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Sunday, August 29, 2004

Too Much Bardak
Last week I wrote a post about popular bloggers and how success can be a challenge. As if to prove my point, Steven Den Beste has quit blogging (for the time being, at least). It's not a huge surprise, he's been slowing down for a while, and he's posted a few times about it. He used to have a bulletin board, but he took that down a while ago. He doesn't have comments, nor does he allow trackbacks. The only thing left is email, and it appears that his inbox gets constantly filled with pedantic nitpicking. He once described it thusly:
Almost all of these letters were friendly and helpful. But the cumulative effect of them is like a piledriver... This morning, I started scanning through my mailbox and, for just a moment, considered taking the site down. I really do like receiving mail from readers, and I don't really mind receiving critical mail. But when I receive 50 letters in 12 hours which all hop on the same exact point, then even if nearly all of them are friendly and helpful and supportive, the cumulative effect is ego-crushing. And for a couple of minutes, I found myself asking why I'm bothering with this at all. Why am I spending $200 per month and several hours per day, apparently only to give people someone to sneer at?

It was an unfair reaction on my part; I know full well that most of my readers don't sneer at me.
He's been trying for a while to cut down on annoying emails, to the point where he inserts little notes in his posts which mean "Don't write letters!" For all his efforts, this apparently didn't stop abuse; emails nitpicking minor details (missing the forest for the trees) still flood his inbox.

Last week, I quoted Commisar on why big bloggers don't allow comments, etc... "Too much bardak," he said. But Den Beste posted some examples of the email he gets, and it becomes clear that while he has to shift though his fair share of noise, there is a significant amount of signal that is worthy of attention. Too much, in fact, and I can imagine that would be overwhelming.

The only real solutions left to Den Beste are to stop blogging, or to stop allowing emails. Forbidding emails is probably unrealistic. I'd imagine he wants some sort of feedback, just not the backbreaking quantity he gets now. It's not just that he doesn't get good emails, it's that he gets too many good emails as well. There's no real way to separate duplicate comments or overly intensive requests from the rest, and that's the real problem. I suppose if he did forbid emails, feedback could be garnered through people blogging their comments, but that still leaves something to be desired. From what I know, I think it could work, but it's obviously not ideal. So for now he's stopped blogging.

And as much as I enjoy his blog, I really can't blame him for that. I can't imagine getting that much feedback, and if I did, I'm sure I'd buckle under the pressure far sooner than Den Beste. I will miss his blogging though, and anxiously await his return... but I'm not holding my breath. Happy trails, Captain!
Posted by Mark on August 29, 2004 at 08:03 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Spider Man and Blogging
Webslinger or Weblogger?: metaphilm details the surprising similarities between Spider Man 2 and bloggers:
It’s tough being a famous weblogger. Every time something happens, you feel obliged to post an entry. In fact, people expect it. At first it’s exciting, but it soon becomes overwhelming (and you’re not even getting paid for it). The next thing you know, you’re not performing at work, going out on dates, or getting on with your life. And to your surprise, you’ve become a target of criticism. All you’ve ever done is try to use your weblogging abilities to help humankind from the forces of corporate, political, and aesthetic evil. And what does humankind do? They turn on you. They take you for granted. They spam your commenting system.

... Eventually you realize that you have a choice to make. Either continue the demanding life of a weblogger or call it quits. You conclude, “I want a life of my own. I’m weblogging no more.”
A short and interesting read, and it actually does make a little sense. A blogger always wants to be read, but how many people really want a huge readership? Personally, I would like more traffic, but not to the point where I get hundreds of comments per entry. At that point I'd probably stop allowing comments, and if you look around at some of the most popular blogs, you'll notice they don't have comments or trackbacks enabled and sometimes even emailing them can be a challenge. There is a good reason popular bloggers like Glenn Reynolds don't have these things enabled - as the Commisar puts it, "Too much bardak."

The Commisar also seems to have a good handle on how build traffic for your blog. His basic theory is that if you're running a small to medium blog, you should focus on getting attention from similar blogs. You don't need to send links out to big bloggers hoping they'll link you, because even if they do, you get a giant spike of visits, and then things return right back to normal. However, if you build up a friendship with lots of other smaller blogs, you'll get more consistent traffic. You do this sort of thing by making thoughtful comments on their blogs, or linking to them, or maybe exchanging some emails. Personally, I always have a hard time doing that because I'm lazy and don't want to read a lot of other blogs and spend time posting insightful comments. I have a hard enough time keeping up with my own blog, and yet to a great extent, the "comrades" I have developed in the blogosphere have come, to a great extent, from that very source. But I digress.

In the end, while I could stand a little more traffic, I'm just happy when an entry gets a modest amount of comments or a link from some other blog. I don't think I'll be getting famous any time soon, but still, too much traffic would seem a burden. The important thing is that I like what I'm doing here, and I do. And I'm certainly thankful for those who do take the time to read and comment here, because I don't know that I would continue without them. It is a matter of balance, I guess...
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2004 at 03:50 PM .: link :.

Functional Chauvinism
Respecting Other Talents: David Foster writes about the dangers of "Functional Chauvinism":
A person typically spends his early career in a particular function, and interacts mainly with others in that function. And there is often an unwholesome kind of functional "patriotism" which goes beyond pride in one's own work and disparages the work done by others ("we could get this software written if those marketing idiots would just stop bothering us.")
An excellent post (and typical of the work over at Photon Courier), Foster focuses on the impacts to the business world, but I remember this sort of thing being prevalent in college. I was an engineer, but I naturally had to take on a number of humanities courses in addition to my technical workload. Functional chauvinism came from both students and professors, but the people who stood out were those who avoided this pitfall and made an effort to understand and respect functional differences.

For instance, many of my fellow engineering students were pissed that they even had to take said humanities courses. After all, they were paying an exorbanent amount of money to be educated in advanced technical issues, not what some Greek guy thought 2 millennia ago (personally, I found those subjects interesting and appreciated the chance for an easy A - ok, there's a bit of chauvinism there too, but I at least respected the general idea that humanities were important).

On the other hand, there were professors who were so absorbed in their area of study that they could not conceive of a student not being spellbound and utterly fascinated by whatever they taught. For someone majoring in philosophy, that's fine, but for an engineer who considers their technical courses to be their priority, it becomes a little different. I got lucky, in that several of professors actually took into account what major their students were. Often a class would be filled with engineers or hard science majors, and these classes were made more relevant and rewarding because the professors took that into account when teaching. Other professors were not so considerate.

It is certainly understandable to have such feelings, and to a point there's no real harm done, but it can't hurt to take a closer look at what other people do either. As Foster concludes, "Respect for talents other than one's own. A key element of individual and organizational success." Indeed.
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2004 at 03:37 PM .: link :.

Checking in with my chain smoking monkey research staff, here are a few interesting links they've dug up:
  • Baghdad Journal, Part 13: You knew this was coming - yet another in the long series of articles by artist Steve Mumford about Iraq on the ground. This one focuses a little on the law enforcement situation, including the training of Iraqi police and National Guard, and prisons. Interesting stuff, as always. If you are not familiar with Mumford's work, I suggest you take a look at all of his previous columns. Highly recommended.
  • Alien vs. Predator: Something about this list where Aliens and Predators compete in unlikely events like breakdancing (which logically goes to Alien) and Macram� (wich is totally a Predator dominated event) just feels right. Perhaps it's because of the Olympics.
  • Cinematic Supervillain Showdown: Along the same lines, inspired by AvP, Matthew Baldwin made up a list pitting other cinematic villains against one another, March Madness style. Funniest matchups: Sauron vs. Ferris Bueller's Principal and Hannibal Lecter vs. Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Kottke has a few interesting matchup ideas as well. As with any such list, there are notable absences, and I won't stoop to the level of feigning shocked disappointment that one of my favorites isn't included... Allright, I lied, where the hell is Boba Fett?!
  • Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Clich�s: This list of overused plot-points has a two pronged effect: Makes it that much more difficult to write a story, and it makes you genuinely appreciate when a story such as, perhaps, this one, whose concept is certainly overused, but studiously avoids any clich�s. [via The Ministry of Minor Perfidy]
  • 2004 Olympics: Speaking of those perfidious folks, Johno has a great post about the Olympics:
    Olympic badminton is scary. That wussy little shuttlecock and flimsy little racquet in the hands of experts become weapons of fearsome power. Last night in a doubles match I watched a short little American guy with a 35-inch (!) vertical leap whip off a kill that must have been going 85 MPH when the shuttlecock hit the court. Unbelievable. More unbelievable is that they got taken apart by a Norwegian team who played like implacable machines.
    Very true. And yes, those lady gymnasts do "need to eat some cake." I'd also like to mention how astounding their routines are. I never really paid much attention to it before, but I now realize that I'm not sure I can even walk across the balance beam and that these people are truly amazing individuals.
That's all for now. More later.
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2004 at 02:32 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Convenience and Piracy
There is no silver bullet that will stop media piracy, whether it be movies, music, or video games. That doesn't stop media providers from trying, though. Of course, that is reasonable and expected, as piracy can pose a significant financial threat to their business. Unfortunately the draconian security mechanisms they employ aren't very effective, and end up alienating honest customers. I touched on this subject here a while back.

One of the first things you need to do when designing a security system is identify the attackers. Only then can you design an efficient countermeasure. So who are the pirates? Brad Wardell speculates that there are two basic groups of pirates:
Group A: The kiddies who warez everything. CD Copy protection means nothing to them. They have the game before it even hits the stores.

Group B: Potential buyers who are really more interested in convenience. The price of the game isn't as big a deal to them as convenience.
You'll never get rid of Group A, no matter what security measures you implement, but there is no reason you shouldn't be able to cut down on Group B. Unfortunately, most security systems that are implemented end up exacerbating the situation, frustrating customers and creating Group B pirates. One thing I've noticed about myself recently is that convenience is suddenly much more important to me. Spare time has become a premium for me, and thus I don't have the time or motivation to be a Group A pirate (not that I've ever been much of a pirate).

Not too long ago, I upgraded my system to Windows XP. After some time, I wanted to play some game that I had bought years ago. Naturally, all I have is the CD - not the key or the original box or anything. What to do? Suddenly, piracy becomes an option. And the next time I want to buy a game, I might think twice about going out to a store and paying top dollar to be inconvenienced by obtrusive copy-protection.

Wardell is the owner of Stardock, a company which is particularly good at not alienating customers. I have a subscription to TotalGaming.net, and am very pleased with the experience they provide. Wardell describes his philosophy for combating piracy:
That's why I think CD based copy protections are a bad idea. I think they create pirates and aren't terribly effective anyway. They're supposed to keep the honest "honest" but I propose a better way.

NOT Internet activation. Instead, game developers adopt a policy that has been very successful in the non-game software market -- after release updates.

PC games often come out buggy, get one patch, and then are largely abandoned. It's really hard to feel sympathy for game developers who treat their customers that way. Instead of doing that, release frequent updates to the game for users. For free. Have them go through a secure network so that only registered purchasing users can get the update but make it as convenient as you can.

By doing this, you create a bigger incentive to be a customer than to be a pirate. It becomes increasingly inconvenient to have the latest/greatest version of the game via the warez route than the legitimate route.
This is an interesting and apparently effective strategy (as Stardock seems to be doing well). Stardock has structured its business model so that they survive even in the face of piracy, yet don't have to resort to absurd and obtrusive security measures to combat piracy. It's a matter of policy for them, and their policy makes it more convenient to be a customer than a pirate. Of course, such a solution only really works for video games, but it is worth noting nonetheless.
Posted by Mark on August 15, 2004 at 07:54 PM .: link :.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Blame it on Ka
This is a follow up to my last post on Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I just finished the latest installment of said series, entitled Song of Susannah. In some ways I'm not very happy with it, but I'm willing to give King the benefit of the doubt. I still don't expect to like the ending, and King seems to be dropping hints all over the place indicating that my fears are well founded. I referenced one in my last post, but there were others in this book, such as this one in which Roland talks to a "fictional" Stephen King who is afraid he won't finish the story:
"I'm afraid."
"I know, but we'll try--"
"It's not that. I'm afraid of not being able to finish." His voice lowered. "I'm afraid the Tower will fall and I'll be held to blame."
"That is up to ka, not you," Roland said, "Or me."
I didn't much like the idea of King writing himself into the story, but the way he did so was agreeable enough (I don't like that he did it at all, but considering that he did, it could have been worse). In any case, it's stuff like that excerpt that make me think King is trying to lower expectations. What's more, he's blaming it on ka (for the uninitiated, ka is roughly translated as "destiny" though there is more to it than that)! He's done this before too - in my last post I referenced the cliffhanger ending of the third Dark Tower novel, The Waste Lands. He claimed that the ending just felt right, that "the wind just stopped blowing" and that the book should end where it did. Further, he claimed that he didn't even know how it would end. Six years later, he wrote the next book in the series and finally resolved that conflict. Such an event, if we are to take King at his word, strengthens the suspicion that he's just making this up as he goes along. Naturally, I'm worried about how this is going to end.

On the bright side, Song of Susannah was a quick, fun read - a real page-turner. And I do think King could pull this thing off, but I'm very suspicious. Or perhaps I'm just subconsciously trying to set the standards low so I won't be disappointed in the series when it ends (a la my post on expectations and The Village).
Posted by Mark on August 12, 2004 at 10:33 PM .: link :.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Bracing for Disappointment
I'm currently reading the latest installment of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, entitled Song of Susannah. The series started over twenty years ago, with the publication of The Gunslinger. The series tells the tale of Roland of Gilead, the last gunslinger, and his quest for the Dark Tower. Along the way, he picks up 3 companions, and they travel along a challenge ridden path, filled with imaginative characters and landscapes. It's astoundingly ambitious, and the story has always had a teasing sort of visible potential.

Unfortunately, I've often felt that King doesn't know how to end his novels - it seems like he just makes up a bunch of compelling concepts, follows through a bit, then promptly corners himself. He sometimes manages to weasel his way out of it, but I don't generally end up satisfied. Even within the Dark Tower series, he's done some odd things (namely, the way he ended the third book - The Waste Lands - was a cliffhanger, and he didn't write the next book for 5 years). So naturally I'm a little apprehensive about the impending end of the Dark Tower series.

I read a part last night which made me feel like King knows we're not going to like it. It's a piece of dialogue between two characters (actually two personalities in the same person, but I digress), but it might as well be between King and his audience:
And remember Susannah-Mio, if you want my cooperation, you give me some straight answers.

I will, the other replied. Just don't expect to like them. Or even understand them.

What do you--

Never Mind! Gods, I never met anyone who could ask so many questions! Time is short!
Ok, so it's unfair to put those words in King's mouth like that, but that's basically how I think the rest of the series is going to go - he's going to answer a lot of the questions he brought up, but I don't expect to like them, or even understand them. It just feels like he's making it up as he's going along, and he's written himself into a corner again, with no way out. I hope I'm wrong, and I don't want to write King off completely, but if the chapter that follows the exerpt above is any indication, I'm worried.
Posted by Mark on August 09, 2004 at 11:02 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Recent Viewings
I've had the pleasure of viewing quite a few movies lately, so I figured I share my impressions. One note before I start, Comcast (my cable company) has this thing called "On Demand" in which you can "rent" movies right over the cable box. You can pause, rewind, etc... It's not as feature rich as Tivo or a regular DVD and the browsing/program guide service of Comcast is attrocious, but it's a fantastic idea and addictive to someone like myself. There's a section for pay movies, but if you have any premium channels, you get a special section filled with movies for free. Anyways, let's get started:
  • Collateral (2004): Another solid effort from director Michael Mann. It's about a hit man named Vincent (Tom Cruise) who hires a cab (driven by Max, played by Jamie Foxx) to drive him around L.A. for 5 jobs. Naturally, things don't go according to plan. Hijinks ensue. It has some interesting casting which has, yet again, paid off for Mann, as Cruise and Foxx have a good back and forth throughout the entire movie. The premise and story are somewhat conventional, but the film is elevated by excellent direction and performances all around. Three Stars (***)
  • Buffalo Soldiers (2001): Boy, was this released at the wrong time, or what? It's a dark comedy about drugs, theft, sex, and other scheming by U.S. troops stationed in Germany towards the end of the Cold War and it was released a few days before 9/11. Talk about the wrong movie at the the wrong time. Oddly, I'm not sure we're really supposed to like any of the characters in this movie. The main character is a crafty clerk named Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), who manages to hustle everything from cleaning supplies to missiles, not to mention his skills as a drug processer. Phoenix does his best and for the most part succeeds at making the audience root for him, if only because he's the least unlikeable character in the lot. It's an interesting film and it held my attention, even if it was a bit uneven. If you can deal with seeing our troops handled in this light (it is fiction, after all) check it out. Two and a half stars (**1/2)
  • Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001): This movie is based on an anime series of the same name. It follows a band of bounty hunters as they track down a terrorist who controls a deadly biological weapon. I have to admit, the name "Cowboy Bebop" always turned me off, but once I started watching I found myself really enjoying it. It's a fun movie, filled with complex action sequences, fantastic music, and great animation. As animated scifi-action-comedies go, it was pretty good. I haven't seen the series, but I've heard it's better than the movie, so I'll probably check it out at some point. Three Stars (***)
  • Swimming Pool(2003): This cryptic, plodding pseudo-thriller is about an English mystery writer (expertly played by Charlotte Rampling) who visits her publisher's home in France in the hopes that a change of scenery will provide inspiration for her latest novel. Things seem to be going well, until her publisher's sexpot daughter (and her spectactular boobs) shows up and breaks the writer's concentration. An odd relationship builds between the two, leading to a pseudo-Hitchcockian plot point and a bewildering ending. Truth be told, not a whole lot happens in the film. It's slowly paced and has some odd plot points that don't quite ring true, but the ending shifts the perspective of the entire movie. You have to pay attention, and it makes for interesting viewing, though I could see how some would be very disappointed in the film. Two and a half stars (**1/2)
  • Men With Guns(1997): John Sayles' impeccable film about a wealthy doctor in an unspecified Central American country who makes a trek through the country searching for doctors he had trained to help out Indian villages. The more he searches, the more he is shocked by what he finds. Outside of the Capital (where the doctor lives), poverty, violence, and lawlessness reign. It is quite an ambitious film, tackling a wide set of issues from diverse angles. This is thoughtful, if a little bleak, filmmaking. Three and a half stars (***1/2)
That's it for now. Since these are little capsule reviews, I've no doubt forgotten some things, so I may add a bit here or there during the week...
Posted by Mark on August 08, 2004 at 07:59 PM .: link :.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Retaking Baqubah
Steve Mumford's latest Baghdad Journal is up. He describes a firefight he witnessed, and it's compelling reading. If you read this blog, you've probably heard of Mumford before, but just in case you haven't, I've linked to all of the Baghdad Journals here. Check them out, they're well worth your time.
Posted by Mark on August 02, 2004 at 08:20 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

A Village of Expectation
It's funny how much your expectations influence how much you like or dislike a movie. I'm often disappointed by long awaited films, Star Wars: Episode I being the typical example. Decades of waiting and an unprecidented pre-release hype served only to elevate expectations for the film to unreachable heights. So when the time came, meesa not so impressed. I enjoyed the film and I don't think it was that bad, but my expecations far outweighed the experience.

Conversely, when I go to watch a movie I think will stink, I'm often pleasantly surprised. Sometimes these movies are bad, but I thought they would be so much worse than they were that I ended up enjoying them. A recent example of this was I, Robot. As an avid Isaac Asimov fan, I was appalled by the previews for the film, which featured legions of apparently rebelling CGI robots, and naturally thought it would be stupifyingly bad as such events were antithetical to Asimov's nuanced robot stories. Of course, I went to see it, and about halfway through, I was surprised to find that I was enjoying myself. It contains a few mentions to the three laws, positronics, and the name Susan Calvin is used for one of the main characters, but other than those minor details, the story doesn't even begin to resemble anything out of Asimov, so I was able to disassociate the two and enjoy the film on its own merits. And it was enjoyable.

Of course, I became aware of this phenomenon a long time ago, and have always tried to learn as little as possible about movies before they come out as I can. I used to read up on all the movie news and look forward to tons of movies, but I found that going in with a clean slate is the best way to see a film. So I tend to shy away from reading reviews, though I will glance at the star rating of a few critics I know and respect. (Obviously it is not a perfectly clean slate, but you get the point.)

Earlier this week, I realized that M. Night Shyamalan's The Village was being released, and made plans to see it. Shyamalan, the writer, director, and producer of such films as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, has become known for the surprise ending, where some fact is revealed which totally changes the perspective of everything that came before it. This is unfortunate, because the twists and turns of a story are less effective if we're expecting them. What's more, if we know it's coming, we wrack our brains trying to figure out what the surprise will be, hypothesizing several different versions of the story in our head, one of which is bound to be accurate. I've never been that impressed with Shyamalan, but he has always produced solid films that were entertaining enough. There are often little absudities or plot holes, but never enough to completely drain my goodwill dry (though Signs came awfully close). I think he'll mature into a better filmmaker as time goes on.

The Village has it's share of twists and turns, but of course, we expect them and so they really don't come as any surprise (and, to be honest, Shyamalan layed on the hints pretty thickly). Fortunately, knowing what is coming doesn't completely destroy the film, as it would in some of his other films. I've tried to avoid spoilers by speaking in generalities, but if you haven't seen the film, you might want to skip down to the next paragraph (I don't think I ruined anything, but better safe than sorry). Shyamalan has always relied more on brooding atmosphere and building tension than on gratuitous action and gore, and The Village is no exception. Once again, he does resort to the use of "Boo!" moments, something that has always rubbed me the wrong way in his films, but I'm beginning to come around. He has become quite adept at employing that device, even if it is a cheap thrill. He must realize it, because at one point I think he deliberately eschews the "Boo!" moment in favor of a more meticulous and subtle approach. There are several instances of masterful staging in the film, which is part of why knowing the twists ahead of time doesn't ruin the film.

Now I was looking forward to this film, but as I mentioned before, I've never been blown away by Shyamalan (with the possible exception of Unbreakable, which I still think is the best of his films) so I didn't have tremendously high expectations. I expected a well done, but not brilliant, film. On Friday, I checked out Ebert's rating and glanced at Rotten Tomatoes, both of which served to further deflate my expectations. By the time I saw the film, I was expecting a real dud and was pleasantly surprised to find another solid effort from Shyamalan. It's not for everybody, and those who are expecting another bombshell ending will be disappointed, but that doesn't matter much in my opinion. The movie is what it is, and I judge it on its own merits, not on inflated expectations of twist endings and shocking revelations.

Would I have enjoyed it as much if I had been expecting something more out of it? Probably not, and there's the rub. Does it matter? That is a difficult question to answer. No matter how you slice it, what you expect of a film forces a point of reference. When you see the film, you judge it based on that. So now the question becomes, is it right to intentially force the point of reference low, so as to make sure you enjoy the movie? That too is a difficult question to answer. For my money, it is to some extent advisable to keep a check on high expectations, but I suppose you could get carried away with it. In any case, I enjoyed The Village and I look forward to Shyamalan's next film, albeit with a wary sense of trepidation.
Posted by Mark on August 01, 2004 at 07:34 PM .: link :.

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