In this year’s annual review I will attempt to be succinct. By “succinct” I mean closer to the the ~4,000 word annual review of 2019 than the ~10,000 word annual review of 2020. A large part of this succinctness will be achieved by omitting answers to the seven questions from last year, and not posing any for the coming year. But still: note the word “attempt”…
Anywho. 2021. The second pandemic-blighted year of my lifetime; a year that I was fortunate enough to spend almost entirely at home with both our little woofs whilst completing my first full year for a startup. A year in which the wholesome bonds established in previous years have become even more wholesome and ever more intertwined with the fundamental rhythms and reality of my lived experience.
For clarity: those “wholesome bonds” are core activities to which I am deeply and indefinitely committed. Here they are, listed and expressed as verbs: breathe, read, write, move, play, speak. Daily, they are things I attempt to devote time, energy and attention to. They also form the skeleton of these annual reviews, as you’ll now see.
There’s nothing much to report on here from the first ten months of 2021. Yes, I have and intend to stick with mouth taping overnight and nasal breathing as much as possible throughout every day and activity. But there was no contemplative practice—either single- or many-pointed in nature. The last two months, however, contained a small yet significant change.
After meeting my colleagues IRL for the first time (and only time, thus far) I was left with a free evening in Oxford. I wandered around Christchurch meadow and around the city centre. Then, after the sun had slunk away, I sought out a bar. In said bar, I sat all evening, drinking red wine and alternating between passages of Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart Archives. I’ve read both before and wanted something familiar to occupy myself with.
In the latter book, Venkat mentioned the importance of evaluating and taking small bets; experiments with strictly bounded downside and disproportionately large (or unbounded) potential upside. I think it was a throwaway comment—as opposed to the central point of one of the essays/tweetstorms/newsletters—but it got me wondering: what teeny tiny bets could I take in the coming months and year? The first one that came to mind concerned contemplation.
Essentially, I thought it would be an incredibly safe bet that ten minutes a day of deliberate contemplative practice would have a substantial impact on my psychology and cognition. An impact that would be tangible in terms of clarity, stability, the ability to focus, the quality and quantity of questions I could ask of myself and of others, my general quality of life. An impact that would also be intangible in many other areas.
I didn’t act on the bet immediately. I think it was a month or so later, rather arbitrarily, that I decided to run with it. And I’m still running with it today.
In keeping with the original terms of the bet, I’m allocating myself ten minutes of contemplative practice a day. Ideally as soon as I’ve woken up and fed the dogs. I set a timer, perform three rounds of Wim Hof breathing, then use a box breathing pattern for the remaining minutes.
That’s it. I’m not worrying about anything more advanced, or anything longer. I remember Ray Bradbury writing in Zen in the Art of Writing that quantity leads to quality. Phrased another way: consistency and adherence is a prerequisite for exploration and advancement.
I see Nick Cammarata on Twitter advocating for learning to access the jhanas. I understand there are layers upon layers of contemplative practice to examine. But I’m constraining myself to something simple and easy. I had no real ambitions regarding “breathe” last year. This coming year I have only a minor ambition: ten minutes of contemplation a day, for a year.
This year was a good year for the book. I’ve had a full year of using my reading sheet, however I only started logging start and finish dates in April. Start and finish dates are distinct from the “logged” date I usually capture, and I’ve sometimes read books a while after I’ve logged them. Thus, the below will be based on my reading from April to this year’s end. I suspect I’m missing ten or so books but I’m too lazy to decipher which ones. So let’s start with the kinda incomplete summary statistics for 2021…
- 38 books started
- 5 books currently being read (Being and Motion, Ideas That Created the Future, Matter, The Siren Depths, Where the Crawdad Sings)
- 1 book properly quit (The Privatized State)
- 1 book paused (second volume of The Complete History of Middle Earth)
- 20 ebooks, 5 hardcovers, 13 paperbacks
- 22 fiction, 16 non-fiction
- Fantasy was the most popular genre; computing the most popular subject/theme
- 25 authors total; Ian C. Esslemont (his Malazan novels) the most frequent
- 20 male authors, 5 female authors
Now, let’s look at ratings. To recap, I rate fiction according to five criteria (authorial intent, character, world, events, narration) and non-fiction according to authorial intent and four different criteria (style, rhetoric, density, salience). A brief explainer of the ratings I use can be found in last year’s review. For now, here’s the top book according to each of those individual criteria:
- Fiction – authorial intent: The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson
- Fiction – character: The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson
- Fiction – world: tied between The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson, Iain Banks’ Look to Windward, and three of Esslemont’s Malazan novels
- Fiction – events: tied between The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson and The Stand by Stephen King
- Fiction – narration: The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson
- Non-fiction – authorial intent: Being and Motion by Thomas Nail
- Non-fiction – style: tied between Nail’s Being and Motion, Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass, Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver, and Volker Ullrich’s Eight Days in May
- Non-fiction – rhetoric: The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes
- Non-fiction – density: Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver
- Non-fiction – salience: tied between Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver, Nail’s Being and Motion, and Mark Burgess’ Smart Spacetime and his two volume A Treatise on Systems
Those are the top-rated books by individual criteria. I expect most of these will reappear in the top ten rated books overall, which are as follows:
- 46/50: The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson
- 44/50: Being and Motion by Thomas Nail
- 43.5/50: Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver
- 43.5/50: Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont
- 43/50: Assail by Ian C. Esslemont
- 43/50: Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont
- 42.5/50: Smart Spacetime by Mark Burgess
- 42.5/50: The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes
- 42.5/50: Look to Windward by Iain Banks
- 42.5/50: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont
If you haven’t noticed by now I’m a Malazan nut. Erikson’s latest and Esslemont’s own novels—he co-created the Malazan world—were both exquisite. Iain Bank’s Culture series also continues to be sublime, and I’m excited to read the remainder of the series.
On the non-fiction front, two particular concepts spanning a few books stood out. Mark Burgess’ texts introduced me to Promise Theory; Thomas Nail’s Being and Motion introduced me to the idea that motion is truly primary. My intention is to re-read Being and Motion and explore Nail’s other texts before attempting to unite Nail’s ontology of motion with Burgess’ promise theory. I have some ideas about how to do this but I don’t want to state them publicly yet.
This dual focus on motion and promise theory has affected my attentional divide amongst fiction and non-fiction books. It’s now slightly different from last year. I’m back to reading one sci-fi, one fantasy and one contemporary/classic text simultaneously; that much is the same. However, my attention is now split between exploring Nail’s work on motion further—see Theory of the Object, Theory of the Earth, Theory of the Image—and pursuing my interest in computing.
Burgess’ promise theory was developed to more effectively model hybrid human-machine information systems. It takes cues from the worlds of computing and information technology, as well as the corpus of physics. I’m an expert in neither, so I have some work to do prior to colliding promise theory with the philosophy of motion.
Right now this looks like reading culturally important computing texts—see Ideas That Created the Future, the Turing Lectures—and getting to grips with some fundamental ideas—see Cormen’s Introduction to Algorithms and Sebesta’s Concepts of Programming Languages.
Adjacent to reading: I’m still failing at synthesising Kindle highlights and dead-tree marginalia into an established, repeatable process that yields a textual artefact. It seems I’m not destined to churn that kind of content out. Ah well.
In last year’s review, I stated that I’d like to read The Complete History of Middle Earth—all twelve volumes. I completed five and paused. Those five books did, however, give me a new appreciation for deep creative quests, and further enhanced my love of Tolkien’s work.
This coming year, my main objective is to continue to read fiction spanning sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary and classic works, and to further explore motion and promises. Reviewing my summary statistics, however, I will also devote more effort to reading a wider array of authors. Specifically, female over male authors, and authors from more diverse backgrounds and ethnic minorities.
This past year has been a bust for public writing; only seven posts in total, the most notable—to me—being Becoming an organism. Analogue reality has also come back into focus because of the recent contemplative initiative described above. Although, I have maintained The Magnificent Seven for a full year—curation is kinda like writing, okay!—and wrote a lot professionally.
Concerning the latter: whilst writing about B2B software products is the core output of my professional work, it has also become an increasingly important way for me to evaluate and explore ideas associated with some of the product work I do, too.
With my initial entry into the technological stack complete, however, I’ve also turned my attention to a creative project. Specifically, a new batch of short stories that began as a novella concept. I’m hoping to emulate the production velocity of Ss and I’m giving myself a few months to go from concept to draft to release.
In last year’s review I stated that I was “confident I will finish the novella by year’s end.” That didn’t pan out, and now the novella has been compressed into one of (currently) five short stories centred around a particular theme.
Looking forward to the coming year, I have similar intentions. I’m doubtful that there will be much public writing. I’m certain there will be much professional writing. And, if everything goes to plan, there will actually be an addition to my collection of published works.
This year has been a tough one for movement, but a good one. My space for movement has been confined, as has my time for it. Despite having a commute that can be measured in seconds, equipment at home and a gym less than ten minutes walk away, I’ve still felt like my movement has been squashed in to my life like a coat into an already over-full bag.
I don’t see that changing in the near-future, so I will have to make peace with that fact for now. I’ve still managed a surprising consistency, though.
In the spring, I trained inside on a ridiculous, six foot circular mat in our living room. In the summer months, I trained outside in our garden. In both cases I was mostly relying on variations of the now-familiar Simple and Sinister methodology, lots of walks, and occasional cycles into the surrounding hills.
Moving into autumn and winter, I picked up a gym membership. S&S has remained fundamental to my sessions, but I’ve begun to:
- Work in heavier deadlift, TGU and carry variations
- Experiment with barbell and kettlebell complexes
- Focus on single-leg work
- Ramp up the volume of time spent hanging
- Reacquaint myself with some old friends: Mrs. Ski-Erg and Mr. Rower
It’s been working well. I’ve seen definite increases in strength, work capacity and lean body mass. I suspect this is mostly a result of consistency over time, rather than any revolutionary training insight or structure.
I did conduct a short experiment in the middle of the year, too. I was tired of training every day immediately after work and sought to reclaim some time in the evening. So I tried distributing my training load throughout the day.
The S&S methodology consists of one hundred total swings and ten total get-ups. I set out to hit those numbers during the day. It was manageable and impacted my energy levels quite significantly. However, I found that a key benefit of my end-of-day training was the hard mental recalibration it provided. Dunking your head in a bucket of cold water yields a different experience than dabbing a drop on your cheek every minute. Dedicated training sessions provoked a real psychological reset; distributed loads didn’t. I’m back to end-of-work-day training sessions.
Speaking of work. I’ve found a nice rhythm. I sit down in the morning and I stand in the afternoons. Afternoon standing not only combats any potential fatigue or drop in energy, it also readies me somewhat for my training sessions; my body isn’t as stiff and folded up.
Whether I’m sitting or standing, though, I’ve tried to maintain some form of distributed load throughout the day. I think of it as my five-a-day. I roll a D20 and perform whatever movement I’ve set for that number. Here’s the full list of movements:
- One-handed swings
- Prying squats
- Band pull-aparts
- Naked TGUs
- SL knee-dominant
- Half-kneeling press
- Single-arm rows
- Crawl medley
- PUPP/side plank/tabletop
- Glute bridge medley
- Heartbeats and haloes
- Balance beaming
- Rolling medley
- Shoots/technical stand-ups
- Lateral rocks and stretches
- FM coordinations/OS spine
- Dog and cobra
- Seiza neck rolls
“Naked” TGUs mean unweighted; “prying” squats involve sitting at the base of a squat and driving the knees out with your elbows; a “PUPP” is a push-up-plank-position hold; “heartbeats” involve holding a kettlebell by the horns at chest height and extending the arms out and back; “haloes” involve circling a kettlebell around one’s head; a “rolling medley” is a series of forward, backwards and shoulder rolls; shoots and technical standups look like this and this; “FM” stands for Fighting Monkey and “OS” for this spine mobility sequence; “dog and cobra” refers to the downward-facing dog and cobra yoga poses.
I used the word “tried” above because it’s hard to reliably hit that five-a-day. It’s something I intend to work on, especially because the few times I have accomplished it I’ve felt remarkably better—physically and mentally—during and at the end of the day. That’s hardly surprising. I also don’t want to end up confining movement strictly to one small segment of my waking hours; this structure is one way to avoid that behaviour.
This past year has seen a continuation of the absence of Brazilian jiu-jitsu from my life, too. Whilst most gyms have opened up I’ve still stayed away. I won’t be training BJJ again till the pandemic is over, which could be a considerable amount of time.
Which leaves me with the same problem as last year; my movement is solitary. I’m becoming increasingly familiar with the joy inherent in movement, and also further realising its impact on my quality of life, but there is a ceiling to what I can accomplish when training and moving alone.
I think I mostly accomplished last year’s goal of training on most days. I did not, however, learn to dance. I suspect the shift to a non-solitary movement practice will open up an opportunity to explore rhythm and improvisation in movement. That could simply be a result of consistently training BJJ again, or it could come from learning a new discipline with new people. Regardless, I’m somewhat limited whilst the pandemic persists yet I intend to do what I can, where I am, with what I have. This still turns out to be a lot.
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.
This realisation is something that I’ve tried to carry into every domain of my life. I think it has worked; it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that this year has been a lot of fun. Perhaps the most fun. I intend for the next to be the same.
Although this year has been fun and playful, there have been episodes—outside of, you know, the pandemic—that have reminded me of life’s finiteness and fragility. So while I haven’t got around to learning a foreign language as I stated I’d like to last year, I have spoken and connected with friends and family a little more.
I say “a little” because it’s true. I’m still fundamentally solitary and my efforts to interact with others more deliberately and more frequently haven’t represented a drastic shift in my day-to-day life.
I’ve spoken to friends more often; I’ve spoken to my family more frequently; I’ve continued to lurk in the Yak Collective Discord; I’ve even begun to make time to attend one interintellect salon per month (three thus far!). But it still doesn’t feel like enough.
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.
Survival and Sanity
Much of the world has been ravaged this year and the only real directives have been “survive” and “stay sane”. Many people haven’t survived, through no fault of their own (mostly). And of those that have a great proportion have stayed sane. That alone is remarkable.
Yes, there are larger issues to wrestle with, struggles to endure, and fights to both begin and conclude. The effects of ecological destruction, the continued ascendancy of institutionalised inequality at multiple scales, the combatting of so many societal ills, the necrotic grip on long outdated systemic paradigms—none of these things can be fought effectively by the perished (though their non-being can contribute) or by the non-sane.
So that’s my overarching aim for the coming year: survive, stay sane. Anything beyond that is but a bonus. And I’ll be the first to disregard the above ambitions and commitments if they become too much.
Dan John once said that “success” can be achieved just by showing up, asking questions and not quitting. In the coming year I’ll do everything I can to hit that trio, even if it means abandoning what I’ve told myself I must do; survival and sanity comes first.