Grit and glitz

I had a chance to see Iron Man 3 over the weekend. It was enjoyable, but it made me think about how the creation of a sense of reality is key to film. Especially and ironically, it is essential to superhero films. Perhaps the more fantastic the film world and the premise, the more it should be made to feel real so that we are able to situate ourselves as viewer participants.

There is a tendency in superhero films to make everything too glitzy, too polished, presumably so that we think the superhero world is cool and fantastic. Maybe so that it seems so unlike reality. Maybe so that we can leave the mundane behind. But, I find that this makes it harder for me to become involved in the film.

The more polish and glitz, the more details there are to bring me out of the story and the characters. The more aware I am that we’re in a world that bears little resemblance to the real.

Superhero movies often belong to the “more is more” school of film-making. Take “The Avengers” as a recent example. Widely praised and loved by fans and critics, it’s ultimately a weak and forgettable film. In “The Avengers” there is an all-star team of superheroes (including a god), flying aircraft carriers, and an enemy from another dimension. All these things are true to the comic book, but it’s so over the top that it stops being interesting. Where can you go in terms of story? Maybe things which make sense in comic books stop making sense on film. Comic books being a low-resolution medium with lots of completion necessary… it makes sense that you need to punch things up to make things compelling. But in a film, it’s just too much. I don’t care. I can’t care.

 

Odds and ends

A quotation from John Ruskin from an article on the 40th anniversary of Civilisation:

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”

Apple ARM Strategy

Recent rumors have emerged suggesting Apple intends to purchase ARM holdings for $8 billion. As Apple has $41 billion in cash, it would be a done deal if they wanted to move. Interesting thoughts:

  1. ARM does not produce any chips itself, but licenses its technology to 191 companies, including Texas Instruments, Samsung, Intel, Apple, Nokia, and Infineon. source
  2. List of ARM licensees: http://www.arm.com/products/processors/licensees.php
  3. According to 2007, estimates the ARM license costs only 6.7 cents per chip. 2010 estimates expect 4.5 billion products shipped, which dictates an annual revenue of $310.5 million in license fees alone. The license fees could be manipulated to use as leverage against Apple competitors.
  4. Licensing information could also give Apple important data about its competitors and their low-power computing strategies. Consider the recent Google acquisition of Agnilux, for example. If Apple knows how many licenses you purchase, they can gain insight into your success and strategy.
  5. Amazon’s Kindle runs a Freescale ARM-based processor. HTC uses ARM-based processors. Nokia uses ARM-based processors. Blackberry uses ARM-based processors. See where this is going?
  6. Apple is currently embroiled in patent suits with both HTC and Nokia. Gaining control over valuable ARM IP gives them even more leverage.
  7. If Apple buys ARM Holdings, it further represents their believe that the future is mobile.

“Damage” and Obsession

Louis Malle’s film “Damage” is a dark and magnetic meditation on love and obsession. How desire leaves us powerless. How love can destroy. The following video is the final scene.

“It takes a remarkably short time to withdraw from the world. I travelled until I arrived at a life of my own. What really makes us is beyond grasping. It is way beyond knowing. We give in to love because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable. Nothing else matters. Not at the end.

I saw her once more only. I saw her by accident at an airport changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with Peter. She was holding a child. She was no different from anyone else.”

When I first saw this film I thought about it for days. I went and got the book it was based on (Damage by Josephine Hart) and read it in one marathon session. Propped up on my bed, unwilling to detach. Like the film, the dialogue is spare and not frivolous. No word is wasted. This focuses the emotional force of each expression. Ideas and feelings are suggested in the spaces between lines and between moments.

In the film, the characters convey a complex melange of feeling with each look they share. By observing the characters on screen we get some sense of the emotional intensity between them. At turns stricken or overcome. Restrained or unbound. And in our turn it resonates with the force of our own bodily memory. As people who have felt something powerful and intoxicating.

Love is not a trifling thing. It creates and destroys. In the words of Kierkegaard, “Love is all, it gives all, and it takes all.” Very few films seem equipped to show us the dual aspects of love. To love means ceding control of your life to something other than yourself.

The last few lines of the final scene are ambiguous. And this ambiguity is what leaves you thinking.

“I saw her once more only. I saw her by accident at an airport changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with Peter. She was holding a child. She was no different from anyone else.”

She was no different than anyone else. That is a compelling statement. There are multiple interpretations for what he means. While under its spell does the object of love take on significance that is unrelated to reality? Do we somehow transform our own reality through desire so that individuals become intensely meaningful to us in a way that is beyond reason? What separates the man or woman we desire from any other in the world? Perhaps only the focus of our desire. Once desire has withered or become focused elsewhere we see them as what they were the whole time: another person. But, desire transforms a mere person into an object of religious devotion.

Another way to interpret that line is as a realization of the momentary nature of desire. Romantic love breaks out like a wildfire and enraptures each person. But, if the passion between two people is destroyed, no trace remains other than the memory of feeling. What do we find when we discover that things we once felt are no longer true? How do we reconcile the intensity of the dead past with the deadness of the living present?

The big deal about 3rd party sellers

Not too long ago in August, Walmart followed Amazon’s decade long lead by allowing third parties to sell products on their site. Now Sears is getting in the game.

Why are third party sales so important to online retailers? A few reasons.

Increased revenues at no cost

Every time you purchase something from a third party seller on Amazon.com, Amazon gets a cut. But, unlike with everything else on the site, Amazon didn’t have to purchase the item, store the item, account for the item as inventory, or fulfill the item once it was purchased. All they do is connect buyer and seller and take a cut. It’s your classic win/win/win situation. And what a win it is:

Amazon doesn’t break out the dollar value of third-party sales, but they made up 31 percent of the overall unit sales in the third quarter of 2009, according to a regulatory filing. Amazon said more than 1.8 million seller accounts were active on its site worldwide in Q3, up 24 percent from a year ago.

Think about that for a second. Amazon is making 31 percent of its sales from third party sellers for products they never need to touch. It’s all pure profit.

Of course, Amazon didn’t pioneer this model, eBay did. But, unlike eBay, which has lost its way entirely, Amazon protected the integrity of the retail experience. Bad sellers are punished ruthlessly and sellers are kept in line. Buyers are not a problem because Amazon handles payments directly. As long as sellers can make money they will stay with Amazon no matter what the terms, but once a buyer is disappointed or taken advantage of they may disappear forever. Amazon understands the leverage and priorities implicit in this three-way relationship.

More sellers create a deeper catalog

On its own, Amazon may not be able to anticipate every potential product a consumer may want. But, if you have 1.8 million sellers like Amazon you also have 1.8 million individual sources for ideas. Third party sellers may sell any number of things from small run specialty products to niche clothing brands and anything else that would be difficult for a giant like Amazon and its army of buyers to identify.

Likewise, the more products you offer from more sellers, the more opportunities you have to provide something a customer wants. And, the more opportunities Amazon has to appear in search for these more obscure items. By encouraging third parties to sell and by protecting the buyer’s retail experience Amazon has created a retail network that is larger and more vibrant than Amazon would be on its own. Third party sellers allow online retailers to sell literally anything that can be sold.

Third party sales provide valuable data

If you’re an online retailer, you want to capture any online transaction you can. Since third party sellers allow you to sell anything, you have no reason not to try to sell everything since you’re simply using your market power to connect buyers and sellers. One thing most people fail to account for is how much data you can glean from third party sales. For example, let’s say there is a brisk business in third party sales for kitchen utensils. If you were Amazon, you might look at the stats for this product category and decide to start buying more products to build out your kitchen utensil product line so that you could take advantage of the buyer interest in the category. Without the data from these third party sales you might never have gone after this category. So, such data is extremely useful in turning up non-intuitive findings.

The problem with the Sears’ and Walmarts of the online world is that no one wants to shop at Sears or Walmart. They do so with reluctance, either because they feel don’t have the financial means or because they have no other choices. With Walmart positioning itself as the world’s low cost purveyor of low quality products and nauseating retail experiences and Sears edging toward oblivion, Amazon is in perfect shape for growth with an impeccable reputation and a powerful brand that they protect at all costs. Amazon understands what Walmart and Sears have forgotten: people want value and value doesn’t just mean having the lowest price. It means making people feel like they got their money’s worth.

Plant life as dynamic

I read this article about new research on plant behavior that included the following paragraph:

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

The idea that plants possess a certain awareness or at least a tactile sense perception is rather startling. Imagine walking through the woods among the trees who are dimly aware of you. We are used to thinking of trees as almost inanimate objects, pushing forth from the dirt in a blind process of life. But, if they can respond to attack and can signal one another then it brings them closer to possessing a certain being.

Apple Should Buy Twitter (and Facebook) to Take On Google

Google’s business model is more nimble than both Apple and Microsoft. Build superior software, make it free, and make sure you get onto as many devices as possible. As such, it is a danger to companies that just make hardware. Even if those companies make beautiful devices like the iPhone.

Google is also a business that requires fewer individuals. You can have engineering teams of 20-30 people supporting major development projects. So, why don’t more companies do something similar? Why have otherwise capable companies like Microsoft and Apple largely failed in the realm of web applications? It is likely a question of leadership. The people who run Microsoft and Apple are not web natives. They do not love and believe in the web the way Google loves the web.

So, if Apple wants to stay relevant they need to get Google on the defensive. To do so, they need to take on search and a good entry into search would be to acquire Twitter and / or Facebook. Take search and make it truly social. Take search and personalize it. This is something Apple might be successful with.

Multiple sources at Google tell us that in informal discussions with Apple over the last few months Apple expressed dismay at the number of core iPhone apps that are powered by Google. Search, maps, YouTube, and other key popular apps are powered by Google. Other than the browser, Apple has little else to call its own other than the core phone, contacts and calendar features. The Google Voice App takes things one step further, by giving users an incentive to abandon their iPhone phone number and use their Google Voice phone number instead (transcription of voicemails is reason enough alone). Apple was afraid, say our sources, that Google was gaining too much power on the iPhone, and that’s why they rejected the application. #

Fantasy vs. Science-fiction

I’m going to try something different now to help try to post more often. Namely, not worry so much about the result and just try to exorcise the ideas as they come. Without further ado…

I was thinking about how I typically enjoy science-fiction novels more than fantasy and I wondered why this was. Then it occurred to me that fantasy is typically regressive and nostalgic. It represents a longing for the child’s world and an escape from reality. Harry Potter is a good example of this, as is the Lord of the Rings. I would even say that Star Wars is a fantasy film, rather than a science-fiction film. The technology in Star Wars is rarely focused on or explained (compared to Star Trek, which does attempt to explain), instead the story is consumed with the magical metaphysics of the Force. So, Star Wars is a space fantasy. Complete with wizards (Obi Wan) and dark lords.

Fantasy is about a small, simple, magical world. This is the world of the child, but also the world of the past. Looking back things become simple and romanticized. The concept of the Golden Age is as old as we are.

Fantasy worlds operate as cartoonish backdrops for personal dramas and interpersonal narratives. There is often little explanation of how things work or any real consciousness of the larger objective reality. There is a narrowness of perspective that often dictates a flatness and reliance on cliche that relegates fantasy narratives to the ghetto of genre fiction. Fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings occasionally break out and do something impressive, but only by taking on greater reality and connection to the real world. Much of LoTR is inspired directly by Anglo-Saxon and Germanic history and much of its resonance is due to its connection to this world, also referred to as “Middle Earth” in Norse myth.

Science-fiction is about the future from the perspective of the present. It is not really about the future itself. This is why science-fiction often ages badly. Science-fiction seeks to enlarge the compass of the known. It is speculative. And, in speculating it is often laughably wrong. But, it also points the way and suggests possibilities for how the present could develop along its current course. Science-fiction is prophetic where fantasy is sentimental. Science-fiction, since it encourages a more broad perspective, is more creative and interesting. Fantasy is referential and narrow and as soon as it becomes unmoored from cliche it ceases to be fantasy and becomes science-fiction or speculative fiction.

Of course, many science-fiction narratives are so narrow as to resemble fantasy. Just replace the tableau of swords, elves, and magic with lasers, aliens, and advanced inexplicable science and you have the same uninteresting garbage.

Mobile App Pricing

I read an article today about Microsoft supporting a premium app model for its own version of the iPhone app store. Basically, they want to avoid a race to the bottom where there is so much competition for users that app developers price their products at very low prices to capture sales. The problem, which is not a problem at all for consumers, is that this encourages everyone else to lower their prices as well. Since you do not want to be the only $10 app when everyone else is $1.

Trying to just introduce something anti-competitive like arbitrary price controls will not work, for a few reasons.

For one, the cost of distribution is zero. The cost for entering the application market is effectively zero. You can market your application at any price you wish. So, if you cannot demonstrate effective value for your price, that is your responsibility. No consumer owes you a certain price, especially with relation to digital goods for which there is no necessary ongoing cost following development.

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Amazon Consolidates Position in eBooks with Stanza Purchase

I’m a big fan in general of ebooks as a concept and to a lesser degree a fan of Amazon and its Kindle ebook reader. I trust Amazon to deliver a good user experience, but I think open standards and a diverse marketplace are the best way to move forward. With that said, I follow the ebook business with interest as it such a newly vital market. We can credit Amazon and the Kindle with much of the recent vitality.

With the acquisition of Lexcycle, the producer of the iPhone ebook app Stanza, Amazon is consolidating its lead in ebooks. They are also signaling that it’s less about the device you use to read ebooks and more about distribution. Distribution is where the real profits lie. People buy a Kindle once, but they may purchase thousands of dollars worth of ebooks and e-periodicalsover their lifespan as a consumer. This is where Amazon wants to be. Not in making hardware, but in selling digital goods and controlling a large portion of the marketplace. The only reason Amazon really needed the Kindle was to create the marketplace. Once people are accustomed to buying their ebooks from Amazon, the device becomes irrelevant.

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