matthewpennell.com
A blog of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

I’m starting to realise that quite a lot of the things that I thought I wanted to create are, in fact, rooted in nostalgia and not passion. Subjects that I was interested in years (if not decades) ago stubbornly remain on my bucket list, even though it should be clear to even the most casual observer that I have very little genuine interest in those subjects any more. Z80 assembler programming? D&D sourcebooks? Podcasts? They wouldn’t make any lists of my favourite things, if I’m being honest.

So when I look over my list of potential side-projects and consider which of them correlate with the actual areas I am still motivated to explore—the topics I actually demonstrate passion for—it’s the same old set of interests. Literary fiction. Film. Music. These are the artforms I seek out and enjoy the most, the ones I want to understand more deeply, embracing both theory and practice. And therefore, if I do truly want to dedicate spare time to “making stuff” instead of simple mindless consumption, it is those activities where I should invest my time and energy.

All of which is to say, in a roundabout way, that I think I’m going to start writing again.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Over the last few weeks and months, I’ve been escaping off-world and getting back to my sci-fi television roots … thanks, in large part, to streaming giants Netflix and Amazon Prime.

It started with Battlestar Galactica.

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction. Movies like Star Wars, Blade Runner, and the Alien franchise are among my favourites, and I’ve been reading authors like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein since I was a teenager. But I was never really fanatical about the genre’s many TV shows. Sure, I’ll watch an episode of Star Trek if it pops up while channel surfing, but I can’t say that I’ve ever watched an entire season; I couldn’t tell you the first thing about shows like Stargate or the other Star Trek spin-offs like Voyager or Deep Space Nine; and Doctor Who leaves me cold with its wobbly sets and staid plots.

But for some reason I decided to give the rebooted Battlestar Galactica a try. I remember as a child enjoying the original show in the late 70s, featuring the A-Team’s Dirk Benedict as the wise-cracking Starbuck, and the new version kept cropping up in online recommendations and best-of lists so much that I thought I should see what all the fuss was about. As it turns out, the fuss was justified; I really enjoyed the philosophy-and-religion-tinged plot as Apollo, Starbuck, Adama and the rest of the crew battled and then allied with the humanlike Cylons as they searched for their legendary homeworld of Earth. (I was even so impressed by Katee Sackhoff as a female Starbuck that I eagerly watched her new Netflix sci-fi show, Another Life, the day it launched. Unfortunately, it is decidedly not good. At all.)

After BSG, I sought out more. Star Trek Discovery came along at just the right time to reignite my love for that franchise (the fact that it features my favourite man-in-a-monster-suit, Doug Jones, didn’t hurt either), and then with Star Trek Picard on the horizon I finally went back and watched all of the pivotal episodes of both The Next Generation and Voyager, ready for the return of Picard, Seven-of-Nine, and the rest of the aging bridge crew in Amazon Prime’s new series.

Another rebooted series, Lost In Space, is the most recent that I’ve enjoyed on Netflix, but there are plenty more sitting in my queue. The Expanse and Altered Carbon both have excellent write-ups, so it’s a toss-up between the two which I’ll watch next - and then there’s season three of Discovery coming soon. And soon it will be 2021 - more Picard, more Lost In Space, plus who knows what is coming down the pipe next? It’s a great time to be a TV sci-fi fan … I’m glad I figured out I am one.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

So far in 2020, I’m happy to say, I’ve managed to stay away from Twitter, and I feel much less stressed as a result. But without that reliable time-suck I now find I need something else to fill those moments when you don’t feel like doing anything that’s actually productive, and so I’ve been spending a lot more time on both YouTube and Twitch in the last couple of weeks.

YouTube

My YouTube subscriptions are becoming a pretty accurate cross-section of my interests. I’ve always watched channels on film or script analysis, like Every Frame a Painting or the excellent Notes from the Screenplay, but I’ve added more to that list recently such as the SFX-focused Corridor Crew, and Thomas Flight, who makes detailed analysis videos looking at various aspects of movie-making. I’m also kind of addicted to Screen JunkiesHonest Trailers series.

On the gaming side, I follow a few experts on particular games that I’m playing (or have played in the past); right now that means PartyElite for his Total War videos, TheLazyPeon for general MMO news, and a couple of random World of Warcraft and Age of Empires II channels.

Then there’s TwoSetViolin (a couple of dorky violin pros making funny violin-themed reaction videos), theneedledrop (music reviews), Seth James DeMoor (running) and David Bennet Piano (more music analysis) among others. I spent years just browsing YouTube at random, and it’s really only in the last year or two that I’ve started actually subscribing to channels; I kind of wish I started doing it sooner, as their recommendation algorithm is pretty good at surfacing new things that I’m genuinely interested in watching.

Twitch

While I have no real desire to ever be a streamer, I’ve finally started to actually watch other people stream on Twitch occasionally. While I find the big streamers like Asmongold to be abrasive and juvenile simply for the sake of growing an audience of teenaged boys (and a chatroom with fifty thousand people in it is so far beyond usable that it’s simply not funny), it’s actually quite relaxing to dig into the tail-end of the streamer lists and find someone streaming to just a handful of viewers. Genuine conversations with strangers over the internet seems so much more normal when you bond over a shared love for a game, rather than in the artificial social interaction of a site like Chat Roulette.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

I wasn’t sure whether I’d even put up a New Year’s Resolutions post this year, after I nuked my old blog some time towards the beginning of 2019. That, plus the disavowing of all of my old ambitious creative projects (when I finally realised they weren’t actually what I wanted to do with my life) had me thinking I’d have nothing to say on January 1st.

But, since starting to blog again on this reworked site in November, I find that I do actually have a couple of things that you could consider to be resolutions for 2020, so I might as well post them in order to keep myself honest and continue the tradition (albeit a tradition that you can now only find via archive.org).

There are two things I want to accomplish this year (well, technically one to accomplish and one to avoid):

  1. Get better at graphic design. As I wrote about recently, I feel like my lack of natural artistic ability is a hindrance in my professional life. While there isn’t actually a lot of graphic design work necessary in my day-to-day, I’d really like to fill that gap in my skillset with a better appreciation for layout, typography, colour choices, and so on, and the ability to execute the same. I’m going to enroll in a Coursera specialisation today. Maybe I’ll even start posting on Dribbble again, who knows.

  2. Stay off Twitter. I spent six months away from Twitter before going back to the site in mid-2019, but since the UK election cycle the site has become simply unbearable once more. It’s no longer a place to keep up with what your friends, acquaintances, and favourite celebrities are up to; instead, the Twitter algorithm seems hell-bent on putting the most frustrating or upsetting content in front of you. However, I’ve realised that being aware of the anti-left, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-whatever offensive moron of the day really brings me nothing but anxiety. I can do nothing about it besides be annoyed at how many stupid people there are in the world, and so I’d really be better off without it. Truly newsworthy stories will filter up to the real world; from now on, the Twitter outrage generator can feed itself without my help.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Every year I like to post a summary of the various media I have consumed over the last twelve months, whether that be books, music, television or film. It’s a nice opportunity to remember what I liked or disliked, and to see which things stayed with me … or were instantly forgettable.

This is the first year that I started using Letterboxd for every film I watched; I think I only really started from the middle of the year, so there are probably some missing entries in early 2019. Next year will definitely be more complete.

Reading

I like to split up my reading list into fiction, non-fiction, and comics, mainly because it almost always surprises me how much non-fiction I read each year.

Fiction

I feel like I re-read more old favourites this year than I have in recent years, including some stories that I hadn’t read since I was a teenager (Drachenfels and The Magus, which were both as good as my memory said they would be). There were also some completely forgettable books—I don’t even remember reading the fourth Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book, it was that memorable—and some classics that were decidedly underwhelming (Blood Meridian in particular, although Mrs Dalloway was also more than a little pedestrian).

At the more positive end of the scale, Doomsday Book was excellent, if a little long; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was well-constructed and meticulously researched, although I found the ending predictable; and A Little Life was heartbreaking and kept me up late at night, turning the pages in the hope of some relief for the tortured protagonist (hint: there wasn’t any).

Non-fiction

On the non-fiction side, I revisited another very old favourite, Christina Dodwell, whose travel and survival books I devoured as a teenager. Travels With Fortune, her first book, details the experiences that laid the groundwork for all those later works. I also finally got around to reading Leaves of Grass (which was totally different to what I was expecting) and David “The Wire” Simon’s riveting book detailing his time with Baltimore’s murder police.

Comics

Nothing of note here, just a couple of re-reads. I always seem to have the same problem with re-reading Alan Moore—it’s so mind-blowing the first time you read it that, by the time you return for a second time, your expectations are so high that it’s inevitably a let-down.

Listening

While I could easily just list my favourite albums released over the last year, I prefer to look back at my actual consumption, both new and old. Sometimes it reflects a stronger than usual roster of new artists and album releases; more often it just shows how long your favourite music and musicians stay with you.

Top 10 artists in 2019

The Wildhearts reclaim their top spot through a combination of a new album release and, well, being my favourite band of all time. Out of the rest of the list, only five (Bon Iver, Billie Eilish, Better Oblivion Community Center, Tegan and Sara, and James Blake) actually released a new album this year, and of those the latter two weren’t even that good, if I’m being honest. I’m not sure why Led Zep managed to chart so highly, either—probably because when I listen to them, it’s usually the epic twin album Remasters from beginning to end.

Top 10 albums in 2019

Now this is more like it. All these albums came out in 2019; Billie Eilish probably edged it simply by being something that everyone in the family was happy to listen to (which is not something you could say about JPEGMAFIA or FEVER 333). I really liked the Better Oblivion Community Center, Desperate Journalist, Marika Hackman, and Mono albums; the Beyoncé Netflix show was amazing; and FEVER 333 would appear to be a worthy successor to RATM in the political rap-metal genre.

Watching

I’m not going to list every film I watched this year, but here are a few notable entries:

For all that it feels like we never get to go to the cinema any more, I actually saw quite a few new releases this year. The Favourite was probably the weirdest of those; Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood probably the most enjoyable, although Endgame was pretty good too. The rest are a combination of Netflix, Amazon Prime, or visits to Amsterdam’s CitizenM hotel, which boasts a great selection of free movies. It was there I saw Phantom Thread (disappointing, even as a huge fan of PT Anderson) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (brilliant, understated black comedy).

2019 Picks

Now that I’ve started tracking my filmgoing as well as music and reading habits, I suppose I could actually choose a favourite in each category to see out the year:

Favourite book: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Favourite album: Better Oblivion Community Center by Better Oblivion Community Center

Favourite film: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Monday, 23 December 2019

A couple of things I came across recently—a video about what it’s like to actually run at a 2-hour marathon pace, and the novel Once a Runner by John L Parker Jr—have given me cause to rethink my own attitude towards running.

For the last year or two, since recovering from a long injury that kept me off my feet (at least as far as running goes), I’ve not been running competitively. In the past, I would enter at least a couple of races per year—half-marathons usually, plus the occasional 10k and our local village charity race—but when I returned to regular running I decided that I would stop ‘training’, and instead stick to a simple routine where I didn’t need to care about my pace or mileage. During my new schedule of bi-weekly runs, I would constantly tell myself that “speed doesn’t matter” and “you’re not in a race” whenever my body would try to step up the effort. I tried hard not to fall into a pattern of trying to beat my own previous pace.

Lately, though, I’m starting to think that perhaps that desire, to find out just how fast you can go if you really try, is an unavoidable part of running, and I should just embrace that innate need to go faster and to be better. I know I want to run in the 2021 Amsterdam marathon, and I have a target time, so why not do what I can to help my body go faster? Hell, I’m already faster than I was ten years ago.

I know that I don’t want to go the whole hog, counting calories and obsessing over high-protein recipes, but I think taking some aspects of my chosen form of exercise a little more seriously might pay dividends.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Although I’ve been working as a Web Designer (or, more recently, and through no fault of my own, a UX Designer) for almost twenty years, I’ve never had much of a talent for graphic design. Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t attend art school or study design at university; when I was freelancing, I outsourced almost all of the initial design work, preferring to handle the ‘easier’ aspects of the work such as the PHP, HTML, CSS and JavaScript. I was all about the production, not the inspiration and creation. Web Designer was simply the most convenient label for the niche I found myself in; I got into the web via programming and code, not through art and design.

Nowadays, of course, working for a multinational corporation in the era of the design system, there is little need for truly inventive design solutions. The problems we tackle are predictable, and understandable through research; the answers are rooted in tried and true patterns of human behaviour and methods of communication. Of course, there are a myriad large and small decisions to be made within each project, but the set of potential blocks from which to construct a solution is known, and mostly finite.

So I’ve never really needed to stretch myself too far outside my comfort zone. On those rare occasions when I do attempt something creatively daring, I inevitably get caught up in the left-brained minutiae of grid measurements and spacing, or the mathematical relationships between colours—unable to simply nudge things around the page until they ‘feel right’, or pick a few colours that ‘just work’. The result is always disappointing, and I find it incredibly hard. In the space between appreciating good design and the ability to create it oneself lies an Imposter Syndrome-triggering black hole of frustration.

In 2020, though, I’ve decided it’s about time that I do something about it. While it probably won’t replace three years of studying at art school, I’m hoping that a generous handful of courses via LinkedIn Learning, Coursera’s Graphic Design specialisation (offered by the California Institute of the Arts), plus a dash of regular practice, will help me quash that sinking feeling whenever someone asks me to “design something” … and fill the yawning gap in my skillset that has haunted me for too long.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Why is there no physical social media? Updating your current status online, across myriad platforms, has become such an intrinsic part of modern life but I find it curious that nobody yet seems to be interested in bringing that information offline and into the physical world.

Why are there no badges that reflect your current mood, or hats that display the song you’re currently listening to? We have digital photo frames in our homes, but no digital photos on tote bags or car windows. And people will decorate their avatars with in memoriam frames or political protest banners, but very few are willing to wear any visible indication of sentiment or belief beyond an occasional red poppy.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Since Phase 2 of World of Warcraft Classic launched last week, bringing with it the PvP honour system, levelling has become rather more challenging. My priest is level 51, which puts me square in the sights of every level 60 player looking for some easy points while we wait for the actual PvP battlegrounds to be released; in the space of a few days, the game went from generally fun to at times boringly frustrating.

So, to avoid the non-stop roaming gank squads, I’ve picked up a new game to play for a couple of weeks. Batman: Arkham Knight is the fourth and final game in the series released by Rocksteady, and brings back just about all of the heroes and villains that featured in the previous installments (Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and Arkham Origins) while changing little of the gameplay fundamentals that garnered all the games generally positive reviews. Even better, it was free; one of the better Epic Store giveaways — they actually gave away all the Arkhamverse games, plus all of the LEGO Batman games, in a single week!

I was a little unsure whether my iMac Windows partition would be able to handle running such a graphically intensive game, particularly when the hand-to-hand combat can sometimes require decent reflexes, but it actually runs fairly smoothly, albeit at a slimmed down 1600×900 resolution instead of the native 2560×1440. Again, 2015 seems to be the most recent vintage of game that I am able to comfortably play, but with such a wealth of options being given away for free, I can hardly complain.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Since 2007, all of my computing has been done on a Mac, both at work and at home. The smooth user experience of OSX (or MacOS, as it’s now known) was, and still is, light-years beyond whatever Windows can offer, and I have never regretted leaving behind that never-ending cycle of updates, patches and virus warnings.

Of course, every silver lining has a cloud, and going Mac-only obviously leaves a significant PC-shaped hole in one’s ability to play the latest games. The situation now isn’t as bad as it used to be, of course; nowadays many games are available on Mac, including just about every new indie title (my guess would be that standardised development platforms like Unity and Unreal can take the credit for this), but it’s still true that you’re unlikely to be playing the latest open-world sim or first-person shooter on a Mac, even via Boot Camp. My 2013 iMac can just about manage to run 2015’s Witcher 3, but anything released more recently is beyond its capabilities.

However, one upcoming game has me seriously considering making the switch back to Windows, and splashing out on the kind of graphics card that needs its own air-conditioning unit. The revamped Microsoft Flight Simulator, due out in 2020, looks AMAZING — just take a look at this:

That’s high-definition satellite imagery sourced from their Bing Maps service, together with live weather data, all streamed from the cloud to your PC or Xbox.

I remember playing the original Flight Simulator back when I bought my first ever PC, probably around 1999-2000. I don’t remember which version I owned, but I do remember spending hours simply following the tutorials as I practiced taking off, circling the runway, and landing my little twin-engine plane back at SeaTac airport. You wouldn’t have thought that following simple instructions could be such an enjoyable gaming experience, but I guess the 37 years that MSFS has been going proves you very wrong.