For some reason I kept calling him Sun Yet Sun

Uptime report

After not going on vacation or any breaks all year in 2019 (poor me, I know), I’m now coming off about three weeks of leave that began around Christmas. We spent some time in Taiwan, my first visit, and then I’ve been mostly chilling out on the couch absorbing a good measure of reading material, films both good and terrible, and games from the infinite backlog. I often dream of living out this life for an extended period — half a year at the very least, going past the point of crushing boredom and beyond, hoping to transcend such ideas and just tip over into blissfully inert hikkikomorish life — but now I think it’s unlikely to ever happen.

The closest I ever came was a period of freelancing over a decade ago, when I’d sometimes feel quite content with my modest bank account and calculate how it could be stretched for months if I just cut down on everything and went into a sort of social and nutritional hibernation. It was pre-Netflix, but I was living that life anyway, drowning in film and anime day and night. I think I did a much better job of being an employment refusenik then; I would probably freak out today if I was staring at a life of baked beans across the balance sheet. Deliveroo makes you soft.

So although I’ve not yet had enough of the leisurely, solitary life this time around, I think the inactivity has been getting to me. I’ve not done nothing, but this capitalist world has some part of me convinced otherwise because it’s creeping up in the unusual form of mini anxiety attacks: a sort of waking nightmare state in which I’m certain I’ve forgotten how to do things I took for granted when the momentum of routine life was behind them, “simple” things like leaving the house, speaking to other people, and remembering how to do my job.

I suppose I have a low-grade case of cabin fever. Or maybe just real fever. In the last couple of days I’ve found myself breaking out into a sweat apropos of nothing. Let’s see if I make it to the weekend.

Taiwan

I was told by several people to expect a Chinese version of Tokyo, which I disagree with although I can understand where they were coming from. Taipei’s restaurants, cocktail bars, convenience stores, etc. do take cues from their Japanese cousins, and there’s a non-coincidental reverence for the Japanese way there if I’m not mistaken. But it’s ultimately its own thing, and if Taiwan had a Merlion-like symbol, only more tangible and actually useful, it would be their night markets, frequented by both tourists and locals from what I saw. They’re not really for me — every 10 meters, I’d be hit by the smell of stinky tofu and it just ruined my appetite — but hey I get the appeal of the whole thing.

What did work for me was the hot pots. I’ve always been of the opinion that shabu-shabu is the one true hot pot, and couldn’t see the appeal of Hai Di Lao and its ilk in Singapore… but now after having been to Wulao in Taipei, I think I’m ready to accept that a Chinese incarnation of hot pot can be amazing.

I also took a bunch of photos with my neglected Fujifilm X100T, easily more than four years old now. It’s still a champ, and the lovely JPEG film simulations meant I could decide to spend very little time on edits and just let them do the work. Apart from the very slow autofocus, there’s a case to be made that no one really needs the new X100V iteration rumored to be launched next month. So I tell myself. The nice thing about being a naturally nervous freak having newer cameras and then bringing an older one out is how casual and carefree it lets me be. Bumps and scrapes don’t have to be big deals.

I only reached for the iPhone 11 Pro when it was dead dark (an f2 lens and APS-C sensor are still no match for Night Mode), raining (iPhones are better weather-sealed than almost any camera), or there wasn’t time to fumble the Fuji out of my bag (pocket beats shoulder strap). When you put it that way, the iPhone seems insanely hard to beat, but the Proper Camera was still noticeably better in many ways. In hard sunlight, my phones have always struggled with overexposure, with blown highlights and grittiness in the details even when you manually stop down. This year’s crop aren’t much of an improvement there, even with Smart HDR. So… here are some photos, most of them from the Fuji.

A Long December

Uptime report

The Dec–Jan self-examination train just keeps rolling, which, for someone who usually sniffs at those sad people religiously making New Year’s resolutions, is a very strange development indeed. I don’t think this has anything to do with my turning 40 next year, I mean, it can’t… because I only just realized that fact right now. Oh shit?

Whenever I somehow have the time or feel inspired to reflect on how things are going, they usually boil down to the same few things I should be doing:

  • Reading more often, and more widely, than just 5 non-fiction titles a year plus the occasional junk SF
  • Writing regularly, if only to put aside time to think
  • Watching less junk, especially when I haven’t even seen The Essentials (I haven’t seen Schindler’s List, but I’ve watched 240 episodes of Terrace House)
  • Not wasting time on video games that are just repetitive endorphin loops
  • Having fewer possessions to lose in a fire, getting more comfortable with the idea of being mobile (decluttering the house, relying more on digital content, living in the cloud, etc.)
  • Contradictorily, keeping a few superfluous physical things around purely for the hell of them: a short stack of interesting but commercially doomed magazines, a well-built camera, buttery soft notebooks that deserve better than my handwriting, the Game Boy I never had.

I haven’t done my research by asking anyone else yet, but I’m sure these are universal in that most people will agree their time–activity distribution in daily life is incorrectly optimized for quality. Whenever I daydream about being retired, it’s mostly the things above that I see myself getting right first, binging on my book backlog for weeks before contemplating the trip around the world or whatever.

Why is it so hard to spend our valuable and limited time on things that are more Criterion Collection than Netflix? Okay, you might want a balance, but surely that’s like 90:10 or 80:20. Random idea: if the reason is because modern life and the 9-to-5 takes so much out of you, maybe we should wake up early and watch a good film each morning before going to work? I might actually try that.

Linkey Likey

The enduring allure of retro tech

Speaking of cameras and Game Boys, there’s a cottage industry springing up around the repair and upkeep of devices that, by modern standards, have no right to be hanging around this long. Did you know you can get a Walkman repaired and still actually buy a DVD in some parts of the USA? I haven’t seen either of those things around these parts in quite awhile.

I’m all for it, but it’s quite a lot to process when I already find it odd that Apple still operates the iTunes STORE alongside Apple Music, Apple TV+, Netflix, etc. I’d love to see the sales graphs across geographies to see where people are still trying to “own” their digital media — and how that maps against demographics, aging populations, and so on. Probably safe to assume that physical media sales are just a totally different animal and consumer group even further removed from that.

This reminds me of articles from yeeearrrs back when streaming services were looming, all warning of the massive energy and ecological cost they implied versus the plain ol’ manufacturing, distribution, and playing of CDs. I don’t know if even green-leaning Apple is interested in doing something about it, because subscription services are kind of The Strategy these days. It’s only going to get worse for us down here on the equator before it gets better (colder).

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How Much Would You Pay for a Nonexistent Dress?

Could this gaming app change the way we shop?

I came across this pair of stories about apps/services offering “nonexistent” fashion for your IRL self (Photoshopped onto a portrait you send in) or avatars (trying on 3D models of real clothes and accessories in a proprietary [what!] app), and within days of each other no less.

What I don’t get is whether everyone has collective amnesia around virtual goods and brands in the mainstream? Because how do you explain that I was on Tencent’s Chinese instant messaging app QQ in 2002, with a penguin avatar that wore sweaters you could buy for the Chinese equivalent of a US dollar? Or that I lost many friends to World of Warcraft in the next few years, many of them selling their leveled-up characters off on eBay? Maybe they put some of that money towards buying hats in Team Fortress 2. Red Bull and Adidas and all the automobile brands have been advertising and licensing themselves in the gaming space forever. Is this just about being able to buy virtual Gucci and Off-White shit?

The question isn’t “will anyone pay for virtual goods”, but “what does it mean that we’re now starting to virtually put them on ourselves?” — primitive Photoshopping today, invisibly through AR lenses tomorrow? Imagine a parallel fashion industry that deals entirely in virtual fashion for the real world. You’d make statements by pairing real and virtual clothes; flick the glasses on and off to see how your date flexes a pair of Hermès sneakers in the metaverse but keeps it simple IRL with New Balances. Maybe you could just leave the house naked someday and no one would notice.

Listening (Remembering): 2019

Playlists here: Apple Music | Spotify

Dear reader, I had NOT realized that I skipped last year’s blog post for this. I did, however, make a playlist that I was personally very happy with. You can find it here (Apple Music only).

This year ended up being a much better one for music than I initially thought. As usual, this exercise kicked off from having to pick a single song to contribute to my office’s Best of the Year playlist which we send out to friends. The general feeling amongst us all was that there wasn’t much new music worth listening to, and there was a bit of moaning and sighing while trying to think of something.

But! When I went through my “Recently Added” album sort view one Apple Music, and looked at the various playlists I threw together over the year… a lot more happened this year than Billie Eilish: new albums from Chance the Rapper, Anderson.Paak, Beck (bleah), Shura, Leonard Cohen, Common, and Bruce Springsteen to name a handful. The worst part is that I’ve barely even sat down to listen to most of them.

Still, I found enough to make a playlist of the songs that I played repeatedly and that made me feel something. This then is my musical diary for the year. The recurring themes here are synths (yay!); melodies that veer deliciously close to other ones you’re sure you‘ve heard elsewhere, irritating like an itch that moves as you try to locate it; videogames; queer women; and nostalgia (mined from samples, covers, and posthumous releases).


Comments section

Wild Hearts Never Die (feat. Linnea Olsson) — Daniel Olsen & Jonathan Eng

From the game Sayonara Wild Hearts, which was my introduction to Apple Arcade and probably my Game of the Year? Sorry, it’s a “playable pop album”, and a damn good one at that.

White Mercedes — Charli XCX

Why does this somewhat generic pop song make me so happy? It sounds like Julia Michael’s Issues, it causes word association with Raspberry Beret in my brain, it has particularly pretty deployment of auto-tune… the reverb on the pads are gorgeous… it probably can’t be explained beyond that.

Find U Again (feat. Camila Cabello) — Mark Ronson

If you told me last year that I’d put a fucking Mark Ronson song on next year’s list, I’d probably have asked for a mercy killing. But this new album is really listenable and, most importantly, doesn’t feel like a superficial photocopied vibe by an android who doesn’t understand music. Hmm, maybe it’s me. Also, I think Camila Cabello is possibly the most competent pop star and the new Rihanna.

WATERGIRL — Cashmere Cat

Tremendous fun. Demands high volume playback. It totally makes up for the naff Princess Catgirl persona that he came up with for this album.

CBU — Hans.

Can’t ever say no to the Mii channel music.

Ain’t Together — King Princess

The two artists I was most excited about this year both kinda fumbled their debut albums IMHO. Both Billie and uh… King had way better single and EP releases leading up to this year. I liked Cheap Queen the song, but like most of the album, it had a mostly harmless vibe. This one is lovely though and really complements Dream Girl just before.

Bad Ideas — Tessa Violet

Brilliant melodies throughout her whole album, and this one puts a smile on my face (hey! ho!). She’ll be huge if she keeps at it.

Qualm — goosetaf & Nokiaa

I listened to a lot of lofi hip-hop and brain.fm music this year while working. This song is undoubtedly one of the finest. I could play it on loop for hours.

Lose You to Love Me — Selena Gomez

“Set fires to my forest, and you let it burn / sang off-key in my chorus, because it wasn’t yours”: this forest–chorus rhyme was all it took to sell me.

Mover Awayer — Hobo Johnson

I first heard Hobo Johnson on Apple’s Beats 1 radio, being interviewed by Zane Lowe. He was described as more of a spoken word artist than hip-hop (true). This song is here because it contains the purest, simplest description of how love feels: “She makes my Mondays feel like Fridays, she makes my Ruby Tuesday’s taste like Benihanas.” NO ONE WROTE THIS BEFORE HIM? Bob Dylan got a Nobel Prize for Literature and I think Hobo Johnson is next.

Got No Chill — Old Man Saxon

I mentioned Old Man Saxon in a blog post last week. Watch Netflix’s Rhythm and Flow series, and get into this indie artist who deserves to blow up next year. His flow is unique, his bars are smart, and he looks like a real nice guy.

Sky Blue Skin — Jeff Buckley

Can you believe it’s been TWENTY TWO YEARS since Jeff Buckley left this world? I honestly don’t know what I’ve done with the year I have that he didn’t get. Every time another of these lost demos comes out — the vaults impossibly deep for a 31-year-old cut short before hitting his peak — I’m reminded that we just have to keep trying, making, practicing, scrapping, and working hard towards the things we love.

Quiet Daily Life — Shigeru Kishida

Rilakkuma is my spirit animal.

Imma keep it moving like it hasn’t happened

Uptime report

It’s midnight and I’m up thinking about best-of-year lists and trend forecasts and whether it’s more productive for us to grade a year by the quality of its events (“what do you mean no beloved musician died?”), or to just come out and grade freelance bloggers and thought leaders on their ability to wring meaning and get hits out of random, time-bound raw material. Well, really I’m awake here waiting for my wife to get home because the end of the year is also a time for working too hard to meet deadlines*.

* In some geographies and industries.

2019 has been pretty dismal for side projects, finding new obsessions, practicing photography, and writing anything for the hell of it, although the fact that I’m on here again might be an indicator of improvement. I’ve also just tonight confirmed an order with a printing company to put some awful! simplistic! doodles of mine on physical items that I might give away or try to break even on at a flea market someday — I guess that counts as making something?

At the day job, in terms of seeing similar organizational challenges play out in totally different industries, it’s been a jackpot. I definitely get to work on more interesting problems these days, and I am reminded that this is what was on the other side of the glass when my view was confined to advertising years ago. My parents still think I work in advertising, I think. The problems are interesting but in that “may you live in interesting times” kind of way. While the solutions can be estimated in board rotations, expectations of change are (understandably) timed in internships.

A recurring theme this and every year is dealing with a sort of design debt: either paying or preventing the high price of not properly addressing flaws or missing data the first time around, deferring the clean-up or more thoughtful work to some future version of yourself or your team, without realizing how the laws of compounding interest also apply to… well, everything. In the rush to launch X by the close of Y, you’re really just writing some consultancy a fat check to be cashed five years later, one the finance guys don’t see coming.

I guess what’s different now is the focus is usually on a part of the problem, but increasingly there are opportunities to get at the root. More work to be done in this space next year, infinitely more to learn and improve on, can’t hug every cat, etc.

On my metaphorical iPod

Janelle Monáe’s new song, That’s Enough, from the Lady and the Tramp live-action remake’s soundtrack of all things, is giving me the chills. She’s saying things with the quality of her voice I didn’t know she could.

If you watched Netflix’s surprisingly good and very Appley/Beatsy reality tv rap contest Rhythm and Flow (such a missed opportunity for the Beats brand and for Apple it might have been an acceptable apology for Carpool Karaoke), you will most certainly remember Old Man Saxon, an impressive performer whose creativity and talent go far beyond the gimmick of his dapper appearance.

Well he’s got a new mini album out today, The Peacock Honey. I recommend it along with his last EP, Goldman Sax (at first listen, I think that was better produced). I hope he blows up next year. I’ll link a music video from the last release that really impressed me below.

While we’re on the topic of music, I started a tradition at work back in December of 2017 where we would compile a playlist of our favorite songs each year and send them out as a sort of Christmas card to all the other global offices. We’d also make an email card, a microsite, and other fun stuff like a Christmas chatbot (ironically!) or sketches of each other to go with it. But the music was always the point.

This year, we’re going to try broadening that out exponentially to include Best Of picks for film, games, books… it’s in progress and I don’t know how well it’s going to work out. But it’s more exciting than just doing the same thing again for the sake of tradition, which is what I was afraid we would end up doing this time around. I’ll link it when we do it, if I can.

Janelle Monáe’s new song:

https://music.apple.com/sg/album/thats-enough-from-lady-and-the-tramp/1489003167?i=1489003168

Old Man Saxon:

https://music.apple.com/sg/album/the-peacock-honey/1488526372

Just Press Pay

[Here’s an unfinished draft post I’ve had for awhile now that I figure I’ll post as it is.]

We all like music, yeah? Some people don’t mind leaving anything on in the background, but I like the ones who are a little passionate about artists, who look up lyrics, study movements, read liner notes (past tense of “read”), and get more involved in the stories behind the tunes because they felt something and just needed to respond.

I’ve always wanted more ways to take those feelings and do something with them, while recognizing that musicians only garnered a tiny fraction of the profits from a CD or iTunes sale — think 10-20% — with the rest going to labels and distribution. When CDs and record stores were still a thing in my younger days, I’d sometimes buy two copies of an album I liked, and if I met someone who might appreciate it too, I’d pass the spare along. That was the only way to “do my part” as a fan, apart from evangelizing bands every chance I got.

These days, with album sales barely a thing that musicians rely on, it’s a bit harder to know what one should do as a fan. Share Spotify/Apple Music links on social media? Start a botnet to stream their songs on repeat? Buy tickets if they drop by to play live? Gigs just don’t scale.

I’ve had a foggy idea for years that there’s room for a live performance streaming platform, where any artist can play intimate shows in a studio and let people tune in, sort of like the annual iTunes Music Festivals that Apple used to do, and charge a nominal fee and/or allow donations. Even if they just did it once in a regular tour schedule, it should be almost pure profit from their most dedicated followers, with logistics and event management out of the picture. And these days we’re pretty much there, what with Twitch, Patreon, and live-streaming baked into a dozen other apps. It should be a more common way to spend an evening in front of a computer.

A couple of months years ago, an indie artist I randomly found online and fell hard in love with announced he was putting out a new album. Instead of pre-ordering on iTunes, I decided to try messaging him directly on Instagram to ask if he had a PayPal account. After all, I already pay for Apple Music and would stream it when it was out. Could I just send him the money I would have paid for the album, and he’d get 100% instead of 10%?

I shouldn’t have been surprised to get a reply, but I come from a time when you just didn’t get many chances to talk to your heroes. He offered a couple of other ways to give him money, which would get me physical goods in return, but in the end I was happy to PayPal him and got something pretty priceless in return: scanned lyrics to the earlier song that had made me a fan, that I had never been able to figure out. That was a better-feeling transaction than the music publishing industrial complex had ever been able to give me in the past decade.

[Present day]

I should mention here the phenomenal soundtrack to the video game Sayonara Wild Hearts, by Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng, with vocals by Linnea Olsson. It might be the endorphin association talking, but I think this might be my album of the year. Every song takes me right back to the experience of playing the game (one weekend afternoon on a lumpy hotel couch in Manila a couple of months back when I was there for work; in all honesty not a memory that gives this soundtrack any bonus points), but also stands on its own as really fine music.

A couple of weeks after coming out, the soundtrack disappeared from Apple Music and the iTunes Store for a couple of days and I was in a panic. I scoured Twitter for information and found the musicians and developers equally bewildered, answering other concerned fans who were missing their hit of electro Clair de Lune. That was a community moment right there. Anyway, it turned out to be some copyright fuck up that got fixed the following week, but my immediate thought at the time was, “I sure wish I’d bought this on iTunes so I’d still have it now.” One day we might all feel this way about a lot more things.

The Stars Have Aligned

I was surprised to learn that astrology is experiencing a comeback amongst millennials, thanks to an app called Co–Star that has been steadily growing beneath my radar. When a decade-younger friend sold it to me over drinks last week, the most interesting thing about it to me was its inexplicable use of an n-dash in the name. I installed it for a look, saw a personality trait in the natal chart* that didn’t quite match my self-image, and promptly forgot about it until the push notifications started arriving.

Screenshot of the Co–Star app

These nudges are titled “Your day at a glance”, and are so iconic to this audience that the Instagram filter creator known as autonommy has made one that superimposes Co–Star notifications over your head. They’re usually a single mysterious line or proverb that you’re meant to contemplate as things happen to you.

Yesterday (an uneventful day), I was assured, “You don’t have to be afraid.” Today, it asked, “What lessons have you learned today?” Tapping into the app unleashes a torrent of AI-assembled advice that tells you how to deal with the challenges of existence as per the day’s astral alignment. The tone of voice is often surprising: acerbic, blunt, even dark.

Instead of deleting the app as I meant to do, I discussed it with some people around me and shared a Verge article about the team behind it, and now I’ve got irl friends on this astrology social network, and we can see each other’s fates and compatibility, and I think I’m keeping it? It’s not like I’ve suddenly taken horoscopes at face value, but perhaps it fills a gap — I need someone to regularly kick my ass on personal development, and whether I agree with the “advice” or not, these prompts might get me to work a little harder at things. They’re challenges.

Coincidentally, I spent much of yesterday reading through the backlog of email newsletters I subscribed to and then got overwhelmed by. When someone’s thoughts on screen are a year old, making reference to events that you and the internet are so over by now, but the words remain productive, insightful, and capable of inspiring you to look back at your old email newsletter project from 6(!) years ago and maybe start writing on your blog again, they can have all the paid subscription money. If you’re in need of a couple recommendations: try Dan Hon and Craig Mod’s.

There’s always a voice gently suggesting I “write more”. Sometimes I think I write enough at work as it is. As the activities that make up my day job changed over the last few years, so did the emphasis on actual writing as a vehicle for Client Value Delivery. It took awhile to join the dots between the kind of writing I did in advertising, publishing, side projects, and now in a design/consulting context, but that still leaves out the “pleasure writing”, as one acquaintance recently called it.

Right now, I’m feeling out of practice and clumsy when it comes to this stuff. I don’t know how to write to you anymore. Maybe I cut down on tweeting and blogging because we all entered a digital privacy crisis, but the net result was falling out of the public writing habit altogether. I lost imaginary friends.

So. Why not try again? What do I have to be afraid of? What lessons am I learning today?

*Those natal charts: You plug in your date/time/location of birth, and it pulls historical NASA data to see where celestial bodies were when you were born, and interprets their deviations in space each day to produce your horoscope. Are these even called horoscopes? I don’t know; that word seems dated and quacky, like something in a crinkled copy of Reader’s Digest, whereas Co–Star feels like something new — a bit of not entirely serious millennial wellness — dressed up in ancient clothes.

A couple of years ago, we had a colleague from Hong Kong in town who would do the exact same thing as a party trick, except she manually read and interpreted the natal charts which she generated using a Chinese app. Co–Star has simply scaled this with technology and a content team.