Stories from the road: Uncomfortable

The entrance to Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan

Of all the places in the world that I’ve been to so far, none have made me feel as uncomfortable as Japan.

This can be mostly attributed to the language barrier. Japan, despite being a huge tourist destination, has a unique combination amongst Asian countries of having a generally introverted populace1 with scarce English skills, and looking back on it now, it was both of these factors that made me feel so uncomfortable while I was there.

Of the half-dozen Asian countries I’ve been to, I’ve been fine being an Asian tourist that blends into the locals, with passable Chinese language skills. Even if I couldn’t understand every thing that was being said, I could at least understand some things. Not having that ability with Japanese, in Japan, made me extremely uncomfortable.

It made me realise how I’ve taken my meagre language skills for granted. I’m barely conversational in Mandarin, but even that has always felt like enough, for the places that I’ve been to.

But in Japan, having people speak Japanese to me and not understanding a word of it, is uncomfortable as hell.

It made me uncomfortable speaking English back to people who spoke Japanese, like I was operating under the assumption that they understood and spoke English. When they didn’t, it made me uncomfortable pointing at things on menus to communicate what I wanted, like I was some kind of mute toddler. It made me uncomfortable not knowing if the handful of Japanese phrases I learned were being pronounced correctly, or whether they understood what I was saying when I said them. It made me uncomfortable speaking Japanese in the first place, because then they might assume I knew Japanese, and keep speaking Japanese to me. It made me uncomfortable playing the part of the ignorant foreigner, all while some Japanese assumed I was also from Japan and could speak Japanese.

For one of the few times in my life, I was truly outside of my comfort zone. And it was great!

Being outside my comfort zone meant that I was finally able to experience a culture and language other than my own Chinese background. I’ve travelled enough with my parents and relatives to enough countries to know that I wasn’t getting the full experience when overseas, but doing things on your own is a different thing entirely. Despite how uncomfortable I was conversing with locals, I was able to navigate around Japan perfectly fine on my own, with a little help from Google Maps and the English signage at train stations. I did and saw about 85% of the things I had put on my list to do and see, with a few things left over in case I ever decide to go back.

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Character

Brisbane Treasury Casino and Hotel, as viewed from Reddacliff Place

Cameras in phones are probably a little too good these days. I can pull out my iPhone, snap a pic of whatever I’m looking at, and know that every detail will be captured, timestamped, and geo-tagged. I’ll even get a few seconds of video to go along with my photo, all in less time than I spent thinking about taking the photo in the first place.

Film, by comparison, has none of those benefits.

With film, I have to think about what I’m taking a photo of. Not because I’m worried about using one of my 36 exposures on whatever roll of film I’m using — although I am limited by the total number of exposures I have available to me at any one time, that typically isn’t a concern — but because it forces me to think about composition and framing, even focus, more than digital does. Digital might have ever-increasing megapixel counts which make cropping an easy way out if you didn’t get your framing right the first time, but there’s no such advantage with film, where your negatives will betray your imperfect framing every time.

When you’ve shot with film for a while, and particularly when you put the same speed and type of film through your camera dozens of times, you notice that your photos get a certain look about them that you don’t see with photos from your iPhone. It’s film grain, sure, but it’s more than that. It’s the way certain colours are more noticeable than others, the limited dymanic range of film, and the contrast between the light and dark parts of the image that work together to make the whole thing the slice of life that you captured at the time. Some parts might be out of focus, intentionally or otherwise, but all of it contributes to something that digital photos just don’t have these days.

Character.

When I’m taking a photo, if I want everything to be in focus, if I want every pixel to be perfect, even if I want everything to be HDR’d to the n-th degree, then I’ll pull out my iPhone and snap away. I know that when I take photos with my phone, the photos I take are as good as it gets, at least within the limits of camera technology that we have in phones these days, short of spending thousands on a pro-level camera and lens. And obviously, if I want to take video, I’ll pull out my iPhone. But if I want to capture an interesting perspective, or convey what the scene looks like to me, as opposed to what it actually is, that’s a job for my film camera, and an exposure of Ektar 100. If I want the sky to be overexposed, if I want shadows and highlights in equal measure, if I want colours to pop without being overbearing, then film is the only choice.

Obviously, there are a plethora of advantages to digital that film just doesn’t have, otherwise we’d all still be shooting film. But there have been so many advances in computational photography that it has pushed digital photography to the point where it’s more or less boring — perfect, life-like photos every time? Who wants that? Perfect photos might be all well and good for most people, most of the time. But the other times, I want my photos to have some imperfections.

I want my photos to have character.

Which makes film the perfect medium to be shooting on. And if I’m shooting film, there’s nothing more fun that shooting with a film rangefinder.

Selective photo permissions in iOS sucks, actually

A couple of years ago, Apple introduced the idea of selective Photos access. The idea was so that if you let an app have access to specific photos, then the app couldn’t do something like steal all your photo metadata straight out of your camera roll, including location. Great for apps that you didn’t necessarily trust to abuse that access, given that there’s was no way for you to tell if an app had collected all the metadata from all your photos and uploaded it into a database somewhere.

Apple’s solution, introduced with iOS 14 in 2020, was to allow you to select which photos an app has access to, which sounds great in theory, but has become a bit of a usability nightmare.

The problem is that by only selectively allowing an app to access your photos, you’re effectively choosing between two, kinda sucky options.

If you selectively allow access to photos, it means that every time you want to share a new photo to the app, you have to take the photo (using whatever camera app you want, whether that’s the stock camera or something like Halide), jump into the app, hope it has a deep link to the Settings page that allows you to change which photos it has access to (not all apps do, and the implementation to select photos can differ between apps), select the new photos that you just took, and then finally send them using the app. This three-step dance of taking, selecting, and sending happens every single time you want to send a photo using an app that only has selective access to your photos, which adds a huge amount of friction to a process that should be as few steps as possible.

But what’s the alternative?

The other way you can get around this taking/selecting/sending process is by using whatever app you’re sending the photos with, to take the photos with in the first place. Most apps have an integrated camera option that allows you to take a new photo right from within the app, then send that directly. And while this is a much simpler, more streamlined process than the snap-select-send dance, it comes with its own caveats. Firstly, there’s no guarantee that these photos taken directly within apps will be saved to your camera roll by default. While some apps offer to save taken photos to your camera roll automatically, apps like Snapchat make you tap a button before the photo you’ve taken is saved to your camera roll. But when you do, these photos taken from within apps seem to miss out on some normal photo metadata, like camera/lens info, exposure, focal length, location, and they don’t seem to be able to be Live Photos or be recorded in different image formats, either.

Screenshot of two comparison photos, taken using the Steam Chat app on the left, and using the stock camera on the right.

Note differences in metadata between these two photos. Photo on the right taken using the Steam Chat app on the left, and using the stock camera on the right.

Without looking too closely at the technical details, photos taken within apps might also be missing out on some of the technical features afforded to the stock camera app, like being able to automatically switch to the ultra wide lens for the macro mode on recent Pro-model iPhones, for example, nor do you seem to get access to the camera modes and effects of the stock camera app. This means your photos when taken using apps aren’t necessarily going to be the same as ones when you take them using the stock camera app. All of this is still probably fine, if all you’re doing is taking photos for the purposes of sharing to others, but you might miss that data months or years later. There does seem to be exceptions to this, as clearly third party camera apps like Halide can capture in different formats, but I think Live Photos are a stock camera app exclusive.

So when you want to share a photo to an app that doesn’t have access to your entire location history from all the photos in your camera roll, you can either:
– do a snap-select-send dance every time you want to send a new photo using that app, keeping your photo metadata intact and ensuring the best possible photos
– take and send the photo directly from within the app, which is a much more simplified process, but results in photos with no metadata and other features that you might want later, like Live Photos, and maybe even things like depth information.

And obviously, this is only for photos. For screenshots, the situation is even worse, and you have to do the snap-select-send dance every time.

What’s the fix?

Unless I’m overlooking something here, isn’t it as simple as letting apps only access photos taken in the past one or two hours? If you’re sending a photo that you just took, it seems unlikely that you would be doing it more than say two hours after it was taken, and while a higher number would give more leeway for this, I’d be concerned about an app having a rolling 12 or 24 hour access to your photos, because then we’d just end up with the same problem that we had originally if apps have access to all your photos, but one or two hours hopefully means that apps you haven’t recently used, won’t be able to take a rolling 1-2 hour peek at your photos.

Maybe the better solution is to prevent apps from having access to photos metadata in the first place. Then none of this would be an issue, and we could go back to the time when apps had access to all photos, all the time. Selective photos metadata might not be technically possible, but that would be the ideal.

Stories from the road: Thirty Two

Are we old, Melissa?

I don’t think so, but isn’t age subjective? Aren’t we the ones that decide if we’re old or not?

It’s late January, 2023, although it probably won’t be by the time you read this. We’ve just celebrated Chinese New Year in Malaysia for the first time in a long time. We’ve eaten out more times than I can count, received heaps of red packets, had all the Chinese new year snacks that you can’t normally get outside of Asian countries, and been visited by all the distant relatives I only see every time I’m here. It’s all been great.

I was kind of indifferent about this trip when I booked the tickets, but now that I’m here, I’m glad I decided to come. While it’s always great to go back every few years to visit my grandparents and see the uncles and aunties I haven’t seen in a while, not to mention catch up with the cousins that are still around, el rono put a significant dent in any plans we might have made. So this trip, the first in five years and the first after Covid, is a little special. Even though we might make plans to meet up again in a year or two, there’s no guarantee that will happen due to any number of circumstances. Maybe next time instead of avoiding the spicy cough, we’ll be avoiding the plague, or worse. But we’re making the most of this trip now that we’re all here, and doing all the usual things. It’s all been great, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But something feels different, somehow. Most of our cousins are now somewhere between their late 20s and mid 30s. Three are married, and while only one has children of their own, I get the feeling that most of us are starting to feel the realities of life creep in. No longer are we carefree teenagers in high school, or uni students mooching off our parents, but now most of us are actual adults that have settled into our own lives, our own full-time jobs, and in some cases, even our own houses and mortgages.

What this means is that some can’t take leave from work for the whole time I’m here, or that they have to be back to work or study in another part of Malaysia soon after the Chinese New Year is all done and dusted.

It’s a different vibe, for sure.

Which is why, as someone who isn’t married, as someone who doesn’t have children, I feel as though it’s at least partly my responsibility to make sure that even though we are older, that doesn’t mean we can’t have as much fun as we did when we were younger. If anything, thanks to the wonders of disposable income, maybe we can even have more fun.

The first instance of this was quite a few years ago, when all of the cousins were back. I picked up a One Direction poster in Penang, then brought it back as a present to my other Australian cousins. Being two guys, they were the most appropriate cousins to give it to (or least, depending on how you look at it, which is what made it so funny), and they were probably the only ones who would know who One Direction are in the first place, never mind appreciate a One Direction poster. I didn’t expect they would do anything with it, and I think they ended up putting it in the bin, but their reactions were absolutely worth whatever minuscule amount I paid for the poster.

With a distinct lack of cousins this time around, I bought presents for my cousin’s children. They’re both boys, 7 and 3, and it’s been so long since I was last back that I hadn’t met one, and the other was just a two-year old the last time I was around.

It turns out buying toys for kids is hard. Not only do you have to consider the kind of things they’re into, the toy ideally doesn’t have batteries or require power, and can be played with multiple times. For bonus points, the toy might even be mildly educational or maybe triggers some kind of curiosity on their behalf, instead of just something for them to do when they can’t watch YouTube. I went to the same Toy World three times and half a dozen other stores before I could decide on something that was going to be a) fun, b) could be played with multiple times, and c) wasn’t going to cause their parents huge amounts of grief by being messy, too noisy, or need their help to be played with.

I ended up choosing this magnetic-ball racetrack thing you had to build out of plastic parts that snapped together, as well as a kid’s pogo-stick thing that made squeaky noises when you jumped on it.

I kind-of did a little experiment with Diet Coke and mentos as well, to show the kids something that they might not have seen before. For some reason, Diet Coke was impossible to find, and as it turns out, the Diet Coke and mentos thing doesn’t work very well with Coke zero sugar. By the time I wanted to try again with the Pepsi no sugar that I found that included the artificial sweetener aspartame found in Diet Coke, someone had stolen it. Clearly, they thought Pepsi was OK in lieu of Coke.

But as much fun as all those were, I wish we could have hung out more. Like we did when we were kids, when we all had zero responsibilities. Do you remember that time we stayed up all night talking over a very slow game of mahjong? I miss those days, when there weren’t kids to feed and shower and tuck into bed. Or kids that threw tantrums because they couldn’t stay up late and watch movies with the adults. I loved the one time that I went out with your siblings to get late night McDonald’s, but I wish we could have done that together. If not to get McDonalds per se, but to give us another chance to talk, to catch up.

But we all have to play the cards we’re dealt, right? When we grow up, we all have to make decisions about what we want to do with our lives, the kind of people we want to be. No one is unique in this respect.

So I think the answer to the question “are we old?” is no, absolutely not. We’re not old. We still sit on the kids table when we go out to dinner with our parents. Age is subjective anyway, and I think we still have a long way to go before I even begin to think of us as old.

We just need to make the most of the time we have now.

You know, before we get old.

I know what you’re thinking. Another birthday post? In such close temporal proximity to the previous one? But yes, it’s true. And now we’re all caught up.

Thirty One

A screenshot showing a level 31 character in Genshin Impact

A few years ago, I asked myself some hard questions:

As if 2020 wasn’t already hard enough, I asked myself some tough questions. How do I become a person that I’m proud to be? How do I stop being jealous, obsessive, or so judgemental? How do I become a loving husband and dedicated father, should I ever find myself in that position? Is there a book for that? Some Medium post I can read? How do I know what I want out of life? Can I watch some inspirational YouTube video and instantly get all the answers?

I’ve been thinking about it a little more ever since I wrote that, and I think I, instinctively, already know the answers to most of these questions.

I’m already someone I’m proud to be. Not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but no one is. I’m a flawed human being, just like everyone else I know. While I find it difficult to admit my flaws to someone I’m trying to impress, I need to realise that someone else’s validation won’t necessarily make me feel better about myself, either. I get that honesty is a thing, and that refreshing honesty is a thing as well, but maybe there’s something to be said for not admitting my flaws and just, you know, quietly working on them.

I stop being jealous by finding ways to be content with what I already have. By recognising that other people have differing circumstances, I can either change my own circumstances to match, or learn to live with the differences and accept that no matter how much I want them to be the same, differences are what set us apart. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

I stop being obsessive by learning to let go of the things, ideas, and concepts — and yes, admittedly, people — that I obsess over.

I stop being so judgemental by telling myself that there’s no need for me to judge others by what they do or say, because at the end of the day, it’s none of my business, and unless it’s somehow directly impacting me, I don’t need to care. Which is great, you know, one less thing I have to care about, in terms of the dozens of things I have to care about now that I’m an adult and everything.

As for the dedicated father and loving husband part, no one is born with those skills, so I’m sure I’ll be able to figure out some semblance of them as I go along. Hopefully. With any luck.

I know what you’re thinking. Another birthday post? In such close temporal proximity to the previous one? But yes, it’s true. This one is shorter because I want to do a little catch up, but sometimes short and sweet is the way to go.

Thirty

A glass of milo peng

I’ve done it. After thirty one years on this big blue ball they call Earth, I have finally cracked the secret to making the most delicious drink of all time: Milo peng.

Now at this point, I realise that some of you reading this will have no idea what I’m talking about, so let me explain. Milo peng is a drink. As its name implies, Milo is a key ingredient, sure, but that’s about all that it shares with the Milo made with milk you’d normally have at home, or anything like the warm Milo that your parents might have made for you when you were young. Milo peng has a particular flavour to it that belies a simple combination of Milo and milk, and for the longest time, I wondered what the recipe was to make a staple of Malaysian/Singaporean culture.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this magical drink before, it’s because you can’t buy it in Australia. No cafe, corner shop, supermarket, or Asian grocery that I’ve been to, anywhere in Australia, has sold it. Trust me, I’ve looked. You might be able to get it at certain Asian restaurants here, but if you want the real deal, you have to go overseas, to Malaysia, Singapore, or perhaps a few other south-east Asian countries. There you’ll find it everywhere, but most likely at hawker stores, food courts, and most Asian restaurants. A good rule of thumb is that if the place has air con, you probably won’t be able to order it. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, most notable of which is probably Old Town.

Milo peng is such a staple of my Malaysia trips that as far as I’m concerned, it’s become synonymous with the country. Any Malaysia trip isn’t complete without having it at least once, and preferably you have it with every meal that you eat out. It even goes well with every meal!

For as long as I can remember, I’ve asked my parents about how to make it. Sometimes, when we arrived home from a trip to Malaysia, I would ask them, and they would typically be coy about it. Either they didn’t know, or they weren’t 100% sure. My dad seemed to think that the key ingredient was condensed milk, but on the few occasions that we tried making it at home, it didn’t taste anything like the original. After a few years of this, we stopped trying altogether, and eventually, I stopped asking.

When I still lived at home, we’d go to Malaysia every two or three years. It was always nice seeing cousins I hadn’t seen in a while. The last time I went back was 2017, and thanks to this global pandemic we now find ourselves in, I haven’t been back since. With Milo peng cravings reaching stratospheric levels, I finally decided I would take matters into my own hands. If my parents didn’t know how to make it, surely the internet did?

As it turns out, the internet sort of does and doesn’t. I couldn’t find any definitive recipe or guide to making it, as least none that was in English. There were a few blurry-cam YouTube videos, but one was all I needed to know the ingredients; reason being I thought I’d be able to figure out their exact ratios myself.. As it turns out, my dad was right all along. While Milo is a key ingredient, condensed milk is the other one.

Milo peng:
Condensed milk
Milo
Hot water
Ice cubes

Fill your cup with roughly three quarters of ice cubes. In another cup, pour about two tablespoons of condensed milk, along with two to three heaped teaspoons of Milo. Add hot water to the condensed milk and Milo, and stir well. Once it has been mixed down, pour it over the cup with ice and serve.

My only wish is that I wish condensed milk was easier to work with. It’s awful stuff; sticky and non-viscous enough to be annoying. If you’re not careful you’ll easily have a huge mess to clean up, especially if you use the canned stuff. Luckily, the much better (and far less messier) alternative is the version that comes in a handy squeeze bottle. They’re supposed to be used for decorating cakes and whatnot, and you’ll need more squeeze bottles than if you purchased cans, but it’s worth it for not having to clean up afterwards. Squeeze the condensed milk into your second cup, add milo, add hot water, and stir.

I also wish it were easier to prepare and didn’t require the use of two cups. Yes, you could theoretically use one cup to mix the condensed milk and Milo, add the hot water, mix it all down, then add your ice cubes, but doing so requires you to be familiar with the quantities at play so you don’t end up with too much or too little milo peng. Plus, I’m convinced pouring your hot condensed milk and Milo mix over your ice cubes helps even out the temperature of the beverage, when compared to adding on the ice cubes after. The second method means its more likely that the bottom of the Milo peng is warmer than the top. Whether you prefer this kind of temperature differential in your Milo peng is up to you; I am impartial to it and enjoy both variants equally, but for temperature consistency the first pour-over method is best.

Drink and enjoy!

By the time you read this I’ll hopefully had many more real Milo pengs of my own, on account of being in Malaysia. But thanks to the magic of post scheduling, I didn’t add a “stories from the road” prefix to this particular post, in the hopes that there would be other stories I could write and post about. We’ll see.

Yes, I know we’re missing a few years. Time is a fickle thing in a global pandemic, becoming both stretched in some instances, and compressed in others. Before you know it, two years has passed in the blink of an eye, and with it, any chance of posting anything around my usual birthday. We’ll make up the years, I’m sure.