Week 5.21

  • It’s like the ants around here have gone crazy. I noticed them swarming in the kitchen one morning, carting off bits of a granola bar whose wrapper had a corner mysteriously torn off. Did they do it with their teeth? One colony cleansing later, I saw them reappear in another cupboard trying to get into a packet of dates. Wondering if there was something seasonal or lunar about this behavior, I asked some friends if they’d noticed anything similar lately and got “YES!” for an answer.
  • I joked that it was as if the ant leaders had announced that they weren’t going to make their food targets for the quarter, so everyone needed to get out there and collect goddammit!
  • Stonks. This week was noteworthy just because everyone now knows what a GameStop is, even though we don’t have any. I saw the headlines but didn’t poke into it until it was too late to get rich. Buut I bought a single overpriced share anyway, in solidarity with the people out to make predatory short-sellers suffer. I can’t even begin to guess if this is as big a deal as some make it out to be, or just a blip the system will painlessly absorb. I can’t intuit if it’s the beginning of a sea change in money, or just a January news story. My longstanding ignorance of market matters doesn’t help. But it is exciting to watch.
  • If it turns out to be a big deal though, many smart people seem to think it will accelerate adoption of decentralized finance platforms. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about getting my feet wet with PoolTogether, which was just buying lottery tickets with play money. This week I actually used Uniswap, and bought into an index fund governed by smart contracts. So… progress. Maybe next week I’ll quit my job and yield farm for a living.
  • It wouldn’t be an update without some Apple-related anecdote. My wife got one of the new iPad Airs for work purposes, and it’s nice enough that I actually questioned needing the next iPad Pro. Better screen technology and an A14X would be great, but if they raise the price for miniLED then I might just settle for an Air. My current iPad Pro, the one-off 10.5” model (2017), is such a weirdo. It’s like they had to cut a bunch of corners on it while waiting for the redesigned third-generation (2018). It doesn’t support spatial audio with AirPods, even though older devices like the iPhone 7 do. It’s got a white spot on the screen that I’ve seen others complain about. And graphically it’s so weak that most games seem to run in 480p.
  • Before bed each night, we started watching random YouTube videos of food being prepared, with no narration or music. Just street food kitchens and stalls in Korea and Taiwan frying up stuff at scale, with tons of oil. It’s beautiful, horrifying, and sleep inducing all at once.
  • As a result, I didn’t use my Netflix account until Sunday, when I started to watch Alice in Borderland, which is a truly not-bad Japanese live action series based on a manga. I recommend giving the first episode a go, just to see an impressive shot of Shibuya that will make you go “wait, what?!”. I’m up to Episode 3, which unfortunately goes into one of those time-wasting sequences where people scream/shout each other’s names for about three minutes. That’s still my number one pet peeve about Japanese shows. Nevertheless, I can recommend it on production values alone.
  • What a week for music, though. New albums from Rhye and Weezer, and the long-awaited debut albums from Arlo Parks and Celeste.
  • Through the serendipity of my personalized Apple Music radio station, I also discovered Instant Karma, an Amnesty International project from back in 2007 to “Save Dafur”. It’s 61(!) John Lennon covers by various artists, including R.E.M., Willie Nelson, The Cure, a-ha, Lenny Kravitz, and The Postal Service. Avril Lavigne even covers Imagine! I haven’t had the time for it all, but Regina Spektor’s version of Real Love might be my pick already.

Week 2.21

  • “I’m looking forward to … reading a whole lot next week” — said everyone who ended up doing nothing of the sort. Hopefully I’ll get around to it in the first few days of next week while I’m still on vacation time.
  • You know how you try to avoid visiting the part of town where your office is on weekends and public holidays? It’s tainted ground; a place where neither levity nor leisure can survive within a kilometer’s radius of your desk until years after you move on; a commercial real estate Chernobyl invisibly blackened by exposure to Outlook and your own psychic stress. Well, I’ve got a leak of that sort in my upstairs study where I now work from home. I’ve found myself not wanting to even look at its door this week. It’s funny. Maybe I need to rent another place to live.
  • One thing we did manage to do: finish all available episodes of Billions! I love it, because the writing just loves to wallow in its own proud pen of audacious pretension. It’s the kind of show where dialog doesn’t strive to be realistic; it strives to be good.
  • Not even in the same country, let alone ballpark, but a lot of my week probably went to watching crypto price tickers as if they were live sports I actually cared about. It’s a fascinating hobby. As the numbers go up and down, it’s not unlike a ball being dribbled up and down a pitch, except sometimes there’s a goal and you’re not quite sure whether it benefits your team or the opponents.
  • It only took three months, but we finally visited Apple Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s third Apple Store to not sell HomePods. As it was a weekday afternoon, there was practically no queue and we were in within minutes. It’s a lovely space, and probably better experienced on a less cloudy day, at night, and without COVID procautions. But these days I hardly see the need to buy these things in person anyway. They only had a few AirPods Max units out for testing (not sale, as they’re backordered everywhere), and that’s probably the only thing apart from watch bands that I might want to try in person first. Yes, you can return any online order within two weeks, but I think that’s pretty wasteful from a logistics and refurbishment perspective.
  • I decided to keep my AirPods Max after all. They are just too much of a joy to listen with. I saw the rumor about the cheaper and lighter “sport” version still being in play and perhaps releasing sometime this year, with plastic in place of metal. I think lighter is a feature that should cost more, not less, and if they really maintained the same audio quality in a cheaper AND lighter package, I’d be pretty mad. But I didn’t want to wait around for a product that may never come, so.

Week 1.21

  • Happy new year to you! We celebrated NYE by staying home and having all the food in the freezer that needed finishing. And then to make up for it, we went out the next day for a nice maki sushi and sake dinner at a place called Rappu where they don’t take reservations and you have to show up at 5:30pm before they open or end up waiting over an hour in line.
  • It’s the wet and cold “season” here now in Singapore, which usually only lasts a couple of weeks, not nearly long enough to enjoy the unusual daytime temperatures of 22º–25ºC — in the past, when one had to commute to work, it could be a pain in the ass for traffic, especially in areas that were prone to flooding (or ponding, as the government prefers to call the phenomenon on account of it not being enough to wash away people or property), but now it’s just wonderful if you’re going to stay indoors and read.
  • My annual vacation plans this week were postponed into January, so I’m looking forward to staying indoors and reading a whole lot next week. I’m currently in the middle of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway and not very compelled to keep going. Maybe I’ll… walk away and find something else.
  • Just 5 days left to decide whether or not to return my AirPods Max. I notice less that they’re heavy and tight, so maybe they’ve opened up a bit or I’m just getting used to the pain. The larger soundstage and sub-bass emphasis definitely makes them more fun to listen to than the plain old AirPods Pro, and I think I’d be sad if I went back to the Sony WH1000XM4. But when I think about what I could do with the refund, and realize they cost about the same as a new iPad Air, I question how sad. That said, what I really want is the new A14X iPad Pro which won’t be out for a few months yet, so I may as well keep the headphones. Well played, Tim Apple.
  • Last week I mentioned listening to finance-related podcasts. That has now expanded to include YouTube videos and podcasts that get published as YouTube videos, so my algorithmic homepage is really a mess right now. Dogs! Game trailers! Camera reviews! Macroeconomics!
  • For a few weeks now, I’d stopped watching the news and was largely ignorant of how daily COVID numbers have been progressing elsewhere in the world. This week I started paying attention again and all the headlines still sound like they did six months ago! Highest ever numbers, new waves, new lockdowns, but everyone seems committed to pretending that economies will be fine in the end. I’m wondering when the markets will start showing it, and where concerned citizens should keep their money. Out of curiosity, I checked the latest batch of Singapore Savings Bonds today, and they’re offering an astoundingly low 0.9% average annual interest over 10 years. Two years ago, it was 2%.
  • I’ve been playing Need for Speed Hot Pursuit Remastered on the Nintendo Switch. The original game came out 10 years ago, and it was a much harder time to be alive, in that there was no rewind feature if you tackled the corner wrong, and bumping CPU-driven cars barely slowed them down, but getting bumped by them meant that you were fucked. As I drive down these subconsciously familiar tracks again and again and arrgggh again, I’m reminded that we early millennials have got the tenacity to be the greatest generation if we tried. Maybe not the reflexes anymore, nor the time to waste, but at least the dogged determination! In theory!

Week 51.20 and AirPods Max review

  • Christmas is just next week now, so there’s a little more meeting up and eating out going on than usual. Although I’m still in the habit of logging every single expense in an app, I’ve decided not to look too hard at December’s outflow this year. Come to think of it, this approach may explain some of the back-and-forth below about whether the AirPods Max are worth keeping or not. Look, you’ve been warned. Skip it if you don’t care about headphone purchases.
  • We spent the weekend at a family staycation, which was another form of meeting up and eating out. Day drinking really doesn’t work for me. Have a glass of wine at lunch and it’s headaches and drowsiness somehow, but if I start after 6pm, everything’s good.
  • It wasn’t all lazing about the hotel. We went out to the National Gallery’s new retrospective on the work of Singaporean artist Georgette Chen (1906–1993), a name I’d never heard before despite what appears to be a fair amount of exposure in recent years, according to the linked Wikipedia article. I should probably consume more local media.
  • Earlier in the week, there was some meeting up and eating out with a couple of colleagues I hadn’t seen in awhile. As I learnt from Grace, you really haven’t got a chance with any bar and restaurant in town these days unless you make reservations, so that must be great for Chope and other similar booking platforms (assuming they’ve figured out workable business models). We wanted Korean BBQ but could only secure a spot at a 3.9-star Google reviewed place. It was a 3 at best, so I think there’s a need for some kind of review correction algorithm across multiple services. For example, I noticed on Foursquare (which has a much smaller user base) that users rating things in Singapore were pretty harsh, so you actually had to add to ratings to get an indicative score of quality. Google, with many more users, probably needs correcting down instead.
  • Speaking of ratings, I said a couple of weeks ago that I was reading Ready Player Two and hoped it would at least turn out to be a 2.5-star book. Well I finally got around to finishing it, and nope. I don’t remember anything about the first book, only the experience of it, that I had fun and enjoyed some of the references because it was the first time I’d seen some of them mentioned in a long while. But it turns out that’s really what Ernest Cline wants to do: string together loads of “geeky” references and get congratulated for it. This second book reads like third-rate fan fiction and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
  • According to Goodreads, that completed my 2020 Reading Challenge. 30 books this year, which I probably haven’t done in over a decade. With any luck, I’ll be able to surpass that next year if the universe grants me lots of free time.

AirPods Max

I got my pair a week ahead of their scheduled delivery date and it’s led to a lot of pointless pondering over the past few days. They sound really good. I did a couple of head-to-head comparisons and they’re the best pair of wireless headphones in my drawer. Everything older or cheaper doesn’t put up a fight in the sound quality department. Not any of the Sonys, Boses, Beats, or B&O Beoplays. I haven’t compared them to the Nurasound headphones yet, but I actually expect those to make a case for sticking around because they feel so physically different and immersive as a listening experience.

I’d love if they could just be The One, and help me declutter, but they fall short in a couple of areas outside of sound quality. The most minor of these is their goofy look with the mesh headband and rectangular cups. I got Space Gray and I don’t think I could be happy with any of the other colors if they got grubby or scratched up.

Comfort: They’re heavy as we knew, but it’s NOT been a big problem. What’s worse is they actually have more clamping force than I’d like. Granted, I have a larger than normal head and wear glasses, but can’t imagine being forced to wear these on an international flight. I once wore a pair of Bose QC35s for almost an entire 16-hour flight, and I’d do it again because although that older model doesn’t sound the best when you’re on the ground, they’re loose enough and the ANC is effective enough to make them perfect for in-flight use. The APMs just don’t work for that use case. I would say they’re actually too tight to even wear at home for more than a couple of hours, which is really sad.

Case/Portability: Everyone has complained about the design and construction of this enough and I have to agree. Their role in triggering the low-power mode complicates usability and their cheapening effect means we’d be happier if they’d left them out of the box completely. I’d much prefer if the headphones themselves could fold up. On that point, if you’ve got both arms fully extended and the cups are folded flat, there’s a point at the bottom-inner corner of each aluminum cup where they collide against each other. So if you wear them around your neck like that, it’s possible you’ll see scratches forming at that spot.

Build quality: Many reviewers have praised the APMs for their solid build quality, but to my touch, the metal earcups on mine have not been brushed/polished properly; I can feel the transition between smooth and rough patches when I run my fingers over them. It drives me kinda crazy that this is happening on a S$900 pair of headphones, even though I already know from first-hand experience over the past 16 years that first batches of Apple products out of the factory are likely to have some defects. Insert big sigh here.

Now, the competition. There really isn’t much to speak of if you want comparable sound quality in a wireless ANC headphone. I’d previously glanced at B&O’s new Beoplay H95 but their price tag was too high for what I thought was yet another mediocre product. My first pair of Beoplays was the first-generation wired H6, which was super comfortable but neutral and not much fun for some kinds of music, and everything since has not really been great. They made the headband smaller from the H7 onwards, so those don’t fit my head as well either.

In the wake of the AirPods Max launching, the H95 is now looking like the only real competitor. The online consensus is that Bang & Olufsen have finally nailed the sound quality and industrial design issues of their past, at greater cost to the consumer than before. They cost S$1300 compared to the $700 of the previous flagship H9 (third-generation).

Compared to the APMs, the H95s look better to some, are lighter, are more comfortable and sound even better (according to the forum folks on Head-Fi), have longer battery life, and fold up inside their included non-shitty metal carrying case. Arguments against them include less effective noise-cancellation, smaller earcups that may not fit everyone, no transparency mode, and none of that simplified wireless connectivity. Oh, and the fact that the brand is kind of struggling and so finding local repair options may not be possible in the long-term. It’s hard to fight formidable Apple’s retail and support network.

If I can’t justify keeping them around for short listening sessions only, then I’ll be returning the APMs for a refund and making do with what I already have. While they really sound terrific and have ruined a bunch of other headphones for me, solid audio engineering isn’t the whole package. An overemphasis on that is what people say* held the original HomePod back, but improving Siri to compete with Alexa and Google Assistant was arguably a much bigger hurdle than giving these a more comfortable fit and designing a better case.

Edit: I wore them the whole time while writing this week’s update, and on reflection, they sound so good that I’m hoping the band loosens up a bit or something so I can keep them.

* Who am I to say, when we can’t even buy HomePods in this neglected backwater that inexplicably has a spherical glass Apple Store?

Week 50.20

  • It’s that playlisting time of the year. We started a thing at work back in 2017 where everyone picks their favorite song of the year, writes a few words about it, and then we slap together a website for it with some bonus Christmas material (that first year’s was a chatbot that controlled Santa’s operations).
  • That exercise usually then reminds/inspires me to make my own year-in-review playlist. This was last year’s effort.
  • The office playlist is now done, but we’ll need to find some free time in the next few days to put the package together. I’ll probably link it here when it’s done.
  • I spent most of Saturday afternoon working on my own playlist, and found that I’ve YET AGAIN failed to learn my lesson: not properly cataloging discoveries and favorites throughout the year makes for a difficult process at the end. I’m sure I’ve left out a ton. More on that in a separate post.
  • This week in gadgetland was notable of course for Apple’s semi-surprise announcement of the AirPods Max headphones. Did I like the look of them at first sight? Not really. Am I happy to see them embrace the original HomePod’s (commercially unpopular) approach of focusing on the high-end of mass market audio? YES! I want to see what Apple can do with headphones when they don’t have to hold back.
  • They cost S$940 here with AppleCare+, but without having heard them, it’s hard to say if that’s a problem or not. I don’t expect them to play in the same class as the Bose 700 or Sony 1000X series; more likely as a complete package they’re targeting Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay H95, which go for 800 euros (S$1300). And kinda like how buying a great PC isn’t an alternative to a Mac if you value macOS, nothing really competes with AirPods Max as a complete package for Apple customers.
  • My biggest fear is that they won’t be comfortable; the closest proxy I have is an old pair of PSB M4Us which were nearly as heavy at 360g but too tight for my large head. If AirPods Max nail the fit, I think the weight will be alright. I only plan to use them at home for close listening on the couch and maybe the work desk. For everything else, it’s like one of the ATP guys said on their latest podcast: AirPods Pro are great enough general purpose headphones for all listening needs except flights over five hours.
  • “But Brandon, if that’s true, why don’t you just cancel this extravagant pre-order and be happy with the AirPods Pro?”. Well… I suppose I have a problem? There are quite a few pairs of over-ear headphones around the house, but none of them make me happy. I used the new Sony WH1000XM4s all afternoon while putting the aforementioned playlist together, and was pretty disappointed with their default sound signature. As I said to Michael on an impromptu international call while he was doing the dishes, the hype around their sound quality is a little overstated. They sound muddled, boomy, and narrow without EQ-ing (the “Bright” preset works best, but EQs feel like a hack). I was expecting more clarity in the highs, given the DSEE Extreme upsampling technology, but on songs with a lot going on, they can feel shockingly inadequate. I guess I’m hoping AirPods Max will be my go-to default pair of great sounding headphones that do it all.
  • After writing all that, we spent the night watching music videos and a great Sigrid performance off YouTube on the TV. Audio quality did not once enter my mind.

Week 46.20

  • Time has felt a little broken this week, in that 11.11 feels like it happened long ago. In case you’re wondering, that’s Nov 11, or Singles Day, which is now an official shopping day in these parts after having been imported from China. We never really had a tradition of Black Friday sales, so this is it.
  • I bought several bottles of bourbon and yet another pair of headphones: the Sony WH1000XM4s, which, in further evidence of a fault in time’s mechanics, launched back in August at the list price of S$550 and was now purchased by yours truly for just S$385. That’s a full 30% off for a brand new product; perhaps a year ahead of when it would have normally been discounted to such levels. The Sony brand just doesn’t hold value like it used to.
  • I bought the Mark 1 model about four years ago, intrigued by its DSEE HX (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) feature which claimed to upsample compressed music and restore “near Hi-Res Audio levels of fidelity”. Great headphones, but the Mark 4 promises a more comfortable design, the best noise canceling tech on the market, and DSEE Extreme which now has AI magic dust all over it. Was it a necessary purchase? No… but I love a good bargain.
  • The PS5 also launched this week, but I have no interest in replacing my PS4 Pro just yet. Apart from sentimental value (it was a farewell gift, bearing the signatures of my former colleagues), it’s small and discreet. The PS5 is decidedly not, and seems to be launching with no extraordinary games. Looking back, all my Microsoft and Sony console purchases only happened years into the cycle. Nintendo consoles, I buy the day they come out. I can’t say why.
  • Oh yeah and Apple announced the first Macs with their own silicon this week, exceeding everyone’s expectations of what the M1 chip does for performance and battery life. It was an exciting event to watch, until I remembered that there’s no place in my life anymore for a personal Mac.
  • Doesn’t this feel like it happened ages ago? How messed up was work this week for it to feel this way?
  • In the early days of lockdown and working from home this year, I was hooked on Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I and many others joked about it being like a virtual vacation in lieu of being able to go anywhere. And I think the little controllable/knowable world, gentle soundtrack, and sense of community amongst everyone playing at the same time created to a sense of calm, routine, and positivity that got me through that period with little fatigue or stress. And then after about 200 hours or something, I put it aside and didn’t return even after the Summer and Fall and Halloween updates launched.
  • Prompted by the fact that some friends have picked it up again, I think I could use a return to my island now. Hopefully there’ll be time for that this week. In other gaming news, I’ve graduated to that next level of Call of Duty Mobile addiction: buying a “Battle Pass” for USD$4.99. It’s completely unnecessary, but gives you cosmetic upgrades and more of a reason to play in the form of a ladder of rewards to unlock. Play enough, and you’ll earn enough currency to buy the next season’s Battle Pass without any real world money. It’s a trap? I’m bored? But I also want to understand the mobile gaming economy better?
I left the house exactly once this week, to see my parents and eat this lovely Japanese beef.