# Movies

One of the loneliest opinions I have is that Wes Anderson fell off after he stopped writing with Owen Wilson

@bornferal on Twitter

This is a glass-shattering moment for me.

# coding

How does AI smile? In images generated by AI, the subjects have eery wide-mouthed, straight-teethed American-style selfie smiles. How does a USA-centric understanding of psychology affect our view of humanity? Lisa Feldman Barrett writes:

Most scientific research on emotion is conducted in English, using American concepts and American emotion words (and their translations). According to noted linguist Anna Wierzbicka, English has been a conceptual prison for the science of emotion. “English terms of emotion constitute a folk taxonomy, not an objective, culture-free analytic framework, so obviously we cannot assume that English words such as disgust, fear, or shame are clues to universal human concepts, or to basic psychological realities.”

In this Medium essay, Designer Jenka Gurfinkel breaks down the culturally-specific idea of the smile. She says that we naturally associate the American smile with lying. The prominence of the wide-mouthed smile in American culture is very particular. But, by imposing the American smile onto other cultures, we erase different cultural experiences, and the underlying understandings of humanity.

# life

Why do some places have more people who live extremely long lives? Conventional wisdom says a slower pace of life, daily physical activity, plant-based diets, and tight communities will do it. That is to say, the lifestyle of places like Okinawa and Sardinia. A new study calls that into question.

Okinawa and Sardinia both have relatively high crime and poverty and relatively low life expectancy. So how could they possibly yield many exceptionally geriatric citizens? The study’s authors look at records in these regions and found evidence of widespread fraud, suggesting that people in these areas might be pretending to be older than they really are — or pretending to be another (older) person — to collect a pension. Mediterranean diet? It might be Mediterraneans lying.

In other areas, like some parts of the USA, super-old age correlates with poor record keeping, suggesting that it’s actually a phenomenon of misremembering.

Highland Weekend

# photography# travel

Last weekend, Claire and I went up to the Cairngorms for the express purpose of spending a weekend in a remote cottage curled up next to the fireplace. We played board games, ate pancakes, and drank tea and whisky.

Highland cottage
Our cozy cottage in the Cairngorms.

The cottage was down a one-kilometer driveway, hidden behind expansive sheep pastures and tucked into the edge of an oak forest.

The castle on Loch an Eilein
The castle on Loch an Eilein.

The drives up and back were stunning. On the way home, we stopped at Loch an Eilein, a loch with a sunken castle in the middle.

The main North-South highway in Scotland is a stunning and surprisingly quiet two-lane road that curves through the heart of the highlands. Coming from the busy freeways of North America, this feels like a slow scenic route. Nonetheless, on our way back we cut off the highway to take an even more scenic route, following winding one-track roads over hills and valleys.

The view down Glen Lyon
The view up Glen Lyon.

That took us through the idyllic Glen Lyon, which the poet Walter Scott described as the “longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland.” We stopped for tea and cake in the Glen before turning up the mountainside for one of my favorite drives in Scotland, through a pass between Ben Lawers and Meall nan Tarmachan, on a route that Google simply describes as “unnamed road.”

Ben Lawers Dam
Ben Lawers Dam surrounded by the Trossach Mountains.

That road winds up through into the misty and desolate mountain pass, where there is a feeling of complete solitude, like you’ve arrived at the end of the world.

We did parts of this drive once before, on our first trip to Scotland in 2018. It was so beautiful, it helped convince us to move to Scotland. That time, we stayed in a small cabin near Ben Lawers, and one night we went for dinner in the closest town, Killin.

Killin is at the end of a loch, and a river runs through the town. An old, narrow stone bridge crosses the river at a wide set of rapids, called the Falls of Falloch. When you get across the bridge, there’s a small inn, which has an unassuming pub. Inside the pub, there are a few wooden tables, and a large fireplace. In 2018, Claire and I had dinner in that pub, next to the fire. Claire had haggis, and I had fish and chips.

As we drove home last week, we talked about getting dinner at the pub again. We were tired and we wanted to get home, but we wanted to relive the happy memory. We decided that we would stop at the pub and — if they had a table — stop for a drink.

Killin was just as charming as I remembered, with the inn next to the bridge over the rapids. When we went into the pub, the server told us there were no tables available. After a long day of driving, I think Claire and I were actually a little relieved to know we would just keep driving and get home at a reasonable hour. But I looked around the pub, at the fire and the families having Sunday dinner, and I felt very happy to see it again. Most of the time I feel possessive of my happy memories — like I want to collect all of these experiences and keep them in my closet. But then, every once in a while, I’m just happy to remember that this charming thing exists. As I left the pub, I felt reassured. It’s still there. Something is right in the world.

# music# life

My friend Steve wrote a beautiful remembrance of his thirty-year friendship with the great David Crosby. I’ll be thinking about Steve getting the “Crosby/Nash earfuck” every time I hear Crosby harmonizing from now on.

What I've Learned about Composition in Photography

# photography# writing

I got a message from Carl, a friend from the climbing gym, asking if I have any advice about photography composition. In short, I feel really unqualified to give an answer. My practice of photography relies heavily on luck and intuition.

But, I’ve been attempting a more serious study of photography over the past year, which has included joining a local camera club and reading about photography. In particular, I’ve been reading Creative Photography, a 1984 reference book that I found at a charity shop. In the spirit of learning in public, I’m going to write down some of my functional understanding.

Before thinking about composition, there are two things that I hold as deeply important:

  1. Understand the exposure triangle

This is the basis of photography — even smartphone photography. You don’t need to understand it when you take your first pictures, but you’ll need to understand how it works in order to understand the mechanics of photography. The exposure triangle defines the rules of photography, even if you’re using a full-auto point-and-shoot or a smartphone.

  1. Keep a camera with you

The classic saying is: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Edward Steichen said it more incisively: “No photographer is as good as the simplest camera.”

I really believe this.To me, photography is about engaging with your subject and composing your image. Gear can help, but it can’t solve photography. The best advice I’ve received is to take photos often. That’s how you get better. And the easiest way to do that is to find a camera that makes you feel comfortable and bring it wherever you go. For me, that’s my Olympus Trip 35. I can always put it in my pocket when I run to the store.

Photographers often say that there are three aspects of photography:

  • Space
  • Light
  • Subject

(Rather than space, photographers tend to say “composition,” but I “space” fits better with how I understand it.)

Here’s how I understand these things:


Space describes the area of the photo and how all of the elements of the photo relate to one another. The best way to learn how to work with space is to practice. Go outside and take photos of random objects, trying to arrange them in a way that makes the photo interesting. Take pictures often and you’ll develop a sense for arrangement.


The first rule of space is to avoid symmetry. To me, symmetry creates a clean divide between objects that makes them feel separate.

A frosty landscape
An Enya sticker on a street sign
Symmetry can make a photo feel more bold.

A symmetrical photo can feel like two photos side by side. Asymmetry creates tension that pulls the objects together. That’s why photographers default to thirds in their composition.


The “rule of thirds” says that compositions should be divided into thirds, or else objects should be placed at the thirds lines.

A signpost with frost on it
This signpost sits one-third from the right.

A man delivering flour
The sidewalk takes one-third of the photo and the truck takes up two-thirds.

A boy in an alley in Tanzania
You can create tension by pushing your subject to the edge of the photo or leaving large areas of negative space.

Practice taking photos with the rule of thirds to see how it feels. By default, I put my subject dead center in my photo. When I practice using thirds, I notice that (1) photography becomes more challenging and (2) my photos become more dynamic.


In photos, a series of dots (like buttons on a shirt), an edge (like a crease of fabric), or a ridge (like a railing) can create a line. The viewer’s eye will follow the line.

Sunlight on the sidewalk in the morning
These shadows push the gaze downwards.

An abandoned dock with fences
The fences and bushes guide the eye around a loose triangle.

Your goal as a photography is to use lines to engage the viewer. If your lines are too few, you will lose the viewer’s attention. If your lines are too many, you will confuse the viewer.

Allister and Jesse climbing a staircase
The railings brings the gaze to Allister and Jesse.

Strive for a balance where the lines guide the viewers eye around the photo. Most photographers try to engage the viewer with loose triangles.

A morning street scene in Paris
Roads converging at odd angles add energy to this photo.

Cities are built of rectangles — grid streets and box buildings. These make for boring photos. When I’m out walking, I look for unusual spaces, like a bend or a fork in the road, where I can find interesting shapes. If I can’t find that, I will take my photo at an angle to the street, to force the lines of the buildings into a triangular shape.


An intersection breaks a line. This will create dynamism. Sometimes you want to avoid this. A line that intersects your subject’s head, neck, waist, or knees will break their body, creating a faint sense busyness (or in extreme cases dismemberment).

A man standing in the street
The lines of the curb and cars create unwanted busyness around the man’s head and neck.

Pay attention to where the lines of your photo are crossing each other and your subject.


Here, I’ll start to discuss gear. (This is where the exposure triangle become relevant.) Your aperture defines your depth of field — how blurry your background is. A wider aperture allows more light into your photo and creates a blurrier background. A tighter aperture allows less light into your photo and creates a sharper background.

A woman standing on the sidewalk
The sharp background situates this woman obviously in a neighborhood.

A blurrier background will be less distracting, so it will be easier to compose. It will also create a more arty or dreamy effect. The subject feels separate from their surroundings. This is why a shallow depth of field is popular in wedding photography: it makes composition easier and it puts all of the focus on the subject.

A man standing on the sidewalk
This extremely blurry background creates an surreal feeling that threatens to overwhelm the photo.

A sharper background can potentially produce a more interesting photo, because you can use the elements in the background to engage the viewer and create tension around your subject.


You lens’s focal length determines the breadth of your photo. A 17mm lens is a fisheye; it creates a visibly warped image that can contain an entire room. A 200mm lens is a telephoto; it zooms in on a detail, like a bird in a tree. A zoom lens is one that allows you to change the angle, zooming from wide to narrow.

Your lens angle is probably the most profound variable in your camera gear. By widening or narrowing the field of view, you completely change your composition. A 50mm lens and a 70mm lens will produce very different photos of the same scene.

Personally, I mostly shoot with 40mm and 50mm lenses.

A couple
A 50mm lens narrows the focus on the subject.

50mm is the default lens that comes with most SLR cameras. I think it’s a beautiful angle because it just slightly constrains the photographer. 50mm forces me to commit to a specific subject, because most of the time it’s not really wide enough to capture a scene. But it’s still wide enough to include the subject’s surroundings and compose an interesting photo.

A couple crossing the street in Paris
A 40mm lens captures a wide scene.

40mm is a popular angle for street photography. It’s wide enough to capture an entire scene, like a group of people or a streetscape, but it still keeps the focus on the subject. I find that this challenges me to compose a photo that is harmonious.

A longer lens, like a 70mm, is very good for portrait photography, because you can get an intimate shot of your subject without putting the camera right in their face.


Light — the interaction between energy and surfaces — determines how the objects in your image appear. Light creates color and shadows, which create photos.


Your lines are created with contrast — either the contrast of one color against another, or the contrast of a bright area against a dark area. The implication of this is that your compositions will be very different if you’re shooting color film or black-and-white film.

Boxes of fruit on the ground
More boxes of fruit on the ground
The bright colors of the fruit disappear in these photos, leaving shapeless grey textures.

Empty boxes on the ground
The light and dark boxes contrast against each other and against the light and dark background.

A man walking down the sidewalk
Strong light creates drama in an otherwise boring picture.

In color, you can create dramatic effects with tiny elements.

A clothesline
The four red clothespins define the photo by contrasting against the green. With the wooden post, they create a triangle that guides the eye.

This is the strength of shooting in color: you can create compositions with subtle elements, like the blue of someone’s eyes or a fire hydrant on the street.

Use contrast where you want to grab attention. Put your subject against a contrasting background, or create tension between your subject and contrasting elements nearby.

If the light is drab and flat (like on cloudy days), rely on color for your contrast.


You don’t always want strong contrast. Sometimes you just want some gentle shading, like for portraits. Outside, you can get gentle light a few different ways:

  • filtered through light cloud cover
  • bouncing off of a building
  • angled by the earth’s tilt in the morning, evening, or winter

Gentle light will create shadows on the face that bring out features and wrinkles.

A man standing on the sidewalk
Indirect November light in Glasgow gently contours the man’s face.

A woman standing in the sun
Sun shining directly in this woman’s face removes all detail and forces her to squint.

The best way to find good light is to be prepared. Bring your camera with you wherever you go. Sometimes the sun breaks through and everything looks beautiful. The second-best way to find good light is to go out around dawn and dusk.


Film interprets light to produce a photograph (or a photographic negative). There is no objective “green.” Each film manufacture decides what they think green should look like. As a result, each film has its own unique quality and color profile.

Allister in a phone booth
This expired film is heavily de-saturated and tinted blue.

A man in a pedestrian tunnel
Kodak Gold is known for its lovely reds.

Beyond that, all films have a standardized level of sensitivity, called ISO (this is one of the points of the exposure triangle). ISO generally trades sensitivity for film grain. The more sensitive your film is, the grainier it will be. This used to be a much bigger concern. Today, you can find high quality film with very little grain, and most film photographers actually like film grain because it adds character.

Two young people on a bench
This crop reveals the grain of the film.

There is no correct film to use. Like a cheap camera, a cheap film can offer beautiful photos. But pay attention to the colors and quality of different films (including the difference between color film and black and white film) to see how the film affects the feeling of the photo.


You photo needs a subject, which could be a person, an object, or an empty space. It should be something that can catch the eye. Consider what the subject of your photo before you take your picture.

I’ve taken many photos of abandoned buildings and empty landscapes, which often feel unsatisfying. If your photo doesn’t have an obvious subject, you need to work a lot harder to create an emotional connection with the viewer.


Once you’ve chosen your subject, explore how it is positioned relative to you and your surroundings. Make yourself uncomfortable: get down on the ground, climb up on a fence, get up close to your subject, stand in the street. Look at how different angles change the perception of your subject.

If your subject is a person, get comfortable telling them what to do. Tell them specifically what you want. “I want your hand on your face, but I don’t want it to block your mouth.” “I want this blue door directly behind you.”

Two men on the sidewalk
The two men create an unsteady balance.

Also think about the relationship between your subject and other objects in the photo. You can balance a photo and create tension with multiple elements.

This photo by Henri Cartier Bresson is one of my favorites. It should be a messy photo, but it’s incredibly harmonious. All of the characters in the photo play off of each other, making your eye wander.


The final point of the exposure triangle is shutter speed. A faster shutter speed demands more light, but the picture will be sharper. A slower shutter speed risks motion blur or camera shake.

A slow shutter speed makes the passing water appear soft.

Depending on the picture, some motion blur might be desirable. If your subject is blurry, it can emphasize that they are moving. If your subject is sharp but other objects are blurry, it will emphasize that your subject is still.


I want to take pictures that tell a story, and I want to do that by creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject. So, as a photographer, I try to have empathy with the people I’m photographing.

I try to remain relaxed when I take someone’s picture. I pay special attention to my voice. If I sound anxious, the person I’m photographing will pick up on it. I want the person I’m photographing to feel and look natural.

I try to be polite and friendly. I offer an explanation for why I want the picture. And then I try to move quickly to get the picture before the person gets stiff.

The most important things I’ve learned about photography since I got back into it is this: I do it for myself. Photographs are beautiful not because they capture a scene. Rather, they capture the photographer’s subjective impression of a scene. They put the viewer in the mind of the photographer, looking outward. Photography is a chance to share your eyes with the world. In that sense, it’s very intimate. Self-consciousness kills intimacy. The best photos will be the ones that you take for yourself. As you take pictures, think about what you care about, what scares you, what you love. Try to approach those emotions as you look through the lens. At least, that’s what I’m going to try to do.


# philosophy# travel

Two guys playing backgammon in the tropics
Liam and Oli playing backgammon on Banda Island.

In this essay, Aeon gives a nice overview of the concept of coincidence in 20th-century Western thought in this article. I was happy to read this piece, because I’ve been thinking a lot about coincidence in the past year.

The word apophenia describes the condition where one makes connections between unrelated things. Usually, the word describes conspiracy theorists. But, in a more mundane sense, I think there’s something special about how we make connections between ideas. Even very tenuous ones.

I spent some time thinking about this last year when my friend Liam came to visit. I met Liam in East Africa, and we went through one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives together, traveling across Lake Victoria to find a mysterious castle on an island called Banda. The underlying purpose of our trip was to deposit a blessed Buddhist relic in the Lake (on behalf of a respected Buddhist teacher), which we did.

In the Aeon article, the author explores the interpretations of coincidence, from Jung’s pseudoscientific theory of synchronicity to statistician’s rationalizing. The author says he tends toward a rational view, but retains a sense of awe about some of the stranger experiences of the improbable.

My experience traveling to Banda Island with Liam abounded with improbability, from mild serendipity to shocking happenstance. Here’s a survey:

  • Liam and I shared a dorm in Nairobi, but didn’t get to know each other. We then met again weeks later at a hostel in Kampala, when we became friends and decided to travel to Banda Island together.
  • On our way to Banda Island, we almost got stranded on a deserted island but were saved when a friend called to warn us just as we were preparing to disembark our boat onto the island.
  • After several days of failed attempts to get passage across the Lake to Banda Island, as we sat stranded on a remote road, two motorcycle taxis suddenly appeared. They drove us to a nearby port town, where a man spontaneously approached, unprompted, us and offered us a boat to take us to the island.
  • On Banda Island, we made friends with a woman from Vancouver, named Allison. More than a decade later, Allison moved to a small town in Nova Scotia, where her downstairs neighbor was the mother of my childhood best friend. Looking through Allison’s phone, my friend’s mother was shocked to find a photo Allison had taken of me in Africa, which she immediately forwarded to my dad.
  • Months after I left Banda, I went to visit Liam at his home in England and stayed with him for two nights before flying home to Canada from Heathrow. On the final day, between leaving Liam’s house and going to Heathrow, I went to meet up with a friend, Claire, who happened to be in London that day. Eight years later I married Claire.
  • A year after Claire and I met in London, we went back to London as a new couple. For our first date, we went to Stonehenge on the equinox, where we slept among the stones and then watched the sunrise over them in the morning. We left Stonehenge and went to London, where we met Liam, who arranged for us to stay for free in a friend’s dorm. That friend was Ellie, who Liam would date for many years and bring on a trip back to Banda Island.
  • After Liam and Ellie broke up, Liam was doing humanitarian work in South Sudan, where he met and fell in love with a Canadian woman named Laura. It turned out that Laura went to the same small university as me Claire. We had mutual friends and the same professors, and she and Claire graduated together.
  • Last year, Liam and Laura came to visit me and Claire in Glasgow. It wasn’t until Liam arrived that he told me he had actually also lived in Glasgow. Doing desk work for the government here made him realize he wanted to work in the field, so he got a job in South Sudan.
  • In the course of catching up for the first time in many years, I mentioned that I had worked at a Buddhist magazine called Shambhala Sun, and Liam interrupted me. “Is that ‘Shambhala’ like the book?” he asked. “Which book?” I said. “This book.” He pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a tattoo of a symbol from Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, a book written by the founder of the magazine I had worked for. Shocked, I pulled up my sleeve to reveal my own tattoo of another symbol from the book. It turned out that Liam’s uncle was a garbage man in New York City who collected books out of the trash and gave them to Liam. Before leaving on a humanitarian trip, Liam picked up Shambhala out of a pile of books from his uncle. He read it one strange day when he was stranded in a burnt-out gas station in the middle of the Sudanese desert while he oversaw a peace deal that hinged on repairing a Land Rover.
  • Talking to Laura about South Sudan, I suddenly asked Laura “Do you know Kalina?”, based on an odd feeling that they would know each other, only informed by the fact that Kalina was another Canadian who had done development work in East Africa. “Yeah, I do,” said Laura. She explained that she and Kalina had become friends when they were both working in Juba.

This doesn’t all describe coincidence, but it does feel like it describes something quite exceptional.

I have a similar, those less incredible, connection to a place, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Weinbergspark is a wonderful park in central Berlin. It’s out of the way, bounded on two sides by buildings, so it’s easy to miss. It sits on a slope, with a playground at the top, a pond at the bottom, and a garden along one side. In the middle is a grassy area that fills with sunshine and picnickers in the evening.

  • On one side of Weinbergspark is the hostel where I stayed when I visited Berlin for the first time in 2009. I was there with my brother and sister, and we spent lots of time sitting on the swings in the playground. After moving to Berlin in 2018, Claire and I were searching hard for an apartment. We applied and got rejected for one — which was normal in a city where apartment viewings regularly had a line out of the door — but the rental company invited us to view another available apartment in another neighborhood. That viewing only had three interested parties, including ourselves, and we were shocked when the company quickly accepted our application and gave us the apartment. It just so happened that it was around the corner from Weinbergspark.
  • Before moving to the new apartment, we had drinks with neighbors from our previous apartment. One of them mentioned that he had a close friend from Canada. “What’s his name?” I asked, obligatorily. I was shocked when it was the only other Canadian I knew in Berlin — a friend from adolescence named Matt. After moving, Claire and I were walking past Weinbergspark when I heard my name on the wind. I turned around to see Matt. We chatted happily for five minutes and learned that he lived in another part of the city, but was in the neighborhood to meet a friend. That was our only encounter while I lived there.
  • A former coworker from Canada, named Lauria, moved to Berlin while I was there, and we became friends. Lauria lived in another part of the city, but she was excited when she got a job at a printing studio, which happened to be across the street from Weinbergspark. We would picnic in the park with Lauria and her boyfriend after work.
  • One day in the spring, while walking through the Weinbergspark, Claire and I saw a grey heron standing in the path. Claire approached it with her camera, and it calmly let her take photos.
  • While it’s not a coincidence, Weinbergspark had chess boards where I played many games with friends and an ice cream shop where Claire and I often went for excellent ice cream. These experiences cemented the park as a very special place to me.

Mine and Claire’s apartment on Rue Oberkampf in Paris was also infused with serendipity.

  • When we set a date for our move to Paris, we posted on Facebook looking for an apartment, and something extremely improbable happened: a friend responded that he had an apartment in our price range that was available the very day we needed it.
  • After moving to Paris, I changed careers and I was looking for a new job. I would settle for anything, but I happened to find an old Facebook post soliciting applications to work at a company. That lead yielded my dream job, working on technical content at a CMS. (It may sound obscure and boring, but I had actually already applied to one such position years prior before I had the relevant qualifications.) It turned out that the company (of which type there are only a handful in the world) was three blocks from our apartment.
  • Our apartment building had a cozy bar on the ground floor. While working in Paris, I helped produce a video interview with a famous French web developer. We filmed at his three favorite spots in Paris, which included the bar in my building.
  • When we left, we had a mutual friend with the person who moved into our apartment.

Banda Island, Weinbergspark, and Rue Oberkampf are all places that I will always regard as special and somewhat magical. As the author of the Aeon article writes, it’s completely feasible that all of these coincidences are random. It’s true that “extremely improbable events are commonplace.”

But maybe there’s just something special — maybe even supernatural — about the meaning that we derive from the improbable. Magic that we perceive is still magic. In travel, I’ve discovered these sorts of connections everywhere I go. We’re all searching for meaningful connection, and it feels like real magic when you discover a connection where you previously thought there was none.

# art

I’ve seen a few Rosa Bonheur paintings in art galleries. The animals in her paintings have a sublime humanity that captivates you as a viewer. It’s easy to stare for a long time, wondering about these animals’ inner lives. This is a really nice analysis of a Rosa Bonheur painting — what makes it exceptional technically and emotionally.

# coding# interviews

I interviewed Gift Egwuenu about Developer Advocacy and the importance of empathy in technology, and the video was just released. Gift is a really nice person and a developer advocate at Cloudflare.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023