Thursday, October 24, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Not getting into it

OK, I've watched five episodes now and it's not really holding my interest.  Part of it is the story structure, but a good deal of it is the casting.

The basic frame is that there's a young hacker woman named Skye who is brought in to work with Agent Coulson's group.  Chloe Bennet as Skye is a typical Joss Whedon heroine: independent, self-directed, confident.  And she's good at her rule, even though her resemblance to another Whedon stalwart, Eliza Dushku, is noteworthy.  She's got the Buffy/River role.

And of course Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is very good.  He's continuing the role he started in the Iron Man films, even though he supposedly died in The Avengers film.  (The in-show explanation is that the death was faked by Nick Fury to motivate the Avengers, but there are hints that there's a lot more to that story.)  Gregg is a very strong ensemble actor and does well here.  I don't know if he could carry a show himself.  But he doesn't have to.

Ming-Na Wen is strong as the supporting super-warrior Melinda May, like Zoe in Serentiy.  Hasn't had quite enough to work with, since Skye is the main character.  But I like when she's on screen.

But it goes down from there.

The lead male character is Grant Ward, played by Brett Dalton.  He's dreadful.  He's one of these generic Hollywood pretty boys who doesn't bring enough grit to an action role.  Very much in the Ryan Gosling pattern.  He's no Mal.  He's boring.  He can't get off screen fast enough.  That's a huge problem, since essentially he's the lead of the series.  Why is Hollywood so intent on giving lead parts based on looks?  Models cannot carry TV shows.  They've never been able to do that.

Aside from that are Dr. Fitz and Dr. Simmons, collectively referred to as "FitzSimmons".  Clever enough.  The actors are Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz and Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons.

I don't think anybody in science is named "Jemma".  I digress.

These two might develop into stronger characters, but so far they are mostly comic relief, with an occasional dash of technical wizardry.

Hopefully things pick up.  If not, this series is not going to survive very long.  Production costs are too high for the show to get away with being boring.  My suggestion?  Get rid of Grant Ward.  And one annoying thing that has been going on is that the show cannot resolve the question of whether Skye is 100% with S.H.I.E.L.D. or whether she's still working with the anarchist group Rising Tide.

Hoping that this becomes more compelling.  At least it looks better than Under the Dome.

11/8 update
Update: OK, the 6th episode was much better than the most recent few episodes.  Less Skye, more FitzSimmons, all the characters were humanized a bit.

Joss just bought a little more time with this one.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Progressive Wish List

As Greg Sargent points out, there is a fundamental lack of symmetry in what the two parties in DC are saying needs to be done in order to end the government shutdown.  The Republicans have passed a list of demands of concessions they want from the Democrats before they are willing tot let the government continue to exist on regular terms.  The Democrats have not presented a similar list of demands.  They have simply put forward the proposition that the Republicans must stop acting like children and/or terrorists.

It's time for Progressives to fight back with a list of our own.  More after the jump.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Universities are cash cows

Some quick facts:

In 1981, room and board at Harvard Universirty for an undergrad cost $9170.
In 2012, room and board at Harvard Univeresity for an undergrad cost $54,496. (source:

Using inflation calculator at, the total amount of inflation from 1981 to 2012 was 152.6%.  That means (using their calculator), something that cost $9170 in 1981 should have cost $23,161 in 2012.  It's true that not all costs rise at the same rate, but it's not like the base costs of a university are all that different from what the costs are in general for a university.  It's not a highly specialized market like gold or microchips

One more comparison:

In 1981, the endowment of Harvard University was $1.622 billion.
In 2012, the endowment of Harvard University, after a bad year, shrank to $30.7 million.

Again, using the calculator, a fixed investment growing at the rate of inflation in 1981, starting at $1.622 billion should be at about $4.1 billion.  Now of course we expect investments to outpace inflation.  And that explains part of how the endowment grew faster than inflation.  But also, we need to account for the continued new donations to the endowment.

But all of this gets us back to the basic point here.  The Harvard endowment is growing at a pace far outstripping the rate of inflation.  But in spite of that, the cost of tuition (and room and board) is also growing at a pace far outstripping the rate of inflation.

Something is seriously messed up here.  Universities like Harvard are simply becoming huge depositories for cash.  Its endowment has taken on a life of its own, completely untethered to covering the costs of running a university.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Best of Bond IV...Old Bond

Bond, Part IV

This post has been slow in coming, probably in part because these are the dismal years.  Let's face it: Roger Moore stayed with the role too long.  By the end of his run he was 57 and looking it.

So...the late Moore films.  A mixed bag - not uniformly bad but only one of the bunch is actually good in my opinion.  We last left the series with Moonraker, a film that has not aged well.  Then there was For Your Eyes Only, a film that has aged well.  And then we have the slow decline into Octopussy and the face plant known as A View to a Kill.

I think when I started this series I may have said that Never Say Never Again would be tucked in with the two Timothy Dalton films.  While that would partition the films more evenly, I think it's more natural to throw it in with the Old Roger films, since it was contemporaneous with Octopussy and has many of the same flaws (in addition to its own unique flaw!)

While the previous round of Roger Moore films featured super villains in hidden mega-complexes threatening to destroy the world, the later films eased up a bit on those cliches.  Still a lot of gadgets, though.  And a lot of camp.  Almost no concern for realism.

Let's recall the criteria in this series of evaluations again:

  • Bond – who the actor is, how good he is, and what he brings to the role
  • the Villain- Mr. Big, Scaramanga, etc.  I judge the films on how compelling the villain is.
  • the Bond Women – some films have few, some have many, but I’m pretty sure all have at least one. The quality ranges from Denise Richards’s absurd nuclear physicist to, of course, Mrs. Bond herself, not to mention Pussy Galore
  • the Good Guys – M, Q, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter in his many incarnations and other sidekicks
  • the Henchmen on the other side like Jaws, Oddjob, and Nick-Nack.
  • the gadgets – not just judging how neat the gadgets are, but whether they were unwisely allowed to take over the film (as often happened with the later Roger Moore filims)
  • whatever else I happen to think of

And now we move to

For Your Eyes Only

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Oppose military strikes on Syria

The reasons should be obvious

  • Syria is not threatening the US
  • Yes, somebody used sarin gas, but we don't know who
  • But even if we knew for a fact that it was Assad, the US isn't the world's policeman
  • Few things outrage me more than a government demanding a sequester in domestic spending while finding the money to drop bombs on Arabs.
  • Bombing is just going to create more chaos in Syria, not less...and that will lead to
  • escalation.

We tend to live in a reverie that presumes that the current way that our society is organized can persist indefinitely.  But there are many reasons why our current path cannot persist: dependence on non-replaceable fossil fuels, the effects of global warming (including the drought in Syria), and others.  Right now few things are as easy to get our government to do than to attack some small country that annoys us for some reason.  So I don't want to hear the song-and-dance about how our "credibility" is at stake.  I'm willing to stipulate that Assad is a terrible man.  But so are most of the rebels opposing him.

The way our society is running, we take a real shallow, short-attention span solutions to any problem outside our borders (and many inside).

As some point soon I'm going to revisit the legacy of the "Arab Spring."  Let's just say for now that it isn't pretty.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Aarron Sorkin rips apart Occupy Wall Street (The Newsroom Season 2: Episode #4 Clip "Shelly On OWS" (HBO))

So, Aaron Sorkin has been sucking me into The Newsroom, against some of my better judgment. There are things he does very well and things that he does in a ridiculous manner (namely, having every character be utterly glib 100% of the time). One of the things he does well is have people talk about politics.

In the clip below, Jeff Daniels (one of the best actors in Hollywood and that's been true for decades) rips an Occupy Wall Street representative to shreds. Except that she's not really a "representative" in any formal since OWS doesn't have "leaders" because they wanted "everybody to have a voice."

Friday, July 26, 2013

Not the Smartest Guy in the Room

If we are to believe Ezra Klein, Larry Summers is the front-runner in President Obama's mind to take over the job of Chairman of the Federal Reserve as Ben Bernanke's replacement.  Bernanke hasn't been an ideal Fed Chair, but he's been far better than his predecessor, the absurdly overrated Alan Greenspan, whose monumental contribution to American economics was "lower interest rates and the economy will grow."
Now Benranke is retiring and Obama has to pick a new Chair.  In this space, we express our hope that Summers is not the choice.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rooting for laundry

Just some brief thoughts while I watch Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals.  A couple things in the last few weeks have sparked some thoughts about sports fandom.

My formative years were in Boston.  In particular, the Boston of the 1970s, which featured very competitive teams in hockey and basketball, a couple noteworthy Patriots' seasons (albeit without any playoff victories), and of course some fear and loathing at Fenway.  If I had to rate my fan intensity at the time, it would have been 1) Red Sox, 2) Bruins, 3) Celtics, 4) Patriots.

That order changed in 1979 for two reasons: a) my family moved to Connecticut, and b) Larry Bird.
Hartford had its own new NHL team, the Whalers featuring Gordie Howe and, briefly, Bobby Hull.  The Whale was interesting for a few season, but their management in the late 80s and early 90s seemed to function more as a feeder system for the Penguins (Ron Francis!) than a respectable team.  In terms of my perspective, this meant a lot less local coverage of the Bruins.  On the other hand, Larry Bird made the Celtics an extremely exciting team, one which played a few games per season in Hartford.

So what I'm saying is that the Bruins dropped off the radar.  I did follow them in their Finals apperances in 1988 and 1990, but the Gretzky-era Oilers completely smoked them.

So over the years I followed basketball more and more and hockey less and less.  And then I moved to the DC area.  Now if anything could cure a person of NBA fandom, it might be the local presence of the Wizards.  So when I started watching the Capitals at Landru's, I saw an interesting team, esp. Mr. Alex Ovechkin, an exciting, charismatic player.  We saw this goal live:

But then I found that when the Caps played the Bruins, even though I'd completely lost touch with the team, I couldn't root against my favorite from childhood.  And I starting following Chara, Krecji, Lucic and the boys as they ran to a Stanley Cup title.  Yay!

Point is that I felt strongly about the logo, about the big B inside the spokes that makes the Bruins' logo.

My second point is different.  It relates to the murder investigation that has enmeshed one of the Patriots' star TE's, Aaron Hernandez.  I won't relate the details here.  Let's just that it looks very bad.  It looks like he was somehow involved in the murder of a guy who had been involved with his girlfriend's sister and that he actively tried to cover it up.  Some facts are indisputable, including that he brought in cleaners to clean the house, and that he destroyed his cell phone and his security system (presumably to get rid of incriminating evidence).

So this is a guy that all Patriots' fans loved just a few weeks ago.  He's a key part of their two TE offense, which has created all sorts of matchup problems for defenses.  But really, we don't know anything about the guy.  And it's depressing to feel that it's likely that he's just an overprivileged gangster, a jock who's never had to learn how to be a decent human being. And where the NFL (and most sports leagues) hold up their star players to be role models, the truth is that the ability to play football is no guarantee that a person is not a scumbag.  We've seen that with Ray Lewis, Mike Vick, Rae Carruth, etc., etc.

So here the point is that we need to be careful when we walk down the path of fandom, of rooting for laundry.  Because it may well be that the people being exalted don't really deserve it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

my Larry David experience

So, about a week ago, I had a weird experience.  I had driven down to Bethesda early in the morning to meet people to go for a long run.

Anyway, I pulled into a parking garage.  Since it was still early on a Sunday (before 8), it was pretty empty.  So I pull in and start getting my stuff together to go run.  Part of this process entails pouring Gatorade from a 32-oz bottle into my personal water bottle, to be easy to carry on my belt.  So I'm in the process of pouring and another car pulls into the garage.

And let's be clear here: there are at least 40 empty spots on my side of the garage, and also many others on the other side.

But the woman driving pulls forward, and then starts to back into the spot right next to me.  And she stops and, in an impatient tone of voice, asks me to close my car door so she can park.

I am incredulous.  In an empty parking garage, apparently what she really needed to do was inconvenience me.  So I say "in just a second, I'm doing something here."

And then she starts going on about manners, how I'm rude, etc.

I'm baffled.  Again, empty parking garage.  Dozens of places where she could have parked immediately.

So this turned into an unpleasant shouting match.

Petty stuff, certainly, but I post to ruminate exactly what people think about when they think about manners.  For this woman, her concept of manners was very limited.  I could say that it just meant "people let me do what I want" but, to be more generous, it means "people let me park where I want" regardless of what else is going on.

In my conception of manners, the concept includes not unnecessarily inconveniencing others.  If that had been the only parking spot, I would have been the one inconveniencing her, since she had no other option.  But really, she had plenty of options.  She just lacked awareness of her environment.   But then, when I confront her with her lack of planning, she has to double down on her righteousness.

I know this is mundane stuff, but it's the food of life, like American Splendor or Jim's Journal.  It's the kind of thing that Larry David eats for lunch.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Best of Bond III, It's Roger Moore!

Bond, Part III

OK, we've made it up to the early Roger Moore years.  We're talking Bond of the 70s, when gadgets ruled the day and the series didn't take it very seriously.  In particular, we're talking Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker.

The common themes of these films, other than Roger Moore and his dry humor, include villains with absurdly large and complex secret layers, increasingly elaborate and unrealistic chase sequences, riffing off other major film trends, and Jaws.

Let's recall the criteria in this series of evaluations again:

  • Bond – who the actor is, how good he is, and what he brings to the role
  • the Villain- Mr. Big, Scaramanga, etc.  I judge the films on how compelling the villain is.
  • the Bond Women – some films have few, some have many, but I’m pretty sure all have at least one. The quality ranges from Denise Richards’s absurd nuclear physicist to, of course, Mrs. Bond herself, not to mention Pussy Galore
  • the Good Guys – M, Q, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter in his many incarnations and other sidekicks
  • the Henchmen on the other side like Jaws, Oddjob, and Nick-Nack.
  • the gadgets – not just judging how neat the gadgets are, but whether they were unwisely allowed to take over the film (as often happened with the later Roger Moore filims)
  • whatever else I happen to think of

And now we move to

Live and Let Die

Friday, February 01, 2013

crazy mathematicians on film (update)

I know I owe the dear readers a continuation of the Bond series, but I'm taking a digression to write about math in film.

An update to my previous post on this issue.

Just saw the Paltrow/Hopkins film Proof, which deals with a father and daughter who are mathematicians who each has issues with mental illness.  In the case of the father, he is presented as a leading light of his generation who, tragically, succumbed to his illness as he grew older, becoming first incapable of doing serious work, and ultimately falling apart completely.  Oh, and he died before the film started.

As for the daughter, she's dealing with two issues.  First, there are her hallucinations of her interacting with her father.  To make the movie more exciting, the film also contains flashbacks!  The second issue is the discovery of a proof that is believed to be earth-shattering in its importance.  But there is a question of authorship.  The daughter claims that she was the author, but her sister thinks it's probably her father's work. Jake Gyllenhaal's character is initially skeptical but ultimately decides it's more likely that the daughter, even with her limited background, is the author as opposed to the father, who had drifted out of the field quite a time ago and wasn't familiar with the more modern methods used in the proof.

From  my perspective, this was a bizarre point to get stuck on.  If and when I am the author of ideas, I am the master of them.  A mathematician would not be able to fake authorship of a 40-page proof of seminal importance, which is what this proof is supposed to be in this film.  There is more to the presentation of ideas than the mere words that are on the page.

Anyway, this is certainly an interesting film, even though it's yet another "crazy mathematicians" film.  I have a bit of an issue with how the people talk when they're talking about math.  They simply aren't "talking math" like working mathematicians do.  This is something that would be harder for a non-mathematician to create.  Most of the discussions about math in this film are entirely at a superficial level, and never talk about content. A few words are sprinkled in here and there, but they feel more like oregano on a salad than anything else.  (Example: in a flashback Gwyneth is talking to a math prof about some homework she hasn't done well.  He says something like: surely you're not saying that differential equations are boring!  It's hard to imagine any mathematician saying something like that, for the simple reason that differential equations are among the most boring topics in all math.)

The meta-discussions are ok, and they do a good job in terms of how mathematicians talk about math to non-mathematicians.  But when mathematicians are talking to each other (and Paltrow and Gyllenhaal are supposed to be mathematicians in this film), they don't talk about math at that level.  Concepts should be flying back and forth but we see pretty much nothing.

Trying to think of other films that do a better job at this particular issue.  Fermat's Room does so, I think.  A Beautiful Mind?  No, not really.  Certainly not Good Will Hunting.  It's the kind of thing that Stanislaw Lem does so well in his writing.  Lem actually writes fictional math, which most authors don't dare to try to do.

Having said that, I think Proof does a better job in terms of explaining the social sphere of mathematicians than most films do.  Your typical mathematician is more like the guys in this film than they are like Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Newly re-named Blog!

Since it's been over five years since I visited Darwin Building, it seemed like we were long past a time where the blog name was appropriate.

Same high-quality content, but with a fresh, new title!

This title is gluten-free and contains no cholesterol.

Oscar preview

OK, it's that time of year when I look at the list of Oscar nominees, excoriate the Academy for their bizarre choices of the recent past, and submit my predictions of how they'll screw things up this year.  In addition, you'll be favored with my preferences for the various awards.

Fair warning: I'm trying to be aware of recency bias.  And I just saw Les Mis.  Went into it with tepid expectations, based largely on the cast.  But more on that in a bit.