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Shuttered Out

At a recent office balcony party, I spoke to a colleague who’s also into photography (by which I mean he’s also afflicted by the coin-draining hobby of buying cameras), and realized that maybe I’ve made some progress. My last purchase was the Sony RX-100, which he also bought, and then sold, and then bought a Fuji X20, and then sold, and then bought a used Fuji X100S (pictured). The urge has not visited me lately, unless you count the $200 Q Camera which no amount of money on Earth can buy at the moment because they’ve only made one sold-out and poorly handled batch.

I’m doing really well on just my iPhone 5S and excellent apps like the new Mattebox (do try my Velvius filter), and Cortex Camera. You can also explore all my posts tagged ‘Photography‘.

ArtScience Museum, Nov 2014

Some iPhone photos from a recent visit. I’d been meaning to see the Eames one for months, but it’s always a bit hard to get out to the Marina Bay Sands because there isn’t a lot to do afterwards if you’re not in the mood for an expensive meal or drinks.

There are quite a few pieces in the Eames area, including some original interactive activities from an educational exhibit they designed, although the gallery layout leaves a little to be desired. A roughshod detail here, an odd pathway there, and lots of furniture out of reach, labeled “do not touch”, leaves you empty;  it’s only at the very end when you sink into a permitted Ottoman that you feel the humanity of their designs.

The Chanel Black Jacket photo exhibition is much more enjoyable to explore, because there’s nothing between you and the content on display.

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Here are the official exhibition summaries:

Explore the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames, the most famous couple in design.

Most known for their timeless furniture creations, their influence and innovation extended far beyond that into architecture, exhibition design, toy making and film.

CHANEL’s photographic exhibition dedicated to Karl Lagerfeld’s book “The Little Black Jacket: CHANEL’s classic revisited by Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld” opens in Singapore, joining a new stage of the exhibition that underlines CHANEL’s values of creativity and modernity.

Discover the exhibition that pays tribute to CHANEL’s little black jacket. Through over a hundred photographs the jacket is adapted and worn differently by some of today’s greatest personalities in contemporary culture. Slipped on by the French singer, Vanessa Paradis, transformed into a headdress for the American actress, Sarah Jessica Parker, or adapted to Alice Dellal’s neo-punk look – this fashion masterpiece can adapt to any style.

Cortex Camera is your best bet for quality iPhone photos

Original iPhone capture
Original iPhone capture
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Cortex Camera capture

It’s hard to believe that you can get different results from the same hardware—the same smartphone camera—just seconds apart. The first photo was taken with the iPhone 5S’s built-in camera app, which employs some impressive software techniques to improve most photos. In this case, a low-light scene forced an ISO sensitivity of 1000.

The second photo was taken with Cortex Camera, which takes a series of images over 2 seconds or so (you don’t have to keep your hands perfectly still, but still-as-possible helps). These are then combined for far less noise, more accurate colors, and higher resolution (12mp on the iPhone 5/5S, which normally take 8mp images). The default Camera.app also combines up to four captures for better photos, but is optimized to work for all situations. For any scene without moving subjects and where you have the luxury of time, Cortex delivers better results.

Camera.app 100% crop
Camera.app 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop

The shots above are 100% crops from the same scene. Note that the Cortex Camera version is both larger and more detailed. It has more potential for processing, and beats a fair few prosumer point and shoot cameras at the pixel level.

The first app to do this “supersampling” was Occipital’s ClearCam, which I used to swear by. However, like their other app 360 Panorama, ClearCam hasn’t received any updates in the wake of iOS 7, and appears to have been abandoned as the company pushes their new Kickstarter-backed project, the Structure Sensor. At this time, ClearCam makes you wait longer and has a cumbersome alignment and enhancement process. Cortex Camera just takes the picture and saves it all in one step. It’s a damn shame, because both Occipital apps were among the first and best of their kind, enabling users to do things with their iPhones that seemingly defied the capabilities of the hardware. They clearly have a knack for clever imaging technology; I just hope they take a longer view of supporting their products some day.

If you’re in the market for a new app to take and share those 360-degree panoramas, Sphere (formerly Tour Wrist) does a good job and is free. Bubbli is also promising, but captures video instead of photos to stitch a scene together, which means you have to pan slowly to get an even exposure. If you’ve got the cash and a love of new gadgets (mustnotbuymustnotbuy) Ricoh’s new Theta camera does the trick in a single click. It’s the first consumer-ready spherical capture camera and looks like a presentation remote. Simply hold it above your head and hit the button, and it takes in the entire scene. What’s more, the $400 device has built-in wifi and beams photos over to your iPhone for instant sharing. It’s not hard to imagine this feature on an iPhone a decade from now.

Tandoori Corner

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Tried out an Indian restaurant near work today on the occasion of a visiting coworker’s farewell (amusingly, he’s going back to India and another Indian coworker felt it appropriate to suggest this place for lunch — we suggested he was feeling homesick himself).

It’s on Boon Tat street and quite good, although it’s probably best to come closer to 2pm; we stood outside for close to half an hour. I had the chicken tikka which was mildly spiced (if you’re a wimp like me and like to avoid discomfort).

Fixing Battery Life Problems on a Kindle Paperwhite

If you’re noticing that your Kindle’s battery life isn’t what it’s supposed to be, or are looking for information on how to solve the “Books not yet indexed” problem, this post may help you.

I bought my Kindle Paperwhite while on vacation in Japan, where they are significantly cheaper thanks to a campaign against the entrenched Kobo readers in that market, but noticed it wasn’t living up to stated battery life claims. My previous Kindles didn’t either, but the problem was less noticeable because I used them more at the time, and thus charged them more frequently.

I recently left the Paperwhite alone during a busy stretch of two weeks and was shocked that the battery had gone nearly flat.

After poking around online, I discovered that the Calibre software I use (a popular open-source ebook manager) causes a feature of the Kindle to misbehave.

When idle, the Kindle tries to index your ebooks so you can perform word searches quickly, but if the file is corrupted or in some way fails to conform to the Kindle’s expectations, it gets stuck indefinitely trying to repeat the operation. That drains the battery, and those books never finish indexing, which must affect searching and navigation.

You can test if this issue is affecting you by performing a search for some nonsensical string such as “jejficueh” which you know won’t appear in any books. If you see a section titled “Books not yet indexed” appearing on the blank search results screen, then you have a bunch of books that never finished indexing.

For books downloaded through Amazon’s Kindle store, the solution is to delete the ebook file and download it again (at no charge).

But because we don’t have a Kindle online store here, mine is manually loaded with mobi files, PDFs, and the like. Deleting and re-copying the affected files wasn’t helping.

After reading forum posts by similarly troubled users, and some proposed solutions, I found out that Calibre does something strange to ebook files when you use the “Send To Device” button to install books on a Kindle connected to your PC/Mac. This is what you’re SUPPOSED to do, by the way. The solution is to click “Save To Disk”, which outputs a clean file to some location on your computer such as your Desktop (again, Send To Device shouldn’t be doing anything different, but it does), and then manually copy the book onto the Kindle using your regular file manager e.g. the Mac Finder or Windows Explorer.

It’s probably a bug. I’ll be writing to the Calibre guys, but just wanted to put this out here in case it helps anyone.

Tokyo Snack Stash #2

I’m eating yesterday’s Italian Curry cup noodle right now and I was right, it’s a mildly spicy tomato sauce with mystery meat and capsicum bits. But tasty enough to eat way too fast at 2am.

I really like that they realized people are gonna drink the soup from the cup and wrapped the whole thing in shrink-wrapping to keep it clean while on the shelves.

Anyway snack stash video #2 is up.

Hello again, Tokyo

First day in Tokyo (2013 edition) went well. The new hotel we’re trying out is well located near Shinjuku station and roomier than the last place I occupied in Ginza — also a single room, although this one could be a double.

We tried to eat at the Go Go Curry branch we loved near the West exit of the station, but it was closed for renovations or something. Ended up eating a substitute beef curry rice in the basement of the Odakyu department store, I think. Good, but not the same.

The next couple of hours were spent walking in circles trying to get our bearings and cross the sprawling station over to the East side, and then trying to understand all the back lanes that have changed. When you use transient shops as mental landmarks, you risk disorientation. The same happens in Singapore.

Finding a place to have a beer wasn’t easy; many of them were fully packed and had to turn us away. We ended up in an English pub that was having a 50% off celebration day (complete with handwritten ‘thank you for coming to celebrate Hub Day’ cards upon leaving), just as crowded as the rest, and standing room only. Tiring, but fun.

Afterwards, on the walk back to the hotel, we saw amateur acts performing on the streets, hawking self-burnt CDs and having a good time. Great to see unsigned musicians out there and going at it. This doesn’t really happen back home. Is it because they need licenses and those aren’t easy to get? I don’t know.

Along the way we discovered two things. Another Go Go Curry branch that is now second on our to-do lists after sushi tomorrow, and an awesome iPhone accessory shop called AppBank. It has tons of high quality cases and decorative add-ons, and upstairs, a large section devoted to LINE merchandise, alongside Puzzle & Dragons books, figurines, collectibles, etc. and also a Tokyo Otaku Mode corner.

The brand power that LINE and P&D have amassed here is extraordinary. A chat app that has convinced me and many I know to part with tens of dollars for non-essential in-app purchases (imagine then, how much Japanese users must spend), and a single mobile game that currently makes $5M a day in revenue from IAP.

On this trip, I’m trying to shoot more video in addition to photos. I’ll have to see about editing something together to remember this trip by at the end of it (we’re celebrating my cousin’s upcoming wedding), but in the meantime, Qwiki has pivoted from a knowledge tool into an app that automatically assembles clips for you, and it’s done an ok job of the first day.

I also did another Family Mart snack run video rundown, because the only video I made the last trip down here was one where I talked to the camera about the stuff I’d bought, and it was fun.

Sent from my iPhone

Of Monsters and Men: Pacific Rim and Man of Taichi

Two of the movies I’ve been waiting for in one weekend. Pacific Rim in IMAX 3D (found the 3D dull, dim, and uncomfortable), and Keanu Reeves’s directorial debut, Man of Taichi (thankfully in 2D). Both are films I’d like to go see again.

They are both fascinating in that Pacific Rim is the monster (kaiju) movie that Japan could never make, while Man of Taichi is the martial arts (gongfu) movie that Hong Kong could never make. Both borrow richly from their sources, but add something of their own. In Pacific Rim’s case, wads of special effects money and (unfortunately) Michael Bay’s apocalypse movie template. Andy Baio remarked on Twitter that it’s the worst of Transformers, Armageddon, and Independence Day rolled into one. While that’s a fair assessment of its characterizations and plotting, Del Toro at least executes his material as if he’s seen some anime and knows how to shoot a fight so you can actually see it.

What it really needed was a tight script and team dynamics you could both enjoy and invest in. Instead of Michael Bay’s template, I wish they’d taken Joss Whedon’s. But no, it falls back on faceless national stereotypes and comically bad romance tropes. Rinko Kikuchi may have an Oscar, but I wouldn’t trust whoever oversaw her doe-eyed scenes with bland Charlie Hunnam to direct traffic on a one-way street. Perhaps the Mako Mori character was just meant to be younger than Kikuchi looks, but her uncertainty and shyness were incongruous with having the coolest/most badass hair in the movie.

Pacific Rim's leads looking at each other
Character interaction looks much better in stills than in the film

Man of Taichi takes the best of Enter The Dragon, Bloodsport, and Ong Bak (fighting tournaments with explosive combat scenes), and adds both directorial and visual restraint to a philosophical story layer that HK films sometimes try to do (Ip Man, much of Jet Li’s period work), but almost always too heavy-handedly. For the genre of film that he’s taken on, I think Keanu Reeves has shown himself to be a good director. Not for an actor, or for a Hollywood man, but a good director, period.

Man of Taichi’s star is Tiger Chen, a stuntman that Reeves met during the production of The Matrix. I won’t complain about his performance in the film’s non-fight scenes, because it never gets in the way, which is more than I can say for Pacific Rim’s moments of downtime. When he fights, or is seen struggling with the Star Wars-like light vs. dark side moral dilemma of his pugilism, Chen’s placid face conveys exactly the intensity required. In the final moments of the film’s final fight, he uses it as a blank canvas to great effect — much like Keanu Reeves in his portrayal as Neo in The Matrix when we needed to believe a world lay inside a computer. Some see wooden acting, I choose to see inspired detachment.

Man of Taichi movie poster

Reeves is in this film too, as the main antagonist. My viewing companion was not impressed. Maybe I’m just a fan, but again, I found his typically one-dimensional portrayal to be perfect for the film. It’s so hard to see what’s going on behind the rigid, mechanical demeanor that it produces an oppressive sense of mystery, fear, and apprehension whenever he enters the room opposite the human, naive, in-over-his-head Chen. You simply don’t know what Reeves is supposed to be capable of, or if he’s even meant to be human. I felt the whole thing could go From Dusk Till Dawn at any point and literally reveal Reeves as Satan with Krav Maga training. Through the stark presentation, voice effects, sleek dark suits and occasional black mask, bloodlessly pale face, and perfunctory short utterances, you are invited to read his existence in the whole scenario as a let-it-all-hang-out metaphor for demonic evil. All villains are, but this one does it without overacting in the face!

Where Pacific Rim is happy to show great swathes of the world, and then gleefully destroy it, much of Man of Taichi takes place indoors, with only a few establishing skyline shots of Beijing and Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong, the sparse fight arenas are all concrete surfaces and sharp corners for flesh to get caught on, and you are constantly made aware of the combatants’ mortality. In Pacific Rim, the robot Jaegers are virtually invincible except when fighting the Kaijus, which are only flesh, and bleed. You could toss a Jaeger through a skyscraper made of the same metals, but it only malfunctions when punched in the face by a tentacle. Like in Man of Steel, which got flack for Superman allowing awesome amounts of collateral damage, Pacific Rim’s environment is an inconsequential foam that inhabits the fight space, to be ignored by everyone except the audience, whose job it is to be overwhelmed by enjoyable particle effects.

In both films, there is a man with a knife. One is played to the hilt by Ron Perlman, who talks a lot, wears gold shoes, sunglasses, and flips a flashy butterfly knife around for effect. I can’t remember if he had a cigar in his mouth but there might as well have been. In the other universe, Keanu Reeves pulls the blade out low at the waist, and stabs silently and mercilessly before you know it’s there. It is beautiful and unintentional asymmetry.

I recommend seeing both. Pacific Rim is a dream come true for many of us who love giant robots and schlocky movies with men in rubber monster suits, but by only improving upon visuals, its clearest future is as an HDTV/4K showcase at your local electronics dealer. I think Man of Taichi might become a cult martial arts classic talked about and recommended to friends for years.

Pacific Rim is obviously out now, Man of Taichi is out in Asia and is slated to be in the U.S. sometime in 2013.