2021: In Review

General Commentary

It’s year NINE doing these reviews and, as usual, it’s been a reward going back to previous years to check on my musings, favorites, and photos. Combining this write-up and the “meditations” exercise I’ve done for the same span of time can actually be a fair amount of work, so I really do mean “reward” in the previous sentence. 

2021 in some ways is ending similarly to 2020—I’m out near the eastern tip of Long Island while the city feels choked by COVID and there’s questions of what normalcy may ever return or how we adjust to understand the very definition of that word.

And yet we have had vaccines and boosters and things are more understood this year—people around the world are still dying and we are not done with grief by a long shot but some mysteries have evaporated. We have, with some luck, seen family in 2021 and friends and are learning to live within an era of health as a public matter.

And that’s the world. Personally, 2021 was a BIG year and there’s so much to be grateful for what I got to personally experience in the span of it all.

I proposed to Maya just 15 days into 2021. (She said yes).

We waited until she finished her MBA to start wedding planning in earnest but we knew we wanted to move quickly given uncertainties around us. So we did. She finished school in late March and we started looking at venues and paying close attention to COVID restrictions in NYC. 

We found a venue that would help us put on an outdoor wedding, though it’d be smaller than we likely would have done in a non-COVID world. That meant we weren’t able to celebrate with everyone we would have liked but given how things went, we made the best of the cards dealt to us.

Fast forward to October (though I’d be remiss not to mention a bachelor party in pulchritudinous Pittsburgh with some great friends) – and we got an absolutely perfect weekend for a wedding. We had the time of our lives celebrating with family and friends – pictures were great, parties were had, and everyone was safe. We talk often of just how perfect it all really went.

We honeymooned shortly after (and after Jesse’s wedding in Atlanta) in the desert near Palm Springs and enjoyed both the luxury of our resort and the out-of-worldness of nearby Joshua Tree. 

We got to see both Maya’s and my family several times this year. We welcomed a new addition to Maya’s sister’s family (baby Elie in August). My sister Lindsey went off to college. My sister Sammi moved back into Chicago and started a job at Depaul. I moved jobs at Linkedin (more below) and finished up my first full year of grad school (in Analytics). 

In all, lots happened for us. And despite 2021 being still-too-much inside and not enough exploring the playground that is New York City — we were able to get vaccinated and boosted and get back out in the world and that’s worth treasuring even if it wasn’t the year we had hoped for all around.

Categories

Travel – Because of the lockdown (and a quick trip to Mexico City in pre-pandemic 2020), 2021 was the first year since (I think0 2012 that I did not leave the country. It was likely 2006 before that. Maya and I talked about going to Greece for our honeymoon but with so many unknowns we couldn’t make it work. Instead, we honeymooned in the Palm Springs area – soaking up the desert sun and hiking through Joshua Tree. Truly amazing – pics down below! Otherwise, we got in some trips to D.C., a few to Chicago (including most of July), and a couple other short trips after we finished getting vaccinated in April.

Writing – In my vows, I wrote that the 600-odd words that made up those vows were worth a million otherwise-written words and I meant it. Those were about the only “creative” writing I did this year — my mind consumed with other things: work, grad school, and planning the wedding. The grad school in particular is so focused on logic and mathematics that it makes it hard to switch to the “other side” of my brain to write. So it goes—I know there will be years of writing ahead, and for now I’m loving the learning I get to do in the world of data and analytics.

Reading – You can see the full list of books I read this year here.

Professional – I switched roles at LinkedIn in September, to our Insights team, working on how we use our data at LinkedIn Learning to tell the story of customer value. So far, it’s a great fit of what I’m learning in grad school (Analytics) and my 10+ years of career experience now (in the Learning & Development space) and it was a goal of mine to move onto this team from 2020. I feel like I was just able to get my feet set in the role in 2021, but really looking forward to some great work and strategic thinking ahead in 2022.

Pearl Jam – None this year, despite PJ playing not-so-far away in New Jersey. Plans are in the works to see Eddie in 2022 if that happens and maybe the full roster next summer.

Favorites

Favorite New Thing 

Solo Biking with Headphones

Likely not the most groundbreaking of “new” things here. Expanding on my favorite thing of last year (biking) – this year I bought a new road bike and set a goal to ride almost double my 2020 miles.

I didn’t get there because of some back issues during the year but I did get in some great rides around NYC with friends (and a very near contender for my favorite thing of both 2020 and 2021 is the NYC sites I’ve gotten to see by biking all over) and a bunch of solo ones around Prospect Park where I felt comfortable enough (a feeling not given on the Brooklyn streets) to put headphones in, cancel noise out, and listen to music or, more likely, a podcast or narrated article. 

It’s this last one in particular, audio versions of longform articles (narrated by professionals) that probably fits this “favorite thing of mine”. Taking some laps around the Park (about a 3-3.5 mile loop) while listening to a great article is a great reset, learning opportunity, and breath of fresh air (literally).

A lot of this is done with the Audm App, which could itself be a contender for my “favorite new thing” this year if the app itself weren’t so frustratingly lacking of features. While it’s loaded with dozens of new audio-articles a day, there’s no way to filter, the search barely works, and there’s so few ways to customize it. Luckily, it’s bailed out by hosting the best journalistic writing narrated by amazing voice actors.

Other Favorites: John Wilson, DAOs, mRNA vaccines, James Webb Space Telescope

Favorite Book Read in 2021

The Overstory by Richard Powers

When I told Maya I was embarking on a 612 page book about trees, I did so with a huge smile on my face. What could be better, right? 

Alas, the book wasn’t only about trees—it had people in it too. And Powers really delivered on both fronts. An epic tale intertwining a half-dozen characters who share little in common other than a deep rooted (intended) connection with a select species of trees. 

Later, their lives take on disparate (but in some cases connecting) paths, including their adult relationship with trees. Some are intense enough to dedicate their lives to their saving, others are more reserved. But no matter, Powers’ characters are deep, complicated, and a joy to read. The first sections of the book – where the author does short story introductions of each character — were some of the best 200 or so pages of reading I’ve done in a long time

Other Favorites: The Hard Crowd (Rachel Kushner), Lincoln Highway (Amor Towles), The Professor and The Madman (Simon Winchester)

Favorite 2021 Movie

Bo Burnham: Inside

A contender for 2021’s Favorite ‘Thing’ and Favorite Album, Bo Burnham’s Inside was the best thing I saw this year — and seeing was both hearing and taking in our lives in a pandemic: shut-in, closed-off, and sometimes quite sad. But in all of that—the limitations brought on by being shut “inside”—there’s an artistic opportunity to play with and Bo outdid the rest. 

I’ve really enjoyed Bo’s previous specials (especially this) – but Inside took it maybe fifteen steps further. Part musical, part diary, the special is a vulnerable, confessional Bo wavering between the struggles of pandemic life and the artistic breakthrough that he can muster by having all the time in the world (oh, and the pains of editing in near infinite time). The special will always be tied to COVID and this time in my life, but it’s the piece de resistance of the whole of it. And even beyond that I’ll listen to “That Funny Feeling” AND laugh every time he hits the chorus in the first Bezos song.

Other Favorites: The Velvet Underground, In & Of Itself, Plan B

Favorite 2021 TV Show (new category)

The Beatles: Get Back

This is the first year I’m putting the TV show category in and probably the year I’ve watched the most TV in more than a decade. That’s both with the pandemic keeping us inside as well as grad school shrinking my free time to a more TV-appropriate slot at the end of the night rather than a movie. 

But, 2021’s TV watching was pretty good and this was a competitive category for me. All the other favorites below could have been the winner for me but Peter Jackson’s Beatles “documentary about a documentary” was truly something else.

Eight hours with one of my favorite bands would have been enough but what the documentary (or, as Jackson put it “a documentary about a documentary”) really showed is just how their magic worked in the studio, and even in the sort of project planning sessions that ultimately determined their concert on the roof (and not in Libya).

To see the young Beatles (all under 30-years-old) in hours of new footage would have been a gift. But Jackson’s restoration did it in high-def, did a remarkable job of making sure the audio was commiserate with the visuals, and gave enough diversity in the footage to make seven hours pass like nothing. Those clips where Paul is having the eureka moments of ‘Get Back’ and ‘Let It Be’ blew us away, even coming in knowing that he’s one of the greatest songwriters ever to live.

Other favorites: The Great (Season 2), I Think You Should Leave (Season 2), How To With John Wilson (Season 2), Hacks (Season 1)

Favorite 2021 Article 

What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind’ by Jennifer Senior (The Atlantic)

The hands-down pick for me this year was Jennifer Senior’s study of one family’s grief in losing its 26-year-old in 9/11. The story of Bobby McIlvaine (whom the author knew and the personal connection here strengthens the story) is a tragedy from the start: he was young, on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend, and not even supposed to be in/near the World Trade Center on 9/11. But that’s just the beginning.

The actual story is how the family (and girlfriend) spent the last 20 years in the spin-out from that day, and each takes a substantially different direction. What we get in totality from the article is the diversity of grief, a study in marriage, in relationships, in keepsakes from those who have past – and cameos from Kobe Bryant, Toni Morrison, the 9/11 truther movement, and the author’s search for a quote that may or may not exist. 

Other favorites: They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War by Andy Greenberg (Wired), The Hard Crowd by Rachel Kushner (New Yorker), I Had a Chance to Travel Anywhere. Why Did I Pick Spokane? by Jon Mooallem (NYT Magazine), The Girl In The Picture by Nile Cappello (Atavist) 

See even more on my Longform list here.

Favorite 2021 Album

An Overview On Phenomenal Nature (Cassandra Jenkins)

I can’t say for sure that this pick will hold up as a favorite or if the album felt 2021-y enough to warrant dozens of re-listens. Only time will tell.

The album is unlike much else that came my way this year (like those other favorites below) but from the first words and chords it seemed to stick. It’s somewhat spoken word, somewhat jazz, and somewhat indie rock wrapped into one. It feels both warm in her soft voice and utterly cold as she speaks of the water in Norway and the grief she felt at the death of friend and collaborator David Berman.

“Hard Drive’ is the strongest track on the album (see below) but ‘Michelangelo’ kicks it off with a….well, not bang per se, but something like that. I found that Jenkins album, played beginning to end, conjured up just the right space of ambiguity to sit within and that her words were poetic and specific enough to be in the throngs of a great storyteller while also combining my personal experience in empathy.

Other Favorites: Open Door Policy (The Hold Steady, Daddy’s Home (St. Vincent), total serene ep (Gang of Youths)

Favorite 2021 Song

Cassandra Jenkins – ‘Hard Drive’

The jewel of the album, ‘Hard Drive’ takes on real quotations from an oversharing museum security guard, mentions of a faraway inn, and the double meaning of “hard drive” that at first one probably takes to mean the technical noun instead of a difficult journey. Either way, Jenkins, who spends much of the album talk-singing (my favorite), builds an unforgettable tune behind the lyrics on this one.

Form certainly equals function here – the tune itself is kind of a long, slow-mountain-twisting drive itself and when the song wraps, it’s hard to tell whether it was a two or twenty minutes long (preference would have been for the latter). 

In a year of not much moving around, the tune gave me the headspace of wide, open places and the roads that get swallowed up the landscape around it — the lives we live in big cities that too can be swallowed, especially when we’re stuck at home and see it only through the windows. This year was a hard drive for many — but there’s a joy in Jenkins’ voice that lifts it all up to an ending in a kind of heavenly place, looking down on us, sharing its wisdom as benevolence. 

Other favorites: Gangs of Youth – ‘asleep in the back’  , The Hold Steady – ‘Heavy Covenant; Weather Station – ‘Parking Lot’, Weather Station – ‘Tried to Tell You’, Bleachers ft. Bruce Springsteen – ‘Chinatown’, Bleachers – ‘45’

Favorite 2021 Podcast Episode

The Woods (The Memory Palace)

In college, I took a course called “history through commodity” where we picked a consumer item and wrote an essay on how its journey was part of a larger historical story. I did mine on the VW Beetle and the emergency of German-friendly buying in the United States by the 1960s. 

But one article we read was about the Singer Sewing Machine, one of the most popular consumer items in the early 20th century. This podcast episode, done by Nate Dimeo on his amazing Memory Palace, starts with that machine and its need for a large cabinet made from a certain type of wood. Cue the mass planting of trees, then the decline of the machine’s popularity, an eventual new need for the tree, and on and on the story of history goes. The tree becomes part of a wider history and then by proxy so too do the birds that populate those trees. 

And by 2021, those birds—the once-famous Ivory-Billed Woodpecker—are now critically endangered. So goes the story. A “natural history through humanity” kind of story. It’s a short episode (14 minutes) and worth a listen for anyone to think back of just how much our own story influences the natural world—trees, birds, and everything that’s part of that ecosystem. 

Other favorites: Daniel Lanois (WTF with Marc Maron), Day X: Part 1 (New York Times), The Daily: Jan 24, 2021* (New York Times), Ramit Sethi (Tim Ferriss Podcast), The Lost Password (Exit Scam)

Favorite 2021 Place Visited 

Joshua Tree National Park

So great to be back at a National Park, and what a dream this place was. Literally, it felt like you were exploring some kind of twisted, burnt-up dreamland. From the Joshua Trees themselves—producing a million green sparks praying to some celestial being—to the glow of the Cholla cacti there, everything is a bit peculiar and a whole lot beautiful.

Maya and I honeymooned nearby in Rancho Mirage and got out to Joshua Tree for two full days, getting to explore the desert towns nearby and on the last visit doing a late night stargazing which was amazing in its own right. 

Joshua Tree was certainly the most unique landscape we saw this year and though hiking through it gives you miles of much-of-the-same, it’s so out of the ordinary to see what you’re seeing that it really doesn’t get old. Plus getting to see all the trees in their aggregate was something special, and the bright milky way that was visible once the sun went down (we booked a wonderful two hour stargazing “tour”).

Other favorites: Arsenal Bowl (Pittsburgh), The Art Institute of Chicago, Wrigley Field (3x), Greenwood Cemetery

Pictures

Wedding Pictures

Floating

In part of my “returning back to normal” process that many of us are entertaining at the moment, I booked a float for today. It’s my first time floating in at least three years—since I left Chicago—and even before I left I was probably doing so only a few times a year.

This, in contrast to when I first start floating (in Vancouver) when I’d go weekly. I was hooked and today reminded me why that happened.

For the uninitiated, floating is putting your body in a small pool or pod of heavily salted water, so heavily salted, in fact, that you float completely. The water is room temperature and the floating is easy. Once you lay back, it happens at once.

But that’s not all. To fully offer a unique experience, the pod you go in turns all dark and is soundproof. Many will use earplugs as well to dampen even the quietest sounds and the effect is what’s known as sensory deprivation.

And you do this for an hour. Or so.

It is claustrophobic. Yes. But you can get out whenever you’d like.

Many have asked me, what did you do in there?

The answer is not easy: I think. I stretch. I meditate. Sometimes I sleep. I count breaths. I move my body. I try to avoid touching my face because my salted hands will burn through my pores. I do so much and yet so little. But the world is locked out, as is my phone, email, whatever.

It’s serene and wonderful and every time I do it I come out feeling refreshed. Actually, it’s not quite refreshed. What is that feeling?

It’s hard to describe the feeling. It’s something akin to refreshed and renewed (or rejuvenated). I come out with more energy, a clearer head, a more limber body (being able to lay in this sort of zero-gravity is the best thing for my back when it’s feeling jammed).

Some in the floating “world” say that it can be a replacement for sleep or rest. But even that isn’t quite an approximate of the life in me when I leave. It’s something like having a filter cleared. Having some moss removed, or extra muons or atoms that are clinging to my body being unmoored from me. It reminds me of how Michael Pollan talks about our “modes” in his How to Change Your Mind book.

Today was no different. I can’t wait to go back. I’m so grateful we’ve recovered enough from this pandemic for me to be able to do things again like float.

2020: In Review

General Commentary

Okay, 2020 In Review. How to start? How to organize this year’s post as though it’s just like the ones before it?

This was a tough year, the kind of tough year that I—and the collective we—will remember for decades to come. We rarely get the kind of foresight of meaning, or the knowledge of a fork in the road. But 2020 will likely be that in some way—a given yardstick to measure things from.

I wrote in another reflection exercise that I felt humbled about this year. Humbled by the reminding this year gave that there are many things bigger than us (singularly and the small existence and network that we encounter close enough to be daily)—and that those bigger things will come and go and leave their yield on us in ways we won’t control.

Many, many people have anthologized this year in existence far better than I can, so I won’t dwell too much on the macro-experience of 2020. Instead, I’ll focus on what I have all to myself.

And that thing I have that is unique is these reviews themselves, dating back to 2013. Years from now, I’ll be able to come back to this post and see if I can decipher how 2020’s changes in living may have influenced my categorical favorites below. That and the pictures full of masks, the new gear bought for a home office, and the emails from family and friends setting up Zoom calls instead of times that I’m arriving at O’Hare.

I’m happy, then, to be posting my year in review blogpost now for the 8th straight year and look forward to the next eight from here.

There were some highlights that this year brought that I want to share too: I got to move in with Maya to a wonderful apartment in Brooklyn, friends and family stayed healthy (more important than the real bummer it was not see my family at all in 2020), I was wrong in my February article that Trump had already won the election, I got into grad school, took up new hobbies (see below), and so much more. I’m grateful for all of these things just as I’m grateful for the sun-coming-out-of-the-clouds optimism that 2021 brings and the years beyond—as I and we return to what we call “normal” with a hangover of the months living in the unknown.

Is that all I have to say looking back on these twelve months? Surely not—more words will come as they always do. But I think I’ll leave it there for brevity and get to some 2020 lists & favorites!

Random Categories

Travel – I usually list out all the places I’ve been throughout the year but I’ll skip that this year – I wrote a little about two places I did get to visit near the end of this post.

Writing – Didn’t get a lot of writing done this year other than some sporadic journal and random jots about the year and coping with it all. It was a year that inspired my creative juices in other ways (problem-solving with data, for instance) – though I do have a writing goal for 2021 that I hope to continue. I did manage to publish nine posts on this blog though (prior to this one), so thats something. 

ReadingInstead of listing that my books here which makes for a long post, I put this year (and some previous years’) finished book list on a live page on my blog. I finished 36 books this year, one less than last. See my favorites below!

ProfessionallyThis was my first full year with LinkedIn Learning and I felt more comfortable in my role in enabling customer success. That would be saying enough but we, like most businesses, found ourselves having to adjust in March as the world stayed home to work. Fortunately, our product is made for that transition and our biggest challenge this year (perhaps) was keeping up with the demand and supporting our clients through the changes using our tool. Usage doubled in the span of a few weeks and has remained strong, challenging me to think about value and engagement beyond expectations, and thinking deeply about how professionals learn and grow their skillsets in a new decade.

Pearl Jam – Will have to wait on this one – with the hopes of a 2021 show or two (especially if that means Madison Square Garden).

Favorites

Favorite New Thing 

(tie) Data Science and Cycling

Couldn’t make a decision between these and since this is my own blog, I don’t have to.

Data Science really took a hold of me this year and I wonder if that interest will be tied to the absolute flood of important public information we got this year that different channels were challenged to visualize for the massers (examples: COVID spread, poll/election returns).

For me it was a bit more personal as I expanded my use of data at my job as well as extra-curricular. I started my first full “class” online in data science (detailed here) after doing some self-learning on SQL. Long story short, the journey continued (see other posts) and applied to a grad school program at Georgia Tech in Analytics…..and I’m starting in January. Read more on that here. 

And on to cycling—my exercise routine for the COVID summer and a great way to see New York City (see more below in the ‘book’ section). Getting a bike this year was probably one of the best purchases I’ve made (even though I’m due for an upgrade on that). It got me moving outdoors as the city had to shut down, but even more than that it allowed me to see so much of Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. I even made trips into Jersey and Westchester.

I’m already looking forward to spring to get back on the bike for long rides through the boroughs, across bridges, and to new neighborhoods and parks in this amazing American city. 

Other favorites: Monarch butterfly hibernation (albeit briefly), public health, SPACs

Favorite Book Read in 2020

The Power Broker by Robert Caro

The behemoth of many a-bookshelf, The Power Broker took me about 10 months to get through (clocks in about 1300 pages, in small type) but the pay off was worth it. No book encapsulates you in a life nor asks you to be the judge of a man the way Caro does when it comes to Robert Moses.

For me, finishing this book—about the man who singularly made the most impact on the geography of New York City (from bridges, to tunnels, to highways, parks and more)—went alongside one of newest hobbies in 2020: cycling. 

And specifically cycling around Brooklyn and the rest of NYC. Seeing the extent of what this city offers is absolutely unimaginable and each ride (when I could go further or somewhere new) offered its own amazement of discovery. And, having finished the Power Broker months before I started cycling, in my mind it comes back to that people who made the decision to shape these very places. Many of those decisions came back to Moses himself, over the span of four or five decades. 

Other landmarks, like Tavern on the Green, the Verrazano bridge, and the BQE – have pages and pages in Caro’s book about the brokerage Moses undertook to get things done, but always those things were done in his way. 

A fascinating read that gets into the nefarious parts of the man and leaves the reader suspended in both awe and frustration constantly.

Other favorites: A Gentleman in Moscow, The Right Stuff, How Not To Be Wrong, House of Leaves

Favorite 2020 Movie

Boys State

2020 was a political year. So there may not have been a better year for this documentary to come out, even if just to remind you that the frustrations of the “game” of politics may be unavoidably natural. Or perhaps you’d come away from this thinking that it’s gotten so pervasive that even wide-eyed youths are using underhanded tactics.

The documentary—which follows a handful of high school boys on a weeklong convention to form a proto-government—is as suspenseful as any election you’ve followed. Along the way it uplifts you, frustrates you, and gives you a glimpse into how the youth (at least in Texas) approaches age-old political issues. And, I think, that would go for wherever you sit along the political spectrum, a feat becoming rarer by the day.

Admittedly, I still have quite a few 2020 movies on my list to see (all of the Small Axe, for instance), so just as the movie slates were pushed back this year so too is my viewing of them. This section may be edited.

Other favorites: The Vast of Night, Palm Springs, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Sound of Metal

Favorite 2020 Article 

The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet (Wired)

Andy Greenberg’s longform article on Marcus Hutchins will make for a terrific coming-of-age-in-the-age-of-hacking movie or book someday (or inspire as much). It has all the hallmarks: a prodigy, a misdirected kid who uses his talents for wrong, and then that same kid who grows up to reverse the wrongs he’s made. It’s as Campbell-ian of a hero’s journey as it gets.

And it’s all true. And told in a way that helps non-tech readers like myself understand why Hutchin’s work (on both the evil and hero side) is so effective. The article is a wild ride of a story, told in a thoughtful and suspenseful way, that ultimately ends with….well, just read it!

Other favorites: Look at my full list of longform article favorites here

Favorite 2020 Album

Local Honey (Brian Fallon)

In a year with album releases from Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, it was never likely to be an eight-song Americana album that became my most listened to album, but that’s the way it was.

Not like Brian Fallon was a longshot, his solo stuff has been on my lists before, and if my list of my favorite songs of the last decade was able to include 2009’s The ‘59 Sound, then Fallon’s main band would have made the list for at least half the songs on that album. 

In Spotify’s review of my year, three of the eight songs on Local Honey are in my top 10, and occupy the first and third spot (the highest songs released in 2020 for that matter), so the album makes sense.

But front to back, this album is a gem. It’s got an easy and laid back sound to it (the first time he’s gone full folk on his albums) and yet the storytelling is full and the lyrics are deep and unique. He’s either a master of his craft or just someone who fits squarely in my tastes, I suspect it’s a bit of both though leaning on that latter. No matter – this one will be listened to for years to come I’m sure. 

Other favorites: Gigaton (Pearl Jam), Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee), Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple), Rough & Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan)

Favorite 2020 Song

Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Kyoto’

Bridgers had her well-deserved big blow up this year and her newest album did not disappoint. This song, in particular, has stuck with me since it came out. It’s catchy, that’s for sure, but I think what I enjoy most (and stays true version to version online now that she’s done) is the sort of meandering story she tells in the lyrics.

It reminds me of a poet, not necessarily in the depth of language, but in the transition from story to abstract to story to emotional reckoning. It has something of a Frank O’Hara quality in that way, particularly the second verse….or for a more apt comparison it reminds me a lot of my favorite song from 2015, Courtney Barnett’s ‘Depreston’. Seems like a pattern!

Not to mention Bridgers re-worked the song in this incredible piano version.

Other favorites: Fiona Apple – ‘I Want You to Love Me’, Brian Fallon – ‘Hard Feelings’, Pearl Jam – ‘Comes Then Goes’, Waxahatchee – ‘Arkadelphia, Waxahatchee – ‘Fire’

Want more music? I made a list of my 100 favorite songs of the last decade at the end of last year. You can check that out here

Favorite 2020 Podcast Episode

The Case of the Missing Hit (Reply All)

I listened to a good deal of podcasts this year — on my metro commute in the mornings before March and then while exercising or playing video games at home. I think next year I’d like to keep a list of my favorite episodes (the way that 2019 introduced the category below of my favorite longform article).

As for this episode, it’s just pure fun. Reply All was hit or miss this year, though still one of my favorite podcasts and the hosts have a unique ability to make some episodes really, really fun. This is one of those—and the effort and length that the host goes to solve this mystery shows why they can’t be putting out this episodes all that often.

Not intrigued to listen to it yet? How about The Guardian calling it potentially the best podcast episode ever? Give it a listen!

Favorite Place Visited 

(tie) Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary and Maine

I only really went one new place this year and I’m grateful or even that. In August, Maya and I went to Portland, Maine for a week and day-tripped around the area. Maine was lovely in the summer – some crowds in some places and certainly different because of the pandemic (many restaurants in Portland were closed, for instance, though the breweries had wide open areas to sit outside. 

Maine itself though is the perfect combination of beaches (for the short months anyway) and hills and mountains for hiking and may be one of the few places on the East coast where you can do both so easily in the same day. We took advantage.

And then we added to that with delicious lobster rolls, fresh blueberry pie, and local beers & spirits. 

In February, before the lockdown, after a great bachelor party in Mexico City, I stayed for a few extra days with a friend. My biggest regret from 2019’s months in Mexico City was not getting to see the massive monarch butterfly migration to a town near CDMX in the early winter. So this time I wasn’t going to miss it!

It ended up being one of my favorite travel days in some time. We booked a guided tour and a driver picked us up from Mexico City for a three hour drive (or so) to the sanctuary. Despite being warned we were on the later end of the season (end of Feb.) there were still hundreds of thousands of butterflies up in the trees and swirling around (often times looking for sun). The guide talked through the whole migration pattern and the generations that die off in that journey (just think for a second that the butterflies that make it to Mexico have never been there, likely born somewhere in the middle of the States, so how do they know where to go?).

Pictures

Data Science Learning Journey – Months 4 and 5

A little behind on the updates here, so I’ll combine the last two months of this journey together. This will also likely be the last of these longer updates, as the journey has solidified its own long-term path. I’ll probably utilize LinkedIn going forward for mini updates.

The big update is this: next month I’ll start my first (official) classes as part of the Online Masters in Analytics (OMSA) through Georgia Tech.

I put official in parentheses above since I did take an audited class from this program this fall – Intro to Analytics Modeling – done through edX as a MOOC. I did homework, took tests, and was graded just as a student was, all of which I described in previous posts. I ended up getting a 90% in that class which I’m proud of and should mean that I can get “advanced standing” on that class (which is a required course for the masters). It gives me an extra slot to take an elective of my choice while doing the full program.

The class was a good introduction to the Masters at large (or at least from what I’ve read) and I enjoyed learning all about different types of models one can build from data sets (regressions, exponential smoothing, different categorization and classification models, etc..). The tests were tricky at times but manageable and made sure to gage understanding of using the correct model given a desired outcome or starting set of data.

As part of a course, I wrote a five page paper on bike sharing systems in large cities and what models could be used to make individual stations more effective (read: not run out of bikes or be full when someone wants to return one). I enjoyed putting some practicality behind the theoretical in the class and think of it terms of a popular program I see everyday (there’s a Citibike dock less than a block from my apartment).

It looks like, as part of the program, I’ll be starting a class in January called Computing for Data Analysis which is entirely in Python. My Analytics Modeling course was in R and I started this year’s learning adventure by self-teaching SQL, so this will be the third language to get exposed to.

I’ve really enjoyed learning from DataCamp before so I’m taking its Python Skill track (started just a few days ago) from the beginning, in hopes that I can grasp the language enough to understand the class (the timeline is about four weeks and I’m sure I’ll continue to learn after it starts).

What started as a journey of exploring a burgeoning interest of mine (moving past what I could do with an Excel file, for instance) has now become a commitment to a Masters of Science which will likely take two to three years to complete. So the journey will go on for some time and it’s really become something I’ve loved learning more about.

I don’t know where it will take my career but based on both data on the changing world of work and my own qualitative perspective, the analytics and data science skillsets are not going anywhere for a long time. It should provide some interesting and challenging work opportunities in the future.

how biden won – a letter

Dear Lindsey,

Four years ago I wrote you a letter answering a question: how did Donald Trump win the 2016 election? To do so, I scraped together everything I could figure out at the time to provide some kind of rationale. As much as I was writing for you, I was writing for myself. I needed explanation too. I had spent several months insisting it couldn’t and wouldn’t happen and was stung in the days after by an anxiety of what was to come.

Now we’re in 2020, just after the next Presidential election. This time Trump lost. The tides of the country had changed enough in the ballot box to say he wasn’t wanted anymore. I thought I’d write another letter—because I find myself wanting an explanation again.

Of course, so much else has changed in four years, particularly in just the last eight months. But, even more than that, you have changed. You’re seventeen now and aware enough to know what’s going on. You’re taking government in school and you’ve now met folks who voted for Trump.

You don’t need my rationale anymore. There’s less for me to teach you now. And yet it still feels like a gift to be able to write out a letter. Because Joe Biden did in fact win the presidency, but not in a way that we might have expected. Questions still abound.

I do think that when things settle Biden will have won this race by a large margin, but that’s relative. No one really wins these things by an enormous margin and, anyway, more than 70 million people voted for four more years of Trump (many of them voted for him again), despite our own incredulity at the idea of wanting him to continue.

I do see a future where close elections are common (as they have been). With micro-targeted messaging on platforms like Facebook and the model of spatial consumption entrenched in political thought, the country will increasingly be divided into (two) camps and those camps will evolve to bring in the maximum number of voters. Said another way, both parties are likely guaranteed to get at least 45% of the vote each election. That explains some of it.

The rest is a game—where sides can and will denigrate the incredible necessity of our free press (as Trump has done and is continuing to do) and politicians stretch laws in voter registration and gerrymandering (neither of which, due to state elections this year, is unfortunately going to get much better).

That all sums up to where we’ve gotten to, and in some ways tells the story of the inextricably consistent support Trump had through this tenure as President—a metric that stayed almost stuck around 43% in polling, not wavering during COVID failures, or summits with Kim Jong-Un (neither when these seemed to be going well or not).

People stayed stuck in their bubbles over the last four years and the system seems designed to keep us there, infuriated with the other side who we understand, and are exposed to, less and less. The difference in the election was a sway of independent voters, who manage to either not sit in a bubble or vote against it, and the larger turnout of those bubbles (on both sides actually).

I could go over an analysis of the election for a long time. I’m fascinated by how we vote, how we make these decisions, and how the system takes advantage of some of these things. It’s the perfect combination of psychology, sociology, and government—and yet it’s maddening, isn’t it?

So where do we go from here?

That’s the question. New leaders bring new policies and strategies. As much as Trump worked to reverse Obama’s policies (with very mixed results), Biden will too work to undo what Trump put in place. This back-and-forth gives American politics a certain see-saw that can both hurt the population and also maintain a status quo. It takes a lot to break it—but new generations like mine and yours are moving toward being a larger force in the economy, politics, business, and more. What direction will we take it?

The short-term is to help those that are hurting. Right now, that’s all of us, prevented from living our normal lives as they were before. But some are hurting more than others. Millions are unemployed. Millions are at risk of falling below the poverty line and into the pains of hunger. Those in power seem to not care they way we would like them to—hinging on the hope of a vaccine coming quickly.

And then what? We enter a new age. The post COVID world. Much will change. Public Health will be a prominent force. We’ll have a large force of the American population that will not like what they are told. Public Health may well require a small sacrifice of personal liberty. The balance of which may be the great struggle of the next generations, because if it’s not the health of our society in a viral disease, it’s likelier going to be in the grave threat of climate change.

And so we have work ahead of us as a nation. Where we are angrier than ever at those who disagree with us, and yet we need cooperation so badly to surmount our greatest challenges.

Four years ago I wrote:

In those years and the ones after, there will be many times you want to fight with great vengeance. And fight you will. And so will I. But our fighting is not done with brutality, or hate, or shaming. It is done with discourse, with wisdom, with trust and empathy and love and hope and optimism. We will not revert to any level lower than that. And on the days you find it too hard to do that and so much easier to cut someone down, to debase a group of people, to hate…..you call me. And we’ll talk through it, kid. 

Well we made it four years and I think we did what we set out to do. Fought by learning, by growing wiser and smarter and more tactical about securing a brighter future ahead. But the fight doesn’t stop. To achieve that which we want—a world of peace, grace, equality, wisdom, and more—the journey has miles more until we sleep.

There’s been a hint of what’s to come from President-elect Biden in his recent speeches. I expect he’ll continue a theme in his inaugural message in January—to reflect and echo a sentiment from 160 years ago. It was then when a different new President addressed the nation.

I expect that Biden will take words from Lincoln, in Lincoln’s first inaugural address, where he looked out a nation divided—where half of it would not accept him as its leader. He knew his greatest challenge was to unite the states once more. With that burden on him, he spoke with grace, ending his speech with this:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Eric

Data Science Learning Journey – Month #3

Trying to keep some standard to updating these – so this will be the October update. You can find the past two updates by scrolling on the main page of my site here.

The last six weeks have definitely had their own learning experience – including my first real “test”, in the form of the first midterm for the class I’m auditing. That class is Introduction to Analytics Modeling, through Georgia Tech’s online masters in analytics (more on that later).

It was the first academic test I’ve taken since 2010 and I was more than a little rusty preparing and studying for it – likely overdoing my focus on some parts and wasting some time. Oh well – it wasn’t for naught, I got a 90% on the first test which made me quite happy.

The test for this class was quite different. While the weekly homework assignments are almost exclusively done in R—forcing me to learn that language and how to run tests in it, code “for loops” and the like for cross-fold validations and sum square errors (as just another example)—the test was much more analytical. There was no math and no coding on the test – but rather practical questions on applying certain types of models on data sets.

That test also covered a lot of ground—regression, exponential smoothing, SVM, KNN, validation, and more. So it was a lot to take in. And to add that analytical thinking on to the skillset I’m building in learning how to analyze data in R Studio.

I say that because I’m pleased I was able to get some practice in on that latter point in the last six weeks too. I took some more LinkedIn Learning courses in prep for the midterm like Artificial Intelligence Foundations: Machine Learning which has several crossover videos on algorithms from class. Another was the third Statistics Foundation class which filled in some blanks in modeling I’ve had from now taking a stats class in over a decade.

On top of this, I continued using DataCamp for coding learning and practice. I didn’t want my newly learned (this summer) SQL skills to wither away so I finished the Introduction to SQL course on DataCamp, and started the Intermediate SQL course (as well as the course specific to Joining Data), but mostly I’ve been using their daily practice (in-app and online to brush up on this).

And then I continued to push my R language skills, in class specifically, and on DataCamp. nicely, DataCamp has courses that teach R specifics as well as explaining concepts—so it was really nice to take part of the Correlation and Regression course in R while studying these concepts….and the same goes for Exploratory Data Analysis.

It was a solid month (and a half) since my last post and I learned a lot and had some of that learning validated with the positive midterm score.

But the other big event in this span was getting into the full Georgia Tech Online Masters in Analytics program (after applying in August) and deciding now if I want to pursue that (it’s a part-time program, I say “full” above because I’m essentially auditing once class from it now). It’s looking very likely that I’m going to go through with the program, which would continue this Data Science Learning Journey for years to come!

On my next update I’ll go into that program more and targets of some classes I’ll be taking. I’ll also mix in some work I’m doing in my day job (these are more reminders for myself!)

october lucidity: a letter

dear future october reader,

it’s me – in this october. 2020. i’m sitting on my couch in brooklyn. i just took a test for an online class. maya went apple picking. tomorrow i’ll ride my bike far – maybe 70 miles. it may rain.

long bike rides give me time and space to think. it’s a sorting activity.

I think about about i’ll write when dylan dies. i’ll have to write something. it’s certain. i think about crispr. about maps carving out identities. i think about the weather and the sky and the great particles of mist that float past the rockaways out to the sea, hoping they glide peacefully by the airport. i think about which version of kyoto is better—how the song is like a poem, full of a few short stories. how stories, the good ones anyway, proffer feelings. it makes me think of a jack gilbert poem and the many times i adjusted my hold on some box not knowing that it could be something else entirely.

i’ve thought about writing so much.. on here, on scraps of paper. i’ve thought about essays on politics, the election is so close and the closer we get the more myopic it all becomes — all about it. science journals are choosing a candidate. voices warn you of gloom constantly. but they are not wrong. we need certain voices elevated that don’t have a voice necessarily. take science. we need it for our species, for the earth, for the future generations who will look upon our regression as incalculably baffling.

i think i should write more letters. there are more months aside from october which gets this one. ill find a project and write for it. in between, i live and read the news, and watch shows with maya, and observe what i can about our time (these months) while so badly wishing we could get to a point of embracing one another again.

– me, in october

Data Science Learning Journey – Month #2

About five weeks ago, I published my first (month #1) update on my latest journey: Data Science.I’m back for another round—with a whole lot more learning.

My first month was focused on learning SQL—a language that several people had insisted was “table stakes” for getting into Data Science or any kind of analytics or insights role in today’s business landscape.

I totally believe that and started with SQL, using several online tools for learning queries and then testing myself in real-time.

As I’ve undergone this learning journey, I’ve looked as deeply as grad school programs to enhance my skillset. One that’s very popular for Analytics (really synonymous in a lot of ways with Data Science) is Georgia Tech’s OMSA program. I won’t go into that much but that program offers what’s called a “MicroMasters” through EdX where you can take up to three (3) real courses in the program. I’m doing so now.

EdX gives you the option to simply audit the class and get the materials (free) or take it as a student with homework, midterms, and everything. I’m doing the latter and we’ve just started Week 5.

While I’ve still been practicing my SQL skills (and utilizing them on data for my day-to-day job which has been an incredible plus to put learning into action), the course I’m taking, Introduction to Analytics Modeling, has taken up most of my Learning time.

Some notes from the course experience so far:

  • The learning curve was very steep in the first few weeks, for two reasons
    • One – the course is short and dives into content right away, which means utilizing math and stats concepts I hadn’t encountered since senior year of high school really and starting to put them into practice
    • Two – learning R, the programming language. Much like SQL, this is widely used in analytics and also like SQL, I didn’t know a lick of it before starting to learn. So I had to learn R, which I did through a combination of DataCamp (a very positive learning experience, and another place to practice SQL) and LinkedIn Learning (which is also tremendous but I work there so I’m biased, also this helped a lot with math concepts like p-value and exponential smoothing – concepts which, if they sound foreign, did for me as well just a few weeks ago but now I’m using them)

The combination of these meant that the first few weeks were a deep onboarding—my brain full of new notes and R language functions. I’m feeling much more in control now though we’ll see how midterms go in a few weeks—the rumor is that they can be quite ambiguous and somewhat heady.

Even feeling more confident the course is among the harder learning initiatives I’ve taken on. On the forums for the class it seems like some are in my boat (especially those, like me, coming from a non-STEM background) and easier for others. Perhaps the best result from this is a real idea of where I want to continue my journey—if I decide to go to grad school then this is the best vision of what that will be like (and it can count as credit in the GA tech program). So we’ll see — I’ll come out of this knowing about regression and clustering and ideas on representing data and understanding concepts like outliers, but I think I’ll go back to working on my SQL skills for some time after.

Who knows, I may even take a month off to get back to writing fiction 🙂

Lastly, as a plus, if you’d like you can watch and listen to me on my friend Davidson’s podcast— talking  about my delight for learning and more.

Data Science Learning Journey – Month #1

It’s been about a month since I had my summer break from work and started my newest learning journey – Data Science (and/or Analytics).

I’ve been keeping a learning journal and thought it might be interesting to write something in longer form—as well as crosspost this to LinkedIn where this journey takes on a meta-angle with my job in LinkedIn Learning.

I’ll start at the beginning: I’ve gotten more interested in Data in my year at LinkedIn. Within my space (Learning), the data we get describes the way that employees are learning within organizations, and how those organizations align with macro trends in employee learning (for example: the rise of learning on how to work from home in March and April of this year).

Through my role, I’ve gotten to expand my skills in Excel/Sheets and in analyzing large data sets about learning behaviors. I’ve loved taking on that role, which has expanded my analytical abilities, and now I have set my sights on growing far past my current efficacy.

After talking to a dozen or so people within or around the Data Science space, I set out to learn some popular Analytics skills: SQL, for instance (and advised by nearly all to be the best starting place).

When it comes to starting new learning journeys, I’m lucky to have access to LinkedIn Learning and to know the tool well. I know, for instance, we have dozens (if not hundreds) of learning paths on all sorts of Data skills and hundreds (if not thousands) of courses on the subject. Coming from the learning and development space, coupled with my current role as a Customer Success Manager for LinkedIn Learning, gives me this access and knowledge but it also gives me a good idea on how to approach a long-term and in-depth learning goal like this.

Last month, when it came start to really begin, I actually started with a director competitor of ours: Udemy. Specifically this course. I started with this because it was the most recommended course I found in my research (mostly internet forums/Reddit/LinkedIn posts on learning SQL). It was said to be friendly enough to a complete beginner (though I had some exposure to SQL at a previous company) and I had never used Udemy so it doubled as work research. (The course was also on sale for something like $9.99).

The course was great. (The Udemy platform was fine for the consumer, though I do prefer some of the functionality of LinkedIn Learning – no bias :)). It was well thought-out and linear. The instructor did a great job explaining and then showing—and course quizzes reviewed lessons taught and challenged me to think beyond what had been in the lectures.

I finished the course (9 hours of content plus hands-on work) in less than two weeks and then immediately started with part two of my journey. This part included:

  • Reviewing concepts from the Udemy course with LinkedIn Learning courses — specifically the Master SQL for Data Science learning path
  • Putting my SQL skills into practice — I used three sites for this: HackerRank, SQLZoo, and db.grussel.org. All three of these sites utilize fake databases and give you prompts and direct and immediate feedback on your work. This is what is called a “kind” learning environment because of the immediate feedback, though none go so far as telling you what went wrong in a query if that happens. They just confirm a right answer when they see one.
  • Preparing data sets from my own work (anonymized across clients and LiL analytics) to be put into a table to run queries on (much more on this later)

I’ll write about the progress of these steps and the ones coming after in my next post.

For now, my thoughts on starting this journey:

  • I remain energized by the idea here: finding ways to search, view, and query a database to make sense of what’s in its tables
  • I like the problem-solving aspect of SQL (as many have told me comes with learning coding languages). When a prompt asks for something specific (example: find all nobel prize winning authors in Economics who are from countries that have never had a nobel prize winner in Chemistry), your brain has to start untangling the mess for a starting point and a strategy to uncover the answer. That strategy is then written out in coded language.
  • By far the most rewarding part of this learning journey (like many others) is to be able to put skills into practical application. I was able to take what I had learned and query on anonymized learning data—sorting the data in ways that Excel would not have allowed (or would have been immensely more complicated). I can’t wait for more of this.

Okay, all for now. More to come!

Adieu to Normal, Bon Jour To Frank

Frank O’Hara is my favorite poet and now that I live in New York City I think about him all the time and sometimes in my head I try to write like him and ignore punctuation or moderation completely.

To me, no poet encapsulates the true wonder of New York City like he did. Because the city’s beauty is its frenetic energy, the want (need?) to get up, walk around, observe, laugh, moan, and whatever else. There’s enough going on in one city block for your own personal run through of a dozen emotions. Minimum.

One of my favorite poems by O’Hara is titled ‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and John Paul‘ which starts headlong and right into his lunch break at just past noon in New York City. The narrator is struck in the first stanza by the immediate need to figure out whether he can make lunch on time while almost simultaneously fretting about leaving the city for the weekend and not working on his poems. It’s the classic trap of summertime productivity, where one must think about the dismissal of creative duty in order to enjoy the fruits of metropolitan and coastal living.

It’s classic O’Hara and he made a living out of writing poems that explore this very quandary and the life that exists in the short-lived panic of wondering if you’ll be punctual. That mixed with the larger, more existential panic of what parts of life are worth living and when. It’s just one reason I love his writing so much—he can blow a minute up to a lifetime or make a minute as meaningless as any other.

The rest of the poem is a departure though. The narrator speaks of looking up a street in Paris and then rumbles into a set of stanzas about the nature of change—what exists always as is and what has changed. He himself has changed and is exploring the possibilities of where he could be or what he might be doing.

But then he arrives at a simple mandate:

the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do
The simplest way forward? To just continue to move forward. No deeper thought needed. No reckoning or doubt or thought experimentation. Be and see tomorrow. And then:
and surely we shall not continue to be unhappy
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves everything
But now, in May of 2020, these lines mean something else entirely. The very poem in which O’Hara explores whether change is even worth it now seems like an archaic, vintage sentiment. It no longer fits.
Because now nothing feels like it must continue as is. In fact, we know that it won’t. Those that had bene existing as is, even those that O’Hara mentions like the Seine, the Louvre, the Parisian streets, they are shut down. Just the same with his beloved New York art museums (the Met, the Frick) and the famed Manhattan avenues here. We hope they will be back. We don’t know. And we hope we will not have to continue on as we are right now—locked in and uncertain.
I love this poem so it’s not something I want or care to dismiss. And I won’t have to. O’Hara’s words may not fit right now (and no one mistook Frank O’Hara for a deterministic philosopher anyway)—but instead they make me ache for a time more wonderful, where New York exists one day the same as it did the day before, with the map of Manhattan set in place and the trains running on their own schedule. What continues is not the storefronts or the bars or restaurants, but our capacity to find the beauty of life amongst it all.
After all, he ends his poem like this:
everything
                                                                         continues to be possible
René Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn’t it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it
I’m not sure Frank would know what to say now. He seemed so positive despite his own setbacks—even the hard times begat beauty. But these are no ordinary hard times and the very idea of freely walking around and observing is now an act of calculated risk.
Everything has changed and as we look ahead all we know is that everything will continue to change, some all at once and some slowly in a crawl. In that, we’re saying goodbye to our normal, no longer for now having to worry about making lunch on time. I love O’Hara for writing what he did—that we can be happy in the continuation of the things we love AND move forward freely into the times that break our world so suddenly, though I don’t believe it.