the candler blog

The billionaire’s typewriter

Design, Link, Writing

Matthew Butterick:

As a writer, the biggest poten­tial waste of your time is not ty­pog­ra­phy chores, but Medium it­self. Be­cause in return for that snazzy design, Medium needs you to re­lin­quish con­trol of how your work gets to readers.

Tempt­ing per­haps. But where does it lead? I fear that writ­ers who limit them­selves to pro­vid­ing “con­tent” for some­one else’s “branded plat­form” are go­ing to end up with as much lever­age as cows on a dairy farm.

I wanted to kick myself reading this only a few moments after publishing “Is Medium What Comes After Blogs?” on (where else?) Medium.

Butterick1 rather elegantly states thoughts that have been in my head for over a year. Yes, I’ve been writing on Medium, but I’m also acutely aware of the issues raised in Butterick’s piece. For example, it smarts that when linking to an article I wrote The Dissolve referred to me as “Medium’s Jonathan Portisky.” I don’t work for Medium.

Or do I?

These thoughts are swirling around my head and require a deeper dive. It’s coming. Hopefully here, on the site I own and control.

Accidental Love Review

Link, Movies

Mike D’Angelo reviewing the recently released on VOD Accidental Love at The Dissolve:

Accidental Love famously started out, way back in 2008, as Nailed, David O. Russell’s intended followup to I Heart Huckabees. After production was shut down multiple times due to financing issues, Russell quit the project—“Screw this, I’m gonna go reinvent myself as a prestige filmmaker and score three Best Picture nominations in a row,” he reputedly yelled on his way out the door—and Nailed languished in limbo for years, unfinished and apparently unsalvageable. Somebody finally managed to cobble together a semi-coherent version, and the film is now being released with a new, VOD-friendly title (not many words come before “accidental”) and the credit “directed by Stephen Greene.”

Can’t believe they didn’t Alan Smithee this. Every last thing about this film sounds bonkers. And I don’t use that word lightly.

Accidental Love is available for rent today on iTunes, Amazon or wherever you go for streaming oddities.

Digging Into The Dissolve’s 50 Best Films of the Decade So Far

Link, Movies

I take a macro look at the films included in The Dissolve’s “50 Best Films of the Decade So Far.” With charts and gifs!

I know the conclusion of my recent Medium experiment had me convinced to stick with publishing my thoughts here on the candler blog. For some reason I couldn’t resist putting together something longer and richer over on Medium. I initially planned to once again publish this post in both places, but it would take too long to format everything for both sites.

So go read it.

A Medium Experiment

Publishing, Writing

Last week I decided to try out cross-posting a piece, “The Hollywood Personal Egg Service That Wasn’t,” to both the candler blog and to Medium. I had only ever posted one other piece on Medium, and I thought it was time to give it another shot. Here’s what I learned.

The Setup

I write everything for the candler blog in Markdown using Ulysses III on the Mac. (I’m also beta testing the forthcoming Ulysses for iPad, which is incredible.) Then I do my final edit and formatting in TextMate 2 and check the piece in Marked 2.

In order to get my article into Medium, I copied the formatted piece from Marked 2 and pasted it into a new Medium draft. Then I do some cleanup (Medium always adds a trailing line after block quotes, as one example) and add any images.

The only difference between the two pieces I published is the number and placement of images. I added more photos to the Medium piece as well as captions. I did this to take advantage of Medium’s design elements. If there’s anything that attracts me about Medium it is the way it displays images and other media.

I published the candler blog piece a few hours before the Medium piece. I posted about it on Twitter and Facebook and emailed it to Jason Kottke. For this experiment, I didn’t promote the Medium piece at all. I wanted to see what would happen when a piece is thrown into the wilds of the site.

Discovery

Jason was kind enough to post the candler blog piece to his recently revived “Quick Links” section (formerly “remaindered links”), which pulls in articles from his Twitter feed and publishes them to the front page of kottke.org. Almost all of the people who found the piece found it through Kottke’s quick links.

Meanwhile the Medium version of the piece went unread for a day until the “Medium Staff” account “recommended” the piece. As far as I can tell, this meant that anyone following “Medium Staff” would see it in either their main “Home” feed or under the “Culture” tab. “Medium Staff” is basically a default account for new users, kind of like Myspace Tom. It has over 1 million followers (or exactly 1 million; Medium obfuscates big numbers). Five other accounts recommended the article. I also garnered one new Medium follower along the way.

The Numbers

After almost a week online, the candler blog article has been viewed 1,863 times. In addition, I have a little over 1,000 RSS subscribers, about 200 of whom opened the piece in an RSS reader.

The Medium version of the piece, meanwhile, has 1,240 views and 300 “reads.” Medium puts a lot of value on “reads” and “read ratio.” It’s unclear exactly how they calculate how many people actually read a piece, but I’m guessing it’s either based on user time spent on the page or scroll position, or both. That gives me a read ratio of 24%.

How many people who came to the candler blog actually read the article? While an imperfect measurement, my Google Analytics tells me the average time on the page with the piece is 3 minutes 31 seconds. That’s enough proof to me that at least one quarter of the visitors, and probably more, actually read the whole piece.

(As an aside to the matter at hand, it was interesting to see the effect of a quick link versus a post on kottke.org. On January 31, 2013, Jason linked to a post I did on Sesame Street tweeting a 21st century version of The Monster at the End of This Book. In the week following his link, 781 visitors came to the candler blog through kottke.org. Since Jason posted the current piece to quick links, 1,173 visitors came from kottke.orga and another 105 came through Jason’s tweet. Either Jason’s influence has increased in the past two years or visitors to kottke.org are more likely to click on a quick link than a hyperlink in a paragraph. Or, most likely, both are true.)

What I’ve Learned

For me, there’s little difference between publishing my own site and publishing on Medium. While the fact that the 1,240 views on Medium came to the piece without any promotion on my part is impressive (and something that never happened to me in the days before posting links to social media and notifying other interested sites), it’s not enough to make me want to publish most future writings to Medium. Still, I’m smart enough to know I’m not a typical web writer in 2015.

When I started the candler blog in 2009, the best way to get your thoughts (especially longer thoughts) out onto the web was still to start a blog. I’m lucky to have this site and a readership that still drops by even if I don’t publish anything for weeks on end. The allure of Medium is that you don’t need any infrastructure whatsoever; all you need is your name and your words. For many that will likely be the way forward.

Getting the candler blog to be what it is today was a years-long journey, and it is by no means complete. Personally, I’d rather own every last bit of my writing and how it appears online. Perhaps that’s an outdated thought. But at least now I know: I can do just as well for myself on my own as I can on Medium. If not better.

A Final Thought

One last part of this exercise that bears mentioning. At the very bottom of my Medium post, I left a link to the original article on the candler blog. It didn’t result in even a single click. While there is little incentive to follow a link like that, it does make me wonder whether or not Medium is an island.

When you finish reading something on Medium you’re encouraged to move on to the next piece on the site based on your followers and feeds. That feels like trying to make the web smaller. That’s not the web I love. At least not yet.

Further Reading: “Medium Confusion” by me, just over a year ago. My position has somewhat softened, but I noticed after writing the above piece that I’m still grappling with many of the same concerns from December 2013.

(Header image “Writing through the rain” by José Manuel Ríos Valiente on Flickr.)

I’m not done experimenting. You can see this piece on Medium as well.

Orson Welles, Columnist

Link, Movies

Lou Lumenick recognizes the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles’ short-lived New York Post column:

At first, “Orson Welles’ Almanac” ran five days a week. But by spring, Welles’ editors at The Post were losing patience with his column, which was mostly given over to lengthy digressions about domestic and international politics written in grandiloquent style –— with an occasional dubiously sourced “scoop’’ like this one: “Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, the vegetable oil king of France, while enjoying a favored spot in [Nazi] inner-councils, actually occupied an office suite in the Pentagon.”

Be sure to check out the scans of Welles’ columns at the bottom of the article. Actual history can be pretty interesting.

The Hollywood Personal Egg Service That Wasn’t

Movies

I really wish this Marlon Brando “personal eggs” story over on Dangerous Minds were true. One has to hand it to graphic designer Cris Shapan, though: it’s a helluva good fake.

Shapan sets up the story like this: years after his great uncle, Art Berkell, passed away, Shapan found a folder labeled “Joe Flynn” among his effects containing a treasure trove of items related to the Disney stable actor and McHale’s Navy star.

There was also a pack of matches labeled “Joe Flynn’s Personal Eggs,” featuring a caricature of the actor, as well as a snapshot of a delivery truck painted in a similar fashion, and other related clippings. I’m thinking, what the hell was this?

So Shapan calls up his father. Flynn, he says, raised chickens and used to cook eggs for friends every Sunday morning.

Unfortunately, everything changed when actor Wally Cox slipped up and told his friend Marlon Brando about the breakfasts. Brando immediately called Flynn and demanded to be included. Soon, Sunday mornings weren’t enough; he started showing up at Flynn’s door at all hours, demanding his “personal” eggs.

Flynn ended up leasing space from Shapan’s great uncle and started selling his eggs to subsidize Brando’s great appetite. Once he landed McHale’s Navy, Flynn doubled down on his personal egg service and came up with an in-home eggs-on-tap system. But then:

As the returns diminished from their friendship, Flynn, in a brazen attempt to exploit their association, published a bizarre, full-page ad featuring Brando’s likeness and apparent endorsement—without Brando’s permission. The copy I obtained was printed in a business monthly published by a local Chamber of Commerce, but I was told that it popped up in a number of Los Angeles area publications and circulated for roughly a year before Brando found out, and he was livid.

As hoaxes go this one is excellent. It’s believable enough to be true, but marginal enough to not want to verify. Shapan provides photos, a news clipping, advertisements, a receipt with Brando’s name and actual address on it, as well as letters from lawyers and other actors. It’s all extremely convincing.

The first thing that should have set off anyone’s alarm is the author. Shapan, who also goes by Clarington Shpoo, is a designer and visual effects artist on Comedy Central’s Kroll Show who has been designing fake retro print items and videos for some time. These comedy album covers make the rounds from time to time. In 2013 Shapan published a fake Purina cat food ad featuring Brian Eno. The ad lives on, though the original Dangerous Minds post has since been taken down.

The “personal eggs” narrative and accompanying illustrations are something else, though. It’s just so expansive and expertly woven together. The photo of Brando smiling at an egg in the above ad is great, but it appears to be a photoshopped version of this shot (personal egg ad on the left, original on the right):

Now, I’ll admit that I can’t figure out where that photo of Brando came from. It pops up on a number of sites by way of a reverse Google Image search, but I’m not sure of its original context.

The news clipping’s first sentence is riddled with mistakes:

Actor Joe Flynn, best known as Dr. Bringhamton on the ABC drama “Mac Hale’s Navy…”

Flynn played Captain Binghamton, the show’s title is spelled “McHale’s” and, of course, it was a comedy. That seems like an awful lot of missteps, but it’s also down home and folksy enough for a low circulation newsletter.

The best part of this whole yarn is Shapan’s choice of Flynn, whose death happens to have a life of its own on the Internet. Here’s how Shapan puts it:

As for Flynn himself, in the summer of ‘74 he was found naked and dead at the bottom of his swimming pool—some say under mysterious circumstances—at the age of 49, and his dream of pre-scrambled eggs for the hungry masses apparently died with him.

Contemporary reports of Flynn’s death say he drowned swimming alone at his Bel Air home. His being naked seems to be a bit of poetic license on Shapan’s part. Those “mysterious circumstances” come from a story that’s been floating around the web for over a decade: that Flynn was possibly murdered after proclaiming on The Merv Griffin Show, “I have info that would rock Hollywood should it get out.” This same sentence also appears all over the web (including The New York Times, quoting the “All Movie Guide”):

In the 1970’s, Flynn was instrumental in helping members of the Screen Actor’s Guild receive more equitable distribution of residual payments.

A cursory search of the web didn’t turn up any other stories about Joe Flynn’s involvement with SAG residual negotiations, though that only feeds a murderous conspiracy theory, right?

One other thing. Shapan’s great uncle, Art Berkell? Now, it’s possible Shapan chose a name at random (or even that that was his great uncle’s name), but there is in fact a Berkell in Los Angeles that would fit the profile of the story. He pops up in articles about George Franklin Smith, “the first pilot to eject from a jet traveling at supersonic speed…and live!” When Smith’s F-100 crashed off Laguna Beach in 1955, “Los Angeles businessman Art Berkell,” who was out in the water fishing, rescued Smith. Turns out Berkell “had captained an air-sea rescue launch, and had fished some 275 downed airmen from the ocean” during World War II.

So Shapan’s hoax is a stroke of genius. Pulling the thread on the personal egg service actually does yield some strange Hollywood and Los Angeles lore. Which is why I really wish the whole thing were true. But a well-done fake is a story in and of itself, I suppose. Dig into it; there are quite a few nice touches to the story I haven’t mentioned here. Hopefully Dangerous Minds keeps this one up.

Prime Confusion

Technology

Stephen Hackett, trying to understand what Amazon Prime (which is on sale today) is:

It’s all very confusing, and my guess is that most users are like me and basically only use their Prime membership for the shipping benefits.

I have a Prime account and I honestly have no clue if it’s worth it for me. I don’t feel like I take advantage the shipping nearly enough and the only ancillary product that I use (rarely) is Prime Instant Video.

Stephen’s piece is a great breakdown of how confusing Prime has become, but there’s one point he trips up on:

Amazon doesn’t have an advertising business, but they do sell Prime.

Amazon absolutely has an advertising business, a massive one. Amazon has been selling ads for years in what has become a billion dollar side business.1 You can buy an ad on the web or on mobile; you can buy an ad on a Kindle. They now sell video ads, too. Even affiliate links, a program I take part in, is a form of advertising. Amazon is a retailer, but Amazon is also an ad company (and has been for a long time).

Every single current Kindle E-reader can be bought with or without advertising, or what Amazon calls “Special Offers.” You can opt out of these for an additional $20, but it’s clear that Amazon considers the ad-supported Kindle the main device.2

But this is the magic of the whole thing. Amazon’s advertising is so surreptitious and, crucially, so darn helpful, most of us forget it even exists.

So Stephen can be forgiven for falling for one of the greatest tricks Jeff Bezos and Amazon have ever pulled. “Tens of millions” of people pay for Prime accounts, likely sold it thinking the flagship feature, “FREE Two-Day Shipping,” is actually free. Nothing, not even the two-day shipping, is free with Amazon Prime. On top of that, customers pay, with a $20 savings, for the opportunity to be advertised to on their Kindles.

None of this is necessarily bad, but it sure is confusing. Which is why it’s best not to even think about it and just keep paying for Prime, which is what I’ll probably do the next time my membership bill comes.

  1. That may be small potatoes next to Google’s $50 billion, but a billion ain’t nothing.

  2. The advertised price of Kindles always refers to the ad-supported version. The “Special Deals” are always written about in the positive, so the $79 Kindle “With Special Offers” seems like it comes with more than the $99 Kindle “Without Special Offers.” There isn’t even a direct URL to get to any of the non-ad-supported Kindles.

Pirating the 2015 Oscars: HD Edition

Andy Baio has been tracking pirated Oscar films for over a decade. This year’s findings:

The big change: A staggering 44% of this year’s crop of nominees leaked as a high-quality rip from some source outside of traditional screeners or retail releases — the highest percentage since I started tracking films in 2003.

The leaked copies on offer are often of a much higher quality than the DVDs sent out to Oscar voters. Studios and distributors go to great lengths (and expense) to lock down screeners,1 but it’s looking like it’s becoming a moot point. There are better copies floating around in the ether.

  1. Visual and digital watermarks, barcoding tied to the recipient, etc.

The Limits of American Cinephilia

Books, Link, Movies

Richard Brody on the late Amos Vogel and, by extension, the film communities of New York and Paris:

Vogel’s screenings and seminars primed the pump and stimulated interest in a broad range of filmmakers, but it didn’t launch a generation. The Cahiers critics-turned-New Wave directors and their American acolytes, including Richard Roud, Peter Bogdanovich, and Andrew Sarris, did.

Brody’s jumping off point is the publication of Be Sand, Not Oil: The Life and Work of Amos Vogel, a new book of essays by and about the film programmer and teacher.

Vogel, I’ll admit, is someone I have heard of but know little about. The aforelinked piece is illuminating and I’d like to know more. I’m adding his 1974 Film as a Subversive Art to my must read list.

(via MUBI Notebook.)