Mimesis and Violence

July 27, 2008, 10:01 pm
Filed under: Film, Rants

Pulpy movies are one of life’s greatest guilty pleasures. Picked ripe, juiced, viewed alone in a darkened room in grainy glory from a full-screened YouTube-style flash player when the alternative of social exertion seems too exerting, or in a theater when you can muster the friends or the willpower to go alone… nothing better.

For serious: overtones of misanthropy notwithstanding, I love shitty action movies, cartoons, bottom-of-the-barrel comedy, and classless whirlwind dramas. I once watched the Hulk, Blade 3, and Dr. Dolittle 2 back to back on tv-links.co.uk; Put me on a plane or in a dorm room and I’ll happily watch the dregs of Hollywood for hours and then wax eloquent with friends about the mathematical relationship between the number of Eddies Murphy in a film and its greatness.

From the outset this summer seemed like a windfall of pulp that only Tropicana could best. We were going to get another Hulk film, another Indiana Jones film (which was awful), a girl with a pig’s nose, a Kung-Fu panda, Angelina Jolie killing people (again), Adam Sandler playing a mossad agent cum hairstylist, another Will Smith July 4th blockbuster, another Judd Apatow joint, and another Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly romp. Life was looking UP in May and June.

To my great chagrin I have seen none of this summer’s mind-numbers, bullet-benders, toilet-humorists, or feeble heart-string-tuggers, and no Eddies Murphy. None! Somehow I instead managed to see two flicks besotted with cultural criticism, movies of some depth, films that vie for the soul of modern man: Kung-Fu Panda, Wall-E.

What what what!? Yup yup yup. I’m serious. For realsies.

I was supposed to see Kung-Fu Panda with my sister and my college roommate, but the roomie somehow ended up in the wrong showing and we saw it separately at about the same time. After recapping the plot twists that led to us seeing the movie in different theaters, roommate and I get to talking about the film. So I’m loving the Panda, enamored with the use of food as motivation for Kung Fuing, ready to adopt ‘skidoosh’ into my vocab, when roomie says that he really liked the Kung-Fu tiger of doom more than panda, that his jail escape was really cool, that the tiger worked really hard to become the “Dragon Warrior” and the Panda basically did nothing other than idolize other Kung Fu-ers and over-eat, that it is absurd that the ‘secret ingredient’ should make up for years of hard training and general awesomeness.

At first blush it would seem like the point of Kung-Fu Panda is that practice and training are nothing in the face of well, a belly and blind luck, that the universe chooses (the Dragon Warrior in this case) and there’s nothing to be done to change that choice (“there are no accidents”). It seems rather abhorrent to panda suit Jack Black for the purpose of telling kids that they too can do whatever they want without significant training or practice, even be fat Kung-Fu champions.

Blush one more time and realize that the movie is not quite that simplistic (though still pretty simplistic). Though he trained for a comparatively short time, Po needed a trainer, a great trainer, a trainer who realized the unique way in which he could be trained effectively, in order to become great himself. Moreover, Po needed to come to the secret of the ‘Dragon Warrior’ himself (the fact that there is “no secret” is a secret in its own right).

Insight is the nub of greatness in the Pandaverse. The ability to see a situation in a new or counter-intuitive way, to train people with an appreciation of who they are rather than what you would like them to become, can brings about greater leverage than years of narrow training in a discipline. Like most morals this one has some truth to it, but it’s a very modern conceit, very Freakonomics logic that perhaps doesn’t apply in the realm of precise hand-to-hand combat (or even more broadly?).

Despite roomie’s great points, I think I’ve successfully justified enjoying Kung-Fu Panda. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it was a cinematic achievement of any sort, though. Kung-Fu Panda was a wholly enjoyable computer animated martial arts flick for kids and immature adults like myself. Wall-E, in it’s renewal of silent film for our times, was an impressive achievement. The range of emotion displayed by basically voiceless robots in the first forty minutes of the movie is absolutely breathtaking.

Not to denigrate the success of Wall-E, but an achievement of cinematography wrapped in a polemic wrapped in a wrapped in a cop-out ending needs to be considered for it’s content too.

Wall-E, for those of you who don’t know, is a tireless little robot of a model intended to clean up the Earth after we lazy humans laid waste to it and fled into space to live lives of slovenly luxury waited on hand and foot by robots. Over the years Wall-E developed personality in addition to diligence and now combs the land for memorabilia of humanity that he finds interesting in his extremely cute way.

Over those same years Humans have grown even more lazy and even more fat. In contradistinction to the Pandaverse, Wall-E portrays the obese remnant of humanity as incapable of fending for themselves, let alone fighting off Kung-Fu tigers, slurpy slurping babies in the form of atrophied adults, full-body pajamas and all. Only once they learn to act independently of their robot babysitters/overlords can humanity re-establish itself on a renewed Earth.

Laziness and apathy are the core evils of a film that doesn’t go light on the preaching, and as evils go these are pretty trite ones at that. The transparent preachiness of the tale and Pixar’s trade of a happy-ending for a G-rating are probably the greatest failures of Wall-E. It is interesting to notice, however, that it takes a robot of human construction endowed with a human personality by rummaging through human waste and uncovering the gems of human ingenuity and creativity to free humanity of its self-imposed bondage and sloth.

In Wall-E-Land, unlike Pandaverse, problems are not solvable by fate or chance or even particular insight. They are solved by the hard work, the development of a sense of duty and self over long period of exploration, and by the persistence of the few who labor to achieve something meaningful (Wall-E and EVE working to return humanity to Earth in this case).

OK, so from a philosophical perspective both movies are pretty weak. If they are at war over the soul of modernity it’s a pretty paltry war. What’s interesting, though, is that both films are ostensibly for kids and neither film shies from preaching. Makes me pine for the bikini clad Disney girls of yore, when at the least a young boy could be easily distracted from any moralizing in his media.


Phorming a Case for Privacy
April 3, 2008, 9:35 am
Filed under: Advertising, Internet, Law, Privacy, Rants, Technology

My buddy Harran [sic] and I were talking last week about this company Phorm and privacy online. Phor those of you who don’t know, Phorm’s business model is to make deals with various internet service providers to allow them to track everything you do online in order to show you targeted advertisements. To their modest credit Phorm claims that they do not actually keep records of what you do online, rather they continuously update a profile of your interests and associate that profile with a random number so that they “cannot know who you are.”

Check out the sweet slideshow where they make these specious claims here.

Harlan’s piece over at FTT makes some great points about how a sufficiently granular profile of a person is basically equivalent to storing all of that person’s history and about how similar Phorm’s records are to the dataset of search records AOL released to so much public shame. However, personally my initial reaction to Phorm was simply “this shouldn’t be happening dammit!” which is to say that the very act of tracking people on the Internet is repugnant and takes the people doing the tracking down steep and narrow roads that towards dank and dark places. Admit it – the very idea that there is a system that tracks what you’re up to online and doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of letting you do those things – you find that repugnant too.

Reexamining my initial repugnance to Phorm’s business the question arises: why is privacy important at all? Don’t we value transparency too?

Ed makes a compelling arguement that people actually don’t place a very large value on privacy and that consequently neither do web services. But I think most of us would agree that we value our privacy, or at least we care to guard against the worst violations of personal privacy and that in doing so we must guard against some more minor ones. But again, why do we care about privacy at all?

Despite how silly I found them on my first couple readings, Justice Blackmun’s often-mocked words in Roe v. Wade have been hitting home for me lately when I think about the value of privacy.

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the state.

Forget this crap about the mysteries of the universe and just concentrate on the heart of Blackmun’s point, which is that society at large often has values and conceptions of how people should act, but that individual’s values and actions often don’t match those standards, that only in certain very restricted instances is society justified in forcing individuals to comply to an external conception of how to behave, and, finally, that this idea of restricting societal coercion to the absolute minimum is essential to what makes an open society function.

The malleability of self-definition, the ability for a person to constantly redefine themselves and project different selves in different situations, is at the heart of our democratic value system and underlies concepts of equality and upward mobility. Without it we’d have no hands to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps with, so to speak. Without the ability to reinvent ourselves each of us would always be what we ever were, whether it’s the poor kid, the shy girl no one knew but everyone thought was weird, the stoner, the jock, the slacker, the nerd, the immigrant, etc. Society has no data for computing our orbit than other than our past acts and if they don’t know our (private) past acts then we are maximally free to reinvent ourselves, which is a good thing.

Projecting this argument onto the sphere of privacy it seems to me that we need to do a better job delineating those places in life where transparency is important (government, corporations) and those places where privacy reigns (individuals lives) and enforcing this higher value (the delineation of realms) in law.

Should I be denied a job I’m qualified for because online I’m an anti-war crusader (or Iraq hawk for that matter)? Clearly not. Should it matter that my senator watches porn? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that, while I am interested in breasts and I am interested in what my senator is up to, those interests shouldn’t collide except in very rare circumstances. But if my senator is watching child porn? Well then he’s breaking the law and also a very strong societal value around the protection of children and should clearly lose his job.

Technology, like government, walks a fine line between being truly supportive and being truly invasive. It is the great challenge of our age to see the relationship between the two and guide them both hand in hand into a pristine future of golden delicious promise and hope. (Yay, hope!) A future with form and substance but hopefully one without Phorm. Maybe we can?

See also: Harlan’s follow-up piece on Phorm.

I can’t stand this commercial
March 29, 2008, 3:52 pm
Filed under: Advertising, Race, Rants, Rap, Ridiculous, Video

It’s got an incredibly annoying thumping Reggaeton beat with some of the weakest rap lyrics that have ever graced the small screen (this is a medium that gave air to This is Why I’m Hot), clearly misogynistic, possibly a bit racist, and has a SEA MONSTER.

It’s also brilliant advertising.

I don’t care what demographic you fall into, I dare you to watch this ad once and not know the phone number for Optimum Triple Play. My brother knows the whole rap by heart.

My hat’s off to you, Mr. Ad Man.

Meta-argument? I has one.
February 18, 2008, 10:36 pm
Filed under: Friends, Rants

In my freshman year of college I took a class called “the Race Debate in the Modern United States.” There was a black girl in the class, lets call her Cheryl, who insisted that because I was a white boy I could never hope to understand the narrative of black Americans. This was a recurring theme with Cheryl: every time I tried to compare some element of American history that impinged on black Americans she’d pull this card. For a while I took issue with her projection of whiteness onto me; it’s a distinction I’m uncomfortable with because it implies that I, by way of my ancestors, am culpable for the exploitation of various minority peoples (which, as an aside, is preposterous: my ancestors were rockin’ the Talmud, eating chulent, and surviving pogroms in the shtetls of Poland during most of period in question).

Later on in the semester it came out that Cheryl had gone to a good public school in a nice suburban neighborhood in New Jersey, which is pretty similar to my background and not at all similar to the image of inner-city blackness that she’d been projecting throughout the semester. I got pretty mad at Cheryl. Mad enough to raise my voice in a seminar that I’d only spoken in sparingly. In short I told Cheryl that it was the ultimate in defeatism to tell people that they couldn’t possibly relate to the situation of another, that this is essentially what she’d been telling me all semester, that there was no point to having an interracial discussion of race if there was nothing anyone could do to understand each other, that we might as well just cancel the seminar altogether.

My college roommate tells me that there is a small cannon of short stories that comprise the narrative of Avi. They’re quickies, mostly pithy and sometimes humorous. Over the last few years I’ve been canonizing the above story because it helps me relate one of the things I find most infuriating in the world: when people tell me there is a conversation that I can’t participate in not because I don’t have the training or because it’s a sensitive subject, but because no one of my background/upbringing/orientation could possibly relate to the topic. Makes me want to eviscerate bunnies and strangle puppies it does.

I wonder sometimes if my habit of trying to relate to the joys and difficulties of others (especially my friends and family) is annoying, disrespectful, futile, or selfish. Maybe my experience a straight boy gives me no basis to understand my gay friends’ experience of coming out. Perhaps there are no handy metaphors that really capture the experience and perhaps any that I might find would be hopelessly reductive. I doubt that my privileged suburban upbringing and cloistered Ivy League education lend me any means of relating to my grandmother’s time as a partisan in the Polish forests during the Holocaust. But does that mean that I shouldn’t try to relate?

No, it’s not rhetorical; I’m really asking.

All the reasons that Sprint is utterly unredeemable
January 30, 2008, 10:52 pm
Filed under: Mobile, Rants, Technology

I was gonna use this post to chronicle the ridiculous saga of my last month of interaction with Sprint and maybe get some catharsis, but I’m mostly over it. I say mostly because there are two elements of the experience that really stick with me.

Samsung M300

So I’m making the transition from sheltered college life to the real world. A friend of mine recently said that so many things change when you start to get a paycheck. It’s not that you have too much responsibility per se – I was responsible for plenty in college – it’s that you don’t get to choose many of those things for which you are responsible. Society chooses them for you and they largely involve transferring money from my bank account into various corporate coffers. BORING.

Now I have these loose monetary relationships with various corporations: Google, Sprint, my landlord, Time Warner, ConEd, etc. In the fallout of this Sprint debacle I’m primarily flummoxed by the way in which the incompetence of Sprint’s employees causes me to suffer in a very real way. I mean, I pay these people for a service. A service. I suppose I thought that meant they were suppose to serve me in exchange for my money. Instead, every time they make a stupid mistake or don’t know have to work their own billing system, I have to wait on hold for another hour or speak to a new incompetent representative in another idiotically segmented silo of the company or get charged for a phone I didn’t order and service I never received.

OK, so I’m not really over it, but what I’m vamping on right now is not so much about my personal struggle, but about how this experience with Sprint is emblematic of a greater trend of stupidness in how Sprint and other American companies relate to their customers.

Which brings me to the second element of the struggle that I’m stuck on. Ah the tie in…

So I finally got this new phone. It’s a Samsung M300. When I lost the old phone and ordered this one I was excited about two things: the camera and Bluetooth. The M300 is a little sleeker than the old phone, but the user interface is a good deal worse (which says a lot for a cell phone). I could probably live with it if Sprint hadn’t totally hobbled the phone just to force me to pay money for their terrible services.

The M300 spec says that the phone is capable of OBEX push over Bluetooth. For the uninitiated among my readers (all 4 of you), a phone with OBEX push has the ability to sync files with other Bluetooth capable devices. You could potentially sync your contacts to/from your computer, transfer photos from the phone’s camera onto other devices, and put mp3 files on your phone (and even use them as ring tones). But Sprint, in an effort to get me to pay for ring tones and for their contact syncing service, turned off OBEX push. In other words: I have to type in all my contacts by hand and I need to pay Sprint money in order to get pictures off the phone.

Ruminate on that one for a sec – Sprint deliberately sells their clients a phone that is worse leaving their factory than it was entering.

Why? Because Sprint has a huge investment in ring tones, because people will pay to get a picture once in a while, and because spending money on contact syncing service locks me in to their shitty service. If Sprint hosts my contacts on their server rather than letting me sync them with my computer then I’m more likely to stay with Sprint when my contract runs out. They want me between a rock and a hard place – Sprint wants me to have to choose between losing my contacts and leaving their network.

Remember, we pay these people money.

Lock-in is an excuse for abhorrent service and a way around caring about their customers, but it’s also just plain silly because the moment my contract ends I’m switching to a service that will give me a working phone.

Prophecy: Social Worms
January 12, 2008, 9:27 pm
Filed under: Facebook, Internet, Rants, Security, Technology

Ed Felten’s predictions for ’08 bring up the possibility of a privacy scandal around a Facebook app.

For my part, I have my own Facebook privacy scandal prediction:

Prediction: A social network (Facebook) will become the site of automated distributed social engineering. A hacker will exploit the fact that many individuals’ friend lists are visible in order to write a worm that constructs a plausible identity and tricks an individual into accepting a friend request from the false identity. Many vanity users will accept such requests and through them the worm will gain access to many of their friends (with the trust gained by the ‘you have X friends in common with so-and-so’ notice). Because of the distributed nature of the attack – because each false identity is created to target a small cluster of people – it will take a while to notice the scale of the problem. In that time much private data will be exposed.

It’s a pretty detailed prediction, but I’m fairly confident about it. Why? Because I’m pretty sure it has started to happen already.

Recently my former roommate Jon a friend request from a ‘dean extein’ [sic]. Dean had a slightly suspect profile: his hometown was ‘stanford.Google’, his profile picture was taken from a distance, there were no additional photos of him, he had very few friends, and the capitalization on his personal information was all screwy. But Jon is friends with a Brian and Josh Extein and so he assumed it was a relative that he’d met at some point and had forgotten. So Jon accepted the friend request.

In the next few days many of Jon’s friends got friend requests from ‘dean’, myself included. I ignored the request, but about 20 people accepted it: perhaps because they also know the Exteins or because having a friend or two in common with ‘dean’ made him seem like a safe notch in their Face-belt. Either way, ‘dean’ accrued about 30 friends in a little more than a week and then his profile disappeared. Moreover, as a Google employee I can tell you that no one by the name of ‘Dean Extein’ is employed at Google.


Just One Lesson From The Facebook Beacon Debacle
December 10, 2007, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Internet, Money, Rants, Technology

Ed Felten just posted a piece over at Freedom to Tinker entitled “Lessons from Facebook’s Beacon Misstep.” Basically Ed thinks those lessons are about the nature of privacy online and how companies can find it hard to predict user reactions to new features that appear to change the model of Facebook-privacy.

Ed makes a good point when he notes that Beacon “wasn’t a privacy accident,” that Beacon was (and is) a purposeful business decision on the part of Facebook. But I disagree with Ed that Facebook could not be expected to predict the backlash to Beacon. It seems pretty clear from the record that Facebook execs anticipated the backlash and expected us to “fall in love” with Beacon eventually.

I’m gonna put my neck out and say that Facebook could have and should have predicted the backlash to Beacon. There have been numerous privacy/feature scares over the course of Faceook’s lifetime – the “OMG employers are looking at my Facebook page” scare, the “OMG high schoolers can join Facebook” scare, the “WTF is a news feed” scare, and the “Oh God! Oh God there are OLD people on Facebook” scare – that have played out in similar ways. It’s hard to look at Facebook’s history and believe that Beacon was anything other than a purposeful business decision to sacrifice users’ interests on the altar of cash.

Cue long apparent non-sequiter that’s actually related…

One of the most interesting things about the internet is that it allows companies not just to participate in markets, but to build markets of their own. Prior to the web it was the exceptional firm that could structure a market on their own terms – the exceptional firms wrote the rules of engagement and the unexceptional followed. Ford famously structured the automobile market by leveraging the assembly line to build the Model T and setting expectations for the quality, reliability, reparability, and price of commodity cars. When it opened in 1948 McDonald’s set consumer expectations on how fast and how cheap (and how salty) food should be. Burger King and Wendy’s followed suit, but simply played Ronald’s game. Microsoft essentially created the business of selling corporate operating systems when it bundled DOS with IBM computers. Plenty of firms have tried to play Microsoft’s game (Novell) and rough times have been had by many. Apple made it’s name selling well designed consumer software bundled with well designed consumer hardware and when Microsoft moved into consumer software with Windows 3.0 they “borrowed” several design features from Apple’s work.

If there’s one thread that ties all these pre-Internet market-makers together it’s that you’ve heard of them. Online, however, every site is essentially an island. Just as Amazon serves the long tail of book buyers by selling titles too unpopular to merit shelf space at your local Borders the Internet serves the long tail of users’ interests by making it easy for sites of all sorts to get their message out. Each site can decide of its own accord how it will structure it’s relationship with it’s users, whether users will need to create an account and sign in to use their services (Facebook) or just hit the site and poke around (Google search), whether it will charge users for services rendered or products sold (Match.com, Jdate, True, Amazon) or try to make money off of advertising (OKCupid.com, PlentyOfFish), whether they will sell advertising through an open auction (using Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo) or at fixed prices to individual advertisers, etc. Each site can be a market-maker for it’s own (often small) market.

So here’s where I get back to the point: the way in which a particular site structures it’s relationships with its users is often different than other comparable sites. This structure is easily observed (we all have Internet connections) and it tells us a whole lot about the companies in question.

Beacon is a perfect case in point. Every piece of Beacon was built with an eye towards Facebook’s bottom line and an all eyes away from users’ interests. Not only is Beacon opt-out rather than opt-in (in contrast to all of Google’s privacy-sensitive features) but until recently users needed to opt-out on a per-advertiser basis. There was not a “Don’t allow any websites to send stories to my profile” checkbox until very recently. Worse yet, recent analysis of the Beacon Javascript code reveals that Facebook sends purchase data back to their site regardless of whether the purchaser is logged into Facebook at the time of purchase.

As far as I can tell the inevitable lesson from Facebook’s general history and from the Beacon debacle in specific is this: Facebook doesn’t care about their users at all. There was virtually no thought put into creating a pleasant user experience in the design of Beacon. Basically Facebook expects us to complain a little for a while but eventually swallow their medicine whole.

Now think for a second about all the stuff you’ve posted on Facebook. Your interests, your relationships, your posted items, your friendships and friend details, your sexuality, your pictures, your wall posts, your favorite quotes, the applications you’ve installed, etc. Even if you lie it’s informative – if your Facebook religion is “Pastafarianism” you are probably not too serious about your real religious heritage. That’s all information that you’ve explicitly volunteered to Facebook.

Now think for another second about all the information that Facebook has about you that you that you didn’t give them. All those posts on your wall, photos tagged and untagged, comments on said photos, notes in which you are mentioned, the people who’ve blocked you or set you to limited profile, etc. This stuff is often even more informative (and sensitive) than the stuff you volunteered and you never really intended to give it to them.

Give me just one more second and think about what Facebook has done to earn your trust. They’ve habitually redefined the scope of privacy and appear to give employees access to your personal data as a ‘job perk.’ Do you think that any of that sensitive information is safe in their hands? Maybe we should all think about spending less time logged in to Facebook.