Week 18.21

  • COVID cases have re-emerged in the community here, after many months of quiet, just a week after Bloomberg put Singapore at the top of a worldwide list of the safest cities to be right now. The main cluster is centered around a hospital where I believe a nurse was infected, and 27 linked cases have been discovered so far. The entire ward has been quarantined and thousands of patients in the hospital have been tested. Somehow, there are also cases at a secondary school, and I saw a headline about a spa technician being another one. So the scope of this will probably expand a little over the next week.
  • Already, the government has backtracked on its previous recommendations to have the majority of employees return to offices. We’re now being told to work from home where possible. It’s my opinion that this should simply be the default recommendation forevermore.
  • We tried watching more Runaways on Disney+ after last weekend, but it’s not sticking anymore. Its initial narrative energy, all nitrous borrowed from its subversive premise, has burnt out. Each episode is now a meandering, time-wasting YA cringefest. I think we’re going to quit it at this point in the middle of season 1.
  • I was in the mood for a dumb action movie over the weekend but had a lot of trouble finding one quickly on Netflix. I eventually settled on Bloodshot, which is a Universal Soldier-alike vehicle for Vin Diesel, who I remember starting out as a likable personality but by all accounts today is a horrible person/co-worker and something of a modern day Steven Seagal on the set. I made it maybe halfway through before quitting out of boredom.
  • If you’re looking for a recommendation: Without Remorse, starring Michael B. Jordan and out now on Amazon Prime Video, is not a shit film at all. In fact, it has fresh ideas that make for a couple of original-feeling set pieces.
  • Birdy has a new album out, which I discovered through this video for the single, Second Hand News. Apple Music’s liner notes says she had writer’s block after a breakup, and these new songs were shaken loose after she rediscovered Joni Mitchell’s “conversational songwriting”. I love it. It does feel a little Joni.

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Right after I published last week’s post with a picture of my new HEY.com t-shirt, the founders of the company released a controversial statement about how they wouldn’t allow “distracting” non-work discussions in the workplace anymore, which resulted in a PR shitshow and about 30% of their company publicly quitting on Twitter.

I haven’t looked deeply into the details, but some parts I skimmed suggested a toxic environment and leadership style mixed with the ever-inflamed issues of race and politics in the US. Who knows if they’ll get the message and rebuild their culture, but I’d be upset if it means I’ll have to change my email address again. The amount of mental time spent on that deliberation last year was enough for another decade. I really like the service so far and would subscribe for a second year.

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Not at all related to a toxic workplace is the small announcement I can now make that I’ll be taking some time off in a few weeks to enjoy a long-wished-for sabbatical. The Currently Reading/Playing/Watching aspects of these updates will probably expand. I can’t wait to start on my backlog of games and books.

As mentioned several times in the past few months, I’ve been feeling in need of a recharge and also interested in the concept of mini-retirements throughout life. Granted, I can’t travel in this current climate, but there’s still plenty of room to develop new interests, ideas, and directions. As I enter the second half (hopefully not third) of my so-called career, it seems like it’s worth taking a wider view of what other kinds of value can be extracted from the ever-diminishing energy and light of this short stay on Earth. Maybe I’ll get into finger painting?

A few weeks ago while writing one of these posts, I referenced an article about the nature of work, and was slightly irritated by its very broad definition. It used “work” to encompass all labor, whether for the purposes of making a living or not. Contributions to society, to one’s family, towards your own interests and goals — all of it was called work. I preferred using the word to mean paid labor only, and thought it was quite a privileged stance to include all sorts of things one freely chooses to do. There are too many people toiling at their limits to stay fed and sheltered, dreaming of the day they can finally rest in the absence of work: retirement, the promised realm of reward.

However now that I’m on the precipice of free time, I can see a little dimly through that lens. For those with the opportunity to opt out of paid labor, even if only for a little while, a new terror appears in the form of questioning “am I relevant? Am I valuable?” Freed from our contracts, we want to fill the gaping hole in our calendars with Meaningful and Impactful activities. We want to do work in any form. If we’re raising a child, we tell everyone it’s “a full-time job”. If we’re volunteering out of passion at a non-profit organization, we say we’re finally “doing our lives’ work”.

I don’t disagree with this use of the word now. It’s not that we should label everything we do as work; it’s that all purposeful activity can fairly be called work. Anything that takes something out of you to produce an outcome is work, and we should all engage in it for as long as we can, even after we stop being traditionally employed. Your work can be about learning, teaching, or doing. It can find you producing or repairing, supporting or leading, communicating or meditating. It can be social or entirely solitary. Even when we take the time to rest, it’s in service of our work. Retirement might be the wrong state to aspire to, after all. It’s dying, becoming inert; all subtraction and invisibility.

In this tiredness, I so badly want to do nothing, but I’m also afraid I won’t let myself. Or that I shouldn’t. We’ll see what comes of it in the months to come.

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 40.20

  • This is the 14th consecutive week of doing this “new” regular blog update rhythm. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to keep going, although it’s getting harder to think of things worth mentioning since so much of what happens is now a thematic repeat. But I’ve decided to give myself a break. So what if I do the same things? So what if I’m negative? So what if this bores you/me/anyone? At least I’m still here.
  • I tend to mention Apple Music a lot in these posts, and this week I noticed that my “New Music For You” playlist hasn’t updated in several weeks. It’s supposed to refresh every Friday, based on your listening habits. All the other algorithmic personalized playlists are fine. I guess as long as they find new ways to break things, I’ll mention them. Do I want to get on another hour-long support call to complain about this? Not really. I might spend more time with the music I’ve already discovered instead.
  • One of my favorite songs of last year was Charli XCX’s White Mercedes, and it popped back in my head this week and stayed for days. I was even motivated to go on YouTube and look for interesting covers — there was just one: a rough take by Alec Primavera that shows what a strong ballad it is. I kinda want Ryan Adams to come out of exile and cover it.
  • While we’re on YouTube, the Auralnauts team is still obsessed with making Star Wars videos, and this new one is pretty clever: it uses footage from the prequels and their spot-on overdubs to realize a story about Anakin and Obi-Wan on a weekend-long clubbing bender. Turning a giant Jedi battle scene into a glowstick rave is just inspired. Weekend at Obi’s.
  • I watched the US presidential debates like everyone else, and all that noisy talking over each other just gave me anxiety like Uncut Gems. I then went on Twitter and saw other people making the same reference. Did Uncut Gems come out in 2020? I’m lost in time.
  • I’ll come back to Apple for a second: it’s weird that no Western media seems to have gotten the new iPad Air for a hands-on demo; at least, I can’t find anything on YouTube. But a quick search shows that quite a few Chinese media/bloggers were invited to handle and shoot footage with the new devices, in what looks like an Apple Store. My guess is that the out-of-hand COVID situation in the US is preventing similar events, and they can’t mail the iPads to journalists until the products are ready to come out (lest the A14 chip be officially benchmarked before the iPhone 12 event). China being relatively safe at the moment has given them the First Look video advantage.
  • I’ve been playing the new mobile game from the Chinese developer miHoYo (their tagline: Tech otakus save the world), previously known for the impressive looking but not-my-cup-of-tea anime action game, Honkai Impact. This new one is an open-world RPG called Genshin Impact, and it liberally borrows all the good bits of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, while leaving out all the annoying parts like weapons that break after you use them too much. It’s a breakthrough in free-to-play game design, art direction, and mobile game engineering. Most F2P RPGs are absolutely awful and quite transparent about the fact that they’re not about fun or gameplay mechanics, just completionist character collecting gacha loops that whales get hooked onto. You can actually play Genshin Impact without thinking much about paying for anything, and there are no ads — those inclined to pay for rare items and characters can do that, but it’s not pushed in your face, nor does it seem necessary (at least several hours in, where I am).
  • A late discovery: Okinawan brown sugar, or kokuto. I’m drinking an old fashioned right now that I threw together with vanilla bitters, Gentleman Jack, and a dash of dark syrup made with this complex, earthy, salty sweet stuff. I found a good article on the “Art of Eating” site, if sugar as a fancy healthy food sounds like your kinda thing.
  • After watching S2E6 of Midnight Diner (the original series), I had the sudden urge to make a pot of Japanese cream stew, so that’s what we did for Sunday’s dinner. If you could go into a restaurant here and find that, I probably wouldn’t have; it’s one of those things you just have to do for yourself.
Genshin Impact’s highest quality settings (iPhone 11 Pro Max)

Week 27.20

  • I’m pinching an idea from Michael Camilleri’s blog: what he calls Weeknotes. I like how the bullet format keeps things simple while the weekly cadence provides a structure that will hopefully mean I update more.
  • There was some mild pain and inconvenience this week dealing with Apple over the phone for an iCloud Drive issue. My free space was 13GB less than what it was supposed to be. It’s sorted now and I wrote about it here, but little failures like this make it hard to rely on iCloud and move away from Dropbox and Google Drive.
  • I was reading a lot a couple of weeks ago when I was on vacation (at home). I think I finished 9 novels in three weeks, including 1Q84 which comes close to about a thousand pages. Then I went back to work and simultaneously started on the massive Cryptonomicon, the combined effect of which has put the brakes on my Goodreads progress. Maybe because the last few things I read were mindless Jack Reacher novels, this one was an exhilarating change of pace. I’m still astonished a mere human being sat down and created something this wild, violent, complex, and also funny. I finally finished it this weekend and can’t imagine what to follow it with.
  • I’ve written too much about HEY already, but you know you’re all-in on a new email address when you change your main daily logins and usernames over to it. That’s now been done.
  • On the subject of email, my mom was cleaning up around the house and found some I’d sent her 20 years ago. How? She’d printed them out and kept them in a folder! She gets the last laugh, though. Not only did I forget even owning that old email address, I think all that pre-Gmail history is just gone; I don’t have any record of mails sent or received. If I had to guess, I used a hosted POP/IMAP server and a local mail client (maybe Eudora? Thunderbird?), so it was first lost during the move to Gmail — I don’t believe importing from elsewhere was supported, and I guess I’m fragmenting my email history again now by moving to HEY — and then totally lost during a PC transition. How do we still not have a universal personal data vault solution?
  • Unsplash gets photographers to give their work away for exposure — a deal that never goes out of style in the creative industry. But so many have volunteered to do it that the site is now a very useful resource for people looking for free images. I often use it when I need photography for presentations, and I‘m familiar enough with some of the best photos to recognize them popping up in other people’s decks.

    Since I haven’t sold any of my photos for money in quite awhile, and the idea of seeing otherwise unused photos appear someday in someone else’s deck seemed like fun, I’ve now become part of the problem. I trickled four photos in over six days, and they’ve already been viewed 3,000 times. I suppose I’ll keep going.
  • I switched mobile providers after a year and a half with Circles. I’m still amazed at how easy it is now, and how bad things were before. You just sign up online and someone shows up at your door the next day with a SIM card! Your number is automatically ported the day after! Used to be you had to go to a store and sign many papers and wait a week, and occasionally even call your old telco to break up with them. Not to mention contracts are out of fashion. Progress. Since working from home, I’ve barely used any mobile data since there’s WiFi. I’m sure it’s one reason why I was able to find a more generous deal on the market. They’re probably happy to hand out massive data allowances now that most people aren’t going to use them.
  • On Friday night we went to hang out with a friend who lives down the street, and her kids stayed up with us as an excuse to play more Animal Crossing Pocket Camp and Minecraft. It was nice to see them tapping around proficiently and being engrossed in designing worlds. Even at the age of six! Lego has its limits, and we couldn’t work with dream material in such a direct way when we were kids.
  • Season 2 of Hanna is out on Amazon Prime Video. Seems like this time it’s not just one coming of age story, it’s a genetically modified school of them. I saw the first two episodes last night and the fight scenes were so clumsy, it broke the elite assassins world-building for me.
  • It was the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival recently, but I prefer its other name, the Dumpling Festival, because come on, that’s really the part we all care about. I’ve always known these pyramid-shaped rice clumps as Bak Zhang/Chang, but I guess they’re also known as Zong Zi. They look awful but are mad good, and I can’t think of a taste reference point in the world so you’ll just have to try and get some. I spent nearly an hour on Tuesday trying to find a good delivery option while salivating wildly, and eventually managed to catch the Kim Choo Kueh Chang company’s online store in a good mood (if it’s down, try, try again).
I looked for a good chart to help explain Bak Chang, but you’ll have to make do with this low-res copy someone sent me. I couldn’t even find it on on Tidbits Mag’s own website.

Woke up old

I’m having the somewhat unique/weird experience of working in the same place as a close friend, having joined at different enough points that we don’t share the same views of the company, and aren’t working on any projects together. We’re in each other’s periphery 5 days a week, but otherwise too consumed by the goings on to interact until it’s outside the office. I know she’s doing well, but don’t see it for myself. Anyway we just had a couple of drinks tonight and that was nice.

Wait, what the heck was that mundane detail about my life?

We met during the hazy, naive days of early blogging on the internet, and there are entries here dating back to 2003 that detail our conversations and hanging out. In the past few days, I’ve been thinking back on that period while examining older posts I simply don’t remember writing, and missing a time when sharing your daily life and thoughts online was a harmless activity; not one that might later misrepresent the person you’d become. We were teenagers, proto-millennials without much concept of managed identities, and we came online before social networks were ubiquitous, when no search engine was good enough to pick all your words out of the woods. Whatever you wrote was for an audience that let you know who they were, and wasn’t hard to imagine.

The thing I missed most was the ability to come home and plonk down a daily update without thinking too much. These days, we wouldn’t even be too open on Facebook, which always seemed like the value of an inner-circle network like Path. I loved rereading an old post about how unsure I felt about how I was doing in a class, and wouldn’t trade being able to read about it now, over a decade later, for any measure of respect. I suppose kids still write like that, but anonymously on Tumblr or whatever. Or in private journaling apps that don’t sync to the big bad cloud.

Part of this nostalgia is probably down to waking up old today and realizing the freedom to say I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing has long departed. Even if I no longer need it, I miss that early internet that wasn’t so far reaching — the one that felt like a separate, parallel society. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go write meaningful thought pieces on Quora and Medium like a proper adult.

A UX design walkthrough of Feedly’s new Explore experience

Eduardo Santos: Introducing feedly’s New Explore Experience

I’m a pretty light user of Feedly these days, perhaps because RSS is just a chronologically ordered dump of too much information and I’ve grown to prefer a little machine intervention, but this detailed breakdown of a feature redesign is quite the pleasure to read.

Feedly probably does have a bigger role to play in aiding content discovery (no one can get enough of it), but what’s interesting is that an RSS reader approaches it in a different way from others like Flipboard. It’s less about piecemeal articles, topics, or user-curated magazines. It’s sites! Boosting little known sites and blogs exhibiting consistent quality serves a much more important cause: feeding the cycle of good content creation and letting authors grow their follower base, not enjoying random hits of virality at the whim of algorithms and chance.