Zoom Zoom Zoom!

I took this photograph last Friday:

2016-02-13 10.54.19

Two days later, on Sunday morning, I took this one:


It’s been that kind of month. Since the start of the year, I’ve traveled for work to Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Suffern (New York), Grand Cayman and Green Bay. The ship photo is obviously in the Caymans, and the subzero temperature photo is equally obviously in Green Bay. Between now and mid-April, I will also be traveling to Ames (Iowa), Sandusky (Ohio), Knoxville (Tennessee), Annapolis (Maryland), Atlantic City (New Jersey), Philadelphia, Great Barrington (Massachusetts) and Minneapolis.

Needless to say, it was nice to have that warm spell in the Caribbean in the midst of that spread of wintry destinations. Also needless to say, all of that travel time has precluded me writing much here, though I am at work on my Story of the Month for February, with goal of having it up here later this week. The four random seed words for the story were: chef, peepshow, creepy, and volcanic. The narrative that links those four together is going to be interesting . . .

2016-02-06 12.19.54

Wing Seat Warrior . . . Deploy!

Iowa Caucus Day 2016: Resource Guide

Marcia and I moved to Iowa a little over four years ago, at the peak of 2012’s caucus season. Within a month of our arrival, Marcia was interviewed and quoted in an internationally-syndicated Reuters article, after we attended a candidate rally on a whim. So we learned first hand that it’s easy to have your say in public when you live in a small state with a vast media enterprise descending upon you.

Marcia’s quote in the Reuters interview was thoughtful and balanced, but that’s not the norm, frankly, especially in hotly contested races like those unfolding now. A lot of the quotes coming out of Iowa lack balance as voters and campaign flacks attempt to sway others to their cause, and many other quotes coming out of Iowa lack thought because politics is primarily a gut sport in many areas of the State, like football, or deer hunting. Reaction and reflex matter more than deliberation and discourse, especially under the media’s unrelenting kleig lights — which many thoughtful voters are repelled by, even as they draw the most reactive voters into their beams.

By the time I left Iowa, I reached the conclusion that the caucuses are bad for America. That being said, were I still in the State, I would be participating tonight, because I consider voting to be a civic responsibility of all citizens, regardless of how I feel about the process. Marcia (who still works out of Iowa and has maintained residency there) and Katelin (who lives and works there full time) are planning to caucus tonight, so I hope they enjoy the evening and I look forward to hearing about it from them. The media army in Des Moines is largely based in the same building where Katelin works, so she’s getting to really see it all up close and personal. That’s an experience, if nothing else.

I wrote a lot about Iowa while I was there, with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s unique cultural habits and history. One of those articles — Iowa Geography: An Introduction — has recently gotten a bit of renewed online traction after Molly Ball of The Atlantic re-tweeted it a couple of time for her followers.

So in a spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few other articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why:

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

90 Minute Stories #2: Eadwig Espinosa, Ealdorman of Daud

Back in December, I framed a new creative project called “90 Minute Stories.” In a nutshell, the premise was to grab four random words, consider them for a half hour, then write like a fiend for 90 minutes to see where they carried me. A sort of short, sharp shock to the creative system, as it were, to keep me from my normal approach of churning stories for months, if not years.

I set it as a New Year’s Resolution to complete one short story per month, ideally under this rubric. The first one went per plan, but the second one, not so much. The four randomly-generated words that I used to frame the story were burnt, gloomy, heretical and dependent. They evoked a place, and some poking about for random names evoked a time, and then I was off and writing. 90 minutes later, I had . . . a thing. There was a there in there, somewhere, a useful fragment, but not a story in and of itself. So I went back to my usual working model and started churning it. And churning it. And churning it.

And eventually, quicker than usually happens, it came together in a way that is pleasing for me for now, and I link to a PDF of this new story below. We’ll see if February’s story comes in closer to the original 90-minute process intention than this longer piece does. Regardless of the rules violation, though, I got a story out of the process this month, and that’s the real goal.

Click below to see how this one came out . . .

In Re: The Mysterious Death of Eadwig Espinosa, Ealdorman of Daud

Oscar By The Numbers 2016: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes To . . .

Note: It’s Oscar Nomination Day, which means I have updated my 85+ year movie database and crunched the numbers to predict the Best Picture Winner, scientifically. If you have been reading my annual analysis on Oscar Nomination Day for a several years, you can probably skip the first few explanatory paragraphs and go straight to the 2016 pick and analysis. I’ve put subheads below to help you find that section.

Background and Method

People have long tried to handicap the Best Picture Academy Award based on a variety of factors, most commonly performance in other award shows leading up to the Big Pageant. Being a stats and numbers geek, it occurred to me that a far better approach to handicapping the top prize would be to consider the internal relationships within the Academy, essentially evaluating what they nominate against what they award. Toward this end, several years ago, I built a quantitative database of all Academy Award nominations back to the beginning in 1928, and then mathematically evaluated the correlations between Best Picture victory and other nominations.

What does that mean in English? Start here: historically, it’s pretty much been a given that you need a Best Director nomination to win Best Picture, since only four films in history (Driving Miss Daisy and Argo are the sole anomalies in modern times) have ever won the top prize without their Directors also being nominated. So the correlation between Best Director nomination and Best Picture victory is extremely strong, and it could be viewed as a death knell for a Best Picture nominee’s chances to not have a related Best Director nomination. (Note: This may change in an era when there are different numbers of Best Picture and best Director nods. I looked at that factor after a narrow miss in my 2015 pick, and have made some small tweaks to account for this additional variability).

But what other nominations have the strongest within-the-Academy correlations to Best Picture success? When you crunch the data set, you come up with some interesting, often counter-intuitive conclusions. Here are a small number of them:

  • Actor nominations are dramatically more valuable than actress nominations.
  • Cinematography is also more valuable than actress nominations.
  • Film editing is, by far, the most valuable of the technical awards.
  • Adapted screenplays are twice as valuable as original screenplays.
  • A nominated score helps a little, a nominated song hurts a lot.

In essence, Best Picture nominees that receive certain combinations of other nominations become almost shoo-ins to win, so it’s not just about who gets the most nominations, but instead about who gets the right ones. I developed a mathematical model that consolidates all of these factors to produce a single rating of “Best Picture-likelihood” on a scale of 0 to 100%. The nominees don’t compete against each (e.g. the totals in a given year add up to more than 100%), but rather compete one-on-one against an idealized, 100.0% Oscar Best Picture Bait Movie. Under my rubric, the five most-obvious, predictable Best Picture winners ever, based on their own year’s slates of nominations, were:

  • From Here to Eternity (1953): 94.8% predicted best picture value.
  • All About Eve (1950): 92.5%
  • On The Waterfront (1954): 90.0%
  • Gone With the Wind (1939): 85.5%
  • The Godfather (1972): 85.2%

2016 Predictions and Analysis

So what happens when you load this year’s Best Picture nominees into the database and crunch the numbers? You get these results:

  • The Revenant: 70.1%
  • Mad Max: Fury Road: 51.4%
  • Spotlight: 40.9%
  • The Big Short: 40.4%
  • The Martian: 33.6%
  • Bridge of Spies: 31.4%
  • Room: 26.5%
  • Brooklyn: 13.4%

When compared historically, The Revenant‘s 70.1% score puts it in 21st place all-time, tied with Kramer vs Kramer, just behind Tom Jones, and just ahead of The Apartment. Credible, and much better than any of last year’s nominees, but not all-time classic either. That being said: the nearly 20 point gap between it and second place finisher, Mad Max: Fury Road, is the largest I have ever seen since I developed this model — meaning that The Revenant is the most shoo-in of shoo-in winners that I’ve forecast to date. If it doesn’t win the big prize, then this multi-year model is clearly a failure, and I will report it as such, with 2016 being my final year of forecasting. But I seriously doubt that’s going to be the outcome.

Other observations about the data set this year:

  • There’s a very odd disconnect between the acting nominations and the Best Picture nominations: there are only three Actress nominations (lead and supporting) and eight Actor nominations (likewise) among the eight Best Picture nominees. Even back in the days of five Best Picture nominees, you could generally get more than eleven combined acting nominations between what are arguably the year’s best films.
  • I would think that the relatively small number of Acting nods among the Best Pictures nominees would indicate that voters favored visuals and spectacle over scenery-chewing in 2015, but that’s not really borne out either: there are only four Film Editing, three Visual Effects, and two Cinematography nominations among the Best Picture nominees, with the other technical awards scattered as well.
  • Brooklyn is among the most undeserving Best Picture nominees ever. If it won, it would beat out only Grand Hotel and Wings in terms of its score, and that’s mainly because many of the modern categories didn’t exist when those two very early films received their nods. In terms of the expected correlations between the categories, Carol would have been a far more deserving eighth choice . . . never mind the inexplicable exclusion of Inside Out from the biggest dance at the party. This same sort of statistically anomalous Best Picture nomination occurred last year with Selma, but at least there I could conceive of how Academy voters would have gravitated toward that film to provide some much needed diversity among the nominees. I would have expected similar treatment for the superior and deserving Straight Outta Compton this year. I simply don’t understand how Brooklyn got in. Bizarre.
  • Beyond Inside Out and Straight Outta Compton missing the Best Picture slate, I would personally count the biggest snub of the year to be Bel Powley’s exclusion in the Best Actress category for Diary of a Teenage Girl, which also deserved a screenplay nod. It’s a harrowing, hard-to-watch performance, but if you’re a person who was a certain age in a certain era, it resonates with truth and accuracy. Boo on that front, Oscar. And also on the continued late of diversity among the nominees. That’s bad, truly.

So, in conclusion, here’s looking forward to The Revenant winning Best Picture in a few weeks, from the standpoint of my model being correct. Unfortunately on a personal front, I’m not very interested in seeing it, because it comes across as little more than high-end/high-brow torture pr0n, and I don’t generally go to the movies to watch people suffer over and over and over and over again, or to get grossed out, just for the sake of being grossed out. I suppose I will watch it at some point, but not with any enthusiasm.

Blackstar Shining

Last Thursday night at around 10:00 PM, I received an e-mail from iTunes telling me that my pre-order of David Bowie’s new Blackstar album was available for download.  Two of its seven songs had been previously released, and I had loved them both, so Marcia and I actually got in bed and listened to the whole album together in its entirely before going to sleep, something we’ve rarely done in our 28 years together.

The plaintive chorus that ends the album — “I can’t give everything away” — soared melodically, even as it haunted in terms of why the 69-year old star of stars was thinking in terms of bequests and transferals in the first place. We discussed those and Blackstar‘s other lyrics the next day, noting they were dark, imbued with strong images of mortality, alternatively raging against it or succumbing to its embrace. I noted that the album reminded of me Bowie’s classic Station to Station, a tight, seven-track disc with an epic opening title song, followed by oddly-framed, evocative pieces of no recognizable genre.

Katelin and I had then texted about the album over the weekend, which was pleasing since I often claim a particularly bright “Parenting Gold Star” in knowing that she has grown up to cite David Bowie as her favorite artist, loving many of the same albums that I do, with similar fervor. I was also pleased to realize that Marcia and I had seen Bowie’s keyboardist on the new album, Jason Lindner, in concert a couple of months ago as part of the Anat Cohen Quartet, where he was stellar. Lots of positive past and present connections, in other words, with lots of promise for the future.

So, like the rest of the world, I was utterly shocked and gutted to learn this morning that the great one had flown away, and that he’d been battling cancer throughout the entire creative process of this album.

Last night, the final piece of music I listened to (well, other than the Steven Universe theme song, which we watched right before bed) was “Lazarus” from Blackstar. The story of Lazarus is generally viewed as a positive one, of rebirth in this world, in anticipation of rebirth in the next. We were awed as a family when David Bowie emerged like that song’s subject from what seemed to be a creative crypt two years ago with the unexpected The Next Day, which I easily declared 2013’s Album of the Year. Many (me included) would have read the new song allegorically in terms of that recent creative rebirth — but now knowing what we know, it was something far more explicit, and the recently released “Lazarus” video now takes on a whole new meaning, on every level.

David Bowie was a brilliant artist, both musically and visually, and the final views we have of him (see also the “Blackstar” video) find him controlling and curating how he presented himself to his audiences with all of the care and creativity we’ve come to expect over the past half century. I don’t normally feel any real emotional sense of loss when people I don’t know personally pass on, but this one resonates deeply with me. David Bowie has been a part of my personal life and our family’s life in meaningful, inspirational ways, and what an awesome legacy he leaves behind for millions of other people who feel the same way.

We should all go with such grace and dignity and self-control. What a gift to see it done that way.

Me And Sweetman’s Christmas

Me and my friend Sweetman, we was deep in dismal thought,
late at night over whiskey (straight) down at Grumpy’s Drinkin’ Spot.
It was Christmas Eve, yes sir, and our wives, they had gone and left,
(though that had been many years ago, we was still a bit bereft).

We was chewin’ on pigs feet, the kind we pulled out of the jar
that sat next to the pickled eggs and the calves brains behind the bar.
And Sweetman sighed and said then, he told me “Man, this just ain’t right,
we really oughta get us something better to eat for tomorrow night.”

Right then, at that moment, we heard some sleigh bells overhead,
so we stumbled outside, looked up, and saw a bright red flyin’ sled,
it was headin’ off southward, behind a dozen head of deer,
so I grabbed me my gun real quick before that meat could disappear.

Like an ace, well, I drew a bead upon the twelve point buck in front,
while my good partner Sweetman, he just shut up, like when we hunt.
Then I pulled me the trigger, and saw that buck come tumbling down,
me and Sweetman we walked a bit, and found our dinner on the ground.

Man, I tell you, that Christmas night, we had the best damned supper yet
’cause that deer made a lot of steaks, plus some sausage I won’t forget.
So me and Sweetman we sat there, feelin’ bloated and pleased as swine,
gettin’ drunker and drunker on hooch that we made from turpentine.

— Copyright 2004, J. Eric Smith