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July 8, 2012

Louis C.K. and the Decent Net, or How Louis won the Internet

(This is the lead article in the new issue of my free and highly intermittent newsletter, JOHO. Also in it, a Higgs-Bogus Contest on particles that would explain mysteries of the Internet.)

 

Louis C.K. now famously sold his latest comedy album over the Internet direct to his audience for $5, with no DRM to get in the way of our ability to play it on any device we want, and even to share it. After making over a million dollars in a few days (and after giving most of his profits to his staff and to charity) Louis went to great pains to schedule his upcoming comedy tour in venues not beholden to their TicketMasters, so that he could sell tickets straight to his audience for a flat $45, free of scalpers. So far he’s made over $6 million in ticket sales.

But Louis C.K. also thereby — in the vocabulary of Reddit — won the Internet.

There are lots of reasons to be heartened by Louis’ actions and by his success: He is validating new business models that could spread. He is demonstrating his trust in his audience. He is protecting his audience while making the relationship more direct. He is not being greedy. But it seems to me that Louis is demonstrating one more point that is especially important. Louis C.K. won the Internet by reminding us that the Internet offers us a chance for a moral do-over.

 


Way back in the early days of all of this Internet madness, many of us thought that the Internet was a new beginning, an opportunity to get things right. That’s why we looked at all The Hullabaloo about the Net as missing The Point. The Hullabaloo saw the Net as a way to drive out some of the inefficiencies of the physical world of business. The Point was that the Net would let us build new ways of treating one another that would be fairer, more fully supportive of human flourishing, and thus more representative of the best of what it means to be human together.

We optimists were not entirely wrong, but not as right as we had hoped. Even as late as the turn of the century, the early blogging community thought it was forging not only a new community, but a new type of community, one with social ties made visible as blue underlined text. That original community has maintained itself rather well, and the amount of generosity and collaboration the Net has occasioned continues to confound the predictions of the pessimists. But clearly the online world did not become one big blogosphere of love.

It’s difficult, and ultimately rather silly, to try to quantify the unfathomable depth of depravity, skullduggery and plain old greed exhibited on the Net, and compare it to a cumulative calculus of the Net’s loveliness. For example, most email is spam that treats its recipients as means, not ends, but the bulk of it is sent by a tiny percentage of email users. Should we compare the number of bits or of bastards? How do we weigh phishing against the time people put in answering the questions of strangers? How do we measure the casual hatred exhibited in long streams of YouTube comments against the purposeful altruism and caring exhibited at the best of Reddit? How do we total up the casual generosity of every link that leads a reader away from the linker’s site to some other spot? Fortunately, we do not have to resolve these questions. We can instead acknowledge that the Net provides yet another place in which we play out our moral natures.

But its accessibility, its immediacy, its malleability, and its weird physics provide a place where we can invent new ways of doing old things like buying music and concert tickets — new ways in which we can state what we think counts, new ways in which we can assert our better or worse moral natures.

 


I am of course not suggesting that Louis C.K. is a moral messiah or that he “won the Internet” is anything except playful overstatement. I’m instead suggesting a way of interpreting the very positive response to his relatively modest actions on the Net: we responded so positively because we saw in those actions the Net as a moral opportunity.

We responded this way, I’d suggest, in part because Louis C.K. is not of the Internet. His Web site made that very clear when Louis charmingly claimed, “Look, I don’t really get the whole ‘torrent’ thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way.” He goes on to urge us to live up to the trust he’s placed in us. He’s thus not behaving by some Internet moral code. Rather, he’s applying Old World morality to the Net. It is not a morality of principles, but of common decency.

And herewith begins a totally unnecessary digression…

This is coherent with Louis’ comedy. His series fits within the line that began with Seinfeld and continued into Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not just because all three make us squirm.

Seinfeld was a comedy of norms: people following arbitrary rules as if they were divine commandments. Sometimes the joke was the observation of rules that we all follow blindly: No double dipping! Sometimes the joke was the arbitrariness of rules the show made up: No soup for you! (Yes, I realize the Soup Nazi was based on a real soup guy, but the success of the script didn’t depend on us knowing that.) Seinfeld characters’s are too self-centered to live by anything more than norms. And, in a finale that most people liked less than I did, they are at last confronted with their lack of moral substance.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a comedy of principles, albeit with a whole lot of norms thrown in. Larry and his world are made unlivable by people (including Larry) who try to live by moral rules. Hum a bit of Wagner while passing by a Jew, and you’re likely to touch off some righteous indignation as if you were siding with the Nazis. Larry won’t give kids without a costume any Halloween candy, and then can’t resist telling a cop with a shaven head that the cop isn’t actually bald according to Larry’s principled definition. In a parody of rule-based life, Larry takes advantage of the rule governing handicapped toilet stalls. (See also.) In Curb the duties of friendship are carefully laid out, and are to be followed even when they make no sense. Larry’s life is pretty much ruined by the adherence to principles.

Louis is less about norms and principles than about doing the right thing in a world unguided by norms and principles, and in which human weakness is assumed. When a male southern cop who has saved his life asks to be thanked by being kissed on the lips, Louis reasons outloud that he can’t think of any reason not to. So he does. Norms are there to be broken when they get in the way of a human need, such as to feel appreciated. Nor do principles much matter, except the principle “Thou shalt not be a dick.” So, Louis watches bemused as an airline passenger becomes righteously indignant because his reservation wasn’t honored. The passenger had principle on his side, but is cast as the transgressor because he’s acting like a d-bag. In his Live at Beacon show, Louis contrasts the norm against using the word “fag” with nondiscriminatory behavior and attitude. (I’d like to hear what Lisa Nakamura has to say about this.)

And because Louis is a comedian, the humor is in the human failure to live up to even this simple ideal of not being a total a-hole. In his $5 comedy album, Louis relates how he thought about giving up his first class airplane seat to a soldier in uniform. Not only doesn’t Louis give up his seat, he then congratulates himself for being the sort of person who would think of such a thing. Giving up your seat is neither a norm nor a principle. It is what people who rise above dickhood do.

So, here’s why I think this is relevant.

The Internet is a calamity of norms. Too many cultures, too many localities, too many communities, each with its own norms. And there’s no global agreement on principles that will sort things out for us. In fact, people who disagree based on principles often feel entitled to demonize their opponents because they differ on principles. The only hope for living together morally on the Net is to try not to be dicks to one another. I’m not saying it’s obvious how to apply that rule. And I’m certainly not saying that we’ll succeed at it. But now that we’ve been thrown together without any prior agreement on norms or principles, what else can we do except try to treat each other with trust and a touch of sympathy?

That’s what Louis C.K.’s gestures embody. Many of us have responded warmly to them because they are moral in the most basic way: Let’s try to treat one another well, or at least not be total dicks, ok? Louis C.K.’s gestures were possible because the Net lets us try out new relationships and practices. Those gestures therefore remind us of our larger hope for the Net and for ourselves — not that the Net will drive out all rotten behavior, but that we can replace some corrupt practices with better ones. We can choose to dwell together more decently.

Nothing more than that. But also nothing less.

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May 18, 2012

[eim] The actual order of the Top Ten

Rob Burnett, executive producer of Late Night with David Letterman is finishing up five hours of IAMA at Reddit, and 27 seconds ago posted a response to the question “Why is number 5 always the funniest out of the top 10?” What a dumb question! It’s always been obvious to me that #2 is the funniest.

And, well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’m right and gregorkafka (if that’s his real name) is wrong. Here’s Rob’s response to the question:

Don’t get me started. Every headwriter has their own approach to the Top 10. Here was mine:

10 Funny, but also straight forward. Reinforce the topic.

9 Medium strength. Start with two laughs. Get a tailwind.

8 Can be a little experimental. Maybe not everyone gets it, but ok.

7 Back on track. Something medium.

6 Crowd pleaser. One that will get applause. Will help bridge the first panel to the second.

5 Coming off #6, time to take a chance.

4 Starting to land the plane. Gotta be solid.

3 For me always the second funniest one you got.

2 Funniest one you have.

1 Funniest one that is short so the band doesn’t play over it.

I always tried to never give Dave two in a row that didn’t get a laugh. Of course you want all 10 to be killer, but you don’t always have that going in.

Number 2! We’re Number 2!

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April 29, 2012

You score this movie

An indie movie launching in September is holding a contest to find four songs for four scenes that need musical backing.

The movie is We Made This Movie from Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman (creators of the TV show Ed; Rob is the Late Night with David Letterman producer). Because of the theme of the movie, they had the trailer produced by a high school student.

(Disclosure: I am an informal (= unpaid) marketing advisor to the project. I am also a Rob Burnett fanboy.)

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April 21, 2012

The semi-transparent Prisoner’s Dilemma

A British game show that I never heard offers a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As the host explains at the beginning, if both contestants agree to split the pot, they split it. If one chooses to split and the other to steal, the stealer gets the whole thing. If they both choose to steal, they get nothing. So, here’s the clip in which one of the players injects a new variable. [SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THIS POST]

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Why does the guy on the right (Mr. Right) finally choose the way he does?

If Mr. Left believes that Mr. Right will Steal, then Mr. Left will Split, so Mr Right might as well Split. If Mr. Left thinks that Mr. Right will Split, then Mr. Left will Steal, so Mr. Right can either Split (so Mr. Left gets the pot) or Steal (so neither gets anything); might as well Split. If Mr. Left believes that Mr. Right will steal and will break his promise to split the pot afterwards, then Mr. Left might Steal just to screw Mr. Right, in which case Mr. Left might as well let Mr. Left get the money rather than foregoing it for both of them, so Mr. Right should Split. No matter how you slice it, Mr. Left should Split.

If that’s right, and if Mr. Left were given time to work it through, then Mr. Left should have Stolen (assuming his aim is to maximize his share). But I’m pretty sure that I’m wrong about that.

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January 17, 2012

Elmore Leonard and Morgan Freeman

Meredith Sue Willis, novelist and teacher (and my sister-in-law), has a hunch about a “newish” Elmore Leonard novel:

I have a theory that Elmore Leonard came up with the idea for DJIBOUTI from a combination of headlines (piracy off the coast of east Africa) and a interview in which movie actor Morgan Freeman complained that he gets lots of work, but never gets to have sex in his movies. He has played Nelson Mandela, the corner man in MILLION DOLLAR BABY, not to mention God a couple of times- -all pretty much asexual. So my little scenario is that Leonard, who always has his eye on the movies, wrote the character of seventy-ish Xavier in DJIBOUTI for Freeman. Just a thought.

Nice!

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January 8, 2012

Megan Ganz meeting notes

Megan Ganz is a writer for the TV show Community that I started out not much liking until I had seen a few episodes and now sort of love. Except that it’s on “hiatus,” never a happy word in TV land. Megan is undergoing community interrogation over at Reddit, and one of the comments linked to her “meeting notes.” You should take a look.

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July 14, 2011

Predicting SYTYCD: Reading the judges

I have a prediction about who is going home tonight on So You Think You Can Dance.

I am more certain about the boy who’s leaving: Jess. I believe the judges are setting us up for this. It seemed to me that he danced fantastically last night. His second dance in particular elicited “mehs” instead of what seemed to me to be the more obvious and more fair course: His movement is so precise. His rhythm is amazing. He stayed in character and exhibited joy. He excelled in a style not his own. But not a word about his “growth,” much less having “taken us on a journey.” Instead the judges praised the slightly less strong performance by Clarice. (Note that I know I am not a dance expert.) And Nigel gave away the game when he said that Jess is unsteady in his lifts. I.e., Jess is short. Very short.

So, I think the judges (= the producers) have decided that Jess can’t make it into the Top Ten because they will not be able to keep him from getting paired with a tall girl. So, he has to go. Thus, they’re setting it up so that tonight when he dances for his life, sending him home won’t be out of the blue. (The fact that a couple of weeks ago the judges told Ryan that her dance for her life wasn’t up to their standards but they kept her anyway pretty much confirmed that the decisions about who to cut are made before and regardless of the “dance for your life” segments.)

I’m pretty sure they’re also setting us up to send Ryan home. I personally think she’s the weakest of the girls, so I’m not as bothered. They even gave her a dance last night that featured what are supposed to be her “Hollywood” good looks and didn’t use that to boost her to us viewers. I believe her goose is finally cooked. The story will be that they gave her a chance when they rescued her a couple of weeks ago and she just hasn’t come through, although they’ll put it in more new agey language about being true to herself and being in the moment.

Overall, I think this season’s Top Twenty has been amazingly strong and even. But I’m not finding the same peaks as in many other years. (For me, Brandon and Will were two mighty peaks.) If I had to pick a favorite, it’d be Sasha Mallory.

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June 29, 2011

[ftf] Four tables

We’re divided into four groups. I get assigned to Kurt Squire‘s, who works on games for edu at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery in Ann Arbor.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

What can we learn from games about transforming education? As technologies of change emerge, his group thinks about how to engage the public in a conversation about them? The write games that try to make discovery visible. “We want people to experience the thrill of discovering something new,” and then, having discovered them, have the public participate in science.

E.g., Virulent for the iPad. Design viruses that will carry medicine throughout your body.

Another example. Anatomy ProAm lets you role play being a doctor saving people. There’s 17% variation in diagnoses of breast cancer, and a 3-4x variation in cervical cancer. Doctors don’t like to admit this. This project was intended to make them more open to discussing the variances in diagnoses with their patients. Imagine getting not a second or third opinion, but two million opinions. The crowd wouldn’t replace the doctors, but aims at helping them. The game has four audiences: children, people in medical training, radiologists and doctors, and the general public. In the game, you get symptoms, and you train beams through the body. The game has been shown to improve understanding of radiology, knowledge about what’s difficult about radiotherapy (you have to avoid frying healthy tissue), about treating cancer, etc. It increased students’ interest in being doctors.; this was especially true for girls.

The next step is to make this multi-player. They’ve started a Facebook game. You’re given a case. You assemble a team of online FB friends. You chat. You submit your diagnoses.

Game communities are not age segregated: In WoW, the elderly and the young play without regard. Curtis imagines professional medical folks playing with kids and the general public. This is the power of games: Get people to engage authentically while spanning demographics, ages, etc. Also, by playing in FB, the game can know a lot about you. It should enable peer ratings, e.g., doctors say that this 14 yr old knows a lot about anatomy. Public assessments will be controversial and will stimulate discussions. In fact, you will be able to roll your own assessments.


We talked about Curtis’ session. The investment in agency is powerful, we agreed.
Now we go to new tables where we summarize what went on in each of our tables.

Table 1: Neurological discoveries. There’s a correlation between how the brain works and how you learn. If a kid has dysgraphia, you can give the kid exercises that change neural pathways. Adding a gambling-based point system stimulates dopamine and learning. It’s not competition so much as the knowledge that there’s a chance you might get it wrong.

Table 2: Conrad Wolfram talked about the ability to create manipulable mathematical knowledge objects. That should change how we teach math. We waste time teaching computation. We should teach how to translate problems into math and how to interpret the results; the computation is the least important part of it. But, someone objects, we embedded these mathematical models into the financial system without knowing the computations underneath them. Response: The problem was in building the models, which Conrad would like students to become more adept at; he is advocating that they don’t need to do the computations themselves by hand. But the countries that do best on the international tests are the ones who drill on computation. Because that’s what get tested? Because it develops high order skills?

Table 3. Stanley Yang presents a biosensor device to wear on your head. It tells you whether you’re concentrating or bored, which problems are challenging, etc. The biofeedback can be integrated into learning. E.g., language learning: It won’t tell you what the Korean word for an object in the room is unless you are actually concentrating on the object. Is there evidence of the results? It’s very early. They are developing it for games, too.

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June 8, 2011

E.T.: A very old trailer

Here’s the 1982 trailer for ET:

MovieLine posted the trailer to support the wisdom of Super 8’s decision not to give away too much ahead of time. But, wow, does the ET trailer seem dated! It feels like it has about half as many scenes as a typical modern trailer. Contemporary trailers are much more coherent, not in the sense of making sense (which they usually don’t), but in the sense of feeling like a whole experience, usually ending with an ear-ripping blast or, after you’ve thought it ended, a shocking image or wry remark. I hate contemporary trailers because they are assaultive and disrespect the movies they spoil, but the ET trailer seems excepionally poorly made.

Maybe they figured (correctly) that they really just had to tell us that it’s the next Spielberg film, and that ET was unlikely to bite children in half.

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April 27, 2011

You snooze, you looze. Also, if you execute poorly

BoingBoing lauds a new book called “Go the Fuck to Sleep,” by Adam Mansbach, with illustrations by Ricardo Cort├ęs.

I’ve been thinking for the past couple of months about seeing if someone wanted to do illustrations for a similar project I posted under a CC license in 2004: “Now Go to Damn Sleep: A Children’s Book for Parents. ” Now it would be a tad redundant.

I trust that Adam has done a better job with the topic than I did. I was never very happy with my mastery of meter.

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