One Thing I Love About Poker Face

Poker Face is really nostalgic for 1970s detective shows, but it isn’t content to be stuck in the past

It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to at least like Poker Face — I love Rian Johnson’s murder mysteries; Natasha Lyonne’s got a “presence” that makes you eager to like everything she does; it’s a revival of the Columbo-style mystery; and it’s got a long list of guest appearances from actors I like a lot, and also Adrian Brody1To be fair, he has to play a reprehensible sleazebag in the first episode, and he sells it so well, it’s as if it comes naturally to him.. But I never got around to watching it until my ticket to Halloween Horror Nights got me a subscription to Peacock as a bonus.

(There’s no real point to that detail; it’s just a signifier of what life was like in 2023, where streaming networks and synergy within huge multimedia companies means I have to go to a theme park to watch a show I’m interested in).

I finally watched the first episode tonight, and it nails everything I expected it to. The opening titles alone were enough to set the tone, even if they hadn’t been set on top of shots of a casino seemingly stuck in a perpetual state of mid-to-late-70s-ness. It’s a perfect setting for a series concept that itself seems to be stuck halfway in the past.

The main character suggests a call back to Jim Rockford — mostly in her sense of humor in the face of being constantly targeted by bad guys and misfortune — and of course, the format calls back to Columbo. But calling it just an homage would be selling it short. You could make a very, very good pastiche of 1970s detective series. Or you could take the premise of “the audience knows the killer(s) from the start,” and experiment with it in loads of interesting ways. Poker Face does both, breaking down its inspirations into their component parts, and then using them to make something new.

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    To be fair, he has to play a reprehensible sleazebag in the first episode, and he sells it so well, it’s as if it comes naturally to him.

The Design of Everyday Obsolete Things

In honor of the Mac’s anniversary, a new appreciation for things that have outlived their usefulness

Two things that I do a lot on this blog (and elsewhere on the internet): reminiscing about getting my first Mac, and desperately trying to justify expensive purchases. With the Macintosh’s 40th anniversary, and last week’s pre-orders for the Apple Vision Pro, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days doing both.

A few days ago, I replied to a Mastodon post in honor of the Mac’s anniversary, listing my first Mac, my favorite Mac, and so on. For my favorite, I picked my current one, a 14″ M3 MacBook Pro. And I chose it without hesitation, which kind of surprised me.

The introduction of the M1 got Apple back on track, and they’re once again on a streak where every new Mac is the best computer I’ve ever owned. This one has everything I want, and it’s powerful enough to run docked but light enough to take just about anywhere I’d need a computer. The screen, keyboard, trackpad, and speakers have gone through enough revisions to be just about perfect. And — the best part after being burned, literally, by the last few Intel models — it runs cool and silent.

But my favorite? When the classic Mac is so innately appealing that just seeing a photo of one has me back on eBay looking to get a used one in good working condition? When there’ve been so many unique designs that instantly provoke nostalgia for the exact time in your life when you had it? I like this computer for its functionality, and for the fact that the design has been iterated to the point that it does exactly what it needs to without drawing any attention to itself. But in 10 years or so, I’m unlikely to have many fond memories of this (space) black slab itself.

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Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Les chansons dans ma tête

Two tangentially-related tunes for Tuesday, en francais

If you’re as prone to catching earworms as I am, I recommend avoiding the movies Death Proof and But I’m a Cheerleader, because they both contain “Chick Habit” by musician and animator April March. The last time I saw either of those movies was a year ago, and I still occasionally wake up with the song going through my head. Sometimes just thinking of or seeing a picture of Natasha Lyonne is enough to set it off.

It’s a faithful cover of “Laisse Tomber Les Filles”, and she’s recorded versions in both English and French. The original was made famous by France Gall, a French pop star with an only slightly less unbelievable pseudonym than April March.

Not as good as “Laisse Tomber Les Filles,” but no less tenacious, is “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”, another song written by Serge Gainsbourg, and the song with which she won Eurovision in 1965. You can read more about the song in your local library, or on Wikipedia, if you’re wondering about the translation, or just want to be reminded of how asinine Gainsbourg was.

Infinite Blank Canvas

Yet another episode in my ongoing struggles to make sense of the Vision Pro (and make sense of why I want one)

I wish I could be one of those people who could embrace being an early adopter, be grateful to be in a position to be able to even consider spending money on consumer tech, and be done with it.1Also known in some circles as “a functioning adult.”

But I’ve been plagued with indecision about the Vision Pro headset, kind of hoping that the demand would outstrip supply to the point the decision is made for me, or grateful that I can’t just make an impulse purchase without first scheduling a long-overdue appointment with an optometrist.

I’ve even been harboring a pretzel-twist of logic to think of it as being like a ticket to the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser that I never booked: the people who were able to go saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance2Even though every one I know of who went on it ended up going more than once, somehow. Again I suspect I picked the wrong career by not going into YouTube. to be in at the start of something that felt huge and revolutionary. Except this is even more suited to me, because I wouldn’t have to talk to strangers.

The obvious question with the Vision Pro is one that I touched on in another blog post: What does it do? The utility and longevity of it are far from certain. That’s why there’ve been complaints that it’s essentially a dev kit being marketed as a consumer device. And the more sensible and rational take, which is to wait for the inevitable future version that will be faster, lighter, more capable, and have a better-defined (if not completely-defined) use case.

This morning I listened to an episode of the Upgrade podcast that addressed that whole question of whether this is a glorified developer kit. In it, Jason Snell described the same feeling that I’ve had about it, but have never been able to articulate. Apparently I just needed to hear from another nerd around my age, because he compared it to the early adoption of personal computers in the mid-1980s.

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    Also known in some circles as “a functioning adult.”
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    Even though every one I know of who went on it ended up going more than once, somehow. Again I suspect I picked the wrong career by not going into YouTube.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Songs in Progress

Two tangentially-related tunes that are aware that they’re tunes

I’ve only seen 8 1/2 once, back around 1989, so I only remember two things about it: 1) My favorite moment had an annoying character suddenly getting hanged1Or dropped into a bottomless pit? I said I don’t remember much about it, and am too frustrated with Kanopy’s interface to try and find the scene again. with no comment from the other characters, and 2) It’s a surreal interpretation of Frederico Fellini’s struggles to make his ninth movie.

Frankly, I feel that that movie has been surpassed by the decades of movies that were inspired by it. But back in the late 1980s, just the idea that a movie was “allowed” to be so happily self-referential was like pure Chucknip.

And I also still love the idea of songs that are aware that they’re songs. “Simple Song” by the Shins doesn’t wallow in self-reflection, but it still does quite a lot with the premise. With just a couple of acknowledgements, it sets up the idea of looking back at a young love, struggling to find a way to encompass how significant the “small” moments turned out to be throughout his life.

The most extreme example is Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song,” which is still such a wonderful way of expressing in song how you can be so full of love for someone that a song feels incapable of expressing it.

My favorite version of the song is still Ewan McGregor’s from Moulin Rouge, because it uses the self-reflection of the song — McGregor just narrates the entire first verse, as if he’s composing it on the spot — and then turns it into self-reflection for the movie.

Everything in Moulin Rouge up to that point had been broad, loud, chaotic, and so, so affected. I distinctly remember the urge to walk out of the theater, it was so relentlessly too much. At the start of the scene, Nicole Kidman is going completely over the top2In case it’s not obvious: deliberately over the top. Her performance hinges on the idea that she can never show anyone the “real” her, but just the affectations. — over-acting as an actress in a movie scene about an actress over-acting — about how stories feel perfect and powerful, because here, they are. Then McGregor practically unhinges his jaw like a python to let the song pour out, and she, along with the rest of Paris, is forced to stop and pay attention. It’s just such a wonderfully sincere and earnest expression of how difficult it is to be sincere and earnest.3And if you’re wondering whether watching that scene again, completely removed from its context, still made me tear up at my desk in the middle of the afternoon: I assure you that it did.

And my apologies to Carly Simon, who probably thought this post was going to be about her.

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    Or dropped into a bottomless pit? I said I don’t remember much about it, and am too frustrated with Kanopy’s interface to try and find the scene again.
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    In case it’s not obvious: deliberately over the top. Her performance hinges on the idea that she can never show anyone the “real” her, but just the affectations.
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    And if you’re wondering whether watching that scene again, completely removed from its context, still made me tear up at my desk in the middle of the afternoon: I assure you that it did.

Fun Fact: We Can Never Truly Know Anything

Thoughts about how easily-digestible information ends up in the same state as most things that’ve been digested

As the algorithms have spent time getting to know me, they’ve learned (at least) two things: 1) I’m a nerd who enjoys learning quick, easily-digestible pieces of information; and 2) I’m pretty shallow and will pay extra attention to anything presented by a young, handsome man with a beard. So YouTube must’ve understandably believed it’d hit the jackpot when it started recommending videos from the “magnify” channel.

And it was correct; it’s an interesting channel, mostly dedicated to short-form info, mostly related to language and the origins of words, with particular repeated emphasis on different aspects of Christianity and their roots in Judaism.

Coincidentally, in the middle of watching a ton of the short videos back to back, I checked into a forum on Discord and saw someone repeating the (certainly, patently false) etymology of the word “posh” as an acronym for “port out, starboard home.” The coincidence jumped out at me, because this was a recurring topic in the newspaper column The Straight Dope — or at least its online message boards — which I used to read with beyond-religious devotion in the days before social media took over everybody’s attention.

I should make it absolutely clear that the “magnify” channel is both entertaining and interesting, which is its only real obligation, and that it at least seems both convincing and motivated by a real desire to inform. I have yet to hear anything presented on it that fails to pass my bullshit test. I’m not trying to disparage or cast any doubt on the channel itself, or its content. Just its format, which is driven by the state of online media in 2024.

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Coming to the Beskar Screen

Responding to the announcement of a movie for the most quintessentially TV version of Star Wars

Disney announced an upcoming movie featuring the characters The Mandalorian and Grogu, titled The Mandalorian and Grogu. In addition to hoping that Jon Favreau has a different title in the works, I’m also a little bit confused and disappointed by the announcement.

To be clear: I’m absolutely going to be seeing this movie, and if you think otherwise then I’m not sure why you’re reading this blog, since it’s clear you don’t know me at all. If they sold tickets before movies entered pre-production, I would’ve already bought one.

But The Mandalorian is, to me, inherently televised. It’s the most perfect translation of everything I like about Star Wars into the television format. It’s the show that I dreamed of when I was a little kid, obsessed with Star Wars and obsessed with television. But better, because it couldn’t possibly have existed back then. In fact, I think a big part of why I can’t help but gush about it is that it’s got failsafes built in: anything that might seem corny or underdeveloped feeds back into the charm of the series, because it feels like a callback to what television was like at the time Star Wars was at its peak.

In fact, I can call out the aspects of it that make it feel inherently suited to television, in handy blog list form:

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Now You’re Playing With Power!

Tabletop RPGs and my ongoing beef with social media’s corrupted version of progressivism

I’m not much into tabletop role-playing games, but my fiancé is, so I’ve seen quite a few videos on YouTube about Candela Obscura.

As I understand it, it’s the first game based on a system the designers made in conjunction with Critical Role, a popular group of actors who’ve spent years running their mostly-Dungeons & Dragons campaigns as web series. (And, among other spin-off projects, adapted their campaigns to an ongoing animated series on Amazon Prime). Again as I understand it, they were interested in developing a new system that could go beyond established D&D settings, and also would favor narrative more than mechanics, to be better suited to the type of content they were making.

There seems to be no shortage of videos on YouTube critical of Candela Obscura, most of them with hyperbolic titles calling out its inexcusable sins against the very fundamentals of RPGs. Along with accusations that they “ripped off” the game Blades in the Dark, the game is insensitive to marginalized groups or the neurodivergent, etc. Many of these are, of course, just clickbait looking for attention. YouTube’s gonna YouTube, after all. But some of them seem earnestly upset.

And even if I were invested in this genre of game, I would have no problem with people criticizing it, of course. Where I get annoyed is when the complaints are, invariably, presented as speaking Truth to Power.

After all, Critical Role is easily the most successful and well-recognized (i.e. I’ve heard of it) group doing what they do. Not only have they managed to turn their friendly games into a content creation and publishing business, but they’ve got tons of devoted fans. Which means they clearly need to be taken down a peg or two, I presume?

I know that when I think of high-and-mighty fat cats who are so rich that they’ve lost touch with the common man, I think of two groups: independent tabletop RPG creators, and voice-over artists. Maybe when they’re not lounging around in their mansions, or swimming in their money bins, they could deign to lower themselves to hear some honest and necessary feedback for once.

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Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Strings Attached

Using the theme of string sections in popular music as an excuse to listen to two of my favorite songs ever

Listening to “I Am The Walrus” last week, and praising George Martin’s production in particular, reminded me that it’s been a while since I’ve heard a popular musician really commit to the string section beyond a few samples here and there.

Luckily, two of my favorite songs by two of my favorite musicians are full-to-bursting with string arrangements.

I love Neko Case, both for being funny as hell, and for really understanding the appeal of a creepy murder ballad. And of course, for her amazing voice. It’s so powerful that listening to one of her records from start to finish can sometimes leave me like I’ve been physically assaulted. She should do a team-up with Black Bolt. It’s so powerful that it makes you forget how brilliant she can be with the lyrics.

It almost seems like she had to bring in the big guns with “Dirty Knife” because a full orchestra is the only thing that could compete with her voice. You can hear the madness punching its way in, interrupting her wistful and lilting voice with a compulsive repetition that’s actually frightening.

Björk is another artist who could overpower anything other than a full orchestra, and “Isobel,” my favorite song from my favorite of her albums, uses it to full effect. It doesn’t feel like an unnecessary flourish. It’s more like the music that’s been driven by the electronic beat that seems to carry throughout Post is finally allowed to break free and soar. It felt timeless, both familiar and cinematic and still like nothing I’d ever heard before.

If you see a virtual joystick, they blew it

Killer apps, creativity, and how bad things happen to good computer platforms

This is a tangent off of my previous post about Apple’s apparent plans for the Vision Pro, and some of the follow-up comments.

Back when Apple released the iPhone, it was quickly apparent that it had tons more potential than was realized in its first iteration. The company had nailed the design, and now millions of people had portable touch screens packed full of sensors, a camera, and an internet connection. As a game developer, I was excited at the prospect of entirely new types of games that would be made possible by the technology in this device.

And there were a few games that took full advantage of it. Flight Control is still the standout; it felt as if it would only work on a touch screen, and only on a touch screen of that size.1Which I think is still the case. I tried the VR version, which seemed like a no-brainer until I actually played it, and discovered that the magic wasn’t there for me. Before the Match 3 genre got milked dry and became synonymous with exploitative monetization strategies, it was pretty novel: Bejeweled was a lot of fun, and it still works best with touch input. Device 6 doesn’t depend on tech demo-like game mechanics, but it’s a story-driven game that feels as if it can only work on a smartphone.

But it also didn’t take long for developers to fall back to one of my most hated things in mobile games: the virtual joystick. Whenever I see one2Or worse, have had to implement one, it just feels like the devs have shrugged and said, “that’s it, we’re out of ideas.” It’s not just that it throws out everything that makes the platform unique, in favor of a much older and more familiar interface; it’s that it’s a shittier version of that interface as well.3I should mention that the screenshot attached to this post is from an Apple developer presentation explaining how virtual joysticks can be a fallback for players with accessibility issues, or if a physical bluetooth controller isn’t available. So I’m not necessarily complaining about that presentation in particular.

And yet, using the Apple Pencil with an iPad feels so natural and just plain enjoyable that it’s become my preferred way of interacting with it. Even though the company had repeatedly insisted that the device was specifically designed for touch input, which is why iOS and MacOS were kept separate, and why the company had never developed its own stylus among all of the third-party options.

So it would seem that it’s a good thing for a company to insist that its products be used the way they’re designed and intended to be used, where the unique abilities and constraints of the platform encourage new ways to solve problems and sometimes invent entirely new categories. Except for the cases where it’s not a good thing.

Continue reading “If you see a virtual joystick, they blew it”
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    Which I think is still the case. I tried the VR version, which seemed like a no-brainer until I actually played it, and discovered that the magic wasn’t there for me.
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    Or worse, have had to implement one
  • 3
    I should mention that the screenshot attached to this post is from an Apple developer presentation explaining how virtual joysticks can be a fallback for players with accessibility issues, or if a physical bluetooth controller isn’t available. So I’m not necessarily complaining about that presentation in particular.

One Thing I Like About Poor Things

The best moments in Poor Things are the ones you can appreciate empirically

I went in hoping, and fully expecting, to love Poor Things, but it never really clicked for me. So it’s a good thing I’ve got a series called “One Thing I Like,” because there’s an awful lot to like about this movie.

The art direction is outstanding, delivering on the promise of the trailer and then some. It’s full of fantasy versions of cities (and a ship) that are beautiful and familiar, but just surreal enough to suggest that you’re seeing them for the very first time, and just sinister enough to suggest that there’s always danger lurking just outside of your field of view. The beginning calls back to The Bride of Frankenstein and Metropolis, just directly enough to make sure that we make the connection, but not so directly that it feels just like a reference.

And Emma Stone, obviously, gives herself so completely into this character that any trace that it’s a performance disappears within a few minutes. There’s no way the movie would’ve worked without her commitment. Mark Ruffalo is also excellent, acting as if he were a character borrowed from an entirely different movie, which is exactly what’s needed for the character. Willem Dafoe is at the stage in his career where yet another exceptional performance from him isn’t all that exceptional. And I think Ramy Youssef deserves credit for playing the straight man against so many showy performances; he has to function as the audience’s guide into a Victorian horror story, but one in which the story abandons its narrator a third of the way through.

Also, there are brief black-and-white interstitials when the story moves to a new location, each seeming like we’re getting a peek into Bella’s bizarre and beautiful dreams. But none lasts long enough to make any sense of them. Like a real dream, they seem to leave an after-image on the mind, even if we can’t reliably recall details.

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Read the Room, Apple

Trying to make sense of Apple’s plans for the Vision Pro, while simultaneously trying to talk myself out of wanting one

I was innocently watching YouTube when I happened upon a clickbaity video warning that Apple Vision Pro has a PROBLEM, and I was powerless not to click on it. Inside, a man was furiously screaming that the company had limited the VR experience to ten feet by teen feet and you had to be sitting on an [expletive deleted]1I promised my mom I’d stop swearing so much in public. couch.

My third response (after “why did I click on that?” and “take it down a few notches my dude”) was that he must be mistaken. He must’ve been taken in by a rumor, or maybe misinterpreted the public documentation.

But then I found an article by Samuel Axon on Ars Technica from last June, confirming that the documentation explicitly says that a VR experience (“fully immersive experience” in Apple’s retina-means-high-resolutionspeak) will be interrupted if the user moves more than 1.5 meters away from their starting point. In other words: the Apple Vision Pro won’t support room-scale VR.

Quick aside for anybody who’s unfamiliar with the terminology: “room-scale VR” just means that you can walk around your own space to move around the virtual space. Other types are seated (on your #@$%&! couch or otherwise) or stationary (standing but not moving from your starting position). All of the current major consumer-level VR headsets support room-scale tracking.

It’s entirely likely that I’d already heard this, and either misinterpreted it myself, or understood it and completely forgot about it. I’ve spent the time since then assuming that of course it must support room-scale tracking, since the device seems entirely capable from a technological standpoint. AR tracking on the last few models of iPhone — which aren’t purpose-built AR devices — is excellent, and you can place a virtual object in space, walk around the room a bit, and return to find it still sitting where you left it.

That Ars Technica article says, correctly, that the “limitation” shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to how the company is trying to position the device2No pun intended. Apple’s been insistent that this isn’t a VR headset; in fact, they refuse to use the industry standard terms like “augmented reality,” “virtual reality,” or even “mixed” or “extended” reality, in favor of their own “spatial computing.”

The general idea is that the Vision Pro is meant to enhance and extend the way you use Macs and iPads already — watching TV and movies, looking through photos and video, browsing the web, telecommunications, and I guess making keynote presentations? They’re emphasizing that this isn’t some entirely unfamiliar type of computer; it’s the same stuff you’re already doing, but bigger and in 3D.

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    I promised my mom I’d stop swearing so much in public.
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    No pun intended