Brief thoughts on ‘Alien: Covenant’

I had a chance to see Ridley Scott’s new film, Alien: Covenant, last night and I wanted to share a few thoughts on the film:

  • Overall, I am very torn about it. On the one hand, all the complaints that people had about scientists/crew members behaving stupidly in Prometheus are back with a vengeance. On numerous occasions, a character says “I’m just going to wander off by myself in this extremely dangerous location, but I’ll be right back!” Did these people learn nothing from Wes Craven’s Scream? The fact that it’s 20 years later and filmmakers like Ridley Scott are still using the same tropes of people acting super dumb is a disappointment.
  • On the other hand, I think this movie is one of the best prequels/requels/sidequels/sequels/whatevers ever made, in the sense that it not only improves upon previous films like Prometheus, but actually makes them more thematically resonant. The story, the plot, the ideas are really strong in this film — the characters are not.
  • Fassbender’s performance in Covenant is one of its highlights. Putting aside his blockbuster fare, Fassbender continues to choose roles that are artistically challenging, and his role in this film is no different.
  • There are Xenomorphs in this movie and they mostly look pretty weird because they are mostly CG creations. Remember when you first saw Attack of the Clones and there were a gajillion storm troopers that didn’t look quite right (because they were all CG and not practical)? That’s what it kind of feels like to see Xenomorphs move and behave in ways completely free from the constraints of their filmic predecessors.
  • DEFINITELY watch Prometheus before you see this film, if you want to be slightly less lost about WTF is giong on.

I think Covenant is definitely strong enough to recommend it. I just wish its profound ideas were in a better film. I discuss my thoughts further in this Periscope broadcast.

How most people misinterpret Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is one of the most popular poems of the 20th century. Here it is in its entirety:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Despite its popularity, it is also one of the most widely misinterpreted poems. Here’s David Orr, writing about “The Road Not Taken” for The Paris Review in 2015:

This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. It’s worth pausing here to underscore a truth so obvious that it is often taken for granted: Most widely celebrated artistic projects are known for being essentially what they purport to be. […]

Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I remember reading this poem in high school and, at a surface level, believing it represented all the best parts about American individualism. What a delightfully meta realization to understand in adulthood that I was wrong all along.

‘Logan’ is about fatherhood

Micah Peters, writing for The Ringer, on what Logan is really about (assume spoilers):

When Logan begins, there’s any number of directions it could take — a sullen cogitation on violence (what do 10-inch, razor-sharp claws really do to human flesh?); a protest piece in the age of Trumpism (it’s not a coincidence that most non-Wolverine characters are young, nonwhite, and targeted); a prestige drama about death and loss. It is all of these at various points, but the film it chooses to be makes it the superhero movie I’ve been waiting 17 years for: At its core, Logan is about hard-earned pessimism, the inertia in which it suspends you, and the practical difficulty of overcoming both.

The vehicle for overcoming that pessimism and inertia is fatherhood. About a quarter into the movie, Logan is charged with caring for a young girl with adamantium claws who, like him, is given to fits of homicidal rage. Exhausted by life and waiting impatiently to die, he doesn’t want to be the one to teach Laura Kinney — or “X-23” (played by excellent newcomer Dafne Keen) — how to quell those urges, but there’s no one else to do the job. The scene that appears in the trailer, where Charles croaks from the backseat that “someone has come along,” turns out to be in reference to a family whose truck was run off the road. But really, it’s an epigram for the movie: a call to lead by example.

A beautiful piece about what these movies can mean.

A husband’s dating profile 

This is a devastating edition of “Modern Love,” one of my favorite New York Times features:

Want to hear a sick joke? A husband and wife walk into the emergency room in the late evening on Sept. 5, 2015. A few hours and tests later, the doctor clarifies that the unusual pain the wife is feeling on her right side isn’t the no-biggie appendicitis they suspected but rather ovarian cancer […]

So many plans instantly went poof. No trip with my husband and parents to South Africa. No reason, now, to apply for the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. No dream tour of Asia with my mother. No writers’ residencies at those wonderful schools in India, Vancouver, Jakarta.

No wonder the word cancer and cancel look so similar.

The popularity of PSVR

In an article for The New York Times, Nick Bilton reveals the first sales numbers for PSVR (and thus any VR headset) ever publicly released:

The headset, PlayStation VR, has been scarce in many stores, especially in Japan, since it went on sale in October. In an interview at his Silicon Valley office on Friday, Mr. House revealed PlayStation VR’s sales for the first time, saying consumers had purchased 915,000 of the headsets as of Feb. 19, roughly four months after it went on sale.

Sony’s internal goal was to sell one million of the headsets in its first six months, by mid-April. The company will almost certainly surpass that forecast. “You literally have people lining up outside stores when they know stock is being replenished,” said Mr. House, describing the scene in Japan, one of the largest games markets […]

Sony’s primary competitors, Oculus from Facebook and HTC, have not disclosed sales of their premium headsets. One research firm, SuperData Research, estimates there were 243,000 Oculus Rift headsets and 420,000 HTC Vive headsets sold by the end of last year.

Those sales numbers are interesting, and make the PSVR sound much more popular in Japan than here. The lack of a killer app makes me loathe to invest in PSVR. My colleague, Devindra Hardawar, had a pretty good review of the product when it was first released and nothing about it made it seem like a must-buy.

That being said, the fact that I already have a PS4 Pro means PSVR is likely going to be my first VR purchase when the time is right.

The benevolent deception of fake progress bars

Kaveh Waddell, writing for The Atlantic, on how some programs like TurboTax use fake progress bars in their UIs:

It’s not because TurboTax delights in messing with its clients. Instead, the site’s artificial wait times are an example of what Eytan Adar, a professor of information and computer science at the University of Michigan, calls “benevolent deception.” In a paper he published in 2013 with a pair of Microsoft researchers, Adar described a wide range of design decisions that trick their users—but end up leaving them better off.

Benevolent deceptions can hide uncertainty (like when Netflix automatically loads default recommendations if it doesn’t have the bandwidth to serve personalized ones), mask system hiccups to smooth out a user’s experience (like when a progress bar grows at a consistent rate, even if the process it’s visualizing is stuttering), or help people get used to a new form of technology (like the artificial static that Skype plays during quiet moments in a conversation to convince users the call hasn’t been dropped).

From my experience with TurboTax, the fake progress bars work. If “checking my taxes” was instantaneous, it’d probably feel way less satisfying, and I’d be more doubtful that the software was functioning correctly. That being said, as Waddell points out at the article’s end, these positive feelings can also have some insidious effects, like making the software seem more complicated and valuable than it truly is.

Twitter Thread of the Day: Zeynep Tufekci on “Liberal Outrage”

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I see tons of amazing dialogue and reflections. Twitter Thread of the Day is a feature on my blog where I’ll try to share one thread that was particularly interesting, smart, moving, or impactful for me.

Today’s TTOTD comes from Zeynep Tufecki, a scholar whose work I’ve admired for quite awhile. In the wake of a conservative personality’s book getting canceled and his speaking invitation at CPAC getting rescinded, Tufecki tweeted some trenchant insights about the forces that are really responsible for this. It’s not liberal outrage.

[Note: If you’re ever featured here and don’t want to be, feel free to get in touch with me via email at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net]

The nightmare of the Peggy Couch from West Elm

I don’t usually blog about furniture here, but this post by Anna Hezel at The Awl about the Peggy Couch from West Elm really got to me:

Around when the throw pillows finally arrived, the couch began to disintegrate in small ways. We would scooch across a cushion at the wrong angle, and a button would pop off, leaving a fraying hole behind. We would lean back slightly too far, and all of the cushions would shift forward and over the edge of the couch in unison. As soon as one button had fallen off of our couch, it was like a spigot had been turned, allowing all of the other buttons to fall off, too. I emailed customer service and asked if this was normal. They sent me a button-repair kit, indicating that this probably happens a lot. The kit was backordered, so it arrived two full months later and contained a wooden dowel, two buttons, and some directions that didn’t make sense. One direction was to “Hold the cushion properly and make sure the pointed end of the stick is all the way through, until you can see both ends of the stick on each side of the cushion.” I tried in earnest to follow the directions, but the wooden dowel would not fit into the buttonholes, and the entire exercise left me with fewer buttons than I started with.

Every component of this story is nuts, from the fleet of disaffected Peggy purchasers out there trying to warn people against this couch to the awful repair kit that West Elm sends out for people having problems. Most importantly: West Elm says the couch is supposed to last 1-3 years with light use. That is an insultingly short period of time, and not a meaningful upgrade from, say, an IKEA couch. In fact, it may actually be worse despite being more expensive.

I have friends who have had bad experiences at West Elm. After reading this article and taking that into account, I can’t imagine wanting to shop there for any expensive furniture. Instead, if you really want something that’s a big improvement over Craigslist/IKEA, I’d recommend a store like Room and Board. IKEA’s high end has also improved significantly over the years, and may be worth investigating.

Update: The Peggy Couch has now apparently been removed from West Elm’s site:

Pizza supply chain management is difficult

Imagine working at Pizza Hut and being told you need to learn how to make a heart-shaped pizza for just the span of a few days. It would probably seem like a significant imposition on your skillset without very much reward. Now multiply that feeling by 10,000 and you know how pizza franchise workers all around the country felt this week for Valentine’s Day.

The results speak for themselves. Deadspin has a round-up of heart-shaped pizza disasters from this week. A few of the best ones follow:

The stupefying odds

A spectacular data visualization by The Pudding shows how difficult it is for a band to break out and make it big:

The vast majority of bands never do make it. Acts break up, give up or decide they have other things they want to do with their lives.

For every Chance the Rapper there are thousands of rappers that never play a show with more than a couple hundred people. For every Lake Street Dive, there are hundreds of promising bands that break up because they lost on their members.

To see the NYC concert trajectory of different bands, below you can search for any of the 3,000 bands that played a show in 2013, and at least one more show from 2014 to 2016. Perhaps some of them are on their way to making it, and it just hasn’t happened yet.

How to shoot in a hall of mirrors

[This post contains some very minor plot info from John Wick 2]

Last fall Spike Jonze released a new ad for KENZO fragrance with actress Margaret Qualley:

One of the most spectacular sequences in this ad takes place around 1:50 in, when Margaret dances in front of a hall of mirrors. As the camera does precise, gorgeous movements around her, you never once glimpse a reflection of the rig that the filmmakers are using.

Ian Failes at Inverse has a great explanation of how this was achieved. According to VFX supervisor Janelle Croshaw:

Doron Kipper and Jesse James Chisolm (from Digital Domain) spent hours surveying the mirrored staircase. They used tiny pieces of tape on the mirrors to capture the points needed. Lots and lots of panoramas and high dynamic range images (HDRIs) were taken. During the shoot a clean plate was captured with the Technocrane without Margaret and then the Technocrane was cleared out and a clean plate was captured with a handheld cam. Spike and team were super cooperative in clearing the frame for as long as we needed which was very cool considering those mirrors pretty much reflected two whole floors of the Dorothy Chandler theater.

All of the data collected enabled us to build an environment in compositing software Nuke and also achieve a camera track usable for projections (where the live action footage is ‘projected’ onto a CG version of the environment to enable camera movement). The tracking geometry was mirrored to represent the reflections in the mirror and that mirrored geometry was used to muscle through the matchmove. It wasn’t easy and Jim Moorhead, our matchmove artist, put so much care in to this shot. In the end there was a lot of hand painted clean-up and the shot was split amongst two companies and multiple artists. Artist Rob Fitzsimmons became the keeper of the shot, managing the paint patches and ensuring the quality level was kept to the highest standards. His perfectionism and strong eye made the shot as seamless as it is.

This video came to mind for me recently because I just saw John Wick 2, which has an even more impressive sequence that takes place in a room full of mirrors. I’m not sure whether similar techniques were used, but director Chad Stahelski does describe his process briefly in an interview with Movieweb.

A few thoughts on the ‘Legion’ season premiere

Noah Hawley’s new show Legion premiered on FX last night. Based on the X-Men character created by Chris Claremont and Bill SienkiewiczLegion tells the story of David Haller, one of the most powerful mutants ever, with formidable telekinetic powers. In the show, he also struggles from paranoid schizophrenia.

Overall, I thought this was a really bold debut, and am interested to see how they’ll develop this character and story further. A few observations:

  • The look of this show is incredible. The production design, the set pieces, the camera movements — it has all the trappings of a prestige drama, even though it’s a TV show about a lesser known X-Men character.
  • That being said, some of the visual effects are hit or miss, like the final escape sequence, which had some moments that honestly looked unfinished.
  • Like The Usual Suspects, this episode had two tropes that don’t usually go well together: The Unreliable Narrator and The Non-Linear Story. I think they barely pulled it off (which is impressive, given the immense level of difficulty)
  • Dan Stevens is almost completely unrecognizable in the titular role. From his physique all the way to his nervous tics, he’s made an amazing transformation.
  • I really loved the way they deal with the concept of a mutant who wasn’t aware of how powerful he was. The idea of his captors racing against the clock to kill/threaten him before he could use his powers against him was well explained and executed.
  • The concept of a mutant being able to get projected into someone’s memory is pretty interesting. Very Eternal Sunshines of the Spotless Mind-esque.
  • Using pools and electricity to stop powerful beings never works well (see also: It Follows)

I also recorded a few thoughts on Periscope if you want to see/hear me discuss it.

This story will break your heart

Hailey Branson-Potts has a story at the LATimes that will wreck your soul: a profile of Mohamed Bzeek, a Muslim in LA who takes in foster children with terminal illnesses:

The children were going to die. Mohamed Bzeek knew that. But in his more than two decades as a foster father, he took them in anyway — the sickest of the sick in Los Angeles County’s sprawling foster care system. He has buried about 10 children. Some died in his arms.

Now, Bzeek spends long days and sleepless nights caring for a bedridden 6-year-old foster girl with a rare brain defect. She’s blind and deaf. She has daily seizures. Her arms and legs are paralyzed.

Of the 35,000 children monitored by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, there are about 600 children at any given time who fall under the care of the department’s Medical Case Management Services, which serves those with the most severe medical needs, said Rosella Yousef, an assistant regional administrator for the unit. There is a dire need for foster parents to care for such children.

And there is only one person like Bzeek.

Being a foster parent is something I’ve considered over the years, but it must take a special kind of person to repeatedly be a foster parent for children who are terminally ill. The willingness to endure the psychological toll of caring for these children, and still have the wherewithal to welcome new in new ones, time after time. It is unimaginable.

God bless people like Bzeek.

Trump’s border wall will be horrible for the planet

A new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates the environmental destruction Trump’s proposed border wall will wreak upon the planet:

A 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) wall would require an estimated 275 million cubic feet of concrete. It would release as much as 1.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to Christoph Meinrenken, an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. That’s more than the annual emissions from every home in Pittsburgh.

That’s just for the raw materials alone. This is to say nothing of all the machinery that will be required to put it there, as well as the displacement of indigenous creatures and associated damage.

For a great visualization of the madness, check out this short film from The Intercept that shows just how much ground there is to cover.

Women only said 27% of the words in the top 10 films of 2016

Amber Thomas, writing for freecodecamp, about seeing Rogue One:

I went into the movie theater expecting to see men and women fighting side by side. I left feeling certain that I could count every female character from the movie on one hand. While Jyn was the main character, I was profoundly aware that she was often the only woman in any scene.

It felt strangely familiar to have a lead female character be so outnumbered. Then I realized that Jyn and Princess Leia suffered the same inequality 39 years apart. I was overwhelmed with a need to know exactly how female representation in Star Wars movies has changed. But it seemed unfair to compare movies made today with movies made decades ago. So instead, I decided to look for female equality across the Top 10 Worldwide Highest Grossing Films of 2016.

The whole blog post is worth reading, as her methodology is fascinating (not to mention the findings).

The story of your life

Tell it often, and tell it to yourself and to people:

Organizing the past into a narrative isn’t just a way to understand the self, but also to attempt to predict the future. Which is interesting, because the storytelling device that seems most incompatible with the realities of actual life is foreshadowing. Metaphors, sure. As college literature class discussion sections taught me, you can see anything as a metaphor if you try hard enough. Motifs, definitely. Even if you’re living your life as randomly as possible, enough things will happen that, like monkeys with typewriters, patterns will start to emerge.

The dating crisis in two religions

Jon Birger establishes that it’s religious demographics, not values, that are upending assumptions about marriage:

Multiple studies show that college-educated Americans are increasingly reluctant to marry those lacking a college degree. This bias is having a devastating impact on the dating market for college-educated women. Why? According to 2012 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are 5.5 million college-educated women in the U.S. between the ages of 22 and 29 versus 4.1 million such men. That’s four women for every three men. Among college grads age 30 to 39, there are 7.4 million women versus 6.0 million men—five women for every four men.

The Decline of Car Culture

An interesting examination of why car culture is going away for millenials:

Americans drive fewer miles per year — down about 9 percent over the past two decades. The percentage of 19-year-olds with driver’s licenses has dropped from 87 percent two decades ago to 70 percent last year. Most teens now do not get licensed within a year of becoming eligible, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

One of the more interesting insights to me: How parenting has changed from an authoritarian institution into how “parents just want to be your friends,” mitigating the need for rebellion.