Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

How to get the Tata indicom aircard/CDMA modem working in OS X

No need to use Windows! Plug the thing into your Mac — if you have HardwareGrowler it’ll tell you that you just plugged in an EpiValley USB Modem. Go to System Preferences, then to Network Connections. It should tell you that you just plugged in a new device and that when you’re ready you should hit Apply then Connect to make it go. Make a couple of changes first.

  1. Set your phone number to #777.
  2. Set your account name to internet.
  3. Set your password to internet.
  4. Go into Advanced and change your vendor to Generic and your model to Dialup Device.
  5. ???
  6. Profit.

These instruction work for my Tata Indicom Plug2Surf Whiz CDMA 1x USB Modem, but should be valid for most modems. Enjoy.

jQuery plugin: Awesomecomplete

L'Autocomplete

So I stayed up until 4am writing what I think is a pretty awesome jQuery plugin for doing autocomplete.

Edit 08/21: I changed the name from L’Autocomplete to Awesomecomplete on Sunil Garg‘s suggestion. Updated urls and code as appropriate, but this article remains as-is.

L’Autocomplete?

It’s what you get when I write a plugin at 4am. The L is supposed to stand for lightweight, which was one of the key design philosophies in terms of plugin responsibility. You’ll see. I think.

The apostrophe is there as a clever play on words to make it French: “The Autocomplete.” Well, clever for 4am, anyway.

Why bother?

The problem with most jQuery autocomplete plugins is pretty simple: they suck. My hope is that mine does not, but only time (and all of you!) will tell. While writing my plugin, though, I came to understand why this was the case: it’s rather difficult to write a flexible, customizable autocomplete plugin without ending up with somewhat of a shell of a plugin. After all, let us consider the critical components of implementing autocomplete:

  • Data retrieval. Where does my data come from? How do I format my request to the server and interpret what comes back?
  • Data format. What field am I searching against?
  • Data render. How do I display my list of options? What if I want to render a picture in the list? When the user selects a value, what data should I end up with?
  • Keyboard/mouse navigation. Wiring things up.

Apart from the last item — which, trust me, is the easiest part of the whole thing thanks to the magic of jQuery — everything else on that list is extremely contextual to the development environment. So how do you write a plugin where 80% of the potential code is hardly reusable? Some plugins take the end-all, be-all approach to this problem — account for all scenarios. I take the opposite.

As far as data retrieval is concerned, for instance, I leave that as an exercise to the developer. You give me a function to call when I need data from you, since you know how to get it. If your application has been written solidly, it’ll probably be a one-liner. I’ll give you a function to call back to when you get that data, and then we can continue on our merry. Of course, L’Autocomplete also supports loading in a prefetched cache of data — it’s actually the most useful in that case where it can see all available data at once, as you’ll see.

So what makes this particular plugin cool?

We’ve dealt with the data retrieval problem listed above in what I think is a lightweight and elegant fashion. You do it. The data rendering problem is really rather simple — I tell you all the relevant information about what you need to render, and you can give me a function that will do it. There are defaults that should actually work for 90% of you, though.

What makes the plugin cool, I think, is the solution to the data format problem. The obvious solution, since I’m making you do all this work of getting the data anyway, is to expect it in some kind of format — a list of strings, a list of key-value pairs, etc. I think this is a bad solution.

JavaScript is a dynamically typed language that’s trivially easy to reflect against. Why should I care what you give me? Just give me a list of whatever JavaScript model objects you use. You can specify the name of the “primary field” that will always be displayed (eg the name of a person), but the plugin will automatically parse every field in the object (you can of course tell it to skip fields you want left alone) for the search phrase, highlighting them if desired and telling you what field the best match was.

So, it’s an autocomplete plugin that works against multiple fields, with a pretty powerful and flexible search algorithm. There’s not much more to say about the design philosophy behind it, so onward!

Demo!

Go here for a demo running with some statically preloaded data. As a bonus to Safari and Firefox users, there are CSS3 rounded corners and drop shadows just for kicks. The data has names, emails, and phone numbers in it, so feel free to search on any of those. I should probably have included a mixed number-string field so that you can see that it’ll match any field on any item independently, but you’ll just have to take my word for it for now.

Get!

Drop by GitHub to get the code.

I’ll write some real documentation for the thing tomorrow.

Warning!

There are known issues in Safari at the moment, and the plugin is completely untested in IE, Chrome, and Opera. This is a preview release, of sorts.

I’m excited about the future of the web

Here’s what you can do today if you decide that you simply don’t care about 68% of the browser market:

Look ma, no images!

Doesn’t look like much, you say? Sure. It was just me screwing around while writing a throwaway prototype application. But what if I told you that what you’re seeing is pure HTML and CSS? There are absolutely no images involved in that entire layout. The tab even animates up and down, and the gradient fades in and out — with no images, and not a line of JavaScript.

It’s an old drum that’s being beaten to death, but this is why IE needs to either get with the game or go away. IE8 is at least a huge improvement in terms of respecting rendering standards, but with the gaping release cycle that Microsoft has IE trundling away on, they can’t possibly keep up with how quickly amazing features like these are coming along.

Just how quickly, you ask? Here’s what you can already do in the latest version of Safari/WebKit (even on the iPhone version!), with nothing but CSS, and JavaScript to push it along (source):

This has been proposed to the W3C. Everything you see is hardware-accelerated. I am stoked.

Expect a second edition of this post in a couple of days.

Review: Dollhouse Episode 13 — “Epitaph One”

The short version (since I am well aware that I tend to wax poetic): Epitaph One is not merely an incredible episode that would have beautifully wrapped up the series, it gives Dollhouse new purpose, and a reason to exist.

Let’s face it — Dollhouse has been inconsistent. From what I hear, creator Joss Whedon is notorious for slow starts, but I’m not sure that I buy that, given how collected and engaging Firefly was from the very start. I think that what both the writers and audience of the new show have found over the course of the first year is that it is at its best when the metaplot and the mythology of the show kick in. In the Blu-Ray commentary, Joss seems to push back on this as much as he can, asserting that it was important for the first five episodes to be incremental and largely standalone.

He also states with strong conviction that he is strongly against shows that end up entangled within their own mythology — the prime example being LOST. He’s not wrong — no matter how interested they may be, no one is going to dive into LOST at this point, just before the final season, and try to follow along. However, I feel that there are a number of intrinsic benefits to investing in that aspect of a show — it generates a feeling of progress in each episode, and it pays dividends when you have a rich history of tidbits to draw from and connect.

Firefly is the vindication of his point of view. The reason that the standalone episode format worked so well for it was that it was really more or less the point of the show: the chronicles of the daily lives of people in a world rather unlike ours, but not unapproachably so. It was fun to watch Firefly and compare their daily bellyaches to your own, or to imagine yourself in that world. The mundane (and I use that word in the best light possible) was very nearly a mission statement of the show.

Dollhouse can’t take that claim. Being set very much in our day-to-day world — no demons, no spaceships — it’s much more difficult to find excitement out of self-contained story arcs. Originally, though, the show wasn’t meant to be quite as action-oriented as it is. It was meant to be more contemplative, focusing on the moral aspects of the Dollhouse’s much-vaunted technology. It’s a somewhat hidden element of the show, since the A-plots tend to draw so much immediate attention to themselves, but hearing Joss’s commentary on the episode Man On the Street really brings it out and into focus, and it’s actually a rather deep concept of the show.

But that’s exactly the problem. With all of the aspects that it is trying to balance, Dollhouse tended to get lost in itself. Sure, it was great storytelling, but it was missing that draw, that cerebral aspect that the morality of the show sets up, and perhaps ultimately its most interesting component.

Epitaph One turns that all on its head. Yes, it’s still Dollhouse — but it’s not, really. It’s well known that it takes place a few years into the future. I won’t tell you how many. It’s shot mostly handheld and on video rather than on film — one of the biggest cost-saving elements of the episode, if I understand correctly (the episode cost half as much as the others, and its model became a big reason Dollhouse was renewed in the first place).

But the most interesting part of the episode is that while watching it, you’re no longer faced with hypotheses. There was always the consideration of what could be done with the technology should it ever slip out of Rossum’s grasp, but never being brought face-to-face with it was precisely the reason that the morality aspect of the show suffered. In Epitaph One, you’re faced with one very specific example of precisely what happens — and it’s frightening. Thus, my argument that the episode gives the show much-needed focus.

In addition, it drive the show along narratively in spades — more, almost, than in the entire rest of the first season. It feels like LOST in more than a few ways: in terms of narrative structure, writing, and mood. This is a good thing for the show, and should the next few seasons make good on the promises of this episode, we’re in for a wild ride yet. But now I’ve spent more than enough time discussing narrative — time to talk about the other things that make a show successful.

In term of acting, while Felicia Day does a great job, it is really Adair Tishler that steals the show. Completely. She was the most adorable thing ever on Heroes (back when I [anyone?] still watched it), but here she proves that her acting chops are to be feared. Watch out for this one.

And writing-wise, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen knock this one out of the park. They wrote Dr. Horrible along with Joss, if you didn’t know. I get the distinct feeling that apart from the seed of the plot and the usual edits, Joss really left the two of them to their own devices on this one, and they prove themselves more than worthy of the trust.

Oh, and the song at the end? Performed by Maurissa? Let’s just say that I bought it on Amazon and I’ve listened to it 42 times already in 2 days. It’s been a long time since I put anything on one-song repeat.

Epitaph One is fantastic. It ends on a note that would have been an absolutely beautiful way to end the series, and I challenge the writers to come up with an even better one when the time comes. But it’s really the promise it makes of the things to come that have me — for the first time ever — actively and completely excited about Dollhouse.

(Excited enough to write a blog post at 2 in the morning. Ugh.)

Top Albums of 2008: 15-11

Forgive me again. I’m still really busy.

15. Joe Satriani – Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock

Since the 80′s, it’s been harder and harder to be a solo guitar god. The art of the guitar solo is dead in pretty much all genres except metal – there is less and less room in nearly all types of today’s genres for anything more than what amounts to a cursory 4 bar riff. And sadly, true metal itself – the kind that are worth listening to, and would even have guitar solos at all – is also rapidly shrinking to a niche genre full of weirdos.

Satch tries his hardest to stay the course, to limited success – a phrase that generally describes this album fairly well. It has a lot of good things in it – decent solos, reasonably catchy songs – but nothing particularly outstanding. Having been to a workshop of his before, I know that he is extraordinarily well-versed in musical theory and has almost a sixth sense for anything chordal, but it feels like he turned all those facilities in his head off for the album.

Ultimately? It’s unfortunately boring. The most interesting part in the entire album is the last track, because it is dominated by a well-written acoustic intro. Maybe that’s what he should try next.

Key Tracks: Musterion, Diddle-Y-A-Doo-Dat, Andalusia

14. Benga – Diary of an Afro Warrior

I don’t listen to terribly much dubstep, so only one album seems to catch my attention enough to make this list each year. While last year’s Burial album Untrue was a revelation in the range dubstep could – and hardly ever aims to – achieve, it really owed more to UK garage than to dubstep. Really, there are few genres that are better to draw from.

Benga is the polar opposite. This is dubstep, a fact he eagerly slaps you with at every turn, every bassline. No one has ever listened to any dubstep without hearing the anthemic Night. There’s not much more to say here: this is the raw core of dubstep. Go listen to it if you’re at all curious.

Key Tracks: Zero M2, Night, The Cut

13. Nik Freitas – Sun Down

I’ve often heard Nik Freitas described as a “happier Elliott Smith,” and while that label isn’t entirely inaccurate, I think it does both artists a bit of a disservice. Yes, he does have similar musical sensibilities, and yes, Nik Freitas is definitely more upbeat than Elliot Smith, but these two things combined don’t make the above a fair observation — rather, they serve as two very strong criteria along which to divide the two. Freitas’ music is full of a lot more of the whimsy and unrestrained glee that often comprise an “indie” release than Smith’s ever was, and shines in a different way for it.

Really though, Sun Down isn’t that much of a wonder to behold from a writing standpoint. Rather, it’s execution and Nik’s excellent singing chops that carry this album — and carry it they do. This is great music to unwind to at the end of the day.

Key Tracks: All the Way Down, Love Around, Shhhh

12. Opeth – Watershed

I’m a huge fan of Opeth — there is a poster flag of the album art for Ghost Reveries hanging on my wall, the only poster I’ve kept through moving for the past 3 years. It would have been for Blackwater Park had I been able to help it, but that proved to be too tricky to find.

The funny thing about Opeth is that their music is so close to broadly appealing in so many directions, and yet they refuse to move out of the niche they have created for themselves. Their acoustic work, while incredibly sombre and dark, is incredibly beautiful — you’d never know it came out of a progressive death metal band (part of this is likely due to their close work with Steve Wilson). Their death metal isn’t something I can comment on since I’m not a fan of the genre, but it’s also not quite pure enough to be satisfying to hardcore fans of that genre. The magic of Opeth, however, is how incredibly easily they drop from one to the other.

This is exactly why I’m not as big a fan of this new Opeth album as I was of their past works. The album is fantastically written as a whole, but something feels forced about the way it evolves. Particularly annoying are the jarring interludes that occur in the album’s longest work, Hessian Peel. The shorter song lengths overall also don’t seem to mesh as well with their writing style as did the 8-10 minute songs of the past.

Key Tracks: The Lotus Eater, Hessian Peel, Hex Omega

11. DJ Frane – Journey to the Planet of the Birds

“He made up his mind– and he wanted to fly…”

I’ve not delved too far into the worlds of trip-hop or downtempo, but if ever there was a great place to start, it would be Journey to the Planet of the Birds. I’ve stated many times before in top album countdowns my weakness for lavish and rich productions, and Birds is practically the definition. From the moment it opens until the moment it ends, there is the distinct impression that there is no detail the man found too insignificant to address.

It’s a bit of a trip, but it’s a trip more than worth taking. I don’t really want to say anything more about this album, because I almost feel like it would be overanalyzing something that’s just supposed to be – and definitely is – a good time. Go check it out.

Key Tracks: Nectar For Isis, Cloudy Voyage, Spice Convoy

Top Albums of 2008: 20-16

Forgive me. I’ve been busy.

20. Why? – Alopecia

I’ve not been quite as taken with Why?’s latest album as the critics have, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good album. Definitely not something you’d want to relax to, Alopecia is a somewhat skittish, flamboyantly experimental album which further cements Why?’s position as more of an indie band that happens to incorporate a rap-like element than any sort of hip-hop group.

The most impressive part of the album isn’t necessarily the music nor the lyrics themselves, but rather how naturally the band manages to make all the capriciously assembled elements flow together, and how catchy each hook really is. While frontman Yoni Wolf laments a breakup or considers loneliness, he does so with a certain detachment from both the concept at hand as well as concept as a whole, which ties together somewhat the generally fragmented nature of the rest of the music.

All in all, Alopecia is a fantastic piece of work, but not necessarily a fantastic piece of music.

Key Tracks: These Few Presidents, Fatalist Palmistry, Twenty-Eight

19. Logistics – Reality Checkpoint

Logistics’ debut album Now More Than Ever was a somewhat bizarre release. While Matt Gresham’s musical talent was projected very obviously in the album, and it had a number of incredible tunes – most notably City Life – the album was simply too ambitious to be thoroughly good. Putting out 24 top-notch tracks, particularly your first time out, is a grueling task, and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t up to it at the time.

Reality Checkpoint is exactly that – a return to reality for the artist. At 14 tracks long, it’s a much better album as a whole, with quite a few more catchy tunes that move Liquid Funk forward in some direction or another. Sadly, there aren’t any remarkable or super-innovative tracks that really stand out, but it’s a much better series of songs in general.

Key Tracks: Reality Checkpoint, 96, Continuum

18. Pendulum – In Silico

Pendulum’s debut album Hold Your Colour was a monster hit in the Drum and Bass world. Packed with hard-hitting, catchy songs that endure to this day, the album really made a name for Pendulum a few years back. While some people complained at how commercial and uninnovative the tracks are, sometimes that’s simply not the point. When Pendulum announced a new album drop, everyone was pretty stoked.

In Silico is… different. It still sounds definitely like Pendulum, which is good, but it also isn’t precisely Drum and Bass. It’s a bizarre yet somehow delicious mix of Drum and Bass and Rock. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it hits hard, sometimes it pulls back for no apparent reason and for far too long. Sometimes it’s fresh and exciting, and sometimes you just want to turn the thing off. At the end of the day, a couple of the songs have earned airplay on the local alternative rock station here in Seattle, so perhaps it’s a good thing that Pendulum chose this direction. In my book, it remains to be seen.

Key Tracks: Showdown, Propane Nightmares, The Tempest

17. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman – The Fabled City

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame made a name for himself by creating incredible, unbelievable sounds out of his guitar using just a toggle switch, four pedals, and a judicious amount of feedback. Perhaps this is why his first political folk rock album, One Man Revolution (which made number 14 on this list last year), was so incredibly sparse. Populated only by his nylon string guitar, his voice, his harmonica, and a smattering of other light instruments only occasionally, One Man Revolution was an incredibly successful exercise in minimalism. Stripped of his usual tools, Morello was forced to innovate and be extremely creative in order to form a collection of interesting, cohesive, pointed songs.

You can guess where I’m going. Given how he already proved himself with the last album, Morello decided to throw in a few more standard elements into his songwriting. A drumbeat and electric bass now populate most songs, and the songwriting is more conventional and repetitive. The lyrics don’t make as much sense to me. Everything is just a hair more trite. That doesn’t mean that the album isn’t still fantastic – it is, after all, on this list. However, it does mean that when choosing between the two, I would rather listen to the debut.

Key Tracks: The Fabled City, The Lights Are On in Spidertown, Saint Isabelle

16. Evol Intent – Era of Diversion

Evol Intent has long been an influential player in the Drum and Bass world. Tracks such as Call to Arms and Street Knowledge were seminal in their time and still among the greatest tracks today. Evol Intent’s record label has put out incredible artists like Counterstrike and Arsenic. But until this past year, they had never really put out that much material, much less a full LP.

Era of Diversion changes that. Very much a Bush-era album, it draws a lot of themes from political anger. And anger is a very good descriptor: there is no mistaking this album as the product of anyone but Evol Intent. Most disappointing, I think, is the placement of nearly all their previous tracks in the album, meaning that the first half of the album is the only real material. Considering how long the group has been working on this LP, actively or not, it’s incredibly disheartening to see this little real product.

Key Tracks: Era Of Diversion, 8bit Bitch, Reality Check

You should go see Up right now.

What film studio has a 100% track record? Seriously, Pixar does it again and again and again, and they find a new way to delight their audiences each and every time. With the exception of a few minor complaints, Up is easily another perfect movie.

up

Pixar are always expanding their storytelling horizons. As heartwarming as Wall•E and Nemo were, there’s something new about how the story of Up is told. The first – largely dialogueless – fifteen minutes of the film are among the most poignant I’ve ever seen in a film, let alone an animated one, and convey a sort of humanity and depth that is an incredible achievement. That segment could easily have been a short film on its own merits.

And yet, somehow the movie manages to go from heart-achingly beautiful and emotional to one of the funniest I’ve seen in a long time without so much as a blink. It feels perfectly natural, when by all means it shouldn’t. Enough can’t be said about the humor and comedic timing, so I won’t try.

The movie stumbles a bit. I don’t want to give anything away, but while part of its charm is how unafraid it is to go over the top, sometimes it does go a bit far. And I thought that the climactic part of the film fell apart somewhat halfway through.

This is a pretty short review, because I don’t want to overanalyze a movie that’s simply pure fun. One final thing I will note that whereas from a technical perspective Wall•E explored and mastered cinematography, Up explores new horizons in lighting, to fantastic results.

Go see it. Go see it in 3D; they do it incredibly naturally and it’s a beautiful subtle enhancement to the film. Too bad it won’t be in 3D on Blu-Ray.

*****/5

Twitter’s sneaky new follow links

twitter

I’m going to roll right past the fact that it’s been forever since my last blog post, and certain promises have been violated by several months. Except to say that I’ve actually had most of the top albums post series written for a while now, and I just need to pull some top tracks together and polish off a couple of the albums. Expect them mid-June, when school is out and I have time.

I’m sure others have noticed this already, but with all the talk about Twitter rolling out professional tools for upper-tier users, I thought that an observation I just made was pretty amusing:

It used to be that Twitter would send you plaintext emails when someone follows you, with a plaintext url to their Twitter profile page which would be auto-linked by most email clients. Around the very beginning of this month, Twitter switched to fancy HTML-based emails with chrome framing pretty much the exact same text. It turns out that the motive behind this wasn’t actually polish.

Check out the new URL that Twitter gives you to go to your new follower’s profile:

http://twitter.com/[username]?utm_source=follow&utm_campaign=twitter[timestamp]&utm_medium=email

With this tracking data, Twitter can tell their commercial users just how much that annoying followspam is helping them. I’m surprised that the avatar they embed isn’t itself a beacon tracker so they can get click-through statistics (Dear Twitter: that’ll be a $5k consulting fee, please— kthxbye).

I’m curious to see what other tools come with the professional package.

Speaking of Twitter, expect a “A year with Twitter” post soon. There are things about it that I want to say to naysayers.

The Newspaper Industry versus the Internets

There’s been a sudden and sharp increase in commotion in the past few days about the traditional media’s take on the Internets, and what to do with it. There has been a corresponding response from said Internets to the traditional media, which has been equally dismissive and probably far more angry.

The traditional media’s take on the issue could more or less be summed up by this statement made by Rupert Mudoch:

“Should we be allowing Google to steal all our copyrights?” asked the News Corp. chief at a cable industry confab in Washington, D.C., Thursday. The answer, said Murdoch, should be, “‘Thanks, but no thanks.’” –– Forbes

The Internets’ response is a bit more varied, but it tends to run along the lines of this Daily Kos headline:

In the wake of the newspaper execs’ hissy fit –– Daily Kos

So, who is right? The answer, as it almost always is (at least on this humble blog), is nobody.

Let’s look at the issue point by point. Be warned; there are many points that I’d like to discuss.

The Google –– and, relatedly, free access

On one hand, let’s examine the newspapers’ point of view. Like the RIAA, they’ve been looking at the bottom line and seeing it dwindle. The RIAA looked at reasons why, and it seemed like this file-sharing thing was a big reason people weren’t buying records anymore. So they went after file-sharers. Similarly, newspapers are seeing their profits drain away to the Internets: their subscribers are dropping in favor of online versions of their daily news, which are harder for the papers to pin down and tout to advertisers (hence why the New York Times requires registration on their site) – and their classified traffic is moving away to the cheaper and faster Craigslist. So, they’re rattling their sabers at the Internet. And who’s the biggest player on the web? Google.

Their fundamental argument at the moment is that the Internet is entirely too open and free. With aggregators like Google, it’s impossible to secure a loyal readership, as users can pick and choose what articles to read from a remote location. By cutting off Google from their material and charging users to use the online editions of their newspapers, they hope that they can regain some semblance of loyalty to their particular brand and thus constant and guaranteed revenue and readership, which they can once again tout to their advertisers. After all, whoever ordered two, three, or four copies of physical papers daily?

The converse is, of course, also true. Google, in the course of making hand over fist in advertising, is doing the web a sort of public service: joining the Internet together as one. By offering sheer choice and volume, Google enables users to learn and experience more than ever before, and lends information sources potential audiences they could never have dreamed of before. So on this point, there is no correct answer – at least not yet.

What is the role of the “media”?

Now, let’s take a look at what the Internet community is saying. Composited between a lot of the meaningless vitriol that is the lifeblood of the web, it’s easy to tell that there are two basic counterarguments, one of which is a more extreme version of the other. The first, which could be considered true at least in part, is the sentiment that “they just don’t get it.” Daily Kos followed up with an article discussing one particular example of how traditional media execs and reporters miss the point. And they’re not wrong – it will take a new breed of journalist and executive to get the traditional media to understand the information (and business!) market of the Internet.

But this sentiment is always stated with an air of dismissal, an air that exposes the more extreme reaction that the Internet has generally taken. “Look,” web users, evangelists, and enthusiasts say, “look at our blogs and our Twitters and our Googles. We don’t need you anymore. With the Internet, we can collect, distribute, and discuss information with far greater efficiency than you could possibly hope to!” There are several arguments and counter-arguments on both sides regarding this point.

Who can we believe?

If you ask the traditional media, their main response can be summed up in one keyword: credibility. “Without some journalist’s name backing up what you’re consuming,” they say, “how can you possibly allow yourself to believe anything at all?” I’m not convinced by this argument – and nor are a lot of other people. I disagree with this argument on two counts.

Firstly, when you know that the set of information you’re getting is raw and unfiltered (say, a Twitter Search on #Mumbai while the attacks were occuring), you naturally build your own mental filters on the information you’re getting. You’re forced to absorb data from a multitude of sources, to do the work of parsing and putting together the picture yourself. It’s more work, but it’s ultimately not only more intellectually stimulating and satisfying, it leads to a better comprehension of the issues at hand. Conversely, I’ve seen too many blindly trusting the traditional media’s news simply because it has a name on it, without putting it through any filters. And, as history has repeatedly shown, even with a journalist’s name, we need some filters on everything we read.

Second, I don’t think that the traditional model is the only way in which journalists can make a name for themselves anymore. I made the observation a couple of days ago that blogs are feeling less and less like “new media,” based simply on a passing gut feeling. The quantization of that train of thought, I think, is that blogs now have the potential for a wide enough readership that credibility matters for the authors behind them. The medium may be different, but when the usage is the same, the net equation ends up being the same.

Take, for instance, Dave Winer. As TechCrunch‘s Michael Arrington pointed out (incidentally in a post about credibility in journalism, though specifically regarding conflicts of interest) in a recent editorial, Winer took a $10,000 bribe from the owner of a blog to surreptitiously insert it into the top content of a commercial news aggregator he was running at the time. Winer is still a prominent Internet personality, but those who remember this story will never quite look at anything he writes the same way again.

Where does our information come from?

The argument that I believe the traditional media should be making as to why they are necessary is quite a bit more fundamental. They are a step in the process of information dissemination right now, and an extremely critical one. Look again at that Daily Kos article that I quoted the headline of earlier. You’ll see that same Rupert Murdoch quote I opened this post with in that article. If you trace the series of citations back, you’ll find that they took it off a post on Daggle.com, who in turn took it off of Forbes.com, which is who I credited above. Most people would consider Forbes.com a member of the traditional, mainstream media.

In fact, if you look at nearly all the information on a Daily Kos, or a Huffington Post, and trace it back far enough, you’ll find some mainstream news organization or another as the founding source. This has less to do with any sort of credibility issue, and more to do with the current flow of information. At the absolute least, the established traditional media organizations are at the moment information clearinghouses, a current necessary step in the flow of data from news source to consumer. In this way, the blogs do, in fact, need the established traditional media.

So is the flow of information the fundamental problem here?

I’m not sure that calling anything a problem is really the point.  Rather, any system that we attempt to build for information dissemination will inevitably involve some number of steps, each of which have their own problems.  Clearly, from a business perspective, information flow isn’t a very important topic.  But, looking philosophically at what we have right now, their step in the chain is one of the big chips that the mainstream media hold.  So, let’s examine this topic.

Exceptions: models for the future, or tales of warning?

There are, of course, exceptions to this observation. It would be tempting to choose the tech industry, with its wealth of gadget, industry commentary, and other blogs, but there’s too much muddle there – the business of tech is a bit of a spider web. My example is the games industry.

With rare exceptions, all information on the Internet on gaming news flows through the blogs, most prominently Kotaku and Joystiq. The entire games industry understands that its audience lives on the web, and thus by going directly to web publishers, they can reach their demographic efficiently. In fact, the web press surrounding the games industry has been so successful and effective as a result of this streamlined process that an extreme version of the same trend that has newspapers disturbed has already taken hold of gaming press: EGM, once a giant of the gaming world, lost too many subscribers to continue operations and folded.

There are, of course, problems with my argument. Foremost is that my earlier argument about the medium not being the important element still holds true: there are still information clearinghouses, they’ve just moved one step down the chain, and the new link is still not the end consumer. But, the ratio is at least somewhat greater now, and more people have control of the raw information with the current games industry model. Greater, however, is the set of problems that arises when “non-journalists,” as the newspapers would claim, are the direct recipients of raw information. I have two examples, and both have to do with the relationship between the reporter and the reported, when mixed with the volatile environment of the Internet.

Biting the hand that feeds, Internet edition

One of the prominent differences that still exist between even established blogs with a journalistic pedigree and respected names and traditional media is the prevalence of the unconfirmable. Perhaps it’s the need to fill up the day, perhaps it’s simply because they can, but blogs report on a lot of rumors. Unconfirmable information is always a controversial topic in journalism and journalistic integrity, and when you report a higher ratio of rumor material, you’ll encounter a higher rate of controversy.

Kotaku posted a rumor a while back about the now-[long-]announced Playstation Home before anyone really knew about it based on some tips it had received. Sony’s response pre-publication, publicly posted on Kotaku, was in Kotaku’s words to effectively blackball it from future direct information unless they didn’t run the story. They did. The gaming community, tight-knit group that it is, threw a bit of a fit and the issue disappeared without terribly much explanation as to what went on behind the scenes, but this is a frightening tale of what can happen when information is handed directly from sources with their own interests at heart and something as fickle, capricious, and wildly unpredictable as the Internet.

Refusing to bite the hand that feeds, Internet edition

My other cautionary tale of this model comes due to another phenomenon that is largely exclusive to the web: the ability of extremely niche outlets to survive. Because of the consumption model of the Internet, and the low cost of publishing to it, publications can last with far more niche topics and a smaller audience on the web than on paper. However, a side effect of having a niche topic is that to maximize income, advertising also becomes niche. This means that often times, the subjects that you write about will also be the ones paying your bills.

There are recent examples in other corners of the web, such the bizarre reverse story of claims of extortion by Yelp – demanding that businesses buy ads or face ratings penalties. However, what I would like to point out is still within the games industry – namely, the dismissal of Jeff Gerstmann, editor-in-chief of Gamespot.

As one can imagine given my setup, this story hinges around an advertiser on a site. Gamespot allows for advertisers to effectively ‘buy out’ the site layout, taking over not only all the ads, but also the background image of the site. Eidos did so for their game Kane & Lynch: Dead Men (a truly vile game), naturally with the expectation that it would help sales of the game. Of course, a well-justified negative review of the game on the site undermined that expectation somewhat. That review was written by Mr. Gerstmann, who was terminated rather abruptly shortly thereafter by execs in the business department.

A lot of rumors swirled in the weeks after the event, involving corporate politics and the usual mess, but the incident is a bit of a warning. The business model of the Internet can lead to fatally flawed situations. How do we deal with these issues? How can we expect newspapers to trust the Internet until these sorts of things are figured out? Jeff’s new site, Giant Bomb (full disclosure: of which I am a former content moderator), still contains a very modest amount of advertising as they attempt to figure out answers to these questions.

So where do we go from here?

The Internet is growing and regrowing upon itself by the week, and it’s a juggernaut we’d be hard-pressed to stop. However, we really need to stop and assess what it means for the flow and processing of information in both our country and around the world. We can’t do this, however, until all the variables in the equation decide to sit down and work out the problems in the system. That means that someone has to get the Internet and the newspapers off of each others’ throats and get them to realize that they need each other.

But then what? And what now? We still have no answers, not even particularly good inklings. And the newspaper companies aren’t about to discuss things with their perceived enemies any sooner than the RIAA.

So we’re at a bit of an impassé. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this brand of sabre rattling, and it won’t be the last.

The question is, when will it be the last, and what happens then?

sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

watchmen
(Except where marked, this is a spoiler-free review. Read with confidence.)

Alan Moore said somewhat famously now that he would never watch the movie adaptation of his very own Watchmen.

In retrospect, I can see why.

Not necessarily because it’s bad – in fact, it’s actually rather good. I think. More on that later. Instead, because of how incredibly well-crafted the original graphic novel is. Its pace is plodding, but that’s because more than anything Watchmen is a character study, not an action thriller. The most significant point of the entire story is the observation of six core characters and how their entirely separate – and separately, entirely valid – viewpoints on the world dictate their morality, their actions, and their ultimate fate. As such, the book’s structure alternates chapters between exploring backstories and pushing the main story forward, something which works quite well given that were one to simply explain the present-day plot of the story, it would not take terribly long at all. Every detail of the original graphic novel amplifies these discrepancies and reconciliations of viewpoints in subtle, intuitive ways – ways which take time to sink in and become a part of the mythos. In addition, the careful rate at which the novel proceeds enabled Moore to slowly immerse the reader in this world of Cold War paranoia on the brink, where everyone knows death is imminent and yet is so paralyzed by that notion that they don’t know where to begin dealing with it.

It’s in these details that the film ultimately loses. Unlike an adaptation of, say, Lord of the Rings, where many of the plot details are dispensable without loss of significant information, any adaptation of Watchmen short of a seven- to eight- hour drama is bound to lose these subtleties, the elements that made the original so precious. Personally, while watching the film, I found myself constantly second-guessing it, trying to piece together why this piece of dialogue or that bit of information was cut out in the attempt to streamline it. As such, I find myself completely unable to judge the film from an objective standpoint. I can’t tell whether or not the film is good on its own merits. Try as I might, it will always be merely a beautifully and lovingly crafted shadow of its source material, nothing more.

I can, however, offer critique. Foremost is the observation that perhaps the sheer reverence with which Snyder and Hayter treated the original source is as well its downfall. There are a million tiny character arcs in Watchmen that are haltingly and haphazardly included in the film, making it busy without substance. Some bits are included that vanish without explanation in the film – Laurie’s dislike for the entire ‘hero’ing lifestyle, for instance, or the life and death of Bubastis, which is reduced to a contextless (and therefore confusing to the uninitiated) easter egg in the film – which are neatly tied off on the comic. Other details are lavishly expanded upon while perhaps more important ones are left in the dust – there is a dream sequence which takes a whole minute or more of screen-time which could be adequately and poignantly summarized in less than fifteen seconds, leaving more time for some of these other conversations to breathe a little.

Which is another problem. In their streamlining process, a lot of things were changed, but ultimately it felt like the characters had no room to breathe. Extreme stereotypes they may be, but they are all still people, and at times this fact didn’t carry well in the film. Especially Veidt – the story of his past is just as important as the other main characters, and yet very little time is devoted to it.

Another victim of time was atmosphere. The impending doomsday and the resulting paralysis was a key element in setting a context for the original. I mentioned that it’s a character study: it’s a study of how these characters react in the face of armageddon; in the face of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. This overbearing sense of dread is critical to understanding these characters and understanding why Watchmen is such an incredible work. Whereas the book reinforces this sense by exploring the world through the eyes of a number of ordinary citizens, in particular a news vendor on the street who appears in the film for a number of seconds, the movie does it rather bluntly – with President Nixon in his war room. While I very much appreciated the Dr. Strangelove reference in the design of the war room, this blunt approach ultimately fails at its task. With the film’s approach, the fact of Armageddon is delivered to the audience; in the original, the essence of it is instead conveyed. In a sense, the lack of knowledge of what the governments were really doing throughout the novel only reinforced the Cold War paranoia which pervaded so well throughout.

And then there’s the ending. For those who don’t know, the ending of the film was changed. For the better? I do not know. The original was rather difficult to swallow, but perhaps it was this indigestibility which made it such a viable means to the end of the story. I don’t know if the new one is better or not.

Nits to pick – Spoilers be here!

One of the absolutely most poignant moments of the original to me was when Veidt, near the end, appeals to Dr. Manhattan, reduced to a mere human, his intellect useless, asking him if what he did was right. This was left out. Also, on the subject of Veidt, and due to the victimization of his origin story as I mentioned earlier, he seems simply evil at the end of the film rather than the justifiable sum of his viewpoints and convictions. There are more, these are the ones that bug me most.

End spoilers

So, ultimately, should you go see this film when it opens tomorrow? For both the fans and the uninitiated alike, yes, yes, yes. As a fan, it would be doing yourself a disservice not to see the sheer visual lavishness of how the book comes to motion. As a newcomer, perhaps it will convince you to read the novel – if nothing else because of how incredibly confused you are after watching it.

I hear it’s confusing.