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Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Return of Oscarblogging
The Academy Awards will be starting in about 20 minutes or so. Last year, I made some picks and did some live-blogging, and I figure I might as well make that a tradition. Since I'm short on time (as I was last year), here are my picks:
  • Best Picture: This seems to be between Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator. Baby seems to have all the momentum tonight, so I'll go with that one, but I wouldn't be surprised if The Aviator or Ray took home the statue.
  • Best Director: I'm going with Martin Scorsese even though Clint Eastwood's film has all the buzz. I'm betting on the sympathy vote here, as Scorsese is probably the best director without an Oscar, and I think the academy will give him the nod. Eastwood still has a chance of course, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised if he wins...
  • Best Actor: I'm going to say Jamie Foxx for his role in Ray, though there is an outside chance that Depp will get the nod (again, due to sympathy vote, but it's a longshot). Eastwood also has a chance, but I still think it'll fall to Foxx. The only thing going against Foxx is that he's been nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category as well (thus splitting his votes between the two categories), but I don't think there's any doubt as to which performance takes the cake.
  • Best Actress: Hilary Swank, though I suppose Annette Bening could give her a run for her money. Catalina Sandino Moreno gave a stunning performance, but she's a real longshot.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman. He's never won an oscar and his film has all the buzz tonight. On the other hand, Thomas Haden Church may get the nod because Sideways seems like a popular feature and the Academy might not want to let that film go away empty-handed.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett seems to have all the buzz for this category.
  • Best Original Screenplay: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Charlie Kaufman has gained a lot of popularity since Being John Malkovich, so it's natural that he'll get the nod here.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Again, Million Dollar Baby has all the momentum going into the night, so I'll go with that.
  • Editing: I'm going to go out on a limb and say Collateral, but I think it could easily go to The Aviator.
  • Cinematography: Give it to the The Aviator.
  • Visual Effects: Spider Man 2, because it was the best of the three
  • Best Animated Film: The Incredibles, hands down.
  • Best Documentary: Not sure, but I'll go with Super Size Me because it seems to have been quite popular (which, of course, means very little).
This year is much more difficult to predict than last year. Million Dollar Baby seems to be the big movie this year, but it isn't quite the lock that Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was last year. That's it for now, updates to follow...

The Oscars definitely aren't as popular as they once were, but I still find them interesting to watch. Their decline in popularity can be partly attributed to "awards fatigue," as there are now numerous awards shows around this time of year. James Berardinelli (hrm, my picks are remarkably similar to his) thinks it has to do with predictability:
Pretentiousness is a flaw, but the real problem is predictability. Surprises are not welcome at the Oscars. Like a wedding, everything must move according to plan. Unlike a wedding, however, this is not a personal event. It's an entertainment show, and it has become boring. Not only is it easy to guess most of the winners (especially the important ones), but even the occasional unexpected victory produces little more than a shrug. Speeches are cookie-cutter thank-yous that typically fall afoul of the two-minute (or however long it is) rule. A good speech - one that is short, pithy, and clearly written - is a rarity. And, for any celebrity who thinks this is an opportunity to declare a political position, get over yourself! No one is watching the Oscars to hear what you think of the war in Iraq. If you're not going to say something intelligent and witty, say, "Thank you, Daddy and Mommy. Thank you, Mr. Director. And thank you, Academy," then get the hell off the stage.
It should certainly be interesting to see if Chris Rock can liven things up a little bit. There are some other changes the Academy is making this year in an effort to get past the stigma that Berardinelli mentions, but they seem more calculated and could fall flat. It looks like the show is starting so hopefully I'll be live-blogging for at least a little while...

Update: Liveblogging moved to extended entry. Click below to read on... Update 8:32 pm ET: Man, Chris Rock is falling flat. Some funny lines, but there's something missing.

Update 8:40 pm ET: Rock is doing better. "I saw Passion of the Christ. Not funny." A few minute's ago, I saw that Samuel L. Jackson was wearing sunglasses. Last year I busted on Michael Douglas for wearing sunglasses, but Samuel L. just makes it work. Go figure.

Update 8:45 pm ET: Did they just give out an award? Anyway, Roger L. Simon is a member of the Academy and he posted his picks.

Update 8:51 pm ET: Morgan Freeman won for the first time in 4 nominations. Chalk me up as 1 for 1. Hey, they just played him off the stage to the Star Trek theme music. What the hell?

Update 8:56 pm ET: You know something is wrong when Robin Williams is funnier than Chris Rock. And hey, the Incredibles won - 2 for 2!

Update 9:03 pm ET: I hate Oscar music performances. I'm grabbing a beer (a full half-hour before I was driven to drink last year - not a good sign).

Update 9:22 pm ET: Holy Crap, 3 for 3. This can't last much longer...

Update 9:31 pm ET: Aww, what was I thinking? Of course Prostitutes would be more popular than Fast Food, especially when it comes to the Academy. Zing!

Update 9:34 pm ET: The Aviator seems to be taking the majority of the awards here tonight. Will that translate to the biggies like Best Picture and Best Director?

Update 9:43 pm ET: You know, I was almost fooled by that little stunt. It really looked like a mistake when it started... And Sideways won. This makes sense as a sympathy vote, and it virtually guarantees that Sideways won't win anything else. So now I'm at 3 for 6. Crap.

Update 10:00 pm ET: Here are some other Oscarbloggers: Update 10:07 pm ET: Did I mention that I hate Oscar music performances? You know what that means I'm doing, right?

Update 10:15 pm ET: Again with the inappropriate theme music. This time it's the Terminator theme that ushers the Aviator's cinematographer off stage. Weird.

Update 10:27 pm ET: Antonio Banderas, is there anything you can't do?

Update 10:28 pm ET: Wait, nevermind, there's lots Banderas can't do.

Update 10:38 pm ET: Chris Rock just made a joke about Oprah, and she didn't look too pleased. She was either confused by the randomness of his joke, or she was simply contemplating how to go about eating him.

Update 10:50 pm ET: Yay dead people!

Update 11:03 pm ET: Wow, Sean Penn is a tool. It was a joke, Sean.

Update 11:05 pm ET: Hilary Swank wins for Best Actress. She's the real deal. "I haven't gotten to Clint yet!" Heh.

Update 11:17 pm ET: Well, even though he's only been on the scene for a few years, it's about time Charlie Kaufman won an Oscar for writing. And he's given a genuinely amusing acceptance speech as well. Perhaps the best of the night so far, but that ain't saying much...

Update 11:26 pm ET: Jamie Foxx gets the nod for Best Actor. Damn, he's a good imitator (and not just Ray - see Jamie next year in "Sidney," the story of Sidney Poitier).

Update 11:28 pm ET: J. Ott: "Yes, bring on the waterworks. Nice close. Give him another Oscar."

Update 11:33 pm ET: Burn! Poor old Marty Scorcese. But Clint is no surprise either... and his mom is in the audience! How sweet. Nice classy speech too.

Update 11:36 pm ET: Dustin Hoffman sounds like he'd rather be somewhere else. He must be high or something. And the Best Picture is... Million Dollar Baby. Big surprise!

Closing Thoughts: Well, I was 9 for 13, which works out to 69%. Not too shabby, though still a considerable drop from last year's 79%, but this year was tougher. All in all, a pretty uneventful and somewhat banal night. Very classy, but nothing very compelling either. I was hoping Chris Rock would slip a cuss past the censors or something. Hey, it's before midnight and it's over. That's odd.

And there's the Terminator theme again. Weird. On that note, I head for the sack. It's been real.
Posted by Mark on February 27, 2005 at 07:55 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Stability of Three
One of the things I've always respected about Neal Stephenson is his attitude (or rather, the lack thereof) regarding politics:
Politics - These I avoid for the simple reason that artists often make fools of themselves, and begin to produce bad art, when they decide to get political. A novelist needs to be able to see the world through the eyes of just about anyone, including people who have this or that set of views on religion, politics, etc. By espousing one strong political view a novelist loses the power to do this. Anyone who has convinced himself, based on reading my work, that I hold this or that political view, is probably wrong. What is much more likely is that, for a while, I managed to get inside the head of a fictional character who held that view.
Having read and enjoyed several of his books, I think this attitude has served him well. In a recent interview in Reason magazine, Stephenson makes several interesting observations. The whole thing is great, and many people are interested in his comments regarding an American technology and science, but I found one other tidbit very interesting. Strictly speaking, it doesn't break with his attitude about politics, but it is somewhat political:
Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.
I took particular note of what he describes as a "triangular system" because it's something I've seen before...

One of the primary goals of the American Constitutional Convention was to devise a system that would be resistant to tyranny. The founders were clearly aware of the damage that an unrestrained government could do, so they tried to design the new system in such a way that it wouldn't become tyrannical. Democratic institions like mandatory periodic voting and direct accountability to the people played a large part in this, but the founders also did some interesting structural work as well.

Taking their cue from the English Parliament's relationship with the King of England, the founders decided to create a legislative branch separate from the executive. This, in turn, placed the two governing bodies in competition. However, this isn't a very robust system. If one of the governing bodies becomes more powerful than the other, they can leverage their advantage to accrue more power, thus increasing the imbalance.

A two-way balance of power is unstable, but a three-way balance turns out to be very stable. If any one body becomes more powerful than the other two, the two usually can and will temporarily unite, and their combined power will still exceed the third. So the founders added a third governing body, an independent judiciary.

The result was a bizarre sort of stable oscillation of power between the three major branches of the federal government. Major shifts in power (such as wars) disturbed the system, but it always fell back to a preferred state of flux. This stable oscillation turns out to be one of the key elements of Chaos theory, and is referred to as a strange attractor. These "triangular systems" are particularly good at this, and there are many other examples...

Some argue that the Cold War stabilized considerably when China split from the Soviet Union. Once it became a three-way conflict, there was much less of a chance of unbalance (and as unbalance would have lead to nuclear war, this was obviously a good thing).

Steven Den Beste once noted this stabilizing power of three in the interim Iraqi constitution, where the Iraqis instituted a Presidency Council of 3 Presidents representing each of the 3 major factions in Iraq:
...those writing the Iraqi constitution also had to create a system acceptable to the three primary factions inside of Iraq. If they did not, the system would shake itself to pieces and there was a risk of Iraqi civil war.

The divisions within Iraq are very real. But this constitution takes advantage of the fact that there are three competing factions none of which really trusts the other. This constitution leverages that weakness, and makes it into a strength.
It should be interesting to see if that structure will be maintained in the new Iraqi constitution.

As for Stephenson's speculation that a triangular system consisting of libertarians, statists, and terrorists may develop, I'm not sure. They certainly seem to feed off one another in a way that would facilitate such a system, but I'm not positive it would work out that way, nor do I think it is particularly a desirable state to be in, all the more because it could be a very stable system due to its triangular structure. In any case, I thought it was an interesting observation and well worth considering...
Posted by Mark on February 20, 2005 at 08:06 PM .: link :.



Sunday, February 13, 2005

An Exercise in Aggregation
A few weeks ago I collected a ton of posts regarding the Iraqi elections. I did this for a few reasons. The elections were important and I wanted to know how they were going, but I could have just read up on them if that was the only reason. The real reason I made that post was to participate in and observe information aggregation and correlation in real time.

It was an interesting experience, and I learned a few things which should help in future exercises. Some of these are in my control to fix, some will depend on the further advance of technology.
  • Format - It seems to me that simply posting a buttload of links in a long list is not the best way to aggregate and correlate data. It does provide a useful service, it being a central place with links to diverse articles, but it would be much better if the posts were separated into smaller groups. This would better facilitate scanning and would allow those interested to focus on things that interest them. It would also be helpful to indicate threads of debate between different bloggers. For example, it seems that a ton of people responded to Juan Cole's comments, though I only listed one or two (and I did so in a way that wasn't exactly efficient).
  • Categorization - One thing that is frustrating about such an exercise is that many blogs are posting up a storm on the subject throughout the day, which means that someone like myself who is attempting to aggregate posts would have to continually check the blog throughout the day as well. Indeed, simply collecting all the links and posting them can be a challenge. What I ended up doing was linking to a few specific posts and then just including a general link to the blog with the instruction to "Keep scrolling." Dean Esmay demonstrated how bloggers can help aggregation by providing a category page where all of his Iraqi election posts were collected (and each individual post had an index of posts as well). This made things a lot easier for me, as I didn't have to collect a large number of links. All I had to do is post one link. Unfortunately this is somewhat rare, and given the tools we have to use, it is also understandable. Most people are concerned with getting their voice out there, and don't want to spend the time devising a categorization scheme. Movable Type 3.x has subcategories, which could help with this, but it takes time to figure this stuff out. Hopefully this is something that will improve in time as more enhancements are made to blogging software.
  • Trackbacks - Put simply, they suck for an exercise like this. For those who don't know, trackbacks are a way of notifying other websites that you're linking to them (and a way of indicating that other websites have linked to you). Movable type has a nifty feature that will automatically detect a trackback-enabled blog when you link to it, and set the site to be pinged. This is awesome when you're linking to a single post or even a handful of posts. However, when I was compiling the links for my Iraqi election post, I naturally had tons of trackbacks to send. I started getting trackback failures that weren't really failures. And because I was continually updating that post with new data, I ended up sending duplicate pings to the same few blogs (some got as many as five or six extraneous pings). I suppose I could have turned off the auto-detection feature and manually pinged the sites I wanted for that post, but that is hardly convenient.
  • Other notes - There has to be a better way to collect permalinks and generate a list than simply copying and pasting. I'm sure there are some bookmarklets or browser features that could prove helpful, though this would require a little research and a little tweaking to be useful.
Writing that post proved to be a most interesting exercise in aggregation, and I look forward to incorporating some of the lessons learned above in future posts...
Posted by Mark on February 13, 2005 at 10:39 AM .: link :.



Sunday, February 06, 2005

Stupendous Badass
Time is tight this week, so just a few quick quotes from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon which struck me during a recent re-reading. The first is essentially a summary of evolution:
Let's set the existence-of-God issue aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored. Most of them failed, and their genetic legacy was erased from the universe forever, but a few found some way to survive and to propagate. After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregational preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse. Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo - which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead. As nightmarishly lethal, memetically programmed death-machines went, these were the nicest you could ever hope to meet.
And the next quote comes from the perspective of Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier during World War II:
The Americans have invented a totally new bombing tactic in the middle of a war and implemented it flawlessly. His mind staggers like a drunk in the aisle of a careening train. They saw that they were wrong, they admitted their mistake, they came up with a new idea. The new idea was accepted and embraced all the way up the chain of command. Now they are using it to kill their enemies.

No warrior with any concept of honor would have been so craven. So flexible. What a loss of face it must have been for the officers who had trained their men to bomb from high altitudes. What has become of those men? They must have all killed themselves, or perhaps been thrown into prison.
Most of you reading this know that the officers who displayed some adaptability (to borrow another phrase from Stephenson) didn't kill themselves, nor were they thrown into prison. They were most likely applauded for their efforts. But Goto Dengo, and the Japanese at the time, embraced a warrior culture where such actions were deeply dishonorable.

It's interesting to consider the second quote in light of the first. In a sense, a war is an implementation of what Stephenson describes as self-replicating organisms "trying to get rid of each other." So the question is what part do honor and flexibility play in the grand evolutionary scheme of things?
Posted by Mark on February 06, 2005 at 11:45 PM .: link :.



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