Personal Picks of 2021
Previous installments: 2020.
This year flew by, which is a disturbing behavior years seem to exhibit more and more. But I'm back with my personal picks for thing that were new to me in 2021 that I decided to share. I managed to streamline my process from last year by working on this page as the year progressed. I was tempted at the end of the year to review, trim, add, and edit these entries, but I decided to let stand my initial gut reactions throughout the year that I wanted something included here and not worry about things that didn't make it.3
(I got the idea for a post like this from Michael Fogus. You might enjoy his The best things and stuff of 2021.)
- Blog Posts and Articles
- Reverse Engineering
- Things I Learned
- Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe by Steven Strogatz. It was a breezy read for me, but I've been introduced to all these topics at one point or another. The book made me want to dig out my math books to start studying them again.
- The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age by Bina Venkatarman. A summary of the things the author has learned about long term thinking at a personal as well as community level. There's a lot of worthwhile observations here, although I was frustrated to see how often examples of long-term thinking of groups was almost accidental with it being not at all clear how to replicate nor protect from powerful short-term interests. However, it's good to see long-term thinking is still possible, and the last chapter is devoted to summarizing actions that can promote long-term thinking. I first became aware of Venkatarman's writing from a talk she gave at the Long Now Foundation. So if you're interested in the book, you might start with the talk.
- Atomic Habits by James Clear. I saw Jake Parker mention this title, and it seemed like a useful follow up to Power of Habit (which I've also read and Clear references). I'm hoping to use some of the suggesions in this book to improve my habits for the upcoming year.
- Blondie24 by David Fogel is a book I've read before, but I decided to read it again because I have an idea for a project related to this book. I didn't finish reading it this past year, but I made a couple of stabs at it. The project I have in mind is lower priority than various other things. We'll see if my idea comes to fruition or not.
- So your grandmother is a starship now: a quick guide for the bewildered by Marissa Lingen.
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect Is Probably Not Real by Jonathan Jarry M.Sc.
- Living Like It's 99: No Social Media, No Smartphone by Gregary Alvarez. The article describes the author's method of staying away from social media, controlling their attention, and apparently still enjoying life. The article resonated with me since I dislike "smartphones" that, in my opinion, oversell their minimal virtues and primarily act as conduits for surveillance capitialism and attention stealing. I will note that that the author also owns a laptop, which makes it possible (for now) to live like they have. If all you have is a phone, you have fewer choices.
- The Animal is tired by Robin Hobb. A short meditation on living a life.
- Nobody Wants to be a Serf Anymore is a bit of satire by Andrew Singleton (apparently in response to this WSJ article).
Reconnected: Decentralizing the internet alone won’t lift
it above politics or save it from corporate co-optation by Paris Marx. I'll just tease it with a
Decentralization is not a politics in and of itself. Without a politics that explicitly seeks to serve the public while challenging corporate power, decentralization isn’t an actual strategy to decommodify our online interactions and reorient our networks toward alternative purposes.
- Software From Another World by Diana Thayer. Any words of mine will not do Thayer's words justice.
- Permacomputing Update 2021 by Ville-Matias "Viznut" Heikkilä where the author attempts to record and reference other ideas and work that connect with his own ideas of "permacomputing". If you hadn't read the previous piece, that is worth doing: Permacomputing.
- The dumbing-down of programming parts one and two by Ellen Ullman. Relative to the modern web, this is an old one from '98, but I just came across it this year. There are several quotable passages (and I do quote from this below), but there's also some interesting and insightful observations about the nature of programming and the limits of "Wizards" (the software tools). This makes me think about the drive to use AI and machine learning to solve problems without us having to actually understand the problems ourselves.
How ISO-C became unusable for operating system development is a PLOS 2021 paper by Victor Yodaiken. From the paper:
By C18, the ISO C Standard document included a 10-page, incomplete list of undefined behaviors covering everything from type constraints to syntax errors and synchronization errors. Most C programs contain undefined behavior – certainly every operating system code base does. Perhaps more troubling, as  points out, this concept of undefined behavior makes C compilers unstable. A programmer may take a particular property of a C compiler for some undefined behavior to be a conforming language extension, but it may actually just be undefined behavior that has not yet been optimized.
- How to open a file in Emacs by Murilo Pereira is split into two parts by the author, although it feels like it should really be three parts. The first part, A Lispy Adventure, is an interesting, almost meditative, walk through of how the author improved a single aspect of his personal emacs experience (revealing some of the character of Emacs along the way). The second part, Computers, and Humans, is an astute analysis of the state of a few "competing" editor/IDE projects, including Emacs, through the lens of values. What I'm calling the third part, The Why of technology, almost jumps the shark but manages to narrowly avert catastrophe at the conclusion. Although there are certain things I disagree with, overall it is an interesting and thoughtful post. Just watch out for part three.
- Evolution of the Unix System Architecture: An Exploratory Case Study by Diomidis Spinellis and Paris Avgeriou provides a quick history of Unix from an architectural point of view. I always find it interesting to see how the platforms we take for granted today changed and grow over time. In this case you can see how early decisions in Unix still affect the Unix of today.
- One Woman’s Mission to Rewrite Nazi History on Wikipedia by Noam Cohen discusses the work of Ksenia Coffman to edit Wikipedia articles so they "stop glorifying fascists—and start citing better sources." Considering how important Wikipedia is as a reference (at least in English speaking circles), this seems like incredibly important work. I hope she's able to recruit others to pursue this effort in the same spirit she has. (Archived here if you hit a paywall of some kind.)
A couple of stories about confronting and erasing the past through
- Detroit artist Jonathan Harris strikes a nerve around the world with ‘Critical Race Theory’ painting (Be sure to checkout the virtual tour of Harris' exhibition if you can. The Critical Race Theory painting is hanging in it.)
- Hong Kong tears down ‘Pillar of Shame’ sculpture honoring Tiananmen victims
Next Coup Has Already Begun by Barton Gellman.
There is a clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it. Our two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things that a democracy cannot live without.
Slavery was an original sin of the US that nearly destroyed it (and still might). The Big Lie is a much more recent sin that seems to be leading the US to a similar place.
I just haven't been able to block out the kind of time required for me to enjoy audio theater, but I did manage to catch one thing.
- The Dead Authors Podcast with Ayn Rand is a satirical interview between a time traveling H.G. Wells (Paul F. Tompkins) and Ayn Rand (John Hodgman). That should be nough to grab your attention or not.
- Joy of X is a podcast from Quanta Magazine hosted by mathematician Steven Strogatz. The format is generally one of Strogatz interviewing a single guest mathematician or scientist. I've enjoyed all the episodes I've listend to, but if you're looking for examples to determine whether you want to subscribe, try the episode with Tadashi Tokieda and the episode with Moon Duchin.
- The Imaginary Tragedy of the Hypothetical Commons is an episode of the Srsly Wrong podcast that critiques the history and ideas of the "tragedy of the commons". I don't subscribe to this podcast, but this episode came across my social media feed and was indeed interesting.
- 🎵 The PEP 8 Song 🎵 - "A songification of that most holiest of Python Enhancement Proposals, the PEP 8."
is a nearly hour long piece by Manuel Göttsching performed
in one take in his studio in 1981. From the liner notes:
My collection of synthesizers, sequencers, rhythm computers and keyboards had been growing steadily since 1975. In my studio, everything was switched on night and day so that I could start whenever I wanted. I even trailed all this material with me to concerts where I would play, for example, at fashion shows which were rather fashion "happenings" or "events" as they're called nowadays.
At the end of 1981, when I came back from a long tour (with Klaus Schulze) I still felt in a "concert mood" for a few days and so one evening I have a "Manuel Göttsching solo concert" in my studio — just for myself. I luckily had the reflex to press the red "record" button on the tape machine. It was the 12th of December, 1981.
- Mike Dawes - Jump (Van Halen) Solo Acoustic Guitar is just an excellent acoustic cover of this now classic song. (The song was probably called an instant classic in its day, but it definitely qualifies as classic now.)
Welcome to the Internet by Bo Burnham is
my nomination for the internet's theme song. I hadn't heard of Bo Burnham before this song, but I get strong
Tom Lehrer vibes from this performance. Audio is NSFW.
- Speaking of Tom Lehrer: bonus link.
- The Speck of Dust by Leonid & Friends is a stunning arrangement masterfully performed. Bonus link to Leonide & Friends.
- JAMBINAI: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert by Jambinai. Just a wonderfully fierce performance! The sounds Bomi Kim gets out of the haegeum in that first song is a little hair rasing. I love it.
- Vestals by r beny. A very nice ambient piece. Bonus link to r beny's bandcamp.
- IDES is a release that Dessa has been teasing over the year, but you can now get the whole release. I admit I haven't heard something from Dessa that I don't like. Her lyrics are smart and her delivery, whether spoken or singing, seem to always be just right. Dessa is part of Doomtree (a midwest hip-hop collective), and I've enjoyed the group's efforts as well.
- Équinoxe is an album released in 1978 from Jean-Michel Jarre, so I'm pretty late to take notice. It shares a certain "classic" synth sound probably just due to the tech in use, but the compositions sounded fresh and very inventive to me. The separate tracks of the album transition smoothly between each other, so that rewards long listening.4 The Wikipedia page on Équinoxe provides some background.
- Rachael & Vilray is an album from Rachael Price and Vilray that they describe: "With simple intimate arrangements, they perform original works and revive forgotten gems of radio's golden age." The album is a nice palate cleanser in today's environment of over produced albums. Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoy over produced albums as much as the next person, but I sometimes need a break from that kind of thing and a reminder of the beauty in human voice and instruments well played. Bonus link: Rachael Price also performs with Lake Street Dive, who are also very much worth checking out.5
- Path of Wellness is the latest release from Sleater-Kinney. I originally got introduced to Sleater-Kinney just at the time they took a bit of a break (and before Portlandia), and it is great to hear some more from them. There's a certain rawness to their sound I like and some vocal back and forth that they seem to use to good effect. This album is a great addition to their oeuvre.
- Electric Mind by Alan Elettronico.
- I Told You So by Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Bonus links: playing live on KEXP in 2017 and playing live on KEXP in 2021.
- Compiler Optimization Techniques by The Algorithm. Bonus link: the music reminds me a bit of by Master Boot Record.
- 東方不敗 by Tzusing. The algorithms tell me that the album name translates to Undefeated in the East, which seems entirely plausible and completely appropriate. Try the first track. Maybe it will grab your attention like it did mine.
- Software Freedom is Essential to Human Freedom is Cory Doctorow's keynote presentation to linux.conf.au 2021. He focuses on the harms caused by monopoly and opportunities created by anti-trust enforcement. Until his talk it hadn't occurred to me how the relatively open IBM PC computer architecture wasn't just an accident of history, and that it was probably unlikely without prior anti-trust action against IBM. Call to action to unify dispirate issues (e.g. software freedom) under the umbrella of monopoly. There's also a pretty good summary of the talk at lwn.net if you're interested but would rather read something.
- APOD: Perseverance Landing on Mars is a short clip that combines the video(!) recording made by the Perseverance lander as it landed on Mars with control room audio and video. In reality, the control room action would've been taking place minutes following the actual landing on Mars as the signals from the lander made their way between the vast distance between the Earth and Mars (also not streaming video). Regardless, it is an awesome video. It's just so danged exciting.
- Right Up Our Alley is a video shot via drone of a sweet looking bowling alley. Worth the minute and a half it takes to watch it.
- Inside a fake un-trippable circuit breaker is a video demonstrating the amazing feats of engineering behind fraudulant, dangerous products that pollute our supply chains.
- The World's "Greatest" Hacker is a comedy short worth your minute of time.
VFXcool: Flight of the Navigator is a
terrific little video (both in content and production values) discussing the production of the 80s
movie Flight of the
Navigator. They even have some of the props used during filming of the practical effects. As said
in the video:
"If that doesn't sound awesome, then you weren't a kid in 1986, and that's on you."
- It's Time for Operating Systems to Rediscover Hardware is the USENIX ATC '21/OSDI '21 Joint Keynote Address given by Timothy Roscoe. The speaker brings to the foreground a topic that has been lurking for a while in the background: today's computer systems are not running a single, coherent operating system (e.g. Linux). Instead, Linux is a single component of a complex system with various processors all with different views of the hardware running different runtimes of their own.
Eon is an impressive demo by The Black
Lotus for the venerable Amiga 500. My favorite demos are those that manage to combine an artistic
composition with technical mastery. Something where the composition comes first and only after do you wonder
in amazement at how it was made.1 This demo is an
example of that. Bonus Links:
- Demo itself
- Eon – Amiga Soundtrack Hacks
- Posts about the making of Eon could be found here, but just in case that page changes, I have the links here. I used a slightly different ordering than what you'll find on the site.
- REBOOTED is a cute short film. "It’s not easy for a movie-star to age - especially when you’re a stop motion animated skeleton monster. Phil, once a terrifying villain of the silver-screen, struggles to find work in modern Hollywood due to being an out-of-date special effect." Bonus link: Behind the scenes.
- Atari's Quadrascan Explained is an excellent explanation about how the vector graphics of some Atari vector arcade games were implemented. (I would love to see more "true" vector graphics systems and games in the world.)
Authorship Environments: In search of the “personal” in personal computing is a talk by Eric Gade.
What if, instead of thinking of computing as technology for greater efficiency and convenience, we thought of it as a medium approaching that of conventional literacy? What might the environments be like, whom would they serve, and what can we imagine to be the artifacts of that interaction? By exploring big ideas from the last 70 years of computing and attempting to update them for the present, we will examine the implication of these questions in-depth, including potential approaches for thinking about them in the future. Along the way we will present an exploratory effort called Simpletalk, an authoring system built for today’s ubiquitous computing environment: the web.The Q&A after the talk is worth watching. Bonus links: Live Simpletalk instance and Simpletalk source.
Projects that I found interesting or notable.
- Freespin from Matthias Kramm is a demo that runs on a Commodore 1541 disk drive (yes the 1541 is generating the video signal). The direct link to youtube for the impatient.
- Homemade 1000+ transistor array chip from Sam Zeloof who has been working on developing integrated circuits in his garage. Bonus link: A video presentation about the process he used.
- Baby II from Sylvain Decaux is the most ambitious baby announcement I have ever seen. Bonus link: Baby I. (I suppose this could've gone into video, but I relate to it as more of a personal project.)
I don't do reverse engineering much, but I enjoy reading about what others get up to.
- Fixing E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 by AtariAge member recompile makes a convincing case that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial wasn't actually a bad game, but that there is room for improvement.2 The article then goes on to describe how to make various changes and fixes to that end. A good example of the kind of programming and reverse engineering that makes the most of limited resources.
- Fractal Vises! Watch at least the first little bit of this Rare Antique Fractal Vise [Restoration] video. Link to the patent's PDF.
- About himbos!
The Origin of Spacewar! by
J. M. Graetz (somebody originally involved with the project) from various sources as restored by Norbert
Landsteiner. It includes several other sources in the Appendix.
- Bonus link: Emulated PDP-1 running Spacewar!
- Lady of Elche is a limestone sculpture thought to originate from Iberian cultures around 4th BC. It's a beautiful piece of work, and I enjoy the intricate details. And even more striking to me is to consider the vibrant culture that would produce a work like this.
Computing is pop culture. [...] Pop culture holds a disdain for history. Pop culture is all about identity and feeling like you're participating. It has nothing to do with cooperation, the past or the future - it's living in the present. I think the same is true of most people who write code for money. They have no idea where [their culture came from].
— Alan Kay from an interview in July 2012 issue of Dr. Dobb's Journal.
The Nintendo way of adapting technology is not to look for the state of the art but to utilize mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply.
I came across the quote from this post. Yokoi would distill the idea as "Lateral thinking with seasoned technology". From the outside looking in, I had indepenedently come to that conclusion about Nintendo's approach to products a long time ago, but I wasn't aware it was so clearly articulated. But of course it had to be for it to be executed consistently over time. If you're not a one person team, you have to be able to articulate ideas like this in order to propagate the idea to others for them to carry forward.
Fix someone's program, they're happy for a day. Teach someone to program and they're never happy again.
When the CEOs of two companies conspire to set prices, it's illegal. When they merge their companies and engage in the same conspiracy, it's not. Collective bargaining is out, monopolization is in. That's why the Big Six publishers are now the Big Four.
People used to say “when you don’t pay for a service, you’re the product”, but now you always are the product and sometimes you even have to pay for the privilege.
"So how much ram are we talking, on a scale from going to the moon to displaying a web page"
I've always found the whole "cattle-versus-pets" debate about computers to be amusing. Mainly because I've never compared computers to animals.
Rather, my analogy for them has always been naval vessels. Sure they can range from small transports and destroyers all the way to battleships & aircraft carriers and I may have some emotional attachment, but in the end they're all inanimate objects to be used for something. The good ones get a good send-off when I decommission them, but I still do it.
first we leased time on the computer at the computer company, then they sold us computers, then they sold us so many that we had companies come into existence to take them back and run them for us as managed hosting and then we took them back as colocation and then we gave them back as cloud servers and someday we will take them back again and then we will give them back because ultimately it comes down to one simple fact: no one wants to run computers more than they have to.
Cryptocurrency is literally like an eight-year-old's concept of an evil businessman. He just plugs his pollution machine in and gets money for it. It doesn't make anything, it just. Pollutes. And makes money. Like a fucking Captain Planet villain
A computer can never be held accountable. Therefore a computer must never make a management decision.
machine learning is amazing because you take a bunch of data you don't have permission to use and a few million matrix multiplications later you can generate the wrong answer to any question
We build our computers the way we build our cities -- over time, without a plan, on top of ruins.
using a modern computer on the internet is like you've got this amazing studio workshop library full of tools and stuff, workbench space all over the place, and you're gonna put it all to use any minute now - except you just can't stop staring out out one dingy window at these people screaming at each other in the street
my self driving car just announced that my freeway exit is premium drm content that requires a software update, and it is waiting for wifi. i tried to play a cd i burned and the car gave me a copyright strike and replaced it with royalty-free elevator music. every time i want to check the speedometer i have to watch a commercial for liberty mutual. i'm eating cheetos from the racetrac and now the fingerprint reader doesn't recognize my input so the car has put me in guest user mode, adjusting the side mirrors and seat for a much shorter person. it keeps driving away in the middle of the night and coming back with lipstick stains on its side mirror
Programming by starting with a big block of 0xFF and carving away everything that isn't your program
nothing makes programmers madder than having to use the shit that programmers make for a living.
A QA engineer walks into a bar. Orders a beer. Orders 0 beers. Orders 99999999999 beers. Orders a lizard. Orders -1 beers. Orders a ueicbksjdhd.
First real customer walks in and asks where the bathrooms is. The bar bursts into flames, killing everyone.
worse is better, so clearly worst is best
Each new rising of the sun
Is an anniversary of my birth
Every day is my birthday
It's a new day that's begun
A new possibility on this Earth
Every day is my birthday
Each opening of my eyes
Is an opportunity to take flight
Every day is my birthday
It's a new life under skies
And our serendipity come to light
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
— Wendy Cope
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.
— William Martin
- Wikipedia says is "the study of deliberate, culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, typically to sell a product or win favor, particularly through the publicaion of inaccurate or misleading scientific data." Examples: The invention of jaywalking and convincing people plastics were recyclable. This conversation between Peter Galison and Robert Proctor is also enlightening. (Thanks to @vortex_egg for introducing this term to me.)
Not really a meme in the internet sense. It is a quote from a man who had been lost at sea for 29 days. It was an expression of something that a lot of people apparently felt they could relate to after the past two years, and it was shared repeatedly through original posts (i.e. not just boosting or retweeting etc.). Source.
This isn't really a meme. It's life imitating a meme.
"Nobody remembers what cyberpunk started out as."
By Blackle Mori (@suricrasia)
Not to brag, but I am apparently 1/3 himbo.
Also not a meme, but a nice way to end this post. See you, fellow cyber wanderer!
- Don't get me wrong. I also enjoy demos where some sort of technique is obviously being shown off. But the best demos are those where the techniques are in service to the composition. Here is an all time favorite of mine, a 64K PC demo: Seven Heaven. You can try it yourself if you like (it even works on Wine): scene.org. ↩
- While I know the author's name, I used the author's forum handle instead of their name because, other than the AtariAge post, their article is written anonymously. I figure this is on purpose, and so I honor that decision here. ↩
- This list is mostly an exercise for myself to be more mindful about what I am "consuming", so spending more time editing and refining would not necessarily be useful to me. I already got out of it what I wanted. To anybody who wanders into this list and experiences disappointment at its lack of quality or focus, you have my sympathies. ↩
- This also a source of annoyance in our digital age if you aren't listening to the original record or CD. Most of the players I've used introduce noticeable gaps between ripped tracks (with the Roku media player being one of the worst I've experienced with stuttering along with gaps). ↩
- And if you're feeling in a fun mood, Lake Street Dive has produced a series of covers in costume over the years right around Halloween that can be found on their YouTube channel. This year's cover is Hall and Oates' You Make My Dreams Come True and last year's was Beatles' Don't Let Me Down. ↩
- See the The Rise of Worse is Better essay by Richard P. Gabriel that @cwebber is referring to. Plus a little more backstory about Gabriel's history with the "worse is better" concept. ↩
- In case you think that is hyperbole, it is not. See also: But the Envinronemtal Issues With Cryptoart Will Be Solved Soon, Right?. ↩
- How times have changed. Now the lack of accountability is a feature being being used to sell biased decision making software. ↩