CSI: Cyber

I don’t watch a whole lot of TV. Well, I do and I don’t. When I don’t, I don’t. When I do, I gulp it down. For example, last year, I watched all of The Wire over the course of a few weeks (maybe it was months?). I also watched all of Deadwood. I did the same with Battlestar Galactica a year or so before and recent Doctor Who the year before that. It’s vaguely cyclical. I’ll read books for a few months without even really glancing at the television for anything other than family movie/pizza night on Fridays, and then I’ll binge watch something, or a few somethings.

This year, I’ve recorded more reading in the first 5 months than I did in all of last year, and I had thought that last year was a pretty good year for me. But I’ve still mixed in a little TV over the past few months, mostly episodes of Castle (which is so endearing and funny) and of CSI: Cyber, the latest variant of the long-running CSI franchise.

It turns out to be a ridiculous show, but one I’ve not been able to resist because computer stuff is sort of in my wheelhouse. I’ve often wondered how much shows like that fudged (or, to be charitable, simplified) facts about the various disciplines they incorporate. I don’t know anything real about forensics, for example, and I’ve often suspected that when we hear on television about blood spatter patterns and other more technical things, we’ve been fed lies (or, to be charitable again, we’ve been fed palatable but quite lame simplifications of the truth). I’ve wondered if doctors and morgue techs didn’t sit at home and chuckle about the absurdity of these shows.

Well, now that there’s a show about computer stuff that makes a fair amount of sense to me, I can confirm that we’re all being lied to. I mean, we all know this to a degree. There’s an interview with Sandra Bullock about her appearance in The Net in which she says that she was typing all kinds of personal catharsis that made her look like quite the hacker indeed but that a program was making the hackerish things appear onscreen. Well of course it was. Typing is hard even when you’re not being filmed, and of course an actor couldn’t be expected to frenzy-type hacker stuff in real-time. I typoed while typing that typing was hard. Take a movie like Swordfish that depicts hackers as people who chug caffeine and can high-five one another while hacking whatever insanely secure system on a deadline and under extreme duress. There are probably cases in which this sort of behavior is what happens in the real world, but I don’t feel like they’re terribly common. (Let it be known: You cannot open some magical window on your computer and type “filter by credit card to show purchases on August 23 between $23 and $98 by people 28 years or younger” and actually get results (and a color-coded map of relevant area stores). Extracting data (and especially data across many sources) is really hard.)

CSI: Cyber gives us a fair amount of this sort of theater. You have your stereotypical fat bearded white-hat hacker working for the government and plenty of other socially maladjusted hacker types who perpetrate internet crimes for various reasons. Then you have what I suppose is sort of the manic pixie dream girl version of a hacker, with dyed hair often knotted up on top of her head in cute little horns. Then you have this strange little dapper black-hat-reformed hacker working out penance and being the figure of redemption. And there’s The Biscuit from Ally McBeal, and Patricia Arquette reprising her role from Medium, but instead of being a psychic, she’s a psychologist who can intuit truth from eye and hand movements of the people she casually observes during interviews. And also she goes into dangerous situations with a gun. And then there’s Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, sort of the beefcake who sort of maybe sometimes when it’s convenient knows stuff about computers but is mostly just the vaguely tragic muscle of the show (he has aged quite nicely, to be fair).

Of the various CSIs I’ve watched, CSI: Cyber seems definitely the weakest. I sort of want it to succeed because I think it’s actually a potential vector for teaching people about the various dangers of being online (though also: it’s also maybe sometimes sort of alarmist; probably nobody will steal your baby by hacking your baby monitor). But I think there’s so much that’s bad about it besides the ways in which they oversimplify the computery bits (which, let me say, I laugh out loud a couple of times an episode at how they show fragments of html or silly bits of pseudocode scrolling by, and I sort of wish I could be a code writer for the show and do my own special brand of trolling in these bits).

The show is badly dramatized. They’ve sort of blown their wad in season one with respect to the arc that is supposed to justify the Arquette character’s involvement. And honestly, her character is probably the weakest in the show. She’s the human element, but her story and Arquette’s portrayal of the character is at various times so wooden and near-mystical as to make it impossible to sympathize with her or to believe her as a person who interacts with other people as written.

The show has been picked up for a second season, and honestly, I’m surprised. I’ll probably keep watching, if only for the comedy of the failure of the seriousness with which the show proceeds. Probably I should read a good book instead.

The Wolf of Wall Street

I had been interested for some time in watching The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m not sure why I was really interested in it, as I’m not terribly interested in finance or the history of its madness, but the movie had been on my to-watch list, and finally I sat down last night and watched it. On looking at Martin Scorsese’s page on IMDB, I see that I’ve watched a lot fewer of his films than I had thought, but my general impression has generally been that I like his films. Right or wrong, I think of his work as gritty and real. This is the impression I brought to watching The Wolf of Wall Street, which I did not think turned out to be a very good movie at all.

I don’t think I have a great eye for such things, but even I noticed a number of really bad edits — hands moved or drinks suddenly refilled as the camera angle switched, pants suddenly adorning what had been a bare bottom without there having been opportunity to slip them on. I figure that if I noticed a few of these, there must have been many more that a better trained eye would have seen, so the movie struck me as rather sloppily edited.

It was also grotesque. Of course, the behavior of the characters depicted was grotesque, and so a grotesque depiction seems well enough in order. What I mean to say is not that the grotesqueness itself is inappropriate but that the manner of its assembly seemed wrong. Often I felt like the movie was a string of clips from a gag reel: the boys snort cocaine off of some hookers’ bodies; the boys do too many quaaludes; the boys have an orgy; the boys crack wise about little people; the boys tape lots of money to their friend’s wife; DiCaprio effectively does a Gilbert Grape impersonation. Yes, we are seeing here the sort of excess that I suppose the movie is supposed to criticize, but it feels like a series of snapshots, and it gets a little old and feels pieced together. Often enough it feels more like a variant on the Hangover franchise.

The Hangover movies are surely funny at times (well, I assume — I’ve seen only the first one and didn’t love it but also probably laughed at it), but they have no real moral center. From a Scorsese film about Wall Street, I suppose I had expected at least some cynicism or a sense of quiet outrage about the excesses depicted, but I watched instead a film that seemed to make comedy of it all. Maybe it wasn’t a bad film as much as that it wasn’t the film I expected, which is more my fault than Scorsese’s.

And it’s entirely possible that I’ve simply misread the film. It is a narration for the most part from the perspective of the main character, who breaks the fourth wall from time to time. This device seems reasonable enough in a movie based on a book written by that character. Maybe what I’m reading as a weakness in the film is in fact the point of the film. That is, a cautionary tale told by a purportedly reformed scoundrel might in fact unfold in the way this film does, reveling more in the chain of zany exploits than in the reclamation of any true morality. How many times have I myself told gleeful stories of youthful debauchery without lingering overmuch on the regret and the hangover that followed? Is the film about this phenomenon as much as about Jordan Belfort’s particular exploits, and is the film perhaps cynical or moralistic after all, suggesting that there really is no such thing as redemption for such scoundrels? Does the book unfold in a similar manner, and is the film a critique of the book?

Even with this revised reading in mind, I didn’t love the film. It could be shorter and better edited and meaningful with a little less slapstick. I haven’t yet read any reviews of it, but I can’t help feeling that if it was favorably reviewed, it was more on the basis of its director’s reputation than on the merits of the film itself.

Borges, Collected Fictions

Borges, Collected FictionsSome books you can’t make yourself put down, and others you can’t make yourself pick up. Gass’s The Tunnel ruined reading for me for months because I didn’t feel like I could read anything else until I finished it, and I couldn’t bear to read much of it at a time. Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions I carried around like some sort of a curse for a couple of weeks. These are books that you feel like you ought to read, that you know people admire, that you really do want to get through, that you know are probably good for you, but that just don’t do it for you.

I finally finished the Borges today and really don’t understand the fascination people have for him. His is a name you hear with awe and respect. I had meant to read him for years and was finally nudged into doing so upon reading several references to him in a John Barth essay collection recently. The Barth also nudged me to read Don Quixote, which I enjoyed a lot, and The Thousand Nights and a Night, which will take a good long time but which I’m digging. So I was optimistic about Borges.

His stories seem to take a few forms:

  • History (usually about gauchos or knife fighting or Argentenian politics) retold.
  • Revenge plots (some overlap with the history here).
  • Brief philosophical or mystical musings that fall really flat.
  • Fantasies.

The first three varieties generally don’t much interest me. I don’t have a head for or a particular interest in history or politics, and though the knife-fighting gauchos make for an occasional fun (if oddly subdued) read, I don’t need a dozen of them. The fantasies, and particular those that touch on the infinite and on doubling, are the stories that required less of a stiff upper lip for me to get through. Even those sometimes Borges delivers in a way that winds up feeling sort of deflated. He’s a master of telling a story and then adding a punchy closing line that wrecks the whole thing. In the shorter mystical pieces, he has a way of making simple statements about things and then adding a feeble flourish that seems designed to make you think the story is deep, but to me, it comes off pretty badly, as if he’s a magician doing the thumb-removal trick we all learned as kids and finishing with a big “ta-da” and a deep bow. His tricks, in other words, don’t merit nearly the response he seems to expect. It’s pretty annoying.

The later work appealed to me more than the earlier work, as evidenced by the sharply increasing frequency of dog-eared stories toward the end of the book. I dog-eared nothing until nearly halfway through the book, when I was struck by “The Zahir.” Others that I liked to some degree or another include the following:

  • The Aleph
  • The Interloper
  • The Encounter
  • The Gospel According to Mark
  • Brodie’s Report
  • The Other
  • The Book of Sand
  • Blue Tigers

The penultimate collection, The Book of Sand, is the strongest in the book.

A few references in Barth’s book aside, I’ve studiously avoided reading any criticism or even biographical information about Borges in hopes that I could form my own opinion unsullied. My opinion’s obviously not very high. I’ll be curious now to read a bit to discover all the ways in which my opinion is ill-informed and unjust; I’m sure there must be much to Borges that I’m missing. He seems to have been an awfully smart man, just not one whose fictions struck me in general as being as great as a whole as I gather they’re trumped up to be. I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll likely revisit a few of those dog-eared pieces. I’m also glad to be done with the book and eager to move on.

The Year Without Pants

This summer, I attended a really good local conference called CodeStock at which I also sat in on what turned out to be a really bad session on being a remote worker. The original speaker for the session wound up not showing, so someone representing one of the conference sponsors stepped in to lead the session, since there was interest. So it was understandable that he didn’t have a bunch of information prepared. But he had worked mostly from a home office for a while, and he managed a remote team, so he felt equipped to lead a chat on the topic.

The problem was that he didn’t have a real understanding of how remote work ought to function. His advice seemed mostly to include ways of trying to shoehorn in-office work into a remote-office scenario. His approach, in other words, was to try to make working remotely mirror as closely as possible the experience of working from an office. I disagreed vociferously with nearly everything the man said, and it was all I could do to avoid rolling around on the ground in despair. I’ve worked from a home office for nearly a decade with companies that really embrace remote work as a new type of work rather than as a mere perk for workers, and so I figured that my experience probably wasn’t terribly relevant for the others in the session, who would likely be in just the type of environment the leader gleefully perpetrated and who gobbled up his well-meaning advice. I kept mum and swallowed my despair.

I’ve worked at Automattic for approaching three years now. We’re a fully distributed company, with employees happily working from at least a couple of dozen countries. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked, and I’ve been really happy at a couple of my other jobs. For a few months of my first year at Automattic, I worked with Scott Berkun, who has recently published an account of his time there in the form of a book titled The Year Without Pants.

I should go ahead and confess that this isn’t generally my sort of book. I like to read fiction, usually the more ponderous and confusing the better, and business books just don’t interest me a whole lot. I don’t have mental bandwidth for them. Still, it’s a book about my company and a book that — since I worked with Scott a little on a project to encourage people to blog daily — it was infinitesimally possible I might get a brief mention in (I don’t). So, tailor your reception of my brief review with this confession about my qualification for reading the genre in mind. My view of the book is that of an insider and not of a particular expert on business books.

Of course, being an insider makes the book hard to judge in a meaningful way. I know the people discussed in the book. I spent a few days last week actually hanging out with them at a company meetup, in fact (I’m famous by proxy!). And just as you hardly recognize your recorded voice as your own, it’s hard to know whether what someone writes about your company squares with 100% faithfulness to the company as you know it. Does the book have it wrong or do I?

Some of what Scott writes does seen genuinely wrong, or at least betrays a net cast too wide. For example, in writing about development process, he makes the unqualified statement that our method is to write a launch post prior to beginning feature development. This isn’t something I’ve ever done, though doubtless other teams within the company have.

Scott writes largely about the team he led while at Automattic, and I feel at times as if he assumes that team’s method of working represented that of the company as a whole. Whether he does so out of editorial expediency or out of myopia it’s hard to say. If it’s a defect, it’s a small one.

I don’t feel as if the book ultimately lives up to the promise of its subtitle (“WordPress.com and the future of work”). As a reader of a business book (if not an expert such reader), I expect something of a payoff or prescription for how the sort of work done at WordPress.com is leaching into the larger occupational consciousness, or of how other companies might emulate the Automattic work experience. The book does include three chapters that purport to make a sort of prescription, but the prescription is pretty squishy (necessarily — it’s the nature of the beast), and the chapters seem tucked into a book that mostly stands well enough on its own as a document describing Scott’s experience at Automattic. In other words, the book feels a bit like a memoir that got hammered sort of halfway into something that could be sold as a business book. I think I would have preferred straight memoir.

As semi-memoir, it’s a nice read. The affection Scott had for his team shines through, and the book shows enough of the work process to be instructive and thus not dismissed as pure personal fluff. You get a sense of the friendships that form at Automattic, which are unlike any I’ve had at past jobs (however much I genuinely like many of my past coworkers).

Put enough smart, compassionate, passionate people together in a company and great things happen. This is why Automattic is a great place to work. Scott touches on the fact and illustrates it in his portrayal of how his team was built and how they bonded and grew. I don’t think there’s a recipe for making a great distributed company, or if there is, it’s something vague like “use great ingredients,” which doesn’t make for a highly marketable business book.

If I weren’t an Automattic insider, I don’t know honestly whether I would have enjoyed Scott’s book or not. Chances are that I would have found it fairly interesting to read some of the stories he tells about individuals and gatherings. Chances are that I would have found some of the few prescriptions (e.g. “hire great people” and “set good priorities”) pretty disappointing, if inevitable and actually correct.

Read the book if you’re curious about Automattic and how we work, and I imagine you’ll find it interesting. If you’re looking for a cure-all for how to build a company, you’re probably doing it wrong to begin with, though maybe there’s something useful in Scott’s book at least in its portrayal of how one company has had great success with the distributed model. I don’t have enough distance from the subject matter to say much else, other than that Automattic is hiring.

That is All (Again)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief review of the first sixth of John Hodgman’s recent book, That Is All. I’ll summarize: I found it funny (silly, actually) and not really worth time I would have preferred to devote to literature that aimed higher.

Even so, I continued to plod through the book a few pages at a time, mostly while on the toilet, really in much the same way that one flips through the joke sections of Reader’s Digest while on the toilet. Tonight, I found myself torn between reading more of Hodgman’s book (I had about 90 pages left) and reading something I thought I’d really find nourishing. I hunkered down and basically speed-read the next 50 pages. I should pause and note that this is not a book that lends itself to speed-reading. Full of tables and footnotes and asides and a running calendrical storyline at the tops of the pages, it’s actually something of a chore to get through. And the information itself is often so bizarre, usually purposefully incorrect, forcing you to stay pretty alert or risk missing out on a lot of the humor. Essentially, it’s a book that demands a lot of attention while giving you very little back in return. In a word, it has been infuriating.

But tonight, between two sections titled “The End” and “The Beginning,” I began to catch a whiff of redemption. After all that silliness, Hodgman lays down something like this:

If you live, as I do, in a city that is not only full of intrinsic dangers (falling pianos), but also prone to natural disasters and targeted by violent extremists; and if you, as I do, enjoy a family history of cancer or some other congenital disease; and if you are, as I am, sedentary and overweight and over-asthmatic (as I assume you must be, as you are reading a book) … [ellipsis Hodgmans’s]

ALL OF WHICH IS TO SAY that if you are, as I am, a mortal human, then the likelihood that death will intrude upon your life cruelly, quickly, and before your chosen time — that it will take you before your own personal story for the world has unfolded the way you wrote it or it was written for you, and before you can even say goodbye — this likelihood is greater than you admit… [ellipsis mine]

Life may be miraculous in its unlikelihood in the universe, but it would be a fallacy to suggest that its rareness makes it inextinguishable.

This is the manner in which Hodgman closes “The End” before moving on to the “The Beginning” (which is the end — eat your heart out Burnt Norton). In the final section, Hodgman gives us a true and proper narrative, a story that made me slow my reading back down even while negotiating the silly calendrical top-matter and actually begin to enjoy the book. It was beginning to seem a worthwhile read (and then it ended; that was, I suppose, all).

Even with redemption in the air, I can’t say that I liked the book. I sort of hated it, as a matter of fact, until the final sprint. Or, I was amused by many of the little pieces that made up the book, but I resented the the thing as a whole. As I said in my initial impression linked above, any batch of a dozen pages of the book would have made a funny blog post, but I sure didn’t need them together all at once. I won’t read any of Hodgman’s earlier books, but if he wrote another in the mode he adopted toward the end of That Is All, I’d snap it right up.

Kindle Touch

A few months ago, I got what was then the latest Kindle, and though I had been a little skeptical about reading electronic books (I can be a bit of a curmudgeon), I found that I really liked it. My chief complaint about the device was how hard it was to take notes. Depressing those tiny pill buttons was infuriatingly slow, to the point that I — who have never been in love with the lack of tactile feedback when tapping buttons on the iPhone — resorted to something like text-speak when making notes to make it less painful.

So when the Kindle Touch came out, I pre-ordered excitedly. Here at last would be an inexpensive e-reader I could easily take notes on while also sparing my eyes the strain of staring at a glowing screen.

Although I’ve owned the Touch for several weeks now, I’ve read only one book and a few smaller things on it, and I sort of hate it. The thing is sluggish. Page-turns take forever, and tapping to call forth and use menus takes a day-and-a-half. While I found the interface of my older Kindle pretty intuitive, on this one, I can never remember exactly what I have to do if I want a menu (to add an item to a collection, for example). Sometimes taps are interpreted as drags and vice versa. It’s so very easy to accidentally turn a page with an incidental touch. And it just doesn’t feel as good in my hand as the older Kindle; it’s thicker and heavier, hard to hold comfortably without making the aforementioned incidental contact. The typing interface is fairly usable (certainly better than hardware buttons), but I’m not at all convinced that the typing fix is worth the many other inconveniences. And to top all that off, the Touch has spontaneously rebooted a couple of times in the last couple of days, losing my place in the book I was reading.

I’m thinking very seriously about seeing if I can send the Touch back in, either to trade for the newest line of the regular Kindle or for cash back.

That Is All

An acquaintance of mine worked on the production of a recently published book by John Hodgman entitled That Is All and was excited to recommend it heartily. My taste in books tends to be pretty well in sync with hers, and I took her recommendation to heart. I’m about a sixth of the way through and am not feeling great about the purchase.

The problem probably lies less with the book than with my expectations. Knowing the sort of humor that Hodgman has written in the past for The Daily Show, I suppose I should have expected something like the silly, meandering book at hand. Hodgman has written another book or two that I presume are in the same vein as this one, and had I done any research to learn what they were like, I would have been prepared for That Is All.

The strange thing is that before beginning this book, I wouldn’t really have counted myself a very serious person. I teach my kids fart jokes and enjoy low-brow and high-brow humor alike. I like cornball, and I like silly. And Hodgman’s book is nothing if not silly. My problem with the book lies not in the humor — for it is very funny — but with the investment it requires. It reads like a blog, but it’s packaged as a book. I like blogs. I earn my livelihood thanks to blogs. I would eagerly read a Hodgman blog written in the style of this book. But because it’s a book of several hundred pages, I feel pressure to read it in book-like chunks, and every time I go to it, I feel like I’m wasting time. There are more important, more serious things I could be reading, things that would nourish and instruct me rather than diverting me in the way an occasional blog post coming to me via feed reader would do. Who knew I was such a curmudgeon?

Hodgman is a smart, funny guy, and he’s assembled a book full of smart, funny things. It’s just not the sort of content I’m generally interested in putting much time into. I’ll finish it bits and pieces and will enjoy it, but not without something like guilt while doing so.

Moby-Dick on Encore

A few nights ago, I discovered that Encore’s recent two-part mini-series adaptation of Moby-Dick (IMDB page) was available on demand. Starring Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and William Hurt as Ahab with appearances by Donald Sutherland and Gillian Anderson, the show was fairly star-studded and not badly cast at all. I thought Hurt as Ahab was credible, though I think the part was misdirected. I’m not alone in thinking the show portrayed Ahab as rather more like the Buddy Jesus version of Ahab than what die-hard fans of the novel will really be on board with, but I do believe that with better direction and writing, Hurt could have pulled off a great Ahab. Southerland as Father Mapple was a bit of a joke, and the foregrounding (briefly) of Ahab’s wife rubbed me the wrong way, but it was nice to see Scully again. Hawke played Starbuck admirably, and Billy Boyd played a solid Ishmael. Second Mate Stubb I liked, but Flask was neither stout nor rowdy enough for my taste. All in all, I was pleased with the casting and acting.

The plot itself diverged rather drastically from the novel (predictably, I suppose). Steelkilt, who has an important thematic role in the novel but is by no means part of the main story, has a major role in the film. I guess that a movie adaptation of the novel does need someone to step up and speak out against Ahab more vocally than Starbuck is permitted by his station to do, and the introduction of Steelkilt for that purpose is actually fairly ingenius. The purist in me hates the move, but the pragmatist can see why the filmmakers brought Steelkilt to the screen.

The writers screwed rather a lot with the sequence of events in the original. In the film, the white whale attacks when the boats first lower for another whale, and I thought that sapped a lot of suspense from the movie. On the other hand, I suppose the writers felt as if they needed to let us know very early on that Moby-Dick was a real threat. (But doesn’t anybody who’d be inclined to watch such a movie have at least an inkling that there’s a great white whale and a catastrophe?) I don’t object at all to the idea that Moby-Dick might have been lurking about, and in fact I even sort of liked the notion that Ahab and the whale had a real sense of each other’s proximity, but I think the attack should have been put off and the suspense drawn out. Other plot divergences such as the omission of Fedallah and crew struck me as being in good service to the film without detracting from any sense of fidelity to the original.

Ishmael becomes a bit too important in this version of the tale. Ahab confides in him one time, trounces him another, and he’s generally just too present within the story. Of course the novel has a number of problems with point of view, in that it’s a first-person narrative in which many events occur that would not have been accessible by the narrator (e.g. private moments between Ahab and Starbuck). But these are problems of the novel and need not be dealt with by the movie, which naturally has its own omnipresent point of view. I suppose the writers felt a need to make more of a protagonist of Ishmael so that his escape at the end seemed somehow justified by his importance within the rest of the movie, but again the purist in me found it distracting and unnecessary.

Probably my favorite moments in the film occurred once the harpooners had sunk a dart in a whale and were being pulled along behind. Melville describes the peril of such moments in great detail in the novel, and I think this film does the moments justice. It was great fun to watch. I also enjoyed some of the visual depictions of life aboard a whaler — such as cutting up blubber, etc. — and found myself wishing there were more of these moments. I wish we had seen a better representation of the try pots, which Melville describes thoroughly and with great, appropriately hellish effect.

I did enjoy the movie, which had a budget of 25 million bucks and was on the whole a nicely put-together piece (the costumes, the staging, the special effects) as TV movies go. I think it’s a better adaptation than the one of a few years ago starring Patrick Stewart. It’s been long enough since I’ve seen the Gregory Peck version that I can’t really compare the two, but I suspect this version of the story is more vivid and engaging, the former probably truer to the original and a little less silly on the Ahab front. If you’ve got three hours handy and are of a mind to watch a version of the Moby-Dick story that differs significantly from the novel but has plenty of merits of its own, give it a watch. You can read a couple of other reviews here and here.