Saturday, June 30, 2007

Walter Murch and the Long View of Film

Walter Murch was the film editor and/or sound mixer for American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, Ghost, the Godfather, and Cold Mountain, to name a few movies you might know. I know him from a book, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient, the film version of which Murch edited).

The book is a series of conversations between Ondaatje and Murch about filmmaking: the techniques, stories, and people behind the scenes. Along the way, we get two Renaissance Men’s worth of eclectic digressions and connections, weaved together by Ondaajte in his role as editor of the text.

To give you a taste, I’ll excerpt from two passages that interested me because of Murch’s “long view” perspective on film’s development as an art form.

We look at ancient Egyptian painting today and may find it slightly comic, but what the Egyptians were trying to do with the figure was reveal the various aspects of the person’s body in the most characteristic aspect. The face is in profile because that reveals the most about the person’s face, but the shoulders are not in profile, they’re facing the viewer, because that’s the most revealing angle for the shoulders. The hips are not in profile, but the feet are. It gives a strange, twisted effect, but it was natural for the Egyptians. They were painting essences, and in order to paint an essence you have to paint it from its most characteristic angle. So they would simply combine the various characteristic essences of the human body....

That’s exactly what we do in film, except that instead of the body of the person, it’s the work itself. The director chooses the most characteristic, revealing, interesting angle for every situation and every line of dialogue and every scene....It may be, five hundred years from now, when people see films from our era, they’ll seem “Egyptian” in a strange way. Here we are, cutting between different angles to achieve the most interesting, characteristic, revealing lens and camera angle for every situation. That may appear perfectly normal to us, but people 500 years from now may find it strange or comic.

If that sounds unlikely, think an eventual future where “film” = holodeck.

On to the second passage:

I think cinema is perhaps now where music was before musical notation—writing music as a sequence of marks on paper—was invented. Music had been a crucial part of human culture for thousands of years, but there had been no way to write it down. Its perpetuation depended on an oral culture, the way literature’s did in Homeric days. But when modern musical notation was invented, in the eleventh century, it opened up the underlying mathematics of music, and made that mathematics emotionally accessible. You could easily manipulate the musical structure on parchment and it would produce startlingly sophisticated emotional effects when it was played. And this in turn opened up the concept of polyphony—multiple musical lines playing at the same time. Then, with the general acceptance of the mathematically determined even-tempered scale in the mid-eighteenth century, music really took off. Complex and emotional changes of key became possible across the tonal spectrum. And that unleashed all the music of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries: Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler!

I like to think cinema is stumbling around in the “pre-notation” phase of its history. We’re still doing it all by the seat of our pants. Not that we haven’t made wonderful things. But if you compare music in the twelfth century with music in the eighteenth century, you can clearly sense a difference of several orders of magnitude in technical and emotional development, and this was all made possible by the ability to write music on paper. Whether we will ever be able to write anything like cinematic notation, I don’t know. But it’s interesting to think about.

While these excerpts typify Murch’s erudition, they are more abstract than most of the book, which often is about how specific scenes in movies achieved their affect: how a distant, quiet sound ended up being more powerful than a layered mass of loud sounds in George Lucas’ first feature film, THX 1138; how the framing of a scene in The Godfather tells the audience the character is lying; how a specific technique for recording and mixing crickets led to a “hyperreal” soundscape in Apocalypse Now; and so on.

If you read the book, you will not only know more about what makes movies tick, you’ll also feel like you know Walter Murch. And that’s a good thing.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bring on the New Magic

Fill in this blank: A computer desktop is to a real desktop like a Google search is to ________?

It’s hard because the computer desktop metaphor was meant to be literally like a real-world desktop, with files arranged into folders and such. By contrast, we have nothing in the real world like the modern Internet search experience, with its single-line interface that returns answers to seemingly everything.

Why does this distinction matter? Think of how the desktop metaphor and graphical user interface changed computing, and now consider that it’s happening again. Increasingly, what people do with computers is straining and, in some respects, bypassing the desktop metaphor. For example, when you start your computer, how often do you open folders and files versus going straight to a Web browser? And in that Web browser, how often do you immediately do a search?

I bring this up because Tim Oren recently raised these issues, referencing Randy Smith’s idea of the tension between “literalism” and “magic” in user interfaces:

The original desktop design leaned in the direction of literalism. While the allusion to reality was never pure (trashcans on desktops?) the generally one-to-one correspondence between user action and resulting change inside the system put it squarely into the direct manipulation class of literalist designs. This literalism is also a large cause of the failure of the desktop design to scale, as the user is responsible for acting to create and maintain useful organization of ever-growing collections of information. Contrast the wildly successful - and almost completely ‘magical’ - interface of Google. There is no real world act equivalent to typing a few words and receiving in return lists of information from any place in the global Web....The overwhelming acceptance by end users of an interface devoid of literalist elements is a quiet and widely overlooked revolution of the last decade, and its implications are largely unexplored.

I agree, and it will only accelerate as the distinction between what’s on your computer versus what’s on the Internet becomes less meaningful. Much of what used to reside on my computer’s hard disk now resides in the Internet “cloud” on various services. And for the stuff that stays on my computer, desktop search (ironically, often accessed via a Web browser toolbar) is increasingly an alternative to navigating through folders and files.

Yet the traditional Google search only solves a certain class of problems, especially those where you know what you’re looking for. What other “magical” approaches are there to the things Google doesn’t do? It’s like asking, circa 1985, what else can you do with a graphical user interface other than help people run an operating system?

Finally, this topic is not just about computers as traditionally defined. For example, the literalist approach to a TV user interface—the scrolling-grid “electronic program guide”—gets evermore useless as choice expands. If you think it’s bad scrolling through 500 channels of cable offerings, how about “all video on the Internet”?

So, as Tim says, the literalism/magic angle is an interesting one for considering a change that’s afoot—in what we do, and how we do it—with things digital. Bring on the new magic!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Yield Management for Metered Street Parking

What if parking meters were priced more like airline seats?

The backstory: “Yield management” is what most airlines do when they sell you a seat. The price you pay might be different from what it was yesterday, or will be an hour from now. It depends primarily on the current and expected demand for the seat (usually, the seating class) you want.

By increasing or decreasing prices with demand, the airline can maximize the revenue from a flight’s inventory of seats. The goal is to avoid empty seats that generate no revenue while getting the highest rate possible on filled seats. Because many different, constantly changing factors are involved, managing the yield is a complex task.

With that intro, let’s transition from airline seats to metered street parking. Like airline seats, metered parking spaces are perishable goods: If they go unused, the potential revenue is lost. Also, as a flight has a limited number of seats, a geographic area has a limited number of metered parking spaces.

Cities raise revenue from parking meters and thus have incentive to manage the yield upward. However, the usual rule is one price fits all. Some cities have different prices in different areas, but that’s a long way from active yield management.

A major obstacle has been the the traditional parking meter. The closest it comes to measuring demand is a coin count when the meter is emptied. But even if it could continuously measure demand (“Hey, my space has been empty 35 minutes!”), the traditional meter does not have a way to adjust its pricing automatically.

Enter new technologies. Today, digital meters exist that can change pricing depending on the day and time. Also, a variety of technologies exist to detect when a car enters and leaves a parking space; as a result, demand is measurable not just by meter but by day of the week, time of day, and so on.

Using such new technologies, the Port of San Francisco recently ran a test to understand how its meters were being used. The test involved multiple vendors of next-generation parking meters, with measurement by Streetline Networks, a San Francisco start-up. Streetline has a wireless sensor system that tracks when cars come and go from spaces.

Here is an example of data collected by Streetline at a particular meter:

The graphic shows December 2006 metered hours (in gray), occupied hours (in blue) and paid hours (in red) for meters along the even side of 200 Embarcadero, broken out by day of the week.

Among the findings of the study:

  • Demand varied significantly at the same meter during the day, often predictably so. (In the graphic above, note how uneven demand is within each day yet similar across weekdays.)
  • Demand could vary widely on a block-to-block basis.
  • Higher pricing did not affect usage. Meters priced at $3 an hour were used at the same rate as when they were priced at $2 an hour.

The test’s one attempt at varying prices involved progressive pricing. Meters were $3 for the first two hours, $4 for the third hour, and $5 for the fourth hour. The idea was, instead of having parking cops enforce a two-hour limit, let the pricing system enforce it by making people pay more the longer they stay. (If you’re trying to imagine who would pump $15 worth of quarters into a meter, you’ll be relieved to know the test allowed payment by credit card.)

However, progressive pricing was a poor tool for managing yield at peak times, such as at lunch. Quoting from the minutes of a Port Commission meeting where the findings were presented:

What makes it a peak is that most people arrive just before it and most people leave just after it. What you end up having with a progressive rate system is that most people pay the lower rate during the highest usage hour. People [staying] a little longer ended up paying higher rates when demand is lower. This is the opposite of what you want to see if you’re trying to balance usage over the day.

Going forward, the Port of San Francisco will be trying other pricing policies:

Block-by-block, there’s a huge variation in demand for on-street parking which means that we need to have pricing policies that are more specific to a specific block or a geographic areas as opposed to Portwide pricing....

When people are parking in the middle of the day between 11a.m.-2p.m and the pricing is just for two hours and the third hour and the fourth hour. We learned that if we want to deal with congestion we have to deal with time-of-day pricing as opposed to straight per hour rate.

In other words, they need to price parking meters more like airline seats. Other thoughts: Vary the prices of the meters near the ballpark around game time. Allow longer time limits in areas/times with low demand.

These pricing schemes are not as dynamic as airline-seat pricing, but they go a significant distance in that direction. Because parking meters are not reserved ahead of time, and checking the price requires some form of stopping, there are practical limits to how dynamic the pricing can be, notwithstanding future visions of parking meters auctioning their spaces wirelessly to cars cruising the area.

You may ask, is this all a good thing? No one likes paying more for parking, and unlike with airlines and airline seats, a city has a monopoly on metered parking spaces. What is in the public interest?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but from time to time I’ve noticed the work of Donald Shoup, a professor at UCLA who specializes in public policy related to parking. Having studied the subject for decades, he says metered parking is usually underpriced, and for that matter, there’s too much free street parking. In this New York Times opinion piece, he makes his case.

Independent of the public-policy debate, it’s safe to say that elements of yield management will increasingly apply to metered parking, simply because it’s now feasible and thus will be tried. Per the old adage “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” I expect cities to find that if they can actively measure street-parking demand, they can manage pricing better for a wide range of public-policy goals.