We spent four days in Tokyo and three in Kobe. Lots of walking and aching old legs. Lots of eating and drinking with mild hangovers. Kobe has been a surprise: a delightful city that feels close to nature despite an industrial background. Friendly, warm, and helpful people. Affordable prices. It feels like a great place to buy property and partially retire in. We had our first proper Kobe beef meal and it didn’t disappoint, and dropped in on a live jazz bar that felt like a small, well cared-for living room. I recorded a couple of songs using Voice Memos on my iPhone and the quality turned out pretty great. The microphones on this thing are perhaps more impressive than the cameras (see upcoming post on Hipstamatic — the iPhone 14 Pro may not compare well enough to a proper camera but it has a place if you use it as your fun camera).
Anyway I’ll let some photos do the talking. All but two of these are from the Ricoh GR III. One of them is straight from iPhone’s 3x telephoto camera, and the other was edited with Hipstamatic. Can you tell?
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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.
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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.
This post is delayed on account of the Lunar New Year weekend; hope you had a good one if you celebrate!
After two years of restrictions and fear (not to mention peace and quiet), we returned to the old chaos with a few family gatherings and house visits. Unfortunately, one of my favorite parts of the whole thing, a large reunion dinner on the Eve with some of our most senior relatives, was still off the table on account of their mounting health issues. I wonder if we’ll ever get a chance to see everyone on that side of the family all together again.
I brought my GR III out to capture some of these moments, and fortunately Ricoh released their previously mentioned new Diary Edition model just the day before, which meant the firmware update for older models to get their new Negative film-inspired “Image Control” mode was also released. After some experimentation, I’ve settled on these settings: Saturation +1, High Key +2, Contrast +1, Shadow Exposure -1. Am looking forward to using it for more everyday snaps in 2023.
While hanging around with some relatives in the afternoon of Day 1, a few of us downloaded the Dimensional personality test app and began answering its slew of profiling questions to compare our toxic traits, love languages, and all that. It co-opts a bunch of well-known existing frameworks like the MBTI and so on into one gigantic pile of traits. Does that constitute a unique and proprietary offering? I don’t know, but it’s fun enough and free. Be warned, completing all available questions can take over an hour.
Speaking of apps, my advance pick for 2023’s game of the year launched this week on Apple Arcade: Pocket Card Jockey Ride On. It’s a remake of the Nintendo 3DS eShop exclusive now fixed up with better graphics and subtle gameplay tweaks. If you never played the original, do yourself a favor and give it a try. It’s an addictive solitaire-based game; the main downside (for me) is it’s time-based and needs some concentration and so isn’t something you can play while in a noisy environment.
My Mastodon use has fallen off a little. I actually prefer Twitter’s algorithmic timeline to a chronological one because I tend to follow too many people to keep up, and need some help sifting out the “best” content from the rest. Mastodon is beginning to give me the uncomfortable feeling of a full inbox, but perhaps I should simply follow fewer people.
The general rule around here is to avoid talking about work — although it is usually such a big cost center for my time — but we had a new colleague relocate from Shanghai, and it was nice welcoming them to town and having a couple of impromptu beers on a weekday night.
Last episode, I mentioned seeing some Tezos NFT art at Singapore Art Week. Well I came across one of the pieces for sale (entitled D-909 Groove Arcade) and decided to go through the trouble of creating a Tezos wallet and getting some funds in so I could buy it. It’s one edition out of 167, and so was only like USD$20, but I’m super happy to have it. Can art be absolutely adorable and funky at the same time? Provably yes!
I also continued generating non-existent videogame screenshots using Midjourney, expanding the fictional timeline to include modern-day remakes of old games. I should spend more time pushing this idea further but so far I’ve only done it in spare moments or when I should really be doing something else.
Everything But The Girl is back after what feels like decades, and the video for their new single is an incredible piece of choreography and one-take execution. I could only think of the immense pressure on each person not to fuck up. Dimensional seems to concur, reporting that my main motivation is Security.
We had a funeral ceremony at work to say goodbye to the brand we all joined, which has now been subsumed into a larger new corporate brand. Everyone who could physically make it turned up and we ate pizzas, drank beers, and told stories about the last five years. We didn’t exactly put the fun in funeral but it was a thoughtful and appropriately introspective end.
I brought my new and underused Ricoh GR III along to document the moment. If I’d purchased the IIIx I originally wanted instead, I’m not sure it would have worked as well. 28mm and 24mp is a pretty good setup for capturing everything and then being able to crop in to interesting parts if needed. The only thing better would have been a 48mp Leica Q2.
Why didn’t I just use my iPhone and its new 48mp sensor? Firstly, I wanted to be intentional about it, and having a dedicated tool in hand prompts you to keep looking out for pictures. So I did end up taking more photos than anyone. Secondly, the vibes are not comparable. Comparing them with colleagues’s photos, the ones from iPhones are clear, sharp, and clinical. The Ricoh alternately underexposes, blows out highlights, focuses on the wrong thing, and occasionally white balances like daylight film when you’re indoors. These “choices” and limitations are beautiful, as is the rich detail from its large APS-C sensor; no neural network is filling in the blanks here. iPhones document things the way they happened; dumber cameras still somehow capture the way we’ll actually remember them. Or I’m just old and like things to look old too.
As I type this, we are watching Apple Music’s “live” stream of Billie Eilish performing at the O2 Arena. It’s been billed on the Browse page as a live performance (not inaccurate), but since it starts at 10am SGT (3am in the UK), this was clearly not going to be live in real time. So it turns out this is a pre-recorded concert film from the end of her tour, just now making its premiere on the service. It’s a good one though!
I mentioned before that we’ve been thinking of getting a cat. I also posted a photo of a ragdoll that a friend owns, whose home we’d visited as a sort of allergy test. I never really knew about cat breeds before this, but ragdolls seem lovely and are reportedly as chill and affectionate as they come. Things are escalating quickly: we submitted an inquiry to a breeder about the possibility of adopting one of their “retiring” adults, and this week had a call with them about the details.
But they don’t have any suitable retirees at the moment, only a kitten with a congenital physical anomaly — still in good health for the moment — which may develop into a problem requiring more care later in life. As people with no recent cat-owning experience, it’s not a decision we can make lightly.
My new iPhone 14 Pro arrived. This year’s Space Black is definitely the darkest shade of gray they’ve done in years. Fitting, because while Apple’s been calling their camera systems “pro” quality since the iPhone 11 Pro, it’s only with the ability to capture 48mp RAW files now that the label may finally be justified, and everyone knows a “pro” camera should be black and draw little attention to itself. Just look at Leica’s stealthy “-P” models without their red logo. So the 14 Pro looks the part, at least it did until I slapped a bright Succulent green case on it.
I took it out to a concert the same day it arrived — after a few snafus during set up and migration; probably related to the bugs already addressed in iOS 16.01. Low light performance seems improved as promised, and if it’s dark enough to call for Night Mode, those shots are taken more quickly than they were before. However, I’ve noticed some gritty artifacts when using the 3x lens in low light, possibly due to moving objects across several frames being merged. Ideally these would look like motion blur, but they have gross sharp outlines and very digital-looking noise. This is new, and I hope it’s an issue that will be fixed in software.
48mp ProRAW files are not snappy to edit, and VSCO doesn’t seem to like them at all. Load any RAW file in the app and all the filters come out looking wrong. I’ve been bouncing between RAW Power, Darkroom, and Pixelmator Photo, unable to decide which makes processing files least painful. But should one shoot in 48mp at all? The post-shot cropping latitude you get is fantastic, but at up to 90MB a file, I’ll probably use it sparingly, on occasions where it’s better to just grab a quick shot and make decisions later. But for everyday use, I’ve set mine up to save 12mp ProRAW files, and will simply try to get the composition right from the start with the new 2x “zoom” mode if needed (essentially an in-camera 12mp crop into the 48mp image).
Tyler Stalman and SuperSaf have good reviews of the cameras’ performance on their YouTube channels. I’m slightly annoyed by Stalman’s discovery that RAW files have a much more natural look than Apple’s default processing for JPEG/HEIF files. The amount of sharpening and clarity and HDR effect has been turned up with each passing year, and where iPhones were once known for taking true to life photos, they’re more social media-ready and Samsung-y today. And consequently these photos are not the neutral starting points for post-processing that they once were. On hindsight, it was inevitable. A lot of casual editing today is hitting an Auto-Enhance button or loading up an AI filter in Prequel, Meitu, or some app I haven’t heard of yet. Sitting down to process photos is now a “pro” thing, and pros presumably want to shoot and edit in RAW while they’re at it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
All in all, a nice upgrade to still photos this year. You get more separation and background blur in regular shots on the main camera because of the larger sensor. The new image processing engine also takes advantage of said larger sensor and gives impressive sharpness and detail when shooting in some specific instances. And the return of a 48mm 2x mode is very welcome, but then you don’t get the benefits of pixel binning in that mode so it’s a little worse for low light environments.
A final word on cameras: the bump must not be allowed to grow any larger. As customers, we need to hold this line. It’s simply too much.
The Dynamic Island is very cool, but not something you really need to think about too often. Buyers expecting a fun new toy they can tap and fidget with a hundred times a day will be disappointed. For me, the notch was a non-issue; it just faded from notice in normal use. The Island is similarly invisible to me until it springs into use for some multitasking. At present, it’s only shown up when I was listening to music or doing some navigation in Apple Maps. The latter is especially nice (as a passenger), I can be texting with someone but still keep an eye on the next instruction, e.g. it shows an arrow saying to turn right in 2km. It’s an improvement that you get used to very quickly, and the animations are nowhere as distracting as critics wanted to believe. After a couple of days, it reveals itself to be the best kind of improvement: one you can simply take for granted while it quietly improves your life in the background.
The third and final major feature in this year’s iPhone is its always-on display. No, the new A16 chip doesn’t make the Top 3 for me. The A15 in last year’s iPhone 13 Pro was still zippy as hell, and the improvements here are somewhat minor. It’s testament to the A15’s power that Apple can reuse it for this year’s basic iPhone 14 and most people are just like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The always-on display gave me battery anxiety. I’d turned on the new/old battery percentage indicator in iOS 16’s Settings and was convinced that my available power was dropping faster than usual for a new phone. But hiding the percentage was probably one of the best unpopular things that Apple did with the introduction of the iPhone X. Nobody needs to see that number drop. I turned it off and stopped worrying for the time being. If you want to give it a break, just turn your phone face down on your desk (this doesn’t work on glass tables, FYI).
It’s certainly nice, but nowhere as necessary as an always-on display on a watch, because seeing the time and other info without overtly turning your wrist towards you is a real use case. Being able to glance over and see a weather update or the price of bitcoin without tapping my phone’s screen is alright. But maybe not 10% less battery life alright? I need my phone’s battery for playing games and calling cabs and other things my watch doesn’t have to worry about. Time will tell if it’s a keeper or a feature we all turn off and forget about.
I also replaced my Series 4 watch with a new Series 8, but apart from the always-on display and non-degraded battery life, there’s not a lot here to write home about for someone who isn’t into the athletic life. It’s just the most refined and capable version of a four-year-old design, and I expect it to last me for quite awhile. The Apple Watch Ultra is simply not for me, and it would take a radical redesign of the regular watch line to make the Series 8 feel obsolete (note: foreshadowing).
My last one was an Hermés model, and I’m really missing their classic analog watchface with the Cape Cod typeface (see below). There is simply nothing in the standard Apple Watch catalog of watchfaces that compares. If you want an elegant, full-screen analog face with attractive Arabic numerals and maybe just a date display, you’re shit out of luck.
One interesting thing that’s new this year, but is actually available to all Apple Watches from Series 4 and up, is advanced sleep stage tracking in watchOS 9. I’ve been using the Autosleep app to do the same thing for the last couple of years, but it’s always been a bit of a faith/novelty thing: there was just no way of knowing how accurate it really was.
One “local” artist I came away from Friday night’s showcase concert quite impressed with was Dru Chen, who played a couple of songs featuring some funky guitar work and a lovely musicality reminiscent of His Purpleness. I have nothing against people inspired by Prince. Everyone should be. Dru’s debut album is on Apple Music, so I’ll be listening to it some over the next week.
But for live music, it probably doesn’t get any better than this newly remastered 1985 show by Prince and The Revolution playing in Syracuse, now available in goddamn Dolby Atmos spatial audio. What an absolute treat to be transported right into the audience for this. I’ve only heard a few moments so far. It really calls for a fully charged pair of AirPods Max and a clear afternoon.