Tasmania, April 2018

I knew nothing about Tasmania before setting off; not even that it’s a whole separate island from mainland Australia. My schedule leading up to the trip was too busy for me to even think about it, let alone look it up on a map. Because everything had been planned by my in-laws, I just had to show up. All I knew was that I’d probably get a few good landscape photos out of it, and be horrified by the lack of fast internet access.

On the first point, it turned out to be quite a beautiful place indeed, if not very convenient to get around. You’re in for hours of driving between small towns if you want to visit the main attractions, and some of the windy roads literally border on death traps—you can slip down the side of a mountain with a swerve.

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Toilet day vlog — April 14 2018

We went to Ferrara Homestyling to pick out some toilets and sinks. Beer and burgers were the reward.

Shot these clips in Instagram for some reason and assembled them in Quik. Also cut them up for sharing on Instagram Stories. I don’t know if I’ll make vlogging a regular habit, but I’d love to? Just can’t see portrait video being the way to go. Might switch to landscape for the next one.

Should I really have bought a new camera?

You never use the cameras you have as much as you do when there’s a new one ordered and on the way. I’ve just bought a Panasonic LX10 online to take the place of my 6(!) year old Sony RX100mk1—a compact travel camera with a big-enough 1″ sensor and useful 3x-ish zoom range.

Below: a recent shot from my RX100.

Raindrops shot with a Sony RX100

That the LX10 has been on the market for 2 years says something about my changing habits. Buying last year’s model used to be unthinkable, and I’d pay a premium for buying that way. But the industry has changed and now hardware updates come every few years instead of annually, and the average price has gone over the $1000 mark to compensate for the drop in sales. Buying late nets you a nice discount back to pre-smartphone prices.

Anyway, while waiting for that camera to come and prove wrong my fears that I’ve given my money to a scammy HK website, I’ve been using my iPhone X and RX100 a bit around the neighborhood and workplace.

I can’t stress enough how much the Halide camera app + Adobe’s new and improved Lightroom Mobile have changed the way I shoot and edit RAW images on iPhone. (I still love and use Darkroom too, it just doesn’t do RAW as well as Lightroom anymore.)

Shooting koi in a rippling pool with an iPhone requires you to go full manual, and while the thought of fiddling with shutter speeds and ISO and manual focus on a touchscreen used to make me shudder, it’s actually doable with Halide’s well-considered control layout and gestures. I just wish you could lock focus peaking to always-on.

Honestly, I had no idea you could get this kind of sharpness and microcontrast out of an iPhone. I’ll be saving JPEGs and Live Photos for quick grab shots and moving scenes from now on. Given that I’ve taken a few holidays with just my iPhone, this is all making me wonder if I should have bought a new dedicated camera at all.

Okay okay, while shooting in RAW preserves highlights and deals with tricky lighting such as the above shot in the late afternoon, I’ll admit to enhancing that flare with Lens Distortions. It’s all about creating the scene you saw with your eyes, right??

Assuming the camera comes on time, I’ll probably bring it with me to Tasmania when I go in a few weeks. Seems like a landscape kinda place, so I have doubts about bringing my other cameras: a Ricoh GR (28mm) and Fujifilm X100T (35mm). 🤔

Autumn in Japan, and some observations

We paid Tokyo and Osaka a visit last fall, following up on my life’s goal of visiting Japan at least once every two years, and nothing disappointed — not the food, people, weather, galleries, nor multi-storey complexes designed to make me buy media and electronics. As Craig Mod alluded to recently on Twitter, Tokyo is a place that fulfills the city’s promise as a tool for human life.

The thing I love about its density and intensity is how that translates into support for all manner of subcultures and obscure hobbies. Today, you can barely find a functioning and interesting bookstore in Singapore, while in Tokyo it’s not just bookstores that thrive. One can wander into massive stores selling model train and forest diorama-building supplies, or records curated from a specific period, or vintage camera parts emporiums. We’re not large enough to incubate that kind of diversity, and the city dweller’s life suffers for it.

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Listening, Remembering: a 2017 Playlist

In the early days of this blog and being online, I’d make mixes and upload them somewhere for friends and readers. Those were usually one and the same, who am I kidding? Personally, I hardly have time to listen to playlists made by experts, so I don’t know why I thought people would listen to mine. Adult hindsight: I made them for myself.

The end of year mix was a particularly fun undertaking. I don’t scrapbook, or watch algorithmically generated Year In Review videos from Facebook/Google/Apple, and I lack the openness to write an entry all about my experience of the year without doing it in relation to another topic. Hence music.

Every track you add is inevitably a personal choice. Some were soundtracks to moments, some were recommended by important people, others are evidence of flirting with new genres, trying to stay in touch with the distancing past or the youthfully new. A listener could conceivably read between the lines, but hopefully they’re already too busy forming their own reflections.

This year, I started a new job and as an end-of-year team activity, I thought it’d be good to compile a playlist with a couple of contributions from each member. Here it is.

That activity got me inspired to do a personal one, and I think I’m finally done at 34 tracks across 2 hours and 8 minutes. A double album! At the very start, I thought 2017 (not the best year, right?) would be a slim list. And way too many things that came to mind were actually from 2016. A year can seem like a small and fuzzy lump of time by December. But when you start going through your library, the months all come back and start to feel distinct again. It’s really therapeutic and I recommend it.

Anyway, here’s how my 2017 sounded. A few notes on particular songs follow.

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Fjord Equinox 2017

In work-related news (doesn’t happen very often here), I recently joined Fjord, a design and innovation agency that’s now part of Accenture Interactive, and one of their longstanding traditions is an annual “learning summit” that everyone travels to attend. This year, about a thousand people from 28 studios around the world made their way to Berlin for three days. I made a bunch of quick 1-minute update videos for Instagram, and this is a compilation of them.

I wanted to shoot and edit everything on mobile, without doing multiple takes or anything. Just approach it in a really rough and imperfect manner using Apple’s launched-and-now-almost-forgotten Clips app. It breaks the familiar iMovie/FCP-style workflow of assembling video on a timeline and then editing on top of it, and reimagines editing as if designed by Snapchat: you get one chance to do it right, and you have to do everything ‘live’. What that means is you can’t put the video down and then record a voice-over to go on top of it. You literally have to hold down a record button to lay down the segment of video (as if you were shooting it right then), and record your VO simultaneously. If you want to pan around the photo or video, you need to do that with your fingers on the screen too, while talking, while getting the length right. It’s most intuitive when you’re shooting a How-To video and want to narrate what’s happening.

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the right tool for what I was doing, since I shot nearly no footage directly within Clips, but it was fun and pretty interesting to approach editing differently. I might use it again, but the fixed square format is a little annoying. I would think twice about putting any scenic holiday video through that limitation.

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.

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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.

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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.