An extreme close-up of Al Pacino's staring eyes, as Tony Montana in 1983's 'Scarface'.

I had some vague awareness of Scarface as the movie that the producers of Grand Theft Auto and various tangential works took all the wrong lessons from. I quickly learned how it lends itself to adaptation into video-game power fantasies and similar media: the protagonist, unburdened by morals, levels up at an exhilarating speed. While most media deriving from Scarface choose to elide the fact of Tony Montana’s terminal-velocity crashdown in the end, watching this movie at a safely noninteractive remove let me quite enjoy his whole three-hour ultraviolent parabola.

The brutally simple story makes for an easy watch, with quite gorgeous cinematography in places. The scene where Tony visits his mother for the first time happens in front of a perfect pink-and-purple sunset over Miami’s silhouetted skyline, miraculously captured behind the actors as they stroll up a suburban driveway. It doesn’t look composited, given the technology of the day, and it struck me as an amazing filmmaking stunt all in itself. As a Florida resident for much of the 1980s, I did soak in the ambience of every exterior shot—even if it was mostly shot in LA.

Before any of that, though, the film shocked me with its positively Trumpian opening text crawl, which took as fact that the Mariel boatlift involved sinister Cuba intentionally stuffing a caravan flotilla with its worst citizens, sending “the dregs of its prisons” into the United States. According to Wikipedia, this does reflect the popular American view of this immigration wave, at the time. I take it as harbinger of the hateful reactionary politics that Reagan would soon enshroud the nation within—a phenomenon well underway by 1983. The boatlift sounds like a fascinating and complex subject worth learning more about with over 40 years’ hindsight, and this film’s blunt, matter-of-fact stance sure sounds naive today.

Also more than 40 years old: Al Pacino while shooting this movie, though one gets the impression that Tony Montana is supposed to be thirty or younger, per the apparent age of his cadre. (Also per the actor playing his mother, who Prime Video’s pause screen informed me was only four years Pacino’s senior.) Ain’t nothing wrong with this very common bit of Hollywood Movie Magic, of course, but I took especial note of it here because his true age clearly made it easer for him to look completely worn out and haggard during the film’s final act. So, that worked out!

(Writing the previous paragraph felt familiar, probably because I had similar observations about Laurence Olivier’s age-discrepancy with his character in Rebecca—only going in the other direction!)

Looking worse for wear than Mr. Pacino himself is the fact of his casting as a Cuban immigrant, thick accent and all. A choice like this seems flat-out impossible today (and not without reason), no matter how skilled the actor. “What were they thinking?” has no answer either, other than good old “The past is another country.” I can only reflect on how interesting it feels to realize one has commenced to collect these within the geography of one’s own lifetime.

Michelle Pfeiffer co-stars in her first major screen role, and while she looks fantastic (if a tad underdressed), most of the scenes with her feel like such a drag. Her character never rises above a two-dimensional gangster’s moll, having opinions but no will, like a mouthy housecat. Despite giving her a lot of screen-time, the film declines to explore the tragedy of her existence as a powerless trophy who keeps herself numb with endless drugs. At least she becomes a little more interesting towards the end, as the only person in Tony’s inner circle able to escape his final reckoning alive.

Three bits of culture that I didn’t know originated from this picture:

  • The Kill Bill-style super-zoom-in on the protagonist’s eyes with WHEEP WHOOP synth music in order to let us know they’re about to ape out on some poor schmuck. The first time this happens in Scarface, any modern audience will have to laugh, even though it’s suppose to be tense I guess? And it happens twice more after that!

  • Schwarzenegger’s eponymous Terminator character, who would first storm cinemas a year after Scarface’s premiere, undeniably stole his look from “The Skull”, a shotgun-toting Bolivian assassin who appears only in the final scenes of the movie to completely chew up the last bits of scenery.

  • Back in the 1990s I had a cadre of friends who all called each other “mang”—both in person and online, spelling it out that way in texts—and I just now realized they were all specifically imitating Al Pacino’s interpretation of a Cuban accent.

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Hiddleston and Swinton as the vampires named Adam and Eve, chilling in a Tangiers alleyway.

What a pleasant surprise! I knew next to nothing about this 2013 Jim Jarmusch picture, now streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video. But I was in a good mood after watching Orlando through the same channel, and felt open to a subsequent evening’s giant step 20 years forward in Tilda Swinton’s acting career. I didn’t even know who co-starred—a delightful discovery, given my household’s recent love for Loki.

Prime tags it as “Horror”, incorrectly. Only Lovers Left Alive presents a romance of that rare sub-type depicting two people already in a mature and healthy relationship, which they draw upon to support each other through a shared crisis. In this case, the two people happen to be vampires. That’s merely the spoonful of sugar that keeps the medicine from clotting, as far as I’m concerned.

Only Lovers gives us an engaging story told with style and subtlety, with a secondary theme of entangled particles tunneling through the whole runtime. This starts directly with the opening shot: the protagonists “Adam” and “Eve” spinning and counter-spinning in their respective lairs on opposite ends of the earth, linked by the coincidence of the same vinyl record spinning for both of them.

The movie explicitly invites us to wonder why the two live so far apart from one another, going as far as having a third character ask it out loud as they make plans to reunite—and then it declines to give us a definitive answer. Instead, the film leaves it as an exercise for the viewer’s emotional intelligence, given what we learn about these two characters during the time we spend with them. I really liked this.

I got the impression that Eve and Adam have grown long used to swinging in these cycles, together for a time and then apart again, and that this oscillation lends their supernaturally long relationship stability. Then again, maybe the fantasy element needn’t come into it: I have an entirely non-vampiric couple of friends who also love this movie in part because they felt seen by this depiction of two people wholly entangled, and yet who seem to thrive best when given a degree of separation.

We might also conclude that trouble manages to find these two bright souls more easily when they burn together, even briefly. One of the compounded crises that the pair faces in Only Lovers concerns an uninvited houseguest, an estranged member of their vampire clan, who—quite unlike the protagonists—plies her charm and beauty* in the manner of a pathologcial narcissist, entirely selfish with neither regard for others nor expectations of consequences. I quite appreciated this implication that even fantastic blood-drinking vampires would have to deal with the problem of entirely realistic attention-draining vampires, just like the rest of us.

Good movie.

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* All the vampiric characters are stunning, of course. Swinton and Hiddleston are both achingly gorgeous here, and even John Hurt’s wizened and infirm old vamp looks fantastic.

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A screenshot of Super Metroid's ending animation showing the hero Samus Aran in her powered armor, smiling and giving the player a thumbs-up.
Samus mildly approves of my 9-hour, 50-minute clear time. According to the Super Metroid wiki, ten more minutes and she wouldn’t have bothered taking her helmet off for this victory pose.

Last week I finished Super Metroid for the first time. I played it on Switch, via the stack of emulated Super Nintendo cartridges available through the console’s online service. This groundbreaking game of highly kinetic and deeply atmospheric exploration has aged astoundingly well over the last quarter-century, and I can recommend it to modern players without reservations.*

And, yes, my time with Super Metroid, and with Nintendo’s classic-console emulation software, moved me to write last month’s post insisting on simulated CRT scan lines when playing emulated video games. That emulator has further interesting features I’d like to focus on today. Specifically, by pressing the Switch’s trigger buttons—not present on the emulated games’ original controllers—you can quickly dump a game’s entire memory state into a file, or load a previous file into memory. This effectively acts as an always-available save-game feature, for every emulated game. Furthermore, holding the triggers down calls up a filmstrip-style view with browsable snapshots of your last several seconds of gameplay, any one of which you may select. Doing so instantly rewinds the emulated game back to that point.

Were these features absent, I don’t think I would have finished Super Metroid. With them present, I had one of the most pleasant, surprising, and thoroughly enjoyable gaming experiences of recent memory—and one tuned exactly to the level of difficulty that felt perfect for me.

For example, my battle with Ridley, the Metroid games’ iconic arch-nemesis, took me several tries. I fought fair and square every time, my fingers off those magic triggers. But: I respectfully disagreed with the design choice to put the in-game save-station so far away from Ridley’s room, requiring a time-consuming (and vaguely humiliating) trudge back through an obstacle course of lava-soaked platforms and mook-level enemies every time the scaly jerk pastes you. No, the first time I realized I had walked into Ridley’s arena, I used those triggers to time-turn myself right back out the door, and then again to set up a save-file bivouac in his foyer.

And you know what? Maybe I “cheated”, but—speaking as the only human player involved in this experience—I do not feel cheated. My use of the emulator’s save-anywhere and rewind-anytime features did not rob me of an ounce of enjoyment or sense of personal accomplishment. In fact, as I started breaking into the endgame, I felt great, because I knew I was going to finish—something I absolutely cannot say for so many wonderful games I’ve had to give up on and walk away from in recent years.

At the very same time I finished Super Metroid, my friends celebrated the news that Outer Wilds players will soon enjoy some new DLC that expands its original story. This coincidence of timing jarred me into imagining the Nintendo emulator’s time-warping features as standard in all video games, including very modern works like Outer Wilds. And from there, I rapidly adopted the belief that if a game lets you pause at any time, then it should let you rewind as well—where “rewind” can mean the Switch’s literal time-turn, or the ability to save at any time, or even just generous checkpoints. Enough to let you retry a mistake at minimal cost, however that best fits the game in question.

I haven’t written here about Outer Wilds, even though I think it’s one of the most impressive single works of electronic entertainment ever produced. I mean it: it’s a great game, and a true marvel to experience. It models the entirety of a toy solar system, as well as the extremely precise and complex ways its many parts interact over a twenty-minute period. The game gives you both the means and the motivation to explore every inch of its itty-bitty planets’ hand-designed surfaces and interiors, and the starlit spaces in between them.

It is also hard, and as unforgiving in some ways as a Dark Souls game. While I took great joy in its many subtle observational and navigational challenges, I find less pleasure in the many ways a single wrong move through a tricky, minutes-long sequence kills you instantly and returns you the game’s starting location.† Wending your way back to the spot you perished for another try can take several more minutes of focused attention and careful maneuvering—work that becomes undone in an eyeblink, if you once again manage to not quite stick the landing.

I can’t stand feeling penalized a palpable chunk of my personal time and attention for a half-second of incorrect controller input—and then being asked to do it again, now knowing what the punishment will entail if I get it wrong. Inevitably, I reach a point where continuing feels too stressful. It’s why I generally don’t play roguelikes or Dark Souls-style games, and it’s why, to my lasting regret, I don’t feel able to complete Outer Wilds, one of the most objectively amazing created worlds I’ve ever inhabited.

Now, Outer Wilds lets you pause the game at any time. Of course it does, why wouldn’t it? Single player video games have made a pause-anytime feature standard since before most of today’s game-players were born. No game needs to provide a diegetic explanation for this; your character needn’t be a time-wizard. Players just accept that games let you freeze the world whenever you wish.

I want to see this paradigm extended. Specifically, I wish to see it become normal that every game with the means to offer a pause function also offer some way to take back bad moves. As with pause, the game does not need to bend over backwards to justify it; it doesn’t have to be Braid or Prince of Persia and theme itself entirely around time-rewinding. Let the player say “whoops” and try that tricky jump again, in the exact same mode a game already lets the player say “hang on a sec” and answer the phone.

(Or how I rewind the movie I’m streaming to replay to a bit of key dialogue I missed due to local noise, or flip back two pages when I catch my attention wandering away from the novel in my hands. And so on.)

I really do believe that games like Outer Wilds would be a much more accessible experience for all players if they allowed you to drop a save-point anywhere you wished, or quietly checkpointed your last entry into some dangerous zone, or kept a running snapshot or two of the world-state on a ten-second heartbeat.

And I use the term “accessible” here deliberately! The AbleGamers Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes and supports accessibility affordances for game-players with disabilities, names “Undo/Redo” as one of the core features that video games can have in order to achieve greater accessibility to more players in more situations.

My accompanying ol’ Samus Aran through the shadowy caves of Planet Zebes last week leaves me firmly convinced that some sort of do-over function should exist in every solitaire video game, including but not limited to games of exploration and discovery like Super Metroid and Outer Wilds. At my current age and attention-budget, I absolutely needed the accessibility affordances that the Switch’s emulator provided, and I feel grateful for their presence. Looking at the game-win screenshot I took of Samus giving me that hard-won thumbs-up still fills me with real happiness and pride at my accomplishment.

And, yes, I did pull those rewind-triggers a couple of times during the closing credits to make sure I caught that moment for posterity.

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* No reservations, but one admonition: you should know the things that a player of 1994 would know from having read the game’s printed instruction manual. If nothing else, know that Samus has a dash ability from the start of the game, activated by holding down the controller’s B button. Nothing on-screen ever tells you this, and the infamous early-game “noob bridge” stymies modern players unaware of the fact.

† Or teleports you into interplanetary space without your ship, or flings your ship into the sun without you aboard, or otherwise traps you in an unrecoverable situation that forces a reset. These situations are all enlightening (and hilarious) the first time they happen, at least!

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Photograph of an old TV set, tuned to a staticky pattern.

After finishing Paradise Killer, I find myself quite enjoying the NES and SNES collections available through Nintendo Switch Online. Once again bound to full-time work, I lately keep my Switch on my desk and fiddle with these simpler games when I want an interesting distraction. Their two-button control schemes, uncomplicated rules, and playtimes measured in minutes make them a welcome alternative to poisoning myself on social media.

Beyond the nostalgic comforts found within these Nintendo collections, I’ve discovered some surprising gems, a quarter-century or more after their initial publication. And so I sat down to write about my favorites, but a short diatribe about emulating old games’ video came out instead:

When playing 20th century video games on 21st century hardware, turn on your emulator’s CRT filter, if it has one. To do this in the Nintendo Switch Online collections, select “⚙️ Settings” from either collection’s home screen, then select the “CRT Filter” option from the three “Game screen” choices.️

This filter simulates the scan-lines of a cathode-ray tube—in other words, the battered family-room or college-dorm TV sets that these games were designed for display on. I’m no video-tech connoisseur, but to my rheumy Gen-X eyes, the effect in the Nintendo collections looks quite realistic: the default sharp-cornered pixel-grid gets replaced with screen-filling swirls of uneven lines and overlapping colors.

As Jordan Starkweather’s wonderful CRT Pixels Twitter account illustrates, the best game artists in the CRT era set each pixel of every sprite with the intent that the wartime technology displaying them would blur and smear those little colored boxes, making delicate curves and shadowed gradations out of the regimented graph-paper blocks seen in an unfiltered emulation.

The innumerable and evenly lit LEDs of your laptop or flat-screen TV may want to display these games as a quilt of consistent chunky blocks, but that is not what the games want. The games want you to see them as beautiful streaks of analog light! Please respect the games and the people who made them, and turn on your emulator’s CRT filter, when available.

Image credit: “CRT” by Robert Anders is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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A bizarre cityscape painted in neon pinks and blues and studded with anime eyes, set in the middle of a jungle.

I just finished Paradise Killer, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Like Disco Elysium, which I also loved, it presents an interactive detective story with an unnerving and otherworldly setting, and paces out its narrative using a framework borrowed from other game genres. In this case, a combat-free FPS treasure hunt tells a story mashing up a Max Gladstone gonzo-horror novel with a Spotify vaporwave playlist.

While Disco Elysium’s RPG-based gameplay and slightly more grounded setting resonated more with me, I still had a fantastic time running and leaping and snooping my way across Island Sequence 24. I can recommend the experience to any adventure-gamer who doesn’t get motion sickness from this sort of thing.

I shall now present my three top tips for new Paradise Killer investigators, all spoiler-free:

Spend your money. As with countless other video games, money feels tight at first, and in Paradise Killer it may also feel worryingly finite. The island has more than enough cash scattered around to cover all your needs, though; keep exploring, and you will never feel poor for long.

If you come across something besides fast-travel access for sale, buy it immediately, even if it leaves you broke. No purchase is useless or premature, and you’ll earn that money back soon enough.

As for fast-travel points, pay to unlock at least one or two in every named zone. There will come a time when your wallet will feel comfortably heavy, and you’ll be glad to pay Lydia to drive you around now and then.

Ask every question. Though it may sometimes seem otherwise, you cannot harm the investigation by asking someone a “wrong” question. Go ahead and lawnmower your way through every dialogue option, in any order you want! (This is one place the game’s style deviates from Disco Elysium, notably.)

Sometimes a suspect will respond to a question with anger, or even a refusal to speak about some topic any further. When this happened to me at first, I felt concerned I’d screwed up the interrogation somehow. Having talked to other island-hopping friends and now having finished the game, I feel pretty certain that all these responses are inevitable, and none affect your future interactions with their respective speakers. They’re simply dramatic, is all!

Visit every map location. While the wonderfully low resolution of Starlight’s map makes it difficult to use for navigation, it does give you a handy list, visible from the get-go, of every major zone on the island. You need to visit and explore each one at least once before you can crack the case, even though some of them never come up in dialogue.

In my playthrough, I reached a point where my trail started feeling discouragingly cold, and I started wondering if I should just pack it in and present my underbaked accusations to the Judge. Then I noticed that Starlight’s map listed an area I’d never visited—and which, in fact, I had no recollection of any person or clue even mentioning. But there it was, in plain sight, from the first minute of the game! And, of course, my visit to it blew the case wide open once again.

Good luck and have fun in the grim neon future!

Image credit: An AI-generated image based on the prompt “neon ghibli brutalism”, posted to Twitter by @ai_curio right after I started writing this blog post.

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A cartoon from 1955, Lolita’s publication year, tweeted by Tom Heintjes while I read the novel—and eerily echoing a bit of its content!

With some surprise I last month overheard two friends on Twitter—both women, notably—enthusiastically discussing Nabokov’s Lolita, and furthermore mentioning a recent podcast series about it. With only a baseline cultural notion of the novel’s content, as well as a sweet tooth for book-discussion podcasts, I knew I had to read it right away. I feasted on a public-library ebook edition over the course of two weeks, and as soon as I post this blog entry I shall cue up that podcast and commence a grand dishwashing session.

It will feel good to listen to other people talk about this book at length, because I feel so small having just finished it. An astoundingly lush and gorgeous novel, for the monstrous story it tells, and the truly hateful villain who tells it. I have so much I can say about it, but for today I’ll limit myself to a single, key observation: The tragedy and triumph of Lolita are one and the same.

Humbert Humbert—the book’s autobiographical author, according to its framing device—tries to make the story all about himself. He presents a narcissistic anti-confession where he details all his acts of deceit, rape, and murder in an attempt to fob the blame onto his multiple victims, and in particular the twelve-year-old title character. Certainly he succeeds in charming the reader to some degree, opening with a brilliant bid for our sympathy through the misfortunes that would fry his psycho-sexual circuitry at a young age. He then proceeds to write so beautifully about so many terrible things he does that we stick with his delicious narrative far past the point when any rational reader’s affection for him has drained away.

While Humbert does make himself the book’s protagonist, we can—we must—deny him the role of its subject matter. The book is about Lo. (Dolores. Can I call her Lo? I truly think she would have preferred it.) Humbert tries to make it otherwise, inserting himself between Lo and the reader at every opportunity, just as he never let her be alone with any friend or peer. Even the title is about himself, using a private pet name for Dolores rather than any name she actually answered to.

Sadly for him, Humbert Humbert is not the only writer of Lolita. Its true author masterfully centers the narrative on the true title character, radiant and fully realized despite the protagonist’s best efforts. This astounding feat of indirect characterization is the book’s triumph—and makes the weight of its tragedy all the more profound.

Lo’s light glows through the prison-bars of splendid prose that Humbert lays across every page. Though we see her only through the imperfect and even deceitful filter of the protagonist’s telling, we come to know so much about her: her humor, her intelligence, her heart so large and giving that she can love even leering, lecherous Humbert. And she does, right up until he casts her into the chasm between the novel’s two halves, ending Part One with one of the most heartbreaking single sentences I can recall reading in fiction.

While Humbert keeps the focus on himself all through Part Two, the reader’s attention strains to stay fixed on Dolores, blurred and backgrounded. We cheer desperately for her, squinting past Humbert’s wheedling, excuse-laden bloviation (“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury!” he keeps shouting) to catch glimpses of Lo clawing back shreds of autonomy within her miserable situation. Conversely, every time Humbert casually mentions another of her birthdays going by, it lands like a blow to the gut: a reminder of the narrator’s ongoing destruction of this brilliant child.

I couldn’t tell you the last time I met a fictional character who felt as real as poor Dolores Haze. In stunning irony, Humbert-slash-Nabokov, writing around 1950, specifically and multiply names 2020 as a year that Lo might live to see. She would have turned 85 last year, had she lived. Had she lived! I start to picture her as a little old woman with a sparkling eye living in New York somewhere, and wonder what her life was like in all the years since. But this involves not just making her real, but undoing the defining tragedy of Lolita. My heart swims, and tears well. I can’t do it.

This is one of the worst and best books I have ever read.

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After coming across it a couple of years ago, I saved this cartoon by Kolja Wilcke to my hard drive because it struck such a chord with me. I find it a wonderful example of what we might call a “Janus cartoon”: an editorial comic that makes both its intended argument and its exact opposite with near-equal force. In this cartoon’s case, I side with the antithesis, and adore both the strength of the argument and its clearly accidental nature.

Two people are working on two jigsaw puzzles, each depicting a giraffe. One, labeled 'Static typing', has traditional puzzle-pieces that only fit one way. Its solver is slowly making progress. The other, labeled 'Dynamic typing' has identically shaped square pieces. Its solver has arranged them into a giraffe, with several obvious errors (e.g. its neck is in-place but sideways). He shouts, 'Done!'
Cartoon by Kolja Wilcke

Let me describe why I love it. You don’t need to fully understand the details about “static typing” versus “dynamic typing” to get the joke here; it’s enough to know that programming languages or techniques that use static typing generally enforce much stricter rules about how you write your code than those allowing dynamic typing. It trades reduced flexibility for a similarly reduced likelihood of certain sorts of bugs. The depicted metaphor of the two giraffe-puzzles, in fact, illustrates the difference very cleverly!

This is what I take to be the cartoonist’s intended message:

Mr. Static knows how to solve a problem: slowly and carefully. Observe how eleganty the restrictions of his system help him draw order out of chaos, forcing him to use industry-standard best practices while assembling this puzzle: corners first, then edges. He cannot even consider the middle pieces before establishing that solid framework to build upon further.

We may join him in looking askance at foolish Mr. Dynamic, shouting with glee over his clearly defective output, made with a quote “friendly” unquote system that lets him rotate its parts every which way. Never mind him, Mr. S! Keep your nose down, knowing that each piece you painstakingly place can only go precisely where it ought.

And here is how I cannot help but read this cartoon:

After having an absolute blast while rapidly bringing his vision of a solution into reality, Mr. Dynamic whoops with joy—unsettling poor Mr. Static, whose unforgiving toolkit has prevented him from achieving even a halfway-complete prototype in the same amount of time.

We cannot deny the imperfections in Mr. D’s solution. In fact, Mr. D will discover them as soon as he or his colleagues give his work a second glance. Laughing, he will take a few moments more to make the obvious repairs.

Perhaps Mr. S, after wiping the sweat from his furrowed brow, will snap another piece or two into his own solution before Mr. D is done. No doubt he will appreciate the peace and quiet after Mr. D ships his completed project and moves on to the next one.

Of course the real world provides us with many situations where a strict software toolkit that forces slow, thoughtful work might provide a net benefit. One thinks of the proverbial nuclear reactor control systems, or airliner autopilots.

But that’s not what this cartoon depicts. The puzzle-solvers are each trying to build a picture of a funny giraffe. I would suggest that this scenario does not present an optimal time for bringing the whole book of engineering best practices to bear.

This cartoon does not only contain a metaphor of static versus dynamic typing in computer programming. It also shows the pure joy that a code-competent creator can feel by building something new—however sloppily, or initially rife with runtime errors. The best tools for this style of computational creativity are very often the ones that let you throw the puzzle pieces around however you please, letting you rapidly make real the image which only hours ago existed only as a gnawing possibility.

The cartoon reminds us: when choosing your tools, consider the role of joy.

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Today I join Google as a technical writer. This completes a process that began more than six months ago. Intense mid-winter interviews preceded many conversations with leaders of various writing teams within the gigantic company, all shepherded by heroically patient recruiters. (Thank you, Tyler!)

Laid across the middle of this span was my employment at Hydrolix—which, I shall now reveal, ended with a layoff in May. I can only extend my sincere gratitude to every person I worked with there. The best moments of my work with Hydrolix gave me such a sense of professional fulfillment and joy that I left convinced I had made the right choice in embarking upon my new career path as a writer.

All of my preliminary conversations at Google have whet my appetite to begin work there, and I look forward to settling in over the next few weeks. I did not predict at the start of 2021 that the first giant step into my new career would look like more of a stuttering shuffle, but that’s just how the dance goes sometimes.

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Slack has a feature available to workspace admins that lets you suppress the messages that users normally see when people join and leave public channels. (Technically, the feature lets you show those messages, but I believe it defaults to being on.) I think you should disable these messages for all the Slack workspaces you manage, and I shall now take a moment to tell you how and why.

To find and change this setting, select Settings & administration > Workspace settings from your workspace’s main pull-down menu. In the Settings tab of the resulting web page, scroll down to Channel Join & Leave Messages, and hit the Expand button. Finally, if the Show a message when people join or leave channels checkbox is checked, un-check it and then hit the green Save button.

Screenshot of unchecking the described checkbox.

I find the default behavior of this feature well-meaning but subtly harmful. In theory, it makes sense to know when people join a conversation, or when they’ve moved their attention along to other topics. But this, I believe, over-applies physical-world thinking onto the different assumptions of purely online spaces.

While an automatic join-message does have marginal utility, letting others in the channel greet the newcomer without requiring any further introduction, I see only drawbacks in automatically announcing departures. People should have the ability to quietly slip away from a conversation. By instead making every departure conspicuous, a person leaving a channel will at best cause a reaction among those they left behind of quiet surprise and momentary confusion. Some will feel mildly hurt, wondering if the person felt unwelcome, and whether they may have accidentally played a hand in that. Should they reach out and apologize? Is that assuming too much? It becomes a source of small and unwelcome anxiety.

The nadir of this phenomenon happens during more intense conversations, when emotions may run a little higher than normal. This tension happens naturally from time to time in any space populated by people who care passionately about some topic, whether professional or hobbyist. It presents a time when all participants need to navigate carefully to keep things cool. In these situations, a computerized voice butting in to announce a departure resonates like a slamming door.

Too many times I’ve seen an automated message turn up an already heated conversation’s intensity by whole degrees, all by itself. No matter what reason the person had for exiting—maybe they need a quiet breather, maybe they just don’t feel invested in the topic at hand—it becomes far too easy for everyone else to imagine them leaving in an angry, disgusted huff. People already upset can even overtly weaponize these messages: “Now look what you did, you’ve driven off [So-and-so]! I hope you’re satisfied.”

The presence of automated departure messages carry an equally harmful second-order effect for those aware of these problems. If I know that my leaving a channel will likely be seen by others as a noisy storming-out, I will probably choose to stay so as not to make a tense situation worse. And that feels miserable! The best I can do for my own mental health is to put that channel on mute, which often seems disingenuous to everyone else involved, and still keeps a conversation I no longer wish to see just one click away.

Deactivating this Slack misfeature removes this entire bind, freeing people to leave public channels with fewer hurt feelings. While it also gives newcomers the burden of manually introducing themselves (or being introduced), this feels like a small price for the vast relief brought about by changing this setting.

Help keep your Slack workspaces cooler, calmer, and better ventilated. Please turn off your join & leave messages.

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A nerdy but necessary announcement: I have migrated all IRC-based presence for myself and my projects from Freenode to Libera Chat. This means that I have registered the jmac nick on this newer network, and I have updated Whim and Plerd to refer to Libera Chat’s #whim and #plerd channels, respectively.

These migrations come after Freenode’s sudden and unwelcome change of management earlier this month. This article summarizes the situation fairly well, including a brief description of Libera Chat, the overwhelming favorite new home for most late-of-Freenode projects I pay attention to. I learn that it is organized as a nonprofit corporation, which already makes me feel more hopeful about its ongoing health.

Over the years I’ve seen many half-hearted and temporary “mass migrations” from one social network to another in protest of some new policy or misstep, so I initially thought I’d wait this one out. But then, Freenode’s new owners wasted no time making a number of surprising and disappointing actions that ran entirely against the network’s long-standing ethos, including dismantling Freenode’s code of conduct, and automatically hijacking and reconfiguring any channel that announced a Libera Chat migration. I find these actions so odious that this situation does seem like a special case that deserves immediate reaction.

Freenode provided the soil that so many wonderful open-source projects grew in, over the first two decades of this century. I feel so sorry to see the noble, scrappy IRC network forced into such a sudden and undeserved retirement. My respect and gratitude goes out to all the volunteers who ran it so well for so long. It was a fine public service.

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