The Castle in the Forest

Posted December 4th, 2010 at 3:27pm by Stephen

“Blücher” is NOT the German word for glue (my whole world is a lie)

Posted November 9th, 2010 at 7:21pm by Stephen

The 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies. Starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman (with an uncredited cameo by Gene Hackman), the spoof of the original 1931 Universal Studio’s Frankenstein is both hilarious and well-made, standing up to repeated viewings.

[A photo Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher peering through a doorway]Sunday evening I happened to be discussing the film with some friends, including someone who spoke German. I mentioned how much I liked the joke about the horses whinnying off-stage whenever they heard the name of Cloris Leachman’s character, Frau Blücher, being uttered, because it was German for glue.

“But the German word for glue is not ‘blücher,'” my friend Mattias said.

“Oh. Well, what is the German word for glue?” I asked.

“You could say ‘der Klebstoff’ or ‘der Leim,'” he replied.

“Well, what does ‘blücher’ mean?”

“It’s a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” (Apparently it’s a common name, too, like ‘Jones.’ EDIT: Per the comments, no, it’s not common.)

Well, I had heard that the reason the horses whinny throughout Young Frankenstein is because they were afraid of being turned into glue for a long time, from at least two different people, starting at least 20 years ago.

A quick search confirmed the debunking: Snopes, About, even IMDB. Wikipedia expanded that Cloris Leachman herself had heard it from Mel Brooks. In an interview with Brooks, he claims that someone gave him the wrong translation: “Before we started shooting, someone told me ‘blücher’ means glue, so that’s why I had the horses whinny. I’m not sure if that’s true.” However, in the audio commentary, Brooks simply says that the horses whinny because she’s an ominous character.

There are millions of people who speak German throughout the world. It’s tremendously easy to look up German words for things thanks to tools such as Google translate. But here I was a couple of nights ago, repeating an urban legend. We generally tend to believe things that we’re told, even when verification is simple. The moral: Don’t believe everything you hear. Verify things yourself.

For over 20 years I believed the word “blücher” meant glue. Now it means disillusionment.

Happy Halloween!

Posted October 31st, 2010 at 8:45pm by Stephen

Happy 3, Sophie

Posted September 23rd, 2010 at 5:55pm by Stephen

Dear Sophie,
Three today, but in many ways you’ve been a three year old for a while, with your big heart and endless energy and general good nature. You’re a wonderful, beautiful girl, and we love you very much.

Spidersammy and Sophiepony ride again

Posted September 19th, 2010 at 4:08pm by Stephen

In teaching Sammy and Sophie the value of coins and what money buys, it’s hard to come up with anything for the penny. (I’ve long advocated retiring one cent coins.). Fortunately, horsey rides at Lozano’s remain a penny. Hiho and away.

Happy 5, Sammy

Posted September 16th, 2010 at 6:49pm by Stephen

Dear Sammy,

Today you turn five. I can’t believe those words are true: It seems impossibly fast. As I type this, you’re building “a machine to blow out dust” using your new Tinkertoys, and you were thoughtful enough to make sure that we didn’t get dust on my phone. Earlier today, as we spent the day together with you home sick from school, you surprised me with your wide range of knowledge and interests, from Mickey Mouse to bugs to stars to sushi. You always make me proud.
Love eternally,
Your dad

Learning to Surf

Posted September 11th, 2010 at 11:09am by Stephen

The four of us spent a week in Maui with Georgia, Nathan and Penny. It was a wonderful trip, with highlights that included rainbows, a trip to the aquarium, a luau, a glass-bottom boat ride, some amazing meals, poke tasting, and (on our last full day) a surf lesson. Kimi arranged for a sitter for Sammy and Sophie, and Georgia dropped us off at Lahaina at the Royal Hawaiian Surf Academy to meet Josh, our instructor for two hours. After reviewing the basics on the sand, we took our 11-foot longboards out to the water, in a gentle, shallow spot right behind King Kamemeha’s elementary school — the bunny slope of Hawaiian surfing.

Perhaps it was the gentle waves, or the length of the longboard, or Josh’s prowess as an instructor, but both Kimi and I managed to get to our feet on the first attempt. It looked a little something like this.

(All photographs by Ric Larsenfull set is up on Flickr. Music by Slang, “Field Guide To Snapping,” off their album The Bellwether Project. This is my first time using Microsoft Movie Maker, so there are five or six effects and transitions that I should have passed on…)

Lying with Charts 102: Deceptions of stack

Posted August 31st, 2010 at 2:20am by Stephen

It’s time to lie with charts!

A few months ago I posted a FriendFeed item about how deceptions of scale can be used to make misleading charts.

Earlier this month, Wired argued in an article that “the web is dead” and tried to prove their point with a rather curious chart: A stacked area chart with the changing percentage of the Web’s share of total Internet traffic between 1990 and 2010.

Peer-to-peer and video take up a large share of total traffic in 2010 — naturally, because these files are huge, and web pages are relatively modest in size. A more honest chart would look at total volume of use (eyeballs/visits). If you read a tweet on twitter.com and then watch a video on Netflix, it’s not at all fair to assume the video was 3,571,429 times more important to you than the tweet.

But even setting aside the stupidity of conflating the importance of contents with its file size, a stacked percentage area chart is a visual deception. There are many ways to lie with charts, and stacking is one of the most frequent.

Here’s a simple example. Suppose your company sells three products, Wobjects, Dooders, and Flozzels. You have sales data for a year. It turns out that Wobjects are growing fast, and Flozzels are selling pretty well, but Dooders are sucking wind with sales volume decreasing. If you want to hide how poorly Dooders are doing, just use a stacked chart.

First, the pretend data:

Product Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Wobjects 67 69 72 76 80 82 82 88 88 90 94 103
Dooders 70 70 69 68 68 64 67 63 66 66 66 62
Flozzels 42 43 43 44 46 51 54 58 57 58 60 61
Total 179 182 184 188 194 197 203 209 211 214 220 226

The most deceptive chart first:

Example 1: Stacked bar

A stacked bar chart serves to obscure individual trends

Certainly if you know what you’re looking for you can eyeball the decrease in sales from Dooders. But for most people only the overall growth would jump out.

Almost as deceptive is a stacked area chart:

Example 2: Stacked area chart

A stacked area chart is almost as good as a bar chart for obscuring individual trends

This is slightly less deceptive because the eye is slightly better able to see that the middle area is decreasing in size over time.

To be more straightforward, use a line chart with a total:

Example 3: Line chart with totals

A line chart is not very deceptive for individual trends. Including the total makes the scale larger, hiding the amount of increase/decrease for individual series, but is valid if the overall total is the most important detail to convey.

The least deceptive approach would be a simple line chart with no totals:

Example 4: Line chart

The most honest approach for showing the performance of individual product lines is a straightforward line chart.

And to make a total mess of things, use a stacked percentage area chart, with gratuitous 3-D:

Example 5: Stacked percentage area chart

Stacked percentage charts are usually disastrous, because the relative share of three product lines is often totally irrelevant compared to the actual change in value. And 3-D is just a distortion.

Like roaches, Facebook Places users check in, but they don’t check out

Posted August 21st, 2010 at 10:12pm by Stephen
I was at a playground earlier today. Yawn.

I was at a playground earlier today. Yawn.

Since its launch on Wednesday, I’ve been checking out the new Facebook Places feature. But that’s actually a misnomer: You can’t “check it out” because you can only check in. (More about that in a moment.)

Facebook Places competes with Foursquare, Brightkite, Gowalla, Whrrl, and several other location-based social networking services that I’ve never used previously. (I’ve dabbled with Loopt and Google Latitude on the iPhone, and used Yelp but only for writing and reading reviews, not for its check-in features.) While some users abstain from all of these location services due to privacy concerns, my main reluctance to use these services previously was because:

  1. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Most of my friends don’t use these services, which decreases their utility.
  2. I’m boring. I’ve got two kids, so most of my check-ins would be to home and work.
  3. Dubious utility. If I’m out, it’s probably with a group for a planned event. Would I want random other friends to crash that? And on the other side, how often would I be going out by myself and wanting to know where random friends are so that I could crash what they’re doing? Absent joining up with friends, what other purpose is there for me to tell people I’m at a car wash or a movie theater or a playground?
  4. Cheaters. Most of these services are easily fooled; I have one local friend who checks into Alaska regularly.

With Facebook entering the picture, and launching their feature switched on by default, immediately you’d think that the first problem is solved, since all of your friends can use the service easily from day one without having to sign up for anything. Alas, not so. The feature only works if you have an iPhone or other smart phone that can use geolocation services on Facebook’s mobile site. So that eliminates most of my friends from ever using it. And furthermore you have to remember to pull out your phone when you arrive, launch the Facebook app or web page, head to the Places feature, find the listing for the place that you want to check in to, and check in. It’s too many steps, and it’s a pain, so most people would never bother. And that seems to be the case: Of the half dozen or so places I’ve checked into, including a popular bar and cinema, most have had zero previous check-ins. It’s still the first week, but it’s clear most users are not immediately jumping on board with this feature.

Facebook’s implementation doesn’t make me more interesting, and if there’s more utility I haven’t found it yet. And I doubt it’s any more cheat-resistant than the competition. So the other problems still apply.

Facebook also has made some questionable choices about how their Places feature works. First of all, you can check in other people without their permission (unless they change the default setting). I cannot imagine any scenario where people would want you to do that for them without approving. Seriously. Maybe on Venus. But not on Earth. You could ask them (as Gawker suggests), but that seems witless:

“Hey, Joe, I’m checking into the restaurant on Facebook Places. Should I check you in also?”

“…”

The second problem is that check-ins appear on your wall or news feed or whatever it’s called now. The stories show up for all to see. This is incredibly stupid. Half of my friends don’t live in the same state as me. I don’t want their feeds cluttered up with the junk news of me checking into a car wash or a bar or any restaurant. It’s stupid. It’s dull. They don’t care. It’s just noise. I want my feed to be signal, not noise. You should be able to change the settings for Places so that it cannot post to your Wall. You can go back after the fact to remove the postings manually, but that’s a pain (and may not remove it from their copy of your feed anyway, depending on when you remove versus when they check their news feed).

Compounding that second problem is that you can’t add pictures. You can go back after the fact and comment, or put a brief comment at the moment of check-in. Pictures would serve to make the check-in a bit more interesting — I would feel like the wall entry wasn’t so dull and pointless if I could add a cute picture of my kids or something.

The biggest problem is number three: As I alluded to at the beginning, you can check in, but there’s no check out. If the point of checking in is to tell your friends where you are, you absolutely need to tell your friends when you leave the place, so they don’t come looking for after you’ve taken off.

Friday night I noted that two friends of mine, who I will call “Steve and Howard” (because those are their names) checked into Tide House. I rarely get a Friday night to myself — it’s usually date night for my wife and me. But Kimi wasn’t feeling well, and the baby sitter was paid for, so I was free to do whatever I liked. I checked into Molly McGees and played liar’s dice with my friend Matt before heading out to a movie, but I happened to notice Steve and Howard being right around the corner and I had a few minutes before the 8:10 showtime. So I walked into Tide House and looked around. No sign — they must have left. Facebook only gives you an approximation of when the check-in occurred (“two hours ago” becomes “three hours ago” eventually, but the period of time where it says “two hours ago” could be exactly 2 hours or it could be 2 hours and 59 minutes, or anywhere in between). So as a tool for meeting up with friends, that’s useless. You don’t actually know where your friends are at all. No check-outs, no certainty.

Dave Zatz checked into Your Mom's House. Not my mom's, fortunately.

Dave Zatz checked into Your Mom's House. Not my mom's, fortunately.

Facebook’s implementation is buggy as well. GPS locations are a bit off when you add a new location — I’ve seen it be off by about a half-mile. It also has failed to list the right location about half the time when I try to check in. If you’re at the car wash and try to check in, and the location isn’t listed, and you search for it, but nothing comes up. So naturally you assume it’s not entered yet, so you go to add the location, fill out the form, submit it, and THEN it warns you, “Oh, Lozano’s Car Wash — but wait, there’s a nearby Lozano’s Car Warsh [sic], would you like to check in there, or add your new one anyway?” Why didn’t it list it in the first place?

None of the locations have any useful info, like phone number, street address, menu, etc. Businesses can “claim” them somehow but few have done that.

Some of the competing services have game-like features where you earn points, badges, titles, mayorships, discounts, coupons or other random crap. Facebook has none of that (yet?).

Finally, the privacy concerns. By default, the Places feature is on, but you have to take manual steps to use it. So far so good. But then they made two privacy mistakes: First, friends should not be able to check you in by default without your permission. That’s irresponsible. Second, even if your settings are so that Places info is viewable to “friends only” across the board (as mine are), when you check in, anyone else at that location sees your name and face, regardless of your privacy settings. Um, what?

So. How pointless is it? Pretty much totally pointless. I’d call it half-baked but I really think like it’s about a tenth baked. Facebook can and should do much better. I feel like the design is, in a word, stupid. I’ll keep experimenting for a little while to see if there’s something I’ve missed, but until they add features, fix bugs, and redesign it almost completely from the ground up to be both more automatic, more accurate, and more respectful of privacy, I can’t see myself using this long-term, and I don’t think many others will either.

Oops

Posted August 20th, 2010 at 10:15pm by Stephen

I’m very sorry but I remembered to blog recently. I have not been busy at all, so it should be easy to not blog, but somehow I did write something. Sorry.

With blogging being dead, it’s critical to not maintain the long form development of thoughts and issues in this medium. But I screwed up. I am posting. Again: Sorry.

There’s been a lot to not write about, which is why it’s been difficult to not blog, but up until now I’ve managed.

I can only hope that no one reads this any longer, and not promise to post in the future.

Picture is unrelated.

Canadian Corn Pops are better

Posted July 11th, 2010 at 12:43pm by Stephen

We’re in Canada to visit my brother Harry, staying at cabins on Purdy Lake.

We had Corn Pops for breakfast. The American ones are smaller, less tasty, and completely unnatural in color. Well done, Canada. No one needs to eat phosphorescent yellow cereal.

What’s with milk in a bag, though?

Ironee, an ironeek proposal

Posted June 15th, 2010 at 11:58pm by Stephen

Whereas, there is widespread debate about the definition of irony;

Whereas, there are at least three entirely separate types of irony;

Whereas, much time has been wasted and will continue to be wasted debating what constitutes irony; and,

Whereas, the Alanis song is still awesome even if some of the examples aren’t really very ironic;

Therefore be it resolved, that the world begin using the neologism “ironee” to incorporate all types of irony PLUS all of the things that people call irony but purists reject. Furthermore, let one additional properly of ironee be that if someone calls something ironeek, it automatically becomes ironeek if anyone debates them on whether or not it’s an example of ironee.

Here, I have a useful illustration of ironee for you:

[illustration of what is and isn't ironee, incorporating three types of irony plus several concepts not properly considered irony]

All in favor?

Passed unanimously. Proceed!

Celebrity deaths: A statistical analysis

Posted June 1st, 2010 at 8:14pm by Stephen

Twice before I’ve written about the “celebrity deaths come in threes” superstition, in 2008 and 2009.

With the recent passing of Art Linkletter, Gary Coleman, and Dennis Hopper, this superstition has again resurfaced.

I feel my previous arguments have already been quite persuasive, but now let’s add a statistical debunking.

To analyze the superstition, we need to define it. That includes two tasks:

  1. Who is and isn’t a celebrity
  2. The timeframe for the deaths to occur

I extracted the data of all 1,422 celebrity deaths that have occurred between January 1, 1995 and May 31, 2010 from a site called stiffs.com, which is the location of a death pool contest. (The contest has entrants predict which celebrities will die in the upcoming year and assigns points for correct guesses. Last year’s winner took away over $3,000.)

This addresses the first question, who’s a celebrity. At stiffs.com they have a panel of judges determine whether or not a person who passes away is famous, based on simply whether or not five or more members of the panel have heard of the person. They then create a list of celebrities ahead of time, and then monitor that list to see who has passed away.

You may well disagree with the fame assessments of stiffs.com. Certainly the data included plenty of people I personally had never heard of. But it’s a list that exists independently of the superstition, and is pre-existing, so it doesn’t suffer from the selection bias that arises when you assess whether or not a person is famous only after they have died.

As for the timeline, I decided to analyze it with as much leeway as possible. One day between each death? Up to two days? Three? Five? Seven? Who knows. I analyzed with a number of tolerance days all the way up to 10.

Before we get into the numerical analysis, let’s visualize the data.

[A timeline chart showing all celebrity deaths from 2004-01 to 2010-06, using data extracted from stiffs.com

(Click to enlarge; depending on your browser, you may need to click again to view at 100% and then scroll from left to right)

As you scroll back and forth in the listing of deaths from 2004 through today, your mind can certainly pick out groups of three. But is it ALL groups of three? Is it even MOSTLY groups of three? Your eyes already tell you the truth, that of course it’s not.

The numbers back up that visual refutation.

There are quite a few ways to analyze the data, and I tried to be comprehensive. Here are the approaches I took:

  1. Rolling timeline: This is probably the best method. (It was suggested by Patri.) When a death occurs, I start a counter. The counter lasts up to x days. (I analyzed with x from 1 to 10.) I keep track of how many celebrity deaths occur within that period. The counter resets after x days, and starts again whenever the next death occurs. With x at 7, for example, it’s basically an analysis of how many deaths a week, using rolling weeks.
  2. Continuous grouping: When a death occurs, start a count. Look at the next death. Is it within x days? If so, increment the counter. If not, start over at 1. Again, I analyzed with x ranged from 1 to 10.
  3. Separate tests: For each death, I calculate if it’s part of a group by looking at the date of death of the first member of the group, and see if it’s within x days of the last death. For the first death, it should be more than x days. For the subsequent deaths, it should be within x days. I then judge “pass” or “fail” for each death. I applied this analysis to groups of 1, groups of 2, groups of 3, groups of 4, groups of 5, and groups of 6. I also let it “roll” by varying where I started the counter. This analysis also looked at x ranging from 1 to 10.

So, what are the results?

For rolling timeline, we see the following results:

Tolerance Days (x) Groups of 1 Groups of 2 Groups of 3 Groups of 4 or more
1 75.7% 19.0% 4.6% 0.6%
2 47.6% 35.3% 12.4% 4.6%
3 28.3% 40.8% 20.0% 10.8%
4 18.8% 39.8% 23.6% 17.8%
5 12.7% 31.9% 23.8% 31.6%
6 9.7% 26.0% 24.7% 39.6%
7 7.5% 22.9% 25.1% 44.5%
8 6.0% 18.0% 22.6% 53.4%
9 4.7% 14.9% 20.5% 59.9%
10 3.7% 12.1% 19.4% 64.8%

No matter how many days of leeway you give, groups of three never actually best explain the data. If you give a lot of leeway, such as 10 days, larger groups occur. If you give only a little leeway, most deaths happen alone or in pairs.

The best performance for groups of three is when you allow a leeway of 7 days, but even then the superstition fits for just 25% of the deaths. (Groups of two deaths are not far behind, at 23%.) A superstition that’s only right one time out of four — and does no better than several of variants of the superstition — well, that’s not a useful superstition.

So, for this methodology, groups of three never really succeeds. With 7 or more days of leeway, three is the average and median for groups of deaths, but only with a 23% success rate. No interpretation of this data with this method would lead one to agree that celebrity deaths come in threes.

For the second method, continuous grouping, the results are similar. You can get some pretty big groups with this method — using three tolerance days, the largest group turns out to be a group of 21 celebrity deaths. And with 10 tolerance days, the largest group is of 243 deaths!

However, no matter how many tolerance days you allow, groups of three never amount to more than 14.3% of all groups. So at best, groups of three explains about 1 death in 7 with this method.

The third method I used was separate tests. To be honest, this is a pretty stupid method, since if, say, two deaths in a group of three fit the pattern but one doesn’t, it still scores as two out of three when really the entire group should fail. And the groups are highly dependent on previous groups, so if there’s a missing celebrity or a person included who isn’t really a celebrity, it throws off the entire test.

Under this method, groups of three still score very poorly. No matter how many tolerance days you allow, from 1 to 10, it always turns out that some other grouping (such as groups of 2 or groups of 6) beat out groups of 3. Groups of 3 performed best with 10 days of tolerance, but with that high a tolerance, groups of 4, 5, or 6 fit even better. At most, 64% of celebrity deaths would pass a group of three test but at the same time 72% fit a group of 4.

The data, analysis, and chart are all available for you to examine (Google docs share, 6.6 megs, Excel format).

If you asked me, the best method is the rolling timeline method, and the most reasonable number of days of tolerance is three. Going with that, we find that, on average, the group size is 1.7.

But “Celebrity deaths come in 1.7s” doesn’t have a winning ring to it.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster: Terminology, a silver lining, and a graph

Posted May 26th, 2010 at 12:29pm by Stephen

I have three things I want to say about the BP oil disaster.

First, a note on terminology. Let’s not call it a “spill.”

A “spill” is when my son knocks over his glass of milk. A “spill” is when you slip on some ice and graze your knee. A “spill” is what you do to the beans, as in someone accidentally letting slip the date of a surprise party.

BP’s CEO Tony Hayward is happy to call this a “spill,” because that word fits his position that this is only a “relatively tiny” event.

The truth is, of course, that it’s already been over a month, and this is now the world’s second worst oil disaster ever (probably) — and it’s not over.

BP’s original estimate of the flow rate was between 1,000 to 5,000 barrels per day. Current estimates suggest it was actually 95,000 barrels per day. So far, up to 491,000 tonnes of oil may have been released. In comparison, Exxon Valdez was 37,000 tonnes, and we’re still seeing the effects of that 20 years later. The current disaster is already more than 13 Valdezes.

So I reject “spill.” I use “disaster” and am considering “catastrophe.”

Second, there is a sliver of a silver lining. That formulation is this:

Three Mile Island is to nuclear power
as
Deepwater Horizon is to offshore drilling

Now for the record, I support nuclear power. I believe today’s nuclear power plants are safe and efficient. (France, the world’s leader, generates more than 75% of their power via nuclear plants.) Just 300 new nuclear power plants would end our dependence on fossil fuels for powering our cities — eliminating the need for coal mining, ending mining disasters. But because Three Mile Island happened, almost no politician will ever risk their career by advocating more nuclear power plants. That one accident, which killed no one, slowed our adoption of nuclear power dramatically.

In contrast, I oppose off-shore drilling, mostly due to spills and environmental factors. Because of Deepwater Horizon and the public outcry, it’s likely now that moratoriums and state-by-state bans will be enacted that last many decades. I’m glad of that, at least.

Finally, let’s do a quick comparison. Oil company profits are obscene. BP earned $6.1 billion in profit for Q1, which ended 20 days before the disaster began. As of May 24, they estimated they had spent $760 million on the recovery. However, it appears that about a third of that is the lost profit of $6 million per day because Deepwater Horizon isn’t operating. Separately, they also pledged $500 million for research into the environmental impact of the disaster.

So they’ve managed to find it in their hearts to spend a mere 17.3% of their Q1 profit on the disaster.

A pie chart showing a comparison of BP's Q1 profit of $6.1 billion versus the $500 million research pledge and $550 spent on recovery efforts

That’s insulting.

“I’m making a snail museum”

Posted May 25th, 2010 at 7:06pm by Stephen

Rain + bushes => snails

The alphabet according to Google

Posted May 21st, 2010 at 5:50pm by Stephen

Quick, head to Google.com. Sure sure, there’s that playable Pacman logo there today, but while I was there for that, I noticed something interesting, similar to what Slacy posted about bit.ly recently.

Type a letter in the Google search box. Immediately after just one letter, the auto-search populates, and you can see the most popular search term for that letter. (It’s not case sensitive.)

Here’s an example with the letter a:

Auto-search results for the letter a at google.com: amazon, aol, american airlines, apple

It’s important to note that the results appear to be regionally specific. Here in the Bay Area, when I type “b,” I see “bart” (for Bay Area Rapid Transit) third. My brother, in Canada, sees “bmo” (Bank of Montreal) third at google.ca, or “bed bath and beyond” third at google.com (whereas for me “bed bath and beyond” is listed sixth).

Even the first place is regional, since x for me is xkcd, but for my brother it’s xm radio.

Nonetheless, owning the first result is definitely an indication of local mindshare. I find the results very interesting and in some cases very surprising.

Now, before you look at the list below (after the break), you can play the Google Alphabet Guessing Game! Just choose a letter and predict what will appear on top. Did you guess correctly?

Numbers and a handful of punctuation characters also work.

Read the rest of this entry »

Second Annual “Predict the Summer Box Office Champ” Contest

Posted April 23rd, 2010 at 6:04pm by Stephen

Last year, I ran a contest to predict which summer movie would perform the best. With summer fast approaching, now it’s contest time again!

[collage image of movie posters for Summer of 2010]

The Prize: A pair of AMC movie tickets.

How To Enter: Leave a comment here or on FriendFeed with your prediction for these four questions.

  1. Which of the below 33 films will have the biggest U.S. box office opening weekend as determined by The Numbers?
  2. Which of the below 33 films will have the biggest worldwide box office take as of Labor Day, as determined by The Numbers? (Note that movies released later in the summer will be at a disadvantage.)
  3. Which of the below 33 films will have the highest Rotten Tomatoes score?
  4. Tiebreaker: How much money will the correct answer to question 1 take in on its opening weekend in the U.S.?

Deadline to Enter: Monday, May 3, midnight Pacific.

The List of Movies

Here’s the list you can pick from, ordered by date of release:

  1. Iron Man 2 (Robert Downey Jr., dir Jon Favreau) — May 7
  2. Babies — May 7
  3. Robin Hood (Russell Crowe, dir Ridley Scott) — May 14
  4. Shrek Forever After (Mike Meyers) — May 21
  5. MacGruber (Will Forte, Val Kilmer) — May 21
  6. Sex and the City 2 (Sarah Jessica Parker) — May 27
  7. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Jake Gyllenhaal) — May 28
  8. Killers (Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl) — June 4
  9. Marmaduke (Owen Wilson) — June 4
  10. Splice (Adrien Brody) — June 4
  11. The A-Team (Liam Neeson) — June 11
  12. The Karate Kid (Jackie Chan) — June 11
  13. Toy Story 3 (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen) — June 18
  14. Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin, Megan Fox, John Malkovich) — June 18
  15. Grown Ups (Adam Sandler) — June 25
  16. Knight and Day (Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz) — June 25
  17. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Kristen Stewart) — July 2
  18. The Last Airbender (dir M. Night Shymalan) — July 2
  19. Despicable Me (Steve Carell) — July 9
  20. Predators (Predator sequel: Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne) — July 9
  21. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Disney: Nicolas Cage) — July 16
  22. Inception (Leonardo DiCaprio, dir Christopher Nolan) — July 16
  23. Salt (Angelina Jolie) — July 23
  24. The Adjustment Bureau (Matt Damon) — July 30
  25. The Other Guys (Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg) — August 6
  26. Eat Pray Love (Julia Roberts) — August 13
  27. The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li) — August 13
  28. Takers (Matt Dillon) — August 20
  29. Nanny McPhee Returns (Emma Thompson) — August 20
  30. The Switch (Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman) — August 20
  31. Piranha 3-D (Elisabeth Shue, Richard Dreyfuss) — August 27
  32. The American (George Clooney) — September 1
  33. Machete (Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, dir Robert Rodriguez) — September 3

It’s a much more crowded field this year than last year, packed with the predictable assortment of sequels and remakes. Some curiosities: Two SF films with Adrien Brody within a few weeks of each other? A-Team vs. Karate Kid on the same weekend? Such a crowded field means there are probably going to be a lot more money-losers this year.

Just as before, I’m leaving off a lot of films that are coming out this summer. And some of those not on the list will probably do better than some of the 33 I’ve listed above. But to keep things simple, let’s just consider these 33.

Gory Details: I will pull all data from the appropriate web sites on Labor Day, 2010. Each entrant will score one point for each correct answer to the first three questions, with a maximum of three points possible. Highest point total wins. In the event of a tie for highest point total, I will use the answer to question 4 as a tiebreaker. Closest to correct wins.

Thanks for entering!

Home for a sweet and smart cat (EDIT: no longer) needed

Posted April 14th, 2010 at 12:32am by Stephen

Update: Our neighbor has adopted Stormy, which is the best solution I can imagine. Thanks Tony! Original post continues below.


Two Fridays ago I took Sammy in for an appointment with an allergist. His eczema was really bad and he was waking up frequently with itch attacks. We knew about his nut, peanut and salmon allergies (which I share), but wanted to find out what else was causing him trouble. He was very brave during the scratch test, which I’m sure was uncomfortable for him.

The results surprised me: Strong reactions to wheat, rice, corn, sesame, shrimp, cats, grass, and one of the tree groups.

On the doctor’s advice, we started an elimination diet, and for 11 days Sammy focused on avoiding the foods on the list, which meant he ate a lot of meat and potatoes and vegetables but not a lot of starch. (Breakfast was the hardest.)

Thing was, he was still breaking out. Kimi took him in today for a follow-up test, and the allergist suggested his reaction to these foods was mild. She suggested the most likely cause for his eczema flare-ups and midnight itch attacks was the cat.

Stormy is 9 years old and a beloved part of the family. But if it’s her or Sammy, there’s no choice. She has to go.

She’s soft, clean, sweet and patient, affectionate but independent, and (in my opinion) very beautiful. She loves being an indoor-outdoor cat but could probably adjust to one or the other. She used to have a brother, Mourny, who she would fight with a bit, so she’s probably happiest as a single cat. She’s also a bit of a genius: When she wants to come in, she rings the doorbell. (Video to follow.)

It breaks my heart to kick her out, but maybe we can find a home for her nearby. Anyone want a doorbell-ringing cat?

Happy birthday, TiVo! The DVR turns 11 today

Posted March 31st, 2010 at 5:36pm by Stephen

On March 31, 1999, the world’s first DVRs shipped from San Jose, CA. We had a party today at TiVo HQ to celebrate.

Kate Bush’s 1984 “Experiment IV” video — they don’t make ’em like that anymore

Posted March 27th, 2010 at 10:53am by Stephen

In 1986, Kate Bush’s record label pushed her to write a new song for her first best-of album, The Whole Story. Under what she called her tightest deadline ever, she ended up writing a song and directing a video that was a stylistic bridge between her previous album and next album.

This is the video she made. (And this best copy I found on YouTube; very grainy, sorry.)

Did you spot Hugh Laurie and Dawn French?

Unbelievably by today’s standards, this video was considered too “adult” to be shown on British television when it was made.