FYI: there are still gems in the @dailycal archives of my skinny ass 13+ years ago!! 😅😂

Two of the smartest people I met at Berkeley were my Arts & Entertainment editors @dailycal: @radiowagner, who’s now a reporter @KPCC, and Rajesh Srinivasan, who now practices law in D.C. They always pushed me to make my writing the best it possibly could be w/o losing my voice.

How to Avoid Losing Access to All of Your Accounts in 2019

After several days of use, my new iPhone 11 had already developed many scratches on its screen. So against better judgement, I bucked up and trekked to the Americana at Brand on a Sunday, and went to an appointment at the Apple Store, just a week after the company rolled out new iPhones.

Perhaps it was a defective first batch of phones, or perhaps it was just a continuation of the glass in last year’s iPhones. Regardless, I shared good news on Twitter:

The problem was, I’d wiped my old new iPhone too soon, before I had a chance to set up the new new iPhone that Apple gave me in-store. This led to some sobering insights into to the fragility of our increasingly digital lives, even when adhering to best practices and using a password manager:

With regards to password managers

I do not know most of my accounts’ passwords, including my Apple ID; I only know my Master Password, to unlock 1Password. If you are also in the Apple ecosystem (aka the “walled garden”), this is a problem. The Secret Key, which combines with the Master Password to encrypt or decrypt passwords, gets synced via iCloud Drive. This is a convenient feature, but in order to use it, I needed to know my Apple ID’s password.

Solution: Memorize my Apple ID’s password, which can be accomplished if I use 1Password to create a memorable, word-based password. Print a couple of hard copies of my Secret Key and Apple ID password, and distribute it to friends or family. I could even keep another copy in my wallet.

Good to knows

  • I hoped I’d be able to find my Apple ID in the 1Password app on my Apple Watch. Perhaps this was a WatchOS bug, or a 1Password bug, but the app only listed a few random, out of date passwords 😞

  • It isn’t mandatory to sign in with your Apple ID when setting up a new iPhone. I just transferred my SIM card over from my previous phone, which allowed me to use data in the Maps app to guide me home.

  • If I was to sign in with my Apple ID on the new iPhone, I would have needed to use another Apple device to act as my second factor… which I didn’t have on hand in the Apple Store.

  • Once I was back home, I was able to easily transfer my Apple ID and Wi-Fi information to my new phone and restore nearly all settings and data from my iCloud backup. It even offered to pair my Watch to the new phone; no need to wipe it and restore from a backup.

Drinking Wine While Reviewing 'Night of the Hunter'

2012-era Max takes a breather from doing a video review of Night of the Hunter for class. This is also a prescient and appropriate way to react to world news post-2016.

Recovering the Past (to digital and beyond)

My parents recently embarked on a quest to transfer old home movies from the '90s and early 2000s onto our modern-day computers. With some brainstorming, we came up with a workflow that actually works:

Hi8 camcorder --> RCA cable --> MiniDV camcorder --> FireWire 400 --> old external hard drive w/ FireWire input --> USB 2.0 --> iMac

We were fortunate to still have all of these devices (and their manuals) on hand, because we first had to transfer the Hi8 tapes to new MiniDV tapes. Also, it's kind of amazing that an app like iMovie can control, transfer, and transcode DV footage (but not Hi8).

This process is only going to become more of an issue going forward, as we lose machines that are able to read these older formats. And then we have the preservation of digital formats themselves, which is a whole other issue.

For Your Birthday

The first four episodes a new web series I shot, For Your Birthday, have been released.

Each of them are only 5–7 minutes long, so the entire series is a quick watch. This was a fun shoot with an incredible cast and crew—headed by writer, producer, and actor Rachael Wotherspoon and director Molly Ratermann. We faced a few big challenges:

  1. Filming ~28 pages, split into four different episodes, over the course of two days.
  2. Creating a distinct look for each episode while maintaining consistency within them.
  3. Shooting 4–5 actors in a real location (Rachael's apartment).
  4. Working with equipment, budget, and scheduling constraints.

But somehow we managed to get everything we needed, on schedule. Every shoot is a learning experience, and this one is no different:

  1. Shoot with two cameras: I generally prefer a single-camera setup—they can be easier to light for, and they're better for when there's a small crew and I'm the operator—but there's a time and place for multiple cameras. In hindsight, having a second camera would have saved time, provided a greater variety of shots, and helped "save" actors' performances, without forcing them to do multiple takes.
  2. Spend more time focusing on camera prep: The crew and I spent a lot of prep time working out the schedule and determining how the changing sunlight would affect the order in which we film the episodes. I'm happy with most of the lighting we achieved, but I wish I'd spent more time researching a different camera package, particularly one with cinema lenses and a proper follow focus kit.
  3. Use less handheld / frenetic movement: Of course, the crew and I were working under certain aformentioned constraints. My professors in film school taught me that shooting handheld can complicate blocking, rather than save time. That's a lesson I occasionally need to be reminded of. And using a dolly would have added some "grounding," or solidity, to shots while allowing for natural-feeling camera movement.

The hardest scene to shoot was the fight among the siblings in Episode Two. It prompted a difficult but important on-set conversation among the key creatives about how best to portray the intensity of a multi-page-long, dialogue-heavy fight. Thanks to all of us coming together, we were able to figure out blocking that captured each actors' key moments, most of them within a single shot.

I particularly enjoy the first half of Episode Three, where the family members experience a reconciliation. The stationary closeups between the actors, particularly on Robert, really come together. It's a touching moment.

Anyway, thanks for checking out the project! Hopefully I'll have more news to share soon. ☺️

A MacBook Odyssey

I’m Sorry

You know how hipsters who don’t admit they’re hipsters are, in fact, real hipsters? That’s kind of my relationship with Apple. I’ve always been drawn to them, and have accumulated many of their products over the past two decades. All without admitting I’m actually a fanboy. This article will prove without a doubt that I really am one of those Apple fanboys.

After finding a deal for a slightly used 13" 2016 MacBook Pro yesterday, I decided to spring for it. This particular MacBook Pro goes by a few clunky names—all very un-Apple-like. It’s officially called the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports). This model is also known colloquially as the MacBook Pro without a Touchbar, but I’m assuming marketing didn’t want to spring for that phrase because you can’t advertise a product based on what it’s lacking.[1]

It’s obvious that Apple’s priorities have changed over the years. And so have mine.

Some History

My first computer was a mid 2007 MacBook, which my parents gifted to me for college. You have to remember that this computer existed during a time when the dorms at Berkeley still didn’t have wi-fi. [2]

The little MacBook served its purpose as a relatively inexpensive Mac for casual use. It came standard with 1 GB of memory, weighed a hefty—but for its time, sort of light—5.1 pounds. It also had a tendency to shut off after streaming videos for approximately nine minutes because the CPU would overheat.

But still! It was a fine computer for a freshman.

Over the next four years, my priorities changed. I’d gotten into photography and doing video work.[3] The brave little MacBook, my knight in white plastic, was simply “fine.” I thought I needed more of everything. That’s what being a professional is all about, right?

After much deliberation, which annoyed my boyfriend at the time to no end, I settled on a replacement: the early 2011 15" MacBook Pro, aka the “aircraft carrier.”

In hindsight, this was a confused product that was introduced at an awkward time. It came with a 5400 rpm hard drive standard, which I upgraded to a whopping 7200 rpm. By this point, the MacBook Air, with its solid state drive, light weight, and good value, had become the computer for casual Mac users.

And just a year later, in 2012, Apple released MacBook Pros with Retina displays. Those computers also came with USB 3.0 ports and Bluetooth 4.0.

My then-new-ish 2011 MacBook Pro came with two USB 2.0 ports, and had Bluetooth 2.1. This means I missed out on much faster transfer speeds—I’m talking 10x faster USB—and handy macOS features like Continuity.

It also came with a discrete graphics card, which turned out to be the model’s Achilles heel. The chassis’ design hadn’t changed from the previous generation’s, and the thing just got too hot. Fans whirred at top speed all the time. And I had to take it in for logic board replacements several times.

And yet here I am, over six years later, still using that machine—albeit a Frankenstein’s monster version of it, since only the bottom case and DVD drive (yes, it has one of those) are original.

Apple and I both made mistakes in 2011. I overestimated how much computing power I really needed, and missed out on reliability and lightness. Apple couldn’t reconcile making a mobile computer that was also powerful. The product was a quagmire that dragged its owners down with it. This powerful-yet-obsolete, unintentionally immovable computer couldn’t help but draw attention to itself.


Time has marched on; technology has definitely moved on; and I’m ready for a change. At three pounds, the new MacBook Pro is almost half the weight of my 2011 model. It’s a startling, eye-opening difference. With that change alone, my hope is that I’ll be more willing to go mobile and engage with the world. That’s the ultimate goal in the relationship between computers and people: to enable us, rather than to hold us back, through technology.

The MacBook Escape is just “fine.” And I’m fine with that.

  1. My favorite name is the “MacBook Escape,” courtesy of Marco Arment on Accidental Tech Podcast. Because the computer has a real, physical Escape key.  ↩

  2. We used ethernet cables, like animals.  ↩

  3. That’s what I’d end up going to grad school for, immediately after getting my bachelor’s.  ↩

Travels in Iceland—Reykjavík










Deep Focus vs. Split Diopter

While watching All the President's Men, my friend pointed out that cinematographer Gordon Willis uses deep focus in many shots to keep both the background and foreground elements in focus. This is just a quibble, but the movie actually makes use of a tool called split diopters to achieve an effect that's similar to deep focus.

In this scene, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, attempts to listen to crucial information from an informant while his oblivious coworkers host a party that overshadows his conversation. One approach may have been to "rack" (or switch) focus between Woodward and his coworkers. Here, Willis decides to draw our attention to both Woodward and the loud coworkers equally, so we realize more fully what is at stake if Woodward can't hear his informant over the hubbub.

In Citizen Kane, cinematographer Gregg Toland used a technique called "deep focus" to achieve a similar result, perhaps most notably in the scene where a young Charles Foster Kane plays in the background while his parents sign his life away.

So both techniques end up drawing viewers' attention to all of the planes in the mis-en-scène. The techniques, however, are quite different.

Roger Ebert defines deep focus as:

"… [A] strategy of lighting, composition, and lens choice that allows everything in the frame, from the front to the back, to be in focus at the same time. With the lighting and lenses available in 1941, this was just becoming possible."

Have you ever wondered why it's easier to see or read at night when the lights are turned on? That's because the extra light makes our pupils smaller, effectively making the aperture smaller, thus increasing our eyes' depth-of-field. Deep focus achieves a similar effect with camera lenses, except that a huge amount of light is required to achieve that same, increased depth-of-field. And considering how insensitive, or "slow," older film stock was, Tolland would have had to use lots of light.

A split-focus diopter, on the other hand, is an optical adjustment that became popular in the '70s. Wikipedia describes how it works:

A split diopter is half convex glass that attaches in front of the camera's main lens to make half the lens nearsighted. The lens can focus on a plane in the background and the diopter on a foreground. A split diopter does not create real deep focus, only the illusion of this. What distinguishes it from traditional deep focus is that there is not continuous depth of field from foreground to background; the space between the two sharp objects is out of focus. Because split focus diopters only cover half the lens, shots in which they are used are characterized by a blurred line between the two planes in focus.

You can see that line of demarcation in the above screengrab from All the President's Men.

So in short, one method requires major lighting setups to achieve a greater depth of field, while the other method uses an optical solution to create a similar effect. A small, but important, difference.

No More Holga

2015 ended on an inauspicious note, with the death of Holga. Dan Cepeda of the Casper Star Tribune provides some background on the medium format camera:

The Holga was introduced in 1981 as an affordable alternative as mainstream cameras started to become more complicated and expensive. …

Word came from China that the manufacturer of the Holga camera had ended production. The terse notification also stated that the tooling had been scrapped, making it impossible for anyone to ramp up production again with any practicality.

Photographers typically paid less than $20 for the camera. That affordability was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, its construction quality was a complete joke: the poor-fitting plastic body allowed light to hit undeveloped film. And that plastic, fixed lens… it was awful, soft and distorted to hilarious extremes. Yet that very lens (and those light leaks) also lent Holga photos a haunting and even, on occassion, a breathtakingly beautiful quality.

I received a Holga at a Secret Santa exchange, when I worked at an art house movie theater in Berkeley. (It's still, by far, the best Secret Santa exchange I've experienced.) Holga dropped all of the complicated shit and stripped a camera to its most basic component: as a lightbox that records an image onto media.

Capeda continues:

That lens is what gave Holga its soul. It’s just a piece of plastic with three focal ranges. It is somewhat sharp in the center and softens towards the edges, where the light also falls off. Weird colors and flares happen when light hits it just the right way. Sometimes you get an OK picture, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes that picture is magic.

My Holga continues to be an endearing toy, and it never fails to make photography feel fresh and fun. Below are some photos I've taken over the years with it. RIP.

'Free' Commissioned Art

According to Wikipedia, “A commission is the hiring and payment for the creation of an [art] piece, often on behalf of another.” And according to Wikimedia, the etymology of commission comes from the Latin word commissio, meaning “to send together.”

While casually looking at listings for real j-o-b-s, I have encountered a troubling trend. Take this real-life example:

Please submit a sample 1–2 minute video, using [our site's] post as inspiration. Send us an unlisted link and mention the title of the post you based it on. Focus on clarity and engagement. Inform us, entertain us. Inspire us. Make us want to share it.

If we ignore buzzwords like engagement and clarity, we get to the heart of the matter: this company requires applicants to submit commissioned art for free. Such an arrangement goes againt everything commissio stands for: “to send together.” It is decidedly tilted in favor of the potential employer, who gets new content for free, regardless of the outcome of the application process.

More troubling, this requirement limits the application pool to a particular, exclusive club, whose members are independently wealthy or have an abundance of free time. Unsurprisingly, very few people have the time or money to work on such an assignment, when they have bills or loans to pay. The few applicants who are able to submit applications are rewarded with the slim chance of netting a measly three-month, paid internship.

$1,000,000,000 U.S. Mint-issued bill feat. me and Dad, circa 1999.

I prefer the late Aaron Swartz’s hiring process. In his post, How I Hire Programmers, Swartz enumerates the ways he vets potential employees. Most pertinently, he lays out a solution that satisfies both employers and applicants:

[T]here’s a final sanity check to make sure I haven’t been fooled somehow: I ask [applicants] to do part of the job. Usually this means picking some fairly separable piece we need and asking them to write it. (If you really insist on seeing someone working under pressure, give them a deadline.) If necessary, you can offer to pay them for the work, but I find most programmers don’t mind being given a small task like this as long as they can open source the work when they’re done.

First, Swartz would pay applicants for their work. Second, the applicants would use their commissioned work for the greater good, by submitting to open source projects, activities that stay true to the root of commissio. In this kind of arrangement, an employer vets a more diverse set of candidates by paying them for their work, which should theoretically increase the company’s "engagement" stats. In such an employer-employee arrangement, the words "free" and "commissioned," with regard to work or the arts, never existed in the same universe.

Brief Thoughts on ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

Léa Seydoux, who plays the Lady with the Blue Hair, is a marvel. Her performance, unlike that of Adèle Exarchopoulos, hints at a deeper backstory, one where she's spent much of her life attempting to cover up past emotional injuries. After three hours, it felt like I had only just gotten to know her.

That said, the movie could have easily been only two hours long. I actually sped up parts of the movie, particularly the ones where Adèle teaches children or stares off into the distance during parties, at double speed and did not miss anything. Turns out, watching a character do real life, every day tasks at normal, real life speed without any edits is pretty boring.

The narrow aspect ratio (2.40:1) is a missed opportunity. Director Abdellatif Kechiche and cinematographer Sofian El Fani love to to shoot their characters in extreme close-ups (ECUs). Traditionally, filmmakers tend to "save" ECUs for essential, movie-changing moments. Their overruse signals that the filmmakers may not have truly understood their story, since each moment is depicted as essential. There are great moments sprinkled throughout the movie, but I would have a difficult time pinpointing them because the ECUs inured me to their importance.

The sex scenes also feel like missed opportunities. They are long and sensual, for sure, but remember that this is Adèle's first sexual encounter with a woman. Wouldn't it have been compelling if she had to try to keep up with the older, more experienced Léa? With that approach, audiences would have better related to Adèle's experience. Instead, both women act like they are assured experts in bed, which is surprisingly boring to watch.

I agree with critics, such as Manohla Dargis, who argue that the sex is shot from the perspective of a straight man. The bedroom is lit brightly, so everything is visible, but it's not true to the intimate moment; the women moan loudly in the exact manner of porn performers faking moans. The two performers apparently felt very comfortable with each other on camera, so the errant approach to the sex scenes is all the more tragic and wasteful.

I Don't Know

Eli Wiesel, KBE

In April 2012, Elie Wiesel visited Chapman University to take part in an extensive Q & A session. From my vantage point in the auditorium, it seemed that half of the questions, mostly asked by students, centered on morality in fictional scenarios. For example, In a fire, is it better if someone rescues more people, or rescues just the children?

Wiesel answered the same way, each time: “I don’t know. I don’t know the full story, so I can’t say.”

This clearly flustered the students asking these questions. (At one point, one of them exclaimed, “Really?!”) Wiesel didn’t come across as obstinate; rather, his answers came from a place of humility, nurtured over the course of a lifetime.

Krzysztof Kieslowski

An excerpt from the 1995 documentary Krzysztof Kieslowski: I am so-so…, taken after the interviewer, Krzysztof Wierzbicki, asks director Kryzstof Kieslowski how society should solve contemporary cultural issues. (They are both sitting next to a fireplace.)

“If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be sitting by some stupid fireplace, but in a president’s chair, telling everyone what to do to make it better. But I don’t know. Knowing isn’t my profession.”

Roger Deakins, CBE, ASC, BSC

In September 2015, cinematographer Roger Deakins participated in a Q & A session at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, after a screening of Sicario, which he shot with director Denis Villeneuve. I have listed some of Deakins’ answers below.

“How did you make the final car sequence in Prisoners so pretty?

We actually shot that scene on the last day of shooting, and kind of figured it out at the last minute. Much of the crew had already left set, I believe. But when you’re in the middle of shooting, you do the best you can with the tools you have. [Shrugs]

In response to a requisite audience question about whether Deakins prefers to shoot with film or digital formats.

Well, I’m not really a technical person. I like images.

“Do you have any advice for aspiring cinematographers?”

The only thing I can really say is, find your own sensibility. You get hired for your eyes.

“Do you get frustrated when someone watches one of the big, beautiful films you’ve shot on an iPhone or iPad?”

Well, I once caught [Sicario director] Denis Villeneuve watching Citizen Kane on his iPhone, when we were on set. But I’m just happy if someone watches our movies.” [Pauses and shrugs]
I don’t know.

Grandma and the Pope

It was Christmas Day, which fell on a Wednesday in 2013. And Grandma Paula—82 years old and drifting toward the end of an agonizingly long battle with lung cancer—was only now catching up on the The Times' Sunday edition. I sat next to her at the kitchen table, keeping her company while futzing around on my phone. It must have been the late afternoon, as sunlight filtered through the partially closed blinds and bathed the kitchen in sepia.

I glanced at Grandma, then at the front page of The Times, angled toward me as she powered through the meat of the paper. A headline about the newly elected Pope Francis occupied much of that page.

Paula Siegel

Now, my Great-Grandma Becker, Grandma Paula's mother, hated the Catholic Church. She felt that they were complicit with the Nazis, who murdered most of her family/my family in Poland. And Great-Grandma Becker made sure to pass that … passion on to her daughter.

"So," I said, breaking the long silence between us. "What do think of the new pope?"

"Not much!" Grandma said.

She chuckled softly, smiled at me, and went on reading her favorite newspaper.

Dangerous Design

1: Mindy

On a recent morning, I attempted to drive my trusty old Prius, Mindy, and by instinct, toggled the gear selector into [D] (as in “Drive Mode”). It was at this moment that Mindy decided to go sentient, filling the cabin with an incessant, deafening tone, accompanied by a surfeit of red warning lights & rather ominous instructions.

Prius Warning 1

After pulling into a nearby driveway, and averting a mild panic attack, I wondered what terrible, terrible thing could have befallen Mindy. “Park”? “Batteries”? “Transaxle"? Those words could mean: an imminent car-wide failure, or that I had somehow trashed the transmission, or worse yet, that the battery pack had failed.

As that display had instructed, going into [P] made all the noise & lights go away. I tried [D], once more; Mindy screamed. A couple minutes later, I took a closer look at one of the warning lights—the “door open” one.

Prius Warning 2

Turns out, the driver’s-side door was ever-so-slightly open. Once I closed it, [D] worked as expected, without any further intrusions from Mindy.

2: Air France Flight 447

This incident reminded me of a Vanity Fair feature, written by William Langewiesche, on Air France Flight 447. Investigators had little idea why the Airbus A330 crashed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 2009—until search teams recovered the black boxes from the ocean floor in 2011. Investigators were then able to piece together the events that caused the plane to dive from 36,000 feet to the ocean’s surface in under four minutes.

Langewiesche’s reporting on the A330’s automated flying & warning systems grabbed my attention when I originally read the article last year. That plane’s seemingly minor design issues mirror those of Mindy. For example, the black boxes revealed that crew members were overwhelmed by confusing & intrusive automated warnings:

In the cockpit, the situation was off the scale of test flights. After [Captain] Dubois arrived [from his break], the stall warning temporarily stopped, essentially because the angle of attack was so extreme that the system rejected the data as invalid. This led to a perverse reversal that lasted nearly to the impact: each time [First Officer & Pilot Flying] Bonin happened to lower the nose, rendering the angle of attack marginally less severe, the stall warning sounded again—a negative reinforcement that may have locked him into his pattern of pitching up, assuming he was hearing the stall warning at all.

[Emphasis mine.]

Another design quirck, which only added to the confusion once the inexperienced pilots’ Crew Resource Management (CRM) protocols broke down:

[T]he pilot and co-pilot’s side-sticks are not linked and do not move in unison. This means that when the Pilot Flying deflects his stick, the other stick remains stationary, in the neutral position. If both pilots deflect their sticks at the same time, a DUAL INPUT warning sounds, and the airplane responds by splitting the difference. To keep this from causing a problem in the case of a side-stick jam, each stick has a priority button that cuts out the other one and allows for full control.

The arrangement relies on clear communication and good teamwork to function as intended. Indeed, it represents an extreme case of empowering the co-pilot and accepting CRM into a design. More immediately, the lack of linkage did not allow [Backup Pilot] Robert to feel [First Officer] Bonin’s flailing.

[Emphases mine.]

Robert actually thought he was in control of the plane for those final minutes, but Bonin had flipped the “priority button” switch on his own side-stick. In the midst of the commotion on the flight deck, Robert couldn't really tell that he wasn't in control.

3: The Point

Mindy & the A330’s automated systems technically worked as designed. If Mindy’s driver’s-side door is ajar, the vehicle automatically goes into [N], presumably so a driver won't fall out of the car when it's on the freeway. And the display gives correct information: the battery system isn’t capable of being charged when it’s in [N]. But Mindy's blaring warning tone & opaque instructions didn’t translate to a remedial action that I could take.

These particular systems exhibit Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), described by Tim Urban, in his eye-opening article, The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence, as:

[Computers that] only take in stagnant information and process it. To be human-level intelligent, a computer would have to understand things like the difference between subtle facial expressions, the distinction between being pleased, relieved, content, satisfied, and glad, and why Braveheart was great but The Patriot was terrible.

How do ANIs' problem-solving capabilities compare to those in humans?

Hard things—like calculus, financial market strategy, and language translation—are mind-numbingly easy for a computer, while easy things—like vision, motion, movement, and perception—are insanely hard for it. Or, as computer scientist Donald Knuth puts it, “AI has by now succeeded in doing essentially everything that requires ‘thinking,’ but has failed to do most of what people and animals do ‘without thinking.'

We are in a transitionary period, where computers are currently capable of doing only grunt work extremely well; people are still required to make sense out of all that information & act on it. Mindy and the A330’s systems worked as originally designed, but the engineers who created them failed to take into account how people, in real-world situations, might interact with them.

Systems that are designed, from the start, with people in mind offer actual remedies & choices that can save lives. At a minimum, there shouldn’t be a need for panicked Prius owners to flee to the internet because of a startling warning.

Hodgepodge #1

N.B. This is the first installment of a new series on this fine website, ’cause it’s not like other people haven’t already done this kind of thing.

Statement of Purpose: To shed light on a hodgepodge of recent articles & podcasts that I found to be interesting/informative/ridiculous.


The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence [Part 1 of 2]
“As far as we’re concerned, if an [Artificial Superintelligence] comes to being, there is now an omnipotent God on Earth—and the all-important question for us is: Will it be a nice God?
—Wait But Why, Tim Urban, 2015–01

How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality?
“Despite the high-profile launch [of Jay-Z’s company Tidal], Jay Z has admitted that Tidal’s hi-def tier isn’t for everybody. In April, he told NYU students, ‘If you have a $10 pair of headphones, you should probably buy the $9.99 plan.’”
— NPR, Tyler Fisher & Jacob Ganz, 2015–06–02

What Was Gay?
“In an increasingly accepting world, homosexual men are all too eager to leave their campy, cruising past behind. But the price of equality shouldn’t be conformity.”
—, J. Bryan Lowder, 2015–05–12


Roderick on the Line: Ep. 156: The Dumbest Guy I Ever Met
“The Problem: John knows all about LBJ.”

The Show with Sam & Joe: Ep. 45: This is going NOWHERE
“The problem is, I don’t know how to tell people that I never want to see their fucking faces again in my entire fucking life.”

Concert Etiquette

On a recent evening, British musician Jessie Ware performed at the Wiltern in LA. Near the concert's end, Ware paused and addressed her audience. “So this is actually my last stop,” she said, referring to the promotional tour for her fantastic second album, Tough Love. Her face crinkled up, and she gripped the microphone stand, as if she was about to start crying. “I knew this would be pretty sad, but you have all been so wonderful tonight. Thank you.”

After seeing that performance, I have a ton of respect for Ware. She has a lively and engaging on-stage presence; she even apologized for “having a raspy voice,” which I didn’t notice because that voice has a Paul McCartney-like resilience. Ware sounds so beautiful live, I now wish her albums didn’t have superfluous backing vocals and effects.

But I don’t think Ware owed this audience anything: my fellow concert-goers were awfully rude. More than half of them were on their phones the entire time. A number of people took group selfies, complete with blinding flash. Someone next to my boyfriend decided to take care of bank payments on her iPhone. People were having loud conversations the entire time, and they were louder still because they had to talk over the loud music. (Whodathunk they were at a concert?)

A couple of people gave me shit for being tall and for partially obstructing their view. “That guy’s like, 7’ tall!” one woman passive-aggressively complained to my boyfriend’s friends. (I’m actually 6’3".)

Let’s contrast the concert-goers’ behavior with the audience’s at a Punch Brothers concert I attended in 2012, with my aunt Karen.[1] There was much less phone use and fewer conversations. People just seemed nicer. When someone dared to carry on a conversation, Karen turned around and asked her to be quiet: the woman complied and stayed quiet for the rest of the performance.

Admittedly, Punch Brothers have a slightly older audience, and the Belly Up is a more intimate venue. But anecdotally, younger audiences lack concert etiquette. At the recent Wiltern concert, Jessie Ware sang passionately and worked her ass off. Many of my peers returned the favor by staying on their phones and recording or sharing the moment, in order to induce jealousy among their virtual acquaintances. They didn’t actually live in that moment, and they treated Ware as if she was a prop.

Unfortunately, I don't really find concerts appealing anymore. Or maybe I’m old at heart and just wasn’t made for these times.

  1. Fun fact: Karen was the sound engineer on Phil Collins’ Face Value, as well as many other albums in the ’70s and ’80s. She eventually left the music industry because she kept running into the glass ceiling.  ↩

MacBook Pro Woes

Clarification Apr 11, 2015: This article originally stated that Apple will "repair vintage models or newer," which implied that Apple repairs Macs that are less than seven years old. But in most countries and states, Apple only repairs Macs that are less than five years old (i.e., ones that have not yet turned "vintage"). The only exception in the U.S. is California, which requires Apple to provide service for all vintage Macs.

Update Feb 26, 2016: Added yet another repair for August 2015.

In light of yesterday's announcement that Apple is initiating a repair program for certain MacBook Pros, I figured now would be a good time to talk about my problem-prone 2011 15" MacBook Pro.

2011 15

First, let's learn about vintage and obsolete Macs. From Apple's support page:

Vintage products are those that were discontinued more than five and less than seven years ago. … Obsolete products are those that were discontinued more than seven years ago. Apple has discontinued all hardware service for obsolete products with no exceptions.

If your Mac has a hardware issue and is less than five years old, you can pay a flat-rate $310 repair fee[1] and have Apple ship it to a centralized repair facility. (In California, Apple is required to provide service and parts for vintage Macs, so that gives consumers a seven-year window for repairs.) Apple technicians will then repair or replace every hardware component that’s faulty. This is actually a pretty good deal if your Mac has a bunch of accumulated issues.

Second, if you had to pay for a repair, and later discover that there’s a repair program for your model,[3] Apple will reimburse you. I had to pay for my iPhone 5’s battery to be replaced, just a day after its one-year warranty expired. When Apple announced its iPhone 5 Battery Replacement Program, I called AppleCare, and the advisor happily gave me a refund.

These are all of the repairs and modifications I’ve made to my four-year-old MacBook Pro.


  • I replaced the stock 4 GB of RAM with 8 GB of cheaper, third-party RAM.

July 2012

  • Problems: The battery began to fail, and the right-hand speaker was vibrating annoyingly.
  • Solution: Apple replaced the battery and the speaker.
  • Cost: Covered under AppleCare.

April 2013

  • I replaced the stock 500 GB, 7200 RPM spinning hard disk with a 250 GB Samsung SSD. App launch times, noise level, and battery life improved enormously.

Feb 2014

  • Problem: The top row of letters on the keyboard was broken.
  • Solution: Technicians replaced the top case, an integrated unit that includes most of the MacBook Pro’s chassis, keyboard, and trackpad. This is a complicated and expensive procedure; even the most diehard DIYers recommend having a certified technician do this.
  • Cost: Covered under AppleCare, which was going to expire a month later.

Jul 2014

  • Problem: The GPU failed, likely due to long-term thermal stress. And since the GPU is soldered to the logic board, the logic board failed, essentially killing the computer.
  • Solution: Apple sent the MacBook Pro to a repair facility in Texas, and ended up replacing a shitload of hardware, including:
    • The logic board and GPU.
    • The Hi-Res Antiglare display.
    • The left and right speakers.
    • The microphone.
    • The bracket for the front of the top case, because some cables were defective.
  • Cost: The flat-rate repair fee. Apple reimbursed me for this repair on Feb 19, 2015.

Aug 2015

  • Problem: Yet another GPU failure.
  • Solution: Replaced both the logic board and the display.
  • Cost: $300, the flat-rate repair fee.

    In short, I have new:

    • RAM
    • Battery
    • SSD
    • Top Case / Keyboard
    • Speakers
    • Microphone
    • Display (2x)
    • Logic board and GPU (2x)

    So yeah, I’m basically using a new computer for free—albeit one that’s a cobbled-together, Frankenstein’s monster-like monstrosity. Even though it’s been incredibly unreliable, I could easily use this computer for another year or two.

    But hey, it could be worse. I could still be using my 2007 MacBook, which liked to shut down after playing Netflix videos for 10 minutes because doing so exceeded the CPU’s thermal design.

    1. As long as there isn’t any damage or signs of water intrusion.  ↩

    2. Usually as a result of class-action lawsuits.  ↩

  • Back to the Frame Rate

    N.B. #1: A couple years ago, I wrote a nerdy article for Yahoo about the history of and technical challenges surrounding frame rates. Unfortunately, Yahoo removed its Featured Contributor website, so the articles I wrote for them no longer exist. This is a fragmented attempt to reconstruct and expand on my original piece.

    David S. Cohen, writing for Variety last December on director Peter Jackson’s approach to the aesthetics of the second installment of The Hobbit Trilogy:

    “It was interesting to try to interpret what people’s reaction was,” Jackson says. He concluded the problem was that the image looked like HD video, and was simply sharper than people are used to in cinema.

    “So what I did is work that in reverse,” says Jackson. “When I did the color timing this year, the color grading, I spent a lot of time experimenting with ways we could soften the image and make it look a bit more filmic. Not more like 35 mm film necessarily, but just to take the HD quality away from it, which I think I did reasonably successfully.”

    Jackson’s tweaks sound like a post-mortem stopgap, as if he’s trying to amend a poorly executed paint job. The first film has a simple, but fatal, flaw: it doesn’t have a point-of-view. The filmmakers lose track of whose story to tell—it should be Bilbo Baggins’, obviously—and every aspect of the production, from the acting to the cinematography to the production design to the sound design, suffers from this lack of focus.

    But this matter can’t be closed with that terse a verdict. By shooting The Hobbit at 48 frames per second (FPS), Jackson and his collaborators made a worthy attempt at weaning audiences off movies that remain needlessly beholden to a recording / filming / projection standard of 24 FPS.[1]

    1. Technically, 35mm projectors use 48 FPS, to make the flickering between frames less annoying. So when you’re sitting in a theater, half of the time, you’re actually sitting in darkness. Digital projectors do not have shutters, and instead refresh 144 FPS.  ↩

    An excerpt, from research I did for that now-lost article from 2012:

    For over 80 years, films have been shot and projected at 24 FPS. Studios didn’t establish this standard because it was perfect; they just needed film to run at a regular speed for playing back sound…

    The cinema “look” we are familiar with was just a compromise from the late 1920s, after a sound engineer averaged out how fast theaters were projecting films. Many theaters at the time played their movies back faster than was intended, to get audiences in and out of their seats faster.

    If you've made it this far, you owe it to yourself to watch this fantastic presentation on the current state of frame rates by Bruce Jacobs, Mark Schubin, Douglas Trumbull, and Larry Thorpe, who are, collectively, formidably erudite.

    Off the bat, Mark Schubin offers this money quote:

    There is absolutely nothing special about 24 frames per second. There is no particular psychological reason for it, no mathematical reason for it.

    The Man has been giving my classmates and me a tour of his company’s state-of-the-art facilities these past several hours. Unlike many peons working in Hollywood, he’s dressed sharply, in a fine suit and dress shoes. The company recently completed an impressive restoration of a 50-year-old epic, so I believe the Man’s sartorial instincts are justified.

    But he’s been unintentionally rubbing my professor and classmates the wrong way with certain off-the-cuff remarks. For instance, his company’s post-production capabilities allow producers to “fix the frame" if they see something they don’t like. [1] Things come to a head when the Man flippantly says that he and his company have never come across a project shot in 30 FPS.

    My professor speaks up: “I’m a fan of 30 frames per second. It’s a shame it never really caught on.”

    The Man remains silent for several, pregnant seconds. He sticks a hand in his jacket pocket.


    “Yes.” My professor sticks to his guns. “I always felt 24 frames per second had too much strobing. It just has too many compromises.”

    1. To get a sense of how my classmates and I feel about having above-the-line people fixing things in post, as opposed to in pre-production or on set, check out my article Pulling Focus From the Monitor.  ↩

    There's a truth to what my professor says. And there's a reason why Douglas Trumbull spent the 1970s and '80s developing Showscan. The ASC Manual devotes scores of pages to charts that illustrate how fast a camera operator should pan if he's using different focal lengths, because it's easy for objects to look like they're strobing, particularly on larger screens. Another excerpt from my research:

    There tends to be a lot of flickering at 24 FPS, which becomes particularly noticeable the larger and brighter a screen becomes. If a character moves a bit during an IMAX screening, for instance, she’ll move the equivalent of several feet on-screen. That displacement can be jarring and exhausting for audiences to endure.

    Consider It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The filmmakers, knowing that their film would be projected on larger screens, chose to shoot at 30 FPS.[1] They understood that audiences would inexplicably feel more exhausted if they had to endure a three-hour movie projected at 24 FPS, because they would unconsciously attempt to fill in the on-screen displacement, those gaps between frames and movements.

    1. You can learn more about Ultra Panavision vs. Super Panavision vs. Todd-AO if you’re a pedant, but I find reading about the miniscule discrepancies in their technologies and copyrights soporific.  ↩

    Solutions / Paradigms / the Future

    In The Hobbit, was anyone else bothered by the way characters moved when they were in smaller spaces, like the hobbits’ homes in the Shire? Something about the higher frame rate made them look awfully twitchy, like trapped hummingbirds flitting about in a flask.

    In order for movies with higher frame rates to catch on, filmmakers and actors need to develop a new aesthetic, a new approach to their craft.

    Here are a few changes that would help audiences to be more accepting of movies shot with higher frame rates, under the current paradigm:[1]

    • Production designers and art directors may have to build larger-than-normal sets.
    • Camera operators and dolly grips may have to slow down their movements, so audiences don’t perceive their work as being subjected to a VHS-style fast-forward.
    • Actors may have to modulate their timing and blocking, to avoid the trapped hummingbird effect.

    Higher frame rates have the potential to create new paradigms that enable filmmakers to expand audience’s expectations for what’s possible with recorded media. But this potent tool must be thoroughly considered from the very start of a project (i.e., while writing a script)—not two movies into a multi-billion-dollar trilogy.

    1. I define the “current paradigm” as the system that reinforces the perception that audiences expect to see a certain kind of movie in theaters. To keep my definition nebulous and flexible, these movies generally possess a familiar structure: a narrative, characters, and dialogue.  ↩

    N.B. #2: This post’s title was inspired not by Back to the Future, but by the 1979 Wings album, Back to the Egg.[1] My former housemate Judah hung an LP of Back to the Egg on the wall of his bedroom because it made for a decent poster. So even though I’ve never listened to the album, I nonetheless have fond memories associated with visiting Judah’s room and seeing that bizarre photo.

    1. Its release was ultimately overshadowed by Japanese officials arresting and detaining Paul McCartney for possessing a shitload of pot.  ↩

    Thoughts on Pono

    Max Siegel-Pono Player

    Let's move on from sad topics and delve into a new and superfluous bit of technology: the Pono Player.

    Yes, it looks like a Toblerone. And something about the design harks back to the Game Boy Advance SP. The oversized "Plus" (aka, "volume increase") button looks so much like the Game Boy's D-Pad, I absentmindedly kept clicking different parts of the button, expecting my inputs to affect on-screen navigation.

    But not to worry, the Pono Player has a touch screen—albeit an awful, pixelated, sluggish one that looks worse than an iPod Photo's. On the plus side, the garish, Pikachu-yellow-colored silicon case feels surprisingly comfortable in hand. I imagine this is the type of material John Siracusa pines for in iPhones, which have a tendency to slide off armchairs because of their aluminum chassis.

    My good friend Max preordered a Pono Player during the surprisingly successful Kickstarter campaign. Other Max is bullish on the device’s potential to increase people’s awareness of high-resolution audio. And if it makes my friend happy, then I’m happy for him.

    But he also wanted to prove to me that it could and should also make me happy. What songs do you want to listen to, Other Max texts me the night before we’re to meet up. I suggest he have songs off Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Peter Gabriel’s So handy, because I’ve grown up listening to both albums.

    It’s futile to impart my impressions of the device’s sound quality because there were too many variables in my “test.” The 24-bit version of So seemed to hold up better in busier sections, compared to the CD version I’m used to, while the drums on Rumours sounded muddy and flat. But I was listening to songs on Other Max’s noise-canceling Bose headphones, instead of my usual set-up: a pair of Sony headphones plugged into a MacBook Pro’s 1/8" audio port.

    What role does the Pono Player actually serve? When describing the digital music explosion of the 2000s, audiophiles tend to take a fall of mankind approach. They feel that the vast majority of people were duped into buying low-fidelity songs that sacrificed quality for the convenience of portability.

    And while there’s truth to that—particularly in the early days of DRM-ed, 128 kbps MP3s and AACs—people have a tough time distinguishing between lossless and lossy audio. (I highly recommend checking out Marco Arment’s thoughts on the real-life effectiveness of high-resolution audio.)

    Neil Young, the founder of Pono, promises to take things a step further. His player is capable of playing back 24-bit audio files, not just 16-bit files that most consumer DACs are limited to playing. In the current market, 24-bit-capable DACs cost over $1,000, while the Pono Player costs a mere $400.

    But again, IRL, people normally can’t tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio files, no less 24-bit and 16-bit ones. By design, the Pono Player encourages listeners to use it on the go, a use-case where differences in encoding quality are largely irrelevant because of extraneous background noise and activity.

    I’m far more worried about the recording and mastering of music itself than the quality of the digital package containing that music. I didn’t know why contemporary recordings sounded bad until I read Greg Milner’s fantastic book, Perfecting Sound Forever. Milner’s sobering chapters on the ongoing loudness war—which has resulted in songs that are literally painful to listen to—show how important it is for consumers to be discerning and proactive about the quality of music.

    Does the Pono Player do anything to aid the good guys (i.e., audiophiles and music-lovers) in this war? It’s a conversation starter, for sure, but ultimately, it’s an expensive niche product.

    David Getman

    Erin Sherbert, writing for SF Weekly on Wed, Aug 27:

    The Medical Examiner's Office this morning said it was 22-year-old David Getman who was hit and killed by a Muni bus earlier this week. 

    According to police, Getman, a Berkeley resident, was walking along Lyon Street near Geary Boulevard early Monday morning when he was struck by a 38 Gear bus…

    This is incredibly sad news, which I just belatedly found out about. David and I met in the fall of 2010, through our work at The Daily Californian. (He had just begun his studies at UC Berkeley; I was a senior.) Even in the early stages of his professional writing career, David had a tremendous, one-in-a-million voice. Take the lede from his review of a Ryan McGinley photography exhibit:

    Stripped of clothing and inhibitions, Ryan McGinley's nymph-like models bound through nature: They climb trees, roll down sand dunes and splash in waterfalls. It makes for an atmosphere at once sensuous and innocent, like his photographs were shot in the Garden of Eden, if Eve hadn't taken a bite out of that apple and Adam was bi-curious.

    That voice—conversational and slyly droll—was something I always looked forward to reading throughout his stint at The Daily Cal.

    I'm not going to lie, I had a crush on the guy. He looked like David Byrne, only taller, lankier, more Jewish, and more adorkable. I was disappointed when David turned me down, but he did so in a kind and direct way that's rare in the gay dating scene (and even rarer among 18-year-olds).

    Regrettably, we didn't stay in touch after I graduated from Berkeley in 2011. I thought we might be able to catch up in person one day, since I lived under the illusion that people in their twenties are practically invincible.

    It doesn't help that the articles about David's death lack details. What was he doing in San Francisco around 1 a.m. on a Monday? Isn't there more information about the Muni bus and driver? These unanswered questions almost compel me to start a Serial-like investigation.

    But in the end, David and I were just acquaintances.

    David Getman

    Perfect Shots

    A few of my friends on Twitter have been retweeting posts from an account called OnePerfectShot (aka Perfect Shots). As the name implies, Perfect Shots posts stills from movies that its author considers to be aesthetically perfect. To be clear, I enjoy the outpouring of appreciation for aesthetics, and for cinematographers in general. Plus, the author of Perfect Shots, Geoff Todd, hates The Boondock Saints, so kudos to him.

    But it's wrong to think of movies as a series of beautiful shots. Photography and cinematography are very different art forms, and conflating the two can be a career-ending mistake for a young cinematographer. The former attempts to tell stories in single frames, while the latter consists of many shots in many sequences that must work together in the context of the entire movie.

    Here's a recent still that Perfect Shots posted from a scene in Zodiac:

    It's a nice shot of a letter, but this single image is only significant to people who have already seen the movie and understand the full context. Everyone else misses out on the fact that it's taken from the midst of an initial build-up, in which the filmmakers cross-cut between the respective journeys of the Zodiac Killer's letter and Jake Gyllenhaal's character. It's a great scene from a great movie, but it isn't a great shot. And it wouldn't be fair to the filmmakers to sum up their feature length-long efforts in a single frame.

    Before going to Chapman’s graduate cinematography program, I primarily dabbled in photography, not videography. To be honest, I wish it had been the other way around. The biggest challenge, my first year in school, was to break out of a photographer’s mindset. What may look and feel right, or “perfect,” in one shot may be completely wrong for the movie as a whole.

    Consider Atonement, which most people tend to remember for its epic tracking shot of British soldiers on the beaches at Dunkirk. In his review for the New York Times, A. O. Scott succinctly summarizes the hazards filmmakers face if they treat a movie as a collection of great shots:

    And even the most impressive sequences have an empty, arty virtuosity. The impression left by a long, complicated battlefield tracking shot is pretty much, ‘Wow, that’s quite a tracking shot,’ when it should be, ‘My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.’

    Now consider John Toll and Terrence Mallick’s work in The Thin Red Line. (It just so happens to also be a movie that takes place during World War II.) That movie's “perfect shot,” as far as I’m concerned, begins 10 minutes prior to the opening artillery barrage of the Battle of Mount Austen. It starts with extended Steadicam shots, which allow us to relate to the soldiers cautiously treading through the island’s overgrown grass. That buildup concludes with a graceful, hardly noticeable crane shot that arcs through the grass, rising above the soldiers to reveal the island’s hilly terrain.

    That's when we finally realize, Holy shit, these guys are fucked. And then a barrage of artillery shells rains down on them from the ridge of a seemingly peaceful hill.

    Most people wouldn't consider any of those shots, taken individually, to be "perfect." And they wouldn't be able to easily explain why they're so cumulatively effective in an image or a Twitter post. By design, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

    I didn't intend for this article to be a full-blown appraisal of John Toll’s career. But if you look at the rest of his filmography, from Braveheart to Almost Famous to Tropic Thunder and beyond, you can tell that the guy has a natural gift for telling a story visually over the course of an entire movie. There aren't any stills that stand out to me from his films, but the movies themselves are memorable, thanks to his intelligent, overarching approach. I hope that followers of @OnePerfectShot learn more about that approach, as they transition from being casual cinephiles to filmmakers or students of film themselves.


    During a lecture in grad school, my cinematography professor argued that a successful movie imperceptibly transports viewers into its world, and then “returns the audience to their seats” when it draws to a close. Ideally, it wouldn’t have any issues that could distract viewers from the experience, which I’ll call a movie’s “potholes.”

    With that thought in mind, let’s take a look at Weekend. I recently showed it to my boyfriend, Che, because it’s the best film in the world about a gay romance. (I even splurged and bought the lovely Criterion Blu-ray.)

    But almost immediately, Che spotted a problem. The film’s protagonist, Russell, is a semi-closeted, 20-something-year-old lifeguard living in the Midlands. Che’s brother is a lifeguard, so he knows what a lifeguard’s salary is. How could Russell afford to live in a nice, one-bedroom apartment? Wouldn’t it make more sense if he had roommates or lived in a complete shithole?

    I was bothered by the consistently haphazard focus pulling, which the filmmakers should have noticed while watching dailies and fixed on-set. But frankly, Che was bothered about the right kind of pothole. Russell’s apartment is too nice, which punctures the movie’s premise — a bit like Goldfinger accidentally decompressing Pussy Galore’s jet.

    That said, Weekend works in spite of these issues because the elements that truly matter, work extremely well: the actors and the script.

    Tom Cullen and Chris New’s performances are once-in-a-lifetime marvels. Both Che and I became teary-eyed at certain points, and I’d be shocked if the filmmakers recording their interactions weren’t also affected.

    The script is also a marvel. Bill Hader once said that The Venture Bros. episodes are so tightly written, “you can bounce a ball off them.” (This partly explains why each season takes at least two years to make. Ah well.) Andrew Haigh’s script is also carefully written, and has a wisely limited scope. The time frame: a weekend. Characters: Two, plus a couple of peripheral friends. Locations: Russell’s apartment; gay club; public pool; train station.

    As Haigh says in an extra segment on the Blu-ray, he wanted the characters and locations to be as specific as possible, so their experiences would be more universal for viewers living outside the Midlands. Haigh seems to understand that the actors and the story are at the heart of a movie. The rest is icing on the cake.

    I would prioritize these elements in a movie, in order of decreasing importance. The further down the list, the less the potholes matter.

    1. Actors (to win over viewers)
    2. Script (to sustain viewers’ interest over the course of the entire movie)
    3. Sound (a single mistake often indicates future potholes)
    4. Cinematography (to tell and enhance the characters’ story; “normal” people can ignore most deficiencies in this regard if the above elements are working)

    Thoughts on 'The Thing'

    Note: This post is filled with spoilers. Continue reading only if you've seen The Thing.

    What if "Norwegian Passenger with Gun" had been a better shot? The "wolf" may have been killed, but then we wouldn't have this amazing film.

    My brother, Ben, tells me that he loves The Thing because you can't trust what the movie shows. I have to disagree. What I love about The Thing is that it's relentlessly honest. The filmmakers have great faith in the to-this-day-still-horrifying models and special effects, and they don't hesitate to show them in all their gory glory.

    The Thing has a sizable budget, which allows John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey to shoot the Antarctic camp in wide shots. This is important because it creates the illusion that we know how everything in that camp is laid out. But what happens just off-screen, right outside our hero, MacReady's (played by Kurt Russell), field of view? It's that mystery, and the characters' paranoia which arises from the Big Unknown, that drives the narrative.

    What is the Thing? It's many self-replicating Things. Once the team kills one generation, it devours another team member, because it was with them all along. Despite all the theories the characters toss out, they remain just that: unproven hypotheticals. Who has time to figure out how the Thing actually works while it's on a rampage?

    Also, this might sound strange, but the Thing is kind of adorable: especially when it's a walking head with spider legs, trying to flee from MacReady's flamethrower.

    Speaking of MacReady, Kurt Russell is perfectly cast. He's so effortlessly assured that the audience immediately accepts him as a natural leader. Which works brilliantly when the filmmakers sow seeds of doubt about his true nature. Maybe he is too perfect, so he's got to be the Thing. Right?

    And what does all that paranoia lead to, in the end? A station that's been blown to smithereens by the survivors. Only MacReady and one other teammate remain, eyeing one another with suspicion in the burnt remains of their former home, as they wait to freeze to death.

    Follow-up: Pulling Focus From the Monitor

    Evan Luzi, founder of the popular camera-assistant-centered website The Black and Blue, wrote an article based on my thoughts about camera assistants (ACs) who use monitors to pull focus. He writes that relying on a monitor is a bad habit to learn, and a difficult one to break:

    [W]hen you learn to do something for the first time a certain way, it can be very tough to forget. (Not to mention a whole generation of ACs started their careers with access to crisp HD monitors.)

    This, however, is no excuse for consistently using the monitor as the crutch. When you are given the tools to pull focus properly in the right circumstances – cinema lenses with witness markings; a solid follow focus or wireless setup; time for marks and rehearsal – you should be measuring distances, marking your follow focus and watching the shot unfold in front of you so you can make adjustments.

    "In the right circumstances." That phrase drew criticism from a number of Evan's readers and several acquaintances of mine. Cinematographer Stephen Scavulli comments on my original article:

    But a great deal of the time, you either don't get properly collimated lenses, you're pulling off modded or unmodded still lenses, or you have to be flexible for any number of reasons.

    I think the lesson you preach is still a valuable one, though. I just think it should be expanded. Know when to use different techniques and tools as the situation calls for it.

    Evan echoes this sentiment in a follow-up post, in which he addresses the criticism and backpedals a bit from his previous stance. He argues that certain, less-than-ideal circumstances are "acceptable and encouraged uses of the monitor to aid in pulling focus."

    After reading feedback, it's clear that the biggest issue isn't ACs who rely on monitors to grab focus: it's a prevalent on-set culture that regards rehearsals and marks as unnecessary luxuries for contemporary filmmaking.

    In my experience, "shooting the rehearsal" ends up costing the production additional time and money, as crew and talent attempt to fix things on the fly. ACs who are involved in productions where they're forced to use, say, still-camera lenses without rehearsals have little choice but to rely on monitors to try to keep things sharp.

    I don't think this culture will change until key members of production teams realize they're shooting themselves and their financial backers in the foot.