Morning Coffee

January 23, 2016

This has been quite the odd week, as I’ve been focusing most of my time on development projects, and not so much on writing.

On Thursday I launched a new design for the site, which I hope is a substantial improvement over the previous one. I’m very happy with it, and feedback so far has been pretty great, too. I’d like to take a moment to thank all of you who took a minute of your time to reach out and comment on the new design.

The rest of my time was spent wrapping up a big milestone in an iOS development project for a client, something I’ve been working on for the past six months or so. We finally reached a release version and I’ve been managing the App Store submission process for the past couple of days. The app is now in review, and I’m really excited to see it released.

Unfortunately, due to the confidential nature of the project, I’m afraid can’t really go into any further details about the app. All I can say is that it provides a way for the Deaf to access mainstream means of communication that have traditionally been unavailable or extremely unaccessible to them, like the phone.

Though I’m not a full-time developer anymore, I still greatly enjoy working on special projects like this one, and I’m so very glad to have had a chance to be involved in something that will have a genuine, positive impact on many people’s lives. That is one of the loftier goals you can have as a developer, and it feels awesome.

Having wrapped up the current version of the app, I’m now back to writing, with plenty of interesting projects in the pipeline. So let’s get started.

Today, I want to talk to you about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I have a lot to say about this movie, so I’ll be taking the next few issues of Morning Coffee to do it. For starters, I want to focus on the opening scene of the film, which I believe is one of the best introductory scenes I’ve seen in many years.

Issue #30: About a month ago, in a movie theater not very far away…

Like any self-respecting Star Wars fan, I watched The Force Awakens on opening weekend. I did miss the Thursday midnight showings though, as none of my friends could come with me. I could have gone by myself, but the idea of not having anyone to talk to after the movie was too scary — what if I loved it? what if it sucked?! —  so I decided to play it safe and go the next day, as we had originally planned.

We went to a Friday night showing, and boy, am I glad that I waited.

If you still haven’t seen the movie, this is the point where you should stop reading, or you can skip right to the links section. Everything from that point on is safe and spoiler-free. I promise.


I have a bad feeling about this

The few hours prior to watching the movie were by far the worst. I was so intent on avoiding spoilers that I stopped checking Twitter entirely, even though I had plenty of filters set. I was especially concerned on my way to the theater, as I didn’t want to cross paths with people leaving from earlier showings.

In the end, I managed to go in totally spoiler-free, and I’m convinced that is the best way to go for your first viewing. I didn’t know the names of the characters, I didn’t know the basic gist of the plot, I didn’t know anything other than what was shown in the trailers.

The opening crawl

Luke Skywalker has vanished? Seriously? We’re barely 10 seconds into the movie and already the stakes are sky-high. At the end of RoTJ, Luke is believed to be the only Jedi in existence, and possibly one of only two remaining Force-sensitive people, together with Leia. It doesn’t take a huge leap to assume he would have gone on to play a critical role in the restoration of peace and democracy in the galaxy. And now he’s gone? This doesn’t bode well for the good guys, but I am officially excited.

The first scene

The movie’s first scene after the crawl is amazing. We first see a small planet being obscured by a huge star destroyer, and an army of Stormtroopers descending on a desert planet. They are spotted on the ground by a small droid, who immediately flees the scene, no doubt going to warn its master of their imminent arrival.

Among the movie’s human cast, we’re first introduced to Poe Dameron, who we are told is Leia’s — excuse me, General Organa’s — “most daring pilot”. Oscar Isaac is just perfect as Poe, and does a terrific job in every single one of the remarkably few scenes he’s in.

In his first scene, we see Poe retrieving a small object from an old man — the always imposing Max Von Sydow — with the promise that it “will begin to make things right”. We still don’t know what he’s referring to, but it’s definitely important, and it has something to do with the Jedi. And then the small droid we saw earlier bursts into their tent, announcing that all hell is about to break loose.

Indeed, the army of Stormtroopers suddenly arrives, and they proceed to raid the village searching for something. Dameron attempts to escape, but his X-wing is damaged, and he’s forced to stay on the ground. He then places the mysterious object inside his companion droid, and instructs it to flee the scene and take it to the Resistance.

Amidst the struggle in the village, a Stormtrooper watches as one of his partners is fatally wounded, holding his hand as he dies. He is left with blood marks on his white helmet, which make him instantly recognizable for the rest of the scene.

Once the raid is complete and the villagers are apprehended, a sinister figure clad in black robes and wearing a creepy mask emerges from one of the ships and confronts the old man. It becomes clear he’s been trained in the ways of the Force, and that he and the old man know each other, although we don’t yet understand the specifics of their relationship. Meanwhile, Poe watches from afar, unable to intervene.

At this point, we start getting our first answers. The old man tells us the name of the man in black: Kylo Ren, although that wasn’t always his name. Ren, in exchange, tells us he’s looking for a map to Luke Skywalker. The two exchange a few words, but when Kylo Ren loses his patience — which he admittedly has very little of — he slays the old man with his hilted lightsaber.

This finally shakes Dameron into action, firing his blaster towards Ren. And then the first truly surprising thing in the movie happens.

Kylo Ren senses the shot, and is able to anticipate it. He turns, raises his hand and freezes the blast mid-air using the Force. We haven’t seen anything like this in any of the previous films, and it immediately lets us know this is a formidable opponent.

Kylo Ren is introduced as a powerful character, capable of stopping a laser blast mid-air with the Force.

Poe Dameron is taken into custody and brought in front of Kylo Ren, and after a couple seconds of uncomfortable silence, he breaks the ice with a cheeky line about who’s supposed to talk first.

That’s an awesome way to establish Dameron’s daring nature, as in, “I’ve been in this sort of situation before and I know I’ll get out of it just fine. I just don’t know how I’ll do it yet”. It could also be a way to tell us that he’s prepared to die for the Resistance, or for Leia. Perhaps both.

In any case, Kylo Ren decides to take Dameron with them, and instructs his lieutenant — a huge figure clad in a shiny, chromed Stormtrooper armor and a crimson and black cape — to kill the remaining villagers. Promptly, the rest of the Stromtroopers line the villagers up and proceed to execute them, but the Stormtrooper we saw before, the one with the bloody helmet, is unable to fire his blaster. Ren notices this, and silently stares at the trooper for a few seconds before ultimately boarding his ship.

All of this is watched from afar by Poe’s little droid, who slowly rolls away in the desert night, mourning the loss of his master but determined to fulfill the mission he entrusted it with.

Later, on the army’s main ship, Poe is taken to interrogation holding, and our lone Stormtrooper is interrupted from having a well-deserved panic attack by his chrome-plated superior, who scolds him for, you know, having feelings and all that, and instructs him to report to division.

 Storytelling at its best

This first scene is absolutely brilliant. It throws us straight into the middle of the action, with just the right amount of exposition and character development to make us care about what we’re seeing, but not so much so as to make us roll our eyes. That is how you tell a story.

Everything about that scene, from the pacing to the many questions that are asked, and the few answers that are given, sets the stage for the remaining two hours of the film.

By now we’re roughly ten minutes into the movie, and we’ve already heard of two of the main characters from the original trilogy by name — Luke and Leia — even tough we still haven’t actually seen any of them. Others, like Han & Chewie, haven’t even been mentioned yet.

Everything we’ve actually seen on screen so far is completely new: new Stormtroopers, new ships, new planets, new droids, and new characters. And yet, the film already feels like Star Wars. That was one of my biggest concerns going in, but I’m happy to say they nailed the experience. And the fact that they managed to do it without showing anything from previous movies is even more impressive.

A new world

Once the frantic opening scene concludes, the film clearly switches gears. From a storytelling point of view, we move from stage-setting into world-building and character introduction. This is when we get to understand the new world we’re in, with its tensions and particular struggles, and it’s also when we get to meet the movie’s real protagonist.

However, that’s a story for another day. Now it’s time to take a look at some of the week’s most interesting pieces of writing.

Top Five: dropping nukes by accident, the problem with the American school system, and the Fuji X-Pro 2

This week’s top five is a good one. From an unbelievable accident that could have changed world history, to a wonderful review of Fuji’s next big X-series camera, every one of these links features some top-quality writing and photography. Enjoy.

Palomares anniversary: that time the US dropped 4 nukes on Spain | Lee Ferran →

I’m guessing a majority of readers won’t know that this actually happened, but fifty years ago there was this silly accident where the US dropped not one, not two, but four nuclear bombs on a small beach town in Spain. I’m not kidding:

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1966, an American B-52 bomber was flying a secret mission over Cold War Europe when it collided with a refueling tanker. Seven airmen involved, including all four members of the refueling tanker’s crew, were killed. But American officials feared much worse when they learned that the bomber’s payload, four B28 hydrogen bombs, had broken free in the collision and tumbled down towards the small Mediterranean beach town of Palomares, Spain.

The reason you probably haven’t heard about it is that, since the bombs weren’t meant to be dropped, their fail safe systems were active, and they managed to stop a nuclear reaction from being started upon impact. However, not everything was rosy:

But the conventional high explosives on two of the bombs did detonate, essentially turning those weapons into dirty bombs that blasted plutonium radiation across the countryside.

The story took another dramatic turn when hundreds of American soldiers, who rushed to the accident site to search for the bombs, were only able to locate three of four. As the exhausting search on land continued fruitlessly, military officials turned to the Mediterranean and launched what was then the most complex deep-water search and recovery operation in history – all while Russian ships and submarines lingered nearby, threatening to snatch the missing nuke for themselves.

Oops. Next time you screw something up, you can at least take comfort in the fact that you probably didn’t drop four nuclear bombs on a foreign country by accident. Don’t worry though, things are cool now:

A half century later, there is little obvious evidence of the dramatic incident in Palomares, short of a chain link fence and warning signs surrounding an area in which one of the bombs fell and radiation seeped into the ground. Not far away, on the beach, there is nothing to mark where another crashed down intact – and members of a nearby nudist colony stroll by in their natural glory seemingly without a care that they’re walking within feet of a five-decade-old nuclear accident.

Welcome to Spain.

Keeping Up with Tim Cook’s Apple | Rob Rhyne →

Great piece by Rob Rhyne on the incredible scale Apple operates at today, and the absurd pace they’re working at:

In barely three years, design consideration for iOS has gone from two sizes to twelve. When account for orientation, twenty-four distinct layouts are required. Twenty-four to account for devices which support iOS 9. Madness.

And yet, Apple has managed to keep things simple enough for most developers to be able to work in small teams, some even independently. That’s impressive.

Sure, there are some bugs here and there, but considering the insane pace Apple is keeping in their software release cycle, the overall quality is still pretty darn good.

Via Ben Brooks.

Against School | Aaron Swartz →

This is a great previously unpublished essay from the late Aaron Swartz on the most glaring issues with the American school system:

The solution has been to fight the battle through other names. No Child Left Behind was supposed to have the effect of forcing schools to do a better job educating their students. Who could argue with that? But examining its effects on the ground finds it did something rather different. Students, of course, were not tested on how well they actually understood basic concepts but simply on how well they could answer the standard multiple choice tests. And with so much at stake, schools converted even further from teaching kids ideas to teaching them how to perform well on tests.

Fantastic essay.

A companion for architecture and landscapes – Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 Review | Mathieu Gasquet →

I’ve been waiting for the first few in-depth reviews of the upcoming Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens to appear on the web, and this one didn’t disappoint. It’s chock-full of gorgeous shots, and plenty of explanations and details about the lens.

The world of manual lenses is a curious one. On one hand, they’re slower to use and seem almost archaic in nature. On the other hand, they are precision instruments of unparalleled build quality, and they can remain a lot smaller than similarly-specced AF-enabled lenses.

Zeiss has always been one of the most important manufacturers of manual lenses, and whatever your personal preference one way or the other, it’s good to see they’re still committed to releasing high-quality optics for modern systems like the Sony E-mount.

Fujifilm X-Pro 2 | Marius Masalar →

Marius Masalar got his hands on a pre-production model of the newly announced Fuji X-Pro 2 camera. This is an incredible review, and the X-Pro 2 appears to be a pretty sweet camera. Also, Marius’ photography throughout the piece, both of the camera and with the camera, is outstanding as usual. Excellent work.


Like I said in the introduction, this has been quite an unusual week for me. I’m now back to a more normal writing schedule, but it’s been an interesting change, to be sure.

The rest of the weekend will be spent working on my review of the nifty Manfrotto 209, 492 table top tripod kit, which I’ve owned for a couple months now. It’s a truly useful little tripod, and I took it with me on my recent trip to Paris with great results.

The review should be published later in the week over on Tools & Toys. Until then, thank you for reading, and have a wonderful weekend.