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 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 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.

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 7.21

  • It was Chinese New Year this week. Some of us at work did a little side project for it in our spare time. We try to make little things we can send to our global sister studios in the network, sort of like greeting cards. For Christmas we made a playlist. This time, we made Choose Your Own Reunion at CNYdinner.com, a sort of game where you have to plan your family’s reunion dinner menu or face the wrath of a cute old Chinese grandma.
  • If you get to the end, you can access a credits screen showing the people involved. I wrote some of grandma’s nastier comments, but they volunteered and drew all the art, designed the screens, and built the damned thing all on their own time. They’re treasures.
  • In real life, it’s the first time in my memory there hasn’t been a Chinese New Year reunion dinner, save for those student years I was away. A year ago, we had our usual large family affair at a restaurant and mentioned the new virus that might be like another SARS. At the time, no one was saying you needed a mask unless you already felt ill and wanted to protect others. It was hard then to imagine an employer telling everyone not to come in. It was implausible that leisure travel could come to a standstill, or that buffet-style dining would be forbidden. Unthinkable that millions would die, although the numbers are hard to comprehend here where we’ve been relatively lucky.
  • As callous as it sounds, when things escalated with lockdowns and working from home in the following weeks and months, I was excited by the newness of the terror and change. I think that sustained my energy for many months while others became depressed and worn down by everything.
  • A year later, I think it’s finally catching up to me. I’m feeling like it’s time to slow down before I come to a complete stop not of my own accord. It would be much harder to get moving again from zero. I’m so tired these days. I think I need new terror, or wonder, or sleep.
  • I also got into the closed beta for Dispo 2.0, which I’ve been excited for since I heard it was being made. I’ll put my thoughts in a separate post, but you can follow me on there as “blee” if you want.

Week 31.20

  • 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.