YouTube to end unskippable 30-second ads in 2018

In an official statement to Campaign, Google announced this week that they are ending 30-second unskippable ads on Youtube videos in 2018:

In an official statement, Google explained that its aim is to provide a better advertising experience for online users. “As part of that, we’ve decided to stop supporting 30-second unskippable ads as of 2018 and focus instead on formats that work well for both users and advertisers,” said a Google spokesman.

Unskippable ads were a double-edged sword for YouTube and publishers. While they guaranteed that users would have to watch the whole ad before getting to see the content they wanted, the drop off rates on these videos were significantly higher than for normal videos. Publishers had to balance the higher revenue received for the ads with the worse reach/retention, plus the user experience was degraded. Of course, skippable ads have their own problems, too.

My prediction? We will see more of a shift towards unskippable 5-6-second ads that make their point extremely quickly. Folks like Geico seem to have already mastered this format.

What’s Amy Heckerling up to these days?

Here’s a wonderful profile of Clueless director Amy Heckerling by Lindsay Zoladz, that’s as much an exploration of Heckerling’s career as it is about double standards in Hollywood:

Female directors have and will continue to set foot in uncharted territory — how can they not, when so much of it is uncharted? — and every so often a triumphant milestone makes the news. Frozen made codirector Jennifer Lee both the first woman to helm a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie and the first woman to direct a film that earned over $1 billion in gross box office revenue. When Ava DuVernay signed on last spring to direct the forthcoming blockbuster A Wrinkle in Time, she became the first woman of color to direct a live-action movie with a budget over $100 million. With this summer’s Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins will the first woman to direct a DC Comics movie. These are monumental achievements, but they are underscored by the immense pressure on these films to succeed, to stand for something larger than themselves; an unfair truth of the industry is that the opportunities for all women to direct superhero films in the future will be determined by how much money Jenkins’s Wonder Woman makes. The Female Director in the 21st century has cleared so many bars, but she has not yet achieved a milestone that’s less glamorous but no less important to both creativity and equality: the right to fail.

The nightmare of the Peggy Couch from West Elm

I don’t usually blog about furniture here, but this post by Anna Hezel at The Awl about the Peggy Couch from West Elm really got to me:

Around when the throw pillows finally arrived, the couch began to disintegrate in small ways. We would scooch across a cushion at the wrong angle, and a button would pop off, leaving a fraying hole behind. We would lean back slightly too far, and all of the cushions would shift forward and over the edge of the couch in unison. As soon as one button had fallen off of our couch, it was like a spigot had been turned, allowing all of the other buttons to fall off, too. I emailed customer service and asked if this was normal. They sent me a button-repair kit, indicating that this probably happens a lot. The kit was backordered, so it arrived two full months later and contained a wooden dowel, two buttons, and some directions that didn’t make sense. One direction was to “Hold the cushion properly and make sure the pointed end of the stick is all the way through, until you can see both ends of the stick on each side of the cushion.” I tried in earnest to follow the directions, but the wooden dowel would not fit into the buttonholes, and the entire exercise left me with fewer buttons than I started with.

Every component of this story is nuts, from the fleet of disaffected Peggy purchasers out there trying to warn people against this couch to the awful repair kit that West Elm sends out for people having problems. Most importantly: West Elm says the couch is supposed to last 1-3 years with light use. That is an insultingly short period of time, and not a meaningful upgrade from, say, an IKEA couch. In fact, it may actually be worse despite being more expensive.

I have friends who have had bad experiences at West Elm. After reading this article and taking that into account, I can’t imagine wanting to shop there for any expensive furniture. Instead, if you really want something that’s a big improvement over Craigslist/IKEA, I’d recommend a store like Room and Board. IKEA’s high end has also improved significantly over the years, and may be worth investigating.

‘Logan’ movie review

I had a chance to see Logan this week and review it for /Film. It’s my favorite X-Men film.  It might even be my favorite superhero film. It’s up there with The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2. I loved it:

What makes Logan special is how it effortlessly navigates different genres and tones. It’s a road movie, but it’s also an action film with ambitious set pieces. It’s a sci-fi superhero film, but it’s also infused with a lot of humor and tenderness. Most importantly, it’s a fitting conclusion for one of the most iconic comic book character portrayals of the past 20 years.

‘4.1 Miles’ is an incredible short film about the Syrian refugee crisis

I recently had a chance to watch this year’s Oscar-nominated short documentaries. While my favorite film was The White Helmets (currently streaming on Netflix), I also found 4.1 Miles to be very powerful. It tells the story of a Greek coast guard captain whose job has unexpectedly become saving refugees on a regular basis.

In addition to telling the story from an unexpected perspective, there are some stunning cinematography decisions here that make it a gripping short film. I hope 4.1 Miles affects you as much as it did me.

Regency and Fox launched fake news sites to promote ‘A Cure for Wellness’

Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko from Buzzfeed recently discovered that the producers behind A Cure for Wellness launched fake news sites to promote the upcoming psychological thriller:

At the core of the campaign is a network of five fake local news sites that are inserting promotional references to the film into hoaxes. The sites also host ads for the film and for a fake water brand that in at least one case directs people to a website directly linked to the film.

The fake local news sites mostly publish hoaxes about topics unrelated to the film, and in some cases their fake stories — such as one about Donald Trump implementing a temporary ban on vaccinations — have been picked up by real websites and generated significant engagement on Facebook thanks to people being fooled. Their biggest hit so far is a fake story about Lady Gaga planning to include a tribute to Muslims during he Super bowl performance. It generated more than 50,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

In principle, I’m not opposed to promotional micro-sites that have some interesting twist to them. And when it comes to imitating the actual look and feel of fake news sites like the Denver Guardian, the people behind this campaign actually did a good job.

The problem with these particular sites is that they also contain fake news that seems to incite the sort of hatred and reactions that “actual” fake news sites aim to get. So for instance, “Psychological Thriller Screening Leaves Salt Lake City Man in Catatonic State” is fine (although it still makes me slightly uncomfortable); Lady Gaga preparing a secret message for Muslims in her Super Bowl half-time show? It was a fake news story from one of these Cure for Wellness sites that went viral on Facebook.

In other words, the campaign would be funny and amusing, except for the fact that fake news can have actual, real-world consequences. For one Houston paper, it has already created problems.

It’s worth noting that after the uproar these sites caused on social media, all the film-related fake news sites are now gone, and redirect to the homepage of the movie’s website.

Update: Fox has now apologized for this marketing campaign.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar weighs in on ‘La La Land’ 

From The Hollywood Reporter:

No, I don’t think the film needs more black people. Writer-director Damien Chazelle should tell the story as he sees fits with whatever ethnic arrangement he desires. However, it is fair to question his color wheel when it involves certain historical elements — such as jazz. As an aficionado with over 5,000 jazz albums and having had my own jazz label, Cranberry Records, I’m happy whenever jazz takes center stage in a story, as it did in Miles Ahead, Bird, Round Midnight and Mo’ Better Blues. Jazz is a uniquely African-American music form born in New Orleans and raised in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Sure, I would have loved to see a film like La La Land years ago starring singer-dancer Gregory Hines, the master of improvisational tap dance whose tapping could sound like a jazz drummer. Having said that, I’m still delighted to see Ryan Gosling play a man (Sebastian) devoted to the artistry of traditional jazz. But I’m also disturbed to see the one major black character, Keith (John Legend), portrayed as the musical sellout who, as Sebastian sees it, has corrupted jazz into a diluted pop pablum.

Related reading:

Blue Cities and Red States

David Graham at The Atlantic has a write-up on the increasing trend of blue cities in red states, and the resulting tension that can often arise:

Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.

Nowhere has this tension been more dramatic than in North Carolina. The state made headlines last March when its GOP-dominated general assembly abruptly overturned a Charlotte ordinance banning discrimination against LGBT people (and stating, among other things, that transgender people could use the bathroom of their choice). Legislators didn’t just reverse Charlotte’s ordinance, though; the state law, HB2, also barred every city in the state from passing nondiscrimination regulations, and banned local minimum-wage laws, too.

Why audio rarely goes viral

This piece by Stan Alcorn for Digg is a few years old, but I think about it a lot. I don’t think I ever blogged about it here, so I’m sharing it now.

According to producer Nate DiMeo, “People will watch a bad video more than [they will listen to] good audio.” Why is this? Why does audio almost never go viral? A few possibilities:

“The greatest reason is structural,” says Jesse Thorn, who hosts a public radio show called “Bullseye” and runs a podcast network called Maximum Fun. “Audio usage takes place while you’re doing something else.” You can listen while you drive or do the dishes, an insuperable competitive advantage over text or video, which transforms into a disadvantage when it comes to sharing the listening experience with anyone out of earshot. “When you’re driving a car, you’re not going to share anything,” says Thorn.

The second explanation is that you can’t skim sound. An instant of video is a still, a window into the action that you can drag through time at will. An instant of audio, on the other hand, is nothing. “If I send someone an article, if they see the headline and read a few things, they know what I want them to know,” a sound artist and radio producer told me. “If I send someone audio, they have to, like… listen to it.” It’s a lot to ask of an Internet audience.

The end of the piece has some suggestions for how one might make one’s own audio more viral: Think about the sharing mechanisms, think about how to appeal to an audience beyond your existing one, think more carefully about things like metadata, titles, and presentation.

It’s challenging work but the rewards can be enormous.

Pizza supply chain management is difficult

Imagine working at Pizza Hut and being told you need to learn how to make a heart-shaped pizza for just the span of a few days. It would probably seem like a significant imposition on your skillset without very much reward. Now multiply that feeling by 10,000 and you know how pizza franchise workers all around the country felt this week for Valentine’s Day.

The results speak for themselves. Deadspin has a round-up of heart-shaped pizza disasters from this week. A few of the best ones follow:

Patton Oswalt’s 20 favorite books

On Twitter this evening, comedian Patton Oswalt, who just won a Grammy for “Talking for Clapping” (congrats!), shared his 20 favorite books on Twitter. I love it when artists share their inspirations; getting them to do so is one of the reasons I created the /Filmcast.

I’m embedding Oswalt’s tweets below, then providing a linked list of them for easy access (links are via Amazon Smile). I’m looking forward to checking some of these out.

The 80-20 rule of trolls 

Annalee Newitz at Ars Technica has a write-up on a new report by Jigsaw (an arm of Alphabet) and Wikipedia, which seeks to identify the sources of online abuse in Wikipedia comments:

The researchers unleashed their algorithm on Wikipedia comments made during 2015, constantly checking results for accuracy. Almost immediately, they found that they could debunk the time-worn idea that anonymity* leads to abuse. Although anonymous comments are “six times more likely to be an attack,” they represent less than half of all attacks on Wikipedia. “Similarly, less than half of attacks come from users with little prior participation,” the researchers write in their paper. “Perhaps surprisingly, approximately 30% of attacks come from registered users with over a 100 contributions.” In other words, a third of all personal attacks come from regular Wikipedia editors who contribute several edits per month. Personal attacks seem to be baked into Wikipedia culture.

The researchers also found that an outsized percentage of attacks come from a very small number of “highly toxic” Wikipedia contributors. A whopping 9% of attacks in 2015 came from just 34 users who had made 20 or more personal attacks during the year. “Significant progress could be made by moderating a relatively small number of frequent attackers,” the researchers note. This finding bolsters the idea that problems in online communities often come from a small minority of highly vocal users.

This data reinforces something many of us already suspected: The harshest trolls aren’t necessarily more numerous — they’re just louder than everyone else.

Finishing ‘Six Feet Under’ twelve years later

When Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under was airing on TV, it was my obsession, right along with The Sopranos. It was the golden age of HBO. Serialized TV was just starting to go mainstream, and the idea of a television show that was as emotionally deep (not to mention as good looking) as a film and was still relatively novel. I remember asking my parents to tape episodes of the show on VHS, because I was in college at the time and didn’t have access to HBO. That’s how deep my love ran for Six Feet Under.

Unfortunately, I never completed the five-season journey with the Fisher family the first time around. I don’t recall why I stopped, but I never made it through the whole of season four (I dropped off right around the time when David was brutalized by a hitchhiker).

Recently, I’ve been taking stock of my viewing experiences and trying to figure out what shows it’s important for me to complete. It always bothered me that I never finished Six Feet Under, primarily because I’d heard that the show’s series finale was one of the best in TV history.

So this past week, I fired up the HBO Go (or Amazon Prime streaming, depending on your pleasure) subscription and picked up watching right where I left off.

It’s a pretty surreal experience to immerse yourself into the lives of characters you left behind more than a decade ago. But I actually think jumping in mid-way through season four was a great way to resume watching the show. It gave me enough time to really get invested again and appreciate what the show did well. But it also wasn’t so many episodes that I could get tired of the show again, and let its weaknesses really get to me.

Even after all this time, the show still feels groundbreaking. It was one of the first times a gay relationship was shown on screen in a really compelling and humanizing way. All the characters feel like actual people, and are depicted with complexity and compassion. More importantly, all of their problems are imbued with massive significance. This show has a lot to say about life and love, and it does so in ways that I still find effective. I wasn’t ready for all the feelings this show could stir up but it definitely still got to me on a very deep level.

That being said, this is a show that seems to have clearly run out of ideas around season four. The show’s structure was ambitious: every episode opened with a character’s death, and the ensuing episode had the Fishers dealing with that death and its funeral, while hopefully learning important lessons about themselves. This was understandably a difficult format to sustain for years, and by the end, the show seemed to just completely give up on it. It led to opening deaths that actually felt quite cruel to the audience. In one episode, a man’s home is robbed and then he is mercilessly executed for no reason. The audience never learns more about this situation. Who are these people? Why did the show make us feel for them, if it wasn’t going to tell us anything about them? These questions didn’t need answers in earlier seasons when the show actually went much further into depth on these “opening death characters.”

[SPOILERS for Six Feet Under begin now]

Moreover, the Fishers gradually became less and less likable over time, to the point where by the end of the show, many of them were unbearable. Nate cheated on Brenda, then broke up with her on what ended up being his death bed. David was emotionally abusive to his longsuffering partner Keith, who put up with David well past the point of reason. Claire turned out to be as unstable as Nate in dealing with death and acted out in incredibly self-destructive ways. Ruth was prone to fits of anger, allowing her suppressed emotions to come out in random bursts against Claire and others.

When I started watching Six Feet Under, I used to think these were characters I’d be blessed to know in real life. I wanted to hang out with them, be friends with them, be part of that crazy Fisher funeral home and witness all the humanity that transpired. By the end of the show, I didn’t even want to know these people anymore. I found them distasteful, self-absorbed, and self-destructive. I actively didn’t want to know them because if I did, they’d probably ruin my life in some way.

I wasn’t a fan of these developments, but I admired the show for creating such awful people and daring us to still care about them.

Here are a few more observations about the end of the last season and a half of the show:

  • The idea of the characters all talking to dead people and the elaborate visions they had got very tiresome by the end. I appreciated that these “visions” were meant to reflect the deepest thoughts of these characters, but I kept getting distracted by the conceit — did all of these characters (even ones not in the family, like Brenda) just have a thing where they interacted with mental projections regularly? It started to take me out of the show.
  • James Cromwell’s character of George had a really powerful arc in season four. The idea of a woman like Ruth feeling bitter about being forced to take care of an old partner with dementia was a potent one. I was really disappointed it ended with George mysteriously getting completely better and Ruth being forced to contend with the same issues about George’s emotional unavailability. In real life, we know things typically don’t end that way for seniors with Alzheimer’s and related ailments.
  • The season four finale was absolutely ludicrous and actively hurt the show. It was straight out of a soap opera, which I know is a funny thing to say because the show itself is structured and feels kind of like a really classy soap opera. But the aftermath of Lisa’s death and the idea that it could’ve been a murder was done so poorly that it almost caused me to stop watching the show again. It felt like it was completely out of a different series, and the fact that later episodes barely acknowledge it makes me feel like the showrunners agreed with this assessment.
  • Season five is mostly a slog, with an insane amount of time devoted to Claire’s temp job (a plotline that, in my opinion, went nowhere) but when Nate Fisher suffers from another AVM, the show roars to life again. The stakes are raised and things actually begin happening once more. The way Nate’s death is handled is beautiful and moving, right through his green funeral. What a lovely way to conclude the story of a beloved character.
  • The conclusion of Federico and Vanessa’s storyline was so beautiful. They are among the most “normal” people of the entire show and seeing their marriage fall apart and get reconstituted was hopeful and inspiring.
  • I appreciated what the final sequence was trying to do, but it just didn’t work for me. Everything about it: the old age makeup, the “future” styles and technology, the over-acting on the part of the characters who were dying. It all just felt silly and prevented me from emotionally investing in these characters’ future deaths. That being said, the series finale is an otherwise excellent hour of television that satisfyingly wraps up the whole show. A worthy end to one of the greatest shows in TV history.

For further writing on Six Feet Under, check out Heather Havrilesky’s write-up of the finale. It’s probably my favorite analysis of the show as a whole.

SNL and the logic of interviewing Kellyanne Conway

SNL delivered a mixed bag of an episode with guest Alec Baldwin last night, but there were a couple sketches that really stood out. The first is the cold open with Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, which continues to be a highlight. The second is this bit about Jake Tapper and Kellyanne Conway:

I was surprised the Conway/CNN kerfuffle had risen to the level of SNL parody, but it is an interesting one to me: CNN passed on having Kellyanne Conway on “State of the Union” last week, a fact that Conway disputed. Why? Because the journalistic value of interviewing Conway has become suspect.

Jay Rosen has been on the anti-Conway warpath for awhile, and he makes some pretty astute observations about how journalists should treat Conway. In an interview with Recode, Rosen lays out his reasoning:

I don’t think the people interviewing Kellyanne Conway know why they’re doing that, meaning that the journalistic logic of it is growing dimmer with every interview […]

The logic is, “This is a representative of the president. This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration.” If we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears. Another reason to interview Kellyanne Conway is our viewers want to understand how the Trump world thinks. If what the end result of an interview with her is is more confusion about what the Trump world thinks, then that rationale evaporates.


Data science and the Statue of Liberty

Clive Thompson has a great post on his blog about “The New Colossus, ” Emma Lazarus’s poem about the Statue of Liberty, welcoming immigrants into the country:

You have, without doubt, heard this part:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

They’re genuinely stirring lines! American politicians and businesspeople love to quote them, because they beautifully evoke the image of America as a worldwide beacon of liberty. Listen to any speech about immigration, and you’ll hear this passage.

But the poem doesn’t end there. The Statue of Liberty goes on to describe, in more depth, the type of immigrants she’s talking about. Let’s extend the quote a bit further:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Now, that is a gut-punch of a line. (Purely as a matter of verse, the way those iambs land on the rhyming syllables of the first two words — the WRE-tched RE-fuse — is like a pneumatic naildriver. WHAM WHAM WHAM! I love it.)

But the point is, this additional line complicates the political picture a bit, doesn’t it?

As time has gone on, the “masses yearning to breathe” line has become much more prevalent in our literature and writings. The “wretched refuse” line? Not so much.

The “wretched refuse” line isn’t much talked about these days, both because a lot of people don’t even know it exists, and because it’s politically inconvenient. As Thompson explains, we like to talk about immigrants who are the best and the brightest, and who add value and innovation to our country. The original poem conceived of compassion as an end in and of itself.

It reminds me of this Bible passage in Matthew 25:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

As the immigration battle rages this year, I think it will be a good sentiment to keep in mind.