Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film at New York University

Partly to torment my students with a long reading, but also to perhaps have them reflect on contemporary issues, I assigned Siegfried Kracauer’s “Mass Ornament” essay to my students in my History of Film class this week.

By a great stroke of luck, Nicholar Baer is delivering a lecture about Kracauer’s writings and film on Wednesday, February 15, at the department of Cinema Studies at New York University. The students in my Tuesday class may get a chance to hear this lecture, but the students in my Wednesday class will not. Our class meets at the same time as this lecture.

The announcement from NYU Cinema Studies is reproduced below.

Abel Gance's Napoleon Playing at Apollo Theater

Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film

This presentation will examine how Siegfried Kracauer addressed the relation between history and poetics in his film-theoretical writings. I will argue that insofar as Kracauer came to define the medium’s “basic aesthetic principle” in terms of engagement with the singular and transitory occurrences of physical reality, he obfuscated Aristotle’s opposition between history and poetry, paradoxically locating the poetics of film in its potential as a historian of contemporary life. Notably, however, the genre of the historical film was problematic for Kracauer, given its efforts to visualize a past that is by definition no longer present. Rather than showing “how things actually were,” in Leopold von Ranke’s famous words, the historical film can only envision “things as they could have happened.” An examination of Kracauer’s extensive writings on the historical film will shed new light on his film theory and illuminate significant developments in his thought from Weimar Germany to 1960s New York. Not least, Kracauer’s texts will provide an occasion for considering cinema in relation to historical-philosophical debates on the dissolving distinction between empirical reality and fictional construction, the history and the story, and the true (das Wahre) and the verisimilar (das Wahrscheinliche)—issues of renewed concern in our own “post-truth” era.

Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film

  • February 15, 2017
  • Michelson Theater, 721 Broadway, 6 Fl
  • Free

Late to the OCR Party

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t use OCR for converting documents into plain text as much as I probably should. It is a very handy utility, and it is one that computers have been doing for a long time. Indeed, I remember using OCR in college, at the computer lab where I worked, scanning a single page of print and watching the software read it and turn it into plain text with astonishing accuracy. It seemed like magic.

And what did I do with that magical text? I took that text, put it in a Word document, and printed it out.

Today, there’s many more useful things to do with OCR, particularly for scholars and academics. One example is to share the text of historical primary documents instead of an image files of the documents.1 For years, I have been sharing with my students readings as PDF files, but in the mobile-first era of the web, it makes much more sense to share a webpage that someone can easily read on a mobile device, instead of a PDF that they have to pinch-and-zoom—or even print out—to read.

Earlier this week, I began sharing with my students plain text files, instead of PDF scans, of readings not available in their textbooks. Doing this yields some benefits:

  • They can read the text on mobile devices.
  • Visually impaired students can use a screen reading device to “read” the document.
  • They can search the text.
  • They can resize the text, either bigger or smaller.
  • They can parse the text to read with a browser utility like Apple’s Safari Reader or a read-later application like Instapaper.
  • They will appreciate the much smaller file size, like 100 times smaller, especially for students using a mobile device.

If sharing readings as plain text instead of PDF files makes so much sense, what took me so long?

Honestly, I didn’t know what tool I should use. I can’t remember the software I first used in 1997, but it’s safe to assume it doesn’t exist anymore. Acrobat offers OCR, but I haven’t had a Creative Cloud license since the days of Creative Suite 3. Although I have a lot of apps that can scan and convert to text, such as the one for a Doxie scanner or PDFPen+Scan for iOS, most of these readings are in PDF already. I don’t want to print and scan them just to do OCR.

Lo and behold, Google Drive converts PDF to text. I just learned about this yesterday, and I like the results. To use Google Drive for OCR, follow these three steps:

  1. Upload your PDF file to Google Drive, if it’s not there already.
  2. Right-click on the file
  3. Select Open With > Google Docs

After a few minutes, depending on the size of your document, you can see the converted text. The results are pretty good. Obviously, the clearer and better your text, the more accurate the OCR will be. One cool feature is that it “respects” the pagination and hyphenation of your original document. If your document has page headers or page footers, those will appear. Since I’m interested in capturing only the text—not the pagination or hyphenation—of the document, I have to remove those from my final text document.

The nice thing about having a plain text document is that you can lightly format it as needed. Since I use Markdown, I recommend using a Markdown-capable text editor to parse the text. You’ll have a relatively unadulterated text file and can export it to any format you want from there. You can export to PDF, unstyled HTML, or RTF. And as I did with my first try at OCR in 1997, you can even print it.

  1. One of my big complaints about #kidstoday is that are keen to share screenshots of a website—or worse, a photos of computer display with the browser window—instead of sharing the URL of the site. 

Roots of an “Imperfect Cinema”

About a week ago, film professor and documentarian Michael Chanan posted an excerpt from his documentary film The New Cinema of Latin America (1983). The excerpt includes an enlightening interview with Cuban filmmaker Julio Garcia Espinosa. At the time, he was the head of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute founded by the Castro regime after the 1959 Revolution, but he is perhaps best remembered for writing the essay “For an Imperfect Cinema” in 1969.

Espinosa’s interview highlights two very compelling issues of the post-1959 period of filmmaking and, apparently, his own thinking about “imperfect cinema”:

  1. The filmmakers were influenced by the European New Waves and documentary. Espinosa describes how Italian Neorealism was a model for quality filmmaking and recalls how someone criticized his early film work for ignoring this important movement. He also notes the influence of Michaelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, as well as generally referring to the documentary work that grew in the decades after World War II.
  2. The filmmakers were determined to create their own cinema. Espinosa discusses how filmmakers had adopted many tricks to mask the racial markers of Afro-Cubans, but they were determined to forgo that practice in favor of representing the Cuban people in their truest light.

The New Cinema of Latin America (1983) is hard to find. It is available on DVD for institutional purchase and on VHS, for the rest of us, at a library near you.

Trademarks, or We Are Saturated with Craft Beer

Earlier this week, Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing celebrated their third anniversary, on the same week that they were named by Rate Beer as one of the ten best breweries in the world.

To commemorate their anniversary, they released cans of a special 3rd Anniversary IPA.

Other Half Brewing's 3rd Anniversary Ale

“You don’t save Other Half’s 3rd Anniversary IPA for a special occasion. The special occasion is when you drink it.”

I didn’t actually get to buy this beer, nor did I visit Other Half in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, on the occasion of their third anniversary. But I did see that this special brew is available at a local beer establishment down the street from me. And yes, I do plan on getting a can before they run out.

When I first saw the can, I didn’t correctly identify the producers. I didn’t think “Other Half Third Anniversary.” I thought “Threes,” as in Threes Brewing, another brewery located in nearby Gowanus, Brooklyn.

The case of mistaken identity is notable because, about a year ago, Threes Brewing was engaged in a dispute over their name with another brewery in southern New Jersey, named Three 3s. Brooklyn’s Threes even took their case to their Instagram followers, asking whether they should pursue legal action against Jersey’s Three 3s.

I chimed in and thought that the different names and wordmarks—as well as their very different sense of graphic design—were enough to distinguish one brewery from another. Also, the two don’t seem to compete in each other’s markets. Threes is primarily in Brooklyn, and Three 3s is in Hammonton, about halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. But my initial confusion with Other Half’s Third Anniversary commemorative can suggests, at least to me, that there’s so much beer out there that it’s almost impossible to not inadvertently release that might run afoul of someone else’s creation or intellectual property.

As the late Umberto Eco wrote, “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”

The purpose of a trademark is to prevent a consumer from confusing one product with another and to protect the reputation of the company that holds the legal right to that trademark. Again, I don’t see anyone reasonably confusing one brewery with another, as with Threes and Three 3s. Furthermore, I certainly don’t think that the fine folks at Threes Brewing would ask Other Half to cease and desist: it’s not a neighborly thing to do, and no one owns a trademark on the number three.

In any case, potential trademark clashes such as these are a sign that the craft beer industry is in really good shape. There’s a lot of beer being brewed right now and some day we’ll look back at this period as a golden age of craft beer. We can drink a lot of different beers, and we have no hope of ever drinking the same beer twice. This is a good problem to have.

But alas, the history of every Golden Age ends in one of two ways: with a spectacular crash or slow withering decline. Either way, Golden Ages don’t last forever, and the craft beer industry will be no exception. I can’t tell exactly why the Golden Age of Craft Beer will end, but here are some theories:

  • People’s taste will change and they will stop drinking beer.
  • There will be too many breweries, and the beer-drinking public will settle in to their choices. The others will die.
  • Breweries begin to merge and consolidation will take hold of yet another industry.
  • There will be a hops crisis like the one in 2008. Never forget!
  • Teetotaling Trump will sign some executive order that will ban all beer that is not the same color of his skin. At least Schofferhofer will remain on the market.

All of this is to say that we should enjoy this period before all we have to drink is something from Goose Island and Ballast Point.

I’ll let you know what I think about that can of Other Half 3rd Anniversary IPA as soon as I get to enjoy one.

The Gig Economy, or Can’t Someone Else Do It?

In “Trash of the Titans,” the 200th episode of The Simpsons from 1998, Homer runs for sanitation commissioner of Springfield as an outsider on a populist platform. Tired of having to take out his trash to the curb and paying for its collection, one of his first actions in office is to have his sanitation workers do household chores for everyone in Springfield. His platform was simple: “Can’t someone else do it?”

Homer Simpson in Trash of the Titans

Last summer, I heard about a new app that seemed to reflect everything was wrong with the Silicon Valley, the tech industry, and the so-called gig economy: Pooper.

Pooper is an app that allows dog owners to take their dog for outdoor walks and let the dog defecate. Once your dog has dropped its deuce, you…

  • open the app
  • photograph the spot where your dog pooped
  • someone arrives to scoop your dog’s shit

To put it in high-concept terms for Silicon Valley: It’s Uber for poop. Pooper!

If this sounds too good—or too awful—to be true, don’t worry, it is most certainly fake. And don’t confuse it with the other Pooper for when you need to poop.

Pooper is less an app or a work of comedy than it is a piece of conceptual art.

Pooper’s website contains all the hallmarks of a tech company. There’s a sandwich video, a familiar-looking mobile app that looks a lot like Uber, and a feature list illustrated with icons.

Pooper Feature List

The Pooper service even mocks other tech services by offering three price points: a basic, a premium, and an unlimited tier.

Pooper has three pricing tiers

The project creators intended to criticize the gig economy built into the service sector companies masquerading as revolutionary apps. They see these as contributing “to the downfall of society.”

A few years ago, when I polled students about driving for Uber or running errands on Task Rabbit, they responded favorably to these services and echoed the mantra of gig economy: it’s cool because it lets people make extra money on the side. However, as these students were attending a private university in New York City, I think they were only imagining themselves using these services—to get a cheap ride or have someone wait in line for a Cronut—and not actually working for these companies as independent contractors.

It’s early, but I have started to see a backlash of the gig economy. Pooper was one example that highlighted the other side of the tech-drive gig economy by including a link to “Become a Scooper.”

How it Works to be a Scooper

The Scooper page drew attention to the labor that the tech economy eliminates from view. The page is preposterously bright and sunny, promising that it’s good for everyone in terms of cleaner cities with less dog waste, extra income for scoopers, and a better environment with compostable scooping materials.

Scooping is good for everyone: cleaner cities, extra income, our environment

It sounds great, right? Sure, until you realize you’re picking up dog shit.

These mom-tech apps deliberately hide the humans doing the actual work. Seamless is perhaps the most deliberate about it: promising zero human contact. That’s a bold promise because a human has to prepare your food, another human has to package it, and one more has to deliver it. I suppose you could ask the delivery guy to leave it on the step outside to ensure you make truly have no face-to-face contact… or perhaps you don’t consider the delivery guy to be a human.

The same is true for similar apps. There’s always a human—probably a poorly paid one—doing the work you tapped on your app to avoid doing. It’s time to recognize that.

Is It Just Me, or Is It Hot (in) Here?

This past year, 2016, was the hottest recorded year on earth, according to a bunch of scientists. The previous record was set in 2015, which broke the record set it 2014. If one year is an anomaly, two might be a coincidence, and three might indicate a trend, right?

New York Times: How Much Warmer Was Your City in 2016?

The New York Times has compiled the data and made a fun tool that lets you search for how much warmer (or cooler) many cities were than their normal. As much fun as this tool was, the results were pretty chilling for some places that I searched. Not only were the temperatures all above normal, there were multiple records set. Here’s a sampling of some places I searched. (All temperatures are in Fahrenheit because I don’t speak Celsius.)

New York City
Average temperature of 57.2°, 2.2° above average. No wonder we played softball in early February.
Record highs in March at 79°, and in October at 85°, and record low in mid-February at -1°
Los Angeles
Average temperature of 67.1°, 1.6° above normal.
A bunch of record highs in February around 90° and another record high in July at 97°.
Santa Barbara
Average temperature of 60.8°, 1.7° above normal.
The always mild Santa Barbara set a few records in February, April, and July at 87°, 86°, and 94°, respectively.
Palmdale, Calif.
Average temperature of 65°, 0.5° above normal.
My parents town experienced some serious heat in February at 82° and tied a record at July at 108°.
Portland, Ore.
Average temperature of 56.5°, 2.1° above normal
Record highs abound with 62° in February, many days in the 80s in April, a couple of days at 98° in June, a whole lot of days between 90° and 99° in August, and days in the upper 60s in November.

Clearly, I have a coastal bias so I asked my friend for his hometown. It’s Detroit and despite its northern latitude, it was also considerably hotter than before, but it was still pretty darn cold.

Average temperature of 52.9°, 2.5° above normal
Record highs set in February at 56°, in March at 71°, in November at 73°, in December at 53°, and tied a record at 98° in July. Note: don’t move to Detroit! Is it really that cold?!?

This is all something to think about as we enter a new age in US history, where climate change is something either a Chinese hoax intended to depress the American economy or something that is actually real but not something cause by humans.

LOL…it’s totally our fault!

2006 vs. 2016, Flash Memory Edition

Just before the end of the year, people in my social network—and likely yours—were posting pictures of themselves from 2006 and 2016, ostensibly to compare their contemporary selves to their appearance ten years ago.

Rather than gaze at myself ten years ago, I thought it would be fun to compare a recent purchase of removable flash memory to another similar purchase from 10 years ago.

2006 USB Memory Stick

In 2006, I bought a removable USB memory stick, which was all the rage at the time in the days before Dropbox and other cloud storage solutions. The capacity was one (1) gigabyte and I paid $51.29 on Amazon. It might have seemed like a good deal at the time.

2016 SD Card

A few weeks ago, at the end of 2016, I ordered an SD card for my SLR camera. The capacity is thirty-two (32) gigabytes and I paid $14.99 on Amazon. In some ways, even this purchase seems a bit dated. SD cards seem like a niche product these days since the days of the compact digital camera, which drove those sales, seem to be over. Also, 32 GB is not a lot of capacity. Consider that I could buy 64 GB, 128 GB, and even 256 GB for about $25, $60, and $120, respectively.

To really summarize the difference between the two over the last ten years, consider that I bought something thirty-two times bigger, that is orders-of-magnitude faster, for less than a third of the price.

I may have changed over the last ten years, but I don’t think I can say I changed as much as flash memory.

The Inevitable Experience of Having Your Bike Stolen in New York

Earlier this week, my friend Danny had his bike stolen outside of his apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In broad daylight. And with a security camera recording the whole thing.

Danny bought this bike at the end of the summer and just a few months later had it stolen. He’s experienced both the joy and agony of owning a bicycle in New York City. A bicycle provides an unparalleled level of mobility if you live in certain (expensive!) parts of New York City. A bicycle makes getting around a lot quicker and more pleasant, which is odd considering that the first emotion you probably feel when you ride a bike in the city is heart-stopping terror.

But with the dizzying high that accompanies bicycle ownership, there is the crushing blow that we all experience: the agony of having that bicycle stolen. It’s a surprisingly deflating experience, something much worse than losing your phone. I’ve described the emotion of having your bicycle stolen as somewhere between losing your wallet and the death of a cherished pet.

Because he has surveillance footage of the theft, he has attracted some attention from the local media. But despite the minor celebrity Danny has become, I feel his pain and further empathize with him for a couple of reasons.

  1. He believed in the kindness of witnesses to stop the crime. After reviewing the video, he noticed that his mail carrier walked past the theft in progress. Casey and Van Neistat taught us, back in 2005, that nobody will stop a bike thief in progress. Nobody.

    I can attest to this as I had broken my bike key inside my lock some years ago, and I spent several hours picking the lock to remove the broken piece. I was on the corner of First Avenue and 61st Street, in front of the Bed Bath and Beyond store, where there was a lot of foot traffic. Only one person asked what I was doing. He accepted my explanation at face value and went on his business. No one else—not even the security guards at the store—took any action as I attempted to pick my bike lock.

    Casey Neistat recorded an updated video in 2012 and found that some witnesses would intervene. In his video, he found that the police did stop him from stealing his own bike but only after he used a conspicuous angle grinder for several minutes mere feet from several police officers at Union Square. The officers he spoke to admitted that none of them had ever stopped a bike theft-in-progress until Neistat all but screamed “hey, I’m stealing a bike!”

  2. He hopes that the police will catch the bike thief. NPR’s Planet Money did an enlightening story on bike theft in 2012. In the report, we learn that, on the streets, a bike is a form of currency. Cash, drugs, and sex are the others, and a bike can be exchanged for any of them. But unlike other crimes, bike theft carries no risk of being caught or punished. None.

As with death, taxes, and hard drive failures, having your bicycle stolen is sadly inevitable. One bicycling accessory entrepreneur claims that the ratio of bicycles sold to bicycles stolen is one-to-one.

And like all of us who have had a bike stolen, Danny has learned a hard lesson. Treat your bike like your wallet and your pet. Like your wallet, keep it within your control at all times. And, like your pet, and don’t keep it outside.

Or just sign up for the local bike share program.

Shopping Lists for Holiday Cooking

Sometimes you feel like homemade pizza among all the other holiday fare.

The holidays are upon us, and in the last few years, I’ve been tasked by my family to handle a lot of the cooking. Shopping for a bunch of different recipes at a number of different grocery and specialty stores can be stressful. Preparing a list makes this manageable. I have a two solutions: a sheet of paper with rows and columns, and a recipe manager app.

Low-Tech Solution: Paper

Most shopping lists consist of a series of ingredients that you’ll use for a recipe. That works until you find that you have to go to multiple stores and you can buy at more than one store. I used to have separate sheets for each store and list the ingredients on each sheet where those ingredients are available. However, that led to a lot of flipping between pages and often missing things.

My new solution is to list the ingredients I need in a series of rows, as one usually does. My big breakthrough came when I added a column for each store I planned to visit. I would make a mark, such as an “X,” in each “cell” where that ingredient is available. It looks like this…

Ingredient Store A Store B Store C
Flour x x
Zucchini Squash x x
Poblano Pepper x x x
Soy Chorizo x

When I buy that ingredient, I cross it off my list. That way when I visit other stores, I skip past that ingredient.

High-Tech Solution: Paprika Recipe Manager

I’m not an expert cook, but I can follow a recipe pretty well and can make some effective on-the-fly improvisations.

One tool that has been really helpful with this particular workflow is the Paprika Recipe Manager. The app can very accurately read a recipe from a webpage and parse the ingredients and directions into its own database. When it’s time to cook, you can browse the ingredients list to prepare your ingredients and then read the step-by-step directions. My favorite feature of the latter process is that Paprika detects times. Tap on the time, and your device starts a timer. You can have multiple timers going at once.

Paprika can also help you make a grocery list.

When reviewing a recipe, you can add the ingredients you don’t have to your shopping list.

  • tap the shopping cart icon
  • uncheck the items you already have
  • add it to your list

As you shop, mark ingredients as complete.

No matter which way you chose, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t rely on your memory. This is a stressful time of year, and you’re going to forget items if you don’t write them down, either on paper or with a digital tool like Paprika.

Happy holidays, everyone.

It’s Time to Get Rid of “Security” Questions

Since 2009 or so, I’ve been using and preaching about using a password manager to generate and track all of your usernames and passwords. Until some other system comes along, the only way to safeguard your user accounts is to use a complex and unique password for every one of your accounts. If hackers steals a site’s user database and can decipher your credentials for that site, they can use those credentials to log in to other sites where you use the same password. But with a password manager, it’s easy to create strong and unique passwords for each site. And should hackers ever breach a site you use, you only need to change the password for that site because all your other accounts use a different password.

Yahoo Hacked… Again

Yesterday, Yahoo revealed that in 2013 hackers stole user information for about one-billion Yahoo accounts. By the way, this is a separate theft from the one the company disclosed earlier this year where thieves stole information from 500 million users in 2014.

The stolen user information includes (emphases are mine):

  • name
  • email addresses
  • telephone number
  • date of birth
  • hashed passwords
  • security questions and answers

Ordinarily, I would just change my password for any Yahoo account I have. The password manager would generate and store a new unique and complex password, and it would alert me if I had other accounts on Yahoo that needed the same treatment. It turns out I have two Yahoo accounts, although I haven’t used one of them since the 2008 or so.

Because so many people use the same password for multiple sites, it’s fairly common for sites that store usernames and passwords to hash (or encode) the passwords so that thieves can’t read them and use them to log in to your accounts. Apparently, Yahoo has done this but used a hashing technique that is cryptographically broken.

“Security” Questions Aren’t Secure

However, what seems even more troubling to me is that Yahoo might not have hashed the security questions and answers that act as workarounds to access your account when you forget your password. These “security questions” are a very primitive way of verifying a user. Twenty or so years ago, when you phoned your bank, they would verify your identity using your mother’s maiden name or your date of birth. But today that seems quaint because it’s not really secure: a close friend or relative easily knows that information.

Nonetheless, many websites have used similar security questions to “safeguard” your account:

  • where were you born?
  • what is the name of your favorite teacher?
  • what is the make of your first car?
  • what is your high school’s mascot?
  • what was the name of first street you lived on?
  • what was your first job?

With a little detective work, someone can learn all these bits of “secure” information about you.1 As a way to strengthen this system, I use fake answers for these security questions: some are random bits of text or some are just random names. I record these in a password manager.

However, since Yahoo didn’t appear to hash those security questions and answers, instead storing them as plain text, these could be used to reset your passwords on your accounts.

Time for Two-Factor Security

If I learned something from this breach, it’s that the time has come to get rid of security questions and instead force users to use two-factor authentication.2 This requires you to enter your password and a temporary code that is either generated by an app on your mobile device or sent to you by text message.3 This provides a small safeguard because if hackers learn your credentials, they still need a code to access your account.

It’s certainly more secure than the name of your childhood pet.

  1. Some sites force you to choose from a list of answers. For example, United Mileage Plus asks “What is Your Favorite Sea Animal?” and offers about forty choices. United chose this method because it would prevent a hacker from logging your keystrokes and users from revealing their password in a security question. Some users need to be saved from themselves. 
  2. Last year, Google found that security questions weren’t actually secure and encouraged users to use a second factor to authenticate. They are phasing them out. 
  3. Once you activate two-factor on your Apple account, you no longer authenticate with security questions. Good riddance!