Interview with Scott Berkun, Author of “How Design Makes the World”

Cover for “How Design Makes the World”

If you care about design, I would posit that the most pressing evolutionary challenge it faces is not design systems or design-to-code or even accessible design, as worthwhile as perfecting those pursuits might be. Rather, the single most consequential barrier to design’s next level of success is simply explaining itself to society at large.

What is design? And how does it work? Answer those questions in clear, relatable language and the world suddenly becomes a very different place in which to practice our craft.

Writer and design thinker Scott Berkun’s new book “How Design Makes the World” does a shockingly good job of doing just that. In twenty crisply written chapters across just over two-hundred pages, Berkun breaks down the mechanics of design and demonstrates its ubiquity and importance to nearly every aspect of life. It’s a cogent, incredibly illuminating antidote to the fog and mystery that has shrouded the practice of design for practically its entire history.

When I was lucky enough to read it in galleys prior to its publication, I felt a curious mixture of joy and professional jealousy. On the one hand, “How Design Makes the World” is an instant classic that every designer will want to read and own for themselves —as well as, probably, to gift copies to the clients and stakeholders they work with. And on the other hand, having been intensely interested myself for a long time in this idea of making design more understandable, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I’d written this book.” Berkun has done a wonderful service in writing this, not just to the world of design, but to the world at large. He was kind enough to agree to discuss the book with me in an interview that we conducted over email.

Khoi Vinh: First, tell me about this title. It doesn’t lack for ambition. What is the message you’re trying to send, and how did you settle on it?

Scott Berkun: To the depression of many designers, the good work we do goes largely unnoticed. This should change! The world has so many problems today that would be easier to solve if people benefited from the knowledge designers have. But designers aren’t great at inviting people in and warmly teaching them to see. The title was the clearest way to establish the stakes—design affects everything—but make it inviting and welcoming.

So is the title—and the book—intended more for an audience of designers? Or others?

It’s intended for both in a clever way. It’s designed around powerful stories, so no jargon or background is needed. Executives, programmers and just about anyone is welcomed in to learn. For designers it gives a fresh set of stories to share and better tactics for teaching others, while giving them new hope and inspiration about why what they do is so important.

What made you realize that you needed to write this book?

I studied design in college but my career was mostly as a general project leader, a decision maker who had to bring everyone together. I’ve spent most of my life in the middle, translating between executives, engineers, marketers and designers, and designers usually have the low ground in organizations. Every designer has to teach their coworkers themselves, and start over with new teams and projects. It’s tiring. We have good books on our shelves, but they weren’t designed to solve this. I was well suited for this task and no one else had done it.

I’ve felt that exhaustion of having to explain the fundamentals of design, over and over, myself. Why do you think that even with design’s profile being higher than ever, we still struggle to define exactly what it is to the uninitiated?

One part is the high profile of design isn’t uniform. A few companies are clearly design-driven, and they get talked about often at design conferences, but most teams at most companies are not led with design as a strategy. It’s a tougher landscape. A second part is many designers don’t like or don’t want to be ambassadors. They just want to “design” and see pioneering as an unrewarding chore, which is okay—but then who is going to make it better now and for the next generation? Third, there aren’t many tools that help. Most design books, courses and movies are made for designers, not for everyone else. Fourth, there’s a lot of fear among some designers that if they teach too much, they’ll be out of a job. Many designers want to be better respected and understood but feel it’s beneath them or dangerous to make design less mysterious and invest in changing things.

That last part especially resonates with me. I’ve come to believe that, consciously or subconsciously, many designers are actually invested in people not understanding the craft. How deep do you think this runs?

It’s as deep as it can get. Many designers have been picked on and disrespected, sometimes even in design school! Some were art kids who didn’t fit in. They know that creativity is personally important, but they also know that most people, including possibly their parents, do not understand it or respect it. They’ve seen design trivialized generally by culture. Psychologically that weighs on how any person sees their profession. The fear is that if their boss or coworker learns a tiny bit, they’ll think “I’m a designer now” and they’ll get fired. There’s safety in quietly doing a job and not revealing too much, so “the secret magic” remains theirs. Of course it’s usually the opposite: teach someone the first taste of a skill and they get new eyes—suddenly they see how much they don’t know. But that requires confidence in how your profession is perceived. That’s definitely a common thread in design culture: a conflict between ambition and fear. They want good design to be popular and respected, including their own work, but fear doing the things required to make that happen.

I wonder if you think stakeholders or clients, especially, are also complicit in this? I’ve always had the impression that a certain class of client—often very high in the pecking order—want to hire designers who can dazzle them, or their board of directors, with design mystery or theatrics.

I’m fascinated by how most people think of creative work as high excitement, as their experience with it is mostly from TV and movies. Every pitch meeting on shows like “Mad Men” is just three minutes long, with an orchestrated soundtrack and Emmy-worthy dialogue performed by actors with off the charts charisma. It’s no wonder stakeholders and clients tend to want magic. They have no other conception of what it’s supposed to feel like to have discussions about ideas. So I agree they are complicit, but often from ignorance.

On one side, getting clients is sales work and dazzling people can help sell. And early in a project an inspiring (but unrealistic) prototype can get a team excited. Hard to argue against that. But when it’s deceptive or defeats the clients own goals, it breaks the golden rule. It’s up to the professional, the designer in our case, to show there’s a better way to think about what good is. This is similar perhaps to how a doctor would advise a patient that they don’t need an MRI for a paper cut. Since design will never be at the center of culture (but we can get much closer!), how good we are at explaining it and being ambassadors is critical. But it takes skill to do this without adding friction and if you’re struggling to pay bills and your clients demand magic shows, it’s hard to resist for long. Yet if we all do this, the status quo remains.

Okay so it sounds like it’s safe to say that there are some serious myths or misconceptions that you’re out to dismantle. Can you describe how your book tries to do that?

There are two big ones I take on directly in the book. One: that design is hard to explain. It’s not! The trap is trying to teach it with theory and posturing (“I want you to learn… to be impressed by what I know!”), a trap many experts fall into. But we know people’s brains learn best from stories. How did UI design make the Notre Dame Cathedral fire worse? That’s a story. Why did a city rotate half of its streets forty-five degrees so driving is confusing and dangerous? That’s a story too. The book is a series of well-crafted stories, each unpacked in entertaining ways using concepts from design to explain why these good or bad things have happened to all of us. It does the heavy lifting designers need to do with their co-workers and communities (and often for the designers themselves, who can use a refreshed view on what they do and why).

Two: that design is just the trivial surface of things. Most people think of design as a layer on top, the final paint color or style (which is often harder and more powerful than people think). But design goes all the way down. Why is the border between India and Pakistan where it is, and often in conflict? Someone designed it. Why is the nearest bus stop one block or fifty blocks from where you live? Someone designed that too. Why does a McDonald’s cheeseburger have three buns? And where’d that “special sauce” come from? Again, it was designed! The book’s stories come from a wide variety of places (by design!) to connects how the challenges of say mobile app design shares a lineage with hundreds of other kinds of design work, and seeing it that way changes how you we the world and what we can do in it.

The breadth of the stories in the book is impressive, both in variety and also in demonstrating how design is really just everywhere.

Glad you feel that way!

Are these stories that you’ve collected over the years, or did you start with specific principles you wanted to examine and then came to find the stories through research?

I’m obsessed with these kinds of stories and have been studying them since college. I’m just fascinated by how everything works (or doesn’t!). But once I have a rough outline of what a book is supposed to do for the reader, I start looking at the news and anything I read more carefully. I become a design investigator. I’ll dig up obscure books that often have fresh takes and examples (popular books often sing the same notes). I don’t respect category boundaries: many great design stories come from engineering or business or history writing. I do lots of research and then in early drafts the game is figuring out which stories can fit where, if it all. And then in later drafts it’s how it all fits together. It’s a design process, really. And some great stories I hoped to use just don’t fit, much like a designer discovers some of their best ideas need to get cut to make space for the other ideas to shine.

Which of the stories that did make it into the book do you think are the most surprising or most instructive?

It’s staggering to think that much of the Notre Dame Cathedral burned to the ground because of a basic usability problem any junior design student could have solved. That shock wakes readers up, which is why it’s early in the book. And the irony that something built well enough more than six hundred years ago to still be here was decimated by a design flaw created here and now in our proud era of high technology. That contrast makes clear design is indeed everywhere, both the good and the bad. Had a couple of more people known design basics so many terrible things that happened would have been wonderful things instead. I’d really like to help change that.

That one is a real eye opener, for sure, and so heartbreaking. What strikes me about that story is that as it was reported, and it was reported extensively, design barely got a mention. In fact, for most of these stories, design is really a secondary narrative, hidden in the background. It’s almost as if as a culture, or maybe as a species, humans can’t see design, even when it’s hiding in plain sight—or even when it produces tragic outcomes like the fire at Notre Dame. Would you agree?

I feel that way but I’m not sure of the cause. Some of the challenge is that news itself is designed! And as an industry they’ve been so decimated for the last 20 years it’s hard to even calculate how their reduced ability to investigate and explain things has impacted us. They do involve design experts when it’s something like the butterfly ballot, or the Boeing 737 MAX, but that’s only if the journalist thinks to ask one and has a basic notion of how design isn’t only aesthetics or interior design but is integral to everything. There’s just not enough design literacy yet in the people who write the news.

One self-inflicted trap is that good designers strive for their work to become invisible. Even now I’m not thinking about the design of the keyboard I’m typing on, the screen I’m looking at or the email software I’m using (okay, well now I am, but you get my point) and I wrote a book on why we should notice everything!

I wonder if when we shifted into consumer culture, where fewer people make things, it’s easier to imagine that phones and cars just fall from the sky in finished form. We’re exposed to far less of the process of how everything, from food, to technology, to laws, are made. I’m hopeful though: we are naturally curious creatures. All it takes is the right spark, or story or question and people’s sense of wonder rises.

How much are you actually trying to stoke that sense of wonder, to get more people interested in design, with this book?

As much as possible! But I wrote the book with professional designers in mind too—many of us have become jaded, tired of trying to explain it with the same old stories. I wanted to give us a fresh way to think about what we do and the profound possibilities of a society that was more design literate.

So can you imagine a future where design is much better understood, much more present in our everyday thinking as a society? And, aside from the key role that this book might play, what is necessary for us to get there?

I can! In a way I’ve seen it. In 1994 I couldn’t get a job doing interaction design (what we now call UX design). A career doing it didn’t exist. I’d never have imagined then how well accepted and understood the role of design would become in the tech world. Not even close. But we know there’s a long way to go. We just need to make it an inspiring mission and give more designers the skills and tools to show the way and celebrate the people who’ve done it and are doing it now. And for that reason and more thanks for what you do and for taking the time to interview me here.

How Design Makes the World” is out now. You can buy it in every format at designmtw.com, or in Kindle and paperback at Amazon.

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My 2019 Movie Diary, Finally

My 2019 Movie Diary (Finally)

It’s the weekend so I’m sneaking in an incredibly tardy housekeeping post here: a full wrap-up of my movie watching from 2019. Like my monthly roundups, I’ve been doing this for the past several years as a way of assessing what I’ve seen—usually not five months after the year has wrapped, but better late than never.

The way it works is: every time I watch a movie, I log it in my Letterboxd film diary. Then, at the beginning of each month (more or less), I post a recap of what I watched the previous month. After the year is over, I put all of the roundups together in a single post, along with a top ten list.

Currently, in May of 2020, I’m in the middle of my fifth year of doing this, which is nuts. In my first year, 2016, I watched a total of 189 movies. In 2017, I watched 191 movies. In 2018 I watched 201. And last year, I watched 219. (You can see Letterboxd’s automatically generated overview of my year here.)

Top Ten

One of the benefits of posting this so late in the following year is that I had the time to actually watch more of the previous year’s films than I normally do. As a result this list of my favorites looks slightly different now than it would have looked back in January, say. Reassessing the year now I realize that only the first five or so feel absolutely essential to me. The rest are worthwhile for sure, but I’m less passionate about them than I was about the lower spots on previous years’ lists. This actually seems like a fairly accurate reflection of the fact that most of 2019, at least leading up to the traditional, late-year awards season, was a terrible time for movies.

See my full ranking here.

  1. Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” (2019) ★★★★
    A more expansive, complete idea of what a movie can be than anything else released in 2019.
  2. Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★
    I almost don’t even care about the political morality tale at its heart because every beat feels like pure entertainment.
  3. Uncut Gems” (2019) ★★★★
    Breathlessly alive like few other movies in recent memory.
  4. 1917” (2019) ★★★★
    Largely a technical accomplishment but I really did feel something when I watched it.
  5. The Wedding Guest” (2019) ★★★★
    Your mileage may vary on this one but it’s the sort of brainy, anti-thriller that I find irresistible, plus it’s a showcase for its two incredible vibrant South Asian leads.
  6. High Flying Bird” (2019) ★★★★
    Puts huge demands on the viewer to keep up.
  7. The Souvenir” (2019) ★★★★
    Fully believable descent into the the helplessness of loving someone bent on self-destruction.
  8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019) ★★★★
    An amazing performance from Tom Hanks and an incredibly judicious narrative exploration of what it takes to be good.
  9. Parasite” (2019) ★★★½
    I really was blown away by this movie but I just couldn’t work up any passion for the final act and how it undermined everything that preceded it.
  10. Marriage Story” (2019) ★★★½
    Too well-directed and emotionally honest to be denied, even if it’s irritatingly fixated on privileged living.

January 2019

  1. Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) ★½
    When are we all going to admit that we’ve dragged this “Star Wars” thing out way too long now?
  2. If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) ★★★★½
    A beautiful and brutal achievement.
  3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (2001) ★★½
    It’s hard to believe how dated this looks already.
  4. Free Solo” (2018) ★★★
    A monument to stupidity.
  5. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) ★★
    Chris Columbus was the wrong director to kick off this franchise.
  6. Roma” (2018) ★★★★½
    Intimacy on a huge scale.
  7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) ★★★
    Wait, maybe this is going to be fun after all?
  8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005) ★½
    I guess not.
  9. The LEGO Ninjago Movie” (2017) ★★★
    Confirmed: I’ll watch anything that Phil Lord and Chris Miller are involved in.
  10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007) ★★
    I have no idea what even happened in this one.
  11. Shirkers” (2018) ★★½
    I try not to watch documentaries. This is why.
  12. Die Hard” (1988) ★★★★
    A stone cold classic.
  13. The LEGO Movie” (2014) ★★★
    Still good, but not really all that magical on rewatch.
  14. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009) ★★½
    Something important happened in this movie, I’m sure.
  15. How to Train Your Dragon 2” (2014) ★★★
    Apparently our current decade’s films are obsessed with the idea of mother figures being banished to purgatory.
  16. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” (2010) ★★½
    What this franchise needed but never got was a creative team more interested in making good movies than in adapting the books.

February 2019

  1. The Oath” (2018) ★★★★
    Terrific and hilarious, even if it goes off the rails a bit.
  2. Peter Rabbit” (2018) ★★½
    Exceeded my very low expectations—by a little.
  3. Mission: Impossible–Fallout” (2018) ★★★★½
    Rewatchable AF.
  4. Christine” (2016) ★★★★
    Never loses its nerve. Superb.
  5. Man from Reno” (2015) ★★★★
    Excellent, but it’s hard to believe this movie exists. Who would finance an American movie with so few white people?!
  6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (2011) ★★½
    I made it all the way through to the end.
  7. Upgrade” (2018) ★½
    More of an update to the idea of a schlocky exploitation flick.
  8. Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) ★★★
    Inspired.
  9. Call Me by Your Name” (2017) ★★
    Preposterous and boring.
  10. For Your Eyes Only” (1981) ★
    Man this was painful to sit through.
  11. Lady Snowblood” (1973) ★★★½
    Still strikingly beautiful, but felt even more substantial than the first time I watched it.
  12. A Simple Favor” (2018) ★★
    A bit of a shambles, but it all could’ve worked with a better director than Paul Feig.
  13. Spellbound” (1945) ★★★
    What “The Net” was to the Internet, this movie was to psychoanalysis.
  14. Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997) ★★
    I feel bad for Pierce Brosnan; he tried so hard, but the producers never gave him anything to work with.
  15. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” (2019) ★★½
    Totally fine!
  16. Hail, Caesar!” (2016) ★★★½
    You know the term “inside baseball”? This is “inside Hollywood,” but, like, old. I mean, I enjoyed every minute of it. Rewatched.
  17. Okko’s Inn” (2018) ★★
    Little more than an excuse for gorgeous hand-drawn animation.
  18. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” (2019) ★★★½
    It got me in the end, I must admit.
  19. Notorious” (1946) ★★★★★
    One of those rare films where everything went exactly right.

March 2019

  1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975) ★★★★
    Utter genius.
  2. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” (2009) ★★★
    Seriously, sign me up for anything Lord and Miller work on.
  3. Leave No Trace” (2018) ★★★★½
    Incredible. Makes other indie movies look like parodies of themselves.
  4. Life of Brian” (1979) ★★★
    Genius sometimes suffers from its own ambition.
  5. The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” (2017) ★
    The title says it all.
  6. Captain Marvel” (2019) ★★
    Sloppy and uninspiring in every way.
  7. Home” (2015) ★★½
    Rewatched. Terrible title for an adorable tale.
  8. Dilili in Paris” (2018) ★½
    Not my style.
  9. Burn After Reading” (2008) ★★★★
    Superb genre exercise in a genre—bureaucratic black comedy—that no one really thought existed.
  10. Strangers on a Train” (1951) ★★★★
    Basically just Hitchcock indulging his less perverse perversions.
  11. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” (2019) ★★
    Documentaries are so frustrating.
  12. Triple Frontier” (2019) ★★★
    Slightly better than your average manly movie.
  13. The Revenant” (2015) ★★★
    I kind of hated it except it’s so good.
  14. A View to a Kill” (1985) ★
    The pits.
  15. The Sisters Brothers” (2018) ★★½
    Never manages to feel bigger than its meager budget.
  16. The Muppets” (2011) ★★½
    Rewatched. It’s not without its charms, but it’s not really The Muppets, either.
  17. The Savages” (2007) ★★★½
    Pretty decent for a story most people wouldn’t want to watch.
  18. The Handmaiden” (2016) ★★★★★
    Like watching a master origamist folding a beautiful, complex sculpture.

April 2019

  1. The Square” (2017) ★★★½
    A fascinating mess.
  2. The Muppet Movie” (1979) ★★★★
    A real gem, but…
  3. The Great Muppet Caper” (1981) ★★★★½
    …For my money, this is the best Muppet movie.
  4. So Dark the Night” (1946) ★½
    Beautifully photographed but empty-headed.
  5. Muppets Most Wanted” (2014) ★★
    Actually has the right kind of energy, but runs too long on too few original ideas.
  6. Youth of the Beast” (1963) ★★★½
    Violent, angst-driven, stylized yakuza fairy tale.
  7. High Flying Bird” (2019) ★★★★
    Feels stridently out of step with Hollywood in the best way.
  8. Solaris” (1972) ★★★
    Fully engrossing, very, very serious sci-fi classic that’s also unintentionally absurd, if truth be told.
  9. Last Hurrah for Chivalry” (1979) ★★½
    An early work from director John Woo that’s as over-the-top and homoerotic as you’d expect.
  10. Suede: The Insatiable Ones” (2018) ★★★
    More than decent rockumentary.
  11. Interstellar” (2014) ★★★★
    Really flawed, but also really thrilling.
  12. Shazam!” (2019) ★★½
    Captain Meh-vel.
  13. Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) ★★½
    Probably the best super-hero movie of the Marvel age of cinema.
  14. Solaris” (2002) ★★★½
    Re-watched this after seeing the original, and I was surprised by how well it compares.
  15. The Wife” (2017) ★★
    Terrible. Truly terrible.
  16. Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) ★★½
    Re-watched it, didn’t like it any better the first time around.
  17. Avengers: Endgame” (2019) ★★½
    A triumph of lowered expectations on a mass scale. That means I thought it was crap. Read my review.

May 2019

  1. John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” (2018) ★★★½
    Genius comic brain in a Young Spalding Gray body.
  2. My Name Is Julia Ross” (1945) ★★½
    Proto-gaslighting.
  3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) ★★★★
    Rewatched, eagerly.
  4. The Lineup” (1958) ★★★★
    Vicious little noir B-movie
  5. Unsane” (2018) ★★★½
    Soderbergh working it out.
  6. Drive a Crooked Road” (1954) ★★★★
    Formulaic even for noir, but executed with extraordinarily care.
  7. The Matrix” (1999) ★★★½
    I used to think I’d never get tired of rewatching this, but that’s no longer true, turns out.
  8. The World’s End” (2013) ★★½
    Rewatched. Edgar Wright just can’t get out of his own way.
  9. Spy Kids” (2001) ★½
    Oof.
  10. The Grinch” (2018) ★★½
    Rewatched. Quite sweet and pretty well done.
  11. Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. A sustained series of miracles captured on camera.
  12. John Wick: Chapter 3–Parabellum” (2019) ★★
    Too much.
  13. Girlfriends” (1978) ★★★½
    A lovely time capsule of singlehood in pre-Giuliani New York.
  14. Kaleidoscope” (1966) ★★
    I watched this on TV as a kid! It seemed better then.
  15. Being There” (1979) ★★★★
    Sadly prescient.
  16. Ronin” (1998) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Holds up very well.
  17. Starman” (1984) ★★
    What if E.T. we’re handsome? And boring.
  18. All the President’s Men” (1976) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. I could listen to just the sound effects endlessly.
  19. Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance” (1974) ★★
    Kind of pointless.
  20. Three Outlaw Samurai” (1964) ★★★½
    If you like samurai films, you’ll like this.
  21. Pokémon Detective Pikachu” (2019) ★★
    The name says it all.
  22. Ant-Man” (2015) ★★★
    Rewatched. The best movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  23. Stuart Little” (1999) ★
    Bizarre.
  24. Entertainment” (2015) ★★★
    Horrific.
  25. The Lives of Others” (2006) ★★★
    Rewatched. Labored but effective.

June 2019

  1. Always Be My Maybe” (2019) ★★★½
    Keanu’s cameo got the most attention, and it’s not even the best part!
  2. The Sting” (1973) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. An almost perfect little fairy tale of the confidence game.
  3. The Kentucky Fried Movie” (1977) ★★
    Teeming with ideas, not all of them great.
  4. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007) ★★★
    Rewatched. It nails the rock biopic genre, but doesn’t do much more than that.
  5. Bumblebee” (2018) ★★½
    A good Transformers movie is still only as good as a Transformers movie.
  6. Network” (1976) ★★★
    Rewatched. Prescient but really only resonant for an age without YouTube.
  7. Booksmart” (2019) ★★
    I’ve already said enough.
  8. The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019) ★★★★
    One of the most beautiful things ever to come out of that city.
  9. Benji” (2018) ★½
    These people think kids will watch anything.
  10. Heat” (1995) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Action cinema as romantic poetry.
  11. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance” (1972) ★★★
    Genre fluff.
  12. Miami Vice” (2006) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. After I finished it I immediately wanted to watch it again.

July 2019

  1. Under the Silver Lake” (2018) ★★½
    A lot of promise for too little payoff.
  2. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (2018) ★★
    Gus Van Sant seems bored.
  3. Spider-Man: Far from Home” (2019) ★½
    Spectacularly uninteresting.
  4. Miami Vice” (2006) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. I know people think this looks like a cheesy adaptation of a cheesy TV show, but this movie is genius.
  5. Phoenix” (2014) ★★★½
    Pretty ridiculous if a bit implausible World War II fairy tale, with an amazing ending.
  6. Amazon Women on the Moon” (1987) ★½
    Baby boomers break bad.
  7. The Big Doll House” (1971) ★★
    Exploitation perfected, but I don’t need to see it again.
  8. Public Enemies” (2009) ★★★
    A noble experiment, but it doesn’t hold up on rewatch.
  9. Kill!” (1968) ★★
    passable samurai fable.
  10. The Kid Who Would Be King” (2019) ★½
    Hard to believe this guy made “Attack the Block.”
  11. Jules and Jim” (1962) ★★★
    Great and all I guess, but good advice for Truffaut would’ve been “Show, don’t tell.”
  12. The Gay Divorcee” (1934) ★★★★
    Fred and Ginger dancing to “Night and Day” with the moonlit beach in the background is so beautiful I nearly cried.
  13. Ratatouille” (2007) ★★★½
    Rewatched. If only Brad Bird didn’t hate critics so much, this would’ve been perfect.
  14. Miami Vice” (2006) ★★★★½
    Rewatched again, third time in a month!
  15. The Equalizer 2” (2018) ★★
    Kind of amazing this movie ever got made. Because it really didn’t need to be.
  16. A Vigilante” (2018) ★½
    Conspicuously tasteful, woke filmmaking at its absolute worst.
  17. Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) ★★★½
    Classy AF.
  18. Top Hat” (1935) ★★★
    I totally get why people fell for Rogers and Astaire.
  19. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005) ★★★★
    Rewatched. “May contain nuts”!
  20. Collateral” (2004) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Didn’t expect this to hold up, but it really does.
  21. Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” (2019) ★★★★
    Let me know if you’re free to go see this.

August 2019

  1. Iron Man” (2008) ★★
    Rewatched. Clear from the beginning: the real auteur in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the studio.
  2. Deadwood: The Movie” (2019) ★★★½
    Everyone wanted a reunion, so they got a reunion.
  3. Inglourious Basterds” (2009) ★★★★
    Tarantino at his least sophisticated, but still remarkable.
  4. Django Unchained” (2012) ★★★½
    Rewatched. A brilliant ride.
  5. Burning” (2018) ★★★★
    Exemplar of the post-Modern mystery.
  6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019) ★★★★
    Rewatched. This is what moviegoing should be all the time.
  7. The Hateful Eight” (2015) ★★★½
    Rewatched. How to stage a play for the cinema.
  8. sex, lies, and videotape” (1989) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Like a blueprint for independent cinema, and yet still so much less interesting than what Soderbergh would go on to do.
  9. The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) ★
    Intolerably boring.
  10. Wolf Children” (2012) ★★★★
    Anime that’s not overly impressed with its own wonder.
  11. Pulp Fiction” (1994) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Still a goddamn masterpiece.
  12. Funeral in Berlin” (1966) ★★★★
    A delightfully stylish working-class spy thriller.
  13. The Spy Who Dumped Me” (2018) ★
    Completely incompetent.
  14. Airplane!” (1980) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Still laughing.
  15. Mary and the Witch’s Flower” (2017) ★★½
    Fine.
  16. Jackie Brown” (1997) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. No one got a better showcase than Pam Grier did, and she made the most of it.
  17. The Lady Vanishes” (1938) ★★
    What a great title. What a boring movie.
  18. Reservoir Dogs” (1992) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Remains undimmed.
  19. Death Proof” (2007) ★★★½

September 2019

  1. Police Story” (1985) ★★½
    It’s hard to resist Jackie Chan, but this one is way too sloppy for my taste.
  2. Ralph Breaks the Internet” (2018) ★★★½
    Could be a pretty decent trilogy in the making.
  3. High Life” (2018) ★½
    The production values of a 70s sci-fi TV show, the brains of an insufferable art student video.
  4. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005) ★★★½
    Off the wall bonkers from Park Chan-wook.
  5. Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. The thrills remain but the characters somehow work even better now.
  6. Stalag 17” (1953) ★★★½
    A prisoner of war movie as a cozy blanket.
  7. Widows” (2018) ★★★★
    Rewatched. A masterpiece hiding in plain sight.
  8. The Awful Truth” (1937) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Just confirming that this movie deserves its spot on my top five all time best list.
  9. Battle of Britain” (1969) ★★
    Sounds like homework, and pretty much is.
  10. The Circus” (1928) ★★★★
    Chaplin at his most effervescent.
  11. Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. This is the movie that convinced me Tarantino is a genius.
  12. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971) ★★
    Why people are sentimental about this movie, I have no idea..
  13. Between Two Ferns: The Movie” (2019) ★★
    You can’t make a conventional movie out of an unconventional show.
  14. Grand Illusion” (1937) ★★★★
    A prison break tale with unexpected humanity.
  15. American Psycho” (2000) ★★★★
    Rewatched. A black hole of humanity.
  16. Un Flic” (1972) ★★★
    Painstakingly made but tests the limit of macho posturing.

October 2019

  1. The Five Venoms” (1978) ★★
    Everybody really was Kung fu fighting.
  2. Robin Hood” (2018) ★½
    A bold reimagining of the classic folk tale as a terrible action movie made for idiots.
  3. Transit” (2018) ★★★
    Fantastic execution of a plot that doesn’t always bear scrutiny.
  4. Inside Out” (2015) ★★★★
    Rewatched. I got emotional.
  5. Wonder Woman” (2017) ★★★½
    Rewatched. A so-so movie elevated by two very charming leads.
  6. Joker” (2019) ★★★½
    A funny thing happened on the way to the box office.
  7. L’Eclisse” (1962) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Emptiness was never so beautiful.
  8. Ad Astra” (2019) ★★★
    For a movie about the vastness of space, it’s surprisingly narrow.
  9. Columbus” (2017) ★★★★
    A wonderful meditation on the spiritual power of Modernist architecture. Recommended.
  10. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” (2019) ★★★½
    Inessential except as an excuse to enjoy Vince Gilligan’s ingenious storytelling chops.
  11. Anna” (2019) ★
    Hard to believe, but this movie about a supermodel assassin is not very good.
  12. The Laundromat” (2019) ★★★★
    I’ll take this over “The Big Short” any day.
  13. Toy Story 2” (1999) ★★★
    Rewatched. They should’ve stopped here.
  14. I Knew Her Well” (1965) ★★★★
    Neo-realist gem that both celebrates and skewers post-War Italy.
  15. Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985) ★½
    Rewatched. They made this in the Eighties and it stank then too.
  16. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988) ★★½
    Rewatched. This one is special to me but it’s less zany than I remembered.

November 2019

  1. The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear” (1991) ★★★
    Rewatched. Not too bad actually.
  2. Shadow” (2018) ★★½
    Exquisitely made martial arts epic that’s devoid of feeling as to the point of grotesqueness.
  3. The Bourne Identity” (2002) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Never gets old.
  4. Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult” (1994) ★★★
    Rewatched. Surprisingly maybe the best one?
  5. The Irishman” (2019) ★★★
    Very distracting.
  6. The Hate U Give” (2018) ★★★
    Comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.
  7. Parasite” (2019) ★★★½
    So, so close to being perfect.
  8. Dolemite Is My Name” (2019) ★★★½
    Eddie Murphy pure charm elevates a by-the-numbers biopic.
  9. The Addams Family” (2019) ★
    Frighteningly boring.
  10. Mother” (2009) ★★★★
    So emotionally true it’s harrowing.
  11. The Killing” (1956) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. My favorite Kubrick work; a definitive text for every heist movie that followed.
  12. Ford v Ferrari” (2018) ★★★
    Perfectly fine but it’s easy to imagine what it could’ve been in the hands of a more distinctive directorial talent than James Mangold.
  13. Do the Right Thing” (1989) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Electrifyingly urgent, even thirty years later.
  14. Suspiria” (2018) ★½
    Shallow ideas dressed up with high class pretensions.
  15. Chris Claremont’s X-Men” (2018) ★★
    A look back to when comics grew up, before the rest of the world noticed.
  16. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969) ★★
    Rich people problems from the Sixties.

December 2019

  1. Okja” (2017) ★★½
    Very respectable until the English-speaking actors start acting.
  2. The Wolf’s Call” (2019) ★★★½
    A French “Hunt for Red October” and a solid dad movie.
  3. Rounders” (1998) ★★★★
    Rewatched. I didn’t realize how good this script was.
  4. Thirst” (2009) ★★
    There hasn’t been a truly decent vampire movie in decades.
  5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016) ★★★
    Rewatched. The only worthwhile installment since, well, “The Empire Strikes Back.”
  6. Harakiri” (1962) ★★★★★
    Starkly rendered, beautifully told samurai fable.
  7. He Ran All the Way” (1951) ★★½
    One of those noirs in which the characters are all dumb as a rock.
  8. Tokyo Story” (1953) ★★★★
    Searingly human tale of grown children and aging parents.
  9. Samurai Rebellion” (1967) ★★★★
    Anatomy of a moral tragedy.
  10. Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★
    One hundred percent pure entertainment.
  11. Marriage Story” (2019) ★★★½
    Impeccably directed but distractingly preoccupied with lives of privilege.
  12. Uncut Gems” (2019) ★★★★
    More successfully distortive than most fantasy movies, and also happens to finally solve the question of what to do with the Adam Sandler persona.
  13. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019) ★
    Intergalactic garbage.
  14. Klaus” (2019) ★★★
    Insofar as holiday specials go, not half bad.
  15. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx” (1972) ★★
    Episodic, not in a particularly beneficial way.
  16. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993) ★★½
    Decent ideas, substandard animation.
  17. The Wedding Guest” (2018) ★★★★
    An off kilter thriller set in South Asia. Not for everyone, but I adored it.
  18. A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) ★★★★½
    Rewatched with my kid for the first time. She was enchanted.
  19. Frozen II” (2019) ★★
    All of Disney’s number crunching and strategy decks pretty much worked this time.
  20. The Souvenir” (2019) ★★★★
    Absolutely nails its milieu.
  21. The Art of Self-Defense” (2019) ★★★
    In the proud tradition of indie absurdity.
  22. Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) ★★★
    A bit self-serious, but I enjoyed it.
  23. Abominable” (2019) ★½
    Aside from its transparent pitch for the Chinese market, this is a movie utterly lacking any specific qualities.
  24. School of Rock” (2004) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. A masterpiece.

If you want to keep up with what I watch this year, just follow me on letterboxd.com.

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Movies Watched, April 2020

Movie still from Corneliu Poromboiu’s “The Whistlers”

If you’re spending your pandemic working your way through the seemingly endless lists of movies and television recommendations for quarantine life, then I salute you. That has not been my experience. Instead, I’m barely keeping up—if I’m honest, I’m not keeping up—with all of my duties as an employee, parent, ersatz home schooler and, as our house falls apart, barely competent handyman.

Still, somehow I managed to watch thirteen movies last month, which is surprisingly not far off from my usual low of around sixteen or so. (I just went back and checked, and for some unaccountable reason, I watched only a dozen last June.) As I’ve said in the past, the way I’m fitting in all these viewings is by first, largely abstaining from television (which I largely gave up several years ago and without regrets), and second, by watching most of these movies in short snippets as brief as ten or fifteen minutes. It’s sort of like the best advice about getting enough exercise: you just gotta make the time.

Don’t tell my boss, but I’ve also taken to watching this stuff while I’m working. Midway through April it occurred to me that I could (occasionally) prop up my iPad next to and at about the same eye level as my monitor and rewatch a film with the sound turned all the way down—and no one would be the wiser. Foreign films, or at least films with subtitles, work best so I can get a sense of what’s happening, since I’m really only dipping back into the movie every five or ten minutes or so and only then for a few moments. It’s definitely not what you would call focused viewing (and I’m not counting movies I watch this way in lists like the one below) but I find it adds a little boost to my day, sort of the way looking at a painting can give you a shot of creative energy. Even catching short glimpses of a movie—even a movie I didn’t find particularly notable the first time around—is worthwhile, especially if I get to find a new appreciation for the way a given scene was shot, lit or edited. These are the little pleasures that make self quarantining more bearable.

Overall, though, April was not the most interesting month of movie viewing for me. Probably the most notable, new-ish films I saw were: Robert Eggers’s arthouse psycho-horror-drama “The Lighthouse,” which people raved about and I thought was fine (though not a great choice to lift one’s spirits during quarantining); and Corneliu Poromboiu’s overly conceptual policier “The Whistlers,” which was memorable mostly for lead actor Catrinel Marlon’s searing gaze. I also saw Matt Bettinelli-Olpin’s slasher B-movie “Ready or Not,” which was amusing and unpretentious if not particularly brainy. None of these are essential viewing though.

Here is the full list of what I watched in April.

  1. Emma” (1996) ★★★
    I could watch another dozen remakes of this story.
  2. Tangled” (2010) ★★½
    Disney seems to think it can outsmart stereotypes by playing into them.
  3. The Lighthouse” (2019) ★★★½
    Sumptuously crafted but a disappointingly predictable rendering of lunacy.
  4. Based on a True Story” (2017) ★★
    Roman Polanski brings together two intensely watchable actresses, concocts a tantalizing conflict for them, and forgets to do anything with it all.
  5. Sons of the Desert” (1933) ★★★½
    The sheer delight of Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick genius, stretched to its narrative limits.
  6. Vendetta of a Samurai” (1952) ★★★★
    An unsparing indictment of the falsity of combat glory, wrapped inside a samurai flick.
  7. Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Had a ball again.
  8. Dogtooth” (2009) ★★★½
    Yorgos Lanthimos anticipates quarantine living.
  9. Parade” (1974) ★★★½
    Jacques Tati as ringmaster of a circus and the director of a movie about that circus…difficult to describe but delightful.
  10. Holes” (2003) ★★
    Watching this adaptation, I really felt like I was cheating myself by not reading the book.
  11. Ready or Not” (2019) ★★★
    A dumb slasher thriller but also a perfectly fine example of what movies are meant for.
  12. Mon Oncle” (1958) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Satirizing the tipping point of the 20th Century.
  13. The Whistlers” (2019) ★★½
    So conceptual it forgot to be original.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in March, in February, in January, in December, in November, in October, in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February, in January and a full list of everything I watched in 2018, in 2017 and in 2016. And, if you’re really interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.

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Podcasting from Home

Photo of my basement podcasting setup

I shared my work from home setup in a post earlier this month, but I’ve since had to set up a second workspace at home too—this one for podcasting. That’s right, quarantine measures or no, we’re hard at work on a third season of “Wireframe,” the documentary series on user experience design that I host for Adobe. (Find all the previous episodes at adobe.ly/wireframe.)

As much as I enjoy sitting at my desk, there was never a hope that I’d be able to record good quality audio there. My home office is on the ground floor and faces the street where the sound of passing cars, buses and, sadly, ambulances is too frequent to be avoided. So I retreated to a corner of our basement where the ambient noise is considerably less problematic. I know nothing about sound production but the fine folks at Pacific Content, with whom we’ve partnered to produce this upcoming third season, shipped me exactly what I needed.

The heart of the setup is a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface which essentially allows my 2016 MacBook Pro to capture high quality sound. (The two are connected by USB-C, which may actually be the first time I’ve ever actually connected two USB-C devices together.) I have a Shure Beta 58A microphone (with a windstopper) connected to the Scarlett, and it’s propped up with an Amazon Basics tripod mic stand with boom. During sessions I capture my own audio with QuickTime while also talking with the rest of the production crew via video conference. That pretty much monopolizes the screen real estate on my MacBook, so I also like to use my 2018 11-inch iPad Pro to read from episode scripts and to take notes. And I listen to the whole thing with my trusty Sony MDR-V6 over-the-ear studio headphones (which are debatably the same as the more easily found MDR-7506 model), also plugged into the Scarlett.

This all sounds like we’ve been doing this podcasting-from-home thing for weeks but in truth we’re just getting started and still working out the kinks. I do miss the feel of a real recording studio and the ability to interact in person with the crew, but I’m really enjoying the convenience of being able to do pretty much the same thing from home. I’m also grateful to be able to continue working on “Wireframe” despite being in lockdown. We’ve got a great season planned, with lots of great stories about design and how it shapes technology to fit into our lives—including stories about how design, technology and living have changed since pandemic set in. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Our third season kicks off later this year.

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Times Square with No One Around

Back before our sense of normalcy was completely reset, 330,000 people used to pass through Times Square in New York City each day. Now it’s a ghost town.

Times Square with No One Around
Times Square with No One Around

I took these pictures during a somewhat irresponsible outing to midtown Manhattan on Friday night. After being cooped up for weeks at home in Brooklyn, my family and I decided to bust out of quarantine and drive into Manhattan. We headed to our favorite pizza joint, a tiny takeout shop in midtown, and ate a few slices in the car, parked right in front on West Thirty-ninth Street. It used to be impossible to ever find a spot there.

Looking East on 39th St, Manhattan

Then at about seven o’clock we drove uptown with the windows rolled down to hear the cheering as healthcare workers changed shifts, a daily ritual throughout Manhattan and in other cities that for some reason doesn’t take place in our Brooklyn neighborhood. We were practically gliding north on Eighth Avenue with the traffic lights in our favor, unimpeded by the sparse traffic on the road with us, and with the music of wild cheering and banging pots and pans on every block. I got choked up listening to it.

Fifteen minutes later it was getting dark already. We stopped on Broadway at Times Square, parked the car at yet another curbside spot that I honestly never in my life dreamed I’d ever be able to park in, and got out to explore within just a few city blocks. There were a handful of other pedestrians there, maybe less than a dozen. One of them was another opportunistic amateur photographer who asked to take a photo of us. A few people in masks were standing outside a boba tea shop, waiting for their orders. Once in a while a bicyclist would zip by, usually carrying a big, insulated food delivery bag with the name of some restaurant or delivery service emblazoned on it. And there was a police officer standing in front of the massive TKTS red steps, usually a favorite spot for dozens of tourists to rest their feet and take pictures, now cordoned off and deserted.

TKTS Booth at Times Square

Not a single one of Times Square’s famous neon lights or mammoth, animated billboards had been turned off. They were all blinking, flashing, blaring their irrepressible marketing pitches out onto the bottom of a nearly soulless urban ravine. The sun had set completely by now and the lights were wildly vibrant but somehow remote, like a chandelier someone had forgotten to turn off when they’d left the house. Most of the ads were still selling to a world and time ignorant of COVID-19, but some had even been updated with inspirational corporate messages about persisting through the pandemic. Still they all seemed like echoes from the past.

Mostly Times Square felt eerie. And tense. There was the danger of somehow contracting the coronavirus, of course, which is omnipresent these days. But I also felt ill at ease about the outing, guilty about playing tourist amid a crisis, even in my own city. It really felt like we were not supposed to be there, both because we hear so much that the responsible thing is to stay home these days, but also because it felt somehow unnatural. For New York City residents especially, Times Square has never felt like a desirable place to spend your time, mostly because it was always insufferably congested with foot traffic. In the absence of people though, it felt no cozier. The architecture, the wide open square, the disturbing quiet felt forbidding to humans.

Walking South on Broadway at Times Square
Times Square

We were only there for about ten minutes before I started to think I couldn’t take it much longer. At the corner where Forty-fifth Street, Broadway and Sixth Avenue all somehow intersect at impossible angles, two men had set up what amounted to a soap box. One of them wore a balaclava, entirely masking his identity. He was shouting through a microphone attached to a portable speaker, sounding off on some political diatribe to no one in particular. I heard him spew some disgruntled invective about China and the virus, and I thought about how the pandemic had become a cowardly excuse for racist miscreants everywhere to take out their fear on Asian people. I suddenly felt nervous, maybe a bit scared, not just for me but for my kids, too. The vast emptiness of what used to be the world’s busiest city square felt even less hospitable now, maybe even a bit hostile, even. We walked back to our car and drove home.

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Movies Watched, March 2020

Still from “The Invisible Man”

Between all the pandemic-mandated video conferences and cooking and cleaning and my kids’ remote schooling, I watched just over a dozen movies in March. That’s only about half of what I saw the previous month, way back when life was normal—or at least when we we were all still laboring under the mistaken impression that things were normal. Of course, anything I managed to watch I watched at home, since cineplexes are not an option. But I did get to see “The Invisible Man,” which was only released in theaters at the end of February and is already out on home video. I do sorely miss theaters but I have to be grateful too to live in an age when there are so many ways to watch new movies.

Happy as I was to see it so soon, unfortunately I found director Leigh Whannell’s new take on “The Invisible Man” to be a bit of a drag. It’s less a 21st century horror film than a fairly ludicrous ’80s-style domestic thriller in the “Fatal Attraction” mold. And while it does cleverly invert the perspective of the story by focusing on the title character’s besieged love interest, it’s so overly impressed by its wokeness that it can’t stop announcing its own virtues to the audience. Subtle, it’s not. All that said, “The Invisible Man” is still reasonably suspenseful and so not a terrible way to spend two hours. Plus, Elizabeth Moss. Her performance here, like pretty much everything she’s done for the past decade, is proof that she’s one of our great living actors.

Like a lot of people I also went back and rewatched Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 medical thriller “Contagion” which, if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably still heard about how it was eerily prescient about our current circumstance. I’m still not sure I quite understand the perverse curiosity that made revisiting this pandemic tale irresistible (The Times took a crack at explaining the phenomenon in this article). It’s a bit like the lure of horror films, I guess, or maybe the base appeal of masochism in the face of impending doom.

By contrast, I also tried, for a minute, to watch Wolfgang Petersen’s “Outbreak” from 1995, a similar tale of a world overrun by pandemic. I’d never seen it before but from its very first frames it was so clearly unconvincing, so Hollywood, I couldn’t bear to keep watching and turned it off. As a film, “Contagion” is so much scarier because it’s so much more real, but what’s truly captivating about it is Soderbergh’s singular ability to tell a story that feels both unflinchingly realistic and escapist at the same time. Every frame, every cut, every line of dialog feels both objectively, almost clinically detached and also emotionally vibrant, even skewed. The verisimilitude is horrifying, but the artistry is mesmerizing.

Film audiences have really come to take Soderbergh for granted in recent years, probably due at least in part to his obvious compulsion for working constantly. He released two superb films in 2019, “High Flying Bird” and “The Laundromat”, that barely registered in popular conversation. It’s a bit sad that it took a horrific global pandemic for us to go back and appreciate how amazing “Contagion” was. It’s a reminder that he’s made over a half dozen equally worthwhile films since.

Here is the complete list of all fourteen films I watched in March.

  1. Early Man” (2018) ★★½
    Charming but weightless, and disappointingly short on ambition for an Aardman film.
  2. Zazie dans le Métro” (1960) ★★★½
    Bananas dream logic from the dawn of the French New Wave.
  3. Hidden Figures” (2016) ★★
    Does everything by the book, which means it contains almost zero surprises.
  4. Contagion” (2011) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Its prescience is frightening and illuminating but it’s also maybe the best medical thriller ever made.
  5. Onward” (2020) ★★★★
    Doesn’t broadcast its artistry as loudly as Pixar’s more prominent features, but still deeply felt and satisfying.
  6. Clockwatchers” (1997) ★★★½
    Mostly excellent meditation on the mundanity of office life a quarter centur ago(!?). Worth it just to see Parker Posey at the height of her powers.
  7. Dora and the Lost City of Gold” (2019) ★
    Who was this intended for? Not even the filmmakers had a clue.
  8. Shoulder Arms” (1918) ★★★★
    Chaplin at the battlefront. Filmed a century before Sam Mendes’s “1917” and every bit as technically accomplished, plus funnier.
  9. Jojo Rabbit” (2019) ★★½
    Seems to have been made on a dare because there can be no other reason for this movie to exist.
  10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019) ★★★★
    What could have been mawkish turns out to be exquisitely genuine.
  11. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018) ★★★★
    A wonderful balm in a time of crisis.
  12. The Invisible Man” (2020) ★★½
    This movie seems to have a very important message of some kind. It was hard to tell amidst all the screamingly obvious clichés.
  13. Spies in Disguise” (2019) ★★
    A feast of CG texture mapping, and that’s about it.
  14. Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) ★★★★
    Rewatched. An issues movie about penology that veers on the didactic, but Burt Lancaster carries the whole thing with his uniquely fragile hyper-masculinity.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in February, in January, in December, in November, in October, in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February, in January and a full list of everything I watched in 2018, in 2017 and in 2016. And, if you’re really interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.

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Visualizations of Coughing and Sneezing

This video produced by researchers at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar demonstrates the effect on the air surrounding a person when they cough. Starting clockwise at top left, it shows as a baseline the air flow during normal breathing, then while coughing unrestricted, while coughing into the hand, while coughing into the elbow, while coughing into a dust mask, and finally while coughing into a surgical mask.

The contrast in how air is moved between coughing unrestricted and coughing with a surgical mask is dramatic; the former travels forward explosively like a cannon while the latter combusts upwards more like a puff of smoke. Yet it’s still shocking—though I suppose it shouldn’t be—how much the surgical mask does not suppress. The university has more on how they were able to capture this visualization at uni-weimar.de.

Below is a similar visualization from Dr. Lydia Bourouiba at M.I.T. that shows, at 2,000 frames per second, how the micro-droplets of an unrestricted sneeze travel directly in front of a person in a “turbulent gas cloud.” The visual clarity here is even more striking and, though sneezing is not as closely associated with COVID-19 as coughing, still horrifying. The video shows how micro-droplets can continue to spread well beyond the six-foot safety zone we’ve all become acutely aware of in recent weeks. In an accompanying article, Dr. Bourouiba writes:

Peak exhalation speeds can reach up to 33 to 100 feet per second (10-30 m/s), creating a cloud that can span approximately 23 to 27 feet (7-8 m).

It’s worth noting that so much is still not known about COVID-19 so it’s probably not wise to draw conclusions exclusively from these videos about how the coronavirus spreads. Still, if nothing else, these visualizations underscore the importance of social distancing and the value of wearing masks in public.

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Working from Home from Here

My Home Office

In the spirt of sharing as a remedy to isolation, I thought I’d share a peek at my home office, the space where I’m spending virtually every hour of my days since we were all forced to start working remotely just a few short weeks ago. It’s an L-shaped desk in the front room of the bottom floor of our house in Brooklyn. In the picture above one of my boys is sitting adjacent to my seat, on a video call with his teacher.

I count myself lucky to have the space to dedicate to an office, and also lucky to genuinely enjoy being there. There are many downsides to being more or less confined to our own homes but having this working area just a flight of stairs away from my family is actually a huge joy for me.

Plus, this office has all of my stuff; the equipment and the books and the gadgets that help me feel creative and stay focused. I’ve never really been one of those people who could work productively for hours at a time at coffee shops because I really just needed all my paraphernalia around me and arranged just so in order to really get in the zone. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s here, in case you’re looking for tips for your own WFH setup as well.

My Home Office Desk
  1. My main computer is this 27-inch, Retina 5K iMac from 2017. I’m actually not a fan of laptops and would much prefer having a huge, stationary monitor and the horsepower of an iMac and rely on an iPad for computing on the go.
  2. I’ve got a ton of peripherals attached to this iMac too, including a Kensington Expert Mouse trackball and an Apple Magic Keyboard; I find that switching back and forth eases repetitive strain on my wrists. I’ve also got a Matias Wireless Aluminum Keyboard which connects to up to four devices via Bluetooth, very handy for the other computers that I have to add to this mix occasionally. Also essential but hidden in this picture is a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M document scanner, an essential tool for getting rid of paper clutter.
  3. I also use this aging 13-inch, Retina MacBook Pro from 2015 as essentially a dedicated video conferencing station. It’s hooked up to a Jabra Speak 410 which is exceptionally loud and clear as a conferencing speaker and microphone. With so much going on in the house these days though, I usually use the Jabra just as a mic and plug in my Sony MDR-V6 over-the-ear headphones (still the best sounding headphones out there for my money) as a speaker instead. The laptop is propped up on a Bent Ply Laptop Stand, a really beautiful design originally created by Eric Pfeiffer for Evernote many years ago (I bought it as a remaindered sale item when Evernote realized they had no business selling office hardware). Since the laptop is elevated by the stand I use a Logitech MX Ergo wireless trackball as a mouse with it.
  4. We’re a Google Home household and I keep a Google Home Mini on my desk for, among other functions, the broadcast feature, which allows all the similar devices in the house to act as an intercom system. It’s great for not having to yell between floors to get someone else’s attention.
  5. When it’s warm out, I use this surprisingly effective Lasko 4000 Air Stik oscillating fan to cool off. Directly under that spot of the desk, hidden from view, is a small Honeywell Uberheat ceramic space heater for use during cooler weather. Since it’s usually just me on the floor where my office is, these save me a ton on HVAC bills.
  6. I keep this Page-a-Day New Words Calendar on my desk, and every morning I tear off another sheet like a nerd but I relish it. Today’s word (as I write this) is auriferous.
  7. A few years ago I decided to upgrade our house to mesh wi-fi hardware and chose the Netgear Orbi system for the fact that unlike many other mesh wi-fi systems, it’s not centrally managed by its manufacturer. I keep this Orbi Satellite node here to extend the network throughout this floor and it works great.
  8. This 2016 MacBook Pro is my official work laptop. Usually of course it’s at the office but I took it with me when we were all asked to work from home. I hardly ever touch it though, as it’s practically redundant with the other devices I already have at home. Plus it’s only got USB-C ports which I still find to be irritating.
  9. Many years ago I sprang for this Herman Miller Aeron chair when I spotted it on sale. I’m generally skeptical of the promises of office chair ergonomics but I haven’t found a better built chair than this one.
  10. This dark object tucked under the desk is a paper shredder. If it’s not obvious I’m pretty enthusiastic about getting rid of paper.
  11. Usually when there’s not a pandemic on, I use this Baron Fig Roamer Tote as my work bag. But even without the daily commute, I still find this bag super handy for transporting tech gear within the house, as I sometimes find myself working from other rooms when someone in the family needs to use the office for privacy.
  12. Obscured slightly behind the chair here is my 11-inch iPad Pro from 2018, attached to a Brydge Pro keyboard. I always keep it handy and given the choice it would be my preferred computer. I’ll also occasionally use it as a secondary monitor for the iMac via macOS’s excellent Sidecar feature.
  13. Yes we still have a house phone line! Actually it’s a VOIP line from Vonage, connected to a VTech DECT handset system. It’s much clearer sounding than cell phones (I hate talking on cell phones) and it’s free to call our family overseas.
  14. When I get a break from video calls I like to play music from my Mac through these Creative Labs Gigaworks bookshelf speakers (the right speaker is at the far end of the shelf). Being able to play music out loud is one of the best perks of working from home.

You can find virtually everything on this list to buy for yourself somewhere—except the L-shaped desk itself. That and the shelves installed in that little nook above my seat were built for me not long after we moved into this house by a carpenter I found via a friend’s referral. The guy was a real artist with wood; not only did he custom fit these items to the exact dimensions of this particular space, but he built in all kinds of amazing details to the pieces. You can see how the legs of the desk actually include vertical storage; the drawers open and close with complete silence; towards the back of the desk he drilled 1-1/2 inch holes for cables that lead to a hidden raceway where wires can be threaded and hidden.

This carpenter was also an impeccable craftsman; every edge lines up perfectly and even after seven years of regular use, not a single edge has chipped or a single part has broken. I keep referring to him in the past tense because unfortunately not long after finishing this project he left the custom carpentry business altogether. (So unfortunately I can’t refer friends in search of a carpenter to him.) Still, the abundant care and craftsmanship with which he invested this setup is one of the reasons it’s such a pleasure to sit here, day in and day out. Not that i wouldn’t prefer getting back out into the rest of the world, mind you.

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Movies Watched, February 2020

Still from “Emma” directed by Autumn de Wilde

Though I often post these roundups of movies I’ve watched the previous month much later than I would like, I actually do start writing them almost immediately after the month ends. Inevitably though I get waylaid by the usual distractions of living life. For this post on February’s movies my first draft was in early March, which now feels like practically a lifetime ago already. In the few short weeks since, COVID-19 came to our towns and neighborhoods insistently and undeniably, shutting down most of the country and forcing change on the fundamental behaviors of society itself.

You can’t even go see a movie at the theater anymore since they’ve basically all closed for the foreseeable future (with potentially dire consequences for the industry). In fact, the week before last, as businesses everywhere were closing their doors, my wife and I had two tickets to go see “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” for a weekend date. All week long we held out hope that we’d be able to make it to the show, but on that Friday the entire theater chain suspended operations.

Missing one movie is a disappointment but the loss of moviegoing is a particularly painful change for me. Despite my busy schedule I’ve always tried to get out to theaters at least once a month and it’s rare that I miss that goal. I’m in love with movies in general but also just passionate about the physicality of cineplexes: the huge screens and immersive sound; the deep, uninterrupted focus that audiences give to a film; the smell of popcorn; and of course that unquantifiable social magic of experiencing a film with a roomful of strangers and feeling their reactions in real time, alongside my own.

I’m not adding anything new to the advocacy of movie theaters here, I know. Cinephiles have been rattling off these same recommendations forever and even doing so with elevated urgency over the past decade as streaming media has emerged. Nevertheless theater attendance has declined steadily and depressingly. The end of the road for moviegoing has felt like it was coming for a long time before even coronavirus was a thing.

In a world where most of us have been watching movies on our phones anyway—and maybe even preferring to anesthetize ourselves with repeat viewings of “Friends” instead of accessing the wealth of diverse historical and contemporary film that streaming media offers—I’m not particularly certain that many folks will miss the cineplex. Some will, I’m sure, but I think most of us will be more eager to dine again at that favorite restaurant or knock back a few at the local bar. Of course we can eat or even play mixologist at home during this “shelter in place” era for however long it’s going to last, but in most cases food or drink at public establishments is an order of magnitude more vivid, and certainly more social than those at-home versions of the same core activities. By contrast, for most people movies deliver more or less the same value whether you watch them on the toilet or in a theater. In fact in a theater you’d be sitting in a dark room where it’s socially forbidden to even talk to your companion anyway, which seems unlikely to feel like much of an upgrade when all of this social distancing is over.

Whether or not that turns out to be true, for the time being the best that we can do is appreciate movies, if not moviegoing. There are a million TV shows to watch and rewatch on Netflix of course, but in this time where we looked to filmed entertainment for comfort more than ever, there’s still something special about the idea of a real movie. With the exception of the more egregiously shallow franchises, movies are by and large a good faith attempt at delivering something truly special, executed to the maximum of the director, cast and crew’s abilities, and brought to a concise, compelling conclusion. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but even when they fail, there’s something ineffable in the trying, a sense that something truly unique was attempted.

One very minor bit of silver lining in this terrible pandemic is the fact that there are a few “real” movies that had been slated to appear (or in fact had already debuted) in theaters that studios have since fast tracked for digital rental. They are a mixed bag in terms of quality so the premium rental fee of US$20 t they’re charging may not always seem like much of a bargain. But as it happens I caught one of them in theaters in February: “Emma.,” a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s immortal comic novel, and I can tell you that it’s well worth the cost of admission, so to speak.

You could say that first-time director Autumn de Wilde has a little bit of an advantage here with ”Emma“ in that the basic narrative of her film, as conceived by Austen, is practically impervious to slovenly execution. Nevertheless, de Wilde directs the hell out of this movie; nearly every frame is gorgeously composed and thoughtful. And more than that, the cast is uniformly excellent and their performances are deeply felt. The climactic scene, where an unwise quip devastates practically the entire cast of characters, is so effectively shocking that I could practically feel the whole audience in my theater cringing with empathetic discomfiture.

I actually took my ten-year old daughter with me to see “Emma.” and she found it a bit talky and short on action, but pronounced it “good” enough. Of course fifth graders and period films are not always great matches, so the fact that she recognized the film’s virtues at all is a very favorable outcome, by my reckoning. For my part, as we were walking out of the theater, I knew right away that this would be the kind of movie that would reward her on repeat viewings; as she gets older and hopefully decides to revisit it, more and more of its sharp witticisms and subtle storytelling will reveal themselves to her. That’s what good movies do, of course. Now looking back I realize that “Emma” was the last theatrical outing that she and I would share before the onset of COVID-19, and possibly the last movie we’ll get to see together in theaters for quite a long time. It was a wonderful choice.

Here is the full list of all twenty-four movies I watched last month.

  1. Paddington 2” (2017) ★★★½
    Rewatched. This is a very entertaining movie.
  2. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” (2016) ★★★
    Rewatched. Aside from some previously unseen footage, there’s not much new here.
  3. The Secret Life of Pets 2” (2019) ★
    Appalling.
  4. To Joy” (1950) ★★★½
    Bergman rips your heart out in the first scene and then shreds it bit by bit for the rest of this tale of romantic decay.
  5. Quantum of Solace” (2008) ★★★
    Rewatched. Not perfect, but one of my favorite Bond films.
  6. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” (2020) ★★★½
    Probably thirty minutes too long, but continually inventive in how it allows its characters to carry themselves.
  7. The Philadelphia Story” (1940) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Marred by a few low moments, but otherwise magical.
  8. Monsters, Inc.” (2001) ★★★½
    Rewatched. The huge doors set piece in the last act is still pretty wonderful.
  9. Summer with Monika” (1953) ★★★★
    Captures perfectly the flawed notion of youthful romance.
  10. The Pilgrim” (1923) ★★★½
    Just a regular day inventing cinema for Charlie Chaplin.
  11. Emma.” (2020) ★★★★
    Delightfully buttoned up.
  12. Force Majeure” (2014) ★★★½
    Like dissecting a frog for no other purpose than to cut it open.
  13. Seven Psychopaths” (2012) ★
    Writer-director Martin McDonagh thinks himself very clever, which is the sole reason this movie ever got made.
  14. True Grit” (2010) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Sentimentality suits the Coens surprisingly well in this minor masterpiece.
  15. The Farewell” (2019) ★★
    Lovingly made but little more than a string of tasteful clichés.
  16. Casino Royale” (2006) ★★★
    Rewatched. Demonstrates how casting can triumph over a half-baked script.
  17. Bad Times at the El Royale” (2018) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Satisfyingly punchy B-movie.
  18. Blackhat” (2015) ★½
    Rewatched. I hope Michael Mann doesn’t end his theatrical film career with this clunker.
  19. The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Sequels define franchises.
  20. Skyfall” (2012) ★★★
    Rewatched. The cinematography is an achievement but the script and direction are not.
  21. Coco” (2017) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Wonderful.
  22. Furie” (2019) ★★
    Incomprehensible but fascinating action thriller from Vietnam.
  23. Destroyer” (2018) ★
    A pointlessly long prestige film predicated on a pointlessly showy performance.
  24. Wreck-It Ralph” (2012) ★★★
    Rewatched. I enjoyed this more than I did the first time.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in January, in December, in November, in October, in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February, in January and a full list of everything I watched in 2018, in 2017 and in 2016. And, if you’re really interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.

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