February 17, 2010

Submarines From Scratch

I'm thinking about a new career in amateur sub-building. Here's 34-year-old Tao Xinglai showing that anyone can do it, really. All it takes is a little ingenuity and scrap metal:

Total budget? $4,400. Of course, if we wanted to take it up a notch, there's Peter Madsen, who built the largest homemade sub in the world, the UC3 Nautilus:

Total cost: "millions of Danish crowns"—though it was still cheaper than a professionally built diesel submarine. But it might be easier to build your own submarine in Denmark, where anyone can build their own vessel without permission, as long as it's shorter than 24 meters. Meanwhile, the state of New York seems to look less favorably on makeshift subs gurgling along the channel.
-- Brad Plumer 5:15 PM || ||
Post-Apocalyptic Hard Drives

Suppose human civilization collapses one day. That's not such a zany notion—lots of past civilizations have collapsed. Maybe there's nuclear war, or giraffe flu, or maybe the Yellowstone supervolcano finally heaves and spews. It's a fat disaster for awhile, but eventually things settle down. New civilizations form, people figure out electricity, and so forth. (Actually, as Kurt Cobb argues, it might not be possible to start an industrial society from scratch a second time 'round, since we've already used up most of the easiest-to-access ores and fuels. But ignore that.)

Anyway, the question: Would historians of the future be able to examine our hard drives and servers and study what twenty-first-century folks got up to? (Surely all the best info on what caused the apocalypse will be in digital form.) How much of our data would still be intact? Apparently, no one really knows for sure:
Hard drives were never intended for long-term storage, so they have not been subjected to the kind of tests used to estimate the lifetimes of formats like CDs. No one can be sure how long they will last. Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the UK's national museum of computing, recently switched on a 456 megabyte hard drive that had been powered down since the early 1980s. "We had no problems getting the data off at all," he says.

Modern drives might not fare so well, though. The storage density on hard drives is now over 200 gigabits per square inch and still climbing fast. While today's drives have sophisticated systems for compensating for the failure of small sectors, in general the more bits of data you cram into a material, the more you lose if part of it becomes degraded or damaged. What's more, a decay process that would leave a large-scale bit of data readable could destroy some smaller-scale bits. "The jury is still out on modern discs. We won't know for another 20 years," says Murrell.

Most important data is backed up on formats such as magnetic tape or optical discs. Unfortunately, many of those formats cannot be trusted to last even five years, says Joe Iraci, who studies the reliability of digital media at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, Ontario.
Actually, though, we don't even need to consider the apocalypse. The fragile state of digital storage is already causing trouble. NASA has a few people racing to recover old images from its Lunar Orbiter missions in the 1960s, which are currently stored on magnetic tapes and may not be long for this world. And the National Archives is struggling to preserve its digital records, which tend to rot faster than paper records.

A related tale of disintegrating media comes from Larry Lessig's Free Culture—though this one has a twist. There are a lot of films that were made after 1923 that have no commercial value anymore. They never made it to video or DVD; the reels are just collecting dust in vaults somewhere. In theory, it shouldn’t be too hard to digitize these films and put them in an archive. But alas, thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act that was passed by Congress in 1998, any film made after 1923 won't enter the public domain until at least 2019.

That means these films are still under copyright, and anyone who wanted to restore them would have to track down the copyright-holders (not always easy to do) and probably hire a lawyer. And who's going to go through that much trouble just to restore some obscure movie that only a few people might ever watch? Yet a lot of these older movies were produced on nitrate-based stock, and they'll have dissolved by the time 2019 rolls around, leaving nothing behind but canisters of dust. It's sort of tragic.

On the cheery side, post-apocalyptic historians will presumably have less trouble snagging copies of Avatar and Titanic—that's the sort of digital media most likely to survive, if only because there are so many copies lying around. So James Cameron will be our Aeschylus, huh?
-- Brad Plumer 4:36 PM || ||

February 16, 2010

I Don't Respond Well To Mellow

Annie Hall is pretty much a perfect film. But as David Kimmel describes in I'll Have What She's Having: Behind the Scenes at the Great Romantic Comedies, it didn't start out that way. The original version of the film was an epic disaster, in dire need of hacking and kneading:
In the editing room, Annie Hall was an incoherent mess. [Co-writer] Marshall Brickman was appalled. “To tell you the truth, when I saw the rough cut of Annie Hall, I thought it was terrible, completely unsalvageable. It was two and a half hours long and rambled and was tangential and just endless.”

The original version was essentially Alvy free-associating about his life and his worries. Annie (Diane Keaton) was seen briefly and then disappeared from the movie for fifteen minutes. … Even the scenes with Annie—they were already there, of course—led to fantasies and flashbacks galore. The sequence where Alvy, Annie, and Rob (Tony Roberts) head to Brooklyn originally ran ten to fifteen minutes and had many more scenes than the one to two we see in the final film. Alvy and his date from Rolling Stone (Shelly Duvall) spun off to a scene where they wound up in the Garden of Eden talking to God. When Alvy is arrested in Los Angeles (after playing bumper cars in the parking lot), there was a long scene of him interacting with the other prisoners in his cell.

Like the sculptor who chips away at the block so that the statue hidden inside can emerge, Allen and [editor Ralph] Rosenblum began hacking away at the movie to see if there was something in the material worth saving. “It was clear to Woody and me that the film started moving whenever the present-tense material with him and Keaton dominated the screen, and we began cutting in the direction of that relationship,” Rosenblum later wrote. They tossed out entire sequences, tightened things up, and always kept the focus on Alvy and Annie. Even the scenes of flashbacks to Alvy’s earlier marriages were greatly shortened. Some characters were eliminated altogether. Said Allen, “There was a lot of material taken out of that picture that I thought was wonderfully funny. … It wasn’t what I intended to do. I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship.”
That's not overly surprising. A lot of Woody Hall's earlier films are, well, funny, but not exactly coherent—usually the plots are thin and heavily improvised, existing only so that there's something to hang an endless series of jokes and gags on. (They were basically live-action versions of his New Yorker pieces from the time.) And the movies work because the jokes and gags are hilarious. But with Annie Hall, it seems he finally pushed that habit to excess, at least in his first go-round. But hey, it's a good thing he did! Otherwise his editors might never have decided that enough was enough.

P.S. Though it's worth noting that sometimes the editors were too zealous. They had originally, for instance, cut out the famous scene with Annie's brother Duane. It was only later, once the film started doing well in front of test audiences and they figured eh, maybe they could afford a few indulgences here and there, that they snuck Duane back in. It's funny to think how Christopher Walken's career might've unfolded if they'd kept that bit out, since that was a big early break. Maybe he doesn't go on to do Deer Hunter the following year? And then what?
-- Brad Plumer 5:38 PM || ||
Lost In Translation

There are plenty of English-language writers who sell a lot of books overseas—it's not uncommon for even lesser-known American authors to get their novels translated into multiple languages. But the reverse doesn't hold nearly as well. Only a very small fraction of foreign-language authors ever manage to get published in the United States. The last two literary Nobelists, Herta Müller and J.M.G. Le Clézio, weren't widely available in English until after they won their prizes (at which point publishers scrambled to crank out translations). Why does the flow mainly go in one direction? It doesn't seem to be because Americans are boors. Emily Williams, a former literary scout, offers up a more subtle explanation:
There has been a hegemony for years of English-language books being translated into many other languages, a cultural phenomenon comparable (though much smaller in scale) to US dominance of the worldwide film market. Bestselling American authors like Michael Crichton and John Grisham and Danielle Steele and Stephen King have, in translation, reliably topped bestseller lists around the world. As the market for matching these authors to publishers abroad matured, it opened the door to less commercial writers and other genres (in nonfiction, for example, American business books continue to be in high demand).

A certain savvy in picking the right American books to translate developed into a valuable editorial skill in markets abroad. Imprints and publishing strategies were then established to capitalize on books in translation. Foreign rights turned into a profit center for US publishers, and scouting agencies sprang up to help navigate the increasingly complex marketplace.

The rising fortunes of US books abroad coincides with the rise of American pop culture in general, but also has to be partly attributed to a strong culture of commercial fiction… that, until quite recently, simply didn’t exist in many other countries. A foreign editor I worked with once compared US commercial fiction to Hollywood blockbusters: any one book might be better or worse overall, but there’s a certain level of craftsmanship you can depend on.
As a result, many countries abroad have editors and scouts who are focused on selecting U.S. books for translation. They can develop a deep expertise in the U.S. market. But on the flip side, foreign books come to the U.S. market from a whole slew of different countries and languages, so it's harder for a single editor to really know any one country or region really well and have a sense for which books will do well here. As a result, says Williams, the foreign-language books that do get translated into English often get picked via haphazard connections—an agent here has a close tie with a particular agent in Spain (say).

Granted, there are still far more foreign-language books translated into English each year than you or I could ever hope to read. But it seems likely that there's a very high number of undiscovered gems out there in other countries—books from Latin America or Europe that could catch on here and garner critical acclaim (or start a craze the way Roberto Bolaño has done recently), but simply haven't made it into English by sheer bad luck.

(Flickr photo credit: christing-O-)
-- Brad Plumer 4:12 PM || ||