Things I recommend you watch, listen to and play

personal, films, games, tv, music, 2020

I enjoyed the process of writing about my best purchases of 2020, and so here is another consumerist post, this time listing my top 3 films, TV shows, musicians and games of the year. I previously used to post lists of books I read every year, but paradoxically having more spare time because of working from home did not help me with reading as now a lot more things were competing for said time (while you're pretty much limited to reading if you commute). So I simply haven't read a lot in 2020.

All this content was mostly either released this year or not too long ago (but only came to my attention relatively recently), so there is no very strict criteria other than that, as well as there is no particular order in which they are listed - if it's here, then I loved it.

Films

Motherless Brooklyn (Google Play)

Noir is not an overly popular category and doesn't get a lot of new films, so if you like it, you already have a reason not to miss this one. It is hardly new though - while very well, if not flawlessly, executed, it just follows the traditional plot, so if you have seen a few good (neo-)noir films before, you'll be able to tell how it is going to end soon after you start watching.

What makes it special is Edward Norton's performance. Hi is playing a detective suffering from a few neurological disorders, and he does it very well - there is no whitewashing, so you don't see yet another extremely smart savant with a few - of course cute and lovable - quirks (a usual trope when directors try something like this). Rather, you get a very good idea of what it probably feels like.

A great role that is genuinely ace acting, and it does a lot in terms of representation without the feel that it was the only purpose of giving a character that trait.

Mosul (Netflix)

Not really a great film outside of context - a middle tier action flick, "not great, not terrible". Why it is more powerful and so is more exciting and emotional to watch that the genre boundaries suggest is because it is one of the few, if not the only, well produced 'mass market' films about wartime Iraq that doesn't feature Westerners.

Both bad and good guys killing each other for a couple of hours are Iraqis (and sometimes Iranians). There are neither American superhero SEALs saving everyone, nor a heavily hinted idea that it is solely because of the US that this place is torn apart, both of these opposite narratives ultimately denying Iraqis any agency. Mosul is different.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Amazon Prime)

A story of coming to terms with your age and consequences of your previous choices as well as circumstances outside of your control, delivered by Stewart and Binoche. Two lead actresses don't overshadow each other, which is already a rare occasion.

In one of the reviews I read that this film tells the same story as Birdman, but from a female perspective. I think this is a very good way to describe it, only of course it's doesn't make it inferior (the story they both tell is not new in the first place). I'd also add that as how Birdman is male-centric, it is also very American, while Clouds of Sils Maria is very female-centric and also very European. I think, they are both very good and even gain from being compared to each other.

While we are at it, isn't it funny how everyone used to make fun of Twilight films, but Stewart and Pattinson grew into really strong actors? Who knew.

TV Series

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

This something you have probably already seen, but the last season was streamed in early 2020, and that gives me an excuse to repeat that this is a great show. The main thing it does for me is that it is extremely relatable, even though I am not a millionaire TV star, I don't have a drinking problem, have fewer friends and I am not even a horse.

What I mean is that pretty much every episode has a scene where you can recall a similar thing happening to you in the past, the same thoughts crossing your mind - not exactly like that, yes, not in the deliberately exaggerated way, but the conflict and the feelings were largely the same, and so are your memories that are suddenly very vivid. This is why I think this series should be loved by middle aged people more than by the young simply because they have more history behind them that this show ruthlessly excavates.

Better Call Saul (Netflix)

Another big title that doesn't need yet another introduction, but if you somehow did not see it yet, you certainly should (the last season is still pending). The characters and their problems are far from being relatable in this one, so it is the sheer talent with which everything is put together and the writing that make it great.

While it is a prequel for Breaking Bad, I didn't watch it before I started with Better Call Saul, and when I did later I found the original to be less enjoyable. Breaking Bad is, in my opinion, much less believable, and the transformation of the main character as the story unfolds (which is also the main idea of the prequel), is more difficult to imagine actually happening.

The only problem this show has is the one many could only wish for - it gets better towards the end, so if you didn't quite enjoy the first season or two and stopped, give it a chance, you won't regret it.

Ad Vitam (you get it, Netflix)

It is a short single season French show set in the not too distant future and exploring the problems of coming of age and mortality. The budget wasn't too generous and it shows - we're reminded that the action takes place in the future mostly just by cars having a plastic hump at the bonnet and blue or red neon lights everywhere. Unexpectedly, this seems to work by putting the focus on the story (similar how to it doesn't bother you in the theatre that all the action happens at the same stage).

The acting by the main duo is great, and while the series could probably be even shorter without harming the plot, it still qualifies for a 'hidden gem' category.

Music

John Frusciante (everything, really)

I've been an RHCP fan for decades, but it wasn't until this year that I also listened to Frusciante's solo albums. What can I say, I wish I did it earlier.

First of all, that is a lot of music (the latest album was released in 2020 / and it's electronic / and it isn't even his first electronic album). And we are not talking about a few particularly good tracks with everything else just thrown in to make it sell as an album - while some tracks are still better than others, the quality is pretty consistent.

Then there is a great variety - you get lo-fi experimental rock, acid house or something more like what you would expect from an RHCP guitar man. You can build a hours long playlist exclusively from Frusciante's tracks that still isn't too repetitive.

Atmosphere - Whenever (2019)

They keep doing the same thing with every new album including this one released in 2019, but the point is that they've perfected it. So there is this, and that Whenever is perhaps more romantic than their previous work, in a good way.

As with any musicians that put a great emphasis on the lyrics, this is not the music for every occasion, but the poetry is really good, and so there will be a day on which it resonates with you especially well.

The best track there is of course Son of Abyss, followed closely by Lovely.

Ibrahim Maalouf - 40 Mélodies (2020)

Just a 43 tracks album by one of the best modern jazz trumpeters in the world, that also includes his best tunes like True Sorry.

I think he manages to maintain the right balance with freestyle-ish segments that 'wander off' the main theme, but never too far away from that (a problem with many modern jazz musicians that tend to overdo this part) - in short, you're still able to hum to his tracks. They are more 'melodic' than the classic records from the golden era of jazz (Your Soul is a good example of that), so I see why he could be called a bit dull and predictable in comparison, but looking at other modern performers, it's better to err on that side than on the opposite.

He also has his distinct style thanks to recognisable, but not overly dominating Arabic musical motives interweaved with otherwise classical jazz structure very gently - a good example would be Layla's Wedding that blends it with what otherwise is a tap dance theme.

Games

Into The Breach (PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch)

This is game is from 2018, but I only discovered it in early 2020, and it is still being released on new platforms. A simple turn-based strategy built around short battle scenarios where you constantly have to choose the least bad move, and the s0oner you recognise that your units' health is a spendable resource (that you just shouldn't run out of, not to preserve at all costs), the better.

Hades (PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch)

In true roguelike games you only live once, and when you die, you have to restart. Hades is an interesting twist on this principle - once you die, you die and have to start again (no saved games!), but some of your character parameters persist between the runs (of which there are going to be dozens if not hundreds), and the story remains uninterrupted.

I was first put off by its visually overloaded battles (too much is going on at the same time!), but the game isn't unnecessarily and frustratingly difficult, like, for example, Cuphead - you can feel that you are getting better at it as you play more, so you don't get bored.

Yoshi's Crafted World (Nintendo Switch)

Just a simple kids' game that is also fun enough for adults to play (with the kids watching). I am not a fan of the whole Mario universe thing and think that most of its 'masterpieces' are overvalued, but this one is just beautifully designed.

It is also built in a way that you can always re-play an older level again, which is good because they have different themes and difficulty, and so some of them might be more suitable for your kid's age or special interest.

Not much else to say, but I have spent a lot of time with it this year.

Things I recommend you buy and use

personal, 2020, stuff

(this post was inspired by other similar lists - like this or this - which I also recommend you to read)

This year was certainly an odd and difficult one, and even if you were lucky to avoid the worst of it, it had likely changed your habits by making you spend more time at home. This is how I noticed that some of things I bought and started to use more often (or for the first time) in 2020 had a good impact on my everyday experience, way above their often negligible cost.

So here are some of those simple things that didn't cost a lot and yet kept me happier than I imagine I could otherwise be.

Vertical mouse

I used to have one in the office that was gifted to me by my colleague - he didn't like it, and I, as a new starter, didn't have a mouse. It worked surprisingly well for me, and after just one day it no longer felt weird to use, and then I even started to notice how uncomfortable was my (much more expensive) 'traditional' mouse I used at h0me. Still, it wasn't until I started working from home full time that I finally decided to replace it.

I've got this one from Amazon, but the same model, as it often happens with cheaper products, seems to come from different Chinese 'mushroom brands' while the actual device remains the same, so I don't think there is a huge difference between them and you can probably get any other similarly shaped model.

While at it, I also decided to ditch replaceable battery for a built-in one. For a long time I was always trying to choose devices with standard AA/AAA batteries (that I would replace with rechargeable ones), but now I admit it really isn't worth the hassle. Yes, a non-replaceable Li-Ion battery will lose the capacity eventually, but it will take a long time because unlike with your phone, you are not going to put it though a charging cycle every day.

Bone conduction headphones

They are pretty unique in a sense that they go on your temples leaving your ears entirely unobstructed, so you can still hear what is going on around you. That is invaluable for sports, especially running and cycling. The quality of sound is surprisingly good - I mean, it is certainly worse than what you get with a pair of nice conventional headphones, but if you are (like me) used to your HiFi setup, your bluetooth headphones are not going to fully satisfy you anyway, so what is really the difference.

The brand you'd want is AfterShokz - it is pretty much 'the' manufacturer with everything else being knock-offs. I used to own one of the first AfterShokz models years ago and it wasn't particularly great, but since then the build quality has massively improved. I am pretty happy with my current pair and see no need to upgrade even though their range currently on offer is probably even better.

The only problem with this type of headphones is that because of the headband you can't wear a beanie hat with them (cycling helmet is fine as it sits higher), and if you have longer hair it might also be less comfortable for you, but otherwise it is going to greatly improve your workout. Apart from safety coming from being aware of your surroundings and traffic, another benefit is that you can just wipe them down after a session - keeping traditional over/on/in-ear headphones clean and sweat-muck free is a bigger hassle.

External microphone

It is surprisingly difficult to find a webcam that can reliably beat the one built into your laptop (and apparently, here is why), but you can certainly improve your microphone game - and yes, your colleagues, friends and family on group calls would notice.

The gold standard for USB mics is Blue Yeti, and after studying many in-depth reviews I believe that this is indeed the best choice. If you, however, don't need anything but cardioid pattern and also want something cheaper, I recommend another safe choice which is Samson Meteor. Both cute and clever design, thick metal case, headphones jack (to hear your own voice without latency), great sound quality, mute button and indicator, and it is also substantially cheaper.

I was surprised to discover in the process that mini-USB (not micro-USB!) standard is thriving in the world of microphones. Last time I saw any other device relying on it was more than 10 years ago. So if this is something that puts you off, it shouldn't as it really isn't a sign of obsolesce in this particular industry.

Mechanical keyboard

I've been a fan of 'ergonomic' keyboards for a long time, and my trusty Microsoft Natural 4000 worked for more than 12 years, hauled from one office to another. Then at my last job I had a smaller desk and decided to stick to 'barebone' setup, where you just use your laptop with no external screens or other peripheral devices and so you can work anywhere - say on a couch - or even on a different laptop (e.g. your personal one) without feeling much of a difference.

Working from home made this argument less convincing, so I needed a new keyboard again and took this opportunity to try out a non-sophisticated rectangular but a mechanical one.

After reading a lot of reviews and posts, I quickly got overwhelmed with info and simply went for something I've been recommended in one of my group chats: Keychron K6, with UK layout, metal frame and brown Gateron switches (brown switches are a safe choice for newbies as they are less loud but still 'clicky').

My own experience first was like typing on a mechanical keyboard was nice, but not THAT nice, just different, perhaps, but not necessarily better - and then at some point I simply realised that I don't want to type on anything but it. And when you complete your setup with a wooden wrist rest, it also becomes quite ergonomic.

A few months of active use later I can confirm is good, although when the battery is low, you start experiencing connectivity issues (it doesn't go from 100% functionality to 0%, it's a gradual decline on your last 10-15% of the charge). It is, nevertheless, a solid low-mid level option.

Keychron often runs 15% discount campaigns (including now as this post is being published), plus if you put a keyboard in the basket and leave without checking it out, in a couple of days they'll send you a 10% discount code.

Paper shredder

Not sure about other countries, but in the UK you tend to get a lot of mail as it is the preferred channel of communication for many companies, organisations and government agencies (grrrr!). That pile of paper grows pretty quickly, and you have your full name and address stated on every sheet. Same about all those stickers on the parcels you receive.

Shredder really solves this problem, by which I mean when you're too anxious to put the papers in the bin as you received them, but also too lazy to cut the personal details out every time.

Don't bother with the manual crank-driven ones (yes they exist). They are more compact, and first you think that you'll only be using it occasionally, so that'd do for you. I've been there, and it won't.

Also be careful to choose a cross-cut (as opposed to strip-cut) model - it would be only a little bit more expensive, but massively more secure.

Pull-up bar

I wrote a post about turning my garage into a simple gym earlier this year (and so I am not including items described there in this list, even though they had a major impact on my quality of life), but since that time I improved it a little bit, a by far the most important addition was this pull-up bar from Decathlon:

This particular model is easy to mount (a single piece that goes on the wall instead of two separate plates that need to be carefully aligned) and can be folded as shown below:

Not only it unlocks a wide range of exercises for you, it also serves as a platform for other equipment, such as a weight pulley. This whole idea of putting equipment in the garage has been very helpful during the the lockdown, and now I don't even know if I would need a gym membership again for anything other than sparring sessions.

Precise stylus

This is a bit of niche one, but I have upgraded my very old Samsung Note 3 this year (still stuck on Android 5.1), and went for Google Pixel because of its camera. It meant, of course, that mobile sketching became nearly impossible, because it's just the Note line that has that unique Wacom layer under the screen supporting pressure-sensitive styluses.

The best thing you can still do with a simple capacitive screen is to get a precise stylus like Adonit Switch 2-in-1. You don't need its pen functionality really, but the screw-on cap is very handy and protects that small delicate disc at the tip well.

The stylus is easier to use that it seems, and it allows for some non-sophisticated sketching on any phone or table, even though small details would be still difficult to execute - you'll need to zoom in more often because of that or simply to adjust your style to it.

If you don't sketch, then I'd recommend you to try because it is fun, but you might also find this stylus very useful if you ever had to work with Excel documents on mobile.

Nintendo Switch

The blessing of Switch (and Nintendo ecosystem in general) is that it was never powerful enough to run big titles, even when it was first released, so there is no feeling you're stuck on an ageing platform as games get more and more demanding - a massive repository of indy games and ported old classics is more than enough for an occasional gamer like myself. In short, it most certainly will be a relatively long term investment even if bought now, years after release.

Although I did finish Witcher 3 on it, and it was... good enough? You have to brace for higher game prices though.

The portability aspect of it is working great for me, but probably not in the truly intended sense - even if I were still commuting, I don't think I'd be taking the console with me as that time is better spent reading. However, being able to roam your flat freely with the gameplay seamlessly switching between the external TV and built-in small screen is something that changes the whole experience - which I why I wouldn't recommend buying a Switch Lite that can't be connected to a TV.

Also, one of the best games of this year, Hades, is an excellent fit for a Switch.

Key organiser

Most key organisers cannot accommodate large mortice keys, but this one can ( the faux leather loop can take a 65mm long key). After spending some time figuring out the right number of silicone washers to space the keys while still keeping the screw in place, it holds together surprisingly well (i.e. you don't find a handful of loose parts in your pocket when you don't expect it).

In addition to looking more neat, the main benefit of it is that your keys no longer rattle, meaning you can simply put them in your shorts pocket on a run rather than having to squeeze your keys into a separate 'wrist key holder' (yet another item that needs washing and just feels awkward to wear). This is why getting this small thing changed a lot for me as I started to run regularly when the first lockdown started, and dealing with keys was one of the major annoyances.

The downsides are that it is less convenient to actually operate keys, especially if you have a night latch lock where you need to keep tension on the key all the time while the door is opened. It is still a small price to pay for not having to deal with a rattling mess.

***

Well, this is it. I now think I might might also put up a similar list of non-material impactful apps and games later - maybe be even before the next year is over!

Crisis at Christmas

homelessness, personal

A few days ago I have volunteered for the first time in a day centre for homeless people - a site where everyone can have a lunch, a nap, take a shower, change their clothes, see a doctor and in general relax.

While I fully understand that coming up with a lot of conclusions after only doing something once is unhelpful and almost unavoidably naive (let alone that there are many better write-ups of the same experience) I have still been thinking about what I have learned for longer than it could go without getting written down. After all, first impressions, despite often not being accurate enough, have their own merit simply because they are first. Let this post be an attempt to explain what I feel like I need to tell to myself in the first place.

It goes without saying that by taking part in an event like this you help other people a little bit simply because there is a great demand of it, and you provide the supply. This is the main purpose of turning up and doing your shift, and this alone is a reason good enough for doing so.


Yet what else can be the reason for you to do that - or rather what else could you expect? I'd say the main one is that it is a good exercise in humility. Consciously or not, every new joiner imagines themselves doing 'noble' things - at very least having some 'deep' conversations about how our society is broken. No, you'll be picking up rubbish in toilet stalls or mopping up the floors if someone has spilled their meal or even vomited.

Yet the feeling that strikes after the initial confusion is a good one. It is life and it is real work, and it is essential, so you're doing it, and you try to do it well, regardless of what you do outside of this shift. Believe me, after you realise what it is and why were you first confused, it feels good.

The next best thing is that you will meet a large number of very different people. It depends on how social you are in day to day life, but chances are it is going to peak your 'number of people spoken to a day' ratio for the year.

New joiners are usually assigned to tasks in pairs, and you'll have plenty of opportunities to talk to your random partner (and then to the next person at the next task, of which there are going to be many).

In my more than brief experience, volunteers tend to be on a younger side, but there are enough of middle aged and retired people there as well. Occupations also vary (what I have personally heard people mentioning was 'City finance', 'music', 'retail', 'software', 'law', 'charity'), and everyone would be open to having a chat because there is that instant feeling of camaraderie and alignment, even if just for while the shift lasts.

That is going to pierce your social bubble regardless of where on the social spectrum it was centred before.

Another unexpected side effect would be spending a day without touching your phone. The novelty of it, of course, again depends on what is your day to day job, but I believe it's safe to assume drowning in notifications is fairly common. This is because phone use at the centre is restricted for many reasons: there is obviously a ban on taking pictures, then you don't want provoking people into asking to use your personal device, and in general you should be there for guests first and foremost and not scrolling through your timeline.

That, along with with being busy in general, leads to spending a day almost exclusively offline - which feels pleasantly different.

That alone makes it worth coming, even if you don't factor in the actual social good which might be difficult to quantify. A step out of the comfort zone, which is also a benefit to other people is something to be treasured.


There are, however, a few things which would probably make your shift difficult - not physically, but emotionally. Just like before, it goes without saying that it is not easy to see the effects of homelessness that close and realise what other people are going through - but this, while being emotionally taxing, is something that you would probably expect to see. What I want to stop at specifically are the bits that I didn't expect to discover.

The first one is that... there is a limit to which we are all ready to go. Volunteers pep talk predictably puts a strong emphasis on how we are ready and capable of making a difference - intentionally so, because it works and this is how you motivate a large group of people. Yet you will probably soon find out that while you might indeed be ready to do a lot, you aren't ready to do everything, and you will have to reflect on that.

'You don't understand me. You really don't. If you really want to help me, take me home - to YOUR home. See?' - this is something that you might hear, as I did, or, if you don't, you might get a hint of that being strongly implied. Or it might be never be mentioned at all, but it would still be a looming elephant in the room which both sides decide to ignore because otherwise it would make them equally uncomfortable.

So despite all the good intentions it is an unescapable fact that at the end of the day some of us return home and some go back to sleeping in the doorway. And that if we really wanted, we could change that, at some personal cost, but we choose not to.

This problem has no good solution, of course, and it is easy to argue with facts and numbers that doing otherwise is unsustainable - which is true. Yet what would be different this time is that you will have to think about that as it would no longer be possible to brush off easily as something irrelevant.

And this is not a pleasant thought to have.

Next unpleasant discovery was seeing like numbers become people, and then become numbers again. I think it is typical for a fresh joiner to suddenly being exposed to what was invisible before, and so to 'zoom in' and start seeing individuals in people who were previously no more than faceless social group, even if you were sympathetic. This is normal when there was next to no previous interaction, and so this is why the transformation is so insightful.

Yet you might be able to pick up a somewhat different attitude from the most experienced volunteers - people who are coming there often and have built up a lot of field experience. Or it could be just me, but sometimes when they were talking to guests I was registering the same undertones in what they were saying I know very well from teachers in my son's special school (which could be why I noticed that in the first place, but nevertheless).

Unlike you, they can also 'zoom back out'. If I were to come up with a metaphor, it would be 'padded wall' - while polite and understanding, and having their guest's/student's wellbeing as their top priority you can see when the experienced specialist stops engaging deeply and starts 'following the script', and after that there is very little you can do to change the situation.

This usually happens in heated conversations, possibly with shouting or crying involved, and is completely understandable. If a guest is asking for something that cannot be done, it's best to cut it short quickly before it gets personal instead of spending a lot of time trying to understand their reasons and to change their mind through a lengthy argument. I suspect this is especially dramatic to observe for someone who is new, because when they see such interaction, it is their first time, and they expect such an emotional moment it to unfold into a caring debate, and instead what you hear is a polite rephrasing of 'I WON'T BUDGE'. Thing is, that unlike you, experienced people know that scenario well and have dealt with dozens if not hundreds of them, so they know it when the conversation goes nowhere.

Same is true for experienced guests - they also have tried it before and they are picking up the same undertones very well, so they can stop after probing even though they didn't sound like it before. Both sides win, but having to choose where is not productive to engage is another inconvenient truth, and if you are to become an experienced volunteer (and so be much more useful in your role), you'll have to learn the same social scripts and stop treating everything as a unique journey - even though you'll say a different thing to new joiners at the briefing.


Since you cannot do everything, but you want to something, you will have to choose what is that something that you want to do. This is, probably, was the most important lesson.

If you found it interesting, consider donating to Crisis or taking part next Christmas. Thank you.

Guest L.