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Archive for May, 2006

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Hillary Clinton: Young People Ain’t So Bad

Monday, May 15th, 2006

Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week that young people in America “think work is a four-letter word,” because they “have a sense of entitlement after growing up in a ‘culture that has a premium on instant gratification.’” (quotes from the AP article, which may have been paraphrasing).

Chelsea Clinton, now 26-years old and working as a consultant for McKinsey & Co., called (out) her mother by telling her, “Mom, I do work hard and my friends work hard.” After which, Hillary promptly corrected herself, saying “I was referring only to young people that can’t vote yet.”

No, just kidding. She issued the proper politician-apology: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to convey the impression that you don’t work hard [by saying you don't work hard]. I just want to set the bar high, because we are in a competition for the future.”

OK, I added the part in the brackets, but hey – this is so much fun…

Anyway, go Chelsea!

Categories: Political Rantings | No Comments »

Microsoft Gets One From the Government

Monday, May 15th, 2006

It doesn’t happen often, but government regulators sided with Microsoft yesterday in rejecting Google’s complaint over IEv7′s Search Box:

The Justice Department has evaluated the search box — a new feature in IE 7 that lets users initiate searches — and concluded it “respects users’ choices” and “is easily changed”

They also mentioned, as discussed in these pages before, that the process for changing the default search engine is “relatively straightforward.” Interestingly, they pointed out that:

The number of steps to change the default search engine in IE 7 and Firefox, the open-source browser supported by Google with advertising revenue, are in fact identical: five.

Google is taking the same argument to the EU regulators, which strikes me as answer shopping, but given the two different jurisdictions, I guess isn’t a problem (at least not yet?) We’ll see if one body influences the other…

Categories: Tech Talk | No Comments »

By the Way, Is Data Mining Unconstitutional?

Friday, May 12th, 2006

I have a question: Is data-mining by the U.S. Government unconstitutional?

By my count, we’ve had this discussion at least three times now (the TSA profiling debate after 9/11, the request for search results from Google/Microsoft/Yahoo to fight online porn, and now the NSA getting phone numbers), but the politics of the specific example always get in the way of the more generic question.

Here’s my thinking: if the government wants to spy on one person, they need to get a warrant. Without a warrant, clearly it’s illegal.

If they want to spy on a group of people (defined by a characteristic, not a list of names – i.e., all people who pay cash for airline tickets, or all Arab-Americans, or all people who call Afghanistan more than five times per month), warrants are less applicable (what do you do? Get a list of names and obtain warrants for each person?), but there should be some check/balance to make sure that they have a legitimate reason to investigate the group – a “group warrant,” if you will (this, by the way, strikes me as protection against prejudice more than protection against privacy).

Now, if they want data on everyone in the country (i.e., all phone calls), both the warrant and the “group warrant” seem less relevant. Clearly, the point of retrieving all the records is to <u>look</u> for reasons to investigate. So what checks and balances are required in this case?

In both the second and third cases, I think the missing check is some assurance that the government will use the data they collect <u>in the aggregate only</u>. Today, even if that’s all they’re doing, people worry about the possibility that they may do more.

What if we could allow aggregated data searches, but require the government to obtain warrants if patterns are identified, or if certain individuals meet the criteria of a search? In other words, the they get the data mining for free, but if it turns up anything, they should get approval to check it out. This scenario would take some technical development (not too much, I think) and some advancements in the law to catch up with the technology (to define, for instance, when the search is specific enough to cross the line from data mining into spying on individuals).

Such advances, I believe, would provide the government the opportunity to take advantage of modern surveillance techniques while giving people the peace of mind that their privacy is not being unduly invaded.

Categories: Political Rantings | 14 Comments »

More News Cataloging – NSA Call Lists

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

I’m sure this is going to become a big deal:

NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans – most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

Most people won’t read past the headline. Some will skim the article and walk away thinking, “Bush is wiretapping even more phone calls now.” Folks who read the whole article, particularly the part I’ve quoted above, will walk away confused. They’re “reaching into our homes and businesses” even though we’re “not suspected of a crime,” [dum da dum dum.......DUM!!!!!] but they’re not “listening to or recording our conversations?”

Those who click through and read a few more articles on the subject will learn a bit more (and read “concerned” quotes from just about all 100 of the U.S. Senators). The NSA is looking for patterns in the data. The articles didn’t specify, but I suspect it’s something on the order of large numbers of calls being made to a single phone number, building, or area in a middle eastern country. Or maybe even large numbers of calls made between two citizens who both have made frequent calls to known terrorist trouble spots. That kind of thing.

These are just guesses, of course – I have no way of knowing. But assuming for a second that I’m at least directionally correct, my comment to Jeff Porten’s TIDBits article about the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference still applies: this is likely the case of technical capability vs. practical application of that technology.

If they’re looking for patterns, they need lots and lots of data. In this case, they also need phone numbers (source and destination), which is customer-identifying information. But if they take those millions of records and aggregate them to form patterns, they’re not using anyone’s phone number. It’s the aggregation of this data that’s interesting, not the data itself. (Of course, if they find a pattern and determine that it’s probable cause, one would hope they’d seek a warrant before wiretapping a phone).

The fact that with such data, they could accuse Mr. Smith is having an affair with Mr. Johnson’s wife, based on the correlations of late night phone calls to Mrs. Johnson at home and Mr. Smith at work makes for great copy, but isn’t really what’s happened here.

Don’t get me wrong: we absolutely must discuss the potential this creates for abuses of personal privacy. Specifically, we need to find technical solutions that allow the government to take advantage of modern data mining techniques to catch terrorists without exposing its citizens to potential privacy abuses. These issues should, and are, being debated as we speak.

But that’s not the story. The story is instantly tied to the tried & true NSA Wiretapping Story, even as they explain that they’re not the same thing at all. It doesn’t matter – they both contain the words “NSA,” “phone,” “collection” and “secret.” So that’s good enough. Also, the press gets a double-bonus here, because they can also catalog this story with the recent General Who Ran the NSA Wiretapping Program Gets Picked to Run the CIA story, which is also tangentially related at best.

A lot of newspaper and ad time is about to be sold, but we are going to need to dig deep to extract the facts described above. Such is the cost of the “free press.”

UPDATE: Yahoo/USAToday have a handy Q&A-style fact sheet on the issue that is stripped of all spin & hysteria. It even makes a point to distance itself from the NSA Wiretapping story.

Categories: Political Rantings | 10 Comments »

18,000 pages about an 18-page letter

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

Finding the Letter
When I heard that the Iranian president had written George W. Bush an 18-page letter, I went right to the web to read it. Surely a community that could post the President’s National Guard records (and then post explanations about why they were fake) would be able to get such a thing online, no?

What I found was quite shocking. Here’s the story from The New York Times, ABC News, FOX News, The Washington Post, CNN and Ha’aretz.

All of the above articles talk extensively about what was in the letter. They all quote it repeatedly, which means they must have a copy. And yet none of them linked to a copy of it for me to read myself. Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper, provided excerpts, but that was it.

I continued digging, and eventually found it at Le Monde and from the BBC. I’m thinking this says a lot about how the media works around the world. The American media feels we have such a short attention span that we couldn’t be bothered with reading 18 entire pages of text. Besides, what they think of the 18 pages (and what the various experts they interviewed think) is much more important than what the 18 pages actually say, right? Why should I make up my own mind when they have a full time job making it up for me? The Israeli media is willing to provide a glimpse, but still wants you to rely on their reporting. In Europe, this probably isn’t as big a deal, so sure – here’s the letter. We’ll tell you what we think, but go ahead and read it yourself.

There was a day when websites were proud of their ability to link to source material. Now, many are clearly choosing not to. Luckily for us, Google knows no borders or boundaries. And if it’s out there, we’ll find it.

The Letter Itself
As to the letter itself, I had a mixed reaction to it. On the one hand, I was dumbstruck with how much I agreed with what the Iranian president had to say. He seemed to be making the same points the Democrats make on a regular basis, but in a more matter-of-fact, “this is how the facts look to me” kind of way. This, by the way, is basically the subject of the FOX News report (yes, that’s right – I just agreed with the President of Iran and FOX News in the same paragraph. For those who are dizzy, I’ll wait………..OK, better now? Moving on.)

On the other hand, the similarity between the letter and the standard Democratic talking points led me to believe that this effect was calculated to elicit maximum effect from Bush’s political enemies here in the United States, and perhaps abroad (we tend to forget that they have things in Iran like web access and CNN, so they hear us criticizing our leaders just as well as we do). Mahmood Ahmadi-Najad has been quoted in the past as saying he needs to “wipe Israel off the map.” In the letter, he says it this way:

Are we to understand that allowing the original inhabitants of these lands – inside and outside Palestine – whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jew, to determine their fate, runs contrary to principles of democracy, human rights and the teachings of prophets? If not, why is there so much opposition to a referendum?

Quite the restrained version of the previous quote, huh?

Even a lunatic can appear reasonable if he believes it suits his purposes. I think that might be what we have here. And while my knee-jerk reaction may be to respond with equally constructive dialog, I think the White House is looking a few steps down the road to whether or not dialog with this man is worth the effort, and concluding that it is not.

Categories: Political Rantings | 3 Comments »

EU to Microsoft: Don’t Build Any New Products Ever Again

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

The EU is considering action against Microsoft’s forthcoming version of Windows, Vista. They’re concerned that it will violate the ruling handed down by the second highest court in the EU in 2004.

Here’s the quote that caught my eye:

Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes told Microsoft in a letter in March that its plans for Vista could “deny PC manufacturers and consumers a real choice among competing software products and stifle innovation”, the Commission said.

That’s quite a stretch, isn’t it? Putting out a new product will deny consumers choice and stifle innovation? And, I suppose we’re to assume that the converse is also true: preventing Microsoft from releasing (i.e., innovating) a new product (i.e., another consumer choice) would (somehow) provide consumers with more choice and encourage innovation?

At particular issue, it seems, is the planned XPS format, which will compete with Adobe’s PDF format. Adobe has a near-monopoly in this space today, much like Microsoft’s monopoly on the PC desktop. As far as I can tell, XPS will have an advantage over PDF, because the ability create XPS files would come included with Windows (you can download Adobe’s PDF Reader for free, but you have to pay for software to create PDFs). PDF would still have the advantage of being cross-platform (Microsoft will allow royalty free licenses for XPS, but will only produce XPS software for Windows), as well as the huge advantage that Microsoft has today – ubiquity. PDF is a valuable format principally because everyone can read it. XPS will make a dent for sure, but will have quite a hill to climb to unseat PDF as the market leader. But regardless of whether XPS replaces PDF as the industry standard, I’m still lost as to how putting a competing product in the marketplace limits choice and stifles innovation.

If anyone’s stifling innovation here, it would seem to be the EU. And it would seem that we could point specifically to which innovation their stifling (Windows Vista).

The irony of the whole thing is that the EU is stymied by its own litigiousness. Microsoft has appealed their previous case to the highest court in the EU (the Court of First Instance). If they sue for changes to Vista based on that previous ruling, and the CFI overturns all or part of it, it could invalidate their Vista claim right out of the gate. On the other hand, if they wait to see what the CFI will do, Vista may be released in the interim, reducing their ability to influence changes.

I think this is starting to smell like a vendetta against the front-runner – in this case, Microsoft. I can understand the need to keep the playing field level, offer consumers the most options, and encourage other firms to compete. But if doing so means that the organization with the most resources and, arguably, the most experience is not allowed to compete at all, then aren’t we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Categories: Political Rantings, Tech Talk | 5 Comments »

Commercials on Demand

Monday, May 8th, 2006

From the Wall Street Journal online (via Hugh Hewitt): TiVo will soon be offering commercials On Demand.

For the most part, the marketers won’t run traditional 30-second TV commercials. Instead, they will offer longer ads that attempt to be more informative than typical commercials. Kraft, for instance, will offer 20 different cooking videos that will show such things as how to grill its Tombstone pizza, potato-salad basics, or how to create a cantaloupe-and-Jell-O dessert.

General Motors, likewise, will offer detailed video presentations about its vehicles. Ford is trying something more entertaining: one-minute takes of magicians Penn & Teller performing various tricks on a golf course, with a Ford vehicle shown nearby.

It’s an interesting concept, but I think it’s doomed to failure. To generate an audience for something, not only does the content have to be compelling, but it has to be someplace where people will look for it.

If I wanted to know how to grill a Tombstone Pizza, for instance, I’d probably go to Tombstone.com, or even more likely to Google. The reason I’d do this is because when I think “information need,” I instantly think “Internet.” The TiVo commercial might be a better product, but my sense right now is that if that’s truly the case, then they (or someone else) will eventually put a copy of it on the web, and Google will find it (side question: do you think Madison Avenue would get all up in arms over people illegally downloading bootleg versions of their commercials?).

To change my behavior, the On Demand ads must be more informative (or at least more entertaining) on a consistent basis, and there must be enough of a critical mass there to make me turn to my cable box first, as opposed to my web browser. That’s a long row to hoe…

On the upside, if this takes off, maybe they’ll take the commercials out of shows & just post links to the On Demand versions at appropos moments:

Donald Trump: You’re Fired!
TiVo: Click here for a video on writing your resume from Monster.com

Categories: The Future is Now | 2 Comments »

Happy Birthday, I Should Be Sleeping!

Monday, May 8th, 2006

Since the occasion is sure to slip by everybody but me (and, to be fair, it almost slipped by me as well), I feel the need to point out that today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog. I thought I’d take this opportunity to take narcissism to a whole new level, and give myself a bit of an annual review. Those who are put off by such endeavors are encouraged to move on now…

Traffic
This is post #203, which comes out to a little more than one post every two days. Not bad, considering my initial concern was whether I’d have the time or interest to keep a blog updated for any length of time.

The blog itself has drawn 1,292 hits during the year, but I’m assuming that roughly 600 of those hits are from me. As much as I like Blogger, my one complaint is that the only way to verify a post is online is to go to the blog itself, which messes with the statistics. I typically post, bring up the blog page, make edits, and check the blog again. That plus the occasional hit I make to see if anyone’s commented (I get e-mail when someone comments, but I occasionally check from work or from my blackberry, where I don’t have access to my personal e-mail). At any rate, 600 is a conservative estimate, but works for my (self-serving) purposes.

The individual posts to the blog have drawn 6,135 hits for the year, driven mostly by a higher-than-I-can-possibly-explain PageRank in Google.

That makes 6,827 blog hits, as compared to 8,165 non-blog hits on the rest of my site, or 45.6% of my total traffic driven by the blog. This makes sense, given that the rest of the site doesn’t update nearly as often, but is also gratifying in the sense that I’m not completely screaming into the wind over here.

Post Highlights
The average post has received 30.4 hits, but this is very misleading. My top two posts have 4,270 hits (more on that later). Without those two posts, the average is around 9.3 hits, which feels much more like reality. Another useless stat: 28 of the 202 posts (14%) have received 20 hits or more, so again – once in a while, I reach beyond my circle of friends (loyal readers who visit here because they already know me from pre-blog days).

Here are links to my top 10 posts of the year (by traffic):

Concert Review: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden – 2,936 hits
Billy Joel plays the oldies… – 1,334 hits
What Prevents Crime? – 80 hits
A Review: Billy Joel – My Lives, Disc 1 – 60 hits
Apple takes a shortcut, costs me $30 – 53 hits
Help for the Tech Support Generation – 45 hits
More on the Mactel front… – 43 hits
A Review: Billy Joel – My Lives, Disc 3 – 43 hits
Cats & Dogs Living Together – 40 hits
A Review: Billy Joel – My Lives, Disc 2 – 38 hits

I find it very gratifying that this list composes many of my interests: music (specifically, Billy Joel), technology, and a hint of politics/current events. The big news for the year, however, was Billy Joel’s 2006 concert tour to promote his new box set My Lives. I saw a setlist from the one of the first shows and blogged about it with Billy Joel plays the oldies…. Fans, starved for setlists, took to Google in droves, and my site became a popular link. Even though the post contains nothing very substantial (except a link to a setlist), it quickly became the most popular post on the blog. Then, I saw the show itself. On the train ride home, I blogged a review from my blackberry, Concert Review: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, which has single-handedly commandeered 43% of the blog’s traffic in a single post. It’s also set records for comments – generating 45 (including my own responses to commenters with questions). In an attempt to “give the people what they want,” I wrote reviews for each of the four discs in the box set, which have also generated healthy traffic (although nothing like the ones that mention the tour). In fact, it’s occurring to me now that just discussing it here will probably drive this post up in the Google searches, leading people somewhere they probably don’t want to be. If you’re on of these people, my apologies. I can only hope that the title “Happy Birthday…” is enough warning to prevent extra clicks.

The Comments
Since we’ve already established that the whole point of this endeavor is self-serving ego boosting, I’ll go on to admit that the biggest kick I get is when people leave comments. I’ll acknowledge right up front my loyal readers, who also happen to be some of my best friends: Jeff Porten, Michael Weinmayr, and Mike Starr (with an occasional visit from Steve Walsh). Those guys comment all the time, which is fun, but the real ego-boost is when I get comments from people I don’t know, especially when they’re from different parts of the world. Some examples:

From the Billy Joel Concert review post:

International:

thanks mate… nice review!.. am considering buying a ticket for the London show at wembley

International again:

Thanks for this blog, Better hurry before the US soldiers stationed here buy ‘em all up. Will bring a pack of tissues in case Good Night Saigon is part of the set…

Useful:

Took a few Googles to finally nail down the info you provided. Thanks.

Helping to Sell Tickets:

Thanks for providing the info I needed to decide to go.

Fostering a Sense of Community:

Thanks for this blog it has been great to share in everyone’s experiences.

A Vote for Quality (and again, international):

What a great review- sounded real- not all sugar!! Thanks again. Meic- the Isle of Man [mid-way between England and Ireland]

Here’s one from Apple takes a shortcut, costs me $30:

I wanted to thank you for your post. I too am new to the video ipod and was getting frustrated beyond belief…as of this morning, all problem videos are working perfectly. Thanks again!!

I’ve discussed Google’s ability to help people solve technical problems several times over the year. It’s such a kick to know I did the same for someone else without ever being asked.

Finally, some comments from a recent post, Why Watch United 93:

Thanks, Brian, for a very thoughtful and informative response. Your perspective now makes a lot more sense to me now.

I’m glad I clicked over here to read your perspective, Brian.

This came from a conversation on Simple Tricks and Nonsense with Jason Bennion and his girlfriend, Anne, who live in Utah, and found my thoughts and feelings about 9/11 and the recent United 93 movie helpful in thinking about what the event (and the film) meant to them. Again, this kind of personal connection, especially about something so emotional, would have been inconceivable without a blog.

Links
While I Should Be Sleeping has been mainly a self-standing entity, it has received links from a few other blogs. First and foremost, of course, is Jeff Porten’s very cool blog, The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy. He has linked over here on posts about technology (About The Cult of Macintosh, Spending My Summer in Boot Camp, and Quantifying Wintel Macintoshes to name just a few), about politics (Menschenhawks, for example), and even about Penn Basketball (Penn, the Mourning After). His site generates a lot more traffic than mine, and I’m sure the residual effects of his links have been invaluable in achieving the (very) modest degrees of success I’ve seen over here. Thanks a bunch, Jeff!

As I said above though, the real kick is when people I don’t otherwise know get into the act. Two quick examples:

First, another case of “I inadvertently help someone I don’t know with a technical problem.” In this case, it’s PunditMania, who gave me a hat tip for helping solve a Blogger template problem in Solving Template Problems Arising since the Introduction of Blogger Images.

And then, of course, there’s this guy, who’s a fan of the rapper, Daddy Yankee, and thinks I’m a bad influence on my son because I take him to Yankee Games. Easily the funniest link I saw on the web all year…

Where Do I Go From Here?
As I’ve said, the blog’s generated a small modicum of good in the world, and I’m having a blast writing it, so I’ll certainly continue doing what I’m doing. I can’t think of anything to change, really – I’m pretty happy with the frequency of the posts, the topics, the page layout, etc., etc. If you’re reading this and you have any suggestions, please drop me a line.

The only thought I had was, as kind of a birthday present to myself, to register IShouldBeSleeping.com and redirect it to this site. Unfortunately, someone already owns that domain. Fortunately, he’s willing to sell it (I think he bought it in the hopes that some anti-insomnia concern would want to pay big money for it). Unfortunately, e-mails to his published address bounce back with a “Sorry…this mailbox is full” message. Apparently, he’s purchased more than 300 domains in hopes of selling them off, but doesn’t seem to be checking his inbox too frequently.

If anyone’s still reading this diatribe, and has any suggestions about how else I’d go about obtaining this domain, I’d be happy to hear about it. I’m not looking to drop a ton of money on it, but I figure at least start a negotiation and see where it takes me…

That’s about it. As is typically the case on this site, it’s insanely late at night and I should be, well…you know.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Categories: Blogging about Blogs | 3 Comments »

Movie Review: United 93

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

Wow.

It’s hard to find words to describe what I just saw. The most apropos concept I can come up with is INTENSE. From beginning to end, it’s intense. And uncategorizable (if that’s a word). It’s not a documentary and it’s not a dramatization. As other reviews have said, it offers no opinion and no sappy backstory. It has no point to make – it’s just telling you what happened, and what may have happened in the places where we can’t know for sure.

At least for me, the emotions began before the film even started. I started to doubt whether I really wanted to see it. Wouldn’t it be easier just to look away? Yes, but as I said earlier, I really didn’t want to do that. So I kept my seat…

As the film began, the first thing I was struck by was how normal everything was. People boarding the plane, going through security checkpoints, flight attendants and pilots talking to each other about their day & their plans for upcoming vacation time, maintenance folks fueling the plane, and so on. It’s normal, and yet ever so stressful to watch.

As the events begin to unfold, you get a stunningly clear view of the confusion, urgency, and best efforts of the people in the control towers, air traffic control headquarters, and military headquarters. This stuff isn’t dramatized. We know exactly what happened in those places, and according to the credits, more than half of the “main characters” on the screen were the actual folks who were actually there that day. In the space of a couple of hours, a normal Tuesday morning turned into their worst nightmare. Yes, some mistakes were made, but they all seem drastically beside the point. These people had no dress rehearsal for this – no advanced warning, no training. They followed their procedures as best they could, they maintained cool heads at all times, and while they didn’t prevent any planes from hitting any buildings, they did manage to land 4,200 aircraft in a matter of hours, shutting down U.S. airspace for the first time in history.

Then the movie focuses exclusively on the events inside the plane. Other reviews have called these folks heroes; the first people to live in a post-9/11 world; the first soldiers in the War on Terror. My impression was a little different – it was more like “They’re obviously going to fly this plane into a building. We have absolutely nothing to lose. So let’s try and do something.” No matter. What’s obvious is that in a situation where they all would have been completely justified crawling up in a fetal position and crying out the last few hours of their lives, they (like the folks on the ground) kept their heads about them, organized, and made an attempt.

Obviously, there are some very poignant moments. The one that caught my eye most was just before they rushed the cockpit: just about everyone on the plane is praying. The hijackers are praying in Arabic, and passengers are praying in Hebrew and English (the Lord’s Prayer). Each of the world’s major religions, all in the exact same situation, all praying to their respective Gods to help them out of it – one way or the other.

As I’ve said, I’ve attempted to learn as much as I could about what happened that day. Unlike a documentary, there is no omniscient narrator here. No one stopping the action to explain what was going on elsewhere at the time, no interviews with participants offering opinion or commentary. So while historical details need to come from other sources, this film gives you a sense of the emotion of the moment that a documentary would not. It offers a glimpse into how it might have felt to have been there. It’s showing you, not teaching you.

No one will ever know for sure exactly what happened on that plane. That said, this movie is so well done that I’m happy to accept it as fact in my own mind. The people on that plane were American heroes. Their last moments, by definition, are undocumented. And while we can’t document them for certain, I think United 93 can serve as a fitting tribute to their legacy.

God Bless Them All. May They Rest in Peace.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Movie Talk | 4 Comments »

Why Watch United 93?

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

Jason Bennion and I have been having a conversation over at Simple Tricks and Nonsense about the United 93 film. Jason asks:

I find it interesting that you feel like seeing this movie is some kind of duty. Given your proximity to the sites of the attacks, I would think you would be less inclined to want to see it. Could you explain why you feel like you have to see it? Is it to help you process something about the event, or to pay tribute to those who died, or something else?

Well, Jason, it’s like this: For about six months after September 11, the nation basically grieved together as one. At some point, though, life began returning to normal, and we began discussing important questions like “What happened?” “Could it have been prevented?” “How to we keep it from happening again?” These discussions yielded some useful results, but they also came with a predictable dose of defensiveness, “gotcha” politics, and sound-bite driven media reports.

Almost immediately, the zeitgeist about what happened that day began to deviate from what actually happened. Today, only 4.5 years later, many people have misperceptions about the event. They believe that no one did anything about the attacks for seven minutes while President Bush read stories to a kindergarten class. They believe that most of the hijackers were Saudi-born. They believe that a Presidential Daily Brief from August, 2001 warned that Bin Laden was going to fly planes into the World Trade Center. They believe that our first reaction to the events was to invade Iraq. And the list goes on and on.

I have two small children. Thankfully, neither of them will remember that day (one was only 15 months old at the time, and the other wasn’t born yet), but I’m 100% sure that they will learn about it in school, and that they will ask me about it when they do. Given the enormity of what happened, I feel a strong responsibility to understand the facts, and be able to tell them the truth about it when that day comes, as opposed to repeating what will, by then, have become universally accepted myths.

More selfishly, studying the details of what happened somehow helps me to deal with it personally. I’m no psychiatrist, but I think it has something to do with giving my Left (logical) Brain something to do, so my reaction is completely Right (emotional) Brain . It also helps to minimize the righteous anger that I would feel (and that many others do feel) when they hear some of the more sensationalized myths described above.

For these reasons, I’ve watched many of the documentary films on television, surfed countless websites, and I’ve read the 9/11 Commission Report from cover to cover (which, by the way, I recommend to everyone. It really is a very well-written, useful document). To me, United 93 falls into the same category. I don’t want to relive the events again, but I want to know as much about what happened as I can – for my sake and for my kids’ sake.

The terms I keep reading in reference to the film are “reminder” and “re-creation.” But do we really need a reminder of what happened? I don’t think anyone has forgotten after only four and a half years. If it’s intended as a historical document, why dramatize it? Why not make an actual historical documentary about the event?

In this case, I think there’s a fine line between drama and documentary. For as much as we know about the events of that day (and, thanks to the work of the 9/11 commission and other scholars, we really do know a lot), we know very little about what happened on that plane. We have cell phone calls from the passengers to their loved ones, and we have the cockpit voice recorder, from which we’ve been able to piece together the basic story.

A true documentary would, by definition, have to leave out large chunks of the story. This movie fills in the gaps in (what I understand to be) a very tasteful, respectful way. Reviews I’ve read stress that there are no heroes here, no sub-plot love interests, no back-story about the passengers to establish them as “real people.” we know as much about the passengers during the film as we would had we been sitting on the plane with them that day. In this sense, I think the film supplements the historical record in an appropriate way. Fifty years from now, it will be as if Schindler’s List was made in 1955, when the people who were involved were still there to participate in the storytelling. That will be useful to my children and my grandchildren.

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