Friday, April 29, 2005

Why is Deadwood Great?

I've been watching HBO's Deadwood since the beginning. It's clearly one of the best shows on television, but I'm not sure many people can say why. It certainly requires a lot of it's audience. There are many characters and many involved plotlines. Things happen in actions, in conversations and in small glances. You can't do anything else while watching Deadwood except pay complete attention; if you don't, in a few minutes you'll find yourself wondering what just happened.

I think the point is to show us what goes into making a society. In the first season you could literally see the town being built week-by-week in the background of the outdoor scenes. Through all the characters we see lawmakers, businessmen, murderers, theives, doctors, newspapermen, teachers, drug addicts, prostitutes, miners, priests, Jews, Indians, Chinese, black, rich, poor, handicapped, moral, amoral, leaders, followers, etc. And the fascinating thing, most characters are more than one of these. Much is made of Al Swearengen as the bad guy, but he does things to help the town and sometimes the individuals in it, and not just for his own gain (though he wouldn't let that be known publicly). Seth Bullock is (eventually) the town's Sheriff but he also kills in revenge, fights, and commits adultery. Prejudice abounds, in fact everyone seems prejudiced against everyone else, yet they find ways to do business with each other and live in the same town finding roles to fill.

A lot is also made of the cursing in the show. Yes there is a lot of cursing and we're used to not hearing the 'c' words at all let alone this much. But moreso the other words are rich and complex, almost Shakespearian. Let's be clear, no one ever spoke this way. Here's what a salesman bringing the first bicycle to the town says to a crowd: "My bi-cycle masters boardwalk and quagmire with aplomb. Those that doubt me suck cock by choice." In Deadwood, everyone talks this way. but why? I think it's the level setter, everyone's story is worth listening to and no one is above the basest of actions or each other, even if their roles in society are well defined as high or low.

It wasn't until I read this review in Slant that I was able to articulate this, and I believe creater David Milch said this reviewer "got it". I recommend reading it and watching this show.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Bush is Right About Something

43 minutes into tonight's press conference President Bush said that "in 2027 social security will spend $200,000,000,000 more a year than it takes in", and that this was a serious problem. I didn't fact check that and I know that these are just projections at this point but I agree, a $200,000,000,000 deficit is a serious problem.

In the year 2000 the US Federal Government had a $236,000,000,000 surplus. The current projection for 2005 is a $427,000,000,000 deficit. That's a $662,000,000,000 change in 5 years. Now people argue about the deficit as a percentage of GDP or say that it's not the president's fault but the recession's; fine, whatever. My point is, if the president is so concerned about a $200,000,000,000 problem 22 years from now, why isn't he more concerned with a $427,000,000,000 problem today? A problem which popped up in the last 5 years without much warning. Bush's goal is to merely half that deficit by 2009. Oh, and fixing it completely wouldn't help the $7,800,000,000,000 debt we currently owe.

Any why are the democrats so inept at raising it as an issue?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Movie Review: Murderball

Murderball is a fantastic documentary about quadriplegic rugby. It introduces us to the sport, some of the world class players on the US national team, a rivalry between the US and Canada, and culminates at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. A lot of people will be turned off by the topic and not see this film and that is a shame because I can't imagine anyone not liking this film.

The film starts with an introduction to the game. Players play in wheelchairs (obviously) on an indoor court with a volleyball. The players all seem to have no use of their legs and partial use of their arms. They must dribble or pass the ball every ten seconds. They score by crossing a goal line in full possession of the ball. Scores seems to typically get into the low twenties. Those seem to be the only rules. Players ram each other and do anything else to prevent a goal and gain possession of the ball. Their wheelchairs look like something out of Mad Max (or maybe Junkyard Wars) with metal shields and bumpers and are heavily dented from wear. You can see why the game was originally called "murderball". When players topple over, a referee calls time and rights them up.

We then get to meet some of the players and their back stories. Some were injured in accidents others from disease. They describe some of the difficulties of coming to terms with their condition saying it takes about 4 years to get passed the "mind fuck" of it all. We meet a man who is 4 months after his injury, going through rehab and going home for the first time and becoming angry and upset seeing his house with ramps and wheelchair accessible bathrooms and closets, he says it was sinking in that it won't return to normal, that this is now normal. Later on players visit his hospital and explain murderball to him and he's interested and inspired. The players also visit injured veterans returning from Iraq and help them through their healing process.

Jeff Zupan is the current star player for the Americans. He's an aggressive and intimidating player. He was injured in high school when he passed out in the bed of his best friends pickup. His friend while driving home drunk got into an accident and Jeff was thrown out of the truck into a stream where he hung on for over 13 hours before help arrived. His friend never knew he was in the truck and they haven't spoken in years. We're shown their 10 year high school reunion and some of the classmates fill us in on their personalities. A classmate says he was an asshole before the accident and he's more of one now. Joe Soares was the best player on the American team but got older and slowed down and was cut. He was very angry and began a legal battle that ended with him deciding to coach Team Canada. The film highlights the rivalry between Team USA and Team Canada focused through Joe, he'll do anything to win and Team USA calls him a traitor. We meet Joe's family find out how his young violin playing son views his dad and how Joe raises him.

We meet other players too but what comes out is how these people are highly driven and normal people who just happen to be in wheelchairs. They live, laugh, dress, swear, love, fight, and have families just like everyone else. At least one lives on his own and most seem to have active sex lives (it's takes about 20 minutes on average before a girl they meet in a bar will ask if "it" works). Well they're not quite normal, they are olympic class atheletes who travel the world and are highly competitive (Team USA is 12 members picked from 500 applicants). I saw it at the Independent Film Festival of Boston but it's going out to limited release in the US on July 9, 2005. Catch it, this is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen.

Movie Review: Filmic Achievement

I fell behind in reviews from the Independent Film Festival of Boston almost immediately but I'll try to catch up. The first one I want to write about is a mockumentary called Filmic Achievement. In the style of great Christopher Guest films such as This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, this is a fake documentary following freshman film students through their first semester of the directing program at fictional UNY as each tries to win the coveted Filmic Achievement Award.

Delvo Christian is the egocentric one of the bunch. To him French things are better because they're French, he feels his life needs subtitles, to smoke is to live, and the "no light method" is the pinacle of film techinique. When one of the teachers begins the semester by passing around the ego bowl, he's the only one who doesn't deposit his in it. Mike Pack is another student, his goal is to be almost as good as Quentin Tarantino because you don't want to be better than him (I was hearing "This one goes to eleven in my mind during this scene). Constance Van Horn is the feminist in the group, she knows what she wants to say, she just needs a way to say it. She did interpretive dance to the Bee Gees when she was five. We're introduced to more students and to some professors, all play their stereotype parts perfectly.

This film is at times very funny, and at other times riotously hysterical. In the first part we get to know the characters through interviews and filming of classes, in the second part we see them on set making their short films for the contest and then we see the four finalist films. This structure keeps the film from getting boring and works very well. If you want to see a fascinating looking at what making a film is really like, watch Project Greenlight on Bravo. If you want to laugh out loud watch Filmic Achievement.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Movie Review: Lonesome Jim

The Independent Film Festival of Boston started this evening and runs through the weekend. I'm planning on going and seeing a lot so we'll see if I can keep up with reviews. Tonight the festival opened with Lonesome Jim directed by Steve Buscemi and staring Casey Afleck and Liv Tyler. It reminded me a lot of Garden State and I had the same problems with it.

The film starts with Jim returning home, he's quiet, apathetic, depressed. His family is characatures. His mother is saccarine, always bubbly and happy even when things are not going well at home or at work. His father is quiet with occasional outbursts, his brother is similar to him but he had been married and has two young girls. Jim's really not likable, and to prove it he's shown stealing money from his mother early on (just like in Sideways). He uses the money to go to bars and meets Liv Tyler, a nurse, who quickly tells him she prefers hospital beds and then shows him. Various bad things happen to the family and Jim continues his apathy. There's redemption at the end as he takes a step to change but it's certainly not clear it will last. Lonesome Jim has some very funny scenes and some remarkably cruel, cringe inducing lines. It's ok but not great.

One of the advantages of a film festival is that the film makers often show up. This showing was followed by a question and answer session with director Steve Buscemi and the writer and producer. We learned that he likes to rehearse and lets the actors develop the scene. That they shot on small digital cameras and sometimes used two or three of them and he didn't yell cut because digital tape was cheap so scenes could just continue without breaking a flow. The writer's name is Jim and the names of all the family members are from his family. It was shot in his house and at his parents ladder factory, so I imagine there's some autobiographical stuff in here.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Monsters, Dwarfs, and Everything in Between

I went to the third Lowell Series Lecture last night, Monsters, Dwarfs, and Everything in Between. Last week I loved the one on discovering extra-solar planets. This week Dr. Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard Center of Astrophysics talked about different types of stars the largest and smallest and why they are what they are. It's only recently that I started to really understand the relationship between astronomy and the nature of the atom and I'm finding it fascinating. This talk was under an hour and covered a lot of ground so it had to be at a very high level. If you knew this stuff I could see getting bored, but if it was new to you, it's pretty amazing.

She began by reading a bit from an astronomy book of 1912 about what stars are. It said that they were glowing balls of gas and some stars are different colors which probably means different temperatures, that's it. Nothing about why they glow or how. She went back to ancient Greece where the notion that matter is made of atoms came from and Aristotle's four basic elements: fire, air, water, earth. 2200 years later, we basically had the same thing, stars are fire.

The she walked through discoveries at the beginning of the 20th Century about the nature of atoms which could explain what stars are. Max Planck in 1900 found energy is in discrete parts (as opposed to continuous waves) he named quanta. Albert Einstein in 1905 theorized that light is made of photons that act some times like waves, sometimes like particles, and sometimes neither. Ernest Rutherford in 1911 discovered that most of the mass of an atom is in a positively charged core with negatively charged particles around it and a lot of empty space which led to Neils Bohr to publish in 1913 his model of atoms where electrons orbit the nucleus in various energy states and that in changing them emits photons. So in just 13 years we have a model of atoms and how they work and how much engergy is involved in keeping the parts together (positively charged protons should repell each other and negatively charged electrons should be attracted to protons). So what does this have to do with stars?

Stars like the Sun are made of hydrogen and there is a lot of it. Gravity holds all this mass together and the force is strong and builds pressure in the core of the Sun such that the hydrogen undergoes nuclear fusion and creates Helium releasing a lot of engergy which we see as sunlight and feel as heat (it also pushes out from the center, counteracting gravities effort to collapse the star). So what about other stars? Well to get fusion you need 20 million degrees so that's a minimum mass of about 8% of the sun (or 75 times the size of Jupitor). With more mass you get more pressure (more gravity acting) so the fusion goes faster and you run out of fuel and the star dies sooner. At about 130 times the size of the sun the fusion overcomes gravity and the star breaks apart. So those are limits on the smallest and largest stars. When stars exhaust their hydrogen they have helium left. Our sun will ignite the Helium and fuse it into carbon, but it's not large enough to ignite this carbon (you need 8 times the mass of the sun for that). More massive stars can keep this up until they get to iron, which can't fuse into larger elements. Smaller stars like our sun turn into nebulas when they exhaust their fuel, larger ones with iron left will supernova which will turn the iron into the larger elements. Since we don't see that many supernova, it explains why heavy elements like gold and uranium are so rare.

In fact, according to the Big Bang theory, at the beginning there was just hydrogen and helium and all other elements were formed by fusion in stars afterwards. It's why understanding quantum mechanics and how atoms work explains the stars and heavens and everything we are and find on earth. The carbon that's in humans, was formed by previous generations of stars that died and were reformed into new stars and planets. We have theories and formulas that support this explanation and we have conducted experiments whose results match those expected by the theories. Or it could have been that God created everything in six days or any number of other creation myths, I'm enjoying learning about the Big Bang one :).

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The First Hundred Days

Evote asked in 2001 Does the First Hundred Days Matter? and even from the grammer in the title it's pretty lame. They are correct that often we remember presidents not for their agenda (though FDR did well) but how they responded to various events. Fareed Zakaria description of Bush's first hundred days in 2001 is certainly and example of this, who could have predicted 9/11? But if you look at the hundred days after 9/11 Bush and particularly Guilliani did well.

So with two weeks to go in the first 100 days what have Bush and the 109th Congress managed to get done? It turns out not much:
  1. Even before Jan 20 they did one thing, a 133 word law to allow people to deduct charitable contributions to the Indian Ocean Tsunami victims in tax year 2004 instead of 2005. This seems kinda dumb to me, so you get the deduction a year earlier. The tsunami hit on Dec 26, you had 5 days to send your money in if you cared about when you got your deduction, but this probably got more money to the victims so it's hard to complain.
  2. The Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 which gives federal court original jourisdiction in large class action suits.
  3. "A bill to provide for the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo.". Even if you agree with this, by section 7 of the act it can't be used for future precedent (though I think that might actually be precedent).
  4. A bill "To reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant program through June 30, 2005, and for other purposes"
  5. "A bill to extend the existence of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group for 2 years."
  6. "To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to extend the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund financing rate."
  7. Bankruptcy reform

Republicans control not just the presidency but the House and Senate as well. It should be easy for them to get stuff done. Bush said the election gave him a mandate. To be honest, based on what I've seen they want to do, I'm glad they haven't passed more laws. Today on Meet the Press, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) said this Congress has been "incredibly productive" and it's only mid-April. You tell me, is the above a lot? The budget is a shambles, health care is still a mess, gas prices are at all time highs, the economy is weak, and that's just domestic stuff.

I've been reading about startup companies and a lot about the how keeping costs down gives you a lot of flexibility. Philip Greenspun writes about the value of someone who brings in $1 million in revenue while costing only about $200,000. We pay congressmen and senators a total of $84,698,400 and that doesn't include the salaries of the 24,000 congressional staff, for that I estimate another $120,000,000. So in round numbers that's $200 million a year or $50 million a quarter. Is the above legislation worth $50 million? Now don't get me wrong, I don't think these salaries are too high (I'm estimating $50,000 per staffer) and though 24,000 people seems like a lot, I imagine they are all pretty overworked. I also know that government is and should be different from a business. My complaint is the output is far too low, the results just aren't there but I guess everyone complains about that.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Movie Review: Sin City

If you liked Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill you'll like Sin City, but you probably already knew that. It's based on the Frank Miller graphic novels of the same name. Frank Miller became popular in comics in the 80s working on Daredevil, Ronin and then Batman: The Dark Knight. He deconstructs the characters and stories to minimalist form. His art was very rough though quite inventive in breaking free of the boundaries of panels. Over the years it got rougher to the point that I found flipping through Sin City comics was similar to looking at ink blot tests. It was pure black and white with slight bits of color and reduced the scenes to suggestions of shapes or actions.

Roberto Rodriguez was apparently a big fan of the comics and wanted to do a live action film based on them. He used the comics as a story boards and recreated the panels in the film. He did this to the extent that he wanted to give Frank Miller directing credit though the director's guild objected so Rodriguez resigned from the guild. The effect is amazing, a mostly black and white film often without even greys but with a few items in vivid color (a red dress, blue eyes, a red car, etc.) It was shot almost entirely on blue screen but it works much better than the Star Wars prequels, the actors are all strong though often they're just asked to emote. A deconstructed comic becomes film noir and boring rehashed comic book dialog (Miller wrote Robocop 2) becames good mood setting voice overs which advance the story to the next scene. The joy of this film is the visuals.

The three Tarentino-style intertwined stories you'll find either iconic noir or completely disgusting and stupid. You'll need to be able to deal with human bodies as meat to be butchered, there's lot of shootings, dismemberments, beatings, etc. (though often out of frame). The blood is usually shown as pools of solid white (or for one character yellow) and last as long as a glance at a comic panel. I was expecting much worse from the reviews I read before but the film certains earns its R rating. The stories have enough turns to keep them intestesting and while the characters are all crime bosses, thugs and prostitutes every action is either pure evil or heroic. Deconstruction indeed. This isn't as much fun as Pulp Fiction, but it kept me involved for two hours and I'm glad I saw it. And I'm looking forward to seeing the next step in cinematography's evolution.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Planets R Us

Tonight I went to an excellent lecture at the Museum of Science by Dr. David Charbonneau on recent discoveries of extra-solar planets. It was part of the Lowell Lectures on Astronomy series and is archived. Dr. Charbonneau and his colleagues were the first to discover an eclipse of an extra-solar planet across its sun and were also the first to detect the atmosphere of the same planet. It really was getting the information from the foremost authority and better yet, he was a fantastic presenter. Listening to this lecture, I wanted to take all the money Tom DeLay wastes and give it to this guy to do something important with.

Here were the big points. By taking very detailed measurements of the light coming from the stars they could detect the gravitational effects of the planets on the star. The planets they found were gas giants like Jupiter because they have enough mass to affect their star. Oddly they found some very close to their stars with orbits of only a few days, these are called hot giants. We've found about 150 extra solar planets so far. Based on the techniques used it's more likely to find such hot giants. With merely more time to look we should find large planets with larger orbits (detection involves noticing the whole orbit, if that takes 12 years, like Jupiter's orbit, we have to wait at least that long, we've only been doing this since 1995), though to detect planets with less mass may require different techniques.

After this gravitation method they tried measuring the brightness of stars over time and detect a difference when a planet passes in front of (eclipses) the star. These effects were very slight (a 1% difference) but still were done with small 4 inch telescopes, 4 mega-pixel cameras and a bunch of software. Once some of these were discovered they redid the experiment with the Hubble Space Telescope and got much more detailed results that confirmed the findings. In fact they were detailed enough that they would have revealed moons of these planets! NASA's Kepler Mission will use this technique much as Ventner searched for genes with his shotgun method, it will look at a large swatch of sky at look at 10,000 stars at once and measure brightness changes, looking for earth-sized planets.

The discovery a few weeks ago was that they looked at one of these known hot giants in infrared as it passed from behind it's star. These planets give off more infrared light then visible so it's easier to see (particularly when you know exactly where to look) and they got some light directly from the planet which can tell us it temperature and a little about the atmosphere.

I also found out about the Community Solar System which is a scale model of the solar system around the Boston area. The Sun is at the Museum of Science and is about 12 feet in diameter, this is a scale of 1 to 400,000,000. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are short walks from the museum. Jupiter is in South Station and Pluto is out in Newton at Riverside station. In geekiest fashion, at this scale, a normal walk is the speed of light.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Al Franken Radio Show

I met an old friend for dinner and we had good political discussions. We're both big fans of the Daily Show and he recommended the Al Franken Radio Show on Air America to me. I said I've heard a little bit of it but it seemed like the left's version of Rush Limbaugh to me. He said no, Franken actually gives facts. I listened to the first hour of Al Franken today while surfing and took some notes.

Al Franken introduced his show today talking about Tom DeLay. He said: "A man so corrupt that if you looked up corrupt jerk ass in the dictionary you'd find his picture if he hadn't bribed the dictionary to have his picture removed." Ok, it's funny, but this is a man who whinned about the use of the phrase "fair and balanced" by Fox News. Starting off at the Limbaugh level.

Next was a fine comment on how the pro-life stance seems hypocritical. They don't speak out against invitro-fertialization and that process produces extra blastocytes/embryos and why not use them for stem cell research (as a current bill proposes) instead of throwing them out. It's a fine point though he doesn't bring up or have someone representing the other side that this same rationalization could be used to argue that death row inmates should be used for medical experiments, which I think most folks would object to. You can make a fine argument that there's a difference between a blastocyte and an adult human, but that's right back to the pro-choice/life debate. I don't see hypocracy here (though pro-life vs the death penalty has always confused me).

Next was a conversation with Father Guido Sarducci. His old Lazlo Toth books are hysterical, too bad he wasn't that funny here.

25 mins in they started The Oy Oy Oy Show. It's a comedy bit with Franken playing an old Jewish guy getting news about the latests drug recalls, ok. Then they did a new act called Noah's Corner. Talking about the congressional travel controversy (mostly Dennis Hastert I think). The explanation Hastert's office gives is they have to oversee the $20B we spend on foreign aid. Noah says the trips are to England, France and Italy where we give no aid. Though I wonder if we meet with allies to discuss aid we give or other things? I found this NY Times article, that gives far more information and I see that Noah really did twist the facts. Hastert didn't just go to Italy, France and Britain, those were popular destinates for all members of congress. There really is a controversy here but this segment is just flanning flames. Really, this reminds me of Republicans going after Hilary Clinton for TravelGate and how dumb that was. An average of $1,424 for an overseas trip (scewed high!) is reasonable based on my business travel experiences. There might well be something here that a few members over the 10 years of the study had extraneous expenses, but I wouldn't know it from listening to this.

Next on was Christie Harvey (sp?) for the Center of American Progress. Some states wanted to change their Medicare to move seniors into a different drug plan "they've done the research and found a better plan" but the Bush administration said no way "you have to go through the proper channels". And then she and Franken concluded this was a bone to drug companies. Really, no fact given here. Were the plans in fact better? Was Bush's response to mean follow channels to propose a change or you have to buy what we tell you (I thought states have the right to do some of this stuff on their own, I don't know what applies here). I looked up the Center for American Progress and found this good summary. So they are some bright people and they seem to be doing some decent stuff, but they have their clear (liberal) bias too. And there was no time on Franken to get to any of the facts.

The next half hour he had a reporter on talking about the genocide in Darfur. It was all about why hasn't "the christian right" and "the Bush administration" done something. Well the conflict there has been going on for close to two years and they didn't ask why Democrats haven't done anything about it (raised it as an issue perhaps?). Ok, so foreign policy is the executive branch. Franken made some statements about what if we didn't invade Iraq and then stopped even before he gave the guy a chance to respond. It was pure rhetoric meant as an attack on Bush . The US (and the rest of the world) has a long history of ignoring these things happening in Africa (Somalia, Rwanda, etc.) It's something America should not be proud of and we (and maybe the UN) could do a lot more. Franken also made the case that if we did go to Iraq for these reasons we should go fix all the similar oppressions in the world. Well that make be morally correct, but it might make tactical and financial sense to do them one at a time, wouldn't you think? But really I think if you looked at Bush vs Clinton on this, Bush overthrew two corrupt governments that were oppressing their people (Iraq and Afghanistan), you can argue his motives but he did do this. Clinton can claim successes in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia (Kosovo, Bosnia, the Dayton Accords, etc), but did nothing for Rwanda and failed in Somalia. I think both sides have things to be ashamed of and talking about only one and not both doesn't help.

The last time I listened to Rush Limbaugh was about 3 years ago, and if I remember correctly, it was roughly the same stuff as this. Take some facts but not all and do a quick rant how the other side is all wrong. And don't mention at all what you'd propose to do better. I'm certainly a liberal democrat, and I disagree with many of Bush's policies. But I'm more upset with my party's inability to do anything. And I'm most disappointed with what passes as the level of debate in this country and I think both sides are equally guilty. Jon Stewart on Crossfire nailed it, Al Franken hasn't.