Friday, February 25, 2011

True Art

by Conroy

Monet's views will live forever.
In recent posts (here and here) I've noted that making a short-term judgment on the value of a work of art is problematic. It takes time, years, to truly evaluate the worth of any particular work of art and making lists or handing out awards without allowing adequate time for reflection is a sure path to the wrong film being named Best Picture at the Academy Awards or the wrong book winning the Pulitzer Prize. As I've written, it's hard in 2011 to understand how the movie Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture honor over the movie Saving Private Ryan. Few now, I would guess, would rank the former higher than the later. Yet that was the surprising result at the 1998 Academy Awards. And it's not just in "popular" culture that this happens. When James Joyce's Ulysses was published in 1922 it was deemed obscene by many and banned in the United States and United Kingdom. Today it is universally hailed as a masterpiece of modern literature. Time has made the true value obvious. So time is key, but time only allows for a work to be properly evaluated. What are the characteristics of a work of art that make it great?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Man vs. Machine: Barely a Contest

by Conroy

Watson "between" Rutter and Jennings
Last night I watched glumly as Watson, IBM's custom-built supercomputer, completed a comprehensive three-day (and two game) victory over top human champions on the game show "Jeopardy!". Watson proved to be quicker than Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, perhaps Jeopardy!'s two greatest champions. Jennings rose to national prominence several years ago when he went on a 74-game winning streak and amassed well over $2 million in prize money. Rutter, first competed on the show when contestants were only allowed to win five games consecutively. Since then, however, he has won three of Jeopardy!'s top tournaments (including defeating Ken Jennings) and amassed $3.5 million in prize money, the most of any competitor in the show's history. Except for a few brief flurries, these accomplished players were no match for Watson.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Best Picture...Probably Not

by Conroy

Does this statue have any value?
The 83rd Academy Awards ceremony is still over two weeks away, but I want to be the first to write that this year's winner of the Best Picture oscar was not the "best picture" released in 2010. Now as you're no doubt thinking, I don't possess any powers that let me see the future. I'm making this claim because the odds are in my favor. The Academy has a long history of not awarding the most (or one of a few) deserving films with the best picture honor. I don't find this all too surprising, as I've written before, it takes time, many years, to fully evaluate a work of art.  Even so, the Academy seems to be especially poor at identifying the real best pictures, sometimes they aren't even close. The scales dropped from my eyes back in 1998, when one of the finest films of recent memory and universally acclaimed - Saving Private Ryan - didn't win.

To illustrate this point further, below I've provided a long list of the Best Picture winners, and those films that were more deserving. Before we get to the list, allow me a quick diversion.

We Get Awards Because We're So Great
This blogger finds the whole award circuit to be ridiculously self-important. The entertainment industry is of course populated by self-centered egoists, and that includes the "talent" and the management, so we shouldn't be surprised by the indulgent adulation we witness at these events. Every year you hear some pompous celebrity, Sean Penn comes immediately to mind, that declares how "important" peer-sponsored awards like the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) are...please, don't these people know that no one cares? But I guess the glamorous movie elite will take any excuse to get dressed up and strut before the cameras, get interviewed by fawning "reporters", and adored by our celebrity-obsessed culture.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Wikipedia: Not for the Weak

The first time I made a revision to a Wikipedia article, I took care to ensure that my work was free from error. I previewed the article several times to see how it would look with my changes. Finally, I clicked "save" and admired my contribution. I got up and stretched, feeling great. Maybe 15 minutes later, I checked the site again. My work was gone. Nowhere to be seen. Worse, when I checked the history tab (which I hadn't even noticed before then) to see what had happened, I found a personal message waiting for me: “newby . . . unless one has a record here, keep out.”

So much for “Please Do Not Bite the Newcomers,” a Wikipedian “behavioral guideline" the very existence of which suggests that Wikipedians have a tendency to greet newcomers with less than open arms, and my experience would seem to confirm this tendency. But experience can be deceptive. The first problem is understanding who Wikipedians are. Contributions to Wikipedia seem to approximate a kind of power law, with a small group of contributors doing the bulk of the work. So there is no "average" user in the ordinary sense of the word. Of the smaller group of major contributors, we don't know much. Perhaps it changes members frequently, perhaps not. Some evidence suggests that its members are predominately twenty-something males. No surprise there. Few women participate because this is not a place most women would care to visit. (Apparently this is debatable.) It is an intellectual battleground where the odds of having an unpleasant encounter with an obsessive and pedantic geek are uncomfortably high—this isn't Facebook, and you're not surrounded by friends.

The second problem is that even within this smaller group, it only takes one apple to spoil the barrel. We're more likely to remember the few encounters we have that are notably bad, than the many ones we have that are neutral—for there's no reason to remember a perfectly ordinary experience. And unlike ordinary social settings, where you can choose with whom you converse, there's not much choice in the discussion pages of Wikipedia: you can always leave, but if you choose to stay, you will have little choice but to deal with whoever else enters the fray. If you can't work things out amicably on a talk page, you may end up grinding your way through Wikipedia's formal dispute resolution process. (Who would do that?!) Some people even get into "edit wars" in which they repeatedly undo ("revert") each other's edits. And nothing is too trivial to spark an edit war. (Check out this list of the "lamest edit wars.") 

As for my own unwelcoming experience, I didn't get into a crazy edit war. Instead, I went to the discussion page to defend the worthiness of my revisions. After some heated debate, I did some more research and discovered that a handful of fanatical Wikipedians had been wrangling for control over the style and content of that particular Wikipedia article for—get this—not hours, not days, not months, but years. Years! 

After several days, I reluctantly laid down my sword. 

But I live to fight another day!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Punctuality (or How I Learned to Tolerate People Being Late)

by Conroy

I was in a meeting yesterday with my firm's senior partner. My boss and I arrived about a minute before the meeting was to start. Partially in jest, but only partially, the partner paraphrased Vince Lombardi in saying that if you're ten minutes early to a meeting you're on time and if you're five minutes early you're late. I questioned the wisdom of these words, but gently, he is the senior partner after all. He insisted on his point and I dropped my argument, but I took some time after the meeting to think more on this subject.

I'm as sure as ever that I am correct and the senior partner is wrong. And this incident brings to the fore the larger question of schedules and timeliness. As a rule, I make it a point to be very punctual, and if anything I err on the early side (I was a minute early to the meeting above). In fact, I think many of my friends find it somewhat annoying when I show up exactly on time for whatever social occasion has been planned. Someone suggests meeting at 5:30, and there I am knocking on their door while they scramble to finish getting ready. I on the other hand get extremely annoyed when my friends, a couple in particular (they know who they are), show up quite late even when meeting times have been explicitly arranged and emphasized. (A couple of my friends seem to exist in their own personal time, totally separate from the rest of us).

My friend: "Why are you so stressed out?"
Me: "Because you're 45 minutes late and now we're going to miss the start of the movie!" 

So who's right? Here are my thoughts:

Business. In a business setting, if you want people to show up at a certain time, tell them that time. Want someone at a 10 AM meeting, tell them there is a 10 AM meeting. If you want them to show up fifteen minutes early to discuss a couple of issues before the meeting starts, tell them to get there at 9:45. In business everyone is busy and it's a deep narcissism to assume that your time is more valuable than someone else's time. That fifteen minutes early that you expect of them is fifteen minutes that they can be doing something else. By no means should you accept habitual tardiness from anyone, but punctuality cannot be punished.

On the flip side, as Shakespeare wrote in The Merry Wives of Windsor (about a very personal meeting), "better three hours too soon than a minute too late." The person who is constantly late is certainly more in the wrong than the person who insists on being early. Again, everyone's time is valuable and showing up late to meetings is highly disrespectful. The bottom line, in business be on time and expect the same of others.

Think about businesses built upon schedules, movies don't start around certain times, FedEx doesn't arrive sometime around their scheduled pick-ups, and planes don't take off twenty minutes early (though late is certainly possible!). Schedules are vital to the orderly operation of society. Respecting this fact, we should all embrace the idea that punctuality is the best behavior. Disorganized, disrespectful, nonchalant, are all characteristics that we should strive to eliminate from our lives.

Social Occasions. Now social occasions are something quite different. Experience certainly tells you that sometimes being late is appropriate. When someone says a party starts at 8 PM they really mean show up no earlier than 8 PM. If you show up early you end up standing around awkwardly while the host finishes setting out the food and beverages. On other occasions you better be on time. When you have dinner reservations at 8 PM, make sure you're at the restaurant a few minutes early (I hope my friend reads this post!). But that's the real difference between many social occasions and work, in leisure we have flexibility, you're a little late or a little early, it's not too critical. At least up to a point.

I guess I'll never understand the mentality that seems to disregard schedules. Our entire lives are set up according to time. Hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the year. Schedules are almost always set up with a purpose, ignoring that fact is inconsiderate. It's a bad behavior that is all too often overlooked. By that same token, going beyond punctual, insisting that others be always early, is unnecessarily onerous. Maybe I'll tell that to the senior partner, but I'm going to wait...until exactly the right time.


A few quotes on punctuality:

"Laugh and the world laughs with you, be prompt and you dine alone."
-Gerald Barzan, humorist

"If I have made an appointment with you, I owe you punctuality, I have no right to throw away your time, if I do my own."
-Richard Cecil, clergyman

"Punctuality is the soul of business."
-Thomas Haliburton, writer and businessman

"I have been on a calendar, but I've never been on time."
-Marilyn Monroe, actress and celebrity

"I am a believer in punctuality though it makes me very lonely."