In and out of conversations

On a Saturday afternoon in the heat of June I hide in the shade and air-conditioning and think about what is next. As a friend said to me one evening in Dongguan some six years back, always do whatever’s next.” In short order I will. After weeks of conversations, I’m looking forward to the change. After a few months off, after surgery and healing, after weeks of playing ping pong in the park and video games in the afternoons, of going to happy hours and studying Mandarin on alternate evenings, I will once again have a job. For the first time since moving to Hong Kong in the fall of twenty eighteen, I will have an office. For the first time since the spring of twenty seventeen, I’ll have a team. The three and a half years in that sentence feels like a lifetime. I try to remember that boy, biking from Fruitvale station and eating hotdogs along the estuary at lunch, and am happy for him. From a distance I can clearly see the good in those days.

Over these past weeks, with a variety of friends, the threads of a single conversation became clear. What starts on meeting with rituals, questions about the current day, future plans, and recent shared activities, dives slowly to deeper topics. Jobs, first, and the challenges that surround them. How to handle a boss that won’t listen to a suggestion, or how to manage a request that can’t be completed. These are basic parts of modern life, and reveal so much about how humans treat each other. This languid survey of friends reveals those who have or have had decent relationships with their direct managers to be shockingly rare, one in five, one or two in ten. Buried in the commonalities of the stories, slowly revealed, is a shared desire to treat ourselves better and to develop empathy. As I wrote once about flying, any opportunity to reflect on our choices is an opportunity to treat each other better.

In so many ways we become who we are gradually, over years, the accumulation of hours at our chosen craft, the accumulation of hours in transit, moving from the person we were to the person we hope to be. Through trying new sports and learning from new friends, by studying for hours, and through teaching ourselves to solve problems, we gain new abilities and learn how to answer old questions. Through our experiences, better ones and worse ones, we learn better how to treat others, and what we hope for from leadership.

In other ways we are creatures of the immediate, reacting to the daily encounters and constantly in unfamiliar situations. In so many ways we are built on a series of sudden changes, job offers, injuries, and singular days of travel that forever shift what we will do, and where we have been. In these moments so much of our nature is both revealed and shaped. In moments of great disturbance we have the opportunity to become better, to change ourselves rapidly. For years the difference between these two types of change have fascinated me, the fast and the slow. As an early version of this site’s about page said, it’s the love of both that leads me to move so frequently and stay so long. Loving both the small rituals of daily routine and the rush of learning a new place, I am so happy to move, rather than just visit. Almost two years into Hong Kong I am both glad at how comfortable it feels and excited at how much more there is to learn. Once again I revise my baseline of time required in a place upwards. We have but scant years, and so much to learn.

Here then on this last weekend where the immediate future is uncertain I try to remember all I have learned since the last spate of time off, or the gap before that. I promise to try to follow through on the hopes of the shared conversations of the past few months, to be more of what we all hope for. And I try, on this last weekend, to make space for all that we will learn, when we do whatever’s next.

Parked car

In Hong Kong in June the temperature sits at 30º C well into the evening. Outside the public housing in Chung Sha Wan older men listen to the radio and fan themselves with newspapers, feet up on the table benches and flip flops sitting idly below. Across the street children do laps around a roller skating rink under lights. The humidity is here, a constant presence in this world where all wear masks out of doors, but by June it goes unremarked on, a fact of life.

Along the street taxis are starting to park as traffic slows. A couple of friends sit in their car, windows down, smoking and scrolling their phones. In dense communities the cars become another room, their location along a nearby street a minor inconvenience when everything is walkable and close. I walk into the station thinking about those friends.

In a parked car by the station
I am using my imagination

My street has a lot of parking, arranged parallel to the flow of traffic for greater density. In the evenings it is contested as access to a plethora of restaurants. Late nights it fills with taxis, and tired men wiping down the seats before heading home after a late shift. In between, in the evenings, it is a neighborhood of solitary smokers, of couples on dates and in fights, of individuals seeking space to surf the internet. These parked cars, windows on all sides, stationed in front of busy restaurants and 7-Elevens, with dozens of passers by at all times, are private spaces. Carved from public by the metal and glass, they are bubbles we have all agreed to allow, for each other’s sake, amid these dense towers of small floor plans.

Occupying parked cars is not a Hong Kong-only solution, though it is common here. In Japan cars are rented by office workers to serve as solitary lunchrooms, and in San Francisco’s Mission district they were similarly occupied by both denizens of dense multi-family dwellings and lone homeless, though both far more subject to police awakening.

I remember how much of my high school life took place in parked cars, in mall parking lots, parks, and odd secret spots, and sympathize. That child of upstate New York’s open spaces was lucky enough to find places with a view of the lake rather than a view of the subway station, to find trees to park beneath rather than street lights. And yet I love these dense neighborhoods, how everyone commits to whatever space they can share. Watching friends get take out from a restaurant to eat in their car in the parking space in front, barely two meters from the tables being served on the sidewalk, we all seem a little closer.

I dreamed to sit in an illegally parked car
For all eternity

Quoted lyrics from Tina Dico’s Parked Car’ off of 2018’s Fastland

The restaurant downstairs

We live above the type of restaurant I used to dream of running. My inspiration came from Stella’s, a coffee shop in Cornell’s college town. To my younger self, Stella’s was the perfect place, big enough that there was always space, light enough to read and study but dark enough to feel alone. There’s a fine balance in lighting that serves both mood and need. Stella’s had a couple of tables right at the front, before the counter. These were perfect for newcomers, for those on a date and uncertain of whom they were meeting, and for the quick chat type of business meeting or project discussion. They were visible from the street, rarely occupied for long, and didn’t require engaging with any of the other clientele.

Further back there were small tables and booths. The booths, with leather benches, were coveted by those planning to remain until their paper on Cicero was complete, sometime in the spring. Those were staked, like claims, with piles of books and papers, and the occupant would be alternately deep in thought, asleep, or completely gone, having left sufficient weight of thought behind to hold their space. Other booths would be filled with noisy groups of friends, playing cards or arguing about physics. As a teenager I would hole up in one, if lucky, with a book and a journal, alternately deeply self-absorbed and totally engaged in watching the behavior of those older than myself.

Downstairs, in Hong Kong, the coffee shop is smaller, of course. There are not enough tables to occupy with books, but the three counters, one for each wall and one for the serving space, provide plenty of seating for those trying to craft startup ideas or simply surf the net from a place not their apartment. The front steps are a frequent stopping point for dog walkers, who build knowledge of one anther through their pets behavior. The staff is friendly, the coffee good, and, like Stella’s, in the evening there are cocktails and a smattering of food. In many ways it is perfect.

These types of shops are not rare now, no longer solely the providence of college towns. There are coffee shop slash bars in almost every city and town, and I’m sure I’d find a favorite in many. Even here, the cafe downstairs is a second branch, the first having opened in Central some five years back. What makes the spot special, in the end, is the title. The restaurant downstairs is the simplest of descriptions, and the most powerful. It is a statement of density, of multi-use buildings, and of accessibility. Of course the staff knows me. Of course we are regulars. We live up stairs.

This is the second time in my life I have ever lived above a restaurant. In Shanghai, Tokyo, Houston, Boston, and San Francisco, I did not. Only once, for brief summer months where I lived on a sofa in New York, has the phrase ever been true before. As with my joy at finally living downtown by the train in an American city, I am thrilled with the current situation. Walking downstairs for coffee or bread is a great reminder of exactly what Hong Kong’s density has given us, so many parts of my perfect city made real.

I’m sure eventually we won’t live above a restaurant, it’s a rarer scenario than it should be. Until then though I’ll probably keep wandering downstairs in my flip-flops looking for fresh beans, comfortable with the hours and staff, and slowly meeting the neighbors. I wish more people, and especially more Americans, could enjoy the same.

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.