Sunday, January 23 2022

Screamin' at home, and at phones, we all hurtin'
Freakin' ya soul, like the pack, we all herb
Pay me to feel with the funk, we all need ya
Mixin' the feel with the facts, we all hurt
— Isaiah Rashad, All Herb

I like stuff. I decided to recognize the stuff that I believe is the best stuff out of all the stuff last year. I did this in 2020 and I've done it again this year.

This is a list of my favourite music, film, and TV shows from 2021.


Song: slowthai — feel away(feat. James Blake & Mount Kimbie)

I immediately fell in love with this song the first time I heard it.

Slowthai is a new artist for me; he uses a blend of hip-hop with more familiar British (his home country) genres like grime and punk. He experiments with all of these sounds on his 2021 album Tyron, of which feel away is the 2nd last song.

Feel away feels like slowthai's approach to a love song. In this case, it's like the love is lost already. The piano refrain is melancholic and ethereal; echoing away throughout the whole song. It evokes the feeling of losing something, like something is slipping away.

The bridge by James Blake in the 2nd half of the song is beautiful and haunting. As the beat breaks back in, Blake sings:

I'll leave the dent in my car
To remind me what I could have lost

Again, it's about losing something. The aftermath of having something important taken from you. It could be a relationship, a friend, a pet, or your favourite coffee shop closing down due to economic hardship. No matter what it is, songs like this have a way of reminding us about these things.

Even the outro by Mount Kimbie is really cool and fits perfectly with the song. Just an excellent composition all around.

Album: Isaiah Rashad — The House is Burning

Shoutout to Cautious Clay who made this a tough decision with the release of Deadpan Love this year. It's an amazing record and was definitely a close second.

Isaiah Rashad hasn't released an album since 2016. He's barely released any new music in that time. I first heard him via Civilia Demo, his EP from 2012. It's an incredible debut album. I instantly fell in love with his melodic, laid back style of hip-hop. His cadence is finely tuned and so easy to listen to. Rashad doesnt place much importance on enunciation...but if this is mumble rap then it's the best mumble rap out there.

The House is Burning is so well done. Rashad has perfected his sound on this album. Each track is different but as a body of work its got everything. Rashad can carry a song by himself, but he selected some great featured artists for most tracks on the album. A good example is Lil Uzi Vert's verse on From the Garden, one of the album's standout tracks.

My favourite track is RIP Young though. It's got a beat that needs to go an a diet and a really catchy chorus. It also showcases Rashad's impressive lyricism. He might not be easy to understand sometimes but his verses are pure poetry.

Artist: The Blue Stones

The Blue Stones are a two-piece rock band hailing from Windsor, Canada. With only a guitar, drums, and two mouths, The Blue Stones manage to make some really dynamic, catchy rock music.

They released their sophomore album Hidden Gems in 2021 and it was one of my most played albums last year. It's a follow up to their first studio album from 2018, Black Holes. I'm giving them artist of the year because both albums are stellar.

I think it'd be easy to criticize their sound as repetitive. Every song from this new album would've fit perfectly fine on the last one. Even though their sound hasn't evolved significantly, there's something to be said for consistency. I was happy to get 10 more tracks from a band I already loved with the release of Hidden Gems.

If they don't do anything different on their next album though...might be time to add a 3rd band member.


Film: Sound of Metal

I'm not exactly sure what the rules of my annual awards list should be. I technically watched Sound of Metal for the first time in 2020. But I've watched it a bunch of times since then, including this year. And yesterday.

Sound of Metal is a superb film. It's about a recovering heroin addict named Ruben who plays drums in a metal band with his girlfriend. Ruben, played by Riz Ahmed, starts to lose his hearing and he has to figure out a way to cope with this burgeoning disability.

Director Darius Marder did an amazing job bringing this original screenplay to life. Sound of Metal presents a realistic and eye-opening view of what deafness is like. Ahmed's performance was outstanding; he's become one of my favourite actors in recent years.

Sound of Metal
MFW I literally go deaf

The sound editing is incredible and adds so much to the experience. In fact, Sound of Metal won the Oscars for Best Editing and Best Sound last year. It was also nominated for Best Picture, which it definitely could've won.

Documentary: Coded Bias

Coded Bias is a documentary about modern technology and the biases that are imbued within technology. In particular, it looks at the racial bias present in facial recognition. It also exlores how software and algorithms are being used more and more to make decisions about us across all aspects of life. Coded Bias It was really eye-opening. The stark difference in accuracy found in popular facial recognition services against women and people of colour was astounding. It's so surprising that these major tech companies like Google and Amazon would release these services without checking for such obvious biases.

The film was really well done. It explores a range of topics and has interviews with experts who are active in these debates about facial recognition, widespread surveillance, and algorithmic bias.

Coded Bias was an illuminating film that I learned a lot from. It definitely made me think about how much control we are ceding to these algorithms and the people who develop them.

Director: Denis Villeneuve

I've loved every movie by Denis Villeneuve I've seen. Arrival, Sicario, and Blade Runner 2049 are all fantastic...great stories with great cinematography.

His latest movie, Dune, was released back in October. It's the latest attempt to make a film adaptation for a book that's been notoriously hard to adapt. I think Villeneuve did a decent job all things considered. Dune was a visually stunning movie, especially in IMAX.

Dune meme
Hans Zimmer also awed audiences with his goose use


Limited Series: The Serpent

Netflix has produced some pretty fantastic shows and movies the past few years. The Serpent was a co-production between Netflix and the BBC; it's an 8 part limited series released last April.

It's based on the actual story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who drugged and killed tourists in Thailand during the 1970s. It's suspenseful, engaging and super creepy. Extra creepy when you remember that it actually happened.

It's a must-watch for anyone that's not planning a trip to Southeast Asia anytime soon.

Show: The Sopranos

I'm still not done The Sopranos but I'd be kidding myself to say this wasn't the best TV I've watched all year. I'm a little late to the party with this one (the final episode aired in June 2007) but it was better late than never.

Despite the show's age, the themes and story-lines hold up surprisingly well today. It's a classic mob drama told with a modern lens, aware of the Godfathers and Goodfellas that came before it. Mixing mafia crime and family drama, The Sopranos is a show that finds deadpan humour embedded in its realism.

But the show is propelled by the excellent casting and the performances of every lead character. James Gandolfini is Tony Soprano—he commands the role of a mafia boss succumbing to the pressures of his responsibilities. It's really entertaining TV.

Episode: High Maintenance — Cruise (S03E09)

High Maintenance is a really unique show. It's kinda an anthology—each episode explores different lives of people living in New York City. It's a very modern, very progressive look at life today.

The only thing that loosely ties the stories together is The Guy...the nameless protagonist who bikes around the city delivering weed to the people in the show. Some episodes feature him more than others, but in general his life is not really the focus of the show.

I loved the final episode of season 3, Cruise. It wasn't especially better than any of the other episodes, but it had a bit of everything. My favourite part is the last 10 minutes of the episode, which felt like an homage to bicycling in the city. It ends with The Guy biking home at night overlaid with a monologue from the famous poet and NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. Levitch is also featured in a few different scenes in the episode.

High Maintenance

As an avid city biker myself, I appreciated the tribute. Biking through a busy downtown is an immersive mix of chaos and order. All your senses are saturated by the buzz of the city as you cruise through it.

I suppose if I had an essential goal on the cruise right now, it would be to exhibit the fact that I'm thrilled to be alive and to still be respected. I suppose the soulful or the Buddhist out there might ask, 'Why do you need respect from others? The thrill to be alive, that's your own business. You can do that in your living room.' But that's not what the cruise is for me. The cruise is about the searching for everything worthwhile in existence.

I mean, I will appreciate the beauty of a flower, and then likewise, I will stand exhibitionistic and have the flower appreciate the beauty of me. Well, that's how I feel about cruising right now. And I would say having a quote, unquote, 'intimate love affair' with a flower is far more psychotic and riveting than having an 'intimate love affair', quote, unquote, with some of the banal creatures of the human race. Although I'd be into that too.
— Speed Levitch, The Cruise

Cruising through 2021 was a ride in itself. But the cruise is about searching for everything worthwhile in existence. Let's keep searching.

Monday, November 22 2021

Every year, I discover more and more, that I'm the same as everyone else. Which is kind of great, because it means that life is not so mysterious. You just do what other people do. Say please. Floss. When you're making scrambled eggs, stir them really fast so they don't get crusty. Find a few good people and try to hang on to them. Don't lose all your pieces.
— Sasha Chapin, All the Wrong Moves, pg. 70

You know how some people hate movie trailers? Like, they'd rather watch movies without seeing the trailer first because it'll usually spoil some things about the plot. I'm the same way with books.

I like starting a book without knowing too much about it; pretty much for the same reason as those trailer-haters. I enjoy figuring out the story as I read it so I can make my own judgments first. It's far more engaging, especially with fiction novels.

The "to-read" list on my iPhone is compiled from multiple sources (the internet, friend's recommendations, Oprah, etc.) and it's getting pretty long. As a consequence, the time between adding a book and actually reading it is usually enough time to forget why I added it in the first place. I just trust that past Joe added it for a good reason. Usually works out for future Joe (who becomes present Joe at the time of reading)

That's exactly what happened with All The Wrong Moves by Sasha Chapin. I forgot what it was about. I pictured it being some dramatic tale about a chess player that went crazy or something like 100 years ago. It wasn't that at all. It was much better and far funnier than I expected.

Just for Laughs

All The Wrong Moves is all about chess, kinda. Sasha Chapin is obsessed, but also repulsed, by the main subject of his memoir. And just like all good toxic relationships, he ends up with some wild stories from his time spent playing this game.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Chapin's sharp wit shines through on each page. Most of the humour stems from Chapin's acute perspective on life and how it's often stranger than fiction. When you view things through the right lens.

In terms of subject matter, Chapin toes a fine line between funny, self-deprecating cynicism and profound observations about the human experience. Like describing his personal preference between an aggressive or defensive play style:

I was like a child who couldn't draw a house with crayons deciding whether to be more like Jackson Pollock or Francis Bacon.
— Chapin, pg. 63

And then, in the same breath (or whatever the written version of breathing is), Chapin will expound on the mystery of determinism:

But it's so hard to tell, from the inside of a life, whether we can control our fate, or whether consciousness is merely the ability to observe ourselves obeying our irrevocable course, as if we were all self-aware pinballs
— Chapin, pg. 100

This self-aware pinball found the writing to be absolutely hilarious. Chapin embeds humour into every subject in the book. At a rapid fire pace too—I would audibly laugh several times in between two page turns. His timing and rhythm reminded me of stand-up comedy.

I love how Chapin portrays chess as a character in his memoir. It was such an integral part of his life for so long that it felt like a person. But it wasn't his friend. Chess was essentially the antagonist of All the Wrong Moves.

All the Wrong Moves Book Cover

It lures him in with its abstract beauty and illustrious history. Chess also feels like a world separate from our own—it occupies a higher plane within our minds. Chess can feel like an escape from the viscerality of life.

Yet the world of chess is its own special form of hell for Chapin. He becomes consumed by his drive to conquer the game, to understand its inner workings and secret rhythms better than his opponents. This obsession takes him around the world; he sacrifices relationships, sleep, and his own health.

Specifically, he wants to beat someone with an ELO rating above 2000 at a tournament in Los Angeles. Mostly because it's a nice round number.

All The Wrong Moves is all about chess, but it's also not. Chess could be substituted by almost anything in this story, because Chapin isn't writing about it, he's writing about his relationship with it.

I learned a lot of things from reading All the Wrong Moves, or at least it expanded my views on many important things (Funny how a book can do that). Obsession, conformance, following your passions, and dealing with the gradual realization that you aren't that special. At least from any reasonably zoomed out perspective. We all know your mom thinks you're special.

Leaning In

Chapin fully admits, from the start, that his obsession with chess was unhealthy. It was absolutely not good for him and his well-being. From sleepless nights playing online chess with strangers, to the anxiety and stress he dealt with during tournaments, Chapin wasn't in control of this hobby. Chess was in control.

What I found interesting was how self-aware Chapin was. Trying to resist the urge to play was futile, and he accepted that.

He explains how chess entered his life in high school, when he joined the chess club. Despite some brief breaks from it, Chapin was consumed by the game for most of his 20s.

Was this unrelenting pursuit of chess mastery Chapin's choice? It doesn't sound like it:

Frankly, I didn't feel like I was doing much until chess came along. [...] it felt like a possession---like a spirit had slipped a long finger up through my spine, making me a marionette, pausing only briefly to ask, "you weren't doing anything with this, were you?"
— Chapin, pg. 4

This fact, that Chapin never really had a choice about devoting himself to this game—it feels like the central point he was trying to address in this memoir.

I really appreciate how Chapin leaned in to his obsession. He fueled his passion for chess for years until he could feel satisfied. Maybe not satisfied with the outcome, but satisfied with the effort he put in.

So much of our lives are determined by what we're exposed to---the ebbs and flows of life around us. These are the tides that can push us out to sea. The question is whether you choose to sink, or learn how to swim.

Ultimately, we hold on to the belief that we control what we want to pursue in life. What we want to give ourselves to and become passionate about; the mountains we choose to climb. But maybe which mountain we choose isn't that important. It's about deciding to climb.

Nature analogies aside—chess playing could be seen as one of the least useful skills to devote time to. It's just a game after all. It's a great example of how applying yourself will change you, no matter what the application is. Chapin believes that no matter how it works out, you'll be a better person at the end of the day.

Life often contains the discovery that your place in humanity isn't quite what you thought it was. You find out that you weren't meant to be the lover of the thing you first loved. But it's not so bad. If you're lucky, you end up loving something else. When failure removes you from the wrong path, as wrenching as that feels, you ought to be grateful. You're a little closer to where you should be, even if you don't know where that is yet.
— Chapin, pg. 121









🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: bacon, melted cheese & curly fries in a gluten-free sourdough bun

Friday, January 15 2021

After reading a few of these pop-social-science books, they really start to sound the same. It's a repetitive formula that becomes a chore to read through. Anecdote, explanation, anecdote, explanation, anecdote, explanation...It's just a bunch of stories that the author uses to enforce a vague, sweeping generalization about how the world works. Maybe with some "studies" thrown in to add some scientific credibility to the theory as well.

Range Book Cover

Range by David Epstein falls directly into this category. I listened to Epstein's previous book, The Sports Gene, as an audiobook and I realize that it's the best way to consume books like this—passively. I find them tiring to read because you're constantly throwing away all the details of the story you just read when the author moves on to the next one.

I should've known better when I saw Malcolm Gladwell had a blurb on the front cover ("I Loved Range!"). Gladwell is the king of this style of writing.

I don't have anything against this writing style per se, but I don't enjoy reading it anymore. It's hard to denounce guys like Gladwell and Epstein for trying to explain a sociological phenomenon in a way that will be accessible to a general audience; it's easy reading and you can learn a few things too. I just think they're forgettable, boring, and too long.

The thesis of this entire book could've been explained in a blog post with basically the same impact, if not more. If I could find some blog on the internet talking about Range instead, I'd get a basic understanding of what it's about and end up with the same "knowledge" of how the world works as if I'd read all 339 pages!

...I guess I could be that blog.


Mathematician Freeman Dyson1 explains what "Range" means below:

“Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon,” Dyson wrote in 2009. “They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.” As a mathematician, Dyson labeled himself a frog, but contended, “It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper.” The world, he wrote, is both broad and deep. “We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.”

— David Epstein, Range pg. 161

Dyson was concerned that modern science was overflowing with frogs, like an invasive species. Frogs have strong expertise in one specialized area and they place all their focus in this area. Birds have a more generalized knowledge of many different areas and they understand inter-connections and overall systems better. David Epstein wrote Range to explain the benefits of being a bird, and how to become one.

Epstein uses real-life examples to showcase the power of range and the pitfalls of over-specialization. From Roger Federer's late start in tennis to Van Gogh's lifetime of sucking at art, there are innumerable examples of people that have achieved great success in their fields despite having diverse backgrounds.

Then there's Tiger Woods, who was hitting golf balls when he was two years old. Sometimes hyper-specialization works too.

Parable Patchwork

Like I mentioned above, I feel like the book was probably twice as long as it needed to be. Epstein extrapolates on this "diversity = good" idea over many chapters; each one having a slightly different lesson.

One chapter is about the origins of Nintendo and how they relied on creativity instead of worrying about having the best technology. Another is focused on the "outsider advantage"—examples of people who have made important breakthroughs in a field without having expertise in the field. Chapter 5 talks about German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who used analogies from different areas of life to try to explain the planet's movement:

Kepler’s short Mars assignment (he guessed it would take eight days) turned into five years of calculations trying to describe where Mars appeared in the sky at any given moment.

— Epstein, pg. 95

Sounds like the size-of-work estimates in my sprint planning meetings.

All these stories are definitely, in some way, related to Epstein's range concept. But there was a lot of pigeonholing going on. It seems like Epstein starts with an interesting anecdote and then figures out how a lesson about range or diversity can be extrapolated from it. This sort of post-hoc rationalization is a common critique of other social-science authors like Gladwell.

The "glue" work that Epstein did to patch all these disparate stories together, so that he could present a consistent narrative, felt forced. But on the bright-side, the stories themselves were cool and I learned some interesting things. So it's not all bad.

Fly Like a Bird

Throughout Range, Epstein talks about how society is geared towards turning people into frogs, not birds. In other words, in life it's much easier to become highly-specialized at something than to develop wide-ranging knowledge and experience:

there is often no entrenched interest fighting on the side of range, or of knowledge that must be slowly acquired. All forces align to incentivize a head start and early, narrow specialization, even if that is a poor long-term strategy. That is a problem, because another kind of knowledge, perhaps the most important of all, is necessarily slowly acquired—the kind that helps you match yourself to the right challenge in the first place.

— Epstein, pg. 88

These incentives towards specialization start from our early childhood, as Epstein explains in Chapter 1. Parents are drawn towards stories like Tiger Woods', a child prodigy, so they believe if their child is to be successful, they must start practising as early as possible. Epstein calls this the "cult of the head start".

Epstein also spends a lot of time critiquing the education system, like how teacher's teach and how we measure aptitude. It's a problem of misaligned incentives; we want to see students succeed and get questions right on tests, but we need it to happen quickly. It leads to non-durable learning techniques:

Rather than letting students grapple with some confusion, teachers often responded to their solicitations with hint-giving that morphed a making-connections problem into a using-procedures one.

— Epstein, pg. 67

"Using procedures" means memorization, and "making connections" refers to a deeper level of understanding of the concepts that produce the right answer. It's harder, and it takes longer, to make connections and develop that sort of understanding.

I agree with Epstein that the school system doesn't provide most students with long-lasting knowledge. But mass education is an incredibly complex issue, so it's easy to critique its flaws but hard to provide any feasible solutions.

The push towards specialization continues as we approach graduation and must then choose if we want to pursue post-secondary school. When we go to college, we have to pick what we want to study and build a career out of for the next 40 years. Making that sort of decision when we're 17 is kinda crazy when you think about it.

Of course, by the time you're 10 or 15 years removed from your undergraduate studies, what you studied is often irrelevant to your current work. I don't have any numbers to back that up but so I guess take it as anecdotal evidence. Or this might be a case of the Igon Value Problem...

But the point I'm trying to re-iterate from Range is that life will be easier the more you specialize and stick to what you already know.

What the specialist misses out on is the increased perception and understanding of the world that's gained through diverse experience. You'll also learn more about yourself by diversifying, something that's hard to quantify:

Ibarra marshaled social psychology to argue persuasively that we are each made up of numerous possibilities. As she put it, “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.

— Epstein, pg. 130

It's just like going on vacation with a significant other for the first time. Being far away from your regular environment and routines with each other will be an invaluable test for the relationship. It could potentially make or break it—but it's better to know, isn't it?

In conclusion, I didn't hate Range by David Epstein. But it was too long and tiring to read. I'd recommend an audiobook version, or just find a good blog post online explaining the main concept.

Remember: If you're a frog, try to climb a tree once in awhile to check out the whole swamp. And if you're a bird, don't be afraid to swoop down and play in the mud sometimes.

1 No, this is not the guy that owns the vaccuum company, but he has invented some other wild physics concepts like the Dyson Sphere.









🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: a doner wrap with fries, ketchup, and little cut up hot dogs in it