Week 13.21

It was a four-day work week but things were so hectic it didn’t feel like one at all. We took Monday off and went to check out Carne, the new-in-town burger joint that’s been getting the hype treatment on account of its ties to a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in France. Regretfully, it was only good and not great. Maybe because we had the new chimichurri burger exclusive to Singapore, which didn’t really leave the beef any room to impress. Maybe they’re still sorting out kinks. Maybe I’m a pleb. The disappointment reminded me of how everyone else loved Omakase Burger but I just couldn’t understand why. I’ll give them another chance many months from now.

Afterwards, with the afternoon wide open, we decided to visit the zoo and use our “Singapore ReDiscovers” vouchers — S$100 government stimulus checks aimed at boosting domestic tourism. It had been a long while since I last visited, and the layout resembled nothing in memory. We spent about three hours wandering about in very sunny, humid conditions, but it was a pretty relaxing change from the everyday (animal captivity notwithstanding). On reflection, it was also a welcome break from the usual weekday routine of staring at screens. Maybe that’s the role overseas holidays really played, back when they could be taken: looking at new things, in the absence of screens, when one would normally be at work. Do this more!

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We ended the week getting a beer by the Singapore River, which was a lot quieter than it used to be. Brewerkz, for one, is doing a quarter of the business it would have on a Sunday evening in the past, if not less. Which was unexpected; many restaurants and bars in town look to be doing very well these days. Maybe the riverside area relied too much on expats, and some of them have gone home.

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I’m revisiting the records of Duke Ellington and Lester Young, two musicians I had on heavy rotation in my teens and 20s and then hardly played in recent times. I started with pretty mellow late night jazz tastes and then found comfort in frenetic discordance. That seems like such a long time ago, and putting them on now has that retro-transportative quality you sometimes get with music or scents if you’re lucky. It’s also fantastic that I am able to hear them in much higher quality today than I did back when a pair of PC speakers was what I played everything on.

Oh, remember those integrated “mini hi-fis” you would buy at the department store? I just looked some up and they’re still a thing! Sony makes a few, ranging from garish LED-equipped ones they must think appeal to the teens who grew up on Michael Bay’s Transformers, to sleeker units that might be silver-painted plastic if they’re anything like what I grew up with. But hey, I’d be delighted if you can get a good sounding system at those prices. For about the same price as Sonos units, these support Bluetooth/AirPlay with the added benefit of CD/DVD playback that one of Sony’s copywriters has absolutely no illusions about.

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I mostly read Saifedean Ammous’s The Bitcoin Standard in a day, with a bit of skimming. It’s a 10-chapter book that doesn’t get into Bitcoin until about Chapter 8, which is not the structure I would have chosen, but the long set-up is a pretty good primer on money and the history of gold as a currency.

Not having paid any attention during my economics classes (I failed), there were some ideas here I found interesting. Namely the connections between having a stable, global monetary standard and people having longer time horizons (or lower time preferences, as they’re called here) with which to approach their work and lives. He links the economic stability of the gold standard era to people investing in longer-term bets, which resulted in some of human history’s most significant advances in art and science, higher functioning family units, and even the preservation of world peace (up until WWI). It’s probably obvious to anyone who’s studied it, but I’d never considered the systemic effects of pegging a few currencies to a precious metal that way before.

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I read a tweet that said it’s not working hard that causes burnout. Teams can apparently burn out working normal hours on things that don’t feel worthwhile. I wonder if there’s a leisure equivalent of burn out, when you realize your hobbies are a waste of time. What happens then?

Week 12.21

I cracked it. The exercise code. The problem with going for evening walks after a day’s work is getting ready, pulling shorts and socks on, wearing a mask, all that jazz. Then picking entertainment: a podcast, a new album. Then a route. Then knowing when to turn back.

What if you could start your walk instantly, end after 15 mins or two hours, entirely up to how you felt, and be in the shower immediately after? What if you could walk anywhere in the world while COVID rages, and that was the entertainment baked right in?

That’s what I’ve been doing this week. The secret is in the massive catalog of first-person, stabilized, commentary-free walking videos on YouTube. Pop one on and stand in front of a large TV, walk on the spot, and that’s it. I’ve wandered shopping malls and basement food halls in Japan, walked along canals at sunset, and taken rainy evening walks while staying dry. The novelty of the visual content keeps your eyes and mind busy, and you can walk as fast or as slow as you want, regardless of who’s in your way. It solves every friction point I had with going on a walk, just without the fresh air and vitamin D benefits, but hey I’m a digital native. It’s okay.

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We went out one night this weekend for a special dinner, the kind that blows a couple of days’ wages at one go. Coincidentally, while discussing what a possible first vacation after the apocalypse might be, the Park Hyatt Tokyo was mentioned, with the visual reference of that bar scene from Lost In Translation. Of course. Not 20 minutes later, the chef comes over to present a course and talks about how he came up with it while guest helming a menu at the Park Hyatt Tokyo years ago, staying in the same suite that Bill Murray did while he was filming the very same film. That’s life, isn’t it: undoubtedly a computer simulation.

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A couple of new albums out this week. I’m looking forward to hearing more of Grouplove’s This Is This, having heard one song already. SOIL & “PIMP” SESSIONS’ The Essence of Soil is another predictably energetic jazz jam session. I had it on in the background but will need to spend more time with it. Tricky has released an EP with four guest remixes of songs from his last album, Fall To Pieces. His collaborators seem to have observed that the Tricky of today doesn’t sound quite like he used to, and have tapped into the frenetic chaotic energy of his earlier days. It’s probably not for everyone. Another case of more listening needed, when I get the time.

As I type this, I’ve put on Lana Del Ray’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club and goddamn, the first track is already stupendously lovely.

Earlier today, I heard all of Justin Bieber’s new album, Justice, from start to finish on the living room speakers. Not that I was particularly excited and wanted to put it ahead of all the above, but our neighbor had started practicing Adele’s Rolling In The Deep on her karaoke machine, JUST THAT ONE SONG over and over for about half an hour. I figured some modern pop production would drown it out, but Justice has a lot of quiet, anemic songs in the first half. Quite disappointing, although it does have Holy (which I put on my Best of 2020 playlist) and the new song Peaches works quite well.

Finally, For My Friends from UK-based Jacob Banks is well worth checking out. Across 8 songs in 25 minutes, his sound manages to combine stunningly beautiful R&B stylings, vocoders, swirling organs, rootsy rock sounds, and big guitar reverbs.

Not new, but I came across Vapor (2013) by Yosi Horikawa in a forum thread about AirPods Max. It’s an excellent electronic album for pushing your headphones, full of intricate details, a wide spatial mix, and full-bodied beats.

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The Snyder Cut was watched. We got through the first 3.5 hours in one sitting, but had to go out for dinner before the epilogue. Between this excess and the hollowness of Wonder Woman 1984, I don’t think I will ever want to watch another DC superhero movie. Hmm, okay I’ll admit I’m a little bit curious about Robert Pattison as Batman.

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The uneasy intimacy of work in a pandemic year — How capitalism and the pandemic destroyed our work-life balance.

I read this article on Vox yesterday, and it not only accurately describes what I’m/we’re currently experiencing, but also offers some frames that I hadn’t considered. As someone who thinks they welcome any opportunity to socialize less and stay home more, I was acutely unequipped to sense the encroachment of work into my personal headspace, distracted by the larger movements of personal time’s visible signifiers (no commuting, attending meetings from home, working off mobile devices) increasing and normalizing.

For as long as it was transforming in novel ways, packaged as a liberation, and had momentum amidst all this chaos, who would question the idea of placing work at the center of life under such circumstances? Who blessed with good health would even see the opportunity to do so, until it became too late?

What we’re left with is a situation in which workers in knowledge professions find ourselves thinking of work at all times, obsessing over it, devoting ourselves to it, even in our most private and intimate settings, even when we say we want to be thinking of other things. What is this experience, Gregg asks, but the experience of being in love?

“Classic definitions of love see the beloved as ‘the only important thing’ in life, compared to which ‘everything else seems trivial’ … leading to ‘the sense that one is in touch with the source of all value,’” Gregg writes. “A significant number of participants in this study spoke about work using language very similar to these tenets.”

Conflating the effects of overwork with being in love is an interesting idea to me, except it happens even when you’re not in love with the work. From what I can see, some of my friends experienced the above symptoms during the pandemic, but without any of the euphoria associated with love. These work thoughts that fill our waking and dreaming hours do not, as the saying goes, live rent free in our heads. The rent is too damn low, but we are charging nonetheless.

So is it a fair takeaway that knowledge work, when taken to an extreme, is just people being paid to live through a simulation of love? I think there’s a name for that. People like to jokingly use it when explaining their what they do for a living, but I guess it might be truer than you think.

[Ancient lamentation music playing]

Week 11.21

  • We put the Disney+ account to use this weekend by trying out a bunch of TV series that we’ll probably never resume, including The Orville (surprisingly high production values, but not very funny and a little time-wastey) and Empire (starting with the first season from 2015 is rough, it feels dated already). I also gave in and decided to give the Mandalorian a go. At least it looks expensive AND new.
  • Did I mention that we’ve started watching a derivative medical drama on Netflix called New Amsterdam? It started as mindless background TV, but its relentless (and satisfying) crisis-drama-relief formula exposes the gaps in pacing and focus that “better shows” have. Having spent most of her life watching series like this has given Kim the ability to call out all the plot points before they happen, whereas I’m still surprised by most of them. It’s seriously spooky, and I recommend her if any screenwriters need a consult.
  • Nothing’s too small to mention, so I’ll say that 7-Eleven Singapore has created a chicken katsudon onigiri which is a monstrosity I suppose, but it’s also quite good and the first onigiri they’ve made that’s good enough. It’s one of those round ones, topped with a NOT-OVERCOOKED layer of fried egg and onion, with a chunk of fried chicken in the middle.
  • The week was nothing to write home about. I went for one long evening walk that produced a couple of photos worth keeping. I had a little time for a triumphant return to Call of Duty Mobile. I heard the new songs from Utada Hikaru and Rosé and they didn’t knock me out. But thanks to the YouTube algorithm, I discovered a CALCULATOR COVER of Utada’s “One Last Kiss”, and the creator’s channel is full of them. When tech companies talk about unlocking human potential and ingenuity, I hope this is the sort of thing they mean because it’s awesome.

Week 10.21

  • Others may have been better informed, but I wasn’t expecting to ever see a sequel to Coming To America, a movie I watched many times as a kid (in censored form, I am now learning) and memorized a lot of lines from. But here one is, thanks to Amazon Prime Video. We rewatched the original and the sequel back to back, which was surreal because everyone’s aged for real. CGI and makeup in movies get you accustomed to a certain Oldbooth facsimile of aging, and what real life does to a face is just something different. Coming 2 America is more a fanservice celebration of the original than a new movie, and that’s fine. Its musical performances are very good, and I was very pleased with the final scene, I’ll say that much.
  • Went in to the office twice this week, which might be a new record. I’ll admit that collaborating in person can be a lot faster and less annoying. The audio compression and lag that Microsoft Teams introduces to speech feels unnatural; it also tends to cuts out whenever two people try to speak at the same time. Is it a side effect of noise canceling algorithms? Would it work better if everyone was on headphones? Successful, high bandwidth collaboration requires people being able to (sparingly) talk over each other at some point in time, I think.
  • I’ve mentioned being tired several times on this blog in the last few months, which must mean that I’ve done it countless times in real life. This year will be my 12th working without a break longer than a two-week vacation. I’ve noticed a lot of the people I follow talking about how exhausted and stressed they are, and I’m sure the feeling is going around. It’s probably a good idea to hit the brakes if/when you can. Pushing it for too long without stopping to learn and reboot only leads to working cynically, recycling old ideas, and chasing highs that are harder to come by until one day you’re suddenly out of touch and no use to anyone. I’ve wanted to go on a sabbatical for quite a while, and despite many reservations I think it’s the right move.
  • Inevitably, I’m wondering how much of my contentment is wound up in being useful to others. Even when I freelanced, I was ‘doing a good job’ regularly and acknowledged for it. Not doing anything at all, I might go crazy in a month. Or wind up even more upset?
  • To be fair, there was also quite a bit of social activity this week, which is a surefire way to wear me out. Either that or the attendant alcohol. I count four nights out and have the Dispo pictures to prove it.
  • Pete Yorn, who I’ve seen dismissed by some snobs but whose songs are carved into memory from my formative years, has a new covers album out called Pete Yorn Sings the Classics. These include Here Comes Your Man, More Than This, Lay Lady Lay, and Moon River. I’ve played it through once so far and am looking forward to hearing some of them again.

Week 9.21

Hi again, we’re almost 9 weeks into the year which feels about right in terms of how long we’ve been at it, but not really when you consider net output. I’m still in a mental state of January. Unintentionally, this issue seems to have formed itself around the themes of nostalgia and work.

• For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been unable to get Debbie Gibson’s We Could Be Together (1989) out of my head. It can surface in the morning as I’m brushing my teeth or at any other time, like during a Zoom call. I said on Twitter that it might be down to how the song brings me back to a simpler time. It’s an escape hatch from the onslaught of today’s complexity and drudgery, straight into a corner of childhood memory where the days were long but full of possibility.

That brought me back to my old Tolerable 80s mix on Apple Music, which I’ll now try to update a little bit. Forgive the fact that some liberties are being taken: there’s at least one song from the late 70s and another from the early 90s.

While doing this, I discovered I’ve never heard Cyndi Lauper’s first album from 1984, She’s So Unusual in its entirety, just the hits like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Time After Time, and All Through The Night. It’s a pop debut with astounding, timeless songwriting. Her cover of Prince’s When You Were Mine, one of my all-time favorites, is crystal meth icing.

• I was absentmindedly reading the Substack newsletter bookbear express, by a random person named Ava that I follow on Twitter, when the album’s first track came on. In a neat coincidence, Cyndi sang “money, money changes everything” over her essay on work done out of love and how to square it with making a living. Around the same time, this article from Ness Labs about the fallacy of “work-life balance” arrived in my inbox. It argues that the definition of work can’t be limited to your day job, because things that take up time and energy, like caring for a loved one, can feel like work as much as life. If the lines are going to blur, then instead of chasing balance one should embrace that fate will deliver a rollercoaster of work and life extremes over time.

I don’t think it’s complicated. When someone says they want more work-life balance, it usually means their non-negotiable employment has crossed some boundary too many times, leading to a state of joylessness (Life-lessness). This isn’t a case where love is in the picture; people would bend and square the boundaries themselves if it was. Nor is it likely about being so in love with your work that finding time for life becomes a struggle. This is about people being squeezed. Being able to sustainably protect your boundaries is a privilege that comes from power. Seeking work-life balance means seeking leverage against external systems. At the end of the path is either profound love or liberating apathy.

“I want more life, fucker”

• I can’t remember when or how I started following Ava, but at some point I found a cluster of young tech people in California. When articles started coming out about a COVID exodus from San Francisco, I was already seeing it play out on my Twitter feed.

Finding and interacting with random people on the internet continues to be one the greatest perks of being alive at this point in history. A conversation yesterday (okay, more like one-sided lecture) with some kids born in the 1990s led to the discovery that they didn’t know what Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were. Feeling very old, I told them about growing up with computers that weren’t even networked. And when they finally were, how we would use modems sitting atop our PCs to phone other people’s PCs, and browse text-based UIs they’d set up for trading files and leaving messages for other guests. Because most BBS operations only had one phone number, a Friday night could be spent mostly trying all the ones you knew about until you found a line that wasn’t engaged.

They were proto-websites, built for one intimate visit at a time, and I have fond memories of the basic BBS I set up for friends to visit. Fast forward a couple of years, and I’d abandoned the local BBS scene for the absolute expanse of the internet, where you could chat with people in real time, anywhere in the world. I think it’s always good to reflect and take in the staggering perspective of what our simple brains have had to adapt to in one lifetime.

Maybe I should make a social networking site or app that replicates the BBS experience. Only 10 people allowed in at once? One person per city?

• The elder millennial story hour actually began when I realized that Jed McCaleb, creator of Ripple (XRP) and Stellar (XLM), also made eDonkey and Overnet, P2P file sharing networks that I used the hell out of in the early 2000s. “What’s eDonkey?”, John asked to my absolute shock. He was probably six years old while we were ripping, mixing, and burning. On hindsight, it makes total sense McCaleb moved in that direction. I think my exposure to Overnet’s decentralized network technology back then made it easier for me to grasp blockchain concepts years later.

• More Dispo photos were taken this week, practically on the daily. I have a short wishlist for feature improvements: 1) EXIF info embedded in each exported photo, 2) a 3:2 aspect ratio option to match actual 35mm disposable film photos because 16:9 is super weird, and 3) a fixed focus option that overrides autofocus and just locks to 3 meters or something, so it’s instant when you hit the shutter and some shots will be beautifully out-of-focus every now and then.

• On Wednesday, I left the house and met with some colleagues past and present that I hadn’t seen in awhile. We went to Vatos, a Korean-Mexican place that does margaritas with makgeolli, which are exactly as sweet as they sound. It was great to see them again, which got me thinking about the central role social tools like Telegram have in helping to maintain these connections. Can you believe that we’d once have to make voice calls to each of these people to organize a quick dinner hangout?

I’d like to add Dispo to that list of tools, because shooting a shared photo album is a new interaction that might help to keep people in touch although they’re apart. I’ve started a private roll with that group to experiment, but the uptake may be a little slow.

• I got just a disappointing 15 minutes of videogame time in this week. Looking at the Switch’s upcoming release calendar, I hope to have more free time in the middle of the year for Japanese mystery visual novels and the remastered Skyward Sword, a game I never allowed myself to get on the Wii on account of not having completed Twilight Princess.

• Disney+ launched and we signed up to have a look. The catalog is a little better than I expected because the local incarnation includes content from a company called Stars that I’ve always been vaguely aware of from their movie channels on the cable TV in hospitals. Stars brings the kind of older Hollywood films that Amazon Prime Video in the US seems to be good for, but that we don’t have here.

I woke up this morning and suddenly remembered the 1994 Alec Baldwin “superhero” film, The Shadow, based on a radio series from around the WWII era. I had to see it. It wasn’t on any service except the iTunes Store: $5 to rent and $15 to own. This kind of nonsense is why streaming services still can’t offer an experience as good as eDonkey once did.

Week 8.21

  • I was sold on an LED bulb future where they all last for years and don’t need regular replacement. That’s not been the case for quite a few of the fixtures in our apartment. This week, a new kind of bulb gave out, and I went on Lazada to get more. Thanks to the shittiness of their search engine, some bulbs with a different connector type got mixed in with the right ones I asked for, and I missed it because the Philips box designs for both are nearly identical. Their search is inexcusably bad. How can an item that doesn’t contain one of my two keywords appear on the first page of results? So now I have $25 of bulbs that useless to me, and their return policy doesn’t allow for “user error”.
  • The feeling of being depressed continues. I went on two walks after work this week because it supposedly helps to get some air and exercise. The second one helped tremendously because it ended at a new craft beer bar in our neighborhood. They’re not at the rock bottom prices of TAP, but few places can do that. Afterwards, a double cheeseburger and fries. Self-care is hard on the arteries.
  • Mogwai have a new album out. I’ve ignored them this whole time but gave it a try after seeing some praise on Twitter. Have also been listening to the very chill debut album from Pink Sweat$. I can recommend both and won’t be deleting them from my library.
  • An old episode of Begin Japanology (NHK) on YouTube taught me a couple of things I didn’t know about conveyor belt sushi. For instance, eating raw salmon was not historically a thing in Japan because locally caught salmon had parasites and had to be cooked before eating. When safer Norwegian salmon became available, it was conveyor belt sushi joints that started selling it first. The traditional joints followed later.
  • As the weekend drew down into nothingness, I became adamant that I should check the “Play videogames” box. I got Persona 5 Strikers on the Switch, paying an extra $10 for the Digital Deluxe edition which is available now unlike the regular edition which comes out Tuesday. Hell of a sales tactic, that. So far so good. It’s an interesting blend of turn-based RPG battle decisions with real-time musou battles, with the likeable characters and story-driven interludes of the original. Walking around the environments, I can see no technical reason why Persona 5 can’t run on the Switch. I’d bet on it being released by next year.
  • Found on Twitter, an epic NYC A-train sax battle from like six years ago. This version cuts together angles of the impromptu event from multiple cellphone videographers.