2020 is over, and ooh wee it’s been a weird year.
There were fireworks on New Year’s, but significantly fewer than in previous years. That’s probably due to the fact that the sale of fireworks was banned as a measure to reduce stress on hospitals, and so if you wanted to get your hands on them, you had to drive to Poland1. But there were still fireworks, and honestly, I kinda liked it. It’s a nice kind of minor anarchy.
I don’t want to phrase this year as a “survival” – the past three months have felt like that, but there’s been a lot of freedom here; everything was basically open from May to October. So, here’s the year, in broad strokes:
- Started the year in Cairo
- Spent 3 months in New York at the Recurse Center (more on this in a second)
- Crash-landed back in Berlin around the middle of March
- And then I was (f-)unemployed from April to November.
Not all of it was time well spent, but some of it definitely was!
I’ve held off writing about this because it’s hard to do it justice, and everything was a bit marred by leaving NYC in a hurry, but I spent three months at the Recurse Center in NYC, ostensibly learning how to become a better programmer. I definitely did become a better programmer2, but there’s a lot more to it than that!
I think the more transformative aspects of the experience were:
- I attended RC with the goal of kickstarting some kind of “next life stage”, and it turned out a whole bunch of other people were doing something like that too? You don’t usually take a six-to-twelve week break from your regular job without being in some transition period, and especially so if you’ve temporarily relocated to NYC3. It turns out that in addition to finding a community of programmers, I found a community of people who are redefining or refining themselves somehow. Or are, at least, very accomodating of that. Aside from these common purposes, it’s a real diverse group of people, and that itself was refreshing after having been a little jaded by tech contexts in general.
- It’s probably the most thoughtfully designed community I’ve ever taken part in, and there’s a culture of explaining the reasons behind the rules and rituals, and empowering people to build community themselves. I didn’t expect this, but what I learned in this space is more valuable than the programming stuff.
If you’re a programmer, it’s a great experience, and I can only recommend it! If you’re hiring programmers, consider hiring them from RC; they’re some of the smartest and kindest I’ve met. ✨
Walking as a way of life
My favourite accident in 2020 was that I spent the first three months of the year living directly on Prospect Park and working in Downtown Brooklyn, and my path to work was a fifty minute walk, the first thirty of which were through the park. You start to notice the way the environment responds to the weather; I remember noticing the fuzzy buds on the Magnolias at the start of February and not having any idea what they were. The third day I was there, there was snow falling; and I only took one photo, because I thought New York was snowy, and it would happen again. I was wrong.
These morning walks were hugely focussing for me. Sometimes calling Jackie (in Cairo) on the way, sometimes listening to music on my oversized headphones which somehow zap you if you turn them up too loud (??), usually picking up a way-too-large coffee on the way.
These walks were something I brought into my life in Berlin, and I started writing about them. Regarding the Willows on the Landwehr Canal is one of my favourite things I’ve ever written, but goodness it was slow to write. I spent a long time editing to perfection and a long time procrastinating on actually taking the photos of those willows and their bowl-cuts. I remember actually worrying that they would have lost all their leaves by the time I got around to photographing them, or that the swans would get bored, and then in the end I took the willow portraits one July morning, before jumping on a train to Munich to start a ten day hike. That was a weird morning; a drunk man was washing his face in the canal and fell in, and I helped pull him out.
Life comes at you fast.
I walked from Oberstdorf to Innsbruck in July. It was the first time I’d really stitched together multiple long-distance hikes into one – it was a little bit E5, a little bit trails I’ve walked before / my favourite huts from bygone hikes, a little bit of the Adlerweg, which traces a route east-west through Tyrol. It was definitely the most demanding hike I’ve ever done, but I only thought I was going to die like, twice, so not terrible. I kept taking portraits of mountains, and discovered that there are themes in my photography that seem to be inextinguishable and inescapable. I like that I’ve developed a style, but it would be nice to break it, and have the guts to take portraits of people sometime.
I spent April through June in intensive German classes, and it paid off (es hat sich gelohnt). it’s hard to quantify the progress, but on that hike in July, I spent two hours talking with another solo traveller about migrating, raising kids, and mountaineering during storms, and it all went ok. Got a grammar lesson during the conversation4, but it was welcome, and borne of kindness. During the course, I gave talks on a new favourite book and on post-impressionism5, and wrote a very cheesy travel guide about what to do if you ever find yourself in Wollongong for a weekend.
My German teacher had also identified that 2020 was fucking weird, and wrote a book about it:
Tech / Computer / Programmer-y things
- I wrote a pretty terrible RAW file renderer over the course of about nine months of intermittent work. It does produce the occasional nice black and white image now, and I got some super interesting glitches along the way (one, two, three, four)
- I gave a talk at a conference about digital camera shenanigans
- I rewrote Grouse, my glorified bash script for checking I haven’t broken this website (also, someone submitted a PR!?), and published this blog theme to make it available for others.
- I wrote a few insanely ambitious technical articles. When I say “ambitious”, I mean that they comprehensively cover something complicated, and try to give insight about my process along the way. These articles are often life consuming; each represents weeks of work and I can’t put them down until they’re done.
- I did a podcast?? with Chelsea Troy; this was rad because she’s someone I respect a lot, and whose work and writing I really like, and I got to collaborate with her on something! Afterward, I bought a microphone, and I’ve never recorded anything again. 🙃
I’m not always motivated by technical work itself, but I’m hugely people-oriented and motivated, and I’ve had five or six amazing conversations with people as a specific result of the work I’ve produced this year. Some takeaways on that:
- Conference talks are great. They’re a deadline for your work (good for not-procrastinating!), you can point at them after and say “look I know a thing!”, and oftentimes the audience says some really nice things afterwards, so they’re great for validation 😅
- If you see something you love online, maybe consider emailing the person and letting them know! Worst case, they’ll ignore it, best case, you’ll forget about it and then be pleasantly surprised when they answer ✨
A list of short observations from 2020; my memory is full of holes and I’d like to remember these things again someday:
My apartment in NYC had bedbugs. Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope nope
I’m apparently on some kind of list with US immigration; they now pull me into a back room every time I enter the country. Writing about it here to see if they read my blog as well 🇺🇸
Everyone around me is prangent
There was Jackie’s foot, which was sliced open through a Rube-Goldberg machine of precisely aligned, unfortunate events, and the corresponding Cancelled Second Hike
There was realising that Berlin has a hacker-culture which I probably would like to be part of sometime?
There was writing about how I’ve had so little luck finding Boletus mushrooms and then finding a kilo of them in a weekend.
There was watching the Canada geese make a stopover in Berlin on their way from goodness-knows-where to goodness-knows-where-else.
There was becoming even more skeptical about the incentives that drive many technology businesses. Like, the pursuit of monopolies is fuckin' nuts and it’s disappointing because it homogenizes everything as well as the whole anti-competitive “bad for consumers” thing.
There was interviewing at too many places without intentionality. That turned out to be a categorically bad decision; I gave too much time to things I didn’t care about and people running incredibly questionable startups. I wrote a little about interviewing here.
There were great books, including: The Living Mountain, When Brooklyn Was Queer, The Moons of Jupiter, Mating in Captivity, A Little Life, Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, On Writing Well.
There were tarot cards at Christmas. I drew the Cup Dude, the Shiny Coin Dude, and Justice themselves. Jackie says I’m shiny coin dude, I say that I want to be cup dude (all you need in life is a great shirt, the ocean, and to be content talking with a fish in a cup), and I wanna believe that justice is something along the lines of keeping those two identities in balance.
On losing momentum
I lost momentum at some point. It wasn’t so much that I ran out of stuff to do, or that the stuff I was doing wasn’t important, it just wasn’t that focused.
On New Year’s, Pavel told me a parable about a friend who’s taken a year off work three times now, each time saying he’s going to make something of himself. And the first few weeks go great, and then he spends the rest of the year kinda drifting, and then eventually runs out of money and goes back to work. The last time, he told Pavel (wryly) that he probably would’ve had better results and the same expenses from seeing a psychologist three times a week for a year.
That was relatable, and looking back at what I wrote this time last year in New York, where the coffee was expensive (remember writing from cafes?), it’s clear that I have a lot of personal ambitions that went unfulfilled, and might have been looking in the wrong places for solutions.
Maybe Pavel is the proverbial fish in my cup. 🐠
So, looking forward, again
In 2021, I’m working full-time again, and it does feel like I didn’t really achieve what I set out to in my Free Year. While my time is now more limited, and my stress-levels are higher, it’s not zero-sum, and I’m not feeling defeatist about it – I was excited about this job because I figured it would be a great chance to learn some stuff, and there’s plenty of opportunities for intentionality around that full-time framework. ✨
My “less-obvious but more profoundly important” goals from last year were good! And are a good place to start from this year. So let’s try it again; once more with slightly less free time and slightly more intentionality.
The Berlin Senate would additionally like to remind you that “Berliners who would like to buy fireworks in Poland are required to quarantine for ten days upon return”. ↩︎
I’m now a very confident Rust developer! Plus; I picked up a lot of experience in debugging, profiling and performance optimisation, a working knowledge of a very specific compression algorithm, and familiarity with some image processing fundamentals. ↩︎
“maybe I should have moved to Munich instead” is a complicated construction of verbs and cases; vielleicht hätte ich stattdessen nach München umziehen sollen. ↩︎
I became very quickly aware as to how little I know about art and art history ↩︎