Strange Animals 28jan2020: Pause, Breathe

Short one this week, and a few days late, as you can see. I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a little at the moment. This often happens at the beginning of the year.

The end of the year is a reset whether or not I’m ready for it, and I try to take stock of where I find myself and where I want to be, in terms of my work, but also in terms of my life. While that’s useful over a longer period, actually sitting with everything in the moment means that things come up that you don’t enjoy.

The beginning of the year is also a time of possibilities, when I’m trying out different things to see what my focus will be for the rest of the year. Which means that I’m picking things up and throwing them back, and that can feel like I’m standing still even though I know I’m not.

For example, in terms of my writing, I’ve trashed everything I wrote in the new year, and instead, I’ll be focussing on doing another draft of SAWBONES so I can send it to the artist by the end of February (I’m hoping) – which will let her decide if she wants to draw it in the first place. This means that I won’t have created anything new till then. But I’m still coming up with new ideas, and there are older ideas I haven’t done any work on, so focussing has been an issue.

In other changes, one of my oldest and closest friends, who’s also been my next-door neighbour for the last couple of years, is moving out of the country. I’m thrilled for him, but I’m definitely going to need to recalibrate my social life in 2020, because I won’t be able to coast on the convenience of coffee with a bestie anytime I want and instead … you know, got outside. Where the people are. I don’t know about you, but I’m only getting older and crankier, and meeting new people gets more difficult as I go.

As usual, I’m trying to be kind on myself without slacking off so much that the important stuff gets left by the wayside.

In fact, in preparation of the new draft of SAWBONES, I actually read my first draft back to front, and it’s better than I’d expected it to be. There are rough edges, and much rewriting to be done, but the characters and the themes mostly come through, and the key scenes work as well as I’d intended them to. As I wrote it, I’d tried to keep in mind Ram V’s advice: Every scene should do at least two things. I ended up with a first draft in which every scene managed to do at least one thing I really needed it to do, and it’s easier to rewrite scenes that do one thing than scenes that do nothing.

So anyway, there’ll be no central essay this time. I wanted to revise my Twitter thread on the lettering in Watchmen and compile it along with interesting observations from some other people, but that’ll have to wait till next time. I need some time to breathe at the moment.

1. Notes

This week saw the release of John Constantine: Hellblazer #3 from Si Spurrier, Aaron Campbell, Jordie Bellaire and myself, from DC Comics.

Also released this week was Afterlift #4, by Chip Zdarsky, Jason Loo, Paris Alleyne and me, from Comixology Originals.

2. Elsewhere

Two of my pals in comics have started their own newsletters.

Ram V’s Fly By Soul and Dan Watters’s Kind of the Point are both cool as hell, and contain observations from two of the sharpest minds in comics right now, alongside snippets from current and upcoming work (much of which I’m involved with).

If you like this newsletter, or the work I do, you’d do well to follow them. The links above will take you to the first instalment of each one, where you can subscribe if you like.

3. Recommended Typeface/Website

This is a combination recommendation. Recursive Sans and Mono is a variable font currently in its beta version. Personally, I’m much more interested in the “mono” part of this rather than the “variable”, but I have to admit that the flexibility the variable aspect offers, particularly in the switch between “Linear” and “Casual” versions, is fascinating to me.

Recursive is still in Beta, and can be downloaded from the linked website. The developers mention that they plan to release it through Google Fonts, and I’m guessing they’ll have standard release versions (not all the apps I use support variable fonts, after all – Ulysses refuses to render italics as I write this, for example).

Furthermore, the website itself is worth a visit. It’s entirely set in Recursive, and is almost fully editable – you can just click anywhere and type away in Markdown to see the typeface in action. There are also tons of interactive widgets where you can play with the variable aspects of the font in realtime, and also find out how to use Recursive in your own work.

Useful and pretty cool at the same time.

4. From the Commonplace Book

I’ve only just ordered this book, but I did so on the strength of this little excerpt. From The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks on the United States, which, to be clear, since it’s already 2020, is an SF novel by Jeffrey Lewis published in 2018 and not a work of non-fiction:

“The cultural difference between firefighters in other parts of the world and the tobi (firefighters) of Edo can be explained by the simple fact that the latter did not fight fires with water; they had no water trucks or water pumps, just a few buckets and ladders. The primary method of controlling fires at the time was to knock down houses to make a firebreak, which allowed the fire to burn itself out without spreading. Thus, the fire brigades weren’t there to fight the fire but to fight any homeowner who might – understandably – resist seeing his home demolished. A sort of protection racket arose around the firefighters. After all, it was far better if the tobi sacrificed a neighbor’s house to the firebreak rather than your own. Naturally, the Edo firemen became a tough lot – drinking, brawling, and covered in tattoos. Indeed, the distinctive tattoos that mark the Yakuza, today’s Japanese gangsters, are a relic of the Edo fire brigades.”

Filed under #fiction and #social.

Strange Animals 18jan2020: Playing Against Type

This is now three whole newsletters actually sent weekly. Fingers crossed the streak continues. It would genuinely be a delight for me if I managed to send a newsletter every week of the year, but I don’t wanna jinx it, so it’s just between you and me, okay?

Current Reading: On Photography – Susan Sontag

1. Notes

I missed out on mentioning last week that, in the months of December and January, I won the Broken Frontier Award for Best Letterer, and was nominated for the Tripwire Award and ComicBook.com’s Golden Issue Award for Best Letterer. As with the Best-Of lists, I’m gratified to see so many of the books I worked on and the collaborators I worked with nominated for these awards as well.

Hass and I have recorded more episodes of Letters & Lines, in an informal segue into Season 2 of our podcast. This time, we want to have a bank of episodes before we start releasing, so there’ll be some time before the next one drops. In the meantime, those of you who miss it and those of you who didn’t know this podcast existed can go back and listen to Season 1.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had a new comic come out, and surprisingly enough, I’m still not too jittery about it. The retreat from workaholism is going well enough, I suppose, although in daily life it still feels like I’m falling behind on things I’m already supposed to be doing. I wonder how many things in my real life I just let slide while I was working 14-hour days.

2. Q&A Part 2

Continuing from last week, here’s a couple of more questions I got about my work (and some other stuff):

Hi Aditya! I would love to read more about your process for making fonts for lettering. How do you go about doing it? What kinds of character sets do you include? How much are you able to automate? What are your challenges?

P.S. I love your newsletter!

@anexasajoop

First of all, thank you!

Second, I think the way I work might look kinda frightful to people who have studied type design, and I’m still a newbie at this, but a type designer friend looked at my work, and told me I could call myself one, so I’m owning it.

This is a long answer, since I’ll be pointing anyone else asking something similar here. Strap in!

I start by first doodling the letters either on paper or on my iPad. At this stage, I’m building the skeletons of the letters, and the instrument* – roughness, thickness, stroke angle, all of that stuff gets worked out here first. I can change my mind on a few parameters later, but this is where I decide what the function of the typeface is going to be.

* Mostly this means the physical device I’d like my typeface to imitate, but that depends on the kind of typeface I’m working on, so “instrument” feels more accurate.

I then move these into Illustrator and trace the outlines and try and build words from them to smooth out the way the letters function alongside each other. I’ll also fill out any letters I didn’t work out initially on paper, but that’s not too difficult, because by this time I’m reasonably sure of the logic of how the typeface is supposed to work. A lot of letters might be entirely reworked at this stage if they don’t go well with other letters.

I might do a few print tests at this stage to make sure a) that my original design is maintained – again, the skeleton, the instrument, and so on – and b) that it’s legible at the size it’s going to be actually used at. I might beef up/tone down certain elements at this stage, like the thickness or the roughness.

Once this is done, I move the typeface into Glyphs (in a rather painful copy-paste procedure I’d love to simplify), and start working on the metrics. I might still tweak letterforms here, especially since I do 3-4 variations per letter, and I might find stuff that I didn’t quite predict when I was designing. Once that’s done, I’ll do the features – contextual alternates and autoligatures – and then kern the whole thing, mostly manually.

That’s the regular weight. I also build italics, bolds and bold italics, and depending on the typeface, how I work on those differs. There’s one typeface I’ll be working on this year for which each of these will be drawn and developed independently, but there are others where I’ll actually draw the bold (like Sitting Duck up there) and then generate the italics and bold italics via Glyphs, or I’ll actually draw the italics (like Mighty Mouse) and then generate the bold from the regular version, and the bold italics from the italics.

This is the closest I’ve gotten to working from masters or using automation. I think I could use BubbleKern to automate the kerning, but I haven’t actually explored this yet. Speaking of automation, I’d love to find a way to automatically copy-paste all my letters from Illustrator into Glyphs, because I really hate that I can’t run an action and have it happen like magic.

As far as character sets go, I’ve only worked with a Latin character set – as mentioned above, I do multiple versions of all the letters, and most of the punctuation, and two versions of European characters. I think I’m going to stick to this for the next few years at least. I would love to design a Devanagari typeface from scratch, but I don’t know how much I’d be able to charge for it, so I’m keeping that on the back burner.

I’d love to hear from an actual type designer what I could do to improve either the process or the results. (My metrics have already gotten much better thanks to the awesome Tanya George, who also told me about BubbleKern.)


1) What is the name of your nail polish? Bonus: maybe you could letter it/with the brush (though it might ruin it).

2) What is your current desk setup like? What was the logic behind/what were problems with conventional desking that had you setting it up so?

3) What is the strangest tool you have used to letter? 

@amulyashruthi

1) I use Nykaa’s nail polish. I started out mostly using mattes, but have started enjoying the glossy stuff too. Favourite colours are Blue Jellybean, Black Sesame Pudding and Black Licorice!

And no – I can barely paint my nails properly, so not lettering with these brushes just yet. :)

2) Before I set up my home office, I worked from a shared workspace, where I had a nice L-shaped desk setup, where I could have my computer in one section, and my drawing board in the other one. When I set up my home office, I replicated that, but with two separate desks that could be combined into an L, or which could be placed on two different sides of the office. My one other priority when having it made was that it needed to be deep enough that my pen tablet didn’t stick out into the air like it did at the old office.

I have a 2K photography/design monitor – the 4K ones available in India when I bought it didn’t have accurate colour reproduction, so I settled for that. I use an Intuos Pro tablet, and a 15-inch MacBook Pro which lets me work while travelling. Both the laptop and the monitor have stands to ensure a good posture on my part, and I have an ergonomic chair with a footrest so my knees don’t suffer.

I’m getting older and my priority, more and more, is to take care of my body while I work. Past me was stupid about this. Present me wants to limit the damage.

3) At a type workshop, I lettered on a skateboarding half-pipe with a mop. Also using bindis on the outside of a lamp. In real life, I’ve lettered with twigs, and once, with a chipped fingernail taped to a pen holder. That last one did not go well.

3. Recommended App

Honestly, I figured by this point everybody who’s ever used a smartphone to surf the net is aware of Pocket, but in this month alone I’ve talked to three people who weren’t aware of it, so I must recommend this one. It’s one of the first five apps I install when I get a new phone/device, and I don’t think I could live without it, honestly.

Before Pocket, I’d use Gmail drafts to store my bookmarks (this was before browsers had cross-device syncing, kids), but after Pocket, I haven’t had to think about this once.

The best thing about Pocket is that it’s a reading app that doubles up as a bookmarking app. I know things like Pinboard exist, but Pocket fits my personal use case a lot more, since I mainly use it to drop articles into that I can then read at my leisure, and, at a pinch, I send links to it that I want to deal with later.

It’s got great tagging, a decent selection of fonts (the free version of Instapaper has a better selection of free fonts than Pocket, sure, and Instapaper has better pagination, but Pocket takes the gold for the bookmarking end of things), and is very robust even in the free version. I used the pro version for a while because I wanted to give them money, but I’ll be honest, the free version’s good enough for most people.

Here’s the link again. (And if you’ll notice, I sneakily recommended two other apps for people with slightly different use cases than mine. Have at it.)

4. From the Commonplace Book

David Stubbs, from Mars by 1980, as quoted by Warren Ellis in his newsletter a couple of years ago:

‘4’ 33”’ is not about silence at all, in fact, but the impossibility of it. This was something he discovered on visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, supposedly a sensory deprivation experience, but during which he was aware of two droning sounds, high and low. These were, the duty engineer told him, the sounds of his nervous system and blood circulation respectively. And so the point of ‘4’ 33”’ is that it is the ultimate ambient piece: it consists of whatever sounds happen to fill the listening space while the musicians do not play – a passing car or overhead plane, perhaps, a shuffle, a cough or simply the sound of the venue’s central heating system. These sounds are now in the frame, just like the reflections of the observers of Rauschenberg’s black and white canvasses became their (albeit transient) subject matter.

Filed under #music and #art.

Strange Animals 10jan2020: The Captain Lazypants Newsletter

Eleven days into the year and I’m already behind by two weeks. How’s your year going? Hello.

Current Reading: Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits – Gordon White

1. Notes

I’ve started my font work for the year by remastering one of my existing typefaces – Sitting Duck.

This was the first ever typeface I completed. Before this, I’d abandoned a few font ideas after constructing the letters in Illustrator, or tried cobbling something for a specific book but failed.

Sitting Duck was the first one that had a full character set, and regular, italic, bold and bold italic fonts. The original design for it was a bit more eccentric, but as I started turning those shapes into an actual typeface, I realised I had a lot to learn before I could experiment, so I simplified and cleaned it up to make it as generic and clean as possible without removing all the personality from it.

I think the letterforms hold up reasonably well, more than three years on, which is surprising to me, because I was just beginning my hand-lettering education at the time. The metrics and kerning, though, are a complete mess, as are the autoligatures. Looking at the font files, I could see how I’d slowly cobbled together a workable version over the years from a fairly ramshackle start. The italics (deep breath) didn’t even have an angle assigned in the font file, so all my metrics were eyeballed.

Right now, I’ve mostly finished the metrics for the regular and the bold (which were independently developed, with slightly different pen strokes, rather than one being generated from the other) and once I do print tests for overall size and spacing, I’ll kern them and generate the italics.

After that, I want to remaster my other already-complete font Mighty Mouse, because it has many of the same problems (and also has a slightly-too-reedy bold that needs to be beefed up), and now that I have a handle on contextual alternates, I feel like it could really use a third set of letters to cycle through automatically, so it’ll have more of an organic feel. I hope to finish both of these by the end of January, so I can then get to work on the six fonts I actually want to create this year.

2. Q&A

I solicited questions to be answered for this newsletter (a cunning ploy to try and get this out weekly if possible), and I got quite a few, so I’m going to split my answers between this edition and the next.

Why are some words in comics shown in “bold” text? Is it to put emphasis or something random to break the visual pattern? Thank you!

@toondoon1010

First of all, thanks for a question that allows me to interrogate some of the basic assumptions of comic-book lettering. This goes back to the history of type in general – italics and bolds are conventions that have evolved over time, and there were times in the evolution of type design when people have tried to take a different turn and figure out if there are different ways to show emphasis.

In comic-book lettering, the basic convention of upright lettering wasn’t established till quite late – you’ll see a lot of very early comics being lettered entirely in italics. It’s easy to imagine why this might be the case – when I started hand-lettering, I actually managed to create an adequate italic much quicker than upright letters.

So when it came to emphasis, bolds and underlines were your available options, because italics wouldn’t necessarily imply any sort of emphasis. Of these two, underlines are tricky, because they take up vertical space, so either you’d have set your leading loose for the whole of the text, or you’d make exceptions for lines that had emphases, and you’d end up with some unsightly gaps in your lettering. Bolds are easier, because you can keep the same start leading, and only change it up in special cases. Mostly, you’ll see underlines used at the end of a balloon, where there’s room to work with. There are exceptions, such as Adam Warren who uses a lot of underlines in his hand-lettering, but he also doesn’t really use uniform leading, so it works for his style.

To actually answer your question – it can be used both to show emphasis, and to break the visual pattern. Especially in older comics, intended for kids, there’d be a lot more bolds because you’d have to do more work to keep a kid’s attention. In comics intended for adults, it’s usually just for emphasis. But even in kids’ comics, it’s not actually random – you can read it out loud and you’d realise that the emphasis is either for rhythm or to point out the important bits to a particularly lazy kid who might just scan the words rather than read the whole thing.


As a reader, I’m able to recognize very bad lettering (e.g., the speech balloons are barely readable), but I don’t know what makes good lettering, except on very specific occasions like a DPS with a lot of things going on, where the captions guide my eye throughout the page.

Could you give us some pointers please? (This is prompted by all the “Best of 2019” lists I’ve seen these last weeks: I can make a list of my favorite writers, artists or colorists, but I’m drawing a blank when I try to do the same for letterers.)

@midnight_peanut

A lot of these things are subjective, but I can tell you the parameters by which I judge both my own work and that of others.

The first is clarity – this is everything the letterer does to not mess with the intent of the other collaborators. The first of these is placements: your writer and artist want the reader to read the book a certain way – do you manage to maintain that order? Are you covering up anything important? Do readers have to stop and reread to understand the sequence of dialogue? Clarity also includes font selection and size – is the lettering too small or too big, is the body copy legible?

The next is competence – this is about whether the lettering is pleasant to read. This also includes font selection, but here you’re thinking about whether the font and the balloon styles feel suited to the artwork. This also includes the other stuff that letterers tend to learn over time – are the balloon tails consistent, are they pleasant to look at, is there the right amount of air in the balloons around the text, is the stacking (the line breaks in any balloon) shaped well and reasonably consistently?

The final parameter is expression – what the letterer is adding to the book that a different letterer might not. How well are they designing the sound effects and how integrated do those feel with the book? What active choices are they making other than simply presenting the writer’s words to the reader. This last part, to me, is what makes a letterer great, and that’ll vary both from reader to reader and from creative team to creative team.

A while ago, I made a video of myself lettering a page from These Savage Shores along with commentary on the choices I was making as I worked on it – you can check it out here. You can see a lot of what I talk about above being discussed/illustrated in this video.

3. Recommended Listening

I’ll probably write about my relationship with Terry Pratchett’s writing one of these days (or not – it’s a pretty personal thing, and I don’t know if it’d actually be of interest to anyone else).

Since his death, I haven’t actually read a Discworld book. I tried reading Raising Steam, but it was painful for multiple reasons, and I let go after a few chapters.

The new podcast Desert Island Discworld is allowing me to re-engage with his work slowly, by listening to other people talk about their relationship with it. It’s a thoroughly entertaining listen, but it’s also a moment of reflection on why, despite his flaws, Pratchett was such a tremendously interesting writer.

Depending on the guest, the podcast doesn’t shy away from pointing out the inadequacies of his engagement with certain topics, but fundamentally, these are all people who loved or enjoyed his work, and that’s the perspective this comes from. And since I’ve started listening to this, I am much closer to rereading his work than I was before.

4. From the Commonplace Book

Sarah Jaffe, writing about Trumpism in her newsletter:

Neoliberalism wants us to live always in the eternal now, to neither remember the past nor consider the future – the future is foreclosed, there is no alternative stretches in both directions. […] It’s the Shock Doctrine, as Klein told us years ago and demonstrates in her writing lately on Puerto Rico, designed to keep us reeling too much to resist. 

Filed under #politics and #capitalism.

Strange Animals 04jan2020: Looking Forward, It’s a Whole Thing

2019 has ended, 2020 has begun. It doesn’t particularly look like the world is getting better anytime soon, but the other option is to turn back time, and let’s face it, we’re here because a lot of people want to do just that.

So let’s cast a quick and wary look at 2019, and then proceed to 2020 where we can stand and be counted.

Quick note up top: I wrote a brief thread about some of the cool lettering tricks Dave Gibbons deployed in Watchmen that people seem to be quite enjoying. I like the idea that I’ve made people’s engagement with one of their favourite books a little deeper. Here you go.

1. Tally

As with 2018, I had a goal chart for 2019, lettered by hand, and it looked like this:

And as with 2018, I did some and not others.

But most importantly to me, I did in fact finish a novel. I wrote a full first draft of a graphic novel, as I’ve been wittering on about in this newsletter ever since. If I hadn’t accomplished anything else this year, I would’ve been okay with that one thing.

But I also finished three short stories and a short comic script (4 out of 6), one comic-book font (1 of 6), and worked out for 125 days (of 200). I also wanted to send 52 newsletters, and the total came out to 21.

As I said last year, the point of these goals is not that they be done, it is to keep an eye on the ball. Not accomplishing any of these is still a baseline decent life. This is about trying to do better, but being kind to myself if I didn’t. The question is – Did I live my year in a way that acknowledged why these things were important?

I think, apart from the font design, I did okay. Font design’s the one thing on this list that’s actually about my paying work and how I want it to look in the future, so that’s something I need to push further in 2020, and it says something that that’s the one I barely made a dent on – clearly I’ve been living on accumulated credit rather than moving forward, and that needs to change.

So here’s 2020:

Let’s do this, shall we?

2. Everything Else

I lettered fewer pages in 2019 than I did in 2018 (the tally was approximately 2000), and I’m very happy about that. I nearly burnt out in 2018, and 2019, more than anything else, was about relaxing into the work and taking stock of what I want to accomplish in the longer term. As I said above, I fell asleep of one big part that I wanted to grow, but it’s not exactly a tragedy.

I was profoundly grateful for the quality of collaborators I had, and I’m looking forward to some very exciting books in 2020, both with old comrades and new ones. It was especially a thrill to see how many books I worked on ended up on Year’s Best lists (These Savage Shores, The White Trees, Little Bird, Isola, Coffin Bound … the list goes on). I’m not always sure how good my work is, but I rest a bit more easy knowing both that I have good taste in collaborators, and that some amazing creators, both new ones and veterans, feel like working with me.

I also started lettering Hellblazer this year. For someone who’s been a nerd all their life, I’m not a very good fan – I don’t have characters or properties that I’m excited about separate from the creators working on them, with two exceptions – Doctor Who and John Constantine. My Faction Paradox and Iris Wildthyme stories took care of my hankering to play in the world of the first, and now I get to put words into John Constantine’s mouth for a little while. Cool.

2019 was also supposed to be about prioritising my life outside work, and while I still have some way to go, I mostly did not work on any weekend, stopped after 6-8 hours of work most days, and took 35 days of vacation between November and December (I worked for about a day and a half while travelling, but that’s way better than usual – I also wrote a short story, but that’s because I was sick and confined to my AirBNB while my friends went hiking). I hope to continue the trend of working less but better in 2020.

3. Recommended Activity

Participate.

Okay. I don’t talk about the world outside much on this newsletter. I have my reasons, which I feel are justified, but now feels like an exception, so I’ll just do it this once, and take it as read for the rest of the year.

There’s a lot wrong with the world right now. Many of these things have been going on for decades or centuries, and some are new and specifically horrifying. Sure, you could point to many ways in which more people’s lives are materially better now than they would have been in an earlier age, but a) things that are wrong are still wrong, and b) a lot of the wrong things are causing irreversible damage in a way they weren’t before.

I feel that a big part of why this happens is the way modern life has been structured to eliminate the public realm from most people’s lives and alienate us from our own and from other people’s suffering (I’m basing this on my limited reading of Hannah Arendt’s account of labour/work/action). Too many of the rich and the powerful are invested in continuing to essentially not allow common people to affect the world at large by turning us into consumers of the world rather than inhabitants of it. Even the way we discuss atrocities on the internet is essentially geared to generate our outrage but limit it to the social realm so it does not leak outside and actually change anything.

Many more of us need to start affecting the public realm and reclaim it in defiance of these interests. Whether it is through protesting, organising, or by using our specific skills in order to make a difference in lives that need it. Protest is not enough by itself, but in a world where atrocities occur and are forgotten in days, it is a necessary first step of acknowledgement.

I can’t tell you how to protest or participate, because that’ll differ based on who and where you are and how much danger that puts you in. But whatever your cause – climate change, the detainment of refugees and the poor, or against the rise of Islamophobic politics and to stem the next oncoming genocide, or against the trampling of trans rights and other LGBTQ rights, please participate and try to make a difference.

4. From the Commonplace Book

Since we’re at the beginning of a new year, and a lot of people will be trying to create change in their lives, here are five reasons why most attempts to change behaviour fail, taken from this article:

  • We’re motivated by negative emotions. You might think negative emotions like fear or regret would inspire you to make a change, but the opposite is actually true. One review of 129 studies found that the least effective behaviour change strategies were consistently ones that focused on fear and regret.

  • We get trapped in “all or nothing” thinking. There are plenty of cognitive biases that get in the way of making any change, but one of the worst is all-or-nothing thinking. This is where we rely on a sudden jolt of motivation, and then give up the second we hit a snag.

  • We start too big and too vague. Changing any behaviour takes time. But most of us try to change too much at once. We focus on huge changes (like “get six-pack abs”) instead of realistic steps (like “do five sit-ups”). Behaviour change needs specific and realistic actions to take hold.

  • We forget that failure is a part of the process. Too many times, we focus on the end goal and not the process. Failure during behaviour change isn’t the end of the road. It’s a street sign pointing you toward what you need to focus on.

  • We don’t make a commitment. Any major change requires some commitment – whether public or private – to keep you dedicated to seeing it through.

Filed under #life.

Strange Animals 30dec2019: 10 Things I Loved in 2019 – Part 2

I’m writing this from Kolkata airport, on my way back home to Pune. I just landed here from Hanoi, and essentially plan on sleeping the whole day tomorrow before waking up to bring in the new year with my friends.

This is continuing the list of ten things I loved this year. Again, these aren’t necessarily my favourites – these are things that stuck with me, and had some sort of personal meaning.

6. Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism is a book by Cal Newport, author of the also excellent Deep Work. In simple terms, if you feel that the internet has taken over your life, or that you never seem to find the time to do the important things, even though you find yourself online more than you need to be, this book will help you cut down.

Newport’s contention is that digital technology is a tool like any other, and needs to be managed, and the process has to start from scratch, because otherwise we make too many excuses on behalf of the things we use unthinkingly.

There are good points to be made about who can or cannot do digital detoxes, and that’s something to be engaged with, but I don’t think this book is for those people anyway – Newport himself repeatedly makes it clear that not everyone can or even should do everything he suggests.

There are a lot of people, though, who could use the internet less without having that affect their lives adversely, and who find it difficult for various reasons – including but not limited to the fact that a lot of apps we use are increasingly built to make us stay in them longer than we mean to.

This book is for people like that, and it’s been very useful to me personally. Over the last couple of years, I’ve limited my use of devices as far as I can, and I’ve tried to single-task rather than multi-task for most of the day. But the fact is that a lot of this stuff is insidious, and I found myself slipping from habits I’d put a lot of work into, and this book helped me get back on track more than once.

7. Linney

I don’t know if Lucy Knisley’s Linney comics would make any sense to people who don’t have or love cats, but to those that do, the Linney comics are some of the purest depiction of what being a cat owner is like.

At first look, it would seem that most cats have basically the same personality – slightly aloof, needy when it comes to food, very conscious of their space – and that holds true, mostly. But beyond that, individual cats have incredibly individual personalities. Not human ones, obviously, but something very specific to each cat that, looked at from outside, makes their owner seem a bit coo-coo.

I think the Linney comics communicate this very well – Linney the cat has a melodramatic personality that lots of owners would identify, and she expresses herself in faux-elevated English that implies a degree of blind snobbery on her part, and yet, she feels and acts like a cat, not like a human. Cats, let’s face it, are wonderful aliens that deign to grace us with their company. The final Linney comic encompasses all of these qualities, and is the one I find myself coming back to the most, but if you haven’t read any of them, I recommend scrolling down and starting and starting from the first, or waiting for the soon-to-be-released print compendium.

8. Snowflake/Tornado

Stewart Lee’s comedy has been transformative for me. His approach to his material – in terms of both content and form – is based on a deep knowledge of his field and his art, but manages to be very personal and honest at the same time. There’s a layer of irony to everything he does – perhaps too many layers, his critics might say – but the underlying sincerity comes through with every set. This combination has been inspiring to me on both a personal and a creative level, and I’d looked forward to seeing him live on each of my annual visits to the UK, but he wasn’t playing while I was there.

This year, he happened to be playing in London throughout my trip, but all his shows in that period were sold out. But because sometimes people are kind to strangers when they have no need or incentive to be so, I got to watch him perform live, and I had the further pleasure of introducing someone to his comedy and watching them enjoy it. I’ve had better evenings out, I’m sure, but I can’t remember any off the top of my head.

The show itself is one of his very best, with a renewed energy drawn from righteous indignation, and his control of his audience, earned over years of performance and experimentation, shines through at every moment. A proper thrill.

9. Shift Happens

This one’s a newsletter, and while it’s perfectly lovely, it represents something bigger that I really love.

Writer Marcin Wichary is writing a book about keyboards, and Shift Happens is his research-logger-cum-promo-letter for the book. It’s my favourite newsletter of the year, and Wichary is always entertaining, resourceful and knowledgable about his topic of choice. You should also follow him on Twitter, where he runs threads that are just as fascinating as his newsletter.

But this newsletter to me represents the rising trend of excellent email newsletters, which have started to be my primary way to access the social internet. There are a lot of things wrong with the world right now, things that have been wrong for a long time and new, unprecedented things as well. The internet has contributed to both of these, of course, but it has given us a lot of ways to connect with people too, and it’s good to retreat from the great shitshow on occasion and focus on the ways in which the internet is being used well.

I’ve always loved listening to obsessive people talk in depth about the things that they care about that nobody else cares about. It’s one of the best things about humanity, and I love that newsletters let that happen in a far more focussed way than otherwise possible. Like zines, you know – things that are being done not for profit or for propaganda but because someone loves a thing and wants to share it.

These newsletters, to me, are of a piece with the old idea of the compendium or the commonplace book – compiling one person’s view of the world, slowly, instalment by instalment. A futile exercise, never to be concluded, but worth committing nevertheless.

Robin Sloan’s just-concluded Year of the Meteor was another newsletter like this, as was Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations, which has been making the world slightly better for six years now. And I’d further recommend Technoccult News by Damien Williams, Restricted Frequency by comics compatriot Ganzeer, and Robin Rendle’s Adventures in Typography.

10. Deadwood

This goes at the end, because, in so many ways, this is the most important thing that happened to me this year. Not Deadwood itself, though it was the impetus, but my engagement with Milch’s words and his philosophy of writing.

Deadwood is a beautiful show, and one I’ll probably rewatch for years to come, but it’s certainly not perfect. Threads are picked up and dropped as Milch’s interest and attention shift, and his “no incidental characters” approach has the downside of making otherwise well-written scenes lose dramatic tension at times, but the fact is that there’s no one who writes quite like him, and Deadwood embodies some of his best work in the dialogue, the manner in which each episode holds together as a piece of work, and the overall rhythm of the show, ramshackle in the way real life tends to be, but, in the long form, building towards the inevitable future.

Further than this, though, watching and listening to and reading Milch talk about how he writes caused a huge shift in my own relationship with my writing, making it feel more free, fluid, and bringing back the love that I had for it in the beginning before various realities took that away from main my adulthood. For that I must thank him.

I wrote more about this in a previous edition that you can read here.

Thanks for being a precious part of my 2019, folks. See you on the other side!

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