The Power of Unoriginal Storytelling

A friend posted this video on Facebook:

The video tells a story, but its purpose goes beyond storytelling: it is a marketing tactic used by a company that sells copywriting services. The blind man represents potential clients, the pedestrians are potential customers of those clients, and the mysterious woman represents Purplefeather.

According to the description on YouTube it is an “[h]omage to Historia de un letrero, The Story of a Sign by Alonso Alvarez Barreda”, where “homage” really means “remake”. You could argue that it was sleazy of Purplefeather to rip off the earlier film. You could also argue that there’s nothing wrong with a remake, especially when the source is itself a retelling of a previously told story. Regardless, I’m not sure why Purplefeather wouldn’t demonstrate its copywriting skills by writing something original.

Something else feels off to me: I’ve seen comments in various places describing the story as “beautiful” and “powerful”, but to me, the core message of the story is not particularly heartwarming or inspiring. The good samaritan is kind of a jerk, altering the sign without permission and without telling the blind man what it says. And the good samaritan as a proxy for the storyteller (i.e., the filmmaker) seems a bit self-congratulatory, as if saying to the audience, “Aren’t you glad I taught you this lesson about marketing?”

To me it is an interesting parable about human nature, but the same point could have been made with the “blind” man actually being a con artist whose “sales” have been slumping until he himself comes up with the clever marketing tactic. Different story with the same lesson: how you convey your message affects the material rewards it will get you. And perhaps a secondary lesson: people want to be compassionate, but sometimes you have to sell them a little on the idea.

On the other hand, “Historia de un letrero” was a winner at Cannes in 2008, I suspect because it was seen as heartwarming. Maybe the filmmakers would not have won if they had told my con-artist version of the story. So maybe the story is itself a demonstration that how you convey your message matters — even when the message is that “How you convey your message matters.”

Who’s on First

A friend posted this on Facebook:

I think it’s okay. It respects the original while adding a little something fresh. I wonder who the guy who plays “What” is. I felt bad when he didn’t get big cheers like the others.

To be honest, for a long time I had found the original a little stale, but I think that’s because I’d heard so many amateur reenactments. No offense to the amateurs — this routine was practically made to be repeated and enjoyed by all comers forever and ever — but I just watched a couple of Abbott and Costello’s performances, and you can see the difference between mastering the lines and mastering the performance. It’s all about the reactions. It’s no use delivering the lines with rapid-fire precision if we don’t see the cumulative effect on Costello’s emotions, while Abbott in his own mind is giving exactly the perfectly reasonable answers Costello is asking. To get those reactions — and to keep the wording confusing enough for Costello but clear enough for the audience, without sounding scripted — that’s the brilliance of this routine. I am sure it could only have been accomplished over thousands of rehearsals and hundreds of performances.

Here’s one performance:

When I watched this video I noticed it didn’t exactly match the script I’ve heard over and over. It turns out:

“Who’s on First?” is believed to be available in as many as 20 versions, ranging from one minute to about 10 minutes. The team could time the routine at will, adding or deleting portions as needed for films, radio, or television.

That they could adjust bits of it on demand and keep up the speed and spontaneity is just another sign of their brilliance and virtuosity.

Coding Moment: Being Slow to Spot a Pattern

Started a tweet, foresaw it becoming a long flurry of tweets, decided to make a blog post.

Was spinning my wheels adding what seemed a simple feature. Most of the needed code already existed. “Just” needed a little more.

Finally figured out it was about going from two possible states to three.

Had been switching states implicitly. The code needed to be more explicit.

Took some messing around before that dawned on me, and a bit more to decide how to represent the state transitions.

Decided on names for the states. Refactored, edited comments. Not much increase in lines of code, but quite a bit of change.

I might change one of the state names to “default”. Paradoxically, less descriptive yet easier to associate with what it does.

Why didn’t I solve this earlier? Specs too vague? I think I could have spec’ed it to death and still missed the forest for the trees.

Maybe I just needed sleep? I spin my wheels a lot when trying to solve problems on too little sleep.

For me, in this case, it took a combination of stepping-back-and-pondering and messing-with-the-code.

Sometimes I’m slow to realize I’m spinning my wheels until I’ve been doing so for a while.

It helps to play Look For the Pattern. Not necessarily “pattern” as in Gang of Four, just some overarching concept.

When I’ve worked on teams, co-workers have often been helpful in catching my bad ideas or pointing out the forests and/or trees.

Sometimes I have to make myself open up to those conversations. At heart I am very much a solo developer.

Although I do write all code as if for public consumption.

What has Garcia tried?

Here are my current thoughts on the open letter from Juan Luis Garcia to Spike Lee.

Garcia admits it was his blunder to do spec work in the first place, which freelancers are constantly advised not to do, but that part is irrelevant either way. If Garcia is real and his story is real, he deserves satisfaction from the agency for using work which he did not sell to them, and then harassing him for complaining.

On the other hand, I don’t see what he has to gain by ostensibly appealing to Spike Lee’s sympathies as a fellow artist, but really, it seems to me, hoping public sentiment will guilt Spike into doing… what? Why would Spike inject himself into a legal matter between Garcia and the agency?

Let me digress for a moment. I’m a computer programmer. I’m on a number of mailing lists where people ask questions about programming and other people answer them, purely voluntarily. On these lists, there is such a thing as a good question and a bad question. A good question describes the problem and what efforts the person made to solve it. A question that boils down to “Do my homework for me” is likely to be answered with irritation and the counter-question “What have you tried?

What has Garcia tried? It seems he tried everything except legal recourse or even the threat thereof. If he has a case that will hold up in court, and the way he tells it, he should have a pretty darn good one, then an open letter to Spike Lee is the least efficient way to get satisfaction. Many worthy causes are promoted online; the Internet is hugely important that way. This is not one of them.

On Twitter, Spike Lee’s response was not as gracious or neutral in tone as many would have liked:

I Never Heard Of This Guy Juan Luis Garcia,If He Has A Beef It’s Not With Me.I Did Not Hire Him,Do Not Know Him.Cheap Trick Writing To Me.YO

Spike’s gotten a lot of negative responses to this, and I know he was already far from universally liked even before this episode. But whether you like Spike or not, Garcia’s beef isn’t with him, it’s with the agency. And writing the open letter to Spike is a trick tactic; by Garcia’s own admission, he decided to skip whatever advice his attorney gave him and try an end run. Yet I see tweets from people concluding that Spike Lee deserves to have his own work stolen because he won’t intervene in this case.

I’ll be interested to hear more solid information if it ever becomes available. Not edge-of-my-seat interested, but interested. And I’m leaning toward seeing Oldboy regardless.