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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Save it with the music
In general, the process of making a movie is a difficult one, but some genres are more difficult than others. Horror (and science fiction), in particular, require certain leaps of faith that are more difficult to accomplish than other, more conventional, genres. This places more importance on all aspects of the film. For a good horror movie, everything needs to be there, including the writing (important for any movie, but horror films usually require a little more imagination), cinematography (very important in horror), and the music, amongst other aspects.

I'm going to focus on the music because while music is important in all films, it is even moreso in horror. Films depend on music to help set the mood, and good composers are often able to do so without calling too much attention to themselves. Perhaps it's just me, but music is often able to evoke an understated emotional response, one that sometimes isn't recognizable until after the film has ended. As such, the auditory aspects of a film are often overlooked in favor of the other, more overt, features of the film. Yet any good horror film will rely almost as much on the sound as the visuals to provide the scares.
"Music in horror films is probably more powerful than in any other genre, so it's good for a composer to do them because he can be very influential on the action."
That quote is from composer Simon Boswell (found via this excellent article on sound and horror films), notable for his work on many horror films (including several by the infamous Italian director Dario Argento), and I think he's right. Some great examples of how composers really shape the action can be heard in Jaws (courtesy of John Williams) and John Carpenter's Halloween. John Williams' ominous searching cue steadily builds on itself, brilliantly setting the tone for the viewer. Perhaps even more evokative is John Carpenter's score for his seminal slasher flick, Halloween. He describes the process of writing the music for Halloween:
I shot Halloween in the spring of 1978. It was my third feature and my first out-and-out horror film. I had three weeks of pre-production planning, twenty days of principle photography, and then Tommy Lee Wallace spent the rest of the spring and summer cutting the picture, assisted by Charles Bornstein and myself. I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century-Fox (I was interviewing for another possible directing job). She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to "save it with the music."
And she was right. Just try watching halloween with the sound off and you'll see what I mean. Most of the tension fades away, and while there are certainly some creepy visuals, it's the music that truly cements the scares in the film. The simplistic three-note piano melody that Carpenter composed for the main theme (mp3) is truly haunting. It stays with you, and plays in your head whenever the lights go out.
The scoring sessions took two weeks because that’s all the budget would allow. Halloween was dubbed in late July and I finally saw the picture with an audience in the fall. My plan to "save it with the music" seemed to work. About six months later I ran into the same young executive who had been with 20th Century-Fox (she was now with MGM). Now she too loved the movie and all I had done was add music. But she really was quite justified in her initial reaction.
There are some techniques which are more obvious than others, but if they're done well, there's nothing wrong with that. The aformentioned Jaws theme is an excellent example of a long musical build-up that also builds tension in the audience, who becomes convinced that something is going to happen. In Jaws, it does, but many composers have subverted that convention by using the musical build-up as misdirection (i.e. instead of a giant monster, it turns out that the ominous sounds were just caused by the family cat).

Another obvious technique is what Roger Ebert describes as the "boo" moment (or what Carpenter calls the "stingers"), where a sudden sharp noise startles the audience, which is also often used to emphasise a visual surprise. This is sometimes referred to as a "cheap" technique, but I think it's fine if it's used sparingly.

However, even in films that have striking themes and stingers, the music ultimately serves as a medium for subliminal suggestion, setting the mood and subtlety evoking an emotional response. In a horror film, this is of paramount importance, and that's why most great horror films have notable soundtracks. John Carpenter had resolved to "save it with the music," but I don't think there was anything unique about that experience. I think most horror films need to have that musical base to truly be effective.

Update: This post has been featured in the Carnival of Music! Check it out for lots more music goodness.
Posted by Mark on October 30, 2005 at 02:53 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.



Sunday, October 23, 2005

MP3 Player Update
About a month ago, I wrote about MP3 Players in an attempt to figure out which player was best for me. At the time, I was leaning towards the 20GB iPod Photo, but the Cowon iAudio X5 was giving me serious pause. As such, I sort of just spun my wheels until I heard that Apple was going to announce another change to their iPod line, which ended up being the new iPod Video. This upgrade to the iPod line made my decision a lot easier, and I bought one the night it was announced. It seems that procrastination actually paid off for me.

After 5 days of steady use, I'm quite pleased with the iPod. It's easy to use, elegant, and it does everything I need it to do (and more). ArsTechnica has a thorough review, and I won't bother repeating most of it. The one thing I'll talk about is the "scratching" issue (as the Ars reviewer didn't mention much about that), which seems to be so bad with the iPod nano that many are assuming that the new black iPods will suffer from the same issue. So far, I've yet to get any scratches on my shiny new black iPod, but I have to admit that I'm a careful guy and I generally keep it in the soft carrying case that came with it when I'm not using it. The black model does seem to make fingerprints and the like much more visable, but that's not that big of a deal to me, as it cleans up easy.

The battery life seems excellent for playing music, but it may be a bit lacking when it comes to video. The 30GB model only has 2 hours of video playback, which would be enough for a short movie during a flight, but that's a mixed blessing in my mind, as I wouldn't then be able to listen to music for the remainder of a longer flight... I did download an episode of Lost, and the video itself does appear crisp and clear and surprisingly watchable (considering the relatively small size of the screen). It only plays .m4v files, which is mildly annoying, as most applications (by which I mean the ones I was able to find with 2 minutes research) that encode in .m4v are only for the Mac. Evan Kirchhoff did an interesting comparison on his blog: Video ITunes vs. Piracy. The ITunes version downloaded faster and took up less space, but was also lower quality (in terms of both video and audio) and the compression wasn't as good either (and the pirated version was also widescreen). I think this is indicative of the fact that the new iPod isn't really the Video iPod, it's an iPod with video. Because of the small screen size, tiny CPU, and limited storage, I think the ITunes downloads make sense right now. As time goes on, I'm sure we'll see more advanced offerings, including higher quality downloads (perhaps even multiple encodings). In any case, the video functionality wasn't that important to me, but it is quite a nice perk (and it may come in useful at some point).

As for getting the iPod up and running in my car, I chose the Monster Cable iCarPlay Wireless FM Transmitter. I've had less time to evaluate this, but so far I've gotten a mediocre and uneven performance out of this. Sometimes it's excellent, but sometimes there is a lot of static (and changing stations doesn't seem to help). Part of the problem is that I'm in the Philadelphia area, so there aren't very many available stations (so far, 105.9 seems to work best for me). I suspect this is about as good as a FM transmitter of any kind would get for me, and I like the Monster's setup (3 preset stations) and when it's working well, it works really well. Naturally, one of those hard-wired systems that ties the ipod into your stereo controls would be ideal, but they're a bit too expensive ($200+) right now.

All in all, I'm quite happy with my new iPod...
Posted by Mark on October 23, 2005 at 08:15 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, October 16, 2005

Operation Solar Eagle
One of the major challenges faced in Iraq is electricity generation. Even before the war, neglect of an aging infrastructure forced scheduled blackouts. To compensate for the outages, Saddam distributed power to desired areas, while denying power to other areas. The war naturally worsened the situation (especially in the immediate aftermath, as there was no security at all), and the coalition and fledgling Iraqi government have been struggling to restore and upgrade power generation facilities since the end of major combat. Many improvements have been made, but attacks on the infrastructure have kept generation at or around pre-war levels for most areas (even if overall generation has increased, the equitable distribution of power means that some people are getting more than they used to, while others are not - ironic, isn't it?).

Attacks on the infrastructure have presented a significant problem, especially because some members of the insurgency seem to be familiar enough with Iraq's power network to attack key nodes, thus increasing the effects of their attacks. Consequently, security costs have gone through the roof. The ongoing disruption and inconsistency of power generation puts the new government under a lot of pressure. The inability to provide basic services like electricity delegitimizes the government and makes it more difficult to prevent future attacks and restore services.

When presented with this problem, my first thought was that solar power may actually help. There are many non-trivial problems with a solar power generation network, but Iraq's security situation combined with lowered expectations and an already insufficient infrastructure does much to mitigate the shortcomings of solar power.

In America, solar power is usually passed over as a large scale power generation system, but things that are problems in America may not be so problematic in Iraq. What are the considerations?
  • Demand: One of the biggest problems with solar power is that it's difficult to schedule power generation to meet demand (demand doesn't go down when the sun does, nor does demand necessarily coincide with peak generation), and a lot of energy is wasted because there isn't a reliable way to store energy (battery systems help, but they're not perfect and they also drive up the costs). The irregularity in generation isn't as bad as wind, but it is still somewhat irregular. In America, this is a deal breaker because we need power generation to match demand, so if we were to rely on solar power on a large scale, we'd have to make sure we have enough backup capacity running to make up for any shortfall (there's much more to it than that, but that's the high-level view). In Iraq, this isn't as big of a deal. The irregularity of conventional generation due to attacks on infrastructure is at least comparable if not worse than solar irregularity. It's also worth noting that it's difficult to scale solar power to a point where it would make a difference in America, as we use truly mammoth amounts of energy. Iraq's demands aren't as high (both in terms of absolute power and geographic distribution), and thus solar doesn't need to scale as much in Iraq.
  • Economics: Solar power requires a high initial capital investment, and also requires regular maintenance (which can be costly as well). In America, this is another dealbreaker, especially when coupled with the fact that its irregular nature requires backup capacity (which is wasteful and expensive as well). However, in Iraq, the cost of securing conventional power generation and transmission is also exceedingly high, and the prevalence of outages has cost billions in repairs and lost productivity. The decentralized nature of solar power thus becomes a major asset in Iraq, as solar power (if using batteries and if connected to the overall grid) can provide a seamless interruptible supply of electricity. Attacks on conventional systems won't have quite the impact they once did, and attacks on the solar network won't be anywhere near as effective (more on this below). Given the increased cost of conventional production (and securing that production) in Iraq, and given the resilience of such a decentralized system, solar power becomes much more viable despite its high initial expense. This is probably the most significant challenge to overcome in Iraq.
  • Security: There are potential gains, as well as new potential problems to be considered here. First, as mentioned in the economics section, a robust solar power system would help lessen the impact of attacks on conventional infrastructure, thus preventing expensive losses in productivity. Another hope here is that we will see a corresponding decrease in attacks (less effective attacks should become less desirable). Also, the decentralized nature of solar power means that attacks on the solar infrastructure are much more difficult. However, this does not mean that there is no danger. First, even if attacks on conventional infrastructure decrease, they probably won't cease altogether (though, again, the solar network could help mitigate the effects of such attacks). And there is also a new problem that is introduced: theft. In Iraq's struggling economy, theft of solar equipment is a major potential problem. Then again, once an area has solar power installed, individual homeowners and businesses won't be likely to neglect their most reliable power supply. Any attacks on the system would actually be attacks on specific individuals or businesses, which would further alienate the population and decrease the attacker's. However, this assumes that the network is already installed. Those who set up the network (most likely outsiders) will be particularly vulnerable during that time. Once installed, solar power is robust, but if terrorists attempt to prevent the installation (which seems likely, given that the terrorists seem to target many external companies operating in Iraq with the intention of forcing them to leave), that would certainly be a problem (at the very least, it would increase costs).
  • Other Benefits: If an installed solar power network helps deter attacks on power generation infrastructure, the success will cascade across several other vectors. A stable and resilient power network that draws from diverse energy sources will certainly help improve Iraq's economic prospects. Greater energy independence and an improved national energy infrastructure will also lend legitimacy to the new Iraqi government, making it stronger and better able to respond to the challenges of rebuilding their country. If successful and widespread, it could become one of the largest solar power systems in the world, and much would be learned along the way. This knowledge would be useful for everyone, not just Iraqis. Obviously, there are also environmental benefits to such a system (and probably a lack of bureaucratic red-tape like environmental impact statements as well. Indeed, while NIMBY might be a problem in America, I doubt it would be a problem in Iraq, due to their current conditions).
In researching this issue, I came across a recent study prepared at the Naval Postgraduate School called Operation Solar Eagle. The report is excellent, and it considers most of the above, and much more (in far greater detail as well). Many of my claims above are essentially assumptions, but this report provides more concrete evidence. One suggestion they make with regard to the problem of theft is to use an RFID system to keep track of solar power equipment. Lots of other interesting stuff in there as well.

As shown above, there are obviously many challenges to completing such a project, most specifically with respect to economic feasibility, but it seems to me to be an interesting idea. I'm glad that there are others thinking about it as well, though at this point it would be really nice to see something a little more concrete (or at least an explanation as to why this wouldn't work).
Posted by Mark on October 16, 2005 at 08:52 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.



Sunday, October 09, 2005

Link Dump
Not much time this week, so here are some interesting links:
  • A little while ago, I wrote about two software projects, one successful, one not. David Foster, who initially pointed me towards this story, has a follow up on one of the projects. The FBI's failure to develop a "Virtual Case File" system was bad enough, and now they're denying Freedom Of Information Act requests made by folks why are trying to figure out just went wrong with the project. My initial reaction was that the project failed due to a lack of discipline. And now the failure deepens as the FBI seeks to deny accountability in the project.
  • The Physics of ET Civilizations by Michio Kaku: An interesting take on what constitutes a truly advanced civilization. He claims that we should rank civilizations by their energy consumption:
    In a seminal paper published in 1964 in the Journal of Soviet Astronomy, Russian astrophysicist Nicolai Kardashev theorized that advanced civilizations must therefore be grouped according to three types: Type I, II, and III, which have mastered planetary, stellar and galactic forms of energy, respectively. He calculated that the energy consumption of these three types of civilization would be separated by a factor of many billions.
    We're currently living in a Type 0 civilization, but we're moving quickly towards a Type 1 civilization. How long after that could we reach Type 2?
  • 10 Ways To Create Content For Your Weblog: Ostensibly written to help us overcome bloggers block, but with such earth shattering advice as "Read, Listen To, or Watch the News" and "read your favorite blogs with the purpose of finding ideas to write about," I can't say as though it's that big of a help. I'll admit I've been in a bit of a funk lately, but this has more to do with a lack of time and energy than ideas. Until I get the time and motivation to write more, lists of links like this seem to be the order of the day.
  • Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch: This is old, but it's a great article explaining a much understood group: introverts:
    What is introversion? ... Introverts are not necessarily shy. Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say "Hell is other people at breakfast." Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.

    Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially "on," we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn't antisocial. It isn't a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on October 09, 2005 at 08:50 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, October 02, 2005

Interviewing
Recent events have placed me in a position where I will be interviewing people for open positions on my team. Not having experience with such a thing, my first reaction was to set the monkey research squad loose on the subject. As usual, they didn't disappoint.
  • The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing by Joel Spolsky: I think this is the best article I found. All of Spolsky's stuff is great, and his interviewing style is pretty staightforward: He looks for people who are "Smart, and Gets Things Done". One thing to note about a lot of the interviewing advice on the internet is that it's almost all focused on hiring programmers. In my case, though, I'm not looking for something that technical (though there is some coding involved). I'm looking for someone with usability experience (generally not programmers there) and someone who can work with the business group to write a good requirements document for the programmers. However, a lot of interviewing isn't focused on the technical details of coding, and Spolsky has a few gems in his article. Here's one I found useful:
    Part 6: the design question. Ask the candidate to design something. Jabe Blumenthal, the original designer of Excel, liked to ask candidates to design a house. According to Jabe, he's had candidates who would go up to the whiteboard and immediately draw a square. A square! These were immediate No Hires. In design questions, what are you looking for?

    Good candidates will try to get more information out of you about the problem. Who is the house for? As a policy, I will not hire someone who leaps into the design without asking more about who it's for. Often I am so annoyed that I will give them a hard time by interrupting them in the middle and saying, "actually, you forgot to ask this, but this is a house for a family of 48-foot tall blind giraffes."
    There's a lot more to it than just that, but as I'm looking for someone to work with the business group to write a requirements document, it's pretty important that they ask questions and try to get more details. Lots of people like to ask for specific technologies, etc... even though such specifics might not be what they really want. The important thing is to find out what they really want to do, then figure out how to best achieve that goal. I don't know if I'd be as picky about this sort of question as Joel though. I do ask a design question in the interview, but I've only done one interview, and the guy didn't get it. I'll be interested to see if this sort of design quesiton actually does become a good indicator.
  • How to Hire Like a Start-Up by Rob Walling: Not quite as good or thorough as Spolsky's article, but still filled with solid insight on the hiring process from a slightly different perspective. His article focuses on hiring fast. In Joel's article, there is only Hire and No Hire. Rob has an extra category: Maybes:
    ...the Rule of Thirds: on a 10-point scale you make money with your 7s, 8s, and 9s, break even with your 4s, 5s, and 6s, and lose money with your 1s, 2s, and 3s. There are no 10s in that list since no one is perfect; the highest possible rating is a 9+.

    In every job search there are hires, maybes, and no-hires. Using the Rule of Thirds, 7-9 is a hire, 4-6 is a maybe, and 1-3 is a no-hire.

    The only difference between hiring slow and hiring fast is what you do with the maybes; when hiring slow the maybes become nos, when hiring fast you let the maybes proceed to the next round of evaluation.
  • Microsoft Interview Questions: A blog that started as a collection of interview questions asked by Microsoft, but that has lots of general interviewing stuff as well.
  • The New-Boy Network by Malcolm Gladwell: Now that we've got a good handle on how to interview, Gladwell comes along and pulls the rug out from underneath us. Just how valuable are interviews anyway? Gladwell looks at the situation in his usual thorough manner, and claims that interviewing is a lot more difficult than it seems. Most judgements appear to be based on first impressions and the assumption that people's reactions in one context (the interview) are the same as others (working). However, once he establishes that premise, he goes on to talk about "structured interviewing" with an HR expert:
    Menkes moved on to another area--handling stress. A typical question in this area is something like "Tell me about a time when you had to do several things at once. How did you handle the situation? How did you decide what to do first?" Menkes says this is also too easy. "I just had to be very organized," he began again in his mock-sincere singsong. "I had to multitask. I had to prioritize and delegate appropriately. I checked in frequently with my boss." Here's how Menkes rephrased it: "You're in a situation where you have two very important responsibilities that both have a deadline that is impossible to meet. You cannot accomplish both. How do you handle that situation?"

    "Well," I said, "I would look at the two and decide what I was best at, and then go to my boss and say, 'It's better that I do one well than both poorly,' and we'd figure out who else could do the other task."

    Menkes immediately seized on a telling detail in my answer. I was in-terested in what job I would do best. But isn't the key issue what job the company most needed to have done? With that comment, I had revealed some-thing valuable: that in a time of work-related crisis I start from a self-centered consideration.
    Most of the time, we want to believe that we can derive broad trend of behavior from the interview. The structured interviewing process is very narrowly focused:
    What is interesting about the structured interview is how narrow its objectives are. When I interviewed Nolan Myers I was groping for some kind of global sense of who he was; Menkes seemed entirely uninterested in arriving at that same general sense of me--he seemed to realize how foolish that expectation was for an hour-long interview. The structured interview works precisely because it isn't really an interview; it isn't about getting to know someone, in a traditional sense. It's as much concerned with rejecting information as it is with collecting it.
Interesting stuff. As I mentioned, I've not progressed much in the process just yet, but I'll be interested to see how this information plays out.
Posted by Mark on October 02, 2005 at 04:29 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



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