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.

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 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 52.20

  • I weighed myself at the end of last weekend’s staycation, which arguably came at the end of a multi-month odyssey of bad eating, and found that I was heavier than I have been in at least 6 years. So the first half of this week was devoted to eating salads and lowering my caloric intake as much as possible. I also skipped drinking every day, and I think it’s come down a touch. I will have to keep this going in an effort to return to a figure that could be called normal (both on the scale and irl).
  • No surprises, but Christmas was different and the lead up was even less detectably Christmas-feeling than it is every year — I am prone to declaring that ‘THIS year, it really doesn’t feel like Christmas’, every single time. Nonetheless, efforts were made, and I shall probably look back on this year’s edition with fondness.
  • There was work to be done up to the last minute of Christmas Eve, and there’ll be some work to do next week too, but I am looking forward to a bit of a rest and some reading/gaming in early January. I say this here to remind myself to actually do it, and not just scroll Twitter on the couch for days.
  • It’s not often that I fire up the podcast app and listen to anything, but I uncharacteristically spent a few hours this week on financial/investing-related content, which will hopefully help to set up a better 2021. I don’t know why I spent the first half (or more) of my life resistant to the idea of understanding economics and money; well, I suppose I can make a guess as to the underlying repulsions, but it’s never too late to change your mind and try to let some new thoughts in.
  • My birthday was months ago, but I think the realization only started to land in the last few months (and almost completely subconsciously!). I was talking to someone awhile ago about how you just one day catch yourself changing up stuff or trying new things, and oh hey what a coincidence 4-0, and they said yeah, it’s a real thing and it’s started happening to me too, except a year in advance. I’m always lagging.
  • A reunion of sorts: Many years ago, possibly a decade, I chanced upon a wonky, clearly Not Proper Art painting at the Affordable Art Fair and sort of fell for it. It was an underdog. It was absolute innocence, defenseless against the world. Kim hated it and walked us away. I wanted to go back for another look and maybe take a photo but never got the chance. In any case, it was way too expensive for me to even consider. As with all things that get away, you want them even more, irrationally. I remember calling the gallery up for the local artist’s name and writing it down in Evernote. And all these years, I’ve been holding a vivid memory of it in my head, and I bring it up from time to time to tease and horrify Kim with the idea of putting it up in our home. We found it online this week. It’s still unsold, at the same gallery. The price has come down by about half. I have money these days. It’s still higher than it probably should be. I don’t know. It’s almost exactly as I remembered it. Maybe I’ll buy it just to scratch the itch and close the book.
  • App of the Week: Mimi Hearing Test [iOS]. This free app will test your hearing in about 5 minutes if you have a pair of headphones that they’ve calibrated for, and tell you how degraded your ears are. It outputs an “audiogram” assessment to Apple’s Health.app, which can be used to tune the sound quality of AirPods beyond the usual Hearing Accommodations. It’s pretty great and I think everyone should try it.

Week 41.20

  • Some weeks don’t feel like very much at all, even if they kept you busy at time. Taking stock on a Sunday and realizing this is a bit like how your brain sorts experiences into Keep/Forget piles while you sleep, I think. Many things happened, few of them really mattered. Forward, onward.
  • I’ve now twice experienced cocktail bars that are taking reservations and then telling you you’ve got between 90–120 mins before they turn your table over to the next group. This is definitely new to pandemic times and odd to me. If you’re sitting down at 8pm with some friends, you’re just getting started at 90 mins, and very likely to spend a lot more in the 90 minutes after that.
  • I think it’s related to the current regulation that says they have to stop serving alcohol at 10:30pm. I thought restaurants had to stop serving in general, so we can all go home and drive the chances of spreading infections down just that little bit more, but no! They can keep on serving you food and dessert into the night; it’s just alcohol that has to stop at 10:30pm. Don’t get it. On the other hand, there’s a business opportunity here to just run very nice pop-up mocktail bars that feel like proper nice bars to have a chat, for people who are already well buzzed and ahead by the time 10:30 comes about.
  • I just bought Cocktail Party, an iPhone cocktail recipe app that hooked me by having a generous attitude. I was searching for some info and came across their website, which has all the recipes out there in the open. If you want the convenience of an app, and the ability to enter what ingredients you have so they can tell you what drinks you might make next, you drop $4 USD. I did it without a second thought, which I RARELY do. I just really liked their business model and approach.
  • I think this may be related to a certain emotional state I’m in after having watched all 10 episodes in the first season of Ted Lasso (Apple TV+). Everything about this show repelled me when I scrolled by it in the catalog: the fact that it’s an American comedy sitcom, that it involves football (soccer), the name that says nothing, his mustache, the promise of being a feel-good something. But @hondanhon rated it on Twitter a few days ago, calling it “a hundred thousand dollars of therapy that every person needs” and “a striking show for our time”. Now after bingeing the whole thing in a night and a morning, I concur. They’ve succeeded in crafting an uplifting show that doesn’t make you want to gag, around a positive hero who tries harder than anyone possibly could — but inspiringly so.
  • I must mention the release of Gimme Some Truth, a new compilation of John Lennon’s “greatest hits” on the occasion of his 80th birthday. I spent the weekend playing it any time music was desired, and they simultaneously don’t make them like this anymore and didn’t back then either. The whole affair has been completely remixed and remastered from the original tapes, on all-analog equipment to boot. It sounds impeccable: so much cleaner than the recordings we already had, and some people will have the pleasure of playing Blu-Ray audio discs with Dolby Atmos. I don’t know why Apple Music doesn’t provide surround mixes of select albums that work with the new spatial audio feature of the AirPods Pro. Anyway, read about the album (JohnLennon.com) and give it a listen (Apple Music).

Hold up, HEY

The debut of HEY email has been an interesting case study in launching a new service, in part because it took place on social media — a two-way street that led to them getting public feedback that’s already led to significant changes. As others have done in recent years, the launch was a staggered rollout with invite codes and a waitlist, and the resulting members-only feel and scarcity drove tens of thousands more to join the waitlist. Some say this is intentional marketing, but it’s also legitimately done to manage the experience when someone isn’t sure how much interest there will be.

I took notes on my hands-on experience in a previous post, and have spent a week now getting to grips with it, trying to picture it as my primary email service for the foreseeable future. The commitment isn’t just a new email address to inform people about; it’s also paying a perpetual premium service fee. After 16 years of “free” Gmail, that’s a big decision. Yes, you’re free to leave any time and they’ll forward all emails sent to you anywhere else you’d like, but I wouldn’t use a @hey.com address if I wasn’t actually using HEY.

Everybody’s got opinions

But before the details of my decision (like, who cares, right?), I wanted to comment on the fascinating public launch of HEY that we’ve been spectators to, and how its creators have had to walk back some of their design decisions after product met reality.

As my friend YJ says above, Basecamp and HEY are heavily opinionated products by opinionated people; it’s what allows them to take a well-established thing like email, with its standard organizing paradigms of Inbox, Outbox, Sent, Spam, and Trash folders, and try something new. It’s only meant to satisfy a certain type of user with certain needs and preferences.

It’s not easy building something out of new ideas, at huge scale, and making sure it’s robust enough to carry the personal and business correspondence of paying customers who’ll depend on it for time-sensitive messages. By Basecamp’s account, they’ve been working quietly on HEY for two years before this month’s semi-public launch. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit both for attempting it and for how stable it has been.

When we design services, we know we won’t catch everything or get it right the first time. It’s about having priorities and principles, and optimizing against them every step of the way. If you’ve defined and studied your target audience, and care about pleasing them to the exception of everyone else, then you can make decisions based on their needs. If you put in the work to develop a core experience that will set your business apart, then that becomes the thing you protect even if Apple or anyone else tries to make you change it. Some companies famously put speed over certainty, and while it dazzled a lot of CIOs and inspired them to try and do the same, its pitfalls are now well known.

We don’t know what HEY’s development process looked like, or what they prioritized, and so we can only guess from what they actually shipped and what they’ve done since. Upon contact with the wider marketplace, some of those opinionated ideas are now being challenged as problematic or discriminatory. Could more user research and testing have caught them before launch? Probably. Was catching them before launch a priority for the team, or did they intend to test them in public and fix unintended consequences as they were discovered? To their credit again, they’ve fixed a lot of things very fast in the past week. From adding disposable functionality suggested by Apple to dumping fully built, non-trivial features… their responsiveness has been impressive.


Things that came broken

Let’s look at a couple of Twitter exchanges and changes I’ve spotted. On my first day with HEY, I noticed an unusual option in the “More” menu on every email thread. It was a button labeled something like “Generate Public Link”. This actually published the entire email conversation thread to a public webpage, allowing any third party to read and follow the exchange. I used it to help share a problem I was seeing with their support team, which is a nice way of enabling them to help customers without giving full access to all mail. And while you could always share private emails to a third party with copy/paste, screenshots, PDFs, etc. there was something unsettling about this. None of the other people would receive any notification that they were being “listened in on”, and anyone with the link would be able to see not just all previous emails, but any new ones added to the thread for as long as it was publicly shared.

You could be in a conversation with 20 people and not know if any one of them had generated a link and leaked it. When I explained this in a group chat, there was some disbelief. One person called it a “built-in whistleblower feature”. After others complained on Twitter about the potential for abuse, this feature was completely removed.

Continue reading “Hold up, HEY”