Five Years

I hopped the wrong bus in Liechtenstein. Entire country probably has two buses total and I picked the wrong one. Not that I had much of a destination. But now the bus was climbing up and up and up out of the valley, and I could see the castle I had been planning to check out in the distance. What a view though! So I decided to stick with it, see just where this bus full of gray-haired Liechtensteiners would take me.

I never planned to visit Liechtenstein; it sounded like a fun place so I just took the next train heading there from Näfels Switzerland. I had been in Näfels for a two week long letterpress poster design course and was still recovering from a pair of almost all-night printing sessions. That moment when you re-discover LCD Soundsystem at three in the morning, quietly swaying about and sort of hallucinating from exhaustion while typesetting 14pt Futura. Good times.

I’d learned about that program while taking letterpress courses Seattle. And what better place than Switzerland to learn some typography and graphic design? Plus, half of my work team was based in Zurich, so I could work with them for a few weeks. Nice coincidence. I’d even taken German in school. Never imagined it would actually be useful.

I was taking my second letterpress class in Seattle when I saw the poster advertising the Switzerland program. At that time, I was working on some black on black impressions for the Theremin-X project, plus a collection of waveforms from Anwar al-Awlaki’s speeches. That latter project was the reason I’d started learning letterpress in the first place. It took me some time to learn enough to actually be able to pull it off, during which time I discovered that I sort of liked printing too. I don’t remember where that waveform idea came though. Still had some of his lectures on my phone riding that bus in Liechtenstein. I bet Anwar never thought this is what he’d inspire! Radical.

And finally, end of the line. Little alpine ski town in a steep bowl of a valley. Green meadows; gray rock; blue skies. There was a chairlift right outside the bus stop and it looked like it was heading somewhere interesting, so I hopped on without asking where. Almost had a panic attack after take off. While I’d rarely fallen off chairs in day-to-day life, zipping along fifty feet off the ground, I really started to doubt my sitting ability. Didn’t help that I was heading off to who knows where from a town whose name I didn’t know.

Almost silent up there when between towers. No other riders. Just me, trying not to panic about how really not good of a place this would be to panic. And just when I thought I would never make it, a choir of alphorns started playing in the village below, the music echoing through the valley. Say what you will—maybe it was corny or touristy or whatever—but at that moment, it was exactly what I needed.

The music pulled me back into the present moment; the warmth of the sun, the blue of the sky, the view. There is where I’d brought myself. All because I wanted to print some waveforms and signed up for a class and learned letterpress and saw a poster and had gotten good at JavaScript back in the day and noticed that Liechtenstein was only a train away and met some people the night before and caught the wrong bus and jumped aboard a chairlift without knowing where it was going. And now it all came together. I finally felt, to quote Kurt Vonnegut: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

I started blogging five years ago today. Blogging may be too strong a word; more like posting words and pictures on the internet every so often. It’s been fun. It brought me to the top of the mountains in Liechtenstein at least.

Five years.

Five years ago I was still in college. Five years ago I could never have imagined what the tail end of 2018 would be like. Now, at the age of 26, I’ve accomplished just about everything I’ve ever committed myself to. I’ve built a life of my own; my exploration and learnings have taken me on adventures and introduced me to interesting people. And professionally, I’m responsible for open source projects that literally make millions of developers more productive every day. Sounds pretty good.

And yet none of that matters right now because I just spent two hours punching sine waves into paper tape only to realize I don’t have anyone to share them with anymore. Shit, that’s low. Just don’t panic…

That paper tape is a whole chain of its own. For the past month, my apartment has been full of 500 rolls of paper tape for a project punching out part of the human genome using paper tape punch machines. Paper tape is an old data storage mechanism, a bit like punch cards but if the punch cards were an inch wide and 5000ft long and spooled up on a film reel. Turns out that no one makes paper tape anymore because turns out that no one uses paper tape anymore. I had to get the rolls specially manufactured and shipped from the East Coast on a big palette. That was the easy part. Now I can’t find space for doing the actual genomic printing. The idea is that that paper tape would slowly fill up an empty room as the printing goes on. The jumble of paper would give you a sense of just how large the human genome is, plus it should look pretty cool. Can’t seem to get anyone interested though.

Laid up by some paper. Sounds real stupid when you put it like that. So yeah, things have been kind of going downhill since Liechtenstein.

Relatable.<br>([Tadanori Yokoo, 1965](

(Tadanori Yokoo, 1965)

So now I’m writing this. It’s a chance to put the past five years in perspective, to forget the paper tape present for a moment and examine how I got here. There was no master plan, no epiphanies, no magic. I’ve always just tried to go where ever seems most interesting. It adds up though. Easy to lose track.

This five year anniversary also seems like a good time to share a few of the stories and struggles that went into what I’ve created. Maybe even talk about emotions and stuff, which is not easy for me. Because why should anyone care? I’m not sure. As I said, I’m writing this primarily for myself. So yeah, basically total wank-fest.

Humor and self deprecation. Makes it easier to get in little flashes of authenticity. And to me, pointing out how absurd it is to have a crisis of confidence over some paper tapes is far more authentic than being all: “paper make Matt sad. Boohoo.”

Still hard though. Even this piece is hardly going to be some tell-all. Tell-all makes it sound too exciting anyways. There’s only going to be like a wee bit of nudity here; not even graphic. Still, it’s a world apart from Incremental Parser Combinators In Javascript.

I set out to create a technical blog. I’ll let you be the judge of how well that turned out. In late 2013, I’d already been programming and creating libraries for years. I’d built a lot of packages, done some game development, implemented JavaScript in JavaScript using functional programming techniques, even created my own programming language to make functional programming in JavaScript easier (the whole language also being implemented functionally to boot). But I never knew what to do with what I created. I’d just toss it up on NPM and Github, and hope that someone would find it useful.

But in late 2013, I hit upon a brilliant idea: I could write about coding. Not so amazing you say? Well, get this: I would write about coding online! (Please take a moment to reassemble your head)

I would write about what I was learning, share what I was creating, create a space for conversations. Or at least that would be the public mission statement. Internally, my blog’s real objective probably would have been better stated as: “hey look over here at how smart and JavaScripty I am.” Popular franchise.

So I started writing, started putting words on the internet. And it was sort of fun. A lot of work though. And I still faced the same fundamental problem: I didn’t know what to do with what I was creating or now with what I was writing either. My posts were about delineated continuations in JavaScript and stuff like that. Super interesting but not exactly broad appeal.

I kept trying though. And I found that, although I’d never liked writing in school, I actually sort of started to enjoy the writing aspect of having a blog. There were no guidelines, no requirements, no expectations; I could write about what I wanted, how I wanted. So I started to experiment, to try new things, to have fun. I began writing more conversationally, tried adding some puns and pop cultural references, and snuck in a few swears. Such freedom! I went wild! Even added a few images and memes.

In retrospect though, with those first puns, the fall was all but assured, for, as the old Puritan saying goes: “open the front door for fun and don’t be surprised if the Devil sneaks in the back.” There was no way I could have maintained a serious dev-blog for long. Only half a year in and I was already wondering what the point was.

So six months passed with no new posts. I was tired. I wanted something new. And then came Stupid Template Tricks.

Stupid Template Tricks grew out of writing C++ for Office. From the start, it was always part informative, part parody, part just stupid fun. It swept away any pretense of seriousness.

Stupid Template Tricks is still my most popular series of posts. I sort of wonder what people think when they start on C++ Tetris and click through too see more recent posts and find butt reality or whatever. Keeping at anything too long though tends to bore me, even if it’s something as complex as C++ template meta-programming or as free form as a bunch of memes.

Once again though, the writing part of the posts eventually grew to dominate my interest. No good writing but fun. Over time, the writing got pushed towards being almost surrealistic; the puns and jokes and references stopped making sense and totally took away from the content but I just kept going with them. Why not? Like Pride and Parser Combinators. Simple memes weren’t enough.

The focus on writing was cemented with the Halloween Template Trilogy. If C++ template programming is nerdy, then poorly written, horror story parodies about C++ templates take things to a whole other level. I don’t know that people quite knew what to make of them. Had fun creating them though, so I kept doing one every Halloween for the next three years. I even tried something new for each part: the first part just attempted to be a cohesive story, the second attempted to use first person in the present tense; and the third attempted to have dialog and characters.

Next came Blot’re. (The name Blot’re is a domain hack that uses an apostrophe instead of a period. It’s pronounced “blotter” or “blot are”, being derived from contractions like we’re or they’re. The name “blotter” of course has a few different meanings—police blotter, blotting paper, blot out, blotters—some of which are mirrored in the site. The slogan “Be Color” is sort of a translation of “blot are” and was inspired by Health’s “Get Color”. I’d always found “get color” to be a really evocative phrase for some reason. Good album too and it seemed to fit.)

If Stupid Template Tricks is what happens when I get board writing C++, Blot’re is what happens when I try learning Scala. It’s still one of my favorite projects. Built the whole website and then created a personality around it. Blot’re even let me try developing a new voice and exploring new forms of humor.

Of all the things I’ve created, Blot’re is the one I wish I could give more attention too. Like Stupid Template Tricks and my JavaScript blogging before that, it just sort of trickled off as I shifted my focus on the the next project. That’s a shame. If I had the time and resources, I really wish I could make Blot’re “real”: create a real company that is actually an absurdist performance piece. Even just keeping up with the Blot’re blog would have been nice: from the Blot’chain, to hacking scandals, to Blot’re bros getting caught up in me too. As it stands though, Blot’re is just an inside joke built for one. It’s hard to keep enthusiasm for that up (even if Blot’re was hating on Big Social before it was cool).

Oh, and back on Stupid Template Tricks for a moment: between part two and three of the Halloween trilogy, I contemplated a post about implementing Scheme in C++ templates. This was actually hinted at in the stories but writing part three wore me out. It was time to move on. If I ever go back to C++, I’d really like to create a surreal tutorial series called “120 Days of C++” that starts out all “hello world” and serious and bla bla bla, and then slowly devolves into cultist rituals and unspeakable template debauchery. I worry people may think I’m serious though. I mean, we’ve had efforts to scrub the word “slave” from technical documentation and here I am proposing going all Salò on SFINAE (even though I’d never bring something like that into the actual technical sphere). If you don’t understand, well it’s not for you. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s trash. That’s the point.

Blot’re was important for another reason: it spawned some quick, small side projects. These made me realize I could do one-offs, just pull together something fun. A number weren’t even very technical. Looking back, some of these small projects are pretty great, and some are pretty lame. The iteration speed and variety of projects let me explore new directions and fail fast and deliver a lot. They set the pace for the next few years.

Three years in now. 2016.

By now the whole dev-blog thing was long forgotten. I was throwing up posts about the number of exclamation marks in The Jungle!!!!, and auctioning off printouts of the source code of eBay listings, and training neural networks on dream journals. Yet, although what I was creating and how I was creating it had evolved, the content itself was still not personal. That required modded reality.

Although my first modded reality post suggested that the idea of having your eyes on your hands came after a few too many hits, that was not the case. I can honestly say that I’ve come up with all of my terrible ideas while 100% sober. No, the true origin of modded reality is actually far more embarrassing: it was inspired by Pictureplane. And don’t get me wrong because I love Pictureplane, but his music totally makes me feel like an angsty teen dressed in black hanging out at Hot Topic.

I waited too long
Until you moved on
And now I’m deep entangled
And your blood’s like some drug
Sex trigger

— Sex Trigger, Pictureplane

But that intro rift! And yeah, that’s where modded reality came from.

That first piece on modded reality was a meandering, ten thousand word slog (with section titles inspired by Mark Twain’s travel novels). I doubt few people ever read any of it. It was the first time though that I truly put some of myself in a piece. Whereas Stupid Template Tricks had abounded in pop culture references and whatnot, modded reality was, by its nature, all about subjective experience. Even with the jokes and writing style to hide behind, writing about what I felt and experienced—and especially with regards to sexuality—was very stressful. That post must have gone through ten major revisions. It shows.

The concept of modded reality is so simple but I think so profound. Being able to change and hack your senses. And sure the tech’s not there yet, but you can get an approximation. Why aren’t people excited about conceptually mounting your eyes on your hands or on your belt or on your shoes? It’s amazing! Why aren’t there more weird people out there doing weird stuff like that?

Modded reality was also the first time I could share something that I had created with friends. Sharing a website or photos with someone is one thing; sharing an experience together is quite another. People enjoyed third person reality and whatnot, but no one seemed quite as taken by it. Meanwhile, I was spending weekends and evenings mucking about—mounting cameras various places, trying out different vision filters—all sorts of stuff. Every idea seemed to spawn five others.

Sharing modded reality at Christmas

Sharing modded reality at Christmas

While writing about sexual experiences was difficult, it was We are our own pornography that made me seriously consider if what I was creating might adversely effect my life. Was it really worth risking friendships, relationships, and professional opportunities over? Which sounds all melodramatic, and I know it probably sounds like I’m making a big deal over nothing, but you have to realize that We are our own pornography was like a really, really big step for me, both creatively and personally.

Here’s a fun fact: after filming, I was so incapable of facing it all that I literally played through the entire Bioshock series rather than start editing the footage. I’d take a peek and have to close the window after ten seconds. Too embarrassing. Too much of me in the damn thing, and I wasn’t even in it! Not even an audience to hide behind. So back to drilling junkies in an underwater free-market dystopia! Literally.

A man chooses, a slave obeys.

— Andrew Ryan

My first truly expressive creation was actually back in college. A photoshoot. Nude. But totally not like you are thinking. It was a series of long exposures using the light from cellphones and tablets to create these bizarre yet beautiful effects with the human body. Something about our relationship with technology or something. There may also have been some ethernet bondage stuff but let’s not go into that…

That was in September 2012.

I never published that project because what do you do with that kind of thing? Put in a local coffeeshop? Maybe with a naked woman it could pass as high art. Scrawny-ass naked me though? No one wants to see that. And besides, I was in my junior year majoring in CS and with zero formal art education and no connections. I don’t know but this was just something I felt compelled to create, like a lot of my work since then.

I hadn’t looked at those photos since I took them. I don’t know but I think I was scared they’d be all corny; real bullwhip up the ass type stuff. But you know what? I found them the other day and some of them are pretty damn interesting.

Long exposure with light from iPhone (2012)

Long exposure with light from iPhone (2012)

So back on We are our own pornography, what I eventually concluded was that if I did not take this step now then I never would. And if worst came to worst and I was disowned, unfriended, shit-canned, or whatever, at least I’d be going out in some style. No namby-pamby Twitter jokes here, no siree.

Still, that didn’t make it any easier to tell my dad. Not that I ever thought he’d disown me (although I was far less certain about some other relations…) but it was still my dad. He checks my blog. I’m not sure how I feel about that but it’s a fact. So from the start, I knew that I had at least that audience.

It was early Fall and my dad and I were visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. That gave me a little over a week to find the right time to tell him. That was the goal of the trip. Superficially though, the goal of the trip was to see a bull moose. This sort of thing has become a running joke on our family trips; we’ve always got some new animal that we’re hoping to see out in the wild, be it marmots or moose or porcupines. A porcupine is the dream, not because it’d be super interesting or anything, but because we’ve just never seen one. Even a big rodent can become mythic after a while. And while we’d aimed for moose before, Grand Teton was our best shot.

It was getting pretty late in the trip and still no luck. Not for lack of trying. We’d gotten up early to go hiking through wetlands and along lakes, scope out some prime moose hangouts, and always kept an eye pealed while driving. Must have driven Moose–Wilson road in Grand Teton a dozen times or more. A road name like that sets some big expectations. Bears, deer, elk, pronghorn. No bull.

It was along Moose–Wilson road before sunrise one of those mornings that I finally worked up the courage to say, “So Dad, I’m going to be heading to Los Angeles in a few weeks…”

Saw a bull moose that morning too. Multiple bull moose at that! Even stalked after one with some regular moose paparazzi. It was a good Fall.

So we filmed it; I saved Rapture; then Rapture again; then Columbia; and then I finally could edit the damn thing. Another fun fact: for a long time the video was synchronized to Heavy Black Heart by Death’s Dynamic Shroud. Like the pulse of the music controlled the playback speed. It was both amazing and amazingly corny. I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have gone with that…

The accompanying write-up was half exploration of why I created the piece and half preemptive rebuttal. I first followed that pattern with Don, because honestly at the time I was concerned that a piece about getting off on Mr. President’s words could be rather misunderstood. Same deal this time around. While I fully believe in both of these projects, their subject matters were not the easiest, not the safest. I’d come this far, but when I finally git pushed to publish, I still braced for the worst…

And nothing happened.

Silence is in some ways far worse than a rebuke. Because what do you learn from it? What do you take away? Was it too conservative or too outlandish? Was it the execution? The presentation? The wrong audience? I still honestly do not know.

I’ve sort of grown to hate publishing. Like dying a little every time. You work for months on a thing and get all excited about it and convince yourself that you’ve created something new and fun, and then you finally release it and no one gives a wet fart.

Maybe I need to get better at self-promotion.

It was VS Code that finally forced me to revive a personal Twitter account that I created in 2009. I had originally signed up because the guys on the Modo dev-cast were talking all about Twitter shenanigans. It was a lot more fun back then. Never really got into social media though. Now that I was working on VS Code and all the cool JS devs were over on Twitter, I figured I should go where people hang out.

In the beginning, I would set a daily todo to try to force myself to tweet something. Ugh.

Soon, building on that initial wave of social media success, I hatched another brilliant, and quite novel, scheme: use Twitter to share new blog posts! Crazy, but it just might work. And it did seem quite promising until I done messed up: tweeted about JS a few too many times; got caught up in the wrong crowd of followers. And suddenly tweeting about my modded reality experiments and Theremin-X proposals didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. Same goes for a lot of what I create these days; either it’s too Theremin-X or else no one will care so why bother. And that sucks. Makes me feel like I’m managing a brand whenever I log on.

Whereas once I could share misadventures like trying to cast vibrators in Jello cones, I don't anymore. Not worth the trouble.

Whereas once I could share misadventures like trying to cast vibrators in Jello cones, I don’t anymore. Not worth the trouble.

Sometimes I feel I should create a persona: a Ziggy Stardust or Sunglasses Kid. I mean I’ve probably gone through at least hundred different online identities—yet never committed; never given myself over to one. It sounds like a lot of work.

It’s not the desire to be someone else. Roleplaying has never appealed for some reason. There’s always gonna be that uncanny moment where the Civil War re-enactor or dominatrix or whoever drives up in their Prius and breaks the whole illusion. And frankly, paint a lightning bolt across my face or stick me in a leather jacket, and maybe I could try acting the part but it’d still be me. I’d know it was just an act.

In fact, I worry that any persona might reveal too much. Even with Bioshock, every so often I’d have a pang of self consciousness, suspecting that maybe it was all just a clumsy power fantasy instead of a fun romp through a neat art-deco world (plus epic procrastination mechanism). And in Infinite, I also was kind of disturbed by Elizabeth’s depiction and how—for as much as the game and the gaming press tried to sell you otherwise—her character still felt uncomfortably stereotypical. You see, I’m actually very progressive; now off to edit my porn.

Nor by creating a persona do I wish to escape. This space is already pretty free, and while there’s still some self-censorship—at least partially because of my decision to create stuff under my name—it’s nice to have a place to experiment and to play. And although I may whine about the lack of a consistent audience, this is also quite liberating. Freedom to explore new areas, try new forms of presentation. Turned out pretty well so far.

No, it’s the story part of a persona that appeals. The coming together of all these actions and words and images to create something deeper and richer than the sum of the parts. An idea or argument made flesh, or at least having its own social media presence.

And then I think: maybe that’s exactly what I’ve been doing over the past five years, at least in my own weird scattershot way. Dev-logging into Soup Art. That’s a pretty good one. Now about that lightning bolt…

But, if this is a persona, how does it relate to the real Matt?

It’s tempting to think that they are distinct entities, or perhaps that blog Matt is just the greater fuckwad edition of offline Matt. And, to tell the truth, although I’m not sold on the fuckwad theory in this particular case (a brew of anonymity and youth being required for that particular character to emerge) I do know that even those who know me are often surprised by what I create. Here’s the thing though: while my latest post may be about getting off on paper tapes or whatever, I’m not going to just bring that up in normal conversation. Because that would be really, really, really weird! I’m not saying that’s right but that’s the way it is. One is a publication, the other a conversation. And I’m not that weird. Honest.

Reviewing what I’ve published, I don’t think it’s as simple as an alter ego. For amidst all this noise, amidst all the lame references and self deprecation, there are flashes of true intimacy—thoughts and desires and fears that I had not shared before posting for the world to see. Which is kind of strange, right? And yet, even if you’ve seen all the projects and read all the text—which is a pretty big if—do you actually know me? You only see the Matt that I’ve chosen to show. Maybe, when not online, I parade down the high streets on a long black leash.

The question I ask myself: what drew me here? Why do I create what I create? Why do I write this drivel? What do I get out of it?

No one ever told me that I needed to change. In fact, in most respects, five years ago I was doing excellent. But I wasn’t content. 2013. Senior year of university. I’d spent a lot of time working by myself on some big projects that ultimately came to nothing. I felt trapped. Not even sure what to do with those god damn long exposure photos.

I hated college. The best parts were exploring abandoned factories and learning to cook and working in the machine shop and taking apart lenses and building houses with Habitat.

I carried the idea for those long exposure photos with me for a long time. Too scared to act. What if I didn’t like what I saw? What if they were corny? What would people think? So I waited. I came up with excuses. And then one night, I just sort of decided: you know, fuck it. If not now, then when?

That night changed me. Even though I didn’t know what to do with the photos after the fact, that project changed me. It pushed me forward. It taught me not to be scared of trying. It taught me to trust my vision.

Since then, my projects have continued to change me. And while each project may seem minor—each change inconsequential on its own—it has added up over the past five years. Working on these projects has made me a different person. Still me, but different. Better I hope.

This online space has played a large part in that. This place is sort of like my own, lamer version of Wayne’s World, you know? There are no rules here, no expectations, no target audience. I set my own success measures. No required structure or required content. I can do one-off posts about some technical subject, a series about fake art, or big old write-ups for myself.

I wish more spaces like this existed. Even online, it feels like you always have to slot into an existing community, or recreate the old world with a social network, or sell yourself. This freedom may not work for everyone but it’s worked for me. I have used it to expand myself one project at a time. I’ve had fun. I went where ever was most interesting. And maybe some of it’s been strange and maybe you don’t understand everything I do, and even though online Matt is still segmented from other parts of my life, this is still the place that I feel I can be (somewhat mostly) myself, or at least whatever version of myself I want to be today.

It’s hard to go back. Almost everywhere else—both online and off—expects you to act a certain way. You feel pressured to be different with your Grandma than with your friends, just as you feel pressured to be different in a community for Halo than in a one for camera gear. It turns out that people tend to have certain expectations of who you are and, believe it or not, there are actually not many opportune moments to bring your upcoming Los Angeles plans, even with the people you are closest to. Got to be out chasing bull moose for that.

So the compromise is segmentation and compartmentalization. Not exactly unique. Still, it can result in some humorous situations. Like the time I interviewed at all these well regarded companies while my latest public post literally had me cavorting about in MAGA gear with a rubber vagina tube. Good thing I totally didn’t list this blog right at the top of my resume or anything like that… Got the offers though. And, you know, if anyone had ever really asked in the interviews, I would have been happy to discuss the technical challenges and my motivations for creating it. Why not? I believed enough in the thing to publish it after all and had clearly thought it through.

More often though, it’s frustrating. The day after capturing We are our own pornography was the worst. Literally one day in LA and the next back to the office, triaging issues and pretending that nothing happened. And look: I get it. I know this particular project is an absolutely terrible example. But it wasn’t fucking about sex! And why should it matter even if it were? What I create defines who I am and I had just pulled off a project that I truly believed in and had spent months coordinating. And I’d just had a really interesting and unique experience, and I couldn’t even talk with anyone about it! (well, except my dad, which is kind of strange but hey whatever; thanks Dad!) Not talking about it with people close to me felt like lying. It was awful. That’s another reason I headed beneath the waves for a month.

Not just that, I didn’t even know where to share the project online. Where does it fit? Too risqué for some communities, too pretentious for others. There are subcultures online for everything from template meta-programming to Lovecraftian fanfic, but what about parody Lovecraftian fanfic about template meta-programming? Where my people at?

I didn’t make the same mistake for the Theremin-X project. This time I made sure to spend a bit more time in Los Angele, gather some alternative stories to tell. Well that and it seemed sort of absurd that the only way I knew the city was traveling there for these two projects. Never even been to Disneyland damnit!

I spent two days on the Channel Islands before Theremin-X. That way, if someone asked what I’d been up to, I could just talk about that. And let me tell you: the Channel Islands delivered.

While researching the trip, the National Park Service website had warnings for Anacapa Island regarding “nesting sea birds”. Something about aggressiveness and a recommendation against visiting the island if you find dead birds or guano objectionable. Sounded like much ado about nothing to me. Because I’m an Eagle Scout. I can handle myself outside and obviously have avian connections. And, as far as aggression goes, although I’d never put the theory to the test, I was pretty confident that I could take even large birds, such as flamingos or herons or penguins, in fair fights (although, even back then, I would have conceded that ostriches may have been able to best me). So I signed up for a day trip, birds be damned.

The boat ride out was great; blue skies, dolphin pods, and mild waves (unlike the day before). Anacapa Island, at least the eastern part we were heading to, is a mile long strip of rock that forms a plateau a hundred feet above the water. The only way to access the island itself is a metal staircase. As we approached, I kept half-jokingly scanning the skies for pterosaurs. Just a few gulls though. Not even a lot really. In retrospect, as a fan of horror films, I should have known that this is exactly how it always begins…

The ranger gave us the usual spiel before we disembarked: don’t take anything, don’t leave anything, don’t go too close to the cliff edges, etc. But then she started in on the birds and what to do if we are attacked (wave a water bottle over your head) and why you should not go anywhere by yourself (the birds prefer to pick on individuals) and what areas of the island to avoid (because the birds there are like super aggressive or something). But again, I was thinking: Eagle Scout! So up the stairs we went. The boat would be back in a few hours.

We met the first gull about halfway up the stairs. Just sort of perched on a railing, eyeing us. Big—about the size of a chicken—with an unblinking stare and a nasty looking yellow beak. Didn’t even budge as we quietly filed past, almost as if it were reminding us of the pecking order, so to speak.

There is not a single tree on the eastern part of island, just rocks and knee high bushes every ten feet or so. Birds nesting here and there too. They stared at us and would start squawking if you came within twenty feet or so of them (hard to avoid since many had decided that the prime nesting real estate was right next to the trail). Once I got over feeling like I was trespassing and got used to the noise, the squawking actually became a little humorous. They really could make quite a racket.

A little farther ahead, the park service had setup a few picnic tables with these big windmill things on them to keep the birds off. Seemed to be working ok too, since the tables were relatively clean while every other surface was white from bird droppings. But that’s not what caught my eye.

Baby gulls are surprisingly cute. Grey-brown balls of fluff with black spots. Almost look like they could grow up into emus or something. Fifty or so feet away from the tables though, I spotted one that didn’t look to be doing well. Sort of stumbling along and then collapsing, head a deep black color. Only when I got closer could I see that it was blood. Ugh, pretty sad, I thought to myself, But that’s nature I guess. Probably got attacked by a hawk or something. I wanted to do something but realistically what can you do? And as I stood there debating, a large adult gull strode over to the collapsed chick, stood over it for a moment, and then pecked it right in the head. Mystery solved.

Yes, not even ten minutes on the island and I had run across a pair of murder gulls who were busy murdering chicks. I couldn’t believe it at first but here it was: nature all red in beak and feather. As I looked around, I saw that this pair already had a serious body count built up too; a few heaps of feathers and a few other chicks that were still moving but may as well have been dead. And what are you supposed to do? I’d tried scaring off the murder gulls a few times but they’d always come back. I couldn’t stay there forever. So I walked away and tried to ignore. Just try to enjoy the good parts of nature—the seals, the flowers, the cute chicks, the crashing waves, ocean views—and try to ignore whole infanticide thing, mkay.

Must have taken a wrong turn in my haste, because soon I noticed that there were certainly a lot of birds around me. A nest every few feet or so. The squawking had changed too… not just annoyed but almost angry. A little farther along the trail, a few big gulls went flapping up from their nests, rose high up into the air, hovered for a moment, and then proceeded to dive right at my head.

A gull that size can be pretty intimidating when it’s rushing towards your face. And while you know they probably won’t really hit you, what if one pulls up a little too late? I was conked on the head by a wing a few times. And, as more and more gulls joined in the fun, I realized that, not only had I probably missed a turn and was now on the no-go section of the island, I had neglected to bring a buddy. Bad move. So out with the water bottle! Hoisting it aloft kept the gulls from coming too close to my head but didn’t prevent their secondary attacks.

At first I thought it was an accident. Gull came swooping down and released a splotch of droppings just as it came in. But then it started happening over and over again. Seemed like every time a new gull rose up from its nest and started dive bombing, one of the early runs would take the bombing part quite literally. I was hit on the back, on the leg, on the shoe, and on the shoulder. The gulls also fiendishly took out the spout of my water bottle. No way this was accidental. As if all the squawking and dives weren’t bad enough, these damn gulls were intentionally shitting (and pissing) on me. How’s that for hospitality?

So now I’m sort of running along to avoid the birds while holding a water bottle above my head. Getting hot too. No clouds and not a lot of wind. I can’t run too fast either because the gull chicks are really stupid and try to hide next to stairs and under the edges of bushes on the trails, and if the gulls were pissed now god knows what would have happened if I had stepped on one of their chicks.

When I finally made it to the viewpoint, I couldn’t stop laughing. Here I was glancing around nervously for gulls and covered in bird splotches and I still had another three hours on the island. Beautiful view though.

A few minuets later, I watched a woman run the gauntlet with some water bottle headgear too. She made it out cleaner than I had. We decided to stick together from then on, and stay on the safe parts of the island. Still lots of squawking and some menacing hovering, but nothing close to that first go. So remember, if the ranger tells you to bring a buddy, you should bring a buddy because those birds aren’t messing around.

Shit, in retrospect that gull story is probably pretty shitty. Al told it better. May as well bore you with stories about driving down the California coast and finding a Polaris missile right as you’re about to turn back. I didn’t make up that missile story as some sort of really obvious psychosexual metaphor; after filming We are our own pornography, that’s literally what happened. And I was super paranoid about loosing the footage too, so I was touring the missile garden and going out exploring tide-pools and all that with a big old backpack stuffed with a laptop, router, and pair of iPhones + VR headsets. You had to be there.

And you know, while being stuck on a hot, smelly, mile-long hunk of rock with zero trees and ten billion brooding, shit-bombing, murdering gulls who screech uncontrollably if you come within twenty feet of them may not be everyone’s ideal vacation, it was memorable. It was ridiculous. It was fun. It was something to talk about when I got back. And it helped distract me before filming Theremin-X. Filming was its own adventure. Turned out pretty good though. Plus this time around I only played through Yooka-Laylee before I could edit the video. Much better.

This is the kind stuff you never see: all the work, all the failure, all the doubt; the victories and the ridiculousness. Like how I’ve spent the last few years with a big painting made out of Monopoly money next to my bed. Can’t bring myself to finish it for some reason. One day. Maybe I’ll In Profile that.

But why try to lift back the veil, even just a little? What is the point of writing all this?

Is it to make me look good? Probably not. If anything, if you have followed me this far, you’re likely convinced that I’m a neurotic narcissist with a paper tape fetish. And while disclosure is an ever popular way to make yourself seem all interesting and clever and well rounded—not to mention humble and emotionally in-touch and human (but only the good parts)—you’ll just have to trust that I’m not selling.

Is it to inspire? Hey kids, if you study JavaScript and are sure to eat your vegetables, you too can grow up to get attacked by seagulls and film erotic theremin videos and put words on the internet! Yeah… Not saying it’s not true though.

No, in a way, these stories—all of this—it’s almost like a letter to my past self. Because this is the kind of thing I wish someone had told me five, ten, fifteen years ago:

Creating stuff that matters to you is not easy, even at small scales. You fail a lot, waste a lot of time, and suffer a lot of disappointment. But you gotta keep trying, keep putting yourself out there, keep pushing yourself forward. Because it’s what truly matters. Don’t follow; always go where ever looks most interesting. And one day, you may look around and discover that you are hiking through the clouds in Liechtenstein.

PS: If the world doesn’t appreciate erotic Theremin videos, it’s the world who’s wrong.

Quite bold to write all this at age 26. After all: have I changed the world? Have I created any masterpieces? Have I had exceptional experiences? Have I made headlines? No. In fact, with the world slipping towards environmental and social catastrophe, I was busy turning gifs into cubes and pretending to snort paint and coming up with ever more elaborate ways to vibrate people’s erogenous zones. Hey, at least I’m not pushing ads. At least I’ve created things that make people happy and make the world a more wonderful and strange place. At least I know I’m full of shit. I’m trying.

Five years. Not a long time really. Feels like a long time though. Maybe I’m just young.

If back on December 08, 2013 I could have glimpsed myself today, what would I have made of it? As I sit here typing this, one half of my apartment is filled with rolls of paper tape and the other half has a ladder atop a canvas covered in paint drops with a mirror sporting rails of colored sugar. Two vibrators are charging to the right of my keyboard, next to a Raspberry Pi Zero, an NES controller, and an acrylic VS Code logo; to the left, a table full of lenses and AOL CD coasters, a poster for a letterpress program in Switzerland on the wall. This is only a glimpse into the life I’ve created. What would I have made of it?

Now say I were perchance to flash forward five years, to December 8th, 2023. What would I glimpse? How familiar would the scene be? I can only hope that 2018 Matt would be just as surprised as 2013 would have been.

All the five year spans ahead: 2023, 2028, 2033, 2038, 2043… Shit and I would only be like fifty then. How am I supposed to keep it up that long? (though I hear they may have pills for that by then!) It’s presumptuous to think I have even another five years. Tomorrow I may die in a car accident or in some kind of telegraphy based erotic electrostimulation incident. Whatever.

It’s not time that scares me but stagnation; getting complacent. And what this has already begun? As much as my work over the past five years have challenged and changed me, in some respects I’ve played it safe. I’ve never forced myself to rely on an audience or on feedback. And in doing so, maybe I’ve missed some vital signals.

So where do I go from here?

Well short-term, I’ve got to write up the stupid paper tape project I’ve been hinting at. It was supposed to go out on December 8th as a capstone of sorts, something that would nicely close out the past five years. Ran out of time. No, that’s a lie. It’s more like I got sad when I realized the only person I was creating it for was me. And so I played through Hollow Knight… Damnit.

And I’ve got to find space for this DNA printing project. Who would have have thought that finding a popup commercial space to rent for a week or two would be so difficult.

Always have few other projects in the queue too.

Beyond that? As for the next five years? Well, should be interesting to find out.

Long exposure with light from iPhone (2012)

Long exposure with light from iPhone (2012)