Understanding The Matrix

The Matrix series of films was a rare combination of complex storytelling and a financially successful film franchise, but an even more richly opaque Matrix is ITA Software’s Matrix Airfare Search.

In the right hands, the Matrix Airfare Search can be a very powerful tool for finding flights at the right price. Like the better known search engines such as Orbitz, Expedia, and Kayak, the Matrix allows you to search with a flexible date range, restrict airlines, and even select nearby airports for an origin and destination.

However, the Matrix also offers powerful tools for frequent travelers, such as restricting a search by an alliance, forcing connections at specific airports, and searching for available flights with availability in certain fare booking codes. I used it frequently during my mileage running days before earning elite status and, more recently, multi-city bookings became much more difficult.

Once you’ve used the Matrix, you might be ready to move on to the advanced functions it offers frequent flyers. Google, which owns ITA Software and its Matrix Airfare Search tool, published a guide for the advanced routing codes that will search for flights using a variety of criteria. I recommend checking it out. However, if you feel like you need a basic primer on using the advanced routing codes, the folks at Upgraded Points list tips for finding the right flight using the Matrix.

Both guides are very long and detailed, but knowing how to maximize the potential of this flight search tool could help plan the right itinerary for you. It helped me when I used to care more about flying frequently.

Los Sures at the Metrograph

Los Sures is a documentary about the predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood and produced and directed by Diego Echeverria. Used with permission, © 1983 Ellen Tolmie.

Los Sures is a documentary about the predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood and produced and directed by Diego Echeverria. Used with permission, © 1983 Ellen Tolmie.

Did you miss the screening of Los Sures and the presentation of the Living Los Sures project last month at NYU?

Good news, then! Beginning tomorrow, Metrograph—New York City’s newest independent film venue—will be screening Diego Echeverria’s 1984 film Los Sures and shorts from the continuing Living Los Sures project. The theatrical release will run from April 15–21.

Los Sures is a 1984 film about the “southsiders” of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The film was reemerged in the last few years because it captured the Brooklyn neighborhood that has dramatically changed and all but disappeared—and not necessarily because I screened it in my New York Independents class back in 2006. Union Docs has been working on the companion Living Los Sures project as an oral history to document the current state of the neighborhood and its changes.

Update: Screen Slate has posted an interview with the filmmaker, Diego Echevarria.

Los Sures and Living Los Sures

  • April 15—21
  • Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St, New York
  • $15.00
  • Buy Tickets

Scully Appreciation Society

Before the home opener at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, the team paid tribute to Vin Scully by replaying some of the most memorable calls of his 67-year tenure as the Dodger’s broadcast announcer. The fifteen-minute–long tribute included the players from those moments, including Sandy Koufax, three-quarters of the celebrated 1970s Dodgers infield, a video tribute from Kirk Gibson, and even Don Newcombe. The now eighty-nine year–old Newcombe who was Brooklyn’s starting pitcher at Scully’s first Dodger’s game assignment.1

As Scully gets closers to calling his final game this year, there will undoubtedly be more tributes such as these. But perhaps the best tribute to his career is the nearly–5000-word biographical article Greg King wrote for SABR.

As King notes, it is Scully—not Koufax or Kershaw— who is clearly the “greatest left hander” in Dodger history.

  1. I would embed the video, but, inexplicably, MLB does not support HTTPS embeds. 

Cervantes and Shakespeare T-Shirt

Four hundred years ago this month, Miguel de Cervantes Cortinas and William Shakespeare died. It is almost cosmic that the most celebrated Renaissance writer of Spain and the most celebrated Renaissance writer of England both died on same day: April 23, 1616.

If it seems unlikely that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the very same day, it is because they did not die on the same day. Cervantes died a day earlier, on April 22, 1616. And because England was still using the Julian calendar in 1616, Shakespeare died 11 days later on May 3, 1616. However, you cannot deny that it makes for a better story if the two did die on the very same day. In fact, the United Nations has—since 1995—observed a World Book and Copyright Day on April 23 to remember the passing of Cervantes and of Shakespeare, as well as that of other writers including Garcilaso de la Vega and Vladimir Nabokov.

To commemorate the quadcentennial, I printed a run of t-shirts.


The all-black t-shirts are made from 100% high-quality, ring spun cotton that makes for very soft and comfortable shirt. The artwork is discharged. Unlike most every t-shirt printed today, there is no layer of plastic ink nor is the fabric dyed. Instead, I removed (“discharged”) the black color from the t-shirt, leaving behind the natural color of the all-cotton fabric. On the black t-shirt, the artwork looks sepia-toned. It’s very cool.

The result is the most comfortable t-shirt you’ve worn and because the artwork is not dyed, it will never fade. It might even last until the quincentennial, although the t-shirt might not last that long.

If you’re interested in getting a shirt, order one at my popup online store.

This t-shirt will be available to order until April 15, 2016 to arrive at US addresses by April 22.

Buy this t-shirt!

Virgin America, or Why Airline Mergers Suck

Earlier this week, Alaska Airlines successfully bid to acquire Virgin America—every startup’s favorite upstart airline.

Though the airline struggled to turn a profit since it launched in 2007, it offered a compellingly different experience than the network carriers and other low-cost carriers. This was one of the first airlines to offer an in-seat food and beverage ordering system. On my maiden flight in 2010, I remember ordering a few cans of 21st Amendment IPA while watching some recent episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Virgin America was also distinct because of their purple mood lighting, the aromatically filled cabins, and their Euro-hip inflight safety video.

Now with Alaska Airlines acquiring the airline, those distinct features will apparently be gone. Earlier today, Virgin America dispatched a message to members of its Elevate loyalty program. It reassured them that nothing dramatic would change on Virgin America over the next several months, but that’s only because mergers such as these take a long time to clear regulatory hurdles and because, you know, mergers are hard.

Please know that you will not see any changes during the next several months – and potentially until the end of the year – until the merger receives regulatory and shareholder approval. Furthermore, there will likely be no significant changes to your flying experience for as many as 18 months or more while the two airlines merge into one. Until the transaction is officially approved – typically a process that can take upwards of six months – both airlines will continue to operate independently and there will be no changes to our flight schedules, the Virgin America product and guest experience, Elevate Status levels or your ability to earn and redeem points.

With that, we can say goodbye to another friendly flier. From this press release, it’s not hard to see Virgin America morphing into Alaska Airlines, much like United Airlines morphed into Continental Airlines after their 2009 merger. And I probably won’t be happy with the result.

Ten Years without Tribeca

The Tribeca Film Festival starts next month, and I will be observing ten years of skipping films screening at this festival. I last went to a film screening at Tribeca in 2006, when I saw two films. One was the worst film I ever watched in a theater, and the second was the site of the worst Q&A session I’ve ever endured. After both experiences, with some very oblivious film viewers, I swore I would never return.

The Worst Film

Choking Man seemed promising at the time. It featured Mandy Pantankin, who I held in high regard from appearing in the Showtime dramedy Dead Like Me, and it took place in Queens.

The apparent inspiration for Choking Man (2006), the last film I ever watched at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The apparent inspiration for Choking Man (2006), the last film I ever watched at the Tribeca Film Festival.

I haven’t revisited the film since watching it at the festival: I have not re-screened it nor did I follow up to research the filmmaker’s vision. While it’s true that filmmakers sometimes find inspiration in the strangest places, this film seemed to be informed by two unlikely bits of inspiration:

  • The colorful “Choking Man” posters that appear in every New York City–restaurant. At the time, there was a version with a lemon wedge and a fish. It was hard not to notice.
  • Some New York Times article that revealed that there are a lot of languages spoken in Queens. Who knew?!?

As far as substance, these two bits were all the film had to offer. The characters in this film are all very flat, and the flimsy plot was immediately forgettable. I didn’t leave the screening, but I did mentally “check out” once Jorge, the Ecuadorian immigrant at the center of the film’s fish-out-of-water story, starts doing magic. If this was supposed to be a moment of magical realism, someone needed to pay more attention in his Latin American literature class.

After the screening had ended, there was the requisite Q&A. The audience loved the film and expressed their gee-whiz fascination with Queens and brown people, and they marveled at the area “by the airport.” They showered the filmmaker with praise and mid-2000s–era platitudes, such as “poignant” and “transcendent.” I never wanted to vomit in public as bad as I did then. It probably didn’t help matters that I saw this film with a girl I had already broken up with, but we decided to watch the film together anyway because we wouldn’t give up our tickets. (Hi, Tori.)

One could be forgiven for thinking that the audience was just being polite. After all, why would any want to be mean in public? But days earlier, I witnessed the Tribeca audience draw their “critical” claws. And it wasn’t pretty.

The Worst Audience

Two hours and forty-eight minutes is a long time to sit through a movie. No one I knew at the time would go with me, but Free Will [Der freie Wille] was one of the boldest films I had seen at the time. The story profiles Theo, a convicted rapist, after serving his sentence at a mental institution. Now free, he struggles to suppress his urge to rape again.

The Free Will (2005)

At first, Theo comports himself, but as the film continues, he finds himself consumed with his urges. On a cognitive level, he’s aware that it is wrong and that violating his parole will bring dire consequences. But he’s clearly sick, and serving time did not heal him. With each subsequent scene, the visuals in the film become more unstable. The pace of the editing quickens. The film stock becomes “faster,” which makes for a more grainy and noisy look to the film. Perhaps most noticeably, the cinematographer starts to hold the camera in his hand, and the image shakes considerably.

The duration of the film also exacerbates the difficulty of identifying with Theo. Throughout the film, we want Theo to control his urges, but by the end, we share his exhaustion. Much like Chantal Akerman needed nearly three-and-a-half hours to show Jeanne Dielman’s dreary life, this film needed to torment its audience for it to share Theo’s demons.

For the people who remained through the entire screening, their questions were harsh. Not only was Matthias Glasner, the film’s director, in attendance, but the actor who played Theo, Jürgen Vogel, was also present. The audience interrogated both Glasner and Vogel. Some questioners seemed to forget that they had seen a fiction film and treated Vogel as if he was an actual rapist. Others grilled Glasner over the “shaky” camera towards the end of the film. One viewer even asked, “Couldn’t you find a cameraman with a steady hand?” Both Glasner and Vogel seemed dumbfounded. At the time, the world held the US in pretty low esteem because of George W. Bush and his War in Iraq. This Q&A did not help elevate our global status.

To be fair, Tribeca screens well over a hundred films each year at its festival, and this was the first or second year after it had expanded north of Canal Street. With more and more films, there are going to be “duds.” But it was the audience’s taste, not the selected films, that really bothered me.

I didn’t want to sit with them ever again.

Tell the New York State Legislature to Fund CUNY

This week, the New York State Assembly will finish their proposed state budget for the following year. The budget process includes negotiations between the state legislature and the governor, but this year, the City University of New York is in precarious position after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested in his State of the State address in January that the city of New York should be responsible to fully fund CUNY. Last year, the state contributed $485 million to CUNY and placing that kind of financial burden on the City of New York is tantamount to defunding CUNY for that amount. It would be a catastrophe for public secondary education in the nation’s largest city.

If you’re a resident of New York State, ask the state legislature to reject Cuomo’s budget proposal and to contribute to CUNY and the livelihood of the state.

Related: Read Paul Krugman's account of how CUNY levels the economic playing field for students.

Update: Joseph R. Lentol (NY Assembly, District 50) supports an increase of funding for CUNY.

I Quant Do This Anymore

WNYC’s Note to Self recently asked its listeners to share stories about using mobile apps and fitness trackers to quantify their daily progress—with dieting, sleeping, fitness—for the episode, Your Quantified Body, Your Quantified Self.

I’ve maintained a pretty ambivalent attitude towards the new wave of trackers that have emerged over the last decade with the advent of the smartphone and the proliferation of wearables. In the mid-2000s, I used to employ a heart rate monitor to do interval training for bicycle rides. I have since soured on the practice. After sinking hundred of dollars on a couple of Polar devices, I learned that the best way to train is to simply put in the miles and find a few hills along the way. Of course, others swear by it so your “mileage” may vary.

However, I have unwittingly resumed tracking my activity after getting an Apple Watch. The stock Activity app not only counts my steps, but it awards me circles for meeting daily goals. If I keep active for thirty minutes throughout the day, I get a green circle. If I avert sitting for a full hour, twelve hours throughout the day, I get a blue circle. And if I burn 870 calories, I get a red circle. I regularly meet these goals, but unless I bike more than fifteen miles or take a very long walk, it’s easy to miss meeting the calorie-burned goal. Thus, no red circle for me.

In the episode, we hear about people becoming anxious in meeting their goals, including walking laps around their kitchen before bedtime in order to walk the requisite number of steps. This resonated with me because, once, I was twenty calories short of my daily goal. My solution? I walked to the corner pizza shop to burn those twenty-plus calories and to get that elusive red circle. But I also bought 300-calorie slice of pepperoni.

Obviously, it would have been better not meeting my calorie-burned goal. The Apple Watch and its activity tracking couldn’t save me from my own poor eating choices, and because it does not record my eating, it was none the wiser.

We also hear that for many who obsessively tracked their fitness, dieting, or sleep, they almost invariably were overcome with anxiety, fearing they would not meet their goals. Ultimately, this anxiety leads to their abandoning the trackers. One participant noted that instead of using the notifications to make exercising a regular habit, she noted that dismissing and ignoring the reminders became the habit. Overall, the participants all soured on the experience, much like I did with heart-rate monitoring a decade ago and with journaling and habit-tracking in recent years.

I should note that I have found this podcast series and New Tech City—its predecessor as a segment on WNYC radio—to be bothersome. The host is too technoutopian for my taste and seems very cozy with the technocratic entrepreneurs that she profiles. In this episode, instead of conceding that trackers offer only temporary benefits for most, she imagined possibilities for “what will they think of next?”

You might take a personality test before you choose a tracker, one that understands that you are a social butterfly, and you need social support. You need that competitive edge with your friends… Or you would respond better to a fitness tracker that lights up in soothing colors, indicating it’s lovely outside, the sun is about to set, and right now would be the perfect time to take a twenty-minute walk.

Did you get that? It’s not that constantly tracking our eating, sleeping, and exercise are unnatural processes that as humans we will invariably abandon. It’s that the tracking devices and apps simply don’t have enough data. Yet.

Spring Breaks, Compared

The middle of March is upon us, and all around the New York area, many college students and faculty are preparing for Spring Break. The break is always welcomed because it “breaks” up the extended slog of the spring term, which usually lasts for four full months.

This semester, I’m teaching at two colleges: at Pratt Institute and at CUNY Queens College. For my film history class at Pratt, I was able to schedule the midterm exam today, on March 11, just before spring break starts on March 14. However, I couldn’t do the same for the students in my media technologies class at Queens College. Their midterm exam will take place on March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day), but their spring break doesn’t take place until April 28. That is a very late spring break, taking place between the twelfth and thirteenth weeks of class.

Here’s a comparison of spring 2016 semesters at four area colleges where I have worked (Pratt, CUNY, and Fordham) or studied (NYU).

Week NYU Pratt CUNY Fordham
Jan 18 Week 1 Week 1
Jan 25 Week 1 Week 2 Week 2
Feb 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 1 Week 3
Feb 8 Week 3 Week 4 Week 2 Week 4
Feb 15 Week 4 Week 5 Week 3 Week 5
Feb 22 Week 5 Week 6 Week 4 Week 6
Feb 29 Week 6 Week 7 Week 5 Midterm Exam
Mar 7 Midterm Exam Midterm Exam Week 6 Week 8
Mar 14 Spring Break Spring Break Midterm Exam Week 9
Mar 21 Week 8 Week 9 Week 8 Spring Break
Mar 28 Week 9 Week 10 Week 9 Easter Break
Apr 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 10 Week 10
Apr 11 Week 11 Week 12 Week 11 Week 11
Apr 18 Week 12 Week 13 Week 12 Week 12
Apr 25 Week 13 Week 14 Spring Break Week 13
May 2 Week 14 Studio Days Week 13 Week 14
May 9 Reading Day Final Exam Week 14 Final Exam
May 16 Final Exam ?
May 23 Final Exam

NYU and Pratt both schedule their spring breaks in the middle of March, just after Week 7 at NYU and Week 8 at Pratt. That’s ideal because you can schedule a Midterm Exam the week before and have it wrap up the first half of the course. Fordham schedules their spring break a week later but, because it’s a Jesuit university, it adds an additional Easter Break. For some reason, Fordham dictates that faculty schedule their Midterm Exams in late February. Whereas courses at NYU and at Pratt are divided into halves, the semester at Fordham is broken up into (unequal) thirds: before the midterm, between the midterm and breaks, and after the breaks.

The CUNY schedule, on the other hand, is a mess. As I’ve complained in the past, CUNY should stop scheduling spring break around the spring Easter/Passover holidays because it’s not conducive to learning. My students will endure twelve consecutive weeks of class before they get a break. Once the break is over and they will have emptied their minds of everything I taught them, they will have only two weeks to recover that knowledge before heading into the final exam. Moreover, the students in my class will also bear an additional burden: our final exam is scheduled for two weeks after our last class, despite Finals Week starting on the week of May 16.

My own undergraduate experience was quite different from that of these students. My university was on the quarter system, and spring break was the week between the winter and spring quarters. Once we finished our winter-quarter, final exams in late-March, we were off until classes started again in early April.

It was a true spring break.

Soylent, “The Future,” and “Food”

Last month, I was reading Jason Kottke’s site when I saw an ad for an intriguing product: Soylent.

Soylent 2.0 Ad, via The Deck

An ad for Soylent 2.0, as it appeared via The Deck.

When I first saw the small boxy ad with a brief text description, which is common to all ads powered by The Deck, I thought it was a joke. Did someone really make a food-drink called Soylent?1

Didn’t they not watch the whole film?

Soylent is indeed real. It is a food substitute, launched in 2014 by Rosa Labs, a Silicon Valley–type startup based in Los Angeles. It aspires to be the future of food.

It’s a Startup

After poking around the Soylent website, I was stricken by how much Soylent uses the lexicon of contemporary tech startups. The website promoting Soylent is mercifully responsive, peppered with little jQuery animations, and styled in the minimalist aesthetic that will someday soon date websites as “soooo 2013.” As you scroll down the page, you’ll find a requisite feature list, illustrated with those circle-masked images that are all the rage these days. The Soylent store is powered through Stripe, and there’s also a “sandwich” video.

Soylent Feature List

Your food has a feature list, illustrated with circle-masked images.

Spend more time on the website and you’ll wonder whether Soylent is a software platform, and not an actual drink. First, Soylent is versioned. The 1.x line was a powder mix, which has undergone several iterations. There are release notes charting the evolution. Though Soylent 1.5 is still for sale, the current 2.0 version is a ready-to-consume drink. It is, after all, a major upgrade. Second, they also open-sourced Soylent for anyone interested in mixing their own Soylent. Third, there is also a beta program to test future versions of Soylent. And lastly, there are the user forums.

It’s “The Future”

Some members of the Soylent Forums appear to belong to a sect of techno-utopian futurists who are determined to save time and money by cutting out food.2 Some active discussions surround pairing Soylent with MealSquares, another food substitute. Others wonder how to deal with the lasting hunger that comes from drinking your meals. But, by far, my favorite discussions come from the polyphasic sleep crowd, who have come to regard sleep as a waste of time and are interested in maximizing net-waking hours. (Full disclosure: I am a coffee napper.) One friend asked what these people are doing with all the extra time they’ve saved by not sleeping or eating: are they researching new ways to save even more time?

Another way to think of Soylent—packaging nutrition in a bottle—is as a social entrepreneurial venture. Mark Cuban recently tried to solve the food problem in America through sociocapitalism.

I asked a machine learning company to try to find nutrition databases of readily available, deliverable foods from Amazon and to cross reference those databases against the Amazon delivered price in one urban city. The goal is to create the least cost, deliverable daily or weekly menu of food that meets a high level of nutritional requirements for individuals and families.

Although I presume he’s referring to actual food, not necessarily meal replacements, it’s not a stretch to wonder if something like Soylent could be a compatible solution.

It’s “Food”

Despite being initially hesitant, I couldn’t stop thinking about Soylent. I succumbed to my curiosity and ordered a case.

At first taste, I thought “soy milk.” That’s not a stretch given the product’s name and that its primary ingredient is soy. A friend sampled it and reported a more nuanced tasting note: it reminded her of “soy milk left over after finishing your cereal.” That dispelled my first concern, whether it would taste bad. It doesn’t.

That same intrepid friend and I split a bottle recently, before watching Frederick Wiseman’s newest film, In Jackson Heights (2015). Our initial plan was to eat dinner after the screening and drink a Soylent tide us over until then. I even naively quipped about the movie, “it’s not like it’s going to be three hours long.” I was wrong. The documentary ran 190 minutes. I can report that while I was craving food throughout the screening, I didn’t get a headache, feel low on energy, or get “hangry.” I circumvented needing to eat so I could watch a three-hour film. That half-bottle of Soylent did its job.

While Soylent is technically food, it’s hard to see this as a sustainable and nutritionally complete food substitute, even if its stated aims are to be sustainable and nutritionally complete as food. Celebrated food writer Michael Pollan sees Soylent as little more than “Silicon Valley” hype:

Soylent! Soylent is not new. We had Nutrament; you can go to the diet aisle of your supermarket and find all sorts of equally disgusting food substitutes. The genius of Soylent is that it comes out of Silicon Valley, and anything that comes out of there is assumed to be new and technologically advanced and wonderful. But it’s nothing of the type.

Although the company is actually based in a Southern California, I take his point. Soylent is poised to “disrupt” food.

Future of Food is Food

The year before last, I regularly ate dinner at the dining hall at Fordham University. Having broken up with my girlfriend at the end of the summer, I was too depressed to make myself food. Also, because the faculty dining room was being remodeled, the university discounted our meals—to five dollars—so that we would eat with the students living on-campus. While I was excited to eat a cheap, balanced meal, I was surprised to see how many students bypassed the buffet and opted for only a bowl of cereal at dinnertime. Not even pizza or hot dogs could entice them away from Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Lee Hutchinson, an early Soylent adopter, jumped into the polemics of “food vs. ‘food’” and carefully judged it as a “tool in a toolbox.” In his article, he also considered the various people who struggle with food, both those who fear making it and those who don’t much like the taste of food. Soylent offers these people a simple solution: like the undergraduate students who ate a bowl of cereal before heading to their rooms for the night, presumably to study, to game, or both. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it solves the food problem for a while.

But that’s just it: it is ephemeral. The history of food diets—like technology and mass culture—are notoriously riddled with passing fads that don’t endure. Right now, it’s the era of Paleo and gluten-free. Next, we might eat only vegan and raw food. By the end of the century, someone might open an retro, early-21st century place that serves beef and pork. I’m not foolish enough to try to predict whether Soylent will be around in five to ten years. But, like the wave of hot new tech startups and the aesthetics of web design that accompanies that wave will teach us, the future of food might not be as futuristic as some might expect.

A “nutritionally complete” food substitute that comes in a white bottle.

  1. I do remember seeing an ad for this a while ago, but this time it made an impression, both in terms of grabbing my attention and getting my money. 
  2. I really hope someone archives these discussions so that historians and anthropologists can study them in the future.