Friday, October 26, 2012

Unloading the nightmare

Tumblr's down at the moment, which is a good thing. I was tempted to post this brain dump there but downtime thwarts what might be a mistake.

Instead I'll park this here in my digital junk drawer, to be revisited at some time in the future when pieces make more sense and I find the other parts to which this oddment belongs. It's like the handle to a pot lid I keep, waiting for the day the pot and lid to which it belongs emerge from a long-stored box.

I had a dream the night before last. I want to call it a nightmare for its subject matter, but I'm not certain that's what it was supposed to be.

The dream had such intensity of feeling and a quality of reality to it that I woke up checking my breathing and for blood on the couch. I actually worried about the leather surface on which I'd fallen asleep while watching an innocuous movie hours earlier.

The story arc of this dream is gone; I can't recover the origin of the story, unless I choose to undergo hypnotherapy. I feel relatively certain that I'd been accused by some authority of a political crime, either written or oral rendering of words caused me to be sentenced to death.

I was panicked, wondering how I would escape being rounded up and sent off to my sure death. At some point a woman appeared, calming me by saying it would be all right.

She put her arm around me; she was no one I knew, but she understood my panic.

And at the point I began to relax, she clutched me closer with one arm and carefully eased/shoved a spike deeply into my chest, like a knife into cold butter. 

The spike did not reach my heart, but instead pierced my aorta. I knew it was fatal, and I knew she was the executioner/assassin.

She hugged me and shushed me, then laid me down on a bed.

Knowing it was futile to do anything else, I shouted my goodbyes to loved ones.

I woke as I began to fade.

And I checked the couch for blood at this point, still feeling the spike deep in my chest.

* * * * *

Now what the fuck do I do with this content? It messed with my head so badly yesterday I was afraid to write. I chattered on Twitter, trying to avoid thinking about this.

Was the dream spawned by unconscious worries about my auto-immune syndrome?

Was the dream a message about life direction?

Was I really the assassin/executioner -- and am I in denial about recognizing myself as a self-saboteur?

What did I do that set this dream in motion? What leftover bits were laying about in my attic that in turn acquired a life of their own?

I have no answers. Nothing seems to click as they normally do when I analyze dreams, whether mine or someone's else's somnolent unconscious escapades.

I'm afraid I will have this dream again; the urgency of the dream is not unlike other recurrent dreams I've had in the past, where something was bothering me so much that a demand for remedy persisted even in my dreams.

For now I will leave this content in this out of the way spot, not to be forgotten but to be left for the day when I remember the rest.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Print News Continues Flaming Death Spiral; Will The Guardian Bail Out in Time?

[photo: Stuart Chalmers via Flickr]
We’ve seen stories this week about two print news outlets trending away from print--phasing out a print edition in the case of Newsweek, and potential phase out of print operations in the case of The Guardian.

Newsweek’s print edition will be a thing of the past as of the end of the year. The Guardian is considering a similar move, if off-the-record sources in a Telegraph article are credible.

Ironically, The Guardian’s staff contributor Michael Wolff is doing an annoyingly smug I-told-you-so dance, bashing Newsweek’s editor Tina Brown for bothering to take on Newsweek. At the time the news magazine was sold in 2008, Wolff told one of their staff reporters, “...Newsweek wouldn't be around in five years.”

Let’s hope for Wolff’s sake that The Guardian’s owners are as brave as Tina and as monied as Newsweek’s benefactors in helping the newspaper limp along for another handful of years. The Guardian has been hemorrhaging money to the tune of £44M a year; the parent firm’s owners appear to have discussed soto voce their concerns about the losses with Telegraph’s reporter.

As the New Yorker noted this past spring, “... [The Guardian]  lost roughly $50 million last year, and though it’s subsidized by a nonprofit trust, at that rate it can survive for at most another five years.” Guardian Media Group CEO Alan Miller appeared less optimistic in June 2011, when he indicated “parent company Guardian Media Group could run out of cash in three to five years if the business operations did not change” in a report featured in The Guardian on its “digital-first” strategy.

Fine reading The Telegraph’s article by journalist Katherine Rushton, the sources cited are referred to as “Senior figures at Guardian News & Media“ and “trustees of the Scott Trust, GNM’s ultimate owner.” One might assume on the face of it that these are separate sources--senior figures and trustees being different persons--and that the Telegraph is stringing together lightly sourced gossip about a competitor.

However Rushton may have relied entirely on the reporting of Stephen Foster at More About Advertising, an independent news service focused on business reporting. Rushton links to Foster’s report in her article, in which Foster refers to his sources as “Sources at the Guardian newspaper,” “top levels of Guardian News & Media,” and “trustees of the Scott Trust.” Given Foster’s background in marketing, advertising, and business communications, it’s likely there are both sources within the newspaper as well as at trustee level who are concerned about financial losses and looking at major cost cutting.

The Guardian’s own management decisions have offered enough validation to undermine Alan Rusbridger’s denials about any discussions to leave print. The “digital-first” strategy announced in 2011 along with the move toward open journalism, described by Rusbridger in May this year in an interview with Nieman Labs, positions The Guardian to rely more heavily on breaking news in digital space and publishing there first, before moving the final story to print.

Roy Greenslade, The Guardian’s press blogger, actively countered Rushton’s Telegraph article, implying it was a “flyer”--in colloquial American English, a “trial balloon” or a “stalking horse,” an idea floated to test for or elicit reaction, possibly from competitors or from the newspapers’ constituency. Greenslade says the Telegraph story is false.

But Greenslade doesn’t respond to the original source story at More About Advertising; MAA’s Foster pushes back at Greenslade’s protests, saying, “Our story was well-sourced. It’s certainly what staff on the Guardian newspaper fear is happening...”

Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: Prometheus (2012)

[Movie Poster via]
This month marks the DVD release of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s prequel to his 1979 film, Alien. I’ve been so wound up and excited in anticipation of this disk, since before the first time I saw Prometheus at the theater. I wanted to make a side-by-side comparison of themes and motifs in both Prometheus and Alien in order to analyze Scott’s vision of the past, present and future.

I was fortunate to see Prometheus twice in the theater, the first time in IMAX 3D. It was worth the additional hour-long travel time and expense to see in IMAX as the visual detail and the sense of immersion were incredible. The roughly fifteen minutes of film shot in Iceland are breathtaking, setting the tone for the rest of the film.

My film viewing experience both times was improved by my “date” — my 14-year-old son accompanied me, being almost as much of a sci-fi buff as I am. His reactions were priceless for their raw, untrained quality, as were his questions and comments after each viewing.

Prometheus does not rely heavily on the story arc established in Alien; the earlier sequel is now a precautionary tale of lesser heft than the more recent prequel. The xenomorph canon is preserved in both; the “monster” is a uber-killer, a space shark that eliminates human lifeforms ruthlessly and efficiently. It retains its purity, "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality," features which Alien's android science officer Ash admired so greatly. Alien did a fine job of letting the Giger-influenced creature off its leash to do its thing. In Prometheus, the xenomorph plays a lesser role. It’s the threat of the xenomorph as exterminator that is critical to this film, as well as the meaning of its existence.

But that is the entire question of Prometheus: what is the meaning of Earthlings’ existence? who are the Engineers, genetic forebears of Earth’s humans, and why do they also exist? Ultimately, Prometheus is one massively nested existential question; the entire plot is based on the discovery that Earth may have been visited by aliens called the Engineers, and that the planet was seeded with life resulting in humans that are nearly identical in genetics to the Engineers. The mega-rich corporate funder of the exploration project, Peter Weyland, is driven by a question: what is the secret to everlasting life? How does he defer his own impending death from aging? Can the Engineers as our creators answer his questions?

Improving Secondary Schools' Recruiting With Web Design Redux

[photo: frankh via Flickr]
In my previous post I discussed some key challenges for secondary schools’ recruiting process with regard to website design. In doing so, I provided a prospective parent’s view. You’re inside the head of the folks who sign the checks.

Let’s switch gears now to a different perspective. I’m also a consultant who’s worked with secondary education institutions to improve their use of social media and websites. I’m offering you a lagniappe here, the kind of material for which I’ve billed schools and businesses. 

Your institution represents a capital investment to students and parents; they want to invest in something they can believe in, a brand with a great image and reputation. Your recruiting success along with the other goals of your institution depends upon the brand you're building.

When selecting website design firms, most schools generally use criteria different from that of for-profit businesses. Schools select firms based on what other schools have chosen, or based on feedback offered internally; they don't think in terms of branding. It’s rare that any school sets out specific, measurable goals and then looks for a design firm used to helping for-profit businesses meet these goals, let alone firms that support nonprofits.

Your institution has quantifiable aims--XX% more new students, YY% more endowments, ZZ% more new placements of your students at hiring firms. These are just as specific as a corporation’s need to realize XX% more revenue, or a nonprofit’s need to increase donations by YY%. There’s a lot of science behind web design supporting these for-profit and nonprofit goals and their respective brands; your school should find a firm with a track record of delivery.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Improving Secondary Schools' Recruiting With Web Design [UPDATED]

[photo: D.C.Atty via Flickr]
If you’re an administrator at a secondary school, you don’t know me but you want me. Badly.

You want me and my recently graduated 18-year-old daughter with a 3.78 grade point average, stellar ACT/SAT scores, solid record performance in AP and International Baccalaureate classes, proven leadership through student council and volunteer work, mixed ethnic/racial heritage, and cash to pay tuition in full after scholarships have been applied.

We would make you and your enrollment numbers look great. We place little burden on your already-busy financial aid folks. Your instructors will enjoy a driven student used to self-directed study.

It’s not easy to recruit us. Quite honestly, yours may not be the school we need by virtue of the programs offered. We’re looking for something highly specific like Biomedical Engineering, for example, and you may not offer it. It may be beneficial to both you and us not to waste our time.

How quickly can my daughter and I find out whether you offer Biomedical Engineering? We’ve got at least 15 schools to examine. If you make this task cumbersome, we won’t even bother. Believe me, we’ll tell our friends/fellow students who are looking at similar science/technology programs how inefficient your school is with regard to technology. How can anybody trust sci-tech programs at a school that doesn't use highly organized and efficient design?

That’s the real bottom line: your school’s brand is at risk. A standard rule of thumb in the private sector is that for every dissatisfied customer, there are on average six other potential customers they tell about their negative experience. Your school doesn’t want this undocumented negativity. Even if we never apply to your school, we could still damage your brand because of our user experience with your site. But the website may be the only contact we may have with you, apart from a possible visit from a campus recruiter.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review: Snow White and the Huntsman -- Part 1

A little over two weeks after its release, I finally saw Snow White and the Huntsman. I wasn’t expecting a lot going in; I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. The movie cleaved fundamentally to the traditional Snow White story (not to be confused with the Disney animated classic circa 1937). It also extended the original story in ways that encouraged thinking long after leaving the theater.

Feeling Deja Vu
The film, starring Kristin Stewart who most moviegoers will recognize as Bella from the Twilight movies, uses several devices which echo the Twilight books and movies.

-- An apple featured early in the film may remind one of the Twilight book cover, although apples appear frequently in several versions of the Snow White legend;
-- Snow White jumps into the ocean at 0:18, mirroring Bella’s New Moon cliff diving;
-- Snow White also wanders lost in the woods, looking for help and escape, conjuring Bella’s abandonment in the woods in Twilight’s New Moon.

The evil stepmother Queen Ravenna might also be considered a vampiric entity. While she does not suck blood, she does feast on the life force of maidens, leaving them a withered husk.

All of these features could make a Twilight fan feel right at home as they view this movie.

Factors of Production
SWatH possesses a lovely, gritty feel; one can almost smell the dank of the dark forest and the salt of the ocean surrounding the castle. CGI elements are solid and appropriate to each scene; they’re unobtrusive, with the exception of the fairies. These unfortunate little creatures feel like something cropped out of Avatar, bleached and shrunken to fit SWatH. One can’t help but notice them as objects of CGI. In contrast, the troll actually feels like it is a member of the cast, albeit a very minor character.

Saturday, June 2, 2012 and the "missing" posts

On May 30th, Twilight fan fiction authors were concerned over the removal of posts by host site (FFn).
Authors' and readers' Twitter chatter suggested two possible problems:
  • Summaries for posts may not have been K-rated (all audiences), as required under the Terms of Service (ToS);
  • Posts may have been MA-rated (equivalent to MPAA's NC-17 rating) and therefore out of compliance with the site's ToS.
Additionally, unspecified and unannounced formatting changes deleted punctuation from a number posts. Specifically, dashes and some quote marks were deleted. Because so little data has been offered, it's not clear what kinds of punctuation may have been impacted; it's possible these were non-ASCII marks. At least two users posting content using WinPCs with Google Chrome browsers have had no obvious changes to their posts' punctuation, but this is not enough data to indicate a consistent problem. Whatever drove this formatting change muddied the picture with regard to the fan fiction content pulled by FFn.
Doing some homework on available data for the top three FFn fandoms, the following numbers suggest the problem is relatively isolated:
Wikipedia notes 200,159 Twilight fics published under Books on 28-MAY. FFn shows 198,677 today under books. That's 1482 diff, 0.7% change. [Source:Tweet
Wikipedia notes 594,940 Harry Potter fics published at FFn on 28-MAY under Books. FFn now shows 593,674. Diff: 1266 or 0.2% change. [Source:Tweet]
Wikipedia shows 304,957 Naruto fics published under Anime/Manga on 28-MAY. FFn now shows 302,955 under same. Diff: 2002, or 0.6% change.  [Source:Tweet]
What little data is available regarding the works pulled by FFn suggests that this was not a widespread housecleaning. In at least one case, the author's summaries were ToS compliant, but only one of several M-rated stories were pulled. One of the works not pulled was of a very similar nature in terms of content and theme to the one pulled. The randomness of this work's removal suggests a complaint may have been received about one piece, but no further information is available to confirm or rebut this possibility.
Whatever the reason FFn pulled works, it's critical that FFn users do not misinterpret the reduction in fiction post counts:
IMPORTANT: Reductions in FFn fic counts may not be due to FFn pulling a few fics, but pulling by authors of entire account's worth of fics.  [Source:Tweet
It's also in FFn's best interest not to touch any fan fiction authors have rated as M  content:
If Twilight>Books>M-rated equals 34.6% of current total fics under that category, total number/percent pulled by FFn or authors still small. [Source:Tweet
The percentage of M-rated Twilight-Books posts was determined by using search feature by rating only and noting total number of posts offered under that criteria, against total posts of all ratings under Twilight-Books category. The number of Harry Potter and Naruto M-rated fan fiction works was not determined; it's likely the percentages are very similar, particularly in Harry Potter since the Twilight and Harry Potter fandoms have large overlaps in memberships.

Ultimately, FFn relies on M-rated content, whether fully compliant or not with its ToS. It's difficult to imagine FFn deleting as much as 30% of the content which drives its traffic and therefore advertising income. This same 30+% of content may also drive far more than 30+% traffic since lower rated content may not receive the same brisk traffic.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Finding the "missing" talent in a technology-rich present

Filmmaker David Schmüdde wrote at Beyond The Frame about director Peter Webber’s latest post for Webber discussed film and technology in his entry, The Newest New Wave; he lamented that in spite of the quantity and quality of technology available today, new filmmaking genius has not emerged:

“…there is a limit to what can be expected from this democratisation of the means of film production. The most important commodity in all of this is not in fact the technology but the talent.”
Director Aaron Stewart-Ahn’s recent comments informed Webber’s post:

"...we don’t see films as brave, funny, entertaining, ambitious or unashamedly intellectual as the ones they [Godard, Coutard] made together....Nowadays there seems to be an overall diminution of ambition, an unfortunate limiting of horizons."
Is this true? It may be more accurate to say we’re prevented from seeing clearly the heirs of Godard/Coutard:
1) The US is now a culture of amateurs. Anybody with a digital camera/videocam, camera phone, tablet with camera--but without any additional training--is a potential creator of video for publication/distribution. Much of what appears in public online video repositories is produced by the untrained but highly motivated user. It may not look like the product of seasoned creators.
2) Education in the US places a premium on analysis (and not storytelling) in preparation for the workplace, not on analysis for the creation of better art. However, analysis is taught, and it may yield content that looks very different from Godard/Coutard's generation. What narrative emerges will also look very different.
3) Venues for sharing/publication/distribution like YouTube and Vimeo receive and warehouse so much content that it's unfathomable how even the existing film industry could drink from this firehouse and find satiation. There's just so much content that it swamps whatever is really good; how do we find the needle in the haystack?
4) Success breeds contempt; The Blair Witch Project neutralized the indie creator space for quite some time. Commercially-funded cinema has mimicked independent film to the point of discouragement (see Cloverfield [2008] for the use of cinéma vérité complete with jump cuts as an example, applied in a sci-fi/fantasy production). The product of blowback against earlier real and faux indie efforts may look quite different as it rebels against past success.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Entertainment Industry and the Truth About Information: It's the Experience, Stupid

I’ve been stewing over a post by Steve Blank retweeted earlier today by director Peter Webber. Blank discusses the reason why the movie industry can’t innovate, pointing to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) as one of the firewalls the movie industry bought to prevent incursion on the industry’s intellectual property.
SOPA is a cheap method for the industry to avoid more expensive innovation and take a less risky action: sue the fuck out of anybody who might find a way to tweak their output and make yet another product, especially products from which they can’t reliably draw income. Bottom line, it’s not about creativity or protecting it; SOPA is about protecting monetary turf on the cheap while avoiding any expense-incurring risk.
But the movie industry will have to deal with reality sooner or later--better now, while the current business model still brings in tons of money as Steve Blank pointed out. They can afford the luxury of experimentation to the benefit of their shareholders, versus later when the truth becomes crystal clear to the public.
The truth, which all industries built on replicable human knowledge must face, is that information is a commodity in the age of the internet. It wants to move freely, and it will. For most of human history, information was corralled and controlled; money could be extracted by gatekeepers who controlled the medium. In the age of the internet, gatekeepers no longer have control. Networks attached to the internet are leaky--and information will take advantage of these leaks to move as it’s like air, hard to maintain in a vacuum of any scale. [cont'd.]