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Little Green

As I write this update, I’m listening to Joni Mitchell’s Little Green at possibly too high a volume for 11 o’clock at night, but I have no idea how thick these walls are, so let’s find out. This unusually unneighborly behavior has been brought on by watching the new High Fidelity TV series (yes, based on that Nick Hornby book), starring Zoe Kravitz in the role played by John Cusack in the 2000 film, and look, the whole thing is sublime. Watch it, because it’ll remind you that you were once young and played your music loud. And that it’s been too damn long since you’ve heard Darondo’s Didn’t I.

This is also made possible by the fact that I’ve finally traded in our aging Asus router for a pair of Netgear Orbi mesh routers. Only 1.5 years after moving in. And so the internet is now flowing into a part of the house that I’d neglected before because what in the hell am I supposed to do in a room with no WiFi? This room is now going to be a place where I can sit in near darkness, streaming really warm sounds out of a cranky first-gen Beolit speaker, writing on my iPad, and drinking. Aww yes.

Speaking of Little Green…

I spent most of last year getting up to speed on personal finance basics at the ripe old age of a̷l̷m̷o̷s̷t̷ 4̷0̷. For most of my working life, money and investing was an essential resource that I never fully understood, and I was mostly happy to have it sit in that blind spot, content that simple saving would do alright “for now” and nervously assuming that the “for later” part would sort itself out in the end.

I put some blame on the false absolutes we were taught in school: kids are sorted into separate paths focusing on either sciences, economics, or the arts around 14, if I recall correctly, and it’s too easy to let that define you to yourself. I ended up with the thinking that money was for the money people. Of course, I accept the residual blame for hiding behind that lazy excuse all these years.

So when I read Ramit Sethi’s approachable book “I Will Teach You to be Rich” last month, I was relieved to find that I already knew the majority of its lessons. As he puts it, the best time for me to have started investing was 15 years ago; the second-best time is now. Another practice that made sense to me: setting up monthly financial check-ins as a family. Even if there’s no news to update each other about, it sets aside time to think and plan.

In any case, it certainly seems like personal finance is being discussed a lot more frequently in casual conversation today than it was when I was growing up, or even in the past 10 years, for that matter. Financial literacy has probably never been higher.

I attribute this to the rise of fintech startups, how many there are, and how visible their services are in our Instagram feeds. If you live in Singapore and haven’t seen a StashAway/Endowus/Syfe/Kristal ad, then I’ve got a referral code to offer you.

For the unfamiliar, these are all so-called roboadvisors, usually helping you to buy into a portfolio of ETFs based on your asset allocation preferences/risk appetite, while taking a sub-0.8% cut for management fees. It’s remarkably easy to get started once you’ve educated yourself and decided you want in — whereas back in my day, before online banking (let alone mobile banking), starting a trading account was an arcane art that required serious capital.

Based on what I’ve seen, the equivalent offerings from traditional banks (DBS, UOB, OCBC) are only playing catch-up, both in terms of fees and design. It would be fun to do some research on how the boundaries of trust have moved and what Singaporeans’ financial behaviors look like now. I used to wonder what the big deal was with the local licensing exercise around digital banks, but now that I think about it, there’s obviously blood in the water.

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Uptime report: Do androids dream of Chinese New Year?

Thanks to that bit of time off earlier in the month, I’m ahead of my reading goals. Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon was probably twice the length of a standard novel, and five times as elaborate. I was lured in by the SF premise — a murder in a panopticonic dystopian near future (it first occurs to me that it’s not unlike the one in the anime Psycho-Pass), where a governing AI and its human agents are stymied by an encounter with a mind they can’t read — and ended up staying for a literary mindfuck of Pynchonesque proportions. Recommended, but don’t be in a hurry.

I’ve now started reading Mike Monteiro’s Ruined by Design, and can’t wait to get started on the new William Gibson novel, Agency. I think my favorite Gibsons are Pattern Recognition and The Peripheral, and this seems to be along similar lines.

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It’s now a few days later and I’ve quit reading Ruined by Design. It’s not that I disagree with the central premise; maybe the opposite. There are certainly designers in the world who don’t think or yet know that changing their organizations from the inside-out to be more ethical and responsible is part of the job, and maybe it takes a couple hundred pages of hitting the point over and over to get them onboard. I just stopped getting anything else out of it past the opening, and stuck around until the 70% mark to be sure. The author mentions structuring your presentations like an inverted pyramid, the way journalists are trained to do, leading with your best bits to get your audience’s precious attention, so I guess the book itself puts that into practice.

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This year’s Chinese New Year celebrations have been a little muted, both at home and abroad. Putting aside the nCoV outbreak in the headlines, it just feels different now, like an idea that has almost run its course. The build up to this has taken place over a few years, but it’s certainly palpable now.

My parents’ generation is getting tired of organizing everything, and mine doesn’t care about observing traditions in the same way. The virus has provided a reason for canceling some of the get-togethers, but they were being scaled down anyway. Even Apple’s annual CNY shot-on-iPhone film/ad lacks its usual artistry this time around. I don’t know if it’s the 60fps look, the fact that they shot many scenes handheld, or the Smart HDR effect, but it feels more on the cheap side rather than cinematic.

Speaking of change and the fading of old ways, over at my workplace, we’ve just put out our annual trends report. It’s compiled with the input of some 1,200 employees in 33 studios, so the results should be a nearly fair representation of the global design climate. The running theme across all seven trends? Many of the fundamentals underlying daily life are being put on notice as we ponder the definition of value as consumers and consumed in an increasingly turbulent world.

One trend, called Digital Doubles, touches upon the idea of personal datasets so rich that we’ll appoint them as digital proxies for our own choices and behaviors, sort of like how you can tell a robo-advisor how much risk you’d happily tolerate before letting them go trade and rebalance your portfolios. At this point, I’m several chapters into Gibson’s Agency and one of its main threads concerns an AI product designed to do exactly that.

“but he described the product, that’s you, as a cross-platform, individually user-based, autonomous avatar. Target demographic power-uses VR, AR, gaming, next-level social media. Idea’s to sell a single unique super-avatar. Kind of a digital mini-self, able to fill in when the user can’t be online.”

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HEIFer — iOS Shortcut for Batch-Converting Photos to HEIF/HEIC

Changelog:

v1.01 (Jan 30, 2020) — iOS 13.3.1 fixes a bug that affected the way Share Sheet imports had to take you out of the Photos app and into Shortcuts. So this is now simplified. Also added emoji graphics to make the main menu fancier.

Summary

HEIFer is a shortcut for iPhones and iPads (you can import and run it in the Shortcuts app that is part of iOS 13) that automates the batch conversion of photo to HEIF/HEIC formats. This has the benefit of making their files dramatically smaller without any visible loss of image quality.

HEIF stands for High Efficiency Image Format, and Apple introduced support for it in 2017. You can find out more about the format here.

HEIFer has three modes:

  • Converting a manual selection of photos
  • Scanning the newest 100 photos in your library, and converting any JPEG/PNG/TIFF images it finds
  • Converting the last imported batch of photos (from a camera or SD card, using an adapter)

Get HEIFer here: https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/8c923a072e0241b7ab101297bfe5bbf8

Why Did I Make This?

This is my first proper iOS Shortcut and I made it to learn the ropes.

I’m kinda all-in on the HEIF format, and if your iPhone is set to save at “High Efficiency” in the Camera section of Settings.app, then you’re already using it for every photo you take. The quality is great, and you can store twice as many photos in the same amount of storage space.

But… I also shoot photos with other cameras, and every manufacturer, from Canon and Nikon to Sony and Leica, seems to be years behind in the software game, and the only options they offer are usually JPEG and RAW. What’s more, the CPUs in these cameras are usually very underpowered compared to what’s in your iPhone, so they don’t try very hard to compress the images efficiently. You can typically turn a 10MB JPEG from your camera into a 3–4MB HEIF file in less than a second. It’s a tremendous waste of space, both on device and in your cloud backups, to keep the JPEGs.

When you save an edited photo out of VSCO, you’re turning a HEIF file into a JPEG

I also edit my photos with iOS apps like VSCO and Lightroom, and almost all of them save the finished photos in JPEG. So if you’re regularly editing your iPhone photos, those small .heic files are still ending up as fat .jpg files at the end of the day. It’s nuts!

So HEIFer is a way to quickly take those old-ass files, bring them into the present, and then dump the originals. For instance, if I’m shooting directly to JPEG on my cameras (why not RAW? That’s a topic for another day), all I have to do is plug in the SD card, select “Import All”, run HEIFer, and I’m done in three taps.

If your photos have proper timestamps, then you will still see them in chronological order in the “Photos” tab. However, if you go into the “Recents” photo album, it will reflect the process of converting and deleting them, i.e. it’ll be as out of order as your recollection of a big night out.

Usage

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General Photos

For some reason I kept calling him Sun Yet Sun

Uptime report

After not going on vacation or any breaks all year in 2019 (poor me, I know), I’m now coming off about three weeks of leave that began around Christmas. We spent some time in Taiwan, my first visit, and then I’ve been mostly chilling out on the couch absorbing a good measure of reading material, films both good and terrible, and games from the infinite backlog. I often dream of living out this life for an extended period — half a year at the very least, going past the point of crushing boredom and beyond, hoping to transcend such ideas and just tip over into blissfully inert hikkikomorish life — but now I think it’s unlikely to ever happen.

The closest I ever came was a period of freelancing over a decade ago, when I’d sometimes feel quite content with my modest bank account and calculate how it could be stretched for months if I just cut down on everything and went into a sort of social and nutritional hibernation. It was pre-Netflix, but I was living that life anyway, drowning in film and anime day and night. I think I did a much better job of being an employment refusenik then; I would probably freak out today if I was staring at a life of baked beans across the balance sheet. Deliveroo makes you soft.

So although I’ve not yet had enough of the leisurely, solitary life this time around, I think the inactivity has been getting to me. I’ve not done nothing, but this capitalist world has some part of me convinced otherwise because it’s creeping up in the unusual form of mini anxiety attacks: a sort of waking nightmare state in which I’m certain I’ve forgotten how to do things I took for granted when the momentum of routine life was behind them, “simple” things like leaving the house, speaking to other people, and remembering how to do my job.

I suppose I have a low-grade case of cabin fever. Or maybe just real fever. In the last couple of days I’ve found myself breaking out into a sweat apropos of nothing. Let’s see if I make it to the weekend.

Taiwan

I was told by several people to expect a Chinese version of Tokyo, which I disagree with although I can understand where they were coming from. Taipei’s restaurants, cocktail bars, convenience stores, etc. do take cues from their Japanese cousins, and there’s a non-coincidental reverence for the Japanese way there if I’m not mistaken. But it’s ultimately its own thing, and if Taiwan had a Merlion-like symbol, only more tangible and actually useful, it would be their night markets, frequented by both tourists and locals from what I saw. They’re not really for me — every 10 meters, I’d be hit by the smell of stinky tofu and it just ruined my appetite — but hey I get the appeal of the whole thing.

What did work for me was the hot pots. I’ve always been of the opinion that shabu-shabu is the one true hot pot, and couldn’t see the appeal of Hai Di Lao and its ilk in Singapore… but now after having been to Wulao in Taipei, I think I’m ready to accept that a Chinese incarnation of hot pot can be amazing.

I also took a bunch of photos with my neglected Fujifilm X100T, easily more than four years old now. It’s still a champ, and the lovely JPEG film simulations meant I could decide to spend very little time on edits and just let them do the work. Apart from the very slow autofocus, there’s a case to be made that no one really needs the new X100V iteration rumored to be launched next month. So I tell myself. The nice thing about being a naturally nervous freak having newer cameras and then bringing an older one out is how casual and carefree it lets me be. Bumps and scrapes don’t have to be big deals.

I only reached for the iPhone 11 Pro when it was dead dark (an f2 lens and APS-C sensor are still no match for Night Mode), raining (iPhones are better weather-sealed than almost any camera), or there wasn’t time to fumble the Fuji out of my bag (pocket beats shoulder strap). When you put it that way, the iPhone seems insanely hard to beat, but the Proper Camera was still noticeably better in many ways. In hard sunlight, my phones have always struggled with overexposure, with blown highlights and grittiness in the details even when you manually stop down. This year’s crop aren’t much of an improvement there, even with Smart HDR. So… here are some photos, most of them from the Fuji.

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General

A Long December

Uptime report

The Dec–Jan self-examination train just keeps rolling, which, for someone who usually sniffs at those sad people religiously making New Year’s resolutions, is a very strange development indeed. I don’t think this has anything to do with my turning 40 next year, I mean, it can’t… because I only just realized that fact right now. Oh shit?

Whenever I somehow have the time or feel inspired to reflect on how things are going, they usually boil down to the same few things I should be doing:

  • Reading more often, and more widely, than just 5 non-fiction titles a year plus the occasional junk SF
  • Writing regularly, if only to put aside time to think
  • Watching less junk, especially when I haven’t even seen The Essentials (I haven’t seen Schindler’s List, but I’ve watched 240 episodes of Terrace House)
  • Not wasting time on video games that are just repetitive endorphin loops
  • Having fewer possessions to lose in a fire, getting more comfortable with the idea of being mobile (decluttering the house, relying more on digital content, living in the cloud, etc.)
  • Contradictorily, keeping a few superfluous physical things around purely for the hell of them: a short stack of interesting but commercially doomed magazines, a well-built camera, buttery soft notebooks that deserve better than my handwriting, the Game Boy I never had.

I haven’t done my research by asking anyone else yet, but I’m sure these are universal in that most people will agree their time–activity distribution in daily life is incorrectly optimized for quality. Whenever I daydream about being retired, it’s mostly the things above that I see myself getting right first, binging on my book backlog for weeks before contemplating the trip around the world or whatever.

Why is it so hard to spend our valuable and limited time on things that are more Criterion Collection than Netflix? Okay, you might want a balance, but surely that’s like 90:10 or 80:20. Random idea: if the reason is because modern life and the 9-to-5 takes so much out of you, maybe we should wake up early and watch a good film each morning before going to work? I might actually try that.

Linkey Likey

The enduring allure of retro tech

Speaking of cameras and Game Boys, there’s a cottage industry springing up around the repair and upkeep of devices that, by modern standards, have no right to be hanging around this long. Did you know you can get a Walkman repaired and still actually buy a DVD in some parts of the USA? I haven’t seen either of those things around these parts in quite awhile.

I’m all for it, but it’s quite a lot to process when I already find it odd that Apple still operates the iTunes STORE alongside Apple Music, Apple TV+, Netflix, etc. I’d love to see the sales graphs across geographies to see where people are still trying to “own” their digital media — and how that maps against demographics, aging populations, and so on. Probably safe to assume that physical media sales are just a totally different animal and consumer group even further removed from that.

This reminds me of articles from yeeearrrs back when streaming services were looming, all warning of the massive energy and ecological cost they implied versus the plain ol’ manufacturing, distribution, and playing of CDs. I don’t know if even green-leaning Apple is interested in doing something about it, because subscription services are kind of The Strategy these days. It’s only going to get worse for us down here on the equator before it gets better (colder).

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How Much Would You Pay for a Nonexistent Dress?

Could this gaming app change the way we shop?

I came across this pair of stories about apps/services offering “nonexistent” fashion for your IRL self (Photoshopped onto a portrait you send in) or avatars (trying on 3D models of real clothes and accessories in a proprietary [what!] app), and within days of each other no less.

What I don’t get is whether everyone has collective amnesia around virtual goods and brands in the mainstream? Because how do you explain that I was on Tencent’s Chinese instant messaging app QQ in 2002, with a penguin avatar that wore sweaters you could buy for the Chinese equivalent of a US dollar? Or that I lost many friends to World of Warcraft in the next few years, many of them selling their leveled-up characters off on eBay? Maybe they put some of that money towards buying hats in Team Fortress 2. Red Bull and Adidas and all the automobile brands have been advertising and licensing themselves in the gaming space forever. Is this just about being able to buy virtual Gucci and Off-White shit?

The question isn’t “will anyone pay for virtual goods”, but “what does it mean that we’re now starting to virtually put them on ourselves?” — primitive Photoshopping today, invisibly through AR lenses tomorrow? Imagine a parallel fashion industry that deals entirely in virtual fashion for the real world. You’d make statements by pairing real and virtual clothes; flick the glasses on and off to see how your date flexes a pair of Hermès sneakers in the metaverse but keeps it simple IRL with New Balances. Maybe you could just leave the house naked someday and no one would notice.

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Listening (Remembering): 2019

Playlists here: Apple Music | Spotify

Dear reader, I had NOT realized that I skipped last year’s blog post for this. I did, however, make a playlist that I was personally very happy with. You can find it here (Apple Music only).

This year ended up being a much better one for music than I initially thought. As usual, this exercise kicked off from having to pick a single song to contribute to my office’s Best of the Year playlist which we send out to friends. The general feeling amongst us all was that there wasn’t much new music worth listening to, and there was a bit of moaning and sighing while trying to think of something.

But! When I went through my “Recently Added” album sort view one Apple Music, and looked at the various playlists I threw together over the year… a lot more happened this year than Billie Eilish: new albums from Chance the Rapper, Anderson.Paak, Beck (bleah), Shura, Leonard Cohen, Common, and Bruce Springsteen to name a handful. The worst part is that I’ve barely even sat down to listen to most of them.

Still, I found enough to make a playlist of the songs that I played repeatedly and that made me feel something. This then is my musical diary for the year. The recurring themes here are synths (yay!); melodies that veer deliciously close to other ones you’re sure you‘ve heard elsewhere, irritating like an itch that moves as you try to locate it; videogames; queer women; and nostalgia (mined from samples, covers, and posthumous releases).