Correcting success

A commercial just reminded me of a question my sister raised the last time we were in John’s Pizzeria in Manhattan. At the time, there were a number of remakes of various hit movies. She wondered: why are only good movies are remade? Doesn’t this seem backwards? You’d think that movie makers would want to correct mistakes, not success. After all, of all the things that can go wrong to make a promising movie fail, there have to be any number of films that just missed greatness. If only that one big mistake could be corrected, you’d have a hit. Plus, hit movies usually spawn sequels, so why remake them?

There is, of course, a reasonable explanation: movie studios are among the most risk averse companies in the world, for no apparent reason. They only take chances if they are about to be eaten by lions, or if someone else has taken the risk first.

The commercial that provided a small sliver of hope that this might be changing pitched a new remake: a thriller called The Hitcher. The original, featuring C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh, was not a great movie, but not the worst in the world either. It gets a middling 65% fresh rating and grossed under $6 million. Obviously, someone convinced the studio that “you know, that was an OK movie, but it had some problems. Here’s how we’d turn it into a major hit.” I’m not sure why the studios believed them, since this same team has already screwed up the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original = 87%, remake = 37%).

I can’t remember other examples of this phenomenon, though there might have been a few. I had thought that Never Say Never Again might qualify as an attempt to improve the original Thunderball, but evidently others don’t share my opinion of the lameness of the original. Also, it looks like the remake might have been more the result of legal battles than anything else.

For any studios looking for films with ideas that held great potential, but flawed execution, to remake into something great, a few suggestions:

I’m sure there are many others. What would you remake? While you’re thinking, you might also want to look a various death scenes as well.

Improving the NFL experience

I love professional American football, but a number of new trends this year have been disturbing my calm since the season started. Now that the regular season is winding down, here are some suggestions on how to improve for next season:

  • The four-man comments before the game, at halftime and after the game is a formula that mostly works, but there is no need whatsoever to fly them all to the game and setup the desk on the field. The only purpose this seems to serve is to make it harder to hear anything anyone is saying, and force the hosts to wail like Olympic swimming commentators.
  • To Bryant Gumbel: learn what the phrase “take over on downs” means before uttering it again. Ask your brother.
  • To Dick Vermeil: please refrain from lending your image to any company for promotional purposes ever again. Also, have some of the beefier members of your team hunt down and kill everyone responsible for your beer commercials.
  • Chris Collinsworth wins for suggesting he get work with Court TV as it is the “only way to cover the Browns”.
  • To the NFL: since you have set up your broadcast rules to force me to watch nothing but the New York Jets, the least you could do is force the CBS network to broadcast the game in hi-def. Buy the cameras if you have to.
  • To CBS Sports: high definition is no longer optional. Catch up.
  • An occasional Thursday game is fun. Every week is overkill.
  • Stop giving a shit about Terrell Owens.
  • To advertisers: When you repeat the same commercial over and over, it makes me actively hate both you and your products. Stop it.
  • To Chevrolet: When you insist on running the same honky-intensive commercial over and over and over containing the phrase “this is our philosophy”, you might not want to put a picture under it depicting someone from a homophobic organization that illegally uses federal funds.
  • To the NFL network: Give up on the idea of the NFL network. Unless you are intentionally trying to destroy the NFL, in which case: soldier on.
  • Light beer in sweaty green bottles is not my girlfriend and, even if it was, I’m pretty sure I would want it to be neither “hot” nor “a freak like you”. I don’t know what either of those mean.

…and the triple

Superstition holds that celebrity deaths come in threes, but the latest triple seems much stranger than most. Watching the coverage of the funerals of James Brown, Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein showcases how completely different these three men were. Watching these pageants, I couldn’t help but think there was some Jungian connection between it all, but can’t quite flush it out. Instead, stray observations, in no particular order:

  • While I understand the desire to represent the different branches of the armed forces at a state funeral, the mismatched uniforms of the pallbearers made the whole thing look sloppy. Maybe if there was a unified pallbearer uniform, with different insignia or something, it wouldn’t look like a bunch of guys were just picked up in a van by someone hanging out the window saying “yo! wanna carry the president?”
  • Michael Jackson may have been the only white guy invited to the James Brown funeral.
  • I’m pleased that it took very little time for the video of Saddam’s execution to hit the net. This suggests that the internet is infiltrating the Middle East more than I’d guessed. This will do more to advance freedom in the region than anything else.
  • Henry Kissinger may have finally crossed over into being a full lich.
  • It’s only a matter of time before someone suggests that Ford and Hussein coverage stealing the thunder from James Brown was a conspiracy of The Man.
  • Given that Betty Ford is rightfully praised for her public acknowledgment of her past addiction, the degree to which most of the talking heads in the press avoided mentioning “her problems” seemed somewhat insulting.
  • Americans are falling behind in the number of bullets shot into the air in celebration. (Where do these bullets go, anyway?)
  • My German father-in-law looked at the military aspect of the Ford funeral and suggested that if Germans saw a similar ceremony for a German politician, there would be an outcry that the Nazis had returned. Not sure if that’s true, but I was surprised by the comment.
  • Coloradoans give better-looking tributes than those inside the beltway.
  • The lack of former presidents at the Ford funeral surprised me. Bush, in particular, didn’t seem to care much about any of these deaths, other than as an opportunity to hint at his delusion that history will judge him well.
  • A tip to the choir: when someone in the audience passes out, just keep smiling and singing.

Odd odds

Last night I paid for some goods in cash. They cost $17.83. I gave a $20, then dug into my pocket for change to see if I could unload some of it. I happened to have exactly 83 cents in my pocket.

I’m wondering what the odds are of doing that. That is: for any random transaction, what are the odds you have exactly the right amount of coins on you to exactly match the fractional portion (the cents) of the price? I’m not a statistician, but this seems like a hard thing to figure out. I’m not even sure what information you’d actually need to solve it. In the first place, over all transactions are the 100 possible values for the fractional portion evenly distributed? How about the number of coins you are likely to have in your pocket, much less their denominations?

A possibly related, but probably easier problem: if you wanted to be able to always pay exact change in US currency, you need to carry four pennies, a nickel, two dimes and three quarters. If you just grabbed a gob of x coins from a jar, how big does x need to be give you a 95% chance of having at least this combination?

The Fightin’ Multiculturalist

The world “multiculturalism” means different things to different people. Critics of multiculturalism, like the Ayn Rand Institute, tend to define it like so:

In brief, multiculturalism is the view that all cultures, from that of a spirits-worshiping tribe to that of an advanced industrial civilization, are equal in value.

They then proceed to refute, often logically and convincingly, that such a view is foolish, saying things like:

Multiculturalism seeks to obliterate the value of a free, industrialized civilization (which today exists in the West and elsewhere), by declaring that such a civilization is no better than primitive tribalism. … The ideas and values that animate a particular culture can and should be judged objectively. A culture that values freedom, progress, reason and science, for instance, is good; one that values oppression, stagnation, mysticism, and ignorance is not.

This critique seems to the one voiced most often in recent popular (as opposed to academic) debate, particularly in discussions about the Islamic world.

The problem with this argument is that its initial definition of what multiculturalism means is completely wrong. Granted, one of the largest difficulties with multiculturalism is that it is not well defined, a point made evident by the entry on it in the Wikipedia, where at least four different definitions are mentioned. Even so, it seems that the only credible groups who use the definition above are the ones who oppose it. The impact and meaning of multiculturalism has been debated significantly in academic circles for quite some time. Though I was trained at one of the primary institutions that could be accused of “pushing a multiculturalist agenda”, I’m not an academic, so I confess ignorance of much of this debate. My interest here is more in the popular use of the term and, in particular, how a multicultural society can consistently deal with one that is not.

In saying that people like the Ayn Rand Institute have the definition of multiculturalism “completely wrong” it is incumbent on me to provide a correct one. Sadly, the best definition I can provide is by way of an example of multicultural behavior: fans of the National Football League.

Your average NFL fan (or any other fan of a professional domestic sport team) favors one team above others. When attending the temple of their team, they will dress in appropriate religious regalia, usually a set mix of colors, maybe with a large number on the front, or representations of dairy products on their head. Some will be disgusted and/or amused at the zealotry of those of their number who get tattoos of team iconography or paint their body bright orange or wear big foam hands. Many even do this watching on television at home. Most will talk about their team with anyone who will listen. Every one of these fans, however, knows somebody that roots for another team, maybe even someone even more impassioned about their own team than they themselves are about theirs.

Ayn Rand, no doubt, would be thrilled to know that each particular team “can be judged objectively” and it is usually (though not always) possible to empirically determine which team is “better”. No fan anywhere would ever claim that all teams in the league “are equal in value”. Clearly his own team is worth far more to him than the others are, even though it may simultaneously be worth far less in terms of monetary value, turnover ratio or victory percentage.

While a fan of a losing team may have to endure barbs of fans of other teams (or even his own fellow fans), it’s rare that his choice of team puts him in any real danger. By the same token, a fan on the championship team, while he might not understand why someone would root for any other team and may, in fact, consider anyone that does so inferior or even express hatred for them, he never seriously opposes, or even questions, the right of those other fans to root for whoever they like. It’s not like a large group of them get together and scream through loudspeakers “all others must renounce their own loyalty and support our team, or face righteous wrath,” then send out the “Shining Row 12 of Section J” to hack up non-believers with machetes. (Well, at least not outside of Oakland.)

There are exceptions, of course, but when American sports fans hear of planned soccer riots, fans grouping together to fight fans of other teams, fans murdering their own goalie after a loss, governments torturing their athletes for losing or even when players leave the field to deck some smart ass, the vast majority of them wonder “what the hell is wrong with these people?”. Sure, American fans react badly to victory and turn over police cars with the best of them, but this almost never involves clashes with opposing fans. While they think their own team superior, they don’t assume that this means that fans of other teams should have less of a right to root for whoever they want. In short, they have a “multicultural” view when it comes to team loyalty.

You might define multiculturalism as “the tolerance to allow others to believe stupid things”. Or maybe it’s as simple as “live and let live”.

However, practicing multiculturalism has a lot in common with laws surrounding free speech. In principle, it’s fine to say “people are free to say what they want”. In practice, there are sticky implementation problems. How do you deal with someone yelling “fire” in a crowded room? How do you deal with someone who invokes their free speech rights to broadcast the secrets of people, corporations or governments or make false accusations against them? Is it permissible for someone to claim their right to free speech is more important than someone else’s? Suppose someone openly encourages others to kill someone?

Similarly, encoding a principle like “people are free to believe in what they want and live the way they want to” has implementation problems of its own. Suppose a prisoner believes he must be provided steak as part of his religion. What about a culture that allows its children to die from preventable ailments? How about a religion that considers its practitioners justified—in fact expected—to kill members of other cultures?

The guiding principle in rationalizing these kinds of difficulties tends to be “your right to swing your fist ends at my face”. In other words, I consider myself a multiculturalist, but I also have no problem at all with killing someone who is trying to kill me because he is not.

Suggestion for Vancouver

After watching the bobsled (with its huge bullet-shaped craft), the luge (and its sled) and the skeleton (and it’s stripped down toboggan), I have a suggestion for a new event for the Vancouver games in 2010. Rather than use these wussy sleds, competitors would wear suits with ice skate blades sewn vertically into the upper chest, stomach and thighs. They would run at full speed down the starting track of a skeleton course, then launch themselves onto their belly and fly head first down the ice, running on the blades sewn into the suits.

Oh, also, in the opening and closing ceremonies, I suggest that Vancouver not inexplicably feature American pop tunes more than three decades old.