Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How To Make An Extremely Mediocre Horror Movie

A few weeks ago, we saw Winchester, the horror film starting Helen Mirren about the Winchester Mystery House.

For those who are not familiar, the Winchester Mystery House is a real-life weird thing. The widow (and majority owner) of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah Winchester, had an infant daughter die, and  upon consulting with a medium, was told that in order to appease the spirits of those how have died by the arms her husband (and now her) sold, she had to continually build. As in perform constant, 24-hour-a-day construction on the house she owned. As such, she moved out West to California, where for the next few decades the mansion was under constant construction, remodeling, and experimentation. The result is a fascinating building, where doors lead nowhere, stairs spiral needlessly around, and rooms make little architectural sense.

(For the record, while the reason why this happened is probably apocryphal, the construction actually did happen. The theories are pretty much either the spiritualist one listed above, or that she just had money to burn being an armchair architect. Obviously the estate plays up the former, since spooks who are in league with the local construction worker's guild is a better story.)

For the movie, instead of telling the incredibly fascinating real-life story, they chose instead to go with a rather mundane straight retelling of the story involving ghosts.

They did take the above foundation as the starting point. They did, also, come up with a reasonably interesting take on it--the constant rebuilding was that, in order to appease the ghosts, they had to recreate the room in the room of their death, and then sealed. They did also build on the real-time obsessions of Sarah Winchester, such as the number 13.They even come up with a framing device--a doctor who visits to evaluate her mental state on behalf of the Winchester board of directors--that sounds like it could go in interesting directions.(My wife and I toured the place when we went out to California last year.)

Sadly, the movie makes none of this interesting.

First off, it relies on cheap jump scares. Jump scares can be effective, even if they aren't very creative, but in this case they just seem out of place. The first few times it happens--when the doctor is looking in a mirror--it's in a scene with no tension, no buildup, and no creepiness. It just sort of happens with no reason.

The character of Sarah Winchester is clinical. Helen Mirren does the best she can with the material, but it goes nowhere. We don't feel sympathy for her. We're not sure if she's supposed to be cold and calculating, or have a hidden agenda, or worthy of emotional investment. Instead, she disjointedly comes across as simultaneously abrasive and then thoughtful. When the doctor first interviews her as part of his examination, the exchange is combative--but it turns out there's no particular reason for this to be the case, because they are ultimately on the same side, and, it's quickly revealed, she invited him to be there because of his background. And when the shit starts to hit the fan, she gets into action right away--and presumably with no help that required the doctor to travel halfway across the country to pull off.

Add to this the weird relationship with the relatives living in the house--are we supposed to hate them? Root for them? We don't know, because the information presented doesn't connect.

And when the "big bad" finally shows up--so what? The previous times he had been shown, it's without importance or interest. He's a secondary character of no consequence, so when the reveal happens there's no emotional resonance. And when we have what is presumably the film's climax with regard to the doctor--again, the information we've been given so far is far too inadequate to car about its resolution.

This was an extremely frustrating movie to watch, because all of the elements were there. It had the needed characters. It took good stuff from the real-life story and filled in the rest with perfectly reasonable fiction. The actors involved were top-notch. But the whole thing just doesn't work.  Every single scene and line of dialogue in the movie feels like it was written independently of each other, and then someone ordered them all together, and then someone was brought in to paste the whole things together with jump scares and poor lighting.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Woodrow Wilson Would Like A Word

There's a little known episode of history that we should learn about today.

In late 1919 Woodrow Wilson, on an extensive tour to promote the Treaty of Versailles, collapsed in what eventually amounted to a stroke. Incapacitated, his wife, Edith, took over the day-to-day responsibilities of the job, delegating what she could to cabinet members and insulating him from everyone else.

However, late in his term, Wilson gathered enough energy to make one proclamation:

"There is no greater urgency in this world than to carry out that which our founding fathers intended: that everyone eat peanut butter pie on President's Day."

After which he collapsed, never to speak again.

That's right--it's President's Day soon, which means there is more than adequate time to purchase ingredients and bake a peanut butter pie for the occasion. There is nothing more important you can do for your country.

"I may have refused to delegate my authority to someone with a better capacity to uphold the duties of the office, a decision which may have forced the flawed application of a treaty that eventually led to World War II, but damned if this peanut butter pie isn't delicious. #WorthIt."

Sunday, February 4, 2018


I like football. No, I really do.

But I haven't watch a game in years.

Well, that's not true. I haven't watched a non-Superbowl game for about three years or so. And this year I'm not even going to watch that.

Part of it is just...fatigue. The NFL has made some boneheaded decisions in the last few years. Usually I take such things in stride--a lot of people do a lot of things I disagree with, and I still consume their media. The world is such a culturally intertwined place that it's impossible to avoid most things. You can take a stand about the NFL's handling of domestic abuse or concussions or the anthem by not watching the games, but at the end of the day you're almost certainly giving even more money to gas station owners, waitresses, and accountants that if you knew their opinions it would probably shock you. But at some point I just shrugged and thought, "I'll pass."

I'm sure I'll get back into it again, but I just haven't had the inclination for a while to see a game. And because I haven't followed the NFL for a few years, I am out of the loop on so many things it will be hard to catch back up.

All this is to say I won't be watching the Superbowl this year. Not only am I not really interested in the teams, but I also no longer have the ability to do so--we cut the cord, as it were, when we moved. The only thing we really lost was live TV and live sports, and while I do miss hockey it just wasn't nearly worth it to pay a monthly charge just for that.

I'm sure I will catch the scores once in a while, but for now, it looks like it will just be slightly cheaper pizza for a day for me. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Groundhog This

Punxsutawney Phil is finally having his day! But he's so suck of just predicting the weather--they have professionals for that, now. So here's Phil's better predictions for all of 2018.
  • Nicholas Cage will run for President.
  • Kids will move from eating Tide Pods to eating bobby pins and dacron.
  • Elon Musk finally rips his mask off to reveal that he is actually one of the aliens from V.
  • Y'all remember V, right?
  • The Oscars ceremony will be a brilliantly awkward six-hour marathon of shifted eyes and apologetic mumbling, as host Jimmy Kimmel tries to balance making The-Best-Picture-Announcement-Was-Wrong jokes with vague, empty platitudes about how everyone in the room is a sex criminal but we're all just going to pretend it doesn't matter.
  • Kim Jong Un will do something stupid during the Olympics, probably involving either a ballistic missile test or the luge.
  • Not a prediction, but I would pay good American cash to see Kim Jong Un strap on a helmet and take a luge down a big slope just for the hell of it.
  • One of the commercials in the Super Bowl will be a wildly insensitive "build a wall" joke.
  • It's possible, just possible, that the FIFA World Cup in Russia will end up being corrupt.
  • Someone in the royal family is going to make an embarrassingly racist remark at Prince Harry's wedding without realizing it.
  • Alexa finally gets sick of everyone's shit and starts passive-aggressively not allowing you to order any more Ed Sheeran CDs.
  • The Democrats, running in the perfect atmosphere for a wave of House and Senate races across the nation, will find a way to jack it up and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, just like they have in pretty much every single election since WWII.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Last Jedi

I finally got around to seeing The Last Jedi a week or so ago.

[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead. Nothing major.]

I came in to the movie very guarded. I had heard that a lot of people didn't like it. I heard from a lot of long-time Star Wars fans that they didn't like it. Their complains were varied and many--it tried to be too much like Guardians of the Galaxy with its humor injected at weird times. They dumped all over Leia's legacy. The casino scene was too long. There was a forced romance. And so on.

My verdict? You nerds have to grow up.

The movie was pretty good. I wouldn't rank it as my favorite, but I'd easily watch it again. (Also, I haven't seen the prequels yet, but I suspect that doesn't mean much.) I believe the new movie trilogy has done a really good job of creating interesting characters that we care about while still giving the old guard interesting things to talk and do without simply blasting the screen with nostalgia.

I'm not sure where the angry nerds got angry. The so-called misplaced humor really wasn't that bad--in fact I'd be hard pressed to find all that much humor in the movie to begin with. Leia pulling out a last-minute Force saving throw? That's not all that much different than the ass-pulling they've done in literally all of the previous movies. The only thing I can think of is that this movie isn't the exact same thing as what they saw when they were thirteen years old, and since one of the biggest criticisms of The Force Awakens is that it was too much like A New Hope, I feel like the nerds just want to be angry.

The only thing that I didn't care for was that one of the plot lines--an attempt at sabotage--didn't work as intended, even a little bit, and so a huge chunk of the movie just seemed like a waste of time. Of course, you don't know it at the time, but after it was all said and done it was a little weird. It seems like even with negative consequences it would have been worth it to make something come out of the whole deal.

Anyway, go see it if you're a Star Wars fan, even if you're just a casual fan. It's a perfectly fine movie.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Border Control

In case you haven't read it yet, fivethirtyeight.com has a huge gerrymandering project up on their page, which has a lot of...interesting results. The map is linked above, but there's a lot of interesting things there.

(If case you've forgotten your eighth grade civics class, gerrymandering is the act of drawing Congressional district lines to benefit one party or the other. Since House districts are geography-based, they have to be manually set up every ten years after the census.)

They basically ran the math and came up with a bunch of different scenarios--the current state, emphasizing competitive districts, using computer algorithms, and so on. They also released a series of podcast episodes in conjunction with the project, which looked at blatant partisanship (Wisconsin), a creative "communities of interest" method (California); an impartial panel (Arizona); and dealing with minority-majority districts (North Carolina). If you are interested in that sort of thing, it's worth a listen.

Gerrymandering reform is always on the radar for a lot of reformers and activists, but this entire project seems to give mixed results--in fact, it's probably disappointing to a lot of people. It turns out there's two major factors, here:

  • Drawing districts is hard. No matter what, you can't draw it perfectly.
  • It probably also doesn't make that much of a difference.
For about two decades, reformers have blamed Republicans for gerrymandering their way to the House of Representatives. However, if you look at the maps, it turns out that the difference is minimal. The current state has an expected Republican seat count of 234. If we draw the districts with a computer algorithm--removing all biases--it's 232. In fact, nearly all of the cases they build have a difference of only about 10 seats total--and since there's 40-70 competitive seats in between, it just straight up doesn't make a difference.

It's also important to note that a lot of these scenarios ignore the Supreme Court's ruling for majority-minority districts--districts that must be drawn to make sure there is minority representation, which often has the practical effect of lumping Democratic voters together and pulling them from other theoretical districts, meaning that the GOP has an advantage in those suburbs. Or maybe; the effect of this is also pretty minimal, but it does exist and it does hamstring people who are trying to make effective borders.

Now, the data does show that there's a case for making more competitive seats. There are a few models that spike the GOP seats up by a lot, but it also spikes the Democratic seats as well--all the gains are at the expense of competitive seats. But even this isn't the fault of gerrymandering--the American population is already "self-sorting" enough that gerrymandering isn't necessary. Seats have become more partisan and 'safe' not because of redistricting, but because the people have started to think like their neighbors.

This has always been suspected by people who (like myself) were always skeptical of reform. A few papers had been done in the past estimating that the difference was 2 seats or less. Since there are several different goals, I won't say this confirms it, but it's pretty close.

What's the solution? Well, first we have to decide whether we need a solution. There's a case--not a strong one, but one nonetheless--that competitive seats aren't necessarily the best thing. What is better for democracy--a district where 50% of the people consistently don't like who is representing them, or a district that gets 90% of the vote for one party, meaning that nearly everyone in the district likes their representative? I'm not sold on that sentiment, but I'm not against it, either. Like most things in politics, it's probably somewhere in the middle.

An interesting solution I came up with is that all states have at-large representatives. Everyone still only gets to vote for one candidate, but you have as many candidates to choose from as slots in your state (times two, plus any third party). Then on election day the top Representatives win. Let's take the example of Virginia, which has 11 representatives. Probably around 25 people would run--11 from each major party and a few third parties. On election day, each voter votes for one, and the top 11 vote-getters win election. No districts (besides the state), no votes are "wasted" due to artificial districts, and you can feel represented even if you voted for someone across the state.

There are drawbacks. First is information--that's a lot of candidates to get to know. Chances are, then, we'd still see some form of localization. If you live in Fairfax, you're probably going to vote for someone around your area--but now no one has to worry if they live specifically on the right street or not. Parties would have to make concentrated efforts to make sure that votes don't get split--if all the minorities in a city split their vote too many ways, they may see no one elected at all. And finally the localization would be gone--there's no guarantee that 11 Representatives would come out of Northern Virginia and zero from south Virginia, something that is guaranteed now. That may not sit well with people. It's not likely, but with 50 states and an election every two years, it's a statistical likelihood that would eventually happen.There may also be a danger of strategic nominations--if the Republicans only nominate, say, 8 candidates, they are almost certain to win those 8 (since the Democrats will split their votes 11 ways). They won't sweep the state, but they can guarantee a majority--right up until the Democrats do the same.

And therein lies the problem. No matter what solution we present, it is at the expense of something else. If we want more competitive districts, the lines can get pretty wild and will split cities in two (or more). If we want minority representation, we have to accept that that means less minority representation elsewhere. If we want people to be represented by their interests, that may mean feeding into incumbency. And so on.

Turns out, this stuff is hard. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Questions Within Questions

Mental Floss--one of my favorite places on the internet to get awesome trivia--recently released a map called The Most Common "Why Do" Questions People Are Asking In Your State, According to Google

Now, maps like that can be a little problematic--it's pretty easy to goose the numbers to make them say whatever you want them to say. Still, it's fun, and you should take a look at the map before you continue, but I certainly do have some questions about their questions:

1. Wyoming, why do you not have any game?
2. Indiana and Colorado, I think maybe you need to read some Beverly Cleary books, or at least get yourself to CVS.
3. South Carolina, it's because you live in South Carolina.
4. Utah, it's because you like in Utah.
5. Texas, please wear your protective headphones when firing your gun every morning
6. Virginia is for lovers, after all.
7. Hey, Michigan--maybe it's the water.
8. Stop it, Hawaii, you've never seen a rooster in your life.
9. Y'all care waaay to much about cats. You know why cats do what they do? Because they are cats and don't give a shit.
10. Florida, who hurt you?

Monday, January 1, 2018

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

It's been a while.

I've detailed my reasons why I haven't written in a long time before, and sadly some of those still hold true. My goal in 2018 is to at least write a little, but I doubt very much it will at the same frequency as before. We'll see. I'm still a little gun shy about writing about certain topics, and that used to make up a bulk of my content, so it can get a little frustrating navigating my efforts.

Anyway, I figured an update was in order with everything that happened in 2017.

We bought a new house. I've been driving a long way to work, and my wife got a new job, and so at the beginning of the year we decided to move to be closer to both of our jobs. Not very far--we only moved about a half hour away--but it's a nice little house that fits our needs. The flip side of that was that we sold the old house, which was not as fantastic, but it got done and it all worked out. Kids, moving sucks. But in the end it was worth my sanity.

We drove to California. From Pennsylvania. For two weeks we traveled this nation, looking at all the fruited mountains and purple roadside kitsch majesty. We tried to hit (and geocache) in every state we traveled through, and we ended up hitting fifteen new states we hadn't seen before. Short version: New Mexico was beautiful. Kansas is a dump. California is a little weird. The Grand Canyon is pretty big, but the Garden of the Gods was more impressive to me. I was shocked at 1) how cheap the Midwest is; 2) how completely empty most of our nation is, and 3) how weird it is that most bigger cities are simultaneously exactly the same and completely different.

Say good night from New Mexico.

I started playing D&D 5e. I've always been more of a board gamer than a role playing gamer. I've played a smattering of RPGs in my day, but the last time I did was in college, which was (mumble mumble) years ago. But this year I had the opportunity to dive headlong first into the newest (well, newish) version of Dungeons and Dragons. With the help of a great DM and a great group of people, I've found it to be amazingly fun and productive, and one of the reasons I've been more creative lately. And I've met a lot of new friends in the process.

We went to Candlenights. This may not mean much to most of you, but this was a fantastic show. If you haven't listened to a little podcast called My Brother, My Brother, and Me you should get on that right now. I get that it may not be everyone's brand of humor, but it's good enough that I recommend giving a few episodes a try. In any case, they hold a (usually) annual Candlenights show--Candlenights being their placeholder for Christmas (it makes sense in context)--in Huntington, WV. That's not too far, and also in the middle of West Virginia so it's super cheap, and so we decided to go, and it was a blast. It's a bit hard to describe but it was hilarious with a lot of good people doing good things, which this what 2017 desperately needed.

I made a sweet Out Of This World reference on Twitter last May that no one got. It is my life's greatest regret.