Step 0: consider outcomes.
What do you want to do, make better, go towards, get, give, all of the above? What does “what Jonah did” (and how it makes you feel) clarify about that? Anything? Great! Go do that. Or keep doing it.
One thing’s for sure: You can’t make him do or undo anything. That outcome is unavailable. So what does “what he did” matter, except as information you can use (or not use; maybe it’s not relevant) to help you do your own thing?
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Married the right person, raising a great daughter together. Check.
Stumbled into the right profession, getting paid to learn about fascinating things and make sense of them for other people. Check.
Moved to a beautiful, affordable place of my own choosing, not forced on me by circumstance. Check.
Things not perfect: check. Things not exactly what I planned: check. Things working out pretty damn good anyway: check.
35 feels lucky.
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You’ve seen this before, or at least a knockoff of it. It’s one of my favorite films by a filmmaker who I’ve called my “patron saint.” As a piece of science communication, it’s timeless and beautiful and informative and basically perfect.
But I didn’t really get it until I had a passing conversation with Robert Krulwich a few years ago.
NPR’s Science Desk had arranged for me to meet Robert because they wanted us to work together on a video. I was filled with a deep desire to seem impressive to this man. Robert cut to the chase. He asked, “What is your dream project? What would you make if someone said, ‘you can make anything you want?’”
I burbled out something about adapting Godel Escher Bach into a film, or maybe a graphic novel, or both. I told him I liked unpuzzling and making sense of ideas that seem “too hard” at first blush. I told him that my dream was to someday make something as perfect as “Powers of Ten.” I rambled on a bit about the craft of it, its formal qualities, the sublime marriage of graphic design and cinema and intellectual making-sense.
Robert didn’t seem interested in that stuff. He politely waited until the end of my little soliloquy (earnestly felt, but still trying-to-seem-impressive) and then said, “Well you know what it’s really about is showing how whether you zoom all the way or or all the way in, everything ends up looking the same. That’s what’s so great about it.”
This wasn’t exactly an earth-shatteringly unique insight, and yet it had never occurred to me. I was too in love with the intellectual and formal mechanics of the film to really get what its heart was about. Robert and I did end up working together on a video, and this brief conversation foreshadowed how our collaboration went. My first two drafts of the video were all about making it as visually “innovative” as possible. Robert threw them out and kept making me start over. He kept quashing my urge to make something that “seemed impressive.” He kept forcing me to focus on the heart of the idea, not the head. The emotion, not the razzle-dazzle. Don’t try to impress people. Just take them with you.
That is what “Powers of Ten” does. That was years ago and it’s a lesson I still haven’t fully learned.
When you really get that “Powers of Ten” is not merely a lesson about math, but also a parable about human experience, it’s easy to understand why its appeal has endured for decades.
Last night I was listening to “Everest” by Ani DiFranco (which I haven’t heard since, like, college) and I suddenly had the urge to match it with the Eames film. They both seemed to be about the same thing at heart. So I stripped the “educational” voiceover out of “Powers of Ten” and just laid the song in instead, like a music video. I didn’t know if it would make sense or match up, I just wanted to see what happened. Here it is:
Kind of beautiful, actually.
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In the past couple years, I’ve interviewed two dozen experts and written thousands of words about the famously unsolved “P versus NP” problem in mathematics. And I still don’t feel done with it.
Why? Because even after all those words, I still don’t feel like I’ve done a good enough job of making it “gettable” by normal folks. And not just that. I don’t feel like I’ve done a good enough job of making it fascinating for normal folks, like it fascinates me.
So what is the deal with P vs NP — short and sweet and suitable for cocktail-party conversation? This:
Have you ever put together a jigsaw puzzle? Takes a lot of time and effort, right? What if, when you were finished putting it together, a friend of yours looked at it and said “Yup, looks done” — and then started telling everyone that HE was the one who solved it?
This would probably annoy you. Why? Because recognizing that a jigsaw puzzle is correctly put together and actually doing all the work to put it together are two very different things. Everyone knows that. A five-year-old knows that.
There’s just one problem. Nobody can prove that it’s actually true.
“Hey,” you say to your friend. “Stop telling everyone that you put the puzzle together. All you did was notice that it was done right. I did all the work.”
“Yeah, so?” he retorts. “What’s the difference?”
Your friend is being a jerk, but he’s right. There seems to be a difference — a big one, an obvious one — but when you get down to brass tacks, there’s no known way to prove it! Mathematical geniuses have tried for decades and decades. No one has been able to do it. No one can show that this basic feature of reality is actually true.
This is totally weird.
Why can’t we do it? Why is this so hard? What aren’t we seeing?
There is a deep, unexplainable mystery locked up in something that every five-year-old knows.
Doesn’t that make you curious?
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Well, it’s about time: after writing a lot about Kickstarter projects for Fast Company, Wired, and New York magazine, I’m doing one myself. Well, sort of. It was Grist‘s idea to do one and they invited me along for the ride. Here’s the trailer:
Grist approached me a couple months ago about partnering on a Kickstarter project. They wanted to try to do something outside of their normal purview, and Kickstarter seemed like an obvious and potent mechanism for motivating their core audience to support an interesting project. But what kind of project? They weren’t exactly sure, so they decided to ask me what I might do with this opportunity.
After batting back and forth some pretty out-there ideas (like 3D printing miniature models of cities that would float in water at the exact level at which sea levels are supposed to rise due to global warming), we settled on something I’d been wanting to do for a long time – make a short “autobiography of an object” film about something ubiquitous and totally mundane, something whose creative origins we’d long since stopped considering. Something like… the red plastic party cup.
So why a partnership — why not just do a Kickstarter of my own? Well, the boring reason is that Grist simply asked me first. But it kind of made sense — we’re both doing this for the first time, so why not have each other as a “wingman” of sorts? This way we could divide things up to suit our strengths: Grist is in charge of conducting and promoting the campaign (they set up the project page, designed the rewards, and wrote the site copy), and if funding is successful, I’m in charge of making the film (I also made the trailer for the Kickstarter page). What’s extra awesome is that because of this partnership, every Kickstarter pledge counts double: an anonymous donor is matching every pledge, dollar-for-dollar, in a donation to Grist itself. So if you pledge $1 toward making the film, another $1 goes toward supporting Grist’s mission of environmental journalism, too.
In a way this is no different from applying for a grant to make a short film, except that Grist is handling most of the grantwriting (I’m pitching in, of course) and its own readers are the grantmakers. My responsibility, if we get our funds, is just to make the damn thing good. That’s a very lucky position to be in even if we don’t meet our funding goal, so I’m grateful to Grist for reaching out to me in the first place. (And to anyone who dares to donate at the $5000 reward level that Grist designed — I’m not sure “lunch with the filmmaker” is really such a spectacular prize, since I’m just a normal non-famous guy like anyone else, but if you donate that much money to our project, it will certainly be MY pleasure to meet YOU.)
Of course, since it’s a Kickstarter project, it’s not just Grist readers who we’re hoping to inspire — it’s anyone out there on the web who thinks it might be interesting to meet some of the human beings whose choices brought this mundane yet instantly recognizable object into the world. If that sounds like you, click through to the project page and see what you think. And thanks!
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Readability can’t do anything right, apparently. First they were tarred as “scumbags” for their subscriber payment model (which, originally, paywalled certain premium features and set aside 70% of the fees for content creators to claim at will). Now they’ve discontinued that model, and they’re taking punches again (for putting a deadline on claims for the uncollected fees, after which they’ll donate the fees to literary nonprofits).
Here is what happened. Readability created a product that “gets between” readers and publishers to in order to provide a useful service to the readers (i.e., reformatting content to make it more readable). The product was also designed to accept money for providing that service.
How is this any different from Instapaper: a product that “gets between” readers and publishers in order to provide a useful service to readers, and accept money in exchange for it? How come Instapaper gets to make money by getting in between readers and publishers–and take no shit for it at all–while Readability has gotten nothing but shit for it?
Money stories. Instapaper has a totally different “money story” than Readability’s. Instapaper’s money story is a good-guy story: Guy makes thing that makes my life easier, that thing has value, I give the guy money for it, that sounds fair. Everybody wins! Readability’s money story is a bad-guy story: Company makes thing that wedges itself in between me and the people creating the value, so not all my money goes where it’s supposed to and the people who should be getting it in the first place have to “sign up” with Company to get what’s rightfully theirs. That doesn’t sound fair. FUCK THOSE GUYS!
Money stories are black and white. They are about good guys and bad guys, smart or stupid, noble or evil. These stories may not necessarily be true (which is why Planet Money and Businessweek can be so fascinating, by going into the grey-area behind these stories), but for buyers and sellers making decisions they’re simple and helpful and they feel right enough. And for observers they provide drama and entertainment.
So again, why are the money stories for these two very similar products so radically different?
I have no real answer, but here’s a guess made with 20/20 hindsight:
Make sure the thing you are selling is the same thing the customer is buying. Instapaper is a thing (an app) that does something you want/need, so you pay for that thing. That’s the proposition; no different than buying food or tools or toys. Readability is also a thing, but they necessarily didn’t present it as the thing you are buying. I buy a subscription “to” Readability, but 70% of the money goes to the publishers. The story that transaction tells is this: what I’m really buying is their work, not Readability’s.
What if Readability had simply flip-flopped the split, saying: “we donate 30% of your money to the publishers you read using our app”? Maybe that would have just gotten people more angry, or equally angry… or maybe it would have told a different money story right from the get-go, a story more like Instapaper’s, but with Readability positioned even more like “good guys.” That money story would be: you, the readers, are our customers, and you pay us to make this thing for you, and we’re thankful for your support. But guess what — unlike Instapaper, we’re going to kick some of the money you pay for our thing up to the publishers, because without them, this thing would be useless and you wouldn’t buy it in the first place. In that story, the thing Readability is selling is the same thing their customers are buying (an app that makes reading easier), because that’s where most of the money is actually going (to Readability); and so the lesser portion allocated to publishers then feels like a gift, not something they’re owed. This makes the money story about Readability’s business model (in which the publishers are magnanimously included as a bonus–good guys!), not about the publishers’ business model (which Readability is parasitizing without consent or “holding hostage”–bad guys!).
But Readability’s “big idea” was to be a platform, not a mere product–that was how they differentiated themselves from Instapaper. What kind of “good guy” money story could be told around this platform? Again, maybe it’s just about making sure you and your customers know each other and are on the same page about what the money is for. In a way Readability was trying to function like Kickstarter: we help you support the creators you love! Platforms like Kickstarter, which connect buyers to sellers and take a cut for the service, don’t necessarily rile everyone up; hell, Kickstarter does this to near-universal acclaim. But Kickstarter doesn’t find projects that are already in progress, set them up on its service, solicit money from users without the project-makers’ involvement, and then turn around and say “come and get your money (less 30% for this service you didn’t ask for)”. That would be weird, to say the least. Kickstarter has opt-in customers (totally distinct from the users), who “pay” 5% of what the platform helps them raise in exchange for access to that platform (and its audience). What if Readability had presented itself more like that–what if the “pass through percentage” of subscriber fees only went to publishers who signed up to be part of a “What to Read” feature within Readability?
I just tossed that out off the top of my head, so it’s probably a terrible idea. I guess I’m just trying to do a thought experiment about what kind of “good” money story, if any, might have emerged out of the Readability payment scheme. Maybe my larger point is that when you bring money into the picture, it starts telling its own story about you, your app, your mission, everything. It’s got a life of its own. And when people are confused about your actions or in doubt about your intentions, the money story is what they’ll believe.
Postscript/disclosure for anyone who cares: I’m friendly with the Readability folks, and use both services: I prefer Instapaper for offline “reading later” on my phone, and Readability for online “reading now” in my browser.
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Facebook just acquired Instagram (which, as Android user, I’d only just started to enjoy) for $1B. Given Zuckerberg’s plainly stated strategy of stripmining his “acquisitions” for their talent and leaving the acquired products for dead, this bummed me out.
But Alexis Madrigal has a more optimistic take on the deal, noting Zuckerberg’s “surprisingly humble” statement announcing it. From that statement:
We believe these are different experiences that complement each other. But in order to do this well, we need to be mindful about keeping and building on Instagram’s strengths and features rather than just trying to integrate everything into Facebook.That’s why we’re committed to building and growing Instagram independently. Millions of people around the world love the Instagram app and the brand associated with it, and our goal is to help spread this app and brand to even more people.
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Here’s an experimental music video I made for Jascha, remixing footage from 2001, Moon, TRON, Robocop, and WarGames:
I’ve been curious for a while about whether I could re-edit images, shots and scenes from well-known movies to tell different stories from the ones I borrowed them from. The music video for Jascha’s “Limited” seemed like a great opportunity to experiment with this approach, since the song instantly suggested to me a science-fiction short story — and I didn’t have the time (or interest, to be honest) to create sci-fi production value from scratch.
It also seemed like a fun challenge to take images that have acquired so much “baggage” over the years — like the glowering cyclops eye of HAL from 2001, which has become visual shorthand for “evil machine” — and try to attach completely opposite emotional associations to them. What if something like HAL wasn’t evil at all, but just misunderstood in its intentions, like a puppy who plays too rough with its owner? That’s exactly the image that Jascha’s plaintive refrain in “Limited” put into my head.
Remixing material from five very different films creates a necessarily impressionistic approach to telling a story, so maybe the story this video tells in your head isn’t the same one that it tells in mine. Either way I hope it’s a good one.
And here’s some interesting background on artificial intelligence from BERG, a tech/design consultancy in London, that I only discovered after making the video but seems to be in the same wheelhouse of what I was thinking about when I edited it.
“Limited” is the first single from Jascha’s album THE FUTURE LIMITED, which you can download for free for a limited time here.
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There’s an essay getting some Twitter traction today from NPR’s 13.7 science blog entitled “Science: It’s really, really hard, and that’s something to celebrate.” I just read another essay by a mathematician seemingly making the same point about his area of expertise. They both annoyed the bejeezus out of me, because they both seemed to be glorifying the supposed fact that science and math are necessarily “hard” — that engaging with them in a meaningful way has to involve putting up with stuff that would make most people want to shoot themselves in the head out of frustration or boredom, and that successfully slogging through that sort of thing is some sort of badge of honor, because science and math are important, and important things are hard, so yay for hardness and frustration and boredom.
When ITT Tech wants to get more people to become auto mechanics, does it make commercials full of auto mechanics gravely droning on about how “hard” the job is? Or what about chefs? Do you think people become chefs out of some martyr-like affection for the boring, frustrating aspects of the work?
What sparks someone to meaningfully engage with something hard — ie, any damn thing in this world worth doing, including but in no way limited to pointy-headed pursuits like science and math — isn’t the hardness of it. It’s something that Jennifer Ouellette calls “the mimetic moment.” The moment when your brain and your emotions line up like iron filings because you realize “Ah: this is that!” The hardness goes away. Not the challenge, mind you: Ouellette still had a lot of challenging labor in front of her in between having her mimetic moment about calculus and finishing her book about it. It’s the boring, frustrating opaqueness that disappears — or at least lifts for long enough to make you not care about the hardness.
Adam Frank, the author of the 13.7 post, describes a similar mimetic moment which made him realize he wanted to be a scientist:
It was my high school physics class and I must have been 17. … We were doing an experiment designed to measure the wavelength of visible light. At the time I still didn’t get math. It always seemed really, really hard. I was never sure why, or what, I was doing with the calculations. … As the class wore on we took our readings and transcribed them into lab books. Then came the analysis section. First we had to climb a steep hill of trigonometry. Then came a long slog through the muddy ruts of algebra. I kept screwing the calculations up, losing my way. But then, with a bright burst of clarity, the math spoke loud and clear. It gave me the answer.
Beautiful! Unfortunately, this is his takeaway:
On that day something shifted. All of a sudden I understood why math and science needed to be hard.
OK so: It’s not that math and science need to be presented, taught, or even practiced in a way that makes these incredible, inspiring, life-changing mimetic moments more common and easier to come by. No, it’s that math and science need to be “hard” — obscuring the mimetic moments behind “steep hills,” “long slogs” and “muddy ruts.” What the $#&@ kind of logic is that?
Look: anyone who wants to master something is going to face hills, slogs, and ruts aplenty. That’s not the issue: that’s just what it takes to be excellent. The issue is getting them to want to start the process in the first place, and perhaps stay with it. If that very first spark of inspiration, that eureka, the “Ah: this is that!” is hidden behind the intellectual/emotional equivalent of barbed wire and land mines, we are simply not going create as many scientists or mathematicians as we would like to.
This is a design problem — an interface design problem, to be precise. As Bret Victor writes in his “Kill Math” manifesto/project:
The power to understand and predict the quantities of the world should not be restricted to those with a freakish knack for manipulating abstract symbols.
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I openly idolize Charles and Ray Eames’s filmmaking, especially the elegant, playfully “high concept” explainers they made like Powers of Ten. I also idolize the technically innovative, brimming-with-process-value “brand journalism” that Google produces in its promotional videos. When I saw this spot, I didn’t just love it. I lusted it:
It’s the kind of filmmaking that I wish I could do all the time, on every project: physical, inventive, unconstrained by petty things like “time” and “budget”, and engaging as hell. The closest I’ve gotten — and it’s pretty darn close — is the “Lego Antikythera” film I directed last year, which had a very large budget (relatively speaking, compared to what I’d worked with before) and got nearly 2 million views on Youtube, Vimeo, and elsewhere:
Since making that film, I’ve been lucky to parlay its success into working with generally bigger budgets and more “high conceptey” projects. Just what I wanted, right?
Those kinds of films, while creatively invigorating, can also be kind of exhausting to produce — or even get to produce. The bar is set pretty high each time and the energy barrier for client “buy-in” is high, too. And even when the budgets swell, it still “never feels like quite enough.” The high-concept reach always wants to extend just a few inches beyond one’s practical means, no matter what the scale is. (Maybe this just means I’m a bad producer.)
Moreover, I’m noticing more and more that I am just as inspired and engaged by quiet, simple, “low concept” films. Like this promo for Twitter’s redesign…
Or this concept/demo video for BERG‘s Little Printer:
Or this wonderfully elegant, tactile documentary about letterpress:
Or this concise, stylish, informative portrait of the inventor of the first digital camera:
In a sense, these films all look and feel “the same.” A lot of locked off shallow focus shots, graphically composed like still photographs, lined up in a stately pace, with some cute or elegant or simply unobtrusive music underneath. There’s not a lot of formal inventiveness or physical “wow factor” like the Google videos or Eames films.
And yet, they connect.
I want to train my creative brain to consider this kind of filmmaking more often, but it takes effort. There’s a fear there: how can I get anyone to pay me decently to make something that looks this… easy? How will anyone notice me (and want to hire me) if what I make is this… simple? If I don’t shoot for the moon every time out, turn every project into some kind of ambitious experiment (for better or worse), aren’t I… settling?
Above is a Twitter conversation I had with Timo Arnall, a “director, designer and researcher” at BERG and the filmmaker behind that Little Printer clip (as well as all of BERG’s other great video work). I had a sense that I might be drifting from my own creative maxim, borrowed from Paul Rand: “Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.”
What I love about Arnall’s work is that it’s all about “just trying to be good.” Good in the sense of effective and useful. It’s well-designed, suited to its task, and not tricked up any more than that. (It exemplifies another maxim I like to remind myself of, by Milton Glaser: “Less is not more. Just enough is more.”) It’s not surprising because at BERG, filmmaking is a means — a tool for illuminating and exploring design ideas — not an end in itself, or at least not an end in the way I usually think of it.
The irony is that the mighty Eameses also made quiet, low concept films — they’re not as well known as, say, Powers of Ten, but they’re just as bewitching. Toccata for Toy Trains or Blacktop: A Story of the Washing of a School Play Yard wouldn’t look out of place on Vimeo’s DSLR page, even though they were made half a century ago.
[I couldn't find a copy of "Blacktop" with the original soundtrack. This one has Elliott Smith music dubbed in. Ignore it.]
Another irony is that making something that appears simple or “just enough” is often much more challenging than “shooting for the moon.” I think it requires more creative confidence — the confidence not only to achieve “just enough,” but to even recognize it. “Just enough” is a point, not a space or a range. And its location is not always obvious. Throwing a ball over a high wall is one thing, but throwing a ball to knock a pebble off the wall is quite another.
Keith “keef” Erlich, a talented director who recently launched a small business built around this kind of “just enough” filmmaking, coined a phrase I quite like recently while we were chatting over coffee: “middle-class media making.” Basically, the idea of doing good creative work in a sustainable way for decent pay, in a zone somewhere between being a young’n'hungry striver and being a creative “1 percenter” like Mark Romanek or Spike Jonze. Or to use another analogy: “middle class media making” is like owning a successful small restaurant in a neighborhood you like — rather than being a dishwasher, or being David Chang.
As someone who recently started a family, that sounds like #winning to me.
Could doing more of this “quiet” kind of filmmaking be a way of helping myself build a more sustainable “middle-class media making” career? I wonder. I’m proud of the fact that every film I’ve made in the past couple years is very different from every other. That was on purpose. In a way, doing more “low concept” projects would continue that trend. At the very least, it’s probably something worth experimenting with — if only to confront some fears, and avoid falling into a rut.
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