Requiem for the IFC News Podcast

One of the wonders of our modern age is that it allows for fairly intense, asymmetrical digital relationships. That is, we can all have personalities online that we follow and listen to and read, but these people may have no idea who we are. One of the means by which this takes place is through podcasting, where every week, voices and conversations and personal moments are piped through to our ears from thousands of miles away. These strangers we listen to may not know us, but in some small way, we know them. And maybe knowing them makes us feel slightly less alone.

This week, Matt Singer and Alison Willmore announced that they would no longer be recording the IFC News Podcast (Alison will be moving on to greener pastures from IFC, and I wish her the best. She's an amazing, thoughtful writer and I can't wait to see what she does next). I've previously named the IFC News Podcast as one of the podcasts I can't live without. Back then, I wrote that "this podcast is a movie geek's dream come true, with tons of thoughtful references to movies past and present." I am really going to miss this show, as it has kept me company on many a car ride and through many a long walk. It was a rare episode that didn't cause me to rethink a classic movie formula/trope, or inform me of some amazing film gem I had yet to see.

The show's sudden departure is a reminder that, for the most part, podcasts are total labors of love, and that many of them only stay on the air through fortuitous circumstance and sheer force of will. (The IFC News podcast joins the Spout podcast, the podcast, and the Scene Unseen podcast as recent film podcasts that have permanently been downloaded to that great iPod in the sky). It sounds weird for me to say this (especially since I've had the privilege of meeting and speaking with Matt and Alison since I started listening to the podcast), but in many ways, losing the podcast feels like losing a dependable friend, one who would always be there to regale me with weekly stories of obscure movies and interesting observations. That their voices have left such an indelible impression on me is a testament to their skill, their intellect, and their likability.

A toast to the IFC News Podcast. You will be missed.

An Easy-To-Read Summary of What's Going on in Egypt

Kragen Sitaker has written up a summary of many of the events taking place in Egypt right now. It doesn't include a lot of material on Al Jazeera, but it's a nice, quick primer.

The Ridiculous Takedown of Robert Scoble

There's this new site called Quora. You may have heard of it? It provides high-quality questions to user answers, and it determines the quality of these questions by user-vote. It's also one of the hottest, most buzzed-about start-ups in Silicon Valley. Here's a description from Quora's "About" page:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.

"But Dave," you might ask. "Don't a ton of other sites already do the same thing? Doesn't the quality of questions/answer decline over time? Aren't they usually plagued with problems, in terms of the quality of their answers as well as infestation by spammers?" Well, yes. All those things are actually true about Quora, or likely will be at some point. But, you see, Quora has been able to attract high-profile personalities and knowledgeable people to its platform, which has led to some pretty awesome and insightful answers on the site receiving quite a bit of attention from a lot of important people. It's also inexplicably led to a site valuation of about $100 million.

I've used Quora, and I don't find it user-friendly enough to go mainstream, nor do I find it differentiates itself enough from competing services to make it worthy of all this attention. Yet. The Wall Street Journal's review of the site adeptly captures the opinion of most laypeople on what it's like to use Quora (if they've even heard of it, which most of them haven't).

All that being said, I was struck with the absolute ridiculousness of an online exchange between several high-profile users, who have recently taken to their blogs to battle it out about the usefulness of Quora. You see, blogging titan Robert Scoble, who was one of Quora's most popular users, recently declared that "Quora is a horrid service for blogging." Turns out, Scoble thought that the site would transform the way he blogged and interacted with others. When Scoble brought his considerable fanbase with him to Quora, it allowed all his answers to get upvoted to the top, thus providing the illusion that this was just another platform for him to extend his brand. You could call the influx of Quora followers he brought in something along the lines of "The Robert Scoble Effect," and in some ways, his became an unwelcome presence.

First of all, as others have already pointed out, it was never really intended to be a service for blogging. But furthermore, when a site such as Quora ostensibly rates answers based on the quality of answers, only to find answer ratings determined by an invasion of Scoble followers, it tends to get pissed off. And that's exactly what happened. A post addressed to Scoble at the Quora Reviewer retorted:

This morning, after seeing some of your favored Quora answers down-voted into oblivion and experiencing the anonymous sting of an overzealous reviewer, you decided to lash out. Quora, you wrote, was ”a horrid service for blogging.” Sure, you said, “it’s fine for a QA site, but we have lots of those.” As if to administer a finishing move, you added that Quora’s competitors are actually bigger and better and badder – especially Stack Exchange, where “the answers are broader in reach and deeper in quality.” Well, sorry, Scoble, Quora is not your playground.

Arrington from TechCrunch also posted a rebuttal to Scoble. So, Scoble backed down. And I don't think he should have.

Sure, Scoble might have had the wrong idea about the site's premise. But whose fault is that really? Scoble for doing what comes naturally to him, which is to evangelize about hot new services and bring a ton of followers with him who are naturally predisposed to upvote his stuff? Or Quora, for not developing a system that will actually do what it says, and surface the highest quality content?

I've written before about the limits of crowdsourcing. The take home message of my previous piece is that crowdsourcing is extremely difficult. Writing an algorithm that will result in the best answers receiving the most votes is nigh impossible when your site has a limited number of users. Quora's buzz is not built on its ability to do this, but rather the high-profile/knowledgeable people who have posted memorable answers to some of its questions. I agree completely with Vivek Wadha, who wrote:

I think that Quora will continue to be an excellent resource if the same people who have been hyping it, and who have invested in it, keep posting their thoughtful answers. But I believe that the excess hype is destined to make Quora a victim of its own press. The quality of answers will decline. The people whose opinion I value, such as Quora’s #1 respondent, Robert Scoble, will simply stop posting on the site when they get drowned out by the noise from the masses. They will turn away after having their posts voted down (so that they look less important than their peers) and being personally subjected to the types of mindless, anonymous attacks that you see in the comments section of TechCrunch.

Not to say that there aren’t many other smart people who will post good answers. But when there are hundreds of answers to a given question, by people you have never heard of (often with fictitious names), how will you separate the wheat from the chaff? And how will you distinguish fact from fiction? You certainly can’t trust the rankings of the respondents when these rankings are themselves generated by Quora users.

Let me draw new lessons from these analyses: In order for a site such as Quora to truly become useful, it must either 1) embrace its niche status and nurture its fledgling community (with the hierarchy that that entails), or 2) it must go mainstream enough that it can fulfill its vision of a truly crowdsourced, useful resource.

Let me expand on each of these. What I mean by embracing its niche is to say that when you have the relatively limited number of users that Quora does, naturally, some users will rise to the top due to their pre-existing influence or the consistent quality of their answers. It is possible to embrace this. Other crowdsourcing sites give special privileges (e.g. adminstrator status, "top user" status) to those who are most active, or who provide the highest-quality material. Likewise, if Quora's top users begin to constitute an online oligarchy, Quora could channel their abilities to continue to improve its site.

Alternatively, if the site really does get enough mainstream adoption, then it could become something akin to the next Wikipedia, where the final product truly is a reflection of what the majority of people think are the best answers. Based on a variety of factors, I don't see this happening.

[There is a third alternative that I haven't listed: PeopleRank. If Quora can make its ranking algorithm better than that of any other site, then it has a chance to differentiate itself and truly succeed at its stated goal. It's a daunting task. We'll see how they do.]

The above ecosystems are obviously far more complex than I'm making them out to be here, but my point still stands. It is the apex of absurdity that a power user such as Scoble should be scolded for misunderstanding how to use a site such as Quora, especially when that site does not even come close to living up to its own mission. Scoble himself put it best when he wrote the following:

[Quora is] just fine for a QA site, but we already have lots of those and, in fact, the competitors in this space are starting to react. Mahalo just released a new version that has been getting lots of praise and at DLD I met the CEO of and he said to expect a major update from his service (which has 1000x more users). Stack Exchange is growing faster than Quora and has many many times more questions and answers, plus I’ve found the answers are broader in reach, and deeper in quality (especially for programmers).

In the face of criticism, Scoble backed down. But it's really Quora that should be criticized, for not creating a system that was be able to withstand the Robert Scoble Effect.

Steve Jobs: Hope for a Secular World

I really love this essay by Andy Crouch about the hope that Steve Jobs brings to the world. Jobs, you may know, recently took a medical leave of absence for an indefinite period of time. Crouch speculates on what the world would be like if he never returned:

Steve Jobs’s medical leave of absence is the top story in today’s newspapers. The Wall Street Journal says his brief and poignant memo raises “uncertainty over his health and the future of the world’s most valuable technology company.” These two questions—Jobs’s health and Apple’s health—are the focus of almost all the coverage today. But I’m interested in the health of our culture, and what will happen to it when (not if) Steve Jobs departs the stage for the last time.

As remarkable as Steve Jobs is in countless ways—as a designer, an innovator, a (ruthless and demanding) leader—his most singular quality has been his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple’s early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and made it a sign of promise and progress.

Behind the Resignation of NPR News Executive Ellen Weiss

Like many, I was baffled by the strange circumstances surrounding the resignation of Ellen Weiss, a woman who had made her decades-long career at NPR, in the aftermath of the poorly-executed firing of Juan Williams. Paul Farhi has finally unraveled the mystery:

An internal investigation launched by NPR's board in the wake of the Williams affair broadened into questions about Weiss's command of the newsroom. While several employees acknowledged her role in building NPR into a radio-news powerhouse and emerging digital-news player, they also questioned her methods.

More than a dozen NPR employees, including some of its well-known hosts, aired long-standing grievances to investigators about Weiss's management style, particularly the way she had carried out a series of layoffs and terminations in 2008. Weiss's decision to fire Williams without benefit of a face-to-face meeting sounded familiar to those who recounted similar episodes, according to people who spoke with the investigating team.

More damning was the suggestion - hotly disputed by people close to Weiss - that Weiss had preempted her boss, Schiller, in telling Williams that he had to go.

Good Old Fashioned Detective Work

Mark Bowden's "The Case of the Vanishing Blond" unfolds like a television police procedural, which is why it's all the more impressive that it thrills you even in print form:

From the start, it was a bad case. A battered 21-year-old woman with long blond curls was discovered facedown in the weeds, naked, at the western edge of Miami, where the neat grid of outer suburbia butts up against the high grass and black mud of the Everglades. It was early on a winter morning in 2005. A local power-company worker was driving by the empty lots of an unbuilt cul-de-sac when he saw her.

And much to his surprise, she was alive. She was still unconscious when the police airlifted her to Jackson Memorial Hospital. When she woke up in its trauma center, she could remember little about what had happened to her, but her body told an ugly tale. She had been raped, badly beaten, and left for dead. There was severe head trauma; she had suffered brain-rattling blows. Semen was recovered from inside her. The bones around her right eye were shattered. She was terrified and confused. She bent English to her native Ukrainian grammar and syntax, dropping pronouns and inverting standard sentence structure, which made her hard to understand. And one of the first things she asked for on waking was her lawyer. That was unusual.

The Psychological Perils of Solitary Confinement

I had a chance to catch up on a ton of articles while I was on the plane to/from Sundance (see all /Film's coverage of Sundance here), so some of my postings over the next week or two may be a bit older than usual.

In any case, here's Atul Gawande's examination of whether or not solitary confinement is torture. The short answer to that question: probably yes.

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of the general population. Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.

There are solutions to this. Take the British approach, for example:

The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills...The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

Of course, the U.S. would never allow such vast sweeping reforms. Our toxic political system paradoxically requires all politicians to be tough on criminals without actually examining the root causes of criminality and negative behavior in prisons. It's a can't-miss recipe to continue upon the horrible path we're on.

Announcing the Chencast


Yesterday, as a mental exercise, I decided to see how long it would take me to buy a domain and set up a brand new podcast available for download in the iTunes music store. The answer? About 90 minutes (and 24 hours from the time I submitted it until the listing appeared in iTunes).

I record a ton of audio blogs with people who I find to be fascinating and articulate. I decided to try to make the best of them them available for download (by hosting them externally), and put them into a format that will be easier for people to consume (by making it available on iTunes). So, The Chencast is born!

This will not be a repository for ALL my audio blogs (which you can still find at my audioboo page). Rather, it will contain conversations at least 15 minutes in length, hopefully with an interesting person who has something interesting to say about something interesting that's going on in the news, society, and/or culture. Being interesting is the critical factor here, if you can't tell.

I have no idea what this will end up becoming, how frequent updates will be, or anything about the future of this enterprise. But I do know that the three episodes I've already uploaded are worth your time, if nothing else.

Whatever happens, hey, you should subscribe while the getting is good! I have a crappy website up right now, but where it's really at is in iTunes. You can subscribe to the new podcast in iTunes by clicking here. Enjoy, and feel free to e-mail me to let you know what you think.

P.S. If you really hate iTunes, you can also subscribe to the show via RSS.

Adventures with Julian Assange

If you're a journalism news junkie like me, you may find Bill Keller's recounting of The New York Times' interaction with Julian Assange to be a thrilling read:

The adventure that ensued over the next six months combined the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of handling a vast secret archive with the more mundane feat of sorting, searching and understanding a mountain of data. As if that were not complicated enough, the project also entailed a source who was elusive, manipulative and volatile (and ultimately openly hostile to The Times and The Guardian); an international cast of journalists; company lawyers committed to keeping us within the bounds of the law; and an array of government officials who sometimes seemed as if they couldn’t decide whether they wanted to engage us or arrest us. By the end of the year, the story of this wholesale security breach had outgrown the story of the actual contents of the secret documents and generated much breathless speculation that something — journalism, diplomacy, life as we know it — had profoundly changed forever.

The King's Speech Was a Labor of Love

There's this sentiment going around the internet that The King's Speech is some kind of Oscar bait movie. And let me clarify that I think there's a difference between "a movie that Oscars usually get awarded to" and "Oscar bait." The latter implies some sort of cynical targeting, as though the film was written, directed, and/or produced specifically just to garner awards.

Devin Faraci's response to this year's Oscar nominations is characteristic of the tone:

The answer to who got nominated: The King’s Speech. I have not yet seen The King’s Speech, and I hear it’s very good. But I have stayed away from the film because it looks genetically engineered to take home Academy Awards, and it’s well on its way – the film received 12 nominations, making it the front runner at this year’s Oscars. So now I’ll trudge down the street to catch the film at my local theater, where it’s been playing for weeks, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it well enough. I’ll just never forget that this thing is like the shark of the movie world: it exists only to consume. Awards, in this case.

Reading something like this, it's easy to suspect that The King's Speech's awards success was assured from the outset. I don't think this is the case. Rather, listening to director Tom Hooper tell the story, it's clear that creating the film was a labor of love, and that without some creative, elaborate patchwork of financing deals, the film (whose screenplay, by the way, was originally supposed to be a play) never would have come together.

Here's KCRW's interview with Hooper. Hooper's segment begins about 8 minutes in.

I Am Going To Sundance 2011


Hey all,

By this point, I think there are at least a few dozen of you reading this thing regularly. To y'all, I say: Thanks! FYI: I'll be heading to Sundance starting on Thursday, January 20, so updates will be basically nonexistent until I return next week (January 25th). However, do check out /Film, as there will be tons of content in the form film reviews, photographs, interviews, video blogs, and most importantly, AUDIOBOOS!


In Which /Film Disappoints Roger Ebert

A couple of years ago, I wrote a lengthy reflection asking readers of /Film why they read "Top 10" lists at the end of each year. Here's what I wrote back then:

We read these lists because we have strong feelings about films and as social creatures, we like to see our opinions validated. When allegedly respectable people disagree with us, we label their views as inferior. We express mock outrage because it’s fun to rip apart a writer on a message board or comments section. But ultimately, I think all of that misses the point. Lists, reviews, even news items: We should all read these things to be informed, not only about objective reality but also about subjective opinions. How else can our own opinions be refined and improved except in the presence of those that are opposed to ours? As the old adage goes, “Variety is the spice of life.” How boring, monotonous, and oppressive would it be if everyone just had the same opinion on every single film out there?

I still agree with this sentiment completely. Perhaps when I was younger and more foolish, I read lists to make sure that critics agreed with my own picks. But these days, I celebrate the fact that people have different choices. Maybe they'll give me an idea for a movie to check out on the festival circuit, or maybe I'll have more fodder to add to my ever-lengthening Netflix queue. Whatever the case, diversity in film opinion should be celebrated, not quashed. And when someone picks a film that you hate on their "Top 10" list, that should be more motivation to read their reasoning. Considering opposing opinions sharpens the mind, rather than dulling it.

I thought about that piece recently when I learned that legendary film critic Roger Ebert had commented on an article over at /Film. Ebert set the film blogosphere on fire when he tapped 24-year old writer/blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky to appear in his new At The Movies television show. Scrutiny of Vishnevetsky escalated shortly thereafter, a phenomenon exemplified by the comments in our piece listing his Indiewire ballot best films of 2010. Vishnevetsky's choices were certainly unorthodox, but as I've already tried to explain, one's justifications, reasoning, and criticism are more important than some arbitrary numerical ranking of favorite films.

Here's what Ebert had to say about Vishnevetsky's list:

I think it's a good list. "World on a Wire" is a rediscovered Fassbinder. "The Father of my Children," "Vincere" and "White Material" are on my Best Foreign Films List. I gave "Vengeance" 3.5 stars. Loved Jane Birkin in "Around a Small Mountain." Didn't see "Eccentricities," but it was good enough for the official selection at Cannes. Do these posters know who its director is? I wager not.

The Romero I didn't see. Every critic is allowed one weirdo title out of 10. It's a tradition. All depends on *what he said about it.*

Bear in mind Ignatiy wasn't seeing all the mainstream movies last year. Not his job. He went voluntarily to movies he wanted to see. This list suggests the extent of his knowledge and curiosity.

Some of these Slashfilm readers disappoint me. They criticize this list for (1) not rubber-stamping other lists, and (2) for, gasp, including films they haven't seen! Typical of that conformist group I call the List Police.

I read the list and rejoiced that we had Ignatiy on the show.

Roger Ebert

Some of them disappoint me too, Roger. Some of them disappoint me too.

I'm obviously crestfallen that commenters displaying the intellect, manners, and capacity of middle schoolers are allowed to hijack such a conversation on our site (and that, on one of the few days of the year that Ebert ventures over to visit us, that's what he has to see). But there are several factors that counteract my desire to throw my hands up in the air and just give up hope. Because, you see, I know that there are great deal of intelligent people reading our site, people who've written me e-mails containing thoughtful, lengthy discourses on the nature of John Woo's violence, and on the merits of Martin Scorsese, and on the prevalence of chauvinism or masochism or hedonism in this film or that film. Their encouragement has been immeasurable to me.

I also know that we, as writers, can only do our best. And while some of the readers we are attracting may not leave the most respectful comments, we can all aspire to be better than we would otherwise be. It's also possible, too, that one day our commenters will grow up and realize that there's a great, big, beautiful world out there, full of people who hold different opinions than they do. Hopefully, we'll reach that day soon.

[P.S. Mr. Ebert: If you ever get around to reading this, you should really check out The Tobolowsky Files. I think it'd be right up your alley.]

Ricky Gervais's Remarkable Golden Globes Performance

Ricky Gervais's performance at the Golden Globes tonight was classic Gervais: incisive, brutal, and loaded with uncomfortable truths [Watch his opening monologue now, if you haven't. It's the stuff of legend.]

But it's a good thing we have reporters like Mary McNamara, writing for the LA Times, to protect the bruised egos of these poor, poor millionaire superstar actors and directors:

This year, [Gervais] was far better prepared, and one would imagine, much sweatier, as it quickly became clear that his material wasn't just falling flat, it was making many audience members and presenters uncomfortable and even angry...Poking fun at big stars is in the job description. But televised teasing requires a lightness of touch or else it quickly becomes bullying.

For a few short hours, an awards show host wields undeniable power. He or she can make a joke about someone in the audience and that person is stuck between a camera and a hard place — get all shirty about it and you risk looking like Sean Penn defending Jude Law from Chris Rock's rather gentle ribbing. So most just smiled, perhaps at the memory of Gervais' own dismal box office record, and prayed for a quick cutaway.

McNamara's piece is well-written, but sheesh. Here we have a situation where we finally have a comedian who is willing to speak truth to (box office) power and shake things up a bit, and you're going to argue for the status quo? Take a step back from your job and think about the extraordinary dressing down that Gervais gave everyone, HFPA-included, tonight. Gervais may not ever be invited back again, but for one night, he knocked a few inches off the Hollywood pedestal that the public is only too-willing to place our stars upon. For that, we can marvel and be grateful.

Why We Need To Get Away from CPM Advertising

Tom Hespos, writing on the problems associated with advertising revenue based on pageviews:

When publishers sell advertising on a CPM (cost-per-thousand impressions) basis rather than on a flat-fee basis, the value of content depends solely on the amount of traffic it can draw to websites and newsletters where ads are displayed. This dynamic has reduced too much web content to the equivalent of internet-forum trolling -- provocative pieces designed to "go viral" by sparking controversy and outrage. Publishing top 10 lists that few people agree with, politically charged short video clips and other pieces of "link bait" that aim to get people to express a contrary opinion has become a viable online publishing business model. Just ask

I agree. This is extremely pernicious. But Hespos' solution?

What's the content creator's best bet for generating revenue? The simplest solution involves decoupling the value of the content from its traffic-generating ability. You do that by reaching an audience that's so valuable to an advertiser that they chuck the CPM model entirely and pay a flat rate to "own" your content exclusively.

We'll all do whatever we need to do in order to increase the value of our content, but I'd suggest that relying on BT to boost CPMs isn't the answer. Separating traffic volume from content quality would have a much greater effect.

Uh...yeah. Not terribly practical, especially for certain markets.

Hespos is saying you should write for the audience that you want to have, not the one that you actually have. But there's no sense here (at least in this column) of how one makes that transition and acquires that desired audience. And for smaller sites, such as the one I write for, having an ad-sales person who can sell sponsorships is not really a feasible option.

Court Rules that Documentary Filmmakers Are Not Journalists

Sad development in the case over the documentary film Crude:

A federal appeals court says that Joe Berlinger, the filmmaker who was ordered to give footage from his 2009 documentary “Crude” to the Chevron Corporation, could not invoke a journalist’s privilege in refusing to turn over that footage because his work on the film did not constitute an act of independent reporting.

The Best Defense of Gay Marriage I've Ever Read

Nancy Cott approaches the very emotional topic of gay marriage from the best angle possible: the historical/legal one. With  magnificent detail, she explains that modern marriage was the result of literally hundreds of years of evolution. Allowing gay marriage will simply be the next step:

The ability of married partners to procreate has never been required to make a marriage legal or valid, nor have unwillingness or inability to have children been grounds for divorce.
And marriage, as I have argued, has not been one unchanging institution over time. Features of marriage that once seemed essential and indispensable proved otherwise. The ending of coverture, the elimination of racial barriers to choice of partner, the expansion of grounds for divorce—though fiercely resisted by many when first introduced—have strengthened marriage rather than undermining it. The adaptability of marriage has preserved it.

Computer Wins Practice 'Jeopardy!' Round Against Humans; Skynet-Like Takeover Imminent

Deep Blue has begat Watson, a computer that is able to "understand" questions in Jeopardy! and provide answers in the form of a question (go here for an in-depth NYTimes feature on Watson). Watson's almost ready for primetime, but before he takes the spotlight, IBM pitted him in a practice round against Ken Jennings and Brad Ruttner. The results:

Watson, which IBM claims as a profound advance in artificial intelligence, edged out game-show champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Thursday in its first public test, a short practice round ahead of a million-dollar tournament that will be televised next month.

Can Judgment Day be far behind?

Amy Chua Isn't An Evil Chinese Mother After All

Remember that WSJ piece the other day by Amy Chua? The one where she propagates a nightmarish form of Asian child-rearing that sounds barbaric to Westerners? Turns out the Wall Street Journal completely took all her remarks out of context, and that the book it's "excerpted" from is much more balanced and excellent than the short published section would imply. Jeff Yang has some great analysis over at SFGate:

"I was very surprised," [Chua] says. "The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they'd put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn't even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model."

Yet another reason not to trust The Wall Street Journal!

Why You Should Never Use Two Spaces After a Period

Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo has written a screed against "two-spacers." As a one-spacer, I'm inclined to agree with him:

"Who says two spaces is wrong?" they wanted to know. Typographers, that's who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually. James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out that the early history of type is one of inconsistent spacing. Hundreds of years ago some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space, and a few renegades would use three or four spaces. Inconsistency reigned in all facets of written communication; there were few conventions regarding spelling, punctuation, character design, and ways to add emphasis to type. But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after.

Full Text and Video of Obama's Tuscon Speech

Speeches like this remind us why we elected this guy.

That being said, the almost-continuous applause during the speech struck me as incredibly off-putting and inappropriate. I didn't feel like this was the kind of speech that should be delivered in the same atmosphere as that of a political rally. But none of that is a comment on Obama's speechwriting and delivery, which were top-notch.
Few speeches bring tears to my eyes or stir my heart in the same way as Obama's.


To the families of those we've lost; to all who called them friends; to the students of this university, the public servants gathered tonight, and the people of Tucson and Arizona: I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow.

There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: the hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours that Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other living victims of this tragedy pull through.

As Scripture tells us:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

On Saturday morning, Gabby, her staff, and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders - representatives of the people answering to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns to our nation's capital. Gabby called it "Congress on Your Corner" - just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.

That is the quintessentially American scene that was shattered by a gunman's bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday - they too represented what is best in America.

Judge John Roll served our legal system for nearly 40 years. A graduate of this university and its law school, Judge Roll was recommended for the federal bench by John McCain twenty years ago, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and rose to become Arizona's chief federal judge. His colleagues described him as the hardest-working judge within the Ninth Circuit. He was on his way back from attending Mass, as he did every day, when he decided to stop by and say hi to his Representative. John is survived by his loving wife, Maureen, his three sons, and his five grandchildren.

George and Dorothy Morris - "Dot" to her friends - were high school sweethearts who got married and had two daughters. They did everything together, traveling the open road in their RV, enjoying what their friends called a 50-year honeymoon. Saturday morning, they went by the Safeway to hear what their Congresswoman had to say. When gunfire rang out, George, a former Marine, instinctively tried to shield his wife. Both were shot. Dot passed away.

A New Jersey native, Phyllis Schneck retired to Tucson to beat the snow. But in the summer, she would return East, where her world revolved around her 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and 2 year-old great-granddaughter. A gifted quilter, she'd often work under her favorite tree, or sometimes sew aprons with the logos of the Jets and the Giants to give out at the church where she volunteered. A Republican, she took a liking to Gabby, and wanted to get to know her better.

Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard grew up in Tucson together - about seventy years ago. They moved apart and started their own respective families, but after both were widowed they found their way back here, to, as one of Mavy's daughters put it, "be boyfriend and girlfriend again." When they weren't out on the road in their motor home, you could find them just up the road, helping folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. A retired construction worker, Dorwan spent his spare time fixing up the church along with their dog, Tux. His final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers.

Everything Gabe Zimmerman did, he did with passion - but his true passion was people. As Gabby's outreach director, he made the cares of thousands of her constituents his own, seeing to it that seniors got the Medicare benefits they had earned, that veterans got the medals and care they deserved, that government was working for ordinary folks. He died doing what he loved - talking with people and seeing how he could help. Gabe is survived by his parents, Ross and Emily, his brother, Ben, and his fiancée, Kelly, who he planned to marry next year.

And then there is nine year-old Christina Taylor Green. Christina was an A student, a dancer, a gymnast, and a swimmer. She often proclaimed that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her. She showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age, and would remind her mother, "We are so blessed. We have the best life." And she'd pay those blessings back by participating in a charity that helped children who were less fortunate.

Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken - and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness.

Our hearts are full of hope and thanks for the 13 Americans who survived the shooting, including the congresswoman many of them went to see on Saturday. I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here, where our friend Gabby courageously fights to recover even as we speak. And I can tell you this - she knows we're here and she knows we love her and she knows that we will be rooting for her throughout what will be a difficult journey.

And our hearts are full of gratitude for those who saved others. We are grateful for Daniel Hernandez, a volunteer in Gabby's office who ran through the chaos to minister to his boss, tending to her wounds to keep her alive. We are grateful for the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload. We are grateful for a petite 61 year-old, Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away the killer's ammunition, undoubtedly saving some lives. And we are grateful for the doctors and nurses and emergency medics who worked wonders to heal those who'd been hurt.

These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. They remind us that heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned - as it was on Saturday morning.

Their actions, their selflessness, also pose a challenge to each of us. It raises the question of what, beyond the prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family - especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?

So sudden loss causes us to look backward - but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.

That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions - that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires. For those who were harmed, those who were killed - they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis - she's our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America's fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.

And in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

So deserving of our love.

And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives - to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That's what I believe, in part because that's what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.

Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called "Faces of Hope." On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. "I hope you help those in need," read one. "I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles."

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

May God bless and keep those we've lost in restful and eternal peace. May He love and watch over the survivors. And may He bless the United States of America.

The Politics of the Giffords Shooting: Article Round-Up

Here are a few pieces I've found to be interesting reading relating to the aftermath of the tragic shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

The Stranger has an editorial explaining its politically-loaded gunsight-laden cover.

The Rumpus believes that Some Revelation Is At Hand.

David Frum has written up an even-handed piece about what an appropriate response to the shooting would have been:

Palin failed to appreciate the question being posed to her. That question was not: “Are you culpable for the shooting?” The question was: “Having put this unfortunate image on the record, can you respond to the shooting in a way that demonstrates your larger humanity? And possibly also your potential to serve as leader of the entire nation?”

And Videogum (???) has probably one of the overall best reactions to Palin's ill-advised response video that was released this morning:

First of all, you are aware by now of the whole “surveyor’s symbols” thing? How Sarah Palin’s camp is claiming that the symbols on her map aren’t gunsight targets at all, but rather are symbols used in landscape architecture? Excuse me, but FUCK YOU. It’s one thing to be frustrated that you’re getting unwarranted criticism for a thing that is not your fault–fair enough–but do not start with the condescending bullshit nightmare lies. Those are gun targets. The end. I rest my case. You rested my case for me by, you know, USING GUN TARGETS ON YOUR PICTURE. The fact that they would even dare to mention “surveyor’s symobls” is just straight up VILLAINOUS.

David Chen's Top 10 Movies of 2010

Some recent "Top of 2010" action for you:

- Our top 10 movies of 2010

- My list of the Top 10 beautiful films of the year

- And for random entertainment: The best soundtracks of 2010

I put a lot of work into these and I'm proud of them. Hope you enjoy them, as we enter the new year.

Film Critic Eric D. Snider Demonstrates Viable Alternative Business Model for Online Personalities

A few weeks ago, Eric D. Snider launched a Kickstarter campaign, whereby he would agree to write 50 (almost) weekly "Snide Remarks" columns for an entire year if people pledged $5,000 for him to do it. I've read Snider's "Snide Remarks" on a number of occasions and I think they're hilarious and frequently  brilliant. I'm also a fan of Kickstarter, which allows people to allocate money via Amazon Payments towards exciting projects that would never otherwise get backing. So, I threw in a few bucks for the cause. Here's what Snider had to say about it at the outset:

I thought: How much would I need to be paid per "Snide Remarks" column for it to be worthwhile as a writing gig? The answer I came up with was $100. I did some quick math and determined that if I wrote a column every week for a year, minus two weeks off for vacation and to make the math easier, that would be $5,000.

That is my project bid for this gig. For $5,000, I'll write a year of weekly "Snide Remarks" columns, starting the first Monday in March 2011.

I'm pleased to report that as of right now, Snider has hit his goal of $5,000! I asked Eric via IM how he felt about achieving his fundraising goal. "I'm excited to write the column again regularly and glad that at least 190 people are interested in reading it," he said. In the past, Eric has also opined that people are generally unwilling to pay for things they read on the internet. I asked him if he still had that opinion, and he responded:

Yeah, and I still believe that. I mean, that's not an opinion; that's a demonstrable fact: people in general don't like to pay for online content. That's why the Kickstarter thing is so genius. 190 people pledged money for Snide Remarks. But if I had used a subscription model -- pay X dollars per year to access it -- I bet most of those 190 wouldn't have done it (Unless the X dollars per year was something comically low, like a dollar.) With Kickstarter, it doesn't feel like you're paying for the content I'm producing. Everyone will be able to read it, not just those who contributed money. So it feels more like backing a good cause, which people *will* pay money for.

Indeed. Eric's success proves that if you work hard enough at building your online persona into something distinct and entertaining, people are willing to pay to continue consuming the content that you put out. They just need the right channel through which to do so.

[I realize others have demonstrated this theory before, but Eric's a good colleague and with the exception of people like Ebert, few have had a lot of success with this type of thing in the realm of film writing. So, I felt it worth writing about, because I think his success has implications for many of us in the online community.]

[P.S. Be sure to check out Eric's site and his cool podcast too.]

Why Law School Graduates Are Totally Screwed

Apparently, not only are law schools cash cows, they're also havens for fudging numbers relating to their success. The NYTimes has the in-depth story:

“If you’re a law school and you add 25 kids to your class, that’s a million dollars, and you don’t even have to hire another teacher,” says Allen Tanenbaum, a lawyer in Atlanta who led the American Bar Association’s commission on the impact of the economic crisis on the profession and legal needs. “That additional income goes straight to the bottom line.”

There were fewer complaints about fudging and subsidizing when legal jobs were plentiful. But student loans have always been the financial equivalent of chronic illnesses because there is no legal way to shake them. So the glut of diplomas, the dearth of jobs and those candy-coated employment statistics have now yielded a crop of furious young lawyers who say they mortgaged their future under false pretenses. You can sample their rage, and their admonitions, on what are known as law school scam blogs, with names like Shilling Me Softly, Subprime JD and Rose Colored Glasses.

Chinese Mothers are Not Superior

Christine Lu responds to Amy Chua's inflammatory article in the WSJ:

Chinese mothers are not superior. It's clear that the author Amy Chua has a new book out and linkbait headlines in the WSJ will help her sell them. I understand she uses the term "Chinese Mother" to represent a certain parenting style - one that I am very familiar with from personal experience...

As a responsibility to herself as a "superior Chinese mother", I think Amy Chua should do a bit of research outside her comfort zone and help readers understand why Asian-American females have one of the highest rates of suicide in the U.S. -- I bet many of you didn't know that. I didn't until after the fact. It'd make a good follow up book to this one she's currently profiting from.

Why You Should Save Important Topics For Your Blog, Not Twitter

Anil Dash says what I already tried to say, only much more articulately:

[S]ome ideas are just bigger than 140 characters. In fact, most good ideas are. More importantly, our ideas often need to gain traction and meaning over time. Blog posts often age into something more substantial than they are at their conception, through the weight of time and perspective and response.

And blogs afford that sort of maturation of an idea uniquely well amongst online media, due to their use of the permalink (permanent link), which gives each idea a place to live and thrive. While Facebook and Twitter nominally provide permalinks as well, the truth is that individual ideas in those flow-based media don't have enough substance for a meaningful conversation to accrete around them.

Dash also points out the biggest problem with Twitter at this point: there are no publicly accessible archives. There's no easy way to search your Twitter stream or the streams of others. This means you should fully expect anything you say on Twitter, no matter how important or profound, to be completely inaccessible and lost to the ages, unless you do something to preserve it. The fact that most people ignore these limitations makes it all the more tragic that great conversations and great ideas may never be read by people who just weren't following their tweets at the time.

Why You Shouldn't Use The Bible When Arguing About Homosexuality

Reverand Candace Chellew-Hodge's post, about why we shouldn't us scripture to argue pro- or anti-gay positions, totally blew my mind:

We don't take the Bible's word for it that the earth is flat and women only incubate babies and contribute nothing else to the process. Why on earth would we take it as an authority on sexual orientation? The Bible remains a holy book because it maps humanity's journey with God, and not the other way around. Because it maps our journey with God, it maps our evolving understanding of how the Holy works in this world. Humanity has moved from seeing God as a harsh judge and lawmaker to a seeing God as full of grace, mercy and love...

The reason gays and lesbians should never argue over scripture is because, not only does scripture not condemn homosexuality, arguing over it produces nothing but strife, division and hatred. Anything that does not promote love is not of God. Instead of arguing, let us love one another, even those with whom we disagree. This is God's message to us. Nothing else matters.

Chinese Mothers Destroy Western Mothers

Amy Chua over at the WSJ (WTF?) says what most Asian parents know and believe, but haven't been able to say in a nationally distributed newspaper until now (via Farhad):

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

It is difficult for me to emphasize how much insight this article provides into the Chinese parenting model.

Taking Patton Oswalt Seriously

Recently, Patton Oswalt released a brilliantly written screed about the disintegration of geek culture. I enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed Pop Culture Happy Hour's in-depth analysis of the piece (via Angie):

It does't have a place to go, because at the core of this piece, underneath the eloquence, is something that is as old as nerds themselves, which is nerd entitlement. Which is the sentiment of "You are doing it wrong. You do not appreciate this thing in the same way, to the same extent, and for the same reasons that I do. Therefore, you are doing it wrong. And this is an endemic thing to nerd culture. It is a toxic thing, but you can't get away from it. 

It's a lengthy discussion, but if you're at all interested in the nature of geek culture, it's worth listening to.

Why Do People Illlegally Download TV Shows That Are Available for Free Online?

Paidcontent ponders the Lost paradox, AKA why people download shows when they can get them for free off of Hulu or Youtube. It all comes down to what we've always known: the TV industry is doing a crappy job of providing more consumer-friendly products than piracy does:

Hard-core fans want an archive that’s easily accessible, high resolution, and they know won’t disappear—features that right now, only piracy offers. iTunes files can only be stored on one machine, and from the vantage point of a true fan (who wants a library of full seasons) DVRs fill up quickly. Sure, DVDs are an option—but they’re getting less convenient every year in the face of digital options, and clearly won’t be compatible with the devices of the next generation, like smartphones and tablets. The fans of today—the kind of fans who would want to collect a whole season’s worth of episodes—feel entitled to a TV archive that’s “high resolution, easily stored, [and] portable,” writes De Kosnik. Can entertainment companies honestly say the legal options available today meet those criteria?

You Can't Escape Your Past. But You Can Deal With It.

Over at Gizmodo, Joel Johnson has published the suicide note of programmer Bill Zeller. Johnson himself has written compellingly about being sexually abused, and it's clear that Zeller suffered similarly. But Johnson developed ways to cope. Zeller did not. Johnson writes:

I think a person has the right to live or end their life as they choose. If Zeller really felt that suicide was his only option, so be it. But as someone who has had similar experiences in my own life, I want to say to anyone else who feels the way Zeller felt: You can't escape your past. Not completely. But you can deal with it. You can contextualize it. You can learn how to prepare for the times when you feel like it's not even on your radar and then it totally broadsides you.

And you can talk to people. You really can.

Zeller authorized his suicide letter to be republished in its entirety. Here it is.


I have the urge to declare my sanity and justify my actions, but I assume I'll never be able to convince anyone that this was the right decision. Maybe it's true that anyone who does this is insane by definition, but I can at least explain my reasoning. I considered not writing any of this because of how personal it is, but I like tying up loose ends and don't want people to wonder why I did this. Since I've never spoken to anyone about what happened to me, people would likely draw the wrong conclusions.

My first memories as a child are of being raped, repeatedly. This has affected every aspect of my life. This darkness, which is the only way I can describe it, has followed me like a fog, but at times intensified and overwhelmed me, usually triggered by a distinct situation. In kindergarten I couldn't use the bathroom and would stand petrified whenever I needed to, which started a trend of awkward and unexplained social behavior. The damage that was done to my body still prevents me from using the bathroom normally, but now it's less of a physical impediment than a daily reminder of what was done to me.

This darkness followed me as I grew up. I remember spending hours playing with legos, having my world consist of me and a box of cold, plastic blocks. Just waiting for everything to end. It's the same thing I do now, but instead of legos it's surfing the web or reading or listening to a baseball game. Most of my life has been spent feeling dead inside, waiting for my body to catch up.

At times growing up I would feel inconsolable rage, but I never connected this to what happened until puberty. I was able to keep the darkness at bay for a few hours at a time by doing things that required intense concentration, but it would always come back. Programming appealed to me for this reason. I was never particularly fond of computers or mathematically inclined, but the temporary peace it would provide was like a drug. But the darkness always returned and built up something like a tolerance, because programming has become less and less of a refuge.

The darkness is with me nearly every time I wake up. I feel like a grime is covering me. I feel like I'm trapped in a contimated body that no amount of washing will clean. Whenever I think about what happened I feel manic and itchy and can't concentrate on anything else. It manifests itself in hours of eating or staying up for days at a time or sleeping for sixteen hours straight or week long programming binges or constantly going to the gym. I'm exhausted from feeling like this every hour of every day.

Three to four nights a week I have nightmares about what happened. It makes me avoid sleep and constantly tired, because sleeping with what feels like hours of nightmares is not restful. I wake up sweaty and furious. I'm reminded every morning of what was done to me and the control it has over my life.

I've never been able to stop thinking about what happened to me and this hampered my social interactions. I would be angry and lost in thought and then be interrupted by someone saying "Hi" or making small talk, unable to understand why I seemed cold and distant. I walked around, viewing the outside world from a distant portal behind my eyes, unable to perform normal human niceties. I wondered what it would be like to take to other people without what happened constantly on my mind, and I wondered if other people had similar experiences that they were better able to mask.

Alcohol was also something that let me escape the darkness. It would always find me later, though, and it was always angry that I managed to escape and it made me pay. Many of the irresponsible things I did were the result of the darkness. Obviously I'm responsible for every decision and action, including this one, but there are reasons why things happen the way they do.

Alcohol and other drugs provided a way to ignore the realities of my situation. It was easy to spend the night drinking and forget that I had no future to look forward to. I never liked what alcohol did to me, but it was better than facing my existence honestly. I haven't touched alcohol or any other drug in over seven months (and no drugs or alcohol will be involved when I do this) and this has forced me to evaluate my life in an honest and clear way. There's no future here. The darkness will always be with me.

I used to think if I solved some problem or achieved some goal, maybe he would leave. It was comforting to identify tangible issues as the source of my problems instead of something that I'll never be able to change. I thought that if I got into to a good college, or a good grad school, or lost weight, or went to the gym nearly every day for a year, or created programs that millions of people used, or spent a summer or California or New York or published papers that I was proud of, then maybe I would feel some peace and not be constantly haunted and unhappy. But nothing I did made a dent in how depressed I was on a daily basis and nothing was in any way fulfilling. I'm not sure why I ever thought that would change anything.

I didn't realize how deep a hold he had on me and my life until my first relationship. I stupidly assumed that no matter how the darkness affected me personally, my romantic relationships would somehow be separated and protected. Growing up I viewed my future relationships as a possible escape from this thing that haunts me every day, but I began to realize how entangled it was with every aspect of my life and how it is never going to release me. Instead of being an escape, relationships and romantic contact with other people only intensified everything about him that I couldn't stand. I will never be able to have a relationship in which he is not the focus, affecting every aspect of my romantic interactions.

Relationships always started out fine and I'd be able to ignore him for a few weeks. But as we got closer emotionally the darkness would return and every night it'd be me, her and the darkness in a black and gruesome threesome. He would surround me and penetrate me and the more we did the more intense it became. It made me hate being touched, because as long as we were separated I could view her like an outsider viewing something good and kind and untainted. Once we touched, the darkness would envelope her too and take her over and the evil inside me would surround her. I always felt like I was infecting anyone I was with.

Relationships didn't work. No one I dated was the right match, and I thought that maybe if I found the right person it would overwhelm him. Part of me knew that finding the right person wouldn't help, so I became interested in girls who obviously had no interest in me. For a while I thought I was gay. I convinced myself that it wasn't the darkness at all, but rather my orientation, because this would give me control over why things didn't feel "right". The fact that the darkness affected sexual matters most intensely made this idea make some sense and I convinced myself of this for a number of years, starting in college after my first relationship ended. I told people I was gay (at Trinity, not at Princeton), even though I wasn't attracted to men and kept finding myself interested in girls. Because if being gay wasn't the answer, then what was? People thought I was avoiding my orientation, but I was actually avoiding the truth, which is that while I'm straight, I will never be content with anyone. I know now that the darkness will never leave.

Last spring I met someone who was unlike anyone else I'd ever met. Someone who showed me just how well two people could get along and how much I could care about another human being. Someone I know I could be with and love for the rest of my life, if I weren't so fucked up. Amazingly, she liked me. She liked the shell of the man the darkness had left behind. But it didn't matter because I couldn't be alone with her. It was never just the two of us, it was always the three of us: her, me and the darkness. The closer we got, the more intensely I'd feel the darkness, like some evil mirror of my emotions. All the closeness we had and I loved was complemented by agony that I couldn't stand, from him. I realized that I would never be able to give her, or anyone, all of me or only me. She could never have me without the darkness and evil inside me. I could never have just her, without the darkness being a part of all of our interactions. I will never be able to be at peace or content or in a healthy relationship. I realized the futility of the romantic part of my life. If I had never met her, I would have realized this as soon as I met someone else who I meshed similarly well with. It's likely that things wouldn't have worked out with her and we would have broken up (with our relationship ending, like the majority of relationships do) even if I didn't have this problem, since we only dated for a short time. But I will face exactly the same problems with the darkness with anyone else. Despite my hopes, love and compatability is not enough. Nothing is enough. There's no way I can fix this or even push the darkness down far enough to make a relationship or any type of intimacy feasible.

So I watched as things fell apart between us. I had put an explicit time limit on our relationship, since I knew it couldn't last because of the darkness and didn't want to hold her back, and this caused a variety of problems. She was put in an unnatural situation that she never should have been a part of. It must have been very hard for her, not knowing what was actually going on with me, but this is not something I've ever been able to talk about with anyone. Losing her was very hard for me as well. Not because of her (I got over our relationship relatively quickly), but because of the realization that I would never have another relationship and because it signified the last true, exclusive personal connection I could ever have. This wasn't apparent to other people, because I could never talk about the real reasons for my sadness. I was very sad in the summer and fall, but it was not because of her, it was because I will never escape the darkness with anyone. She was so loving and kind to me and gave me everything I could have asked for under the circumstances. I'll never forget how much happiness she brought me in those briefs moments when I could ignore the darkness. I had originally planned to kill myself last winter but never got around to it. (Parts of this letter were written over a year ago, other parts days before doing this.) It was wrong of me to involve myself in her life if this were a possibility and I should have just left her alone, even though we only dated for a few months and things ended a long time ago. She's just one more person in a long list of people I've hurt.

I could spend pages talking about the other relationships I've had that were ruined because of my problems and my confusion related to the darkness. I've hurt so many great people because of who I am and my inability to experience what needs to be experienced. All I can say is that I tried to be honest with people about what I thought was true.

I've spent my life hurting people. Today will be the last time.

I've told different people a lot of things, but I've never told anyone about what happened to me, ever, for obvious reasons. It took me a while to realize that no matter how close you are to someone or how much they claim to love you, people simply cannot keep secrets. I learned this a few years ago when I thought I was gay and told people. The more harmful the secret, the juicier the gossip and the more likely you are to be betrayed. People don't care about their word or what they've promised, they just do whatever the fuck they want and justify it later. It feels incredibly lonely to realize you can never share something with someone and have it be between just the two of you. I don't blame anyone in particular, I guess it's just how people are. Even if I felt like this is something I could have shared, I have no interest in being part of a friendship or relationship where the other person views me as the damaged and contaminated person that I am. So even if I were able to trust someone, I probably would not have told them about what happened to me. At this point I simply don't care who knows.

I feel an evil inside me. An evil that makes me want to end life. I need to stop this. I need to make sure I don't kill someone, which is not something that can be easily undone. I don't know if this is related to what happened to me or something different. I recognize the irony of killing myself to prevent myself from killing someone else, but this decision should indicate what I'm capable of.

So I've realized I will never escape the darkness or misery associated with it and I have a responsibility to stop myself from physically harming others.

I'm just a broken, miserable shell of a human being. Being molested has defined me as a person and shaped me as a human being and it has made me the monster I am and there's nothing I can do to escape it. I don't know any other existence. I don't know what life feels like where I'm apart from any of this. I actively despise the person I am. I just feel fundamentally broken, almost non-human. I feel like an animal that woke up one day in a human body, trying to make sense of a foreign world, living among creatures it doesn't understand and can't connect with.

I have accepted that the darkness will never allow me to be in a relationship. I will never go to sleep with someone in my arms, feeling the comfort of their hands around me. I will never know what uncontimated intimacy is like. I will never have an exclusive bond with someone, someone who can be the recipient of all the love I have to give. I will never have children, and I wanted to be a father so badly. I think I would have made a good dad. And even if I had fought through the darkness and married and had children all while being unable to feel intimacy, I could have never done that if suicide were a possibility. I did try to minimize pain, although I know that this decision will hurt many of you. If this hurts you, I hope that you can at least forget about me quickly.

There's no point in identifying who molested me, so I'm just going to leave it at that. I doubt the word of a dead guy with no evidence about something that happened over twenty years ago would have much sway.

You may wonder why I didn't just talk to a professional about this. I've seen a number of doctors since I was a teenager to talk about other issues and I'm positive that another doctor would not have helped. I was never given one piece of actionable advice, ever. More than a few spent a large part of the session reading their notes to remember who I was. And I have no interest in talking about being raped as a child, both because I know it wouldn't help and because I have no confidence it would remain secret. I know the legal and practical limits of doctor/patient confidentiality, growing up in a house where we'd hear stories about the various mental illnesses of famous people, stories that were passed down through generations. All it takes is one doctor who thinks my story is interesting enough to share or a doctor who thinks it's her right or responsibility to contact the authorities and have me identify the molestor (justifying her decision by telling herself that someone else might be in danger). All it takes is a single doctor who violates my trust, just like the "friends" who I told I was gay did, and everything would be made public and I'd be forced to live in a world where people would know how fucked up I am. And yes, I realize this indicates that I have severe trust issues, but they're based on a large number of experiences with people who have shown a profound disrepect for their word and the privacy of others.

People say suicide is selfish. I think it's selfish to ask people to continue living painful and miserable lives, just so you possibly won't feel sad for a week or two. Suicide may be a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but it's also a permanent solution to a ~23 year-old problem that grows more intense and overwhelming every day.

Some people are just dealt bad hands in this life. I know many people have it worse than I do, and maybe I'm just not a strong person, but I really did try to deal with this. I've tried to deal with this every day for the last 23 years and I just can't fucking take it anymore.

I often wonder what life must be like for other people. People who can feel the love from others and give it back unadulterated, people who can experience sex as an intimate and joyous experience, people who can experience the colors and happenings of this world without constant misery. I wonder who I'd be if things had been different or if I were a stronger person. It sounds pretty great.

I'm prepared for death. I'm prepared for the pain and I am ready to no longer exist. Thanks to the strictness of New Jersey gun laws this will probably be much more painful than it needs to be, but what can you do. My only fear at this point is messing something up and surviving.


I'd also like to address my family, if you can call them that. I despise everything they stand for and I truly hate them, in a non-emotional, dispassionate and what I believe is a healthy way. The world will be a better place when they're dead—one with less hatred and intolerance.

If you're unfamiliar with the situation, my parents are fundamentalist Christians who kicked me out of their house and cut me off financially when I was 19 because I refused to attend seven hours of church a week.

They live in a black and white reality they've constructed for themselves. They partition the world into good and evil and survive by hating everything they fear or misunderstand and calling it love. They don't understand that good and decent people exist all around us, "saved" or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church. They take advantage of people looking for hope by teaching them to practice the same hatred they practice.

A random example:

"I am personally convinced that if a Muslim truly believes and obeys the Koran, he will be a terrorist." - George Zeller, August 24, 2010.

If you choose to follow a religion where, for example, devout Catholics who are trying to be good people are all going to Hell but child molestors go to Heaven (as long as they were "saved" at some point), that's your choice, but it's fucked up. Maybe a God who operates by those rules does exist. If so, fuck Him.

Their church was always more important than the members of their family and they happily sacrificed whatever necessary in order to satisfy their contrived beliefs about who they should be.

I grew up in a house where love was proxied through a God I could never believe in. A house where the love of music with any sort of a beat was literally beaten out of me. A house full of hatred and intolerance, run by two people who were experts at appearing kind and warm when others were around. Parents who tell an eight year old that his grandmother is going to Hell because she's Catholic. Parents who claim not to be racist but then talk about the horrors of miscegenation. I could list hundreds of other examples, but it's tiring.

Since being kicked out, I've interacted with them in relatively normal ways. I talk to them on the phone like nothing happened. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I like pretending I have a family. Maybe I like having people I can talk to about what's been going on in my life. Whatever the reason, it's not real and it feels like a sham. I should have never allowed this reconnection to happen.

I wrote the above a while ago, and I do feel like that much of the time. At other times, though, I feel less hateful. I know my parents honestly believe the crap they believe in. I know that my mom, at least, loved me very much and tried her best. One reason I put this off for so long is because I know how much pain it will cause her. She has been sad since she found out I wasn't "saved", since she believes I'm going to Hell, which is not a sadness for which I am responsible. That was never going to change, and presumably she believes the state of my physical body is much less important than the state of my soul. Still, I cannot intellectually justify this decision, knowing how much it will hurt her. Maybe my ability to take my own life, knowing how much pain it will cause, shows that I am a monster who doesn't deserve to live. All I know is that I can't deal with this pain any longer and I'm am truly sorry I couldn't wait until my family and everyone I knew died so this could be done without hurting anyone. For years I've wished that I'd be hit by a bus or die while saving a baby from drowning so my death might be more acceptable, but I was never so lucky.


To those of you who have shown me love, thank you for putting up with all my shittiness and moodiness and arbitrariness. I was never the person I wanted to be. Maybe without the darkness I would have been a better person, maybe not. I did try to be a good person, but I realize I never got very far.

I'm sorry for the pain this causes. I really do wish I had another option. I hope this letter explains why I needed to do this. If you can't understand this decision, I hope you can at least forgive me.

Bill Zeller


Please save this letter and repost it if gets deleted. I don't want people to wonder why I did this. I disseminated it more widely than I might have otherwise because I'm worried that my family might try to restrict access to it. I don't mind if this letter is made public. In fact, I'd prefer it be made public to people being unable to read it and drawing their own conclusions.

Feel free to republish this letter, but only if it is reproduced in its entirety.

Advice for People Trying to Get Into Online Movie Writing

Over the past few years, I've gotten e-mails from a bunch of people who have asked for advice on how to get into online movie writing. Here's an excerpt from one I received this morning:

What sort of advice do you have for a guy such as myself? I know you don't just start out writing for a high level blog such as Slashfilm and I know a blog doesn't start out as high as Slashfilm. So how do I get people to read what I have to say? Both regular readers and people who might be willing to take a chance and let me write for them. And while I'm already firing my barrage of questions at you, how do you come across film news? The obvious way and the way I've done it to this point is to be reading and listening to what everyone else is saying. That just seems like a fairly ineffective way to come up with anything new or unique to say. I guess what makes it new and unique is your own personal spin and the type of content you decide to publish.

I thought it might be useful to write up a brief manifesto that I could share with people when they approach me with this question in the future. So, here's some advice for people trying to get into online movie blogging, and make money while doing it:

[Note that, by necessity, the following only constitutes my advice, culled from my very limited experience. I have been in "the business" for a fraction of the time that some of my colleagues have been in the business, and they are probably far better equipped to answer these questions than I.]

Get started immediately - It goes without saying, but it helps to have a solid body of work to be able to show people if/when you apply for a job. Start a blog, write reviews for a local paper, write for free for a website. It helps to get your foot in the door.

To succeed, you don't have to be the best, but you have to at least be very good - The internet allows anyone with an opinion to publish it and make it available for a potential audience of billions. I already understood this when I started writing online, but it wasn't until I started working for /Film and people frequently shared their blog posts with me that I grasped the magnitude of this. To quote Tyler Durden, you are not a unique snowflake. There are literally millions of other people just like you, who have a movie blog and write regularly about their opinions on films.

This doesn't mean you have to be an extraordinary writer to land a gig, although that certainly helps. But you have to at least be very good or somehow different. Maybe your work offers a unique spin on things, or you have some sort of industry expertise that others don't have. If at least one of these things isn't true, and your writing isn't above average, I say work on making your writing above average.

Pretty much everything you might have to say about a film has probably been said, and said better. So, why try? I honestly don't know. You have to answer that question for yourself. And if you don't have a solid answer, you probably shouldn't be doing this.

Be willing to do grunt work at the outset - At both the film websites I've written for (CHUD and /Film), I began by doing as much work as humanly possible, even when I was writing or reviewing film/news that I wasn't particularly interested in. But, as with any job, if you prove you are reliable and hardworking, you may be rewarded with superior assignments later on. Note that this often means you will work for free at the beginning, or in exchange for things such as set visits or DVDs.

You will most likely not make a good living off of it - Make no mistake: even if you succeed, the life ahead may not be one that you are accustomed to. Most full-time movie bloggers don't have health insurance and barely get paid above a living wage. The days when you could make $2/word off of a film review are totally over, and they are never coming back. There are, of course, numerous rewards to writing online. But to paraphrase The Architect from Matrix Reloaded, there have to be levels of existence you are willing to accept.

This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the world of online movie websites is in flux. Brands are changing and it's likely that in five years, many of the "successful" websites that exist today will no longer be profitable. Many webmasters of today can't even agree on fundamental issues of what are acceptable methods of making money for these websites - issues which the much-more-profitable and much-more-widely-read tech blogging world already resolved years ago. Pave the road to your financial future carefully.

Get connected - Participate in the online conversation with people in your field, via Twitter and comments and online forums all other forms of glorious internet media. Do you know how I got connected with Peter at /Film? By following him on Twitter, and engaging with him. DO NOT SPAM. Relevant comments, interesting insights, etc. These are the things you should be sharing. Many people often get hired by actual publications because they have been active, intelligent, gracious commenters. I cannot emphasize this last point enough. [Corollary: Try not to be a dick to people who you might apply for a job from later.]

There are very few paid positions and lots of interested candidates - Let me be brutally honest here for a moment. I'm an extraordinarily lucky individual. I get to write and speak about movies to an engaged and (in my opinion) large audience, and get paid a modest sum while doing so.

But if were to be realistic, I would have to say that I've won the lottery of online film gigs. For every podcast like the /Filmcast, there are literally hundreds of other comparable podcasts that languish, unheard and unpaid. For every movie writer that gets hired by /Film, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of writers that toil in obscurity, their freely available words read only by a small group of friends and colleagues. To paraphrase Vincenzo Natali, I say all this not to say there's anything great about me, but to impart how F*CKING LUCKY I feel I am to be doing what I'm doing.

I think the lottery comparison is apt. Very few people who want to do what I do will get a chance to get paid to do what I do. Do you have the unflinching drive and will to succeed? Do you have something to say that no one else has said? Is your writing of excellent quality? Then you have a shot.

But is it a shot I'd wager several years of my life on? No.

All of the above advice may be completely invalid - Because you might be a 24-year old movie blogger who liked The A-Team and Roger Ebert may pluck you out of obscurity to give you a spot on the flagship film review television show in the U.S.


Clarification - My last point above, made slightly tongue-in-cheek, was only meant to say that sometimes, good things still do happen to people that are talented and work hard. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Ignatiy's capacity as a film critic. But most of us (including myself) will probably never reach his level of ability, let alone opportunity.

If you've read this far, you might also be interested in my advice for when you're applying for an online writing job and my guide to starting a podcast.