Monday, October 29, 2007

Michael Clayton


I caught a late showing of this movie at the Alamo Drafthouse yesterday and I must say, I was very impressed. George Clooney plays the eponymous character, a "fixer" or "janitor" who cleans up messes for a high-powered New York law firm. There are a couple of visually stunning scenes in this movie which do an excellent job of emphasizing Clayton's journey from Faustian tragic hero to his rebirth as the bringer of justice. In one critical scene Clayton dons the mask of Justice, with a check for $80,000 in one hand and the damning evidence for the case against negligent bio-corp U-North. This scene has a quiet power as you can see the wheels turning in Clayton's head.

Clooney is perfect in this role, playing it cool and communicating more with his grim countenance and hundred-mile stare than his trademark wry delivery. In true tragic form, Clayton takes the money; the temptation of relief from a failed business endeavor that has haunted him throughout the film proves to be too great. But ultimately this film is about those exceptional moments when an individual is presented, very clearly, with a choice of doing what is right or "making the problem go away". Clayton having made a career out of doing the latter begins to have doubts when his friend's mental breakdown reveals a more sinister effluence than he has ever had to "fix" before.

By far the most striking scene of the movie is Clayton's rebirth as a bringer of justice. An early morning stop at a remote upstate hilltop quickly transforms from a rare moment of somber reflection into a sudden and violent epiphany that his old life is, quite literally, destroyed. There is a beautiful finality when he realizes what is happening and throws his wallet, cell phone and watch - all tainted symbols of his complicity - into the burning wreckage of his old life and runs into the wilderness of danger and possibility that lies beyond.

The name of Shiva the Hindu god of destruction is evoked twice in this movie and appropriately so, for theme of destruction runs through it on multiple levels. There destruction of the self as Clayton's old life is sacrificed so that he can topple the corrupt hegemony that U-North represents. This is powerful stuff, but it should not come as too much of a surprise as the production list reads like an auteur who's who: Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella and Syndney Pollack (who also takes a turn in front of the camera) were all involved in brining this movie into being. This movie is tightly wound, with understated performances and excellent pacing. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Great quote by Nicholas Gurewitch

Ion magazine has a great interview with Nicholas Gurewitch, the creator of The Perry Bible Fellowship web comic. This quote in particular struck me as insightful:
"I think there's a distinct type of person that feels the need to broadcast their feelings online. And the more I think, those people who want to make their opinions known, or who shout the loudest, are probably the ones you should listen to the least. In most cases."
Anyone who has had the misfortune of spending time reading online fora can sympathize with this. I think it is safe to say that, taken as a whole, Youtube comments represent the single greatest concentration of human bigotry and ignorance ever assembled.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Food Fight!

I just stumbled across this really cool music video over at The band is Jape and the name of the track is "Floating".

A post-mortem of the OiNK memeplex

On Tuesday the music sharing site OiNK was shut down by Interpol, IFPI, BPI and other organizations. As with seemingly all cases involving Big Content , much of the reporting on this incident by major news sources has ranged from inaccurate to totally falacious. For those not familiar, OiNK was a web site which provided a torrent tracker (software that helps users of P2P software search for and download shared files) that focused mainly on music files. It facilitated music sharing for almost 180,000 members and served as much as two terabytes of data each day. Superficially there is nothing unique about OiNK, indeed there are thousands of torrent tracker sites on the internet that offer the exact same service that OiNK did. OiNK only becomes unique when you look into particular rules that governed the use of the web site and in turn shaped the community that formed around it.

Much has already been said about OiNK so I encourage those interested to read more elsewhere. I want to set aside any discussion of legality for a moment and look at OiNK in terms of the memeplex that it created. If we look at memetic replication in terms of longevity, fidelity and fecundity we can see how OiNK was able to grow to 180,000 users without devolving into the chaotic mess that typifies most torrent trackers.

Memberships were available on an invitation-only basis. In fact one of the most strictly enforced terms of service was that anyone offering or accepting money for a membership invitation would immediately have their account terminated. This helped ensure the fidelity of memes because only users with a history of good P2P citizenship would be invited to join. For example a known "leech" could not fake being a good P2P neighbor by simply buying an invitation.

Incomplete or inaccurately tagged albums were not allowed. Users who continued to share incomplete or incorrectly tagged albums would have their accounts terminated. This again contributed to the fidelity of the music in

Leeching was not allowed. Leeching is the P2P term for downloading files without allowing others to download from you. The success of the P2P architecture is predicated on the concept of reciprosity. By terminating account of users who downloaded files but did not share their files with others OiNK ensured the fecundity of all memes in the system. So not only did OiNK's invitation system prevent most leeches from making it in, once in a leech would quickly be identified and have their account terminated.

A request system was offered so that members could communicate the music that they were looking for. This helped ensure the longevity of the system as members would be ensured that as their collections were filled out and their tastes changed OiNK would still be able to provide them the music that they were looking for.

Files could only be high-quality copies of CDs or LPs - no cassettes, live recordings, etc. In fact many of the files available on OiNK were lossless meaning that a user could download an album from OiNK and burn it to a CD that would be of identical quality to the original recoding. Other than the obvious preservation of fidelity that this represents it also contributed greatly to the fecundity of music as a members could upload to a lossless format (say FLAC) which other members could download and re-encode to lossy formats (like MP3) for purposes of storing on their portable audio player. Converting of audio files is less likely to happen in a system that only shares lossy files because the process of transcoding from one lossy format to another (say converting an OGG file into an MP3 file so that you can load it onto your iPod) often leads to an unacceptable loss of fidelity. This ability to transcode without a loss in quality means that a lossless file shared on OiNK is more likely to be downloaded than a lossy file and is thus more likely to replicate (it has higher fecundity).

Membership was free. This is the most misreported fact about OiNK - members were not required to pay a fee. Members were welcome to donate to offset the cost of running the site but OiNK was not run as a pay-for-service venture. From the beginning the emphasis on OiNK was on being a fan of music that you uploaded/downloaded. Rather than script kiddies who just want to steal the latest pop album (some merely for the sake of stealing), this community was about fans sharing music that they cared deeply about with other fans.

The size of the community and the overall quality of its offerings have led some to declare that OiNK represented the greatest collection of music ever assembled. There can be no doubt in my mind that OiNK's impressive achievement is due to the understanding (implicit or otherwise) of the principals of memetics which underlies their terms of use. Rumors are already rampant about what will be "the next OiNK" and no doubt orphaned members of the OiNK community are hard at work at picking up the pieces.

The pea soup of acronymic organizations that worked to shut OiNK down will tout this as another victory in the "War On Piracy" but they continue to miss the point. In the short history of the internet we have seen time and again that communities of like-minded individuals create communities that are far more robust than what is on offer commercially - in fact this is probably the best was to answer the question of "what is Web 2.0?". Contrast Napster with the traditional retail CD model or OiNK with the iTunes Music Store, there is a reason why the illegal options continue to be more popular than the legal ones and it's not as simple as monetary cost. Big Content is so obsessed with the criminal aspect of file-sharing that they totally fail to recognize that these communities are providing a better service.

With Apple and other stores finally offering DRM-free music the lumbering giants have at least opened their eyes. There is still a long way to go before the content providers can offer a legal service with the kind of features that OiNK offered. Music labels love to talk about their need to staunch the blood after plummeting CD sales and they use this as an excuse to encumber legitimate online stores with DRM, low bit rates and onerous licensing terms. This is like pissing on a dying man; CDs are going to die because the internet provides less friction and making legal online offerings worse is only going to encourage piracy which further hurts CD sales. Until commercial offerings embody the principles of a robust community they will continue to be outsmarted by the little piggies of cyberspace.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Artist Collectives

So early estimates are that Radiohead has made from six to ten million dollars on sales of their new album, 'In Rainbows'. This is significant because Radiohead eschewed the the traditional model of releasing through a record label and instead offered their album for download on their own website at a price of the individual's choosing. That's right, many of the 1.2 million people who downloaded the album from the official site chose to pay absolutely nothing. Most estimates have the average price paid at between $5 and $8 so obviously many people who have downloaded the album are paying for it.

Also telling is the fact that 500,000 people chose to skip the official website altogether and downloaded the album via P2P file sharing software. For these people having to register their email address on the site was too high a cost, or (less likely) they simply where not aware of the web site's existence. For some this could also represent complacency as they have simply grown accustomed to getting all of their music through the black market, unhappy with the high prices ($15-18 retail) and low quality of much of the music on offer.

What does all of this mean for the recording industry? Well the math is pretty simple, when the typical recording contract offers an artist pennies for each album sold even if Radiohead is only making $5 per album via this new distribution model they are still coming out way ahead in the bargain. Sadly Radiohead has decided that they will also release "In Rainbows" with a record label some time next year. Apparently they do not want to exclude the less tech-savvy among their fans from hearing the album. I have a feeling that the percentage of Radiohead fans that don't know how to download and play MP3's is pretty slim. We may end up looking back on this album as a lungfish in the evolutionary process towards a better model for music distribution but the great leap is certainly underway.

Recently other bands such as Nine In Nails, Oasis and Jamiroquai announced that they will be joining Radiohead in using the internet to cut out the middle man and connect directly to their fans. Individual band members from established bands have also started to use the internet as a way to test the waters of solo work. The technology, and more importantly culture have reached a maturation point where it is possible for an artist to communicate directly with their fans on a worldwide scale. If Andy Warhol were alive today I'm sure that he would be smiling.

Pundits have been quick to point out that this only works because Radiohead is already at the top. They rightly point out that a new band could never do something like this because no one has heard of them and thus the demand does not already exist. Certainly the record labels have used their vast marketing armies to great effect beating the market into submission. The reality is that the internet has changed all of the rules of the game, not just on the distribution side but on the marketing side as well. Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have proven that the simple point-to-point communication of word-of-mouth is every bit as effective as the labels' shotgun approach.

The internet is young enough that methodologies have not yet even be invented to measure the true impact of this new form of marketing. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the millions of emails, blogs, forum posts, reviews and interviews have a greater impact on a band's album sales than that glossy full-page ad in Rolling Stone magazine. Anyone who doubts that the internet is the future of marketing need only look at the latest stock quote for Google.

To be sure a band with no recognition at all will have a hard time recouping their cost to make an album in the first place. In fact the initial barrier to entry into the music business is probably the single biggest reason why the record label's have survived this long. The adage that you have to spend money to make money applies to music just as it applies to any other business.

The solution, I contend, has been sitting right in front of us all this time. Established bands such as Radiohead can utilize the memetic power of the internet to create artist collectives. Using their websites and social networks as a sort of wellspring, established bands can start a stable of like-minded artists and use the low cost of distribution as a way of helping up-and-coming bands establish themselves. Seed money for studio time can come from the more established acts and the the up and coming bands can get exposure both on-line via recommendations and in real life by appearing as the opening acts for their patron bands.

Doesn't this you just turn established bands into record labels themselves? Yes and no. True, in this model established bands would fulfill many of the same roles as traditional record labels but the difference is one of scale and locality. A good metaphor would be the difference between letting the parishes of Louisiana manage relief resources versus letting FEMA try to manage them for all of the people affected by Katrina. One of these models is obviously more efficient and less susceptible to corruption than the other.

The internet obviates the bands and their affiliates of many of the responsibilities formerly held by the major labels. Instead of a worldwide distribution network consisting of shipping, routing and retail channels you can simply hire a hosting company to run your website. Instead of a global marketing department that spends millions of dollars on a few specially placed ads you can use the legion of internet users to help spread your message. Sites like Youtube and MySpace has already proven the power of the meme; if you make something that people want to watch/listen to/interact with and you lower the barrier to entry they will come to you in droves. The internet has lowered the barrier of entry tremendously, if the established bands can just help talented newcomers get over that first hill then the momentum of the internet is ready to carry them the rest of the way.

There is one essential ingredient for all of this to work. You have to make music that people actually want to listen to. If this model is less amenable to the kind of slick, marketing-manufactured pop bands that have become the label's raison d'ĂȘtre of late then we will be all the better for it. There will certainly still be fads, the near-zero barrier of communication means that fads are born, grow into huge phenomena and die out all with the blink of an eye. As many traditional marketing firms have learned the hard way, the marketing that the internet provides is more diffuse, more mercurial and thus more susceptible to the vicissitudes of culture.

Picture it, instead of a few dozen local radio stations cramming the same tired shlock down our ear canals we have the endless array of streaming radio stations, podcasts and ad-hoc downloads all a click away. Instead of walking into a big-box retailer on a Tuesday afternoon and choosing among the new releases of a few bands that are targeted at our demographic we can go to the portal of our favorite art collective any time, night or day, and immediately download music from groups of our choosing. The future truly is wide open.

Monday, October 22, 2007

This haiku was approved by the legal department

Two tires fly. Two wail.
A Bamboo grove, all chopped down.
From it, warring songs.
--Bobby Shaftoe's first Haiku from "Cryptonomicon"

It seems only fitting to open my blog with this poem, given that my blog title so blatantly co-opts Stephenson's masterpiece. Suffice it to say, if you have not read this book, go do it now and come back here when you really don't have anything better to do with your time.

So this post represents my first timid steps into the murky waters of electronic ego gratification, or as the hip kids call it, blogging. I'm currently on contract writing software for a very large (Fortune 50) American corporation. Last week they laid off 10% of their workforce or about 8,000 people. Being a contractor in this situation is something akin to being a mercenary in a reserve branch of the Roman army as elephants crest over the hill. I sense with an instinctual certainty that some of those poor saps on the front line are going to get squashed but watch from the side secure in the knowledge that I will not be a member of that ignominious group. Far more likely is that I will be part of the lackey crew impressed into cleaning up the mess of swords, trunks, blood and elephant dung that is the battle's aftermath.

Tortured metaphors aside, there is something a bit twisted about a system where the lowly contractors can go about their business with not a care in the world while the regular employees get to endure (for weeks in advance) the anguish of wondering whether they will wake up tomorrow unemployed. This post could easily devolve into a simple-minded rant about the ills of capitalism (of which there are certainly many). Alternatively I could assume the role of devil's advocate and argue that regular layoffs merely represent a selection pressure to ensure the overall health of the global business ecosystem. Instead, in the spirit of Bobby Shaftoe, and all of the (far more) poetic grunts that came before me, I will distill my thoughts on the issue into a Haiku.

Early fall, leaves shed.
Red victims of ritual,
Broken underfoot.