Archive for September, 2008

An overabundance of doughnut gravy

September 29th, 2008 — Wordman

Apple has rejected a number of iPhone applications from their store recently, because they “duplicate functionality” of Apple applications (or, evidently, of apps Apple might write). Apple is now adding a new wrinkle: they now warn that notification of these rejections is included in non-disclosure agreements.

So, forget for a second that this whole process is stupid, bad business, insipid, and almost certainly illegal. Instead, imagine that you are a developer who gets an app rejected like this. In addition to being angry and disillusioned, you also have a problem: you now can’t tell your fans why the app they are waiting for will never come without violating the NDA. About all you can say is “we have stopped work on this application”. If anyone demands an explanation, all you can say is “we can’t tell you”.

I suggest an alternative solution. Rather than say “we can’t tell you”, explain it with a phrase that has no actual meaning whatsoever, but one that will come to be known to mean “Apple screwed us over with their idiocy but we can’t tell you that”. I offer up the following phrase (which, I must stress, has absolutely nothing to do with the iPhone, Apple or the app store, but is merely a way of stating the inexplicable): “an overabundance of doughnut gravy”. So you might say something like: “We regret to inform you that we have canceled all work on application X. We found we could not continue after suffering from an overabundance of doughnut gravy.”

Beyond the five W’s

September 15th, 2008 — Wordman

All introductory journalistic training starts with the “five W’s (and one H)” (who? what? when? where? why? how?), representing the types of facts that should appear in the lead of a story. Unfortunately, many journalists these days seem to think that is all they need do: find the most obvious answers to those questions, relate them, move on to the next deadline. While this passes for news, it’s not very useful for actual understanding. The superficial answers to these questions are almost never the truth necessary to draw real conclusions about an event. That requires real digging into these questions (particularly “why?”) and since that is actually hard, you get the kind of limp, gloss-over journalism-like news of today.

Take this CNN story, for example: Nigeria militants ‘raze’ Shell oil complex. As per basic training, the story holds the five W’s:

  • Who?: The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)
  • What?: “attacked Shell’s Alakiri flow station, gas plant and field logistics base… killing a guard and wounding four others.”
  • When?: “Monday”
  • Where?: “southwest of Port Harcourt”, Nigeria’s delta region
  • Why?: “The rebel group hopes to secure a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth for people in the delta, where more than 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.”
  • How?: They “‘stormed’ the flow station complex…set fire to the facility and ‘razed it to the ground.'”

So, what do you know? Some people blew up an oil station in Nigeria. You’re told that they want the oil wealth for themselves. That sounds reasonable. On to the next story. A few basic problems: first, if the intent is to gain the oil wealth for themselves, why are they destroying the facilities that would let them claim it, rather than taking them over? Seems like a bad strategy. Maybe they have good reasons for this. Maybe there are extenuating circumstances. Maybe they just failed basic economics. The point is, this is a pretty obvious question to at least ask, but journalists don’t seem to be interested. They don’t seem concerned that the basic motivation they give for the event doesn’t really make any sense. It’s almost as if the intent is to sound informative, not actually be informative.

I was on a jury once, and it was very frustrating to watch the lawyers work. You kept wanting to scream at them to ask a certain question, usually one that never came. Is it important they didn’t ask it? Was not asking it strategy, or just incompetence? Who knows? I’m just a juror, so can’t actually ask any questions. Reading modern news stories is much the same experience, except I’m just some guy at a desk and not, you know, the person getting paid to actually report on what’s happening in front of his own eyes.

I looked through the top 10 hits on Google for this particular news story. Some were better than others. Some pointed out that the group is “well-equipped”, “heavily armed”, and using “dozens of speedboats” and “dynamite and other explosives”. Many mention that the group is responsible for reducing Nigeria’s oil output by a 20-25%.

None of these stories, however, even asked the question to which I wanted the answer, much less answered it: given that this is a force of “indigenous people” and most of the indigenous people live on “less than a dollar a day”, from where is MEND getting the money for all these weapons, speedboats and explosives?

A bit more Googling revealed not much more information. Someplace called the International Crisis Group, summarizes the situation in Nigeria and at least says that MEND “has not revealed the identity of its leaders or the source of its funds but its actions demonstrate that it is better armed and organised than previous militant groups.” Contrary to the journalists, this group does care about these funds, claiming they come from oil theft and “protection” rackets, where oil companies pay to avoid being targeted. This is at least more informative, even if it doesn’t necessarily match the current set of attacks. Did Shell just refuse to pay and are now being made an example? Has MEND graduated past the need for such financing? Gee, if only there was some kind of publication or company that would send people to these places, with the job of asking these kinds of questions and reporting back to us.

As before, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Until I do, I will continue to foam at the mouth about it. Sorry.

By the way, I have a theory that this type of shallow journalism also explains why more people seem to be willing to accept conspiracy theories these days. Since the news isn’t actually providing explanations of anything (or, worse, those they do offer contain obvious flaws), people just assume that something else must be going on that makes more sense, and will go through paradoxically nonsensical contortions to guess at it.

For example, with this Nigerian story, a) the attacks seemed geared at stopping oil production, rather than gaining control of it and b) that would decrease the supply of oil and c) raise the price, which d) would be good for other oil producers. Since e) no other theory seems to exist, I’m just going to assume that OPEC is funding these people. Unless I lived in the European Union, when I would assume that Russia was doing it. (Look! I’m halfway to believing things without facts, just like religion would have me do. Must be a conspiracy.)

Virtual film analysis

September 8th, 2008 — Wordman

Having recently completed Awake in the Dark, I was glad to see Roger Ebert’s article on how to read a movie. I immediately started thinking along the lines that some of the commentators did: could this be reasonably done in an on-line way?

I think it could. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as Ebert describes, of course, for some obvious reasons: the crowd would be much larger, the pace would be necessarily slower, the shots to be examined would have to be selected in some way other than yelling “stop”, typing is not the same as speaking, and so on. Even so, it still might be useful. And fun.

I’m tempted to do this myself. Maybe I will if no one else picks up the gauntlet. One way it could work would be like this:

  • Get a domain like cinema-interruptus.org.
  • Install the latest version of phpBB.
  • Create one forum per film.
  • Use one thread per shot.
  • For each film, one registered user acts as the “host”.
  • Lock down permissions in a forum so that only the “host” can create new threads (i.e. shots) in that forum.
  • The host initiates a shot by creating a new thread containing the shot to be examined, with a number in the subject. The initial post would contain things like the time index and so on.
  • Anyone can then post to the thread.
  • Once some criterion has been reached, a new shot is posted. This could be done in a few ways:
    • Some sort of time limit, say, an hour or two. This forces the experience to work in a “live” way, however, which isn’t what the internet is best at.
    • Some sort of “post count” limit is hit. For example, after 50 or 100 (or whatever) posts to the thread, the next shot starts. This has the advantage that the pace of the process is dictated by interest, moving through shots quickly when a lot of people are posting (i.e. at “peak hours”) and more slowly when fewer are paying attention. Disadvantage is that the cutoff is arbitrary. There will surely be cases where it either cuts off to soon or stalls.
    • Allow the host to move on when he feels the time is right. Would probably be the best choice, but would entirely depend on a good host.
    • Some other method.
  • It might be useful, when moving to a new shot, to lock the previous shot/thread. I can see where this would be helpful. I can also see how it would be a hindrance. Probably a choice left up to the host.
  • It might be interesting if the choice of frames was deterministic (e.g. take one frame exactly every 30 seconds), rather than having the host (or, perhaps, requests from earlier shots) pick out “interesting” frames. On the one hand, this downplays the human element and forces focus onto a place it might not go naturally. On the other hand, this downplays the human element and forces focus onto a place it might not go naturally.
  • Using one film per forum, run several different movies at once.
  • Close down the site after being sued by the MPAA for copyright violations.

It would take quite a while to get through a film. It would also be a project with many built-in “intermissions” from the point of view of the reader. That is, they’d see a few shots, then go on with their day, then see a few more, and so on. This would be a much different concept than sitting in a dark room for several hours at a stretch. I’m guessing it might make the analysis better, but perhaps not.

Who’s up for it? Would you participate in such a thing?