I love movies. My love for movies has always been there, and for a while I was seriously thinking of going into movie making. The first movie that I have a strong memory of is the color remake of “Night of the Living Dead”. I was probably only nine at the time I first saw it. I also remember the VHS tape wearing out because I watched it too much! I continued my steady diet of horror films, and so when a friend tasked me with picking out a scary movie for Halloween I felt up to the challenge. However, she posed the problem that it cannot be too scary. This is always a challenge. People want to jump a bit, but not be unable to sleep for days. (Too scary would be the time when I had friends over in my dorm room to watch “The Descent”, and my RA had to ask why there was so much screaming.)
I started combing IMDB, Wikipedia, and Amazon for scary but not so scary movies as well as funny horror flicks. This has been very frustrating, and I have decided that I must play it safe and pick something that I have already seen. Why? Because of lists like this that pair “Shaun of the Dead”, a hilarious send-up of the zombie genre, with “Man Bites Dog”, a brutal mockumentary featuring realistic murders of an old woman, a child, and then a gang rape of a man’s wife as the husband looks on. “It didn’t say anything about this,” I would say as everyone turned to glare at me. I always take it personally when my movie pick is reviled.

Before hitting the list, know that none of these films fall into the “so bad it’s good” or “so incredibly campy it’s good” categories. I’m also pandering to an audience with a very weak constitution, so you might not find these scary at all. If you want, I’ve got lists for you too.

So, without further ado I will give you my picks.

Scary but Humorous

  • Ginger Snaps—A very smart film that uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for a woman’s coming of age. An awkward, milquetoast teen tries to help her sister resist the werewolf’s bloodlust with the aid of a local pot dealer. A very smart movie with a scary ending, but all the rest of the scary moments are more suspenseful than jump. There is a fair amount of blood though. I love this movie so much I wrote the Wikipedia entry for it (which was subsequently ruined.) Bonus: It takes place during Halloween.
  • An American Werewolf in London—This has surprisingly good special effects for its time. A young American man tries to avoid becoming a werewolf with the aid of the nurse who loves him. There are some hilarious conversations between the protagonist and his deceased friend. There is some gore, but not much.
  • The Cabin in the Woods—A little campy, but still a very witty genre-bender of the whole horror genre. It is a bit meta, but this provides relief anytime the horror starts to get too intense. This could almost be in the other category, but for a couple of moments.
  • Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon—Similar to “The Cabin in the Woods”, yet focused on the evil man slasher subgenre carved out by such films as “Halloween” and the Friday the 13th series. It is a very funny mockumentary in the first two acts, but the third morphs into a legitimately scary film.
  • Delicatessen—A hilarious French film set after the apocalypse when food is scarce enough to resort to cannibalism. An ex-clown become the “handyman” for the local butcher, but there are complications when the butcher’s daughter falls for him. More of a dark comedy than a horror film.
  • Drag Me to Hell—Sam Raimi returns to his genre to tell the tale of a banker afflicted with a gypsy curse. More disgusting than scary as there is a fair amount of gross things (nose bleeds, vomit, hair pulling, etc).
  • Tremors—A nice creature feature set in a desert town. This movie is an extended version of the childhood game “The Floor is Made of Lava”.

Just Humorous

  • Shaun of the Dead—A great send-up of the zombie genre that mocks the typical survival horror group of friends. Features a fight for survival soundtracked to Queen.
  • Zombieland—Again, a funny take on zombie flicks featuring Jesse Eisenberg and a man in perpetual pursuit of a twinkie. Plus, it has a Bill Murray cameo.
  • Army of Darkness—Extremely campy, but still rather funny. I don’t know how scary it actually is as it has been a while.
  • Young Frankenstein—One of the best horror comedies ever made. Igor’s hump keeps shifting sides, and there is fantastically sly sexual innuendo.
  • Gremlins—Cute little creatures that become evil when sprayed with water. They remind me of evil Furbees, which are probably more scary than this.
  • Beetle Juice—An old Tim Burton film, but still well done. In fact, better than some of his current attempts (sigh, Frankenweenie).
  • The Abbot and Costello series—There are many of these movies where the comedic duo meet various creatures. They’re all funny.
  • Scary Movie—The sequels sucked, but the first one did a good job mocking “Scream.” It is a bit crude though.
  • Fido—A very quirky movie set in the suburbs where zombies are domestic servants.
  • Ghostbusters—A classic movie about four guys cleaning up New York City and battling an evil Marshmallow Man.

I’ve also got lists of suspenseful yet spooky and just downright horrifying if you would be interested in me posting those too. If you know of any good films that fall into either category above, please please let me know!

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I was reading a post by Mr. Money Mustache a few weeks back, and he mentioned a book by Michael Pollan “Food Rules”. I have read a few of Pollan’s NYTimes columns and one of his books, so I figured why not check this one out? So that Saturday after I had finished my study in the library, I started casting about in my mind for what I should check out. I have the horrible habit of never being able to leave a library empty handed. I found the book after overlooking it twice as its small size was overshadowed by neighboring food books.

I read the whole book later that day and started talking about it with my girlfriend Larissa. We live together and like to cook together, so any changes to my diet will naturally affect hers. Luckily, she was on board with many of the ideas and agreed that “Food Rules” was a push in the right direction. Well, Larissa started talking about this with her mother, who gave her an other diet book, “Eat This Not That” by David Zinczenko.

These two books can both be rightly called diet books, contrary to the “Eat This Not That” cover, but their scopes are drastically different. “Food Rules” posits a way of eating unlike the traditional American way, whereas “Eat This Not That” merely proffers paltry changes in your diet. While Pollan wants you to reduce your meat eating, avoid fast food, eat greens, Zinczenko tells you that your diet is fine, you just need to swap out this healthier burger for that one and avoid Grandma’s gravy at Thanksgiving. Which of these two approaches are people more likely to adopt? Which of these two approaches is more likely to give you greater health?

If there is one action you can count on people taking, it is inaction. People don’t like change, and they dislike changing themselves even more. Clearly, people will be more likely to simply make the incremental changes given by Zinczenko. I could see this book being placed in the checkout aisle of grocery stores, rubbing elbows with the celebrity gossip magazines, Women’s Health, and all the cooking glossies too. Just looking at the cover, you can see it is designed to stand out in this situation.

The garish colors, the text-burst proclaiming its features, the eye-grabbing text at the very top of the cover so that it won’t be covered up by the stand all clamor for your attention. As you can see above, “Food Rules” has a much gentler cover that isn’t trying to sell itself so desperately.

You can definitely judge these books by their covers. Pollan’s whole book is very simply laid out with minimal text, no color, simple sketches, and simple paper. This understated style contrasts with the sweeping lifestyle change proposed by the book, whose motto is: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” The book is broken into three sections with a short intro explaining the science behind the idea and then spreads of a sketch of food and a large-type memorable rule to help you practice the idea. Zinczenko’s book also is ordered by spreads with each spread being a fast-food restaurant or holiday meal. Every spread is jammed full of factoids, bright colors, photos, and it is all on glossy paper. Pollan’s book asks you to internalize and remember the rules, while Zinczenko has color-coded the pages as you have no hope of memorizing all the dangers of restaurant menus. While Pollan’s book is broken into bite-sized increments, Zinczenko’s book is further subdivided on each page by boxes, circles, burst-text, and arrows.

Since when is Black Friday a holiday?!

A neat observation that was new to me.

Clearly, the baby-steps given in “Eat This Not That” are more likely to be accepted as no major changes are required. Switching from loaded french-fries to plain fries is not a decision that requires debate. In contrast, Larissa and I discussed the rules in “Food Rules” before deciding to reduce our meat consumption and to eat more veggies.

Which brings us to the next question, “Which leads to a healthier life?” The short answer is that they both do. However, just like most things in life, you get out what you put in. If you settle for Zinczenko’s easy way of changing your restaurant orders, you will improve but not nearly as much as if you follow Pollan’s three suggestions of eating minimally-processed food, greens, and less of both. As “Food Rules” pushes for a lifestyle change, while “Eat This Not That” only pushes for ordering a different dish. However, only a lifestyle change can give you a healthy life. “Eat This Not That” is a step in the right direction, but I worry that it may actually do more harm than good because it gives you the impression that you can make a healthy diet of nothing but pre-cooked meals and fast foods.

While there is a place for both books, clearly I am to taking Pollan’s advice.  To me, his book was mostly common sense. There was nothing revelatory, yet it was enough to push me over the edge and actually start cooking and eating like I should. I had been skimping on veggies. I had been eating a fairly meat-heavy diet. I had been eating a bit too much. Thanks to the redundancy of many of the rules in the book, enough of them of stuck in my head to get me to refocus my diet. It’s been a gradual shift, and it has been difficult at times (cooking tofu flavorfully is a challenge), but it has been rewarding to feel better. I’ll post a couple of cooking adventures in the next few weeks as I continue talking about health.

For a while now, I’ve considered myself a good writer. I keep a daily journal, this blog, and used to write short stories and scripts for fun. Many of my favorite classes in undergrad were paper based. In the field of engineering, my love for writing is a rarity. I adopted the technical writing style taught in my class, and thought it was good. Well, having read Edward Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information“, I now know that class was a only start.

Who’s Tufte?

Edward Tufte is professor emeritus of statistics, political science, and computer science at Yale University. He’s been very active and outspoken about his ideas for communicating statistics and other technical data since 1975. I mentioned Tufte before when I discussed his hatred for Powerpoint. There his major gripe was the low resolution, so you can rightly expect him to prize high resolution graphics.

The Book in a Nutshell

The book is split into two parts. Part 1, Graphical Practice, gives examples of great graphics that communicate an extraordinary amount of information concisely and not-so-great graphics that lie to the reader or render the data unintelligible. This sets up the second part of the book, Theory of Data Graphics. Here, Tufte goes to the fundamentals. He disparages chartjunk, praises data-ink maximization, and explains data density. (You might not know these terms now, but once you learn them you’ll find yourself using them. I know I have started to think in terms of them.)

Graphical Practice

 
The above image shows Napoleon’s advance into and then retreat from Russia. It shows six variables: army size, location (x and y), direction of troop movement, and temperature on certain dates. Despite showing six different variables, it is easily intelligible. Looking at this, you can vividly see the toll of the frigid weather and the treacherous river crossings. This is a great graphic because it is allows you to draw comparison, shows lots of data in a small area, and tells a story.

To talk about graphical integrity, Tufte introduces the concept of the lie-factor. The lie-factor is equal to the size of the effect shown in the graphic divided by the size of effect in data. So in the image above, it is the change in the size of the line divided by the change in the number the line should represent. In this example, the decision to use perspective corrupts the display and results in a lie-factor of 14.8. The lines simply grow far too fast.

While this makes for a more dramatic graphic, it misleads the reader. As a reader, you simply look at how the lines have grown and conclude that the fuel economy is not only improving but improving more and more rapidly as the lines get bigger and bigger faster. Tufte replotted the data more truthfully below.

It is much easier to see the trend now, and you realize that the fuel economy improvement is slowing down. Clearly, the first graphic failed in that it misrepresented the data, made drawing comparisons difficult, and uses a large space to show a small amount of data.

Theory of Data Graphics

Having given an abundance of examples, Tufte moves onto the logical question of what makes a good graphic. I’ll quote his principles and then explain them.

“Above all else show the data. Maximize the data-ink ratio. Erase non-data ink. Erase redundant data-ink. Revise and edit.’’ The first and last sentences are obvious. To understand the middle three, you need to know that data-ink is literally ink used to display data as opposed to such things as the axes, the labels, the title, and the border. For example, data-ink would be the dots and lines connecting them in the redone fuel economy graphic above. Looking more closely at it, you see that there is no border on the plot. In fact, there is no y-axis. This minimalist design is what Tufte means by erasing non-data ink (the border) and redundant data-ink (the y-axis).

“ Forgo chartjunk, including moiré vibration, the grid, and the duck.’’ Chartjunk is any decoration that does not add to the graphic. It includes the obnoxious patterns in bar charts, the obfuscating grid , and excessive use of color. Particularly troublesome are the patterns, as they often give rise to moiré vibrations. You can simply use different shades of gray instead of the hatching. If you use too much chartjunk and let decoration overwhelm the data, you end up with a duck. A duck is Tufte’s odd term for a graphic that tells you nothing because the decoration has so corrupted the data.

“Maximize data density and the size of the data matrix, within reason. Graphics can be shrunk way down. Use small multiples.’’  The first principle arises from the earlier idea of maximizing data-ink and erasing non data-ink. Data density is defined as the number of entries in the data matrix dived by the area of the data graphic. This feeds right into the second principle of shrinking graphics down. Using these two principles, you should communicate a large amount of data in a very small space. The last principle seems like the odd man out. Small multiples are like the pages of a flip book. By laying out these pages next to each other, you can see how a process evolves over time. Since these are small, the data density is high. Furthermore, they invite comparison and are inherently multivariate. Thus, they always carry a high data density and should be used if possible.

“If the nature of the data suggests the shape of the graphic, follow that suggestion. Otherwise, move toward horizaontal graphics about 50 percent wider than tall.’’ This is pure aesthetics and pulls from the whole Golden Ratio idea. This is easily the weakest section of the whole book, but even here Tufte measured many graphics and found that almost all are wider rather than taller. As for the 50%, that is a very rough rule of thumb.

Taken together, these principles will make your graphics tell a dramatic story concisely.

Why Are There So Many Bad Graphics?

As I read through the book, I was surprised to see Tufte find fault with The New York Times, Time, the Journal of the American Statistical Association, and other authoritative publications. These are respectable names, and you would expect them to be getting it right. Tufte thinks that graphical designers lack quantative reasoning skills. Thus, they cannot do justice to the data. They don’t know what decoration is acceptable and what distorts the data. That is exactly what the New York Times did in the above fuel economy road graphic.

I think Tufte is really onto something here. At first, I thought that maybe the text was outdated here, but then I saw a TED talk by the current Data Artist in Residence at the New York Times, Jer Thorp. He creates graphics that are ducks, that fail at being data-dense, and probably have a high lie-factor.

The point is, with an abundance of graphics that misrepresent the data whether intentionally or unintentionally, you should always be on your guard. Don’t just judge things on how they look, but read the numbers and if necessary replot the data.

I’ll have another post up in the coming weeks about how we engineers can make use of these ideas as well as more presentation advice from Tufte.

Personal Heroes

March 11, 2012

It seems today that the only heroes are soldiers and superheroes. I’m going to say that a hero is anyone who can serve as a rolemodel. People often talk about rolemodels, but I never really understood what a rolemodel was nor have I ever had one. I don’t know any of my friends who have a rolemodel. My recent readings have taught me that I should have a rolemodel or personal hero. I’d like to run my reasoning by you and see if you agree.

The only times in my life that I have been asked about my heroes or rolemodels  have been on college applications and as class assignments. Way back in seventh grade for my computer science class, I chose the Red Baron as my superhero because my family would buy Red Baron brand pizza. What a stupid reason! I remember giving his name and then furiously hoping that he wasn’t a Nazi. That’s how little I “my hero”. While the assignment did teach me about computers, it did not impress the importance of having a hero.

What has bridged that communication gap has been looking at what people with heroes have accomplished. In “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”, Kevin Clash clearly idolizes Jim Henson and the other puppeteers. He really does seek to emulate them in his life. His success as Elmo is partially due to this drive. Cal Newport in his book “How to Be a High School Superstar” sets out an excellent method to deconstruct a hero’s success. Cal helped me understand how to look at a successful person and see their journey. He has a series of blog posts about defeating procrastination by fixing on a role model. Finally, Ramit Sethi wrote about meeting people whom you look up to and learning from them. As per his usual style, Ramit implored me to make a list of ten people I want to meet. This caught me as off guard as that assignment back in seventh grade.

Well, I think it is about damn time I make a list of great people and use them to mark my journey to success. By having a rolemodel, I can effectively give myself a target to aim for in my own life. Furthermore, searching for rolemodels means that I will contact people and maybe find myself a mentor as Kevin found in Kermit Love, who introduced Kevin to Jim Henson.

To that end, I’m going to lay into my libraries’ biography section. I’m planning on picking up books on scientists, engineers, and any other people who inspire me. I’ll report back to y’all on the progress. Speaking of reports, I finished “Visualizing Quantitative Information” by Edward Tufte and am working on post about it.

Avatar

December 26, 2009

The plot of James Cameron’s Avatar is not original. It is not even that clever. It’s downright predictable in fact. The “new” is usually overrated. There have been many great treatments of the same story, and Avatar is a masterfully told story. I would be amiss to not talk about the 3D technology, so I will discuss that first.

The new 3D technology is very well used. I caught myself from swatting a fly that was in the way of my view. The 3D is subtle and gorgeous. Simple scenes of actors in from with some action in the background are more realistic. The expansive landscapes of Pandora that define the movie are awe inspiring, just like seeing such landscapes in nature.

While the new views that 3D enables means that it will be here to stay, it is not as paradigm-shifting as the introduction of color or sound. Give it time to mature more, and I feel that it will become more common as it becomes cheaper and more cinemas have the projection technology in place.

While the cinematography is awe-inspiring at times, a film depends on its story. This film is about nature at its heart. The plot is humans are mining unobtanium from Pandora, a world inhabited by the Na’vi people, who are clearly modeled on the Native Americans. Just like the Native Americans, the Na’vi are not happy about their land being destroyed by the mining corporation.

*Possible Spoiler*

The corporation is trying diplomacy via the Avatar program, which enables humans to control manufactured Na’vi bodies. Jake Sully becomes a part of the program, and he slowly comes around to the Na’vi views. The Na’vi worship a nature mother goddess, who is embodied in every living thing.

*End Possible Spoiler*

The Na’vi view on nature is heart wrenching for me. It’s the year 2154, and there is “no green” left on Earth, where as Pandora is so lush with nature that it makes me want to go hiking. The Na’vi live in tune with their environment, and this life seems to be ideal.

There is a certain irony in this film holding up the native life style as an ideal, when this film could never have been realized in such a lifestyle. Similarly, the film is very anti-corporatism, when it is backed by one of the largest studios (Fox), which is in turn part of one of the largest media corporation (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire).

Nevertheless, this movie has made me sit an think about how we interact with nature. I visited my grandmother’s house in rural Missouri today to see what my relatives had done to it. I was taken aback. As a boy, grandma’s had been the most nature I had experienced. I remember seeing all of the stars for the first time there. I remember long walks in the woods and seeing wildlife.

The house was an old farmhouse, but it has been completely redone. It could be my suburban neighbor’s house. I really missed the old house and what it symbolized for me. It was a place without modern conveniences, and now there is internet and cable TV.

I started thinking about all of the features of modern life on the drive home. Obviously, so much of it is unsustainable, but no one will give up their conveniences. Nor would they want to give up the advance medical technology or computers and such. I tried to think of the ideal fabric of society, but I am not nearly smart enough to figure that out in one drive. I’ll have to talk many walks and talk to others about it.

I highly recommend Avatar. See if for the beauty of the nature of Pandora. See it to make you think about nature on Earth. See it for the awe-inspiring cinematographic technique of 3D. See it for a great story.

An introduction of sorts

August 16, 2009

Hello there and welcome. I don’t quite know what I want to say here, but if it’s like my last blog it will be a mix of musings and discussions of movies. It will be much better than my last one as my musings have improved.

I invite you to stay for a while and enjoy yourself. Feel free to comment.