Editor’s note (I’m the editor): This post was essentially finished in late March, but a lot of Things came up around then. I will write about the most major Thing at some point soon. Otherwise, here is this post about a year almost none of us can remember now, barely in time for the tax deadline.
Something to look forward to.
That’s my takeaway from another year of pandemic living: You gotta have something to look forward to.
A friend visiting your city, an unnecessarily long bike ride to obtain something you could have delivered, or just your own little Pancake Sunday. Something needs to break up the days. Something has to make tomorrow different than today, if only that something you’re looking forward to is one day closer.
I always thought it irrational when relatives would say, “Oh, Grandma So-and-So, she had to live until she could see her grandchild get married, she passed soon after.” I get it now. Before COVID draped itself over everything, any day could be different and strange (in a benign way—disasters did not defer to COVID). Most days weren’t that different, but there was no mandate or risk calculus enforcing routines, consistency.
Once every day was prescribed to be very much the same, the merest hint of variety multiplied in value.
I’m so thankful these days for an excuse to go somewhere new, break up my schedule, explore some new project, even if it’s just “Find a way to hang this picture”. I’m far less likely to say something isn’t “worth my time.” Time during a pandemic is mostly unflavored oatmeal. I’ll mix almost anything in just to taste something new.
- One full year in D.C.
- The Best Bills Year of My Life (So Far)
- Switch mods
- Tiny computers
- Bikes & ebikes & e-mopeds
- Ugh, Twitter
- Pictures of pets
One full year in D.C.
I know more of the neighborhoods. I’ve taken some Metro subway rides. If someone asked me where to eat, drink or just stroll near my home, I have quite a few suggestions. I’ve lived through a full muggy summer here, and one of the coldest DC winters in a couple decades. I’m approaching the point where I can say “I live in D.C.” out loud and don’t immediately question it in my head.
The hardest part is making friends. I’m 41, I’m new here, I work remote from my home, there’s a pandemic, and D.C. is a city where a lot of people are on their way up or out. I’m lucky to have the Buffalo connections I do have, while they’re still here. But it’s like the jobs/experience dependency trick: the best way to make friends is to have friends, who introduce you to others.
The advice I read and hear most often is to join groups based on interests, and be a lot more deliberate in saying that you want to make friends. I can certainly do better. But D.C. is not like Buffalo. Showing up and showing interest isn’t such a rare thing. Right now it’s tricky to show up for any group project, but I spend a few weekend hours trying every month or so.
But I like it here. I’ll try harder.
The Buffalo Bills
I took an extended trip to Nashville, centered on a Bills/Titans game. It was a tighter game than it should have been, and the key play involved our quarterback slipping on turf. Walking back from the stadium, my friend Ryan willfully refused to be too mad about it. The team, and especially Josh Allen, were promising, he said. This was not one of those games from The Drought (and he should know).
It was the start of a mid-season rough patch. They regained their form and made the playoffs. I started feeling the excitement again. Hats and sweaters came out. Ryan’s zen tendencies would be proven wise, twice in two weeks.
The 47-17 win over the Patriots was both the first-ever perfect offensive game in (modern) NFL history and an exorcism of the Patriots’ 20-year hex on the Bills, cast primarily by Tom Brady. I was at home, yelling, hooting, anxiously awaiting something to break the streak, but nothing did. I was witness to the changing of the guard, with lots of ceremony.
The Bills did not win the next game. The consolation prize: it was arguably the most exciting NFL game of all time. It was the best one I’ve ever seen. I watched it at a DC bar taken over by the local Bills backers. I screamed at every unlikely touchdown catch, called out the response to the Shout Song, hugged people I didn’t know when it seemed like we’d clinched it.1
I didn’t get to see the Bills in the Super Bowl. Instead, I got to see the Bills win the sports world’s respect. No small thing, that. Next year.
The biggest “fix” I made in 2021 was to my 2013 car. I wrote about replacing my awful Ford Sync system (and learning a lot about car wiring) at iFixit. Here are some other notable fixes from last year and how they went.
- Battery replacement, MacBook Pro 2017 - Excellent
- Battery and USB-C port replacement, MacBook 2016 - Excellent
- Screen and battery, iPad Air 4 - Fair (Screen/digitizer separation discoloration)
- Pixel 3 rear camera & battery - Excellent
- Clear the jam and etch new grind markings on pepper grinder - Good
After a live Switch teardown and rooftop repair workshop at The Verge’s 10-year anniversary in October, I ended up with four disassembled Nintendo Switches. I seemed to have all the parts to rebuild at least one full Switch, and it was one of the newer variety with better battery life. It was modified (“modded”) with a translucent green plastic back, and originally listed on eBay as unable to sync with right Joy-cons. I opened it up and, yes, someone had snapped the right rail’s cable. I replaced the rail and it connected Joy-Cons again—though it looked ugly, and half the screws were the wrong size. I decided to restore it and take it in a different direction.
I was a Super Nintendo teen, so that’s the style I picked. The kit came with a link to a YouTube video, featuring sped-up time-lapse footage of someone rushing through the job, like it was their twelfth kit that day. At one point the guy essentially yanks a Joy-Con’s delicate rail ribbons out from underneath the mid-frame, rather than flip open the tab holding them into their ZIF connector. I beg you, if you’re doing this kind of mod, check out iFixit’s Joy-Con guides, at least as a second opinion.
After transplanting the two Joy-Cons’ guts into new shells, nearly losing a runaway rail release button, and almost putting the home button in upside down, I had my Super Switchtendo.
This inspired my friend Adam to mod his own Switch with the same basic kit. He made it through, despite one cable snag. When he beheld his work, he realized it lacked the two-tone buttons and one-piece directional pad needed to fully re-align his being with the controller of his youth. Gotta admit, it looks snazzy.
This further inspired my friend Chaz to do up his own Switch, EU PAL-style.
Now that I had a Switchtendo, my original Switch was just sitting there, annoyingly non-modded. I asked my sister-in-law if she’d like to own her first game system ever, and if she’d like it to look any particular way. She picked out a mod, and I got to work. I discovered too late that a right Joy-Con from my pile of parts wasn’t syncing. Right Joy-Cons, even those with drifting joysticks, are multiple times more rare on eBay and other second-hand sites than left. Eventually I found one, swapped its parts in, and: pearlescent Shinytendo.
There are two more Switches in the pile. Every other weekend, there’s a quiet moment where I think about resurrecting just one more. Franken-Switches are addictive.
Raspberry Pi and other tiny computers
I got into Home Assistant right before 2021. I’ve tweaked it a few times since then, adding new gadgets and optimizing routines. I did not acquire any further Raspberry Pis in 2021, for which I commend myself.
I did, however, bring two other small, programmable circuit boards into my home.
The Tidbyt is a small wooden box with an LED matrix display that shows anything that fits. The default displays are pretty handy: time and weather, sports scores, calendar items, countdowns to notable future events. It has an API and SDK, and I’m determined to make something of them. My dream was an occasional update on how far the closest scooter, ebike, or e-moped was to me, but I didn’t find a good, reasonable-cost API for that. Working on it.
I bought an Adafruit Circuit Playground Bluefruit early last year. My first goal was to program it as a Pomodoro technique timer: 25 minutes of work, short break, repeat a total of four times, then long break. After a couple nights learning CircuitPython, and some help from other Circuit Playground owners on GitHub, I got there.
It plays two different Zelda cues (“Open a chest” and “Good discovery,” essentially) when pomos are finished. It does a little light dance of purple and blue when you complete all four. To me, it is perfect. I didn’t program 2-minute/15-minute break timers on it because, working from home, I like to get up, move around, and often get pulled into other stuff.
There’s so much more inside this little guy to make use of: temperature sensor, gyroscope, and, of course, Bluetooth. Someday.
Bikes & e-bikes & e-mopeds
I’m fairly certain I used to frown, facially or rhetorically, at ebikes. But, I would think, what about exercise! Simplicity! Just use more gears if the hills are hard! Similar egalitarian platitudes!
Moving to D.C. changed that. Buffalo was a reasonably flat city, whereas D.C. has real hills. Biking in Buffalo was good-intentioned secondary transportation, while here it’s my primary, and best, way to get around. 2 D.C. has a lot more intersections and traffic than Buffalo. And the summers in D.C. are as hot and humid as you’ve heard. I’m not prudish about sweating, but sometimes you don’t want to arrive somewhere drenched, or change clothes multiple times a day.
More significantly, my wife bikes to work here. She faces all those same challenges, plus hauling her work devices, paperwork, a change of clothes, food and drink, and other necessities. I wanted to encourage her, so I helped the best way I could: falling down a deep rabbit hole full of esoteric tools and knowledge. I bought an e-bike kit. I replaced her front wheel with one containing a small motor, ran the cables, and stuck the battery on top of her rear rack.
The wife got a DIY electric commuter out of it, and I got the background for a Wirecutter feature on building your own ebike. I just recently converted my own bike, using a Swytch kit. My belt-driven, internally-geared setup precluded more powerful or esoteric options. Also, I don’t really have a commute, and I’m not hauling a lot of stuff long distances—I just wanted relief for the hottest days, or when my bad knee feels particularly bad. And, sometimes, just to cruise around on a magic boost.
A lot of opinions and digressions had to be cut out of that Wirecutter post. There are ebike enthusiasts who believe the only reasonable ebike is one with a mid-drive motor that can run faster than 20 miles per hour for hours, without pedaling. There are mountain bike types maximizing for torque and carrying 20-pound extra batteries in their backpacks. Most folks looking for something to simply even out tough hills, or boost their typical get-around range, aren’t posting on Reddit threads or arguing in comment sections.
Wading through all of that reminded me of, well, every DIY project I’ve gotten into, from Android ROM flashing to home coffee roasting to smart home automation. Everyone brings their selves and their situation to a hobby, but nobody has the time to really explain themselves before offering up opinions.
For the moment, I’m glad that my wife and I got new experiences without having to buy wholly new bikes. It was better, as Walt Whitman/Ted Lasso put it, to be curious, not judgmental.
As an addendum with no particular transition: Last year I also got to ride shared electric mopeds, like the Revel and (now seemingly defunct) Lime bikes, a few times. There are limited use cases where I want to go somewhere only within the city, without much or any cargo, while it’s warm enough not to freeze my hands off.
But, golly, are they fun when you can make it work. “Work” sometimes literally, because roughly 1/3 of the units are either drained, missing a helmet, or simply broken in some way. And yet, I’ll keep trying them out when I can.
Clockwise from top left: German chocolate cake (made for myself for my birthday), chocolate babka, crumb-topped apple pie, and shortbread/brownie stack.
I did not bake nearly as much in 2021 as in previous years. It was another year of mostly staying inside, and I don’t have a lot of friends nearby to gift with excess sweets. I did pull off four pans of babka from the excellent cookbook A Good Bake, both cinnamon and chocolate. And I made a few batches of the shortbread that Apple claims is the origin of Ted Lasso’s gifts for his boss. Big hits, both.
Mostly stuck to writing for iFixit last year, besides the DIY ebike post and some long emails.
I don’t use GoodReads, and I typically give away or donate books immediately after finishing, so this list is somewhat incomplete. Working on non-Amazon-owned tracking in the new year!
Parable of the Sower: Deeply moving. It never stops amazing me that this book was written in 1993. It’s too modern for comfort.
The Secret Life of Groceries: Informative and enjoyable, if somewhat slowly paced. I appreciate that the author read his own audiobook. It made you realize that, not only does he stand by his sometimes page-length footnotes, he treasures them.
Foreverland: An economic story told by an expansive heart (and is someone I casually know online).
My Time with Kurt Cobain: I haven’t engaged much with Cobain, or Nirvana, since shortly after his death. Thinking of that time puts me back in that mid-teens mindset: angry, depressed, hopeless. This was a bracing, well-controlled exposure to that time and place. Raises more questions than it answers, but that’s how it goes.
The Notorious Mrs. Mossler Is there a Skip Hollandsworth story in Texas Monthly I won’t read, on principle? So far, not yet.
The Rise and Fall of an American Tech Giant Kodak made a blip in pandemic news when it seemed like it was might help make COVID drugs. It was a great moment to re-examine what “innovation” companies were like a century ago, and what they meant to their cities.
There are a dozen killer paragraphs, among them this excerpt that hits me right in my upstate NY sternum:
Like any city, it has cultivated grand and sometimes silly self-mythologies. Once called “Flour City” in honor of its status as the country’s leading producer and distributor of flour, Rochester was renamed “Flower City,” supposedly because of an abnormal concentration of garden nurseries, which remains a point of confusion for residents 150 years later. As a child, I was told that the Genesee River, which cuts through the center of the city, is the only river on Earth besides the Nile that runs north. (It turns out that a lot of rivers run north). Rochester has an arched aqueduct, just like Rome, and an abandoned subway system full of ghosts, and it once had a famous daredevil, who survived jumping from the top of Niagara Falls but died jumping from the High Falls along the Genesee, in November 1829, with a crowd looking on. (In the spring, legend has it, a block of ice enclosing his corpse turned up on a suburban riverbank).
2021 was my year of roguelike deck builders and Western RPGs.
It was also the year that I sold my almost brand-new GTX 3070 at cost to a friend, a couple weeks after buying it, because I knew they were going to get more use out of it than me. I streamed most games I played via GeForce Now (the card came with a free year of it). With a gigabit fiber connection, it was a viable platform, so long as I didn’t run out of games I found intriguing. It would be neat if game streaming were an option for more people.
Hitman 3: More of the same? Yes, and it’s great. Dartmoor, Berlin, and Chongqing all belong in the Hitman Level Hall of Fame.
Divinity: Original Sin 2: By the end I loved it, but the game could have done a lot more to explain itself during early stages. The tactical battles were a treat.
Disco Elysium: Game of the year for me. Please don’t play this game if you don’t enjoy reading good writing, on a screen. If you do, it’s a joyride. I still hear a half-dozen strange catchphrases from this game in my waking life. “You know what you need to do: Rebuild Communisim. Now is the time. Only you can do it.”
Prey: I, a person for whom the game System Shock was a personal development milestone, did not know that Prey was a spiritual sequel. On that level, it succeeds, and well worth the extremely deep discount I paid for it. Need to devote some time to trying out its roguelike DLC, Mooncrash.
Control: Dig the story, the acting, the mood and feel, and the feel and development of the powers. But I hit a couple hard difficulty walls, and the enemies are (by nature of the story!) a bit same-y.
Monster Train: A fun game you can either pick up and play, run by run, or dig into and master across multiple builds/classes/strategies. My favorite of the roguelike deck-builder class.
Roguebook: Enjoyable, and a bit of a twist on the formula (with map exploration and some interesting classes). But the replay is not as strong as Monster Train.
Wildermyth: Would be my game of the year, if it had just a bit more variety to it. For a game made by a team of about a dozen, it’s astounding. The semi-procedurally-generated quests/battles/abilities, the writing (both adaptive and linear stories)—all top-notch. You will feel things about your randomly generated young archer with the arm made of star energy, as she ages, falls in love, loses her love to battle, and finds her second act. Sniff.
Griftlands: Developer Klei entertainment gets right of first refusal in my library. I loved Don’t Starve and Invisible Inc. This one is (surprise!) a roguelike deckbuilder, set on a dystopian-ish colony planet. It’s a great airport/free-moment Switch game. You can negotiate or fight your way out of every situation, and there are real pay-offs to choices you make, positive and negative.
Overboard: Fun discovery. A time-loop game where you definitely are the killer on-board a cruise for the wealthy, and must cover it all up by the time you arrive in port. Game design is Interesting Choices, and this is a doctoral thesis in them.
For no monetary gain and almost no reward, I continued feeding Twitter’s API in 2021. Here are five selected tweets, with the most-ish likes/faves/whatevers, minus work stuff.
Pictures of Pets
Not a smart move during COVID times. DC restaurants and bars are vaccinated-only at the moment. It was a risk, I took it. ↩
In Buffalo, you just expect to drive everywhere, unless it’s really warm and bike-able or walking distance or a bus route accidentally runs by it or it’s a Sabres game at the end of the Metro Rail. There is less “traffic,” but many of the major roads are too wide for the city’s smaller population, so they’re moving much faster, often openly defying the posted speed limits. ↩