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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Unquestioned Assumptions
Matthew Johnson lists out several Unquestioned Assumptions of Science Fiction. It's an interesting list, though it suffers from the same problems all lists suffer from: I don't agree with some of them, and I think there are some rather notable omissions. So let's get started:
  • Bionics: Johnson is basically saying that we have seen no evidence that a superhuman bionic man/woman could be created. He mentions the increasingly sophisticated use of prosthetics, but is correct in noting that there are weak spots in that chain, and thus someone with a bionic arm won't really be guaranteed any advantage unless they become one of them full-replacement cyborgs from Ghost in the Shell. I'll admit that SF has probably gotten a lot of this wrong, but there's much more to bionics than just superhuman beings. In a more general sense, bionics is about applying natural biological systems and methods to the engineering of electronic or mechanical technology. And in general, this is something we've already done a lot of (for instance, velcro and lots of flight related innovations derived from birds). Even in terms of medicine, stuff like cochlear implants are rapidly approaching the point where the deaf can hear better than unmodified humans (there are, of course, other drawbacks to this). I know nanotechnology is used as a form of magic in some movies, but there is a ton of potential there. And something like a Respirocyte could theoretically result in "superhuman" powers simply by increasing the amount of oxygen stored in red blood cells. So no, I don't see the bionic man or woman anytime soon, but I don't think it's an unreasonable topic for SF.
  • Uploading, or cloning for that matter: Johnson notes that this isn't impossible, just that they're also not "any kind of ticket to immortality for the simple reason that neither an uploaded version of your mind nor a clone with all your memories is you: they are both copies of you". This is an excellent point, and I do believe he's very right. While I'm willing to go along with the ride in a book like John Scalzi's Old Man's War, I seriously doubt the subjective experience would be anything like what Scalzi describes (he handwaves the whole thing by explaining that consciousness is transferred, so it's like a cut-and-paste, as oposed to a copy-and-paste - there's nothing left in the old body. I can see how that sort of thing would be appealing to people though.) Interestingly, Scalzi proposes something completely different in The Android's Dream, where the artificial consciousness is most definitely a copy (and we're never entirely sure how good that copy really is). Anyway, Johnson does wonder why anyone would even want to do such a thing, and I do take a bit of an issue with that. I'll expand on this later in the post, but interstellar space travel seems much more hospitable to some sort of electronic being than it does to biological lifeforms (again, more on this later). Another reason, assuming that the artificial construct can sustain creative thought, it might be nice to keep some folks around after they are gone. Maybe that would be a disaster - maybe Einstein would be a tremendous douchebag if he were still alive in mechanical form today, but it's probably something worth trying. In the end, I certainly wouldn't call this an unquestioned assumption. There exist lots of counter-examples, including the recently reviewd Diaspora, where artificial consciousness seems to have lots of advantages over biology (more on this in a bit).
  • Sensors: I completely agree with Johnson here. The non-trivial challenges to sensors are numerous and I don't see them ever working the way they're portrayed on tv or in movies (books tend to be better, but still).
  • Space Combat: Another one I mostly agree with, especially given the way it's portrayed in most SF. This is a topic already covered on this blog (and others mentioned my post) years ago, so I'll leave it at that. I do think there's a fantastic movie to be made in the mold of The Enemy Below, but in space and with realistic physics (with some handwaving around the energy and motivational aspects of the whole thing - it could be entertaining, but it probably couldn't be wholly accurate).
  • Sol III: Quite frankly, I don't think I've ever seen this one before. The convention of naming the star, and then each planet around the star getting a number (i.e. the eighth planet orbiting the star Omicron Persei is referred to as Omicron Persei 8) does seem common, though I don't find it all that troubling. I can see how it would be a pet peeve of someone though.
So that covers Johnson's list. There are, of course, lots of omissions here. Perhaps I'll cover those in a later post.
Posted by Mark on August 29, 2010 at 07:56 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Link Dump
Yes, there have been a lot of these lately. At this point I figure I should just stop apologizing for it and embrace it. So here you go, links:
  • Echo: LoadingReadyRun has been at The Escapist for a while and they can be hit or miss, but some of their more recent videos are really great stuff. Split Decision and A Stitch in Time are pretty good too.
  • Right on Cue: Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to Andy Rooney: "Rooney ends this with a jibe that notes his ignorance of Lady Gaga is fine, because kids are ignorant of Ella Fitzgerald. I suspect that he gives himself too much credit." Heh. His notion of "Digging In The Crates" is an interesting one and I think he may be right.
  • Soldiers returning from war surprise kids, loved ones: As they note: "There is a 100% chance you will cry within 30 seconds of this video."
  • I don't know what the hell is going on in this video, so I am presenting it to you, without comment.
  • F**k You: Cee Lo Green's profanity laden song is pretty great. And of course, the follow up videos have begun... Also of note, this song, which is completely unrelated, but awesome.
  • Sun Chips Bag: These videos are all over the place at this point, but this one's pretty well executed, precisely because the guy doesn't say anything.
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on August 25, 2010 at 07:37 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

SF Book Review, Part 5
Still working my way through the book queue, here are a few SF books I've read recently. [See also: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]
  • Diaspora by Greg Egan: One way to divvy up the various scientific disciplines is to make a distinction between hard science (natural sciences like physics) and soft science (social sciences like psychology). Given this popular notion, it thus follows that science fiction is also divided in such a way, with hard science fiction focusing on the nuts-and-bolts details of technology and science (and stories that progress in a logical fashion), and soft science fiction focusing much less on science (if there's any science at all) and more human behavior. Of course, given a specific SF story, it will probably fall somewhere around inbetween these two arbitrary poles. However, Greg Egan's Diaspora veers strongly in the direction of hard SF and rarely looks back. This is most certainly not a book for beginners, but if you don't mind lengthy discussions of mathematics, geometry, particle physics, and even more complicated notions, then this is the book for you.

    The story begins about a thousand years from now. Humanity has fragmented considerably. Some, called statics, exist mostly in the same way we do today. Others are still made of flesh and bone, but have been genetically augmented, sometimes in quite thorough ways. There are Gleisner robots, which are individual AI beings that nevertheless choose to mostly operate in the physical world via mechanical bodies. And finally, there are polises, which are basically networks of distinct artificial consciousnesses. Most citizens of a polis were uploaded from a human, but there are occasionally "orphans", which are citizens that are created without any ancestor. The main character of the book is Yatima, an orphan, and most of the action is told from the point of view of polis citizens, which is interesting because said citizens can't quite be categorized as human. Indeed, Egan uses gender-neutral pronouns (Ve, Vis, Ver) to refer to most citizens (there are some recent converts that cling to their original gender).

    The setting alone provides a rich space for speculation and exploration, but once the basics of the universe are settled, Egan starts to throw various crises at our characters, and that's when things start to get really interesting. I won't go into detail here, but Egan has crafted an exceptionally ambitious tale here. The scope and scale of the story grows exponentially, with Egan casually skipping past hundreds or thousands of years at a time and by the end, time pretty much ceases to have much meaning. This is audacious stuff, and probably the "hardest" SF I've ever read (again, this is not "hard" in a sense of difficulty, just in the way science is treated). It's not all "hard" stuff, of course. It still exists on that continuum, it's just way more hard than it is soft. There's a lot of depth to this book, and a short blog post like this isn't even beginning to scratch the surface of the ideas and issues that arise out of the paradigm that Egan has set up (I've already written a bit of a deeper exploration of some ideas, but there are lots of other things that could be fleshed out). For the purposes of this post, I'll just say that this is among the most ambitious and audacious SF novels I've ever read, and if you're not scared away by a little (ok, a lot of) math, it is definitely worth a read.
  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke: Since The Matrix came out in 1999, I've often found myself recognizing bits and pieces of other media as being part of the formula that created The Matrix. Indeed, one of the big reasons the movie is so great is that it pulls on a large number of diverse sources and mashes them together into something seemingly new and exciting. Of course, it's not, and that's why I keep seeing pieces of it, even in 60 year old novels like The City and the Stars. The story takes place about a billion years in the future, in an insular city named Diaspar. No one has left or come into the city for as long as anyone can remember, and most citizens have lived many lives within the city. It's a sort of utopia, and most of its residents are perfectly content. However, there is one man, a "unique" in that he has had no past lives, who doesn't fear the universe outside the city. He makes plans to exit the city to see what he can find, but it seems that no one even really knows how to leave. To accomplish his task, he enlists the help of "the Jester", and this is where the Matrix series really takes from.
    Long ago it had been discovered that without some crime or disorder, Utopia soon became unbearably dull. Crime, however, from the nature of things, could not be guaranteed to remain at the optimum level which the social equation demanded. If it was licensed and regulated, it ceased to be crime.

    The office of Jester was the solution - at first sight naive, yet actually profoundly subtle - which the city had evolved. ... On rare and unforeseeable occasions, the Jester would turn the city upside-down by some prank which might be no more than an elaborate practical joke, or which might be a calculated assault on some currently cherished belief or way of life. All things considered, the name "Jester" was a highly appropriate one. There had once been med with very similar duties, operating with the same license, in the days when there were courts and kings.
    (Sound familiar? On the other hand, Clarke himself was clearly drawing on longstanding traditions himself.) Then we find out that this "unique" is actually part of a long line of "uniques", only this time, things are different. He opts to go further and do more than any other unique, and he essentially breaks down the walls of the city (sorry, I guess that's a spoiler, but it's necessary to keep up the comparison to The Matrix, and in specific Neo). It's a really wonderful SF book and it's aged pretty well. There are some inconsistencies and Clarke's prose might strike some modern readers as being a bit sparse, but that's characteristic of the era in which he was writing. The ideas are great and thought provoking, and that's what a good SF book needs.
  • Conquerors' Pride by Timothy Zahn: Zahn has been the workhorse of my SF reading over the past few years. I can always count on Zahn to turn the pages and trot out some interesting ideas along the way, which is more than you can say for a lot of supposedly better written novels. I actually read this series about 15 years ago when they came out, but I wanted to re-read them, as I remember enjoying the books a lot, but some of the things I liked back then aren't as great as I remember. I'm happy to report that this series is about as good as I remember. This book is the first in the series, and it begins as a first contact story. Things don't go well, as the alien ships immediately attack, quickly obliterating an entire human fleet (in a ruthless move, they even attack escape pods). So now humans are at war with a new and deadly species, and the Cavanagh family is caught in the middle. When Commander Pheylan Cavanagh is captured by the aliens, his family leaps into action to mount a rescue mission. What follows is another compelling Space Opera from Zahn, whose storytelling skills have never been better. I have some minor complaints about some of the plot details, but it's otherwise an above average page-turner. Being the first in a series can sometimes be a challenge, but Zahn finds a way to end this one in a satisfying fashion.
  • Conquerors' Heritage by Timothy Zahn: The second book in the series is interesting in that it is told entirely from the perspective of the "Conquerors" (i.e. that aliens). This does tend to slow things down a bit, but that's common in the middle book of a series, and at least Zahn does keep things moving forward by continuing where we left off in the last book (i.e. he doesn't retell the first book from another perspective, he keeps progressing the story.) Switching perspectives makes for an interesting plot device, though I guess you could call it gimmicky, and like a lot of alien species in SF, it seems like these are just humans with slightly different faces and sharp tongues. There is one social component that is unique though, which is that Conquerors have something called a Fsss organ. After a Conqueror's body dies, they live on in an incorporeal form that is tied to the fsss organ. If you split the organ in two, the spirit can move between the two cuttings nearly instantaneously, which gives the Conquerors FTL communication capabilities. This is an interesting idea, and Zahn plays a bit with the social and psychological consequences of such a system. Since there's a whole book dedicated to their perspective, I guess it's not a spoiler to say that we're meant to have a sympathetic relationship with even the Conquerors (who, ironically, refer to the humans as Conquerors as well), though saying how Zahn pulls it off would most certainly be a spoiler. In the end, it's a solid middle entry and it moves the story forward, albeit not as quickly as the first book (I still managed to read it in only a couple of days, so it's still a page turner).
  • Conquerors' Legacy by Timothy Zahn: The final book in the series is told from mixture of perspectives, and now that Zahn has all the pieces in place, he drives the plot forward quickly and relentlessly. I don't want to give anything away here, but it's got a satisfying ending and most of what I said about the first two books apply to this one as well. It's a fast-paced, page-turning conclusing to a solid Space Opera series. This isn't deep or overly hard SF, but it's an above-average SF tale and well worth reading if you like this sort of thing.
I'm currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and have a few others to finish up from my current book queue. My next book post will probably be about non-fiction books though, as there are a few I've read and some others on the queue that I'd like to finish off.
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2010 at 08:12 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Link Dump
Interesting stuff seen lately:
  • Wikipedia's Lamest Edit Wars: Amazing list of recurring edits on Wikipedia. Should we mention House MD's lack of asian diversity (8,000+ edits and counting). Should "wee" link to the Nintendo Wii or to the article on urine (20,000+ edits and counting)? A goldmine of almost unintentional hilarity.
  • A Tale As Old As Time: No comment necessary.
  • Predators Teenage Son: A while ago, I participated in an amazingly nerdy debate about aliens and predators, and this video reminded me of that geekout (specifically the part about whether or not the predator would win in a hot dog eating contest when competing against an alien).
  • Extra Credits: If you're not familiar with Daniel Floyd and James Portnow (and now Allison Theus), they produced a series of great videos about video games on YouTube and are now part of The Escapist, posting new videos every Thursday (instead of twice a year, as they were doing before!) I don't know that I always agree with them, but it's always interesting watching.
  • Double Feature: I was getting sick of my current lineup of podcasts, so I started looking around for some new movie podcasts and found this one, which is pretty good stuff (and a large back catalog for me to work through). Any other good movie podcasts I should be listening to? (Besides Filmspotting, Creative Screenwriting, Filmically Perfect, Left Field Cinema, and The Treatment? I already know about those!)
That's all for now, see you Sunday.
Posted by Mark on August 18, 2010 at 09:08 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Game Boys
Back when I first got my PS3 and started looking for good gaming podcasts, one of the things I found was the already defunct (but awesome) GFW radio (If you're not familiar, this 4 hour best-of compilation will keep you busy for a while and is well worth a listen). Despite the fact that all the regulars had left 1up to pursue other careers, I delved a bit into their back catalog of podcasts, and in one episode they mentioned an interesting book called Game Boys: Professional Videogaming's Rise from the Basement to the Big Time by Michael Kane. It sounded interesting so I ordered a copy and promptly put it on my shelf, where it gathered dust and got buried under other books. Earlier this year, I vowed to clear off my shelf and read these suckers (7 out of 10 down and only 2 new books added in the meantime!), and I just finished reading Game Boys last week.

The book delves into the world of competitive video gaming and essentially follows two teams of Counter-Strike players as they vie to become the best US gaming team. One team, called 3D, has heavyweight sponsors like Intel and Nvidia. Their players tend to pull in around $30k a year in salary, plus any winnings from tournaments. At the start of the book, they're pretty much the uncontested champions of the US circuit. After all, most players at tournaments are talented amateurs playing for the love of the game. They can't really compete with professional players who spend full workday's practicing CS. But then we find out about team compLexity. This team also plays its players a salary, but it doesn't have any major sponsors. Their manager/coach, Jason Lake, is funding the entire enterprise out of pocket because he believes that professional gaming is the way of the future and he wants to get in on the ground floor. As the book progresses, we see Lake struggle to find sponsors and when we find out that he's sunk in about $200k of his own cash, we can't help but feel a little bad for the guy. He's middle aged, has a family and a successful law practice, but his passion seems to be getting professional gaming off the ground.

Lake fancies himself a coach and he seems to be a stereotypical jock. He paces behind his team, cheering them on and generally getting fired up as the matches progress. Interestingly, one of the angles that the author highlights frequently is how gamers at this level aren't necessarily the fat slobs who spend all their time in the basement staring at their computer - indeed, many seem to be former jocks who realized they couldn't cut it at their sport of choice and turned to video games as something they could do really well. Kane perhaps goes a bit overboard with this angle at times, but it's interesting that the biggest competitors in video gaming tend to come from actual physical gaming backgrounds.

The author, Michael Kane, didn't really come from a video gaming background. He was a sports journalist who did a story on competitive gaming and got intrigued. As such, the book reads like a standard sports underdog story, with Lake's compLexity taking the role of the scrappy, underrated upstarts, while team 3D (lead by manager Craig Levine, who doesn't take the same "coach"-like role that Lake does) are portrayed as the unbeatable champions. As one player describes, 3D is like the Yankees and compLexity is like the Red Sox. Of course, that's not exactly the case, but the human drama represented by that dynamic is one of the interesting things that draws you in when reading the book.

As a sports journalist, Kane does an exceptional job explaining the game, whether that be describing the intricacies of the CS maps, the strategies (or strats) used by the teams, or the blow-by-blow accounts of various matches. I've never played CS, but by the end of this book, I think I had a pretty good idea about what makes the game tick. Kane also does a good job describing the interpersonal relationships and team dynamics that drive the competition. He falters a bit when describing biographical details of each player, but while such asides can break the momentum of the book from time to time, it's still good information and gives the later chapters more of a sense of urgency.

The most interesting thing about the book is Kane's description of competition at the highest level, and how gaming was constantly struggling to break into the mainstream. As previously mentioned, the players aren't quite the pimply nerd types as you might assume, and the way Kane describes their various talents is interesting. Team 3D seems to have a more tumultuous lineup, as their manager, Craig Levine, will ruthlessly replace players who don't play well. Towards the beginning of the book, team 3D suffers a setback and Levine shakes things up by rehiring a former player, with the gamer handle of Moto. Moto is 23 years old and while he was once a top player (Kane describes one infamous game which has coined the term Moto Box), his skills have declined considerably. To make up for these shortcomings, he is able to devise complicated strategies and formal drills for his team that can give them a bit of an edge. Moto also seems to be much better at handling media attention than any other player, and this is something that Levine was counting on... Levine seems to be a savvy businessman. He's recognized that there's money to be made from gaming, and he sees 3D as one part of a larger scheme. Having Moto on the team is not so much about 3D winning as it is about getting gaming to a mainstream audience. This, of course, doesn't sit so well with teammate Rambo, who has a much different philosophy. As one of the elite players, he doesn't care for the precision strategies designed for Moto - he's much more of a run-and-gunnner, and he's got the skills to pull it off. Moto and Rambo clash for most of the book, and it presents an interesting dynamic.

Team compLexity, on the other hand, seems to have a tighter-knit crew of players. The star of the team, and perhaps the best player in the world (at the time), is fRoD, and the team basically revolves around him. fRoD has an amazing kill ratio and is unstoppable with a sniper rifle. Storm takes on the thankless role of defense, but I think Kane does an exceptional job describing the value of Storm's defensive prowess. Warden seems like the team leader, holding the five players together (and late in the book, he single-handedly keeps compLexity alive). Towards the end of the book, at a big, fancy tournament being put on by DirecTV, one of the precursor events is a series of drills meant to test each players skills - things like speed and tracking.
No one from compLexity cracked the top five, a further testament that their success comes more from teamwork and coordination than individual skills. Either that or they tanked it on purpose... (page 232)
The rivalry between 3D and compLexity is the center of the book, but along the way, we're treated to lots of other amusing details about the game, culture, and the goings on at various tournaments. Highlights include an embarrassing appearance by born-again Christian Stephen Baldwin (page 106), the gamers of the Mug N Mouse team (amateur players with drug habits and probably criminal records who share a practice venue with team 3D), and amusing gamer tags (my favorite of which appears on page 136: "Ryan's alias was 'TedDanson,' which may be the greatest gamer tag ever on the grounds of weirdness alone.")

This is surprisingly compelling stuff. As previously mentioned, the pacing is sometimes a bit uneven, but once Kane has established the players and the details of the game, it becomes riveting. There are some occasional mistakes (for instance, early in the book, Kane mentions that Halo 3 sold something like 4 billion copies in the first day) as well, but overall, Kane has done an exceptional job capturing what it's like to play video games at the highest level. As with anything involving that level of skill, there are fascinating intricacies and unintended consequences when you see players at that level. It's well worth a read if you're interested in video games or even if you just like a well written sports story.

As someone mentioned in the podcast referenced above, this seems like ideal fodder for the documentary crew that made The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. There's a surprising amount of drama in the book, especially towards the end, as DirecTV seems poised to launch gaming as a mainstream event. Of course, the book was published in 2008 and covers events leading up to the establishment of 2007's DirecTV gaming league. Here in 2010, we know that DirecTV has cancelled the league and while the gaming tournaments continue, there isn't as much interest in mainstream competitive gaming on TV these days.

The events leading up to DirecTV's kickoff event are interesting to read because presenting a game of Counter-Strike to a mainstream audience presents numerous challenges. First of all, watching people play video games has never been a particularly entertaining venture. The game does allow a sorta free-roaming camera for spectators, but it's still a challenge - there's 10 people playing, and you never know where the excitement will happen. Then you have to consider that most people in a potential mainstream audience won't have any idea what's going on in the game. Long-time players will recognize the maps, the strats, the weapons, and so on, but a newcoming won't have any of that shared background.

The events of the book were happening just after poker had exploded onto television. But the difference between poker and Counter-Strike is that everyone knows what's happening in poker. Comparatively few people know the intricacies of CS. The problem with professional gaming in the long run is that it has to feature a game that nearly everyone is familiar with. In Korea, nearly everyone plays StarCraft, so it makes some sort of sense when you watch a video like this (ok, no, that video still blows my mind - look at their uniforms! Look at the crowd!) Such a thing isn't really possible in the US because while video games in general are quite popular, there's no single game that everyone can get on board with.

Kane's book proves that Counter-Strike can be made accessible to just about anyone (his sports writing background ensures that sort of tone), but I just can't see that translating to a full blown sports league that people will tune into every week. That being said, the book works well for what it is, and it covers an interesting and seemingly pivotal period of gaming.
Posted by Mark on August 15, 2010 at 07:09 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Trigger Man
An earlier post on Ti West's excellent The House of the Devil lead the cryptic emailer mentioned in that post to recommend West's previous film, the ultra-low-budget Trigger Man. It's an interesting little film, mostly because it is essentially a concentrated version of what some people really hated about The House of the Devil.

Like, House of the Devil, the plot of this film is easily summarized: three buddies head out to the woods for a relaxing hunting trip. With a title like Trigger Man and three apparently inexperienced young guys with guns, it played out almost exactly as I expected. But not right away.
Trigger Man
I suppose there are some who'd say that the first half of the film is a bit dull, and there's probably something to that. The film is certainly slow. But there's also something effective about being lulled into a sense of security that this film exploits. At one point maybe 20 minutes or so into the movie, after our heroes have been quietly walking through the woods for a while, one of the characters hefts his rifle and pans around the area... and spies a doe! Never has a female deer been so menacing.

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the deer does not shoot back at our hero, but there's no way that sequence would have carried the weight it did if we hadn't spent the previous 20 minutes trudging silently through the landscape, building atmosphere with every step. As someone who has been deer hunting myself, this movie actually does capture that sort of excitement that can only come after spending a morning waiting for something (anything!) to cross your path. After a while, even a squirrel can be exciting.

Of course, that's not all this film has to offer, and while I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, I did find myself startled when it actually did happen. From that point on, I found myself surprisingly off balance, even when West reverts the film back into quiet nature walk mode (only to jolt me out of my reestablished reverie, I should add). There is even that horror staple of gratuitous gore at one point, but that sort of thing works much better in a movie like this than it does in a lot of other schlock-fests (though I do have a soft spot for slashers, for some unfathomable reason). Later in the film, an eerie abandoned factory makes an appearance, and West takes ample advantage of the strange shadows thrown by overpasses.

This is pretty clearly a low-budget film, and at times I did find myself wondering if the stylistic choices were done for artistic reasons, or because of technical limitations (or, as is sometimes happily the case, both). For instance, the film does have a distinct vérité feel. West never goes all Greengrass on us, but a handheld camera is clearly used for most of the shots. This does sorta put the viewer in the position of voyeur, as if if we're actually there, following the characters with a camera (but without the whole found-footage conceit). Indeed, there are numerous shots from behind, following characters as they move. I would be curious what choices West would have made if he had more of a budget.

The DVD had a Q&A session with West, cast, and crew, and one of the things that really surprised me was that he says almost none of the film is improvised. The film only has about 20 lines of dialogue, and most of it is pretty simple banter between the three leads (I thought for sure that the Predator reference was an improvisation). After finishing the movie, I contemplated whether it would have made for a good silent film (the concept of a modern-day silent film intrigues me) - and I think it would, so long as you could leave the sound of gunshots and maybe the babbling water of the creek.

Ultimately, while I enjoyed the film and found it satisfying, I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone but the most strident fans of West or slow burning horror (i.e. people who think The House of the Devil is for speed junkies). Perhaps being immersed in the hustle and bustle of teh internets primed me for spending some down time following some doomed hunters as they trekked through an eerie environment. I guess it's not a film I see myself popping in all the time... It's a wonderful experiment, and I enjoyed it on that level, but it certainly has its flaws. In any case, I guess this means I should check out The Roost (which, I have to say, seems like it would be very different from the other two West movies I've seen).
Posted by Mark on August 11, 2010 at 09:34 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Link Dump
I have about 5 posts brewing right now, but none are quite ready for the show, so here are some links in the meantime. That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on August 08, 2010 at 08:27 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A/B Testing Spaghetti Sauce
Earlier this week I was perusing some TED Talks and ran across this old (and apparently popular) presentation by Malcolm Gladwell. It struck me as particularly relevant to several topics I've explored on this blog, including Sunday's post on the merits of A/B testing. In the video, Gladwell explains why there are a billion different varieties of Spaghetti sauce at most supermarkets:
Again, this video touches on several topics explored on this blog in the past. For instance, it describes the origins of what's become known as the Paradox of Choice (or, as some would have you believe, the Paradise of Choice) - indeed, there's another TED talk linked right off the Gladwell video that covers that topic in detail.

The key insight Gladwell discusses in his video is basically the destruction of the Platonic Ideal (I'll summarize in this paragraph in case you didn't watch the video, which covers the topic in much more depth). He talks about Howard Moskowitz, who was a market research consultant with various food industry companies that were attempting to optimize their products. After conducting lots of market research and puzzling over the results, Moskowitz eventually came to a startling conclusion: there is no perfect product, only perfect products. Moskowitz made his name working with spaghetti sauce. Prego had hired him in order to find the perfect spaghetti sauce (so that they could compete with rival company, Ragu). Moskowitz developed dozens of prototype sauces and went on the road, testing each variety with all sorts of people. What he found was that there was no single perfect spaghetti sauce, but there were basically three types of sauce that people responded to in roughly equal proportion: standard, spicy, and chunky. At the time, there were no chunky spaghetti sauces on the market, so when Prego released their chunky spaghetti sauce, their sales skyrocketed. A full third of the market was underserved, and Prego filled that need.

Decades later, this is hardly news to us and the trend has spread from the supermarket into all sorts of other arenas. In entertainment, for example, we're seeing a move towards niches. The era of huge blockbuster bands like The Beatles is coming to an end. Of course, there will always be blockbusters, but the really interesting stuff is happening in the niches. This is, in part, due to technology. Once you can fit 30,000 songs onto an iPod and you can download "free" music all over the internet, it becomes much easier to find music that fits your tastes better. Indeed, this becomes a part of peoples' identity. Instead of listening to the mass produced stuff, they listen to something a little odd and it becomes an expression of their personality. You can see evidence of this everywhere, and the internet is a huge enabler in this respect. The internet is the land of niches. Click around for a few minutes and you can easily find absurdly specific, single topic, niche websites like this one where every post features animals wielding lightsabers or this other one that's all about Flaming Garbage Cans In Hip Hop Videos (there are thousands, if not millions of these types of sites). The internet is the ultimate paradox of choice, and you're free to explore almost anything you desire, no matter how odd or obscure it may be (see also, Rule 34).

In relation to Sunday's post on A/B testing, the lesson here is that A/B testing is an optimization tool that allows you to see how various segments respond to different versions of something. In that post, I used an example where an internet retailer was attempting to find the ideal imagery to sell a diamond ring. A common debate in the retail world is whether that image should just show a closeup of the product, or if it should show a model wearing the product. One way to solve that problem is to A/B test it - create both versions of the image, segment visitors to your site, and track the results.

As discussed Sunday, there are a number of challenges with this approach, but one thing I didn't mention is the unspoken assumption that there actually is an ideal image. In reality, there are probably some people that prefer the closeup and some people who prefer the model shot. An A/B test will tell you what the majority of people like, but wouldn't it be even better if you could personalize the imagery used on the site depending on what customers like? Show the type of image people prefer, and instead of catering to the most popular segment of customer, you cater to all customers (the simple diamond ring example begins to break down at this point, but more complex or subtle tests could still show significant results when personalized). Of course, this is easier said than done - just ask Amazon, who does CRM and personalization as well as any retailer on the web, and yet manages to alienate a large portion of their customers every day! Interestingly, this really just shifts the purpose of A/B testing from one of finding the platonic ideal to finding a set of ideals that can be applied to various customer segments. Once again we run up against the need for more and better data aggregation and analysis techniques. Progress is being made, but I'm not sure what the endgame looks like here. I suppose time will tell. For now, I'm just happy that Amazon's recommendations aren't completely absurd for me at this point (which I find rather amazing, considering where they were a few years ago).
Posted by Mark on August 04, 2010 at 07:54 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Groundhog Day and A/B Testing
Jeff Atwood recently made a fascinating observation about the similarities between the classic film Groundhog Day and A/B Testing.

In case you've only recently emerged from a hermit-like existence, Groundhog Day is a film about Phil (played by Bill Murray). It seems that Phil has been doomed (or is it blessed) to live the same day over and over again. It doesn't seem to matter what he does during this day, he always wakes up at 6 am on Groundhog Day. In the film, we see the same day repeated over and over again, but only in bits and pieces (usually skipping repetitive parts). The director of the film, Harold Ramis, believes that by the end of the film, Phil has spent the equivalent of about 30 or 40 years reliving that same day.

Towards the beginning of the film, Phil does a lot of experimentation, and Atwood's observation is that this often takes the form of an A/B test. This is a concept that is perhaps a little more esoteric, but the principles are easy. Let's take a simple example from the world of retail. You want to sell a new ring on a website. What should the main image look like? For simplification purposes, let's say you narrow it down to two different concepts: one, a closeup of the ring all by itself, and the other a shot of a model wearing the ring. Which image do you use? We could speculate on the subject for hours and even rationalize some pretty convincing arguments one way or the other, but it's ultimately not up to us - in retail, it's all about the customer. You could "test" the concept in a serial fashion, but ultimately the two sets of results would not be comparable. The ring is new, so whichever image is used first would get an unfair advantage, and so on. The solution is to show both images during the same timeframe. You do this by splitting your visitors into two segments (A and B), showing each segment a different version of the image, and then tracking the results. If the two images do, in fact, cause different outcomes, and if you get enough people to look at the images, it should come out in the data.

This is what Phil does in Groundhog Day. For instance, Phil falls in love with Rita (played by Andie MacDowell) and spends what seems like months compiling lists of what she likes and doesn't like, so that he can construct the perfect relationship with her.
Phil doesn't just go on one date with Rita, he goes on thousands of dates. During each date, he makes note of what she likes and responds to, and drops everything she doesn't. At the end he arrives at -- quite literally -- the perfect date. Everything that happens is the most ideal, most desirable version of all possible outcomes on that date on that particular day. Such are the luxuries afforded to a man repeating the same day forever.

This is the purest form of A/B testing imaginable. Given two choices, pick the one that "wins", and keep repeating this ad infinitum until you arrive at the ultimate, most scientifically desirable choice.
As Atwood notes, the interesting thing about this process is that even once Phil has constructed that perfect date, Rita still rejects Phil. From this example and presumably from experience with A/B testing, Atwood concludes that A/B testing is empty and that subjects can often sense a lack of sincerity behind the A/B test.

It's an interesting point, but to be sure, I'm not sure it's entirely applicable in all situations. Of course, Atwood admits that A/B testing is good at smoothing out details, but there's something more at work in Groundhog's Day that Atwood is not mentioning. Namely, that Phil is using A/B testing to misrepresent himself as the ideal mate for Rita. Yes, he's done the experimentation to figure out what "works" and what doesn't, but his initial testing was ultimately shallow. Rita didn't reject him because he had all the right answers, she rejected him because he was attempting to deceive her. His was misrepresenting himself, and that certainly can lead to a feeling of emptiness.

If you look back at my example above about the ring being sold on a retail website, you'll note that there's no deception going on there. Somehow I doubt either image would result in a hollow feeling by the customer. Why is this different than Groundhog Day? Because neither image misrepresents the product, and one would assume that the website is pretty clear about the fact that you can buy things there. Of course, there are a million different variables you could test (especially once you get into text and marketing hooks, etc...) and some of those could be more deceptive than others, but most of the time, deception is not the goal. There is a simple choice to be made, instead of constantly wondering about your product image and second guessing yourself, why not A/B test it and see what customers like better?

There are tons of limitations to this approach, but I don't think it's as inherently flawed as Atwood seems to believe. Still, the data you get out of an A/B test isn't always conclusive and even if it is, whatever learnings you get out of it aren't necessarily applicable in all situations. For instance, what works for our new ring can't necessarily be applied to all new rings (this is a problem for me, as my employer has a high turnover rate for products - as such, the simple example of the ring as described above would not be a good test for my company unless the ring would be available for a very long time). Furthermore, while you can sometimes pick a winner, it's not always clear why it's a winner. This is especially the case when the differences between A and B are significant (for instance, testing an entirely redesigned page might yield results, but you will not know which of the changes to the page actually caused said results - on the other hand, A/B testing is really the only way to accurately calculate ROI on significant changes like that.)

Obviously these limitations should be taken into account when conducting an A/B test, and I think what Phil runs into in Groundhog's Day is a lack of conclusive data. One of the problems with interpreting inconclusive data is that it can be very tempting to rationalize the data. Phils initial attempts to craft the perfect date for Rita fail because he's really only scraping the surface of her needs and desires. In other words, he's testing the wrong thing, misunderstanding the data, and thus getting inconclusive results.

The interesting thing about the Groundhog's Day example is that, in the end, the movie is not a condemnation of A/B testing at all. Phil ultimately does manage to win the affections of Rita. Of course it took him decades to do so, and that's worth taking into account. Perhaps what the film is really saying is that A/B testing is often more complicated than it seems and that the only results you get depend on what you put into it. A/B testing is not the easy answer it's often portrayed as and it should not be the only tool in your toolbox (i.e. forcing employees to prove that using 3, 4 or 5 pixels for a border is ideal is probably going a bit too far ), but neither is it as empty as Atwood seems to be indicating. (And we didn't even talk about multivariate tests! Let's get Christopher Nolan on that. He'd be great at that sort of movie, wouldn't he?)
Posted by Mark on August 01, 2010 at 09:57 PM .: link :.

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