It’s midnight and I’m up thinking about best-of-year lists and trend forecasts and whether it’s more productive for us to grade a year by the quality of its events (“what do you mean no beloved musician died?”), or to just come out and grade freelance bloggers and thought leaders on their ability to wring meaning and get hits out of random, time-bound raw material. Well, really I’m awake here waiting for my wife to get home because the end of the year is also a time for working too hard to meet deadlines*.
* In some geographies and industries.
2019 has been pretty dismal for side projects, finding new obsessions, practicing photography, and writing anything for the hell of it, although the fact that I’m on here again might be an indicator of improvement. I’ve also just tonight confirmed an order with a printing company to put some awful! simplistic! doodles of mine on physical items that I might give away or try to break even on at a flea market someday — I guess that counts as making something?
At the day job, in terms of seeing similar organizational challenges play out in totally different industries, it’s been a jackpot. I definitely get to work on more interesting problems these days, and I am reminded that this is what was on the other side of the glass when my view was confined to advertising years ago. My parents still think I work in advertising, I think. The problems are interesting but in that “may you live in interesting times” kind of way. While the solutions can be estimated in board rotations, expectations of change are (understandably) timed in internships.
A recurring theme this and every year is dealing with a sort of design debt: either paying or preventing the high price of not properly addressing flaws or missing data the first time around, deferring the clean-up or more thoughtful work to some future version of yourself or your team, without realizing how the laws of compounding interest also apply to… well, everything. In the rush to launch X by the close of Y, you’re really just writing some consultancy a fat check to be cashed five years later, one the finance guys don’t see coming.
I guess what’s different now is the focus is usually on a part of the problem, but increasingly there are opportunities to get at the root. More work to be done in this space next year, infinitely more to learn and improve on, can’t hug every cat, etc.
On my metaphoricaliPod
Janelle Monáe’s new song, That’s Enough, from the Lady and the Tramp live-action remake’s soundtrack of all things, is giving me the chills. She’s saying things with the quality of her voice I didn’t know she could.
If you watched Netflix’s surprisingly good and very Appley/Beatsy reality tv rap contest Rhythm and Flow (such a missed opportunity for the Beats brand and for Apple it might have been an acceptable apology for Carpool Karaoke), you will most certainly remember Old Man Saxon, an impressive performer whose creativity and talent go far beyond the gimmick of his dapper appearance.
Well he’s got a new mini album out today, The Peacock Honey. I recommend it along with his last EP, Goldman Sax (at first listen, I think that was better produced). I hope he blows up next year. I’ll link a music video from the last release that really impressed me below.
While we’re on the topic of music, I started a tradition at work back in December of 2017 where we would compile a playlist of our favorite songs each year and send them out as a sort of Christmas card to all the other global offices. We’d also make an email card, a microsite, and other fun stuff like a Christmas chatbot (ironically!) or sketches of each other to go with it. But the music was always the point.
This year, we’re going to try broadening that out exponentially to include Best Of picks for film, games, books… it’s in progress and I don’t know how well it’s going to work out. But it’s more exciting than just doing the same thing again for the sake of tradition, which is what I was afraid we would end up doing this time around. I’ll link it when we do it, if I can.
[Here’s an unfinished draft post I’ve had for awhile now that I figure I’ll post as it is.]
We all like music, yeah? Some people don’t mind leaving anything on in the background, but I like the ones who are a little passionate about artists, who look up lyrics, study movements, read liner notes (past tense of “read”), and get more involved in the stories behind the tunes because they felt something and just needed to respond.
I’ve always wanted more ways to take those feelings and do something with them, while recognizing that musicians only garnered a tiny fraction of the profits from a CD or iTunes sale — think 10-20% — with the rest going to labels and distribution. When CDs and record stores were still a thing in my younger days, I’d sometimes buy two copies of an album I liked, and if I met someone who might appreciate it too, I’d pass the spare along. That was the only way to “do my part” as a fan, apart from evangelizing bands every chance I got.
These days, with album sales barely a thing that musicians rely on, it’s a bit harder to know what one should do as a fan. Share Spotify/Apple Music links on social media? Start a botnet to stream their songs on repeat? Buy tickets if they drop by to play live? Gigs just don’t scale.
I’ve had a foggy idea for years that there’s room for a live performance streaming platform, where any artist can play intimate shows in a studio and let people tune in, sort of like the annual iTunes Music Festivals that Apple used to do, and charge a nominal fee and/or allow donations. Even if they just did it once in a regular tour schedule, it should be almost pure profit from their most dedicated followers, with logistics and event management out of the picture. And these days we’re pretty much there, what with Twitch, Patreon, and live-streaming baked into a dozen other apps. It should be a more common way to spend an evening in front of a computer.
A couple of months years ago, an indie artist I randomly found online and fell hard in love with announced he was putting out a new album. Instead of pre-ordering on iTunes, I decided to try messaging him directly on Instagram to ask if he had a PayPal account. After all, I already pay for Apple Music and would stream it when it was out. Could I just send him the money I would have paid for the album, and he’d get 100% instead of 10%?
I shouldn’t have been surprised to get a reply, but I come from a time when you just didn’t get many chances to talk to your heroes. He offered a couple of other ways to give him money, which would get me physical goods in return, but in the end I was happy to PayPal him and got something pretty priceless in return: scanned lyrics to the earlier song that had made me a fan, that I had never been able to figure out. That was a better-feeling transaction than the music publishing industrial complex had ever been able to give me in the past decade.
I should mention here the phenomenal soundtrack to the video game Sayonara Wild Hearts, by Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng, with vocals by Linnea Olsson. It might be the endorphin association talking, but I think this might be my album of the year. Every song takes me right back to the experience of playing the game (one weekend afternoon on a lumpy hotel couch in Manila a couple of months back when I was there for work; in all honesty not a memory that gives this soundtrack any bonus points), but also stands on its own as really fine music.
A couple of weeks after coming out, the soundtrack disappeared from Apple Music and the iTunes Store for a couple of days and I was in a panic. I scoured Twitter for information and found the musicians and developers equally bewildered, answering other concerned fans who were missing their hit of electro Clair de Lune. That was a community moment right there. Anyway, it turned out to be some copyright fuck up that got fixed the following week, but my immediate thought at the time was, “I sure wish I’d bought this on iTunes so I’d still have it now.” One day we might all feel this way about a lot more things.
I was surprised to learn that astrology is experiencing a comeback amongst millennials, thanks to an app called Co–Star that has been steadily growing beneath my radar. When a decade-younger friend sold it to me over drinks last week, the most interesting thing about it to me was its inexplicable use of an n-dash in the name. I installed it for a look, saw a personality trait in the natal chart* that didn’t quite match my self-image, and promptly forgot about it until the push notifications started arriving.
These nudges are titled “Your day at a glance”, and are so iconic to this audience that the Instagram filter creator known as autonommy has made one that superimposes Co–Star notifications over your head. They’re usually a single mysterious line or proverb that you’re meant to contemplate as things happen to you.
Yesterday (an uneventful day), I was assured, “You don’t have to be afraid.” Today, it asked, “What lessons have you learned today?” Tapping into the app unleashes a torrent of AI-assembled advice that tells you how to deal with the challenges of existence as per the day’s astral alignment. The tone of voice is often surprising: acerbic, blunt, even dark.
Instead of deleting the app as I meant to do, I discussed it with some people around me and shared a Verge article about the team behind it, and now I’ve got irl friends on this astrology social network, and we can see each other’s fates and compatibility, and I think I’m keeping it? It’s not like I’ve suddenly taken horoscopes at face value, but perhaps it fills a gap — I need someone to regularly kick my ass on personal development, and whether I agree with the “advice” or not, these prompts might get me to work a little harder at things. They’re challenges.
Coincidentally, I spent much of yesterday reading through the backlog of email newsletters I subscribed to and then got overwhelmed by. When someone’s thoughts on screen are a year old, making reference to events that you and the internet are so over by now, but the words remain productive, insightful, and capable of inspiring you to look back at your old email newsletter project from 6(!) years ago and maybe start writing on your blog again, they can have all the paid subscription money. If you’re in need of a couple recommendations: try Dan Hon and Craig Mod’s.
There’s always a voice gently suggesting I “write more”. Sometimes I think I write enough at work as it is. As the activities that make up my day job changed over the last few years, so did the emphasis on actual writing as a vehicle for Client Value Delivery. It took awhile to join the dots between the kind of writing I did in advertising, publishing, side projects, and now in a design/consulting context, but that still leaves out the “pleasure writing”, as one acquaintance recently called it.
Right now, I’m feeling out of practice and clumsy when it comes to this stuff. I don’t know how to write to you anymore. Maybe I cut down on tweeting and blogging because we all entered a digital privacy crisis, but the net result was falling out of the public writing habit altogether. I lost imaginary friends.
So. Why not try again? What do I have to be afraid of? What lessons am I learning today?
*Those natal charts: You plug in your date/time/location of birth, and it pulls historical NASA data to see where celestial bodies were when you were born, and interprets their deviations in space each day to produce your horoscope. Are these even called horoscopes? I don’t know; that word seems dated and quacky, like something in a crinkled copy of Reader’s Digest, whereas Co–Star feels like something new — a bit of not entirely serious millennial wellness — dressed up in ancient clothes.
A couple of years ago, we had a colleague from Hong Kong in town who would do the exact same thing as a party trick, except she manually read and interpreted the natal charts which she generated using a Chinese app. Co–Star has simply scaled this with technology and a content team.
On paper, the camera I wanted was the Leica CL. For maximum versatility on the go, I imagined the first lens I would get would be the Vario-Elmar-TL 18–56mm (equivalent to 28–85mm in 35mm terms). There are several omissions on that camera, stabilization being a big one, but it was an intriguing and attractive product.
I’d always been curious about Leica cameras from afar, but never really considered buying one. Functionally speaking, I know that Fujifilm and Sony and the rest all make cameras so good that I could never use them to their fullest potential. And then here’s a company that makes idiosyncratic, deliberately limited gear easily costing three, four, five times as much. I suppose they are like Apple, but even more removed from the mainstream.
But the Leica curiosity is one that grows with age and disposable income. Every time it crossed my mind, I would wonder if it was time yet. Still, buying a fully manual chrome M felt like a 40th or 50th birthday move. The idea was to dip a toe into Leica’s shimmering pool, but not to fully jump in on the first try.
So, most irrationally, and that is the keyword I see in many sentences written by many people on the subject of Leica cameras, I decided I wanted to get one before I even knew if they made a model that I needed.
I looked into my compact camera drawer, pared down in recent years, and started describing what I needed. Essentially I wanted a good Swiss Army knife travel camera, a position filled by the LX10 I bought on sale early last year. It was good but lacking in a few areas. What I really wanted to get back then was the LX100, which I passed on because it was four years old by that point (I should have known an update would be out by the end of the year).
Small and reasonably light. One-handable if necessary.
Physical, dedicated control dials for aperture, shutter speed, ISO, whatever possible.
The ability to zoom or change primes, if/when needed.
Physically attractive design. The LX10 performed well, but boy, it inspires no feelings at all.
An optical or electronic viewfinder.
Large enough sensor, probably APS-C or 35mm FF.
I think these are very sensible things to want in a travel camera, but it’s extremely hard to find them all in a fixed compact body. The recommended solution seems to be a small interchangeable lens mirrorless camera, like Fujifilm’s X-E3 or X-Pro 2, or Panasonic’s GX9. As far as compacts go, I could only think of the new Panasonic LX100 II. I knew that Leica had a rebranded version of it in their D-Lux 7, but somehow it didn’t even enter my mind for this particular shopping mission. If I was going to dip a toe in, it was going to in be the real pool and not the kiddy pool!
Walking into the Leica store, I made a beeline for the CL display, believing it to be the best fit for the above. It was sleek, well-built, and less than half the price of an M10, with access to a wide selection of M and L-mount lenses. The sound and feel of its shutter release was very satisfying, but after using it for a few minutes, I didn’t love the way it controlled. You don’t dial in the aperture on a lens ring, but on an unmarked soft dial on the top plate that displays your settings on a tiny LCD. Also, with that Vario lens, it’s kinda heavy, with a bulkiness that approaches the Leica Q. I considered the Q, but didn’t want a fixed 28mm.
I did the math on owning a CL and an eventual three-lens setup. It came up to like half a year’s rent. On the other hand, buying an M10 and a couple of Summilux and Noctilux lenses will bring you into territory normally reserved for car purchases (and mind you that’s in Singapore where we have some of the most expensive car ownership taxes in the world).
If you do a little internet research, you’ll find a lot of reasons why the first-generation isn’t close to being a finished or fully evolved product. The soft controls aren’t as traditional as they seem in practice, switching up functions between modes; the touchscreen UI and gestures drive some photographers crazy; and it doesn’t have any in-body stabilization. On those same sites, you’ll find people talking about what the Q’s successor might bring: a new 40+ megapixel sensor (like the one in Sony’s RX1Rmk2) which would allow the same 28mm lens to do in-camera crops equivalent to 70mm. Hmm, that would be something.*
My conclusion was this: Putting aside craftsmanship and engineering, and focusing purely on photographic needs, Leica’s non-M lineup today simply doesn’t have the right product to push me into the pool. Others with more money to spend or greater passion for the brand might have little problem doing it, but not me, not now. If I was going to enter an ecosystem on a journey that would end with me spending the price of a car on a fistful of glass and magnesium alloy, I would have to be sure.
Now, Fujifilm does a great job with their ergonomics. Aperture rings on the lens, shutter speed and ISO on top, with “A” automatic notches on each one. You just dial in the combination of those that suits your needs, and it’s so much more natural than a PASM mode dial. They just don’t make a fixed compact with a zoom lens anymore. Panasonic is the only other company I know that values the same control scheme, so I looked all the way back to the beginning… to that LX100 II, a thoroughly modern Japanese (okay, supposedly with a little help from Wetzlar) camera with stabilization and super-quick autofocus.
Yes, its menus are overcomplicated, and it tries to do too many things that no one will ever ask for, like multi-exposure photos and horrendous tilt-shift filters and that effect where one color is isolated and the rest of the photo is in black & white. Seriously. But as a camera, it ticks all the boxes in my original wishlist above. All but one. It’s kinda ugly. Where its cousin the LX10 was plain and kinda like a white label design, the LX100 has the same leather-like texture and unsightly handgrip bumps of a retro-leaning Olympus or Fujifilm product. After looking at nothing but Leica bodies for a couple of weeks, it was hurting my eyes.
Which is how I ended up with the D-Lux 7. It’s the less ugly, Leica-blessed version of the Panasonic Lumix LX100 II. I wish Leica had the time to write real custom firmware for it, instead of just reskinning Panasonic’s menus to be in white and red instead of white and yellow. I’d love to see them simplify it down to be just a simple stills camera, taking away the multiple color modes and filters, leaving just two options: color and B&W. In other words, more like other Leicas.
*Addendum: I wrote the above a few months ago and never hit Publish. Since then, two things have happened: Leica released the rumored Q2 months earlier than I would have expected. I pity everyone who bought their then-new Q-P over Christmas 2018; this Q2 is a ruthlessly quick follow-up that is refined in every way, except perhaps the files are a little too big.
Secondly, I came into ownership of a Leica CL after all, completely out of the blue. I’ll write a follow-up at some point, but my first impressions above still hold. It’s expensive, it’s not light, and the soft wheels take some getting used to. But I got used to dialing in the aperture on them after all, and the photos are exquisite. The D-Lux 7 actually complements it quite well, for when you need something a little more compact but don’t want to give up too much quality.
It’s a rare treat for me to be able to visit Japan two years in a row, but that happened last month after we realized my airline miles bank could handle it. Our time was largely planned around meals, exhibitions, and not a great deal else. Looking back, I should have spent a little more time making a good to-do list. As soon as we arrived home, I started hearing and reading about all sorts of other things we could have done. Maybe next year.
It became a bit of a tradition for me to make these konbini snack haul videos every night at the hotel, showing a camera all the native junk food and drinks I bought to eat while lazing around. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any this time around. Why? Leading up to the trip, I started eating less and being healthier so that I could pig out on holiday. Ironically, that had two effects: a smaller appetite, and a habit of reading nutritional info labels.
Once there, I was looking at the calorie counts on everything, and having more than a 400kcal sandwich and 150kcal milk coffee for breakfast seemed irresponsible. In the past, I was probably eating 1000kcals just at breakfast alone. Those colorful, convenient packages are more energy-dense than they look… like how a microwavable spaghetti ready meal from 7-Eleven will easily run you over 900kcals.
This trip will be remembered for having spent (too?) much of it in queues. Nearly straight off the plane, we stood three hours in line at Nakiryu waiting for their Michelin-starred take on Szechuan dan dan noodles. It was amazing but three hours is a little much. I’d do it again at twice the price and half the wait.
Another epic wait was at the fairly new “Borderless” exhibition by teamLab in Odaiba, where the line stretched as far as one could see, before extending around the corner for another equal length. You approach it from the head of the line, and then walk down the entire way to find the end, and it’s painfully demoralizing. We honestly considered skipping it and going home, but it moved quickly and only took an hour. Once in line, you will be kept entertained by the disbelieving faces of newbs going through the same rite of passage.
As an experience, I have to recommend it. teamLab pull off some amazing stuff both in terms of technical achievement and sheer conceptual audacity. I don’t know how many members they have, but I’ll bet they’re all overworked. This permanent exhibition is presented in conjunction with Epson, and when you look at the number of high resolution projectors employed to carve these interactive fantasy worlds out of the dark, it makes sense.
We were also fortunate to visit 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT when an exhibition about Naoto Fukusawa’s iconic INFOBAR phone was on in commemoration of its 15th anniversary and the new xv model. The anniversary model runs some severely restricted version of Android to recreate the minimal featurephone experience. It’s a beautiful object that I used to dream about being able to use, back in the pre-smartphone days. We just don’t get this kind of product design anymore now that the screen has become the primary element.
Every time I’m in Japan, I try to notice what games people are playing, the devices they’re using, what’s being advertised and so on, because it’s still quite an insulated cultural environment and many of those things don’t make their way outside or fail to catch on if they do.
Last November, a Korean-made mobile game called Destiny Child was being heavily advertised on TV and around the city on billboards. The ads were highly visual, showing off some detailed 2D character animations and no gameplay to speak of, so I had no idea what it was about but I wanted to try it. For a whole year afterwards, I’d periodically do a search for Destiny Child on the App Store to see if it had made it out in English. This year, upon our return after the 10 days or so in Japan, it was finally released globally in English. It’s a kinda ecchi mobile gacha game and not for everyone, but you can find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/sg/app/destiny-child/id1416959016?mt=8
I’m still waiting for Level-9’s The Snack World (3DS) to cross the language divide.
You already know this, but the Switch is killing it. The fact that it’s region-free, and a few games that come out first in Japan include support for English and other European languages, has been seized upon by some retailers who have stuck up notices for tourists about what games they can safely buy home. Sony had some pretty slick in-store displays for Judge Eyes and PSVR, but Nintendo had the crowd-drawing content between Pokémon Let’s Go, Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Mario Party.
Compared to a year ago, smokeless tobacco products seemed to be in decline. I recall seeing people use Marlboro’s IQOS devices everywhere, and in smoking lounges (at the airport, for example), the majority of people were using similar systems.
Now, it seemed like the proportions were reversed. I overheard (mostly inferred from snatches of words I understood, actually) a lady talking to her friend about JT’s Ploom Tech while smoking a regular cigarette, saying how it wasn’t that good. She even pulled the device out of a pouch in her bag to show it off.
Having tried Ploom Tech, I can see why. It’s nothing like a cigarette and really lacks a lot of the experience. IQOS is much closer. I’d be interested to know the reasons behind this pattern, if true. Was it just a fad, or do smokeless products have a future? I think their adoption could do a ton to improve the air in cities, and improve quality of life for smokers as well.
A couple of years ago, everyone on the train listened to music with cords hanging from their faces and that was the picture almost everywhere. Riding the Tokyo metro in 2017, I noticed many more making the move to wireless (the same story in Singapore), but the majority of these were neckbuds and the like — sub-$100 Bluetooth headphones connected by a cable.
This year, commuters were noticeably switching to so-called true wireless headphones, including Apple’s AirPods which have exploded in popularity. It’s an overall trend in consumer electronics, helped by the fact that prices have come down and identical OEM buds under a slew of new brand names can be had for very little. Just look in my Instagram ads sometime.
But after looking at tons of them in the big stores like Bic and Yodobashi Camera, I’ve concluded that almost none of them are competitive with the AirPods on battery life or charging case size. The Jabra Elite 65T has probably the smallest case (I bought a pair), and Sony‘s are laughably large. They are like mini coffins, and won’t fit in any pockets. Instant fail. Even after a year, no one has nailed battery life, solid connectivity, and portability like Apple did with AirPods. If only they fit my ears without falling out.
I don’t know if the reports of iPhone XR demand being weaker than expected are true, but you’d never know it from walking the aisles in a store. It had just come out when we were there, but the shelves were already filled with third-party accessories. And stores were pitching them at the front, with iPhone XS and XS Max goods relegated to the rear. Clearly, manufacturers and retailers were ready for it to be the most popular model.
Magazines and retail
I posted about this in an Instagram story, but it bears repeating here. The Japanese publishing industry and its continued survival is an interesting phenomenon I wish someone at Netflix would commission a documentary on. Digital devices are everywhere, and I believe Amazon had some success convincing people to read manga on their Kindles, but paper is still everywhere.
Walk into any magazine section and you’ll see specialist interest publications on niche hobbies: fountain pens, shooting film through vintage lenses, ballet, fabric decoration, birdwatching, and even individual apps and games. None of this is news, but every year I see that companies can keep doing this makes me feel incredibly bittersweet about not being able to read Japanese and live in their world. I’d love to know how close to the line of viability they stray, and whether or not young people are still considering a career in the industry.
Just this month, Bunkitsu, a mammoth new bookstore has opened with over 30,000 titles and a so-crazy-it-might-work business model: visitors have to pay a ¥1500 cover charge.
I’ve wistfully said similar things about their retail landscape in other posts, and how you’re sure to find supplies for (insert odd past time) somewhere. But while you can shop, learn, and find community online from anywhere in the world, it’s different when physical spaces are reserved for this exploration and sharing.
That’s why places like Tsutaya at Daikanyama T-Site (see last post) are so special; they’re like magazines you can walk around in. Feeling out of touch with culture? A quick trip immerses you in what Thom Yorke is up to (writing the score for a remake of Suspira, btw here’s the LP cover and a t-shirt and the movie poster and one of the costumes from the production… wanna hear it on this new pair of headphones?); what the new Pixel 3 feels like to hold; what drinks Starbucks is peddling for Christmas this year; which classic albums are 50 years old today; and a ton of other media about whatever you care about. Yeah it’s all driven by consumerism, but let me have it.
I have no doubt that we will collectively realize what we’ve lost if/when physical retail collapses, and attempt to restore it. Possibly through VR or mixed reality. Some form of socially curating, presenting, and trading is crucial to the creative process, and I think it has to have a tactility and presence to work. Or maybe I’m just old now.
I packed light with just an iPhone XS Max and the Panasonic LX10 I bought earlier in the year, and decided to try something new: processing every color photo with the same filter/film simulation in VSCO. It’s the KA1, aka their recreation of Kodak Ektachrome E100G. Because their Film X filters allow you to adjust “character” and warmth along a spectrum, you can actually make any single film sim work on a variety of photos; contrasty and warm in some, faded and cool in others. The goal was to set a consistent look across the two cameras and one moment in time. I’ll probably look back on these in the future and want to edit them all over again, but this is good for now.
Time flies and we’ve now been here four days. We visited T-Site yesterday; still one of my favorite retail experiences, even though I can’t use half the things they have. It’s a pop culture magazine as physical space: something we all need since the internet killed everything.