Content recycling by @nytimes

Recently, I happened to notice a pattern of recycled content on The New York Times’ Twitter feed. I decided to take a look at one particular story to see if I could make sense of the pattern.

The story is a quiz titled “Can You Tell What Makes a Good Tweet?” that is itself a quiz from a study done at Cornell by CS folks (and apparently with cooperation from one author at Google). I took the quiz, and despite my research on Twitter, the algorithm they developed for predicting a retweetable tweet won out (not surprising since it had a lot more practice and doesn’t get bored with making picks like I did).

I was struck by the irony of reporting on an algorithm that can pick the winning tweets done by an agency that is trying to float that report as clickbait, so I compiled a list of the @nytimes tweets promoting this quiz. I did it without accessing the Times or Twitter APIs, but it would be interesting for Comm or Journalism folks to do a study of recycling behaviors on media and other outlets. Unlike the Cornell study (which compared two tweets posting the same link at different times) the tweets I’m comparing are exactly the same (same content, same image, same link). Here’s what I came up with:

Total tweets of this article (and associated image): 7
Days from first to last tweet: 5

First tweet (all subsequent tweets are identical):

Tweet details:

Timestamp* Retweets Favorites
8:26 AM – 2 Jul 2014 256 222
11:31 AM – 2 Jul 2014 204 167
10:13 PM – 2 Jul 2014 256 222
4:02 AM – 3 Jul 2014 182 164
6:42 PM – 3 Jul 2014 205 197
9:59 PM – 4 Jul 2014 278 267
10:43 PM – 5 Jul 2014 221 256

*NOTE: all times in CDT

My extremely unscientific study shows a couple of interesting things:

  • Look how the RT and Favorite numbers dip for the morning tweets on 7/2 and 7/3. Perhaps the 7/2 tweet came too close to the initial tweet. Was the 7/3 tweet meant for early risers / European readers?
  • The numbers seem to attenuate until you get to the evening July 4th/5th tweets; on a holiday weekend, are people done hanging with the relatives and scanning Twitter before bed?

As I went progressed in the quiz, I noticed that time of day was an important predictive factor for my guesses; as far as I can tell, the Cornell authors didn’t consider that at all (only the time between tweets). If no one is awake or your tweet doesn’t come to the top of the heap some other way (through RTs, hashtag coincidence, your presence in a list, etc.) my guess is it might as well be gone. There are so many factors independent of tweet content that can influence propagation (including holiday weekends where folks retreat to their separate bedrooms and mobile devices after a long day of family bonding).

As I operate on the assumption of agency and strategy in SM use by organizations, I’m guessing the times these tweets went out weren’t accidental. I think that the social media folks at the NYT are thinking about how often and when they want to tweet out content, and possibly even adjusting their strategy before they retire that content from their SM streams. Based on the tweet I looked at, however, it’s hard to guess what that strategy is.

The Cornell study raises some interesting questions about how to predict tweets that will maximize content dissemination, but also misses some of the many complicated factors that go into predicting proliferation.

The IRB and emotional manipulation

The talk about the now famous Facebook study on emotional contagion got me thinking about the question of the role of institutional review boards (the IRB) and our responsibilities to participants in a study. I’m going to share a story here about an IRB approved study I participated in some years back as an undergraduate. I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble, and I’m not really bothered by the experience now, but I share it because it illustrates the point that even IRB approved research, when poorly designed, can and does screw up and cause emotional impacts that the researchers cannot fully understand or predict.

The National Institute of Health describes the responsibility of the researcher as minimizing harm and maximizing the benefits of research for the participants; this is a direct result of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where participants were not told for decades that they could be treated (at very low cost) for their syphilis infections so that the researchers could observe the long-term impact of the disease.

One of the big arguments I’ve heard is that the participants in the Facebook study were not given the option of informed consent: they didn’t know the risks of the study (the researchers probably didn’t have a total handle on those either) and they couldn’t opt out. I just read an excellent analysis on the FB study by danah boyd on the difference between obtaining approval from an IRB, and actually thinking critically as a researcher about the ethical impacts your research will have.

Informed consent does not mean that a study is without risk or emotional impact to a participant. Those risks should be anticipated and mitigated, but as my anecdote will demonstrate, that sometimes doesn’t happen like it should.

When I was about 19 years old, I was enrolled in a typical intro to Psych class at my university. As part of the learning experience about experiments (and as a way to drum up volunteers), I was required to participate in something like six hours of experiments. You didn’t actually have to do the experiments, but you had to show up and opt out on the informed consent document to get credit. I can’t remember if there was an alternative if you didn’t want to go at all (maybe write a paper), but nevertheless I had a positive attitude and felt like I could help researchers solve important problems if I participated. Most of the studies were just multiple choice quizzes or writing answers to timed questions. One study was a cooperative brainstorming task that I did in front of a one-way mirror. Nothing too outlandish.

Then I participated in a study that was not so pleasant. I showed up to the study room, where I was told that I would be watching videos with group of two other students, and I would be asked how I felt about the actions of different characters in those videos via a form. The films they showed were all of people getting verbally ridiculed, then getting angry and beating someone up. I think they were all Hollywood motion pictures (one was definitely Dazed and Confused), but I can’t remember. The questions on the form were about whether I thought the person was justified in attacking someone.

During the screening, a confederate (unknown to me at the time) offered me some unwrapped candy out of a bag. We’ll call him Person A.

During the screening, a confederate (unknown to me at the time) offered me some unwrapped candy out of a bag. We’ll call him Person A. I politely refused person A because I thought it was really weird to eat unwrapped candy from someone I didn’t know, and I’m not a big candy person to begin with. After the experiment was over, another confederate (again, unknown to me) stopped me in the hallway while I was walking out. We’ll call him Person B. Person B pointed my attention to a disc on the table that Person A had ostensibly forgotten. The label on the disc said “Final Paper.” I asked person B if he knew person A, and he said no. He then told me that Person A told him he would be going to a meeting in the basement of the building I was in. I told Person B that I would take the disc down to him, and Person B followed me into the elevator. I probably should have been more suspicious of all of this, but I figured that once I walked out of the lab room into the hallway, the experiment was over.

On the elevator, Person B asked me if I would pledge to donate to his AIDS walk charity. I didn’t have two nickels to rub together in college, but I said I would since I felt bad. I put my donation on the form and Person B got out at the ground floor.

Wait for it, it gets even weirder from this point on.

I got to the basement and I couldn’t find the room, so I asked a custodian who was mopping the floors if he knew where it was. He told me, in broken English, that the room didn’t exist as far as he knew. Afterwards, I thought I would walk around one more time just to be sure. It turns out I had just passed the room and not noticed it since the lights were out and no one was there. There was a note on the door that said the meeting had been moved to a room on the top floor of the building. I was a bit angry that I had to go back up to the 12th floor (or whatever it was), but I got back on the elevator.

When I got out of the elevator and walked to the room, Person B was waiting for me around a corner in the hallway. At first, I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and I was a bit disoriented. Person B told me that everything I had been doing for the last 10 minutes or so after I left the lab room was an experiment. Apparently the candy Person A offered me was somehow related to the violent movies, the disc left by Person A and whether I returned it was related to him offering me candy, my willingness to pledge to Person B’s AIDS walk was related to him encouraging me to return the disk to Person A, and moving the meeting to the top floor was testing how far I would go to return the disk. All this was in addition of me answering the questionnaire.

However, I wasn’t simply told all of this in my “debriefing,” I had to ask whether some of the scenarios were part of the experiment. I asked about the custodian and Person B said “What custodian?” I asked if the disc really did belong to Person A, and he said “you can just give that to me.” I went back and forth with him a couple times to make sure, because at that point I really couldn’t sort out all the different components of the experiment.

I would say I’m no more paranoid than your average person, but I was extremely uncomfortable in that moment. I was given more consent documents to sign by Person B, which I did because I wanted to leave as soon as possible. Also, even though I was told (probably repeatedly) that my participation wouldn’t affect my course grade, the experimental design was confusing to the point where I didn’t know if I could opt out at that point or even how many experiments this counted for towards the course requirement.

I would say I’m no more paranoid than your average person, but I was extremely uncomfortable in that moment.

Looking back years later, I was probably naive in thinking that the events after I left the lab room were separate from the experiment, but I let myself be fooled in the moment because I’m naturally trusting and wanted to help a fellow student out if I could. The experiment played on my disposition in that regard.

But wait, it gets better yet.

I asked Person B if the experiment was over now, and he said “Oh yeah, we’re all done here if you want to take off,” or something casual to that effect. As I left the building I paused in the lobby to cue up my CD player (dating myself here). Whether by design, or by unfortunate accident, Person B happened to exit the building right after me, and even walked in the same direction for two blocks. I know this because I kept looking over my shoulder to see when he would leave.

When I got back to my apartment, I would say that I was significantly emotionally impacted. I kept replaying the events of the experiment in my mind. I started wondering if the custodian was a secret confederate, and his broken-English explanation that the room didn’t exist was to see what my attitude to an ESL speaker was. I also wondered how Person B knew to wait for me on the top floor for my debriefing. What if I had just said “F**k it” and left the building with the disc. I concluded that there could have been someone silently observing from the darkened room I stood next to. What if I had accidentally discovered that observer? What would the emotional impact have been of discovering someone surveilling me from the shadows? As stupid as it sounds now, I even thought about the custodian calling up on a walkie talkie, saying something like “the package is en route.”

As stupid as it sounds now, I even thought about the custodian calling up on a walkie talkie, saying something like “the package is en route.”

I had a strong sense that even though Person B told me the experiment was over, that it was still going on in some capacity. Later, before I took the final exam in the course, the professor told us that the course itself was an experiment on college learners and asked us to sign informed consent documents. This was minutes before the exam started!!! As you might guess, having participated in this bizarre experiment, my suspicions about the experiment never ending were only heightened at the worst possible moment: right before I had to take a two hour long multiple choice exam.

I probably could have complained about the study, but I didn’t really want that kind of attention. Whether or not a complaint could have actually impacted my grade, I had perceived negative repercussions associated with making a formal complaint. I was compromised as a participant both during and subsequent to the secondary experiments outside of the lab room, because I didn’t feel like I could opt out.

This study was approved by my university’s IRB.

My point in sharing this is not to disparage human subjects research or the IRB system. I’ve come to think that the experiment was probably much more structured on paper, but was executed poorly. It’s possible there was a more structured protocol for debriefing, which was not followed in my case. Nevertheless, the sole fact that this study received IRB approval doesn’t mean that it should have been done, for a few reasons:

  1. The experimental design was shit. Embedding so many sub-experiments in the primary experiment meant, ultimately, that you couldn’t infer a damn thing from any of my actions past (I would say) the point where I agreed to return the disk. Even that action was primarily due to my empathizing with Person A about losing a term paper, and had nothing to do with any candy offers.
  2. Debriefing would be so complicated, that you have to wonder why they grouped all these sub-experiments together in the first place. I should have been made to understand the totality of the experiment and the ending conditions clearly before I was allowed to walk out of the room (or given something to read that contained that information at the very least). I definitely should not have been debriefed by a confederate, someone who knowingly deceived me during the experiment.
  3. The conditions have to be so carefully maintained, they make this experiment an incredibly complex machine that achieves very little. Having the confederate/debriefer/whoever the hell he was walk out of the building and follow me was idiotic. Person B should have gone out another exit or even waited ten minutes before leaving.

Even though I don’t technically think my rights as a participant were violated, and I’m not significantly affected by the experience now (other than it’s a funny story to tell at parties), it was seriously disconcerting at that time. I was made to feel unsure of my privacy at the university for a least a couple of months. I felt observed, and it was a feeling that took some time to get over.

As it relates to the Facebook study, I can totally empathize with people feeling like they were toyed with, and being told the effects were minimal does not do much to dispel that feeling. The reason we obtain informed consent and avoid using the word “subjects” is exactly to remove the detachment that makes researchers feel like those people are the other, the thing to be manipulated and run through a maze. We’re careful to distinguish that we manipulate conditions and observe responses, but it’s naive to think that you can design an experiment with such minimal impact that the participants don’t need to be informed or debriefed.

Emotional impact, even if it’s negative, is just a part of an experiment. Some of those other experiments where I answered multiple choice surveys repeatedly asked strange questions, like “Do you ever feel like the television is talking to you?” or “Do you ever feel like your limbs are detached from your body?” I wasn’t disturbed by the questions, but they were strange enough that I wanted to know why I was being asked them. Most of the time I got a debriefing statement (I think the test I mentioned was for schizophrenia). I was exposed to a slight emotional impact, but it may have helped doctors better diagnose and treat someone with serious problems. I think most people, if the impact truly is small and they are aware of the type and duration of the experiment, have no problem participating if it can help someone who needs it.

The IRB is supposed to help us define how to run human subjects research responsibly, but, as boyd suggests, we all need to think more about the actual execution of the research and what responsibilities (outside of just legal and IRB) we have to participants.

Facebook and other social networking sites shouldn’t stop doing research or publishing it, but they need to be more forthcoming to users. I don’t think informed consent is always the answer, but FB could have had a press conference where they clearly explained what they had done, why they did it, and what contribution it made to society and our understanding of human behavior. They should have sent a notification to all of their users, even those who didn’t participate. boyd even goes so far as to suggest that users should have a hand in determining what types of research Facebook does, but as we learned from the final site governance vote ever, that is probably just a fantasy.

Aporia – what we are missing in many conversations/debates/arguments on the web

Aporia – what is it? Even though I have a BA in Rhetoric, I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, and that is perhaps apropos to the topic of aporia. From Wikipedia (best I could find):

Plato’s early dialogues are often called his ‘aporetic’ (Greek: ἀπορητικός) dialogues because they typically end in aporia. In such a dialogue, Socrates questions his interlocutor about the nature or definition of a concept, for example virtue or courage. Socrates then, through elenctic testing, shows his interlocutor that his answer is unsatisfactory. After a number of such failed attempts, the interlocutor admits he is in aporia about the examined concept, concluding that he does not know what it is. In Plato’s Meno (84a-c), Socrates describes the purgative effect of reducing someone to aporia: it shows someone who merely thought he knew something that he does not in fact know it and instills in him a desire to investigate it.

If we accept this, then aporia is the state in which an interlocutor accepts that their perception, which they thought to be complete, is incomplete, and acknowledges a need to further examine the topic from another perspective. (Aporia can also be used to bait someone into a false admission, but that is not the context that is relevant here.)

Aporia is, essentially, the graceful way to end a debate that has reached an ideological impasse. I don’t have time to pull examples, but this is the common exit for many of Socrates’ conversants. “Purgative” is especially relevant, as it suggests that the conversant can purge the prior belief and start anew; essentially, aporia is a liberating state.

Also, aporia, unlike checkmate, is a temporary status. It is a realization that you do not have the ideological framework to convince your opponent at the time, but require a timeout to collect and reconsider the topic from another angle. (That doesn’t preclude a reversal in opinion, by the way.) In the fire/return-fire nature of comment boards (including Facebook), there is no time for timeouts.

In my personal (and limited) experience on comment boards, aporia has become tantamount to acknowledging defeat or weakness, but that is obviously shortsighted. Having the last word rarely proves you are right, just last. Giving the parting shot on an argument due to impasse is no substitute for acknowledging a path forward; that’s what opposing governments or political parties do, and we can see how well that solves our problems.

My wife and I often admit aporia on topics we debate, both because we are in two different fields (communication and education) and lack sufficient knowledge overlap to prove the other person wrong, and because we have to live with each other (and each other’s imperfect knowledge). Unfortunately, on the web, we experience a different type of interaction.

I think it’s clear what comment thread I am talking about and who I side with (if not, Google me), but I wanted to raise an issue that we could all think about regardless of the topic.

Summer Film Roundup

Safety Not Guaranteed
Dir. Colin Trevorrow, 86 min., Netflix Instant

Strongly disguised as a romcom, this film rarely does much to approach the time travel genre other than assembling a motley crew full of personal regrets. I failed to buy in to the outsider magazine intern (Aubrey Plaza) finding anything in common with the Dwight-like time traveler (Jake Johnson). In the subplot, her chauvinistic (but secretly sensitive) boss and the Indian nerd intern (that, frankly and unfairly, stands in for every dork everywhere) have a debauched mentor/protege relationship in the frat boy sense, but that story line pans out with very few hijinks and a whole lot of the type of talk you expect to hear from your drunken uncle at the family picnic. *spoiler* WTF, the time machine works at the end?? So we were to believe that this was a serious time travel piece? What a disappointing ending.

AV Club: B
Dissolve: n/a
RT: 91%
me: C-

/***/

Only God Forgives
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 90 min., Netflix Instant

It’s hard to comment too much on this director’s style, given that I only know him from this film (he directed the critical darling Drive [2011]), but he must have gone to the Kubrickian school when he was filming this piece: the slow panning shots with the jarring sound bursts, the monochrome lighting and color scheme (though supposedly he is colorblind, a difficulty I can somewhat identify with), the cuts to mid-range shots of actors in silent relief. The cinematography is great; if only, as A.A. Dowd points out, there were real characters in the film. Everyone is more of a description than a well-defined person. Ryan Gosling, as an emasculated, Oedipal drug dealer, barely even speaks let alone emotes. He’s more of a mannequin posing for the shot (except for one animated moment with his hooker “girlfriend”). The stoical nature of the characters and lack of facial expressions comes off like a Greek morality play (strongly suggested by the bleak title), but the film’s coldness leaves the viewer cold in turn towards the eventual resolution.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 3/5
RT: 40%
me: C-

/***/

The Monuments Men
Dir. George Clooney, 118 min., Redbox

Clooney essentially presents us with “The Dime Store Ocean’s Eleven Crew Saves Art for the Rest of the Uncaring Idiots of the World Who Can’t Appreciate How Great it All Is.” So whereas I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan (1998) in a few years, I could recount five or six of the main cast members defining characteristics (and maybe even the actor names as well). I just watched this film a couple of hours ago and I couldn’t tell you one damn thing about anyone but the top three stars (Clooney, Damon, and Murray), and even then I didn’t get much to recount. The dialogue apes Ocean’s and the mission, while interesting and important, would definitely be better covered by a PBS documentary than a film, as most of the action is spaced out and jumps from city to city.

Sadly, unless you have more than a passing interest in the history of that period and have taken an art history course as well (as the film provides scant discussions of art other than the Judeo-Christian lionizing of important icons), it seems more like a random race across unknown landscapes to save objects that we are told are very important, but can’t really appreciate on much more than a superficial level. One thing is clear: America has everyone’s best interest in mind and will preserve artworks from not only our own destructive impulses, but those of everyone else who can’t comprehend the magnificence of art. That may have been true, but the film strongly paints our country as the “last best hope for man on earth.”.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 2/5
RT: 32%
me: D+

Well, that was a bunch or rotten onions. Hopefully the next crop tastes sweeter.

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

escapeDir. Randy Moore, 90 min., Netflix Instant

“Well, pack the family and head on down to Disney World,” is not what you will be thinking after you watch this film. I find it amusing that my last entry (my 100th post, BTW) was about me complaining that critics made nothing into something, while this entry I feel like something was made into nothing.

Moore’s film focuses on the surrealist hallucinations of the protagonist, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), as he enacts middle-aged, libido-fueled fantasies whilst his nagging, child-obsessed wife Emily (Elena Shuber) stifles and emasculates him.

The real star of the film, according to critics, is Disney World itself, as the film was shot on location without permission from the cryo-frozen head of the man himself. While it is amusing to seem some childhood memories shot in psychedelic, deep-focus black and white, the film could have really taken place at any amusement park as they all have that creepy simulacra thing going on.

There’s another, more mundane layer to the film that deals directly with gender dynamics, parenthood, and the ways in which we all cope with stress. Each disturbed character, even though they are in the “happiest place on Earth,” comes off the rails in increasingly hostile and self-destructive ways as the film progresses. The film and place resemble a vortex, with the trajectory of all who are sucked in spiraling towards a personal nadir.

As a personal side note, I can remember seeing drunk people fighting at Disney World and being escorted off by security guards. I also remember the personal entitlement I felt as a child, feeling like the whole experience was mine. It seems a disgusting enterprise now, but I doubt I could communicate that to my six-year-old self. The nadir of the place is really for everyone who goes there (at least by the end of the trip), and I can’t really imagine anyone wanting to go back independent of having children who drag them back in.

I suspect there’s something to be said about the hedonistic, sociopathic nature of children here as well. They demand constant entertainment and attention out of adults. Jim, clearly on the last moments of tolerance at some points and preoccupied by the loss of his job, is left to fend for himself emotionally as his wife overcompensates for his increasing distance by doting on the children. There is something uncomfortably Oedipal as his young son locks him on the hotel balcony at the beginning of the film, then assumes Jim’s position in bed next to Emily with a disturbingly blank stare. Likewise, Jim gravitates towards two French girls (one conspicuously in braces), enacting his own inappropriate fantasy. Children, until they learn empathy, feel little more than need and anger, and we take them to a place that supposedly satiates the raging id. What then is left for the grown ups in this situation but perhaps to mirror the same behaviors: apparently drink and libido (Jim) and barely constrained aggression (Emily).

There is much more here to unpack than there ever could be in Leviathan, yet critics much preferred that film. The cinematography alone in this film is much more striking, and even though it sometimes plays like so many broken shards from a witch’s amulet, the whole is much more intriguing.

AV Club: B-
The Dissolve: 3.5/5
RT: 56%
me: B+

Leviathan (2012)

leviathanDirs. Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, 87 min., Netflix Disc.

For a documentary, you don’t learn all that much about the crew of the commercial fishing vessel profiled in Leviathan or the commercial fishing industry in general. While there are gritty and (sometimes) repulsive images of the detritus fauna leftover from the select bounty of the sea that humans will purchase in their local supermarket, it is neither placed in context by a Godlike voiceover, nor explained through visual imagery.

What we are left with are a series of disjointed scenes from the boat, a boat where apparently no one talks to the cameraman shoving a lens in their face or to each other (except on very rare occasions when there is a problem). While many of the visuals are stunning, just as many are monotonous or indecipherable. My experience watching on a DVD at home may take away some of the majesty of watching an upside-down shot of seagulls in flight lasting fully five minutes, but I can’t imagine it was much more stunning on the big screen.

I’ll put it out there: I don’t need for films to have dialogue or to particularly make sense, but I do need to feel some aesthetic response to what I’m seeing. Those moments that resinated with me from Leviathan involve workers adeptly performing monotonous tasks at breakneck speeds. I can relate to that quite a bit more than most people may ever know. I think the directors were trying to use these long takes to make the viewer empathize with the combination of monotony and freneticism that these workers experience daily, but looking at the thing in this case won’t necessarily build empathy; and if you already sympathize, you only have to look at it for about 60 seconds to fully appreciate it, not ten minutes.

I think it’s easy to see where I’m going here: the film needed to be 50% shorter. The endless dark frames of underwater photography with indecipherable images and unintelligible sound design were tedious. Culled moments, like the sailor slowly falling asleep to some popular reality fishing show (clearly the antithesis of the directors’ artistic vision), if edited properly, could have made this documentary that much more powerful.

Now let me go back on everything I said in the last paragraph.

If the film has a purpose to me, it’s that the human mind is always looking for form, and the extreme close ups and water-obscured lenses rarely give the human mind what it wants, such that when you do see an image, it strikes you in a way that would not be possible if not for the longing for form that preceded it.

The title remains somewhat of an enigma: is it representing man as the biblical beast? Perhaps a clever retort to Hobbes’ book of the same name? The loving dedication to those men and ships lost at sea during the closing credits suggests a more simpatico viewpoint, but the film seems to thrive on its mystique rather than its substance.

AV Club: A-
Dissolve: n/a
RT: 84%
me: C

Lost in Translation (2003)

220px-Lost_in_Translation_posterDir. Sofia Coppola, 101 min., Netflix Instant

I first saw this film in 2003, but watching it again reveals the tight and brilliant composition by the director, Sofia Coppola. It’s a shame that it was robbed of it’s rightful “best picture” status by premiering in the same year as the bloated, bombastic third entry in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has nothing to do at all with good film making; while LoTR III is just another cog in the wheel that Jackson established years earlier, this film is an original piece of art that stands alone (without the scaffolding character and story development of preceding entries).

Murray and Johansson both play isolated and lost figures, but no one seems to key in on the somewhat masculine fantasy of the film. Murray’s character is long past the age where he is a bona fide player (or even talented actor), but his charisma and limited stardom (sparingly doled out with painful humility) make him the ideal object of the abandoned Johansson’s affections. Murray’s character is often mistaken for “gentlemanly” when he is actually quite paternalistic early on (notice the way in which he carefully puts Johansson’s character to bed).

Only after his *spoiler* tryst with the lounge singer and his reconciliation with Johansson does he come across as (not necessarily a romantic interest, but) the identifiable soul mate (though I hate that term) for Johansson’s character. It’s a well-considered pivot, showing both the ease with which he could have many women in a superficial sense transition back to his desire to form a deeper connection with someone who both understands his ennui and equals (or surpasses) his own penchant for sarcastic banter. While they meet at widely different ages, their backgrounds allow them to appreciate the same verbal interplay; it’s a relationship that’s doomed to last but a brief moment in their life arcs, and that’s what makes the final parting so heart wrenching.

If you watch it only for the scene where Murray and Johansson first go out on the town and get chased out of a bar by a pellet-gun wielding bartender, then sing karaoke and return back to their hotel enclave, you will have seen enough to enjoy the film.

RT: 95%
me: A

Godzilla (2014)

godzillaDir. Gareth Edwards, 123 min., in theaters

As it’s summer, I once again to return to tell you my boring opinions on movies you’ve probably already seen. No goals this year for how many films I want to watch, but I’d be surprised if I top 40. First up, everyone’s favorite building-stomping lizard.

As a point of comparison, nothing could be worse than Roland Emmerich’s 1998 stab at the identically titled film (Nathan Rabin sums up the disappointment pretty well). It could be that the mists of time cloud my recollections (I saw this film in theaters as a high school junior), but I remember loud “boo”s ringing out when Godzilla was resurrected near the end of the film and had to be defeated yet again by tanks and jet fighters.

Employing characters that actually have depth (instead of one-line, “cast of characters” descriptions), as well as coming up with monsters that have a (semi-)plausible raison d’etre, massively vaults Edwards effort over his predecessor.

Without giving too much away: Bryan Cranston (Brody) plays a disgruntled loner, trying to prove that the site of a terrible nuclear accident (strongly reminiscent of the tragedy at Fukushima) is actually a massive cover up of a large monster. Meanwhile, his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and a scientist who studies ancient, nuclear-feeding monsters (Ken Watanabe) become enmeshed in the subsequent events (sometimes unrealistically, as Brody’s son always seems to be wherever the monsters are).

I got a kick out of the character name, as there is a similar Cheif Brody in another summer blockbuster movie trying to convince the world of the existence of a “prehistoric” monster; the film itself is not without some humor, but mostly this is a special effects showpiece that uses character development just enough to make us care whether these people get crushed under a monster’s foot.

The effects are pretty good, though watching one building get crushed is no more exciting than watching the next. The monster battles are equally entertaining, and the showdown with Godzilla and his adversary is on par with King Kong battling a T-rex. The cleverness of the Godzilla origin story pays homage to the horrors of the nuclear age, while similarly (and smartly) avoiding any hint that the current USA has anything good in the way of technology or ideas to contribute to this monster hunt.

Ken Watanabe is predictably underutilized in this Americanized rendition, but far from the borderline offensive Emmerich take on the Japanese:

Watanabe instead comes across as a “quiet man” type, burdened by his own painful connection to the nuclear age. Cranston gives a strong performance, though I don’t have much to baseline him on as I’ve still yet to watch that famous TV show he was on (what was it called again?). The rest of the cast is serviceable.

Is there a future for Godzilla after this film? IMDB already lists “Godzilla 2″ as a future directorial credit. I suppose I’d probably go see it, and that’s about as much of a ringing endorsement as you’ll get out of me on any monster movie.

AV Club: B+
Dissovle: 3.5/5
RT: 73%
Me: B+

The best songs of 2013

Once again, I publish a list of the best songs of the year. They are all in my “Best of 2013″ playlist on Spotify.

I hedge by telling you that I read fewer reviews than last year and that I had a *large* listening gap over the summer. I also listened to less bluegrass and rap than last year. I was skewed towards indie and (quizzically) electronic this year.

Without further ado:

20. Thomas Rhett – “Beer With Jesus”
19. Ben Howard – “Keep Your Head Up”
18. Cage the Elephant – “Come a Little Closer”
17. Cold War Kids – “Miracle Mile”
16. Phosphorescent – “Song For Zula”
15. MGMT – “Alien Days”
14. Daft Punk, Panda Bear – “Doin’ It Right”
13. Arctic Monkeys – “Do I Wanna Know?” / “R U Mine?”
12. Yuck – “Middle Sea” / “Out of Time”
11. New Politics – “Harlem”
10. Low – “Just Make It Stop”
9. Queens of the Stone Age – “My God Is The Sun” / “I Sat By The Ocean”
8. Phoenix – “Don’t”
7. Waaves – “Sail To The Sun” / “Demon To Lean On”
6. Daft Punk, Julian Casablancas – “Instant Crush”
5. Kanye West, JAY-Z, Big Sean – “Clique”
4. Parquet Courts – “Master Of My Craft” / “Borrowed Time” / “Donuts Only”
3. Drake – “Started From the Bottom”
2. Vampire Weekend – “Ya Hey”
1. Kurt Vile – “Never Run Away”

Honorable mentions (in no particular order):

Speedy Ortiz – “Tiger Tank”
Dum Dum Girls – “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”
Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
John K. Samson – “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”

On why Ventra is a problem (and my experience with it)

ventraslide1Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know that the Chicago Transit Authority has privatized their fare collection system with Ventra, which is a subsidiary created to manage the fare collection for Chicago but is really owned by a larger company, Cubic Transportation Systems. According to Cubic, the CTA agreed to a $454 million, 12-year contract for Ventra to provide fare collection on CTA busses and trains.

Some background

I am generally against long-term privatization deals for the administration of public services since private companies are not in the business of providing good service at the expense of their own profits. Public sector (essentially non-profit) work is not in the interest of corporations in the capitalist model; pleasing shareholders with steady investment returns is.

The predominant line of thought in politics in the City of Chicago seems to be that private companies can perform services formerly paid for by taxpayers for a great deal less money. The oft-cited benefit is that such a model provides “savings” to the taxpaying public, but what does “savings” really mean? Where do those “savings” go?

One would typically think that in a balanced budget, any savings on public services would return to the taxpayers in the form of a tax refund or reinvestment in the interest of improving public services. The problem is that Chicago runs a large budget deficit (approximately $339 million for FY2014), which invariably means that savings to taxpayers are used in the part of the calculation which reduces said deficit and doesn’t necessarily return to the taxpayers in any tangible form. The CTA is no different, except that their budget deficit is much smaller proportionally than the city’s and they do not (for the most part) run on taxpayer support (52% of their operating funds for FY2013 will come from system-generated funds as opposed to a relatively modest 48% public contribution).

Thus, fare collection is really the CTA’s rice bowl: without efficient fare collection, they are sunk. For years, the CTA relied on the hybrid Chicago Card system (which used touch cards [similar to credit cards but without numbers] loaded with money either online or at pay kiosks at train stations) and temporary use plastic cards with magnetic stripes that must be inserted into slots in a pay station on a bus or at a train station, and are only rechargeable at said pay kiosks. If those options didn’t appeal to you, however, you could purchase passes for short durations (e.g. one day or three days) as plastic mag-stripe cards, or longer passes (e.g. thirty days) as automatically loaded values to your Chicago Card. This was admittedly clunky, as there were two systems that needed two different fare collection infrastructures to work (touch or insert). Also, those temp plastic cards, lost with value on them, were gone forever (like lost cash) with no way of retrieving that value.

According to the CTA 2013 Budget, they were also facing the fact that their fare collection system was “at the end of its useful life” and would need to be replaced. This left them with a choice that has plagued the City of Chicago on two notable occasions (namely the Skyway tollway and the parking meter system): come up with money to upgrade the infrastructure by raising revenue or find a way to lease the system to a private corporation that will front the money to upgrade the system, yet will retain control and extract a significant profit over a term of many years in exchange for accepting the responsibility of maintaining that system. The city made that decision in extreme, leasing the Skyway tollway and the parking meter system, and all subsequent toll/fee collections, for extended periods (99 years and 75 years, respectively) in exchange for large cash payouts ($1.83 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively). Sadly, the combined $3.02 billion has been frittered away in filling budget gaps in subsequent years. Thus any “savings” that were accrued through these leases did little public good, as they were just stopgap kindling to keep the smoldering fire that is Chicago’s operating budget from dying out.

ventraslide2The CTA took a bit of a different route with Ventra. Rather than take a massive cash infusion, the CTA would pay no money up front to have Cubic update their fare collection infrastructure. Rather, the CTA would pay an indecipherable amount to Ventra each of the contract years (the amount is lumped in with “other expenses” on their budget statement), supposedly up to $454 million over the twelve-year life of the contract.

For 454 million dollars, customers will get the opportunity to pay with a card that is almost identical to the Chicago card in every way, however it can also function as a prepaid debit card. Likewise, you can use any major credit card with an RFID chip to pay. You can purchase a temporary card with cash as well at a payment kiosk, but you cannot pay with cash or an “into-the-slot” card (they are all touch cards using RFID now). There are some major downsides to these payment options that I will explain shortly, but this is a slight improvement in terms of streamlining payment.

On the other side of this equation is how much it would have cost the CTA to implement a new payment system themselves. That is an unknown, and seems to have been studied only to determine a “savings” amount (estimated in the FY2013 budget statement as $50 million over the 12 years). It’s worth noting that Cubic is not an Illinois company and it’s unclear how their takeover impacts the CTA labor market (I wonder who is servicing the fare collection devices? I could not find out if it is the same workers who serviced kiosks prior to the agreement).

Ventra will undoubtedly affect low-income persons disproportionately. There is a non-refundable 50 cent feel associated with temporary “Ventra Tickets” purchased at rail station kiosks (replacing the mag-stripe cards). 1-day and 3-day passes (typically used by low-income patrons and tourists) are only available when you register for a Ventra card, and can no longer be purchased at rail stations or retailers (like grocery stores). Likewise, there is a predatory effort to get users to deposit their paychecks into the Ventra operated MetaBank, which charges users additional fees for almost anything you can imagine and was fined for deceptive lending practices.

According to the CTA, users will also have the convenience of paying with smartphones. However, it’s really unknown why or how that will be more convenient than using a plastic card. I suppose if you had forgotten your wallet and only had your phone, this might be handy provided you took the numerous steps to link your prepaid account to your phone. Likewise, you can use any major contactless debit/credit card to pay your fare, but with a caveat: if it is linked to your online Ventra account you will pay standard fares – if not, you will pay a full fare of $2.25 each time you board a train or bus (no transfer credits allowed). These are all essentially penalty fees for f**king up and leaving your Ventra card at home not registering every single device and card to Ventra. If you cannot afford a smart phone or contactless card and rely on tickets, they are a transit tax on being poor.

I’ll only briefly mention the fees associated with a the prepaid debit option on these cards. Apparently there are a constellation of fees associated with almost every action on your account. Predatory lending at its finest.

My card experience

I received an email notice in July indicating that I should verify and port some personal information over to the Ventra website from my Chicago Card account. I took the time to verify my information, and waited. A month later, I received an email that said the process of sending my card was underway, and that I should plan on receiving it in 7-10 business days.

A couple of weeks after that, I got another email with the subject line “Convenience is coming!”, informing me that I’d be getting my card in 7-10 business days. In the meantime, they invited me to log in to the site and update my access code, which is different from the password you use to log into the website. I did as instructed and waited.

Finally, two weeks later, I received the card in the mail. I had been waiting for the card for about two months at that point. I went to log into the website to activate my card, but it had been so long that I forgot my password. Normally, this is no big deal for any website, but when I tried to reset and use the temporary password the website threw an error and told me to call. At this point, I already wasted hours of my life trying to set up the account, so I gave up.

Alas, the day came when I had to take the train a couple of weeks ago and I needed to set up the account right then. I tried the password reset feature on the site, and it worked this time. After I logged in, I began the most dysfunctional process I have ever undertaken.

The initial log in

I first had to call a card activation hotline, which was straightforward enough. Then I had to update my password. Most websites give you real time feedback on password strength so that you know when you have met the arbitrary minimum of complexity, but not Ventra. You must submit passwords that are highly complex, but conform to rigid guidelines as well, and only after entering them do you find out if it is complex enough. While this is secure, it is also less effective than a two-step verification process (using a smartphone app) and, on a site where one plans to log in almost never, will inevitably result in a lost password.

Finally arriving at a satisfactory password, I went to check my card value only to discover that it read zero. The money that was supposedly going to transfer to my card seamlessly was missing. Since I needed that card to board the train the next day, I grudgingly added $20 to my account. I then set up an automatic recharge amount of $20, which was supposed to be added after my account dipped below $10. I returned to my account page and saw, yet again, a zero balance. This began the second hour of my activation efforts.

Customer service

I called the customer support line. All of the regular menu options were, of course, not what I needed. I managed to access my account information after entering my account number and CCV code, and then I waited for 15 minutes for an account rep. When one picked up, and I started to speak, I was immediately disconnected, so I had to call back and repeat the entire process again, only this time I was on hold for closer to 30 minutes.

While I was on hold, I refreshed the account page and noticed that my balance was $58.25. Apparently, my Chicago Card transfer, one time addition of $20, and my automatic recharge all processed simultaneously. My problem shifted from having no balance to having a ludicrously high balance that would take me (an infrequent rider) a long time to use up.

Finally I began speaking to a representative. I explained my problem, and she listened patiently. At one point, she said “Some convenience, this card, huh?” I found this a little odd as she represented the organization that was promising me “convenience,” but I wrote it off as some kind of calming tactic used by customer service reps to build rapport. She asked if I had been to “Vertran.com, or something like that,” which piqued my suspicion that she had no clue about my issues.

After some discussion, she asked me if it were possible to reverse the charges to my account. I told her I didn’t really know, as I didn’t work for the company, and that I expected her to know if this was possible. Then she began asking me for personal information including my username, card number, security number, and email address. With even two or three of these pieces of information it would be no problem to hack my account. I told here I was not comfortable giving her any information, and that is when she said: “I’m supposed to tell you this. I don’t actually work for Ventra in Chicago. I’m in Boston and I need to take your information so a customer service representative can call you back.”

I told her thank you, but I’m not going to give out any more personal information without knowing exactly who is taking it. She told me, “That’s fine, but if you wait for them to call you back and resolve this problem and you miss the call, you’ll just have to call back and wait on hold again.” I told her thank you, but I’m hanging up now and I don’t care.

My Takeaway

I have used the bus and train several times since then, and I’ve yet to have a bus trip where my card worked without a hitch. A couple of times I have just not paid at all, which adds up to lost revenue for the CTA. I never got the obscenely high card credit resolved, so I guess I will spend it off over many months.

My friend Aja since advised me that the chips in the cards were from the Gameboy Advance manufacturer who stopped making them, and that is why the CTA had to change systems. I couldn’t confirm, but this doesn’t seem that far out there.

I humbly submit this as yet another tale of the effects of privatization of city services.