Do you remember Paper by fiftythree, the sketching app that was at one point the very best digital ink engine on iPad? Actually, it kinda still is. I recently decided to use it again because Apple Notes and Freeform have really ugly lines, and Procreate is overkill for anything besides making art. I subscribed to Paper Pro (a very reasonable S$13/yr) which finally lets me sync my skeuomorphic notebooks across devices. I used to sketch scenes and take silly notes on vacations with it, and I’m doing it again now on my iPhone. Paper’s focused simplicity and lovely UI makes it possible, and enjoyable.
Someone remarked that maybe travel brings out the artist in me, to which I replied no, it’s probably more like “not working” makes me happier and more creative?
On the eve of our journey I was playing with the new v5 model in Midjourney (it’s incredible at photorealism) and had the idea of rendering soldiers jumping away from dramatic explosions, but the explosions are ramen. The final images reminded me of the award-baiting print campaigns I saw in my early career as a copywriter. It used to cost thousands of dollars and weeks of several creatives’ time to plan, photograph, and digitally edit these scenes. But here I was lying in bed with the idea of turning them into Pot Noodle ads, and would you know it? I was able to make every word and misaligned pixel of these on my phone in a matter of minutes. The world has changed so much.
We’re in Japan!
We got on the wrong train from the airport which cost us maybe an extra 15 minutes, and it was after midnight by the time we checked into the hotel. But on the street nearby, a cheap ramen restaurant open 24 hours on weekends. A bowl of tonkotsu ramen, a side of fried rice, and a mug of Kirin beer for S$10 — unbelievable value partly thanks to the depreciating yen 🥲
The next day was cold and rainy, and I met Michael for a coffee and long chat — our second ever meeting, and the first in eight whole years. 2015 oddly doesn’t seem that long ago. I think the cafe overcharged us. But at least we remembered to take a photo this time.
Maybe due to the lack of sleep, change of climate, and sudden increase in daily steps, my body rebelled in the evening with a fever that had me shivering under the covers. Obviously I was afraid it was Covid. I woke up feeling much better the next morning apart from a backache, so perhaps it’s just a mild flu. The Covid test came out negative, so I dragged myself out to visit Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara for old times’ sake and see what was new.
The camera section has shrunk down to half its former size, if not more. Side note: the Bic Camera in Ikebukuro has about eight floors of stuff, and no cameras. The Ricoh GR display in Yodobashi is about two feet wide, in their home country. The industry really looks to be in a sad state. And yet, several crowded shops devoted to old and analog cameras exist.
I had lunch at Coco Ichibanya and it was very good. How the Singaporean franchisee has managed to hold onto their business is astounding — they do such a bad job of it. One thing that’s changed is touchscreen ordering at each table. That, and plastic dividers between each patron, seem to be Covid-era innovations that have also made Japan more tourist friendly.
It’s only been a couple of days but something feels different about this visit. Maybe I prepared myself too well for never traveling again under Covid and now this feels like being woken in the middle of the night, disoriented. Maybe I no longer fantasize about moving out here and living a sleepwalking, alien life. Or maybe it’s the fact that many of the things I used to enjoy seeing and buying in Japan can now be found back home (more expensively, of course), or aren’t actually desirable anymore. Case in point: I saved at least an hour today bypassing the hundreds of headphones in electronic stores because between the AirPods Pro and Max, I don’t really need other headphones. Over the past ten years, the things I get excited about have dwindled and become software. Dedicated hardware toys like music instruments and Boogie Boards are just apps or features on an iPhone. They may still sell CDs here but I just stream the songs. Japanese games are plentiful (check out the Nintendo Switch aisles), but I can’t read them so… maybe in the next life. On one hand, less stuff and a neater, more minimal life. On the other, less shopping, silly delight, and souvenirs.
It’s been a fairly busy week at work, and it might just be the beginning of a longer stretch of stressful problem solving and multitasking. But we are off to Japan in two weeks! It’ll be my first vacation since Covid began, the last being Taiwan in late 2019.
I’ve forgotten how to do some of this stuff, from packing to making lists and generally getting in the right mind space to be comfortable going away. It’s also been an expensive week because I’ve had to buy a new suitcase (one of ours got broken last year when Kim had to travel), travel insurance, new power banks, new clothes for cold weather (no, the current cool and rainy spell we’re experiencing in Singapore, with hitherto impossible lows of 21°C, don’t really count), and pre-booked Shinkansen tickets which cost as much as domestic flights.
Two decisions which are easier this time than they usually are: what headphones and camera to bring.
The new AirPods Pro (2nd generation) are so much improved in noise canceling ability and sound quality than I have no reservations about using them as my only pair of headphones. Tokyo is a short flight of about seven hours, and their batteries should last the whole way with a short recharge in the case during meal service. Normally I’d pack a pair of over-ears, but I see no need here.
Since we’re traveling light, I could say I’m just going to rely on my iPhone 14 Pro (I’ve actually done that once; don’t know what got into me), but the Ricoh GR III is small and convenient enough that it will cost me very little to try using it as a main camera. Can’t the iPhone compare at 28mm? It’s probably closer than it’s ever been this year, but the GR sensor-lens system should still have the edge in pure optical quality terms, and there’s no substitute for the shift in mindset and focus you get when walking with a camera in your hand.
One tip we found on YouTube: there’s a new digital service from the Japanese government called Visit Japan Web where you can pre-declare your immigration and customs forms and save time filling in those arrival cards. You can do it all on your phone and get two QR codes to show at the airport. This should be the default everywhere.
We saw Knock At The Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, and enjoyed it. I shouldn’t mention the premise, as not knowing much is always part of the fun, but it cobbles together elements of other films and reworks a few tropes.
While talking about it afterwards, I realized that Shyamalan has two superpowers: he knows how to steal good cinematic tricks and make them great (for awhile I mistakenly thought JJ Abrams did too), and a knack for creating turning points in his films where your perception of the world flips or your immersion intensifies. That can be something like suddenly believing in one of the two dueling narratives (e.g. Is X real? Is this the present and not the past?), or the kind of big twist he became famous for. Often these two things happen at the same time.
I told Kim that I can’t think of one particular scene in The Sixth Sense without tearing up, and literally did so at that moment, which seemed to startle her. It’s the one with Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment talking in the car, where the son says something that undeniably proves to his mother that he really does see dead people, which she absolutely did not believe up to that point.
It doesn’t matter whether you as the viewer already believed or not; their performances are so extraordinary, the scene is so deftly written, that you can’t help but experience the world-reversing revelation through her eyes. It also comes with a manipulative emotional gut punch (a bit ham-fisted, but whatever), which is why it’s stamped in my memory so hard. And The Sixth Sense is great because it does this over and over. It’s a triumph in the way musicians’ first albums are — years of stored-up ideas and raw energy packed into one work.
Anyway Knock At The Cabin had at least one of these moments for me, and Dave Bautista is a treasure. I’ve read reviews comparing him and The Rock as two former pro wrestlers turned actors, but it’s clear these days Bautista is the Actor. Strong 3.5 stars out of 5.
We finished seeing every episode of Seinfeld. I can’t think of a better show about awful people. I’ll always love it.
We started watching Succession at long last, and it’s also a show about awful people but I don’t enjoy it much at all. There’s no payoff; they’re just all pathetic human beings with rich people problems? Perhaps they suffer greatly in the following episodes and you’re supposed to get a kick out of that. I’ll try to make it through the first season.
Sharper on Apple TV+ is a good 4-star film billed as a neo-noir, whatever that is. In this case, sharper is a noun, one carefully explained on an opening text card so as not to give too much away. If you don’t already know what the word means, don’t even look it up, just see the film.
I did a speed run through a 12-episode anime called Darwin’s Game on Netflix because it’s leaving the service this month. I got through it in a couple of hours. Not recommended unless you love battle royale style stories where people play supernatural “death games” organized by some sadistic game master, a la Alice In Borderland and too many others.
I made only one thing with Midjourney this week, a series of Tokyo-ites posing for street fashion photos.
According to the Been Outside app I started using last week, I’ve been out of the house for a total of 34 hours. That seems like too much if you ask me.
Zane Lowe has an in-depth interview series on Apple Music that I’ve never watched before, until a clip with Damon Albarn started going viral (that term feels so old). In it, Damon demonstrates how almost the entire backing track of the Gorillaz’s single Clint Eastwood was lifted from a demo preset on his Omnichord plastic keyboard. You can see that moment and the whole interview here on YouTube. The show is not so easy to find in Apple Music’s app itself. It’s filed under “Radio”, and if you go to the Gorillaz artist page, it’s not shown with the other music videos, but through a separate tile for “The Zane Lowe Interview” which looks like it could be an audio podcast, but it’s actually video.
Anyway I’m usually not too excited about Gorillaz releases and I don’t think I’ve made it through one of their albums in years, but the interview made me curious about this latest one, Cracker Island, and it’s alright! Skinny Ape stood out on my last listen through.
This week also saw the release of the 20th anniversary edition of Jesse Malin’s The Fine Art of Self Destruction, which I’ve been waiting months for. On top of the original album, he’s recorded new versions of some songs, but sadly not all. I’d expected all-new interpretations of the whole suite, but well, maybe that didn’t make sense without a coherent theme to approach them with.
I’ve been on the waitlist for Artifact, the news app from the founders of Instagram, and in a nice surprise this week, they opened it up to everyone. It’s basically a successor to Flipboard, without the flipping, and with magic AI dust sprinkled on top of it to attract buyers? Too cynical? I don’t have a great way to surface personalized news at the moment since I’ve cut back on my Twitter use, so I’m hoping this fills the gap.
Back in the 90s when Event Horizon came out in theaters, I was too afraid to see it. It was billed as an extreme sci-fi horror film with demonic themes and mutilation, and I was probably like NOPE! I saw a screenshot of it a few months ago that made me want to download and see it, but I only got around to it now. Time has reduced it to (or maybe it always was) a campy, schlocky, gory fun afternoon watch that’s more a 90s CD-ROM FMV game than anything, but the design of the ill-fated spaceship’s interiors is seriously god-tier work. It evokes so much NOPE at a glance: Ancient Evil glyphs etched into walls, steel pillars with tight tiling like a prison bathhouse, and a rotating mechanical gateway to hell that is definitely not good news. 3.5/5 at best.
Whenever I see a movie, I try to log it on Letterboxd, which is like a Goodreads for films. Now I’m happy to have discovered Marathon, which is like a Letterboxd for television. It’s a good looking app and if a show has enough viewers, you can see their ratings not only for entire seasons but individual episodes. If nothing else, it’s a useful way to keep track of what you’ve seen, need to finish seeing, and how much time you’ve spent on shows. You can find me on all these services as “sangsara”, I think.
Setting up Marathon helped me remember we were halfway through For All Mankind on Apple TV+ and need to get back into it. We also started on the latest season of You on Netflix, which managed to be more terrible than ever and yet still left me interested enough to keep going at the end of episode 1.
Alright! We kept things short this week. Not a lot of Midjourneying done but I’ve got a couple to see you off.
My mother-in-law stayed with us for the week and a new routine was soon established: every night after dinner, we’d watch an old film from the 40s and 50s. This worked out well because I’ve been hoarding a bunch of film noir classics which my wife would never otherwise agree to sit through.
The best was undoubtedly The Third Man (1949) adapted from the Graham Greene novel and directed by one Carol Reed. I obviously thought Reed was a woman who somehow got to make a huge film and give Orson Welles direction, but nope, turns out Carol is a man. This is a film I’ve actually tried to watch three or four times; maybe even finished, but I couldn’t remember much. The first time might have been in film class at university. What a strange and meandering film, with intriguing technical aspects and unexpected emotional depth. The very last scene is one for the ages. I gave it five stars on Letterboxd.
The next one was Lured (1947), starring Lucille Ball and George Sanders, directed by Douglas Siri. This was the second-best, and features a pretty strong heroine for the time. Her role in a police plot to catch a killer is to be the bait, but she actually gets hired as a proper undercover detective to do it and she has some great comeback lines. 4 stars.
What a disappointment Key Largo (1948) was, though! Bogart and Bacall in a famous film — perhaps my expectations were too high? It’s slow, unfolds in basically one location, and feels like a play poorly adapted into motion picture form (I recall seeing in the credits that it was). 2.5 stars.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) brought the momentum back: a more complex film that plays with chronological jumps, multiple viewpoints, and intersecting roles in a heist that slowly makes more sense as the film goes on. Watched alongside others from the period, it stands out both for having more to say and trusting its audience to come along. 4 stars.
We ended on a slightly weak note with Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which is apparently called his first true masterpiece. Ehhhhh. I do give it points for walking right up to the edge of incest and staring into it — one reviewer on Letterboxd put it like this: “This bitch wanted to straight up fuck her uncle! Hitchcock was so ahead of his time, he literally invented Cersei × Jamie.” But otherwise, 3 stars from me.
Coincidentally, I saw a tweet this week about the portrayal of sex in these old films, and how not being allowed to be explicit led directors and actors to create even more powerful suggestions of desire. I was also disappointed that this person was only on Twitter and not Mastodon. Can everyone hurry up and move already?
I discovered a great little free app, like, totally free. Been Outside uses geofences to track how much time you spend away from home. For someone like me who usually loves staying home and working remotely, it provides a way to assess how much this lousy life forces me to compromise on my introverted, shut-in preferences.
Speaking of, we binged (with fast forwarding) all 10 episodes of The Ultimatum: France on Netflix this weekend. For the unfamiliar, it’s a wretched reality TV show that takes couples where one party wants to get married, and makes them swap partners with each other to see if it changes their minds. Some end up back together stronger and agree to get married, others love the glimpse of another life and decide they don’t want to go back, and so on.
I’ve seen some of the American version and expected the French participants to be more debased, more promiscuous, but they were… not?! The biggest scandal was one person kissing a stranger during a night out. I said “speaking of” 118 words ago because at some point during the show, Kim sighed, “this world is really horrible”, and I laughed.
Our trip to Japan is less than a month away and many plans have yet to be made. We went out to a cafe for brunch today and sat side-by-side with our iPads and tried to do research together with a shared Safari Tab Group and a Freeform board. The latter has intermittent syncing hiccups that you never get with Miro, and makes working on it kinda scary, but it’s free and good enough and I’m looking forward to it being well supported and a key part of the Apple ecosystem! I want to believe!
Tl;dr: I moved to a new Mastodon server and signed up for a fun omg.lol account. Plus some thoughts on AI after playing around with ChatGPT this week.
The operator of my queer-friendly, anti-Nazi Mastodon server (mastodon.lol) decided to shut it down after receiving too much hate and harassment. I don’t blame him for prioritizing his own safety and peace, and any disappointment is aimed at humanity in general. But this episode highlights the problems with Mastodon that I’ve been thinking about since adopting it. Namely, ground-up decentralization creates weaker nodes, and the UX friction of asking new users to choose a great first server that they can stick with for life. I joined mastodon.lol a scant three months ago!
I also only found out about the shutdown by pure luck, chancing upon his announcement toot as I scrolled the timeline. We have three months before it goes offline. Without a sorting algorithm and/or the time to read every single post, it’s more likely people are going to miss the message than see it.
My new address is @firstname.lastname@example.org, a paid Mastodon instance run by the omg.lol service which I learned about from Michael who also uses it. If you were already following me, you should have been automatically shifted to the new address. But migration on Mastodon doesn’t carry over posts, only followers and bookmarks, so my 67 entries will be wiped when the old server shuts down.
I could have gone with one of the big, semi-official servers like mastodon.social or mastodon.online, but as soon as I started exploring omg.lol, I kinda fell in love with its idea of a scrappy nerdy community built around a series of web tools. I used to buy silly domains and dream about turning them into useful services — but lacked all of the skills and vision to actually pull it off. But here for $20/yr, you get a bunch of things riding off that great domain name: a personal web address with a profile page, an email address, a blogging service and /now page if you want, a statuslog service, pastebin, a permanent URL tool, access to their IRC/Discord server, and now, Mastodon.
Based on this experience, I also decided it was time to redesign the About page here, which is my one true profile page on the web.
I had a conversation late last week about generative AI and how it can steal many creative jobs away, but also increase access to higher quality creative work. It reminded me of that Steve Jobs interview where he said the way we “ratchet up our species is to take the best and to spread it around to everybody, so everybody grows up with better things”. If you put copyright and capitalism aside for a minute, because illegally trained AI leads to a sort of creative socialism, you can imagine how this plays out. There’s a ton of top-notch, high-budget creative work out there, but it’s not evenly distributed. What happens when any dive bar can have a Wednesday night promotions poster on the front door that looks like it was designed by TBWA? There will be a chaotic leveling and raising of all boats, and then any humans left standing and still able to think will figure out what’s next.
ChatGPT has gone incredibly mainstream in a short time, and while I’m usually one of the first in line to try this sort of thing, that wasn’t the case here. I read about it, saw the screenshots shared online, but never actually signed up to try it myself until this week. I was too engrossed in the imaging/Midjourney side of things, and maybe some part of me that identifies as a copywriter knew that this was going to be a threat and I wasn’t in a hurry to face it.
Now that I’ve played with it, though, including some amusing and convincing conversations about the nature of design and intelligence, I’m more excited and concerned than ever. It’s not only that generative AI tools will replace skilled human jobs and force a rethink of ethics, ownership, and labor in society — it’s that we’re not ready for the pace at which it will happen. We have not had the time and space to discuss this as communities, families, and countries.
Text runs the world, and a text genie is squeezing its way out of the bottle. Legal documents, performance reviews, applications for access, convincing arguments for sales and solutions, and professional emails (that are now just a style to be applied to quick bullet points) will be passed off and leveled off. And those are just the use cases I’ve tried this week! Powerful tools are being put into untrained hands overnight, and as we’ve been hearing everywhere, companies are rushing to irreversibly build them into the digital engines that run everything. From search and Microsoft Office to project management and customer service. Some of it is safe and logical, and some could do with a little more thought.
I did get a kick out of David Guetta’s enthusiasm, though. There is so much potential here for fun and creativity, if you’re also the kind of guy who can give an unironic shoutout to a murdered man’s family.
One of the things I “trained” ChatGPT to do in one long session was help me to write better Midjourney prompts. Here’s a series we made of objects that look the way they sound. It was a difficult challenge to attempt, requiring an understanding of abstract synesthesia that was beyond either AI, but I’m not too upset about the results.
We are caught up to episode 5 of The Last of Us and it’s strikingly good. Jose asked if I noticed a key character in episode 3 was also the hotel manager in season 1 of The White Lotus and I had not. When they say an actor disappears into their role, I suppose this is what they mean.
I got started on Persona 5 Royal (Switch). I played the original version on the PS4 and abandoned it maybe three or more years ago, blaming a lack of time in front of the TV and the non-portable nature of the experience. No excuses now. Except… I have put it on hold after the tutorial because I’m not sure I want to spend the next 60 hours on this just yet. It’s a young person’s game and I need something a little more casual.
Despite probably seeing The Third Man many times over the years, I don’t remember it clearly at all. Here’s my Letterboxd review: “I have probably tried to see this film about three or four times. Tonight I succeeded, and it is the sum of all previous attempts, including vague memories of staying awake in film class in university. What a strange and meandering film, with intriguing technical aspects and unexpected emotional depth, and an ending scene for the ages. I thought four stars but I’ll be damned if I didn’t give it all five.” It has only strengthened my resolve to see more old folks and read more old books. This foray into the contemporary over the past decade has been a waste of time!
Do you think Seth MacFarlane has modeled himself on Orson Welles in some ways?! There’s a physical resemblance + the multihyphenatism.
I saw Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. What a crock of shit.
We got our fourth vaccine shots today. Based on historical results, I’m going to be ill tomorrow and she’ll be fine. It’s been about four hours and I’m already feeling a little lightheaded and tired.
It feels like it’s been raining here almost continuously since late December — dark all the time, and practically every day we get storms that last most of the day or night. And so it feels unusually cool and damp indoors, and our dehumidifiers have been working overtime to get clothes dry and keep mold at bay.
This Chinese/Lunar New Year period is often associated with blazing, cloudless skies, and sweating through one’s new red clothes while shuttling around to visit relatives, which makes this year an outlier. And it’s not just me saying it! Several taxi drivers have used this observation as a conversation starter these past few weeks.
And every year, there’s an outsized “Hong Bao” lottery draw that generates long queues at betting outlets. I bought a single ticket for fun while in a convenience store one night, and in the process of getting the link above have discovered that I’m sadly not one of the three winners of the S$12M prize. Or a consolation prize, even.
I generated some cityscape illustrations using a mix of anime and artwork keywords with Midjourney (no artist names), and got some surprisingly great compositions — good enough that I’m using one of them as my phone’s wallpaper now. And then just to mix things up, I asked it to put Godzilla in the cities, and that actually worked.
TV We finished all 10 episodes of Echo 3 on Apple TV+, a quasi-action series involving a group of special forces types conducting some personal business in Columbia. It’s not a straightforward, fast-moving Jack Ryan sort of show, although it could have been. Its typographic title styles actually reminded me of 80s-era Golan–Globus films — a look and feel and attitude I wish Hollywood would unironically revive. But no, Echo 3 has arthouse ambitions and slows things down with gauzy dream images, flashbacks, and psychologically troubled characters. Which I can’t say I cared that much for! 3/5
We’ve now been subscribed to HBO for a full week and only started using it yesterday. The Last of Us is good television after all, not leaning too much on the game beyond key pieces. My main complaint so far is that shots of the wider world look too much like how I remember the game: CGI rather than realism.
Something odd is happening here in terms of anime licensing. SPY×FAMILY started out on Netflix, then new episodes appeared simultaneously on Amazon Prime Video. I thought this title sharing was a weird one-off, but now Chainsaw Man is no longer on Prime Video only; it’s also on Netflix. If only this disruption of exclusivity happened more so we didn’t have to subscribe to every service.
Incidentally, I finished Chainsaw Man despite not really having any appetite for demon-hunting stories — this one is wild, weird, and really well done.
Music Speaking of strange behavior, I discovered the #youngstar playlist on Apple Music at some point last year and enjoyed its focus: emerging J-Pop acts that have gained traction first on alternative channels like YouTube and TikTok. But when I checked it out today, I found an international version of the playlist, with English songs only.
Checking in with Michael, I realized some localizing or geofencing was afoot because he still saw the Japanese version (with a US account, in Japan). Highly annoying that we aren’t given a choice which version we see; is it so difficult to just publish separate playlists like “#youngstar (Japan)”, “#youngstar (International)”? So we’ve done that, manually, for anyone else who wants them. You can send us the checks, Tim.
Singling out one song off the Japanese playlist, I enjoyed XG’s Shooting Star and then found myself sucked into their YouTube channel for awhile. For a group that’s only put out about four full songs, they have a ton of content, from training sessions and mixtape-style demos to random behind-the-scenes videos like one where two members practice a rap segment for about seven minutes. The polish on the Shooting Star video reminds me of early Blackpink, and I think these girls are going to be huge (they have 1.1M YouTube subscribers now). It helps that they sing in English, Japanese, and Korean. How do you even source talent like that, and seven of them? Headhunters and recruiters in every other industry need to learn from the music business.