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 12.22

It’s probably time to admit I’ve gone too far with collecting 0xmusic NFTs and need to stop. It’s the euphoria of coming across something additive, with an actual concept, after feeling negative about all the crap out there. Even then, there has to be limits. This week I bought a couple more and spent some time fooling around in GarageBand just making sure I don’t have any latent music production talent. Almost sure now. Will do a couple more tracks next week before I call it. Here’s an earlier noodle, based on “Syn City”.

But hey if you like the band Blonde Redhead, you might be interested to know that the 0xmusic team was inspired by them in creating the style of the “Serena” series. On the anniversary of the album Misery Is A Butterfly, they airdropped a pair of professionally mixed songs to holders, and published this article on the band and their music.


We had lunch at a place called Lad & Co. (unsure, but likely unrelated to the other chip shop called Lad & Dad) where a large haddock and chips costs S$29. I had to text Rob and ask what a comparable serving costs in the UK these days, and as it turns out… about the same, upmarket! Although you can always find some for less in grubbier places. I don’t know why I was surprised by how much it’s risen in the last few years. Long gone are my student days of getting a takeaway cod and chips for £4.

On the way back, we heard a program on the radio about inflation. On top of rising electricity costs that affect everyone, restaurant operators are getting it on several fronts from ingredient supplies to labor shortages. The head of a charity was saying that in some hawker centers a single fishball now costs 80 cents. Even the humble Gardenia brand loaf is up from $2.40 to $2.60. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the cost of eating out go up 30% over the next year. This was topped off with a worrying factoid I’d never heard before: 15–20% of Singaporeans might be suffering from food insecurity.

Right after that, I happened upon the physical front page of the national newspaper (it’s been awhile) and guess what was on it? Tips on how to survive the rising costs of living. Well, at least it wasn’t as bad as Bloomberg’s take yesterday.


Media activity:

  • Got back into Billions where we stopped in Season 5, and have now finished that, ready to go into 6. I’ve never bothered to watch past the first episode of Succession, which people say has great writing. That pilot just showed awful rich people who weren’t any fun. The Billions team definitely has fun with their reprehensible characters, always grandstanding and speaking through cute references alternately aimed at Gen X and millennial audiences.
  • Also had a bit of a true crime spree on Netflix, finishing Bad Vegan over the weekend, plus an episode of Worst Roommate Ever. If you thought The Tinder Swindler had a crazy con going, this one exceeds it. Too easy to think these people are dumb and being told what they want to hear; more unpleasant to wonder what scams you’re falling for in your own life.
  • The first three episodes of WeCrashed on Apple TV+ exceeded my expectations, which were admittedly not high because of Jared Leto’s reputation. But he kinda nails his impression of Adam Neumann and his reality distortion field, a place somewhere between charismatic and cancerous that isn’t too dissimilar from all those other true crime/con shows.
  • Kim was busy, so I finally watched a film that she would absolutely have hated: Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage. Okay, I suspected I was going to hate it as well. It wasn’t as superb as some reviews made it out to be, but I enjoyed the progressive melting down (of both film logic and Nicolas Cage) after the central tragedy, ending in a surreal otherworld that perhaps goes on too long. 3/5 stars.
  • More contrarian film reactions: I enjoyed Don’t Look Up and didn’t think it was so heavy handed as to be off putting. I’d suspect that maybe I’ve lost all taste, but I didn’t love Spider-Man No Way Home last week, so that can’t be it.
  • Finished Episode 5 of Ace Attorney Chronicles. That means I’m done with the first of the two games in the collection. Undecided if I’ll keep going right now.
  • Listening to: Charli XCX’s new album Crash.

Week 11.22

  • I met Mavis and Cong for drinks one last time at 28HKS before they went on back to Tokyo. I may have mentioned before, but they emigrated just before the pandemic began and were only now able to come back for a visit. Several times this week it occurred to me just how much time has passed since this began, and it’s a very slippery concept.
  • I’ve been playing Wordle for 60 consecutive games now, and it’s become a hard habit to quit. The day often can’t proceed until I’ve cleared it. But now I’ve found Semantle and it’s a very different sort of game; one might not even be able to finish it daily. Instead of guessing a word by spelling, you throw out words until you find one semantically similar to the secret word, and then try to close the gap. I’m still trying to figure out how best to play.
  • Spider-Man No Way Home was finally seen, and while it was “fun”, it also felt “off”. The pacing was lumpy, awkward dialogue beats were passed off as comedy too many times, and some transitions/events were just lazy and illogical. That said, it’s the rare film where the actors playing teenagers really do pass for younger.
  • Emboldened by how The Weekend Away last week surpassed our expectations of a Netflix Original movie, we decided to watch Alyssa Milano in Brazen, (also based on a trashy novel) about a writer of trashy crime novels who has to solve her sister’s murder, and it was… just straight awful.
  • 0xmusic is the only NFT project I’m interested in anymore, and I added a Serena to the collection this week. They just opened a beta that allows collectors to save MIDI files of the songs generated by their NFTs, so I tried that out. Importing the songs into GarageBand lets you swap out the default instruments and use higher quality virtual synthesizers. Pretty cool and lots of fun, despite my not having the skills to actually jam over them and make something new, but Rob took what I sent him and played some bass over it. I opened a Soundcloud account so I would have somewhere to save the experiments as I go.
  • Stromae was apparently a proper big deal in music a decade ago, but I somehow missed him completely. He’s back with his first new album in years (I think I linked a music video a few weeks ago): Multitude. I’ve been listening to this and a leaked version of Donda 2, which I’d previously sworn to ignore the existence of since it’s not being released like a normal person would release albums. So far, it’s an uneven mixtape which I would assume Kanye’s still working on.
  • (Next day addition) I’ve somehow fallen into the habit of watching Bloomberg TV over lunch and into the afternoons. This is something I would never have done before. I suspect as a side effect of following Twitter discussions of crypto markets, I’m now able to make a little sense of what they’re saying. It’s like reading a basic language handbook and then being able to pick out certain words when watching a foreign film. And obviously it’s a pretty eventful time in the world, so I’m really watching news about the war in the Ukraine, through the blurry lens of financial implications.

Week 10.22: Stayin’ home, playin’ games

Probably nothing significant happened this week, apart from losing some money doing dumb trades. People seem to think all I do during my time off is play video games and watch TV, and for once this week that was actually kinda true.

Mood!

Media activity:

  • Picked up Doom Classic on sale for the Switch, only $2.49 USD to relive one of the most impactful moments of my youth. I remember walking into the game store the week it came out and seeing people play through the first episode. It was like a glimpse into the future: dark atmospheric “3D” graphics far better than anything I’d seen, with incredible music synthesized through a Roland sound card (real sampled electric guitars!) — I couldn’t believe it. It was thrilling just to watch. When I asked how many floppies it came on, and I think the answer was two, my head exploded. Shareware? Two disks, not a CD-ROM? And it would run on my lowly 386-SX?! iD Software pulled off a moonshot that raised the bar for all games.
  • I made it through 4 of 10 episodes in Ace Attorney Chronicles. It’s probably the best (least annoying) game in the series I can recall. Mild spoilers follow. A large portion of the game covers the protagonist going to Victorian London, and there’s a fair amount of racism and xenophobia depicted. People calling you an untrustworthy Nipponese from a backwater Eastern land, and so on. What’s cool is that your party’s initial impressions upon arriving are so positive, so rose tinted about everything being wonderful and better there, that I thought I was in for an entire game of Japanese people romanticizing England to death (another trope), but then came the swift and surprising subversion. An hour later and your lawyer character starts questioning how superior the “world’s greatest legal system” really is.
  • Puzzle Quest 3 came out on mobile as a free-to-play game. I loved and played the hell out of the original on several platforms including the Nintendo DS, bugs and all. So I was ready to get sucked in again, but it’s hard to recapture that kind of charm, and the addition of in-app purchases and timers don’t help at all. I’ve leveled up my character to a point where I’m now caught between being too strong for easy missions and too weak for normal ones, and I’m not sure how to even grind upwards because the UI is inscrutable and I can’t see a way to replay previous story missions, which would help. Sad.
  • Bad television: the reunion episode of Love Is Blind USA, all but two remaining episodes of Love Island Australia, and a trash new Netflix movie starring Leighton Meester, The Weekend Away. I have to admit I really enjoyed the latter, which appears to be based on a book which is probably found on shelves next to The Girl On The Train and other improbable, twist-filled paperback murder mysteries.
  • We finished The Afterparty on Apple TV+, a comedy murder mystery not unlike Only Murders In The Building, but without the thing I liked most about that one: nosy amateur sleuths. In The Afterparty, the police are doing the detecting, and everyone’s a suspect. Worth a watch because each episode emulates a different film genre and most of it works well.
  • I also finished season 1 of Foundation on Apple TV+ and daaammnn. I started watching it way back when the new Dune came out, and it looked distinctively “TV” against the scale and aesthetic of that film. It took a few episodes before I found the core of the show for me, and that core is actor Lee Pace in the nuanced role of the tyrannical galactic emperor. You cycle through all possible feelings for him over the story arc, and making that work sure isn’t easy. There are a bunch of other things that could be improved/decheesed, but I’m down for season 2 ASAP.
  • Saw Part 2 of jeen-yus, the Kanye documentary, which made me go back to playing The College Dropout again. Undeniably great and timeless. The documentary is also a priceless artifact, because how often do you get a camera following an artist over 20 years, from before they even make it big? Can’t wait to see the third and final part covering his journey into madness and arguably even further greatness at the same time.
  • The Beatles 1 compilation album of all their #1 hits received a full Dolby Atmos remixing at the hands of Giles Martin, son of George, and you can hear what that means using spatial audio on an Apple device with Apple Music. They went back to the original four-track tapes and separated the instruments, previously flattened together into a single mono channel, so you can now hear them with a fullness that can only be described as “live”, especially with dynamic head tracking enabled on AirPods/Beats Fit Pro. So I’ve been listening to some of that, slowly.