The logline for the podcast “3 Clips” plants the show firmly in meta territory: it bills itself as “a podcast for marketers who podcast.” If you don’t consider yourself a marketer or someone interested in the meta-narrative of marketing then you may have a less than enthusiastic reaction. But that pitch actually belies the rich insight that “3 Clips” offers anyone who just enjoys podcasts or is curious about their production, whether marketing-oriented or not. Even better: the most recent episode breaks down an episode of “Wireframe,” the podcast about design that I’ve hosted for two seasons now.
The basic hook of “3 Clips” is: take an episode of a podcast like “Wireframe”—that is, a show produced by a brand that is trying to create a compelling listening experience beyond just advertising its wares—and pull it apart to see what works and what doesn’t. The hosts Jay Acunzo and Molly Donovan examine everything from the first impressions that the show generates when each episode starts playing to the style and character of the content to the “defensibility” of the subject matter, and much more.
Described another way, Acunzo and Donovan train a critical lens on the design of podcasts, a concept that I have to admit I was only dimly aware of when I first started working with Gimlet Creative on “Wireframe” about two years ago. It didn’t take long though for me to realize that a good podcast in many ways relies on the same approach that we designers bring to the problems we solve. Both focus on people, on details and sequencing and flow, and both are highly iterative.
That last detail was particularly revealing for me. Gimlet’s approach to audio, as heard on shows like “Reply All,” sounds so relaxed and effortless that it was eye-opening to learn how much revision and reworking go into every recorded minute. Each episode of “Wireframe” went through at least three or four major revisions, with input from everyone on the team, and countless hours of polishing and tweaking.
Just as designers can look at an app or website and see telltale details of the craft that “normal” people are oblivious to, Acunzo and Donovan can effectively x-ray podcasts and identify the intentions hidden beneath the surface. In this episode they cannily pick up on the many editorial structures and subtle audio cues that underpin “Wireframe,” crucial narrative affordances that Gimlet brought to bear.
Acunzo and Donovan also unsparingly appraise the hosting, citing my audio narration as sounding stilted or read rather than spoken, to which I say, “Fair.” Through two seasons of the show, I’ve felt that my own journey has been to get more and more comfortable as a voice, and less and less formal. That has been a struggle for sure, as hosting a show like this is like no other medium I’ve worked in before; it’s meant to be both performative and unassuming, authoritative yet friendly, instructive yet spontaneous. There’s no formula to it except to sound like yourself, but maybe the most engaging version of yourself that you can imagine—casually.
I have to admit, listening to Acunzo and Donovan evaluate my audio skills was only marginally less painful than chewing a mouthful of tacks. But it’s hard to argue with the depth of their insight and the clarity of their assessment. Ultimately what they’re doing is applying incisive, articulate, accessible critical thinking to the podcast form, which is a gift to the medium itself. I learned a master class’s worth of lessons from listening to it, and consider it a privilege that they trained their lens on “Wireframe.”
Just reading about the progression of the coronavirus is frightening enough, but it sent a new kind of chill down my spine to watch this drone footage of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, on lockdown. Eerily empty, it feels like a snapshot of humanity in the past tense, with all the trappings of a built society lingering uselessly after the removal of people. Here and there, you’ll spot a few lonely souls on the streets, driving or even biking to some lonely destination, but in a way that makes it even spookier, like continued echo of desperation. I can only imagine what the residents of Wuhan are feeling, essentially marooned in their own dwellings.
December seems like a long time ago but I’m only now recapping my movie watching for that month—and for all of last year. Time flies.
Amid a bunch of travel, I watched twenty-four films and got out to the theaters five times. One of those excursions was to see “The Rise of Skywalker”—some coworkers had a free ticket, so I figured what the heck? After the previous two installments in this franchise, I’d already mostly given up on “Star Wars” ever offering anything of redeeming cinematic value, but this undercut even my already low expectations—a true stinker.
Out of some kind of misplaced loyalty to the notion of “Star Wars” that I still recall fondly from my youth, I went back to see if I could possibly rediscover something likable about the “The Last Jedi,” but no dice—I couldn’t even get past the first thirty minutes. Mostly I was awed by the fact that such a misshapen mess could have come from the same writer and director, Rian Johnson, who just gave us “Knives Out,” which is practically the exact inverse: a taut, hilarious, economical little mystery-comedy. Johnson’s films rarely demand much in the way of thinking on the part of viewers but this contemporary whodunit works harder and more conscientiously than most films in recent memory to take its audience on a true joyride. It was one of the best things I saw all year.
Speaking of bests of the year, I was feeling kind of bad about having gotten all the way to the end of January without having recapped my favorites of 2019. But then I looked back at last year’s list and saw that I didn’t get to my overview of 2018 until February 2019 anyway. So expect that soonish.
Here are all twenty-four films I watched in December.
“Okja” (2017) ★★½ Very respectable until the English-speaking actors start acting.
“The Wolf’s Call” (2019) ★★★½ A French “Hunt for Red October” and a solid dad movie.
“Rounders” (1998) ★★★★ Rewatched. I didn’t realize how good this script was.
“Thirst” (2009) ★★ There hasn’t been a truly decent vampire movie in decades.
As a Christmas gift to you, I direct your attention to singer-songwriter Joel Alme’s “Waiting for the Bells,” a beautiful, nearly forgotten album from the very beginning of this decade that we’re about to close out. It’s not expressly a Christmas album, but its eleven tracks achieve that fine balance of celebration and melancholy that you hear in Darlene Love’s immortal “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the best Christmas song ever recorded, so for that reason I think of it as holiday fare.
Like his fellow Swede Jens Lekman, Alme specializes in hooky pop music with a literate, brainy twist. But “Waiting for the Bells,” in my view, far exceeds anything that the more successful Lekman ever achieved. Its concise, thirty-two minute runtime features an unbroken string of impeccable song craft, delivered with Alme’s unique crooning vocal style, which balances searing rawness and classical crooning. You can get a taste of it in the video for “If You Got Somebody Waiting,” embedded above.
“Bells” was the musician’s second album, and he was able to secure grant money from the Swedish Arts Council for its production. The results are tastefully lavish string and brass arrangements, and a soaring, Phil Spector-esque quality that give it an irresistible immediacy. The fact that the music listening public largely did resist it, though, almost underscores its timelessness; it’s not quite an album from another time, but rather an album from no particular time. I dearly cherish it and listen to it almost continuously, and I think you may find yourself doing the same if you give it a chance. Happy holidays.
There’s a lot packed into Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” even beyond its generous three and a half-hour runtime. It would almost be enough that it gives us a tour of decades of gangster lore at the intersection of American politics, but there’s also complex and quite eloquent contemplations on the nature of violence and regret; exquisite recreations of mid-century urban landscapes; and, unavoidably, large scale CG-driven de-aging of its central performers. Scorsese, as ever, brings it all together with the grace of a master; few directors can paint with such nuanced detail in such consistent a manner across canvases as wide in scope.
I got to catch a screening during the movie’s limited theatrical release, and felt fortunate for having been able to experience Scorsese’s vision uninterrupted, in the immersive cocoon of a dark cinema. It’s a rich text, worth seeing in any context, but I have to confess that it also felt somewhat…inessential. “The Irishman” offers a new, more pensive perspective on Scorsese’s longstanding preoccupations with the dark side of American exceptionalism, but it’s still a gangster movie, still a meditation on mafioso codes; still a revival of that same mid-century, mid-Atlantic, Italian-American milieu. I’m game for revisiting this territory as much as anyone, but after, “Silence,” Scorsese’s shockingly unsparing look at the persistence of faith in the face of brutality, “The Irishman” seems like a regression. Scorses does illuminate new dimensions of gangsterism with this movie; it’s just not as rich and new a territory as he is capable of.
That said, no one can accuse the director of shying away from the new when it comes to digitally de-aging his performers. That creative decision is at the heart of the film; it allows Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, particularly, to deliver performances along a chronological range that may be unprecedented, thereby allowing Scorsese to race freely up and down the decades as he sees fit. Opinions are divided on the effectiveness of the retouching but for me, when combined with the overfamiliarity of the subject matter, it was too much, too distracting. The technology is simply not there yet; DeNiro, particularly, never looks younger than fifty, even when the script pointedly refers to him as “kid.” I kept wishing that the director had simply cast another actor to play DeNiro’s character at younger ages, much as I kept wishing that Scorsese had chosen to tell a different story.
In addition to “The Irishman,” I saw fifteen other movies last month, including “Parasite,” which I also managed to see in theaters and which I also found to be somewhat less satisfying than the glowing critical consensus promised. The first three-quarters of Bong Joon-Ho’s class and morality drama (with a horror film stashed inside of it, sort of like a toy surprise inside a candy box) is almost perfect and the director could have easily called it quits at that point and declared victory. But in the last segment he scrambles to pay off what came before, hastily gathering back together all of his principal characters to essentially face off one another in a not entirely convincing way, and then stretching credulity even further with a far-fetched denouement. Again, I found myself wishing he’d gone another way.
Periodically I’ll find myself fascinated for weeks at a time with Apple’s Shortcuts automation app for iOS and iPadOS, tinkering endlessly on shortcuts that are ostensibly intended to save me time. If I’m being honest though it’s really all about the pleasure of hacking.
Playing with shortcuts is a bit like peeling back the surface layer of the iPhone and iPad, exposing a hidden dimension where apps can work together and tasks can be automated. For someone like myself with very meager programming skills, it’s also empowering: the Shortcuts app is a beautifully simplified scripting environment that puts some of the vast capabilities of true coding in the hands of novices. I’ve got shortcuts that tell me when the next bus is arriving on my block, that change the volume on my home theater, that search for reviews of any movie, show or product that I highlight in text, that help me publish posts (including this one) on my blog, and many more.
Many incredibly useful shortcuts can be set up in less than a minute or two, but it’s also possible to spend hours creating richer, more complex ones too. Even if doing this consumes more time than you could ever conceivably save in productivity, the satisfaction you get from a shortcut is a bit like the bargain you strike when you train a dog to fetch your slippers: it takes a lot of work, but it’s a neat trick.
Given all of this energy I’m pouring into creating shortcuts, I thought I would share some of them here. This first one is called “Screenshot(s) to iCloud” and it helps cure a longstanding annoyance: removing screenshots from the iOS/iPadOS camera roll by archiving them intelligently.
Like a lot of designers and pretty much anyone who’s enthusiastic about mobile apps, I take a lot of screenshots. iOS dumps all of those into the system camera roll in the Photos app alongside all of the countless personal pictures I’ve taken. Naturally, that commingling has always irritated the fussy part of me that likes everything in its right place.
It’s certainly straightforward if tedious to manually export that backlog of screenshots from the Photos app’s “Screenshots” smart album, which helpfully collects them all in one place for you. But that method yields files with names like “IMG_6651.png,” which is not particularly helpful or elegant.
My shortcut not only allows you to give each screenshot a descriptive name on the fly, but it also helps you keep them all organized by prepending the file names with the date that the screenshot was taken. You can run it on one image at a time or in batches, and they all get saved to a designated directory in iCloud. (It’s also easy to modify this shortcut to export the files to Dropbox if you prefer, though Dropbox is pretty much redundant these days.)
For example, I’ve got a number of screenshots from the past year or so that I took each time I hit some significant karma milestones in Todoist. I snapped one when I hit a streak of four hundred consecutive days of meeting my daily task completion goal, back in November of 2018, and then another when I hit six hundred consecutive days this June. And then in July, I took several screenshots when I was just one karma point from hitting the “Grand Master” top tier of usage, or roughly 16,000 completed tasks. (I use Todoist all day long.)
To dispatch these old screen grabs easily, I simply select the images in Photos and run the shortcut from the Share menu. (Due to a bug in iOS/iPadOS 13.3, you unfortunately can’t run it from the Instant Markup screen immediately after you take a screenshot, at least today, but hopefully Apple will fix that soon.) The shortcut asks me what I want to name the series and I type in simply “Todoist.” Then it checks if any two or more of the screenshots were created on the same date. For those that were, it appends a sequential number to the file name.
The shortcut also checks if any of the images I’m exporting have a file size larger than two megabytes, and for those that do it automatically compresses and exports them in JPEG format (smaller files are preserved in their original PNG format). Exported images get sent to an iCloud directory called “Screenshots for iOS” inside the “Shortcuts” folder. (Unfortunately Apple does not allow shortcuts to automatically create directories in iCloud the way that they can with Dropbox, so you have to manually create that directory ahead of time.) Once that’s done, it asks me if I want to delete the screenshots from Photos, which of course I do because that’s kind of the whole point to begin with. And finally it confirms the whole process with a notification that shows the names of the exported screenshots alongside their final image sizes.
Once all of that’s done, this is what results in the Files app:
As you can tell, this shortcut performs a lot of mildly intelligent operations that would be time consuming to perform manually, all bundled up into a one-tap trigger. And it’s really just a demonstration of what can be achieved with even as little coding smarts as I have. To put it mildly, the Shortcuts app is really powerful and, as I said earlier, really empowering in that it allows me to bend these devices closer to my will. In particular, Shortcuts has been a boon to productivity on my iPad (I still prefer to use my iPad rather than a MacBook whenever I can) because it adds capabilities that I could not achieve as easily or as quickly without this capability—sometimes more easily and more quickly than on a Mac, even. I’ll share more of these shortcuts in future posts, but for now, if you want to download “Screenshot(s) to iCloud” and give it a spin for yourself, you can get it at this link.
Note: You’ll need to be running iOS/iPadOS 13 to use this shortcut. You’ll also need to enable the horribly named “Allow untrusted shortcuts” option in Settings.
No one asked, but my one-line, all-in assessment of Marvel movies would be: “They’re lowering our standards.” Over the past decade or so their potent mix of CG-driven spectacle, nominally interwoven soap operatics and mildly amusing comedy have convinced millions of us that a multi-platform marketing plan is a fine stand-in for a real movie. They’ve also made the case that, beyond box office success and toys sold, genre films—comic book films—are not to be taken seriously at all.
So when a movie like “Joker” comes along and tries, however fitfully and frightfully, to be something more, to be even a faint echo of better, more ambitious movies, it seems incredibly inappropriate. It almost seems like an affront to the blending of marketing and cinema that Marvel has mandated as the standard for this kind of fare. Here is a film that is incredibly flawed, not particularly original, and potentially even harmful (though not really). And yet, it’s trying to do something that no Marvel movie has done before: it asks questions about the extreme nature of the absurd characters living in super-hero universe. It actually considers death and killing as consequential acts. And it tries, however imperfectly, to try and take its subject matter somewhat seriously.
“Joker” is not a great movie, and it certainly doesn’t live up to the prior art (“Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” etc.) that it shamelessly swipes from. But it’s ambitious, at the very least. And more than that, it’s audacious. It challenges our idea of what a comic book movie is, or even should be. I’ve watched so many Marvel films that washed over me with a numbing boredom that I found it fully exhilarating to watch the many parts of “Joker” when I literally had no idea what would happen next. You just don’t get that with the Avengers et. al. You also don’t get actors doing what Joaquin Phoenix is trying to do here: suffuse an entire film with the inner life of the character he’s inhabiting. Phoenix’s performance is amazing in part because it’s actually a real performance inside a comic book movie; it’s worlds away from the self-satisfied mugging, quipping and posturing that Robert Downey Jr. fobs off as acting.
Part of what’s so confusing is that it’s really difficult to talk about “Joker” without talking about Marvel movies, because it so clearly stands as a response to that monoculture that we’ve all been smothered with for twenty-two movies now. But that’s also exactly why the movie is interesting; it represents a moment of change, of evolution. It is in a sense a reassessment of what comic book movies are, and in so doing it’s making a worthwhile—though not unassailable—contribution to the discourse, much as late period noir and western films were instrumental to expanding the possibilities of those genres. In the end, I predict, it will be remembered favorably.
Anyway, that’s pretty much what I’ve wanted to get off my chest about “Joker” after seeing it in theaters last month. Here are all sixteen movies I watched in October:
Like a lot of urgent advice, this terrific article about best practices in creating strong passwords, written by Jon Xavier of Fleetsmith, feels both necessary and tragic. Necessary because, as the article says, there is “so much outdated, misleading, and just plain wrong information” about how to create and maintain passwords out there. And tragic because this most basic of security measures, which few of us have ever really mastered, seems likely to continue to challenge most users of digital products for the foreseeable future. It’s well worth reading the article in full, but a quick rundown of its main takeaways is also worthwhile:
Passwords should be a minimum of ten characters long, and ideally as long as possible
Neither special characters nor numbers are necessary in order to make passwords stronger
Cleverly swapping numbers for letters in your passwords is completely ineffective
A password should only be changed when there’s reason to believe it’s been compromised
The same password should never be used on multiple sites
Two-factor authorization should always be turned on if it’s available
Never give honest answers to password security questions, e.g., What’s your mother’s maiden name?
Xavier goes deep into the myths driving password implementations and usage today, but one thing he doesn’t touch on is how poor is the user experience of passwords across platforms and products. Create six different accounts at six different web sites and you’ll very likely encounter six different approaches to encouraging and enforcing password strength and security, some egregiously lax and others excessively restrictive.
That inconsistency alone undermines much of the vigilance that otherwise responsible users might bring to password creation. If you’re presented with a new set of rules to comply with each time you undertake the same essentially diversionary task (no one sets up a password as an end in itself; they only do so as a means towards achieving some other goal), your devotion to security will inevitably be worn down to a lowest common denominator approach.
Perhaps the most important advice that Xavier offers is:
The most important factor in password safety is how they’re stored.
If you’ve used password managers like 1Password, my personal favorite, you’ll likely nod your head in agreement here. Not only do password managers markedly improve password safety, but they also ameliorate the experience of using them to begin with. Once you’re up and running with 1Password or similar apps, your online activity feels inherently more secure.
Still, huge gaps remain. For example, when generating a new password, these utilities can only guess at the security requirements of a given site or app. So if the constraint mandated by the site is, say, twelve characters including at least one number, and the password manager happens to be set to generate strings of random words that are thirty-two characters or longer, it’s up to the user to mediate the disparity.
It’s also difficult for a password manager to understand when a password is applicable to more than one site or app. Once a password is created, it’s often matched exclusively to the domain of that site. So if your login is also valid on a closely related site, as is the case with many sites from large companies, the password manager won’t automatically recognize the relationship and present the relevant login.
What’s more, grasping the added complexity of a third-party piece of software can be a challenge to many new users. To use one of these utilities effectively, you have to adopt it as a habit, which can take time. That can result in an intermediary phase where some passwords are stored in the manager and others are stored elsewhere using other means, confusing novice users even more.
Of course you could use the password utilities now built into many operating systems or browsers, which lately have been improved significantly. But if you go this route then you’re sort of stuck there, because accessing those passwords across the wide chasm between products or platforms is high friction at best.
On the desktop, while it’s easy enough to generate and access passwords in a browser, doing the same for native apps, much less the operating system’s own password prompts, is less straightforward. Manual copy and pasting is often the only way to bridge that divide. And this is especially true on iOS and iPadOS. While password access has improved greatly over the years on mobile, the landscape is still pretty unpredictable. Generate a new password in one app, and you may or may not be able to access it easily on the corresponding web site.
And none of this takes into account the excessive frequency with which all kinds of products and platforms prompt users to type their passwords, often without making it completely evident why password entry might be necessary at a given moment.
Compare the experience of passwords with the experience of, say, accessing your email, using a web browser, or performing any kind of search. Regardless of your host or client or even platform, these conform to more or less the same patterns of experience. That’s because like passwords, they’re decentralized pieces of technological infrastructure, but unlike passwords they’ve benefitted from an accretion of best practices that over time have have evolved into more or less universal standards. By contrast passwords still seem immature, developmentally arrested by efficacy myths, and suffering from continual UX neglect. Passwords are clearly a user experience problem starving for design attention.
The makers of the podcast app Castro were recently kind enough to invite me to share five of my favorite podcasts, and this week they published that list as a feature story in their app. If you don’t have Castro on your iPhone you can read it on their blog, but if you listen to podcasts and haven’t tried it yet, you should download it.
I’m particularly fond of Castro’s ability to “side load” podcast content, a feature I use all the time while working on “Wireframe.” When a new rough cut of each episode is ready, the producers share the audio file for review as a Dropbox link. I open that up in the Dropbox app on my phone and then, using the Castro extension, I copy it to over to Castro. That lets me listen to these rough cuts exactly as I would experience them in real life; with my headphones on, as I walk around town or ride the subway.
You can read more about what I have to say about each of these in the post, but since there was only room enough for five, I thought I’d share a few more of the shows I listen to regularly. Fair warning: they’re basically all about film.
“The Big Picture,” a movies podcast from The Ringer, does a great job of covering the current cinema. But it also does a better job than nearly any other news source I know of continually asking the question “How are movies changing?” The hosts examine everything from how the conversation around new movies is evolving, to the way streaming platforms are impacting our ideas of what movies can be, to how the Oscars race and other awards programs incentivize different kinds of filmmaking, and more.
“The Next Picture Show” bills itself as a “movie-of-the-week” podcast that comes in a series of two-episode arcs, with one episode examining a new movie and the other examining an older movie that set an interesting precedent for that newer film. So in recent months they’ve looked at both “Joker” and “The Dark Knight,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Shampoo,” “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum” and “The Warriors”… you get the idea. The pairings are fascinating, and the commentary is wonderfully thoughtful and friendly.
“Blank Check” is a podcast with a unique format that examines the full filmographies of prominent directors. So, for weeks at a time, they will immerse themselves, film by film, in the work of directors like Tim Burton, Ang Lee, Brad Bird and more. I end up either listening to every episode for weeks at a time, as I did with their recent series on the work of Michael Mann, or I tune out entirely for long stretches. But the banter between the two hosts, while raucous, is also terrifically incisive about what makes films work.
“The Business” is a weekly radio show from KCRW that covers the entertainment industry from, well, the business side. It’s very current, as it covers a lot of weekly news items. What I enjoy is the fact that it’s essentially disinterested in celebrity culture and more focused on how movies and TV shows get made. Actually I find it to be a continual source of inspiration for how anything gets made.
“Zig Zag” is an example of how new forms of media are often at their best chronicling themselves. It’s essentially an audio blog from two entrepreneurs, both veterans of public radio, trying to build a new company in the podcasting space. As journalists, they bring a more self-aware understanding of the entrepreneur’s journey than most entrepreneurs and, frankly, most tech podcasts.
Looking back at this list and the one that Castro published, I realize now that my podcast listening habits have gravitated towards shows with higher production values. There are definitely some shows of the “a few mics and some banter” variety here, but what’s consistent is they all invest at least a commercially viable level of preparation into each episode. It helps when there’s professional broadcast talent, too, or at least an extremely winning chemistry among amateur hosts. This is probably why over the years, I’ve cut out almost all of the design and tech podcasts from my diet. There are plenty of terrific shows on those subjects of course, and I used to listen to them more than shows from any other category. But over time they’ve felt narrower and narrower to me, while I’ve come to appreciate professional production values more and more. I’ve also come to realize that reading about tech, particularly, is preferable for me; it’s not just more efficient, but the thoughtfulness and analysis is richer. To each their own, of course. The beauty of today’s podcast landscape is that there’s so much to choose from.