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Friday, June 11, 2010

Kate's Horse

At the end of Lost ...

..and it should be noted that when I say "end of Lost", I mean the final episode of the final season of the TV show and hence, everything in this post is nothing but a series of serious spoilers for anyone still planning on watching the show. So if you haven't seen the show to the end, I would go find a video about a cat playing piano or something.


At the end of Lost we discover that the Smoke Monster was a cigar ...

Ah. See? Big spoilers. Now go away.

Now let's see if I can do this in one grammatically correct sentence:

At the end of Lost, we discover that the Smoke Monster was in fact an entity transformed when his brother Jacob, protector of the island, tossed him into a well of mysterious light and that his (if in fact genderless amorphic beings can be called such) prime motivation was to kill Jacob and any candidates for Jacob's position as protector so that he (the Smoke Monster) could leave the island.

OK: here is my first piece of evidence that Lost failed as a show. I'm betting that if anyone just starting the show ignored all those warnings and just read that bit, they wouldn't make it past season three.

Why? Because of Kate's Horse. See, the sad thing is that even if it is nearly an accident of convenient writing, the fact that Smoke Monster can't directly kill the candidates but rather must trick them into killing each other or offing themselves is a neat premise. Kind of like Saw but with brains, which is something I wouldn't mind watching.

And this is the main conflict of season six - that the candidates must save the island before Smoke Monster figures out a clever way to end them.

So why is Kate's Horse a problem? Because it shows that this wasn't the main conflict of the show ... just season six. In fact, I don't think Lost ever really had central source of conflict - it was always just Man versus Crazy Shit The Writers Made Up. If we were to believe season six as the "reveal" of the show, then we would be able to look back at past seasons and see how it was all playing out.

But let's look at the Smoke Monster's victims have died: crushed in tree, chewed off arm, crushed in tree, crushed against tree, slammed into tree, buried alive, stabbed by Ben, slammed against floor, slammed against person, slammed against person, crushed by ceiling, slammed into cage, blown up, drowned, broken neck, shot, slit throat.

You'll notice a theme. A lot of slamming, and a few creative incidents like getting Nikki buried alive after biting her in the shape of the spider. Oh, that Medusa Spider was the Smoke Monster, confirmed by producers. You can hear the mechanical sound when they approach and (thankfully) setup Nikki and Pool Boy for their final scene.

So in other words - occasionally Smoke Monster stuck to the premise, but usually it just slammed things around. When it wasn't slamming things around, it would occasionally appear as Christian Shepherd.

Or Kate's Horse. Why would the form of Kate's Horse be useful to the goals of the Smoke Monster? Well, it wouldn't. But gee golly it was neat, wasn't it? Where did that horse come from?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Lost was written. Just a series of distractions lumped in a row. So without any further adieu, my final final thoughts on the show:

It was a character driven show that ran out of character development
The first defense people give for Lost's feel good reunion of a finale is that Lost was, in fact, "all about the characters" and not really about the origins of smoke monsters or how the island does stuff or DHARMA or anything. Prior to the finale, the producers stated they would only answers questions about the show "the characters cared about". Which considering how bad these characters were at figuring out what was happening around them meant: not much.

The first three seasons of Lost had a consistent formula: character backstories interwoven with island mystery. It was getting pretty obvious by Season Three, though, that most of the relevant history of all the main characters - even the Tailies that had been added in Season Two, had been well illustrated. In Season Three, Lost fans suffered through two completely unnecessary characters: Nikki and Paulo, for more backstory fodder.

In Season Four - we start to get flashforwards and other twists on the backstories ... but they serve little in the way of adding to these characters. Actually, at this point most of the "off island" content actually serves the mystery plot. Who is the person in the coffin? Why does Jack want to return to the island and how will they get that done?

Truthfully, the characters of Lost work well as sketches and often in ways to offer up some brilliant dialogue ... but the note that the show ends on ... that love is what will get you to heaven ... is easily the weakest part. The motivations the characters have to fall for each other, with obvious exceptions like the Kwans, is often somewhat forced and probably best attributed to jungle fever as opposed to "the most important thing in their life".

Here's my proof on this: can anyone tell me why Kate loves Jack? What is it about him? They've already endured one failed relationship. She often acts closer to Sawyer than anyone else (particularly physically - the only steamy scenes we get with Kate are with Sawyer, not Jack). And Jack - oh, Jack. People - Jack is a complete loser. Every one of Jack's plans fails miserably throughout all six seasons and all the way up to the last episode. In fact, the only version of Jack which is isn't a loser is the one that wasn't even real. No, more likely Kate "loves" Jack because at the last minute the writers decide that love conquers all and Sawyer made a little more sense with Juliet.

The writers became pathological about not revealing anything
If the crown jewels of the show was the characters, as the producers like to say, then why was it that the writers went so far out of their way to only offer explanations about the island in short discrete bursts, usually during season opener and closers? By the end of the show, the cast includes two characters - Ben and Juliet - who once were part of The Others, the mysterious antagonistic group for most of the first half of the show. Ben was the leader of The Others, and nobody ever bothers to ask to get even basic answers from them like who they are and what they want, except to get inanely vague answers like "We're the good guys."

Bizarre examples from the show: Sawyer at one point has Karl, a refugee from The Others with certainly no love for Ben at gunpoint. Instead of bringing him back to camp, he tells him to run off. When Sayid, our stalwart interrogator/torturer asks why - Sawyer doesn't really have an answer. Locke at one point inexplicably destroys an entire DHARMA building, despite the building having tons of documentation and apparently access to the outside world.

Or my favorite: Man In Black had a name, people. It was Samuel all along. The point of making it such a secret? They just wanted to give the audience one more thing to guess about. Anyone looking for deeper meaning in the absence of his name will come up empty handed.

Much like everything else about the show.

The finale capped off six seasons' of inconsistent, convenient writing
Even a defender of the show recently admitted the Smoke Monster started off as a mindless beast, to some kind of calculating security system, to an actual man - and it is not an easy or smooth transition if you go back through episodes. It has the appearance until about Season Five that they are simply revealing new aspects of the creature, but the revelation that it is Jacob's brother and the rules that go along with it breaks that trend and any sense of cohesion that was being setup in the first half of the show. The Smoke Monster can't hurt the Losties? He is stuck in Locke's form? If you were to re-watch the show from the beginning now, what used to be a great and original threat is now shrouded with questions like, "doesn't Jacob control this thing with his rules anyway?".

And in the finale the show can't even follow the same concepts it had outlined episodes ago ... even within the same season, Jack's interaction with the Magic Light Cave is completely different from Jacob's in Across The Sea. For some time the show makes a big deal about details, lists and rules - but by the end credits of the finale it is hard to find any that the show itself decided were worth paying any attention.

There was an underscored theme of Season Six: why ask questions?

The big questions that fell off the table after Season Three are numerous. The sickness, a massive portion of the island events early in the show, is never really explained despite having Doctor Juliet join the cast. One might be lead to think that pregnancy and children are very important to some deeper mythology of the show, but one would be wrong. One would be simply thinking too much.

It would work better as a dream
Why is Kate's Horse in the jungle? There is no reason plausible based on the events of the show. What happened, happened - and it apparently always about faith and not reason.

The only way to reconcile six season's worth of dropped plot concepts is to accept that normal logic just does not apply. This is why I think so many people mistook Jack's final scene as an indication that they were dead all along - it makes the cognitive dissonance required to watch the show beginning to end so much easier. As Neil Gaiman might say, sometimes dream logic is the only way to tell the story.

And here is why I am so disappointed in Lost: they couldn't even give us that much. They couldn't even give us a cliche excuse of an explanation but instead pulled a mass cop out and went for the heartstrings. And then acted as if the show was never really about the mysteries of the island in the first place.

Meh. Lost, we had some good times - but I wish I had broken up with you seasons ago. Now I get to listen to The Girl brag about how right she was about the show until the end of time.

So, you know, thanks for that.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Great AT&T iPad Security Breach

Sweet Jeebus.

Then we began poring through the 114,067 entries and were stunned at the names we found. The iPad 3G, released less than two months ago, has clearly been snapped up by an elite array of early adopters.

Within the military, we saw several devices registered to the domain of DARPA, the advanced research division of the Department of Defense, along with the major service branches. To wit: One affected individual was William Eldredge, who "commands the largest operational B-1 [strategic bomber] group in the U.S. Air Force."
-- Apple's Worst Security Breach: 114,000 iPad Owners Exposed [Gawker]

So, here's the short version: AT&T had an open web service for an AJAX process which would deliver a valid email address if you gave it a valid ICC-ID. And ICC-ID is what phone SIMs, like the one in the iPad, use to identify the unique device (and hence, user).

Note that this was an open web service. So anyone on the net could hit it. Anyone was free to keep trying ICC-ID's until they get an email back. ICC-ID's aren't particularly secure, Gawker points out that they show up on Flickr as part of photo tags.

According to Gawker, AT&T has not informed users of the presumably now fixed breach and it isn't clear if they've contact Apple.

From a security point of view, this could be worse. There's no passwords involved, though emails could be considered usernames in some situations. ICC-ID's themselves are relatively benign - though I don't think I want a black hat hacker having both my email address and device ID. It is a nightmare for a portal where people trust their private data though, and a real red flag for the kind of protocols and practices AT&T has in place. I've always thought their site was somewhat miserable, this is beyond bad.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Thoughts On HTML5

My current project has dragged me through the rails of HTML5, with the luxury that we're targeting WebKit (Chrome specifically) alone. So I can conveniently ignore a lot of the current disadvantages of working with HTML5, or rather the main one - that 90% of the web has no idea what the hell it is - and focus on the positive.

Since Apple declared that HTML5 would destroy all plugins, there has been rather sudden amount of marketing and attention to the specification. Some of this may be good, as most web specs don't get decent advertising ... but marketing can control the message, and messaging can impact how developers tackle new technologies.

Which can be dangerous. For one things, HTML5 is not all about plugins. Here's a few notes I've had since working with HTML5.

Flash and HTML5 can (and will) co-exist
Steve Jobs would like to have people think that HTML5 and Flash are some kind of binary decision. What HTML5 is providing in terms of audio and video is a rather logical and much needed update to the way web pages handle assets. Since the web was young, the image tag has been foremost in people's minds and has been slowly appended to include rather advanced features. All the while video and audio were relegated to various kinds of plugins.

Take Timex as an example. They have their Flash lead banner, with rich interactivity and animation, and they have a simpler HTML item scroll beneath it. It's actually a very good use of both Flash and dynamic HTML.

Could the canvas tag be made to replicate the Flash banner's smooth animation and interaction? Perhaps, but unlikely. And the reason why Flash is going to be around for some time is that the pipeline to create that animation? That's all Adobe. From Photoshop to Flash Studio - developer use Adobe products to create these kinds of products.

Or in other words: HTML5 probably won't be a complete replacement for everything Flash does a) performance for the canvas tag is increased, b) the complexity of dealing with SVG is decreased, and (or essentially) c) until Adobe designs the toolset to to make HTML5 as powerful as Flash.

And these thing may never happen. Which is fine - plugins have existed to give browsers functionality they wouldn't normally have. HTML5 gives web developers more options, but that doesn't mean we need to start taking any away.

To truly sum it up: Flash is not the blink tag.

HTML5 extends the browser
If we can ignore the fact that you'll be able to sometimes embed videos without Flash, there's a larger picture about the new features. If anything, it seems that the real goal of the HTML5 seems to be about extending the reach of the browser to your desktop and the world around you. With an offline database, geolocation, web workers and web sockets HTML5 browsers are poised to be able to offer new capabilities to enhance the things people do today in the social networking world.

Theoretical example: Twitter could have a whole new concept of local trends. Background processing could localize tweets only within a 50 mile radius of your current location and provide a list of current hash tags. Or why not 50 feet? See what trends are occuring in your coffee shop, not your entire city. Meanwhile your offline storage is tracking tweets you've replied to and retweeted - essentially creating a potential recommendation list for future browsing.

HTML5 extends the concept of a website
When I first encounted the concept of offline web applications I dismissed it as merely a more intelligent cache scheme - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but not really a wonderful thing.

The more I tinkered with it - the more I realized, though, that works in a very subtle way with the rest of HTML5 to blur the notion of a website and an application. If you go to right now, you are very clearly going to a website. More than likely anything you haven't recently viewed will be downloaded for the browser to render, the same with everything else on the rest of the website.

Browsing as normal, right? OK - now think of as just the place you go to get the initial download of ebay's web application. As you browse, ebay's manifest is storing all the important assets you need to use ebay on your drive. Not in a transitional sense, but a rather permanent one. You'll use this version of ebay's website - online or offline - until you intentionally remove it or ebay updates the manifest.

First you'll notice everything is faster, because fewer assets need to be loaded per page load. Also, any mobile functionality could be automatically provided to you. Static information about your account, etc., could be stored in the database. You really only need to call out to the server for search results and to get the latest update on that bid you've made.

The bottom line: if ebay were to deliver a desktop application for you to use, it would probably look a lot like this. And you didn't have to do anything to install it but browse to, and to load it again - just return to ... even if you aren't online. Looking for the details on that gizmo you bid on last week? Just go to, head to your account and pull it up. Ebay's server won't need to be hit once.

HTML5 is very suitable to tablets
A large screen on a mobile device? With GPS? Yeah, trust me - people haven't even scratched the surface of how functional web apps can be on tablets.

The Chrome Web Store Gets It
When I saw Google announce the Chrome Store during I/O this year, it became apparent that their strategy around Chrome and Chrome OS is a tightly woven web. Google is clearly going to be championing this kind of development and providing a marketplace around it. Interesting that Apple is doing a lot of podium pounding about HTML5 and yet web apps are still treated like second rate citizens when it comes to the iPhone OS. Installation is a bit of a mystery to most users, with no real indication of the difference between a bookmark and a web app, and management is limited to mostly just deleting. Chrome, Chrome Store and Chrome OS will probably provide users with a fully functional interface to find, purchase, install and maintain web apps in much of they way they deal with desktop apps today.

So it will be interesting, as HTML5 continues to mature and feature adoption increases. It's not a small change to web standards, or more specfically - web features ... and it certainly isn't all about plugins. To think of HTML5 as the replacement to Flash is narrowing the concept down to a point where it just isn't useful.

Things You Didn't Know About Empire Strikes Back

Luke's fight with Fake "Force cave" Vader is actually a fight with a Celestial Vader! In the original story, the swamp and the cave disappear, and Luke and Vader lightsaber it out in deep space. Vader even grabs a handful of stars to show how powerful the Dark Side can be. (That scene was apparently sponsored by LSD.)
-- 100 Things You Didn't Know About The Empire Strikes Back []

There's some interesting production notes, but the first part is all about the differences between Leigh Brackett's original script and the edits Kasdan made. Brackett's draft is often credited for giving Empire the punch that nearly everything else Star Wars lacks. Interesting to me is that Empire has the lowest body count of any of the movies and yet is the clearly the darkest and grittiest of the bunch.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

For Sunday: Deep Hole Dive

As usual, for no particular reason: