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Links

Olympus falls, and Sigma adds L-Mount options

A couple of developments in the photography world caught my eye this week.

Olympus is apparently giving up on their camera business and looking to sell it off, which is not entirely unexpected, but still staggering news. Perhaps it’ll find new owners willing to make their products authentically, or at least have their IP absorbed into another Japanese camera maker’s portfolio. The worst outcome would be for it to go to a licensing outfit that will churn out unrelated nostalgia merchandise or even more mediocre cameras than they’ve put out themselves lately. I can’t help but fear Ricoh-Pentax will be next.

Update: It seems one Japan Industrial Partners will buy Olympus over, like they did Sony’s VAIO business at one point, and “continue to offer high-quality, highly reliable products; and also continue to provide supports to the imaging solution products that have been distributed by Olympus.”


Three Sigma lenses

Sigma is adding an L-mount to three existing APS-C lenses, giving users of Leica’s CL/TL series cameras three pretty easy purchase decisions to make. These are fast prime lenses (f1.4) equivalent to 24mm, 45mm, and 84mm lengths. They’re compact, significantly lighter than their German counterparts, plus support autofocus and in-body IBIS (which no Leica APS-C camera even has yet). As the Macfilos blog notes, you can buy all three lenses for less than the price of a single 23mm f2 Summicron. I’ve been wanting the 35mm f1.4 Summilux for awhile but haven’t been able to square the bulk with the price. This Sigma model looks close enough to be a no-brainer.

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Micro

My review of the Leica D-Lux 7 is consistently one of the most visited posts on the blog. It’s a versatile camera with few compromises, and the new all-black version looks great. If I were buying one today, that’s the one I’d get.

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Reviews

An early look at HEY email

(For Part 2 of this review, check out: Hold up, HEY)

I’ve been pretty keen to see HEY’s rethinking of email, and just got my early access invitation this week (I joined the queue back in February, perhaps on Day 2 of their recruitment drive). I was also an early adopter of Gmail back in 2004, and as they say on the manifesto page, there’s not been much innovation in the world of personal email since. If anything, email has been in decline and most of its use cases now belong to chat platforms (keeping up with friends), workplace project management/collaboration suites (enterprise communications), and services’ own portals (seeing account and order histories). The resurgence of newsletters is one bright spot, and displaying them is one of the main jobs of my email account.

Anyway, I get excited about new things quite easily. When the invitations started rolling out, I was obsessively checking my inbox, and I kid you not, literally dreaming about getting mine to the point where I was waking up in the middle of the night with the urge to check my mail! Part of the anxiety probably came from wanting needing to secure my address of choice, like I was lucky enough to do back in 2004 with Gmail. Just try getting your name now without adding random numbers; I don’t know how the poor kids today deal with the scarcity. My wife also wants any readers to know that she’s heard enough about my two username options, the pros and cons of both, and never wants to discuss email addresses again.

So now that I’ve used it for a little bit, I’m undecided if I should make this my primary email service. On one hand, everything they promise is true. The workflows are elegant, the way it puts you at the center of the experience is refreshing (no stranger can disturb your peace, OCD freaks can bundle threads together, etc.), and the emphasis on privacy and business model transparency is way better than any free alternative. On the other hand, it’s not entirely how I’d like to use email, and some edges are rough to the touch.

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General

Homework

In my last update here, three long months ago, I’d just set up a new WiFi system with enough reach to connect our largely neglected study, which gave me a new place to hang out and play music too loudly.

Shortly thereafter, I decided the acoustics of that room were too boomy for the Beolit speaker I’d put in, and picked up a little Sonos which can be tuned to suit the space (it’s much better).

Shortly thereafter, a measure of hell broke loose everywhere, which I don’t need to explain. In the tiny window before nationwide lockdown was called, my wife and I decided to celebrate our anniversary with a staycation since getting away was impossible. We booked ourselves in for a weekend, visited the buffets, had cocktails in the lounge, and sat by the pool that first day reading more news and feeling something in the wind.

Literally overnight, we saw the hotel reconfigure their club lounge for social distancing, cutting the capacity in half. With not much else to do but eat canapés and drink while watching the news, I distinctly recall the numbers then: 380,000 infections worldwide. Yesterday, I saw that number in the news again, for global deaths.

According to the log my teammates have been keeping, we started working from home in the third week of March, later than our other colleagues not attached to client projects at the time. For that period of about a week, showing up at a reduced occupancy office building/mall was surreal, recalling Ling Ma’s novel Severance, where the protagonist keeps going to work at her Manhattan office long after the city stops working, and we were glad when the call was made to not take any more chances.

That move to make our home study more usable/livable/enjoyable just before this hit, which on hindsight was just down to luck and the High Fidelity TV series, was probably the most well-timed decision I’ll make all year. It’s given me a separate workspace from my wife who’s taken to occupying the living room’s solar-facing counter. Given that we’re both on calls a lot now, if I had to be nearby for WiFi purposes, I think there’d be trouble.

A lot of what we do with clients and their customers in the business of design used to happen in person. Speaking with people, watching them at work, communicating ideas — it takes a lot of channels to supply the necessary bandwidth, from spoken words and scribblings on a board to body language and moving things around in space. It’s also true for many other professions, and is probably why many fantasize that VR will be the long-term answer in the event that there won’t be a vaccine, if we agree that plexiglass shields in the office aren’t a solution for getting back to work.

We started working from home on a Wednesday and had to figure out how we’d start interviewing people the very next day; interviews that were originally planned to be in-person conversations. For a bunch of reasons, it wasn’t as easy as sending a Zoom meeting link. We ended up keeping those sessions simple and voice only; better to get the basics right and extract some good data than get fancy and fuck it all up.

Two months later, between us and other teams across the studio, I think we’re beginning to see how many of the old activities can be done virtually. The next step will be to devise new activities that aren’t constrained by assumptions about how work should be done. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we won’t. One thing about remote work of this sort, technology constraints (including literacy) have a huge impact on who you can involve and co-create with. Almost anyone can pick up a pen or gesture at a thing. Now try to get them to manipulate content on a Miro or Mural board using an aging laptop. Now try to get them doing it in VR. What’s the equivalent of a Post-It note for virtual work: the simplest, most flexible atom of a tool for thinking aloud with anyone? Texting in a group chat?


Otherwise, I’ve done some of the usual quarantine things. I’ve tried cutting my own hair (bought some clippers for it). I’ve been making cold brew coffee (bought a Hario bottle for it). We made that dalgona coffee one time but it was foul (already had turns out we actually bought the apocalypse-ready instant coffee for it). I’ve been making more cocktails and drinking IPAs at home instead of at the bar (bought the ingredients and ordered the cases, respectively). I’ve put on weight (bought a lot of takeout for it). I’ve been reading more (bought a Kobo reader for it). I’ve played upwards of 110 hours of Animal Crossing New Horizons (bought the game day one for it). Uh… having made that list, I am a little disgusted. Clearly, if life gives me lemons, I buy a juicer.

The national lockdown here in Singapore ends in name next Monday, but the cautious re-opening will surely take more than a couple of months. The first people to be allowed back into office buildings at first will be those who haven’t been able to do their jobs from home for legal or technical reasons, and I think it’ll be September before most white-collared types find out what their leaders think about ending the great WFH experiment vs. saving a ton on commercial rent.

Note: This post contains a couple of Amazon affiliate links, which I’m trying out… again? I have a vague memory of using them on a couple of my sites before.

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General

Little Green

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

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

Speaking of Little Green…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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General

Do androids dream of Chinese New Year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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