Monday, December 24, 2012

sometimes a movie formula is just a formula

If Tarantino ever made a romantic comedy, it might look a lot like Silver Linings Playbook.

I saw the film this weekend and couldn't escape the idea that, despite its truly admirable qualities, it still counts as a by-the-book RomCom. The thought I had was that this was an attempt to take the cookie cutter script of a generic RomCom and try to make the most film critic friendly version of that genre as possible. Yes it has strong acting. Yes it has strong dialogue. Yes it has emotionally challenging plot complexity. But it never goes beyond purely formulaic.

The most disappointing (and frankly, troubling) aspect was its vanilla whitewash of bipolar disorder. While both main characters are supposed to suffer some form of mental illness treated by medication, neither ever displays any behaviors much more troubling than anything typical RomCom characters display. I concede that this film is courageous enough to expose those typical behaviors as troubling, but it does nothing more than that. I am reminded of this brilliant take down of Zero Dark Thirty as little more than Erin Brockovich for Fascists. The point is that including an ethically difficult topic in your movie does not alone make your movie ethically courageous when all you do is shackle it in the bondage of tired old Hollywood templates.

Anyone who has had a mentally ill family member will likely see little of the behaviors they dealt with in this film (yes, I have a family member diagnosed with bipolar, and this movie seemed completely sanitized and "family-friendly" to me).

Despite that, I still enjoyed the film. It is very well done. It is a true joy to watch DeNiro and Jackie Weaver play off each other as the long married and still deeply loving couple (kudos to her dialogue coach as well; you'd never guess her native dialect). All of the secondary characters are given ample opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the plot and nuance of the story.

It's a good film. But it is a flawed film.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

college is a ponzi scheme

This NYTs article is getting a lot of buzz on Twitter and Facebook: For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.

Sad but true. College is no longer a mechanism for people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It is a Ponzi scheme meant to prey on poor and working class families. I didn't pay more than $300 for a semester of undergrad between 1989-1993. I would not be where I am today if I had to pay $3000+ per semester for undergrad. If Chico State cost in 1990 what it does today, my family could not have afforded it. No way. I would never have gone to college, never gone to grad school, never gone to the East Coast, and would not have the career I have now. No way.

And I did not go to an elite school. I didn't need to. All I needed was a good public college. State subsidized college worked for me 20 years ago in exactly the way it was supposed to. I went from a poor uneducated family and made an upper middle class career for myself. Expensive college is failing to do any good today except trap poor kids in a downward spiral of debt and diminishing returns.

My income probably puts me into the top 7% of Americans. I hereby agree to pay higher taxes to help kids go to school. It works.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

on humility

On Humility:


Today is my birthday. All of the many happy birthday posts on my Facebook wall today have been touching and reminded me of one of the most humble moments of my life, a moment I have always deeply treasured. While a grad student in Buffalo, three thousand miles away from my home and family, I was struck with serious illness and spent many weeks in and out of hospitals. During one long three week hospital stay at Rochester's excellent Strong Memorial Hospital, I was surprised one day when about a dozen Buffalo linguist grad students all paraded into my room. They had car pooled up the hour plus drive from Buffalo to Rochester to visit me. In many ways I am a typical American male, I suppress my emotions, I minimize emotional feeling. But that day was one of the most touching moments of my life. And I felt humbled by the outpouring of friendship and love of my fellow students. I also remember being terribly conflicted because in some ways, I felt I didn't deserve this. It is so much harder to accept love than to give it. I don't know why that is. Several years later another Buffalo grad student was having serious medical issues and many of us were helping her with basic daily chores. After I had helped her with groceries one day, she was clearly embarrassed by her need to be helped. I remember sitting down with her, telling her the story of when the dozen grad students drove up to see me. I told her how difficult it was for me to be helpless in that moment, but how grateful I was that they did that for me. I told her we all must find a way to accept love in our lives. It is no easy thing. But once we can accept the love of others, it is then that we know our place. I am reminded of what The Wizard of Oz told the Tin Man: "A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others."

Nuts and Bolts of Applying Deep Learning (Andrew Ng)

I recently watched Andrew Ng's excellent lecture from 2016 Nuts and Bolts of Applying Deep Learning and took notes. I post them as a he...