Mixed Media, Sunday 17 January 2016

I finished watching season 1 of Jessica Jones on Netflix this week. I thought Daredevil was pretty dark and gritty, but Jessica Jones tops it handily. It takes as its core theme the question of how people live with themselves after bad things have happened to them, and after they themselves have done bad things. It mines classic noir tropes with an occasional twist of humour, but it’s rarely more than a wry smile. I was impressed by how un-stereotypically the character arcs of some of the supporting cast played out. Kilgrave is a sociopathic mind-controller, and the series never lets you forget the trail of devastation a villian like that will leave in his wake.

I loved it as a show in its own right, and I loved the tight integration with other characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We live in a world of media franchises and crossovers. This week’s episode of the Imaginary Worlds podcast is about the Tommy Westphall universe spawned by the 1980s TV show St. Elsewhere. In the very last episode of St. Elsewhere it was revealed that the whole show had actually taken place in Tommy’s imagination. But because the show had been linked to many other shows through crossover appearances, does that imply that those other shows also took place in Tommy’s head?

It struck me as interesting how the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes use of real places like New York, and so can easily place shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones in a very realistic contemporary setting, whereas DC’s properties take place in fictional places like Metropolis, Gotham, and Star(ling) City. I wonder how this influences the writers and producers? I can see how audiences could make a stronger emotional connection with places they know, while writers and producers can take more liberties with imaginary cities.

Most of all, watching Jessica Jones made me want more shows like that. Specifically, I think it would be a perfect fit for Matt Fraction and David Aja’s down-to-earth interpretation of Hawkeye. Except…in Avengers: Age of Ultron Marvel decided to give Clint Barton a white-bread family out in the country. It would be hard now to place him in a run-down apartment in New York with a string of ex-wives to his name. Pity.

Last weekend I finally made time to listen to the Hamilton cast album. It’s excellent. Not something I’d listen to all day on repeat, but I’d definitely go and see the show, if tickets could be had for less than the price of a modest used car.

Something I could (and will) listen to all day is Bleached. They’re playing Bitterzoet in May, and it looks like my Indiestadpas should get me to see them for free, if I can figure out how to get on the guest list without signing up for Facebook.


  • I don’t remember how I came across it, but Spartan looked like something for me: Val Kilmer (whom I’ve always enjoyed watching since Thunderheart) and a shades-of-grey covert agent plot that doesn’t rely on stunts and explosions. It’s a very satisfying thriller, and I liked it a lot.
  • I missed Sicario in the cinema last year (most of my cinema time in 2015 was with Fiona), and I was looking forward to catching up with it. It’s far more than a conventional law-enforcement against drug dealers thriller. The world of borderless action against criminals who show themselves as capable of boundless ambition and cruelty is…disturbing. This is exactly what FBI agent Kate Macy (played by Emily Blunt) has to come to terms with. She has her eyes opened to a new world. Part of her is attracted to the idea of making a difference, and part of her is repulsed by the ease with which the supposed good guys can abandon the rule of law. She can’t unsee any of it, and she can’t unexperience the horrors to which she is exposed. Will it corrupt her, or will she stick to her principles? What is she willing to stand up for, and what is she willing to let slide? It’s an ambiguous, thoughtful, and powerful film.

The Wolf of St. Vincent Street

I don’t normally take pictures of my food, let alone post them on the internets. But when I was in Glasgow last Wednesday, our team went out for lunch at Bread Meats Bread on St. Vincent Street. (Apparently this part of St. Vincent Street now gets called “Meat Street” by the locals, because of the number of gourmet burger and steak joints.) The burger pictured below (with actual humans for scale) was called “The Wolf of St. Vincent St.”, and consists of a burger patty, bacon, a veritable coal bing of pulled pork in barbecue sauce, cheese, and ‘Nduja mayonnaise. I had the gluten-free bun (very dry, meh, as these things usually are), but if I had chosen the standard burger it would have included crispy (battered) onions as well. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a burger quite like it. I still felt full the next morning.

The Wolf of St. Vincent St at Bread Meats Bread

(Hat tip to Eric Molinsky’s Imaginary Worlds episode “Time Travelers of Renwick St.” for introducing the term “scalies” into my vocabulary, and to Teodor Javanaud Emdén for his site Skalgubbar.)

Poe Boew

Last week the New York Public Library opened up an enormous trove of their public domain digital assets (scanned photographs, magazines, pamphplets, etc.).

The first thing I went looking for, of course, were wevboews. I always enjoy seeing historical mentions of them. Here’s an image (circa 1910) I found in a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, featuring not just an ordinary wevboew, but a flying one:

A “Winged Boew” (from NYPL’s digital collection: Art and Picture Collection > Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection > Animals — Cattle)


Mixed Messages, Sunday 10 January 2016

Since watching The Force Awakens at the end of last year, I have been interested in seeing Avatar again. In the years since its release, it seems to have slid out of the popular imagination. With that slide comes the question: was it really that good in the first place? So I watched it this evening for the first time since 2010, and yes, it really was that good. Even now, six years after its release, the visuals are still amazing. The Na’vi are still believable on screen as creatures of flesh and blood rather than mere animations. It remains a powerful story, with solid emotional impact.

As a science-fiction action flick, it has probably started to fade from memory because the world of Pandora hasn’t been revisited in franchise form every couple of years. Tentpole film-making is all about the franchise now. If an original film is any good at all, it gets a sequel. Therefore, if it didn’t get a sequel, how good could it have been? Well, Avatar 2 has long been in the works, and it looks like it will finally hit cinemas in 2017.

It also reminded me of the Imaginary Worlds podcast episode “First Contact”, which talks about how sf invasion stories draw from the historical experience of native peoples.

(Minor spoiler for The Force Awakens ahead.)

In the latest episode of CGP Grey and Brady Haran’s Hello Internet podcast, they spend two and a half hours talking about The Force Awakens. Starting at 2:30:32, Grey talks about his perspective on the scene where Rey goes squee over being on the ship that did the Kessel run in 14 parsecs. Although this is clearly intended as an in-joke, Grey was pained because it invalidates his interpretation of the scene early in A New Hope where Luke and Ben are negotiating terms with Han and Chewie. Grey always thought that Han was bullshitting them with the line about twelve parsecs. Han — a noted scoundrel — was trying to see if they were suckers enough to fall for the line, so he could hike up the price of their passage.

In the expanded universe books, the line is explained away by crediting Han with a brand new shortcut on the Kessel run, but I find the idea of him as a bullshitter far more compelling.

I sympathise with Grey’s feeling of disappointment when a sequel rules out a pet interpretation. At the end of the game Portal, I chose to interpret the song “Still Alive” as sincere. GLaDOS was genuinely happy at Chell having finally escaped. (She says it herself! “I’m not even angry; I’m being so sincere right now.”) This was what she had been working on for so long: to produce a clone who would make it all the way through her trials, thus proving herself strong enough to take on the horrors of the outside world. The lyrics and melody of the song are triumphant yet sad that Chell, for whom GLaDOS appears to care (in her own twisted way), finally has to depart. It’s a beautiful song that tells (in my mind) a very specific story, one that is completely ruined by Portal 2.

I’m not bitter, just disappointed. Still.

Back on the subject of Star Wars, I only recently came across Star Wars Ring Theory. This offers a mind-blowing re-evaluation of the three prequel films in the light of narrative ring composition (also known as chiastic structures). If this is genuinely how Lucas set out to make the films, it’s clear why he chose to write and direct all three of them himself: because he was the only one who could force through that particular vision. It’s also an excellent example that clever does not always mean good.

Via Kottke, This Man Ate Only Junk Food for 30 Days and Lost 11 Pounds:

I wolf down an early dinner of corn chips, Cheez-Its, beef jerky, and Fig Newtons before I head to a restaurant for a date. She orders the fish; I order whiskey.

“You’re not eating?” asks the waitress.

“I’m on a cleanse.”

“But you can drink whiskey?”

“It’s a new kind of cleanse.”

What Can A Technologist Do About Climate Change by Bret Victor is a deep dive into the biggest problem of our time:

This is aimed at people in the tech industry, and is more about what you can do with your career than at a hackathon. I’m not going to discuss policy and regulation, although they’re no less important than technological innovation. A good way to think about it, via Saul Griffith, is that it’s the role of technologists to create options for policy-makers

Your Two Jobs as a Manager by Elizabeth Spiers resonated with me, and I’m still chewing it over:

Nothing sets people up to fail faster than being unclear about what you expect them to achieve in their jobs. One of the mistakes that I see a lot of first-time managers make is failing to do this from the outset. They worry more about building up a good friendly rapport with the people they’re managing (which is not unimportant*) and many of them try a little too hard to be liked because they have some guilt about being the authority figure in the relationship, which is often a new experience for them. The downside of this is that if expectations are not articulated in the beginning, there’s a good chance that the employees flail because they are trying to please the boss and do the right thing, but don’t know what is actually required, or they lose respect for the manager because they assume the manager doesn’t actually know what their objectives should be.

This recipe for almond butter and quinoa blondies is a good basis for wheat/gluten free chocolate brownies, if you replace the quinoa with oatmeat flour and add sufficient quantities of cocoa. One could also make these with cannabis-infused butter, if one were so inclined.

Some thoughts on the Lumia 930

When Abi got an iPhone 6 in the autumn of 2014, Alex got Abi’s old iPhone 5, and I inherited the iPhone 4 he had been using until then. This was Abi’s iPhone 4 from 2010. I had been using a Nexus 4, and I was not enormously happy with it. It was fine as a phone, but I don’t like the intrusiveness of Google’s services under Android.

The iPhone 4 is stuck on iOS 7. It can’t update to iOS 8 or 9. Its hardware, awesome as it was back in 2010 (I remember very clearly how excited everyone was about the retina screen), is very out of date now. App developers aren’t even trying to cater for it any more. Back in October, the latest version of Google Maps crashed whenever I tried to open it, and the latest version of Spotify couldn’t play music without stuttering. The phone’s hardware was starting to fail as well: the home button only worked intermittently.

I wanted a new phone. The iPhone 6S had just landed, but was really expensive, especially because I wanted the OIS feature, which is only available in the 6S Plus model. Similarly specced cameras were available on a variety of Android phones, but I still don’t trust Android. So how about…a Windows phone again? Microsoft announced the new Lumia 950 phones at the start of October, but they wouldn’t be available until December, and they were still going to be expensive. But last year’s model, the Lumia 930, was still available, and had come down in price quite a bit. I was able to get one for under €300.

Ever since using an LG Optimus 7 back in 2011, I have liked the Windows Phone (“Metro”) interface. The design language speaks to me. Apart from the sometimes curious back button behaviour, I find it very natural to use, and delightful to look at. I like the hardware design of the Nokia Lumia phones, too. They’re sleek, well-built, understated. I had been a little concerned that the un-expandable 32GB memory would be too little for me, but that hasn’t been a problem so far. This might be because of what most people perceive as the main problem with Windows Phone: apps, or the lack of them.

Maybe I’m not a typical smartphone user , but I just don’t use many apps. I’m not constantly scouring the app store for the latest games, and I have never integrated my phone into my “productivity workflow” like others have. (Listening to the Cortex podcast with Myke Hurley and CGP Grey, especially the early episodes, is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who do much, if not most of their work on mobile devices.) When it comes down to it, there are only a few essential apps I need/use/want on my phone:

  • Phone calls. This definitely isn’t the most-used aspect of my phone, but I do still need it.
  • Text messaging. I’m not a heavy messaging user, but I still text more often than I speak on the phone.
  • Camera. This is the most important feature for me. I had been taking fewer and fewer photos with the iPhone 4 because I kept being disappointed by its camera.
  • Music. My experience of Apple Music was so bad that I have almost entirely stopped using iTunes. I was part-way there earlier in the year, but iTunes 12.2 was so egregiously bad that it was the final straw. I use Spotify just about all the time now.
  • Web browser.
  • Maps
  • Podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts now.
  • Email. I don’t like email, and I rarely write email from my phone, but it’s sometimes useful to see what has come in.
  • Find My Friends.

Optional: some kind of video player to play mp4 files, Netflix, Dropbox, 1Password, weather, GPS tracking. Calendar? Yeah whatever.

All of this is easily available on the Windows Phone platform. The built-in camera app and photo viewer are good enough. The Spotify app isn’t as polished as the iOS version, but it works. The built-in podcasts app is basic, but fine. Some websites hate it, but Internet Explorer does the job. The maps apps get me where I need to go. Life360 seems to be an adequate, and above all cross-platform replacement for Apple’s native Find My Friends tool. Apps open quickly, and when they’re open they’re responsive.

Better yet is the feeling of not being locked in to the iOS or Android platform.

There are a few niggles, of course. The first one was not a problem with Windows Phone, but rather with Apple: getting me off of iMessage. Abi still has her iPhone. It took us a couple of weeks to get to the point where she could actually send me an ordinary text message again, without iOS “helpfully” trying to route it over the iMessage system to the phone I no longer had with me. It’s annoying of Apple that they don’t have a better and more obvious way for people to leave their ecosystem. (The “Deregister iMessage” is neither good nor obvious.)

Getting a case for it is hard. Very few retail stores (at least here in NL) stock cases for Windows phones.

The Dropbox app is a disappointment. On the iPhone, it was an essential part of my photos workflow. I would take photos and videos, then let Dropbox automatically sync them to my “Camera Uploads” folder, and from there I’d pick them up on my laptop. It worked fine. On Windows phone, not only will Dropbox not sync videos, it also sometimes skips photos. Just often enough that I can’t trust it, and have to double-check that it has grabbed everything. If it has missed something, I have to use the Nokia Photo Transfer tool to import the missing photos manually, because Dropbox forever refuses to catch up with them again. Finally, if I allow it to run in the background, it crashes the phone entirely every 12 hours or so, putting it into a mode where it doesn’t receive phone or text messages, but doesn’t actually reboot & work again until I try to unlock it.

This annoyance is compounded by the fact that the latest version of OSX El Capitan has dropped the ability to natively talk to Windows Phones. So no automatic import into iPhoto. The Windows Phone Connector app has been deprecated, and doesn’t work on El Capitan any more. The only thing that does work is the rather primitive Nokia Photo Transfer tool.

Did I say “disappointment” and “annoyance”? I meant “hideous mess that will lead to data loss.” Don’t use Dropbox for Windows Phone.

But overall, I like it. It takes pretty good photos. It plays music and podcasts when I’m in the car, and in other transport. I can read web pages and check my email. The battery life is fantastic — it just keeps going for days. It’s neither iOS nor Android, and it was satisfyingly inexpensive compared to other flagship phones. I’m kinda looking forward to Windows 10 when it arrives, but I don’t think it’ll change how I use it. Which is good, because that means I’m not heavily locked in to the Windows ecosystem either, and will be able to leave it easily when the time comes.

Christmas shopping

Fiona: “Sloth face!”

Me: “What’s a sloth face?”

Fiona: “This is a sloth face.”

Me: “Oh, I see. What does your sloth face look like, Alex?”

Alex: “I don’t do sloth face.”

Me: “Fair enough.”

Adam Toren: “Look at meeeee!”