The Death Star Doesn't Make Economic Sense

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The Death Star is pretty badass until you pause to reflect on its practical and economic implications (via John Gruber):

Doesn’t the Empire take a huge economic loss from the lost productivity of an entire planet? They were presumably paying taxes and providing resources to the rest of the Empire. Presumably the loss of that planet’s output would have to be made up by increased output from other planets that were either slacking in productivity due to rebellion or threatening to rebel and withdraw from the Empire altogether. It doesn’t seem to make good economic sense.

Obama Reveals His Birth Certificate

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James Fallows breaks it down. James Poniewozik also has some good analysis.

The conclusion? This solves nothing. And the fact that our President felt the need to subject himself to this means we all lose.

Update: I really appreciated the words of David Frum on this matter:

[T]hose who imagine that they somehow enhance the value of [American] citizenship by belittling the American-ness of their president – they not only disgrace the politics they uphold, but they do damage that will not soon be forgotten by the voters a revived Republicanism must win.

Salon also has some arguments on why this wasn't Obama caving; it was Obama cannily portraying the Republican party as out of touch and a tiny bit crazy.

Pixel Pocket Rocket Review

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One of my most obvious needs for shooting photography gigs is an apparatus for storing compact flash cards. The world seems to have moved on to SD, but Canon's 5D series, the 7D, as well as the 50D all still use compact flash, so if you want to use those cameras, you gotta deal with the cards. Sure, I could stuff them into my pocket, but this creates a number of difficulties (e.g. the cards can get dirty, crushed, and/or difficult to retrieve). Thus, I wanted some kind of card wallet for storing them.

Think Tank Photo's Pixel Pocket Rocket seemed like just the right purchase for my needs (they make a smaller one that also holds SD cards). It's cheap, well-designed, and it does the very simple task set before it. The Pixel Pocket Rocket feels durable, and has see-through mesh pockets for your cards so you can see which ones you've already used. It can store up to 10 cards and it's super light, although when folded up, it can be a little thick to fit into a pocket (no thicker than average-sized wallet though). There's also a neat see-through compartment for your business cards.

You can use the strap to attach it to a belt loop, other clothing articles, or even other Think Tank photo products. While the strap and the stitching that it attaches to feel solid, it doesn't look that solid, so I did get a little bit nervous while using it. I feel like to use this product ideally, you'd loop the strap around your belt loop, then store this thing in your pocket and only take it out when switching cards. I personally would prefer something that doesn't require you to put it inside your pocket (perhaps something that attaches to a belt), but that would be a different product entirely. Leaving the Pixel Pocket Rocket flapping around attached to your belt loop is NOT a good option for storing important cards.

Nonetheless, for $16, this thing basically can't be beat. I plan on getting years of mileage out of it. Here's my video review of the Pixel Pocket Rocket:





Below are some more photos of the Pixel Pocket Rocket. You can also check out my other reviews, or posts about photography.




Banksy's Wall and Piece

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One of the cool things about doing what I do is that sometimes, people send me things for free. Such was the case last night when someone named "Alphonse" and with the initials "AAA" (is this a real name?) gifted me a package through Amazon that contained two photo books: Jeff Bridges' Pictures and Banksy's Wall and Piece. First of all, Alphonse, if you're a real person and you're reading this, thanks so much for the awesome gift! It made my day.

I haven't had too much time to dive into either of the books, but they both look incredible. In particular, Bridges' book, which I didn't even know existed, has tons of awesome behind-the-scenes shots from his decades as an actor. Very cool, and especially salient to me given my developing photography career.

I wanted to share some quick tidbits from the book, which is essentially a compendium of Banksy's street art.


Here's Banksy's foreward, which lays out his motivations for his work:

I'm going to speak my mind, so this won't take very long. Graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Despite having to creep about at night and lie to your mum it's actually the most honest artform available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on some of the best walls a town has to offer, and nobody is put off by the price of admission. A wall has always been the best place to publish your work.

The people who run our cities don't understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit. But if you just value money then your opinion is worthless. They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline in society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people; politicians, advertising executives, and graffiti writers.

The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface, but you're never allowed to answer back. Well, they started this fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.

Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.

Great insights into the mind of one of the most audacious artists of our time. If you have a chance, check out our review of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

I also love the back cover quote.

Sony Playstation Network Compromised in Unprecedented Security Breach

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Today, my thoughts of "Man, I wish I could play Portal 2 on my Playstation 3" quickly turned to "Oh crap, now I gotta change my passwords again."

Although we are still investigating the details of this incident, we believe that an unauthorized person has obtained the following information that you provided: name, address (city, state, zip), country, email address, birthdate, PlayStation Network/Qriocity password and login, and handle/PSN online ID. It is also possible that your profile data, including purchase history and billing address (city, state, zip), and your PlayStation Network/Qriocity password security answers may have been obtained. If you have authorized a sub-account for your dependent, the same data with respect to your dependent may have been obtained. While there is no evidence at this time that credit card data was taken, we cannot rule out the possibility. If you have provided your credit card data through PlayStation Network or Qriocity, out of an abundance of caution we are advising you that your credit card number (excluding security code) and expiration date may have been obtained.

To paraphrase gaming guru Garnett Lee, "Holy crap, an absolute worst-case scenario security breach and it takes Sony almost a week to own up to it."

For consumers, the fact that Sony waited this long to inform users that their credit cards might have been compromised is an unconscionable delay. That said, from a corporate standpoint, I understand why they did it. This is not a situation where you can afford a "false positive." Announcing that people's accounts have been compromised before understanding the nature of the breach creates unnecessary panic and instantly destroys credibility. There were very few pitfalls for Sony, as a company, to wait and figure things out (Their credibility was already going to be in tatters after this. Waiting a few days longer didn't change that too much, except to make the tatters more fine and decrepit looking).

My guess is, they knew immediately that data had been compromised, but they didn't know how much of it or in what manner (it sounds like they are still figuring that part out). If the scope of the intrusion was limited, they could have made a determination, made a brief announcement and tried to deal with the limited number of people that were affected. But it turned out not to be limited, and now millions of people are pretty pissed about it.

Lots of questions still remain. How did this intrusion take place? Who was responsible? Did one single individual or party really get access to dozens of millions of credit card numbers? Who was affected? And so forth. Whatever the case, this news is huge, and will shape people's perception of the Sony brand and the Playstation Network for years to come.

Roger Ebert Wins New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

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Nicely done.

Highrock Easter Service, 2011

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I recently picked up the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 USM II lens. This thing is a beast. It is long and heavy, and looks like you could shoot a small cannonball out of it. That being said, it's also one of the best lenses in existence today. With an extremely wide aperture and a image stabilization (thus allowing for fast shutter speed in low-light situations), this lens is considered by many wedding, portrait, and event photographers to be absolutely essential.

One of the biggest difficulties of using this lens is that it's so conspicuous. You can't carry this around a public place without looking like either a photographer on a job or a stalker. As a result, I only feel comfortable using it for specific events.

I was thrilled that my local church, Highrock, allowed me to shoot its Easter Service, which was held at Arlington Town Hall in Arlington, MA. It was an awesome celebration, and while the service itself was moving and powerful, the meal afterwards was pretty awesome, resembling a town fair more than a church luncheon. Here are some of the photos I was able to produce:




I'm still getting the hang of using this thing, and I am particularly curious about the use of image stabilization, and trying to optimize it in certain settings. 

Always Plan for the Worst

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James Fallows from The Atlantic has written up a nice summary of what you can do to protect your Gmail account from getting hacked, as well as how to protect your data. The biggest obstacle people face to implementing these protections? A false sense of security:

I've made this point before, but I stress it again for this simple reason: I believe that most "normal" users do not imagine that this can be so. They don't think it's really possible that everything they've archived for years and years might be vaporized. But indeed it is possible, and online life should be conducted with appropriate "tragic imagination" of that fact.

As a result of reading this article, I just signed up for Google's two-step authentication, which dramatically reduces your likelihood of getting hacked. Basically, you download an authenticator app to your phone, then use it to login to your Gmail account along with your password. It's a super-cool feature that, bizarrely, banks don't even have yet.

My biggest fear is forgetting about the whole thing if/when I get a new/replacement iPhone, and the authenticator forgets all my previous settings. Then I'd be right screwed. But maybe just the act of blogging about this fear will prevent that from happening. Only time will tell...

The Animated GIFs of Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg

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Most of these are pretty awesome. Some of them creepily remind me of that scene from Stephen King's IT where the photo comes alive. (via Gawker)

The $23 Million Book

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Michael Eisen has an interesting story about how sellers on Amazon's marketplace have deployed algorithmically-based pricing, with absurd results:

A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).

Chronicling the Decline of 'The Office'

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Few people make a more convincing case for the decline of The Office than television writer Myles McNutt. I've known and respected Myles since before he was rich and famous (and we've had him on the /Filmcast a number of times to talk TV), and I've particularly been impressed by his work at The AV Club, as he does weekly Office recaps.

McNutt approaches the show and each episode as though it has the potential to be something transcendent, informative, and/or moving. And why shouldn't he? At its best, that's what The Office was, a celebration of the foibles of American working life. Lately, though, the show has been uneven and mired with inconsistent characterizations. The penultimate Michael Scott episode, "Michael's Last Dundies," exemplifies this. Myles writes:

I know some of you don’t care if an episode of The Office means anything and that you just want it to be funny. I also know that wanting the show to have a sense of meaning or purpose renders me pretentious for some of you. However, “Michael’s Last Dundies” obviously wants to take on a particular meaning given that final song, to be about “the best in every one of us” that Michael believes the Dundies should represent. As a result, I think it is perfectly fair to hold the show accountable for the fact that the rest of it was built around a transparent set of bits being played by two actors, not two characters, and to wish that the big picture was more than just a musical afterthought in Carell’s next-to-last episode.

As Steve Carrell wraps up his time on the show, it's instructive to look back and see how the show has changed. Be sure to check out Myles' other recaps of the show.

Drew Grant from Salon has a different take on this week's episode, though it doesn't necessarily conflict with McNutt's. She argues that The Office can recapture its spirit if it "could go all the way back to its Schadenfreude roots and get mean."

The Fraternity Project

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With the sheer volume of media I produce, I have to offload files on a regular basis for the purposes of backup. Between the podcasts and photos, I've probably already consumed several terabytes in the past year alone, far exceeding the measly 1 TB allowance of my 2009 iMac.

Today, I had to offload some large files that could only be copied onto an NTFS hard drive. So I dug an old Western Digital MyBook out of my closet and tried to move the files on. In doing so, I discovered some old photos that I'd taken, but never uploaded onto Flickr:



The above is the first photoset that I ever put together. It was my final project for my Introductory Photography class in college. These photographs were taken at a UMass-Amherst fraternity over 7 years ago. They were taken with a film camera (Canon Rebel) on Kodak Tri-X black and white film, developed and printed by yours truly, then scanned into a computer in JPG form. I remember physically printing these photos out by hand in a dark room with all those delicious chemicals. Ahh, the good ol' days.

It's fascinating for me to look back into the past like this. Not only do the photos represent people who have undoubtedly moved on in their lives, but they also reveal my own technical and compositional limitations at the time. I'd like to think I've grown as a photographer, but I still think a few of these shots are pretty awesome.

Teen Student Fakes Pregnancy As Part of School Project

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From AP:

A high school student who faked her pregnancy for six months as a social experiment stunned a student assembly this week by taking off the belly bundle. Only a handful of people knew that 17-year-old Gaby Rodriguez wasn't really pregnant, including her mother, boyfriend and the principal, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic. They helped keep the secret from some of her siblings and her boyfriend's family and students and teachers, all as part of a senior project on stereotyping.

FilmPulse: A Review

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[Update: The creators of FilmPulse have responded to the tidal wave of criticism leveled at them]

Yesterday, I started seeing a few isolated tweets about a new online show named "FilmPulse" pop up on my Twitter feed. Most of them were incredibly derogatory in nature, so I sought out more information on Google. I couldn't easily find anything, but this morning my colleague Devindra informed me of the details: FilmPulse is ComingSoon's attempt at a new video film talk show "focused entirely around today's hottest and most interesting topics." ComingSoon is a pretty big, heavily-trafficked website, so any attempt that they made into the film commentary/media space was going to be closely watched. In this case, I think the amount of attention went far beyond their expectations.

The first episode just debuted on Tuesday, April 19th, and people had some pretty strong opinions about it. Legendary blogger Anne Thompson was no fan, and Quint from Ain't It Cool News declared that if AICN had launched a similar show, he would have quit. Even the commenters at ComingSoon didn't seem to enjoy it. One of them wrote, "This is the worst thing I have ever seen on the internet, and I saw a video of that American hostage being decapitated in Iraq."

Let me preface the following by saying that I pretty much never write about other podcasts/shows unless it's to praise them (look through the archives of this blog and you'll hopefully see that I've consistently held to this). I believe that as professionals, it does us no good to tear each other down. That being said, the intense interest and hatred for this show leads me to make an exception, and to try to critically evaluate what is it about this show that inspired such a strong reaction.

I've watched the entire 15-minute episode, which consists of a 3-minute discussion between two unnamed hosts about film ranking service Flickchart, followed by a 12-minute interview with Morgan Spurlock with one of the hosts (Update: As Will Goss points out in the comments below, they are actually named with a quick lower-third at around 3 minutes into the show. Their names are Vic and Julian). Let's take these segments one by one, starting with the latter:

The Spurlock Interview - This is a fairly boiler-plate interview with Spurlock, who is almost always a dynamic speaker. I found nothing particularly offensive about the interview and it seemed as though the interviewer actually took the time to do a little research into Spurlock's career and tried to ask some probing questions. It's not the best interview I've ever watched with Spurlock, but there is very little that makes this interview worse than what dozens of film/entertainment journalism outlets put out on a weekly basis (except maybe for the host's egregious mispronunciation of the word "meta").

The Flickchart segment - This is really what seems to be generating much of the controversy for the show. FilmPulse begins with a rambling 3-minute discussion of how films are ranked, leading to an endorsement of FlickChart. One tweeter remarked that "according to FilmPulse, pre-90s films have no cultural relevancy/artistic merit. I'd have a joke about that but it makes me too fuckin angry." So what did they say that was so offensive? Here's a rough transcript of how it opens:

***

Host #1: When someone recommends a movie, there's a few things you can do to avoid wasting an hour and a half of your time. First point is, is that film privileged as a classic? Is that the context in which the recommender heard of the film? If so, they may be privileging it because it would be politically correct to do otherwise.

Host #2: I think the problem is that we were born at a time when films were getting really interesting. I think there was a lot of really interesting independent filmmaking going on in the early '90s and we were around for that. Before that, if you actually watch some movies from the '70s that are considered classics like Bullitt or The French Connection, they're incredibly boring to people our age because we saw The Matrix when we were 10.

Host #1: And IMDB reflects the trends of those '70s films particularly strongly. Those were very likely rated by people who saw it when it came out. If I saw a black-and-white film today, it would knock my socks if that's all I had to compare it against.

Later on...

Host #2: ...it's a new generation. It's time for the next generation of voices.

Host #1: That leaves room for a tool that actually does a better job of ranking, leaving out the cultural aspect. And that would be Flickchart...

***

There are a couple of things in this exchange that are worth noting. First of all, the hosts never actually say that they subscribe to the views of this "new generation." But they do strongly imply it. It's this kind of tone deafness that I think internet film writers are lashing out against. From a presentational standpoint, you only have one chance to make a good first impression. If you devote the first two minutes of your first episode to explaining why the knuckle-dragging yahoos from your generation (which you heavily hint that you are a part of) think some of the sacred cows of film history are "boring," you are probably going to catch a lot of crap from it.

What's sad is this: the hosts kind of had a point! The generation of today DOES view films differently. They do expect more flash, more action, quicker edits, better special effects, and so on. But rather than delving into the root causes of this, or evaluating this from a normative perspective, the hosts focus on how to give people what they want, i.e. how to use a service (Flickchart) to circumvent conventional wisdom about classic films. That's what people find so galling about this opening salvo.

More broadly, I believe the hate against these guys highlights a number of trends. Online film critics are constantly fighting an uphill battle in the realm of legitimacy and credibility. Can quality film criticism still survive in the internet age? Several prominent film critics have decried the democratizing power of the internet, how it gives a megaphone to anyone with an opinion, and how it financially rewards those with attention rather than those with quality. The sight of these two hosts discussing the datedness of black and white films was a direct provocation for these people. After their brutal criticisms were out in the open, the bandwagon-hopping was swift and brutal.

Beyond that, FilmPulse's first episode, and the furor surrounding it, is instructive in terms of how difficult it is to make a good show as a general matter. From the outset, one needs to be able to answer the question: why should the audience care about what you are about to say? The most unequivocal thing I can say about this show is that the hosts failed to adequately answer that question. That being said, I speak from experience when I say that starting a show is a tricky, difficult, harrowing proposition. If you heard my first podcasts, you'd probably opt never to listen to me again. But that's what is so great about content-creation: it's always a process of refinement, of bettering oneself and one's product. It's this learning experience that makes the whole enterprise so exciting. And it's why I can forgive even the crappiest of first episodes, so long as you learn from your mistakes and try to move on.

Will these guys get a second chance to do the same? Only time will tell. Here's their initial episode. Judge for yourself.

The Societal Stigma of Sex Offender Registries

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In response to Match.com's recent implementation of sex-offender screening on its website, Tracy-Clark Flory wrote about why its proposed security measures would be ineffective. In a follow-up, she writes about why overly broad sex offender registries may further place a burden on those trying to recover:

Our registries desperately need to be reformed, and we could greatly benefit from better data about recidivism for different sex offense types -- but that's a much bigger task than simply screening on Match.com. On that front, maybe I am making perfect the enemy of good. Eliminating some high-risk predators from the online dating pool is better than nothing. Still, Match.com's approach of banning all registered sex offenders -- even those who are low-risk or who committed minor offenses -- strikes me as unjust. In the case of Georgia, the site's ban means restricting access to 95 percent of registered offenders who are not "clearly dangerous" and two-thirds who are low-risk. That seems an inept way to screen out men who pose a serious danger to women -- especially when you consider that most assaults go unreported and most sex crimes are committed by those without a sex crime record.

The Misguided Attack on the Online Poker Industry

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MSNBC has a horror story about poker players who've had thousands of dollars frozen due to recent federal action against online poker companies:

The government has blocked U.S. gamblers from logging on to the offshore sites, which are accused of tricking and bribing banks into processing billions of dollars in illegal profits. Now gamblers who dreamed of enormous prizes in Las Vegas, or even used online poker to make a living, can't access online bankrolls that in some cases reach six figures

This war against the online poker companies is stupid in every respect. First of all, there's the blatant hypocrisy of allowing actual, legalized gambling in the U.S., yet penalizing the online component. How can that possibly be justified, except out of some severely misguided sense of morality? Furthermore, there are billions worth of untapped revenue that the U.S. government could make simply by explicitly allowing online poker to operate in this country and then taxing the services.

The always-fascinating Nate Silver also has a great analysis of this issue at his NYTimes blog.

Ku Klux Klan Condemns Koran Burning and Tea Party

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So yeah, this happened. As Reddit puts it, when even the Ku Klux Klan thinks you're despicable, you're doing it wrong.

How One Man Transformed The Photography Industry

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Steven Weiss has written a brief profile of David Hobby, the man whose blog, The Strobist, has changed the face of the photography industry. With the amount of information Hobby was able to dole out to amateurs, amateurs started taking pretty darn good photos on their own. The growing number of skilled photographers has had unforeseen effects on the industry:

[P]rofessionals who are outraged at photographers like Lam or at sites like iStockphoto miss the point. Neither Lam nor iStock would have had such an impact if their photography didn't meet the market's demand for quality. What's diluting the market for elite photography is the transfer of professional skill to amateurs—the work David Hobby is doing. Though his blog is entirely about how to light photographs at a professional level, his reader surveys reveal that 86 percent of his readers are amateurs.

As someone who's just breaking into professional photography myself, these words ring true. But they're also indicative of the transformative power that the internet has across industries. Film critics can't make $60,000 per year writing reviews anymore, because mouth-breathing yahoos like me are willing to do it for free, while thousands turn up to hear it.

In the days ahead, I'm going to plan on focusing this blog a bit more on my photography. I've just gotten enough gear to the point where I feel ready to shoot/cover any event, and I have some accessories coming in that I'm actually kind of excited about. Expect more photo sets, as well as reviews of cool photo products. As always, your constructive comments are appreciated.

Don't worry: I'm going to keep sharing the cool links and attempt the full-length blog post every now and again, just as I've been doing for the past 5-6 months. But for the near future, photography will be one of my main focuses, and I'll hope we can learn about this stuff together.

There Will Always Be Something Else Out There

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Linda Holmes, on "The Sad, Beautiful Fact That You're Going to Miss Almost Everything":

It's sad, but it's also ... great, really. Imagine if you'd seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you're "supposed to see." Imagine you got through everybody's list, until everything you hadn't read didn't really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

Faneuil Hall Street Performer Auditions, March 2011

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I was able to attend and photograph the street performer auditions at Faneuil Hall this year. Dozens of hoping performers gathered here to compete for a chance to be an official street performer in front of popular Boston landmark/tourist trap Faneuil Hall. The rewards are great, but so is the danger. In particular, Bob at Large, the guy balancing on five cylinders, really took my breath away.

Drew Mcweeny's Review of Thor

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Drew McWeeny has published his review of Marvel's upcoming Thor. In addition to being one of the first published reviews of the film, it also (as usual) contains some pretty smart insights about superhero films and film criticism in general:

[I]t's both very funny and a nice humbling reminder that critics are defined by their overall diet of movies. We are only ever as good as the movies we are given to write about, and when I'm done with all of this in the future, will the sum total of my work be varying opinions about how well people crafted movies that primarily deal with dudes in funny costumes beating the hell out of each other?

E-mail Legal Disclaimers Are Useless

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The Economist explains what we always knew deep down in our hearts.

Sugar Is Killing Us All

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I'd read this piece by Gary Taubes last week about whether or not sugar is toxic, but it wasn't until I watched Robert Lustig's speech on Youtube (which Taubes' piece responds to) that the point was really driven home:



Lustig is a fantastic speaker, and the content has some pretty frightening implications for each of us.

The Future of AOL/HuffPo

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There's a great piece at Capital New York that probably has the best forecast for what will become of this AOL/HuffPo marriage:

So, my final, gut prediction, which I would be very pleased to see falsified: Arianna Huffington will create a vital and interesting news desk that in the short term garners AOL praise as a remarkably ambitious and high-quality web-native news operation. It will gain traction against other web operations and will even look, for a while, like it's making a little bit of a run at the big guys, like cnn.com and nytimes.com.

Traffic will increase—slightly. There will be reports of budget overruns and creative disputes. [...] Within a year, several of the most high-profile editorial hires will leak out to a variety of other news organizations, some old and some new. Before long you will be wondering what happened to all those names. And finally, the fast-and-cheap view of "journalism" will return to AOL-Huffpo, amid reports of mild success after a rocky start, all judged on pageviews and profit margins; the "quality" and "journalism" buzzwords will be forgotten parts of the corporate lexicon. Because, to borrow a phrase from Buch, journalism and the "content" strategy of AOL are misaligned.

If I was a betting man, that's where I'd put my money.

Because We Allowed Hotheads To Call The Tune

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John E. McIntyre, writing about why the Civil War WAS IN FACT about slavery:

If we are going to celebrate our past, and we should, let’s acknowledge all of it. We sacrificed the lives of more than half a million young men, maimed tens of thousands others, and devastated an entire region because we could not resolve our political and economic differences peacefully and allowed hotheads to call the tune.

The Only 'Hanna' Review You Need To Read

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We reviewed Hanna this week on the podcast. My colleagues loved it, while I sorta disliked it. But Gabe Delahaye at Videogum gets it! His review of Hanna sums up my thoughts perfectly:

Well, so, that happened. (Excuse me: that hannappened. LOL!) That is the thing about getting your hopes up: don’t! It’s like that old Holden Caufield quotation: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” Except, instead of telling people anything, it’s get your hopes up for movies, and instead of you start missing everybody, it’s you are always mildly disappointed. Hanna had its moments to be sure, but it did not live up to the hype that I had created on my own in my brain for whatever reason. It looked kind of amazing, right? Was it just me? I don’t think it was just me. I know, for example, that it was also some of the people that I went to see it with this weekend. A child assassin! Snow! Eric Bana’s magical face! Some kind of mystery! Did I mention child assassin? Hanna promised us the world. What it delivered was a half-hearted, surprisingly dull action movie with way too much running and a garbage twist. Harumph.

Internet Comments Are The Worst

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I don't see eye-to-eye with James Rocchi on everything, but I wholeheartedly endorse his viewpoint on internet comments:

[I]t’s because internet commenters are either lazy, cowardly or stupid that I find myself relying on Twitter more and more. I disagree with lots of people in my Twitter feed — @jenyamato didn’t want to vomit from the Justin Bieber film, @mtgilchrist actually liked Tron: Legacy, @MarkReardonKMOX has a political sensibility so opposite to mine I’m amazed we don’t explode when we shake hands — but they are polite, and articulate and, please note, saying what they do under their real names. I think I’ve given up on internet comments about the things I write — reading them or caring about them — unless they’re from people who use their real names. Otherwise, it’s just opening up your life and brain to too much negativity and stupidity.

Browbeating Your Partner Will Not Make Them Love You

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Tracy Clark-Flory, on a new scientific study that may or may not change how you treat your significant other in common social situations:

It turns out that trying to punish a significant other when his or her eyes wander might actually backfire and encourage infidelity, according to a study published in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers subjected a bunch of undergrad guinea pigs to a computer game involving photos of strangers, followed by a questionnaire. When their attention to photos of attractive members of the opposite sex was "subtly limited" in the game, it "reduced relationship satisfaction and commitment and increased positive attitudes toward infidelity." The study explains, "Being told simply not to look is probably not an effective strategy for boosting satisfaction and commitment or reducing interest in alternatives" -- and it's for the same reason that telling a kid to keep his hands off the cookie jar doesn't reduce his interest in sweets.

A Great Writer

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A good writer can wring insight out of a terrible situation. A great writer can do it with biting humor. Eric D. Snider is a great writer. His column summarizing the entire Moviefone/Cinematical disaster is an absolute must-read, even if you're totally unfamiliar with the situation. It will educate you and make you laugh.

A Beautifully Written Piece About Writing

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Film critic James Rocchi has written one of my favorite blog posts of the year:

We write because we have to; we write because we want to. It’s an act of insecurity, in its initial impulse – I matter! Hey! Over here! — but you have to discard that and know that what you’re saying is of interest not because it’s loud or frenetic or an expression of yourself but rather because it contains something ultimately worth saying, and something that would be worth saying even if someone other than you were saying it...Yes, there’s ego involved — suggesting you are without vanity is the most vain thing a person can say –and I think every day of at least 20 people in the field where I covet everything from individual clauses to entire reviews to positions and publishing outlets — but you have to, have to, put that aside and simply do the work when it is there to be done.

No Immediate Benefit

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Ross Perlin discusses how colleges are complicit in providing companies and organizations with free student labor(via Rachel) :

Colleges and universities have become cheerleaders and enablers of the unpaid internship boom, failing to inform young people of their rights or protect them from the miserly calculus of employers. In hundreds of interviews with interns over the past three years, I found dejected students resigned to working unpaid for summers, semesters and even entire academic years — and, increasingly, to paying for the privilege.

As someone who attends a university that facilitates these sorts of internships, I'm also wary of paying for the privilege of working for someone. Sadly, there are few incentives for universities to change these practices, even as better alternatives exist.

100,000 Years

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From Curt Stager (via Jason) comes a sobering report on humanity's lasting impact on planet Earth:

If we switch to carbon-free fuels quickly, our greenhouse gas emissions will keep the world slightly warmer than today for as long as 100,000 years. As unsettling as that may be, the alternative is even more severe. If we burn all remaining fossil fuels, including our huge coal reserves, the warming will be five to ten times more extreme and last five to ten times longer.

In short, we've become a shockingly powerful force of nature. I liken this revelation to the first NASA photos of Earth, from which we learned that we ride a delicate blue bubble through deep space. This equally transformative view of our place in deep time shows that we are also incredibly important. We're now so numerous and our technology so powerful that the effects of our collective actions in coming decades will echo on down through the ages.

On the Abuse of "Nonplussed"

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Ben Yagoda explores a problem that I'm endlessly fascinated by: When do grammarians such as myself decide to let go of words' original meanings?

We all know that words change their meanings all the time, sometimes glacially (the prescriptivists have been fighting on behalf of the original sense of disinterested for centuries), sometimes relatively quickly (that nonplussed thing snuck up on me). But this fact raises a question (it doesn't beg the question—that means something else): How long should we hold on to a word's old meaning?

From the Trenches

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Carter Maness on his graceless firing from AOL/HuffPo:

Over my two-year tenure at AOL, I published over 350,000 words in approximately 900 posts—at least three novels worth of words. This was met with a blanket termination, with zero notice, in the form of an email that didn't even include my actual name. Freelancers know they are just a number, but AOL really went out of their way to demonstrate that. Rest assured!

See also my chat summary of what went down there over the past few days.

Another Argument for Videogames As Art

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Michael Mirasol (via Matt Zoller Seitz) has written up a great defense for videogames in the "Can videogames be art?" debate:

I grew up on movies and on video games, and love and respect what they bring to the table. Though I enjoy them on different levels, they both have given me moments of wonder and serious reflection. As an avid gamer and film lover, I find it a shame to see how one medium has gained artistic acceptance while the other continues to be derided by the mainstream. There are many reasons why they are looked down upon, but if you give them a shot, you just might conclude that video games should be considered art.

The Problem With Theater Concessions

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Dustin Rowles drops some wisdom on the current debate over the healthiness of theater food:

The problem with theater concessions is not entirely healthy vs. death-by-heart-rupture — it’s about offering something substantive. How many people running late end up at the theater looking to substitute a meal with popcorn only to walk out of the movie 2200 calories heavier and still hungry? Is that gravel-tasting Odwalla bar really going to satiate that hunger? Theater chains have to stop limiting their options to things I can buy at 25 percent the cost at a gas-station convenience store. I’m not looking for a meal meal — a lot of these theater chains already offer crappy personal pan pizzas and chicken fingers, if you’re willing to stand at the concession stand and wait for 20 minutes and then ask the guy sitting next to you to hold your shitty pizza while you take off your jacket. If I’m going to pay $14 for a snack and a beverage, it’d be nice to have the option of something I want to eat, not something I choose because there’s nothing better available.

Harsh Truths

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Earlier today, Erik Davis announced that he would be stepping down from Cinematical as editor-in-chief. Davis' departure comes at the tail end of a string of departures during the past few weeks, which includes former co-editor-in-chief Scott Weinberg and writer William Goss. Davis' announcement coincidentally (?) comes on the same day that Business Insider published a sketchily-sourced story about AOL firing all of its freelancers, under the new direction of the Huffington Post (here's a follow-up to that story).

Like former managing editor Kim Voynar, I feel like this is the "nail in the coffin" for Cinematical. The site was subsumed by Moviefone not too long ago, and has been fighting to stay alive as an independent entity ever since. Davis was one of the people that were on the front lines, trying to defend Cinematical as a purveyor of premium film enthusiast content (vs. the more mainstream-friendly fare of the broader Moviefone site). With him gone, I'd venture that the days of Cinematical being known as a major player in the movie blog vertical are numbered, if not already over.

I see this as a great loss and I know that several of my movie writer colleagues do as well. Cinematical was one of the first blogs to show that you could run a site about movies with a staff of knowledgeable, talented people and still be profitable and respected. For years, I looked up to Cinematical as a quality site, a place where I hoped to one day work and write. The idea that it may be on the verge of oblivion is a strange one to get used to.

In yet another coincidence, news of Davis' departure comes on the heels of news that former Engadget EIC Joshua Topolsky will be starting a brand new site over at SB Nation, along with a bunch of his previous colleagues. This story in the NYTimes explains how AOL bought Weblogs Inc., which came with premium sites such as Engadget, then failed to nurture them and allow them to flourish. The unfortunate side effect of this is that they've now ended up facilitating the creation of a major competitor to Engadget, one with a considerable following and built-in respect (I know, because I'm one of Topolsky's fans, and will definitely be following him over to the new site when it launches in the fall).

Ever since AOL's merger with the Huffington Post, the new corporate overlords have been killing off respected AOL brands left and right. The recent upheaval over there reminds me of some fundamental economic realities in relation to movie websites and blogs:

1) On a basic level, one cannot be a profitable website unless every dollar you're paying out is returning AT LEAST a dollar. For a website, this is usually done through advertising (other business models exist and they are for a different day and a different blog post). For example, this means that if you're receiving net $5 per thousand pageviews, and you're paying out $25 to your writers per post, you must receive 5,000 pageviews for that post to be profitable.

2) The movie enthusiast site vertical simply does not attract as many or as valuable pageviews as other blog verticals, such as technology, video gaming, or even automotive websites. To use my above example, most film websites do NOT get $5 per thousand page views, nor do their posts receive 5,000 hits each -- both of these numbers are usually considerably smaller. This means that they are either losing money per post, or they are paying significantly less than $25 per post.

3) As a result, movie websites have several choices in order to survive. They can either generate enough scale/pageviews to pay their writers a significant wage, or they can not pay their writers very much, if at all (or just not have any other writers). There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you are venture funded, or funded by a cash-rich company willing to sink money into you, then this rule does not apply (Example: Movieline). In addition, sites that reach a premium audience, which advertisers are willing to spend lavishly to reach, are also exempt from having to deal with these economic realities (Example: Hollywood-Elsewhere or Movie City News).

As an independent site, we at /Film have to go with some version of the first option. We have to make sure that a) what we're paying out is enough for our writers to be happy, and b) that our writers collectively produce enough revenue such that the site can be profitable. Many might think that balancing this equation is either a soul-crushing game of numbers or a soul-surrendering way of selling out. 

I actually find it quite intellectually stimulating. I do NOT subscribe to "The AOL Way." I do not think content exists solely to get search clicks and generate advertising. But I also don't feel that those things can be ignored either, and surely some happy medium can be found where both content and revenue are given their due attention. Right?

I would venture a guess that the editorial staff at website such as Cinematical didn't have to deal too much with the economic realities that I outlined above (I assume there was a healthy separation between editorial and business). But in a business where you want to produce great content for a comparatively small audience, these realities are increasingly difficult to ignore. In fact, I'd argue that any movie website operating as part of a larger media company which is spending more money than it's making is probably in danger of getting shut down at some point (although again, many exceptions exist). 

What has been absolutely remarkable and dumbfounding to me is my colleagues' absolute and categorical resistance to alternative business models, such as sponsored links (For the record, /Film no longer runs sponsored editorials). Technology sites such as Daring Fireball or Mashable, which are wildly profitable, have no qualms about running these types of advertisements. Even if they didn't run them, they would still be raking in the money hand over fist. it seems that movie writers (many of which work for websites that struggle to survive) collectively seem to prefer living a monastic existence rather than fighting to figure out a way to make their tiny audience slice profitable.

[All of the above necessitates a brief digression: What I've written implies that I think Cinematical's fate is a result of not being profitable enough. I don't know that I'd formulate it in quite that way, but I might argue that if Cinematical were hugely profitable, they would be in slightly less danger of being forced to let people go or do anything else undesirable.

Simultaneously, I have no doubt that Engadget was profitable, and yet that site drove out all its top writers. In Topolsky's post announcing his new gig at SB Nation, Topolsky writes: "[T]here’s another factor here that’s driving my decision. It’s that SB Nation believes in real, independent journalism and the potential for new media to serve as an answer and antidote to big publishing houses and SEO spam — a point we couldn’t be more aligned on." 

In other words, regardless of AOL's dealings with Engadget, there was undue pressure at the corporate level to put profit concerns above content concerns. For movie websites, which get a fraction of the pageviews of tech sites and whose audiences are considered much less valuable by advertisers, this type of pressure surely must have even more of an influence. But again, I think there has to be a balance between business and content. And what I see all around me in the blogosphere these days is people going to the extremes on both ends.]

One truth that's easy to grasp in the world of web publishing is that users are used to receiving content they love for free, but have almost no conception of how that content is paid for. The same could be said for many of the people producing the content. What's sad for me is that until there is more openness and frank discussion about these matters, we will continue to see hallowed brands and businesses such as Cinematical die off.

UPDATE: Erik Davis has confirmed via Twitter that most Moviefone freelance writers have been slated for termination. As a result, many of the staff have announced that they are quitting today.

Eating Animals Is Wrong Under Most Circumstances

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B.R. Myers writes (with incredibly florid language) about the disturbing hypocrisy and amorality of foodies such as Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain:

Even if gourmets’ rejection of factory farms and fast food is largely motivated by their traditional elitism, it has left them, for the first time in the history of their community, feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street. Food writing reflects the change. Since the late 1990s, the guilty smirkiness that once marked its default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing. References to cooks as “gods,” to restaurants as “temples,” to biting into “heaven,” etc., used to be meant as jokes, even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face.

Some good responses to this piece in Time magazine and in The Atlantic itself.

Our Country's Growing Income Disparity Will Come To Haunt the Rich

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Leave it to the genius Joseph Stiglitz to put into plain language what we've all been thinking about the widening income disparity in American society:

Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important. America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else. All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate.

As we gaze out at the popular fervor in the streets, one question to ask ourselves is this: When will it come to America? In important ways, our own country has become like one of these distant, troubled places.

The Future of Computing

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Jesus Diaz has written an interesting essay on the future of computing:

The fact is that computers and digital photography empowered us to create amazing things that weren't possible in the analog world. Buy by doing so, they took away the natural connection with the medium. It added a necessary-but-completely-alien layer of complexity to the creative process. They democratized access, but at the same time created new elites. And that's the key to understand the success of touch computers. They are giving back the tools to the masses because the masses no longer feel alienated by the tools. The touch interface is making things natural and is making developers to simplify the access to their tools. And, by doing that, everyone will have more power than ever.