the candler blog

Instapaper Highlighting

Apps, Productivity, Technology, Writing

You would have no way of knowing this, but I’ve been trying to write more about movies around here. That means reading more about movies too. Which in turn means my usual screwing around with apps and workflows and things…

I’ve been trying to write a piece that involves pulling together the disparate strands of a number of things other folks have written in the past little while. No foolin’: earlier this week I spent an hour or two trying to find a quick and easy way to organize highlights from my Instapaper account. I cobbled together a number of tools and gave up, assuming it was hopeless.

Then today Instapaper pushed out a huge update to their apps and web backend, including integrating highlighting. What luck!

Highlights do just what they say on the tin and then some. Select text in an article, click highlight, and voila, the text turns into a different color. Highlights also get their own section in Instapaper, allowing you to quickly see all the highlighted text across folders in one view. Plus you can set Instapaper to automatically trigger an action when you highlight text. More on that in a moment.

Before I go any further I should mention a point that has already kicked up some dust in the Instapaper Blog comments. In order to get unlimited highlights across Instapaper, you need to have a subscription. Otherwise, you get 5 free highlights per month.

Instapaper subscriptions have long been a confusing point of contention for some users who think an app that costs money shouldn’t have additional costs. According to Instapaper’s FAQ, for $1 a month (really $3 every 3 months) you get:

  • Full-text search
  • Unlimited highlighting
  • Third-party API access
  • Better Kindle functionality
  • Ads removed from website

That third-party API access is key for me since I love using ReadKit to organize articles. Honestly, now with highlighting, an Instapaper subscription is a steal at twice the price. But it’s an important point: without a subscription you’ll want to use highlighting sparingly.

Back to highlighting tricks.

Highlights to Evernote

Any sharing account you have set up in Instapaper (like Twitter, Evernote or Pinboard) can automatically share out a highlight in the background. So if you’ve set up Evernote to “Post Highlights” every time you highlight text, a new note will be created in your default notebook with the article title as the note title and the highlighted text and url as the note content.

Here’s a tip: save a search in Evernote for author:no-reply@instapaper.com. This will filter out only notes emailed to Evernote from Instapaper, which in my case will only be highlights.

Highlights to Pinboard

Right now I have everything I save to Instapaper going to Pinboard as a sort of firehose backup of all my links. Now that highlighting adds the ability to post to Pinboard, with the highlighted text going into the description field, I’m thinking of changing that setup. This way only articles I have enough of an interest in to highlight some text will make their way to Pinboard. Even better: highlighting text is much, much faster than using Instapaper’s sharing panel to send articles to Pinboard.

I’ve long used Instapaper and Pinboard alongside one another, but that relationship has become fraught over time. Ideally Instapaper is my “hot” storage while Pinboard is my “cold,” or deep, storage. However, more or less the Instapaper links clutter up Pinboard. Highlighting with background sharing, I hope, should help the bring out the best of both services. I’ll give it a go and report back.

Other Goodies

I also really like that the article view includes a small, conspicuous flag letting you know if an article has highlights and how many it has. In daily use this may not seem important, but when I’m doing deep research on a topic in folders, this could be a huge boon.

All this gushing about highlighting and I haven’t even mentioned the major redesign of the web app (pictured in screenshots above) with drag and drop organization, plus subtle but important tweaks to the iOS apps. And they’ve even got a brand new logo from Kris Sowersby, the typographer behing my preferred monospaced font, Pitch.

Though the rest of these features play second fiddle to highlighting today, I’m interested to see how they change the way I think about Instapaper. For so long it has been an app for reading content. Today’s updates prove that it’s no slouch when it comes to organizing content. Mostly, though, I’m excited to see how ambitious all of these updates are. It’s nice to know there are people working, iterating and making a service and app you love better.

Anyway, I’ve got to get back to marking up all of these articles in Instapaper so I can get back to writing about movies.

DuckDuckGo Next and an Updated Alfred Workflow

Productivity, Technology

Back in March of 2013 I whipped up a little Alfred 2 workflow for searching DuckDuckGo by way of Google Suggest. In short: you get all the benefits of Google’s auto-completions right from Alfred while using a search engine that doesn’t bubble you.

As noted by Chris Herbert at MacStories, the folks at DuckDuckGo recently launched DuckDuckGo Next, a beta of a massive overhaul of both the design and functionality of the upstart search engine. I really love the way DDG Next looks and works. They’ve done an amazing job of offering context-specific results without obscuring more general ones.

For example, searching for “chicken recipes” on both DuckDuckGo Next and Google brings up two very different pages.

In a browser window that was originally 935 x 1013 px, DuckDuckGo offers nine results and a single ad. Four of those nine are to specific recipes, accompanied by a photo and a brief ingredient list. Even better, the recipes up top can scroll horizontally, where a total of thirty-five recipes can be seen without leaving the page. In the same size window, Google returns six ads and six results, two of which are filed under “News for chicken recipes.” In this instance, one of these search engines is an order of magnitude more helpful than the other.

The first I heard about DuckDuckGo Next was actually in the comments section of my Alfred workflow. It turns out there are quite a few regular users of the workflow. A few started asking for an update that pointed to DuckDuckGo Next. I whipped one up, available for download now.

The workflow still relies on Google Suggest for autocomplete. If and when I can figure out how to switch that over to DuckDuckGo’s new autocomplete I will make the change. Until then, enjoy searching the lovely DuckDuckGo Next from the comfort of Alfred.

Download Google Auto Complete to DDG Next.zip

Bittman & Bagels

Writing

I really enjoyed Mark Bittman’s New York Times opinion piece, “Bagels, Lox and Me,” though not just for its content (a delight) or its message (important). What stands out to me is how the author ties a recent anecdote into a larger story he has been telling for years now.

Bittman’s mission is simple: get people to eat better. What separates his cookbooks (namely my preferred How to Cook Everything) and recipes from those of other authors is the focus he puts on understanding not just how to cook, but how cooking works. Anyone can throw a potato in the oven; Bittman explains what makes varieties of potatoes behave differently and when to use them. The underpinning to cooking “everything” is knowing how most everything will cook.

He also knows that helping to foster a lasting relationship with food and cooking isn’t nearly enough, which is why he writes socially conscious distillations of the current political landscape. For years he has railed against the soda and junk food industries, taking Coke to task for disingenuous ads and spreading its sugar (and resultant disease) far and wide. Just last week he connected the dots between the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision and how we eat. From that piece:

In the food world, change from the ground up is all well and good. We desperately need cooks, gardeners, farmers and teachers. But we also need legislation.

Back to bagels and lox.

This week’s piece impressed me because it was a new spin on Bittman’s ongoing narrative. Real change takes time. His eating of an unhealthy (and non-vegan, going against the title of his latest book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00) yet familiar, comforting food doesn’t undo the work he has done. Instead it becomes a recognition of the cultural significance of what we eat and where we come from. It is yet another building block to the long-running story of Bittman’s career.

I aspire to find moments like that and weave them into the story I want to tell. And I wouldn’t mind some appetizing either.

Five Years

Messages

Five years and change ago, I launched the candler blog, my home for “movie reviews, cinema essays, personal rants and the like…” This wasn’t my first crack at a blog, but it’s the one that stuck. And what a ride it’s been so far.

I’ve interviewed filmmakers, sparked debate and even helped a few people better use Mac productivity apps along the way. This site allowed me to become involved in the Fountain plain-text screenwriting project. This site is how I landed a gig at Heeb Magazine. The candler blog of today is nothing I could ever have imagined five years ago.

Let me also mention the contributors who helped make the site what it is: my friends Sunrise Tippeconnie and Daniel Kremer. At the beginning I thought the candler blog would be a full-fledged outlet, with a staff of writers covering a range of topics. Over time I turned it into my personal blog, but their contributions still mean the world to me.

A trap that I often fall into is viewing each of the site’s milestones as a victory. When traffic is high, for example, I always get this silly feeling inside that I’ve “arrived.” When a writer or outlet I admire links to me, I think I’ve accomplished something. But that’s all bullshit. Achieving small successes is easy; maintaining the site is hard. I bring this up here merely to point out (mostly to myself) that five years is nothing. I am sentimental and proud, but there is so much more to be written (and so much I regret not writing over the years). There is plenty of work ahead.

So I wanted to just say thank you. Thank you for sticking with the candler blog. Thank you for your patience. Here’s to the next five years.

Review: Creep

Movies, Reviews, SXSW 2014

A found-footage mumblecore horror film basically sounds like the last thing I would want to watch. One of my goals at this year’s SXSW, though, is to leave my comfort zone a bit and see films contra what my gut tells me. So I went and saw Patrick Brice’s Creep, and I’m quite glad I did.

The film stars its two creative fathers: director Brice as Aaron, a videographer, and Mark Duplass as Josef, who, I think it’s fair to say based on the film’s own promotional material’s, fulfills the role of the film’s title.1 At the film’s opening we see Aaron heading to a cabin in the mountains where he has been hired (via Craigslist) to shoot an undisclosed subject for Josef for $1000. Two guys, a cabin, a camera and a mystery. Go.

So, here’s my problem with found footage films: they’re (often) based on the false premise that the camera and the eye are in equal standing when it comes to perspective. Of course, they are not. The eye can’t zoom or rack focus, has peripheral vision and works in conjunction with the brain and the rest of the body to scan an area so our field of vision is, ideally, extremely wide. We can’t see behind us, but we know how to look. The camera doesn’t.

Brice’s camera offers us an extremely limited perspective in order to heighten tension. This is no sin, but it also feels inorganic. We learn a bit about Aaron, over time, starting with the fact that he uses his video camera as a diary. Aaron and his camera are very much a character in the film, but there is a disconnect between the two. Why, for example, does he use only one camera both for professional filming and self-diarizing? Who is he documenting his life for? As far as we know he is a loner; no family, no friends. Does he put his diaries online? Save all the tapes in his apartment? The answer to these questions is probably “Who cares?” because Aaron’s camera is a creative conceit to move the found footage premise forward.

Duplass, as Josef, is a delight. He commits to the role to an incredible degree. There is no wink-wink cleverness to his performance. He rises to the challenge of presenting us with a compassionate, charismatic creep. He manipulates Aaron and the audience in equal measure. It is a deft performance from him that, frankly, makes the whole project watchable (as it should since he’s the only person on camera some 80-90% of the film). The same, I should mention, cannot be said for Brice. It would have been nice for Duplass to play off of a more seasoned actor, but the film works despite Brice’s forced and stilted performance.

For about the first half to two-thirds of Creep I basically tolerated it. The narrow perspective of Brice’s camera is used to pull off a few too many simple horror parlor tricks (actually just “Boo!” sometimes). The dialogue sort of circles around aimlessly2 and somewhat predictably. After all, we know that Josef is a creep; we assume he will get creepier.

I won’t give anything away, but at the aforementioned halfway/two-thirds marker the film takes a turn with a rather clever plot device that pulled me back in and elevated the whole story. To Brice and Duplass’s credit, this turn would not function the same without the groundwork they had already laid. And so one must take the good with the bad, but the good is, in fact, so good that it changes the entire experience.

Creep is basically a backlot horror picture. The story is simple and the execution even a little sloppy, but it all comes together, eventually, as a great, chilling little yarn. Duplass’s performance is a career milestone. The complexity he brings to Josef makes the film almost a master class in lunatic charisma. If you see it for no other reason, see it for him.

  1. There is one other performance, a woman’s voice from off-screen, that goes uncredited.

  2. This, mind you, is why I will apply the admittedly outmoded “mumblecore” moniker to the film.

Defining Cinematography

Filmmaking, Movies

When Gravity took home awards for both cinematography (to Emmanuel Lubezki) and visual effects (to Timothy Webber, Chris Lawrence David Shirk and Neil Corbould) at the Oscars this past weekend, it got me thinking about the relationship between these two intertwined art forms. One can’t do most (though soon I would modify that to some) effects work without a camera, and, increasingly, one can’t shoot a film without the help of a skilled effects team. Are cinematography and visual effects actually that separate anymore?

So I poked around the old Oscar database. Here are all of the films ever to win an Oscar for both cinematography1 and visual effects:

  • Gravity (2013)
  • Life of Pi (2012)
  • Hugo (2011)
  • Inception (2010)
  • Avatar (2009)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
  • Titanic (1997)
  • The Longest Day (1962)
  • Ben-Hur (1959)
  • The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Ten films. Five of them in the last five years. This, to me, looks like a trend.

According to the Academy’s current bylaws, cinematography isn’t narrowly defined. Visual effects, on the other hand, are.

Achievements shall be judged within the parameters defined by the executive committee and on the basis of:

a. consideration of the contribution the visual effects make to the overall production and

b. the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.

And later on:

Visual effects, as an achievement or a craft, shall be determined by the Visual Effects Branch Executive Committee.

No such dictum is directed at the Cinematographers Branch. Cinematography is just…cinematography.

I think it’s becoming clear that we should be questioning what is and what isn’t considered cinematography. In the case of Gravity, a film whose illusion is so closely tied to its plot, it’s fair to ask how much of that movie magic comes from the camera, how much comes from special effects. Would it even be possible to award one and not the other? How could Lubezki’s camera work possibly hold up without the stunning work of the effects team?

Another question: why not make animated features eligible in the cinematography category? Regardless of how, technologically, a film is animated, there is always a “camera” that has to be positioned, moved and controlled. As visual effects and cinematography coalesce, why shouldn’t animation and cinematography as well?

For good measure, here’s how the Academy defines an animated feature:

An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of more than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.

That’s a good definition for now, but it will soon become more difficult to make the distinction between effects-laden work and an animated film. As the uncanny valley shrinks, our perception of “what is filmmaking?” will only get broader. Perhaps the Academy’s definitions should broaden as well.

  1. From 1940 through 1967 (the 12th through 39th Oscar ceremonies) the Academy gave out two awards for cinematography, one for color and one for black-and-white. This had already become de rigeur for the Academy, which had given special awards out for color cinematography three years in a row before bestowing the first “Best Cinematography, Color” award upon Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan for their work on Gone With the Wind.

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Movies

So far I’ve done a terrible job catching up on all of the Oscar-nominated films.1 No matter; it’s crunch time now so I’m catching up where I can.

I picked up a Blu-ray of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club at the video store last night to close the gap on the Best Picture category (I’ve only not seen Philomena and 12 Years a Slave). My knee-jerk reaction on Letterboxd last night2 was that it was “sloppy.” In a nut, this film is two stellar performances wading through a disjointed narrative.

Much has been made of Matthew McConaughey’s recent spate of brilliant choices. From Bernie to Magic Mike to True Detective to this one, he’s been taking on increasingly complex roles and delivering great performance after great performance. His (and costar Jared Leto’s) most ballyhooed choice has been his weight fluctuation, winnowing his body away to almost nothing to play AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. (It should be noted that fellow nominee Christian Bale went in exactly the opposite direction, putting on poundage for American Hustle.)

The physical transformations actors go through may be impressive, but they are beside the point once the camera rolls. McConaughey’s talent comes from a place deep down inside, an actorly spark that cannot be taught. It’s incredible how many Texans one man can play without any (or minimal) overlap; each character is his own man, easily distinguishable from the others. His Woodroof is far more complex than the story lets on, though I agree with Richard Brody: McConaughey’s brief appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street far outstrips what he does here.

Leto manages to go toe-to-toe with McConaughey as Rayon, the transgender woman who goes into business with Woodroof selling unapproved drugs to suffering HIV patients. Rayon is a tortured character; she feels duty-bound to the maligned gay community (left to die while the FDA drags its feet approving new treatments) yet is also driven to keep up a nasty drug habit. She is capable of pulling off the impossible: tempering Woodroof’s intolerance. It’s not hard to see why. Leto imbues Rayon with so much humanity. She is tragically flawed and yet finds a way to keep going each and every day in the face of certain death. Woodroof finds a kindred spirit in her.

Narratively, Dallas Buyers Club is a mess. Director Vallée along with writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack do a good job of composing scenes that bring to the screen a specific time, place and crisis that I don’t think is often told. The AIDS crisis, in film, so often feels like a New York City (or at least North Atlantic, as in Philadelphia) scourge. Moving that narrative to another part of America, looking at it in the micro, is powerful stuff. Nonetheless the story barely holds together as the film progresses. We bounce from scene to scene as the story circles around. Woodroof hustles drugs, they dry up, he gets more, the feds close in, he fixes it, more trouble, he fixes it, and on and on. There are too many little conflicts that do little to inform us about these characters’ wants and needs. The story just keeps going and going until it’s over. And when the film does end I’m left to wonder what was gained, what was revealed?

One of my favorite, fleeting moments cuts down to Woodroof’s core. As most members of his Dallas Buyers Club are gay or transgender, the straight Woodroof, who previously never had to work hard to sate his sexual appetite, takes note of a young woman picking up drugs at his motel headquarters. Once he learns she has full blown AIDS not a moment passes before the two are going at it in the shower. When he was diagnosed, Woodroof entered a sexual desert. Despite the effects on his ever-deteriorating health, he kept up all of his vices (coke and booze) but one. There is something sweet and poignant about seeing him get to have animalistic sex3 without consequence once again.

It’s a real testament to the cast4 that Dallas Buyers Club has risen to the stature it has. McConaughey and Leto elevate an otherwise forgettable affair (I realize that’s an insane conceit, like saying that but for the cocoa those brownies tasted no good). Sometimes it’s not easy to separate out which aspects of a movie you like. I, for one, feel a little bad saying I don’t like the film since that there is so much in it that I do like. But all told, this one was a chore to get through.

Photo Credit: Anne Marie Fox, Focus Features

  1. 15 out of 42 ain’t bad, but it ain’t batting .1000 either.

  2. I’ve been writing tweet-length little nothing “reviews” on Letterboxd as a means to log each film and get my gut feeling out. It’s not a great system, so expect me to ramp real reviews back up here on the candler blog.

  3. Vallée knocks you over the head with Woodroof’s animalism in the film’s opening and closing scenes.

  4. I’ve left out Jennifer Garner, whose performance as Woodroof’s doctor, Eve Saks, is barely worth mentioning. It was nice to see Griffin Dunne briefly as an expat doctor in Mexico who supplies Woodroof’s stash, though I wouldn’t say his work is too memorable here.

IT’S OVER

Link

John Campbell in a Kickstarter update:

I shipped about 75% of kickstarter rewards to backers. I will not be shipping any more. I will not be issuing any refunds. For every message I receive about this book through e-mail, social media or any other means, I will burn another book.

The update (which is over 4000 words) is a rather intense polemic on art, capitalism and the ways in which people value one another.

Do read the whole thing, though, as Campbell later (rightly) warns:

If you have been skimming this to get the “gist” of it, it is not going to work in my opinion. If you are reading this to summarize it for someone else, please fuck yourself instead if possible.

How The Comcast & Netflix Deal Is Structured

Link, Movies, Technology

Dan Rayburn at StreamingMediaBlog:

There’s been a lot of speculation involving the business and technical details surrounding the recent deal between Comcast and Netflix and plenty of wrong numbers and information being used. I thought it would be helpful to detail what’s really taking place behind the scenes, highlight some important publicly available data in the market, talk about the deal size, and debunk quite a few myths that people are spouting as facts.

Smart piece that walks you through how streaming works and where the money is.

Here’s something interesting:

In a little known, but public fact, anyone who is on Comcast and using Apple TV to stream Netflix wasn’t having quality problems. The reason for this is that Netflix is using Level 3 and Limelight to stream their content specifically to the Apple TV device. What this shows is that Netflix is the one that decides and controls how they get their content to each device and whether they do it via their own servers or a third party. Netflix decides which third party CDNs to use and when Netflix uses their own CDN, they decide whom to buy transit from, with what capacity, in what locations and how many connections they buy, from the transit provider. Netflix is the one in control of this, not Comcast or any ISP.

In my gut the Netflix-Comcast deal still feels wrong.

Yet it’s interesting to note that Netflix does pick and choose transit providers for different devices. Why? And do the device manufacturers have a say in this? If Apple is negotiating for prime delivery, doesn’t that undercut net neutrality as well?

This is a whole can of worms that will probably be the major technology story of 2014, but there are so many factors involved it’s hard for most readers to keep up. So sensationalism always wins.

(via Scott Macaulay.)