Jul 19, 2014

what the hell happened to movies

I have no idea. I used to love movies. I would have my Netflix DVDs cued up 3 at a time each week. And then I cancelled Netflix. And then I stopped going to the movie theater. And now I can barely get the energy up to watch one.

Sci fi in particular has gone to hell in a hand basket. We used to have 2001, Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run, and even the critically flawed Dune. And now we have Elysium and the Planet of the Apes reboot and all these monotonous repetitive super hero movies. And what's changed?

Here's what's changed. Movies used to be about exploring themes. And now they largely don't do that. The best example is a set of movies I binge watched last weekend. The Planet of the Apes series. Both the 5 original (made back in 1968-1973) and the last reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (I skipped Tim Burton's reboot because it was universally panned).

Here's there Rotten Tomatoes scores:
  1. Planet of the Apes (1968) - 89%
  2. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) - 41%
  3. Escape From Planet of the Apes (1971) - 78%
  4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) - 44%
  5. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) - 38%
  6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Reboot, 2011) - 82%
It's easy to make a little fun of the original series. There are some awful special effects. Some awkward editing and even some awkward script writing. But how the new reboot earns a score just below the original is beyond me. Let me explain.

The original movie was written based on a book by a French author, Pierre Boulle. That book wasn't particularly clever. But the concept was handed over to its first screenwriter - Rod Serling. Yes. That Rod Serling. He's the one who came up with the twist ending. And then Michael Wilson fixed some problems that were driven by a limited budget. Here's why that movie is still relevant and still interesting to watch. Themes. 

There are lots of them. Orwellian class struggle, Darwinian survival of the fittest, evolution, religious theocracy, nuclear war, McCarthyism, animal testing, the morality of zoos, slavery, and subjugation. All of this in this old cheesy film. Consider the legal proceedings of Taylor (Charlton Heston). This is very slow scene and quite long. No action. Just discussion. And we all know Taylor will be found guilty; that the legal proceedings are a farce. Most of this scene is really about McCarthyism and the blacklisting of Hollywood workers. Michael Wilson, wrote this part of the film and for good reason. He was blacklisted at the time. He wrote it 'under the table'. In this context the scene is fascinating. The Congressional inquests regarding communists were also a farce and this was just a play on it. But the whole movie is engaged like this. The racial and slavery themes are obviously very interesting. Even how the primates themselves have segregated themselves into class structures (apes - low class warriors, chimpanzees - peaceful intellectuals, orangutans - political and economic power leaders). This stuff was thought out carefully.

And the later movies expanded on these themes in very intense ways. The poorly viewed Conquest movie is very clearly a statement about the rise in Black Power and the riots associated with that movement. The two primary (non-primate) lead characters are minorities: Mexican (Ricardo Montalban) and African American (the awesome Hari Rhodes) and are both obviously sympathetic to the primate's cause. It is thematically really "in-your-face" race relations stuff and it's really thought provoking and frankly powerful. After the movie I went down to Century City where it was filmed just to be on the set.

And then we come to the reboot. Which seems to be universally loved. And what's that movie about? I haven't got a clue. There's action. There's almost no character development. I don't give a shit about anyone in that movie. There's a plot. Shit happens. None of it particularly surprising or unexpected. Oh. There's some awesome special effects. Thematically? Perhaps animal testing and the usual 'people-in-science-are-thoughtless-and dangerous-and shit-always-backfires'? And maybe, owning apes is bad (LOL). These are so heavy handed as to be annoying though. This is like 3rd grade writing level. It's completely pedestrian. The actors are asleep at the wheel. Caeser, the main monkey who you HAVE to sympathize with is creepy and shifty. The eyes are all wrong. And the ending is a ludicrous, endless and gratuitous action sequence. And worse, it's an origin film clearly made to setup another set of serial movies. Ugh.

And yet apparently this movie is as good as the original. This movie is worth your hard earned dollars. Don't even get me started on the superhero movies. But this stuff sells. And it's moving serious box office numbers and even critics are giving these movies high marks. I don't get it. Do we not want movies that are thought-provoking anymore? Are we not interested in being challenged. Just a bit? Because movies lately are passive vehicles. You sit and take in explosions and special effects and superficial script writing. It's banal. And for me, as a movie lover it is seriously depressing.

modern jackass

This week's "This American Life" had a potentially interesting piece on what they called "Modern Jackass". Just that name alone piqued my interest. Ira's intro was very interesting. The basic definition of a modern jackass is someone who doesn't know nothing about something, yet they only know a little bit about it. They're not experts by any means. But potentially act like they are.

Most of the conversations I have with people fall directly into this sweet (sour?) spot. "Did you see that [X] causes your kid's grades to go down?" The proliferation of web articles and popular research books has turned people into faux experts. The great example that they use is someone who is vehemently against trans fats yet has no real grasp on why. Trans fats are hydrogenated. They have lots of hydrogens on them. They're manufactured. They're bad for you. But no one who thinks this way (other than some researchers) really knows why. Why is hydrogenated oil bad for you? I'll be honest. I have no idea. And yet I say this crap all the time.

Unfortunately the piece then goes on to describe people who have funny but basic misunderstandings. Usually revolving around words they don't quite understand. This seemed a little off-base from what a modern jackass was.

 As a researcher, half of my work revolves around discovering things that I then know. But I would say that the other half is literally focused on understanding what I don't know. This seems like common sense coming from a science/engineering background. But people aren't particularly questioning.

I had an argument a few months back with a client who hated a company and wanted to short the company based purely on the fact that the senior management went to 'shitty' schools. So I asked him how he knew that shitty schools produced shitty senior management. Because I certainly had no data to support that. But he 'knew' it. What seemed to go right over his head at the end of the conversation is that if his 'short thesis' on the stock was that management was bad because they went to less than top schools, that this thesis could have been applied when they raised seed capital back when the company was worth 1/100th of what it was now worth. He didn't quite see the logic there which made me chuckle.

But I've been in his spot before. I used to eat a macrobiotic diet when I was in college. I had gained some weight (dorm butt) and was really out of shape. So I adopted the macrobiotic diet. It seemed right. Vegetables, grains, minimal oil, no animal products, etc. Surely this was right. Why even figure out if it make sense. Wasn't there some book written about a guy who had cured cancer with this diet? Sure. It had to work. I bought tons of books and special equipment to prepare the food properly and searched out obscure ingredients. I was hardcore. And so I did this diet for almost 2 years. And through it all I did not feel good. At all. And yet never did I attribute this to the diet. Or that perhaps the diet was wrong. And quite obviously I had cravings on this diet. And at the end of 2 years I broke down. I ordered some crappy Pizza Hut pizza. Extra cheese. I made sure to not let any oil, dispatched from the melted cheese, drip off. My body clearly craved fat. And it was glorious.

And that was that with the diet. I still felt it was correct but I couldn't do it any longer. A decade later I actually read some research reports on dietary needs and biochemistry and realized how wrong it was.

But for that period in college I was a modern jackass. Because I had no basic understanding of why anything regarding macrobiotics made sense and yet I was religious about the worthiness of the diet. It was a good lesson for me. You don't really know anything unless you put the work in.

And now when I read these articles that state sitting all day at your desk lowers your life expectancy and breakfast is the most important meal of the day and drinking 8 glasses of water is healthful, I just ignore it. Even if it supports my own beliefs. This is the problem of the web and most modern day journalism. Flippantly reported news items without any actual work done. And now we're all experts. We're all modern jackasses.

Jul 16, 2014

cute science quote

Given enough time, hydrogen starts to wonder where it's been and where it's going.

Jul 9, 2014


With autotune

Without autotune

I'm not sure I really care about this other than the fact that technology can do some amazing things. I mean the song is boring either way.

Mar 27, 2014

because science

A couple of 'we are living in the future' posts in science magazines this week that are worth reading.

Gunshot victims to be suspended between life and death
This one is bordering on putting people into cryogenic sleep. It's only temporary and short-lived but you could imagine this being a stepping off point for strategies involving space travel.

Scientists Create Synthetic Yeast Chromosome
It's not full blown organism creation but we've moved from small snippets of DNA addition and deletion to large customized DNA sequencing.

Mar 20, 2014

drunk baby

What is most interesting about this is that the incapacitated muscle control of a drunk probably very closely approximates the underdeveloped muscle control of a baby. And come to think of it, having to take care of a baby is like having to take care of a drunk friend; lots of bodily and non-bodily fluids to wipe up.

Mar 17, 2014


I had my first real bonafide earthquake this morning. And it was awesome. I have been dying to be in a really legit earthquake for a long time. While I've been in some tiny ones I didn't know they were earthquakes until after the fact.  While some people are scared of them I have no real fear. The odds of death or injury are incredibly small. The massive Loma Prieta earthquake killed only 63 people. Remarkable.

Anyway this was a tiny 4.4-4.7 centered in Westwood which isn't that far from us. My wife started yelling 'earthquake' with mild panic in her voice. But I just laid in bed and soaked it in. It was exhilarating. The whole house was swaying back and forth. It started with a bump and then these swaying oscillations came immediately afterwards. I would have preferred to be standing on hard ground. I want to feel something immovable, move. But this was good too.

Mar 11, 2014

castlight health

I mentioned before that Castlight Health might be the most important company you've never heard of. Here's why.

When you want to buy a fridge, you read some reviews, check Consumer Reports, ask your friends, go down to Sears or wherever and look at them and play around with them, check prices, compare prices, etc. The natural outlet of these activities is that competition exists.

What do you do when you need a colonoscopy? You go to your doctor who recommends you need a colonoscopy and then he/she recommends a specialist based on your insurance and you go there and they do the procedure and a bill is sent to your insurance company and you may or may not get a bill.

See the difference?

Castlight is trying to change that. Here's what they do. They go to a big company like Wal-Mart and say give us your healthcare data. They connect to this data and now can see what people are paying for colonoscopies and they can ask the employees to rate the service and check on how well it was done and so forth. Now imagine Castlight has this data nationwide. What Castlight really does is allow employees to make choices by presenting cost and performance data on healthcare. Wal-Mart might say, "Look. We'll pay for colonoscopy costs up to $500. You pick up the rest. Here are a bunch of providers that charge less than $500. You want to go to Gold Star Supreme Colonoscopies 'R' Us? It'll cost you $200 extra. Your choice."

What this does is introduce competition and it will shatter the healthcare industry and they know it. I was lucky enough to chat on the phone with one of the founders last week and he was in it from the beginning to bring down the entire healthcare industry one brick at a time.

Here's how the incumbents will try to stop it. They have 3 levers at their disposal.

  1. Government. Lobby, lobby, lobby. Probably the most effective tactic.
  2. Create impediments to Castlight getting the data. They already do this. Healthcare providers will serve employers but they also may set up contractual limits about what they can do with that data. I'm sure this was the case with Wal-Mart. My guess is Wal-Mart said, 'Give us the data or we are leaving your healthcare system with all of our hundreds of thousands of employees." They caved but may not for smaller companies.
  3. Byzantine data services and storage. They already do this. Castlight spends an inordinate amount of time actually hooking up the data from employers to their systems. Colonoscopies might be classified under many different codes and subcodes. It's expensive and time consuming work and it could just bankrupt the company.
Why would I be hopeful in the face of this?

Because Castlight just raised their IPO price offering. In I-banker parlance that means there is demand for this company. Others see what I see. We'll have to wait this one out though. It's going to take a long time for them to make a dent.

Mar 10, 2014

american food

American food as viewed by foreigners.

Things that are considered very weird by foreigners:

  • Peanut butter & root beer - I fell in love with root beer when I came over)
  • American cheese - Problem is there is no substitute for American cheese when it comes to a hamburger
  • Pop tarts - Agreed. These things are nasty
  • Kraft mac and cheese - Ditto
  • Doggy bags - From our Puritan background I suppose. Seems like a waste to throw food away
  • Chicken and waffles - I've never had these but can't see why they would be bad
  • Tea heated in microwave - Fucking Brits and their tea bullshit
  • Ranch dressing - Agreed. It should be called Rancid dressing
  • Corn (apparently it is largely fed to pigs) - Hard to not like corn
  • Hot pockets - Agreed
  • Sausage gravy & biscuits (the milk part and then adding meat) - It does sound weird when put that way but yum
  • Dumplings (American, disappointing for the Chinese) - I haven't had Occidental dumplings in a long time but I love them.
  • Desserts with mint (should only be for toothpaste) - I agree fully on this unless the mint is actually fresh mint leaves
  • Spam - Ugh. I bought this for the first time a few months ago and no one in our family could stomach more than 2 bites.
  • Donuts (for breakfast seems weird) - It's not weird but it is terrible for you
  • Pumpkin pie (elicits strong reactions) - Pumpkin pie doesn't do much for me
  • Miracle Whip (or is it hwhip) - Second only to Spam for nastiness
  • Cheese in a can - I'll admit I have no idea what this is