Morning hours

From the window, coffee in hand, I look out onto the rooftops of Tai Hang and appreciate those who rose early. On three laundry is already hung, drifting in the eight am breeze. These are Hong Kong’s beauty days, when windows are open and the sky is clear. For a few weeks in November and most of March and April, the weather lingers on a setting between too hot and long sleeves but not much else required. It’s a time to do workouts on rooftops, or in parks, and to go on long hikes to explore abandoned villages. These pursuits will become unbearable in May, and remain so until almost the year’s end.

In these gifted weeks I try especially to rise early, to look out, and to enjoy the freedom of the weather. Squish joins me, watching pigeons and napping in the sunbeams. Soon those beams will be too hot and he will instead nap under sofas, pressed against the concrete. For now though we luxuriate in the open, and the fan blows fine fur in strange arcs as it oscillates. The sky is a clear blue, all the way to Shenzhen, a reminder of our horrid impact on it in better economic times. As always, I wish for the death of the automobile, partially for the view and partially for the noise. Seven stories up, windows open, I can hear people, their odd bangs and crashes as they open shops, unpack cartons, and unload trucks. But mostly what I hear is cars, trucks, and busses. They are wildly louder than all other activities, and a constant presence. One day children, when listening to a recording in a museum, will be astonished at the sound of internal combustion, and react in disbelief that our lives were full of such noise pollution. Until then I wait, and try to rise early to listen to the birds. Cities are full of life and animals, of course. They’re just hard to notice over the cars.

Back to the Mac, part 3

Occasionally I try to remember things I used to write about. Recently I’ve become unemployed, and thus re-visited my custom Mac install. The strangest thing about frequent startup failures is that I am left with a plethora of computers.

Here, then, are my thoughts on software for them, updated to the Spring of 2020. It’s as good a thing as any to write about instead of thinking about the world situation.

Due to the above circumstances, I have two Macs, a much-loved and little-used 13” MacBook Pro 2015, top of the line, bought second-hand when I left my job and started consulting in 2017. I love that laptop, the last MacBook Pro with ports, a magsafe power adapter, and a good keyboard. It is still my favorite Mac ever made, a title I hope it doesn’t hold forever.

The other Mac is the kind of gift we hope not to get. A 2016 13” Touchbar MBP, it has the absurd specs of a well-funded IT department, 16 gb of RAM and a 1 TB SSD, the kind of specs that seem good now but were quite expensive when it was handed to me my first day at Anki in May 2017.

As to the install I still espouse minimalism, and try to go long periods of time without touching the defaults just to see if I can. The most amusing part of the prior list is how little it has changed in seven years. The sad part is the explosion of messaging clients, a poorly-maintained and fragmented app situation I wouldn’t wish on my 2013 self who only had to hate the odd interactions between Skype and Lync.

  1. Dropbox - I’ve started paying for Dropbox, after a decade of being a free user. Support what you love, I say, and after using Google Drive, One Drive, and Box at various startups over the past few years, I really love Dropbox.
  2. 1Password - There’s still an app-only purchase, not a subscription, and so that’s how I continue to use it, sync’d to Dropbox. A must either way, and I hope the recent VC cash infusion doesn’t change the company.
  3. Little Snitch - Still perfect, still made by a small German company, still an early part of my Mac set up
  4. Office - As before, installed only for Excel, which remains my must-have work app.
  5. LaunchBar - On work Macs I skip this, just to see, but once the Mac becomes mine eventually LaunchBar is necessary. Every time I’m shocked I lived without it. More than 15 years now of being a critical app.
  6. Fantastical - Again, installed mainly for the menu bar item.
  7. Ulysses - Now a Mac App Store version, still where everything I write, including this post, starts.
  8. 1Blocker - As far as I can tell this is the best Safari ad blocker.
  9. Soulver - I really love this app, a quick calculator that somehow is smarter than Excel and simpler than a calculator. It’s one of my top 5 iPhone apps, and the new version 3 for Mac is incredibly nice.
  10. ExpressVPN - Living abroad and spending a lot of time in China, a VPN is mandatory. Express is the best I’ve found for the situations I’m in, and I’ve been a customer for years.
  11. Slack - I use this begrudgingly due to it’s huge resource load, poor adherence to Mac standard interface items, and awful propensity to take over focus repeatedly on launch.
  12. Zoom - Likewise begrudgingly used due to their horrible security, propensity for hiding useful preferences on a web page, and willingness to sacrifice everything for growth. This shouldn’t be a surprise, there’s an entire job in Silicon Valley called Growth Hacker’.
  13. Signal - While not perfect, Signal is excellent and getting better every day. The only app I proselytize now.
  14. Whatsapp - Another annoying Electron-based chat app that unfortunately is the social mainstay in Hong Kong.
  15. Wechat - The worst of all the chat apps in terms of adhering to good design principles, but likewise critical for conversations with suppliers and friends in China.
  16. Tweetbot - I use Twitter a lot less lately, but Tweetbot is still the only functional way to do so.

There are others, edge cases, but those are the apps on this Mac that see regular use. What has changed since 2013, when I wrote the first version of this list? Two big things:

  1. Most of the software I love I pay for. The first 10 items on this list all cost me money. This, in my 2020 opinion, is a good thing, as it means the people may still be making it when I update this list next. For a lot of these apps I’ve been paying for a long time. I started using Ulysses in 2003, LaunchBar in 2006 if not before, 1Password, Fantastical, and Soulver in the iPhone era.
  2. Chat apps are the problem. The list above contains 5 chat apps, all of which overlap in functionality and are on a system which already includes Messages and Facetime, both of which I use regularly. The swelling of this category was hard to predict in the Adium era of standards-based services that could be aggregated. I desperately wish the same were still true. Without much hope for that, I’m working hard to move my life to Signal/iMessage for personal, and Wechat for China. Whatsapp/Slack/Zoom remain a must due to Hong Kong and work, but I’d prefer to abandon all three. Unfortunately I hold out little hope for this category’s improvement, given the drivers behind each app’s growth.

Between day and night

In the fall of two thousand four two foreign boys played hacky sack in Xujiahui Park most days. They were free from worry, barely employed and frequently lost amid the whirl of Shanghai’s boom years. In clothes they had owned for years, t-shirts still from college that ended at the turn of the century, they kicked a knitted ball back and forth for hours. Gradually, as with all things, they grew better, their bodies gathering memory. They learn stalls, and behind the back saves. They were able to play for longer at a time, to control the game so that passers by do not interrupt, that the odd pedestrian unaware of their connection did not block a return. Every day they moved around the park to avoid children on rollerblades who loved the circular areas, or couples on dates who liked the secluded bench spots. Frequently they ended up near the older folks who rested near the entrance in the afternoons, a wide spread of flagstone that was transformed into a dancefloor in the early evenings. These older folks, the retired workers of pre-boom Shanghai, who had seen things the two boys from the US could not imagine, were happy to share their space. They taught the boys Mandarin, word by word.

In twenty twenty, three foreigners played ping pong in Victoria Park on most afternoons in February and March. With schools closed and all three unemployed, the tables became a meeting ground. These three were frequently joined on the other table by a group of local children, and their parents. The kids rode scooters and practiced incredible spin serves, chased each other and played games on their phones. Occasionally, when other adults used one of the two tables, they played with the foreigners, in pairs of all combinations. As always, practice made everyone better, and the daily ritual gave some anchor in a world without timetables or meetings. Ping pong also brought laughter, of poor serves or incredible returns. Occasionally the children taught the foreigners Cantonese, one word at a time.

A decade and a half later our lives have not changed so much. The cities are different, the sports and languages vary, and we age as any other. Yet the peace of spending our afternoons unemployed and in the park in a country not our own has not lessened, and the joy of being welcomed, being part of a community has greatly grown. Habits like these, small bits of exercise in public, are some of the moments we remember longest, after new jobs have come and swept away our afternoons. We are lucky, then, to re-discover them, and lucky to have this break to make them new.

Future imperfect

Apartments in North Point

During the last global crisis, the financial one, I took two years off and wrote a novel. The timing was luck, my own plans scheduled without advance knowledge of the rough stretch ahead. Regardless, I spent the first year of the economy’s downturn riding a bicycle around Houston, writing and living the simple life of one without worries or plans. The second year was harder, in San Francisco, the novel’s first draft complete and the need for future income growing clear. Doubling our rent in the move may have had something to do with the later.

The novel, still sitting unread on this hard drive, was about a world without air travel, and the story of a couple separated by the cessation. Like the years of my life that gave rise to the story, it was set half in China and half in the US. These last few weeks as the sound of an airplane overhead startles, for they have become rare, I am sucked back to those months of imagining such a world. Sitting on the terraces of Rice University I would linger on the idea, trying to deduce what else would struggle in a world without flights. Food supply chains would lurch inconsistently, I guessed, if flights were truly impossible. Air freight as a whole. The speed of things, of post and parcel and people all together would be reduced.

These were the guesses of a younger man, born of the peak oil debate and the belief in national selfishness once the end became apparent. They were made while riding a BMX to Fiesta to buy cheap produce, or beers for fifty cents at the student bar. They were guesses based on weeks spent in third and fourth tier cities in China while living in Shanghai. They were guesses based on lots of reading in a variety of directions. Fiction writing is like that, I think. It’s the act of putting together all the feelers we have out into the world, all the tingles about which way things might go, and telling a story based on living through them. It’s less about projecting the future than, for me, imagining what that future will do to what people care about.

Today, an airplane goes overhead and I stare up at it in wonder. The wonder isn’t new, I’ve been watching airplanes since I was a child in upstate New York, mowing lawns and wondering where those people overhead were going. Today the wonder is that people are going, that airplanes are flying. The sound has become a surprise and a reminder of something I love, of a world I adore. Airplanes, whose climate effects I worry about and work to offset in other ways, are still magical to me. They connect us across huge distances, across oceans and borders. Without air travel the world would be a worse place. Without going and seeing, without feeling, the world is a little harder to share, a little less likely to be understood. The internet can only bring us so close, and as today shows, once air travel is gone, the closing of a border is an easy move.

And so, here in the new crisis, in a time of deep uncertainty and tragedy, of death and eventually starvation, I hold out hope that we come through this, that we take care of each other. I hope that we build a better world out of the tragedies of the current one, and that we are one day again able to fly.

Interesting times

Hospital view

From the hospital bed I can see the tops of towers. The dawn sun rises over the green hill behind them, a slow brightening of the world and my room. The view feels odd, perhaps due to the painkillers and lack of sleep, or perhaps due to the world. With little to do until the doctor’s rounds around nine, I work on relaxing each part of my body, starting with the lungs. This slowing of each portion is my way of putting myself back to sleep. It’s an ability formed in the childhood years of asthma attacks but not truly appreciated until years later, when healing other injuries. Now it is as comforting as anything, and I doze restlessly until seven, when the phone rings. My painkillers are on an eight am and eight pm cycle, at least the pill ones, and so by seven I’m beginning to miss them. The IV drip is noticeably not enough alone.

On the other end of the phone my boss is on his way home, in San Francisco. The all-encompassing virus is mandating work from home, and life, in his description, sounds even more surreal than I already feel. A few moments into our conversation, after the pleasantries, he lets me know it’s no longer an employer/ee relationship. The rest of the conversation is cordial, save for the growing ache in my shoulder. Eventually it ends, and I wait in the almost daylight for the nurse to bring relief. I have nothing else to do.

The end of things, I have written, comes suddenly, but without terrible surprise. So it feels this time, the echoes of one startup’s failure have lingered into the chances of the next in my mind, so that I am not surprised. In fact the similarities are so specific that that the differences are what disappear, and I feel uncertain of many things. Luckily I have little to do but breathe and try to sleep, and a shoulder worth of pain to distract my brain from deeper thoughts.