Saturday, June 24, 2017

Why Instagram Should Ditch The Algorithm

It has been a little over a year since Instagram began sorting its users' feeds by an algorithm. To say that users were unhappy about the introduction of algorithm sorted feeds would be an understatement. People complained on Twitter and even Instagram itself. Several articles and blog posts attacking Instagram's decision were published. As might be expected, there were even petitions to get Instagram to keep its traditional, reverse chronological feed. Unfortunately, despite widespread user outrage, Instagram went ahead with introducing the algorithm.

In that year very little has changed. People still hate the algorithm. In the past month alone I have read four articles (including ones on The Huffington Post and Mashable) attacking the algorithm. To this day people are still complaining about the algorithm on Twitter. I know from my fellow Instagram users that none of them like the algorithm. Instagram may have millions of users, but it would seem that many people are very unhappy with the app.

And there is very little reason they should be happy with the app. In my experience algorithms generally do not work. In theory algorithms on social media sites are supposed to show those posts in which one will most likely be interested, but in fact it seems as if it very rarely works out that way. In no particular order, the posts I am most likely to like on Instagram are cats, dogs, anything classic movie related, anything classic TV related, anything vintage, and classic pinups, among other things. Despite this, on a regular basis, Instagram's algorithm regularly places food porn towards the top of my feed. Here I want to stress that I have absolutely nothing against people who post food porn. It is a simple case that I prefer other things to photos of food.

While Instagram's algorithm regularly places things in which I am less interested at the top of my feed, it also often places things in which I am very interested lower in my feed. I have an acquaintance whom I met on Google+ and now follow on multiple social media sites, although Instagram has become the place where I interact with her the most. I like very nearly all of her posts and I regularly comment on them as well. Despite this it is not unusual for her posts to be placed lower in my feed, well below even, well, food porn.

Beyond Instagram's algorithm not sorting posts correctly for some of us, it also appears to have had a detrimental effect on many people's engagement. While I saw no real change in my numbers due to the algorithm, I have read many places where individuals saw dramatic drops in the amount of engagement that their posts were receiving. They received far fewer likes and comments on their posts than before the algorithm was instituted. In fact, it seems to be one of the most common complaints about the algorithm. Now given Instagram is a social media app, I would think they would want to do everything they could to encourage engagement. Apparently the algorithm discourages it.

Of course, with the introduction of the algorithm also came tricks to manipulate it, some more honest than others. Some have resorted to bots. Others have resorted to hashtags. Yet others have simply tried to improve the quality of their posts. One technique that has developed of late is the "Instagram pod". An Instagram pod is an invite-only, private group of Instagrammers. Each time one of them posts something, he or she will send an Instagram DM to the others in the pod. The others in the pod will then like the post and leave a genuine comment. Here I must point out that the various means of manipulating algorithms shows how algorithms are flawed. Ideally, an algorithm is supposed to show an individual what he or she likes first. Unfortunately, to do so, Instagram and other social media sites take into account how many total likes or comments a post has. Quite frankly, I think any algorithm worth its salt would only take into account what a user has liked in the past and not how many total likes and comments a particular post has. This is probably why people so often see photos on Instagram in which they are not the least bit interested well above photos in which they are very interested.

As to why the algorithm was ever instituted, Instagram, like most other social media sites, claimed it was for the users' benefit. When Instagram announced they would be introducing an algorithm sorted feed in March 2016, they wrote on their blog, "To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most." The fact that most users abhor algorithms points to Instagram either not understanding what their users want or having an ulterior motive for introducing the algorithm. I suspect that ulterior motive is probably advertising. Quite simply, the algorithm gives Instagram much more control over the feed than they would have if it was in reverse-chronological order. Because of this they can make more space for ads. Indeed, the past year I think most Instagrammers have noticed a marked increase in advertising on the app.

While I don't think most people would begrudge Instagram making money, the problem I see is that the algorithm might well make ads less likely to be seen. Because of the algorithm I am trying to make sure that I don't miss any of my friends' posts. Because I am trying to make sure that I don't miss any of my friends' posts, I generally simply go right past any ads I might see unless it is from a company or artist I already follow. In other words, I think Instagram might well make more money through advertising if they had simply kept the feed in reverse chronological order.

Ultimately, I think if Instagram wants to keep its users happy it should do one of two things. The first is to ditch the algorithm entirely. I think they would see engagement go back up and they would even see users paying attention to the advertising on the site. Quite simply, it would be a good thing all around for everyone. The second is to follow the course set by Facebook and Twitter. Facebook has had its algorithm-based "Top Stories" feed for years, but learned long ago to give people the choice of a reverse-chronological, "Most Recent" feed as well. On Facebook, one never has to use the algorithm-sorted feed if  he or she doesn't want to. Twitter introduced an algorithm-sorted feed not that long before Instagram, but wisely gave people the choice of turning it off. Instagram could do the same. Again, it would make users happy. It would improve engagement. And Instagram might even see more advertising dollars. Regardless, I suspect the algorithm will hurt Instagram in the long run if they continue to use it. Unhappy users are users who are apt to leave, and if enough users leave, well, then Instagram won't be long for this world.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bill Dana R.I.P.

Actor, comedian, and writer Bill Dana, who was best known for the character José Jiménez died at age 92 on June 15 2017.

Bill Dana was born William Szathmary in Quincy, Massachusetts on October 5 1924. His father, a Hungarian immigrant, was a real estate developer. His mother, Dena, worked in a millinery shop. It was from his mother's first name that Mr. Dana derived his stage name. His older brother was composer Irving Szathmary, who would go on to compose the Get Smart theme. Bill Dana grew up in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood and was exposed to several different languages while he was growing up.

During World War II Bill Dana served in the United States Army with the 263rd Infantry Regiment, 66th Infantry Division. Following the war he attended Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts from which he graduated with a degree in speech and drama. Afterwards he worked as a page at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). He also formed a comedy team with Gene Wood and performed in night clubs in and around New York. He broke into writing for television with episodes of The Imogene Coca Show in 1954. He also began writing gags for various comics. Among them was Don Adams, for whom he developed the line "Would you believe...," which later became a catchphrase on Mr. Adams's show Get Smart.

In the late Fifties he wrote for The Steve Lawrence-Eydie Gorme Show and The Steve Allen Plymouth Show. It would be on a 1959 edition of The Steven Allen Plymouth Show that he made his debut as the character José Jiménez in a sketch in which José was an instructor of department store Santa Clauses. The character proved to be a hit and Bill Dana would spend the next decade playing José Jiménez. He appeared as the character on such shows as Swinging Spiketaculars, The New Steve Allen Show, The Red Skelton Hour, the animated short "I Want My Mummy" (1966), The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Batman, and The Hollywood Palace.  José Jiménez  was a recurring character on The Danny Thomas Show. From 1963 to 1965 Bill Dana starred as  José Jiménez on The Bill Dana Show.  Bill Dana portrayed José Jiménez  in various odd professions, including an animal trainer, a deep-sea diver, and even an astronaut. The Mercury astronauts themselves loved José Jiménez  and even named the character an honorary member of their team.

The National Hispanic Media Coalition, an advocacy group, even endorsed José Jiménez and invited Bill Dana to sit on their advisory board, which he did for the rest of his life. Today it might seem odd that a character now widely regarded as a stereotype would be embraced by some in the Latin community, but then it must be considered that José Jiménez was clean cut, hard working, sincere, and decent. In the Sixties José Jiménez offered a sharp contrast to such stereotypical characters of the era as the Frito Bandito and  Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez  (AKA "The Rat") in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). As the Sixties progressed, however, José increasingly became regarded as a negative stereotype and was even the target of protests. In 1970 Bill Dana stopped playing José Jiménez and even read the character's obituary at an event sponsored by the Congress of Mexican-American Unity in Los Angeles.

Despite the character's popularity, Bill Dana did more than play José Jiménez in the Sixties. He was the voice of the White Knight in the animated TV special Alice in Wonderland or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?. He guest starred on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Get Smart, and Love, American Style. He wrote episodes of The New Steve Allen Show and The Bill Dana Show. He wrote the animated special Alice in Wonderland or What's a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, the animated short "I Want My Mummy", the comedy special Jose Jiminez Discovers America, and the comedy special Don Knotts' Nice Clean, Decent, Wholesome Hour.

In the Seventies Bill Dana wrote episodes of All in the Family, Bridget Loves Bernie, Chico and the Man, and Donnie and Marie. He was one of the writers on the Get Smart movie The Nude Bomb (1980). He guest starred on The Snoop Sisters, Police Woman, McMillan & Wife, Ellery Queen, Switch, The Practice, Rosetti and Ryan, Vega$, and Flying High. He appeared in the films Harrad Summer (1974). I Wonder Who's Killing Her Now? (1975), and The Nude Bomb (1980).

In the Eighties Bill Dana was a regular on the TV shows No Soap, Radio and Zorro and Son. He had a recurring role on The Golden Girls. He guest starred on the shows Here's Boomer, Fantasy Island, Too Close for Comfort, Sledge Hammer!, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He wrote episodes of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Matlock. In the Nineties he continued to appear on The Golden Girls. He guest starred on Lenny and Empty Nest. He appeared in the film Lena's Holiday (1991).

Regardless of how one feels about José Jiménez (I have to admit I have never been a fan), I think there is no denying that Bill Dana was a very talented man. He was a very good comedy writer. Not only did he provided Don Adams with a good deal of material (including the classic line "Would you believe..."), but he wrote of the best episodes of All in the Family ever ("Sammy's Visit", in which Sammy Davis Jr. guest starred). He also wrote quality material for everything from Chico and the Man to the Comedy Awards. On screen he played some very memorable characters, including Angelo on The Golden Girls, Mr. Fiscus on St. Elsewhere, and Mr. Plitzky on No Soap, Radio. While it seems likely that Bill Dana will always be remembered as José Jiménez, he did a good deal more.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer" by Nat King Cole

Today is the first full day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. As those of you who know me (and those of you who regularly read this blog, for that matter) full well know, it is my least favourite time of year. For me summer means heat, humidity, allergies, and generally feeling uncomfortable. It is probably the season during which I spend the least amount of time outside. Regardless, I have always liked songs about summer, and one of my favourites is "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer" by Nat King Cole. It does hit some of the more enjoyable aspects of the season (soda, pretzels, going to the drive-in theatre, et. al.), even if it does overlook some of the more unpleasant aspects of the season "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer" was Nat King Cole's last big hit while he was still alive. It peaked at no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. Sadly, Nat King Cole die less than two years later, on February 15 1965.

Without further ado, here is "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer". This clip is from the 1963 BBC special An Evening with Nat King Cole.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Godspeed Stephen Furst

Stephen Furst, who played Flounder in the classic film National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Dr. Elliot Axelrod on the classic TV series St. Elsewhere, and Vir Cotto on Babylon 5, died on June 16 2016 at the age of 63. The cause was complications from diabetes.

Stephen Furst was born Stephen Nelson Feuerstein on May 8 1954 in Norfolk, Virginia. He took an interest in acting while still young. By the time he was in high school he was already acting in local plays. Mr. Furst studied drama at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Mr. Furst made his television debut in an episode of Movin' On in 1975. He made his film debut in American Raspberry in 1977. It was the following year that he appeared as Flounder in National Lampoon's Animal House, catapulting him to fame. In the late Seventies he appeared in the films Take Down (1979), Swim Team (1979), Scavenger Hunt (1979), Getting Wasted (1980), Midnight Madness (1980), and The Unseen (1980). He reprised his role as Flounder on the short lived TV series Delta House, which was based on the film Animal House. He guest starred on Family and CBS Afternoon Playhouse.

In the Eighties Stephen Furst played the role of the awkward and often put-upon Dr. Elliot Axelrod on St. Elsewhere. He also played Father Gabriel "Gabe" Podmaninski on the short-lived show Have Faith. He guest starred on such TV shows as Newhart, CHiPs, The Jeffersons, Faerie Tale Theatre, MacGyver, Night Court, and Murder, She Wrote. Mr. Furst appeared in the TV movie The Day After. He appeared in such films as Silent Rage (1982), Class Reunion (1982), Up the Creek (1984), and The Dream Team (1989).

In the Ninties Stephen Furst appered as Vir Cotto on the science fiction series Babylon 5. He starred on the sitcom Misery Loves Company. He provided the voices of Fanboy on Freakazoid!, Hathi on Jungle Cubs, and Booster on Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. He guest starred on Gabriel's Fire, Dream On, Nurses, Melrose Place, Chicago Hope, and Diagnois Murder. He appeared in such films as Cops n Roberts (1995) and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (1995).

In the Naughts Mr. Furst appeared in such films as Title to Murder (2001), Echos of Enlightenment (2001), Sorority Boys (2002), Searching for Haizmann (2003), Living in Walter's World (2003), Autopsy Room Four (2003), Wild Roomies (2004), Everything's Jake (2006), and Seven Days of Grace (2006).  He guest starred on Scrubs and She Spies.

While Stephen Furst came to fame through his portrayal of Flounder in Animal House, he was talented enough that he was able to play many memorable characters over the years. Many probably know him best as Dr. Axelrod, the competent but awkward and frequently disrespected physician on St. Elsewhere. Yet others might remember him best as Vir Cotto, the humble, kind-hearted Centraui low noble who eventually became his people's prime minister on Babylon 5. Still yet others might remember him best as the voice of Fanboy on Freakazoid!, the comic book and superhero obssessed youth who wanted very badly to be a sidekick. While most of Stephen Furst's characters were lovable losers, he could and did play other sorts of characters, His role in The Unseen is unlike anything else he ever played  (I can't say more without spoiling the film).  In Midnight Madness he played a character, who unlike Flounder, Dr. Axelrod, or Vir Cotto, wasn't a bit lovable. Harold was an insufferable snob and essentially the antagonist of the movie. Stephen Furst was an extremely talented actor who had a particular gift for comedy and could play drama just as well.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Richard Boone: A Knight Without Armour..

It was 100 years ago today that Richard Boone was born. The actor would forever be known for his role as Paladin, the sophisticated, intellectual gun-for-hire on the TV show Have Gun--Will Travel, but he played many other parts throughout his career. While his biggest success was on television, he also appeared in several motion pictures and on stage as well.

Richard Boone was born on June 18 1917 in Los Angeles, California. He was a direct descendent of Squire Boone, the younger brother of legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone. He attended the Army and Navy Academy in San Diego and Hoover High School in Glendale, California. He enrolled at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he was college lightweight amateur boxing champion. He dropped out of college and then worked in the California oil fields and pursued painting at the California arts colony of Carmel. In 1941 he joined the United States Navy and served during World War II. While on the U.S.S. Enterprise he face bombing. He was on the U.S.S. Intrepid when it was torpedoed. He was on the U.S.S. Hancock when it was attacked by kamikazes. In the Navy he served as an aviation ordnanceman, an enlisted Naval Aircrewman, and a tail gunner on Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber

Following World War II, Mr. Boone studied at the Neighbourhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio in New York City. He made his debut on Broadway in a revival of Medea in 1947. He appeared on Broadway two more times, in The Man in 1950 and in The Rivalry in 1959. It was in 1950, while he was still with the Actors Studio, that he was asked by a actress studying there to help her with a screen test for 20th Century Fox. Mr. Boone was simply to feed lines to her from Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie. The screen test was directed by Elia Kazan, whom Mr. Boone knew through the Actors Studio, for director Lewis Milestone. Mr. Milestone was less than impressed with the actress, but he was impressed by Richard Boone's voice. He was signed to a seven year contract with 20th Century Fox and made his film debut in Hall of Montezuma in 1950.

Richard Boone would have a fairly successful career in feature films. He appeared in such movies as Man on a Tightrope (1953), The Robe (1953), Dragnet (1954), Man Without a Star (1955), The Tall T (1957), The Alamo (1960), Hombre (1967), The Arrangement (1969), and The Shootist (1976). While he saw a good deal of success in film, it would ultimately be television that would make Richard Boone famous.

Mr. Boone made his television debut in 1949 as a regular on the TV show The Front Page. He guest starred on such shows as Actors Studio, General Electric Theatre, Frontier, and Lux Video Theatre. It was while Mr. Boone was working on Halls of Montezuma that he met actor and producer Jack Webb. Not only would Mr. Boone appear on episodes of the radio show Dragnet, but he appeared in the feature film based on the radio and TV show as well. When Dragnet writer James E. Moser was developing a medical drama, Jack Webb quite naturally put him in touch with Richard Boone. It was then in 1954 that Richard Boone starred as Dr. Konrad Styner on the TV show Medic. Medic was television's first serious medical drama and would pave the way for all medical dramas to come, from Ben Casey to ER. While it was not particularly high rated (it had the misfortune of airing opposite I Love Lucy on CBS), it was critically acclaimed. It was nominated for several Emmy Awards, including Best Written Dramatic Material, Best Dramatic Series, Best Actor Starring in a Regular Series (for Richard Boone), and yet others. It won Emmys for Best Direction of Photography and Best Cinematography for Television.

It was in 1957 that Richard Boone was cast as Paladin in the Western TV series Have Gun--Will Travel. Paladin was a gun-for-hire and all around troubleshooter in the Old West. The title was taken from Paladin's business cards, which read, "Have Gun--Will Travel Wire Paladin, San Francisco." Have Gun--Will Travel differed greatly from most TV Westerns of the time. Despite being very skilled with a gun, Paladin preferred to solve problems without violence whenever possible. He was also an intellectual and bon vivant, enjoying fine clothing, the opera, the theatre, and fine food and drink. His knowledge spanned a number of subjects, from classical literature to philosophy. The show itself addressed a number of topics generally ignored on TV shows in the late Fifties and early Sixties, from prejudice to racism to corporate greed. Have Gun--Will Travel was often described as a thinking man's Western, a description that was fairly accurate.

From its very first season Have Gun--Will Travel proved to be a hit. For its first four seasons it ranked in the top five highest rated shows for the year, coming in at number 3 for 3 of those seasons. Its last two seasons it ranked a still respectable number 29 for the year. In all it ran six seasons before going onto a fairly successful run as a syndicated rerun. The show made Richard Boone a household name.

Sadly Richard Boone's next show would not be nearly as successful. The Richard Boone Show aired in the 1963-1964 season and was a unique take on the anthology series. It featured a repertory of players (including  Robert Blake, Harry Morgan, and Guy Stockwell) who would assume different roles in each episode. As to the episodes themselves, they varied from comedy to drama. The Richard Boone Show was critically acclaimed. It was also nominated for five Emmy Awards, even though it won none of them. Unfortunately, its ratings were not particularly good. It aired opposite the highly rated Petticoat Junction on CBS and it was cancelled at the end of the season.

Richard Boone's final TV show would be one of the rotating series that aired as part of the umbrella show NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. Hec Ramsey starred Richard Boone as the deputy sheriff of the same name. Set in the early 20th Century, Hec was a former gunfighter who preferred the newly emerging field of forensics to using his guns. The show was produced by Mr. Boone's old friend Jack Webb and created by Harold Jack Bloom. Hec Ramsey proved fairly successful, but ended after only two seasons because of disagreements between Richard Boone and Universal Studios.

Richard Boone continued to appear in movies in his later years, including The Shootist (1976), The Big Sleep (1978), and Winter Kills (1979). In 1970 he moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where he spent much of his time painting. Sadly, he developed throat cancer in 1980. He died of pneumonia the following year, on January 10 1981 at the age of 63. His final role was as Commodore Matthew Perry in The Bushido Blade (1981).

In addition to acting, Richard Boone also directed several episodes of Have Gun--Will Travel and The Richard Boone Show.

Richard Boone will almost certainly always be remembered as Paladin. And it is not at all a bad role for which to be remembered. Unlike many of the heroes on the TV Westerns of the Fifties, Paladin was a very complex character. He was sophisticated enough to appreciate a fine work of art, but at the same time tough enough that he could take out nearly anyone in a fight. Unlike many Western heroes he was not nearly superhuman, and could be fallible at times. He occasionally, though rarely, made mistakes. He was even known to cry at times, something unthinkable for most Western characters of the era. It should be little wonder that Have Gun--Will Travel is so well remembered. As played by Richard Boone, Paladin stood out from the rest of Western characters then on television.

Of course, while Richard Boone was best known for playing heroes on television (Paladin, Hec Ramsey), he was surprisingly effective at playing villains in movies. In The Tall T he played Frank Usher, the leader of a band of outlaws, opposite the protagonist Pat Brennan (played by Randolph Scott). Frank Usher was as villainous as they come, perfectly comfortable with committing cold blooded murder. At the same time, however, Richard Boone played him as a complex, even sensitive individual. He as not a run-of-the-mill Western bad guy by any stretch of the imagination. Although most closely associated with the Western genre, Richard Boone would even play villains in other sorts of films. In Man on a Tightrope he played Krofta, who both a member of the circus in the film and the Communist Party. As usual, he played Krofta not as a stock villain, but a complex character with his own motivations.

While Richard Boone was known for playing heroes on television and villains in films, he often played characters who were neither hero nor villain. An example of this is the role of Sam in The Arrangement (1969). Sam is the ageing and stubborn father of advertising executive Eddie Anderson (played by Kirk Douglas), who is experiencing a mental breakdown. While the film itself is not particularly good, Richard Boone's performance as Sam is still impressive. In Halls of Montezuma Richard Boone also played a character who was not necessarily of heroic proportions.  Lt. Col. Gilfillan is all too weary of battle and anxious as his Marines attack a Japanese held island in the South Pacific.

Ultimately Richard Boone stands out from many other actors known for Westerns and action movies in that he had the talent to play a variety of roles and to give the characters he played complex inner lives. It should come as no surprise that he acted in Shakespeare's plays on stage. In the whole of a career that spanned over thirty years, no two of Richard Boone's characters are ever alike. He may be best known for Paladin, but he played many other excellent roles.