Monday, June 28, 2004

Notes on Dodgeball 

Actually, we saw this movie like a week ago. I just don't really have much to say about it. It was funny, I guess. Not that funny, but funny. I guess.

The thing that really bothered me was how amateur it felt. It was like it was slapped together. I'm not expecting a movie like this to be brilliant, but there is a certain minimum level of competence that you should have before attempting it. Transitions feel forced, and when the movie finds itself in an unexpectedly optimistic situation, it subtly proceeds to kill a main character with a falling sign. You know, to restore the tension. It wasn't even that funny. The Naked Gun movies were way sillier, but at least they could hang together from scene to scene, and not feel so heavy handed.

Also, the movie is filled with lots of totally unfunny gags. Apparently a cameo by a has-been celebrity is now a sure-fire joke that cracks people up (I'm not counting the Lance Armstrong thing here) four or five times in a movie. And can someone please explain to me the "Joanie Loves Chachi!" thing? Does anyone actually get that? Is there something to get there? I know it was a show, but I don't see how yelling that at them right then is funny. Everyone must have seen it 40 times in the trailers and commercials, yet they still laughed again. I must be missing something. On the other hand: "ESPN 8. The Ocho."

Monday, June 21, 2004

Attack of the Tower Cranes Posted by Hello

This was even cuter in real life.  Posted by Hello

Friday, June 18, 2004

Why I Use Mozilla Firefox 

About a year ago, I switched over to Phoenix (as it was originally called) as my regular browser. I always felt a bit uneasy in it, since it had a few rough edges. A lot of the preferences dialogs had "Fixmes" in them, and Flash wouldn't work without running the installation again (which is a pain when the thing is only distributed as nightly builds without an installer). Of course, this was only questionably a bad thing: not having Flash installed removes a lot of ads. But it also makes watching Strongbad Email a pain. But over time, I felt that the nightly builds were getting more unstable, so I gave up on it for the time being.

A few days ago, they released a new version of Firefox, as it is now called. Joel Spolsky has mentioned before that he had switched to Firebird (as it was then called; long story...), but he went ahead and gave it another plug.

Now, I definitely feel ashamed for having such a strong preference here. Certain things are so ubiquitous and common that getting a real hot-rod version of it would rightly peg you as a hopeless dork. The browser has obviously crossed into this territory by now.

The only problem with such obviously true things is that they are often wrong. If you don't care that much, you're probably using IE6, which came with Windows XP when it shipped in 2001. That's a long time to use a program which hasn't changed at all. Caring enough to seek out and download a web browser might make me a hopeless dork, but it's worth it. You can be cool and manually close all your popups, and tell IE to give you back the status bar again. I'm so done with that.

Using Firefox, I feel like some sort of Geek God. The browser is an extension of my will: I go to links just by typing some of the link text and hitting enter; I open multiple pages in tabs and jump between, all without interference from new windows I don't ask for.

Of course, there are always tradeoffs. It's not all paradise. Like, uh, for example...smooth scrolling feels slightly less smooth than in IE.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Notes on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 

I went into this thing knowing that this movie is just not for me. The whole Harry Potter thing. So this is going to be somewhat high-level:

I thought it was a lot better than the first Harry Potter movie (the only other I've seen). I have no idea what happens in the second book or movie, but it doesn't seem to affect this one at all. This one is way more watchable, not only because the kids seem to be slightly better actors, but also because someone (I imagine it was Alfonso Cuaron) managed to breathe some life into the movie, so it didn't feel so stiff. Cute plot structure at the end, with Hermine's little trinket.

I totally knew that that professor was going to turn out to be a...well, I won't spoil it. But you should look up his last name and see if you find any similar words.

I was quite surprised to learn that Hermine and Harry are not into each other, but she wants Ron. What the heck is that about?

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Notes on The Chronicles of Riddick 

Eleanor Ringel Gillespie in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announces: "We have our first serious contender for Worst Movie of 2004."

(From IMDB)

The movie is nowhere near that bad. To call it that bad just after The Day After Tomorrow, Garfield, Van Helsing, and Hellboy, is unbelievable. I really wouldn't be defending this movie so much if it weren't for how harsh its reception has otherwise been. It's not at all amazing, and it's not as good as the original. But at least it has some imagination; I watched the whole movie thinking, "Why can't George Lucas, and his mountains of money come up with something that feels this imaginative and fresh?" For all the movie's flaws, it's got some original ideas, and Riddick is still a satisfyingly clever and resourceful character.

Unfortunately, the flaws are numerous, and do weigh it down. I won't even compare it to the original, it's just too different. The first thing that would come to mind is my oft-cited complaint about fight scene cinematography: it's crap. You really can't tell what's going on in any action sequence, it's just a bunch of random shots of stuff happening. Cool stuff, maybe, but it's hard to tell because you often can't put it into spatial or temporal context. (One possible exception to this is the fight sequence at the end of the Crematoria chapter; it's so crazy that it seems like they were specifically trying to do the opposite, trying to capture how insanely fast-paced everything was. You even stop hearing what's going on. I'm not sure that it worked, but I thought it was an interesting take on a major, high-stakes fight involving many people that needed to happen in like a minute).

Here's one of the movie's major sins. Pitch Black had a character named Jack, a young blond-haired boy as I recall. Early on, Riddick figures out that Jack is actually a girl. Well, the character is back, only now she's grown up into a lithe, dark-haired woman. The character's past is so inconvenient that she even asks to be called by another name: Kyra. That's not the worst of it. In Pitch Black, Jack thinks Riddick's eyes are cool, and wants to know how you get them. Riddick tells her that you have to be a prisoner, and get someone in there to do it for you. Of course, as The Chronicles of Riddick picks up, Jack/Kyra has actually taken this advice seriously, become a murderer, and gone to prison. She's upset, seemingly because this hasn't actually resulted in her eyes getting shined. Latching onto these minor exchanges in pre-existing material and trying to flesh them out is a leading source of bad writing. Minor, forgettable details that are mentioned to add detail to a character usually become ridiculous when expanded into major subplots or character traits. (The textbook example of this is Abre Los Ojos/Vanilla Sky. I saw Vanilla Sky and had no idea where all those ridiculous subplots about the other members of his company trying to take him over, or his acute fear of heights came from. When I saw Abre Los Ojos again, I realized that they were small, isolated, forgettable utterances in that movie that are never returned to, yet in Vanilla Sky they probably add 15 minutes to the movie in total).

Also, Riddick doesn't always make sense. Several times I found myself wondering what the heck was going on, or who someone was. Were the Necromongers more like zombies, or did they retain free will? I went the whole movie thinking the former, but then it seems to be the latter in the end. What the hell did Judy Dench's character have to do with anything? She narrates the beginning and the end, but then in the middle of the movie, Riddick himself has a voiceover at one point, which is jarring to say the least. That's just sloppy film-making. During the prison sequence, a bunch of weird, dog-like monsters are released on the prisoners, with no context for understanding why this is done. And it's hard to understand exactly what transpires between the mercenaries in the prison guards.

Speaking of those dogs, for a movie that looks so great otherwise, whoever approved those prison dogs should be fired. The computer graphics are so terrible, they're practically cartoons.

Those are the really obvious, hard to forgive flaws. But I'd like to point out some things I thought this movie got right, or at least gave a good effort on. Although some critics savaged the art direction of the Necromongers, I liked it. It might have been over the top, but if the alternative was bland and forgettable ship design like Star Trek and Star Wars, I much prefer the towering statues and cruel-looking helmets in Riddick (and the Necromongers are basically Borg). The bizarre infrared-seeing creatures with the glowing purple helmets are just too cool to forget. When they're sniffing for the main characters, you feel their fear. The isolated locale for Pitch Black really left them with a lot of room to manuever in this department, and they rightly took advantage of it. There was also an interesting coup subplot involving Thandie Newton's character and her husband. It was horribly fumbled by the end, but it had me interested anyways.

Basically, the critics were too harsh here, and if this movie interests you, you should check it out for yourself. Usually when they say "ignore the critics," that's a bad sign. But hey, these are the same critics that largely gave Hellboy a pass (while I thought it was disappointing and forgettable), and held up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as some really deep masterpiece or something. If it weren't for the fact that I hadn't read the reviews before I saw it, I probably wouldn't have, but I'm glad I did anyways even if it's not a movie for the ages. The Chronicles of Riddick isn't a masterpiece (not even close), but the things it gets right are hard to find elsewhere, and that makes its shortcomings all the more frustrating.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

My First Funeral 

Called by the bizarre, unreasonable sight of Constitution Avenue empty and lifeless during rush hour, Claire and I headed out to check out the funeral procession for Ronald Reagan today.

This is sort of a weird event. It's a funeral, but it's more a spectacle to most of the people there. On the street in front of you, is the somberest of ceremonies, and it's a sad event. But all around you, no one is in anything close to formal attire, people are riding bikes, kids are playing with each other, or lifting cameras into the air to take pictures, others are sitting around bored, everyone is sweating in the first really summer-like day of the year, and it's basically another day for everyone behind the little restraining wall.

Claire and I found a spot to stand and watch near 16th and Constitution. This was the place where the procession started, and the casket was to be taken out of the hearse and loaded onto the caisson. We couldn't get very close to the intersection, as it was already packed, and the media got the little grandstand they built, but we did find a spot a ways down, with a good view of the intersection. In fact, we wound up standing right near the riderless horse and the unloaded caisson. The horse had a sword attached to the saddle, empty brown boots stuck backwards into the stirrups, and its hooves were painted black. A severe marine held onto it, but in those 45 minutes that we stood there waiting, it was just another horse, trying to walk around a bit, and somewhat uncomfortable in the middle of the crowd. Other uniformed officers stood guard at regular intervals in the street, mostly US Park Police, but there were also a huge number of guys in suits with earpieces about. We saw a motorcade leave the White House in the distance, but it didn't come by us (I can only imagine it was Cheney or someone like that leaving for the Capitol). A few suburbans with sirens did shoot by, though (and an ambulance, at one point).

Of course, there were also a large number of major asshats standing about, like the lady in front of us who whipped out an umbrella and held it up, blocking everyone's view, and whacking everyone in the immediate vicinity with it at some point. Or the tall guy in a white shirt who shamelessly disrespected other people's personal space while jockeying for position (and had no awareness of the fact that he was blocking the views of most of the women and children about him). And on a day this hot and humid, you really don't want strangers pressing up against you.

Eventually, the motorcade did come by. It was led by a long string of black Cadillacs, which had home-made signs printed on white paper in the windshield, with things like "PALL BEARER" printed on them. Then the hearse came by, followed by two more columns of black Cadillacs and suburbans. The first Cadillac of the right column, the side closest to us (we were on the south side of Constitution), had Nancy Reagan in the front seat. She waved as the car drove by. The hearse pulled into the road leading up to the Ellipse in front of the White House, and the riderless horse and caisson went up to meet it. Nancy Reagan got out of the Cadillac, to applause from the crowd (a man near me remarked, "She took good care of him, that Nancy. My brother had Alzheimers"). A tall marine took her on his arm, and she went over to the casket as it was loaded onto the caisson. Meanwhile, most of the Cadillacs had the people in them spill out and watch (I noticed they had boxes of Kleenex in the rear windshield, but the boxes were ornate gold and black). After the casket was loaded, Nancy Reagan was escorted back to the limousine, to more applause. Then there was a pause, and nothing happened for several minutes. Finally, the wall of white sailors way down Constitution started marching, and the rest of the procession resumed, to one last round of applause.

Keeping up wouldn't have been practical, so most of the crowd just started to disperse. I thought the applause was a bit weird. Usually applause signifies approval, or enthusiasm. That seems kind of inappropriate for a funeral, but then, how else would people express anything to her and the family.

There you go. Like being there.

Update: CNN has finally posted some pictures of the events I saw.
Nancy Reagan
Loading the Casket
You can keep clicking "Next," but everything else was too far down Constitution to see. Good picture of the riderless horse, though.

Another Update: Apparently Charles Paul Freund of Reason also thought the applause was strange.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Notes on the Trailer for Saved! 

Ah, what do I say about trailers? I imagine everyone, at some point, has an experience with a trailer that just blows them away. It makes you want to see the movie, sure. But occasionally the trailer itself is just so brilliant that it can stand on its own. One that springs to mind for me is the original trailer for The Ring, a wordless montage of bizarre, irrationally disturbing images. Thankfully, the movie wound up being just as good, delivering everything the trailer promised. Similarly, the trailer for Dark City was also in this category (the music written for the trailer was so good, it made the soundtrack).

That is the height of trailers. Unfortunately, that sort of thing is unbelievably rare. Aside from the average, forgettable crap you usually see before your movies (the miserable), you also get a fair bit of the horrible. Trailers that spoil the freaking movie (Cast Away, The Sum of All Fears). Trailers that attempt to conceal the fact that the film is not in English (any foreign film).

And then there's trailers that manage to completely sell the movie as being a totally different type of movie. The trailer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind managed to make the movie seem all fun and happy, when really it was depressing and dark. However, it was also completely brilliant, so this seems a minor offense.

On the other hand, there's the trailer for Saved. This trailer is brilliant (I give it an A+), because it managed to fully conceal the fact that the main character, a 16 year old girl at a very Christian high school, gets pregnant. If you watched the trailer, or any of the ads for this movie, you'd be pleased by how funny the first ten minutes are. The rest of the movie is stressful as all hell, and yet it plods along, thinking it can still be a comedy in all this misery. But don't worry, it's also got a very important message it wants to give you.

The trailer didn't conceal the fact that Macaulay Culkin is in the movie, and everyone wants to know: how is he? He's fine. He still stumbles over his lips when he talks, but not as much. Also, he's almost 24, but can convincingly play someone still in high school. Just think, when he's 31, he'll still be able to play college-aged characters. That's got to take a lot of acting ability.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Video iPod, Schmideo iPod 

You want this.

For Mac and PC, of course (a fact that is prominently advertised). This is exactly the sort of product Apple needs to be producing right now, and I hope this is a sign that more and more of what Apple produces will start being produced in this arrangement: the right audience at the right price point.

This thing is sure to be a hit. If you just wanted a wireless router, it would already be compelling due to its size and portability. The wireless stereo aspect is icing, and highly imaginative (sexy, if you will). I would be surprised if anyone else had anything like this even in development as of today, and I imagine that there's something patentable here to give Apple a certain amount of breathing room in the market.

Apple is taking another huge step down the road to creating a unique, desirable product lineup that is highly integrated. The value to stepping into the Apple universe just keeps getting larger and larger for consumers. Just wait til they introduce a wireless iPod. Guess which other products it will work well with. Guess which ones it won't work with.

"Competing with Dell at the low end appears futile." 

Briefly, here's an article published today about HP. Of course, I've never heard of this guy or anything, but we seem to agree about HP's PC strategy (even if I'm not sure I agree with his proposed cure), so I have to mention it.

"We think HP's best course of action is to become the IBM alternative in enterprise computing, since competing with Dell at the low end appears futile."


Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Wall Street Tell-Alls 

I recently finished reading a string of interesting, and somewhat related books about the financial industry. The first is Liar's Poker, by Michael Lewis. The book is basically the story of his four years at Salomon Brothers in the mid-80s. It's pretty fascinating, and very readable, though I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as hilarious, as I've seen others do. It will probably surprise you with what Wall Street can actually be like, and that certainly makes it amusing, though. What I really liked about it was his detailed description of the evolution of mortgage bonds, and how they work. He takes several chapters in the first half of the book to describe this, and it's a pretty good history lesson. He's got a few other detailed passages, but the rest of it is glossed over (understandably so). That section interrupts the story of how he got hired there (he met a managing director's wife at a party, and she decided her husband would hire him), the bizarre training program, what it was like starting out as a bond salesman (they start you off with small accounts, you know, less than $100 million, and leading a few to their deaths before you figure things out is par for the course), and his front-row seat to the crash of 1987 and the spectacular crash and burn of the company.

Monkey Business is a much raunchier look at the investment banking industry by John Rolfe and Peter Troob (who also write from personal experience), and it could probably surprise you even more. From a pure shock/humor/slander standpoint, it's much more entertaining. You wouldn't believe the anecdotes in this book, and really, maybe you shouldn't. But there's something about the casualness with which the authors describe incidents they were personally involved in, like the time when Rolfe got drunk at the company holiday party and decided to piss into a beer bottle under a table which he and his bosses were sitting at, that makes you wonder. Maybe investment bankers really are a bunch of sailors in suits (the authors themselves seem to have picked up the incredibly gross language and lack of shame they describe in their peers). There isn't a lot of economics or finance in this book, though I suppose that's largely due to the fact that there isn't much of that in investment banking itself, according to the book. It's also a sort of inspiring book to read because it paints a very detailed picture of just how crappy life can be even if you are making obscene amounts of money (there's a reason they pay you that much). It leaves you going, "Man, I'm glad I'm not doing their job."

However, better yet is the other book I read recently, When Genius Failed, by Roger Lowenstein. In some sense, this is a continuation of Liar's Poker, which ends at the end of the 80s with the end of Salomon Brothers. When Genius Failed is about the huge hedge fund created by John Meriwether, the head of the arbitrage department at Salomon Brothers during the period of time Liar's Poker takes place. In fact, he's mentioned throughout Liar's Poker. Meriwether ended up leaving Salomon Brothers, and taking almost the entire group of finance PhDs that made up its highly profitable arbitrage department with him.

They created a company called Long-Term Capital Management, which was essentially their way to continue the highly profitable arbitrage work they did at Salomon Brothers. Arbitrage is a way to make money by exploiting mispricings in markets. For example, where I work, there are two vending machines in different areas of the basement level. One sells my beloved Fig Newtons for $.60, while the other sells them for $.70. An enterprising arbitrageur could take advantage of this by buying all of the Fig Newtons for $.60, and then standing around in front of the other vending machine and offering them for $.70 or less. The difference would be his profit.

As you can see, this only lets you make pennies at a time, since the necessary discrepancies tend to be very small. However, at Salomon Brothers, Meriwether and his group had the tremendous amount of money Salomon put at their disposal to multiply this by. So by going into transactions millions or billions of dollars at a time, they could make great returns, without doing anything other than exploiting what is essentially a mistake everyone else is making. This would be equivalent to doing the vending machine thing with millions of Fig Newtons in order to make those nickels into millions of dollars. Without Salomon, Long-Term needed another swimming pool of money to make arbitrage profitable for them. So they went around and got billions of dollars invested into the fund, which they then leveraged into over a hundred billion dollars to make all their trades. Obviously, this degree of leverage is incredibly risky. By the time the firm spectacularly collapsed in 1998, it had over a trillion dollars in derivatives obligations (If you're having a problem picturing what a huge exposure that is, the federal budget in the US is around $2 trillion a year, the GDP of the United States is around $10 trillion a year, and world GDP is around $40 trillion). The Fed feared a systemic collapse of financial markets and managed to broker a private bailout, but the principles left with almost nothing.

I found this book much more interesting than Liar's Poker. The one big problem with it is that it sometimes doesn't do a very good job of explaining many of the financial concepts necessary to understand it all, which can result in the book sounding like a lot of gibberish for pages at a time if you're not familiar with the terminology. The author also writes from a very skeptical standpoint about arbitrage and derivatives, using the collapse of Long-Term as an example of how it's all a big house of cards, and these instruments need to be highly regulated, and so on. I don't know that he's wrong, but I don't think Long-Term's demise proves his point. He himself points out that Long-Term's biggest losses were due to tremendous, unhedged directional bets that turned out to be wrong, way more than any problems with their financial models (though those problems were substantial). The bigger problem was that the principles of the firm, smart as they are, were too confident in their intelligence and seemed to think they could do no wrong, taking risks that everyone else (including the two Nobel Prize winners in their partnership) thought were foolish. So the book is also incredibly satisfying, as you see these guys tumble terribly due almost entirely to their own arrogance.

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