Priorities

INDUCE Act, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT):

Whoever intentionally induces any violation [of copyright law] shall be liable as an infringer.

Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID):

a civil action brought by any person against a manufacturer or seller of … a firearm … may not be brought in any Federal or State court.

posted June 22, 2004 12:15 PM (Politics) (3 comments) #

Watch the Comedians: The Daily Howler

Bonus tip for direct mail fundraisers: Instead of labeling your envelope with a message like “John Kerry needs your help to save America”, “America’s #1 Export May Soon be Our Jobs”, “Stop John Ashcroft’s Dirty Tricks”, or “Bill Frist Has Personally Killed Numerous Kittens”, I humbly propose an all-purpose attention getter: “Please Send Us More Money”.

Yesterday, I gave an example of the media’s terrible performance as government watchdog. Bob Somerby does this every weekday for his incomparable Daily Howler. Take their series Gore on war:

On September 23, Al Gore gave a speech on the proposed war in Iraq. Here’s a key portion:

I believe this proposed foreshortening of deliberation in the Congress robs the country of the time it needs for careful analysis of exactly what may lie before us. Such consideration is all the more important because the administration has failed thus far to lay out an assessment of how it thinks the course of a war will run—even while it has given free run to persons both within and close to the administration to suggest at every opportunity that this will be a pretty easy matter. And it may well be, but the administration has not said much of anything to clarify its idea of what would follow regime change or the degree of engagement that it is prepared to accept for the United States in Iraq in the months and years after a regime change has taken place.

As Somerby summarizes, “We’re engaged in a hasty deliberation, Gore said. And we haven’t been told what will happen after regime change occurs in Iraq.” Looking back, Gore was quite right. So what did the media say about it at the time?

William Safire, The New York Times:

The day after Gore’s self-contradictory pushmipullyu of a speech, Blair presented a 50-page dossier from British intelligence detailing the dangers to the world from Saddam, including evidence of his present possession of “mobile biological weapons facilities.”

(Apparent argument: If Saddam has got bioweapons labs, there’s no need to plan for whatever happens after we invade.)

Sean Hannity, Fox News’s Hannity and Colmes:

One thing that really stood out–first of all, look at Gore. Look at his hair. It’s a mess. […] He’s sweating profusely, right? He seems very angry at different points in the speech. He didn’t look presidential. I didn’t see any gravitas, any leadership.

(Apparent argument: Gore’s hair is funny; why should we listen to him?)

Matt Lauer, NBC’s Today:

The former vice president became the first of the possible Democratic presidential candidates to lash out at President Bush over his push for war with Saddam Hussein. … Let’s just remember 1991. As a Democratic senator, Al Gore was in favor of going to war against Saddam Hussein to get him out of Kuwait. So why the big turnaround now?

(Apparent argument: If you support one war, shouldn’t you support them all?)

Tim Russert, NBC’s Today:

He clearly is laying the predicate, protecting his options to run for president again. […] It’s quite striking that he has now decided that in the Democratic field, he was staking out this territory. He accused the president of playing to his right-wing base. Many Republicans yesterday were accusing Al Gore of playing to his left-wing base.

(Apparent argument: There’s no need to consider what Gore said, since it’s all positioning for a presidential run.)

Michael Kelly, Washington Post:

Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts—bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate.

(Apparent argument: Anyone who tells us to slow down and deliberate is evil.)

Charles Krauthammer, Fox’s Special Report:

[Gore’s speech] offers no alternative. It essentially says—there’s a quote where he says, “We should be about the business of organizing an international coalition to eliminate his access to weapons of mass destruction.” Not even eliminate the weapons themselves.

(Apparent argument: If Gore mispeaks about a solution, I can ignore it. And if he has no solutions left, I can ignore him.)

George Will, Fox’s Hannity and Colmes:

[H]e gave it in San Francisco, which I thought was an unfortunate venue because […] it recalled the 1984 convention that they had out there when Jean Kirkpatrick coined the phrase “San Francisco Democrats.” This suggests something a little bit strange in that party.

(Apparent argument: If Gore was talking to gay people, I can ignore him.)

Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, CNN’s Reliable Sources:

HOWARD KURTZ: [A]ll this analysis and psychobabble about what was Gore doing and he was appealing to the left, and he was positioning himself for 2004. Any possibility this is what Gore really believes or should it be reported in a strictly political context?

MILBANK: Well, it’s funny. Here’s a time when Al Gore actually took a risk and conceivably did something principled, and he didn’t get any credit for it at all. That’s partially our fault, perhaps, but it’s also partially his fault. During the speech, at one point, he leveled all these criticism and then said, well, wait, I’m not actually saying this. There are other people who have said this.

So that sort of gave the opening for this sort of—this industry of sort of Al Gore haters to jump on it and say just another bit of the typical Al Gore.

(Apparent argument: If Gore-haters find something to attack about Gore’s speech, I don’t have to report about its content.)

National Review’s Byron York, same show:

KURTZ: On the other hand, Byron York, did the media do a good job of pointing out some of the contradictions between what Gore was saying this week and his vote for the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and some of what he’s had to say since then about Saddam Hussein?

YORK: Right. That would have been the bigger news story, it seems to me.

KURTZ: The bigger news story—bigger than what Gore actually said?

YORK: Well, the fact that it was a major restatement of some of the things that he has said in the past.

(Apparent argument: If Gore voted for one war, he can’t oppose another. And his violation of this rule is more important than whatever he might say.)

Did we need to slow down and think more about whether we should go to war or not? Had the administration planned for the war’s aftermath sufficiently? Apparently that wasn’t worth discussing. Instead, they talked about his hair, his lack of proposals, his supposed flip-flopping, his supposed presidential race positioning, and his minor mispeaks. I guess that was more fun.

You can see why the Daily Howler can be depressing. But it provides much more than these bare quotes; each day it tells a story with background and context and, of course, humor. The author, Bob Somerby, is not a journalistic historian but a comedian.

Watch the comedians: The Daily Howler.

posted June 21, 2004 03:54 PM (Politics) (7 comments) #

Watch the Comedians: The Daily Show

The State Department issued an annual report on terrorist attacks which said 2003 had the lowest number of terrorist acts in 34 years. The report was trumpeted as clear evidence the War on Terror was working. There was just one problem — the report was wrong. Terrorist attacks had increased sharply. What was the cause of the mistake? Amazingly, the report was sent to the printers in November, so it didn’t count any terrorist attacks that took place afterwards.

What a huge blatant obvious deception. (How unethical do you have to be before you compare a semi-annual report with an annual one?) Colin Powell made the rounds to spin it.

2004-06-10, NBC Nightly News: Covered the error, but not the cutoff.
2004-06-11, NBC’s Today: Ditto.
2004-06-11, London’s Financial Times: Ditto.
2004-06-11, Washington Post, page A09, paragraph 4:

Among the mistakes, [State Department spokesman Richard] Boucher said, was that only part of the year 2003 was taken into account.

2004-06-12, London’s Daily Telegraph: Covered the error, but not the cutoff.

2004-06-13, Meet the Press:

POWELL: Well, we’re not. The data in our report is incorrect. If you read the narrative of the report, it makes it clear that the war on terror is a difficult one, and that we’re pursuing it with all of the means at our disposal. But something happened in the data collection, and we’re getting to the bottom of it. Teams have been working for the last several days and all weekend long. I’ll be having a meeting in the department tomorrow with CIA, other contributing agencies, the Terrorist Threat Information Center, and my own staff to find out how these numbers got into the report. Some cutoff dates were shifted from the way it was done in the past. There’s nothing political about it. It was a data collection and reporting error, and we’ll get to the bottom of it and we’ll issue a corrected report. And I’ve talked to Congressman Waxman. [emphasis added]

Powell doesn’t give any more details about the source and Tim Russert doesn’t ask.

2004-06-13, This Week with George Stephanopolous:

POWELL: The numbers that were in the report were in error, and we are analyzing where the errors crept in. There is a new terrorist threat information center that compiles this data under the CIA, and we are still trying to determine what went wrong with the data and why we didn’t catch it in the State Department.

Stephanopolous doesn’t push Powell on what exactly went wrong, even though he clearly new. (Later he says the report “did things like cut off November 11th”.)

2004-06-13, CNN’s Inside Politics: Covered the error, but not the cutoff.
2004-06-13, CNN’s CNN Live Sunday: Ditto.
2004-06-13, United Press International: Ditto. (In fairness, UPI ran a story the next day with the headline “Terror report left out two months”. So good for them.)
2004-06-14, Associated Press: Ditto.
2004-06-14, LA Times: Ditto.
2004-06-14, Seattle Times: Ditto.

2004-06-14, Newsday:

Powell said the report’s data were incomplete and that information had been cut off at certain dates in a manner inconsistent with earlier terrorism reports. “It was a data collection and reporting error, and we’ll get to the bottom of it and we’ll issue a corrected report,” Powell said.

This was the very last paragraph and completely incomprehensible (“certain dates in a manner inconsistent”?!).

New York Times: Didn’t even cover the subject in print! Truly, slaves to the Bushes.

2004-06-14, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, top story:

STEWART: But let’s begin tonight with some good news in the war on terror. Two weeks ago the State Department released its survey of worldwide terrorist acts in 2003 and it turns out the number of such acts was at its lowest level since 1969. At the time, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage drew the only logical conclusion:

ARMITAGE: You will find in these pages clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight.

STEWART: You see that, people? Stop focusing on events outside in the world and start looking at these pages! You’ll find that if you look at the pages, ehhh, we’re doing quite well. Counterterrorism coordinater Cofer Black, do we have the terrorists on the ropes?

BLACK: They are truly under catastrophic stress, they are very defensive.

A NEWS BOX next to STEWART reads “WAR ON TERROR”.

STEWART: Booya! In your face, bin Laden! We are taking you down. Yeaaaah! (touches his ear, as if receiving a word from the control room) Wait, I’m sorry, I’m being told that’s all completely wrong. I’m sorry.

Yes, as it turns out, the government now acknowledges the terrorism report was badly flawed and grossly undercounted the number of attacks last year. Which in reality was among the bloodiest years ever for terrorism.

The NEWS BOX changes to read “WAR ON ERROR”.

Uhhhh, oops.

Among the report’s omissions: three huge bombings, one in Saudi Arabia and two in Turkey, which weren’t included because—this is true—they took place in November, after the report apparently needed to go to the printers. Apparently our government is run by the same people who put out your high-school yearbook.

The report is so strewn with mistakes, a State Department official says the corrections may fill eight pages. California congressman Henry Waxman, who condemned the report when it was released, has now stepped up his criticism:

WAXMAN: The, uh, report, uh, was based on inaccurate information and they drew political conclusions which were self-serving for the administration.

STEWART: You know, they’ve, uh, kind of been doing that for a while now. I’m, uh, — it’s getting ridiculous. Boy, who’s the poor sucker who’s gotta get out there and defend this one?

POWELL: [nods]

RUSSERT: That is embarassing.

POWELL: Very embarassing. I’m not a happy camper.

STEWART: (as an aside) And you know, ever since this war began, it seems like Colin Powell has had a very poor camp experience. I’d be surprised to see him come back next summer to this camp.

(back to newsman voice) But Powell insists there was no evil intention:

POWELL: There was no intent to mislead or cook the books in any way. So far it appears to be an honest administrative error.

STEWART: “Honest error.” Eight pages of corrections. The first page or two? Honest errors. Third page? Perhaps a questionable half-truth. By page six? You’re f[BLEEP]ing lying. You’re lying. And that’s, uh, that’s, oh…

The State Department announced it will soon release a revised version of the report, which is expected to be the most widely revised document since 2003’s “Gay Marriage Kills Ponies”.

My point is not that this specific news was extremely meaningful. Instead, it’s a case study. There was an extremely obvious failure by our government, yet the media didn’t trumpet it. There was a press conference to discuss it, yet nobody would question it. The head of the department that made the error appeared on several news shows for a one-on-one interview on the subject, yet he wasn’t asked any probing questions about it.

Instead, the media simply acted as megaphones for the government. (The New York Times went further, scuttling a story news that was embarrassing.) They abdicated their responsibility. And a comic had to do their job.

The Daily Show’s staff consists mostly of comedians, not journalists. Yet they were able to give this story the coverage that, as far as I can tell, only one other news source (UPI) did. This is no one-time occurance. The Daily Show is routinely the most on-top-of-things source for news, while also being extremely entertaining. The show is far more fair and accurate than most major media and they do in-depth political analysis of the Bush administration that New York Times readers can only dream of.

The show is good, to be sure, but perhaps the more interesting question is: Why are all the other mainstream news source so unspeakably bad?

Coming up: Howler, Franken, Fafblog, Tomorrow, and Bolling.

posted June 20, 2004 02:19 PM (TV) (24 comments) #

Who makes a movie?

Who gets artistic control and credit for a movie (e.g. a film, a television show)? Here are the candidates I’ve identified:

Producer (money): As far as I can tell, there’s one kind of producer who’s only job is to get money for the thing. You’ll often see them at the beginning of a film with something like “Francis Ford Coppola presents…” Needless to say, I don’t think these guys should get artistic control.

Producer: Another kind of producer is the one who is sort of CEO of the film, making sure everybody is doing their job and things are working smoothly. Sometimes these people get artistic control, but shouldn’t it go to someone more directly involved in the creative aspects of the film? This producer could just handle the day-to-day details so the artist can get on with the artistic stuff.

Writer: The writer writes the script for the movie. This is my personal favorite — a movie is nothing without writing. However writers often seem to be quiet and live in solitude, a disposition that is perhaps not best for the hustle and bustle of making a movie. Still, they can get other people (the producer, the director) to act as their mouthpieces. On television, writers generally are the artists. But on movies, perhaps because people don’t care about making good movies, writers are treated as interchangeable, repeatedly rewriting each other’s drafts.

Director: The director coverts the text of the script into physical activities. Scripts often say unfilmable things like “Hero felt glum”. The director decides what physical actions will go on so that the audience can tell Hero is feeling glum. On movies, the directors are almost always the artist. This appears to be because they’re the only ones telling the actors what to do, which ultimately defines what can be in the film, so you might as well put them in charge anyway. (Unlike on TV, there’s no next episode coming, so there’s no need to be faithful to the writer.) On television, though, directors are largely interchangable, directing things in a world that’s largely already built and structured.

Editor: The editor cuts the footage together to make the final movie. This means the editor is the final, and in some sense most powerful, guy. But I guess cutting together footage is really boring and not that difficult so editors appear to never get any real credit and only very little artistic control.

Then there are the components:

Director of Photography (aka Cinematographer): The D.P. makes the movie look good. Somewhat analogous to a book designer, the job is mostly orthoganal and in some way doesn’t really effect the content of the movie (or book). But yet, in another way, it’s really important and good cinematography can make a good movie really great (and a great movie even better).

Music: Again, this is somewhat orthoganal, but good music is an even more important part of making a movie good. But the best music is usually done by the artist himself, even though the score is nominally farmed out to someone else. It also seems good music people are really hard to find and perhaps somewhat sporadic in quality.

Actor: I almost didn’t include this one because it’s so mostly irrelevant to the quality of the movie. But I guess because the actor is the face people see, they give them extra importance. Anyway, successful actors seem to almost never make good artists.

There are some artists who will take up a number of these jobs. And I guess there are probably some artists who take up none of them, although I haven’t heard of any (probably because their work sucks). It seems the more jobs you take up, the better the work is. TV writers will often direct the first episode. Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin often do their own music. And in two critically-acclaimed short-season pain-based comedies, The Office and Curb Your Enthusaism, one person (Larry David and Ricky Gervais, respectively) writes, directs, stars, and edits the show. (Gervais even wrote his own song once.) But I guess that’s going a little far.

posted June 18, 2004 03:16 PM (TV) (6 comments) #

The End of Professionalism: Why do talk radio hosts and Times reporters have no talent?

Rush Limbaugh has famously said he has “talent on loan from God”. This claim isn’t particularly hard to believe, seeing as how Limabugh has no talent. He can’t entertain (he failed repeatedly as a radio entertainer before starting his hit show). He can’t write (his book is ghostwritten). He’s completely clueless (bizarrely, he claimed AIDS didn’t affect heterosexuals). He doesn’t remember the past. He doesn’t communicate well (that’s why he takes few calls and cuts even them off). And much of what he says he’s taken from right-wing sources. (David Brock describes how he once faxed Limbaugh a script about his work; Limbaugh proceeded to read it verbatim.)

And, you could say, maybe Limbaugh listeners deserve this. But the exact same traits seem to apply to reporters at the New York Times and other major papers. Far aside from the systemic problems with news, modern journalism just seems to suck.

Entertainment: Newspapers are deadly boring. You can see the authors to try desperately to liven things with personal anecdotes and flowery language (apparently this is what makes a star reporter at the Times) but it’s like putting lipstick on a chicken. Now maybe serious newspapers should be boring (although the world’s stories are fascinating, and the news is essentially the product of the world’s stories), but this half-hearted gussied-up prose is just the worst of both worlds.

Writing: I find myself having to read articles several times just to understand what they’re saying, and even then I don’t understand the subject. By contrast, collaboratively-written Wikipedia articles are almost always clear and informative. Is this because reporters are stuck on style? (“He said this. But she said that.”) Or do they assume their readers are idiots? (“And the teensy tiny electrons go wizz! woosh! inside the atom.”) No, I think they just don’t understand their topics. (If you don’t know what you’re writing about, there’s no chance your readers will.)

Clueless: This would also explain why reporters seem to miss both the background facts and the context. If the administration absurdly predicts that 130M jobs will be created, this fact will be duitifully reported without dissent. Even if this is the third time the administration has made absurd forecasts, that history will simply be forgotten or ignored. The only time any such context or history is included is if it’s conveniently provided in a clever soundbite by the appropriate expert in the reporters rolodex.

Right-Wing: The Republicans understand how the system works. And this lets them steamroll right over the reporters with their message. Republicans want to make Al Gore look like a liar? Bam! It’s in every news source. But George W. Bush lies daily while spending millions on lying ads? We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. When reporters become glorified stenographers, the people they’re transcribing get to make the news. And so, in large part, they have.

Conclusion? It takes no talent to be an average reporter at the Times. Just call up the usual suspects and write down what they say. But to be a star (Jayson Blair, Judith Miller) requires an ability to make stuff up. But folks have got it backwards — the latter upsets them while the former does not.

Why do people continue to respect a newspaper whose output is so lame? (Is it because everything else is so much worse?) Why does a newspaper continue to hire reporters whose work is so bad? (Is it because the people hiring them are no better?)

On final note: What does real professionalism sound like? See reporter Amy Goodman interview then-President Bill Clinton. Goodman doesn’t ask one easy question, but Clinton, although completely unprepared, can rattle of dozens of facts and figures to respond to each. (transcript, audio)

posted June 17, 2004 10:51 AM (Politics) (5 comments) #

Weblogs: More Driving by the Rear-View Mirror (or, Static Documents by One Person)

Things written in stone were permanent — proverbially so. Things written in ink could be scratched out, but not erased. Even pencil erasing leaves smudges. And typewriter backspacing is cumbersome. It wasn’t until the computer that real editing was possible. But even then, real collaboration was cumbersome. It wasn’t until the Internet that large group projects were practical.

So is it any wonder that the dominant mode of advancing knowledge was through static documents written by one person? only the most popular books have new editions. Newspapers come out new each day; they don’t go back to correct old copies. Magazines rarely bother to provide updates to old stories. And journal papers are occasionally collected into surveys, but even these are static documents written by one person.

The Web gave us a chance to break away from all of this. A topical website could be constantly “under construction”, updated and revised as new facts came in. A wiki could allow the whole world to take part in its authorship. Finally, we had things that actually summarized our knowledge on a subject instead of just fixing down one person’s view.

So what is the coolest, newest use of the Internet? Why it’s weblogs, of course, where people can clog up the Web with daily emissions of static documents written by one person. We’ve come a long, long way together, indeed.

Ever since I first heard of blogs, this bugged me. One of my first software projects, Blogspace, attempted to remedy it. The ideas was that the thing that looked like a blog would really just be the list of recent changes to the underlying wiki. (I never really finished it, and only Evan Williams seemed to notice it.)

The idea seemed so obvious I was sure someone would copy it. But instead the problem’s only gotten worse. Now, in addition to the information superhighway equivalent of roadside litter known as blogs, we’ve added the vast wastelands of roadside vomit known as comments. That’s right, having thousands of uninformed people post trivia daily was not enough. The job wasn’t complete until even-less-informed people could post hundreds of even more trivial comments on their trivia. It’s a revolution!

I’m an odd one to make this complaint. I’ve always been for more voices. “The best solution to having too much information is to have more information,” was my motto. And I still believe that. I’d rather have all these blogs than have to choose the best. But I can’t help but think that with better tools the work that goes into individual blogs could go into something bigger and better. Like, oh, say, an encyclopedia.

But I guess doing the right thing is not always the human thing. A large collaborative work leaves little opportunity to show the world pictures of you and your cat. And maybe people have a natural desire to get the news now, even if it is useless and inaccurate. (How else to explain the bizarre and unhealty obsession with scoops, exit polls, and voting projections?)

But I’d like to think there are some, perhaps many, who can get past their desire for attention and instant updates, and contribute to something more lasting and worthwhile. After all, Wikipedia gets over 100 hits each second, and over 200,000 visitors each day (over 5M each month!). How many weblogs can say that?

posted June 16, 2004 10:10 AM (Technology) (5 comments) #

Did You Know? Ronald Reagan Edition

Admit it. You thought Ronald Reagan was just another dead white male. But the truth is he’s actually a rich source of fun facts!

Tim Russert: “the Republicans achieved control of the United States Congress for the first time in 70 years, of both houses, under Ronald Reagan.”

No wait, that was Bill Clinton.

Bloomberg: “He left office … with the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin Roosevelt.”

No wait, that was Bill Clinton. (details)

Fox News: “Reagan was the most popular president ever.”

No wait, Bill Clinton was more popular (among many others). (details)

New York Times: “Reagan presided over the longest economic expansion in history”

No wait, that was Bill Clinton.

NPR: “He shrank government.”

No wait, that was Bill Clinton. (details)

NPR: “There is no question he cut taxes”

Reagan did preside over what was at the time the biggest tax cut in history but it was almost instantly followed up by the biggest tax increase in history. (details)

Bill Clinton: America mourns losing you.

(More fun facts from Ruben Bolling.)

posted June 15, 2004 09:48 AM (Politics) (5 comments) #

James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds: A Review

Upon hearing about a book on “the wisdom of crowds”, I expected it to answer three qeustions: Are crowds wise?, When are they wise?, and Why are they wise? Sadly, this book answers none of them.

Are crowds wise? Surowiecki fills his pages with unconvincing anecdotes. He has only a handful of real studies and he buries them randomly throughout the book. Worse, Surowiecki sometimes describes a study that would be easy to conduct, but instead of doing it he simply tells us what he expects the results would be. And despite the book’s constant championing of dissent, Surowiecki offers no evidence that cuts against his argument. Instead, every failure of a crowd simply helps prove his thesis, since he claims it failed because it violated one of his vaugely-stated rules.

When are crowds wise? Surowiecki offers only untested speculation. He claims they need “diversity, independence, and a particular kind of decentralization” (oddly, by decentralization Surowiecki appears to mean aggregation). Surowiecki never defines any of these particularly clearly but instead gives lots of examples. This makes them useless as predictors of a crowd’s intelligence which is probably why Surowiecki makes no attempt to test them.

Why are crowds wise? Surowiecki doesn’t even bother to answer this one, even though it’s the first half of the books subtitle. He considers the question briefly on page 10, only to spout some empty sayings (crowds are “information minus error”) and wonder in amazement (“who knew … we can collectively make so much sense”) before finally concluding “You could say it’s as if we’ve been programmed to be collectively smart.”

Perhaps noticing these weaknesses, Surowiecki gets all this out of the way in the first 40% of the book. The remainder is dedicated to larger collections of anecdotes Surowiecki likens to case studies. But even they disappoint. While Surowiecki has lots of stories, few are particularly enlightening or even memorable. Surowiecki does little analysis of the stories and does not draw out larger lessons. He assumes he is right and only stops to look down upon those who disagree.

I’m especially disappointed since I expected the book to be good. I love Surowiecki’s weekly column in the New Yorker and I suspect he is right about a lot. But instead of making a convincing argument, Surowiecki just stirs together anecdotes from his columns. The result, not suprisingly, is an intellectual muddle.

One thing the book does teach (although not clearly) is the wisdom of dissent. You can ensure dissent by collecting a large group and keeping the members from talking to each other (since people are usually smart but afraid of going against the grain), by ensuring some members of the group vocally disagree (since they will force the others to better justify their positions), or by forcing them to try to justify all sides (since that will keep them from prejudging the question).

All of which makes it ironic that Surowiecki’s book fails because of a lack of dissent. Nothing goes against the grain, he doesn’t justify his positions, and he has clearly prejudged the question. It would seem he needs a crowd to make him wise.

posted June 14, 2004 09:00 AM (Books) (5 comments) #

Brazil: The Sucky Story of Sid Sheinberg

If you like Brazil, you might also find interesting the incredible story on discs 2 and 3 of the Criterion Collection edition of the film. (You might look for it at your local library.)

Gilliam’s final cut of Brazil went five or six minutes over the contract he had signed, which meant the studio was allowed to recut it. Studio exec Sid Sheinberg thought that there was something to the film, and that if only the complexity was shaved off, it make a very successful sci-fi love story.

Sheinberg proceeded to have a team re-edit the movie to make it into this form, under the message “Love Conquers All”. Gilliam was furious at this butchering of his film, and demanded the studio release it unedited.

To pressure Universal, Gilliam purchased a full-page ad in Variety, reading. It was all white except for some text reading: “Dear Sid Sheinberg. When are you going to release my film ‘BRAZIL’? Terry Gilliam.” Gilliam also appeared on the Today show with Robert DeNiro to promote the film. When the host noted “You’re having some trouble getting the studio to release the film,” Gilliam responded. “No, I’m not having any trouble with the studio. My problem is with one man: Sid Sheinberg.” Gilliam resorted to a series of private illegal screenings around Hollywood, and eventually showed the film to the LA Film Critics Association, who promptly voted it Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director, even though it hadn’t been released.

Universal finally conceded and released the film mostly as Gilliam intended. But the DVD disc three includes Sheinberg’s edit. Watching it, and the associated commentary by a newspaper columnist, film critic and Brazil fan, is an incredible education in the power of editing over the film.

While using almost all the same footage, Sheinberg’s version tells the completely opposite story. Everything is dumbed-down in service to the love story, almost unthinkly. (As the commentary points out, the edit is forced to glorify terrorism to make the hero more heroic!) The result is an absolutely dreadful film, inept in numerous ways. But by examining why it’s so bad — and remember this film is made from the same raw material — the commentary shows us the genius in the details that make good films so good.

It also shows us why Hollywood films are all so dreadful. Every indepdent thought, every weakness of the hero and sympathetic characteristic of the villain, every ambiguous plot point, is simply eliminated and every subtlety is squashed. The result is a true Hollywood film — a lovestory told by a talentless hack.

Next week:

  • Who Makes a Movie: Should the writer, director, D.P., or editor, be in charge and get the credit for a film?
  • The End of Professionalism: Why are people of power, like Sheinberg, so terribly bad at their jobs?

posted June 11, 2004 05:29 PM (TV) (1 comments) #

Film Recommendation: Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is probably my favorite film. It has soaring visuals by Terry Gilliam. It has beautiful writing by Tom Stoppard. It has action, plot twists, a vast scope, great depth, and a subversive message. It has beautiful dances of office life and a great soundtrack. But it is a serious film. And if there were ever a time to watch it, it is now; it’s all happening to us (all links go to real news stories):

Complex technology does not work.

Instead of eliminating cruft, we sell it in different colors.

Terrorists (terrorists?) run around blowing things up.

A completely wrong man is arrested because of a smudge.

It’s not until after the wrong man, arrested because of a smudge, was tortured that we notice he’s innocent, and then we try to cover it up.

Bureaucrats sit in fancy offices pushing papers about torture.

The leader decides he doesn’t have to follow the law.

The employees decide they don’t have to follow the law (or maybe those are their orders).

The executives decide what to do by random processes.

The movie is like a filmed puzzle game, ala Myst. One man pulls a thread and the tapestry of society unravels before your eyes. And it discusses the question perhaps we all should be asking: What do you do when one morning you wake up in a dystopia?

Watch it: Netflix, Wal-Mart Rent, Wal-Mart Buy, Amazon

Rotten Tomatoes gives it an incredible 95% positive rating. (And yes, while Ebert did give it a bad review originally, he later apologized.)

posted June 10, 2004 10:43 AM (TV) (12 comments) #

Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)
All text above by me is in the public domain.