Week 19.22

This was the first week in probably the entire time I’ve been doing these weekly updates (maybe a year and a half) where Monday came and I forgot to sit down and start drafting.

My sabbatical from work is coming to an end, and it’s quite likely that it’ll be hard to continue doing this in its current form once I have meetings to attend and less head space for frivolous introspection and mental health protection — what a concept! Ha ha! I will probably gather bullet points over the course of the week instead, or just write less, which may be a blessing anyway.

The wife-away season of 2022 has begun, as I said on my Instagram stories, but it’s too soon to say if I won’t die of malnutrition, lack of attention, insect infestation, sudden tumbles down the stairs, strokes, or other incidents — with no one to realize my demise until a week later, when one of these blog updates fails to materialize (and now I’ve gone ahead and pre-empted that they may be late; what a genius I am).

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What have I been doing? I started playing Spiritfarer on the Switch. It’s beautiful, it’s chill, I think it will break my heart eventually.

I met up with my closest cousin after probably four years without a proper conversation. Some of the blame must be shouldered by the times we live in, but some of it is mine as usual.

I went to an NFT meetup the other day on Howard’s invitation. It wasn’t nearly as awkward as I expected. I met a couple of good people who were clearly experts in their fields; the time investment and esoteric ecosystem knowledge just radiated from them. I also met some explorers like myself, who know enough from dabbling but are still bewildered by glimpses of the outer lands. Perhaps we don’t need to go there at all. But good to know there are guides.

I’ve been talking to the team behind a project I find fascinating and artistically sound. We might do something together. It feels right and effortless to be involved in something like this on my own time. Perhaps that’s how getting back to work will work out.

Sigrid has a new album out this week. I need to find the time to hear it.

I finished reading A Gentleman In Moscow, and found out that the television adaptation is being made for Apple TV+. That’s restored my faith in the project, because I know they won’t shortchange it. It’s funny how ATV launched with the promise of quality over quantity, and how we felt that wasn’t a real positioning. Fast forward to 2022 and the imminent collapse of Netflix subscriber numbers thanks to a perceivable decline in content quality, and Apple’s seal of assurance is suddenly valuable. Some of the best series I’ve seen this year have been on their service: WeCrashed, Slow Horses, Severance. Anyway, fantastic book, not schmaltzy and populist at all. 4.5 stars, I’d say.

See you all next week.

Week 18.22

  • The high point of the week was probably a celebratory meal at a fancy sushi place on Monday, an appointment that had to be booked two months in advance. I’d like to say the iPhone’s camera performed well on this occasion, but it did not. Specifically, when using the 3x telephoto in low light conditions and the phone decides to shoot with the wide lens and crop in instead, which happened every time I thought I was using the 3x lens. You might not notice it on screen at the time, but these are usually unusable when looking at them later. I still maintain 2x on previous iPhones was a more useful focal length, and when it did happen, a 2x digital zoom is nowhere as bad as a 3x one. So this makes third-party camera apps like Halide an unfortunate requirement rather than a nice-to-have affectation for “pros”.
  • Finished reading Grace D. Li’s Portrait Of A Thief which I’d happily give 4 stars for the overall experience: a fun heist caper sprinkled with Chinese-American YA identity crises and politics. The entire cast is Asian; there’s not even a token white friend or anyone else of color that I can remember. That, along with the mechanics of the sophisticated art thievery by confessed amateurs, seems unreal? But perhaps it does feel that way sometimes being Chinese in America, I dunno. There’s apparently a Netflix series being developed around this, if it wasn’t canceled in the last few weeks along with so many other projects, and I’d love to see it at the very least match the production quality of One Of Us Is Lying, but of course To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before levels are welcome.
  • Am now on A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles, an author I know nothing about, but the book came highly recommended at some point I no longer remember. Was afraid it would be the Paulo Coelho sort of 5-star book, but so far it’s very enjoyable. Looking it up on Wikipedia, it seems there is also a TV adaptation being developed, to star Kenneth Branagh. I can see this role being completely appropriate if he can resist hamming it up.
  • While reading in bed late at night, it’s become a habit to put up webcams on the projector. And my absolute favorite now is this street-level livecam in Shinjuku that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. It has ambient sounds unlike most cams, so it’s great for having on in the background like a window to another place. I feel like I know this area intimately now, the way people leave bars around 11pm to get the last trains, how the touts stand in the middle of the lane to pull people into their establishments, and (especially) the movements of the rats outside the ramen shop. It’s a Night Trap-like delight whenever I look up and catch a rat scurrying out at the exact time a woman walks by, triggering a scream.
  • I also saw an altercation on camera one time, but partially obscured by a passing vehicle so I’ll never know how exactly it started. A man seemed to bump into a nerdy looking guy on a bike, but whether he started it or not, the nerd eventually became the aggressor and shoved the guy to the ground with such force he rolled over backwards. It was raining and he practically landed in a puddle. Then the nerd stood over him and menacingly grabbed his collar and said a few words before going off and cycling away. The victim just sheepishly got up and straightened his jacket, picked his phone off the ground where it landed a few feet away, and walked off. Plenty of people nearby, nobody intervened or wanted to stare.
  • Vanillaware pulled off a pretty ambitious story with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. My playthrough clocked in about 24 hours, but I just missed 100% completion because of some bonus objectives that weren’t met. I don’t want to think about it too much more, but perhaps there was just one too many twists for the story’s good. If anything needs a multimillion-dollar TV adaptation, this absurd mashup of The Matrix, Cloud Atlas, The Fountain, Pacific Rim, Evangelion, The Island, Battlestar Galactica, The Terminator, and maybe a dozen more SF classics, is begging for it.

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 13.22

  • It’s a new pandemic record for me, leaving the house six times this week. Also the government announced further relaxations on the way. As of March 29, masks will no longer be required outdoors, and people can get together in groups of 10, up from 5. Most importantly for some, alcohol sales after 10:30pm will finally be okay again, so that hopefully means the end of taxi surge pricing around 10pm, and also longer hangouts I guess. It’s a weird rule that started very early on in this, and that I sort of appreciated as an older person who didn’t really want to stay out getting wasted past midnight anymore.
  • Two of those times were dinners to celebrate an occasion, which meant massive caloric intake. To balance it out, I’ve had a couple of lunches this week that were just peanut butter sandwiches. I haven’t had peanut butter outside of an ice cream flavor in years, which now seems like a waste of a life. It’s awesome!
  • We’ve been binge watching Top Boy on Netflix. It’s a UK gangland sort of thing, and extremely good (and I don’t normally go in for depressing inner-city stories about drugs and thugs). Like, at no point would it occur to you that it looks like British TV, if you know what I mean. But it sure sounds like it, and now I’m mentally adding “fam” and “bruv” to the end of every sentence I say.
  • It’s been about a month since I’ve properly read a book. Unless you count Ace Attorney Chronicles, and why wouldn’t you? It’s 99% reading slow-assed text crawling over a screen, accompanied by a handful of the same character animation loops on top of a smaller handful of backgrounds. I’ve started the second game now, but it’s beginning to wear me out. So I’ve started Mark of the Ninja, which is a 2D stealth platformer currently on sale for $4.99.
Paper money in a clear plastic sheath. It reads: The Government of the Straits Settlements promises to pay the bearer ten cents on demand at Singapore. Local currency for value received. 11th October 1919.
  • Speaking of money, dropping by to see my parents usually throws up more stuff I’m meant to help clear out or take a look at. This week we found some antique money from my granddad’s collection. Tarnished lumps of metal I’m told are ancient Chinese money. You can’t even call some of them coins because they’re… thick and rectangular? Might let them sit in some Coke for a bit and maybe they’ll come out shiny again. We also found this paper note for 10 cents, dated 1919. Singapore The Nation didn’t even exist yet, of course, so it was legal tender of the “Straits Settlements” government. I doubt it’s worth anything, but it might be a nice prop for kids studying local history. I think it would have added some color to my dull classes back in the day, when the idea of a chaotic “Before” felt hard to connect with modern reality.
  • I also found a bunch of old books that I’m thinking of giving away to the free community library in my building, the kind where you can take or leave anything you want. Except it doesn’t exist yet, so that’s another project I want to get going on in the next few weeks.