Spoiled Rotten

In their recent discussion of “Argo” on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, the crew of my favorite podcast hit upon how I have longed to describe spoilers but could never find the words to explain.

Linda Holmes, whom my friend Jeff is still convinced is me in a disguise, explained that just because we know something is going to happen doesn’t mean that a movie is spoiled.  Take “Titanic”. We know the boat is gonna sink. Me telling you “hey, the boat sinks” isn’t spoiling anything for you.  Even though we know the outcome, how the action unfolds is where the suspense lies.

I am the weird breed that could care less if I know the surprise twist of a movie.  In fact, I frequently self-spoil on purpose, reading the last ten pages of a book when I am only halfway through it, looking up plot summaries on Wikipedia thirty minutes into a movie, and checking twitter to find out who gets kicked off “So You Think You Can Dance”.

If a movie or TV show is worth its salt, it is going to be good whether I know what happens or not.  If it needs the surprise of the twist ending to redeem an otherwise boring 90 minutes (I’m looking at you, The Sixth Sense) then the problem isn’t that someone spoiled the movie for you.  The problem is that the movie just isn’t very good.

So, I am often baffled at how people can be so riled up at perceived “spoilers” on the internet for several reasons.  First, unless I am calling or texting you as you are walking into a movie to specifically tell you “He dies in the first act”, I am not the one spoiling. You are. Don’t go on the internet if you don’t want to know how something people are currently watching and discussing turns out.  You only have yourself to blame.

Chuck Klosterman (my hero) already hit on another problem of the “no spoilers” phenomenon sweeping the internet.  If I tell you Rosebud is a sled, have I ruined Citizen Kane for you?  This movie was made in 1941. You may not have seen it, but is it really fair to assume that people can’t make Rosebud jokes 71 years later in case someone hasn’t seen it yet?  The question becomes–how long is a reasonable amount of time to wait between a text being released and people feeling hey can speak freely about the plot points?

Most people wouldn’t care if I reveal this pivotal plot point of Citizen Kane, but would tell me I am being insensitive if I were to Tweet plot points of Argo or Paranormal Activity 4 or some other movie that has only been in theaters two weeks.

We face the same conundrum in poker.  During the summer, no one seems to care that our Twitter feeds, posts, live updates, and recaps are “spoiling” the TV coverage.  When livestreams aren’t involved, only delayed TV coverage, few people tweet about reporters “spoiling” the TV show.  However, once a near livestream is introduced into the equation, we the poker media seem to be unclear on what is the best way to cover the event.

I understand that with the near-liveness of the final table, the discussion of how to cover it on Twitter is going to come up. It is still funny nonetheless to think about the fact that we don’t bat an eyelash before tweeting who went out in 13th even though it won’t air on TV for nearly three months, but if we tweet about someone busting at a final table 12 minutes before it happens on TV, some would charge we have ruined the TV coverage.

In fact, the Facebook comments I see on the WSOP.com preview stories always mock the fact that we try to write “spoiler-free” previews of the upcoming episodes.  Each time Elisabeth Hille or Gaelle Baumann came up, fans would be quick to comment “you know they don’t make the final table, right?”

Yet, each week people still seemed to enjoy the coverage on ESPN even though we knew Ivey didn’t make it, the girls missed out on the final table, and we knew who the final nine were.  I return to Holmes’ point–it was not what happened that mattered in these shows, it was how it happened that made the program entertaining.

I am not trying to deny that people’s enjoyment of these live events seems to be more marred by these “spoilers”, but I just can’t pinpoint the explanation why. Why is it that knowing something for two months doesn’t affect our ability to watch these packaged shows, but knowing something 12 minutes in advance can effectively “ruin” the telecast?

I assume it has something to do with different expectations when dealing with something near-live vs obviously not live at all.  That perhaps us breaking the illusion of liveness is more offensive the sensibilities than breaking the news that will be shared on a packaged show.  I’ll have to mull on it some more.  Unfortunately, in this instance, I can’t flip ahead to the end and find the answer.

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Thumbs Down to Scrolling E-Books

The enthusiasm of this Mashable article on scrolling text on the new iPad model disheartens me.  He can have his opinions, don’t get me wrong. I just hope his bold prediction about the future of books his wrong.

I guess I should explain what the author is so thrilled about:  in most e-readers, the current status quo is to simulate page turning. There is no technological reason for this, it is an aesthetic decision, designed to mimic the act of reading a book.

The new iBook reader has a different option: scrolling text.  Rather than divvy text up into pages, you just use your thumb to keep scrolling down as you go.  The author says it helps him get lost in the text.  I worry that the very medium of “the book” is getting lost in the shuffle.

First, I should make an important semantic distinction. When you are on an e-reader, you are not reading a book. You are reading a text that is often also published in book form.  As such, what you are reading is actually fundamentally different than a book.  Many reception studies theorists have touched on this point and, as a student of reception studies, I have to agree–the way in which you an encounter a text directly impacts how you interpret that text.

Let’s take fonts for example.  A font may seem like a relatively innocuous component of the book, but the author and publisher selected it for a very specific purpose.  That font does not translate in e-readers.  Nor does the initial page numbering, as you can adjust the font size to your liking.  As such, the text you are engaging in differs from people who read the tactile book form.

You may be thinking this sounds great, but hear me out.  Take a chapter of a novel.  You know you are reaching the end of it, because you see the blank space when you turn the page.  I know when I near the end of a chapter, I tend to read with more focus and perhaps a bit faster, because the conclusion of the chapter tends to pack more of a punch than the last sentence of a paragraph.  When you manipulate where the last page of a chapter stops and starts, you are potentially undermining the message of the book.

These page breaks are what immediately came to mind when I read this e-reader news.  The scroll eliminates that suspense on some level.  The visual impact of turning a page and realizing the end of the chapter is near is gone.  And I think you lose some of the meaning of the story in the process.

No one else really voices these concerns though.  The movement now is to produce texts that can be viewed in multiple mediums and things like when you turn the page are conversations of the past.  While this fluidity is good for the reader demanding flexibility, for the writer, not being able to take full advantage of the medium the text will be consumed in is one less tool in their arsenal.  Once again, it seems like the ease of access trumps viewing or experiencing a text in the way it is intended to be viewed.

This isn’t the most well thought out rant, I admit. I am sure there are flaws in my statements and there are certainly more reception studies scholars to source to better support my point.  But I keep coming back to this subject these days and I want to start getting these thoughts down somewhere.  The pipe dream is some day to draft something akin to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  Even though he wrote this before the age of computers, his lament about the loss of aura seems even more appropriate in this digital age where the consumers seems to feel more ownership and agency over texts than the authors who created them.

That is another subject for another time though.

Lending History a Helping Hand For Hand

The other day I was researching some poker history for work and I stumbled upon this.  It is the official coverage form the 1995-2000 Main Events.  Being a nerd for poker history, I had a field day looking through these notes and announcements. You could sense how small the poker community was back then. Even the chip count lists and payouts were peppered with inside jokes and nicknames, the transcribers seemingly unaware of how, in less than a decade, everything would change.

Far and away the best part of this discovery was uncovering the hand-for-hand action transcribed via shorthand by Tom Sims.  I was unfamiliar with Sims prior to this week, but now I am fairly certain he is my poker media hero.

Thanks to Sims, we are able to see how the legendary Stu Ungar played every single hand of the the 1997 Main Event final table.  As someone who had heard of Ungar’s genius, but never seen it in action, being able to get a sense of how he played was an incredible treat.

And we wouldn’t have that history were it not for Sims.  According to Melissa Hayden, Sims would speak the hands into a micro-cassette recorder and later write them up.  It had to be an arduous process, but Sims seemed to understand how you can’t really ascribe a value to having that information.

Another project I found particularly worthwhile was “The Andy Bloch Project”. Bloch agreed to play guinea pig for Sims as Sims tracked every single hand Bloch played in the ‘97 Main Event.  All 648 of them.  That number alone is very telling.  In the first level of play alone, Bloch saw 95 hands of poker.  No one is keeping such extreme tabs these days, but in the 2012 Main Event, I’d be hard pressed to believe someone saw 50 hands over the course of a two-hour level, let alone nearly twice that.

You would also think that 648 hands must have gotten Bloch pretty far in this tournament. In reality, it didn’t. Sims estimates that when Bloch busted during Day 2, he finished in approximately 44th place.  That year there were 312 Main Event entrants. The top 36 made the money, so to compare it to this year’s Main Event, Bloch basically made it to Day 3.

As the shot clock in poker debate gets some traction this month, this document helps to firmly illustrate just how much faster the game can be played. Again, I reiterate that we would not have this information and these precise numbers were it not for the diligence of Sims.

Which brings me to my point. In 1997 a man with a micro-cassette recorder created one of the most compelling, colorful, and thorough pieces of content I have ever seen. His efforts between the Bloch project and the final table, in my mind, have more long-term value than any of the coverage generated at this year’s series. Yes, we have our archived live streams, which capture the mood, people, and action of the final table, but, aside from the Main Event final table and the Big One for One Drop final table, documented by ESPN, we have no precise records of hands played, flops seen, cards shown down.

I think we have come a long way in poker coverage, don’t get me wrong. The early day action, the growth of chip count coverage, and the incorporation of Twitter all add a lot to the history books.  However, it is time we stepped it up with hand-for-hand of every major final table.  The WPT already does this and, as a result, they are able to offer a wealth of statistical information that can only be estimated on other tours and at the WSOP.  While we have gained a lot in our ability to immediately report what is happening, we seem to be losing sight that these updates are the official record of these events and have a shelf life and utility that extends beyond the day of the final table.

Opponents of hand-for-hand have told me “color” is lost in the shuffle and that staff restrictions make it too difficult to pull off.  This is why Sims is my new poker media hero.  His work from this era shows you how even a shorthand version of hand for hand can offer a wealth of color and historical value and that it can be done without a laptop.  All you need is a micro-cassette recorder and a willingness to document everything for history’s sake.

ViolentAcrez, Anonymity, and Misconceptions About Free Speech

I was going to come on here and write a reaction to Adrian Chen’s article, but then I read this piece from fellow Gawker contributor John Scalzi and realized he pretty much said what I was going to say.

A few brief thoughts though:

While I think there are instances in which internet anonymity is valuable and indeed necessary, I must admit that I generally approach anyone in my particular industry who protects their real world identity with a certain amount of skepticism.  If you have something to say that doesn’t involve whistle blowing, insider info, or a risk to your own personal safety, I have to wonder why you can’t put your name to it.  I support people being able to spew nonsense on the interweb, but, as Scalzi notes, this is not Constitutionally covered freedom of speech.

I find myself increasingly annoyed with the attitude in American culture that people should not be held accountable for their actions.  Even if this Reddit case was a free speech issue, freedom of speech does not equate to absolution of consequences. You post creepy pictures on the internet and do a crap job of protecting your identity while doing so? The onus is on you when you lose your job, not the guy who outed you.

Most importantly, it is issues like these that make me long to return to my academic roots. When I was in graduate school, the focus of my studies increasingly became the ethics of identity in virtual spaces.  I was going to examine this through the world of online poker, where multi-accounting, ghosting, account selling, and anonymity all come into play.  What made poker such a great space to investigate the ramifications of these identity issues is because there are real world consequences at stake in the form of money.

There is no money on the line in the case of Violentacrez, but there is a sense of raised stakes. When someone pretends to be a girl on a forum or lies about their attractiveness on a dating site, the effects likely won’t be far reaching, so we never really dwell too long on the behavior. In this instance, and in the instance of online poker, there is much more on the line, so these larger questions about what our rights on the internet are get the attention they deserve.

We don’t have any answers still though. I did my research in 2007. This story broke last week and the extreme reaction from Redditors and Gawker supporters show you we don’t have any resolutions yet.  What the conflict boils down to is this: people are still trying to approach the internet the way they do the real world. It is another issue poker on your computer illustrates perfectly. Rules like “one player to a hand” are easily enforceable in a casino, but online, monitoring something like that is virtually impossible.  Some suggest the solution is to accept these differences and change the rules accordingly.  But for others, the comfort of the corporeal and the familiar is something they hold onto perhaps because this still-young online culture is changing as fast as the Reddit frontpage.

Sincere Question

I don’t know if life begins at conception, but I tend to operate as if it does because I can’t come up with any clearer starting point I am comfortable with. To me, viability isn’t a good definition. To suggest there is just suddenly a day in a pregnancy where a baby is “alive” doesn’t work for me.

So here is my question: If you don’t think life begins at conception, how do you determine confidently when life begins?

My Quandry

I’m too pragmatic to be an academic. I’m too reserved to call myself an artist. I lack the killer instinct to do business. I detest the obvious, but have trouble being anything but literal. I can be quippy, but have trouble eloquently developing an argument.  I like creatively expressing myself, I just don’t think I have much to say.

Where does that leave me?

As a web content provider.