbitrary activity by myself?”, my default response is to favour my own company the majority of the time. I don’t feel this needs to change, nor am I endeavouring to override that response. But when I think of the ephemeral nature of life—of how rapidly its flickering flame can be snuffed—I realise that my tendency towards keeping my own company still needs to be adjusted downwards. That’s the goal for the coming year, really; speak with others more.”
It’s generally accepted that within the domain of product management communication is critical. But it’s true of life writ large, too.
In 2022, I turned the corner and (finally!) begun a systematic, significant effort to deepen the relationships that add so much to my life. I didn’t quite build out a dedicated stay-in-touch system—like this or this—but I did maintain a greater awareness of recent and less recent interactions, and act on that novel awareness.
Of course, the focal point for the effort to be more communicative and social was targeted at family and closer friends. But it also manifested as a deliberate decision to be more of an open node online.
This is why I migrated to and continue to use Farcaster in the wake of the Twitter debacle. This is why I increased my rate of engagement within the Yak Collective, and became temporary benevolent dictator for YakCon, a week long, interactive tinkering session. This is why I joined a handful of other communities—some related to product management and some not. This is why I’ve been more easygoing when it comes to the sending and reception of DMs, of email correspondence and quick notes, of recurring chats with known and lesser known entities.
In all cases, the impact has been unfailingly positive. And the trajectory towards a greater state of openness will continue.
When I began this entry, 2022 seemed like a year of mild activity and subtle shifts. Reaching the end of this sprawling, self-indulgent review-roundup I realise that this perception is both right and wrong.
It’s wrong because as I worked through each of the sections above I accumulated evidence that, actually, a lot got done. My activity amounted to more than “mild”. But this perception is also right: despite the volume and scope, all the above feel smaller in their individual totality than the happenings of recent years.
What’s happened in 2022 is, I think, akin to some form of Theseus dynamic. Small actions, subtle shifts, a few forward steps, a few backward ones, a couple undescribed big moments; these have altered me slowly and, without drama, reconfigured me from bow to stern.