“Into the Woods”: Thoughts on What’s Been Changed for the Film

As a piece of culture, Into the Woods holds deep, personal significance for me. As a junior in high school, I played the Baker in our school production, and it was an amazing, empowering experience. One snag was that I didn’t really have the pipes at the time to give the pivotal song “No More” the power it needed, so it was with some satisfaction that at the theatre program’s 25th anniversary celebration last month, I was able to perform the song pretty well, and thereby give a sort of gift to Mr. Garrison, the program director, and tie up a loose end in my creative life.

My expectations for the new film version of Into the Woods were relatively low. I knew there would be high production value and skilled performances from most of the cast, but I had heard about some pretty troubling-sounding changes to the plot, and that the show was going to generally get Disney-fied.

I am delighted to report back that the film is excellent. It’s not without flaws, and there are definitely some important cuts and changes, but in general I can say that they are at worst understandable, done not to gloss over the darker or more difficult aspects of the show, but to tell the important parts of the story and still have a film that wasn’t too long for a general audience.

I’d like to set down some thoughts on those changes here, so obviously, beware, for if you’re not familiar with the show, HERE BE SPOILERS.

First, though, some highlights, just off the top of my head:

  • This production was obviously taken very seriously, with a deep love of the material. This was not a cartoon version of Into the Woods, not played for yuks or to please the Hairspray-going crowd. It was a sophisticated, meaningful interpretation of a masterful piece of theatre.
  • Meryl Streep is a marvelous Witch, chewing scenery with teeth only she possesses, and astoundingly sympathetic. Her performance of “Stay with Me” is gut-wrenching, especially now that I’m a parent. (There were a lot of “now that I’m a parent” moments that hit me harder than I expected.)
  • The painful moral ambiguities of the original script are sharply in focus, perhaps more so than in a stage production, because one level of abstraction is removed: we’re not watching people lit up on a platform surrounded by an audience, but something more “realistic,” making the bad, ugly, and stupid things the characters do and the awful choices they have to make all the more weighty.
  • Little Red Riding Hood is perfectly cast. Lilla Crawford better have a mighty nice career after this.

Now let’s talk about some of the things in the film that are a departure from the stage production.

Cut song: “Goodbye, Old Pal”: An understandable omission, I assume for time. We don’t need a song to know that Jack will miss his cow.

No Wolf/Prince cross-casting: The original stage production had Robert Westenberg playing both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, a cross-casting that has a lot of symbolic weight. I didn’t expect a film version to do this, of course, as you obviously want to milk more handsome-actor star power out of casting two famous guys in two roles. No big surprise, but it would have been neat to see nonetheless.

No Mysterious Man: This is a big one. In the original, the Baker is pestered throughout his quest by an enigmatic, crazy old guy who turns out to be his long-lost dad, and they have an important reconciliation which leads to the song “No More.” In the film, however, the Baker’s father is reduced to the role of a ghost of sorts, really only appearing in the Baker’s own mind. (Additionally, the father is also often cast with the same actor as the Narrator.) I barely noticed this change until the Big Moment, at which point I felt pretty certain that the thrust of this aspect of the story, the Baker’s journey to outgrow the shadow of his father’s mistakes, was plenty clear. This brings us to…

Cut song: “No More”: A very disappointing omission given the song’s personal importance to me, but again, it’s a cut I understand. As with the reduction of the Baker’s father’s character, the Baker’s struggle is well told in the film as it is, and his breakdown after confronting his father’s memory is very impactful. If they had to nix the song, they handled it well. That said, if time was the consideration, I would not have picked a song that for many is the show’s climax.

Off the top of my head, Little Red’s “I Know Things Now,” after escaping the digestive system of the Wolf, is lovely, but I think far less necessary than “No More.” While it’s great to have this song to illustrate Little Red’s “coming of age,” I just don’t think this secondary character’s self-actualization is nearly as important as the Baker’s defeating his greatest internal demons in a gorgeous song. So while I understand the filmmakers’ decision to cut “No More,” and that they handled it well, I think it was the wrong decision.

No on-screen deaths: In the stage production, the Steward clocks Jack’s Mother over the head as she rails against the Giant, killing the poor woman on stage. In the film, she’s pushed, not hit, and we only know she’s died much later when the Baker reveals the fact to Jack. “She didn’t make it.” Similarly, in the original, in a fit of rebellion, Rapunzel runs from her mother, the Witch, only to be almost immediately squashed off stage by the Giant, which is witnessed by the other characters. In the film, she simply rides off with her prince.

I have to wonder if a calculation was made that with the aforementioned lack of abstraction normally provided by theatre, the on-screen death of these characters would be too unsettling and distract from the greater story. I’m not sure that’s true, but it didn’t materially affect the story, so I can’t really complain.

There were some other changes that were immediately apparent to me (no full-cast numbers beside the opening, no “Agony” reprise), but these don’t warrant much analysis.

If an audience member comes to the film of Into the Woods without any knowledge of the stage incarnation, these missing pieces obviously wouldn’t matter a whit, and that’s probably the best thing you can say about them. They simply don’t hurt the story by their absence, or by the given change. They do, however, speak to the priorities of the filmmakers that might differ from my own (such as prioritizing Little Red’s “growing up” moment over the Baker’s triumph over his despair). But if that’s the worst thing I can say about the changes, then there’s not much to complain about.

I was scared of what might be done to my beloved show when it was turned into a movie for a mass audience. I am relieved and delighted by what I saw today.

Kirk from “Gilmore Girls”: My Goddamn Hero

I am a man riddled with anxieties, hangups, doubts, and regrets, but I aspire to a greater sense of self-worth (or any sense of self-worth, frankly). And this is why I have discovered a new hero in Kirk Gleason.

Kirk is a character from the show Gilmore Girls, which my wife started watching on Netflix, and that I have taken a liking to as well (with one enormous caveat*). He is at best a tertiary townsperson, and at least from the episodes I’ve seen he has no pivotal role to play other than to lend additional quirky color to Stars Hollow.

But for me, he is a role model.

Kirk is deeply odd. He pursues innumerable passions, hobbies, and career paths, and does so with gravity and determination. He has myriad peccadillos and peeves, and makes no bones about them. He faces personal crisis after personal crisis, never with panic, but always with a very public kind of grit, fighting his internal battles in the public square.

He is congenitally weird, and he is resolutely fussy. But no matter how out of the mainstream or awkward or bizarre anything he might say, think, or do might be, he could not care less what anyone else thinks of him. Unlike me, he is either oblivious or utterly disinterested in the opinions of others. He is, instead, unflappable in his quest for self-actualization, a quest that no setback, no stumble, no public rejection ever seems to dampen. He seems only bemused that others can’t see what he sees.

And while we are of course talking about a fictional character in a fictional town, I can’t help but think it is because Kirk is so self-assured and indifferent to popular opinion that he is accepted. This isn’t to say that people don’t find him exasperating or rude sometimes, but it is understood that it is his very oddness that adds value to the community. Sometimes he is merely humored, sometimes he is asked to take his quest elsewhere, but he is never cast out. Is he loved? I’d like to think so.

But mostly, I’d like to think that I could have Kirk’s psychological fortitude. I wish I could have the strength to be as deeply weird and damaged and different as I am, and not feel the need to apologize for it, to dance around it, to make it a joke within a joke in order to make the people around me more comfortable. I wish I could pursue my quest for self-actualization, unperturbed by the opinions of others, unburdened by my own self-loathing.

When I grow up, I want to be like Kirk.

 

* Okay, what the fuck is up with the music on that show? The theme song is unbearable enough, a vapid, insipid, overproduced, underconsidered piece that sounds like Carol King wrote it by accident, while very sick with a stomach virus, in between heaves. Worse still is that the song is like a brain parasite, sticking itself to one’s gray matter, burrowing in deeply, and sucking our precious nutrients, all the while driving the host mad.

And then there’s the interstitial music, the acoustic guitar, “la la la” bits in between scenes. Dreadful. They’re like a parody of the music for a parody show on a parody of a Lifetime show. Someone needs to be held responsible for this.

It Seemed Like the World Was Changing.

Matt Licata:

Apple—the philosophy, the hope—is dead. Maybe it never existed in the first place. And to be clear: the company didn’t build it and isn’t directly responsible for it. But their wild success made it feel like pleasant, user-centered design was on the verge of taking over the world and leaving thoughtful, carefully considered objects everywhere in its wake. If Apple could soar past RIM and Microsoft, why not?

What really happened was that ugly, hostile, “business”-oriented ways of doing things infected the new paradigm as much as the reverse. [ . . . ]
The start of the iPhone and iPad era offered a reprieve, but it was only a matter of time before the forces of garbage, disorder, relentless capitalism, and “best practices” caught up and squeezed through any hole they could find. These forces move more slowly than small, enthusiastic, independent creators, so it took them a little while, and it seemed like the world was changing. But it wasn’t.

Shaking off Some of the Apple Fussiness

John Gruber has a running joke he used to tell on his podcasts, his Rules for Success on the Internet, meant to poke fun at himself and the folks in his circle. The rules were, paraphrased:

  1. Have a clicky keyboard
  2. Be fussy about coffee
  3. Own a Sodastream

It’s so amusing to me and his audience because it’s an acknowlegdement that he and his ilk have the luxury of having quirky predelictions about certain trivial things that, in their lives, seem so important. The coffee, for example, has to be made just so, with just such a convoluted method, with very particular beans, and never any sweeteners or cream of course.

Having now had more than a few trips outside of the Apple walled garden, the fussiness of the elite Apple consumer has become more and more apparent to me. In my own experience, based on my immersion in the various websites and podcasts and other media generated by various folks in and around the tech world, there seems to be a very strong correlation between the Apple user of at least moderate affluence and what I’ll carefully call a fetishization of fussiness, having all things just so.

This is actually a stock photo, but it's close enough to a fussy minimalist Apple person's workspace. That chair would never fly, though.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by that, and make clear that I don’t mean this pejoratively. Take a look at websites like Minimal Mac or Tools & Toys, or the kinds of things promoted by Gruber, Marco Arment, Craig Mod, Sean Blanc, and others (all of which I like very much!). To varying degrees they exhibit high levels of fussiness in things like design, tech products, office products, clothing, food, typesets, and so on. You’ll see images of nearly-empty desks, save for a single computer (a Mac), perhaps a keyboard, perhaps an iPad carefully propped up, an iPhone (not in a case) docked, and probably a moleskine notebook. There are likely wood tones surrounding the technology. Everything is just so. Each object has been embued with preciousness. Android phones are not to be spoken of.

I halfheartedly aspired to this kind of Cult of the Minimalist that many of these Apple fans seem to achieve and then relentlessly hone. For good reason: this demand for a level of quality and polish from the objects we use and the things we consume is, I think, a healthy thing. Fewer distractions, less noise, less disorder – these are all things worth pursuing. Toys can’t make happiness, but the things with which you surround yourself (and choose not to) can be steps on the way to peace. (Sometimes not, of course.)

But being a little more on the outside of the Apple universe (or, at least, travelling between it and other worlds), it becomes clear that the desire for this kind of peace-through-objects can itself be a source of stress. For one thing, one can’t possibly achieve the level of minimalist artisanal nirvana seen on many of these sites without a significant outlay of cash. Beautiful, well-made, precicely crafted objects, be they phones or desks or pens, are expensive. (So are good clacky keyboards and fuss-worthy coffee and its paraphernalia, though not really Sodastreams.) Living this life of pricy simplicity also takes time, effort, and discipline to achieve. Not everyone has the luxury, nor does everyone share those priorities.

Immersing myself in the Android world has been an awakening of sorts. As beautifully designed as many Android devices are these days, and as excellent an operating system Lollipop is (and it really is), the Android world is full of noise. Websites devoted to Android, or at least in that universe, are cacophonous, frequented not by minimalists, but by tinkerers and augmenters and reconstituters. Hardware is valued more for its potential for modification and raw power rather than its ability to place one in a zen state. It’s overwhelming to newcomers from Apple-land, but it’s also fun and daring and, frankly, a bit of a relief from all the fussiness.

After playing with a bunch of different Android devices, I had occasion to handle a few friends’ iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. They are gorgeous, no question; really solid, smooth, platonic ideals of future-looking objects. I was a little envious.

But not as much as I once would have been, because as much as I admire the iPhones 6, they now also seem a little too precious. I have a red Nexus 5, a phone that came out in the fall of 2013, and it’s all plastic with visible seams and sharp corners and an ugly micro-USB port, and I just adore it. And the wide variety of shapes and sizes and even design philosophies coming from different manufacturers is fun to explore and examine and experiment with. In comparison, the Apple/iOS world feels a little staid, stationary, and a touch stuffy.

And at the same time it seems smooth and peaceful and free of the need for superfluous futzing. Most of the decisions have been made for you, and that’s a nice thing a lot of the time.

But not all of the time!

My awful, terrible dock.

I like both worlds. I like the world of disorder and cobbling and staggering variety, the world that made it seem like a good idea for me to cobble this horrible-looking and probably very temporary phone dock out of an old broken iPhone dock, a USB cable, some wire tape, a small cardboard box, and some rocks (for weight). I also like the world of simplicity and focus and refinement, where only things made by Twelve South are allowed to touch your precious glass-and-aluminum talisman. I like the mess and the fuss. Neither is The Way it Ought to Be, they’re just both ways-to-be whenever it suits you. How great is that?

Gloves That Allow You To Look Like an Idiot and Simultaneously Awesome

ThinkGeek is now selling gloves that also serve as a Bluetooth handset for talking on the phone...by actually making that thumb-and-pinky sign with your hands! f2c9_bluetooth_handset_gloves_inuse

Where has this been??? Why are we seven years into the smartphone revolution and this only comes about now??? What has the rest of the industry been wasting its time on???

Well fuck it. I hate talking on the phone very, very much, but if I had these, I'd suck it up.

Here's their super-weird video.

2014's Paradigm Shifts in Tech

Technology is all about change, and rapid change at that. But even with the pace of technological development being dizzyingly fast, there are still larger paradigms, grander assumptions and codes of conventional wisdom, that are more or less static. In 2014, though, a lot of those paradigms shifted, and many of our preconceptions and understandings were altered, enlightened, or totally overturned. Here’s a short list of some of those paradigm shifts in tech in 2014.

Microsoft the Scrappy Upstart

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In another age, Microsoft was the Borg, the unstoppable and loathed behemoth that destroyed all in its path. Then, sometime in the middle-to-late twenty-aughts, it became the ridiculous giant, releasing silly products, failing to even approach the hipness caché of its once-defeated rival Apple, and headed by a boorish clown prince. Zunes? Windows Vista? The Kin smartphone? Windows 8? “Scroogled”? Each risible in its own way.

And then Microsoft got a new boss, and Satya Nadella’s ascent immediately changed the public perception of the company, especially among the tech punditocracy. The products still weren’t fantastic (Windows 8.1, Surface Pro 3), but the company began to emphasize its role as a service provider, ubiquitous not in terms of desktop machines, but in terms of the various services through which all manner of machines and OSes did their work. Think OneNote, Office 360 on iPad and Android, Azure, and OneDrive. The tide had turned, and now as Google and Apple (and Facebook and Amazon) battled for supremacy, Microsoft would simply work with anyone.

To get a strong sense of the change in attitude toward Microsoft, listen to prime-Apple-blogger John Gruber’s interview of Microsoft beat reporter Ed Bott on The Talk Show early this year, recorded at a Microsoft conference, at which Gruber was featured as a marquee user of Microsoft services. Gruber and Bott were full of hope and admiration for the old Borg, which would have been unthinkable even five years ago. It is a new day indeed.

“I Was into Big Phones Before it Was Cool”

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When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note in 2011, it was ridiculed for being absurdly huge, as though anyone who bought one should be embarrassed about it. Today, the original Galaxy Note would be considered “medium sized” compared to today’s flagship phones, almost all of which have displays over 5 inches. Meanwhile, even larger phablets are objects of high desire and status, such as the Galaxy Note 4 and the iPhone 6 Plus. “Mini” phones (the 4.7-inch HTC One Mini, for example) are those with displays bigger than the biggest displays offered by Apple as recently as 2013, which topped out at 4 inches.

No longer silly, phablets are now considered high-productivity machines, the mark of a busy, engaged technophile, and are perceived to be eating well into the tablet market. (They’re still too big for me, but even I could be turned.) Big phones are now just phones.

Podcast Inception

At some point in 2014, it was decided that everyone in tech must have a podcast. If you worked for a tech site, you had a podcast (like me!). If you worked at a tech company, you had a podcast. If you’d just lost your tech job, your new tech job was to have a podcast. And on those podcasts, they woud have as guests and co-hosts who also had podcasts, because, of course, everyone had a podcast. On those podcasts, they would talk to their fellow podcasts hosts about podcasts, making podcasts, the future of podcasts, the monetization of podcasts, and podcast apps.

I predict that sometime in the middle of 2015, there will be a Podcast Singularity which will swallow up all tech podcasts into an infinitely dense pundit which will consider how this will affect the podcast industry, and will be sponsored by Squarespace.

Amazon’s Weird Hardware

Amazon was on a roll. The Kindle had proven itself to be an excellent piece of hardware years ago, and solidified this position with the magnificent Paperwhite in 2012. In 2013, its Fire tablets had become genuinely high-quality devices that were well-suited to most of the things anyone would want a tablet for, with strong builds, good performance, and beautiful screens. It seemed like Amazon was a serious hardware company now.

Then it released the Fire Phone, and everyone got a queasy feeling in their stomachs. A half-baked, gimmicky device that was incredibly overpriced, it landed with a thud, and Amazon continues to slash its price to clear out its inventory. (People really like the Kindle Voyage, I should note, and the Fire TV has been much better received as a set-top box, though my own experience with the Fire TV Stick was very poor.)

And then they awkwardly previewed the Amazon Echo, the weird cylinder that caters to the dumb informational needs of a creepy family, and the head-scratching turned to scalp-scraping. Amazon’s status as a serious hardware maker was no longer a given.

The Revolution Will Not Be Tablet-Optimized

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The iPad was going to be the PC for everyone. Most people would not even bother with a computer with a monitor and a keyboard, they’d just get a tablet, and that’d be it. PCs would be for professionals in specific situations that required a lot of power and peripherals. For the rest of humanity, it would be tablets all the way down.

Of course, now we know that in 2014, tablet growth has slowed, and few people use their tablets as their primary computing device. Instead, they’re causual devices for reading, browsing, and watching video. Despite the niche cases heralded in Apple’s “Verse” ads, on the whole, tablets have become the kick-back magazines of the gadget world.

That’s fine! I’ve written before that iPads/tablets are “zen devices of choice,” the computer you use when you don’t have to be using a computer, unlike smartphones and PCs which are “required” for work and day-to-day business.

The shift this year is the realization that tablets are (probably) not going to take over the PC landscape, especially as phones get bigger, and laptops get cheaper and sleeker. Could there be any better argument against an iPad-as-PC-replacement than Apple’s own 11" MacBook Air? Even Microsoft, which once positioned its Surface machines as iPad replacements now markets them as MacBook competitors. Why? Because tablets just don’t matter that much, they’re more for fun, and the Surface is for serious business.

Forcing the tablet to be a PC has proven so far to be awkward and hacky, and PCs themselves are better than ever. The iPad revolution may never be. Which, again, is fine, but in 2014, we realized it.

(And relatedly, e-readers aren’t dead!)

The Souring of Twitter

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Twitter hasn’t always made the best decisions, and sometimes even its staunchest defenders have had to wonder what the company really wants to make of its crucial service. But to my mind, in 2014 the overall feeling toward Twitter has tipped from reluctant embrace to general disapproval. It’s gotten worse on privacy, it’s been MIA or unhelpful in handling abuse and harassment, and it’s began to seriously monkey with what makes Twitter Twitter. And more and more, I read pieces about once-avid Twitterers saying just how miserable the torrent of negativity makes people feel. Once the underdog to Facebook that all those in the know called home, it now looks like a hapless, heartless, clueless company that has no idea how good of a thing it has.

You Have Died of Ethics in Games Journalism

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Tech has always been a boy’s club, but in 2014, a lot of the industry decided it shouldn’t be anymore. As more and more instances of harassment, abuse, sexism, and overt misogyny were exposed – in the wider tech industry and in gaming particularly – the more people stood up to declare the status quo unacceptable. A wider embrace of inclusiveness and encouragement of women in tech emerged, along with, of course, a counter-reaction of hatred and attacks from those who liked things as they were.

2014 forced the tech universe to confront some very, very ugly things about itself. But it will likely prove a net win, as more of us work to fix it than don’t.

(I have this shirt with the above image, and it's here.)

Google’s Glass Jaw

In 2013, Google Glass was the future, the way all things tech would soon be. In 2014, no one wears them, a consumer version seems to remain a fuzzy concept, and even those who were breathlessly enthusiastic about it have felt their novelty wane. The tech punditocracy is now waking up from its Google Glass hangover, and they’re all a little embarrassed.

Now, of course, we’re all excited about watches. It remains to be seen what we feel like the next morning.

The Embassy of Google

embassies_mass_ave_credit-Mieko-Yamaguchi I really like Google+ for the most part (as much as I hate the name), and I find the interactions that I have there to be, on the average, much higher in quality than those I have over Facebook or Twitter. Part of that I know is because there just aren’t all that many people there, so there’s less noise in my individual feed, and those who are there are going to be, well, at least a little more like me: tech-enthusiast, early adopter, cultural geeks. I come across very little abuse or vitriol, and see almost none of the social signaling that is so prevalent, even defining, of the other platforms; the constant wearing one’s obviously-correct politics on one’s sleeve to show that one is on The Right Side of Things. On the whole, it’s calm, thoughtful discussion or commentary a given topic.

So why is that? Well, truth be told, it’s not that the political discussion I see on Google+ is somehow superior, but that it’s not really there at all. There’s not much in the way of social signaling of ideologies because that’s simply not what surfaces, and it’s not what I’ve chosen to have surfaced. Instead, I see a lot about tech and a bit about nerd culture. Perhaps if I followed (or in the G+ parlance, “circled”) more explicitly political individuals and groups I might see more of the eye-roll inducing things I find on Twitter, but I haven’t, so I don’t.

And thinking about it more, Google+ isn’t even really just about tech generally, but a particularly geeky view of tech. In other words, it’s a lot about things related to Google, at least at a secondary or tertiary level. It’s no coincidence that I became much more interested in Google+ when I first started using Android devices, lost interest in it when I moved back into an all-Apple ecosystem, and came back to it when I got back into Android. Google+ on Android is a fantastic place to read and talk about Google and Android.*

On This Week in Google on the TWiT network this week, Danny Sullivan of the site Search Engine Land made an astute observation, almost as a throwaway comment, but it stuck with me. He said:

Google+ is the Apple Store for Google.

Let me unpack why this is such an interesting thought.

I used to work at an Apple Store, and while there it became clear to me that while I’m sure Apple makes untold bazillions just off the in-person retail transactions that take place at its stores, these places serve a grander purpose.

Apple Stores are really Apple Embassies. Apple places these outposts in locations where human beings are already primed to spend money (malls, shopping districts, etc.), and in these locations they not only sell products but make the case for Apple as a whole. The employees are ambassadors and diplomats for Apple the quasi-nation-state, conducting negotiations, solving diplomatic crises, and establishing and building on relationships. I would bet you that the way Apple Stores have represented and delivered the message of the Apple brand has resulted in more revenue and growth than the raw sales of products that take place in those same stores. I can’t prove it, but I bet it’s true.

Google+ serves a similar purpose for Google, though unintentionally. It’s a meeting place for those who use and appreciate what Google does and its surrounding services and technologies. It creates a forum and meeting place that represents Google’s design aesthetic and preferred modes of communication, just as the Apple Stores do for Apple. It’s a walled garden, one that doesn’t interact particularly well with outside platforms, which is similar to Apple in a way, and actually an exception for Google generally, which usually makes a point of undergirding everything it possibly can across all of technology. And as for it being not a “real” place, it still works: Apple is about physical products, so it makes sense that its embassy is a brick-and-mortar retail location. It makes equal sense that Google, a software/cloud company, would have its embassy exist virtually, in a browser, in the cloud.

And while Apple likes its customers to give it a lot of money for its products, and is thus represented by a store, Google likes to give away its product, and instead consume its users data: opinions, interests, routines, etc., and so there is no monetary side to Google+.

So perhaps what might be best for Google+ is for its parent company to accept that it will never be a Facebook competitor, but that it does potentially serve an extremely valuable service as the Apple Store of Google. Perhaps it might have Google employees inhabit it specifically for the purpose of being available to users, maybe attach company-run tech support exchanges for help with Android, search, and other aspects of Google’s massive online existence. Perhaps the Play Store could be more directly integrated to the Google+ experience so that users could seemlessly purchase new content while its being discussed (or “plus–1’d”). If Google decides to embrace Google+ as its embassy, it might thrive in a whole new, and potentially more valuable way than they ever intended.

 


* I think it’s important to note that Google+ is also full of noise. Android-centric feeds and communities are chock full of pointless screenshots of home screens and launcher themes, there’s a lot of poorly-written garbage, and a lot of complaining about battery life and whether one’s Nexus device has gotten the latest software update with morally acceptable speed.

The Superhero America, with its Systemic and Infrastructural Problems, Deserves

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Vlad Savov has an interesting essay at The Verge in which he laments that popular superheroes as they are written are rarely called upon to use their extraordinary powers to do more than fight, as opposed to tackling some of the bigger, more systemic problems faced by societies and civilization. He writes, for example:

Superman’s reduction to a punching machine — particularly prominent in his movie outings — is … less excusable than Batman’s since the Man of Steel actually has superhuman powers. He can hear, see, smell, and remember things in ways the rest of us can only dream of. His strength is otherworldly, and he can literally fly out into space on a whim. Think of all the impossible construction and exploration projects we could complete if we had a real Superman to help us. Instead, he gels his hair back, puts on a cape, and manhandles a different set of anonymous thugs to the ones Batman’s taking care of. …

But don’t we deserve a higher class of hero to match the Joker’s better class of criminal? Every news broadcast will tell you how terribly unfair and unjust the world is: from corruption in the highest echelons of power to basic lack of opportunity, the themes of iniquity are as ancient as human civilization itself. To be my hero, you have to do something to change these awful societal habits, not merely contain them.

I pondered this a bit, because I think it’s a legitimate grievance with the limited scope of superhero storytelling. I did manage to think of one superhero, though, who does just what Savov is asking for, a hero who used his amazing powers to genuinely solve world problems. There are lots of days to save before the term is up!

I’m talking, of course, about President Jed Bartlet.

Bartlet isn’t a superhero in the sense of being a costumed crime-fighter with mega-strength or the ability to fly or shoot beams from his eyes. But he does possess skills and abilities that, let’s admit it, no real-life mortal does: successfully defeating intransigent GOP Congresses, manipulating and reversing public perception of incredible scandals and mistakes, persuading enemies to see things his way, recalling facts, quotes, and passages from scripture and literature, fluently conversing in foreign and dead languages, all at the drop of a hat. He even survives an assassination attempt, stays one step ahead of multiple sclerosis, and manages to have (and win?) an argument with God. If that’s not a superhero, I don’t know what is.

He doesn’t use his powers only for beating up bad guys (though he does use his military and his security detail to do that), but to make things better. Crises emerge not in the form of supervillains (though, again, sometimes), but in the form of natural disasters, foreign policy predicaments, economic emergencies, and the overall push to make life more fair and prosperous for hundreds of millions of Americans. And he gets help from his White House-based Justice League of flawed but formidable allies, with CJ Craig perhaps being his closest rival in overall super-powerful-ness.

Oh, and he also had a catchphrase: Upon the completion of some heroic objective, no time is wasted before he asks his team, "What's next?" There's more saving-the-day to do!

I think for a very long time politicians were my superheroes, and that President Bartlet and his team represented the apotheosis of that feeling. Yes, politics is ugly and slow, but for a while I did have heroes who I thought were using their amazing and near-superhuman abilities to make the world a better place. Think of the super-clever and super-charismatic Clinton, or the super-intelligent and super-prophetic Gore. Even the super-principled Ralph Nader. In the 90s and early aughts, these were my Justice League. Barack Obama, back in 2006 to 2008, seemed more like a superhero than any of them! Then, anyway.

Not anymore. They all seem like the clichéd disappointing actor in the frayed superhero suit, now. The Oz behind the curtain, but without the great-and-powerful part. The supervillains are all still there, of course, but now they run the place. The superheroes were never really there.

So anyway, maybe we need a President Santos-era West Wing comic book, followed by a blockbuster Marvel movie, complete with a team-up with Bartlet, Santos, Craig, and maybe the Hulk. That'd be cool.

Patrick Stewart and the Shame of Bullying

Image by Shutterstock. I was rather moved when I saw this tweet yesterday.

It’s already heartening to me to see celebrities that I highly respect stand up for a cause that feels so personal to me, to see smart and powerful people acknowledge that the torment that so many kids endure at the hands of their peers is genuinely damaging, and a crisis worth mustering resources to stop.

But he didn’t just support the cause. He owned up to his own culpability. I’ve done some Googling around, and not found any instances of Stewart elaborating on his tweet (“at times I was a bully”), so I can’t say just how much of a bully he was or wasn’t. Did he tease once in a while? Join in when others started taunting someone else? Or a prime source of harassment? I don’t know. But that doesn’t really matter.

Listen, ever since I got out of that environment, I cannot recall a single instance of anyone – anyone – admitting they were a bully, to any degree. I may have heard from people I didn’t go to school with some minor variation on “Yeah, I teased some kids, but that’s just kids being kids.” But I’ve never heard of anyone saying, “I was a bully and I am ashamed of it.”

And I’ve certainly never heard it from any of the people who tormented me. And there were lots of them, but not a one has ever said anything. I do not expect and never have expected them to.

But here we have Sir Patrick Stewart, one of my heroes, as both an artist and an activist, actively working to combat bullying, and saying flat out, “When I was a child at times I was a bully - and I’m ashamed.” He’s saying I did it and it’s not okay. It’s not just kids being kids. And he didn’t just say he regretted it, or that it was a mistake. He feels “ashamed,” he carries the feeling with him today.

Maybe it’s silly that it means so much to me that he’s said this. But it really does.

Thank you, captain.

Reunion at the Nexus: A (Smartphone) Love Story

Image from Google.

It was both a rebound relationship, and a practical one. Cynical? No, but not heartfelt. I had abandoned my beloved iPhone back in 2013 in order to remove myself from my cellular carrier, and the only economically feasible alternative that the new carrier offered was the Nexus 5. Black, matte, fast, solid. It wasn’t love, but it would do.

I couldn’t commit, though. I was distracted, I thought too much about the other phones I might have had. The camera was poor. I couldn’t get used to the width of the screen with my tiny hands, and I felt the colors of the display were too washed out, too, well, real. I couldn’t handle it. I left the Nexus 5 relatively quickly, and went instead for a first-generation Moto X.

GL_XFON_LSP_DINE IS_CRIMSON_01_Q313

The Moto and I were happy for a little while. It matched me in so many ways: it was cute, spunky, and just the right size, without being overbearing with bloatware or unnecessary extras or demands. It was good for a while.

But I really wasn’t ready. I see that now. I was still too attached to iOS and Apple, still in the thrall of the spell that Steve Jobs cast on me years ago. The novelty of change having worn off, I longed to return to the comfort and familiarity of iPhone. So I came crawling back, like I always had before.

And things were fine. We got along, we worked more or less in sync. But though I’d never say so, I was getting bored again. The new iPhones 6 were announced, and they didn’t have the undeniable gravitational tug on me all previous models had. They were beautiful, powerful, that was all clear, but I couldn’t become interested.

Meanwhile, on the other side of things, Lollipop appeared. A new look and feel to Android, more unified, cleaner, more, well, delightful. I was intrigued.

At the same time, iPhone and I started fighting more and more often. Its new operating system, iOS 8, was lovely, but buggy. Things that it promised it could do, it wouldn’t. It would offer up new features, and then fail to make them work, or not well enough. The problems themselves weren’t insurmountable, but they exacerbated what was an existing ennui, a worsening indifference, a deepening chasm.

One day, I felt it. I had moved on. Whatever iPhone and I had once had was over. It wasn’t its fault, and it wasn’t mine. But we had grown apart, and it was time to admit it.

But I didn’t know where I’d go next. I knew I wanted to be using Android for my phone (not my tablet, that’s still an iPad mini 2), but not what device I should use, nor what I could afford to get, as it would certainly have to be used or refurbished.

Though, aren’t we all both used and refurbished?

Image by HTC.

I eventually connected with an HTC One M8, which was beautiful and well-regarded. It wasn’t easy to make that connection, though, as the first three (yes, three) units I ordered were all damaged in different ways. Finally, I found a refurb that was in like-new condition for the right price (I was sent the wrong color, but I had given up at that point). Surely this would work! But as I’ve recounted in a previous post, it was not to be. There were far too many incompatibilities.

While this latest relationship was deteriorating, I began to think back. Remember that phone that handled things so well? It was a different size, sure, but better than other devices. It was well built, certainly. It was fast, and reports from other users said that it remained so a year after its initial release, as it was still being sold and marketed as a current-generation flagship device. And it would also be certain to get the update to Android, Lollipop, sooner than almost anything else. And that OS update would have positive effects on things like the camera, the battery life, and how much overall effort it took to fiddle and futz.

Of course, I was thinking about the Nexus 5, the phone I had abandoned so long ago. I was older, I had matured. So had the phone. Perhaps now we were ready to try again.

I found one at the right price and in the right condition. It arrived, and we got to know each other again, and it was great. It was a revelation.

The phone wasn’t just fast, but faster than I remembered. The camera was workable, better than I gave it credit for (though still not great). The phone felt good to hold, the screen looked gorgeous, and the expanded display size was a relief to my eyes. The OS was now familiar and fun, not a slog through new territory. And then Lollipop came over the airwaves, and made it even better. It was a beautiful thing.

But one important thing was very different this time. This time, it was red.

Very red. Bright-orange-pink red. Obnoxiously red. It was perfect.

Now, I still live in the iOS world with my iPad, and it’s a good friendship, one that suits me for its particular purposes. But it’s fun to also be in the Android world, to be experiencing both development arcs of these dominant platforms. Particularly for the purposes of this blog, but also my own enthusiasms and curiosities, I can be part of both ecosystems’ conversations.

How long will the Nexus 5 stick around? I can’t say, of course. Undeniably fascinating devices, current and future, await. The Nexus 5 is the right device right now, even though it’s a little older, catching up with the times, and trying its best. Just like me.

HTC One M8: Fast to be Dropped, Slow to Respond

IMG_0313

In the midst of my enthusiasm/disorder of gadgeteering on the cheap, I managed to have possession for a couple weeks of an HTC One M8, the phone that upon its release was more or less universally hailed for its build quality and performance.

Guess what. I didn’t really like it. And I really, really thought I would.

I assumed it’d be a good phone for me because of the rave reviews, of course, but also because it was the Android device that seemed to have been designed with the same degree of thought and care that Apple products are. The metal, the curves, the heft. It wasn’t a mimic of an iPhone, as it was clearly designed with different priorities in mind. iPhones get generally thinner and more svelte as they iterate, while the M8 looks more like it’s been designed to be felt, with noticeable weight, a striking metallic sheen, and a substantial footprint. It looks absolutely lovely.

But I liked almost nothing else about it.

I’ve passed the point where total one-handed use is a necessity. The industry is clearly moving away from it, and that being the case, it becomes more a matter of degrees and trade-offs. How much one-handed use are you willing to trade for the benefits of having a bigger screen or battery? That kind of thing.

But even with my change in perspective and expectations, the HTC One M8 fails in some basic areas of one-handed usability. Most notably, it’s just too damned slippery. Without using glass or plastic for the chassis, and with the metal polished to an extreme degree of smoothness, the phone is just far, far too easy to drop. Without immediately applying an unnaturally firm grip, the thing just slides right out of my hand.

Making this worse is how sensitive the volume rocker on the side is. The slightest tap against the rocker activates it, which always gets in the way of whatever it was you actually intended to do with the phone. And it’s all the easier to accidentally hit the volume rocker because, again, you need to grip the damn thing so firmly in order to not destroy it. It is a feedback loop of frustration.

I needed to put it into a case just to hold it. Not protect it, just hold it.

And then there was the software. Reviews and anecdotes reported the M8 to be incredibly fast and smooth in performance. This was not my experience. Now, as a gadgeteer-on-the-cheap, my phone was a refurbished unit, so I suppose it’s possible I had just gotten a lemon, but I found the phone to be incredibly laggy and jittery in almost everything, particularly in multitasking, camera, and photo gallery. I kept researching ways to mitigate the problem, thinking it must somehow be my own fault, but nothing helped, beyond the occasional cache-clearing. And that, only a touch.

The HTC skinning of Android, Sense, is not awful. On the whole it adds features and mostly stays out of the way of the “pure” Android experience, but what it does add is mostly pointless, and in the end adds up to needless additional complexity.

One night, desperate for a change, I considered attempting a rooting and flashing of stock Android, but at the last moment I chickened out, afraid to screw something up and brick the device.

Instead, I unloaded it.

I should say, though, that I did like the camera, when it worked. Most reviews are lukewarm on the camera for being gimmicky and insufficiently stuffed with megapixels, but I found that I was getting some lovely shots with it. (See below for a couple of examples.) The editing tools were mostly useful and interesting, and so I actually consider the phone’s camera a big plus for it. But, alas.

I might have had a bum unit, but even if I did, the M8 was a big disappointment. But there is a silver (but not a “Glacial Silver”) lining to this story, as I have settled on what now feels like the phone of my dreams, and it’s a kind of reunification story, and not a reunification with iPhone like you might expect. But that’s for another post.

This photo uses the M8's dual camera setup to alter the focus of a photo after the fact.
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Mars One: Interplanetary Travel on Underpants Gnome Principles

Project_Deimos_-_Mars_Surface_Base

There are two new fascinating articles about the Mars One mission, in which a small number of people train for ten years to be sent on a one-way trip to Mars to begin the long process of colonization. Run by a private non-profit corporation, it plans to contract all of its technical needs from private industry (such as Lockheed Martin and SpaceX), and comb through its flood of applicants who want to be the first human beings to set foot on another planet and never come home. And I tell you, there could not be two more different articles on a single subject.

The first, by Daniel Engber at Popular Science, colors the project as a daring feat with a dash of underdog spunk. Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp is profiled as a kind of unlikely visionary, the included photo of him is Steve-Jobs-scratching-his-beard in intensity. The applicants are wide-eyed dreamers, undeterred by the grueling existence of drudgery and isolation for which they’ve signed themselves up, fulfilling a monumental destiny for themselves and the species. Said one applicant to Engber, "It only seems weird to you because of when and where you live. I mean, would you ask an Inuit how he can stand the boredom of all the snow and rock?”

While the piece is not un-skeptical, I think the takeaway message is best summed up by CEO Lansdorp himself.

People can’t imagine that there are people who would like to do this. They say we’re going to Mars to die. But of course we’re not going to Mars to die. We’re going to Mars to live.

Whoa, right? Come on, guys. Even Elon Musk wants us to go to Mars! LET’S GO TO MARS.

But then one reads Elmo Keep’s more investigative piece at Matter, and the shine quickly fades.

The soul of the piece is Keep’s profile of one of the applicants, a brilliant polymath who despite his smarts and skills is utterly lost in his life, and who has glommed on to the Mars One mission with a near-religious fervor. Clearly, it’s less about the mission, and more to save himself. And Keep, through her investigation, finds that like all religions, the foundation is lacking in substance.

The first thing you might ask it, how are they going to pay for this mission? This:

A reality television series is the lynchpin of Mars One’s plan. It is through this that it intends to raise the necessary capital to actually fund the mission via advertising revenue and broadcast rights. … There is currently no network buyer for the show.

For the rights to advertise and screen this Survivor in space, Mars One estimates revenues of upwards of $8 billion, basing its estimates on the most recent Olympic Games cycle’s revenues. With this money, Mars One will then be able to purchase the spacefaring technologies that, in 10 years’ time, companies like SpaceX will have perfected, ready to send the Mars One astronauts on their journey.

So they’re presuming that a show that no one has green-lighted will make as much money as the Olympics, which will then allow them to buy technology that doesn’t yet exist. If this doesn’t sound sufficiently flimsy, it gets worse. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, which is touted as one of the providers of that technology, has signed no contracts with Mars One, and has no plans with them, but only tells Keep that they are “open” to relationships with “all interested parties.” So what is the technology they’re going to use?

The details of Mars One’s mission remain vague. … [Chief Technical Officer] Arno Wielders, who rebuffs requests for an interview, [replies] through the press office that he is too busy. Instead, I am directed to the website. On a page titled “The Technology,” it states very optimistically: “No new technology developments are required to establish a human settlement on Mars. Mars One has visited major aerospace companies around the world to discuss the requirements, budget, and timelines with their engineers and business developers. The current mission plan was composed on the basis of feedback received in these meetings.”

So to sum that up in Underpants Gnome terms:

  1. Hold meetings.
  2. Get feedback from meetings.
  3. ???
  4. Send humans to Mars.

We also learn that the 200,000 “applicants” is a dubious number that includes anyone who happened upon the website and began clicking through.

Look, you really have to read all of Keep’s piece, it’s excellent and deeply troubling, and you won’t be able to hear the words “Mars One” again without also thinking of something like Herbalife or Amway.

I am also a little heartbroken by this. Of course, I always held deep skepticism about Mars One’s ability to pull off its aims, but I didn’t doubt anyone’s sincerity, but all signs from Keep’s article indicate that it’s not being taken seriously by the corporation. If that’s not the case, then it sounds as though they are deeply incompetent.

So I can only imagine how those who are devoting their lives to this mission might feel upon learning what a house of cards the whole operation appears to be. (This is presuming Keep’s reporting accurately represents the state of the mission.) Regardless of what personal holes one is trying to fill by signing up, I assume the connection many of these people now feel to Mars, to the mission, to the corporation must be quite deep. Discovering that it is less than what it claims to be could be devastating.

I could never even consider volunteering for something like this, but I too am drawn by the romance of the idea. Though I’d never be directly involved, I feel a yearning from some place deep within for my species to making bold, daring moves to expand its reach across the depths of space. As Elon Musk has said, and I’ve noted on this blog, “I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.”

Mars One, I fear, will not be maintaining the light. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of it, though, is that it has millions of people excited at the idea that someday we will. Maybe that’s enough.

Image from Project Deimos, a 1964 Mars mission concept.

The Martians' Singularity: Thoughts on "The War of the Worlds"

Correa-Martians_vs._Thunder_Child I’ve just read H.G. Wells’ original The War of the Worlds, and it was nothing like I expected. I have a completely unfounded prejudice about some of this classic sci-fi literature, wherein I presume it to be either vapid pulp or unnecessarily stuffy. (Frankenstein suffered a bit from the latter, I thought. Come on, Victor, get yourself together.) But just as I was delighted by my first reading of Jekyll and Hyde, I found War of the Worlds to be incredibly rich, suspenseful, and insightful.

Prophetic, even, as I suppose the best speculative fiction must often be. This blog’s fascination is with the intersection of technology and human life as it is lived, and in this book Wells gives us a glimpse of the future, where the Martians stand in for the marriage of human beings and machinery. Indeed, in a strange way Wells seems to be foreshadowing the Singularity, the moment that some believe is inevitable, when computing power becomes so great we fully merge with our machines, uploading our consciousness to the cloud for a kind of immortality.

Wells’ Martians were just about there. Of course, Wells had no concept of computers as we know them, but his Martians have an utter reliance on mechanization. It may be that they were physically adept on Mars itself, but on Earth the Martians, left to their own physical devices, were stultified by terrestrial gravity, and were almost totally dependent on their machines. But even if their bodies were better suited to Mars, Wells makes clear that their bodies had developed (“evolved” may not be quite correct since we don’t know whether natural selection was involved) to be physically limited to bare essentials: a powerful brain and nervous system along with grasping appendages, and almost nothing else. The machines handled the rest.

Wells’ narrator explains it this way:

[H]ere in the Martians we have beyond dispute the actual accomplishment of … a suppression of the animal side of the organism by the intelligence. To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.

So before we ever hear tales of heartless machines like HAL or emotion-starved androids like Data, here we have Wells giving us a near-perfect biological analogue: Intelligent creatures whose reliance on technology has allowed them, perhaps encouraged them, to jettison inefficient emotion. So really, the Martians are as close to the Singularity as anyone in the 19th century could have possibly invented.

What may be even more remarkable is how Wells refuses to cast the Martians as total villains. Yes, their aim is clearly to unfeelingly harvest Earth and humanity for their own consumption, but Wells ascribes no malice. The narrator, remember, has witnessed more of the horror of what the Martians are capable of than almost anyone alive, and yet he warns against judging them “too harshly,” because “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought” upon indigenous human cultures and animal species. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

What will the singularitarians and transhumanists think if our machines outpace us and, rather than bonding with us, decide to erradicate and harvest us just like Wells’ Martians? Will we be capable of making that kind of leap of perspective to understand our enemies?

There is a lesson, of course. The superior Martians, as ruthlessly efficient as they were, could not imagine that their undoing might come from beings too small to be seen by the naked eye, trusting in their superior firepower, and failing to fully grasp Earth’s biological nuance. What might we be neglecting as we bound toward the future during our own present technological revolution? What metaphorical (or literal) microbes are we overlooking?

But The War of the Worlds is not technophobic, for though it does present a powerful case for humility in the use of technology, it also admires it. The narrator makes several references to how humanity adopted much of the Martian technology all to its benefit after the invasion had failed. He speaks with esteem and awe of what the Martians had accomplished, and how they had developed genuinely meaningul efficiencies, not just in machinery, but in their own biology. For all the horror they brought, there is so much the Martians got right.

H.G. Wells may not have been a Ray Kurzweil of yesteryear, but I think he did at least intuit that humanity and technology were converging, even as far back as the 1800s. We may find that we achieve as a species much of what Wells’ invaders had, and may also be wise enough to avoid their fatal level of hubris. If Wells’ story proves prophetic, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, those Martians were us.

Performing Artists, Kill Your Guilty Conscience

My amazing and talented wife Jessica recently did some voice work to help another actress prepare for a film, for which she was paid. She was told today, however, that the film project had been canceled. This, of course, happens sometimes, and it’s not has though Jess was going to be in the thing, so no harm, no foul for her. But then she admitted to me that she felt a twinge of guilt for accepting payment for her work now that the film won’t actually go into production. When she said this to me, I think my eyes bugged out of my head, and I may have dropped whatever I was holding. Had I been sipping a beverage, I probably would have done a spit take over my laptop keyboard, necessitating a puppy-dog-eyed trip to the Genius Bar.

Guilty? For being paid for your work? I made the comparison to someone who might have built an object: If someone had constructed a set piece for the film, and the film was canceled, no one would think that the builder shouldn’t be paid. Work done is work done.

But somehow with artists, I think particularly performing artists, there is a feeling that what we do doesn’t really count as work, and that if we happen to get paid for it, it’s just icing. A happy coincidence.

Part of this is fueled by raw economics. The supply of performers (actors, singers, dancers, etc.) is far, far, far greater than the demand for them, which leads to performers doing ungodly amounts of work for nothing, and in many cases, actually paying to work in order to get “experience,” get “exposure,” and really, get “exploited.” (Say the word “showcase” to an actor and see if you can detect them dying inside.)

There’s also something about the evanescence of performance work, particularly live performance. You do it, and the work then flitters off into the ether, perhaps captured in recordings or memory, but now passed.

Finally, there’s the trope that’s related to the idea that one must “do what you love,” which can easily be misinterpreted as “since you love doing it, doing it is payment in itself.” Actors and other performers are made to feel that they are privileged just to be allowed to ply their craft at all, and that it is only a rarified few who should deign to feel entitled to compensation for it. It can feel to some as almost impolite to expect to be paid for performance-art work.

And I get it. I have been there. As someone who is usually drenched in self-loathing, I know what it is not to value one’s own labor. Adulthood and the oppression of debt and expenses has changed me a great deal, however, plus I’ve been out of the performing arts workforce for several years now. Raw necessity has hardened me somewhat when it comes to expecting fair compensation, even for work that I might do on my own time for nothing anyway. (Music, for example.)

Here’s the key difference: If I choose to do creative work on my own (and on my own terms) for no payment, all for me, that’s my decision. If you want me to do similar work for you, on your terms, you must pay me. The two are not related, but we sensitive artists types are primed to conflate them.

Back to Jess. Her work in this case was not even “performance” per se, but using her talents to help another performer with their vocal work. It was a kind of training. So it’s not even as though she got the chance to spread her creative wings and practice her craft at its fullest for the sheer joy of it. She did contract training work. And yet she still felt bad for accepting her compensation.

It makes me more than a little angry that our culture has been set up this way, so that my brilliantly talented and already overworked wife would feel bad for being paid for her services, done in her extremely scarce spare time. And it happens to all manner of creative professionals, not just performers but writers and designers too. Because it’s “creative,” it doesn’t count as real work.

Get paid. If you also happen to enjoy that work? That’s the icing. And it’s irrelevant. Get paid fairly for your work and treat it like the business transaction it is. Everyone else does.

Amazon Puts the Eye of Sauron in Your House

Amazon just announced a weird cylindrical thing called Echo that you talk to in your house. Here's their awkward ad.

Here are some of my knee-jerk responses to this.

On the device:

In the short term, it looks ridiculous. A big fat cylinder that resembles an air purifier or an ashtray that does what your smartphone already does, which is always with you. The very fact that you use your smartphone to set it up and tinker with it spells out how redundant this seems. Yes, there are kids who don't have smartphones (one hopes) who might like to talk to the Echo, but it doesn't seem to me to justify a standalone device.

In the long term, I get it. This a step toward the Star Trek Enterprise-computer, the personification of our homes. This is certainly where things are headed, and it remains an open question as to whether the computing power of that entity will be in our pockets, on our wrists, or in a standalone device.

At first blush, I don't immediately see any reason for almost anyone to buy this. But soon we'll all be using something like it. Amazon wants to have its Eye-and-Mouth-of-Sauron in your house before Siri or Android get there.

(By the way, I asked my 4-year-old boy to name the Siri-like Google Now voice on my phone, and he immediately said, "Hershey!" Perfect, right?)

On the ad:

It's terrible. It's like a parody of an ad for an embarrassing product. SNL's "The Love Toilet" seemed more sincere and practical. I can't believe how 1950s this family is. Dad makes the decisions, wants the news, asks questions about mountains. Mom cooks and doesn't understand the technology. And dad also seems like kind of a condescending jerk.

All in all, strange, strange times, my friends. Or, as Chris Hutton said on Twitter, "Amazon: first company to sell you the mics they use to listen to you."