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My Favourite Things

Created on July 16, 2022, 3:47 p.m.

I've done quite a few technical articles over the last year so I think I've earned myself a little bit of navel gazing and thought it might be fun to write about some of my favorite things.

I know many of the readers of my blog are similar to me in their interests - computer science, video games, and mathematics - so I imagine there are a few of you who will have had similar experiences to me growing up, and there's a good chance some of the things I like will resonate with you too.


Favorite Author

owen_meany

In general I'm a big fan of classic American literature (think John Steinbeck) but my favorite author of all in this genre is John Irving. Discovering John Irving's books was something of a life changing experience for me - it was the first time I'd read a book and felt like the author was communicating with me honestly, not as a reader, but as a fellow adult human being with a need to both tell, and hear, stories.

John Irving's books are witty, human, poignant, and masterfully crafted. He is undoubtedly a lover of writing, plot, serendipity, and characters - and although his books contain a lot of slightly peculiar repeated themes (such as bears) - the stories still always feel intensely vivid and alive.

Finishing John Irving's books has tended to leave me with a sense of wishing they were true in a way I still don't quite understand. It's not an escapist "I wish this universe existed" feeling. In fact, I feel it's more rooted in the need for the reassurance that the universe we do live in really is as exceptional, incredible, and diverse as it appears.

It's a feeling I've always tried to capture (perhaps unsuccessfully) in my own writing. As well as John Irving I'm inspired by sites like everything2 (and even Reddit), which sometimes give you the feeling that perhaps the greatest story ever told is somehow already out there on the internet - some story posted on some random message board or forum by someone who is not a professional writer, but simply a normal person with a bit of passion and flare, who was lucky enough to experience something exceptional and think let's tell people about this.


Favorite Band

Like most people, I'm a fan of many types of music, and big fan of many popular artists (my favorite of which is probably Van Morrison). During University I spent a lot of time at the second hand section of the local record store trying to see what random CDs I could pick up for cheap to listen to that day. I remember picking up a second hand copy of an album called The Eye of Every Storm by Neurosis which smelled so strongly of weed there was no doubt how the previous owner felt it needed to be experienced. Nowadays I'm far more lazy, and either click through endless NPR and KEXP on YouTube or listen to fairly mainstream Alternative and Folk such as The National or Bon Iver.

But the music I care about is extreme music, and for me Cult of Luna are probably the band who do the most interesting, emotional, intense, extreme music I know of. Fundamentally they're a metal band, and their music is characterized by long irregular song structures, contrasting heavy and light sections, and big slow tempo metal riffing and grooves - the genre itself appropriately called "Sludge".

I'll not pretend that they're an accessible band, and I think the mistake most people make trying to listen to metal music like Cult of Luna is to fight it - to try and listen too actively, or think too hard - "do I like this?", "should I like this?", "how can people like this?". I can also accept that some people will simply never enjoy metal vocals.

But this kind of music is meant to be challenging, and if you take up this challenge in the wrong frame of mind you'll spend half the time second-guessing yourself and trying to justify your own taste. When listening to Cult of Luna it's better to just try to let things go, and although you will inevitably feel a bit bruised and beaten by the end of a listening session, there is definitely something cathartic about the process.


Favorite Artist

I'm certain many programmers go through life feeling a certain sense of disconnect with others. At the same time, I think many of us do feel a strong connection to our own feelings, fears, and thoughts as well as the environment around us - nature and the countryside. For me, this is exactly what Van Gogh's paintings portray so beautifully - and I think these two aspects of human experience - nature and the self - seem so fundamental to the experience of many of us - it's wonderful to see them appear amplified and combined with such incredible skill and intensity in his work.

two crabs

No doubt some of the appeal of Van Gogh also comes from the romance of his life story - and his role as both the iconic "tortured artist" and as the canonical artist that was "only appreciated after death". I feel there is something very tender and masculine about his story and work: life can be difficult, and part of that pain is trying to understand what is self-inflicted, and what is from the cruelty of the world.


Favorite Food

dosa

Growing up in a part of South London with a large Indian community I've always loved Indian food. But of all the Indian food I've tried, there is one dish in particular that will be an instant order from me whenever I see it on a restaurant menu - Dosa. Essentially a thin, crispy pancake, often stuffed with spiced potatoes with a deep salty, savory taste.

Eating Indian food in London was the first time in my life when I knew I wanted something food-related that was only accessible by being a grown-up. It was food I simply could not get from childish places (at home, fast food restaurants, friend's houses). For that reason I will always associate Indian food with that feeling of becoming an adult, eating out, and the discovery that growing up, taking on responsibility, independence, and individuality, while scary - is not a burden - it's an enrichment.


Favorite Film

As the ultimate combination of visuals, music, character, and narrative, it's undeniable that film is the best art-form for delivering life-changing experiences in less than four hours. And no films do this better than the epics.

For me the most epic of all epics is "There Will Be Blood" - a film that is so incredibly tense, enthralling and thrilling that each moment completely fills your thoughts. From the story, and the acting (starring Daniel Day-Lewis), to the unique and powerful soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood everything is executed with incredible skill - creating apparently effortless, creative, magic.


Favorite Video Game

My favorite video game as a child was Dungeon Keeper. Games from that period somehow had such a strong sense of individual authorship that feels more and more lost as teams have grown. I remember feeling that the developers at Bullfrog were always trying to show off - not just technically - but creatively and artistically too - trying to be funny, surprising, and build something completely unique. And as soon as I played it, I knew all I wanted in life was to know what the secrets were behind all of that - because I wanted to do it too.

One thing that sticks in my mind is how you couldn't control or order around your creatures directly in Dungeon Keeper - instead only being able to drop them where you wanted them and hoped they got the message about what to do. It was a beautiful twist on the rigid, absurd, and lifeless monsters you found in cookie cutter fantasy - there was a bit of the developers' own life-force distilled into those creatures.

But in the end I think it's the world that will never leave me - and I can still hear the sound of imps trotting across the water with diamonds in their sacks. And the drips dripping from the cave ceiling into the water. And when I remember it, I'm there all over again.


Favorite TV Series

If you want to get to the core of British cult comedy then you have to watch Peep Show. Nothing has ever coming quite as close to delivering the same one-two punch of cringe and comfort. Somehow, Peep Show manages to be a sitcom where lots happens (there are marriages, babies, and season finales) and where ultimately nothing happens (Mark and Jez end each season pretty much where they started). But most of all, it just contains so many incredibly funny and well executed jokes which are completely unforgettable. Like everything that has been done by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain it turns all of our own delusions and foibles into pure entertainment.


Favorite Country Visited

independent people

I have never felt so deeply drawn to a country than when I read Independent People by the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness (who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955) while visiting iceland.

The book itself is an epic about the people of Iceland, and reading it at the same time as traveling around the country gave me an entirely different experience. Each day we would travel over the landscape, seeing the black beaches, huge lava fields, and mountain sides made almost entirely out of hexagonal basalt columns. And each evening I would become immersed in how the people who lived there experienced the same things hundreds of years ago.

Both Iceland and Independent People seem to me to be about magic - and the foolishness of any cynicism used to ignore it. Independent People starts with a curse, and ends with it coming true - not through any mystical force, but through the spirits and actions of the people themselves. My trip to Iceland was in many ways the same - a trip that started with the face-value appreciation of the amazing, supernatural Icelandic landscape, and ended with an understanding of how that magic of the landscape realizes itself through the history and culture of the people who live there.

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