Archive for May, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
25 May, 2008

After nineteen years Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings the return of the world’s most famous archeologist. A crate load of expectations can build up during nineteen years.

Harrison Ford reprises his role as the eponymous adventurer. For the most part he looked like the same character, albeit with a lot more gray in his hair. Cate Blanchett brings an icy beauty to the role of the antagonist. Shia LaBeouf, whom I find to be a remarkable actor, has an unfortunately small role, one that feels like it is just preparing the audience for the sequel. Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski successfully capture the look of the original film. David Koepp gets the credit for the script, which maintained the spirit of the first three films, but it seems like every writer in Hollywood has taken a tilt at it one time or other.
Other critics have complained about the implausibility of both the plot and the stunts. I had no problems with either as they seem in keeping with the pulps to which it pays homage. Rather, for me the pacing problems loomed larger: it felt like the film could have been thirty minutes shorter. The movie felt just a little off. I can think of no specific problem per se other than it seemed a little out of sync. Given the two decades of expectations, it feels more disappointing than it ought.

While almost free of profanity, it contained several scenes that may startle if not frighten kids in the primary grades and younger. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull earns its place in the tetralogy but fails to recapture the greatness of the original movie.

Life Is like a River
24 May, 2008

When asked about instant replay in professional football on Mike and Mike in the Morning, Tony Dungy indicated that he opposes it, instead accepting the responsibility of “getting over” the bad call. Co-host Mike Greenberg asked, “if it’s correctable, why not correct it?” in response.

I find this a common, and curious, misconception. What has been done can not be undone, even if some things are restored to their previous positions. In the case of instant replay, the play has already occurred. Moving the ball back to the previous spot does not remove all of the actions of the previous play. In an extreme, player injuries are not instantly healed.

Time flows in one direction; there are no do-overs. We can accommodate what happened upstream but we can not go back and change it: we have already passed there. Our job is not to make things turn out the right way, but to make the way things turn out right.

Nothing But Trouble
13 May, 2008

I ordered some software through Amazon.com this morning and this evening got an email saying the order had been canceled. The woman with whom I spoke on the telephone was very helpful and said that the ordered had been canceled by the seller, NothingButSoftware. Upon reordering I discovered that the same product is sold directly by Amazon.com. Given that Amazon.com probably ships quicker than smaller sellers, I will probably get my software no later than if the original order had not been canceled. But the experience shows room for improvement for Amazon.com.

First, when I originally placed my order I was not informed that Amazon.com sold the same product (albeit for a different price). I appreciate that they wanted to show me the lowest price, but my decision-making process includes the seller as well as the price. Screen real estate is at a premium but I think it would be better to indicate that there are other sellers, even if not showing the list of sellers themselves.

Second, when NothingButSoftware canceled my order I could no longer see my order through Amazon.com’s web site. I tried different combinations of viewing my orders. But the canceled order stayed persistently hidden. I know that it remained in their database because I got an email about it and the gal on the phone could see it through her interface. The order should remain visible to me and it should have clearly indicated that NothingButSoftware canceled my order. That would have saved Amazon.com the cost of my call to customer support.

Third, NothingButSoftware should be penalized inside Amazon.com for canceling customer orders. The seller rating system was not available to me because, as mentioned previously, my order was completely hidden. Amazon.com should internally track the number of canceled orders and decrease the seller’s rating (and eventually drop them) based on the number thereof. If Amazon.com continues to hide canceled orders, they should at least state in the email their policy regarding sellers who cancel orders.

Fourth, the canceled order reflects poorly not just on NothingButSoftware but also on Amazon.com. By reselling NothingButSoftware’s inventory, Amazon.com has explicitly vouched for NothingButSoftware. When NothingButSoftware fails the user, Amazon.com is guilty by association. Amazon.com needs to better vet their sellers and clearly communicate to the customers how they will enforce their service agreements.

Using the magic of the interwebs I found a customer contact page for NothingButSoftware. I explained what happened and indicated my displeasure with their performance. The generic message said that they would respond in seventy-two hours. Based on my experience with them so far, I don’t expect any response from them at all. Unless and until I get an apology and explanation from them, I strongly recommend against doing business with NothingButSoftware.

No Monopoly on Grey Matter
13 May, 2008

In “College: A Cruel Hoax for Some” Ron Dreher raises the question of whether everyone ought to attend university and whether everyone can actually succeed there.

Dreher raises the topic of “contemporary American disdain for the dignity of manual labor”. Work that does not require skills learned in universities is no more or less noble or dignified than work that does. While certainly the trades no longer hold the prestige they once did, there has always been a desire for some jobs over others, generally based on the ratio of compensation to difficulty. After all, there is a lot to be said for a job that is, as someone once said, “indoors and no heavy lifting”. Obviously not everyone, but I think a large, not-very-vocal percentage of people respect the competent person in a less prestigious vocation than the incompetent person in a more prestigious one.

When I was at university, the computer science department refused to teach the C programming language because “we are an educational institution, not a trade school”. Yet the students fought to get into the one class that used C because they wanted to have proficiency when they graduated and needed to find a job. A well-rounded education certainly has value, but so do specific skills. The ivy-clad university can continue to provide academic education, but there also seems to be a market for, and a value in, schools that teach applicable skills. Shop classes in high school and trade schools once served that market. The decrease in the number of jobs for buggy whip assemblers and blacksmiths did not decrease the number of people who are not destined to be academicians.

I agree with his proposition that everyone has different innate talents and that American society tends to ignore that inborn inequity. I assume it stems from the Puritan part of American culture, but the idea that hard work can overcome any disadvantage persists. For the most part that idea, while oversimplified and sometimes inaccurate, benefits society by associating the improvement of one’s lot in life as the outcome of hard work. While hard work can not overcome everything (e.g., I can never have a career as a jockey) it can overcome more than folks assume, so that idea serves quite well as a heuristic.

Sadly I have to disagree with Dreher’s statement, “We’d laugh at [the notion that we could all be equivalent physically], because we have no problem grasping that nature has not endowed all of us equally well in terms of physical strength and capabilities”. There seems to be ample evidence that American society tells its women, and increasingly its men, that they need to be taller, blonder, tanner, leaner, more muscular, et cetera and that “[their] physical limits are defined only by [their] desires and will to succeed”. Rather than laughing at it, most people appear to buy into it.

In college I read about an experiment that randomly rewarded birds with food pellets. The birds incorrectly assumed that whatever behavior they were exhibiting at the time of the reward had caused the reward. Each bird adopted a different behavior to earn the reward, including my favorite: spinning in a circle. I subsequently read that an inconsistent reward provides stronger reinforcement than a consistent reward. Perhaps we rationalize that the inconsistency results from our lack of trying hard enough so we increase our behavior in hope of increasing the consistency.

William Shatner made a surprisingly insightful observation like “People don’t know anything”. When Dreher says, “the gnostic egalitarianism of US culture, which holds that we create our own realities by force of will”, I think he highlights that, like the birds in the experiment, people attribute any outcome directly to their own actions. Lacking any true knowledge about what caused what, our brains rationalize that it surely must have been our diligence and brilliance that led to the successes and others’ laziness and idiocy that led to the failures. Fatalism and foolishness both cripple. An optimistic pragmatism where a small dose of belief in our own efficacy gives us hope seems to be the best balance.

The crux of the concern in the article appears to be that the intelligent would “disavow social responsibility for those who are not as gifted”. In that concern I find the very disdain the author decries. I think those people who are academically ungifted are perfectly capable of being responsible for themselves and do not need of the academically gifted (or the bloggers or the pundits) to take responsibility for them. To assume that they do is to equate them with the mentally handicapped, which is far more damaging and insulting than sending them to university.

Iron Man
3 May, 2008

When I saw a couple of scores of 100 on metacritic.com for Iron Man, I thought it was hyperbole. Nope. Jon Favreau knocked it out of the park.

I thought Robert Downey, Jr. was an odd casting as Tony Stark but, having seen the film, I don’t think it would work without him. He brings a charm to the role that makes the trillionaire playboy thing work. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Pepper Potts perfectly. Jeff Bridges does a good job as Obadiah Stone. The script contains enough references to the canon to please the geeks and enough hints for sequels to please the suits with some comedic moments to balance the introspection. Matthew Libatique did a good job photographing the dark sets and Dan Lebental edited it together well. ILM provided stunning visual effects.

Favreau did for comic book movies what Peter Jackson did for Tolkien. If you are not a geek, you should see this film. If you are a geek, you must see this film.