Sam Johnstone's digital workspace.

A place to put new work, design writing and links for posterity.


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Don’t Flinch, Don’t Foul, and Hit the Line Hard.

Writing — August 2019

This week David Berman – poet, musician, primary member of Silver Jews – passed away. And while I typically go out of my way to not make an event about how any celebrity tragedy impacts my life (because, obviously, it isn’t about me), his writing and music has had an enormous impact on me, and his thoughtfulness towards his art has been a source of great inspiration for me.

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Reading Journal 2016

Writing — December 2016

Every Year I publish a list of the books that I read throughout the year. Last year I was disheartened by the state of the digital reading industry (is that even something?), and I think it had a real effect on how and what I read this year. I split the year reading technical books, books on dharma, and fiction, but didn’t necessarily find standout works to excite me as I have in past years. I reintroduced the Kindle hardware to my reading practice, having spent the previous year reading exclusively on my phone, which enhanced the emotional aspect of reading, but actually caused me to read less. As it turns out, the best book is the one you have with you. Nonetheless I plan to keep reading on the Kindle. My enthusiasm for eInk as a technology keeps me believing in the product, despite the fact that the digital reading landscape is less competitive now than it was five years ago. I’m still looking for the type of product or service to take the place of Readmill, or to even convince me in any way that there are people outside Amazon and Kobo that still believe that reading technology has a place in the world. I’ve highlighted the books that struck a chord with me, and already have a stack of (ePub) books waiting for me in 2017.

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Artwork in the Age of Data-Driven Design

Writing — October 2016

I spend much of my video-watching hours on either YouTube or Netflix. Or, I think I do anyways. I missed the wave of YouTube becoming a dominant cultural platform, and as a result, I still feel awash with confusion whenever I go to the homepage. The interface is more or less fine–staid, you could call it–but the content itself usually presents itself as somewhere between somewhat off-putting and visually baffling. It’s not always the case, but it often times is.

I don’t consider myself too old or out of touch with the inherent culture of YouTube necessarily (though this article may itself prove that I am), and I don’t believe that the culture of YouTube in itself is specific or introspective enough to validate these specific anti-aesthetic decisions. What I mean is, I don’t think that the typical (forgive the generalizations, I could be very wrong about all this) content generators of YouTube are visually sophisticated enough to consciously decide to make something unpleasant in place of what otherwise would be visually pleasing for their existing audience. That the bombastic nature of their graphic design is not driven by the same unifying ethos as the equivalent would be in a punk scene, despite similarly effective visual results. That it is neither aesthetically, nor ideologically driven. My completely uninformed speculation is that they–given that they all have access to sophisticated analytical tools–are purely responding to the data they have in hand. That loud imagery beats out quiet, and big messaging overshadows modest.

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Three Newsletters

Writing — June 2016

In 2015 it seemed like the idea of newsletters as a writer’s distribution was coming back in a mean way. I was constantly being turned towards really interesting daily or weekly snippets that I could herd into my inbox. It was a cool idea. It felt like bloggers had abandoned their fortified homesteads and taken to the seas for a rocky, untethered adventure in the face of established distribution platforms like Medium and Facebook. But like anything that quickly swings into style, it quickly swung out of style, and with it went some newsletters that were simply too beautiful for this world (for posterity, I am referring to Matt Braga’s deep yet accessible security & technology newsletter The Dot Digest, and Robin Sloan’s wonderfully arrhythmic recommendation newsletter PRIMES). However many have still stuck with it, and every few days I’ll open up my inbox to find treasure mixed in with my receipts.

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Writing — December 2015

A few years ago I wrote a piece about the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi. The piece was about the production of the film, and the weird, cyberpunk, multimedia world that could have been. Spirits Within was a part of the first wave of entirely computer generated feature films, and possibly the first to attempt photorealism. The entire film rendered out over 15 terabytes of data (in 2001 keep in mind), and took a cumulative 120 years of production time, split amongst the staff of 200. The aim was to create a world indistinguishable from our own, inhabited by characters that could be brought to life in a way no artificially created character had ever been in the past. The goal was to have the characters, particularly the protagonist Dr. Aki Ross, to have a life outside the film, and be “cast” in future computer generated films, or even alongside actual actors in live action. The film flopped, and any hopes of this extension of the characters or set were squashed.

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Reading Journal 2015

Writing — December 2015

This year felt like an off year for me when it came to reading. I’ve long been an evangelist for electronic reading, and every year for the last half a decade or so has given me reason to continue my excitement until this one. Blloon, an alternative to Kindle Unlimited, has not been successful in creating a sustainable business out of eBook subscriptions and has  entered a period of ‘refuelling’, Oyster, the beautiful spiritual successor to Readmill has been absorbed into Google Play,  and the downward trend of eBook sales in favour of their physical counterparts continues to chug logarithmically along. It seems like the only players left in the game are Amazon, Apple and Google, and that’s never a position anyone likes a market to be in. What is a die-hard .epub fan to do? I am holding out hope for a technology that acts as more of a mediator than a content provider, so that the terrible economics of licensing content do not have to interfere with the technology through which we access that content (Rdio listeners will share that sentiment). That being said, I did read many books this year that I really enjoyed, and as a habitual list-taker, I’ve included them all in the list below for posterity. I’ve highlighted the books that I’d really recommend.

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Our Butcher Year

Writing — February 2015

I’ve been thinking a lot more about editing than I ever have before. That’s largely because of Tony Zhou, and his video series Every Frame a Painting. If you haven’t seen them, they are short (5~10m) videos where he dissects a particular filmmakers specific hallmarks. Whether it’s the use of the lateral tracking shot in animated features, or how Michael Bay uses parallax, he’s slowly teaching a virgin public about the unseen details of constructing a visual narrative. I’m tempted to think of it as the cinematic equivalent of Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’. Here are two of my favourites:

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Reading Journal 2014

Writing — December 2014

A list I feel much better about is that of the books I’ve read this year. By far the stand-out of the bunch is Underground by Haruki Murakami. It’s unlike many Murakami books in that it is non-fiction, and not about a benign 30-something man with an underplayed talent who has to leave Tokyo to find a woman who in a previous time of his life was once meaningful and he now must return to. It’s amazing how many times he can write one story. Underground however is a staggeringly beautiful account of the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Subway by the Aum Shinrikyo on March 20th, 1995. The interviews are thoughtful, deep, human, and on a few occasions brought me to tears. It took me over a month to finish this book and I can’t wait until enough time has passed to read it again.

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