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no editor ok’d this column

Like many ex-pat people from the Bay Area, I read the San Francisco Chronicle online. Unlike those people, I am not an ex-pat … I still live here … and in fact I get the Chronicle hard copy delivered to my door each morning. But I'm so used to reading online that getting my morning paper via my monitor seems normal to me, while Robin likes to take the paper to work during the week, and likes to read the paper in bed on the weekend, so our arrangement works out great … we never fight over who gets what section first.

So it is that I go to SF Gate this morning to read my paper, and on the Gate front page is a link to today's Jon Carroll column about a racist screed which appeared in a San Francisco freebie called AsianWeek. The screed in question was called "Why I Hate Blacks," and was apparently not meant to be ironic … the author actually hates black people, and wants the world to know it.

Carroll's column on the screed is, as is the norm for him, a fine read … while I never think of him as an all-time favorite, the truth is this very blog is probably patterned as much as anything on Jon Carroll's columns, and if I manage to hit a Carrollian height even once a week, I figure I'm doing well. I recommend his column, always and especially today. (OK, I skip the cat columns, but YMMV.)

What got my attention initially, though, was the headline on the Gate portal. It reads "Carroll: An editor OK'd this column?" While it is true that Carroll begins with a few words about the editor of AsianWeek, the bulk of his column is devoted to dismantling the "argument" of the screed. So the headline is a bit of a come-on (and, it should be noted, no headline or title appears on the page containing the actual column itself).

Why did the headline lead me to write this blog post? Because the headline is correct: an editor OK'd the column "Why I Hate Blacks." It is unclear precisely how accurate the headline is … Carroll refers to editor in chief Samson Wong, while elsewhere the Gate features an article that focuses on "editor at large" Ted Fang. So the "buck stops here" part of the situation isn't obvious. What IS obvious, and what IS accurate about the headline, is that an editor OK'd "Why I Hate Blacks" for publication. And that leads to my very small but, I think, very important point, which won't take me long to state and which has taken a bit of time to get to (see, I do channel Jon Carroll … he often writes columns that are fun to read and seem to meander a bit, only to get to a small but important point at the end).

You hear it said that blogging, at least when it is unaffiliated with any more official organization (a distinction that must be made, since blogging is no longer just the refuge of individuals with web access … even SF Gate includes blogs from many Chronicle writers, blogs that ironically are often better than the stuff that appears in the actual newspaper), unaffiliated blogging is untrustworthy, because it is unedited. Any nutcase with a keyboard can have a blog, and most of them do (have a blog … I assume they also have a keyboard). Steven Rubio's Online Life is a perfect example … it's been an ambition of mine for at least 30 years to have a daily column, and now, even though I am lazy and unambitious enough that I never actually tried to get a "real" column, blogging means I've had the equivalent of a daily column for more than five years now. But I have no editor, I write what I want, I am unaffiliated, and thus you are not supposed to trust me. Like teachers tell their students, you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. (I don't tell my students that … well, I tell them they need to be skeptical about what they read, but I don't single out the Internet. That would be silly, considering my classes are held on the Internet.)

So … yes, I'm almost done … we aren't supposed to trust bloggers, because bloggers are independent, unaffiliated, unedited. And in the meantime, AsianWeek runs a piece called "Why I Hate Blacks" that required a decision to run the screed … a decision made by an editor or editors … editors who are supposed to represent what separates professional journalism from the wacky world of blogging.

I, it should be clear, am not a professional.

Little things you say and do, make me want to http://begonias.typepad.com/srubio/.


recommendations

Before David Hyman founded MOG, he worked as the CEO for Gracenote, which supplies the online database for many digital audio players. He has, as he says, "studied recommendations for a long long time," and he jokingly confesses that "this is all i think about all day, everyday." While MOG is an Internet-based system which relies on software to keep things running, and while calculations are constantly made at MOG to help collate and classify information (MOG keeps track of your entire music collection and what you play from that collection, then points out which other MOGgers share similar taste preferences to your own), MOG differs from most other recommendation systems by also working a human element into the equation (and it should be noted that MOG is far more than just a music recommendation site, but given my recent obsession with that topic, I'm focusing on that aspect here). As an example, you can designate certain MOGgers as "trusted," and the MOG will create a recommendations page that shows you the top songs or albums of your trusted friends (and, since MOG knows what you have in your own collection, the list of songs/albums will not include anything you already own, so the recommendations will theoretically at least be new to you).

(Sidenote: I hope if David happens to read this, that he corrects any mistakes in the above description. As always when it comes to technology, I am a hardcore user but am relatively clueless about inner workings. And David is good about correcting things … when one website ran a story about the creation of MOG and said it was based in Kensington, David signed on to note that MOG is in Berkeley. And when the writer then said Kensington, Berkeley, same difference, David corrected him again. Us good Berkelyans know the difference. If the flatlands/hills class split is one of Berkeley's most obvious but least-spoken-of idiosyncrasies, then Kensington is the place that even the hill dwellers can say is full of snobs. And, I should add, we've spent all of our 30+ years in Berkeley living in the flats, and in fact, as far as I know, MOG itself is in our neighborhood.)

Back to the point … I've been particularly tangent-filled lately. David has a post on his MOG ("MOG" meaning both the system as a whole and our individual homes … I have a MOG on MOG) where he talks about how MOG recommendations work, and why he doesn't trust A.I. recommendation systems. Given his work with Gracenote and MOG, and the previously mentioned obsession (all he thinks about, everyday), he's well worth hearing on the topic, even though readers of this blog might guess that my own increasing belief in A.I. recommendations lead me to some different conclusions from David. He's pretty convincing, though, when talking about the "Magic Button" on MOG that helps narrow down your recommendations:

the magic button on the recommendations page is just us showing you what the moggers who are most like you are listening to. i don't believe recommendations get any better than this.

yet, in many instances, the trusted mogs filter works better. those you've explicitly determined are your trusted sources. invite your friends, put them in your top 10 trusted mogs, and now you've got a page with instant access to the people who turn you on to music in the physical world! – to me, that's the best.

having studied recommendations for a long long time (5 years working at gracenote), i do believe that music discovery through people works better than amazon type collaborative filtering algorithms, digital signal processing, or editorially driven similarities

And later, after I offered a feeble attempt at sticking up for A.I.:

a.i is too self-referential. if you're 12 and listening to backstreet boys, amazon will tell you to get britney spears. but in the real world taste is way more complex. it's about emulation. about who you want to be. in the real world, when you're 12 and listening to backstreet boys, your friends older brother who is COOL to you plays you the rolling stones and next thing you know, you are listening to the stones. this DOES NOT happen with collaborative filtering. no phish head listened to pavement until trey (their god) told them he liked pavement….

let technology serve as conduit to those you've come to trust. it's good at that.

If David is right about this, I still represent a marginal case (what a surprise, Steven self-marginalizes again). Here's the thing, for me at least: while I am not quite friendless, I don't trust anyone's taste preferences. That's part of what I'm trying to get at with my various posts on the subject: don't take it personally if we don't share the same tastes, because there's no reason we should. (And the corollary, don't trust my taste preferences, either.) What I trust are artificially intelligent algorithms that make an unemotional, educated guess at what I might like. I have 16 "trusted MOGs" … among them are Michael Goldberg (long time music writer, Sleater-Kinney fan, and the main man behind the late lamented Addicted to Noise), Steven Levy (tech writer and former fantasy baseball mate), Michael Snyder (longtime critic who will be remembered by fans of Alex Bennett's local radio show), Sarah Dougher (indie rock goddess), Dennis McNally (Grateful Dead historian), Howie Klein (free-speech activist and former record label bigshot), Jenny Tatone (music writer), Mike Watt (bass player extraordinaire), my brother Geoff (my brother), and, yes, David Hyman. But despite this all-star list of trusted buddies (and there are more, I just picked the most famous ones) … despite all of them, the truth is, if I was to list my REAL trusted sources, the list would be very short: the A.I. software.

This is how twisted I am: I follow David's suggestion, and let technology serve as a conduit to those I trust, but I end up going around in circles, because what I trust is … technology.

Here are two playlists that demonstrate what is being discussed. The first is an URGE Auto-Mix, based on music I play or add to my library, with fine-tuning parameters to adjust for popularity, familiarity, and release date. This is entirely A.I. driven. The artists include Muddy Waters, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, J. Geils, U2, Brentwood Music gospel, Neil Young, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Stones, and the Byrds. All but the Brentwood musicians are people I am very familiar with (and I have the familiarity slider set to "not very familiar"). My guess is I'd like maybe ¾ of the tracks, but wouldn't get introduced to anything really new to me.

The second playlist is a "Magic Button" list … the top song this month of people on my Trusted list of MOGgers. The artists include Cursive, the Mamas and the Papas, the Rachels, Professor Longhair, Clipse, Bettie Serveert, Rob Hotchkiss, and Ennio Morricone. My guess is I'd like a lot of this music, but it's hard to say, because a lot of it would be new to me … it's a system that would introduce me to new stuff.

Depending on what I'm looking for (familiar music I will probably like, new-to-me music that is hit-or-miss), both systems "work." But I think the two playlists make a good case for David's idea of "music discovery through people." Accent on "discovery."


tastes great, less filling

Since it seems appropriate given recent posts, here are the 14 most-played tracks by Steven over the last three months, according to last.fm. Last.fm doesn't catch everything I play … the server is down once in awhile, and it only counts songs played on the computer … but other than that, it doesn't lie. This is what I've been listening to, not what I want you to think I've been listening to. I'll list them in alphabetical order by artist, since with one exception they've all been played the same number of times:

The Amboy Dukes, "Journey to the Center of the Mind"

The Arcade Fire, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"

The Beatles, "If I Needed Someone"

Eric Clapton, "Everybody Oughta Make a Change"

Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue"

Fleetwood Mac, "Oh Daddy"

It's a Beautiful Day, "White Bird"

Nils Lofgren, "Some Must Dream"

Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"

Van Morrison, "Into the Mystic"

Ann Peebles, "I Can't Stand the Rain"

Johnny Rivers, "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu"

The Spinners, "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love"

Cat Stevens, "Sad Lisa"

So, what do I really listen to, as opposed to what I claim I listen to? Nearly every artist has their roots in the 60s. There is no hip hop, and only one song out of fourteen by what could be considered a 21st-century artist. Outside of the occasional 70s R&B and that one 21st-century song, my taste preferences, based on the above, are locked into place, four decades in the past.

I'm 53 years old. When my father was 53 … (doing the math) … that would have been 1977. He and my mom (four years younger) were from the Age of Sinatra, and as far as I can remember, that was still what they listened to in the late-70s. Somewhere in there, they started watching Lawrence Welk, which was kinda like Age of Sinatra with all the edges smoothed out. Mostly, their musical tastes were formed in the Swing Era, which makes sense since they met, dated, and were married in the mid-40s. But (and my siblings can correct me if I'm wrong), their favorite music, the stuff that would have made their own Top 14 last.fm lists if such a thing existed, was 50s Nelson Riddle-era Sinatra. Their musical taste preferences were two, maybe three decades at most, in the past.

In other words, when it comes to music, I am more of an old fogey than my parents were. Now that is depressing.


further notes on a critical manifesto

Back around the time I started doing this year's Oscar Run, I made some feeble attempts at constructing an "anti-manifesto of criticism." To simplify something that wasn't all that complicated in the first place, I argued that instead of examining a work of art and then pronouncing judgment (good, bad, indifferent), we decide, consciously or unconsciously, whether or not we like something, and then build an argument in support of our taste preference. I wondered what the role of a critic might be, assuming that a mere list of taste preferences wouldn't be very useful. I decided a critic can make connections and offer context for art works that, because of the subjective experience of the critic, will be different from the connections the reader might make, which, if the critic was a decent writer, could be more useful than just giving thumbs up or down. I also wondered if perhaps the improvements in artificial intelligence systems for predicting whether or not we will like something has resulted in the "consumer guide" aspect of criticism being more suited to the computer than to the human … that MovieLens or Netflix or Amazon could do a better job of suggesting what we might like than could a human.

I bring this up because my snarky dismissal of The Black Dahlia elicited an interesting set of comments, partly about the snark (which wasn't appreciated) but also partly because we often take it personally when someone we like takes a negative stance on something we enjoy.

And I think it matters here because the part about liking or not liking something should be irrelevant. I read a friend's extended review of The Black Dahlia and was very impressed at the detailed appreciation shown for the movie. As I said to her, I felt it was possible to both think her writing on the film was superb, and to also think the movie was bad. Because the yes/no/indifferent part doesn't matter as much as does the writing and analytical skills that bring new context, new connections to the work of art. She accomplished this, and then some … I learned a lot reading her words. I did not change my opinion that The Black Dahlia was a bad movie. But her review was far more substantial than my own brief blog post, and that's what criticism is about.

OK. According to Netflix, I have a 75% "similarity" to my sister Sue, but only a 59% similarity to my other sister Chris. All three of us are smart, all three of us are good writers, and I like to think we are all worth reading when we talk about movies. But it should be clear from the range of opinions amongst us that the one thing you wouldn't want to use us for is as a recommendation system.

I think The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 are the best movies ever made, while Part 3 was, while decent enough, a huge drop-off from the others. Chris gave all three movies 4 stars on a scale of 5. I'd be very interested in reading her thoughts on those movies. I put great trust in her ability to offer connections and context that I wouldn't have considered. On the other hand, I don't suppose I'd trust the taste preference of anyone who 1) didn't give the first two movies the highest rating, and 2) thought the third one was as good as the others.

My point is that Chris is a critic worth reading, but for recommendations for future viewings, I'd trust an A.I.-driven software recommendation system over Chris. And I don't take it personally that our taste preferences lead us to differ on the value of the three Godfather movies.

So … have I taken my manifesto any further here, or am I just wasting blog space? My point, if I have one, is that differences of opinion about the value of a work of art are mostly unimportant, and related entirely to taste preferences. The value of a critic lies in something other than their taste preferences; the best critics will inform, no matter whether or not we agree with their value judgments about the work.


oscar post mortem

Ellen was fine … she's funny, everyone loves her, she didn't cause trouble, I bet she's invited back.

Biggest mistakes: Children of Men should have won something. Eddie Murphy got robbed. Five years from now, Jennifer Hudson will be doing guest appearances as a singer on Shark, but Adriana Barraza will still have an acting career, and Rinko Kikuchi will be a star. One last shout out to Dave Chappelle's Block Party, A Scanner Darkly, and Casino Royale, all of which were better than The Departed, none of which received a single Oscar nomination. And thanks to Martin Scorsese, the only person connected with The Departed who thought to mention the Hong Kong film makers who created the original. (Oh, there was the presenter, I forget who, that said Infernal Affairs was a Japanese movie.)

Given the nominations, the major winners were decent choices … Alan Arkin is wonderful, but Eddie Murphy should have won, but the other majors were reasonable. OK, Little Miss F. Sunshine didn't deserve Best Screenplay, but at least it didn't win Best Picture.


life goes on

Meanwhile, Kos directs us to the following, from the Sunday Times: "US Generals 'will quit' if Bush orders Iran attack":

Some of America's most senior military commanders are prepared to resign if the White House orders a military strike against Iran, according to highly placed defence and intelligence sources.

Tension in the Gulf region has raised fears that an attack on Iran is becoming increasingly likely before President George Bush leaves office. The Sunday Times has learnt that up to five generals and admirals are willing to resign rather than approve what they consider would be a reckless attack.

"There are four or five generals and admirals we know of who would resign if Bush ordered an attack on Iran," a source with close ties to British intelligence said. "There is simply no stomach for it in the Pentagon, and a lot of people question whether such an attack would be effective or even possible." …

A generals' revolt on such a scale would be unprecedented.


oscar run xxx: the black dahlia

Don't worry, Neal, this is the last one.

Fifty days ago I posted oscar run i: an inconvenient truth. Now I'm up to xxx, the last one for another year.

Holy shit, did this movie suck.

The only real question is whether or not it was worse than Pirates of the Caribbean 2. It's a close call, but Pirates was half-an-hour longer, so I think it retains its "worst movie of Oscar Run 2007" title. What was wrong with The Black Dahlia? It was completely incoherent, for one thing. Oftentimes when Robin and I are watching a movie, I'll look at her and say "I don't have the slightest idea what is going on here." Her response is usually a rolling of the eyes as she explains the plot verrrry slooooowly. This time, her reply was "I don't think I know what's going on, either."

Then there's the acting. Josh Hartnett spends the entire movie with a look on his face that says "uh oh, that burrito I ate for lunch is about to make my ass explode, I better try to hold it in until this scene is over." Scarlett Johansson … I really want to love her, she could be the next Kate Winslet, except Kate Winslet is never bad and usually good and sometimes great, while Scarlett Johansson is sometimes good. And, here, she's bad. Hilary Swank … well, if someone told you after watching her performance that she'd won two acting Oscars, you'd wonder what the Academy voters were smoking. Only Mia Kirshner escapes … she's very good as the titular character, although to be honest, she's played this kind of wounded nutcase enough times now that she ought to be able to do it in her sleep (that she does in fact elicit our sympathy nonetheless is a sign of how good she is here). The film's nomination is for cinematography, and that's fair, the film's look is effective.

This is Brian De Palma's first movie since Femme Fatale, a much-maligned film that I actually liked. I wouldn't be a good Paulette if I didn't like at least some of De Palma's work, of course. But if they showed this movie in heaven, even Pauline Kael's corpse would give it a bad review. Perhaps more importantly, given the subject matter, The Black Dahlia wouldn't even get good reviews in hell.


oscar run xxix: animated short films

When they say short, they mean short … it took me barely more than half an hour to watch four of these.

The most likely winner of the Oscar is The Danish Poet, which is also the longest at 15 minutes. This is an effortless story about love, and is charming, with good narration from Liv Ullmann. The Little Matchgirl is a Disney effort that looks a lot like old-school Disney. It's touching … oh, you know how I love touching … and I suppose some people would think the ending was happy, but I thought it was pretty downbeat. No Time for Nuts is from the Ice Age people, and features one of the characters from those movies. I couldn't stand Ice Age and never saw Ice Age 2, so I didn't even recognize the character. The best thing about the short was that it was 76 minutes shorter than the first Ice Age movie. Finally, Maestro was clever enough to keep your attention for four minutes, had an ending I, at least, wasn't expecting, and did a pretty cool trick whereby the "camera" did a constant 360-degree move. (I wasn't able to see the fifth nominee, Lifted.)

My favorites were The Danish Poet and Maestro.


has there ever been a less appropriate last name than “jobs”?

More on Steve Jobs' misinformed rant against teachers unions. The technology blog at SF Gate has a post, "Steve Jobs angers teachers," that includes the following excerpt from a response by the California Federation of Teachers:

In the years before the iPod saved Apple from extinction, its computer advertising exhumed dead geniuses for its "think different" campaign. Black and white photos, each featuring an instantly recognizable off-center hero, carried the message that if you bought a Mac, you'd be a brilliant hipster, too.

Luckily for Apple, no one could ask the deceased what they thought about that. One of this ad campaign's most enduring images was of Chicano civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, arm draped over a hoe. Farm worker union organizers had so often failed to crack the power of the state's agribusiness elite it was common wisdom that it couldn't be done. Chavez's historic achievement was to build the first farm worker union that lasted.

The ad, of course, doesn't endorse unions. It simply appropriates the image of a Chicano hero in a state with a growing Chicano population and, presumably, potential market for Apple products. Indeed, in the 1990s Steve Jobs and Apple notoriously resisted granting union recognition to its largely Latino, low paid, contracted out Silicon Valley janitorial workforce until the Justice for Janitors union campaign embarrassed the corporation sufficiently to bring Jobs and his company around.

I looked forward to reading the comments attached to the post, naively assuming Jobs would take it on the chin from enlightened readers. Boy, was I wrong. "Klingon" wrote:

Talk about revenge of the nerds. Education majors were/are universally regarded as the dumbest of undergrads/graduate students and for good reason. They have yet to realize that unionization is antithecal [sic] to professionalism. Merit, not longevity, should be the yardstick. That plus the eduNazis constantly holding children hostage for their monetary demands is despicable….

And "mmms":

Jobs merely said what everyone knows. The educational system went to the dogs a long time ago.

I posted my own comments:

I've been teaching since 1987, and have been a member of teachers unions for all of those twenty years. I am not dumb, despite what Klingon might think ... in fact, I have a PhD from Cal that I like to think I earned. I also have won teaching awards. I am proud to be in my union, which among other things provides protection against the attempts of some to apply misguided notions of "merit" as an excuse to get rid of teachers they don't like. No one likes bad teachers, but defining "bad" is far more complicated than the above commenters seem to realize. Is a teacher "bad" because he or she assigns an R-rated movie? Are they "bad" because they assign any movies at all? How about teachers who try to teach critical thinking skills to students whose parents believe critical thinking begins and ends with whatever their particular religious text tells them is right? Who do you think has the back of teachers at times like this? It sure isn't Steve Jobs.

As for holding our students hostage over "monetary demands," teachers are well aware of the negative impact labor conflicts can have on the students, and do not take actions frivolously. Klingon makes it sound, though, as if well-to-do teachers are trying to expand on their upper-middle-class existence at the expense of poor students. In twenty years, the most I have made in a single year is $40,000, and that was once ... in almost every other year, I made less than half of that. I spent ten years as a steelworker, and I made more in each of those ten years than I made in 19 of my 20 years as a teacher (which isn't to say I got rich in the factory, but just points out that teachers are woefully underpaid).

Hard-working teachers ... and there are a lot of them ... know better than anybody how pitiful the educational system is today. Teachers are working in the trenches, and are part of the solution, not the problem. If Steve Jobs or anyone else wants to point fingers at the culprits who are bringing our educational system down, they need to look somewhere besides teachers.


oscar run xxviii: the prestige

Doing 28 of these in a month gives you respect for people who do it for a living. Watching all the movies isn't the problem … well, watching the bad ones is … but thinking of something fresh to say about each film is v.hard.

And so, I have little to say about The Prestige, although I suspect I'd have plenty to say if I'd seen it a few weeks ago, if it was oscar run viii instead of xxviii. It kept me entertained, it seems fairly honest in its attempt to, well, to do what it attempts, and its Oscar nominations (Art Direction and Cinematography) are reasonable. But the movie doesn't exactly leap off the screen … the action is largely mental rather than physical, but while Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have shown in other films that they are capable of grabbing an audience, it doesn't happen in this case, and the resultant tone is mostly dismal. I'm not going to complain about any movie with Scarlett Johansson, but she isn't given much to do. Michael Caine's presence is funny, not just because he's in every movie (the IMDB lists him with 132 acting credits, including two movies nominated for Oscars this year), but also because he has already been in this movie. Back then, it was called Sleuth, and Caine played one of the two lead roles (to say more would be cheating). (Oddly enough, they're remaking Sleuth … in the earlier film, Caine played the young buck to Olivier's old-timer, this time around Caine is the codger and Jude Law is Michael Caine. Not much of a stretch for either of them, and it's hard to believe this remake will be better than the original … it will probably be less interesting than The Prestige.)

Finally, The Prestige is paired up in most people's minds with the other Oscar-nominated film about magicians, The Illusionist. I guess I liked The Prestige a bit more, but it was also 20 minutes longer, and that's 20 minutes of my life I'll never get back again. If either of these movies were great ones, I wouldn't mind giving up 200 minutes. Alas, neither is great.