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Ahem, hello and welcome back

First of all, happy new year! Second of all, this was one of those years where the transition of one to the next was less special than other times. I am not 100% sure why — less happy new year wishes on Facebook, a stressful few months, perhaps other priorities in life. But still, happy new year and may this one bring joyful news about your friends, family, work, and/or geopolitics.

Two months ago, I started a strange workflow that both works and doesn’t work for the purpose of this weblog. I started making notes offline, for the purpose of writing a blog post in the future. Why it works: it’s considerably more stress free than writing up one post at a time, sometimes over several days/weeks. Instead, I start with micro-thoughts, tag them for this blog, and finish it when inspiration hits.

Why it doesn’t work: long breaks mean I have a huge backlog of these ideas and that it’s a challenge knowing on where to start. I like going back and publishing the oldest thought and continue from there. That works well. But what if the oldest thought was from a time where you don’t even remember what you were really thinking? Can you recreate it? Is it still relevant? Then the search continues along the timeline to reconnect with a thought worth publishing.

That aside, what is the plan for this weblog in 2015? I’m afraid it’s more of the same, while I promise to continue to make the structure more transparent and easier to navigate. I started a little with this end of 2014, by creating a landing page and a separate blog view (found under this weburl/blog). As mentioned, I have a backlog of ideas (91 according to my CMS), of which I hope half are word-worthy.

Until the next time then.

Essay: The Consequences of Having a Digital Soul

In science fiction and in the Kurzweilesque future reality, the concept of a digital soul is abstract and difficult to grasp. Yet, we have experienced an evolution in this area in the last half decade or so. I speak of the simple matter of IT backups and how it changes our thinking about IT. Very likely that same change of thinking will happen about what it means to be human as well.

At some recent point in time, each computer that we possessed was a separate entity. Yes, every computer was designed with input and output methods, in the form of (portable) storage devices, keyboards and mice, printers, and other forms of output. This evolved to the rudimentary beginnings of the Internet and has exploded in the last 15 years. As network speeds became faster, so came the introduction of ‘the backup,’ in the form of external storage, either in the home or off-site.

Right now, computers are backed up in a multitude of ways. We have offsite options, in the form of Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, Backblaze, and countless more. We have home-based options, in the form of software that will sync/backup your data to external harddrives. Not to be ignored, we have software that operates in the cloud, from note-taking to video-recording, to managing your customer, financial, and other company data.

What is one practical consequence of this? Every time your computer gets stolen, breaks, or is replaced, for every fire and flood, a simple restoration procedure from backup to a new computer will restore your digital life to its original, useful state. In essence, the hardware has become immaterial.

So what is the value of a human life? At this time, it is priceless because each and every one of us is ‘unique.’ We have data within us and, let’s not forget, physical features that are impossible to replicate and replace. We, you and I, are not backed up into some form of external storage. I am the only copy as are you, you, and you too.

Right now it seems unimaginable that Raymond Kurzweil or others will succeed to upload our human essence into a digital storage device 1. It seems equally difficult to grasp as to why they would want to do this, as if the very act would remove what it means to be human. That part is true. If being human means being unique, then having a backup is decidedly not human.

But there is incredible value in transcending humanity in that way. Wars and other disasters are killing people every day. People that we will never see again. Some are saying that our planet is being destroyed either by natural or industrial forces, or rather a combination of both. Without action, our only exit is to leave Earth and relocate somewhere else in space. Yet, that brings the cost of transportation with it, mostly expressed in time (another precious human commodity) and the resource cost of transporting many, let alone one.

What about more controversial values? What is the value of someone that is imprisoned for life, yet (supposedly) reforming himself? What is the value of the many unemployed, a trend that only seems to be improving for the wealthier part of this world? What is the value of a parent outliving a child or a person wanting to extend their life beyond human terms? The controversiality is that this value can also be expressed in cost to society.

If we do succeed in transcending towards a transportability of our digital souls, then we will also lose something else. We will lose our bodies and what they mean to both us and the people around us. At best summarised by staring into your beloveds’ eyes, also called the windows to our souls, which would then disappear with the passing of a human. Yes, we are making strides in replicating objects on a three-dimensional scale, but it is hard to believe that this replication can reproduce the depth and uniqueness of the eye, the texture, temperature, and hardness/softness of the body, the characteristics and flaws that make us unique in a physical sense.

For everything there is a price, but as I found out many times now with my electric devices, that price is relatively minor compared to having all of your memories restored. A point of discussion I admit, but I’m happy to argue it on this front also: does the value of a digital soul that is eternal outweigh the value of the whole of a living, breathing, physical specimen?

Notes:

  1. For those interested, find out more information about his vision here

Lin火: an interview with David Grann, New Yorker author

For those that do not know David Grann, he’s a writer for New Yorker and author of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (a favourite read of mine), as well as The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. To me, he has the best job in the world, but that’s mostly because I enjoy reading his work so much. In this interview on the Longform podcast, he reveals a lot about his process and how he ended up where he did.

It becomes pretty clear from his words that the news publishing business is not easy. He admits that he is not cut out for the fast writing pace required for certain types of news stories and time is less of an element for his kind of writing. At the same time, it is pragmatic world that revolves around doing as much preparatory work as possible, requires (over)selling your stories to your backers (the publisher), and of course timing plays a role as well. On a personal note, I found it interesting that he comes from a creative writing background, which is different from that of a news writing one—the latter being much more focussed on brevity and speed of writing.

The nature of his stories are very different, but as he highlights, it’s about finding authentic voices, designing a narrative around them, and, of course as a non-fiction writer, of triangulating the truth from what he hears. He discusses several of them in the interview, as well as the complexity around writing these stories.

Wikipedia has a nice overview of the articles he wrote in his career. If you added all of these to your Instapaper, you’d have a nice reading list for the holidays. I greatly recommend The Lost City of Z, an adventurous and romantic tale about an explorer’s fascination with a mythical city in the Amazon and his eventual disappearance.

In Movies: Chef

Chef was a movie that I love and hate. There were old or timeless aspects to the scenes and story, that definitely worked for me. The Cuban sandwiches were mouthwatering! The sights of old New Orleans were nostalgia-inducing. The concept of a food truck was more than romantic. And the story of a father rediscovering the relationship to his son and wife was timeless.

The social media aspect, while a premise for the story, did not work for me at all. I suppose it’s a kind of media fatigue, knowing that everything has a moment of hype, only to be forgotten when the next one comes along. In other words, I wanted a Cuban sandwich to just consist of tasteful ingredients, while the social marketing felt artificial and wrong in the mix. Of course, we would all be happy if such a thing happens to us: anonymous food truck travels the land, is made famous through social media, and everyone is happy.

While conflicted, I would still recommend this movie for the food alone. Trailer below.

On Marketing: The business of loneliness

Perhaps it was in the late 60s that smart (M)admen decided that the next great thing is loneliness. Yes, probably before that, loneliness was a topic also, but it was different. The lonely were idealised (think lone cowboys in Westerns or James Dean). Perhaps at that time people wanted to be lonely.

After a certain point, let’s call it the rise of career-orientated male and female individuals and dual household incomes, loneliness became a pain rather than an ideal. Thus came the era of products and services targeted at this market: microwave dinners, TV, speed dating… and why do you think no one cares if you eat a McDonalds meal alone vs. at any other restaurant?

This hasn’t changed much, though we now have an abundance of services for single consumers, from content via your personal computer to couch-surfing. But there is another area that shouldn’t be ignored, that of the dual income market. Here we see the messaging shift from loneliness to making the best of the little time you have. Think luxury weekends, baby creches and other kid-orientated distractions, family-sized sports cars, and … robotic vacuum cleaners (my inspiration is slipping here).

With overpopulated now-not-so emerging economies like China and India, and the competitive pressures of a ‘flat’ global economy, this trend is not disappearing, rather we are moving towards less workers’ protection and a higher burden on and cost of services. Judging by what is happening around the globe, we could be heading one of two directions in the future: an acceptance to live with less on either a physical or spiritual level, or a war that temporarily reverses this trend, but only for the victors.

I’m sorry to head in both a geo-political and a Buddhist direction all at once. I choose to believe that, ignoring the many opportunities that life provides to crawl out from under the rock of humanity, most of us will have to become more efficient with what we have, and I will leave the reader to interpret that in either the spiritual or physical sense.

Taking a marketing stance may seem cynical, but not if you view business as the organisational connection between individuals, problems and solutions. We get into cars that get us to a destination quicker, but the car itself must be built with that purpose in mind. That requires a good understanding and appreciation of both sides of the equation: our consumer need and the services that can help us to reach it at a higher level.

So how can or are marketeers biting into this trend? Making more with less can mean spending less today and tomorrow and the day after, or it can mean spend more to have more, and both are viable perspectives. Spiritually, we are looking for both mind-strengthening activities and emotionally satisfying ones. Think sports and meditative services and on the emotional side, think family orientated services (from public spaces to family movies). Physically or materially, we are looking for one of two things: discounted pricing or getting more for your spend. In consumer electronics, these are the cheap netbooks vs. the more durable MacBooks; in food, these are the discounters like Aldi’s or Lidl’s vs. more energy-bringing “super” foods from (not necessarily) premium vendors.

In a perfect economy, there is perfect transparency and perfect pricing. Sadly, many of these services that I suggest are not perfectly understood and mis-priced. It shouldn’t be a premium service to go meditate somewhere and healthy food that gives you energy and makes you live longer, should not only be found in expensive stores. Conversely, short-term solutions shouldn’t be priced at a discount, because their ingredients are commodities (yes, I’m talking to the Samsung’s and McDonald’s of the world).

Both suffer from non-transparent because the cost or benefit to society is not included in the calculus. But that is a discussion for another day and perhaps someone else.

In Things: My favourite coffee mug

Christmas is coming and in trying to ignite my creative juices for coming up with present ideas, I thought a good start would be to show my appreciation for some gifts that I received. Starting with the Wild and Wolf Scrabble Tile Coffee Mug!

A piece of kitchenware is perhaps not something that stands on the pedestal of gifts to get for many of you. For me, kitchens are the center of the home, where traditions are made and warmth is found. Thus I wanted to highlight this particular object, because it stands for some important qualities consumer goods must possess: durability, aesthetics, and personality.

This coffee mug is what I start my day with and is my constant companion if I work from home. Lately, I notice more and more cracks on kitchenware, but not with this one. It is extremely robust (microwave & dishwasher safe) and looks as flawless today as it did 1 year ago. For me, Scrabble is something that has personal meaning and that reminds me of that every time I use it. I like the aesthetic too, particularly when I reach the bottom of the cup.

Therefore, a recommended gift idea to end this year with!

On Writing (Lin火): Steven Pinker on Style


In what’s quickly becoming my favourite intellectual podcast,  Radio Open Source’s Christopher Lydon interviews Steven Pinker on his new book “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.” Having read “The Elements of Style” at least a dozen times (I still haven’t mastered it), I’m interested in reading this supposed counter to the reductive advice given in Shrunk’s guide.

Pinker celebrates the more floral way of writing (in this writer’s point of view), which has its merits, but can tire the mind if over-used. I agree that the key to good writing is to read good (and bad) writing, but believe myself that all good things must be used in extreme moderation. Much like Darwin’s last line in  “The Origin of Species” (quoted in the podcast description), which leaves the reader inspired, but only after reading what I hope is a much more to the point description of evolution.

In Activities: a new innovation in climb training

After my overview of gym training, I’ve been sitting on top of a very long post about climbing as well. It’s an area that I’m very passionate about (yes, a lot more than the gym), because of the physical & mental challenges, and group dynamics. One area, however, that I think is lacking in a lot of science and documentation, is how to train for climbing, outside of the climbing hall/wall. Why you ask, if climbing is such a great sport? Because it’s only partially effective to train for climbing by climbing alone and (a big AND) because every gym training session is quite time-intensive, making it less suitable for someone with a demanding schedule.

So, that paragraph will probably cause more delays in writing about climbing. However, here’s a great new innovation in climb training that you can do outside of a climbing wall. Watch the video to see a brief overview of what tools exist and why this dynamically adaptive fingerboard pretty great. If you don’t climb, this won’t mean much to you, but if you ever consider it, it will.

Find out more information about this fingerboard on www.bamclimbing.com.

Publishing: Is free content an opportunity or a threat to scientific publishing?

Similar to last post from last Friday, there are other trends that are threatening the raison d’être of the traditional publishing model. This specifically being about publicly funded publishing, i.e. the scientific kind, being asked to become free content. What I find interesting is that this is not really for reasons of disruptive technologies like the Internet (even though Bill Gates is one of the initiators), but rather a much broader idea: that knowledge is important and must become free for the maximum benefit of societies.

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation published a new manifesto / open access policy on their site a few days ago. It lists 5 stipulations that publishers associated to research sponsored by the foundation must follow:

  1. Publications Are Discoverable and Accessible Online. Publications will be deposited in a specified repository(s) with proper tagging of metadata.

  2. Publication Will Be On “Open Access” Terms. All publications shall be published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Generic License (CC BY 4.0) or an equivalent license. This will permit all users of the publication to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and transform and build upon the material, including for any purpose (including commercial) without further permission or fees being required.

  3. Foundation Will Pay Necessary Fees. The foundation would pay reasonable fees required by a publisher to effect publication on these terms.

  4. Publications Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. All publications shall be available immediately upon their publication, without any embargo period. An embargo period is the period during which the publisher will require a subscription or the payment of a fee to gain access to the publication. We are, however, providing a transition period of up to two years from the effective date of the policy (or until January 1, 2017). During the transition period, the foundation will allow publications in journals that provide up to a 12-month embargo period.

  5. Data Underlying Published Research Results Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. The foundation will require that data underlying the published research results be immediately accessible and open. This too is subject to the transition period and a 12-month embargo may be applied.

Of note, this is not a new movement. In 2012, the British government announced that tax-sponsored research would be freely accessible as of last year. The European Union followed suit, and some American institutes (the Gates foundation included) are requiring it too.

Having studied scientific publishing models for some years now, I believe that this will in fact become an unopposed reality. The reason being that scientific publishers are transforming into becoming providers of decision making tools for scientific advancement. They are still dependent on new publications, but having access to so much raw data means that they can create intelligence on top of that, making it more accessible to practitioners. That is becoming their new revenue stream, therefore reducing their dependence on the traditional model.

Whether this should be a universally accepted way of publishing, arguably it already has in some parts, since this and many other blogs are free to read. I have a feeling that book publishing is heading into a different direction, though still more and more cutting out the middle-man, i.e. the publishers. Where it leaves the latter and how this will translate to other publishing media is a big question I hope to get the answer to in the future.

Publishing Lin火: “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers”

In a decidedly inflammatory article, Matthew Yglesias writes on VOX:

When all is said and done, the argument between Amazon and book publishers is over the rather banal question of price. Amazon’s view is that since “printing” an extra copy of an e-book is really cheap, e-books should be really cheap. Publishers’ view is that since “printing” an extra copy of an e-book is really cheap, e-books should offer enormous profit margins to book publishers. If you care about reading or ideas or literature, the choice between these visions is not a difficult one. The publishing incumbents have managed to get some intellectuals sufficiently tangled-up to believe that it is. But ask yourself this — do you regret the invention of the printing press? Of the paperback? Do you think public libraries devalue books and reading? The idea is absurd.

I don’t agree with everything he writes here — while one ecosystem is clearly losing ground, is a new Amazon-run ecosystem necessarily better? — but I do find some of the arguments regarding the more empowered stature of authors compelling.

In addition, the increase in authorship also creates a power-distribution problem. A publisher might have been willing to take a risk on a new author a few decades ago, but there is ample supply of writing out there, meaning that publishers become more conservative in their selection. The only reason this is happening is because of the investment that a publisher makes into authors, which is nice, but not if it restricts consumer choice. As is increasingly becoming clear that investment is available elsewhere also and the remaining services that publishers provide to authors can be replaced by a number of alternatives (distribution, marketing) or are no longer as necessary (printing).

In Software: if South Park were to design an iOS app commercial

…Then the NinType 130 words per minute keyboard for iOS 8 would be it. Available on iTunes now.

In Books: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey


There are so many things to say about this book. Though I heard that some people find it a slow book, I read it quickly, aided by the fact that I was reading parts aloud to a child—lazy bed-time story reading if you will.  Leviathan Wakes lays the platform for a series of book (and a forthcoming TV show on Scyfy) , which are some pretty big shoes to fill. The author name, James S. A. Corey is actually a pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the first of which also sometimes collaborates with George RR Martin, author of Game of Thrones (giant shoes).

Similar to the Game of Thrones books, it is also written using the format of one perspective per chapter. The books only covers two perspectives (GoT has ca. 13), that of Holden and Miller, with a small exception towards the end. In a previous post, I described Miller as a nihilistic character, something the authors agree with, while Holden could very much be described as the inverse.

On the interplay between both, the authors write:

”Holden’s my holy fool. He’s an idealist, a man who faces things with this very optimistic view of humanity. He believes that if you give people all of the information, they’ll do the right thing with it, because people are naturally good. Miller is a cynic and a nihilist. He looks at the dissemination of information as a game you play. He doesn’t have faith in anyone else’s moral judgement.”

As I previously noted, these character traits can be an interesting way to move a story forward and the mix certainly makes the journey more interesting.

The story plays in the far future (at least to my understanding), where other planets close to Earth have already been populated and space stations have been built. Most of the story pieces take place on space stations and on space ships. There seems to be a logic in how things work in this universe, with Earth representing an old but still prominent power, Mars a counterbalance to this power, and the “Belters” (inhabitants of space stations) as the new wave of civilisation.

Knowing that this would become a TV show, I was mostly trying to find links to existing space faring shows that I know, mainly Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. Thematically, this felt closer to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (also an impending TV show, crazy!) in the noir detective story taking place within a space context.

Book one at least did not feel like an episodic TV show, rather more like the laying of building blocks for a future series of stories. I wonder how easily this translates to episodic story telling or if we will instead be presented with the new style of TV shows that tell one whole story over many chapters, a very long movie if you will.

If you like science fiction that is fairly grounded, integrating elements of intrigue, humour, horror, space opera, and written in a clear manner, then this is a good book to read. Expect it to build up slowly, though the action does accelerate in later chapters.

In Movies: Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone is a movie, directed by Jacques Audiard, that I saw in 2012 and wanted to add to my favourites for that year, however I just ended up taking some offline notes that I just rediscovered. It’s a slice-of-life story, maybe, considering that it affects normal people, but with some pretty extraordinary events. If I were to summarise the theme, I would say that it’s about the balance between dark and light and how we are all seeking it in our own ways. Here is the very visual trailer:

I decided to write the rest of my review in the form of a synopsis, which is significantly spoiler-ridden and probably also not entirely accurate. Please be warned.

Synopsis of Rust and Bone, seen on June 17th 2012 (collated from notes taken that day, which I’m basically rewriting as a story):

After yet another forceful exchange of words and thrown objects, our protagonist (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves his wife, taking his son with him. They move in with his sister, a kind woman that has a simple life and cares for his child as he looks for a job. Being of a physical disposition, he finds a gig as a bouncer in a nightclub. One night, he meets a beautiful woman (played by Marion Cotillard) and leaves her his number.

The woman happens to be an orca trainer. But one day, a dramatic accident results in her losing her leg. The period after is surreal, dark, and drug-ridden. She finds the bouncer’s number and decides to give him a call. He comes over and, perhaps because they are both broken in their own ways, they start forming a friendship, platonic at first, becoming physical over time.

The man, unable to hold a steady job, finds a gig as a fighter. After a while his friend comes along to watch and she gets involved with negotiating his fee. She becomes his manager.,

Pulled by the darkness that perhaps she too occupies, he falls into a life of crime. It has consequences on his home life — his relationship with his son worsens and he gets his sister fired from her supermarket job. Unable to face the consequences, he runs away.

Months later, his son comes to visit him where he is staying. He still feels unable to connect with him, but then something happens. His son gets into an accident and is in critical condition at the hospital. The man realises what he risks losing if he continues down this path.

He confesses his love to the former orca trainer. Frustratingly, I do not remember what she says. Since it’s a French movie, it could go either way…

In Books: get a great deal on the Marvel Universe Subscription

WolverineThanks to Jason Snell on sixcolors.com for this. You can now get a great deal to gain access to Marvel’s full universe of comics for just $75c for the first month, when you sign up here with the promo code MARVEL75. The subscription can be cancelled at any time. 

I’m not a big comic book reader, just graphic novels really, so here’s a few to read from Marvel:

Marvels: Marvels is a four-issue limited series comic book written by Kurt Busiek, painted by Alex Ross and edited by Marcus McLaurin, and published by Marvel Comics in 1994. Set from 1939 to 1974, the series examines the Marvel Universe, the collective setting of most of Marvel’s superhero series, from the perspective of an Everyman character: news photographer Phil Sheldon. The street-level series portrayed ordinary life in a world full of costumed supermen, with each issue featuring events well known to readers of Marvel comics as well as a variety of minute details and retelling the most famous events in the Marvel universe.

Marvel 1602: Marvel 1602 is an eight-issue comic book limited series published in 2003 by Marvel Comics. The limited series was written by Neil Gaiman, penciled by Andy Kubert, and digitally painted by Richard Isanove; Scott McKowen illustrated the distinctive scratchboard covers. The eight-part series takes place in a timeline where Marvel superheroes have been transplanted to the Elizabethan era; faced with the destruction of their world by a mysterious force, the heroes must fight to save their universe. Many of the early Marvel superheroes — Nick Fury, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man — as well as villains such as Doctor Doom and Magneto appear in various roles.

You really can’t go wrong with anything by Neil Gaiman. For more suggestions on what to read, check What Culture’s 10 Marvel Graphic Novels to read, SciFi Now’s 10 Best Modern Graphic Novels by Marvel, and Buzzfeed’s 25 Important Graphic Novels To Read (not all on Marvel Unlimited!).

Marvel Universe exists as an app on for instance iOS (and probably Android too). For those that don’t know, it uses a similar viewing technology to  Comixology’s Guided View(tm) to display comics clearly on both small and tablet screens, by zooming in and out of panes/pages.

Happy Xmas reading!

On Publishing: Christopher Nolan’s creative process

In this article in the NY Times, Christopher Nolan, creator of Interstellar, the Batman trilogy, Memento, and many more movies, gives some insight into how he works. In terms of ambition, he’s one of my favourite auteurs, though not one that I expect to like all the time. On a side-note, that is what I hear makes for a successful movie, one that people either rate highly or rate lowly, but not consider mediocre.

There were a few tidbits in the article that stood out to me, regarding how he designs physical landscapes (a key quote: “The genius of [Ridley Scott’s] “Blade Runner” […] is that you never feel like you’ve gotten close to the edge of the world.”), how he uses collaboration within the studio system to his advantage, and how to create that very ambiguity of interpretation that makes him an interesting auteur.

The key differences between the creative process in movies and that in other mediums, is perhaps most strikingly the physical aspect that drives the visual medium. From the article:

[Nolan] tries to build maps the size of the territory, whole cities from the ground up in disused airship hangars (as he’s done for four of his movies at a former R.A.F. facility outside London), even if he’s going to shoot just a few street-corner scenes.

It’s hard to imagine this, both for a non-industry-insider and for an aspiring filmmaker (with a lower budget than Nolan). But it also makes sense. Some of the most striking movies, the aforementioned Blade Runner, Star Wars, Terminator, not to mention outside of the sci-fi genre, used low tech mechanical effects, not CGI, resulting in movies that stood the test of time and perhaps, like Nolan says, create the effect of a real world.

He also discusses the collaborative nature of this process and how to use it to his advantage…

“The single-most important thing was the art of working in the studio system,” Nolan told me of his experience with “Insomnia.” “It takes time to learn how to take notes. In the corporate structure, the people giving you the notes are not responsible for the final product. You are. It’s not their job, it’s yours. When you’re taking notes, it’s possible that you’re having an interesting conversation with a very smart individual and everything they’re saying is correct. But they’re wrong. So you have to go back and approach it from a different angle.” He continues to treat executives as, essentially, representative filmgoers. At a development meeting — at, in other words, a conference-room table — before “The Dark Knight,” he had to explain the Joker’s motivations. “Execs are very good at saying things like, ‘What’s the bad guy’s plan?’ They know those engines have to be very powerful. I had to say: ‘The Joker represents chaos, anarchy. He has no logical objective in mind.’ I had to explain it to them, and that’s when I realized I had to explain it to the audience.”

What I find interesting about movies, very similar to how games are made, is that you can’t really do anything alone. Sure, you can take your Canon DSLR and go shoot some footage and sure it’s technically a movie, but really these creations involve complex tasks, different actors, locations, and many other links in the complex chain that connects creation to consumption in the cinema or at home. Writing sometimes feels a bit more independent (or isolated), but it’s important to keep in mind that that too is part of a value chain, from working with editors and publishers, to perhaps being the script for a movie, all of which creates that magical experience for the audience.

Last, but not least, he discusses ambiguity, which is arguably a part of most of his creations.

Nolan is known for making movies that hold themselves open to various interpretations, but it’s an effect that can be created only when the director knows, in his own mind, exactly how he sees it. For the director’s commentary on “Memento,” Nolan recorded three different, equally plausible interpretations of the final scene that the DVD serves at random to viewers. But he insists he has a full, definitive interpretation that he keeps to himself. “The only way to be productively ambiguous,” he told me, “is that you have to know the answer for you — but also know why, objectively speaking. If you do something unknowable, there’s no answer for the audience, because you didn’t have an answer. It becomes about ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. There has to be a sense of reality in the film. If you don’t have rules, then what I’m doing would be formless. I feel better with consistent rules.”

Now, at this stage, I’d like to say that there are scenes in Interstellar that definitely bothered me (I think I wrote about this yesterday), the reason being because they are a little light on the exposition. Not everything needs to be explained, but there needs to be a payoff at some point (I did not really get that in this case). Key here, however, is to understand that Nolan is in the unique position to determine the creative path of his movies. Often, within the collaborative studio system, previously discussed, we see a design by committee effect, simplifying and exposing to the least common denominator. That is, thankfully, not a criteria of Nolan’s movies.

 

On Writing: Nihilistic Characters


“It’s a trap!” ~ Admiral Ackbar

When you write a character without motivation, it can seem like you found an endless well of inspiration. Go left, go right, go back, go forward, but whatever you do, don’t explain.

But the risk you run is a frustrated and confused audience. The risk you run when writing such a character is that after a while you forget your original reasons for creating that character. Someone said—I may have quoted that person on this site in the past—that you must love your characters to bits. But a nihilistic character absorbs that love to the point of perfect osmosis, it passes straight through without giving the needed feedback to the love-giver.

I digress and it is time for some examples.

Most recently, I watched Matthew Mcconaughey in Interstellar. There is a scene that bothered me throughout the film, of him deciding to head into space and “save the world,” without really giving a second look at his daughter, which he leaves behind crying in her room. We witness his many adventures throughout the film, but we never understand what drives the character. He is as cold as the antagonist revealed later in the story.

In the book Leviathan Wakes (Book 1 in the Expanse series), we are introduced to a washed out detective Miller, who fits the very definition of nihilism. He loses some pretty important elements to his life (trying not to spoil it), but his emotions are non-existent, the only expression is movement of the character throughout the story. Which is fine, except that his choices also appear at random or at least as those of a very depressed person.

Exhibit 3 is Vanessa Ives in the TV Show Penny Dreadful (Amazon link), which I also previously expressed my admiration for on this site. What I liked about this show is the melding of different mythologies into a shared adventure. What nearly drove me out was Vanessa Ive’s descent into her own darkness, one entirely devoid of meaning. The character is haunted, ever since she was a child, by an image of her mother cheating and later invokes that pain onto her mother’s lover, by seducing his daughter Mina’s fiancé. That leads her to being possessed by some kind of devil and we witness the scenes of her combatting that demon.

The salvation to nihilism is some kind of overarching faith or goal. Interstellar’s goal is to save the world and for a father to rejoin his daughter. The driving engine for this is the protagonist’s thoughtless (nihilistic?) bravery. In Leviathan Wakes, Miller entire focus is on solving a case, which is what drags him out of the various messes he creates or is a part of. But we also see this drive to destruction, which is hard to digest. Vanessa Ive’s “engine” is her faith and the overal goal is save Mina, the woman whose life she destroyed at some point.

A character does not need to be loved and understood always, but he must have a meaning to his actions. Some of the examples above showcase that this meaning can be lacking and must be compensated over time. But it also risks to frustrate the audience throughout the story and absolutely must be paid off.

In Movies: Wolf Children

wolf-child-complete_zpsad74b5c2It has been some time that I have seen a good contemporary anime. As a matter of fact, the last one that probably classifies is one of Mamoru Hosoda’s previous movies, The Girl who leapt through time (Amazon link). That movie blew me away through the relationships and humanity of the characters. This movie hit similar notes.

As the title “Wolf Children” (Amazon link) suggests, I hope I don’t give away the premise that this story is about raising wolf… children. Essentially, our female protagonist meets and falls in love with a man that is half wolf. They move in together and have children. But then a drama happens and she is left to raise her little girl and boy all by themselves.

The movie portrays what a challenge it is to raise little children as a single mother, with the added complexity of them turning into wolves at a whim’s notice. It leads the mother out of the city into a small community, where she gives her children a choice: what do you want to be, a human or a wolf?

We get to see that journey throughout the film, her’s in trying to do what’s best out of love and dedication, and theirs in making their own personal choices and its consequences.

Some things that stood out:

  • The drama of losing the father was built up well and tear-inducing
  • You see the development of each of the child and how their interests and personalities evolve into directions in part based on past experiences
  • There was some 3D and digital animation used in this movie, but only to portray events taking place in nature, such as running through the snow or forrest.
  • It was a unique story, very different from Hosoda’s last two films, and makes me wonder about the creator’s research process.

The new face of Publishing… through Facebook

(…and other visual social media platforms like LinkedIn)

I have long held a philosophical stance about Facebook, as the “social enabler,” or disabler in some cases. Many of its core audiences, me included, struggle with finding a good use case for the platform.

  • Regular users like me wonder what to share (especially in an environment where privacy is more and more valued) and whether your online friends aren’t over-/undersharing themselves.
  • Corporations struggle with integrating it into their marketing mix, especially if they are already engrained into other marketing channels.
  • News seems like the most logical use case for this platform, but comes with some problems as well.

There is a major risk with publishing on a social media platform: it positions regular users on the same level as corporations, publications, and advertising. Everyone becomes the competition.

My social media education happened on Twitter. It taught me to not confuse the newsfeed with an RSS feed, because you would soon lose oversight of the “real” people you were following. As a result, I was a slow adopter of Facebook as a newsreader and continue to be careful. Recently, as a fan of Harvard Business Review on a professional level, and inspired by a “social suggestion” from my friends, I decided to give it a shot after all, and subscribed to the HBR feed. The results were surprising.

It turns out the publication has figured out how to integrate Facebook as a publishing medium. HBR is a monthly periodical, as a print publication, and has both its website and mobile (iPad) apps as online alternatives. I was surprised at the content being shared via Facebook, which both felt relevant and premium (you can buy many of the articles as a PDF), and was infrequent enough not to bother. It takes a discerning editorial team to ensure that both the quality of the writing, the thematical content, and the mix are of a good quality to its audience. Somehow, likely to having a dedicated social media editorial team, HBR figured Facebook out.

It’s an encouraging development, but one positioned on brittle ground for the same risk factor I mentioned above. Facebook, its users and content providers are continually evolving and thus requires continuous attention to the engagement metrics and other qualitative aspects of each shared item. It is clear that social media is an investment, which is why so many companies fail at it. And, more importantly, the return on that investment must somehow be quantifiable also. It’s for every company or individual to figure out whether it is worth it.

What Facebook and other social media platforms must absolutely do is to make using their services more transparent. They cannot handhold publishers and marketeers as they publish on the platform, but they can provide accurate information about how they are positioned for each news item within the overal newsfeed. That, in combination with link tracking, and a both coherent marketing strategy and dedicated social media team, should make a big difference to social media success.

On that even-keeled conclusion, I am still happy to read HBR on Facebook, as well as a limited amount of other news publications (The Big Picture is a good one). I am very interested to see where social media and news reading continues to evolve to, as we are clearly not done.

Publishing: Steve Albini on the Music industry

Via the Guardian (and Waxy.org), Steve Albini on the history of the modern (1960s to now) music industry, the roots of independent music, John Peel, the problems and opportunities of the internet. I collected some quotes.

That’s where I cut my teeth, in that independent scene full of punks and noise freaks and drag queens and experimental composers and jabbering street poets. You can thank punk rock for all of that. That’s where most of us learned that it was possible to make your own records, to conduct your own business and keep control of your own career. If a bunch of pimply glue sniffers could do it, we reasoned, then anybody could.

The number of records released this way was incredible. Thousands of small releases made their way into the “mom and pop” independent speciality stores, which then provided a market for independent distribution. It was the beginnings of an alternative to the label paradigm. It was cumbersome and slow but it was more efficient than a shotgun approach with the big labels, whose answer to every problem was to spend more of the band’s money on it.

It was the beginning of what we would call the peer network. By mid-90s there were independent labels and distributors moving millions of dollars of records and CDs. And there was a healthy underground economy of bands making a reasonable income owing to the superior efficiencies of the independent methods. My band, as an example, was returned 50% of the net profit on every title that we released through our record label. I worked it out and that earned us a better per-piece royalty than Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna or any other superstar operating concurrently. And we were only one of thousands of such bands.

So, that was the system as it was. That’s what we lost when the internet made everything available everywhere for free.

On the internet, the rise of consumer choice and of much easier production and distribution mechanisms:

There’s a lot of shade thrown by people in the music industry about how terrible the free sharing of music is, how it’s the equivalent of theft, etc. That’s all bullshit and we’ll deal with that in a minute. But for a minute I want you to look at the experience of music from a fan’s perspective, post-internet. Music that is hard to find was now easy to find. Music to suit my specific tastes, as fucked up as they might be, was now accessible by a few clicks or maybe posting a query on a message board. In response I had more access to music than I had ever imagined. Curated by other enthusiasts, keen to turn me on to the good stuff; people, like me, who want other people to hear the best music ever.

This audience-driven music distribution has other benefits. Long-forgotten music has been given a second life. And bands whose music that was ahead of its time has been allowed to reach a niche audience that the old mass distribution failed to find for them, as one enthusiast turns on the next and this forgotten music finally gets it due. There’s a terrific documentary about one such case, the Detroit band Death whose sole album was released in a perfunctory edition in, I believe, 1975 and disappeared until a copy of it was digitised and made public on the internet. Gradually the band found an audience, their music got lovingly reissued, and the band has resurrected, complete with tours playing to packed houses. And the band are now being allowed the career that the old star system had denied them. There are hundreds of such stories and there are speciality labels that do nothing but reissue lost classics like that once they surface.

Now look at the conditions from a band’s perspective, the conditions faced by a band. In contrast to back in the day, recording equipment and technology has simplified and become readily available. Computers now come pre-loaded with enough software to make a decent demo recording and guitar stores sell microphones and other equipment inexpensively that previously was only available at a premium from arcane speciality sources. Essentially every band now has the opportunity to make recordings.

And they can do things with those recordings. They can post them online in any number of places: Bandcamp, YouTube, SoundCloud, their own websites. They can link to them on message boards, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter and even in the comment streams of other music. “LOL,” “this sucks,” “much better,” “death to false metal,” “LOL”. Instead of spending a fortune on international phone calls trying to find someone in each territory to listen to your music, every band on the planet now has free, instant access to the world at its fingertips.

On faux problems and solutions (garbage in, garbage out):

Let’s start at the beginning. “We need to figure out”: the subject of that sentence, the first-person plural, sounds inclusive but the context defeats that presumption. Who would have the power to implement a new distribution paradigm? Who would be in the room when we discuss our plans for it? Who would do the out figuring we need to do? Industry and consumers? Consumers is a likely response, but did the consumers get a vote about how their music would be compressed or tagged or copy protected or made volatile? Did anybody? Did the consumers get a choice about whether or not Apple stuck a U2 album on their iTunes library? Of course not. These things were just done and we had to deal with them as a state of being. Consumers rebelling or complaining about things – “market pushback” – isn’t the same thing as being involved in the decision to do something. Clearly the “we” of this sentence doesn’t include the listener. I believe any attempt to organise the music scene that ignores the listener is doomed.

How about the bands? Do the bands get a seat at the “we” table, while our figuring-out needs are met? Of course not. If you ask bands what they want – and I know this because I’m in a band and I deal with bands every day – what they want is a chance to expose their music and to have a shot at getting paid by their audience. I believe the current operating status satisfies the first of these conditions exquisitely and the latter at least as well as the old record label paradigm.

So who is this “we”? The administrative parts of the old record business, that’s who. The vertical labels who hold copyright on a lot of music. They want to do the figuring. They want to set the agenda. And they want to do all the structural tinkering. The bands, the audience, the people who make music and who pay for it – they are conspicuously not in the discussion.

It’s really powerful stuff and if these lengthy quotes haven’t put you off, please read the whole article, which is a gazillion times longer.

On Publishing: The Podcasting Revival

I’m largely in agreement with Marco Arment here about the NON-revival of podcasts. I was there during the earlier days of podcasting, 10 years ago. There was TWIT.tv (this week in tech), when the discussions centered around what are the best microphones to get for podcasting, all the way until Leo Laporte decided to go full-pro and build a studio for his business. Then again, there was the 5by5 network, which launched a great number of tech people into podcasting: John Gruber, Marco Arment, John Siracusa, and The Prompt’s line-up, which again transformed into new networks or podcasters going independent.

All the while there were several trends in podcasting, namely university lectures (now more formalised into iTunes U), news outlets like NPR and most of the mainstream ones, and other smaller podcast networks (e.g. Revision3) and independent podcasters (e.g. Kevin Smith’s Smodcasts) that have been going strong since the beginning.

I like Marco’s take on this, because he’s in this business as both a podcaster (and blogger) and as a podcast app developer—my app of choice since a month or three. He is decidedly anti-establishment, so his words are somewhat coloured by deciding to stay independent. And I’d like to see some real stats if they are available—however there must be some real quantifiable advantages for this medium for mainstream news outlets to keep releasing podcasts for nearly a decade.

But, apart from podcast apps, bluetooth integration, a strengthened podcast advertisement movement, and the rise of some (slightly) prominent podcast-networks, I think the most interesting thing that has happened to this business is Serial. The fact that a podcast can become a blockbuster, which I define as both generating significant buzz and download numbers, is a pretty amazing thing.

Will podcasts ever be a “big thing?” Well if we let’s look at the analogy of other prerecorded media, TV shows, the answer is decidedly yes. But the conversation shouldn’t be muddled by the term “podcast,” just like it seems to be for “tablets vs the PC market” or for “streaming vs the rest of the video industry.” Nowadays, you can watch any TV program or listen to any radio show later via legal website services. They are just not called podcasts. The difference is perhaps that many podcasts only exist as recordings, though some are streamed live on the internet.

In essence, the technology that podcasts are based on is becoming bigger,  more and more used and consumed by major media outlets and mainstream audiences. Are podcasts a part of that wave? It seems so and that’s a great thing.

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