- Vroom vroom
- Terrifying dada
- Big tornado
- The Son of Tornado
- A tree… I think? Is that a tree?
- Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X
- Tornado on Coffee Table (mixed media)
On Christmas Day, my wife and I walked into downtown Portland’s Regal Fox Tower, one of many such multiplexes Regal Cinemas operates. It’s a nice theater, with comfy seats, sharp screens, and friendly staff. I’m told the local owners are hip people, and this is evidenced by the oddball/artsy films they often run. Overall, however, this in not in any essential way different from other similar, big-name, popcorn-and-soda theaters.
Which is why it was downright shocking to me when, upon entering and seating ourselves, having chatted away the fifteen minutes we had until the screening, we watched the house lights dim down and the screen turn on—yes, it had been off until now—and the very first thing we saw was a grainy shot of some desert rocks, and the first thing we heard was a twangy guitar riff that opens Luis Bacalov’s theme to Sergio Corbucci’s Django, now repurposed as the opening of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
You read that right. The theater showed no house ads, no local ads, no previews for TV shows, no featurettes, no trailers. At 7:45 PM, the advertised screening time, they showed the movie we came to see.
It was magnificent. It felt like watching a movie, as opposed to going out to see a movie.
I’m sure that those local ads, TV previews, and trailers make money for the theater (by the way of making money for the studios etc.) I’m also quite positive that if this theater decided to show every movie this way—if that were even possible, because I imagine that the reels (hard drives!) they receive from the studios have some of this baked in?—they’d suffer financially and, potentially, legally. I don’t even know why it happened this time. Other screenings of Django Unchained definitely included all the advertising detritus. Was it because the movie is long-ish? Because it’s, uh, offensive to advertisers? Because, gosh darn it, it’s Christmas?
I wonder if there’s a business to be gotten into where one shows movies the way everyone wants to see them: just the movies, from the very first second you start watching. It’s a naive thought; I understand that. But I can’t forget that when those lights went down, when that screen went up, and when that twangy riff kicked in, there were audible gasps and cheers in the audience, and someone behind me yelled out “whoa, awesome!”
I want to believe that there’s a business to be gotten into that capitalizes on “whoa, awesome”.
Last year I accepted that I’m always well behind the times and quite slow at getting into new music, books, and movies. The present always seems to me saturated with new releases to the point of suffocation, and I end up preferring a slow, relaxing walk to a quick, jammed-up subway ride. I’m not saying this is any way for anyone else to live; the trouble is that I mostly just walk around the same four blocks closest to home. But, I yam what I yam. The point here is, instead of offering a list of my favorite things that were new in 2012, I’ll share things I liked that were new to me last year. As with any such list, the value to you, dear reader, is introduction to something you might like; given that simple goal, let’s damn the release year and treat them all equally.
I read 72 books last year, at about 45 pages per day. This is down from 122 books in 2011 and 90 books in 2010. My favorites were, in no particular order:
- Fifth Business, Robertson Davies (1970)
- To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis (1998)
- The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, David Simon & Ed Burns (1997)
- Tapping the Source, Kem Nunn (1984)
- The Dog Stars, Peter Heller (2012)
- Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset, Rick Veitch (2003)
- An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen (2012)
- Enigma, Peter Milligan (1995)
I record all the books I read, and sometimes I write a word or two about them, at Goodreads.
That’s right, I liked a total of 1 (one) album released last year. It’s not that I disliked anything else I heard, it’s just that I probably didn’t hear it.
- Locked Down, Dr. John (2012)
- Return Of The Instro-Hipsters Volume 2, Various Artists (2011)
- The Greatest, Cat Power (2006)
- Escape From Dragon House, Dengue Fever (2005)
- The Taking of Pelham 123, David Shire (1974)
- Texas Thunder Soul (1968-1974), Kashmere Stage Band
- Supergrass, Supergrass (2000)
- Mark’s Keyboard Repair, Money Mark (1995)
I watched 81 movies, or about 1 movie every 4.5 days. Unlike with books and music, I make an effort to watch new movie releases. I imagine your habits are similar. I watched many classics and liked many of last year’s big releases—The Cabin in the Woods, Prometheus—so instead of boring you with those, I’ll mention the perhaps lesser-known movies I dug last year:
- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
- The House of the Devil (2009)
- Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
- The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
- The Grey (2012)
- Sorcerer (1977)
- The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
- Near Dark (1987)
You can track my movie viewing and read my reviews at Letterboxd.
My biggest culinary discovery of 2012 was bittersweet: I made a few Malaysian dishes in my kitchen, was sufficiently intrigued that I sought out more while traveling in Melbourne, and had my mind totally blown by the food at Coconut House. It was a good restaurant, but even beyond that, the cuisine itself is just totally up my alley.
So that’s the sweet part. The bitter is that here in Portland, a food-crazed city, we have zero Malaysian or even Indonesian restaurants. In 2013, I’ll seek them out wherever I travel, and I’ll continue figuring out Malay dishes at home.
My other obsession in 2012 was Mexican food. I did not have a single burrito; instead, I enjoyed a wide variety of moles and perfected my corn-tortilla technique. This was largely inspired by the wonderful guisados at Mi Mero Mole, my favorite new restaurant in Portland in 2012, and fueled by Rick Bayless’ great cookbooks.
Last year I kept a mini-diary of foods I cooked. Whenever I made something remotely interesting, I’d snap a picture of it and post it to a Flickr set, with some notes on how the dish turned out. These are mostly notes to myself, but if you find any of this interesting, let me know.
I used to work for a very large survey company. They conduct phone surveys, mail surveys, in-person surveys, and they gather data automatically using various gadgets, apps, and plug-ins. They gather all the data they can from as many sources as they can.
Let’s say you’re sitting at home one day and you get a call from this reputable survey company. They’d like to chat with you for a moment [3-5 minutes] about your thoughts on popular TV shows. You pour your heart out regarding Little Chocolatiers and Property Virgins. (If this were a written survey, you’d be given a full blank page to communicate these strong feelings you have about entertainment programs.) You then answer a few quick demographic questions—your age, race, education level, household income, the usual—and are thanked for helping the TV industry find out what you, the viewer, think about their offerings.
At this point you could reasonably assume that the survey was about the quality and direction of current TV shows. Of course, you also disclosed some demographic data, which makes sense; the networks would like to know what 40-to-50-year-old Asian women think about this season’s reality TV.
But this isn’t the case. The survey was about the demographics. What this large survey company wants to know is that a 40-to-50-year-old Asian woman who graduated from college and has a TV with a cable subscription lives at this address and phone number. This information is fed into the giant bucket of similar information: ages, races, different levels of access to consumer goods, and other metrics that can be summed up, averaged out, tracked over time, and projected into the future.
The free-form opinion you offered wasn’t even recorded. (In a written survey, your handwritten page of opinions would never be read by anyone.) The call-center employee just sat at their terminal, bored to quiet tears, while you described what all is wrong with youngsters these days. The call-center employee typed nothing. They had even been instructed on how to answer if you asked them to read back what you just told them. (Pretend to read back a summarized version from your memory, if you can?)
Your opinion can’t be programmatically consolidated or calculated. It’s hard to divine a meaning out of it that can be grouped with other similar opinions, and even if it were easier, the industry is just not that interested in it. There are plenty of people who will pay for pools of numeric, strictly typed data; there are few people who will pay for reams of subjective opinions.
There are notable, if minor, exceptions to this. Yelp, for instance, analyzes the (subjective, free-form, opinionated) reviews its users submit. They then try to divine usable, cumulative information out of those reviews: do many customers mention the beignets at this restaurant? Are there a lot of references to long waits?
You could also argue that Google’s does something similar with its statistical, cumulative approach to web search. They analyze lots and lots of free-text to figure out what web pages are most relevant to waterproof iPad cases. But note that Google’s money doesn’t come from excelling at this; it comes from excelling at showing you targeted ads, and selling those ad-spots to people with money to spend on them. Google has to make its analytical, statistical, meaning-from-free-text search product good for its users or there’ll be no users to show those targeted ads to. But Google doesn’t value the quality of your search queries; they don’t want to own them; they don’t care too much whether they can re-publish them or not.
I bring this up because in the wake of Instagram’s new, Facebooky terms of service, I’m seeing some worry that their plan might be to sell users’ photos. After all, these terms seem to say that Instagram reserves the right to use these photos however they want. Perhaps they will sell my cute baby pictures to baby magazines? This is incredibly unlikely for three reasons:
- Your photos aren’t that good.
- Photos aren’t that valuable. Even professional photos are incredibly cheap. Hence,
- No magazine or website will risk using a photo with a sketchy, second-hand license when they could buy a better one for peanuts.
What they might do is use “interesting” photos (those with many views, likes, and comments) in Facebook’s business listings. If restaurant X doesn’t provide its own photos of the pizza they serve, here are five photos of said pizza taken by Instagram users. While some users might still object to this sort of use, it would be a far cry from “selling photos”, and it would not be a money-making scheme for Instagram. It would be a minor feature intended to beef up Facebook’s business listings, a way of keeping up with Google, Yelp, and Foursquare. Platform hygiene, basically.
Real money will likely come from the boring, old approach every startup hopes to avoid, and few end up avoiding: gathering targetable information about the users (demographics, location, social graph, habits, etc.) and using it to deliver ads to them. A bonus second step—again, usually more theoretical than practical—would be to talk users into advertising to each other, and to non-users. (“Check out this awesome Absolut ad I liked on Instagram!”) The photo “theme” of the app is sticky bait for the user, a reason to come back and pour more data into Facebook’s big user-data bucket.
You can see something similar going on with Twitter, by the way. They’re not at all interested in your tweets as prose. They’d probably prefer it if all tweets came from apps and “Tweet this” links; those are standardized, formalized, and free of all that pesky human abstraction. Of course, they need enough funny/pithy/scandalous free-form tweets to keep baiting users back to the service, but the real money is in having you retweet that link to the Paranormal Activity 7 trailer that your friend robo-tweeted from Gawker, not in selling postcards with your witty tweets on them.
This is still controversial stuff. But the controversy should focus more on large companies’ access to, ownership of, and sales plans for big bunches of data blobs that encapsulate how we the users are attractive to advertisers. Concerns over large companies’ plans to sell our precious works of art are misplaced; not because Google and Apple and Facebook respect our creativity and expression (which, I’m sure, most people in those companies do) but because Viacom and ClearChannel and GE don’t value them.
Put another way, the Advertising department has a lot of money to spend; the Photo department does not.
I don’t know what Instagram’s ultimate plan is, and it’s very likely that they don’t know either. But it probably has nothing to do with selling or abusing your photos. Your photos just aren’t worth much.
This line by Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, often gets quoted by would-be writers and literary types:
“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
This sort of exaggeratedly arbitrary, nose-thumbingly subjective opinion is exactly what we love in lovable writers, but it is also the exact sort of thing we should develop in ourselves, not mimic (or worse, throw as a “rule” at others when they fail to comply). I’m happy to have a writer who insists on something as inconsequential as eschewing semicolons, but I’m also happy to have a writer who, like Kafka here, in the opening of my favorite short story, The Bucket Rider, employs them masterfully:
Coal all spent; the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing out cold; the room freezing; the leaves outside the window rigid, covered with rime; the sky a silver shield against anyone who looks for help from it. I must have coal; I cannot freeze to death; behind me is the pitiless stove, before me the pitiless sky, so I must ride out between them and on my journey seek aid from the coal-dealer.
A year ago I wrote about wanting an iOS device for the desktop, meaning a large, non-handheld computer with enough power and screen space to comfortably perform tasks that are currently—and would presumably always be—awkward on a 9.7” iPad: writing code, creating precise graphics, working with video and layout apps. Apple hasn’t come out with anything like this imaginary device, but my wish for one hasn’t really subsided. Windows 8 promises to solve the software side of this problem, but it remains to be seen how well that will work in practice.
What issues would Apple need to address in order to create a device of this sort?
- Angle ergonomics. If we imagine the device as a 20” iPad, basically, it wouldn’t do to just set it on a flat-top desk. Ideally it would be tilted some 10-15º. Is this angle built into the design? Do you fold out a kick-stand? (Again, Microsoft considered this with their Surface.) Is the desk itself angled? Don’t forget that for a very long time, the Western world used angled desks for work.
- Accidental-input detection. The iPad is small enough that you don’t end up pressing your palm, elbow, or other hand against it much. A 20” device would have to assume that you’d end up doing just that, though.
- Typing and pointing devices. While you could certainly hook up a Bluetooth keyboard to this large touch-based computer, the future probably belongs to (better) virtual keyboards. We should expect to see those show up on iPhones and iPads anyway. And while Steve Jobs quipped that we’re all born with ten of the best pointing device, that device is a bit chunky and gets fatigued quite easily. Maybe pens aren’t a terrible idea.
- Non-fullscreen apps. iOS’s one-app-at-a-time model was brilliantly refreshing when it came out. Sadly, it won’t work forever. There are just too many times when it would be more convenient to have your chat onscreen along with your web browser instead of sitting through a 20”, fullscreen animation every few seconds. The answer is almost certainly not a return to arbitrary, overlapping windows; that was always a real mess. Again, Windows 8 attempts to address this with its side-dockable apps. We’ll see how well it ends up working.
I don’t expect we’ll see this device from Apple any time soon. Each year, however, the Mac becomes less important to Apple—through no fault of its own, but by the shadow iOS device sales cast over it. It’s not time to kill the Mac yet; it’s just time to start making succession plans.
Matt Comi and I have been working on our next game since we shipped The Incident. The new game is called Space Age. As it develops, we’ll post updates on our blogs (mine here and Matt’s over at Big Bucket), on the @spaceageapp twitter account, and on Dribbble.
Expect to see more screenshots and game footage as it all comes together. If you’d like to be notified when the game ships, sign up for our email newsletter.
Let’s do this!
Apple is rumored to be holding an event on October 23 where they are expected to introduce a smaller, 8”-or-so iPad and a 13” MacBook Pro with Retina display. Also, perhaps a redesigned, slimmed-down iMac (possibly, though unlikely, also retinized?) As you see, with every Apple event of this sort the focus of the rumor coverage is always heavily on the hardware products, so I like to spend a few minutes idly theorizing on the possible software Apple might also show.
We already know that iTunes 11 will ship “in October”, and most likely right around this event. What I’m wondering is if there’s anything in this new iTunes (other than device support) that would make its release simultaneous with the new hardware. If the focus of this event is education—as has been hinted—is there finally some sort of iBookstore support in iTunes? (UPDATE: I had no clue iTunes already supported this.) Perhaps even a standalone iBooks app for Mac? I’ll be the first to say that I’m not excited to sit and read a whole book on my MacBook, but textbooks and reference materials are a different story. I bet that in 2012 (and 2013) it’s still a lot easier to put together a well-researched paper on a keyboarded, multiwindowed computer.
iBooks Author. Remember that? What better time to hand over a badly needed 2.0 version of this promising but frustrating app. I still hope we can get to a point where Author becomes a general-purpose self-publishing app, not just a textbook-specific tool. You can sort of kind of glue together a novel in it today, but boy is it rough sailing. It’s reasonable that Apple launched the app with a specialized use case in mind, but true success comes from eventual mass-marketability. Chop chop on that!
The Mac version of iPhoto has been getting quite stale, and now that Apple has reimagined it for iOS, it’s possible that they’ll move some of those new features and concepts over to the Mac version. I have no love for the iOS version, so I’m not looking forward to that kind of “upgrade”, but the app is badly in need of some attention either way.
The rest of iLife seems to be just fine where it is right now; GarageBand and iMovie could do with minor updates, but no one’s picketing in Cupertino for them. And the whole concept of iLife as a suite of related apps is losing relevance. The App Store doesn’t support “bundles” at all, and the apps themselves are growing apart. iTunes is no longer part of the pack, iDVD rests in eternal peace.
Of course, iLife has a sibling, and it fits the education theme well: iWork. iWork has always been a somewhat strange product: in many ways better than MS Office, but never quite as successful in the market. (I am basing this on the highly scientific fact that my non-nerd friends and family have no clue what an iWork or a Pages is.) The Mac version has received no love lately, and I guess this is one opportunity for Apple to show if they’re seriously interested in growing these apps, or if it’s enough to just have any kind of replacement for Office.
And finally, there’s always the possibility that Apple will introduce an all-new app at this event. Are we ever getting a painting/drawing/graphics app from Apple? Haha, ever the joker, I am!
Tonight is the opening part for Portland’s XOXO Festival, a new kind of gathering of people who blend creativity and technology in interesting ways. Tomorrow, they’re putting on a fringe event titled XOXO Arcade. Matt and I are going to be there, showing off an early preview of Big Bucket’s new game!
Friday, September 14, 7 PM
Union/Pine, 525 SE Pine St, Portland, OR
This event is open to the public, so hop in if you’re in town!