No One Is Happy With the Oscars

We seem to be so grouchy about our entertainment. There was so much grousing about the 92 Academy Award nominees and the awards show itself, you’d think the entire world was forced to take a spelling test and file their taxes at the same time. There’s not enough diversity in the nominees. There’s too much diversity in the production numbers. There’s too much politics in the acceptance speeches. Don’t like that host. Don’t like not having a host. The ceremony is too long. They shouldn’t have cut off the speech from THAT person… The Academy Awards seems like a microcosm of our American politics. No one likes the process or the outcome, except for the ones we agree with.

Thoroughly NonAmerican and Violent

In the interests of full disclosure, I did not see Parasite, which won Best Picture. It also won Best International Film (note the change in language from the old “Best Foreign Film”), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This was the first time the Best International film also won this distinction and the first time the Best Picture was in a non-English language. Seems especially ironic in a country immersed in a war over whether to expel everyone not from ‘Murica.

Best Picture winner, Parasite, official photo from Madman Films.

Now might be the time to mention “foreign” directors have won Best Director 10 out of the last 12 years, with only Kathryn Bigelow and Damien Chazelle as the exceptions (and Chazelle’s parents were emigrés). For all the handwringing about the lack of diversity in nominees, the winners have not been white American men. Yes, I do think Greta Gerwig’s snub from the list of Best Director nominees was a palpable insult.

Since I started going to the five dollar Tuesday movie practically every other week, Parasite has cropped up on my list because it received rave critical reviews and strong positive audience scores. We kept balking because of its reputation as a horror film; I really don’t like gore. Yet, I can’t help noting to myself that six of the nine Best Picture nominees were filled with violence, and the four I saw were excellent despite the flame-throwing and axe-hurling. (1917, Jojo Rabbit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and The Irishman.)

What We Missed

I also didn’t see and don’t plan to see the violence in The Joker, and I’m still rather curious about why it garnered so many nominations. Its reviews weren’t promising (NY Times critic A.O. Scott called it ” an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing …). The film, an origin story for a legendary super-villain, clearly touched a nerve with other viewers who declared it as a masterpiece practically before it was in theaters. The Joker is a loner from the wrong side of the tracks whose descent into madness is apparently brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix (who did win Best Actor). Yet, the fascination with him seems like standard fascination with the devil. Lucifer’s story has always been more interesting than Gabriel’s. There’s probably a part of all of us that enjoys watching revenge carried out, fantasizing about how “we” might wreak it on our transgressors.

Does that make it worthy of Best Picture? Doesn’t seem so to me, but perhaps, we’ve become polarized as audiences just as we have as voters. A low critic score and high audience score is as reflective of who is self-selecting to see the film as it is the merits of the film itself. Yet then how does that explain the nine nominations for the film aside from Best Actor or Best Picture? Is the real lack of diversity evident in this microcosm of white male rage being nominated for Editing, Costume Design, Cinematography, and Sound Mixing?

Personally, I preferred Little Women. Lots of people (men) didn’t, as the film garnered very few nominations, not just in director but in other categories. This, despite receiving much more favorable reviews by both critics and audiences. It’s particularly ironic when compared with (arguably) a film as opposite as The Joker, since both portray views of class struggle. They are both about the neglect by the rich and the struggles by those who must make sacrifices just to eat. Given that the Best Picture winner also focused on the stark contrast between wealthy and the struggling classes, maybe there’s a theme here that we’re missing.

Part of the identity crisis that has afflicted the awards in recent years is the sense that they serve too many incompatible constituencies. An industry that likes continuity and tradition, a global audience that wants a big spectacle, younger voters interested in aesthetic risk and social awareness, a domestic public that somehow both hates politics and insists on politicizing everything. The broadcasts of recent years have exposed some of the contradictions between Hollywood’s universalist aspirations and its parochial realities.

NYT: What the Parasite Landslide Says about the Oscars

A History of Dissatisfaction

The 1973 Oscars was one of the first I remember watching (Best Picture: Godfather). My strongest memory was of being particularly annoyed when Charlton Heston made a snarky comment about my childhood crush, Michael Jackson, being up “past his bedtime” to sing original song nominee (“Ben,” a song I’ve never liked). In 1975, when Hearts and Minds won Best Documentary, the directors of the winning anti-war film remarked on the irony of peace coming to Vietnam. This prompted hosts Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra to declare that “We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.”

Wouldn’t it be darned hilarious if a presenter came out in this day and age and said, “we are not responsible for any political preferences….”? Who would you get to do that? Jane Fonda? Clint Eastwood? Spike Lee? Actually, that might be fun! Have them all come out at the same time! Throw shade at each other!

Last year, the problem was that Green Book, a feel-good “based on a true story” movie about race relations, took liberties with the true story and highlighted the role of the white drive to the point where the family of the black pianist had to disavow the movie. Only three years ago, the wrong movie was announced as Best Picture. As I glance back over winners and nominees, there’s a whole host that I still can’t see as deserving (Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, or even Braveheart over Apollo 13? fuhgeddaboutit!). Still, there’s an awful lot of great movies, both winners and nominees.

Facebook commentary was filled with “I can live without ever seeing another war movie.” Yet 1917 was the best WWI film I’d seen and probably ever will see (with Paths of Glory a close second). Jojo Rabbit was the most upbeat Nazi film I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, I wasn’t interested in Ford vs. Ferrari but overheard a woman at my coffee shop comment that it was “the best movie, by far, that she’d seen all year.”

Democracy In Action

The Academy has pushed to improve the diversity of its membership, which now stands at 32% women and 16% minorities. (Although that 95% winning list of non-American Best Directors puts the lie to some this chauvinism.) Nominations are still limited in that only those within the profession can vote for their category. Only camera operators vote for Cinematography; only actors can vote for acting nominees. To the extent that women or minorities are not represented in those categories because of barriers to those professions, the results will be skewed. As with any other kind of voting, the change has to come by pressing for more diverse representation by those who vote.

Curiously, the documentary features went to women and men who extolled issues of class, gender, and race. The show itself put a spotlight on the lack of diversity by opening with black, gender queer performers Janell Monae and Billy Porter.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 09: (L-R) Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter perform the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

They rocked the house. In contrast, the appearance of white rapper Eminem emerging to sing a song nearly two decades old was lost on me. Also, just when I was finished laughing at the incongruity of banter by former SNL cast members Will Ferrell, Julia Louie-Dreyfuss, Maya Rudolph, and Kristin Wiig, well, here came Elton John pounding out what is probably his worst song ever, which then won Best Song over the much more lively and movie-appropriate “Stand Up.”

Let’s face it. There’s no accounting for tastes when it comes to movies. Like democracy, the Oscars are a hot mess. Given that the surprise winner was a subtitled film which turned out to be beloved by critics and audiences, maybe there’s a lesson there.

A Woman’s Place Is…In Space

Astronaut Christina Koch printing tissue
Astronaut Christina Koch growing a new kidney (?who knows?) Photo at NASA.gov.

Growing organs in microgravity was the experiment that hooked me. Apparently, they’re experimenting on the space station with 3D printers that grow human organs, like hearts, in zero gravity. The difficulty with growing organs on earth is that soft tissue (“biomaterial”) tends to collapse while it’s being printed, unable to hold a shape and turning to mush before it’s completed. In space, the replicated tissue can hold its shape long enough for cells to growth more tightly together in a culture, eventually becoming strong enough to return to earth’s gravity. That’s the theory, anyway.

I learned about this while digging further into the amazing experiments performed by Astronaut Christina Koch, who just completed a record 328 days in space. As the NY Times reported today, she came home safely after a near-year on the international space station. She also completed three all-female spacewalks.

However, it’s the number and breadth of experiments she conducted that may make the most difference to future generations of spacefarers. After all, if we’re going to check out the interstellar neighborhood, we’re going to need to know how to eat real food, practice medicine, and put out fires. You know, domestic affairs. Who better to do all that than Christina Koch, given the old saying that a woman’s place is in the home.

Do You Think that Spacesuit Makes You Look Fat?

The faces of the early space pioneers were all male, of course, selected from the military, which excluded the likes of notable female pilots Amelia Earhart and Harriet Quimby from its ranks. Actually, to be fair, this bias was in the American space program, since Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR was the first woman in space way back in 1963, only two years after the first American man had gone up.

As the American program shifted from moon landings to space shuttles, NASA finally broadened their entry class in 1978 to include women. Sally Ride, a Stanford physicist, was selected to be the first woman aboard the Challenger in 1983, specializing in working with the robotics arm that deployed satellites. Many of us are young enough to remember the “Ride, Sally Ride!” T-shirts and bumper stickers that advertised pride in such an achievement. Dr. Ride, for her part, remained stoic and smiling during the blizzard of press questions that focused repeatedly on her gender rather than her work, one inane question after another:

Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?
Will you become a mother?
Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?

Questions asked of Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman in space

After Sally Ride left NASA, she continued her physics work at both Stanford and UC San Diego, founded a company that fostered opportunities for young women to work in the sciences, and wrote a number of books aimed at encouraging children especially girls towards space. I note with interest that she worked with optics at UCSD, which is where and what my Favorite Son is studying, and that she also had a degree in English because Shakespeare, what else? Clearly, she studied the Right Stuff.

NASA Class 8

NASA astronauts in training
Part of NASA’s 1978 Astronaut Class 8, the first to include women. Photo from NASA Archives.

The entire NASA astronaut class 8, the first to include women, was full of notables. Pictured next to Ride from the left are Judith Resnik, Anna Lee Fisher, Kathryn Sullivan, and Margaret Rhea Seddon. Seddon was the payload commander on Columbia in 1993, receiving recognition for conducting the most successful Spacelab mission at the time for work on medical research to determine how human physiology would fare in space. Kathryn Sullivan was the first woman to walk in space. Anna Fisher worked on tailoring spacesuits to fit women and returned to space after giving birth, becoming the first mother in space. Judith Resnik was with Christa McAuliffe and the other five astronauts on the Challenger, which tragically exploded after liftoff twenty years ago last month.

All of these pioneers continued to pave the way for others. While women spacewalking became increasingly as routine as men, it was still a long time before two were able to venture out together. It was only last October when Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-women spacewalk, first in part because, until then, NASA only had one spacesuit that fit women. What they did wasn’t especially unusual, only that it took until 2019 for enough women to be in the NASA graduating classes (50%) and available on the station to create a worthy milestone.

Astronaut’s Weir and Koch posing before their all-female space walk October 2019. Photo at NASA.gov.

Some Mad Scientist!

Dr. Christina Koch’s bio is pretty amazing even before you get to the part about the record in space or the spacewalks. She had earned her three degrees, Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and Physics and a Master’s in Electrical Engineering, by the age of 24, and had already graduated from NASA’s Academy along the way. She spent three and a half years as a Research Associate in the Arctic and Antarctic (take that Sheldon Cooper!), a prime opportunity to acclimate to months seeing the same faces, surviving without the sun or fresh food.

The isolation, absence of family and friends, and lack of new sensory inputs are all conditions that you must find a strategy to thrive within.[14]

Christina Koch on surviving in the Antarctic, from Wikipedia

When she finally got that opportunity up on the International Space Station, she made the most out of it. If you slide through her “scrapbook” on NASA’s website, you marvel at experiment after experiment. Monitoring the autonomous robots (watching for hints of self-awareness or the Singularity). Studying how fire behaves in space. Conducting experiments to improve kidney stones. Growing new organs, as mentioned above. Working with the Cold Atom labs. Looking at the efficiency of capillary systems compared with standard air and water filtration systems, to see if improved fluid dynamics would also help desalination and water filtration back on earth.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Martian, you can almost hear Matt Damon’s voice:

So in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m going to have to science the sh*t out of this.

Botanist Mark Watney in The Martian.
Were the outfits supposed to match the plants? The Lost in Space hydroponic garden. Photo at groovyhistory.com.

Botanizing the Heck Out of Mustard Greens

Then, there are the mustard greens. Remember Antarctica? Months without fresh shipments of food? Fresh vegetables are a critical part of human diet, with leafy greens delivering critical vitamins, fiber, and …well…taste. Even I’d enjoy kale if all I’d had for months was extruded protein paste. The NASA experiments reminded me strongly of Lost in Space and their hydroponic gardens, forever being cultivated on the sandy climate of the CBS soundstage.

Maybe it was annoying that the women of space were relegated to the food, while the men were always fixing metal things, but being in charge of food (and water) might arguably be considered the critical job. Christina Koch conducting all those mustard greens experiments put her at the center of the action. As a lead scientist and one of the designers of the Vegetable Production System on the station, puts it:

…Astronauts tend to lose weight. We think that this weight loss is due to menu fatigue, and so we postulate that adding fresh produce to the diet could help with that. 

Giola Massa, principal investigator for Veggie, the NASA plant production system

These plants are grown in pillows rather than soil, watered with a syringe daily, and exposed to red-blue light combinations to see how that affects the harvest. While you may not crave mustard greens yourself, you can imagine how a leaf might seem mighty appealing after months of eating things out of freeze-dried packages.

Astronaut Koch growing mustard greens
Queen of the Mizuna mustard greens, Dr. Christina Koch. Photo at NASA.gov.

The next moon mission is planned for 2024, which will be a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of our scientific history, even though it is still years away. Last year, NASA announced that the next set of missions will be named Artemis, twin to the Apollo missions that started their journeys in the 1960s. Perfect to be named after the goddess of the moon! The plan is to land women and men on the surface. I noted with glee that the picture of the prototype spacesuit for extravehicular activity (EVA)–male or female–was worn by astronaut Kristine Davis.

The suits fit, finally. The women are walking, growing, piloting, and sciencing the bejeezus out of everything. I can barely wait until that first one, whether it’s Davis, Koch, Weir, or any one of a number of intrepid, smarty-pants women, takes that first step out there.

Then, a woman’s place will be on the moon.

The Devil You Know Is Not Better

Removing Boalt name from building
UnBoalting. Photo by Roxanne Makasjian at berkeley.edu.

I read with some slight dismay that Berkeley’s Law School has decided to remove Boalt from its name. I went to Berkeley, although not to law school, but as an alumnus of the university, I feel snobbishly attached to anything related to it. These are the hallowed dusty buildings of my youth. The massive 750-person freshman Economics lectures in Wheeler auditorium; a classmate had narcolepsy so my roommate and I would share notes with her in case she missed some key point about downward-sloping demand curves. The steep climb up the hill to get to classes from Dwinelle to LeConte. The opaque glass in the English department offices that rattled when you tapped timidly on it to meet a professor for officer hours. I have fond and vivid memories of the place. Anything that changes those images seems sacrilege.

This is why we hold onto things, long past the time for better judgment.

Wheeler Auditorium Berkeley
My roommate and I would take notes for a friend whose narcolepsy made Econ 101 lectures problematic. Wheeler Auditorium, photo by Allen Zeng for the Daily Californian.

The world is a strange place. If you read the news to stay in touch with what’s going on, it’s a blizzard of cognitive dissonance. There’s an impeachment trial where the primary discussion today is whether they should bother looking at evidence or witnesses. An outbreak from a virus in China that’s rerouting air traffic. Death of a famous sports personality; Britain leaving the E.U. The news often feels like the world is sliding sideways. Someone told me the other day that they found it overwhelming, depressing.

On the other hand, much as I want to stay a citizen of the world, I remind myself (and ourselves, gentle reader) that not all these things affect me personally. I didn’t know the sports personality personally. I don’t live in Britain. I didn’t travel to China and don’t hang out with people who do. If the impeachment trial went the way I’d prefer, would the resulting people in power quickly enact legislation that would really help me? Or would things continue in their slow, inexorable, one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, one step back way? Must I feel so overwhelmed by change?

There’s a saying:

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Hold on to what you have, even if it’s awful, because among all these scary things out there, something might be worse. It’s an insidious thought, especially because the things that are the worst, which frighten you most, are designed to make you keep them. You may even become nostalgic about keeping them. Instead of gathering facts that might help you make more informed choices.

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Why They Play the Game

Spoiler Alert… Today’s post is about football (American football, yes, I see you, non-US friends)…If you refuse to read posts about football on principle because of CTE, the outrageous amounts of money involved, or excess testosterone, I appreciate your perspective. But, sorry mate, My Team is GOING TO THE SHOW! I need to talk about it.

Red, White, and Gold is coming. Photo from Sporting News.

I do like me some sports, so much so that I wrote a book about ’em, and I do like my teams, especially when the team works together, has intelligent leadership, and has fun. I can’t help but think about this approach as business model, ’cause I’m an MBA and organizational behavior coupled with analytics is in my DNA. After all, it says “statistics” right there at the top of my site, plastered across the California hills.

Thirty Runs

A curious thing happened after the Niners completed their 27-10 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs. One player after another started mentioning how many times the ball was run. Not just the coach or the running backs, but the tight end (who catches passes and blocks) and the defense:

I think 47 rushes is pretty good, right? I think we had close to 200 on 47 rushes. …Playing against six techniques with the linebackers on the inside, it’s pretty easy to get those combo blocks up to them.

George Kittle, tight end (offense)

That was the biggest thing for us this week is trying to get 30 runs. We had like 40 or something, 47. We knew if we did that we’d win.

Nick Bosa, defensive end

It’s one thing for the coach to come out after the fact and mention that their goal was thirty runs. It’s another for all the players to have known that was the collective goal as well. Perhaps it’s easy in retrospect to claim that the Niners are a running team because their two playoff games were rather lopsidedly run-based. However, none of the rushers would be considered exceptional (until last week), and we fans were nervous throughout the season about the “run by committee” approach. We’d love to have a true star running back (a la Derrick Henry of Tennessee) or a quarterback with a bit of mobility (like Patrick Mahomes).

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Our Lives in Jeopardy

In 1968, if you were off from school in Detroit on a weekday, you might start the day at 8:30 am with Rita Bell’s Prize Money Movie where she would dial for dollars during commercial breaks from black-and-white-movies. It just had to get you to 10:30. Time for Jeopardy.

James, Ken, and Brad battle to be the best on “Jeopardy” 2020. Photo at NYPost.

Last night, Jeopardy completed its “Greatest of All Time Tournament” in riveting fashion as nearly 20 million viewers watched a trio of America’s fastest trivia buffs duke it out for a million dollars. It’s strange to think that you’d spend much of your life watching a particular show, seeing the drama of life play out in questions and answers, risky wagers and eye-popping pull-out-of-your-fundament responses. The players have aged; the hosts have aged; I’ve aged. This is no longer television. This is mythology.

The Game Before Alex

It may seem like a tangent to go back to the first rendition of Jeopardy, which ran on NBC from 1964 to 1975, then again from 1978-79. But, in a way, Jeopardy saved the quiz show, bringing respect back to fact-based questions following the scandal of the 1950s, where contestants were fed correct answers in order to boost TV ratings. In the early 1960s, game shows had switched to focusing away from trivia, where contestants guessed dollar amounts (Price is Right), played simple games (Concentration), or performed silly physical challenges (Beat the Clock.) Jeopardy was the first where contestants had to demonstrate knowledge more than luck and where the answers were more interesting than the banter between barely known celebrities.

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