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➟ Brian Regan: The Epitome of Hyperbole [Netflix]

➟ Brian Regan: The Epitome of Hyperbole [Netflix]

Really great, profanity-free stand-up comedy. He brings a lot more energy to the stage than Jim Gaffigan, whose shows we also watched a couple of nights ago. They’re both great acts and worth looking up, but Regan’s older material is rock solid, while you can jump straight to Gaffigan’s newer stuff and not miss much.

Windowsill (Pies) in the Woods

We’ve been fans of Windowsill for awhile, although I’ve only eaten their pies on two occasions before this. They had a tiny outlet in Pandan Valley before, which we didn’t have a chance to visit before they closed down.

Since then, they’ve been operating a delivery business which we recently had a chance to use when an American friend was missing traditional dessert pies (like pumpkin) on Thanksgiving.

This new place is called Windowsill in the Woods, probably because it’s outside of town in Lavender (78 Horne Road), and has a wood cabin theme going on. The pies are still fantastic, but we didn’t have a chance to try the coffee because they were having electrical issues, and the interiors could do with some acoustic dampening. It looked like they were still sorting some stuff out, but in all, a nice enough place for a quiet Sunday.

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Write Moves

Was time for a new logo too
Was time for a new logo too

After 11 years of blogging on what is now Google Blogger, I’ve exported everything and moved to a WordPress-powered site. It didn’t go all that smoothly and may still screw up, but so far I’m enjoying the platform, its modernity, and the apps/services I can now use with my blog.

During the process, I looked back on a couple of old posts and a few abandoned other blog projects, and discovered a younger, different sounding me. I suppose that was a time when everyone kept a blog instead of a Facebook page – but it all starts the same way, nobody thinks anyone important is ever going to read their nonsense or see their silly behavior.

But every time I read old writing, the same thing happens, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with the phenomenon: amidst the disposable are pieces you can’t believe you wrote; thoughts you could hardly string together today in quite the same way. Which is why I’m inclined to value these posts more than easy and fleeting social network updates. It seems the purpose of blog archives is to simultaneously inspire and shame our creative selves with examples of what should still be possible, and how far we have yet to go if we’ve discovered that the last few years were spent going the wrong way.

Essential iPhone Camera and Photo Apps

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I sometimes get asked to suggest camera apps to new iPhone users, and often fall into the trap of recommending ones I’m in love with at the time, but aren’t necessarily good for everyone or indispensable.

I’ve bought and put every major release through their paces over the last four years, and although some start off impressively, they turn out not to be suitable for everyday use and soon find themselves forgotten in a folder, never to be used again. One common reason for this is the production of looks that are too distinctive or recognizable. Imagine a library of photos taken over a year, all with the same fake light leak in the top-left corner. Pretty unacceptable. Some all-in-one jobs let you “fix” photos with a few presets, but if your problem falls somewhere in between, the inability to fine-tune can be a deal-breaker.

So here are my more considered picks for the best camera and editing applications on the iPhone. Over time, I cleared out my entire screen of folders filled with photo apps, and now only keep a few essentials handy. You’ll be in good hands with any of these, as they tend to do a single thing well, or many things more than adequately.

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A Sudden Crop of New iPhone Photo Apps

iPhone photography apps hit a sort of peak with Hipstamatic, Instagram, Camera+, 645 Pro, and Snapseed. The past few months have seen a few quirky apps being released (Gridditor being one that comes to mind), but most have been crappy knockoffs of the very successful but sadly neglected Camera+*, or silly ones for decorating your shots with candy-colored doodles or cartoon stamps.

Very little for the serious photographer determined to replace a compact camera with an iPhone… until these came along!

•••

Blux Camera: The first app I’ve seen to offer the equivalent of what’s called “Auto Scene Mode” on most point-and-shoot cameras. The app applies a compensation scene mode based on what it thinks you need (taking local weather into account too). I’ve been waiting for someone to do this, but Blux seems to go even further with 14 filters, tilt-shift effects, and a futuristic, customizable UI that might prove too fiddly in actual use. Still, it looks very good and it’s free for a couple of days.
Edit: Having tried it now, it’s not worth the trouble. Too much high-tech flash, not enough substance and usability. I’d put this at the top of the cheesy knockoff category.

Alt Photo: This one has some real pedigree, like VSCO Cam, coming from maker of pro Photoshop plugins, Alien Skin Software. It has one of the best-looking brightness adjustment algorithms I’ve seen in an iPhone app (Mattebox has another great one), not to mention some nicely tuned filters designed to emulate film looks.

Perfectly Clear: This just got a big 3.0 update today, with a fully redesigned UI and higher quality results. This is a one-function app — it tunes up lackluster photos with more clarity, color, and brightness — and it does it well. There’s now also the ability to remove noise for no extra charge; it used to be an in-app purchase. It even claims to recognize and brighten eyes, smoothen skin, and whiten teeth. That last one sounds like a joke, but there it is on the page.

Scout Camera: A camera replacement app with a few nice filters, and the welcome ability to see and shoot in 1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 aspect ratios, all live. It’s a shame you can’t change filters on a photo after you’ve shot it, and that you can’t import your own photos into its lightbox for editing. Hopefully the developer is looking into these things, because you can get those aspect ratios from 645 Pro too, and there’s little reason to make this your first choice in a pinch.

Beamr: From the makers of JPEGmini, one of the best photo technologies I’ve seen in awhile (it crunches down high quality JPEGs to half their size, and your eyes won’t see the difference) comes this new photo sharing app. The app description is a bit confusing, but I think it uploads your full-size photos using the aforementioned tech, and then creates a flippable online magazine — oh god, those are back? — that you can send as a link to friends and family. The selling point here is high quality photos, not the recompressed junk you see on Facebook or other sharing sites.

Photoset: Another sharing app, this one from Tumblr. It lets you very quickly create a layout of several photos by dragging them around, and then publish them to a webpage on Photoset.com or to an existing Tumblr blog. Pretty cool, and much more versatile than using something like, say, Twitphoto for impromptu sharing.

  • I say Camera+ has been neglected despite having recently been updated because of how unusable its filters look these days on brighter iPhone 5 photos, and because other much needed refinements never materialized. It’s like there’s nobody there looking out to keep it #1.

MacHeist 4 ends today

MacHeist 4 ends today. The annual bundle has gotten bigger and better — just US$29 for a ton of apps and services worth 20 times more — but they’ve struggled to reach the minimum target of 25,000. That was how many needed to be sold before the premium bonus apps became unlocked for everyone. After 8 days into the 10-day window, they gave up and opened them anyway. Now they’ve finally crossed the mark (26,053 at time of writing) with hours left to go.

There’s probably a longer article in here about why this is the case. Bundles like these used to make a much bigger splash, and I remember a period where Groupon-like daily deal sites for Mac applications were like… daily deal sites for free iOS applications. I guess that’s where the attention has gone now, and much of the spending intent has followed the growth in mobile platforms. Prices there are generally lower too, and I wonder if this means independent Mac apps have to start charging less, or more, to keep profits up.

Anyway, I highly recommend you look into MacHeist while it’s available. 25% of the money goes to charity, and you get a 15-month subscription to Evernote Premium as part of it. I usually pay US$45/year for Evernote and find it immensely useful as a place to store all the webpages I see and want to have searchable, shopping and reading lists, wholesale documents for safekeeping, and snippets of data in an offline notebook whenever I go on a trip. It’s essentially a digitized version of your memory for sanity. There are also great games like Braid, Bioshock 2, and the episodic adventures of Sam & Max, Jurassic Park, and Strong Bad, from developer Telltale Games. That’s like… a hundred hours of gameplay.

One great utility was added this morning: Bartender. It’s not a cocktail recipes app, the world hardly needs more of those, but a tool that sits in your Mac’s menu bar and subsumes all the other menu bar items into it. I’ve greatly cleaned up the visual clutter on mine (made somewhat worse by recent versions of OS X preferring to show menu bar icons in monochrome only), moving things like Bluetooth status, Volume, Dropbox, and my Jawbone status monitor into Bartender’s “bar menu”. Good stuff, and normally sells for US$15.

Ashes out to sea

Today we got on a little boat and went out halfway to Pulau Ubin, to release the ashes of four grandparents and great-grandparents. I am assured we had the necessary permits for this. Two of the oldest (from way before my time) were recently exhumed from a cemetery that was being decommissioned and reclaimed, and we’ve had the urns about for a few years, in anticipation of this moment. In the end, it was a drama-free affair that was over before sentiment could occur to anyone. Before he began, the man handling everything asked us, in Mandarin, if there was anything we wanted to say to them. But what can you say?

As a person still alive, the idea of being dispersed to nowhere in particular seems strange. I think I would like to be kept around the house when my time comes. I’m not fond of the sea, or swimming. On top of the holographic quantum fiber modem would be fine.

The Round Down, 8 Weeks In

I started The Round Down on a bit of a whim two months ago, armed only with the conviction of knowing that I’d long wanted to do an email newsletter of human-approved articles and links for like-minded people. The idea of writing/commissioning original content for such a vehicle was definitely on my mind, but seemed secondary and much harder to get started with, and getting started was priority one.

Getting YJ Soon and David Liu onboard to share editorial and news gathering duties, with David focusing on games (check out his gaming podcast, Staring at Screens), has made it possible to keep up.

Eight weeks and as many issues is enough time to get settled. We noticed an unconscious trend towards quantity, and the last few that went out had a touch too many things to look at. The initial goal was a small and unintimidating selection of links for weekend reading, nothing that feels like work, and we will be trying hard to steer that course from now on.

Thanks for supporting this project (no one has unsubscribed, yet) and if you would like to sign up to receive it every weekend, it’s free at TheRoundDown.com.

iPhone 5 Camera Comparison vs. Ricoh GR Digital III

The new iPhone 5 features an improved camera, mainly in the area of image signal processing in the A6 chip, which reportedly allows it to do intelligent sharpening, noise removal, and pixel binning for low-light situations. The lens elements have also been rearranged, resulting in a slightly different field of vision from the iPhone 4S. There’s also the new sapphire crystal lens cover which resists scratches — unfortunately, I already have a tiny speck of dust on the inside of mine, which I’ll have to get them to clean at some point.

I’m more interested in seeing how the iPhone 5 competes with other point and shoot cameras than with the iPhone 4S. Here are two scenes taken with the Ricoh GR Digital III (my review here), a high-end compact comparable to Panasonic’s LUMIX LX3/5/7 series, and Canon’s S90/95/100 cameras.

The photos below are direct from camera and have not been fixed or enhanced. The GRD III is something of a prosumer camera, and if handled correctly, i.e. with manual controls and lots of fiddling, is capable of some great results. For parity with the iPhone 5, these photos were taken in fully automatic mode, letting the camera figure things out.

Ricoh GRD 3

I had to take this shot twice because the Ricoh chose a very shallow focus, directed on the leaves in the middle, which left the stone duck and foreground leaves blurred out. It’s a little underexposed, but the larger sensor gives some beautiful detail to the fern.

iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 analyzed the same scene, and chose to keep a relatively deep focus for a usable shot the first time around. The photo is also noticeably warmer (pleasant, but perhaps inaccurate) and brighter. This photo is good to go without any editing, which is how most users want it. No problems with sharpness in the details.

Ricoh GRD 3

The GRD had trouble focusing again, and ended up with a spot in the middle (above and to the right of her nose), which keeps the dog’s legs in focus but not the face. Although what fine details that were in focus got captured with a good amount of clarity, the photo is pretty dull and boring on the whole. Your aunt would not consider this a keeper without a trip to iPhoto.

iPhone 5

Again, brighter and warmer. I don’t think the iPhone makes everything warmer, only in shade and indoor lighting conditions. None of the daylight shots I’ve seen so far look overly warm. Sharpness is consistent across all areas of interest, and noise is acceptable for ISO 400. Fine fur details are not as well resolved as in the GRD photo, but this may be down to JPEG compression. Using an app that allows setting lower JPEG compression, such as 645 Pro, may compensate for this.

For most purposes, I can’t see why the iPhone 5 wouldn’t be an adequate camera replacement. In terms of straight-from-the-camera usability, these photos are astounding compared to the GRD III, which used to cost in the region of USD$500-600 (it has now been replaced by the GRD IV model).

I’ve gone on a few trips where I ended up taking all or most of my photos on an iPhone 4/4S, with few regrets. Focusing on the 4S was a little touchy, and it tended to take photos before focus had fully locked, if you hit the button too soon; this seems to work the way it should on the iPhone 5.

Why Can’t Twitter Be Like Foursquare?

Turf Geography Club

I never thought little ol’ Foursquare could lead the way for Twitter, but their approach to the third-party access and monetization problem shows more class and understanding. For the past few weeks now, instead of investing in a user experience that users would choose, Twitter’s stated solution has been to make their apps the only ones in town.

Thanks to a tweet from @tarngerine today, I discovered Turf Geography Club, a location-based iPhone game built atop Foursquare’s place database, with additional Monopoly-like mechanics for upgrading and defending your property. It stands out from all the other “check-in and own this location” type apps by taking a flat-out fun (as opposed to a utility) approach: retro 16-bit style graphics, a Wes Anderson-inspired aesthetic (evident in the name, video trailer, and writing), bears, compasses, illustrated logbooks, and nonsensical references to an eternal struggle between man and nature.

What I liked was how I could suddenly start using Turf as my Foursquare client of choice, checking in as I usually do, but also playing this separate, app-specific metagame at the same time. Likewise, I can choose to use Path to document my movements with friends, and share a subset of those actions to Foursquare, for my other contacts to see them. Or I could document something private in Day One, the journaling app, and still check in to Foursquare from there where the location made sense (publicly, without sharing the contents of my journal entry).

Whatever you think of Foursquare and the people who use it, you can’t deny that this is what everyone would love Twitter to continue being, and what the company seems bent on defying: a confident social platform open to innovative ways of being used.

Foursquare recently updated their mobile apps in a big way, taking focus away from previous key features such as Mayorships, and emphasizing discovery and recommendations instead. The Foursquare app is now really good at showing you things of interest nearby, in categories such as food, shopping, and sightseeing, based on recommendations from other users. I can’t get those in Path or Turf, but my one-way actions in those apps feed back into the enrichment of Foursquare. That’s reason enough for me to keep the Foursquare app on my phone in addition to all the other ones that offer check-in functionality.

Twitter’s mobile apps also do a couple of things that third-party apps aren’t allowed to. It shows interactions that your friends have had on the service: tweets they’ve liked, people they’ve recently started following, and it shows supposedly personalized things of interest: local trending topics, and popular links being shared. The latter is where their advertising monetization is meant to happen, and it’s something that no one loves because it’s often dead wrong about what we want to see.

Imagine if Foursquare’s app showed you places you would never go, or check-ins from people you didn’t know or like. What would be the value in that? Instead, contextual intelligence and expert data mining help Foursquare stay valuable and interesting to users when they want to explore, while their availability to third party apps keeps users active and in the equation. The people at Twitter can’t go wrong throwing everything behind the creation of that value, in the interests of long-term viability, instead of shutting down the future of their service that may come from apps like Turf.

Learning about email newsletters the hard way, week 2

Issue 2 of The Round Down is out, but I had to abandon the TinyLetter service at the very last minute when it flagged the finished newsletter as containing spam, and refused to send it out until a human on their team could verify it wasn’t. That simply doesn’t work for our weekend publishing schedule, so I decided that relationship was over.

Although TinyLetter was acquired by Mailchimp, it doesn’t seem to share tools and services with its larger parent, which is honestly the only game in town if you want to do full-featured newsletters for no money down. I’m betting on it being more reliable and letting us do neat things like submit posts by email. Issue #2 went out without getting caught in a spam filter, so that’s a start.

TinyLetter provides a front page for your newsletter, but Mailchimp does not. I’m now using a custom domain + Tumblr for that, and that’s where old issues will go too. http://therounddown.com

One thing I wish I’d caught: a link that got corrupted in the Markdown to HTML conversion, that I forgot to fix. Rushing to set up Mailchimp and Tumblr over lunch didn’t allow time for a final check. With all other web publishing being of the instant and editable sort, and this being my first go at using email like this, it was something of a surprise that I couldn’t just reach out and edit it afterwards. Hard to keep a print production mentality when you’re writing in Google Docs.

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Slava’s Snowshow, Singapore

Snow storm, Slava's Snow Show.
Snowstorm finale, Instagrammed from my iPhone

My girlfriend and I attended last night’s performance of the award-winning Slava’s Snowshow (now on till the 9th of September, at the Marina Bay Sands theaters), which isn’t easily described because it has clowns, but isn’t really for kids; its narrative has no binding logic, but it says a lot without words; there’s snow, as promised, but really it’s about dreams, playacting, physical comedy, scenes of profound Godot-esque surrealism (as you’d expect from Russian clowns) , departures, alienation, and (I got the sense of this) having fun by being lost.

The Times of London called it “a theatre classic of the 20th century”, and its creator, Slava Polunin, was formerly of the Cirque du Soleil where he served as a clown-in-chief of sorts.

I don’t want to spoil it too much, but as long as you’re sitting in the stalls, you can’t escape being immersed in its key scenes. The performers regularly break the fourth wall (does this apply to the stage?), multiple objects and effects break free from the front and rush to the back of the hall, creating for adults a sense of wonderment that evokes memories of childhood play.

Even at around 80 minutes, it’s all over a little too quickly. I wish I’d paid a little more attention to the details, and the use of music (which was excellent, and the hall handled acoustics well). It’s something I can definitely see myself going for again someday, somewhere else in the world.

There’s about a week and a half to go, and tickets are still available. Try the link below for the Marina Bay Sands’ website.

Event info

Photo credit: Marina Bay Sands