2023 brought enough disruption and disappointment that I struggle to look back on it with much warmth. At the same time, I’ve many reasons to be grateful it wasn’t worse.
The year started with my beloved manager leaving Google, and then the layoffs hitting. I found the latter shocking, partly because I’d never worked in a company which had gone through them before, but also because there seemed plenty of room for improvement in how they were done. I woke up one morning to find colleagues - including some loyal, talented, productive long-time employees who I felt epitomized Google culture - had effectively been vanished overnight. I’m still bothered by this; while I can understand that it might be necessary, the way it was done seemed to fall short of the high standards Google sets for itself elsewhere. I chatted to a friend who works at Facebook, and what they described of their own layoffs seemed more compassionate. It doesn’t feel good to be beaten by Zuck on empathy.
A few slightly rudderless months followed; my responsibilities were a little diffuse and I lost a little passion for a new mission my group had taken up. In May an opportunity came up to move when the Google Brain/DeepMind merger occurred, and I shuffled into Google DeepMind, where I’m working now. It’s been interesting to shift sideways into a slightly different culture, and I’m finding it often refreshing, sometimes exhilarating, occasionally exhausting - and on balance am very happy to be there. I work in our generative media group, which is an interesting place to be right now, and have taken on more management responsibilities, something I’ve been wanting to do for a little while. Much of my work this year was around music, which enjoys both particular complexities and opportunities. I remain grateful to be working at the coal-face of AI, this decade.
Life outside work was similarly chaotic. Works on our home are about to enter their second year, and we’ve, depressingly, had the “architect and contractor pointing fingers of blame at each other” stage. I am hopeful that this will all conclude in the first quarter of 2024 and we can forget about it. More positively, our roof is now festooned with solar panels and a huge battery sits on our garage wall, which together seem to more than cover our energy needs for 9 months of the year.
I continued practicing karate in 2023. In July a group from our dojo traveled to Okinawa for the 4-yearly gasshuku. It was conveniently held just a typhoon drifted across the islands, twice, blocking entry for some friends, delaying our exit as the airport closed down, and shutting down training - including, memorably, a third of the way into my shodan grading. I was not passed. When given the opportunity to conclude it via Zoom a few weeks later, I declined (on the basis that these things ought to be done in person), and am stubbornly resolved to return to Okinawa to do it again. I’ve enjoyed continuing to help out with the kids’ classes on Saturday morning, and find it quite fulfilling to see their concentration and coordination improve over the months. Under 7s are also surprisingly bloodthirsty. Our daughter also returned to class this year (having declared, age 4, that she was “done with karate”) and is both enjoying herself and becoming more physically confident.
Generally, exercise was OK: I’ll have run about 600km (vs a target of 750km, about the same as last year), done 120h of karate (vs a target of 150, up significantly from 2022), and cycled 3400km (vs a target of 3000km, again slightly up from 2022 - cycling to work most days really helps). Around that, a few lovely walks around Tahoe, Marin, Point Reyes, and Sussex, and some skiing with friends and their daughters. No significant injuries this year - something to be grateful for as I turned 50.
We spent another wonderful, glorious summer camped out in Worthing near Kate’s parents - our daughter getting grandparent time and being ferried around other friends and relatives, and I working in London during the weeks and seeing old friends at weekends. It was particularly fun to catch up with university friends from 30 years previously, back in Reading - and having fun in Reading is quite an achievement.
I traveled to Israel for the first time, and probably (given events) the last time in a while. Tel Aviv is a beautiful city - it has a wonderful faded Mediterranean feel to it, and was more lively and upbeat than I expected. I happened to be visiting during the pro-democracy demonstrations, wandered through their beginnings on the way to walk, and watched them from the nearby Google office. The situation there is horrific, and talking to friends and colleagues based there brings it closer, in some ways, than the front pages of newspapers can.
I’ll write separately about the cognitive science reading group I set up in February; outside of that, it was an OK year for reading:
- A Computer Called Leo by Georgina Ferry; a birthday gift from Toby. tl;dr Britain invents an early computer to run tea rooms, then fails to capitalize on it and sells it to ICL.
- The Three Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu; wonderful, I read the first and devoured the following two, then watched the Tencent adaptation.
- The Night Ocean, by Paul LaFarge; a wander through nested narratives and frequent fabrications based around a Lovecraftian scenius, with Asimov and Burroughs hovering at the edges.
- Werner Herzog, a Guide for the Perplexed; a biography of the great man (who I got to see speak in San Francisco this year), spread over decades of conversation, the spirit shining through them all.
- The Ballad of Halo Jones. Alan Moore knows the score; not read since I was a child, and so much had gone over my head back then. “What did she want? Everything. Where did she go? Out.”
- Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Solid science fiction about the folly of interstellar colonization and sacrifice.
- All You Need to Know About the Music Business, by Donald Passman. Great insider view (Passman is a music industry lawyer) of the byzantine history and practices of the music industry, including the changes wrought by streaming. Recommended by a colleague.
- Do/Interesting, by Russell Davies. A slim gateway drug to Zettelkasten (notice stuff, collect it by writing it down, go through it), but with the goal of creativity rather than the (more common) sceintific efficiency.
- A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Candy House, both by Jennifer Egan. Enjoyable, character-driven narratives about music industry workers and has-beens, bleeding into near-term science fiction, especially in the latter. Great fun, some beautiful set pieces. Who among us hasn’t tried screaming at strangers to force them into authenticity?
- The Planiverse, by A K Dewdney. When I was about 8 years old, a family friend and maths professor showed me this book, which posited a 2-dimensional world. This year I tracked it down, read it and enjoyed it.
- The Mountain In The Sea, by Ray Nayler. Christmas present from Kate; tl;dr what if octopuses got smart? A fun romp, but not so subtle - definite shades of Garth Merengi. Maybe I’m a bit too close to/interested in the source material.
Started and unfinished:
- The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner. A history of Bell Labs. I was looking at models for past research organizations. Now I’ve joined a new one, I’m less interested.
- Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks. Great exploration of mental illness and music, I’m working through it still.
- The Come Up. Christmas present from James, an oral history of hip hop. Really enjoying it but only just started.
- You Have a Choice. Manual for self-pitying ingrates like myself, trapped in enjoyable demanding jobs yet still incapable of being happy. May never finish this one.
Things I’m thinking about for next year: improving my diet, retaking shodan, working from home a bit more, finding time for side-projects, Neuromatch Academy, spending the summer or more in the UK, and writing more here…