Stories from the road: I miss photography

An almost-deserted Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne

An almost-deserted Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne

It’s September 4th, 2022. I’m in Melbourne for the first time in a long time. It’s been nearly 8 years since PAX 2014, and while there have been a few PAX events in between, and several interstate and overseas trips since, for some reason, I haven’t been to Melbourne in all that time. Proper Melbourne, as opposed to just transiting through.

And it’s every bit as good as I remember.

I was supposed to go to Melbourne earlier this year with friends. But ol’ rona was still a thing, and I didn’t think it was the best idea. I might have been right, too, because everyone that went caught it and ended up staying an extra week before they could travel back to Queensland.

It’s September now, and ol’ rona is still a thing. It definitely seems like it will continue to be for the foreseeable future, if that wasn’t clear before. Eventually, though, people are going to have to decide for themselves what kind of risk they’re willing to accept, because the alternative seems similar to becoming something of a complete recluse.

But this isn’t about rona, or travel. It’s about photography.

A little while I ago I took out my Bessa only to find that the battery was flat after not using it for a while. I replaced the batteries, and a quick test shot resulted in some kind of stuck shutter. After panicking a bit, I did a little searching online to discover it was a common enough issue that people had come across it before. A short bit of percussive maintenance later, and the shutter was un-stuck and Bessie was working normally again.

I do feel a little guilty about putting down my camera. I’ve hardly done any photography since moving to Brisbane, so much so that any film I had brought up with me from Hobart expired a little while ago. By “a little while ago”, I mean a few years ago, so yeah, you could say it has been a while.

But it wasn’t until I went to Melbourne to see the sights and sounds that I realised how much I missed taking photos. I heard from my friends who went to Melbourne earlier this year that the city was so much different post-Covid, that it seemed less lively and a shadow of its former self, but if that was the case, I didn’t see it. Melbourne city seemed about the same as I remember from all those years ago, even if it wasn’t as busy as it was pre-Covid.

I ended up taking a few shots with my iPhone 11 Pro, and compared to the iPhone 6 that I had the last time I was in Melbourne, the versatility and quality of the 11 Pro camera system was leaps and bounds ahead. Not entirely unexpected given the multi-generational gap between the two, but phone cameras have performed wonderfully in great lighting conditions for years now. Probably since the iPhone 7 or iPhone X, now that I think about it.

But as much as I liked the photos coming out of my iPhone, it made me miss a standalone camera. Taking photos with an iPhone felt like cheating, somehow, because it was all too easy to get good photos. Point and click, right? With iPhone, anyone can be a photographer. And that’s great! But taking photos with a real camera feels nicer, somehow, like you’re a little more involved in the process rather than letting a bunch of computers and algorithms do all the photography for you.

Melbourne made me miss taking photos.

I miss taking photos with a real camera, and the only fix is to start taking photos again.

More (Retina) Display Thoughts

Dell U2711 beside a white MacBook

Simpler times. My setup from November 2010, featuring a Dell U2711 beside my white MacBook of the time.

If I’m honest, I was a little early to the 4K train. Had I known about the Retina-class displays that would be coming out not that long after I purchased my first, current, and only 4K display, I would probably have waited a year or two. That’s not saying I don’t love my Dell P2715Q — having a 4K, 60Hz, IPS display in late 2014 for under $1000 was a pretty sweet deal at the time — but had I known about the higher pixel density displays that were coming out, I might have waited. But predicting the future of technology is a fool’s game, and hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Retina-class displays are a mess. You can count the models you can currently buy new on one hand, and none of them come in under $1800. The introduction of Apple’s own Studio Display means there’s now exactly three models you can buy new today, making it an exclusive club indeed. LG’s UltraFine 5K, Apple’s own Pro Display XDR, the Apple Studio Display… and that’s it! There are a bunch of older models that you can’t find new today, but even at “peak Retina” a few years ago, there were never more than a handful of models available that came with roughly 220ppi. There are some that come close, like LG’s UltraFine 4K, but even then that costs over $1000 today, which would otherwise buy you a nice 4K high-frame rate IPS display (more on this in a sec).

Reviews indicate that the Studio Display is a fine display. While it costs similar to what a 27-inch, 5K iMac cost back in the day, with the latter having the price advantage of including a whole-ass computer, there’s still some value there for people firmly ensconced within the Apple ecosystem and want a quality display that’s not the Pro Display XDR and the eye-watering price that comes with it. The Studio Display comes with some innovative features that haven’t yet been seen in any display so far, thanks to the A13 SoC and whatever version of iOS its runs. Centre stage is cool, I’ve read that the speakers sound great, and perhaps most importantly, it probably won’t have the same quality and reliability issues that have plagued the UltraFine 5K, despite the latter being a much simpler display without the bells and whistles of the Studio Display. It turns out that if you want reliability, you strap an iPhone to the display and call it a day. Hey, if it works, it works.

But it’s not for me. A lot of people have been wondering if Apple would ever get back into the display game, and now they have, I’m not so sure that Apple would ever make a Retina-class display for me, someone that wants a quality panel without all the bells and whistles.

I’ve been thinking about upgrading my display for a while now. I’ve had a Dell P2715Q since late 2014, and it’s probably about time I started thinking about my next display. While my dream display — 4K or higher res, 120Hz or higher, and IPS HDR or OLED HDR, doesn’t exist yet, it’s getting close to that time I want something better.

I’d like a Retina-class display as much as the next guy. My primary computer is a Mac, and a 5K, 60Hz display could easily be suitable for both general computing and some gaming, just like my 4K 60Hz is currently. But my choices are either an UltraFine 5K, or Apple’s Studio Display, and neither of those can be had for under $1800. And plus, it just wouldn’t feel like that much of an upgrade for that kind of money. The only real thing they’re offering that my current Dell can’t is higher pixel density.

So what’s the alternative? Thankfully, 4K 144Hz HDR displays are becoming more and more common, and if you’re looking in the 27-inch sweet spot, there are quite a few options.

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Benny’s Top Tunes

photo showing iPod dock clearance specials and other accessories

At its peak, the Australian Apple Premium Reseller known as Next Byte had more than 20 stores around the country, and I spent most of my earliest possible employment years at just one: Next Byte Hobart.

Today, the Apple landscape in Australia is a lot different to what it was over a decade ago. Thanks mostly to the iPhone, Apple is the largest company in the world. Apple owned-and-operated retail locations don’t so much compete with general electronics retailers as much as they offer an experience of their own. But as any reseller will tell you, slim profits on Apple products means it’s extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to match Apple when it comes to the unparalleled customer experience that Apple Retail can offer. Any third-party Apple presence is either small enough to fly under the radar, or niche enough to carve out a market of their own. For the rest of us, Apple retail stores in every capital city CBD besides Melbourne, Darwin, and Hobart means out in-person sales and service needs are fulfilled, with any gaps covered by Apple’s online store and mail-in repair programs.

I have plenty of stories from my time at Next Byte. Maybe one day I’ll even write about a few of them, once I’m a little more comfortable the statute of limitations has passed. The one I’m telling you about today is about the music we listened to while in the store, but also about the music I listen to.

Background music. Unless there is none, you never really notice it. Which is exactly how good background music works, seamlessly blending into the background of whatever you’re doing, and subtly preventing an eerie silence from descending. If you’ve been to any retail store lately, chances are it’ll be there if you listen for it, but otherwise it’s just providing a little filler noise to create a comfortable atmosphere to do your shopping in.

In the early days at my place of employment, there wasn’t any mandated background music. No specific genres, and certainly no set playlist. That meant we could, more or less, play whatever music we wanted. Provided there was at least some reasoning applied about what was and wasn’t appropriate for the retail setting we were in, we were given total freedom over what we chose to play, and there wasn’t really any limit on what could and couldn’t be played. No death metal and nothing religious, obviously, but pretty much everything else was fair game, or at least was until someone questioned it. After all, it was just background music. It was supposed to be unnoticeable. Maybe not unremarkable, but certainly not outlandish enough to draw attention.

And boy, did we play pretty much everything. There was a lot of pop, which I was completely fine with. But I remember a lot of indie stuff being played, a lot of soft-rock, gentle/casual stuff, and plenty of stuff from Triple J, back when it was good. Even plenty of stuff from local Tassie artists and bands, which I thought was pretty cool. It was sometimes surprising what we got away with, but it turns out that if you play something quietly enough, no one notices. Which is perfect for background music.

Because we were an Apple retailer, an added bonus was that we got to play it on some truly great sound systems. There was the venerable iPod Hi-Fi, of course, which we used an AirPort Express to AirPlay music to. When Sonos systems became a thing, we started using the Sonos Mac app even though it didn’t integrate with iTunes to begin with; I think we started using (the now-defunct) Rdio for that specific reason.

We had plenty of iPod docks as well, none of which I remember the names of now, but the real standouts were always the higher-end docks and speakers from brands with known sound chops. Bowers and Wilkins was the most memorable of these. Even when the store was busy, no one really minded if you turned up a good-sounding dock to drown out everything else for a few moments, if you were doing it for the purposes of demoing it to a prospective buyer. Blasting something, anything, was certain to draw the attention of everyone in the store. Customers and staff alike would have their conversations interrupted momentarily and look up to find the source of the din. But even then, raising the noise level above ambient was fine as long as you didn’t play anything questionable, or turn it up too loud for too long, they realised soon enough that you were just giving a demo to a customer, and went back to what they were doing.

The thing about background music was that no one really wanted to spend too much time on it. Between serving customers, and selling Apple products, background music joined a list of administrative tasks that needed to be done, but wasn’t as important. As much as great background music was entirely unnoticeable, the best background music was the playlist you could cue up at the start of the day and only worry about if it stopped playing, or wasn’t resumed after being paused.

For that reason, we had pre-prepared playlists of retail-appropriate background music ready to go. They contained easy listening tunes we liked. Music that created a chill atmosphere. Remember, all of this predated music streaming, back when people purchased their music off the iTunes store or acquired it through other means. Playlists were a much bigger deal because in those days, you couldn’t just outsource your playlist creation to everyone else or just let the algorithm take the wheel (all praise the mighty algorithm). When we were doing our prep for the day, we’d start a song from one of several playlists, set iTunes to shuffle and repeat all, and that would be it. The best background music was entirely set-and-forget.

But on the days that I worked, I occasionally eschewed the normal playlists in favour of my own. Sometimes my playlists were exclusively newer pop hits or whatever brand-new album I had purchased at the time, and other times they contained my favourite subset of the existing retail playlists mixed in with a few of my pop favourites.

Whether intentional or not, these playlists meant that other staff would hear the same songs, over and over, on the days that I worked. There was nothing wrong with the tracks I had in the playlists, but by some accounts there may have been too few of them. This meant that some songs were played more than once per day. Generally not more than a couple of times per day, but over consecutive days, it became noticeable.

Which is how “Benny’s Top 40” came into being.

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The Cheese Wall

The cheese wall at Seasons IGA

What you see above is most of the cheese wall, with the last doors on either side cut off. I wish I was able to get a photo of the entire thing; alas, the cheese wall is located prominently in the supermarket — almost like they want to show off their expansive cheese selection — and its proximity to the staffed deli meant that getting good photos is awkward at best. Notice the slight distortion of the iPhone 11 Pro ultra-wide as it is.

I know what you’re thinking. Another food post? I’m no foodie. For reasons that I’m not completely prepared to explore at the moment, I can’t write about anything else right now, so food posts are all I have. Safe, effective, and basically inoffensive to anyone — unless you’re a foodie, in which case I apologise in advance. Because I am not.

I moved into my own place at the start of 2020. Those were different times, before Covid. Before any of us really knew what a pandemic meant, the impact it would have on our lives, and how it would — some say irrevocably — change our lives. But I digress. When I moved into my own place, one of the first things I did was walk around the local neighbourhood to see where I could get food. Besides the obvious reason, this was important because I wanted to know where my local restaurants were, in case I ever decided I wanted to eat somewhere often enough to become a regular.

There was this one Indian restaurant about a ten minute walk away. Nestled in between an IGA on one side, and a Japanese restaurant on the other, it wasn’t particularly remarkable in any way, but I put it on the list anyway. Having another go-to Indian place meant there was yet another chance they would serve authentic, delicious naan, alongside other Indian staples like butter chicken and lamb korma.

As fate would have it, I never got to eat at that Indian restaurant. There were and are simply too many other places to eat within walking distance of my new place, and for exactly that reason, I never made it to that particular Indian restaurant. My go-to Indian restaurant was about a ten minutes walk in the opposite direction, and their naan and lamb korma is just as good as any other. It was probably something like late July or August 2020 by the time the stars aligned and I decided to go there and eat, but I was greeted only with disappointment. Disappointment, and a sign that said the restaurant was closed for renovations. I couldn’t help but think that renovations seemed like a particularly convenient excuse for “Covid-related impacts” like so many other businesses and restaurants, but all I could do was make a mental note to come back some other time.1

And with that, I kind of forget about it for a while. I walked past every couple of weeks or so, but either Covid has really impacted their renovation process, or they’re just taking their time. But it’s fine, I can wait, and in the meantime, there are plenty of other places where I can get takeaway. Fast-forward almost an entire year, and while I’m waiting for Japanese takeaway at the place next door, I notice that what was previously the Indian restaurant I was looking forward to eating at, is now an even bigger IGA than what previously existed.

While I’m initially disappointed that the Indian restaurant is no more, having an IGA within walking distance isn’t exactly a bad thing either. Out of curiosity, I go in. The first thing I notice when I walk in is that it’s not just any IGA. It’s a full-blown, supermarket-sized IGA. It’s incredibly modern, thoughtfully well-designed, and also huge. I’m not sure what these Seasons people are doing, but their IGAs — the single one I’ve been to, anyway — are top notch supermarkets.

And that, dear reader, is when I see it.

The cheese wall.

A entire wall of the already massive supermarket.

Dedicated entirely to cheese.

In thirty years, I’ve never seen so much cheese.

There’s cheddar, of course, but so many other varieties of cheese besides. Plenty others that I have no idea how to pronounce, and others still that I have never even heard of. All displayed behind glass doors covering what appears to be a temperature and humidity-controlled environment to ensure that the cheese stays at the ideal consistency.

It’s impressive, to say the least.

I’ll always lament the loss of what could have undoubtedly been a fantastic Indian restaurant, but having it replaced with an incredible selection of cheese is just about the next best thing.

  1. I’m not entirely sure this timeline of events is entirely correct. Facebook posts say that Raj’s Palace re-opened in June 2019 after finishing renovations, but I distinctly remember there being a renovation sign up again sometime in 2020. It’s possible, even probable, that they had two rounds of renovations, with the second never being finished due to actual Covid impacts to their business. Their lease expired, and then the IGA next door was bought out and expanded by Seasons. That’s my version of events, anyway. 

Stories from the road: Camembert and Fig

Kettle special edition camembert and fig

The last time were were at the Gold Coast, one of my travelling companions picked up a packet of Kettle chips. Camembert and fig flavoured, Kettle chips. I had a few, and they were surprisingly nice. I’ve never knowingly had camembert cheese before, so I can’t tell you whether they tasted like actual camembert, but they were definitely cheesy. All the while still having that satisfying crunch typically associated with Kettle chips.

I’m no foodie, as I’ve said before, but at the time I had no idea what flavour they were. I asked my friend, and he told me the flavour. Intrigued by the taste, and eager to taste it again, that kicked off a search for the chips when I was back in Brisbane. I must have visited over a dozen Coles, Coles Express, Woolies, and Woolies Metro stores in Brisbane over the course of a fortnight before finally giving up and declaring that it was simply not possible to purchase the blessed chips in Brisbane. From what I remember, they were even showing up as not available online.

Fast forward a couple of months, and we’re back at the Gold Coast, this time staying over the weekend as another kind of getaway. Out of sheer curiosity, I visit the same Coles where we bought the chips in the first place, and lo and behold, there they are. The chips that were seemingly impossible to obtain in Brisbane, just sitting on a shelf in a Coles on the Gold Coast. I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw it with my own eyes. And, as luck would have it, they were even on special.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned the true pronunciation of camembert, much to the amusement of the friends I was talking to at the time. To their credit, they didn’t immediately ridicule me, not even after I mis-pronounced it twice.

Twenty Nine

Genshin Impact character Qiqi at level 29 and almost at level 30

When did things get so hard?

Yours truly:

With every year that passes, every birthday post that isn’t posted on my actual birthday because I continue to make up reasons as to why I can’t seem to post things on any sort of schedule that have nothing to do with the real reason I can no longer post on my actual birthday, I find myself becoming increasingly worried that time is running out. I don’t think it’s because I’m afraid of getting old, per se, it’s just that I realise have less time to do the things I might want to do.
No one wants to wait until they’re old and frail to travel the world, but when you’re young, you often have a different set of priorities which mean it can be hard to find the right balance between having a career you’re happy with and still have enough time to yourself to do the things you want to do. Everyone’s time is limited, and I get that, but it can be hard to find the balance between finding out who you are, and just being yourself.

But who hasn’t? Who hasn’t thought that they work too hard, and live too little? What, you think you’re unique or something?

It’s not as if I’m not doing things, either. I do things that help me accomplish my goals — executing strategies in real life, just like I do when I’m trying to destroy the other team’s ancient in yet another game of Dota 2 — but often, it feels as though I’m not moving fast enough. I know that there are no shortcuts a lot of the time, but it’s still frustrating to be moving at a glacial pace when you want to be sprinting. We’ve been through all of this before, so I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it’s something I think about when I’m writing melancholic blog posts reflecting on another year gone by.

It’s 2021 now. This post was originally drafted in 2020, but after that year that was, it’s only getting posted now for certain reasons I’m sure you’ll understand. 2020 was a heck of a year, and definitely not for the right reasons.

As if 2020 wasn’t already hard enough, I asked myself some tough questions. How do I become a person that I’m proud to be? How do I stop being jealous, obsessive, or so judgemental? How do I become a loving husband and dedicated father, should I ever find myself in that position? Is there a book for that? Some Medium post I can read? How do I know what I want out of life? Can I watch some inspirational YouTube video and instantly get all the answers?

Of course not. That would be too easy, and as I’ve been saying, life isn’t really like that. Besides, YouTube is filled with conspiracy theories and algorithms that are designed with engagement in mind but somehow end up you showing you videos from Linus Tech Tips, and Medium, well, Medium is paywalled to such an extent that I have not one, not two, but several different methods of bypassing it.

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The FaceTime Interview

Sliding glass door entrance to Next Byte Hobart, circa 2008

At its peak, the Australian Apple Premium Reseller called Next Byte had more than 20 stores nationally, and I spent the tail end of my high school and all of my uni-going years at just one: Next Byte Hobart.

Today, the Apple landscape in Australia is a lot different to what it was over a decade ago. Thanks mostly to the iPhone, Apple is now one of the largest companies in the world. Apple owned-and-operated retail locations compete with general electronics retailers, who now sell Apple products more out of obligation rather than any real profit-chasing exercise. But as any reseller will tell you, slim profits on Apple products means it’s extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to match Apple when it comes to the unparalleled customer experience that Apple Retail locations are able to offer. Any third-party Apple presence is either small enough to fly under the radar, or niche enough to carve out a market of their own. For the rest of us, Apple retail stores in every capital city CBD besides Melbourne, Darwin, and Hobart means out in-person sales and service needs are fulfilled, with any gaps covered by Apple’s online store and mail-in repair programs.

I have plenty of stories from my time at Next Byte. Maybe one day I’ll even write about a few of them, once I’m a little more comfortable the statute of limitations has passed. In the interests of becoming a better storyteller, the one I’m going to tell you today is about the time I was went for an interview at my current place of employment. Which, now that I think about it, has happened more than once.

It’s maybe 2012, or thereabouts. I forget the exact year, but can estimate it based on the technology available at the time, and the rough timing of documentation of what would eventually be known as the Learning Academy.

Towards the end of my tenure at Next Byte, my role on Saturdays was to run the Learning Academy, a small-group based education scheme designed to give Apple product owners a leg up learning what their new hardware and software was capable of. The classes offered ranged from macOS/iOS essentials, which offered a just-the-basics introduction to the Mac/iPhone/iPad, to more specific lessons on iPhoto, iWork, and other Apple software.

It was the ideal role for me. I had never been all that interested in being the pushy salesperson type, and by virtue of only working one day a week — we weren’t open on Sundays, a peculiarity for an Apple Premium Reseller located smack-bang in the middle of the CBD of a capital city, but I guess that’s Hobart for you — almost never made enough sales to make the commissions worth it. I think I can count on one hand the amount of times I made commissions based on sales. Being the training facilitator meant that I wasn’t “stealing” sales from the other guys who otherwise relied on sales and their commissions to support themselves and their families, while also allowing me to do something I actually cared about1. It was a win-win.

Anyway, although my position and job description didn’t change noticeably, the powers that be still wanted to interview me to see if I was suitable for the role. That was kind of a problem, given that our head office was based in Brisbane, and I was in Hobart. Flying prospective candidates in for interviews seemed like a big ol’ waste of money, so they ended up suggesting FaceTime interviews. Mostly so they had some confidence that the person they picked for the job was able to speak English and knew what they were talking about, I think.

The interview happened during a random weekday that I happened to be working for some reason or another. It wasn’t uncommon for me to work weekdays, either during school holidays or in-between uni semesters, but it happened. We didn’t really have offices with doors, so I found myself sitting at the store manager’s iMac at the back of house, separated from the main sales floor by a wall that was more of a partition, seeing as it didn’t connect with the ceiling and thus allowed sound to carry between the sales floor and back of house easily enough.

I don’t remember much about the actual interview, but I can remember that whoever interviewed me wanted me to talk for a few minutes about something I really like about Macs. I don’t even remember what I talked about, but it was either Spotlight and the many things it could do besides just finding things, or it was about the menu bar, how the menus changed depending on what application had focus at the time, and how it was one of the biggest differences to using a PC. (So-called “switchers” made up a significant portion of our customers, given that the iPhone’s rampant popularity had plenty of people interested in the kinds of computers that Apple made.)

Whatever I talked about, all I remember is acing that interview. Any nerves I had dissipated once I started talking about something I was familiar with, confident in my knowledge of, and knew well enough that I could add in a few phrases that demonstrated how well I could talk to people in a small group setting. I was eloquent, knowledgeable, and presented myself in an approachable, friendly way — in other words, exactly the kind of person they wanted to lead small group training. I might have been a nerdy shut-in the other six days of the week, but holy hell, did I know Spotlight. Or the menu bar. Not difficult topics, to be fair, but still, I get the feeling that the interviewers were impressed with my knowledge and delivery.

You already know I got the job. And, even though they weren’t willing to fly people to Brisbane for that initial interview, they ended up flying all the trainers from Next Bytes all over the country to Brisbane twice in the next two years, both of which I’ve written about previously.

The rest, as they say, is history. I have other Learning Academy stories, and might even recap one of those Brisbane trips one day. But that’s for another time.

  1. Not that I didn’t care about selling Apple products, but too often I felt that it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. Obviously, I understood that selling Apple products was part and parcel of working at an Apple Premium Reseller, but I never really felt that I was ever as focused on ever-increasing sales figures and profits as those that ran the store were. Sure, a lot of the time, Apple products sold themselves. But I always hesitated to be the pushy sales person. It just kind of worked out that a lot of the time, I didn’t have to be, and I was extremely grateful for that. 

The Liked List, 2020

Instapaper has this concept of publicly-viewable profiles of everything that you’ve liked via the read-it-later service. Mine is here. They’re good for seeing the kinds of reads I’m “liking” from around the world wide web, but the problem with them is that there’s often no context about why I liked a particular piece. Did I think it applied to my particular circumstances? Or did it strike a chord and resonate with a certain part of me? Or was it simply well-written?

Three years ago, I started a thing where I posted a dozen or so of my favourite reads of the year, out of all the stuff that I liked in Instapaper over the course of the year. The idea is that they’ll give you a little extra context about reads I think are worth your time, that you may not have discovered yourself via your own organic sources. Blogging may be dead, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find extremely compelling reads on the internet. So without too much more preamble, I present to you: The Liked List for 2020. In somewhat reverse chronological order of when I liked it, and excluding extremely popular stuff you’ve probably seen elsewhere, or stuff that I don’t think is noteworthy enough to write about…

  • How to let go of a lifelong dream
    This piece from Pysche isn’t so much about giving up your dreams, as it is about aiming for something more realistic. It’s about asking yourself the hard questions: if you haven’t already achieved your goal, how much longer is it going to take? How much longer are you going to be unhappy, consumed by an ideal that may not ever eventuate, but not through a lack of trying? It talks about the difference between obsessive passions that consume you, and harmonious ones that fit well into your life, as well as the most important part: re-focusing that energy and passion into something else.

  • The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial
    I’m so glad I didn’t write this year’s Liked List too early, otherwise I might never have read this piece from 2017 about premium mediocre. Yes, it’s very 200-IQ stuff about superfluous features that are, a lot of the time, more for show than serve any real purposes. Premium mediocre discusses how at the core of it, outward appearances are now just as important, if not more so, than the core thing itself, and how that has given the middle class a new level of upper-middle class to strive for, while they’re striving to be upper class.

  • What Really Makes Us Happy
    Although we may sometimes desire the premium mediocre, this article says that if we want to maximise happiness, we need to prioritise experiences over appearances. I feel as though we’re altogether too quick to judge on appearances alone, and while they’re important, they’re often not the be-all and end-all. That run-down house on the hill might have serious character and charm inside, and the bland-looking meal might be just as tasty, satisfying, and filling as the one that looks good. Oh, and go and watch Soul on Disney Plus.

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Christmas Cards

A collection of Christmas cards with hand-written, personalised messages

I did hand-written Christmas cards this year. It’s the first time I’ve really given out more than one card at a time, outside of birthdays or special events. I just think it’s a nice thing to do, after the year we’ve all had, and by writing supremely positive, personalised messages in each of the cards, it’ll be that little end-of-year pick-me-up to see all my favourite colleagues into the new year.

For the longest time now, I have had an unusual fascination with hand-writing things. While it’s usually faster and easier to use a keyboard to type something out, when it comes to giving things a personalised touch, it’s hard to go past something more personal than your own handwriting. What better way to convey your thoughts than pen to paper, written by your own hand, in a form that’s uniquely yours? Handwriting is that unique indicator that whatever words were written, they were something you personally produced, not something that was just printed out by a millions of tiny droplets or particles, a process that required very little effort on your part.

I’m not sure why I’m so attached to hand-writing things. I guess part of the reason is because in the modern world we live in, where everything can either be tapped out by two thumbs on glass, or on the loudest mechanical keyboard money can buy, writing something with pen on paper feels different somehow. Not necessarily any better or any worse, just different, somehow. Almost like you care about whoever you’re writing to and want to put in a little extra effort. I hesitate to ascribe some extra level of meaning to hand-writing that isn’t there, but ever since I stopped hand-writing things on a regular basis, going back to it feels… different. Special? Perhaps, depending on the message.

One of the interesting quirks of hand-writing is the whole permanence of it all. If you spell something wrong, or make an errant stroke with your pen, turning your previously borderline-legible scrawl into an art piece to rival even the most post-impressionist art pieces, that’s it! You can either chuck out the whole thing and start again, hoping you don’t make some other mistake, or you can decide whether you want to live with it and give someone something that’s less than perfect. But what if I’m not happy about how the words look on the page? What if my kerning is off, or the whole thing is slanted at some strange angle? It all comes as part of the territory when it comes to handwriting, and my choices are to either put up with it, or start again. Of course, no one expects perfection when it comes to hand writing, so minor imperfections are probably fine. After all, there’s only so many times I can decide to rewrite something before I start to run out of cards.

And yes, I’m fully aware that some colleagues will appreciate a Christmas card more than others. While it’s unusual — in 2020, at least, when everything is either digital, or stories, or even digital stories — to receive a hand-written Christmas card, I still think it’s something worth doing for the people at work that have made an impact on me this year. But for whatever reason, some people associate more value with a hand-written, personalised Christmas card than others. I’m not really sure why; perhaps they think Christmas cards are blasé, or that anyone can write some nice words in a card, wishing someone else a merry Christmas and a happy new year. Maybe they don’t think the card-writer means what they say — irrespective of how personal the message is — that the whole thing smells off, as if the card-writer is looking for a free win. Maybe they just don’t put as much stock in receiving cards as the next guy. But I like to think writing personalised, thoughtful messages for over a dozen individuals says plenty about the person writing the cards, even if some of the recipients aren’t as grateful as others.

Even if all of the recipients won’t see the Christmas card the same way, why does that matter? On some level I’m doing it as much for myself as I am for the Christmas card recipients. Writing personalised Christmas cards lets me say things directly to the recipients that I would otherwise find difficult to say in person. Not because I don’t necessarily think those things when I’m talking with them in person, but because I often feel awkward about expressing my feelings. Besides, I’ve always considered myself more eloquent in text, and sometimes even far more eloquent, depending on the friend and situation, so none of this is particularly new.

So I ended up doing over a dozen hand-written Christmas cards this year. It cost me a few hours, getting the messages and my hand-writing right, another few dollars, buying the cards. But being able to feel the gratitude of others? When all you really did was write something deep and meaningful on a Christmas card? That’s kinda nice, too.

Which, as I said in a few of the cards, nice is all something we could all use a little more of, given the year we’ve all had.

Stories from the road: the Timezone mystery

Timezone Surfers Paradise

“The game isn’t working”, I said.
“Which one?”
“The zombie killer one”, I replied, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the not working zombie-killing amusement.

We’re at a Timezone — a real, honest-to-goodness Timezone — killing some time and zombies during our weekend on the Gold Coast. We chose the Gold Coast purely because it doesn’t require any real travel, but is still some distance away from our daily lives and our normal jobs in the hustle and bustle of Brisvegas. Old Man Rona has put a dent in all of our holiday plans, in one way or another, so we’re making the most of what we’ve got. Playing the cards we’ve been dealt, just not in the literal sense. Not this time around, anyway.

“What’s the problem with it?”
“The gun on the left-most side, you can’t aim it properly, it’s always at the bottom of the screen”.

I don’t know how much you know about Timezones, but they’re no longer the coin-operated arcades they once were. No, a Timezone in 2020 is now a slightly more modern affair. For starters, you can now purchase a contactless card — Timezone call them Powercards — that’s either good for unlimited plays of most games for a set period of time, or loaded with a set amount of real currency that you can then choose to spend on games as you please. All the arcades are fitted with pads that you can tap your Powercard against, as if you were using PayPass/PayWave, which then lets you play. The cool thing about them is that they also store any tickets you win from the games, which is good and bad. Good because it means you’re not trying to game the system and rip out an extra ticket here or there, but bad because it means you can’t walk around the arcade with your fat stacks of tickets and impress the ladies. Not that I ever did either of those things, of course. But I digress.

It might have seemed like I was doing the right thing by telling the staff at this particular Timezone about a faulty amusement, but truth be told I had ulterior motives for doing so. See, I had completely misplaced my Powercard just minutes earlier, after playing said faulty game. And while it was only worth about $15 or just over an hour of game time at that stage, it was my fervent hope that by doing the right thing and telling them about a game that wasn’t working as it should have been, they’d be able to help me find my lost game card, or give me a part-refund, or something, anything, to compensate me for my loss. Despite it being entirely my fault.

One good deed for another, as it were. Or at least, that’s what I hoped might happen.

“OK, we’ll check it out, thanks for letting us know. Do you have your card? I can refund you the game you played”.
“Er… no”, I said sheepishly. “I, uh, lost it, somehow. I put it down when I was playing the game, and when I was done, the card was gone”.

I wasn’t even sure how I lost my Powercard, to be honest. All I remember is swiping to play the zombie killing game, playing the game, discovering that the game wasn’t working. We finished the zombie-killing game. I looked longingly at Time Crisis 4, saw someone else playing it, then decided we’d come back to it to hopefully finish it, given we had unlimited plays, then went to find something else to play. That all happened within about 5 minutes, and it was at the next game (that I don’t remember the name of) that I realised I didn’t have my Powercard. I emptied out my pockets, retraced my steps, then retraced my steps and emptied my pockets again, but nothing. My Powercard was, just, gone.

Now at this point, I can’t fully explain what happened. Suffice to say, it was by sheer chance that the person talking to me about the game that wasn’t working, was the same person that served me an hour or so ago when I bought my Powercards in the first place. Chance also said they remembered that I had purchased two game passes on my credit card, and it was chance again that meant they knew that we could track down my missing Powercard by looking at the other card, which was still in the possession of my friend.

But chance wasn’t quite done yet. The only reason I had bought two Powercards on my credit card in the first place was because my friend had gone to the toilet as soon as we arrived at Timezone, giving me his credit card to buy his Powercard with. But when it was my turn to be served, I asked for two Powercards, not one. Me being the person that I am, ever loathe to ask if I can pay for things separately so as not to inconvenience someone else, paid for both on my own credit card, hoping that my friend would be able to pay me back in due course.

That, it turned out, could very well have been my saving grace in this instance. Could they have looked up where my Powercard had been used if I hadn’t bought two? Maybe, maybe not. I can’t say for sure. What I can tell you is that it was probably easier to look up a transaction where two separate cards were purchased in a single transaction, than it is to look up transactions where only a single card has been.

I sent a few hurried messages off to my friend, who wasn’t with me at the time, asking if I could borrow his Powercard while they looked up the other card that was linked to it. At that point, I wasn’t sure if they were going to tell me the last game that had been played on it, so we could spring on the perpetrator of the card-stealing crime while they were in the middle of killing some zombies or whatever, but unfortunately, what actually happened was much more mundane than that. The attendant re-issued my card, complete with the refunded game.

With the faulty game reported, my Powercard re-issued, and the natural order of things restored to the Timezone, only one question remained. Would they have been so helpful had I, in good faith, not reported a problem with one of the amusements before telling them about my lost game pass? My friend was against telling them about the broken game being an issue, saying it wasn’t his problem to deal with. I disagreed, saying that we should have told them about the broken game, because not only would I want to know about a broken amusement had the roles been reversed and I was the Timezone employee that day, but because it was the right thing to do.

Ultimately, I think it’s hard to know. People losing their Powercards can’t be uncommon, especially in an environment with kids that maybe aren’t so thoughtful, and parents that have too many kids and too many Powercards to keep track of. Perhaps re-issuing is standard procedure. Telling them about a faulty amusement might have helped, certainly. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t expecting to be compensated for losing my Powercard, something that was entirely my fault. Sure, I hoped for it. But I never expected anything.

Maybe one good deed really does beget another, after all.

While I usually only use the “stories from the road” title prefix when I’m travelling and/or posting away from home, no one has been travelling this year, so I figured that any trip was reason enough.