52 Week Photography Challenge

I love photography, but I find that in my day-to-day life, I have trouble finding inspiration to shoot. When I'm traveling, it feels like the camera never leaves my hand; back at home, I'll go for weeks at a time without picking it up.

So to motivate myself to pick up the camera more often, I'm embarking on a 52 Week Photography project (thanks to Jon Hathaway for the inspiration). The rules are simple:

  • Every Monday, I'll generate a random art prompt using this website;
  • I have to take a photo that represents that prompt during the following week;
  • And post it the following Monday.

I'm going to try to shoot these with my mirrorless camera rather than my iPhone, but I don't think I'll make that a hard-and-fast rule.

Here's a gallery of my entries so far (click on a photo to see a larger version). And I really hope you'll follow me on Flickr or Instagram for updates throughout the challenge.


Bake Your Oatmeal

Why stir over the stove when you can just toss the oats in the oven and bake?

I was skeptical of this method at first, but it is actually one of the best breakfast recipes I’ve ever made. I made the Maple-Banana recipe and made some pretty significant substitutions (I halved the recipe, used pecans instead of walnuts, and used almond milk instead of regular milk) and it still tasted spectacular.

The biggest difference was in the taste of the oats themselves. Traditional oats are a bit bland, so you have to pile tons of sugary stuff on top to liven them up, but there are still bites where you’re mostly eating just oats. With this recipe, the oats absorb the sweet liquid during the baking process, so each bite is evenly flavored. Seriously fantastic.

Apple's New Photos App for Mac

We’ve now gotten a good look at Apple’s new Photos app, and from a photo-organization perspective, it looks great: integration with iCloud Photo Streams, shared edits between your Mac and your iOS devices, and automatic backup of all your photos to the cloud.

As a photo editing application, though, this app won’t do much to win back former users of Apple’s now-discontinued Aperture. Most semi-serious photographers (myself included) fled to Adobe Lightroom sometime over the last few years, frustrated by Aperture’s lack of updates and the huge feature disparity between the applications. I loved Aperture, and for a long time, Lightroom’s interface and workflows felt clunky to me. Now, though, I’m more productive in Lightroom than I ever was in Aperture, and I’m happy to pay Adobe $9.99 per month for a subscription to Lightroom and Photoshop. 

This new Photos app – which was supposed to replace both iPhoto and Aperture – arrives with editing features that are less powerful than both of them. As The Verge puts it, “it’s clear that Apple is targeting them mostly at novice users, not the advanced photographers that might have used Aperture in the past.”

For years, Apple relied on power users in the creative industries to keep Mac sales afloat. But more recently, users of Apple’s professional applications – Aperture, Final Cut, and Logic – have all gotten the same message from Apple: you’re too much work for us. The new Photos application is just the latest indication that Apple will continue to focus on the entry-level consumer, even if it means professionals have to turn elsewhere.

Six Great Podcast Episodes

I listen to a lot of podcasts – so many, in fact, that I sometimes run out of new material and have to go back to one of my old standbys. So I keep a certain number of great episodes downloaded to my phone at all times, both for when I’ve run out of new material and for those times (airplanes, power outages, zombocalypse) that I’m left without an internet connection.

These aren’t necessarily indicative of the podcasts I listen to all the time – there are lots of news and technology podcasts that I enjoy, but don’t find re-listenable. But the chances are good that at any given point in time, I’m in the mood to hear one of these six episodes.

43Folders – John Gruber & Merlin Mann’s Blogging Panel at SxSW

Gruber and Mann are technology bloggers, but their talk from the 2009 South by Southwest festival is a fantastic exploration of inspiration, doing what you love, and pushing through even when it feels like nobody’s paying attention. It’s nominally about blogging, but if you make any kind of art, I think there’s valuable wisdom here.

Fresh Air – Terry Gross Interviews Maurice Sendak

This interview is without a doubt one of the most affecting pieces of tape I’ve ever heard. Gross spoke with Sendak very near the end of his life, and his reflections about growing old are somehow sad, beautiful, and inspiring all at once. The interview is well-worth hearing in its entirety, but if you just want to bawl your eyes out, check out this animated excerpt from the New York Times.

This American Life – Retraction

This American Life has produced dozens of fantastic episodes in its twenty-year run, so I’m sure they’d be disappointed to hear that one of my favorites is on the subject of their greatest journalistic failure. A few months before this episode ran, the show featured a monologue about Apple’s production line in China from a speaker named Mike Daisey – much of which turned out to be fabricated.

The first part of this show is a fascinating journalistic detective story as Rob Schmitz, a reporter based in China, hears things in the monologue that don’t add up and starts digging into Daisey’s story. But it’s the second part that I find truly fascinating, as Ira Glass sits down in the studio with Daisey and probes him about why he thought he could get away with such outright fabrication. It’s an intensely awkward experience, a portrait of a man who is used to being able to talk himself out of any situation slowly coming to the realization that he’s gotten himself into real trouble.

Radiolab Shorts – Fu Manchu

Radiolab seems to have lost its way recently, which makes me sad: the show was the first podcast I fell in love with. But it’s been a long time since they’ve made a truly thrilling piece of radio, and it seems like when they’re not mounting ill-advised defenses of plagiarizers, they’re failing to consider their approach when talking to massacre-survivors.

This short, from 2010, showcases in 12 minutes everything that was great about the show: their commitment to story, the way they tied that story together with interesting scientific concepts, and the way that – at their best – the innovative editing and sound design supported, rather than detracted from, their intent. It’s the story of an orangutan escape artist named Fu Manchu, and it’s awesome.

(I also love this 2007 episode about zoos, especially the first segment about the construction of the first interactive enclosure built for gorillas at the Seattle Zoo.)

WTF With Marc Maron – Louis CK Parts 1 and 2

In the early days, there was something lovably ramshackle about WTF with Marc Maron: it really was just a b-list comedian talking to his friends in his garage. The show’s changed in the five years since it launched, and as it approaches its 500th episode, the show no longer feels like Maron’s just rifling through his rolodex to book guests. That’s sometimes good – I’ve really enjoyed his recent interviews of non-comedians. But it also means that the show has lost some of the personal connection Marc used to have to his guests.

These two episodes (drawn from the same interview) are part interview, part therapy session, and it’s fascinating to hear these guys probe at old wounds and try to repair their friendship on-air.

99% Invisible - Wild Ones Live

99% Invisible is one of the best-produced podcasts out there, but this episode is something that host Roman Mars had only minimal involvement in. It’s a taped performance from author Jon Mooallem, who’s reading excerpts from his book, “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America”. Backing up Mooallem is the folk band Black Prairie, which shares several members with The Decemberists. The stories are funny, sad, and totally fascinating, and the music provides a really great counterpoint that shores up the emotional beats of Mooallem’s work. If you like it, definitely check out Mooallem’s book as well.

Welcome to the Monkey Park

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It’s not easy to get to Jigokudani Monkey Park, which is probably why it still exists in its current form. The nearest town, Yamanouchi, is nestled deep in the Japanese Alps – the mountain range that forms the jagged spine of the island of Honshū. The town is a four hour train ride from Tokyo, and the park a further half-hour hike from the outskirts of town, along a narrow mountain path often covered in snow.

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The distance affords Jigokudani some relief from the throngs of tourists who crowd into the attractions nearer to Tokyo. Nevertheless, the park hosts a steady stream of visitors even in the most inclement of weather, all of whom have come to see the Japanese macaque – the famed ‘snow monkey’, and the only non-human primate to live in cold temperatures – in its natural habitat.

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The macaque is an exceptionally intelligent animal, and researchers have long been intrigued by its facility in both learning new information and in passing those lessons down throughout generations. In 1954, a female macaque named Imo was observed washing sand off of her sweet potatoes by dunking them in the sea; later, she and her troop took to dunking all their food in the ocean, sand or no sand, because they liked the salty taste.

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They’ve also been observed playing with snowballs and sticks, and there have been reports of macaques near Osaka stealing wallets and purses and using the coins inside to buy food from vending machines. Different troops have been proven to have different dialects and to have specific types of calls for different stimuli.

Then again, a macaque named Zoro once ruled his troop for almost twelve years because he stole a banana from the previous alpha male, so perhaps the reports of their intelligence are a trifle overstated.

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Sometime in the 1960s the macaques observed human beings using the onsen, or hot spring baths, near Jigokudani and decided to give it a shot. Eventually people got tired of sharing their baths with a bunch of monkeys and built them their own hot springs, luring them there by tossing sweet potatoes into the water. In the fifty years since the macaques have continued to bathe almost daily in the wintertime, lured by the hot springs (which they genuinely seem to enjoy) and by the regular meals the park staff spread throughout the snow.

Between the two monkey species that visit Jigokudani, the macaques certainly came off better for the comparison. They’re not so much human-friendly as they are human-apathetic; as far as I could tell, they paid their visitors no mind at all. Some of the human beings were not as polite.

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It would be hypocritical for me to fault the overly-excited photographers – while I put a long lens on my camera and tried to keep my distance, I drew much closer to the macaques than I normally would to a wild animal. More discouraging were the people who ignored the many signs exhorting visitors to avoid interacting with the macaques – the people who, flashing peace signs, crowded around a sleeping mother and baby for a photo, or who tried to high-five one of the monkeys (!).

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To be fair, it was difficult to avoid interacting with the monkeys. At one point, I was crouched down photographing one macaque when I felt something brush my side; another macaque was using me as a sort of lean-to for protection from the falling snow.

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Jigokudani is a sort of like a cheat code for wildlife photography – not only are the monkeys extremely cute, with their old-man-faces and their wide, expressive eyes, but you can also get as close to them as you like. I kept imagining a National Geographic photographer, fresh from a blind in the Serengeti or something, wandering around the park muttering “bullshit” under his breath.

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I enjoyed the monkey park, but there was also something silly about the whole thing, about all the people wandering among the monkeys furiously snapping photographs. Ron Fricke already filmed the snow monkeys about as well as they could be filmed when he shot them in glorious 70mm film for his 1992 documentary Baraka. What were we really hoping to accomplish by lugging our DSLRs and our tripods up the mountain? What photo could we take that someone else hadn’t already taken? We were taking photographs to preserve the moment, but our very presence, and the lengths we had gone through to be there, was proof that someone else’s photographs weren’t wholly satisfying.

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That being said, to see more of my photos from Jigokudani, click here to check out the whole set on Flickr. 

Books I've Read Recently

I just got back from a few weeks of vacation and I took advantage of my time out of the country to plow through a bunch of my reading list. I was in Geneva (shameless plug: check out my vacation photos!) and riding an innumerable number of trains, buses, trams, gondolas, and streetcars made me realize what a boon public transit is to book-reading. I still read plenty of books here in California – but not at the rate that I used to. It’s something I really miss about New York and the trip made me realize I should carve out more time to unplug from the internet and read real books.

Anyway, of the books I read in Geneva, I would say that two were excellent and three were pretty good. Here are some extended thoughts, in order of how much I liked the book.

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1. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Amazon | Indiebound

The title of Wecker’s first novel is surprisingly literal – the two creatures, one created by a man and the other controlled by one, end up in late-1800s Manhattan. The golem and the jinni turn out to have very different natures, but they each have to learn to live among mankind at its messiest and most chaotic.

It’s a delightfully traditional story, with elements that would be deemed cliche in other works – monsters, magic, star-crossed lovers, and (best of all) a deliciously amoral villain.  It’s also exceptionally well-written, and by its very existence it neatly refutes the idea that “literary” books need to be serious or somber affairs. I loved it. 

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2. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen Platt. Amazon | Indiebound

The Taiping Civil War has mostly fallen from public historical knowledge through a combination of Orientalism and deliberate suppression by various Chinese governments. But it was almost certainly the bloodiest Civil War in history, and between the war, famine, and a vicious cholera epidemic, it killed between 20 and 80 million people between 1850 and 1865. 

Platt chooses to focus not on the historical minutiae of the war but on the varied cast of characters, both Chinese and foreign, whose ambition, short-sightedness, gullibility, and capriciousness shaped the course of the War. He focuses most on two characters, one on each side of the conflict. On the Imperial side is Zeng Guofang, the reluctant scholar-turned-general who become the most important – and ruthless – military leader in the war. On the rebel side is Hong Rengan, who rose from being a minister’s apprentice in Hong Kong to being one of the most powerful figures in the rebellion, consumed by his quest to remake China in a Protestant image.

Platt’s cast of characters is huge, but in Guofang and Rengan he finds representations of the central tensions at the heart of the civil war - isolationism versus globalism, Christianity versus Confucianism, modernity versus tradition. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is tragic and often very grisly, but it’s also one of the most fascinating works of narrative history I’ve read in a long time.

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3. The Unwinding: An Inner History of New America by George Packer. Amazon | Indiebound

Packer is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and this is his attempt to tell the story of America between the mid-1970s to today. His thesis is that many of the institutions that propped up American life in the early part of the 20th century collapsed over the last thirty years, and he follows a cast of characters who were witnesses to that collapse – a black woman in Youngstown, Ohio, who sees her town decimated as all the steel mills and automobile factories close, an unlucky clean energy entrepreneur in North Carolina, a D.C. lobbyist. 

Packer’s prose is excellent and he skips between stories with ease, but the book is also a bit overlong and, because it deals with real people, it doesn’t really wrap up in a satisfying way – it just kind of runs out of steam. 

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4. Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton. Author’s website.

Matthew Amster-Burton is the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Spilled Milk, and Pretty Good Number One is his second food memoir. He, his wife, and his daughter traveled to Tokyo and lived there for a month and ate basically everything they could get their hands on.

It’s a fun, breezy read. I think I would have appreciated it more if I had read it two years ago, before I had been to Tokyo a few times. But if you have an interest in learning more about Japanese food - real Japanese food, not just sushi – Pretty Good Number One is a great place to start.

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5. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Amazon | Indiebound

I picked this one up because I kept seeing it referenced in discussions of other books – I feel like it’s having a bit of a Renaissance right now. It was fine, if a bit overlong and overwrought. I liked this book better when Ray Bradbury wrote it and it was set on Mars.

Europa Report

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Every time I think I’m done with the found-footage genre, a film comes along that uses it in a novel and exciting way. Last year it was Josh Trank's Chronicle; this year, it’s Sebastián Cordero's Europa Report, the best low-budget sci-fi film since Moon

The conceit of Europa Reportis that a private company has funded an extended mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that scientists believe has the potential to harbor liquid water and extraterrestrial life. The company keeps tabs on the crew through a few dozen fixed cameras spread throughout the spacecraft. But as the craft approaches Europa, the astronauts lose communications with Earth and are forced to finish the mission on their own. 

Cordero imbues the film with a refreshing sense of realism and scientific rigor. The early scenes of the film – in which the astronauts describe their daily routines, send messages home to their children, and conduct experiments in their free time – really feel and look like Chris Hadfield’s videos from the International Space Station. 

The found-footage aspect actually works perfectly for this setup. You get a good sense of the physical dimensions of the spacecraft and the editing helps the pace from seeming stale, even when not much has happened yet. It helps that the performances are pretty strong across the board, especially from Sharlto Copley (District 9), Michael Nyqvist (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and especially Anamaria Marinca, whose performance ends up the anchor of the film.

And when things start to go wrong, they at first go wrong in a terrifyingly plausible fashion. There’s a virtuosic scene about halfway through the film, as the ship nears Europa, that had me sitting bolt upright and staring at the screen with wide eyes. It’s a masterful and thrilling piece of filmmaking.

Sadly, the wheels come off the wagon a bit when the astronauts actually reach Europa and the film– for all its technical rigor – turns into an indictment of space exploration. In this it reminds me of Michael Crichton’s better works, whose sheen of scientific validity masked his deep suspicion of human nature and human curiosity – think Jurassic Park or Sphere

I can understand why the filmmakers took the story where they did: there’s a lot of dramatic potential both in the terrors of deep space and in the hubris of man. But it left me feeling a bit depressed. The motto of Europa Report seems to be, “Don’t boldly go where no man has gone before, because most of you will die horribly.” Which is fine, as far as it goes. But the first two-thirds of the film suggested it could be something more. 

Europa Report is out on video-on-demand right now; you can rent it on iTunes and Amazon for $9.99. It’ll come out for a limited release in theaters on August 2nd. Despite my reservations, I hope everyone does go to see it – both because it’s a good film in its own right and because I would love to see more experimental, independent sci-fi films like this in the future.

The Fall

It’s a great crime series from the BBC that was recently added to Netflix. The Fall is a disturbing look at obsession on both sides of the law, and it’s almost perfect – impeccably acted, beautifully shot, and well-written. Gillian Anderson gives the performance of the year and, possibly, her career.

The show’s focus on a single serial killer works to its benefit. In an American crime drama, we would have been done with this story in a single forty-two minute episode and moved on to the next week’s criminal. By letting us spend more time with this killer and this investigation, the show ends up being much more horrifying than most corpse-of-the-week cop shows.

Without giving too much away, there’s a pretty bold storytelling decision in the last episode that caused some consternation when it aired a few weeks ago. It worked for me – but mostly because I knew at that point that the show had been renewed for a second series of five episodes.

Goodreads purchased by Amazon

Friends who work in publishing: what’s your take on this? As someone who buys basically all my books through Amazon, I’m excited for better integration – I can never remember to go through and manually add the books I read to Goodreads on a regular basis. If there were a tool that said, “Rate your recent Amazon purchases” or something, it would be great.

On the other hand, I do think there’s value in having a vibrant literary-discussion community that exists independent of a retailer. Until now, Goodreads felt like a place that you could go to escape the increasingly-depressing discussions about the difficulties of the publishing industry and of independent bookstores, and just talk about books. I don’t know if it’ll retain that feeling now that it’s a feeding tube for Amazon’s algorithms.

Thoughts?

The Perils of Success

On the face of it, it’s good news that Duncan Jones – the director of Moon and Source Code – has been brought on-board to direct the upcoming Warcraft movie. The Warcraft universe is deep and rich, Jones is a talented director who is obviously on his way up, and Blizzard is controlling enough to ensure that any film made from the franchise is of a reasonably high quality. This isn’t going to be a Resident Evil film, and it would be nice to have a truly respectable video game-to-film adaptation.

But it also continues a disappointing trend I’ve seen over the last few years in which young, talented directors are diverted from their original works to take on “safe”, big-budget franchises. Jones is probably the best example, but here are a few others:

  • Josh Trank makes Chronicle, one of the best superhero films in several years. His next film will be a Fantastic Four reboot.
  • Gavin Hood makes the brilliant, provocative film Tsotsi, which wins the Academy Award for best foreign film. He follows it up with the equally-provocative (if somewhat less successful) Rendition. His next two films are X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game.
  • Marc Webb makes the decent-enough 500 Days of Summer. He’s then tapped to take over the rebooted Spider-Man franchise.
  • After the cult hits Slither and Super, James Gunn will be directing a Guardians of the Galaxy film.
  • Nerd-hero Edgar Wright’s next project is an Ant-Man film slated for release in 2015.

Some of these don’t even make sense. What was it about 500 Days that made Marvel think Marc Webb would be a good fit for The Amazing Spider-Man? Likewise, what’s the rationale behind tapping James Mangold (of Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma fame) to direct this summer’s The Wolverine? What about Stranger Than Fiction orThe Kite Runner made studio execs think Marc Forster would be a successful director of action-oriented films like Quantum of Solace or World War Z?

I want to be clear: I’m not accusing these directors of selling out. There’s nothing “wrong” about directing adaptations, sequels, or big-budget films. And the opportunity to bring a huge budget to bear on your artistic vision must be legitimately thrilling.

Rather, I’m sad about the opportunity cost of having these directors at work on these franchises. I’m sad for the films they would otherwise be making, but aren’t. 

Catch-22

At this moment in film history, it has suddenly become fashionable to hire genuinely visionary directors to helm what are essentially genre films. It wasn’t always so: studios used to hire boring-but-competent directors for these sorts of films, and rely on the action and the stars to get audiences to the theater. 

That’s changed, and it’s resulted in some serious talent being brought to bear on major franchises. To pick just one example: Skyfall brought to the table an Academy Award-winning director, several Oscar-winning actors, and the world’s best living cinematographer. And it was awesome!

But this new paradigm comes with costs, and it seems like more and more often, the casualties are the kinds of movies that made those directors famous in the first place. I really loved The Avengers, but there’s something sad about Joss Whedon acknowledging that he won’t be able to get new Dr. Horrible or Firefly projects off the ground because he’s busy with Marvel duties until 2016. (And he’s even a guy who goes to extremes to sneak in passion projects!) 

As someone who believes Hollywood should invest more in original works and less in remakes and sequels, the way these casualties pile up can be depressing. Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness collapsed due to his obligations to The Hobbit – a film he didn’t even end up directing! And to return to the example that inspired this post, Duncan Jones has talked publicly about his plans for Mute, a Blade Runner-esque murder mystery set in a future Berlin. He’s also talked about a possible Ian Fleming bio-pic, focusing on Fleming’s experiences in the British Intelligence service during WWII. Is a Warcraft film really worth postponing (or possibly losing) either of these?

An Embarrassment of Riches

There’s something a bit pretentious (or at least a bit greedy) in this line of thinking: aren’t there enough super-talented directors around to satisfy both my love of big-budget blockbusters and original films?

I suppose I’ll just have to hold out hope that the films I care about will someday come to exist, and enjoy the fruits of these directors’ franchise efforts in the meantime. And it makes me really cherish those directors – like Rian Johnson, Jeff Nichols, or Tomas Alfredson – who seem content to make quirky, original films on their own terms. After all, not everybody has to be an auteur – but it would be nice if somebody were. 

Kitchen Atlas

My good friend Holly has started a blog where she cooks recipes from all over the world and writes about their origins and cultural context. For her first entry, she interviewed my girlfriend Satoko about how to make oyakodon, a Japanese egg and chicken dish that is basically the greatest thing ever. (You may remember it as Ryan’s favorite Asian dish from Episode 21 of Pop Cultural Osmosis.)

So if you like great food writing with a cultural bent and/or recipes for Asian comfort food dishes, you should check out kitchenatlas.com.

Pop Cultural Osmosis: Episode 29

popculturalosmosis:

Welcome back! We’re sorry for the impromptu hiatus, but now that the hurricanes, overseas trips, and broken laptops are behind us, we’re so happy to be recording again.

This week, we talk about our favorite 30 Rock episodes, discuss Netflix’s new original series House of Cards, and finally…

One thing I totally forgot to mention in our House of Cards discussion was how weirdly uninteresting the title sequence is. For a director who seems to devote a great deal of attention to the title sequences in his films (see: Se7en, Panic Room, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) it seems like he phoned it in for his first TV outing.

Also, I finished the series over the weekend and, though it goes off the rails a bit at the end, it’s still pretty great. 

Bill Gates' Annual Letter

I’ve been interested in the reactions to both the annual letter from Bill Gates on the state of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and to an informal sit-down that Gates had with a varied group of writers in New York City. Here are a few snippets, first from Tyler Cowen:

Gates has a command of data and analytics in development economics better than that of most development economists, or for that matter aid professionals.  He also expects everyone at the meeting to know everything about what he is talking about, or at least is willing to proceed on that basis.  That said, when it comes to answering questions he sometimes assumes a stupider version of the question than what is actually being asked.

Next, from Dana Goldstein:

Discussing the bleak living conditions in the Central African Republic and Yemen, Gates said, “If you don’t invest in health there, you’re a cold-hearted bastard.” In a rare personal comment, he discussed how one of his daughters was moved by video footage of a child survivor of polio limping down a dirt road. “What did you do to help her?” she asked her dad – an insightful comment, since Gates said he feels growing concern about the survivors of once-deadly childhood diseases like malaria and polio, who often arrive at school with cognitive delays that make it difficult to learn. 

Lastly, from Jason Kottke:

Over and over, in the letter and during the roundtable, Gates talked about the importance of measurement and results. I got the sense that before the Gates Foundation came along, money was pumped into charitable foundations and donors didn’t have much sense what result their giving had, beyond that it had “done good”. Gates is obviously running his foundation like a business, where instead of profits or number of Windows installs, the metrics are things like lives saved or children vaccinated.

Three thoughts stirred by reading both the letter and the responses to it.

First, I think the living situation for much of the developing world – especially sub-Saharan Africa – is improving much faster than our popular perception of it is. Obviously, “improving” does not always mean acceptable or even livable, but I keep reading, over and over, that things like lifespan, infant mortality, and average wages are improving the world over. The full effects of this won’t be felt for a long time, but will shape the contours of our relationship with the rest of the world for the rest of the 21st century.

Second, Gates’ analytical approach to philanthropy reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s incredible article “The Mosquito Killer”, the story of a single public health official’s quixotic quest to eliminate malaria. In that instance, too, the key to success was a methodical, analytical approach that required the coordination of a huge number of people in various far-flung parts of the world. It’s possibly the best public-health story I’ve ever read.

Lastly, a persistent criticism of Steve Jobs, both before and after his death, was his curiously apathetic approach to philanthropy. He famously declined to donate publicly to charity and suspended Apple’s policy of matching the charitable donations of their employees. (The policy was reinstated by Tim Cook shortly after he took control of the company.)

The defense most commonly made of this fact is: so what? It’s was Jobs’ money and time, he was free to spend it as he wished, and he chose to dedicate his life to creating the best consumer electronics company in the world. And if Jobs truly didn’t feel that philanthropy was his calling, I also don’t think there’s nothing wrong with that.

But Gates and Jobs have always been natural counterpoints, and on this issue, I do think Jobs comes out worse in the comparison. For the last thirteen years, Gates has been doing work that has and will continue to fundamentally improve the lives of billions of people. I think that counts for more than just being a really good CEO with a keen eye for design. And I suspect that in a hundred years Gates will be a hero, and Jobs little more than a footnote.

Favorite Films of 2012

I went to a lot of movies in 2012, and I seem to have done a better-than-average job of picking which films I saw – a good 2/3 of this list I would label as “good” movies, and I only really hated a few. So, here are the films I saw in the theater in 2012, from worst to best.


30. Prometheus

A total failure from start to finish, and the only film that made me angry I ever believed it could be good.

29. The Woman in Black

28. The Amazing Spider-Man

Worse than the 2002 version in every way.

27. Lawless

I was excited for this film because I loved Nick Cave and John Hillcoat’s last collaboration, The Proposition. Sadly, this is three hours of Shia LaBeouf mugging in a zoot suit. Even Tom Hardy can’t save this movie.

26. The Campaign

25. John Carter

Not as bad as it was made out to be, but not very good, either.

24. Les Miserables

I love the musical and I loved some of the performances here. But the cinematography, art direction, editing, sound mixing – you know, the stuff that makes this a movie – were a disaster.

23. The Hunger Games (see episode 21 of Pop Cultural Osmosis)

22. The Bourne Legacy

21. The Dark Knight Rises (see episode 26 of Pop Cultural Osmosis)

20. Haywire

19. The Intouchables

18. The Secret World of Arietty (see episode 21 of Pop Cultural Osmosis)

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild

16. Brave (see episode 25 of Pop Cultural Osmosis)

15. Robot & Frank

14. The Hobbit

13. Seven Psychopaths

12. Chronicle

A great superhero movie that’s marred by its silly found-footage conceit.

11. Cabin in the Woods

The moment that the elevator doors all open at once was the most exuberant filmmaking moment of the year.

10. 21 Jump Street

The funniest movie of the year from the unlikeliest source. Maybe the best TV-to-film adaptation in movie history.

9. Argo

Affleck continues to mature as a director, if perhaps not as an actor. This movie could easily have been reductive or pedantic; instead, it was smart and thrilling.

8. Skyfall

The best Bond film since – I’m not even sure. Goldfinger, maybe? Skyfall is somehow able to perfectly balance the inherent ridiculousness of the character with genuine stakes and drama. Plus, Mendes and Deakins are the best craftsmen ever to work on the series.

7. Django Unchained

The film’s first half is much better than its second – the action flags a bit once they arrive at Candeyland. But this is still Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, a perfectly-crafted, always-entertaining film that also makes – in its own manic way – a number of nuanced points about American slavery.

6. Cloud Atlas

I can understand why people hate this movie, but I loved it anyway. Crazily ambitious, heavy-handed, and seemingly destined for failure, Cloud Atlas is also a film devoid of cynicism and blessed with enormous emotional generosity. What can I say? It worked for me.

5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

A beautiful, beguiling film. Gary Oldman’s performance is masterfully restrained. I’ve watched this movie over and over and I find something new to appreciate every time.

4. Looper

One of the best sci-fi films in years. (For more, see episode 28 of PCO.)

3. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s best live-action film, and perhaps the best live-action film Wes Anderson is capable of making. Moonrise is such the perfect distillation of his style that I have trouble seeing how he’ll ever top it.

1. TIE: The Avengers / Lincoln

A cheat! One is the best superhero film of all time, written and directed by a geeky cult-hero made good. The other is America’s best director teaming with America’s best playwright to make a film about America’s best President. They both play so directly to different passions of mine; I don’t think I could possibly choose.

Movies I wanted to see but didn’t have the chance: The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, Silver Linings Playbook, Safety Not Guaranteed, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Searching for Sugarman.


I was a little bummed about how few indie or limited distribution films I saw in theaters this year, but on the other hand, the studio offerings were uncommonly great. Right now it seems like arty little films are what I’m really excited about going forward (Upstream Color, Mud, Inside Llewyn Davis, Escape from Tomorrow) but that’s probably just because Sundance is going on so that’s what people are talking about.

A Meditation on Movie Trailers.

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Battle: Los Angeles is a prodigiously stupid film. The plot is stupid. The characters are stupid – both in their conception and in their actions. The aliens are stupid. The film is almost proud of how stupid the whole thing is.

That being said, Battle: Los Angeles also manages to be fucking awesome no less than 65% of the time. The twelve-year-old sitting behind me in the theater loved it, and so did I; I left the theater wishing that I, too, could shove my submachine-gun underneath the metal-plated ribcage of a robotic alien and empty a clip into its slimy thorax. The alien-invasion subgenre has become fashionable recently for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, though I mostly blame District 9. And while B:LA is nowhere near as smart as that film, it’s also no stupider than Signs, which I also loved.

However: I don’t really want to talk about B:LA. What I really want to talk about are movie trailers – because they’re one of my favorite art forms, and because most people think about them in the wrong way.

Most people think of movie trailers as being a reasonably good representation of what’s in the film. They watch the trailer, take in the stars, plot overview, and general tone, and decide to whether to see the film based on that.

But this is a recipe for disappointment, because the point of trailers is not to accurately represent what’s in the film. The point of movie trailers is to cram as much enticing footage into two or three minutes as humanly possible, in the hopes that it’ll convince you to buy a ticket. This is why it’s so common to hear people walk out of a theater and say, in disgust, “Well, that was nothing like the trailer”. Of course it wasn’t: if trailers accurately depicted what movies were actually like, many fewer people would be tricked into seeing bad movies.

Trailers are representative of movies in the same way that yogurt commercials are representative of what it’s like to eat yogurt. That doesn’t mean that people don’t decide to see films based on the trailer, in the same way that yogurt commercials do actually sell yogurt. But it’s obviously not an accurate depiction.

In the olden days, even the movie studios who made the trailers hadn’t figured out how this marketing distinction was going to work, which is why old movie trailers seem so unsubtle and weird. The studios in those days figured that the best way to sell tickets was to give you as much information as possible about the plot and characters of the film, which turns out to be emphatically what people do not want from movie trailers. Check out this trailer for the original True Grit, which was released in 1978.

Now, check out the trailer from the 2010 True Grit.

Which of these trailers most accurately represents the film its promoting? The first one does. In fact, watching that trailer almost negates the need for you to watch the film at all. Whereas the second trailer doesn’t represent the tone of the Coen Brothers’s True Grit at all; it has none of the sweetness and whimsy that underlies most of the film. But it’s undeniably a better trailer.

The more interesting way to think about movie trailers is to decouple them from their associated films and instead consider them as their own art form, with their own conventions and artistic vision – as two-to-three minute experimental short films, designed to play upon your imagination and your visceral reactions. This fundamentally changes what it means to have a ‘successful’ trailer: instead of one that accurately depicts the film, a successful trailer is one that is the most effective at thrilling, saddening, intriguing, or otherwise moving the viewer.

Which brings me back to Battle: Los Angeles, whose moody, eerie trailer was the only reason anybody even knew about the film in the first place.

No plot. No characters. Not even any information about the film, really. Just a single effective song, random images from the film, and a creeping sense of dread. It’s beautiful. This is what music videos have the capacity to be but usually aren’t, because few artists seem to care much about the visual component of their music videos.

And I love it even more now that I’ve seen the film, because I can understand why the trailer was made as it was. I can almost see the editor in charge of the trailer slumped at a desk, his head in his hands. On the screen in front of him are hours of footage full of ham-fisted dialogue, over-earnest acting, and mediocre special effects. He doesn’t even know what the film is called yet – during production, the film was variously known as Battle: Los Angeles, Battle: LA, World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles, and Battle for Los Angeles. His superiors have told him that people are really into gritty, indie sci-fi films now, like District 9 or Sunshine. How am I supposed to make this crap look like that? he thinks. And then: fuck it. I’ll just make it look crazy instead.

The earliest example that I know of this sort of plot-less trailer is for 1979’s Alien, a two-minute nightmare that’s infinitely more upsetting than the entirety of most horror films. Imagine watching this in the same session as the older True Grit trailer – I’m surprised people didn’t flee the theater. (Here’s a higher quality version that is not embeddable.)

More recently, the trailer for The Social Network opened with a sort of strange multimedia poem set to a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” by a Hungarian children’s choir; it’s the sort of thing that almost anyone could have made but somehow no one else did. The remainder of the trailer is mostly random lines and shots from the film, and I honestly think that you could substitute almost any line or shot from the film and it would be equally effective.

There are a number of films for which I prefer the trailer to the film itself, and would rather rewatch the former than the latter. These include The Watchmen…

… and Where The Wild Things Are.

I even like trailers for films I never bothered to see, like the 2006 Dwayne Johnson vehicle Walking Tall.

Such economy of storytelling! How could another ninety minutes possibly improve on that?

Possibly my favorite trailer of all time is for a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld called Comedian. Not only does it not include any footage from the film, or tell you what the film is about, it is actually a meta-parody of trailers themselves.

It’s possible that the trailer for Comedian wasn’t particularly effective, though, because no one I know has ever seen the film.

Lastly, my favorite trailer of the moment is for the third Transformers film, Dark Side of the Moon (wow, that is a horrible title).

I don’t know how big of a plot point this is in the film, but the conceit here is absolutely brilliant. It’s doubling down on the traditional conspiracy theories about the moon landing – not only did we actually visit the moon, we found GIANT SPACE ROBOTS while we were there! I love it. And while I’ll probably see Dark Side of the Moon when it comes out, I honestly wouldn’t care if no further scrap of footage from the film were ever released. The trailer is enough.

And that’s really what the point of all this is: sometimes, two minutes is more effective than ninety-two. And I think that once you stop thinking about trailers as being abbreviated versions of the films themselves, that time before the feature presentation will become a lot more interesting.

Self-Promotion.

I had the opportunity this weekend to sit down with James Marsh, the director of documentaries like 2008’s Man on Wire (which won an Oscar) and this year’s Project Nim. He’s a hugely talented filmmaker who turned out to be a charming, funny interview subject. He’s also loquacious, which is a huge relief; it’s much easier to cut a long interview down than it is to stretch an unproductive one. I was pretty pleased both with the interview and with the feature that came out of it.

You can read the long(ish) feature I wrote on Marsh for Vox Magazine, or you can listen to five minutes of excerpts from our conversation at KBIA’s website. And here are a few things about the interview process itself:

  • The night before I interviewed Marsh, I had a dream that I spilled coffee across the table and into his lap. (This is a recurring nightmare of mine whenever I have advance notice I’ll be meeting someone for the first time.) The next morning, the first thing that I did when I sat down was – yes – spilled my coffee. It wasn’t exactly a flood, and it didn’t get anywhere near him, but still – I couldn’t fucking believe it.

    So Marsh said, “Oh, let me get you some napkins.” But I was already standing, so I said, “No, no, it’s ok, I’ll get them.” I was harried and upset with myself, and listening to the tape later, I realized that it showed; in fact, it sounded like I was upset with Marsh, for offering to get me napkins. I certainly hope he didn’t take it that way.
  • It’s stressful to interview someone whose made his professional career interviewing people. At one point there was a lull in the interview as I thought about what line of inquiry to pursue next, and Marsh noticed and started giving me tips on what to do when the same thing happens to him. Which was useful – actually, very useful – but he still acknowledged that the interview had hit a snag, which interviewees tend not to do.
  • As we were leaving the cafe, Marsh asked if I knew someplace to get some beer. I figured he meant a bar, so I started rattling off a few places downtown, but then he said no, he was looking for bottled beer. I generally get my beer from the local HyVee grocery store – it’s got a kickass craft beer selection – so I told him so and gave him directions. It was only after we parted ways that I realized that it was likely he was planning to walk there; the grocery store was two or three miles away, and some of the terrain in between was not particularly kind to pedestrians.

    So long story short, I may have sent an Oscar-winning film director on a wild goose chase through Columbia. And all because the guy wanted a six-pack.