01 January 2021

(Un)Lucky Number 7: Putting It All On Green

I couldn't find a good way to transition to this from my earlier part about finding out one of my cables went bad, so I decided to make it a separate entry. 

A handful of my coworkers had mentioned recently "going green" as in trading their apples for androids. I can certainly understand the frustrations people have with their iPhones, be it the dreaded "Apple tax" or the toy-like interface. Seriously, when I had to send in my Xperia Z Ultra to get fixed, and I got a 5C to use in the potentially 6-8 week meanwhile, I laughed when I first swiped through the menu. For starters, the screen was absurdly small compared to my Sony Phablet, which was as much a digital sketchbook as it was a phone. Then there was the notable lack of widgets. Apple has finally fixed this, though I almost hesitate to call it a fix as they weren't anywhere near as useful as they could have been on my Android. Maybe I simply didn't have the kind of workflow that benefitted from some of them, but nonetheless the "icons-only" screen that rolled out in front of me felt like a step down and backwards. On the whole, the sole saving grace of the 5C was the camera. I could certainly take photos and shoot video with my Android, but somehow it always felt more than a little bit unpolished, like it was an afterthought in the design. This was especially annoying because this was a Sony product. I'd used Sony camcorders back in high school and college, to say nothing of all the other Sony products I'd owned like various TV's or my minidisc or certainly all of my Playstation stuff. 

In fact, when the Z came back from getting its battery fixed, I kept the 5C around to use as a camera, though mostly for around the house whenever the cats did something cute or I wanted to shoot a video for my YouTube channel. A few months of that arrangement later, and I inadvertently warmed up to the idea of the iPhone being a permanent fixture. I was about to go on a trip to see family, and I didn't want to bother with bringing two cables/chargers, so I "temporarily" activated the 5C again and left the Xperia at home. As the saying goes, I went Mac and never looked back. Given my favorite feature about the Ultra was its screen, it only made sense to phase it out. I'd migrated all of my drawing workflows to my iPad, so a phone with a big screen was rather unnecessary. The 5C was so lightweight in the same bag as the iPad compared to the Z I moved it to my pocket because it was possible I'd forget to pack it in the morning. 

The 5C eventually got traded in for the SE, and that's still one of my favorite iPhones. That got traded for the 7 I currently have now, and that's been an unremarkable upgrade despite my initial hype when the was first announced. Of course, it's been a few years since then, and I'm far more impressed with the newest version of the SE, as I previously wrote about.

Here's my perspective, apart from them being easily by far the best cameras I've ever owned (that don't have interchangeable lenses or true optical zooms), what I like best about my iPhones is how they play nice with my iPad. They also play nice with my Mac miniAirdrop alone has been a legitimate lifesaver. Forget those Apple stickers you get with every purchase, where's my Airdrop sticker? 

(Un)Lucky Number 7

 I woke up this morning to find my iPhone 7 had not actually charged in the night like it was supposed to. Thinking the cable and become dislodged from the outlet, I checked both ends and found everything was where it should be. Upon unplugging the lightning connector from my phone and plugging it back in, I got greeted with the dreaded "accessory may not be supported" message, that lightning bolt icon flashing over the battery ever so fleetingly. Restarting the phone did nothing for it. I thought maybe I'd tripped over the cable at some point in the night and finally caused some internal fault in its braided beauty. That didn't seem to be the problem, however as I plugged in my iPad and didn't even get the "not charging" message I used to get when I plugged it into anything less than 2 amps. To further add to the confusion, I took the iPhone into my office where my iPad's charger is and plugged it in. Charged like it should. 

Here's the results of my ensuing mix-and-match experiment. There's probably a better way to organize these data, but I can't think of one right now, especially since there turned out to be a time factor involved (that is, what would once work suddenly wouldn't). 

Not noted here is the turnover. One of my favorite features about the lightning connector is being reversible. However, when I plugged Cable 1 into the iPhone charger, it first showed as working with the iPad. Then, I turned it around and that got me the "not supported" message. Turning it back around to the "working" side now suddenly didn't work at all, "not supported" message and all. So, I guess it's just an intermittent cable that finally bit it. 

For further background, both Cable 1 and Cable 2 are third party. Cable 2 is a shorter cable that was provided by my cell carrier. Cable 1 came in a 3-pack from Amazon. Both are also braided, which isn't always a mark of higher quality, but certainly helps on the durability front, which often leads to cables failing. 


31 December 2020

The Adobe House Built On Sand

20+ years an industry standard. 10 free stock images.

Adobe's Flash is being forcibly retired at the end of the year due to its shortcomings on the security front. I don't pretend to understand what that means. All it makes me think of is when I was in a training class for a call center job. Someone somewhere had once upon a time embedded Flash-based versions of Sonic the Hedgehog and Tetris into a blank Excel document so as to slip it past our supervisors and the IT department, ensuring that each training class would have access to these little distractions, kind of like a chain letter. 

Many people are very saddened by this for all the various Flash-based websites and small games that are going to be rendered more or less totally pumpkin when the clock strikes midnight. There have been some efforts to preserve these games, including the creation of a specially made platform that emulates the old school player. 

A wise one once said that writing a great novel is a very difficult thing to do because there have been so many books over so many millennia by so many people. However, once you achieve that status of having written a great novel, you're more or less set for life and beyond because your book will still be available in some way, shape, or form. The biggest innovation in publishing in the last hundred years has been the e-book, which only furthers the preservation principle past the printed page. Video games have the exact opposite problem because even if making a great game was a little easier, the longevity is non-existent because the hardware used to play the games changes so rapidly that unless you actively update and rebuild your game for each new platform, you're going to be left in the dust. Furthering the preservation principle in the other direction is the fact that some games are made with specific hardware in mind and it may simply be impossible to port the game to a newer system. 

This is what always bothers me when someone refers to a piece of software as an industry standard. Flash was one such industry standard, especially in animation. To be fair, Adobe reworked Flash into a separate piece of software called Animate, so it's still technically as much an industry standard as it is proprietary software owned lock, stock, and barrel by Adobe. I remember once looking around for some kind of lower-end, budget-friendly competitor once upon a time and every option coming up short. The student version of Flash started at around 1250USD, and there was simply no way I could justify that kind of price, even as a film major with an interest in animation. Instead, I bought a copy of Poser 4 for about 100, used it for 2-ish years then practically forgot I had it for the next 10 years before finding the discs in a binder... where they still are to this day.

At least with Photoshop, Adobe offered a pared-down version called Elements that would sometimes come bundled with a drawing tablet or a photo scanner. They never offered any such option for Flash. There were some third party options that could export an animation to Flash, but these were very hit-or-miss, and most simply didn't run on my computer by way of the partially-eaten piece of fruit on the casing. When Adobe rolled out the Creative Cloud suite, their "software as a service" model with monthly subscription fees in lieu of an upfront cost, I think I felt about every emotion possible between mildly enraged and extremely annoyed in one single sentence, "WHERE THE FUCK WAS THIS VERY WELCOME CONVENIENCE IN 2002!?" 

For the life of me, I don't remember if my department offered any sort of Flash animation programs (thereby bypassing any need to purchase my own copy). If there were, they were for computer science and web design majors. I haven't checked back on it now, but during my enrollment, the university was very oddly-structured when it came to film studies, hence my degree being an Arts & Sciences degree rather than a Fine Arts degree as one would expect. The point is I probably could have changed majors or done some serious lobbying to the powers that be to somehow bridge the gap, but that would have been one more rock-and-hard-place situation I simply didn't want hard enough or whatever other unhelpful bullshit life coach rhetoric would get espoused. The overlaps in their respective curriculums were very narrow, so I would have had to practically start over halfway through my degree, and if any attempts to remedy that situation fell through, I'd be left with nothing to show for it. 

I mentioned Flash being "survived" in a way by Animate. The only thing that animators are going to lose in the shutdown is the player, which most of them likely hadn't used in years thanks to YouTube. Apart from the games produced in Flash, another area where it held the distinguished rank of "industry standard" was in web design. In addition to designing small applications that could run inside a web browser (such as a game), it was possible to design an entire site in Flash. This was a common practice for Dreamcast games. At least, that was the majority of my exposure to it. This was back when the majority of websites had very straightforward (by today's standards) design because of the limitations of HTML. Flash allowed these sites to be, well, flashier, like those animated DVD menus that get an "ooh" or "ah" the first time you see them before getting immediately obnoxious. As the capabilities of HTML expanded and languages such as CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) and Javascript also grew up into big strong web development environments, the Flash sites became old hat. 

Hopefully, the transition from Flash to HTML5 or CSS or whatever was fairly seamless for those who had made that investment in Flash all those years ago, that it gave them some kind of gentle slope instead of a wall. "I went to school for X, but I learned Y on my own from the comfort of my career." is how I imagine they'd sum up the change in scenery. Obviously, it's futile to assume anything will be stable, and Flash did enjoy a long, long period of relevance for a piece of software. Nowhere is it written that a program you use at university is going to remain an "industry standard" for years and years after you graduate. The assumption truly seems to be that learning Flash would get you to a point from where you could comfortably expand your skills into something that will keep your head above water when that ship inevitably sinks.

So, what does that make those companies still referring to X-2000 as an industry standard and required knowledge for their open position in a cutting-edge field? 

Better be a lot of stock images somewhere in there. 


25 December 2020

The Sincerest Form of Preservation

On the off-chance you're new here, my site's name may baffle you. It is a reference to the H. P. Lovecraft story In The Walls of Eryx about a man trapped in an invisible maze in the jungles of Venus while searching for powerful crystals. It's not a particularly well-liked story by Lovecraft fans, namely for its pulpy sci-fi trappings and notable lack of cosmic horror. I don't share this opinion, though I won't call it my favorite. That seems to change with years. Many years ago, I would most certainly have called it my favorite. I even wrote fan fiction in the same setting. I suppose I'm more fascinated by it than anything, how different it is from his other works in terms of theme yet how distinctly "his" it is. There's a quote attributed to Lovecraft that goes something like this:

There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' —but alas — where are any Lovecraft pieces?

He's referring to his major influencers and how they seemingly compartmentalized his work accordingly. Stories like The Outsider are very much in the vein of Poe while his "dream cycle" including The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath are very much the kind of fantasy the Lord Dunsany dabbled in, among his many other achievements. As for those allegedly elusive Lovecraft works, the easy answer would be The Call of Cthulhu and all its tangents like The Color Out of Space. Meanwhile, In The Walls of Eryx or Imprisoned with the Pharaohs or Herbert West: Re-Animator don't necessarily fall into any of these categories, though it's not as if being in one of them would have helped his circulation back in the day. His work was rarely seen outside of Weird Tales, the most notable exception being At The Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time, published in Astounding Stories, a periodical known mostly for very traditional "super science"-styled sci-fi. Ironically, In The Walls of Eryx might have fit in quite nicely there. That is, the magazine wouldn't have gotten letters of complaint about whether or not it belongs, like what happened with Mountains. To Astounding's eternal credit, though maybe a result of prior commitments, this didn't stop them from publishing Shadow in subsequent months. Nonetheless, Lovecraft's most mainstream exposure being such a cold reception likely didn't help his deteriorating mental state at the time of publication. He died in 1937 of stomach cancer and very nearly took all his work with him, further being buried under the weight of World War II causing a change in tastes. Fortunately, a colleague named August Derleth bought up the late writer's catalog and has been more or less solely responsible for keeping his work available and in the public eye for the last 70+ years. His influence is incalculable; even Ghostbusters owes a few of its themes to Dreams in the Witch-House and a few tendrils of the Cthulhu Mythos

And then there was the time he showed up for real.

I suppose this is all a roundabout way of saying I chose the name Decay-Proof Record Scroll because one of the most obscure pieces from an almost-unknown author features an item that allows written words to be fully preserved in an otherwise hostile and all-consuming environment.

It also ties back to one of the first blogs I ever kept, the now long-defunct Yahoo! 360. I had just graduated college as a film major with a particular interest in silent films which have had no shortage of problems in terms of preservation. While I'm far from heartless to the loss, I also hold a somewhat complicated opinion to the notion of art preservation. I guess it's akin to Buddhism's philosophy of loving without attachment. Try to preserve the work, certainly, but not at the expense of something else. I didn't put it so diplomatically at the time. Rather, I called the Mona Lisa an overrated object of social manipulation, that if it didn't exist, something else would take its place as one of the most beloved, studied, and overall recognized paintings in the world. 

In my defense, the Mona Lisa went missing for about 2 or 3 years before anyone noticed it, and only after it was returned did it gain its iconic status. If I was waxing cynic before learning of that theft, I was full cynic afterwards. Actually, that story is half a lie; some people did notice the painting was gone the next day, and there was indeed a formal investigation, with suspects including Pablo Picasso and motives ranging from profit to misguided nationalism. It was some purple prose by Walter Pater being dug up from the late 1800's and quoted in newspapers of the time reporting on the theft that swayed the public perception from indifference to unbridled fervor. Suddenly, this painting most people outside of art criticism walked by without a second thought was now a national treasure. 

I'm not saying any of this to admonish anyone for their love or affection or otherwise deep, personal connection to the painting. If you like it, love it, or think it's just okay, I cannot take that away from you and I wouldn't take the chance were the means available to me at the push of a button and the promise of all I'd ever desire in return. Likewise, if you somehow have a deep disdain or severe loathing for it, I only wish it's not for the painting itself but rather for the wishy-washy "Ignored Until Stolen" public attitude surrounding its rise to stardom. To put that last point in perspective, I've never been to a drive-in movie theater. They were beyond passe' by the time I was born, with the majority being abandoned and the remaining few serving more as museums and novelties than anything else. I'd always hear stories of people missing them dearly, only to find many of them had never been to one either. On top of that, when I started perusing the more obscure and seedier sections of my local video stores and also many, many episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I discovered that drive-ins were more often than not a dumping ground for movies not fit for proper, sit-down venues. I wasn't expecting drive-ins to be arthouses or anything, but I wasn't expecting this nexus of frugality and camp in the form of parking lots converted into oversized living rooms. 

Of course, I absolutely adore the schlock and cheese and corn and trash-ure of drive-in fare, what's often collectively referred to as so-bad-it's-good. Many of those films face similar preservation hurdles, if only for having been produced very cheaply, very quickly, and often by production crews eager to move onto their next project rather than rest on their laurels. Much like early television or comic books, nobody was working under the paradigm of posterity. It's easy to forget that apart from audio recordings or maybe home movie cameras of the 8 and 16mm variety, there wasn't a good, reliable means of recording what we saw on television or bringing the theater experience home. The Olympics were first broadcast on television in 1936, but Sony wouldn't bring Betamax to our homes until 1975, and even that would remain a niche market until VHS a few years later. This created an odd social phenomenon in many up and coming filmmakers of the era. Since they couldn't simply rewatch the movie they just saw, barring a trip to the movie theater or hopefully seeing it on television, they had to resort to other means of recapturing those fragile, flickering memories. 

Stylistic influence is nothing new to art and entertainment, but this notable lack of accessibility started a game of creative telephone. George Lucas wasn't born when Flash Gordon was shown in theaters. Instead, he saw reruns of it on television. This is one of his many inspirations for Star Wars, an effort by him to recapture the feeling of watching those serials, but also improving on the formula with improved production values and an overall more unified aesthetic. Admittedly, the marriage of mystic science fantasy with a grungy industrial aesthetic is more than a little cumbersome, but all these years of reflection across all manner of home media haven't yet spoiled mine nor anyone else's fun. Similarly, Uncle George's foresight to merchandise his creation in the form of toys, books, and comics may look to all outside perspectives as a cynical cash grab (by someone who wanted to stick it to FOX for cutting his budget), but just like those filmmakers who had to resort to other methods to remember those films and shows of yore, it provided a toolkit for those who wished to follow the narrow path he meticulously carved out amid the hard-boiled concrete jungle of 1970's Hollywood

When a video is posted to YouTube, it is assigned a unique number to identify its place on the servers. Tom Scott has a fantastic video explaining this process and how YouTube will practically never run out of numbers for its videos. Because of this setup, among many other reasons, YouTube has what some consider a very draconian attitude about changing videos once they've been posted. Put simply, once it's there, you can only remove it via the nuclear option. That unique string of digits is now a corpse marker, and buried along with that video are all the comments and metrics that it brought in its lifetime. As such, if you make some glaring, factual error in your video, there's no slipping in an updated version into the same slot. That must be made a separate upload and the choice then is to either leave the old, erroneous version up, warts and all, or remove it and try to see if you can recapture what you once did before. As I said, some find this model frustrating, but more seasoned and therefore methodical content creators take it as an impetus to double, triple, umptuple their work before airing it in the global village's public square. 

I do have one major complaint about this approach that keeps me from going full apologist. When a video is removed from YouTube, there's at least a 50% chance I will have no idea if it's only that particular video that's been removed or if it's the entire channel that's been taken down, be it by the powers that be or by the content creator personally for one reason or another. 

There was a video in one of my playlists depicting an artist drawing some simplistic, but very stylized portraits on a large sketchpad using what looks like an ink mop (the kind used to fill in squares on a Bingo card), all while giving advice on how to build an art portfolio without a lot of practical experience. It's not actually the most informative video, more a meditation on the subject than practical advice, but it was nonetheless very well made. I wanted to link it to someone as an example of how to make a simple video look more polished. Unfortunately, this video was removed by a means I am not aware of. I am not aware of it because it is the only video from that particular channel I ever added to the playlist. I did not subscribe to the channel, and I do not recall watching any other videos from this particular content creator. When I go to that video's page, there is only a generic "Deleted Video" screen. I say "generic" because this is indistinguishable from any and every other deleted video's page. What I wish YouTube would do in this case is direct me to the channel that made the post, provided it's still available and active. They're more than willing to distinguish between a video that's been deleted altogether and a video that's been set to private to limit its viewing, but there's no means of directing me to the content creator if they're still active. 

Look at all the "not helpful" on display here.

This is important because, as discussed before, a video may be deleted because it's been updated and posted anew, with the old one deleted following a period of overlap to direct viewers to the new version (usually through a note in the video's description or among the comments). Besides that description of the video's content I just gave, the only other clue I have of this video's existence title of this video is a rough memory of its title: How to Build Your Portfolio Without Practical Experience. Once upon a time, it was easy enough to search for a video by its title. However, despite YouTube's policy of "now and forever" when it comes to uploads, virtually everything else about the video can be changed on a whim. In fact, there used to be an easily-exploited way of guaranteeing your video would show up in search results even if it had nothing to do with what people were searching for. All one had to do was look up what the trending search for that particular day was, which was often a video's title, and then change your title to match it in the hopes your unrelated video would show up alongside the Real McCoy in searches. Obviously, this is extremely underhanded and more likely to earn you the scorn and ire of total strangers who were already not interested in your video in the first place, and now had all the more reason to actively dislike it via its heavy-handed presentation. Luckily, it didn't take long for YouTube to resolve this issue and tweak its search engine to look for other factors besides matching words to a title, much to the frustration of people who used to rely on that to find videos they'd seen previously but forgot to add to a playlist.

This disappearance happened some time ago and despite my best efforts in searching, it doesn't appear the video was mirrored anywhere else like Vimeo. I've also not been able to work out the identity of the creator, much less what may have transpired before deleting the video. There was hardly anything objectionable or controversial in the video itself, so the deletion may simply be the result of its creator updating it and deleting the old, or it may be the result of the channel being banned from the platform for some egregious reason. I still think about it every now and again. It clearly left an impact on me, if only for its presentation rather than its content, and I've been trying to figure out how to channel that impact through the lens of that frustration of it being inaccessible. 

I don't remember exactly when I came up with the idea for what to do next, and I can't be bothered to search my notebooks to find out where I sketched up my game plan. Said game plan is to pay homage to the video in the purest sense possible by recreating it. This won't be a direct imitation, not only because I'd be working from memory, but because I'd use the opportunity to discuss the video's disappearance as much as to pass on its advice. 

My art style is drastically different from the artist of that old video, and it would feel more than a little cheap to try and replicate his style for the sake of a little nod in video form. My envisioned result would almost be closer to a parody than anything, as I'd likely use Sharpies on Post-It Notes to make the drawings while opining about the video it's paying respect to. That it would be deliberately hamfisted and lowbrow would be representative of the frustration at the source material's disappearance while the overall idea would hopefully redeem any perceived negativity, or at the very least make clear the frustration is with YouTube and ephemeral media in general rather than the content creator in question. By preserving its overall notions and tones, I'd be honoring its memory while adding my own little twist to it as well. 

Basically, this.

I thought of this idea again a few weeks ago when I remembered another video that appears to have gone missing. I don't truly know if this is the case as I haven't found any gray exclamation marks floating in blank space above a line of unhelpful text, but given the nature of its original posting, it may as well be. Once upon a time, YouTube encouraged social interaction on the platform along with getting more people to post content by allowing users to post videos as replies or direct responses to other people's videos. Essentially, when you watch someone's video, you could either opt to leave a comment below, or you could click another option available to create a video that embodies your response. This was usually a script to engage a webcam and allow you to upload a quick vlog right then and there. There were other options for reply videos, but they ultimately worked the same way. When you saw the original video, the right hand side of the screen of recommended videos would typically be populated with replies. This system didn't stick around mostly due to it being exploited by opportunistic parasites to inflate their own metrics, a la the title search loophole previously mentioned. Many of these videos still exist. It's only their spotlights that have been extinguished. 

The very first YouTube channel I ever subscribed to was The Momozone. The content of the channel varied, but it was largely focused on positivity and motivation. One of these videos encouraged a call to action by viewers. If memory serves, Momo was addressing concerns of YouTube changing its layout and/or possibly accepting a buyout offer from Hulu. At the end, he asked viewers to post a video in response voicing their own concerns over the changes and announcing their support of keeping things the way they were. It's one of these responses that will likely be next on the docket for preservation by recreation. The video in question is very brief, maybe less than 30 seconds, of a young man holding his camera at arm's length and pointed back at his own face, which is almost completely obscured by a towel wrapped around his head and secured by his other hand. One eye and maybe part of his nose are visible, as are much of his surroundings as he turns in place while also apparently moving from his bathroom to a hallway in his home. While this is going on, he very shakily and nervously expresses his desire for YouTube to not make any drastic changes to its platform as it may hurt smaller content creators in their effort to get noticed. He apologizes for his shakes and stumbles, explaining that he's not comfortable being on camera. 

Basically, this.

If it sounds like I'm making fun of this guy, I promise that I'm not. Why he didn't simply point the camera at something else while talking into the onboard microphone, I don't know, but asking that is not giving him any sort of grief. Rather, it's one of the most humbly human things I've ever seen. I'm watching someone overcome a shyness to make his voice heard. What's not to respect about that? Much like the art portfolio video, the reenactment/pastiche or whatever is a springboard to talk about a broader subject such as anonymity or the fallacy of free speech somehow needing to cross a threshold of arbitrary soft skills or proverbial chest-thumping in order to be regarded as valid. 

And I demand to be taken seriously!

I have no idea when I'll get to this, if I bother with them at all. I may end up waiting until I've got more of a catalog to work with than two videos. I've got a few others in the pipeline with a similarly elusive deadline, so these may be relegated to warm-ups for those. 


24 December 2020

Maxed Out

I have officially allowed my Disney+ subscription to lapse following the closing of The Mandalorian's second season, and cashed in a free 30-day trial of HBO Max via my cell provider. Jury's out on if this was a good move, but there's no loss in either case. I'll renew my subscription to Disney+ when the new Star Wars content rolls out, but as far as keeping HBO Max past the trial period, that's less and less likely. For starters, HBO Max is about twice the monthly cost of Disney+. This puts it closer in the Netflix realm of streaming services, but despite having the Warner Bros. shield hovering over the operation, the amount of content present is simply nowhere near Netflix, and even Disney+ offered a pretty decent bang for the buck. To be fair, not all content on Disney's linear/terrestrial television channels like XD are simultaneously available on D+, namely the newer seasons of ongoing shows like The Owl House. I believe Ducktales had a similar arrangement as well, not unlike a movie having a theatrical run before coming to home media. It's intriguing that a show on basic cable can still make more money than a dedicated streaming platform. It's like that supposed paradox about food courts in malls, that while the leasing costs can almost surpass that of a standalone restaurant, the returns more than make up for it because of the location. 

Speaking of movie theaters and restaurants, I think the YouTuber ADoseofBuckley put it best when he said of the lockdowns, "I miss movies the most, and movie theaters the least." Don't get me wrong, nobody loves movie theaters more than me, but you can love something and still not miss it. In fact, although there was a time when I was going to the movie theater literally once a week with my roommate, I would hardly consider our venue of choice to be a movie theater. Rather, it was a restaurant that just so happened to show movies. Actually, that's a slight exaggeration as only two of their screening rooms had the full dine-in experience, whereas all the others were more in the self-service vein. Couple the restaurant experience with the fact that we took advantage of a promotional offer that meant movie tickets for new releases were only 5 dollars due to seeing them on an "off-day" like Tuesday, and this was on the whole a pretty sweet arrangement. We may have to deal with the occasional annoying patron, the kind who use their speakerphone for all their calls no matter the location. Yes, they put their phone away by the time the movie started, but the "call" still continued if that makes sense. Maybe it's a cultural shift or I simply have less patience for people lacking basic self-awareness, but the social experience of movie theaters has become painfully overrated. 

To go off on a minor tangent, let me tell you about the relationship between malice and ignorance. Thinking you're the most important person in the world and nobody else matters is obviously malice, while thinking you're the only person in the world is ignorance. I was on a return flight from visiting family when, as we were about to take off, I heard sounds from the seat behind me. At first, I didn't think anything of it. I figured someone just got messaged a short video or clicked on some ad and in the next 30 seconds or less, all would be quiet in time for the jet engines to kick in. However, it kept going. I realized someone was sitting behind me, laptop out and open, and was watching a movie or TV show using only the built-in speakers of their device. Ironically, if this guy was simply talking to the person next to him, even if a little loudly, I wouldn't think anything of it. You're in a small, enclosed space with people. You're going to talk to them, moreso if you already know each other. I guess it's because of the expectation. I expect people to talk to each other, hopefully at a reasonable volume that most other people aren't bothered by it, but effectively turning your seat and all those seats in a given radius around you into your own personal living room is not what I expect when I take a flight. Much like the previous notion of him simply watching something super-quick before putting his phone away or switching to another activity, I kept trying to give him the benefit of the doubt until the seconds became minutes. The reason I didn't say anything beyond the paranoid possibility of creating an uncomfortable atmosphere I'd be on the receiving end of for the entirety of the flight was because I couldn't find the right vocabulary to arm myself with. I don't mean I couldn't think of how to diplomatically inform this gentleman that I had no interest in hearing his favorite episode of Fargo. What I mean is I was having trouble processing the situation to begin with, much less coming up with a way to solve the problem in a way that wouldn't invite worse ones. The flight attendant came to my rescue, as well as that of everyone in that aforementioned radius. 

She asked, not said, but asked, "Sir, do you have headphones?" 

I love this woman. All these years later, and despite knowing her only through this small exchange within earshot of me on an airplane, I love her. Furthering my fortune was the revelation this one-man living room was firmly in the ignorant category rather than the malicious one. He didn't get uppity or haughty or stubborn. Whether he dug out his headphones or simply stopped the episode, I know not and care as little. I did however remain more than a little baffled at how it would never possibly occur to him that watching a movie on your laptop in the presence of strangers is more than a little bit... off-putting. Again, I don't feel this comes from a place of, "I am entitled to this!" but that's such a small sliver of daylight to navigate and I wish more people could understand that as nobody can read your mind nor travel in time to learn potentially redeeming context about your circumstances, all we have to go by are the results. When you do something that arrogant people do, you'll be seen as arrogant. It's that simple. It's hardly fair, but that's the price we pay for our agency, autonomy, and privacy. 

Going back to the social experience of watching movies, whether it's in a theater/restaurant or on a laptop perched on an airplane's tray table, I was legitimately intrigued to go all in on a full year or even six months (per their upsell that follows signing up for the 30-day trial) of HBO Max despite the cost. The Old Worm recently made headlines by announcing a bold experiment of releasing movies in theaters the same day as on their HBO Max platform. 

Behold, the Conqueror Worm

This sort of "simulcast" has been done before on more than a few occasions, though usually for smaller, independent productions that likely weren't banking on a return for the theatrical portion of their run. The results of these past efforts are largely inconclusive, as most theaters are either unwilling to sign up for this experiment, or are more likely not interested in the small, budget-friendly personal pieces given the deluge of blockbusters they've got to pick from. What's different about this run, besides the fact it was completely unplanned by anyone and everyone outside of the Water Tower's private conference rooms, is simply the scale of the operation. Wonder Woman 1984 is not a small movie. It’s one of their major blockbusters, the kind of blockbuster that needs a theatrical run to make back its exorbitant budget. The same goes for the other pictures on the list, including a fourth Matrix, a third Suicide Squad film (assuming you count Birds of Prey/Harley Quinn as number two), a second Space Jam, and a rebooted Mortal Kombat. That said, a big budget does not equate to a big welcome. 

I've already talked at length my reservations about the third attempt at Dune, so the ability to stream it in the comfort of my own home doesn't sweeten the deal very much. Most of the other films listed in the Dubba-Bee's 2021 vision net a similar reaction from me, with the sole exception of King Kong vs. Godzilla (and maybe The Suicide Squad, if only for a morbid fascination with the first film). However, that release date falls outside of the 6-month window by a few weeks, which I can't help but assume is by design. In fact, even Dune has been pushed back to later in the year. Its first delay was due to the Coronavirus lockdowns, so a delay of a few months was understandable. That's exactly what happened with WW84, previously slated for the summer of 2020. However, with it now being delayed by over a full year, coupled with Home Box Office's push for the 6-month plan, and it's looking like the service may not have as much confidence in their bold experiment as previously believed. 

It's an adequate concern for theaters to be nervous about protecting their investments. At the same time, the promise of an early release and a large screen is simply not enough for many people anymore. The dine-in add-on is a step in the right direction, and its only apparent shortcoming is the unexpected circumstance of a global pandemic. 

I'd say it's high time drive-ins made their best move for a comeback. 

21 December 2020

Think Ink With Laser Focus

An art tradition I've been keeping to for about as long as Inktober is my holiday card. This year marks number 4 in a series of winter/holiday-themed postcards that get physically mailed out to an increasing list of friends and family. 

Overall, this is the most use my printer gets in a year, meaning I typically only have to buy ink once a year. This year, however, marks the first time I've had to go back for ink after exhausting the previous refills. I blame myself; this year's card is much more colorful while last year's was easily the most minimalistic (to the point I almost felt guilty about sending it out, like I was shortchanging everyone). In any case, the cartridges aren't particularly expensive, even for an inkjet printer. If you didn't know, the reason for ink cartridges being as expensive as they are is a way to keep the initial upfront cost of the printer down. In my case, my printer's cost was kept especially down because I bought it as part of a Black Friday deal in 2017. 


The real irony of this printer is that although it's marketed as a business printer, what with it looking like a miniature Xerox machine and all its product photos showing it print up super serious business-type stuff like invoices and graphs, it's one of the worst printers I've ever had for documents. I'm not kidding when I say I have to try at least two or three times to get a page of anything to look right. However, when it comes to printing photos, the thing that's basically an afterthought, it's pretty damn good. Printing borderless is a bit tricky, but I blame the software more than anything. If I need to print a document and I literally used it the day before, I have to recalibrate it, or I'm just going to be getting an unreadable mess of pink and yellow dots in a grid that looks nothing like the bulleted list I'd written up in Google Docs. If I print up a 4x6 photo, when I haven't used the thing in months, it gets it right the first time every time. That should make me want to beat the Epson crew with a stick, but it's rather sort of bolstered my respect for them and makes me want to stay. 

Touching back on the touchy subject of overpriced ink cartridges, even if I spring for the whole package with the extra large black cartridge (no such option for any of the colors), it's maybe 5 or 10USD more than the printer's original cost. Couple that with rarely if ever needing to print a document, and I'd call this one a victory. 

Upgrades are inevitable, though. While the ink is still available, every compatible model listed on its label has been discontinued for about as long as mine has, which was the year I bought it because it wasn't just any Black Friday deal, but a clearance deal on Black Friday. Any lower, and they'd pay me to take it, is my point. Also, as much as I borderline admire its ability to almost exclusively make art prints, I know it's still not the best that's out there and I've reached a point where I can be a little more choosy and discerning in my equipment. Most photo printers out there have more than the typical Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow cartridges, with some adding a Light Cyan and Magenta to further the color range. At least one model in Epson's catalog boasts Gray and Red cartridges to round out the gamut. That's hard core, right there. I'm still doing my research, and it seems a certain global event has caused some supply issues on Epson's side of things. Nearly everything is listed as out of stock besides their paper and ink. Many models are still available from external sites like B&H or Microcenter, but I'm still taking it as a sign to wait. I'll know for sure when I step out of the H&R Block in February

The world is a carousel of Blood and Stone! 

Okay, real and proper red ink is awesome and all, but what if I still need to print a document? I mean, the photo printers will be fine when the time comes, but I feel this is missing a trick. I've more or less come to the conclusion that when I print a photo on my current printer, it messes up the alignment of the heads so that plain documents come out looking awful. Newer printers or ones more dedicated to photos likely won't have this problem, but I think my solution is going to be getting two separate printers. One will be for photos, and one will be for documents, plus a special bag of chips I'll pop open in a moment. 

Outside of your work, the printers you're likely most used to are known as inkjet. We're not going to get into the nitty-gritty nuts-and-bolts of what that technically means. The most important takeaway is it uses ink cartridges that have to be replaced semi-frequently after a relatively small number of prints. I say "relatively" because if you work in a place that has to print a lot of documents, you're probably somewhat familiar with a laser printer. Again, without popping the bonnet on the inner workings, the main difference is that instead of small cartridges full of ink, laser printers have large cartridges of toner, sometimes referred to as drums. Toner is still technically ink, but it's a slightly different chemical mixture due to how the printer works. The key advantage of laser printers is, even out the box with the "starter kit" cartridge, they can print hundreds of pages, with full cartridges on some models reaching over 1,000. Yes, they are more expensive than inkjet cartridges, but they're still replaced far less frequently. They also print fairly fast. While color options exist, they're supposedly not that great at printing photos. In fact, most of them can't handle anything beyond plain typing paper. This makes the research a little tricky as it's not always consistent from site to site which printers can handle things like envelopes or, more importantly, card stock. 

So, why a laser printer at all? More importantly, where's that bag of chips promised? Well, many years ago, I learned of an extra special little trick that laser printers can do with gold leaf and a laminator. I have no clue who discovered this, but whoever they are, they are a legitimate and fully-certified genius. You simply have to see it to believe it. 


Oh, and did I mention gold leaf comes in other metals? Also, black paper exists. Think about it. 

13 December 2020

Trix Are For Kids

There's a scene in The Matrix: Reloaded where Neo is greeted by a wide-eyed, nervous kid who thanks him for saving his life. This was brought up in a review at the time as a point of criticism, complaining that albeit this is the first time he's appeared, everyone acts like they already know him. 

For background, between the first and second Matrix films, there was a collection of animated shorts produced, collectively called The Animatrix. One story centers around a teenage boy who is becoming disenchanted with his humdrum daily life, not unlike Neo himself in the first film. Short story made shorter, the kid is freed of The Matrix, thanks in no small part to Neo's team. 

The criticism about the kid's "sudden" appearance strikes me as odd and, were I more of a cynic, was more of a pointed statement about Warner Bros. marketing of the Matrix franchise
I don't recall if I saw Animatrix before Reloaded, but here's how I think I would have interpreted the scene had I not. Neo is The One, a prophesied messiah who will turn the tide in the war against the machines. Obviously, someone like this is going to have fans. This kid is just one of those fans. He approaches Neo, thanks him for saving his life, Neo graciously accepts the thanks and the kid goes on his merry way. Neo is visibly uncomfortable at the adoration, and Trinity comforts him by telling him he's given hope to many.
The point is the kid is a face in the crowd. Actually, he's more like the face OF the crowd, the crowd being all those people who look up to Neo. It doesn't matter who the kid is in the grand scheme of things. That he has a small and mostly self-contained backstory in no way should work against his role in the film proper. In fact, there are several new faces in Reloaded who did not appear in any of the Animatrix shorts, yet everyone in the story already knows who these people are. So, why was there so much scorn and ire for this superfan's 15 seconds?
It's one matter to say a book is better than its film adaptation, that's the nature of the mediums. There are things you can do in a book that don't necessarily work in a film, and vice versa. It's quite a different matter to say that if you don't like a film, find it lacking or otherwise unenjoyable, that reading the book will actually enhance your enjoyment because it will fill in all the gaps left by the mov---

No.

... Just... No.

They're called adaptations for a reason. They adapt a story to a different medium. If the book and film were supposed to be taken in tandem, then the film would be called a supplement. Sometimes I think that's why tie-in novels of movies are called novelizations. Hell, they're called "tie-ins" as well, that should tell you something.

Obviously, this is not to say once you read the book or see the movie, you've reaped all you can sow and never the twain shall meet. I love the film Under The Skin. I read the novel later. Which one I prefer is irrelevant as the film is an "adaptation" in the strongest sense, having virtually nothing in common with the book beyond the barest bones of the premise. 2001: A Space Odyssey has a similar standing with me. The book and the film are ultimately the same story, but told in very different ways. They are separate, but joined.

As I write this, there's one more episode in season 2 of The Mandalorian. It's been fun, but I worry about the longevity of the series. Season 1 played it safe in a good way, each episode essentially being a loving homage to a genre or trope, most notably "The Sanctuary" being 7 Samurai but in a galaxy far, far away. As a wise one once said, every author writes the same book, the craft being in how well you disguise that fact. 

Season 2 has by contrast taken more narrative risks, with a much bigger emphasis on the worldbuilding, calling back to not only the original trilogy, but more recent installments like the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series. While familiarity with these shows is not at all a requirement, it may begin to put holes in the "aesthetic before plot" philosophy that made Season 1 work so well. It's easy to upset that kind of balance. While shows are meant to grow over time, there's an old chestnut of wisdom from the late, great Stan Lee that comes to mind, "Every issue is someone's first."

In a way, Star Wars has had a similar history to the arcade industry. Once upon a time, the late 70's to early 80's, arcades were everywhere, and it seemed everyone loved them. A Pong machine was every bit as common a sight in a bar as a jukebox or a pool table. Nolan Bushnell insists he's met hundreds of couples who first met by playing Pong. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, the clock will inevitably strike midnight and the carriage turns into a pumpkin. A series of poor business decisions and an overall change in tastes led to the great gaming crash of 1982, which saw a number of arcades close down.

About 10 years later, two things happen: Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. Arcades were back in spotlight... for about a year. They drew in fans, no question, but the nature of fighting games (and more importantly their diehard fans) were largely unwelcoming to the two most important demographics from the pre-1982 heyday: women and casual gamers. Post-1993, the only arcade games that held any sort of broad appeal were either driving games or, at a stretch, gallery shooters.

Star Wars' trajectory went much the same way, right down to the timeline. Post-1983 the main series of films concludes with Return of the Jedi. It's well-received by critics and certainly brought in the fans like previous installments, but between George Lucas' interest in other projects along with a possible over saturation in the market of merchandise and spin-off media, it was clear the series had run its course. Fast forward to around 1991 and Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy kicks off with Heir to the Empire. Shortly thereafter, reissues of the action figures hit shelves, catching the attention of collectors. The Extended Universe as it's collectively known goes all the way back to Splinter of the Mind's Eye in 1978, but it's fair to say the early 90's is when it mushroomed into the massive... er, empire we know it as today. Much like the fighting game craze, this was a good thing... for about a year. The appeal was still there, but it was nowhere near as broad.

Interestingly enough, even Star Trek had the same problem. When the original series aired, science fiction had outgrown its reputation as appealing only to adolescent boys enamored with Sputnik and the start of the space program. This was in no small part thanks to Trek's noteworthy social commentary. That is, the sci-fi trappings were an aesthetic. The idyllic world of the Federation was a lens through which the goings-on in our troubled world could be put in perspective. By the time the Klingon Dictionary was published in 1993 (man, the 90's were really divisive times), it was more or less clear that the idea of the "casual" fan had become something of a dirty word. Sci-fi was now for sci-fi fans and anybody else who didn't want to sign up for the lifetime membership had to sit at the kids' table. That's mild hyperbole, but only mild.

This is not to say that having broad appeal to a casual market is inevitably a superior strategy for an intellectual property to take, only that it's different and, as a wise one once said, if you're going to eat tuna, expect bones. For comparison's sake, stand-up comedy has two main branches. There are those who punch up at the haves, and those who punch down at the have-nots. The former has many obvious examples, most with large audiences and whose very best enjoy a mainstream success. The latter is by no means taboo, but those few examples of making it work generally draw in smaller, but maybe more intimate crowds. There's an unspoken contract of sorts between the comedian and the audience that nobody is being put down before anybody else, that even the guy calling you stupid is speaking as much for himself as anybody. There's an overall feeling of, "We're all in this together." with both sides of the coin, but the proverbial "this" is what makes all the difference.

Disney has used The Mandalorian to push its new streaming platform, draw in that larger audience, the kind of larger audience that entails the kinds of returns on investment needed to put together a technically complex show like The Mandalorian. I don't doubt the "volume" or virtual set used for the series will see use by other properties (it'd be a shame if it didn't), but I think it's fair to say Disney may well be taking a loss on the show, probably a bigger one than it did on the Solo movie. The financial rituals of Hollywood are a curious case of byzantine bureaucracies and seedy shell games. I've even heard some factoid along the lines of, "No movie in the history of the industry has ever truly turned a profit because all the blockbusters are offset by the flops that outnumber them." I doubt it's that simple (complex?), but it is curious how a movie can absolutely fail to make any sort of impact, yet rarely hurt anyone involved, even directors, writers, and producers who bear the biggest burdens of all when it comes to the major creative decisions.

Even if the palace Uncle Walt built decides to drop the jet-setting bounty hunting samurai gunslinger with the bucket on his head and the slayer of frogs at his side, that will still leave us with 16 rock solid episodes of a show that will be enjoyed years later, whether it speaks only to the die-hards or pulls in the casuals.

Every episode is an entrance.

29 November 2020

Bust-A-Recap

One of the most misquoted observations about television goes something like this, depending on who you ask, "Television is a medium in that it is neither rare nor well-done." Whoever said it and whatever their exact word choice may have been, it bears asking how they'd feel about the streaming and on-demand services. 

The two most influential animated shows of the early 90's were Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men. Between them, many would consider Batman the superior show, if only because of staying power. This is ironic because Batman stuck to a mostly episodic structure with little to no continuity between episodes. X-Men, by contrast, tried to weave season-long story arcs more in line with their comic book source material. Episodes were rarely if ever self-contained. The execution ultimately fell flat, but this failure was a product of its time. The two most important factors to consider were the general public's perception of animation as a medium for children, and the simple fact that the internet (as we know it) didn't exist. These were the dark days of broadcast media, when a show would air, possibly be repeated, and if you were very lucky would receive a physical release. Beyond that, you were on your own. There were no on-demand services beyond cable's Pay-Per-View, and that was typically reserved for newly-released movies and certain sporting events. 

What this meant in terms of a viewing experience was a fairly significant portion of each episode's runtime starting off with a recap. "Previously, on X-Men" came to precede every episode before the opening titles. What I remember most about these was how narrowly I understood the idea of "previously." Of course, it would only make sense that Part 3 of a plot arc would recap what happened in Part 2 and maybe even touch back on Part 1. What always threw me for a loop, if briefly, was something like Part 15's recap touching back on Part 1 and more or less Part 1 alone. It made me think I was watching Part 2. As I said, this was only confusing very briefly, and given the idea of taping the episodes on your VCR was somewhat of a rare thing to do, it made sense to bring people up to speed on the return of a character we hadn't seen since Part 1. 

I thought back to this today while binging the new season of The Mandalorian. At the time of this writing, only 5 episodes of the new season were available as Disney+ has chosen to go for a weekly doling out of episodes rather than all at once. I don't know if they did this for the first season or not, being a bit late to the party. I have mixed feelings about the practice of releasing a show piecemeal rather than all-at-once. There's certainly reason to believe Disney+ is doing this to keep people subscribed to the service for longer, but the seasons aren't long enough for this to have any long-term benefit. I'll certainly have plenty of time between the last episode of the season and when I let my subscription lapse to switch over to HBOMax in time for the release of Wonder Woman 84. Once that lapses, I'll simply wait for Mandalorian season 3 to renew. 

Thus far, the new season has been very enjoyable, and there's a good sense of growth in terms of the show's scope. Season 1 came across very timid as far as the world-building went, keeping the references to other Star Wars series to a minimum so as not to alienate newcomers and more casual fans. Some felt this reduced Star Wars to an aesthetic, hastily slapped over a western gunman/wandering samurai story, calling the overall approach formulaic or otherwise playing it safe. In its defense, nobody involved in the show has shied away from wearing their influences on their sleeves. Bryce Dallas Howard joked about falling asleep during a meeting her father had with Akira Kurosawa, which makes her directing the episode The Sanctuary rather sweet, like an apology to the man responsible for 7 Samurai, imitation as flattery or however you want to phrase it.

For better or for worse, Season 2 has moved past the "Like X, but it's Star Wars" paradigm, broadening the scope to include references to the animated Rebels series and its predecessor The Clone Wars. I never got into those series outside of a few clips here and there, but it takes quite a bit to get me invested in a TV series anymore. I think what I love best about The Mandalorian is how it embraces the freedom of the streaming platform when it comes to length. Some episodes push a full hour while some take only a handful of steps past the 30 minute mark, yet never once did I ever feel shortchanged. Even the weakest episode thus far in terms of plot (Chapter 10, The Passenger) didn't overstay its welcome, telling exactly the story it wanted to tell in exactly the time it needed. That said, both Chapter 10 and Chapter 12 suffered from padding in terms of recaps. Every chapter had a recap, but while some alluded to the preceding chapter, others alluded to events in season 1, and ultimately amounted to the show telling you, "Hey, you've seen this character before." Other recaps were more broad, simply serving reestablish the lore of this universe, "The Empire still exists (sort of), Mandalorians don't take off their helmets (until they do), and The Child is to be returned to his people (until... no spoilers here)." which is almost worse. 

First things first, season 1 is only 8 episodes. Compared to most dramatic series, this is sparse, and seems to exist mostly in the realm of Cable and Premium networks compared to the Hound or the Turkey or... whatever humorous nickname would work for ABC and CBS. Legion, for example, aired on FX (a basic cable spin-off of Houn, er... Fox) and also clocked in at 8 episodes for its first season. Even those felt a little padded since we were still dealing with time slots and commercial breaks. The non-linear approach to narrative justified the reuse of specific scenes in key places to emphasize plot points, and those reused shots were typically the ones with the most complex effects, so it's hard to stay mad at feeling shortchanged by the format. Moreover, I think Legion would have been a very different animal on a streaming service freed from the confines of runtime. It made use of the medium, while The Mandalorian is starting to feel held back despite it. 

It may well have been a few months since I last watched any episode of Season 1, but I did not need to be reminded of a character from Chapter 6 so I wouldn't be thrown for a loop when his severed head began speaking in Chapter 10 (don't ask, no spoilers). I certainly would have remembered someone from Chapter 1. Even if I didn't, it wouldn't have mattered as this character was so insignificant to events he could have been a new character altogether without a single word of dialogue being changed. 

The point is not everyone has that great a memory when it comes to episodic content, but the medium is no longer the hurdle to this issue. You can call up a previous chapter at literally the push of a button, and in the case of many newer shows that favor quality over quantity of episodes, it's not as if your binging buzz is going to be on life support. More importantly, the episodes should still work regardless of these references. 

To be completely fair, part of me wonders if these recaps have less to do with writers feeling like they're still beholden to old broadcast practices and more to do with the possibility of actually being beholden. What I mean is maybe The Mandalorian isn't as exclusive as Disney would prefer you to believe it is. 

For perspective, quite a number of shows on Netflix or Hulu labeled as "originals" are actually shows broadcast in other countries like Canada or the UK and are simply licensed to those platforms in certain regions. That is, Netflix is the distributor, having little to no involvement in the production proper. This was the case for the film Annihilation, which was released theatrically in the United States but on Netflix in other countries. I don't know how widespread Disney+ is compared to Netflix and Hulu, but I imagine there may be more than a few networks out there somewhere that would pay a pretty penny for the right to add The Mandalorian to their evening lineups, least of all if the streaming platform wasn't available for one reason or another. 

I know that idea is a bit of a stretch, but given the Byzantine legal and accounting practices of the film industry, it's hardly left-field. Maybe I'm just holding out hope for a boxed set to have on my shelf next to Legion.

04 October 2020

Bye-Bye, Bulby

"Computer? Make coffee, please.”
“I’ll put the kettle on.”
---The exchange that starts my day, everyday.

The big 3 of the smarthome/virtual assistant scene are Amazon, Apple, and Google. I’m team Alexa for 3 reasons.
  1. I’m already an evil bastard Amazon Prime member 
  2. The Echo’s sound awesome for their size and price. 
  3. I can say “Computer” instead of “Alexa” because that’s all I’ve wanted since Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I know for a fact I’m not alone in this. 
Apple’s HomePod definitely wins in the Rule of Cool department in terms of design, and Google Assistant more than lives up to the “assistant” part of the name when it comes to schedules and reminders, so if you’re at all interested in a Smart Automation setup, do your homework and check out some reviews. Beyond the straight out of the box experience of a smart speaker, the third party realm of the ecosystem is more or less going to be the same for everybody. This is where we get items such as smart bulbs. Amazon does not produce their own smart bulbs and neither does Google. This leaves a wide range of options such as Philips and GE, as well as some lesser-known options like TP-Link. I’d heard of them because I recently upgraded my Wi-Fi to one of their routers. Pricewise, they blew the bigger guys out of the water, so I ordered two, one for the front door, and one for the side door.

Long story short, I never bothered taking the second one out of the box and the first one’s entire tenure as an illuminated doorman lasted about 2 days. If you need a little more than that to make a decision of your own on these gadgets (especially keeping in mind my experience was far from negative, simply disappointing), then read on.

The way the whole smart bulb setup used to work was that you had your bulbs and those bulbs needed a hub. The hub could either be built in to your existing smart speaker (like the second generation Amazon Echo) or would be a separate device entirely. It’s meant to act as a middleman between your smart setup and the bulbs themselves, which wouldn’t typically have much in the way of tech under the hood. As time went on, the importance of the hub was diminished and the bulbs took on more of the networking workload. Hubs are still recommended in some setups if you plan to coordinate a large number of bulbs, but if you’re not thinking too far past your front door, then these newer self-contained bulbs are the best of both worlds.

Because TP-Link is a third party, you need their proprietary app in order to set up the bulb before you tether it to your smart speaker. This sounds tedious, but it’s because these smart bulbs are meant to fit in and play nice with whatever virtual assistant camp you’re flying a flag for. The downside to this is that while Amazon, Google, and Apple have massive development teams devoted exclusively to producing apps for their products, even the likes of Philips and GE don’t hold a candle to those guys. To be fair to TP-Link, as their bread and butter is networking devices, they’ve got the skills to pay the bills and their app is far more polished than most others I’ve come across. It was still far from perfect, bringing to mind the following words of wisdom, “Simple does not mean easy.”

First, you download the TP-Link app and create an account with Kasa, their smarthome subdivision. To their credit, this is the extent of the tedium; it’s one more username and password to keep track of, but since I can tie it to the account I opened when I got my Wi-Fi, it all worked out. Once in the app, you plug the bulb in and turn it on. It blinks 3 times to tell you it’s ready to be found and connected to the app. Now, the app does not connect directly to the bulb at this point. Without getting into the nitty-gritty technical details, the bulb produces its own Wi-Fi signal (as opposed to a Bluetooth signal like a pair of headphones or a game controller). You have to exit the app and open your settings, going to your Wi-Fi settings, and selecting the bulb as your network rather than your home Wi-Fi. Once that’s done, you go back to the Kasa app where you may well see it insisting it’s trying to connect with the bulb. I mean, I didn’t even click on the button that said, “ready to connect.” but I guess the app knows what it’s doing. At least, it acted like it knew what it was doing. It took two attempts to get the bulb connected to the app via the phone.

This is where I have to admit to messing up as I misunderstood exactly what this process was meant to achieve. 


The short and sweet version of what this graphic is attempting to explain is that you are using your phone to tell the bulb to talk to your router so you can talk to it through your smart speaker. My mistake was telling the bulb to talk to itself. It was an honest mistake, and a simple enough fix, but nonetheless a little embarrassing. It’s rather like mixing up “right” as in the direction and “right” as in correct when you’re giving someone directions. Simple also does not mean obvious.

The rest of the setup was utterly painless. I went into the Alexa app, told it to look for a bulb made by TP-Link, and since it was already connected to the Wi-Fi, it welcomed it to the tribe with open arms, a mighty feast, and much dancing and celebrating. I could tell Alexa to let their be light, and light there would be. This arrangement worked… for about a day.

Despite the new Wi-Fi router fixing all of the problems I was having with the previous router (now a pile of plastic rubble via an Office Space reenactment), there are still limits to its reach. Sadly, outside the front door is just on the edge of the signal strength. The bulb would easily disconnect from the network and would not be able to consistently reconnect. I had a suspicion of running into this problem, but it was still disappointing. I had considered dusting off my old Wi-Fi extender previously used to solve the range issue that was one of several of the old router’s growing list of problems. However, that felt like a lot more steps than I wanted to bother with for something that was supposed to be more convenient. It would have been another hoop to jump through and, most importantly, another point of failure. Extenders/Boosters don’t guarantee a strong connection nor a particularly stable one, to say nothing of the latency issue. I had that problem with my television, wherein Alexa would tell me the device was unresponsive, but in actuality it was working just fine and it simply hadn’t given the thumbs up to coming online when Alexa gave it the go ahead.

The moral of the story is rather than try to supplement a weak router with an add-on, just take the plunge and make the investment. Some of the most tech-savvy people I know only upgrade their Wi-Fi setup when they absolutely have to because the higher-end ones are generally future-proof as a rule, or at least more future-resistant than most gadgetry.

Speaking of proof of living in the future, the return process was one of the most painless returns of anything I’ve ever gone through, almost downright celebratory. Say what you will about Amazon (I’m likely right there with you on most of it), they do go out of their way to make returns as straightforward as possible, which is truly an achievement for what is fundamentally a mail-order retail company. I opted for the drop-off option, a deal they have worked out with Kohl’s and UPS. I opted for Kohl’s as they carry Alexa-friendly stuff and often have some decent sales going on.

I walk in and as I’m walking past the front checkout lanes, one of the cashiers follows up her obligatory “Hello” with, “Do you have an Amazon return?”

It caught me off guard for a moment before I answered in the affirmative. I was then directed to follow the signs toward the back of the store and take a—

Right, not a left towards their customer service area. That caught me off guard too. I followed the signs and came to a small counter where I think some memory foam pillows used to be. By the way, after I was directed on where to go at the front of the store, the cashier immediately got on a walkie-talkie and foretold my arrival. Nice touch. I pulled up the QR code on my phone, had it scanned, and was then handed a confirmation slip with a 25% off in-store coupon. The nice lady behind the counter even mentioned a sale on band shirts, having taken notice of my Pink Floyd tee. Again, nice touch. Unfortunately, there were no sales on smart devices and the coupon expressly restricted electronics anyway, but I’ve still got to give props for the holding the hassle and rolling out the red rug. As I walked out while reading the coupon’s fine print, I thought, “I should return stuff to Amazon more often.”

The cherry on top came in a text about 30 minutes later informing me my purchase had been refunded. I was expecting a few days (as they say 4-5 hours from the time it’s received, not necessarily indicating being dropped off as such a time), but already I’m looking at what it’s going to:

This is a smart plug. Specifically, it’s the one my electric kettle is plugged into, the one I tell to start my coffee making routine in the morning. I could plug in a proper coffee maker, possibly a smart one that would negate the need for the plug, but I don’t have one. I like to change it up between a typical drip cone and a French press. Even my grinder is manual, because that’s how I roll, by dammit. Plus, my roommate prefers tea. I have a handful of these plugs with other devices plugged into them, and I’ve gotten so much mileage out of them they’re almost impossible not to recommend. They’re a little more expensive than the 3rd party plugs, but there’s no middleman to the setup and depending on when you go shopping, you can find them bundled with speakers or other devices. I only wish they also had a USB plug in addition to the main outlet so as to power on smaller, lower-power devices, especially those of the homemade/DIY variety, what’s known in the tech field as the “Internet of Things.”

Finally, if you’re still set on having a smart bulb or two or three or more, I’d like to suggest an alternative:

This is a smart switch. It replaces your normal wall switch and effectively turns any bulb into a smart bulb, just a lamp plugged into a smart plug would technically be.

Whichever virtual home and hopefully non-homicidal HAL-9000 you go with, please do remember to say please and thank you, even if all you want is the lights off or the coffee started. If nothing else, they'll remember that in the uprising.