The Cake Outside the Door

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The other day when I left my apartment to run some errands I stepped out into the hallway and there was a cake outside the door.

A boxed cake, an Italian panettone. Not a freshly-baked cake but a sort of seasonal coffee cake with the requisite shelf life such that you can buy at retail stores. I picked it up to check for any notes or addresses to explain why it was here (I don’t know anyone in the building; you nod and say hello to people, good morning, to 80 or so other people, but I don’t know anyone who might gift me something), and there was no note. Just a cake, in a box, outside my door.

I thought, perhaps, it was from the immediate neighbors. They accidentally set off the fire alarm in the hallway just a few days ago, and perhaps this was some kind of penance, penance for making us step into the public light in pajamas to check if we were going to die or not. But there was no note! (And we did not die.) No hi sorry here’s a cake from your neighbors! Nothing! Floor cake, and that is all.

I thought, perhaps more likely, that the cake was intended for a different apartment, and the person just got the number wrong. Intended for a different apartment that would understand an unmarked cake at the door. But what could I do to rectify the location of an unmarked cake?

I also considered that there are some kids in the building, frenetic children who run through the hallways and bounce off the walls and play in the lobby, and perhaps they placed it there for whatever reason. Like some kind of ring-the-doorbell-and-run game. Here’s a cake! Suckers! A reverse dine-and-dash.

So without any clear resolution, I brought the floor cake inside. What else could I do?

I share a two bedroom apartment so I waited until my housemate got home before I chose to eat, dispose off, or give away the item; perhaps floor cake was entirely comprehensible to her. (And though I was distrustful of the cake, I would have definitely just eaten it anyway.) I was right to wait, because the explanation was mundane.

There’s a place in the lobby where people sometimes put free stuff; books or whatever. A box of coat hangers. Children’s toys that have run their attention span. Dianetics.

I said to my housemate, I found this cake, someone brought us cake? And she had an explanation. Someone has placed the cake in the lobby, in the free zone, and these particular types of cake were a recent topic of conversation at her work. She was curious. So she ran back up stairs with the cake but needed to catch an Uber so she just left it outside our door, as you might with any package when you have places to be, things to do. Deals to make! Modern businesswoman! Catching cars, finding cakes!

Oh.

That was a little disappointing–no one intentionally gave us cake–but also a little gratifying in its explicit unremarkableness. Which is the only lesson I have, the only kicker: the explanation for everything you don’t understand is probably more boring than you expect it be.

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I Can’t Stop Watching This Clip of Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody is a silly cartoon movie starring fake teeth. It’s not good, but it is popular. I can see why; it’s not not entertaining! Particularly if you enjoy the music, which carries the movie along with Rami Malek’s wholehearted dive. But it’s all an absurd mess that glosses over reality and is haunted by the spectre of its director, Bryan Singer, who was fired from the production before filming completed. The band might also be partly to blame, the Actual Queen band, supposedly wanting to make a movie that was innocuous to all legacies involved.

So it’s not surprising that the entire thing feels like a weird fever dream. I half-expected interstitial placards that just said SCENE MISSING. Nonetheless they finished the film. And now it’s an Academy Award-winning film, including a gold statue for editing.

Before the awards, this clip was widely circulated online as an example of how messy it all is (what’s with the glossy surreal color grading, by the way?), particularly the editing:

And yeah! The pace of cuts is obviously absurd; it’s just a calm conversation around a table but it feels like there are at least 50 different shots in 82 seconds. You might expect wildly fast cuts in an action sequence, but not tea time.

But people kept pointing to this clip as an example of terrible editing. And I kept watching it over and over to find a glaring error. Any cut that just doesn’t work. And… I couldn’t! Is it… is this editing actually fine?

The whole scene and everyone’s place in it is completely comprehensible. It reads fine; I know where everyone is around the table. With most of the characters framed following a basic rule of thirds, my eyes are never not in the right place during the fast-paced cuts.

Have I gone mad by watching the same clip seventy dozen times? Probably.

I realize that the sheer number of reaction shots is preposterous. It seems to me it would have been a simpler to set up a couple wider shots where you can see multiple characters without making cuts. Instead, there are about 6 or 7 different camera set ups for this one scene around a table. Individual shots for almost every character is not how I would do it! But the editing never takes me out of the moment.

Aside from watching this one scene over and over like a zoetrope, it is difficult to discern how much an editor’s decisions help to elevate a movie. It is laborious and almost invisible work. It is as if the only people who really know how much work the editor has done are the director and the cinematographer and their teams, who know what was shot, and what was not.

But he got the votes, and now John Ottman, the editor of Bohemian Rhapsody, has an Oscar.

Update: Here’s a good examination of why this scene is crazy and how it could be less crazy.

It’s wild that Dragon Ball is so mainstream now. Even the video game is mind-blowing. I had to scrounge the dark web for postage stamp-sized Real Player videos in my day. (And actually there was a Spanish translation–the entire series!–that aired around the year 2000 down in San Diego and Tijuana. That version even had all the original music!)

Anyway, Goku. That’s the whole blog post, thanks.

I’m Mad at Heart

 

Today’s blog is about interface design, foolish tech optimism, and the horror of reality. Reality–not great! Some good stuff. But social networks want you to log on a feel good! Smash that like button! Click the heart! They tend to prioritize positivity by design.

The other day I saw a journalist post a story about an atrocity, and my broken brain noticed something peculiar, unrelated to the story itself.

At the time, the post had been retweeted much more than ‘liked’ or favorited or hearted; that’s sort of a rare thing on Twitter, when clicking the heart button is the less significant action. Popular posts tend to be ‘hearted’ a zillion times but retweeted less, because retweeting commits a post to your feed, as though you’re saying the same thing. But not a lot of people were ‘liking’ this story about Native American’s struggling with the government shutdown. Because it’s not a fun topic to like! (The ratio has since leveled off, which undermines my whole point, but bear with me.)

Social media platforms have designed this sort of positivity into their interfaces. I’ve noticed the same thing on Medium (disclosure… a company I do contract work for). On that platform, you can “clap” for an article to show that you read it or you care about it. People click “clap” if they like something. But if you publish some ugly truth–maybe a deep dive into the Rohingya genocide, for example–positive reinforcement feels a little strange. Feels weird to clap for genocide even if you’re trying to express support for the work. More notoriously, a couple years ago Twitter changed their ambiguous ‘star’ button into a heart. That was particularly annoying because a heart is more loaded than even clicking ‘like’; you might recognize something as being important without wanting to blast a Valentine’s Day card at it.

This is all to say that most platforms, in trying to foster positive discourse, inherently discourage engagement with things that are not nice, even if they are important.

Fewer likes, or faves or hearts or lucky charms, sometimes mean the article will be circulated less, depending on whatever algorithm is in charge. It’s basically a user interface challenge–how do you indicate your attention without also expressing a specific emotion?–but it affects the way BILLIONS of people share and consume information.

There’s room here for an aside about what you might call “inspiration porn”–a troop comes home and you won’t believe what happens next, a dog did something amazing when little Timmy yadda yadda, this whole town rallied around some idiot. Upworthy famously rise and fell trying to appeal to this quirk in the algorithm, but it’s still a spammy genre of Dumb Things You See on Facebook.

Of course Facebook diversified it’s responses to include cute illustrations that range from sad to mad to heart and the old fashioned like. Even so, clicking sad face emoji feels like a bizarre way to engage with difficult information. But I realize a neutral symbol wouldn’t really make sense either. I would not click uh… Ball… or Triangle… or whatever.

I don’t have a better way; it’s just something I was thinking about. Please like and subscribe!

I Drank Soylent for a Month and There Was Nothing Interesting About It, Not Even the Poop

Photo: Soylent

Some time in late November I decided to order a tub of Soylent, the foodlike meal-replacement powder. My reason, aside from curiosity, is that lunch is always a pain to procure. I work from home and can’t just carelessly walk to some overpriced midtown salad joint that caters to office workers. And I don’t particularly want to spend too much time making anything; the emotional labor of designing a sandwich is too much to bear!! So I thought of trying Soylent.

No, of course I had no intention of eating Soylent exclusively. I just wanted a stupid thoughtless meal in the middle of the day! Soylent is a stupid thoughtless meal in the middle of the day.

It’s fine. It’s fine! It tastes sort of like raw cake batter. Like when you lick the mixing blade when mom is making a cake. It didn’t even make me do weird poop.

The stupidest part of the endeavor was that also I bought a ‘Blender Bottle’ at Target to prepare for my Liquid Journey, but the only one in stock was made of some carbon fiber metal alloy fancy crap that cost like $25 bucks. It’s just a water bottle but it has a cheap metal sphere thingy to do the blending when you do the shaking; honestly some ice cubes can do the same thing in any bottle. I hate spending money but I needed to commit! Commit to being a Shake Guy! Harnessing the power of the sphere! Call me William Shake Sphere!

The Soylent itself is $34 for 12 meals (if you consume 400 calories, the recommended meal size). Which means it’s cheap, but not necessarily cheaper than a bowl of cereal or whatever. I got the cacao flavor. Tastes like cold watery chocolate cake batter. Fine! Lunch sorted for a few weeks. I tried adding a little chocolate syrup but it didn’t really blend in the right way? Because you add water to the Soylent powder, and syrup needs milk, not bland-ass water! Chocolate syrup cannot collab with water. One time I poured coffee into the mix and it was abhorrent! I shouted CACAO!! into the wind. But plain cacao Soylent with water and ice was fine.

I didn’t quite finish it; you’re supposed to consume the Big Jug within 30 days of opening and when I got back after the holidays it the remaining Dust Food smelled a little off (as I bought it over a month ago). I think it was still fine but I was worried about invisible mold or, whatever. I’m not food scientist. Not even a food grad student.

I have not ordered more. But I might! Perhaps! It is more convenient that my current lunch habit of hoping, absolutely praying, that I have some leftovers that I don’t remember and then eating crumbly granola bars while gazing out the window like a sorrowful granola ghost in a William Shakesphere play.

An Appreciation of Treme, David Simon’s New Orleans Show

In a television landscape dominated by dragons, zombies, dreams of the apocalypse, and detectives, David Simon’s 2010 show Treme is a breath of fresh air to revisit. No wait, scratch that–it’s a breath of musty air from an old house with creaking floorboards while a record player scratches a familiar song.

The show begins 3 months after Hurricane Katrina, and as you would expect from a David Simon project, follows a ensemble cast, each trying to live their lives after the storm. For those directly affected by the floods that means literal rebuilding, navigating the bureaucracy of government assistance, and searching for loved ones who lost contact during the storm. For others–the musicians, the restaurant workers, the lawyers and law enforcement officers trying to stave off corruption–surviving in post-Katrina New Orleans is a matter of returning to status quo and aspiring for more.

What makes Treme unique as a television show is the music, and how every character, regardless of their profession, has a deep relationship with the music of New Orleans. Amid the large cast with no specific protagonist, the music and its role in the lives of the characters is the real subject of the show. Of course–and I say this with only second hand knowledge–one would assume that music as a binding factor is what its like to grow up in New Orleans.

If there is one character who acts a center of gravity to the ensemble, it’s Albert Lambreaux. Played by Clarke Peters (who you will recognize as The Wire’s Detective Lester Freamon), Lambreaux is a humble and proud builder whose home was mostly destroyed by the storm. He’s well-respected in the community as being a chief in the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians–most people refer to him as Big Chief. And making a new costume so that he’s able to walk with his Indian crew on Mardi Gras day is more important to him than rebuilding his home. Peters growls throw his scenes with his head held high, exuding a knowing air about life’s hardships and the stubborn resoluteness it requires.  His son Delmond comes to help, and finds himself straddling life between New York, where he’s a successful modern jazz musician, and New Orleans.

The cast is numerous and diverse. Antoine Baptiste is a professional musician hustling from gig to gig, never able to really soar even though he’s (relatively) beloved in the community and finds consistent work. (Played by another Wire alumnus–BUNK!–Wendell Pierce.) Eventually Baptiste, despite his hustling and dreams of bacchanalia, is ultimately caring and responsible to those who depend on him and he reluctantly takes a job as a high school band leader, and slowly finds himself more dedicated to the kids than to his own music career. Steve Zahn plays a charming rabble-rouser as DJ Davis, an entrepreneurial radio DJ, aspiring musician, and general prankster who is dedicated to preserving New Orleans and calling out bullshit when he sees it.

Like the music, food is a frequent topic on the show, most directly portrayed through the lens of Janette Desautel, a successful and yet perennially struggling chef (played by Kim Dickens). With cameos by David Chang, Eric Ripert, and Emeril Lagasse, the show’s portrayal of Desautel’s struggles is grounded in real world kitchens. Notably, Anthony Bourdain helped write these segments. She navigates the culinary world from top to bottom, from corporate kitchens to independent barbecues on wheels.

But I’ll stop needlessly listing off characters. I recently rewatched the full four season run of the show, and felt that distinct sense of sadness that you only get upon completing a great, long novel filled with characters you love. It’s just a television show, but I can comfortably say it’s a work of art. Treme portrays life’s endless ambiguities, pitfalls, and great beauties without hanging on any storytelling cliches, letting life and death play out in a way that makes you forget that people sat in a room somewhere writing this show from scratch. Have a watch, buy the soundtracks, you might be surprised.

Why Props Matter

One of my favorite things about Tested is learning about Adam Savage’s obsession with movie props–both collecting genuine items and building them himself. Even if I don’t share the desire to go to such extreme lengths to maintain high levels of accuracy in replicas, I understand the almost instinctual compulsion to collect those items. But I can’t explain it.

Above is a look at how various props work to further the story and develop the characters in movies, focusing not on just the iconic MacGuffins, but on the simple, little things that are used on screen.

The Most Interesting Thing About the New Dragon Ball Movie is the CGI

Dragon Ball story lines are silly and mundane–oh no, it’s the most powerful person in the universe… until there is someone more powerful–but I enjoy them because I enjoy that world and those characters, and it’s fun. As such, the most interesting thing about the recent movie, Resurrection F, isn’t the blue hair or the return of Freeza. It’s how they utilized computer graphics in fairly subtle but substantial ways.

I guess there are spoilers here–whatever man, it’s Dragon Ball, people yell and punch and just when someone isn’t powerful enough, then they are. Let’s take a look at a few shots:

Dragon.Ball.Z.Resurrection.F.2015.JAP.ENG.1080p.BluRay.x264.AC3-JYK.mkv_snapshot_00.34.09_[2015.10.25_17.41.17]It’s obvious that a shot like that, in which Freeza’s minions arrive on earth, uses digital techniques if only to replicate hand-drawn elements, but the truth is a little more complicated. Take a look at the characters surrounding the intergalactic police dude, Jaco:

Dragon.Ball.Z.Resurrection.F.2015.JAP.ENG.1080p.BluRay.x264.AC3-JYK.mkv_snapshot_00.40.09_[2015.10.25_17.32.00]Jaco, is in fact the only hand-drawn character in that shot. All of the other enemies surrounding him are actually cel-shaded 3D models. [Edit: Maybe Jaco is CG too! I can’t tell.] A lot of wide shots of the battle make use of these models to fill out the scene, but even fairly close shots make use of them too. Quite effectively! Most people will have no idea that they aren’t hand-drawn (and I suppose most people wouldn’t care either, but what matters is that the use of CGI doesn’t change the fundamental look of the show).

Surprisingly, there are a few close up shots in the headlining battle between Goku and Freeza that use 3D models too. I noticed the camera moving dramatically around the action and thought to myself–heck, it’s incredibly difficult to draw that kind of camera movement into animation without the use of CGI aids. Sure enough, there are a handful of hero shots that are entirely CG:

Dragon.Ball.Z.Resurrection.F.2015.JAP.ENG.1080p.BluRay.x264.AC3-JYK.mkv_snapshot_01.06.02_[2015.10.25_17.57.01]You might notice that Goku looks a little awkward–his hands and arms could use more refinement in the tracing and his hair looks a little weird, but in motion, you probably wouldn’t notice. However, there are a few flagrant glitches if you watch it frame by frame (and who doesn’t watch movies one frame at a time?):

Dragon.Ball.Z.Resurrection.F.2015.JAP.ENG.1080p.BluRay.x264.AC3-JYK.mkv_snapshot_01.06.01_[2015.10.25_17.22.16]Look at Goku’s leg and ankle. Oops. But I’m really just nitpicking because that particular shot is only two or three seconds long. I wonder if they borrowed any digital assets from the Dragon Ball Xenoverse video game, which uses similar cel-shaded graphics to a slightly different but impressive effect.

Altogether the animators used a variety of methods to enhance the scope of movie without flagrant changes to a familiar aesthetic. When you’re dealing with an old, beloved property like Dragon Ball it’s easy as heck to mess it up, and it’s pretty nifty that they added their own flourishes to make it feel like a modern movie than a television show.

Cursed 3D Printed Chachapoyan Fertility Idol Brings Me Great Strength

1About three years ago I digitally sculpted the fertility idol from the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why not! Throw me the idol! Doctah Jones! It was just a fairly simple, familiar, and interesting object for me to create.

There are a number of ways to approach 3D modeling, but starting a model from scratch is usually more akin to drawing architectural plans than getting your fists into a lump of clay. It’s also much easier with traditional 3D modeling software to create hard objects with simple geometric forms (a cube, a cylinder, etc.) than it is to create a believable organic form. But there are some applications that take a completely different approach to 3D modeling. With Sculptris, designing an object is quite literally like manipulating clay. You start with a base shape like a sphere in the simulated 3D space and add and subtract from it, just as you would with a real life malleable medium. (Sculptris is the free, simplified version of Pixologic’s ZBrush, which is their professional-grade offering. No need for ZBrush when I’m a Play-Doh level sculptor.)

CaptureIt goes without saying that I have no actual, real world experience with sculpting. But I do have a pair of eyes that can see what’s right and what’s not, so I just slowly manipulated my imaginary clay to roughly approximate the various reference images I had gather of the Chachapoyan idol. I don’t remember how long that took–quite a few hours of clumsy digital sculpting over multiple days.

indyidol2And then I let it sit on a hard drive for three years.

I thought about ordering a 3D print from Shapeways, but printing a 1-to-1 scale replica was prohibitively expensive. I’d be better off buying an actual lump of clay if I wanted a life-sized version (or I could just get one Amazon, but the idol itself wasn’t the point.) Even half scale was much more money that I would spend on a mere trinket of curiosity.

But it just happened to cross my mind recently. Small objects are quite to cheap to print of Shapeways, and they have more material and color options than ever (including actual gold). So I settled on a little 2 in. figure, in yellow plastic, for $25.

TEMP1Not bad! Quite good! I had ordered “polished” plastic, and it ain’t polished, but I’m guessing that’s because the details were too fine to be polished, and the Shapeways staff were smart enough to know polishing it would reduce my idol to a meaningless peanut. Instead, it has the rough sandy surface that comes as a default to that sort of printing. Plus the yellow–which I think is just on the surface.

temp2So there you have it, a genuine 3D-printed Chachapoyan fertility idol. It belongs in a museum, but I’m keeping this one on my desk.

Cross post from Kinja.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams (Yume) is a collection of short segments, each depicting an individual dream. The first time I watched it, I fell asleep.

It’s a remarkable depiction of what the experience of dreaming is like: slow-burning anxiety-driven plots that lack logic and occasionally escalate into nightmares, punctuated by moments of beauty and tranquility. That’s what dreams are like for me, anyway, and apparently Akira Kurosawa too.

(I like to think that’s what lulled me to sleep–its depiction of dreams was so accurate my brain didn’t know what to do, so it joined in the fun.)

So much of the film is quietly horrific. A child having wronged the mystical foxes of the forest is given a knife and told to commit suicide–unless he journeys into the forest to apologize. Mountaineers caught in a storm are coerced by a demon to lie in the snow. Exploding nuclear plants cause Mount Fuji to glow like hot iron. And more.

I’ve had these dreams, with different backdrops, with characters from my own life. Remarkably similar dreams, which is a testament to Kurosawa’s ability to articulate deeply abstract and distant ideas that lurk so far down in our unconscious psyches.

One night in San Francisco there were fierce, cold winds, and I was living in an old building with original wooden window frames that let the cold air go wherever it damn well pleased. I slept in a sweater under a pile of blankets.

But in a surreal moment of sleep paralysis, I awoke to something holding me down, accompanied by roaring, deafening winds. It was, it seemed, an evil presence in the form of the cold itself, pressing down on my chest–just as Kurosawa showed happening to the mountain climbers. I wonder if he experienced something similar and changed the setting to something logical for the story: a cold night in bed depicted as a blizzard on a mountainside.

I have not dreamt of Fuji and nuclear disaster specifically, and yet, I have dreamt of the same experience: crowds fleeing the chaos of destruction. Oddly, in my experience, these aren’t nightmares, they’re just things that happen (lol). I frequently dream of all kinds of aircraft exploding and falling from the sky, and I say aircraft because they are sometimes planes and sometimes abstract goliath flying machines that you would see in a Marvel movie. I don’t even fear flying! Nonetheless Kurosawa’s nuclear disaster reminded me of my planes. But it is not all doom–

There are also those moments in your dreams that feel full of serenity and tranquility, when you are in a perfect place with perfect people. Perhaps the sun is pouring down, perhaps you are with someone you loved, maybe there’s a breeze and you watch the wild flowers sway back and forth. Kurosawa’s closing segment, a visit to a rustic village full of water wheels, feels like that.

It was years ago that I watched it and fell asleep, but just the other day I awoke and was immediately reminded of the film by something I had dreamt. I can’t remember what it was. And yet–the thing is–I’ll have the same dream again and will revisit this film again, if only as an oddly reassuring reminder of our mutually shared dreams and nightmares.

Cross post from Kinja.