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Archive for the ‘habits’ Category

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” is an adage that I’ve never agreed with.  Once upon a time that was true, perhaps, but covers are purposefully designed to signal helpful information about the book. Here’s the NYT fiction and business bestsellers for the week:

These two differ slightly in tone, I feel.

To be sure, the book cover won’t tell you everything about what’s inside–and it may try to mislead you–but the cover is a quick and easy way to get a sense of what the book’s about.

The opening title sequences for TV show serve a similar function. In mere seconds a well-designed sequence can signal all sorts of important things about the show, like genre, style, tone, and production value. Many of these are even able to give users a sense of the show without resorting to cheesy character montages or “turn and smile” shots as parodied here:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The received wisdom is that opening credits have gotten shorter on average over the years. Probably true, but hard to know for sure since the variability of lengths has gone way up.  Game of Thrones and Dexter’s opening credits each run over 1’40”, while Breaking Bad’s runs about 15 seconds. Many shows like Glee and Brothers & Sisters have a mere one-second flash of the title card.  These days, opening credits are like the proverbial box of chocolates.

Because title sequences have gone from perfunctory kitsch to an important stylized element, they’ve gotten a lot better. In the last post I gave you my TV watching background; here’s some of my favorite sequences from shows (not far) past and present:

  • LOST (ABC, 2004-2010)

It’s still remarkable to me how much this simple sequence accomplishes. I didn’t start watching until three seasons had aired, mostly because the I couldn’t see how a show about stranded plane wreck survivors could be compelling. When I finally gave the show a chance, this sequence quickly made me realize my preconception of the show was quite wrong. And there’s just three elements:  The show title in skinny gray letters coming into focus as they drift past on a sea of empty blackness, accompanied by an ominous musical cue (credited to JJ Abrams himself) that’s really more sound effect than music. Hardly big-budget (the producers say they created this in 15 minutes with After Effects and I believe it), but perfectly capturing the mood of the show. The splash of water in my tumbler of MacCutcheon is the oscillating whistling sound in the last few seconds. Perfect.

  • Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present)

No doubt about it: Mad Men is a cool show with cool opening titles. The style is distinctive and slick, and the imagery is unique and allows for some always welcome visual metaphor.

I don't get it.

But more than anything, it’s just cool. The music, “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2, is modern electronica but works despite the show being set in the 1960s (for an example of modern music not working for a period show, see Boardwalk Empire).  And that final shot, all bass and drums with the silhouette of Don Draper casually slumped in a chair, head cocked in concentration, makes for one of the best title cards you’ll see on TV.

  • Weeds (Showtime, 2005 – present)

There’s nothing mind-shattering about this one (and I stopped watching the show several seasons ago), but I almost never skipped through this sequence. The song is catchy (and in later seasons, they do covers to mix it up a bit) and matches the imagery of suburban clones quite perfectly.

  • The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-present)

Another great example of how credits can set tone and mood. Quick tracking shots, a bit of time lapse,  desaturated colors, weird filter effects. The main characters are introduced through scorched images of their pre-zombie life, nicely providing the star billing and a lil’ bit of character information. Last but not least there’s the great theme from Bear McCreary, whom I first discovered on Battlestar Galactica. You can watch him talk about composing The Walking Dead theme here, and to see a very cool fan-made opening titles of a different flavor, click here. Season 2 is filming all around me here in Atlanta as we speak, a fact that excites me more than I should admit.

  • Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present)

Watch this and marvel at the ability for what’s essentially a 100-second information dump to be visually arresting and reward multiple viewings with its stylized details. Game of Thrones has a complex storyline involving seven main factions spread across a vast world, so it’s inevitable a map is going to be involved at some point*. Instead of clunkily inserting maps with animated dotted lines into any episode that called for it, the show wisely chooses to give viewers a quick geography lesson at the top of each episode, and the locations visited on the map change depending on the episode. This saves flow and story, and having not read the books, the credits have helped me quite a bit as the show jumps from place to place. But looking at a map at the start of every episode would quickly become tiresome if not for some great animation, attention to detail, and a pounding score composed by Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi. I love the look of the map, which is made to look like a practical model (even the sun has its astrolabe), but is bent inside a sphere to give a better perspective as the viewer flies through Westeros and beyond. The way way the various kingdoms rise as cogs mesh and gears turn is  a fantastic way to depict the intricate interrelations between the characters. The details are wonderful too: the etchings on the astrolabe, the sigils on the main buildings of each kingdom and beside each credit, the rendering of the water (particularly at 1’20”), and my favorite detail, the  lenses flicking in and out when the camera zooms,  as if we were examining the world through a spyglass.

*The Pacific miniseries had a similar problem, so HBO decided they would do two-minute introductory history lessons voiced by Tom Hanks; even the producers didn’t think they worked. And while I’m at it, might as well mention that I thought the titles sequence was a bit overlong and grand, but I always have time to rewatch the Band of Brothers opening.

  • Dexter (Showtime, 2006-present)

How would you introduce a show about a guy who is by day a mild-mannered blood spatter analyst for the police and by night a serial killer who targets other murderers? If you answered anything other than: “a montage of his mundane morning routine,” then this sequence proves you were way past wrong. This is my favorite titles sequence (evah!) because it takes a straightforward but absolutely inspired concept and executes it (heh) beautifully. The cinematography is exhilarating, and the jaunty but slightly demented music by Rolfe Kent adds a a dark shade of humor and mischief. Like LOST, this is also an example of a sequence that turned on its head what I thought the show–really the character of Dexter–was going to be. Seeing the violence of breakfast is not only inherently fun, but deftly communicates important subtext about protagonist Dexter; he’s someone who has mostly learned to mimic the rhythms of a normal life,  but whose ‘dark passenger’ peeks out upon close inspection. Funny how dental floss resembles garrote wire in his hands…

About a week ago foremost TV critic Alan Sepinwall coined the TSORIS stat (Theme Song Over Remainder in Show), which attempts to capture how much of a show’s legacy is due to its theme song (Gilligan’s Island: 81%, Rockford Files: 44%).  Nothing on my list would get a very high score for Opening Credits Over Remainder in Show (OCORIS), and I’m hard-pressed to think of a titles sequence to a show I didn’t like, let alone one that would stick in my mind more than the show itself.

In any event, you’ve seen some of my picks, so what are yours? Any notably bad ones? Or how about good nominees for high OCORIS scores?

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s excellent Twitter feed directed me to this story:

Electronic cigarettes don’t burn and don’t give off smoke. But they’re at the center of a social and legal debate over whether it’s OK to “light up” in places where regular smokes are banned. Despite big differences between cigarettes and their electronic cousins, several states, workplaces and localities across the country have explicitly included e-cigs in smoking bans.

Here’s a video overview for a typical e-cigarette:

The article notes that e-cigs are designed to “address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing, exhaling something that looks like smoke and the hand motion — without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes.” Since the smoke that is emitted is actually water vapor, users call the activity “vaping” instead of smoking.

So if it’s just water vapor, then how could e-cigs fall under smoking bans (about which I’ve written critically here). Well, the FDA says the liquid nicotine cartridges contain “detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed.” Not saying much really, but if even if e-cigs were toxic, smoking bans are ostensibly about second-hand effects, so what’s the harm in water vapor?

There’s no research to say if any of the ‘detectable toxins to which users could potentially be exposed’ might also potentially expose third-parties, but that’s not stopping the awesomely named American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. In their view, e-cigs should be banned until it’s proven they “do no harm.” In that case, says the spokesperson with courageous unambiguity, “we’ll have to revisit” the ban.

Several days ago, Robin Hanson blogged about how the status of a risky activity seems to affect our desire to regulate it: climbing Everest is a deadly activity and no one thinks to call for a ban, but the far less dangerous lawn darts? Fuggedaboutit! This status-driven impulse might apply to smoking bans as well.  Smoking, while once considered classy and cool, has become so low-status that smokers often feel the need to apologize for their behavior every time they want to light up. Sure, there’s a defensible public health argument for smoking bans, but then how to explain this anecdote at the beginning of the article?

That’s not smoke coming out of Cliff Phillips’ mouth.

But that hasn’t stopped others from cringing, making remarks, waving their hands in their faces and coughing at the sight of the vapor from his electronic cigarette.

And:

Some e-cig users have even taken to “stealth vaping,” a method in which they hold the vapor in their mouth long enough for it to mostly dissipate or exhale the vapor discretely.

E-cigs are made to look like regular cigarettes, but functionally they are little alike.  In fact,  e-cigs are quite similar to nicotine inhalers.  If e-cigs were identical in every way except for the emission of water vapor, would they be causing such a hubbub? Or what if manufacturers agreed to model e-cigs to look like pieces of excrement? That way those who enjoy vaping can do so in peace, and restaurant and bar patrons can still look down their blissfully non-irritated noses at the habit.

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Via Marginal Revolution, I discover something peculiar about flights and blasé about Germans:

Bei dem im Flugzeug herrschenden niedrigen Luftdruck steigt die sogenannte Geruchs- und Geschmacksschwelle – Kräuter, Gewürze, Salz und Zucker müssen höher dosiert werden, um wahrgenommen zu werden. Man rieche die Speisen und Getränke “als hätte man einen Schnupfen”, sagte Burdack-Freitag der Zeitung. Salz werde 20 bis 30 Prozent, Zucker 15 bis 20 Prozent weniger intensiv geschmeckt.

My literalish translation:

With the low air pressure prevalent in an airplane, the so-called smell and taste threshold rises–herbs, spices, salt and sugar must be given in higher doses in order to be discerned. One smells the meals and drinks “as if one had a cold,” said Burdack-Freitung to the newspaper. Salt was tasted 20 to 30 percent less acutely, and sugar 15 to 20 percent less.

This Lufthansa-backed study is offered as explanation for the inordinate fondness of Germans to order tomato juice on a flight (more popular than beer, according the article). As we all know, when low air pressure conspires to make your taste buds weak, the best way to kick it up a notch is to order tomato juice.

Two thoughts:

  • Like some people, I have an airplane drink, which is something you only order (or drink mostly) on flights. Mine happens to be apple juice, because apfelsaft was the simplest drink order I had confidence saying on my first flight to Germany–since then I’ve always gotten at least one glass per flight anywhere.  Apple juice is also the drink I associate most strongly with Germany.
  • One of my German colleagues in Schwerin had cousins in Texas and spent a lot of time there growing up. He scoffed the German dislike for spice and nearly killed me a few times because I was one of the few with whom he could share his love for hot sauce.

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Nelson Mandela is an icon of statesmanship, a principled activist who spent decades in jail for his efforts to bring an end to apartheid and the start of multi-racial democracy in South Africa.  In addition, he can also help me with the ladies!

A similar survey carried out in December for the National Year of Reading Campaign found half of men and one third of woman have lied about what they have read to try and impress friends. The men polled said they would be most impressed by women who read news websites, Shakespeare or song lyrics. Women said men should have read Nelson Mandela’s biography or Shakespeare.

I also learn from reading the article that my own reading habits are feminine and rare:

A study of reading habits showed almost half of women are ‘page turners’ who finish a book soon after starting it compared to only 26 per cent of men.

I’m a page turner. Check.

The survey 2,000 adults [sic] also found those who take a long time to read books and only managed one or two a year were twice as likely to be male than female.

I manage much more. Check.

Men are also more likely to have shelves full of books that have never been opened.

Dog-eared pages and cracked spines greet any browser of my bookshelf. Check, although I tend not to collect books anymore.

The only similarities between the sexes came among those who have two books on the bedside table at once and who start one book on the middle of reading another, switching easily. Twelve per cent of women were in this category – exactly the same number as men.

As I’ve written before, having a reading pool with multiple titles is an old–and evidently unique–habit of mine. Check.

On a related note, blogger Steven Berlin Johnson makes one novel point about the Kindle that makes it even more appealing:

When he was on John Stewart, Jeff Bezos mentioned that the Kindle was great for one-handed reading, which got a salacious chuckle from the audience (and Stewart), but I think it’s best for no-handed reading: i.e., when you’re reading while eating a meal, one of life’s great pleasures. It’s almost impossible to read a paperback while eating, and you really have to snap the spine of a hardcover to get it to lie flat, but the Kindle just sits there on the table helpfully while you cut up your teriyaki.

As a kid, my family ate out often. My parents tended to talk about work the whole time, so to stave off silent boredom I began bringing books to the booths and got pretty good at eating while reading (One wonders whether my love of chicken fingers had as much to do with their ability to be eaten blindly with one hand as it did with taste.).  I wholeheartedly agree that the practice is one of life’s great pleasures, but I almost never do it anymore because of the difficulties outlined above. Johnson’s observation, however, gives me hope that one day I will again experience the sublimity of restaurant reading. I can see it now, some time hence: sitting at a fancy restaurant and shushing my date as I read Mandela’s biography.

HT: MR

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One of my more disruptive habits is watching a lot of interviews, debates, and lectures online. Many’s the time when work or bed was delayed because of some 8-part video on YouTube that grabbed me and refused to let go. In the past week, this habit led to the curious coincidence of seeing two Charlie Rose interviewees use economic logic to discuss something about their professions, which of course I got a kick out of.

Marc Andreessen, who pioneered the web browser (and who has appeared on this blog before), spoons out his serving 39 minutes in.

ANDREESSEN: Silicon Graphics was a fantastically successful computer company in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that actually got put out of business by the PC. The engineers got freed up as a consequence of SGI being put out of business by the PC, went to work, and among other things are now at companies like Nvidia and ATI, that make these graphics chips and pose a significant challenge to Intel. Right? And so the cycle repeats.

The key thing happening there is innovation happened, right, and somebody — in that case, right, somebody benefited, somebody got damaged. But the process of damaging right at that point, Silicon Graphics, was a tragedy as far as Silicon Graphics was concerned, but it freed up those brilliant engineers to go on and create the next generation of technology.

(…)

And it’s that level of sort of, you know, turnover and dynamism and spin-offs and start-ups and venture capital that keeps the whole thing going.

It’d be hard to get a better example of creative destruction than that.

In the second interview, Conan O’Brien claims we’re in a “Golden Era of TV” (11’30”)*.

ROSE: Why do you think that is?

O’BRIEN: I think–the competition…There’s so much more television now, and I think to stand out, the writing had to get better.

And I think there’s a freedom in television that a lot of people aren’t finding in the movies. So, I’ll watch a Lost episode–I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really don’t know who’s gonna to live, who’s gonna die, I don’t know what they’re going to find. You watch an episode of 24, you watch an episode of House, and I think the overall quality of the ideas is a lot higher sometimes than what you see in the movies.

And I think it might be because there’s more competition, and I think clearly increased competition has been good for late night shows as well. There are more late night shows and there’s more comedy on television, and it’s forcing all of us to work harder than we probably would have.  If I had a monopoly on late night shows, I don’t know that I’d be working as hard as I do.

Straightforward stuff straight from Smith, but wait, there’s more (16’25”)!

ROSE: Do Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert represent anything new? A trend, or a direction?

O’BRIEN:…[I]t’s the degree to which you can specialize now, do you know what I mean? I think in a three network world, it was hard to specialize to that degree. Now, these different shows–you know, Jon’s done it brilliantly and Stephen Colbert has done it brilliantly–they can specialize. There used to be shows that could comment on the news but then had to do other things as well. You really feel like well now they have the freedom to just take, in a half-hour, take that to a further degree than it’s been taken before.

Adam Smith claimed the division of labor as one of the primary sources of the wealth of nations. If I’m better at milling wood and you’re better at milking cows, we will be more productive by specializing in what we’re good at and trading for the rest rather than aiming for self-sufficiency.  This wealth-creating division of labor is, however, “limited by the extent of the market.” If you and I are the only people on earth, in other words, it’s unlikely I’ll be earning my keep as an art critic.  Conversely, a large market allows for large degrees of specialization, just as hundreds of cable channels allow for more specific shows.

Conan later wonders whether TV will continue such that “everyone is working a certain very specific niche.” It’s not clear how he feels about that proposition, but Adam Smith did fret about a worker so specialized he only performed “a few simple operations” for his job. This man, says Smith, “has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention” and “naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

Yeesh!

*I couldn’t agree more. Movies rarely strike my fancy these days, but there are many TV shows I enjoy tremendously.

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Do You Hear What I Hear?

About the time I arrived in Germany in August of last year, The Economist began releasing an audio edition which contains word-for-word recordings of each article from the paper. Since my print edition was still being sent to an address in the US, and one can only read so many articles online before eyeballs protest, I availed myself of the service immediately.  At first I mimicked my US reading habit by listening only to articles of interest, but within a few weeks I decided I would make it a goal to read or listen to every article in each week’s paper. Well over a year later my goal has become something of an obsessive compulsion, and I’d estimate I’ve missed less than a few percent of the thousands of articles run since I started.

The means by which I have accomplished this have changed as I moved about Germany and back to the United States. A typical edition of The Economist has 70-80 articles and the audio edition will run somewhere between 7-8 hours.  A typical article will run maybe 5 or 6 minutes, and the ironically-named “briefings” will usually last 15-20 minutes. My reading pace is a good deal faster than the newsreaders can talk, however, so I started by saving the longer articles for online reading and listening to the shorter ones while sitting idly on public transportation or walking to class.

After I moved to Schwerin, however, I did not have internet access in my flat and had a very short bike ride to work.  Luckily I soon started a jogging habit, which gave me a new way to knock out several articles a day (laugh if you must, but I found listening to the news better than any music). Soon I was reading just 20 percent or so of the articles and listening to the rest.

With my knee out of commission as I returned to America (perhaps now healing–I ran two miles this morning with no pain), I needed to figure out a new way to do things. Listening to the articles on my 25-minute walk/drive to work was a no-brainer, and I also have begun listening while in the shower as my desktop speaker can easily be placed on the bathroom sink.  With this setup, I read less than 5 articles per week and let my iPod handle the rest.

Nonetheless, I still get exasperated by the handful of longer articles each week. The longer the article, the more inefficient it is for me to listen to it, but it is arduous trying to avoid having a clump of giant articles to read at the end of the week.  My dismay is thus palpable as I start on the Christmas double issue:


The double issue is really just a regular edition with about 15 jumbo-sized articles on various topics.  The average length is north of 20 minutes, and one article examining how Darwinism could improve policy is nearly 40 minutes long (!), almost certainly the longest I’ve yet encountered.

To be fair, I have two weeks to tackle this behemoth, but it looks like I may have to pencil in an inordinately long shower to do the job.

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