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Sunday, February 29, 2004

Oscarblogging
I didn't realize the Academy Awards were tonight. Unlike most film aficianados, I actually enjoy the Oscars. I don't place a particularly high value on them, but I'm usually entertained nonetheless. Since I just realized they were tonight and given that It's starting in 15 or so minutes, I'm going to cut this introduction here a little short and just give my predictions (which I'll have all of 5-10 minutes to think about). Perhaps later, I'll have more updates (no guarantee that they'll be tied to what's happening during the show, but maybe).

Note: 2005 Picks and blogging here.
  • Best Picture: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (more on why later)
  • Best Director: Peter Jackson for Return of the King (again, more on this later)
  • Best Actor: Bill Murray, though Sean Penn is also likely. Johnny Depp is the Dark Horse, but I think that was more of a sympathy nomination...
  • Best Actress: Charlize Theron for Monster, because she "bravely" uglied herself up. Ok, and she apparently gave a great performance too.
  • Best Supporting Actor: It looks like this one will go to Tim Robbins for Mystic River, but I'd love to see Ken Watanabe win it (not likely though)...
  • Best Supporting Actress: Toss up. Renee Zellweger has some buzz, as does Shohreh Aghdashloo. I'd also mention Marcia Gay Harden, but she won a few years ago so I don't think she'll win again...
  • Best Original Screenplay: Screenplay awards are where a lot of sympathy votes go, and if Lost in Translation doesn't get the Best Picture nod, it will probably get this one... but don't count out Jim Sheridan's In America either.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Another toss up. It's between Mystic River and Seabiscuit. I wouldn't mind RotK or even City of God winning, but I don't think either will...
  • Editing: Not sure at all. RotK better not win this one, but it might. We might see some sympathy votes for Master and Commander or City of God. I really don't know...
  • Cinematography: RotK is noticeably absent from this one, so I'll give it to Master and Commander.
  • Visual Effects: Return of the King, all the way. A second place to Pirates of the Caribbean.
There are plenty of other awards and more commentary on why I chose what I chose, but this will have to do for now. Again, more later.

The Intangibles:
Perhaps one of the more frustrating things about the Oscars is that the awards are often based more on the intangibles rather than any pseudo-objective measure of a film's worth. We're going to see this tonight when Return of the King wins Best Picture and Peter Jackson wins Best Director. Return of the King has it's detractors, but it will win anyway because the Academy will think of it as awarding the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. This sort of thing worked against LotR in the past - the explaination as to why Fellowship of the Ring didn't win was that there were still two films left and it's bound to win Best Picture for them, right? Well, I guess we'll see.

You'll also notice that I mentioned "sympathy" votes above several times. Members of the Academy often view an actor's or an actress's entire body of work as being deserving of an Oscar and will vote for them based on that, rather than by their nominated performance. This is why Johnny Depp might win (not that his performance was bad, per say, just that he's a very popular actor and might get votes based on that rather than just his performance).

Screenplay awards are also interesting, in that a lot of almost-Best-Picture-worthy-yet-wildly-popular films get the nod here. Again, sometimes this can be a sympathy award, as it was when Pulp Fiction won in 1994.

I haven't seen a lot of the films that were nominated this year, but the intangibles are what allow me to make predictions because they're not totally based on the movies themselves. Frustrating, right? Sure, but it's kinda fun too.

Update 8:36 pm ET: Michael Moore just got stomped on by one of those giant elephants from Return of the King. I'm guess that was done with special effects. Damn. But it's nice to see he has a sense of humor about himself.

Update 8:52 pm ET: Boy, Tim Robbins is boring, but I chalk me up a point as I did pick him... Also, check out James Berardinelli who is making live updates on his site as well...

Update 8:56 pm ET: Are these commercials made specifically for the Oscars? Kinda like the Super Bowl? Hrm. Scorcese was hilarious.

Update 9:03 pm ET: Michael Douglas, who are you kidding with those sunglasses?

Update 9:11 pm ET: James Berardinelli: "is it just me, or does Benicio Del Toro resemble a Wookie?"

Update 9:14 pm ET: LotR looks like it will be racking up lots of the technical awards, as it has done in years past. Could it be the start of a route? Or will they lose out on Best Picture and Director?

Update 9:27 pm ET: Nice, classy, tribute to our wonderful troops and Bob Hope. It's speaks well of Crystal that he didn't make some snarky remark during that segment. There's time enough to make political digs (and some have already been made); best not to sully our fine troops' tribute. But Crystal is no Bob Hope:)

Update 9:40 pm ET: With the exception of Blame Canada, I can't think of a single Oscar music peformance that is worthwhile. I'm grabbing a beer, because I can't take this sober.

Update 10:01 pm ET: Jim Carrey, please wake me up. Thank you. Blake Edwards, thanks for The Pink Panther. You rock.

Update 10:16 pm ET: First American girl to be nominated for Best Director? I didn't know that. Sofia Coppola, you are that much closer to being forgiven for Godfather III.

Update 10:33 pm ET: Ho hum. Nothing much to say, so I'll just wonder why Kill Bill: Volume 1 didn't get nominated for anything. The film certainly has it's drawbacks, but it is well done and deserving of at least some recognition. Even in something obscure like costume design. Throw Tarantino a bone. Perhaps they're waiting for Volume 2...

Update 10:44 pm ET: Errol Morris takes home the Oscar. I didn't realize he was the one who did The Fog of War, but the The Thin Blue Line is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. He's just made his political statement, the first of the night and the second in a row by the winner of the documentary Oscar; this one is much more tasteful than the last... At this point, Morris has one of the best thank-yous of the night, but that ain't saying much (unless Bill Murray wins later).

Update 11:03 pm ET: Come on, how can you give a 3 1/2 hour long movie that ends 5 times the best editing award? I loved the film, and the extended cuts are great, but gimme a break.

Update 11:08 pm ET: Oh great, more Oscar music performances. At least the Triplets of Belleville song was upbeat. But I don't get Chris Guest movies. I didn't like A Mighty Wind, nor Best in Show. It just didn't click with me. Then again, The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap are great, so he's not all that bad...

Update 11:25 pm ET: So far, I'm 3 for 4, with the one miss being RotK for editing(!?) And kudos to Jack Black and Will Ferrell for their "You're Boring" song. Fantastic! If only the winners would take a hint...

Update 11:35 pm ET: Jeeze, maybe RotK will go 11 for 11?

Update 11:50 pm ET: Maybe Best Makeup should have went to the crew that made Charlize Theron ugly. Not many surprises tonight...

Update 12:07 pm ET: It's a clean sweep, LotR wins it all. Peter Jackson just mentioned Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles and how the Academy wisely did not recognize those films (heheh). Very nice. Well, I'm exhausted. G'night.

One Final Update: Overall, I was 8.5 for 11 (with the 0.5 being the best actor nod, as I had wanted Bill Murray to win, but recognized that Sean Penn had a very good chance too), which works out to about 77% (well behind James' 86%, and he made more predictions than I). My thoughts on the other two were that the voters would want to shine some light on one or two of the other films, rather than letting RotK steamroll through the competition. The show ended up being rather banal, thanks mostly to the uninspired acceptance speeches. At least it was only three and half hours long (which I think could still be cut down a bit).
Posted by Mark on February 29, 2004 at 07:49 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Eisenhower Ten
The Eisenhower Ten by CONELRAD : An excellent article detailing a rather strange episode in U.S. History. During 1958 and 1959, President Eisenhower issued ten letters to mostly private citizens granting them unprecedented power in the event of a "national emergency" (i.e. nuclear war). Naturally, the Kennedy administration was less than thrilled with the existence of these letters, which, strangly enough, did not contain expiration dates.

So who made up this Shadow Government?
...of the nine, two of the positions were filled by Eisenhower cabinet secretaries and another slot was filled by the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The remaining six were very accomplished captains of industry who, as time has proven, could keep a secret to the grave. It should be noted that the sheer impressiveness of the Emergency Administrator roster caused Eisenhower Staff Secretary Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster (USA, Ret.) to gush, some 46 years later, "that list is absolutely glittering in terms of its quality." In his interview with CONELRAD, the retired general also emphasized how seriously the President took the issue of Continuity of Government: "It was deeply on his mind."
Eisenhower apparently assembled the list himself, and if that is the case, the quality of the list was no doubt "glittering". Eisenhower was a good judge of talent, and one of the astounding things about his command of allied forces during WWII was that he successfully assembled an integrated military command made up of both British and American officers, and they were actually effective on the battlefield. I don't doubt that he would be able to assemble a group of Emergency Administrators that would fit the job, work well together, and provide the country with a reasonably effective continuity of government in the event of the unthinkable.

Upon learning of these letters, Kennedy's National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, asserted that the "outstanding authority" of the Emergency Administrators should be terminated... but what happened after that is somewhat of a mystery. Some correspondance exists suggesting that several of the Emergency Administrators were indeed relieved of their duties, but there are still questions as to whether or not Kennedy retained the services of 3 of the Eisenhower Ten and whether Kennedy established an emergency administration of his own.
It is Gen. Goodpaster's assertion that because Eisenhower practically wrote the book on Continuity of Government, the practice of having Emergency Administrators waiting in the wings for the Big One was a tradition that continued throughout the Cold War and perhaps even to this day.
On March 1, 2002, the New York Times reported that Bush had indeed set up a "shadow government" in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. This news was, of course, greeted with much consternation, and understandably so. Though there may be a historical precident (even if it is a controversial one) for such a thing, the details of such an open-ended policy are still a bit fuzzy to me...

CONELRAD has done an excellent job collecting, presenting, and analyzing information pertaining to the Eisenhower Ten, and I highly recommend anyone who is interested in the issue of continuity of government to check it out. Even with that, there are still lots of unanswered questions about the practice, but it is still fascinating reading....
Posted by Mark on February 22, 2004 at 09:31 PM .: link :.



Thursday, February 19, 2004

Welcome to the Hotel Baghdad
Steve Mumford has made his way back to Iraq and posted the seventh installment of his brilliant Baghdad Journal. Once again, he puts the traditional media reporting to shame with his usual balanced and thoughtful views. Read the whole thing, as they say.

For those who are not familiar with Mumford, he is a New York artist who has travelled to Iraq a few times in the past year and published several "journal" entries detailing his exploits. I've been posting his stuff since I found it last fall. Here are all the installments to date: They're all excellent. I highly recommend you check them out. There's usually some nice art as well. In the most recent installment, he meets up with several friends he made, and written about, on previous visits:
At Hewar, I meet Qassim, who says he's waiting for some of "your countrymen." He's preparing one of his renowned grilled fish lunches. Soon the guests arrive: it's the Quakers with Bruce Cockburn, who eye me warily. I don't think Qassim realizes how much foreigners tend to avoid one another in their jealous rush to befriend Iraqis. Or maybe he does, and enjoys watching the snubs and one-upmanship. I take my leave, and relax in the teahouse, when the artists Ahmed al Safi and Haider Wadi show up. They seem like old friends now, and I'm happy to see them.

That evening Ahmed and the painter Esam Pasha come by the hotel for dinner. Esam gives me a great bear hug. It's terrific to see him again.
Again, excellent reading. [Thanks must go again to Lexington Green from Chicago Boyz for introducing me to Mumford's writings last fall]

Updates: Several updates have been made, adding links to new columns in the series.
Posted by Mark on February 19, 2004 at 09:51 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 15, 2004

Deterministic Chaos and the Simulated Universe
After several months of absence, Chris Wenham has returned with a new essay entitled 2 + 2. In it, he explores a common idea:
Many have speculated that you could simulate a working universe inside a computer. Maybe it wouldn't be exactly the same as ours, and maybe it wouldn't even be as complex, either, but it would have matter and energy and time would elapse so things could happen to them. In fact, tiny little universes are simulated on computers all the time, for both scientific work and for playing games in. Each one obeys simplified laws of physics the programmers have spelled out for them, with some less simplified than others.
As always, the essay is well done and thought provoking, exploring the idea from several mathematical angles. But it makes the assumption that the universe is both deterministic and infinitely quantifiable. I am certainly no expert on chaos theory, but it seems to me that it bears an importance on this subject.

A system is said to be deterministic if its future states are strictly dependant on current conditions. Historically, it was thought that all processes occurring in the universe were deterministic, and that if we knew enough about the rules governing the behavior of the universe and had accurate measurements about its current state we could predict what would happen in the future. Naturally, this theory has proven very useful in modeling real world events such as flying objects or the wax and wane of the tides, but there have always been systems which were more difficult to predict. Weather, for instance, is notoriously tricky to predict. It was always thought that these difficulties stemmed from an incomplete knowledge of how the system works or inaccurate measurement techniques.

In his essay, Wenham discusses how a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz stumbled upon the essence of what is referred to as chaos (or nonlinear dynamics, as it is often called):
Lorenz's simulation worked by processing some numbers to get a result, and then processing the result to get the next result, thus predicting the weather two moments of time into the future. Let's call them result1, which was fed back into the simulation to get result2. result3 could then be figured out by plugging result2 into the simulation and running it again. The computer was storing resultn to six decimal places internally, but only printing them out to three. When it was time to calculate result3 the following day, he re-entered result2, but only to three decimal places, and it was this that led to the discovery of something profound.

Given just an eentsy teensty tiny little change in the input conditions, the result was wild and unpredictable.
This phenomenon is called "sensitive dependence on initial conditions." For the systems in which we could successfully make good predictions (such as the path of a flying object), only a reasonable approximation of the initial state is necessary to make a reasonably accurate prediction. Sensitive dependence of a reasonable approximation of the initial state, however, yields unreasonable predictions. In a system exhibiting sensitive dependence, reasonable approximations of the initial state do not provide reasonable approximations of the future state.

So here comes the important part: For a chaotic system such as weather, in order to make useful long term predictions, you need measurements of initial conditions with infinite accuracy. What this means is that even a deterministic system, which in theory can be modeled by mathematical equations, can generate behavior which seems random and unpredictable. This manifests itself in nature all the time. Weather is the typical example, but there is also evidence that the human brain is also governed by deterministic chaos. Indeed, our brain's ability to generate seemingly unpredictable behavior is an important component of both survival and creativity.

So my question is, if it is not possible to quantify the initial conditions of a chaotic system with infinite accuracy, is that system really deterministic? In a sense, yes, even though it is impossible to calculate it:
Michaelangelo claimed the statue was already in the block of stone, and he just had to chip away the unnecessary parts. And in a literal sense, an infinite number of universes of all types and states should exist in thin air, indifferent to whether or not we discover the rules that exactly reveal their outcome. Our own universe could even be the numerical result of a mathematical equation that nobody has bothered to sit down and solve yet.

But we'd be here, waiting for them to discover us, and everything we'll ever do.
The answer might be there, whether we can calculate it or not, but even if it is, can we really do anything useful with it? In the movie Pi, a mathematician stumbles upon an enigmatic 216 digit number which is supposedly the representation of the infinite, the true name of God, and thus holds the key to deterministic chaos. But it's just a number, and no one really knows what to do with it, not even the mathematician who discovered it (though he could make accurate predictions on for the stock market, though he could not understand why and it came at a price). In the end, it drove him mad. I don't pretend to have any answers here, but I think the makers of Pi got it right.
Posted by Mark on February 15, 2004 at 02:33 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 08, 2004

Mastery
Dan Gable, from the 1972 Olympics Last week, I wrote a biography for Dan Gable. Because the sport at which Gable excelled was wrestling, most have not heard of him, but within the sport he is a legend. That's him over there on the right, pictured with his Gold Medal from the 1972 Olympics (in which he went undefeated and, indeed, didn't give up a single point - much to the dismay of the Soviets, who had vowed to "scour the country" looking for someone to defeat Gable). His story is an interesting one, but one thing I'm not so sure I captured in my piece was just how obsessed with wrestling he was. He lived, ate, and drank wrestling. When asked what interests he has besides wrestling, the first thing he says is "Recovery" (of course, he has to be completely exhausted to partake in that activity). How he managed to start a family, I will never know (perhaps he wasn't quite as obsessed as I thought). It made me wonder if being that good at something was worth it...

There is an old saying "Jack of all trades, Master of none." This is indeed true, though with the demands of modern life, we are all expected to live in a constant state of partial attention and must resort to drastic measures like Self-Censorship or information filtering to deal with it all. This leads to an interesting corollary for the Master of a trade: They don't know how to do anything else!

I'm reminded of a story told by Isaac Asimov, in his essay Thinking about Thinking (which can be found in the Magic collection):
On a certain Sunday, something went wrong with my car and I was helpless. Fortunately, my younger brother, Stan, lived nearby and since he is notoriously goodhearted, I called him. He came at once, absorbed the situation, and began to use the Yellow Pages by the telephone to try to reach a service station, while I stood by with my lower jaw hanging loose. Finally, after a period of strenuous futility, Stan said to me with just a touch of annoyance, "With all your intelligence, Isaac, how is it you lack the brains to join the AAA?" Whereupon, I said, "Oh, I belong to the AAA," and produced the card. He gave me a long strange look and called the AAA. I was on my wheels in half an hour.
He tells this story as part of a discussion on the nature of intelligence and how one is judged to be intelligent. Which brings up an interesting point, how does one even know they are master of a trade? Nowadays, there are few who know one trade so well that all others suffer; we're mostly jacks, to some degree. There are some who are special, who can focus all of their energy into a single pursuit with great success. These people are extraordinarily rare, and somewhat scary in that they can be so brilliant in one sphere, but so clueless in another, more prosaic, department. But that does not help us in diagnosing mastery of a trade.

When you really start to get into it, of course, the metaphor breaks down. Personally, I wouldn't consider myself a master of any trades, but neither would I judge myself a jack. There are several subjects at which I excell, but I can't seem to focus on any one of them - mostly because I like them all so much and I cannot bring myself to narrowly focus my efforts on a single subject. I have my moments of absent-mindedness too, though none quite so drastic as Asimov's amusing tale. But even if I did focus my efforts, how would I know when I've reached the point of mastery?

In the end, I don't think you can tell. Mastery is a worthwhile goal, even if you must sacrifice some of your favorite trades, but because we cannot tell when we've mastered a subject, the term really doesn't have much meaning. As Asimov implies in his aformentioned essay, the only really useful term is "different." It is this difference which is truly important, because what some of us cannot do, others can. This is the basis of society and civilization, and the reason we as humans have prospered as individuals.

And Just for fun, an Asimov Quote:
"Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do." -Isaac Asimov
Damn straight.

Update 2.15.04: John Weidner suggests "that when the time comes that we re-open diplomatic relations with Iran, Dan Gable should be our ambassador." He makes a note of how Iranians have previously greeted "The Great Satans' wrasslin' team" with enthusiasm (and a cool Neal Stephenson book).
Posted by Mark on February 08, 2004 at 04:17 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Here We Go Again
Just a few interesting things I've stumbled across recently:
  • A Ceramics Parable: This is one of those stories I read, and I think to myself, that is so true. I then promptly forget all about it and when the time comes to reference it to make a point in an argument, I cannot find it. It is totally consistent with my experiences though. Here it is:
    The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one - to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
    You'd be amazed at just how much you could accomplish if you just rolled up your sleeves and gave it a shot. Planning is important too, but you need to be careful not to get too carried away with it. [the link chain on this goes all over the place... near as I can tell, the story originated from Monkey Magic via James McGee and eventually ened up on Photon Courier]
  • Mille Collines, Part One: Tacitus writes of his travels in Rwanda, including a brief history of the horrific genocide that took place there. Towards the end he talks about something that is nearly incomprehensible: "It is difficult to describe, and even callous to say, but there was almost an element of acquiescence in the victims' slaughter." He goes on to explain how he came to understand just how that was possible:
    Social conditioning, respect for hierarchy, a yearning for efficiency for its own sake, a tradition of state-run collective work in the corv�e, deference to authority at all costs -- these are the elements of a well-run genocide. The victimized Tutsi did not acquiesce because they were cowards, nor because they were weak fatalists (although surely fatalism was there). Those that acquiesced did so out of habit. They did so because theirs was a society that, in its moment of cruel crisis, valued process and form over content.
    Read the whole thing, as they say, and keep an eye out for part two.

    Part Two is now online:
    But they've been through genocide. And who are we to tell them what must be done after that? The RPF has learned to distrust and detest foreign advice, and the notion of the "international community" carries no moral weight with them. The international community stopped them from overthrowing Hutu Power before the genocide could occur; the international community facilitated the escape of the genocidaires and prolonged their work; the international community reprimanded them for retaliating against interahamwe cross-border raids; and the international community condemned their handling of returning Hutu refugees far more vigorously than it condemned the genocide itself. The international community has even contested Rwandan extradition requests of genocidaires abroad; it is not unheard-of for Rwanda to ask for a Hutu Power chief to be sent to Kigali for justice, only to have the United Nations tribunal in Arusha claim precedence. These things are stupefying and enraging to Rwandans, especially to Tutsis, and rightly so. Why, then, should we expect them to take the international community's advice on the killing of journalists and the rigging of elections?
  • Green Quagmire: Sylvain Galineau comments on honest environmentalism. A small quote from Dr Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace:
    Moore will be one of eight experts from around the world who will demonstrate from first-hand experience how environmental extremists deny destitute nations electricity, and deepen the poverty, malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis and dysentery that kill their people.
    Ouch. There's lots of good stuff in Galineau's post, so check it out. Also on this topic, don't miss Michael Crichton's speech about the "environmental religion".
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Presented in weblog format, complete with annotations (and you can enter your own annotations using their commenting system; the whole thing is powered by Movable Type). Cool stuff. [via Random Jottings]
  • The Howard Dean / John Dean Meme: This is an interesting (Freudian?) meme...
    ...refers to the many, unexplained instances in which political commentators refer to 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean as "John Dean". In all cases so far, this appears to be an completely unintended reference to the embittered former Whitehouse Counsel to President Nixon of Watergate fame.
Posted by Mark on February 04, 2004 at 07:24 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 01, 2004

No Entry Today
Sorry, twas a busy weekend. Boy, this weekend stuff sure is a drag... I can't wait to get back to work tomorrow.

*ahem*

Yeah, so if you're really itching to read some stuff, check out Dan Gable, which I wrote last week (just a bio, but I might be building a post around it sometime next week). Also, DyRE aims to incite jealosy in me by talking about a few movies, including The Battle of Algiers, in the forum. He was mostly successful.
Posted by Mark on February 01, 2004 at 11:30 PM .: link :.



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