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.

Dispo Day 1

You may have heard the buzz this week around the new beta version of Dispo, the app formerly known as David’s Disposable, as in Vine/YouTuber David Dobrik’s version of those camera apps that simulate the look (and sometimes also the experience of waiting for photos to develop) of disposable film cameras. David himself notoriously shoots his exciting life with tons of those cameras, so the app made sense as a spinoff business. It wasn’t the first of its kind on the App Store, and there were so many others with knockoff names like Huji (Fuji) and Gudak (Kodak). So while David’s fans probably used it, the first version of the app wasn’t thoughtfully designed or original enough to be an essential camera app. Now, the next version is being taken seriously with millions invested and a full-time team hired.

Side note: This reminds me that one of the first app ideas I had and sketched out in the early years of the iPhone was for something similar. Obviously I never had the guts to make it, which is the main gap between ideas and profit. I was thinking you could “buy” and load rolls of film into a camera (complete with having to thread the initial end bit onto a wind-up spool before shutting the door) and then send them off to the lab when you’d shot 36 or so images. And after an hour or a day had elapsed, you’d return to the app to see a yellow paper envelope slide across a store counter to you, and be able to tear it open to see your shots (and the included negatives). I remember feeling kinda bummed when the first camera app to do the enforced waiting time gimmick came out. It wasn’t as skeuomorphically cool. I think it was 1-Hour Photo by Nevercenter.

Anyway, Dispo 2.0 is currently in beta and I only just got in. My first batch of photos came out this morning at 9am (the predefined time for all photo deliveries), and they look fine. You get a lightly push processed, slightly cool-temperatured shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio. I don’t understand why it’s not 3:2 like normal 35mm film. The flash is on by default as a core part of the disposable aesthetic. All EXIF data is stripped out, including the actual time of capture.

There’s a lot to like here so far, but it’s also a little unusual as social apps go. The tutorial doesn’t cover some of its sharing features, so you have to figure them out. There are “rolls” that can be public or private, solo or with others. I suppose they are really “albums”. Before you shoot a scene, you may load multiple rolls in the camera that you would like to contribute the resulting photo to. Which breaks the metaphor of the film roll somewhat, because disposable cameras don’t normally shoot onto four rolls of film simultaneously (nor do they have replaceable film)! After a shot is developed, however, you can manually add it to any roll.

Each roll can only have 69 contributors, so the emphasis is on doing it with your friend group, but there’s no limit to how many members of the public can follow a roll and see it on their feeds. David Dobrik himself seems to be using rolls to capture short events, like throwaway albums, rather than as curated, ongoing thematic feeds like I see some others doing for their pet, food, or “good vibes” photography. Perhaps the idea is still being tuned, or maybe they’re fine with people using them however they like.

Beta testers are not supposed to share screenshots, so I won’t. But it’s an example of non-cookie cutter UX design that asks you to work a little to figure it out; Snapchat and at least one redesign of VSCO often get credited for attempting personality in a post-iOS 7 world. Outside of games, it seems it’s often camera/photo apps that still go for it.

On the other hand, Hipstamatic has devolved into such a confused and cluttered app that you have to really work to figure it out. No fun at all. I miss the old Hipstamatic, and Dispo looks like it might bring some of that magic back: you’re encouraged to shoot without chimping, frame loosely through a tiny viewfinder, and be happy with even the crappy shots.

It actually reminded me today that Hipstamatic once tried an app called DSPO, pretty similar in concept. You had virtual rolls of film that you’d have to shoot fully before developing, and you could invite friends to share a disposable camera in real time. Two people in two cities could shoot a roll of film together. I remember it crashed a lot for me, and it was a struggle to convince anyone to install it. So it failed. Good idea, wrong time and execution. At least amongst millennials and zoomers in the US now, Dispo seems to have avoided that trap: the TestFlight beta is fully subscribed.

Week 7.21

  • It was Chinese New Year this week. Some of us at work did a little side project for it in our spare time. We try to make little things we can send to our global sister studios in the network, sort of like greeting cards. For Christmas we made a playlist. This time, we made Choose Your Own Reunion at CNYdinner.com, a sort of game where you have to plan your family’s reunion dinner menu or face the wrath of a cute old Chinese grandma.
  • If you get to the end, you can access a credits screen showing the people involved. I wrote some of grandma’s nastier comments, but they volunteered and drew all the art, designed the screens, and built the damned thing all on their own time. They’re treasures.
  • In real life, it’s the first time in my memory there hasn’t been a Chinese New Year reunion dinner, save for those student years I was away. A year ago, we had our usual large family affair at a restaurant and mentioned the new virus that might be like another SARS. At the time, no one was saying you needed a mask unless you already felt ill and wanted to protect others. It was hard then to imagine an employer telling everyone not to come in. It was implausible that leisure travel could come to a standstill, or that buffet-style dining would be forbidden. Unthinkable that millions would die, although the numbers are hard to comprehend here where we’ve been relatively lucky.
  • As callous as it sounds, when things escalated with lockdowns and working from home in the following weeks and months, I was excited by the newness of the terror and change. I think that sustained my energy for many months while others became depressed and worn down by everything.
  • A year later, I think it’s finally catching up to me. I’m feeling like it’s time to slow down before I come to a complete stop not of my own accord. It would be much harder to get moving again from zero. I’m so tired these days. I think I need new terror, or wonder, or sleep.
  • I also got into the closed beta for Dispo 2.0, which I’ve been excited for since I heard it was being made. I’ll put my thoughts in a separate post, but you can follow me on there as “blee” if you want.

Week 6.21

  • Been feeling pretty crap, so it was good that we went out and got me some air this week. Early in the week we visited the Gardens By the Bay at night, to err… see some dahlias. Apparently they’re a thing appropriate to the Chinese New Year season. The iPhone 12 Pro’s night mode and ProRAW came in pretty handy.
  • Sunday was a day for some exhibitions. Somehow, I’d never been (or can’t remember having been) to the Gillman Barracks “art precinct” — don’t ask me what makes a precinct versus a district or development. In any case, old British-era army barracks turned into galleries.
  • Having been stuck at home or familiar places for most of the last few months, my cameras haven’t been getting much use. The Leica CL was selected for this particular excursion and boy is it a joy to use; mostly because I shoot in Program Mode and don’t have to fiddle very much.
  • I didn’t listen to music for many days. I got into Clubhouse thanks to a kind mutual named Brian Li on Twitter, and spent many hours just listening to people talk in various irritating ways that reminded me of being on conference calls. But at least now I can leave at will and pick the subject matter.
  • Most of my Clubhouse time has been spent in crypto-related rooms, and if you follow any of it, last week was a fairly interesting period. Various DeFi assets rose by a large factor, and then the week closed with Michael Saylor/Microstrategy’s annual World.Now conference which was aimed at helping other corporations ‘connect their balance sheets to the Bitcoin network’. Oh yeah, and Elon Musk toyed around with Dogecoin and lots of people bought it (it’s now technically the next week and Tesla just declared a $1.5bn investment which has sent the BTC price to $44,000).
  • A revelation: the more time I spend reading articles, watching YouTube videos, and listening to Clubhouse conversations about crypto, the more I understand what it’s like to be radicalized online. There’s a gradual envelopment into a new worldview that quickly becomes the default. And when you start to read something that argues the opposite, you want to close the window. Catchy phrases that embody the core philosophies spring forth in your head in response to triggers you hear (e.g. going to the moon, hardest money in the world, stack sats). You can’t imagine what it’d be like to not believe. Of course things will play out this way! How is it so many people can’t see the future when it’s right in front of them?

Week 5.21

  • It’s like the ants around here have gone crazy. I noticed them swarming in the kitchen one morning, carting off bits of a granola bar whose wrapper had a corner mysteriously torn off. Did they do it with their teeth? One colony cleansing later, I saw them reappear in another cupboard trying to get into a packet of dates. Wondering if there was something seasonal or lunar about this behavior, I asked some friends if they’d noticed anything similar lately and got “YES!” for an answer.
  • I joked that it was as if the ant leaders had announced that they weren’t going to make their food targets for the quarter, so everyone needed to get out there and collect goddammit!
  • Stonks. This week was noteworthy just because everyone now knows what a GameStop is, even though we don’t have any. I saw the headlines but didn’t poke into it until it was too late to get rich. Buut I bought a single overpriced share anyway, in solidarity with the people out to make predatory short-sellers suffer. I can’t even begin to guess if this is as big a deal as some make it out to be, or just a blip the system will painlessly absorb. I can’t intuit if it’s the beginning of a sea change in money, or just a January news story. My longstanding ignorance of market matters doesn’t help. But it is exciting to watch.
  • If it turns out to be a big deal though, many smart people seem to think it will accelerate adoption of decentralized finance platforms. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about getting my feet wet with PoolTogether, which was just buying lottery tickets with play money. This week I actually used Uniswap, and bought into an index fund governed by smart contracts. So… progress. Maybe next week I’ll quit my job and yield farm for a living.
  • It wouldn’t be an update without some Apple-related anecdote. My wife got one of the new iPad Airs for work purposes, and it’s nice enough that I actually questioned needing the next iPad Pro. Better screen technology and an A14X would be great, but if they raise the price for miniLED then I might just settle for an Air. My current iPad Pro, the one-off 10.5” model (2017), is such a weirdo. It’s like they had to cut a bunch of corners on it while waiting for the redesigned third-generation (2018). It doesn’t support spatial audio with AirPods, even though older devices like the iPhone 7 do. It’s got a white spot on the screen that I’ve seen others complain about. And graphically it’s so weak that most games seem to run in 480p.
  • Before bed each night, we started watching random YouTube videos of food being prepared, with no narration or music. Just street food kitchens and stalls in Korea and Taiwan frying up stuff at scale, with tons of oil. It’s beautiful, horrifying, and sleep inducing all at once.
  • As a result, I didn’t use my Netflix account until Sunday, when I started to watch Alice in Borderland, which is a truly not-bad Japanese live action series based on a manga. I recommend giving the first episode a go, just to see an impressive shot of Shibuya that will make you go “wait, what?!”. I’m up to Episode 3, which unfortunately goes into one of those time-wasting sequences where people scream/shout each other’s names for about three minutes. That’s still my number one pet peeve about Japanese shows. Nevertheless, I can recommend it on production values alone.
  • What a week for music, though. New albums from Rhye and Weezer, and the long-awaited debut albums from Arlo Parks and Celeste.
  • Through the serendipity of my personalized Apple Music radio station, I also discovered Instant Karma, an Amnesty International project from back in 2007 to “Save Dafur”. It’s 61(!) John Lennon covers by various artists, including R.E.M., Willie Nelson, The Cure, a-ha, Lenny Kravitz, and The Postal Service. Avril Lavigne even covers Imagine! I haven’t had the time for it all, but Regina Spektor’s version of Real Love might be my pick already.