Some of the best things I experienced in 2022
Date written: 2023.05.15
Another year, another list of fantastic experiences. There were so many that it took me several weeks to finish this post after starting it during the Spring break! Note to self: write this over New Year's break next year than during the semester.
18. Playing half of Elden Ring (FromSoftware, 2022)
The odds of me finishing a Miyazaki game within a month are not good. My first playthrough of Dark Souls (2011) had a gap lasting more than six months. In my playthrough of Bloodborne (2015), the gap was years. (And I only finished it because of Lance MacDonald's 60 FPS PS4 mod.)
Ditto Elden Ring. After more than 100 hours, I grew tired and stopped playing. While the game is initially astonishing, its quality overall is inconsistent. The design of Stormveil Castle is phenomenal, but the game's dungeons are crude and largely repetitious. Liurnia is beautiful and extremely dense, but Deeproot Depths lacks either quality. The game's secrets and surprises regularly made me smile, but its regular frame rate drops (often in the middle of boss fights!) were unacceptable. Exploring every nook and cranny of Raya Lucaria was magical, but doing the same in Siofra River was exhausting.
The result feels like an incredibly strong draft of a game in desperate need of editing. Which is a huge shame, because were the repetitious elements cut and its lackluster areas binned, the result would have likely been the best action game ever made. Instead it is merely the best action game of 2022. Elden Ring's epic ambition makes it impressive as hell, but its failure to consistently deliver its promises leaves it, well, tarnished.
17. Watching Severance S1 (Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson, 2022) for the second time
When I first watched Adaptation (2002), for a significant portion of the film I had no idea what was going on. I had seen several of Spike Jonze's other films, which were all incredible, so I knew that I was being taken on a ride and that I needn't worry. By the end of the film, everything that was seemingly out of place had in fact fallen into place. When the credits rolled I had the biggest smile on my face.
Season 1 of Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson's phenomenal series Severance (2022) provides a similar experience. The show repeatedly contains scenarios, dialogue, and moments which are initially confusing, but which have satisfying explanations hours later. I was addicted from the first episode. I typically watch a season of TV over the course of a month, but I started and finished Severance within three days.
Later in year I was thinking about some unresolved elements in the show… and before I knew it I had watched it again. And I'm so glad I did: the first few episodes contained loads of moments I'd forgotten about and had not resolved. Upon seeing them a second time, they made complete sense. If my first watch was building the outline of a jigsaw puzzle, the second viewing was building it out. But by the end I realized the picture I had created was merely a puzzle piece itself of something larger and more sinister. Like any good mystery, I ended my second viewing with more questions than I had started it with.
16. Listening to Benji (Sun Kil Moon, 2014)
Sun Kil Moon, and by extension Mark Kozelek, is not for everyone. My first experience with Kozelek's music was Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood (2017), an excellent double album whose lyrical content is hinted at in the title. Kozelek is obsessed with true crime, and the majority of songs on Common as Light are about actual murders, often mass shootings. It has moments of humor (e.g. the wryly titled Vague Rock Song) but it is generally a sad album. A word of caution: listening to the album in full before bedtime, as I did in 2020 during the lockdown, is a truly crushing experience. (After doing so I was felt that humanity was fucked and deserved to become extinct in the near future.)
Benji (2014), in comparison, is joyous. This is not to say that most of the songs on Benji are not also about shootings and detailed descriptions of death (don't be silly), but this time Kozelek personally knew most of the people he sings about. As such, the focus is not so much on the way they died, but the tragedy of their deaths. The album has many lines which made me pause when I first listened to them, like the chorus on Jim Wise (which includes a quick but graphic description of a suicide attempt). But the album also has moments that made me laugh out loud the first time around, like when Kozelek describes some of his break-ups and sexual encounters on Dogs. ("Mary Anne got gold and abruptly broke it off, for a guy with sweatpants and a pickup truck.") It has some incredibly beautiful moments too, such as Kozelek's childhood memories when he first visited his Grandma on Micheline.
Characterizing the album as being all about the tragedy of death is incorrect. It is also about the joy and humor to be found in living. The focus is largely on the former, but the latter is there, especially towards the end of the album. It's an incredible album — I think it's one of the best albums of the 2010s — and it's become a personal favourite of mine. As Natalia Lafourcade (also on this list) sung later in the year, "Le doy gracias a la muerte, por enseñarme a vivir."
15. Watching Jonathan Blow's Jai demos on YouTube
During my high school and undergraduate studies, no one explicitly said what I consider to be a message of fundamental importance:
The first attempt at an idea is rarely the one which sticks. From this perspective, our current predicament of bad languages could not have been avoided entirely, since our collective knowledge about programming languages is relatively naive compared to what we will know a century from now. (And in practice, many of our current languages are robust enough to solve difficult practical problems — but they are in no way robust enough to mitigate bugs, nor do they value the time of the programmer.)
Powerful tools in other fields are almost never developed overnight. Consider group theory in mathematics. More than a century ago, core properties and examples of groups were phrased in terms of simultaneous linear equations. Today these properties are phrased using more abstract and powerful language which makes reasoning about groups easier. Many popular and important properties of groups we know today were unknown a century ago, and trying to prove them using the original notions and language of group theory would be extremely tedious if not outright impossible.
But these advances in understanding did not come for free; someone had to have the insight to express groups abstractly, and people had to work hard to reformulate the theory.
Contrary to many people's beliefs, such work is not impossible to do in a lifetime. In mathematics it can be done in decades (think Grothendieck), but in programming it can be done in five years. Andrew Kelley, Bill Hall, and Jonathan Blow have all demonstrated this with Zig, Odin, and Jai respectively. In Blow's case, while developing Jai he regularly created demos showcasing the language's new features, and posted the recordings to YouTube. For me, watching his demos was to realize that if the software you're using is unacceptable, you can probably make a better version of it yourself.
Such undertakings span years, and are not for everyone, but the benefit can be enormous. The languages by Kelley, Hall, and Blow demonstrate this. Virtually every aspect of C and C++ which I hate (see, for example, this blog from Eevee) is fixed in Odin and seems to be fixed in Zig and Jai too. (I have yet to use the latter two extensively enough to definitively comment.) Ultimately, only time will tell what the inevitable successors to C/C++ will be, but it seems to me that some of them have already arrived.
14. Switching to Emacs after years of Vim
For many years, I thought Vi / Vim was better than Emacs. I was wrong. I switched to Emacs this year, and within months it became apparent that it leaves Vim in the dust. If you use Vim and are hesitant to take the plunge, I recommend diving in. It's worth it. (But be sure to remap the Caps Lock key to Ctrl!) If you think there's no need to use Emacs or Vim because "you are just as efficient using Visual Studio code"… I am so sorry.
13. Seeing Ruth E. Carter's costume designs in the cinematic runway Wakanda Forever (Ryan Coogler, 2022)
Impossible and unfair expectations were placed onto Ryan Coogler in making the sequel to one of the best superhero films of all time. No matter. Regardless of what happened (or didn't) on screen, Ruth E. Carter adorned the film's characters with a seemingly endless supply of the most creative, inspiring, immaculate, and downright coolest fashion designs of the year. Whenever I watch Black Panther (2018) I pine to have a copy of every single costume from the film in my wardrobe, even if only to appreciate the beauty of the designs up close. Wakanda Forever was no different. The film was one phenomenal design after the other. Seriously Disney, the next time you get upset about not making "enough" billions of dollars in a given year, start a luxury designer brand which sells the costumes from Black Panther. They will sell out.
In all seriousness, the film was obviously more than a runway: an opportunity to grieve the loss of Chadwick Boseman in a communal setting, a chance to see Michaela Coel et al. kick butt, and the ability to experience more excellent direction from Coogler among other things. (The poignancy he conjured by interspersing flashbacks towards the end of the film was astonishing.) But while some aspects of the film were disappointing, like its heavier reliance on CGI, Carter's work shone through. It was more jaw-dropping than the action itself.
12. Listening to the epic The Epic (Kamasi Washington, 2015)
As of May 2023, the Wikipedia disambiguation page for "The Epic" contains only three items: a building no one refers to by that name, an EP no one listens to, and the best triple album of the 2010s. The Epic indeed lives up to its name. The album is also responsible for me listening to more jazz than ever before.
11. Watching The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)
A lot of excellent art has been created and published outside of the traditional establishment. Impression, Sunrise (1872) did not debut at the Salon, but at an exhibition organized by other impressionists. Plantasia (1976) was not sold at record stores, but distributed with purchases of plants and mattresses.
On a budget less than what Hollywood pays most of its leading actors, Cheryl Dunye made The Watermelon Woman, one of the most original, thoughtful, and fun films I've seen in recent memory. It's extremely independent too, being more than happy to ignore stifling mainstream storytelling conventions, and in the process demonstrate that they are not needed to tell an excellent story.
It's almost difficult to believe that the film's runtime is under 90 minutes considering how much it has to say. Topics like the erasure of marginalized voices from the history of cinema, or the dynamics of queer relationships are rarely covered in mainstream films, yet The Watermelon Woman covers both effortlessly. It also packs in jokes that made me laugh out loud, and contains the most sensual sex scene I've ever seen.
At the time of its release, The Watermelon Woman didn't get the attention it deserved. It should have been an instant classic. Time is somewhat correcting this — MoMA and the National Film Registry have at least included it in their exclusive collections. It's also available on Hulu. Stream it tonight.
10. Hiking in Big Sur with friends
I feel very lucky to have some amazing friends in the Bay Area. I have many fond memories from my time with them last year. Walking among the redwoods near Santa Cruz. Thanksgiving dinner in the Castro. Sunset at the Golden Gate Bridge. Burritos on Irving St. Seeing support for the striking student workers at Berkeley. Among many others, are memories from our time in Big Sur.
Even though Big Sur is less than two hours drive from San Jose, it feels remote. Even though it attracts millions of tourists a year, it feels isolated. It is also extremely beautiful. The juxtaposition of steep mountains against the Pacific ocean makes the area highly photogenic. The area is largely undeveloped, thank goodness, so there are no behemoth hotels despoiling the area.
These factors meant our hike in Big Sur was gorgeous yet not crowded. (We saw around ten other people over four hours.) It began with an ascent adjacent to a tranquil stream under the shade of redwoods, before climbing high to the Tin House. It was interesting to track the height of our ascent along the way by observing distant houses on the other side of the valley go from being above us to below us. For lunch we ate some delicious wraps we had made, while gazing at a phenomenal view from an outlook near the Tin House. The view was better than the image above, which our hike also took us by, and which I can report is orders of magnitude more impressive in real life. On the way back, we took a detour and saw some banana slugs. It was a truly great day with some great friends.
9. Watching The Green Planet (BBC, 2022)
One could be mistaken for thinking that making an incredible documentary centered on the natural world is straightforward. Millions of scientists have studied incredible examples of life of all forms, so a huge amount of research has already been done. Simply curate a list of incredible species, put them on camera, and you have a documentary.
In practice, making such a film is extremely difficult: everything is filmed on location, possibly with custom camera rigging requiring weeks of preparation, special effects at any stage are strictly prohibited, and worst of all, there is no guarantee the animals will even show up. But at least when animals do appear, they interact with the world in ways that are interesting to watch. Plants are a more difficult subject matter. No one wants to literally watch grass grow.
The producers of The Green Planet make plants interesting with time-lapse photography. They expertly curate a non-stop greatest hits playlist of some of the most interesting plants and fungi the world knows. The result is a masterpiece. Whether it's learning about Creosote bushes which predate human civilization or bladderworts — aqueous plants which create vacuum traps to capture swimming organisms — watching the series means having your mind blown every five minutes for five hours. It's the kind of cinema that inspires the next generation of botanists.
8. Listening to De Todas Las Flores (Natalia Lafourcade, 2022)
I vividly remember the first time I listened to the title track of De Todas Las Flores. I was walking down Cayuga Street after light snow had come to Ithaca. The tone of the record once Lafourcade began to sing matched the calmness of the snow exactly. The production of the album was immediately and obviously exquisite. Every note played was clearly audible in the same way that noises after snowfall are easier to hear and attract more attention.
I was completely focused on the album when the second track played. I think anyone who listens to enough music quickly knows when they're listening to one of the best songs of the year, and it was the case with me. Something in the way the track started meant I expected it to build over time, and it did. By the end I was convinced that I had just listened to what would be one of my favourite songs of the year. (And it was.)
I also vividly remember the first time I listened to the album while reading its translated lyrics. I'm not fluent in Spanish, so I had no idea just how beautiful the lyrics were until I read them. Doing so immediately made De Todas Las Flores my favourite album of the year.
It also made me understand the sound of the record too. There is a strong melancholy in the instrumentation and in Lafourcade's performances across the album. After I read the lyrics, I understood why. Death is a theme of the album, as evident from its opening lines A este mundo vine solita, solita me voy a morir (Into the world I came alone, alone I am going to die). But I wasn't sure where the theme came from… until the closing track. When I realized Que te vaya bonito Nicolás was a tribute to someone who Lafourcade had been very close to, everything on the record came together. In previous listens I had thought the final song was sad, but with translated lyrics it was emotionally devastating. All the flowers Natalia and Nicolás planted together will indeed continue to wonder why Nicolás no longer sings to them.
7. Watching Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)
I've read a lot of Haruki Murakami over the years: 1Q84 (2010), Dance Dance Dance (1988), Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013), Hear the Wind Sing (1979), Pinball, 1973 (1980), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and at least one collection of his short stories. Murakami has a very distinctive style I haven't yet read in other authors. But now the style has a cinematic counterpart.
Drive My Car feels like a Murakami novel, more so than any other film I've seen. But Ryusuke Hamaguchi does far more than simply adapt Murakami's short story of the same name. By also drawing inspiration from Chekov's Uncle Vanya (1898), Hamaguchi uses both works as springboards to create something more powerful and emotionally resonant than anything at least Murakami has ever written. Drive My Car is utterly sublime, and the best film I saw in 2022.
Some people bemoan the pace of the film. I somewhat understand this, since like Murakami's extremely detailed and slow-moving prose, an extremely detailed and slow-moving film is not for everyone. But the pace is not for naught. Hamaguchi uses it to slowly yet consistently build the film's momentum, which becomes so large that scenes towards the end of the film have an emotional potency most directors cannot hope to match. Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura, who are fantastic throughout, deliver particularly brutal scenes in the snow.
The momentum of the film and its actors are so good that Hamaguchi doesn't even need audio to conjure an emotional gut-punch. In what is basically the final scene of the film, lines delivered by Park Yu-rim in Korean Sign Language to a background of near-silence had me in tears. The film is an emotionally draining masterpiece, but what a masterpiece to behold.
6. Walking the Grand Canyon track
The Grand Canyon track is not found in the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, but rather the Blue Mountains National Park in New South Wales. The Grand Canyon in Arizona is obviously known around the world, but the the Grand Canyon track in NSW holds its own too.
When my brother and I started walking the trail, we had no idea how good it was going to get. (We certainly didn't know it was the highest rated hike on AllTrails in Australia.) We were in for quite the surprise. A verdant gully of ferns, a bottomless canyon, more waterfalls than you can count on your fingers, a brief tunnel through rock… the sights (and sounds) of the trail changed every 20 minutes across its three hours. Each section was different and beautiful in its own way.
The trail ends with a seemingly endless stair ascent before reaching a lookout that was… closed for renovations. But we could see partial views through the galvanized steel fence, and it looked incredible. (And we had already seen similar clifftop views while walking to the trail.) So once construction is completed, the Grand Canyon track will conclude with a phenomenal climax, and thereby become perfect. If you love hiking and are ever in Sydney, you would be an absolute fool to skip it. It's certainly the best under-four-hours hike I've ever done in Australia.
5. Mapping the Caps Lock key to Ctrl on every keyboard I use
Image credit: Broadmonkey (public domain)
It's taken me a while to realize a trend that is obvious is hindsight:
Keyboards having a QWERTY layout instead of DVORAK is one such egregious example. Keyboards having a Caps Lock key instead of another Ctrl key is another.
Having a Caps Lock key instead of a Ctrl key means not having a Ctrl key within easy reach of a finger. Considering that during regular text editing I need to press Ctrl at least 10000 more times than I need to write text in all caps, having a Caps Lock key is all but useless. The design decision to replace a Ctrl key with a Caps Lock key baffles me even more. (Yes, replacing — the current position of the Caps Lock key used to be occupied with a Ctrl key before some fool decided to replace it.)
When I began relearning the basics of Emacs in early 2022, I was using the default placement of Ctrl keys on my keyboard. This meant constantly moving my fingers to awkward positions. It was extremely counter-intuitive, and fearing long-term hand injuries, I looked into options to remap keys. In the process I discovered the Ctrl2Cap utility, which remaps the Caps Lock key to a Ctrl key on Windows. Since installing Ctrl2Cap, I have never looked back. The thought of using a keyboard with a non-mapped Caps Lock key makes me shudder.
4. Experiencing the May 6th 2022 sunset at Cayuga Lake
A screenshot from my video of the sunset (8 seconds)
The attendees of the 57th annual Cornell topology festival who elected to skip the lakeside picnic deeply regretted their choice the subsequent day. They missed out on a sunset for the ages. For many of the attendees, it was the best sunset we'd seen in our lives. Despite everyone's efforts, no phones could truly capture the strength and colors of the lights that evening. My feeble attempt to do so is linked above.
3. Reading The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien, 1955)
Almost everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of The Lord of the Rings. Nearly 70 years after it was published, it has a passionate fanbase numbering in the tens of millions. Last year Amazon spent more than a quarter of a billion buying the IP rights for a series based on adjacent material. The novel is evidently surviving the test of time. Why?
I think it's because the book is easy to love. Its world building, for example, is spectacular. The novel's characters find themselves in wildly different locations in nearly every chapter, so the story feels like a voyage into a different world. Reading the book felt like going on a journey, because the characters often spend a large amount of time simply traveling from point A to point B. This means experiencing both the exciting and slower parts of the journey with them. The story branches into multiple narratives too, which I really liked, and I found great joy whenever characters that had split up hundreds of pages earlier came back together.
But all this said, for most of my time with the novel, I didn't quite understand why it is so revered. When I was nearing the end, I considered it to be a great read, but not a masterpiece.
And then I read the second-last chapter, "The Scouring of the Shire", and The Lord of the Rings immediately became one of the best novels I have ever read. It's difficult to express the emotions I felt while reading the chapter, but suffice to say, by its end I was in utter awe. It absolutely made reading the preceding 1000 or so pages worth it. (And it wouldn't have worked without all of those pages.) I've experienced many great endings to stories before (and a lot of terrible ones too), but The Scouring of the Shire feels like it rules them all.
2. Reading Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon, 1973)
Image credit: Marc Getter (public domain)
I think the first time I heard about Thomas Pynchon's infamous 1973 novel was in 2016. I was having a discussion with a friend about unconventional art, who mentioned that Gravity's Rainbow has a scene where a minor character eats something disgusting (no spoilers). I think we then looked the novel up on Wikipedia and learned that although the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction unanimously selected the book the win, the board associated with the prize were offended by the novel, so vetoed the decision. I found this ridiculous. What about the novel drove people to censor it?
Now I think I know — but not for the original reason I thought — and see the board's veto as being completely ridiculous. For one, when I first read the infamous sentence beginning "He opens his mouth…" in a hotel during COVID quarantine in 2020, I uncontrollably burst out laughing. And I couldn't stop giggling for the next couple of minutes. I was laughing so much it was difficult for me to even focus on reading subsequent sentences, many of which made me laugh even harder. The fact that Pynchon had put to words a description many would be afraid to even read aloud was so hilarious I laughed the hardest I had all year.
Until suddenly my laughter was cut short by an extremely racist description, because Pynchon couldn't create one of the funniest moments of the year without completely ruining it. Fuck Pynchon.
This is not the only offensive part of the novel, of course. Racial slurs, ethnic slurs, misogynistic slurs, slurs against queer people, slurs against people with dwarfism,... the list goes on. No word is too taboo for Pynchon's characters or his narrator. Sometimes it feels like Pynchon is trying to be deliberately provocative, or just doesn't care whether or not you get offended. (I feel like it has to be the former though, especially considering how much care goes into the prose, and considering what the protagonist does on a boat much later in the novel. That scene was overwhelmingly uncomfortable to read, and probably the actual reason behind the Pulitzer veto.)
But to focus on the offensive and difficult parts of Gravity's Rainbow is to miss the point entirely. The novel is encyclopedic, which means including both offensive and agreeable content, descriptions of horror and beauty, sentences to hate and love. It also means including a huge list of words and references which most English-speakers don't know. I made a list of words from the novel I didn't fully know to learn from so as to reduce my dictionary use in subsequent reads.
Gravity's Rainbow is truly gargantuan. Even though it is shorter than The Lord of the Rings, it somehow feels longer (probably due to sheer density). And there is also so much to love about it. Its seemingly endless highly creative and fun descriptions were a particular highlight. For instance, consider the description after the protagonist tries a certain English lolly: "The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof Slothrop's mouth. Polar bears seek tonail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs."
The novel is so many things, but if anything, it is inspiring. How exactly did Pynchon create it decades before Wikipedia existed, let alone before the internet was widespread, is beyond me. Did he simply read and retain the contents of an encyclopedia before writing the novel? Questions about how he made it are interesting, but I think that more interesting questions are those about what we could make given we live in a time when information is more abundant and accessible than ever.
What would Gravity's Rainbow look like if it were written today? What would a novel look like if someone used the internet to find the most interesting aspects of history, science, art, and culture, and figured out a way to combine some of it into a novel? I don't know. In fact I don't think anyone alive today besides Pynchon could know. But if Gravity's Rainbow is any indication, the result could be one of the best novels ever written.
1. Reading Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison, 1977)
Last semester I took one of my most enjoyable classes at Cornell: ENGL 2603 The Novels of Toni Morrison. The course discusses a different novel each year, and last semester was Song of Solomon. In the first lecture, professors Roger Gilbert and Anne Adams said we were in for a treat. Little did I know what they meant.
After reading the novel's seven-page opening, I suspected I was going to have a great time with the book (and this was indeed the case). I immediately loved the sass of the narrator, the historical research clearly present, and how effortless it felt to read. What I didn't know from the opening was how much of a page-turner the novel would become.
I read most of the final half of Song of Solomon on a plane to New York from the Bay Area, and got annoyed when it landed and we had to disembark. I did not want to stop reading! Others have had similar reactions with the novel; Marlon James for instance read the last portion of the novel standing up. Yet even when the novel has the pace of a page-turner, it still manages to weave together themes, commentary, ideas, and history, with awe-inspiring prose that is a joy to behold.
Much of this is evident from a single reading, especially when encountering an example of what James describes as "the Morrison paragraph". But I feel like I only really began to understand the interconnectedness of the novel when I had to write about it. My final essay for the course (which I plan to post here after some polishing) was about death in Song of Solomon. Every time I thought about how the theme of death was related to any other aspect of the novel, I saw a huge number of deliberate connections. For example, Pilate is the main counterforce to death in the novel, but has a name whose biblical origins imply otherwise. (And I think the story behind how Pilate gets her name is a meta-joke considering the effort Morrison put into choosing it.) It feels like all of the aspects of the novel are intertwined with each other to a degree which most authors never consider.
I noted on the 2021 version of this blog that watching Beyoncé's Coachella performance made almost all other musical artists seem mediocre in comparison. Similarly, reading Song of Solomon makes almost all other writers seem mediocre in comparison. Morrison writes at a level which other artists can aspire to, but that most will never even approach. But whereas Beyoncé can inspire this feeling with a concert, Morrison can do it with a paragraph.
Reading the novel is to reflect on many things, in particular, how the legacy of those that came before us have affected our lives, and the legacy we leave for those who come after. There is a passage about this in Song of Solomon, and its power is something to behold. It is undoubtedly one of the best passages humanity has ever created. Oprah read it at St. John's cathedral in NYC at a ceremony in remembrance of Toni Morrison. I wasn't there, but I bet that everyone in applause at the end was also in tears. At least I am whenever I watch the speech in full.
Morrison created a legacy that will extend far beyond most of our lives, and will inspire generations to come. I feel lucky to experience it, and be inspired by it. What legacy will we pass down to future generations? It is up to us to decide, and ultimately, to create.