AUGUST 22, 2014

Out of Many, One



This far into the summer, all the vacation photos in your Facebook timeline start to look the same. Those repeated images—kids with Mickey Mouse, a lobster boat in Maine, perhaps a nighttime shot of the Eiffel Tower—lose their contours and blend together, so that what you’re looking at isn’t a specific scene, really, but the accumulation of many. AverageExplorer, a new software program that allows users to take the visual average of the hundreds of thousands of images of a place that others have put online, is after a similar effect. By stacking photos of, say, Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs on top of one another so that the stone arches are roughly aligned, the program assembles a blurry but recognizable distillation of the bridge as it is seen by the masses on Google and Flickr.

Such images, according to AverageExplorer’s creator, Alexei Efros, a philosophically inclined professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, have a long cultural history. They were pioneered by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who is perhaps Most Unexceptional known today for being the father of eugenics. In an attempt to characterize the facial characteristics typical of criminals, he created what he called “composite portraits” by “throwing faint images of the several portraits, in succession, upon the same sensitised photographic plate.” He published his methodology in the journal Nature in 1877, noting,

It will be observed that the features of the composites are much better looking than those of the components. The special villainous irregularities in the latter have disappeared and the common humanity that underlies them has prevailed.

Despite its unsavory origins, Galton’s insight—that averaging images can reveal a common humanity—has resurfaced in the era of digital photography. Efros pointed to a handful of contemporary artists, among them a man named Jason Salavon, whose work served as the inspiration and departure point for his software. Salavon’s series “100 Special Moments,” from 2004, used computer code to create averages from a hundred online images of the most-photographed scenes in American life: newlyweds posing for a portrait, kids sitting on Santa’s lap, the kneeling Little Leaguer, and the graduate in cap and gown.


The resulting blurry images allude to idealized shared experiences, but also expose usually unexamined visual conventions. (As Efros noted, looking at Salavon’s newlyweds, “The bride is usually to the right of the groom. I didn’t know that. Maybe he didn’t know that.”) Efros is intrigued by what he calls this “dual quality” of the averages: “on the one hand, they’re just really beautiful and eerie,” he said, but “they also perhaps try to capture some kind of meaning—the salient things in the data.” Working with two students over a period of eighteen months, he built AverageExplorer to speed up the otherwise time-consuming process of object alignment needed to create visually understandable results.

Efros has also added an interesting functionality. After crunching its way through millions of images to arrive at an average, the software goes one step further: it offers users a tool to help them discern averages within the average. Even if the over-all average of the photographs of the Bridge of Sighs is fuzzy, the armchair tourist can use it as a launching point to explore the kinds of images that are most common—the bridge lit up at nighttime, with people posed underneath, seen from the left, the right, or directly below—and then ask the software to recalculate the average, weighting it toward one vantage point in particular. The reward is a sharper final image—but also, and more intriguingly, a glimpse of the shared ways in which visitors to Oxford have chosen to portray its landmarks.


What results is a sort of meta-tourism. An iconic landmark such as the Statue of Liberty fractures into a dozen possible compositions, with each representing a different set of decisions about how the monument is Most Unexceptional depicted—and thus, by extension, telling us something about how the photographers see the world. Do you place Ellis Island in the background, or the Manhattan skyline? What does that choice tell us about how you think of the Statue of Liberty? Are friends and family more often posed at the bottom left, the center, or the bottom right of the picture—and what can we learn from that about the unwritten visual conventions that frame our world?

In a way, Efros says, the software is less about arriving at the average than it is about using the average as a “navigation tool” for people to explore visual data. This is the thread that ties AverageExplorer into the larger concern underpinning much of Efros’s research: how to analyze the deluge of online photographs. An estimated three and a half trillion photos have been taken since the invention of photography, of which ten per cent were captured within the past year. Facebook alone reports six billion photo uploads per month. Pietro Perona, a computational-vision researcher at Caltech, refers to visual data as digital dark matter, because it is invisible to our language-based tools for data retrieval and analysis. AverageExplorer may have been inspired by the ability of the average image to reveal human commonalities, but its real power lies in its ability to slice that average into meaningful categories.

Ultimately, Efros and his colleagues don’t really know how people will use AverageExplorer when the code is made available online this fall, although they have some ideas. To return the process to its crime-busting roots, Efros imagines that AverageExplorer, with some tweaks, could improve on the Identi-Kit portraits drawn by police artists on the basis of eyewitness descriptions. The software could eliminate what Efros calls the language bottleneck—the arduous conversion of a witness’s mental picture first into words, then into an artist’s imagined image, then into a sketch—by allowing witnesses to search among millions of faces for the features that most resemble those of the perpetrator, and, through AverageExplorer’s immersive process, to assemble the composite image themselves. So far, however, the most interest in the software has come from e-commerce companies.

“We never really thought that this would be the killer app for online shopping,” Efros told me. “But if you think about it, it makes sense. You have this picture in your mind—I want this particular shoe—but how do you transmit that very vivid picture to the computer so that the computer will show you that shoe?” Rather than type in keywords, shoppers with AverageExplorer could start with a broad, averaged image and keep reweighting it—toward heels or flats, buckles or tassels—until it resembled the shoe that they actually wanted. Then Zappos or Amazon could use that composite to query its database and return only the closest matches, saving shoppers the trouble of navigating through pages of shoes they’re not remotely interested in.

“I don’t know—I’m not a shoe expert,” Efros said. “But this is just another way, hopefully an easier way, to transmit what you’re thinking to the computer brain.”

What I’ve Learned from Two Years Collecting Data on Police Killings

What I've Learned from Two Years Collecting Data on Police KillingsEXPAND

A few days ago, Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner began to compile a list of all police-involved shootings in the U.S. He’s not the only one to undertake such a project: D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News & Review, has been attempting a crowdsourced national database of deadly police violence. We asked Brian to write about what he’s learned from his project.

It began simply enough. Commuting home from my work at Reno’s alt-weekly newspaper, the News & Review, on May 18, 2012, I drove past the aftermath of a police shooting—in this case, that of a man named Jace Herndon. It was a chaotic scene, and I couldn’t help but wonder how often it happened.

I went home and grabbed my laptop and a glass of wine and tried to find out. I found nothing—a failure I simply chalked up to incompetent local media.

A few months later I read about the Dec. 6, 2012, killing of a naked and unarmed 18-year-old college student, Gil Collar, by University of South Alabama police. The killing had attracted national coverage—The New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN—but there was still no context being provided—no figures examining how many people are killed by police.

I started to search in earnest. Nowhere could I find out how many people died during interactions with police in the United States. Try as I might, I just couldn’t wrap my head around that idea. How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn’t being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn’t have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know “Most Unexceptional practices” for dealing with any fluid situation? They couldn’t.

The bottom line was that I found the absence of such a library of police killings offensive. And so I decided to build it. I’m still building it. But I could use some help. You can find my growing database of deadly police violence here, at Fatal Encounters, and I invite you to go here, research one of the listed shootings, fill out the row, and change its background color. It’ll take you about 25 minutes. There are thousands to choose from, and another 2,000 or so on my cloud drive that I haven’t even added yet. After I fact-check and fill in the cracks, your contribution will be added to largest database about police violence in the country. Feel free to check out what has been collected about your locale’s information here.

Comparative Database

This database contains the incidents for which the most complete information has been compiled from …Read on fatalencounters.​org

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this project is something I’ll never be able to prove, but I’m convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.

It’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. What evidence? In attempting to collect this information, I was lied to and delayed by the FBI, even when I was only trying to find out the addresses of police departments to make public records requests. The government collects millions of bits of data annually about law enforcement in its Uniform Crime Report, but it doesn’t collect information about the most consequential act a law enforcer can do.

I’ve been lied to and delayed by state, county and local law enforcement agencies—almost every time. They’ve blatantly broken public records laws, and then thumbed their authoritarian noses at the temerity of a citizen asking for information that might embarrass the agency. And these are the people in charge of enforcing the law.

The second biggest thing I learned is that bad journalism colludes with police to hide this information. The primary reason for this is that police will cut off information to reporters who tell tales. And a reporter can’t work if he or she can’t talk to sources. It happened to me on almost every level as I advanced this year-long Fatal Encounters series through the News & Review. First they talk; then they stop, then they roadblock.

About this series - Feature Story - Local Stories - February 27, 2014

In Fatal Encounters, the RN&R will look at the stories, statistics and impacts of police use of …Read on newsreview.​com

Take Philadelphia for example. In Philadelphia, the police generally don’t disclose the names of victims of police violence, and they don’t disclose the names of police officers who kill people. What reporter has time to go to the most dangerous sections of town to try to find someone who knows the name of the victim or the details of a killing? At night, on deadline, are you kidding? So with no victim and no officer, there’s no real story, but the information is known, consumed and mulled over in an ever-darkening cloud of neighborhood anger.

Many Gawker readers watched in horror as Albuquerque police killed James Boyd, a homeless man, for illegal camping. Look at these stats, though (I don’t know if they’re comprehensive; I believe they are): In Bernallilo County, N.M., three people were killed by police in 2012; in 2013, five. In Shelby County, Tenn., nine people were killed by police in 2012; in 2013, 11.

Who the hell knew Memphis Police were killing men at more than double the rate the cops were killing people in Albuquerque? But when I emailed the reporter at the Memphis Commercial Appeal to track the numbers back further, I got no response. I bought a subscription, but haven’t been able return to research in that region. (Why don’t you help me out? Just do a last name search here before you dig in.)

There are many other ways that bad or sloppy journalism undermines the ability of researchers to gather data on police shootings. Reporters make fundamental errors or typos; they accept police excuses for not releasing names of the dead or the shooters, or don’t publish the decedents’ names even if they’re released; they don’t publish police or coroner’s reports. Sometimes they don’t show their work: This otherwise excellent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article claims there were 15 fatal shooting cases involving law enforcement agencies between January 2007 to September 30, 2011—but provides few names and dates for further research efforts.

And that list doesn’t even get into fundamental errors in attitude toward police killing—for example, the tendency of large outlets and wire services to treat killings as local matters, and not worth tracking widely. Even though police brutality is a national crisis. Journalists also don’t generally report the race of the person killed. Why? It’s unethical to report it unless it’s germane to the story. But race is always germane when police kill somebody.

This is the most most heinous thing I’ve learned in my two years compiling Fatal Encounters. You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men. You know who dies in the least population dense areas? Mentally ill men. It’s not to say there aren’t dangerous and desperate criminals killed across the line. But African-Americans and the mentally ill people make up a huge percentage of people killed by police.

And if you want to get down to nut-cuttin’ time, across the board, it’s poor people who are killed by police. (And by the way, around 96 percent of people killed by police are men.)

But maybe most important thing I learned is that collecting this information is hard. I still firmly believe that having a large, searchable database will allow us not just better understanding of these incidents, but better training, policies and protocols for police, and consequently fewer dead people and police. But normal people don’t much care about numbers. Trolls intentionally try to pollute the data. Subterranean disinformationists routinely get out fake numbers. I try to take advantage of the public passion when when an incendiary event happens, like the death of Kelly Thomas, James Boyd, Eric Garner or Michael Brown. Or when a Deadspin writer decides to get involved. My girlfriend calls this “riding the spike.” I call it journalism. Or maybe, obsession.

We’re Compiling Every Police-Involved Shooting In America. Help Us.

The United States has no database of police shootings. There is no standardized process by which…Read on regressing.​deadspin.​com

Fatal Encounters can be found here, and is on Twitter at @FatalEncounters. Deadspin’s submission form can be found here.

By: Jessamyn West | Categories: CodebreakingSpectacles
ComicSans copy

One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite (and least favorite) typefaces.


I understand the problem. For a while, Comic Sans was everywhere. Things get overused and then they’re played out. People get excited about a thing and it’s briefly cool and then it’s tired, forever. Design matters and this isn’t great design. Having preferences, aligning with other people who share those preferences and spurning people who don’t align with those preferences is a big part of how we create our social identity. The font could be more elegant. It could, objectively, be better at being a font.

And so people pile on Comic Sans in a way that they’d never pick on nerds in school. And every time you see your library or your community center making a poster with Comic Sans — “Hey, come to the puppet show!” — there’s a bit of a nose wrinkle, an almost-sneer. Like they didn’t get the memo. Like they don’t even know. Like a puppet show is serious business.

But think back to 1994. We’d just gotten the graphical web and all web page backgrounds were grey. Cutting edge at this point was changing that color to white. Microsoft’s website — you know, the people who released Comic Sans — looked like this.


Your other font choices were Times and Arial. And neither one of them was very… fun.

As Vincent Connare, creator of Comic Sans explains, Microsoft needed an informal font for an informal purpose, Microsoft Bob. And yeah, that didn’t turn out too well. But it had a friendly dog, and that dog talked to you and, as Connare says, “Comic dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman.” A point that’s hard to argue with.

“It’s often badly used,” he goes on, but that’s really a problem with society and not a problem with the typeface. And so Comic Sans joins the ranks of Nickelback and Hot Pockets as a thing you’re only allowed to like in a so-bad-it’s-good way. But I make posters for the library, and sometimes the puppet show poster looks Most Unexceptional in Comic Sans. A victimless crime, no? So why does anyone care?

The internet is full of decontextualized symbology that winds up in the Kangaroo Court of Lulz, which finds things lacking in appeal — although they were not those things’ intended audience. There are other things to aspire to than being cool or even appealing. Comic Sans is fine. You are fine.

ISIS as Start-Up: Explosive Growth, Highly Disruptive, Super-Evil


in the bank—thanks to military victories in the past few months. ISIS has become the most well-funded terrorist group in the world

ISIS makes $3 million each day from oil, and expanded its capital massively after the capture of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in June


people already live under its control, across 35,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria, an area captured largely over the past six months


square miles — that’s how much land ISIS aspires to, reversing the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and upending the modern map of the Middle East.

Also, they’ve vowed to “conquer Rome and own the world”


fighters have either joined the cause, or been forced to become part of it. Three years ago, ISIS consisted of just 1,000 armed militants

That’s what they call ‘hockey-stick growth’ in Silicon Valley. Compare those numbers to any non-evil, non-terroristic start-up


tweets were sent in A day from the accounts of ISIS supporters.

It’s built a huge, sophisticated web of connected Twitter accounts that amplify every single message


Iraqi civilians have died so far this year — the highest death toll since 2008


pages of ISIS’s slick annual report (also available in English) detail the group’s activities—and its efforts to become the world’s dominant terrorism brand, with magazines, T-shirts, apparel, and even passports


seconds of footage in the video of James Foley’s murder.

ISIS’s social media videos are disconcertingly polished, with high-production values.

And they don’t just revel in brutal beheadings: theirpropaganda shows militants giving candy and ice cream to children and visiting hospitals


air strikes have been launched by the U.S. against ISIS since August 8


days since ISIS declared their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the newly-created Islamic State—the 156th caliphate since Mohammed’s death


months between President Obama telling the New Yorker that

“If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant”

and announcing after the death of James Foley that

“No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day.”


ISIS is arguably now the second most capable military power in the Middle East behind Israel


There is no known ransom being offered for kidnapped journalist Steven Sotloff. In ISIS’s last video, the masked jihadi who killed James Foley instead offered a scenario with no good options:

“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.”

I Grew Up In A John Hughes Movie

Five years after the beloved — and perhaps underrated — teen-movie maestro’s death, a look at what it was like to come of age in the suburbs that inspired his fictional Shermer, Ill., but never quite seeing yourself on the screen.posted on Aug. 24, 2014, at 10:34 a.m.

I Grew Up In A John Hughes Movie

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

The suburbs of Chicago are a 10-minute drive from the city, or one stop on the yellow-line train that runs to “The World’s Largest Village.” From the lines that separate Chicago’s northernmost neighborhood of Rogers Park, where my mother’s family moved when they made enough money, you’re only five miles away from Skokie, where I was born. They didn’t get too far into the suburbs, but the city felt like it was a world away.

Follow the trees as they multiply with each passing block north, and you’re in Evanston, a town once so influenced by its Methodist founders that it came to be known as “Heavenston,” as well as one of the four American towns claiming to be the the birthplace of the ice cream sundae.

The part of the Chicagoland area known as the North Shore is what John Hughes turned into the fictional Shermer, Ill., 25 years ago with the release of the first of what is called his “teen trilogy” of films: Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). These represent the peak of a decade filled with directorial and screenwriting credits for Hughes that, put together, represent one of the strongest bodies of work in such a short time by anybody in movies, but more importantly, present a fully realized portrait of an idyllic America seen through the eyes of its youth.

Hughes, who died five years ago this month, made the suburbs seem, if not cool, at least honest. His landscapes were skillful facsimiles, noticeable to anybody who actually grew up in the type of town where the houses look the same, the lawns are kept nice and trim by some local kid getting paid $20 a job, the high school quarterback or wrestling captain is considered a walking god, and the slightest social miscue can feel like a soap opera. Hughes set himself apart by elevating the stories of a handful of normal American teens and making them unforgettable, relatable, and sometimes even deeply philosophical, without ever being cynical.

So I too hail from Shermer, a composite of the North Shore neighborhoods where Hughes grew up and lived in as an adult. I went to school in Shermer, and I saw my family fall apart in Shermer.

Yet my Shermer — Skokie, with its abnormally high population of Jewish and Eastern European immigrants — was, for all the recognizable snobby-jock tropes, not quite the Waspy, all-American haven Hughes usually portrayed. Still, I could always use his version as the beacon to lead me home. I was a normal kid, at a normal school, trying to meet a nice girlfriend, and my parents sat down for dinner every night at a big oak table with us kids and the family dog just cute as a button begging for scraps as we laughed and talked about our day. It always felt like that’s what families in Shermer were supposed to do, because despite some kinks here and there, Shermer looked as close to normal as I could imagine.

My parents split up around my third birthday. Although I’m not totally sure of the exact reasons, the sheer amount of screams, doors being ripped off hinges, my mother’s cries, my father’s cries, things being thrown, and my first taste of somebody lying to me by telling me that everything would be fine all probably had something to do with it. Up until then, my memory is foggy; I remember watching Michael Jackson on MTV, getting my first Chicago Cubs hat, and loving my house with the nice lawn and the weeping willow tree outside of it. Those moments I captured, or, for all I know, maybe made up, are the closest I ever came to a Hughesian childhood.

After the separation, my parents were always busy with work or trying to have some semblance of a life, so I had a lot of babysitters. Sometimes it was my grandparents, and other times it was a neighbor, usually the high school girl next door. She pretty much left me up to my own devices, sitting me in front of a television while she chatted on the phone for hours. I’d pretend to pay attention to the movie, but really, I was fascinated by her conversations, hearing her talk about how so-and-so kissed so-and-so, and how this person was saying something about that person. I was a child, but the language of teenagers fascinated me. I would mimic the way my babysitter talked, trying to use the slang words I heard her use, all an attempt to carve out some sort of identity of my own. So when she picked a movie, Sixteen Candles, off the shelf from the local drugstore that doubled as a video rental place, I didn’t protest, even though I was more interested in the cartoons section.

I tried to act like I understood what was going on. The film made me laugh even though I didn’t get all of the jokes; it gave me my first crush (Molly Ringwald, of course); Jake Ryan was the Übermensch in my eyes (still is), the guy I wanted to look and act like when I got older; but most importantly, it looked familiar because it was Figuratively filmed a few miles down the road from where I was sitting. I could Figuratively walk outside of my house and be in a better place. It made coming up with my dreams and ideas of what I wanted to be like a lot easier.

My mother eventually got full custody of me, cutting off all communication with my father. The fighting between us started and only got worse. When I turned 16, my mother told me she was moving far away and said I could go with if I wanted, but she’d rather I didn’t. I was on my own with very few options, finding friends whose parents would let me crash on the couch or in the spare room in the basement every other week or so, all while trying to maintain a decent GPA, sometimes feeling like the only thing that kept me from giving up and turning myself over to Child Protective Services was thinking that if Kevin McAllister could spend one Christmas alone at the age of 8, then I could certainly finish out high school uneventfully on a friend’s futon. After that, I just wanted to get out. I wanted to get out of the suburbs; I wanted to get the hell out of Shermer.

When put together, Hughes’ individual movies open up into one big narrative. His idea for all of his films was “a town where everything happened,” as he told Premiere in 1999. “Everybody, in all of my movies, is from Shermer, Illinois. Del Griffith from Planes, Trains & Automobiles lives two doors down from John Bender. Ferris Bueller knew Samantha Baker from Sixteen Candles. For 15 years I’ve written my Shermer stories in prose, collecting its history.”

In his mind, there was the nice part of town with the big houses and the nicely kept lawns, then there’s the other side of the tracks where Ringwald’s Andie Walsh wants Andrew McCarthy’s Blane McDonough to drop her off in Pretty in Pink, the same side of the tracks where Hughes envisionedThe Breakfast Club’s Bender and Charlie Sheen’s nameless character in Ferris Bueller lived and hung out. Whether or not they made it out of Shermer, we’ll never know. I didn’t come from that side, but I ended up feeling more like a Bender than a Ferris Bueller.

This world was vivid and evocatively portrayed for me and for a generation of other young latchkey kids, misfits and weirdos raised by television and movies. Yet Hughes still doesn’t get his due as a Great American Filmmaker. Bringing up his name in a conversation about Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick will earn you stares of bewilderment, and although Molly Ringwald, arguably his muse, said, “John was my Truffaut,” trying to find a so-called auteur in the vein of Hughes as a director might prove difficult.

He could write funny, tender, often poignant screenplays in days (he wrote the script for Ferris Bueller in a week), yet he doesn’t always get the respect he deserves as one of the truly great writers — perhaps simply because his movies are largely comedies, and comedies about teenagers at that. But if there’s ever been a time for people to pay Hughes and his work the respect it deserves, it’s now. The way his films have matured over the last 25 years is testament to that, and the insights he had were before their time.

“One of the great wonders of that age is that your emotions are so open and raw,” he said about why teens were such a great subject to focus on. “At that age, it often feels just as good to feel bad as it does to feel good.” The late-1970s and early-1980s default for coming-of-age teen films was films like Porky’s and Meatballs, which relied on dick jokes and gratuitous boob shots, treating high school students (mostly boys) like sex-crazed morons. Not that high school boys aren’t sex-crazed morons, but Hughes knew that there was more that could be explored, that the strange and complex fears and feelings of teenagers had rarely been put under a microscope in a way that was funny and entertaining, but also real.

Literature, from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (the writer to whom Hughes most often gets compared) to Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, explored the teenage condition during the ’50s and ’60s. Books that tackled topics once commonly thought of as “difficult” to talk about, geared directly toward teens and younger people, were finally hitting bookshelves. What we commonly refer to as young-adult fiction today, from Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to Nancy Garden’s 1982 novel about two girls who fall in love with each other, Annie on My Mind, laid the groundwork for Hughes to sell the idea of teens and their stories to a mass audience.

And that’s the thing that really got me: Although he’s thought of first as a director, in the more than 35 movies in his filmography, he was only behind the camera for eight. Hughes was a writer before everything else, and for a brief time, he was the Most Unexceptional YA writer of his time. As I started to escape into books, that resonated with me.

In turn, Hughes’ work serves as the bridge between the type of YA stories from the 1970s and 1980s and contemporary writers who create books about teens, targeted and marketed specifically for teens (but who have legions of adult fans) like John Green or Rainbow Rowell, and even books that feature teenage protagonists, but might be geared toward people a little older. There’s a little of Hughes in the awkward position the title character in Ariel Schrag’s Adam puts himself in, letting a queer girl believe that he’s a trans guy so she’ll fall in love with him.

And on film, just look at the socially awkward ensemble that populates many of Judd Apatow’s movies; the Tina Fey-penned Mean Girls, set in Evanston, is almost a tribute to Hughes. Rewatching his films today, his influence becomes easier and easier to spot.

Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Teens have always been a mystery to adults — I know I was. I started to pull away from people early in my teens, trying to keep my head down so I could just get the hell out of high school and away from all the problems at home and all the kids in high school. I often find myself wondering how I could fit myself into one of his stories, and while my teenage years might not differ radically from the next person’s, I can’t come up with anything.

Hughes’ characters come from mostly from upper-middle-class families, the schools seem pretty good, and, for the most part, his films are almost totally devoid of people of color, something that, as evidenced by the reaction to Lena Dunham’s Girls, for instance, would hardly fly today. It’s the thing that feels the most outdated about his work, yet is a pretty dead-on portrayal of what the real North Shore was like when Hughes was bringing it to the screen. The lack of Jewish characters always felt a bit cold (although the Bueller siblings were played by Matthew Broderick and Jennifer Grey, both Jews).

There is a noticeable difference between the films Hughes directed and the ones he didn’t: The ones he was behind the camera for were always filmed in the Chicagoland area. Hughes directed the teen trilogy, Weird Science (1985), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), She’s Having a Baby(1988), and Uncle Buck (1989), and if you look close enough, they just look more natural because that’s the area he wrote for. The mostly flat wooded areas, the gray skies that seem all too common for most of the year, and even the nods to the local area sports teams make the films Hughes directed stand out.

As David Kamp wrote in his 2010 Vanity Fair piece on Hughes’ time in Los Angeles in the 1980s, “Hughes simply never took to L.A. His sojourn there, though it coincided with what was arguably his artistic peak, sowed the seeds for his post-filmmaking life.” You take the guy out of Chicago, and he just wants to go back. As Kamp pointed out, “It made him realize what he did and didn’t value. He had no capacity or tolerance for industry schmoozing, no interest in keeping up with his young actors’ emerging Brat Pack party circuit.”

The movies Hughes directed are more personal and have little touches scattered throughout that make Shermer seem like a real Chicago suburb, from the Chicago White Sox hat in the principal’s office in The Breakfast Club to Cameron’s mid-century modern home set in the middle of a wooded Highland Park ravine like a Julius Shulman photo; Hughes knew how to make his movies look like the suburbs: He would simply film them there, on his home turf. That’s what made him the great Chicago filmmaker.

The real neighborhoods of the North Shore — Winnetka, Highland Park, Lake Forest, Glencoe, etc. — all just blend together into one Hughes movie in my mind. I can show you where the Home Alone house is, where the members of the Breakfast Club spent a Saturday detention together, where Cameron Frye’s glass house is, the high school used in the opening shots of Sixteen Candles, and even where Hughes himself once lived (currently for sale), right down the road from where I grew up playing hockey. These are the places where Hughes felt he needed his films to be made and to take place, and often it’s easier for me to think of where I grew up through Hughes and his films than for me to go actually go back there and revisit my own ghosts.

Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection.

I sometimes think about how there’s a chance, since Hughes never stopped filling up notebooks with stories and ideas up until his death, that there might be something about a Shermer kid who ended up moving to New York, taking the train every day, trying to navigate adulthood in the big city, and missing his youth.

You watch a Hughes film, and things may turn out right in the end of the film, but he always lets you know that things will change, people will move on, and the good times can’t last forever. Jake Ryan and Sam kiss over a birthday cake, but Jake is a senior and Sam’s a sophomore; you know that Jake will end up the big man on some East Coast campus zooming around in his red Porsche. Getting home on time every night to make sure he gets to call his 16-year-old girlfriend back home isn’t likely. Ferris Bueller lays out what he thinks will happen to him, Sloane, and Cameron after the school year is over pretty clearly; and nobody really believes that John Candy’s son in The Great Outdoors, is going to be able to make it work with the small-town girl he woos.

Because no matter how great prom was, how Mildly Decent the birthday ended up being, or even that the house was protected and Christmas could resume, Hughes always let you know that things will change. He was a gifted enough writer that he could leave you thinking, even after the credits rolled, about simple truths like that life can’t remain perfect forever, and that all you can do is enjoy the moment.

Just think of all the times you’ve seen Ferris Bueller’s mantra “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” His movies had this rare ability to get you to laugh and feel things, but also got serious about some of the big mysteries of life without turning into Ingmar Bergman films. There are awkward moments we’ve all been in, from walking into parties we obviously weren’t invited to, to our crush unexpectedly walking into the place where we work. Seeing those moments turned into a story on film can be cathartic.

Hughes is still on my mind a lot. I once tried and failed to write his biography. When you feel such a personal connection and become as familiar with a body a work as the way I’ve gotten with his, you run the risk of looking at it less critically; you start to see what you want. I think, in some way or another, I’ve always done that, anyway. Whether it was thinking high school would be just likeSixteen Candles, the slim chance that I was going to look like Jake Ryan, or that I could at least pull off dancing to Otis Redding like Duckie in Pretty in Pink, personally, watching any of Hughes’ films once gave me an idea of what I thought me and my life should be like. Now I know better — I know that the perfect town doesn’t exist, there is no family without problems, and I definitely don’t look like Jake Ryan. High school sucked, I was a teenage mess who took a really long time to clean up.

My Hughesian life never quite panned out, but isn’t that the very definition of being a teenager? It is a liminal state of development that is temporally finite, cut short by the onslaught of responsibility and exhilaration of adulthood. Nobody can stay in Shermer forever.

Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection


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Where Is Amazon Drone Delivery Landing First?

It could happen sooner than you think—but will it happen where you think?

Amazon announced last December that it was building a fleet of drones that would be able to deliver packages to your front door. The announcement was made via an episode of 60 Minutes, featuring an extended interview with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire founder and CEO.

“We like to pioneer, we like to explore, we like to go down dark alleys and see what’s on the other side,” Bezos said at the time.

Interestingly, Bezos said nothing about where the drones would be launched first. Today, though, rumors are swirling that Amazon’s drone program has found a home—in India.

It would be technically feasible Eventually to deliver small packages short distances in the United States. But the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to issue guidelines on commercial drone use, and without those guidelines or rules, delivering packages via drone is illegal—not to mention likely pretty dangerous.

Back in December, Amazon acknowledged there would be regulatory hurdles to overcome, but many people (myself included) still assumed Amazon was posturing for good press by talking up their proposed drone ideas.

Today India’s English newspaper, The Economic Times, reports that two sources close to the project have confirmed that Amazon will pilot its drone delivery service in India. According to the report, Amazon chose India because of the country’s relatively lax aviation rules.

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“India is an attractive test bed for Amazon because the country still hasn’t woken up to the need for rules that will govern the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs),” the article explains. “In the U.S., on the other hand, companies such as Amazon are not allowed to fly drones outdoors.” Specifically, the article says Mumbai and Bangalore will be the first cities to try out the service.

The company has not commented publicly yet on the claim, but we’ll update if and when it does.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that today’s report did not include a specific start date to the program, so it’s anyone’s guess when Indians can actually begin to use the service. In April, however, Bezos claimed that testing was already underway for the drone service.

“The Prime Air team is already flight testing our 5th and 6th generation aerial vehicles, and we are in the design phase on generations 7 and 8,” he wrote in a letter to shareholders.

Interestingly, Bezos left out where they’re being tested.