Digital bits have lives. They work for us, but we totally ignore them. What do bits really want? Here are the life stories of four different bits.
The first bit—let’s call it Bit A — was born on the sensor of a Cannon 5D Mark II camera. A ray of light glancing off a black plastic handle of baby stroller in New York City enters the glass lens of the camera and is focused onto a small sheet the size of a large postage stamp. This dull rainbow-colored surface is divided up into 21 million rectangular dimples. The light photons from the white highlight of stroller handle pass through a mosaic of red, green and blue filters in the camera, and collect in the micro-well of red pixel #6,724,573. Outside, when the photographer trips the shutter button, red pixel #6,724,573 counts the number of photons it has collected, compares it to its green and blue neighbors, and calculates the color it has captured. Pixel #6,724,573 generates 15 new bits, including our Bit A, which helps indicate the pixel is pure white. Immediately Bit A is sent along a wire to the camera’s chip where it is processed along with 300 million sibling bits, all born at the same moment. Bit A is copied several times as the camera swaps the siblings around from one part of its circuit to another in order to rearrange the bits into what we call a picture, which the camera displays on a screen. In another few milliseconds a copy of Bit A is duplicated on a memory card. Now there are two Bit As, but within a moment the original is erased as another image is captured on the sensor. An hour later, Bit A is duplicated from the memory card into the CPU of the photographer’s laptop. A half second later, half of the sibling bits are simply erased as the computer compresses the image into a jpeg file. Luckily Bit A, of pure white, remains in the set. Another copy of it is made on the laptop’s hard disk and another copy is made as the software Photoshop is opened. When the photographer retouches a speck in the image, millions of pixel bits are constantly being reshuffled, copied, erased, and effectively moved as Photoshop creates new bits and erases existing ones. Through all this shuffling the tiny white glare on the stroller handle remains untouched and Bit A persists. The photographer is a veteran and Bit A is copied again by another CPU, and backed up on another hard disk. Bit A now has many identical cousins. The photographer uploads Bit A together with its million sibling bits to the internet. Bit A is copied, deleted, and recopied by 9 intermediate servers along the way to a website. There Bit A is copied onto more local hard disks, one of which serves the bit to anyone clicking on a web thumbnail image. When people do click, Bit A is copied to their computer’s CPU, displayed on their screen as a speck of white. When humans see the full image, millions of them copy it to disks, and sent yet more copies to their friends. Within days, Bit A has been copied several hundred million times. There are now half a billion copies of Bit A contained as a tiny detail of the first paparazzi photo of Kim Kardashian taking her newborn baby girl out on a stroll. Bit A will likely remain in circulation for many decades, being copied forward onto new media as old medium die, active on at least one CPU in the world, ready to be linked. It will live for centuries. For a bit, this is success.
Bit B has a different story. Bit B is born inside the EDR (event data recorder) chip mounted beneath the dashboard of the photographer’s Toyota Camry. Every automobile manufactured since 2012 contains a EDR which serves as the car’s blackbox, recording 15 different metrics such as the car’s speed, steering, braking, seat belt use and engine performance. Originally designed to be plugged into a service mechanic’s on-board diagnostic computer to determine whether the airbags were working, the data it generates while the car is running can also be summoned by insurance companies and lawyers as evidence in an accident. In this case Bit B makes up part of the digit “7” in a time stamp that says that on Tuesday July 8, 2014, our Camry was going 57 miles per hour. The EDR holds the last 5 seconds of information. After that time it overwrites the existing bits with new information. The Camry was accident-free and didn’t need maintenance, so Bit B was copied once and stored. Increasingly, it is cheaper to store data than to figure out whether it should be erased, so almost no data is erased deliberately. But many bits disappear when their medium rots or is tossed into the garbage. Most bits die of inactivity. Bit B will spend decades untouched, unlit, before it is lost forever.
The third bit is of a different type. Bit C was not generated in the environment. It was not born in a camera, or on the keyboard, or swipe of a phone, or in a wearable sensor, or by a thermometer, traffic pad, or any other kind of input device. Bit C was born from other bits. Bit C is the type of bit created by a software program in response to Bit A or Bit B. Think of the internal bookkeeping your computer does as it keeps track of everything a program does. The photographer using Photoshop can “undo” a change to color (or you can undo a deletion to your Word document) because the computer keeps a log, and that log is new bits about the bits. Our Bit C is generated by the telephone company’s servers as it uploads the photographer’s image files. It is the third digit in the log of the memory allotment for that upload. Bit C is copied to a telecom hard disk, and this meta-data (data about data, or bits about bits) will be retained by the telecom long after the actual content vanished. Beyond meta-data there is meta-meta-data; information about meta-data. The meta chain can cascade up infinitely, and the amount of meta-data in the world is increasing at a faster rate than the primary data. For a bit to be born meta is a huge thing, because meta-data is more likely to be exercised, duplicated, shared and linked. Bit C will be copied and recopied, so that eventually hundreds of copies of Bit C live on.
However, nothing is as exciting for a bit as to become part of a software program. In code, a bit graduates from being a static number to being an active agent. When you are a bit that is part of a program, you act upon other bits. If you are really lucky you might be part of a code that is so essential that it is maintained as a core function and preserved in the digital universe over many generations. Most sophisticated programs are dead and gone in 5 years, but some primeval code, say like the code that governs internet protocols, or runs the basic sorting algorithms for the files on your PC OS. The story of Bit D, our fourth bit, revolves around the small string of code that produces ASCII — the letters and numbers we see on a screen. This has not changed for many decades. Bit D lives as the part of the code that generates the English letter “e”. It is invoked nearly every hour by me, and billions of times per second around the world. It might be among the most commonly reproduced bits in the digital universe. There are probably zillions of Bit Ds in the digital universe today. And in 100 years from now, there is likely to still be ASCII and the letter e, and a bazillion more Bit Ds. For a bit, it is immortal.
The best destiny for a bit is to be deeply related to other bits, to be copied and shared. The worst life for a bit is to remain naked and alone. A bit uncopied, unshared, unlinked with other bits will be a short-lived bit. If an unshared bit lives long, its future will be parked in a dark eternal vault. What bits really want is to be clothed with other related bits, replicated widely, and maybe elevated to become a meta-bit, or an action bit in a piece of durable code.
Bits want to move.
Bits want to be linked to other bits. They need other bits.
Bits want real time.
Bits want to be duplicated, replicated, copied.
Bits want to be meta.
Of course this is pure anthropomorphization. Bits don’t have wills. But they do have tendencies. Bits that are related to other bits will tend to be copied more often. Just as selfish genes tend to replicate, bits do too. And just as genes “want” to code for bodies that help them replicate, selfish bits also want systems that help them replicate and spread. All things being equal, bits want to reproduce, move and be shared. If you rely on bits for anything, this is good to know.
Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 1985 when almost any dot com name you wanted was available? All words; short ones, cool ones. All you had to do was ask for the one you wanted. It didn’t even cost anything to claim. This grand opportunity was true for years. In 1994 a Wired writer noticed that mcdonalds.com was still unclaimed, so with our encouragement he registered it, and then tried to give it to McDonalds, but their cluelessness about the internet was so hilarious it became a Wired story. Shortly before that I noticed that abc.com was not claimed so when I gave a consulting presentation to the top-floor ABC executives about the future of digital I told them that they should get their smartest geek down in the basement to register their own domain name. They didn’t.
The internet was a wide open frontier then. It was easy to be the first in category X. Consumers had few expectations, and the barriers were extremely low. Start a search engine! An online store! Serve up amateur videos! Of course, that was then. Looking back now it seems as if waves of settlers have since bulldozed and developed every possible venue, leaving only the most difficult and gnarly specks for today’s newcomers. Thirty years later the internet feels saturated, bloated, overstuffed with apps, platforms, devices, and more than enough content to demand our attention for the next million years. Even if you could manage to squeeze in another tiny innovation, who would notice it?
Yet if we consider what we have gained online in the last 30 years, this abundance smells almost miraculous. We got: Instant connection with our friends and family anywhere, a customizable stream of news whenever we want it, zoomable 3D maps of most cities of the world, an encyclopedia we can query with spoken words, movies we can watch on a flat slab in our pocket, a virtual everything store that will deliver next day — to name only six out of thousands that could be mentioned.
But, but…here is the thing. In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet. The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2044 were not invented until after 2014. People in the future will look at their holodecks, and wearable virtual reality contact lenses, and downloadable avatars, and AI interfaces, and say, oh, you didn’t really have the internet (or whatever they’ll call it) back then.
And they’d be right. Because from our perspective now, the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us. All these miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-one-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit — the equivalent of the dot com names of 1984.
Because here is the other thing the greybeards in 2044 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 2014? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category X and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”
So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet. There has never been a better time in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute. This is the time that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh to have been alive and well back then!”
The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet — although this new greatness will not be more of the same-same that exists today. It will not be merely “better,” it will different, beyond, and other. But you knew that.
What you may not have realized is that today truly is a wide open frontier. It is the best time EVER in human history to begin.
You are not late.
The general trend in the technium is a long-term migration away from selling products to selling services. Jeff Bezos has long said the Kindle is not a product, but a service selling access to reading material. That distinction will be made even more visible very shortly when Amazon introduces an "all you can read" subscription to their library of ebooks. Readers will no longer have to purchase individual books, but will have the option to subscribe to all books (600,000 to begin with), like you do to movies on Netflix. As a paying subscriber you get access to any book in print (eventually). Amazon books is a service not product. Verb not noun.
Test page for Amazon's Kindle Unlimited book subscription service
In this migration the ultimate vehicle for selling a service is not a store (which is for selling products) but a platform. A platform allows you to sell services which you did not create, just as a store allows you to sell products you did not create. If you are trying to sell services and you don't have a platform, then you have to make them all yourself, and it won't scale.
Jeff Bezos has turned Amazon into a platform that sells services that others provide. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook all also see themselves as platforms. All these giants employ third party vendors to make use of their platform. All employ APIs extensively. Sometimes platforms are called ecosystems, because in true ecological fashion, supporting vendors who cooperate in one dimension may also compete in others. For instance, Amazon sells both brand new books from publishers, and it sells -- via its ecosystem built of used books stores -- cheaper used versions. Used book vendors compete with each other and with the publishers. The platform's job is to make sure they make money (add value) whether the parts cooperate or compete. Which Amazon does well.
In the network economy platforms trump products. For the consumers, this translates into: access trumps ownership. Products induce ownership. But "owning" a service doesn't quite make sense conceptually, or practically. So if companies aren't really selling products and are instead selling services, then what customers need is access. And increasingly they prefer access over ownership. (See my Better Than Owning)
People have traditionally subscribed to services that entailed a never-ending stream of updates, improvements, versions, that forced a deep interaction and constant relationship from the producer to the consumer. To ease that relationship, a customer committed to a product (phone carrier, cable provider) and was promised uninterrupted quality. The first standalone product to be "servicized" was software. This mode is called SAS, software as service. As an example of SAS, Adobe no longer sells it's software as discrete products with dated versions. Instead you subscribe to Photoshop, InDesign, Premier, etc, or the entire suite of services. You sign up and your computer will operate the latest best versions as long as you pay the monthly subscription. This new model entails are re-orientation by the customer who may be used to thinking of software as a product her or she owns.
TV, phones and software were just the beginning. The major move in the upcoming decades will be XAS -- X as service, where X is anything, and maybe everything. You don't buy specific products; instead you get access to whatever benefits you need or want. Take TAS, Transportation as Service. You would not own a car. To get from point A to Point B, you would use a robot car to pick you up at your home, take you to the high speed rail station, which takes you to your general destination area, let's you out at the subway, which you take to meet another robot car to take you the final few miles. You pay some monthly fee for this access to the transportation platform run by a private/public consortium. Other possible XAS:
Food as Service
Health as Service
Clothes as Service
Shelter as Service
Entertainment as Service
Vacation as Service
School as Service
Hotel as Service (AirBnB)
Tools as Service (Techshop)
Fitness as Service
Toys as Service
And so on. Yes, even physical things can be delivered as if they were digital.
Many years ago the San Francisco Chronicle published a short column in which the writer mentioned that he had been traveling in India, and when he told the clerk at his hotel in New Delhi that he was from the San Francisco Bay Area the clerk responded, "Oh that is the center of the universe" Um, mumbled the traveller, and why do you say that? "Because the center of the universe is wherever there is the least resistance to new ideas."
I have not been able to come up with a better description of San Francisco's special relation to futurism. In my experience this is true: more new ideas per person bubble up in the Bay Area than anywhere else on Earth -- at this moment.
But why? The best explanation I've heard is from the best historian of California, J. S. Holliday, who argues that it began in the gold rush days, when hundreds of thousands of young men came stampeding into the Bay Area to start their fortunes. It was the gold.com era. There was no adult supervision. No one to tell you No. You just headed into the hills with your wits and either came back rich or poor. And if you came back poor, you sold shovel and jeans to the next wave of dreamers, and got rich in a new novel way. The Bay Area collected these young free spirits and retained them. As Holliday points out, no where else in the world was gold territory left to individuals and not the state. In part this was a matter of the great distance from Washington, which made control impossible.
Others argue the same distance from Washington and the establishment of the East Coast is what caused Stanford professors to turn to entreprenurial investments instead of grant money and corporate buyouts to go into business. That spirit of self-funding would avalanche into the start-up culture that now infuses the place. Mistakes are not only tolerated, unlike in Old Places, but even these days, mistakes are embraced as the best teacher. Bay Area VCs are more likely to give you money if you've already made a few disasters yourself.
John Markoff, the venerable New York Times tech reporter who also grew up in Silicon Valley, wrote an under-appreciated book called What the Doormouse Said, tracing the hippy origins of the current digital industry. Not just Steve Jobs, but many of the earliest personal computer pioneers were acid-dropping dreamers who were trying to augment human potential rather than create a new industry. They were the most recent incarnation of free thinkers that began with the 49ers, then the beatniks, and later the hippies, and now the hipsters. It is not hard to see the connection between free love and communes with open-source software and wikipedia. That's why I agree with the urban sociologist's Richard Florida's notion that bohemians = innovation = wealth, and that any city or region that wants to encourage innovative wealth creation has to encourage bohemians. That's what San Francisco has inadvertently done by the acre.
All this looseness leads to the "least resistance to new ideas" and the role of being the pivot of the world. I know this directly. Wired magazine could not have started anywhere else except in the Bay Area. When Conde Nast bought Wired they were wise enough to let it stay in SF, the only magazine they own not operated in NYC.
While the Bay Area is currently the center of the future, I sometimes have the feeling the center will slowly drift to Shanghai and other parts of China. In many ways the future is no longer so fashionable in the US. It is harder and harder to imagine a future -- either via Hollywood, or business scenarios -- that anyone wants to live in. All the futures are broken. Even the most techy and utopian futures are suspect and not believed. We've been burned too many times and know that all those inventions will bite us back. China does not have that problem and the acceleration of their desires into the future is palpable.
Of course China is still learning how to embrace its inner bohemian, and so I suspect the Bay Area will remain the center of the universe for at least a few more decades. It is one of those auto-catalytic things that feeds off itself. The more success it gains, the more newcomers with talent and ambition it attracts. In this way, success exhibits network effects, which makes it difficult to reproduce a "silicon valley" elsewhere. There will probably be only one "center of the universe" per universe at a time. (But there will be more universes!)
But this auto-catalyzing process needs to be managed. Success kills it. This is the curse of bohemian way: how do you maintain the loose reins, the cheap rents, the no-rules opportunities, when you are also creating one thousand under-30 millionaires every year? The one sure thing limiting the success of the least resistant place in the world is its success. Eventually no one can afford to make mistakes anymore, and then the center moves. You get to remain in the future by keeping loose, letting the young drive, staying hungry and foolish, ignoring success, embracing new mistakes, and having the least resistance to new ideas.
Beyond our tiny blue planet, the universe is filled with 100 billion galaxies, each containing 100 billion suns, and each of those stars some vast but unknown billion of inhabitable planets. Let’s say we had some means to inspect at least one other planet in the universe that sprouted sentient creatures who also developed their own advance technology. If we could see a complicated artifact on that planet do we have any test to determine whether that thing was alive or created? Could we tell whether a particular example was an organism born, or a supremely advanced machine made by ones who were born? What framework would we use to discriminate between a product of “natural” evolution and one of technological evolution? If we knew nothing of the origins or even nature of this planet’s original lifeforms, is there some special thermodynamic or informational giveaway of how its technology would be different from its life? I don't think there is such a test.
Now, let’s switch the lens and let that intergallatic investigator look at things here on Earth. If they were ignorant of what system our planet used for natural life, would they be able to identify what things were biological and which were technological? Is there an all-purpose distinction in thermodynamics, or complexity, or information flow that says “this evolved without minds” or “this was invented by a mind”? Could it make the further distinction between something that was self-evolved vs evolved from a system created by a mind, by a sort of artificial evolution? Say we set up a system that would self-evolve new organisms based on an alternative DNA-like molecule. If the investigator looked at Earth today the difference in complexity between self-evolved and mind-designed among small things might be a telltale clue, but what would it make of our largest creations, like the internet? How about in 100 years? I suspect there is no fundamental physical difference between “natural” and “artificial” organisms, and that the only way to distinguish the two will be to investigate their history.
There is no physically detectable vital spirit in living things that can not be found in manufactured things of a certain type. This continuity between the born and the made is not obvious nor very important right now, but it will become more important, valuable and troublesome in the future.
[Image of mechanical life generated by William Latham ]
In terms of GDP, user-generated content involves unmeasured labor creating an unmeasured asset that is consumed in unmeasured ways to create unmeasured consumer surplus. -- Erik and Andrew, The Second Machine Age, 2014, p. 114.
I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA. I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it. -- Edward Snowden, Edward Snowden Says His Mission's Accomplished, Washington Post, December 24, 2013
Netflix has created a database of American cinematic predilections. The data can't tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making. When they create a show like House of Cards, they aren't guessing at what people want. -- Alexis Madrigal, How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood, Atlantic, Jan2. 2014
You can always make more ideas, but you can’t make more time. If you decide to work on an idea, make sure you’re serious about it. Sleep on it, think about it, share it with other people. If you’re still crazy passionate about it, then do it. -- Nick Pettit, Treehouse, February 24, 2014.
In 2013 you do not get brownie points for using servers. You only get brownie points for serving users. –- Jeff Lawson, DevBeat 2013.
The only thing stronger than your imagination is your imagination connected to the billions of other imaginations all over the world, connected to smart machines that continue to get smarter, faster.-- Rita King, January 8, 2014, LinkedIn
Once, when Bahat reported on LinkedIn that he was leaving a job by changing his status to “Doing Nothing,” his New York friends fretted, and promised to let him know if they heard of any openings. His Bay Area friends, meanwhile, congratulated him on his exit. -- Nathan Heller, Bay Watched, New Yorker, October 14 2013
Image from CAPTCHA TWEET , a service that shifts your tweet into a captcha.
Having rules for harming and killing people and destroying things seems weird, but not as weird as not having them. We do have some rules about harming and killing in the physical world, but we don't have any for the intangible digital world. We need rules for cyberwar badly.
These will require some uncomfortable acknowledgements, some unlikely agreement across cultures, and probably some disaster to happen first.
Like all things digital, it's a knotty, complex, tricky problem. Boundaries in cyberspace are inherently blurred to non-existence. Motives matter more and are harder to screen apriori. The list of difficulties goes on and on.
But I am sure of two things: having rules of cyberwar will make ordinary life online more secure, and it will also increase peace in the physical world.
The best first start I've seen in creating rules for cyberwar are outlined in this IEEE article: "It's time for Rules of Cyberwar"
My Cool Tools book has been a big hit. It’s been a personal delight to find so many fans enjoying it. However, I underestimated how many would sell on Amazon, and so now it is sold out for Christmas. While there is another boatload that will unload copies in the first week of January, that will be too late for Christmas gifts. This snafu has really bummed me out since I worked so hard to get the books on Amazon in time for the holidays. So I offer a plan B.
I have a personal stash in my garage of books I’ve been sending to friends. If you are a fan of Cool Tools and really want one by Christmas, I may be able to mail you one. Here is the deal.
Fill out this Google form by Wednesday, December 18, and we will email a request for payment via PayPal. Once payment is received, we will begin mailing out books on Wednesday afternoon via Media Mail, which is the only affordable way. In our experience they will reach the west coast in a few days, and the east coast in a week. We CANNOT guarantee they will get to you before Christmas. For the book and shipping we charge $35 by PayPal, which is still $5 less than the list and bookstore price. (I have no idea how Amazon sells shipped books as cheap as they do. I suspect they don’t make any profit selling books.) This is for US addresses only.
If that is too uncertain for you, some bookstores have it in stock, but I’d call before you went, since relatively few copies of Cool Tools made it to bookstores; most went to Amazon.
I really do think that this Cool Tools book is an ideal gift, particularly for the young at heart, and it upsets me that we sold out at the peak of the gift season. There will be lots of copies available in the new year, but I will do my best to get one out to fans right now if at all possible.
To do that: Fill out this Google form and we will email a request for payment via PayPal for $35 per book. If you have any questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or wait for the next round on Amazon in early January.
Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats. -- Howard Aiken, as quoted in Portraits in Silicon by Robert Slater, 1987, p. 88.
Machines will do what we ask them to do and not what what we ought to ask them to do. -- Norbert Wiener, 1949, published in John Markoff, NYTimes May 21, 2013
The shortcut that's sure to work, every time: Take the long way. Do the hard work, consistently and with generosity and transparency. And then you won't waste time doing it over. -- Seth Godin, Seth's Blog, May 13, 2013.
Most people doubt online meetings can work but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don't work either. - Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants, p. 42, September 2013.
It's total chaos. But out of that chaos will come some really amazing things. And right now there are amazing opportunities for young people coming into the industry to say, ‘Hey, I think I'm going to do this and there's nobody to stop me.' It's because all the gatekeepers have been killed! -- George Lucas, The Verge, June 13, 2013.
If the NSA released their heaps of prying spycode as open-source code, Silicon Valley would be all over that, instantly. They’d put a kid-friendly graphic front-end on it. They’d port it right into the cloud. -- Bruce Sterling, The Ecuadorian Library, August 3, 2013.
I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love. -- Laurie Anderson, Farewell to Lou Reed, Rolling Stone, November 21, 2013
The question [in Hollywood] used to be: How do we top ourselves? The new one seems to be: How do we stop ourselves? -- Damon Lindelof, The New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting, Vulture, August 14, 2013
If you take someone to lunch you just get each other's stories, but if you set up folding chairs together, you find out what people are really like. -- Anne Herbert, The Whole Earth Jamboree Wasn't Worth It Once, CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter 1978.
People are bad at looking at seeds and guessing what size tree will grow out of them. The way you'll get big ideas in, say, health care is by starting out with small ideas. If you try to do some big thing, you don't just need it to be big; you need it to be good. And it's really hard to do big and good simultaneously. So, what that means is you can either do something small and good and then gradually make it bigger, or do something big and bad and gradually make it better. And you know what? Empirically, starting big just does not work. That's the way the government does things. They do something really big that's really bad, and they think, Well, we'll make it better, and then it never gets better. -- Paul Graham, Building Fast Companies for Growth, Inc. September 2013
Simple answers from xkcd
Like the Whole Earth Catalogs of yore, my new Cool Tools book is self-published. I'll tell you how the economics of my book work and the 3 reasons why I went the route of avoiding a mainline publisher.
First benefit was speed. I finished writing and assembling the book in September and in October I had the book listed on Pre-Order status on Amazon. It will be available to customers (in bookstores, too!) the first week of December. If this book was being published by a New York publisher I'd still be in negotiations to maybe have it available next summer.
Second, control. The book is unorthodox. It doesn't fit the mold for a serious book. It is kinda of a catalog. Even the size was off-putting for pros. A big floppy book doesn't travel well, doesn't fit well into bookstore shelves. The publishers want to know can I perhaps change that? Then there's the commercial aspect. The book is a shopping guide that tells you where to buy things. It points readers to Amazon a lot. Publishers and bookstores hate that. They perceive Amazon as the enemy and one chain even refused to carry it because of this. My solution was to bypass them.
Thirdly, in my recent experience with established publishers I wound up doing most of the work myself anyway. For my last book with Viking/Penguin, I hired the editor to edit my book; I hired the illustrator to make the illustrations; I turned in cover design concepts, some of which they used; I did the most effective marketing and publicity (via social media). The only things I did not do -- which were significant! -- was the financing and distribution. On this book, I decided to tackle these as well, since I would still be doing all the rest.
[Me working on the Cool Tools book at my stand/sit station; outside the chicken coop.]
Self-publishing means I have full control, but also full responsibility. Since I was paying for the paper and ink myself, I didn't waste any pages. There are no blank pages or white spaces in this book. Even the inside covers are printed --with the table of contents! Every inch is doing some work. The book is incredibly dense.
Self publishing an ebook is one thing. Self publishing a gigantic book that weighs 4.5 pounds is another. I knew I was in trouble when the overseas printer called to ask me if I had a loading dock at my warehouse. Warehouse? I hardly have a garage. "Ummm, how much room do I need?" I asked. She said, "Well, you should expect a shipping container and a half." That's a big pile. So I signed up with a book distributor, Publishers Group West, that caters to small publishers and most of the books will be shipped to their warehouse in Tennessee.
The books were printed in Hong Kong. I tried to get bids in the US, but because of the oversize of the book, no US printer would even bid on it. One large printer recommended by the distributor told me, "I hate to say this but you need to go to China to get this printed." So I did. They did a fantastic job, quickly and at a good price. The Hong Kong printing plant is high automation. Think robots not coolie labor. The books are now on a container ship going across the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi River to Tennessee. I am awaiting three pallets of books that were diverted to the West Coast, and that will arrive at my home. I am praying they will fit into my garage.
Economics of self-publishing will decide this book's fate. There will be about a total of 8,500 copies for sale on Amazon and in bookstores. The unit cost to print the book is $6. Shipping is about $1 per book. The cover price is $39.99. Amazon immediately discounts it to $25 (I set the book price anticipating Amazon's discount) and Amazon take something like 40%. The book distributor takes their cut. I'll take about $10 per book, and then of course, I have to deduct the cost I incurred in creating the book -- the editors, designers and proofers I hired to create those 472 pages. (I am not counting the years I've put into it). Plus I am mailing a lot of copies out to reviewers and contributors. I was stunned to learn that the absolute cheapest way to ship this book to England or Canada (no matter how slow) was $60 and $38 respectively! No other choice!
I have much more respect for commercial publishers in making this precarious publishing machine work. It is not easy to make money publishing paper books. It is very much like making art. In fact I think of this large beautiful book as an art work. Cool Tools really is remarkable art.
If you want your own piece of art, pre order here.
My blog is now a book!
I took the best of my Cool Tools blog and printed it as a huge oversized book.
Yes, I know. Paper is old. You can’t search it, you can’t easily share favorites, you can’t instantly click to get items, you can’t haul it in your virtual library device. The web and Kindle are so much better that way.
But I remember the power that the old Whole Earth Catalogs had on me as I came of age. The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools. There’s room to see the depth of a book in a glance. You can scan a whole field of one type of tool faster than you can on the web. In that respect, a large paper book rewards both fast browsing and deep study better than the web or a small tablet. Long live paper!
So that’s what I did. I printed Cool Tools as a paper book. I sifted through the thousands of tools reviewed in the past 10 years, and with the help of other Cool Tool teammates, selected more than 1,000 evergreen tools that have stood the test of time. I modeled the design and style on the old Whole Earth Catalogs; the book is printed on identical oversized paper pages, bound into the same thickness of almost 500 pages. The result is a hefty book that will seem to some people of a certain age to be a modern incarnation of the old Catalogs. (To new readers of a younger age, it will look like no other book they have seen.)
This Cool Tools book is the ultimate guide to do-it-yourself. The book covers how to self-publish a book, rent a bulldozer, print 3D objects, run for local office and win, design a logo, grow edible mushrooms, read all the classics, get an online degree, cut your cable TV, build a log cabin, and so much more! Really, I tried to cover all the ground this blog covers.
The result is a one-volume alternative education in making things happen. I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool. It works the same with adults who've seen it. I really think you'll be amazed by it.
Despite the date currently listed on Amazon, the book will be available during the first week of December. You can pre-order it now.
I’ve long wanted to do a collection of the best tools featured on this blog. After 10 years of daily reviews there’s a bunch of great tools that have endured the test of time — as well as a lot that should be forgotten. A best-of-the-best book would be a real service. To make it, I’d sort through the vast Cool Tools archive and assemble the greatest hits and ignore the rest. It would yield strong whiskey — distilled and concentrated and capable of giving someone a pleasant jolt. The collection would be worth packaging up nicely.
I could do this on the web, but when I thought of the best way to highlight the ultimate tool collection, I immediately thought of a paper book. Paper is old. You can’t search it, you can’t easily share favorites, you can’t instantly click to get items, you can’t haul it in your virtual library device. The web and Kindle are so much better that way.
But I remember the power that the old Whole Earth Catalogs had on me as I came of age. These oversized Catalogs were curated collections of the best tools presented on double-wide spreads of cheap paper, in great big fat books. As on this blog, the brief, rave reviews were recommended by readers and familiar editors. The range of reviews were refreshingly wide and dense, crammed 5 or 6 per page. The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools. There’s room to see the depth of a book in a glance. You can scan a whole field of one type of tool faster than you can on the web. In that respect, a large paper book rewards both fast browsing and deep study better than the web or a small tablet.
So that’s what I did. I printed Cool Tools as a paper book. I sifted through the thousands of tools reviewed in the past 10 years, and with the help of other Cool Tool teammates, selected more than 1,000 evergreen tools that have stood the test of time. I modeled the design and style on the old Whole Earth Catalogs; the book is printed on identical oversized paper pages, bound into the same thickness of almost 500 pages. The result is a hefty book that will seem to some people of a certain age to be a modern incarnation of the old Catalogs. (To new readers of a younger age, it will look like no other book they have seen.)
Cool Tools is the ultimate guide to do-it-yourself. The book covers how to self-publish a book, rent a bulldozer, print 3D objects, run for local office and win, design a logo, grow edible mushrooms, read all the classics, get an online degree, cut your cable TV, build a log cabin, and so much more! Really, I tried to cover all the ground this blog covers.
The result is a one-volume alternative education in making things happen. I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool.
And I made it for all you Cool Tool readers looking for a more distilled version of this blog. I know I was getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff here. I offer you my solution: a 472-page curated collection of the Best of Cool Tools, printed in full color, which can be read for years without the platform disappearing. Despite the date currently listed on Amazon, the book will be available during the first week of December. You can pre-order it now.
I honestly think this is one of the coolest cool tools, ever.
Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down. -- Adam Savage, Mythbusters [episode unknown].
Along comes Bitcoin, a currency in which every transaction is stored by the entire network and every coin has its own story. There’s nothing to trust but math. Suddenly an idea that sounded terrible -– a totally decentralized currency without a central authority, where semi-anonymous parties exchange meaningless tokens –- becomes almost comforting, a source of power and authority. -- Paul Ford, Bloomberg Businessweek, March 28, 2013
The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it. -- Eric Schmidt, Hillicon Valley, The Hill, October 1, 2010.
The federal government, as seen through the budget, is a massive insurance conglomerate with a large standing army. -- Ezra Klein, Wonkblog, Washington Post, April 15, 2013. (An earlier use of this phrase is from Peter Fisher, undersecretary of the Treasury, in 2002, but I don't have a citation.)
By far the best way to prevent a tug-of-war is to not pick up your end
of the rope. -- Don Lancaster, Incredible Secret Money Making Machine, p. 5
Remember that people who get paid to catch the bad guys get paid whether they catch them or not. But the cheats don't get paid unless they figure it out. So they're [more] motivated. -- Ted Whiting in "Not in my house," by Jesse Hicks, Verge, January 14, 2013
The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us. -- Ted Sarandos, Subscribers Help to Propel Netflix Gain, New York Times, April 23, 2013.
Under capitalism, wealth is less a stock of goods than a flow of ideas, the defining characteristic of which is surprise….Entrepreneurship is the launching of surprises. -- George Gilder, Unleash the Mind, National Review, August 13, 2012
The web offers an opportunity to fall into the open arms of fans, in ways that weren’t available before. Here’s the catch: The web also makes it near-impossible to fall into the arms of just one’s fans. Each time you dive into the crowd, some portion of the audience before you consists of observers with no interest in catching you. -- Nitshu Abebe, The Amanda Palmer Problem, Vulture, April 27, 2013
If there’s a word that means the opposite of perfectionist, I’m that. -- Matt Harding, Pogue's Post, New York Times, July 12, 2012.
We realise that something which makes sense in a local frame may make less sense in a broader frame: dumping your waste in the river is fine as long as you don’t think too much about the people downriver. When you do, you might decide to stop dumping. Government ought to be the process by which such overlapping ‘bigger picture’ considerations are negotiated: good government should make empathy practical. -- Brian Eno, Longplayer, April 30, 2013
Eventually we'll lose the pixel, as it fades beyond our bulky vision. And that will be a tremendous shame. -- Cennydd Bowles, Twitter, February 1, 2012.
In the beginning was the word:
and by mutations came the gene. -- Michael A. Arbib, in Towards a Theoretical Biology (1969), Vol 2, p. 323.
The question is not Will you succeed? but rather, Will you matter? - Seth Godin, Creative Mornings, May 10, 2013.
I'm looking to fill some holes in our coverage. Here are a few questions I hope readers can answer. Comments will be turned off on this entry. Please answer in the Ask Cool Tools link. Comments there with sufficient helpfulness will count as possible reviews for the weekly contest of Best Review.
Does anyone use Sirius XM radio? If so, for what? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
What is the best music scoring software? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
Looking for a great laptop MIDI keyboard. What's a great buy? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
Need a guide to math software. (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
What is the best digital motion sensing camera for wildlife? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
Are there any productivity apps that you've used for more than a year? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
Best aids for learning acting? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
Anyone have experience with crowdsourced design services? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
Super pogo sticks? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
Help me sort out the streaming music services. What's what? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)
This startup from Vancouver offers an interesting front to back publishing platform. Named Leanpub, it has something to offer writers, publishers, self-publishers and readers. I don't know much about it, but we may have to try it. It seems especially useful for bloggers turning their posts in to books and for technical writers on fast-changing subjects. Let me know if you have tried it.
For years I've heard apocryphal stories of knowledge workers in Silicon Valley who outsourced their job themselves. They had permission to work at home, but in fact outsourced their work to cheap Chinese or Indian labor. The Valley worker would work only a few hours per day overseeing his help, and goof off the rest. The Asian workers under him were delighted with a real job that paid well for them -- but only a fraction of what the CA guy got. And the CA guy's boss was delighted with the great work he was getting. It was an ingenious racket! Win, win, win for 3 sides; everybody happy. But all this shadow outsourcing was only rumors as far as I could tell.
Now comes some hard evidence from a Verizon security team that at least one person was really pulling off this sweet scam. From this article from Verizon:
"As it turns out, Bob had simply outsourced his own job to a Chinese consulting firm. Bob spent less that one fifth of his six-figure salary for a Chinese firm to do his job for him. Authentication was no problem, he physically FedExed his RSA token to China so that the third-party contractor could log-in under his credentials during the workday. It would appear that he was working an average 9 to 5 work day. Investigators checked his web browsing history, and that told the whole story.
A typical ‘work day’ for Bob looked like this:
9:00 a.m. – Arrive and surf Reddit for a couple of hours. Watch cat videos
11:30 a.m. – Take lunch
1:00 p.m. – Ebay time.
2:00 – ish p.m Facebook updates – LinkedIn
4:30 p.m. – End of day update e-mail to management.
5:00 p.m. – Go home
Evidence even suggested he had the same scam going across multiple companies in the area. All told, it looked like he earned several hundred thousand dollars a year, and only had to pay the Chinese consulting firm about fifty grand annually. The best part? Investigators had the opportunity to read through his performance reviews while working alongside HR. For the last several years in a row he received excellent remarks. His code was clean, well written, and submitted in a timely fashion. Quarter after quarter, his performance review noted him as the best developer in the building."
Scott Adams was head by a whole decade. From Dilbert, August 3, 2003
Nobody reads big factual books anymore. Who has time? With a lot of effort you can get folks to buy big factual books, but they don't usually read them. They sit on the "to read" shelf once they get home. Or pile up in the inbox on an ebook reader. I know. As an author I know how many of my purchased books are unread. But while it is nice that people buy books, I feel a failure as an author if the bought (or borrowed) books are not read.
A couple of years ago I had an idea for increasing readership of books. I'll pay you to read my book! I had a clever way to use ebook readers to accomplish this. I mentioned the system to many book lovers and authors, and one of them whom made his living patenting ideas suggest my idea was patentable.
I took some initial steps in that direction, but realized very quickly that getting a patent is just like getting a child - you now have to tend it, protect it, feed it, and develop it. It did not solve anything; it only created new things to solve. I have too many other things to do than babysit or try to peddle a patent, so I am publishing the idea here. It may be that this idea is not patentable at all, or even already patented (I never got that far to look), or maybe it is a lousy idea that can't be implemented. In any case, here it is.
I think it's a great idea. I'd like to have this option as a reader, as well as an author and publisher. I hope someone does this.
A MODEL FOR PAYING READERS TO READ BOOKS
By Kevin Kelly
June 1, 2012
Proposal for a patent: The idea is to pay people to read a book.
Readers would purchase an e-book for a fixed amount, say $5. They would use an e-book reader to read the digital book. The e-book reader would contain software that would track their reading usage – how long it took on average to turn a page; how often they highlighted a passage; how many pages activated at one sitting, etc. Amazon Kindles today already track bookmark usage patterns which they relay back to Amazon on via its wireless Whispernet. Using a database of known reading patterns from verified readers the software would compare a purchaser’s reading behavior to these known reading patterns and establish whether or not a purchaser is really reading the book. If the behavior patterns exceeded the threshold level – say 95% of pages turned at the right speed -- then the e-book device would initiate a predetermined payment to the purchaser.
If a reader is given credit for reading the book, then he/she would earn more than they paid for the book. For example, if they paid $5 for the ebook, they would get back $6, thus earning $1 for reading the book. Not only did the book not cost them anything, but they made money reading the book. If they read it.
The Publisher would pay the difference from the potentially greater sales revenue this arrangement would induce. Greater numbers of readers would purchase the book initially in the hope and expectation that they would finish the book and be reimbursed greater than the amount they paid. In their mind, entering into a purchase is an “easy buy” because they calculate “it will cost them nothing.” Or maybe even make them money.
However the likelier outcome is that while many more customers buy the book, fewer actually read it completely. This follows the known pattern that most bought books are not read. So the actual payout for success will likely be less than the actual gain in sales, resulting in a net gain to the Publisher for this deal. So if, for example, the Publisher sold 10 books that were unread for every 1 book that was read, the revenue would be $50-$6 = $44. If this offer increased ordinary sales by for example 40%, there would be a net increase in revenue from $35 to $44 or $9, or 25% additional profit for this model.
There is satisfaction for both parties in either outcome. If the purchaser buys the book, but does not read it in full, he/she paid the acceptable price, and still owns the book. The Publisher keeps the full amount. If the purchaser finishes reading the book, they still have the book, but also earned money doing so. The publisher loses only a small amount on the sale, which can be offset from greater sales to others.
The payout ratio can be adjusted depending on the price of the ebook, or the category of content. This mechanism requires no new hardware than what exists today, and better hardware in the future – such as eye tracking technology -- will only make it more practical to evaluate whether someone has read a book. This can be accomplished primarily in software. Of course, it should be an opt in choice, and engaged with a purchaser’s permission only.
Cops, emergency room doctors, and insurance actuarists all know it. They realize how many crazy impossible things happen all the time. A burglar gets stuck in a chimney, a truck driver in a head on collision is thrown out the front window and lands on his feet, walks away; a wild antelope knocks a man off his bike; a candle at a wedding sets the bride's hair on fire; someone fishing off a backyard dock catches a huge man-size shark. In former times these unlikely events would be private, known only as rumors, stories a friend of a friend told, easily doubted and not really believed.
But today they are on YouTube, and they fill our vision. You can see them yourself. Each of these weird freakish events just mentioned can be found on YouTube, seen by millions.
The improbable consists of more than just accidents. The internets are also brimming with improbable feats of performance -- someone who can run up a side of a building, or slide down suburban roof tops, or stack up cups faster than you can blink. Not just humans, but pets open doors, ride scooters, and paint pictures. The improbable also includes extraordinary levels of super human achievements: people doing astonishing memory tasks, or imitating all the accents of the world. In these extreme feats we see the super in humans.
Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we'll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online - which is almost all day many days -- we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.
That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don't want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.
We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache -- the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare -- by definition -- but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.
I see no end to this dynamic. Cameras are becoming ubiquitous, so as our collective recorded life expands, we'll accumulate thousands of videos showing people being struck by lightening. When we all wear tiny cameras all the time, then the most improbable accident, the most superlative achievement, the most extreme actions of anyone alive will be recorded and shared around the world in real time. Soon only the most extraordinary moments of our 6 billion citizens will fill our streams. So henceforth rather than be surrounded by ordinariness we'll float in extraordinariness.
It's one thing to hear a story about someone getting struck by lightening, but it feels different seeing a video of it. I have a hunch that seeing "facts" on video makes them seem realer to us than either reading, hearing, or seeing stills about them. And then there are always more than one. That's the thing, you can start with the most unlikely event or achievement, and then watch a series of this unlikeliness for hours. Over time this extremism accumulates. When the improbable dominates the archive to the point that it seems as if the library contains ONLY the impossible, then these improbabilities don't feel as improbable.
I think there is already evidence that this ocean of extraordinariness is inspiring, galvanizing, prompting, daring ordinary folks to try something extraordinary. At the same time, superlative epic failures are foremost as well. We are confronted by the stupidest people in the world as well, doing the dumbest things imaginable. So we see the extremes. In some respects this is making us a world of Ripley-Believe-it-or-Not-ers, or it may place us in a universe of nothing more than tiny, petty, obscure Guinness World Record holders. Everyone is a world record something for 15 minutes. In every life there is probably at least one moment that is freakish.
To the uninformed, the increased prevalence of improbable events will make it easier to believe in impossible things. A steady diet of coincidences makes it easy to believe they are more than just coincidences, right? But to the informed, a slew of improbably events make it clear that the unlikely sequence, the outlier, the black swan event, must be part of the story. After all, in 100 flips of the penny you are just as likely to get 100 heads in a row as any other sequence. But in both cases, when improbable events dominate our view -- when we see an internet river streaming nothing but 100 heads in a row -- it makes the improbable more intimate, nearer.
I am unsure of what this intimacy with the improbable does to us. What happens if we spend all day exposed to the extremes of life, to a steady stream of the most improbable events, and try to run ordinary lives in a background hum of superlatives? What happens when the extraordinary becomes ordinary?
The good news may be that it cultivates in us an expanded sense of what is possible for humans, and for human life, and so expand us. The bad news may be that this insatiable appetite for supe-superlatives leads to dissatisfaction with anything ordinary.
I don't know, but if anyone is aware of research on this effect, I'd like to know about it.
Clay Shirky argues that the least creative act is making a LOL-cat, but that even making a LOL-cat is better than making nothing, and so the internet of LOL_cats is a net good compared to say a world of make-nothing consumption. One could make a similar argument that the least distinctive human achievement is a bad accident captured on YouTube, but that moment of uniqueness is better than no uniqueness at all, and so a world of YouTube extremities, improbabilities and superlatives is a net good.
New media technologies often cause an allergic reaction when they first appear. We may find them painful before we find them indispensable.
I watched the movie The Hobbit. Twice. First I saw it in its "standard" mode. A day later I returned to see The Hobbit in 3D at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second, called HFR. HFR is a cinematic hi-tech that promises greater realism. It was amazingly real. And disturbing at first.
Because 48 frames per second is just above the threshold that a human eye/brain can detect changes, the projected picture seems startling whole and "smooth," as if it were uninterrupted reality.
I was surprised though that the movie in 48HFR looked so different. (The 3D did not have an effect.) Even though both formats were shot with the same cameras and lighting, they appeared to be lighted and shot on different sets. The HFR lighting in the HFR movies seemed harsh, brighter, and more noticeable. The emotional effect of HFR was disturbing for the first 10 minutes. And perplexing -- because the only thing different in the two movies was that one was displayed in the 48 frames it was shot at, and the other was computationally reduced down to the normal 24 frames per second. Why would the frame rate distort the lighting and the emotion?
I was not the only one who noticed. The HFR version of the Hobbit -- the first commercial movie to be released in this new format -- stirred up howls from the critics. Very few filmish people liked what they saw. For most it was painful. The reviewers struggle to express what HFR looked like and why:
"Audiences looking for a rich, textured, cinematic experience will be put off and disconcerted by an image that looks more like an advanced version of high definition television than a traditional movie." - Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times
"One thing The Hobbit is not is a celebration of the beauty of film. A celebration of video-game realms, perhaps." - Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
All kinds of ailments were ascribed to it, including hard of hearing:
"I can honestly say I had a harder time hearing some of the dialogue in the 3D HFR version than in the 2D... It was like watching really, really, really atrociously bad state run TV show......High frame rates belong on bad TV shows and perhaps sports." -- Vincent Laforet, Gizmodo
My first impression, too, was that HFR reminded me of my first look at video. That theme was repeated by many. But what is it about video that we didn't like at first?
"Those high frame rates are great for reality television, and we accept them because we know these things are real. We're always going to associate high frame rates with something that's not acted, and our brains are always going to associate low frame rates with something that is not. If they're seeing something artificial and it starts to approach something looking real, they begin to inherently psychologically reject it." -- James Kerwin, Movieline
"Instead of the romantic illusion of film, we see the sets and makeup for what they are. The effect is like stepping into a diorama alongside the actors, which is not as pleasant as it might sound... Never bet against innovation, but this debut does not promise great things to come." - C. Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
What's going on here? I really struggled to figure out what was happening to my own eyes and my perception that something as simple as changing a frame rate would trigger such drastic re-evaluations of cinema?
I researched on the web without much satisfaction, since few people had actually seen 48HFR. I asked a few friends in the advance cinema industry and got unsatisfactory answers. Then I was at a party with a friend from Pixar and asked him my question: why does HFR change the appearance of the lighting? He also could not tell me, but the man next to him could. He was John Knoll, the co-creator of Photoshop and the Oscar-winning Visual Effects Director for a string of technically innovative Hollywood blockbusters as long as my arm. He knew. I'll put his answer into my own words:
Imagine you had the lucky privilege to be invited by Peter Jackson onto the set of the Hobbit. You were standing right off to the side while they filmed Bilbo Baggins in his cute hobbit home. Standing there on the set you would notice the incredibly harsh lighting pouring down on Bilbo's figure. It would be obviously fake. And you would see the makeup on Bilbo's in the harsh light. The text-book reason filmmakers add makeup to actors and then light them brightly is that film is not as sensitive as the human eye, so these aids compensated for the film's deficiencies of being insensitive to low light and needing the extra contrast provided by makeup. These fakeries were added to "correct" film so it seemed more like we saw. But now that 48HFR and hi-definition video mimic our eyes better, it's like we are standing on the set, and we suddenly notice the artifice of the previously needed aids. When we view the video in "standard" format, the lighting correctly compensates, but when we see it in high frame rate, we see the artifice of the lighting as if we were standing there on the set.
Knoll asked me, "You probably only noticed the odd lighting in the interior scenes, not in the outdoors scenes, right?" And once he asked it this way, I realized he was right. The scenes in the HFR version that seemed odd were all inside. The landscape scenes were stunning in a good way. "That's because they didn't have to light the outside; the real lighting is all that was needed, so nothing seemed amiss."
Now some of the complaints make sense:
"While striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film an oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins' home." - Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
"Instead of feeling like we've been transported to Middle-earth, it's as if we've dropped in on Jackson's New Zealand set..." - Scott Foundas, Village Voice
As digital recording continues to increase in resolution, fluidity, and sensitivity, this verisimilitude with "being in the set" will also increase. John Knoll wisely predicts that his industry will quickly learn that they have to abandoned the old style of lighting, and also increase the realism in such things as props and special effects. "I liked the HFR version," he said. "We are going to see a lot more of it."
But that is not what the filmish people want. They like the less sensitive, blurry style of film better. One critic even suggested that directors should use soft-focus filters to debase the clarity of the new digital recordings and restore the "painterly" aspect of classic films.
"Over all, though, the shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction." - A.O.Scott, The New York Times
"At 48 frames, the film is more true to life, sometimes feeling so intimate it's like watching live theater. That close-up perspective also brings out the fakery of movies. Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film. Like the warmth of analog vinyl vs. the precision of digital music, the dreaminess of traditional film vs. the crispness of high-frame rates will be a matter of taste." - Associated Press
I told Knoll that these complaints about the sterility of the new digital format reminded me of the arguments against CD music albums. Digital was "too clear" "too clinical" not "warm and fuzzy enough" according to audiophiles. CDs missed the musical ambiance, the painterly soul of a song. The critics were not going to buy CDs and the labels would have to pry their beloved analog vinyl albums from their dead hands. Of course, for average music fans, the clear hiss-free quality of CDs were soon perceived as much superior, particularly as the "frame" rate of the digital sampling increased past the point of most ear's perception. "That's exactly what it is like, " exclaimed Knoll. HFR is the CD of movies right now.
This pattern of initial irritation followed by embrace has been found in other media introductions. When the realism of photography first appeared, artists favored soft lenses to keep the photos "painterly." Drastic sharpness was startling, "unnatural" to art, and looked odd. Over time of course, the sharp details became the main point of photography.
Color TV, technicolor, and Kodakchrome all had its detractors who found a purity and monumentalism in black and white. Color was all too gaudy, distracting and touristy, not unlike the criticism of HFR now.
I predict that on each step towards increased realism new media take, there will be those who find the step physically painful. It will hurt their eyes, ears, nose, touch,and peace of mind. It will seem unnecessarily raw, ruining the art behind the work. This disturbance is not entirely in our heads, because we train our bodies to react to media, and when it changes, it FEELS different. There may be moments of uncomfort.
But in the end we tend to crave the realism -- when it has been mastered -- and will make our home in it.
The scratchy sound of vinyl, the soft focus of a Kodak Brownie, and the flickers of a 24 frame per second movie will all be used to time-stamp a work of nostalgia.
I started out as a photographer. For years in Asia I was chasing the "decisive moment" in a still picture, that moment I would chose when everything lined up perfectly, the light, the angle, the eyes, the form, the motion -- in that micro-second it all came together just as I clicked the shutter. If I were lucky I got the exposure and focus right. (But I never knew until I developed the film later.)
I've also done a small bit of filmmaking and videoing. Different camera, different mode. Forget the decisive moment, you are searching for streams and flows. Many times I wished I was videoing when I had a still camera. Is there a way to do both?
Why not just digitally "film" a scene and then take perfectly crisp stills from the "footage" to get the best of both worlds? Then you could take a decisive hour's worth of motion and then later pick through it to retrieve the best stills. You would be working with the advantage of hindsight, something you don't have in the field or real life. Making a decisive moment image will be much easier; you don't just have to be lucky.
Until now this dream has not been possible technically. The extracted stills were never sharp or rich enough to stand on their own. But a new camera from Canon makes it practical now. Advances in lenses, sensors and storage mean that you can "film" a scene and then extract very crisp, well exposed, information rich still images. Watch this video for a introduction.
The distinction (what was left of it) between still images and cinematic images is gone. As this technology continues to shrink and improve, eventually moving to your phone, it will change what we think of as photography -- including cinematography. Even though I spent many years aiming for that elusive moment, I welcome the disruption.