Health and Fitness
I bought a Peloton Bike in late 2021 (not the Bike+), partly out of curiosity, and partly because I wanted a way to exercise during the dark Scottish winters when sunset is at 3:45pm and I can’t run outside easily.
They were still doing white-glove setup back then, so two women arrived precisely on time (having already texted me their ETA in advance), hauled the bike out of a van, carried it up to our top floor, assembled it, and helped me log into my account and adjust everything. I assumed the idea was to ensure all customers actually used the bike and stayed subscribed, which is after all where they really made their money from. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – it surely cost hundreds of pounds per customer and of course they don’t do it for free any more, but it made me wonder how we’d design other games and services with that kind of white-glove onboarding (e.g. like Superhuman).
I didn’t enjoy cycling on my Peloton. The classes are infused with a level of American-style positive psychology that I can’t stand. I remember one instructor, recorded at 6am, telling her audience, “This time is for you, it’s a special time to make yourself better. For the next 30 minutes, you can shut out your kids, your husband, your work, and just focus on this…” and it obviously did nothing at all for me.
The scenic rides were pleasant to watch, if repetitive and less motivating; and the Lanebreak game, while polished, was devoid of anything to hold my interest. I stopped using the bike entirely as soon as it got light enough to run outside after work, and sold it for half of what I paid last month.
When the weather permits, I run 5K to 8K every day, always going through through Holyrood Park. Recently, a combination of overexercise and poor sitting posture (probably exacerbated by COVID lockdowns making my physical behaviour even more repetitive than usual) resulted in a back problem which makes it hard for me to run at full speed without pulling a muscle. I’m hoping that my new swimming habit will help.
Peloton promises convenience – you can squeeze a 20 minute workout in between (or even during) Zoom calls. It’s hard to think of anything less convenient than swimming, what with the travel and changing and drying your hair. But there’s one big difference, for me at least: swimming is fun.
Though running is my first love, if I had a swimming pool in my back yard, I’d do laps in it every day without fail. When Six to Start still had our office in Gospel Oak in London (this was before the rent doubled and multiple offices were still on a shared ADSL line the landlords refused to upgrade; hmm, I wonder why companies are going fully remote!), the Parliament Hill Lido was just around the corner. I’d swim in its 60m outdoor pool until it got colder than I could bear, which in practice was about 18C. By that time, when I got in the freezing water I felt like I was going to have a heart attack until I warmed up after a few minutes sprinting.
In other words, even though it takes an extra 30 minutes walk and prep time to get to my nearest pool, it is so much more enjoyable than Peloton that I don’t even question whether it’s worth it, and that’s even before you consider the health benefits of exercising different muscle groups in a low-impact way, etc.
My current routine is 30 minutes of non-stop swimming:
- 10 min crawl
- 3 min backstroke
- 2 min breaststroke
- 5 min crawl
- 3 min backstroke
- 3 min breaststroke
- 5 min crawl
That adds up to around 1250m, or 50 lengths of a 25m pool. I try to keep things as simple as I can – no headphones, no music, no podcasts. It’s pleasant to have a short time without any distractions or media.
People often ask me whether governments should use gamification to improve citizens’ fitness. No doubt some people would welcome gamified exercise. The problem is that this request is usually a way to justify cutting overall spending on health and fitness, because gamification is apparently just as good as a swimming pool or a football pitch, and cheaper to boot. Zombies, Run! has its place, as does Pokémon Go, but these games aren’t for everyone.
If you want to help everyone, you need to make a wide range of exercise options available in all areas rather than continually asking “is this enough?”. Those options can include gamification, but they must include walkable areas, running routes, pools, sports facilities, and all the rest, such that there’s something for everyone. I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford private gym fees. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be swimming, I’d be in worse shape, I might need to see a physiotherapist, which would be very expensive, there’d be more impact on the NHS, etc.
But that’s the UK for you – a country that doesn’t understand the meaning of investment.
On the recommendation of an employee, Six to Start recently bought memberships to Pliability.com (formerly known as ROMWOD), which offers daily video workouts to improve your body’s flexibility, a little like Pilates. We do group workouts twice a week, and until recently I did my own workouts on other days.
There’s no question it’s improved my flexibility in some ways. Sitting down on my shins in a saddle position, let alone going to full saddle and leaning all the way back, was excruciating at the start, and now it’s merely a bit annoying. I think the exercises have loosened up my lower back, too. But a lot of the exercises do nothing for me, so it hasn’t been as transformative as I’d hoped.
Good Things I Bought
I picked up a couple of things in San Francisco which I instantly worried were going to fall into the cool-but-useless holiday purchases bucket, and have surprised me with their utility:
Topologie Brick Pouch
I have too many bags of the Peak Design tech nomad ilk, but I’d never seen anything like this. It’s shaped like a hot dog with an empty space in the middle where you can store a water bottle or an umbrella, handily solving my main use case for such crossbody bags while leaving enough space for other stuff to be stored separately. Right now I’m using it to carry my swimming stuff.
Allbirds Men’s Wool Runner-up Mizzles
A cliché, yes, but I needed a warmer pair of shoes that could cope with the Edinburgh’s wet, slick pavements, and these have held up much better than I expected.
Hestra Ergo Grip Active Wool Terry 5-finger gloves
Amid the arctic winter snap earlier this month, I succumbed and bought a proper thick pair of gloves; too thick to have capacitive fingertips that work on touchscreens, but much warmer and more comfortable than my thinner Hestra gloves. The mix of materials works perfectly, and I especially like the leather pre-curved fingers that look like chainmail.
The best games console I’ve bought in years. Since I only have a Mac and consoles, its ability to play countless PC games with no fuss at all is an absolute godsend. It’s unlocked so many incredible indie games that I’d have had to wait for months to make it to other hardware (if at all) and it’s surprisingly comfortable to hold for hours.
It’s also unquestionably the best value for money console out today. I got the high end 512GB SSD version but I promise you that the entry level version with 64GB at £349 is just as fast, especially if you get a fast SD card (only ~£40 for 256GB!). When you consider that Steam games are often the cheapest option, especially with the frequent sales, and that you get Steam keys with most Humble Bundle sales, you cannot go wrong with this thing. Buy it now before they increase the price!
AirPods Pro (Second Generation)
These weren’t the generational leap I was hoping for after three years, but they still improve in every single measure: battery life, feature set, noise cancellation, even range.
Aquasphere Unisex Kayenne Swim Goggles
These are The Wirecutter’s top pick for goggles, and for good reason: they don’t leak, at all. They can steam up a bit, but not as much as other goggles. Well worth it.
The last time I was in Paris was almost twenty years ago, and I found it a tricky place to navigate and understand. It turns out that if you visit with an iPhone and with much more money, you’re actually seeing a completely different Paris.
Well – no shit, especially on the latter point – but it’s like The City and The City, you might as well be in an entirely different universe if you can stay more centrally and skip the queues and not worry about how much you’re spending on meals. Does this mean you can’t enjoy Paris without money? Of course you can, and that’s where the iPhone comes in with its magic routing and translation powers, none of which are new, but they were new to my experience of Paris.
When I lived in London, people would claim the city was on par with New York financially, culturally, politically. Wandering along the Thames, across from Parliament and then along the Southbank, taking in a play, stopping at a gallery, going to a restaurant, looking out onto the skyscrapers in the City and in Canary Wharf, it was easy to think that was true.
And then you exit the subway in Manhattan bleary-eyed from your flight, you tilt your neck up to see the valley of towers stretching in every direction as far as the eye can see, you open Google Maps and see such a density of everything that you keep having to zoom in to tell the icons apart, and you realise the comparison wasn’t just wrong, it was pathetically foolish, and that while London might compare itself to New York, New York never compares itself to London.
It would be tedious and redundant for me to describe all the things I love about New York, which are more or less the same things that every British-Chinese 40 year old in tech/media/publishing/games likes, but I had an especially good time this September because I gave two talks about my book at NYU and Parsons School of Design. This was exactly two more talks than I’d been invited to give to any university or educational institution in England, which make me even more certain that its institutions simply do not “get” new ideas in technology, let alone games, unless they have already become huge in the US or they involve lots of money.
(I did get invited to give a talk at Abertay University in Dundee in October, which was very kind and affirms my love of Scotland).
Is this petty? You tell me! It’s hard not to notice which people and which places care about your work versus others.
I have a lot of friends I enjoy seeing in SF and it was especially nice to visit the beautiful Marin County and Point Reyes this time. But as a stop on my book tour, it was a mistake. I’d thought its tech-centric nature would guarantee coverage and events. Coverage, yes. Events, no. Why? No-one had read the book yet! Unlike New York or Los Angeles, SF is not a media town and it’s not a video game town either. And since I’d given the tech industry both barrels, I could hardly rock up to Meta or Apple or Google’s front door and pretend to be a friendly face.
I expect that visiting SF in a year or two’s time will bear more fruit, but I probably should’ve gone to Los Angeles, book-wise.
My best shows of the year aren’t very different from everyone else’s: Andor, The Bear, Station Eleven, Atlanta, Severance.
Out of those five, I have to shout out Atlanta as the most unappreciated. A lot of people call Season 4 a return to form, but the truth is that Season 3 was just as good as the rest, and more daring. The alt-universe episode about reparations was one of the most powerful pieces of science fiction I’ve ever seen.
Again, no big surprises: I especially enjoyed Nope, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Top Gun: Maverick, Prey, RRR, Murina, Hit the Road, The Fabelmans, and with Aftersun coming at the top of the list – a captivating, mysterious, devastating movie.
All my 2022 movies and reviews on Letterboxd.
I read 48 books this year, which is a touch lower than my all-time highs but still pretty good since I basically didn’t read anything at all during my book launch.
I started strong with Laurent Binet’s thrilling Civilizations, an epistolary alt-history where the Incas invade Europe. It was inspiring to see such an unusual and imaginative page-turner receive awards, and I continued my French contemporary fiction tour with Hervé Le Tellier’s sci-fi novel The Anomaly, which was equal parts silly and breathtaking.
I was worried Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man would be too broad (what, with that title?!), but Hamid never disappoints and this was a characteristically beautifully, sparing contemporary fairytale that was at once situated nowhere and everywhere. Finally, I returned to Stanislaw Lem with his short story collection The Star Diaries. What more is there to say about Lem? In my mind he’s the best science fiction author of the 20th century. That’s an enormous claim to make but its borne out by his unmatchable breadth of imagination, humanity, and humour.
Most of what I read last year was non-fiction, however. I find it easier to start as the books are usually topical or areas I’m already interested in, and even a bad book will have things to teach me. That said, I’m far happier and more fulfilled having read good fiction, so I need a way to correct that balance.
Highlights include Zachard D. Carter’s The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, Karen Cheung’s The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir, Megan Walsh’s The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters, Emma Saunders-Hastings’ Private Virtues, Public Vices: Philanthropy and Democratic Equality, Brad DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, Kevin Driscoll’s The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media, Jorge Almazán’s Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith, and Amanda H. Podany’s Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East.
Thanks to the Steam Deck and my EDGE column, I’ve been playing more games lately, though my favourites are pretty conventional: Elden Ring, The Case of the Golden Idol, Immortality, Citizen Sleeper, the first act of Inscryption, Pentiment, and Wordle/Quordle/Octordle.
Walkabout Mini Golf VR gets an honorary mention for being fun to play with friends halfway around the world!
Weathergraph’s absurdly info-dense widgets are the perfect companion on my quixotic quest for total weather certainty in the entropic white hole that is Edinburgh; a mere glance at my iPhone’s lock screen or home screen can tell me precisely how sunny, rainy, windy, and warm the next few days will be.
BeReal is lovely for its low effort way of keeping in touch with close and loose ties.
Though it’s still in early alpha, Ivory – a Mastodon client – is polished and adding features at a rapid clip, which is to be expected from the developers of Tweetbot.
I enjoyed playing around with DiffusionBee, a standalone Mac app that lets you generate AI art with Stable Diffusion. Half the developers on my Mac and IOS Slack communities seem to be making custom front-ends for generative AI tools these days…
Readwise gets an honorary mention, not for its brand new Reader app which aims to a combination Pocket/Instapaper/RSS/highlighter app (I think it needs some work) but for its original app that, incredibly, can import highlights from every service imaginable including Kindle and Apple Books. I discovered it too late for writing You’ve Been Played, but it would’ve saved me hours.
I read somewhere that “bad things happen when private conversations different too much from public conversations”, which strikes me as an excellent way to understand the different roles they fulfil and the importance of open communication in general. Private conversations are inevitably going to involve more hot takes and grousing and indiscretions than public ones; but if they get too different, whether that’s in a company or a government or a relationship, severe grievances can be left to fester and serious problems overlooked.
“Skin in the game” wins the record for the most annoying saying of the year, usually volleyed by finance and tech bros at journalists who apparently can only be trusted to be honest if they bet cash. This is, of course, utter garbage and the inevitable result of reducing everything in the world down to money. Not everyone thinks “skin” equals money, not everyone has the same amount of skin, and not everyone treats debate and discussion like a game.
“Emotionally satisfying, financially irrational,” is from session 5 of Stanford University’s Personal Finance for Engineers course. It explains that “paying off debt can be emotionally satisfying, but financially irrational” and is the most succinct way to describe r/ukpersonalfinance’s preference for overpaying on mortgages versus any other kind of investing or saving. Posters there say it’s a huge weight off their minds to know they fully own their house, even if they realise they could’ve be wealthier had they invested in an index fund or even in bonds. I understand the preference but frankly, I think it feeds into the UK’s obsessive belief that housing is the best form of investment at the expense of everything else.
I joined Mastodon over six years ago but 2022 was the year where I really committed to it over Twitter. Moving to a slower, chronological, non-algorithmic timeline has the effect of redistributing attention. This isn’t just because Mastodon doesn’t show you those odious “X liked this tweet” or “Y follows this account” (I managed to remove those on Twitter). It’s because you don’t see the viral tweets first, which likely aren’t that good or entertaining, but rather are benefits of a winner-takes-all system.
Yes, you can switch your Twitter timeline to chronological, but as long as most people stay on the default algorithmic timeline, the overall discourse remains warped. So Mastodon really is different, in that regard.
I got unhelpfully frustrated with the negative reaction to Mastodon during its explosion. A lot of people who had used it for only five minutes confidently pronounced how it would never “work” for social, financial, or technical reasons, ignoring the fact that for many, it’d already been working for years. Many of those people hated Twitter and hated Elon Musk, but they seemed angry that Mastodon wasn’t a perfect replica.
Amusingly, it only takes a few weeks to convert even the most die-hard hater. I can’t count the number of people who declared Mastodon was too slow, too ugly, and too poorly moderated to ever work, who then decide the water’s just fine. Things never change – but I do wish people would learn. All I can conclude is that twenty years of venture capital-backed social media has been enough to convince people that all we can hope for is a “good billionaire” to run our public squares.
Follow me on Mastodon: @firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve spent a lot of time in two Discords recently: Sidechannel (mostly Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study area) and Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day. They remind me of the very best of IRC servers, where everyone knows your name and you can chat about the news of the day without having to watch your words too carefully. Abandon social media, return to group chat!
Finally, I served on Metafilter’s Transition Team as the site changed ownership. I don’t know how much I really accomplished compared to the current Steering Committee, who’ve done an incredible job with fundraising and getting the site’s codebase into better shape, but as a group we helped move the process along.
Besides some big projects at Six to Start coming to fruition, I’m not taking on any major commitments next year.
I’m sure I’ll end up starting something new, whether that’s a short story or a novel or some side gig, and I’ve been meaning to run a meetup for interesting people in tech/games/arts/theatre/immersive things in Edinburgh, but for the moment I’m enjoying having a little more free time…