We made it, friends. Another year in the books.
Was it the very normal year we all wanted? No. But, for many, it was at least a step in that direction. Or maybe two steps in that direction, and one step back. Yeah, it was still a weird one.
No matter the year, we here at TechCrunch like to cap it off with a list of our favorite things from the last 365-or-so days. As always, “things” here is defined… very loosely. “Things” here can be books. Or podcasts. Or concepts. Or people! Or games, or songs, or… it doesn’t matter really. If it made that person’s 2021 a little brighter — and regardless of whether or not those things were new to 2021 — it can go on the list.
Why? Because we like to do it, and because people tell us they like reading it. And because it’s a fun little glimpse into the head spaces of the people who make this little piece of the Internet exist. Plus if you’re still looking for some last minute gift, maybe you’ll find some sort of inspiration. Here we go!
Project Hail Mary
I waited a while to read this book because while I loved Andy Weir’s The Martian, his next book Artemis — while still very good! — didn’t hook me the same way. Once I finally sat down to read Project Hail Mary, I couldn’t stop.
Exploding with intrigue from page one, all I can say without spoiling anything is: a man wakes up on a spaceship without any idea how or why he’s there. As he explores the ship, he slowly re-learns who he is … and why he left Earth in the first place. Read it.
Robin Robin (Netflix Christmas short)
This Christmas-y stop-motion short from the studio behind Wallace and Gromit is only a few weeks old, but it’s an instant classic. The animation is beautiful, the songs are adorable, and every little piece of it is perfectly honed. My three year old has been requesting it on a loop since it came out, and I don’t mind a bit.
The Attraction, an escape room in SF
I’ve done so many escape rooms that they’ve started to sort of blend together in my brain. The ever growing collection of rooms at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, however, stand alone in my mind. The production values, stagecraft, and storytelling are just on a different level. Their latest, “The Attraction“, isn’t my favorite Palace room (that’d be their Edison room) — but it’s still an absolute masterpiece. If you’ve got a clever crew that has proven themselves in other escape rooms, you have to see these ones.
NYC’s Bond Vet
As a new puppy mom (yes, I have a pandemic pet), figuring out how to care for my little guy has both been a joy and a massive source of stress. Bond Vet has loads of locations in New York City, handles urgent care inquiries, and has people available to chat on the phone for just about any question. It comes with a nifty app for downloading my puppy’s medical records or scheduling an appointment, and they have a pharmacy in-house so anything prescribed is given to you during the appointment or can be mailed to you after a telehealth visit. Good service. Great prices. Big fan.
I got the PS5 recently and it is a vastly improved experience over the PS4. As an avid gamer, it truly is the worst when the system itself is moving slow. The PS5 is lightning quick, has amazing graphics, and games look and feel great on it. The only caveat: you probably need to expand its storage somehow if you like to flip between a bunch of different games. Still worth upgrading!
Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive / Formula 1 in general
I watch all the TV that exists in the world and the show that changed my life the most has been Formula 1: Drive to Survive. Countless articles have been written about how the Netflix Effect has made an impact on Formula 1 as a sport, so I won’t do that here. All I’ll say is that Formula 1 is an intricate, complex, fascinating sport and the best bridge to understanding it is to learn about the drivers and team principals on a more personal level, which this series does very well. Also, it’s worth saying that 2021 has been the most interesting and competitive season of Formula 1 in a long, long time and I can’t wait to see how the behind-the-scenes narrative unfolds on the next seasons of Drive to Survive.
Airpods feel super 2018, and that’s not just because I got my pair that year. With the rise of audio rooms on Clubhouse and Twitter, I’ve resorted back to my old wired headphones for clearer voice quality. It’s simply icing on the cake that I never have to charge them.
Farmer’s market tomatoes
As someone who price compares everything – and walks an extra mile just to pay 50 cents less on almond milk – I’ve always been pretty neutral on splurging at farmer’s markets. Over this past year, though, my partner and I have begun ending our long runs at a San Francisco farmer’s market to indulge in farm fresh tomatoes. Unlike, say, bell peppers, fresh tomatoes taste truly different and, coming from your frugal friend, are always worth the few extra bucks. Plus, the guy who offers free samples always makes my day.
Are there some writers whose words inspire you to write more? For me that person is Helena Fitzgerald, the author of Griefbacon (aka, the only Substack I currently pay money to read). Her “long, weird essays” make me feel heard in ways I didn’t even know I craved, capturing the true definition of holidays and the importance of rooms.
I’ve gone car-camping for years and loved it, and only recently decided to try out a bit of real backpacking. Hiking ten miles somewhere beautiful and wild with a couple good friends and everything you need on your back is unlike anything else. Plus I love to obsess over gear and I live like half a mile from REI. I’m amazed it took me this long.
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
I came across this remarkable pianist in a list of must-listen jazz recordings. The first girl to be sent abroad from Ethiopia for her education (among other firsts for women there,) she returned only to become a prisoner of war in the ’30s and afterwards proceeded to hide her musical light under a bushel for several decades. Guèbrou’s compositions, only recently recorded, are somewhere between blues and Chopin, unique and strange but virtuosic and incredibly compelling.
OK OK, nerd alert. This free to play game draws a lot of fire for its gambling mechanics and anime waifus and husbandos. But I’ve passed many a very pleasant hour just rambling around its enormous map, collecting treasure, solving puzzles, and fighting monsters… because those things are fun and games are supposed to be fun. It’s been a real balm during stressful times.
I turn 33 next year. I actually forgot how old I was yesterday. My spouse noted that we were 31 during a conversation, but I am 32. Her birthday is 5 months after mine, which means for half the year she gets to call me old. But I forgot that I was 32. I just nodded, yes, we are 31. Anyway, naps. Naps are good for my aging body as I wake up, pour coffee into my ears, and slump to the desk. This means that my spine has become an ampersand, and my brain overcooked noodle mash. I combat both issues by taking 20 minute naps at times. This clears my head, and unfogs my eyes. Don’t tell TechCrunch though.
Grand Strategy Video Games
One of the best parts of being married is that being Not Cool loses some of its sting. I can now lean fully into the more dweeby elements of my personality and not worry about it.
Enter Grand Strategy Games. Imagine a game that is insanely complex, while also being unpredictable, frustrating, and slow-moving. Sound good? Hell yeah it sounds good. I have spent more time playing Crusader Kings III in the last year than I want to admit. If we throw in a few other titles it’s even more embarrassing.
But don’t worry, I’ve got a lot back from the effort. For example, I once conquered all the Christian holy sites of the Old World, created a new Christian faith that was female-dominated instead of male-led, and then converted the world en masse to a gender-flipped history of religion. More often I get murdered by rude subjects, but hey.
Playing complex video games, however, can be tiring. So you have to keep your energy up. Enter sugar. Namely condensed, artificially-flavored sugar in the form of Airheads. Anyway, I’m off to floss again.
Nothing has been quite as effective at removing me from my COVID slump – figuratively and literally – as yoga. It was nothing short of a savior even on days when the news cycle and the day-to-day drag of the pandemic threatened to push me over the edge.
Lofi Air Traffic Control
What happens when you combine communication from air traffic controllers and lo-fi tunes? The most weirdly calming music stream ever. Hardware editor Brian Heater turned me onto this and at first I laughed. But really, it’s great. You can even pick what airport to hear chat from and if you go to the settings you can determine the balance of music to communication.
Community Supported Agriculture
I spend a lot of time in front of a computer and not enough in the garden. Luckily, I support my local CSA, which means every week I am able to pick up fresh, seasonal veggies and even some fruit from local farmers. We took a break on the CSA for a bit, but I’m glad we’re back, even on the weeks that are heavy on turnips.
Back in journalism school, I once wrote an article called ‘This is your brain on music’ that explained how music stimulates the reward centers in our brains which can help us focus. For a long time I was a regular on YouTube channels for lo-fi tunes, but then I found Brain.fm, which plays specially designed LYRIC-LESS music to help you focus, or relax or meditate. The company holds patents on its tech that is meant to elicit strong neural phase locking, which they say allows “populations of neurons to engage in various kinds of coordinated activity.”
Whether it’s placebo or real science, all I know is that I don’t truly start writing until I have my headphones on and this beautiful, human/AI-generated music playing in my brain.
I recently moved to Auckland, New Zealand, into a house that had some semblance of a garden. It was a mess, but it was also clear that someone, at some point, loved this garden.
Beneath the overgrown weeds, I found patches of parsley, arugula, fennel. Over the last several months, I’ve cleared away the weeds and set to work giving the beds some love with fresh compost that my house collects. There is something so energizing and calming about getting your hands in the dirt everyday, even if it’s just to pull some weeds out of the ground.
As a famous cartoon aardvark once said, having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card. But Libby makes it even easier.
Libby, owned by Overdrive, is a phone app that lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks from your local library on the go. It’s completely free. The quality of your Libby experience probably depends on how good a catalog your local library has — but even if it only has a few of the books on your wishlist, you’re still saving some cash. For times when the library’s catalog lets me down, I pay for a subscription to Libro.fm, an Audible competitor that supports independent bookstores rather than Jeff Bezos. Sometimes, believe it or not, I even buy physical books. But I love libraries, I love the Libby app, and I love audiobooks.
This is the greatest game console there is, bar none. I thought I was a pretty heavy Game Boy player back in the day, but using Analogue’s new retro console to play GB, GBC and GBA cartridges I scrounge from various local retro gaming shops has been a true delight and also a revelation that there’s a lot out there that I missed during the OG Game Boy heyday that more than holds up today.
Traeger Ironwood 885 Pellet Grill
I don’t remember exactly how or why I got interested in low and slow smoking and grilling, but the pandemic really kicked it up a notch in terms of how into it I am. That’s why I was thrilled to get my hands on the Traeger Ironwood 885, a pellet smoker with all the bells and whistles you could ever ask for, including remote control and monitoring via the excellent Traeger app. The Ironwood series adds seriously useful features like an insulated cooking barrel for all-weather smoking, and a built-in pellet sensor that lets you know when you need to top up for those truly all-day cooks.
Canon EOS R5 + RF 50mm F1.2 L lens
Canon may have gotten off to a slow start in the full-frame mirrorless world, but it’s hitting its stride with its most recent cameras. The R5, while originally released in 2020, is still an amazing camera offering fantastic ergonomics and handling, as well as amazing image quality. As a longtime Canon fan before switching over to Sony in recent years, it’s amazing to be getting that fantastic Canon color science in a camera that feels like it’s finally caught up.
L’Rain – Fatigue
I can’t really overstate the degree to which music has gotten me through these past two years. And, thankfully, in spite of everything else being entirely miserable there continues to be a lot of great stuff, consistently reminding us of how much we undervalue artists as a society. L’Rain flew completely under my radar with her debut. A musician I recently interviewed namechecked Fatigue, and I was blown away.
As a piece of music, it’s wonderfully impossible to categorize, a small army of musicians creating songs that are intentionally difficult to define, peppered with found sound. It alternately soothes and subverts – music that’s challenging but not difficult. Encompassing on first listen and rewarding with subsequent spins.
(I didn’t have nearly as much time to work on this list as I’d like, so I’m going to cheat and toss in a link to a Spotify playlist I made of my favorite music of the year, including my top track from Fatigue. I hope Greg doesn’t get mad.)
Since I discovered it back in April, Yak Tack has managed to do what few apps can: Stick around on my phone and actually get used!
As a word nerd it is indubitably my kind of app. It’s both pocket dictionary (for quick & easy look-ups) but also — and here comes the automagic! — aide memoire for making newly encountered vocab stick. It applies a system of adaptive space repetition to help hack the brain’s memory banks (in the nicest possible way). And if you fail to confirm you revisited a word on schedule it’ll email you the gentlest lil’ reminder: “Don’t forget about your words!”
Yak Tack is a passion project for its developer creator, Jeremy Thomas. He also made a purely email-based ‘no frills’ version (without the app’s light social features). So here’s a big thanks — for a great side hustle and to surviving 2021 one (new) word at a time!
Talking of survival, coping with another year of UK politics has been an increasingly perilous pastime since ~2016. But 2021 has really tested the limits of what a sane populace will accept from its ‘elected representatives’. Still, Boris Johnson’s grifting Conservative government of none-of-the-talents has had one upside: It’s been pure comedy gold (‘if you don’t laugh you’ll cry’ etc etc). All the mixed messaging, daylight grifting, dubious denials and damaging delays around Covid policy; all the rule-breaking scandals, excruciating leaked videos, perpetual internecine Tory warefare by WhatsApp Group and the cringing parade of leaked ‘it wasn’t a party’ party photos (mostly you’re just glad you weren’t there) have provided rich pickings for British satirist, Matt Green, who’s been a bright light in Twitter’s dark places this year.
Continuous Glucose Monitoring
For a few weeks this year I’ve been testing a “metabolic fitness” service (Ultrahuman’s ‘Cyborg’) — full review to come! — which involves the use of a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to provide real-time feedback on your blood glucose levels via an app. Many factors can affect blood sugar (diet, exercise, stress etc) and there are a lot of questions over how to best interpret this kind of data but — overall — it’s been a fascinating glimpse of where quantified health is headed and an addictive taster of biohacking. I think I’m hooked!
It all started with Wallace and Gromit: I am a huge fan, so when I heard that Aardman had partnered with a British puzzle manufacturer for a Christmas special, I knew I had to get one. Because of high demand, my puzzle arrived in early January, and it ended up shaping my 2021: I loved it so much that puzzles became my hobby all throughout the year, and hopefully for the rest of my life. It’s doing wonders for my anxiety levels, and it’s also very fun – especially jigsaws with tons of little details, like drawings by Guillermo Mordillo or Sempé, or wooden ones with cutely shaped pieces, known as whimsies.