Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Imitation Game

Breaking the Enigma Code

"Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

That line is spoken by two different characters in the movie The Imitation Game, describing the remarkable Alan Turing.

When Alan Turing arrived at Bletchley Park from Cambridge, no one expected much of him, especially the naval boss of the place. Except Turing himself. Self-admittedly one of the best mathematicians in the world, Turing was confident that he was the man to break the Enigma codes. And break it he did, with an incredibly clunky looking general purpose computer fast enough resolve the Germans' daily key. As typical with eccentric and brilliant people, Turing had difficulty in getting support and funding for his idea. Finally, he secured Churchill's support by writing to him directly.

Turing recruited his team through setting a challenge crossword puzzle. Joan Clark was the first finished, but only after Turing intervenes to even allow her to take the test. Women were as unwelcome as cocky eccentric males.

Turing broke the Enigma. He probably cut a couple of years off the length of the war. What followed was a great moral dilemma of how to use the information secured from Enigma. Unless the Allies could provide plausible explanations for how they got advance information about German plans, they could not use the information, or the Germans would twig that they had broken the code and immediately change codes. Turing developed a sophisticated calculation assessing probably lives saved, versus the risk of the Germans realized their code had been. The formula was used to judge whether to act on the information.

Turing was himself an enigma: a brilliant loner, he was homosexual and his social ineptness would undoubtedly earn him an Asperger label today. Astonishingly, homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967. Charged with indecency in 1952 after the discovery of a homosexual relationship, Turing was put on probation and a forced regime of hormone treatments, and barred from any further intelligence work. Because of this conviction, because of the incredibly tight security around what happened at Bletchley, and because of a general level of suspicion against Cambridge dons after the the uncovering of Burgess and Maclean as spies, Turing didn't receive his full recognition before his early suicide at age 41.

Nevertheless, he is considered a father of computing, and the Turing Award is computing's equivalent of the Nobel.  He made the top 25 in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, and made Time's list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. The Turing test is still used today to assess true artificial intelligence: in a blind test can you accurately judge whether it's a person or a computer you're interacting with? If you can't make the distinction, the machine is exhibiting true artificial intelligence, or as Turing put it, the machine is thinking.

Appallingly, it was not until 2013 that the Queen posthumously granted Turing a pardon.

The Imitation Game: The Movie

This was a fabulous movie.  Absolutely fabulous. It's a great story. Even though we know the gist of it, the movie makes it exciting and engaging.

The acting was powerful, and Cumberbatch was amazing as Turing.
A few production details also stood out for me. The sense of period was strong. Many scenes were only side-lit, so that faces were half in shadow, adding to a sense of mystery. Somehow the tricks of photography made Cumberbatch appear much shorter than his natural 6'.

The Epilogue

After the movie, I fell into conversation with a lady in the washroom lineup. After exchanging our views on how good the movie was, she leaned in and quietly said "I worked there", and pointed proudly to the small Bletchley Park pin on her lapel. "But you're not old enough", I protested. She retorted "I'm 92!".

Our gregarious friend Gord called her over for a longer talk. Margarita (Madge) Trull knew Turing and worked on the duplicates of his original deciphering machines, known as bombes. You can see an interview on CPAC with this charming, vivacious woman telling the story of her war, what it was like at Bletchley, and the Canadian spitfire pilot who brought her to Canada. Madge was clearly quite chuffed by our interest and it didn't take any persuasion at all for her to pose for a photo outside the theatre. 92 indeed!

The Official Secrets Act forbade any discussion of the work at Bletchley for another 50 years, and Madge's mother went to her grave never knowing what her daughter had done in the war.

It was a complete treat to meet this very special woman.

The Postscript

There were two personal aspects to this film for me. Madge makes me think of my father; each vital in their 90s, mentally sharp, proud of their contributions to the war effort, and both participants in the Memory Project (Madge's here, and my father's here). Both were proud to speak to high school students on Remembrance Day. 
The other personal note was a tenuous connection with the actor Mark Strong. My daughter and I whirled around the Edinburgh Fringe Festival many years ago watching about 15 plays in 3 days. Being softhearted she felt it was a great injustice that Strong's university acting troupe had such a minuscule audience for a great performance.  So we attended the play a second time and she developed a slight crush on Strong. Naturally very shy, she screwed up the courage to ask for an autograph and gave it to me for 'safekeeping'. And I promptly lost it! I was as shy as she was, but duty drove me reluctantly up the back stairs to their dressing room to replace the autograph. Strong was surprised and absolutely delighted that a fan was keen enough to get a second autograph!

Friday, December 19, 2014

What's in a Word? Digitale Schleimspur

So many English technology words seep into other languages.  English should reverse the trend and adopt the German phrase 'digitale Schleimspur' - digital slime - to describe the insidious digital trail documenting our preferences, habits, and history as we traverse the Web. You know slime: that stuff you can't ever seem to get off your hands. Isn't that a better description than cookie trail?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Headline Says It All

A recent article in the Washington Post had the headline:

The less Americans know about Ukraine's location,
the more they want U.S. to intervene

Their data showed that only one in six Americans knew where the Ukraine was, and while many guesses were at least in the neighbourhood, many were laughably far away, as shown in their map.

Read the whole article in The Washington Post,

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christensen on Data

Rotman's Martin Prosperity Institute's hosted a conference today on Knowledge Infrastructure. The conference featured many great speakers, including Clayton Christensen.

Christensen's big message was that we have to be careful about depending too much on data, particularly data collected by other people. Data does not represent a universal truth: somebody decides what data to collect and what not to collect. That choice in and of itself can influence or even obscure truth.

He strongly advised people go 'dumpster diving' for their own data, so that they choose the pertinent data that exactly pertains to the question they're trying to answer. "Using somebody else's data won't lead to the truth". He argued that everyone who does important things creates their own data.

Direct data is similar to direct observation.  In my experience, observations have the greatest power when you observe them first hand. Just as physics tells us that electrical signals and waves attenuate over distance, so the power of observations attenuate for each step away from the original observer. Christensen was arguing that this applies also to data; it loses its power for explanation unless it's a dataset you create yourself to answer the specific question you have in mind.

Christensen also described the stages involved in creating good theory as a summary of some things he was currently thinking about. Clearly not an off-the-shelf presentation, Christensen said it was the first time for this presentation and that his presentations were crummy the first four times! Not crummy, for sure, but lacking the luminous clarity and inevitability of logical flow of the previous presentations I've seen.

I was saddened to hear that Clay is currently undergoing chemotherapy. He's suffered so many medical issues - heart attack, cancer, stroke, diabetes - but his cancer had been in remission.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Life After Life

Imagine you're knitting a sweater. You start knitting the back and once you've got a couple of inches completed in Pattern A, you unravel most of what you've knit, and restart with Pattern B. After knitting a few inches in this new pattern, you put down the back and start knitting the left sleeve in Pattern A. Then you return to the back, unravel some of what you've knit and start knitting in Pattern C. Then pick up the right sleeve and start knitting in Pattern D. And so it goes, knitting, ravelling, changing patterns, skipping between different pieces.

That's what it feels like to read Life After Life. The story gets started, and just when it reaches a climax, it rolls back and restarts, reversing the significant event. The reader is introduced to several different alternative plot lines.

Usually an author tries to weave a story that suspends disbelief, leading the reader to believe this is truth, the only way the plot could have unfolded. Kate Atkinson takes a different approach and dazzles us with her depiction of several alternative realities. The story - oops stories - span the First and Second World War in England, and the description of the Blitz feels totally credible, and totally unnerving. The main character Ursula dies or doesn't; is raped or isn't; marries, or doesn't. Not only does her life unfold on several different planes, but her personality evolves differently based on these events.

This was a fascinating book. No wonder it won or was nominated for so many awards, and made the New York Times list of 10 Best Books of 2013.

Past Book Reviews
I've had some people ask about past book reviews, so I thought I'd start including a list of links to past book reviews every time I write a book review.

The two most viewed reviews:
   The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean

Murder as a Fine Art
The Pope's Bookbinder
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
The Taliban Cricket Club
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Imposter Bride
A Possible Life
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
22 Britannia Road
Berlin Crossing
The Redeemer
The Rebreast
The Keeper of Lost Causes
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Before the Poison
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
Rules of Civility
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Bad Boy
The Finkler Question
Faithful Place
The Help
The Dark Room
The Innovator's Dilemma
The Makioka Sisters
Still Life
A Corpse in the Koryo
Bamboo and Blood 
Hidden Moon
The Man with the Baltic Stare
The Housekeeper and the Professor
Suite Francaise
The Man From Beijing
Involuntary Witness
The Janissary Tree
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
The Upside of Irrationality
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
The Invisible Bridge
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks Guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
A Question of Belief
The Ghost
This Body of Death
Global Warring
The Council of Dads
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Elements
The Checklist Manifesto
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What's in a Word? Digitalization?

"Good governance practices have focused on and strengthened audit oversight and risk oversight. But there's an IT tsunami coming and that spotlight should now shift to IT oversight". 

David Beatty
Smart words from the erudite and articulate David Beatty, Conway Director of the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto (what a mouthful!). David made the comment during an excellent Board Governance Day co-hosted by Stanford's Rock Center for Corporate Governance. And he got me thinking.

I wholeheartedly agreed with his point, but was uncomfortable about the term IT. Since David thinks words are as important as I do, we had a stimulating conversation about what the right word was.  

The term IT primarily connotes back office systems to manage and track a business - particularly to the typical silver-haired denizen of a board room*. Granted, these systems have been the scene of many a corporate debacle featuring functional mismatches, missed deadlines, budget overruns and staggering security breaches. As such, they deserve deep board oversight.

But there's something much more important to worry about. Today, digital information infuses every single product. Nicholas Negroponte foresaw this evolution almost two decades ago, when he said "The change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable." He was considered a futurist at the time. The future is here now. 

Companies can serve customers better by embedding smarts and connectivity into their products: think smart thermostats or driverless cars. For some products the smarts and connectivity actually are the product. Companies also need to consider a seismic shift in consumer digital behaviour: think the generation that has 'grown up digital' watching video over the web rather than cable.

Companies need to widen their vision beyond traditional competitors: Garmin has to think about Apple, not just Tom Tom, while trucking companies have to think not just about the other trucking companies but what happens when trucks don't need drivers. And they need to think about disruptive entrants with new business models who could displace them: think AirBnB or Uber.

Boards have a duty to exercise insight, oversight and foresight about all this. So question is whether IT suggests all these things to a typical director.

David is a great communicator and he's worked hard to improve corporate governance in Canada. So he sought a word that would have all the right connotations and raise awareness of this important issue with directors. We bandied about several terms, and finally settled on 'digitalization'. It suggests how every product has gone digital (not just been digitized) and it also makes an implicit reference to to the fact that people  have gone digital too. What do you think?

* A friend has pointed out that, as a silver-haired director myself (albeit one who spent her career in the field of information technology) perhaps I suffer from an outdated view of the term information technology.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What's in a Word? Genocide.

There is a famous thought experiment that goes,
"If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it does it still make a sound?"
What about this thought experiment?

"If there is no word to describe the systematic and premeditated extermination of a large group of people of a particular ethnic group or nation, is it still a crime?"

Essentially no. The Nazis prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials were charged with crimes against humanity, exterminating citizens of other countries. At the time, what you did in your own country was not a crime, no matter how many people you killed; so the Nazis could only be indicted for crimes that took place across borders. 

The movie Watchers of the Sky chronicles the emergence of the term genocide. Raphael Lemkin first coined the word genocide in 1944. Naming the crime was the first step to declaring it an international crime.

Lemkin was a Polish Jew who emigrated to the US from Germany in 1941. It was his study as a youth of the Ottomans' persecution of the Armenians and Assyrians that motivated him to dedicate his life to criminalizing genocide so that its perpetrators could be brought to justice. 

Lemkin drafted the UN resolution known as The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. He relentlessly pushed for its adoption, lobbying shamelessly around the corridors of the UN to anyone who would listen, and the convention finally came into force in 1951. Prosecution for genocide is still not easy, but it would be impossible without the pioneering work of Lemkin. His work on genocide shows the power of a word. Naming the evil was the first step in criminalization.

The movie was partially inspired by Samantha Power's book on genocide, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power appeared several times in the movie; her cool and dispassionate account of truly atrocious events made them even more sinister. The US Ambassador to the UN, Power is one impressive woman. She had me in tears at the 2008 TED conference, when she told the moving story of Sergio de Mello, the UN envoy killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq.

You might wonder where the title Watchers of the Sky came from. We're told at the close of the film. It comes from a comment by Tycho Brahe. Brahe was a Danish astronomer who spent his life meticulously recording observations of the night sky. When asked what value these observations might have since he had broached no new theories, Brahe stated that these observations would save future Watchers of the Sky years of work. Lemkin felt that his life's work in gaining acceptance of genocide as a crime would similarly make it easier for future prosecutors to nail those who commit genocide.

The movie was beautifully wrought. Black and white trees etched against the horizon dissolved into streams of refugees, fleeing from many genocides of history. My friends and I all enjoyed this movie. Well, maybe 'enjoy' isn't the right word. We were engaged, we were enlightened, we were dismayed, we were moved: those are some of the right words.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Death with Dignity

As the Canadian Supreme Court hears the case for assisted suicide, it would be a good time to watch How To Die in Oregon. It would be particularly meaningful for Canadians, so many of whom are thinking deeply about these issues at the moment.

I saw this movie, which documents how assisted suicide works in Oregon, three years ago at Hot Docs (reviewed it here) and it remains one of the most powerful movies I've ever seen at Hot Docs. There are several ways to get this movie online.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Time to remember that the first ever programmer was a woman. How far women have descended in the tech world since then.

Ada Lovelace wrote what is considered to be the world's first program between 1842 and 1843, as a footnote(!) to the translation of an article by the Italian Menabrea. Even then, modesty reigned supreme.

Did you know that Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron? Her mother was so embittered at her husband for the scandalous life he'd led that she had Ada tutored exclusively in Mathematics in order to smother any poetic tendencies inherited from her father.

But it makes perfect sense that someone at the nexus of mathematics and poetry should be the first computer programmer. Truly excellent software is like poetry - elegant, lean, with not a phrase out of place.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Exponential Function and Ebola

 "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." 
Albert Bartlett, Professor of Physics, University of Colorado
You know the exponential function, the one which starts off so slowly you can hardly see it increasing until it literally takes off with increasing acceleration. It's often called, pejoratively, the hockey stick, when salespeople protest that sales may be small now, but just wait for next quarter!

The exponential function is particularly interesting right now because of the Ebola crisis, which is spreading at an exponential rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published that the cases are doubling every 15-20 days in Liberia and every 30-40 days in Sierra Leone and Guinea. It has been clear that the crisis was underestimated in the early days, probably because people didn't understand the inexorable power of the exponential function. There's the same effect in misunderstanding climate change, where feedback mechanisms cause changes to proceed exponentially.

Here's a chart from Wikipedia as of October 16, 2014, showing the number of cases of Ebola. It's a classic case of the Exponential function.

Not all exponentials are bad. I've written in a previous post about Ray Kurzweil. He also adamantly argues that people underestimate the power of the exponential, particularly as related to technological progress, which he considers unilaterally good. Some people might find his conviction that technology to support immortality is just around the corner a bit, well, spooky.

Then there is the Indian legend of the mathematician who did understand the power of the exponential. In fact, he lost his head over it! Here's how Wikipedia reports the legend.

When the creator of the game of chess (in some tellings an ancient Indian Brahmin[1][2] mathematician named Sessa or Sissa) showed his invention to the ruler of the country, the ruler was so pleased that he gave the inventor the right to name his prize for the invention. The man, who was very clever, asked the king this: that for the first square of the chess board, he would receive one grain of wheat (in some tellings, rice), two for the second one, four on the third one, and so forth, doubling the amount each time. The ruler, arithmetically unaware, quickly accepted the inventor's offer, even getting offended by his perceived notion that the inventor was asking for such a low price, and ordered the treasurer to count and hand over the wheat to the inventor. However, when the treasurer took more than a week to calculate the amount of wheat, the ruler asked him for a reason for his tardiness. The treasurer then gave him the result of the calculation, and explained that it would take more than all the assets of the kingdom to give the inventor the reward. The story ends with the inventor being beheaded. (In other variations of the story, the inventor becomes the new king.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mortality Trends

We read mostly bad news in the newspapers today. Here is a really gratifying chart from The Economist about mortality trends and their decline over the past 40 years.

The decline in mortality is greatest in low income countries, and the gap in mortality between low income and high income countries has shrunk. Yet there's still an obvious gap to be closed there.

It's been shown that high mortality rates, particular among children, lead to high birth rates, so this decline in mortality would seem set to contribute to a plateauing of human population growth.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Data for Insight

Big Data. It's the newest Big Thing in business. Delve into your company's massive database of consumer actions and extract valuable insights - insights that can influence future shopping behaviour.

Aiden and Michel, the authors of Uncharted, turn to a different dataset, Google's database of 30 million digitized books (about one quarter of all books ever published), and a different kind of analysis they call culturomics.

They examine patterns of word usage over the history of all these books to shed light on word origins and usages, politics, history and culture. Actually,  to be perfectly accurate, they examine Ngrams, which are sequences of characters that could be words, phrases, or numbers or whatever. Then they plot the frequency of those Ngrams over time across all books in the database.

This is a simply incredible database to explore. Of course, it doesn't capture all culture shifts, because the dataset does not include any publications except books, and, of course, it totally misses the increasing dissemination of information through video. Nevertheless, it's a pretty powerful lens on history.

Obviously, the dataset is a treasure trove of insights  for the linguist. Consider the graph for chortle, galumphing and frumious,  three words introduced by Lewis Carroll in Jabberwocky, published in 1871.

But such analysis yields insights way beyond mere linguistics. Uncharted discusses who gets famous and the idea of the half life of fame. One chapter explores the revealing disappearance of artists' names during a period when they were politically suppressed, either by the Nazis or the Hollywood black list. The Ngram viewer confirms and provides evidence of the suppression, sort of history as demonstrated by a quant!

The Ngram viewer tool used by Aiden and Michel is available to anyone at Google's Ngram viewer and here are just a few of the charts from the book and others that caught my fancy. (Be careful, this site can be addictive!)

Consider the trend in our environmental thinking, as our terminology shifted from greenhouse effect, to global warming, to climate change.

The Ngram viewer makes clear our shift from tea to coffee.

If you didn't already know it, Ngrams would demonstrate the collapse of Detroit's hegemony in the automobile business.

And what do you think of this chart?

There's been a lot of controversy over Google's book digitization project - impassioned arguments about copyright issues, versus the value of such a database. This application skirts the issue of copyright by restricting itself to meta-analysis of the books.

Have fun playing with the Ngram viewer yourself. By the way, the response time for doing a search like the one above "Plot me the frequency of the words men and women in 30 million books published since 1800" is truly amazing when you think about it. We take Google's extraordinary search capability for granted sometimes, but this just highlights the powerhouse in those Googleplexes.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Jab, Jab, Jab, RIght Hook

Give value before you ask. That's the advice of fast-talking social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk, author of Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. Vaynerchuk was a speaker this week at Rotman and he was energetic and frenetic. He was promoting his new book, which he described as being full of specific strategic and tactical advice for succeeding in social media, wrapped around about a hundred case studies.

In a world saturated with content across all manner of media, you have to work hard to get attention. And you do that by providing people with value. Provide that value and build a relationship before you seek a transaction: to buy your product or to make a donation. In other words, Jab by providing content before you put out the Hook.

Don't use social media sites like Facebook primarily to attract people to your web site: build your relationship there, where people already are. For instance, don't start your own hashtag; jump onto an existing one. Get used to the idea that you don't own your content: once you release it, whether it's in an ad or a YouTube video, it belongs to the world.

Vaynerchuk is very excited - and, believe me, his excitement is very transparent! - about the ability to target very specific segments on Facebook. TV segmentation is about 27% accurate, whereas Facebook segmentation is about 92% accurate. He recommends going for depth, not breadth. Wouldn't you rather connect with 1,000 people highly likely to buy your product rather than 100,000 who aren't at all interested? Use Facebook dark posts to target these people; through them you can get your message out subtly without putting something right on your Facebook page*.

Vaynerchuk's strongest recommendation was this: Become a media company. Provide valuable content to build a relationship, and then slip in your message among the rest of the media. Frankly, I found this advice disingenuous: if every organization becomes a media company, the content market will become even more saturated. Only the early birds are going to catch this worm!!!

The format of this session was mostly Q&A, which worked quite well despite the fact that Vaynerchuk was participating through two-way video. His most common advice to the people with tactical questions was 'become a media company'.

* I definitely have to do more research to fully understand these dark posts. Vaynerchuk's talk was liberally sprinkled with acronyms and was clearly aimed at people who already knew a lot about social media.

Friday, May 9, 2014

112 Weddings

Very good

Doug Block is a documentary filmmaker who supports his documentary 'habit' with a side business filming weddings - 112 of them to be exact over the past 20 years. Block revisits a handful of couples to interview them about their marriages, and how those marriages stack up against their expectations on wedding day. At the same time, he delves into the expectations of a couple preparing for an upcoming wedding.

The ten couples share their ever-after stories, what happened after the wedding. There's a wide range of outcomes - happiness, divorce, stress of children, even one couple who officially marries after years after the life partnership ceremony originally filmed. The short clips are short, varied and oh so revealing. That was the charm for me, seeing into a broad range of marriages, and into the characters of the people involved.

Best lines of the movie: A rabbi says that weddings are usually very happy days, not surprising given the amount of money and liquor being splashed around. He continues that of course the application of liquor and money during the marriage leads to great unhappiness.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Case Against 8

Best of Hot Docs (for me)

I didn't think the standing ovation was ever going to end. The audience was recognizing a fantastic movie - The Case Against 8. It's one of those movies where you know the ending but the filmmakers manage to create incredible suspense anyway.

The plot in a nutshell: California passes a law legalizing gay marriage. Then Californians vote for Proposition 8 defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. The American Foundation for Equal Rights decides to challenge Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. Two lawyers take on the case: Ted Olson (Bush's lawyer during the court case over Florida election results in 2000) and David Boies (opposing lawyer for Gore in the same case). Irony or what? And two smart, articulate, endearing couples act as the plaintiffs. A case arguing that the law is unconsitutional is won in California. The case is appealed in California and the ruling holds. The case goes to the Supreme Court, which fails to overturn the California ruling. Gay marriage is legal in California, and is now legal in 17 states.

The two couples appreciating thunderous applause after the Q&A
Plaintiffs Paul Katami and Jeff Zorillo had never been married, whereas Kris Perry and Sandy Stier had been married, only to receive a government form letter saying the marriage was no longer valid after the passing of Proposition 8. These four people had been thoroughly vetted before being chosen as the plaintiffs, and that choice was well made. Their job was to make the case about the personal impact Prop 8 had on them, and they did that with emotion (but not too much), reason (but not too abstract) and grace. The final case before the Supreme Court failed on a split decision because the plaintiffs in that case (fighting against the California rulings that gay marriage was legal) were deemed not to have a personal stake in the case. Maybe not the total victory hoped for, but at least the declaration that gay marriage was legal in California and precedent setting for the rest of the US.

In an early stage of the case, cameras were barred from the courtroom in California, to the chagrin of the plaintiffs, so we were unable to see live court scenes, but the directors hit on an effective device: have the court transcripts read by the participants to give a flavour of the court. One part of the court case I would dearly love to have seen. The opponents had lined up six witnesses to argue against gay marriage, and there were video depositions of these witnesses before the case opened. Bois was in charge of cross-examination (acknowledged in the film as perhaps the best cross examiner in the US). He tore these witnesses to shreds before the case, to the point that five of the witnesses withdrew from testifying. As for the sixth witness, well, that's the scene I would have loved to have seen. His final words after cross examination were 'I would agree that Proposition 8 is unAmerican'. Bois had turned him into a witness for the plaintiffs!

Great story. Great movie. See if it you get a chance.

Later footnote:
The Economist just published an interesting chart (aren't all their charts interesting?) showing the 19 states where same-sex marriage is now legal (up from 17 when I wrote the original post), showing when they first legalized same-sex marriage. Surprisingly, there wasn't a one-to-one correlation between states with same-sex marriage and degree of liberalism,  although the states where same-sex marriage is still illegal are definitely all conservatively inclined.

Sunday, April 27, 2014



What a great movie! Take the  creator of the fantastic Marinoni hand crafted bikes renowned far beyond his home in Montreal. Marinoni was a great cyclist in his youth and now he's preparing to challenge the record for furthest distance cycled in one hour by a 75-year-old, a race that the great Eddie Merckx said was the hardest race of his life. He'll use the bike he crafted for champion Canadian cyclist Jocelyn Lovell - why had I never heard of this great Canadian athlete of the 60s and 70s?

We see the filmmaker break through Marinoni's initial suspicion and resistance to the filming. We see Marinoni's passion for building the best possible bikes. We're charmed by Marinoni's excitement at finding mushrooms in the woods, as he did when he was a kid in Italy. We're delighted by his wonderful dry sense of humour. We're touched when Marinoni visits Lovell, who is now a quadriplegic after an accident during training. There was so much to enjoy in this film, and we all had a great Sunday afternoon watching it.

The director thanked Hot Docs for lighting a fire under him to finish the movies. Hot Docs accepted the film when it was only half done, and the film was finished with 4 days to spare before its premiere on Friday. Thank goodness he finished, so we could enjoy this treat of a movie.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart


Pamela Smart's 1990 trial as accomplice in her husband's murder was the first trial ever to be broadcast 'gavel to gavel' and was the subject of relentless coverage and commentary in the media and subsequent books and movies. Smart had had an affair with one of the students at her school and was convicted of conspiring with him and three friends to murder her husband.

The subtitle of the movie is very apt - The Trials of Pamela Smart - for she was tried in the media as much as she was in the courtroom. Initially, Smart appeared to seek and relish media attention as she discussed her husband's recent death. But her manner soon turned cold and taciturn; her behaviour contributed to the public concluding she was an evil seductress who had led on her young lover and his friends.

The movie is not about whether she was guilty or innocent, but about whether she was given a fair trial.  Given what the movie unveiled, no TV lawyer would ever have lost this case.

The movie was a very interesting commentary on the power of media to shape a story. However, I found the movie was too long and needed further editing to make it tighter. Funny how seeing many movies in a row gets you thinking that you're a movie critic!!!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Measure of all Things


This was an interesting experiment, billed as a 'live documentary'. Essentially, it was a movie, with the director Sam Green narrating and a live band instead of canned music. The movie followed an interesting set of Guiness Book records. Before the movie started, Green narrated an interesting story which was perhaps the highlight of the evening. Great idea for Hot Docs to innovate like this.

Mission Blue


Mission Blue is a paean to both Sylvia Earle and our oceans, both so inspiring in their own ways. An intrepid explorer throughout her career as a marine biologist, Earle grasped every opportunity to explore new oceans or plunge to new depths. Still active at 78, the beautiful and articulate Earle is a dynamo in a petite package. She combines scientific research with passionate advocacy for the oceans she loves. The oceans are a vital link in our exosphere: they produce most of earth's oxygen, they are a carbon sink, and the home of most of the planet's biodiversity. They also provide absolutely gorgeous photo ops!

Whereas 12% of the earth's surface is protected in some way (surprising stat), less than 3% of the ocean is. Earle's advocacy now focuses on redressing that with the creation of Hope Spots - protected ocean areas. She introduced this as her TED wish when she won the 2009 TED Prize, and director Fisher Stevens said he was inspired to make the movie during a TED-organized Galapagos voyage. 

 A lot of that has been protected in the last few years, sparked at least in part by Earle's efforts. 

The Overnighters


This moving documentary has all the drama of people in a tense situation. There's compassion, hope, rejection, redemption and betrayal. That's a lot to pack into a documentary about the surge of people moving to Williston North Dakota looking for work in the oil fields.

The town of Williston had a population of about 15,000 in the 2010 census. Then, fracking started an oil patch boom, and the population doubled in a few years and is on track to triple by 2017.

Each bus debouches men desperate for a fresh start after failures back at home. They see the economic boom as a change for high-salaried employment, and redemption.

But there's simply not enough housing for these men. So Pastor Jay Reinke squeezes beds and blankets into the church and RVs into the parking lot. The ever cheerful and upbeat Reinke welcomes them, he counsels them, he shows endless patience and compassion for these broken men. He tries to build a community.

But the existing community doesn't like his actions - not his congregation, not his neighbours, not the town council. The conflict that unfolds is the heart of this movie. The wrenching ending packs incredible punch, a huge surprise for the filmmaker, and  the audience.

E-Team - my second Hot Docs film

Very good

The sky in the distance is mauve and pink as Anna and Ole set off towards the Syrian border. Before the border they leap out of the car, run across a field, and carefully step over the roll of barbed wire.  They're in. 

Anna (a Russian) and Ole (Norwegian) are from Human Rights Watch and they're in Syria to witness and document human rights violations in the Syrian uprising. Putting themselves in great personal danger, they painstakingly collect evidence, both forensic and from witnesses.  They are careful to seek out corroborating witnesses for any stories of atrocities. It's a dangerous and important job.

Kosovo marked a turning point for Human Rights Watch. Before Kosovo, observers would do their investigations after the fact and write dry reports. In Kosovo, they created an emergency team called the E-Team which heads into the heart of conflicts where human rights violations are suspected. And their mission is now targeted at getting media attention for violations hoping to stop the atrocities. 

Of the two, Anna is the public speaker. She stages her press conference announcing the Syrian atrocities in Russia, challenging Russia for its support of the Syrian regime. The organization then struggles with whether they should take an advocacy position in favour of a no-fly zone over Syria. Would it be helpful, or would it lead to unintended consequences and jeopardize their reputation for objectivity?

The movie also introduces us to Fred, an earnest American who was a key witness in the Milosevic trial in the Hague, and Peter, the munitions expert. The movie highlights the personal sacrifice of these men and women.  Anna and Ole are married and we see Anna saying goodbye to her teenage son as she heads out for Syria. The movie ends touchingly in Anna's hospital room just after she gives birth to another child. The camera lingers on the wonderment on the faces of Ole and Anna's son as they cradle the newborn in their arms, while Anna looks on fondly. The phone rings and someone is asking for an interview with Anna. There's a brief hesitation. Then she asks "What time?"

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz wanted to make the world a better place. He applied his astounding technical brilliance to leverage the Internet as a tool to improve the world. And he took his own life as a result of being hounded by aggressive prosecutors over a pretty modest misdemeanour. Such an incredibly sad and powerful story. This was the opening film of Hot Docs and my first film of this year's festival.

Family film footage shows Aaron reading sophisticated books at 3, and the emergence of his ferocious curiosity and propensity for action.  In his 25 years, his technical output was prolific.

At the remarkable age of 15, he was working on the RSS standard, to enable users to receive information from frequently updated web sites. He was a founder of Infogami and later Reddit. When Aaron was still a teenager, his accomplishments came to the attention of Harvard lawyer Lawrence Lessig who invited him to build the technical infrastructure and web site for the Creative Commons copyright system. As Aaron became a social activist, he built an astonishing number of web sites to support the causes he endorsed.

So why did his life end so tragically?Aaron questioned everything, and considered all learning to be temporary and subject to query. You can imagine he was not a great fit for traditional high schools, nor Stanford when he went there. His disenchantment with the education system sparked his questioning of all society. But he was essentially an optimist and believed the world could be fixed if he could just explain the issue and its solution clearly.

He passionately believed that information should be free. He downloaded and released many records from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system, which were restricted behind a highly profitable pay wall (although by law charges should only just cover the cost of operation). This brought him to the attention of the FBI, although after investigation, no charges were laid.

He was instrumental in building powerful opposition to the SOPA law (Stop Online Piracy Act), and ultimately, somewhat to his own amazement, the bill was stopped.

However his treatment was not so benign after he downloaded thousands of documents from the JSTOR repository of academic papers when he was a fellow at MIT. He had not done anything with the documents - like sell them or publish them. It puzzled me why he would be charged with 13 indictments. TV shows train you to believe there has to be a smoking gun - like the drug dealer consummating the sale - in order for charges to be laid.  In the Q&A, the director explained that the charges revolved solely around access.  When JSTOR saw how many documents were being downloaded, they blocked Aaron's access. When he hacked around that, they blocked all of MIT, and Aaron hacked around that again.

There's no firm indication of what Aaron wanted to do with the documents, and JSTOR declined to press charges, but the prosecutor pursued Aaron with a vengeance, with the goal of making an example of him. The initial 4 indictments (which already could lead to 35 years in prison) were later increased to 13. Although his lawyer felt they had a strong case, apparently they were bracing for a sentence of around six years. Being a felon would have dashed Aaron's germinating political ambitions, and six years without a computer was unthinkable.

After suffering two years of intense pressure, and over a million dollars in expenses, Aaron took his own life. And one of the great minds of a generation were lost.

My first film at Hot Docs this year was great. But how could you fail to make a great movie with such a compelling subject?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Anternet

Ant colonies operate coherently without central control. They can offer insights on other such systems that operate without central control, such as neurons in our brain, or cancers. Deborah Gordon gave a fascinating talk exploring these relationships.

There are over 12,000 species of ants and they operate under different algorithms that strike a balance between operating costs and resource availability, depending on their environment.

For instance, in the desert, operating costs are high, since ants have to expend precious water to go out foraging for food and more water. In this environment, ants don’t leave to forage until there’s been a positive signal, namely a certain frequency of ants returning from foraging. Since ants only return once they’ve reached their foraging target, a steady stream of returning ants indicates foraging has been successful. Different colonies have different trigger. Because of advances in genetic decoding which allows identification of offspring colonies, Gordon has been able to analyze many years worth of data to show that higher trigger levels yield better evolutionary success.

The Internet works in a similar way to these desert ants. Data doesn’t leave an Internet node until there is a positive signal that there’s enough bandwidth available. Hence the name the Anternet. The expression “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind at this point.

Ants in the tropics have an opposite algorithm to desert ants. The environment is friendly, so operating costs are low, but resources can be scarce because of the plethora of competition. So these ants go out foraging all the time, until they receive a negative signal. Understanding this behaviour in ants could yield new insights for co-operating robots.

When ants find a really juicy stash of food, they recruit other ants to join the party, so to speak, thus explaining that steady stream of ants attacking your last picnic. It’s possible that cancer cells have a similar recruitment behaviour and so understanding ants might even provide some insights into cancer.

What an engrossing field. Ants may not be as pretty as fireflies (Sara Lewis' focus as described here), but, to me, they're immensely more fascinating.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Sparkle of Fireflies

Did you know that female fireflies evaluate potential mates based on the size and power of their glow as the males hover nearby? In turn, the females signal their interest by flashing back. During mating, the males not only provide sperm to the females, they also deliver a ‘nuptial gift’, a store of nutrients that nurture the young. That’s pretty interesting interesting information about sexual selection in fireflies, and I’d probably be content if that’s all I knew about fireflies.

That’s not enough for Sara Lewis though, who’s harboured a lifelong fascination with the 2,000 different species of fireflies. She wants to know everything there is to know about fireflies! As always, I find it so interesting to hear from someone who's had a lifelong passion for something I know nothing about.

Like all other species, fireflies are threatened due to habitat loss and light pollution (which interferes with those mating rituals).