Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day

A great title did not leap into my brain but who can resist February 29th?

OMG. Just saw adorable "chimpanzee" movie ad from DisneyNature. Probably some Bambi level horrors in it, and chimps are the domestic violence kingpins of the great apes but it still looks adorable. So grateful for LOLCAT speak that makes saying "adorable chimp looks adorable" culturally acceptable.

It would be funny if google just erased everything that happened online today at midnight+1. Horrible but hilarious. They could maybe restor it in time for April fools day?

Stopped by the ubercrunchy granola hippie health food store today to pick up some Mama Chia beverage (with floating chia seeds and omega 3s) and found my TOM "wintermint" flavored toothpaste. Cool mint is not a sufficient replacement. I was tempted by the mango, but I've searched nearly every store in town for this flavor-and came up empty online. How long can one stockpile toothpaste before it goes bad?

Mmmm, wintermint. And leapday!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscar Marathon 2011B

Thanks again to AMC Woodland Hills for providing the Oscar movie marathon venue. And the 44 oz Icee, which I fortunately did not finish. Today was still a high sugar day, though.

For the last 5 movies, I'm again reviewing them in order of my favorite to my least favorite of the day. Of all 9 films, my favorite is still Moneyball, I think. My other tops are The Help and Midnight in Paris. They all stood up as complete movies that were just the length they needed to be to tell the story, with a minimum of irritating elements.

Overall, 2011 was not a fantastic year for movies. One of the critics on the panel talk I went to at the Egyptian Theater, sponsored by KPCC, last week pointed out that not only were there a large number of sequels this year, nearly all the top picks were nostalgic and/or set at least partially in the past. And it's true. Only the Descendents was actually set in present day. Afterward, I stayed and talked to several people, including a couple of the critics and it was brought up that they think quarterly profits are ruining the movie biz because films take 2 years to film and a year to prep and market, at least. Which gave me the epiphany that probably all the films coming out recently were greenlighted in the depths of the worst recession we've seen in decades. So few companies took real risks to make great movies, and only wanted to make good-enough movies that would get repeat viewers in the seats. I'm still thinking about Winter's Bone a year later - it was an excellently done movie but scary realistic dystopian in ways that made it difficult to enjoy, or even to watch. It wasn't an enjoyable movie, but it felt like it was worth watching. Even among the best picks this year, I'd rate several not even worth watching unless you have a specific taste for what they are: Warhorse, Tree of Life, EL&IC and maybe even Hugo. But lets start with the positive. I'd give a solid A to Moneyball, and an A- to the Help and a B+ to Midnight in Paris.

movie poster, the Help standing by the bench with the white ladies sitting
The Help

To clear it out of the way first, the only black critic at last week's panel was said, "well it's a nice movie but it doesn't say anything new that Driving Miss Daisy didn't say 20 years ago. Why, 20 years on, are we still making this movie? The best answer I have for that is that it's a "woman's tale", not just a black woman's tale, and those don't get a lot of support from the old white dudes still running Hollywood. I'd add to that that it's a fully realized movie starring only women where the male characters are mostly incidental. I know of two this year - this one and Bridesmaids. I'd also ask why, a decade after the new millennium, we're only now making good movies with lots of good actresses of multiple ages that get the full media machine behind their promotion. (My fav from a couple years ago, Whip It was excellent but didn't get the same press.) I watch The Help, and it's packed to the gills with some of our best actresses, yes, including the adorable Emma Stone, and I start to think that they piled into this movie because it's the only place for them to work. So part of me is exceptionally glad that a high caliber movie was made with all this female talent. Another part of me is still a little appalled that it wasn't in service of something beyond black maids.

That said, this was a good movie. Sort of coming of age, comeuppance of the uppity, revenge of the underdog, costume drama, day in the life sort of movie. I really liked that their selection of actresses for the married ladies with young kids were the age we'd still consider to be girls today - early 20s - because I think we forget that in the 1960s, 50% of people were married by age 23, 75% by 25. (The youngest marrying decade in the last 12 decades.) The age selection felt real. The setting felt sufficiently authentic (in stark contrast to Warhorse), and the production values were quite good. When I watched it, I felt like I was watching the characters, not the actors. Nothing stood out to me as wrong, which is a ringing endorsement this year.

The main characters, Skeeter and Milly and Aibileen were decent people you could root for, and their successes were our successes. If you haven't read the book, as I haven't (yet, mom!) it's about a young woman who wants to be a writer finding a topic that "bothers her but doesn't seem to bother anyone else" and that's how the people who raised her generation are treated when that generation becomes adults. It's really not safe for the maids to speak out - they risk losing jobs, going to jail, or even getting killed. It's really not safe for the white girl either as there was a law on the book saying it was a jailable offense for trying to upset the social order by promoting the rights of minorities. For all that it's a message of what happened in the 60s, versions of this still happen today, and we still need to stand up for the unpopular today so the movie still has a relevant message for today. And for a viewer who's for the advancement of civil rights, the message goes down with a spoonful of sugar, rather than two slices of pie.

My favorite scene was toward the end when the authors (Skeeter and Aibilieen) get copies of their book signed by "all the black church goers for two counties" and they tell her to go live her life.

Go see it! Except you probably already have. Hollywood is generally wasted on me... I'm still trying to justify why I rank it below Moneyball. Probably has something to do with Aaron Sorkin and how much his stuff hits my happy places. I don't think either will win for best movie, given the crowd and critical response to them last week. That will probably go to one of the next two, which is all right, I suppose.

movie poster
Midnight in Paris

This is a Woody Allen flick starring Owen Wilson. I've forgiven him for his nose, but if it bothers you, you don't see a lot of it in this - they use camera angles and lighting to minimize it. It's a charming tale of a guy who is engaged to the wrong woman figuring that out *before* he marries her, and figuring out a little of what he wants in life. He does this via time-traveling taxi, which departs from a roadside staircase at midnight. In Paris.

For more reviewing,

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Oscar Marathon 2011A

Today was day one of the movie marathon featuring the "Best Film" Oscar picks. Preview: I'm no longer wondering why they only picked 9 instead of 10. The wonder is why they picked some of these. I'll try not to be too spoilery if you haven't seen the flicks, but since they're all old (for this town) I'm not going to be strict.

Today's films in the order I rank them:
The Descendents
War Horse
(every other movie released this year)
Tree of Life.

moneyball poster

Written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Brad Pitt geeking out on stats, I had hopes for this. I was not disappointed despite setting expectations high. This movie is a metaphor for why it's important to promote and use good minority ideas (and people) and also how it's hard. You want a man to understand the glass ceiling? Send them to see Moneyball - and then take away the interim job security (such as it was) and the final job offer. It's The King's Speech of 2011, and the best of everything that implies. I don't yet know if it will win, but it was far and away the best of these four. Given that it starred absolutely no adult women, it spoke a lot to the environment faced by lots of women. And I'm recommending it as a great movie despite being by men, about men, for men. Anybody could get something good from this.

Moneyball was highly watchable, set up to get you a payoff without too much manufactured feel-good. The goods felt real. I even got a little verklempt at the scene outside Fenway Park. My lack of baseball knowledge outside of Indians/Red Sox superficials meant that the game results were a surprise to me, although the music does anticipate the climactic play. The only off note was at the end where I thought the GM and stats guy were a team, and it didn't play that way, rather each implied the other incidental to the success of the pair, which was sterotypical-guy-like, and wrong. It wasn't clear if they stayed together or not, and needed resolution. Very minor quibble with a long explanation.

Lastly, the biggest female role in the film was the daughter. She and her singing was arced through the show, and the arc had payoff too - well done, mostly. She sings a song, quite well, and it builds. I'm not sure it had to be the same song; it was ok that it was. It showed that the GM had similar life pressures as the team guys he was hiring, firing, and trading. And that he cared about someone outside himself since his role as GM impeded forming relationships with his players, and the relationship to the rest of the staff was rocky at best. I can recommend this movie without reservation.

For the rest of the movie reviews,

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Math for the Masses

The president has made remarks in several speeches this year about promoting education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM Education). He's mentioned yhe idea of a technology expert as a Cabinet post. This is all well and good in theory. I have some thoughts on it as follows. He then made some noise about forcing people to go to high school until age 18 (presumably allowing one to graduate younger than that but not explicitly stated). This, I think is madness. There are better things we can do for people that aren't successful at high school that hold them in a failing stasis for more time. Here goes!

Reasons why education in science, technology, engineering and math might flounder in the upper levels, from someone who successfully graduated from from MIT.
1) STEM courses are cumulative.  If you learn 12 concepts and only master 10 of them, you could be floundering in your next course. Then you either have to do extracurricular studying to catch up, retake a class, or you're unable to complete the work at higher levels. If you partially fail at an english course, the concepts and skills are still cumulative to some extent, but a "C" level writer can continute to be a "C" level writer in their next course, and has some hope of improving to a B.  A "C" level mathematician is more likely to be a "D" level mathematician in the following course.
 There's some ability to choose to continue where your interests and talents lie, but sometimes you get tested on things your brain just doesn't want to wrap itself around. (My nemesis is electron tunneling. I've seen the equations to work it out but cannot reproduce them with any understanding of what I'm doing.) Two courses down the line, either you've caught up, chosen a path to avoid your problem areas, or given up. 
2) Status. STEM = geek/nerd.  If your chosen university doesn't reward STEM students with some sort of social status, only the most dedicated will pursue these degrees.  At MIT, you can geek out to your heart's content and be socially rewarded for it. Also, in that environment, failure in one STEM track can lead to a different STEM major. (My Bio major roommate hated Physics more than any English major I know.) But at most universities,  the social structure does not reward sticking it out in STEM, but in transferring to a more socially rewarding major. 
3) Money.  Our current high paying jobs are in finance and "business".  I make a decent living as an engineer, but am doing nowhere near as well as I expected to be.  Many of my contemporaries have gone on to get MBAs because it's the only way to break into the jobs where you make top 10% money, and it's hard to live in a major city and feel successful if you've excelled at school your whole life and are only earning a median salary for all the effort you put in.  A colleague used to reminisce about trudging home with his engineering text to go do problem sets and passing his business major friends already at the bar.  Upon graduation, the business majors earned more than he did, and spent more time at the bar drinking with clients.  It turns out their college bar time was preparing them for life on the job after all.  He felt a little cheated.
I know a fair few STEM PhDs. Unless you love, love, love it,  I don't recommend it.  You live pretty far into your adulthood on a paltry stipend in substandard housing, with no guarantee that things will substantially turn around later. (One silver lining is that STEM graduate studies are more likely to get funding than humanities students, who have to pay out of pocket.)  Contrast that with doctors who make the same upfront sacrifice, but have much higher earning potential down the road.  At least one friend completed a PhD in biology at one of the top 5 universities in the country, only to find that this qualified her to be a glorified lab tech.  She felt a little cheated.
Both of those "cheated" friends went on to get MBAs and nearly double their salaries.
4) Encouragement. At least one study has shown that women continue in the STEM courses if they are excelling; men continue in STEM courses if they are passing.  So women who are getting Cs and low Bs are either likely to conclude that they are not good at this and go do something else, or there is less support for them to continue, or they have false expectations of how good they need to be in school to be successful in industry.
If we want to successfully get students to stick with STEM educations, and I think we should encourage more to do so we need to:
1) Acknowledge that one doesn't have to be good at all science or math to be good at some branch of science or math.  We need current practitioners to talk to younger students about the diversity of available options.  
2) Give more chances to succeed.  Start science classes earlier - like 4th or 5th grade, when kids are really curious.  Even if they don't do so well the first time, by the time they hit the standard bio-chem-physics in high school, they've already had time to become familiar with the concepts, if not the details, and are much more likely to succeed in building on established foundations.
3) Monetarily reward STEM majors. Right now, engineers are cogs in the machine that can often be outsourced to India.  Before outsourcing, the big thing was to fire older engineers and replace them with 2 new college graduates who would work 80 hours a week for 40 hours pay.  Even people taking these jobs knew it wasn't a great idea - the older engineers are often more efficient, getting done in 40 hours what it takes 2 new engineers 80 hours to do because they don't have the work experience - not because of technical qualifications.
4) Socially reward engineering.  Right now, it's assumed that engineers are people lacking social skills.  And they're right a lot of time time.  So how do we convince social people to major in engineering too?  A presidential focus is a good start, a cabinet member for technology is a good start, but I don't know how we fix it.  Maybe other readers have some ideas.
On a related note, the longer I went to college, the more I realized it wasn't for everybody. I think we should be rejuvinating more vo-tech programs that produce capable people through more applied fields starting around age 16.  And the training should include fields that primarily attract women as well as men. I don't want to go back to the days of exploiting child workers, but adolescents are not incapable. Instead of doing straight classwork 8 hours a day, why not offer half days with accredited apprenticeship opportunities. These would start as, perhaps, unpaid for school credit, but move to being paid so kids aren't hitting the college years, or their first apartment with pocket change and a placeholder fast food job.