My Weirdest Year Yet
AWM #58: On 2021, escaping the neat boxes of society, writing a lot, and other misc weirdness 👾
It is early January 2021. I am writing my annual performance evaluation for my software job. Ever since the work became from home, I went from “I’m so lucky to be working here” to “I hate this so much.” I’ve been fantasizing a lot about quitting. But should I actually do it? It seems financially unwise. Worse, it seems weird. Who the hell quits a good job during a pandemic?
But I also can’t really pretend anymore. So I decide to fill the performance evaluation questions in an unorthodox format. I write my answers as a play, a dialogue between characters with pseudo-Italian names. It is inspired by the Decameron: a work of literature in which young people tell each other stories while they wait out the Black Death in the countryside. Appropriate.
The play ends with a strong suggestion that I will quit my job, and indeed I do, at the end of February.
My Decameron-inspired performance evaluation, in retrospect, was a herald of what would become the weirdest year in my life yet.
So, What Do You Do?
I must credit a lot of the chaotic good to Interintellect, the wonderful community of curious minds who enjoy long intellectual conversations. The ii, as it is called, saved my sanity during the fall and winter and the really harsh covid restrictions we had here. Early in 2021, I was involved enough that I joined the team as a contractor to help with things like the website. At the same time, I got a programming contract to debug the most boring iOS app you could ever imagine — an app to help auditors make sure that car dealers have the cars they say they have.(So many businesses out there that you don’t suspect exist!)
It was my first time earning money as a freelancer. It went fine! The hardest part was answering the eternal question: “So, what do you do?” My answer couldn’t be summarized in a pithy phrase. “Well, I was a dev until this winter, but now I’m trying different projects, a bit of freelance programming work, also I work part-time for this community of people who do online events…” At first it was strange, but then I got used to it, of course.
It was in fact training myself to embrace the weirdness. When you have always been in the “normal” boxes of school and traditional employment, it’s hard to imagine yourself not in any of those boxes. The people around you are unlikely to help, unless they’re themselves internet weirdos. Conventional society really likes its neat little boxes.
Now, at the close of the year, I have fully accepted the chaos.
After my work at the ii and the car dealership auditing app ended, both in the middle of summer, I traveled a bit, and then an idea I had for a project became, suddenly, very concrete.
I spent the fall working on an idea to improve the readability of science papers. I published an essay in July, and then, incredibly, Alexey Guzey of New Science liked it enough to give me some funding to explore the idea, and, also incredibly, the people of Creator Cabins liked it enough to accept my application to go work on it for a month in Texas.
Suddenly I was at the head of a self-directed project to improve the world. Absolutely not something I would’ve guessed I would be doing, a year earlier.
At the moment, the project has slowed down, but I am still intent on keeping it alive. I have created another newsletter to keep track of it. I will probably get going in January.
In any case, my experiences of the past few months were awesome and it all came just from writing online.
The Year Writing Has Become Worth It
People who give advice to would-be writers always say: Write a lot. In 2021 I have been writing a lot.
In November of 2020 I committed to publishing Atlas of Wonders and Monsters (then called Light Gray Matters) every week for 100 weeks. I have not wavered! As of today, I hold a 58-week streak.
My subscriber list is growing slowly, but it’s growing. At the beginning of the year I had 35; now I’m at 94. I make an explicit point of not caring too much about subscribers, but you can’t really help wondering what’s going on when it doesn’t grow, like during those weeks in September and October. So it’s nice to realize that the curve looks like this:
This newsletter began as a nonserious experiment in getting a writing habit. My “serious” blog was somewhere else, at Dark Gray Matters. But now, after several name changes, I feel like turning Atlas of Wonders and Monsters into the main home of my writing. I don’t enjoy publishing on the other platform so much anymore. I also just don’t have the bandwidth — with weekly posts here, monthly posts at The Classical Futurist, and occasional Twitter threads (now approaching 1500 followers!), there is only so much time I can devote to “deep, serious essays.” Those essays, when they happen, will be here instead.
This is as good a time as any to encourage you to subscribe with this new button thingy:
I’m a far cry from making money from writing online. My audience is still modest. But this year I have begun reaping the rewards of sharing thoughts online. I have made friends through it. I have had opportunities come to me. I have started calling myself a writer instead of a wannabe writer.
Meanwhile, on May 1st — two years and a half, to the day, after I started — I finished my comedy novel La Nouvelle-France c’est plate. This spring and summer, I printed and edited it, and then I had several friends read it. The feedback I got was amazing. I wasn’t expecting all my friends to read the entire thing, but seven of them did! Among them, two read it in less than a week even though they said they’re usually slow readers, which I think is the biggest compliment my writing has ever received.
Lately, I’ve been making the final edits, and I now consider it pretty much ready for publication. I’m going to send it to contests and publishers and hope for the best. Unfortunately, this can be a long process. Fingers crossed that it happens in 2022.
Best Essays of 2021
Out of all this writing, which is the best? According to my subjective evaluation, of course. (Based only on Substack likes, my most popular post is apparently this silly one on the Republic of Kalmykia.)
The top spot has to be The Journal of Actually Well-Written Science, the essay that led to founding JAWWS.
I’m also really fond of this essay I published last May on history and the various ways we can visualize it: The Four Shapes of History.
At The Classical Futurist, I published four essays, of which my favorite one is about golden ages.
On this newsletter, I still think a lot about my post on the evolutionary origins of beauty, from February. The topic of aesthetics comes back in my writing a lot, including the 100-tweet Threadapalooza thread I wrote last week.
Some other AWM posts I like include biodiversity from the point of view of Pokémon, the tradeoff between clarity, brevity, information and complexity, and more recently, my thoughts on a future where our lives become increasingly virtual, and why I think it will make us value physical reality more.
I grew the weirdest fruit ever in our urban garden:
As well as these really weird purple-pink beans:
I hosted seven book club Interintellect salons about the entire body of work of Ted Chiang.
I had a wonderful discussion about Aristotle’s political philosophy while digging new trails on the Creator Cabins property.
I traveled north and, at the very end of Quebec Route 138, I found and ate fresh cloudberries:
I learned a lot about crypto, I contributed to the mad and glorious ConstitutionDAO movement to buy an original copy of the US constitution, and I made several hundred dollars of magic internet money by selling my ConstitutionDAO tokens later.
I became an uncle to a second baby boy.
I saw a partial solar eclipse, the only instance where you can see a thick crescent shape in the sky, unlike what artists have made you believe about the moon.
I caught covid during my trip to Texas and New York, and had to quarantine (mercifully, for free) in a hotel with a view on the LaGuardia airport. I lost my sense of smell, did not dare try LSD to recover it, and recovered it very gradually.
I went skinny dipping for the first time. (No pics sorry)
I hosted an Interintellect gathering in Austin, Texas to talk about golden ages:
I sang with a choir in a park in French, English, Mandarin Chinese, and Estonian.
I lived through extremely harsh covid-related restrictions, like an 8 pm curfew for almost five months, and I felt miserable.
I saw an armadillo:
I helped rescue a foolish cat on our rooftop that definitely did not need rescuing. At least I became friends with the neighbors in the process!
I took more selfies than during all my previous years combined, probably.
I turned 30.
Here’s to a weirder 2022.
The app and frankly the whole business is really boring, but the people who work on it are good and it’s not like they’re kidding themselves with how niche and unglamorous it is. Better than big tech companies pretending that working for them is your calling, to be honest.