Monday, August 30, 2004

Notes on Hero 

I was prepared for another monstrous failure of a movie, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I was very pleasantly surprised.

This movie has an interesting story that goes with it. Nameless has killed the three assassins that have been trying to kill the king, and the king has summoned him to hear what happened, see the proof, and provide the bounties for their heads. Instead of being so straight forward, though, the story tellers are lying, and hypothesizing. So you see the same scenes played out in different ways, Rashomon-like, depending on who is talking/lying/theorizing. It's a wonderful narrative device, and really pulls you in, making you more and more curious to find out what's happened. (Perhaps it is this aspect, the fact that most of the movie plays out as storytelling, that made me find the ridiculous martial arts totally tolerable this time).

In any case, I don't need to tell you much else about the movie, other than that I think it all works well together. You've seen the trailers, so you know that the cinematography and directing is great, and the acting is, well, as good as it gets in this sort of movie. It's a great time.

Notes on Blow Out 

This movie is the exact opposite of The Quiet American: It starts out really good, and winds up being awful by the end.

It's kind of a weird concept: John Travolta accidentally records the sounds of a presidential candidate's car going off a bridge. Strange as it may seem, this sound recording is the evidence that the tire was shot, and not simply a freak blowout. When the car goes over, John Travolta dives in and pulls a girl from the sinking vehicle, saving her life. Obviously, their situation puts them both in danger. Surprisingly, this much works.

So, Brian De Palma directed this movie, and he's a really talented director who seems to enjoy making crappy films. The movie has an interesting visual style that is fun to watch; I'm thinking specifically of the opening sequence from the point of view of the serial killer, and the montage sequence of John Travolta getting sounds for the movie he's working on (There are a couple of other scenes that were well-handled, but you probably wouldn't want me to tell you). De Palma treated this movie like a serious assignment, and even though it wasn't, the movie is better for it.

The problems start coming in, though. Nancy Allen's character, the girl who was having an affair with the politician, is unbelievably ditzy. It just wouldn't be acceptable to make a female character this ditzy today. I didn't know it was still acceptable in 1981, but it happened. It gets annoying.

Despite the interesting initial setup, the movie doesn't end up deliving on any conspiracies or anything like that. There's a mysterious character with entirely unexplained motivations who performed the assassination, and he continues to be the bad guy for the rest of the movie, as he attempts to clean up loose ends. Seriously, you never find out who wanted to kill that politician or why! As unsatisfying as that is already, it gets worse.

See, the bad guy, in trying to kill Nancy Allen, accidentally kills some other girl. So his solution is to go on a killing spree, so that when he actually kills Allen, it will look like she was just another one of the serial killer's victims. In fact, he shows surprising devotion to this coverup idea (in the process, you get to witness a very touching love scene in a phone booth).

The ending is when this movie is slam-dunked into the dumpster. It's totally inappropriate, unsatisfying, and so incredibly misguided, it's almost funny. It's a shaggy sdog tory ending.

Notes on The Quiet American 

As this movie started out, I didn't like it much. It felt slow, and I had a hard time swallowing some of the things that happened in it. For example, proposing marriage to someone you hardly know in front of their boyfriend. I just couldn't really buy that whole situation.

It gets better as it continues, however. Set in the pre-war days in Vietnam, Michael Caine is a newspaper reporter, and Brendan Frasier is a doctor from the United States on a foreign aid mission. Despite the movie's initial awkwardness, Caine finds himself on the trail of a political conspiracy. Somehow, that American doctor always seems to be in the middle of things. The movie is sad in several ways, but the writing and acting is great (the directing is low key).

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Mac mentioned tablets in a comment to my last post, and I know there's also been some rumor about this from Apple recently. I think tablet computers would be a great achievement, but they're not there yet. I think there's big problem they need to solve thoroughly before they become useful.

There are some places a computer just can't help you. I can't take notes on a laptop very easily, unless I'm just going to be writing things down. Some classes or meetings probably could lend themselves to that. For example, since I type very fast, a laptop would probably be useful for me if I were to take a history class. In fact, I often wanted a laptop when I was in history, as I was madly scribbling down everything that was being said. That's kind of a special case; I could never take notes for just about any other class on a laptop.

The value of having information in a computer is in the ability to search and manipulate it easily. Microsoft's tablet PCs are ridiculous because they miss this point entirely, they just let you draw pictures. There is no understanding of what you wrote, just a picture of it. This is a kind of shocking failure to understand why computers are useful.

Obviously, converting handwriting to text would be amazing. But if I could have a tablet that would just let me search my notes, written in my own handwriting, even in a simplistic way, it would be extremely useful. I don't know much about handwriting recognition, but I know enough to know that it is an extremely difficult problem. Still, perhaps a tablet computer has some advantages that can be exploited. Instead of facing the problem of recognizing a given image as a character or word, a tablet computer potentially has information on the order of the strokes, the velocity and acceleration used in making the strokes, and adjacent markings. Perhaps if you kept whatever the user drew as a picture, but kept this additional information around, then a query could be performed that would use knowledge of English words to try to guess what you wrote (like cell phones do with the letters on the number pad) and match your search word. Who knows? I sure don't, but I have to think that this technology has a lot of potential for improvement.

In any case, I think this is the big question in any tablet product. Of course, I'm only saying an answer to this question is necessary for tablets to take off, it's not clearly sufficient.

Update: Hm, it appears that I had some misconceptions about how Tablet PCs work. They DO have handwriting recognition, apparently, and it seems pretty decent. You CAN search your handwritten notes, too. That's great. I probably won't consider one until I could take notes for an econometrics class and then search for a Greek letter. But still, good stuff. It's gonna get there. I'm particularly impressed with software like OneNote and Grafigo, which will help recognize the shapes you draw. This sort of thing is vital. As good as the text recognition of Microsoft Journal seems, it doesn't appear to understand numbered lists or indentation of paragraphs.

Also, apparently handwriting recognition is way better than what you can get in current products. Check out this online demo, I was very impressed with how well it recognized my mouse-renderings of my already strange cursive. Hopefully Apple has something really great here.

Another Update: The more I look into this, the less I like Tablet PC. It is actually a full-on Windows XP system, just with some tablet-related additions. This might work, but I think it's probably too cumbersome an interface for that sort of general purpose use. I wouldn't want to have to use a pen to navigate around on my PC, that doesn't strike me as a very comfortable interface. What I would hope for is something a little more special-purpose. Something thin and light, and with software more like a simple notebook. Aside from writing, drawing, and querying it, I'd probably prefer to connect to my main computer to do anything more advanced with it. Perhaps this explains why those Tablet PCs are so unreasonably priced.

Who wants to sit there browsing the web with a pen? Chatting on AIM by writing instead of typing? Navigating heirarchical menus? Doesn't strike me as a particularly great user experience.

What's Next 

About a year before Apple announced iTunes for Windows, The Register spotted a job posting on Apple's site. It called for a Windows programmer for the iTunes team. Wasn't hard to figure out what that meant.

This one is a little bit harder, but it sounds good, whatever it is.

Monday, August 23, 2004

An Apple Customer 

Finding myself in need of a WiFi router, I went out and got myself an Airport Express this weekend. It's more expensive than a product that would simply fulfill my needs here, but given my incredibly great experience with the iPod, there was never any question in my mind that I would go to Apple for this.

The device is wonderful, of course. It comes in a stylish package similar to that of the iPod; a sky blue fold-open box contains the device nestled inside and the disks and manuals are in a little paper folder on the other side. I simply can't bring myself to throw away the box for Apple products. It's not the usual piece of crap that is filled with partitions, empty space, and useless slips of paper (manuals, rebate offers, and ads) sliding about, which you must dig through and half-destroy to get your stuff.

In fact, that pretty much describes the box my ugly, clunky DSL modem came in. Apple, can you possibly design your next version of Airport Express to have a DSL and/or cable modem built right in, so I can get rid of that awful piece of junk and its associated wires? My modem is big, but it's feather-light and obviously full of empty space. I would gladly buy the Airport Express again in a year if you would do this for me.

This burning desire I have to give Apple more money makes me reflect on their current direction. In the past six months, I have bought nearly $500 worth of goods from Apple for myself (more if you count presents). I have managed to avoid purchasing any services from them, but walking to the record store 6 blocks away is starting to feel more and more like a chore these days and I don't know if I'll hold off forever. A year ago, I hadn't been responsible for a dime of their revenue since before 1996. I had no reason to give Apple any money at all. Now, not only am I buying whatever electronics I can from them, but I find myself standing in their stores as I do so, thinking, "I mostly just use the web, iTunes, and AIM...this Mac would make all those much nicer."

The fact that Apple now has several ways to make money off of someone like me, who is firmly in the PC camp and almost certain to stay there for the foreseeable future, is a good thing for them. The market seems to agree, just check out their stock: it's doubled in price in the past year or so. Note that Apple announced the iTunes Music Store on April 28, 2003, an event that is clearly reflected in the stock. This looks even better when you compare it to the stock market's performance for the same period: Apple has outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, and the Nasdaq Composite. In fact, compare it to just about anyone: Microsoft, Sun, IBM, Intel. Obviously, we shouldn't read too much into this, and it would be idiotic to suggest that this is the beginning of some road to domination for Apple. Nonetheless, the fact that the market seems to think Apple is twice as valuable as it was a year ago is significant and impressive, and I think it largely reflects Apple's success in finding ways to sell things to more people than it was a year ago.

Notes on Maria Full of Grace 

This is also a pretty good movie. Acting, writing, direction all get good grades. It's really depressing and stressful, though. Definitely not the Feel-Good movie of the year. You shouldn't watch it right after Jacob's Ladder or Kids or Thirteen or anything like that.

Notes on Jacob's Ladder 

If you asked me to name an Adrian Lyne movie, I would have only been able to name his version of Lolita (which I actually liked a lot). I didn't find out he did Jacob's Ladder until the opening credits rolled. Now that I look into it, Adrian Lyne turns out to be responsible for a lot of horrible movies, like Flashdance, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal. But I was impressed by Jacob's Ladder.

The movie reminded me a bit of The Cell; it's kind of an excuse to show some really disturbing, confusing imagery. But that makes it sound like it's no better, and really it is very good. Instead of some contrived trek through a disturbed mind, it's a strange "What's going on here?" movie, kind of like The Sixth Sense, or Abre Los Ojos. It certainly kept me interested to the end, and the solution in the end didn't wind up being as dumb as I expected (However, it did have some unnecessary aspects...the movie would have worked without some of what is revealed).

In any case, I found it thrilling and creepy, and pretty worthwhile if you're into that sort of thing.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Fisk You 

I normally think fisking is a bit too aggressive and nitpicky to generate anything worth reading, so I hope Macneil will take this in the good-natured way I mean it. He simply said a lot of things I disagree with, and commenting piece by piece feels like the most natural way to rebut such a long piece.

(for a low-quality article, check out this reasoning
free article
from the editor-in-chief; I've seen less
annoying writing styles in articles about sports bras in women's magazines).
I've found that (giving the benefit of the doubt and other concessions for the
sake of argument) the high-quality articles are well-reasoned but that they
reflect poor values. A good example is
an article by
Jacob Sullum
on the same topic of the poorly-written one
(and in the same issue! why did they bother publishing the other

I don't think Nick Gillespie's article is an example of bad reasoning. It is an example of an Editor-in-Chief writing a small article introducing a themed issue (the physical magazine, which often contains things not on the website, might well have more articles). It's a common thing, especially in magazines that don't come out very often (Reason is published 6 times a year).

At heart, here's what I think libertarians value:
Economic growth
Consumer choice

Well, you always get into trouble when you tell people what they value. That's why I'm not going to say anything about what I think you value. That said, it's probably true that libertarians value those things, but that isn't what defines them, in that it's not the framework that they use when reasoning about what they believe in.

I think both sides recognize that either extreme is bad: corporations without
anti-trust laws become oligarchies; while governments that control what is good
for us and bad for us become, well, oligarchies. What the conservatives need to
realize is that capitalism only works when it has regulations. What the liberals
need to realize is that many kinds of regulations can create devastatingly
negative effects: markets have an amazing ability to balance out (provided
collusion isn't part of the equation), and the wrong regulations can lead to
economic "inefficiency," which is a technical way to say that resources have
been wasted without much benefit.

You keep saying this thing about capitalism only working when it's regulated. I have no idea what that means, or what your evidence for it is. I'm not aware of any economic theories that state that, and when you examine markets that are unregulated, there doesn't seem to be a general breakdown in the capitalist system. Perhaps what you mean is that you don't like what capitalism looks like when it's not regulated in the way you want.

Why do I value economic growth, innovation, and consumer choice? Do
I value these for the principles that they are? No. I am closer to a pragmatist,
not to an ideologue. I value these things because they increase the quality of
life. Freedom is a fine corollary to concerns for quality of life: it's hard to
imagine "the good life" if it doesn't have choice. However, no one is an island.
If we give someone the "freedom" to pollute a river, he is affecting the quality
of life of everyone down the stream. Pollution is a good example, because it
shows clear effects of one person affecting others, and how it's immoral to
allow one person to do something that would kill hundreds.

Again, I think you're putting words in people's mouths. Anything can sound offensive if you replace the word "ability" with the word "freedom." Libertarians do care about freedom, but that doesn't mean they would agree with the construction "you should have the freedom to kick people's teeth out." You don't seem to understand what the word means, or where it applies. Obviously, anyone's freedom to any action is firmly bounded by other people's freedoms, which might act in opposition. Freedom is the ability to make decisions about the things that affect your life, not anyone else's. The freedoms, or lack of freedoms, that people get upset about are things which aren't anyone's business but yours: what you read, say, buy, think, and do with the things that belong to you, who you love and associate with, and how you manage your own body.

In any case, you might validly think freedom can easily and safely be traded for comfort and happiness. My impression, however, is not that libertarians are weirdos who value an abstract notion like freedom entirely apart from what it brings. On the contrary, I think they are concerned largely with slippery slopes. The question is, how does one articulate a principle of government that you can use to guide you for the long term? You can't do it with short term pragmatism.

This is largely the problem the framers of the Constitution were attempting to deal with, and is why the document is so short and vague. I think the framers did a pretty good job, but over time our attitudes towards what it says have changed. We rediscovered some of the freedom it grants us over time, but we also invented roles for the government that it wasn't originally intended to fill. The commerce clause of the Constitution is used as a backdoor by congress to legislate pretty much whatever they want at the federal level, for example. For what it's worth, many libertarians consider themselves to be simply restating what Thomas Jefferson and many of the framers thought and wrote about the role of government.

If you accept vast expansions of government like that, you can find yourself somewhere that you didn't want to be. Here's a simplistic example. If you're accepting of the notion that the government (taxpayers) should pay for everyone's healthcare costs, then it makes perfect sense for the government to have a say in whether or not you smoke, and how much you weigh, and perhaps other things too. Or, if you're accepting of the idea that the government (taxpayers) should pay for everyone's retirement, then is it any surprise when decades later your country has a very low savings rate and huge long-term debt obligations which will require significant tax increases?

You might think that either of these are no big deal to you, and that's a fine opinion. Libertarians tend to have a different opinion, and think that if people bear the costs of their own actions, and are given the benefits of their labors, they will be properly incentivized and most able to make decisions for themselves without affecting others (ie, that that situation will maximize personal freedoms). In the above example, if you bore the cost of your own healthcare, you could smoke if you wanted. And if you bore the costs of your own retirement, you would save money to retire in an account, and then withdraw it when you retire (Social security is often said to work "kind of" like this from any individual's perspective, which might lead you to wonder why it doesn't just work exactly like that). In any case, if you feel that the idea of the goverment having a say about how much you weigh, or whether or not you smoke is disturbing, you would rationally and validly be against the principles that led to such an expansion of the role of the government.

I think it's similar to the minimum wage: Some libertarians cry
that the minimum wage is unfair and hurts more people than it helps. So, suppose
we eliminate the minimum wage. In the libertarian's wildest fantasies, the
economy surges to never before seen highs, and quality of life explodes. Now
imagine in this libertopia that a new minimum wage of two cents is instituted.
Suddenly, the economy crashes, there is a great depression and millions suffer.
Does that sound far fetched? It should. Because the point I'm making here is
that some rates of minimum wage will have no practical effect, whatsoever, in
the real world. And, indeed, leading economists believe our current minimum wage
has a very negligible effect, and the same goes for John Kerry's proposal for a
$7 minimum wage (which Bush is starting to echo as something he finds
acceptable; funny how the Great Divider moves toward the center in an election

I would agree that many libertarians think that, and it's probably true that the minimum wage doesn't have that big an effect when it is kept low. But you could just oppose it on the leave-me-alone principle. If a given job I want done is worth less than the minimum wage to me, and someone is willing to do it for less than the minimum wage, who are you or anyone to interfere in a transaction that is agreeable to the two of us? Yes, it might not have that big an effect, but that's not a good enough reason. In reality, people do have a reservation wage, the threshold at which they will choose to work. Few people would value their time such that they would work for $0.02 an hour, or any wage below their reservation wage. This is like a free market minimum wage: if you want to hire someone to do something, you must pay more than their reservation wage.

I don't enjoy taxes out of some Robin Hood aesthetic of justice. I
value them because they can be used to help protect and promote what we value;
particularly when the market itself does not have the right incentives in place
to do so on its own.

Well, you can't get any sort of agreement on "what we value," for the most part. You seem to mean "what I value." There are plenty of things that benefit everyone equally, like national defense, crime prevention, roadway and telecommunications spectrum coordination, and so forth. No one would argue that these are very valuable, only doable by a central authority, and that we should use taxes to fund them. However, most of our taxes don't go toward that sort of thing, they go towards transfer payments from one group of people to another. Someone could very validly agree with the value of using the power of government to transfer wealth around.

Again, this is about protecting against the abuse of power. Government is an apparatus that is difficult to fight against or dismantle. The more powerful it is, the harder it is to fight against when it is behaving badly. You might appreciate a benevolent use of government power, but the power of government provides powerful incentives to those who wield it. The Constitution was designed to fight against that and, for example, Washington, DC was put in a god-awful location so that a permanent group of rulers wouldn't spring up. For government to do the things that you value requires government to have incredible power that is open to gross misuse.

By the way, you really should read that paper on slippery slopes that I linked to.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Getting Your Ass Kicked 

Last night we went out to Baltimore with a bunch of coworkers to watch the Orioles have their asses handed to them 11-0 by the Oakland A's. Of course, just about everyone else was rooting for the Orioles. I was with the A's, not only because they're from California, but also because of what I read about them in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Once one of the poorest teams in baseball, the A's manager Billy Beane started using statistics and thinking strategically to pick up players that no other teams wanted, but which nonetheless had solid ability to get on base. By grinding out runs with singles instead of homers, the A's started winning spectacularly.

That strategy was apparent last night. When the A's were at bat, they would usually get on base, or get the bases loaded, in a process that would last for ages before they finally got three outs. When the Orioles were at bat, it was usually three quick outs. It took several innings for anyone to make a run, but it was pretty obvious from the very beginning that the Orioles were facing inevitability. (Of course, they also sucked: they brought in a relief pitcher who almost immediately walked a guy while the bases were loaded. Apparently this was inadvertent, because he then threw the next guy a really easy pitch out of desperation, and that guy hit a homerun. That guy was immediately switched out, and replaced with a guy who hit a player with a wild pitch).

Now I wake up and find that apparently Google has gotten their ass handed to them by the market. Apparently people weren't up to paying top dollar for an asset whose only worth to them is the possibility of its increasing in value. It's fitting and ironic, coming from the "Don't Be Evil" guys, since the whole point of their auction process was to guarantee that most of the value of the IPO would flow to them. Of course, this isn't really that big a deal for them, since it's just their huge IPO being downgraded to a slightly less huge IPO. It is embarassing, though.

Lastly, I somehow missed the news on monday that SHA-0 and MD5 have been broken! Apparently SHA-1 is on the way to being broken as well. I found this on Volokh.com today, strangely enough. This is huge news! (The CRYPTO conference, held in lovely Santa Barbara every year, has a history of major cryptanalytical announcements; it's where Adi Shamir announced his differential cryptanalysis technique).

Monday, August 16, 2004

Notes on Collateral 

When Michael Mann makes a movie set in LA, it's always a treat for me. He seems to frame the city I am so familiar with better than anyone. Collateral was good, but it wasn't his best. It feels like the sort of movie that a very talented director can toss off because he's bored and doesn't feel like working too hard.

Almost everything is great. The directing is fantastic, as is the cinematography. The acting is excellent. The dialogue is pretty good, the action is very exciting, and the whole thing is suspenseful. It's a pretty good movie. (Like I've said, you can tell I liked a movie when I don't say much about it). What has nagged me about the movie is a bunch of little flaws.

Early in the movie, he turns on the radio while driving around with a woman, and it's a nice montage of LA at night. What made it great was that the song he plays is "Hands of Time" by Groove Armada. But apparently this was not the song they originally intended to play, because the woman remarks, "You like the classics, I see?" The song came out in their CD Love Box, which came out in 2002. OK, that one is really minor, but it took me out of the movie. Even if you weren't familiar with the song, it's obviously not anything commonly considered "classic" in this day and age.

The main problem I had is part of a larger problem with Michael Mann's villains: they're really cool. In Heat, Robert DeNiro was way more bad ass than Al Pacino, and you're sorry to see him lose. Similarly, Tom Cruise's Vincent is a totally terrifying guy. Tom Cruise runs and kills with a calm, ruthless efficiency of movement that looks very powerful on the screen. He seems unstoppable, and indeed, survives hoards of professional goons. Yet in the end (and this a spoiler warning for you people out there), he is killed by Jaime Foxx standing dead in front of him, emptying a gun at him. Jaime Foxx is untouched by the similar barrage from Vincent. I'm OK with the bad guy losing, you don't really want him to win, because he's so terrible. But such a cool character deserves a better defeat than that. It's so especially disappointing in this movie because it's so damn implausible.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Bad Interviewing 

Now here's something interesting from Econopundit, for a change. Check out this interview with Ray Fair in the New York Times, by some asshat with the slimmest fraction of his intelligence. Claire and I read this maddening interview at the same time, incredibly frustrated at the interviewer. She doesn't seem to understand that you can want someone to win, and believe that they won't, or that he might actually be motivated by a desire for a deeper understanding of what drives elections than what he wants to have happen.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Bad Economics 

Econopundit strikes again. When I read this, I immediately thought "What are you talking about?" His claim that there hasn't been a monthly decline in job growth since April is simply not true. Here's the payrolls data from January 2003 on:

DatePayrolls (Thousands)Change from Preceding Month

So clearly there was a decline in payrolls until September 2003. What he's done in his chart is pick the exact way the data seems like it says what he says it says. So instead of showing the absolute change from period to period (what most people look at), he shows the percent change from period to period. Here's what the percent change from period to period looks like:

DatePercent Change from Preceding Month

Right here, you can see why people don't look at the percentage changes. If gangbusters payroll growth is March 2004, and that's only 0.25% percent growth, what is the point? The payrolls seem to only grow by certain amounts each month over time (around 200 to 300 thousand a month in times of expansion), but since jobs accumulate, a "good" payroll increase is a decreasing percentage change over time. In other words, a 250,000 payroll increase 30 years ago is a larger percentage change than the same increase today, but it's still just as good of an increase in employment. It's kind of surprising, actually. This makes the percent changes uninformative.

But ignore that. It still doesn't look like his claim is correct, does it? So he applies a little more fudge, by rounding the growth rates to one digit. Well, then you get his chart.

DatePercent Change from Preceding MonthPercent Change Rounded to 1 Digit

As you can see, not only does this now make it look like there wasn't actually a decline in jobs in those first five months after April 2003, but it also exaggerates the growth for September through December, by almost doubling the growth rate in those months. He's hidden a decline of over 130,000 jobs and called it "zero" because it's broken up into enough periods that the percent changes were rounded away by the arbitrary precision he chose.

But even still, all this isn't really the point. The working population is growing all the time, and so people enter the labor force. That means that simply having zero jobs growth is actually a decline in employment in percentage terms. In fact, economists estimate that you need about 150,000 new jobs a month just to keep up with population growth. So a smaller monthly increase isn't actually anything that people get excited about. From this perspective, only March, April, and May (and November, barely) are consistent with an increase in real employment.

Notes on The Manchurian Candidate 

My thoughts on this movie would probably be much more complete if I had seen the original Manchurian Candidate less than 6 or 7 years ago. As it is now, I can only remember the basic outline of it, and certain memorable scenes. Fortunately, I don't aspire to a full "review" of anything, I just share my thoughts.

It started off with a lot of potential. The beginning was interesting, and pretty creepy. Somewhere in the middle, though, Claire turned to me and informed me she was bored. That's too bad, I thought. But then I realized that I hadn't been actively engaged in a while. I'd just been waiting patiently. Pretty soon, I was bored too. It was like the movie was geared for a slow boil, and had just kinda turned down the heat. In the last part, the movie actually crossed into my hostility zone. When Meryl Streep reaches up to French kiss her son, that was it for me. The ending happens to make no sense, as characters inexplicably and against the logic of the movie do the exact things that allow a happy ending to happen. Whatever.

The acting all around was excellent. I can't think of a single person who wasn't totally on top of their game in this movie.

The political stuff was a bit weird. I've seen it said that Meryl Streep bears a remarkable resemblance to Hillary Clinton in this movie, and I'd agree, at least in terms of costuming and makeup. But that's about where the resemblance ends. I can't even imagine how you'd try to make some argument about the political agenda of the movie from this, though. It goes out of its way to not tell you whether the guy is a Republican or Democrat (the most unrealistic thing in the movie is the way the political channels put the senators' names up, but without the little R or D). The politicians in the movie stick to pretty safe themes: strength, security, integrity of the political system. This modern version replaces the communists with today's reliably unoffensive evil guys, a multinational corporation ("Manchurian Global").

Remaking a movie doesn't have to be a hopeless exercise. But producers are going to have to learn how to do it intelligently. They seem to pick amazingly great, beloved classics, like The Manchurian Candidate and Psycho, or the best of foreign films, like La Femme Nikita. Films you can't reasonably hope to better. I guess the attraction is that if the old one was good, you're already close to a good movie. Too much of the movie-making process is unpredictable, though. To make truly great films, too many different things must come together just right. When it happens, it's wonderful, but you can't plan on it happening. Instead, it would be better to pick up old movies that were flawed but still had interesting aspects, and remake those. Then movies that might have been bad due to factors beyond anyone's control have a shot at being seen as they were intended, and you're creating something better than what was out there before instead of something worse. Think The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean's 11.

Snowball in Hell... 

...hailstorm in DC. Yes, that's right. Yesterday, in the middle of August, it hailed in DC. Big hail, not the little sand pellets. That is all.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Reason on Fat 

There's a great article over at Reason right now about the "War on Fat." I recognize snippets of many of Jacob Sollum's earlier articles on this issue here and there, but it's still a great read. Here are some excerpts:

In some respects, Brownell does not seem to have the courage of his collectivist convictions. When I facetiously suggested at the AEI conference that, rather than tax certain foods (which might be eaten by the thin as well as the fat), the government should tax people for each pound over their ideal weight, he objected. Brownell’s complaint was not that such a system would be tyrannical because how much you weigh is your business, not the government’s. Plainly, he doesn’t believe that. Instead, he worried that a weight tax puts too much emphasis on individual responsibility rather than the environment. But if the prices people pay for food are part of the environment that encourages obesity, so is the price they pay for being fat.


Technological improvements in agriculture and processing have made food so cheap that even the poorest people in developed countries can afford to eat more than they need to survive. (Indeed, the poorest Americans are the fattest -- an astonishing reversal of the relationship between wealth and weight that prevailed for most of human history.) Work is much less arduous than it used to be, Philipson notes, so "the price of spending calories has gone up....Exercise has been pushed from labor to leisure." Rather than getting paid to expend calories, we now pay to do so, whether in leisure time or in money spent on health clubs, exercise equipment, and outdoor recreation. Labor-saving devices from the car and the washing machine to the remote control and the networked computer mean that we expend fewer calories away from work as well as on the job. We can choose from an amazing variety of entertainment options, many of them sedentary.

All these developments have contributed to our expanding waistlines, but as Philipson puts it, "We are better off being fatter and richer. I would not want to go back." Given this reality, it’s rather disconcerting to see Brownell and Horgen proclaim, "Fundamental changes are necessary, because fundamental economic factors are central to the obesity epidemic."

Barbarians at the Gate 

Another thing I did this weekend was finish reading Barbarians at the Gate, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar.

The book is the story of the strange and gargantuan buyout of RJR Nabisco. If this sounds boring, it's not, it's actually fascinating. In a leveraged buyout, or LBO, a company will be bought through some combination of cash and borrowed money (a combination of bank loans and bonds). The debt is then paid down over time through the cash flow of the acquired company, drastic cost-cutting, and the auctioning off of pieces of the company.

RJR Nabisco was a very rich company, with its tobacco operations bringing in billions of dollars a year in profits. The CEO, Ross Johnson, got interested in the idea of a leveraged buyout of the company. However, he also liked living the good life at the company's expense. He lived in expensive company-owned houses and apartments, kept a fleet of company limosines, and actually had a ridiculously luxurious airplane hangar built for the use of the company's executives. Actually, for their "Air Force" of private jets for the use of the top executives, all paid for by the company.

Not wanting to end this wonderful lifestyle with the aggressive costcutting necessary to pay down debt, Ross Johnson got together a group led by Shearson Lehman to perform an LBO. Shearson Lehman was trying desperately to get into the LBO business, and since RJR Nabisco would be the biggest LBO to date by an order of magnitude, it was willing to give Ross Johnson anything he wanted. This included giving an incredibly large share of the equity (approaching $2 billion) to Ross Johnson and 6 other top executives. Ross Johnson wanted it cheap, since keeping the debt low would make it easier for him to keep his perks. So Shearson Lehman bid around $75 a share, and tried to close the deal quickly, before anyone else had time to get a competing offer in. Since the stock was currently trading in the 40s, well off its highs, it was supposedly a good deal.

The problem was that since this was a public company, when the bid was made, the board of directors had to announce it publicly and hear any competing offers. And any cashflow-based valuation of the company made it obvious that $75 a share was way too low; the company was worth between $82 and $111 dollars a share, perhaps more. To date, all LBOs had been done with the cooperation of the company's management, since their detailed knowledge is required to understand where costs can be cut, and so forth. However, the announcement of Ross Johnson's LBO bid touched off a frenzy, as every major investment bank and LBO firm realized what was happening and tried to get a piece of the action, with the management group or without it. Since they were buying with borrowed money, the bidding price (and thus how much needed to be borrowed) was largely determined by the cash flows that the company could bring in. Well, the prices didn't stay anywhere near $75 a share.

The company eventually sold for around $25 billion dollars and went private. But the last couple hundred pages of the book are absolutely thrilling, as investment bankers desperately claw to outbid, outmanuever, and backstab each other, while throwing around dizzying amounts of money.

id Software Makes a Game 

This weekend, I did something that I haven't done in quite some time: get a video game. And what a game.

As you can probably guess, the game is Doom 3. It's quite different from id's previous titles in that it's an actual game, and not just some playable technology demo. I hesitate to say this, because it will almost certainly lead you astray and set up expectations that it can't fulfill: It's more like Half-Life. Which is not to say it's like Half-Life. It has borrowed a lot from Half-Life, but it's not the same type of game. If Half-Life was like an action movie, Doom 3 is more like a horror movie. I'll explain that more in a second, but first I want to explain a little better about the Doom 3 atmosphere.

Doom 3 is not as amazingly interactive as Half-Life was. You can't shoot the soda machines until all the cans come spilling out. But it definitely has a very vivid world you can walk around in; gigantic machines pound away, and the martian surface is convincing. You start the game and walk around the facility, watching them go about their work, or overhearing their conversations, and trying to figure out where you are supposed to go, just like Half-Life. People are walking around doing things, and there are real areas, like restrooms, offices, a kitchen, reception desks, lounge chairs, and so on. Eventually, just as in Half-Life, things go wrong and all hell breaks loose (actually, it happens somewhat more suddenly than in Half-Life, but you get the idea).

So, it takes good stuff from Half-Life (stuff that really, everyone should be taking from Half-Life by now). It's really not Half-Life with better graphics, as much as you might want that. If you play Doom 3 alone at night in the dark (I practically have to, the game is so dark that playing in daylight makes it almost impossible to see), it is scary. I have not finished the game, but the variety of ways that they have come up with to freak you out is astounding. It can leave you battered after a couple of hours of play; you walk into a new area and see all the grates, vents, cabinets, large, intricate machines, broken doors, columns, already-dead-bodies, and can see all the ways that something is going to pop out at you. And then something will rip through a staircase you were about to climb up, a new creature will come scampering down the walls at you, or some other thing you've never thought of. There's plenty of false alarms, too. Panels busting open, things breaking as you walk over them. You'll be walking around, wondering if you hear too many footsteps. You stop: did they last too long, or am I alone? Since the game is largely in darkness, you need to use your flashlight to get around, but you can't have a weapon ready while you're using the flashlight. Even worse is the darkness you're plunged into as you arm weapons and start firing. Perhaps the most sickening feeling is turning a dark corner, poking around with the flashlight, and realizing that you're standing right next to some grotesque, eyeless zombie staring silently at you for a moment before attacking. Things whisper in your ears, you get visions, you find bizarre altars with candles and slow, demonic laughter. Like I said, it can leave you feeling battered. Man, I really don't want to crawl through this ventilation shaft, you'll say.

This probably sounds ridiculous if you haven't tried it. Like I said, the graphics make it all real. The number of texturing passes gives every surface in the game a level of believability that hasn't been seen before. You can see the ridges on the back of your knuckles, and the light plays across the texture of your skin on the back of your hand. That's true of every surface in the game. The weird growth that oozes over the base has a pronounced shininess, which plays off all the bumps and veins in the growth, and makes it seem wet, pulsing, and real. When you find yourself with a zombie in your face and a flashlight in your hand, you can see it shining off his pupil-less eyes and every one of his teeth, and into the belly button of his engorged stomach. It's disgusting, you just want to put some distance between it and you. Obviously, the other major component of this is the dynamic lighting. When you open a door and walk into a room to find the single hanging light fixture still dancing around from whatever was just there, making shadows play around the walls from every surface and object in the room, you really buy it.

The lighting and normal mapping are obviously the two biggest tricks to make your mind buy the visuals on the screen. But there are a ton of wonderful little touches that make the world feel real. The first thing I noticed was the window glass. The windows in the game aren't just flat sheets with a transparent texture. They actually subtly distort what's behind them, just like real windows! You walk past a long window and can just barely make out the subtle warping effect of the glass. When there's a source of heat, like a fire, or a hot machine, it also warps whatever is behind it, in perfect imitation of the frenzied rippling you would see in real life. You can see yourself in mirrors. The lighting can simulate the ultra-white lighting of a welding torch too, a glow that some machines throw off. In multiplayer, you can see your own shadow. There's a physics engine too. So when you are stuck in a cramped office with some zombie jumping through the window at you, and you're trying to put some space between the two of you, you can hear and feel yourself knocking over chairs and desk lamps and boxes stacked in the corner as the two of you thrash about.

I was surprised how well it ran on my system. I run it at 1024x768, "Medium" quality. Normally I have an aversion to "Medium," since it usually looks like crap and has lower resolution textures. In Doom 3, it should really be called Perfectly Good quality. Only in "Low" quality is the texture resolution lowered. In "Ultra," all textures and maps are uncompressed (probably not realistic for any card out today). In High quality, all the textures and maps are compressed except the normal maps. The only difference between High and Medium is that in Medium, the normal maps are also compressed. Since the compression is lossy, this does visibly affect the quality of the image. However, it's not that bad. Most surfaces you can't really tell, and if you don't know what to look for, you might not see it at all. It's only on the really round, detailed surfaces where this lowers the quality. If you play the game on High first, and then walk around, you'll notice some objects here and there that don't look as good, but it's way preferable to lowering the texture quality.

Overall, it's just a fantastic game experience. Not as incredibly detailed as Half-Life, but it's incredibly intense. You won't miss the functioning sinks and hand dryers. However, what it did make me miss was Marathon. Seeing how this remake had reformed a crappy, simplistic game like Doom into a wonderful, gripping experience made me wish Bungie would give Marathon the same remake treatment. Doom 3's hallways are freaky and real, but they made me miss the haunted elegance and architecture of the Marathon. Doom was always about being scary and aggressive (demons). Marathon was less scary and more surreal (the moody, flickering lights everyone is going crazy over in Doom 3 were present in the original Marathon, for example). And it was certainly more engaging. As fun as getting freaked out by Doom 3 can be, I can't stop wishing it was Marathon being reimagined instead.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Read This 

I know my faith in the dynamism and innovation of markets is totally old-fashioned and all that, and yet I persist. I've never been able to work up any anger or concern about the dangers of media consolidation, and I continue to be totally unconcerned. So anyways, I just wanted to point out this excellent article in Slate by Jack Shafer.

Flipping through the Big Five portfolio, we come to Viacom, which New York magazine's journalist/investor James J. Cramer calls a slow-moving, easy-to-sink battleship at the mercy of nimbler competitors who have invested more wisely in video games, satellite radio, Internet search engines, and video-on-demand.
"Those are the companies with the better models, the better technology that has, in an incredibly short period of time, stolen massive amounts of the fuel that powered Battleship Viacom: the viewers themselves," Cramer writes.

I just love the idea of a guy who is repeatedly updating his book about the coming media apocalypse for two decades, against a backdrop of rapid technological change, contrary evidence cascading down about him from the heavens.

While you're at it, I've always loved this wonderful little spasm of sarcasm from Charles Paul Freund in Reason.

Markets—including media markets—never reach equilibrium, something that their critics have never figured out. Left to themselves, media markets remain in flux, changing with the varying roles the media assign themselves, or are assigned by their users. Of course, there is one way to leech the dynamism out of such markets: regulate them.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Notes on The Village 

How bad is this movie? It's so bad that Roger Ebert gave it one star. Although Ebert does appear to give half-stars, it's worth noting that he gave Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle three stars. (I suspect that despite this, I still won't be able to get Claire to see Harold and Kumar with me: "Come on! It's like three times as good as The Village!") The internet has spoken! The Village - 6.6/10, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle - 7.6/10.

Ebert, as well as my favorite movie reviewer, note that you really can't talk about why this movie is horrible without spoiling it, and so with the critics asked not to spoil it, it's hard to get the message out. Obviously, this really worked to the movie's ($51 million) advantage, but I got the message that it sucked when my friend Niels assured me on saturday night that it was "excellent." In any case, to make sure that you don't get confused, and think maybe I'm just being too harsh and you should check it out anyways, I am going to spoil the movie.

See, there are no monsters. The village elders dress up in these costumes made from twigs and red cloaks, and it's all done to scare anyone from leaving the town. Why? Because if they did, they would find that they're really living in present day, in a walled off nature preserve owned by William Hurt. Apparently the elders were a group of people who lost loved ones to murder, or drugs, or something, so they decided to roll back the clock with William Hurt's billion dollars, and start talking like they're in a Charles Dickens novel.

Pointing out how stupid this all is is really too easy, but here are some of my favorites. Why would they think that living like they're in 1850 would eradicate all the modern things they hate? In fact, these people are so messed up that they will watch their children die from archaic diseases and simple infections before they will live in a society with penicillin and antibiotics. It's pretty impressive that they are able to engineer such amazingly great (two story!) houses, and weave patterned fabrics, and build some mighty fine furniture, and sustain what must be very productive agriculture, and so on, given who they are, and how small the initial group was and what their background was. Why did William Hurt's character get so backwards? His daughters have to ask his permission to get married, and he tells his blind daughter that when he found out she was blind, he was "ashamed." Where did this all come from? Surely if you were separating from the rest of the world to create a place of "innocence," you could bring along some of the ideas a modern person would have thought fair and just.

In the beginning, the monsters are crossing the border and leaving skinned animal carasses all over the place. Well, that's never explained by the end. Who was doing it? Why? William Hurt mentions that it was "one of the elders," and it's been stopped, but what was it about in the first place? And what's with the colors? Red is the color that attracts the monsters, and yellow is "the safe color," but this is never explained beyond that. Why are colors important to the system the elders have set up? Certainly doesn't have any effect on anything that happens. See, the thing about a twist is that it has to be based on something that you have assumed or been led to believe for the whole movie. This "twist" is just that basically, the thing they talk about for most of the movie ("the towns") isn't what you think it is. Doesn't do anything, and doesn't really affect anything. It's like the twist in Identity: Oh, it's all in some guy's head? Big deal, doesn't affect anything we really cared about during the movie, and now you don't have to make any sense of it all either. Great.

Worst of all, this movie commits the most unforgivable sin a movie can commit: it's boring as hell. It's slow, unimaginative, and passionless. There are no fright beats, and nothing really creepy or disturbing happens. The only possibly exciting scene is when the blind girl is trying to get through the woods and comes across one of the monsters. This provides one of the movie's only scenes of actual suspense, or it almost does, if you hadn't already been told that the monsters are fake. You know the monster chasing her has got to be someone from the village, but the real question is not "who is it?" It is: "Why is a villager able to snort just like a wild boar?"

M. Night Shyamalan is obviously a pretty talented guy. He has a great eye, and can obviously handle suspense. What's really sad is that he seems to think that he has to put some cheap twist at the end of his movies for them to be interesting. It's like he doesn't believe in his own talent. He doesn't seem to have another Sixth Sense in him (you can't blame him, one is more than most get), so if someone could force him to direct a good script (ie, one he didn't write), I imagine he would do outstanding work. Also, someone has to stop him from casting himself. His role is much smaller than his role in Signs, and yet he still manages to suck violently, even though you only hear his voice and see his face in a reflection.

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