Week 15.22: Location apps

I’ve been a user of Foursquare, and then Swarm, for many years. Since November 2009, says my profile page. I know that I’m giving an advertising company too much information about my location, movements, and preferences. But there’s definitely a value exchange here. Without this “lifelog”, I couldn’t remember everywhere I’ve been, or the last time I was at such and such a place. And there have been occasions where I was able to, quite magically, summon the name of a great restaurant in another city and immediately see how it’s been doing since, so that I could recommend it to a friend.

I’ve been a fan of location-based apps and social networks since maybe 2006 or 2007, when I got my first Nokia that qualified as a smartphone. I especially recall an app named Brightkite that existed briefly. It allowed for serendipitous moments like going to a foreign country and seeing tips and reflections left around the city (maybe in your hotel!) by a friend who’d come the same way years before. Swarm still allows for this experience today, and it evokes a kind of love.

One day, Brightkite malfunctioned and read my GPS location as being in Tokyo, just for a moment. I think it allowed me to see people and their check-ins in the mistakenly assumed area, and so I interacted with some of them… giving them stars or a follow or whatever. One such stranger became part of my permanent friends’ list, and when I migrated to Foursquare, she ended up on my list there too. It’s now over a decade later, and we are still weirdly and peripherally aware of each other’s lives, on Swarm and Instagram, without ever having spoken. It’s a distanced closeness that could only happen with the internet. Once, when I happened to be visiting Tokyo on holiday, we were both checked in around the Ginza area at the same time. We may have crossed paths; I’ll never know.

Screenshot of the Superlocal app, taken off their website

This week, an app called Superlocal came to my attention via a crypto/web3 newsletter called Milk Road that’s worth subscribing to, if that’s your thing. Suoerlocal seems like an attempt to remake Swarm with a new revenue model. Like many web3 ventures, instead of selling your data to advertisers, it tries to support itself by being intrinsically financial: checking in and providing quality photos earns you tokens called LOCAL (which may someday have value), and being the mayor of a place doesn’t only earn you derision/respect, but also some LOCAL whenever people check in. How does money enter the ecosystem? Becoming the mayor of a place means minting an NFT for it. It’s currently in an early access phase, which also requires an NFT (or invite from a friend) to gain entry.

I have mixed feelings about all this, as I do with NFTs and web3 in general. We should definitely explore new business models and build services that don’t rely on users making a privacy compromise. If a small group of super engaged users can fund the experience on behalf of everyone, and be happy doing it, all the better. But at least in this iteration, we’re just trading one problem for another. For instance, holding a bunch of mayorship NFTs in your Ethereum wallet doxxes your location and behaviors too, and probably in a worse way because they’re public for anyone (instead of just Foursquare Inc. and a couple hundred of their favorite clients) to see. This stems from the poor privacy design of Ethereum, of course, but it’s now the biggest smart contract blockchain so what are gonna do? There are still so many things that need to be done differently for this technology to scale and be safe and easy enough for everyone to use. That means I don’t believe Superlocal is going to become ubiquitous any time soon, but hopefully we’ll all learn what and what not to do as they keep building.

Until then, I’ll still be checking in on Swarm.

PS: I’ve been told about the virtues of using Google Maps’ Timeline, which also lets you keep a log of your movements each day, but without the social and gamey elements. I tried it briefly, but it was less fun, and I’ve been quite successful so far in cutting all the Google out of my life. Yes, I’m aware my rules seem arbitrary and illogical.


Media activity:

  • Finally finished the book How To Do Nothing after about two months, which isn’t the positive review it appears to be. I found it such a joyless and obtuse slog that I fought myself every time I thought to pick it up and finish it. And because I have a dumb rule about not reading two books at the same time, that blockage has fucked up my Goodreads annual challenge for the year. A lot of catching up to do and I don’t think I will.
  • Started a new book anyway, Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief, which is billed as Oceans Eleven meets The Farewell.
  • Watched Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile. Dreadful. He’s done some work in the past that I truly loved, but this has little to recommend it. The art direction is slipshod, with CGI background compositing that looks straight out of the CD-ROM FMV games era, and the radioactive Armie Hammer is in one of the lead roles. Branagh’s Poirot is also mysteriously unlikable and inconsistent, with a couple of rude and temperamental outbursts that feel like if Superman suddenly gave someone on the street a middle finger.
  • Severance on Apple TV+ is not dreadful. Mild spoilers follow. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed, and the first episode takes awhile to get going, but it’s really excellent. This despite veering a little close to corny with some scenes on the “severed floor”. The sinister, faux 70s megacorp with forced cheerfulness felt copped from the environmental storytelling of games like Portal, Fallout, and Bioshock, and maybe the Dharma Initiative out of Lost.
  • Now out on Apple Arcade is Gear.Club Stradale which was teased during their last online event, and I’m very much enjoying it with my Backbone One gamepad. The original Gear.Club was an okay free-to-play racer on iOS which was later released on the Nintendo Switch as a premium game (no in-app purchases). It also got a sequel on consoles, but I don’t know how that went. This new iteration is streamlined: it’s all set in Italy, and the UI lets you move quickly around the workshop and upgrade your cars without having to fiddle around in too many submenus. Instead of the usual giant catalog with tons of cars to swipe through, a small selection of up to three cars for sale, refreshed daily. This is a superior design for a game intended to be played in short bursts over a period of time. Ping me if you want to join my crew!

Week 4.22

First, some bad news. The Shake Salad vending machine that was meant to propel me back to better health… has vanished from the neighborhood. I suppose it didn’t make enough money to pass the trial, despite my best efforts at propping it up. Back to hot dogs and fried chicken, then.

And speaking of food in the neighborhood, one of the best restaurants near us is closing down, so that’s another option gone, although it was always on the pricier end and more of a nice night out kinda place. We paid it a final visit earlier in the week and it was full (on a weekday). A shame they couldn’t make it work.


I sold a couple more Misery Men NFTs and decided to get slightly more serious about the project. I’d started off playing with NFTs as a technological format, but needed to draw stuff to make it happen. Eventually that’s led to me becoming more invested in the drawing part, and now it seems a shame if that’s all these are. I know some people who don’t know anything about crypto but like the characters anyway. Since I’m having fun larping as an artist, it seemed time to expand horizons.

The first step was to stop posting on my own Instagram account, which led to setting up a new dedicated account which you may now follow at @misery.men.

Wondering what the next step should be, I thought it would be great to make some real-world merchandise. The last time I did this was back in my university days, offering some questionable t-shirt designs off CafePress. Obviously the dropshipping landscape has exploded since then, so I should be able to start pretty quickly, right?

I looked into it on Thursday and went with Printful, one of the larger operations. However, they don’t actually offer you a storefront; they’re just the backend fulfilling your orders, although they can interface with your platform of choice e.g. Shopify or Squarespace. Since those come with regular monthly costs, I decided to go with Etsy, which I always thought was a sort of handicraft eBay. Turns out you can sell anything there, and Printful will handle the heavy lifting (and shipping).

The Misery World™ Etsy shop was up and running by the end of the day with a handful of products I’d put together using the existing artwork. Oh wait, that’s not accurate. Logotype needed producing, and a couple of art-inclined friends/colleagues kindly reached out to give feedback. Unsolicited, if that gives you any idea of how disquieting the initial version must have looked to professional eyes.

On Friday, in need of a URL to point both the new Instagram and Shop to, and a site to hold it all together (this domain didn’t seem like the right place), I bought the MiseryMen.com domain and set up a landing page and blog. That’s practically a new brand and sales channel set up in 48 hours with just a double-digit capital outlay. What a world we live in.

I’ve made one product sale so far, and hey, as a struggling and unknown creator, that’s nearly made the whole exercise worth it! 🥲


On Saturday, we popped over to the Keppel Distripark area to take in S.E.A. Focus, an exhibition that was part of Singapore Art Week 2022. There was an NFT gallery sponsored by Tezos, how à la mode. I took some pictures so I wouldn’t have to talk about my feelings.


Media activity:

  • Not a whole lot! I guess it was more of a creative week than a consumptive one.
  • Some more Disco Elysium…
  • A few episodes of a TV show that I’ll talk more about when I can…
  • A British crime drama on Netflix called Paranoid that’s just okay…
  • And listening to Utada Hikaru’s new album Bad Mode, which has greatly exceeded my cautiously lowered expectations. It’s good to see them continue to work and put out what they want.

Week 33.21

Am not really in the mood to write a post this week and have been playing music and shuffling around the room for half an hour to avoid it. I say this as acknowledgement that it’s not always fun or easy to keep traditions up, but we often do anyway. Even if nobody cares whether we succeed or not. We’re simply accountable to our own past decisions and future retrospectives.

~

Rather than continue reading Firebreak this week, I looked into a few topics I’ve been feeling ignorant of: what’s going on with social tokens? What do people mean exactly when they say “metaverse”, since they can’t literally imagine it’s Snow Crash, (insert Princess Amidala face) right? And how exactly do NFTs and proprietary platforms fit into the theory of a unified metaverse? I’ve still got lots to learn about both, but I found this account of large European football clubs participating in Socios very surprising; I had no idea the tokenization of entertainment franchises was already a reality for some football fans, and it makes sense that this would be a much smoother gateway to digital assets for most people than cartoon animals trading for thousands millions of dollars. On the metaverse topic, I found this 9-part essay by Matthew Ball that was recommended by many to be an enjoyable and very helpful read.

Twitter updated their design language, changing the font I look at for hours each day. I think I’m already used to it. To the chagrin of many users on my timeline, they also flipped the logic behind displaying buttons as either filled or outlined. It personally didn’t bother me past the first 30 seconds.

I then had a brief conversation with some colleagues who build out design language systems for digital products. It occurred to me that teams today already have their hands full managing 2D screen-based designs, and the transition to an XR spatial future will probably explode the complexity of design systems as they are currently defined, and call for the further melding of multiple domains like branding, architecture, industrial/interface/interaction design, accessibility, visual communications. It might be an opportunity to tear up much of the bland, homogenous work we see now. I see this as a challenge for anyone recruiting to do design for enterprise/late-stage products. Who’d want to keep fiddling with round rects when the most interesting work is just around the corner?

~

Now that some Beatles’ remasters are available on Apple Music with Dolby Atmos, I listened to Abbey Road and Sergeant Pepper’s on my AirPods Max. Never mind if it’s wrong; they sound so right. The spatial separation of each instrument helps you better appreciate what they did on those albums.

Amazon Prime Video somehow got worldwide rights for all four Rebuild of Evangelion films, including the newest installment which never got a chance to screen here. I’ve been eager to see it, but there’s just so much homework to do first. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but I saw all three previous Rebuild films in cinemas starting in 2007. They are now just an ancient, jumbled mess in my memory. Online guides recommend watching the entire 26-episode TV series on Netflix first, followed by the original movie, and THEN the four new films which are do-overs (but also maybe part of a meta-textual narrative on repetition and iteration?!) I decided to jump straight into the new films first, and pick up with the series on Netflix where I left it midway later, maybe.

I’ve now seen the first three. What a depressing and senseless and infuriating but beautiful journey so far. One left to go, and it’s supposedly the best one. I’m lost half the bloody time. 3.0 in particular is a cautionary tale of what can go wrong if you don’t get crisis comms to survivors right, and they end up becoming your enemy. It’s PR training in pretentious anime clothes.

You can’t be watching sci-fi biomech bible allegories all the time, so I also saw two Liam Neeson action films this week: The Commuter and Non-Stop. The former is about an ex-cop who has to play a bit of sleuthing on a train, and the latter is about an ex-cop who has to stop murders on a plane. They’re both by director Jaume Collet-Sera (who’s just done Disney’s Jungle Cruise) and I find their existence fascinating. He’s done two other films with Neeson, Unknown and Run All Night and I don’t think life would be complete without seeing them too.

Week 29.21

  • Don’t try this at home: Kim is away in the UK this week; not the most advisable travel idea. Cases there are rising sharply and I oop, I suppose the same could be said for Singapore. A couple of clusters have formed around illegal KTV operations (the comedy of that phrase!) and a fisheries port, which has led to fishmongers and wet markets across the country becoming danger zones. We had 88 local cases on Sunday, the highest since August last year. For the record, the UK had about 56,000 cases on Saturday alone. The mind boggles.
  • So until she gets back and clears the quarantine process 🤞, I’m on a sort of Sabbatical+, where I have more freedom to eat junk food and play games well into the night. I didn’t leave the house all weekend and it was the best.
  • I finished Root Film on the Switch, and while I still enjoyed it on the whole, it became needlessly convoluted and improbable in the final acts. Pick it up on sale maybe, but bear in mind it offers no challenge whatsoever. In any case, Root Film was always going to be the appetizer for the two games under Nintendo’s Famicom Detective Club banner, which I’ll try to buy and play next.
  • Thanks to the NYT’s SF Summer reading list curated by Amal El-Mohtar, I discovered the joys of the CatNet series (just two books at the moment). Catfishing On CatNet is the first, essentially about teens hanging out in online chat rooms and getting pulled into an adventure, and it was so much fun that I blazed through it in about a day.
  • I then missed hanging out in chat rooms so much I decided to give Discord another try and joined a few servers. The quality of conversation in most was a step down from what I remember of IRC in the early days of the net. Then, spending time in chats was a main attraction, not an alleyway off the main boulevard of social media. So I was disappointed until I found a server dedicated to older people, a distasteful category I now find myself in. Ah! There, I found people speaking in complete sentences and actually communicating with one another. I may continue this.
  • I saw Black Widow and felt it unnecessary and stupid. I’m kinda over Marvel the way I’m over Star Wars, except the first episode of Loki on Disney+ worked well with the pairing of Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson — I thought I’d be annoyed by his usual mannerisms but it’s actually been a long time and we’re in a pandemic, so you do your thing Owen, we’re here for it.
  • Installed iPadOS 15 Public Beta 3 on my main iPad. Haven’t run into any issues yet, and I’m relieved at finally being able to customize my home screens with only the icons and widgets I want, leaving everything else in the App Library. You can also have two of the same app icons up as well, so I have Photos on my first Home Screen but also on the page I’ve dedicated to photo editing apps a few swipes away. It’s the little things!
All in a day’s work with Dreams
  • A feeling of being useless, sitting around consuming all the time without making anything, has been fermenting and I’ve consciously allowed it. Over the weekend, I made it my mission to begin prototyping a game I’ve had in mind for awhile, let’s give it a code name… Feline Fiddler? Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage was going to be where I’d learn the basics and try to start, but upon investigation, you have to use its built-in asset library, and if you can’t find what you need in there, too bad. So I ultimately went with Dreams on the PS4, and oh boy, is it a stupendously powerful tool for 3D modeling, animation, and visualization.
  • On Saturday, I started playing the demo game project that comes as part of it, Art’s Dream, which showcases what you can do with it. And then started doing a few tutorials. By Sunday afternoon, I was able to assemble something close to the scene I had in my head using models others have built and shared on the platform, light it, and walk around in it with a character. And it’s all achievable on a PS4! I don’t see any reason why there couldn’t be something like this on iPads, apart from the App Store rules. Maybe Roblox is something like this? I should check it out…

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.

➟ How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood

Alexis Madrigal, for The Atlantic:

What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented.

Using large teams of people specially trained to watch movies, Netflix deconstructed Hollywood. They paid people to watch films and tag them with all kinds of metadata. This process is so sophisticated and precise that taggers receive a 36-page training document that teaches them how to rate movies on their sexually suggestive content, goriness, romance levels, and even narrative elements like plot conclusiveness.

The data can’t tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making. When they create a show like House of Cards, they aren’t guessing at what people want.

What a huge undertaking, and a demonstration of Amazon-like patience for a company like Netflix—slowly, quietly, build a long-view competitive advantage in technology and process that becomes impossible for others to copy, and that eventually enables a whole new range of products that are themselves hard to compete with.

This sort of rich metadata is what I’d expect IMDB to have, but a categorization exercise of so much subjective material benefits from the guidance of a single hand, while self-policing committees take much too long.