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 14.21

  • We had some massive storms this week, he said interestingly. And apart from a lunch out with my parents where my lack of dialect reading ability led to me confusing a fish noodle order with the beef noodles we really wanted, it’s been mostly a passive (media consumption) week outside of work.
  • Oh, and I changed this blog’s theme, for those of you reading outside of the RSS feed.
  • I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which has been on my Goodreads shelf since 2017. It took the better half of a day this long weekend, and I mostly could have done without it. Minor spoiler alert. I found it too derivative of many other post-apocalyptic survival stories, with the added belief-suspending flaw of having most characters improbably linked. There’s even a significant portion devoted to survivors camped in an airport, which reminded me too much of Douglas Coupland’s Player One which I read last year and also rated two stars to.
  • As a palate cleanser, I’ve just started Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and I already have no fucking idea what I’ve gotten myself into. Which is to say I’m loving it.
  • Apple Arcade took a big leap forward and this new content direction feels like the next step in Arcade’s evolution (or the last, if you’re cynical and think that Apple would retire something that wasn’t performing — they’d cancel a HomePod but would they cancel a service?)
  • I spent about an hour with FANTASIAN, the new game from both the creator and composer of Final Fantasy, which is a huge coup for an Apple exclusive. It feels on brand as hell for them, so I don’t expect to see it through to the end (never have), although it’s quite beautiful. We also played SongPop Party for awhile, and it’s good fun. I’m also looking forward to trying the new Star Trek game, and Platinum’s World of Demons, which was cancelled in beta years ago and then secretly revived for Apple Arcade. Oh, and Taiko no Tatsujin! And CLAP HANZ GOLF! And The Oregon Trail remake! There’s just so much.
  • While checking out one of the larger streaming service’s overseas catalog via ah… VPN, we discovered Gogglebox, a UK reality show where you watch people watching TV. It’s brilliant. On one hand, it condenses an entire week of British news, drama, and game show programming into an hour-long highlights reel of just the best bits. On the other, you get entertaining commentary from groups of friends and family sitting in their own living rooms — entertaining on account of their reactions (sarcasm, ignorance, delight, horror) and their individual relationships and stories which slowly become apparent to the viewer. It’s like the Terrace House panel, but for regular TV, and I can’t get enough.
  • Two albums on rotation this week:
  • The Shave Experiment EP by Q is falsetto-laden, lofi R&B with lots of electric guitar and analog effects, which is hit and miss for me most times; I can’t stand some Steve Lacey, but kinda liked Omar Apollo, etc. Q’s take on it seems to be right in the sweet spot for me.
  • Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra defies categorization. It’s a somewhat-minimal piece of ambient or jazz music lasting 46 minutes, in 9 movements, centered around a saxophone, with occasional strings and other sounds, held together by one single gentle piano riff that just repeats throughout the whole thing like a mindworm.

Week 13.21

It was a four-day work week but things were so hectic it didn’t feel like one at all. We took Monday off and went to check out Carne, the new-in-town burger joint that’s been getting the hype treatment on account of its ties to a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in France. Regretfully, it was only good and not great. Maybe because we had the new chimichurri burger exclusive to Singapore, which didn’t really leave the beef any room to impress. Maybe they’re still sorting out kinks. Maybe I’m a pleb. The disappointment reminded me of how everyone else loved Omakase Burger but I just couldn’t understand why. I’ll give them another chance many months from now.

Afterwards, with the afternoon wide open, we decided to visit the zoo and use our “Singapore ReDiscovers” vouchers — S$100 government stimulus checks aimed at boosting domestic tourism. It had been a long while since I last visited, and the layout resembled nothing in memory. We spent about three hours wandering about in very sunny, humid conditions, but it was a pretty relaxing change from the everyday (animal captivity notwithstanding). On reflection, it was also a welcome break from the usual weekday routine of staring at screens. Maybe that’s the role overseas holidays really played, back when they could be taken: looking at new things, in the absence of screens, when one would normally be at work. Do this more!

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We ended the week getting a beer by the Singapore River, which was a lot quieter than it used to be. Brewerkz, for one, is doing a quarter of the business it would have on a Sunday evening in the past, if not less. Which was unexpected; many restaurants and bars in town look to be doing very well these days. Maybe the riverside area relied too much on expats, and some of them have gone home.

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I’m revisiting the records of Duke Ellington and Lester Young, two musicians I had on heavy rotation in my teens and 20s and then hardly played in recent times. I started with pretty mellow late night jazz tastes and then found comfort in frenetic discordance. That seems like such a long time ago, and putting them on now has that retro-transportative quality you sometimes get with music or scents if you’re lucky. It’s also fantastic that I am able to hear them in much higher quality today than I did back when a pair of PC speakers was what I played everything on.

Oh, remember those integrated “mini hi-fis” you would buy at the department store? I just looked some up and they’re still a thing! Sony makes a few, ranging from garish LED-equipped ones they must think appeal to the teens who grew up on Michael Bay’s Transformers, to sleeker units that might be silver-painted plastic if they’re anything like what I grew up with. But hey, I’d be delighted if you can get a good sounding system at those prices. For about the same price as Sonos units, these support Bluetooth/AirPlay with the added benefit of CD/DVD playback that one of Sony’s copywriters has absolutely no illusions about.

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I mostly read Saifedean Ammous’s The Bitcoin Standard in a day, with a bit of skimming. It’s a 10-chapter book that doesn’t get into Bitcoin until about Chapter 8, which is not the structure I would have chosen, but the long set-up is a pretty good primer on money and the history of gold as a currency.

Not having paid any attention during my economics classes (I failed), there were some ideas here I found interesting. Namely the connections between having a stable, global monetary standard and people having longer time horizons (or lower time preferences, as they’re called here) with which to approach their work and lives. He links the economic stability of the gold standard era to people investing in longer-term bets, which resulted in some of human history’s most significant advances in art and science, higher functioning family units, and even the preservation of world peace (up until WWI). It’s probably obvious to anyone who’s studied it, but I’d never considered the systemic effects of pegging a few currencies to a precious metal that way before.

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I read a tweet that said it’s not working hard that causes burnout. Teams can apparently burn out working normal hours on things that don’t feel worthwhile. I wonder if there’s a leisure equivalent of burn out, when you realize your hobbies are a waste of time. What happens then?

Week 12.21

I cracked it. The exercise code. The problem with going for evening walks after a day’s work is getting ready, pulling shorts and socks on, wearing a mask, all that jazz. Then picking entertainment: a podcast, a new album. Then a route. Then knowing when to turn back.

What if you could start your walk instantly, end after 15 mins or two hours, entirely up to how you felt, and be in the shower immediately after? What if you could walk anywhere in the world while COVID rages, and that was the entertainment baked right in?

That’s what I’ve been doing this week. The secret is in the massive catalog of first-person, stabilized, commentary-free walking videos on YouTube. Pop one on and stand in front of a large TV, walk on the spot, and that’s it. I’ve wandered shopping malls and basement food halls in Japan, walked along canals at sunset, and taken rainy evening walks while staying dry. The novelty of the visual content keeps your eyes and mind busy, and you can walk as fast or as slow as you want, regardless of who’s in your way. It solves every friction point I had with going on a walk, just without the fresh air and vitamin D benefits, but hey I’m a digital native. It’s okay.

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We went out one night this weekend for a special dinner, the kind that blows a couple of days’ wages at one go. Coincidentally, while discussing what a possible first vacation after the apocalypse might be, the Park Hyatt Tokyo was mentioned, with the visual reference of that bar scene from Lost In Translation. Of course. Not 20 minutes later, the chef comes over to present a course and talks about how he came up with it while guest helming a menu at the Park Hyatt Tokyo years ago, staying in the same suite that Bill Murray did while he was filming the very same film. That’s life, isn’t it: undoubtedly a computer simulation.

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A couple of new albums out this week. I’m looking forward to hearing more of Grouplove’s This Is This, having heard one song already. SOIL & “PIMP” SESSIONS’ The Essence of Soil is another predictably energetic jazz jam session. I had it on in the background but will need to spend more time with it. Tricky has released an EP with four guest remixes of songs from his last album, Fall To Pieces. His collaborators seem to have observed that the Tricky of today doesn’t sound quite like he used to, and have tapped into the frenetic chaotic energy of his earlier days. It’s probably not for everyone. Another case of more listening needed, when I get the time.

As I type this, I’ve put on Lana Del Ray’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club and goddamn, the first track is already stupendously lovely.

Earlier today, I heard all of Justin Bieber’s new album, Justice, from start to finish on the living room speakers. Not that I was particularly excited and wanted to put it ahead of all the above, but our neighbor had started practicing Adele’s Rolling In The Deep on her karaoke machine, JUST THAT ONE SONG over and over for about half an hour. I figured some modern pop production would drown it out, but Justice has a lot of quiet, anemic songs in the first half. Quite disappointing, although it does have Holy (which I put on my Best of 2020 playlist) and the new song Peaches works quite well.

Finally, For My Friends from UK-based Jacob Banks is well worth checking out. Across 8 songs in 25 minutes, his sound manages to combine stunningly beautiful R&B stylings, vocoders, swirling organs, rootsy rock sounds, and big guitar reverbs.

Not new, but I came across Vapor (2013) by Yosi Horikawa in a forum thread about AirPods Max. It’s an excellent electronic album for pushing your headphones, full of intricate details, a wide spatial mix, and full-bodied beats.

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The Snyder Cut was watched. We got through the first 3.5 hours in one sitting, but had to go out for dinner before the epilogue. Between this excess and the hollowness of Wonder Woman 1984, I don’t think I will ever want to watch another DC superhero movie. Hmm, okay I’ll admit I’m a little bit curious about Robert Pattison as Batman.

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The uneasy intimacy of work in a pandemic year — How capitalism and the pandemic destroyed our work-life balance.

I read this article on Vox yesterday, and it not only accurately describes what I’m/we’re currently experiencing, but also offers some frames that I hadn’t considered. As someone who thinks they welcome any opportunity to socialize less and stay home more, I was acutely unequipped to sense the encroachment of work into my personal headspace, distracted by the larger movements of personal time’s visible signifiers (no commuting, attending meetings from home, working off mobile devices) increasing and normalizing.

For as long as it was transforming in novel ways, packaged as a liberation, and had momentum amidst all this chaos, who would question the idea of placing work at the center of life under such circumstances? Who blessed with good health would even see the opportunity to do so, until it became too late?

What we’re left with is a situation in which workers in knowledge professions find ourselves thinking of work at all times, obsessing over it, devoting ourselves to it, even in our most private and intimate settings, even when we say we want to be thinking of other things. What is this experience, Gregg asks, but the experience of being in love?

“Classic definitions of love see the beloved as ‘the only important thing’ in life, compared to which ‘everything else seems trivial’ … leading to ‘the sense that one is in touch with the source of all value,’” Gregg writes. “A significant number of participants in this study spoke about work using language very similar to these tenets.”

Conflating the effects of overwork with being in love is an interesting idea to me, except it happens even when you’re not in love with the work. From what I can see, some of my friends experienced the above symptoms during the pandemic, but without any of the euphoria associated with love. These work thoughts that fill our waking and dreaming hours do not, as the saying goes, live rent free in our heads. The rent is too damn low, but we are charging nonetheless.

So is it a fair takeaway that knowledge work, when taken to an extreme, is just people being paid to live through a simulation of love? I think there’s a name for that. People like to jokingly use it when explaining their what they do for a living, but I guess it might be truer than you think.

[Ancient lamentation music playing]

Week 11.21

  • We put the Disney+ account to use this weekend by trying out a bunch of TV series that we’ll probably never resume, including The Orville (surprisingly high production values, but not very funny and a little time-wastey) and Empire (starting with the first season from 2015 is rough, it feels dated already). I also gave in and decided to give the Mandalorian a go. At least it looks expensive AND new.
  • Did I mention that we’ve started watching a derivative medical drama on Netflix called New Amsterdam? It started as mindless background TV, but its relentless (and satisfying) crisis-drama-relief formula exposes the gaps in pacing and focus that “better shows” have. Having spent most of her life watching series like this has given Kim the ability to call out all the plot points before they happen, whereas I’m still surprised by most of them. It’s seriously spooky, and I recommend her if any screenwriters need a consult.
  • Nothing’s too small to mention, so I’ll say that 7-Eleven Singapore has created a chicken katsudon onigiri which is a monstrosity I suppose, but it’s also quite good and the first onigiri they’ve made that’s good enough. It’s one of those round ones, topped with a NOT-OVERCOOKED layer of fried egg and onion, with a chunk of fried chicken in the middle.
  • The week was nothing to write home about. I went for one long evening walk that produced a couple of photos worth keeping. I had a little time for a triumphant return to Call of Duty Mobile. I heard the new songs from Utada Hikaru and Rosé and they didn’t knock me out. But thanks to the YouTube algorithm, I discovered a CALCULATOR COVER of Utada’s “One Last Kiss”, and the creator’s channel is full of them. When tech companies talk about unlocking human potential and ingenuity, I hope this is the sort of thing they mean because it’s awesome.

Week 10.21

  • Others may have been better informed, but I wasn’t expecting to ever see a sequel to Coming To America, a movie I watched many times as a kid (in censored form, I am now learning) and memorized a lot of lines from. But here one is, thanks to Amazon Prime Video. We rewatched the original and the sequel back to back, which was surreal because everyone’s aged for real. CGI and makeup in movies get you accustomed to a certain Oldbooth facsimile of aging, and what real life does to a face is just something different. Coming 2 America is more a fanservice celebration of the original than a new movie, and that’s fine. Its musical performances are very good, and I was very pleased with the final scene, I’ll say that much.
  • Went in to the office twice this week, which might be a new record. I’ll admit that collaborating in person can be a lot faster and less annoying. The audio compression and lag that Microsoft Teams introduces to speech feels unnatural; it also tends to cuts out whenever two people try to speak at the same time. Is it a side effect of noise canceling algorithms? Would it work better if everyone was on headphones? Successful, high bandwidth collaboration requires people being able to (sparingly) talk over each other at some point in time, I think.
  • I’ve mentioned being tired several times on this blog in the last few months, which must mean that I’ve done it countless times in real life. This year will be my 12th working without a break longer than a two-week vacation. I’ve noticed a lot of the people I follow talking about how exhausted and stressed they are, and I’m sure the feeling is going around. It’s probably a good idea to hit the brakes if/when you can. Pushing it for too long without stopping to learn and reboot only leads to working cynically, recycling old ideas, and chasing highs that are harder to come by until one day you’re suddenly out of touch and no use to anyone. I’ve wanted to go on a sabbatical for quite a while, and despite many reservations I think it’s the right move.
  • Inevitably, I’m wondering how much of my contentment is wound up in being useful to others. Even when I freelanced, I was ‘doing a good job’ regularly and acknowledged for it. Not doing anything at all, I might go crazy in a month. Or wind up even more upset?
  • To be fair, there was also quite a bit of social activity this week, which is a surefire way to wear me out. Either that or the attendant alcohol. I count four nights out and have the Dispo pictures to prove it.
  • Pete Yorn, who I’ve seen dismissed by some snobs but whose songs are carved into memory from my formative years, has a new covers album out called Pete Yorn Sings the Classics. These include Here Comes Your Man, More Than This, Lay Lady Lay, and Moon River. I’ve played it through once so far and am looking forward to hearing some of them again.