Friday, May 15, 2009

Movie Review: Sparrow (China)

Part of the 2009 Silk Screen Film Festival. The Silk Screen Film Festival runs in Pittsburgh through Sunday, May 17.

Johnny To brings Sparrow, a Hong Kong based movie about pickpockets. 'Sparrow' refers to a bird who appears in the life of the main characters, and is in and out of cages, as well as Hong Kong slang for 'pickpocket,' which is the main source of income for most of the principle characters.

The plot, well its silly. We have the pickpocket gang. The old-school gang who tries to show the younger upstarts how it is done. And the beautiful girl, in this case a caged sparrow yearning to get free. The plot is a silly thing, and the encounters are also a joke.

But the plot here is not the point. The cinematography is where all the work went into. The pickpockets at work montage. Various chase scenes of the sparrow trying to escape her handlers, the protagonists or the antagonists. The many now-you-see-me-now-you-don't scenes. The card table. And the final showdown of groups of people crossing the street in the rain carrying umbrellas. Silly as plot devices, but still fun to watch Johnny To set the visuals.

Enjoyable summertime nothing-serious movie

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Movie Review: Handle Me With Care (Thailand)

Part of the 2009 Silk Screen Film Festival.
. The Silk Screen Film Festival runs through Sunday, May 17.

Handle Me with Care is the story of a Thai villager (Kwan) with one special trait. He has three functional arms. In all other respects, he is quite ordinary. But it means that he is the subject of talk and teasing. And he has a hard time finding a girlfriend, because when he does find someone, she gets scared off by all the attention he gets everywhere he goes. His solace has been his mother and uncle. His mother died a year before the movie. And at the beginning of the movie, his uncle, a tailor, dies. And now the burden is too much, and he takes up the offer of a high-profile Bangkok doctor for a free amputation of one arm, with the hopes that he can blend into society like everyone else. And with limited funds (he is a poor villager) he heads off to Bangkok.

Along the way he meets up with a woman (Na) who is also trying to head to Bangkok. To see her husband who ran away a year ago to the big city. And she has a slightly more common attention getter. She is well endowed, and everywhere she goes, her breasts get the attention.

Much of the movie is Kwan trying to push Na away, and Na asking why he wants to change. The other major theme of the movie is Na observing Kwan's character in action (it is almost cliche for the physically deformed character to have a heart of gold a la the Disney version of Quasimodo.)

Kwan's question is how much changes when the physical differences are gone. People in the village still treat him the same. He has the same relationships with everyone (except his boss, who does not like the fact that his job performance went down.)

So the end of the movie, Kwan is looking at his life before, and now. And thinking about what the future holds. And he makes the observation that what makes his mother and uncle so precious is they dealt with him as a person, not as a curiousity. So he goes to join someone else who does the same. Na (who has returned to her village), who welcomes him (her mother had told her prior to the movie "you either come back with your husband, or you find a new one")

Slightly cheesy. But given the number of ways we (society) find to declare people as freaks, it works to give a bit of empathy. And having a third arm that is not an actual handicap was a good plot device to do this. It is notable that the only real handicap was other people's reactions, because it is not actually a handicap. Very much like some qualities that leads parts of society to declare people as freaks today.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

Official Website

I saw this the first weekend,  like many others.  And it was in an IMAX theater.  I don't think I've had that experience recently, and when the first trailer played I thought "oh, wow, what a sound system."

Star Trek was the long waited reboot of the Star Trek series, from the original.  And its notable because of the youth of the characters.  In particular, while Spock and Scotty have some level of experience (and McCoy is still a doctor which is a different track), Kirk, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov are fresh out of training (or abbreviated training in the case of Kirk).  

While I imagine there is the idea of an appeal to youth, the crew relationship and development is one I tend to react rather negatively too.  To make a point of it, it depicts an environment where success is due to chance and turn of events, and not decision making.  While thrilling, to me it is unsatisfying.

A very strong counterexample is the remade Battlestar Galactica.  There you have a crew made of senior and junior officers and enlisted men.  And amidst all of the pressures of war and imminent death as a consequence of failure there is a dedication to each other,  mentoring between senior and junior, with seniors making decisions based on wisdom and experience, and purposely guiding the junior personnel so they may also grow in wisdom and experience of their own.  And in the original series you saw it as well.  By the time Kirk is captain, his backstory includes a pattern of development and mentorship and experiences.  The movies have it with Decker and Sulu being protoges of Kirk.  Scotty's nephew, Spock's mentoring Saavik and Valaris.   With our new Captain Kirk, there is no sign of any development of the person, only raw intuition and emotion.  No development of leadership skills, empathy, instillment of loyalty.  It shows in the Kobayashi Moru scenes where his fellow cadets follow his orders in a bored offhand way instead of the crispness that they have been trained, even if they viewed his orders as silly (after all, they are being evaluated too).  And no indication that Kirk cares about the development of anyone around him (other then checking that they appreciate and recognize his moments of brilliance.)

But would someone follow such a person?  By the end of the movie, Kirk has good moments.  But in many ways he was merely lucky many times, and he does not show the ability to work with people that marks the other captains in the movie, or the other captains in the other Star Trek movies and series.   There is a saying that you'd rather be lucky then good, but would a crew be inspired to work by such a person?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Movie Review: My Dear Enemy

My Dear Enemy (2008) (subtitled) was the opening night show for the 2009 Silk Screen Asian Film Festival in Pittsburgh. It is a Korean movie starring Jeon Do-Yeon and Ha Jung-Woo. The movie revolves around a man and woman who were dating at one point but broke up a year prior, and she suddenly appears demanding he pay back money he borrowed from her from back when they were dating. And for the rest of the movie, he goes around to various girls who he knows borrowing money so he can pay her back.

He comes across as somewhat of a doufus, acting on the spur of the moment, but somehow managing to keep up a wide range of relationships with women but not being able to maintain anything long term. She is depicted as being very pushy and judgmental. But we don't know anything about her motivations. Like why she decides to take a day to follow him around borrowing money from girls and occasionally feeling humiliated for their feeling sorry for her. You hear some statements, like him telling everyone that she is in a bad situation, but you don't know if he is being honest or not (and you get the idea that he is not always honest, even if he is well meaning) There are occasional asides as to problems (in the past year, he married then divorced. She broke off an engagement to someone who had lost his job.). And she mentions that all she wanted to do was yell at him, not necessarily get her money.

What it does well is complexity of characters. He comes off as a thoughtless doufus, but you get the impression that the affections and gratitude of various girls is something that had been earned by his being there in times of trouble. You admire her for being forthright and confronting him about his thoughtlessness, but you get the nagging feeling that she is only looking for someone to yell at and instead of seeing her as an advocate for the girls that he is getting money from by being slightly dishonest, you start thinking that she is envious of not having the experiences that led to their gratitude in her own relationship with him.

At the end, you see him connecting with another set of girls, talking about a plan of his that you are very unsure is for real. And you see her leaving, with an IOU that provides a means of reentering his life, and smiling at seeing his pattern of relationships continue.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The making of greatness: PSO

I've been working with a student, steadily introducing him to the ways of our chosen profession.  And like many others who are learning their trade, it is turning into a steady stream of work for him to learn the foundations that his success will be built on.  And as I was listening to Mozart Concert No. 24 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra I was thinking of that.  The piano reminded me of the diligent student, engrossed in the details and intricacies of his work, while the orchestra seemed to be the friends at play.

David Brooks in the New York Times had a column on "Genius" earlier in the week.  And he is writing about this, of how the mastery of the art was reached through repetitive and deliberative work, specifically talking about Mozart.  While I can see why the romantic idea of genius as something genetic is appealing, I never felt the idea of Athena springing forth mature from the head of Zeus to be something to strive for.  And how especially true it must be for music.  Writing this now, I still have an image of Bronfman playing completely focused.  Or our marathoners this weekend, most of whom should have started their training while there was still snow on the ground, pounding pavement in the cold and the dark, knowing that this weekend would come.  So much of our trade is built on many hours of building up the foundation that enables us to make something great.
[Note:  Originally posted to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra]

There are many areas where years of training and exercise build into performance on the stage of life.  It is true is music, running, mathematics.  It can be seen in the firefighters I work with responding to fires, the police officer who brings everything they know to every contact with a citizen, and to the soldier and marine who must bring all they know when they talk to a villager, patrol a mountain, build a building, or engage an enemy.  And all this training and exercise is meant for they day that we go on stage, take to the field, or explore an unknown.

I was talking after the concert to one of the PSO staff who asked me if I was the one who went to Afghanistan.  Because her Marine brother was preparing for deployment.  And in addition to all the preparation and training that has come before and he is doing know, the family is preparing as well.  I do not know if he has deployed to war before, but either way, everything he knows in dealing with people will come into play, their motivations, their desires, and how to deal with them.  Semper fi.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

End the University as We Know It: Op-ed

End the University as We Know It: Op-ed contributed to the New York Times by Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor's Op-ed letter to the New York Times deals with the structure of college education in the United States. In particular he rails against the specialization of departments, entrenchment of faculty due to tenure, the use of adjuncts and graduate students for research and teaching, and the inability of professors within the university to interact with each other on problems of significance, instead diving in solitude on their increasingly narrow areas of interest.

As a visiting junior faculty, I probably fall into what Taylor would consider an affected class, the non-tenure-track academic. By way of background, I am on an engineering faculty at a research institution, and I also have a graduate degree in a social science, so I think I have at least visibility to all parts. With that in mind, look at Taylor's arguements.

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

He also ignores the possibility that these department-based division of labor (as he calls it) have a purpose and origin. And it is something other then arbitrary or even subject based. The different fields of study exist because the people in those fields think differently. For my own undergraduate major, political science exists because they look at events and issues differently then historians or philosophers (Poly Sci focusing on the Who and How as opposed to Who and When and Why or interactions between members of social groups). And similarly, Economists, focusing on ownership and factors of production diverge from political scientists. In the more modern era, at the point where mathematicians and electrical engineers noticed that there were substantial groups within them that starting thinking and talking about math and engineering among each other differently then the rest did, it made sense for computer science and computer engineering to be established. So to eliminate the departments means saying to people who think, discuss, analyze in similar ways to disassociate themselves and join the larger group, who think, discuss, and analyze in a different way.

And what the departments have done is to make it possible for people to learn how to think in this ways deeply and well, which does not happen when you organize people by subjects (vs. ways of thinking) (Note: since 'ways of thinking' is not something that gets codified anywhere, departments do require nouns as names, just because human being have to use words to communicate.)

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs.

Taylor desires to eliminate the current department structure in favor of cross-cutting areas defined by problems. An example of one set of cross cutting areas that he gives are: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

The areas he gives present too easy a target. The obvious one is "who picks the areas" and "why ephemeral areas". And the real obvious hole in that he apparently decides that things that have solid form are not important. (buildings, roads . . .)

What most universities (and I have in mind examples of top level universities, and not-so-top-level universities) have done was form centers built around topical areas. And those who decide to be involved can collaborate and bring their different ways of thinking to bear. Commentary on the article add the benefit that participants get to self-select, unlike Taylor's idea (more on this later) (I am actively involved in research at one such center, while clearly being a member of a specific department.)

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting.

It turns out the "do not need to do all things" happens naturally. Because you can only have a finite number of faculty. And management of finances dictates that a department make choices. Collaboration is harder. Again, is it top down, or are faculty entrepreneurs who look for people who have the backgrounds that their own institution when they need skills and knowledge and ways of thinking that they do not have (the center I am affiliated with has active faculty from three different public universities.)

4. Transform the traditional dissertation.

I imagine that Taylor thought this was his guaranteed shot. But before you decide to get rid of something, it is often useful to make sure you know why it was there in the first place (before something comes falling down on you.) The dissertation is not meant to be something to brag about. The scholarly certification provided is the proof that the person is capable of thinking about some subject deeply and completely. If there is a problem with small print runs of dissertations at university presses, the obvious solution is to not have a print run at a university press. A few print-on-demand copies would be sufficient (copies for the student, the members of the committee, the university library and the student's mother normally suffice) People who really need a published book should write a book and get it published.

Now, if there is a means of establishing that an individual has deeply and completely examined the said topic, go for it. The printed word (and mathematical symbol) have great advantages when communicating qualities such as completeness and correctness of thought, so it is not obvious how Taylor's alternative media can replace this.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.

This would be true if you are one of those people who think that graduate student professional options are only to teach/research at a college/university. Of course, if you organize the university into units that are built around a subject, you are now left with people who know how to examine a subject. If you organize people around units that are based on ways of thinking, they can then work on the subjects that take advantage of those ways of thinking. (this presumes that the way of that a particular academic field is actually useful for thinking about actual subjects)

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.

Hmm, so the idea is to remove the iniquity of the fact that grad students and untenured faculty do not have job security by removing job security for everyone. And his idea is to do 7 year tenures. The first thought that comes to mind: you are a university with a 7-year slot to fill. Who do you use to fill it, the person who has already been there 7-years, or 14-years, or the person you don't know? Absolutely no question, it goes to the known quantity. A 4-5 year slot you can take a gamble (since it probably does take 2-3 years to know if someone is a good teacher or researcher). A 7-year slot is a large burden.

Next question, do you force institutions to fill their teaching requirements with 7-year people? How long does it take to figure out if someone is good? Probably not 7-years. In which case, some lucky students get to suffer having a known poor performer as professors. And the university also has a problem because the poor performer also does not bring in money and has to be paid from somewhere until the 7-year term is up. The leverage that should exist is the fact that a faculty member wants to be paid. How much of the pay goes with the title, and how much comes from doing that activities that the title enables the person to do? Engineering faculty at research universities are laughing at this point. When I came on board, it was stated outright that the teaching/title pay was expected to be a pittance, the real pay came because I was working on research projects (which would imply that I was helping write the proposals that lead to these research projects so that research project would continue to come in so I can be paid)

Now, there is a possibility that the background I have is somewhat strange and idealized, and that somewhere, there were academic departments/fields of inquiry that are not characterized by the way they thought about the subjects being studied, that they did were not involved in studying subjects that could be looked at in several different ways, where dissertations where not used as proof that the writer could examine a subject completely and deeply, and that faculty pay was removed from the ability of the faculty to use their thought processes on a subject determined by people with remunerative resources as interesting and worth study and support (interesting can be defined in many ways, not necessarily economic return). Then the question is, why does that department exist? (as opposed to, say, a center where faculty from other departments look at that subject using their many varied ways of looking at the world in a deep manner, which clearly did not exist in the original department?)