Objectives, Self-Storage, and CDs

The good and bad of New Year's resolutions, podcasts, finding somewhere to store your junk and playing Myst in 1996

Hi, welcome to 2021, the date on which everything returns to normal: “we won’t be back in the office until 2021”, “the economy will recover in 2021”, “Black Widow will be in cinemas in 2021”. This said as if the virus would notice the year changing, look at its watch and say “oh good lord, is that the time, I must be going.”

Perhaps I’m being unfair, and it’s a quirk of language. Maybe people meant “we won’t be back to normal until at least 2021 at the earliest”. But part of me thinks about how we divide time into segments, viewing each year as fundamentally different, each decade as a cultural era.

In coding, we call these “magic numbers”; specific hard-coded values, instead of calculations. Rather than saying, “we’ll be back to the office in 2021,” a good engineer might split this into: “we’ll be back to the office when the virus has gone,” “the virus will be gone when the vaccine is rolled out,” “the vaccine will be rolled out in 2021.” Once you’ve done this re-arrangement, you can see “back to normal” won’t happen on 1st January 2021. It reveals your assumptions. But it also lets you update your reasoning when new information comes in. If, in fact, it takes two years to roll out the vaccine, or if the virus goes away some other way, you don’t need to change the sentence, “we’ll be back to the office when the virus has gone.”

I’m quietly fascinated by how our specialisms change the way we look at the world. I often wonder whether chess grandmasters, for example, see the world as a series of chess pieces. When they walk to the kitchen, do they think of themselves as rooks sliding across the board? Do they see castling and en passant everywhere? Could it be that people told simple stories of when things would be back to normal because they weren’t used to refactoring complex code?

Speaking of falling into the trap of thinking in years, on Medium this week, I have a piece about New Year’s resolutions and my love/hate relationship with them:

Hidden within resolutions is “resolute”. Someone who sets and keeps resolutions is resolute. The word conjures something big and sturdy. The US president’s timber oak desk is the resolute desk. There have been six USS Resolutes. Operation Resolute was the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia. Three Royal Navy ships have been HMS Resolute. I’m not sure I’d want to describe myself with the same word as an old boat or desk. Resolute people are dry and stuffy. They get up early and go for a jog.

And on the subject of New Year’s resolutions, I have started a podcast with Kiera (@theportablekj), a Senior Commissioning Editor at Icon Books. It always feels exposing, publishing content with you on mic or camera, natural and unfiltered, filled with ums and stutters. I am, also, poor at self-promotion. As Kiera said when we were discussing announcing this: We've done this thing. Don't listen to it yourself. Get some strangers to listen to it. Or if you do, have it at the lowest volume in the background while you’re on a work call.

The podcast is Bad Reads, with new episodes released on the first day of each month, and should be available at all the usual places (Apple, Google, Spotify, etc). It’s about the experience of being a reader - the way that, as much as we love words and books, we are fallible humans who can be bad readers. We skip pages, judge books by their covers, forget plot lines, get character names wrong, don’t read poetry, and sometimes just flat out don’t understand what we’re reading. Think of it as an antidote to an Amazon-owned book rating website. It’s not the reads that are bad, it is us.

If you’d like to hear us nattering about books and reading, the first episode, about the ways we are bad readers, is out now and the next episode, about how we find books to read, will be out on the 1st February (it is, as they say, in the can).


Elsewhere

Here’s a fun, slightly meditative piece from Harper’s Magazine about self-storage:

A significant minority of tenants wind up renting for longer than they intended. And nearly a quarter of likely new renters say they plan to use their personal warehouse space for items they “no longer need or want.”

For others, with better-sounding reasons, it is often not the premise but the execution that is the problem. As long as I am living far away but planning to move back; as long as it takes my new spouse and me to decide how to consolidate our belongings; as long as I am sorting out my divorce; as long as I need to find a buyer for this treadmill. These all make sense, but “as long as” is circular. What easily happens is that the logic of the original limit transforms, maybe imperceptibly, maybe banished from conscious thought, and the deadline recedes before us. Reasons have expiration dates, and good reasons go bad. 

It’s a funny, witty piece on the psychology of self-storage. Towards the end, he points out that while you might think the success of Marie Kondo’s approach to throwing things away would have spelled the end of self-storage, in fact, it’s been the opposite. People Marie-Kondo their house, but rather than throwing everything out, they rent self-storage to store the things that no longer “spark joy”.


Merriam-Webster has an app that shows words first recorded in a particular year. The first thing to do, of course, is to enter your birth year, to see what words are the same age as you. It’s a lexicographical zeitgeist machine. The year of my birth also was the year of FAQs, the GIF, ADHD, patient zero, and (surprisingly to me) Dad Jokes, potty-mouth, and food comas. It also is the year of the thirtysomething, which feels a weird coincidence as people born that year are now thirtysomethings themselves.


A piece in Electric Lit about playing Myst. “In the 1990s I was a lonely, nerdy girl writer. Nobody else I knew was simultaneously obsessed with learning HTML and parsing the sentences of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Blair Hurley writes. As someone who, similarly, was into HTML and literature in the 90s this chimed with me:

My nostalgia for the experience of playing Riven is wrapped up in the sensory experience of sliding the CDs into that fragile ejecting tray; listening to the hum and whir of the CD starting up; the fact that you had to switch CDs every time you arrived on a new island, one of five, and the buggy way the computer would jerk and freeze as it labored to load a video clip. I liked to imagine myself into the jumpy digital rooms and islands and underground tunnels. I pretended I was an explorer really visiting these places. When characters spoke to me, saying, “You must have come to help us,” I took my role seriously.

I often think about video games as an art form that hasn’t yet reached critical acceptance. When the novel came out, the establishment was snobby about it: it would rot the brains of people that read it, they said. It wasn’t serious enough. It was a trivial affair for entertainment. Now, these terms are applied to video games, which, in many ways, more actively involve your brain than novels, which are really quite passive affairs.

The disappointment of a computer game is ultimately its finite nature; with its limitations of how much data can fit on five CD-ROMS, only so much world could exist. Every gamer has encountered and pushed up against those invisible walls in the edges of a game: arcade players of Donkey Kong striving for the kill screen, or players of Mario or Zelda leaping into the voids surrounding their colorful land masses, or running into blank barriers of pixels, hoping for a moment that they might punch through to the other side of the universe, and see it continue on. The land beyond those digital boundaries is mysterious, intriguing, no-space.

I still play video games, especially series, like Mario and Zelda, that I played as a child. But I can’t recreate the wonder I felt then. Years ago, I would wander through Hyrule Market Town for hours, chatting to everyone. Now, I find myself impatient in games, desperate to get to the next level. Perhaps, as I’ve said before, that’s because many games are long to-do lists, more like work than fun. But I can’t help thinking it’s also the way I immersed myself in games before. As a child, I never knew what might happen next. I didn’t have any sense of the limitations of the cartridge or the structures that games followed. Now, I am too canny. “Oh, it’s a fetch quest,” I think to myself. As a child, I didn’t think that. I just thought I’d better go and get that flower as quickly as possible because the man in the market needed it.


Until next time,

Yours,

Simon