Week 26.21: A milestone

We’ve made it to the halfway point of 2021! And because I started in week 27 of 2020, that makes a year of posting weekly updates to this previously neglected blog. Has it been worth it? It will be. This morning I suddenly recalled how I used to have a TV card (it was a thing) installed in my PC back in uni, which allowed me to tune into trashy British programs over the air (I was bored in my dorm room because we didn’t have broadband, you see). It was just one of those memories so heavily buried that they seem unreal. So I went back and read some old blog posts from around that time. Instantly, that whole period came back, and there’s nothing like meeting your younger, better-in-some-ways self again via a journal entry. I recommend it.

This week in books: I finished Project Hail Mary which I was enjoying as of the last check in, and it held up all the way to the end. I’d like to recommend it to everyone, because I believe its sciencey bits are so accessibly written that anyone will get the general idea and stay locked into the story, whether or not they have some aversion to stories set in space or involving science and technology. These people exist; I’ve met them! It was also a welcome change in terms of style and pacing, having come off a Neal Stephenson where every page asks to be chewed slowly and thought about. In comparison, PHM is like sausage gravy through a straw.

I’ve mentioned before how playing video games is a often good way to pass time, whereas reading books is a good way to spend time. I was reminded of that this week as I poured a few more hours into Persona 5 Strikers, realizing all the way that I was not particularly enjoying the combat gameplay, barely enjoying the animated scenes and story (although I like the world and characters), and despising its barely concealed time-stretching mechanics. That is to say, the designers have contemptuously extended gameplay time without having to offer any value, so that you the player are told to go from Area A to Area B to talk to everyone you can find to get a password (a McGuffin) before returning to Area A. Completely unnecessary, and made more painful by how long loading times are on Nintendo Switch. My solution: the next game I play will be a visual novel.

Other bits:

  • It was Amazon’s Prime Day and I got us some bath towels and Buffalo Trace bourbon at ridiculous prices.
  • I don’t often play mobile gacha games, but a new one called Alchemy Stars stood out because of its line-drawing/color matching gameplay. It’s a little like Grindstone with an anime backdrop.
  • We started watching The World According to Jeff Goldblum on Disney+ and the first episode covered sneaker culture. I guess I knew people spent thousands on rare sneakers but I hadn’t really thought about the psychology of it; the rush of chasing, anticipating, and then unboxing something. They could easily be swapped out for any other scarce collectible like NFTs or Pokémon cards, or lootboxes that promise them.
  • I’ve always envied people who find the hobbies/obsessions just for them (damage to finances and relationships aside). I’ve never met a game I loved so much that I would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on buying its in-app purchases. Or shoes, bicycles, etc. I know people who do, though. They seem to buy almost thoughtlessly and without regret. Which is not at all like me with headphones and cameras. Those hurt long before and after the unboxing. I probably just have an opposite disorder of not allowing myself to fully anticipate and enjoy anything.
  • We went out to eat just once (it was enough) upon the lifting of lockdown restrictions this week. It was one of those all you can eat Korean barbecue places. We sprang for the better stuff, and we’re fatter people for it.
  • The last project I worked on has gone live in its first iteration, and it’s looking alright. Whenever I remember, I like to go look at user reviews to see if we improved anything for the better.
  • I spent most of Sunday afternoon watching live performances from the Later… with Jools Holland archives on YouTube.
  • A.G. Cook released a massive amount of material last year across two albums (7G and Apple), and I only just found out. Listening to those coincidentally put me in the mood for local singer Cayenne’s new solo EP, which is kinda PC Music-ish hyperpop.
  • That reminded me to look if Hannah Diamond had anything new, and so I found this brilliant music video from last September. The foundation of its 9-minute runtime is a screen recording of her photoshopping a self portrait.

Week 25.21: Spacing out

  • I noticed once again that my AirPods Max battery was draining faster than normal while not in use. Coupled with intermittent stuttering/connections issues, I decided to call it a hardware fault and contact Apple support for a replacement. One came via courier within two days and I am now listening problem free.
  • After several months of distracted 10-minute reading sessions, I finally finished Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age in one concerted go. I read Snow Crash in 2019, Cryptonomicon in 2020, and this makes three. I’d really like to just chain them and keep going but/because the density and brilliance of ideas in his work is staggering. If the stuff he was writing 15 years ago is just beginning to look like our future at present, I can’t imagine what he’s thinking about today. I could read one of his newer books and find out, but first, a break.
  • I decided to pick up Andy Weir’s new book, Project Hail Mary, after seeing some positive reviews, and it’s a return to the formula of a science-based, plausible, AND interesting life-threatening problem solved in the first person that worked so well in The Martian. I barely enjoyed his last book, Artemis, but I’m halfway through this now and can’t put it down. It’s about another guy in space, slightly adrift, needing to ‘science the shit out’ of a crisis.
  • I finished the Eizouken anime series on Netflix and can recommend it although it’s not so bingeable. It works well as an episode or two a week. What’s it about? A trio of high schoolers learning to produce anime. I thought it would be like Shirobako, but that one’s set in the real world of running a business, whereas this one is not grounded in reality and just works as a deconstruction cum demonstration of animation and filmmaking techniques you may not normally notice. It must have been so gratifying to work on this as an animation artist; it literally screams ‘appreciate me!’
  • Videogames: Played a bit more Persona 5 Strikers but am not really feeling it. It’s an example of the game getting in the way of the story. As a beat-em-up, it’s just not much fun especially after coming from Yakuza and Judgment. Started and finished Coffee Talk which is an indie game where you act as barista to a cast of cafe regulars and see their stories and relationships unfold. That’s it, you just make coffee and click through dialogue. A nice little afternoon killer. Went back to the Doom reboot on PS4 for a bit of mindless FPS action. That one’s an example of story getting in the way of the game.
  • Speaking of backstory in games, Mythic Quest’s second season is coming to an end on Apple TV+, and it’s a half-hour sitcom I’ve really enjoyed as a person who hates half-hour sitcoms. Both seasons play with a single flashback/world-building episode in the middle, which sounds like a bloody annoyance but the resulting achievement is art.
  • I also finished watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier which looks like a lot of tight movie money but plays out like a lump of TV fat. It’s often corny and disrespectful of the viewer’s time. But it does raise the bar for action sequences and production design. I haven’t seen Loki yet, but if it doesn’t deliver then I may just burn through the rest of The Mandalorian in fast forward and cancel our Disney+ subscription.

Meta-sabbatical observation: This was the first week where I’ve felt the days start to blend together. When we went to meet some friends on Saturday evening and someone said they’d come from somewhere other than the office, I asked, “oh did you have the day off?” thinking it was Friday. That wasn’t the first time I’d lost track of time. Perhaps I need more milestones and structure for the weekdays. I’ve started a to-do list of things to get done or try out.

Week 24.21

Went out just once for leisure purposes; we’re in partial lockdown after all. Saw an exhibition of Chinese ink paintings by Chinese-Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng.

After 35 hours of virtual oden eating and street thug harassment, I finally finished Judgment on the PS4 with most side cases solved. I usually don’t enjoy tonal inconsistency, but I can’t get enough of how the Yakuza games (I include this one) just jump from serious melodrama to comic absurdity. You can be searching a murder scene for clues but also follow the sound of mewing to find hidden cats for bonus points. Some PI cases have you spying on suspected criminals, while others have you hanging expensive lingerie up on your roof to bait a local panty thief (who uses a drone). I can’t wait to revisit these characters in the sequel later this September.

Also finished watching all 24 episodes of Steins;gate 0 at 1.25x speed. I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more had I remembered the ending of the first series a bit better (it’s been a decade). So the ending of this was an anticlimax because I didn’t follow how the big problem was being solved — tying up time travel loose ends is more work than usual.

We finally saw our last remaining episode of Izakaya Bottakuri on Netflix. It’s a rather corny and harmless Japanese drama about two sisters who run a little izakaya they inherited from their parents. Most episodes involve a regular customer’s backstory and some closeups of food being fried. The one noteworthy thing about the show is how every episode has a character describe their beverage’s selling points in great detail: usually a domestic craft beer, or regional sake made with some special process. After the end credits, the lead actress comes back to hold up the bottle and talk about tonight’s alcohol selection. It’s blatant content marketing, but I am quite alright with the idea of a TV show bankrolled by booze companies!

I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s new film, Wrath of Man, which stars Jason Statham in the kind of badass role he’s perfected over god knows how many similar outings. But it’s probably one of his best. I appreciate what Ritchie brings to what would otherwise by a straightforward heist and revenge story: heaps of style and chronology jumping for the hell of it.

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Of course, it was also WWDC week. No new hardware products, but the curtain came back for iOS 15 and while there aren’t any big, must-have features to look forward to, some very nice quality of life upgrades all around. I’m especially looking forward to quicker on-device Siri, tags in Notes, and more intelligence in Photos. iPadOS could have gone further and pushed the new M1 chips with pro-level apps or even a goddamn calculator, but all we got were the long-awaited cleanup of the multitasking interaction model and free placement of last year’s widgets, plus everything else new on the iPhone side.

I may be remembering things wrong, but there wasn’t any news on the Apple TV apart from spatial audio support, and watchOS is just grinding out more of the same, expansion pack style, with new workout and mindful activity types.

Spatial audio is quite a big deal, though. I recently watched some Dolby Atmos enabled videos content on my new iPad with AirPods, and it really works. With the launch of Atmos music tracks on Apple Music this week, I spent some time listening to old and new tracks to put it through its paces. I tend to agree with everyone who’s observed that the rock music examples are generally terrible, and the effect works best on jazz and classical music — where even studio cuts usually strive to reproduce the context of a live performance. The new spatial remixes of vintage jazz records have more atmosphere and you can point around you to where each player seems to be seated. Perhaps it’s like colorizing old photos, gimmicky and impure to some, but bringing them closer in space and time nonetheless. I think the technology is a positive development.

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Next week: More reading. Wanna crush your Goodreads challenge? The New York Times Book Review has published a list of recommendations. I’ll be trying some of them out soon.

Week 23.21: Eternal Judgment, visiting the mall of westtown, and surviving a fridge failure

  • I returned to the office on Monday to get some things out of my locker (you know a jar of Branston pickle is old when it’s never been opened but manages to make the whole cupboard smell of it), which was my first time back in a couple of months now. With the “Phase 2 (Heightened Alert)” order still in effect, it was a ghost town.
  • The first half of the week was spent watching Steins;gate 0, the 2018 sequel to regular ol’ Steins;gate from 2011 — a SF anime series about degenerate outcasts in Akihabara who figure out a form of time travel and universe splitting. Most of this was done hunched over my 11” iPad Pro, which made me wish all over again that I’d sprung for the 13” model last month. I stopped midway through the 24 episodes and will probably finish them next week.
  • Everyone’s talking about Mare of Easttown, so we watched all seven episodes. I find stories set in small towns claustrophobic and hellish. Everyone is already miserable, and the murders only make it worse. The show is pretty good anyway, but I won’t be spending a minute thinking about it now that it’s over.
  • Playing Judgment on the PS4 consumed about 20 of the remaining hours and I don’t know if I’m even halfway through the story. It’s excellent fun, and well worth the S$22 it costs now. In the Yakuza series, you often visit hostess clubs and have to pick the right things to say to get the girls to like you. As a spin-off of that series, Judgment has a brilliant side-mission where you control one of the main character’s female associates, and have to go undercover as a hostess during an investigation. It works with you having to pick the right things to say to the men to get them to buy more bottles and open up.
  • Perhaps related to this video game binge: I had a violent dream where I was being attacked by a homeless person (this happens in Judgment a fair few times) and actually woke up kicking in real life, with an elevated heart rate. This has never happened before as far as I can remember!
  • I read another 20% of The Diamond Age, and wondered why I don’t spend all my time reading instead of playing repetitive open-world games. Maybe it’s the heat of the afternoon sun, maybe it’s the equivalent of going to a buffet when deathly hungry and stuffing your face with all the carby and unhealthy stuff first. I’ll chew slowly when I’m less starved.
  • Our refrigerator also stopped working mid-week, which was a great source of stress for 24 hours. Although I barely use the fridge at all most of the time, it seemed to cast an outsized pall over everything in my life. I was miserable at the thought of having to get a new one and deal with everything around it. Happily, it turned out to be a problem with the mains which was sorted out quickly.
  • When I used to have a regular commute, I would sometimes take a route that brought me to a nearby neighborhood mall with an MRT station attached. It’s nothing special, has a few clothing stores, a videogame store that isn’t cheaper than just buying digital, restaurants, and a library. Since Covid, I haven’t had any occasion to visit.
  • This week, I was sent a thoughtful gift which was delivered to some self-service lockers at the mall, so I took a trip down to see what I was missing. Hmm, that makes two locker visits this week. And two ghost town visits too, given how bereft of commercial activity most stores looked. I walked around for maybe 20 minutes, trying to find something I actually wanted. I don’t think most of these physical stores have any reason to exist now, sadly. Even if I wanted to buy any of it, apart from a new TV or fridge that would make sense to check out in person, I’d probably be better off online.