We had a wedding in the family this week, which was planned to be in the UK, before things got unusual, and so took place in the local Botanic Gardens instead. Permits were obtained, numbers were restricted, and everyone wore face masks for most of it, but apart from that it was very nice.
I brought my D-Lux 7 along and got some workable shots. I love that it has that old Panasonic trick of natively changing aspect ratios from the sensor instead of cropping, for when you need a wider angle. The alternative was the CL with 18–55mm Vario-Elmar which would have been useless in the evening (f3.5 and no IBIS). But by the time we were having drinks on a rooftop, the only camera that could reliably see anything was the iPhone 11 with its Night Mode.
The weather service says we’re in for storms and 22ºC nights in the days to come, which is highly unusual here in Singapore. Standing out in the fading sun at the wedding after 5pm was a rather sweaty affair, to say nothing of being out at noon. I think the average nighttime temperature must be around 28–30ºC, so I’m looking forward to seeing this.
Segue to things I’ve seen: the Snowpiercer TV series on Netflix. Am not a fan of any Bong Joon-Ho film I’ve seen apart from Parasite, so have not been keen to put the film on my list, but am slightly curious now that I’m done with the TV adaptation. It was not a complete waste of time. Fully expecting to be hit over the head with Themes will make it easier to go in, I suppose.
Better things I can actually recommend: John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976) starring Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, and Roy Scheider. It’s even on Singapore’s Netflix so it must be widely available everywhere else. I’ve seen snatches of this on random late-night TV screens over the years, but never the whole thing. They don’t make them like this anymore — it’s generous with scenes and shots that exist just for world and character building, and you’d never say it needed tightening.
Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound (2020) starring Tom Hanks is worth whatever Apple TV paid for it. I read an interview where Hanks said he was upset that the film wouldn’t get a theatrical release because it needed to be seen on a big screen. We saw it last night with the lights down, virtual surround sound bar cranked up, LCD backlight at maximum, and it was a thrill. Don’t see this one on your iPad.
Patrick Vollrath’s 7500 (2019) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a gem of a hijack movie on Amazon Prime Video that’s practically a play. I know a couple of aviation nuts who’d love its opening minutes, devoted to the pilot and co-pilot’s pre-flight routine of checking meters and flipping switches amidst small talk. It’s a rarely seen moment on screen, rendered with a lavish amount of mundane detail and realism that sets the tone for a film that takes place almost entirely in the cockpit.
7500 got me looking for more quiet-but-intense films set at night or in relative darkness, because they’re perfect for watching in bed. I also quite enjoyed Into The Night, which makes me think maybe I just want more films set on planes? Anyway, this eventually led me to a subgenre of YouTube mood videos not unlike lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to, but a blend of rain sounds, faint jazz BGM, and cafe noises. Check this one out.
I bought Ghost of Tsushima because I couldn’t resist a graphically gorgeous open-world game set in feudal Japan, Western gaze or not. One of my long-time wishes for the Assassin’s Creed series was for them to do a Japanese edition, but they arguably waited too long and now no one cares. This also marks the first time in at least six months that I’m turning my PS4 Pro on. The Switch can’t compete on looks, but not having to commit to significant time in front of the TV means a lot.
I’m pinching an idea from Michael Camilleri’s blog: what he calls Weeknotes. I like how the bullet format keeps things simple while the weekly cadence provides a structure that will hopefully mean I update more.
There was some mild pain and inconvenience this week dealing with Apple over the phone for an iCloud Drive issue. My free space was 13GB less than what it was supposed to be. It’s sorted now and I wrote about it here, but little failures like this make it hard to rely on iCloud and move away from Dropbox and Google Drive.
I was reading a lot a couple of weeks ago when I was on vacation (at home). I think I finished 9 novels in three weeks, including 1Q84 which comes close to about a thousand pages. Then I went back to work and simultaneously started on the massive Cryptonomicon, the combined effect of which has put the brakes on my Goodreads progress. Maybe because the last few things I read were mindless Jack Reacher novels, this one was an exhilarating change of pace. I’m still astonished a mere human being sat down and created something this wild, violent, complex, and also funny. I finally finished it this weekend and can’t imagine what to follow it with.
I’ve written too much about HEY already, but you know you’re all-in on a new email address when you change your main daily logins and usernames over to it. That’s now been done.
On the subject of email, my mom was cleaning up around the house and found some I’d sent her 20 years ago. How? She’d printed them out and kept them in a folder! She gets the last laugh, though. Not only did I forget even owning that old email address, I think all that pre-Gmail history is just gone; I don’t have any record of mails sent or received. If I had to guess, I used a hosted POP/IMAP server and a local mail client (maybe Eudora? Thunderbird?), so it was first lost during the move to Gmail — I don’t believe importing from elsewhere was supported, and I guess I’m fragmenting my email history again now by moving to HEY — and then totally lost during a PC transition. How do we still not have a universal personal data vault solution?
Unsplash gets photographers to give their work away for exposure — a deal that never goes out of style in the creative industry. But so many have volunteered to do it that the site is now a very useful resource for people looking for free images. I often use it when I need photography for presentations, and I‘m familiar enough with some of the best photos to recognize them popping up in other people’s decks.
Since I haven’t sold any of my photos for money in quite awhile, and the idea of seeing otherwise unused photos appear someday in someone else’s deck seemed like fun, I’ve now become part of the problem. I trickled four photos in over six days, and they’ve already been viewed 3,000 times. I suppose I’ll keep going.
I switched mobile providers after a year and a half with Circles. I’m still amazed at how easy it is now, and how bad things were before. You just sign up online and someone shows up at your door the next day with a SIM card! Your number is automatically ported the day after! Used to be you had to go to a store and sign many papers and wait a week, and occasionally even call your old telco to break up with them. Not to mention contracts are out of fashion. Progress. Since working from home, I’ve barely used any mobile data since there’s WiFi. I’m sure it’s one reason why I was able to find a more generous deal on the market. They’re probably happy to hand out massive data allowances now that most people aren’t going to use them.
On Friday night we went to hang out with a friend who lives down the street, and her kids stayed up with us as an excuse to play more Animal Crossing Pocket Camp and Minecraft. It was nice to see them tapping around proficiently and being engrossed in designing worlds. Even at the age of six! Lego has its limits, and we couldn’t work with dream material in such a direct way when we were kids.
Season 2 of Hanna is out on Amazon Prime Video. Seems like this time it’s not just one coming of age story, it’s a genetically modified school of them. I saw the first two episodes last night and the fight scenes were so clumsy, it broke the elite assassins world-building for me.
It was the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival recently, but I prefer its other name, the Dumpling Festival, because come on, that’s really the part we all care about. I’ve always known these pyramid-shaped rice clumps as Bak Zhang/Chang, but I guess they’re also known as Zong Zi. They look awful but are mad good, and I can’t think of a taste reference point in the world so you’ll just have to try and get some. I spent nearly an hour on Tuesday trying to find a good delivery option while salivating wildly, and eventually managed to catch the Kim Choo Kueh Chang company’s online store in a good mood (if it’s down, try, try again).
A couple of developments in the photography world caught my eye this week.
Olympus is apparently giving up on their camera business and looking to sell it off, which is not entirely unexpected, but still staggering news. Perhaps it’ll find new owners willing to make their products authentically, or at least have their IP absorbed into another Japanese camera maker’s portfolio. The worst outcome would be for it to go to a licensing outfit that will churn out unrelated nostalgia merchandise or even more mediocre cameras than they’ve put out themselves lately. I can’t help but fear Ricoh-Pentax will be next.
Update: It seems one Japan Industrial Partners will buy Olympus over, like they did Sony’s VAIO business at one point, and “continue to offer high-quality, highly reliable products; and also continue to provide supports to the imaging solution products that have been distributed by Olympus.”
v1.01 (Jan 30, 2020) — iOS 13.3.1 fixes a bug that affected the way Share Sheet imports had to take you out of the Photos app and into Shortcuts. So this is now simplified. Also added emoji graphics to make the main menu fancier.
v1.02 (Sep 5, 2020) — Updated to fix the shortcut stalling at deletion of original photos after processing. Apple changed some behavior in the Shortcuts.app.
HEIFer is a shortcut for iPhones and iPads (you can import and run it in the Shortcuts app that is part of iOS 13) that automates the batch conversion of photo to HEIF/HEIC formats. This has the benefit of making their files dramatically smaller without any visible loss of image quality.
HEIF stands for High Efficiency Image Format, and Apple introduced support for it in 2017. You can find out more about the format here.
HEIFer has three modes:
Converting a manual selection of photos
Scanning the newest 100 photos in your library, and converting any JPEG/PNG/TIFF images it finds
Converting the last imported batch of photos (from a camera or SD card, using an adapter)
This is my first proper iOS Shortcut and I made it to learn the ropes.
I’m kinda all-in on the HEIF format, and if your iPhone is set to save at “High Efficiency” in the Camera section of Settings.app, then you’re already using it for every photo you take. The quality is great, and you can store twice as many photos in the same amount of storage space.
But… I also shoot photos with other cameras, and every manufacturer, from Canon and Nikon to Sony and Leica, seems to be years behind in the software game, and the only options they offer are usually JPEG and RAW. What’s more, the CPUs in these cameras are usually very underpowered compared to what’s in your iPhone, so they don’t try very hard to compress the images efficiently. You can typically turn a 10MB JPEG from your camera into a 3–4MB HEIF file in less than a second. It’s a tremendous waste of space, both on device and in your cloud backups, to keep the JPEGs.
I also edit my photos with iOS apps like VSCO and Lightroom, and almost all of them save the finished photos in JPEG. So if you’re regularly editing your iPhone photos, those small .heic files are still ending up as fat .jpg files at the end of the day. It’s nuts!
So HEIFer is a way to quickly take those old-ass files, bring them into the present, and then dump the originals. For instance, if I’m shooting directly to JPEG on my cameras (why not RAW? That’s a topic for another day), all I have to do is plug in the SD card, select “Import All”, run HEIFer, and I’m done in three taps.
If your photos have proper timestamps, then you will still see them in chronological order in the “Photos” tab. However, if you go into the “Recents” photo album, it will reflect the process of converting and deleting them, i.e. it’ll be as out of order as your recollection of a big night out.
On paper, the camera I wanted was the Leica CL. For maximum versatility on the go, I imagined the first lens I would get would be the Vario-Elmar-TL 18–56mm (equivalent to 28–85mm in 35mm terms). There are several omissions on that camera, stabilization being a big one, but it was an intriguing and attractive product.
I’d always been curious about Leica cameras from afar, but never really considered buying one. Functionally speaking, I know that Fujifilm and Sony and the rest all make cameras so good that I could never use them to their fullest potential. And then here’s a company that makes idiosyncratic, deliberately limited gear easily costing three, four, five times as much. I suppose they are like Apple, but even more removed from the mainstream.
But the Leica curiosity is one that grows with age and disposable income. Every time it crossed my mind, I would wonder if it was time yet. Still, buying a fully manual chrome M felt like a 40th or 50th birthday move. The idea was to dip a toe into Leica’s shimmering pool, but not to fully jump in on the first try.
So, most irrationally, and that is the keyword I see in many sentences written by many people on the subject of Leica cameras, I decided I wanted to get one before I even knew if they made a model that I needed.
I looked into my compact camera drawer, pared down in recent years, and started describing what I needed. Essentially I wanted a good Swiss Army knife travel camera, a position filled by the LX10 I bought on sale early last year. It was good but lacking in a few areas. What I really wanted to get back then was the LX100, which I passed on because it was four years old by that point (I should have known an update would be out by the end of the year).
Small and reasonably light. One-handable if necessary.
Physical, dedicated control dials for aperture, shutter speed, ISO, whatever possible.
The ability to zoom or change primes, if/when needed.
Physically attractive design. The LX10 performed well, but boy, it inspires no feelings at all.
An optical or electronic viewfinder.
Large enough sensor, probably APS-C or 35mm FF.
I think these are very sensible things to want in a travel camera, but it’s extremely hard to find them all in a fixed compact body. The recommended solution seems to be a small interchangeable lens mirrorless camera, like Fujifilm’s X-E3 or X-Pro 2, or Panasonic’s GX9. As far as compacts go, I could only think of the new Panasonic LX100 II. I knew that Leica had a rebranded version of it in their D-Lux 7, but somehow it didn’t even enter my mind for this particular shopping mission. If I was going to dip a toe in, it was going to in be the real pool and not the kiddy pool!
Walking into the Leica store, I made a beeline for the CL display, believing it to be the best fit for the above. It was sleek, well-built, and less than half the price of an M10, with access to a wide selection of M and L-mount lenses. The sound and feel of its shutter release was very satisfying, but after using it for a few minutes, I didn’t love the way it controlled. You don’t dial in the aperture on a lens ring, but on an unmarked soft dial on the top plate that displays your settings on a tiny LCD. Also, with that Vario lens, it’s kinda heavy, with a bulkiness that approaches the Leica Q. I considered the Q, but didn’t want a fixed 28mm.
I did the math on owning a CL and an eventual three-lens setup. It came up to like half a year’s rent. On the other hand, buying an M10 and a couple of Summilux and Noctilux lenses will bring you into territory normally reserved for car purchases (and mind you that’s in Singapore where we have some of the most expensive car ownership taxes in the world).
If you do a little internet research, you’ll find a lot of reasons why the first-generation isn’t close to being a finished or fully evolved product. The soft controls aren’t as traditional as they seem in practice, switching up functions between modes; the touchscreen UI and gestures drive some photographers crazy; and it doesn’t have any in-body stabilization. On those same sites, you’ll find people talking about what the Q’s successor might bring: a new 40+ megapixel sensor (like the one in Sony’s RX1Rmk2) which would allow the same 28mm lens to do in-camera crops equivalent to 70mm. Hmm, that would be something.*
My conclusion was this: Putting aside craftsmanship and engineering, and focusing purely on photographic needs, Leica’s non-M lineup today simply doesn’t have the right product to push me into the pool. Others with more money to spend or greater passion for the brand might have little problem doing it, but not me, not now. If I was going to enter an ecosystem on a journey that would end with me spending the price of a car on a fistful of glass and magnesium alloy, I would have to be sure.
Now, Fujifilm does a great job with their ergonomics. Aperture rings on the lens, shutter speed and ISO on top, with “A” automatic notches on each one. You just dial in the combination of those that suits your needs, and it’s so much more natural than a PASM mode dial. They just don’t make a fixed compact with a zoom lens anymore. Panasonic is the only other company I know that values the same control scheme, so I looked all the way back to the beginning… to that LX100 II, a thoroughly modern Japanese (okay, supposedly with a little help from Wetzlar) camera with stabilization and super-quick autofocus.
Yes, its menus are overcomplicated, and it tries to do too many things that no one will ever ask for, like multi-exposure photos and horrendous tilt-shift filters and that effect where one color is isolated and the rest of the photo is in black & white. Seriously. But as a camera, it ticks all the boxes in my original wishlist above. All but one. It’s kinda ugly. Where its cousin the LX10 was plain and kinda like a white label design, the LX100 has the same leather-like texture and unsightly handgrip bumps of a retro-leaning Olympus or Fujifilm product. After looking at nothing but Leica bodies for a couple of weeks, it was hurting my eyes.
Which is how I ended up with the D-Lux 7. It’s the less ugly, Leica-blessed version of the Panasonic Lumix LX100 II. I wish Leica had the time to write real custom firmware for it, instead of just reskinning Panasonic’s menus to be in white and red instead of white and yellow. I’d love to see them simplify it down to be just a simple stills camera, taking away the multiple color modes and filters, leaving just two options: color and B&W. In other words, more like other Leicas.
*Addendum: I wrote the above a few months ago and never hit Publish. Since then, two things have happened: Leica released the rumored Q2 months earlier than I would have expected. I pity everyone who bought their then-new Q-P over Christmas 2018; this Q2 is a ruthlessly quick follow-up that is refined in every way, except perhaps the files are a little too big.
Secondly, I came into ownership of a Leica CL after all, completely out of the blue. I’ll write a follow-up at some point, but my first impressions above still hold. It’s expensive, it’s not light, and the soft wheels take some getting used to. But I got used to dialing in the aperture on them after all, and the photos are exquisite. The D-Lux 7 actually complements it quite well, for when you need something a little more compact but don’t want to give up too much quality.
It’s a rare treat for me to be able to visit Japan two years in a row, but that happened last month after we realized my airline miles bank could handle it. Our time was largely planned around meals, exhibitions, and not a great deal else. Looking back, I should have spent a little more time making a good to-do list. As soon as we arrived home, I started hearing and reading about all sorts of other things we could have done. Maybe next year.
It became a bit of a tradition for me to make these konbini snack haul videos every night at the hotel, showing a camera all the native junk food and drinks I bought to eat while lazing around. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any this time around. Why? Leading up to the trip, I started eating less and being healthier so that I could pig out on holiday. Ironically, that had two effects: a smaller appetite, and a habit of reading nutritional info labels.
Once there, I was looking at the calorie counts on everything, and having more than a 400kcal sandwich and 150kcal milk coffee for breakfast seemed irresponsible. In the past, I was probably eating 1000kcals just at breakfast alone. Those colorful, convenient packages are more energy-dense than they look… like how a microwavable spaghetti ready meal from 7-Eleven will easily run you over 900kcals.
This trip will be remembered for having spent (too?) much of it in queues. Nearly straight off the plane, we stood three hours in line at Nakiryu waiting for their Michelin-starred take on Szechuan dan dan noodles. It was amazing but three hours is a little much. I’d do it again at twice the price and half the wait.
Another epic wait was at the fairly new “Borderless” exhibition by teamLab in Odaiba, where the line stretched as far as one could see, before extending around the corner for another equal length. You approach it from the head of the line, and then walk down the entire way to find the end, and it’s painfully demoralizing. We honestly considered skipping it and going home, but it moved quickly and only took an hour. Once in line, you will be kept entertained by the disbelieving faces of newbs going through the same rite of passage.
As an experience, I have to recommend it. teamLab pull off some amazing stuff both in terms of technical achievement and sheer conceptual audacity. I don’t know how many members they have, but I’ll bet they’re all overworked. This permanent exhibition is presented in conjunction with Epson, and when you look at the number of high resolution projectors employed to carve these interactive fantasy worlds out of the dark, it makes sense.
We were also fortunate to visit 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT when an exhibition about Naoto Fukusawa’s iconic INFOBAR phone was on in commemoration of its 15th anniversary and the new xv model. The anniversary model runs some severely restricted version of Android to recreate the minimal featurephone experience. It’s a beautiful object that I used to dream about being able to use, back in the pre-smartphone days. We just don’t get this kind of product design anymore now that the screen has become the primary element.
Every time I’m in Japan, I try to notice what games people are playing, the devices they’re using, what’s being advertised and so on, because it’s still quite an insulated cultural environment and many of those things don’t make their way outside or fail to catch on if they do.
Last November, a Korean-made mobile game called Destiny Child was being heavily advertised on TV and around the city on billboards. The ads were highly visual, showing off some detailed 2D character animations and no gameplay to speak of, so I had no idea what it was about but I wanted to try it. For a whole year afterwards, I’d periodically do a search for Destiny Child on the App Store to see if it had made it out in English. This year, upon our return after the 10 days or so in Japan, it was finally released globally in English. It’s a kinda ecchi mobile gacha game and not for everyone, but you can find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/sg/app/destiny-child/id1416959016?mt=8
I’m still waiting for Level-9’s The Snack World (3DS) to cross the language divide.
You already know this, but the Switch is killing it. The fact that it’s region-free, and a few games that come out first in Japan include support for English and other European languages, has been seized upon by some retailers who have stuck up notices for tourists about what games they can safely buy home. Sony had some pretty slick in-store displays for Judge Eyes and PSVR, but Nintendo had the crowd-drawing content between Pokémon Let’s Go, Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Mario Party.
Compared to a year ago, smokeless tobacco products seemed to be in decline. I recall seeing people use Marlboro’s IQOS devices everywhere, and in smoking lounges (at the airport, for example), the majority of people were using similar systems.
Now, it seemed like the proportions were reversed. I overheard (mostly inferred from snatches of words I understood, actually) a lady talking to her friend about JT’s Ploom Tech while smoking a regular cigarette, saying how it wasn’t that good. She even pulled the device out of a pouch in her bag to show it off.
Having tried Ploom Tech, I can see why. It’s nothing like a cigarette and really lacks a lot of the experience. IQOS is much closer. I’d be interested to know the reasons behind this pattern, if true. Was it just a fad, or do smokeless products have a future? I think their adoption could do a ton to improve the air in cities, and improve quality of life for smokers as well.
A couple of years ago, everyone on the train listened to music with cords hanging from their faces and that was the picture almost everywhere. Riding the Tokyo metro in 2017, I noticed many more making the move to wireless (the same story in Singapore), but the majority of these were neckbuds and the like — sub-$100 Bluetooth headphones connected by a cable.
This year, commuters were noticeably switching to so-called true wireless headphones, including Apple’s AirPods which have exploded in popularity. It’s an overall trend in consumer electronics, helped by the fact that prices have come down and identical OEM buds under a slew of new brand names can be had for very little. Just look in my Instagram ads sometime.
But after looking at tons of them in the big stores like Bic and Yodobashi Camera, I’ve concluded that almost none of them are competitive with the AirPods on battery life or charging case size. The Jabra Elite 65T has probably the smallest case (I bought a pair), and Sony‘s are laughably large. They are like mini coffins, and won’t fit in any pockets. Instant fail. Even after a year, no one has nailed battery life, solid connectivity, and portability like Apple did with AirPods. If only they fit my ears without falling out.
I don’t know if the reports of iPhone XR demand being weaker than expected are true, but you’d never know it from walking the aisles in a store. It had just come out when we were there, but the shelves were already filled with third-party accessories. And stores were pitching them at the front, with iPhone XS and XS Max goods relegated to the rear. Clearly, manufacturers and retailers were ready for it to be the most popular model.
Magazines and retail
I posted about this in an Instagram story, but it bears repeating here. The Japanese publishing industry and its continued survival is an interesting phenomenon I wish someone at Netflix would commission a documentary on. Digital devices are everywhere, and I believe Amazon had some success convincing people to read manga on their Kindles, but paper is still everywhere.
Walk into any magazine section and you’ll see specialist interest publications on niche hobbies: fountain pens, shooting film through vintage lenses, ballet, fabric decoration, birdwatching, and even individual apps and games. None of this is news, but every year I see that companies can keep doing this makes me feel incredibly bittersweet about not being able to read Japanese and live in their world. I’d love to know how close to the line of viability they stray, and whether or not young people are still considering a career in the industry.
Just this month, Bunkitsu, a mammoth new bookstore has opened with over 30,000 titles and a so-crazy-it-might-work business model: visitors have to pay a ¥1500 cover charge.
I’ve wistfully said similar things about their retail landscape in other posts, and how you’re sure to find supplies for (insert odd past time) somewhere. But while you can shop, learn, and find community online from anywhere in the world, it’s different when physical spaces are reserved for this exploration and sharing.
That’s why places like Tsutaya at Daikanyama T-Site (see last post) are so special; they’re like magazines you can walk around in. Feeling out of touch with culture? A quick trip immerses you in what Thom Yorke is up to (writing the score for a remake of Suspira, btw here’s the LP cover and a t-shirt and the movie poster and one of the costumes from the production… wanna hear it on this new pair of headphones?); what the new Pixel 3 feels like to hold; what drinks Starbucks is peddling for Christmas this year; which classic albums are 50 years old today; and a ton of other media about whatever you care about. Yeah it’s all driven by consumerism, but let me have it.
I have no doubt that we will collectively realize what we’ve lost if/when physical retail collapses, and attempt to restore it. Possibly through VR or mixed reality. Some form of socially curating, presenting, and trading is crucial to the creative process, and I think it has to have a tactility and presence to work. Or maybe I’m just old now.
I packed light with just an iPhone XS Max and the Panasonic LX10 I bought earlier in the year, and decided to try something new: processing every color photo with the same filter/film simulation in VSCO. It’s the KA1, aka their recreation of Kodak Ektachrome E100G. Because their Film X filters allow you to adjust “character” and warmth along a spectrum, you can actually make any single film sim work on a variety of photos; contrasty and warm in some, faded and cool in others. The goal was to set a consistent look across the two cameras and one moment in time. I’ll probably look back on these in the future and want to edit them all over again, but this is good for now.