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Reviews

Destined for War (mini-review)

Excellent book by Graham Allison about the rise of China and whether their growing influence will push the United States into war.

As a recent transplant to California, I’ve been disappointed by the state’s housing shortage and crumbling infrastructure. Therefore, the following struck me hard:

Over the past decade, China has constructed the world’s longest high-speed rail network: 12,000 miles of rail lines that carry passengers between cities at speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. In the US, that much new track would stretch from New York to California and back, twice. At 180 mph, one could go from Grand Central Terminal in New York City to Union Station in DC in just over an hour; from Boston to Washington in two. Indeed, China now has more high-speed rail tracks than the rest of the world combined.

During this same decade, California has been struggling mightily to build a single 520-mile high-speed connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Voters approved the project in 2008, but the state recently admitted it will not be finished until 2029, at a cost of $68 billion—9 years later and $35 billion more than was originally promised.

So much good literature has been written about China’s ascension and you can read the author’s central thesis at The Atlantic. Highly recommend.

Notes & Observations at Goodreads!

 

Categories
Media Theory Reviews

Schadenfreude of the machines

I just finished Ozark and really enjoyed it. But the AV Club trashes the new Netflix series in an interesting way:

Netflix’s algorithms have noted how much time you’ve spent with the Whites of Albuquerque and the Escobar cartel. … because Ozark … plays like a computer program’s idealized hybrid of Breaking Bad, Narcos, and Justified.

The first machine learning movie script is laughable and computational video editing isn’t fully functional. But these technologies are in their nascent form. They are only going to get better; at a rate so much faster than biological evolution.

Back in the 80’s to say something was “made in China” meant that it was poor quality. Today’s insult is to say something was done by a computer. But in 1997, ten years before the iPhone, computers were already out composing Bach.  And just like how China’s manufacturing got the last laugh thirty years later; the schadenfreude of the machines is coming too.

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Reviews

Interlude – Breaking Bad (reconsidered)

Breaking Bad is a show about ambition, hubris, and futility. But Vince Gilligan also created a show that is a brilliant metaphor for the showrunner’s struggle. Walter White’s battle to the top of the drug kingpin game closely resembles the struggle of every television showrunner when trying to bring their vision to an audience.

At the start of Breaking Bad, when White gets into the business of cooking meth, two things quickly become apparent. Firstly, that White’s meth is better than the competing meth being sold on the streets. And secondly, that even the best meth is worthless if it can’t be effectively sold on the street in bulk. Recall Season One Episode Six when Jesse Pinkman spends his entire night hustling and only brings back a few hundred dollars. Jesse tells Walter, “It isn’t easy selling a tenth at a time.”

The duo quickly realizes they need a distributor, a gang leader with a network of thugs to move their product. From the point White meets the gang leader Tuco, until almost the very end of the show, Breaking Bad is the story of White’s power struggles with his distributors: Tuco, Gus Fring, and finally Mike and Lydia.

The showrunner’s struggle is similar to White’s because the greatest television show is nothing without an audience. And the network executives in suits are the gatekeepers who stand between the showrunner’s vision and the audience. And just like Gus Fring, these men in suits aren’t above the thug life. It just so happens that their intimidation tactics involve the deployment of lawsuits and audits.

To be fair to all of the Gus Fring’s of the world, the network provides an additional service beyond distribution; they provide startup capital. Cooking meth on an epic scale requires a lot of money and connections; witness White’s expression upon entering the Superlab for the first time. These are all things Gus Fring has developed over the years and White could never hope to compete against. Similarly, making a television show requires a lot of money and connections, things that network executives have cultivated over the years, resources an emerging showrunner rarely has access to.

Pushing meth will always require a strong distribution network due to the limitations of moving a highly illegal product across state and national borders. But the future of television could be different. With sites such as Netflix and Vimeo, the challenges of distribution are vastly different than they were a generation ago. But the startup capital required to produce an epic show mean that the Gus Fring’s of the world will probably be with us for a long time to come.

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Reviews

The Storyteller’s Dilemma (review)

The CEO of Avid Technologies, Louis Hernandez, Jr., wrote a book about the current media landscape called The Storyteller’s Dilemma. The spirit of the storyteller is communicated very well in the first two chapters of his book. Hernandez, Jr. clearly has a lot of firsthand experience to understand what makes the behind-the-scenes craftsman tick:

From my perspective, most people on the creative side don’t talk about “success.” The speak instead of connecting with others, telling the best story, sharing experiences, honing their craft, finding the truth, delighting the audience, exciting the senses, and being heard.

And:

Video editors, music mixers, gaming developers, and news producers are more concerned with telling the best story possible, one that captures the essence of the message, stirs the soul, and inspires the imagination. And for many behind the scenes, the glamour aspect doesn’t come into play at all.

I felt deep gratitude reading those words, because they reminded me of what I love about the industry and why I’ve worked so hard to get into it in the first place.

But the best way to evaluate this book is as an extended, and more articulated, version of Avid Technologies’s vision for Avid Everywhere. (For an excellent summary of Avid Everywhere I highly recommend this post at digitalfilms)

The essence of Hernandez, Jr.’s book is that businesses are spending too much money on monetization (his catch-all term for the ‘business’ end of the media industry) and not enough money on content creation. Creating a common production platform, “the core common technologies that are shared by all parts of the media industry – metadata standards, file formats, conversion, indexing, resolution, adaptability, optimization processes, and the like,” would free up businesses to focus on their differentiators.

… a platform should encompass the core common technologies that are shared by all parts of the media industry … These are the very things that add cost and complexity to current workflows, but which do not allow companies or artists to differentiate themselves. They are not a source of competitive advantage.

The idea is sound in theory. As a post-production supervisor, a significant portion of my time is spent coordinating file conversions and file transport. For example; transcode file X to h.264, rename it according to the digital media team’s naming convention, and upload via Wire Drive. Or another; transcode file Y to ProRes, rename it according to the promo department’s naming convention, and upload via Aspera.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Managing these tasks are tedious and seem like the very thing computers were meant to eliminate. A common production platform; i.e., a way for separate departments to tap into the same pool of footage and pull what they want without intervention would be a dream. But in practice the common production platform leaves endless implementation questions and more importantly: how is this a Storyteller’s dilemma?

When you look at their own vision for Avid Everywhere, you see Avid identify their four customers: “Major motion picture studio, Multinational news organization, Local TV news station, Television network”. None of these are the artisans celebrated in the first part of Hernandez, Jr.’s book.

Ultimately, The Storyteller’s Dilemma is a call-to-arms for media business owners to realize that “what’s dominating the conversation is the cost of doing business in a digital age, not the actual stories that the companies are in the business of selling.” That Avid Technologies’s sells the infrastructure that is as close to the media industry’s lingua franca does not diminish Hernandez, Jr.’s thesis.

Miscellanea:

  • In the past ten years alone, media consumption has increased by almost 50 percent. What else in your life has increased by 50 percent in the past ten years? [Maybe health insurance premiums; childhood obesity?]
  • It’s this ability to become part of the storytelling process by more in the community that is having a fundamental impact on media.
  • What is my place in the media value chain and what value do I bring?
  • Early on in the evolution of the media industry, the creative side and the monetization or business end became separated for one another.
  • And yet, every day the industry tries to reconcile the new reality with the old procedural constraints.
  • … music companies have a harder time justifying their role beyond marketing, promotion, and rights management. [This is becoming increasing relevent in for the television and cable networks.]
  • One important aspect of trust in media sources that must not be overlooked is the ability of a skilled editor with access to good tools and content to shape a story.
  • Box subtext: “On most films, the story has been predetermined down to every line of dialogue, and most footage is shot for specific purposes to strengthen that story. — editor Jason Stewart discussing the differences between scripted and unscripted.
  • Box subtext: “The companies that aren’t successful rarely have a technical issue; they have issues connecting to people. — executive producer Herb Trawick
  • The numbers show that investment in the tools and technologies that enable content creation is lagging behind the growth of the content itself.
  • The ultimate losers are the content creators, because those investments in monetization aren’t benefitting them in proportion to the rise in overall consumption.
  • When a media professional like a sound engineer or film editor starts spending as much time on technical issues as on shaping the story, something is fundamentally wrong. [Yes, your software is too complex and not intuitive.]
  • They [media professionals] should care because it opens the door to a far more satisfying career and makes the stories they help tell more valuable over time.
Categories
Management Reviews

A.E.’s & The Checklist Manifesto (a mini-review)

I thoroughly enjoyed The Checklist Manifesto. Written by surgeon Atul Gawande, the checklist is presented as a tool, not only to prevent failure, but to increase performance. The book is filled with interesting examples of how checklists are applied in diverse fields like aviation and medicine; and the difference between DO-CONFIRM and READ-DO checklists. The book also chronicles Gawande’s own experience implementing a pre-surgery checklist for the World Health Organization.

While reading this book, I was experiencing a problem of my own at the office. Our Night Assistant Editor was exporting the show episodes to the network incorrectly. Exporting a cut to the network is a complicated process prone to error, made worse by the pressure to do it quickly. This seemed like the ideal process to apply a checklist to and so I created the Show Exporting Checklist. Any time an Assistant Editor is expected to export a cut to the network my Coordinator or I will printout the checklist and leave it with our Night A.E.. They are expected to fill out it and leave it on my desk for review the following morning.

The goal of my DO-CONFIRM style checklist is to help our A.E. remember of all the steps involved in an export, and to report back any anomalies to the team. I haven’t recorded hard data, but since implementation it feels like the number of errors has decreased significantly. And the information we gained from our Night A.E.’s observations has provided the producers and editors with valuable information about their episodes as well.

I highly recommend The Checklist Manifesto and thinking about the ways a humble checklist can improve your own work.