Week 17.22

A quiet few days, in which I was mostly left to my own devices (namely iPhone, MacBook Air, Nintendo Switch) on account of a traveling wife. Owing to her absence and one particular event to be celebrated, I had a massive number of calories in the form of curry rice, duck ramen, pasta, pizza, Indian takeout, cocktails, and then more cocktails.

It’s all media activity this week:

1. Apps

If you edit photos on your iPhone or iPad at all, you’ll know the Darkroom app. I think I even wrote some primitive thoughts on it way back when it first came out. Let me see… here we go, from seven years ago (ugh). They moved to a subscription model awhile back, as all good apps are fated to, but I’ve been grandfathered into a legacy license all this time on account of old in-app purchases.

Their latest major update is the first with features that require having a subscription, namely a set of very handy AI-powered masks. I mean the kind that automatically selects segments of the image, not animated face filters or anything like that. To be fair, other apps like Polarr have already had this, and Snapseed has always had a method for making very intuitive selective adjustments via touch gestures. But Darkroom has them now, and they are implemented logically and quite well. So with a few taps, you can select the background in a photo to darken it and allow subjects to stand out, or cast light on faces in shadow, and so on.

I played around with it and was quite happy to subscribe, because I don’t actually want to use Polarr (cumbersome UI, too many features I don’t use, no P3 color space support) or Snapseed (just about completely abandoned by Google, surprise!) as my main photo editors. Darkroom, VSCO, and Pixelmator Photo are now all I need when iOS’s built-in tools aren’t enough.

2. Games

I went back to play Disco Elysium and was shocked to see my last save game dated back in mid-January; where did the time go? Fortunately, it was easy to get back into, and I eventually finished my (first) playthrough the next day — a total of about 25 hours. My thoughts from before still stand: it’s a magnificent achievement in writing, voice acting, ludonarrative design, whatever. Good jokes. A great cast of characters. If Baldur’s Gate was a noir-inspired political-philosophical tragicomedy.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has also been hard to put down. I think I’ve got a handle on what’s really going on in its bizarre Greatest Tropes of SF story, but since I’m only halfway through, there are probably a few more twists ahead. Beautiful art direction, like raster art from a world where 64-bit consoles never made the move to 3D.

3. Films

Saw The Batman in a single sitting. Like most citizens of Earth, I’m mostly tired of this franchise but I found the first third or so quite enthralling because Robert Pattinson’s brooding emo version is like an odd mashup of Robin/Nightwing and Batman. The vulnerability and inexperience he portrays does do something different. As an attempt to cast the Batman into a realistic world like our own, it surpasses all of Nolan’s soulless movies, because here you truly observe the weirdness of a man in a rubber suit moving through the city, talking to cops, fighting in nightclubs — he’s just a cosplayer with a death wish. When a cop spits the word “freak” at him, it makes more sense than ever before.

Unfortunately, the second half of the film lets itself down, and by the time you get to the scene where Bruce uses a spray can to draw a giant but very basic mind-map on the floor of his own apartment, something a child could have done mentally, it’s too late. It ends unintentionally funny and a bit cringey.

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We also saw Everything Everywhere All At Once and I don’t have much to say except it’s possibly perfect. When I went to log it in Letterboxd, I couldn’t do any less than 5 stars. And this is coming from someone who’s not really a fan of Michelle Yeoh’s recent work either. But she’s perfect, as is the whole cast, every frame, all of it. It’s more film than should fit under a single banner. It’s also an unexpectedly sincere and authentic expression of how family works for much of the modern Chinese diaspora. It’s worth supporting with your depreciating dollars.

Week 16.22

Had a couple more opportunities to use Superlocal this week. I’m not sure it’ll stick as a habit because 1) it takes awhile to check in, because photos are mandatory, and 2) I only have one friend on at the moment; two others can’t get past the invite gate because of a bug that will only be fixed in the next update. The problem with network effects or lack thereof here is the team has (rightfully) designed an app where the noxious crypto stuff is optional, which also means no real revenue until it takes off, and by extension most users aren’t incentivized with imaginary money. So now they have to rush to build all the useful features that Swarm already has, like telling you how many coffee shops you’ve checked in to, or the last time you were here. Without which there’s little to drive user growth, and nobody wants to use a social network with no friends.

One time I met Peishan and we had vegetarian food and I really wanted the ability to rate the place (poor!) rather than just check in. Someone in the Superlocal Discord asked if they’re building a recommendations database or a general social network, and it’s a really good question. Swarm still works great for my needs despite being covered in cobwebs, though they could use some competition.

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My wife has a lot of work travel ahead this summer, which is disconcerting but it looks like we’ve collectively decided the situation out there is fine. Many people in Singapore are back to working in offices at least some days a week, and a good proportion of friends have holidays planned. Me, I’ll be staying home in my hermetically sealed pretend submarine while she’s out on the first leg next week. I’ve got snacks, bread in the freezer, and an armful of video games to get through before the end of my sabbatical.

When staying up late at night in solitude, I’ve found it quite cozy to put global webcams from YouTube up on the projector. There was a tweet yesterday being derided up and down the internet where someone claimed Japan has no homeless people, drunks, giant rats, or litter. Later at 2am, I had a feed of Kabukicho up and saw a messy group stumbling into an all-night diner with a giant rat bounding down the street behind them. Perfection.

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Media activity:

  • Turning Red is a rather good Pixar film that dares to tread new ground (Toronto, and periods), and has so many great sight gag ideas. It feels like a story they had fun telling, and really wanted to tell, although I could have done without the overused meek Chinese dad archetype, true as it may be.
  • We also saw Drive My Car and WeCrashed, which are fun to mention in the same sentence. The former is a three-hour long film that uses the first 45 minutes as set up, and then the credits start showing. I loved the audacity. There’s a strange flatness to one character’s performance that was probably intentional or perhaps speaks to some nuance of Japanese culture, in any case that broke the spell for me. Overall, a solid four stars. For the latter, I don’t think Jared Leto will ever have a better-suited role, so he should just retire now please. Anne Hathaway is brilliant as always.
  • I’ve put Great Ace Attorney Chronicles aside for now; just couldn’t handle the wall of unfunny text anymore. Started 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim now that it’s out on the Nintendo Switch. It’s… actually breathtaking. Loads of text to read here as well, but you hardly think about it because every movement and interaction is animated with a staggering amount of hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. I’ve never seen 2D characters in a game move with this much variety and complexity. The story is also building up to be a bonkers SF mashup that probably includes time travel, multiverses, memory downloads, giant mechs, kids being manipulated to pilot giant mechs, aliens, and whatever else you care to imagine.
  • A few weeks ago, I saw someone mention Spiritfarer on Twitter, calling it a very cozy game you can play on the Switch to relax, but also ugly cry sometimes because it goes to some deep places (you’re ferrying souls to the afterlife). I looked up reviews and decided it was a definite buy, but waited for a sale. That moment is now, my friends: it’s half-priced at $15 on the eShop for Easter.
  • Checked out loads of new music and recommendations this week. Kae Tempest’s The Line Is A Curve is a brilliant sort of spoken word/hip-hop. Banks released Serpentina which sort of describes its own sound, although Electro-Serpentina would have been better. Omar Apollo released Ivory, which is more produced and poppy that his last EP, Apolonio, which I still have to say I prefer. I discovered the work of Dijon through someone on the internet, and oh man, you must listen to Absolutely. Syd’s new album Broken Hearts Club is also pretty cool, but I’ll need to give it another go. And finally, LIA LIA is a German-Chinese artist from Berlin who’s just released a single, City Of Tears. I think it makes a good test track for a sound system’s sub-bass response.

Week 15.22: Location apps

I’ve been a user of Foursquare, and then Swarm, for many years. Since November 2009, says my profile page. I know that I’m giving an advertising company too much information about my location, movements, and preferences. But there’s definitely a value exchange here. Without this “lifelog”, I couldn’t remember everywhere I’ve been, or the last time I was at such and such a place. And there have been occasions where I was able to, quite magically, summon the name of a great restaurant in another city and immediately see how it’s been doing since, so that I could recommend it to a friend.

I’ve been a fan of location-based apps and social networks since maybe 2006 or 2007, when I got my first Nokia that qualified as a smartphone. I especially recall an app named Brightkite that existed briefly. It allowed for serendipitous moments like going to a foreign country and seeing tips and reflections left around the city (maybe in your hotel!) by a friend who’d come the same way years before. Swarm still allows for this experience today, and it evokes a kind of love.

One day, Brightkite malfunctioned and read my GPS location as being in Tokyo, just for a moment. I think it allowed me to see people and their check-ins in the mistakenly assumed area, and so I interacted with some of them… giving them stars or a follow or whatever. One such stranger became part of my permanent friends’ list, and when I migrated to Foursquare, she ended up on my list there too. It’s now over a decade later, and we are still weirdly and peripherally aware of each other’s lives, on Swarm and Instagram, without ever having spoken. It’s a distanced closeness that could only happen with the internet. Once, when I happened to be visiting Tokyo on holiday, we were both checked in around the Ginza area at the same time. We may have crossed paths; I’ll never know.

Screenshot of the Superlocal app, taken off their website

This week, an app called Superlocal came to my attention via a crypto/web3 newsletter called Milk Road that’s worth subscribing to, if that’s your thing. Suoerlocal seems like an attempt to remake Swarm with a new revenue model. Like many web3 ventures, instead of selling your data to advertisers, it tries to support itself by being intrinsically financial: checking in and providing quality photos earns you tokens called LOCAL (which may someday have value), and being the mayor of a place doesn’t only earn you derision/respect, but also some LOCAL whenever people check in. How does money enter the ecosystem? Becoming the mayor of a place means minting an NFT for it. It’s currently in an early access phase, which also requires an NFT (or invite from a friend) to gain entry.

I have mixed feelings about all this, as I do with NFTs and web3 in general. We should definitely explore new business models and build services that don’t rely on users making a privacy compromise. If a small group of super engaged users can fund the experience on behalf of everyone, and be happy doing it, all the better. But at least in this iteration, we’re just trading one problem for another. For instance, holding a bunch of mayorship NFTs in your Ethereum wallet doxxes your location and behaviors too, and probably in a worse way because they’re public for anyone (instead of just Foursquare Inc. and a couple hundred of their favorite clients) to see. This stems from the poor privacy design of Ethereum, of course, but it’s now the biggest smart contract blockchain so what are gonna do? There are still so many things that need to be done differently for this technology to scale and be safe and easy enough for everyone to use. That means I don’t believe Superlocal is going to become ubiquitous any time soon, but hopefully we’ll all learn what and what not to do as they keep building.

Until then, I’ll still be checking in on Swarm.

PS: I’ve been told about the virtues of using Google Maps’ Timeline, which also lets you keep a log of your movements each day, but without the social and gamey elements. I tried it briefly, but it was less fun, and I’ve been quite successful so far in cutting all the Google out of my life. Yes, I’m aware my rules seem arbitrary and illogical.


Media activity:

  • Finally finished the book How To Do Nothing after about two months, which isn’t the positive review it appears to be. I found it such a joyless and obtuse slog that I fought myself every time I thought to pick it up and finish it. And because I have a dumb rule about not reading two books at the same time, that blockage has fucked up my Goodreads annual challenge for the year. A lot of catching up to do and I don’t think I will.
  • Started a new book anyway, Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief, which is billed as Oceans Eleven meets The Farewell.
  • Watched Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile. Dreadful. He’s done some work in the past that I truly loved, but this has little to recommend it. The art direction is slipshod, with CGI background compositing that looks straight out of the CD-ROM FMV games era, and the radioactive Armie Hammer is in one of the lead roles. Branagh’s Poirot is also mysteriously unlikable and inconsistent, with a couple of rude and temperamental outbursts that feel like if Superman suddenly gave someone on the street a middle finger.
  • Severance on Apple TV+ is not dreadful. Mild spoilers follow. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed, and the first episode takes awhile to get going, but it’s really excellent. This despite veering a little close to corny with some scenes on the “severed floor”. The sinister, faux 70s megacorp with forced cheerfulness felt copped from the environmental storytelling of games like Portal, Fallout, and Bioshock, and maybe the Dharma Initiative out of Lost.
  • Now out on Apple Arcade is Gear.Club Stradale which was teased during their last online event, and I’m very much enjoying it with my Backbone One gamepad. The original Gear.Club was an okay free-to-play racer on iOS which was later released on the Nintendo Switch as a premium game (no in-app purchases). It also got a sequel on consoles, but I don’t know how that went. This new iteration is streamlined: it’s all set in Italy, and the UI lets you move quickly around the workshop and upgrade your cars without having to fiddle around in too many submenus. Instead of the usual giant catalog with tons of cars to swipe through, a small selection of up to three cars for sale, refreshed daily. This is a superior design for a game intended to be played in short bursts over a period of time. Ping me if you want to join my crew!

Week 1.22

It’s another year, and the start of a new series of weekly notes to myself and anyone who might be eavesdropping. I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions, but maybe I should change up how I do these. They could stand to drop some words or look a little sharper.

I sometimes end the year with a post about the music I enjoyed and a playlist of my favorite songs released over the year, as an indirect means of reflecting on what happened. I didn’t do that in 2021, because… well, despite having had a few months of rest, I just didn’t have the energy to do a good job of it.

Scrolling back in my Apple Music history, however, I made a mental selection of albums I remember enjoying enough to say I enjoyed them, and here they are in no particular order apart from the top spot. Any playlist I made would have involved one song from each of these anyway.

The Best (tied)

The Rest

Reissues


It was the week after Christmas… woof. A lot more eating amidst the tiredness that tends to follow so much social interaction. I spent my downtime trying to draw a little bit, which I wrote about in this post a couple of days ago.

I also slayed the dragon called the Goodreads Annual Reading Challenge, with a paltry-by-some-standards-but-still-alright-if-you-ask-me 24 books read. Like most challenges, it’s unfortunately turned into a stupid online performance metric that doesn’t reflect any actual value, with some people I see setting goals that go into the triple digits. Outside of a literature degree program, it seems a little much. I’ve set my 2022 goal to 24 books again, because I plan to get on some novels that are about as thick as three regular ones, so a simple count doesn’t really serve to quantify the effort or resultant thoughtfulness, if any.

Nintendo sent out their version of Spotify’s Unwrapped awhile back, and I was shocked to see my total gaming hours on the Switch quite low at only 71 hours. It was over 200 hours in 2020, mostly due to Animal Crossing New Horizons. To try and remedy that, I’ve bought a bunch of new games on sale but haven’t gotten around to any of them yet. Instead, I’ve been grinding NEO: The World Ends With You, which has been mentioned before as the sequel to a Nintendo DS game I loved.

Disco Elysium came by way of a tweet that recommended it. Pretty sure I glanced at it before but decided it wasn’t my thing. Couldn’t have been more wrong, going by the very strong first four hours I’ve experienced. I suppose it’s an RPG game like classic Fallout was, but your vault survivor is an alcoholic noir detective and there’s no combat at all. I picked it up for my Mac in the Steam sale; reviews of the Switch version warn of very long loading times.


Some friends brought their kids over and I helped take photographs. Pixelmator recently released a free update that adds iPhone support to their previously iPad-only Pixelmator Photo editor, in addition to some new tools. I wanted to see how it would do with the DNGs out of my CL.

After some experimenting, I am sad to report that their ML-powered Auto Enhance corrections tend toward overexposure, and when paired with the built-in presets, the results are almost always garishly colored with too much contrast. You always have to adjust the intensity of the recommended changes and disable auto white balance altogether, and after all that it just didn’t work for me with the portraits. I finally crawled back into the arms of Lightroom whose Auto mode is at least designed to recover details and provide a neutral starting point for edits.

I have to say though, for iPhone photos (HEIF/JPEG), Pixelmator Photo is not half bad, provided you tone things down as mentioned. Here’s an example I took on a walk earlier today. I’ll keep trying to use it because I like some of the UI changes they’ve made, but tbh if Darkroom ever adds a good Auto mode, it’d be my go-to editor for life.

Week 52.21

  • Merry Christmas to any readers! I had a good one with lots of eating, lots to be thankful for, and everyone fortunately safe and healthy. The Instax mini Evo camera I got as a present to myself proved useful on Christmas Day at dinner with my family. Although the quality is poor in low light, I got to leave behind little prints for the fridge door, and gave souvenirs to my aunt and uncle too. There was a sleepover, day drinking, and a kid stood on my shoes because she wanted to be walked on top of them. In all, I count about five events over the weekend. Pooped.
  • For other photo-worthy moments, I got a lot out of FiLMiC Firstlight, a camera app that I hadn’t touched in a couple of years and recently rediscovered. It has a lovely, warm, film-inspired filter called Leopold (based on Kodachrome, I think), and behaves unlike the HDR-happy iPhone camera of today. Images come out with heaps of contrast and deep blacks, and generally don’t need any correcting in post. On reflection, I should just set my iPhone Camera.app to use a “Rich/Warm” photographic style.
  • The Misery Men NFT collection is now up to #78, which was a Sad Santa. I held a giveaway and got 12 takers, so it was minted as a — I don’t know the right word for this — series of 12 editions? 12 prints? Anyway they were sent out on Christmas Day, and hopefully everyone who isn’t a bot is happy with them. I’m taking a break from the daily drops and will resume in the new year. There are already a few finished ones in the can, and some of them are pretty good by my standards.
Misery Man #78: Shackled to the wheels of capitalism for all eternity.
  • It was also the week of The Matrix Resurrections, which we saw in a regular Golden Village cinema after a gut-busting visit to Five Guys (my first one in this country). Dim screen, muffled audio, noisy patrons… it reminded me of why I no longer like going to theaters (Gold Class screenings are the exception, fixing all the above). Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film despite having many of my expectations subverted. I’ll need to see it again properly, but I expect to still agree with my initial assignment of 4.5 stars. Side note: Cien and Peishan saw it the same evening in the same cineplex and hated it.
  • Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was also much enjoyed. It’s an insane directorial flex; every shot and sequence is beautiful and meticulously composed, existing just to indulge a particular sense of humor and beauty. Both films shine with the joy and energy of creators who have nothing left to prove, but where one is happy to keep iterating on a style even at the risk of self parody, the other reclaims its own fandom and fabric for self satisfaction. And I’m here for it, as the young ones say.
  • Once again, nearly no video games were played, but I picked up Steamworld Heist and Saints Row IV on sale for my Switch. The latter is probably a decade old now, but was irresistible at $2.79 USD, down 93% from its standard price.
  • Instead, I got more reading done and am closer to my Goodreads Reading Challenge target. Finished Iron Widow (3.5 stars at best) and The Power (a solid 4), both mentioned last week. It looks like I might make it, if I can finish The End of Men next week. Quick recap: all three books deal with the decline, displacement, and/or death (literally) of men due to overwhelming Qi force, mutant powers, and a gender-specific virus respectively. I’m also here for this as men probably have it coming.
  • One last thing. A year ago, I got a Backbone One controller for my iPhone and loved it. It made for a more console-like experience with many games, and it was more comfortable to use and more capable than a Nintendo Switch. So why did I buy another Switch this year? Let’s not answer that directly, but it may be no coincidence that I’ve been unable to use my Backbone since moving to the new iPhone: the larger camera bump isn’t compatible. The company then designed a simple adapter and provided the plans for 3D printing one on your own. Never having gotten around to convincing myself of a 3D printer’s utility in the home, I had to place an order for one of their officially manufactured ones, and have been waiting on it since September. It finally arrived this week and I’m happy. But if supply chain problems are gonna continue next year, perhaps getting a 3D printer isn’t such a bad idea!

Week 51.21

  • The Christmas dinners have begun, with a large potlucky one yesterday at ours that was vegetarian but not at all lacking. Impossible!, you cry. Yes, we did have their meatballs. And already this afternoon we’ve eaten too much and had a gift of some sugary pastries arrive unexpectedly. This all follows swiftly after a five-course dinner on Friday night, the last in a trilogy of pandemic-struck celebrations for my sister-in-law’s no-longer-news wedding. I expect I still weigh the same regardless, having lost a significant amount of moisture to wearing a suit for photos in the middle of the day. I wonder if that’s what the stillsuits in Dune feel like: being rolled up in one of those hot towels they give you on Singapore Airlines flights.
  • After dinner, we played a new party game I discovered on the Apple TV (also available on Xbox and PlayStation). Jeopardy! PlayShow is a premium title, not to be confused with the various ad-ridden free mobile games released over the years, with insultingly easy multiple-choice questions. No, this is the real thing for everyone who’s ever watched a game show and answered aloud alongside the contestants. It’s that exact experience: streaming video of real Jeopardy! episodes, except you can buzz in and answer (using your voice!), and see how you stack up against the champs. S$14.98 gets you the base game with 10 episodes, and each additional pack is another S$14.98. Oof! Buyer beware… the game’s servers stalled halfway through our play test, so we had to move on to SongPop Party (Apple Arcade). Epilogue: I gave Jeopardy! another go the next morning and it worked fine.
  • I finished The Space Between Worlds which I was reading last week (five stars), and have moved on to Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow, a bonkers story about giant mechs fighting alien invaders, piloted by couples in a mind meld that usually kills the woman (twist: not this time!), set in a world/society inspired by Chinese history. It starts a little rough, but once you get into her style and some jarring cultural references, it goes hard.
  • The Goodreads Reading Challenge hangs around my neck like a large bird. Even after Iron Widow, I’ll be two books short of my modest 24-book target in a year where I really have little excuse. It seems unlikely I’ll be able to do it with just 11 days to go. Nevertheless, I plan to follow this up with Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men and Naomi Alderman’s The Power, to construct a sort of male-murdering fantasy trilogy.
  • Last week’s viewing of Babylon was anime disappointment, but I’m now watching a series on Netflix called Vivi: Fluorite Eye’s Song that more than makes up for it. It’s an unsung (sorry) masterpiece about a robot singer who receives a message from the future, and follows her on a 100-year quest to change the course of history and prevent a war between humans and AIs. It works because the art is beautiful with few compromises, the writing is sharp, and it isn’t afraid to skip large chunks of time abruptly to keep things moving.
  • Speaking of time, you don’t believe you could watch a 1-hour and 20-minute-long video on how Garfield has been transformed by internet fans, but give yourself some credit. Michael, my main inspiration for these weekly updates, often posts about the video essays he discovers, which is something I never thought would be for me, but welps the YouTube algorithm has a new thing for me now. We’ve all seen that Garfield minus Garfield project on Tumblr, but trust me, this goes way beyond that. You won’t believe the depth and quality of fan art and lore that’s out there.
  • I’ll leave you with an update on the Misery Men project. There are now 73 “artworks” published on OpenSea, and every so often I look at one of them and think the quotation marks could soon be dropped. Like, it’s not impossible to imagine a couple of them blown up and framed in a home somewhere. Maybe not a very nice home, it might be a caravan, but I think there’s something here.
  • If you chat with friends on Telegram and want to send them a sticker expressing a specific sort of sadness or disappointment, you may now add my Misery Men sticker pack for absolutely free. I’ll be updating it with the latest ones periodically.
What was on my plate last night. Photo taken with the newly updated FiLMiC Firstlight camera app on iOS, which has some lovely film-inspired filters.
Misery Man #72
Misery Man #73: one of my personal favorites.