Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Cinematic Prognostication Models

Every year we have a bunch of people over to watch the Oscars and make our guesses as to who will win in every category. We used to give a prize to whoever got the most right, but the proliferation of award show prediction sites like GoldDerby.com meant that instead of guessing, many guests were just looking up the Vegas-style odds on their phones and ticking the ballot in turn.

With a number of attendees having similar ballots, I changed the paradigm a couple years back, adapting a raffle mechanic similar to the one in the boardgame Killer Bunnies and The Quest for the Magic Carrot. In that game, players start with one magic carrot card and work to collect more. At the end of the game, when all the carrots have been found, the true Magic Carrot is revealed and the player with the matching card is the winner.One player may have more than half the carrots, but even a player in the back of the pack with 1-2 carrots to their name still has a chance to win.

I bought a roll of tearaway raffle tickets, and everyone playing gets one, plus another for each successful guess. At the end of the night, we draw to see who wins the modest door prize (typically a night at the movies).

To create even more variety, I am thinking of having an upset bonus, and giving double tickets for any category winner that isn't the favourite. I popped on to a couple of websites over lunch today to do some research and was fascinated by what I found.

I visited the aforementioned GoldDerby and also FiveThirtyEight.com, statistician Nate Silver's blog that had me convinced someone else was going to win the U.S. presidency in 2016 (sigh). Gold Derby has a number of experts they poll, while FiveThirtyEight uses a complex algorithm based on other awards won and their relative correlation to winning an Academy Award. For instance, the winner of BAFTA's Best Picture trophy has won the same Oscar 12/25 times.

Silver's site only looks at the 'major' categories, while GoldDerby levels a prediction for every single award. I copied the winners from both sites onto the printable ballot from Vanity Fair, and was astonished at how few differences there were between the two; I had fully expected to make far greater use of my coloured highlighters:
Of the eight categories that FiveThirtyEight weighed in on, they only differed under Best Picture, and then only barely; they give The Shape of Water a narrow Edge while GoldDerby says it is too close to call between that film and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (although I now see that they have given Three Billboards the Edge since Feb 27). Both sites also see Guillermo del Toro taking home the Best Director trophy for his fishy monster pic.

They agree that Three Billboards will win for Best Actress and Supporting Actor, with Darkest Hour and I, Tonya winning Best Actor and Supporting Actress. They also concur on Coco running away with Best Animated feature.

If you are at all curious, I strongly recommend checking out these sites yourself and taking a look at their rationale, it is fascinating stuff. FiveThirtyEight in particular makes a point about how difficult it is to model a predictive algorithm for something so subjective which also used rank ballots, going to second and third choices from the 'wasted' ballots until they have a winner with a majority of the vote.

This is no doubt part of the reason that Moonlight came out of nowhere with the win last year, surprising even the announcers and the predicted winners, La La Land:

(Man, I hope no one lost their shirt leveraging their house to win $40K on a 'sure thing', but you know someone probably did...)

Interestingly enough, one site did pick Moonlight to win, and did it by crowdsourcing. 

James England's site gets its considerable userbase to vote on movies they've seen using a series of match-ups, which effectively simulates the ranked ballots used by the actual Academy. I did this today, and although a bit more tie consuming than anticipated, breaks the ranking of 9 pictures (plus directors, actors, etc) into far more manageable chunks, similar to a bracketing contest. Similar to last year, England has gone against the grain with his prognostication, although he will continue to update based on user input:

I enjoyed Lady Bird quite a bit, but I am astonished to see it in such a strong position, while Shape of Water and Three Billboards languish in 4th and 5th place, respectively! I was glad to see Get Out, one of my favourites from this year, in second place.

Conventional wisdom says that Academy voters are unlikely to throw a statuette at young, first-time nominees with whole careers ahead of them, and are more likely to  award based on a body of work, perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson for The Phantom Thread. After all, Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig show up as 4th and 5th in his model.

On the other hand though, JamesEng.land has correctly called the Best Picture for the past two years, so who knows? Maybe this third time will be the charm for Lady Bird.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Lessons Driven

After two full days of driver's ed classroom instruction, Glory began her in-car instruction yesterday. It's as bittersweet as all these milestones - your young lady taking another step towards independent capability while an empty nest looms larger and large in your mind's eye - but in almost every other way this is nothing but A Good Thing.

We had some spare time this afternoon after we finished watching the closing ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Games, so I asked her if she wanted to go driving with me for a bit. Sunday afternoons represent an ideal window for this activity in many ways, as the roads are not busy and visibility is still good. Besides, there are limited openings in our shared schedule most weekends, so forsaking one would be foolhardy to say the least, so she quickly agreed.

Since this was a largely unplanned trip[, the first obstacle was backing the Corolla out of the garage, which she accomplished with aplomb. She proceeded out of the back alley with a caution that bordered on the excessive, but the ruts and ice made that a good judgment as well.

In order to keep us from simply meandering about, I got her to take us the the liquidators that the rest of the family had visited that afternoon so I could pick up a replacement socket wrench. This took us down 137 avenue to the Industrial park just west of St. Albert Trail.

She did very well, overall, even better than her sister did her first time out. Glory attributes this to having witnessed Fenya's apprehension and nervousness in her early driving, and decided she wanted no part of it. Through a complex means of rationalization, she convinces herself of her own confidence, despite knowing that much of it is a facade. Not knowing precisely how much of this 'fake-it-til-you-make-it' mindset is in play at any given time appears to reinforce the notion that at least a part of her assurance must be, in fact,k genuine. It's a marvelous technique that I am hoping to pick up through osmosis during our future driving sessions.

Parking continues to be a bit of a challenge, but she managed to pull off a couple of lane changes on the way back down 137 avenue, which felt barely impressive. Her hesitancy to cross traffic on the way to the Safeway parking lot apparently used up the patience of the large F-150 behind us, however, as he cut inside her and roared past as she finally began her transit.

She was relatively unflustered while a red haze blurred much of my vision. When the offending driver ended up behind us in the parking lot, I had already filed my intention to to read him a PSA on the merits of vehicular patience and courtesy in a polite society under the dual headings of "Good Ideas/Civic Responsibility". I had my hand on the door handle when the reality of my present situation reasserted itself, and I looked over at my daughter in the driver's seat.

""You would probably be just as happy," I surmised, "if I didn't get out of the car and read this gentleman an abridged version of the Riot Act, huh?"

"If it's all the same to you, yeah; that'd be my preference," she said, keeping her eyes straight ahead and her hands at two and ten.

I nodded and pulled my other hand away from the seat belt release. The rest of our trip was relatively uneventful;  she struggles with parking (but was game to try) and has a tendency to let off the gas completely when coming out of a turn. This will undoubtedly improve over time, and she has 4 more lessons to go before her birthday in April.

In the meantime though, it seems there is room for both of us to learn, which suits me just fine.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hail to the King? - Black Panther, Reviewed

Having purchased my tickets for Black Panther nearly two weeks ago, and hankering to see it since it was announced three years ago, I have been doing my best to avoid reviews. It's difficult to ignore all the accolades, or the fact that it has one of the highest ratings ever on Rotten Tomatoes for a mainstream blockbuster. And then there's the fact that it could make $180 $200 million in its opening weekend, putting the boots to Deadpool's record for a February opening from two years ago and potentially having the biggest opening for a superhero movie ever. Best of all, all the right sort of people (i.e. bigots, racists, the alt-right) seem to dislike it. So what's left to say in a review, at this point?

I guess my perspective is that of an extra-large boy who has loved the faithful job Marvel Studios has done in reimagining its larger than life characters for the silver screen on 17 previous occasions (!), and wants them to continue doing so. One eye watches as a movie fan, the other as a comics fan, and both eyes were happy with Black Panther.

Like most, if not all, of the Marvel flicks, it enjoys brisk pacing, with little to no filler, and a 2:20 runtime that simply flew by for me. Unlike most of them though, it also features a compelling and relatable villain in the form of Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. He is compelled to action not by greed or megalomania, but by a vision of a world where the resources of isolationist Wakanda are instead used as weapons against oppression. He asks the question that most of the audience has as well: how could rich, advanced Wakanda allow such evils to go on, when they had the power to stop it?

The movie asks lots of other questions as well, most notably, what would a pan-African futurist utopia look like? And the answer they have come up with is fascinating. The architecture, costumes, makeup and technology all have an afro-futuristic feel to them, making them unique in a make-believe world full of outlandish innovations. For instance, the majority of Wakandans walk barefoot, an intentional choice by the filmmakers.

To be fair, that fantasy is what makes it safe for the movie to ask hard questions - "What if a meteorite full of an ultra-rare mineral, the hardest substance in the universe but also an unparalleled absorber of energy and apparently a power source as well, embedded itself in a naturally isolated part of central Africa and enabled the emerging nation to have unequalled prosperity and technological advancement? Oh, and also a heart-shaped herb that could grant their rulers superhuman physical attributes?"

But if Star Trek can imagine a peaceful and abundant future, what's wrong with Black Panther visualizing the same thing in the present day?

The story is probably the most Shakespearean thing Marvel has done, crafting a heady mix of the bonds of legacy, the weight of rulership, political machinations both in the royal court and in a larger geopolitical sense, righteous vendettas and secret princes. The action pieces are up to Marvel's usual high standard, although the prevalent use of CGI to pair impossible stunts with even more impossible camera angles make me wish George Miller would direct one.

T'Challa's struggle for grace, his impetus to be merciful where he can, his acknowledgment of the shortcomings of his predecessors, all combine to create one more decent bloke for the Marvel Universe. I am certain that this moral underpinning in its title characters has as much to do with Marvel's ongoing success as the costumes, quips and immense fight scenes.

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa makes a reflective counterpoint to Killmonger's understandable anger, but the women in the supporting cast are a big part of what propels the movie forward.  Danai Gurira (Walking Dead) plays Okoye, Wakanda's leading general and head of the Dora Milaje, an all female retinue loyal to the king (and potential betrothed in the comics, something I hope they touch upon in the inevitable sequel). She is almost impossibly badass, and her confidence is simply a joy to watch on screen, especially when she finds herself conflicted in the third act, weighing her affection for her king against her responsibility to the throne.

Lupita Nyong'o is Nakia, one of Wakanda's many intelligence operatives and T'Challa's former flame, and struggles with the best way she can serve her homeland. Meanwhile his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) balances her sibling sassiness with tremendous knowledge of medicine, science and engineering, reminding me of nothing so much as a young, black, female Q. Angela Basset, one of my favourite black actresses, really has to work to project her regality in the face of all this, but of course, she does this with aplomb.

I could go on about the supporting cast, especially 6'5" Winston Duke who plays rival chieftain M'Baku (who some might recognize as Man-Ape from the comics, a sobriquet they thankfully avoided in this iteration). Or how director Ryan Coogler (Creed) brought many of his previous crews to this film to make it look and feel distinct from the other Marvel movies, including cinematographer Rachel Morrison (first black woman D.P to be nominated for an Oscar), and composer Ludwig Goransson. But in the end, I can simply tell you that this movie is well worth seeing.

Similar to last year's Wonder Woman, Black Panther does a far better job of highlighting real-world issues like racism, injustice and inequality than it does in solving them, but that is not its job, Although, come to think of it, fielding a comic movie about a long-established black character, helmed by a black director, with a black screenwriter, cinematographer and largely black cast, is probably a step in the right direction don't you think?

Like Star Trek, it holds up an idealized fiction to show us what a better world might look like, and that even a utopia can still have its problems. Black Panther tells a familial story with far-reaching consequences, and does so in a way that makes the impossible accessible, and in a way that is beautiful (and funny, and tragic) to behold.

Wakanda forever!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Scenic Route to Fist City

Back in November we switched electricity and natural gas providers (buh-bye Direct Energy), and there was a promotion at the time that got us our first smart speaker: a Google Home.

A smart speaker (incase you haven't come across one yet) is a little audio device that you plug into a power outlet, hook up to your home wi-fi network and then configure it with a tablet or PC. Once you've done this, the smart speaker can recognize your voice and respond to your requests.

If you ask it for the forecast, it will read it to you.
If you ask for the news, it will play the most recent newscast of your choice (CBC Radio One in my case).
If you ask it to play a particular song, it will (provided it has access to it), and will follow it up with similar or related songs by different artists.
If you ask it for a fact, it will read it right out to you, for instance "Okay Google, what is the current temperature?" Or price of a bitcoin, or current time in Pyeongchang, or what have you.

The fact that everything it does can be done just as well by the PC that sits within 1 foot of it, or the tablets or smartphones that pervade our house, does nothing to to change the fact that it is a dandy little device to have next to the kitchen. And in my case, it is unequivocally a time saver, especially when I cook breakfast on the weekend.

You see, the problem is, I like to have some music on when I cook, but rather than gravitate to one of my many playlists on the upstairs computer (such as "Funky Soul", or "Brunch with Dad"), I will let whimsy and recently recollected songs steer me stray, and then start building a new playlist to complement them. The next thing you know, someone is asking me how long until brekkie is ready, and I look at the clock and see that, gosh, have I really been curating songs for 25 minutes? Man, I didn't even preheat the oven yet!

Playlists still get their due around the house, but more often than not, I will be pouring something into a pan, notice the silence and say, "Hey Google, play 'I Ran' by A Flock of Seagulls." Google complies, but a few songs later I am already bored with the new wave selections it has chosen, so I ask it to play, oh, say, "Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell.

Sidebar: I can't tell you precisely why there is so much vintage country and western music going around our house these days, but I suspect movie soundtracks might have something to do with it. Django Unchained's "I Got a Name" by Jim Croce, "Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights" from Guardians of the Galaxy 2, or even "Country Roads Take Me Home" by John Denver from Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle, have all pulled a thread in our collective tastes and memories. For me, the nostalgia of listening to Mum sing along with Rhinestone Cowboy on CHQT through the tinny speaker of the kitchen clock radio is almost overwhelming.

Anyhow, "Wichita Lineman" led to a few different slices of pre-80s country western, but the lyrics on an older piece caught my ear, and I turned to Fenya to get a confirmation. "Are you listening to this?" I asked.

She looked up from her 11 pound stats text book and said, "Not really, why?"

"I think this is like a 50 year old country diss track...listen!"
If ya don't wanna go to fist city 
Ya better detour around my town
'Cause I'll grab you by the hair a the head
And I'll lift a you off a the ground

Fenya's eyes widened. "Hey Google, what track is this?" she asked.

"You are listening to 'Fist City' by Loretta Lynn," the speaker obediently reported.

We re-started the track and marveled at just how badass this song, recorded in 1968, truly was. Based on Loretta's real experience with a tomcattin' husband unprepared for her fame and success, and subject to advances by other women. Badass enough to get her banned from the radio for a while, as a matter of fact.

It's a real treat, this song, and I highly recommend checking it out in the video below. Even if you aren't a fan of the genre, the gutsiness and sheer nerve it displays make it a worthwhile listening experience.

A you've been makin' your brags around town
That you've been a lovin' my man
But the man I love, when he picks up trash
He puts it in a garbage can
And that's what a you look like to me
And what I see's a pity
You better close your face and stay outta my way
If ya don't wanna go to fist city

If ya don't wanna go to fist city
Ya better detour around my town
'Cause I'll grab you by the hair a the head
And I'll lift a you off a the ground

I'm not a sayin' my baby's a saint 'cause he ain't
N' that he won't cat around with a kitty
I'm here to tell ya gal to lay offa my man
If ya don't wanna go to fist city

Come on and tell me what you told my friends
If you think you're brave enough
And I'll show you what a real woman is
Since you think you're hot stuff
You'll bite off more than you can chew
If you get too cute or witty
You better move your feet
If you don't wanna eat
A meal that's called fist city

If you don't wanna go to fist city
You better detour around my town
'Cause I'll grab you by the hair a the head
And I'll lift you offa the ground

I'm not a sayin' my baby's a saint 'cause he ain't
N' that he won't cat around with a kitty
I'm here to tell ya gal to lay offa my man
If ya don't wanna go to fist city
I'm here to tell ya gal to lay offa my man
If ya don't wanna go to fist city

It is unlikely I ever would have come across this little gem without indulging a bit of whimsy and having a computerized DJ to assist me, so, yeah, smart speakers? Count me as a fan!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Games About Frontiers

I look forward to the Winter Olympics every time they come around. I prefer the mix of sports, I appreciate how much better my nation tends to do at them compared to the summer games, and with the snow and the mountains, even the venues tend to look better than their warmer counterparts. This year, though, I'm starting out a bit discouraged.

This is primarily due to the Court of Arbitration for sport overturning the International Olympic Committee's lifetime bans on 28 athletes. The IOC's investigation had turned up evidence of a pervasive doping culture at the 2014 Sochi games, brazenly demonstrated by such things as a hole in the wall in which athletes could allegedly pass specimen containers.

In addition to opening the door to Pyeongchang for these formerly disgraced competitors, the CAS decision also allows many of them to regain medals from the Sochi games which had been stripped from them.

It's frustrating stuff; it took a tremendous amount of both effort and investigative skill, to say nothing of political will, to secure the lifetime bans. Anti-doping crusaders have to be feeling an enormous degree of discouragement at this point. Meanwhile, it is difficult to take Vladimir Putin's response seriously: "This, of course, cannot but give us joy. It confirms our position on the fact that the vast majority of our athletes are clean. We ourselves have things to work on in terms of perfecting our anti-doping programme and policy. We will do this in determined fashion with WADA.”

The CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency has a different view, much more in keeping with my own:
”The IOC’s failure to swiftly and decisively deal with Russia’s unprecedented attack on fair play has eroded public trust in the values of the Olympic movement.

“Slamming dozens of cases through the process on the eve of the Olympic Games has not served justice and as such the integrity of the Games has been sabotaged. The whole mess truly stinks and the nightmare continues for clean athletes. This must change.”

Maybe I'm making too much of this, but when taken in tandem with the antics of that orange buffoon to the south of us, it feels sometimes like really are living in a world of "alternative facts", as delivered by the cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway? - welcome to 2018, where the narrative is made up and the truth doesn't matter anyways.,,,

In the military sphere last week, a Russian jet fighter flew within 5 feet of a a US Navy spy plane operating in international airspace.

The Russian response? Stop crying, we did nothing wrong.

Sure, they are free to run intercepts, but subjecting  the crew of a turboprop aircraft to a ride in your jet wash until they abandon their mission? Hardly cricket, old chap. But rather than say, 'yeah, our guy overdid it a bit, sorry', it's easier to dispute the facts, video evidence, and  international aviation principles - We did something wrong? Says who?

This is the manner in which they will establish the status quo of their new Crimea-inbclusive borders, and from a geopolitical standpoint, it's all a little unnerving. Having come of age during the Cold War, I honestly thought I was done being scared of Russia, but this does not appear to be the case.

In fact, how do you warn anyone heading to this year's World Cup to stay away from the extra-vicious Russian fans known as Ultras, when the Cup is being held in that country? And how the heck did that come to pass anyhow?!


On the plus side, the Pyeongchang games will see some unified Korean teams competing at a time when there is precious little dialogue between North and South... or precious little between North Korea and the rest of the world, for that matter. Who knows, maybe this is a chance, at last, for the Olympics to live up to one of their aspirations: bringing disparate parts of the world together through sport.