One year

This week is the week of “one year ago today” for many people.

  • On February 26 last year I arrived home from a short break in Germany, my last trip outside of England.
  • I worked from home on March 11 for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. On that same day we were told not to come in to the office for the foreseeable future. Initially it was a recommendation. Some time later it was an instruction. Eventually it was the law. I haven’t been in since, nor seen any of my colleagues in person.
  • My parents visited from March 12 to March 16. In two days it will be a year since I’ve seen them, and since they’ve seen their grandson.

What I blog about when I blog about running

At the time I stopped blogging in early 2016 I was preparing to run my first 10 km race, which I did in April of that year. I immediately signed up for another that September, and before long I was regularly running that distance or farther just on regular weekend runs and eventually even on my commute. I always expected that all of that moving would eventually result in some weight loss, but somehow my fork was always able to keep up the pace. But I was fitter than I’ve ever been before.

In late 2017 I set my sights higher (or farther) and planned to do a half marathon, but had a lot of bad luck with organised races being postponed or cancelled, and with my own life getting in the way. Eventually I ran a half marathon distance, 13.1 miles, by myself in April of 2018. I did that several more times that year.

I hadn’t told anyone else this at the time, because I wasn’t sure I was up to it and didn’t want people to know if I chose to drop out, but by the time I ran that half I had already signed up to take part in the Dublin Marathon in October 2018.

My Dad had taken part in one of the first Dublin Marathons in the early 80s, so I grew up with a photo in our front room of him crossing the finish line, a clock above him reading 3:45 or thereabouts. Even ignoring that he would have started farther back and not even crossed the start line until 10-15 minutes after the official race start, I never had the pace to approach a time like that. My 10 km best is a slower pace. But if you want to be a runner you need to embrace the fact that you’re only ever competing with yourself.

So October came around, as it always does. I had built up my training distances and peaked at 30 km in September. I hadn’t kept anywhere close to my training plan, frankly. I didn’t feel ready. I even messed up my planning for the morning of the race and ended up running the whole thing having had just a banana for breakfast. I didn’t know if I’d ever run another marathon, so I decided to let myself at least enjoy the part that it’s possible to enjoy, so I ran the first half far too fast. Then I hobble-ran the second half with much less gusto. Five hours later I crossed the finish line, collected my medal, temporarily lost the ability to regulate my body temperature, and swore I’d never do it again.

One week later I signed up for the 2019 Dublin Marathon.

My training was no better this time around, but my race was. I stayed overnight in Dublin instead of at my parents’ so I didn’t have the early travel in to the city. I paced myself much better so I spent about half the time on each half of the race instead of the previous year’s 40:60 split. My time was almost exactly the same, but I felt I’d done a lot better, and I was happier afterwards than I had been the first time.

As I had done after the 2018 race, I reduced my running a lot for the next few months. It’s hard to stay motivated to run in London in November to January, and having completed a marathon feels like a good excuse to take the foot off the gas. I had some travel in February of 2020 but was ready to really pick things up again in earnest in March. You see where this is going.

Actually I did a pretty good job of working running into the new routine of working from home, with the occasional interruption from last-minute changes to school and childcare arrangements. I didn’t cover as much distance in 2020 as in previous years, but I didn’t have any huge gaps where I didn’t run at all.

During these days of lockdown where we can’t go far from home it’s such a relief to be able to run beyond the 2-3 km radius of home that I’m otherwise limited to. If you can run 15-20 km there’s a lot of places to explore in London. I was regularly visiting Hyde Park, which for me is a 10 km round trip just to reach its closest corner, plus whatever distance I cover inside.

Unfortunately I started to suffer some back pain at the end of the year, so I was forced to ease up a lot. A few times I pushed myself too hard and ended up needing a week to recover, then I’d get a couple of runs in over a few days before I did it again and needed more time off. The pattern was frustrating. Eventually I identified the culprit as my hamstrings, particularly the left.

I’ve been working on hamstring mobility for a few weeks now, and it seems to have improved a lot. I’m very carefully ramping up distance and speed again, trying not to undo the good work. Today I ran 4 km. I plan to do the same tomorrow. All going well I’ll go up to 5 by the end of the week. Once I get past about 5 km that’s when I start to be able to visit places that I can’t reasonably walk to without it taking up a big chunk of my day. I really want to be able to go back to Hyde Park when the weather is better.

Rules for Getting Things Done

These are my mottos / rules / slogans / mantras to help myself get things done:

If not now, when?

This is for those times when you have something that has to be done at some point, but you just don’t feel like doing it right now. The problem is that if you don’t feel like doing it now, chances are you won’t feel like doing it later either. Importantly, it’s not just a rhetorical device. If you have a good answer to the “when” part, then go right ahead and defer the task until that later time.

Spend the extra 30 seconds

You’ve moved something from the living room to the bedroom because that’s where it belongs. You dump it on the bed with the intention of putting it away later. Don’t do that. Spend the extra 30 seconds now and get it completely done, to get it off your mind and to save your future self the work.

Floss one tooth

This one is for when you have a big task in front of you that feels too daunting to start. Maybe a huge pile of dirty dishes to wash, or a whole closet to clear out. If the whole thing is too much, tell yourself you don’t have to do it all. Just do the one smallest possible amount of the work. Clean one bowl, read and archive one email, write one sentence of a blog post. Once you’ve started you may feel like doing a bit more, but you can stop at any time.

In the literal sense, once you’ve flossed one tooth you’re likely to floss them all. In the figurative sense, you won’t always get through the whole task, but you’ll have improved the situation and made it much more likely you’ll get through the remainder next time.

I didn’t study for this test

A couple of weeks ago I got a letter inviting me to take part in a nationwide study into the prevalence of Covid-19. I had been selected at random from all of those registered with a GP in England. All it required was to complete an online questionnaire about any symptoms I currently have (easy – none!) and to self-administer an at-home test they would send me.

It may sound weird, but I was excited to get this opportunity. I know the test is supposedly unpleasant (ranging from mildly to deeply, when I surveyed some friends). I don’t want to minimise that for the poor folks who have to take them regularly, or who take them in an atmosphere of fear rather than curiosity. But I would have felt like I missed out if we got through this situation and I’d never taken a test. It’s not Woodstock, but it’s an era-defining experience in its own way and I didn’t want to miss out on it.

I got the test in the post on Thursday this week, along with instructions on when and how to administer it. It needs to be returned for analysis quickly after administering, which means I don’t actually do anything with it until the morning of the day when it will be collected. I have my alarm set so I can make sure it’s ready at the start of the courier’s collection window at 8 am.

Along with the instructions was a link to an explanatory video. When I got to the end of that video, the “Thank you for your essential contribution to this important study” part, it felt like part of a science fiction film. Another reminder that none of this is normal.

January 2021 in Media

What are you watching, reading, and listening to these days? Here’s mine:

Television

Last year was a big year for streaming TV, thanks in part to the astoundingly well-timed launch of Disney+. The Mandalorian was effectively required viewing in my circle. More like the Mandatorian, am I right? Personally I really enjoyed the show about a socially distant silent type guy and his developing parental relationship with a non-verbal child. Something struck a chord for whatever reason.

Anyway, that’s over for this year, so here’s what we’re watching now in the Parle household:

WandaVision

Hard to talk about this one without spoilers, so I’ll just say that I absolutely love the mid-century suburban Americana and I unironically enjoy the old style sitcom humour. But if that’s not your cup of tea, give it a couple more episodes and see where it goes.

Disenchantment

The fantasy sibling of Futurama is in its third season. Coming from Netflix, it all arrived on the same day, but we’re working through it more slowly so only about half way at this point. Extra points for the addition of Richard Ayoade, but points off for lack of Matt Berry.

Ted Lasso

An American football manager moves to London to manage a floundering Premiership football club. No knowledge of or interest in either sport is required.

We came late to this because it’s on Apple TV+ and we’re not much of an Apple household outside of the Mac (no iPhones or recent iPads). But I got myself one of the new M1 MacBook Pros as soon as they were released and it came with a year’s free subscription. There isn’t support for watching Apple TV+ on a Chromecast yet, but it turns out there’s a PlayStation app.

As many before me have said, Ted Lasso is a perfect show for these times. It’s funny — really funny — but it’s also optimistic.

Film

New films haven’t really been a thing for me this last year. I have been hanging out with friends in a Discord voice channel every Wednesday night since April watching some rubbish we can talk over. Or occasionally something good we can talk over. Most recently was Cyborg 2, the straight to video sequel to Jean Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg, featuring none of the original cast or indeed anything else resembling the original in any way. It does have a young Angelina Jolie in the title role, though she has no redeeming effect on the film whatsoever.

In an attempt to balance the quality level a little, I’ve also been trying to find time to watch all of the Oscar Best Pictures of my lifetime. That means from 1983’s Terms of Endearment onwards. Optimistically I think I can manage about one a fortnight, which means there’ll be at least a couple more on the list before I finish.

I only managed one this month, 1992’s Unforgiven. I’ll say this for it: it’s better than Cyborg 2.

Books

When the whole… everything… started last year I recommended Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven to anyone who thought that reading a book about a global pandemic and its apocalyptic aftermath was a good idea.

I stand by that recommendation, and I can now add Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day. It’s hard to know whether it was good timing or bad to publish a book about a musician in a future where concerts are illegal because of pandemics and terrorism at the end of 2019. It won the Nebula award for best novel though, and I’m enjoying it.

My favourite books of 2020

One of my last posts back in 2016 was about recent books I’d read. I haven’t read nearly as much since then as I might have hoped, but here are a few I enjoyed last year.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality — Peter Singer

I promise I’m not trying to show off with the charity books, but purely by coincidence this one is very similar in theme to “Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference” from my previous post.

This is a very short book, composed of three articles Singer, a moral philosopher, wrote for lay audiences in the 1970s. The core argument of the main article, from which the book takes its name, can be broadly presented as this: there’s no moral distinction between a child drowning in a pond next to you and a person starving on the other side of the world. Most people would agree that helping the drowning child is not only a good thing to do but an obligation, and consequently it’s also a moral obligation to do what we can to help the more geographically distant.

The Thursday Murder Club — Richard Osman

This one is cheerier, despite the name. This debut novel from TV’s most genial quiz show host is a murder mystery in a retirement community. It’s cosy and pleasant, good natured and optimistic, but also a decent mystery. It’s also the only book I read last year with a proper laugh-out-loud GregWallace joke. This was a perfect book for 2020, and given its performance on the fiction charts it seems quite a lot of people agree with me.

The Last Day — Andrew Hunter Murray

Another debut novel, this one from one of the researchers for QI, and host of the spinoff podcast No Such Thing As a Fish. This is a post apocalyptic sci-fi set after a cosmic disaster leaves Earth tidally locked to the Sun so that one side is always in day, the other side always in night, and only the sliver of surface in permanent twilight remains habitable.

Part mystery, part thriller, part “ooh, I know the bit of London he’s talking about.”

The End of Everything — Katie Mack

A pop science exploration of the many ways the universe might come to an end. Heat death, a big crunch, spontaneous vacuum decay. Not only informative, but also one of the funnier books about the ultimate and inevitable destruction of everything that ever has been.

And on that note, I think it’s time to make a bit more progress on this year’s reading list.

GO NORTH

The last day that I worked from my office was March 10 last year. I had some planned work from home days for personal reasons that happened to bump against the day we were all told we should work from home for the next few weeks. You know the rest. I hope my desk plant is doing okay.

In the time since then, especially in the early days when it was all a bit of a novelty and everyone was doing Zoom workout sessions every morning (I was never doing Zoom workout sessions every morning) we experimented with lots of different ways to have fun social events with a distributed team. My favourite by far have been the Parsely interactive text adventures from Memento Mori.

The Parsely games are modelled on the old single-player text adventure computer games from the 80s where the player issues simple commands like GO NORTH or GET KEY and the computer interprets them and responds with a textual description of the environment and the results of the player’s actions. The only one of these I actually remember playing is the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game where I failed to get out of Arthur Dent’s house before its demolition. That game was hard.

The difference with the Parsely games is that there’s no computer involved (besides the ones you may be using to communicate with your friends and colleagues). Instead one of the players takes on the role of the computer. It’s up to that player to decide how lenient they want to be in interpreting the other players’ commands. It can be a lot of fun as the computer player to come up with creative ways to say “you can’t do that” in response to unexpected commands. (“Stab butler” “You remember an old adage your father told you as a child: never stab a butler”)

It’s still a conceptually single player game, but all of the other players take turns issuing commands as that player. In a strict interpretation of the rules, they’re not allowed to confer, adding an extra layer of difficulty — and often either hilarity or frustration, depending on the group. The more players you have the harder this makes it. We usually start with this rule, but sometimes relax it if the group is stuck for too long.

My team ran the gamut from those with a lot of experience of text adventure games to those who had never even heard of them let alone played one. All of them enjoyed playing and signed up for another game right away.

I’d be remiss in not giving this credit: I first encountered the Parsely games thanks to the Incomparable Gameshow podcast, a spinoff from the main Incomparable podcast about geeky media of al kinds which probably deserves a blog post of its own at some point.

If you’re interested in trying it out, you can download the first game (Action Castle) for free, and the PDF containing 10 games is only $20.

Is this thing on?

It’s amazing how the dust piles up when you don’t post for a week or two. Or five years.

Last time I posted was the beginning of 2016. That was just before the celebrities started to die off, signalling the beginning of a pretty bad five years for many people. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge how lucky I am that I tend to be relatively isolated from the worst of what goes on in the world, be that economic instability or social upheaval or pandemics. May I never come to think that I ever did anything to earn that privileged position.

My last five years have been dominated by parenthood, which was pretty new to me at the beginning of 2016, but which I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of. It’s mostly about cleaning chocolate off everything and not going out, which prepared me well for 2020.

I somehow conspired to put on a substantial amount of weight while training for and running two marathons, which is an achievement in some sense.

Work continues to be work, though no longer at work these days, and unlikely to be back until deep into the second half of this year. I still try to write code every day, but a lot more of my job happens in emails and documents these days.

I’ve read some books, though never as many as I’d like. I’ve watched a lot of TV, possibly more that I would like. I started playing video games again, having bought a PS4 just before the PS5 came out. I did that on the grounds that everything on it is new to me anyway and should now be substantially cheaper. Spider-Man is good.

I’m still living in the same place, now by far the longest I’ve lived in a single place since I left my parents’ house. Its capacity to accrue clutter has not abated in that time, largely as a consequence of the aforementioned parenthood. We own a lot of Play-Doh.

I traveled a bit, though not recently. Maui was a highlight, for Christmas in 2019 (I nearly wrote “last year” – hah!) Going inside a glacier in Iceland was also pretty neat. These days I’d be lucky to get to an Iceland supermarket, so I’m glad we made memories while we could. Here’s to doing that again soon.

Anyway, that’s me. I’m sure I forgot a bunch of stuff. I might post again soon. I might post again in five years. I might not. I hope you’re well. Here’s to 2021.

January reading

At the end of last year I started writing short reviews on Goodreads of the books I’d finished reading. Nothing super in-depth or thoughtful, just a few sentences about each book in the moments after I finished it. I write them as if someone has just asked me what I thought of the book but I can tell they were kinda just being polite so they don’t want me to go on and on.

Anyway, here’s what I read in January (each one links through to my short review).

Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference — William MacAskill (unfortunately I lost my initial review of this one, so what’s here is really brief)

The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen  — Brian Cox, Jeffrey R. Forshaw

How Proust Can Change Your Life — Alain de Botton

Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story — Steve Kamb

If you’re interested you can add me on Goodreads or follow my ‘Books’ collection on Google+ to see more as I write them. I also hope to do monthly posts like this one, but go ahead and look at my posting history if you want to decide for yourself how likely that is.