• worldkiller

    amazon spheres beside a high rise building
    Photo by Hussein Haidar Salman on Pexels.com

    Last month I attended a one-day conference hosted at Amazon’s conference center in the South Lake Union area of Seattle. There’s a tech industry psychic hum in the streets there, just like the entertainment industry hum that runs through anonymous looking three-story office parks in northern LA or the legal hum that saturates certain blocks in downtown Portland. The office workers getting their morning coffee look focused and unencumbered by family or community commitments. They are men and women, and stylish. The pinup shirt wearing, punk rock programmer dude and the carebear gothic tenderqueer have both been disciplined by three tech recessions since the year 2000. The clothes are less formal and structured than the norm for, say, finance, but there is a look and bright colors are a risk. 

    Right across the street from the Amazon campus, a forest of huge rainbow glass-walled skyscrapers that hold the back office of the everything store, there is a humble red building. It’s a sex toy boutique with an old-school porn screening room. I find this delightful. 

    sky bird industry technology
    Photo by Jakub Pabis on Pexels.com

    When a platform goes away, especially when it has just left, it is hard to preserve memory of what it looked like when it was healthy. Especially things that you might not think of as platforms. Take phone calls. When the platform was built (not with lines of code but with redwood and creosote and copper) it was too expensive to use as a social network. Later, with home phone service and party lines, it got closer, but it wasn’t private enough. Once digital switching and billing and private home service came into being, there was a glorious period in which phone calls were welcome. Infrastructure to support the network sprang up, like answering services and phone booths and cordless phones. Friendships and relationships were built, distances shrunk. 

    That golden age was long gone by the time I was a kid. The phone system was becoming overwhelmed by telemarketing. Small breakdowns in the system were everywhere. For example, when everyone screens their calls using an answering machine, getting someone on the phone could take a full minute, much slower than in the era where each call was too expensive to waste on a cold call. Phone booths were always vandalized and often didn’t work. By the time that cell phones came around and changed the paradigm again, the stereotype of the Millennial that hates talking on the phone was well ingrained. 

    That same arc plays out over and over, for as long as humans have or will exist. Letters through the postal service, the bulletin board at the laundromat, philosophers at the agora. There are situations where these media survive long past when the rest of the world has moved on from them. Letters and phone calls still maintain relationships in prison. Astronauts swap movies on thumb drives on the International Space Station. 

    The porn store represents a node on a very particular kind of retail platform. That platform is rapidly disappearing, in no small part due to the work of Amazon. On that platform, you exchanged cash for a physical good. The store knew nothing about you, or where your money came from. You didn’t know anything about where the good came from. Somewhere out there, you could buy almost anything. 

    That platform didn’t exist everywhere. In cities where the power of the city government was finite and the size was big enough that there was some undesirable area where a sleazy, taboo business could exist without neighbors complaining, there could be remarkable freedom. In most places, the power of the local government could keep them out. If the government couldn’t do anything, customers could be harassed. 

    man on empty street passing by abandoned store
    Photo by Faruk Tokluoğlu on Pexels.com

    You can’t really go back. As much as I miss the good parts of healthy local retail, and as much as I worry about what will happen if the right wing succeeds in enforcing repressive suburban values onto the internet, internet retail does work better for most people in more places than local retail did in the late 1990’s. 

    But I love that these powerful symbols, one the last of its kind, the other the worldkiller, face each other on Westlake Avenue.

  • red letters

    “Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

    Luke Skywalker, Star Wars

    Los Angeles is the movies, and the movies is LA. If you drive north of the city on the 101 for an hour, you get to suburbs filled with peripheral industry people. Somebody did a rewrite on Lethal Weapon II and put a downpayment on a house. Another person did the same with royalties from an insurance commercial. That’s every third house in Sherman Oaks or Woodland Hills.

    Drive up the 101 another half hour and you start hitting farms and beach communities. This is where industry people go when they don’t want to be found. Hang a right and drive another half hour inland and you’ll get to the citrus groves and chaparral hills. That’s where I grew up. My house is 45 miles as the crow flies from the Hollywood sign. 45 miles and a different cultural universe.

    It used to be almost impossible to watch cool movies. If you were lucky, your had access to an independent video rental store with some personality. We had a Blockbuster. Our selection of “Foreign” movies consisted of about one shelf of DVDs.

    Anime, black and white classics, silent film, these were hard to find. Forget gay and lesbian movies. You could put in the work to see them. You could make a trip to a bigger city with a better selection. Universities sometimes had media libraries. You would watch movies on a 15″ screen with headphones in an uncomfortable study carrel warmed by CRT tubes. Local libraries having big, good movie collections is a recent phenomenon. If you could afford it, you could order from a mail order catalog, or from Amazon. Amazon’s deep catalog of old books and movies used to be a killer feature.

    If you were lucky, really lucky, you knew someone with a killer home video collection. That used to be what it meant to be “into film”. It meant shelves and shelves of tapes in their basement or living room. Those people shaped so much of my taste. Indie dramas, foreign films and music documentaries from L——. Queer cinema classics and Merchant and Ivory films from M——. Studio action films from G——.

    This assumes that the movie got a home video release. There were plenty of movies that never got a VHS release.

    The arrival of Netflix DVD-by-mail changed everything overnight. It had a broad collection, accessible to anywhere the Postal Service reached. It improved some other parts of the video rental experience that sucked. No late fees, keep it as long as you want, drop it back in the mail when you’re ready to send it back. “I have to return some videotapes” is a punchline in American Psycho. We really did have to figure out when to return tapes all the time.

    Netflix swept away Blockbuster. It delivered the killing blow to the independent rental stores*. It devalued physical media. Netflix originals ducked legacy union contracts by streaming instead of releasing in theaters or on home video. Now it is killing its DVD by mail service, as it has wanted to since the early 2010s.

    I sometimes think about those people with big collections in the 90’s and early 2000’s. They paid a lot of money, and even the big collections only had a fraction of what is available on the big services now. In the last 10 years I have paid a lot for streaming. I have nothing in my house to show for that spending. We used to have more power to shape the culture that got left to the future through the objects we left behind. Movies can disappear, or be censored so easily now. The entire paradigm where I hand you money, you give me something I want, and we both go our separate ways seems to be ebbing away. In this new world, anything that provides you ongoing value, that brings you joy must be paid for, again and again, until you cannot afford to keep it.

    *Except my beloved Movie Madness in Portland, Oregon, which has not died but did retire—it’s now operated by a non-profit.

  • clickwheel dreams

    There’s Las Vegas and there’s Las Vegas. Technically the Las Vegas Strip isn’t even in Las Vegas. It’s in the Clark County townships of Winchester and Paradise. The name Winchester was chosen by the public in a naming contest. “It was said to have more of a Western flavor” than the other nominations. The name Paradise was chosen by five casino owners in celebration of its shelter from the Mojave Desert and municipal tax collectors. And somewhere off the Strip, far from Paradise, was a resort that my aunt owned a timeshare in.

    I’ve heard that timeshares suck. I don’t understand how they work. I do know that my family ended up in Las Vegas often. I don’t know it if the timeshare ended up less expensive than regular hotels, but we used it.

    One day in 2002, I was waiting outside the resort for the Deuce to take me and my family to the Strip. There was a guy, a townie, waiting for another bus. I saw two things that would become omnipresent over the next 10 years. I saw a pair of Apple earbuds, and I saw him reach into his pocket, pull out his iPod, change a song, and put it back into his pocket.

    I may have seen The iPod ads with the dancing silhouettes. If so, they hadn’t made an impression. In an instant I saw that the iPod was freedom. No more flipping tapes. No more pretending that the Walkman’s anti-skip buffer was enough to make CD playing portable. I had to have it.

    I never quite owned an iPod classic. Their time came and went. For years they were too expensive. I had a knockoff, then lost the knockoff. The iPhone came out and I begged my dad for one. In the Apple Store, my dad mugged a heart attack to the guy ringing us up after hearing the total. He thought he was hilarious. The Apple guy awkwardly stood waiting for him to stop laughing at his own joke. I wanted to die.

    Panasonic SC-H57

    This weekend I bought a secondhand Panasonic CD player with integrated iPod dock. I love designer CD players from the early to mid 2000s. They will never design them like that again. It’s all Bluetooth speakers from here on out.

    It’s hipster consumerism, but I can’t apologize for being sentimental. It’s a beautiful thing to construct romance and meaning from consumer technology that was everywhere basically yesterday. I’ll find the poetry in the Bluetooth speaker too. Give it time.

  • 2021

    new year energy

    It’s January once again. Predictable things that happen in January include the one weird week late in the month where clear skies and sun convince me and the daffodils that spring is around the corner, and a manic period where I’m convinced that I can change everything in my life that needs changing. I can, I will, and in my favored manner, with extreme effort all at once.

    Instead of offering resolutions, here are some of the themes I think will be sounding throughout my next year:


    I completed a coding bootcamp and switched careers last year. I spent a lot of time working on my focused work muscles, and it’s time to turn my attention to play. I really love the way that Cal Newport talks about ‘high-quality leisure’: the challenging, active ways of using downtime that restore and recharge us after focused work. https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2019/05/31/on-the-pleasures-and-sorrows-of-life-without-screens/ It’s kind of like exercise is to the body: sometimes rest requires more than sleeping, it may require stretches, breathing, reclaiming range of motion.

    I’m particularly looking forward to trying to build relationships around writing and playing music. I have dearly felt their lack in the past years, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic. I’m ready to find others to play with.

    finding space for books and music (aka cutting down on podcasts)

    As my work has become more mentally taxing, demanding, and as it requires more single-task focus, I have found it harder to make space for reading and listening to music. I’m looking forward to continuing my journey toward cutting down on passive podcast consumption and doomscrolling to make that happen.

    I dearly love podcasts, but it’s so easy to just keep listening to them. If podcasts were books, I’d read better books. If they were articles, I would abandon more of them. I have a few podcasts that I’m pretty attached to on a parasocial level, but I’m working on winding those down and trying not to get attached to new ones.

    practicing networking

    I could write a lot about this. I am hungry for in-person, social, group ways to experience my passions. Professionally, artistically, even among my friends. This year I am rededicating myself to making that happen and to putting social effort into participating in new ‘scenes’ that I have curiosity about.

  • toot or boot?

    Twitter Mascot

    My therapist asks And does this serve you? when I’ve been complaining about something and he’s trying to gently ask me to consider that ‘stop’ might be an easy way to improve the situation. It creates space to feel honest feelings about the things that we hate doing but we have to because it serves a purpose in our lives, and a way of double checking that the purposes they serve actually exist.

    I joined Mastodon. This is the 3rd time. The first time was after some kind of Twitter corporate outrage. The second was after reading How to Do Nothing and hungering for richer online experiences.

    This time around, Mastodon feels much more mature as a platform. There are still huge holes in the user experience that need attention. It’s hard to find people. It’s even harder to find people based on keywords and hashtags. The only way to build an audience is through word of mouth, like Follow Fridays. This time, I am questioning whether the habit of publishing anything online is serving me.

    Out of the many dreams of what social media can do, two have been seductive to me. The first vision is social media as a public channel for keeping friends and family updated on big life events etc. That’s Instagram. The second is as a forum to get attention in a way that is difficult to get offline.

    I read many bloggers in the period between the founding of Daily Kos and Huffington Post to the end of Google Reader. They were smart people, but not journalists or paid writers and sometimes from a marginalized group or young or from an unimportant place. The internet allowed them to compete for their share of the internet audience. Same with niche subjects or hobbies. All it took was four or five writers and their audiences on a beat to create an idea ecosystem. Generous attention to each other’s writing created that feeling of group cohesion.

    The writing that I’ve shared on blogs on Twitter are the closest I come to asking for online attention. I struggle with that. The version of me that emerges from that body of work has less of my sense of humor, less of my sense of delight. He tends to emerge more often in anxiety and alienation than in joy or connectedness. He doesn’t share as much as he’s learned, and the only subject he has endless time for is himself.

    My favorite online writers either focus on a narrow range of topics or they write in their own voice. Idiomatic blogs are conversational, fast pieces of writing. Books or works from publication have a higher bar for polish and accuracy. It’s understood that a blog post is more perishable. The thing that can perish is the voice of the mind working through its first reaction. First thought, best thought. It’s not always true, but it does have a strong flavor!

    In the last 15 years, it has been very rare for me to get constructive feedback that inspires me to keep going. I tell myself that I keep writing because its rewarding. I worry that it’s because either I can’t give up on the idea of being discovered to be interesting, or that I don’t have the imagination to try something else. Does that serve me? I’m not sure. It takes practice to make perfect, sure. Audiences and artists train each other, though. There’s a ceiling for how far you can develop without high quality attention and feedback.

    That’s what I’m really looking for: high quality attention and feedback.

    I don’t know how to get it, online, in person, whatever. I write because even if I never get the feedback I want, I will end up with something to read back through. I hope it ends up more than that, but many people create even less.

    I promise to myself that in 2023 I will seek more play, more attention, more good feedback. It’s time to be more brave.

  • tweet

    photo of cheese fries
    Mmm… chili cheese fries” by jeffreyw is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

    When the restaurants shut down, one of my favorite neighborhood bars shut down too. They were lucky—the bar was on a quiet street that was easy to pedestrianize. They opened back up with outdoor cafe seating a few weeks later. There were changes. Order at the window. Sanitize your own table. The menu got smaller. My favorite dish, a platter of fries, bacon, and jalapeños covered in cheese and served with a strawberry ketchup, was cut from the menu.

    About 18 months later, I was back in the bar, and delighted to learn that the full menu was back. Once I ordered my fries, I discovered that though the dish was on the menu, it wasn’t quite back. Even a blunt combination of cheese and meat and potatoes demands delicate balances to approach greatness. When the oven is too hot or the dish warmed too long, the cheese gets hard and dries out. The cheese should smother the fries, not cement them together. The salt in the bacon and cheese requires under-salting the fries. If there is not enough strawberry jam mixed into the ketchup, it conflicts with the jalapeño brine.

    Eighteen months is a long time. Most likely, the kitchen turned over while the dish was off the menu, and there was no one there to teach the new people how to make it. Or a change in vendors led to a different cheese blend or ketchup order. It’s possible that it’s just a bad dish and I no felt nostalgic for it.

    Many of the things we value in our everyday world, things that make up the texture of ordinary living, are contingent on relationships. A bar that doesn’t maintain relationship with its staff, a kitchen manager that doesn’t maintain relationship with its vendors, even a patron that doesn’t maintain relationship with his favorite dish, all of these can cause a dish to unravel.

    I met a contractor that specialized in home renovations in small, out of the way, wealthy Ojai, California. He explained why he ordered his hardware from a small, independent hardware store. “I can get 25-30% better prices ordering from Home Depot. That’s real money. But sometimes I make an ordering mistake. Sometimes things break. I can run out and back to Ojai Lumber in 30 minutes. If there’s no hardware store in Ojai, then I have to go to the Home Depot in Oxnard. That’s a round trip of two hours, and my guys are standing around until I get back. My time is much more expensive than materials. There’s a big difference between one local hardware store and no local hardware stores, so I try to make sure that I give them business when I can.”

    That’s attending to relationships.

    Elon Musk goes out of his way to show contempt for anyone he does business with. Nothing attracts his attention faster than letting slip that you have your own goals and financial interests. I am not enjoying seeing Twitter fall apart. But I am enjoying him fail. He assumed that everyone would eventually give up on having their own interests in the platform, and that nobody else would have any human reaction to his abuse. Twitter may be more complicated and less perfect than my favorite plate of cheese fries, but it has turned out to be no less vulnerable to falling apart when the people who make it stop cooperating.

  • novel

    File:Monumento a Miguel de Cervantes – 05.jpg” by Carlos Delgado is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

    For almost 500 years the type of story most popular among literate Europeans was the chivalric romance. The Song of Roland, Troilus and Criseyde, the kind of stories that Monty Python and the Holy Grail makes fun of. In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes writes a bawdy little satire called Don Quixote. It takes all of the noble tropes of the romance and turns them upside down. In the place of a young noble undergoing a challenge of grave importance to earn the hand of a beautiful maiden, there is a destitute old crank and his wisecracking frenemy wasting their time shouting at windmills and fantasizing like incels about the feminine qualities of the beauties they’re totally going to find.

    That’s how Cervantes accidentally invented the modern novel.

    The novel embraced that it was a low, grubby kind of story. They didn’t have to be any more realistic than the romances. They just dealt with slightly more grounded people than Chosen Ones on a divine quest given to them by God. They made mistakes for petty, human reasons. That turned out to be relatable to people, and novels are still with us today.

    I thought about the romance and the novel recently while watching TV, bored. I was watching It’s A Sin but it could have been any number of shows or movies. I realized that I wanted a drama but I was watching some new form of show that reminds me of school pageants.

    Pageants present well-known stories about well-known people going through well-known situations. If the pageant is about George Washington, there will be a cherry tree and the Delaware will be crossed. About California history, expect Missions and Gold Rush and Silicon Valley. Any child actor is welcome to play their part artfully, if they so choose, but the form doesn’t demand it. A good pageant keeps the story moving along even when the people on stage aren’t behaving in ways that resemble any human let alone a particular character, or can’t remember their lines, forget how to speak, are having an out of body experience. It’s a funny art form!

    Many shows and movies that get applause for being brave and diverse and bringing new stories are secretly pageants. It’s A Sin was about AIDS in the 1980’s, a rural, innocent looking twink moved to a big city and was taken under the wing of worldly club queens. There were tearful scenes of family betrayal and discrimination at work. Among a large cast of characters are stand-ins for straight allies, lesbians, older gay men, Black and Asian gay men.

    Playing with pageantry can be great. Juno sends up the teen mom after school special by giving you a quirky, character-driven comedy. A lot of the pleasure of Ryan Murphy or Aaron Sorkin shows, Derek Jarman films, or Julie Taymor musicals are that they are pageants.

    Pageants are blunt, though, and I don’t think they can ever introduce a new story as well as a drama. Work in Progress, The Bisexual, and Chewing Gum are all weird, flawed shows. But showing the messy ambivalence of the human, strange, lovable characters at the heart of those shows gave me a chance to fall in love with them. That’s what I need from TV.

  • trades

    I’m a builder’s son. My father was a Northern California ski bum in the 70’s. There was a building boom going on. Construction jobs were easy to get, and they suited his lifestyle. Later, the construction industry got much more professionalized and licensed. A generation of lucky tradesmen got to keep licenses that were much easier to get than those that their apprentices were earning. My dad wasn’t particularly good at any one trade, but his ability to nose out a loophole was the best in the business. He recognized that the door was not going to be open forever. He paid the testing fees and ended up with full Electrician, Plumber, HVAC, and General Contractor licenses.

    Now, as when I was a kid, getting a conversation going with my dad takes a lot of work. We have two safe topics always available to us: “I heard this piece of classical music recently,” and “I wonder how they built that?”

    As a side effect of trying to connect with my dad, I learned a lot about building and architectural designs.

    I developed an appreciation for well-constructed buildings. Buildings that suit their purpose. Buildings that were designed with integrity. Buildings that are solid enough to be repurposed.

    Things that look expensive can be cheap. Things that are actually expensive can have no integrity in their design. Buildings are designed for someone, ideally the people that will use it. Often not. These are some of the things you think about when you notice the quality of construction around you.

    A well designed, beautiful space can fill you with a sense of tranquility and abundance. Good design makes the activities that will take place in the space easier. Bad design adds friction.

    There’s both delight and sadness when I am surprised by the beauty of an old building or public space. Beauty delights me. The bittersweet surprise is that this group, in this place, at one time, were worth spending enough money on to build something nice.

  • synthesis

    One afternoon I noticed I had a philosophy. I might have had one before, I’m not sure. My younger self made a lot of decisions that I no longer understand.

    My path to the present included many embarrassing learning experiences. “Learning experiences” is a euphemism. I said stupid things in front of very smart people, argued loudly that I was right, grudgingly admitted that I was wrong, then sulked for days about it.

    Put another way, the learning experiences were unlearning experiences. My universe of known things was always getting bigger, but I had to let go of many of the working assumptions I built that universe on.

    I thought the unlearning would never end. I liked being able to look around me and read so many layers of knowledge into the world around me. I didn’t like the growing ambivalence I had about the usefulness of that knowledge. I really didn’t like the growing distance I felt from other people. I worried that I would grow into an old man like Michael Caine’s character in The Cider House Rules. He spent his days in service of others. He spent his nights anesthetizing himself. The whisper that asks whether finding meaning in life is easier to hear at night.

    But that one afternoon I realized that there was a through line that connected many of the themes that had captured my curiosity in the past years. Ecology and living in balance with the planet. The failure of capitalism and the historical circumstances of its rise. The disappearance of musicians and the rise of a musical monoculture. Queer joy and the healing power of sex. What to do with the artistic spoils of colonialism. How to feel better. What is a community and how does it work?

    Here’s the basic thought that I’m trying to develop:

    There are very few rewards that humans take in on a primate level. They include food, brain and adrenaline highs, sex, the pleasure of social position, and the feeling of safety. The current global system that distributes those rewards is unjust. It requires misery for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, and our planet cannot sustain it.

    That is a cultural choice. We can make different cultural choices. When we provide human rewards to each other without exchanging money, we reinforce a new culture that differentiates between living well and succeeding in an economic marketplace.

    I know that sounds very simple, but I hope to spend some time unpacking it. I think there is a lot there. My hope is that developing this idea will generate creative ideas & help me better understand how to be a community member and leader.

  • hit refresh

    cover of hit refresh by satya nadella

    I’m fascinated by Satya Nadella and his transformation of Microsoft. While there were moments where his personality came through, this is mostly a bland piece of corporate hagiography, and you should look elsewhere for insights into that work.

    The first part of the book is the most valuable. It’s a first person account of Nadella’s upbringing, education, and entry into the tech field. It captured how much pride he has in being both his father’s son and his mother’s son, as well as his clear love for his wife and family and his love for the cosmopolitan and ambitious India he grew up in. 

    The next part is about his rise to CEO, and the undoing work he accomplished to change the corporate culture at Microsoft. There are a lot of corporate credits (our great work growing our cloud business was accomplished by such visionary leaders as blah blah blah) and a lot of telling but not showing (over the course of several meetings, we reached a consensus about how to move forward…). 

    As with all transformational stories, details matter. If you zoom out far enough, all transformational narratives are the same: I was doing it one way, I wanted to change, I finally let go of what was holding me back from change, I tried a different way, and that turned out way better.

    There’s not much more than that here. There are references to Microsoft losing its way and employee unhappiness, but a reluctance to call out specific mistakes. There is almost no specificity about the personnel changes that he made to signal that more changes were coming down the line. There is a little more detail about Nadella’s “new way,” including: moving away from the mindset of corporate friends and enemies and toward thinking about all other corporations as potential partnerships, breaking down the inefficient communication and empty status symbols of 20th century blue-chip corporate hierarchy, and stoking a real hunger for learning about use cases and developing sales channel for every sector of the market. 

    If there’s any value in this book, it’s in this section.

    The final section is Nadella’s prognostication of the future. It seems completely ghostwritten and is structured around Nadella visiting various Microsoft R&D initiatives and marveling with wet eyes about what he finds. Skip it. Skip the whole book*.

    *I am aware that most people probably never even considered reading the book, that a book by a major corporate CEO was guaranteed to be bland and impersonal. What can I say? I’m an optimist.    

Matthew Eilar

Matthew Eilar headshot

This is my personal blog. I’ve been blogging since 2008, and self-hosting this blog on Linode since 2020.

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