Google Is Kafka

 

 

Google: the New Kafka?

 

 Let me tell you the surreal story of Google and me. For a few months, this space—the upper right hand corner of this page and of two others on this site—featured an unobtrusive box containing “ads by Google.”                

The ads were there because someone told me I could earn a bit of money from the traffic on my site by signing up for Google AdSense. It was easy: you just applied to Google, filled in some online forms, got some HTML code from Google, pasted it into your site, and voila! ads started appearing. The premise was (is),  a Google engine studies your site and inserts ads relevant to your content in the spaces you designate. Every time someone clicks on the ads, you get a ha’penny (or some such trivial sum).                

I went through the arcane process of opening a Google AdSense account and getting my code, and it worked. On three pages of my site, stacks of four or five discreet little ads started appearing. It was cute to see what Google considered “relevant.” I posted a column responding to a reader’s question “Why are bluejays blue?” and sure enough, an ad from a bird watching society went up next to it. I wrote a rant about why the 49ers are so bad and got ads from a site that sells 49ers paraphernalia. I wrote about my cat Raoul, and here came the veterinarians, the cat food companies, and the cat calendar vendors.                 

Then one day in October (just before the elections) a friend called me. “Are you aware that anti-Obama ads are appearing on your site?”                

I checked and—whoa! Not just “anti-Obama ads,” but repugnant, conspiracy-theory-mongering, teabagger (or whatever they’re called) nonsense, questioning Obama’s citizenship, screaming about death panels, deriding unions … on my site! Not in there with the veterinarians and bird-watchers but replacing them all. Suddenly, these were the only ads on my site, they took up an eye-catching one-sixth of the visible screen, and they weren’t selling any product or service. These ads were just promoting ideas (if you can glorify foul, Fox-news-strained-through hell rhetoric of this sort by calling it “ideas.”)                

In a shocked daze, I wondered what made Google AdSense think these ads would be ‘relevant’ to my content. I tried changing the content. I took down a light-hearted column called You’re an American If… thinking that maybe Google’s engine saw “You’re an American” and decided this was a national-chauvinist flag-waving site. It did no good. Then, I deliberately posted content antithetical to the unwanted ads directly under them: I wrote a column telling my readers I disagreed bitterly with the sentiments above my words, which were chosen by Google not me, and I declared that my own convictions ran exactly counter to those: I followed all this with a brief political and cultural manifesto eviscerating teabaggers, Meg Whitman, and anyone else I could think of that lay in that camp. I guess I thought of it as waving a red cape, trying to get Google’s engine to see me, realize who I was.                

It changed nothing. The horrid ads kept running, unabated. Finally, I decided to remove the code. Simply get rid of it. I cut it, and pasted it into a Word file for future reference. That’s when I noticed something.                

The code that Google had given me differed from the code I had just removed. The latter had these few additional characters: /* Tamim's   Apparently someone had hacked into my site and hijacked the space allotted to Google’s ads.                

So I applied to Google for fresh new code, which I duly pasted into my site. For a few weeks, everything was fine. Then one day, I logged into my site, and there at the upper right hand corner of the page was a big blank space exactly the size of the box that used to contain ads, except that now there was just empty space in that spot.      

A few minutes later, I got an email from Google telling me I had violated Google AdSense policies and my AdSense account had been closed–and could never be reopened.                

What had I done wrong? When had I done it? Google did not say. The email only gave me a hyperlink to click for “more information.” Clicking it brought me to this boilerplate:                

Because we have a need to protect our proprietary detection system, we’re unable to provide our publishers with any information about their account activity, including any web pages, users, or third-party services that may have been involved.       

This , my friends, is Google’s idea of “more information.”                

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Google could have given me this boilerplate right in the email instead of a “more information” button that would take me to this boilerplate.                

Google did say I could “appeal” the decision by filling out a certain online form.  The first box to fill in asked for my “publisher number.” Huh? Whazzat?                

Oh, no need to feel confused. Here was a helpful note from Google: I could find my “publisher number” by logging into my AdSense account and looking in a certain place. I tried to log into my AdSense account–only to get a message telling me I could not access that account because it had been disabled and could never be re-opened.                

Fortunately, when I first opened the account , I had copied a bunch of info out of the online forms and pasted them into a Word file because I’m a Luddite simpleton who can’t deal with online stuff. I need it in a more primitive form, which at this point means “a Word file.” Fortunately, too, my publisher’s number was one of the data-bits I had archived in a Word file back when there was no reason to think I would ever need it. So I was able to fill out my online appeal form, explain about the suspected hacking, and submit it to Google.                

Eight days later I got Google’s response. Here it is verbatim:                

 

Wir haben Ihren Einspruch erhalten. Wir bedanken uns für die zusätzlichen Informationen, die Sie uns zur Verfügung gestellt haben, sowie für Ihr weiteres Interesse an unserem AdSense-Programm. Nach sorgfältiger Prüfung Ihrer Kontodaten und Rückmeldung kamen wir leider zu dem Schluss, dass wir Ihr AdSense-Konto nicht wieder aktivieren können. Wenn Sie Bedenken oder Fragen zu Ihrem Konto oder den erfolgten Maßnahmen haben oder sich generell über ungültige Aktivitäten informieren möchten, rufen Sie auf.
Sincerely, 
The Google AdSense Team        

 Google haunted by the ghost of Kafka? You be the judge.

Wikileaks

WikiLeak the Night Away

 

The real significance of WikiLeaks?      

These days I can’t go anywhere without hearing or seeing chatter them.  And most of the chatter, to me, has either an old-fashioned, power-to-the-people 60’s ring to it, or a familiar hysterical, Bush–era, terrorists-are-winning frame around it.      

And to me, both responses miss the point. I see the WikiLeaks event as an eerie glimpse of the post-Google world into which we are mindlessly plowing, a world in which no one is in control except the overwhelmingly powerful info-entity itself.      

Black Box     

What struck me first about the WikiLeaks revelations was the fact that this guy Assange was going to release some 50,000 diplomatic “cables” into the E-sphere. That’s what the early reports said.  I mean, fifty-thousand! Or was it 300,000?  Whatever it was, to me, already, this didn’t sound like the Pentagon Papers. This didn’t seem to be about exposing some particular nefarious activity in which the government was secretly involved. This didn’t reflect a judgment about “the people’s right to know” some piece of information.      

This sounded more like finding a black box with a lock on it, contents unknown, and saying, “Let’s break this thing open, spill it into the street, and see what happens.”      

The revelations themselves—the ones I’ve seen, anyway—seem not so much about secrecy as about privacy. We learn, for example, that amongst themselves, U.S. diplomats were calling Karzai a mentally deranged liar and thief. Oh, like we didn’t know this opinion was circulating among U.S. diplomats? But it’s different to see the actual cable. It’s different because the comments are framed as the sort of thing people say in public.      

I can’t help but speculate that if Karzai’s private conversations were leaked, we’d find that he was calling U.S. diplomats arrogant power-hungry criminals whose mothers were involved in the world’s oldest profession. Because people say all kinds of things in private.      

I have a feeling that if all the private cables and conversations of diplomats from all the countries on Earth were leaked, they would seem like one endless parade of rude, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited brutes, the lot of them.      

The Species     

In fact, I’ll go one step further. I’ll wager that if all the private conversations of all the people on Earth were suddenly made public, the human species would seem (perhaps not inaccurately) to be an animal peculiarly given to mean-spirited slander.      

You might say that, well, no one should say anything in private that they wouldn’t say in public. But if you do, you and I part company. That, to me, is not a principle honored more in the breach than the observance; it is, to me, a principle not worth honoring. The public and private spheres are different, I say: both should exist, and the integrity of both should be defended.  

Lately, those who disapprove of the WikiLeaks revelations are claiming that they have the potential to endanger someone. Specifically, WikiLeaks has released a list of targets that U.S. intelligence agencies think terrorists might want to attack. The thesis is, terrorists would not have known what to attack but now they do. I have no idea if making that list public really does endanger me, or my friends, or U.S. covert agents abroad, or our troops in Afghanistan, or people in foreign countries who are cooperating with the U.S., or whatever.      

But if they do—let me be clear about where I stand on this—it’s an indictment of WikiLeaks. I’m ag’in it. What particularly bothers me about these potential consequences is their unpredictable, uncontrolled nature. If “leaks” like that end up killing someone, who will the someone be? No one can predict, including Mr. Assange. Setting a chain of events in motion that could end up killing people you don’t know for reasons you can’t fathom seems immorally reckless to me.      

Button     

It’s like a situation dramatized in a recent movie, the name of which I’ve forgotten: There is a button. You could push it. If you do someone unknown to you will die, and you will receive a million dollars. In the WikiLeaks case, the benefits are ambiguous, so the sentence would have to be amended from “will receive a million dollars” to “may or may not reap some unknown benefits.”      

Should you push the button?      

An enthusiastic supporter of WikiLeaks debunked this argument by proving to me that revealing the CIA’s list of potential terrorist targets couldn’t possibly harm anyone.      

I don’t know if the proof was dead-bang, but if it was, if the information is sure to be inconsequential, what are we left with, beyond a bunch of diplomats talking trash in private? Either the leaks could have some serious consequences in which case we have some issues to talk about, or they couldn’t, in which case we have some issues to talk about.      

Post-Google World    

It isn’t the leaks themselves that strike me.       

It’s the fact that such a process exists. Ten years ago, I wrote an email about the events of 9/11 and sent it to twenty or thirty friends. It went viral, and soon tens of millions knew what I thought about those events.      

I did not intend for this to happen. I wasn’t talking to the world, just to my twenty friends. But the moment the responses began pouring in from Argentina and South Africa, I knew that what I intended didn’t matter. Clicking SEND was an irrevocable act. That email would go where it was going, and cause whatever it would cause. I couldn’t stop, shape, change, or even know the consequences. No one could.      

The autonomy of the Internet is eerie to me. It is simply there, evolving on its own, becoming whatever it will become. It shapes events in the universe and no one can predict, or shape, or change what those events will be.  Engineers by the countless thousands keep inventing new apps and features and engines to attach to this immense info-organism, but none of them know what the consequences of their inventions will be. The Internet absorbs what they offer it, burps, grows two more limbs, and goes on.      

Someone Will       

WikiLeaks is just another symptom of this process. All talk of whether Assange should or should not have released the cables is irrelevant.  If he hadn’t done it, someone would. Why? Because it can be done. And cannot be undone.      

And anyone who discusses WikiLeaks in terms of the people’s right to know what their government is up to is missing the point. Now that the process exists, it will evolve, mutate, and metastasize. What’s finally at issue is not the privacy of diplomatic exchanges among government officials. It’s privacy itself. If WikiLeaks can make their private moments public, someone can do the same to you. And someone will.

2010 Movies

 

Movies of 2010: Best to Worst

 

I have to say,  2010 was not, in my opinion, a good year for movies. I saw 21 of them (not counting the ones I saw on DVD or on-demand, which were mostly made in earlier years) and only six qualified, for me, as good. Four others were flawed but had merit. So I’d have to count the flawed films to make up a ten-item list of  best films.

Be that as it may, here’s my list for last year. (And yes, I know people usually do these best/worst lists in December, but what if one encounters a best- or worst-of-its kind on December 31st? That’s what I’m asking. Besides, I have to be true to myself.  If I didn’t put it off till January what I could have done in December, it just wouldn’t feel right.)

The Best

The Social Network was my favorite movie of 2010, hands down. And I wasn’t even planning to see it, because it’s about Facebook, which I find so annoying. What I resent most about Facebook is the fact that even though it annoys me, I have to be on it or be shut out of the society in which I allegedly live. And I resent that if I don’t go on Facebook to post something once in a while, I feel like I’m being that truculent, anti-social old-man-in-the-dilapidated-mansion-on-a-hill that kids are scared of on Halloween. If, on the other hand, I do go on Facebook, I squander countless hours about which, even ten minutes later, I don’t remember a single thing.

Besides—a movie about the founding of a business: how fun could that be?

Then I heard a clip from the movie on the radio. It’s that scene where Justin Timberlake wakes up in bed with a Stanford girl he’s met at a party the night before. They don’t know a thing about each other, not even each other’s names. As she’s getting dressed, she asks him diffidently,

“What do you do?”
“I’m an Internet entrepreneur.”
“Oh,” she sneers, “In other words, you don’t do anything.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“Well how would you ‘put it’.”
“I’d say I’m an Internet entrepreneur.”
“All right. What have you entrepreneured?” 
“I founded a company that lets people share music online.”
“Uh huh. Kind of like Napster?”
Exactly like Napster.”
“What do you mean?”
“I founded Napster.”
“No you didn’t! Sean Parker founded Napster.”
“Yes. It’s good to meet you too.”

I’m quoting from memory so I may not have all the words quite right, but you see what I mean: textbook  brilliant writing.  As a guy who runs a writing workshop, let me just tell you that from now on when someone asks me how to write dialog that works,  I’m going to say, “Like that.”  

So anyway, I went to see The Social Network and found it fascinating on so many levels. First, because  Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is portrayed relentlessly as an obnoxious geek, a guy you wouldn’t want spend two minutes with–and yet the movie makes you want to hang out with him for a whole movie’s worth and see what happens; and you end up on his side, cheering for him to slay all the dragons out to sue him one the grounds that they created Facebook, not he (or so they claim.) And it does this without softening its portrayal of Zuckerberg and what he’s like.

Even more fascinating is the understated way the movie conveys that all these plaintiffs are wrong: none of them invented Facebook, and neither did Zuckerberg. Facebook already existed in the world in potentia: the trick was to see it out there, know what it was, and then create the apparatus that allowed it to  actualize itself, to materialize.  Facebook invented itself.

Other movies I’d put on my ten-best list for last year:

  • The King’s Speech:  Great to see a movie so suspenseful in which no one gets killed or is ever in danger of getting killed.
  • Crazy HeartIt’s easy to dramatize a life that crashes irretrievably, but it’s a trivial achievement. It’s difficult, and precious, to dramatize a life that crashes and believably recovers, because whatever is believable is possible, and what would you rather have be possible than redemption?
  • HereafterIt isn’t superstitious claptrap, as some have said: like the best of Eastwood,  it is a movie replete with ambivalence, subtleties, and shades of gray.
  • BurlesqueI like this movie because it’s corny and predictable–in the best way. Yes, there is a good way to be corny and predictable; indeed this is the quality we crave from all genre-art, I submit. What we want, however—and what so few works deliver—is corny and predictable that works. This one works, not least of all because ohmigawd who’da’ thunk Christina Aguilera could sing like that?  (Even mentioning her singing in this movie makes me want to taste that flavor again.)
  • The Kids Are All Right  I like this movie because it isn’t corny and predictable.  And it doesn’ t have a happy ending. But it’s not an unhappy ending either.  You end up feeling that love is possible…but not inevitable…that loss is possible…but not inevitable..and life goes on.  It’s a comedy, sort of, but it’s not funny so much as true. So true.

That’s it for the legitimate best-movie contenders. 

As for the flawed but worthy films:

  • Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Far-fetched, no-deeper-meaning suspense movie but hey!  The suspense works.  What’s also intriguing about this movie is that it follows the book exactly—I mean scene for scene: which reveals something interesting about the global popularity of the book. It isn’t really a book, it’s a movie in written form. 
  • Avatar: Yes, the plot was grindingly trite. Yes, the characters were staggeringly clichéd. Yes, the dialog was cringe-inducingly empty. Yes, the theme was shallow, sentimental, self-congratulating, and pompous. I guess I’m making this one sound really flawed, huh?  On the plus side, Avatar was the only 3-D movie I’ve seen that was worth the eye-strain. Thing is, it wasn’t really a piece of fiction. You can’t look at it that way.  Approach this movie purely as a National Geographic-style travel documentary about visiting another planet–then it’s ravishing. Too bad it has a plot.
  • Kick Ass Way too much kicking of ass in this movie, but the murderous kid, her kindly, vengeful father, and the nerdy superhero in his baggy outfit—all of that was entertainingly inventive.
  • The Runaways  It’s the usual band biopic: the kids break upon the scene, they soar, they’re taken advantage of, success goes to their heads, dissension breaks out, the whole thing falls apart. We’ve seen this before, lots of it.  But good acting elevates the rote plot, and if you were there in the seventies and the Runaways were on the edge of your screen somewhere, it makes some revealing points.

Which brings us to …

 

 

The Worst

I’m sure there were movies worse than any I saw, but I didn’t see them. That’s not accidental.  In order to make the “worst” list, a movie has to attract but disappoint. It has to have aroused some expectations somehow. Poor Mick LaSalle, for example—even after acknowledging that expectations have to factor into ones evaluations–lists I Spit on Your Grave as one of the worst movies of last year.   Apparently, that movie disappointed him. Apparently it wasn’t as good as the title made it sound.   I wouldn’t know.   I didn’t see it.  So for me…

The second worst movie of the year was Skyline. I went to see it before reading any reviews. The newspaper ads drew me in. They told me Skyline was working in the same fictional terrain as Cloverfield, which I liked a lot.  But apparently, the people who made Skyline said, “Let’s just make Cloverfield again, only this time? Everything they did right? Let’s do all those things wrong.”

Cloverfield perfects the movie-as-artifact conceit pioneered (mostly unsuccesfully) by The Blair Witch Project. It tells the audience: this is not a product. You’re looking at a video someone happened to be shooting when something really bad happened. No observer’s perspective here, no narrative voice “outside-the-frame,” no explanation of what’s going on or what it all means.  What you see is what you get: it’s all shaky, hand-held camera, much of it topsy turvy and chaotic, faces flashing onscreen and vanishing, off-camera sounds of clamor and confusion, irrelevant glimpses of pavement on the fly, someone’s back, the sky.

What’s more, about a quarter of the movie goes by before the main event even begins. In that long first segment you’re looking at a clumsy home movie of ordinary people living everyday lives, but the camera keeps catching hints of the issues lacing through these lives, the dynamics we find so compelling in everyday life: someone is secretly attracted to someone, career goals are coming into conflict with relationship goals, jealousies are surfacing that might turn troublesome–all the stuff that we take so seriously normally and that would not matter one whit if alien monsters started destroying our city. Usually, these are in two different movies. If everyday life issues matter, and are developed with some subtlety, then we’re in the kind of movie  where people-gobbling aliens don’t drop into the story, they just don’t.  And if it’s a monster movie we’re in, then the opening scenes establish who the characters are, their lives, careers, relationships, but does it quickly and then we’re onto the good stuff.  Cloverfield dares to start as one kind of movie, and become that other kind. And for me at least, it works–brilliantly.

Once the mayhem begins, the movie makes another brilliant move. It keeps you in the dark. Toward the end, once or twice, you catch a glimpse of something with tentacles in the streets, but you can’t quite make out what it is, and what you see doesn’t explain the explosions you’ve seen earlier, or the strange symptoms people develop in the subway—in short, you don’t know what has happened, and you never know.

Skyline follows the same narrative arc, but the shaky handheld camera is gone. Apparently that annoyed many people. What we get instead is slick Hollywood production values: easier to watch; but trivial; false.  Skyline also takes the time to develop the lives and interrelationships of the main characters,  but it makes all these issues explicit: you don’t have to dig anything out for yourself, and you don’t need to judge them,  that’s given to you.  And the people are unlikable, every one of them. Then the monsters arrive, and you quickly see what they look like: big nasty, slimy bug-like things. The mystery’s gone and and from then on you’re just with a bunch of unlikable folks trying to escape some horrid bugs, and in the end the bugs win, and you know what? You’re sort of glad. Because now you get to go home.

For worst movie of the year, I nominate Inception. I went to see it because the Washington Post gave it a glowing review. The Post reviewer said the movie was so intellectually complex you’d need to see it at least twice to get the implications. No you won’t.  May I just take a moment to spoil the movie for you quickly? The premise goes as follows: a team of geeky specialists have a technology that enables them to enter people’s dreams. Once they’re inside a dream, they can learn what the dreamer knows, including information he or she is trying to keep secret. Governments and corporations hire this team, of course, to do their specialized type of spy work. One day a newbie joins the team, and the first thing she learns is this: the dreamers think they’re awake and the mission will fail if they realize they’re not.  So once once she’s in someone’s dream, she must not to do, or allow to happen, anything that would break the illusion that this is the real world.

Hello! Everything that might make the movie interesting has just been rendered inadmissible!  From this point on, Inception becomes exactly like a movie that isn’t about entering people’s dreams. In the dream world, there are dangers our heroes must evade, and what are they? You guessed it: Car crashes, heavy falling objects, people with guns. Bombs, explosions, fires. If a bullet hits you in the dream world, does it hurt? Yes. Can it kill you? Exactly as it would in the non-dream world. In short, once the movie has established its premise, it becomes like a Tom Cruise action movie. No better, no worse, no more or less intellectually provocative than Mission Impossible VII. There is, it’s true, some tedious bull pucky about “second-level” dreaming—that is, if someone in a dream falls asleep, our heroes can go into the dream they’re having in the dream, and that’s a second level dream-world. Perhaps this is what the Post reviewer found so intellectually intriguing she had to ponder it for days. How is the second level dream-world different from the first level one? It’s not. In any way.  None.  Here too, everything must seem exactly like the non-dream world. Here too, look out for speeding cars, runaway buses, explosions, men with machine guns, etc. Third-level dream-world? Car crashes, fires, bombs, men with machine guns. And so on down. In the previews for this movie, you see some nice, surreal images of cities coming apart, cliffs eroding as in a dream.  The movie has those images but no more than the ones you see in the previews.  Once you’ve seen the previews, in short, you’ve seen everything that sets Inception apart from Mission Impossible 23.