📞 Secret World No.5: Real Time
Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a 3D animator, to make the computer generated characters I saw in films and TV. I loved ReBoot and Toy Story — they were so different from the traditionally animated cartoons and movies I watched on evenings and weekend — and decided that I wanted to make animated shorts of my own. So I tried my best to learn. With the kind of naive confidence you have at the age of ten, I wrote a physical letter addressed to Steve Jobs asking for an iBook. I dreamed of owning one of the new, colourful clamshells, like the ones the school library had — the polar opposite of the staid, retired, corporate Compaq that could only barely run Windows at the time. I guess the Apple marketing worked, because I thought an iBook was what I needed to make my animation dreams come true (I never got the iBook, let alone a reply). Over the next few years, I would pirate copies of Maya and 3D Studio Max, tying up the phone lines while we slept. There was a brief period when I forced my Mom to use Linux — my FOSS phase — so I could learn Blender on the family PC. Obviously none of this stuck, and I eventually chose writing over computers, reasoning that I could write about computers, get the best of both worlds. So far, so good.
These days, with the world around me largely off limits and out of reach, I guess it makes sense I would choose to turn my attention back to the creation of virtual worlds. Amid this persistent, low-level thrum of dread, I’ve been watching a lot of stuff like this. It’s a short video, and there’s a turn that happens about 15 seconds in that just stopped me in my tracks. Trust me. Give it a watch, then come back. The best way I can describe it is…like filming in a holodeck. This is how people are making things now, making worlds. Really convincing worlds. Though I haven’t seen it yet, the same technique was used to film much of the Mandalorian — a good reason to bump it higher up my watch list. (If you’re interested, there’s a longer 12 minute video that goes behind the scenes…and an even longer 45 minute conference talk if you, like me, want the fine-grained details.) My sense is that film, television, video games, animation — all of it is converging, the skills, the tools, the techniques. I’m thinking a lot about that, and what it all means. It’s been a nice distraction. More on that…soon.
I was curious to see how the Bon Appétit test kitchen would adapt to our new, remote reality. I am please to report the answer is: quite well.
Making coffee is one of the many little daily rituals that’s keeping me sane right now. I mostly work from home, and used to look forward to my near-daily trips to the coffee shops in my neighbourhood. I know most of the baristas by name, and the cafes were always a welcome change of scenery — a way to reset my brain, a new source of stimulus for work. Of course, all of that’s gone for the foreseeable future, but I’ve tried to keep up a routine at home.
Making coffee with the Chemex is what I look forward to the most. There’s something meditative about the slow, circular motions needed to wet the grounds. It demands attention — to the amount of water, and when to pour. I’m also delighted by the Chemex’s flask-like design. The same vessel you use to make the coffee also becomes your carafe, and when it’s finally time to decant, you can feel the weight of all the coffee you’ve just brewed. Each day, I look forward to carrying that weight.
New music that’s been getting me through the stay-at-home doldrums:
Riding high on a wave of recent Steely Dan appreciation, I sat down to learn “Do It Again” on my keyboard last week, which does a very authentic Rhodes. I’ve always learned better by listening than reading — much to the disappointment of my piano teachers, growing up — and so, for about half an hour, I played the song on loop. And I listened. Really listened. Even if you don’t play piano, or an instrument of any kind, I highly recommend trying this kind thing yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you notice, the little details you never previously heard.
The main riff in “Do It Again” is played on a Wurlitzer electric piano, and it’s the thing I love most about the song — the gentle tremolo, that slight, amplified edge, the texture that holds everything else together. But it wasn’t until the third or fourth listen that I started to really hear Walter Becker’s bass. It’s always there, of course, the effortless groove driving the song forward. But about a minute into the song, Becker starts to mix things up. He switches octaves. He introduces variations on the initial theme — holding notes before the beat, adding notes, going on impossibly smooth-sounding 16th-note runs. Once you realize what’s happening, it makes the song that much better. Now it’s something I expect, and something I miss when I’m listening on speakers and car stereos without enough fidelty to carry Becker’s bass.
When I was younger — nostalgia seems to be a theme, this newsletter — I used to listen to music this way a lot. I’d click CDs into the clamshell of my Walkman before bed, and listen to albums start-to-finish in the dark. I got to know songs very intimately that way, in a way I rarely do today, listening while I work or making dinner. I suspect this is part of the reason why I love driving so much — especially road trips. It’s the perfect excuse to focus on almost nothing but music for hours on end. But why the excuse in the first place? There’s no reason it can’t be something we also do at home — especially now, the only place we can be.
A physician dressed in protective plague costume. Line engraving after J.J. Manget. (Wellcome Collection)