Weeknote Special: 2020

Once again we have come to the last Sunday of the year, and I thought it would be nice to take a bigger-picture look than the usual weeknote format.

It’s been an unusual year for sure, but overall a pretty good one (well, for me personally).

The Plague

This has been the year of the plague. Since March, I’ve only left my flat to go to the shops once or twice a week. It’s been driving some people crazy, but I’ve quite liked it. The only bad part really has been the sudden change of guidance around Christmas travel, meaning I couldn’t get back home and have to go through the hassle of getting my train tickets refunded.

I am glad that I moved to Rickmansworth last year. This flat is larger than my previous one, and also quieter. I think being stuck in a small flat in a busy part of London for 9 months would have been much more stressful.

I’ve not caught the coronavirus (yet?), but I did come down with a case of shingles back in September. That wasn’t very fun.

Work

In June last year I got promoted to a senior developer, and in June this year I became tech lead for the team working on GOV.UK Accounts. I think the actual name is still to be decided, but it’s probably going to be “GOV.UK Accounts” because, come on, what else could you reasonably call an account for government? Government Gateway is already taken!

So in the latter half of this year I’ve had a lot to learn about leading people, defining and breaking up work, and also all the specific accounts-related technologies I’d not really used before, like OAuth and OpenID Connect.

Finance

Last year I made a bunch of changes to how I manage my finances. This year, not so much. I think I’m pretty happy with my system now.

This year I continued building up cash savings. Late last year I spent a lot on moving, and then on buying furniture; I’ve bought some more furniture this year; I spent a bunch upgrading my computers and networking equipment; and I’ve bought a lot of books. So I’ve not saved as much as I could have; but money is there to be used, there’s no point in being a miser and saving it all for retirement. I did manage to build a sizeable emergency fund in Premium Bonds, on top of my normal cash savings, which is a nice extra little security net.

The next big change (which I’m planning to start with the new tax year) is a shift from saving most of my paycheque as cash to investing most of it. At that point I’ll have so much in cash that I could withstand a pretty major financial emergency—such as being out of work for several months and then needing to rent storage space for all my possessions and move back home—and with interest rates as low as they are, there’s just not much point in holding ever-increasing amounts of cash.

This year was a pretty good year for not losing track of my money. I only ended up with four balance adjustments in my journal:

  • Three for my credit card: I lost track of £80.54 overall.

  • One for my student loan balance: they’ve not sent me an annual statement since 2017, and the website doesn’t have them either, so every so often I check my outstanding balance and adjust my journal.

I’ve only used cash 4 times this year, which has definitely helped with not losing track. It’s much easier to keep on top of things when they’re listed on a statement somewhere.

Reading

This year I’ve read 94 books, a bit of a step up from the 38 of last year. At one point I was aiming to reach 104 books (2 a week), but realised that this was making me prioritise reading short books and manga, so I dropped that goal and decided to just read whatever I wanted.

This year saw some significant changes to bookdb, with a revamped backend using Elasticsearch rather than sqlite, better handling of authors / editors / translators, generation of actual thumbnails for all the book covers, and a new nested categorisation system.

This year also saw the introduction of one book wishlist to rule them all, being part reading plan, part amalgamation of various other wishlists. The reading list I came up with consists of the SF Masterworks, Fantasy Masterworks, and Penguin Little Black Classics collections.

So here’s what I read this year, by category:

With so many and so varied books, it’s hard to pick out a single favourite. But a few did stand out:

  • The Book of Monelle

    This was an influential book in the early French symbolist movement, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a collection of short stories, written as the author, Marcel Schwob, watched a prostitute that he fell in love with slowly die of tuberculosis.

    It’s hard going. Sometimes you can just breeze through a collection of short stories stories, but not this one. I had to take a break after each one to digest it. The translation I’ve got, by Kit Schluter, is very well done: it’s easy to read and, while I can’t compare with the original, it feels like it kept the emotion and the powerful writing.

  • The Malazan Book of the Fallen

    This series is a truly incredibly work of high fantasy. The world is very well thought-out and developed, with the fictional history spanning hundreds of thousands of years, several continents, many peoples, and is all tied together into an over-arching story about a fallen god seeking power and revenge. This is certainly not a Tolkien-knockoff. Furthermore, the magic system is really unique, it’s soft, but it does feel like there are hard principles underlying it somewhere and ensuring it’s consistent… they’re just not revealed to us.

    The series switches between a large number of viewpoint characters, and some books will jump to a different continent with different characters, and you won’t find out how that ties into the overall story until a few more books down the line. So it’s probably not a good read if you like highly linear storytelling, or the traditional adventuring party format.

    Amazingly, the core of this story came out of a GURPS campaign! I would love to play in such an incredible game at some point, though it must be a huge amount of work to put together.

  • Nana

    This is the story of two young women, both called Nana, who meet on the train when they’re both moving to Tokyo. One is a musician, the other is more or less a groupie. And it’s about the drama of their lives. It’s very character driven, there are times I found myself thinking “if they just talked to each other they’d clear up so many misunderstandings!”

    Throughout, there are snippets which make it sound like the story is being told retrospectively, from some viewpoint years later. And in the later volumes there are a few flash-forwards, but we don’t get much detail of this future.

    The manga was put on hiatus after the author went into hospital with a sudden illness, and hasn’t been resumed. So I was expecting it to end unclimactically, but having now read the final volume, the ending is great. It certainly doesn’t wrap up all the plot threads, but it is a good place to stop. Don’t go into this expecting the ending to be kind of rubbish, like I did.

Tech

I don’t think I’ve significantly changed my tech habits this year. I stopped using Google Photos in favour of just plugging my phone into the computer to get files off of it, but that’s about it. I’m still using Google Calendar, but that’s now the only Google service I’m using regularly outside of work.

I did do a major overhaul of my home network, though. I’m using a Ubiquiti router, switch, and access point, with VLANs for segmenting the network. I’m still using a Raspberry Pi running Pi-hole for DNS, but at some point I think I’ll probably get a second one, so if one goes down (for example, rebooting for updates), it doesn’t briefly take down DNS for my entire network. I also finally set up an alert for if my backup script fails to run, as back in August I noticed it had been silently failing for months.

Gaming

This has been a good year for gaming, I started up a second group, and my first group is still going strong. My very long running Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign wrapped up… but I’m now running MoN again for my new group. Thankfully they’re making pretty different choices, so it’s still new and fresh for me. We’re using the Pulp Cthulhu rules too, so it’s a bit more… pulpy.

Right now I’m in four games:

  • Saturdays
    • Dungeons and Dragons (5e): playing your fairly typical high fantasy adventuring party style thing.
    • Pulp Cthulhu: playing Masks of Nyarlathotep.
  • Sundays

I also ran games of Golden Sky Stories and of Apocalypse World for a bit, but I don’t think Golden Sky Stories is very good for campaign play, and I didn’t really get on with the Apocalypse World system.

This year I’ve been wondering about what it is I enjoy in roleplaying games. I’ve found myself really getting into the Wolves of God game, more I think than any other campaign I’ve been in before; after one session I spent a significant amount of my spare time in the two weeks before the next session figuring out how my character would respond to a situation which put his morals and his goals in conflict. I’ve also found myself not really getting into the Fate game; it’s fun when I play, but I don’t really find myself thinking about it between sessions, and even as far in as we are now, I still don’t feel like I’ve got a good sense of who my character is.

I think I can summarise what I look for in a roleplaying game with “I want to be somebody in fantasy-land, I don’t want to be telling the story of somebody in fantasy-land.” So what I look for is a combination of simulation and immersion.

Apocalypse World and Fate are terrible for immersion. The rules are explicitly based around producing good stories. The Fate Point system only works if you’re willing to make decisions which would be bad for your character but good for the story.

Wolves of God is more gamist than simulationist I would say, though as an OSR game it’s not very strongly gamist. It’s kind of neutral I guess. It’s got levels, experience points (glories / shames), and feats, but the mechanics are still fairly light so interacting with the world doesn’t feel like interacting with a video game or boardgame. I think what really helps with my immersion is that it’s a real setting I can understand. I’m by no means well versed in Dark Ages culture, but I can at least imagine what it might have been like, and look up concrete information.

And so, having reached this understanding, I can’t help but be a bit saddened that a huge focus in the RPG community seems to be about producing stories.

People will advise new GMs to “think of the game like a story”; to have shared authorship of the game world with the players00I think this sort of thing is fine outside of the game session, or in special “worldbuilding sessions”. But what’s not fine, because it ruins immersion, is to ask a player to do some worldbuilding for you in the middle of a normal session. To use an almost comically over-the-top example which nevertheless does come up in really story-focussed games, “you throw open the doors to the castle vaults and see… hey, what is it you see?”

; and that fudging HP and dice rolls is not only fine, it’s almost a duty, if it’ll make the story better11Some GMs even proudly state “I don’t think fudging is a tool you should be using a lot, I only use it when it’s absolutely essential”, and then go on to say that they fudge “maybe once or twice a session”! That’s a lot!

.

People who like this style of play will usually use terms like “the fiction”, “fictional positioning”, and “fictional permissions”. Which is really just a pretentious way of saying “the game world” and “what it makes sense for your character to be able to do.”

Sure, that’s one style of play. I personally prefer verisimilitude. I like the game world to feel like a real place with an independent existence, and if that means the players occasionally one-shot the big bad with a lucky strike in the middle of his monologue, or that the GM has to tell players “no you can’t make a character like that because it doesn’t match the established lore”, that’s fine too.

Oh well.

Miscellaneous

A couple of weeks ago I started tracking my time. I’m still doing it, and it’s been enjoyable so far. It’s neat being able to easily see things like how many days it’s been since I last took time off work, or how long I actually spend on TTRPG prep. I’m planning to continue doing this, and will write up a memo at some point.