“Five Favorites” – Review of 2014 Best Picture Nominees

July 10th, 2014

Donna: Welcome to this month’s edition of “Five Favorites” with Mike Siegel! This month we’re abandoning our formula of fives to bring you a review of the nine Best Picture nominees from the 2014 Academy Awards. Now that all nine nominees are available for rental we’ve both seen them all and will be ranking them in order of how much we liked them, starting with the ones we liked least and moving up to our favorite of the nominees. Before we get going, I’d like to tip my hat to a few films that I feel deserved a place on this list, in particular “Blue Jasmine”, “August: Osage County”, “Rush”, “Kill Your Darlings” and, for my daring outsider pick, “Upstream Color”, which should have at least gotten nominations for Best Director and Best Cinematography. I’ll know Hollywood has finally caught up to the burgeoning indie scene when films like “Upstream Color” gets the award nods they really should.

Mike: So, in going over the list, I first wanted to mention a few films that got snubbed. “Rush”, “Before Midnight” and “Fruitvale Station” were all among the best films of 2013 but were not nominated. And I have yet to see “The Wind Rises” and “Blue is the Warmest Color”, which I suspect might end up on my top films of 2013 list. Still, the overall Oscar selection was not horrible. While some of the films were not my cup of tea, I can see why each was nominated and none was a horrible selection.

Onto the nominees! We both rank them in reverse order of our opinion.

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Donna’s #9: “Nebraska” – I’m just going to start by saying I have no idea how this film made in onto the Best Picture list. Sure, it’s a good film, well acted and well scripted. But there’s nothing extraordinary about it that makes it jump out at me. I have a hard time remembering details about it, and that alone knocks it out of Best Picture contention in my mind. It’s good, but not great, and just not strong or compelling enough to be on this list.

Mike’s #9: “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I feel this film was massively over-rated, as Scorsese films tend to be when he returns to his oeuvre of awful people doing awful things. Dicaprio is great and the film certainly has a lot of energy. Matthew McConaughey has a wonderful five minutes as a guest star. But it way way too long, spending far too much time reveling in the supposed excesses of its main character. And as I wrote in my long-form review, I am uncomfortable with glorifying a narcissistic convicted financial criminal.

Donna’s #8: “Captain Phillips” – I seem to be in the minority of people who weren’t incredibly moved by “Captain Phillips”, but I believe I know why. You see, before I saw “Phillips” I watched “A Hijacking”, a Swedish film about a strikingly similar true story of pirate capture. I was incredibly moved by “A Hijacking” – I found it poetic, heart breaking, well acted and edited to a devastating conclusion. So when I saw “Phillips” I couldn’t help but compare it to “A Hijacking”, and I found it lacking in every single aspect. Perhaps if I had seen “Phillips” before “Hijacking” I would feel differently, but as such, knowing a very similar and superior film is out there, I just can’t rank “Phillips” any higher than this.

Mike’s #8: “Nebraska” – I enjoyed it this film, mainly because of the acting. It’s a solid film with good characters and some humor (although a bit of it feels forced, especially with Kate). But while I like almost everything by Alexander Payne, I didn’t see why people *loved* it. It seems like the critics read a lot more into his films than I see.

Donna’s #7: “Dallas Buyers Club” – Let me be clear – as a film, “Dallas Buyers Club” wasn’t strong enough to be nominated for Best Picture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid film, but for me the plot wasn’t compelling or drawn well enough to deserve a nod for the best film of the year. The reason “Dallas Buyers Club” is here is because of the incredible acting of Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey. Both men were absolutely marvelous in their roles, with Leto putting in one of the best performances of the year as Rayon. Both men deserved their Oscar nods for acting, but as far as best picture goes, it wasn’t enough for me. Good, but not extraordinary, and thus the low placement on my list.

Mike’s #7: “Dallas Buyers Club” – The main reason to watch this was McConaughey, who thoroughly dominated the film. It also has an appealing anti-establishment story about the buyer’s clubs and provides very strong insight into the early days of the AIDS crisis without being heavy-handed. Definitely a cut above the first two and worth the investment of time.

Donna’s #6: “Philomena” – The impact of this film didn’t quite hit me for a few days after I saw it. My initial reaction to “Philomena” was that it was good, but not good enough to make the Best Picture list. But, like all good films, this one sat with me for a long time, and I feel now upon reflection that it really was worthy of this nod. I’m a huge Coogan fan so it was lovely to see him in such fine form, and Dench is always magnificent. Frears really did himself proud with this film – a powerful story indeed.

Mike’s #6: “Philomena” – The brutal and cruel history of Ireland’s mother-child homes (and the Magdalene Laundries) cannot get enough attention. The tacked-on confrontation with the nun, which did not happen in real life, was the only real false note. I was reminded of the equally false and equally flawed scene in Schindler’s List where he breaks down. That having been said, the film builds itself around two very well-developed characters played perfectly, incorporates its low key humor well and builds its sense of outrage slowly and convincingly. This may stick with me for a while.

Donna’s #5: “Her” – Spike Jonze created something intensely beautiful with this lovely little film. It’s another simple story told well, and it’s the nuances of the script that make it such a powerful statement on love, lust, and power in relationships. I’m an enormous fan of Phoenix and it was gratifying to see him shine in this film. I was honestly quite shocked he didn’t get an Oscar nod for Best Actor for this performance. The only major flaw to this film was its length – it could have easily been about twenty minutes shorter. The story raises so many great questions about the dynamics of love – I feel this film will be talked about for quite some time.

Mike’s #5: “American Hustle” – I think the 70’s palette and styles caused this film to be a bit over-rated. I am not a huge fan of David O. Russell and don’t think Bradley Cooper is that great. That having been said, the film is very good, with solid dialogue, energy, style and some great performances, particularly the female leads. Frankly, I would watch a film about Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence reading the newspaper.

Donna’s #4: “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I actually debated for a while whether this film would wind up above or below “Her” as I liked them both rather equally, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” was compelling enough of a film for it to take the #4 spot. As much as I love McConaughey, I think DiCaprio should have taken the Oscar for his portrayal of the seedy Jordan Belfort, as he was quite amazing in this. I loved the direction of the film as well, although it certainly suffered from about thirty minutes of bloat. A strong film by Scorcese and a worthy contender for Best Picture.

Mike’s #4: “Her” – This is a bit long, but is quite a lovely film. The idea is intriguing even if the plot kind of fumbles around with it a bit. It takes a much more mature and realistic approach to its ideas than most sci-fi, making the world feel very real and very likely (example: almost all sci-fi films avoid the subject of sex; this one doesn’t). The two leads are excellent. Phoenix got all the attention but Johannson’s voice work anchored the emotional threads. As I’ve said before, if you look beyond the banner franchises, we are getting some very good sci-fi these days and “Her” is a perfect example.

Donna’s #3: “American Hustle” – This was easily one of my favorite films of the year for a whole host of reasons. I loved all of the acting in it – Bale, Cooper, Adams and Laurence were all exceptional. The direction and pacing of the film was stylish and flamboyant in all the right ways. The script was quite compelling and kept my attention throughout. Even the music was note-perfect. I truly enjoyed everything about this – it’s honestly only a tick below my #2 choice on my list.

Mike’s #3: “Captain Phillips” – This had me on the edge of my seat for two hours. It features another great “everyman” performance from Hanks but also excellent performances by the Somali cast. It was so enthralling, I didn’t mind Greengrass’s ridiculous shaky-cam style.

Donna’s #2: “Gravity” – To me, there’s nothing like a simple story told well, and that’s exactly what “Gravity” is – a straightforward tale told with incredible finesse. Cuaron allowed Bullock and Clooney to simply do their jobs, and both acted quite well throughout. But it was the astonishing directing that stole the show here, with the exquisite long opening shot setting the tone for the film (a Cuaron trademark, perhaps, as he did the same in “Children of Men”, one of my favorite films of all time). To top it off, given how much bloat most films seem to carry these days, the ninety minute length of it was just perfect. A beautiful film in every way.

Mike’s #2: “Gravity” – You know the best thing about “Gravity”? It’s only an hour and a half long. That sounds like faint praise or even damnation. But in an era where seemingly every Oscar nominee could easily be trimmed by 15 minutes to an hour, this is the only major film in recent years that had no fat. It is tense from beginning to end, the performances are great (Bullock has matured into a first-rate actress) and the filming is simply gorgeous. The opening unbroken shot is one of the most spectacular sequences in recent memory and I desperately wish I had seen this on the big screen. The science is bit questionable (orbital dynamics doesn’t work like that) but the film was so good that I didn’t care.

Donna’s #1: “12 Years a Slave” – Honestly, this wasn’t even a contest for me. In my opinion, “12 Years a Slave” was far and away the best picture of the year for a number of reasons. All of the acting was incredibly solid – not just the leads but all of the supporting actors as well. Fassbender, Dano, Giamatti and Cumberbatch were especially strong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor was a revelation in the lead. The direction by McQueen was unflinching and riveting with good editing that moved the story along. The script was very solid, believable and so gut-wrenching it was impossible not to cry. Outside of Brad Pitt’s appearance, which to me felt hammy and overwrought, I can’t think of a real flaw in this film. It utterly deserved to win Best Picture and I’m glad it took the top prize this year.

Mike’s #1: “12 Years a Slave” – When I look over an Oscar list, I like to think about which films people will be watching ten, twenty, fifty years from now. This and maybe “Gravity” are the only ones I think will really last the test of time. “12 Years a Slave” is transcendent. Many films have taken on the issue of slavery; few with as much resonance and power as this one. The performances are excellent all around — Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o especially (Fassbender is establishing an incredibly broad range; comparing this to his performance in “Prometheus”, you wouldn’t think it was the same actor). Even the supporting cast are outstanding. McQueen’s directing shows the brutality of slavery without wallowing in it or being exploitative. And it keeps the focus on the characters and the situation. I need to watch this again to confirm my initial thoughts that it might become a classic. But it was definitely my top film among the Oscar nominees.

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Thanks for joining us for another edition of “Five Favorites” and we’ll see you again next month!

The Cold Equations

June 21st, 2014

“The Cold Equations” is an expression I lifted from the short story of the same name. I have not read the story, so can not comment on its style. Frankly, the plot has always crossed me as a great idea but, when you think about it, a bit stupid. No one designs a spaceship with no margin for error.

But I like the expression because I think it is a good distillation of how problems usually need to be addressed: with less emotion and more cold facts.

There are many applications of the cold equations, but I want to focus on just one: issue advocacy. In recent weeks, two very prominent victims of sex trafficking have been revealed to be frauds. Their horrifying stories — which sex workers had been poking holes in for years — turned out to be mostly or completely made up. The organizations and people who trumpeted them are now backing away and claiming that while these stories might be problematic, the issue is important. That’s debatable but I’m not going to get into that for the moment.

What struck me was this review of how the principle purveyor of tragedy porn — Nick Kristof — has built so much of his career and his advocacy around these stories:

The disconnect inspired Kristof to delve into social science studies on the psychological roots of empathy, which led him to an emerging body of work based on what inspires people to donate to charity. In one study, researchers told American participants the story of Rokia, a (fictional) 7-year-old Malian girl who is “desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation.” Then, they told them that 3 million Malawian children are now facing hunger, along with 3 million Zambian people and 11 million Ethiopians. The researchers found that Americans were more likely to empty their pockets for one little girl than they were for millions of them. If they heard Rokia’s story in the context of the dire statistics of the region, they were less inclined to give her money. And if they were informed that they were being influenced by this dynamic, the “identifiable-victim effect,” they were less likely to shell out for Rokia, but no more likely to give to the greater cause. To Kristof, the experiment underscored the “limits of rationality” in reporting on human suffering: “One death is a tragedy,” he told the students, “and a million deaths are a statistic.”

In other words, people won’t donate to causes because they hear a million people are dying. But they will if they see one cute little girl suffering. Kristof has therefore built a career on finding these cute victims to bring attention to things like genocide and human trafficking.

That sounds noble. But it isn’t. Because what happens is that attention, money, volunteers and even military intervention flow not to the most important causes but to those that have the most compelling victims. So enormous amounts of attention are given to human trafficking in Cambodia, a problem which now appears to have been massively exaggerated. In the meantime, far larger ills — the lack of access to clean water for billions, the crippling micronutrient deficiency that affects billions, the indoor pollution from burning wood and dung that harms billions — goes unaddressed. Because we have yet to have the photogenic victim with a horror story of how she pooped her guts out due to drinking contaminated water.

Looking for victims with compelling stories that goad your audience into emotional reaction is the wrong way to go about healing the troubles of the world. That’s where the cold equations comes in: we have to make decisions not based on emotion but on facts, data and reality.

I can’t find the article, but I remember reading a long time ago that one of the reasons the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has such a strong track record is because they carefully identify that most important causes and the ones were money can make the biggest difference. The author attributed this to Gates’ geekiness — i.e, he’s more comfortable with numbers and data than pulls on the heartstrings. Maybe that’s true; it seemed a stretch to me. But the overall thrust was correct: we need to pick our issues based on data, not sensationalism.

Look at overpopulation. Forty years ago, Paul Ehrlich started his book “The Population Bomb” with the harrowing story of a trip through Delhi and used a series of emotional appeals to call for mass sterilization and abandoning foreign aide. He got lots of attention but nothing happened. In the meantime, Norman Borlaug carefully looked at the problem and went with the unsexy non-photogenic option of breeding better strains of crops. In the end, Borlaug saved a billion lives. And Ehrlich is still a raging fool known for his hilariously bad predictions and even worse policy advocacy.

(Bjorn Lomborg has talked about this in the context of the Copenhagen Consensus, arguing that we would ameliorate a lot more human suffering by focusing on large more solvable environmental problems other than the current sexy of global warming.)

I don’t expect or want people to be robots. And sometimes emotional reactions are a good thing. The wave of people donating blood after 9/11 did little to help with the actual tragedy but it did help the Red Cross build up their donor base, providing a big long-term benefit. But emotion is in a haphazard guide to action at best. It’s not nearly as effective as using the cold equations. It’s worth noting that Kristof’s emotion-based advocacy, in the end, accomplished nothing in the Sudan and even less on sex trafficking. Imagine if that attention had gone to something useful, like cleaning up people’s drinking water.

In the end, you have to be guided by the cold equations. In the end, you have to look at the problems of the world objectively, figure out which ones give you the most benefit for the least effort and do them. That’s the only way real progress is made.

Five Favorites – “Five Most Overrated Films of All Time”

June 10th, 2014

Cross-posted from Donna’s wonderful FTRQ blog.

Donna: Welcome to another edition of “Five Favorites” with myself and Mike Siegel! This month we’re straying from our favorites format to tackle a different sort of list – what we think are the “Five Most Overrated Films of All Time”. We wanted to look at films that are revered or considered truly great cinema, and yet seem to us to be either fundamentally flawed or just plain bad. Our inclusion criteria for this list was that the films in question had to be either on the AFI Top 100 list, a best picture nominee or winner, or on the IMDB top 250. In other words, we only wanted to consider films that have been truly lauded as landmark, important, or extremely popular.

For myself this was a difficult task. Because I haven’t seen a lot of classic cinema or recent popular films, I found that I had seen maybe seen fifty percent or less of the movies on each inclusion list. On one hand this made my selection easier as I simply had less to work with, but on the other I feel Mike will have a far more comprehensive list than I will because of my lack of knowledge in this area. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t simply picking movies I didn’t like. Quite honestly there are plenty of movies I just don’t like on these lists – “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “A Few Dollars More” or “V for Vendetta” are good examples. But I can recognize that all those films have true goodness and even genius in them, even if I don’t enjoy them. It was important to me to only pick films I felt were either truly flawed or ones that defied my every attempt at understanding why they are so loved. In the end, yes, whether or not I liked a film was part of the equation, but I did my best not to make it a popularity contest.

Mike: My approach was identical, although I’m probably not as versed in classic cinema as Donna likes to think! J I’ve already done a long series of posts on my own site where I went through the Oscar Winners one at a time to see which ones were bad. So I excluded Best Pictures from that list. One tweak I put in was to recommend better movies, when I could think of them. I also, like Donna, left off movies that I think are over-rated but where I can see why people like them, such as “Donnie Darko” or “A Christmas Story” or “Forrest Gump”. I found that a number of my picks were stand-ins for general categories of movies I think are over-rated.  You’ll see what I mean when we get there.

Donna’s #5: “The Green Mile” – At the time of writing, this film was #45 on the IMDB’s Top 250 list, and I have never ever understood why this film was so loved. I know I am treading on somewhat sacred ground for putting this on my list, but hear me out. I read “The Green Mile” books when they came out – I think most every fan of King did given that these were his first releases after a long spell of silence. I adored the books and have always thought that the detail of them was their genius – it was possible to live in and fully understand the world Kind created in this tale. Most importantly, there was a “why” for everything. Nothing happened in these books for no reason – King always gave us a “why” for each and every moment. When I saw the film, I was angered beyond belief at it, as was my husband, so much so that we had to keep pausing the film to yell and complain about it. Why? Because all that precious detail, all the “whys” that made the book so believable, was missing from the film. Now, I realize that most book-to-film adaptations suffer from a loss of detail, but in this case I feel that loss is egregious. The “why” for nearly everything that happened in the film was omitted, and without that “why” the film made little to no sense. In the world of the film, there was simply no reason given for most of what took place, and that, for me, destroyed the integrity of the story. I would start a list of examples but honestly I would be here all day. The only reason I felt I could even follow the film was that I was filling in the missing details from my reading of the books. I believe that is why most people don’t notice how many things have been stricken from the film – they remember the books too well. Without those books this film would have no context or rationale to it, and that is why I feel it is one of the most overrated films of all time. I could go on, but I won’t – I’ve ranted enough as it is I think.

Mike’s #5: “Rope” – Regarded as a marginal classic, rated #242 on IMDB and praised effusively for inventive technique of using long unbroken takes, I find this film to be over-rated like a lot of Hitch’s early stuff. I haven’t seen it since college, when I reviewed it for the Carletonian. But I found the characters to be wooden, the suspense to be a bit trite and Stewart’s character to a bit of a snotty professor type.  It’s not a bad movie and I would recommend seeing it.  But IMDB gives it an 8.0 and many critics give it four stars.

Donna’s #4: “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” – At the time of writing, this film was #189 on the IMDB Top 250 list, and this entry on my list probably needs far less explanation than my last. I mean… seriously? “Hachi”? Sure, it’s a cute enough movie. It’s sweet and sappy and sentimental and based on a true story, so I get that people enjoy it. But a Top 250 movie? Not a chance. It just isn’t good enough in any way. The acting is stiff, the plot overly saccharine, the directing absolutely average. In fact, “average” is probably the best way to describe this film – there is simply nothing extraordinary about it. So why is this film so beloved? It’s honestly beyond me. If you want to watch a tearjearker animal move, why not “Black Beauty”, “Old Yeller” or “Lassie Comes Home” – they are all superior films and will certainly make you cry. I simply have never understood why this film seems to hit people as hard as it does, and I certainly cannot understand how it wound up on the IMDB Top 250 list, so I am including it as my #4 pick.

Mike’s #4: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” – This is another pick that isn’t a bad movie, per se. It’s been 20 years since I watched it and I probably should watch it again. But it’s status as a classic (on the AFI and IMDB lists) is unmerited.  It drags in the later parts and I didn’t care for the characters. This is representative of a class of movies from the 60’s and 70’s that are badly over-rated.  Movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Six Easy Pieces” and “The Graduate” are frequently over-rated because, in their day, they were revolutionary.  Now that the language of cinema has evolved, they’re still good, but not amazing. “Butch Cassidy” is not bad and IMDB gives it a sterling 8.1 rating. I just don’t think it’s that good. I’d give it a 6, maybe. You’d be much better off watching The Man With No Name trilogy, which is truly great.

Donna’s #3: “Bringing Up Baby” – This film appears at #88 on the AFI’s Top 100 of all time list, and I know I’m not alone in not understanding the appeal of this movie. This film has divided audiences from the start. Some think it a hilarious and side-splitting romp, while others find it contrived, unbelievable, silly and inane. I’m solidly in the latter camp – I disliked this film immensely. I didn’t enjoy the comedy, I hated the acting, and I found the whole setup ridiculous and cringe-worthy. I do not understand what about this film is appealing or funny, I really don’t. And it’s because I, like so many others, just cannot understand the appeal, I have to put this on my list.

Mike’s #3: “Django Unchained” – #51 on IMDB and regarded by many as the best film of 2012, this is really a stand-in for over-rated Quentin Tarantino films in general. “Reservoir Dogs” is good; it’s not a classic. “Pulp Fiction” might be great. “Kill Bill” is a great 150 minute film squeezed into four hours. “Ingorious Basterds” is a great two hour film squeezed into 150 minutes.  And “Django Unchained” is a great two hour film squeezed into 165. It pains me to write this because Tarantino has a very real talent and an extraordinary feel for the language of film. His dialogue is fantastic, his characters memorable and the look of his films is amazing. In every film, there are at least a half dozen shots that make me say, “Wow, that’s great cinema.”  But he badly needs an editor. If his last three films were each about half an hour shorter, I would regard them as classics, rather than bloated. The line between classic and over-rated can often come down to editing.  (There are a lot of recent films you could throw into the pile of “awesome if half an hour shorter”, including both Hobbit movies and the Dark Knight Rises.)

Donna’s #2: “Duck Soup” – This film appears at #60 on the AFI Top 100 list, and again I realize I may be ruffling feathers with this pick. But, honestly, I cannot stand this film, nor can I even begin to understand the appeal of it to anyone. When I started trying to watch more classic films I saw how highly this movie was regarded. I has a vague memory of not enjoying the Marx Brothers as a child, but gladly rented this to see what it was all about. I hated it so very much I could barely finish it. It was the single most inane and insufferable film I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot. I seriously do not understand how this film is funny for anyone, I really really don’t. I grant I’m not a slapstick, screwball comedy fan, but I can appreciate pretty much anything in one way or another. Not this. Never this. I don’t get it and likely never will. I grant that this film is landing at my #2 spot due to a sheer hatred of it more than a quality issue, but that’s how strong my dislike for it is.

Mike’s #2: “Birth of a Nation” This was originally on the AFI list but was eventually removed in favor of Griffith’s “Intolerance” likely because the voters became uncomfortable with the racism apparent in the film. It seems odd to compare this to Butch Cassidy above but it’s in a similar boat.  The methods and techniques it invented were revolutionary; but they don’t stun the senses as much almost a century later. What we’re left with is a film that glories the antebellum south and the Klan. Defenders will tell you to put aside the racism and admire the technique.  But it’s difficult to put aside the racism, especially when the technique is no longer that revolutionary. If you want a silent classic, Griffith’s “Intolerance” and “Broken Blossoms” are much better. And “Wings” has all the beauty of a silent epic and the captivating Clara Bow.

Donna’s #1: “Easy Rider” – This film appears at #84 on the AFI Top 100 list, and I have long felt this must be the most overrated film of all time. This film is loved and revered by so many and I have never understood why. What happens in this film? What plot actually exists here? If someone knows please tell me as I still have no idea. Fully half of this movie is long shots of Fonda and Hopper riding motorcycles, which simply bored me to tears. The acting was nonexistent, the directing ridiculous, the plot absent. Why is this a cinematic masterpiece? For what reasons? There is nothing here of value in my opinion, and I just don’t see how it got included in the AFI list. Considering I generally like films with very little plot you’d think I’d love this, but it just annoys me to no end. Putting this film at the top of my list was a no-brainer to me.

Mike’s #1: “Easy Rider” – Honestly, Donna and I did not coordinate our answers on this!  But I agree with everything she says and then some. One of the first negative reviews I wrote back in my college days was of Easy Rider.  And it has not improved with age.  It barely has a plot.  The symbolism, such as it is, is obvious (I could see Fonda was the Christ figure about 18 seconds in).  The fates of the characters is not foreshadowed at all but just occurs randomly (and I didn’t care anyway).  It glorifies dim-bulb hippie “culture”.  The LSD sequence set the stage for every incomprehensible drug montage to come. The film is frequently praised as “revolutionary” and “ground-breaking” – like just about all the films in my list.  But the difference that elevates it to #1 is that the ground it broke was almost everything that went wrong with film for the next ten years.  I really can’t understand why this movie is so well-regarded other than people’s misguided fascination with the lifestyle depicted. (Interestingly, IMDB does not regard this as a classic, giving it a 7.4 rating — good but not great.  I would say even that was over-rating. I’d give it a 4 or a 5.)  The soundtrack is OK, I guess.  But I mostly watched this movie with a look on my face saying, “Really?”

Thanks for joining us again for another edition of “Five Favorites” and we’ll see you all next month!

Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Hurricanes

June 2nd, 2014

There’s a new paper out that claims that hurricanes with female names tend to be deadlier than ones with male names based on hurricane data going back to 1950. They attribute this to gender bias, the idea that people don’t take hurricanes with female-names seriously.

No, this is not the onion.

I immediately suspected a bias. For one thing, even with their database, we’re talking about 92 events, many of which killed zero people. More important, all hurricanes had female names until 1979. What else was true before 1979? We had a lot less advanced warning of hurricanes. In fact, if you look up the deadliest hurricanes in history, they are all either from times before we named them or when hurricanes all had female names. In other words, they may just be measuring the decline in hurricane deadliness.

Now it’s possible that the authors use some sophisticated model that also account for hurricane strength. If so, that might mitigate my analysis. But I’m dubious. I downloaded their spreadsheet, which is available for the journal website. Here is what I found:

Hurricanes before 1979 averaged 27 people killed.

Hurricanes since 1979 average 16 people killed.

Hurricanes since 1979 with male names average … 16 people killed.

Hurricanes since 1979 with female names averaged … 16 people killed.

Maybe I’m missing something. How did this get past a referee?

Update: Ed Yong raises similar points here. The authors say that cutting the sample at 1979 made the numbers too small and so therefore use an index of how feminine or masculine the names were. I find that dubious when a plain and simple average will give you an answer. Moreover, they try this qualifier in the comments:

What’s more, looking only at severe hurricanes that hit in 1979 and afterwards (those above $1.65B median damage), 16 male-named hurricane each caused 23 deaths on average whereas 14 female-named hurricanes each caused 29 deaths on average. This is looking at male/female as a simple binary category in the years since the names started alternating. So even in that shorter time window since 1979, severe female-named storms killed more people than did severe male-named storms.

You be the judge. I average 54 post-1978 storms totally 1200 deaths and get even numbers. They narrow it to 30 totally 800 deaths and claim a bias based on 84 excess deaths. That really crosses as stretching to make a point.

Update: My friend Peter Yoachim did a K-S test of the data and found a 97% chance that the male- and female-named hurricanes were drawn from the same distribution. This is a standard test of the null hypothesis and wasn’t done at all. Ridiculous.

Absolutely Nothing Happened in Sector 83 by 9 by 12 Today

May 28th, 2014

Last night, the science social media sphere exploded with the news of a potential … something … in our nearest cosmic neighbor, M31. The Swift mission, which I am privileged to work for, reported the discovery of a potential bright X-ray transient in M31, a sign of a high-energy event. For a while, we had very little to go on — Goddard had an unfortunately timed power outage. Some thought (and some blogs actually reported) that we’d seen a truly extraordinary event — perhaps even a nearby gamma-ray burst. But it turned out to be something more mundane. My friend and colleague Phil Evans has a great explanation:

It started with the Burst Alert Telescope, or BAT, on board Swift. This is designed to look for GRBs, but will ‘trigger’ on any burst of high-energy radiation that comes from an area of the sky not known to emit such rays. But working out if you’ve had such a burst is not straightforward, because of noise in the detector, background radiation etc. So Swift normally only triggers if it’s really sure the burst of radiation is real; for the statisticians among you, we have a 6.5-σ threshold. Even then, we occasionally get false alarms. But we also have a program to try to spot faint GRBs in nearby galaxies. For this we accept lower significance triggers from BAT if they are near a known, nearby galaxy. But these lower significance triggers are much more likely to be spurious. Normally, we can tell that they are spurious because GRBs (almost always) have a glow of X-rays detectable for some time after the initial burst, an ‘afterglow’. The spurious triggers don’t have this, of course.

In this case, it was a bit more complicated There was an X-ray source consistent with the BAT position. The image to the right shows the early X-ray data. The yellow circle shows the BAT error box – that is, the BAT told us it thought it had seen something in that circle. The orange box shows what the XRT could see at the time, and they grey dots are detected X-rays. The little red circle marks where the X-ray source is.

Just because the X-ray object was already known about, and was not something likely to go GRB doesn’t mean it’s boring. If the X-ray object was much brighter than normal, then it is almost certainly what triggered the BAT and is scientifically interesting. Any energetic outburst near to Earth is well worth studying. Normally when the Swift X-ray telescope observes a new source, we get various limited data products sent straight to Earth, and normally some software (written by me!) analyses those data. In this case, there was a problem analysing those data products, specifically the product from which we normally estimate the brightness. So the scientists who were online at the time were forced to use rougher data, and from those it looked like the X-ray object was much brighter than normal. And so, of course, that was announced.

The event occurred at about 6:15 EDT last night. I was feeding kids and putting them to bed but got to work on it after a couple of hours. At about 9:30, my wife asked what I was up to and I told her about a potential event in M31, but was cautious. I said something like: “This might be nothing; but if it is real, it would be huge.” I wish I could say I had some prescience about what the later analysis would show, but this was more my natural pessimism. That skeptical part of my mind kept going on about how unlikely a truly amazing event was (see here).

My role would turn out to be a small one. It turned out that Swift had observed the region before. And while Goddard and its HEASARC data archive were down, friend and fellow UVOT team member Caryl Gronwall reminded me that the MAST archive was not. We had not observed the suspect region of M31 in the same filters that Swift uses for its initial observations. But we knew there was a globular cluster near the position of the even and, by coincidence, I had just finished a proposal on M31′s globular clusters. I could see that the archival measures and the new measure were consistent with a typical globular cluster. Then we got a report from the GTC. Their spectrum only showed the globular cluster.

This didn’t disprove the idea of a transient, of course. Many X-ray transients don’t show a signature in the optical and it might not have been the globular cluster anyway. But it did rule out some of the more exotic explanations. Then the other shoe dropped this morning when the XRT team raced to their computers, probably still in their bathrobes. Their more detailed analysis showed that the bright X-ray source was a known source and had not brightened. So … no gamma-ray burst. No explosive event.

Phil again:

I imagine that, from the outside, this looks rather chaotic and disorganised. And the fact that this got publicity across the web and Twitter certainly adds to that! But in fact this highlights the challenges facing professional astronomers. Transient events are, by their nature, well, transient. Some are long lived, but others not. Indeed, this is why Swift exists, to enable us to respond very quickly to the detection of a GRB and gather X-ray, UV and optical data within minutes of the trigger. And Swift is programmed to send what it can of that data straight to the ground (limited bandwidth stops us from sending everything), and to alert the people on duty immediately. The whole reason for this is to allow us to quickly make some statements about the object in question so people can decide whether to observe it with other facilities. This ability has led to many fascinating discoveries, such as the fact that short GRBs are caused by two neutron stars merging, the detection of a supernova shock breaking out of a star and the most distant star even seen by humans, to name just 3. But it’s tough. We have limited data, limited time and need to say something quick, while the object is still bright. People with access to large telescopes need to make a rapid decision, do they sink some of their limited observing time into this object? This is the challenge that we, as time-domain astronomers, face on a daily basis. Most of this is normally hidden from the world at large because of course we only publish and announce the final results from the cases where the correct decisions were made. In this case, thanks to the power of social media, one of those cases where what proved to be the wrong decision has been brought into the public eye. You’ve been given a brief insight into the decisions and challenges we have to face daily. So while it’s a bit embarrassing to have to show you one of the times where we got it wrong, it’s also good to show you the reality of science. For every exciting news-worthy discovery, there’s a lot of hard graft, effort, false alarms, mistakes, excitement and disappointment. It’s what we live off. It’s science.

Bingo.

People sometimes ask me why I get so passionate about issues like global warming or vaccination or evolution. While the political aspects of these issues are debatable, I get aggravated when people slag the science, especially when it is laced with dark implications of “follow the money” or claims that scientists are putting out “theories” without supporting evidence. Skeptics claims, for example, that scientists only support global warming theory or vaccinations because they would not get grant money for claiming otherwise.

It is true: scientists like to get paid, just like everyone else. We don’t do this for free (mostly). But money won’t drag you out of bed at 4 in the morning to discover a monster gamma-ray burst. Money doesn’t keep you up until the wee hours pounding on a keyboard to figure out what you’ve just seen. Money didn’t bounce my Leicester colleagues out of bed at the crack of dawn to figure out what we were seeing. Money doesn’t sustain you through the years of grad school and the many years of soft-money itinerancy. Hell, most scientists could make more money if they left science. One of the best comments I ever read on this was on an old slash-dot forum: “Doing science for the money is like having sex for the exercise.”

What really motivates scientists is the answer. What really motivates them is finding out something that wasn’t known before. I have been fortunate in my life to have experienced that joy of discovery a few times. There have been moments when I realized that I was literally the only person on Earth to know something, even if that something was comparatively trivial, like the properties of a new dwarf galaxy. That’s the thrill. And despite last night’s excitement being in vain, it was still thrilling to hope that we’d seen something amazing. And hell, finding out it was not an amazing event was still thrilling. It’s amazing to watch the corrective mechanisms of the scientific method in action, especially over the time span of a few hours.

Last night, science was asked a question: did something strange happen in M31? By this morning, we had the answer: no. That’s not a bad day for science. That’s a great one.

One final thought: one day, something amazing is going to happen in the Local Universe. Some star will explode, some neutron stars will collide or something we haven’t even imagined will happen. It is inevitable. The question is not whether it will happen. The question is: will we still be looking?

Long Form Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

April 29th, 2014

Purely considered as a movie, The Wolf of Wall Street is another excellent film from Scorsese. Although it is too long by about an hour, it is engaging and never really boring (just repetitive — I mean how many shots of people snorting coke off of call girls’ asses do we need?). It has a tremendous amount of energy in some sequences. It’s difficult to call the acting “good” since everyone involved gets into the spirit of things and chews the scenery with relentless abandon. Dicaprio is fine, Hill is fine and newcomer Margot Robbie is great as Naomi.

On its merits, I would probably give the movie an 8 out of 10.

But …

The Wolf of Wall Street is not a fictional tale (at least not completely). Jordan Belfort is a real life person who went to real life prison for bilking real life investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars with penny stocks and pump-and-dump schemes. The movie barely touches on this. In fact, in a condescending fourth wall scene, the movie Belfort simply waves off the details by saying the audience isn’t interested. The vast majority of the movie simply revels in the excesses of drugs, booze and sex that Belfort’s millions created (although I suspect some of that is exaggerated). Large parts of the movie play like a high-power rave.

Dicaprio and Scorsese, perhaps having realized the danger of glorifying the hedonistic lifestyle of a stock swindler in the current economy, have claimed it is a cautionary tale. I didn’t see any caution. I never saw that Belfort suffered for his crimes or was ever really undone by his lifestyle. The movie portrays his life as a non-stop party and even serious problems are cast in a darkly comic light. The only time the movie turns even a little bit grim is when his second marriage breaks up. I doubt even Belfort thinks his life was that awesome.

Frankly, I’m tired of movies that glorify Wall Street brokers. I’m tired of the glorification of Wall Street, full stop. I do not regard the high-powered end of the financial industry as something worth celebrating. There’s an early scene — probably the best in the movie — where Matthew McConaughey, in another great performance, explains how the stock broker industry works. The goal is not to make money for the clients. The goal is to keep them trading and paying commissions. No stock broker ever beats the markets consistently. This has been obvious for thirty years. Michael Lewis wrote a book about his time on Wall Street (Liar’s Poker) and speculated that the industry could not possibly last because people would eventually figure out that it was all a sham — that the brokers making massive commissions weren’t any more clued in than the clients. In fact, 20/20 (I think) once did a bit where they had a stock broker pick stocks, had a kindergarten class pick them and had a monkey pulls cards out of a rollodex. The broker came in last place and not by a little. Why is this an industry worth glorifying? Is it because it is a shadowy parallel of the equally empty and vainglorious entertainment industry?

There’s a tendency — and the movie encourages this — to say that the primary victims of Wall Street are rich and can afford to lose their money. There’s some truth to that. Some time ago, I got into a debate over Bernie Madoff’s victims. Some people insisted they had to know that his returns were ridiculous and there was something fishy going on. I agreed but pointed out that they probably didn’t know it was fraud. My basic take on human nature is that we are good but we are easily tempted. It was just so easy, with so much money being made, to persuade themselves that it was legit.

But the thing is, rich people aren’t the only victims of guys like Madoff and Belfort. Financial schemes like pump and dump affect an open market that is invested in by hundreds of millions of people, including mutual funds and pensions. Swindles undermine confidence in the entire system. Maybe you could argue that some of the victims deserved what they got. But they weren’t the only ones.

The movie doesn’t even hint at this. There’s a phone call, possibly fictitious, where Belfort persuades some middle class guy to sink his life savings into a penny stock, but even that is portrayed as triumphant.

No, I’m sorry. The context matters in this case. The movie itself I give an 8/10. But for glorifying a convicted financial criminal and, more importantly, the environment of recklessness that has sent our economy on a three-decade-long roller coaster ride while Wall Streeters made billions, I have to knock at least a point off.

Blocked by LOLGOP

April 15th, 2014

I recently discovered that I have been blocked on Twitter by LOLGOP. I’m going to guess it’s because of one of two tweets, since I’ve only tweeted at them twice.

Once was when they were slamming home-schooling. I replied:

.@LOLGOP Half the home schoolers I know are liberal hippy types. You have no idea what you’re babbling about.

The second was when they published an article detailing a bunch of lies about Obamacare. I deconstructed their claims here and posted:

A few of these “lies” from @LOLGOP aren’t. Obamcare unfavorability ratings almost always higher than approval. http://t.co/Jc9grz1Oo6

Neither of those crosses me as a blocking offense. The first one’s a bit snippy but not anything particularly egregious. But I did a bit of googling and found that LOLGOP tends to block quite, um, liberally.

My policy on blocking people on Twitter is that I don’t unless they are spammers. Granted, I only have about 250 followers right now. But I’ve gotten some feedback a lot harsher than what I wrote above and a couple of week ago, an anti-vax type wouldn’t shut up on the subject. But I’ve never blocked because of this. On one or two occasions, I actually followed someone because we got into a debate and they made some interesting points.

Twitter doesn’t tell you who has blocked you but I know Neal Boortz did, as I mentioned before, also for very lame tweets. I discovered this one because LOLGOP actually said something funny (it does happen, occasionally). Maybe someone with a big Twitter account is going to have to block more people or be deluged but I’m extremely dubious of that. I’ve tweeted harsher things to people with more followers than LOLGOP and haven’t been blocked.

Seems someone with a satirical Twitter account also has a thin skin.

Low Class Cleavage

March 31st, 2014

It’s the end of the month, so time to put up a few posts I’ve been tinkering with.

No, just give the Great Unwashed a pair of oversized breasts and a happy ending, and they’ll oink for more every time.

– Charles Montgomery Burns

A few months ago, this study was brought to my attention:

It has been suggested human female breast size may act as signal of fat reserves, which in turn indicates access to resources. Based on this perspective, two studies were conducted to test the hypothesis that men experiencing relative resource insecurity should perceive larger breast size as more physically attractive than men experiencing resource security. In Study 1, 266 men from three sites in Malaysia varying in relative socioeconomic status (high to low) rated a series of animated figures varying in breast size for physical attractiveness. Results showed that men from the low socioeconomic context rated larger breasts as more attractive than did men from the medium socioeconomic context, who in turn perceived larger breasts as attractive than men from a high socioeconomic context. Study 2 compared the breast size judgements of 66 hungry versus 58 satiated men within the same environmental context in Britain. Results showed that hungry men rated larger breasts as significantly more attractive than satiated men. Taken together, these studies provide evidence that resource security impacts upon men’s attractiveness ratings based on women’s breast size.

Sigh. It seems I am condemned to writing endlessly about mammary glands. I don’t have an objection to the subject but I do wish someone else would approach these “studies” with any degree of skepticism.

This is yet another iteration of the breast size study I lambasted last year and it runs into the same problems: the use of CG figures instead of real women, the underlying inbuilt assumptions and, most importantly, ignoring the role that social convention plays in this kind of analysis. To put it simply: men may feel a social pressure to choose less busty CG images, a point I’ll get to in a moment. I don’t see that this study sheds any new light on the subject. Men of low socioeconomic status might still feel less pressure to conform to social expectations, something this study does not seem to address at all. Like most studies of human sexuality, it makes the fundamental mistake of assuming that what people say is necessary reflective of what they think or do and not what is expected of them.

The authors think that men’s preference for bustier women when they are hungry supports their thesis that the breast fetish is connected to feeding young (even though is zero evidence that large breasts nurse better than small ones). I actually think their result has no bearing on their assumption. Why would hungrier men want fatter women? Because they want to eat them? To nurse off them? I can think of good reasons why hungry men would feel less bound by social convention, invest a little less thought in a silly social experiment and just press the button for the biggest boobs. I think that hungry men are more likely to give you an honest opinion and not care that preferring the bustier woman is frowned upon. Hunger is known to significantly alter people’s behavior in many subtle ways but these authors narrow it to one dimension, a dimension that may not even exist.

And why not run a parallel test on women? If bigger breasts somehow provoke a primal hunger response, might that preference be built into anyone who nursed in the first few years of life?

No, this is another garbage study that amounts to saying that “low-class” men like big boobs while “high-class” men are more immune to the lure of the decolletage and so … something. I don’t find that to be useful or insightful or meaningful. I find that it simply reinforces an existing preconception.

There is a cultural bias in some of the upper echelons of society against large breasts and men’s attraction to them. That may sound crazy in a society that made Pamela Anderson a star. But large breasts and the breast fetish are often seen, by elites, as a “low class” thing. Busty women in high-end professions sometimes have problems being taken seriously. Many busty women, including my wife, wear minimizer bras so they’ll be taken more seriously (or look less matronly). I’ve noticed that in the teen shows my daughter sometimes watches, girls with curves are either ditzy or femme fatales. In adult comedies, busty women are frequently portrayed as ditzy airheads. Men who are attracted to buxom women are often depicted as low-class, unintelligent and uneducated. Think Al Bundy.

This is, of course, a subset of a mentality that sees physical attraction itself as a low-class animalistic thing. Being attracted to a woman because she’s a Ph.D. is obviously more cultured, sophisticated and enlightened than being attracted to a woman because she’s a DD. I don’t think attraction is monopolar like that. As I noted before, a man’s attraction to a woman is affected by many factors — her personality, her intelligence, her looks. Breast size is just one slider on the circuit board that it is men’s sexuality and probably not even the most important. But it’s absurd to pretend the slider doesn’t exist or that it is somehow less legitimate than the others. We are animals, whatever our pretensions.

Last year, a story exploded on the blogosphere about a naive physics professor who was duped into becoming a drug mule by the promise that he would marry Denise Milani, an extremely buxom non-nude model. What stunned me in reading about the story was the complete lack of any sympathy for him. Granted, he is an arrogant man who isn’t particularly sympathetic. But a huge amount of abuse was heaped on him, much of it focusing on his fascination with a model and particularly a model with extremely large and likely artificial breasts. The tone was that there must be something idiotic and crude about the man to fall for such a ruse and for such a woman.

The reaction to the story not only illuminated a cultural bias but how that bias can become particularly potent when the breasts in question are implants. The expression “big fake boobs” is a pejorative that men and women love to hurl at women they consider low class or inferior. Take Jenny McCarthy. There are very good reasons to criticize McCarthy for her advocacy of anti-vaccine hysteria (although I think the McCarthy criticism is a bit overblown since most people are getting this information elsewhere and McCarthy wasn’t the one who committed research fraud). But no discussion of McCarthy is complete until someone has insulted her for having implants and the existence of those implants has been touted as a sign of her obvious stupidity and the stupidity of those who follow her.

McCarthy actually doesn’t cross me as that stupid; she crosses me as badly misinformed. And it’s not like there aren’t hordes of very smart people who haven’t bought into the anti-vaccine nonsense even sans McCarthy. But putting that aside, I don’t know what McCarthy’s breasts have to do with anything. Do people honestly think it would make a difference is she was an A-cup?

To return to this study and the one I lambasted last year: what I see is not only bad science but a subtle attempt by science to reinforce the stereotype that large breasts and an attraction to them are animalistic, low-class and uneducated. Bullshit speculation claims that men’s attraction to breasts is some primitive instinct. And more bullshit research claims that wealthy educated men can resist this primitive instinct but poorer less-educated men wallow in their animalistic desires. And when these garbage studies come out, blogs are all too eager to hype them, saying, “See! We told you those guys who liked big boobs were ignorant brutes!”

I think this is just garbage. The most “enlightened” academic is just as likely to ogle a busty woman when she walks by. He might be better trained at not being a jerk about it because he walks in social circles where wolf-whistles and come-ons are unacceptable. And he lives in a society where, if a bunch of social scientists are leering over you, you pretend to like the less busty woman. But all men live secret erotic lives in their heads. It’s extremely difficult to tease that information out and certainly not possible with an experiment as crude and obvious as this.

Once again, we see the biggest failing in sex research: asking people what they want instead of getting some objective measure. There are better approaches, some of which I mentioned in my previous article. If I were to approach this topic, I would look at the google search database used in A Billion Wicked Thoughts to see if areas of high education (e.g., college towns) were less likely to look at porn in general and porn involving busty women in particular. That might give you some useful information. But there’s a danger that it wouldn’t enforce the bias we’ve built up against big breasts and the men who love them.

Five Favorite’s: Best Action Films Since 2000

March 30th, 2014

It’s time for another Five Favorites post with Donna of From the Rental Queue!

Donna: Welcome to the newest addition of “Five Favorites” with Michael Siegel! This month we decided to take on our “Five Favorite Action Films released since 2000″. For this list we wanted to focus as much as possible on pure action films. For that reason we decided to exclude the vast majority of superhero, sci-fi, or martial arts films, as we were really trying to focus on pure action. However, if we felt that
the action in a excluded movie was just too good we agreed that we would allow its inclusion. We capped the release date for this at 2000 – anything released before that year was also excluded. We wanted to focus on what the genre looks like today and not be tempted to fill our lists with old favorites.

We pooled our thoughts and came up with a short list of 30 films. Narrowing that down to just five was tough for me and I found myself unable to not pick one sci-fi film for my final list. Honorable mentions for me go out to “Valhalla Rising”, “Machete”, “Unstoppable”, and “Kick Ass”.

Mike: This was tough for me, as most of the action movies I watch slide into science fiction or superhero categories. Maybe it’s my perception, but we don’t seem to be getting the kind of pure action movies we did twenty years ago when Schwarzeneggar and Stallone ruled the box office. Almost everything these days is part of genre franchise.

Nevertheless, here is my list, with only a little bit of rule-bending. I do want to make an honorable mention of “Kill Bill”.  Kill Bill is a great action movie.  Unfortunately, that great movie is wrapped up a bloated 2-volume package.  If you edited them down to one movie and cut the total run time by about 40 minutes, it would probably be near the top of this list. Its action scenes are excellent, the acting is great and the dialogue solid. But it is a prime example of what I’ve disparaged as action movie bloat.  I also decided, at the last moment, to drop “Master and Commander” from my list because it is as much drama as action and I’ll hold it back for a post on criminally-underrated films.

Read the rest of this entry »

Dune … Desert Planet … Arrakis

March 2nd, 2014

I’ve been intending to write this article for some time but Cracked’s recent article about five dream film projects that turned into nightmares provoked my digital pen. The five films they cite as having been nightmares for their producers are: Battlefield Earth, Dune, Toys, Pirates and Howard the Duck.

One of these things is not like the others.

Dune‘s production was famously troubled culminating with David Lynch refusing to lend his credit to the extended cut. But the movie is quite serviceable. And IMDB seems to agree. Here are the IMDB ratings of these five troubled productions:

Howard the Duck: 4.5
Pirates: 6.1
Toys: 4.9
Dune: 6.6
Battlefield Earth: 2.4

You can see that for all its problems, Dune is considered a decent flick. Certainly not in the same category as Battlefield: Earth.

It’s hard to overstate the difficulty of bringing a book like Dune to either the big or the small screen. Much of the novel occurs in the minds of the characters and the action depends heavily on their intellectual and physiological skills. The Dune universe is so intricate and complex, you could spend an entire movie just setting it up. (In fact, the Duniverse is often so abstract and complex that it’s hard to follow on the written page.)

But for all that, I would argue that we have gotten not one but two quite serviceable adaptations. Neither is perfect. Both have flaws. But they are very watchable and do a fine job of bringing out the essentials of the book.

The Lynch/De Laurentis version was absolutely savaged by critics when it was released and is still regarded by many as a gigantic flop. I really don’t understand why. Granted, I’ve read the book so I understand it (a friend who worked at a theater said they had to give out pamphlets explaining all the terms in the movie). But, if memory serves, I had not read the book when I first saw it and still didn’t understand the hatred.

Visually, the movie is a feast. Some of the FX are a bit dated, but the set design, costumes and navigators are wonderful. Toto’s score is very good, even it gets a bit repetitive. And the casting is top-notch. Jurgen Prochnow is outstanding as Leto Atreides. MacLahan, Annis, Stewart, Jones and Dourif are all great. Even at times when the movies is struggling, the actors pull it through.

The script has some issues but the conflicts are perfectly clear and the themes laid out quite plainly. Even on first seeing it, I found the plot intriguing and the idea of winning conflicts through political, religious and psychic power drew me in. And Dune itself is depicted quite well.

I think one reason for the hatred is that the original cut is a lot less comprehensible than the extended cut which I saw on TV the first time and now own on DVD. The extended cut, which Lynch disowned, has a massively superior opening narrative that explains the background and politics. It has a lot more scenes that flesh out the narrative and give the complex script room to breath. Much as I respect David Lynch as a film-maker, I think the long cut is far better than his (even if the special effects are still not quite finished).

(Of course, in later years, the critics would decide that Lynch’s opaque narratives and befuddling plots were a sign of his genius. I guess that stuff just wasn’t acceptable in the science fiction genre. It would be another thirty years before incomprehensible science-fiction films would be hailed as works of genius.)

I also have a high opinion of the sci-fi channel’s miniseries, which I also own on DVD and have also watched multiple times. With six hours to work with, the miniseries is more coherent and adheres better to the book (and doesn’t have the embarrassing weirding modules). The portrayals of Chani, Irulan and the Harkonnens are far superior. Fremen culture — the keystone of the book — receives a far better treatment. I know a lot of people prefer the monstrous baron of the Lynch movie. But I prefer a Baron (and a Feyd and a Raban) who are smarter and deadlier. The Baron is supposed to be a formidable opponent, a skilled tyrant, not a cackling imbecile. Feyd is supposed to be nearly Paul’s equal in a lot of ways. The Sci-Fi miniseries nailed it, making the Harkonnens dangerous and deadly. It also, in my opinion, does far more with the female characters — an important aspect of Herbert’s writing.

The sci-fi channel version has its own flaws, of course. William Hurt is somnambulant as Leto. Alec Newman is good, but not as good as Maclahan. The effects are conspicuously poorer because of the budget.

Still, you really can’t go wrong with either. I would give both 8/10 (fan rating). I suppose I should hold out hope that one day we’ll get a perfect adaptation. But I really don’t see that happening any time soon. In the meantime, both versions of Dune are worth the time of any science fiction fan.

The Return of Linkorama

February 22nd, 2014

Linkoramas are getting rarer these days mostly because I tweet most articles. But I will still be occasionally posting something more long-form.

To wit:

  • A fascinating article about how Vermeer used a camera obscura to enable his paintings. Yet another example about how people were pretty damn clever in the supposedly unenlightened past.
  • This is a couple of months late, but someone posted up Truman Capote’s christmas story. The recent death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of this little gem.
  • This is the second and by far the largest study yet to show that routine mammography is basically a gigantic waste of money, being just as likely to precipitate unnecessary treatment as to discover a tumor that a breast exam wouldn’t. Do you think our “evidence-based” government will embrace this? No way. They already mandated mammogram coverage when the first study showed it to be a waste.
  • I don’t know even know if this counts as mathematical malpractice. There’s no math at all. It’s just “Marijuana! RUN!”. Simply appalling reporting by the MSM.
  • This on the other hand, does count as mathematical malpractice. The gun control advocates are hyping a Missouri study that shows a rise in murder rate after a change in the gun control laws. However, in doing so they are ignoring data from 17 other states, data on all other forms of violent crime and data from Missouri that showed a steep rise in the murder rate before the laws were changed. They are picking a tiny slice of data to make a huge claim. Disgraceful. And completely expected from the gun-grabbers.
  • I love color photos from history. Just love them.
  • This is old but worth reposting: one of the biggest feminists texts out there is loaded with garbage data, easily checked facts that are completely wrong. This was a big reason I distanced myself from third-wave feminism in college: it had been taken over by crackpots who would believe any statistic as long as it was bad. In college, we were told that one in three women are raped (they aren’t) that abuse is the leading cause of admission to ER’s (it isn’t), that violence erupts very Superbowl (it doesn’t). I even had one radical tell me — with no apparent self-awareness, that murder was the second leading cause of death among women (it’s not even close). As I seem to say about everything: reality is bad enough; we don’t need to invent stuff.
  • Five Favorites – “Five Favorite Films We Saw in 2013″

    February 17th, 2014

    I’m cross-posting this from my friend Donna’s wonderful From the Rental Queue blog. When I joined Twitter, I noticed that Donna was posting quick tweet reviews of movies she watched. I immediately liked the idea of posting 140 reviews of the movies I saw and began doing so. Donna graciously invited me to put up a joint post on the five best movies we saw in 2013. Here it is, hopefully the first of a series.

    Welcome to what will hopefully become a regular feature here on “From the Rental Queue” – “Five Favorites”!

    Fellow blogger and all-around gentleman Michael Siegel of “Mike’s Meandering Mind” also posts regular #FTRQ potted movie reviews both on his Twitter feed and on his blog. I’ve always been a great admirer of his taste in film so I asked Mike to join me in creating review columns based on the idea of “Five Favorites”. The idea is to pick a topic – action thriller, 80′s comedies, found-footage films, anything at all – and discuss what our Five Favorite films in that category are and why. To start off the new year we decided to create our first list – our “Five Best Films We Saw in 2013″. This isn’t a list of the best films of 2013, but rather the best films we each saw *for the first time* in 2013. For a film to be included in our list we would have to have seen it for the first time during 2013.

    I made an additional caveat for my list – I excluded all “Best Picture” nominees/winners from 2012 and 2013 from my inventory. I wanted my list to be more focused on lesser-known films so personal favorites “Amour”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Cloud Atlas” – all of which were among the best films I saw last year – are excluded from my list. Of the 312 movies I reviewed last year 19 made my short list, and, after much rumination, I whittled it down to these five favorites of mine that I saw for the first time in 2013.

    Mike: I obeyed this caveat. I agree, however, that “Amour”, “Beasts…” and “Cloud Atlas” were three of the best movies I saw last year.

    I saw about 55 movies this year; mostly on Netflix, two in the theater. About 10 of those made my preliminary cut. I should give an honorable mention to “Frozen” which was my daughter’s favorite movie and is probably the best thing Disney’s main studio has done in about twenty years.

    Donna’s #5) “Antiviral” – This is the first feature from Brandon Cronenberg, which he both wrote and directed, and in one film I feel he has surpassed the best things his father ever did. It is, quite simply, one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in a long while and, along with “Upstream Color”, one the most innovative ones in years. The writing was marvelous, engaging, sinister, and disturbing, without ever breaking its own rules. The star of the film, an unknown to me Caleb Landry Jones, was sheer
    perfection. Most everything about this film was just that – sheer perfection – and I feel sorry for the many on Netflix who gave this poor reviews after just not grasping the plot. This is the type of film ardent movie fans should be supporting, which is why I immediately bought it on DVD. I encourage anyone who likes visually stunning, dark, cerebral sci-fi films to watch this with haste – you will thank me.

    Mike’s #5) – “All Quiet on the Western Front” Yeah, I’ll go old school with my first choice.  I’ve been slowly catching up on old Oscar winners.  “All Quiet” has aged very well and is still one of the most devastating portraits of war ever committed to film.  I did a long series on the Academy Awards on my site and this was one of the first ones the Academy absolutely nailed.

    Donna’s #4) “Oslo, August 31st” – This dark drama marks the second collaboration of Norwegian director Joachim Trier and actor Anders Danielsen Lie – the first being the powerful drama “Reprise”. Lie is simply marvelous as a struggling addict searching for forgiveness and redemption on one fateful day in his life. This is a powerful, tragic film made all the better by Trier’s poetic direction. I remember feeling punched in the gut when it ended, and it’s not easy for a film to take me in as this one did. A darkly lovely film that should get more attention in this country.

    Mike’s #4) “High Noon” -Yep, another classic.  Well, there’s a reason they are called classics, isn’t there?  High Noon broke the mold for westerns, establishing tension and pacing above action and violence.  Gary Cooper underplays his role perfectly; Grace Kelly is luminous.  All Hollywood movie directors should be forced to watch High Noon as an example of how to build the kind of tension that makes an action scene thrilling instead of boring.

    Donna’s #3) “Monsters” – When Gareth Edwards was revealed as the person to helm the reboot of “Godzilla”, the sumptuously directed “Monsters” was touted as the main reason he got the job. The pacing and storyline are far more like a cerebral drama than a monster movie, which I think tends to throw people off. It is, however, the very definition of ominous, with an ending that hit me like a lightning bolt. The revelation of the end jolted me so hard I restarted the film, searching for a particular moment in a particular scene just to see if I had gotten all the implications of it right. When I realized I had I was struck by equal parts tragedy and awe at the repercussions of it all. I’m so glad Gareth Edwards is remaking “Godzilla” – if this is anything to stand by it will be amazing.

    Mike’s #3) “Before Midnight” – I am a big fan of the “Before …” movies.  I’ve always liked Linklater’s work and while I’m neutral on Ethan Hawke, I like Julie Delpy quite a bit.  But with these three (and hopefully more) movies, they have broken new ground in chronicling a relationship between two characters.  “Before Sunrise” might be one the most romantic movies ever. “Before Sunset” was a wonderful and unexpected return.  This one is much harder than the others, chronicling what amounts to a mid-life crisis in Celine and Jesse’s relationship. For married couples, the barbs and slings during the climactic scene will feel all too painful.  But the script, hashed out between the director and the two leads, rings true and has the wonderful dialogue of the first two films.  Hawke and Delpy don’t act; they inhabit roles they’ve known for 18 years.  Linklater’s low-key directing is perfect, once again using long unbroken takes to let the actors relish the dialogue.  This was easily one of the best films released in 2013.

    Donna’s # 2) “Frances Ha” – I’m a huge Noah Baumbach fan so I was looking quite forward to this film, and it didn’t disappoint in the least. Greta Gertwig was masterful as Frances, who is a delightfully well-rounded character about whom I genuinely cared. Baumbach’s subtlety and minimalist style worked wonderfully in black and white and gave the film a charm I didn’t expect. This is a real, heartwarming portrayal of a young woman in flux and I loved every moment of it.

    Mike’s #2) “Looper” – The banner franchises of science fiction are rubbish, for reasons I’ve detailed on my own blog.  However, if you look past them, there are a number of sci-fi gems out there and Looper is one of them.  The time travel plot holds together reasonably well (which is not always the case for time travel plots) and turns on a profound moral quandary.  Willis and Gordon-Levitt are fantastic, with the latter having developed into a capable leading man. The technology is integrated naturally into the fabric of the setting, not shown off for its own sake. Nick Meyer said that great cinema is born from limitations and Looper exemplifies this: eschewing big special effects and long insane action scenes.  Instead, it builds itself on character, plot and ideas. Even the supporting cast is strong. This was probably the best film of 2012.

    Donna’s #1) “The Imposter” – When I first saw this film I wrote that it was “hands down the single greatest and best documentary I’ve ever seen – absolutely masterful and gripping.” I stand by those words as “The Imposter” truly breaks new ground in the world of documentaries. The style is utterly unique – I have never seen or heard of anything like it, and it was done so expertly I’m still amazed at how well it all came together. The subject itself is utterly fascinating as well – I still think of the story and all the questions it raises. This is a marvel of a film and one not to be missed. Easily the best film I saw all year save for perhaps “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.

    Mike’s #1) “The Up Series” – There are documentaries, and then there is the “Up” series, which chronicles the lives of 14 British children from the 1960’s on every seven years.  What is odd is that what started as a social commentary in the end becomes about itself.  We become fascinated by the people in the film and it is inspiring and uplifting to watch their lives and see how many were able to make happy lives for themselves, how many were able to overcome adversity, how many went in unexpected directions.  This is truly one of the most remarkable achievements not just in documentary, but in all of cinema.

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: A Trilogy of Error

    February 12th, 2014

    Three rather ugly instances of mathematical malpractice have caught my attention in the last month. Let’s check them out.

    The Death of Facebook or How to Have Fun With Out of Sample Data

    Last month, Princeton researchers came out with the rather spectacular claim that the social network Facebook would be basically dead within a few years. The quick version is that they fit an epidemiological model to the rise and fall of MySpace. They then used that same model, varying the parameters, to fit Google trends on searches for Facebook. They concluded that Facebook would lose 80% of its customers by 2017.

    This was obviously nonsese as detailed here and here. It suffered from many flaws, notably assuming that the rise and fall of MySpace was necessarily a model for all social networks and the dubious method of using Google searches instead of publicly available traffic data as their metric.

    But there was a deeper flaw. The authors fit a model of a sharp rise and fall. They then proclaim that this model works because Facebook’s google data follows the first half of that trend and a little bit of the second. But while the decline in Facebook Google searches is consistent with their model, it is also consistent with hundreds of others. It would be perfectly consistent with a model that predicts a sharp rise and then a leveling off as the social network saturates. Their data are consistent with but not discriminating against just about any model.

    The critical part of the data — the predicted sharp fall in Facebook traffic — is out of sample (meaning it hasn’t happened yet). But based on a tiny sliver of data, they have drawn a gigantic conclusion. It’s Mark Twain and the length of the Mississippi River all over again.

    We see this a lot in science, unfortunately. Global warming models often predict very sharp rises in temperature — out of sample. Models of the stock market predict crashes or runs — out of sample. Sports twerps put together models that predict Derek Jeter will get 4000 hits — out of sample.

    Anyone who does data fitting for a living knows this danger. The other day, I fit a light curve to a variable star. Because of an odd intersection of Fourier parameters, the model predicted a huge rise in brightness in the middle of its decay phase because there were no data to constrain it there. So it fit a small uptick in the decay phase as though it were the small beginning of a massive re-brightening.

    The more complicated the model, the more danger there is of drawing massive conclusions from tiny amounts of data or small trends. If the model is anything other than a straight line, be very very wary at out-of-sample predictions, especially when they are predicting order-of-magnitude changes.

    A Rape Epidemic or How to Reframe Data:

    The CDC recently released a study that claimed that 1.3 million women were raped and 12.6 million more were subject to sexual violence in 2010. This is six or more times the estimates of the FBI’s extremely rigorous NCVS estimate. Christina Hoff Summers has a breakdown of why the number is so massive:

    It found them by defining sexual violence in impossibly elastic ways and then letting the surveyors, rather than subjects, determine what counted as an assault. Consider: In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. A sample of 9,086 women was asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”

    What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape — indeed, a nontrivial percentage of all customary sexual intercourse, including marital intercourse, probably falls under that definition (and is therefore criminal according to the CDC).

    Other survey questions were equally ambiguous. Participants were asked if they had ever had sex because someone pressured them by “telling you lies, making promises about the future they knew were untrue?” All affirmative answers were counted as “sexual violence.” Anyone who consented to sex because a suitor wore her or him down by “repeatedly asking” or “showing they were unhappy” was similarly classified as a victim of violence. The CDC effectively set a stage where each step of physical intimacy required a notarized testament of sober consent.

    In short, they did what is called “reframing”. They took someone’s experiences, threw away that person’s definition of them and substituted their own definition.

    This isn’t the first time this has happened with rape stats nor the first time Summers had uncovered this sort of reframing. Here is an account of how researchers decided that women who didn’t think they had been raped were, in fact, raped, so they could claim a victimization rate of one in four.

    Scientists have to classify things all the time based on a variety of criteria. The universe is a messy continuum; to understand it, we have to sort things into boxes. I classify stars for a living based on certain characteristics. The problem with doing that here is that women are not inanimate objects. Nor are they lab animals. They can have opinions of their own about what happened to them.

    I understand that some victims may reframe their experiences to try to lessen the trauma of what happened to them. I understand that a woman can be raped but convince herself it was a misunderstanding or that it was somehow her fault. But to a priori reframe any woman’s experience is to treat them like lab rats, not human beings capable of making judgements of their own.

    But it also illustrates a mathematical malpractice problem: changing definitions. This is how 10,000 underage prostitutes in the United States becomes 200,000 girls “at risk”. This is how small changes in drug use stats become an “epidemic”. If you dig deep into the studies, you will find the truth. But the banner headline — the one the media talk about — is hopelessly and deliberately muddled.

    Sometimes you have to change definitions. The FBI changed their NCVS methodology a few years ago on rape statistics and saw a significant increase in their estimates. But it’s one thing to hone; it’s another to completely redefine.

    (The CDC, as my friend Kevin Wilson pointed out, mostly does outstanding work. But they have a tendency to jump with both feet into moral panics. In this case, it’s the current debate about rape culture. Ten years ago, it was obesity. They put out a deeply flawed study that overestimated obesity deaths by a factor of 14. They quickly admitted their screwup but … guess which number has been quoted for the last decade on obesity policy?)

    You might ask why I’m on about this. Surely any number of rapes is too many. The reason I wanted to talk about this, apart from my hatred of bogus studies, is that data influences policy. If you claim that 1.3 million women are being raped every year, that’s going to result in a set of policy decisions that are likely to be very damaging and do very little to address the real problem.

    If you want a stat that means something, try this one: the incidence of sexual violence has fallen 85% over the last 30 years. That is from the FBI’s NCVS data so even if they are over- or under-estimating the amount of sexual violence, the differential is meaningful. That data tells you something useful: that whatever we are doing to fight rape culture, it is working. Greater awareness, pushing back against blaming the victim, changes to federal and state laws, changes to the emphasis of attorneys general’s offices and the rise of internet pornography have all been cited as contributors to this trend.

    That’s why it’s important to push back against bogus stats on rape. Because they conceal the most important stat; the one that is the most useful guide for future policy and points the way toward ending rape culture.

    The Pending Crash or How to Play with Scales:

    Yesterday morning, I saw a chart claiming that the recent stock market trends are an eerie parallel of the run-up to the 1929 crash. I was immediately suspicious because, even if the data were accurate, we see this sort of crap all the time. There are a million people who have made a million bucks on Wall Street claiming to pattern match trends in the stock market. They make huge predictions, just like the Facebook study above. And those predictions are always wrong. Because, again, the out of sample data contains the real leverage.

    This graph is even worse than that, though. As Quartz points out, the graph makers used two different y-axes. In one, the the 1928-29 rise of the stock market was a near doubling. In the other, the 2013-4 rise was an increase of about 25%. When you scale them appropriately, the similarity vanishes. Or, alternatively, the pending “crash” would be just an erasure of that 25% gain.

    I’ve seen this quite a bit and it’s beginning to annoy me. Zoomed-in graphs of narrow ranges of the y-axis are used to draw dramatic conclusions about … whatever you want. This week, it’s the stock market. Next week, it’s global warming skeptics looking at little spikes on a 10-year temperature plot instead of big trends on a 150-year one. The week after, it will be inequality data. Here is one from Piketty and Saez, which tracks wealth gains for the rich against everyone else. Their conclusion might be accurate but the plot is useless because it is scaled to intervals of $5 million. So even if the bottom 90% were doing better, even if their income was doubling, it wouldn’t show up on the graph.

    Does Defense Win Championships?

    February 3rd, 2014

    So Super Bowl XVIII went exactly as expected. Opening safety. Broncos shut down. Seattle dominating.

    Well, it wasn’t as expected, obviously. But if you listen to the Sports Media Twerps, we should have foreseen it because “defense wins championships”. If you put a great defense against a great offense, especially in the playoffs, the defense will win. Right?

    Right?

    Well, Joe Posnanski threw a little bit of cold water on this:

    The ultimate sports cliche was trotted out again and again on Sunday: Defense wins championships. I don’t believe that’s actually true. Great defense certainly CAN win championships but great offense can too. For every dominant defense like Seattle, I can point to a dominant offense like Kurt Warner’s Rams team; you talk about the great defense of the 2008 Steelers, I point to the great offense of the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

    But I think there is SOMETHING to the cliche, and it’s this: We do often forget the power of great defense. Great offense is easier to see, easier to understand, easier to build up in our imaginations. I think it was easier to imagine the Broncos scoring a lot of points against Seattle because we saw them score so many points all year; those touchdowns are vibrant in our minds. So then we watch a great defense dominate the way the Seahawks’ did, and it’s jolting, it’s visually gripping, and we think: “Great defense is better than great offense. Great defense wins championships.”

    And the next time a great offense comes along, we start the whole process over.

    I would rephrase that a little bit. Great offenses capture our attention. So when they flop in the playoffs, we notice. Great defenses, unless they are historically great, tend to be missed. So when they flop in the playoffs, we don’t notice.

    This tendency has been exacerbated the last few years because of the changes in the game. Every year, records are being set for scoring so whichever offense happens to be the best is hailed as the greatest offense of all time. This is clearly insane. If Jerry Rice’s 49ers — who led the league in scoring six times and won two Super Bowls in those years — were around today, they would be putting up similar numbers. The game has changed. And that tends to warp our perception. So when we see record-setting offenses stopped in the Super Bowl, we immediately jump to the conclusion that defense wins championships. After all, if Manning’s record-shattering offense can’t win the big game, that must mean offense is over-rated, right?

    I wanted to look at this systematically and without a bias toward recent years. So I went through all 48 NFL post-seasons and tracked the records of the league’s best offenses and best defenses. I kept it simple, just looking at total points. Doubtless, someone like Football Outsiders can use a more sophisticated metric, but I wanted to do this in a couple of hours with a web browser and a spreadsheet.

    So does defense win championships?

  • The league’s best offenses were 65-33 in the post-season. The league’s best defenses were 66-33. So, defense doesn’t win championships.
  • Or maybe it does. Top offenses were 10-12 in the Super Bowl while top defenses were 14-5. When the two have faced off, the top defenses were 4-1.
  • Or maybe not. Overall, top defenses were more likely to fall in the divisional and wild card rounds. Outside of the Super Bowl, top offenses were 3-3.
  • Or maybe it does. There have been some great offenses — Fouts’ Chargers, Marino’s Dolphins, Kelly’s Bills, the Patriots of the last seven years — that have failed to win championships.
  • Or not. Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters didn’t win a title. Atlanta’s great ’78 defense didn’t even make the playoffs. The early 80′s Eagles couldn’t win one. Chicago won the Super Bowl in ’86, but that year they also had a great offense. They didn’t make the Super Bowl again despite having the best defense in two of the next three years. New Orleans had a great defense in the early 90′s that went nowhere.
  • Or maybe it does. In the last 15 years, the top defense has won five Super Bowls while the top offense has won one.
  • or maybe not. During the 90′s, the top offense won five Super Bowls in nine years while the top defense won twice. And one of those years, the top offense and defense was the same team.
  • My point is that you can cherry-pick these data all you want to make any point you want. But based on looking at all the data, I would say that Joe is right. Defense doesn’t win championships; but it can. So can offense. You could make a slight case that when defense is at a premium, having a great defense can give a team an advantage (as it has for the last decade). And when offense is at a premium, having a great offense can give a team an advantage. But in the end, there are many ways to win a Super Bowl. The best way is to be good at everything.