Monday, May 23, 2016

What's the matter with James Bond?



James Bond is ill.

Well, maybe not ill. Even though current Bond Daniel Craig has had some unkind things to say about the franchise, to the point where he turned down $100 million to continue on after the next movie, the movies still make money and people still go see them.

Still, there does seem to be something a bit off.

First things first: the Bond franchise has always been a bit uneven. They’ve rarely ever been much more than popcorn movies with lots of explosions, sexiness (refreshingly for everyone), and flash over substance. The plots, as they were, were generally secondary to making sure yet another speedboat chase got crammed in. Still, they tended to be fun movies, dripping with materialism and eye candy, and even a bad Bond film tended to be fairly decent.

When the franchise hit a bit of a lull after Pierce Brosnan and was kind-of sort-of rebooted in Casino Royale, there were high hopes. So far, Daniel Craig’s Bond has had four movies: Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre. These “new” Bond films have not only carried on most of the standard Bond formula—one evil bad guy with an elaborate scheme and a lot of fistfights and action by Bond—but also shed a lot of the things that had become almost a parody of itself, like said villain reciting the plan before an easily-escapable torture device was enabled. 

And yet something isn’t quite clicking.

Part of it could be culture—the allure of the playboy-spy is no longer strong; anyone can look up half-naked people on their phones in a matter of seconds. It could be history—it’s difficult to mine the Soviets for plausible nogoodniks, and the movies have to be able to play in Beijing so most other international masterminds are out. It could be competition from television—the networks are full of highly popular spies and investigators who use their minds rather than brawn to get what they want. Watching a spy beat up international hackers by following one easily decipherable clue to jet from one pretty locale to another just really isn’t all that exciting or fresh.

And so it is with the new movies. I’ve recently watched all four. Casino Royale holds up, mostly because it’s the reboot and they’re establishing characters. But the remaining movies leave something to be desired. The villains are lame and have vaguely defined evil plans. (I had to look them up because they were so forgettable, and they’re so forgettable they aren’t even worth typing up.) The plots are clumsily written, with Bond simply going from one city to the next following lazy clues; the only variation is how he gets there. (Will it be a private plane or a jetski? Who cares?) There are no plot twists to speak of; any unexpected thing is telegraphed in the first half hour of the movie—well, first half hour after the elongated and obligatory introductory pre-credits sequence that does nothing for the rest of the movie. And, hell, the plots are interchangeable—both Skyfall and Spectre are only minor variations of each other, which boil down to “Bond goes rogue, but only barely, and uncovers something bigger.”

The entire thins is disappointing, perhaps, in the lens of what the Marvel Studios have done—taken an existing property, coming up with a long-range plan, mapping out story arcs that last movies (and decades!), use people’s vague familiarity with the property to get a head start, write interesting characters that interact with one another, and make sure that even with plenty of action there’s a plot that people can follow and discuss afterwards. None of this has happened with any Bond movie for quite some time.

It’s not all bad, of course. The biggest asset of the new Bond is the cast of characters—Moneypenny and Q are both well-rounded characters that add to the movie instead of dragging them down. Both Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes portray M exactly as they should. Bond has always been a loner, but establishing a core group is going to be key to anchoring the series. 

But right now the Bond universe, as it were, is a bit of a mess. The days in which a movie gets by with just a bunch of car chases and explosions isn’t going to fly anymore—and the most frustrating things is that all the pieces are there, ready to be picked up and reassembled and thrown out to the audience, but it’s all squandered. For example, in the latest movie in the franchise, Spectre, Christoph Waltz played the villain—an actor people have been clamoring for as perfect for the role. And yet he’s completely wasted in the movie, with a few forgettable scenes, a lackluster torture scene that accomplishes nothing, a reveal that adds nothing to the plot and screws up the canon, and a third act betrayal that is not much more than an excuse to watch a building blow up. At best, his introductory scene is kinda cool, but I’d be surprised if he had more than 15 minutes of screen time in a movie that’s two and a half hours long. That’s shameful—especially since nothing about the movie was memorable.

It’s hard to criticize the series too much, of course—they are solid moneymakers and provide a reliable cash flow. And yet I think it’s telling when the current star is actively running away from the production. Since they just rebooted the series, they can’t really do it again, so it’s hard to say whether it’s salvageable or not. But with today’s media landscape, it’s not going to be hard to come up with cooler and better spies than the one they are all held up against, and that’s a little sad.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Data Me This



Nate Silver over at fighthirtyeight.com has written a sort of mea culpa about Donald Trump—“How I Acted Like A Pundit And Screwed Up OnDonald Trump.”

I’ve always been lukewarm on Nate Silver. On the one hand, I think his polls-driven focus and almost complete co-opting of the concept of “Data Journalism” is ultimately a good thing; however, I also think that he’s historically gotten a lot more credit than he deserves, as if he were the only person on the planet who predicted that Obama would win in 2008. He’s good, but I never thought he was the Golden Child of Polls that he was made out to be. Still, credit where credit is due.

Anyway, I won’t go into the specifics of the article itself, and talk more abstractly about the rise of data journalism. I think the concept is a little strange—the fact that the media hasn’t been using data extensively in the past is a little alarming, but I get their point. And numbers are almost always a good thing; as we’ve seen with such things as sabermetrics, numbers in even the most nebulous of activities tend to tell a better story than a sports writer’s gut. (Notably, Silver is heavy into sports and data as well.)

I would posit that things are different in politics, and why data journalism is always going to be a good but never perfect fit for politics. I think data journalism makes things better, but we can’t pretend it’s ever going to tell us the whole story.

There’s a few reasons for this, and these reasons more or less show up in the article Silver writes above. The biggest, in my mind, is that elections are rare and so the sample size is too small to derive much by way of information from them--and since the political landscape changes, even slowly, you're never, ever going to have a big enough sample. There have only been 11 presidential elections since 1972, when the modern primary system was developed, and even if we double it for both parties and ignore non-contested primaries, that’s not a whole lot to go off of.  Contrast against, say, baseball, where hundreds, if not thousands, of games and stats are available for perusal at any give time per year. 

Add to this the more obvious fact that things change over time, and information that was pertinent in 1972 is largely useless in 2016. If we only go off of the previous, say, 12 years (a rather practical time frame to map out the current political landscape) we’re still looking at, at best, 6 events for the sample size. This is a little bit more fuzzy, since a lot of things are “standard” (it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that a candidate not supported by the party will lose is a constant) and other things are not…but now we’re getting away from data journalism and into just plain old journalism.

It’s these things that make me believe there’s always going to be an element of question marks in data journalism as it pertains to politics. This current election is a prime example: Trump has thrown so many monkey wrenches into the narrative you'd almost think he was the Mule from Issac Asimov's Foundation series.

I still think it’s a useful tool, but there are too many singular variables and too many one-off incidents to make it all that accurate. And, to Silver's credit, there is a lot of new stuff that can be mined from a data-driven perspective. We may get better at it as to reach perfection, but it seems highly unlikely.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

If Dogs Could Talk

Our long national nightmare is over: we may finally understand what our dogs are trying to tell us.

According to the article, a device has been developed in the form of a vest that will read the physical queues that your dog is making, and then translate that into English.

Sadly, it appears that this vest mostly is just a training translation--that is, a dog who wants to tell you what sort of explosives have been found will use one of a few memorized tricks to identify each one. That's useful, of course, but not what I was originally expecting, which is the wholly unfeasible device that will actually tell me what my dogs are thinking.

Of course, I don't really think I need a device for that. The sentiments that my dogs express are in a fairly limited range:

Dexter:
"Is it time for food yet?"
"I don't want to go downstairs. I want to sleep in your bed all day."
"I SAID I DON'T WANT TO GO DOWNSTAIRS!"
"Oh, there's food downstairs? Maybe."
"Only one bowl of food? I'm totally not going downstairs tomorrow." (Spoiler alert: He does.)

Chloe:
"THERE IS SOMEONE AT THE DOOR! THERE IS SOMEONE AT THE DOOR!"
"THERE IS NOT SOMEONE AT THE DOOR! THERE IS NOT SOMEONE AT THE DOOR!"
"There is a CAT in the house! My word! I'd better chase it out!"
"Wait, hasn't a cat been here for six years? No matter!" (Spoiler alert: there has)
 "I think I'll not eat my food for three days straight and then eat three bowls at once and bark until you give me all three bowls. Also, I will choose to do this at 3:30 in the morning."

Maybe there is something to this technology after all.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Stupid Things On The Internet.

The internet is annoying me today. And not because of politics, for once.

This is a weird old-man thing, but I'm endlessly annoyed at how...well, I have no idea how to describe this. The way in which "fun" information is displayed on the internet? Like how Tumblr likes to link a series of animated gifs together to tell a joke (or "show" a "joke" since it's often from a TV show they didn't write and is often not very funny). Or a display of still shots that go on long past the punch line with the reaction just in case we thought no one was laughing. These aren't memes...I don't know what they are, but they're stupid and I hate them. They could be done right and people just make them stupid.

Also, as a freebie, those stupid things where it says "WOULD YOU EAT 40 CHEESEBURGERS FOR 50 MILLION DOLLARS"? What kind of stupid question is that? When you do "would you rather" style questions, there has to be at least some sort of parity on each side of the question. "WOULD YOU SLEEP IN THIS CREEPY ROOM FOR A BAJILLIONTY DOLLARS?" Yeah, assholes, I would, and absolutely everyone else in the world would, too.

You know what I don't want to see? Pictures of abused kids and dogs. Anyone who is pro-abuse isn't gonna suddenly say, "Oh, THAT'S what happens? Aw geez, crackers and juice, I s'pose I shouldn't do it anymore." So knock it off.

The internet is an amazing thing, but it has a lot of awful stuff in it, too. We have all the information literally at our fingertips, and yet our ill-informed opinions are reinforced rather than exposed. A strange thing, that, and I suspect will have consequences far beyond simply watching too many cat videos.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Sound Of Silence

I had a life failure yesterday.

Not a major one. In fact, it's downright trivial.

I have a lengthy commute to work, and last year my wife got me an iPod Nano as a gift. iTunes is the worst program on the face of the earth, so it took me a while, but eventually I got it so I could download podcasts on it to listen to on my way to work. This sort of became a ritual.

Well, just because I figured it out doesn't mean iTunes stopped sucking. Every once in a while it goes crazy. Earlier in the week it decided to download every single episode of a podcast, not just the new ones, which is not cool. So I had to manually delete them all since I had already listened to them (and was taking up all the memory). But it's not often.

Well, yesterday morning, I did what I normally do--plug it in, hit refresh, let it download new podcasts, then sync it up. Takes a few minutes. Well, this morning, I saw that it had downloaded everything so I hit 'sync', and it said it was done. That was quick, I thought to myself, unplugged it, and went to work.

Of course it was immediately apparent that iTunes shit the bed. It didn't download anything, and so I had zero podcasts to listen to--I was all caught up.

Well, I thought, I'll just turn on the radio.

I turned on the radio, and after I hear about 45 seconds of Penguins playoff updates they cut to commercial. I swear on a stack of anything you can find that is holy that they played fourteen minutes of straight commercials. Obnoxious car commercials, obnoxious lawyer commercials, and sketchy boner pill commercials. I know they got to pay the bills and radio is hurting right now, but holy hell on a stick I can't do that. (It sucks because morning radio is actually decent in this city...at least when you are actually listening to content.)

So I turned it off and drove to work in silence.

On the way home, I had the same dilemma. Well, I thought to myself, I can always listen to NPR. I like All Things Considered.

So I turn it on and...I get to listen to a riveting story about birdwatching. Birdwatching! In Columbia, no less! Come on, NPR, at least try and make an effort to not be the thing that everyone makes fun of you for.

It was a silent drive home.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Hot Dogs

Warning: this post involves a sad, gross story.

It's a story about two parents who made their child live off of a hot dog smoothie diet. They were, of course, arrested, and the local CPS has gotten involved after an embarrassingly long delay, but it's such a strange, bizarre story.*

Now, I am not one to make fun of someone's appearance, but I'm going to anyway because these people are monsters,** but that guy is totally, like, twelfth in line to the leadership of the Pacific Northwest Area Anton LaVey Appreciation Club. I suspect it's been a long time since his clothes haven't smelled like stale Cheetos.

Clearly something is wrong--no doubt there are mental health issues involved, but for those not into the excuse-making business there was a good dose of not-right-in-the-headness. The thing that baffles me the most is that this isn't neglect, because neglect would involve not feeding him at all, or feeding him lazily. No, these people actively made smoothies out of hot dogs and cooking oil. This took effort. This involved a lot of work to make this child's life hell.

And there's a certain brand of evil that they made him do pushups with a backpack full of canned goods, like "here's a bunch of food you will never have bwah ha ha."

I suppose this isn't funny, but it certainly is bizarre, and at the very least the judge involved seems to have  handed down an exceptionally long jail sentence given the circumstances. Little comfort to the kid, no doubt, but at least that's something. 

*A story, I would like to add, that as of this posting includes the word "wiht" when they mean "with". Come on, major news outlet MSN, don't you guys have spell checkers? Or, you know, editors? 

 **Allegedly.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Candy Review: New Flavors Of Peanut M&Ms

It's been a while since my last candy review, and now that our great national holiday (Half Off Easter Candy) has come and gone, I figured it's time to post some new deliciousness.

I didn't get anything fun or innovating for Easter, but shortly thereafter I noticed that the M&Ms corporation is launching three new flavors--well, one new flavor, anyway. The public will get to vote on which one makes it to the regular rotation of flavors. As a (ahem) public service, I figured it's only right that I dive in and let you know the facts. I am nothing if not selfless.

The three flavors are Honey Nut, Chili Nut, and Coffee Nut.

First up is Honey Nut. I am lukewarm on honey--a little bit goes a long way for me. And so it was with this flavor; I thought there was too much honey flavor. (My wife, incidentally preferred these, and stated that it reminded her of eating Honey Crisp cereal.) I enjoyed it enough but of all the flavors it was my least favorite.

Next up is Chili Nut. This one was interesting--the flavor isn't very strong, which is probably good, and doesn't kick in until well after you've eaten some. The good news is that it's a very pleasant, very balanced flavor. The bad news is that if you're a unrepentant pig like me that likes to eat them by the handful, a lot of this subtlety is lost.  If you like spicy chili flavor with your chocolate and like to savor your candy, this one will be right up your alley.

Finally, we get to Coffee Nut. I love coffee + chocolate, and so it was with this flavor. I'll register it my favorite off the top. Like the Chili Nut, though, it also didn't really kick in until the aftertaste, and even then the flavor wasn't overpowering like coffee candy sometimes can.

I'd eat any of these again, although I'd probably reserve the Honey Nut for someone else. But if I had to vote--which I am encouraged to do--I'd go with coffee. Unlike other things we vote for this year, though, I'd be happy with any of the choices.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Guest Post: But, Wait! I’m Not a Liberal! Am I?

Today’s post comes from J.J. Hensley of Hensley Books and is part of a special day of shenanigans from other Pittsburgh Bloggers. You can see my post over on amandanarcisi.com, where I posit what the new Indiana Jones movie would look like if it were shot in Pittsburgh. There's a list of everyone participating in today's event at the bottom of this post.


In the 1990s, I was a moderate with conservative leanings.  At least that’s how I classified myself since my opinions were somewhat liberal toward social programs, but may have been classified as conservative in matters of national defense and law and order.  I prided myself on being a moderate.  I didn’t feel like I could be accused of attaching myself to a specific party platform or supporting a specific candidate due to party affiliations.  In fact, while I considered myself to have conservative leanings, I was a registered democrat.  TAKE THAT, political establishment.


Over a twenty-year period, I voted for GOP candidates as well as some with the Democratic party.  I even voted for Ralph Nader once.  Boom!  Liberal some days, conservative on others, moderate by choice.  That was me and my views haven’t changed drastically since those days when grunge music was hitting the airwaves and hair band guitarists went looking for the closest pair of scissors. 

Fast forward to 2016.


With a few exceptions, my core values and beliefs are pretty much the same.  I strongly support my former vocation, law enforcement, but believe in improved training, pay, sensitivity training, and the need for increased professionalism.  I support gay marriage.  I believe religious extremists, not all believers in any particular religion, need to be dealt with forcefully and decisively.  I believe in gun control, but not gun abolition.  I don’t care if someone smokes weed, as long as they don’t get behind the wheel of a car.  I’m pro-life, but not pro-abortion.  I’m against capital punishment, but only because the system is highly flawed, biased, and it does not have a deterrent effect because, to be effective, punishment has to be swift, certain, and severe.  


Two decades ago, these beliefs put me squarely in the moderate category.  Today, I’m a liberal.  And that is an extremely scary thing for all of us.  


How has this happened?  How has the U.S. political landscape shifted so drastically, that 1990s moderate—as well as some conservative—beliefs are now liberal?  While I’ve voted for some GOP candidates in the past, I wouldn’t use a ten-foot pole to reach into a voting machine and cast a ballot for any of the latest batch of GOP Presidential candidates.


This is the frightening reality our two-party system is currently facing.  The current GOP has adopted its own brand of corporate sponsored extremism and the democratic party is struggling to keep up with the sound bites produced by those who get headlines by trumpeting the outlandish.  In today’s media environment, ideas and discourse cannot compete with the ratings gained by constantly talking about Presidential candidates who openly insult each other and disparage women, minorities, and the handicapped.  


So like many others, I’m now considered a liberal with moderate leanings.  We stood firm, yet the sun moved around behind us, casting a shadow in an unfamiliar direction.  That’s fine.  The sun was blinding us anyway.  


J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.


AVAILABLE NOW!



Cyprus Keller wants a future.
Jackson Channing has a past.
Robert Chalk has a rifle and a mission.  Kill Cyprus Keller and anyone who gets in his way.

2014

An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.


Also:

In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered.  When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.


Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel

Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!

Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air

 And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology