Archive for May, 2011

Thor

My expectations going to see the Thor movie were fairly low, so I was not disappointed by the result. The movie was not dumb, it was entirely watchable, it just could have been a lot better. My daughter was excited about the idea of a Thor movie because she thought it would be from the Norse myths she has heard over many years, and that could have been an interesting if perhaps somewhat depressing movie. She is not interested in the movie based on the comic book, in which they don’t even get Thor’s hair color right, nor Sif’s.

The comic book Thor is a hard character to make a good movie from. This movie does do a good job of showing Thor as he starts out: arrogant and thoughtless. His misbehaviour is believable, and so is Odin’s anger, and Thor’s banishment. That’s all from the original Lee and Kirby stories, albeit told out of order. But Lee always had a gift for making the core of the character make sense, at least in melodramatic terms. In the comics, Odin doesn’t just banish Thor to Midgard, he takes away his memory, puts him in the form of a man who is physically weak, and makes him a doctor, someone who often succeeds but also often inevitably fails to save his patients. It makes sense that that combination would teach humility. In the movie Thor is banished, but retains his memory and physical form if not his powers. It’s not clear why he learns anything from this. The key scene, which is meant to show that he is worthy of regaining his power, doesn’t show him as having learned anything. He is brave and self-sacrificing, but it’s easy to believe that he was that before his banishment. The movie wants to show that he has learned that people can get hurt, and that that matters, but there isn’t any clear reason why he should know that at the end of the movie when he didn’t know it at the start.

I was kind of disappointed by the vision of Asgard, too. The picture from afar was pretty but didn’t look like anything other than a picture. The rooms in the houses were huge and the actors playing gods tended to look lost in them. Having Kenneth Branagh direct was an interesting move but he was not in his element handling special effects.

Some short notes on other movies I’ve seen recently.

Sucker Punch. Very weak. If you’re going to try to hide your simple-minded story ideas behind good visuals, you need better visuals. And you need to make it more impressive as you go, not less. And if you’re going to dress your women like that, you need to do it with a sense of humor, something this movie completely lacked. It’s impossible to imagine Superman without a sense of humor, so I have to hope that rumors that Zack Snyder will direct the next Superman movie will turn out to be false.

The Adjustment Bureau. A solid movie all the way around.

Limitless. I liked this. They didn’t bother to fill in all the plot holes, but I thought that worked given the style of the movie and the protagonist.

Source Code. The title makes no sense but this is a coherent science fiction movie, a very rare thing indeed. And nicely acted by all. The second coherent science fiction movie by Duncan Jones, who directed (and, in that case, wrote) Moon.

Battle Los Angeles. Would have a been a nice movie if they hadn’t had to suddenly decide to wrap up the whole war.

Jane Eyre. A well done adaption, with a Jane who is both plausibly plain and plausible attractive to her Mr. Rochester.

Something Borrowed. All romantic comedies are inherently predictable, but this movie really stood out in its unrelenting predictability. Also it seems odd to make a movie in which the two main characters are so very ordinary and remarkably without interesting characteristics: just like real life, and very much unlike a movie. Still it had a few good moments.

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A Third Way

I have long felt that there is a space in U.S. politics for a party which holds traditionally right-wing views on social issues but traditionally left-wing views on economic issues. Many voters in the U.S. vote against their economic interests in support of their social views. The limousine liberal is a cliché, a wealthy person who votes in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy. Conversely there are many poor people who vote for Republican candidates because they oppose abortion, accepting the fact that those same candidates will vote to cut services their supporters rely on every day, such as food stamps and WIC. So why not a candidate who stands against abortion, against teaching evolution in schools, against gay marriage, but in favor of governmental support for the poor? Some conservative Democrats do take that position, but they are a small minority within the party.

I read recently that France’s National Front has moved into exactly this space. Marine le Pen the traditionally right-wing, racist and anti-Semitic party to be more of an economically left-wing, socially anti-immigrant party. I disagree with her positions in many ways, but I wonder if any U.S. politicians will see an inspiration there.

I suppose the flip side would be socially left-wing and economically right-wing, but many Democrats are in that space already. It pretty much describes Bill Clinton, for example, and Barack Obama is not far off either. The Republican party has been steadily shifting rightward economically–Obama is well to the right of Nixon on economic issues, for example. I don’t know if the Republicans are leading the Democrats to the right, or if the Democrats moving right are pushing the Republicans into ever more extreme positions in order to differentiate themselves.

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Casino

A New York Times op-ed column by Edward E. Kaufman Jr. and Carl M. Levin warns that if steps are not taken, “our stock markets will have become a casino.” It seems a bit late for that. While there may still be some predictability to the market in the long-term, in the short-term it is already a casino. Sophisticated investors hold all the power and can easily take outplay the amateurs. As far as I can see the short-term market is wholly disconnected from any underlying financial reality.

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Interviews

I’ve interviewed a lot of people looking for jobs at places where I work. I don’t think I’m a particularly good interviewer, but I have developed a few rules of thumb. The purpose of an interview is to see whether somebody can do the job. In my case, the job is programming.

Past experience by itself is not a good guide, as many people can slide through a company without accomplishing very much. Academic experience is also not a good guide, as the experience and goals of programming in an academic setting are very different from working in industry. The ideal way to find out whether somebody can program is to ask them to write a program. Unfortunately, writing a real program takes time, and the interview is time-limited. it would in any case be unfair to candidates to ask them to undertake a serious piece of work in order to get a job. Since most programming is tweaking, maintaining and debugging large existing pieces of software, it would also be good if one could ask a candidate to debug some large program. Unfortunately that too takes time, and it doesn’t allow for the knowledge about a program one would naturally gain on the job. Despite these drawbacks, I do usually ask people to write a short program, simply to verify that they are able to write some kind of code. But I don’t put too much weight on it, unless of course they can’t do it. I’ll add that when writing a program in the stressful interview situation, whether they make any mistakes when writing it is not important, but not being able to see mistakes is a concern.

In any case, I find it more important to know whether they understand the complex layers of software which comprise modern systems. A good programmer understands all the layers of the machine from the processor up to the application. Knowing all the details is not important. But knowing how it fits together is. Here the challenge is distinguishing people who just know the terminology from people who really know how it works. One of the things to look for with these questions is a quick ability to see that they don’t know something, coupled with knowledge of how to find out.

Unfortunately, all the knowledge in the world combined with great programming skills does not mean that the candidate can actually do the job. This gets into much fuzzier areas like whether they can take direction when necessary, whether they can work on their own when appropriate, whether they will make forward progress or get stuck. I don’t know how to figure these things out. The best I can do is ask about their past experiences, and listen closely to the way they talk about things. Are problems ever their own fault, or always the fault of someone else? How long does it take them to accomplish tasks? Have they finished things in the past or always moved on before completion?

A final lesson I’ve learned is that as an interviewer, I don’t have to be fair. Good candidates will find a job somewhere even if they had an off-day when I spoke with them. Hiring the wrong person will be costly every day until they leave. If somebody seems intuitively wrong somehow, then it’s better to trust that intuition than to hire somebody who won’t work out.

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