- A short entry this week, because it’s been largely uneventful outside of work. I returned on Monday and it was like being a kid on the first day back at school after vacation. Maybe you liked it; I didn’t.
- I think I’m finally beginning to tire of the new routine, several months after everyone else was complaining about being cooped up, not going out for anything, and working from home. The lockdown here ended over a month ago, and by all accounts, the streets are busy again and people are in malls, seeing films, and eating out (with masks, of course), but I haven’t been doing much of that at all. We had some friends over the other night and they asked how I managed through the 10 weeks of isolation. I said I was still doing it, and it’s been 20?
- But yeah, when I described the typical working day, it was depressingly simple. Just a short series of movements between rooms in the house, between laptop, coffee machine, dining table, and TV. It’s almost like being on a small space station or planetary outpost. This is not to say that I’d prefer being back at the office! But that life at least afforded some walking around lunchtime and a bit of ad hoc shopping.
- I finished Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man”, and it was a yawn. At this point, I am only invested in the series’ first-ever story arc, which began in book 14 or 15, where Reacher just wants to travel to Virginia to meet an army woman with a sexy voice. All the books between that and #18 are just him on the road, slowly heading to Virginia and getting caught up in implausible international arms/drugs/human trafficking intrigues. The next book is #18, where it finally happens. But I’m taking a break.
- We decided this weekend would be good for rewatching Denzel Washington films on Netflix, and made it through 2Guns and The Equalizer. I didn’t believe I’d ever paid to see a movie called 2Guns at all, and yet remembered enough of it to suggest that, yes, at some point in 2014 I’d bought tickets to go see a movie called 2Guns.
- I can’t decide if I miss going out to see films or not.
- It turns out earning interest on crypto isn’t a total scam (see Week 28.20). I got my first month’s payout, and it’s amazing that individual people can now play the role of financial institutions and profit from it, albeit without the chance of being bailed out by a government when it all goes wrong.
- I’m not sure how it happened, but I started hearing songs from The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree in my head. This happened again and again, and now I’m listening to it. Maybe it’s connected to a point in my life (I think I was in university, and discovered it while a subscriber of the eMusic site — you paid a fixed monthly fee and could download a few albums worth of DRM-free MP3s, legally). Somehow, it’s become one of my favorite albums.
- I took most of the week off from work. It was vacation time scheduled to coincide with last week’s wedding, and I was expecting to be in the UK in the midst of summer. Maybe I would have had a crappy Carling and a Pot Noodle for old time’s sake.
- Instead I spent about three whole days roaming the plains and beaches of 13th-century Japan in Ghost of Tsushima. It’s pretty much Red Dead Redemption meets Assassin’s Creed in a new setting. It’s been years since I sat down in front of the TV and played a game for hours until my hands felt stiff and the controller’s battery needed topping up. I’d normally consider that an achievement of leisure but it felt kind of empty. By the fourth day, I realized this and put it away to get some reading done instead.
- Theory: video games are a great way to pass time quickly, but a lousy way to make use of treasured and valuable time. If I was in jail, I’d love to have my PS4. But if I’m using up the rest of my leave for the year, and want the hours to last and feel meaningful? A stack of books, no question. So much time just evaporates while you’re riding your horse from point A to B, or completing templated side quests to help someone find their lost sister or whatever. It’s not like watching a film; many moments are completely disposable. I still love the virtual tourism of exploring a new world (and maybe VR would make all the difference here), but maybe I did too much of it all at once.
- As soon as I switched gears to reading, it’s like time slowed down, and the experiential resolution went past anything 4K or 8K graphics are capable of. The signal to noise ratio was just not comparable. So that’s my advice to all the other old lapsed gamers clearing vacation time in a pandemic: leave the game marathons to when you go on sabbatical. They’re just empty calories. One exception comes to mind: when I played 140 or so hours of Animal Crossing at the start of the lockdown, it didn’t feel wasted. Maybe because it was more “creative” and I was putting my own island together. In contrast, triple-A open-world games just feel like coloring books for adults?
- I also visited friends who’ve moved back to Singapore and found themselves a lovely new apartment, and the night ended with everyone playing Overcooked 2 (admittedly my first time), which was so much fun that I came home and bought the first installment for my Switch. “Get the divorce papers ready”, they said. That’s definitely something games have over books.
- Books finished this week: The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, Recursion by Blake Crouch, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals by Hiroki Azuma. Also almost done with yet another of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels: A Wanted Man (#17).
- The first two above are thematically linked, and highly recommended. The first one builds a world where time travel just exists (and in a wonderfully weird and unexpected way), and the second finds a clever opening for approaching said time travel, but achieves an epic payoff that must surely have gotten it optioned for a film adaptation by now. After reading Recursion, I don’t have much anticipation left for Tenet because it’s not going to be in the same class. No way. I’ll probably follow them up next weekend with This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar.
- I was wondering what book to read after Cryptonomicon and fell back into the easy, brainless comfort of another Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. This time it was #16, The Affair. It stands out for being a prequel to all the others, written in the first person. Now that I’m done, I think my next book will be some kind of SF.
- We have a baker across the street who does pricy (and good) pies, tarts, cakes, and various breads out of his little shop. And since we’re home 99% of the time now, I’ve been trying to buy more things from the neighborhood, hyperlocal spending and all that. The bakery especially, since they don’t sell on delivery services. That said, my mother is in the habit of making the 20-minute trip to buy their quiches (not to see me!) This week I started buying big slices of cake as after-dinner treats. No danger of the pandemic weight gain reversing soon.
- Yesterday was polling day in the local elections, and we were given an afternoon window of about two hours to show up, line up, have our temperatures taken, IDs scanned, and our votes cast. There were bottlenecks in the morning, and stories of old people struggling to put on mandatory plastic gloves after having their hands sprayed with alcohol — how nobody in the Elections Department tested this and realized it would be impossible to do quickly, I don’t know. By noon, the gloves were optional. By the time we voted, the entire process was over in 60 seconds and we were headed home.
- I caved and installed the first(!) public beta for iOS 14 on my primary phone, which I use for both work and personal purposes. I filed an Apple Music bug within the first 30 minutes, and noticed a few other issues like how the OS think it’s using 90GB of free space for “Other” temp files. According to Reddit, this is widespread but doesn’t actually mean my phone is full, so, okay. It’s surprisingly stable otherwise.
- The way I organize my home screens has evolved over the years, particularly after folders were added, but it’s been simple: the first page is for apps I’m likely to need often, the second page is for all my camera and photo-editing apps, and the third is for games. The fourth is where junk goes. Now that there are large widgets vying for real estate (the Files widget can take up the room of 16 icons!), and an App Library where you’re meant to keep all but the most immediately needed icons, I’m having to rethink the whole approach and get comfortable with a totally different model. Of course, no one is forcing me to use widgets or change my ways, but I’ll take the opportunity to maintain some neuroplasticity.
- A friend told me last year about services that let you gain interest on your cryptocurrency holdings, but they were small UK companies and I didn’t particularly feel like going through the trouble at the time. The premise is sensible though, if not free of risk. If you’re going to be holding currency in any form, you don’t want it stagnating and not earning interest of some sort. These companies will loan out your capital to others, and in return you get interest rates ranging from 4–8% per annum. Which is stunning compared to any traditional savings account, and makes one wonder how high the risk is. But if you’ve got money in crypto to begin with, what’s a little more risk? It seems this has now become a “mainstream” offering at several exchanges and so I’ve decided to give it a go with what little I have. Perhaps I’ll regret it.
- 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).
Thanks to that bit of time off earlier in the month, I’m ahead of my reading goals. Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon was probably twice the length of a standard novel, and five times as elaborate. I was lured in by the SF premise — a murder in a panopticonic dystopian near future (it first occurs to me that it’s not unlike the one in the anime Psycho-Pass), where a governing AI and its human agents are stymied by an encounter with a mind they can’t read — and ended up staying for a literary mindfuck of Pynchonesque proportions. Recommended, but don’t be in a hurry.
I’ve now started reading Mike Monteiro’s Ruined by Design, and can’t wait to get started on the new William Gibson novel, Agency. I think my favorite Gibsons are Pattern Recognition and The Peripheral, and this seems to be along similar lines.
It’s now a few days later and I’ve quit reading Ruined by Design. It’s not that I disagree with the central premise; maybe the opposite. There are certainly designers in the world who don’t think or yet know that changing their organizations from the inside-out to be more ethical and responsible is part of the job, and maybe it takes a couple hundred pages of hitting the point over and over to get them onboard. I just stopped getting anything else out of it past the opening, and stuck around until the 70% mark to be sure. The author mentions structuring your presentations like an inverted pyramid, the way journalists are trained to do, leading with your best bits to get your audience’s precious attention, so I guess the book itself puts that into practice.
This year’s Chinese New Year celebrations have been a little muted, both at home and abroad. Putting aside the nCoV outbreak in the headlines, it just feels different now, like an idea that has almost run its course. The build up to this has taken place over a few years, but it’s certainly palpable now.
My parents’ generation is getting tired of organizing everything, and mine doesn’t care about observing traditions in the same way. The virus has provided a reason for canceling some of the get-togethers, but they were being scaled down anyway. Even Apple’s annual CNY shot-on-iPhone film/ad lacks its usual artistry this time around. I don’t know if it’s the 60fps look, the fact that they shot many scenes handheld, or the Smart HDR effect, but it feels more on the cheap side rather than cinematic.
Speaking of change and the fading of old ways, over at my workplace, we’ve just put out our annual trends report. It’s compiled with the input of some 1,200 employees in 33 studios, so the results should be a nearly fair representation of the global design climate. The running theme across all seven trends? Many of the fundamentals underlying daily life are being put on notice as we ponder the definition of value as consumers and consumed in an increasingly turbulent world.
One trend, called Digital Doubles, touches upon the idea of personal datasets so rich that we’ll appoint them as digital proxies for our own choices and behaviors, sort of like how you can tell a robo-advisor how much risk you’d happily tolerate before letting them go trade and rebalance your portfolios. At this point, I’m several chapters into Gibson’s Agency and one of its main threads concerns an AI product designed to do exactly that.
“but he described the product, that’s you, as a cross-platform, individually user-based, autonomous avatar. Target demographic power-uses VR, AR, gaming, next-level social media. Idea’s to sell a single unique super-avatar. Kind of a digital mini-self, able to fill in when the user can’t be online.”
As a story, the way it moves is unlike anything I can remember reading. Laugh out loud funny at times; very insightful about life and love; peppered with sentimental, inspirational schmaltz; and also a fast-paced page turner. It’s some kind of sorcery. It’ll make you sad and lonely, but also take you to a place where it doesn’t matter.
Reviewed The Humans by Matt Haig.