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This Year I Learned 2021

Posted in Thinking, Comics

I used to do “best of” yearly lists. The fact that I never bothered to migrate them when I moved my blog to a different system tells you something about how good I thought they were. And who needs another set of best things? I’m just some dude with a blog, who cares what I think is best. And realistically I’m not some critic who’s up on all the latest things. The things I loved in 2021 mostly weren’t even new in 2021.

But I did find some really cool things in 2021. And the best part of deciding to write for my own enjoyment is that I can just write about those cool things. No categories. No requirement that they be The Best. Just a chance to share things that I discovered in 2021 that I think you may not have heard of and explain what makes them special. I’m not here to tell you the best things, just point you at some things that might have gone under you radar.

And yeah, this is a lot of things I liked in 2021 being posted about almost a quarter of the way into 2022. What kind of timing did you expect from the guy who posted a long review of the first edition of an RPG while the second edition was already announced and semi-released?

So, without further ado, the “winners” are:

Ted Lasso

Okay, sure, something nominated for all kinds of awards doesn’t seem like the best fit for my “here’s some cool things that I found in 2021 that you might not have.” But… it’s a half hour comedy stuck on a streaming service that gets most of its subscribers from the free trials they hand out with new Apple devices. So, I think it counts.

I recommend Ted Lasso to everyone, and I am yet to find the person who doesn’t at least like it, and most people end up loving it. “Wear the jersey of a fictional sports team” level of loving it.

Ted Lasso manages to balance endless optimism with some grim realism. It stuffs an impressive amount of plot into 30 minutes (or so, later episodes get longer). It has characters who actually change and grow but who are always funny. It has heel-turns and face-turns that are believable, compelling, and sometimes make me think about how complex the people I really like/don’t like are.

It’s made me like soccer.

It’s rare for a show to manage to be funny, accessible, dramatic, and compelling, but this is it. It’s a bit like The Good Place but freed from the constraints of network TV (though unfortunately minus Ted Danson).

Yes, you’ll have to pay for AppleTV to get it, but really it’s worth it.

Brave Faces Everyone by Spanish Love Songs

I found this album by the kind of chance that is what every recommendation algorithm tries to feel like. I happened to have a lazy afternoon and click on a link in a music newsletter I forgot I subscribed to, and then decided to listen to this album based mainly on someone I didn’t know saying it was good.

Now someone you don’t know is telling you it’s good. Really good.

There’s probably a through-line here between Ted Lasso and Brave Faces Everyone as part of what draws me to both of them is that they clearly say “everything is shit” but instead of wallowing in it they make the radical life choice of optimism.

Sonically the album is punk-leaning guitar rock without a lot of notable genre embellishments or twists. There isn’t a cool story about being recorded by one dude in a cabin, there aren’t inflections of other genres. It’s just an almost Springsteen-esque (peak-Springsteen, not now-Springsteen) love of a straightforward perfection.

But the lyrics. The lyrics are what get me on this album every time. When they skew more personal they lose some momentum (as on Generation Loss, maybe my least favorite track from the album), but when they aim bigger at, basically, everything on my mind as an aging elder millennial they absolutely nail it. These are the kinds of songs where when someone happens to say something that sounds like a line I want to respond with the next one automatically.

Oh, and Spanish Love Songs also covered an underrated mid-period blink-182 song which is pretty rad.


NextDNS is a lying DNS service that lets you block ads, tracking, and scams at the DNS level. It’s like a PiHole in the cloud that you don’t have to maintain.

If none of that made any sense you can probably move on. But if it only made some sense, keep reading.

Basically, NextDNS replaces the service provided by your ISP (or Google) that turns a domain name like “” into the address of a specific computer that can serve you that website. A normal DNS resolver reports the truth for all things, taking you to The Bad Website or whatever.

But NextDNS is a lying resolver, which means for certain things that you configure it doesn’t give the real answer. It gives an address that goes nowhere. This stops certain services from resolving entirely. And from the perspective of an app or web page this looks more like an outage than an ad block, so things mostly still work except the stuff you don’t want to work.

NextDNS has easy-to-use pre-made block lists for all kinds of things ranging from security to privacy to just not getting another dang ad.

I tried it out in 2022 and there’s no going back. I maintain two configs: one for my personal devices which is really strict and stops all kinds of stuff from resolving and effectively removes everything annoying about the internet except some of the people on it, and one for all the other devices in my home which is geared towards blocking dangerous stuff but takes a light touch to tracking and ads.

The reason for that is the one downside of NextDNS: if a rule is wrong there’s no way to say “no, really, this time tell me where The Bad Website is.” You have to go in and edit the rules (either turning off a block or adding an allow). If this doesn’t sound scary to you, it’s not a big deal, but it can be a pain if someone else is blocked by it and you have to go fix it for them.


There’s no way a Watchmen sequel should be anywhere on my list. At this point I’m a bit soured on even the original, mostly for the same reasons Grant Morrison points out in his excellent Pax Americana.

But first there was the HOB series, and now there’s Rorschach, and I love it.

It’s definitely a sequel, both in that it was marketed as one and in that it definitely takes place after the events of the original. But as a story it manages to be something stranger and better.

Rorschach turns from the big-picture thinking of Watchmen to be a small story about how people react to those big ideas and it is extremely (perhaps too much) of the moment. Watchmen suggests that fear of a common enemy will unite people, but in 2021 it seems more likely that a threat will lead to people making their own stories about how and why and turning on each other, and that is Rorschach.

Tom King and Jorge Fornés even play with Moore and Gibbons’ strict formalism and plays with parallelism. The “Three Way” (no, not that kind of three way) issue is full of the kind of tricks of writing and art that Watchmen loved so much with Fearful Symmetry and Dr. Manhattan on the moon, but instead of tricks of form it feels more fluid and experiental.

Rorschach is a bit slow to get started. You kind of have to hang in for the first 1-ish issues and just trust that it’s worth it. But once it gets rolling it’s genius.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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