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Melbourne, June 2017

In the midst of a busy June, between jobs and dealing with a massive electrical wiring failure where we live, there was time for a week in Melbourne where it’s currently winter. Being one of the few places in the world where it’s cool right now may have had something to do with that decision. As much as I love Japan, there isn’t enough curry rice or fresh sushi in the country to make another summer visit worthwhile.

I’d decided before leaving to only shoot in B&W, but just couldn’t keep it up after a few photos. The warm, fall-like colors and architectural textures just sort of demand it. Also, I had new VSCO Film X filters (Kodak Gold 200!) to play with. I’ve found myself really enjoying shooting RAW on iPhone and stretching the dynamic range. Along the way, I noticed that I’d pretty much stopped using the iPhone 7 Plus’s Depth Effect after the first few months. I’m not sure why that is. I guess it’s not very accessible or prominent in the UI? Ideally, it would behave like Auto HDR and just capture both normal and edited stills when you’re using the tele lens.

We didn’t really have time to do anything out of the ordinary. A few exhibitions here and there, a couple of bars, some coffee, and visiting friends. But it was the right kind of city for the break I needed. In particular, rediscovering the joy of bookstores! The book retail scene in Singapore is at its lowest point ever now, with the only large chain left being Kinokuniya, and small bookstores with deliberately curated and stimulating selections are simply non-existent. I bought a couple of interesting books, and then promptly loaded up ebook versions on my phone for convenience. I can’t deal with the hassle of paper products, but I really like the store experience.

Singapore Gets An Apple Store

Finally.

After years of waiting, Singapore got its own Apple Store on Orchard Road (where else?) in May of 2017.

I’ve been in the ecosystem for about 14 years now, and getting good sales service and support from third-party resellers has been consistently hard. Back when Funan the IT Mall was still around, there were a few small shops that knew what they were doing with Macs, but for the most part, the bigger chains gave people bad advice, installed RAM chips facing the wrong way, and stocked some pretty abysmal accessories at outrageous prices. Apple Retail have done all of the above on a bad day, too, I’m sure, but at least they’re held to higher standards.

The two-level store follows the recent round of store designs by Norman Foster, with lots of large indoor plants and round headphone stands on the far end. You get upstairs via a symmetrical pair of spiral staircases cut into cool stone walls on either side; no glass staircases or elevators here. I read in some press release that the materials are meant to echo the Apple Park campus’s design language, which I guess is … fine.

While it’s nice to have a place to buy devices and “feel part of a community” with the new Today At Apple events, I think the main benefit of having this here is going to be accessible, proper customer support in the city. I’ve been down to industrial parks way too many times to get my iPhone looked at in the past, and it’s not fun.


 

A word about my current setup, for future reference: I’ve not bought a new Mac in 7 years. The current iMac struggles along and is only used once every couple of months to do the things only a Mac can do for arbitrary reasons. I get most of my work done on a MacBook Pro supplied by the company, but for personal use, my iPhone and a couple of iPad Pros do everything I need or have time for. The 12.9” version gets a lot of use as a desk-bound typing machine and a bed-bound Netflix player, which is really underutilizing it, I know. The smaller one gets taken everywhere because of its size, and I’m hoping for it to replace the MBP for a lot of little things at work like note taking and task management. Who wants to bring a big laptop home every night anyway?

The Trouble with Instagram Stories

I enjoyed reading this TechCrunch interview with Kevin Systrom where he openly gave credit to Snapchat for their ‘Stories’ feature, and talked about how copying it for Instagram inevitably created something different.

What I’ve observed matches much of what’s been said: it gives most people a much larger starting audience compared to what a new Snapchat user has, which increases the likelihood of success; it’s really well implemented (I especially like that switching from one user’s Story to the next has a different transition animation than skipping a scene, making it much clearer that you’re on another person now); and it makes Instagram a more complete place to look into the two sides of a person’s life: the imperfect moment and the photograph worth sharing.

BUT one early side effect has also materialized, and it’s already changing the way I use Instagram. In short: I don’t want to see many of these Stories! I follow a variety of different accounts, from brands, obvious social media influencers/shills, dogs, cats, interesting strangers, and friends. It’s Day 2 since the launch, and many of them have flooded my feed with too much uninteresting stuff. For many of these accounts, I want their photographs worth sharing, but not their imperfect moments. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to only follow one type of content on a per user basis.

So I’ve started to unfollow people. Which I’m sure Instagram doesn’t want.

In fact, the last major feature they added (an algorithmically sorted timeline) was probably aimed at getting people to follow more accounts. It let me add people without cluttering up my feed to the point where I’d miss posts from those I really really liked. For example, I could follow Canon cameras’ account for their occasional spectacular photos, but still see more personally interesting updates from my friends first. No problem. This morning, I unfollowed Canon because their chatty video Stories were getting in the way of my seeing life updates from friends.

There isn’t this problem right now on Snapchat, which makes me think it might eventually win out if people want to keep these separate. I’m not sure how Instagram might resolve this, but there’s definitely a difference here. Namely, not all social content is created equal.


The one other reason why I’ll continue to use Snapchat is their new Memories feature. Instagram Stories doesn’t let me do the same things.

Two Weeks in New York

How’s everyone doing? I recently went to New York for the first time ever, and did a bunch of touristy things. It was also my first time in the U.S. in over a decade, and maybe overestimated how bad the TSA and airport immigration situation would be. It’s the last thing you want after 20 hours of flying: to be stuck in an hour-long line with people barking at you to take your clothes off. But we got in and out of JFK without much hassle.

Having an Uber account is fast becoming the most important thing to a traveler after having maps on your smartphone and watch. It lets you integrate with any city with no more difficulty or delay than if it were your own. There’s no need to plan an airport transfer in advance, find out if tipping’s expected, or get flustered if you’re late for a show downtown.

We got into a performance of Hamilton literally against all odds. The show is sold out for the next year, and resale tickets are pretty much unaffordable, but there’s a daily online lottery where you can get front row seats for $10. I heard somewhere that tens of thousands of people enter each day, and it can take months of trying. Kim somehow managed to win tickets a day into our second week. It was the first day of Javier Muñoz’s permanent run as Hamilton after Lin-Manuel Miranda stepped down, and he killed it. I was sick and shivering with a fever, and it was still incredible and unforgettable.

You can’t take any photos during the show, so I don’t have any. And despite bringing my Fujifilm X100T on the trip, I didn’t even use it once. Not one frame. Maybe it was the summer heat and not wanting to be encumbered or precious about one more thing to avoid banging about/losing/getting stolen, or maybe I just wanted to keep it casual, but my iPhone did everything. Fusion HDR and ProCamera’s LowLight+ mode helped in extreme lighting conditions. For shooting distant subjects in good light, I think it’s really close to what the X100T would have got. As holiday snapshots go, I’m happy with what I got. This fall’s iPhone 6SE/X/whatever will close the gap even more.

The one thing photos can’t do is capture other aspects of the experience, but Live Photos and 360º panoramas can be better at it than the usual 2D stills. We recently got a Ricoh Theta S at work, and now I want to take something like it on my next vacation. Being able to grab everything in a scene with a single button, and re-enter that environment later with a VR headset… why wouldn’t you? I’ll hold out for the next model with better image quality, but it’s one thing your smartphone camera won’t compete with for awhile. If you have the time to stand in one spot for a few minutes though, you can use Google’s oddly branded Street View app to capture spherical photos.

Real talk: I didn’t get to see that much of the city, relatively, but it was pretty cool to visit. In terms of livability, though, it’s not topping Tokyo for me in any of the categories. I’m probably the worst person when it comes to dealing with loud crowds, germs, heat, public transport breakdowns, the threat of impending personal harm — basically i’m a paranoid baby. Living in New York probably wouldn’t play to any of my strengths. But between Ktown and David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam, I think they’re doing a great job with Korean food! It was far from my favorite cuisine before, but now I’m a convert.

Okay, photos.

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The line on the street for Hamilton *after* we got out

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Couple making out in a hotel had an audience below

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Freakily realistic statue on the Highline

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Saw this the day after Philando Castile was shot

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A Starry Night at MoMA

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Nintendo World

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Apple Store in Grand Central Terminal

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Okay this was HK, during the stopover

iOS 10 Makes the Timeline UI a Reality

Wired: Apple May Have Figured Out the iPhone’s Most Promising Feature

3D Touch is instrumental to Apple’s newly rethought lock screen, in a way that could fundamentally change how you interact with your iPhone.

But with iOS 10, you’ll use your home screen a whole lot less.

This article from Wired today recalls the thinking of many UX designers who believe that homescreens tiled with app icons will soon give way to a new kind of smartphone UI: the timeline. Over the last few years, both iOS and Android have been making their notifications richer, with simple functions like deleting new emails, quickly replying to texts, or faving tweets, amongst others.

lockscreenBut iOS 10 looks to be taking it to a whole new level. iPhones will light up when you raise them, and interactive notifications can expand into whole widget-like apps with live maps and data, and house more complex options than a dialog box or text input field can provide. And the best place for this new timeline UI to live is on the lock screen of your phone, the starting point of any interaction, and an arguably more valuable space for accomplishing tasks than the homescreen.

And it’s 3D Touch, launched to public disinterest with last year’s iPhone 6S, that’s been the missing piece all along. Without pressure sensitivity and Apple’s Peek & Pop gestures, a self-activating lock screen might be a pretty bad place to have action buttons that can accidentally touched. I’d be interested to see how it works on phones without it, such as the new iPhone SE. Perhaps they just won’t have Raise to Wake.

Also worth remembering that this new timeline of Things That Need Your Attention Most will live beside the Today screen of widgets (swipe to the right), which should do a lot for the idea that we’ll all be unlocking our iPhones a lot less and getting stuff done quicker later this September.

“Onions” Breaks One of Apple’s Oldest Advertising Rules

Apple’s new iPhone ad departs from some of their oldest and most inspiring advertising by making fun of what customers do.

I’m curious what people make of the new iPhone 6S ad from Apple, the comedy one called “Onions”. On the surface, it looks like another one of the fun, irreverent ads that have been made for the 6S series so far — the previous ones leaned heavily on their sassy, self-reflexive voiceovers by the actress Lake Bell. It only has a brief product demo lasting about 3 seconds, followed by nearly a minute of story; it has a celebrity appearance; some humor; and a quirky sign-off that says “Onions on iPhone 6S” before “Onions” becomes “4K Video”.

While I enjoyed it, I think it perverts one of the unspoken rules that have made past Apple ads great. The people in those ads were always more creative, more talented, doing better work, and living fuller lives than the average viewer. But the ads seemed to believe that you were that person, and always spoke up to you. In other words, they assumed the best of their customers.

That’s just a company that knows how to utilize aspiration. You see it in fashion advertising, but you’re either model material or you’re not. When it comes to products that let anyone create, the dream is ever alive!

The Apple Pencil lets an artist draw beautiful lines, an app on the Mac lets a young musician record a touching song for her mom, photographers take billboard-worthy photos on their iPhones, an architect edits blueprints on his iPad Pro at the coffee shop, a misunderstood teenager cuts a family film over Christmas. These are scenes you’ve probably seen, and I’ll bet they inspired you to make more stuff more often, or convinced you that upgrading to the new one would upgrade the quality of your work, or both. The examples were aspirational, but completely relatable.

“Onions” takes a different tone. It’s a somewhat sarcastic, belittling parody that pokes fun at what its protagonist shoots, pretending to have a bit of fun with exaggeration. It says, “this is what YOU will probably make with the power of a 4K movie camera in your pocket, and this is what you probably think it’s worth: an award presented by Neil Patrick Harris. So, please enjoy your comical fantasy!”. Instead of showing an example of great accomplishment, as was the tradition, it goes for the cheap laugh. It fails at showing us something we should aspire to achieve with an iPhone 6S of our own. It’s an odd departure from a winning formula that has long defined the brand’s outlook on technology enabling creativity, and I hope not to see many more like it.


I also watched Samsung’s new celebrity-laden ads for the Galaxy S7 phone, and some of them were really entertaining, well-written, and funny. A couple fell flat.

In comparison with Apple’s style, about 3 of them featured Lil’ Wayne absurdly pouring bottles of expensive champagne all over his waterproof S7, which made the existence of that feature absolutely clear, but didn’t do anything to make me want one. I’m not in the habit of intentionally drowning my phone.

The waterproofing ad that worked better? A script that meanders about how water is everywhere on earth, making up 72% of our bodies, etc. etc. before ending on a scene where a phone gets dropped into a fountain while taking a photo. The owner picks it back up, and continues getting the shot, no beats missed. Anecdotally, lots of phones have been dropped into water by people I know, and I think this crucial point would resonate with them. A relatable real life moment, real people, and a real problem we’d love to suddenly go away overnight.

iPad Pros

  
When the 12.9″ iPad Pro was first unveiled, I was pretty sure I didn’t want or need one. Then I held it in the Ginza Apple Store while on vacation and bought one later that same day. The experience of holding such a large screen in your hands and touching it directly is more impressive than it sounds. But what you won’t realize while handling one in the store is how heavy it gets once you add a Smart Cover or Smart Keyboard and a silicone case for the back, if so inclined.

In the couple of months since, I’ve merely used it like a big iPad, watching movies in bed and occasionally reading comics or news on it; that sort of thing. But I knew it was meant for more and wanted to try bringing it to work with the Pencil and Smart Keyboard. Spoiler: it’s awesome, and I could probably do a lot of my daily stuff on it while moving easily from meeting to desk. The main problem has been its weight, especially when carried in my bag with a camera and power bank and umbrella every day. It’s also too much to hold in one hand while sketching with the other.

So after a few weeks of deliberation and bugging other people with the pros and cons, I decided to pony up for the new 9.7″ size and try to see if I could make justifiable use of two iPad Pros in one life. The Smart Keyboard hasn’t arrived yet, but I expect it will be even easier to type on than the Logitech and Belkin ones I’ve had for earlier iPads. The size and weight are perfect for one-handed use with the Pencil, although the back is slippery without a silicone case. I don’t think adding one is worth the weight gain, though. The larger iPad Pro is going to stay home and try to become a desktop computer in place of my ageing 2010 iMac. It was an unnecessary and guilt-inducing expense, but the thing that helped justify this dual-iPad setup was asking why I’ve allowed the iMac to go so long without an upgrade.

I got old! Which makes one treat computers differently, not to mention the nature of the tasks have changed.

Years ago, I would replace my PC/Mac every couple of years, usually by the end of every three-year AppleCare cycle. My computer was at the center of my life, and as a student living in a single bedroom, I’d spend most of the day in front of its screen; it was TV, telephone, game console, word processor, and library. I ate meals in front of it, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

These days, I spend most of my time at the office in front of a MacBook Pro, and at all other times, the job of that home computer is being done by an iOS device or Apple TV. I have a bigger house to move around in, and I’m almost never found sitting in front of the iMac. Having a desktop for those purposes seems awfully restrictive now, and confronting the mess of my HDD and locally stored files feels tiresome and archaic. Doing everyday tasks on an iPad without that legacy is a sort of escape, and there’s some measure of security to be had in knowing I could use one of the Macs if I really needed to. Chances are, I won’t. With music and photos on iCloud and other files on Dropbox, the iPad has all it takes to be a primary computer most days. I’ve stopped editing photos in Aperture and Lightroom and do it all with an iOS workflow now. You just have to let go and not look back.

I think all of us iPad Pro owners are waiting on iOS 10 to see Apple’s grand plan to bring this post-PC vision to maturity, but in the meantime it’s not bad at all.

Woke up old

I’m having the somewhat unique/weird experience of working in the same place as a close friend, having joined at different enough points that we don’t share the same views of the company, and aren’t working on any projects together. We’re in each other’s periphery 5 days a week, but otherwise too consumed by the goings on to interact until it’s outside the office. I know she’s doing well, but don’t see it for myself. Anyway we just had a couple of drinks tonight and that was nice.

Wait, what the heck was that mundane detail about my life?

We met during the hazy, naive days of early blogging on the internet, and there are entries here dating back to 2003 that detail our conversations and hanging out. In the past few days, I’ve been thinking back on that period while examining older posts I simply don’t remember writing, and missing a time when sharing your daily life and thoughts online was a harmless activity; not one that might later misrepresent the person you’d become. We were teenagers, proto-millennials without much concept of managed identities, and we came online before social networks were ubiquitous, when no search engine was good enough to pick all your words out of the woods. Whatever you wrote was for an audience that let you know who they were, and wasn’t hard to imagine.

The thing I missed most was the ability to come home and plonk down a daily update without thinking too much. These days, we wouldn’t even be too open on Facebook, which always seemed like the value of an inner-circle network like Path. I loved rereading an old post about how unsure I felt about how I was doing in a class, and wouldn’t trade being able to read about it now, over a decade later, for any measure of respect. I suppose kids still write like that, but anonymously on Tumblr or whatever. Or in private journaling apps that don’t sync to the big bad cloud.

Part of this nostalgia is probably down to waking up old today and realizing the freedom to say I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing has long departed. Even if I no longer need it, I miss that early internet that wasn’t so far reaching — the one that felt like a separate, parallel society. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go write meaningful thought pieces on Quora and Medium like a proper adult.

A UX design walkthrough of Feedly’s new Explore experience

Eduardo Santos: Introducing feedly’s New Explore Experience

I’m a pretty light user of Feedly these days, perhaps because RSS is just a chronologically ordered dump of too much information and I’ve grown to prefer a little machine intervention, but this detailed breakdown of a feature redesign is quite the pleasure to read.

Feedly probably does have a bigger role to play in aiding content discovery (no one can get enough of it), but what’s interesting is that an RSS reader approaches it in a different way from others like Flipboard. It’s less about piecemeal articles, topics, or user-curated magazines. It’s sites! Boosting little known sites and blogs exhibiting consistent quality serves a much more important cause: feeding the cycle of good content creation and letting authors grow their follower base, not enjoying random hits of virality at the whim of algorithms and chance.