Tracking My Movies and Books in 2020 with Letterboxd and GoodReads

Tracking My Movies and Books in 2020 with Letterboxd and GoodReads

Part of my “New Year’s resolutions” (for lack of a better description) was to track what media I consumed in a more organized way.

Movies in Letterboxd

Letterboxd has been around forever, and is a popular way to track and review movies. Trackt is another option here, and if you prefer that, I recommend Cinema Time, but the concept is similar.

There is a social aspect to Letterboxd, so you can choose to follow some people if you’d like to see what your friends are watching (I’m mattbirchler there), but for me it’s how it makes documenting movies easy.

Just open the app, tap the + at the bottom to add a new diary entry, search for the movie you want, and just give it a rating. I almost never leave a written review, but you totally could if you want.

Your Letterboxd profile has a “recent activity” feed which I screenshot and share on Twitter for fun. Hat tip to Timothy Huneycutt for the idea.

Letterboxd is free, but you can pay for a pro subscription and you basically get some more elaborate filtering options (like “show me movies on my watchlist that are on Netflix”) and an annual review with a bunch of stats presented in a fun way. It’s totally not necessary, but it’s fun.

Books in GoodReads

This one is a little harder to explain, but the concept is the same as Letterboxd. You can log what books you’re reading, and leave reviews for them when you complete them. There is also a social aspect, and you can follow me at mattbirchler there as well.

The big difference here is that since books typically take more than one sitting to read, you can track your progress through books. I do this because I find it fun to update the progress bar on each book, but you can also just mark a book as “I’m reading this now” and then mark it “read” when you’re done.

I also like that you can set up reading challenges. I have one set up to read 25 books this year. And of course, there is a year-end compilation of your reading stats to show you how much you read and a few other stats that are pretty interesting.

GoodReads is free, and as far as I know there is no paid tier.

How I’m Using Notion to Track my Life in 2020

How I’m Using Notion to Track my Life in 2020

I know articles and video on Notion are a dime a dozen, but after years of being totally befuddled by the service, I finally found something it works great for and wanted to share.

Context

In 2016 I tracked a bunch of aspects of my life, from weight to sleep time to what movies I was watching and more. I took 2017 off and got right back to it in 2018, tracking many of the same things. As you can guess, after taking 2019 off, I wanted to get back on the grind in 2020.

However, the last 2 times I did this I used the app Reporter for iOS to track everything. Reporter was literally built to do exactly this, but the app is pretty long in the tooth right now, feels pretty fragile and only works on my iPhone.

Enter Notion

I ended up just exporting my Reporter data as a CSV anyway, since I needed to do some manipulation to make sense of the data, so I considered Numbers, Excel, or Google Sheets to handle this, but they were not friendly at all for something I would be filling out everyday. Notion on the other hand happens to have a way to store things in a spreadsheet without making it feel like just a spreadsheet.

For one, Notion lets me set data types for each column, so I can ensure I enter a number in some columns and text in others, meanwhile yet others can be checkboxes, and there are tons of other options I haven’t used yet.

Also, since Notion is a web service and runs on basically anything, I can record my daily reports from an iPhone, Android device, iPad, or Mac, whichever is most convenient at the time.

My Notion Setup

I almost feel like this should be more dramatic, but this is it, folks. Actually, here it is with some test days recorded while I was figuring out if this would work for me:

It’s basically a spreadsheet but with some nice styling to make it easier to understand at a glance.

Oh, and here’s the data entry mode, which feels very much not like a spreadsheet.

What I’m Tracking

  1. Money spent on “fun stuff” (aka what did I spend on apps, movies, games, Starbucks, etc. that I didn’t need to today?)
  2. What movies did I watch?
  3. What video games did I play?
  4. What books did I read?
  5. Did I need to use my Mac for something my iPad couldn’t do?
  6. How many alcoholic drinks did I have?
  7. Did I do strength training today?
  8. Did I run today? How far were those runs?
  9. Did I walk the dog today? How far did we walk?

I can do all of these through new columns in this spreadsheet, and like I said earlier, Notion makes it pretty easy to format these so you are always entering the right data. I especially like the “Multi-Select” data type for things like games and books since they let you create “tokens” that you can use to easily fill out the same value over many days. For example, I like to play a game of Madden right after work, so instead of typing out “Madden 20” every time I fill out this report, I just tap on the “Madden 20” token I created previously. This is really nice for things that I do the same multiple days.

Entering Data

I have a recurring task set up in Things 3 that reminds me to report on my day. When I see this, I’ll open Notion and tap the “New” button at the top right of this page. This adds a new row at the top of the table I’ve created.

This brings up a page that feels more like a standard web form than a spreadsheet. I just go down the list and enter values for everything. It’s all saved immediately to the cloud and I can access the data wherever.

It is worth mentioning here that the iOS and Android experience is not as good as that of the desktop and web versions of Notion. You can’t easily tab from one field to the next and entering things like dates takes more taps than you might expect. But that said, I still do this from my iPhone most nights and it’s been good enough to get the job done.

Getting My Data Out of Notion

While Notion is great for entering this data and keeping it synced online, it doesn’t have anything in the way of graphing these numbers or anything like that. To that end, I needed to be able to get my data out of Notion and into a traditional spreadsheet so Numbers can make nice graphs for me.

Thankfully, Notion also makes this easy, as I can export this data as a CSV and then do what I want with it in my app of choice.

Another note about the iOS version: the iPhone app does not allow you to export, but the iPad, Android, Mac, and Windows versions do. I have no idea why, but again, it’s not a deal-breaker, just a weird omission. iPhones have the same Files app integration as iPads, after all.

Conclusion

Tracking this much information about yourself is not easy, and it’s not even fun for lots of people. For me, it lets me see my life in a more complete manner than I can if I just look back on things and guess how things are going or what I did. I invariably burn out on it by the end of each year doing it, but I really enjoy being able to look back on 2016 and 2018 and see a detailed view of what I did that year.

I’ve been trialing Notion to do this tracking for about 45 days and it’s worked well for me so far. There’s not much more to say now, but you’ll see the results this December when I dig through all this data and try to find the interesting bits.

Recession…Revitalization

Recession…Revitalization

2019 was the first year ever that BirchTree saw fewer visitors than the year before.

Needless to say, after 8 years of uninterrupted (sometimes exponential) growth, this was a bit of a change. I could blame the decline in general blog readership everywhere. I could blame the big link bloggers out there getting more insular and linking the same dozen people everyday. I could blame things like YouTube and TikTok sucking up all of people’s free time.

I could blame all of those, but the real reason is obvious: me.

In 2019 I went through a bunch of changes, most publicly getting a dog for the first time in my life, but also some more personal things I don’t share online. Because of that, I posted less to this site than I have in years, and the stuff I was posting didn’t get as much love before I published it. Things like my phone reviews and watchOS stuff was well received and I put a ton of work into those, but the stuff in between suffered. Maybe you personally noticed, and maybe you didn’t, but I definitely noticed.

This didn’t just hit me, it hit me back in October when I started investigating WordPress alternatives, and it culminated December 13 when I moved the whole site over to Ghost. This will be my 26th post in the 18 days since making the switch. And while quantity does not equal quality, I also think the things I’ve written some of the better articles of the year in that stretch.

  • I wrote about how I use Things to manage my wish lists and Christmas shopping.
  • I wrote a review of AirPods Pro from the perspective of someone who lives in the Midwest and has to deal with cold.
  • I wrote a very short piece about reminding you (and myself, honestly) that you don’t need to fill every available second of silence in your life with someone talking in your ear.
  • Instead of a tweet storm, I wrote up my overall thoughts on the new Star Wars trilogy, which received lots of love, even from those who disagreed with me.
  • And I wrote about the books and video games I loved in the past year, hopefully giving people ideas for how to enjoy their free time.

I’m doing quite a bit this coming year to improve several aspects of my life, and I’m hoping to make 2020 a banner year for BirchTree. The site is turning 10 this October, so it only makes sense to try and blow the doors off.

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This is also the place where I remind you that the absolute best way to support the creators you like is to share their work. If you blog, write a link post to the people you read. If you make YouTube videos, put a link in the description. If you use social media, retweet the things you enjoy. It’s a small action, but it means so much to people like me who want to get their work in front of as many people as possible.

21 Books in 2019

21 Books in 2019

I set out to read 20 books in 2019 and today, on the final day of the year, I have completed my 21st book. Here are 21 micro-reviews of each book, in the order I read them:

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work

Probably the best book I read all year, this extremely short book was exactly what I needed to get a grip on my work life going into the new year. I still think about this book nearly everyday and recommend it to basically everyone.

A Darker Shade of Magic

A fun novel about a magical world and really fun characters.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

The first dud of the year, this book didn’t have much compelling information if you have spent any time at all thinking about the effects of technology’s impact on your life.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

A fascinating read about the world of high frequency trading on Wall Street. The moment that really got me was hearing about trading firms paying astronomical amounts of money to get their server closer to the door so that the bits hit it nanoseconds before their competitors.

A Gathering of Shadows

The sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, this book was sadly half as fun as the original.

The Demon Next Door

An Audible Original, this short story about a murderer in a small town is actually quite riveting, and anyone who listens to true crime podcasts will probably enjoy this one.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

I’m like 20 years late to the party on this one, but I finally read David Allen’s classic and my goodness, did it click with me. I thought I understood GTD before this, but I had no idea and that change has been a massive improvement on my life.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

This book, from the author of the mega-popular Sapiens, looks at what the next 100, 1,000, and million years may look like for humanity. It’s an amazing read.

A Conjuring of Light

The final book in the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy, this book bounces back and is a fun romp through this world I enjoyed. Not amazing, but definitely fun.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Also from the author of Sapiens and Home Deus, this is a shorter read and looks at the trends in today’s world. It was not amazing, but some of the chapters on the rise of nationalism, extremism, and closed borders were quite insightful.

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be

I read this on the recommendation of Myke and Grey on Cortex, and I thought it was decent. The biggest thing it gave me was to be mindful of my own personal triggers. How do certain people and situations make me behave/feel? Once I recognize those triggers, I can try to combat the ones that cause problems for me.

Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More

I really went through a productivity kick this year, huh? This book was another decent one with one or two things that stuck with me. The big one: be careful not to be a jack of all trades, master of none. It feels like being useful for many things is ideal, but often a deep understanding of a few things is more valuable to companies.

Ender’s Game

A really good sci-fi book that I had been meaning to read for years. It’s a clever story, with a fun, if not shocking twist.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

I didn’t get anything out of this book, although I know many people love it. To me it read like “people like products that make them happy.”

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Another book I’m late to the party on, and a book that will make some people roll their eyes, yay! As someone who wishes they could maintain a life with less shit in my house, I enjoyed the book and it inspired me to trim quite a bit out of my life that I no longer needed. The bits about your clothes having feelings and energy made me skip ahead, but the practical advice is good.

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties

There was no book I read this year that I disagreed with more than this one. I won’t get into it here, and there were indeed parts I found insightful, but there is enough junk in here to make me hard-pressed to recommend it.

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses

This is a pretty good book, and I can see how it inspired many people building companies in the past decade.

Dark Matter

My favorite fiction book of the year, this is a really fun adventure story that bends reality and got me choked up more than I thought it would.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

My first Malcolm Gladwell book, this book was a fantastic look at how seemingly small things can make the difference between success and failure. The part on Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues was particularly excellent.

Outliers: The Story of Success

I liked the first Gladwell book so much I read another right away. This one was not quite as impactful on me, and it apparently is responsible for popularizing the now-disbelieved 10,000 hours theory. But despite that, the book’s overall message that we try to give credit for people’s success exclusively to hard work and individual talent when there are so many environmental factors that give certain people a much better chance at being successful in certain realms.

The Total Money Makeover

I don’t think Dave Ramsey and I would be friends if we meet in real life. Despite that, and despite a heaping serving of motivational speaker bullshit, and despite a first half of the book that I found completely unnecessary, the actual advice in this book is pretty solid.

Today’s “Podcast”: Take a Minute to Think

I love podcasts and audiobooks. They help me learn about the world and be generally entertained effectively all the time. The rise of Audible has let me fill previously “empty” time with books, allowing me to get through more books than ever before.

But the downside of these is that they make it very easy to start filling every moment of silence in your life with someone talking in your ear. Getting ready for work? Podcast time! Taking a shower? Get a chapter of your latest book knocked out! Making breakfast? Listen to a daily news podcast!

I do this all the time, but I’m doing my best to let some of these times be silent again. These moments of being alone with our thoughts are hugely useful (who hasn’t had brilliant ideas in the shower?) and while books and podcasts can teach you things in this time, sometimes it’s even more valuable to let your mind run wild and think about whatever it wants.

The Biggest Change to BirchTree in 5 Years

In 2015 I moved BirchTree to WordPress. I had danced with Squarespace and some static site generators before that, but WordPress was tried and true, worked with everything, and was hard to totally screw up. It was also very expandable, so I could add functionality however I saw fit.

I was happy, for the most part. But over the course of 2019 I started to fall out of love with it. The product itself was moving moving forward, and was slightly better with each release (although I never got used to the new Gutenberg editor), but the weight of WordPress, even imagined, got to me. I had tons of plugins installed to do everything from caching to payments to RSS/JSON Feed, and more. And these plugins had updates all the time that I saw in my admin toolbar and had to manage. Themes got updates as well…

And then there was the admin UI which it a little utilitarian for my style, but is also really slow at doing a lot of the stuff I do all the time. I would edit a post, hit save, and wait for a few seconds for the changes to actually take effect.

I could go on, and while there was nothing really killer, it was simply starting to feel like a giant train I was barely holding on the tracks. I don’t want this site to be very complicated, and while the end result was pretty simple, the scaffolding was always visible to me and it bothered me.

A New Path

The idea got some steam when the Statamic 3.0 beta started and I was drawn to my old love which I used in the 2013-14 era. Ultimately it still wasn’t for me anymore, not least of which was because it (and most other static site generators) didn’t handle large numbers of posts very well. This blog has 1,800 posts and it took upwards of 10-20 seconds for pages to load, so that was a no-go.

I tried Hugo as well, as it was pitched as being fast as hell. And to its credit, it was fast…very fast! But I struggled to get it running on a real server and even when I did it was hard to work with and just didn’t jive with how I wanted to work on my site.

Hello, Ghost

I had all but given up on the idea of ever leaving WordPress, but then I came across Ghost, who I hadn’t looked at in years. I still remember their Kickstarter announcement in early 2013 and I toyed around with them in the beta period, but never did anything serious with them.

But I still remember their pitch as a WordPress alternative for bloggers. This also happened to line up pretty well with the launch of Ghost version 3.0 in late October so there was some excitement around the platform again. Ghost’s CEO, John O’Nolan, did an interview with Ben Thompson as well:

Ghost is at the intersection of all of the things that I love. We’ve managed to create a globally-distributed company which gives us the freedom to live lives we enjoy, the ability to work on a product that feels meaningful, in a market feels like it needs us and to me that’s enough. So my long term goal is for this to be a company and a product which is around for fifty, a hundred years.

Everything about this company gives me good vibes, and when I installed Ghost and started noodling around with it, those vibes only intensified. The tool was simple, but powerful. The UII was beautiful and fast. It had a nice writing interface, but it also worked perfectly with Ulysses, my writing app of choice. Lots could be configured in the UI, but I could ssh up to the server and change the source code myself.

And of course, it’s open source and lets me 100% own my data. I know many people don’t care about this, and the big monoliths will tell you that you actually can get your data out if you want, but that just doesn’t cut it for me. Ghost could go out of business tomorrow and this platform will still work for me forever.

How I Moved from WordPress to Ghost

I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t like:

  1. Click export in WordPress
  2. Click import in Ghost

If only! No, the process was more manual than I’d prefer, but it got me to a better place than I imagined. Here’s what I actually did.

I tried using the new Ghost export plugin which is supposed to export your posts and images, but it did not work on my site since I have 1,800 posts and 15,000 images; it just timed out as I believe the file it was trying to create was too large.

Instead, I exported my WordPress site into an XML file using the normal export mode in WordPress. It’s worth noting this brought over the words, tags, and metadata for all my posts, but no CSS, theme info, or images. More on this later.

Then I had to convert the WordPress XML file into a Ghost JSON file, which I did with the wp2ghost Node.js script. This involves a little terminal work, but not much and I had a JSON file in a couple seconds.

So now that I had my content, I needed to get Ghost running somewhere. I use DigitalOcean for all my hosting needs and have loved using them, so I just spun up a new droplet using their one-click Ghost installation. Pro tip: the Ghost installer here will ask you for your domain name and will set up an SSL certificate (through Let’s Encrypt) completely automatically during the setup, so make sure you change your DNS settings and let those propagate before running the setup.

When I tried to drag the JSON file into Ghost, it told me that the import file was formatted for Ghost 1.0, and the format had changed since then, so it would not work. I searched for a script to convert to the newer Ghost file format, but there does not seem to be one.

This is where things almost got off the rails…

The solution here was to install Ghost locally on my home Mac, specifically installing a 1.X version (which Ghost makes very easy with their command line tool). When this was running on my Mac, I was able to drag in my JSON file and get all 1,800 posts there successfully. Huzzah!

Next step was to upgrade that local version of Ghost to 3.0 and then use Ghost’s export tool to get a file in the format I needed. I import this into the version of Ghost running on my server and all my posts are finally there!

At this point there are tons of problems:

  1. My URLs are not quite right (they are https://birchtree.me/post-title/ instead of https://birchtree.me/blog/post-title/ which means all of my internal links, link posts from others, and Google results are going to 404.
  2. Every single image is hard coded to things like /wp-content/uploads/2019/12/image.png which of course do not exist at all in Ghost and don’t load.
  3. My theme is nowhere near correct.
  4. None of my featured images carry over.
  5. My analytics won’t run in this environment.
  6. My fonts server from Hoefler & Co don’t work.
  7. My ads via Carbon are busted.
  8. RSS was no longer correct.

Here’s how I addressed each one of those:

  1. This took a second to figure out, but was super easy once I did. Basically, I went to the content/settings/routes.yaml file in my ghost folder and updated the URL structure to append /blog in front of all blog posts.
  2. This was solved by downloading the entire /wp-content folder from my WordPress server and pasting it inside /assets in Ghost. This immediately fixed all the hardcoded image links across my posts, which felt kinda magical. It was about 4GB across 15,000 files, so it took over an hour to transfer everything, but once it was there it all just kinda worked.
  3. This was a big undertaking, but I simply found a pre-built theme for my site that was close-ish to what I wanted and then started poking around and updating things to look more like I wanted. Ghost uses something called “handlebars” for their theming engine, but most of the design work is just HTML and CSS, so I was able to pick that up very quickly. The biggest challenge was that I could not just paste in my old CSS since the whole page structure and class names were all different compared to WordPress.
  4. Featured images are a problem I could not solve. Currently all featured images are blank and the only way to get them back is to cross-reference WordPress manually and re-upload them to the new site. This is going to take some time, so I have not done it yet, but will get at least my 2019 posts updated within the next few days.
  5. Mint is no longer a viable option, so I had to switch to Google Analytics.
  6. This was not too hard either, as I just needed to regenerate the font files on Hoefler’s website and upload them to my site.
  7. This might have been easiest of all, as it was just a matter of moving Carbon’s embed code from one site to the other.
  8. I use Feedpress to manage my RSS feed specifically for times like this where I make a change and my feed URL changes. I just had to get my RSS feed from Ghost and update my settings for the universal feed I hope everyone uses.

The Elephant in the Room

In the above section I presented the steps in a linear, orderly fashion, but that is not exactly how things went down in reality. That is how things went the third time I tried it, but my other 2 attempts were fraught with disaster. I made mistakes with not waiting for DNS to propagate, as well as going down wrong paths with URL routing that prevented me from accessing my own database, let alone serving any pages.

I also had tons of issues with getting my content in the correct way. It especially took me quite a while to figure out how to get the images to work correctly. In my second attempt I had everything working but I simply could not get SSL working and could not figure out why.

I got all of this (and other issue’s I’m not thinking of now) sorted out in just a few days, but there were some tense moments and some not-insignificant downtime for the site. Oh, and if you subscribe to the RSS feed, you probably got 10-15 posts reappear in your app that you had already seen: I’m sorry about that.

Takeaway

Was the move worth it? I think so! This is the first post I’m publishing post-migration and it’s going to take a little time for me to get fully acclimated to everything, but I’m amazed how “right” everything feels at the moment. My main interface is Ulysses, which makes my day-to-day experience basically the same, but I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent in the Ghost admin pages and am really impressed with how fast I can do everything in there.

If you see anything terribly wrong with the site, please let me know on Twitter and I’ll get things sorted out as fast as I can.

My 10 Favorite Movies of the Decade

As you get older, it’s harder for movies to have the same impact on you that they did when you were younger. That said, the past decade has had some of the best movies I have ever seen, and some of them have impacted me more than I ever thought they would. Looking at this list now, I see myself strongly favoring films by writer/directors, and if the film had different people in those roles, it was most likely a David Fincher joint.

Without further ado, here are my 10 favorite movies of the decade!

1. Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Scott Pilgrim vs The World is my favorite movie of the decade because it is the one movie where no matter what time it is, how I’m feeling, or how recently I’ve seen it, if you ask me if I’ll watch this film, I absolutely will. It’s funny and exciting in equal parts, and it speaks to fundamental human emotions in a truly unique way. Oh, and the visuals are inventive and unlike anything I’ve seen before or after. This is a true masterpiece.

2. The Shape of Water

You may go “ugh, isn’t that the movie where a lady ****s a fish?” but that sells this wonderful story woefully short. This is the story of several flawed outcasts who find each other, bringing meaning and love to each others’ lives. It’s the most beautiful movie I may have ever seen and I hope more people take the time to enjoy this film.

3. The Social Network

Not a documentary, but a dramatic retelling of the early days of Facebook, The Social Network is a film that has just gotten better with time. When it came out in 2010 Facebook was far from the disaster it is today, and as the public’s view of the company has changed in the past decade, this movie has aged well right along with those perceptions. Fincher’s direction, Sorkin’s writing, and Rezner’s music come together for a thrilling story that’s mostly people talking about code and legal documents.

4. Inside Out

I’m a huge Pixar fan, and while this decade had quite a few sequels come from the studio, their original films are always where I’m most interested. Much like Scott Pilgrim, Inside Out is a beautifully realized, specific vision that could have gone so wrong, but ticks every single landing as it goes. It culminates in a film that speaks well about emotional health to children, and maybe even more strongly to adults.

5. Black Swan

BlackSwan feels like a two hour nightmare that you don’t want to wake up from. Darren Aronofsky is on my short list of favorite all-time directors, and Black Swan is my favorite of his films. It’s weird and unsettling and unforgettable.

6. Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s second film on my list, Baby Driver is a delightful ballet of motion and music. The film is precisely directed and choreographed to pair perfectly with a killer soundtrack. I said at the time that this is exactly what summer blockbusters should be like, and I still feel that way. It’s a rush, it’s fun, but it’s not dumb entertainment.

7. Blade Runner 2049

The most boring shot in Blade Runner 2049 would be the best shot in basically every other movie this decade. The movie is great, and the story is impeccable, but the visuals in this movie push it into the upper tier of films for me. I was in awe for this whole film, both from a visual perspective and from amazement that they not only lived up to the Blade Runner name, they made a better film than the original.

8. Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse

“I can’t believe this movie exists,” is the first thing I said at the end of this movie. I was absolutely floored by this masterpiece of animation and I loved that it had a story to back up the incredible visuals. It’s simply a remarkable film that I still can not believe anyone was able to pull off.

9. Gone Girl

My second Fincher movie of the bunch, Gone Girl is compelling from start to finish. Gillian Flynn adapts her book to the screen perfectly, and with the help of a cast firing on all cylinders, peels an onion of a plot that gets more interested the further it goes.

10. The Last Jedi

I know some people didn’t like it at all, but The Last Jedi has some of the best character work and most compelling story beats in the series. I loved The Force Awakens, but The Last Jedi pushed the series forward in ways that TFA didn’t attempt, and it got weird with things in a way that turned some people off, but I adored.

My Favorite Video Games of the Past Decade

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I’ve said a lot on this game already, so seriously, watch the video series below, but I will say here that no game in my adult life has filled me with as much wonder and pure joy than this game. There were times playing this game where I thought “I could play this for 12 more hours straight and not get bored.” It’s a triumph of video game design and if you’ll allow the pun, breathed new life into the franchise.

https://youtu.be/WYEcRWpXFdc

https://youtu.be/hZ0cRUt2W6Y

https://youtu.be/DLlRSIEDYyE

2. Journey

Again, I’ll direct you to the video below, but suffice it to say Journey was a one-on-a-kind game and is an experience you can complete in just over an hour but will stick with you forever.

https://youtu.be/QeprVO8fGQw

3. God of War

Ahem, video again on this one, but I’ll say here that this game was far better that it had any right to be. It completely transformed the series from something I was embarrassed to play in front of my wife to one that I look at as the pinnacle of the medium.

https://youtu.be/jtd6m6801GM

4. The Last of Us

Amazingly I don’t have a video on this one yet, but The Last of Us is a dark and horrifying tale of two people struggling to survive extraordinary circumstances in a world with very little hope or humanity left. It was a gorgeous story told through a gameplay loop that was truly addicting.

5. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

Back on my video run here, but MGS5 is a beautiful mess of a game and while the story is rough, the gameplay on tap here is absolutely perfect. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed controlling a character as I did Big Boss in this game.

https://youtu.be/QdQq78dO3Ys

6. Portal 2

Portal 2 is one of those games I would love to play again, but I don’t have a way to do it. This game has more clever puzzles than the first game, it has a lot more of them, but almost more importantly, it has a wildly compelling story with spectacular characters who drag you through. The final moments of this game, which I won’t spoil here, stick with me to this day.

7. FTL: Faster Than Light

I sunk so many hours into this game it’s frankly ridiculous. I only ever “beat” the game a couple times, but the strategy + luck combo this game provided kept me coming back for “just one more try” over…and over…and over again.

8. Mass Effect 2

This game has everything: space, aliens, great combat, a compelling story, choices that matter. This is an all time classic and deserves all the accolades it has received over the years.

9. Firewatch

Another very short game on this list, Firewatch can also be played in one or two extended sittings if you’d like, and it compels you to do so right off the bat. This game tackles guilt in a way no other game has and it’s a story that I constantly think about. Oh, and how about that art style?

10. Horizon Zero Dawn

Closing out the list is a game that came out just a few days before Breath of the Wild. When this released I was amazed by it. It’s open world gameplay was fresh and exciting, and it told a story that wasn’t amazing but definitely got its hooks in me. Breath of the Wild of course took the crown for best game of that year…and the decade, but I will not soon forget my time in this wonderful game.

Other Amazing Games

A decade is a long time and there are far more that 10 games I’d like to call out, so here are a few other games that knocked my socks off.

  • Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
  • Titanfall 2
  • Doom
  • Everybody’s Golf
  • LA Noir
  • Spider-Man
  • Gris
  • Bloodborne

And if you were looking for mobile games, my favorites on iOS were:

  • Holedown
  • Desert Golf
  • Grindstone
  • Simple Rockets
  • Monument Valley
  • Alto’s Odyssey
  • Super Mario Run
  • Mikey Hooks
  • Plants Vs Zombies

My 10 Favorite Albums of the Decade

It’s the end of the decade and I love lists, so today I’m starting a series of lists about my favorite things. Today we’re looking at my favorite albums of the past 10 years. What I learned more than anything with making this list is that 2010 and 2011 were more amazing than I gave them credit for at the time. 7 of the 10 albums below came out in those two years!

Alway, I hope you like the list and check out one or two of these that you haven’t listened to yet.

1: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West (2010)

Audacious, bold, confident, vulnerable…there are a million ways to describe this record, but to me it’s an artist at his peak in terms of talent and fame getting so many things to fall into place perfectly.

It’s been almost 10 years since I first heard this album and it just has countless moments that still haunt me. Nicki Minaj’s opening poem on Dark Fantasy, the horns at the start of All of the Lights, the energy behind Power, Nicki Minaj again with an absolutely killer verse on Monster, the quiet piano and drop on Runaway, Bon Iver’s crooning on Lost in the World, and more.

For all the hate Kanye gets for being an egomaniac (and he is one) he’s also an amazing collaborator who gets the most out of his partners. It wasn’t just this record, it’s basically all of them, but this one stands out to me as a simply untouchable record on every front.

Even the lead up to this album was perfect! Kanye had a thing called “G.O.O.D. Fridays” where he dropped a couple songs each Friday for months leading up to the album. Some of those songs were b-sides, others were straight from the album, and others were alternate takes on album tracks. It was a great build up to the full album which exceeded my already lofty expectations.

This isn’t just my favorite record of the decade, it’s my favorite record of all time.

#2: The Suburbs - Arcade Fire (2010)

The Suburbs won album of the year at the 2011 Grammys and it was a bit of a shock to a lot of people, but the award was well-deserved as the band put out an epic and beautiful record that was so good that it refused to be ignored.

2003’s Funeral might be the best album of the 2000s and The Suburbs was a remarkable way to kick off this new decade. I wouldn’t count these guys from putting out another classic in the next decade either.

#3: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming - M83 (2011)

This album would almost make the list for the first 30 seconds of Midnight City alone. But M83 delivers over the 22 tracks here with an experience like none other. It’s a perfect double album that ebbs and flows perfectly through its 73 minute run time. If you’re taking a long drive at night, put this on and listen from start to finish.

#4: Bon Iver - Bon Iver (2011)

Justin Vernon has evolved throughout his career and his 2 albums after this took a different tone, but his self titled sophomore album holds a very special place in my heart. As opposed to the three relatively epic albums above, the 39 minutes on this 10 track record are decidedly intimate.

#5: Departing - The Rural Alberta Advantage (2011)

Speaking of smaller, more intimate records, the 33 minute Departing by The Rural Albert Advantage is hit after hit after hit. This is a perfect winter record about small town life.

#6: Trouble Will Find Me - The National (2013)

This album wasn’t necessarily one I knew would be on this list when I started making it, but the more I listen back to this record the more I adore it. I can’t quite explain it, but the instrumentation, writing, and vocal delivery, all come together in a perfect album.

#7: E•MO•TION - Carly Rae Jepsen (2015)

So I was a little late to the Jepsen train. Despite coming out in 2015, I never really listened to this until 2018 and holy shit this is amazing! The singles are some of the best pop songs of the decade and even the deeper cuts like Boy Problems and Warm Blood hold up as pop masterpieces on their own. You can’t really count it, but the 8 tracks on E•MO•TION Side B released one year later just adds to an artist who was just on fire. 2019’s Dedicated is pretty great too…

#8: The Winter of Mixed Drinks - Frightened Rabbit (2010)

Frightened Rabbit songs have always had dour lyrics surrounded by celebratory music, and 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks leans into this perfectly. Sadly, the sadness and desparation expressed in this music was not just an act, as frontman Scott Hutchison committed suicide in May 2018 which makes you look at their entirely discography in a new light. It’s hard to listen to this music today, but it’s impossible to forget.

#9: Celebration Rock - Japandrois (2012)

When your album is 8 songs, each one needs to hit and Japandroids have nothing but hits on this record. In fact, I’d say the last 3 songs (Younger Us, The House That Heaven Built, and Continuous Thunder) are the best 3 three song stretch on any record of the decade. This album is pure joy for all 35 minutes of its short runtime.

#10: This is Happening - LCD Soundsystem (2010)

The drop on Dance Yrself Clean, the wailing guitar riff on All I Want, the desperation in I Can Change, the meta brilliance of You Wanted a Hit, and the “AhhhhAaaaaaaaaa” on Home, there are tons of moments I can’t forget from LCD Soundsystem’s first “last” album.

Honorable Mentions

Cutting down a decade of music into 10 albums is incredibly hard and it necessitates omitting some of your favorites, so here are some of the other albums that just missed the list but I also think you should check out:

  • Here and Nowhere Else - Cloud Nothings (2014)
  • Care - How To Dress Well (2016)
  • To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar (2015)
  • Belong - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (2011)
  • Random Access Memories - Daft Punk (2013)
  • AM - Arctic Monkeys (2013)
  • Sound Kapital - Handsome Furs (2011)
  • In Our Heads - Hot Chip (2012)
  • Evil Friends - Portugal. The Man (2013)
  • They Want My Soul - Spoon (2014)
  • Heard it in a Past Life - Maggie Rogers (2019)
  • Assume Form - James Blake (2019)

BirchTree is 9! (belated)

I’m so bad at celebrating BirchTree’s anniversaries, so this post on a Tuesday night 12 days after the actual anniversary is gonna have to do it this year.

At this point I have written at this site for over one quarter of my life, which is nuts. This doesn’t even count the 2004-2009 period where I started blogs and abandoned them after sometimes one terrible, terrible post! Seriously, they were bad, and if I thought that when I was a dumb 20 year old full of unearned confidence, I can’t imagine how bad it actually was.

Sadly, because I’m a tinkerer and a “let’s try all the platforms!” sort of person (see my Android endeavors to this very day) I don’t have all the things I’ve posted since October 17, 2010. The earliest post is the first one that ever got over 100 people to read it: Finish the Job (Because Nobody Cares What You’re “Going to Do”)

I finished that piece like so:

The trick is getting yourself to finish that last 10%. That’s where the magic happens; the part where you finish those little details that separate good work from great work. I have no tricks for how to get there; how you do that is completely up to you. Finishing is the difference between talking about what you want to do (which is interesting only to you) and showing off what you have done.

One of the great pleasures of working on a project like BirchTree is that I’m constantly in that last 10%. This site will never be “done” (well, I guess technically it inevitably will, but let’s not get too deep on that…) but I get to show you my work on a nearly daily basis.

Oh, and that project I was talking about in that post was a website called AltStock that I wrote to be kind like The Wirecutter but for iOS software. I built it on Squarespace and it was not amazing (although I stand by my app picks at the time). Shawn Blanc and company took that idea further and better with The Sweet Setup, which I just so happen to write at semi-regularly today, so it’s interesting how that all goes full circle.

Thank you so much for being a part of this with me!

Here’s to next year’s big one zero and many more 🍻