Sunday Selection 2021-04-11

Some good news: I got me first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine a few days. I was completely exhausted for a day and then very hungry and thirsty for a couple of days. I take all that to mean that my body is doing work. After over a year of mostly staying at home, it seems like there is now a promise of some semblance of normalcy at the end of the tunnel. It will be another three weeks before I get the second shot and two weeks after that before I can expect the vaccine to reach full effectiveness, so for the next month or so I’ll mostly be doing what I’ve been doing so far. But I am hoping to start easing back to normal after that. Till then, I’ll be continuing to spend more time in front of a screen than I would like to, so I might as well as metabolize it into blog posts.

Free Software: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

If you’re anywhere around the software or information technology, you’ve probably heard that Richard Stallman was recently reinstated to the board of the Free Software Foundation. This has been widely regarded as a bad move, and has caused a number of board members to resign. This article argues that maybe it’s time not to praise free software, but to bury it, an opinion I find myself agreeing with.

The Long Term iPhone 12 Camera Review

With the weather starting to improve, and more people getting vaccinated, I am looking forward to being out and about more often, which means more opportunities to take pictures. Though I’ve always been interesting in photography, I’ve never managed to justify the cost of a good camera, and even when I’ve bought standalone cameras, I’ve not inclined to carry them on a regular basis. So having a very good camera on a device I already have on me has been just right for me.

The Point of Doing Pointless Things

I don’t know if this my type-A personality or something else, but it’s often hard for me to relax. Part of that difficulty is feeling the need to always do the best thing, even if it’s relaxing. For a long time, I would feel bad if even my “time off” activities didn’t produce something, or lead to personal improvement in some way. For better of worse, the last year of sitting at home has changed that. I couldn’t do a lot of my go-to activities like going to museums, concerts, or various talks and lectures. Doing the digital version of those things just felt like spending even more time sitting in the same place. Instead I’ve had to get used to doing things just because I liked them (like reading comic books) or sometimes just doing nothing at all.

What the Buddha Taught

But of course, I can’t escape my type-A-ness all together, so a lot of my non-fiction reading has been about Buddhist philosophy recently. It’s something I’ve encountered in bits and pieces over the last few years, but it’s nice to have a well-written book that clearly explains the key concepts in an orderly fashion (I’m one of those people who prefer learning things from a textbook). While the writing style is a little dated, and does flow awkwardly at times, it does a good job at both explaining key concepts and answering some more technical questions (like what does it mean for free will if there is no self). If you’re interested in Buddhism at all, this is a good place to start.

Sunday Selection 2021-02-28

Ursula K LeGuin on the Legacy of the Tao Te Ching

Ursula K LeGuin is probably one of the foremost intellects of the 20th century (which makes me more than a little ashamed that I haven’t read much of her work). I’ve been reading more about Zen Buddhism, and it’s close cousin Taoism over the last few years, so I’m looking forward to reading this in the near future. This is really more of an interpretation than a translation, but as the excerpts show, it seems to capture the spirit of the original (along with some choice commentary for the modern age).

David Lynch’s Industrious Pandemic

Talking of cultural icons, I did not know much about David Lynch until this piece. I think the only work of his I’ve seen is the 1984 Dune, which this piece calls “pretty unwatchable”. I was drawn to this piece because of the subtitle which talks about Lynch “living a farmer’s life during the pandemic” by keeping himself “engaged with self-prescribed daily routines”. That’s certainly been a luxury that’s out of reach of most of us, but as I noted in my reflections on 2020, it’s not enough to simply exist. We have to live as well, even in tough times, and we must make use of our privileges and luxuries where we have them.

Love Sick: It’s time to Uncouple Care Work from Romantic Love

Talking of pandemics, the past year has certainly shaped a lot of conversations and thoughts about family, community and caring. As someone who’s often depended on friends and acquaintances for help in ways both big and small, this year has made me even more aware of the value of self-sufficiency. At the same time, I do believe that humans aren’t meant to be alone, and we should all work harder to develop bonds of family and community, but it’s much easier said than done, and no, I haven’t figure out how to do it for myself yet.

Sunday Selection 2021-01-03

I’ll be honest, it feels a little strange to write the first of a Selection post for the first time in a new year. I’m tempted to summarize everything that’s been notable from 2020, even though it seems like I barely remember large parts of it, let alone what I read. Moreover people more eloquent than I have summarized what this hell of a year has been like. With all that in mind, here are some things I came across recently that I think will be of interest to you, dear reader.

When This is Over: A 2020 New Year

I’ve read a number of 2020 summaries, and this is by far the one that best captures what I think most of us are feeling for the year we left behind. It summarizes all the tiredness and heartbreak that we’ve been through, the hopes and dreams we have for the new year, and also the nagging doubt at the back of our minds that things won’t magically get better.

As an aside, I started supporting some writers and creators on Patreon last year, and I intend to continue to do so this year. I understand that 2020 has been a very bad year financially for many people, but if you can spare a few dollars a month to support independent creators, please do so. Talking of independent writers, that leads me to…

Is Substack the Media Future We Want?

Newsletters have definitely taken off in 2020. It seems to give writers the independence that blogs once did, while solving the crucial problem of how to get people to pay for interesting writers. I’m subscribed to about half a dozen such newsletters, or varying regularity, and pay for a couple. Of course, as this article tells us, not everything is rainbows and sunshine. A lack of moderation is always a double-edged sword, and even though Substack (and kin) make paying writers easier, it’s hard to say if that will be enough to support the writers losing their livelihoods due to the continuing slow death of journalism. And yes, I’ve thought about offering this blog (or at least a part of it) via newsletter as well.

Just to Be Alive Is Enough

2020 has definitely been a year where if you got to the end of it in one piece, you deserve a pat on the back (even though you may have to give yourself the pat for now). As a recovering Type-A person, it’s hard to accept that survival is enough. As a I noted in the last post, it doesn’t feel good just exist instead of living. However, we can flip that idea around and realize that just being alive gives us a lot to appreciate and enjoy. Something I’m glad I learned over the course of the last year is that we don’t need to wait for particular things to happen to be happy. We can open up to and accept all experiences, and embrace life just as it is.

The Mandalorian Season 2

Season 2 of The Mandalorian is now finished, and the housemates and I finished watching it on Christmas Eve. In many ways, the show feels like a Western set in the Star Wars universe (just as Rogue One was a heist movie set in the Star Wars universe). That doesn’t mean it’s bad though. It doesn’t exactly break narrative ground, but it is very well done, has a wide cast of interesting and relatable characters, and is very enjoyable.

Reflections on 2020

What a year, what a year! 2020 has been a shock to the system, all systems. It goes without saying at this point that it has a been a terrible, rotten, no-good year for most people. A lot of people didn’t make it to the end, and I think very few people made it to the end of the year unscathed. For me, this was going to be a year or traveling, continuing to explore New England and build my social circles in the area, go on dates and maybe find a relationship. None of that happened. Instead of spending a year being outgoing and social, it turned out to be year of turning inwards, and rebuilding my inner life.

To be honest, the last twelve months have been a bit of blur, and making myself sit down and reflect on the past year is making me wonder: what the hell just happened? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is kind of a lot. February 23, would be the last time I wrote outside the apartment: a Sunday Selection post from the excellent Andala Coffee House in Central Square, which I sincerely hope stays afloat. Barely three weeks later, in early March, I started writing a daily log about my social distancing adventures. March turned out to be the most prolific month ever on this blog, all the way back to when I started in 2006 (!!!). I managed to keep this series going until I realized that I was repeating the same day over and over. I suspect, the mind-numbing sameness of the last year has been a large part of why it’s been so taxing.

By the time we got around to April, the days had taken the shape they would retain for the rest of the year. A basic sameness to each day, at least an hour of Zoom calls most days, nowhere to go and nothing much to do. I had made some amount of peace with not being able to do all the things I had wanted this year. Luckily, Massachusetts managed to get the first wave of the virus fairly under control during the summer. Also by this time we had realized that outdoor, sufficiently spaced activities were relatively safe. Summer turned out to be a much-needed reprieve. There were long walks outside, and a good amount of distanced outdoor dining. For a couple of good weeks, I took the mostly empty subway downtown to the Boston Athenaeum, spending lunches sitting around the Boston Commons. It was good to get a break from spending most of the day, everyday, in the same room. This was around the same time that to maintain some semblance of a social life I started playing video games. This was the first time I’d really played since high school and the first time in my life that I played online with and against other people. I even invested in a fancy GPU so that I could do so with better-than-minimal graphics.

In August, my housemates and I moved from our swanky modern apartment to an older house in the suburbs. We have a much larger, somewhat cheaper space, with a backyard, good neighbors and lots of space for the cats. It’s not as nice as the apartment, but it’s definitely the better choice for what looks like almost another year that we’ll be stuck mostly at home. We each have our own workspace, a spare room for plants and exercising, and separate living room, dining room and kitchen. If we’re going to be home all the time, we at least have a number of different spaces to live and move around in.

By the Fall, a lot of the shock of initial pandemic-induced isolation had worn off. I managed to turn some psychological energy into making progress, rather than just existing. Professionally, the Fall has been a good time. I made some progress on my main research projects and joined in on two new projects. I also taught the undergraduate compilers class at Tufts University. It was my first time teaching a class on my own, and though I regret not being able to do it in a proper classroom, it was definitely an enlightening and enriching experience. All of this has been tiring and more than a little stressful, especially in the absence of traditional Fall Break. But on the other hand, it has been good to make progress in some ways, when so much else seems to be on pause.

I’m trying not to look back on this year with rose-tinted glasses. But I’m also recognizing that I’ve had it easier than most. I’ve been lucky to have stable employment that transitioned pretty seamlessly to remote work (I already had a good setup at home, so didn’t need to scramble to buy equipment). My housemates have been wonderful and taken on most of the outside-the-home tasks like grocery shopping. I was lucky to live somewhere that got the virus under control for most of the time we had good weather outside. My parents and most of my extended family have been safe and virus-free. The cats have been generally well-behaved and affectionate (a couple of puking incidents aside). And though I haven’t traveled at all, I have managed to eat quite a few new foods this year (and a lot of interesting cocktails).

All that being said, this has definitely been a year where I have simply existed, instead of lived. At the same time, all the various tribulations have made thrown my personal growth into overdrive. I have learned about what is important to me, what the needs, wants and nice-to-haves in my life are. I have also learned to do without a lot of the things I thought I needed. At the end of the year, I know myself better than when I started, and perhaps for the first time in my life have been able to just sit with my emotions and thoughts and let them be, rather than trying to avoid them or get carried away by them. I also reevaluated some of my relationships (and the lack thereof), my expectations surrounding them, and managed to let go of some things that I have been holding on to far too long. Hopefully this clears some headspace to allow in better things in the future. Of course, none of this would have been possible without a very good therapist and a meditation group that has been meeting remotely all year. As I said at the beginning of this post, I had to turn inwards, and ended up making a fair bit of progress (though not without a good amount of pain and discomfort along the way).

As I’m writing this, the COVID vaccines are rolling out, though slowly and wastefully (in the US at least). But it will probably be many months until I get the vaccine myself and the greater part of the year until we get back to some semblance of normalcy. I am hoping that lessons I’ve learned this year and the growth I’ve done makes it possible to actually live next year, rather than just exist. But that’s a topic for another post.

Sunday Selection 2020-08-30

It is the end of summer, temperatures here in Massachusetts are starting to cool (thankfully) and 2020 continues to be a toxic trash fire of a year (verging on landfill fire, as a friend of mine put it). Chadwick Boseman, star of movies such as Black Panther and 42 passed away on Friday. Black Panther is currently one of my favorite movies, and probably my favorite movie in the Marvel franchise. Boseman’s work has had an indelible positive impact on Black culture and representation and his time was cut entirely too short. So today’s edition is dedicated to him.

Ryan Coogler on Chadwick Boseman

There’s been a massive outpouring of condolences and mourning for Boseman on Twitter, as well as obituaries in places like the New York Times. But I found Ryan Coogler’s remembrance to the most heartfelt and poignant. A couple lines stood out to me: “He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year.” In a lot of ways, that’s the best we can ask for, isn’t?

Life Got Hard Again

Lately I’ve been struggling with the seemingly circular nature of the world. Things get better, and then they get worse, rinse repeat. This seems to happen on both historical and personal time scales. Life gets hard again, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make the most of it, or even find happiness and joy in the ups and downs (which is of course easier said than done). Pair this with Zadie Smith on optimism and despair: “Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

Jeong Kwan, the Philosopher Chef

Last week I noted how the episode of Chef’s Table starring Jeong Kwan was one of my favorites of that show and one that I kept coming back to. In times of instability and difficulty (which seems to be always these days) I like to come back to something that she says towards the end of the episode: “You must not be your own obstacle. You must not be owned by the environment you are in. You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you. You must be able to move freely in and out of your mind. This is being free.” Practice. Practice. Practice.

Chadwick Boseman’s Howard University 2018 Commencement Speech

This has been in my to-watch list forever and I’m a little ashamed that it took his death for me to actually watch. It’s pure gold, and it really drives home not just how good an actor he is, but how good he is at writing, speaking, thinking and observing, and metabolizing the world around him into art that benefits everyone.

Towards the end there’s a bit about purpose: “Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on this planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.” Like Boseman, I hope you take yourself seriously, live your purpose, and get into good trouble.