It's easy to fall in love with Her, Computerworld, and MIT

20-Jan-14 7:30 PM by
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This month marks two one-year anniversaries. January 12 was my departure from Computerworld, the magazine and website where I'd been an editor for six years; January 22 commemorates my arrival at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I now work on the MIT Medical marketing team. I was concerned that leaving the publishing field would diminish my value as, and opportunities to be, a journalist. Much to my pleasant surprise, the opposite has proven true, with resources and collaborations now possible that weren't a year ago.

When Monica Castillo of the Cinema Fix podcast recommended I see the movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, I sensed the opportunity for a story. Monica had previously gotten me into a press screening of Jobs, which I turned into a review for Computerworld. With Her's focus on a lonely bachelor's romantic relationship with a Siri-like mobile operating system, this film also seemed up the alley of Computerworld's readers. I sold my pitch to their news editor.

Here's the thing about writing film reviews for Computerworld: it's a publication that covers IT, not cinema. For the article to be a good fit, it would have to connect to the IT angle somehow. Past methods of doing so wouldn't work. For my first Computerworld movie reviews — The Bourne Ultimatum, Live Free or Die Hard, Iron Man, and Iron Man 2 — I paired with a security expert and analyzed that aspect of the movie's tech. But Computerworld didn't feel I needed a co-writer for Her. Jobs had plenty of historical fact to assess, but Her was a fictional, futuristic work. My editor suggested that "It would be great if we could set the context around the melding of technology and day to day life as opposed to just a straight out 'this was a good/bad movie'." I wanted to do more than that — but what do I know about artificial intelligence?

Fortunately, whatever technical knowledge I lack, MIT has in spades. Right in my own academic backyard is CSAIL, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I reached out to the MIT News Office, and Abby Abazorius connected me with principal research scientist Boris Katz. On short notice, Katz made himself available to discuss the basics of artificial intelligence and consciousness and how they compared with the capabilities of Samantha in Her. Even though Katz had not seen the film, my line of questions based on my own viewing opened him right up. After just 45 minutes of conversation, I had ample material to transcribe.

The resulting article, "It's easy to fall in love with Her", was published on January 11 — a year to the Friday that I left Computerworld for MIT. I found it a fitting manifestation of the ways in which I can continue to be a contributing member of the Computerworld community, even more so now that I have access to everything MIT has to offer. Who knows what other stories lie about MIT, waiting to be unearthed?

The Antisocial Network

05-Oct-10 1:58 PM by
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Facebook now has a membership of nearly twice that of the United States. Although often decried as a time sink, there are those with more grievous complaints against the service and its supposed founder, Mark Zuckerberg. The Social Network, a cinematic adaptation of Ben Mezrich's book Accidental Billionaires, is a witty and fast-paced look at the intellectual property theft and financial cunning that left multiple parties with claims to Zuckerberg's empire.

As with Mezrich's other book about a Cambridge, Massachusetts, college, Bringing Down the House (which became the 2008 film 21), the movie's gist is accurate, while the details have been fictionalized and dramatized to make for a better story. The Social Network is set during two different 2008 court cases, flashing back to 2003 and the following years that saw the inception of Facebook. In one of the present-day settings, Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg is confronted by the Winklevoss twins, two Harvard students who contracted Zuckerberg to build their own social network, Harvard Connection, which magically morphed into Zuckerberg's own Facebook; in the other, he sits opposite Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the next Spider-Man), a classmate who was Facebook's CFO for its first year before being diluted out of the company.

Most of the film is not about technology, but people and personalities. With a script by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, the film's dialogue moves quickly — an impressive feat, since Zuckerberg, founder of the premiere online social networking site, ironically has no social skills himself, alternating between clever zingers and non sequiturs. The film opens with banter between him and his then-girlfriend in which each barely has time to breathe as they engage in verbal ripostes and repartees; "dating you is like dating Stairmaster," she says. After making several miscalculations that culminate in a breakup, Zuckerberg realizes that as a computer nerd, he'll never pick up chicks at Harvard. He then turns to the only alternative medium he understands: online.

Zuckerberg is portrayed as neither villainous nor sympathetic but merely emotionless, being better able to network with computers than with people. His cold logic works for him as much as it does against him. At times, Zuckerberg is portrayed akin to Anakin Skywalker, a powerful potentate who doesn't know who his friends are as others struggle to control him; at other times, he's closer to Emperor Palpatine, whose Machiavellian machinations manipulate the situation more subtly than even his puppets realize. He is hated as much as he is pitied, as when Saverin, sitting across from the Zuckerberg and his lawyers, looks at Facebook's founder, aggrieved. "I was your only friend," he laments. In many ways, the movie is more about Saverin and the other satellites that revolve around the Facebook maelstrom, including Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), co-founder of the company Napster (not to be confused with Shawn Fanning, the developer of the program Napster), who is made out to be a superficial, avaricious rockstar entrepreneur.

Whether Zuckerberg is actually the bad guy that The Social Network makes him out to be is questionable; even Sorkin has said that he was more interested in storytelling than truth. But it's neither surprising nor unbelievable that the sort of backstabbing this film depicts could've happened; friends and classmates may not think conducting business would require anything more than a handshake, making future misdealings possible and likely to be taken personally.

The technical details of the film are few and far in between. Early in the film, Zuckerberg hacks into the Web sites of Harvard's social clubs, known as "final clubs." It's likely that a social club would have neither needed nor implemented security for their online rosters, so it's no stretch of the imagination to watch Zuckerberg write perl scripts in the emacs editor to break into Apache servers and exploit PHP security holes with the wget command. The details are accurate but token.

The consequences of his actions are more dramatic than realistic, though. In Accidental Billionaires, Zuckerberg uses the results of his hacking to create the Web site, which proves so popular as to freeze his hosting computer; in the film, Facemash's traffic shuts down the entire Harvard network, resulting in a disciplinary hearing and an academic probation.

I suspect that example is representative of much of the film's interpretation of reality. The general story is correct — Zuckerberg started Facebook while at Harvard, resulting in two legal battles over its questionable origin — but the details are mostly fabricated to make a better movie. Who knows what dealings Zuckerberg had with women, or what truly drove him to create this empire? Only he knows — and he isn't talking. In its stead, we have a film where even simple hacking is made dramatic courtesy Sorkin's script and Trent Reznor's soundtrack. Seeing this film will likely take less time than attending to your FarmVille vegetables and might make you a less enthusiastic fly in Zuckerberg's web.