As Tom Slee puts it in No One Makes You Shop At Walmart, (and I think either Zephyr Teachout or David Dayen, or both, explain in their recent books), it’s not true that your individual interactions with monopolists matter. As a consumer, staying away from monopolists is a losing strategy. The point is democratic policymaking, not impotent boycotts. There’s a reason they’re monopolists, after all.
That said, I’m trying to slowly wean myself off the predatory internet.
Set up many email addresses, each for a different way of using email. For instance: firstname.lastname@example.org for reading newsletters, shopping@ for commerce, hello@ for correspondence, etc
Set up an old-school blog (hello!)
Every time I write something particularly good on FB, rewrite it slightly nicer on the blog
I’ve carved out some writing explicitly for a substack: yenta!
So far, my email addresses auto-forward to gmail
One of these days, I’ll set up a NAS to hold all my files instead of dropbox.
Email: After a few years, I think I’ll be able to have straightened out these tangled threads enough to take more decisive action in sunsetting or sharply limiting my old email accounts. Before then, I hope to wean off the gmail UX for a separate inbox.
Files: Fingers crossed, the NAS will solve all my problems.
Writing: I’ve already started yenta, and will likely spin up another newsletter focused on technology & politics. (Name tbd — I’m currently leaning towards “Civil Integrity”.) I’ll opportunistically cross-post some juicy bits from the newsletter to this blog, but presumably be three different spaces.
Social networks: If all goes well, my friends will start getting used to corresponding via blog posts, comments, and email. I doubt that’ll happen. Instead, I’m slowly weaning myself towards Twitter + one other social network to be chosen. Clubhouse? I’ll hold my fire and try to have a lively Signal presence instead.
There are also ways that surveillance and monopolist technologies entwine themselves in your life, even when you’re not actively using them. Here’s my plan:
Web browsing: Firefox, firefox container tabs, firefox facebook container(!!), u-block origin, and privacy badger.
Infra: Soon I’ll get a VPN (mozilla-branded?). I hear pi-holes are good? Looking for suggestions.
Maps: Apple maps for now. Don’t sign into google maps.
Tracking: Facebook only via a web browser. View it via safari on the iphone.
Chat / Video: Signal and Jitsi for now. Soon I’ll use a friend’s self-hosted Jitsi instead.
So that’s the plan right now. In short — set up a few things now, mostly dual-tracked. Patiently give myself years to mature into them, and as my use of them deepens (and others follow along) start leaning on them more heavily.
I’d ask what your plan is, and I am interested. But, in the end, the real change has to come from public policy. Don’t get too seduced by individualistic theories of social change.
Some time ago, on a flight across the country, I decided to listen — I mean really listen — to a full album by the band Cloud Cult. This was new for me. I grew up listening to classical music, and in doing so, I fear I trained myself to ignore the lyrics of songs almost completely. So paying attention to actual words is quite hard.
Cloud Cult was on my mind. Last.fm kept telling me that they were one of my favorite bands (by number of plays), but I couldn’t tell you much about them, or their music. I had just finished listening to Krista Tipett interviewing their lead for On Being. Clearly they were more important than the silly band with weird songs that I thought they were. So I closed my eyes, queued up a new (to me) album, and simply paid attention.
And then … woah. This song hit me like a bag of bricks.
“There’s a room full of people in your head, and every single one of them claims your name.”
There’s a party going on in your head, yes, but also parties. A parliament. And this parliament is composed of factions, each led by a different personality.
This rhymes with a concept from Jay Smooth. The Little Hater. The little hater is the voice in your head, trashing everything you do. The little hater is the leader of opposition in the parliament of you. (Never the majority leader, because then that’d mean he’d have to take responsibility for actions).
Eventually, the plane landed. The album ended. Tears crossed my cheeks. I staggered out of the airport and met my partner. I had a decision to make — should I leave my job? What sort of thing could I do next?
If there was a parliament full of personalities in my head, we decided, maybe what I needed to do was build a coalition of the personalities I wanted to embody, and do what they wanted.
We walked to a park, and I sat down on a rock, facing a pond. I decided that there were a few values/personalities to embody:
The one who believes they will not fail
The one who is an artist, unconcerned with material things
The one who wants to always be on the side of good
The one who weighs the options and coolly does the “correct” thing
For each, I embodied them, the way an actor would, or an avatar. My posture changed. My voice changed. And each personality graded different courses of action, gave advice, etc.
The last one was perhaps the most interesting. I originally thought of it as “the person who worries” or “the person who wants to make sure I’m safe”. But a trick I learned (from Gayle Karen Young at StartingBloc) was to take these personalities and add the modifier “mature”. What does the “mature worrier” look like? To me, it was a sort of Ari Emmanuel character. Brisk, even brusque. Weighing risk and reward. Hardheaded and ambitious, calculating and cool. And his take on the situation frankly surprised me.
That’s the day I realized I needed to leave Facebook (thought it took a while longer to pull the trigger). And that’s how I try to make decisions going forward.
Anyway, the point of this all was originally to suggest you listen to Cloud Cult. Cloud Cult is great! And while Room Full of People In Your Head is a great song, I’d have to say it’s not even their best. This is. Relatedly, Jay Smooth and Gayle Young are american treasures. Find Jay here. And Gayle is here.
This was the year that I took a self-conscious break from work and finally made good on my years-long threat to play video games. I haven’t spent as much time on a console since I was a teenager. It was nice, a good way to reconnect with the concept of “it’s okay to use time in ways that are not productive.”
But, in order to be a little bit productive, allow me to introduce Sahar Massachi’s 2020 video game review. These aren’t games that came out in 2020, necessarily, just games that I first encountered this year. (Skyrim, while having soaked up a lot of my time, sadly doesn’t qualify). All games are on the Switch.
Top Prize: Return of the Obra Dinn
Quite possibly the best work of the last 5 or 10 years, this masterpiece is more like an immersive, fun, work of art that happens to be a video game.
Even people who dislike video games can love this game. The music is so good that I listen to it for fun. The puzzles are exactly the right amount of challenging, and the procedure for validating your guesses is ingenious. this is the sort of game that your girlfriend iwht no hand-eye coordination can play, that your whole family can join in as you play on the couch.
Real 90s kids might remember Kingdom of Loathing, the php-based browser game (still running strong!). West of Loathing is its stellar spin-off.
Set in a satirical “western” setting, the plot veers into goblin genocide, freaky aliens, the culture of SF, and evil necromantic beings.
“Funny games” are, as a rule, awful. (A Bard’s Tale being the paradigmatic example). West of Loathing is the exception to the rule. Witty and erudite, this combination puzzle game / point and click adventure / basic tactics RPG will draw in jaded gamers and vigilant non-gamers alike.
This, along with Obra Dinn, was the only game I could gleefully play with Sarah — together, at the same time, playing the same character, switching off holding the controller. Given her lack of video game skills (she attributes this to “lack of mario” growing up), that’s a big deal!
Bait and Switch Award: Fire Emblem Three Houses
I am currently playing Fire Emblem. Not at this minute of course, since I’m typing this. But I was playing Fire Emblem right before this, and I’ll play Fire Emblem right after it. I spent over twelve hours playing it every day this weekend.
The game bills itself as a sort of hogwarts-inspired plot: there is a school for fighting/magic/leaders of the continent. And you’re a teacher heading one of the houses! Plus, some battles. And yes, all that is there. What they don’t tell you: the game is also a lightweight dating sim.
Your units have “support” with each other — and as a teacher, you’re meant to help them get closer to each other personally (so that they can fight harder together in battle). As a player, you’re constantly watching cutscenes of your students awkwardly flirt, argue, and teach each other to cook. It often feels more like you are watching an interactive, schizophrenetic movie, than playing a game.
But there’s a twist — your students (and coworkers, boss, dad, and some miscellaneous children) also want to build relationships with *you*. And, for pretty much everyone of the opposite gender (and some of the same gender), “building relationships” feels a lot like flirting. In fact, often, it precisely is. After all, the game wants you to end up marrying one of these people.
I was playing a woman character, and so most of the romantic prospects were men. Mostly students. This felt wrong in a few ways. First, and most importantly, why does the game have you flirt with students? Unethical! But also — I don’t really find joy flirting with men who, again, are my students. So any time a heartfelt moment with one arrived, I’d tense up, afraid of them turning their eyes towards me. Even though most encounters were objectively sweet, and the flirting actually was at a minimum (and kept towards the end of the game, where everyone is 5 years older and has graduated), the whole situation kept me on edge because I was worried the unwanted attention *could happen at any time*.
I imagine this sort of experience vaguely (though with a lot of caveats) feels like the same sort of thing that actual women deal with in real life. (Again, with lots of qualifiers, not least being “the magnitude is different and no switch game substitutes for real experience etc etc).
Nostalgia award: Katamari Damacy
Katamari. What a joy. What a soundtrack. What a reminder of mid-aughts madcap madness, and a gameplay that still has yet to be matched. Katamari combines the simple joy of tidying up with the simple joy of world domination via giant ball magnet thing.
The one thing they still need to fix is so obvious that I’m dumbfounded it hasn’t happened — the game needs an “infinite mode”, where you can roll around to your hearts content with (and this is crucial) no deadline!
Friendship award: Divinity Original Sin: 2
Online coop is weirdly difficult on the switch. The Escapists 2 hasn’t thought through coop move very well. Smash Brothers doesn’t allow online *coop*, only battles against your friends, not with them vs an AI. Streets of Rogue flat out breaks when trying coop. Diablo 3 pulls it off technically, but has such atrocious plot and setting that spending time on it is an insult to anyone paying attention. Pokemon’s coop abilities are a joke. All fail — except Divinity 2.
It’s a marvel that they pulled off this game on a console that is technically a mid-2017 era smartphone in a new form factor. It’s amazing that one can play the spiritual successor to Baldur’s gate on what is essentially a game boy — and do it with a friend hundreds of miles away. Bravo!
Skinner Box Award: Hades
So many pixels have been spread extolling Hades that I’ll keep it brief. It’s reinvented the roguelike genre. It can be a replacement for knitting while talking to friends on the phone, and a challenging full-attention adventure if needed. The story drips out in tiny enough drips to last forever, and large enough drips to keep you interested.
It’s a technological marvel — civilization has come one step closer to the Skinner box. Well done.
Zelda Breath of the Wild is fine but repetitive. Each zone is the same — find the shrines, do some easy puzzles, fight some bad guys (who respawn soon anyways, so why even bother?)
Cuphead is fun for about 10 minutes before the wonder at the jazzy sound and old-timey graphics fades and you’re left with a derivative (and too difficult) platformer.
Animal Crossing is boring and it’s my understanding that everyone (rightly) gave up on it two weeks in.
Remember how I said that (Loathing excepted) every game that tries to be funny is an abysmal waste of time? The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle is a great example of what doing it badly looks like. (Sorry, creators of the game! I know you worked hard on it, I apologize that I didn’t like it. I did try.)
Undertale is a nice work of art. It continually show you established patterns of a game — then violates different “rules” or norms that you didn’t even realize existed. It’s clearly special. It’s also art more than a game. I wouldn’t call it fun. But it is interesting.
A friend and I were playing Starcraft (o.g. Brood War) the other day. We were chatting with some strangers on multiplayer, and here’s what we found:
No more spamming of slurs. Seems like either Blizzard’s filters have finally caught up, or all the idiot teenagers are no longer playing a 20-year old game.
A lot of players (even in US leagues) are from south america, or Korea.
One comparatively longer conversation online was with a guy who said he couldn’t wait for the pandemic to be over. Cheekily, we said something like, “why? more time for starcraft”. He answered that he was a single dad working 60 hours a week. That dampened that conversation.
The people who play starcraft these days are really, really, good at it.
My first experience with antisemitism was through starcraft. In the cloud of slurs (anti-gay, anti-black, etc), was weirdly the word “jew”. It was clear from the context that it wasn’t meant as a compliment, or even anything specific. Just another way to insult someone you’ve never met before.
It’s kinda nice to finally be able to play this game without running into it any more.
Except, slowly, over my lifetime, that’s changed. The big “day without an immigrant” strike of 2006 kicked it off. The slow buildup of left organizations starting to march and celebrate it over the years. Occupy gave it a kick in the pants, too.
Happy International Worker’s Day. Happy labor day. Happy socialist day. Happy strike day. (Like all good holidays, it contains several different meanings).
There’s a lot to say. About the importance of labor unions. Of worker militancy. How “solidarity” is a term with a ton of meaning and power, too-often cheapened by easy use. About the situation of capitalism, of the bosses and 1%, and so on.
Too much, to say. So let’s talk about the celebration itself.
Every May Day, I take the day off work and go marching. And, in the last few years, it’s been fantastic. So much energy. All the signs! All the different groups, showing themselves off, meeting each other, building energy.
A good May 1st march can give you enthusiasm and energy to last for months.
Here’s a sense of what it could be like. May 1, 2014.
In my last year of college, our big musical extravaganza, Springfest, hit on May 1st. I spent the first half of the day stuck in my room, playing the Internationale at full blast, and doing my best to memorize the lyrics. Only after I could belt out La Marseillaise from memory (and the first few stanzas of the Internationale), did I go out into the sun and enjoy the beautiful day.
I think about it from time to time. I was a weird kid. But maybe, while we’re stuck here in our homes, memorizing a few classic labor songs doesn’t sound like a bad way to celebrate.
Here’s a new favorite:
This world looks like a chain of heavy broken hearts It chains my brothers and sisters all apart Link after link it clatters thru my land This long heavy chain of broken hearts
Selfish pride is one link in this chain And you better drive it out of your heart Brother and sister when you do it’s then that you’ll get loose From this long heavy chain of broken hearts
It’s this long heavy chain of broken hearts It’s this long heavy chain of broken hearts You gotta find your union before you can get free From this long heavy chain of broken hearts
Fear is a link in this chain Of sorrow and trouble and pain Drive out your fear and you will break apart This long heavy chain of broken hearts
Jealousy is a link of the worst A worry, a blister and a curse Join our union band and break with your hands This long heavy chain of broken hearts
This long heavy chain of broken hearts This long heavy chain of broken hearts You gotta find your union before you can get free From this long heavy chain of broken hearts
It’s when you are free from this chain Love will come and fill you up again Show your friends and neighbors how to break away From this long heavy chain of broken hearts
Yes this long heavy chain of broken hearts This long heavy chain of broken hearts You gotta find your union before you can get free From this long heavy chain of broken hearts