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.



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.



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.



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.



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) ★
  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.



Do You Compute?

Photograph of “Do You Compute?” by Ryan Mungia

In this bizarre era we’re living through, it might seem inappropriate to spend time reminiscing about the past but I personally can’t resist at least a little bit of that as an escape from all the anxiety. “Do You Compute?,” a new book by Ryan Mungia and Steven Heller, offers a particularly interesting form of nostalgia in that it both recalls a time when life was simpler and offers us an opportunity to reconsider the cultural ideas that led to the many technologically borne pre-COVID-19 challenges that, of course, we still must contend with one day.

“Do You Compute?” is a graphic retrospective on how technology was marketed in the last century, “from the Atomic Age to the Y2K Bug.” It’s a beautiful compendium of more than three-hundred vintage advertisements that look back on the visual language that countless technology companies, most now defunct, once employed to sell the world on the promise of digital technology.

What’s surprising to see is how the prevailing trend for marketing computers in their first few decades of commercial availability was to present them in an almost studiously unremarkable fashion. Once you look past the bemusing post-War, pre-Modernist visual elements—the hand-painted illustrations, superfluous atom shapes, and diner-like patterns—it becomes apparent that these ads were pretty boring. This was of course due in no small part to the trepidation with which society regarded technology for many decades. The “pitch” for these ancient computers centered on the pure utility and added capabilities they offered large organizations. They were also very careful not to oversell the transformative potential of their product so as not to trigger the common public fear of eventually being replaced by machines. In many ways these ads were indistinguishable from marketing for appliances or tools of any sort, and that quotidian nature was a first step towards paving the way for societal acceptance.

In the latter part of the century, as technology made greater inroads into more and more areas of society, it’s fascinating to see how the advertising became moderately more adventurous, at least visually. This was in keeping with the way advertising evolved in the sixties and seventies of course, but not coincidentally that progression was also followed soon after by the shift from large, room-sized computers to so-called microcomputers. That revolution effectively upended marketers’ ability to rely on the public’s natural association of bigger with better, necessitating newer approaches. In some cases more abstract, graphically playful portrayals of the potential of the technology were favored, and in other cases more humorous, even comedic interpretations of what computers could do became popular.

Pages from “Do You Compute?” by Ryan Mungia
Ad for Beckman Instruments from “Do You Compute?”

What’s clear in retrospect is that broadening of the vocabulary of tech marketing effectively cleared away the old language of computers as business appliances and allowed them to be rendered as something closer to accessories, or rather positioned as integral, must-have elements for a new way of working, living and playing. This is particularly true in the video game ads included in the book, which marketed the technology as both ownable by everyday consumers and also as portals to a “Star Wars”-like vision of space age possibility, despite their underpowered graphical horsepower.

Despite the promise of its subtitle, the last section of “Do You Compute?,” which focuses on the 1990s, doesn’t actually spend a lot of time on the Y2K crisis that preoccupied popular technology in that decade. But what it does show is how the vocabulary of tech marketing really fractured in that era as a consequence of tech’s increasingly successful invasion of every quarter of life. In many ways the ads shown in this section are unremarkable in a new way; where earlier tech marketing looked indistinguishable from business marketing, by the end of the century it looked indistinguishable from the marketing for whatever industry a given tech product was trying to penetrate.

This progression, from business appliance to personal accessory to ubiquity, is what “Do You Compute?” illustrates best. It shows the long and winding road that we traveled on in the last century, before we all merged onto the “superhighway” of the past two decades. The book is a useful reminder that while we think of technology itself as being what drives change, the way that technology is sold—the language that marketers use to ingratiate it into our lives—plays an essential role as well. Seeing all of these ads collected in one place gave me a perspective on where we are today that I hadn’t had before, which is maybe both the best recommendation I can make for it and my biggest criticism: when I got to the end of the book, I just wanted to see what happened next. On second thought, maybe the authors were wise to stop where they did.

“Do You Compute?” is available from Hat & Beard Press and Amazon. More information at doyoucomputebook.com. Some page spreads from the book and details of some ads follow below.

Pages from “Do You Compute?” by Ryan Mungia
Pages from “Do You Compute?” by Ryan Mungia
Pages from “Do You Compute?” by Ryan Mungia
Pages from “Do You Compute?” by Ryan Mungia
Ad for P.R. Mallory & Co. from “Do You Compute?”
Ad for Remington Univac from “Do You Compute?”
Ad for Addressograph Multigraph Corporation from “Do You Compute?”
Ad for SDC from “Do You Compute?”
Ad for Univac from “Do You Compute?”


Afternoon in the Pandemic

Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn

It was unseasonably warm and bright in Brooklyn at the end of the workday yesterday, so I took myself for a walk around the neighborhood. Like a lot of people I’ve been working from home for the past week and a half, spending most of each day on video conferences with colleagues from all over the country. And like a lot of people, I’ve been reading far too much about COVID-19, habitually refreshing the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post and dozens of other news sources too, clicking through to any article that promised to shed some additional light on the nature of this novel coronavirus, any expert opinions on how the near future might play out.

By five o’clock I felt cooped up and in need of fresh air. When I got outside, the sun was casting a gentle warmth onto the brownstones and parked cars and trees still naked from the winter. And onto the people, too! There were people out and about, some solo, some walking their dogs, some strolling in pairs, some even hanging out in small groups. They were shooting the breeze, checking their phones, carrying groceries home, laughing and joking. I walked past a hair salon where three stylists were tending to two women, a takeout joint with a line of hungry workers that spilled out to the sidewalk, a dollar store where someone was rummaging through a bin of bootleg DVDs, and a bar with outdoor seating, fully occupied.

It was so quotidian, so remarkably unremarkable. In fact, it was about ten minutes into my walk before I realized that I found it kind of shocking. It was all so…normal.

By contrast, life hasn’t felt normal to me for days and days. I’ve been thinking and overthinking all things COVID-19 more or less constantly, to the point where every surface outside our home now looks fraught with danger. There are bottles of hand sanitizer and packages of disinfecting wipes stashed all over the house. Earlier in the day I’d canceled movie tickets for that evening and made plans to drive our babysitter all the way home to Queens rather than let her risk the subway. The subway! I’ve always loved the subway and would rather take it just about anywhere than drive, but I’d come to think of it as off limits, as having effectively become a circulatory system for the virus. To me, living felt already transformed, utterly upended and vastly different from even a month ago, and so did the city. Images from Wuhan, China that I saw in February have stayed with me, especially drone video footage of the eerie, post-humanity calm and emptiness of a city under lockdown. In my mind, that was what New York would become before too long.

But not all of my fellow New Yorkers see it that way, apparently. Judging from appearances, there was almost a nonchalance in the air as I walked around Crown Heights, where I live. People just did not seem to care, or at least it was hard to decipher any bit of care on their faces. I began to think: maybe living hadn’t changed after all, and maybe the city hadn’t either. The buildings, the cars, the pedestrians, the pets, everything looked untouched by this massive anxiety rattling across the media and echoing inside my head.

At one point I felt a bit peckish so I turned into a bodega for a snack, passing through the front doors just behind a young dude dressed in normcore regalia and reciting hip-hop lyrics out loud. Inside there was a short line of customers waiting to pay for yogurt, potato chips, a bottle of laundry detergent and more of the stuff you buy when you’re just going about your life. I picked up a bag of salt-and-pepper flavored potato chips (best chips ever) and got in line.

Then I watched as the cashier rang up the customers in front of me, and I saw how he would take cash from each of them, put it into his register, then pull out change, all with his bare hands, over and over. And I saw how the other customers were biting their fingernails or stroking their hair, scratching their jaws or blithely picking up and putting down products on the shelves. It was like suddenly seeing the code layer of the Matrix except with germs, and I looked down at the bag of chips I was holding and thought about who and how many might have handled it before me.

When I got to the counter I pulled out three dollar bills from my wallet and told the cashier to keep the change, and I walked out into the beautiful open air again. But I felt different now, less impressed by the neighborhood’s operational normalcy. I was thinking now of the germs on the bag, and the germs on my jacket where I’d held it under my arm, and also how I’d handled my wallet with the hand that I’d used to pick up the bag. I was also thinking about getting home and how I might be able to get in the door while touching as few surfaces as possible, and how I’d have to wipe down the door handle and wash my hands and maybe even use sanitizer on the bag of chips.

I’ve never been much of a germaphobe, but I was thinking of my kids now and my wife too, and feeling vulnerable for our family in a way I’d never felt before. There are so many avenues for the coronavirus to take into any of our homes; letting down your guard on even one of them on a careless afternoon, regardless of how vigilant you might have been for days and days, seems like an invitation to catastrophe. As I walked home, I held the bag at a distance from me, by one corner, with just two fingers, feeling slightly foolish and half hoping no one would notice my anxiety. But I was also thinking to myself that the chips hardly seemed worth it anymore.



Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal ©Khoi Vinh, 2020

The Taj Mahal, a study in extreme symmetry. The structure itself, built from non-porous Indian marble, is built with painstaking exactitude to be almost perfectly symmetrical. The landmark’s grounds follow suit, with surrounding buildings constructed as much to complement the symmetry as to serve as gateways to the mausoleum. I got to see this breathtaking landmark—and to take this picture—for the first time about a week ago, on a six-day visit to India for work.



Movies Watched, January 2020

Movies Watched, January 2020

Yes it’s the last day of February, but I’m posting this roundup of what I watched in January anyway. Early in the month I got out to theaters to see “1917” and “Little Women,” both on the same day, and both worthwhile investments of time.

I went into “1917” with a healthy amount of skepticism about the movie’s conceit of a single, uninterrupted shot, based partly on its inherently gimmicky nature and also the fact that Sam Mendes’s movies have always struck me as shallow. But I was pleasantly surprised by how “1917” delivered a genuinely affecting emotional wallop that mostly redeems its “video game” premise.

On the other hand, I had the inverse experience with “Little Women.” I went into it with high hopes based on director Greta Gerwig’s previous outing, “Lady Bird,” which I found to be nearly flawless. But I found this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s immortal novel to be surprisingly misshapen, and marred by ill-advised casting. For a creative talent who seems so independent by nature, Gerwig’s take on “Little Women” just felt disappointingly Hollywood-esque.

In total, I watched sixteen movies in January, including several by Ingmar Bergman. I’m trying to make my way through “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema,” a massive boxed set comprising thirty-nine films across thirty Blu-Ray discs. I have to admit knowing very little about this legendary director before starting this exercise; I’d only ever previously seen “The Seventh Seal” and “Scenes from a Marriage.” It’s going to take me all year to finish it, but I’m enjoying every minute.

Here’s the full list.

  1. Beirut” (2018) ★★
    The bones of a complex script smothered in Hollywood clichés.
  2. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies” (2018) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Best DC movie since Nolan.
  3. Blaze” (2018) ★★★½
    Fully committed and exquisitely made, but it’s a lot.
  4. Before Midnight” (2013) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. So many truths.
  5. 1917” (2019) ★★★★
    At first I thought it was a bit of a gimmick, but it swept me up.
  6. Little Women” (2019) ★★★½
    Its credentials are better than its execution, in part due to some pretty egregious miscasting.
  7. Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955) ★★★
    Social deviants hiding in polite society.
  8. Wild Strawberries” (1957) ★★★★
    Everything you could want in a Bergman film.
  9. Toy Story 3” (2010) ★★★★
    Incisive farewell to childhood.
  10. The Assassin Next Door” (2009) ★★
    Schlock city, but I’ll watch Olga Kurylenko in anything.
  11. Before Sunset” (2004) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Exquisite articulation of growing into yourself.
  12. Crisis” (1946) ★★
    Maudlin excuse to objectify youth.
  13. The Natural” (1984) ★★
    Reagan-era hokum on the baseball diamond.
  14. Yesterday” (2019) ★★★½
    Empty-headed but irresistible.
  15. Paris, Je T’Aime” (2006) ★★½
    As expected for an anthology film, a mixed bag.
  16. A Ship to India” (1947) ★★★½
    Brutal youth.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched 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.



The UX of Podcasts—A Critique of Wireframe

Listen to “Adobe's Wireframe Podcast and the Need to Create Brand IP, Not Just Content” on Spreaker.

The logline for the podcast “3 Clips” plants the show firmly in meta territory: it bills itself as “a podcast for marketers who podcast.” If you don’t consider yourself a marketer or someone interested in the meta-narrative of marketing then you may have a less than enthusiastic reaction. But that pitch actually belies the rich insight that “3 Clips” offers anyone who just enjoys podcasts or is curious about their production, whether marketing-oriented or not. Even better: the most recent episode breaks down an episode of “Wireframe,” the podcast about design that I’ve hosted for two seasons now.

The basic hook of “3 Clips” is: take an episode of a podcast like “Wireframe”—that is, a show produced by a brand that is trying to create a compelling listening experience beyond just advertising its wares—and pull it apart to see what works and what doesn’t. The hosts Jay Acunzo and Molly Donovan examine everything from the first impressions that the show generates when each episode starts playing to the style and character of the content to the “defensibility” of the subject matter, and much more.

Described another way, Acunzo and Donovan train a critical lens on the design of podcasts, a concept that I have to admit I was only dimly aware of when I first started working with Gimlet Creative on “Wireframe” about two years ago. It didn’t take long though for me to realize that a good podcast in many ways relies on the same approach that we designers bring to the problems we solve. Both focus on people, on details and sequencing and flow, and both are highly iterative.

That last detail was particularly revealing for me. Gimlet’s approach to audio, as heard on shows like “Reply All,” sounds so relaxed and effortless that it was eye-opening to learn how much revision and reworking go into every recorded minute. Each episode of “Wireframe” went through at least three or four major revisions, with input from everyone on the team, and countless hours of polishing and tweaking.

Just as designers can look at an app or website and see telltale details of the craft that “normal” people are oblivious to, Acunzo and Donovan can effectively x-ray podcasts and identify the intentions hidden beneath the surface. In this episode they cannily pick up on the many editorial structures and subtle audio cues that underpin “Wireframe,” crucial narrative affordances that Gimlet brought to bear.

Acunzo and Donovan also unsparingly appraise the hosting, citing my audio narration as sounding stilted or read rather than spoken, to which I say, “Fair.” Through two seasons of the show, I’ve felt that my own journey has been to get more and more comfortable as a voice, and less and less formal. That has been a struggle for sure, as hosting a show like this is like no other medium I’ve worked in before; it’s meant to be both performative and unassuming, authoritative yet friendly, instructive yet spontaneous. There’s no formula to it except to sound like yourself, but maybe the most engaging version of yourself that you can imagine—casually.

I have to admit, listening to Acunzo and Donovan evaluate my audio skills was only marginally less painful than chewing a mouthful of tacks. But it’s hard to argue with the depth of their insight and the clarity of their assessment. Ultimately what they’re doing is applying incisive, articulate, accessible critical thinking to the podcast form, which is a gift to the medium itself. I learned a master class’s worth of lessons from listening to it, and consider it a privilege that they trained their lens on “Wireframe.”