The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32
Anne Field § The booster pack / 2014-02-15 16:15:39
Josh Rubenoff § The booster pack / 2014-02-09 04:29:20
David Lang § The right flavor of fame / 2014-02-07 15:13:49
Robin § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 16:41:42
Navneet Alang § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:40:31
Sam M-B § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:32:35
Chris Baker § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 02:38:57
G Love § Conversation Media / 2014-01-30 07:26:22
Navneet Alang § Calculating the Weight of the Object / 2014-01-26 16:07:58

The Great Browser Tab Clean-Out of 2010

This is going to be a hodge-podge of a post; it’s just a bunch of things I’ve run across in recent week that I think are worth sharing. Each one is absolutely worthy of more than a list bullet, but alas, 2010 grows short. Rapid fire, now:

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The Western 101, via Netflix Watch Instantly

I love Westerns. My allegiance to the genre has long been known on the Snarkmatrix. (I refer you to the comment threads on Exhibit A or Exhibit B.) So I am excited that people are excited by Joel and Ethan Coen’s new Western, True Grit.

And jeez, I hope I get a few hours by myself in the next week or so to see this movie. Parenting is a serious drag on your ability to partake of the cinema, which is one reason I’ve become such a devotée of Netflix Watch Instantly. I didn’t even get to catch the restored Metropolis when it came to town, and I had only A) waited months for it and B) written a chapter of my dissertation about its director. So I don’t know if True Grit is as good as everyone says it is. What I do know, what I know the hell out of, are Westerns, and Netflix. If you don’t know Westerns, that’s fine. So long as you’ve got a Netflix subscription and streaming internet, I’ve got your back.

You probably know that True Grit (2010) is an adaptation of the same Charles Portis novel (True Grit) that was previously adapted into a movie [True Grit (1969)] that won John Wayne a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the eyepatched marshal Rooster Cogburn. It’s not a remake, you’ve heard entoned, it’s a more-faithful adaptation of the novel.

Fine. Who cares? At a certain point, remakes and adaptations stop being remakes and adaptations. Does anyone care that His Girl Friday was a gender-swapping adaptation of The Front Page, a terrific Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur play which had already been made into a movie in 1931, and which was made into a movie again in 1974 with Billy Wilder directing and Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon playing the Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell roles?

Okay, I do. But besides me, not really. Because His Girl Friday obliterated The Front Page in our movie-watching conciousness, even though the latter is the prototype of every fast-talking newspaper comedy from, shit, His Girl Friday to the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy. It’s been over forty years since True Grit (1969). It’s a good movie, but if you haven’t seen it, don’t sweat it too much.

You should, however, be sweating the Western. Because not least among their virtues is that Joel and Ethan Coen care and care deeply about genre. Virtually all of their movies are a loving pastiche of one genre form or another, whether playful (like Hudsucker’s newspaper comedy or The Big Lebowski’s skewed take on the hardboiled detective), not so playful (No Country For Old Men) or both somehow at once (Miller’s Crossing, Fargo). And the Western is fickle. You’ve got to contend with books, movies, radio, and TV, all with their own assumptions, all alternating giddy hats-and-badges-and-guns-and-horses entertainment and stone-serious edge-of-civilization Greek-tragedy-meets-American-origin-stories primal rites.

I’ll save you some time, though, by giving you just twelve links, briefly annotated.
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Rooting for the home team

It’s a classic paradox of American democracy: citizens love America, hate Congress, but generally like their own district’s Congressman. (Until they don’t, and then they vote for someone else, who they usually like).

Josh Huder (via Ezra Klein) takes on the apparent paradox, armed with some good data and historical analysis.

Huder points out something even more paradoxical: Congressional approval takes a hit not just when there’s a scandal, or when there’s partisan gridlock in the face of a crisis, but even when Congress works together to pass major legislation:

By simply doing its job Congress can alienate large parts of its constituency. So while people like their legislators, they dislike when they get together with fellow members and legislate.

From this, Huder concludes that “disapproval is built into the institution’s DNA.” But let me come at this from a different angle: professional and/or sports.

There’s almost an exact isomorphism here. Fans/constituents like/love their home teams (unless their performance suffers for an extended period of time, when they switch to “throw the bums out” mode), and LOVE the game itself. But nobody really likes the league. Who would say, “I love the MLB” or “I love the NCAA” — meaning the actual organizations themselves?

Never! The decisions of the league are always suspect. They’re aggregate, bureaucratic, necessary, and not the least bit fun. Even when leagues make the right decision, we discount it; they’re just “doing their job.” The only time they can really capture our attention is when they do something awful. And most of the time, they’re just tedious drags on our attention, easily taken for granted.

If it’s a structure, it doesn’t seem to be limited to politics. It’s a weird blend of local/pastime attachment, combined with contempt/misunderstanding for the actual structures that work. Because we don’t *want* to notice them at work at all, really.

One comment

Two observations on Lanier on Wikileaks

Robin set the table up (and h/t to Alexis for getting Lanier’s essay in circulation).

Here are three disjoint thoughts, slightly too long for tweets/comments:

  1. Part of Lanier’s critique of Wikileaks works astonishingly well as a critique of Google’s Ngrams, too. (I’m working up a longer post on this.) In particular, I’m thinking of this observation:

    A sufficiently copious flood of data creates an illusion of omniscience, and that illusion can make you stupid. Another way to put this is that a lot of information made available over the internet encourages players to think as if they had a God’s eye view, looking down on the whole system.

  2. I feel like we need a corollary to the Ad Hitlerem/Godwin’s Law fallacy. I’m going to call it “the Gandhi principle.” Just like trotting out the Hitler analogy for everything you disagree with shuts down a conversation by overkill, so do comparisons with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Jesus, and other secular and not-so-secular activist saints.

We’ve canonized these guys, to the point where 1) we think they did everything themselves, 2) they never used different strategies, 3) they never made mistakes, and 4) disagreeing with them then or now violates a deep moral law.

More importantly, in comparison, every other kind of activism is destined to fall short. Lanier’s essay, like Malcolm Gladwell’s earlier essay on digital activism, violates the Gandhi principle. (Hmm, maybe this should be the No-Gandhi Principle. Or it doesn’t violate the Gandhi Principle, but invokes it. Which is usually a bad thing. Still sorting this part out.) The point is, both Ad Hitlerem and the Gandhi Principle opt for terminal purity over differential diagnosis. If you’re not bringing it MLK-style, you’re not really doing anything.

The irony is, Lanier’s essay is actually pretty strong at avoiding the terminal purity problem in other places — i.e., if you agree with someone’s politics, you should agree with (or ignore) their tactics, or vice versa. At its best, it brings the nuance, rather than washing it out.

Google’s Ngrams is also subject to terminal purity arguments — either it’s exposing our fundamental cultural DNA, or it’s dicking around with badly-OCRed data, and it couldn’t possibly be anything in between. To which I say — oy.


'Sterile information worship'

Over in The Atlantic, Jaron Lanier writes at length about Wikileaks:

Can we say Wikileaks is doing anything beyond sterile information worship? Is it engaged in nonviolent activism?

We celebrate the masters of nonviolent activism, such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All these figures displayed astounding courage, faced arrest, and suffered without hating their oppressors in order to demonstrate a common humanity. These remarkable people did not make “Crush the bastards” into their mantra.

So the question has to be, if you add the Internet, can you now be a nonviolent activist without having to show courage and respect the opposing side? Is it now suddenly helpful to be a troll, attacking from the darkness, as the members of Anonymous do? Does the Internet really make life that much easier?

Of course it doesn’t.

I haven’t decided what I think yet—but I’m thankful to Alexis for publishing this. Another really salient line:

w can you tell when you are the underdog versus when you are powerful? When you get that perception wrong, you can behave quite badly quite easily.

I’m not going to blockquote the kicker, but it’s powerful. Go check it out. And note The Atlantic Science/Tech section’s range, here: this is a site that’s hosting Jaron Lanier and Cablegate Roulette.


A hypothetical path to the Speakularity

Yesterday NiemanLab published some of my musings on the coming “Speakularity” – the moment when automatic speech transcription becomes fast, free and decent.

I probably should have underscored the fact that I don’t see this moment happening in 2011, given the fact that these musings were solicited as part of a NiemanLab series called “Predictions for Journalism 2011.” Instead, I think several things possibly could converge next year that would bring the Speakularity a lot closer. This is pure hypothesis and conjecture, but I’m putting this out there because I think there’s a small chance that talking about these possibilities publicly might actually make them more likely.

First, let’s take a clear-eyed look at where we are, in the most optimistic scenario. Watch the first minute-and-a-half or so of this video interview with Clay Shirky. Make sure you turn closed-captioning on, and set it to transcribe the audio. Here’s my best rendering of some of Shirky’s comments alongside my best rendering of the auto-caption:

Manual transcript: Auto transcript:
Well, they offered this penalty-free checking account to college students for the obvious reason students could run up an overdraft and not suffer. And so they got thousands of customers. And then when the students were spread around during the summer, they reneged on the deal. And so HSBC assumed they could change this policy and have the students not react because the students were just hopelessly disperse. So a guy named Wes Streeting (sp?) puts up a page on Facebook, which HSBC had not been counting on. And the Facebook site became the source of such a large and prolonged protest among thousands and thousands of people that within a few weeks, HSBC had to back down again. So that was one of the early examples of a managed organization like a bank running into the fact that its users and its customers are not just atomized, disconnected people. They can actually come together and act as a group now, because we’ve got these platforms that allow us to coordinate with one another. will they offer the penalty-free technique at the college students pretty obvious resistance could could %uh run a program not suffer as they got thousands of customers and then when the students were spread around during the summer they were spread over the summer the reneged on the day and to hsbc assumed that they could change this policy and have the students not react because the students were just hopeless experts so again in western parts of the page on face book which hsbc had not been counting on the face book site became the source of such a large and prolonged protest among thousands and thousands of people that within a few weeks hsbc had to back down again so that was one of the early examples are female issue organization like a bank running into the fact that it’s users are not just after its customers are not just adam eyes turned disconnected people they get actually come together and act as a group mail because we’ve got these platforms to laos to coordinate

Cringe-inducing, right? What little punctuation exists is in error (“it’s users”), there’s no capitalization, “atomized” has become “adam eyes,” “platforms that allow us” are now “platforms to laos,” and HSBC is suddenly an example of a “female issue organization,” whatever that means.

Now imagine, for a moment, that you’re a journalist. You click a button to send this video to Google Transcribe, where it appears in an interface somewhat resembling the New York Times’ DebateViewer. Highlight a passage in the text, and it will instantly loop the corresponding section of video, while you type in a more accurate transcription of the passage.

That advancement alone – quite achievable with existing technology – would speed our ability to transcribe a clip like this quite a bit. And it wouldn’t be much more of an encroachment than Google has already made into the field of automatic transcription. All of this, I suspect, could happen in 2011.

Now allow me a brief tangent. One of the predictions I considered submitting for NiemanLab’s series was that Facebook would unveil a dramatically enhanced Facebook Videos in 2011, integrating video into the core functionality of the site the way Photos have been, instead of making it an application. I suspect this would increase adoption, and we’d see more people getting tagged in videos. And Google might counter by adding social tagging capabilities to YouTube, the way they have with Picasa. This would mean that in some cases, Google would know who appeared in a video, and possibly know who was speaking.

Back to Google. This week, the Google Mobile team announced that they’ve built personalized voice recognition into Android. If you turn it on for your Android device, it’ll learn your voice, improving the accuracy of the software the way dictation programs such as Dragon do now.

Pair these ideas and fast-forward a bit. Google asks YouTube users whether they want to enable personalized voice recognition on videos they’re tagged in. If Google knows you’re speaking in a video, it uses what it knows about your voice to make your part of the transcription more accurate. (And hey, let’s throw in that they’ve enabled social tagging at the transcript level, so it can make educated guesses about who’s saying what in a video.)

A bit further on: Footage for most national news shows is regularly uploaded to YouTube, and this footage tends to feature a familiar blend of voices. If they were somewhat reliably tagged, and Google could begin learning their voices, automatic transcriptions for these shows could become decently accurate out of the box. That gets us to the democratized Daily Show scenario.

This is a bucketload of hypotheticals, and I’m highly pessimistic Google could make its various software layers work together this seamlessly anytime soon, but are you starting to see the path I’m drawing here?

And at this point, I’m talking about fairly mainstream applications. The launch of Google Transcribe alone would be a big step forward for journalists, driving down the costs of transcription for news applications a good amount.

Commenter Patrick at NiemanLab mentioned that the speech recognition industry will do everything in its power to prevent Google from releasing anything like Transcribe anytime soon. I agree, but I think speech transcription might be a smaller industry economically than GPS navigation,* and that didn’t prevent Google from solidly disrupting that universe with Google Navigate.

I’m stepping way out on a limb in all of this, it should be emphasized. I know very little about the technological or market realities of speech recognition. I think I know the news world well enough to know how valuable these things would be, and I think I have a sense of what might be feasible soon. But as Tim said on Twitter, “the Speakularity is a lot like the Singularity in that it’s a kind of ever-retreating target.”

The thing I’m surprised not many people have made hay with is the dystopian part of this vision. The Singularity has its gray goo, and the Speakularity has some pretty sinister implications as well. Does the vision I paint above up the creep factor for anyone?

* To make that guess, I’m extrapolating from the size of the call center recording systems market, which is projected to hit $1.24 billion by 2015. It’s only one segment of the industry, but I suspect it’s a hefty piece (15%? 20%?) of that pie. GPS, on the other hand, is slated to be a $70 billion market by 2013.


Sci-Fi Film History 101 (via Netflix Watch Instantly)

Here’s another Netflix list from Friend of the Snarkmatrix Matt Penniman! —RS

As a supplement to Tim’s list, I thought I might offer the following. It attempts to catalog the history of science fiction in film. More specifically: it features films that take a scientific possibility or question as their central premise.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)
deep sea life

Metropolis (1927)
robotics, dehumanization

Gojira (1954)

The Fly (1958)

La jetée (1961)
time travel

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Solaris (1972)
alien intelligence

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
alien intelligence

Mad Max (1979)
post-apocalypse society

Blade Runner (1982)

Aliens (1986)
biological weapons

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
robotics, time travel

Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (1995)
robotics, networked information

Bonus selections:

Robot Stories (2004)

Moon (2009)

One comment

Film History 101 (via Netflix Watch Instantly)

Robin is absolutely right: I like lists, I remember everything I’ve ever seen or read, and I’ve been making course syllabi for over a decade, so I’m often finding myself saying “If you really want to understand [topic], these are the [number of objects] you need to check out.” Half the fun is the constraint of it, especially since we all now know (or should know) that constraints = creativity.

So when Frank Chimero asked:

Looking to do some sort of survey on film history. Any sort of open curriculum out there like this that runs in tandem with Netflix Instant?

I quickly said, “I got this,” and got to work.

See, trying to choose over the set of every film ever made is ridiculously hard. Choosing over a well-defined subset is both easier and more useful.

Also, I knew I didn’t want to pick the best movies ever made, or my favorites, or even the most important. Again, that pressure, it’ll cripple you. I wanted to pick a smattering of films that if you watched any given, sufficiently large subset of them, you’d know a lot more about movies than when you started.

This is actually a lot like trying to design a good class. You’re not always picking the very best examples of whatever it is you’re talking about, or even the things that you most want your students to know, although obviously both of those factor into it. It’s much more pragmatic. You’re trying to pick the elements that the class is most likely to learn something from, that will catalyze the most chemistry. It’s a difficult thing to sort, but after you’ve done it for a while, it’s like driving a car, playing a video game, or driving a sport — you just start to see the possibilities opening up.

Then I decided to add my own constraints. First, I decided that I wasn’t going to include any movies after the early 1970s. You can quibble about the dates, but basically, once you get to the Spielberg-Scorsese-Coppola-Woody Allen generation of filmmakers — guys who are older but still active and supremely influential today — movies are basically recognizable to us. Jaws or Goodfellas or Paris, Texas are fantastic, classic, crucial movies, but you don’t really have to put on your historical glasses to figure them out and enjoy them, even if they came out before you were of movie-going age. The special effects are crummier, but really, movie-making just hasn’t changed that much.

Also, I wasn’t going to spend more than a half-hour putting it together. I knew film history and Netflix’s catalog well enough to do it fast, fast, fast.

And so, this was the list I came up with. As it happened, it came to a nice round 33.

I made exactly one change between making up the list and posting it here, swapping out David Lynch’s Eraserhead for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. I cheated a little with Eraserhead — it’s a late movie that was shot over a really, really long period of time in the 70s and came out towards the end of that decade. And Breathless isn’t Godard’s best movie, but it’s probably the most iconic, so it was an easy choice.

There are huge limitations to this list, mostly driven by the limitations of the catalog. Netflix’s selection of Asian and African movies, beyond a handful of auteurs like Akira Kurosawa, isn’t very good. There’s no classic-period Hitchcock. There’s no Citizen Kane. There aren’t any documentaries or animated films. And you could argue until you’re blue in the face about picking film X over film Y with certain directors or movements or national cinemas.

But you know what? You wouldn’t just learn something from watching these movies, or just picking five you haven’t seen before — you would actually have fun. Except maybe Birth of a Nation. Besides its famous pro-Ku Klux Klan POV, that sucker is a haul. Happy watching.


The 101

I am on board with Frank’s love of A History of the World in 100 Objects and also with his SurveyCast concept. He lays it out in some detail in his post, so go check it out, but this bit resonated with me (emphasis mine):

I suppose I’m hungry for curated educational materials online. These are more than lists of books to read: they’re organized, edited, and have a clear point of view about the content they are presenting, and subvert the typical scatter-shot approach of half the web (like Wikipedia), or the hyper-linear, storyless other half that obsesses over lists. And that’s the frustrating thing about trying to teach yourself things online: you’re new, so you don’t know what’s important, but everything is spread so thin and all over the place, so it’s difficult to make meaningful connections.

Some of the teachers I remember most from college are the ones who would say something like: “Listen. There are only two movies you need to understand to understand [whole giant big cinematic movement X]. Those two movies are [A] and [B]. And we’re gonna watch ‘em.” (I feel like this is something Tim is extremely good at, actually.) It’s a step above curation, right? Context matters here; so does sequence. So we’re talking about some sort of super-sharp, web-powered, media-rich syllabus. I always liked syllabi, actually. They seem to make such an alluring promise, you know? Something like:

Go through this with me, and you will be a novice no more.


Close encounters of the corporate kind

Not sure I agree with all of this, but it made my brain zap and crackle—Charlie Stross takes the “if corporations were people, they would be really, really awful people” argument and plays with it a bit:

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

And I like the last line—you could call it the punchline—a lot. It reframes the whole thing in a way that’s weird, fun, and a bit unsettling.