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May 15, 2016

Hello there, welcome to another issue of Morning Coffee.

Yesterday I started playing one of the most widely anticipated video games of all time: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. This is perhaps the first game that pushes the PS4 hardware clearly beyond what last-gen consoles were capable of doing, and it’s remarkable in its own right for being the last entry in Naughty Dog’s extremely popular Uncharted series.

Uncharted 4 has been a long time in the making. This series is the reason I bought a PS3 a few years ago, and I have to say I’ve enjoyed each chapter with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a ten-year-old kid. These games offer a cinematic experience that is easily on par with big budget Hollywood films, and now with Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog has raised the bar significantly, delivering a true work of art in video game form.

Not that it’s their first time, mind you.

Naughty Dog has a long and rich history of delivering masterpieces, but in my mind there’s one particular game that sits head and shoulders above everything else we’ve ever seen in the industry. That’s what I’d love to tell you about today.

Issue #41: The Last of Us (No Spoilers)

Let me preface this by saying I don’t consider myself a gamer in the popular sense of the term. I’ve only played a handful of PS3 games — literally — and I only bought the PS4 this week to be able to play Uncharted 4. I’m not crazy about beating skill-based games, or spending hundreds of hours building a character in a made-up universe — with perhaps one or two notable exceptions.

My ambitions when it comes to gaming are fairly modest: have fun, and experience truly compelling stories. That’s why I love the Uncharted series, and the recent Tomb Raider reboot. They’re just lots of fun to play, but they’re also incredible stories, told in a medium with an unparalleled capacity for immersion. If you’ve ever cried at the movies, you probably know what I’m talking about. Great games offer the same experience, only dialed up to eleven.

However, every once in a while there comes a game so remarkable that it fully and completely transcends the previously known limitations of the medium and becomes something else entirely. These are incredibly rare, and may come only once in a generation. The Last of Us is exactly that kind of game.

On its face, the premise of the game seems fairly simple: set in a dystopian future where a virus has wiped out most of the human race and turned them into fungi-shaped zombies, two mean-spirited scavengers are tasked with smuggling a teenage girl out of a quarantine zone. So far, nothing seems out of the ordinary: just another zombie-ridden survival game, right?


What sets The Last of Us apart from many other games is the depth and complexity of its characters. There are zombies in the game, yes, but the story is never about them. It’s not even about the Fireflies, a so-called resistance group that’s apparently looking for a cure. The Last of Us tells a story that is much smaller in scope, but much bigger in relevance. It’s the story of a broken man and a lost girl, both of whom stubbornly refuse to give up even in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s a story about family, and love. A story about growing up, and learning to let go.

Right from the beginning, The Last of Us punches you in the stomach with a scene so poignant and tragic that you have no choice but to instantly empathize with Joel, the main playable character in the game. By bearing witness to this traumatic event, we’re prepared to understand — if not quite forgive — Joel for any questionable actions he may go on to commit over the course of the story. And boy, does he commit them. Clearly, you don’t get to survive long in a zombie apocalypse by being nice.

Ellie, on the other hand, represents the polar opposite of Joel. She was born after the world had already ended, so this life is all she’s ever known. She hasn’t had to go through the incredibly difficult process of losing everything we take for granted, and that has given her the rare ability to remain innocent in a world dominated by cruelty and violence. While Joel broke a long time ago, Ellie somehow manages to bend instead.

And so, while there’s a fair amount of killing to do — both zombie and human killing, mind you — and lots of huge areas to traverse and gorgeous sets to explore, to me the most compelling aspect of The Last of Us is being able to witness the complex and nuanced relationship that slowly develops between Joel and Ellie. He teaches her to find the strength to do whatever it takes to survive, and she teaches him that there’s more to life than surviving. It’s a long and powerful journey during which both characters change profoundly — and hopefully, so do we.

I won’t get into any more specifics here, because if you haven’t played the game, spoiling it would be cruel. Suffice it to say that Naughty Dog managed to make Joel, Ellie and many of the supporting characters feel surprisingly like real people, with their own problems and ambitions, instead of random stereotypes. This is storytelling at its absolute, unequivocal best.

Of course, when it comes to telling a compelling, believable story, it never hurts to have the best voice actors in the industry, and The Last of Us most definitely does. The amazing cast led by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson deliver Oscar-worthy performances across the board, and help make this a truly unforgettable experience.

And last but certainly not least, there’s the wonderful Left Behind, a roughly 3-hour-long DLC that was released about a year after the main game. Left Behind helped bridge a particular gap in the story of the main game, and also gave us a lot more insight into Ellie as a character. It not only further developed the story of The Last of Us, but it also gave us the opportunity to spend a few more precious hours in the company of these characters we’ve come to know so well. In my mind, it is quite possibly the best DLC ever, and it’s only fitting that it would put one heck of a finishing touch on such a remarkable game.

The Last of Us will always be remembered as an excellent game, perhaps the crowning achievement of the previous generation of consoles. To me, however, it will go down as one of the most compelling and emotional stories I’ve ever experienced, and one of the most polished and inspired pieces of creative work I’ve ever seen.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the week’s most interesting pieces of writing.

Top Five: The Panic sign, China’s twilight, Apple and podcasting, colorizing vintage photos, and being a whistleblower

As usual, this week’s selection is strong, and varied. In no particular order:

The Panic Sign | Cabel Sasser →

Panic put up a new sign on their headquarters, and it went exactly as you’d expect. Brilliant.

China’s Twilight Years | Howard W. French →

This was an interesting take on the social and economic issues that China is likely to face in the future. Some scary stuff in there, definitely.

Apple’s actual role in podcasting: be careful what you wish for | Marco Arment →

Marco shared his take on the recent rumors that Apple may be getting more closely involved with podcasting in the future. Lots of good points here, although Marco is definitely an interested party, so take them with a grain of salt. So am I, for that matter.

10 colorized vintage photos of famous landmarks being built | Michael Zhang →

Your weird and oddly mesmerizing photography project of the week.

Inside the Assassination Complex | Edward Snowden →

Terrific piece by Edward Snowden on what being a whistleblower is really like:

One of the challenges of being a whistleblower is living with the knowledge that people continue to sit, just as you did, at those desks, in that unit, throughout the agency, who see what you saw and comply in silence, without resistance or complaint. They learn to live not just with untruths but with unnecessary untruths, dangerous untruths, corrosive untruths. It is a double tragedy: What begins as a survival strategy ends with the compromise of the human being it sought to preserve and the diminishing of the democracy meant to justify the sacrifice.


It’s been an interesting week. I’d love to stay and write a proper farewell, but I’m afraid I left Nate hanging from a particularly steep cliff, so I’m just going to head back now and give him a hand.

Have a wonderful Sunday, and thank you for reading.

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An interview with Julie Delpy →

May 12, 2016 |

Nice interview with one of my favorite actresses over at The Talks, from 2012:

It’s a weird obsession that I find very sad, because I think it’s okay to age. Who cares if you get older? It’s not such a big deal. I’m not very attached to my looks either. I know it’s weird because as an actress I should care, but I don’t. I’ve never done Botox - I don’t want to do it, it terrifies me. Maybe people think that I am crazy for not doing Botox, but I don’t care. It’s a form of insecurity. I think Botox is a form of madness. Some people will say it’s great, but I think it’s a form of neurosis, of sickness. It’s the same kind of obsession as people who throw up to stay skinny. People shouldn’t be so obsessed with their appearance; they should care about who they are.

Solid point, although comparing Botox with “throwing up to stay skinny” is a huge oversimplification and, frankly, quite tone-deaf.

That said, it is a testament to my fascination with Julie Delpy that she can get away with calling Forrest Gump “a stupid film”, and somehow I still like her.

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Candid, Episode #13: Hanging Out With Dan Hawk →

May 11, 2016 |

This week on the show we had our first ever guest: Mr. Dan Hawk.

Among other things, we go over a very interesting article by Drew Coffman, we chat about the basic elements of photography and getting to know your way around a camera, and then we take on the whole digital imitating film trend in recent cameras. After that, there’s a bit of friendly banter about camera bags and my own review of the leather Brixton, and then we all drool over Dan’s RX1R for a while.

Nothing to fear, really, unless you’re currently going through a bout of GAS. If that’s the case, stay away from this one. You’ve been warned.

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Captain Europe →

May 11, 2016 |

Ok, this was fun. What if all European countries had their own Captain America? Well, they would probably look like this:

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Uncharted 4 is the best (and possibly last) game of its kind →

May 10, 2016 |

Chris Plante makes an astute observation about Uncharted 4:

Uncharted 4 as a work of film is good, great even, and no less modern in tone and structure than what’s playing on television, let alone at a movie theater. And its minimalistic gameplay, early on, is just enough to keep the player engaged without distracting them from dialogue, which does the heavy lifting of playing catch-up on a story roughly 27 hours in. Were it a film, Uncharted 4 could make a handsome sum in royalties for the number of times it will undoubtedly appear at Hollywood conferences and summits, where it will be picked apart for lessons on how to create the future of interactive cinema.

And later:

In Uncharted 4, the series’ new directors, Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, have done what David O. Russell originally sought out to do. Their Uncharted is respectful to the core themes of franchise, but rather than design a game that people would want to play and replay, they produced something that will be watched and re-watched. Druckmann and Straley made a fantastic Uncharted movie, and, in some perverse fashion, the first great film adapted from the world of games. That it arrives in an era of Twitch, where watching others play video games online is nearly as common, Uncharted, intentionally or not, has finally, and cosmically, aligned with industry trends.

There’s no doubt the games in the Uncharted series are cinematic experiences just as much as they are gaming experiences. That said, I don’t think this creative trend is going to end anytime soon.

Uncharted 4 was released today, and it’s probably going to be the gaming industry’s best and most ambitious effort to date. This is the experience that will define the next generation of games. If you still haven’t got a copy, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.

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Candid, Episode #12: The Perfect Compact Camera →

May 05, 2016 |

This week we got into an argument over the new Leica M-D, and then we tried to figure out what the perfect compact camera would look like. It was an interesting conversation, and I hope some camera designers out there — ahem, Sony — are listening.

However, about halfway through the episode, my audio interface helpfully decided to give up and stop working. I’m not sure whether the problem was caused by Skype, Audacity, OS X, the hardware interface itself, or a combination of some or all of these factors, but the fact remains, for about half of this episode, I sound like crap. Sorry about that.

We tried to find a solution for the issue during our recording session, but unfortunately we didn’t quite manage to fix it. As a result, the rest of the episode was inadvertently recorded using my iMac’s built-in microphone — you know, the one thing every serious podcaster tells you to never use. So if I sound to you like I’ve been possessed by a terribly hoarse demon, now you know why.

The good news is, after the fact we managed to find an alternative recording workflow that allowed me to reclaim my voice, so any upcoming episodes should be back to normal — or as normal as Candid episodes have been in the past.

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My review of the leather Brixton camera bag by ONA was published today on Tools & Toys. It’s been a while since my last review, and it’s nice to be back.

If you listen to Candid, you may know I’ve had a love-hate-love relationship with this bag. On one hand, it’s clearly the best-looking and best-made bag I’ve ever seen or owned. On the other hand, though, it’s too heavy to be used comfortably as a walkaround bag, which was one of the primary uses I had in mind for it when I bought it.

Aside from the customary overview of materials, build quality, compartments and so on, this review focuses specifically on what it’s like to live with this bag, and the tradeoffs you need to accept in order to enjoy it. These are things you definitely should consider before buying the leather Brixton, and I was a bit surprised to see that most reviews out there barely account for them. Hopefully I managed to shine some much-needed light on that aspect.

I’m definitely glad I bought the Brixton — it’s hands down the best bag I’ve ever owned — but it appears my search for the perfect bag isn’t yet finished. That’s OK though, after all, half the fun is in the search itself.

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Bad design: on the ISO dial of the new Leica M-D

April 29, 2016

The latest member of the Leica family was unveiled this week, and it’s been making the rounds all over the Internet on account of its unique design philosophy. What can you say about a $6,000 camera that doesn’t have an LCD display, doesn’t shoot video, and doesn’t even shoot JPEGs? Lots of things, apparently.

The Leica M-D is supposed to be all about the process, and going back to “the sheer essentials of photography”. Simplicity. Photography in its purest form. Those are Leica’s own words, mind you.

The Leica M-D has an ISO dial where its LCD should be. Image source: Leica.

Simplicity is always a compelling marketing message, and I’ll be the first to admit that on paper, the M-D sounds great — or it would if not for that ludicrous price tag. However, cool concepts not always translate well into physical products, and the new Leica M-D seems to be the new poster child for this unfortunate problem.

The biggest issue with the Leica M-D — there are lots, but this one is particularly aggravating — is the new ISO dial. For context, here’s what Josh Ginter had to say about it:

Aside from the fact this entire camera looks to be, at best, a joke, and at worst, an insult, I can’t get past the positioning of the ISO dial. Are you supposed to reach over there with your thumb when your eye is to the viewfinder? Or are you supposed to set ISO before composing?

I couldn’t agree more with his overall assessment of the camera, but there’s a very good reason the ISO dial caught his eye: it doesn’t make sense.

The ISO dial on the new Leica M-D harkens back to the ASA dials on classic film Leicas.1 This will be instantly recognizable to any Leica enthusiast, and it ensures consistency in Leica’s design language. It also looks really cool. However, there’s a fundamental difference between those old ASA dials and the one on the M-D, and that’s where the whole thing breaks down.

The ASA dial on the back of a classic Leica M3 film camera. Image source: Rama.

Classic film Leicas, like the legendary M3, were fully manual cameras that didn’t even have built-in light meters. On those cameras, the ASA dial didn’t actually do anything; it merely displayed information for the user. It served as a reminder of the particular film stock that was loaded into the camera, so that if you didn’t finish a roll one day and went back to shoot days, weeks or even months later, you could still pick up right where you left off.

Different film stocks have different sensitivities to light — also called speeds — so you need to know what kind of film is inside the camera in order to adjust your aperture and shutter speed. Those old ASA dials were, simply put, a commodity feature, no different from writing that same information down on a piece of paper.

Since light sensitivity is a property of the film itself, you’re effectively setting your ASA by choosing to use one particular film stock over another, and so there’s nothing more to set on the camera. Practically speaking, your ASA will remain constant until you finish the roll and change to a different film stock.2

These intrinsic properties of film and the constraints they place on the photographic process informed the design of the ASA dial decades ago: it needed to be prominently displayed and easy to see at a glance, but there was no need for it to be particularly comfortable to adjust since users would only set it occasionally, whenever they changed film rolls. With that in mind, the placement of the dial on the back plate of the camera was ideal: away from the main exposure controls so as to avoid changing it accidentally, but right in your face so that you’d see it every time you lifted the camera up to your face to shoot. It was a brilliant design.

The ISO dial on the new M-D, however, is nothing of the sort. Modern ISO dials need to be easy and convenient to adjust, because with digital photography you typically need to change the ISO a lot more frequently. The requirements for this dial have changed completely, and unfortunately the classic ASA design translates very poorly to modern digital photography.

This brings us to a sad realization: the Leica M-D isn’t a modern camera designed with simplicity in mind, but merely a poor attempt at replicating the look of the classic film Leicas of old, with little regard for how that design works with today’s technology. This isn’t good design by any reasonable definition of the word, and it certainly isn’t SWEET. It’s just lazy, and that worries me. Leica seems to be a company without a clear vision these days, and the M-D strikes me as yet another warning sign that the company has lost its way.

This isn’t a trivial thing to solve, either. Leica’s main problem is that the very values that once made it a timeless brand are at odds with the disposable nature of digital technology. That’s a very tough mountain to climb. What does the word Leica mean in the digital age? We still don’t really know, but I certainly hope the M-D isn’t it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Leica, and I hope they can reinvent themselves and find a way to help shape the future of photography, just like they did in the past. They are one of the truly historic names in photography, and the world is better off with them healthy and thriving. However, I suspect it’s going to take a lot more than a repackaged film camera to do that.

It’s hard to move forward when you’re shackled to a brilliant, successful past. It takes courage to break free of that legacy and venture into unknown territory, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do. If I were a betting man, I’d say the future of Leica looks a lot more like the SL than the M-D. I may not like it, but that’s what my gut tells me.

Whether Leica has the courage to look forward and let go of their past, we still don’t know. In any case, I suspect it won’t be long before we find out.

  1. ASA is a parameter that describes each film stock’s sensitivity to light, and is analogous to the concept of ISO in the digital realm.

  2. It’s worth pointing out that later film Leicas, like the M6, did incorporate built-in light meters, and in those models the ASA dial was used to calibrate the meter properly. However, you still only needed to set the ASA once per roll of film, so the original design still worked nicely.

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Candid, Episode #11: The Most Expensive Advice in the World →

April 28, 2016 |

This week’s episode was packed with interesting stuff. First up we answer an excellent listener question about safety when traveling with photography gear. It’s a very important issue and potentially a very expensive problem if your equipment gets stolen during a trip, so we all share the different techniques we use to protect both our pictures and our gear, and minimize the risk of becoming a theft victim.

Then Josh briefly talks about his new MacBook and shares his first impressions of the new Sony 85mm f/1.4 GM lens, but the conversation quickly flows into a deeper discussion on the ethics of product reviews, trust, and bias. I have some strong feelings on this matter, as I’ve mentioned here before, so this was a great opportunity to explore them.

As product reviewers ourselves, we may have a different perspective on this issue than the general consumer, so hopefully our insights and concerns will help raise awareness of some of the existing problems with honesty in product reviews these days.

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