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Sunday, September 26, 2004

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
So the seventh and final book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, aptly titled The Dark Tower, is finally out. The series was a good 25 years in the making, and to be honest, I never thought he'd finish it (especially after his several threats of retirement). I'm not sure I would have minded, either, because I've always been a bit disappointed by the way he ends a lot of his stories. It often feels like he's just making it up as he goes along, assembling various interesting ideas and using them to drive a story, but he sometimes backs himself into a corner. In any case, about a year ago, King started publishing new Dark Tower novels on a regular schedule. In these new novels, I've been noticing things that lead me to believe that the ending is going to stink, that King knows it, and that he is attempting to lower expectations. There are several examples, and I've posted about them before. I guess this is a bit repetitive, but I find it interesting.

The first page of the new book has several quotes from various sources (authors often do this, choosing quotations that go along with the themes of the story), one of which is Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" which King claims was the inspiration for the entire Dark Tower series. Another quote, by Trent Reznor (from the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt), doesn't do much to assuage my doubts:
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
I know this is a bit unfair to Mr. King, but I have my doubts. Then again, expectations play a big part in perception, and I could certainly end up happy with the ending because I don't expect it to be good (a la my feelings on The Village).
Posted by Mark on September 26, 2004 at 10:32 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Catfight in Iraq
The latest Baghdad Journal from Steve Mumford is, as usual, chock-full of interesting bits about Iraq that you're not likely to hear about elsewhere. For those who are unaware of Mumford's excellent column (there are now 14 such articles), he is a New York artist who has travelled to Iraq on a number of occasions over the past few years, sometimes embedding with the military, sometimes just visiting Iraqi artists he's made friends with. He writes about his trips and thus provides us with an interesting perspective that is unlike most of what you see about Iraq. I highly recommend you check out his other articles, which I have collected here.

His articles are always accompanied by artwork, usually drawn by him, ranging from brief sketches to more detailed paintings. If you haven't noticed, there are often little mini-anecdotes hidden in the individual art pages. In the most recent article, Mumford describes a Psy-ops meeting with an Iraqi communist:
Psy-Ops at Communist Party Headquarters, Baqubah
The Psy-Ops people don’t want their names used, but here an NCO is interviewing the leader of the local party to find out if they'll be fielding candidates for the upcoming elections. Ironically, Iraq’s Communist Party is quite pro-U.S., recognizing that the new government is the best shot at a democracy the country's ever had.
Communists a fan of the U.S. because they support democracy? That sounds a bit odd to me, but interesting nonetheless. Other highlights from the recent article include a "shady" Iraqi mayor, reconstruction woes, the Iraqi football/soccer team, and the Miller Lite Catfight Girls. Again, highly recommended reading.
Posted by Mark on September 19, 2004 at 08:36 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A Reflexive Media
"To write or to speak is almost inevitably to lie a little. It is an attempt to clothe an intangible in a tangible form; to compress an immeasurable into a mold. And in the act of compression, how the Truth is mangled and torn!" - Anne Murrow Lindbergh
There are many types of documentary films. The most common form of documentary is referred to as Direct Address (aka Voice of God). In such a documentary, the viewer is directly acknowledged, usually through narration and voice-overs. There is very little ambiguity and it is pretty obvious how you're expected to interpret these types of films. Many television and news programs use this style, to varying degrees of success. Ken Burns' infamous Civil War and Baseball series use this format eloquently, but most traditional propaganda films also fall into this category (a small caveat: most films are hybrids, rarely falling exclusively into one category). Such films give the illusion of being an invisible witness to certain events and are thus very persuasive and powerful.

The problem with Direct Address documentaries is that they grew out of a belief that Truth is knowable through objective facts. In a recent sermon he posted on the web, Donald Sensing spoke of the difference between facts and the Truth:
Truth and fact are not the same thing. We need only observe the presidential race to discern that. John Kerry and allies say that the results of America's war against Iraq is mostly a failure while George Bush and allies say they are mostly success. Both sides have the same facts, but both arrive at a different "truth."

People rarely fight over facts. What they argue about is what the facts mean, what is the Truth the facts indicate.
I'm not sure Sensing chose the best example here, but the concept itself is sound. Any documentary is biased in the Truth that it presents, even if the facts are undisputed. In a sense objectivity is impossible, which is why documentary scholar Bill Nichols admires films which seek to contextualize themselves, exposing their limitations and biases to the audience.

Reflexive Documentaries use many devices to acknowledge the filmmaker's presence, perspective, and selectivity in constructing the film. It is thought that films like this are much more honest about their subjectivity, and thus provide a much greater service to the audience.

An excellent example of a Reflexive documentary is Errol Morris' brilliant film, The Thin Blue Line. The film examines the "truth" around the murder of a Dallas policeman. The use of colored lighting throughout the film eventually correlates with who is innocent or guilty, and Morris is also quite manipulative through his use of editing - deconstructing and reconstructing the case to demonstrate just how problematic finding the truth can be. His use of framing calls attention to itself, daring the audience to question the intents of the filmmakers. The use of interviews in conjunction with editing is carefully structured to demonstrate the subjectivity of the film and its subjects. As you watch the movie, it becomes quite clear that Morris is toying with you, the viewer, and that he wants you to be critical of the "truth" he is presenting.

Ironically, a documentary becomes more objective when it acknowledges its own biases and agenda. In other words, a documentary becomes more objective when it admits its own subjectivity. There are many other forms of documentary not covered here (i.e. direct cinema/cinema verité, interview-based, performative, mock-documentaries, etc... most of which mesh together as they did in Morris' Blue Line to form a hybrid).

In Bill Nichols' seminal essay, Voice of Documentary (Can't seem to find a version online), he says:
"Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility not to be objective. Objectivity is a concept borrowed from the natural sciences and from journalism, with little place in the social sciences or documentary film."
I always found it funny that Nichols equates the natural sciences with journalism, as it seems to me that modern journalism is much more like a documentary than a natural science. As such, I think the lessons of Reflexive documentaries (and its counterparts) should apply to the realm of journalism.

The media emphatically does not acknowledge their biases. By bias, I don't mean anything as short-sighted as liberal or conservative media bias, I mean structural bias of which political orientation is but a small part (that link contains an excellent essay on the nature of media bias, one that I find presents a more complete picture and is much more useful than the tired old ideological bias we always hear so much about*). Such subjectivity does exist in journalism, yet the media stubbornly persists in their firm belief that they are presenting the objective truth.

The recent CBS scandal, consisting of a story bolstered by what appear to be obviously forged documents, provides us with an immediate example. Terry Teachout makes this observation regarding how few prominent people are willing to admit that they are wrong:
I was thinking today about how so few public figures are willing to admit (for attribution, anyway) that they’ve done something wrong, no matter how minor. But I wasn’t thinking of politicians, or even of Dan Rather. A half-remembered quote had flashed unexpectedly through my mind, and thirty seconds’ worth of Web surfing produced this paragraph from an editorial in a magazine called World War II:
Soon after he had completed his epic 140-mile march with his staff from Wuntho, Burma, to safety in India, an unhappy Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell was asked by a reporter to explain the performance of Allied armies in Burma and give his impressions of the recently concluded campaign. Never one to mince words, the peppery general responded: "I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, and go back and retake it."
Stilwell spoke those words sixty-two years ago. When was the last time that such candor was heard in like circumstances? What would happen today if similar words were spoken by some equally well-known person who’d stepped in it up to his eyebrows?
As he points out later in his post, I don't think we're going to be seeing such admissions any time soon. Again, CBS provides a good example. Rather than admit the possibility that they may be wrong, their response to the criticisms of their sources has been vague, dismissive, and entirely reliant on their reputation as a trustworthy staple of journalism. They have not yet comprehensively responded to any of the numerous questions about the documents; questions which range from "conflicting military terminology to different word-processing techniques". It appears their strategy is to escape the kill zone by focusing on the "truth" of their story, that Bush's service in the Air National Guard was less than satisfactory. They won't admit that the documents are forgeries, and by focusing on the arguably important story, they seek to distract the issue away from their any discussion of their own wrongdoing - in effect claiming that the documents aren't important because the story is "true" anyway.

Should they admit they were wrong? Of course they should, but they probably won't. If they won't, it will not be because they think the story is right, and not because they think the documents are genuine. They won't admit wrongdoing and they won't correct their methodologies or policies because to do so would be to acknowledge to the public that they are less than just an objective purveyor of truth.

Yet I would argue that they should do so, that it is their duty to do so just as it is the documentarian's responsibility to acknowledge their limitations and agenda to their audience.

It is also interesting to note that weblogs contrast the media by doing just that. Glenn Reynolds notes that the internet is a low-trust medium, which paradoxically indicates that it is more trustworthy than the media (because blogs and the like acknowledge their bias and agenda, admit when they're wrong, and correct their mistakes):
The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.

That's because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren't linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that's impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.

(This is actually a lot like the world lawyers live in -- nobody trusts us enough to take our word for, well, much of anything, so we back things up with lots of footnotes, citations, and exhibits. Legal citation systems are even like a primitive form of hypertext, really, one that's been around for six or eight hundred years. But I digress -- except that this perhaps explains why so many lawyers take naturally to blogging).

You can also refine your arguments, updating -- and even abandoning them -- in realtime as new facts or arguments appear. It's part of the deal.

This also means admitting when you're wrong. And that's another difference. When you're a blogger, you present ideas and arguments, and see how they do. You have a reputation, and it matters, but the reputation is for playing it straight with the facts you present, not necessarily the conclusions you reach.
The mainstream media as we know it is on the decline. They will no longer be able to get by on their brand or their reputations alone. The collective intelligence of the internet, combined with the natural reflexiveness of its environment, has already provided a challenge to the underpinnings of journalism. On the internet, the dominance of the media is constantly challenged by individuals who question the "truth" presented to them in the media. I do not think that blogs have the power to eclipse the media, but their influence is unmistakable. The only question that remains is if the media will rise to the challenge. If the way CBS has reacted is any indication, then, sadly, we still have a long way to go.

* Yes, I do realize the irony of posting this just after I posted about liberal and conservative tendencies in online debating, and I hinted at that with my "Update" in that post.

Thanks to Jay Manifold for the excellent Structural Bias of Journalism link.
Posted by Mark on September 15, 2004 at 11:07 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Original Sources vs Analysis
A little while ago, Brad Wardell wrote about a difference between Left-Wing and Right-Wing zealots. Basically, liberals tend to rely on third-party analysis of data, while conservatives tend to dig into the data themselves and come to their own conclusions. Each group will sometimes get into trouble sometimes because of this:
Bear with a generalization for a moment: people who are left of center politically tend not to be quite as analytical as the general population. You don't find too many engineers, for example, arguing for liberal causes. And you don't find too many artists arguing for conservative causes. There are exceptions of course but as a generalization, I think you'd agree this is true.

This creates an interesting set of diverse behaviors. Liberals tend to rely very heavily on third party data analysis. In other words, they don't tend to look at the actual data and then form their own conclusion. Instead, they just repeat the analysis of someone else. ...

But let's not let the right wingers get off the hook either. If we're going to offend people, let's be equal opportunity offenders. There's a reason that the term "Right wing kook" exists.

Conservatives, particularly very conservative people, are much more inclined to not trust the "liberal media establishment". So often they'll dig into data that is really out of their league to understand. So they'll look at the data and come up with bizarre conclusions.
I tend to dislike generalizations like this, especially when they're made about groups that are as vague and undefined as liberals and conservatives. However, this struck a chord with me as I could identify with the premise - I've debated a lot online, and I've seen this sort of thing in action. It turns out that I'm more in line with the conservative side of things, preferring to look at the data myself rather than relying on some analysis of the data (though I try to avoid referencing a "liberal media" and I don't generally like conspiracies). Still, I'm hesitant to buy into such a broad generalization.

In any case, it is interesting to note that the recent 60 Minutes story that was thoroughly debunked* on the internet within 12 hours of airing provides us with a good example of Wardell's theory in action.

CBS aired this story which questioned President Bush's National Guard service on Wednesday night, citing newly discovered memos written by Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian (Bush's commanding officer). The story was picked up by all the major media outlets, which ran the story the next day. Such stories were immediatately trumpeted by liberals in discussion forums and blogs everywhere. During that same period, some intrepid bloggers were piecing together evidence that the newly discovered memos were forged. It didn't take long for the evidence to mount, and soon other independent threads of investigation were coming to the same conclusion and the media picked up this side of the story. Experts were consulted, family members spoke out, and even CBS sources came out against the documents. All along, some liberals denied the scandal, pointing to CBS's continued insistence that the documents were genuine as proof (i.e. not actually answering the questions about the documents' authenticity, but pointing to CBS's third party analysis of the documents).

This is just a brief summary of the story, and others have much more comprehensive overviews*. What I found interesting, though, was that this is a textbook example of liberals relying on analysis, and conservatives digging into the data and coming to their own conclusions. I'm still not sure I subscribe to Wardell's theory, but I found it interesting that this scandal clearly demonstrates his point.

Update: In the comments, Spencer notes that Wardell's theory "seems like a conclusion one would make as a result of confirmation bias. This person 'notices' a slight trend in the way liberals and conservatives treat information, and then only notices the evidence that supports this trend, making it seem like a stronger and stronger hypothesis." That makes a lot of sense to me, and though I still find the theory interesting, I don't think it holds up in the end. There is something about the propensity to label people that is beginning to bother me more and more, and the division between liberals and conservatives is a prime example. On the one hand, it can be useful to think about such divisions, but it is also easy to get carried away.

* I'm linking to one of the original posts at Power Line because it is large and provides a good summary of the complaints regarding the documents. There have been many posts on many different weblogs that have continued the debate, ranging from the humorous to the serious. Here are some other blogs that might help you get a better grasp of the story: This story was broken by the collective intelligence of the internet, with a bunch of different bloggers cooperating to build up a pile of evidence. In one sense it is amazing, in another, it's annoying because there is no one place to link to that collects all of the commentary on this story. The original Power Line post is great because it collects so much of the analysis in one place, but since that post things have become more diffuse.
Posted by Mark on September 12, 2004 at 03:44 PM .: link :.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Benjamin Franklin: American, Blogger & LIAR!
I've been reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin (Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson), and several things have struck me about the way in which he conducted himself. As with a lot of historical figures, there is a certain aura that surrounds the man which is seen as impenetrable today, but it's interesting to read about how he was perceived in his time and contrast that with how he would be perceived today. As usual, there is a certain limit to the usefulness of such speculation, as it necessarily must be based on certain assumptions that may or may not be true (as such this post might end up saying more about me and my assumptions than Franklin!). In any case, I find such exercises interesting, so I'd like to make a few observations.

The first is that he would have probably made a spectacular blogger, if he chose to engage in such an activity (Ken thinks he would definitely be a blogger, but I'm not so sure). He not only has all the makings of a wonderful blogger, I think he'd be extremely creative with the format. He was something of a populist, his writing was humorous, self-deprecating, and often quite profound at the same time. His range of knowledge and interest was wide, and his tone was often quite congenial. All qualities valued in any blogger.

He was incredibly prolific (another necessity for a successful blog), and often wrote the letters to his paper himself under assumed names, and structured them in such a way as to gently deride his competitors while making some other interesting point. For instance, Franklin once published two letters, written under two different pseudonyms, in which he manufactured the first recorded abortion debate in America - not because of any strong feelings on the issue, but because he knew it would sell newspapers and because his competitor was serializing entries from an encyclopedia at the time and had started with "Abortion." Thus the two letters were not only interesting in themselves, but also provided ample opportunity to impugn his competitor.

On thing I think we'd see in a Franklin blog is entire comment threads consisting of a full back-and-forth debate, with all entries written by Franklin himself under assumed names. I can imagine him working around other "real" commenters with his own pseudonyms, and otherwise having fun with the format (he'd almost certainly make a spectacular troll as well).

If there was ever a man who could make a living out of blogging, I think Franklin was it. This is, in part, why I'm not sure he'd truly end up as a pure blogger, as even in his day, Franklin was known to mix private interests with public ones, and to leverage both to further his business interests. He could certainly have organized something akin to The Junto on the internet, where a group of likeminded fellows got together (whether it be physically or virtually over the internet) and discussed issues of the day and also endeavored to form a vehicle for the furtherance of their own careers.

Then again, perhaps Franklin would simply have started his own newspaper and had nothing to do with blogging (or perhaps he would attempt to mix the two in some new way). The only problem would be that the types of satire and hoaxes he could get away with in his newspapers in the early 18th century would not really be possible in today's atmosphere (such playfulness has long ago left the medium, but is alive and well in the blogosphere, which is one thing that would tend to favor his participation).

Which brings me to my next point: I have to wonder how Franklin would have done in today's political climate. Would he have been able to achieve political prominence? Would he want to? Would his anonymous letters, hoaxes, and in his newspapers have gotten him into trouble? I can imagine the self-righteous indignation now: "His newspaper is a farce! He's a LIAR!" And the Junto? I don't even want to think of the conspiracy theories that could be conjured with that sort of thing in mind.

One thing Franklin was exceptionally good at was managing his personal image, but would he be able to do so in today's atmosphere? I suspect he would have done well in our time, but I don't know how politically active he would be (and I suppose there is something to be said about his participation being partly influenced by the fact that he was a part of a revolution, not a true politician of the kind we have today). I know the basic story of his life, but I haven't gotten that far in the book, so perhaps I should revisit this subject later. And thus ends my probably inaccurate, but interesting nonetheless, discussion of Franklin in our times. Expect more references to Franklin in the future, as I have been struck by quite a few things about his life that are worth discussing today.
Posted by Mark on September 09, 2004 at 10:00 PM .: link :.

Blogroll Updates
Since I'm writing about weblogs a lot lately, I figured I'd take some time out to update my blogroll. As I've mentioned before, a blog usually makes it to my blogroll only because I like to read that blog. Once there, it tends to stay there, but I may eventually remove it, if only to make room for other blogs (and in some cases, bloggers have stopped posting, making the decision to de-link easy). I don't like to remove links, but I will because I think it is important to keep the list relatively short (due to things like Inverse Network Effect). However, most of the blogs I have ever linked to are archived on my general links page (which needs some updating, actually). Anyway, here are the additions to the list:
  • A Voyage to Arcturus: An excellent science and astronomy (among other things) themed blog by Jay Manifold (who is also a contributer to Chicago Boyz).
  • Mauled Again: One wouldn't think in-depth discussions of tax law would be that interesting, but James Edward Maule manages to do so about as well as one could expect. I honestly don't remember how I found this one, but I'm glad I did.
  • The Politburo Diktat: I'm a sucker for communist themed pseudo-satire, and the Commisar fits the bill (for example, his Show Trials are hilarious)
  • Funmurphys: An interesting little blog. Mr Murphy has been kind enough to link to me on several occasions, and he does good work, so I figured it was time to reciprocate.
There you have it.
Posted by Mark on September 09, 2004 at 09:45 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Letting Art Be Art
Sometimes a movie reviewer doesn't really review the movie they saw. Instead they review the movie they wish they saw, and then berate the thing they saw because it wasn't as good. There is a certain way to read reviews, and this is one of the things you need to keep in mind.

A good example is this review for The Village(Spoilers ahead):
The problem -- and it's a big one, folks -- is that The Village should have never been approached as a horror/suspense movie in the first place. It is not a scary movie because it never should have been a scary movie. ...

...the story was actually told backwards: this would have been a much more compelling movie had it begun with all of these broken people in the counselling center deciding they'd had enough of society's violence, and then following them as they took steps to make the life in the village and raise their children to be fearful of the outside world, and ending with the creation of "the monsters."
It's one thing to criticize the movie for not being scary, or to complain that the surprise ending could be seen a mile a way, but it's another thing to judge the movie according to a standard that doesn't apply. Good filmmakers make the films they want to make. The Village isn't meant to be anything but a creepy suspense film, with an unexpectedly engaging romance thrown into the picture (obviously you can read more into it than just that, but I think that was the main goal of the movie).

In my reviews of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, I noted that M. Night Shyamalan has a frustrating modus operandi. He sets his story within a special world; a world with a lot of potential (like someone having the ability to see dead people, someone who is "unbreakable", or a town being terrorized by monsters in the surrounding woods). But this potential is merely touched upon or used as a catalyst of events. As I say, frustrating, but what you end up with is generally engaging. Not especially brilliant or groundbreaking (as I have noted about all of Shyamalan's films), but good nonetheless.

To be sure, the movie that the reviewer wants to see certainly sounds like an interesting one. It doesn't really bother me that he even suggests that it would be a good story to tell, but it does bother me that he proclaims The Village is a bad movie because it's not the movie he wanted to see. You can't judge a movie by comparing it to something it's not.

This often applies to comedies - their goal is generally to make the audience laugh, and nothing more. That may not be lofty or ambitious, but to claim that such movies are bad because they don't achieve some sort of transcendant philosophical end doesn't make much sense to me. A movie like Happy Gilmore isn't trying to do anything other than make you laugh, and it should be viewed in that light. That doesn't make it a great four-star movie, but it does make it worthwhile (if you're in the mood for a laugh). In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King wrote an article on summer movies:
...I'm from an unsophisticated school of thought that believes a movie (always a movie and never a film, even if it comes with subtitles) should be fun befor it's anything else: an ice cream cone for the brain...

There's nothing wrong with having fun, and I sneer at people who sneer at summer movies–in fact, I sneer at people who sneer at entertainment for entertainment's sake. I feel sorry for them, too. Riding that high horse has got to be uncomfortable, especially with that stick up your butt.
There is something to be said for lofty and ambitious films (I'm not like King, I like to call them films too), especially when they hit their mark. Low brow movies like Happy Gilmore don't deserve to be placed in the same critical category as classics like The Godfather or Citizen Kane, but there is some value in it for people who like to laugh.

My general philosophy when reviewing a movie is to try and figure out what it's goal is, and then judge whether or not it achieved its goal. Sometimes a goal isn't very sophisticated or admirable, and such things should play a role in the judgement, but that's not all there is to it. I think it's best to let art be art, and judge it on its own merits.
Posted by Mark on September 05, 2004 at 02:10 PM .: link :.

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