My Favorite Rectangles

imagesThe old ratio was 3 by 4: a reliable compression of reality, the extra window in every household that looked out at the world. It offered a limited view, controlled by powerful producers and directors, versatile performers, intense journalists who learned the trade by explaining why and how the Germans were bombing the guts out of London during World War II. Very few people were allowed to put anything into that window: NBC, CBS, ABC and a few local television companies controlled every minute of the broadcast day. It was radio with pictures, a new medium that learned its way through visual storytelling when the only colors were shades of grey.

The new ratio is 16:9, and it seems to accommodate just about anything anybody wants to place in that frame. And the frame travels with us everywhere: on phones, tablets, on Times Square, on airliners and in half the rooms of our homes. In offices, too. There is little cultivation or careful decision making. If you want to make a video, you point your phone at anything you please, press record, and then, fill the frame with stuff that moves and makes noise.

The more video that YouTube releases—that would be 100 new hours of material every minute of our modern lives—the less I pay attention. I am overwhelmed. I cannot keep up with the two dozen new websites or apps or YouTube videos that friends and colleagues supply with the very best of attentions. I am fascinated by the range of material, frustrated because the lack of a professional gatekeeper means I must be my own programmer, and I just don’t have the time or interest in doing that every day. I want curation. I want the 21st century equivalent of a television channel, just for me. I don’t want to watch pre-roll commercials, and I don’t want to “skip this ad in 5 seconds.”

As curmudgeonly as this may feel, I think I’m happier reading a book. In fact, as media abundance increases, I find myself withdrawing into a very different series of rectangles—ones that don’t include advertising, don’t include pictures, don’t move or make noise. I’m now buying books by the half dozen—about as many as I can carry out of the increasingly familiar gigantic book sales that offer perfectly good volumes for one or dollars a piece.

I like the idea that the person who wrote the book is either an expert in his or her field—otherwise, the publisher never would have agreed to the scheme—or a superior storyteller—one that the editors, and the publisher, deemed worthy. I love the idea that the author writes the book and then hands it off to a professional editor, one with literary taste and an eye for clear, precise phrasing, and that the book then goes through yet another reading by a copy editor who makes sure the words and sentences are provided in something resembling proper English usage, and that, after the book is typeset, another editorial staff member proofreads the whole book and causes any number of errors to be corrected. When the book reaches my hands, I am confident that the work is, at least, well-manufactured.

Might it be any good? At a dollar or two, I’m not sure I care, but I do choose my books, and my authors, with care. Somehow, I feel that my side of the contract is to spend a bit of time selecting, just as I do before I decide that I should devote two hours of my life watching a motion picture.

When I find a wonderful film—not always easy, but always worth the effort—and it fills a 60-inch Samsung plasma screen with magic—I am thrilled. Most often, those wonderful films are made by people in other countries, or by smaller companies in the USA, or by animators. Just as it’s unusual for me to stumble into something wonderful in the land of books that is newly released, the films I watch are usually a few years old. Not really old, though those are fun, too, but old enough that I can get a sense of whether they had any staying power beyond the echo of their opening weekend. I was happily surprised by the depth of the storytelling when I watched Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks pretend they were P.L. Travers and Walt Disney during “Saving Mr. Banks,” for example. Do I care that a film was an Academy Award contender this year? Not really, but when I see the words Pulitzer Prize or Man Booker Prize on a rectangular book cover, I always give it a second look. There is a qualitative difference, I suppose, even if it exists only in my own prejudiced, confused, 20th/21th century mind.

What about flimsier rectangles? Magazines remain interesting, and it’s difficult for me to get on a train without finding something I want to read at the newsstand before boarding. Whether it’s The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, Harper’s, MIT Technology Review, or a dozen others, I sense that I am reading the work of a well-organized editorial culture, and that is presented in a form that suggests substance. When I read an article on a screen, the medium itself feels temporary, and rarely impresses me with the gravitas, or the well-honed humor, that these magazines (okay, some of these magazines) routinely provide.

The other flimsy rectangle—very, very flimsy in its form, in fact—is the newspaper. Sadly, few local newspapers possess the resources or clarity of focus that they did decades ago. Their industry has been devastated by technology and wickedly poor leadership decisions. Then again, there is still nothing better than reading The Sunday New York Times for half of the weekend, often with enough left over for Monday, or maybe, Tuesday morning, too. Except, perhaps, a good fresh New York bagel beside the paper. In a pinch, I can find similar joy in the morning with the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, or whatever quality paper is nearby when I’m away from home. The Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition is every bit as good; after I finish today’s Times, I will work my way through the remaining sections of my new Sunday habit.

Interactive rectangles are something else again. Tablets, and smart phones, are wonderful, and I use them every day, but mostly for media creation (I write this blog, etc.) than for reading (eBooks, HuffPost, etc.). If I want to read, to seriously read, I guess I’ve learned to prefer it in print. And if I want to watch a movie, or a TV show, unless I’m on a train or plane, I would just as soon watch it in a comfortable chair with a nice large screen to fill part of a family room wall, and not listen to it through dinky speakers or a less-than-comfy headset or earplugs.

Who cares? Not sure, but I thought I’d put some ideas on a digital screen that I, for one, would prefer to read in another medium. Since that other medium has gatekeepers, and because few print publishers would allow me to zig from media theory to watercolors to interest gadgets to public poverty policy, then zag to book reviews or notes about recent jazz CDs that I think you should buy, I’m happy writing into a glass box, and I hope that doesn’t cause you too much inconvenience or discomfort.

Sorry to go so long this time. Without an editor, or an editorial hole to fill (love that term), I just wrote until I felt I had made said my piece.


“The forced, bloated expanding bundle”

I like the phrase. It was used to describe the way Americans are forced to subscribe to cable television–if you want cable, you must pay for a tremendous number of unwanted channels. In the industry, the result of unbundling is called “a la carte” cable service because the operator allows you to select, and pay for, only the channels that you will actually watch. Bundled cable is, of course, the reason why Comcast accumulated enough money to buy NBC and Universal Pictures. It’s a sweet deal for cable operators, and for the cable industry, which is funded by selling products to people who don’t want them, but cannot do anything except, to use an example, buy everything in the store in order to make sure they have access to the loaf of bread and the jar of peanut butter. It’s a brilliant marketing scheme, and an utter failure of anything resembling consumer protection in the United States.

I could go on and on, and I could also make a case for why some aspects of the bundling business have utterly changed the television industry for the better. Mostly, though, I wanted to introduce you to an article about shifts in Canada’s cable television business that was published by Reuters last week. Here’s the start of it… to read the whole article, click here:

Subscribers to Rogers Cable in Canada can select from these a la carte channels. Most are not big name channels, but once the a la carte habits gains a foothold, the entire cable business may change.

Subscribers to Rogers Cable in Canada can select from these a la carte channels. Most are not big name channels, but once the a la carte habits gains a foothold, the entire cable business may change.

Analysis: Canadian Cable TV’s ‘a la carte’ menu begins to take hold

By Liana B. Baker and Alastair Sharp

NEW YORK/TORONTO | Thu Sep 19, 2013 12:49pm EDT

(Reuters) – A transformation in how some Canadian cable TV companies sell channels to consumers might be a sign of things to come in the much bigger U.S. market.

With “a la carte” pricing, cable companies are offering Canadians an alternative to “take-it-or-leave-it” bundles that effectively force viewers there – and in the United States – to pay for channels that they do not watch in order to get access to those they do.

(and so on)

Your New TV: The Ideal Screen Dimensions

Watching television in 1958.

Buying a new television set is not easy. Some stores tweak the settings of their TV sets, some tweak the lighting, some show the sets with no adjustment whatsoever, and others optimize to make each set look great. Of course, all of this is utter nonsense because no store can reproduce the environment where you will be watching at home. The next time you visit Best Buy, do not make any judgment about brightness, color rendition, or other qualities of the image–whatever you see in the store, it won’t be what you see at home.

There is one thing you can do in the store, of course. You can stand in front of the screen and wonder whether the set will be too big, too small, or just right for your room. Actually, you probably shouldn’t stand in front of the screen. Instead, with the set at eye level (not mounted six feet above your head), you can make a reasonable judgment. Here’s how.

Before you leave home, grab a tape measure. You’ll want one person to sit down in the chair where they are most likely to watch TV. Measure from the tip of the person’s nose to the place you intend to place the screen. In most American living rooms, this dimension will be about 10 or 12 feet. In smaller rooms, it might be 7 or 8 feet. Just for the sake of example, let’s assume the measurement equals 11 feet. Jot down this calculation:

  • Feet = 11
  • Inches per foot = 12
  • Inches from nose to screen = 132
  • Divide by THREE = 44 inch screen maximum
  • Divide by FOUR = 33 inch screen minimum

Try that again, this time with a larger distance to the screen, say, 16 feet. That’s pretty far away, larger than most U.S. living rooms. Here’s how the numbers look:

  • Feet = 16
  • Inches per foot = 12
  • Inches from nose to screen = 192
  • Divide by THREE = 64 inch screen maximum
  • Divide by FOUR = 48 inch screen minimum

Sure, we’re Americans! We love our television screens!! We want them as large as possible!!! (You’ll find article after article insisting that bigger really is better. For some people, that’s true. For most people, nose-to-screen distance is not more than 9 feet–not 11 or 16 feet as in our illustrations above). Add 10 or 20 percent if you’re VERY serious about sports or movies. Add 50 percent if your entire life revolves around a home theater.

No doubt. Certainly, many retailers would certainly prefer that you buy a set that costs $2,000 or so instead of $1,000 or less. For most principal viewing conditions, a TV in the 46-55 inch range will be suitable. For a bedroom, the answer is probably under 40 inches.

Hey, one more thought. There’s a lot of confusion about LED vs. plasma screens, and if you’re not lucky enough to connect with a knowledgable floor sales person, you could make a poor (and heavy) decision in the wrong direction. LED sets are bright and ideal for rooms where there’s lots of ambient light. Good for spots, not so great for movies because their color rendition is, well, extended and somewhat unnatural. Plasma sets are not as bright, but they do a better job with skin tones and lifelike color rendition. But they run hot, use more power than LED sets, and tend to be heavier, too. If your room has any significant ambient light (coming from windows or fixtures), you may be spending a lot of time fighting reflections. For several years, plasma sets were not popular, but a renewed focus on this technology, especially from Panasonic and Samsung, has resulted in plasma screens now widely available, even from big box retailers.

Before you buy, study the reviews. Editorial reviewers have the benefit of seeing many sets under the same (simulated real world) viewing conditions, so their comments are often more meaningful than the advice of people on the sales floor. I think cnet does an especially good job with TV reviews.

One more thought. I’m sitting here writing on a 21-inch iMac, a computer whose screen I regularly use to watch videos. The screen is not much more than a foot from the tip of my nose, so there’s no way that my formulas make any sense for those of us (lots of us) who watch videos, and the occasional movie, in this way. That makes me wonder whether we’re again crossing the great digital divide to some new way of thinking about the relative sizes of humans and their screens. Maybe our next screens will seem small at 100 inches. Maybe one wall of every room will be a TV screen. Heck, maybe every wall of every room will be a screen. Lots to think about!


Green, Blue, and Extremely Portable

One side is green and the other is blue. It stretches so your chroma-key productions have a lightweight, flat background. But it’s a good idea to stretch even more with clips.

Or: chroma-key, anywhere.

It’s amazing how easy portable video production has become. You can shoot high definition video with a smart phone, a tablet, a FlipCam (and similar products), an inexpensive video camcorder, a digital still picture camera… The list goes on.

Most of the time, the recorded video is real life… people in action, scenery, and so on. Sometimes, it’s interesting to explore new creative domains. Often, these explorations involve the placement of people or objects in imagined places, and this is often achieved through a technical miracle called chroma-key.

What can you (and some kids) do with chroma-key? Here’s a step-by-step example that’s fun to watch. (Click to watch the video.)

You know chroma-key: it’s the technology used to place your local meteorologist in front of a digital weather map. The subject performs in front of a green screen, and then, all of the green is (miraculously) dropped out of the image so that it can be replaced with your choice of alternative video. In fact, any color can be used as the chroma-key color, but most often, a deeply saturated green or blue is used because these colors are not (usually) seen in the colors of human skin or hair or eyes. The colored area is usually painted, or created with a cloth stretched very tightly and lit evenly. When using chroma-key, folds and shadows cause difficulty.

With these challenges in mind, I had very high hopes for the FlexDrop2 from Photoflex. The portable package is a big, lightweight fabric disc, not quite a yard in diameter. It sets up with not much more than the flick of a wrist, and opens to a taut five foot by seven foot panel. Very cool.

Mostly, the FlexDrop is flat, but the use of a small clamp here and there is necessary to eliminate all visible shadows and wrinkles. Unfortunately, it’s not a standalone device…it is designed to be attached to a lighting stand or other pipes or tubes (and these are rarely lightweight).

Hands on, FlexDrop2 really works. One person can stand in front of a field of nothing but blue (one side) or green (the other), and then, live or with a good edit application, the chroma-key process can be used to drop out the blue or green and drop in any video still, animation, graphic, or footage. Two people? Hang the FlexDrop2 horizontally. Another good use: as a background for stop-motion animation, but you will need to dress the tabletop surface with an additional green or blue cloth (exactly the same color as FlexDrop2).

At $165, the FlexDrop2 is a nice-to-have, a bit expensive unless you use it often. And, of course, there are less costly ways to make chroma-key happen: buy a cloth and stretch it yourself, paint a wall, etc. But this one is handy, portable, stretches nicely, stores without taking up much space, and does the job in a professional manner. One catch: it’s not so easy to collapse and pack away. This video shows you how to pack it up.

BTW: Thanks to Kristy and to Rebecca for their help with this article.

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