As the sixth year of the Damn Blog draws to a close, it's time for yet another Year in Review. I love how predictable this has been, to the point that several people have been asking when this post is coming out. Vox populi!

It's been a crazy six years: I wrote the 2018 and 2019 year in review in Amsterdam, 2020 in Italy, 2021 in Singapore and 2022 in a cafe' in Estonia planning my next move. For 2023, I am sitting in my tiny apartment in Tokyo - where I'm now living - looking back at the year that has been, with the usual ranking:

five+ {100}, five {80}, four {60}, three {50}, two {30}, one/zero {10}

So, how's season six been?

My job

In 2o22 I wrote about taking on a different role and moving to Japan. The move happened for two reasons: first of all, I was struggling with the realities of working in a company that had grown much larger in just three years (we were roughly 5000 at the end of last year, up from 1500 when I joined); second of all I was absolutely miserable living in Singapore and, if I had not moved, I would have quit and returned to Europe.

I'm glad I took the chance on Japan - a country I'd only been in once, and an office I'd never visited. Tokyo is a huge and sprawling place, but my workplace has just a few people and fun to be in; there are no redundancies and the work is much deeper in scope and direct in execution - something I really enjoy.

I have now been working in big fintech for half a decade. I don't think I could have made a better choice given my background: fintech was the most meritocratic sector I could end up in after graduating; a place where good ideas are respected and even people starting out are given the chance to build something big. I met many extraordinary colleagues whom I'm still friends with today, I earned good money, I got to work together with people from all over the world, everywhere in the world. Work was never a chore, and I've had plenty of fun at work every week for years.

But I'm a bit tired now. In 2024, I would like to start a small side business; one that I know has limited monetary rewards, but with the potential to create a community around what I do. More than a job, it would be a lifestyle business; something to represent a potential way out of the tech sector I once loved so much.

I think the Covid years have changed my line of work for the worse. People who started out during this weird time were robbed of opportunities to learn and grow: those with experience and tricks to teach were too busy running the ship through hypergrowth and what seemed like a massive shift in the way we worked, too busy to worry about freshly graduated talking heads on Zoom. Roles in companies have become much more fungible now; having fully commoditized technologies and capital, we're now moving to human optimization.

With AI now a credible alternative, I wonder how entry level jobs will look like in the near future; the path I took looks increasingly more unlikely for young professionals; even more so for graduates in the populous regions of the world whose investment in education might not pan out anymore.

I was lucky that my own investment in education did pay off, if anything - this is a fantastic life and I have a job many people would dream of. Over the past years I've oscillated between work as a calling and work as a means to pay rent and do more interesting things; but I'm veering more and more towards the latter idea. The work I do is fun but there is really not much to it beyond the awesome people I keep meeting along the way. And that, at least, is worth something.

Four damns out of five

{100,100,60,30,50} {60}


It's a common notion that it's hard to make friends living abroad; I disagree - what is hard is making friends in adulthood. Friendship needs time, repeated interactions, and shared interests; and those three are hard to find when juggling the needs of adult life.

Many of my friends have chosen a place to live and settle down by now; having moved around a lot, for me the focus has always been not just keeping in touch with the people I love, but also meeting new people to learn from and grow with.

Now, the million dollar question: is it hard to meet these people in Japan? Well, the language barrier is obviously a huge one - most Japanese people, even in major metro areas, are not confident about their English, and I'm not able to speak Japanese fluently (yet). Japan also has way less free time than other countries: working hours are long, and people don't have that much time to connect.

But people here strongly identify with their interests, and those interests resonate with the things I love. I have been lucky enough to meet plenty of people through my hobbies - mostly printing, photography, technology and more; contrarily to popular opinion the Japanese have been nothing but welcoming, and have tolerated my horrible attempts at speaking their language, my many ways to disturb the peace, and my often-occurring faux-pas with remarkable patience.

The friends and future friends I met this year are a varied bunch of interesting people, each with their own quirks, brilliance, ideas and each of them has contributed to my life somehow. I was also able to keep in touch and reconnect with many people that I've known for years and decades, in London, in Hong Kong, in Milan or in Melbourne - it felt as if no time had passed.

There's a saying in Japanese: 'one meeting, one life' - basically every moment spent with someone is unrepeatable and therefore as valuable as an entire life. Last year I wrote "a life spent exploring is a life worth living": with the friends I had in 2023, each meeting was a life worth living.

Five damns out of Five

{50,60,80,60,80} {80}


This year I took a pay cut to move to a different place, and I don't regret it at all. Thinking about money has never made me happy, and even more so now that I have sufficient savings to not have to think about money very often. I am very lucky.

My "f**k-you-money" metric is now measured in years. My lifestyle has not inflated. And Japan is cheap, so this section is short:

Five+ damns out of Five

{60,100,100,50,100} {100}


My 'love' section has always been a rollercoaster, so I guess it will surprise not many that - half a decade in since the start of the blog - I'm single again. In 2023 I fell in love exactly once; just like in 2022 this person is moving to a foreign country, and I'm not willing to follow her - meaning I'll be soon single again in 2024.

Now, despite not being the most handsomest of people (an ex once described me as 'Mister Potato Head, but with lanky legs'), I have been lucky to date people from all kind of backgrounds in the past decade, and I think that's down to a very limited list of desirable qualities: I make people feel comfortable, I try to lead an interesting life, I am decent at introspecting and therefore occasionally funny, and I treat my partners' life and time with as much respect as I treat mine, which is to say a lot.

Yet the years have gone by and most of my friends are by now engaged, married, or in stable relationships; and here I am pondering what weird secret ingredient I'm missing.

Being alone and being lonely is not the same thing: I treasure being alone, with the freedom to reflect about and pursue the things I love. Love does not come with shackles, but relationships often do; and relationships are in a certain sense a negotiation, a search for common ground between 'the things I like' and 'the things you like'; to meet in the middle is to find a compromise that often leaves both parties unsatisfied.

But I do think relationships where everything is shared, yet both parties are whole, do exist: so I will keep searching in 2024 for something like that. Last year I wrote: "the people I'm meeting these days are more bitter, and less hopeful about the future than the people I used to date in my early 20s", and maybe that rings true - but at least I'm not bitter, and I'm still hopeful: in fact, I'm as happy as I've ever been and I can't wait to meet someone again in 2024.

2023 ends with me being single again, with someone I liked leaving again, and with a tinge of disappointment at watching, again, another moment, another person, another life somehow disappear back into the infinite number of unrealized futures. But it also ends with opportunities, with a sense of wonder that was absent last year, and with the knowledge that I learned something from every person I've met so far, including all the ones I've been in love with.

Three damns out of Five

{10,10,80,30,10} {50}


I'm always super careful when I write about my health, because health is relative. I'm in my thirties, and I have not had any major medical disaster weighing on me, despite being out and about all of the time; many of my friends had medical scares this year, but I'm mostly OK.

On the other hand, this is the first year I feel like I'm aging: at the start of the year I had carpal tunnel, then I injured my knee going on a bike ride - took me about a month to recover. I also developed what I suspect to be plantar fasciitis (a fancy term for heel pain) by wearing flat shoes and walking a few thousand kilometers in them - a problem I'm not sure how to solve.

In the end though, just like I wrote last year: "as I get to see my loved ones aging around me, all I can think of is how I must keep taking advantage of my health for as long as I have it"

Five damns out of Five

{10,10,10,50,80} {80}


Last year I wrote that "Singapore eroded my ability to pursue hobbies". I remember, while writing that line, I actually wondered: is it Singapore, or is it me making up excuses?

As it turns out, it was, indeed, Singapore.

My move to Tokyo in 2023 has been an absolute triumph, allowing me to learn and do new things with people that get it; every day was a surprise with just so many opportunities to do stuff that matters to me.

This year I printed lots of stuff, used a darkroom for the first time, I learned about letterpress, zines, and art books; I went to museums, visited camera repairmen, saw moments I never thought think existed in real life and all of that while being surrounded by people with passions, dreams, ideas and talent, working together to actually make things.

This was also my first full year shooting film photography. In 2022 I was proud about my photographs, but 2023 was truly the first year where - for the first time since I picked up a camera, a decade ago - I feel like I'm truly photographing things that matter.

I feel that what I do matters.

In fact, I would love for photography and its ecosystem of brilliant people who truly see life as a collection of beautiful moments, each one unique, to be a bigger part of my life. So far, photography has belonged in the "hobbies" section - but I'd love for it to turn into an additional line of work for me. I love my day job, but I also feel like I have the energy and the ability to create a community around a business idea - an idea which is for now nothing more than a stub, but that can grow if I manage to find the courage to start my own film lab in 2024. Let's see how that goes.

A final note goes to "learning Japanese", which I thought last year would be my only hobby. I was wrong: I did a lot in 2024; but I was also able to put significant time into learning Japanese. I'm several hundred hours in by now, and I'm hooked by the language, as hard as it is. I now know about 30% of the symbols it takes to read Wikipedia Simple, which is not nearly enough, but more than the 0% I knew at the start of the year. I'm also making steady progress on the speaking and understanding part, so that I can finally place phone calls, have a chat with someone new, or find the way when my GPS isn't working, all by myself, in Japanese.

Five+ damns out of Five

{30,80,80,50,80} {100}


Last year I spent most of the 'places' section unpacking the time I spent in Singapore, with 2022 my worst year ever for that category.

I hated where I was; I felt like I had no home and I was just wasting my time. I progressively forgot how it is to love the place you live in, and wondered: "what is it that makes a country a compelling place?"

I think I remember now.

Five+ damns out of Five

{80,80,10,10,10} {100}

Wrapping up

I have been writing my year in review for six years now, and the scope of it has changed quite a bit. The first few years were about rating my life and seeing how to improve it: a Kaizen of sorts. Later reviews were more philosophical and reflected about my place in the world and how I look at it.

All of the reviews were about change - about going somewhere. I wrote about the way I adapted to 'curveballs', the way I felt the world was a large open ocean I was swimming into. We're half a decade in, and the world has been changing around me, repeatedly - to the point that I am starting to wonder whether adaptation is the right attitude - or even possible at all.

New media turning the youngest generation into an enigma, wars big and small going on, the inevitable next pandemic, autocrats getting elected left and right, sabre rattling - these things have happened for as long as recorded history has. The defining events of a generation have always been wars, epidemics, discoveries or radical changes in the way borders are drawn and countries run. And the world keeps turning.

But I think this year two things have happened that have no historical precedent.

Climate change

Climate change finally entered the general public discourse: 2023 was the first year I heard people that I consider completely disconnected from the science world talk about climate change. And for a reason. 2023 was the hottest year on record, ever, but for the first time it was visible - the cherry blossom was earlier than ever, but by winter there was no snow on any of the mountains I know. The autumn leaves forecast in Japan (it's a big deal) had to be revised thrice; in the end autumn leaves only lasted a week; Hong Kong flooded, and so did Europe - yet in Japan there was no rain season this year.

The Paris agreement seeks to limit average temperature change to 1.5 degrees, with a 'hard stop' at 2 degrees - when the agreement was drafted, in 2015, those seemed like good numbers. But in 2023 the 1.5° threshold was breached in March, and the again in June. From July to October, the anomaly line inched higher and higher, rarely dipping below 1.5°. In November, the 2 degree threshold anomaly threshold was breached for the first time in history.

In the Netherlands, where I used to live, the Maeslantkering storm surge barrier closed automatically at the 3 meter threshold for the first time in history just before Christmas. I think what's more interesting is how it closed: with a storm looming, port authority could not take a decision on whether to stop ship traffic and close the barrier, or to keep it open hoping the storm would pass (as it did); in the end it was the computer who decided to shut the doors.

That's a good story because it shows why humans are uniquely unable to deal with slow changes. By now, everyone understands climate change - but I don't think anyone truly understands it. We're somehow convinced that 'it will pass', we're convinced that a magic silver bullet solution will be found that lets us continue living as we did before, in a slightly hotter world. We're focused on keeping the economic kitchen running, because that's what we know how to do - even though the house is collapsing around us. Most importantly, we think that we, as in me, the writer; you, the reader - won't be affected: we think that disaster will be on the news , but never in our backyard.

When I look back at the Covid years, I think it's this last point that is particularly insane: people have forgotten how quickly we went from a 'Wuhan influenza' newsflash in December, from the army taking away our loved ones' remains in a military truck in March. People have forgotten how things were happening on the other side of the world, until they weren't. People have forgotten how we couldn't travel, make plans, and enjoy things for years - wasted years that we'll never get back.

I fear we'll be boiled alive.

Artificial intelligence

For most of history, there was no social mobility. You were born either king or peasant and that was pretty much it. Then came a very short period when everyone could get a better life; the key to doing so was learning new things. People all over the world quickly understood this idea, and education became a core concept of economic development.

Learning things is uniquely human, and it is hard. You piece together everything you know, and build up a precarious card castle of knowledge. Transferring this knowledge is slow, sometimes impossible; and we all start from zero. We are born, we join a school, a job, a dojo, an apprenticeship so that we can learn; we eat s**t for years, until we ultimately become masters ourselves.

So a bunch of us figured it would be much faster if computers could learn instead; the quest for artificial intelligence started alongside the first computers and for half a century had essentially nothing to show for it. By the time I was in university, some promising early applications were showing. I worked on a bunch of state-of-the-art things, which were fun but ultimately felt like a well-tuned bag of tools; no magic, just tricks; I ended up moving to fintech, stopped programming, and never looked back.

This year, ChatGPT4 was released and it has completely upended everything I believed about AI. We are still discussing whether GPTs show emergent behavior or not, but it does not matter: GPT and its peers perform better in real world scenarios than any beginner I have ever seen, including myself. What's absolutely shocking is how they excel at any real world scenario: one minute you can ask it to write poetry, the next minute it's reviewing your code, helping translate Japanese, make a drawing, write a letter to grandma. It has passed the Turing test.

When IBM's Watson beat Jennings at Jeopardy, or Google's AlphaGo Lee Sedol at Go, that felt fair. The largest tech companies of the time threw all of their engineers and all of their computing against a single problem, and managed to unseat the champion. Progress for humanity, fought in a honorable battle; a swordfight duel, man-on-computer, one-on-one.

Compared to that, GPT is a weapon of mass destruction. The global discourse is currently focusing on the fact it improves productivity, and that might very well be true; but higher productivity with equal demand does not mean more output - it means less workers and lower prices. On top of that, GPT does not displace expert jobs (yet), it displace entry level jobs - the jobs we all started in; the jobs that people in the developing parts of the world , or with a less wealthy background, aim for to get a foot in the door of the mobility ladder; those jobs, in short, that are necessary to the flywheel of human learning.

Much like the section on climate change, the thing that makes this unprecedented is the irreversible change that is already happening. We cannot stop the economic engine, which will come to depend more and more on the GPTs much like it does on fossil fuels - to do so would be a country-wide suicide. So we'll keep paying lip service to how AI is a 'new way of learning', which is true - it is the first way of learning that eventually replaces the human.

I don't think AI will launch nukes, or hunt humans with giant robot dogs; long before we have to worry about that, AI will rob us of negotiating power in the job market, of purchasing power on the economic stage, and most importantly, of the sense of wonder that comes from learning things, ourselves, day by day - the one thing that makes us human.

In the words of Ken Jennings, recorded in 2013 after he lost to IBM:

I'm not an economist myself. All I know is how it felt to be the guy put out of work. And it was friggin' demoralizing. It was terrible.
And it made me think, what does this mean, if we're going to be able to start outsourcing, not just lower unimportant brain functions. Wwhat happens when computers are now better at knowing and remembering stuff than we are? Are we as a culture going to start to value knowledge less?
As somebody who has always believed in the importance of the stuff that we know, this was a terrifying idea to me.

It's even more terrifying now that outsourcing is here - no longer a thought exercise, but the reality we live in.

But let's end on a good note, for this was a good year. I'm in a good place. I'm far out at sea, and from here I can see storms coming - but my boat feels cozy at the moment; something I needed. After two turbulent years, everything is well.

I feel like I might finally have found a place, in Japan, where I can be, for a long time, to learn new things and watch the future unfold while enjoying every day. I am grateful for my friends, my family, and everyone I've met, known and learned from this year. I am proud of what I did at work, and even prouder of what I did in my own time.

Ken Jennings ended his interview by telling people to never stop learning - for that's the one thing that will let us thrive in uncertain times. That advice might stop working in the future, but for now it has carried me where I am. So here's a toast to all the learnings of 2023, and to the ones that will be in the years to come.

I just can't wait to see what's next.