Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity - 3 Stars

I just enjoyed "The Man Who Knew Infinity," the new film about Indian prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan, the real-life mathematical prophet who delivered so many very important and difficult mathematical identities around the time of the first World War.
In the film's lead role is Dev Patel, the talented young Londoner who you will remember from "Slumdog Millionaire," and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" movies, as well as the UK version of "Skins." Patel delivers a fine performance, and he is much assisted by Jeremy Irons, who is cast as Ramanujan's Cambridge colleague, G.H. Hardy.
I would've preferred the film to be less about the tension between the two lead characters, and more about Ramanujan himself- his life and times. I was hoping to learn more about Ramanujan's upbringing and what motivated him to pursue mathematics with such incredible focus. However, it's quite possible that there really isn't much of a record, simply because he arose so quickly from complete obscurity. "The Imitation Game" writers would probably want to imply Ramanujan was somewhere on the spectrum. Maybe it's best that this film actually sticks to the facts!
And the facts are these: Ramanujan had an incredible mathematical gift, and his work continues to astound any who understand it. Those familiar with Indian mathematics will know that there have been many amazing prodigies; yet Ramanujan is truly beyond comparison...*any* comparison. He was so good that when you really delve into his work, it feels like a very clever hoax. Can he possibly be *that* good?! Therein lies this film's big challenge: it'd very difficult for audiences to grasp the magnitude of Ramanujan's contributions. And so any non-mathy audience members are supposed to sense that genius, somewhat vicariously, via the other math whizzes who encounter Ramanujan in the film. And so the film has a *very* difficult challenge, and unlike "Imitation Game," there aren't gimmicks that can be deployed e.g. defeating a Nazi machine. Ramanujan simply did incomparably exceptional work in mathematics, with no real goal in mind other than imparting his findings to others before he passed. 
(Note: Ramanujan suffered from all manner of maladies throughout his short life and probably knew that he'd be gone soon. The movie doesn't inform us quite enough on that point, I feel.)
"The Man Who Knew Infinity" doesn't pack all the star power and made-for-Hollywood character eccentricities and narrative gimmickry of "The Imitation Game." This film doesn't have the same broad-audience appeal ...and really isn't even aiming for that. However, it is very nice to see Ramanujan's story finally being told with good care. Ramanujan was the kind of person who only becomes more and more amazing, the more you know.
Good film; very well cast and filmed. I would've really enjoyed another ten minutes on his earlier life, and that might have helped the whole film feel more personal
I'd give it three stars out of five.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

**** #MANHATTAN: #MadMen meets the Manhattan Project (my review)

Though cancelled by WGN after two seasons, the series MANH(A)TTAN has received exceptional critical response. I can see why.

Set around the remote campus of Los Alamos during the WW2 project of the same name, MANH(A)TTAN doesn't aim to retell that story with literal historical accuracy. Instead, it is a form of historical fiction that focuses on the very real isolation, the smothering secrecy, and the surreal circumstances of families sequestered for years. Imagine the dysfunction that ensues when you put a lot of brilliant people in a box and tell them to work together on something that might end life as they know it; that is what MANH(A)TTAN is all about.

The acting and cinematography in MANH(A)TTAN are top-notch, and you can expect the same attention to historical detail that many of us enjoyed throughout Mad Men. The writers put an engaging cast to the test, and the result is really superb dramatic television. I truly don't know how I missed it until now.

Don't let the series graphic mislead you: there is nothing remotely comedic or strangelovish about MANH(A)TTAN. This is a seriously disturbing story- perhaps too much so for WGN.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Quick summary of #Bundy/ #Hammond standoff near Burns, yours truly

"People need to be aware that we've become a system where government is actually claiming and using and defending people's rights, and they are doing that against the people" - sample of the incoherent mutterings by the leader of a group of idiots presently occupying the Federal Building near Burns, Oregon. 
The "Burns" site is kinda ironic; this band of protesters is allied with a father and son convicted and serving time for arson, the Hammonds.
The leader of the "militia," Ammon Bundy, is the son of cantankerous rancher Cliven Bundy, who thinks it's okay to release his animals to graze in a national park land without paying fees.
Bundy says they'll occupy the building near Burns for a year or so if necessary. I don't think the vending machines will get them past a few days but who knows, maybe they brought peanut butter.
But wait for it... this gets even better. The Hammond family has said they don't want the protesters there. That's right, the people on whose behalf the protesters are committing this federal crime actually don't want the protesters there:
"Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family," the Hammonds' lawyer W. Alan Schroeder wrote to Sheriff David Ward. Whose jurisdiction this caper has now well exceeded.
Apparently the Bundys had a bit too much fun on New Year's Eve. Just hope it doesn't end in unnecessary violence, though. 
‪#‎Murica‬, baby. Hey this would make a good miniseries, if it were set in the 1800s.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

No Cogent Foreign Policy in Europe nor the US? For that I blame #Bush, #Clinton, #Obama, & all of #NATO

Even as Paris continues to mourn, the West should take immediate steps to protect the values that our democracies hold dear. Failure to do so could quickly lead to much of western Europe and perhaps also the cities of America living as police states, with barricades and checkpoints at every turn. All too quickly, liberty, equality, and fraternity can be replaced by racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance.

Troops Around the Tower: Will this become a familiar scene?
Image credit:
If the terrorists have their way, then the very people who continue to pay the highest price for extremism will be treated as extremists themselves... and the West will quickly lose what few allies we have left in the conflicting region. Yes, we in the west have lost many innocents, but let's remember that entire villages, towns and cities have been swallowed up by these extremists. ISIS has been busy murdering thousands of people every month... for years. And so now we notice?

Pope Francis just implied that the events in Paris may be part of the third world war; I fear that he is quite correct. This multi-year reluctance of Europe and the US to take a clear, principled, and firm stand against extremists and their sponsors endangers us all. Does NATO even exist any more? Is its purpose simply to issue press releases...?

Leadership has been entirely absent in the US and Europe, as the threat has grown. Here in the US, our President referred to the extremists as a "JV" squad, implying that they weren't to be taken as seriously as Al Qaeda. He then asserted that the US doesn't do "pin pricks" - but that's precisely what the foreign policy has been ... from the Bush years and right through to the present.

The US has been conducting our foreign policy by remote control, trying to take little stabs at a multi-tentacled international operation. The assumption has been that the side with the best technology wins. Uh... no. We should all know by now what a box cutter can do. We should all know by now that lone wolves look like every one of us from a distance. The architects of this high-altitude foreign policy need to go... and now. It is utterly outrageous to me that anyone associated with these massive foreign policy and ground intel failures -Bush(es), Clinton(s), Biden- could actually win Election 2016. They have set us up for generations of conflict... and should be retired to hone their apologies.

Europe, you have yet again failed to protect yourselves from conflict at your doorstep. Behold the irony: high-minded talk about preventing chemical atrocities in Syria and beyond. But then when the path gets the slightest bit tough, what is the strategy? Look to the US to do the dirty work- at a time when most American could care less. And so now Europe faces an unending flow of refugees. And yes, these refugees look different from you; they speak differently; they think differently... and will become posters for your rightmost radicals. Thus you have created a safe haven abroad for extremists, and safe havens within your own borders for Le Pen and similar nazis. The price you will pay will be counted in generations living with fear and hatred.

So... what is our part, then? What are we individuals to do when our trusted governments have so thoroughly failed? Can we at least agree to hold our leaders to account, and demand that the next elections be about competent policy? Why would we turn back to the leaders that didn't lead, so many times before?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

August #missile outrage over #Egypt: passengers at risk, but not told

Just let this sink in.

Sky News and The Guardian are now reporting that this past August, an Egyptian military missile passed within 1000 ft of a British jet carrying 189 passengers over Egypt.

That is a hair's width, at flight speeds.

And to make matters far worse: apparently, the UK Department of Transport knew about and investigated the incident... but somehow didn't publicly divulge the details. Shouldn't this have been front-page news, and a clear warning to all travelers throughout the region?

Question abound: Why wasn't the airspace immediately declared off-limits to British (and indeed all) commercial traffic? How can this airspace be considered safe... by anyone? Why weren't passengers alerted to the risks?

My feeling is that this is a complete outrage, and would be an outrage even if the Russian passenger jet hadn't recently been downed over Egypt. The fact of the matter is that the region's airspace and associated airports are (and were) known to be unsafe. Yet governments let their citizens travel...

This advisory failure seems just short of treasonous; any government's most fundamental responsibility is to protect its citizens. This isn't just negligence, it is a coverup and complete betrayal of public trust.

Here is the original Sky News story:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

#Terrorism versus Lightning, and the American Addiction to Fear

Terrorism is in our headlines, across our national media, and in almost every speech given by every national politician. Since 9/11, and in fact well before 9/11, terrorism has, well, terrorized Americans. It is time to seek perspective, ask what this culture of fear is doing to our country, and seek ways to deny the terrorists the right to divide us with fear.
Fear is an insidious ailment because it both addictive and contagious. Physiologically, fear acts much like stress, which underlies so many of the ailments that claim lives or at least reduce quality of life.
Relative to the total population, in a typical year, the chance of an American citizen being killed by a terrorist are roughly one in 20,000,000. Compare this to their risk of...
Dying in a car accident: 1 in 19,000;
Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 800,000;
Dying in a building fire: 1 in 99,000;
Being struck by lightning: 1 in 5,500,000. 
Of the ones that I researched, being struck by lightning is the only mode of injury ridiculously rare enough to be compared to death by terrorist attack.
As an American who grew up in a war zone and actually knows what it's like to have a loaded AK-47 pointed at me, I find it very deeply troubling that so many Americans live in a state of fear; spend so much of their time watching cable "news" which packages, sells and multiplies that fear. And many Americans habitually vote for more fear every four years or so.
For this reason I implore my dear, fellow Americans to get in their car and drive... just drive across the country. Drive thousands of miles on our awesome wide open roads and feel that peaceful sunlight and breathe that peaceful air and enjoy that scenery. Unplug the fear and drive. It feels good.
We should also remember that lot of good people have worked hard or even died to give you that a sense of freedom, peace and security. Yes, I speak of Tom Sullivan, David Wyatt, Carson Holmquist, Skip Wells, and Randall Smith, and all of their colleagues in Chattanooga and across the armed forces, and their families, and their friends. It actually devalues the sacrifice of all of our service people when we do not appreciate what we have and what they worked or even died to protect. 
We should remember that the root intent of a terrorist is... to terrorize. The statistics are very clear, and we should deny the terrorists the pleasure of cultivating fear in our minds. The terrorist are failing in the physical fight, and we can defeat them in the mental fight at home as well, simply by enjoying what we have.
So please... take advantage of our freedom and our peace at home. Yes, of course, we do need to remain ever vigilant, and continue efforts to thwart terrorism at home and abroad, but.. never forget to enjoy what you have and the price the nation has paid to secure it.
America is the rarest of rarities- a huge, wealthy, gorgeous and mostly peaceful land where we don't have to live in fear. America is the place where we have the liberty and luxury to worry about other things... like whether to put a lightning rod on the house.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

American #HigherEd and the Liberal / Conservative Squeeze

American Higher Ed circles have lately been abuzz with news about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's actions in his state, which appear designed to trim academic programs and confront unions. With the recent announcement of Walker's candidacy in the 2016 election, his actions in Wisconsin will bring more scrutiny and dissent.
Of course, educators are right to study and question Scott Walker's motives... and, in fact, the motives of any and all politicians, very few of who have any knowledge about Higher Ed or education in general. However, Higher Ed is struggling with much larger and broader challenges than Mr. Walker. Reduced resources from the States and Federal funding agencies; legacy costs; rampant misunderstanding of tuition inflation, the "college for all" concept ...which seems designed take the "higher" out of "higher education." Just to name a few.
An unfortunate political circumstance that is currently afflicting higher ed is what might be called the liberal-conservative squeeze: opposed forces chewing into support for Higher Ed from opposite ends.
The fringe Republicans' vendetta against Higher Ed is well known, so I won't dwell on that here. I'll simply point out that the Democrat's wondrous-sounding, beautifully egalitarian, "college-for-all" speak has inflicted grave damage as well, because it tends to devalue the on-campus, 4-year experience in favor of MOOCs and other measures that aim to take tuition revenue away from schools.... revenue that actually pays teachers' salaries. It amazes me that Ed advocates on the left don't realize that as soon as they assert the possibility of replacing current instruction with lower cost methods e.g. MOOCs, the more cost-conscious conservatives will seize upon that as evidence that faculty really aren't worth what they are paid.
Moreover, the Democrats' concept of simply shifting tuition costs for students to the broader public (via the tax base) also sounds lovely, but it does absolutely nothing to address rising costs, and isn't politically viable in many states. That leaves the Democrats with no better option than to advocate for a large private-to-public shift at the Federal level, which is unlikely to succeed, given the political ineptitude and inefficiency of the Education Department.
In my opinion, there has been far too much emphasis in Higher Ed media on Mr. Walker; far too much focus on the unfolding political machinations in that one state. Walker is ultimately a bit player, an ephemeral political being. Wisconsin will eventually overcome him and emerge stronger because of it, perhaps even with some benefits from a few of his ideas. To put it another way: if an institution can truly be decimated by one short-term, partisan politician, then it's not much of an institution. Surely we are more resilient than this. I offer this wisdom from the University of Virginia, where we know a thing or two about deep political intrusions.
In summary, a far greater long-term challenge to Higher Ed across America than Mr. Walker is this phenomenon of the liberal-conservative squeeze. It has the candle of Higher Ed burning at both ends, and if we don't address it soon (pardon the hyperextended metaphor) the light will soon go out.