Thursday, November 17, 2011

Independent Bookstores: One Opens, One Closes

From my Twitter feed (@MindTheRant) this morning:

Is it a good time to open an indie bookstore?  Or a better time to close one?  (Long view: will the ereader craze end up devouring printed books so that by the end of the decade the only way to buy them, for most of us, will be online?)

In short, are location-based booksellers the blacksmiths of the 21st century?

You tell me.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About -D

Last night my daughter and I went to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50—a movie I'd been mildly interested in seeing but had resisted because of my natural disinclination to exploring the antic possibilities of cancer.  As it happens my daughter and I both loved the movie and I'd urge anyone—with the exception perhaps of those who've experienced cancer firsthand and don't need the refresher—to see it.  To my mind some of Seth Rogen's laugh lines are a bit raw for a young teen's ears but Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a direct, wrenching, wonderfully understated performance.

But I'm not writing a movie review.  I'm here to talk about -D.

At the multiplex my 14-year-old and I waited to buy tickets in one of those maze-like lines defined by black woven nylon bands attached to waist-high standards, and there were enough people ahead of us that I had a chance to study the multicolored movie board above the ticket sellers.  It displayed all the movie titles and remaining show times and I noticed some of the movies—including 50/50—had a -D next to them.  I wondered out loud what this notation meant; my daughter had no idea either.

I paid the $26 for two adult tickets (the ticket seller asked if I wanted one adult and one child, but I spotted my daughter the extra 3 and a half bucks for an adult ticket to spare her further humiliation with the employee at the bottom of the escalator who was about to tear our tickets), we bought another $15 worth of popcorn and sodas, settled into our seats, endured over 40 minutes of visual pap before the feature started (advertised start time: 8:40; actual start time: just after 9 PM), and finally began enjoying the movie we'd come to see.

But We Weren't Watching a Movie

I'm not sure when or why I noticed it, but well into the story I realized we weren't watching a movie; we were watching a video.  By that I mean, of course, that however the movie was shot—on celluloid stock or recorded to a binary file—it was being shown with a digital projector.

Luckily, the digital artifacts were rare and fleeting.  I doubt anyone in the theater noticed them, nor do I think old-fashioned moviegoers like my wife or mother-in-law would have detected them.  Which is to say that digital projection is functionally equivalent to film projection.

It wasn't until the movie was over and we were heading back downstairs that I made the obvious connection between the odd -D insignia next to the movie title on the multiplex's movie board and the digital means by which the movie was shown.  And it's been puzzling me a bit ever since.

Explaining the -D Tags

On the face of it, those -D tags suggest the theater chain wants you to know that some of the movies it shows are analog and some are digital.  It suggests the chain is providing you with important information it feels you may need to decide if you'd prefer not to see something shown with a digital projector instead of a film projector.  Is there any other explanation?

On the other hand, that -D is pretty cryptic.  Space is probably at a premium on those movie boards, so flagging these movies with the far more helpful (Digital) or (Digital Projection) may not be possible.

But on the third hand, who cares?  For whose benefit is that -D posted?

For the benefit of old duffers like me?  For people who remember movies that spooled through the noisy and elaborate mechanical pathways of enormous film projectors?  Movies that were occasionally shown out of focus, that developed scratches and attracted lint after being shown for less than a week, and that were spliced onto twenty-minute reels that required the theater to own two side-by-side projectors to allow one projector to start the second twenty-minute reel the moment the first ended (and to alternate until all twenty-minute reels had been projected in order, which usually but didn't always happen)?  In short, movies recorded on a perishable, deeply imperfect medium that began to degrade the moment it was run through this implausible Rube Goldberg contraption of motorized sprockets ... and that required the kind of loving attention not all theaters were inclined to bestow on it?

Because I don't miss those analog films at all.  And I question the honesty of anyone who says he does.

Which isn't to say I don't miss anything about film; it was the original HD film technology for nearly a century, and if it hadn't been those 20 foot high moving images would have been a blurry unwatchable pointillist mess.  Just the same, HD video is an extraordinary technology whose versatility allows it to mimic film with 99.9% perfection.  (Even software as prosaic as Google's Picasa photo editor offers a decent effect it calls "film grain".) And given the cost of everything these days, it seems almost irresponsible to suggest that movie producers buy film stock and then pay to have it developed with toxic chemicals, digitized for editing, and then struck as 2,000 or 3,000 or more fragile celluloid prints for maybe 6 weeks of theater showings.

So under the circumstances it's somehow quaint that a theater chain should bother, however obliquely, to notify its patrons they're about to watch a digital movie instead of a film one.

Still, there's a lingering mystery surrounding a movie like 50/50 that not even the chain's -D can clear up.  We know how the movie was projected, but how was it shot?

It Became Bits—and Bits Is What We Saw

You may think I'm splitting hairs.  Who cares how it was shot?  In the end it became bits and bits is what you saw.

I suppose I'm veering into preciousness here ... like when an audiophile (and they tend to be old duffers too) bores you with details about the "warmth" of analog recording versus the cold precision of digital.  And then divulges that his LP turntable, tone arm, cartridge, and needle cost what you make in a month because they're needed to capture this warmth with exacting fidelity.

But for me it's simple.  It's like that infamous wounded robber in Dirty Harry who's confronted with Clint Eastwood’s largely emptied .44 Magnum and, though he’s surrendered, wants to be sure the odds were against him—that giving up was the right way to go.  So as Eastwood strolls away he's itching to find out if that revolver really is empty:

“Hey!” he says.  “I gots to know.”

That's the way it is for me.  Has the movie been shot with film cameras or with video cameras?  I gots to know.

Last Summer my wife and I went to see Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in Friends with Benefits.  We were in an old theater in upstate New York and it never occurred to me the place might be equipped with digital projectors.  But there was a moment in the movie—when Woody Harrelson leapt into his speedboat and began his cute commute home via the Hudson river—that I noticed an unfilmlike smear of sunlight streaming off the speedboat's windshield.  On film it would have been a bright, diamond-hard glint.  On video it was a soft, hot, undulating blob.

It was probably an hour into the movie and I'd only just noticed this video artifact.  Since the theater was anything but state of the art I concluded we were watching a projected film that was originally shot on video.

It bothers me that this dual life that films now lead has become a source of secrecy.  It doesn't matter to me—and I certainly doubt it mattered to Friends with Benefits' target audience—whether the movie was shot with film cameras or video cameras.  And perhaps it's less secrecy than indifference that keeps Hollywood from bothering to alert moviegoers which medium they're watching.

But either way, I gots to know.  And frankly I suspect that Hollywood is old-fashioned enough to want to keep these distinctions under wraps.  Mainstream movies featuring glamorous stars aren't supposed to be budget-conscious vehicles where film stock has been labeled a costly extravagance.

Not that budget need have anything to do with digital where effects are concerned.  Before my wife, daughter, and I saw the lavish popcorn thriller Super 8 I'd read about its puzzling overuse of lens flares.  I'd never thought anyone might deliberately try to distract an audience with horizontal streaks of bright light marring shots, but then it became apparent this effect didn't result from optical or lighting goofs: most had been carefully computer generated.

A bid for some kind of '70s era filmic authenticity to complement the movie's period setting.

Is It Cool to Fake a Lens Flare as a Digital Effect?

It's hard to know whether this kind of obscure attention to detail means anything to younger audiences.  Is it cool to fake a lens flare as a digital effect?  It was a wonder to me, but as someone who actually made Super 8 movies in the '70s my perspective is a little different from my 14-year-old daughter's.  (After watching the movie she sized it up concisely with an expression I'd never before heard her use: over the top.)

Of course, in the long run digitization is like death and taxes.  It's coming and there ain't nothing nobody can do about it.  It's only a matter of time before movie stock goes the way of Kodachrome and only museums in big cities will have theaters equipped with film projectors showing movies on celluloid.

Going to see them will be yet another baroque urban affectation—like listening to LPs or collecting 3D postcards for your 19th-century stereopticon.

But analog's long artistic shadow will inevitably leave a few disaffected duffers wondering about provenance.  Is this movie -D or -A?  Was it shot in -A and converted to -D?  You mean it was shot in -A and we're watching it in -A?  Far out!

As the world goes to bits, this core distinction between analog and digital will melt away.  But to me, it’s still a vivid divide that separates the tactile, the immediate, the comprehensible from the abstract, the opaque, the hexadecimally inaccessible.

Which do I get to see in that darkened theater?  And how did it start out its life?  Tell me, Clint: I really do gotta know.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Top 4 Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V Pleasures

Since I began my love-hate relationship with my Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V on this blog with my Top 5 Annoyances, I thought I’d give equal time to a few pleasures.

These niceties probably aren’t unique to the LG Optimus V—they likely apply to most if not all android phones. (NOTE: I recently discovered that the Super Tool Box Hotspot functionality I describe below appears not to work on a similar LG Optimus phone sold directly from Sprint running Android 2.3.3.  My Optimus V is running Android 2.2.1.)  But since the Optimus V is an android phone, they’re still relevant if not unique:
  1. Great phone/audio player integration I’ve only had one experience when my phone rang while I was listening to a podcast, but it was delightful to discover that the audio paused when the phone ring cut in, it stayed paused while I talked on the phone, and then resumed automatically the moment I hung up. Very civilized.
  2. You can send text messages to landline phones!  I discovered this capability by accident when my wife called me from our home landline while I was listening to a friend’s band—The Fancy Shapes—play at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village.  I’d long known about the option to deflect an incoming call with a generic text message: the LG Optimus V often presents a list of such “Sorry, can’t talk” text options by the time I’ve pulled the phone from my pocket.  This time I reflexively chose the first one on the list (“I am unable to answer the phone at the moment.”) without noticing that the call had originated from a landline, and when I recognized the number I assumed the message would bounce into the void.

    Wrong!  Later I inspected a series of text messages I received from Virgin Mobile, all triggered by my original generic text reply.  The first informed me:
    Your message was successfully delivered to someone at [my landline number].  Thanks for using Text to Landline!
    That’s right.  Virgin Mobile had converted the text message to a robo call and served it up to the landline.  But the next message was equally surprising:
    You’ve received a reply to your Text to Landline message from [my landline number].  Call 17815776804 to listen now.  Normal airtime charges apply.
    Note, too, that the 781 number is hyperlinked to the phone’s dialer, so all you need do is touch it to initiate the call and retrieve the voice message.

    Finally, Virgin Mobile texted me a suggestion:
    Record your name for intro of Text to Landline message.  Call 1-781-577-6890 from your Virgin Mobile phone to make your recording.  Std. Airtime rates apply.
    Well, thank you, Virgin Mobile.  I can only wonder how many poor benighted souls like me have no idea you offer a service called Text to Landline that makes it easy to manage landline calls you can’t (or don’t really want to) answer.
  3. It’s easy (using Gmail on your PC) to turn an email containing the date, time, and place for a scheduled meeting into a Google Calendar entry on your phone I’ve found that when someone sends me a message with all the details for, say, a lunch date, Gmail will show something like this on the right side of the message:

    Just click this section and voilà!—you’ll go straight to Google Calendar and your lunch date will be added (then synched on your phone) for the date and time the message outlined. Cool.
  4. If you're running Android 2.2.1 it's easy to turn the phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot—no rooting necessary I owe my discovery of this sweet little capability to Rock That LG Optimus V & Rock That Moto T—a site dedicated to promoting Virgin Mobile’s top android phones. However, it's important to note that since late Summer 2011 Virgin Mobile has been selling the LG Optimus V with Android 2.2.2 installed and has apparently taken steps to prevent the phone from taking advantage of the hotspot functionality built into the apps I discuss below.  For those of you running Android 2.2.2 your only alternative—short of rooting the phone—appears to be to use a tethering app like Easy Tether.  Such apps at least allow you to get a laptop PC on the Internet with your Optimus via its USB cable when a 3G signal is available but Wi-Fi isn't (I've also read elsewhere that all of these remote access strategies likely violate Virgin Mobile's terms of service, so follow my suggestions at your peril):
  • Launch Android Market and pick up Super Tool Box. (Rock That recommends this app, and it’s the one I'm using. Don’t be confused if Android Market calls it Super aTool Box-cache battery—it’s still the app you want. Rock That also says that Quick Settings works, but I’m using Super Tool Box and it does the job.)
  • Once you’ve installed Super Tool Box, before launching it return to your home screen and hit the physical window button at the bottom left of your LG Optimus V:
  • When the window appears, select Settings:

  • From your Settings menu, select Wireless & Networks:

  • From your Wireless & Network Settings, uncheck Wi-Fi (if it’s already unchecked, you’re good to go):

  • Now you’re ready to launch Super Tool Box and turn on your Wi-Fi Hotspot. Begin by selecting Super Tool Box’s Settings menu:

  • From the Settings menu, make sure Mobile data shows Connected. (If it shows Unconnected, go back to your homescreen, push the physical Window button, hit Settings, and turn off your phone’s Wi-Fi as directed above. NOTE: turning off Wi-Fi from this Settings page in Super Tool Box will not allow you to enable your hotspot.):

  • Finally, turn on the Wi-Fi hotspot switch (once it’s on, you'll see the blue hotspot icon appear in the upper lefthand corner):

Your Wi-Fi hotspot is on and ready for traffic, but bear in mind it’s also open. So if security is important to you, Super Tool Box does allow you to enable WPA2 PSK to make sure those who want to share your phone’s network have actually been invited.

One last thing: bear in mind that as long as your LG Optimus V is acting as a hotspot you can’t actually use the phone’s own Wi-Fi to get on the Internet. However, as long as you’ve got 3G service—and if you don’t your Wi-Fi hotspot won’t be very hot—you can use it to surf the web or check your email.

Lastly, to check to see which version of Android you're running press your Optimus V's physical window key in the lower lefthand corner of the phone.  From the window that pops up press Settings, and from the Settings menu scroll down to the bottom and select About Phone.  From the About Phone menu scroll down until you find Android Version.