The Nines goes to Venice

A reader alluded to it in the comments of an earlier post, but today we can officially announce that The Nines was chosen to play the Venice Film Festival as part of Critics’ Week.

(At least, I assume we can announce it. We were sworn to double-super secrecy, which is presumably now over, since it was in Variety this morning.)

Critics’ Week runs the first week of September; our exact slot should be announced today or tomorrow. Coincidentally — but fortuitously — our U.S. premiere is August 31st, so it will be a busy couple of weeks of promotion.1

We’re the only U.S. feature in Critics’ Week this year, which traditionally aims for a wide spectrum of international releases. The other films in our category hail from Mexico, France, Kazakhstan, Russia, Italy, Belgium, and Taiwan.2

How psyched am I to be going to Venice? Ohsovery. I didn’t travel to Cannes when The Nines screened there, but that was really just European market screenings for distributors. This is the international debut. I can’t wait to have awkward conversations about the meaning of the film in broken English while jetlagged. And mildly drunk on Italian wines chosen for their melodic names.

Briefly, since I know these will be the first questions raised in the comments section:

  • The trailer is done, and should be up within the week.
  • The trailer competition is happening, but had to be back-burnered while other stuff got finished.
  • No, I don’t know when we’ll be playing in Omaha. Or if we’ll be playing in Omaha.
  • Ditto for Argentina.
  • I’ve seen the international one-sheet, but the U.S. poster is still in discussions.
  • We’re rated R. Presumably for language.
  • The official website is getting rebuilt on more-robust servers.
  • The movie is unchanged from what premiered at Sundance.
  • The movie will be on 35mm in some theatres, digital in others. I’ve seen both projected. They’re different, but equally valid. I’ve considered doing a post about this process, but it would be Geek Factor 8.
  • I have no idea when the DVD would come out, but they’re already working on the special features.
  1. We’ll be launching in New York and Los Angeles, and maybe one other city. How quickly we expand to other cities depends on how well we perform in our first two weeks.
  2. You can see the Italian film listing for The Nines (‘I Nove’) at the [SNCCI website]( If any ambitious readers feel like translating, have at it. I just like the adjective “lynchiano” — “Lynch-ian.”)

Silent Evidence

A few weeks ago, while answering the Grey’s Anatomy question which generated so much talkback, I found myself searching for a specific term I knew had to exist: the human tendency to consider only the samples presented, ignoring other relevant items.

It felt like a fallacy, but it didn’t quite match up to any of the contenders I found online. If you squint really hard, you can make it look like a special case of the Fallacy of (Hasty) Generalization, but that seems a stretch for something which feels fairly commonplace. I ended up coining, “Fallacy of Limited Sampling” — with a mental sticky note to replace it once I found a better term.

To my surprise, I found the one over the middle of the Atlantic, during the 20+ hour flight to Africa: “silent evidence.”

That’s the term Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses to describe this phenomenon in The Black Swan. He introduces it with a story from Cicero:

Diagoras, a nonbeliever in the gods, was shown painted tablets bearing the portraits of some worshippers who prayed, then survived a subsequent shipwreck. The implication was that praying protects you from drowning.

Diagoras asked, “Where are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?”

Those “drowned believers” are silent evidence. You don’t take them into account because they can’t speak up for themselves. The cliché is that, “History is written by the winners.” In fact, it’s written by whoever happens to survive.

Following a discussion of the Phoenicians, and how their lack of literature is more likely due to the fragility of their paper rather than a failure of their culture, Taleb urges us to cast our nets widely:

Consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record did not enter analyses. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these have never been published, or the profile of actors who never won an audition — therefore cannot analyze their attributes. To understand successes, the study of traits in failure need to be present. For instance, some traits that seem to explain millionaires, like appetite for risk, only appear because one does not study bankruptcies. If one includes bankrupt people in the sample, then risk-taking would not appear to be a valid factor explaining success. [Link]

Taleb calls this overlooked bulk of information “silent evidence.” I assumed that was a term of art, but Googling it now, most of the references point back to Taleb’s book. It’s possible that he is its primary champion. Regardless, I like it, and intend to use it liberally.

I didn’t mean for this to become a book review, but since I started…

There are many things I liked about The Black Swan. In addition to silent evidence, I found myself nodding my head to his discussion of the confirmation bias (we tend to notice things that fit our theories), Platonicity (confusion of the model with what it’s modeling), and the narrative fallacy — our need to create a story which explains events after they happened, even if the causality is questionable (or impossible). Thus we write history books explaining how World War I started, when if you were reading the newspapers of the time, these “causes” wouldn’t have shown up.

Taleb’s central thesis is that there are unexpected incidents (Black Swans) which have enormous, disproportionate impact on our world: terrorist attacks, bank failures, iPods. By definition, we can’t predict them — which means any prediction about the future at all is extremely dubious. The best we can do is constantly remind ourselves of the limits of our knowledge, and make some contingency for the completely unexpected.1

I’ve always been leery of statements like, “By 2075, the U.S. population will total 1 billion.” Taleb’s book helps justify my frustration at these seeemingly-scientific projections, which discount what we inherently know about the future: that we know much less than we think.

Despite these interesting points, I can’t honestly recommend Taleb’s book. Too much of it feels like being stuck next to an immodest guest at an interminable dinner party. I found myself skimming whenever I saw the words, “Lebanon,” “French,” or “Yevgenia.” It’s not Freakonomics. My hope is that an ambitious editor convinces Taleb to let her cut it down to a book half as long and twice as readable.

  1. Donald Rumsfeld took a lot of flack for his Yogi Berra-like koan about “Unknown Unknowns” at a Defense Department briefing in 2002, which Slate put in verse form. I’m scared to say: he’s actually kind of right. Acknowledging that there are “unknown unknowns” is important.

My role in Transformers

questionmarkAre you in TRANSFORMERS? There’s a quick shot of a soldier escorting someone away from a helicopter. On screen for two or three seconds. Looks EXACTLY like you.

Just curious.

– Ben
Los Angeles

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but as far as I know, I am not in Transformers. I have a somewhat ordinary face, and coupled with my big bald head, it’s not uncommon for someone at the gym to say, “You were really good last night on Law and Order.” (Apparently, my doppelganger was a white supremacist.)

But I can’t say definitively that I’m not in Transformers.

Years ago, a friend called to say, “I saw you in ‘L.A. Doctors!'” That was a CBS show at the time. She described the scene: I was walking a pug on Melrose Avenue. Which was in fact my dog. I was probably walking home from Starbucks when a second-unit camera crew caught me. (Yes, they should have had me sign a release. No, it’s never worth pursuing.)

I guess it’s possible the filmmakers digitally put my face on some random soldier. They certainly had the technology; they put all those tentacles on Bill Nighy for the second and third Pirates movies. But Occam’s Razor would suggest it’s probably just a guy who looks like me.

The virtues of technology failure

I brought my videocamera with me to Malawi, only to discover upon unpacking it that the main sensor was shot: it could record sound, but not video. In retrospect, this was a fortuitous failure.

Looking at things through a lens–or on a tiny flip-out monitor–creates a layer of distance, of safety. On a subconscious level, it feels like you’re watching TV. I would have watched, but not seen.

And given my obsessive need for coverage, I probably would have shot so much footage that I could never have begun editing it down.

So, lacking a proper videocamera, I just shot with my digital still camera. The clips had to be very short; I only had a 1GB card, and no way to off-load it. But I think it worked out for the best. What I ended up with are more like video snapshots. They don’t tell a story. They simply capture a moment.

I’ve posted a few more up in my YouTube channel. Here’s a sampler.

Q: What side of the road do they drive on in Malawi?
A: The center.

There’s only one paved road in Mulanje, which has to be shared by cars, bikes and pedestrians. The dirt roads are strictly one car wide. They recently plowed the road towards Kumwamba Centre, so there’s hope it may be paved before too long. You can see the in-progress road on this second version of the drive to the church on Sunday, featuring the song that’s been stuck in my head for 10 days.

Photos from Malawi

Mulanje MtI have all my photos from my visit to Mulanje, Malawi up on Flickr for the world to see. You can check them out here.

You may want to use the “View as slideshow” link. If you do, you’ll notice a floating lower-case “i” over the center of the main photo. (You may need to mouse over it to make it appear.) Click it, and you can see all of the captions.

Malawi is a land-locked country in southern Africa. A former British colony, it is now one of the poorest nations on Earth. It’s been especially hard-hit by HIV/AIDS, losing a huge portion of its 20 to 40-year olds. Young parents, especially. It’s now a nation of children and old people.

FOMO (Friends of Mulanje Orphans) runs 10 centers, providing services to 4,000 orphans. Ryan and I visited to help repair and repaint the Gulumba Centre, and to meet the kids who are doing remarkably well in remarkably difficult circumstances.

We also visited medical clinics, in the hopes of establishing a presence for U.S. Doctors for Africa. Treatable diseases like malaria are a huge threat, and the lack of medicine and infrastructure is crippling.

brothersFor all its challenges, Malawi is incredibly beautiful, as are its people. It’s like an island nation without an ocean.

So what now? I’m still figuring that out.

Obviously, FOMO will continue to need financial support, and I can help with that.1 But to a larger degree, Malawi really needs to be put on the map of human awareness. There’s no hot story happening in Malawi: no civil war, no genocide, no pretty blonde tourist going missing. The country is isolated and easy to overlook. And its citizens are so invariably polite, it’s hard to imagine them demanding their fair share of the world’s attention.

But I think there are unique opportunities in Malawi. It’s stable and English-speaking. It’s infrastructure is lacking — its roads in particular are a mess — but the lack of embedded choices can be a blessing. If there’s any place perfect for leapfrogging to the Next Better Idea, it’s Malawi.2

The main reason I wanted to blog about the trip is that I’ve always been kind of uncomfortable-slash-terrified about the developing world and global poverty. And I suspect most readers are, too. It’s overwhelmingly macro.

But when you look at it in the micro scale, it’s not nearly so intimidating. I didn’t leave with any big answers, but I now know a bit about keeping kids fed. And how to install a corrugated metal roof. (You nail through the peaks, not the valleys, with capped nails.) I spent most of my time painting walls, and watching. Learning.

Obviously, not everyone is in a place financially to book a ticket to the other side of the world and just help out. (That’s what Ryan and I basically did.) But a lot of my readers are young — in college, or just after that — which is a perfect time to head out and explore the world. If any part of you is thinking about doing that, trust your instincts.3

  1. As can you, obviously. It’s a registered U.K. charity.
  2. The land-line phones (and with it, the internet) in the entire Mulanje region went out for three days, yet I got four bars on my cell phone almost everywhere. Wireless internet in the U.S. is handy. Wireless internet in Malawi seems essential.
  3. Beyond university-affiliated programs, a quick Google search will reveal dozens of programs that specialize in a new kind of “voluntourism.” We considered programs in five African countries and South America before picking FOMO.

I think I just got Google Mapped

I was walking my dog this morning when I noticed an orange van with strange equipment on its roof: an array of cameras pointing in all directions. As it passed, I read “TeleAtlas: We’re mapping your world!” on the side.

The company is partners with Google, so I have a hunch I may be showing up on Street View before too long. (Los Angeles doesn’t have Street View yet, but they’re no doubt working on it.)