Friday, February 20, 2009

Camera Obscura: Nate Silver Predicts The Oscars; Fans Put Whedon in Orbit

The baseball and politics stats analyst and mega algorithm maker Nate Silver has turned his machine and his mind towards Sunday night's Oscar awards. (Though no predictions on whether or not the show will actually attract or interest viewers in general. More on that later. And more later on Weirdest Oscar Nominations.)

Hollywood and the AMPAS folks seem a most likely area for Silver to root around in, as it blends the elements of politics (of the studios and guilds) and baseball's emotional resonance as an American pastime all into one stew. Silver posted his take at his blog FiveThirtyEight, and expanded on how he came to his choices in a story for New York Magazine here.

Formally speaking, this required the use of statistical software and a process called logistic regression. Informally, it involved building a huge database of the past 30 years of Oscar history. Categories included genre, MPAA classification, the release date, opening-weekend box office (adjusted for inflation), and whether the film won any other awards. We also looked at whether being nominated in one category predicts success in another. For example, is someone more likely to win Best Actress if her film has also been nominated for Best Picture? (Yes!) But the greatest predictor (80 percent of what you need to know) is other awards earned that year, particularly from peers (the Directors Guild Awards, for instance, reliably foretells Best Picture). Genre matters a lot (the Academy has an aversion to comedy); MPAA and release date don’t at all. A film’s average user rating on IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) is sometimes a predictor of success; box grosses rarely are. And, as in Washington, politics matter, in ways foreseeable and not."

I'd say he's right on the most part, but seldom do folks who predict the Oscars score 100%. Here is the breakdown:

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (86% chance of victory)
Best Supporting Actress: Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (51% chance of victory)
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler (71% chance of victory)
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader (68% chance of victory)
Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (99.7% chance of victory)
Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire (99.0% chance of victory)

I have to say a word here about Heath Ledger.

I hope he wins for his performance as The Joker in "The Dark Knight". He sadly died prior to the film's release (which jump-starts the emotions, true enough), but his work on screen really defines that movie and is the most notable performance I've ever seen in the sub-genre of superhero/comic-book movies. His work is deceptive. done with such seemingly effortless ease which is in reality a very studied and carefully controlled performance. And he really fills out the notion of what a Villain does in all tales of Good vs Evil -- create chaos for it's own sake, challenge every element of what Good there may be in the world, and as Batman's longtime friend and butler Alfred explains: "
He thought it was good sport. Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."

In many ways, it was a once in a lifetime performance, a benchmark which others will try for some time to reach and surpass.

In a related Oscar-buzzing idea, I ran across a simple question about their Best Picture winners: how many (if any) of those movies do you watch often? Just at a glance, I know that the winners and many nominees from the 1970s are movies I've seen often and will see again -- Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, Godfather Part 2, The Sting, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - to name a few. (Of course, two I will never see again won that decade, The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs Kramer, both movies of mediocre value today). Nominees include Star Wars, Chinatown, Jaws, Nashville, A Clockwork Orange, American Graffiti, Network, Taxi Driver, etc etc.

The 1980s list sure seems proof there was very little of worth to watch outside of a few exceptions, like Amadeus or The Last Emperor. Who seeks out repeated viewings of "Chariots of Fire" (the winner in 1981) versus a competing nominee like "Raiders of the Lost Ark"?

And for the first time in, like, ever, they have an actual actor hosting the show - Hugh Jackman, who has been hosting the Tony awards for several years, has an accomplished stage background and even takes roles like the comic-book cult hero of Wolverine of The X-Men. Is that enough to attract an audience? I doubt it. It's usually the movies nominated that determine how large the audience for the broadcast will be. And awards shows in general are falling in viewership.

I watch because I am an unrepentant movie-addict.


Fanboys and girls like myself are making NASA jump to our tune. They recently announced a chance for folks to vote on what name should be given to Node 3 of the International Space Station, asking just as they have for the other two (named Unity and Harmony). This time, fans of Joss Whedon and his sci-fi TV show "Firefly" and the movie from it "Serenity" got the name "Serenity" on the list of nominees for Node 3.

When I looked this morning, Serenity is winning with 89% of the vote. You can vote too, until March 20th, at this link (voting box is on the lower right hand side of the page).

Take that, Science!!

And be sure and tune in tonight for the continuing episodes of Whedon's new show "Dollhouse". (NOTE: I am not saying this show is spectacular, but I will watch at least five or six of them before I assume to give it praise or not. Just sayin' ...)
The Spaceship Serenity from 'Firefly'


Just a bit more Oscar oddities for your review -- Did you know that nominated movies include:

SHANKS, a bizarre, macabre fantasy about a deaf mute puppeteer (Marcel Marceau) who learns how to revive and manipulate the dead via an electrical gizmo. Alex North’s music was nominated for Best Original Dramatic Score."

or that --

"CHARIOT OF THE GODS nominated for Best Documentary?"

These and others get a thorough review at the Movie Morelocks Blog. Quick, which Steven Seagal movie was nominated for an Oscar??

Thursday, February 19, 2009

GOP's Love of Failure

I'm a loser
I'm a loser

And I'm not what I appear to be

What have I done to deserve such a fate
I realize I have left it too late

And so it's true, pride comes before a fall

I'm telling you so that you won't lose all

That's the song I'm hearing, loud and long, from the Republicans and their political leadership - Limbaugh and Hannity and FOX News - when it comes to economic recovery and their philosophy in general. Having had the majority in federal government for more than a decade, plus a two-term president, all is soured now and is, they say, the fault of others.

Shrieks of outrage over the just-signed stimulus package are percolating across the dense plains of their political echo chambers ... "we were shut out of the process!!" Problem is, that's not close to the truth nor partner to it in any way shape or form.

From the beginning, GOP members lied outright about the contents of the stimulus package, squealed indignantly for the inclusion of every failed Bush fiscal policy one could name, and in the end, did a fantastic job of gumming up the works and muddying the waters in order to thwart the passage of this bill. That they failed is of little consequence; they made their presence known with far more vigor than their dwindled numbers would seem to allow, and all because President Obama wanted to work in a bi-partisan fashion.

In his inaugural address, he promised to reach out a hand to anyone willing to unclench their fist. The GOP responded not only with clenched fists, but with swinging clenched fists. It seems early to give up already, but facts are facts, and Obama needs to withdraw his hand and just wave these people off." (link)

Then there are the words of Rep. Louis Slaughter:

"As Chair of the House Rules Committee, I must clear up untruths regarding the economic recovery package.

We’ve heard a lot of noise across the aisle about how partisan the development of the bill was --- that Republicans were blocked from being involved. This is entirely false. In fact, this was one of the most open processes a bill this large has had in over a decade.

They are being disingenuous, or worse. These are the facts:

The bill, as it came to the Rules Committee, the last stop before the floor vote, already incorporated 12 Republican amendments. The Rules Committee then added the 11 amendments: 6 Democratic and 5 Republican, in addition to a complete Republican substitute, and a motion to recommit. They were unable to muster the votes necessary and lost on bipartisan votes. House Republicans may have come together to vote against the final bill, but they split on their own amendments with 40 to 60 Republicans voting with Democrats. Some Republicans even voted against their party’s alternative bill, and it failed on the floor.

The Republican alternative didn’t have a final price tag, consisted entirely of tax cuts, and would actually raise taxes for 26 million American families. In two years, the Democratic bill would create 3.6 million jobs. The Republican substitute: 1.2 million – a third as many as the Democratic bill that passed the House.

President Obama even met with House Republicans more times in two weeks to discuss this legislation than President Bush did with House Democrats in two terms.

The Republicans were certainly allowed in the process, but they wanted to obstruct."

The loyalty and oath they have is for their own power, not for the support of the nation. But the press and the Web coo with delight when there is a an entrenched battle to report.

Most folks, in the meantime, struggle day-to-day to ride out economic disaster.

Funny the way there was an easy dual-party effort to slather billions onto the financial system operated by the folks who tanked it in late 2008. Billions more - aimed at basic national and state needs - why that's just evil.

The plan from the leaders of the Right - Limbaugh and Hannity and FOX News - is to elevate the desire for Failure as a Plan for Success. Cheering and spreading Failure has been their primary tool for many years. If something is a success or indicates a change away from that model, then apply the Failure Doctrine and hope that sooner or later, it works to undermine all things.

Their call is for either their own God-guided Majority Rule or Anarchy For All.

Southern Beale
White's Creek Journal
Washington Monthly

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bristol Palin and The Political Jabbering of Her Elders

Bristol Palin has been discovering how tough it is to avoid the game of political football which many - including her mom - want to force her to play as a member of Team Teen Motherhood.

Her mother's would-be political ambitions hauled Bristol's unwed teen pregnancy onto the national political football field like it was just some mascot, and really seemed to ignore the costs. It was simply an image, an idea to wrap about the McCain-Palin ticket ... more the Palin For President Project than anything else.

But I watched Bristol speak rather plainly to FOX News about her situation and was sad to see how even her earnest effort to speak the truth was tackled by her mom and her interviewer, attempting to wrestle her own words away from her.

Rebecca Traister at Salon wrote about the interview and how Bristol's plain talk was hustled off the field:

It doesn't matter what my mom's views are on it. It was my decision. And I wish people would realize that, too," [said Bristol]

No matter how you might like to spin that line, Bristol is talking about one thing: choice. She has that right, she made her choice. The same thing any other woman has the right to do. The Salon article continues ...

"I don't know if it's what I expected," Bristol said of young motherhood. "But it's just a lot different. It's not just the baby that's hard. It's like I'm not living for myself anymore. It's for another person." Later in the interview, she again repeated this line -- a heartbreaking point if ever there was one, and one we don't talk about much because we feel obligated to acknowledge that of course motherhood is a sacrifice, of course there are consequences, of course for many women and men, choosing to have children and become less self-obsessed is a pleasure. But so much of what pro-life advocacy is about -- whether it denies people sex education or contraception or access to abortion -- is in valuing the cells that make up a fetus (or baby) more than the woman in whose body those cells have grown.


"Gov. Palin opened by claiming to be "proud of [Bristol] wanting to take on an advocacy role and just let other girls know that it's not the most ideal situation but certainly you make the most of it." It was like the elder Palin had put her daughter's words through a meat grinder: What Bristol had said was that she wanted to let other girls know that they should wait 10 years, that their lives would shift beneath their feet.

"Bristol is a strong and bold young woman," Palin said, as Bristol sat quietly -- after her mother entered, she barely spoke further -- "and she is an amazing mom, and this little baby is very lucky to have her as a momma. He's gonna be just fine. We're very proud of Bristol." Palin was missing the point, or part of it, or perhaps making it even louder: Bristol's self-professed desire to prevent teen pregnancy is not just about whether this little baby is going to be just fine, it is about whether his momma is.

But that just wasn't of much concern to Sarah Palin."


And how poignant that the untrained and unrehearsed and inelegant message of the young woman who actually had the baby, the one who said, "I think everyone should just wait 10 years," made far more sense than the politicized jabbering of her elders.

Read the whole story here.

Green Comet Lulin Visible For One Time Only

For the next few weeks, you can look up into the pre-dawn sky and see a green comet which is traveling backwards and making it's one and only appearance in our solar system. Called Lulin, after the Taiwan observatory where it was discovered by a 19-year old just 2 years ago, the oddly moving comet is about to race past us.

It is also rather unusual since it is moving through space in a direction opposite to that of the planets at a very low inclination of just 1.6-degrees from the ecliptic. As such, because it is moving opposite to the motion of our Earth, the comet will appear to track rather quickly against the background stars as one observes the object from one night to the next.

"... on the night of the Feb. 24th, when it will be passing nearest to Earth, Lulin will be visible all night, rising in the east at dusk, peaking high in the south shortly after midnight and setting in the west around sunrise."

More info is here, and NASA offers some striking images of the comet as it streaks past the Earth:

Perhaps one should not use the word "striking" to refer to a comet, especially one that is green and moving backwards as it rockets out of our solar system.

It is visible in the southern skies currently, just after 3 a.m. NASA has more info on how to see the comet, which will be bright enough (perhaps) to see without magnification as the 24th approaches.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Generic Blog Post #125

In lieu of today's post and to reduce any amount of feigned outrages or scandals, please enjoy this simple generic reference to Just Being Opposed to Something.

"No Sir, I Don't Like It"

That's the catch-phrase of one Mr. Horse, a cartoon character from Ren and Stimpy.

As WikiPedia notes:

"Mr. Horse is typically depicted as a straight-talking, thoughtful and serious character. He can also be cynical and disgruntled, and on occasion is merely a horse. His catchphrase is "No sir, I don't like it." He rarely ever said anything aside from this, except for the episode "
Fire Dogs", in which he says "No sir, I didn't like it."

Image via this site of toy reviews.

So, consider the comment as a response to just about anything appearing in the news today, something new or old on the internet, or something published on anyone else's blog. To sum up today's post one more time:

"No Sir, I Don't Like It."

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Hint To Tennessee: Take The Money

I know enough about economics to know we won't see good growth for a long while. But I am happy to see more and more attention being paid to how American business and government operate. As R. Neal wrote this weekend:

Has anyone else noticed the dramatic and abrupt change in our national debate?

.... Republicans are now running around with their hair on fire freaking out about federal spending on jobs, health care, education, infrastructure, technology, energy independence, health insurance for disadvantaged children, and keeping people in their homes.

Maybe it’s just me, but the latter seems more like the debate we should be having.

And President Obama has only been in office for 25 days."

If the state wants to get a nice hefty chunk of 'stimulus' dollars, I'd suggest emphasizing the huge potentials for growth and the immediate needs of energy and education and jobs and healthcare. Because that is where the money is headed.

Medicaid: $1.62 billion.

Education: $791 million.

Highways and bridges: $593 million.

Special education: $243 million.

Title I education: $225 million.

General purpose: $171 million.

Weatherizing homes: $97 million.

Transit capital grants: $91 million.

Criminal justice grants: $74 million.

Public housing capital fund: $65 million.

Clean water projects: $58 million.

Child care: $42 million.

Dislocated workers: $28 million.

Youth job training: $25 million.

Homelessness prevention: $20 million.

Drinking water projects: $20 million.

Community services: $20 million.

Head Start: $14 million.

Education tech: $12 million.

Vocational rehab: $12 million.

Adult job training: $11 million.

Unemployment insurance administration: $9.6 million.

Employment service: $7.4 million.

Elderly nutrition: $2.6 million.

Food assistance: $2 million.

Emergency Food and Shelter: $2 million.

Now is the only time on this plan - if projects aren't up and running in the next 6 months, then those dollars start going to other states. Or will elected officials just keep bickering and fighting with each other instead?