Spit it out

I listen to podcasts while commuting, and this past year I started listening to them at faster and faster playback speeds. 1.25X, then 1.5X, and now I'm routinely at 1.75 to 2X playback.

Now, when people speak to me in real life, it sounds like they're speaking in slow motion. I think that's one reason I have to dial in some Kendrick Lamar regularly, he's one of the few musicians who sends words at me at the pace I prefer.

Also, he's really talented. Here he is free stylin' to Taylor Swift's Shake it Off on DeDe in the Morning and performing a new untitled track on Colbert.

A recommendation for fans of Serial

Plenty of folks have been offering great suggestions for books, TV series, or movies to seek out next if you're a fan of Serial.

I'll toss out one I've been working my way through: The Missing, an original series that's a joint production between Starz and The BBC. In the U.S., you'll have to catch it on Starz for now, and I know most people don't have a subscription to that premium cable channel that runs behind HBO and Showtime when it comes to original series. Perhaps the show will be released on iTunes sometime after the series concludes on Starz in the next two weeks; having not ever watched any Starz original series, I'm assuming they follow a windowing system similar to HBO or Showtime. Of course, it airs on the BBC overseas two weeks before episodes air on Starz; those familiar with torrenting probably skipped this paragraph anyhow.

The series concerns the disappearance of a five-year old English boy while on vacation with his parents. The series jumps back and forth from the time of the boy's disappearance to a period eight years in the future, a la True Detective or The Affair, and that retrospective re-examination of the case gives the mystery a Serial-like feel.

In the past, I've found red herrings in television mystery series to be a huge turn-off, a narrative gimmick to prolong series for no reason other than for profit (remember the American version of The Killing?). Serial has given me a newfound tolerance for such false starts. In real life mysteries like the murder of Hae Min Lee, when you don't know the truth, everything bit of evidence the least bit prominent puts us on the scent of some suspect(s).

This is especially true for the father in The Missing. Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) feels a soul-searing guilt over his son's disappearance because he was watching his son Ollie when he vanished. In his quest to find Ollie, Hughes pursues every potential lead with a Biblical wrath, all human relationships, including his marriage, be damned. One of the odd pleasures of the series is Hughes' distinct bulldog unpleasantness; he's so exasperatingly unreasonable at times you want to shake him, yet of all the characters he seems to be the only one with a persistence to uncover the truth that matches the viewers'; Hughes is often both protagonist and antagonist, and Hughes and detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) become an odd couple akin to McConaughey and Harrelson in True Detective, each representing dueling impulses within the viewer: the desire to solve the mystery via the high road or by any means necessary.

Serial and the flaw in the design of our criminal system

Great piece by NY public defender Sarah Lustbader about a crucial bug in the design of our criminal system, one she argues that Serial could have put a spotlight on.

In our judicial system, two equal opponents argue zealously for their side, right? 

Actually, that common-sense belief is completely wrong. Prosecutors in the United States occupy a special role, charged not only with protecting society from crime but also with protecting the defendant from an unfair trial. According to the American Bar Association, a prosecutor “has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.”

...

I’m a public defender, and when I begin a case, I often know my client’s side of the story and nothing else. The prosecutor, by contrast, usually has access to police investigations, witnesses, forensics, and, after indictment, grand jury testimony. We have no legal right to that material until much later, most of it only on the eve of trial. 

...

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland that if a prosecutor comes across evidence that is potentially exculpatory — a witness recantation, a negative DNA match — that evidence must be turned over to the defense. Unfortunately, the Brady rule is violated at a rate Federal Judge Alex Kozinski called “an epidemic.” In 2009, the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions found the practices of police or prosecutors — including several Brady violations — might have led to wrongful convictions in 31 of the 53 cases examined.

I had no idea this was how our criminal system is supposed to work, but I'm just as unsurprised most prosecutors don't adhere to their legal duty to seek justice rather than just seek to win a conviction. It's crazy to expect humans to be able to optimize for two goals which may be in opposition.

Lustbader identifies a possible solution.

One partial fix to this problem would be open-file discovery, a system allowing defense access to the state’s entire file throughout the case (adjusting for witness safety). This system would ease the burden on prosecutors to play contradictory roles as judge and adversary, a combination that NYU Law Professor Rachel Barkow has called “the most significant design flaw in the federal criminal system.”

Open files would improve and accelerate plea bargaining, allowing defendants to make informed decisions, instead of the blind game of chicken we currently play. “If we were designing a government from scratch and knew that prosecutors were the final adjudicators in 97 percent of the cases, there is no way we’d let them make those determinations in secret,” Barkow said in an e-mail.

Recall Linus's Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Open-file discovery seems like a helpful step towards some legal equivalent. 

Lustbader's piece was a real eye-opener for me. However, I don't fault the folks behind Serial for not having locked in on this single aspect of the our justice system as the podcast's central theme. Koenig and team stated that they were figuring things out as they went along. Many of us have, myself included, took a long time to realize they weren't kidding. The way the first episode or two unfolded, we couldn't believe that they didn't know how things were going to end.

The whole thing was reminiscent of a mystery narrative, but it's become clear with the past few episodes that it really was more of a narrative of the reporting process, of just how many false starts and dead ends one encounters when trying to unravel the truth in real life, whether as a reporter or a criminal lawyer or investigator.

When the twelfth and final episode of season one of Serial posts in just a short while, I doubt we'll have any tidy conclusion as to Adnan's true guilt or innocence. Some listeners will be disappointed because they thought the podcast was one thing when it was something else entirely, but the next time around, both Koenig and team and listeners will have clearer expectations from the outset.

When all you can see through is the rear view mirror

Mark Harris has a great piece at Grantland on how Hollywood passed an inflection point of no return towards the franchise strategy in 2014. Whether or not this past year was the really the tipping point, using Michael Keaton's character's struggle in Birdman as a metaphor for the Hollywood studio dilemma was a pleasingly form-fitting metaphor.

It's worth perusing the two images Harris posted as a sobering, if not terrifying, preview of what's to come.

I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.

At this point, optimists usually say lighten up, because, after all, good movies always find a way to get through. But here’s the thing: They don’t. The evidence that good movies survive is the fact that every year brings good movies, which is a bit like saying that climate change is a hoax because it’s nice out today. Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to make NightcrawlerBirdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail — and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.

What we are seeing from the major studios is mono-strategy: cloning (analogous to what the tech world calls fast following). The two charts above are different but related; both work on the idea that it's cheaper and lower risk to market something which already has existing mindshare than to innovate from scratch.

This strategy is even more attractive to the risk-averse when budgets for such blockbusters require a heavy dose of international box office revenues (especially from China) to turn a profit. Genre films, especially of the action and superhero variety, travel more easily across international cultural palates because of their universal story elements. A culturally specific movie just doesn't translate as easily, and so a global audience squeezes movies into one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf stories.

That is a deceptively dangerous game, especially considering all the movies above will compete not just with other forms of entertainment for human attention but each other as well. I believe one of the big six Hollywood movie studios (Sony, Warner Bros, Disney, Universal, Fox, Paramount) is going to go under or be acquired in the next five years, and it will be because more than one of their mega-budget movie bets above will flop in the same year.

I have not lost all faith for smart movies for grownups, but we may suffer through a dark period for many years while alternative models and platforms for financing, production, and distribution of such cultural fare arise. The studio playbook when it comes to movies really doesn't contain much more than variants of one offensive scheme, let's call it the “shock and awe method of advertising saturation to propel a movie through the traditional windowing sequence.” It's a blunt hammer, one that is ill-suited to great movies like The Immigrant that call for a scalpel.

Bible Belt Big Data

“[O]ne of the strongest factors predicting divorce rates (per 1000 married couples) is the concentration of conservative or evangelical Protestants in that county,” the researchers explain. Religiously conservative states Alabama and Arkansas have the second and third highest divorce rates in the U.S., while religiously liberal New Jersey and Massachusetts have two of the lowest. Full graph below shows the regional correlation:

Describing their findings as a “puzzling paradox,” the researchers explained that the higher divorce rate among religious conservatives is tied to early marriage and early childbearing — factors already known to contribute to strained marriages and divorce. “Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages,” Glass stated.

Full piece here.

Also:

In America, religiosity and conservatism are generally associated with opposition to non-traditional sexual behavior, but prominent political scandals and recent research suggest a paradoxical private attraction to sexual content on the political and religious right. We examined associations between state-level religiosity/conservatism and anonymized interest in searching for sexual content online using Google Trends (which calculates within-state search volumes for search terms). Across two separate years, and controlling for demographic variables, we observed moderate-to-large positive associations between: (1) greater proportions of state-level religiosity and general web searching for sexual content and (2) greater proportions of state-level conservatism and image-specific searching for sex. These findings were interpreted in terms of the paradoxical hypothesis that a greater preponderance of right-leaning ideologies is associated with greater preoccupation with sexual content in private internet activity. Alternative explanations (e.g., that opposition to non-traditional sex in right-leaning states leads liberals to rely on private internet sexual activity) are discussed, as are limitations to inference posed by aggregate data more generally.

So by the transitive property...

The fight we wanted, but not really

Mayweather is undefeated over his career and is the top pound-for-pound boxer in the world, according subjective sources such as Ring Magazine and computer ratings such as those found at boxing database site BoxRec.com. Pacquiao ranks third on both lists, but it’s a distant third. By BoxRec’s ratings — which are constructed according to a philosophy similar to the Elo ratings we use to rank NFL teams — the difference between No. 1 Mayweather and No. 3 Pacquiao (680 rating points) is the same as the difference between Pacquiao and No. 29 Kubrat Pulev.

For fighters at the level of Mayweather and Pacquiao, a 680-point difference translates to a lopsided matchup. Using the careers of fighters in BoxRec’s current pound-for-pound top 25, for instance, cases in which one boxer had a pre-fight rating advantage between 550 and 800 points saw the favorite win 30 times in 33 tries, good for a 91 percent success rate. (If you want a second opinion, the boxing simulation program Title Bout forecasts a Mayweather win about 70 percent of the time.)

So, if nothing changes between now and the May 2 date Mayweather suggested for his bout with Pacquiao, it’s unlikely the battle will live up to the hype.

Neil Paine on why the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight that looks like it will finally happen is years too late.

No doubt, anyone who knows anything about boxing knows Mayweather is one of the most skilled boxers of all-time, with historically great defense, speed, and tactical acumen. But it's also true that he has rarely stepped into the ring with fighters at the peak of their powers, challengers that threatened him in any real way. Some of that isn't his fault; you can only fight the contenders available to you at any point in time, and at points in his career that list was a sorry lineup. However, Mayweather has also “ducked” some of the best contenders when they were at their primes, only agreeing to fights with them either when they were too green or on the down slope. That's also a form of good defense, though not the ones the fans wanted to see. It reflects in the eye test, too. Mayweather has almost always been a PPV buy that many boxing fans have regretted because his fights are often dull marathons of dominant defense peppered with occasional precision scoring on offense.

Look at the BoxRec.com ratings for Mayweather and each of his opponents before and after each of the fights in his career: rarely has he been threatened, and the few occasions he was out-rated going into a fight were anomalous, like 2009 fight against Juan Manuel Marquez when his rating was low from a near two year layoff.

Mayweather likely retires with a perfect record, something that seems to mean as much to him as money, but in the heyday of boxing, we had the acknowledged greatest fighters of their day, like Ali and Frazier, confronting each other repeatedly, and those fights still hold court in boxing fans' memories in a way that no Mayweather fight ever will.

Cowboy Bebop

Alex Suskind with an appreciation of Cowboy Bebop, now on Blu-ray.

Set in 2071, Bebop imagines a dystopian future where earth has been irrevocably damaged due to the creation of a “stargate,” forcing humans to evacuate the planet and create colonies across the solar system. The result is a galaxy of lawlessness, where crime lords rule and cops pay bounty hunters (often referred to as cowboys) to handle some of the grunt work. People drink in dive bars. Income inequality is terrible. Everyone speaks like they’re background extras in Chinatown. The show ultimately features so many cross-ranging influences and nods to other famous works it’s almost impossible to keep track. It’s Sergio Leone in a spacesuit. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with automatic weapons.

This confluence of cultures is what’s helped the show sustain influence over the last decade-plus. Countless filmmakers, animators, musicians—they’ve all been drawn into the orbit of Watanabe’s space-age cowboy western. Take Quentin Tarantino. The animated sequence from his 2003 film Kill Bill Vol. 1 is straight Bebop, with blood gushing out of each wound like an infinite geyser. There’s also filmmaker and future Star Wars spin-off director Rian Johnson, whose cult 2005 thriller Brick takes a good chunk of inspiration from the Japanese series, with its snappy, noir-friendly dialogue and overall sense of dread. Other famous fans of the series include the late Robin Williams, as well as science-fiction author Orson Scott Card, who wrote an essay in 2011 praising Bebop, comparing to another critically acclaimed space Western, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (Indeed, both series have strong female characters, a melting pot of cultures, and killer soundtracks.)

It's perhaps my favorite anime series of all time, and any time someone mentions that they like Firefly, I tell them to check out Cowboy Bebop, which is, IMHO, far superior.

When I first started watching the series, I had to purchase DVDs from other regions off of eBay and play them on a region-free DVD player, that's how much I craved new installments. Kids these days don't realize how easy they have it when it comes to binge-watching (my first experience binge-watching was tracking down the first two seasons of the X-Files; I posted a request to a newsgroup and found some saint who accepted a box of blank VHS tapes from me, dubbed every episode of the first two seasons, labeling each tape with titles and episode numbers, and mailed the whole lot back to me. If only I had kept those tapes. If I could reconnect with that guy, I would send him a bottle of bourbon or something.)

Why read (and reread)

Emphasis mine:

But how had I come to believe in this idea in the first place? A combination of my own experience and other things I'd read. None of which I could at that moment remember! And eventually I'd forget that Hilbert had confirmed it too. But my increased belief in the importance of this idea would remain something I'd learned from this book, even after I'd forgotten I'd learned it.

Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you've lost the source of. It works, but you don't know why.

...

For example, reading and experience are usually "compiled" at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase "already read" seems almost ill-formed.

From Paul Graham

For a period of a few years, I stopped reading Graham, or perhaps he wasn't writing as much, I'm not sure which. But recently he's been on some kind of streak.