Balloon Olympics

This is a little late as the summer games are over, but it’s fun and visually inventive enough that I thought I’d pass it along—balloons competing in Olympic sports. From London-based animation studio Animade, who specialize in “characterful creativity.” Their other work is well worth a look.

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Politics: Steady Diet of…Something

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Just seventy-four days left until Election Day. I don’t talk about politics here very much but I do spend a lot of time thinking about it, particularly during this crazy campaign season. In fact, these days I find myself consuming more about Clinton and Trump than just about any other topic. Here’s a rundown of all the news sources I hit regularly…

Politico Though I’ve never counted, it wouldn’t surprise me if I refresh Politico as many as fifty times a day to see what’s new. This was especially true several weeks ago, during that stretch after the two political conventions, when Donald Trump seemed to say something outrageous every eight hours or so. Though I have lots of quibbles with its mobile app (its breaking news notifications often lead nowhere) I find Politico’s reporting to be, on the whole, quite good and very timely.

Playbook This is Politico’s daily tip sheet, sent out each morning around 7:30. It’s often the first thing I check; it provides a terrific overview of what all the major political outlets have published, and what will be driving the day.

Real Clear Politics A decent round-up of notable politics stories from around the web, updated twice a day. I check it regularly, but I don’t often click through to the actual stories. Many times I’ve already read them or they are so partisan (both liberal and conservative) that I don’t bother.

FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver and company’s superb, insightful, statistics-based outlook on politics, sports, and more politics doesn’t publish at a rapid clip (“just” once or twice a day), but it is a delight to read. It was a real shame for The New York Times when they lost that team.

The New York Times After all the furor of the election is over, the Times will be the one that I keep reading, day in and day out. The reporting is still superb and more definitive than any other source, though the way its content is offered is not without its problems. The politics desk’s Election 2016 section doesn’t seem to wake up too early in the day, as it can sometimes take until late in the morning for its “What to Know” section to get updated. The section is also buried in the site, so you really have to dig for it. Similarly difficult to navigate to are its First Draft daily politics newsletter (decent, though not essential) and The Upshot, which is their replacement for having lost FiveThirtyEight several years ago.

The Washington Post I wish that The Post and The Times would get together and offer a single bundle: if you subscribe to one at full-price, you’d have the option of adding a subscription to the second at half-price. As it is, I can only justify paying for access to The Post during election years, even though they produce a lot of very good content, and at a faster clip than The Times does. Their site however is in even worse shape than The Times’. Most of its politics stories have a right-hand column that goes into an overbearing, app-like elections news mode, triggered automatically whenever you look at the left column funny.

The Wall Street Journal Very solid stuff, though I “only” check it several times a week. Their Blue Feed, Red Feed tool is a really remarkable if sad illustration of the echo chamber at both ends of the political spectrum.

Talking Points Memo I’ve been reading Josh Marshall’s work for years, so I come back here from time to time. They do some genuinely valuable reporting, but I have little patience for heavily liberal coverage these days, and that’s a lot of what you get here. There’s a whole universe of much, much more liberal sites than this one that I largely don’t bother with, too. To be clear, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool lefty, but I’ve lost my taste for unhinged partisanship.


That’s what I read every day, but I’m also listening to a ton of politics coverage on my phone. Here are the podcasts I subscribe to—for each one, I listen to new episodes almost as soon as they’re out:

NPR Politics This is really my favorite politics podcast, bar none. It’s got great, insightful commentary and genial banter that doesn’t try too hard. They release new episodes on Thursdays, though there are often quick hits released earlier in the week, too.

FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast Pretty much exactly as good as you’d expect from the people who write the web site.

NYT The Run-Up Podcast Recently launched and very good. Timespolitics reporter Michael Barbaro makes for a great host, though some of the segments on the show are a bit too overproduced for my taste.

Keepin’ It 1600 Terrific name. I’m not sure I understand why The Ringer exists or what the heck it is, but this podcast hosted by Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, former advisers to President Obama, is consistently good. It’s a little more partisan than I prefer, but it’s very revealing to get into the heads of people who have worked directly on campaigns and at the White House.

Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie Veteran radio reporter Ken Rudin is a real pro—both as an encyclopedia of political knowledge, and a host who brings together an eclectic collection of political stories.

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Firefly Animated

Peak TV means you can have more of almost anything you’ve ever watched before. How about salvaging a poorly reviewed, alt comedy box office dud from 2001 and turning it into an eight-episode streaming series? Netflix obliges. Or how about bringing back one of cinema’s great offbeat auteurs for a revival of his inexplicable, cult favorite television show from over a quarter century ago? Coming soon.

It’s probably safe to say that artist Stephen Byrne believes in this truism; he has a vision for an animated version of “Firefly,” the short-lived, much loved but still obscure sci-fi western TV show that ran (very) briefly about a decade and a half ago. He created this loving, dynamic, almost jubilant concept trailer and its thirty-odd seconds look so great you can’t help but want much, much more of it to exist. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why it can’t.

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How Japan Keeps Physical Media Relevant

Japan has more brick and mortar music stores than anywhere else in the world, reports Quartz in this fascinating article. Oddly, this a result of a market that became immersed in digital technology years before many other first world countries, and that experience has engendered an unexpected consumer fondness for physical media. Japan’s music industry has also been smart about maximizing the perceived value of the compact disc:

The huge popularity of girl and boy bands, and the rabid fandoms that they spawn, allow record companies to cash in using the marketing gimmick of limited editions. It’s not uncommon for a CD to be released in five different versions, featuring different covers, B-sides, or bonus DVDs.

This speaks to a love of physical objects that’s characteristic of Japanese and also German culture, says Mulligan. These two countries have a shared preference for cash over credit cards, and also the strongest sales of physical music in the world.

This has led to a transformation in what CDs mean—from being objects that play songs to a form of merchandise. It’s less about the music itself and more about the experience of supporting, and feeling closer to, your favorite idol, says Ronald Taylor, music correspondent for the Japan Times.

In the last 15 years, record companies have partnered with artist management agencies to take this further. Inside the CDs there are tickets to special concerts; handshake events, where buyers can spend a few seconds locking hands with their idol; and voting cards used for annual ‘elections’ that determine the popularity of band members within the group. Popular members get TV appearances and endorsement deals that the bands and management can further profit from. Fans can vote as many times as they want—one CD single counts as one vote—leading extreme fans to buy thousands of copies of the same CD.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’ve never been fond of the exploitive tendencies that physical formats, especially CDs, seemed to inspire in music marketers; there’s no good reason to buy five versions of the same album, and, environmentally speaking, plenty of good reasons why there shouldn’t be five versions even issued.

On the other hand, I admire how the Japanese music industry has apparently continued to add emotional resonance to their products—not just to the actual CDs, but to the idea of an album or a release as a work to be valued, as a connection to the artist. This is diametrically opposed to the trend that I’ve experienced with streaming services, where the value of a work seems to degrade all the time; I feel less connected to the artists (and albums) that I’ve discovered on Spotify than I do to the music I actually owned—whether in physical form or even as a digital download. There’s got to be a happy medium between buying five copies of the same CD and feeling generally blasé about an infinite catalog of streaming music.

Read the full article at qz.com.

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Looking for Beta Testers for Handlr

Last year, in this blog post, I mentioned in passing a macOS utility that my friend Scott Ostler and I have been tinkering with, on and off, for several years. It’s called “Handlr” (we’ve since dropped the “e”) and it intercepts links that you might click on in apps like Slack, Mail, Messages, Notes, Preview, etc. and lets you decide which browser to open them in. The interface looks like this:

Handlr

There was enough interest in Handlr that we decided to finally finish the work and release it to the public. It’s just about ready, but before we pull the trigger, we’re hoping to find a handful of beta testers to help us kick the tires and make sure it’s really sturdy. So if you use multiple browsers (or would like to) and want to have more control over where your links are opened, please head over to this Google form and sign up to be a beta tester. With luck we’ll have this out before too long. Thanks!

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Straight Line Photos

My favorite photo utility on my phone is SKRWT, which I think is meant to be pronounced as “square it” but reads to me like “screw it.” However it’s pronounced, it allows me to “correct” (or “distort,” depending on how you think about it) photos I take so that all the straight lines in a shot actually appear straight, or very close to it. This overlong video shows how it’s used; you’ll get the idea after thirty seconds or so.

The app includes controls for manipulation of your photo’s rotation, perspective and lens distortion. The adjustments must be done manually, which I don’t mind too much. The effect is inherently artificial, so making the decisions as to how much to tweak on a case by case basis feels more like genuine artistry than just having it done for you automatically (though it would be nice to be able to save my own presets). Aesthetically, the results you can achieve are particularly effective for shooting architecture, but it’s also very much the look that I favor in photography—when everything’s on a straight line, I’m happy.

Here’s one example; a shot I took on the street in San Francisco recently from ground level, holding my phone as level and upright as I could.

Fire Station Before SKRWT

Here’s the same shot after just a few quick edits with SKRWT and some light color correction.

Fire Station After SKRWT

The results are not perfect, of course—the changes I made show an exaggerated distortion. That’s one of the inherent drawbacks of trying to get precise results while editing on a phone screen. But given a little more time and care, SKRWT absolutely lets you get better results than this.

Unfortunately, SKRWT hasn’t had a meaningful update in quite some time; it was released two years ago and was last updated in the App Store last November. It’s also broken on the iPad; the UI gets scrambled on that device, which is unfortunate because the greater screen real estate would lend itself nicely to these kinds of edits. Still, I find that it’s worth the relatively paltry US$1.99 price tag, though in an ideal world, this kind of functionality would be built right into Apple’s or Google’s own photo apps.

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Super Recognizers and Visual Acuity

Super Recognizers

This is a fascinating article at The New Yorker by Patric Radden Keefe about a unique team of police at Scotland Yard composed of what are known as “super recognizers.”

Each officer has an extraordinary ability to recall and recognize faces, and to help solve crimes they employ that skill in scanning the endless amount of footage generated by London’s countless CCTV cameras (the city is regarded as the most highly surveilled in the world). In a little more than a year of operation as a dedicated unit, they’ve identified nearly two thousand perpetrators who would otherwise not have been caught.

The article examines the notion that the ability to recognize faces may in fact be a spectrum, with super recognizers on one end and those who suffer from “face blindness” on the other. Keefe writes:

In 2008, a postdoctoral student at Harvard named Richard Russell began working with a team of perceptual psychologists on a study of prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness,’ a condition in which patients are unable to recognize human faces. In extreme cases, prosopagnosia can be a socially debilitating affliction: a mother tries to retrieve the wrong child from day care because she does not recognize her own baby; a patient is shown a photograph of a woman and wonders who it is, only to be informed that she is looking at a picture of herself. But many people suffer from milder forms of face blindness, and may not realize that they are in any way abnormal. ‘We’re not good at talking about how we recognize faces,’ Russell said. ‘So we assume that other people are like us.’

Until recently, only a few hundred prosopagnosics had been studied, and from this research neuroscientists and perceptual psychologists had established a binary ‘pathological’ model: either you were normal, and could recognize faces, or you had face blindness. But new studies have indicated that although prosopagnosia can result from a stroke or traumatic brain injury, it is a heritable condition that is sometimes present from birth. It’s also much more widespread than was previously believed. With the advent of the Internet, formerly isolated individuals have found a community of fellow-sufferers.

Collaborating with two psychologists, Ken Nakayama and Brad Duchaine, Russell disseminated a bulletin in the Boston area seeking research subjects who thought that they might be face blind. The researchers heard back from many people who believed that they were prosopagnosic. But they also heard from a small group who said that they were ‘the opposite.’

Russell had come to suspect that facial recognition might not be simply a faculty that was either present or absent. What if it was on a spectrum? If most people are pretty good at recognizing faces and prosopagnosics are terrible at it, Russell recalls thinking, shouldn’t there be ‘some people on the high end’?

If this particular ability can be graded, it’s interesting to think that other kinds of visual acuity could be subject to similar ranges, especially through the lens of design. We think of the ability to recognize typefaces, for instance, as purely the result of close study of the craft, but what if some of us are just naturally more capable of discerning the difference between say Garamond and Goudy? Or, what if there is no baseline inherent to the ability to discern and interpret icons or interface elements? It seems possible that as designers, our understanding of the way that consumers of design perceive our work is fairly rudimentary. In the future, science may be able to quantify readability and usability more accurately, and also shed light on how much of the many details that designers fret over really matter to people who are not already steeped in the vernacular of our craft.

Read the full article at newyorker.com.

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Taking CarPlay for a Spin

CarPlay

Earlier this year I bought a 2016 Kia Sorento. It was a great deal for a car rife with luxury features, and one made in the USA, to boot. But like a lot of cars, the operating system that powers its in-dash console, called UVO, is pretty bad.

Last month, Kia released a software update that brings CarPlay, Apple’s in-car solution for using iOS while driving, to several recent models including mine. (Kia’s update also enables Google’s Android Auto, but I haven’t tested that yet)

CarPlay is a substantial upgrade over many aspects of the user experience of UVO, but I was surprised to find that many of my assumptions about how it works were unfounded. CarPlay is not a full telematics system; it doesn’t truly become the car’s operating system, as I had assumed, but essentially allows your iPhone to “cast” a modified version of its UI, and a select few apps, to the in-dash console. This was probably obvious to anyone paying close attention to the branding; it’s not called CarOS, after all.

Rather, the CarPlay name is meant to evoke Apple’s AirPlay living room casting technology, and while it’s more capable than AirPlay in that you can actually interact with it, it’s still quite limited. Beyond the fact that only certain apps will work with CarPlay (a reasonable restriction; there’s no good safety argument for displaying Instagram, say, on your car’s head unit), the user experience is decidedly rough around the edges and noticeably more compromised than one typically associates with Apple.

A Compromised User Experience

The most prominent example of CarPlay’s challenges may be that it looks terrible, though through no fault of its own. The display of most in-dash consoles is not of Retina quality, and as a result, the CarPlay apps and UI elements look jagged and poorly rendered. That’s compounded by the fact that, even though you can tap and swipe on the screen, the performance is sluggish and occasionally choppy.

Beyond that, I was surprised to find that CarPlay only works when your iPhone is plugged into your console’s USB port via Lightning cable. This is probably necessary for the “casting” aspect of the experience, as the CarPlay interface that you see on the console is essentially powered by your phone. But for me, it represents a step back from the ability to connect your phone to the car’s system via Bluetooth. Of course, that wireless connection really only transmits audio, but having the freedom of putting the phone anywhere in the car—and especially the ability to pass it to passengers to use—is something I missed immediately when using CarPlay.

I was similarly disappointed to realize that when CarPlay is active, your dashboard screen and your phone can’t show different apps at the same time. If you’re following directions via Apple’s Maps app, for instance, and you switch to Spotify to make a music selection, the map view on the dashboard monitor will be replaced by Spotify’s music catalog. Whether this is a safety-oriented decision (one of CarPlay’s main goals is to minimize distractions from your phone) or simply an inherent limitation of a casted user experience, it ignores real world use cases in which a traveling companion may want to use other apps while you’re driving. (The inconvenience of this behavior suggests a new rule of thumb in multi-screen experiences: if you have two screens, as you do with CarPlay, the user should be able to use them independently, even if they are linked.)

Where This Road Leads

This firsthand experience with CarPlay really helped me to understand exactly why Apple is reportedly working on its own car. CarPlay’s inherent flaw is that it’s a software solution that’s intended to work with a variety of hardware configurations, none of which are controlled expressly by Apple. This is the antithesis of what Apple prefers to do, and it shows. The user experience is the best that it can be given the reality of having to design a system for implementation by literally dozens of auto makers, it’s true. But it demonstrates relatively little of the elegance, thoughtfulness and regard for the user experience that Apple is able to pull off when it controls both the hardware and the software. If Apple regards the automobile as a growth opportunity, and obviously it does, then it can’t be happy with what it’s able to accomplish with CarPlay, nor with the many compromises it must contend with. The logical conclusion would be to control the hardware, to build its own car, where every detail is within its purview.

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Graphic Means, A Documentary About Graphic Design Production

This looks like an entertaining if esoteric documentary from director and producer Briar Levit, who is also a professional graphic designer. The film explores the world of graphic design production—the tools and methods that enable the craft, and how they underwent a dramatic transformation between the 1950s and 1990s. The trailer is basically a wonderful supercut of analog design production techniques; sort of the graphic equivalent of the magnetic “authenticity” of locally sourced goods, hand-made crafts, farm-to-table dining, organic produce, etc. The project was funded via Kickstarter, a sponsorship from Adobe Typekit, and a Faculty Enhancement Grant from Portland State University, where Levit works as an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design.

The movie also has a great title and poster:

“Graphic Means” Poster

More at graphicmeans.com.

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The Forgotten Art of Hand Colored Photographs

This short documentary spotlights Grace Rawson, an 83-year old New Zealander who, in her youth in the 1950s, worked as a hand colorist. Along with other young women, she was employed by a company called White’s Aviation to meticulously add color tinting to the company’s aviation photography. As she says in the video, each piece was created lovingly by hand, and though the technique is not generally looked back upon with great fondness, the care that Rawson put into them is evident. She demonstrates the technique here for the first time in many decades, and the results have a winningly imprecise charm that is rare in today’s age of highly manipulated digital color.

More at loadingdocs.net.

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