Archive for December, 2011

Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Admiration Edition

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Gallup and USA/Today need to be beaten with sticks and sent back to remedial stats class. Most of their work is fine. But every year we get another useless poll about the most admired people in America.

President Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are the nation’s most-admired man and woman — again — in the annual USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.

Each leads their category with 17% of votes in top 10 lists that favor the most familiar names in global politics, religion, entertainment and culture.

Does this strike you as being meaningful? For 83% of Americans, Barack Obama is not the most-admired man. The #5 man in the poll is Warren Buffett with … 2% of the vote.

USA Today and Gallup have run this piece of trivia for half a century, using an open-ended unconstrained plurality. As such, it always puts whoever is most famous — usually the President — at the top of the list. Even in years where George W. Bush would’ve lost an election for Republican dog-catcher, he was still the most admired man because no one else was as famous or as in the news.

Unconstrained pluralities are the most useless poll imaginable. They always produce embarrassing or useless results like this. We get this crap with “what issue is most important to you” polls as well, where they’ll say the second most important issue is, say, abortion, when abortion gets about 6% of the vote.

A more valid way would be to give people a list of potentially admirable people and ask if they admire them. That would be useful and unbiased. Gallup wants to keep it “unprompted”. Fine. Conduct an initial poll, then make the list from the top 100 names on it.

Polls are created news. They don’t tell us anything and are used to lead a slow news day. But this poll is especially useless. And yes, I said it when Bush topped the poll too.

The Shakespeare Project: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

“And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends.” – Bottom

What can I say about A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has not already been said? It is (so far) the best of the comedies. Some of the lesser comedies drag on a bit (at least on the page) and I have to will myself to finish. Every time I read Dream, I fly through it, delighted with everything I’m reading — every plot twist, every beautiful turn of phrase, every word. Not a character or scene is wasted. By the time I reach the end, I feel like I’ve rushed through the story.

I did notice one thing this time around, something I’m noticing when I read plays that I read previously in high school or college: the characters with whom I identify the most has changed. The first time I read Dream, my favorite character was Puck. But this time, I found myself in far more sympathy with Bottom, the little man who so dreams of being big. The play at the end, which previously annoyed me, now seems almost poignant.

(As an aside, the 1999 film version of this play is quite serviceable. Kevin Klein, Stanley Tucci and Michelle Pfeiffer all show a wonderful ease with the material, eschewing the usual overdramatic intonation that tends to characterize bad Shakespeare productions. It’s not great, but it’s very watchable.)

Next Up: Merchant of Venice

Christmas Eve Linkorama

Saturday, December 24th, 2011
  • Utterly compelling pictures of Japan’s tsunami damage.
  • A fascinating art project with drowned statues.
  • Fascinating pictures of the Battle of the Bulge.
  • Hayek and Orwell: one of my favorite writers discussed another of my favorites.
  • Can men and women be friends? Yes, but. I do remember, when I was college age, how much women liked being friends with men who wanted them.
  • 2010 in Film

    Saturday, December 24th, 2011

    Yes, it’s almost 2012. But being only a year behind is an accomplishment for me. If you look up previous “best in film” entries, you’ll find that I’m usually more like 18 months behind. But the combination of Netflix streaming and a new iPad is helping me stay more up to date. A little.

    But really, being a year behind is a good thing in some ways. I don’t get swept up in the hype. Some of the films I saw over a year and a half ago, so I’ve had time to grok them, to get over my initial reaction.

    According to the critics, the best films of 2010 were: The Social Network, Winter’s Bone, Black Swan, Inception, Toy Story 3, Ghost Writer, the Kids Are All Right, the King’s Speech, Carlos and 127 Hours. Add The Fighter and True Grit and you’ve got the Best Picture nominees. Looking at IMDB’s ratings, we find a broad swath of good films. I’ll go by them in IMDB’s order. As a reminder, here is how I rate films.

    Inception I’ve rated this 9/10 and it is probably my best film of 2010. That rating may be skewed a little by my love of sci-fi and movies with big ideas. But despite numerous plot holes, this was a thrilling film. The finale 45 minutes is gripping with wonderful action scenes, huge ideas and a powerful emotional climax. I’ve now watched it three or four times and still love it. All good films start as an 8 since I tend to be conservative but this has moved up to a 9. One of my best friends hates this movie and while I think she makes some good points, it still overwhelms them, in my opinion.

    Toy Story 3. Here’s the sign of a good sequel: I have not seen Toy Stories 1 and 2. And I really liked this movie, which managed to pull on the heartstrings like an expert. 8/10

    Black Swan: Now this would have been a bold choice for Best Picture. The King’s Speech was utterly safe Academy fare — a period piece with great acting. But Swan was far more daring, far bolder with a searing performance from Natalie Portman and, hopefully, a breakthrough for Mila Kunis. The ballet finale was as griping as the finale of an action film. 8/10 and possibly a 9 in the future as I continue to digest it.

    The King’s Speech: It’s not that it’s not a good movie. It’s just that it’s so perfectly pitched to Hollywood’s wheelhouse, it’s massively over-rated. A star cast, a touching story, solid direction. It’s good and Firth is great. But I couldn’t help but be let down a little. It was not a great film. Months later, I’m having difficult remembering more than a couple of great scenes. 7/10.

    How to Train Your Dragon: Word of mouth on this animated feature was spectacular. And while I enjoyed it — and it has some spectacular moments — it was just a little too hip, a little too easily aimed. My daughter, who loves animation, was not impressed. 7/10.

    Shutter Island: The critics under-rated this one, I think, because (1) critics don’t like films that confuse their mediocre minds; (2) the twist ending was foreseeable. But I found it startlingly well-directed; a wonderful noir atmosphere that was a throwback to a better age of film. Dicaprio plays a nearly identical note to Inception, but again shows why he’s one of the best actors out there. Here’s the thing: combine this film with Scorsese’s recent apparent triumph with Hugo. Scorsese, having finally won his Oscar, is making movies like a man freed from expectations. His last two films show a man no longer aiming at an Oscar but just making the films he wats to make. He hasn’t been this good since the 70′s. And he was pretty damned good in the interim. I’m reminded of Spielberg, who spent years trying to win an award with Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple and Always and then moved to a much better phase of his career when he decided to ignore what anyone else thought. 8/10

    The Social Network: I really liked this film. While I’m sure the accuracy is suspect, it was fun to have a film treat me like I wasn’t an idiot. The sharp dialogue was a true joy and the technical/legal aspects were explained without being dumbed down. More like this, please. 8/10

    The Fighter: I initially rated this 8/10, but think I was swept up in the great acting by Christian Bale and Melissa Leo as well as the considerable charm of Amy Adams. I’m lowering it to 7/10 but it was a still a fine film.

    Kick-Ass: I have this rated 7/10 and that’s probably my ego insisting that I can’t like it as much as I do. This was just so much fun to watch. I know Roger Ebert and others were appalled by a young girl spewing profanities and murdering roomfuls of bad guys. And if I took it seriously, I would be too. But the movie is so ridiculously over the top, so obviously satirical, I was able to enjoy it on its own terms. I hope we see a lot more of Chloe Moretz, who is utterly charming. 7/10

    True Grit: The Coen brothers are two more film-makers who seem liberated by having finally won an Academy Award and are back to making the great films they want to make. Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld make this movie, which is more compelling, if less iconic, than the Wayne version. 8/10

    127 Hours: I found this to be a bit gimmicky. It was watchable, which is more than I expected. Wonderfully filmed and directed. But a little bit grisly and harsh for my tastes. 7/10

    Tangled: My daughter’s favorite movie. Maximus the Horse it the biggest reason to watch this one, although it is also a visual delight. 7/10

    Harry Potter 7a: I rate this a point higher than I should at 9/10 because I’m a fan. I will probably lower that rating to 8/10 once I’ve watched it again. There are some dazzling scenes in this one, such as the destruction of the first Horcrux. And the sense of of glowering menace throughout the film is palpable.

    Despicable Me: This was simple fun. Cute, funny and a little bit touching. I put this in my queue, forgot about it, got in the mail and enjoyed it. What elevates it to a good movie are the minions. I could watch shorts about them all day. 8/10

    Winter’s Bone: This movie continues to haunt me. It’s lack of flash is its strength. No fancy editing, no big stunts, no big actors, no speechifying. It just is what it is: a film that has compelling characters in a believable situation and follows them to their conclusion. Probably one of the best-plotted movies of 2010. Jennifer Lawrence’s understated performance is a gem. And the scene with the Army recruiter is oddly compelling. 8/10

    The Kids are All Right: Easily the most over-rated movie of the year. This is an example of what I call the Hollywood Cafe Klatsch film. An insider writer write something semi-autobiographical, a bunch of big-name actors are in it, the critics rave and the audience says … “OK”. The Squid and the Whale was like this too. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just that it’s not that great. I’ll watch almost anything with Julianne Moore in it but this strained my patience. I kept asking why I should care. A movie centered around a lesbian couple can be fine; but not when that’s pretty much all it’s about. 6/10

    Easy A: It kind of falls apart plot-wise. But Emma Stone is so watchable and is so easily funny, I liked this film anyway. Please, please let her become the star that Lindsey Lohan should have been. 7/10

    Not Seen by Me: The Town, Four Lions, Ghost Writer

    Overall, 2010 was not a bad year for film. I doubt that many of my listees are destined to be classics, but there was plenty of good fare to be had. If I had to list my best films, they would probably be, in order, Inception, Black Swan, Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, Shutter Island, True Grit, Toy Story 3, Harry Potter 7a, Despicable Me, Kick-ass. Looking at the DVD test — a test becoming increasingly irrelevant in the days of streaming video — I own Inception and HP7a. And, if money were not an issue, I would probably own all the rest.

    That’s not a bad year.

    The Bond Films: The Craig Years

    Thursday, December 15th, 2011

    Whether the Daniel Craig era spells a new life for the Bond franchise or just one last burst of glory before the end is unknown. It will be interesting to see what Skyfall is like. But for the moment, it has revived a franchise that was almost dead.

    Casino Royale is rated by IMDB at a staggering 7.9, tied with Goldfinger as the best James Bond film ever. I agree, rating it a 9. It wasn’t the Bond film I always wanted; it was something better: the Bond film I never knew I wanted.

    After the gory excesses of Die Another Day, it’s as though Barbara Broccoli realized they’d taken the formula as far as it could go. They needed to go back to basics. And where else to go but Fleming’s first Bond novel and a fresh interpretation? I’m not entirely comfortable with franchise reboots, but this one works. It reminds me a great deal of Dr. No, showing us an earlier edgier Bond that is far closer to Fleming vision.

    As a pure movie, everything works. The directing is solid and avoids do much ADD editing. The CGI crap and endless chases are ditched in favor of a more visceral approach to the action. The pre-credits fight has a brutality that harkens back to the vicious train fight in From Russia with Love, a level reached again in the tense stairway fight. The chase through the construction sight is dazzling. The gadgets are reduced to a supporting level, used when necessary rather than having a plot built around them.

    But what’s better is that the series gets back to what makes Bond Bond — spy intrigue and tension. The card game — a card game! — is one of the most tense sequences in the entire series. The torture scene has an intensity never seen before. Both are taken from Fleming’s novel and both are used to maximum effect. And the shadowy Mr. White and his organization are a wonderful lead-in to future films, promising even more intrigue.

    The Bond girls are wonderful. Caterina Murino is so beautiful it floors me that Bond can leave her to chase down terrorists. And Eva Green makes for the best and most believable Bond girl since … I dunno … the Spy Who Loved Me? Jeffrey Wright immediately became my favorite Felix Leiter, doing more in a one-minute stairway conversation than his predecessors did with entire movies. The villainous Le Chiffre is played perfectly by Mads Mikkelsen. He is brutal, brilliant, selfish and arrogant, which makes his losing it in his final scene so powerful.

    As for Daniel Craig, I was a skeptic. He convinced me. We have yet to see if he can make Bond into the smoother, more polished version he is destined to become. But his portrayal of Bond as a believable assassin, someone who is damaged and dangerous, is powerful.

    Quantum of Solace, rated 12th by IMDB and given a 7 by me, was a bit disappointing. There was going to be an inevitable come-down after Casino, but this was a bit of a steeper drop than I expected.

    The bothersome part is that it has trouble being a Bond film. Intrigue and mystery are replaced by action and mayhem. Unravelling Quantum should have taken Bond the entire film. Instead, he gets in by beating someone up.

    The character of Bond is kept very narrow. He shows no interest in Camille and little compassion for Fields. He has none of the flashes of wit and charm seen in the previous film. He is cold and focused, which is a part of Bond but not all of him. The action scenes get repetitive. We know Bond is the best; we don’t need to see him take out entire legions of bad guys six or seven times a film.

    The villains are too numerous to keep track of. Instead of a primary villain and a top henchmen, we get Mr. Green (who is a pretty decent villain), a forgettable general and a bunch of Quantum members who simply vanish. The Bond girls are OK, but their chemistry with Craig is almost non-existent.

    The plot is a bit silly. As Gregg Eastebrook pointed out, the statement that governments change hands in South America every week is wildly out of date. Since the fall of communism, South American governments have been very stable with only Honduras experiencing a coup, if you consider it a coup, which I don’t. Then there’s the exploding hotel …

    FInally, the action scenes are simply terrible. Craig is fine, the directing is fine. But the editing is so chaotic, so ADD, so rapid, you can’t tell what’s going on. The parkour chase in Casino had rapid editing, but it was coherent, with a depth of field and a shot selection that kept the viewer oriented and on the edge of their seat. The action scenes in Qauntum are almost unwatchable.

    This move just frustrates me. With some competent editing, some more tension and intrigue instead of action and some chemistry between the leads, it could have been very good. As it is, it’s completely forgettable. I watched it two hours ago and I’m already having trouble recalling it.

    Fortunately, the Craig era, after some delay, is marching on. I’m cautiously optimist about the next film. Sam Mendes is directing. Javier Bardem, a superb actor, is playing the villain. Hopefully, Mendes can get back to what made Casino so good and move Bond more toward the polished agent he’s destined to become. The hard edge has been fun; now it’s time to soften it a bit.

    This has been a fun series of posts. I’ll have one last post to wrap things up before moving on to my next project.

    Near Year’s End Linkorama

    Tuesday, December 13th, 2011
  • Virginia deregulates business that have no business being regulated. Now if only we could get Pennsylvania to go along.
  • This article, which has top 10 lists for everything, is like crack to me. Help!
  • Also this. I shudder to think how productive I’d be without the internet. I agree with what they say about why the Republican Presidential field is so silly.
  • Most powerful photos of 2011.
  • The Healthy 1%

    Sunday, December 4th, 2011

    Some attention has been focused on a recent analysis that health care costs are highly skewed. Apparently, 1% of patients accounts for a fifth of all healthcare costs. For half of us, our healthcare costs are only a few hundred bucks a year. For the top 1%, they exceed $100,000.

    I’m not sure what the point of this is. The very idea of health insurance is to insure against catastrophic illness. $100,000 is the cost of a moderate to bad health problem. That 1% is not a static group; people move in and out as they get sick or healthy. We don’t need government to tax us all to help people pay bills; that’s what insurance does. The only impact his has on the healthcare debate is to either link mandated coverage with mandated purchase — i.e., prevent people from waiting until they’re sick to buy insurance. It could also argue for high-deductible plans that only cover disasters.

    Naturally, this is being used to argue for all kinds of other things. Preventative care is a big one. But as I’ve noted, preventative care does not save money even if it saves lives. It’s also being used to argue for end-of-life planning, which I support but is unrelated to this.

    Really, I don’t know this stat has suddenly become so big. Healthcare doesn’t cost much until you need it. We knew that, didn’t we?

    Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, December 4th, 2011
  • A magical photo.
  • Turns out there are only four or five degrees of separation.
  • Cracked again, this time on gadgets lying. I always wondered about my laptop battery.
  • This is very true; says the man who just bought an iPad.
  • I should blog more on Israeli efforts to discourage Israelis from marrying American Jews. This is not the first time I’ve encountered that attitude. And it won’t be the last.
  • Visualizing Bach

    Sunday, December 4th, 2011

    SImply awesome:

    I love baroque music.