Curating in the metaverse

People often tell me I am lucky to be writing my Ph.D. dissertation in the midst of a global pandemic. I understand they believe that writing a thesis requires one to self-quarantine, and thus expect me to be minding my methodology chapter oblivious to the raging global apocalypse outside. Yet, as with many well intentioned questions and comments regarding one's ongoing doctoral penance, I wish people would just stop. Indeed, there are parts in which a pandemic and intense, long, never-ending writing and editing mix: I don't get as many invitations for things that might derail my work, and when I do, people are more understanding when I decline. Fear of Missing Out is gone.

Nonetheless, those who know me better know that I'm not good at being a shut-in. If no coronavirus ever mutated and 2020 had been a 'normal' year, maybe I would be regreting the times I stayed out longer than I should, had one more drink than I should, that party and that barbecue that would be the reason I had not worked as much as I needed to on my dissertation. Yet, I would welcome the constant changes of scenery that always helped me being a productive citizen. Walking, driving, riding the subway, laptop on my backpack: writing in cafés, writing in academic libraries and academic bars throughout the city, writing by the beach in the summer (struggling with glare and polarized sunglasses that darken the screen), writing in hotel lobbies in the winter, writing in Porto, writing in Lisbon, writing in the patio of some guesthouse somewhere South I haven't been before — the whole TV commercial for mobile internet. Where I wouldn't write much, save the odd email, would be at home.

Yes, I have an okay desk and have been moving my computer back and forth to the living room table so I can change the scenery. I even bought this small table with the exact height that I can place on the dining table and write while standing in an ergonomically correct posture so I don't get fat from my Ph.D. as long as I hold the comfort food in check. (I'm writing while standing right now.) Yet, there are far too many distractions at home I had to learn to live with. In the old days of the first lockdown, when we didn't know whether there would be a vaccine or a cure, or whether it would rather be a countdown to a megadeath 'herd immunity', I went on a fuck it attitude for a month, playing Xbox and watching a lot of movies and reading comics and planning weekly walks of a few blocks around where I live with the intensity one plans a raid behind enemy lines. I also looked out of the window a lot.

After snapping out of it and getting back to work, I settled on a few habits — poorly scheduled, but habits nonetheless — that helped me frame the time I dedicated to writing. I signed up for a sports streaming service and got into German football and Formula 1 racing — sometimes a nice lively background noise in the weekends, sometimes appointment viewing. I stopped watching movies (too long) and instead I watched one good TV episode per day (watched all of The Sopranos, all of Deadwood eventually). I stopped reading anything not related to the Ph.D., even now that I'm just writing the damn thing up, because reading became an activity loaded with intent and guilt. (Looking forward for leisurely reading sometime in 2021!) And I started to spend some time in Occupy White Walls.

OWW

Occupy White Walls (henceforth OWW) is massive multiplayer building game, somewhat reminiscent of Minecraft and Second Life, where you create art exhibits. Big art exhibits. You have a massive collection of elements — floors, walls, ceilings — to place in a three-dimensional orthogonal space, which you can populate with furniture, light fixtures, and artworks. You buy 3D space, elements, and the artworks using the in-game coin, which — and this is key — you just earn automatically by setting your space open for visitors. No real money is involved, and there's no other manner of earning game coin. You pace yourself: you build, you reopen, you wait. You put the kettle on, go visit other players' spaces, or work on that dissertation. After a while, you have earned some coin so you can continue to build or buy reproductions of artworks to place on your walls. The in-game collection includes paintings from the Renaissance to the early 20th century (they have some kind of deal with the London National Gallery and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) as well as artworks uploaded by players.

OWW

Artwork uploads are, in fact, the only thing OWW charges you money for. They have some kind of dealership thing going on (which I'm not interested in), but I find charging for uploads quite a clever business model: it severely moderates porn while paying for the game — you can download OWW and play it for free. Minding the graphics settings, it runs well enough on my laptop, which is old but also has discrete Nvidia graphics.

I like it that OWW has no objective but to build, collect, visit other players' spaces (each can build up to three), and take nice screenshots (there's an in-game 'drone' for that). Nobody keeps any sort of score. It's like this metaverse art garden you tend to and curate. You can go nuts and just design whatever impossible, AESTHETIC (there is a vaporwave shader you can apply), space you want. I found out I am a realist, trying to make buildings that look like they have structural (collumns and vaulted ceilings) and historical integrity: I started designing these small palaces or industrial warehouses using the older-styled building blocks, and then I threw these wacky postmodern architectural renovations at them. Perhaps because of their groundedness, I started to dream (actual sleeping dreams) of my OWW spaces... but interestingly, dreaming of the modifications I would then attempt on my next visit.

OWW

I know Occupy White Walls has been often a welcome respite from being locked in. Looking at my massive spaces, which take a while to load — search for Moore Museum or Moore Hill inside the game — they have made me appreaciate how a little tending every day goes so far, perhaps more, if I should say this on record, than the 250-plus pages in my dissertation docs so far, so full of placeholders and notices and yet unrevised text. As metaverses go, OWW is a very good one. Yet I long for a day soon in which all those screenshots among my photo backups merely signal a lockdown past.

The young seagull

Like most city-dwellers around these parts, I do not like seagulls very much. Their cries may be a part of the seaside charm while walking the boardwalk by the beach, but in this city seagulls take the place held by rats in many other cities' folklore. Stories abound of seagulls snatching someone's croissant (because Europe), seagulls feasting on the abandoned pizza boxes of some impromptu picnic, seagulls tearing pigeons' heads off mid-air (a grisly sight I can't unsee). Not to mention the usual divebombing poop attacks, for seagulls can, unlike pigeons, crap on your brand-new jacket as you leave your just-washed car while in mid-flight.

Yet, I came to grow I-would-not-exactly-say-fonder of seagulls during the coronavirus pandemic. During the quarantine days, I spent many lonely hours looking out of my balcony, and I came to appreciate seagulls' flight. Though I wouldn't describe it as majestic or anything of that sort, the alternatives consist of the mindless circular flight of pigeons I got to know so well from my youth, the manic teleportation of elusive thrushes, or, come spring, the chaotic jetting around of sparrows. By comparison, seagulls' flight patterns look ponderous and dignified, in a way beautiful, closer to my memories of griffons in the Northeast, or that menacing black dot of a hawk we had christened Radamel (a weak football pun) circling over our house during holidays in Andalusia.

Come late spring, things changed. Seagulls became slightly terrifying. For the pandemic took away all the tourists along with the croissants and the leftover pizza, but probably also the city Animal Services' special birdfeed laced with sterilizing medicine. Going out of home confinement, people noticed how aggressive the pigeons by the sidewalk cafés became, hungry and craving cigarettes (true story). What about their bully and sometimes predator? There is a seagull nest up on the roof above my upper-floor apartment. Stepping into the balcony became The Birds by Northwest. Seagulls would circle and dive at me, crying, launching their webbed feet in front as if they were talons, and then suddenly pitching over the roof at the last second. A threat, a game, probably both. I would go to the balcony to water my plants and see how long I could stand in place before the mock attacks became too frightening. Sometimes I would put my hands up, showing them my palms, as if seagulls could somehow understand human gestures. Once I attempted to make owl sounds, and if I did not know seagulls' ka-ka-kas were symptoms of distress I would think they were laughing at my foolishness. Not that the owl sounds made any difference. These were seagulls in despair. Probably too many eggs, then probably too many baby seagulls, and probably not enough croissants and pizza.

So today I woke up with seagull noises as usual. But then I heard a thunk! and a new, higher-pitched cry. I opened the shades and I saw this bird in the balcony, certainly larger than your average chicken, ugly brown feathers half-caked in mud, black beak and webbed feet, a head that looked fuller of hair than feathers. A bird I am certain I had seen in some painting of Hell or at least Purgatory by Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel: a young seagull. It paced back and forth in the balcony. In fact, the young seagull paced back and forth in the balcony in this very particular way, as if making an effort to hide its impatience, that actually reminded me of the way I would pace back and forth in that precise place during the quarantine, checking my watch's step counter at every end for no purpose but to beat the boredom. I looked at the seagull for a while, behind the shades as it had seemed frightened to see me. It paced back and forth, and after a long while clumsily opened its wings and tried to take flight — and couldn’t do more than jump a few centimetres. The bird seemed frustrated and resumed pacing, annoyed.

It begun to dawn on me that the seagull was not going anywhere, and I couldn't put it back in the roof, for I didn't have a big enough ladder, nor the necessary courage to grab a wild bird and take it up with me. I texted a couple of friends that know more about birds than I do. One of them advised me to give the bird some water, so I put this cup of water outside, slowly opening the door as not to startle the bird. At this point I was afraid the seagull would nevertheless manage to jump over the railing and plunge to the street. I looked online for the city Animal Services, while the young seagull settled in a routine of pacing around, crying, pecking frantically at the door, attempting to fly. The only direct phone number I found was listed as "weekdays — 10am-4pm". So, even though I felt it was a weird recommendation, I followed the website’s instructions and called the cops.

The police came, a little later. I joked at the officer who came through the door that I was aware this was a bizarre call. He was cool and told me it was the second most bizarre call of the morning, as he had just come from this place where an automobile had crashed inside a patio with no obvious way in. Okay, then, you win. He came into the apartment, looked out to the balcony, and called this private Animal Services number. "This kind of thing has been happening all the time," and left. A few minutes later, this very tanned old guy came in one of those old APE-50 cargo motorcycles. He didn't have a mask or helmet or any other kind of coronavirus protection, but looked like the kind of person who was bitten by enough dangerous animals to be vaccinated already — the kind of man you envision exterminating rats or grabbing feral dogs by their collar with those long poles. He grabbed this transportation box, the kind you take cats to the vet in, and walked the stairs, muttering. “July and August, always this shit.” The man stepped out into the balcony and swiftly grabbed the seagull. Immediately every single seagull in the vicinity took flight and started crying, an infernal cry. The young bird tried to resist by opening its wings, but nevertheless the man shoved it inside the cat box. High above, the neighbourhood's seagulls cried frantically all afternoon.

I was told the young seagull is to be taken to this Bio Park, not far on the other side of the river, where it will be fed and eventually released once it is strong enough to fly. I wish I could tell the older seagulls this: "You just fly straight south for a few kilometres, there's this place with weird birds you probably haven't seen before, there are these pink ones called flamingos for instance, and your kid will be there. And do not worry, they sometimes have hawks and owls and eagles there but those are in cages, and they only release them much farther away." But later, when I went to water the plants and play a little chicken with the seagulls, there was this extreme viciousness to their approaches, and it was not just the parents but the aunts and uncles and older cousins too letting me know that if they had talons instead of webbed feet they would tear my face off. I tried to protest "but you left your kid in the balcony to die!" but these are seagulls, they cannot pass the mirror test, let alone understand counterfactual histories. I was reminded of Werner Herzog's comments regarding chickens:

Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.

Werner Herzog was born in Munich, Germany, where I imagine there are no seagulls. Though, in regard to the first link, I must admit that seagull hypnosis sounds way more far-fetched than chicken hypnosis.

I hope that young seagull is okay, though.

Onward

It is often attributed to Lenin the saying that there are decades in which nothing happens, and then there are weeks in which decades do happen. Probably it is too soon to say decades did happen in the last few weeks. Maybe a coronavirus vaccine will come along, and people will pretend nothing happened, back to business. Or perhaps no vaccine comes, and many will still pretend nothing happens — a dark possibility already being played out in many corners of the earth.

I also find it too soon to express what I felt during this pandemic. In the past month, one foot already outside the door, one foot in, I have mostly appreciated how bizarre what we used to call a normal life actually was. Going into lockdown, I took notes and documented those early days. Three months later, my notes read like lousy sci-fi, except it is all true — a time outside of regular time. So maybe we should cancel the timeline altogether and reset the calendar at year 3020 or 20C0 or a number even weirder when we get to a point in which we can find ourselves in a society with a modicum of predictability in the future. If we ever.

Halfway throughout my confinement, I found the Warp Earth Catalog newsletter. The first playlist had this track by Can, Future Days. Listening to it made me feel optimistic about this massive opportunity for rethinking.

Maybe I will articulate what I am thinking in future weblog posts; perhaps I will not. I've become wary of how there are too many opinions already! I will be parsimonious as to be worth your attention (or at least point you to some great music). I decided it was time for a new site. I deleted nearly all old weblog posts, remnants of an uninteresting and too long a past, thoroughly 404'ed, keeping only some of my portfolios and curricula. I also dialed my social media presence way down. I want that brand-new notebook feeling, and I need focus.

Here we go.

A new decade

I remember how the 2010s started. I left a party at a friend's house in the early morning, about 6 or 7am. I turned the first corner to the metro station and heard a horn. I looked, and there was this silver Volkswagen waiting in the traffic lights. The window was down, and the anonymous driver thrust his middle finger at me. Just a fraction of a second, as he drove off, burning rubber.

That certainly set a theme. The sort of thing that kept on happening throughout the decade: austerity, precarity, fascism in politics, egotism in persons. Still, many good things also happened. And many of those good and bad things now seem like they happened a long time ago. Such is the nature of time when getting older, I guess.

Anyway. Taking stock of the whole year — the good things, the bad things, then the books, the music, the TV shows, the movies... I'm no longer having fun. I got tired of the idea before even considering it. Just because I happen to have this blog, I felt like I should write some kind of retrospective on the whole decade. And that's too much, and I won't do it. A guy like Jason Kottke still has that will and that discipline — besides having to meet the expectations of patrons —, and that's why he's successful: go read his best of the best of the best listicle post if that's what you came here for.

I will do something else. I am pronouncing this website as in maintenance, as I cannot be bothered by it. Whatever is automatic will be updated (Instagram photos and Pocket favorites routed to Twitter), whatever is not... Well, then it won't. And whenever I finish writing my Ph.D., hopefully over the next few months, then maybe I'll bring over a mop and some Sonasol and clean up this unwieldy mess of a website.

Have a great New Year!

I know: we can't even agree on whether the new decade starts 2020 or 2021. Yes, years are ordinals, so a 'mathematical decade' starts in 2021. But a far more practical 'linguistic decade' — the _twenties_ — should cover 2020. It would be absurd to leave out the year the decade is named after. So. There.