Uber in Singapore

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The popular U.S. limousine service, Uber, has begun a local trial with a small fleet of cars, and I called one tonight after a late one at the office.

For those unfamiliar with the service, it’s like booking a taxi through ComfortDelGro’s iPhone app, but without the frustration and depressing emptiness their thoughtless UX design induces. Uber’s cars are all top-end Mercedes Benz sedans, and cannot be flagged down on the street (limos, not cabs).

Since Uber also relies on an iPhone/Android booking app, the main differences compared to local taxis from SMRT & Comfort are cost, luxury, and payment method. Uber cars cost more: base charges start at S$7 and trips are a minimum S$12. Making up for this in some way is the fact that fares are consistent throughout the day and night, and include all charges such as our local Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme.

Being willing to pay more means getting a car when you want one, at least that’s the promise once operations are in full swing. If money’s no object, that’s the end of waiting 30 minutes on the line for a taxi. One of the nicest touches of the whole experience is how you just get out of the cab when you arrive at your destination — the fare is charged directly to your credit card and you instantly get a receipt via email. Your driver rates you on a 5-star scale, and you rate them too.

My car arrived within 10 minutes, and it was a great ride. No hiccups or hassle. At the end of a long day, a comfortable seat makes all the difference. The last thing you want (#firstworldproblems alert) is a torn and messed up leather seat, a balled up tissue in the door handle, touching your fingers, etc. I can’t justify paying Uber’s prices in every instance that I’d normally take a taxi, but god do I ever want to!

Uber iPhone app

The booking flow and interaction design in the iPhone app really puts the local competition to shame, and speaks to the premium service that it strives to be. Marking your pickup location on the map is as easy as using Google Maps or picking a location from a list in Foursquare. The moment your car is confirmed, a photo of your driver along with his name and car license number/model are displayed onscreen. On the map above, a little black car approaches your destination.

It’s a pleasure to see a transport alternative that breaks through the calcified monopoly of our local cab operators, where the same pool of cars has to service street pickups, taxi ranks, and phone/internet bookings. Because of the financial incentives that bookings provide, it’s often hard to get a cab at a queue or off the street. Booking has become something of a norm here, and the system feels broken. A solution that allows people to pay more to be served first isn’t a great one, but it could ease a little pressure and be a very profitable and popular short-term solution.

Get $10-20 free credit with my referral link: http://uber.com/invite/ubersangsara
or use promo code “ubersangsara” if you’d like to try them out.


Edit: if you thought I was exaggerating about the torn seats, here’s the regular taxicab I had the next morning, faintly smelling of piss to boot.

A brief review of headphones using the metaphor of photographic reproduction

Audio-Technica M50
Audio-Technica M50

Imagine you could take a photograph of sound; bass, in particular.

AIAIAI Tracks on-ears would be a very good tracing of that photograph. One gets the idea, and knows what the photo would look like, but it’s not the same as experiencing it firsthand.

Incase Sonic over-ears: Now the photograph has been nearest-neighbor resized in Photoshop to 150%. So you get its presence and some detail, but with jagged edges all over the place. The bass is plain to see, but not particularly nuanced.

Monster Beats in general are a printout of the photograph at 200% size on a color inkjet printer that’s missing a few ink tanks and in need of a head cleaning, then rolled up for sale in a $1,000 faux-crystal gift box.

Klipsch Image ONE over-ears are like the photograph enlarged for display on the side of a skyscraper which has exploded and is collapsing in your direction.

The Audio-Technica M50 headphones are like finding great photo paper at a closing down sale and printing out a realistic reproduction that you’ll put on your wall for years. But the plastic frame it’s in is really ugly.

PSB Speakers’s M4U 2 noise-canceling over-ears in ’active’ mode is the work of a DSLR camera viewed on a Retina display. While you’re looking, someone squeezes your (large) head to the point of moderate discomfort. Your wallet also vanishes.

Lastly, the Harman Kardon CL on-ears are a beautiful replica to stare at, but you’ll always wonder if springing for the real thing would have made a difference.

Link

[Branch] Do we still need to physically experience music shopping?

[Branch] Do we still need to physically experience music shopping?

I thought I was perfectly fine with digital discovery, Spotify-style apps and the iTunes Store, but at the risk of losing the last big retailer in town (HMV), and remembering how one could wander for hours and come out with armfuls of new music, I think I’m going to miss the tactile/spatial experience of old. There’s something about walking in and seeing with your own eyes a handmade display promoting an album you’d never heard of, and becoming curious. A thumbnail doesn’t do that.

Branch is a relatively new startup and service that allows anyone to set up ad-hoc, public discussion spaces. The person who sets the topic (or question) can invite others over Twitter or email, and any other viewer can ask to join in by simply writing what they would say if they were already part of the discussion. After that’s approved, they’re in. It’s an elegant and well-designed system, but still relatively unfriendly to some.*

For my first attempt, I asked the question that came to mind after a late visit to the local HMV last night, after the news broke that their UK offices are now in receivership (broke ass). I’ve already enjoyed the experience immensely, even with just two other participants, and look forward to using this more.

As for the topic of discussion, it’s something I want to think about more. I still believe in the power and value of music discovery outside of clickable lists and webpages. Creating a different sort of physical music retail presence is something I’d love to work on for a future client.

* One friend who I invited balked at the standard Twitter authorization screen that said ‘this app is asking for permission to “See who follows you on Twitter” and “Tweet on your behalf”‘ — pretty standard and harmless stuff that most frequent Twitter users don’t even blink at, but frightening language for others all the same.

Upgrade Your iPhone’s Camera with ClearCam

Buy ClearCam on the App Store

Occipital’s ClearCam (usually $1.99) was one of my favorite camera apps; it exemplified the kind of surprising software experience that made the iPhone special; an inexpensive downloadable bundle that seemed to change what the hardware in your hands could do: it took photos at a higher quality and resolution than the sensor in the phone allowed.

How? By capturing a burst of photos (5-6) and combining them to average out noise, sharpen edges, and boost light sensitivity with a proven technique called Super Resolution. It was the only app of its kind on the store, and Occipital seemed to know their imaging stuff, having also made the outstanding 360 Panorama (featured in my list of essential camera and photo apps).

It allowed the 5mp iPhone 4 to capture crisp 11mp images, but upon the release of the 8mp iPhone 4S, the app simply stopped working. I never found a replacement, and didn’t believe it would be coming back, thinking the processing requirements of working on an 8mp image were perhaps too much for a phone to handle.

Now, more than a year on, the app has finally received an update. If you have an iPhone 5, you can now shoot at an astounding maximum size of 18mp. The results are far better than if you took an 8mp photo and resampled it in Photoshop. This isn’t a simple resize; even when brought down to the same resolution as a standard shot, it’s a cleaner image being assembled — the fact that it’s also twice the resolution is just the kicker.

The advantage is especially apparent in noisy low-light shots, shown in the 100% detail shots below. Notice how the lines in the larger ClearCam capture manage to be cleaner, and how the smooth surface areas have much less visible noise. The quality of the noise reduction is much higher than you would get from noise reduction post-processing based off a single image. A simple Unsharp Mask operation would improve the ClearCam shot even further.

100% detail from 8mp standard camera shot
100% detail from 8mp standard camera shot
100% detail from 18mp ClearCam shot
100% detail from 18mp ClearCam shot

Over my experience with the app, I’ve found the ClearCam versions are just as usable, if not more so. Outside of photography, it’s extremely handy for whiteboard captures in a work environment.

One of the most exciting advantages of having clean 18mp shots is that it gives you a lot of freedom to crop and still have something the size of a normal shot. It’s almost as good as having a 2x or more optical zoom on your iPhone.

Fu Lu Shou Complex
(Above) This was cropped from a wider shot, to frame the stairway (I liked the old-fashioned sign) and old lady leaning on the rails. The final photo is still a generous 11mp!

As long as you don’t have too much movement going on in the shot, ClearCam’s “Enhanced” mode is worth using as your default means of capture. The app also offers a “Quick” mode, which takes 3-4 standard resolution shots in a quick burst, and then analyzes them to save only the clearest, least-blurry photo to your Camera Roll. It’s an alternative to the “Stabilizer Mode” that many other apps offer, where your photo is only taken once your hands are still. Often, when it’s really hard to steady yourself (when it’s freezing, for example), you can be stuck holding your phone for a long time waiting for the shutter to trigger.

Here are some other ClearCam photos I got today, all processed with the excellent VSCO Film 01 & 02 for Aperture.

Fu Lu Shou Complex
Fu Lu Shou Complex
HDB block & blue skies
HDB block & blue skies
Waiting for the bus
Waiting for the bus
Waiting for the bus 2
Waiting for the bus 2
ArtScience Museum
ArtScience Museum

Jan 14 Edit: Replaced the previous indoor low-light shot examples with a better pair taken at the Singapore ArtScience Museum.

Using VSCO Film with Compact Cameras

Many of us have a soft spot for the look of film photos, whether because of nostalgic associations; or a preference for the grain, faded tones, and color shifts that render the familiar world just a little more interesting. The effort to simulate this in digital photos has lately become conflated with “vintage” effects, where age and strong aberrations are introduced. Those are okay for throwaway shots and fun Instagrammable occasions, but not when a moment deserves quality with a little added character.

As a frequent user of the Visual Supply Co.’s VSCO CAM iPhone app, I knew their VSCO Film preset for professionals using Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture were going to be capable of producing subtle film-like looks, and save a lot of time in post-processing to achieve the kind of results I usually want. But there’s a big difference between a US$0.99 app and buying two sets of presets (a handful of finely-tuned settings and slider positions) costing US$79 each.

It’s a no-brainer for the working photographer who shoots weddings and events; VSCO Film presets are the result of people with more time than you, slaving away to find the perfect combinations of color, lighting, and grain to get the most out of photos. You pay to save yourself that Herculean effort, and make it back almost immediately.

The amateur photographer (me) has less incentive to part with their money, apart from curiosity and desire. I don’t even own a DSLR camera. The VSCO presets are very much designed to be used on well-exposed, high quality RAW photos from a DSLR. On holidays, I mostly shoot with high-end compacts like the Ricoh GR Digital, which are capable of saving RAW files, but I’m just as likely to use Point & Shoots or smartphones with small sensors, depending on the situation. Up to this moment, I’ve always chosen to save JPEGs over RAW for the convenience.

I tried to find articles online about whether or not it was worth buying VSCO Film for use on photos from regular compact cameras, but found little in the way of reassurance. The company’s official line was that they would “work”, but an SLR + RAW files was recommended. Being presets, they could not be expected to perform consistently across sources of widely varying quality.

It doesn’t help that the company has a No Refunds policy, and does not make available any demo files for curious customers to judge the results with. Being that they are geared towards professional users using gear I don’t have, I understand my need to see how the presets work with consumer cameras is a unique and unsupported one.

If you’re a Lightroom 4 or Adobe Camera RAW user, there’s a preset in the including Toolkit called “JPEG Contrast Fixer”, which corrects some of the issues you will encounter when processing a JPEG from a DSLR or camera incapable of saving RAW files. As an Aperture 3 user, that option was not available.

Since there’s a sale now on to celebrate the release of VSCO Film 02 for Aperture, which amounts to savings of 25% if you buy both packs, I decided last night to take the plunge and see what would happen. I’ve only had a couple of hours or so to test it out on some old vacation photos, but the results are encouraging.

The bottom line: If you’re not concerned with absolute emulation of the film stocks the presets are designed around — and online sentiment I’ve come across seems to be that their accuracy is subjective anyway — and you merely want to achieve a look reminiscent of film photography, you’ll be perfectly pleased using VSCO Film with consumer compact digital cameras.

The shots below were taken with a Ricoh CX6 and GRD3, and processed only within Aperture using VSCO Film 01 & 02. The trick is usually to boost exposure between 0.3 to 1.0 whilst recovering highlights, and then apply the presets you want. This approximates the default brightness I see in many DSLR photos, while expanding the dynamic range a little. Most compacts I’ve used tend to underexpose by default, with the exception of many a Sony Cybershot.

Even with the knowledge that these can work well for those with lower-end cameras, the usual per-pack price of US$79 (and US$119 for the Lightroom versions) is still going to be a significant roadblock for the casual photographer. Nevercenter’s Camerabag 2 for the desktop is just US$20 and capable of yielding great results too. I just wanted something that integrated with Aperture (non-destructive editing), wasn’t a plugin or app I had to leave the environment to use, and was more subtle. Camerabag’s baked-in presets are decidedly closer to “vintage”, but you are free to tone them down and save your own favorites.

Processed: Ginza by night

Original: Ginza by night

➟ Canon Powershot N

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Canon Powershot N first impressions: Digital Photography Review

Very intrigued by Canon’s latest consumer product shown off at CES. It’s an almost-square, mint tin-sized box with an 8x optical zoom lens, 12mp resolution, and wireless-N connectivity designed to work with your smartphone. Anything you shoot with it can be instantly shared in the ways you are already accustomed to, and the camera even applies a bunch of artistic filters automatically.

This is an interesting and astute reaction to recent trends in consumer photography: namely, people shoot and share an imagebucket load of photos with their smartphones; the more advanced of these photographers care about and strive to eke ever more quality and clarity out of their daily shots, you even see some happy to carry DSLRs around to get shots exclusively for low-res online sharing; the emergence of middle-ground devices such as Micro Four-Thirds cameras, ultra-thin laptops, tablets (hell, even phablets); and of course, the rapid demise of consumer compact cameras for everyday use, having been deemed too much bulk and inconvenience for too little versatility and quality.

This new PowerShot N cleverly defines a new middle-ground: a more ergonomically sound and high-quality experience than shooting with a smartphone’s camera, with comparable quality and superior portability versus other compacts, whilst enjoying all the connected features of your phone.

➟ Derren Brown’s Apocalypse

British mentalist Derren Brown has done a fair few TV specials, and like the illusionist David Blaine, he started small with entertaining tricks and then started ramping up the scale of his productions, and got a lot of flak for overwrought theatricality and ruining the fun with ever-increasing amounts of required disbelief.

His latest, Apocalypse, isn’t about changing that course, but it’s compelling TV because of how extreme a prank it is, and how it digs a sole man/victim/subject deep into a pop-culture reference we’ve all thought about: a zombie invasion.

The whole show is about convincing one wayward young man that the end of the world has begun, in an effort to shock him into displaying leadership and responsibility. They staged explosions, helicopters, a military hospital for him to wake up in, and more. It’s in two parts on YouTube — I skipped straight to the second last night, which starts with a helpful recap.

Part 1Part 2 (videos embedded after the jump)

Continue reading

Aside

Found out after suddenly wanting a single album that contained every song by Jim Steinman (couldn’t find one) that he tried to record his own follow-up to Bat Out of Hell in 1981, entitled Bad for Good. The songs were originally meant for Meat Loaf, of course, but when he lost his voice, Jim decided to go ahead and record them with his weaker vocals. Check out the sample of “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” on iTunes, and then compare it to the Bat Out of Hell II version. Seems the album was a hit anyway, but I was only a year old at the time.

Bad for Good

Just before the New Year…

Just before the New Year, reading New Year posts, I came upon the following line on someone’s blog: “See you on the other side.” Something about the exaggeration struck me as so preposterous, even in jest, that the whole idea of celebrating the midnight moment was buried for me. Why do we indulge in this when there’s no meaningful line being crossed; nothing in the natural world that cares or remembers what we do from one calendar year to the next, I asked our waiter in irritation. Yes, I was on my phone at dinner again (I have that one resolution, at least).

But then later in the night, I was reminded of a few things I was meant to have done by now, and how we always remember where we were the New Years before. I guess it all made sense again then. Counting imaginary milestones makes them real, much like watching walkthroughs of games on YouTube count as playing them. Both concepts exist to remind us of the urgency of our short time here. Let’s get some 2013 done.