Movies Watched, April 2018

Still from “A Quiet Place”

I really didn’t know what to make of “Avengers: Infinity War” when I walked out of the theater. It’s such a weird mess of a film, frequently incoherent and often absurd. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that the filmmakers tried. They tried to make its villain interesting; they tried to make the runtime largely entertaining; they tried to add some weight to a cinematic “universe” that has only come to seem lighter and less substantial with each installment. I’m not sure they fully succeeded in any of that, really, and it’s not just because the narrative of the film ends up, morally speaking, in some seriously questionable territory. It’s a just bizarre film that seems to defy any kind of appraisal. Given the massive box office receipts though you’ve probably already seen it yourself, along with millions of others. So what anyone thinks of it, including me, probably doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Another unexpected downside of “Infinity War” is that it seemed to put an unexpected amount of distance between John Krasinski’s unexpectedly satisfying “A Quiet Place,” which seemed like a late winter gem, and the summer movie season. Not that I relish all of the dreck that’s usually trotted out in the early part of the year, but if nothing else it’s a time for interesting if imperfect movies. “A Quiet Place” exemplifies that perfectly; a weird little horror movie that can boast its fair share of surprises, mostly in how deeply felt it is. Anyway, I watched it in mid-April but that was a long time ago; it’s May now and summer is well underway, at least at the movies.

Including those two, I saw a total of fifteen movies last month, and wrote at moderate length on a few of them, linked below.

If you’re interested, here’s what I watched in March, February and January. You can also see my complete list of everything I watched in 2017 and follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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The Secret to Writing (Is Writing)

Pencil Shavings Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

A16z board partner and Microsoft alum Steven Sinofsky continually proves that he’s one of the smartest minds in tech with Medium articles like this one, called “Writing Is Thinking.” It’s an annotated version of a tweet storm he published recently about the challenges in building a culture of writing at tech companies. This quote is particularly good:

It is really incredible the amount of pushback I see from companies, startups to big, about writing. In particular around the notion that writing is the antithesis of agile. Writing ossifies and cements decision or plans that should change, it is said. My view is that agility comes from planning. Without plans, activities are just brownian motion. And you can’t have plans, especially shared plans, without writing.

If it isn’t already obvious, the fact that I’m sharing and applauding Sinofsky’s argument here is that I feel strongly about the value of writing in design as well as technology. In a world full of talented designers, the ability to express oneself in written form is a key advantage.

However, someone asked me recently: “I know I should write, but when I actually do it I don’t know if I’m writing for myself or because I know I should write.” I’ve always said that everyone should just write but I realize that for many people it doesn’t come so easily. It can feel more like a compulsory duty than a passion, at which point it becomes pointless—unless you’re writing from your heart, your writing is unlikely to make much of an impression on anyone.

That said, there as many avenues into writing as there are ways to write; the trick is to find the the sensibility, the style that works for you. Maybe you feel more comfortable writing in short, concise bullets than at protracted, grandiose length. Or maybe you feel more at ease with sarcasm and dry wit than with sober, exhaustive argumentation. Or perhaps you prefer to knock out a solitary first draft and never look back rather than polishing and tweaking endlessly. Whatever the approach, if you can do the work to find a genuine passion for writing, what a powerful tool you’ll have.

Read the full article at learningbyshipping.com.

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

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Get More LEGOs in Your Life

Stüda LEGO-compatible Furniture

You need to be careful where you step at our house because my twin five-year old boys are crazy about LEGOs and they’re underfoot everywhere. Which makes us ideal customers for Stüda, a smartly designed, LEGO-compatible furniture line created by Italian studio Nine. It’s actually kind of an ingenious way to embrace the chaos that LEGOs introduce to the home environment, and luckily the pieces aren’t bad looking at all.

Children Playing with Stüda LEGO-compatible Furniture

More information on Stüda furniture at archdaily.com. If you’re a LEGO enthusiast yourself, don’t miss this post from January highlighting some wonderfully designed LEGO letterforms. Also, enjoy this photo of my twins posing with their LEGO minifigure counterparts, which I made from foamcore and construction paper for their birthday party not long ago. All those skills learned in my foundation year of art school finally came in handy.

Foamcore Cut-Outs of LEGO Minifgures
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Immersive Media and David Bowie Is

Entrance to “David Bowie Is” Exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum
The entrance to The Booklyn Museum’s “David Bowie Is” exhibition—before you have to turn your phone and camera off.

The extensive and ambiguously titled exhibition “David Bowie Is,” which originated at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London but is now running through 15 July at The Brooklyn Museum in New York, gathers a ton of artifacts from the iconic musician’s many decades as an entertainer into one massive career retrospective. There are four hundred or so objects on display, including countless photographs, original album art, Bowie’s own drawings, sixty original performance costumes, dozens of samples of handwritten notes and lyric sheets, and more.

It all amounts to as complete an immersion into Bowie as you could ask for, but as with most everything revolving around the curiously unchallenged legacy of this singularly talented artist, it’s not particularly penetrating or surprising. If you’re a longtime fan, you’re not likely to discover new sides of Bowie—or, even, less well known sides. (Tin Machine, anyone?) Still, for those already familiar with his œuvre it makes for an enjoyable if not particularly edifying afternoon out. For those who are new to his work, it’s probably a pretty enjoyable primer.

The exhibition itself is designed thoughtfully and executed with a fair amount of technologically forward-leaning imagination, especially the audio component. Each visitor is issued a pair of over-the-ear headphones (Sennheiser is a prominent sponsor of the show) attached to a Bluetooth receiver that automatically plays audio based on your specific location within the exhibition halls at any given time. Step towards one artifact and you might hear one of Bowie’s many immortal songs; step towards a different one and you might hear an excerpt from his appearance on an old TV show synced with a video projected on the wall. Everything changes automatically; all you need to do is walk and look.

This coordination of exhibits and audio is technically impressive but has some unintended consequences too. If you walk up to an artifact that interests you, you may find it difficult to actually read the curator’s notes while listening to a voice in your head that may be saying something completely different. Your choices would be to either wait until the audio is done, pull off your headphones and miss out on that content, or to fumble with the receiver to find the pause button. One way or another, it’s at least momentarily discombobulating.

More significantly, if you enter the exhibition with companions, within moments you’ll realize that the experience is so tailored to your current proximity as an individual that there’s little sense in the group keeping pace with one another. Two people standing side by side may be listening to two entirely different things, so why stick together? To actually share the experience requires pulling off your own headphones, getting the attention of your companion and urging them to pull off their own, too. It’s an awkward ritual, and it gets annoying for everyone if it’s repeated too many times.

The overall effect struck me as a disappointing hint of what the future might look like, not just for ostentatious tributes to classic rock stars but for life in a technological society too. In a way, this example of automatically playing audio keyed to your location is a decent hint of how augmented reality will function unless it’s done much more thoughtfully: it’s an alienating combination of precision targeting and clumsy relevance. The experience is customized for your data points—your position in space, your implied interest in certain content—but it’s not necesssarily in tune with what you might actually want at any given moment.

It’s also surprisingly isolating. At one point I took off my headphones to survey the exhibition space and what I saw was a room full of people immersed in their own headphones while more or less oblivious to one another’s presence. That’s not to say that it was silent; to the exhibition designers’ credit, speakers were piping Bowie songs throughout the space. This offered a patina of human activity in what would have otherwise surely been an eerily silent experience, because there was no talking, no discussion of the experience that we were all ostensibly sharing. If you like to go to museums for the interesting discussions they inspire, this might not be for you. That old cliché about feeling alone in a crowd never felt more real.

And it was exacerbated by the museum’s restriction on cell phone service (which supposedly interferes with the ability of the headphones to connect with location beacons via Bluetooth) and an inane prohibition on photography. That latter rule struck me as particularly ironic given how media-aware Bowie’s entire approach to celebrity was from almost his very start. If ever there were a rock god made for Instagram, it was David Bowie.

It’s not clear to me that the curators of this exhibition intended to leave so little for its visitors to actually do, but it’s worth considering nevertheless that this might be a likely if not inevitable outcome of immersive media. On the one hand it isolates you from your companions in the real world; on the other hand it abets restrictions on your own technology and therefore your own ability to participate in the experience. Visitors to “David Bowie Is” are socially discouraged from sharing their experiences within the exhibition and they’re also officially prohibited from sharing what they see, hear, learn and think about with the world outside of it (at least in the moment). What’s left but just to consume what’s put in front of them, passively? David Bowie himself would’ve hated that.

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What Happens When We Recycle?

Recycling Symbol with a Question Mark

Even those of us who try to be conscientious about our waste would be hard pressed to answer the question “What happens when we recycle?” This exceptionally informative episode of the podcast 1A from WAMU and NPR looks more closely at recycling as a concept, as a practice, and as an industry.

Host Joshua Johnson finds that while two-thirds of Americans have recycling bins in their homes, just over a third of Americans’ trash actually gets recycled. That’s not just a result of individual action (or lack thereof), though how we each personally think about consumables is important. It also comes down to how producers of waste—companies, manufacturers, and retailers—have come to rely on the application of a recycling symbol on a package to excuse otherwise environmentally detrimental practices. Our addiction to online shopping and having goods shipped to us, for example, now consumes so much cardboard that it basically counters the paper waste saved by the dwindling consumption of newspapers. And more and more products are being shipped in packaging that is more difficult to recycle than before. Add to that the shocking (to me) revelation that a lot of recycling advocacy is funded by companies who own landfills and who stand to benefit from their use, and it becomes clear that recycling as a proposition is complex and not necessarily a net positive.

It’s not difficult to imagine a role that designers can play here. Of course, designers of consumer packaged goods have the opportunity to positively impact how companies think about the boxes, bottles and cans that they design for. But the whole recycling “ecosystem,” if you will, is so opaque and has been so poorly understood that it seems ripe for a designer to help clarify its intentions (e.g., emphasize reduction and reuse before recycling), shed light on its process, and provide better guidance on how to positively contribute to it. One might even argue that the usefulness of the now ubiquitous recycling logo has come to an end, and a new design system is needed. If you’re interested in these issues at all, I highly recommend listening below. You can also learn more at the1a.org.

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107 Years Doesn’t Feel Like Such a Long Time

Amazing footage from the archives of The Museum of Modern Art of the City of New York in the year 1911. It starts on what appears to be the Staten Island Ferry, docks at Battery City, then goes on a street tour of several neighborhoods in Manhattan. The footage has been altered in two subtle but powerful ways: the normally heightened playback speed of film from this era has been slowed down to a more “natural” pace; and the addition of a soundtrack of ambient city sounds, subtly timed with the action on screen. The result feels more visceral, more relatable, and the early 20th Century seems not so distant to our experience today after all.

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Send a Link from Your iPhone Directly to Chrome on Your Desktop

Apple’s AirDrop is a huge timesaver for me, especially when I’m reading a web page on my iPhone and want to switch over to another device. I find it’s faster to tap on the share icon and then AirDrop the page to my Mac than it is to open up Safari, click on the tab overview button and then find that page listed amongst my iCloud tabs (though I do use that method regularly too).

I’m a Safari user but sometimes I would rather AirDrop a page to Firefox or Chrome instead. This is typically a multi-step process: first, let AirDrop open it in my default browser, then copy the URL and switch over to my alternative browser, paste the URL and hit enter.

That can all be reduced to a single click with Bumpr, a utility my friend Scott Ostler and I built that lets you choose which browser to open up any given link with, on the fly. I made the video below to show how it works. The window on the left is a view of my iPhone, where I open Twitter and click on a link to a story at The New York Times. Once that page is loaded, I tap on the share icon and AirDrop the page to my MacBook Pro. On the desktop you’ll see the Bumpr menu appear instantly where my cursor was at rest. At that point I just choose Chrome and the link opens in that browser immediately. Handy.

Being able to switch easily between browsers like this is becoming increasingly important. Not only does it allow you to segregate the browsing you do for work from the browsing you do for your personal business, but it allows you to minimize (or at least distribute) the information these browsers are collecting on you. And, given the recent sentiment around trying to defuse Chrome’s potentially damaging, Internet Explorer-like lock on the browser market, Bumpr is a great way to wean yourself off of dependence on Chrome or any other single browser. Get it on the Mac App Store or find out more at getbumpr.com.

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Movies Watched, March 2018

Still from “Thoroughbreds”

Each time I get to see a movie at the theaters I try to make it count. In March, I made a calculated bet by going to see a little-noticed but highly praised indie flick called “Thoroughbreds” from playwright and first-time filmmaker Corey Finley. It tells the tale of two teenage girls in wealthy New England, portrayed with a pitch-perfect mix of angst, insouciance and privilege by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy. Together they contemplate a vicious murder and in doing so ensnare a hapless local loser played, with nuanced care and unintentional sadness, by Anton Yelchin in his very last role. This movie’s inward-gazing air of dread is so effectively realized and its camerawork and pacing are so confidently executed that you wouldn’t know Finley had never been behind the camera before. It’s very, very good and is still playing in some theaters so go see it if you can.

Actually, I did get out to theaters two other times, once for “Game Night,” because there was literally nothing else worthwhile playing and I had a free night. It’s an absurd farce that is maybe as good a definition as any of a low-stakes good time at the movies. I also saw “The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales,” an animated import from France. That was an outing with my kids; we went to see it as part of The New York International Children’s Film Festival, so it feels like it doesn’t really count as a theatrical outing of my choice. However, I won’t deny that it was thoroughly delightful.

I also watched seventeen other movies last month, all on video. Here is the full list:

If you’re interested, here is my list from February, January. Also here are all the movies I watched in 2017 and in 2016. For more fun, follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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Making the iPad a Better Device for Kids

Making the iPad Better for Kids

Last week technologist Dave DeLong wrote a smart piece on his blog called “If iPads Were Meant for Kids” in which he argues that Apple’s signature tablets are less than ideally suited for younger users and their parents. His post is essentially a rundown of improvements that he suggests for the platform, several of which are ingenious. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • A centralized system for content ratings that can inform third-party apps. Parents would be able to allow only G and PG media, say, and every app on the device could register that setting and adjust its own content settings accordingly.
  • Timer settings that can restrict kids’ device sessions. Parents could set a device to lock after a certain amount of time and as the limit nears, the iPad could flash warnings to the child before shutting them out. Parents could also restrict usage during certain hours, e.g., during weekdays or evenings.
  • The ability for parents to install apps on the child’s iPad remotely. This would contrast with the current method in which kids request permission to install an app, the benefit being that it would minimize the child’s time spent within and exposure to the App Store.
  • Options to disable both incoming and outgoing iMessage and FaceTime communications except with certain approved contacts. There are third party solutions that accomplish similar goals, but the ubiquity of Apple’s text and video messaging platform makes it so much easier for trusted contacts to communicate with children. A whitelist feature like this would be a huge enhancement.

DeLong’s other ideas are also worthwhile. You can read the full post at davedelong.com.

The extent to which one can easily imagine a multitude of enhancements to the iPad for various user groups is indicative of the device’s unique circumstances. On the one hand, Apple sells more iPads each quarter than it does Macs and the business is on an upward trend. On the other hand, it’s clear that lots of different types of users could benefit from more specialized iPad features—not just children and parents.

Apple’s focus last year on professional iPad users and their very recent efforts to make the iPad more appealing for education users demonstrate this. The company’s challenge here is nontrivial in that they will need to prioritize among several different kinds of highly valuable users in the short term—but ultimately success may lie in building deep experiences for all of them. It’s actually pretty exciting to think about; good iPad software—apps that strike that special balance between ease of use, portability and raw power—is for me the true sweet spot for what computing can be.

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Drone Photography Is an Art Form

The British Journal of Photography thinks drones and cameras can equal art. Opening this evening at Printspace Gallery in London, the The DJI Drone Photography Award Exhibition highlights two new bodies of work by winners Tom Hegen and Markel Redondo. Both photographers point their cameras directly downwards and produce some startlingly beautiful abstract images.

Hegen’s photos document salt production across Europe. He discusses the project in this interview with the Journal. Two samples here…

“The Salt Series” by Tom Hegen
“The Salt Series” by Tom Hegen

Redondo’s project takes a new look at the 3.4 million failed urban housing projects in Spain. He discusses it in this interview with the Journal. Samples here…

“Sand Castles” by Markel Redondo
“Sand Castles” by Markel Redondo

The exhibition is open through 18 Apr. Learn more about the award at bjp-online.com.

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