Is it the little things that count?

Awhile ago, a friend working overseas who I don’t get a chance to meet very often told me that he checks in on this blog every now and then when he wants to know what I’m up to, and usually comes away disappointed. I think he specifically said that he doesn’t care about what gadgets I’m after, what I thought about films I’ve seen, or what I find interesting, etc. Now, this is not the kind of talk many friends get away with, but because I only have to be insulted once every 18 months or so, I let it go.

But the thought that someone might be more interested in reading narratives on the minutiae of everyday lives – months after the fact! – rather than the critical choices that express our personalities, continues to strike me as strange even now, several weeks on, in the middle of the night.

There’s always Twitter and Facebook if one wants status updates, but that can’t be what he meant. Who would want to trawl through half a year’s worth of anyone’s Twitter stream? Microblogging, like the worst supermarket sandwiches, is generally worthless and meant for immediate consumption. Unless you’re a fake celebrity account with carefully crafted witticisms (see @CWalken), chances are your lifestream’s value as entertainment is virtually null after 48 hours.

Before I started thinking about this, my view was that Twitter presents microscopic detail from which a more complete picture of a life can be fabricated. In this story, blog posts are overviews; providing structure. Also, keep in mind that the two accounts of time spent (the descriptive report and the vocalized introspection) will coincide at some point. For example, if you hear a lot about my activities, you’d be able to discern a pattern that indicated my tastes. Conversely, if I told you how I felt about theatre, you would know not to look for me in a Sunday matinee.

I wonder if the opposite is true. Twitter and status updates are not detail, they’re noisy overviews. The most coherent image one can put together will still be a best guess estimate. Real detail resides in thought and writing. The way most of us use Twitter, with truncated phrases and inhibited rhythms, it’s no substitute for going without a word limit. In much of today’s communications, you can’t be sure whether it’s the voice or the format you’re hearing. It’s the reason why I can skim a friend’s blog posts from years ago and remember how they used to be. It’s also the reason I keep my own.

After having tried to keep my different interests in separate blogs, and failed, it’s come back to this. I’m grateful now for having one single place that periodically captures the things I’d like a future version of myself to know I once considered important, and for friends to know today, however unappreciative they might be.

Comments on HDR Camera vs iFlashReady [iPhoneography]

I just posted a comment on another site that ended up being too long, so I thought I’d reprint it here for my own records.

Last week, Glyn Evans from iPhoneography.com put up a review of HDR Camera [iTunes link], a US$1.99 iPhone app that promised to magically turn single-exposure photos from a crappy 2-megapixel camera into HDR masterpieces. For that review, Glyn used one of his usual sample photos (a close-up of a bolt on a wooden gate) to demonstrate the app’s effects, but being the smartass that I am, I wrote in to essential say that I thought it wasn’t suited for the purpose at hand (scenes with potential for HDR photography are usually marked by a wide variance between their light and dark areas [hence the name, High Dynamic Range], such as landscape shots with lots of sky. Properly done, HDR photos show the world in ways that our eyes cannot perceive, with everything evenly lit despite an overpowering light source).

I recommended looking at another application that I use regularly, iFlashReady [iTunes link], which gives fantastic HDR-like results. Glyn agreed with my points, and took down his review for some rewriting. It’s just gone up again today, and his conclusion is still that HDR Camera is a waste of money.

My comment starts below. The remarks directed at another commenter, TrevorML, are in response to his question about the suitability of other general image editing apps on the iPhone to this sort of processing.

Hi Glyn,

Since our correspondence, I’ve had the misfortune of being tempted to try HDR Camera out for myself, and have arrived at the same conclusions as you. It largely produces unpleasant results I would be ashamed to show anyone on my iPhone or Flickr account. Other apps like iFlashReady and PhotoFX are far more capable of taking a badly exposed photo (a fault of the iPhone’s limited camera software) and giving it some points of interest.

TrevorML: I’m glad you asked that question. Naturally it’s impossible for any iPhone app today to produce true HDR images, as those require a series of bracketed images as you have noted. The iPhone camera API does not allow apps or users to manually adjust the auto-exposure values, or any other values for that matter. The best we can have for the moment (perhaps iPhone OS 3.0 will hand over more control to apps) is apps that simulate the effect by recovering lost/hidden photographic data.

I initially thought that iFlashReady worked by simply boosting the brightness of photos, which is how we might normally approach the problem in Photoshop/Aperture/Lightroom, etc. but it’s actually more advanced. Looking at the developer’s website, I discovered that they produce a professional application, Essential HDR (www.imagingluminary.com), for Windows PCs. It seems that they’ve taken some of their technologies and applied it to iFlashReady, and probably decided that marketing it as a brightening app would be more commercially successful than proclaiming its HDR features. Rightly so, I think, as few mainstream iPhone users know or give a crap about HDR.

But iFlashReady does work as an HDR app in practice, and like I was saying, it goes beyond simple brightening. What seems to be happening is a localized contrast balancing that increases brightness in dark areas without touching already well-exposed spots. A dark object can be directly beside a bright one, and the effect does not bleed over. I think it’s probably more than just tweaking shadows and highlights too (as can be done in PhotoFX; I’ve tried and the results are not comparable), as it seems to have many subtle steps and a gentle tonal curve. The result looks surprisingly natural, and you can see that above. The ones from HDR Camera certainly do not.

Another thing that impressed me greatly was that the makers of iFlashReady seemed to have tuned their results with the iPhone’s camera in mind. Noise is effectively suppressed, or simply not exaggerated by their processing. HDR Camera’s “Night Mode” produces horrendous blotches of color noise across the entire photo. A few other apps I’ve seen also seem to just port their image effects over from the desktop side of things with no regard for imaging characteristics of the iPhone’s camera.

If I sound like I’m plugging the app because I know the guys who made it, well I don’t. I just use it nearly every other day and enjoy it a great deal. But since I’m recommending, another app I use often and find sadly underpublicized is the superb “ColorTaste with TOY LENS” [iTunes link] by Tandem Systems (who is really a rather friendly Japanese developer), which costs US$1.99. In my opinion, this app handily beats others like ToyCamera [iTunes] and Camerabag [iTunes] because of one feature: lens distortion modelling. It doesn’t just alter colors and add a vignette (although it can do those too), its Toy Lens mode subtly distorts and blurs photos to look like they came from a tiny plastic lens, like what you’d find on a Diana (120 film) or Vistaquest VQ1005 (keychain digital) camera.

Again, to tie it back to the earlier part of this comment, this sort of initiative in iPhone app development impresses me greatly. Rather than just doing a me-too image processor, these two companies have opened up new avenues of iPhone photography.

Karaoke midget*


Karaoke midget*, originally uploaded by sangsara.

I was having lunch at a hawker centre and heard some (pretty awful, I’m sorry to say) Chinese singing, but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. A little while later, this guy comes from around the corner pushing a karaoke machine on a trolley and singing into a microphone. The fact that he was a midget just made the whole thing more surreal.

He was also rocking a single rolled-up pant leg, which disappointed me greatly because real gangstas don’t sing Chinese love songs.

*I don’t know if midget is an acceptable word, although it’s the one I was brought up with. Someone suggested dwarf, which to me sounds even more derogatory.

Mad about our English

20090317-IMG_0093.jpg

Sign in photo reads: This Way to “Bus Stop”

Sorry I didn’t get a photo of the bus stop in question, but it was a really awesome “massage parlor”.

~

In the 2008 Singapore-produced documentary, Mad About English, well-meaning residents of Beijing are shown preparing for the arrival of Olympic Games tourists by learning English phrases, often unsuccessfully, which is where most of the somewhat mean-spirited comedy comes from. Seen uncynically, the film has its merits, but it is hard to shake the idea that its producers believed the earnest efforts of the Chinese would ever amount to more than very awkward (mis)communication. I could be wrong, basing this on a single viewing, but the repeated images of fervency followed by failure, as well as the film’s title itself, sets off some alarms. The film features no voice-over narration, which is a problem in two possible ways.

By explicitly saying nothing (with words) in a documentary format, a director invokes the powerful semiotics of neutrality; it’s a dumbshow of backing off with upheld hands and sealed lips. But, of course, film is not a medium that depends on words for meaning, although we are conditioned by the bulk of documentary features to think that because narration is either truthful or biased, a filmmaker/agenda is powerless without it. Sometimes, the absence of narration can be a red herring. Defenses down, some viewers will inevitably take selective and non-linear editing at face value.

What does that leave those listening to Mad About English with? English mangled by foreign accents, accompanied without exception by subtitles. The screening I attended was regretfully punctuated by enthusiastic laughter whenever someone pronounced badly. You’d never see that kind of behavior outside a language classroom, but in a theatre, oh why not? They didn’t need to pay a man with a gravelly voice to ridicule the Chinese students, because you’d notice that, of course. They let them do it to themselves, is the next point.

The second implication of a film like this having no commentary, where commentary is especially needed to contextualize and humanize the trials of a culture struggling under the burdens of learning a foreign language, as a matter of upholding national pride, is that it does not speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. One shouldn’t expect common people to eloquently hold forth on the significance of several million people simultaneously taking an interest in English. Or to effectively defend their efforts and point out how they may yet make a difference to visitors’ experiences or perceptions of China, however small.

The movie suffers for this, mostly depending on one character near the end (Li Yang aka Crazy English Teacher) to provide analysis. Policies of non-interference are all well and good when a lion kills a zebra on camera, but expecting cab drivers to acquit themselves with grace after a few weak lessons is kinda cruel, and a little too American Idol: Auditions for my tastes. Instead of reading this choice as the filmmakers not having anything to say, it can be argued that they’re choosing to stay silent – an important distinction.

I’ve just read that the film was marketed as a “docu-comedy”. I guess that’s that.

But every time I walk down Orchard Road and see a badly written sign or advertisement, I think the joke’s on us now. There are just too many examples of English gone wrong in Singapore, and I face them with a combination of anger and embarrassment. No longer apathy. It shouldn’t be tolerated, and maybe something can be done about it. There’s a gwailoh (foreigner) character in the aforementioned docu-comedy who walks around Beijing in a black trenchcoat, correcting instances of bad English wherever he finds them, talking to store owners and giving them advice. A grammar nazi turned vigilante.

I had an idea that we could use something like that here, maybe in the form of a non-profit organization that offers proofing services to anyone producing something for public display, from simple signage to one-sheet flyers. I’m talking about making it easy for anyone to get quick, professional advice (as easy as sending an email?) on whether or not the copy they’re about to print is ready for public display.

Considering that we’ve got Integrated Resorts, the F1 night race franchise, and other tourism-heavy initiatives in the pipeline, the net effect of having “clean streets” can be huge for Singapore. Likewise, you can’t expect the standard of English use amongst children to improve when they’re surrounded by poor examples. These services would have to free, of course, so we’re talking either volunteer work, sponsorship, or government funding.

This is something I’m going to think about more over the next few weeks and maybe do some plausibility research on. If you think it’s a good idea, I’d appreciate you letting me know. Thanks.

Mosaic music festival 2009

The Esplanade’s annual music festival is back again, and although I’ve never been the sort to go down every day of the week that it’s on, we somehow ended up there two nights in a row over the past weekend. In keeping with my tradition of only seeing one paid act each year (Maceo Parker and Rachael Yamagata were the last two), we attended George Duke’s concert* on Friday, but sadly did not hear “I Love You More”, the song with the intro everybody knows from Daft Punk’s “Digital Love”. It’s a very strange song, with that funky electro opening riff tacked onto a bland early-80s sort of ballad.

The free performances are what I enjoy most, as they have the atmosphere of a real music festival, with people milling about and wandering from one performance to the next. On the first night, I managed to get some Qik video of a Taiwanese hip-hop collaboration between one MC Hot Dog and 3P. And then a couple more of a Malaysian group called Funk Mob, and Mike Stern & The Yellowjackets on Saturday. I also had my Panasonic LX3 handy for some HD video of the latter, and an “all-star jam” that followed their performance.

Videos embedded below (may not show in RSS):

HD videos on Flickr –

——–

Qik videos from iPhone –

Watching Leo

I meant to be in bed by three tonight, but got caught up watching Leo Laporte do his weekly The Tech Guy radio show. For those who don’t know, Leo is an ex-TV presenter and old radio hand who dispenses IT advice and covers trends and news in a very accessible way. I’m personally enamored of his easygoing presentation style and vocal impersonations, tuning in to his This Week In Tech podcast almost as much to hear his voice as for the content.

The most interesting thing he does now is broadcast live video during the taping of all his podcasts and radio shows (in a new studio he built from scratch near his home in California), so fans can watch the process. It comes up to be about 30 hours on camera each week, and that chatroom has something like 3 to 5 thousand participants per show. I love having it on in my screen while I read or do other things, just a pity about the time difference. If you’re up past midnight, check the link below to see if he’s on.

Twit Live

What’s the best place to host a blog?

In the past few days, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people about what the “best” hosted blogging platform is (pure coincidence, my life isn’t that geeky). I’ve been using Google Blogger for this here outlet since 2002, with a short WordPress dalliance in-between that cost me a few weeks’ worth of posts when my hosting company suffered a database outage.

Blogger isn’t really so bad, but it IS bland and boring. In exchange for solid, Google-level stability, you have to put up with a small selection of dated templates and no easy way to customize your blog without some knowledge of HTML and CSS. But at least you can. Everything about the page can be changed, provided you know how. I’m quite familiar with the ways of the internet, but I can’t make this page look good to save my life. Adding widgets is quite easy, though, which gives it an advantage over the next service.

WordPress.com – a hosted blogging service, not to be confused with the WordPress.org blogging software for installing on your own server, offered by the same company – is very modern in comparison with Blogger, but doesn’t allow you to insert your own widgets and bits of code. That means no cute little Flickr slideshows, ads, or shoutboxes. Some plug-ins are offered by WordPress.com itself, but those are limited. Templates/themes are also limited to the ones included, with some minor tweaks to header images, colors, etc. but these tend to be very nice and good enough for most people.

Typepad costs money, unlike the first two choices, and I’ve always held it in high regard for the fact that they’ve managed to stay afloat in a sea of free competitors, and their marketing has been quite good. The site’s landing page boasts a large number of high-profile bloggers and professional journalists who swear by Typepad, and promises hundreds of expertly designed templates to turn even complete luddites into proud owners of beautiful sites in mere minutes. –– When I finally tried to sign up for the free trial this week, the reality was a complete disappointment. These templates are anything but modern and attractive. It’s hard to justify paying a minimum of US$5 a month when just a few more dollars can get you…

Squarespace. The things that are being done by this company put their competitors to shame. Sure, their prices are a little high, but I’ve yet to see the design and technology at work here being offered anywhere else. Many software packages say you can put a website together with virtually no HTML knowledge, but they’re still pretty hard to use. Squarespace lets you drag and drop content, switch layouts/themes with a few clicks, and do complicated CSS adjustments like changing the width of columns, the amount of leading (space) between lines of text, font sizes, etc., with sliders and other intuitive controls. All in real-time, so you can see the changes you’re making. If you want to get technical, it apparently lets you do that too.

Of course, there are a bunch of others like Livejournal and Vox (both free and owned by Six Apart, the company that offers Typepad), but I can’t recommend them for any serious use. They’re kind of hybrid blogging + social networking platforms, limited in scope and geared towards more ‘fun’ and socially oriented applications. You can’t use your own designs, and I don’t think you can export your data if you’d like to move to another service. Blogger, WordPress, and Squarespace make it easy to leave, always a good sign.

My conclusion is, if you can afford US$8-14 a month, Squarespace is your best bet. Their gallery of customers includes Mark Ecko’s personal blog and corporate site, Digg founder Kevin Rose’s blog, and a few other great-looking examples. If you’d rather go free, choose Google Blogger if you have some coding knowledge or would like to put ads and fun gadgets on your page. WordPress.com is a stylish, easy alternative for people who just want to start writing.

On the prediction of weather in Singapore

Feeling rather tired in the afternoon and with no work to do, I thought I’d hit up Starbucks for the usual triple venti low-fat iced latte and an hour with William Gibson’s so-far-enthralling Neuromancer.

I’ve gotten into the habit of relying on the local NEA (National Environmental Agency) website for weather forecasts, despite having been burnt – perhaps ‘soaked’ is the more appropriate word – on a number of occasions. Still, I checked the website before leaving and was guaranteed by a minutes-old analysis that the good weather would last the rest of the evening.

It takes less than half an hour to get to the nearest Starbucks. Barely a minute after making it here, it started coming down; a fact I could not have anticipated with any of my bodily senses, but perhaps should have with some basic pattern recognition and Murphy’s Law. Photographic proof is enclosed.

The question I’m leading up to is this: what does it take to be a government-employed meteorologist in Singapore? Do our tropical conditions make the job more difficult? Is it more guesswork than science? If you go to the site, you’ll see an animated rain map which charts the movements of storm clouds over time.

In the past, I’ve had a lot more success than the “experts” in predicting the spread of rain just by watching which way the winds appear to be moving, but in today’s case the storm hadn’t started yet. Why can’t we get accurate weather reports? Will someone hire me to do this without some sort of degree in making shit up?

Actually, I do have an English degree.

— Posted from my iPhone

Coming back, and Blip.FM

If you’re reading this on the website and not through my RSS feed, you’ll notice a new widget above the main blog text, under the Flickr photos, for a new service I discovered this morning via Leo Laporte’s Twitter. The intention is not to make this look like a MySpace page, but it’s nice having someplace to show off all the things I’m doing online. Qik video, the new multi-author Haiku Log, and all that.

About a year ago, I split up my blog into this one and blast!, which is reserved for links to things I find, with little additional writing and no original content such as photos I’ve taken, movie reviews, or whatever. Of course, it’s exceedingly easy to post to a tumblelog like blast!, and the idea of being “productive” on a daily basis can be very gratifying. This main blog has only suffered as a result; consigned exclusively to “long form writing” and Matters of Great Import – I almost never felt inclined to start a post. I suppose I intimidated myself.

Well, hopefully that will soon be changing. I’ve equipped myself with the latest version (3.0) of Ecto, a sleek and awesome blogging tool for Mac OS X, and BlogPress for the iPhone. The intention is to post more frequently, and more freely, for my own benefit (I have terrible, terrible, clinically decaying memory, and looking back on any record of my life is usually a revelatory experience).

I also recently made the decision to open up some previously locked accounts to search engines and the public, out of a desire to see if I would get stalked, and feel my online privacy violated in the way that young people are becoming increasingly immune to. This should all tie together nicely and see mundane elements of my daily life filling this page, and my mutilated body in a gutter by the end of the year.

So what was that about a new widget up top? Ah yes.

As a music discovery and sharing service, Blip.FM goes places one-time web favorite Muxtape never even thought possible. Yes, you can put up handcrafted playlists of great music to share with your friends, but by taking on the best elements of Twitter and other social networks, it also means that the experience of listening to what your friends (and like-minded/like-tasted strangers) have discovered is virtually automatic. In other words, it’s a Push model.

Say I’ve just gotten up earlier in the morning than I have in weeks, maybe months – true story today – and upon seeing my bedroom all lit up with warm daylight, I think of the music video for The Roots’ Birthday Girl (starring Sasha Grey, but that’s another story) and want to hear it. I go to http://blip.fm and search for it. Blip finds an MP3 of the song somewhere online, I suspect blogs and free file hosting sites, and starts playing it. I write a short note and “blip” it, which is very much like “tweeting” something. Now, Birthday Girl starts appearing on the Home pages of all my “followers”, or contacts. What this creates is an infinite playlist of music I probably want to hear. The site identifies with people with similar tastes, which makes it easy to make new friends and replace the ones you’ve suddenly discovered a distaste for.

Blip also integrates with Twitter, Friendfeed, Tumblr, and a raft of other online presence apps and blog platforms, so you can push out instant-play links to all your contacts. I only hope they’ve sorted out the legal side of their business model and stick around longer than Muxtape did. There are links to buy the songs you’re hearing, and I’ve read something about them winning additional VC funding, so things look sorta positive.

My DJ name is Brandmaster Flash, a reference to this man, of course.