Week 52.20

  • I weighed myself at the end of last weekend’s staycation, which arguably came at the end of a multi-month odyssey of bad eating, and found that I was heavier than I have been in at least 6 years. So the first half of this week was devoted to eating salads and lowering my caloric intake as much as possible. I also skipped drinking every day, and I think it’s come down a touch. I will have to keep this going in an effort to return to a figure that could be called normal (both on the scale and irl).
  • No surprises, but Christmas was different and the lead up was even less detectably Christmas-feeling than it is every year — I am prone to declaring that ‘THIS year, it really doesn’t feel like Christmas’, every single time. Nonetheless, efforts were made, and I shall probably look back on this year’s edition with fondness.
  • There was work to be done up to the last minute of Christmas Eve, and there’ll be some work to do next week too, but I am looking forward to a bit of a rest and some reading/gaming in early January. I say this here to remind myself to actually do it, and not just scroll Twitter on the couch for days.
  • It’s not often that I fire up the podcast app and listen to anything, but I uncharacteristically spent a few hours this week on financial/investing-related content, which will hopefully help to set up a better 2021. I don’t know why I spent the first half (or more) of my life resistant to the idea of understanding economics and money; well, I suppose I can make a guess as to the underlying repulsions, but it’s never too late to change your mind and try to let some new thoughts in.
  • My birthday was months ago, but I think the realization only started to land in the last few months (and almost completely subconsciously!). I was talking to someone awhile ago about how you just one day catch yourself changing up stuff or trying new things, and oh hey what a coincidence 4-0, and they said yeah, it’s a real thing and it’s started happening to me too, except a year in advance. I’m always lagging.
  • A reunion of sorts: Many years ago, possibly a decade, I chanced upon a wonky, clearly Not Proper Art painting at the Affordable Art Fair and sort of fell for it. It was an underdog. It was absolute innocence, defenseless against the world. Kim hated it and walked us away. I wanted to go back for another look and maybe take a photo but never got the chance. In any case, it was way too expensive for me to even consider. As with all things that get away, you want them even more, irrationally. I remember calling the gallery up for the local artist’s name and writing it down in Evernote. And all these years, I’ve been holding a vivid memory of it in my head, and I bring it up from time to time to tease and horrify Kim with the idea of putting it up in our home. We found it online this week. It’s still unsold, at the same gallery. The price has come down by about half. I have money these days. It’s still higher than it probably should be. I don’t know. It’s almost exactly as I remembered it. Maybe I’ll buy it just to scratch the itch and close the book.
  • App of the Week: Mimi Hearing Test [iOS]. This free app will test your hearing in about 5 minutes if you have a pair of headphones that they’ve calibrated for, and tell you how degraded your ears are. It outputs an “audiogram” assessment to Apple’s Health.app, which can be used to tune the sound quality of AirPods beyond the usual Hearing Accommodations. It’s pretty great and I think everyone should try it.

Week 51.20 and AirPods Max review

  • Christmas is just next week now, so there’s a little more meeting up and eating out going on than usual. Although I’m still in the habit of logging every single expense in an app, I’ve decided not to look too hard at December’s outflow this year. Come to think of it, this approach may explain some of the back-and-forth below about whether the AirPods Max are worth keeping or not. Look, you’ve been warned. Skip it if you don’t care about headphone purchases.
  • We spent the weekend at a family staycation, which was another form of meeting up and eating out. Day drinking really doesn’t work for me. Have a glass of wine at lunch and it’s headaches and drowsiness somehow, but if I start after 6pm, everything’s good.
  • It wasn’t all lazing about the hotel. We went out to the National Gallery’s new retrospective on the work of Singaporean artist Georgette Chen (1906–1993), a name I’d never heard before despite what appears to be a fair amount of exposure in recent years, according to the linked Wikipedia article. I should probably consume more local media.
  • Earlier in the week, there was some meeting up and eating out with a couple of colleagues I hadn’t seen in awhile. As I learnt from Grace, you really haven’t got a chance with any bar and restaurant in town these days unless you make reservations, so that must be great for Chope and other similar booking platforms (assuming they’ve figured out workable business models). We wanted Korean BBQ but could only secure a spot at a 3.9-star Google reviewed place. It was a 3 at best, so I think there’s a need for some kind of review correction algorithm across multiple services. For example, I noticed on Foursquare (which has a much smaller user base) that users rating things in Singapore were pretty harsh, so you actually had to add to ratings to get an indicative score of quality. Google, with many more users, probably needs correcting down instead.
  • Speaking of ratings, I said a couple of weeks ago that I was reading Ready Player Two and hoped it would at least turn out to be a 2.5-star book. Well I finally got around to finishing it, and nope. I don’t remember anything about the first book, only the experience of it, that I had fun and enjoyed some of the references because it was the first time I’d seen some of them mentioned in a long while. But it turns out that’s really what Ernest Cline wants to do: string together loads of “geeky” references and get congratulated for it. This second book reads like third-rate fan fiction and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
  • According to Goodreads, that completed my 2020 Reading Challenge. 30 books this year, which I probably haven’t done in over a decade. With any luck, I’ll be able to surpass that next year if the universe grants me lots of free time.

AirPods Max

I got my pair a week ahead of their scheduled delivery date and it’s led to a lot of pointless pondering over the past few days. They sound really good. I did a couple of head-to-head comparisons and they’re the best pair of wireless headphones in my drawer. Everything older or cheaper doesn’t put up a fight in the sound quality department. Not any of the Sonys, Boses, Beats, or B&O Beoplays. I haven’t compared them to the Nurasound headphones yet, but I actually expect those to make a case for sticking around because they feel so physically different and immersive as a listening experience.

I’d love if they could just be The One, and help me declutter, but they fall short in a couple of areas outside of sound quality. The most minor of these is their goofy look with the mesh headband and rectangular cups. I got Space Gray and I don’t think I could be happy with any of the other colors if they got grubby or scratched up.

Comfort: They’re heavy as we knew, but it’s NOT been a big problem. What’s worse is they actually have more clamping force than I’d like. Granted, I have a larger than normal head and wear glasses, but can’t imagine being forced to wear these on an international flight. I once wore a pair of Bose QC35s for almost an entire 16-hour flight, and I’d do it again because although that older model doesn’t sound the best when you’re on the ground, they’re loose enough and the ANC is effective enough to make them perfect for in-flight use. The APMs just don’t work for that use case. I would say they’re actually too tight to even wear at home for more than a couple of hours, which is really sad.

Case/Portability: Everyone has complained about the design and construction of this enough and I have to agree. Their role in triggering the low-power mode complicates usability and their cheapening effect means we’d be happier if they’d left them out of the box completely. I’d much prefer if the headphones themselves could fold up. On that point, if you’ve got both arms fully extended and the cups are folded flat, there’s a point at the bottom-inner corner of each aluminum cup where they collide against each other. So if you wear them around your neck like that, it’s possible you’ll see scratches forming at that spot.

Build quality: Many reviewers have praised the APMs for their solid build quality, but to my touch, the metal earcups on mine have not been brushed/polished properly; I can feel the transition between smooth and rough patches when I run my fingers over them. It drives me kinda crazy that this is happening on a S$900 pair of headphones, even though I already know from first-hand experience over the past 16 years that first batches of Apple products out of the factory are likely to have some defects. Insert big sigh here.

Now, the competition. There really isn’t much to speak of if you want comparable sound quality in a wireless ANC headphone. I’d previously glanced at B&O’s new Beoplay H95 but their price tag was too high for what I thought was yet another mediocre product. My first pair of Beoplays was the first-generation wired H6, which was super comfortable but neutral and not much fun for some kinds of music, and everything since has not really been great. They made the headband smaller from the H7 onwards, so those don’t fit my head as well either.

In the wake of the AirPods Max launching, the H95 is now looking like the only real competitor. The online consensus is that Bang & Olufsen have finally nailed the sound quality and industrial design issues of their past, at greater cost to the consumer than before. They cost S$1300 compared to the $700 of the previous flagship H9 (third-generation).

Compared to the APMs, the H95s look better to some, are lighter, are more comfortable and sound even better (according to the forum folks on Head-Fi), have longer battery life, and fold up inside their included non-shitty metal carrying case. Arguments against them include less effective noise-cancellation, smaller earcups that may not fit everyone, no transparency mode, and none of that simplified wireless connectivity. Oh, and the fact that the brand is kind of struggling and so finding local repair options may not be possible in the long-term. It’s hard to fight formidable Apple’s retail and support network.

If I can’t justify keeping them around for short listening sessions only, then I’ll be returning the APMs for a refund and making do with what I already have. While they really sound terrific and have ruined a bunch of other headphones for me, solid audio engineering isn’t the whole package. An overemphasis on that is what people say* held the original HomePod back, but improving Siri to compete with Alexa and Google Assistant was arguably a much bigger hurdle than giving these a more comfortable fit and designing a better case.

Edit: I wore them the whole time while writing this week’s update, and on reflection, they sound so good that I’m hoping the band loosens up a bit or something so I can keep them.

* Who am I to say, when we can’t even buy HomePods in this neglected backwater that inexplicably has a spherical glass Apple Store?

Listening Remembering 2020

I considered not making one of these playlists this year, but someone said that traditions are most worth protecting when everything else has changed. My instinct with traditions is sometimes just to snap old things off and find something new to do. Maybe a couple of years of therapy will tell me why, but until then, I figured it was pretty low stakes to just make one.

And to my surprise (happens every time), it was an enjoyable exercise and I’m reasonably happy with the result, even though it contains some really basic hits and I probably left out a whole lot of other great stuff.

One thing I noticed as I was pulling in favorites I’d saved throughout the year: there was a tendency towards quiet or mid-tempo songs this time around. Probably a reflection of staying home amidst an apocalypse unfolding in slow motion. In trying to balance that out, I rediscovered a few songs I’d saved but never got back to, like the opening song Don’t Die. As usual, I tried to build in continuity of themes and good transitions, and there are a few intentional jokes in the sequencing of titles.

Edit: Looking back, I discovered many of these songs serendipitously outside of recommendation engines and so on. Apple Music does offer personalized weekly new music picks, but I tend to find new songs by tuning in to the Apple Music 1 live radio station (née Beats 1), or checking in on their curated genre playlists. Algorithms, don’t trust them.

Listen on Apple Music | Spotify

  1. Don’t Die — NOBRO
  2. Shook Shook — Awich
  3. Cool With Me (feat. M1llionz) — Dutchavelli
  4. Inside Out — Grouplove
  5. Together — beabadoobee
  6. Mood (feat. iann dior) — 24kGoldn
  7. fuck, i luv my friends — renforshort
  8. you broke me first — Tate McRae
  9. PAIN — King Princess
  10. Say So (Japanese Version) — Rainych
  11. Laugh Now Cry Later (feat. Lil Durk) — Drake
  12. I Dunno (feat. Dutchavelli & Stormzy) — Tion Wayne
  13. Apricots — Bicep
  14. The Hill — Model Man
  15. People, I’ve been sad — Christine and the Queens
  16. Kids Again — Sam Smith
  17. Eugene — Arlo Parks
  18. Lover — G Flip
  19. Young Americans — Durand Jones & The Indications
  20. Lockdown — Anderson .Paak
  21. It’s Hard (feat. Email Sandé) — Giggs
  22. Show Me Love (feat. Miguel) — Alicia Keys
  23. snow jam — Rinne
  24. Holy (feat. Chance the Rapper) — Justin Bieber
  25. death bed (feat. beabadoobee) — Powfu
  26. Devil That I Know — Jacob Banks
  27. Believe — Anna of the North
  28. the 1 — Taylor Swift
  29. You’re Still the One — Okay Kaya
  30. Good News — Mac Miller

Comment section

Don’t Die — NOBRO
Not only a fun song with a great animated video, but an obvious message to open with? Don’t die!

Shook Shook — Awich
I don’t understand why someone whose husband died from being shot would make a song that appears to glorify gun violence, but it’s a banger.

Continue reading “Listening Remembering 2020”

Week 50.20

  • It’s that playlisting time of the year. We started a thing at work back in 2017 where everyone picks their favorite song of the year, writes a few words about it, and then we slap together a website for it with some bonus Christmas material (that first year’s was a chatbot that controlled Santa’s operations).
  • That exercise usually then reminds/inspires me to make my own year-in-review playlist. This was last year’s effort.
  • The office playlist is now done, but we’ll need to find some free time in the next few days to put the package together. I’ll probably link it here when it’s done.
  • I spent most of Saturday afternoon working on my own playlist, and found that I’ve YET AGAIN failed to learn my lesson: not properly cataloging discoveries and favorites throughout the year makes for a difficult process at the end. I’m sure I’ve left out a ton. More on that in a separate post.
  • This week in gadgetland was notable of course for Apple’s semi-surprise announcement of the AirPods Max headphones. Did I like the look of them at first sight? Not really. Am I happy to see them embrace the original HomePod’s (commercially unpopular) approach of focusing on the high-end of mass market audio? YES! I want to see what Apple can do with headphones when they don’t have to hold back.
  • They cost S$940 here with AppleCare+, but without having heard them, it’s hard to say if that’s a problem or not. I don’t expect them to play in the same class as the Bose 700 or Sony 1000X series; more likely as a complete package they’re targeting Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay H95, which go for 800 euros (S$1300). And kinda like how buying a great PC isn’t an alternative to a Mac if you value macOS, nothing really competes with AirPods Max as a complete package for Apple customers.
  • My biggest fear is that they won’t be comfortable; the closest proxy I have is an old pair of PSB M4Us which were nearly as heavy at 360g but too tight for my large head. If AirPods Max nail the fit, I think the weight will be alright. I only plan to use them at home for close listening on the couch and maybe the work desk. For everything else, it’s like one of the ATP guys said on their latest podcast: AirPods Pro are great enough general purpose headphones for all listening needs except flights over five hours.
  • “But Brandon, if that’s true, why don’t you just cancel this extravagant pre-order and be happy with the AirPods Pro?”. Well… I suppose I have a problem? There are quite a few pairs of over-ear headphones around the house, but none of them make me happy. I used the new Sony WH1000XM4s all afternoon while putting the aforementioned playlist together, and was pretty disappointed with their default sound signature. As I said to Michael on an impromptu international call while he was doing the dishes, the hype around their sound quality is a little overstated. They sound muddled, boomy, and narrow without EQ-ing (the “Bright” preset works best, but EQs feel like a hack). I was expecting more clarity in the highs, given the DSEE Extreme upsampling technology, but on songs with a lot going on, they can feel shockingly inadequate. I guess I’m hoping AirPods Max will be my go-to default pair of great sounding headphones that do it all.
  • After writing all that, we spent the night watching music videos and a great Sigrid performance off YouTube on the TV. Audio quality did not once enter my mind.

Week 49.20

  • I’ve been numbering these entries with the week number, which I get from Fantastical, my calendar app. I just looked and saw this year is going to have 53 weeks, which sounds wrong, but they only number full Monday to Sunday weeks (or Sunday to Saturday, like I used to believe was the right way before I got a job), so it makes sense that it’s all not going to fit nicely in 52.
  • It seems many people can’t wait for 2020 to be over, as if next year will automatically be better or not the consequence of everything that happens up to December 31. I’m just going to assume that it’s all 2020 until further notice, similar to how when this started back in March and some thought it might be over in a couple of months, I imagined an end date no earlier than year’s end. If I possess any mental stability today, it’s probably due to setting extremely low expectations for normality.
  • My dad, who is very active, outdoorsy, adventurous and generally nothing like me in what we find fun, tolerable, or necessary, save for an interest in computers/gadgets, managed to hurt himself this week while Cycling In His Seventies. Thankfully, it was nothing life threatening, but it does mean he won’t be able to walk for a couple of months, or at least he absolutely should not be attempting to. Once that hurdle has been cleared, there may be other medical issues to address, but I am hopeful in general that no further drama need occur. He may, as usual, have other ideas.
  • I figured reading would be a good way to pass the time, so I set him up with the apps for accessing free ebook loans from the National Library, which is a truly awesome benefit that I’m happy to pay taxes in support of. My first recommendation was “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”, which I started reading six weeks ago on Darrelle’s recommendation but have been neglecting.
  • I finally sat and finished it this week, and it’s a four-star treatise on the importance of following your interests, changing tracks, having side gigs, and being a cross-pollinator in your field of work. It opens with how Tiger Woods was essentially drilled from the age of two to be a super golfer, but the real GOAT is Roger Federer who only picked tennis up later in life after dallying with many other sports, which gave him the lateral skills and experience to become a more flexible and sustainable athlete.
  • My dad is given to telling stories from his past (honestly, they are very good) and shared one in response to Range. He started out as a marine engineer and continued working at shipyards for most of his career, and then switched over to the development of land vehicles at some point, which he called the best job he ever had. Without going into the details, he found problems at his place of employment that no one was solving, that were perfectly solvable using the methods and approaches he knew from working on ships. He brought them up to leadership and they were soon accepted and widely used practices in the organization.
  • This is exactly the sort of thing that Range is about: wicked problems that seem unsolvable from the POV of people who have specialized in one field that become trivial when you import common knowledge from another. Our education systems and siloed ways of working make these problems more pronounced than they should be. Many of the solutions we need already exist like a sacred crystal in a Final Fantasy game, split into four pieces and scattered throughout the world, waiting for a hero to unite them. In some corners of my work environment, this is grossly called “trapped value”. But it’s a book worth reading, and it’s a comfort to anyone who’s tried different jobs on for size and worries that it makes them less employable when it’s more likely to be the opposite.
  • At least I made more reading progress this week. After getting back into gear with Range, I finished Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter (3.5 stars: an action movie screenplay with some good ideas about multiverse travel) and Ryan Holiday’s Stillness is the Key (3 stars: a collection of well-researched stories and cautionary tales to help you slow down and be more zen, held together by mediocre self-help book writing).
  • I am now heading for the trifecta of disappointing reads with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player Two, a book whose release I should have anticipated but was not expecting or anything. I kinda liked Ready Player One for living in the awful space between Sword Art Online’s anime SF fantasy and 80s geek pop culture, but his next book, Armada, was so shoddily written I couldn’t get into it. Let’s see if this one will get more than 2.5 stars.