Archive for May, 2010

Answers to LOST’s unanswered questions

25 May 2010

[Note: Substantial spoilers, for both LOST and The Wire, lie within - if you haven't seen either series in its entirety, then be warned: there are dragons here]

After 121 episodes of polar bears, monsters, the sky turning purple, teleportation through time and space, parallel universes, the disaster-sci-fi-slash-rumination-on-philosophy series LOST came to a thundering and resolute conclusion this week.

Resolute by its standards, that is. LOST isn’t just one of those TV shows just delights or infuriates, both the frustration and delight camps themselves can be broken further down into differing factions. The show’s most ardent fans, and its severest critics end up agreeing on one thing – they hate the show for leaving so many questions unanswered.

What was the deal with the numbers? What were the DHARMA initiative up to? Why was Walt so special? Why did they go to the effort to rescue Mr Eko only for him to die two episodes later? Why can’t women survive pregnancy on the island? Who dropped the DHARMA supplies? Why does Mr Friendly throw like a girl?

The show’s detractors say this is what makes LOST a flawed television series, by being so patently ridiculous. Conversely, the show’s adoring fanbase grew increasingly demanding of a neat solution to it all to justify all the faith they’ve put in it. More laidback afficionados of the show will hopefully appreciate the irony at how this is a great example of faith versus reason, one of the show’s major themes.

Prior, to the finale, some fans seriously expected it to explain everything hidden about the island, and to provide a “satisfactory” conclusion. Instead, the writers chose to play one of the best jokes in modern television writing: for years fans had semi-jokingly explained it by saying the Island was actually Purgatory and this would be revealed in a “it was all a dream”-style disappointment. The writers decided to actually make that come true by telling the audience the cast was in Purgatory. Only it wasn’t the Island, but a parallel universe where the crash never happened, which we were all led to believe was an alternate timeline until the final twist. Everybody fell for it – not a single fan explanation for the “sideways timeline” comes close to predicting this.

The finale managed the difficult task of bringing closure to the series, but also, like in the underrated parody episode “Exposé“, it delivered with a delicious joke on the show’s fans’ endless theorising from the writers – if they want purgatory, we’ll give them purgatory. Smarting from this, fans and detractors alike have been quick to register their disappointment at a “cop-out” ending that steadfastly refused to answer all their questions. The mysteries of the show end up being dismissed as nothing more than the writers making it up as they go along, or even just utter toss from start to finish.

So, the following needs to be spelt out:

It doesn’t fucking matter that none of LOST’s mysteries got answered. That’s the point.

Let’s compare and contrast LOST with another fanatically followed and critically-acclaimed television series of recent times – The Wire. The Wire is everything LOST is not. By and large, the camera is a highly reliable narrator. Characters will lie, cheat and obscure, and you are quickly drawn into a series of deals, double-crosses and treble-crosses but it is still unrelentingly committed to being realistic. Storylines are complex but vastly dramatic plot twists are few and far between; events do happen off-camera, but when they do occur they are deftly explained and exposited.

This realism is perhaps unsurprising; Ed Burns and David Simon drew from their experiences as a policeman & teacher, and journalist, respectively. The realism even goes down to the names of the characters (many derived from or amalgams of Baltimore cops and criminals), and so much is their commitmen to reality that they even cast real-life police officers and former gang members in bit-part roles.

Barely a line of dialogue or a scene is superfluous – they all contribute to greater whole, an intricate mesh of threads where no piece of gossamer goes unwasted. The series is entirely linear with no flashbacks or other devices; the attention to detail is terrifying, and the resulting work is the sum of its parts, a meticulous depiction of people, institutions, and the city, woven together from the street corners, schools and precincts, upwards to the politicians, journalists and kingpins at the top, shows it in every detail. When put so deftly together, it makes utterly brilliant television.

LOST on the other hand is played out in a vastly different universe. Here the details are scattered among a world of myths, red herrings and outright lies. The characters in the show form only a tiny part of a much greater, unseen whole, connected loosely by seemingly random coincidences. The camera as narrator is incredibly unreliable (viz the flash-sideways, or Locke 2.0 turning out to be the smoke monster) and refuses to give up secrets easily.1 Nevertheless, this makes LOST too a brilliant piece of television, despite the vastly different narrative setup.

As an aside – this does not mean that The Wire never gets weirder than LOST. Just look at some of the characters a supposedly realistic show brings out. The brooding Adam Smith-reading drug kingpin Stringer Bell, the profane yet nakedly corrupt state senator Clay Davis, and perhaps notably of all, the outwardly homosexual drug dealer-robbing stickup man with a heart of gold, Omar. And just when Omar couldn’t get weird enough, he teams up with Brother Mouzone, a pious softly-spoken hitman from the Nation of Islam, to wreak revenge on the druglord who wronged them. I mean, come on. You might as well have had armed polar bears.

The Wire is a forensic work of art – the situation and universe it depicts is built up entirely from what the viewer sees over the series, piece by piece. LOST is a holistic work of art – one where the entire universe is never apparent, and you can only pick at some of its pieces before revealing a complexity within. You were never meant to find out all the answers because the answers are way bigger than what you can see. Even the moment that defines and sets up the series: the plane crash – normally the focal point of disaster television – turns out to be an insignificant event played against the backdrop of a millennia-old struggle between good and evil (wonderfully foreshadowed by Locke and Walt’s game of backgammon in the second episode of season one).

So what’s the point of LOST then? As I see it, you’re meant to be paying attention to is how the characters wrestle with the situation that is beyond their grasp. It would be easy and boring to have all our questions answered and to become an omniscient observer with a reliable narrator. Far better to suffer along unknowingly with the protagonists as they try to work out philosophical struggles such as what being “good” means, faith versus reason, individualism versus communality, fate versus free will. That’s what science fiction is meant to do – take human nature and push it in extreme situations.

This is not to knock The Wire either for trying to be too realistic – indeed it confronts many of the same issues of morality as LOST does, in a very a different context and with a very different narrative structure. Ironically, the setups for both shows are the converse of what happens in real life – usually it is police investigations that are full of unknowns and ambiguities, whereas air crashes can more often than not be rigorously modelled and reconstructed second-by-second.

The solution is realising that there is no one “right” way to explore the ins and outs of human nature, the very best and worst of the human soul. Both approaches, of The Wire and LOST, do so in contrasting universes,2 but neither is inherently wrong. To demand that LOST destroy its mysteries is as unfair on it as demanding The Wire to lose its gritty authenticity. In short: it’s not meant to make complete sense. It will be baffling in parts. The characters and the stories they live out, are all set against this backdrop, and you’re meant to experience it as the characters did. So can we please stop moaning about not knowing everything? Good. Thank you. And Namaste.

1 About the only other work I know of that does this so well is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – an enormously long book which also has an unsatisfactory ending – well worth reading for any LOST fan suffering withdrawal symptoms.
2 That is of course except for Matthew Abaddon and Cedric Daniels being the one and same, naturally…


Bad analogies are like a banana in a sword fight

21 May 2010

The story of the Conficker worm is a fascinating one. On the face of it, it was just another worm infecting susceptible computers, but it turns out to be well-thought out, highly-designed and incredibly hard to remove. It’s a story worth telling. However, this article in The Atlantic is not that story. These are the opening two paragraphs to the article:

The first surprising thing about the worm that landed in Philip Porras’s digital petri dish 18 months ago was how fast it grew.

He first spotted it on Thursday, November 20, 2008. Computer-security experts around the world who didn’t take notice of it that first day soon did. Porras is part of a loose community of high-level geeks who guard computer systems and monitor the health of the Internet by maintaining “honeypots,” unprotected computers irresistible to “malware,” or malicious software. A honeypot is either a real computer or a virtual one within a larger computer designed to snare malware. There are also “honeynets,” which are networks of honeypots. A worm is a cunningly efficient little packet of data in computer code, designed to slip inside a computer and set up shop without attracting attention, and to do what this one was so good at: replicate itself.

There’s plenty wrong with the second paragraph, the first meaningfully sized one. The unnecessary attention to detail when specifying the date. The arse-backwards explanation of what a honeypot is, before explaining what a worm or malware is. But most of all, it’s that third sentence. I mean, just look at it:

Computer-security experts around the world who didn’t take notice of it that first day soon did.

One of the first sentences to hook the reader in, and it’s a paragon of inanity and tautology. Either people noticed it on the first day, or another day soon after? Really? Knock me down with a feather.

Nevertheless, the jumbled nature of the sentences and useless cruft are not what make this an especially awful tech article. It’s the endless conflicting analogies used to make the article more accessible for the lay reader that are the real problem. Take this analogy of computers as starships:

Imagine your computer to be a big spaceship, like the starship Enterprise on Star Trek. The ship is so complex and sophisticated that even an experienced commander like Captain James T. Kirk has only a general sense of how every facet of it works.

Taking something not in the layman’s terms of reference and turning it into something else which is also not in the layman’s terms of reference. Bravo. But no, wait, computer aren’t just starships. Later on in the article, they’re also castles. With maps!

When there is only one fort, and it is well policed, the lock is fixed and the vulnerability disappears. But when you are defending millions of forts, and a goodly number of the people responsible for their security snooze right through Patch Tuesday, the security bulletin doesn’t just invite attack, it provides a map!

As for the battle between security white hats and the bot’s authors, it’s a chess game:

The struggle against this remarkable worm is a sort of chess match unfolding in the esoteric world of computer security.

Except when it’s not:

In chess, when your opponent checkmates you, you have no recourse. You concede and shake the victor’s hand. In the real-world chess match over Conficker, the good guys have another recourse.

(Aside – I also dislike the typically American tendency to use the phrases “bad guys” and “good guys” in articles like this, but let’s save that for another blog post)

But by far the best awful analogy in the piece is provided in an interview with a security expert, who is trying to explain whoever wrote Conficker had to be an expert at very the top of their game:

“Not only are we not dealing with amateurs, we are possibly dealing with people who are superior to all of our skills in crypto,” he said. “If there’s a surgeon out there who’s the world’s foremost expert on treating retinitis pigmentosa, he doesn’t do bunions. The guy who is the world expert on bunions—and, let’s say, bunions on the third digit of Anglo-American males between the ages of 35 and 40, that are different than anything else—he doesn’t do surgery for retinitis pigmentosa.”

I have to admit I was in the process of Googling what the hell retinitis pigmentosa is, before realising this is the worst analogy I have ever read. It manages to turned the simple statement: “there are only a handful of people in the world who can do this” – which does not need an analogy to put it into layman’s terms – into some sort of arcane and utterly irrelevant reference to bunions.

To be fair to the author of the article, the last analogy is from someone he interviews, not himself. But to include it verbatim in the article, rather than judiciously excise and summarise it is a grave error.

Now you might at this point argue that the author is a professional journalist, and I am a nobody blogger who writes long and sometimes very boring blog posts with the odd spelling mistake, so I have no business criticising his writing. And you would be absolutely correct. I have very few stones to aim at his particular glass house.

But please bear me out, for there is a general point which this article exemplifies, and it is by no means the only one. In technological writing for the lay reader, there is an overarching tendency to patronise the reader by breaking everything down into analogy. Computers become starships, or castles, or cars, or anything you like in your attempt to explain one single aspect of their working. Google for the phrase “Imagine your computer is…” to see what people have come up with.

To be fair, there are good reasons to analogise, from time to time. A lay audience isn’t necessarily going to be familiar with the intricacies of computer security, or even computer anything. The growth in the computer and information industry has far outstripped the natural evolution of the English language. Analogies themselves are not inherently bad; they can be a way of illuminating a difficult or novel subject.

But analogies have their shortcomings. Typically, they can only explain one aspect of how something works, hence why authors are forced to use more than one analogy, and the inevitable contradictions, in an article. Even by themselves, these analogies can only be stretched so far before they reach a breaking point, and become not just useless but dangerously inaccurate.

Despite these shortcomings, all too often an author is too lazy or incapable to devote the effort or skill to explain something for what it is, in plain language. This is to the detriment of our discourse; by opting in to analogise everything by default, the writer creates a consistently patronising attitude to the reader. How are people expected to learn anything about a subject if it is continually abstracted away from them, to the point of infantilism?

Furthermore, the long-term consequence of bad analogies is even worse; they become part of the vernacular themselves. Coming back example above, once to look at the language involved, it’s only fair to ask why something us called a “honeypot” to attract worms; real life worms aren’t known for either producing or being attracted to honey. Rather than make the topic more accessible to the layperson, we risk making it even more illogical and confusing.

This doesn’t just contaminate our thinking in writing, but also in everyday speech. Over at the excellent Clients From Hell blog, two recent stories (here and here) show this taking place in the wild. In both conversations, the designer or developer is struggling to justify why their client should pay the price they promised to pay (apart from it being a breach of the law and all). Yet despite having right on their side, they end up using baffling analogies, involving lobsters and plumbers, that antagonise the person they’re trying to negotiate with.

This isn’t just a problem in technology (you see it also in finance and science) but it is one of the fields of writing where it’s most prevalent. While trying to dictate how to use language has always been futile, it’s especially futile in an Internet age where neologisms and jargon can be adopted by miliions near-instantly. So as much as I’d like to see more intelligent and readable tech writing, I’m not holding my breath. But hopefully this blog post will go a little way to raising awareness and provoke a little self-questioning.

So a message to all tech writers writing for a lay audience: in an age where column space no longer usually dictates the length of articles, the reasons against writing things out in a more rounded way have diminished. Spend a little more time thinking about how to write clearly rather than reaching for the first vaguely similar concept in your mind. Don’t just use jargon mindlessly, but question it and use it only if it makes sense (both logically and semantically) to the reader. And it’s not just writers’ responsibility. Meanwhile, readers, of all ability, need to start adopting better filters against shoddy analogies and other figures of speech in tech writing, and we need prepared to call bullshit on them when we see them.


The end of the world

12 May 2010

For the first time in 13 years a Conservative government is in power. The last Conservative government went on the way out just as I was leaving childhood; this new one neatly bookends the end of my twenties and my youth.

That said, I’m not as devastated as I thought I might be. Perhaps because this is not the Tories’ 1997. They went from a 20 point lead in February 2009 to a hung parliament against a Brown government seemingly going down with all hands on deck. What threatened to wipe out Labour and the left for a generation eventually turned out to be the second-least worst scenario – the Conservatives forced to enter coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

The preferred option for the progressive liberal left, a Lab-Lib coalition, was not on the cards once the results came in on Thursday night. The numbers didn’t add up; without the aid of the Scottish and Welsh nationalists there was no way to hold a solid majority; such a wide coalition would not have held together well, and been widely resented in England. It was politically unviable. While I’d rather we didn’t have Tories in, with these numbers it was reasonably inevitable, so I’m not that upset about the (tough) choice the Liberal Democrats have eventually made. Better be in the tent pissing in, and all that.

It’s easy to say this is all #nickcleggsfault, and the Lib Dems to some degree look to have been a victim of a last-minute Tory squeeze. 12 of the 14 Lib Dem seats lost at the elections were to Conservatives. The fact the Lib Dems lost so many constituencies is a surprise – their strategy has tended to be to win seats (especially at by-elections) and then hold onto them. Indeed, after combing through the election data, the sitting MP factor seems to have been really important for the Lib Dems:

  • Six seats were lost by candidates who had not stood as MPs before, either replacing retiring MPs or standing in wholly new constituencies – South East Cornwall, Harrogate & Knaresborough, Hereford & South Herefordshire, Truro & Falmouth, Winchester and York Outer.
  • Three were sitting MPs defeated by quite narrow margins – Camborne & Redruth (66), Oxford West & Abingdon (176) and Montgomeryshire (182).
  • A fourth, Newton Abbot, was lost by 523 votes, just over 1% of the vote.
  • Only two were lost by existing MPs by sizeable margins – Richmond Park (4,091) and Romsey & Southampton North (4,156).

So not an overwhelming rejection of Cleggmania – instead perhaps an indication of how important a known face can be in a marginal constituency, coupled with some incidents of sheer bad luck as the big two squeezed on the Lib Dems; even Lembit Opik’s much-publicised rejection was actually in the end quite tight. Had the Lib Dems kept 9 seats (the six with newbies plus the three tight losses), with 66 in total they could have formed a working majority coalition with Labour (327 MPs including Alliance & SDLP) without relying on the nationalists, and it could have all been very different.

Of course, all this “if my aunt had balls” dwelling on marginals and the odd handful of votes here and there show just exactly silly this electoral system is, with its concentrating on a few whimsical middle-England towns while swathes of the country (blue, red and yellow) get ignored. The arguments for proportional representation are clear. Imagine if first past the post had not existed at all and someone proposed a solution where one party can win all of government on 35% of the vote, and where the influence of an individual’s vote varies in accordance to where one should happen to live. It would be rightly rejected. Most modern European democracies employ some form of proportional, preferential voting, as have the former Communist states that have come out of one-party rule.

Furthermore, the new parliaments and assemblies introduced to the United Kingdom in the past 15 years have all adopted a proportional system (AMS for Wales, Scotland & London, STV for Northern Ireland), while the European elections have been proportional (d’Hondt for Great Britain, STV in Northern Ireland) since 1999; direct mayoral elections (which cannot be proportional), are all preferential systems using the Supplementary Vote. Not one system has reverted back to FPTP, nor is their any real political momentum in that direction. The trend is clear. Meanwhile, first past the post’s only real strength, the promise to prove ‘decisive’ results, has been clearly undermined by the results of this election.

Moving Westminster to PR is the next logical step. The deal the Lib Dems have got – a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote – in itself will not produce an inherently proportional system (although AV could produce more proportional results nationwide as a side-effect). But it breaks the stranglehold that FPTP has over our political mindset. Once we’ve done that, a move to a much better system such as STV is a (much simpler) case of adopting multi-member constituencies and redrawing boundaries appropriately – neither of which needs a referendum or endless commissions and reports. AV is not perfect – in fact it’s crap – but it’s a very good start.

These negotiations have been the perfect example of how much better it is when politicians are forced to co-operate to resolve their differences rather than harangue each other on television for the national good. Just look at the difference between the coverage before the election and after; the endless soundbites and partisan sniping and playing to the cameras of 24-hour-news, as a substitute for genuine differences on policy. Our news culture was so void of actual news or reasoned debate, that despite the momentousness of the occasion, it was truth told a very boring election. The biggest story of the campaign (outside of the debates) was when Gordon Brown made his “bigot” gaffe, which clung to the frontpages for days (until the next debate arrived). As for the debates themselves, Nick Clegg’s rise to the fore was not characterised by his putting clear water between himself and the others, but a polished and confident performance on TV which encouraged his opponents to outdo each other on saying how much they agreed with him.

Given how much the main parties all seemed to want to agree with each other, the clamour opposing a (God forbid) coalition government (from both ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings) looks a little odd, doesn’t it? To be fair, to go from a confrontational culture to a co-operational one overnight is a demanding change of mentality; perhaps with a system of PR we would all know beforehand that some form of coalition would be inevitable, and so the parties would be able to give a more reasoned breakdown of their intentions for minority government – who they would partner with, what they would negotiate on. It would be more honest to the electorate and go some way to stymie the complaints that PR leads to “backroom deals”. We get cross-party stitch-ups like the Iraq War, in a FPTP system as well, and acknowledging that parties do deals all the time would help shine light on them rather than let them scurry away from public view.

This gulf between pre- and post-election behaviour shows who the biggest losers in these coalition government talks were. Not the Labour Party (who were fucked anyway), but the news media. In contrast to the banal antagonism of the election campaign, when the serious negotiations of producing a government got under way, everybody in power got to work and stopped talking to the media. MPs disappeared from our screens with their usual pontificating, and so the news had to resort to bringing out a series of old warhorses (Heseltine, Prescott, Blunkett). When that didn’t work, they had to resort creating the news themselves – witness the Boulton-Campbell handbags at ten paces, or Kay Burley having a go at protesters.

The newspapers faired little better. The right-wing press tried smears on Clegg and a ludicrous anointing of Cameron as the new Obama, but they failed to push him onto a clear majority, while the Guardian and Independent’s advocacy of the Lib Dems probably had the reverse effect of getting the big two to squeeze them out in marginal constituencies. It’s hard to see who in the media really “won” out of this election.

I mentioned how fucked the Labour Party was – so time for a quick aside on Labour and Gordon Brown. Brown is a no doubt an intelligent and (broadly) principled man; he handled the economic crisis well enough to stop us from descending into the madness of Iceland or Greece. But he was clearly not cut out to be Prime Minister – disliked by his staff and Cabinet comrades, unable to find a common touch, and simply unable to relax like Blair did. He brings to an end the New Labour project he helped found, and Labour now need to look at themselves, and apply to themselves the kind of root and branch reform they so happily piled onto public services. If they are to be an effective opposition and stand any chance of winning the next election off the Lib Dems and Tories, they need to rediscover themselves and bring back voters and supporters turned off by the Blair years (myself included). Cut out the bullying and spin, the obsession with endless ‘reform’, central control and surveillance, and rediscover what a party for the people should be; not a move to the hard left, but a more honest, consensual and diverse politics internally. As for Brown, I have a hunch he could go on to do something like what Jimmy Carter did – redeem himself internationally somewhere, after such a disastrous period in charge. It may well be the only option left open to him, in fact.

As for Cameron, he faces a very difficult situation. This was a good election to lose in some ways. He’s going to have to keep up the cuddly Dave act while he keeps his promises to his supporters and slashes spending; internally, he has to keep a leash on the batty right wing and fundamentalists in his party while making sure his Lib Dem coalition partners don’t get ideas above their station. If his ham-fisted oaf of a Chancellor cocks up the recovery, his entire project could die at the outset, and though they might get kicked out the next election that’s not something to celebrate: we’ll all be made to suffer first.

So here’s what we have to do: keep vigilant, hold the new Government to account on everything and don’t think they won’t get away with it just because there’s a few Lib Dems to keep an eye on things. The best thing we can hope for is that we muddle through OK. But hey, that’s not a bad aspiration to have, in fact it’s what we usually do. So chin up, everyone. It’s not the end of the world.


Indecision 2010

6 May 2010

I was going to write a post about today’s election, but then Tom went ahead and wrote a much better one than I could. Specifically, on the dilemma between voting with your head and voting with your heart:

…my constituency of Poplar & Limehouse is a Labour-held Tory target, and a combination of boundary changes and demographic shifts over the past five years – plus a dash of the inevitable George Galloway sideshow – have put the seat firmly in play. I look at my MP’s voting record, and it reads like a greatest hits setlist of New Labour’s biggest fuckups. I desperately don’t want yet another five years where Labour can abandon principle after principle, safe in the knowledge that no matter what, the prospect of something worse will always send me scurrying back. And yet, as the polls swing rightwards in the last few days, every other consideration starts to become dwarfed by that tiny, nagging possibility that it’ll be my one crucial vote that gives the Tories that one crucial seat, and…

The curse of the first past the post system rears its ugly head here – how some votes are very much less equal than others. My suggestion is that only if a two-horse race is really, really tight in your seat and you feel very, very strongly about not having one of the likely candidates as your MP, then hold your nose and vote tactically. But only if the situation is really, really tight. Else vote with your heart. It might not win, but every vote for a party you truly believe in is another reason in the argument for a more proportional system. Voting for one of the mainstream parties will only make their representation in Parliament look proportional than it should be.

Vote early, vote often is the adage, but also make sure your vote’s informed. If you’re not sure about the candidates then check out their election leaflets over at The Straight Choice, and find out more about their background at either Your Next MP and They Work or You. Have fun and see you the other side – or if you’re staying up then chat with me on Twitter as I’ll be up all night watching the results come in.