Archive for December, 2008

MY BEST FILMS LIST OF 2008 (I only saw 22 films this year, so it seemed like choosing ten of them was skewing the odds a bit—here are eight for 2008:
1. Wall-E…likely, there is no explanation needed here & you’ve probably seen it and thought it was pretty amazing yourself. (There is hope for us tubs of lard!)
2. The Dark Knight…same as above (except for the tubs of lard part). I will say that I wasn’t that blown away for the first 20 minutes, but then…something changed, and it became unbelievably captivating for the next two hours. Except for the part where he drives the “Bat-pod” up a wall—a sell out moment in an otherwise powerfully engaging, intense and haunting film. Christopher Nolan is pure gold (pretending Insomnia never existed).
3. Son of Rambow…now this may require a bit of explanation. A British film which some list as being released in 2007—but since it had it’s limited release here in May 2008 & because I’d love to sing its praises, we’ll include it in this year’s list! When I originally heard the pitch (two English kids remake “First Blood” using home video cameras) I was uninterested. Somehow, I ended up seeing it and deeply enjoyed every single moment. It transported me back to the transitional years between my childhood and adolescence with it’s 80’s setting & soundtrack, had me laughing loudly at the stunts the kids do in their film (obviously effects of some sort) and hit some deep places with its depiction of one of the young boys who is part of a Plymouth Brethren church (which places a high value on separation from secular culture), yet who feels drawn to creative expression, particularly as a way of dealing with his father’s death. Don’t make the same mistake I did—see this soon!

This movie is bloody good.

This movie is bloody good.

4. In Bruges…another example of a film I had no desire to see—I couldn’t quite tell what it was even about from the preview. But someone (perhaps YOU?) recommended that I see it & I’m so glad I did—the acting, cinematography, script are all excellent. It is dark humor on a pitch black scale, but there is also tremendous beauty and some glimmer of hope and redemption in this story of two hitmen running from the aftermath of a job gone very wrong. If you need a happy ending, don’t watch this. If you can deal with a morally complex dark comedy, this should be mandatory viewing. It’s sad that marketing almost killed this for me (the same thing happened a few years back with Moulin Rouge!).

The advertisements may suck, but the film does not.

The advertisements may suck, but the film does not.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button…I almost jumped out of my seat when the screen FILLED with buttons in the first minute of this film (for some psychologically undiagnosed reason, I can’t stand buttons), but it really is an incredibly engrossing & lovely film. I deeply enjoyed all 3 hours of it and was actually holding in HUGE SOBS at the end. After I left the theater, I started thinking maybe there were some problems with the plot, a bit of sentimentality glazing the characterizations (the old folks home in the movie seemed pretty idealized) and that on a subconscious level, the whole last third of the film may have been an apologetic for irresponsible parenting (I won’t give away exactly how this works), but on the whole, it was just incredible viewing. David Fincher is one of the great cinematic geniuses of our time.
6. The Fall…my friend Katherine, whose taste I implicitly trust, recommended this & as I was watching it, I became seriously bummed that this film seemed to fall under the “buzz” radar (it took a few years to even GET a release, but was “presented” this year by none other than David Fincher!), however it does make sense that something as odd as this would miss a big audience (as a film, it’s kind of a blue rose). Roger Ebert put it on his year’s best list and I’ll just point you to his review for further details. The visuals (set design, cinematography, etc.) are simply unparalleled in my mind.

Criminally underrated.

Criminally underrated.

7. Prince Caspian…this is a bit of a surprise to me as well. But I thought this was an excellent piece of fantasy—I found myself lost in the world of the film in a way I had not since the final Lord of the Rings trilogy (certainly not in the first Narnia movie). I’m not a C.S. Lewis purist, so perhaps that helped!
8. Iron Man…you saw it (over 500 million served!)—superb superhero film of a comic that I frankly knew nothing about. Robert Downey is the freaking phoenix.

Films I Wish I Could Have Seen that Might Have Made It On the List, But Which I Will Probably Not See in the Next 3 Days:
Transsiberian, Pineapple Express, Blindness, Slumdog Millionaire (update: saw it, loved it–it would probably fall somewhere between 4-5 on this list), The Brothers Bloom, Revolutionary Road, Synecdoche, New York, Waltz with Bashir, Defiance.

Any additions from your viewing of 2008 films? Anyone else remember the 70’s show “Eight Is Enough”?

Bibleman Begins!

Bibleman Begins!

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Merry Christmas


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Weakly Wonderings (I)

Just wanted to post something so that I don’t have to think about those odious unions every time I turn on the interweb viewing apparatus (this site, unsurprisingly, is my home page).

A few concepts I have run across in my journeys along the way of getting superhigh on information:

1.  “Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”.

While observations of relevant work environments and human behaviors in these environments is a very important first step in coming to understand any new domain, this activity is in and of its self not sufficient to constitute scientific research. It is fraught with problems of subjective bias in the observer. We (like the experts we study) often see what we expect to see, we interpret the world through our own personal lens. Thus we are extraordinarily open to the trap of apophenia.

Conrad originally described this phenomenon in relation to the distortion of reality present in psychosis, but it has become more widely used to describe this tendency in healthy individuals without necessarily implying the presence of neurological or mental illness.”

One example of apophenia is “The Dark Side of the Rainbow“:  the synchronization of the Pink Floyd album “Dark Side of the Moon” with the video from “The Wizard of Oz” which supposedly produces a number of interesting “moments of perceived interplay between the film and the album.”

Better when high?

Better when high?

Other examples include the face of Jesus on a pancake, hospital window, tortilla, etc. etc.

2.  “The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness. It was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, and has been linked to Ernst Jentsch‘s concept of “the uncanny” identified in a 1906 essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”. Jentsch’s conception is famously elaborated upon by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay, simply entitled “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche“). A similar problem exists in realistic 3D computer animation, such as with the films Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf.”

During your times of trial and suffering when you saw only one set of footprints...that was when I carried you.

During your times of trial and suffering when you saw only one set of footprints...that was when I carried you.

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Live Greedy, Work Union

UPDATE: Just saw this link on Drudge.  So is this where UAW dues go?  I did not know that unions purchased real estate and such as part of their function.  Just remember, they’re fighting for you!

A $6 million golf course on $33 million lakeside property.

A $6 million golf course on $33 million lakeside property.

There is currently a debate going on in the actors union SAG, over whether to strike in January because of their contract.  SAG is fighting over payments, benefits, and residuals for internet and alternative media productions – much as the Writers Guild did at the beginning of this year.  However, as you can imagine, during this tough economic time there are many film & television workers that aren’t actors and who are desperate for work.  A mini-protest took place last night at the Kodak center where SAG members were meeting to discuss the strike.  I worked in entertainment for 7 years, and saw all that is good and evil about unions (mostly evil) and only left the industry when I lost my job because of the writers’ strike.  This continues to impress upon me how unions are constantly held up as helping Americans, when here in fact we can see that it hurts far more than it helps.  When the writers went on strike for more money they simultaneously affected every other worker in film/tv: cameramen, grips, trucking, construction, office production assistants, director’s assistants (my role), and many others.  But it also spread outside entertainment.  In Los Angeles there are hundreds of ancillary businesses that rely on film/tv production; local restaurants, paper supply companies, water deliveryman, etc.  The overall financial impact of the strike was presumed to be between $400 million up to $1.5 billion dollars.  I’ll let you guess as to whether that money will ever be made up by the new wages garnered with the writers’ new contract (answer: no).

A similar situation, differently framed, is now playing out with the Detroit auto bailout and the role the UAW (United Auto Workers) has in it.  During congressional negotiations to potentially rescue the Big 3 (which I’m against anyway) the apparent sticking point came down to the auto union who refused to renegotiate their contract early and possibly lower wages.  Again, the union is acting for the “benefit” of Americans, specifically (and in reality – only) their workers.  Rep. Senator Bob Corker had the plan for the negotiation:

If Sen. Corker’s plan had prevailed, with UAW support, many believe it would have had 90 votes in the Senate. GM could have gone forward with a clean-as-a-whistle balance sheet under a three-part restructuring plan that included a $60 billion bond-refinancing cram-down, a renegotiation of the $30 billion VEBA health-care trust, and a pay-restructuring plan that would put Detroit compensation levels in line with those of foreign transplants Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and BMW.

Average compensation for the Detroit little three is $72.31. Toyota’s average wage is $47.60, Honda’s is $42.05, and Nissan’s is $41.97, for an average of $44.20. So Corker’s idea was to bring that $72 a lot closer to that $44. (Corker notably knocked out Korean carmaker Kia, which has super-low wages.)

That means the average Detroit auto worker has a salary of $150,000, while the average American working for foreign auto maker’s is $92,000.  So it makes more sense to cripple your companies and have them go bankrupt, then to possibly make less than 150K a year?  Now these numbers include benefits and pensions, so it may not equal cash coming home, but even still it is somewhere over twice the amount of the average American worker.  And it is still a hell of a lot more than I get paid, which doesn’t include benefits or pension.  The point is that because of this union a few hundred thousand workers are making decisions that affect 300 million Americans.

I don’t want this post to drag on too long so I will end it here.  But be sure that there will be more posts talking about my hatred of unions because of their many tactics: forced enrollment, opposition to secret ballots, inability of workers to determine use of dues for political activities, tenure, strikes, anti-competitive behavior, and more.  For those interested please see the video I posted on my about page of Milton Friedman’s Free To Choose series episode on labor and unions.  It is followed by a round table discussion with union reps, economists (including a very cool looking Walter Williams) and Friedman himself.  It’s from the 70’s so be prepared.

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Welcome to (old) record reviews, where Pete forces himself to listen to all of the records in his collection and shares his results.  Greg, Elijah or Mark, please explain to me how to abbreviate the portion of this that appears on the front page so I don’t dominate the blog.  Thanks.

Artist/Band: The Album Leaf

Album: An Orchestrated Rise to Fall
Genre: Indie instrumental mood music
Year bought: probably 2001 or 2002
Price paid: Somewhere in the neighborhood of $13
Vinyl availability: not sure.  It might be out of print, but I’ll sell you my copy if you want it.
The Album Leaf
Even as I was buying this album I was thinking to myself ‘man, The Album Leaf is a stupid name for a band, or a guy, whatever this is.’   (As an aside, there are some bands that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to because I hate their name so much, bands like Fountains of Wayne.   The Album Leaf is not in that category, but still a stupid name.   Then again, I do love, or at least like, a handful of bands with names that I hate, like the Flaming Lips, so I try to be careful about my vows).  Why then, you ask, did I purchase this piece of vinyl?  I don’t even really know.   I think I had heard one song somewhere and thought it was nice, and maybe I was looking for some mellow instrumental music to play in my classroom.   But, as I realized with this record, there’s mellow, and then there’s boring.

This album is plenty mellow and, at times, pretty, but it’s ultimately forgettable and uninteresting.  It’s the kind of album that catches your attention quickly then fails to hold it. It’s kind of like the musical equivalent of a recent Wes Anderson movie – it looks great, sounds great, and feels great, but it ultimately reveals itself to be lacking in substance, a bit too self-conscience, a little pretentious and slightly empty.   (Boy am I gonna get flayed for that one, huh?).

The Album Leaf is the brainchild of Jimmy LaValle, who was in the equally generic and over-hyped Tristeza.  When I still thought I liked this record I emailed him once to ask him if he’d play a show I was trying to put together.   So maybe I’m just a little miffed that he never emailed me back (even though I realize in hindsight that I probably would have ignored the email as well). But I’m pretty sure I would hate this record regardless.

The album defining song: How do you know when an album is pretentious?   One tell-tale sign is if you can’t figure out what the damn songs are called.  The first song on the second side, which may perhaps be called “this river deep,” which actually comprises the entire second side, is probably the closest thing on here to a song a like.  If Yo La Tengo or Papa M took the basic groove of this song, reworked it, added a few parts and chopped it in half it might be a great song.  As it is here, it’s a decent melody treated as if it’s the most epic riff ever strummed, playing over and over for 20 minutes.

Number of times I’ve listened to this record all the way through:
three or four times.

What did I learn from listening to this album again?
I suspect that I brought a little too much bias into the listen.  I did enjoy the second side more than I was suspecting, but I certainly wasn’t left feeling like I wanted to listen to more.

How this album stands in the Album Leaf/Jimmy LeValle discography:

I have no idea.  Needless to say, I’ve never felt compelled to risk money on another Jimmy LeValle effort, though I have heard a fair share of Tristeza here and there, and I thought it sucked. Has anyone heard other Album Leaf records?  Do they get better?

Essential rating: 1
I’ll reserve the “0” mark for records that I’m flat out embarrassed to own.  This record does not embarrass me, but if someone wanted to give me $6 or $7 for this album I’d take it, like, right now man.


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Weekend At Bernie’s

In the midst of all our financial turmoil has come the doozy of a story about Bernard L. Madoff and his $50 billion dollar ponzi scheme.  This really is a tragic tale, and one that has hurt a lot of investors including many pensions, trusts, non-profits and, interestingly, foreign banks as well.  It has already begun, but the loudest call that will come out of this will probably be that we needed more government regulation to protect against this fraud.  This reaction is a continuation of the tendency of many to think that government is faultless and private interest is faulty.  But that is a curious proposition to make since the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that already regulates the stock market investigated Madoff several times and never discovered the fact that he had fabricated his returns.  In fact the SEC has problems of their own, and are apparently able to be manipulated:

Bernie had a good reputation at the SEC with a lot of highly placed people as an innovator as somebody who speaks his mind and knows what’s going on in the industry. I think he was seen as a valuable resource to the commission in its deliberations on things like market data.

In contrast it was private individuals and firms that felt a fraud was being perpetrated and gave the tips to the SEC to investigate Madoff over the last decade.  Individuals who were personally invested in their own interests practiced due diligence and felt uncomfortable with Madoff and decided not to invest, and then warned others and the SEC.  As former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt says in the link above, “A very skillful criminal can almost always outfox the regulator or the overseer.”  But he didn’t outfox those individuals who truly investigated his company.

And this goes back to an argument I am constantly making about responsibility needing to lie with individuals and not government or regulators.  This is probably one of the core elements of true conservatism, that with individual liberty comes individual accountability.  This applies to mortgages and welfare, and it certainly applies here.  People push for ever larger regulation and government because they want a guarantee for something that they don’t want to pay for with their own time or money.  If my house price goes through the roof I want the reward, but if it tanks I want the government to bail me out… I want to blindly give money to this fund, but if it turns out to be a fraud, it’s the government’s fault… If I practice behaviors that others don’t and become pregnant then I want the government to pay for my child. When we feel that there is a federal net to catch us from every fall, then why not jump every time?

And if you think I believe in leaving people out to dry, I don’t.  Individuals and private interests are more than up to the task of helping people in need and giving generously.

UPDATE: Forgot to add that I was inspired to write this post after reading John Hinderaker’s post on Powerline.

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It is very easy to become depressed and cynical when the news you hear all day is peppered with sobering economic forecasts, climate change concerns, and terrorist warnings.  My friend Mark (not myself…I’m not that narcissistic) and I were talking and he told me that he is rather pessimistic about the future, particularly our energy resources and consumption.  I told him that I many times feel the same way, until the Technology Quarterly in The Economist comes out.  Then I read about all the innovation and advancement that is taking place worldwide, and I get a boost of enthusiasm for where we are headed.  It is always reassuring to me to know that there are people, businesses, schools and governments out there that are pursuing exciting and beneficial ways to improve our world and our lives.  Well the newest Quarterly is out; check out the link above to read it online, or better yet get a subscription so you can enjoy it every time it comes out.

Here’s some of what you’ll find in this Quarterly:

  • Better stoves for developing nations
  • Surgical sutures made from cows’ blood
  • Reduced energy consumption at telecoms firms
  • Digital-cinema projectors using lasers
  • Enhanced ballot encryption
  • Industrial wastewater treatment
  • Space solar power
  • Wind power update
  • Abu Dhabi zero-emission city?

Always a good read.

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