- It’s now been a year of living with the pandemic. I remember hearing about it and wondering how serious it could be; not having been around for SARS when it happened here, I had no frame of reference for how daily life could change with hand sanitizing, mask wearing, and all that. I certainly did not entertain that it could be even worse. By March, I think it was much clearer that this would not be over in a matter of months, and here we are.
- I read some opinions that with the new strains emerging and the efficacy of current vaccines in question, it might easily be 2023 before developed countries are really free of it, while poorer countries may never get there. That may turn out to be overly pessimistic, but on the other hand I worry that without definitive information and leadership, people are only too happy to assume it’ll be okay instead of making drastic life-changing plans, like getting out of a tourism-dependent career, for instance.
- I spent more time trying to improve my financial literacy by reading up on things like how to safely draw down on your investments in the unlikely event of retirement, and how it can be more valuable to reduce your monthly expenses than to invest in exactly the right things.
- That prompted me to inspect what I’ve been spending on, and to think about why my monthly expenditure varies so wildly. But when I started to imagine giving up little things (starting with swapping Nespressos for tea bags), it started to feel a little miserly/miserable. If I’m going to be working hard, I want to push hot water through grounds in an aluminum pod goddammit! So the answer I came up with was… mindfulness. Instead of taking so many things for granted, I’m going to try and consciously enjoy them more.
- Yeah the pods get recycled.
- Bicep’s Apricots was on my list of top songs in 2020, and now the full album, Isles, is out. I wouldn’t normally sit through an entire LP of “electronic music” but this is a good one. Stream it on Apple Music, and you’ll see animated cover art. Paul McCartney’s McCartney III is the only other album I’ve seen with an animated cover, but many of Apple’s own playlists now have really expensive-looking animations.
- Thursday was my first day back at work, and after a decade now of fixed employment it occurred to me that I’ve lost the freelancer’s mindset that was once key to my mental peace. Namely the idea that I’m doing whatever this is just for awhile, to get a specific job done, free of attachment, and could reevaluate and stop anytime I wanted. You can obviously look at most forms of work that way (because it’s true), but what I probably liked was the centering and comforting reminder that I worked for and answered to no one but myself.
- A decade ago, though, I was pretty much a drifter who wasn’t saving enough so best not to over-romanticize those days. That said, somewhere in between could work. In one conversation this week, we discussed the idea of mini temporary retirements — why wait till 65 to have all the free time on your hands when you can start to have some of it at 35, 45, 55? You’d probably make better use of it, such as developing hobby projects or new skills that you could fold back into “real work” when you returned. Or maybe even finding a different way back altogether. Hard to do that when your brain is full of other people’s problems.
- With the three days I did have off, I managed to do more reading than last week. I finished all three available volumes of Andreas Antonopoulos’s The Internet of Money, which are admittedly slim compilations of talks he’s given on Bitcoin and Ethereum over the past 9 years or so. I can recommend them to anyone interested in why this technology might be important, beyond the fact that it’s digital money (what money isn’t these days), appreciating fast (people are gonna get ruined), and scary (it’s used to fund terrorism). He’s been likening it to the dawn of the internet in the 90s, where few people saw a fad instead of world-changing potential. He’s convincing when he says our concepts of money and banking are still stuck in the pre-internet era, centralized, and this stuff is going to enable greater freedom and opportunity on a global scale.
- After being only peripherally aware of advancements in the Dapp space, I started looking into things and found really cool projects from art galleries selling collectible one-of-a-kind digital pieces (yes that sounds crazy) to autonomous lending platforms. I’ll probably dip a toe into PoolTogether, which is a lottery where no one loses any money (apart from the currently hefty Ethereum gas fees). Participants buy tickets with their tokenized money, which gets lent out to earn interest, which forms the prize pool. At the end of every week, the accumulated prize money is given to one randomly selected ticket holder. The original money is never lost and can be withdrawn at any time. Pretty ingenious!
- Speaking of collectibles, we discovered that an old Beanie Baby that we’ve had lying around the house for ages might actually be a rare one worth hundreds of dollars. Or not. I don’t really want to find out because she’s perfect the way she is.
- “I’m looking forward to … reading a whole lot next week” — said everyone who ended up doing nothing of the sort. Hopefully I’ll get around to it in the first few days of next week while I’m still on vacation time.
- You know how you try to avoid visiting the part of town where your office is on weekends and public holidays? It’s tainted ground; a place where neither levity nor leisure can survive within a kilometer’s radius of your desk until years after you move on; a commercial real estate Chernobyl invisibly blackened by exposure to Outlook and your own psychic stress. Well, I’ve got a leak of that sort in my upstairs study where I now work from home. I’ve found myself not wanting to even look at its door this week. It’s funny. Maybe I need to rent another place to live.
- One thing we did manage to do: finish all available episodes of Billions! I love it, because the writing just loves to wallow in its own proud pen of audacious pretension. It’s the kind of show where dialog doesn’t strive to be realistic; it strives to be good.
- Not even in the same country, let alone ballpark, but a lot of my week probably went to watching crypto price tickers as if they were live sports I actually cared about. It’s a fascinating hobby. As the numbers go up and down, it’s not unlike a ball being dribbled up and down a pitch, except sometimes there’s a goal and you’re not quite sure whether it benefits your team or the opponents.
- It only took three months, but we finally visited Apple Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s third Apple Store to not sell HomePods. As it was a weekday afternoon, there was practically no queue and we were in within minutes. It’s a lovely space, and probably better experienced on a less cloudy day, at night, and without COVID procautions. But these days I hardly see the need to buy these things in person anyway. They only had a few AirPods Max units out for testing (not sale, as they’re backordered everywhere), and that’s probably the only thing apart from watch bands that I might want to try in person first. Yes, you can return any online order within two weeks, but I think that’s pretty wasteful from a logistics and refurbishment perspective.
- I decided to keep my AirPods Max after all. They are just too much of a joy to listen with. I saw the rumor about the cheaper and lighter “sport” version still being in play and perhaps releasing sometime this year, with plastic in place of metal. I think lighter is a feature that should cost more, not less, and if they really maintained the same audio quality in a cheaper AND lighter package, I’d be pretty mad. But I didn’t want to wait around for a product that may never come, so.
- Happy new year to you! We celebrated NYE by staying home and having all the food in the freezer that needed finishing. And then to make up for it, we went out the next day for a nice maki sushi and sake dinner at a place called Rappu where they don’t take reservations and you have to show up at 5:30pm before they open or end up waiting over an hour in line.
- It’s the wet and cold “season” here now in Singapore, which usually only lasts a couple of weeks, not nearly long enough to enjoy the unusual daytime temperatures of 22º–25ºC — in the past, when one had to commute to work, it could be a pain in the ass for traffic, especially in areas that were prone to flooding (or ponding, as the government prefers to call the phenomenon on account of it not being enough to wash away people or property), but now it’s just wonderful if you’re going to stay indoors and read.
- My annual vacation plans this week were postponed into January, so I’m looking forward to staying indoors and reading a whole lot next week. I’m currently in the middle of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway and not very compelled to keep going. Maybe I’ll… walk away and find something else.
- Just 5 days left to decide whether or not to return my AirPods Max. I notice less that they’re heavy and tight, so maybe they’ve opened up a bit or I’m just getting used to the pain. The larger soundstage and sub-bass emphasis definitely makes them more fun to listen to than the plain old AirPods Pro, and I think I’d be sad if I went back to the Sony WH1000XM4. But when I think about what I could do with the refund, and realize they cost about the same as a new iPad Air, I question how sad. That said, what I really want is the new A14X iPad Pro which won’t be out for a few months yet, so I may as well keep the headphones. Well played, Tim Apple.
- Last week I mentioned listening to finance-related podcasts. That has now expanded to include YouTube videos and podcasts that get published as YouTube videos, so my algorithmic homepage is really a mess right now. Dogs! Game trailers! Camera reviews! Macroeconomics!
- For a few weeks now, I’d stopped watching the news and was largely ignorant of how daily COVID numbers have been progressing elsewhere in the world. This week I started paying attention again and all the headlines still sound like they did six months ago! Highest ever numbers, new waves, new lockdowns, but everyone seems committed to pretending that economies will be fine in the end. I’m wondering when the markets will start showing it, and where concerned citizens should keep their money. Out of curiosity, I checked the latest batch of Singapore Savings Bonds today, and they’re offering an astoundingly low 0.9% average annual interest over 10 years. Two years ago, it was 2%.
- I’ve been playing Need for Speed Hot Pursuit Remastered on the Nintendo Switch. The original game came out 10 years ago, and it was a much harder time to be alive, in that there was no rewind feature if you tackled the corner wrong, and bumping CPU-driven cars barely slowed them down, but getting bumped by them meant that you were fucked. As I drive down these subconsciously familiar tracks again and again and arrgggh again, I’m reminded that we early millennials have got the tenacity to be the greatest generation if we tried. Maybe not the reflexes anymore, nor the time to waste, but at least the dogged determination! In theory!
- 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.
- 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.
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?