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Sunday, September 24, 2006

I'm not one for reality television, but a few years ago, I got hooked on the third season of Project Greenlight (as usual with TV shows I like, it was cancelled after the third season). For those not familiar with the show, it was started by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; they wanted to give amateurs the chance to get a real hollywood production. Every year, they solicited scripts and directors and allowed anyone to enter.

Of course, the success of the series is up for debate. As the Onion A.V. Club notes:
The failures of the Project Greenlight experiment—first Stolen Summer, then The Battle Of Shaker Heights, and now Feast—have been pinned largely on the novice contest winners who were in over their head. And while that's not entirely unfair, given the banality of the scripts and mostly feckless direction, a more substantial chunk of the blame should fall on the producers who set them up for failure. From the start, they've backed conventional Hollywood projects at miniscule budgets, and then diluted the material further by constantly second-guessing the filmmakers. In the end, the films look like the cheaply stitched gowns fashioned during week one of Project Runway, all mangled hemlines and unflattering proportions.
I haven't seen the first two seasons, but I have seen The Battle of Shaker Heights, and I can see why it wouldn't be considered a success (though it wasn't that bad either). In any case, I enjoyed season three greatly, mostly because they chose a lunatic to direct the film, called Feast. Without the nutcase, it would have been interesting to get a behind the scenes look at how a relatively low-budget hollywood film is produced. But director John Gulager has a special kind of crazy that's just a blast to watch. It's amazing that a movie got made at all...

Unless, of course, you talk to James Berardinelli, who gave the film zero stars:
Zero-star movies are a rare and terrifying breed - films that warrant recommendation only as an alternative to physical distress. Sitting in a theater as one of these examples of cinematic diarrhea unspools creates a curious tug-of-war within the viewer. On one hand, there's an almost overwhelming desire to flee from the auditorium, to get away as far and as fast as is humanly possible. On the other hand, there's a compulsion to stay - the result of a sick fascination to see if the production can possibly get worse.
Ouch. Most reviews give the film a little more credit than that, but I doubt the film is all that good. Still, I'd like to see it, if only to see the end result of crazy John Gulager's efforts (plus, I'm a fan of bad horror flicks). Apparently the film only had two showings this past weekend, one at midnight on Friday and one at midnight on Saturday, so I'll have to check it out on DVD... though honestly, I think I'd rather watch the show again.
Posted by Mark on September 24, 2006 at 09:22 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Gather Intelligence to Be Effective in Interviews, Bounty Hunting
Through following a trail of links long enough that I don't remember where I started, I stumbled upon a post about interviewing. In itself, this is unremarkable. However, at the time, I happened to be watching an episode of Firefly (well, I had it on in the background). Because I am a nerd, I also had the commentary track on, and just as I read about the interviewing anecdote, Joss Whedon (writer/creator of Firefly) began relating something that eerily paralleled the interviewing "secret" in the post referenced above.

The "secret" is to know those who are interviewing you, and tailor your answers to match the type of response the person is looking for. He tells the story of how he interviewed for a principalship at a school in his district, or rather, how a friend helped him prepare:
She drew a rectangle on a piece of paper. “This is the table,” she said. She began to draw small circles around the table — 10 of them. She named each circle. She identified them as the people who would be interviewing me. This was not secret information, this was the panel that every potential principal had to face. The SECRET came next. She pointed to the first circle, “This is John Williams (not his real name). John tends to ask many data related questions. He likes brevity. Keep your answers short to him. Make your point and be quiet.” She pointed to the next circle. “This is Mary Thomas, she’s very child-oriented. She’s very warm and friendly and loves to talk. Answer her questions and orient your answers to how children are affected. Talk a lot with her; elaborate all your points. She’s warm and fuzzy, so use many personal anecdotes.” She continued around the table and when finished, it was like I had the playbook of an opposing football team. I knew the type of questions they would ask. I learned the type of answer each interviewer liked to hear.
This is interesting and, naturally, the advice is not limited to interviewing. (Those that have not seen Firefly but want to might want to bug out here, as Spoilers are ahead). Take Jubal Early. He's a bounty hunter, and he's after one of the people on Serenity. To get to her, he has to make sure the rest of the crew does not get in his way. So before he starts, he listens in on some conversations on the ship, gathering intelligence. As Whedon notes in the commentary:
Early has a very specific way of dealing with every character on the ship. He has listened to their conversation, so he understands he knows enough about them. And he understands that when you're with Mal, you have to take him out instantly because Mal is a physical threat that is very real. And then, you know, he closes up Jayne and Zoe and all the threats ... Kaylee is someone he approaches a different way - through a very horrible form of sexual intimidation. ... Later on we'll see him dealing with Book. And we'll see him dealing with Simon. When he deals with Book, again this guy has to be taken out. which gives us a little insight into Book's character. ... And of course, he deals with Simon with logic, because he realizes that the best way to deal with Simon is to use logic because that's the kind of person he is.
For those who haven't seen the series, some of this might not make sense, but each approach does fit its target. Mal is the captain and he won't stand for an outsider's shenanigans, especially when that outsider threatens the crew. Jayne and Zoe are also physical threats. Kaylee is like a delightful pixie, which makes Early's approach particularly disturbing. Shepherd Book is a priest, though events like the one in this episode indicate that Book has a less than saintly past. Simon is a doctor, and he's very proper, so a logical approach fits him well.

Again, this advice isn't limited to interviewing and bounty hunting. Knowing who you're dealing with is important, and allows you to orient your responses to their expectations. A little while ago, I was promoted to a management position. One of the interesting changes for me is that I'm dealing with a much wider variety of people, and thus I have to modulate my message depending on who I'm talking to. Of course knowing this and doing this are two different things, and I'm certainly no expert when it comes to this stuff. It comes naturally to some people, but not especially to me.

Anyway, not something I expected to write, but the coincidece struck me...
Posted by Mark on September 21, 2006 at 08:55 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Magic Design
A few weeks ago, I wrote about magic and how subconscious problem solving can sometimes seem magical:
When confronted with a particularly daunting problem, I'll work on it very intensely for a while. However, I find that it's best to stop after a bit and let the problem percolate in the back of my mind while I do completely unrelated things. Sometimes, the answer will just come to me, often at the strangest times. Occasionally, this entire process will happen without my intending it, but sometimes I'm deliberately trying to harness this subconscious problem solving ability. And I don't think I'm doing anything special here; I think everyone has these sort of Eureka! moments from time to time. ...

Once I noticed this, I began seeing similar patterns throughout my life and even history.
And indeed, Jason Kottke recently posted about how design works, referencing a couple of other designers, including Michael Bierut of Design Observer, who describes his process like this:
When I do a design project, I begin by listening carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you’re lucky, I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem!
[emphasis mine] It is like magic, but as Bierut notes, this sort of thing is becoming more important as we move from an industrial economy to an information economy. He references a book about managing artists:
At the outset, the writers acknowledge that the nature of work is changing in the 21st century, characterizing it as "a shift from an industrial economy to an information economy, from physical work to knowledge work." In trying to understand how this new kind of work can be managed, they propose a model based not on industrial production, but on the collaborative arts, specifically theater.

... They are careful to identify the defining characteristics of this kind of work: allowing solutions to emerge in a process of iteration, rather than trying to get everything right the first time; accepting the lack of control in the process, and letting the improvisation engendered by uncertainty help drive the process; and creating a work environment that sets clear enough limits that people can play securely within them.
This is very interesting and dovetails nicely with several topics covered on this blog. Harnessing self-organizing forces to produce emergent results seems to be rising in importance significantly as we proceed towards an information based economy. As noted, collaboration is key. Older business models seem to focus on a more brute force way of solving problems, but as we proceed we need to find better and faster ways to collaborate. The internet, with it's hyperlinked structure and massive data stores, has been struggling with a data analysis problem since its inception. Only recently have we really begun to figure out ways to harness the collective intelligence of the internet and its users, but even now, we're only scraping the tip of the iceberg. Collaborative projects like Wikipedia or wisdom-of-crowds aggregators like Digg or Reddit represent an interesting step in the right direction. The challenge here is that we're not facing the problems directly anmore. If you want to create a comprehensive encyclopedia, you can hire a bunch of people to research, write, and edit entries. Wikipedia tried something different. They didn't explicitely create an encyclopedia, they created (or, at least, they deployed) a system that made it easy for large amount of people to collaborate on a large amount of topics. The encyclopedia is an emergent result of that collaboration. They sidestepped the problem, and as a result, they have a much larger and dynamic information resource.

None of those examples are perfect, of course, but the more I think about it, the more I think that their imperfection is what makes them work. As noted above, you're probably much better off releasing a site that is imperfect and iterating, making changes and learning from your mistakes as you go. When dealing with these complex problems, you're not going to design the perfect system all at once. I realize that I keep saying we need better information aggregation and analysis tools, and that we have these tools, but they leave something to be desired. The point of these systems, though, is that they get better with time. Many older information analysis systems break when you increase the workload quickly. They don't scale well. These newer systems only really work well once they have high participation rates and large amounts of data.

It remains to be seen whether or not these systems can actually handle that much data (and participation), but like I said, they're a good start and they're getting better with time.
Posted by Mark on September 17, 2006 at 08:01 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Time is short this week, so it's time for Yet Another Link Dump (YALD!):
  • Who Writes Wikipedia? An interesting investigation of one of the controversial aspects of Wikipedia. Some contend that the authors are a small but dedicated bunch, others claim that authorship is large and diverse (meaning that the resulting encyclopedia is self-organizing and emergent). Aaron Swartz decided to look into it:
    When you put it all together, the story become clear: an outsider makes one edit to add a chunk of information, then insiders make several edits tweaking and reformatting it. In addition, insiders rack up thousands of edits doing things like changing the name of a category across the entire site -- the kind of thing only insiders deeply care about. As a result, insiders account for the vast majority of the edits. But it's the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content.

    And when you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Writing an encyclopedia is hard. To do anywhere near a decent job, you have to know a great deal of information about an incredibly wide variety of subjects. Writing so much text is difficult, but doing all the background research seems impossible.

    On the other hand, everyone has a bunch of obscure things that, for one reason or another, they've come to know well. So they share them, clicking the edit link and adding a paragraph or two to Wikipedia. At the same time, a small number of people have become particularly involved in Wikipedia itself, learning its policies and special syntax, and spending their time tweaking the contributions of everybody else.
    Depending on how you measure it, many perspectives are correct, but the important thing here is that both types of people (outsiders and insiders) are necessary to make the system work. Via James Grimmelman, who has also written an interesting post on Wikipedia Fallacies that's worth reading.
  • Cyber Cinema, 1981-2001: An absurdly comprehensive series of articles chronicling cyberpunk cinema. This guy appears to know his stuff, and chooses both obvious and not-so-obvious films to review. For example, he refers to Batman as "a fine example of distilled Cyberpunk." I probably wouldn't have pegged Batman as cyberpunk, but he makes a pretty good case for it... Anyway, I haven't read all of his choices (20 movies, 1 for each year), but it's pretty interesting stuff. [via Metaphlog]
  • The 3-Day Novel Contest: Well, it's too late to partake now, but this is an interesting contest where entrants all submit a novel written in 3 days. The contest is usually held over labor day weekend (allowing everyone to make the most of their long holiday weekend). The Survival Guide is worth reading even if you don't intend on taking part. Some excerpts: On the attitude required for such an endeavor:
    Perhaps the most important part of attitude when approaching a 3-Day Novel Contest is that of humility. It is not, as one might understandably and mistakenly expect, aggression or verve or toughness or (as it has been known) a sheer murderous intent to complete a 3-Day Novel (of this latter approach it is almost always the entrant who dies and not the contest). Let’s face it, what you are about to do, really, defies reality for most people. As when in foreign lands, a slightly submissive, respectful attitude generally fares better for the traveller than a self-defeating mode of overbearance. As one rather pompous contestant confessed after completing the contest: “I’ve been to Hell, and ended up writing about it.”
    On outlines and spontaneity:
    Those without a plan, more often than not, find themselves floundering upon the turbulent, unforgiving seas of forced spontaneous creativity. An outline can be quite detailed and, as veterans of the contest will also tell you, the chances of sticking to the outline once things get rolling are about 1,000 to 1. But getting started is often a major hurdle and an outline can be invaluable as an initiator.
    Two things that interest me about this: plans that fall apart, but must be made anyway (which I have written about before) and the idea that just getting started is important (which is something I'll probably write about sometime, assuming I haven't already done so and forgot).

    On eating:
    Keep it simple, and fast. Wieners (straight from the package—protein taken care of). Bananas and other fruit (vitamin C, potassium, etc.). Keep cooking to a minimum. Pizzas, Chinese—food to go. Forget balance, this is not a “spa”, there are no “healing days”. This is a competition; a crucible; a hill of sand. Climb! Climb!
    Lots of other fun stuff there. Also, who says you need to do it on Labor day weekend. Why not take a day off and try it out? [via Web Petals, who has some other interesting quotes from the contest]
That's all for now. Sorry for just throwing links at you all the time, but I've entered what's known as Wedding Season. Several weddings over the next few weekends, only one of which is in this area. This week's was in Rhode Island, so I had a wonderful 12-13 hours of driving to contend with (not to mention R.I.'s wonderful road system - apparently they don't think signs are needed). Thank goodness for podcasts - specifically Filmspotting, Mastercritic, and the Preston and Steve Show (who are professional broadcasters, but put their entire show (2+ hours) up, commercial free, every day).

Shockingly, it seems that I only needed to use two channels on my Monster FM Transmitter and both of those channels are the ones I use around Philly. Despite this, I've not been too happy with my FM transmitter thingy. It get's the job done, I guess, but I find myself consistently annoyed at its performace (this trip being an exception). It seems that these things are very idiosyncratic and unpredictible, working in some cars better than others (thus some people swear by one brand, while others will badmouth that same brand). In large cities like New York and Philadelphia, the FM dial gets crowded and thus it's difficult to find a suitable station, further complicating matters. I think my living in a major city area combined with an awkward placement of the cigarrette lighter in my car (which I assume is a factor) makes it somewhat difficult to find a good station. What would be really useful would be a list of available stations and an attempt to figure out ways to troubleshoot your car's idiosyncracies. Perhaps a wiki would work best for this, though I doubt I'll be motivated enought to spend the time installing a wiki system here for this purpose (does a similar site already exist? I did a quick search but came up empty-handed). (There are kits that allow you to tap into your car stereo, but they're costly and I don't feel like paying more for that than I did for the player... )
Posted by Mark on September 10, 2006 at 09:15 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

It didn't take long...
In fact, the film Snakes on a Train actually came out three days before Snakes on a Plane. That's right, the knockoffs started before the film came out. Naturally it's straight to DVD, and by all accounts, it's a pretty bad film, but I have to admit that I'm intrigued by this tidbit from Wikipedia:
The film features former WWF wrestler "The Iron Sheik", in a major role, although he appears under the pseudonym Ronald "Bubba" Sparks.
Score. I don't know about you, but I'm still holding out for Ostriches on a Hovercraft.
Posted by Mark on September 06, 2006 at 11:26 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Does Magic Exist?
I'm back from my trip and it appears that the guest posting has fallen through. So a quick discussion on magic, which was brought up by a friend on a discussion board I frequent. The question: Does magic exist?

I suppose this depends on how you define magic. Arthur C. Clarke once infamously said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And that's probably true, right? If some guy can bend spoons with his thoughts, there's probably a rational explanation for it... we just haven't figured it out yet. Does it count as magic if we don't know how he's doing it? What about when we do figure out how he's doing it? What if it really was some sort of empirically observable telekinesis?

After all, magicians have been performing for hundreds of years, relying on slight of hand and misdirection1 (amongst other tricks of the trade). However, I suspect that's not the type of answer that's being sought.

One thing I think is interesting is the power of thought and how many religious and "magical" traditions were really just ways to harness thought in a productive fashion. For example, crystal balls are often considered to be a magical way to see the future. While not strictly true, it was found that those who look into crystal balls for a long period of time end up entering a sort of trance, similar to hypnosis, and the human mind is able to make certain connections it would not normally make2. Can such a person see the future? I doubt it, but I don't doubt that such people often experience a "revelation" of sorts, even if it is sometimes misguided.

However, you see something similar, though a lot more controlled and a lot less hokey, in a lot of religious traditions. For instance, take Christian Mass and prayer. Mass offers a number of repetitive aspects like singing combined with several chances for reflection and thought. I've always found that going to mass was very helpful in that it put things in a whole new perspective. Superficial things that worried me suddenly seemed less important and much more approachable. Repetitive rituals (like singing in Church) often bring back powerful feelings of the past, etc... further reinforcing the reflection from a different perspective.

Taking it completely out of the spiritual realm, I see very rational people doing the same thing all the time. They just aren't using the same vocabulary. When confronted with a particularly daunting problem, I'll work on it very intensely for a while. However, I find that it's best to stop after a bit and let the problem percolate in the back of my mind while I do completely unrelated things. Sometimes, the answer will just come to me, often at the strangest times. Occasionally, this entire process will happen without my intending it, but sometimes I'm deliberately trying to harness this subconscious problem solving ability. And I don't think I'm doing anything special here; I think everyone has these sort of Eureka! moments from time to time. Once you remove the theology from it, prayer is really a similar process.

Once I noticed this, I began seeing similar patterns throughout my life and even history. For example, Archimedes. He was tasked with determining whether a given substance was gold or not (at the time, this was a true challenge). He toiled and slaved at the problem for weeks, pushing all other aspects of his life away. Finally, his wife, sick of her husband's dirty appearance and bad odor, made him take a bath. As he stepped into the tub, he noticed the water rising and had a revelation... this displacement could be used to accurately measure volume, which could then be used to determine density and ultimately whether or not a substance was gold. The moral of the story: Listen to your wife!3

Have I actually answered the question? Well, I may have veered off track a bit, but I find the process of thinking to be interesting and quite mysterious. After all, whatever it is that's going on in our noggins isn't understood very well. It might just be indistinguishable from magic...

1 - Note to self: go see The Illusionist! Also, The Prestige looks darn good. Why does Hollywood always produce these things in pairs? At least it looks like there's good talent involved in each of these productions...

2 - Oddly enough, I discoved this nugget on another trip through the library stacks while I was supposed to be studying in college. Just thought I should call that out in light of recent posting...

3 - Yes, this is an anecdote from the movie Pi.
Posted by Mark on September 03, 2006 at 11:58 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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