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kottke.org posts about Errol Morris

Errol Morris making a movie with Paul Rudd and Ira Glass

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2011

It’s fictional but based on a This American Life story about a man whose cryogenics business goes wrong.

The film, as previously reported, is an adaptation of a 2008 report on Bob Nelson, a self-styled cryogenics pioneer. Mr. Morris claims the film, not listed on IMDB, will be written by Zach Helm, writer of the aptly titled Will Ferrell vehicle Stranger Than Fiction. This American Life previously spawned the kids’-movie adaptation Unaccompanied Minors, but Mr. Morris’s pedigree — and unique interests-promise to make this a bit more highbrow, and simultaneously more intriguingly tabloid-y.

The invention of social computing

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2011

I’m going to link again to Errol Morris’ piece on his brother’s role in the invention of email…the final part was posted a few hours ago…the entire piece is well worth a read. As is the case with many of his movies, Morris uses the story of a key or unique individual to paint a broader picture; in this instance, as the story of his brother’s involvement with an early email system unfolds, we also learn about the beginnings of social computing.

Fernando Corbato: Back in the early ’60s, computers were getting bigger. And were expensive. So people resorted to a scheme called batch processing. It was like taking your clothes to the laundromat. You’d take your job in, and leave it in the input bins. The staff people would prerecord it onto these magnetic tapes. The magnetic tapes would be run by the computer. And then, the output would be printed. This cycle would take at best, several hours, or at worst, 24 hours. And it was maddening, because when you’re working on a complicated program, you can make a trivial slip-up - you left out a comma or something - and the program would crash. It was maddening. People are not perfect. You would try very hard to be careful, but you didn’t always make it. You’d design a program. You’d program it. And then you’d have to debug it and get it to work right. A process that could take, literally, a week, weeks, months -

People began to advocate a different tactic, which came to be called time-sharing. Take advantage of the speed of the computer and have people at typewriter-like terminals. In principle, it seemed like a good idea. It certainly seemed feasible. But no manufacturer knew how to do it. And the vendors were not terribly interested, because it was like suggesting to an automobile manufacturer that they go into the airplane business. It just was a new game. A group of us began to create experimental versions of time-sharing, to see if it was feasible. I was lucky enough to be in a position to try to do this at MIT. And we basically created the “Compatible Time Sharing System,” nicknamed CTSS from the initials, that worked on the large mainframes that IBM was producing. First it was going to be just a demo. And then, it kept escalating. Time-sharing caught the attention of a few visionary people, like Licklider, then at BBN, who picked up the mantle. He went to Washington to become part of one of the funding agencies, namely ARPA. ARPA has changed names back and forth from DARPA to ARPA. But it’s always the same thing.

And it was this shift from batch processing to time-sharing that accidentally kickstarted people using computers in a social way…programming together, sending notes to each other, etc.

Robert Fano: Yes, the computer was connected through telephone lines to terminals. We had terminals all over the MIT campus. People could also use CTSS from other locations through the teletype network. CTSS was capable of serving about 20 people at a time without their being aware of one another. But they could also communicate with each other. A whole different view of computers was generated.

Before CTSS, people wrote programs for themselves. The idea of writing programs for somebody else to use was totally alien. With CTSS, programs and data stored could be stored in the common memory segment and they were available to the whole community. And that really took off. At a certain point, I started seeing the whole thing as a system that included the knowledge of the community. It was a completely new view. It was a remarkable event. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten a very smart social psychologist on the premises to look at and interpret what was happening to the community, because it was just unbelievable.

There was a community of people using the computer. They got to know each other through it. You could send an e-mail to somebody through the system. It was a completely new phenomenon.

It seems completely nutty to me that people using computers together — which is probably 100% of what people use computers for today (email, Twitter, Facebook, IM, etc.) — was an accidental byproduct of a system designed to let a lot of people use the same computer separately. Just goes to show, technology and invention works in unexpected ways sometimes…and just as “nature finds a way” in Jurassic Park, “social finds a way” with technology.

The invention of email

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2011

This is the first part of a five-part blog post by Errol Morris investigating whether his brother Noel Morris
co-wrote the first working email system at MIT in the mid-1960s. From an MIT colleague of Noel’s, Tom Van Vleck:

In 1965, at the beginning of the year, there was a bunch of stuff going on with the time-sharing system that Noel and I were users of. We were working for the political science department. And the system programmers wrote a programming staff note memo that proposed the creation of a mail command. But people proposed things in programming staff notes that never got implemented. And well, we thought the idea of electronic mail was a great idea. We said, “Where’s electronic mail? That would be so cool.” And they said, “Oh, there’s no time to write that. It’s not important.” And we said, “Well, can we write it?” And we did. And then it became part of the system.

Van Vleck maintains a web page about what he, Noel Morris, and their team were working on at the time. To go along with Morris’ article, the NY Times has an MIT Compatible Time Sharing System emulator that you can use to send email much as you could back in the 60s.

Trailer for Tabloid, Errol Morris’ new film

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2011

It’s a documentary about Joyce McKinney and the so-called Mormon sex in chains case.

Here it is on Apple Trailers in case the YouTube one gets yanked.

The Ashtray Argument

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2011

Errol Morris is back with his first NY Times blog post since last summer. Don’t quite know where he’s going with it yet, but it features an ashtray thrown at Morris’ head by Thomas Kuhn, father of the paradigm shift and poor marksman.

I had written a paper on James Clerk Maxwell’s displacement current for Kuhn’s seminar on 19th century electricity and magnetism. The paper might have been 30 or so double-spaced pages. Kuhn’s reply, typed on unlined yellow paper, was 30 pages, single-spaced, with Courier marching all the way from the left to the right side of the paper. No margins. He was angry, really angry.

IBM centennial films

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2011

IBM is celebrating 100 years of business with a pair of videos; the following is a 30-minute film by Errol Morris (music by Philip Glass) on the history of the company.

A second film, 100 x 100, shows 100 people each presenting an IBM milestone that occurred the year they were born; not sure if Morris did this one as well. (via df)

Roger Ebert talks with Errol Morris

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2010

Roger Ebert recently sat down with Errol Morris to talk about his new movie, Tabloid, and a bunch of other stuff. The interview is presented as a series of eight YouTube videos. In this one, he talks about how he got started writing his blog for The NY Times and how that helped him get over his 30-year struggle with writer’s block:

He’s working on a seventeen-part article about a murder case for the blog. Seventeen parts!

Morris and Herzog in conversation

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2010

Errol Morris and Werner Herzog both had films premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. To mark the occasion, they sat down and had a conversation with each other.

That’s just part one…Ebert has the rest of it on his blog.

Errol Morris’ next film

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2010

Speaking of Errol Morris, it seems that his next film will be out this fall and is a documentary about Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, rapist of Mormons, and dog cloning enthusiast.

According to our sources, it seems Morris has just finished up a brand new documentary, “Tabloid” aka “A Very Special Love Story” (the title is not yet final) about Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, who, in the late seventies, abducted Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary in England, chained him to a bed and forced him to have sex with her. But that’s hardly the weirdest thing about McKinney or the case. After jumping bail, she was eventually sentenced in absentia to one year in prison, due to the fact that Britain, at the time, didn’t really have rape laws against men in the books. She was later accused of stalking her victim — who had since married and had children — during the 1980s and in 2008, she gained more media attention after taking her dog to Korea to be cloned.

The unknown unknowns

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2010

Errol Morris is back with a new piece on his NY Times blog about how the holes in people’s knowledge affect their actions.

If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know about. Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody’s field of ignorance.

This is part one of a five-part series in which we hear from David Dunning about the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

Errol Morris on the postmodernity of the electric chair

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2010

Errol Morris recently gave the commencement address at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; here’s the transcript.

It has become fashionable nowadays to speak of the subjectivity or the relativity of truth. I find such talk ridiculous at best. Let’s go back to Randall Dale Adams. He found himself within days of being executed in “Old Sparky,” the electric chair in Walls Unit, Huntsville Texas.

There is nothing post-modern about the electric chair. It takes a living human being and turns him into a piece of meat. Imagine you — you the young journalists of tomorrow — being strapped into an electric chair for a crime you didn’t commit. Would you take comfort from a witness telling you that it really doesn’t make any difference whether you are guilty or innocent? That there is no truth? “I think you’re guilty; you think you’re innocent. Can’t we work it all out?”

The best TV commercial ever

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2010

Or so says Errol Morris. It’s certainly the most honest advertising I’ve ever seen.

A bouncer in Birmingham hit me in the face with a crescent wrench five times and my wife’s boyfriend broke my jaw with a fence post. So if you don’t buy a trailer from me, it ain’t gonna hurt my feelings. So come on down to Cullman Liquidation and get yourself a home. Or don’t. I don’t care.

(via fimoculous)

Harvey Weinstein to Errol Morris: you’re boring

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2010

In 1988, Harvey Weinstein sent Errol Morris a letter complaining that the director wasn’t properly promoting The Thin Blue Line. The words, he doesn’t mince them.

Heard your NPR interview and you were boring. You couldn’t have dragged me to see THE THIN BLUE LINE if my life depended on it. It’s time you start being a performer and understand the media.

This appears to be the NPR interview in question. (via letters of note)

More Apple tablet photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2010

I don’t know if these two photos depict the rumored Apple tablet or not, but I *do know* I want 5000 words from Errol Morris that attempt to answer these two seemingly related questions in an attempt to determine their authenticity:

1. Which photo was taken first?
2. Why was the tablet moved between photos?

Errol Morris: Interviews

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2010

A new book of conversations with Errol Morris done throughout his career. The tables have turned!

Free Errol!

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2009

For some dumbcrap reason, the NY Times has redirected Errol Morris’ excellent blog about photography and the truth — formerly at http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com — to some new thing called Opinionator. They did the same with Dick Cavett, Olivia Judson, etc. Oh, all the content is still there — here’s Morris’ stuff — and permalinks redirect, but there are no author-specific RSS feeds. There is only the main feed, which started shoveling a bunch of crap I didn’t want to read into my newsreader. Come on Gray Lady, just give me Morris; I don’t care about the rest.

Update: The Times blogs are on Wordpress and with WP you can add “/feed” to any URL and get a feed. So here’s Morris’ feed…which helps you and me but not much of anyone else. (thx, mark)

Update: The Times is working on it. (thx, benjamin)

Those great (staged?) Great Depression photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2009

In his newest multipart essay for the NY Times, Errol Morris examines evidence of photo manipulations by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, including Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothea Lange. Were they dispassionate observers of American life in the 1930s or employees after a certain type of story?

If one can imagine the political animosity that would have been generated if, as part of the current stimulus package, President Obama introduced a national documentary photography program, then it is possible to understand the opposition that the F.S.A. faced. Fiscal conservatives did not want to see their hard-earned tax dollars spent on relief, let alone a government photography program, of all things.

Concerning the films of Errol Morris

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2009

A long and meaty conversation about the work of Errol Morris.

The thing is, truth is always at the center of Morris’ films, as you’d expect of a documentary filmmaker, but he also acknowledges that truth is a complicated thing; he’s always toying with questions of truth and fiction. Morris’ films aren’t about The Truth; they’re about our personal, private truths, as well as the lies and rationalizations we create for our actions. So fiction and lies and manipulation are also at the center of Morris’ films. Fiction is as much the spine of his work as truth.

Life advice from old people

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2009

Seth Menachem takes his video camera out on the streets and collects Life Advice From Old People. Menachem is in the movie biz so he even got advice from Jon Voight and Errol Morris.

A world without trust

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2009

Errol Morris shares Seven Lies About Lying, principles about lies often assumed to be true but which Morris believes are false.

5. Lying will be punished. Perhaps. But not as often as truth-telling. Lying effectively in many situations is generally superior than telling the truth, because often we have to search our minds for the truth, whereas a good lie can be easier to produce (though of course caution is indicated if the lie can be easily unmasked). Invariably a skillful liar makes a calculation about his chances of being exposed and avoids situations where a lie can be revealed. Lying is punished only if it is detected. A more reasonable assessment would be that ineffective and unskillful lying is severely punished. No one is held in greater contempt than an unskilled liar.

Morris also solicited Ricky Jay’s thoughts on a world without lying:

When you’re talking about Kant and trust, it made me think of one of the ways I tell people about the con game. I say, “You wouldn’t want to live in a world where you can’t be conned, because if you were, you would be living in a world with no trust. That’s the price you pay for trust, is being conned.”

On Robert McNamara

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2009

Errol Morris’ discussion of Robert McNamara’s legacy nails why McNamara was such a compelling figure.

His refusal to come out against the Vietnam War, particularly as it continued after he left the Defense Department, has angered many. There’s ample evidence that he felt the war was wrong. Why did he remain silent until the 1990s, when “In Retrospect” was published? That is something that people will probably never forgive him for. But he had an implacable sense of rectitude about what was permissible and what was not. In his mind, he probably remained secretary of defense until the day he died.

One angry person once said to me: “Loyalty to the president? What about his loyalty to the American people?” Fair enough. But our government isn’t set up that way. He was not an elected official, he said repeatedly. He served at the pleasure of the president.

Morris was also interviewed about McNamara on Here and Now. (thx, patricio)

Tyler Cowen also has a short appreciation of McNamara’s efforts with the World Bank.

McNamara also had a huge influence on the economics profession, most of all through his 13-year presidency at the World Bank. He focused the Bank on poverty reduction, he brought Communist China into the Bank, he introduced the practice of five-year lending plans, he significantly increased the Bank’s budget, he grew staff from 1600 to 5700, he favored sector-specific research, he raised money from OPEC, he strongly encouraged “scientific project evaluation,” and he started a largely successful program to combat “river blindness”; the latter may have been his life’s achievement.

Robert McNamara dead at 93

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 06, 2009

Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense during a large portion of the Vietnam War, died early today at 93. Errol Morris’ documentary on McNamara, The Fog of War, is well worth checking out if you haven’t seen it.

Capturing Reality

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 06, 2009

Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary is a documentary film about documentary films.

Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and over 30 of today’s top documentary filmmakers provide an in-depth look at non-fiction filmmaking and the steps to making a documentary. These masters of the craft reflect upon the nature of documentary as a form of storytelling and offer insight into their approach to the ‘truth.’

The trailer is here and there are lots of clips up on the site; here are two featuring Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. (Man, I could listen to Herzog talk all day long.)

More on van Meegeran by Errol Morris

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2009

Errol Morris follows up on his recent series about Dutch forger Han van Meegeren by addressing some of the comments he received. Here’s Morris on the interaction of historical research and modern content management techniques.

The first version of the Time article that I saw was the “electronic” version from the Web. It is particularly strange, if only because the text (from 1947) is surrounded by modern information, including contemporary advertisements for Liberty Mutual, teeth whitening preparations, wrinkle-cream, and most e-mailed articles. Emmy Göring and Henriette von Schirach complaints are directly adjacent to “Will Twitter Change the Way We Live.”

I also enjoyed the discussion of “Hitler-soup” at the end.

Errol Morris series finished up

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2009

Over on his NY Times blog, Errol Morris finishes up his excellent seven-part series on Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren. Here are the links to all seven parts: one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven.

Finding the present in the past

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2009

From part three of Errol Morris’ investigation into Dutch forger Han Van Meegeren, here’s art historian Jonathan Lopez:

Forgery is about the way the present looks at the past. The best forgeries may imitate the style of a long dead artist, but to appeal to people at the moment that they’re being tricked, forgeries must also incorporate some of the aesthetic prejudices of the moment. When fakes work well, they give us a vision of the past that seems hauntingly up to date. And that’s one of the things that makes forgery so seductive.

Errol Morris on art forgeries

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2009

Errol Morris posted the first part of a seven-part series of posts about Han van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire.

To be sure, the Van Meegeren story raises many, many questions. Among them: what makes a work of art great? Is it the signature of (or attribution to) an acknowledged master? Is it just a name? Or is it a name implying a provenance? With a photograph we may be interested in the photographer but also in what the photograph is of. With a painting this is often turned around, we may be interested in what the painting is of, but we are primarily interested in the question: who made it? Who held a brush to canvas and painted it? Whether it is the work of an acclaimed master like Vermeer or a duplicitous forger like Van Meegeren — we want to know more.

Morris ends the post with a cliffhanger that, if I didn’t know any better, was written specifically for me: “The Uncanny Valley.”

Update: Part two has been posted.

Patterns in a morass of historical materials

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2009

Errol Morris returns to his NY Times blog with a five-part story about a photograph found in the hands of an unknown Union army soldier who died at Gettysburg. Start with part one. A description of the photograph made it into the newspaper and the identity of the man was pretty quickly discovered. But the story hardly ends there. My favorite part so far is the fourth, particularly the conversation between Morris and one of the unknown soldier’s descendants, archaeologist David Kelley.

Photos of George W. Bush

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2009

In his latest post for his NY Times blog, Errol Morris talks with three photographers — one each from Reuters, AP, and AFP — and has them select their ten favorite photos of George W. Bush.

He popped out that door, and when the door opened and he came through it, the look on his face was like no look I’d ever seen on George Bush’s face in my life. […] And I said, “If he wasn’t just back there behind that door crying, I don’t know what that look on his face is.” Because he just looks absolutely devastated as he comes through this door after essentially ending his eight year presidency. And it’s just really striking. He just looks absolutely devastated.

The interview with the last photographer is the least interesting because he refuses to interpret any of the photographs but his set of photographs includes at least 3 photographs that I had never seen before and that weren’t “published extensively in the United States”.

New Errol Morris political “switch” ads

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2008

Errol Morris recently shot a new series of “switcher” ads regarding the 2008 presidential election. Only this time, he found people who are voting for a candidate who inspires them (Barack Obama) instead of against a candidate who let them down (George W Bush).

In introducing the site, Morris offers a taxonomy of what he calls “real people ads”, political ads featuring the views of average everyday people.

And then there’s the self-created interview ad that is a product of recent advances in technology. Camcorders that can be taken anywhere. We’ve seen self-reporting from the Iraq War and video diaries created by soldiers. The photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib are part of this phenomenon. Ultimately, video-blogging and self-reporting finds its expression in campaigns like the “Joe the Plumber.” As I understand it, the McCain campaign has posted on its Web pages a request for people to film themselves and discuss why they are Joe the Plumber or Hank the Laminator or Frank the Painter. The intention is to collect these testimonials and then cut them together for a tax revolt television ad.