A Long December

Uptime report

The Dec–Jan self-examination train just keeps rolling, which, for someone who usually sniffs at those sad people religiously making New Year’s resolutions, is a very strange development indeed. I don’t think this has anything to do with my turning 40 next year, I mean, it can’t… because I only just realized that fact right now. Oh shit?

Whenever I somehow have the time or feel inspired to reflect on how things are going, they usually boil down to the same few things I should be doing:

  • Reading more often, and more widely, than just 5 non-fiction titles a year plus the occasional junk SF
  • Writing regularly, if only to put aside time to think
  • Watching less junk, especially when I haven’t even seen The Essentials (I haven’t seen Schindler’s List, but I’ve watched 240 episodes of Terrace House)
  • Not wasting time on video games that are just repetitive endorphin loops
  • Having fewer possessions to lose in a fire, getting more comfortable with the idea of being mobile (decluttering the house, relying more on digital content, living in the cloud, etc.)
  • Contradictorily, keeping a few superfluous physical things around purely for the hell of them: a short stack of interesting but commercially doomed magazines, a well-built camera, buttery soft notebooks that deserve better than my handwriting, the Game Boy I never had.

I haven’t done my research by asking anyone else yet, but I’m sure these are universal in that most people will agree their time–activity distribution in daily life is incorrectly optimized for quality. Whenever I daydream about being retired, it’s mostly the things above that I see myself getting right first, binging on my book backlog for weeks before contemplating the trip around the world or whatever.

Why is it so hard to spend our valuable and limited time on things that are more Criterion Collection than Netflix? Okay, you might want a balance, but surely that’s like 90:10 or 80:20. Random idea: if the reason is because modern life and the 9-to-5 takes so much out of you, maybe we should wake up early and watch a good film each morning before going to work? I might actually try that.

Linkey Likey

The enduring allure of retro tech

Speaking of cameras and Game Boys, there’s a cottage industry springing up around the repair and upkeep of devices that, by modern standards, have no right to be hanging around this long. Did you know you can get a Walkman repaired and still actually buy a DVD in some parts of the USA? I haven’t seen either of those things around these parts in quite awhile.

I’m all for it, but it’s quite a lot to process when I already find it odd that Apple still operates the iTunes STORE alongside Apple Music, Apple TV+, Netflix, etc. I’d love to see the sales graphs across geographies to see where people are still trying to “own” their digital media — and how that maps against demographics, aging populations, and so on. Probably safe to assume that physical media sales are just a totally different animal and consumer group even further removed from that.

This reminds me of articles from yeeearrrs back when streaming services were looming, all warning of the massive energy and ecological cost they implied versus the plain ol’ manufacturing, distribution, and playing of CDs. I don’t know if even green-leaning Apple is interested in doing something about it, because subscription services are kind of The Strategy these days. It’s only going to get worse for us down here on the equator before it gets better (colder).

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How Much Would You Pay for a Nonexistent Dress?

Could this gaming app change the way we shop?

I came across this pair of stories about apps/services offering “nonexistent” fashion for your IRL self (Photoshopped onto a portrait you send in) or avatars (trying on 3D models of real clothes and accessories in a proprietary [what!] app), and within days of each other no less.

What I don’t get is whether everyone has collective amnesia around virtual goods and brands in the mainstream? Because how do you explain that I was on Tencent’s Chinese instant messaging app QQ in 2002, with a penguin avatar that wore sweaters you could buy for the Chinese equivalent of a US dollar? Or that I lost many friends to World of Warcraft in the next few years, many of them selling their leveled-up characters off on eBay? Maybe they put some of that money towards buying hats in Team Fortress 2. Red Bull and Adidas and all the automobile brands have been advertising and licensing themselves in the gaming space forever. Is this just about being able to buy virtual Gucci and Off-White shit?

The question isn’t “will anyone pay for virtual goods”, but “what does it mean that we’re now starting to virtually put them on ourselves?” — primitive Photoshopping today, invisibly through AR lenses tomorrow? Imagine a parallel fashion industry that deals entirely in virtual fashion for the real world. You’d make statements by pairing real and virtual clothes; flick the glasses on and off to see how your date flexes a pair of Hermès sneakers in the metaverse but keeps it simple IRL with New Balances. Maybe you could just leave the house naked someday and no one would notice.

The Stars Have Aligned

I was surprised to learn that astrology is experiencing a comeback amongst millennials, thanks to an app called Co–Star that has been steadily growing beneath my radar. When a decade-younger friend sold it to me over drinks last week, the most interesting thing about it to me was its inexplicable use of an n-dash in the name. I installed it for a look, saw a personality trait in the natal chart* that didn’t quite match my self-image, and promptly forgot about it until the push notifications started arriving.

Screenshot of the Co–Star app

These nudges are titled “Your day at a glance”, and are so iconic to this audience that the Instagram filter creator known as autonommy has made one that superimposes Co–Star notifications over your head. They’re usually a single mysterious line or proverb that you’re meant to contemplate as things happen to you.

Yesterday (an uneventful day), I was assured, “You don’t have to be afraid.” Today, it asked, “What lessons have you learned today?” Tapping into the app unleashes a torrent of AI-assembled advice that tells you how to deal with the challenges of existence as per the day’s astral alignment. The tone of voice is often surprising: acerbic, blunt, even dark.

Instead of deleting the app as I meant to do, I discussed it with some people around me and shared a Verge article about the team behind it, and now I’ve got irl friends on this astrology social network, and we can see each other’s fates and compatibility, and I think I’m keeping it? It’s not like I’ve suddenly taken horoscopes at face value, but perhaps it fills a gap — I need someone to regularly kick my ass on personal development, and whether I agree with the “advice” or not, these prompts might get me to work a little harder at things. They’re challenges.

Coincidentally, I spent much of yesterday reading through the backlog of email newsletters I subscribed to and then got overwhelmed by. When someone’s thoughts on screen are a year old, making reference to events that you and the internet are so over by now, but the words remain productive, insightful, and capable of inspiring you to look back at your old email newsletter project from 6(!) years ago and maybe start writing on your blog again, they can have all the paid subscription money. If you’re in need of a couple recommendations: try Dan Hon and Craig Mod’s.

There’s always a voice gently suggesting I “write more”. Sometimes I think I write enough at work as it is. As the activities that make up my day job changed over the last few years, so did the emphasis on actual writing as a vehicle for Client Value Delivery. It took awhile to join the dots between the kind of writing I did in advertising, publishing, side projects, and now in a design/consulting context, but that still leaves out the “pleasure writing”, as one acquaintance recently called it.

Right now, I’m feeling out of practice and clumsy when it comes to this stuff. I don’t know how to write to you anymore. Maybe I cut down on tweeting and blogging because we all entered a digital privacy crisis, but the net result was falling out of the public writing habit altogether. I lost imaginary friends.

So. Why not try again? What do I have to be afraid of? What lessons am I learning today?

*Those natal charts: You plug in your date/time/location of birth, and it pulls historical NASA data to see where celestial bodies were when you were born, and interprets their deviations in space each day to produce your horoscope. Are these even called horoscopes? I don’t know; that word seems dated and quacky, like something in a crinkled copy of Reader’s Digest, whereas Co–Star feels like something new — a bit of not entirely serious millennial wellness — dressed up in ancient clothes.

A couple of years ago, we had a colleague from Hong Kong in town who would do the exact same thing as a party trick, except she manually read and interpreted the natal charts which she generated using a Chinese app. Co–Star has simply scaled this with technology and a content team.

Autumn in Japan, and some observations

We paid Tokyo and Osaka a visit last fall, following up on my life’s goal of visiting Japan at least once every two years, and nothing disappointed — not the food, people, weather, galleries, nor multi-storey complexes designed to make me buy media and electronics. As Craig Mod alluded to recently on Twitter, Tokyo is a place that fulfills the city’s promise as a tool for human life.

The thing I love about its density and intensity is how that translates into support for all manner of subcultures and obscure hobbies. Today, you can barely find a functioning and interesting bookstore in Singapore, while in Tokyo it’s not just bookstores that thrive. One can wander into massive stores selling model train and forest diorama-building supplies, or records curated from a specific period, or vintage camera parts emporiums. We’re not large enough to incubate that kind of diversity, and the city dweller’s life suffers for it.

Continue reading “Autumn in Japan, and some observations”

Singapore Gets An Apple Store

Finally.

After years of waiting, Singapore got its own Apple Store on Orchard Road (where else?) in May of 2017.

I’ve been in the ecosystem for about 14 years now, and getting good sales service and support from third-party resellers has been consistently hard. Back when Funan the IT Mall was still around, there were a few small shops that knew what they were doing with Macs, but for the most part, the bigger chains gave people bad advice, installed RAM chips facing the wrong way, and stocked some pretty abysmal accessories at outrageous prices. Apple Retail have done all of the above on a bad day, too, I’m sure, but at least they’re held to higher standards.

The two-level store follows the recent round of store designs by Norman Foster, with lots of large indoor plants and round headphone stands on the far end. You get upstairs via a symmetrical pair of spiral staircases cut into cool stone walls on either side; no glass staircases or elevators here. I read in some press release that the materials are meant to echo the Apple Park campus’s design language, which I guess is … fine.

Processed with VSCO with kp8 preset

While it’s nice to have a place to buy devices and “feel part of a community” with the new Today At Apple events, I think the main benefit of having this here is going to be accessible, proper customer support in the city. I’ve been down to industrial parks way too many times to get my iPhone looked at in the past, and it’s not fun.


 

A word about my current setup, for future reference: I’ve not bought a new Mac in 7 years. The current iMac struggles along and is only used once every couple of months to do the things only a Mac can do for arbitrary reasons. I get most of my work done on a MacBook Pro supplied by the company, but for personal use, my iPhone and a couple of iPad Pros do everything I need or have time for. The 12.9” version gets a lot of use as a desk-bound typing machine and a bed-bound Netflix player, which is really underutilizing it, I know. The smaller one gets taken everywhere because of its size, and I’m hoping for it to replace the MBP for a lot of little things at work like note taking and task management. Who wants to bring a big laptop home every night anyway?

iOS 10 Makes the Timeline UI a Reality

Wired: Apple May Have Figured Out the iPhone’s Most Promising Feature

3D Touch is instrumental to Apple’s newly rethought lock screen, in a way that could fundamentally change how you interact with your iPhone.

But with iOS 10, you’ll use your home screen a whole lot less.

This article from Wired today recalls the thinking of many UX designers who believe that homescreens tiled with app icons will soon give way to a new kind of smartphone UI: the timeline. Over the last few years, both iOS and Android have been making their notifications richer, with simple functions like deleting new emails, quickly replying to texts, or faving tweets, amongst others.

lockscreenBut iOS 10 looks to be taking it to a whole new level. iPhones will light up when you raise them, and interactive notifications can expand into whole widget-like apps with live maps and data, and house more complex options than a dialog box or text input field can provide. And the best place for this new timeline UI to live is on the lock screen of your phone, the starting point of any interaction, and an arguably more valuable space for accomplishing tasks than the homescreen.

And it’s 3D Touch, launched to public disinterest with last year’s iPhone 6S, that’s been the missing piece all along. Without pressure sensitivity and Apple’s Peek & Pop gestures, a self-activating lock screen might be a pretty bad place to have action buttons that can accidentally touched. I’d be interested to see how it works on phones without it, such as the new iPhone SE. Perhaps they just won’t have Raise to Wake.

Also worth remembering that this new timeline of Things That Need Your Attention Most will live beside the Today screen of widgets (swipe to the right), which should do a lot for the idea that we’ll all be unlocking our iPhones a lot less and getting stuff done quicker later this September.

“Onions” Breaks One of Apple’s Oldest Advertising Rules

Apple’s new iPhone ad departs from some of their oldest and most inspiring advertising by making fun of what customers do.

Apple’s new iPhone ad departs from some of their oldest and most inspiring advertising by making fun of what customers do.

I’m curious what people make of the new iPhone 6S ad from Apple, the comedy one called “Onions”. On the surface, it looks like another one of the fun, irreverent ads that have been made for the 6S series so far — the previous ones leaned heavily on their sassy, self-reflexive voiceovers by the actress Lake Bell. It only has a brief product demo lasting about 3 seconds, followed by nearly a minute of story; it has a celebrity appearance; some humor; and a quirky sign-off that says “Onions on iPhone 6S” before “Onions” becomes “4K Video”.

While I enjoyed it, I think it perverts one of the unspoken rules that have made past Apple ads great. The people in those ads were always more creative, more talented, doing better work, and living fuller lives than the average viewer. But the ads seemed to believe that you were that person, and always spoke up to you. In other words, they assumed the best of their customers.

That’s just a company that knows how to utilize aspiration. You see it in fashion advertising, but you’re either model material or you’re not. When it comes to products that let anyone create, the dream is ever alive!

The Apple Pencil lets an artist draw beautiful lines, an app on the Mac lets a young musician record a touching song for her mom, photographers take billboard-worthy photos on their iPhones, an architect edits blueprints on his iPad Pro at the coffee shop, a misunderstood teenager cuts a family film over Christmas. These are scenes you’ve probably seen, and I’ll bet they inspired you to make more stuff more often, or convinced you that upgrading to the new one would upgrade the quality of your work, or both. The examples were aspirational, but completely relatable.

“Onions” takes a different tone. It’s a somewhat sarcastic, belittling parody that pokes fun at what its protagonist shoots, pretending to have a bit of fun with exaggeration. It says, “this is what YOU will probably make with the power of a 4K movie camera in your pocket, and this is what you probably think it’s worth: an award presented by Neil Patrick Harris. So, please enjoy your comical fantasy!”. Instead of showing an example of great accomplishment, as was the tradition, it goes for the cheap laugh. It fails at showing us something we should aspire to achieve with an iPhone 6S of our own. It’s an odd departure from a winning formula that has long defined the brand’s outlook on technology enabling creativity, and I hope not to see many more like it.


I also watched Samsung’s new celebrity-laden ads for the Galaxy S7 phone, and some of them were really entertaining, well-written, and funny. A couple fell flat.

In comparison with Apple’s style, about 3 of them featured Lil’ Wayne absurdly pouring bottles of expensive champagne all over his waterproof S7, which made the existence of that feature absolutely clear, but didn’t do anything to make me want one. I’m not in the habit of intentionally drowning my phone.

The waterproofing ad that worked better? A script that meanders about how water is everywhere on earth, making up 72% of our bodies, etc. etc. before ending on a scene where a phone gets dropped into a fountain while taking a photo. The owner picks it back up, and continues getting the shot, no beats missed. Anecdotally, lots of phones have been dropped into water by people I know, and I think this crucial point would resonate with them. A relatable real life moment, real people, and a real problem we’d love to suddenly go away overnight.