My top miscellanea of 2020
I’ve spent a lot of this year living in the worlds other people have made for us. The world of our senses is either too boring (the insides of our homes, dinner arriving in cardboard at the front door) or too awful (bodies in refrigerated trucks, forests burning, and police brutality) to enjoy, so I’ve been turning to media more than ever. It’s been mediating my perception of the world, organising the information so I can take it in, or turning it into stories so I can connect with it on some emotional level with my burned out stump of a brain.
The media I think about the most is film, TV, and books, and so I’ll write those up a little later in the month. There’s also a good chance there are some late entries to those categories as I wile away the days around Christmas. Here instead are the podcasts, games, articles from big publications, and weird corners of the internet that have stood out this year.
I listen to podcasts when I can’t ready something but I need to be occupied or distracted. The idealised version of myself runs with no music or podcasts, he just lets his mind focus on the slap of his shoes on the ground and the steady rhythm of his breathing. The real me reaches for stories and news to fill the empty space and to pull himself out of his body so he can ignore the pain of his chest legs and keep running. The same goes for cooking. I really love cooking something new and complicated and sometimes I do actually just sit and cook to the sounds of water bubbling and oil hissing. A lot of the time though, I need something to chatter to me.
Song Exploder & Switched On Pop
There is one more situation podcasts feature in my life, actually. COVID-19, when it has permitted travel at all, has pushed us away from trains across the country and planes to others and towards long car rides. In the safety of our metal and glasses we’ve been able to travel for breaks in Devon and Dorset this year.
Music podcasts are a sweet spot for entertaining a driver doing the long haul. They aren’t a relentless wall of voice, like an audiobook. They’re episodic, and the theme changes up every half hour to forty minutes if you queue them back to back. They’re filled with clips of music from different sources that follow a train of thought so you don’t have to change the track over while you’re driving.
The best two music podcasts I’ve found are Song Exploder and Switched On Pop. The first, Song Exploder has an artist walk us through the writing, recording, and production of one of their songs. The interviewer is entirely edited out of the show so you just have a well guided monologue from the artist and their collaborators and the relevant parts of the song are ingenuously edited and woven around them. A friend of mine who I recommended the show to says he just didn’t get music before he listened to the show. I can’t really fathom that but anyway, now he seeks out new music all the time and listens to albums from front to back and gets loads out of it. It just took being shown what choices go into the music we listen to.
Switched On Pop is a musicology and critical theory podcast that does something I’m a sucker for: analysing pop or “low” culture through a bunch of different critical lenses. One host is a songwriter and the other is an academic musicologist and jazz nerd. Together they deep dive on the cultural or musical topics surrounding a pop song in what turns out like a critical theory tutorial with again, incredible sound editing to support the storytelling.
This American Life
Nothing beats This American Life for storytelling. The show seems to have a pretty irregular publishing schedule and they often air reruns so I haven’t managed to form a habit around it. Instead, I’m reminded to check one of the This American Life episodes in my feed every now and again and whenever I do I end up listening to three or four in a week. They’re the kind of radio story that make you laugh and cry out in public.
This year, for their 25th anniversary, they republished some of their favourite episodes from years gone by. Americans In Paris featuring David Sedaris and 24 Hours at the Golden Apple are both wonderful.
It cannot be escaped, and I don’t listen to The Daily every day because when I used to do so it was part of an unbalanced diet comprising a hosepipe of distressing and overly granular data about the world. Sometimes I come downstairs in the morning and I want that morning breakfast news-y feeling, though, and it’s still The Daily that I reach for.
The recordings they got of a Brooklyn hospital during the first peak of the pandemic in NYC have stayed with me for months.
The Dollop & The History of England Podcast
I found The History of England Podcast and listened to the full back catalog while I was on strong painkillers last year and so I associate the period spanning the Roman withdrawal to The Wars of the Roses with lying in bed in a delirium. David Crowther, the one man bad who runs the show, was off sick with a lengthy illness for a while at the beginning of the year. He’s back now, though, and I’m still sure to check in and listen to what is basically a very well-researched man ramble on about history in an affable and self-effacing tone, recorded from his shed. This podcast is a place I go, and it’s a nice place.
The Dollop is a new one (thanks Hana!). A historian tells a ripping yarn from history to a layman, and they riff liberally over the top of it. The improv-on-info format is a tried and true one, but this podcast really brings something to it and it makes for a great way to pass a couple of hours with stories from history.
The History of England Podcast should really just be listened to in chronological order but this recent one on Elizabeth I’s love life has the honour of ruining the pronunciation of the word marriage for me. The Dollop episode about America’s First Ghost was my intro and it’s a great one.
We bought a Nintendo Switch at the back end of 2019 and it really, really came into its own in 2020. I’ve lost the will with the other consoles for a lack of games that allow local multiplayer and that I can find sufficiently playful. Overall, other than the odd sim game, I think my priorities for games just align with Nintendo now. Also, the form factor for the Switch has been big for us in a year when crying and playing a game in bed because going downstairs is going to too much today… is a relevant user story.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Zelda arrived in our lives just in time for the first lockdown in April. It’s the game we allowed ourselves to sink into completely for hours every day. The world is fleshed out and lush, remarkably so for a handheld console. The RPG elements and mini-games meant this game had the stamina to take the hours and hours we needed to spend in Hyrule instead of the real world this spring. Sometimes you just need to spend some time galloping around in some far-flung corner of the world.
The only let down with Breath of the Wild was what happens at the end. Given the state of the world outside Hyrule, we were really hoping and expecting to be rewarded with a utopic Hyrule without Ganon after the work was done. Instead, you have to linger in the moment just before everything was okay. Apparently, it’s a standard for the Zelda genre.
Animal Crossing was really just another vessel to pour our time into during lockdown. It has the added bonus of providing another digital space to hang out with people in. You can see it as depressing or heartening that we were all willing to play a slow farming and building game this year seemingly with the ultimate aim of hosting our friends and maybe exchanging gifts.
Super Mario Odyssey
As a latecomer to the Nintendo ecosystem, I don’t have fond childhood memories of playing the earlier Mario games on the Nintendo DS or whatever, it’s all new to me. I haven’t internalised the Mario grammar system where orange signifies fireball, where star signifies invincibility, speed, and points.
As far as I’m aware though, the absolute focus on hats in this iteration of the series is new. In this game, everything is a hat and everything has a hat. The hats are sentient, they appear to be a species of their own with their own culture evolving in parallel with koopas and Italian plumbers. When the Bowser-Peach abduction-with-implied-sexual-violence set piece plays out in this game, there’s a parallel abduction of a member of the hat species. A hat-Mario accompanies the player on their elliptical rescue mission.
Super Mario Odyssey was really fun, and my main impression from the whole experience was that I’ve never thought about hats enough.
It’s hard to know what to bother reading online. These articles have all been informative in some way or another. Everything in the world has already been said a million times, especially online, so these articles are the things that found me and told me something in a way that got through.
Ed Yong & Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic
Everybody’s writing about epidemiology all of a sudden. Do you remember last year and all the years preceding where science journalists had a really hard time finding and keeping a job? Well now there are floods and floods of articles about the minutiae of viral load, aerosolised particulates, and respiratory co-factors — and I strongly suspect a good number of those bylines aren’t experts in the field.
Until this year I knew Ed Yong as the author of I Contain Multitudes, a much lauded pop science book about the amazing bacterial fauna of the human body that I picked up and put down in relatively short order. This year though he’s emerged as the pre-eminent scientific voice on the virus. He has been writing outstanding columns on the virus all year, but this one is where he really hit his stride.
Zeynep Tufekci is a not a microbiologist but she is really great cultural critic and observer of society. She has also been remarkably early at drawing attention to two themes in addressing the pandemic: the role of ventilation and non-uniform contagion.
The Third Thing
The pandemic has taken relatively little from me. I’ve kept my job, I’m still living in the same city, my relationships have endured, and I have my health. It has taken away something far less tangible, though. What do trips to the pub after work, a film at the cinema, going out for dinner, visiting some friends in another city and checking out a museum, popping over for tea — what do they all amount to and what have we lost by losing them?
The Third Thing in an essay by the poet Donald Hall about his relationship with his wife and the role in it of the third thing. The third thing is what you talk about, what you enjoy together, the third point on which your gazes meet. This pandemic has brutally trashed so many of my third things, and this essay helped me articulate that.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep
Discovering this history blog (and the rediscovery of blogs generally will become more of a theme soon) was a joy. This guy’s deal is that he reviews the historicity of stuff like Game of Thrones, Assassins Creed, and most completely: The Lord of the Rings. His many part series on the Battle of Helm’s Deep is a deep dive into the minutiae of armour, archers, siege machinery, and something I’d never heard of before called operations. If it wasn’t so straight faced and informative it would just be funny.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep series is what got me into this blog but it has a depth of content with lots coming out all the time. Right now I’m awaiting the next instalment in a series about the depiction of the Dothraki in Game of Thrones.
What Joe Biden can’t bring himself to say
Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the US Presidential Election, which is a good thing that happened this year. Way back in the year there was this profile of Joe Biden that my mum sent me, for the same reason she often sends me things: he’s a stammerer. I’m a stammerer too. When I was a kid it was bad, couldn’t speak barely at all sometimes bad. Nowadays I’ve gotten good at switching out words for other ones and most people barely notice. That is, until I seem to have forgotten a word, which is never really me having forgotten a word. So it goes for Biden too, apparently, except for him it makes him look like a senile old man running for president.
Corners of the internet
I’ve spent more time on blogs this year, and on those crazy personal websites that are more of a thing of the 1990s than the platform-driven internet of today. It’s a conscious decision and unfortunately much of the world of blogs or of this anti-platform counter-culture is full of blog posts and blogging. However, there are some real gems to be found.
Diamond Geezer is the blog of a seemingly anonymous man living in East London and loving it. His methodical coverage of updates to the bus routes go alongside walks through individual wards of the old City of London, and ranked lists of all the parks. As somebody trapped here for most of the year, it’s refreshing to find the words of somebody who seems to find no end to the novelty to be found in this city.
Paul Ford wrote a good introduction to the world of tilde servers, in which he built his own. They’re Linux servers that you can apply to be given a user account for. You SSH in and become part of a little community inside that box. There’s mail, IRC, little ASCII gardens. The little window the outside world gets is the idiosyncratic pages the users in the box can serve at their tilde address:
https://tilde.town/~user. Everything else is contained within. It’s been a fun introduction to the shared box model of unix systems, like I imagine things ran in colleges in the 80s.
There will be more
This is the best 2020’s bric-a-brac, the jumble of media types I haven’t given their own space for whatever reason. Before the end of the year I’m aiming to compile similar round ups for movies, TV, and books.
It has, we know, been a weird year. It’s left an imprint on everything I’ve done and consumed and enjoyed. I wouldn’t have played this many games, wouldn’t have read so much about epidemiology. I certainly wouldn’t have watched so much TV and film on my sofa, but I’ll get into that.