The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media


Posted in Humor, Rant, Theory by Noah Harlan on January 26, 2012

I love fallacies and recently they seem to be cropping up a lot around me. Fallacies come in many types, and each can be fun in its own way. I think the pleasure comes from creating a conclusion that is so intensely convincing and yet, at the same time, is completely illogical. Your brain tosses back and forth between agreeing and disagreeing until some meta-process comes in and stops that loop from continuing.

(as an aside, there is a great story called “The Riddle Of The Universe, And It’s Solution” in Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s anthology ‘The Mind’s I” about what might happen if you could come up with a fallacy so dense that you could not eject)

The simple logical loop is created by a statement such as “This sentance has threee errors”. There are only two obvious errors (the two typos) which means that the sentence is wrong, but the fact that the sentence has miscounted means that there are actually three errors and thus the sentence is correct, however that means that the third error no longer exists and once again the sentence is incorrect. And so on, and so on. Another good example is the statement “I cannot assert this sentence.” If you agree that you cannot assert the sentence then really the sentence is wrong since you can assert it, but that means the sentence is right that you cannot assert it, and so on, and so on.

More fun, is when the concrete field of math comes into play. I remember when Mort Anderson, my AP calculus teacher in high school was frustrated with our class one day. We were distracted and not paying attention. He put the following on the board and then just sat at his desk while we tried to figure out what he had just done. Follow this factorization if you will (you’ll need to recall some algebra for this one):

X = X (take two numbers)

X2 = X2 (square them both)

X2 – X2 = X2 – X2 (subtract the square from both sides)

(X + X) * (X / X) = X * (X / X) (factor each side)

(X + X) = X (divide both sides by (X – X))

now, replace X with 1 and you just proved that 1 + 1 = 1.

Every step in that equation appears to be legal algebraic maneuvers but the result is impossible. The reason is simple. When you divide both sides by (X – X) you’re forgetting that X – X is actually 0 and you cannot divide by 0. Now you know why you can’t divide by 0 – addition ceases to function and the universe will begin to cave in on itself.

Probability is a great area for logical traps. I love the old statistics joke “How do you ensure that a terrorist doesn’t bring a bomb onto your plane? Bring your own bomb! The probability that your plane has two bombs on it is so remote it could never happen!”

That joke relies on an inversion of the base rate fallacy. It assumes that the probabilities are linked when, in fact, they’re not. For example: if you flip a coin, the likelihood of getting heads is 1/2. If you flip a coin twice, the likelihood of getting heads on both flips is 1/2 * 1/2 or 1/4. You can figure out the probability of getting X number of heads in a row by calculating 1/2^X (e.g. X = 4, 2^4 = 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 = 16, therefore getting heads 4 times in a row has a 1/16 likelihood). So getting heads 100 times in a row is astronomically unlikely. However the likelihood that you get heads on the hundredth flip is still 1/2 because that flip doesn’t know that there have been 99 before it. So too does the terrorist not know that there is already a bomb on that plane so the likelihood of his act taking place is not affected by yours.

Recently, my friend Dewitt Clinton posted the following on Google+:

According to this, our galaxy has 100,000,000,000 planets. And there are at least 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the observable universe.

Which averages out to over 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in total (all things being equal).

Which means that even if there’s just a .00000000000000000000001% chance of life on any given planet (about 3 quadrillion times less likely than you being eaten by a shark this year), then there’s life on at least one more out there. = )

I realized there was an implication with that probability that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with:

Since I’m 99.9% certain that there is other life in the universe, and it’s 3 quadrillion times more likely that I’ll be eaten by a shark this year then, by the transitive property, I am absolutely certain to be eaten by a shark this year.


The likelihood is so high, in fact, that if I sat in a hut in the middle of the sahara, a shark would spontaneously appear from thin air and eat me. An event that would be deeply unfortunate for me and incomprehensibly surreal for any by-standers.

This is an example of an appeal to probability. In fact, just because something could happen, does not mean it will. If I were living in a hut in the sahara, the likelihood of being eat by a shark would approach 0 (there is still some chance, just not much…).

What are your favorite fallacies?

I’ll leave you with a recent XKCD cartoon that shows the unsustainability of using the word sustainable at current rates. Enjoy:


The lack of community on Facebook

Posted in Theory by Noah Harlan on November 21, 2011

Maciej Ceglowski (Pinboard) in a fascintating piece called “The Social Graph Is Neither“:

The funny thing is, no one’s really hiding the secret of how to make awesome online communities. Give people something cool to do and a way to talk to each other, moderate a little bit, and your job is done. Games like Eve Online or WoW have developed entire economies on top of what’s basically a message board. MetaFilter, Reddit, LiveJournal and SA all started with a couple of buttons and a textfield and have produced some fascinating subcultures. And maybe the purest (!) example is 4chan, a Lord of the Flies community that invents all the stuff you end up sharing elsewhere: image macros, copypasta, rage comics, the lolrus. The data model for 4chan is three fields long – image, timestamp, text.

Now tell me one bit of original culture that’s ever come out of Facebook.

Did David Brent Take Down Blackberry?

Posted in Humor, Technology, Theory by Noah Harlan on October 10, 2011

Around 11AM in England yesterday morning RIM’s Blackberry service went down for consumers across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Needless to say, this is terrible for RIM given the decline that Blackberry is in at the moment they can’t afford to also be seen as unreliable. But there was one piece of the article in The Telegraph that really caught my eye:

The glitch, which struck at around 11AM, was affecting online services for consumers all over Europe, the Middle East and Africa. All are served by a RIM data centre in Slough.


Where have I heard of that place before?

Oh yeah, it’s the place where this guy works:

David Brent from Slough

Coincidence? You decide….

The President And The Macguffin

Posted in Content, Humor, Theory by Noah Harlan on July 15, 2011

Today, the President apparently discovered a Macguffin.

The Macguffin is a plot device that moves the story forward and everyone is focussed on. The term was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock who described its origin to François Truffaut as:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers “Oh, that’s a McGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?”. “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands“. The first man says “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!”. So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

Take a look at the President in the above picture. See the below. What do you think was in the case?

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction

Kiss Me Deadly


2001: A Space Odyssey

In actual fact, the President was visiting an LED factory. It is highly unlikely that it was Marcellus Wallace’s soul he was looking at.

Make It Real, Then Film It

Posted in Theory by Noah Harlan on April 6, 2011

Mark Wahlberg talking in the commentary section of the DVD about how they shot all the fight scenes in The Fighter in just 3 days by using an actual HBO fight crew:

Every filmmaker that we talked to about directing this movie was like you can’t shoot the fights in 20 days, you need 35 days. And I said, “Well, we’re going to shoot the whole movie in 33 days and we’re going to shoot all the fights in three days.” And they said, “How are you going to do that? It’s never going to work.” And I said, “Because we’re going to film them like actual fights.”

So we literally did every fight from the actual beginning, coming out of the dressing room into the arena, into the ring, first bell, introductions, to the last bell, and everything. And we just did it over and over and over again.

And what I kept telling everybody is that HBO does it in one take and they don’t know what’s going to happen and they never miss a thing. We have the luxury of showing them what we’re going to do in the morning before we shoot it and doing it over and over and over again. So why do you need 20 days? For what? To jerk each other off? To touch up your makeup? To go in the trailer and take a nap?

We’re not talking about putting the camera in there and saying, “OK, we’re going to do a stunt punch here.” No, we’re going in there and beat the shit out of each other and we’re going to make it real.

(ht: 37 Signals)

This reminded me of John Favreau (I believe, I could be wrong) talking about shooting football (I believe for Rudy). Apparently they consulted with NFL Films – who makes the films of every NFL game, not the TV broadcast, but the actual beautiful films – about how to realistically shoot a football game. Steve Sabol and his team said “listen, we’re going to tell you how to do it, but you’re not going to take our advice, nobody ever does.” He then went on to tell them that the way to realistically shoot a football game is to not put the camera on the field. Don’t put it in the middle of the action. The audience doesn’t buy it. It’s better if the camera exists in a real location where a viewer could actually be. Put them exactly where NFL films puts them. Shoot your closeups on long lenses. If you don’t then you’ll make something that looks like Any Given Sunday (ie: something that looks like crap).

This was a lesson Favreau said he used when shooting action scenes later, don’t put the camera where it could never be. For example, don’t put the camera in the middle of the air if you’re shooting two planes in a dogfight. Film it from the view of the pilots. Case in point – check out Top Gun. It works so well because much of the footage is from the perspective of the pilots and RIOs (Radio Intercept Officers – what Goose was, sitting behind Maverick). You rarely are given that luxury of a big wide shot from the middle of the air that gives perfect context. You never have the camera stationary, floating in the air, and the planes flying past.

This concept – make it real, then film it – has wide adoption actually. The film that I consider the most breathtaking historical epic ever is Barry Lyndon. The power of the images in that film is largely from the fact that Kubrick insisted on not creating a film-able version of history. He said, “let’s recreate it the way it was and figure out how to film it.” That meant no external light for those beautiful night interiors. Only the candle chandeliers. He had to build custom lenses that were so big they had to remove floorboards and walls to get the cameras into position. The result? One of the only films that I feel truly looks like genuinely history come to life.

So, to all you aspiring directors. Make it real, then film it. Words to live by.

I Hate To Say I Told You So

Posted in Policy, Theory by Noah Harlan on August 31, 2010

I had predicted that sometime between August 21st and September 9th there would be either a suicide bombing or a rocket attack in Israel. I was close.

Four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, were shot and killed near Hebron tonight. While this wasn’t a suicide bombing and it wasn’t inside Israel. It was a West Bank-based attack and effectively the same thing.

I also said the following:

“The attacks will not be explicitly from Hamas, however Hamas will say that they are legitimate”

Again, I was partially right:

Last night Hamas’s armed wing claimed responsibility for the attack stating the “Qassam Brigades announces its full responsibility for the heroic operation in Hebron.”


A political spokesman for Hamas, the Islamist organisation that internally controls the Gaza Strip and is opposed to the direct talks, today praised the attack. “Hamas regards [the attack] as a natural response to the crimes of the occupation,” Sami Abu-Zuhri told Reuters.

Say what you will about the Middle East, the Israelis and the Palestinians. There is one group that has no interest in peace. It is Hamas and they prove, yet again, why they are deemed and should be treated as a terrorist organization.

Now let’s hope the Israelis and Fatah stay calm, remain focussed, and keep their eyes on the goal of these meetings.

Raging Against The (Anti-Porn) Machine?

Posted in Content, Rant, Theory by Noah Harlan on June 10, 2010

Scott Macaulay wrote the following on the Filmmaker Magazine blog today:

Looks like Banksy’s Exit to the Gift Shop is influencing folks out there. This viral campaign by a group of San Francisco artists, Freedom From Porn , who are protesting the ban on adult material within Apple’s walled garden, clearly cops a few licks from the British artist’s great new movie.

And includes this video from that site:

It seems so rebellious, no? It seems so “we’re gonna teach the big machine something from the streets because we’re cool and subversive…”

The problem is that they don’t know the device very well or aren’t very smart with their examples. Let’s take a look, shall we?

First, they start with this statement:

Dear Steve,

You dont’ want people looking at vaginas on the tablet you named after a feminine hygiene product? Something smells fishy.


Dude who like porn

How witty… how clever… Aside from the mildly offensive implication that women’s genitalia smells like seafood (hohoho, that’s so cool… *sarcasm*), they’re not being accurate. Steve (Jobs) has never said he doesn’t want porn on the iPad. He said he doesn’t want it in the iTunes store. The store that Apple hosts on their servers. The store from which they sell things to people of all ages. Putting aside the issues that Apple might have if someone put child pornography in an app that Apple hosted, there’s a better issue:

Shouldn’t you be equally upset that Toys R Us doesn’t sell porn either? I mean they sell books and games for kids (and adults if you’re like me and still love legos) but aw, gee, shucks, they don’t sell me my porn! Of course not, they want families to feel comfortable in their store.

So Steve doesn’t want porn in the store. If you want porn on your device, feel free to browse the web and you’ll find plenty of it. Do you have porn applications on your computer now? I highly doubt it, I suspect you browse the web and find it, no? Well you can still do that.*

And that leads to the other part of why these guys are less than the sharpest knives in the drawer.  Let’s look at their ‘radical’ images:

Dirty Pictures On An iPad! *Gasp*

Oh wait, that’s not a porn app, that’s Facebook from a browser and, wait for it, that works on an iPad…

Maybe the next one:

Porn Dating Sites On The iPad *shock!*

It’s a dirty dating site! What’s that? It’s a website again? And what’s that? When I just went there on my iPhone it turns out they have an iPhone optimized website? Oh… guess that one doesn’t work as an example of Evil Steve’s Mind Control™. Let’s try one more image, ok?

Dirty Words, Sent Dirt Cheap!

Ok, now they’re just being funny. That’s dirty stuff in email… on the iPad’s email software… that can show you any porn your friends want to send you.*

I’m down with Social Protest®. It can be clever. I loved these set of posters that were in the city a few years back:

Genuine Subversion

Now that is a real message, well delivered and truly subversive. These guys? Well they’re just cheap impressionists of much smarter subversives.

* Yes, yes, I know. Most porn is in Flash video that won’t play on the device but I think that is a separate issue. They weren’t protesting for Flash, they were protesting for porn. Besides, HTML5 video will be pervasive in another 12-18 months.

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DIYDAYS 2010 Talk

Posted in Content, Self Promotion, Software, Technology, Theory by Noah Harlan on June 10, 2010

My talk from DIYDAYS on the history of interaction and developing for mobile platforms is now up on Vimeo. Check it out:

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How To Run A Great Company

Posted in Technology, Theory by Noah Harlan on June 1, 2010

Steve Jobs is on stage tonight at D8 talking to Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher from the Wall Street Journal. He said the following about how Apple is organized and I think it’s a fantastic mindset (via Engadget):

One of the keys to Apple is that Apple is an incredibly collaborative company. You know how many committees we have at Apple? Zero. We’re organized like a startup. We’re the biggest start up on the planet. We meet for 3 hours every morning and talk about all the business, about what’s going on everywhere. We’re great at figuring out how to divide things up into great teams, and we talk to each other. So what I do all day is meet with teams of people. To get great people is to let them have great ideas.

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Why TV Loses

Posted in Rant, Software, Technology, Television, Theory, Uncategorized by Noah Harlan on May 4, 2010

Mark Cuban has another of his rants today about why TV kicks the internet’s ass when it comes to content and why TV is going to be the big winner in the long run. We must remember that this is a man who made his fortune by selling and has spent much of his fortune buying sports teams and HDNet so he has a clear vested interest in the future of TV.  But he misses the point about why people are switching:

Mark Cuban

When you buy that new TV and get it installed on your wall or wherever in your apartment or house, you want to turn that baby on and watch your favorite show, the big fight or concert or put on your favorite video. You want it to look and sound good. It doesn’t matter if you are 20 and living in a dorm or an apartment, or 65 and watching Oprah. It’s a proud moment.  You don’t want to have to figure out which 3rd party box or streaming service you can hook up via the internet and then stream to your TV and then find out the video you are streaming looks nothing like the video they had on in the store.  You don’t want to tell your buddies not to bump the mouse so it stays full screen. You don’t want to piss off  everyone because your screen saver of your dog  just came on or have to stop everything and turn your facebook alerts back off because they keep interrupting everything. You dont’ want to scream to your girlfriend/roomie/wife/kids in the other room  to stop downloading stuff so you can watch your show without it buffering. You just want it to work.

I guess Mark missed CES is this year.

I bought two TVs this year. I also bought two LG Blu-Ray players, though after CES I could have bought most any TV and skipped the players. I have, built in to the interface, Netflix streaming, Cinema Now, YouTube and room for more services as they get added. One of my TVs even let’s me plug in my iPod and watch all the videos I keep on it.  There is no bumping of the mouse – it’s controlled by the TV remote. There isn’t any screensaver. I haven’t had any quality issues with Netflix streaming. I get the sense that Mark hasn’t used true internet video in the last year or two…

Compare these use cases:

Buy TV, plug in TV to cable box, realize that cable box hasn’t been fully upgraded, call cable company, wait four days for service appointment, wait at home for four hours for service appointment, get TV box replaced and up & running, browse channels trying to figure out which one has the movies (this is Time Warner Cable in NYC, no “on demand” button!), find Channel 1000, browse screen after screen (no search function), forget what you wanted to watch (no queue or save functions), then realize there are several other channels of On Demand, browse to Channel 1001, 1002, 1003, repeat this process for each of them, give up, go to DVR, turn on GLEE from this week, discover that the first 3 minutes of the show are missing because American Idol “ran long” and the DVR couldn’t figure that out since it doesn’t record GLEE, it records whatever runs from 9:00pm to 10:00pm on channel 0004, give up on GLEE, think about watching Comedy Central (hell, it’s not 10:56pm and the daily show is coming on soon), remember the three digit channel code for “Comedy Central” (745), and now watch that.


Buy TV, plug in Airport Express to same powerstrip, plug ethernet cable into TV, launch Netflix, manage my Queue from my iPhone, play movie or TV show, wonder whether I’ll be able to get HULU next week or the week after…

If TV wants to stay relevant then the Cable operators need to do a ground-up rethink of the interface design for their systems. Just because something is better quality (which TV is) doesn’t mean it wins the war. (I’m looking at you Beta…) TV, and in particular the cable operators, are their own worst enemy at the moment. When TWC in NYC refused to continue licensing their old operating system and went with a kludgy, poorly implemented system of their own making last year they turned off tens of thousands of users who are happily jumping ship every day.

I think this part is key. Why do I need to memorize three digit numbers to find the content I want? 745 is Comedy Central. 750 is the Food Network. 714 is MSNBC. 744 is Fox News. 710 used to be CNN but they moved it to a different number a few months ago and now I don’t watch it anymore because I don’t know where it went.

The linearity of TV is insane. It runs counter to how we understand content in the modern world. Channels become ghettos based on their neighborhoods. I’ll watch a lot of stuff in the 740’s, 750’s and 760’s but I watch almost nothing in the 720’s or 730’s. Heck, I won’t even go to anything between 733 and 737 because I know there is public access around there and you never know when Robyn Byrd is on. Her presence at 735 makes that neighborhood an unwelcoming place for me at night.

If TV wants to be relevant then companies like Time Warner need to rethink their interface.  Here are a few rules:

  1. Let us browse by channel name.
  2. Let us find shows by genre or channel, not just by hen-pecking out letters in their title with the remote.
  3. And while we’re at it, give us a remote with some form of keyboard.
  4. Make your DVR record a show, not a time slot. If a show is being pushed back, you have the ability to let the DVRs know, do it.
  5. Allow us to browse movies like Netflix does. Not by going screen-by-screen through an alphabetical list. HTML has been around for nearly 20 years – why do you not have a single hyperlink in your navigational system? Why can’t I see every Paul Rudd movie available On Demand right now?
  6. Don’t give us separate sets of channels for SD & HD. Why do I need to memorize that 045 is Comedy Central but 745 is Comedy Central HD? Why can’t I just set a preference on my TV that says “Choose the HD version of a channel whenever available”? Do you think that there are some shows that I want to watch in SD? Why does my DVR record some shows SD and others HD?

Fix these things and I’ll believe in TV’s future.

Don’t fix them and you’ll be relegated to the Betamax dustbin of history.