How To Be Better at Twitter

Strongly agree with this data-driven analysis that The Atlantic has just posted about. I try to adhere to all the rules at the bottom when I tweet, especially the one about limiting Twitter-specific syntax. Twitter is already an impenetrable tool to millions out there; no reason to make it more complicated, in my opinion.

The iEconomy

The New York Times has been doing a phenomenal job assessing the human and economic toll of all Apple's wonderful, magical gadgets. Their first piece explained why it is we'll never seen an iPhone manufactured in the United States. The second one delves into the corners that are cut in order to deliver iPhones and iPads, and the tragedy that can result.

Apple has been in the news a lot for this lately. A recent, fairly effective episode of This American Life showed the personal side of this process. That episode presumably forced Apple to respond, which resulted in a response in kind from This American Life.

Apple fanboys have expectedly rushed to Apple's defense, and while they are only partially correct, I feel there is a coming reckoning for all of this. At least, I hope there will be. Throughout all this reporting, there emerges one fundamental truth: if Apple really wanted the conditions at factories to be completely humane, it could make it happen. It could insist. It could create a supply chain that was beyond reproach. Sure, they might need to charge a bit more for their products. Their profit margins might not be the same. They might not be able to make as many iPads per quarter as they can at the moment. But they could theoretically do it.

They don't, because no one cares. They don't because the voices of their shareholders are louder than the voices of their consumers (who are voting with their dollars and buying products left and right).

At some point, the American people will need to see the human cost of all of our toys. When that day finally arrives, may it also bring dramatic change along with it.

Did Jonah Really Get Swallowed by a Whale?

In this unexpectedly lyrical piece, Ben Shattuck tries to figure out if anyone in human history has ever been swallowed by a whale, then emerged days later in one piece to tell about it.

I’d like to believe in swallowings, but it’s tough. There is no air in the stomach, for one. There are acids. And if we are talking about sperm whales, which we are most of the time, there is the deadly passage through the 30-foot jaws lined with 8-inch teeth.

Still, you’d like to think it’s possible. You want to believe in an animal that can fit you inside them — that you might be consumed not piece-by-piece, mouthful-by-mouthful as sharks and bears would eat you, but wholly; to be encased as your full self, womb-like.

A Justified Podcast

I recently launched a new experiment to get into TV podcasting: a show based on the FX series Justified. The goal is to assemble some of the best television writers on the internet to do weekly recaps/reviews of each episode. Justified is so rich in its writing and so well-directed that I doubt we'll ever lack in terms of topics to discuss.

Below you'll find links to subscribe to the show. If this show performs well (in terms of subscribers and reviews in iTunes), then I'll almost definitely do more shows down the line that are dedicated to specific TV shows. So please, rate it! Subscribe to it! Spread the word! Enjoy!

Subscribe to The JustifiedCast:


The Wonder of 'Certified Copy'

I watched Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy this evening, and I still don't know quite what to make of it. The film plays with the viewer's perception of time and reality in ways that are unexpected, jarring and confusing. Several different interpretations have sprung up to explain the events of the film. All I know is that it's a film that is well-acted, gorgeously shot, and demanding of your attention. I took to the internet to try to make heads or tails of it.

I hope to share more thoughts on this later, whether here or on the /Filmcast. [Update: here's our review!] In the meantime, here are a bunch of links that I found valuable in helping me to think through the film.

Perhaps the richest interpretation comes from Michael Sincinski over at Mubi. 

Jim Emerson adds to Sicinski's remarks and brings in some other knowledgeable critics as well.

As usual, Ebert has what I'd describe as a "sensible" take. It's one that I initially agreed with, but find myself drifting away from rapidly.

Lastly, Keith Phipps has a beautiful review of the film at AV Club.

Designing a Public Toilet That Lasts

Fascinating story about why Portland's public toilets are among the best:

On Jan. 31, Portland officials will christen the city’s fifth loo, at NW Couch St. and 8th Ave., with an inaugural flush. With inspirational artwork furnished by students at the nearby Emerson elementary school, it could be the most popular yet. But how did these sleek compartments of metal and plastic, which may smell slightly of urine, become a cult hit among Portland’s bathroom aficionados?

Simple: They’re not as crappy as other cities' toilets.

The Gang of Four


The above photo means a lot to me. Let me explain why.

This photo, taken on a hill overlooking the Seattle skyline, shows me, Stephen Tobolowsky, Stephen's wife Ann, and Jeff Hansen, Program Director at KUOW (the public radio station in Seattle).

We were about a year into The Tobolowsky Files when Jeff approached me to put the show on the air in Seattle, WA. Jeff took a massive chance on us. It was a chance that few other Program Directors would have taken, but one that paid off handsomely for all the parties involved. The Tobolowsky Files is now doing quite well on KUOW, well enough that we were able to sell out an audience of 850 people at Seattle's Neptune Theatre.

This photograph was taken on the morning that Stephen and I performed The Tobolowsky Files live at the Neptune. Here, you can hear the audio of my intro that evening:

Last night"s intro to the Tobolowsky show (audio evidence of the SCREAMING masses) (mp3)
So why the importance of the photo? Because to me, it shows the power of an idea. It shows that with a few committed people, you can put together something of value, something that enriches people's lives, something that brings them joy and intellectual stimulation. With the perfect confluence of the creative abilities of only a few individuals, wonderful things can happen.

Each of us played a role in this enterprise. This photo was the first time we were all together in one place. I treasure the photo for the moment it captures, but also for the promise that it implies.

Its lesson to me: don't stop dreaming. You never know what is possible.

Photographers Posing with Their Iconic Images


Fantastic feature over at Wired. Buy the book here.

An Interview with Errol Morris

It was a thrill to interview Errol Morris recently, who is truly one of my heroes. Morris was incredibly generous with his time, and he was also the first guest I ever interviewed that yelled at me during the interview(!). His secretary eyed me through the glass wall a few times during the interview, wondering if I was disturbing the peace. Fortunately, it was merely a lively discussion on the nature of truth.

I wrote up some highlights of our conversation over at /Film, but the real meat is in the hour-plus long conversation I've preserved in audio form. Give it a download and check it out, will ya?

The MPAA Is The Worst

Today, it was breathtaking to see tech giants like Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, and Boing Boing black out their site in protest over SOPA/PIPA. Silicon Valley and Hollywood haven't had much occasion to clash, but it's now obvious that when they do, the results are far-reaching and devastating. Jonathan Wiseman and Jenna Wortham at the NYTimes have decent summaries of the different interests at play in this unprecedented online protest (Also, for funsies, check out this cool visualization of SOPA chatter on Twitter).

What infuriates me through all of this is not the near-reality of the bill itself (that's more depressing than anything else). No, what really grinds my gears is the MPAA's response to this entire ordeal. Dan Seitz has the only appropriate response to this abomination: a scathing takedown of everything the MPAA had to say:

What the MPAA wants to do is stop private citizens from ripping their DVDs and sharing those copies for free on the Internet, and they already have laws on the books making owning the tools to break DVD encryption illegal. But since suing individual citizens in court hasn’t worked, now they want to shut off websites at will.

In other words, MPAA, you are exploiting actual human suffering to acquire tools you don’t need to solve a problem you don’t have. And now you’re whining that other people are informing the American people of what you’re trying to do. How in God’s name do you sleep at night? Do you even understand how sickening that is to a normal human being?

Maybe 'Superman Returns' Is Better Than We All Think

I found myself unexpectedly moved by this video essay on the virtues of Superman Returns. In fact, it moved me much more than the film itself, and forced me to re-consider my thoughts on the film (which have generally been lukewarm). Maybe we've gotten Superman Returns wrong this whole time?

(via Matt Zoller Seitz)

The Cell Phone Ring Heard Around The World

Some guy's cell phone went off during a performance of Mahler's 9th by the New York Philharmonic, and the media is using it as an opportunity to discuss the concept of live performances in our technology-saturated society. The Wall Street Journal has the gut-wrenching account of the event. The New York Times scored an interview with the offending patron, who apparently hasn't been able to sleep for days:

Both [the conductor] Mr. Gilbert and Patron X found something positive in the episode. “It shows how important people still feel live performance is,” Mr. Gilbert said. “This is something people either consciously or implicitly recognize as sacred.” The patron agreed. The incident underscored “the very enduring and important bond between the audience and the performers,” he said, adding, “If it’s disturbed in any significant way, it just shows how precious this whole union is.”

John Gruber has some interesting thoughts on the design aspect of alarm rings.

The Difference Between "My Favorite" and "The Best"

We recently recorded our Top 10 of 2011 episode for the /Filmcast (you can read my top 10 here). As the episode wound down, I made some (admittedly) objectionable remarks about why I didn't feel The Artist should deserve Best Picture this year. The Artist is a lovely, beautiful film that proves you don't need sound effects or dialogue to make an effective film. But is it really the crowning achievement of cinema for the year 2011, as the potential Best Picture designation implies? (Incidentally, The Artist just this evening picked up the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture of the year).

After the episode, Matt Singer wrote me an e-mail in which he asked the following:

So [The Artist is] beautiful and moving by your admission, but Academy voters are only going to vote for it because it's nostalgic and old fashioned? Dave your #1 movie of the year is WAR HORSE, one of the few recent movies as nostalgic and old-fashioned as THE ARTIST. What's the difference?

I had a chance to attempt to answer Matt's question in a lively AIM chat today. Here it is, slightly edited for length:

David Chen: so matt
David Chen: i've been thinking a lot about your e-mail
David Chen: it's been vexing me
Matt Singer: which one
David Chen: your e-mail about THE ARTIST
David Chen: and me giving the academy crap about it
David Chen: I mean
David Chen: I actually think I have a point
Matt Singer: Ah yes
Matt Singer: OK
David Chen: Namely that we're just a few guys dicking around on a podcast
David Chen: and listing our faves of the year
David Chen: whereas the Academy should theoretically have higher aims in mind.
David Chen: IDEALLY.
Matt Singer: Here's my point
Matt Singer: Each person voting on the Oscars
Matt Singer: Is doing exactly the same thing you're doing
Matt Singer: Listing their favorite movies of the year.
Matt Singer: You are saying if you got an Academy ballot, you would vote completely differently than you did on /Film?
David Chen: I do get your point
David Chen: but don't you think that, in theory, the Academy should be more than just a "I like this movie best" competition?
David Chen: that it should have higher ideals in mind?
David Chen: that it should be better than it is?
Matt Singer: And what should those ideals be?
Matt Singer: How do we determine what movie is the best?
Matt Singer: If not by picking the one that means the most to us personally?
David Chen: This goes to the difference between "Your favorite movies of 2011"
David Chen: and "The best movies of 2011"
David Chen: most people think that these should be distinct.
David Chen: but they can't identify why.
David Chen: That question is what I was kind of getting at with my comments on THE ARTIST
Matt Singer: I think the difference between "favorite" and "best" is frankly bullshit
Matt Singer: No one has ever explained the difference to my satisfaction
David Chen: I'm probably pretty close to agreeing with you.
David Chen: That being siad, do you agree with me that People (capital P) feel that there is a difference?
Matt Singer: Some People do.
Matt Singer: But I think those People are wrong.
Matt Singer: I still don't know how to find the objective best movie.
Matt Singer: I didn't particularly like WAR HORSE.
Matt Singer: It made you cry like a baby.
Matt Singer: Hence it was your favorite movie of the year.
Matt Singer: Which is a perfectly valid reason to love it!
Matt Singer: I imagine a lot of people feel the same about THE ARTIST.
David Chen: I guess I see your point.
David Chen: I will try to clarify this on the next episode.
Matt Singer: If you had an Oscar ballot
Matt Singer: I would want you to do exactly the same as you did on your show.
David Chen: Should Best Picture really be "What People Liked Most This Year"?
David Chen: I think those are different in some way
Matt Singer: What bugs is when people vote on the Academy Awards based on feeling what they "should" vote for.
Matt Singer: If people pick THE ARTIST because they feel like they "should" -- that's ridiculous.  If they vote for it because they genuinely were moved by it, then they should absolutely do it.
Matt Singer: If it's not "What People Liked Most" then what is it?
Matt Singer: "What Moved the Medium Forward The Most?"  That's impossible to measure a month afterwards
Matt Singer: I've heard someone make this argument, but I don't remember who:
Matt Singer: that basically the only way to do the academy awards "right" is to vote on them like 50 years later
Matt Singer: With the benefit of hindsight
Matt Singer: And that could be interesting, but that's a totally different thing anyway.
David Chen: Maybe not even "What moved the medium forward the most"
David Chen: maybe "An exemplar of the potential of cinema today"
Matt Singer: And can you give me an example from 2011 that you believe merits that title?
David Chen: Hugo?
Matt Singer: HUGO, a movie that is barely about its own main character.
Matt Singer: HUGO a movie that is largely a compilation of quotes to other movies that were more influential and important
Matt Singer: HUGO a movie in which French people talk with British accents.
David Chen: lol
David Chen: ouch
Matt Singer: I LOVED HUGO.
Matt Singer: But as an exemplar of the potential of cinema?  I dunno.
Matt Singer: I guess you could maybe argue that the Oscars should be about "timeliness," like they should feel more contemporary or more relevant to contemporary issues than THE ARTIST does...
Matt Singer: But then you're getting into the whole issue of what the point of film is, whether it's there to entertain or to enlighten, and whether one is more important than the other.
Matt Singer: And it also suggests that there's one thing that makes a movie important or contemporary.
Matt Singer: I think TAKE SHELTER's mighty contemporary and relevant.
Matt Singer: Another person might think that's bullshit -- and maybe that could make an argument for THE ARTIST's relevance 
Matt Singer: And I think an argument like that could be made
Matt Singer: i.e. THE ARTIST is about sticking to your independent voice in an age when the mass media thinks you're crazy
Matt Singer: Which brings us back to the inherent subjectivity of it all
Matt Singer: See this is why I shouldn't be online, cause then I just wind up rambling to you for hours on end
Matt Singer: I think I officially rambled davechesky off IM


So is there a difference between "your favorite" and "the best?" Can there be an "objective" best, by any conceivable measure? Or is it always just going to be what Academy members happen to kind of be into that year?

On That Whole Kevin Smith Thing

About a year ago, writer/director Kevin Smith premiered the film Red State at the Sundance Film Festival. While I enjoyed the film, the story behind Smith's post-film Q&A was what dominated the headlines. Smith's actions were tantamount to a direct insult to entertainment journalists and film distributors. In fact, Smith had been leading up to this for awhile, with a well-covered rant about press coverage of Cop Out and a refusal to screen Red State for press (or to participate in press events).  Some of my film writer colleagues did not take too kindly to this, with people like Drew McWeeny promising never to write about Smith or any of his films forever.

Last night, a Twitter conversation ensued in which McWeeny and several others reaffirmed this position. You can find that conversation in its near entirety by clicking here.

I've thought about their position for a long time and I'm going to admit: I just don't get it. When I think of industries such as politics or technology, most of the primary players in those industries have an antagonistic relationship with the press. There is almost always a disconnect between how someone wants their story/product to be covered, and how an observer/critic wants to cover it. But I cannot remember many instances in which press figures swore off covering someone because that person was being a dick, not to the journalist specifically, but to the press at large. In what other industry would such behavior by journalists be acceptable?

Kevin Smith is a public figure whose actions and films may or may not have significance for the fields he participates in (e.g. film, podcasting, distribution, etc.). Decide whether or not they do, and then proceed accordingly. But shirking your responsibilities because he's acted dickishly? Because you have a distaste for covering him? Because his neurotic fans make you cringe? That just lessens all of us.

[Side note: I've found Exquisite Tweets to be a useful tool for preserving Twitter conversations. So many interesting things get said every day and vanish forever into the ether. This service helps put a stop to that.]

Is Internet Access a Human Right?

Despite the troll-y headline from this NYTimes piece, the point it makes is astute and important:

[T]echnology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse.

Why I Stopped Using Stitcher

[Update: We have negotiated a way to get back on Stitcher. They are now streaming directly from our podcast feed and are showing no ads over our content. My original post follows.]

Stitcher is an extremely convenient mobile app that allows you to subscribe and listen to your favorite podcasts by streaming them (i.e. without having to "sync" them). Over the past few months, I've encountered many listeners who have appreciated consuming my shows in this way, and I've used the Stitcher app myself a bunch of times. Unfortunately, I can no longer support this service.

Since I learned about Stitcher, I always just assumed that the service taps into the content directly using a podcast's RSS feed (similar to how Downcast, which is a spectacularly great app, does it). I started to suspect that this was not the case when I noticed differences in audio quality between an "official" episode of one of my podcasts and the Stitcher version of the episode. They were clearly compressing the audio of the show in some way. Compressing makes it easier to listen to the show if you're streaming it over a mobile data connection, but I wondered what the implications were for show producers such as myself.

I recently had the chance to learn about these implications through a blog post by Nerdist podcast host Chris Hardwick. His post is long and detailed, but it comes down to this: Stitcher essentially creates a copy of each one of your episodes, compresses the audio to facilitate streaming, then serves up that copy via their servers. They also sell in-app adds on this content.

As a podcast host/producer, there are two important implications for this:

1) People are downloading episodes in a way that prevents us from keeping track of these downloads. Whenever we are lucky enough to have a sponsor, that sponsor typically pays us based on how many downloads we have. No Stitcher downloads/streams counted towards these totals.

2) Stitcher sells advertising on top of our content, essentially making money off of our "free" labor. This is a bit unjust on its face, but moreover, as Hardwick points out, this can become complicated when Stitcher's sponsors conflict with our own.

Earlier today, I requested that both of my shows (The /Filmcast and The Tobolowsky Files) be removed from Stitcher. The representative I spoke with was incredibly accommodating and professional and as of now, both podcasts have been removed.

I know many of you listen to our show using Stitcher and I am deeply sorry for any inconvenience this change may cause your routine. That being said, if you listened to our show via Stitcher, it means we didn't get to track your downloads and any revenue generated from your downloads went straight to Stitcher (Stitcher has an ad partnership program but why would I enlist in that when I can just sell advertising on my own?). While being de-listed from Stitcher nominally takes away from our exposure, it will maximize our ability to monetize  our podcast and thus, will hopefully increase our overall longevity.

In my interactions with the Stitcher representative today, I learned that Stitcher apparently now has a way to tap into original podcast feeds, thus allowing us to keep track of downloads. Obviously this method comes with a number of disadvantages for the listener; most importantly, audio with large file sizes is difficult to stream and can end up costing a ton of data. Nonetheless, we may want to take them up on this option one day.

I'm not ready to do that right now. The problem is that for many months, Stitcher scraped our content, streamed it from their own servers, and sold ads on top of it. I find it objectionable and baffling that any company would think this is acceptable behavior, especially a company that purports to support a community of DIY bootstrappers that is the podcasting community. As a result, even if Stitcher has improved their ways, they've already destroyed a lot of trust in my mind. It may be possible for them to rebuild it, but that will take a long, long time.

The Best (and Worst) Tweets of 2011

This past year cemented Twitter as a service that has definitely changed the way we think about communication. I enjoyed the following retrospectives about the best (and worst) tweets of 2011:

Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon has a nice overall list of the best and worst tweets of the year.

Time magazine also has their own best and worst tweets list, most of them with a political slant.

The Wall Street Journal has a list of the best celebrity tweets of 2011.

Warming Glow has compiled some pretty amazing tidbits from the world of television.

Mashable has a list of 2011's shocking social media disasters.

[And these are not really tweets, but New York magazine has some of the best quotes of the year]

Killing Your Ego

Some valuable perspective from Dear Coke Talk (via Rosa):

Annihilating your ego is the quickest way to happiness. Embracing your insignificance will make your anxiety suddenly seem ridiculous. You’ll recognize petty emotions like schadenfreude and envy for the childish tantrums that they are. You’ll stop comparing your talents to others, and you’ll be able to enjoy being good at something without the need to be great.

On the Uselessness of New Year's Resolutions

Merlin Mann wrote this piece on new year's resolutions (via Marco) almost a year ago but it's still advice that I hold dear. Essentially, Mann argues against making huge, sweeping resolutions, in favor of smaller, more systematic decisions that are reasonable and achievable. The latter is a more mature way to go that will probably end up leading to more change:

Don't set yourself up for failure by demanding things that you've never come close to achieving before. I realize this is antithetical to most self-improvement bullshit, but that's exactly the point. If you were already a viking, you wouldn't need to build a big boat. Start with where you are right now. Not with where you wish you'd been.

I have the will and the time to start a workout regimen but I've recently been beset by some pretty significant injuries that prevent this. Therefore, one of my new year's resolution is to walk 5 miles, 4 days per week. It's simultaneously small but ambitious. I'll be using the Runkeeper app on my iPhone to monitor my routine and you can keep up with me here. Here's hoping that 2012 will be a more healthy year than the last one.