Saturday, January 30, 2010

Web privacy: Flash cookies

Web privacy is a major concern at Exotic and Irrational Entertainment. Most people know about browser cookies, which are used to record what sites you visit, what ads you view, what products you buy online, and other information about you. But you can set your browser to reject all cookies except those that you explicitly agree to (it's particularly important to block third-party cookies). What's more insidious are the data-gathering techniques that you may be unaware of.

A few months ago I wrote about web bugs and beacons, and how they are used without your knowledge or consent to gather and aggregate information about you. There's another way that your internet use is monitored without your knowledge, and it's through a technology called "local shared objects."

Local shared objects are essentially permanent super-cookies that can each hold up to 100 KB of information about your web usage. To give you an idea of how much information this is, the text of this blog post is about 5 KB. So 100 KB would be the equivalent of 20 posts this size. It's a lot of information about the URLs you visit, the images you view, the products you buy, and the videos you watch.

Local shared objects can be placed on your computer without your knowledge or consent every time you use Adobe's Flash Player. That means every time you view a video on YouTube, Hulu or a similar site, a Flash super-cookie can be placed on your computer. But it can happen too whenever you visit a page on any site that contains Flash content (like ads that play automatically when they load in your browser). A recent report on "Flash Cookies and Privacy" (see below) found that more than 50% of the websites in their sample used Flash cookies.

Not only do these Flash cookies have the capability of recording a large amount of information about you, they act as a backup for browser cookies that you think you've deleted. So when a new browser cookie is placed on your computer by the site, the Flash cookie simply gives it same user ID and other information as the old cookie, "re-spawning" the deleted cookie.

To prevent Flash cookies from being automatically placed on your computer, you have to go to the Adobe website's Flash Player Settings Manager.

On the left-hand side of this page is a list of links for what Adobe calls global privacy, storage and security options. These control the settings for sites you haven't yet visited. There are also links for what Adobe calls website privacy and storage options, which control the settings for individual websites that you have already visited.

The Settings Manager that you see when you click on one of the links on this page is not an image. It is the actual Settings Manager that controls the Flash cookie privacy, security and storage options for your individual computer. Here is Adobe's own page on how to manage and disable local shared objects.

For more information on Flash cookies, how they are being used, and what you can do to prevent them from being set on your computer without your knowledge, here are some resources:

A recent article by Ryan Singel in Wired magazine: You Deleted Your Cookies? Think Again.

A page on the Electronic Privacy Information Center website: Local Shared Objects--"Flash Cookies".

A report by Ashkan Soltani of the University of California Berkeley School of Information and colleagues posted on the Social Science Research Network: Flash Cookies and Privacy.

Ironically, the Soltani report apparently can't be downloaded unless you allow the SSRN site to place browser cookies on your computer. Here's the abstract: "This is a pilot study of the use of 'Flash cookies' by popular websites. We find that more than 50% of the sites in our sample are using flash cookies to store information about the user. Some are using it to 'respawn' or re-instantiate HTTP cookies deleted by the user. Flash cookies often share the same values as HTTP cookies, and are even used on government websites to assign unique values to users. Privacy policies rarely disclose the presence of Flash cookies, and user controls for effectuating privacy preferences are lacking."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fred & Ginger Part 4: Shall We Dance and Carefree

7. Shall We Dance (1937): What makes a musical great? If it requires only great music, then Shall We Dance would certainly qualify. Five of the Gershwin songs it introduced have become standards: "Beginner's Luck," "They All Laughed," "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and the title song. And if great music isn't enough, Shall We Dance combines highlights from several of the earlier Fred & Ginger films. The main plot is similar to The Gay Divorcée (1934). In that film, Ginger pretends to have an affair so she can get a divorce, and over the course of an evening of dancing with Fred really falls in love with him. In this one, everyone thinks that Fred and Ginger are already married; when Ginger wants to marry someone else, she realizes she can only do so by publicly divorcing Fred first—but to do that, they'll have to really get married. The pretend relationship turning into a real one has rich comic possibilities that are better exploited here than in the earlier film—there's an amusing recurring bit with Eric Blore as an unctuous hotel manager locking and unlocking the door between Fred and Ginger's adjoining suites as his understanding of their marital status changes.

There are borrowings from other films in the series, too. Like Follow The Fleet (1936), it has an extended shipboard tap solo for Astaire: here, he dances to "Slap That Bass" in a huge, gleaming Art Deco engine-room set. Unusually for the time, he's accompanied by an all-black band, and the first verse of the song is taken by the bandleader Dudley Dickerson (though in her Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (1972) Arlene Croce writes that Dickerson's voice was actually that of the similarly uncredited Mantan Moreland). Also as in Follow The Fleet there's a gag dance: Astaire dances to a record of "Beginner's Luck" that keeps skipping (in the earlier film it was Ginger who kept getting stuck while the music played on). And Fred and Ginger's roller-skating duet in the rink in Central Park echoes their dance in the gazebo in Hyde Park from Top Hat (1935).

But if Shall We Dance has such excellent songs and seems at times like a greatest hits collection from earlier Fred & Ginger films, why isn't it more enjoyable? Partly it's because the songs aren't always integrated into the action or narrative—sometimes they just happen. Two examples: "Beginner's Luck" (the vocal version) is sung by Astaire to Rogers on shipboard as they're sailing to America. Astaire is Petrov, the principal dancer in a Ballet-Russe-style troupe headed by Edward Everett Horton. (Petrov, of course, is really an American, Peter P. Peters, who loves jazz.) Petrov agrees to tour with the ballet to New York so that he can take the same ship as a cabaret dancer he's become smitten with, Linda Keene (Ginger). He contrives to meet her every evening when she takes her dog for exercise. He finally manages to get her alone, leans on the railing next to her, and sings "Beginner's Luck." But the mismatch between song and situation—since she clearly doesn't yet reciprocate his feelings, why does he feel so lucky?—is rescued only by the charm of Fred and Ginger. And it ends too soon; as Croce reports George Gershwin writing to a friend, "They literally throw one or two songs away," and here that complaint seems justified.

In their famous Central Park rollerskating number, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," Ginger sings to Fred, "You say laughter and I say lawhfter, you say after and I say awhfter..." But it's Fred who has been (inconsistently) putting on an exaggerated accent as Petrov, while the idea that Ginger would say "lawhfter" or "banawhnah" comes from nowhere. And so the joke of having each complain in the same terms about the other doesn't work, in contrast to the similar but much more carefully constructed "A Fine Romance" scene in Swing Time (1937). Fortunately we're immediately distracted from this lyrical non sequitur when Fred and Ginger then launch into their famous dance on roller skates:

One song that does make sense in the context of the story is "They All Laughed." At a nightclub Linda Keene is coaxed into singing, and the song she chooses is about the evident mismatch between her and her goofy fiancé (William Brisbane in the thankless rival-to-Fred role). But as she tries to head back to her table, Fred gets up and coaxes her into dancing—he does some balletic leaps, she answers with a quick burst of tap, he responds in kind, and then they're off. Fred's intervention changes the song: suddenly it's about both the apparent mismatch between ballet and jazz dance styles and between Petrov and Linda themselves, resolving into a beautiful Fred and Ginger duet. Here's a severely truncated version:

Shall We Dance also contains one of their loveliest ballads, sung by Fred to Ginger on a fog-shrouded ferry as they return to New York for their divorce: "They Can't Take That Away From Me". This gorgeous song, though, cries out for a dance duet, which doesn't happen. The movie's finale to the title song is a surreal number with a chorus of women all holding Ginger masks. If Fred can't dance with Ginger herself, he'll dance with an army of women who look like her. But then one of the women behind the masks reveals herself to look uncannily like Ginger...

Ultimately, though, Shall We Dance falls short. I'd make the case that the best Hollywood musical is Singin' In The Rain (1952), even though its Arthur Freed-Nacio Brown songs—while perfectly appropriate to its late-20s setting—don't measure up to the now-classic Gershwin songs in Shall We Dance. What Singin' In The Rain has that Shall We Dance lacks is a compelling story and songs that are integrated with and suited to the action. Despite the Gershwin tunes and some brilliantly staged numbers to showcase them, Shall We Dance proves that when it comes to musicals, a great score isn't quite enough.

8. Carefree (1938). One problem for the Astaire-Rogers films is that they're suspenseless. "The minute the names of Astaire and Rogers go up on the marquee," Croce quotes their producer Pandro Berman as saying, "the audience knows they belong together." So the main problem the screenwriters faced throughout the series was figuring out ways to keep them apart until the happy ending.

In Carefree, that problem was "solved" by having Fred (as the psychiatrist Tony Flagg) hypnotize Ginger (as Amanda Cooper) and plant a post-hypnotic suggestion that she hates him and is really in love with her stolid fiancé Ralph Bellamy (as Stephen Arden). Tony's been brought in on Amanda's case because she's reluctant to marry Stephen (and that's a mystery?). After her consultation with Tony (and eating heaps of rich food that he's prescribed) she dreams that she's in love—but with Tony, not Stephen—in the number "I Used To Be Colorblind." The design of the set and the lyrics of the song seem to indicate that this sequence was intended to be in color, a suspicion that Arlene Croce confirms. The number does offer two striking innovations: the use of slow motion, which beautifully emphasizes the grace of the dance (Ginger seems to be literally floating around Fred), and an extended kiss between Fred and Ginger at the conclusion—perhaps their first kiss in the entire film series (even in "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcée, which urges the participants to "Kiss while you're dancing," Fred and Ginger's lips never meet):

"Colorblind" leads to another unusual number. Throughout the series the typical pattern has been Fred trying to convince Ginger to dance with him; in the novelty number "The Yam" it's Amanda who wants a reluctant Tony to dance with her:

Amanda's obvious infatuation with Tony is what leads to the implanting of the post-hypnotic suggestion that she really hates him. Of course, the rest of the movie involves Amanda acting on that suggestion and Tony desperately trying to remove it. He almost succeeds when he gets her alone at Stephen's country club (to the strains of "Change Partners"), but Stephen interrupts them before it can happen. Tony has one last chance to reach Amanda—on her wedding day...

If this sounds like the plot of a screwball comedy, there's a good reason. The late 30s were the heyday of screwball comedy; the fifteen months since the release of the previous Astaire-Rogers picture, Shall We Dance, had seen the release of The Awful Truth (1937), Holiday (1938) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). And Ginger Rogers, an excellent comedienne, almost carries it off. Alas, the script lets both her and Astaire down. When Tony hypnotizes Amanda, he tells her that men like him "should be shot down like dogs"—a jarringly brutal formulation that she tries to enact when she winds up at a country-club skeet shoot while still under the influence. The violence doesn't end there. To remove the suggestion, Tony has to render Amanda unconscious again, leading to the disturbing final image of—spoiler alert!—Amanda walking down the aisle sporting a black eye. Even if it's Stephen who has inadvertently given it to her, it's an image that simply isn't funny.

—End of spoiler—

Carefree was the last of the Astaire-Rogers comedies; it was followed six months later by the tragic biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), a movie that has its own charm, but which doesn't really fit with their earlier comedies together. And they then didn't dance together again onscreen for another decade. By then, after a string of Gingerless flops and special appearances in other people's movies, Astaire had retired. But in 1948 he agreed to come out of retirement to take the place of the injured Gene Kelly opposite Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948). The film was one of the year's biggest hits, and a second Astaire-Garland movie was planned. Only this time it was Garland who was taken off the film after she repeatedly missed rehearsals, to be replaced by...Ginger Rogers.

Interestingly, even though it hadn't originally been conceived as an Astaire-Rogers film, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) is an homage to their earlier films together and a parody of their rumored offscreen clashes. (Those clashes have been exaggerated; there's nothing to suggest that their professional conflicts—mainly over their mutual ambitions to do films outside the partnership—were ever personal ones.) Together with Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway launched the second phase of Astaire's film career: he went on to star in some of the most beloved musicals of the 1950s, including Royal Wedding (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957) and Silk Stockings (1957). Rogers had won an Academy Award as Best Actress for Kitty Foyle (1940); in 1950 Astaire was given a special Academy Award "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures" (the presenter was Ginger Rogers). But despite their successes apart, they will be forever remembered for their unique partnership, which can be invoked solely with their first names: Fred & Ginger.

Other posts in this series:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Juliet, Naked

My top five Nick Hornby books, in descending order:

1. High Fidelity (1995)
2. Fever Pitch (1992)
3. About A Boy (1998)
4. Songbook (2002)
5. Juliet, Naked (2009)*

That list is a bit of a joke, of course. High Fidelity's now-famous first sentence is "My desert-island, all-time top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order" followed by a list of five names. Admittedly, it's not "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." But Hornby, like Jane Austen, has marked out a particular stratum of his contemporary society that he has repeatedly mined for his fiction. In Hornby's case it's the man who clings to his youthful (usually musical) obsessions, even as he approaches middle age, in the hope that they will continue to provide his life with meaning and purpose. Hornby's novels are so successful in part because virtually every man can recognize an aspect of himself in these characters, even if that recognition isn't free of embarrassment.

But this restriction of focus lends a certain anticipatory predictability to Hornby's work. So when I heard that he'd published a new novel about a woman involved with a man who endlessly dissects the final album of a long-vanished singer-songwriter, I confess I didn't feel an urge to run out and read it. Hasn't Hornby been here before?

Well, yes and no, as it turns out. Yes, the characters and the outlines of the story are familiar; in fact, Juliet, Naked is a bit like High Fidelity retold from Laura's point of view instead of Rob's. But now his characters are a bit older, and their life options perhaps feel a bit more constrained.

Juliet, Naked is the story of Annie, who has been living with college teacher Duncan for 15 years in a small, depressing seaside town in northern England. Annie humors Duncan's obsession with Tucker Crowe, the long-vanished singer-songwriter. In the mid-80s, after issuing his break-up album Juliet (think Blood On The Tracks or Shoot Out The Lights), Crowe abruptly quit performing or recording and became a recluse. Ever since, acolytes like Duncan have speculated endlessly about the meaning of Crowe's songs and the circumstances of his life. This being the Internet Age, of course, those speculations are circulated to fellow obsessives via blogs, listservs and Wikipedia pages.

So when a demo version of Juliet, called Juliet, Naked, comes to light Duncan receives a copy for review. He proclaims it a masterpiece superior even to the original version, but Annie feels quite differently: " was Juliet, without all the good bits" (p. 39). That difference of opinion sparks a crisis between them, because like many obsessives Duncan attributes moral, ethical and intellectual dimensions to questions of taste--particularly when it comes to the work of Tucker Crowe. Duncan's reaction forces Annie to realize how stuck she and Duncan have become, while her reaction sends him in search of a less critical listener. He soon finds one in Gina, a flamboyant new art teacher at his college.

The fourth character in this quadrangle is Tucker Crowe himself, who reads the negative review of Juliet, Naked that Annie posts on Duncan's website and begins an e-mail correspondence with her. He and Annie soon discover a kinship beyond their mutual feelings about the album, because Crowe is himself a bit stuck, having reached the end of another in a long string of failed relationships. Complications ensue for everyone when Crowe comes to England to visit an estranged daughter, and he and Annie arrange to meet.

Juliet, Naked is well-crafted, engaging and entertaining. It points up the dilemmas of characters who have continued to drift along on their college-age conceptions of the good life, only to discover once they're facing middle age that perhaps those choices are no longer working so well. It's sure to evoke a smile of rueful self-recognition in readers of a certain age.

And I had forgotten how pleasurable it is to read Hornby, and how thoughtfully (and amusingly) he examines his characters' rationalizations about their lives. Here's his description of Annie and Duncan's relationship:

"Sometimes Annie felt less like a girlfriend than a school chum who'd come to visit in the holidays and stayed for the next twenty years. They had both moved to the same English seaside town at around the same time, Duncan to finish his thesis and Annie to teach, and they had been introduced by mutual friends who could see that, if nothing else, they could talk about books and music, go to films, travel to London occasionally to see exhibitions and gigs. Gooleness wasn't a sophisticated town. There was no arts cinema, there was no gay community, there wasn't even a Waterstone's (the nearest one was up the road in Hull), and they fell upon each other with relief.

"They started drinking together in the evenings and sleeping over at weekends, until eventually the sleepovers turned into something indistinguishable from cohabitation. And they had stayed like that forever, stuck in a perpetual postgraduate world where gigs and books and films mattered more to them than they did to other people of their age.

"The decision not to have children had never been made, and nor had there been any discussion resulting in a postponement of the decision...And now, with an irritating predictability, she was going through what everyone had told her she would go through: she was aching for a child." (pp. 10-12)**

Irritating predictability--well, yes. Annie's sudden yearning for motherhood is one of the less satisfying aspects of Juliet, Naked. Beyond the stereotype, it seems incredible that the subject of children would never have come up between Annie and Duncan, even though they've been a couple for nearly two decades and have bought a house together.

Another place where incredulity rears its head is Annie's regular visits with her inept therapist Malcom, who in typical English fashion advises her buck up and reconcile herself to being miserable. It's a funny idea, in a movie script or sitcom sort of way. But would someone like Annie really continue to pay even a nominal sum in order to continue seeing someone so clearly ill-suited to helping her (or anyone) examine their problems?

The novel's conclusion, while open-ended in the trademark Hornby style, leaves so many issues unresolved for these characters that it seems a bit facile (though there's a hilarious coda that I won't spoil by describing).

There's another reason Juliet, Naked seems to go by so quickly: the page size is small, the margins wide and the line-spacing generous. It's over 400 pages long, but with a more conventional design would have been more like 250. Not that I'm complaining. I actually like the book's smaller size--it fits nicely in the hand, and the margins and leading make the type highly legible. Combined with the sheer readability of Hornby's prose, though, it means that the novel is over far too soon. And maybe that's a deliberate metafictional strategy on Hornby's part; after all, the ultimate lesson of Tucker Crowe's career is to leave 'em wanting more.

Update 9 November 2015: Here is a belated link to my post on his collections of his Believer column "Stuff I've Been Reading."

* I confess that I haven't read all of Hornby's books, including A Long Way Down (2005), his young adult novel Slam (2007), and his nonfiction books Polysyllabic Spree (2004), Housekeeping Vs. The Dirt (2006), and Shakespeare Wrote for Money (2008). The especially sharp-eyed reader will note that this means that my top-five list was thus drawn from only six books; the one that didn't make the cut is How To Be Good (2001).

** Here's a link to the full text of Chapter 1.