Coronavirus cancellations show evidence-based decisions are rare during epidemics


Giant corporations, governments, and individuals are all making decisions that they hope will reduce the risk of spreading the new coronavirus — but not all of those tough calls are solely based on the latest health information. The factors that led people to enact two-week travel restrictions, or stock up on face masks, or cancel the Mobile World Congress are far more complex, and are based just as much on what scientists don’t know as what they do know.

Reactions to public health problems are mediated by more than just public health evidence or recommendations from public health experts. “It also depends on what other social and cultural influences are out there,” says Megan Jehn, who studies global health in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. “It depends on how different choices are framed or structured. The bottom line is, people are not making decisions based on empirical data.”

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. But at this point, the virus does not appear to be spreading widely in any countries other than China, which has the vast majority of cases. The WHO has not recommended that any groups cancel gatherings or meetings outside of China. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to reiterate during press calls that face masks aren’t recommended. But cancellations and closings are piling up just as fast as face masks are flying off the shelves.

People make choices during epidemics based on how much risk they think the disease poses. The trouble is that there’s usually a significant difference between how the risk appears and the actual risk that they face. That perceived risk is influenced by a handful of factors, including the size of the threat, the types of information that they’re collecting on the threat, and the types of actions that other people are taking.

The threat posed by the new coronavirus is still unknown, which makes it seem more frightening than it actually might be. “That unknown risk makes it seem riskier,” says Gretchen Chapman, professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. “Imagine you had two diseases that both had a three percent mortality rate, but one rate was ambiguous and could change, and the other was really certain. The one that had ambiguity would seem scarier.”

Information travels differently now than it did during epidemic outbreaks before the internet, and people seek out and believe disease information differently than they used to, says David Abramson, an associate professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. He says it’s much easier for misleading, inflammatory, or false information about this virus to take hold — like the dozens of conspiracy theories blossoming on social media. That, too, changes what people think about their risk from the coronavirus.

One key piece of information, though, is what people see their peers and those around them doing, Abramson says. “It’s often a predictor of what you will do,” he says. “If you’re walking down the street, and half of the people are wearing masks, you think, ‘should I be doing the same thing?’”

When companies, organizations, and governments are weighing their responses to disease outbreaks, their perceptions of risk are also influenced by politics and economics. Groups making decisions consider the appearances of actions, how accountable they would be if something bad happened, and the impact on their reputation that could cause. They also take external pressures into account: for example, multiple high-profile companies, like LG and Sony, backed out of appearances at the Mobile World Congress before the event was formally canceled.

The relative contribution of those factors to the decision-making process, compared with the weight of public health recommendations, depends on the specifics of each situation, Chapman says. “Maybe, on average, it makes people more aggressive in terms of taking action,” she says.

If the Mobile World Congress had gone on as planned, Abramson says it probably wouldn’t have put attendees’ health at increased risk, if precautions were taken — it was set to take place in Spain, which doesn’t have active spread of the virus. “They were being cautious and probably overreacting at the same time,” Abramson says.

The overreaction led to a decision that is based on recognized public health practices. Isolating people from each other and canceling mass gatherings can help to prevent the spread of active disease. But it’s only effective if there’s enough disease for it to be warranted, and only to a limit: for example, even though China shut down cities affected by the virus, it may have been too late to stop the spread by the time they put those measures in place. “Depending on how prevalent the disease is, it could be easy to over-apply these actions,” Chapman says.

Continued actions that aren’t in line with public health recommendations, like the ongoing travel restrictions, which the World Health Organization has objected to, might be done for other reasons if a group thinks that it is in harm’s way. “They could be doing it for other reasons, like to control panic,” Jehn says — and may see keeping their customers or attendees or citizens calm as an even more important goal.

The gap between how people perceive the risk of the coronavirus and how at risk they actually are will stick around until scientists learn more about what the actual risk is, and how well they can communicate it, she says. “And we still really don’t know how that will happen.”

Narcos: Mexico review: a show for people who want the drug war to last forever


Narcos started as a show about Pablo Escobar, a real-life gangster who outdid even the most outrageous fictional ones. The show built a compelling two-season crime thriller around his astonishing life and death. But while Escobar died, Narcos — a hit that premiered in 2015, when Netflix was rapidly building its streaming empire — needed to go on. A third season followed another Colombian cartel. Then a spinoff, Narcos: Mexico, tracked a parallel cartel in Central America. The first season detailed its rise; the second chronicles its fall. If there was any point to all this, it’s become hard to keep track of. The show is too busy following the cocaine.

Narcos: Mexico is the story of Mexico’s first drug kingpin, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna). The 10 episodes that premiere this week detail the dramatic implosion of Gallardo’s empire, a collapse that makes for extremely bingeable television. Yet, despite the thrilling spectacle, exhaustion seeps in. Even though it aims at being something more, Narcos: Mexico doesn’t seem to have ambitions far beyond those of the criminals it follows, pushing more product.

The second season of Narcos: Mexico wants to make a point about consequences, at least on a surface level. The collapse of Gallardo’s empire stems directly from brash actions taken during his ascent — most directly, the murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), which sends agent Walt Breslin on a reckless mission of retribution. There are also bridges burned along the way, friendships set ablaze to use as fuel for ambition that leave many eager to see Gallardo out of power.

Throughout, Narcos occasionally makes overtures at the grander significance of the story it’s telling. Across 10 episodes, Gallardo’s desperate maneuvers to retain control of his business and stick it to those who have slighted him have consequences that reverberate beyond the criminal underworld, ultimately resulting in a rigged presidential election. “Sound familiar?” the show’s narrator winks.

There is a long series of assumptions in this, ideas that have been present in Narcos from the start, even as it occasionally paid lip service to their subversion: that Central and South American nations are lawless playgrounds for the corrupt, where prosperity can only be seized by crooks and violence reigns. Every now and then Narcos does its diligence to complicate this picture, almost entirely via narration: a tossed off line that notes the Mexican and Colombian drug trades exist wholly to serve the appetites of the wealthy in the US and Europe, or another about the fundamentally destabilizing influence of the United States’ foreign policy that created problems in exchange for the glow up of “solving” them.

The actual moral universe of the show is far simpler: dope dealers deserve whatever’s coming to them, the bad guys often win, and the good guys should be able to do whatever it takes to stop them.

Narcos can’t truly complicate itself any further because doing so would acknowledge that all these stories are the same story, and in telling them, the show becomes complicit. Midway through the first season of Narcos: Mexico, Gallardo (Diego Luna) leaves his native country for a secret meeting in South America. In a moment that’s designed to be a big surprise for longtime Narcos fans, Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) is waiting for him.

“I’ve always sort of seen this as of the Marvel superhero universe of connecting narcotraffickers, and that they all coexist,” showrunner Eric Newman told The Hollywood Reporter not long after the season premiered in 2018. It’s a crass way of describing the dynamics at play in these stories of cartels and corruption, but also a very American one. The gringos, as the Mexicans doing the dirty work for the cartel bosses say, always want more. And what better expression of “more” is there than the excesses of the modern cinematic universe?

This is how Narcos has carried on, and how it will carry on if it continues its run. Just as Narcos: Mexico harkened back to Narcos with a well-deployed Escobar cameo depicting a meeting that likely never happened in the real world, the show continues to hint at the ways it will sprawl outward and continue telling these kinds of stories now that it has exhausted the drama of Gallardo’s Federation. It’s not subtle about it either, making sure in its first season that you know Gallardo’s driver Joaquín Guzmán goes by “Chapo” and spending a considerable amount of time this season laying the groundwork for rivalries that he will carry into the future, for what will be one of the most prolonged conflicts in the history of Mexico’s drug war.

You could tell this story indefinitely, because it is still being told today, with every story of a white person enraged at the sound of Spanish being spoken, with every ICE raid, with every chant for the wall. Cartel dramas like Narcos are fairy tales for a nation in decline, flattening diverse and complicated countries for the benefit of a nation that refuses to acknowledge the havoc it has wreaked on the world.

Podcasters want an awards show, so they’re trying to start one


The film industry has the Oscars, and the music industry has the Grammys, so the podcast industry wants its own awards show. A group of industry leaders spanning networks, including from Spotify, NPR, Wondery, and Sony Music, announced today that they plan to launch a new awards show: the Golden Mics. The group has also formed the Podcast Academy, a membership-driven not-for-profit organization whose members will vote on Golden Mics winners. The group says it’ll start accepting applications this spring, and the first show will be in Los Angeles next year.

As more companies invest in their own shows, particularly long-form narrative programming, creators want recognition for their work — understandably. A podcast awards show makes sense, although it might provide creators with a bragging point more than outsized attention. Technically, a podcast awards show already exists: iHeartRadio launched its own awards show in 2019 as a way to honor quality shows, but people in the industry found it fishy that the network nominated its own shows for awards and subsequently won them. These new awards are clearly a rejection of that idea, and no one from iHeart is a Podcast Academy founding member.

But a new awards show launch doesn’t mean people will automatically care or respect them. The Oscars, Grammys, and Golden Globes are well-known (and, in the Oscars’ case, nearly 100 years old). Audiences already revere them. Plus, they come with the spectacle of well-known celebrity hosts and musical acts.

The podcasting industry is different. There aren’t many well-known names that could draw a crowd, and unlike music, film, or TV, most publications don’t employ official podcast reviewers. The press machine isn’t well-oiled for podcast coverage. Discovering shows can be difficult, too, without many tastemakers in the space.

The Golden Mics could be an opportunity to call attention to the best of audio, or it might end up just giving shows a chance to send out a press release in the hopes that people pay attention. Starting an awards show is a first step to bringing more prestige and press to the industry, but the rest of the media machine has to work in tandem for the awards to grab more of people’s time and respect.

GameSnacks are Google’s new HTML5 games designed for bad internet connections


Smartphones are becoming even more powerful gaming machines as time goes on, with the latest devices capable of pushing some incredible graphics on a pocket-sized device. But what if you’ve got an old or budget device that doesn’t have the huge amounts of processing power or RAM? Well, Google’s hoping the answer is GameSnacks — the latest project from its Area 120 incubator — a series of lightweight HTML5-based browser games that are meant to be easy to load and play on nearly any device.

According to Google’s announcement, GameSnacks games are designed to load “within a few seconds” even in network conditions as poor as 1Mbps (typical 3G speeds), and play smoothly with as little as 1GB of RAM. Since the games are entirely HTML5-based, they’ll work equally well in a web browser, on a tablet, or on a smartphone.

The GameSnack games themselves are short, simple affairs, including a skiing game, a Spy Hunter-esque shoot ‘em up, and a jewel-themed matching game that definitely isn’t Bejeweled. Are they the greatest games in the world? Probably not, but they’re free, they’re fast to load, and they’re probably good for a quick diversion in a pinch. And some of them, like the minimalist Tower, are interesting diversions that could have a life as an actual downloadable game in another world.

Whether Google continues to expand GameSnacks is unclear, but the company’s announcement post does mention a partnership with Gojek (a southeast Asian technology platform) and its GoGames app. Google’s post also makes a point of mentioning that the games lend themselves naturally to being embedded into an existing app, for quick games — or playable advertisements — that could be customized for a particular brand.

HBO Max’s first ad wants to remind you how much it owns


Whether your favorite show is Friends, you’re in love with Wonder Woman, or simply want to binge South Park for a few weeks, the first commercial for HBO Max is a reminder that you can only do so in one spot.

It’s a not so subtle reminder that AT&T’s WarnerMedia has spent the last 18 months spending billions of dollars on some of the most popular IP in entertainment to draw subscribers away from Netflix and Hulu, and over to HBO Max. The commercial opens with Friends, then Big Bang Theory, (shows whose rights AT&T spent hundreds of millions of dollars on) then Wonder Woman, and The Lego Movie. There’s a spot for The Matrix and South Park — not to mention highlights from popular shows from HBO, the strongest network HBO Max is relying on as it builds its own library of content. Notice that Harry Potter, easily one of WarnerMedia’s biggest franchises, isn’t in the cut. That’s because Harry Potter is licensed to NBCUniversal until 2025.

HBO Max’s new slogan seems to be, “Where HBO meets so much more.” The more, in this case, being classic movies from the Warner Bros. library, like Wizard of Oz. The point of the commercial is to remind people that HBO Max will be the first time all these shows (including HBO’s library) are on the same streaming service. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told investors at an event in 2019 that part of the marketing plan is to showcase how different HBO Max is from its competitors, noting, “This is not Netflix. This is not Disney. This is HBO Max.”

Eh. HBO Max is different in the sense that it has exclusive titles that won’t appear elsewhere, but Disney+, Netflix, and Hulu have that, too. The spot highlights how much IP it owns — like Disney did with its Disney+ marketing — but leaves out its classic titles. Warner Bros., like Disney, has a rich catalog of films spanning decades. That’s something Netflix and Hulu can’t offer exclusively because their studios are still relatively new. Although there are hints of classics (Casablanca makes an appearance), the majority of the focus is the big IP franchises it owns — and the titles WarnerMedia spent a ton of money on getting back.

Well, that makes sense. AT&T reported last month that its WarnerMedia division lost more than $1 billion in revenue due to investment in HBO Max. Those losses were specifically due to “HBO Max investments in the form of foregone WarnerMedia content licensing revenues.” AT&T took a massive hit in revenue by not licensing its original titles to competitors like Netflix and Hulu. Why would they? The goal is to bring its top IP over to HBO Max as exclusive offers to reel in new subscribers. AT&T is also planning to invest around $4 billion over the next few years into Max in order to compete with streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and Apple TV Plus.

Which leads us to the other thing missing from the commercial: we don’t get a look at the incoming slate of exclusive series and films being made specifically for HBO Max. WarnerMedia has launched an entire new studio to simply focus on making mid-budget movies for HBO Max, and there are a plethora of shows underway. Many of those shows, like a reboot of Gossip Girl, are currently in production. Others have just received orders, meaning there isn’t anything to show just yet. Expect more footage of those series and films closer to launch date.

HBO Max is set to launch in May for $14.99 a month. An ad-supported tier will reportedly launch in 2021. Existing HBO subscribers on AT&T (approximately 10 million) and HBO Now direct billing subscribers will get HBO Max for free. Customers who subscribe to AT&T’s premium video, mobile and broadband packages will be offered bundles at launch with HBO Max at no additional cost.

Australian dentist wants to know who wrote that negative Google review


An Australian court has ordered Google to identify an anonymous user who gave a negative review to a Melbourne dental surgeon, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports. Dr. Matthew Kabbabe says a reviewer’s comment posted about three months ago urged others to “stay away” from his practice, which damaged his business.

Under the judge’s ruling, Google has to turn over any identifying details including location metadata and IP addresses for the user who posted under the name “CBsm 23.” It also has to provide information about other Google accounts originating from the same IP address during the same time span. Google had refused a request from Kabbabe in November to take down the negative review, and a request earlier this month to identify the user, according to Kabbabe’s attorney Mark Stanarevic. He says Google told his client it did not “have any means to investigate where and when the ID was created.”

Kabbabe wants to use any information gathered to pursue legal action against CBsm 23, Stanarevic told Australian publication The Age. “We want to find out who this is; it could be a competitor or former employee, we just don’t know,” he said.

In the US, the Consumer Review Fairness Act, signed into law in 2016 by President Obama, prohibits companies from writing gag clauses into contracts or terms of service that limit a customer from sharing bad reviews. But as Engadget notes, that law may not apply to defamatory comments, and US companies are required under the Hague Convention to provide information when requested by foreign courts.

In Australia, courts can force removal of some online content under its defamation laws, and while large corporations can’t sue under those laws, small businesses and nonprofits can. In order to sue someone for a bad review under Australia’s anti-defamation laws, the review or comment has to mention the person either directly or indirectly.

Ousted WeWork founder Adam Neumann lists his Manhattan penthouse for $37.5 million


The last chapter of the WeWork saga closed with our hero — its founder, Adam Neumann — being ousted from his company (with a payout of $1.7 billion) and loosed upon the world. Its next chapter opened with a question: is the business sustainable? The answer is still unclear. Employees across WeWork are organizing in the face of massive potential layoffs, as the company began to divest itself of its “non-core” business; they couldn’t get T-Mobile chief John Legere as their new CEO. In the midst of all this wreckage, which is slowly burning out, we’ve had a few Neumann sightings of our own. He was last seen jetting off to Israel two days before Christmas.

Neumann, however, has recently resurfaced. As The Real Deal reports, the former executive just listed his six-bedroom triplex penthouse in Manhattan for $37.5 million, which is a couple million more than he paid for it in 2017. Because our protagonist is a legitimate billionaire, this doesn’t matter so much; he’s got properties from the Bay to the Hamptons.

Though, as it turns out, money can’t buy everything. As The New York Post reported last year, it seems Neumann is having some trouble finding a new place to live: the public reports of his weird behavior as WeWork’s CEO have gotten him “need not apply” status in some of the most exclusive buildings in Manhattan.

The story isn’t over for our hero, of course. Will Neumann be able to find a place to live on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan? Will he flip his luxe penthouse triplex and finally make some of his own money in real estate? There’s only one way to find out.

Civilized Cycles is an electric bike full of surprises


The first thing you notice about Civilized Cycles’ first electric bike are those enormous, fully integrated panniers on the rear rack. They’re impossible to miss: massive, dual saddle bags encased in a seemingly tough carbon fiber shell. You could carry a whole load of groceries in those things, while also transporting a passenger (or two) on the padded rear rack. But this is not a cargo bike. It’s something else.

One of the things that excite me the most about e-bikes is the experimentation with form factors: mini-bikes that look like motorcycles, freight bikes that look like tiny trucks, fat tire bikes with a ton of power and maybe an automotive badge.

Civilized Cycles’ first e-bike has the functionality of a cargo bike inside the frame of a Dutch cruiser. The company’s founder Zachary Schieffelin says he first began thinking of designing his own e-bike while running the Vespa dealership in the tony Soho neighborhood in Manhattan. Even then, he knew that he needed to do something that “moves in the direction of cars.”

“People have expectations from cars,” Schieffelin says. “They expect them to be comfortable. They expect them to be able to carry a partner, a friend, or a child. They expect to be able to carry stuff. And they expect a totally familiar driving experience.”

This is a refrain I’m hearing from e-bike companies more and more: how do we design a bike with the right specs, a good amount of power, and enough versatility to lure people away from their cars. It’s a difficult proposition, especially in a country so desensitized to the ugly externalities of car ownership. Civilized Cycles is the latest to try to knock some sense into us.

The company’s first bike is called the Model 1 (shades of Elon Musk!), and it has a lot of interesting features that I’ll get to in a minute. But first Schieffelin has an interesting analogy that describes how he approached designing a bike that strives to be both unique and familiar at the same time.

“How do we make something that’s just easy and delightful? Kind of like how the iPod shifted things from the Zune, right,” he says. “I feel like most e-bikes are kind of in the Zune phase right now. They’re built by technologists, or by super bike enthusiasts, who have completely gotten themselves accustomed to all the compromises that come from the regular pedal bike world.”

I’m not sure I entirely agree; there are a growing number of e-bikes that are approachable, delightful, and don’t require you to know the difference between a derailleur and a cassette. The Model 1 definitely falls into that category, as well. This is not a bike for spandex-wearing, weekend road warriors. It was designed to have cross-appeal with both urban dwellers looking for an easier way to get around than Uber or the subway and suburbanites who are looking for a way to reduce their car use, but still need space for passengers or cargo.

Schieffelin doesn’t come from the bike world; he’s a scooter guy, and that design influence comes through. Much like a Vespa or a Lambretta, the Model 1 has a generous step-through frame, which he thinks will greatly expand the bike’s appeal. It’s also about two inches shorter than your average long-tail cargo bike, meaning it can fit into an apartment building elevator, Schieffelin claims.

According to the spec sheet, the bike can carry a max weight of 400 pounds, rider included — which is just astounding. The bike itself clocks in at 75 pounds, which is not the heaviest e-bike I’ve encountered, but also nowhere near the lightest.

It’s got a high-torque, mid-drive motor that comes in three different types, depending on your locale: 350W, 500W, and 750W. The 10.5 amp-hour / 48 volt lithium-ion battery (or about 500Wh) is mounted inside the right rear pannier, with the option to add a second battery on the other side. It’s a unique placement for the battery, but I’m not entirely sure it’s easy or intuitive. Schieffelin argues it gives the frame a cleaner look, without a big battery mounted on the downtube.

One battery equals about 25 miles of range, while the addition of a second gives you (surprise!) double that amount. The panniers will eventually open automatically with the click of a button, but the preproduction version I got to test doesn’t have the functionality yet.

Schieffelin says he took some inspiration from a defunct e-bike design called the Stokemonkey that developed something of a cult following in the early aughts, despite being kind of dangerous. For his bike, Schieffelin mounted a hub motor in the frame, then used a chain to unify that power with the jack shaft that runs through the center of the rear suspension pivot. The result? A high-torque motor right off the line that’s more “economical” than your typical Bosch mid-drive. “So we think it’s kind of the best of both worlds solution,” he says.

Another thing that surprised me about this bike was the automatic dual suspension. Schieffelin knew that dual suspension would be a key ingredient for a bike built for more than one rider. Without it, “customers were going to take exactly one pothole shot to the ass, and they’d be like, ‘We’re done with this.’” But he also didn’t want to burden his customers with tuning and retuning the suspension every time they went for a ride. His solution was to integrate an air compressor in the bike with a level sensor that allows you to reset the pressure and air shock to match the weight that’s on the bike “in real time.”

I got to experience this feature in my short test of the Model 1, and it worked just as advertised. Holding down one of the buttons on the bike’s display triggers the rumbly air compressor, and presto: a perfectly aligned suspension.

There’s a lot more to come from Civilized Cycles, including an app that connects to the bike via Bluetooth and can detect service and repair needs as they arise, and Tesla-esque “over-the-air” software updates. But of course, the company needs to start shipping bikes, which it hasn’t done yet. Schieffelin says the first “Founders series” bikes will start shipping in the second quarter of 2020, after which the company will begin ramping up production — most likely in the fourth quarter of the year.

Like most good things, Civilized Cycles’ Model 1 won’t come cheap. Schieffelin says the bike will retail for $5,999, putting it in the upper, luxury tier of e-bikes. Founders edition bikes, of which there are about 15 available right now, will be supported with three years of complimentary routine service, two years of complimentary hardware and software upgrades, and one year of roadside assistance.

For that much money, anything less would be uncivilized.

Photography by Andrew Hawkins / The Verge

Perry Bible Fellowship’s Nicholas Gurewitch on making comics for the internet’s golden age


One of the internet’s most beloved webcomics is back in The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack’s 10th anniversary edition, featuring a new foreword from Michael Cera, undiscovered comics and sketches, and strips that have been reformatted to read like they would on a phone screen. Nicholas Gurewitch’s book — a gorgeous collection of every PBF comic published between 2004 and 2007 — is a warm, nostalgic look back at the “internet’s golden age.” The book reflects the beauty of PBF, seamlessly matching hand-drawn artistry with subtle but devastating punchlines that reveal a heartbreaking truth about the world.

Since PBF, Gurewitch has shifted his focus to film and TV, and he published a Kickstarter book called Notes on a Case of Melancholia, Or: A Little Death that pays homage to Edward Gorey. The book and commissions promised to backers as rewards were delayed by a few years, due to the painstaking nature of making each page from individual scratchboards. (The documentary Notes on a Case of Nicholas Gurewitch, below, gives a good glimpse into why it took so long.) I spoke to Gurewitch about the Kickstarter process, how success can be like addiction, and the changing nature of webcomics in the age of Instagram.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Did you enjoy doing the Kickstarter?

Yeah, I signed on to it because I enjoyed the tactility [of the process], but I think I signed on for way too much.

How many pages was it?

It was 48, but I must have done like 200 slates.

Because you were redoing them?

I’m not proud of that experience.

So how did you feel about the overall experience?

I think Kickstarter to me was like a genie lamp. You get to make a wish, and your wish gets granted. But with such power comes complications. I found myself not burdened by the weight of expectations, but adjusting to expectations as they come about. And so I think I ended up in a scenario where I didn’t have a proper relationship with time.

One thing that’s probably missing from my life, ever since I’ve stopped doing the comic weekly, is deadlines. I sort of swore off deadlines because they seemed so hazardous to health. But in many ways, they’re helpful to mental health because you can be done with something. There’s so much power in the Kickstarter scenario because there’s so much trust, money, and time. If I were to do it again, I would just have to have some kind of stronger relationship with those things.

I tried to make myself feel a little better by thinking about George R.R. Martin. It sounds like time and expectation have crept into his process. I think it can be a confounding thing when you have that much power. Maybe creativity works in a way that relies on being powerless rather than being powerful.

You’re not the only person to have experienced this with Kickstarter. Projects get delayed all the time. I don’t feel like people might have been mad at you, unless you actually did get some angry emails.

I think when you enter into a relationship over the internet like that, there’s less of a sense of people waiting for you. But as I went through and started the delivery process and became acquainted with the names of everyone, I could see their name. I could look at photos of them, see their requests. I feel like I took a little more time than most people would to fulfill some of those special requests. I’m very proud of the commissions that I did for people. I guess I took that in mind when I was doing my job, to fulfill. I would tell myself that every day that I waited would be another uptick in quality, and I guess you can bargain with yourself that way.

How many commissions did you have to do?

I think it was 30 original drawings, but I had a great time doing it.

Now you can preorder the book on Amazon. Is that being released with a publisher?

Dark Horse. They agreed to do this book and [the Almanack] with the condition that we do another PBF collection before the end of the year.

Another collection on top of the Almanack?

Yeah, it’ll be the same size but with new material.

How’s that going?

It’s fun. I’ve convinced them to do the books on FSC paper, which is Forest Stewardship Council paper. It’s kind of harder to do because it costs more. But that was part of our negotiation. I also told them I would do the InDesign files, which is a lot of work, designing the book, but I find that fun. I learned how to do it for my Kickstarter book, and now I’m just accustomed to it. I laid out this whole book.

Why did you decide to publish a 10th anniversary edition?

It’s one of those things, like, I think they publish a new Harry Potter book every other year, but they need to do a new cover for it. It’s one of those money grabs. But it had been 10 years since the Almanack came out, so it was as good a reason as any to republish it.

I don’t know if the comics are still as good as they were because humor changes over the years.

I first discovered your comics on Something Awful. I was probably, like, 13.

That’s too young.

And I was like, “This is cool, edgy, internet.” But it was really original, like nothing I’ve ever seen on the internet before, and also really artistic at the same time.

Yeah, hopefully that enables artwork to outweigh its less considerate elements. If it’s thoughtful and considerate in one direction, maybe it can be inconsiderate in another. I’m not so sure about that. But I’ve heard people say that the comics objectify.

I see that sometimes. A lot of the ladies are drawn very boobily. But I feel like your body of work as a whole almost kind of exempts you from that.

There’s a lot of sex in your cartoons, and I know you used to draw comics for Playboy.

That’s probably pushed me a little bit.

Are any of those comics in here?

Playboy isn’t in here, but I was publishing in Maxim during the time I was making these, and it probably pushed things in that direction a little bit.

It’s funny how whatever publication you’re working with at the time can influence you and forces you to think about your output.

Yeah, and you think it might not matter if you have a corporate backer if you’re in politics. But at a certain level, it matters in politics, and it matters in art. Who’s paying your bills kind of pushes you in a certain direction.

On the topic of comics changing over the years, I found it interesting to see that it’s generally important for comics nowadays to be super specific. Like we need to know exactly what’s being said. The trend of labeling symbolic—

Are you talking about Shen?

Yeah, I really like his stuff.

He’s a cool guy! I feel like you guys would get along.

His ability to just boldly label something as something else is something I don’t think I can do. And it’s terrifically potent to be able to, like, label something, “my life.”

Image: Dark Horse Comics

So the comics in the Almanack are from 2004 to like 2008?

A lot of them in here are from 2001 to 2004 as well, the college comics, but I didn’t put them online until 2004.

As far as the internet’s concerned, these are like the 2004 to 2008 comics. But the fact is, I’d been doing them in college for quite some time as a newspaper comic.

Do you think labeling it as comics from that era is a strategy to get people nostalgic about the early internet days?

I did do that recently on a post. It’s easy to be nostalgic about those days.

Why did you feel the need to lay it out like you would see it on a phone?

We did a French edition of the Almanack a few years ago, and I really liked the way it looked. But there’s also the fact that it’s valuable to orient them this way as they’re seen on the internet because most phones scroll up and down.

But isn’t the point of a book the fact that it’s not on a screen, so you can lay it out however you want?

Right, I ultimately rationalized it because I was going to reformat them anyway to read online. So the book just collects them in that way.

After you stopped doing the comics regularly, it seemed like you were moving more toward film and TV.

I’ve been slow to move in that direction. But yeah, I’ve worked on a number of never-made TV shows. But moving in that direction has helped me develop the comic away from its earlier form.

Doing the 1,2,3,4 comic, they had the same exact structure every time. And since I’ve been doing them just for the internet, I found that my comics can sprawl and have so many more panels than normal, and do a lot of things that they used to not be able to do.

You joining Instagram was kind of a recent thing, right? Was there any kind of hesitation there?

I hadn’t had a smartphone until 2017.

What were you using before?

I had a little tiny thing. What do you call them? Tracfones? This [iPhone] is my 2017 purchase. It does the trick. I can post on Instagram.

Image: Dark Horse Comics

So after you got a smartphone, you joined Instagram. Do you think it’s helped with comics discovery at all?

It’s a little weird because I think I spurned Facebook at a time where it might have been extremely valuable for me to have Facebook, back in the mid-2000s. I think I was following some instinct, either to be cool or to just concentrate on doing my art, which was probably both stupid and smart.

I suppose I’m coming around to the idea that it’s really financially savvy to be able to connect with people through social media. But I do miss the days where you could have visitors to your website. The way you’d have visitors like back in the olden days, when someone would knock on the door and say, “Can I come in and enjoy what you have?” I take pride in the fact that I have a website that people can visit.

What do you think of the newer comics you see on Instagram?

I like the way webcomics are moving in some ways. I really like Nathan Pyle’s comic, and Alex Norris’ comic. They have a very similar color palette. I think I like this movement toward a gentler, sweeter, more forthright production. Maybe it’s the direction we’re going in because life is getting more scary. Sometimes I feel bad doing scary and sad comics nowadays because I’m like, “Holy shit, people probably get enough of this.”

I’m trying to think of your comics that are scary or sad, but none of them really leave me feeling bad. Maybe because the artwork is so beautifully done, it feels more just like a reflection of life.

I think you can say a lot of things if you manage to be presentable. Or in this case, pretty. Like if I make a comic really pretty, I can say something a little bit more savage.

It’s like a song with a really beautiful melody, but the lyrics are super dark and sad.

You can get away with it. And at a funeral, you can get away with being really mean to the person you’re eulogizing if you have a beautiful relationship with them. You can say the nastiest shit.

In your artist bio, it says you worked on “a number of never-televised TV shows.” Can you tell me a little bit about them?

A lot of them exist as scripts, and sometimes they get to the point where they are partially storyboarded or I’ve done rudimentary animatics. But I’m excited to do more in the production realm soon because I feel like that’s probably the way I need to evolve my ideas. A lot of PBF comics are dependent on really tiny, subtle details. And sometimes when I’m scripting, it’s not always easy to handle the details. So in the future, I’d like to be working with the details a little more. Every two years, I think I work on another TV show idea. And I think at exactly the same rate, networks realize that the idea is probably a little too weird.

Image: Dark Horse Comics

These are all animated shows, or are they live-action?

Animated, but I’d be happy to do anything live-action that I would do animated. It’d probably just take a little more work.

Were the shows related to PBF?

Some of them aren’t so related to PBF. I think that’s another one of my problems, sometimes the idea will just be off-the-wall, totally different.

Is that what networks want?

Yeah, I don’t really know what the people want. One of the ideas that we had some traction with Cartoon Network was called The Umbilicals. It was these fetuses inside the uteruses of their mothers who had, sort of, used the umbilical cord to drive them like mechs. So the moms would be the mechs. Yeah, it’s a pretty terrible idea.

No, it’s a great idea, but then what happened?

I think you can guess what happened.

So that was pitched as a whole series?

We basically just had a theme song and an intro figured out, for what would either be short-form or half-hour. But I’m kind of glad it never got produced because I don’t know how you sustain that for a whole half hour, despite the fact that we had written out scripts that claimed to do it. I don’t know if that was sustainable. In retrospect, it’s kind of embarrassing.

No, the idea is really good. But I just don’t know if that would have made for a long-running series with multiple episodes.

Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s funny because you made it.

I think it’s really funny, but I think that maybe it would have worked really well as one YouTube video, which sounds kind of horrible to say. But I feel like that’s the general state of media and internet humor now. It’s like, you have one good joke that makes for a funny video on Twitter or TikTok.

That disregards the massive galactic arc that we had figured out for the story.

I’m really sorry.

But I think you’re right. I think you’re absolutely right.

But then again, maybe it’s really funny to put a lot of work into something that doesn’t deserve it. Like if you can make a masterpiece out of trash, it suddenly becomes marvelous to look at.

I think it kind of speaks to how poisoned my mind has become because of the internet. I would love to be able to write a long-running narrative with an arc, but I’ve been so conditioned that I only know how to write short, funny jokes for comics.

It’s interesting to consider that whenever you’re doing something successfully, you are training yourself to do things that way. You’re hypnotizing yourself to do things a specific way, every time you experience success.

I think addiction forms the same way. Because you take those same pathways to pleasure enough times, and you’ve wired yourself. I’m guessing that, in some cases, successful people try to avoid being too successful, lest they wire themselves too strictly. But I can’t confirm that.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a queer romance that dares you to listen closely


Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes its name from a painting. You see it early on in the film, which is from Girlhood director Céline Sciamma. Marianne, an art instructor in 18th century France, keeps it in the studio where she teaches young women. When asked about its significance, the film flashes back years prior to a time when she found the inspiration to make the painting and fell in love. And for two hours, you do, too.

There are endless reasons for this. The most readily apparent is the film’s cinematography, which is consistently beautiful. Each frame could conceivably be an inspiration for another portrait with a rich backstory beyond this one. Carefully composed but never flashy in a way that draws attention to itself, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is restrained in a way that never gets old. It’s the kind of movie that makes you feel like a student of cinema, gently encouraging you to notice the entire screen and patient with you even if all you generally have time for is the occasional Marvel movie on an airplane. It wants you to understand it, but it doesn’t want to speak too much.

For a while, hardly any words are spoken. When the flashback begins, Marianne arrives in Brittany at the estate of an aristocratic woman with a problem: her daughter, Héloïse, is engaged to a nobleman, and in a quiet act of protest, she has refused to sit for a portrait that is supposed to accompany her as she is married off. Marianne is commissioned to succeed where a previous artist has failed, under the ruse that she has been hired to accompany Héloïse on walks. Marianne studies Héloïse as she keeps her company and creates her portrait in secret, working from memory.

As they do this, they talk. The conversations in Portrait of a Lady on Fire are among the most memorable people have had on a screen in some time, with each line a stanza in a poem, a reversal, a shift in perspective. With every exchange, the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse changes subtly.

Quiet moments, like when Marianne tells Héloïse that a piece of music is “about a coming storm” are full of soft dread, the kind that comes with the knowledge that love is both inevitable and doomed. A conversation where Marianne attempts to console Héloïse over her pending marriage becomes a moment when the precarity of the painter’s understanding is made plain.

“I’m saying that there will be good things,” Marianne says of Héloïse’s marriage.

“You’re saying that now and then, I will be consoled,” comes the biting reply.

Every word spoken in Portrait of a Lady on Fire means so much because much of it is simply not permitted to be said, even in private. In one of the film’s only subplots, Marianne and Héloïse help a young maid who is not ready to be a mother with an abortion. Few words are exchanged about what must be done because there is little point. The three women understand the stakes, the world that men — who are almost nonexistent in the film — have built for them.

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, silence is used in the same way negative space is on a canvas. Through portraiture and conversation, Marianne and Héloïse draft and smudge and attempt again to understand one another, to build an accurate representation of the other that they can carry onward despite its impermanence. The answer they come up with makes plain what queer audiences have been quietly telling us forever: that their lives have always been present, even at times where their existence has been vehemently denied. Even in the face of a suffocating culture of repression, there are ways to be seen by one another, even if there aren’t ways to openly exist.

It’s a rare thing to hear a conversation in a movie that makes you sit up a little straighter; it’s even rarer that you hear a silence that does the same. Talk has quite literally never been cheaper than it is now. We communicate freely and carelessly through the abbreviated language of social media and crude meme culture. With this expanse of expression, there has also come a flattening, layers of irony and performance that obscure ourselves from each other.

Perhaps this is why Portrait of a Lady on Fire is such a striking film. It’s a film that is, in part, about the arrogance of presuming to understand someone — first expressed through the one artist’s failed attempt to paint Héloïse’s portrait, and again reasserted by the push and pull of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship, forged under false pretense and continually reshuffled until the truth becomes a secret that they share, and the lie becomes the unfortunate story they tell the world.

The better portrait isn’t the one that Héloïse’s mother commissions Marianne to make. It’s the one after which the movie is named, the one that never leaves the artist’s studio.