Archive for November, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire – A movie in review

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

My mother is plugged into the independent arthouse movie scene, so she’s always seeing (and raving about) movies that I’ve never heard about. Yesterday, my cousin from New York City was in town, so we took the opportunity to see Slumdog Millionaire at the artsy movie theater in Bethesda, Maryland. I knew precisely nothing about it going in. Since I’m kind of short on blogging ideas at the moment, I think I’ll write up a little review of it.

Slumdog Millionaire is about a boy rising from abject poverty in the slums of Mumbai to become a hero of the people through his unexpected success on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”. Shots of the high-tension proceedings at the game show are interspersed with scenes of previous experiences from the main character’s life showing the unlikely experiences he lived through that left him knowing all of the answers to the questions on the game show. The game show is actually a nifty plot element that sounds like it could come off corny, but doesn’t.

Overall, Slumdog Millionaire is a good movie. It tugs all of the requisite emotional heartstrings, and it proceeds at a pace that never left me wondering “When is this thing going to end?” (which I find to be the hallmark of a bad movie). It uses lots of tropes you’ve seen many times before in cinema: poverty, destiny, karma, love, evil, manipulation of children, religious warfare, a look at how a man turns evil and then redeems himself with his dying moment, etc., but doesn’t feel like a stale retread. I dare say some of it was even slightly cliché, or at least nonsensical, like when two hitmen are subduing their boss’s wife — who isn’t even putting up much of a fight — and nevertheless manage to give her a good slice on the cheek while fumbling around with a knife, solely with the apparent purpose of having a symbolic scar for the main character to dismiss in one of the final scenes of the movie.

The movie’s tone is quite sad, with scene after scene of crushing poverty, slum life, religious warfare, criminality, police corruption, abuse of orphans, and life on the run. It has a few humorous moments, but it’s overwhelmingly sorrowful, and despite concluding on a somewhat happy note, I was still feeling very downbeat upon leaving the theater. In this regard it was much like The Pursuit of Happyness. So if you don’t handle sad movies well, you might want to give it a pass. Otherwise, I’d recommend it.

Oh, and the Bollywood-style dancing during the credits (despite the movie not being a musical whatsoever) was unexpected and awesome.

The guilty pleasures of Ikea

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

I can’t help it. Ikea is one of my guilty pleasures. I don’t particularly like shopping, and I would never consider shopping a leisurely activity. So while I do go to grocery stores and other places where I purchase essentials, I very rarely go to shopping just for the fun of it. Yet I absolutely love shopping at Ikea.

Maybe it’s the mix of awesome and useful things that are available for such cheap prices. Or maybe it’s the awesome but completely useless things that get me, like the poseable wooden doll sculptures and mass-produced oil paintings (made using actual paint). With the exception of stores catering exclusively to my hobbies (electronics stores, hobby gaming shops, Ham Radio Outlet, etc.), Ikea is the only store that leaves me with a feeling of wanting to buy a lot more than what I end up walking out with. I could easily furnish a whole house with goods from Ikea, and eat lunch and dinner there to boot.

I suppose what I like most at Ikea is the furniture. Furniture inhabits a very interesting realm in the kingdom of “things you need to buy”. Furniture is expensive, but things are really going to suck for you if you don’t have it — for instance, the most recent reason I went to Ikea is because I didn’t have a nightstand in my new place, and for someone who likes reading before going to bed, that is a big problem. And because furniture is big, heavy, and bulky, it’s not exactly something you want to buy online.

But the best aspect of Ikea furniture is that it comes in many precisely cut pieces of wood in a flatpack box along with a plastic baggie full of tools and fasteners. My greatest joy with Ikea is not in selecting the furniture in the store, but, perversely, in assembling it when I get home. I suppose to some boring people the fact that Ikea’s furniture doesn’t come assembled simply increases its cost by whatever one considers one’s time worth, but to me, putting together the furniture provides significant added value. I would, and this is not an exaggeration, gladly put together Ikea furniture for someone else, for free.

When I was a kid, I would spend uncountable hours sitting in front of a pile of Legos on the family room floor building all manner of creative objects. As I grew older I stopped playing with Legos because it was no longer an “age-appropriate activity”, but trust me when I say that one of the best parts of having children has to be having an excuse to play with Legos again. In this context, my love of Ikea furniture begins to make sense. It’s like a Lego set for grown-ups, only better, because the material is real, the end result is useful, and it will last for many years. And the assembly instructions, with their parts lists, numbered steps, schematic symbols, and lack of written language, are eerily similar.

So don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the hour and a half I spent putting together that $50 3-drawer nightstand was the most fun I had that entire week. I really got into it, improving the plans in several regards by using better fasteners and applying wood glue to all wood-on-wood joints (would you believe the plans only used wooden pegs in such situations?!). I’d gladly buy a lot more furniture from Ikea, but alas, I don’t have any more space to put it in. So for now I’m in a holding pattern, anxiously looking forward to the next time I have a need to buy furniture. At least I already know where I’m going to get it.

Bad, bad journalism

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

This here is some really bad journalism from CNN:

(CNN) — A jury awarded $2.5 million in damages on Friday to a Kentucky teenager who was severely beaten by members of a Ku Klux Klan group because they mistakenly thought he was an illegal Latino immigrant, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

The jury found that the Imperial Klans of America and its founder wrongfully targeted 16-year-old Jordan Gruver, an American citizen of Panamanian and Native-American descent.

Yes, because the Klansmen’s actions would’ve otherwise been acceptable had the teenager actually been an illegal immigrant, right? They lost the case because of bad targeting, not because of hate-based egregious assault, eh?

The death of the Bradley Effect

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

The results of Tuesday’s election give us reason enough to declare the Bradley Effect as outdated, wrong, and finally, dead and buried. The “Bradley Effect”, named after black California 1982 gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, posits that a significant number of whites are secret racists, who will tell pollsters they’re willing to vote for a non-white candidate, but when they actually get into a ballot box, the lurking racism shines bubbles up and they’re unable to do so. Never mind that supposed instances of it occurring in the past are marred with bad polling; we couldn’t stop hearing about it during this past election. So I’m very thankful that it’s finally discredited once and for all.

The Bradley Effect is demeaning to everyone involved. It demeans whites because it asserts two negative things: that they are racists, and that they are ashamed racists who won’t admit it to anyone but an anonymous ballot. It is demeaning to non-whites because it asserts that there is some reason they should under-perform any other candidate solely on the basis of the saturation of their skin.

But the worst part of the Bradley Effect was that it enabled meta-racism: It allowed people who aren’t racist themselves to oppose candidacies of non-whites on the basis that others are racist and would never vote for said candidate. I heard this reasoning from a surprising number of Democrats in the early days of the Democratic primaries in reference to Barack Obama, but thankfully, they all got over it. And now that we have elected a non-white (well, non-half-white, anyway) to the highest position in the land, no one can possibly cite the Bradley Effect in good faith as a reasoning for not preferring a non-white candidate.

The next time anyone even so much as mentions the Bradley Effect, tell them to stop going on about discredited theories. Or, if you aren’t feeling quite so charitable, tell them to shut the eff up. The Bradley Effect belongs in the dustbin of history, next to trickle-down economics and National Socialism. This country will be a better place if I never so much as hear the phrase “Bradley Effect” even mentioned ever again. And I’m not the only one who thinks that.

Boy dies over XBOX360 punishment

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

I was going to say something really callous here, but thought better of it at the last moment, so I’ll just relate the facts and let you insert the callousness in your own mind:

A boy in Canada who ran away after his parents took his XBOX360 away as a punishment has been found dead in the woods nearly a month later.

So, the question to you, dear readers, is: is an XBOX360 worth dying over?

Today is a momentous day

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

Today is a momentous day.

I can finally truthfully say again that I am proud of my country.

It’s an incredible feeling.

Fixing ordering bias of U.S. presidential election candidates on Wikipedia

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Today, upon getting home from work, one of the first things I did was check the Main Page of the English Wikipedia. It always has interesting content on there, and today was no exception. For the first time ever, two articles were featured on the front page: those of John McCain and Barack Obama. Except there was one little niggling problem: John McCain was listed first. Granted, his last name does come first alphabetically … but still. This is the Internet. We don’t have the limitations of printed paper ballots; there’s no reason the candidates have to be displayed in a static order. And I happen to be an administrator on the English Wikipedia, so I can edit any page on the site, including the main page and the site-wide JavaScript. So I fixed the ordering, presumably much to the delight of all of the people who had been complaining about bias on the talk page.

I took some JavaScript that was previously used in the Wikimedia Foundation Board elections, where ordering of the several dozen candidates had proved to be a huge bias in previous elections, and added it to the English Wikipedia. Then I modified the main page slightly to use the JavaScript and, boom, the candidates now appear in a random order upon each page load. I figure if this solution was good enough for WMF Board elections then it ought to be good enough for the United States presidential election, right?

So if you go to the main page of Wikipedia now, you should see either Barack Obama or John McCain on top, with a 50% probability of each (if you’re not seeing this behavior, flush your browser’s cache). Considering how many people view Wikipedia each day, I like to think this will make some kind of difference.