Here we are, closing in on the end of another year together, dear reader. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll not be surprised to learn that I’ve spent the past week sipping Finlaggan Old Reserve, reading Dashiell Hammett novels, and listening to Can and Neu! and Günter Schickert. The weather’s been good enough that I’ve made it out for a couple hikes and a few runs. I’ve also been chipping away at various personal writing projects while I’ve been off work, so I hope to have new things to share with you next quarter.
My winter break is now almost over and with it both the year and the decade. It’s been a bittersweet year. There were high points, like visiting Southeast Asia, and very low points, including the deaths of two friends. And, y’know, watching the country and the world burn, both literally and metaphorically.
The decade was much the same. 10 years ago I was still an IT help desk support guy. My wife and I were legally married, but hadn’t had our real wedding ceremony yet. This decade we both made career changes, bought a house, and traveled to three different continents. We got a new cat and lost her only five years later. I met some of my old heroes, including Douglas Rushkoff, R.U. Sirius, Richard Metzger, and Genesis P-Orridge. Others, like Mika Vainio, Alan Vega, and Paul Laffoley passed away. I handed over Technoccult, a website that I’d run for 15 years, to a new owner. I co-hosted a pretty successful podcast, then walked away from it when I felt I had no more to say. I made many new friends, but I also lost several friends. Some to death, some to fallings out. Death took several family members this decade as well.
Along the way we watched the Tea Party install itself into the House and Senate, the rise of Trump and Trumpism, Brexit and the return of the far-right in Europe and elsewhere, the BP oil spill, arctic glaciers melting at an alarming pace, fires in the Amazon, winter wildfires in California, a homelessness epidemic on the west coast with no end in sight, and more mass shootings than I can count.
But this was also the decade of Occupy Wall Street, Black Live Matters, #metoo, trans awareness, and the rise of a global youth movement fighting climate change.
On one hand, this is just life. Any arbitrary grouping of 10 years is going to contain lots of significant events. In the 00s, I graduated high school and college, moved to Portland, and met my wife against the backdrop of 9/11, the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the election of the first black president. Still, it’s hard not to see this a pretty significant decade.
My last WIRED story for the year was a look at fears that 5G might cause cancer or other health problems. My conclusion: if you weren’t worried about mobile phones before, you don’t need to be worried now. And you probably didn’t need to be worried before. That’s because in the near term, 5G won’t actually be using frequencies that haven’t been used for decades for other purposes, such as broadcast television, satellite communications, and WiFi. And even once carriers start using “millimeter wave” frequencies, they still won’t be using higher frequencies or higher energy levels than, say, street lights.
Elsewhere, I wrote reviews of the D&D adventure Winter’s Daughter and the old school D&D inspired role playing game The Black Hack second edition.
Oh, and my documentary filmmaker RPG Be the Media is now available on Drivethru RPG.
This was a year of surprises. Things I thought I’d like (It: Chapter Two) turned out disappointing while things I didn’t think I’d even watch turned out to be great (Watchmen, Doom Patrol).
I read more books this year than I usually do, but relatively few of them were published in 2019. But I can still make a couple recommendations. The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age by Tim Wu is, I think, a must-read for US citizens. Wu’s book Master Switch is an important work on the history of communications technology, innovation, and freedom of expression. The Curse of Bigness drills deeper into the trouble with massive, anticompetitive firms and their effects on society, particularly the corrosive effect they have on democracy. You can read my interview with Wu about the book here.
My favorite recent novel is Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan, though I should disclose that, though I haven’t seen or spoken with him in a while, Tim is a personal friend. The novel is about the end of the internet. It flips back and forth between telling the story of how the internet, and practically all computerized technology, came to an end and the aftermath of that world. In the hands of a lesser writer, this high-concept would only be fodder for something that reads like a long Wikipedia entry. But Tim tells the story through the eyes of multiple characters, giving us a human eye view of why “a world without the internet,” which may sound pleasant initially, would be a nightmare. He started the book in 2010 or 2011 and it just kept evolving until its publication, which makes it a perfect capstone to the decade.
Parasite was probably the best movie I saw this year, but my favorite, to my great surprise, had to be Crawl. What I thought would be “Sharknado, but with alligators” turned out to be a tense, character-driven, and incredibly enjoyable survival-horror piece.
The album of the year, for me, was Helms Alee’s Noctiluca, hands down. They were also the best live show I saw this year.
Chernobyl was great and all but the thing I enjoyed the most this year, but my favorite, and IMHO most underrated, show of the year was Chambers, the first Netflix show with an Indigenous American lead. It ticked a lot of my boxes (cults, drugs, body horror, Lovecraftian weirdness). But critics panned it, praising Uma Thurman but complaining that the show was “bloated.” But just about every Netflix original drags a bit in the middle, and Chambers had so much more going for it than Thurman, namely the performances by Sivan Alyra Rose and Marcus LaVoi. It was canceled after only one season, which sucks but the single season stands alone pretty well.
Book: Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is the book that probably had the biggest impact on me this decade. Alex’s idea of “contemplative computing” was the initial spark of inspiration for my initial contribution to the Mindful Cyborgs podcast. I’m still trying to put the ideas into practice.
Graphic novels: Blue is the Warmest Color and The Nao of Brown, at least among things first printed in the 2010s. I guess these are more literary than my tastes general run, but they’re excellent examples of what you can do with the genre, and I missed a lot of the other stuff critics picked as the best of the decade. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 10 years reading new reprints of older stuff that I missed or that was before my time, including the Stray Bullets Uber Alles, the Grendel omnibus editions reprinting the original Comico run of the series, and IDW’s Alack Sinner translations. Those three titles are probably my favorite comics of all time, not just the decade.
Film: Get Out was my favorite film of the decade, but Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room, Hold the Dark) was my favorite director of the decade.
Game: Apocalypse World changed tabletop role playing not just for me, but the entire industry in the 2010s.
Album: Bruxa’s Victimeyez.
TV show: It’s hard to pick a favorite given how much great television there was this decade, but I’d like to plug a couple things that I thought were seriously underrated: The Knick and the Channel 4 series Utopia. In 2016 I wrote that the golden age of television that started in the 00s or early 2010s was already over. But a steady stream of original series from fresh perspectives, like Atlanta, Glow, and Pose, proved me wrong. It’s a good thing to be wrong about.
I’m not much for New Year’s Resolutions, but I do like to set goals for the year. In 2020, my goal is to write more material for this newsletter. This year I sent out, I think, 14 newsletters, but most of them were just short updates on my life with a few links to stuff I wrote for WIRED or elsewhere. That’s largely because for the past couple years I haven’t felt like I had much to say that I wasn’t already saying elsewhere. Another part of it is that I’ve dedicated much of my non-work related writing time to writing games and fiction. But I think it’s time to devote more time to thinking and writing for you again, dear reader.